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Paul D’Amato: The mangling of Tony Cliff

Boris Kustodiev's 1920 painting "Bolshevik".

[Click HERE to follow the debate on Tony Cliff's Lenin. For more discussion on Lenin, click HERE. For more discussion on revolutionary organisation, click HERE.]

By Paul D’Amato

February 4, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Pham Binh’s criticism of the late British Marxist Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party (“Mangling the Party”), published in the Australian journal Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, is substantially wrong on many points; but its chief defect is that it is a hatchet job.

According to Binh, Building the Party is a “useless” book, so full of “gross factual and political errors” as well as “falsehoods and misrepresentations” that the reader who has had the misfortune of coming into contact with it will have to “unlearn … if they want a reasonably accurate picture of Lenin’s work”. Cliff’s book, Binh claims, contains so many errors, falsehoods and “lies” that its US publisher, Haymarket Books, should “stop selling and profiting” from it.

The intention to malign Cliff is made clear from the very first paragraphs. According to Binh, Cliff’s statements that Lenin “adapted himself perfectly to the needs of industrial agitation” and “combined theory and practice to perfection” are comparable to the way the Stalin’s Lenin cult treated Lenin—apparently because of the use of the word “perfection”.

One would think that what Binh describes as “the first book-length political biography of Lenin written by a Marxist” (by a staunch anti-Stalinist no less) would deserve a more serious and measured response. One might expect that Binh would offer us at least the outlines of his own version of a “reasonably accurate picture” of Lenin. What he gives us instead is a series of poorly aimed potshots that occasionally hit their mark, but often miss badly.

That’s not to say that Building the Party is free of errors, or is the last word on Lenin. Cliff was not averse to paraphrasing passages of other authors without attribution (for example, the opening passage of Building the Party is lifted practically verbatim from chapter 9 of Trotsky’s The Young Lenin). Binh is correct in pointing out that Lenin did not “practically run” Pravda. Cliff’s treatment of What is to Be Done? is not very strong, and so on. Yet whatever Cliff’s errors, and whatever we may disagree with in his biography of Lenin, none of this adds up to it being worthless book by a deliberate falsifier.

Moreover, there is much that is valuable in Building the Party. It was one of the first political biographies of Lenin that was not written either from a Stalinist or a Cold War perspective. Second, rather than bad paraphrasing and distorting interpretation, Cliff let’s Lenin do a great deal of the talking. Though it comes from a different book (Marcel Liebman’s 1973 book, Leninism Under Lenin), this statement about Lenin sums up, I think, what Cliff admirably conveys about Lenin:

Among all the leading socialists of Europe, he was the only one in whom the qualities of the theoretician were combined to such an extent with those of the practical politician—the only one to have actually created a party.

Admittedly, Cliff’s book is less a full biography of Lenin, than, to quote Cliff’s contemporary and fellow British Socialist Workers Party member Duncan Hallas, “a manual for revolutionaries” that “might well have been called Building the Party – Illustrated from the Life of Lenin”. But that is also what gives the book its vitality.

What is surprising is that in his in zeal to expose Cliff’s alleged errors, Binh commits quite a few of his own. Let’s look at a few examples that illustrate this.

Lenin the agitator

Up until the mid-1890s, the time when the young Lenin moved from populism to Marxism, the Russian socialist movement was organised chiefly around the dissemination of propaganda to a small number of workers by drawing them into educational study circles, around the expectation that a workers’ party in Russia would form eventually, based on the proliferation of these circles throughout Russia. To turn away from this political cul-de-sac the Jewish Bundists Kremer and Yuri Martov wrote On Agitation in 1894. (The Bundists had been having great success organising workers.) It called for social democrats (i.e., socialists) to move from study circles to “agitation among the factory workers on the basis of existing petty needs and demands”. The idea was that the workers’ own experience in economic struggles would eventually guide them toward more radical conclusions.

According to Binh, it is an “egregious misrepresentation” to say that Lenin’s ideas in this period “coincided exactly” with those expressed in On Agitation. Lenin was not one to shy away from polemics. Yet during this period he not only failed to publicly disagree with On Agitation, he joined forces with its co-author, Martov, in 1895 to form the St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, and spent some months before his arrest engaging in the very factory agitation that On Agitation recommended. Moreover, before forming this new organisation, as Cliff notes, Lenin participated in a meeting with other social democrats who “accepted the basic thesis” of On Agitation.

A cursory glance at Lenin’s articles in this period show that in this period they did not directly assault the autocracy, but focused on drawing very limited conclusion in line with On Agitation. Lenin’s article, “What are our ministers thinking about?”, which Binh seems to think contradicts Cliff’s narrative, for example, is about how government ministers are afraid of workers acquiring knowledge. “Without knowledge the workers are defenceless”, reads the final sentence, “with knowledge they are a force!”. This was the most political article Lenin wrote in this period. The last sentence of Lenin’s lengthy pamphlet, entitled “An explanation of the law on fines imposed on factory workers”, concludes in the following way: “Once they have understood this, the workers will see that only one means remains for defending themselves, namely, to join forces for the struggle against the factory owners and the unjust practices established by the law.”

For Lenin, implementing the directives of On Agitation did not mean abandoning the political struggle against the autocracy (hence the statement in Lenin’s “draft program” that socialists should focus their attention mainly on the workers’ struggle for their “daily needs” rather than exclusively. Yet by Lenin’s own account, he considered this period of agitation an important stage in the development of Russia’s socialist movement.

As Lenin notes in a letter to Plekhanov (Binh quotes this for other purposes without recognising that it undermines his argument), the emphasis on agitation at that time was “the legitimate and inevitable companion of any step forward in the conditions of our movement”. When the turn to agitation produced a reformist trend, “economism”, that made limiting socialist activities to economic agitation a principle, Lenin turned against it.

Binh writes: “Cliff later states in Building the Party that ‘[n]ot to point out the direct connection between the partial reform and the revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism is to cheat the workers, to fall into liberalism.’” Binh then pointedly asks: “Did Lenin fall into liberalism at this early stage of his career?” By using this quote, which appears far later in the book, Binh seems to think he has “caught” Cliff in a contradiction. Cliff’s statement, however, is really only a paraphrase of the same arguments Lenin made over and over again against the economists—that they had fallen into liberalism.

Lenin and party rules

According to Binh, Cliff’s version of Lenin favoured “informal or loose rules”. Cliff’s statement that Lenin had a “distaste for red tape and rule mongering” is meant to prove this. Binh then spends quite a bit of space showing that Lenin cared about rules. But Cliff, of course, makes no such case. Cliff simply shows that Lenin was for simple and streamlined rules, not “informal or loose rules”, as Binh claims. Cliff does make the point that Lenin’s faction was “for a long time very informal”. But this is explained by a quote from Lenin’s article “Letter to a comrade on our organisational tasks”, which is quoted by both Cliff and by Binh (though Binh thinks that by extending the quote he is proving that Cliff is deliberately omitting important information), in which Lenin explains that formal rules should wait until the constitution of a formal party structure and the establishment of detailed reporting of members to the party about their work.

What is true, and is illustrated in Cliff’s biography, is that Lenin was willing on some occasions to overlook the formal rules if he thought political necessity outweighed organisational formality—that is, when he considered the survival of the revolutionary wing of social democracy was at stake. Cliff raises this because this is the exact opposite of the characterisation of all of the anti-Lenin cottage industry that exists in the bourgeois academy: that Lenin was a proto-totalitarian because of his obsession with rules and party membership.

Party membership

At the 1903 party congress at which the party split between Bolshevik (majority) and Mensheviks (minority) factions, there was a debate between Lenin and Martov over what constituted a party member. Lenin did not consider the debate serious enough to split over (as Cliff notes), but Lenin later considered the debate important in what it revealed about the two tendencies: it foreshadowed deeper differences that were to deepen and sharpen over the coming years.

Martov argued that people who were loosely associated with the party but not very active should be considered party members. Lenin wanted only those who played a regularly active role in the party to be members. Martov wanted a broader, looser party. Lenin wanted a party that distinguished, in his words, between “those who chatter and those who do the work”. Martov wanted a party that strove to embrace the whole working class; Lenin wanted a party that consisted only of the class’s most active, militant and class-conscious “vanguard”. (All of this is revealed in the minutes of the debate and what Lenin said about the debate in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.)

