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The Lenin wars: Over a Cliff with Lars Lih

Nadezhda Krupskaya and Lenin with journalist Lincoln Eure in the Kremlin, February 1920.

[Click HERE to follow the entire debate on Tony Cliff's Lenin.]

By Paul Le Blanc

February 19, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- There has been a competing set of political agendas underlying the recently initiated historical debate over how to understand Lenin and the Bolsheviks. From the standpoint of revolutionary socialism, this aspect of the debate is hardly cause for dismay. As activists we are appropriately attempting to get a handle on “what is to be done”. This does not absolve us of the responsibility to get the history right. But for Marxists the point is not simply to understand history, but also make use of such understanding to help change the world.

In initiating an attack on the presumably false “Leninism” provided by Tony Cliff’s 1975 work Building the Party (the first volume of his political biography of Lenin), Pham Binh was laying the groundwork for a political argument. That became clear in his contribution “Another socialist left is possible”, submitted late in the series of exchanges that he initiated: advocating the creation of a multi-tendency socialist organisation, contrasted with the ideal of a Leninist party which he contends bears little relation to the actual theory and practice of Lenin. In responding to him, I sought to challenge what I saw as serious historical inaccuracies, but I have also been concerned to defend what I see as a valuable Leninist tradition that is a resource for revolutionary activists of today and tomorrow. (Paul D’Amato obviously had a similar motivation, but I will allow him to speak for himself rather than trying to speak on his behalf.) My own political agenda is made fully explicit in my own just-published “Revolutionary Organisation and the ‘Occupy Moment.’”

Lars Lih has now intervened in this debate with what seems like a strictly scholarly agenda. His intervention includes an attack on some of what I wrote, so I feel compelled to respond – but given the nature of his approach, I will do so more strictly as a scholar of the Russian revolutionary movement. Some readers may find this too “academic” for their tastes, although an exploration of what happened in history, especially in regard to Lenin and his comrades, has obvious (if indirect) connections to political activism. The necessarily collective process of getting the history right is vitally important as we wrestle with what to do next.

Before going further, I need to re-emphasise what I have said a number of times already – my great appreciation of Lars Lih over his wonderful contributions to the field of Lenin studies. He is a scholar of considerable integrity, in my opinion, whose work is greatly enhanced by the fact that he is fluent in Russian and has an incredibly fine mind and delicious wit and iconoclastic bent, facilitating a fruitfully critical-minded approach to the study of Lenin. I also consider him to be a friend with whom it has been a pleasure to share ideas – and sometimes to debate.

Being an iconoclast with integrity does not mean that one is inevitably right when he smashes some presumably “iconic” interpretation of what happened in history. There are times when Lars gets something wrong – as he himself would admit. In his intervention in this debate, I think he gets more than one thing wrong.

In his article, Lars deals with two issues: a debate at the Bolshevik Third Congress in 1905 between Lenin and some of his “committeemen” comrades, and on whether the Bolshevik party was formed in 1912. In the present contribution, I will focus on the first issue.

Regarding the 1912 conference that resulted in the Bolshevik party coming into being as a distinct entity, Lars writes the following: “Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not set out [emphasis added] to organize their faction as a separate party, they vehemently denied that they had done so after the Conference, and they were justified in making this denial.” I think that the emphasised words may be key. Regardless of what Lenin and his comrades “set out to do”, I am inclined to see 1912 as the year that the Bolshevik party came into being, flowing from what actually happened at the Prague conference. The fact that Lenin and his comrades hoped to unite with “party Mensheviks” independently of the Menshevik liquidators does not mean that this is how things turned out – “the Prague Conference opened the era of the independent existence of the Bolshevik Party, with its own Central Committee”, as Trotsky put it years later, in an account that seems consistent with what Zinoviev and Krupskaya also described after the fact.

The Mensheviks and most others who were invited to treat the Prague conference as authoritative did not do so. As Lars himself notes, “they refused to attend”. Nor did they adhere to the version of the organisation established in Prague in 1912. While responding sharply to critics, Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades did not seem shocked or disheartened by the Menshevik boycott, nor did they reverse gears hoping to retrieve the non-Bolshevik comrades who refused to join them. They forged ahead as a Bolshevik party. Or so it seems, despite the interesting details Lars provides.

