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Paul Le Blanc: 1912 and 2012

[Click HERE to follow the entire debate on Lenin.]

By Paul Le Blanc

April 5, 2012 -- Weekly Worker, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- I would like to respond to two problematical contentions advanced by Pham Binh in his article ‘Wanting to get Lenin wrong’ (Weekly Worker, March 29, 2012). One of these contentions is about my motivation for disagreeing with his interpretation of Lenin’s thought, and the other has to do with a historical question -- when the Bolsheviks became a separate party. This is part of an extended debate having to do with history and politics (Lenin and the Bolsheviks; tasks facing socialists today). My own contributions touching on these questions can be found at http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/579.

First, Pham has yet again tagged me as “a defender of Tony Cliff”. In my opinion -- stated quite explicitly in a previous contribution -- Tony Cliff is not the issue. I share the view of Lars Lih, Paul D’Amato and others that aspects of Pham’s attack on Cliff are unfair, but I had no interest in entering this debate as “a defender of Tony Cliff”. That Pham chooses to insist otherwise has more to do with his fixation than with my motivation.

I have based neither my own interpretation of Lenin nor my criticism of Pham on Cliff’s writings. I have indicated this more than once, in articles appearing in Historical Materialism and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. This should also be evident from a careful reading of my book, Lenin and the revolutionary party. I was motivated to disagree with Pham’s interpretation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks because I think it is based on factual errors and faulty analysis, independently of anything that Tony Cliff has written.

Second, while I have expressed my own disagreements with aspects of Cliff’s interpretation of Lenin’s thought (especially with the way he deals with Lenin’s 1902 polemic, What is to be done?), I do believe that Cliff is closer to the truth than Pham regarding when the Bolsheviks became a separate party. Pham says it happened at some unspecified time in 1917 -- though he acknowledges that he is at a loss about precisely when this happened (telling us it was “more like balding than a divorce”). Cliff says it happened in 1912, and for all practical purposes he is right.

Pham is basing himself on what seems to me a misreading of Lars Lih’s criticism of another historian, Carter Elwood. At issue was a January 1912 conference in Prague of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) organised by Lenin and other Bolsheviks close to him. There are actually three parts to Elwood’s position:

1. the Bolsheviks became a separate party in 1912 based on what happened at the Prague conference;

2. this was what Lenin set out to accomplish;

3. Lenin was able to accomplish this only by lying about what he was actually doing.

Lars strongly argues against point 3 and raises questions about point 2. So far as I am aware, in his critique of Elwood, he does not argue against point 1. There is much evidence in Lenin’s writings (two of which are included in the Pluto Press selection that I edited, Revolution, democracy, socialism) and in the writings of others from that period that the Prague conference actually did result in an independent Bolshevik party.

Martov and other Mensheviks, and Trotsky as well, by denouncing and rejecting the Prague conference (and instead organising an RSDLP conference of their own in Vienna in August 1912 -- the so-called August Bloc), may be partly responsible for the actual outcome. Lenin may have hoped these comrades would behave differently, without necessarily expecting them to. The door was open for them to become part of the version of the RSDLP that emerged from the Prague conference. But, given the dynamics of their own politics and the overall situation, they could not go through that door. Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers went forward anyway.

This does not invalidate Lih’s argument (with which I basically agree): Lenin was fairly open about what he was doing, and he did not lie. It does run counter to Pham’s assertion, however, that the Bolsheviks did not become a distinct party in 1912, as a result of the Prague conference, but instead crystallised at some undefined time in 1917.

Pham says it was important that “the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were part of the same broad, multi-tendency party from 1903 until 1917” and today socialist groups should likewise, in his opinion: join together into a multi-tendency organisation. It is not necessary, however, to minimise the meaning of the 1912 Prague conference to make such an argument. Nor is it clear that the “broad, multi-tendency” RSDLP is the best model for genuine socialist unity.

Even when the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were actually part of the same RSDLP for the period that we agree they were (1903 to 1912), they seemed to function as incredibly hardened factions: separate newspapers; divergent strategies which they worked -- separately -- to implement; separate delegations in the duma; separate factional conferences; separate funds; separate leadership bodies; etc. I would be surprised if this is the kind of “socialist unity” that Pham is actually advocating for our own time. I think it might be more fruitful to reach for practical unity among revolutionary socialists -- perhaps at some point leading to organisational unity -- through working together in united-front efforts in the struggles of today.