Binh downplays the significance of this debate by pointing out that at the April 1906 “Unity” congress, which brought the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks back together, the delegates voted for Lenin’s 1903 congress definition of a party member. What the significance of this is, other than indicating that the 1905 revolution drove the Mensheviks briefly leftward and more closely in alignment with the Bolsheviks, is beyond me. According to Binh, we are to dismiss the significance of anything that happened in the Russian socialist movement if Lenin does not refer to it in his exceedingly brief outline of the Bolsheviks pre-revolutionary years in Left Wing Communism.

The 1912 split

Binh claims that Cliff is wrong to say that the 1912 Prague RSDLP conference finalised the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, heralding the transition from the Bolsheviks from a faction to a party. In doing so, he confuses form with content. Lenin and his supporters in the Bolshevik faction called an all-party conference that invited various factional representatives within Russia’s socialist movement. It was presented, in form, as an official congress of the RSDLP, not as a split conference of the Bolsheviks.

In content, the conference, dominated by Bolsheviks, was called to create a party centre—one that could declare itself “the” party—shorn of the anti-party liquidators and all those who wanted a party that included them (in essence, the vast majority of Mensheviks). The “liquidators” were those who wanted a purely legal organisation and who considered an illegal party apparatus “passé”. Under the autocracy, even liberals could not legally express their opinion in favour of a constitutional monarchy. Hence “liquidation” meant a turn to reformism and away from revolution.

To accomplish the split, a “Bolshevik” conference could have declared itself the “Bolshevik” Party. But it was tactically more advantageous to maneuvre in such a way as to formally expel the liquidators and their defenders (which included Martov and all the other key leading Mensheviks) from what they declared the “official” RSDLP—which is exactly what the Prague conference did. This also made sense because Lenin wanted the official sanction and funds that came with recognition from the International Bureau. Thus the fact that Binh has “discovered” that Lenin refers to Pravdists rather than Bolsheviks really proves nothing.

But why waste ink on this? The outcome of the period 1912-1917 was that two independent political parties entered the arena of struggle in 1917. The irreconcilable differences between these two parties, which led one to support soviet power and the other to oppose it, led to a Bolshevik victory over the opposition of the Mensheviks, and later to the founding of a new international that was based upon soviet power and the need for revolutionary Marxists to organisationally separate themselves from social-democratic reformism. Can a debate over the exact date when the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split shed any more light in these critical developments in the history of the socialist movement?

Did Lenin fight with the ‘committeemen’ in 1905?

According to Cliff, in 1905 Lenin had a debate at the party’s third congress with the Bolshevik “committeemen”—the party organisers on the ground—about admitting more workers into the leadership of the party. Binh says the debate did not happen. His proof? Cliff’s case is “lifted wholesale” from a book by a Menshevik (and former Bolshevik), Solomon Schwarz, and that Lenin wrote a “glowing” report about the conference and didn’t mention any argument. The “inescapable” conclusion, says Binh, is that Cliff either didn’t read this report, or he “knowingly repeated a falsehood”.

The only problem is that Mr Schwarz is right—it did happen. Schwartz quotes the records of the congress (published by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1959, no less) extensively, and they show that there was indeed such a debate, a back and forth that included booing and hissing on the part of Lenin’s opponents. At one point, a speaker in favour of bringing more workers onto the local party committees complains that workers are being excluded because the standard for admitting them is higher than that for admitting revolutionary students. According to the stenographer’s record, at this point Lenin shouted “True!” and the majority shouted “Not true!”. But since Schwartz has a certain inexplicable “taint” in this discussion (apparently being a Menshevik disqualifies you from ever telling the truth), let’s simply quote Lenin’s Collected Works. Here are a few excerpts from Lenin’s “Speech on the Question of the Relations Between Workers and Intellectuals within the Social-Democratic Organizations”.

In my writings for the press I have long urged that as many workers as possible should be placed on the committees. The period since the Second Congress has been marked by inadequate attention to this duty—such is the impression I have received from talks with comrades engaged in practical Party work. … It will be the task of the future center to reorganize a considerable number of our committees; the inertness of the committee-men has to be overcome. (Applause and booing.)(

Lenin then proposed that to overcome “demagogy” the congress should vote on a resolution for more workers to be on the committees. At another point in the debate, Lenin remarks:

I could hardly keep my seat when it was said here that there are no workers fit to sit on the committees. The question is being dragged out; obviously there is something the matter with the Party. (

Why is any of this important at all? Because all of the bourgeois academic “Leninologists” agree that Lenin favoured an “elitist” party led by intellectuals on account of his alleged belief that workers were incapable of reaching socialist consciousness. This debate completely cuts against that evaluation. The debate also shows us something that was a hallmark of Lenin’s Marxism—his willingness to push for changes in tactics and organisational forms when changing conditions demanded it—but always with the goal firmly in mind: to build a party of workers capable of leading the fight against autocracy.

On stick bending

This leads us to the question of “bending the stick”.

“This readiness to bend the stick too far in one direction and then to go into reverse and bend it too far in the opposite direction was a characteristic that he retained throughout his life… At every stage of the struggle, Lenin would look for what he regarded as the key link in the chain of development. He would then repeatedly emphasize the importance of this link, to which all others must be subordinated”, writes Cliff of Lenin.

Binh interprets Cliff’s stick-bending metaphor as meaning “deliberately and one-sidedly overemphasising something one day and then the opposite thing the next day in different circumstances”. Bending the stick, says Binh, means “one-sided overemphasis and distortion”.

Though I think a legitimate point can be made that this is not the best metaphor (bending the stick “too far” in one direction) to describe Lenin’s method, this is a flippant characterisation of what Cliff is presenting (as if he is saying that Lenin flip-flopped from one day to the next). Moreover, Cliff’s characterisation is not at variance with Lenin’s own explanations of his behaviour.

Cliff quotes Lenin thus:

The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm a grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain.

After which Cliff states:

He often returned to this metaphor and in practice always obeyed the rule that it illustrated; during the most critical periods he was able to set aside all the secondary factors and grasp the most central one. He brushed aside anything that could directly or indirectly divert him from the main issue. (

Lenin said of What is to be Done?, “We all now know that the ‘economists’ have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other direction—and that is what I have done.” Another version of this translates Lenin as saying, “We all know that the economists bent the stick in one direction. In order to straighten the stick it was necessary to bend it in the other direction.” On another occasion, after the outbreak of the 1905 revolution, when Lenin was attempting to push the Bolsheviks toward more energetic practical work, he wrote: “We have ‘theorized’ for so long (sometimes—why not admit it?—to no use) in the unhealthy atmosphere of political exile, that it will really not be amiss if we now ‘bend the bow’ slightly, just a little, ‘the other way’ and put practice a little more in the forefront.”

Binh writes:

It was Lenin’s appreciation for the totality of development not “stick bending”, that led him to write polemics against economists, Mensheviks, followers of Bogdanov, liquidators, “left” communists, and Karl Kautsky, all of whom did not make the transition from one stage of the “heroic scenario” to the next by adapting themselves to the new “tasks”.

Profound as this point is, it is identical to what Cliff argues in several places. For example:

At the same time a clear scientific understanding of the general contours of historical development of the class struggle is essential for a revolutionary leader. He will not be able to keep his bearings and his confidence through the twists and turns of the struggle unless he has a general knowledge of economics and politics. Therefore Lenin repeated many times that strategy and tactics must be based “on an exact appraisal of the objective situation”, while at the same time being “shaped after analyzing class relations in their entirety. (

Lenin describes his own approach, I think, well in a 1907 piece that looks retrospectively back on the Iskra period, when Lenin argued hard to create an organisation of professional revolutionaries:

To maintain today that Iskra exaggerated (in 1901 and 1902) the idea of an organisation of professional revolutionaries, is like reproaching the Japanese, after the Russo-Japanese War, for having exaggerated the strength of Russia’s armed forces, for having prior to the war exaggerated the need to prepare for fighting these forces… Unfortunately, many of those who judge our Party are outsiders, who do not know the subject, who do not realize that today the idea of an organization of professional revolutionaries has already scored a complete victory. That victory would have been impossible if this idea had not been pushed to the forefront at the time, if we had not “exaggerated” so as to drive it home to people who were trying to prevent it from being realised. (

Yet no one can read Lenin without seeing that every major turning point found him looking (and studying) “for what he regarded as the key link in the chain of development” and then “ repeatedly “emphasising its importance”. Hal Draper called this feature of Lenin’s “characteristic of Lenin the man, and not merely Lenin the Marxist”. In 1915, Lenin fondly quoted a French philosopher who wrote, “Strong ideas are those that give impetus and create scandals, that provoke indignation, anger, irritation among one kind of people, enthusiasm among others.”

