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Paul Le Blanc responds to Lars Lih: Bolshevism and party building – convergence and questions


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

By Paul Le Blanc

May 5, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Revolutionary upheavals are made possible by the coming together of a number of diverse factors, one of which is the organisation, accumulation of experience and proliferating influence of conscious revolutionaries.

“Did the Bolshevik Party become the leading party of the Russian proletariat, and hence the Russian nation, by chance?”, asked Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci in 1924. A brilliant and knowledgeable analyst, he answered his own question: “The selection process lasted thirty years; it was extremely arduous; it often assumed what appeared to be the strangest and most absurd forms.” He added that the process involved “struggles of factions and small groups; ... it meant splits and fusions ...” (Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926: 210).

Would-be revolutionaries of later years, sometimes hoping to make sense of their own “absurdities” and small-group struggles, have often looked for insights into the tangled history of this Bolshevik party that was led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Of course, when Gramsci referred to a selection process of thirty years, he was factoring in the experiences of the late 19th century before the Bolshevik party actually came into being. In a recent article, I have made the case -- supporting the assertion of many others – for 1912 being the year that Bolshevism crystallised as a distinct party.

The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) that emerged from the January 1912 “all-Russia” conference in Prague, under the auspices of Lenin and his co-thinkers, did not present itself as “the Bolshevik party” – but it provides important clues as to the party-building perspectives associated with the Bolshevik tradition. This is an important question historically, and it is also of interest to would-be revolutionaries of today. It is hardly surprising that a debate has erupted (gathered in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal) around this historical question as revolutionary struggle appears to have forced its way, once again, onto the global agenda.

Convergence

It seems to me that a useful and clarifying convergence has developed in the online debate on the development of the Leninist conception of the revolutionary party – at least between Lars Lih and myself – with some issues still tantalisingly left up in the air. Lars has just published the first of a promised three-part series on Lenin’s views on the party in 1912, 1917 and 1920 (in the May 3, 2012, issue of the Weekly Workerhttp://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004820). I want, first of all, to bask in what strikes me as the areas of agreement, then brood over some possible disagreement, and finally turn to the up-in-the-air issues.

It seems to me that there are three broad areas of agreement between Lars and myself.

1. For all practical purposes, an independent Bolshevik party emerged from the Prague RSDLP conference of January 1912 (a fact codified by the Vienna RSDLP conference of August 1912). At the time it was not projected, by Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers, as the creation of a Bolshevik party – but this is what it turned out to be.

2. This development did not represent some pre-conceived notion on Lenin’s part of creating any kind of “party of a new type” – for Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers it represented, instead, the healthy realisation of what they perceived to be the Social-Democratic organisational model.

3. For Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers, the organisational principles of democratic-centralism definitely allowed for, even assumed, the existence of tendencies and sometimes even more hardened factions within the same organisation, so long as majority decisions were respected by all – “freedom of discussion, unity in action”. (The term “democratic centralism” was first introduced and embraced by the Mensheviks in the RSDLP, but was also taken up and embraced even more consistently by the Leninist Bolsheviks.)

These three points are essential, it seems to me, for providing a coherent history of pre-1917 Bolshevism that does not ride roughshod over the known and documented facts. Our convergence around them constitutes a genuine forward movement in this discussion.

Critical questions

There are, however, certain critical questions raised by Lars that bring clouds into this sunny reality – but clouds are not always a bad thing. First, there is a methodological issue, but then something more substantive.

The methodological issue has to do with a certain kind of primary source material – memoirs or recollections. Here is a critical comment Lars makes about one aspect of my use of such sources:

He says he is relying on “primary sources”, by which he means material coming from direct participants in party life before the war. But he relies overwhelmingly on sources written after the event and particularly after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Using memoirs and other after-the-event sources is always tricky, but there are a number of reasons why they are particularly unreliable in the case of the Prague conference. By the 1920s, there were indeed two parties, leading to a tendency to retroject current views back to the earlier situation. Furthermore, and most importantly, by the 1920s the whole idea of having factions in the party was delegitimised.

First of all, I want to acknowledge what seems to me the partial validity of Lars’s point. Even setting aside the possibility of conscious distortion, the mind often plays tricks. Our memories of past thoughts or perceptions from “way back when” are sometimes coloured, or even seriously distorted, by what came after. Of course, what people say or write in the midst of the actual past events might also prove to be misleading – especially in a situation such as that existing in 1911 and 1912, when, as Lars so aptly puts it, “the internal party situation ... was insanely complicated”.

Sometimes, however, after-the-fact recollections have the advantage of helping us see the forest from the trees, making some retrospective sense of the welter of contemporary detail. It seems to me, in such a situation, that one must draw from a diverse set of recollections and also weigh the reliability of the various memoirists. (I think, for example, that Krupskaya’s Reminiscences of Lenin generally proves to be more reliable than Stormy Passage by the Bolshevik-turned-Menshevik Woytinsky on what Lenin thought and said.) If the same event is recalled and the same point made by several Bolshevik witnesses, several Menshevik witnesses, plus Trotsky, and if these can be harmonised with the documents of the time (including Lenin’s writings), then it seems to me one can conclude – to use the example of this particular case – that for all practical purposes a Bolshevik party came into existence in 1912. (One could add that if a scholar’s interpretation of what happened in 1912 happens to be totally at variance with how all or most participants later described it, that interpretation is, to put it mildly, problematical.)

Lars goes on to say: “Paul does not sufficiently allow for the possibility that the Bolshevik outlook in 1912 cannot be directly deduced from what turned out to be, ‘for all practical purposes’, the actual outcome.” I agree with the point that the Bolshevik outlook of 1912 is not necessarily consistent with the actual outcome – so I am happy that Lars would choose to focus attention on something that I have not sufficiently emphasised, especially when he adds: “In doing so, I will make heavy use of the Lenin material made available in Paul’s own excellent Lenin anthology Revolution, democracy, socialism (London 2008).”

What follows in Lars’s essay are a number of good and valid points. There is a problem, however, with what he says about Zinoviev’s 1920s account. Lars writes: “In his history of the party, written in the 1920s, Zinoviev makes what I consider to be misleading comments about Prague as ‘the moment of complete rupture with the Mensheviks’ (for example, he also says, quite incorrectly, that there were no Mensheviks present at the conference).” In fact (on pages 170-171 of the English language New Park edition) we find Zinoviev saying: “Present at the conference, incidentally, were two or three delegates who were supporters of Plekhanov and had arrived straight from party activity in Russia.”

These Mensheviks, of course, were not associated with the liquidator current headed by Potresov nor the Menshevik current conciliatory to the liquidators, headed by Martov and Dan – these were excluded from the Prague conference (as indicated in Lenin’s letter to G. L. Shklovsky of March 12, 1912, in Collected Works, vol. 35: 25-26), unlike the “party-Mensheviks” associated with Plekhanov. Lars is quite reasonable when he asserts: “Lenin really believed in the possibility of such a cross-factional bloc.”

But then an ambiguity creeps in: “Hostile observers at the time and later thought all that this talk of ‘party Menshevism’ was a ruse and an excuse to obtain an all-Bolshevik party. Underneath it all, they say, he equated liquidationism with Menshevism as such.”

It seems quite clear, from Lenin’s writings at the time (quoted extensively in my earlier contribution) that Lenin did equate liquidationism with the Menshevism represented by Martov and Dan – only the party-Mensheviks associated with Plekhanov were exonerated. One can argue that this was unfair to Martov and Dan, who did not subscribe to all the tenets of liquidationism, and were certainly more left wing than Potresov. But Lenin’s point, expressed in his August 1911 introduction to Kamenev’s pamphlet Two Parties, was that they tolerated and were in alliance with the liquidators, that they were politically “trailing behind” the liquidators, and consequently had no place in an RSDLP that rejected liquidationism.