Comments

two problems

1) The original text of what Le Blanc is responding to was titled "Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin" and can be found here: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/03/27/over-a-cliff-and-into-occup...

I submitted that text to Links as well but to my knowledge it was not published.

The CPGB removed the closing section of the piece because they disagreed with its political content. I also strongly object to the title they chose because I don't think anyone in these debates "wants" to "get Lenin wrong." It's an outrageous claim to put it mildly.

2) "Pham is basing himself on what seems to me a misreading of Lars Lih’s criticism of another historian, Carter Elwood." Wrong. I based my claim on what Lenin wrote in that period, the Prague Conference resolutions, and the testimony of Zinoviev. Lih's criticism of Elwood occured in print after I made my claim, not before.

A close reading of the March 1917 party conference documents provided in Trotsky's "Stalin School of Falsification" (links: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/ssf/sf14.htm and http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/ssf/sf15.htm) continually reference "faction discipline" when referencing the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks NOT "party discipline." This is more compelling evidence that the two factions remained part of the same party until 1917. The 1912 Prague Conference split the Menshevik faction and 1917 split the Menshevik faction permanently.

So far all of the evidence that has emerged in these debates confirms what I've argued on this question.

What Kind of Socialist Unity?

I am wondering if we can begin to close the gap in at least one aspect of this discussion. It seems to me that after the 1912 conference, the Bolsheviks for all practical purposes were functioning like a distinct party. Pham wants to insist that formally they were still factions of the same party down to 1917.

But let's focus for a moment on the question I pose in my "1912 and 2012" article. Even before 1912, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks "seemed to function as incredibly hardened factions: separate newspapers; divergent strategies which they worked -- separately -- to implement; separate delegations in the duma; separate factional conferences; separate funds; separate leadership bodies; etc. I would be surprised if this is the kind of 'socialist unity' that Pham is actually advocating for our own time."

Am I wrong? Is this the kind of "unity" Pham wants to see? Hardened factions, operating for all practical purposes as separate and competing parties, even while officially in the same organization?

I think there is a better way to go. As I say in my article, "I think it might be more fruitful to reach for practical unity among revolutionary socialists -- perhaps at some point leading to organisational unity -- through working together in united-front efforts in the struggles of today." To break that down a little more, in the U.S. I think the following makes sense:

(1) Some of us in various socialist groups are working together (for the most part not competitively) in various ongoing struggles -- in some cases against the wars and occupations, in some cases in defense of public transit, in some cases in the occupy movement, etc., etc. That adds up to united front efforts.

(2) Instead of trying to get all of us in the same revolutionary organization, we should simply work together in such united fronts. (None of us is "the revolutionary party" -- that is something that does not exist.)

(3) It is possible that as the struggles we are involved evolve, and a vanguard layer of the working class radicalizes, the possibility of a revolutionary party coming into being will crystallize, and some of us who have been working together in mass-struggle united fronts (which can, in fact, help advance the radicalization) will be part of the same revolutionary party.

Reality is always complex and full of surprises, but such an approach (not trying to cram us all into the same "revolutionary party" at this time) makes sense to me.

Its pretty important to put

Its pretty important to put this split into context. The Bolshi/Menshi split wasn't just a split between revolutionary perspectives. There are fundamental differences at play.

I'm partisan in all the theoretical debates, but I'm not going to make a mockery of the left by saying someone in a competing Socialist group, that largely shares a class struggle perspective, that comes from largely similar revolutionary traditions, and that generally comes from the same philosophical perspective is the same as a Elaborate or a Democrat. There is a qualitatively different perspective between us and Social Democracy

The split in 1912 is a process, and it becomes apparent through real and in practice differences over the following years, reaching a climax in 1917. The reasons at play were fundamental, and in the course of revolutionary politics, Menshi's end up on the wrong side of the barricades.

Today on the left we maintain our divisions, despite consistently lining up on the same sides of the barricades with other groups in our shared revolutionary tradition.

The problem we face today on the radical left is not that we share the tent with those who have a radically different world view. Its that *we* divide our own forces and we spend ourselves competing against those that could be our allies.