Draper rightly points to the perils involved in Lenin’s method:

Whatever benefits there are in this method, his contemporaries got; the same cannot be said for the generation or two that tried to learn from his writings Without understanding that, in reading Lenin, it is as important to know what he is polemically concerned about at the moment as it is to understand what he is saying. If there ever was a case where “authority by quotation” is misleading, it is the business of matching texts from Lenin. (

Certainly Cliff does not always use the term correctly to describe Lenin’s behaviour. For example, he argues at one point that Lenin’s turn from study circles to agitation is an early example of stick bending, whereas Lenin did not convince others of the need for agitation—others convinced him. But Binh presents us a caricature of Cliff that makes Binh’s own assessment, which in reality mirrors much of what Cliff presents, appear more insightful than it actually is.


Why a review of a book written more than three decades ago; one, moreover, that most people haven’t even read? If we are to judge by the article’s dedication -- to anyone and everyone who has sacrificed in the name of ‘building the revolutionary party’” -- Binh must be exorcising some pretty haunting political demons. Given the weakness of Binh’s case, what possibly could be his motivation for writing this? To quote one contributor to Marxmail on the Binh’s article—why this “exercise in misguided and unproductive pedantry?”

To get at what he is saying, it is necessary to refer to another of Pham’s writings, “Bolshevism in context”, a reply he wrote to a speech by Paul Le Blanc:

“Leninists” project their conceptions of organization back in time onto the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party to the point that the actual historical development of the RSDLP becomes incomprehensible.

This is precisely one of the things Cliff avoids in his treatment of Lenin. In his review of Cliff’s book, Duncan Hallas adds a “word of caution”, after which he quotes Lenin’s famous statement about the organisational structure of the communist parties promulgated by the Comintern in 1921. Lenin agreed with it, but considered it to be “too Russian”, explaining: “I am sure that no foreigner can read it.” Not, said Lenin, because it is written in Russian, but because “we have not learnt how to present our Russian experience to foreigners”. Hallas continues:

It is the spirit, not the letter, of the Bolshevik experience that is valuable. The differences between the Russia of 1910 and Britain – or Germany or the USA or wherever – in the 1970s are enormous.

It is simplemindedness to believe that the answer to today’s problems can be found by an “appropriate” (actually, often highly inappropriate) reference to Lenin’s life and works without consideration of the circumstances of the time.

One of the great strengths of Cliff’s book is that it sets Lenin’s changing and developing ideas in the context of the struggle, of the living movement and the concrete yet ever-changing conditions in which it fought to exist and to grow.

What Binh says next in this article shows that it is he who wishes to “project” his “conceptions of organization back in time”:

The Bolsheviks believed the working class should play the leading role in overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy; the Mensheviks argued (logically) that only the capitalist class could play the leading role in establishing their rule via a capitalist democracy (the Bolshevik idea of a worker-led revolution voluntarily handing power to their exploiters and enemies didn't make any sense to them).

The point is that the “revolutionary Marxist program” did not separate the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks for most of the RSDLP's history. What separated them was the actual class struggle and their practical orientation to it. When the program they shared with the Mensheviks became an impediment to fighting for the interests of the working class, the Bolsheviks modified it.

This is a quite charitable presentation of the Mensheviks’ views, whose “practical orientation” in the “actual class struggle” was determined by a fundamentally different conception of the role of the working class in the struggle against tsarism. To say that both were for the overthrow of autocracy tells us practically nothing, since the populists, the Socialist Revolutionaries, were for the same thing.

The Mensheviks wished to subordinate the interests of the working class to those of the bourgeois liberals. The Bolsheviks considered the bourgeoisie counterrevolutionary—that is, a class that would in the face of upheaval turn against the revolution. The leading role in the struggle should therefore fall to the working class, in alliance with the peasantry. The Mensheviks worried that the spectre of workers’ power would “frighten” the bourgeoisie away from the revolution; the Bolsheviks wanted to build an independent working-class party so that the bourgeoisie could not hold the working class in lead strings.

Binh wishes to call these irreconcilable differences strategic rather than programmatic. Yet each had a diametrically opposed conception of the nature of the coming revolution. In one scenario the exploiters of the working class lead the revolution; in the other the workers lead the revolution against their exploiters. A cursory glance at the history of the conflict between these two factions shows that the Mensheviks’ line was “an impediment to fighting for the interests of the working class” well before 1917. When a strategic difference becomes one of entirely different class orientations, then I think we can safely say that the strategic differences are also principled, programmatic differences—the kind that Lenin considered “split” questions.

Binh appears to be taking Trotsky’s pre-1917 “conciliationist” line (which Trotsky later repudiated) that the differences were not substantial enough (since both saw Russia’s revolution as “bourgeois”) for a split. After the Prague congress Trotsky attempted to organise the “August Bloc”, an effort to unite all the different factions of the movement. It began to collapse immediately after its first gathering. “The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy”, Trotsky later wrote of his policy of unity at any cost, “was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purposes of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party”.

Binh apparently rejects these conclusions. Perhaps his model is the August Bloc. This isn’t a guess. He says in his article “Occupy and the tasks of socialists”:

Out of clouds of pepper spray and phalanxes of riot cops a new generation of revolutionaries is being forged, and it would be a shame if the Peter Camejos, Max Elbaums, Angela Davises, Dave Clines and Huey Newtons of this generation end up in separate “competing” socialist groups as they did in the 1960s. Now is the time to begin seriously discussing the prospect of regroupment, of liquidating outdated boundaries we have inherited, of finding ways to work closely together for our common ends.

Above all else, now is the time to take practical steps towards creating a broad-based radical party that in today’s context could easily have thousands of active members and even more supporters.

First of all, is absurd to compare the sectarian rivalries of the 1960s, in which Maoist and Stalinist sects without practically identical politics railed at each other about who is the “true vanguard”, to the factional disputes in the Russian movement between its revolutionary and reformist wing—organisations that had become mass parties in 1905 with deep roots in the working class. Secondly, a “united” socialist organisation that has in its ranks both those who consider North Korea, China and Vietnam socialist, and those who think that they are bureaucratic despotism; both Stalinists and genuine Marxists; and both supporters and opponents of the Democratic Party would be a still-born project. It is one thing for leftists of different politics to “work together”—this has and will continue to happen. It is another thing to think that simply lumping forces together with diametrically different politics and methods of work will create any kind of functional, practical unity. Certainly that is one lesson of the Bolshevik experience worth preserving. That is not to say that broad socialist party independent and in opposition to the Democratic Party wouldn’t be a great advance if such a thing were possible in the United States today—what Binh proposes, however, would not produce such a result.

Viewed from a pre-1914 prism, the disagreements and organisational maneuvreing in the Russian socialist movement perhaps appear, as it does in Binh’s piece, as a tempest in a teapot: the differences were not “programmatic”, the disagreements are “exaggerated”, and so on. But the collapse of the Second International in 1914 and its capitulation to wartime chauvinism surely puts all of these disputes, as the did for Lenin, in a completely new light. From here, he suddenly realises that what he has been doing in Russian—attempting to draw organisational lines of demarcation between revolutionaries and reformists—is an international task. In 1918, as Europe begins to enter its own revolutionary ferment after the October Revolution, Lenin laments, “Europe’s greatest misfortune and danger is that it has no revolutionary party.” The founding of the Communist International was aimed at solving that problem.

Today we are very far from such considerations. There are no mass workers’ parties of any political stripe. Despite the growing crisis of capitalism and the re-emergence of struggle and revolutionary ferment, working-class organisations and the left remain weak internationally. There are no genuine revolutionary parties; indeed, there are no examples yet of successful new “broad-based” left parties. As revolutionaries, our task is not to turn our back on the project of building a revolutionary party, that is, a party of revolutionary workers, but to determine in what ways we can play a role in creating the conditions in the future where one can begin to take shape.