After the Prague conference Lenin was even more emphatic. In March 1912, explaining matters to German comrades, he asserted that “the nucleus” of liquidationism was “made up of the majority of Menshevik writers (Potresov, Levitsky, Larin, Martov, Dan, Martynov, etc.)”, approvingly noting that Plekhanov “broke off relations with Martov and Axelrod”. In a communication to Camille Huysmans, secretary of the Second International, Lenin characterised Golos, the publication of Martov and Dan, as representing “the liquidationist press”. (See Lenin’s Collected Works, vol. 17: 225-228, 539-540, 548.)

What this adds up to is excluding the majority of the Mensheviks from the RSDLP (unless the bulk of the rank-and-file Mensheviks were prepared to renounce their own leaders and newspapers). Of course, if Martov, Dan and their followers would break from the liquidators in the way that Plekhanov and his party-Mensheviks had done, they would be more than welcome in the Prague-initiated RSDLP. From Lenin’s writings at the time, it seems clear that he had no expectation that such a thing would happen.

Tantalising issues

This brings us to tantalising issues that remain to be resolved – in part, I think, through more serious engagement with Russian-language sources that, for now, most of us English speakers don’t have access to. Here is how Lars frames it:

Paul Le Blanc ... does not seem to recognise any contradiction between his description of Lenin’s activities (setting up a “distinct Bolshevik entity”) and Lenin’s own description in the report to the Second International.

Whether or not the Bolsheviks actually did make a good-faith effort to organise a true “all-party conference” is a vexed question. In my own survey of documents from the period, I was impressed by the Bolsheviks’ consistent and energetic insistence that they were not organising a factional conference. Some non-Bolshevik opinion also partially supported their claim to represent at least the underground organisations of Russia proper.

I will add the strictly personal opinion I have expressed elsewhere: if indeed Lenin wanted to create a Bolshevik Party, he set about it in a way that was deceptive, disloyal, destructive and not to be imitated.

I think the reality of the “vexed question” with which Lars and the rest of us are wrestling is even more complex than he allows. I do not believe Lenin was “deceptive, disloyal, destructive”. At the same time, he was, (a) not at all naïve about the realities inside the RSDLP and, (b) absolutely committed to the triumph of revolutionary Marxist perspectives within the RSDLP and within the Second International. I will discuss each of these points in turn.

By 1912 it was clear to Lenin that the bulk of the Mensheviks (even Plekhanov himself), as well as Trotsky, had no intention of attending the Prague conference. It was no less clear that they would not adhere to the decisions of the Prague conference and would not become part of the version of the RSDLP emerging from that conference. Nor (except for Plekhanov and his party-Menshevik co-thinkers) was he inclined to make the newly reorganised RSDLP an entity to which they would feel they belonged. He showed no desire whatsoever to reverse course in order to gather together any of these comrades into the Prague version of the RSDLP. He had no inclination to attend the Vienna conference (which Trotsky had apparently hoped he would). Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers simply forged ahead as the RSDLP.

Lars tells us: “A split in a party can be justified on two very different grounds. One is: your views are unacceptable; you must go. The other is: only my views are acceptable, only my group can stay. The first view excludes a specific group. The second view excludes all except a specific group.” The fact is, as Lars insists, that Lenin and his co-thinkers viewed the Prague conference, which they organised and dominated, as representing a spilt of the first kind – a split with liquidationism. Their reorganised version of the RSDLP remained opened to all comrades of the earlier, now disorganised version of the RSDLP who would join them in splitting from liquidationism. They were honest and sincere about this, and were perhaps cautiously hopeful that a significant section of the Menshevik rank and file (perhaps even a leader here and there) would become part of their version of the RSDLP. But after 1912 they were not inclined to have high expectations that this would be so – Lenin least of all.

Then there is the other point to consider, one that – as push came to shove – may have separated Lenin from some of his co-thinkers. It is worth asking to what extent Lenin anticipated this in 1911 and 1912.

Lenin took revolutionary Marxism very seriously. He believed that the purpose of the RSDLP (and the purpose of all the parties of the Second International) was not to be a resting place or an affinity group for diverse congregations of those who considered socialism to be a nice idea. The purpose of the revolutionary party was, instead, to educate, agitate and organi ze a working-class majority around the perspectives of revolutionary Marxism and socialist revolution. The reformist perspectives of Eduard Bernstein, and the class-collaborationist orientation of Pavel Axelrod, could be tolerated in the party if and only if they were not allowed to dominate and disorganise the revolutionary work of the party.

The heroically revolutionary role of the working class, Lenin felt, was built into the social-economic realities of capitalism. This would enable intelligent revolutionary Marxists to win a majority in the workers’ movement – and if one-time reformists and class collaborationists, after finally losing the debate and the vote, chose to go along with the revolutionary will of the majority, all well and good. And if not – if they flouted the democratic decisions of the party (as the liquidators had done) – they would sooner or later have to be excluded from the party. Since revolutionary Marxism was, in fact, the program and perspective of the Second International and of the RSDLP, Lenin was optimistic and confident, but hardly passive. There was neither deception nor disloyalty nor destructiveness in his intentions, his theory, or his practice. He was determined to build a unified but also scrupulously democratic workers’ party, one which would (as Krupskaya put it) end up following “the Bolshevik line.”

Lenin was neither tactful nor “deceitful” about what he thought – he was “shouting it from the housetops” (to quote Deutscher), in public writings as well as correspondence.

Work to be done

Among the questions up in the air are: (1) how conscious was Lenin beforehand that few non-Bolsheviks would be likely to be part of the Prague RSDLP, (2) how conscious were other Leninist Bolsheviks of the same likelihood, (3) to what extent did Lenin and/or his co-thinkers hope or expect that significant numbers of their RSDLP factional opponents would eventually “come over” to a party following the Bolshevik line, (4) to what extent did Lenin perceive similar dynamics developing in the Second International, and (5) to what extent did any of this impact on how revolutionary-minded working-class activists on the ground, inside Russia, thought and functioned from 1912 through 1917.

I have already indicated my own hunch regarding question #1 – that Lenin believed the RSDLP emerging from the Prague conference would and should be an entity following the Bolshevik line, repellent to the great majority of Mensheviks influenced by Axelrod, Potresov, Martov, Dan (with party-Mensheviks around Plekhanov possibly being a partial exception). But there are certainly different interpretations of this issue that can be advanced and defended.

More research is required, it seems to me, on all of these questions. What they all added up to, it seems to me, is fruitfully suggested by interpretations to be found in the later recollections of participants (especially Krupskaya, Zinoviev and Trotsky, in my opinion) – but our understanding is certain to be enriched by the kind of research that Lars and other scholars with access to Russian-language sources will be able to produce.

How Marxist activists are able to make use of all this in the struggles of today and tomorrow is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.

Comments

The Weekly Worker article: A faction is not a party

Weekly Worker 912 Thursday May 03 2012
A faction is not a party
Did the Bolsheviks seek to create a 'party of a new type' in 1912? Lars T Lih looks at the historical record

In recent online debate, the question of Lenin’s thoughts on the relation between Bolshevism and the party as a whole has come up frequently. I would like to shed some light on this question by examining his views at three different points: 1912, 1917 and 1920. In this first instalment I look at material from 1912.

Lenin’s views on this topic in the years before World War I can be summed up succinctly: Bolshevism was a faction (fraktsiia), a part of a larger whole: namely, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). Bolshevism was a party within the party: just as the RSDLP stood for a specific platform within the society at large, Bolshevism stood for a specific set of tactical views within the larger Social Democratic whole. Like a political party vis-à-vis society, the Bolshevik faction had particular views about how to run the party: it propagated those views and tried to ensure that the central party institutions were inspired by them. But even if Bolshevism had control of the central committee, it did not become the party. One could still be a member of the party, but not a Bolshevik - in fact, this was seen as the normal situation. Fraktsiia ne est’ partiia: a faction is not a party.