But Lars has promised to share with me a more thorough account of his findings and analysis. At his suggestion, I will want to consider what he has to share in that more thoroughgoing account before responding more substantially. As Lars notes, he will in fact be disagreeing with his own recent assertion in his fine short biography Lenin. Will I need to defend Lars from himself or instead fundamentally revise my own understanding? That remains to be seen.

But there is plenty to do in responding to what he says about 1905. In a note of friendly warning to me, Lars told me that I would not like what he had to say. And he is right.

Tony Cliff is not the issue

A fundamental flaw in Lars’s account of what I have written is that he seems to feel my primary purpose in disagreeing with Pham Binh is to defend Tony Cliff – an impression that might have been reinforced by the misleading title Pham gave to his polemic with me: “Paul Le Blanc’s Defence of Tony Cliff’s Building the Party”. While I do offer a partial defence of Cliff as not deserving to be trashed in the way Pham trashes him (even Lars defends Cliff a little bit on that score), that is at most a secondary concern of mine. I was primarily concerned about what I saw as distortions of history and a rejection of Leninism, not the defence of Tony Cliff.

As I have explicitly stated many times, I have never accepted Cliff’s assessment of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? and, even before Lars wrote Lenin Rediscovered, in my own book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, I have defended that work in ways that are consistent with the way Lars himself defends it. Consequently, I never accepted Cliff’s assertions that the 1905 debate, which took place among the Bolsheviks, involved Lenin backing away from his 1903 work. When he describes the 1905 debate as a situation in which “the unfortunate Lenin had to persuade his supporters to oppose the line proposed in What is to be Done?” (Building the Party, p. 175), Cliff is quite simply wrong. I have never thought or said otherwise.

Therefore, when Lars protests, “I do not acknowledge that the debate described by Cliff – a debate about whether admitting workers to the committees was a good thing – ever took place”, I can only say that I agree with him. Lars does not disagree with the fact that there was such a debate (which is the point I was making in regard to Pham’s seeming denial), but he insists: “Cliff sees Lenin’s effort to get workers on the committees as evidence of discontinuity with his earlier stand, whereas I see it as evidence of continuity.” I completely agree with Lars on this. And if Pham also agrees, then this particular point of contention has pretty much evaporated. And yet contention seems to persist.

There was a 1905 debate – what was it about?

Lars says something else that is a bit unfair: “Le Blanc evidently has enough confidence in his knowledge of the empirical realities of the Russian underground in early 1905 to declare that Lenin was definitely right and the ‘committeemen’ were wrong. I do not share this confidence.”

Actually, in his Historical Materialism article responding to one of my friendly critical comments on his book, Lars shows an inclination to line up with the “committeemen” against Lenin, while I (relying more on a retrospective account by Nadezhda Krupskaya) am inclined to lean in Lenin’s direction. But I am quite willing to entertain the thought that Lenin was wrong and the “committeemen” right in this debate. I look forward to more work by those who have access to the Russian-language sources (especially Lars) to add more to our knowledge that could allow for a final judgment to be made.

To say it again: my primary point in this aspect of the debate with Pham was that such a debate did take place – as Lars, Krupskaya and others documented. My understanding was that Pham was denying the existence of such a debate. When he restated his position, saying “the debate at the 1905 third congress was over how recruit workers, not whether to recruit workers”, I offered a positive word in response: “Okay.”

Sadly, in his remarks Lars seems insistent – for reasons that make no sense to me – that I share Tony Cliff’s interpretation of the 1905 debate, and he therefore allows himself to write: “We must assume that Le Blanc and D'Amato agree both with Cliff and 'bourgeois academic Leninologists' about the anti-worker slant of Lenin's What Is To Be Done?” This is grotesque, having nothing to do with what I have ever thought or written.

It is clear to me that the 1905 debate had nothing to do with Lenin backing away from What Is To Be Done? or with his Bolshevik comrades being stuck in the booklet’s “authoritarian” and “elitist” and “anti-worker” logic. In my view, Lenin’s 1902 work was permeated with a revolutionary, democratic and socialist spirit and logic, and it was “pro-worker” in multiple ways. It seems to me that Lars and I are therefore in agreement about what the debate was not about.