There are only two possible conclusions as to what is Binh’s purpose: either he is merely providing a “service” by pointing out how useless and damaging Building the Party is, and therefore saving countless activists from its deliberate falsehoods. Or Binh wrote this to make a particular case, about Lenin and “Leninism”, that there is no “Leninist conception of the party”, defined as one that organises only revolutionary workers, the vanguard of the class, and creates organisational lines of demarcation between itself and reformists. This framework would explain many of Binh’s points, for example, that there was no split in 1912, or his downplaying of Lenin and Martov’s difference over party membership. If this is indeed his, albeit weak, case, he should have gone about it in a less backhanded manner.

[Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review ( and the author of The Meaning of Marxism (Haymarket Books).]


D'amato's Cliff-like Errors

If my intention was to "malign" Tony Cliff I would not have written a book review of Building the Party, I would have written a history of the British Socialist Workers Party and the International Socialist Tendency both of which are in dire straights and have been in trouble for some time as a result of Cliff's actions. (Those interested in that sort of thing are welcome to read Jim Higgins' "More Years for the Locust" ).

The Cliff D'amato uses ("Among all the leading socialists of Europe, [Lenin] was the only one in whom the qualities of the theoretician were combined to such an extent with those of the practical politician—the only one to have actually created a party") highlights precisely what is wrong with Cliff's Building the Party -- Lenin is treated as an almost superhuman genius who was the "main architect" of the party. In reality, the party was the collective creation of tens of thousands of workers and activists and Lenin's ideas actions evolved as a response to the ideas and actions of others and the architecture they looked to was not Lenin's but the German Social Democratic Party's!

Like LeBlanc, D'amato resorts to Cliff's sloppy methods to defend Cliff's sloppy book with claims like this: "A cursory glance at Lenin’s articles in this period show that in this period they did not directly assault the autocracy, but focused on drawing very limited conclusion in line with On Agitation. ... This was the most political article Lenin wrote in this period." A quick look at Vol. 2 of Lenin's Collected Works ( shows that this is not the case. Lenin wrote two explicitly political pieces at this time, "Frederick Engels" (which discusses the Russian autocracy and Engels' support for Russian democratic movements) and "Gymnasium Farms and Corrective Gymnasia" (which discusses the utopianism of the Narodniks who hoped Russia could avoid capitalism altogether).

This kind of error in defense of an error-filled book is embarrassing. If this is the best the supporters of Tony Cliff's book can do then they are in deep trouble.

The rest of D'amato's response to my book review ignores the fact that the "final split" between Bolshevism and Menshevism did not occur until 1917 when the two wings of the Russian Social Democratic Party formed fully independent parties and that Pravda was not an exclusively Bolshevik organ until 1917. Instead, D'amato drags in a slew of other articles I have written on other topics and implies that I'm a supporter of Trotsky's pre-1917 conciliationism!

The kitchen sink approach is not helpful. It smacks of desperation.

If D'amato wants to debate me on any topic or any article I have written I propose we have an exchange in the International Socialist Review. It would be idiotic to debate the content of multiple articles in an exchange on a book review.

Who is being absurd here?

"First of all, is absurd to compare the sectarian rivalries of the 1960s, in which Maoist and Stalinist sects without practically identical politics railed at each other about who is the 'true vanguard', to the factional disputes in the Russian movement between its revolutionary and reformist wing—organisations that had become mass parties in 1905 with deep roots in the working class."

I never mentioned early 20th century disputes in the Russian socialist movement in my "Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists." The only person making that comparison is D'amato.

Why fight over footnotes?

Read the original piece a while back, have followed the responses from everybody, appreciate all the work.

First, I'm going to tell a story about bending the stick.

Last night I was working at the restaurant. When I first got there I bent the stick towards doing the sidework, because you can't work unless the coffee is made and the rib napkins are done and plate wipes are made and etc etc. Then I bent the stick towards proofing my section, because if you are going to order a $40 steak you are damn sure going to want your forks and knives to be neatly parallel first and not have any smudges on them.

After that was all polished, I bent the stick towards folding the napkins. That's cause it was Super Bowl Sunday and no one was there cause everyone was watching the super bowl. By bending the stick- shifting my focus toward doing the *end of shift* napkin folding sidework *now*, I would make the best use of my time and not have to stay late folding later.

Finally some folks came in, so I bent the stick toward getting off my butt and taking their order. First I bent the stick towards talking about food and wine, and getting a drink order in. Then I bent the stick towards picking up a tray, putting the drinks on it, and running the drinks back to the table. At that point, I determined it was tactically worthwhile to talk about the specials because that coulette steak and the blackened steelhead that are special and not on the menu are not going to sell themselves, so at that point in time it was pretty important for me to place special emphasis on focusing my energy around talking about how great they are. And they are great. Who wouldn't want a blackened Utah Steelhead trout with an arugula-quinoa salad and a blueberry sauce, with some steamed heirloom baby carrots on the side? Yum!

Later on I bent the stick a lot of other times. I bent it towards talking about desert, and then towards bussing the table. Later, it got busy, and I had 4 tables at once, so I expanded my vision toward working them all like one, and when I was triple sat I bent the stick towards taking all the orders at once. When all the drink orders were in, I sure enough kept that stick bent in the consolidation of tasks direction and put all the drinks for all three tables on one large tray and served them all at once. That way I didn't have to run back and forth to the bar three different times. That would have been inefficient, wasteful of everyone's time, and ultimately helped to keep me enslaved to Toyota Finance Company that much longer as my tips would have been lower.

Maybe we're starting to get the idea that stick bending can be pretty useful. One the drive home I bent the stick from neutral to first, then second, then third, and then fourth, and the fifth gears. Sometimes I pushed in on 2nd a little longer than I had to so I could bend right up to 4th without having to bend into 3rd first. That's cause I got an elastic and dynamic interpretation of what the stages of development in automotive acceleration are. However, I remain a slave to the dogma of always kicking in the clutch before switching gears, as in many prior personal and learned historical experiences it has been a pretty good idea.

I hope we've almost talked enough about stick bending. But let me restate a few of the things I did ALL The time. I always had a mental image of my entire section- tables 20, 30, 31, and bar tops 10-14ish. I always knew what the section looked like the whole time. I was constantly assessing and reassessing the state of development (is the table set, sat, in need of bussing, wiped down, re-set?). I was constantly monitoring the mood of my coworkers to make sure they weren't getting weeded and perhaps in need of some help. The other night Adam's state of development was super combined and even, cause they guy got quadruple sat and he was a little screwed, thanks to the combined and (un)even development of our hostess, who despite being 17 years old is in charge of determining whether or not 8 different adult waiters and waitresses will be set in a prudent manner and thus able to make more money, or perhaps in an imprudent manner where they will get weeded, be unable to provide great service, and thus make less money. Anyways I helped Adam out with some coffees and cappuccinos on tables 21 and 22 that night, partly because I am a nice guy, but also partly because I am actually looking out long down the road, where I might be weeded one day, and need a favor from someone else who has a little more time.

Stick bending isn't running around frantic one day and the next day and every day, going in opposite directions and never really knowing what you are doing. That is what a frantic waiter does, and no one wants to deal with a frantic waiter. Now you can be busy and shift your emphasis in certain directions when it is necessary, and that is a good example of stick bending. Captains of paddle rafts on the colorado river bend their sticks (paddle) in certain directions when the current, and the proposulsion of the paddlers in front, need a certain corrective turn. That doesn't mean it was wrong to turn East yesturday, because yesturday there was a sharp fang of linestone on the right. And now you're turning West, because now there's a swimmer in that direction, and you better go pick him up before he drowns.

The conditions changed, and the emphasis did too, and there is nothing wrong with that.

I think Bihn may have been more concerned with frantic stick bending, like remember when the American CP kept flipping the script between being really really far out their left and sectarian in 1928-1933, and then a whole lot more "pop frontish", like in 1935-1939, and then out there and self isolating like in 1939-1941, and then pop front again hardcore like in 1941 to 1945, etc. etc. etc.? Well that's cause they were never trying (or able) to assess conditions themselves and act on it themselves. They had to do whatever Stalin and Russia told them to do. Or else they got kicked out. And when you are about as capable of independent assessment and action and decision making at a national strategic level as a remote controlled car is with a kid holding the remote, well you going to bend the stick about as frantic and goofy as the CP did in the 1930s and 40s.