If unity came about and would we operate in hardened and antagonistic factions? Well, we're the ones that have to answer that question. I personally have faith in our collective ability to work with each other- which as Paul points out there is plenty of evidence of our ability to do so- but can only happen when and if we make the choice to do so.

Until that point i guess we'll line up against each other and slog it out in intellectual shadow boxing.

"(1) Some of us in various socialist groups are working together (for the most part not competitively) in various ongoing struggles -- in some cases against the wars and occupations, in some cases in defense of public transit, in some cases in the occupy movement, etc., etc. That adds up to united front efforts"

This is great- and us 'unity mongers' will have to take what we get, but no-one has ever explained to me why if you can work with a socialist from a different background constructively in movement groups, in workplaces, unions, campuses, occupations etc- why cant we work with them in a common party project?

We learn nothing from the Bolsheviks if we don't learn that the party itself is an area of debate and struggle- why are we so afraid of this today?

More than united fronts

Building on what Ben P said, thinking about the Australian translation of what Le Blanc has argued - Right now Australian socialists of the leading organisations (SA, SAlt, Solidarity, SP) do work together in the vision of Le Blanc's "united front" or DiMaggio's "local groups" – on a whole bunch of issues and campaigns like equal marriage rights, refugee rights, Palestine solidarity, in various unions, campus groups, etc. But like Des Derwin, I think we need to explore a space beyond this level of unity (which at times is anything but united, as socialists who have been involved in the above listed campaign groups can attest!) while less than a single multi-tendency party of socialists. The decisions like where resources are priorities in which campaigns, activist calendars broader than those drawn up within each individual movement group, decisions regarding clashing events, etc are all being made within each sect right now, and the only form of dialogue between them is through more or less hostile discussions when we see each other in movement groups (the clash between Marxism 2012 and the Eastern Convergence in Darwin being a prime example of this). We need to take some further steps now to break out of "sectism" and find some organisational forms or actions that we can take towards making us, our involvement in broader campaigns and united fronts, and convincing broader layers of the vision of a socialist Australia, more effective.

This is part of a longer post I've written about this debate and left unity, check it out here: http://thawraeyewitness.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/on-lenin-left-unity-orga...

Comradely,
Trick.

Refining further

I'm not sure Pham is trying to cram us into a "revolutionary party" rather than explore the ground between the movements, and united fronts within the movements, and the holy grail of the revolutionary party. As Paul would agree the existing revolutionary organisations are not in any case revolutionary parties. The debate, it seemd to me, is, at least in part, about the form of POLITICAL organisation that socialists (as in marxists and revolutionary marxists and even latter day Leninists)should go for now.

Pham wishes to argue for a looser more pluralistic organisation even in the golden age of the Bolshevik Party. There is an international debate now about which form best begins from right here the long labour of creating the eventual revolutionary party: the avowed revolutionary organisation with an advanced marxist programme and a monolithic adherence to it, or a broad and evolving anticapitalist party including revolutionaries, new political activits and left social democratts. Given that the revolutionary party, even for those who look only to the Bolsheviks, is something immeasurably beyond anything alive in the West right now. And given the failure of the post-Trotsky and even post-1968 models of the "revolutionary organisation", and the need, since the 80s or so, to rebuild, almost from the bottom up, class organisation and consciousness. Given too the need for POLITICAL embodyment, and the opportunity for radical political coalition with the most militant in the movements, presented by the relative collapse of organised stalinism and social democracy and by new waves of resistance to a new crisis.

The question of the independent organisation of revolutionaries and marxists is, I think, a lasting legacy of the 'first four congresses of the Comintern' tradition. Though such independent organisation can exist as a platform or fraction within a broad party. Some promoters of the broad party form argue that a seperate organisation for marxists is not necessary as the level of agreement, unified struggle and development possible in an evolving broad party does not require a seperate 'party within a party'.

cramming

I'm definitely not trying to "cram us into a 'revolutionary party'", which is why I do not call for the "unity of Marxists" as the CPGB does (see my letter here: http://www.cpgb.org.uk/letters.php?issue_id=910).

The thinking behind the new anti-capitalist initiative is much more reflective of the organizational side of my thinking (see: http://links.org.au/node/2825) although in the U.S. Occupy poses an additional challenge, one that the socialist left has yet to meet.

towards a future broad socialist party.