In what Lars writes, however, it is not entirely clear to me what he believes the debate was actually about. If, as he explains to us, (a) Lenin was in favour of a certain kind of transformation of the Bolshevik organisation, and if (b) all his comrades agreed on the need for such a transformation, and yet (c) Lenin’s resolution on such transformation was voted down as “unneeded” while (d) another resolution was passed which seemed to affirm the need for such a transformation, and yet (e) the discussion throughout was “quite emotional” – then what on Earth was going on? Lars assures us that “the hugely interesting debate among the delegates was over the empirical realities on the ground”. In stressing this, he strongly resists as utterly at variance with the facts anything “making the praktiki look undemocratic”, as well as the notion that there was any underlying or longer-term tension between Lenin (and certain other Bolsheviks) on the one hand and some of the Bolshevism’s practical underground cadres on the other. Given the fact that the debate was so fierce, the account Lars insists on doesn’t quite add up.

Krupskaya versus Lih

To repeat, once again, my interpretation comes primarily from Lenin’s comrade and companion Nadezhda Krupskaya. In his Historical Materialism article, Lars complained about the 1960 English translation of Krupskaya’s Reminiscences of Lenin, so I will utilise the 1930 translation of Memories of Lenin that says basically the same thing (pages 124-127 in the former, pages 137-140 in first volume of the latter). Given some of the innuendo that has crept into the discussion, it seems necessary to provide a very substantial extract of the account provided by Krupskaya. Readers who have read this far, however, are probably truly concerned with what she is writing about and consequently should find it quite interesting. In any event, coming neither from Le Blanc nor Cliff, but rather from someone fluent in Russian and with full access to the proceedings of the Third Congress, here is how Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s trusted comrade discussed the 1905 debate:

By this time the organizations in Russia had taken definite shape. They took the form of illegal committees working under drastically difficult conditions of secrecy. Owing to these conditions, the committees hardly anywhere had factory workers among their members, though they had a great deal of influence over the labor movement. The leaflets and “instructions” of the committees corresponded to the mood of the working masses, and the latter felt they had a leadership; the committees, therefore, enjoyed great popularity, but for the majority of the workers their activity was obscured by a haze of secrecy. The workers frequently met apart from the intellectuals in order to discuss the fundamental problems of the movement...

The “Komitetchik” [nickname for the members of the illegal local Party Committees working in Russia] was usually a fairly self-assured person, who realized what great influence the work of the committees had over the masses; he generally did not recognize any inner-Party democracy whatever. “This democratism only leads to us falling into the hands of the authorities; we are already quite well enough connected with the movement”, the Komitetchiks would say. And inwardly, these committee members always rather despised “the people abroad”, who, they considered, just grew fat and organized intrigues. “They ought to be sent to work under Russian conditions” was their verdict. The Komitetchiks did not like to feel pressure from abroad. At the same time, they did not like innovations. They were neither desirous nor capable of adapting themselves to the changing conditions.

In the period 1904-1905 these members of the committees bore tremendous responsibilities on their shoulders, but many of them experienced the utmost difficulty in adapting themselves to the conditions of increasing opportunities for legal work, and to the methods of open struggle... At the Third Congress there were no workers present – or, at any rate, not a single prominent worker. ... On the other hand, there were many committee members. If this is not borne in mind, a great deal of the matter in the reports of this Congress will not be properly understood.

The question of the “bridling” of the foreign center was not only raised by the Komitetchiks, but also by other prominent Party workers... There was a good deal of loose talk on this matter, but Vladimir Ilyich did not particularly take it to heart...

The question of bringing workers on to the committees was fraught with much greater contention. Vladimir Ilyich vigorously defended the idea of including workers. The people abroad, Bogdanov and the writers, were also in favor. The Komitetchiks were against. Both sides became very heated. The members of the committees insisted that no resolution be passed on the subject; indeed, it would have been impossible to pass a resolution that workers should not be brought on to the committees.

In his speech in this discussion Vladimir Ilyich said: “I think we should consider the question more broadly. To bring workers on to the committees is not only an educational but also a political task. The workers have a class instinct, and even with little political experience they quite quickly become steadfast Social Democrats. I would very much like to see eight workers on our committees for every two intellectuals. If our written counsel, that as many workers as possible should be brought on to the committees, proves inadequate, it would be as well to issue this advice in the name of the Congress. If you get a clear and definite instruction from the Congress, you will have a radical means of fighting demagogy: it will be the express will of the Congress”.