I think if Bihn thought about it he might find some great stick bending analogies, like the many, many analogies I just thought of. But I don't think his main problem is with Tony Cliff's book. The guy isn't a librarian or an editor going over the text for factual errors for the next printing. He's got a bone to pick with a certain contemporary socialist organization whose publisher happens to publish "Building the Party", and whose leading members and Steering Committee recommend that book as one for members to read to learn about Leninist organization. Now that may or may not be justified, and the criticisms he has of that organization may or may not be correct. That is up for him to articulate and others to respond to whenever they seem fit to do so directly, and I personally would like it very much if people could just start saying what they think to each other, thinking about it, and then maybe a combination of people convincing each other of their ideas, and possible people doing things a little differently, could happen. That would be pretty cool.

Instead we got the piece on Building the Party because Bihn saw some things he has a problem with in that socialist organization's practice. He was wondering where it went wrong, so he meticulously scrutinized an important document to that organization to find some threads of immoral or inaccurate history writing that might have been emblematic of operational immorality or inaccuracies in the organizations that draw inspiration from it.

I'm not sure if that is the best approach. It looks like there's a specific minor issue or two in the book that cliff got wrong or explained poorly, and perhaps Tony Cliff did not himself operate with a completely correct interpretation of Lenin's wisdom and practice. I don't know if he did or not. I never met Tony Cliff. It seems like he did a great deal better than a lot of other people who tried to interpret Lenin did, but the state of the British SWP over the past decade shows me something must have screwed up somewhere. I don't know whose fault that is and I don't really care. I've got my own issues I am trying to deal with and figure out in my life and I'm not a British Socialist trying to figure out the British SWP's problems. Hopefully someone over there can do that.

I do think there is a lot we can learn from building the party though. If it wasn't for cliff, our understanding of Leninism and Trotsky-ism I think would be a lot weaker. The guy wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages of history and biography. He's bound to make a few mistakes, or maybe accidentally (or not) sneak an incorrect notion or two of his own into there. Every historian is going to screw up sometime. But if you look word for word at the percentage of words written by Tony Cliff (or Lenin?) in his life time, and you compare the less useful words to read with the pretty useful words to read, I think you are going to find a lot more useful words in there that will justify keeping his books in print. At least until another historian comes along to do a better job for us. And good luck to whoever has got the patience and free time to read through a lifetime of Lenin's life PLUS the next hundred plus years of people who never met Lenin arguing amongst themselves over what he really meant.

To conclude, the basic Leninist idea: you get the active and militant working class revolutionary socialists together in an organization, you get them to debate stuff freely and coordinate their actions, and you get them to agitate, share, and most of all, learn from the class. That idea is right on and that is what we need. The American ISO has probably done more than any other group on the American left to get that right. That does not mean they do things perfect. Or that they do not make mistakes. I think there are some things that group does incorrectly or not as efficiently or effectively as they could, but I think that comes more from habits and humans being capable of making mistakes, or maybe reading a situation wrong, than it does come from a doctrinaire or incorrect interpretation of Lenin. Leaders in the ISO don't give a sermon for the week or period starting with a Lenin quote and then berate everyone who doesn't agree with it. They usually start with their own independent assessment of the political situation. Sometimes they don't and they start with someone else's assessment of the political situation. That's probably them being more tired or busy than anything else.

You gotta read Lenin like you read any other book. If you've got a smart head on your shoulders you can pick up any book of philosophy or political writing and you can read it and say, "hey, this right here is a really good point. I'm going to think about that more and maybe do that sometime." Then other places you are going to say, "That doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, that guy must have been talking about something very specific to a different place than the one I am now in. Maybe I won't spend a whole lot of time thinking about that." An example of this would be mimeographing leaflets. If Lenin wrote the instructions on how to operate the mimeograph machine one day, it might not be very relevant today, because today we print the leaflets out at Kinkoes or Staples or maybe somewhere else.

Now other times you might straight up have no idea what he is talking about at all. And that is okay. Because when someone lived along time ago in a different country they often talk about stuff you've never heard of. That doesn't mean you have to become an encyclopedia about that time and place and understand every tiny detail, unless of course you are committing yourself to becoming a historical expert in which case god help you and please don't loose yourself in a different time and forget the one you are in!

Personally I wish that Bihn would have kept his criticisms of this existing American socialist organization to the point and contemporary, about how practice happens now. Maybe they are valid and people in the organization can learn from them. Maybe they are not valid, and the organization will be stronger for having considered a criticism and figured out it didn't really apply, or that it only applied part-way. But I'm not sure taking one of those fine toothed combs for catching fleas in a dog's hair and running Building the Party through it is really the best way to figure out what these criticisms are and how they should be aired.

If you were going to critique a Christian Church today, you might start with saying, "Boy, that's a lot of really large expensive churches you all have. Why do you spend your money on large expensive churches instead of helping the poor? Jesus sure seemed more concerned with living simply and helping the poor than he did seem concerned with having large expensive places to hang out in." That might be a good place to start. Just call things out for what they are. You don't have to read the whole Bible. Now I will admit the Bible probably has a higher percentage of factually inaccurate things in it than Building the Party does. It's pretty clear to most people that is the case. But you're not going to convince a member of this Christian Church that he should give more money to the poor and less to building a newer, bigger church building by pointing out the inaccuracies in paleography discussed in the book of Genesis. Most people don't really care about that.

For my two cents I think Bihn is a pretty good guy with some good ideas and I definitely feel the same way about Paul D'Amato and Mr. Le Blanc as well. I sure wish we all such intelligent people could discuss what we are doing today and how to do it better a bit more directly and comradely than by beating our gorilla geek chests at each other with rival obscure Leninist knowledge that 99.99999% of all humans who will ever participate in a revolution in their lives will never know or care about it!

How about that? Let's bend the stick towards comradely collaboration and contemporary issues!

Dividing the revolutionaries from the revolutionaries

"Secondly, a “united” socialist organisation that has in its ranks both those who consider North Korea, China and Vietnam socialist, and those who think that they are bureaucratic despotism; both Stalinists and genuine Marxists; and both supporters and opponents of the Democratic Party would be a still-born project."

But the Bolsheviks were hardly ideologically monolithic in the way in which comrade D'Amato seems to require. Zinoviev and Kamenev "scabbed" on the October insurrection publically and that was the only time that Lenin ever called for the expulsion of comrades. And he relented on that demand later anyway.

The need to distinguish between revolutionary and reformist is a different issue than whether revolutionaries have to divide themselves into mutually-excommunicating sects. Can we not have "genuine Marxists" who, for example, consider Cuba a socialist country? I can see why, for example, it might be difficult for ISO comrades to consider being in the same party as Workers World Party comrades or followers of Jesse Jackson; but what justifies the distinctions between, say, the ISO and the Socialist Alternative/CWI comrades, just for the sake of example? Paul doesn't explore whether it is right that revolutionaries with "diametrically different politics and methods of work" should be in tiny competing organisations rather than arguing those out within a common one.

It is my contention that this "silo-ing" of socialists and consequent demand to fealty to "the politics of the organisation" leads to not only demonisation of differences which have little relevance to the actual class struggle in the here and now, but to intellectual inbreeding and ossification as "politics" becomes dogma. Rather than competition ensuring that the correct line survives, it encourages ritualism as adherence to a "brand" becomes the identity of comrades and change becomes inconceivable without rejecting revolutionary politics altogether. And it ensures that none of the competing options will ever make the breakthrough to a mass audience that the Bolsheviks did.

The new Ecosocialist Network in Aotearoa/NZ, on the other hand, will made a specifically anti-capitalist and "anti-productivist" appeal, but will not require supporters to sign up to Marxism or any particular flavour of Marxism in advance.

State of left unity in Europe

In the light of the discussion it is well worth reading Dick Nichols' overview of the various attempts at building left alliances, regroupments and broader large (mass?) non-social democratic left partes etc. in Europe. Go to

"Voluntarily handing power back to their exploiters"??

D'Amato quotes Binh:

"The Bolsheviks believed the working class should play the leading role in overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy; the Mensheviks argued (logically) that only the capitalist class could play the leading role in establishing their rule via a capitalist democracy (the Bolshevik idea of a worker-led revolution voluntarily handing power to their exploiters and enemies didn't make any sense to them)."

If Binh really wrote this, he needs to actually read some Lenin, not Trotsky on Lenin, still less Trotskyists on Lenin. Lenin never believed in any of what is attributed to him above (except the bit about the working class leading the revolution), this is a caricature beyond the absurd.