But, one may ask, if these were the views of Lenin and other Bolsheviks, what about the Prague conference of January 1912, when the Bolsheviks attained a large majority on the central committee? Aren’t we assured by many writers today that this conference represented the creation of a new Bolshevik Party, where the former fraktsiia became the whole partiia? Nevertheless, if we look at sources from the period, one thing becomes overwhelmingly clear: Lenin and the Bolsheviks as a whole did not set out to create a Bolshevik Party, did not think they had created a Bolshevik Party, and denied strenuously that they had organised the conference for this purpose. Not only was this outcome not a goal: it hardly even made sense to them.

Recently Paul Le Blanc has written a long and instructive essay on the Prague conference which concludes that “for all practical purposes, the party that emerged from the Prague All-Russian RSDLP conference of 1912 was a Bolshevik party”.[1] The key words here are “for all practical purposes”. Paul points to a number of reasons for equating Bolshevism and the party: the new central committee was composed overwhelmingly of Bolsheviks; the Bolshevik effort to forge a coalition with “party Mensheviks” never amounted to much; the other factions did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the central institutions voted in by the Prague conference and they tried (not very successfully) to set up competing institutions; there is direct organisational continuity between the 1912 central committee and the Communist Party of 1918 that added ‘Bolshevik’ to its official name.

All this is true, but in no way clashes with my earlier statement about the outlook and aims of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1912. Paul’s argument to the contrary is partly a matter of sources. He says he is relying on “primary sources”, by which he means material coming from direct participants in party life before the war. But he relies overwhelmingly on sources written after the event and particularly after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Using memoirs and other after-the-event sources is always tricky, but there are a number of reasons why they are particularly unreliable in the case of the Prague conference. By the 1920s, there were indeed two parties, leading to a tendency to retroject current views back to the earlier situation. Furthermore, and most importantly, by the 1920s the whole idea of having factions in the party was delegitimised.

Another reason why later sources are unreliable is that the internal party situation in 1912 was insanely complicated. A historian friend of mine told me that he “couldn’t get his head ahead around 1912” - and that was my own attitude before I got so fascinated by the topic that I took a couple of months off simply to absorb the details necessary to read documents from the period. Many later sources spend only a sentence or a paragraph on inner-party conflicts in 1910-14 (the most useful memoirs are those that have the space to describe party life during this period in detail). We should be aware that any source that reduces the conflict to ‘Bolsheviks vs Mensheviks’ is radically over-simplifying. (I too will be forced to vastly simplify the situation in order to bring out the main point.)

Paul Le Blanc does use one source that comes directly from the pre-war period: Lenin’s own writings. I think that if you take all of Paul’s references directly to Lenin’s writings, a rather different picture emerges than the one set forth in his own main conclusions. For example, he accurately notes that in 1912 Lenin did not yet contest the legitimacy of having an opportunist wing in a social democratic party - which leaves us with the strange picture of Lenin creating a Bolshevik Party in which opportunism was allowed.

Nevertheless, I believe that Paul does not sufficiently allow for the possibility that the Bolshevik outlook in 1912 cannot be directly deduced from what turned out to be, “for all practical purposes”, the actual outcome. In my own essay, I will bring out some themes from the writings of Lenin and others that Paul has not brought out or not sufficiently emphasised. In doing so, I will make heavy use of the Lenin material made available in Paul’s own excellent Lenin anthology Revolution, democracy, socialism (London 2008).

One other point about sources before beginning. As mentioned above, the Soviet Communist Party radically delegitimised factions within the party. The regime was therefore embarrassed by the way Lenin and others talked about factions during this period. To lessen the embarrassment, at least in translation, they simply refused to translate fraktsiia as ‘faction’, but relied on euphemisms such as ‘group’ or ‘section’. I have found instances of this practice in translations from Lenin, Stalin and Krupskaya. In the discussion below, I have corrected these falsified translations.
Fraktsiia ne est’ partiia

One document touching on our theme is worth quoting at length, since Lenin sets out his views unambiguously on the difference between the party and a faction. The scene is a meeting of the Bolshevik faction in 1909. Lenin is arguing that a faction - defined as a group with “a specific tactical physiognomy” - can exclude members on criteria that would be improper for the party (the text is taken from Revolution, democracy, socialism pp202-03, retranslated when necessary):

In our party Bolshevism is represented by the Bolshevik faction. But a faction is not a party. A party can contain a whole gamut of opinions and shades of opinion, the extremes of which may be sharply contradictory. In the German party, side by side with the pronouncedly revolutionary wing of Kautsky, we see the ultra-revisionist wing of Bernstein. That is not the case with a faction. A faction in a party is a group of like-minded persons formed for the purpose primarily of influencing the party in a definite direction, for the purpose of securing acceptance for their principles in the party in the purest possible form. For this, real unanimity of opinion is necessary. The different standards we set for the unity of a party and the unity of a faction must be grasped by everyone who wants to know how the question of the internal discord in the Bolshevik faction really stands.

Lenin then advances his idea that ‘liquidationism’ and Menshevism should not be equated, since “a minority of Mensheviks” is also anti-liquidationist. He assures his Bolshevik audience that he is not going soft on Menshevism:

There is no question of sinking our tactical differences with the Mensheviks. We are fighting and shall continue to fight most strenuously against Menshevik deviations from the line of revolutionary social democracy. Needless to say, there is no question of the Bolshevik faction dissolving its identity in the party. The Bolsheviks have done a good deal toward making partyist positions dominant, but much remains to be done in the same direction. The Bolshevik faction as a definite ideological trend in the party must exist as before.

Lenin ends by praising the Bolsheviks for being the faction most dedicated to “preserving and consolidating” the party: that is, repelling challenges to its basic programme and institutions. Precisely because of this role, “in this hour of adversity it would be truly a crime on our part not to extend our hand to partyists in other factions who are coming out in defence of Marxism and partyism against liquidationism”.

Lenin could not be clearer: a faction is a different sort of entity than the party, with very distinct criteria for membership. The current danger to the party does not arise out of the tactical views that define the Menshevik faction. The fight against these tactical views must continue, but in a very different spirit than the fight against liquidationism. The Bolsheviks should seek to lead the party, but certainly not become the party.

If Lenin consciously set out in 1912 to create a Bolshevik Party, then he must have radically altered his views on these subjects between 1909 and 1912. Did he? In her memoirs, Nadezhda Krupskaya offers her opinion on this topic:

The experience of the Capri school had shown how often the factionalism of the workers was relative and idiosyncratic. The thing was to have a united party centre, around which all the social democratic worker masses could rally. The struggle in 1910 was a struggle waged for the very existence of the party, for exercising influence on the workers through the medium of the party. Vladimir Ilych never doubted that within the party the Bolsheviks would be in the majority, that in the end the party would follow the Bolshevik path, but this would have to be a party and not a faction. Ilych took the same line in 1911, when a party school was being organised near Paris to which Vperyod-ists and partyist-Mensheviks as well as Bolsheviks were admitted. The same line was pursued at the Prague party conference in 1912. Not a faction, but a party carrying out a Bolshevik line.

Paul Le Blanc gives some of the passage (in the misleading Soviet-era translation) and comments: “By ‘not a group’ Krupskaya seems to mean not simply a factional fragment, but rather the entire RSDLP.” Paul’s comment is correct as it stands, but it should not be taken to mean that Krupskaya wanted the Bolshevik faction to become “the entire RSDLP”. Just the opposite: she envisions the Bolsheviks fighting for their views, not by declaring themselves the party, but rather by convincing the majority of the party.