Even before this occasion, Vladimir Ilyich had firmly championed the necessity of bringing the largest possible number of workers on to the committees. He already wrote about this in 1903 in his Letter to a Petersburg Comrade. Now, in defending this standpoint at the Congress, he became very heated, and even made interruptions. When Mikhailov (Postolovsky) said: “So in practical work very small demands are made of intellectuals, but extremely big demands are made of workers”, Vladimir Ilyich cried out: “That is absolutely true!” His exclamation was drowned in a chorus of – “Not true!” from the Komitetchiks. When Rumyanstiev said: “There is only one worker in the Petersburg committee, although work has been going on there for fifteen years”, Vladimir Ilyich shouted: “What a disgrace!”

Afterwards, when the debates had ended, Ilyich said: “I could not sit still and listen to them saying that there were no workers suitable to be members of the committees. The question drags on, and it shows there is a malady in the Party. Workers must be brought on to the committees”. If Ilyich was not very much concerned that his viewpoint met with such a rebuff at the Congress, it was simply because he knew that the approaching Revolution would itself radically cure the Party of this incapacity to make the committees working class in composition.

Perhaps Krupskaya got it wrong. “Lenin and the Bolsheviks never fought about ... recruiting workers to party committees”, Pham stated quite categorically in his opening polemic. “It simply did not happen.” Lars tells us that Pham is right. Simply because Krupskaya offers this interpretation of what happened does not necessarily mean that what she says is fully accurate or adequate. But Lars tells us: “I will be happy to engage in scholarly debate with anyone who consults this source and finds my empirical account inaccurate or misleading.” So he should start, perhaps, with Nadezhda Krupskaya if he disagrees with her account.

And then, perhaps, he has a responsibility to do the same with Solomon Schwarz, at the time a Bolshevik (later a Menshevik) who also had full access to the sources, was fluent in Russian and offers a similar account in The Russian Revolution of 1905: The Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism (on pages 217-221). Lars tells us that he concluded, after examining the records, that Schwarz’s account was “tendentious and incorrect” in the conclusions he drew from the debate (though Schwarz’s “conclusions” arguably could be separated with his actual account of the debate, which is consistent with Krupskaya’s). Actually, an examination of Lenin Rediscovered reveals no critique or even mention of Schwarz’s account – not even in footnotes or bibliography. In his Historical Materialism article, the consideration of Schwarz he offers consists of three sentences: “In 1967, Solomon Schwarz published The Russian Revolution of 1905. Schwarz was a Bolshevik in 1905 but moved to the Mensheviks soon thereafter. His account is more a monograph than a memoir”. On the following page he tells us simply that the account is “deeply distorted” (147, 148). He doesn’t exactly make much of a case here.

For what it’s worth, I engaged with both Schwarz and Krupskaya before Cliff’s book was published, and it is their accounts – not Tony Cliff’s – on which I drew when discussing these matters in Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (so I never felt I was presenting “Cliff’s account”, let alone that I was endorsing his flawed interpretation of What Is To Be Done?). And to repeat, I am quite happy to entertain the thought that Lars is right and Krupskaya wrong regarding the issues under discussion, the nature and dynamics of the “committeemen”, etc. But in what he has actually presented, for those who have no way of reading through the Russian-language primary sources, there is – so far – no reason to decide that the account of Lars Lih is superior to that of Nadezhda Krupskaya.

Being honest

To be honest, I was startled to read the story Lars tells in his current intervention: Lars Lih conscientiously put forward his well-researched account of the Bolshevik Third Congress back in 2006, in Lenin Rediscovered, and then he went on with his life, thinking all was well when – lo and behold! – what he believed he had resolved way back then somehow pops up again in 2012 as if he had never written his account in the first place.

In fact, I wrote an appreciation of his book, with the friendly criticism regarding the 1905 debate, back in 2006, at the request of the editors of Historical Materialism, for a symposium on his book that remained unpublished for several years. But Lars had access to my article from the very beginning, our correspondence was initiated by that article, and our friendship followed. We also had an interchange on these matters at the Historical Materialism conference a year or so after his book was published. When the symposium was finally published in a 2010 issue of Historical Materialism, it turned out that Lars had responded severely to my 2006 article in his essay that appeared in the same issue of Historical Materialism. I responded to what Lars wrote in two different articles – one in the Summer 2011 issue of a publication called Jacobin, back-to-back with an article that he wrote, and another article, including an even more substantial response, which appeared in the June 14, 2011 issue of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, which has also carried material Lars has produced.

Given all of this, Lars’s surprise surprises me. But it seems of a piece with his persistent assertion that I agree with Tony Cliff’s interpretation of What Is To Be Done?, repeated yet again in his current intervention, despite my clear and consistent denials.