I wrote that back in July of 2011 (as you can see D'Amato opted for the "kitchen sink" approach; see my comment above on that). Subsequent to that time I went back and look at Lenin's Two Tactics as well as Lars Lih's excellent "Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism," which compelled me to look at the appendix of The Stalin School of Falsification with details about the March 1917 Bolshevik conference, other things that Lenin wrote in 1917, and other relevant documents.

In other words, I agree with you about "Trotskyists on Lenin." It wasn't until after I wrote the old piece D'Amato is quoting from that I realized how much of what we (including myself) take for granted as being true because Trotsky said so is actually false, in some cases radically so. This is doubly true for Tony Cliff.

In any case I suppose I should be condemned for being "charitable" to the Mensheviks. Apparently that is still a big no-no.

Some differences matter more than others

"Secondly, a “united” socialist organisation that has in its ranks both those who consider North Korea, China and Vietnam socialist, and those who think that they are bureaucratic despotism; both Stalinists and genuine Marxists; and both supporters and opponents of the Democratic Party would be a still-born project."

Of the differences D'Amato cites in this quote, for or against the Democratic Party could be a very real reason for being in different organisations. Differences can matter on questions of what do we do right here and now and can make being in a single organisation impossible.

At the other end of the spectrum, I see no reason why differences over what really happened in Kronstadt in 1921, or whether the Soviet Union under Stalin was state capitalist or a degenerated workers state, should be reasons for being in different parties.

I'm in a party (Socialist Alliance, Austalia) that includes Stalinists (Hoxhaites, even, God forbid!), genuine Marxists (of various brands), genuine non-Marxists and whatever. This really isn't a problem for us. I'm not claiming we don't have heated internal debates and, like all parties, the occasional indignant resignation — just not usually over history.

As for whether North Korea, China and Vietnam are socialist, accomodating differing views on such things might mean on some questions of the day the organisation doesn't take a position or takes one but allows dissenting members to publically argue a different one (but without implying that their view is the organisation's position, of course). But (again going on the experiance in SA) it is not such a huge deal in practice.

Take Vietnam. Socialists may think (as I do) that it was kind of workers state (a bit deformed & degenerated) but has gone capitalist in the last decade; or that it was never socialist or any kind of workers state; or that it was, and still is, a model socialist state; or a lot of other things.

But what does solidarity with Vietnam mean in 2012? The only issue that comes to mind is the campaign for justice for the victims of the chemical weapon Agent Orange. I would guess that all socialists, regardless of what they think about the class nature of the Vietnamese state, would support the campaign to force the US government & military and the chemical companies to pay reparations for this atrocity.

Actual Differences

As a point of historical fact: inasmuch as the ISO here in Australia are co-thinkers to their US namesake the one political difference they formally cited for their exit from the Socialist Alliance project (after almost 5 years of cohabitation) was that the Socialist Alliance was too hard on / too critical of the ALP -- the party that now governs Australia.Whether that was the case or not -- it doesn't appear to have ruined the SA's ability to recruit people leaving the ALP to its ranks ...

All these other issues cited by D'Amato -- were off the radar completely. Even over Cuba there was a comfortable agreement. Of course why the ISO signed up to a unity project and then later passed on the option has a lot to do with the IST's then shifting tactical approach -- to the template of the English Socialist Alliance then to Respect and then not -- but the window then and one that persists today in many ongoing European regroupment projects suggests that D'Amato gross generalisation is unfounded.

It's an argument that doesn't have legs.

Certainly tactics will indeed divide any party -- and that's fortunate I'm sure -- but the reality is that day to day within the routine and demands of struggle, agreement rules activity.

Broad vs 'Narrow' Parties

I think this debate is more a reflection of Pham's disillusionment with the ISO and the project of building a revolutionary party, which he has tried to resolve by (wrongly) reinterpreting Lenin. It is part of Pham's project of building support for the 'broad party' model which he advocates in his article on OWS. In the interests of intellectual honesty I should add that I'm a member of Socialist Alternative, the ISO(US)'s sister group in Australia, but the views expressed here only represent my own.

The simple fact is that the 'broad party' model has failed everywhere it has been tried. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to be gained by 'uniting' all the 'socialist' groups I'll start with the most laughable example: the Socialist Alliance in Australia. The Socialist Alliance was an electoral alliance of tiny, insignificant, far-left groups with no mass support. It was formed on the initiative of the DSP, then the biggest group on the far-left, a Stalinist group which supports the Vietnamese and Cuban governments. Socialist Alternative joined this group for a few months, and did all we could to make it a success, including handing out how-to-votes, electioneering etc. But the Socialist Alliance never got more than 2% of the vote. In fact, they got more votes when running as independents. The simple fact was that a collection of tiny insignificant far-left groups with no mass support was just a slightly bigger tiny insignificant far-left group with no mass support, with a more confused political line that included people who support dictatorial regimes. In the meantime, the 'narrow' Socialist Alternative has grown to be far bigger and more significant than the 'broad' Socialist Alliance. We are the only far-left group that does a significant amount of union work, we have played THE leading role in the same-sex marriage rights campaign, we've played a key role in pro-Palestine and refugee rights activism on the uni campuses etc. So what is it about the 'broad' party approach that is superior?

Not quite as farcical is the example of RESPECT in Britain. The SWP heralded RESPECT as its new get-important-quick scheme. They carried almost all the grassroots building work of this 'broad' party themselves and touted building RESPECT as the main game. A farcical situation arose where revolutionaries were the main force in a party with a reformist platform which was well to the right of pre-war social democracy! Unsurprisingly, the project fell apart when Galloway accused the revolutionaries of trying to dominate the thing. This was doomed to happen at some point because reformists and revolutionaries have fundamentally counterposed world views. The SWP never foresaw this, instead touting the electoral alliance as a 'united front of a special kind'. This is a bizaare formulation. The united front was a tactic which mass revolutionary organisations used to win workers away from mass reformist organisations. RESPECT was an electoral alliance between reformists and revolutionaries in which the revolutionaries downplayed their differences so they could carry on almost all the work of building a reformist organisation. The result was demoralisation and confusion among the SWP, and the creation of a right-wing of the party which split away because it saw building a broad (read:reformist) electoral alliance as the main game. Through the entire debacle, the 'narrow' SWP had more members (officially anyway) than the 'broad' RESPECT.

Communist Refoundation in Italy was a much more real broad party project and put the model to the test. It was the shining example: springing up rapidly, relating to discontent amongst a wide section of the population, having a large activist base and getting a fantastic vote. Everybody on the far-left internationally lauded their achievement, including the SWP(UK). But the whole achievement was pissed away when Communist Refoundation joined in coalition with the social-democrats and voted for US bases and the Afghanistan War, demoralising their support base. Of course, revolutionaries were right to intervene in this party: to try to win a layer of radicalising workers and students to revolutionary politics! But to tout the 'broad party' as the new model which the far-left everywhere needs to imitate, a 'united front of a special kind' etc is crazy, and only served to disorient revolutionaries by making them soft on the reformist leaders of Communist Refoundation. I should also add that the platform of Communist Refoundation was well to the right of pre-war social democracy.

The reality almost everywhere is that revolutionary Marxists are in a small minority. This makes it easy for us to get frustrated and look for shortcuts like the broad party model. But the model has been a failure everywhere, so to insist on it as the new way forward is sheer dogmatism. It requires patience, hard work and dedication in the slow periods, combined with an ability to throw oneself into action and relate to mass movements and radicalisations when they do happen, to rebuild revolutionary Marxism.

I would like to finish by talking about the specific criticisms relating to 'Building the Party'. Firstly, I agree that the 'bending the stick' formulation is useless at best, disorienting at worst. It basically translates to 'it's ok to bullshit and exaggerate a point in order to win an argument' which was not Lenin's approach. 'Seizing the key link in the chain' is probably a better analogy for Lenin's methodology. But while true, this is hardly the most important criticism, since I can't think of any serious negative repercussions this has had on the practice of the SWP or its offshoots.