Every Socialist party, or grouping, must ask themselves what kind of socialist organisation can we be part of. Presuming that a LCD (lowest Common Denominator) can be reached, that LCD would become our new party platform. I would guess that opposition to US and Israeli agression; support for refugees, workers, women, gays, aboriginals, environment, public ownership of resources, free public education, public transport,are likely to be aspects to the new organisation would be a likely start. Over time, other policies will gradually develop. It is not necessary, however, for the party to be comprehensive on every issue - this would ensure a degree of flexiblity in regards to being broad enough to include a range of view points, and being able to adjust as new facts come to hand - such as the nature of groups that arise to oppose oppressive regimes.

Left Unity - but with what politics?

Ben P states "..there is a qualitatively different perspective between us and Social Democracy"....

I'm afraid that in our SA left unity project, this is less and less the case. This is because we have attempted unity with social democrats, anarchist-inspired, Green and green influenced sectors, left liberals and basically anyone who remotely agrees with anything slightly resembling left wing politics. It's fine to join such people to a left unity project, but from there they need to be won to Marxism - they can't be left with their politics as they are. If this is allowed to happen, the Marxism of the original inhabitants corrodes, and eventually even the concept of socialism is openly questioned. This has been our experience in SA in Australia.

There needs to be unity of socialists/Marxists/Leninists/Trotskyists and so on - there is no argument here. I think it was Mike MacNair of the CPGB who put it best. There needs to by a unity of Marxists - for a unity of the left to occur, there first needs to be an acceptance of the Marxist program, but not necessarily a word perfect agreement with it. Then we can advance our understanding of Marxism and how to go about applying the Marxist program - including the construction of the vanguard party, with all it's various sections.

The method with which we in SA have pursued left unity has proven to be positively fatal for the Marxist program. We have persued unity with left liberals, reformists, made overtures to the Greens, anarchists, libertarians and virtually anyone who is not ultra-conservative. We hoped this would lead to an increase in our numbers as a whole, so we can then intervene in the political struggle with increased influence. But this has lead to a more or less rapid deterioration of Marxist politics, and even socialism itself sometimes now has to play second fiddle to our quasi-alliance with the Greens party and the green movement.

Ironically, this has meant that we have in practice actively assisted the building of our main rival Socialist Alternative. SAlt feed off our exit via the stage door from the field of Marxism. Partially as a result of this, SAlt have become Australia's premier Marxist organisation, whether or not we agree with their interpretation of Marxism. Worse than this, SA is not able to directly compete with SAlt, as we in SA don't identify as Marxist, and we don't organise from a Marxist base, as we continually seek further "broadness". And the more broad we become, the less Marxist and less socialist we become. For example, we now fly green and purple flags, alongside the occasional red one.

Our pursuit of broadness now means we are extraordinarily close to the Australian Greens - again at the expense of Marxist and socialist politics. This is justified on the basis of appealing to the left of the Greens, but in practice it leads to inadequate explanations as to why the Greens often take right wing positions. Worse than this, some of us try to make out that the Greens are actually socialists, they are just doing it within the framework of the Greens currently. The abandonment of Marxism is almost complete.

I think the CPGB are right. There needs to be unity of those who accept the Marxist program, and are prepared to fight for it. We can work out our collective program as we go - as long as we all agree on a baseline of Marxism. A unity of Marxists with reformists, liberals, anarchists, Greens, libertarians and so on it not left unity at all, but a recipe for the disappearance of left unity, the destruction of former Marxist organisations, and the loss of Marxism and socialism itself. The stakes are high. We need to get it right.

Steps...

In Adelaide, Australia, there is a working project in left unity which has born a strong dynamic. See: Our Work in Left unity .

But this structured approach has not been replicated elsewhere around the country.

Similarly, in Melbourne, this proposition was aired a couple of years back -- Time to Get Serious About Left unity -- and think its limited recommendations are very concrete and do-able.

Whereas the practical steps in Adelaide have been registering on the ground similar progress is not so evident elsewhere.

In related mode, the SA's draft document Towards a Socialist Australia is being offered as an all in base line for t a nation-wide public discussion and consultation process to promote a wide exchange about socialism in the 21st century.

Nonetheless, the main handicap -- in deference to Paul Le Blanc -- is that groups must see a point to it -- some use value in 'left unity", and not a bunch of risks, sacrifices and disadvantages.

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