Consider the following sentence from the passage just quoted: “The struggle in 1910 was a struggle waged for the very existence of the party, for exercising influence on the workers through the medium of the party.” The struggle discussed here by Krupskaya was not over which views, Bolshevik or Menshevik, should be propagated by the party. That was a different, more normal, less existential struggle. Rather it was about a perceived threat to the very institutional existence of an underground party and its mission of propagating the basic social democratic programme shared by both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Just for this reason the Bolsheviks could appeal to right-minded Mensheviks to join them in their struggle.

When put alongside Lenin’s pronouncements from 1909, we find that Krupskaya is stating with extraordinary clarity that Lenin did not change his views between 1909 and 1912 and that he continued to see a fundamental difference in kind between a faction and the party.
Two parties

In the memoirs of the Georgian Menshevik, Gregory Uratadze, we find the following accurate description of party affairs in this period:

A fiercer struggle blazed up around ‘liquidationism’ than around Bolshevism and Menshevism. The party lexicon was enriched by new terms: ‘liquidator’, ‘anti-liquidator’, ‘partyist’ [someone who wanted to preserve the underground], ‘Leninist partyists’, ‘Bolshevik partyists’, ‘Menshevik partyists’, ‘liquidator undergrounders’, ‘Trotskyist-partyist’, ‘Trotskyist liquidators’, ‘Plekhanov liquidators’, and so on. And all this in one party![2]

The terms ‘liquidationism’ and ‘liquidator’ were important enough to generate corresponding terms for their opponents: partiinost and partiets, which can be translated as ‘partyism’ and ‘partyist’. The partyists claimed that they were defending the very existence of the party from attack. This is the reason why the liquidationist-partyist divide was so passionate and why, as Uratadze shows, it cut across the usual factional lines.

The Bolshevik attack on liquidationism can be summed up by saying that this tendency posed an existential threat to the party and that therefore other factional differences should not interfere with a coordinated fight against it. The case against liquidationism had two major headings:

(a) By repudiating the need for an illegal underground, the liquidators put into jeopardy the very existence of a social democratic party that preached socialism and anti-tsarist revolution - views that could not be expressed legally in Stolypin’s Russia (Stolypin was the prime minister in Russia during much of this period)

(b) The liquidators were also guilty of sabotaging efforts to revive central leadership bodies and they had done their best to prevent the resuscitation of the central committee or the calling of an all-party conference.

We do not need to pronounce a verdict on the justice of these accusations. The point is that the Bolsheviks claimed that, unlike normal factional struggles to control party policies, the liquidators posed a threat to the very existence of the party (in Krupskaya’s words) as a “medium” for “exercising influence over the workers”.

The case against liquidationism is set forth in the rather extensive (over 200 pages) Two parties, written by Lev Kamenev in 1911: that is, at the very time the Prague conference was being organised. As Kamenev relates, his book was written in close consultation with Lenin. It can therefore be called a manifesto in which the Bolsheviks explained what they were trying to accomplish with the Prague conference.

In 1924, when the book was republished (just when the anti-Trotsky polemics it contained would do most good, from Kamenev’s point of view), he wrote in the preface of the reprint: “The title of the whole work - Two parties - points to the fact that, despite the formal unity of the party, we looked on the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks not as two factions of one and the same party, but as two hostile parties fighting each other.”[3]

This is a good example of retrospective tidying-up. In the preface to the first edition of 1911, Kamenev wrote something rather different:

As firm proponents of the most merciless ideological struggle against groups and grouplets that are nourished by the counterrevolutionary atmosphere, we are also equally firm proponents of the unity under the banner of the party of all revolutionary Marxists - irrespective of faction and tendency and in spite of these or those differences on concrete questions of current politics … The RSDLP must apply its energy and all its strength toward helping and serving in a comprehensive way, irrespective of faction and tendency, all worker circles, groups and associations, legally or illegally working toward the resurrection and strengthening of proletarian organisation in Russia [my emphasis].[4]

The contrast is striking. In 1924, Kamenev says that he argued for regarding Mensheviks as a separate and hostile party. When we read what he actually wrote in 1911, we find he appeals to all social democrats “without distinction of faction” to join the fight against liquidationism. In fact, Kamenev insists that ever since 1909 the idea of reaching out to the partyist-Mensheviks has “determined the whole internal party course of the Bolsheviks”.[5]

Kamenev is saying as insistently as he can: you don’t have to be a Bolshevik to support our drive to exclude the liquidators. Our motive is not to impose specifically Bolshevik views on the party, but rather to save the party for all of us.

The slogan “two parties” was therefore not a call to create a new party - and certainly not to create a new party designed to propagate specifically Bolshevik views. In fact, this slogan represented an attempt to defend the old party against people who (Kamenev claimed) were trying to build a new party. Kamenev is saying to the liquidators: go ahead and create your new party - no doubt there are people who will support it - but don’t do it in a way that wrecks the RSDLP.

Perhaps the objection will be made that the “partyist Mensheviks” were actually a very small minority and that “for all practical purposes” the Bolshevik wager on a coalition with them failed. This objection is factually based (at least if we restrict ourselves to émigré politics), but nevertheless it does not challenge my description of what the Bolsheviks thought they were doing. They thought they were creating a cross-factional bloc against a specific existential threat to the very functioning of the party. In 1910, for example, Lenin says in a letter that he thinks that Menshevik workers in Russia itself were overwhelmingly partyist. In 1915, even after many disappointments with Plekhanov (the one party leader associated with Menshevik partyism), he still wrote that “the best Mensheviks” were revolted by liquidationism.

Lenin really believed in the possibility of such a cross-factional bloc. Hostile observers at the time and later thought all that this talk of ‘party Menshevism’ was a ruse and an excuse to obtain an all-Bolshevik party. Underneath it all, they say, he equated liquidationism with Menshevism as such. It seems to me that anyone who says that Lenin was consciously creating a Bolshevik Party is committed to a similar view about Lenin’s duplicity.
Party of a new type

A split in a party can be justified on two very different grounds. One is: your views are unacceptable; you must go. The other is: only my views are acceptable, only my group can stay. The first view excludes a specific group. The second view excludes all except a specific group.

Which type of justification was used at the Prague conference? Clearly, the first one. Besides all the arguments I have just reviewed, we can point to the resolutions of the conference, in which only a very specific group of writers grouped around a couple of newspapers were pronounced “outside of the party”.

This type of exclusion was not incompatible with the practice of ‘parties of an old type’, if by that we mean the social democratic parties of western Europe during the Second International. These parties had been set up to propagate a certain message, and they were willing to cast off groups that denied the essentials of this message - most famously, in the case of the anarchists in the 1890s. In his defence of the Prague conference, Lenin brought up this episode, along with other actions of discipline and exclusion undertaken by western social democratic parties.

Lenin further insisted that he was not trying to exclude the opportunists in general - in other words, he was not trying to purge the Menshevik faction as a whole. Any such description of what he was trying to do, he told European socialists, was a vile slander. He insisted that no European party would have tolerated the sabotage and indiscipline attributable to the liquidationists for a second. Like the song says: “If you’d have been there, if you’d have seen it, you would have done the same.”

There is a long-standing interpretation of what happened at the Prague conference: namely, that it inaugurated a ‘party of a new type’, one that contrasted strongly with the social democratic parties of the old type by a new emphasis on homogeneity. The logic of exclusion is now said to be the second type, according to which one faction becomes the entire party. The logic that Lenin earlier restricted to the faction - unanimity of outlook by “like-minded individuals” - was now (so it is claimed) extended to the party as a whole. From now on, only those who agreed with Bolshevism were welcome in the party.

This interpretation was enshrined in the famous Short course of party history created by Stalin’s government in the late 30s. Obviously, it was congenial to a regime that had delegitimised factions within the party. Unfortunately, it was also at odds with historical documents - so much so that the records of the Prague conference were not even published until the late 1980s. This same logic of a ‘party of a new type’ is also central to the interpretation of the work of Carter Elwood, the main academic investigator of the Prague conference.