More to the point is the general line that the RSDLP was more of 'broad church' organisation, that the gap between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was hazy, that they didn't split in 1912 etc. I feel that Paul D'Amato has already adequately dealt with the factual inaccuracy of some of these claims. But it's worth looking at the broader context. Lenin always saw building a party with ideological clarity as key. This does not mean the 'monolith' which us Cliffites are accused of wanting to build - total ideological agreement would not be healthy in any revolutionary organisation. But Lenin always sought to demarcate his politics from his rivals. In WITBD he rails against economism and the social-democrats who show a softness to it. He later fights against the liquidationist Mensheviks in the RSDLP, etc. Of course there were splits, fusions, chopping and changing of the composition of the party etc, but some things stand out, but generally Lenin tries to build a party that is explicitly Marxist, revolutionary in content and can relate to mass upheavals.

This is not the case with the so-called 'broad party' model today. All of the broad parties are well to the right of the social-democratic movement that Lenin considered himself a part of. Furthermore, after Stalinism has held back the left for over 50 years, why would we want to unite with it? We should be trying to consign them to the dustbin of history where they belong. The real challenge is to rebuild genuine revolutionary Marxism.

Two points in response to Lewis

1) Socialist Alternative never joined Socialist Alliance (as far as I can remember), please check your facts (I'm happy to be corrected).

2) It is a total political slander to call the DSP "Stalinist" but that is respresenative of exactly the overblown sectarianism that the far left needs to put behind us.  Obviously if you describe an organisation in that way (which on any measure shares a very large agreement on virtually every current political issue with SAlt), it will seem "impossible" to work together. Ironically, you make these statements on the very  online journal that is hosting this debate, which is auspiced by the very same "Stalinists". By the way, Paul Le Blanc, a prominent ISO US member and participant in this debate also supports the Cuban revolution, so your sweeping condemnations are perhaps too black and white. It seems the US ISO does not have the same phobia about "Stalinists" as Lewis' Socialist Alternative.

Well SAlt did "endorse"

Well SAlt did "endorse" Socialist Alliance when it first formed and was always considered one of the eight founding organisations.

However they never got involved in any way in SA. They never attended any of the meetings that prepared the founding national conference nor took up the position to which they were entitled on the national executive. I don't recall them having any particular proposals or very much if any participation in the founding conference.

They maybe handed out some How-To-Vote cards from their stalls for the 2001 election - I don't know - but they hardly "did all [they] could to make it a success".

Lewis wasn't involved in politics at this time to the best of my knowledge, so his comments here are repeating what he's heard rather than comments based on his experience.

Then fairly promptly, without ever having had any meaningful involvement, they "disendorsed" the Alliance and went off in their own (sectarian) direction.

[More on broader issues raised here later.]

Original affiliates to Socialist Alliance

As I understand it, the original affiliates in 2001 were the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), International Socialist
Organisation (ISO), Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), Workers League, Workers Power,
Workers Liberty, Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI)—Australian branch
and Socialist Democracy.

"The Socialist Alliance

"The Socialist Alliance brings together, for the first time, nine different
socialist groups in a common electoral front: the Democratic Socialist
Party, the International Socialist Organisation, the Freedom Socialist
Party, Workers Power, Workers Liberty, the Workers League, the Worker Communist
Party of Iraq, Socialist Democracy and Socialist Alternative."

GLW 25 April 2001

the RSDLP was a failure?

"The simple fact is that the 'broad party' model has failed everywhere it has been tried."

It worked in Russia in 1917, or do you consider the RSDLP a failure as well?

Do you have any examples of a successful "Leninist" organization in the course of the last 80+ years? If so, do tell.

Fact check

While Lewis's party loyalty is admirable, it does them no credit to tell porkies. To baldly state "the 'narrow' Socialist Alternative has grown to be far bigger and more significant than the 'broad' Socialist Alliance. We are the only far-left group that does a significant amount of union work, we have played THE leading role in the same-sex marriage rights campaign, we've played a key role in pro-Palestine and refugee rights activism on the uni campuses etc."
Obviously, Lewis is in no position to know Socialist Alliance's membership, which remains the largest left group in Australia, with electoral registration nationally and most states. It is growing and setting up bases in regional areas in Queensland and other states.
But to declare that Socialist Alternative "the only far-left group that does a significant amount of union work, we have played THE leading role in the same-sex marriage rights campaign" would surprise anybody with even a passing knowledge of the Australian left, and especially SAlt members working in those areas.
The real issue is that left overall is weakened by such tribal hostility. Several hundred socialists in each group, who largely agree on most issues, waging war and attempting to divine not where they agree but where they disagree is not the way to build the left pole of attraction in this country.

Lars Lih's points...

Actually, having just read Lars Lih weighing in on the argument, I feel like I was a bit too categorical in rejecting Pham's points. Certainly it looks like the 1905 debate on whether to 'open the party gates', get more workers on committees etc, never happened and was included as a result of sloppy scholarship, or because Cliff felt it fitted in with his 'Lenin vs. the party committeemen' narrative.

Lih's argument re 1912 also seems to have some merit. That the conference insisted on having pro-party Mensheviks represented on the CC and insisted that the conference was not a factional one seems to indicate that they thought of these Mensheviks as comrades (albeit comrades with whom they had differences) whose views ought to be represented. This seems healthy to me and not at all at odds with what we think: in Socialist Alternative we also insist on minority views being represented on leadership bodies. The people with whom they really wanted a break were the liquidationists.

Perhaps my extended rant about broad parties was out-of-place or unwarranted, but I still view Pham's criticisms of Cliff as part of his argument for a broad party. And I don't think his broad party argument is reinforced at all by this. For starters, the Mensheviks touted themselves as a revolutionary Marxist organisation, which for the most part officially rejected the open reformism advocated by Bernstein et al. During the 1905 revolution they shifted well to the left with the tide. The real break between revolutionary and reformist politics in the social-democratic movement as a whole did not come until 1914, and even then the most left-wing Mensheviks in Russia opposed war. So it makes sense that there would not be a total break just yet.

What Pham argues in his OWS article is very different to this. He argues for a broad-based radical party uniting all the 'socialist' groups. But the Stalinist groups whom he mentions represent a total negation of Marxism, a set of ideas based on support for dictatorial regimes, great leaders, and coups with no involvement from the working-class. I don't know about the US, but in Australia the other 'socialist' groups tend to be painfully conservative when it comes to concrete questions as well. These groups are a far cry from the pre-war social-democratic movement.

Complications that need to be dealt with

Lewis writes: "The simple fact is that the 'broad party' model has failed everywhere it has been tried."

Straight off, that's not true(Consider the histories of broad party projects in Denmark, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Germany,El Salvador, etc -- the stories vary and the jury is still out.)

But then we also have to ask if 'failed', how? What are the criteria we need to utilize to judge these projects? [See Dick Nichols useful overview of  recent European experiences]

In the English speaking world 'broad party' projects have been stymied by shifting tactical preferences. In fact the 'socialist alliance' template was a creature initially of the English SWP and it came to Australia with that imprimatur.

At the present time the same unfolding of prospects is occurring in Ireland as the, so far very successful, United Left Alliance -- primarily a 'broad party' partnership between the Irish SWP and the SP -- contemplates where it wants to go and how much of a party formation it wants to become.

As for this:

"The simple fact was that a collection of tiny insignificant far-left groups with no mass support was just a slightly bigger tiny insignificant far-left group with no mass support, with a more confused political line that included people who support dictatorial regimes. In the meantime, the 'narrow' Socialist Alternative has grown to be far bigger and more significant than the 'broad' Socialist Alliance. We are the only far-left group that does a significant amount of union work, we have played THE leading role in the same-sex marriage rights campaign, we've played a key role in pro-Palestine and refugee rights activism on the uni campuses etc. So what is it about the 'broad' party approach that is superior?"

I have to wonder why Lewis chooses to expend so much passion denouncing such an 'insignificant' exercise as the Socialist Alliance -- given that his chosen outfit is apparently far bigger and more significant than anything else in cooee.

If that was really the case I for one would not be bothering with SA at all, and be throwing my lot in with SAlt.

The problem with that sort of thinking is that it presumes that Socialist Alternative has created for itself the best of all possible worlds and that strategically all that is required for ultimate success and the onset of socialism is simply more of the same. They and only they have the correct formula....for success (in time) (when their day will come)

That's not true at all. And any one, any activist, if they stop and think for a moment should be able to see that. It's the conundrum that shadows the whole far left. In the case of SAlt an obvious question is how does Socialist Alternative reach out beyond the campus gate and the inner city left ghettoes and connect more broadly?