I believe that Lars is quite honest – so I am baffled to find myself, over and over again, in this strange loop. Here is what appears to me to be an explanation: If one accepts Krupskaya’s account of the 1905 debate, including her critical attitude (and Lenin’s) toward certain negative qualities to be found among the “committeemen” – Lars seems to feel – then one necessarily “must” subscribe to Cliff’s flawed understanding of What Is To Be Done? and to the stupid notion of “Lenin against the Bolsheviks”. I don’t think that’s true at all.

If I am going to continue being honest, there is yet another matter. Although Lars expresses agreement with Pham, I do not think that the quality of thought and analysis that get the two of them to their seemingly “identical” conclusions is comparable. Lars has a responsibility to encourage Pham to do better than he has done. He does that up to a point (his gentle admonition to be less severe in his judgments of Cliff, his similarly gentle admonition regarding the utter inadequacy of using a brief report on the Bolsheviks’ 1905 congress to conjure away the existence of a sharp debate), but it seems to me that he is too lenient.

Fortunately, in encouraging Paul D’Amato and me to do better than we have done, he is not too lenient at all. Unfortunately, it seems to me, the admonitions are largely misplaced – certainly on the issues having to do with 1905. Of course, I have also admonished him to do better as well, and it seems to me that if he does so he will add substantially to our knowledge, as he has done in so many ways up to now. And I will look forward to strolling with him down the Bolshevik pathway of 1912, to see what we can make of what happened way back then.

At the same time, while trying to get the history right, those of us engaged in revolutionary activism will continue to wrestle with “what is to be done” to change the world for the better.

Works cited

Cliff, Tony. Lenin, Volume 1: Building the Party. London: Pluto Press, 1975.

Krupskaya, N. K. Memories of Lenin, 2 volumes, translated by Eric Verney. New York: International Publishers, 1930.

______________. Reminiscences of Lenin, translated by Bernard Isaacs. New York: International Publishers, 1970.

Le Blanc, Paul. “Five points in response to Pham Binh”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 1, 2012,

____________. Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. Amherst, NY: Humanities Press, 1993.

____________. “Lenin and us: Into the past, back to the future”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, June 14, 2011,

____________. “Rediscovering Lenin”, Historical Materialism 18.3 (2010).

____________. “Revolutionary method in the study of Lenin”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 31, 2012,

____________. Revolutionary organisation and the ‘Occupy moment’”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 2012,

____________. “Ulyanovsk: Book Review, Lars Lih, Lenin”, Jacobin, Summer 2011.

Lih, Lars. “Falling out over a Cliff”, Weekly Worker, February 16, 2012, Also at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 17, 2012,

_______. Lenin. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.


I think there is something

I think there is something terribly wrong with this debate which may be hard to finger. While seemingly being about 'history' and "Leninism' what formats it is the here and now.

But what in the present time is at stake? Thats' what so confusing. D'Amato defence of the ISO and its refusal to advance an organisational left unity agenda was almost trite in its argumentation.

I would have expected a better defence than the one he offers.

I'm sure there are very good reasons why signed up Leninists won't entertain socialist left regroupment-- among themselves at least as that is indeed his argument-- but I'm not hearing them. What I get is sectariana.

Le Blanc chimed in similar mode...with some neighborhood anecdotes to add effect "we ARE working together" (sotto voce: get off our backs!). [I also think that Le Blanc has withdrawn from the unity position he advanced when he joined the ISO a few years back.]

Of course the problem with all gestures of unity in action regardless of how small or limited they may be is that they always beg a further option -- more of the same. And like some bogey the prospect of organisational unity haunts the process and is the logical dynamic.

I think some of the discussion around Dick Nickols piece on LINKS captures that:
because what this debate lacks , in fact it avoids it like the plague, is what should we be doing now to facilitate the best fightback and greater advance of socialist politics.

Dick's talk bluntly addresses that, Euro country by country.

The answer is so fuckin self evident that this debate seems almost infantile in its preference for school yard allegiances and footnotery. The issue isn't really about the historical, political, tactical and organizational need to come together -- but how.

No doubt there are challenges and risks, No doubt elements will submit to (dare I say it?) reformism and unMarxist formulations and there will be spent comrades(consider recent Oz history)-- but then on offer is a broader engagement with the world that actually exists , not one we would like to inhabit, or think we do. And we'd do that -- 'intervene' -- through the process of an all out, every one's ten bob's worth, argument, over what to do next.