In his Lenin anthology, Paul Le Blanc writes:

The RSDLP was hopelessly divided by factions of liquidator and non-liquidator Mensheviks, Leninist and anti-Leninist Bolsheviks, and others - including a faction against factionalism led by Trotsky! Lenin and those around him conclude that effective revolutionary work could not be accomplished by such an entity, and in 1912 they reorganised themselves as the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, distinctive from all other entities bearing that name … (p198).

Le Blanc explicitly rejects the ‘party of a new type’ interpretation. Nevertheless, his words might be read (incorrectly, I believe) as implying that Lenin regarded a multi-factional party as per se ineffective, so that he made sure that only one faction remained in his new “reorganised” party. Le Blanc fails to make clear enough that Lenin’s case was rather that party work was made ineffective, not by the profusion of factions, but by the doings of one particular group: namely, the liquidators.

Lenin recognised that there were many people in the party who were opposed to the liquidators, but who disagreed with the necessity of excluding them - or perhaps simply disagreed with his method of excluding them. These people had to make a choice, but Lenin was nevertheless perfectly happy to have them in the party and he cannot be said to have excluded them in any meaningful way.

In my opinion, the argument over whether or not the Bolshevik Party was created in 1912 is less important than strongly rejecting any ‘party of a new type’ interpretation and any assertion that Lenin was now applying the logic appropriate to factions to the party as a whole. The historical record overwhelmingly shows that, as of 1912, Lenin believed that “A fraction is not a party.”
Usurpation or continuity?

In a section of his anthology that he entitles ‘Final break with the Mensheviks’, Le Blanc gives us Lenin’s report to the western European socialists about the recent Prague conference. In this report, Lenin has this to say about the process of organising the conference: “In all, 20 organisations established close ties with the organising commission convening this conference: that is to say, practically all the organisations, both Menshevik and Bolshevik, active in Russia at the present time” (p204).

A funny way of organising a final break with the Mensheviks, one might think: making a good-faith effort to represent all Russian underground organisations regardless of faction. The paradox goes further, since Lenin insisted on continuity between the leadership institutions elected at Prague and the older party. He claimed that the central committee elected at Prague was the authoritative representative of that party and the faithful executor of earlier party decisions (especially party conferences in 1908 and 1910, in which Mensheviks participated and agreed to the relevant resolutions).

If the purpose of the Prague conference was to set up a Bolshevik Party, then Lenin was making a strikingly arrogant claim to possession of the mutual patrimony of both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. And indeed a common hostile label for him within the party was ‘usurper’. If his aim really was to set up a distinct Bolshevik entity, this label seems appropriate.

In Paul D’Amato’s contribution to the recent discussion, he acknowledges that the way Lenin described his activities to European socialists was duplicitous, if in fact Lenin was doing what D’Amato claims he was doing.[6] D’Amato evidently justifies this duplicity as all in a good cause. In any event, I think he has a better insight into the problem than Paul Le Blanc, who does not seem to recognise any contradiction between his description of Lenin’s activities (setting up a ‘distinct Bolshevik entity’) and Lenin’s own description in the report to the Second International.

Whether or not the Bolsheviks actually did make a good-faith effort to organise a true ‘all-party conference’ is a vexed question. In my own survey of documents from the period, I was impressed by the Bolsheviks’ consistent and energetic insistence that they were not organising a factional conference. Some non-Bolshevik opinion also partially supported their claim to represent at least the underground organisations of Russia proper.

I will add the strictly personal opinion I have expressed elsewhere: if indeed Lenin wanted to create a Bolshevik Party, he set about it in a way that was deceptive, disloyal, destructive and not to be imitated.
After Prague

Looking at social democratic activity between January 1912 (the date of the Prague conference) and 1914, I do not find much evidence that people were thinking in terms of two separate parties. Rather, people continued to think of the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks as two factions of a single party, factions with separate organisations and devoted (as they always had been) to destructive internecine warfare, but who still thought of themselves as parts of an ill-defined but meaningful whole. In other words, the post-1912 situation did not seem qualitatively new.

A couple of examples, just to show what I mean. A month or so after Prague, the newspaper set up by the conference, Pravda, published its first issue, which contained an editorial - written, as it happens, by Iosif Stalin - which made a bid for party unity irrespective of faction. In the fight between Pravda and its rival Luch over the choice of social democratic candidates for the upcoming legislative elections, both sides based their pitch on the idea of party unity. Pravda called for party discipline, and Luch called for a common front.

During 1912-14, Lenin often defended the legitimacy of the Pravdists (NB: not the Bolsheviks as such) by saying that they represented a large majority of social democratic workers in Russia. That is to say, despite the exclusion of certain ‘liquidator’ groups at the Prague conference, Lenin still automatically thought in terms of an opportunist minority among the workers as a legitimate part of social democracy, even though misguided.

In his history of the party, written in the 1920s, Zinoviev makes what I consider to be misleading comments about Prague as “the moment of complete rupture with the Mensheviks” (for example, he also says, quite incorrectly, that there were no Mensheviks present at the conference). It is therefore quite revealing that immediately after making the comment just quoted, he goes on to say: “the final break from the Mensheviks came not in 1912, but in 1917 … Up till that minute everyone thought that after the fall of tsarism social democracy would manage to unite itself and that the Bolsheviks would merge with the Mensheviks.”[7]

I have reported my impressions, but certainly this is a topic that could use more research.

To conclude: Paul Le Blanc makes a good case that after Prague, the RSDLP was “to all practical purposes” a Bolshevik Party. But this conclusion tells us nothing about how Lenin and the Bolsheviks viewed the relation between faction and party. The historical record is hardly ambiguous on this point: they believed (or acted as if they believed) that a faction and the party were different kinds of things - the Bolsheviks were a faction and not a party, and the Prague conference was in truth what it claimed to be: namely, an all-party conference. They rejected as a slander the idea that they were purging the party of opportunism. They did not think in terms of a ‘party of a new type’, but instead justified what they were doing by norms common to the Second International as a whole.

We are free to accept or reject these views, but not free, I think, to claim that the Bolsheviks did not hold them.
Notes

1. P Le Blanc, ‘The birth of the Bolshevik Party in 1912’: http://links.org.au/node/2832.

2. G Uratadze Reminiscences of a Georgian Social Democrat Stanford 1968, p218 (my translation).

3. L Kamenev Dve partii Paris 1911 (my translation).

4. L Kamenev Dve partii Leningrad 1924.

5. Ibid p103.

6. See P D’Amato, ‘The mangling of Tony Cliff’: http://links.org.au/node/2726; and my comment in ‘Falling out over a Cliff’ Weekly Worker February 16.

7. G Zinoviev History of the Bolshevik Party: a popular outline London 1973 (original Russian edition 1923), p12. The citation can also be found at www.marxists.org/archive/zinoviev/works/history/ch01.htm. Zinoviev’s discussion in his history lectures of different possible birth dates for the Bolshevik Party is highly relevant to the present discussion of 1912.

Way Too Obscure, Needs Deconstruction

This work is written in style and substance that only someone intimately familiar with this obscure dispute can understand and is of a piece with much of the internal discussion bulletins that were issued in the Socialist Workers Party: somewhwat mystifying. And yes, I actually have read Lih's work, his biographical monograph on Lenin at least which was quite accessible.