Conversions in ones and twos aint gonna get you very far. Building a mass revolutionary party requires more than the 'primitive accumulation of cadre' and as Lewis no doubt is aware, activism has its price and outfits like Socialist Alternative have to wear a hefty turnover.

The complications that Lewis has to deal with are:

(a) How is it that this 'broad party' outfit -- the Socialist Alliance -- participates in the same campaigns that Socialist Alternative does with the same or very similar political perpective? What supposedly separates these formations and makes one inherently better or seemingly more radical than the other on the basis of movement work they do? Who owns what patent and who doesn't?

(b) What happens if and when the Socialist Alliance begins to advance electorally-- despite the Greens current voter share -- as it is doing at the local government level ? Should Socialist Alternative continue to religiously ignore its existence completely and like some Stalinist airbrush, continue to tell the world that it simply does not exist? Should SAlt continue to back capitalist parties like the ALP or root for the Greens instead -- despite their oft stated disdain for the Greens pro capitalist  middle class politics -- while continuing to ignore the existence of the Socialist Alliance on the ballot completely?

(c) What does it mean for SAlt  if the Socialist Alliance continues to grow and spead its influence both geographically and across many different communities  -- how can that be continually caricatured as failure? When people join the Alliance from the Greens of the ALP or from Aboriginal and ethnic groups -- as they do -- should that be a cause for derision and dismissal?

(d) The Socialist Alliance continuing ability to do day to day political work while incorporating within its membership many different tendencies and preferences. Not only does this make D'Amato's protest against 'unity' in practice dead wrong and biased; but it also reflects poorly on the rest of the far left which pursues an enclosed and strictly contained culture of debate and differences. Maybe, just maybe, the Socialist Alliance is a lot more democratic than any other party on the left and certainly more democrtic than the Greens.

(e) If the Socialist Alliance project is such a mistaken course for socialists to pursue -- and one that warrants so much negative polemic -- which Alliance policies does Lewis actually disagree with? I'm sure he can find some stuff he won't agree 100 % with, but that's going to be much less than where approval must register. Surely he could not even object to the policy on Cuba for instance?

(f) The Socialist Alliance has now advanced a perspective for a socialist Australia -- Draft resolution of the Socialist Alliance: Towards a socialist Australia -- which is being offered for ongoing discussion and contribution as a means to come to some much broader agreement about what is to be done.  What objection would Lewis have to -- anything? --of what the document says? 

(g) I guess the final complication that Lewis has to deal with is that talk about, desire for and pressure towards greater left unity will not go away. The genie is out of the bottle and left regroupment is now an international phenomenon regardless of ongoing polemics and thwarted experiments. In fact the  arguments deployed against unity are getting a bit repetitive and so often are ill informed. They may get a cheer at Socialist Alternative meetings  but the fact is that continuing sectarianism on the left is winning no one any credits.  It is a destructive habit. In the context of the continuing crisis of social democracy it behoves the far left to come up with more than promoting propaganda cells and offering the Greens backhand support (by default) in the want for something anti capitalist.

Dealing with the so-called complications

Our group has grown (in terms of active members), yours has shrunk, so you bring out the old "well, numerical growth isn't everything" line. We are well aware that recruiting a couple of people here and there isn't a timeless strategy that we will pursue until the revolution. We have never argued this. We are constantly assessing the political situation and our political practice in order to relate to the world as best we can. You simply hurl these accusations at us to distract from the fact that right now we are doing better than you.

You've wheeled out the same typical stereotypes of our group you always do that have no connection to reality: that we are confined to the campuses and far-left ghettos, for example. But most of our members are workers, we have a number of activists in the teachers union, United Voice, the NTEU and more who play a role in developing rank-and-file organisation at their workplace and putting left-wing pressure on union organisers. You only bring this up because a decade ago you had vibrant campus-based groups, whereas today we are the only far-left group with any presence on the campuses! Will somebody please look at the facts!

If your broad party makes you so much better at relating to broader society, why are we the leading group in the same-sex marriage rights campaign and not you? Why were we so able to link up with Arab and Muslim students to set up the Students for Palestine groups, or to defend the Muslim prayer room from being taken away at RMIT? Why are we the only far-left group with large numbers of Arab and Muslim members whom we've been able to connect with through our links with the broader community and broader struggles?

I could go on. I don't have time to respond to all your points right now, except point b. If the Socialist Alliance was more significant, of course we would support you in elections! When Steve Jolly of the Socialist Party ran a serious campaign in the seat of Richmond and got a respectable vote we supported him, despite the serious political differences we have with that group. But what's the point of calling on people to vote for a small far-left group that no-one has ever heard of who gets a tiny vote? It's not that we're agnostic to who wins (I would much prefer Socialist Alliance senators to Greens), it's that you haven't got more than 2% of the vote yet and no-one has heard of you.

Deferring to electoralism

Yet another complication sets in: "If the Socialist Alliance was more significant, of course we would support you in elections! ..." 

Just so long as what, the SA can  garner more votes? And because the Greens get more votes Socialist Alternative supports the Greens as a preferred  option and ignores the Alliance completely? Is that the rationale? The Marxist Socialist Alternative wants to defer to electoralism? 

"When Steve Jolly of the Socialist Party ran a serious campaign in the seat of Richmond and got a respectable vote we supported him, despite the serious political differences we have with that group. "

No you didn't. You supported Jolly only because some Vic unions did...and they even bank rolled it -- seriously.  Jolly was originally elected to local council with 12% of the  vote and doubled that result at the following local government poll. The Socialist Alliance at last round of local government elections in Victoria was pulling in up to 20% of the vote after matching Jolly' original 12 % at the same time he was first elected...We now have a councillor, Sam Wainwright,  in Fremantle Western Australia...

For the record, Jolly garnered 5.6% of the vote for the seat of  Richmond -- a very credible result and affirmation  of his local profile. and the good work of the SP in that community. It was also a campaign that enlisted some support from local independent activists and should have been supported actively across the far left.But it is still very disingenuous to rule your world by electoral results because we have to wonder what's you threshold for significance': 3%? 4%? 4.9%? 5%? 

"But what's the point of calling on people to vote for a small far-left group that no-one has ever heard of who gets a tiny vote?"

So instead you support the pro capitalist Greens and ALP...Statements like this reflect what may be your own pessimistic outlook as for all the big wide world knows the Socialist Alliance are "the socialists' on polling day. That's even what the voting slips say: Socialist Alliance. An infinitesimal layer in the population can distinguish one far left group from another . For all the electorate knows we 'socialists' are all in it together. And what you see right across Australia is a raw, very conscious vote for socialism in the context of the Greens mopping up so much of the protest vote on the left of the ALP especially since 2001.

The problem we face -- both the Alliance and Socialist Alternative -- is that without our "small far-left group that no-one has ever heard of" raising a consistent anti-capitalist perspective at  elections there really is no socialist alternative on offer without the work done by both the Alliance and other outfits like the Socialist Party. (And the SP after all is a party formation"that no-one has ever heard of" outside of Inner City Melbourne.)

Elections aren't everything of course. They are a useful exercise in reach out and do reflect any groundswell leftward -- but for now while the Greens are on a roll and their accommodation to neo liberalism isn't so clear to many people, they are going to enjoy unconditional support  as the optional left party. Thats' why they have maybe 10,000 members and why outfits like ours (and yours) are dismissed as small far left groups . But then in 1998 (I think) Brown suggested that the Greens had no more than 750 members despite the handy advantage of owning a couple of senators -- in part bequeathed to them through the Nuclear Disarmament Party campaigns of the 1980s.

But as we both know outside of polling days -- the Greens are very unreliable partners when it comes to campaign politics. 

And finally :" It's that you haven't got more than 2% of the vote yet and no-one has heard of you."

Again there's that pessimism. Heard of how? In the pages of The Australian or the Herald Sun? By dint of massive electoral advertising and celebrity endorsements? Dream on. Being 'heard' aint that easy when you are up against millions of dollars spent by the main parties (and now the Greens) and the black out  by the bourgeois media.Not even the other far left groups will cover, let alone support, our election campaigns....

So really what you mean is that no one has heard of you --- and we'd prefer to keep it that way...

SYRIZA's position on N. Korea?

Does it have one? What about Russia? We wouldn't want to create a "still born" multi-tendency organization that unites Trotskyists, Maoists, and reformists now would we? Evidently that is what SYRIZA has done:

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