At stake too is the underlying fact that despite its penchant for disputation,the far left is abysmally unable to have a genuine political discussion. Even the Americans have to come to Australia to host theirs in the pages of Links!

How tragically telling is that?

And locally what we get from the far left is a broad dedicated silence on the question of unity, peppered by D'Amato level whines about 'unassailable' differences . Broken record like.

Its' not very real, is it? Fiddling while Rome burns... and opportunities fester.

Our advantage here in Australia is that despite Melbourne being second only to Athens in Hellenic demographics -- we are not Greece...yet.

We do indeed have a political window and any one with any ounce of political savvy would have to recognise that when the "Lucky Country"'s mines stop delivering neoliberal largess we will be going down the Euro route too. Any one with any ounce of political savvy would also have to recognise that a new politics would then be required, one that is a tad different from current practices.

Golly, even the IST and CWI can come to an uncomfortable partnership in Ireland with the ULA!

Well, in my experience of the "New Left" in Australia I can rule absolutely that it wasn't "new" enough. That when it came on the scene it was indeed a bit too much 'after the event' -- a 'late' left -- to harness a richer and broader
organisational embrace. The "New Left" bequeathed a penchant for shibboleths and competing isms and has been ruled ever since by a desire to grab a selfish niche share of whatever may be going.

It was a left that chose to fight over leftovers.

The problem with the here and now juncture, is that -- like maybe in Greece and elsewhere -- if the far left doesn't get its shit together sooner rather than later it will be bypassed and less radical forces will take its place in mass

Doing it AFTER the fact is so wasteful and may in fact be symptomatic of a defeat.It will definitely be registering an ebb in any upsurge.

That we still want to play at the level of debate epitomized by Le Blanc, D'Amato et al and obscure the telling reality with word play over so deeply tragic that it seems almost like high melodrama.

But then thats' the far left's curse: eschew the reality of the here and now for the sake of a darn good argument or a preferred abstraction -- one that is engineered to go no where in a hurry.

dave riley

Not True

It seems to me that what Dave Riley says is not true, and that on more than one level.

I think there was more to talk about in this discussion than simply what to do next in the political struggles of today. There were genuine differences on what actually happened in history. That was a discussion worth having in its own right, and I think it makes little sense for a serious revolutionary to shrug it off.

In regard to the practical political aspect of the discussion, there are three points I would like to make.

1. Riley's very sour, derogatory arguments in favor of "Left unity" (focused on putting down all left organizations and anyone who isn't thinking along the track that he is) strike me as a very negative, sectarian, and fruitless way to further any possibility of genuine unity.

2. It is incorrect (not to mention insulting) to attribute to me the "get off our backs" position that Riley claims I have. I am focused on working together with other activists, very much including those in other socialist groups, on the ground in Pittsburgh, currently in the Occupy movement as well as in related activities around imperialist war and around public transit. Sorry if it all seems merely "anecdotal" -- it happens to be my life, it's what I do. It seems to me that such "anecdotal" stuff (far more than grand, abstract rhetoric for "unity"), helping to nourish and expand a labor-radical subculture and class consciousness on the ground, in various actual localities, in the real world, can ultimately create the preconditions for the unified revolutionary party that Riley claims to favor. If he has a better idea, let him work on it.

3. My thinking has not changed since my statement on joining the ISO. I don't think there is anything in that statement that is inconsistent with what I am saying and doing now. One aspect of that is the belief that we must draw together and train activists -- with an understanding of historical and contemporary realities, Marxist theory, organizational skills, political experience -- to help them become organizers, cadres, who will be able to reach out effectively to more and more people with the socialist message and to involve more and more people in mass struggles for social and economic justice. Hopefully all socialist organizations are working to do that: this is or should be much of the point of having such organizations. At the same time, the ISO does not see itself as "the Party" or "the nucleus of the Party" (it would have been difficult for me to join it if it did) -- it sees itself as helping to create the preconditions for such a Party (which will include activists of more than one organization, as well as many who are not yet activists). The time to be doing such work is now. If we focus on that in this amazing period, and do good work, I think we have an opportunity to build a mass socialist movement, to build effective struggles animated by socialist consciousness. This is the context in which we can truly hope to see the emergence of unified revolutionary socialist party.

left unity - necessary but not self-evident

I agree with the need for what Dave Riley calls "organisational left unity", i.e. uniting as much as possible of the socialist movement into a single organisation.