For one thing the term "liquidators", a phrase with demonological and Stalinist overtones that Healyites as birds of a feather with that milieu love to bandy about. But what did it mean. Consistent with Lih brief description in "Lenin" here's Wikipedia's take on this obscure political term of art:

"After the defeat of the Revolution of 1905, Potresov sympathised with the so-called 'Liquidators' who wanted to suspend illegal revolutionary work and concentrate on trade union work (legal since 1906) and elections to the Duma. This course was diametrically opposed by Lenin, but it also put him at odds with 'Party Mensheviks' like Martov. Nevertheless, Liquidationism was a strong current among Mensheviks, and Potresov, as editor of the Liquidationist journal Nacha Zariia (Our Charge), was one of its most prominent theoreticians. In addition to his journalism, Potresov wrote historical and sociological essays. He was one of the editors and contributors to the four-volume The Social Movement in Russia in the Early 20th Century (1909–14)."

Thus this liquidationism did not mean, per latter day sectarianism, dissolving the party on some basis by merging it into a larger milieu, but had to do with what the orientation and tactics of its work should be. More importantly, the real political issue, the real political significance of Potresov, that was at the heart of the split in socialism, both in Russia and world wide, that is often obscured in debates like this from those schooled in the SWP with its obsession on its petty organizational rules as the sine quo non of Bolshevism, was Petrosov's blatant social patriotism in support of Russia's involvement in World War I and his opposition to the Soviet Revolution. He became a reactionary outlier who went over wholly to the camp of counter-revolution, who many of his former Menshevik colleagues-even those like Kautsky-would have nothing to do with.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Potresov

Clarifications

I must apologize to Tom Cod for the fact that my article is a late entry in an extended debate, and that this contribution was written for a target audience of those who have been following the debate and are interested in the issues under discussion. That may account, in part, for some of his confusion.

In addition to that, however, the historical matters being discussed in this debate will certainly be obscure and mystifying for many -- and in some of my previous contributions I myself have pointed that out, apologizing for the fact and urging the uninterested to stop reading. Unfortunately, I neglected to repeat that in the article the comrade complains of. In earlier contributions (but not so much this one), I have also attempted to offer definitions and historical background to enable those interested to understand terms, contexts, etc.

I do want to agree with the comrade that for those interested in the history of Bolshevism a good place to start is Lars Lih's excellent short biography of Lenin. There are other useful sources mentioned in earlier contributions to the debate. One of my favorites is Nadezhda Krupskaya's extremely informative and detailed Reminiscences of Lenin.

By the way, I have never been a "Healyite" or a Stalinist and have never utilized the term "liquidator" in the manner alluded to by the comrade -- although roughly 20 years ago I myself was accused of being a liquidator (by certain comrades who were neither Healyites nor Stalinists). It should be clear from all of my contributions to the current debate that I am using the term to identify the current in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) favoring the restriction of activism exclusively to legal work, calling for the liquidation of the "illegal" organization.

It should be added -- Wikipedia to the contrary notwithstanding -- that those referred to as "party-Mensheviks" were those Mensheviks who, like Plekhanov, absolutely rejected the liquidators (Martov being someone who disagreed with the liquidators but opposed their exclusion from the RSDLP). This is explained and documented in earlier contributions to this current debate.

I also think the comrade is mistaken in suggesting that this debate is similar to the standard fare appearing in the internal discussion bulletins of the Socialist Workers Party (if that refers to the U.S. organization to which I belonged from 1973 to 1983). I don't recall reading in those discussion bulletins the kind of discussion that has been encouraged in the pages of Links.

Potresov and "Social-Patriotism"

In my previous reply, I neglected to respond to the final point raised by Tom Cod. He is wrong that "social-patriotism" was "the real political issue" in the debate about liquidationism in the Russian socialist movement. While it is true that Potresov, the most prominent theorist of liquidationism, became a "social-patriot" (that is, he supported the Russian war effort during World War I -- as did the leading "party-Menshevik," Plekhanov), the fact is that the First World War began in August 1914. The debate among Russian Marxists over liquidationism raged in the eight-year period preceding the eruption of the war.

Liquidationism

The question of the liquidationism and its meaning in the debates in Lenin's time has been taken up at http://links.org.au/node/863

freedom of criticism

"3. For Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers, the organisational principles of democratic-centralism definitely allowed for, even assumed, the existence of tendencies and sometimes even more hardened factions within the same organisation, so long as majority decisions were respected by all – “freedom of discussion, unity in action”. (The term “democratic centralism” was first introduced and embraced by the Mensheviks in the RSDLP, but was also taken up and embraced even more consistently by the Leninist Bolsheviks.)"

But not as an absolute. After all in April 1917 Lenin refused to accept the position of the CC to support the provisional government - even after he returned and lost the vote 13-2. Lenin then threatened to resign from the CC and to use his rights as an ordinary member to campaign against the CC's policy and for the seizure of power.
An act which would have seen him expelled from the SWP/SP/AWL/WP today (add your own).

good point and partial disagreement

I think Bill Jeffries is right about the "unity in action" element of democratic centralism not being an absolute. There are times when questions of principle loom so large that the risk of an organizational split (or expulsion) may prove to be the better way to go. We can find the same attitude being manifested in Lenin's behavior -- not all the time, rarely, but more than once.

In the specific incident to which Jeffries alludes, I think three additional points need to be made.

One is that this was an issue of principle, and (from the standpoint of revolution) a matter of life-and-death.

The second point is that the Central Committee (CC) is not the highest decision-making body in the revolutionary party -- the party congress or convention is, and so it is not a foregone conclusion that all of the groups aspiring to be democratic-centralist that the comrade lists would have expelled Lenin before a party membership convention had the opportunity to debate and decide the issue.

A third point is that the situation within the party and within the CC was not long-standing but incredibly fluid, and the position on what attitude to take toward the provisional government was reversed, after debate and experience, very quickly.

"For Lenin and his Bolshevik

"For Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers, the organisational principles of democratic-centralism definitely allowed for, even assumed, the existence of tendencies and sometimes even more hardened factions within the same organisation, so long as majority decisions were respected by all – 'freedom of discussion, unity in action'. (The term 'democratic centralism' was first introduced and embraced by the Mensheviks in the RSDLP, but was also taken up and embraced even more consistently by the Leninist Bolsheviks.)"

So it seems Lenin was in favor of multi-tendency organizing after all. Wonderful.

wonderful old news and practical challenges

Comrade Pham:

What you find to be "wonderful" is really old news.

The disagreement between us was never focused on the question of whether Lenin favored a revolutionary socialist party that allowed the right of tendencies and factions, or democratic debate over what Lenin called "nuances of difference" that always crop up around issues of revolutionary theory, strategy, and tactics. I have elaborated on that reality in various writings over the years (and Tony Cliff, for that matter, never denied it).

The points of controversy between us have focused on (a) whether there was a debate among the Bolsheviks in 1905 and what that debate was about, and (b) whether the Bolsheviks organized a separate party in 1912 and how that reality is to be understood.

There has also been a more immediate, practical question as to how the varied socialist groups of today should relate to each other -- either (a) by attempting to gather together in a unified socialist party, or (b) by attempting to work together (through united fronts) in building a mass movement and consciousness that could form the base for a larger and more durable party (within which various groups of today would unite as they helped to establish it).

I am concerned that various existing socialist organizations "joining together" as hardened factions in a common socialist party -- replicating the nine-year factional combat between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, except with half a dozen warring factions instead of two, and with a much narrower membership base -- would not result in the revolutionary party we need. I am hopeful that some variant of the pathway I propose will better prepare the way for the practical challenges faced by the workers and the oppressed.

Regards,
Paul Le Blanc

no need to worry

"I am concerned that various existing socialist organizations 'joining together' as hardened factions in a common socialist party -- replicating the nine-year factional combat between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, except with half a dozen warring factions instead of two, and with a much narrower membership base -- would not result in the revolutionary party we need. I am hopeful that some variant of the pathway I propose will better prepare the way for the practical challenges faced by the workers and the oppressed."

You needn't worry about this because these groups almost never work together in united fronts or have ongoing collaborative relationships that are the necessary precondition for even factional unity in the context of a common party. They remain content to stay in their separate corners while regroupment efforts in France, Greece, Britain, and Egypt are paying real dividends.

Pittsburgh -- Someplace Special?

In Pittsburgh the reality is different from how you describe it. There continues to be common work in the new phase of Occupy Pittsburgh, in the Anti-War Committee, in anti-racist efforts, in the defense of public transit, etc.

The Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce has pitched our fair city as "Someplace Special" -- but I suspect at least some left groups have been able to work together in some other places as well (I had a sense of that when I visited Occupy Boston late last year, for example), and I am optimistic about the future.

Let's see -- and do the best we can.

Warring factions of the far left

Dear Paul

I have been meaning to write about a five-year-long experience we had in the Socialist Alliance here in Australia between 2001 (when the Alliance was formed) and 2005. I know the challenge of uniting the left in the US must be dealt with concretely so all I am offering is a small experience from another country which may have some bearing on what you describe as:

"...practical question as to how the varied socialist groups of today should relate to each other -- either (a) by attempting to gather together in a unified socialist party, or (b) by attempting to work together (through united fronts) in building a mass movement and consciousness that could form the base for a larger and more durable party (within which various groups of today would unite as they helped to establish it)."

Between 2001 and 2005 seven left groups -- the Democratic Socialist Party (later renamed Perspective), the International Socialist Organisation, the Freedom Socialist Party, the Workers League, the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (Australian branch), Workers Power and Workers Liberty -- actually managed to work together in a common multi-tendency socialist organisation, develop a common electoral platform, common perpectives for work in the trade union, anti-war and other social movements or campaigns, participated in civil debate and discussion through a public and all-year round discussion bulletin, Alliance Voices, and more importantly made a bigger collective impact.

This bigger impact was not measured in significant votes in parliamentary elctions (except for some double-digit percentage results in a few local council elections) but thropugh attracted more members to the Socialist Alliance than the collective membership of all these groups. These new members, who in the main were not in any other existing left group (though some of these were former members of the Australian Labor Party, Communist Party of Australia, the Greens, etc), including some significant militant leaders in the trade union, Aboriginal and other movements.

Of course some of the internal discussions included attempts by some of the more dogmatic comrades to paint issues in terms of the classic divisions in the Russian social democratic movement, these were not typical and even where dogmatism reared its head, the debate was tempered by practical political arguments. The presence of the more authoritative trade union and other movement leaders was also a check on such excesses.

While most of the other organise left tendencies left the Socialist Alliance around 2005, I think they did so despite our collective experience demonstrating that we could work together in a multi-tendency socialist organisation and that this was in fact more effective than remaining divided.

Indeed it was this success that probably frightened comrades from various affiliate groups because they believed that the minor differences of interpretation of history between us, or tactical differences, where more fundamental reform-or-revolution divides.

I think this sort dogmatic belief is mistaken, and our collective experience in the Socialist Alliance demonstrated that. Perhaps one day, some comrades from the socialist groups that decided they could not could not work together with others in a common multi-tendency socialist organisation, may reassess this experience. Perhaps they won't. But in any case that experience will be built on by others.

interesting

Thanks for your tantalizing comment about this Socialist Alliance effort in the Australian experience. It is impossible for me to make a judgment on it -- obviously many questions could be raised, but more fruitfully by those having an intimate knowledge of Australian realities. I sincerely apologize for my ignorance.

I imagine that some common and united-front experiences must have been a prelude to the Socialist Alliance unification, and it would be interesting to know more about that.

I imagine also that the unification itself was not a merger in which the old groups fully passed out of existence to create a qualitatively new entity (a cohesive multi-tendency party), but rather -- as the name implies, and as your comments indicate -- an alliance that didn't hold together.

Is there an account giving more of a sense of what the Socialist Alliance achieved during the four-year period of unity? It would be interesting to have more of a feel as to why this did not hold together, and what it might have taken to facilitate such a thing becoming more cohesive and durable. And it would also be good to know what remains from the experience.

We need an objective historian or three!

There is a mountain of material from that period of Socialist Alliance's history (2001-2005): publications, statements, news reports, flyers, posters, letters, several volumes of Alliance Voices (all public and archived here: http://www.socialist-alliance.org/idbpage.php), reports in )Green Left Weekly, Links and the publications of smaller left groups that were previously affiliated. And in addition to this there are the many (and often heated) polemics in various internet lists including the Green Left discussion list and the Marxism List, and in the many volumes of the DSP's internal discussion lists (there was a three-year faction fight over the Socialist Alliance).

The articles about Socialist Alliance on Links can be accessed here: http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/41

Some people think the whole idea of a multi-tendency socialist party bringing together the warring factions of the left was mistaken because it would water down the "true" or most developed revolutionary program that each little group tended to believe it owned.

Others said it failed to keep in the various left groups because the DSP pushed too fast and too hard, whereas I would argue we pushed only as hard as was necessary to keep the project moving forward and as fast as the majority of members wanted - noting that the majority of members were not members of any other socialist group.

At its height I think the Socialist Alliance had around 1000 financial members. the total number of financial members of affiliates would have been less than 400. The DSP took about 270 members into the Socialist Alliance. Now with the pre-existing left groups which affilated out of the Socialist Alliance, there are about 700 financail members. These numbers explain why the Alliance keeps going and why the DSP merged into it in Jabuary 2010.

It remains "multi-tendency" and its membership includes liberation theologists (we have at least two radical priests and many more christian socialists), some comardes who would describe themselves as left social democrats and anarchists, Marxists, Trotskyists, ex-Maoists, ex-CPers, ex-Greens but a majority who just call themselves socialists.

Its political program is still in development and there is a public duscussion now being carried out around a draft document called Towards A Socialist Australia.

It would be nice if we had some reasonably objective historians to sum up the experience properly as most of us are two busy with ongoing activity! But this is probably a forlorn hope :). I would be willing to be critically interviewed or interrogated about it though. If you are willing to be brought out here to speak or participate in a conference you can do it then. Interested?

Thanks

Thanks for the additional information. I will check out the links you refer to and will look forward to reading the "reasonably objective" history of the future.

Speaking of history...

Dear Paul

A further thought on socialist groups and history, which connects to the debate in this thread about Lenin and the Bolsheviks, is that a precondition to any left group (or collection of individuals)making a serious attempt at left regroupment is a clear idea about what the new collectivity needs to agree on each stage of the process. You can get a taste of the centrality of this question in this article in Links which describes Australia's best-known Marxist historian, Humphrey McQueen, arguing in the Socialist Alliance's second national conference in 2003 for a voluntary, inclusive, "step-by-step" process of socialist regroupment.

"We have to acknowledge that we don't have all the answers. We still have to discover some of the questions", he said. However, McQueen added, we can "learn by doing".

That is how we proceeded, and still proceed in the Socialist Alliance.

We deliberately did not rush to adopting a common approach to all the historical debates in the left but at the same time did not bury history or these debates, creating forums to discuss them together.

So this is one more reason why I and other comrades who played central roles in this project haven't rushed to get out a collective history of that period. We know there are many takes on that period inside and outside and we are not keen to take the approach of too many in small socialist groups who are very quick to write an official history that casts themselves as having the correct line (whether it triupmphed or not) and their factional opponents as revisionists, liquidationists, etc.

History needs to be treated like science not like religion. There will always be different takes (as we see in this thread) and the space must be left for debate, the emergence and evaluation for new evidence, etc, and the tone and temper of the debate must allow people to change their minds about history.