But I don't think it is useful to say that this is self-evident (still less "fuckin self evident"). The fact that many leftists don't agree shows that it is not self-evident. People need to be persuaded of it.

There is a decades-old culture of rivalry amongst socialist groups. Each competes for recruits, paper sales, etc. Each views the others as seriously mistaken, perhaps even as not being genuine socialists. This culture is an obstacle to building a strong socialist movement able to win mass support amongst the working class and the oppressed.

This culture will not be overcome quickly or easily. The process of collaboration which Paul Le Blanc describes in Pittsburgh should be welcomed as a step on the road.

But we can not be satisfied with a glacial pace of progress towards left unity. The world economic crisis, coming on top of the ecological crisis, wars, etc, makes left unity urgent.

However it must be admitted that attempts at left unity in various countries have generally had only modest success, if any.

Socialist Alliance in Australia was formed in 2001 by 8 left groups, and drew in hundreds of nonaligned individuals. This showed the potential for left unity to create a much broader socialist organisation.

But within a few years most of the original left groups had withdrawn from SA.

Socialist Alliance continues in a different form. Many of the nonaligned activists remained as members of SA, which has also drawn in groups of migrant leftists from Latin America, Sudan, etc, as well as ex-members of the Communist Party of Australia and the Australian Labor Party. But the numbers involved have been modest.

Meanwhile Socialist Alternative has grown, mainly through recruitment on campus.

At some time in the not too distant future, we need to make a new attempt to bring together the left groups - this time including Socialist Alternative.

But first we have to convince the other groups that this is a desirable goal. We can not do this by proclaiming it as "self evident".

Chris Slee

The Lenin Debate

This lengthy detailed debate seems to me to be the modern equivalent of the ecclesiastical scholastic debates over who correctly understood the message of the original church fathers. Here too, whatever its avowed intention, it also serves, to distinguish between an elite with the time, commitment and linguistic tools (Latin needed then - Russian apparently now) to discovering a particular cherished version called ‘the truth’ about some obscure past event, which is suddenly elevated to a principle.

And this seems to be done, as it was then, in order to prop up some current practice, direction or desired leadership position. So we have pages and pages of polemical, competitive point-scoring about the past, for which I suggest there is only historical interpretation - not history as it actually happened. Of course, the interpretations are more often than not coloured by current preferences - as the present discussions perhaps illustrate. And all of which to my mind mirrors the current practical competition for paper sales and recruits which in turn is a spirited investment for hoped for hegemony over the workers movement and/or any future revolutionary developments.

Yet there is a needed debate over the form of organisation required to advance the struggle against capital. And it is no longer an unchallenged assumption that it should be a Leninist, Democratic Centralist Party, let alone how this is to be interpreted. Hence the need for discussion. However, it is interesting to note that in the coming struggles, workers, in order to succeed, will have to overcome, religious, ethnic, gender, age, cultural and other differences in order to unite. They will have to agree to disagree on a considerable number of issues which seem important to them. Sadly, however, it seems those on the left have so absorbed the sectarian tradition, that unity will never be achieved among these ranks until the unlikely event of agreement over every dot and crossed ‘t’ in the past, present and future anti-capitalist lexicon. I would love to be proved wrong!

R. Ratcliffe


R. Ratcliffe is an intellectual (someone who engages with ideas) who has an ideological axe to grind -- presumably, a definite point of view that is opposed to another point of view. This intellectual employs time, commitment and linguistic tools (words) to articulate his/her particular point of view. In order to emphasize the incorrectness of the other point of view, those who express it are accused of doing what Ratcliffe is doing – employing time to use words regarding commitments. It seems to me this is not an effective way to argue, since others may easily notice the contradiction that seems to elude Comrade Ratcliffe.

Another problem is the use of a false analogy. Since the ancient and medieval “church fathers” of Christianity utilized such things as time, commitment, linguistic tools in theological debates, those of us (except, apparently, for R. Ratcliffe) are just like them. Since they were an “elite”, we too are just such an elite. One of the differences between those bygone disputes many centuries ago, however, is that most people back then did not have the time, the literacy, and the familiarity with intellectual concepts to engage in discussions and polemics, while today large numbers of us who are part of the working class do. Another difference is that theological disputes (seeking to determine what is the logic related to such things as the divinity Christ, for example) are not identical to efforts in social science (in this case, the disciplined sifting through historical evidence – documents, memoirs, eyewitness accounts – to determine what actually happened in history). This historical dispute does involve an assumption that we can actually learn something useful from what happened in history as we engage, as activists, in sorting through current realities and acting to change them positively.

The effect of Ratcliffe’s false analogy seems to be to discredit such efforts. This also seems to be the purpose of a few additional words of insult and caricature that appear to be aimed at groups that try to sell newspapers and recruit members. These tiresome activities are apparently identified with the Leninist tradition.

Finally, in the concluding paragraph, Ratcliffe offers three positive thoughts:

1. There is a needed debate over the form of organisation required to advance the struggle against capital.

2. It is no longer an unchallenged assumption that it should be a Leninist, Democratic Centralist Party, let alone how this is to be interpreted. Hence the need for discussion.

3. In the coming struggles, workers, in order to succeed, will have to overcome, religious, ethnic, gender, age, cultural and other differences in order to unite. They will have to agree to disagree on a considerable number of issues which seem important to them.

These are points that, I imagine, everyone who is involved in this particular political debate would agree on. Instead of joining in the discussion on what we can learn from the past and where we should go from here, however, R. Ratcliffe ends with something dismissive and despairing: “Those on the left have so absorbed the sectarian tradition, that unity will never be achieved among these ranks until the unlikely event of agreement over every dot and crossed ‘t’ in the past, present and future anti-capitalist lexicon. I would love to be proved wrong!”

I would hope that the comrade will be able to transcend this sad and passive conclusion. There is so much to be done, to be learned, to be accomplished. Whether one is a Leninist (as I am) or self-identifies differently, there is much common ground to stand on, and from which to wage the struggle of the 99% against the 1%. We can learn in the struggle, and also (using linguistic tools, to be sure) in conversation and sometimes debate with each other.

I apologise to the two Pauls

I apologise to the two Pauls as to my approach as I am so easily acerbic. But the complication is that while all these hesitancies and contraindications are advanced no one else outside these far left parties see the point. These others in fact do indeed see unity as self evident. The inability of the far left to come to embrace greater unity is blunting our effectiveness, wasting resources and warping our trajectory.

It's okay. I get grumpy

It's okay. I get grumpy too, sometimes. Plenty of reason for that in this world of ours.

Just so that we are clear:

Just so that we are clear: while I'm offshore from the USA I do suggest to my American friends I have contact with -- those who yearn for 'left unity' and are frustrated with the Marxist left-- that they join the US ISO -- the party of Le Blanc and D'Amato. It may be one thing to argue for 'unity' but to do so without a unity project to draw folk to is in effect a gross abstraction. It is a worser perspective than the other side of this dispute. The crippling failure of Binh's argument is that no unity process/project seems to exists there. In effect, the argument of the pro left unity /new party people is as contained and as unassailable as the other side. You may be for unity but you seem so dedicated to bogeyfying the already existing parties -- like the US ISO -- that you can be accused of projecting an abstraction and vilifying what already exists. Why would the ISO sign up to your POV and spend their political assets? Denouncing the already existing parties of the far left for being there -- despite the great work they do - is not what I agree with. And the new left party arguments of Binh, Proyect, et al seem to miss that point entirely. If you want to advance a party perspective the party to hand has more potential than one that does not exist outside of your schematic projection. In that regard I am totally on Paul Le Blanc's side in his decision to join the ISO.I think it was inspirational -- indeed internationally inspirational.

To maybe argue that you excuse yourself because you do not agree with all of what the ISO subscribes to ( such as on Cuba) and have differences with its political content is as destructive to what needs to be done as any shibboleth.

Why that one?

I'm puzzled, and perhaps from unfamiliarity.

But if one was in the US and for the left unity/new left project and wanted to join an existing organisation why would you not join Solidarity? It seems, from their litertaure, at least as close if not far closer to those seeking a broad, non sectarian, Binh-Proyect, party.

I'm not saying the ISO of Paul Le Blanc is not an option. It just seems that Solidarity are more open again and were one of the first on the modern marxist left to advocate new ways of organising. Yes/no?

Outside of the US there are ample examples, with varying degrees of success, of "unity projects" and in Europe a book chronicing them has recently been published: 'New Parties of the Left: Experiences from Europe' (Resistance, 2011). The 'left unity'thread on this site is probably the richest vein of information on the subject.

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