I think this several-cornered debate on "Leninism" or "Bolshevism" you, Lih, Binh and others have having is very interesting. It proves that there is no single "Leninist" organisational "model" for building an effective revolutionary socialist party that is good for all times and situations. The real lesson, as Lenin warned in Ultraleftism is in understanding the complex and arduous process through which the legendary unity, discipline and political leadership of the party Lenin helped build. What happened exactly in 1912 is only part of the process of building that revolutionary party, a process that did not fionish there.

One big lesson for the left is to reject the attempts by some socialists to justify their undemocratic and sectarian practices, to falsely promote some timeless model of a Leninist party and to try to cheat the winning of real leadership with a pretentious appeal to theoretical/programmatic continuity, as I have argued in this polemical review here.

At the same time, I strongly stand for hanging on to some political project (even one with weaknesses we recognise). I am not for giving up or deferring party building until everything is sorted out, so to speak. It never is. A phone conversation I had with the late Peter Camejo (which recounted here in a response to Pham Binh) only strengthened that conviction (in the midst of a most horrible faction fight in the DSP).

That reference is a bit pointed because I want to express my opinion that the ISO is probably a party in the US that could consider taking a chance and initiating a serious left regroupment process.

Thoughts on Party-Building

Dear Peter,

Thanks for your interesting note. Your urging those of us in the U.S. to follow in the footsteps of some of you in Australia is obviously well-intended, though my present lack of familiarity with the actualities of the Australian situation makes it impossible for me assess the course you are following there. I will look forward to learning more in order to be better able to sort that out.

Naturally, it can often be a questionable proposition to superimpose something from a different context -- even something truly excellent -- onto the realities of one's own specific situation.

I believe that it would be a positive thing for a U.S. equivalent of Bolshevism to emerge -- a well-organized force of revolutionary socialists (working together and increasing their numbers) who can help to lead struggles in the here-and-now in a manner that can raise the revolutionary consciousness and commitments of more and more of the multi-faceted working class and oppressed layers of society. For me at the present, it seems clear that this will not come about simply by trying to get the currently-existing socialist groups into a single organizational framework. I think there needs to be more of a process than that.

Specifically, I think groups like the ISO (and others as well) need to focus on helping to build real struggles of working people and oppressed people to defend and advance our interests in the here-and-now -- for example, in Pittsburgh through the fight to save our public transit system from being butchered by horrendous cuts. Tomorrow (Friday June 8) there will be another mass demonstration around this, and some of us from Occupy Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers for Public Transit will be arrested. This will help set the stage, I hope, for an intensification of the struggle if the cuts are actually implemented -- and will help to impact on the consciousness of more and more people in the Pittsburgh area and also provide important experience for a number of activists.

A number of different forces on the Left are involved, and need to be involved, in such struggles as these -- through conscious united-fronts in some cases and through simply being in the same broad-groups and demonstrations and struggles. Those of us -- in different socialist groups but "comrades in struggle" -- can compare notes, share ideas, and sort some things out together. Such struggles have the dual function of helping to create a broader consciousness and base for socialism and also to create a practical working relationship among those who are already socialists. This is one of the preconditions, I think, for creating a larger and more unified socialist movement and -- eventually -- a common party of the future, made up of many of us who are not in a common socialist organization today.

At the same time, I think it is important that some of us work hard to do ongoing socialist educational work, and to both utilize and develop Marxist theory. This includes clarifying and understanding what happened in history -- such as the recent Lenin debate (and related to that the serious work that both Lars Lih and I have been doing to sort through what the Bolsheviks were actually thinking and saying and doing as they sought to accomplish what some of us would like to accomplish). But it includes much more than that -- getting out basic information and ideas, comparing notes (sometimes debating), and seeking to make Marxism and revolutionary socialism as rich a resource as possible for the growing layers of activists. I think Links is one of the entities making a contribution to that globally, and there are others -- especially (though not exclusively) the ISO in the United States.

If we do our work right, I believe there can be the rise of a mass socialist movement in the United States, and the crystallization of a strong organization of the revolutionary left. But the focus and energy now, it seems to me, needs to be on building practical struggles, carrying out socialist education, and developing theory (and working with each other, and talking with each other) -- all of this can help to create the basis for a more durable unity than would be possible right now if we all attempted to merge into a single group.

There is obviously more to be said -- but I need to conclude, and I will do that by taking issue with one of the points you make in your "polemical review" of Barry Sheppard's two-volume account of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. I bring it up because you yourself refer to it and obviously feel it is important -- as it certainly is. You say that "Barry has incorrectly rejected the SWP’s positive break from Trotskyism, and failed to see the importance of its later retreat from this positive outward motion to inwardness, idealism and programmatic fetishism – entrenched by systematic abstention from the actual class struggle." Actually, I think there was little positive in the manner that the SWP broke from Trotskyism, and Barry's renewed "Trotskyism" strikes me as a positive feature of his second volume -- but I see Trotsky's contributions as nothing to reject.

I think it is a mistake to identify "Trotskyism" with "inwardness, idealism and programmatic fetishism" -- which are qualities that one can find on various locations on the left, and not just the anti-Trotskyist SWP of Jack Barnes. The actual contributions of Trotsky (and of many in the Trotskyist movement who have been my teachers and mentors) are an integral part of revolutionary Marxism, no less than the contributions of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg and the best representatives of "Second International Marxism," Lenin, Gramsci and other brothers and sisters of the early Comintern, and more.

If there is a socialist revolution in the United States or Australia, I am confident it will not be made in the name of Trotsky (or Lenin or Luxemburg) -- but the ideas of Trotsky and Lenin and Luxemburg, it seems to me, will be among the intellectual resources utilized by those who make the revolution.

In any event, I appreciate your sharing of your thoughts, as well as information on the Socialist Alliance, and look forward to the continuation of such discussions among all of us who are engaged in the struggle for a future society of the free and the equal.

Regards,
Paul

In response to some points you raise

Hi Paul

Short responses to some points you have raised.

I agree the left in every country faces unique conditions and we should never impose models or templates for how to build a mass revolutionary party from other countries. If we can see what a mistake this is when socialists try to export "models" supposedly based on movements that have actually lead revolutions it is even more ridiculous to contemplate exporting a model from Australia! All I was suggesting was that left groups that have reached a certain stage of development should consider taking initiatives in left unity. How and with who, I would not even fathom a guess from afar!

The key thing here is the recognition that building a mass revolutionary party (an objective we share) is a process. It is not a case of a group of people combining a "correct" Marxist program and a "Leninist" party model. The real history of the Russian revolution and every revolution since shows that this is the case. So in countries like Australia and the US it is definitely the case that the organisational forms that socialists have assembled are but early steps in the road and because of the objective state of the class struggle we are beset with pressures to be sectarian in our outlook and in our practice.

I agree also that these sort of problems are not confined to the Trotskyist movement. I've shared many experiences with comrades who have spent their political lives as leading activists in the large Maoist currents in the Philippines and India and seen with my own eyes a bit of their legacy so I know this well. In my review of Barry's memoir I was referring to a process that took place withn the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in the 1980s of specifically criticising and trying to break from our own specific legacy of sectarianism which came from the Trotskyist movement. The criticisms I repeated were those formally adopted by the DSP in these documents.

The key issue here is the need for socialists to break from this sectarianism and the distorted readings of the history of the socialist movement that are used to justify it.

Some people on the left want to paint the Socialist Alliance experience in Australia as a big mistake just to justify their own pretensions for staying in their own little grouplet with the most correct program, etc. Our experience is that the different revolutionary socialist can work together not just in "united front" campaigns around this or that issue (though this strains the meaning of )united front tactic -- and in Australia the left groups that do get involved in movement or campaign work do work together quite well in anti-racism, anti-war, refugee rights, solidarity and other campaigns -- but they can also work together in a common multi-tendency socialist organisation. I know how possibe this was because I went through this experience on a day-to-day basis for five years in the Socialist Alliance between 2001 to 2005.

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