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Debating 'Leninism': a reply to Paul Le Blanc

Paul Le Blanc. Photo by Alex Bainbridge.

[More articles by or about Paul Le Blanc can be found HERE. Click HERE to see the entire discussion between Paul Le Blanc and Luke Cooper.]

By Luke Cooper

June 19, 2013 -- IS Network, submitted to Links International Journal of Social Renewal by Luke Cooper -- In Paul Le Blanc’s engrossing and well-argued speech at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, he engaged closely with ideas that we put across in Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics. Le Blanc attempted to resuscitate, or at the very least contextualise, remarks by Morris Stein (real name Morris Lewit) that we had taken to be indicative of the historic problem of Trotskyism: the claim of its scattered historical representatives to have a "monopoly in the sphere of politics".

Le Blanc agrees that such claims to know "the Revolutionary Truth" became, at best, highly idiosyncratic, and, at worst, deeply destructive, by the time of his entry into the US socialist movement in the late 1970s. However, he argues that if they are seen, as they should be, in their historical and political context, they were not as bad as they might at first appear. At the time of Stein’s speech in 1944, the US Socialist Workers Party[1] (SWP) had been through a political evolution of splits and mergers that, he argues, gave it credible claim to have hegemonised the revolutionary wing of the US workers’ movement. And Le Blanc also points to other aspects of Stein’s speech where he emphasised party democracy. To repeat for the sake of clarity, here are the remarks that we had, rather undiplomatically, critiqued in our recent book:

We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretence of being a working class revolutionary party. Our is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in the sphere of politics and we operate like monopolists.[2]

It is true that in the book we had virtually assumed that to simply quote Stein’s remarks was to "win the argument", as if no one on the left in the 21st century could seriously stand by such comments. Le Blanc usefully contextualises Stein’s argument by (a) pointing to how in other parts of Stein’s speech he had placed emphasis on collective discussion and decision making by the party as a whole, and (b) pointing out that due to a series of splits and mergers the US party of the time could make a credible claim to lead the workers’ vanguard in the US.

Even seen on its own terms – the need for historical and political context – Le Blanc’s argument is highly debatable. But it becomes more problematic when we consider the consequences of this "monopolist" conception of the party for a transition to a new mode of production. This is a question Le Blanc did not reflect on in his speech, but it cuts to the heart of the everyday critique of Leninism: what role did the Bolshevik conception of party and class play in the rise of Stalinism? Here, I want to consider each of these elements in turn, before moving on to reflect upon how revolutionary organisation should be conceived.

Historical context: were the claims of the US SWP credible?

Stein was the national secretary of the party, and his speech to the 1944 conference represented the organisational report. These views of their historical position and purpose were widely held in the US SWP. In Trotskyism in the USA, the volume that introduced us to the Stein quote (and of which Le Blanc was one of the three editors), Alan Wald also brings to light a very similar comment that was made by fellow leader James P. Cannon in 1946:

The revolutionary vanguard party, destined to lead this tumultuous revolutionary movement in the US, does not have to be created. It already exists, and its name is the Socialist Workers Party... The fundamental core of the professional leadership has been assembled... The task of the SWP consists simply in this: to remain true to its program and banner.[3]

This remark is interesting because in his speech Le Blanc warned against small groupings of revolutionaries declaring themselves to be "the vanguard". Instead he sees the vanguard in broader terms: as the militant section of the working-class movement that has not yet constituted itself as a revolutionary party but represents the raw material for such a party to be forged together in the future.

Le Blanc’s suggestion is that a party could legitimately make such claims if it was (a) at least close to having a mass character and (b) the product of some kind of process that meant no other organisation could reasonably claim to be the party.

It is difficult to see how, in 1944, the US SWP seriously fulfilled these criteria. Consider how, in the same year, the reformist American Labor Party (ALP) won some 496,000 votes in in the state of New York alone.[4] This gave it a credible claim to genuinely represent the working class of that state, and formed but one aspect of the country’s mass farmer-labour movement. By contrast the high point for the US SWP did not come at the close of the war, but at its foundation in 1938. As Frank Lovell notes:

The party never again had as many members as at the time of its founding. It subsequently fought many battles and won some important victories, but its ideological influence in the union movement and in the embattled radical movement never exceeded the 1938 high point.[5]

The party claimed 2000 members but split in 1940 as some 40% of the members broke with the party over its critical defence of the Soviet Union. Le Blanc notes this split but not its political basis. Interestingly, when he goes on to list the differences that he considers uncontainable in a single revolutionary organisation, he neglects to mention "the Russian question" that caused so many splits among the Trotskyist movement, and concretely led to this split in 1940.

The point, however, is that in 1944 the USA had a population of 138 million people and its Trotskyists were a minuscule minority of its labour movement.

Even if Le Blanc’s argument hinges not on their mass support but on the unity of the "Trotskyists as Trotskyists", so to speak, the position that Jame P. Cannon and Wald express nonetheless stands in direct contradiction to his other remarks in the speech. The US SWP was not the revolutionary party, if one means by that a party of the working-class vanguard in the broad sense of the term that Le Blanc prefers. In his speech, Le Blanc emphasised how small groups on the radical left should see themselves as nuclei of a revolutionary party rooted in the working class that has yet to be built. If one accepts this method as correct, then it surely has to open up a critique of how the US SWP understood its role.

Workers’ emancipation: were the claims of the US SWP desirable?

Far more important than these historical questions is the normative one: even if Stein’s remarks were credible, were they really desirable from a socialist perspective? On this I concur with Wald who insists categorically that:

The Trotskyist tradition has no hope of accomplishing more than the generation of small, sectarian groupuscules unless it breaks radically with the key features of this outlook [as put forward by Cannon and Stein].[6]

But the approach is not just a recipe for "sectarian groupuscules" – a key theme we take up in Beyond Capitalism? It also has democratic implications. Recall that Stein argued that "the working class, to make the revolution can do it through one party and one program". He added to this, in quite emphatic, terms that "this is the lesson of the Russian Revolution". This formulation is worth reflecting on and trying to unpack: is this really the lesson of the Russian Revolution? In 1917, the leadership of the Bolshevik party, including their commitment to the soviets, their recognition that the war and mass destitution was bringing extraordinary pressure to bear on the Provisional Government and ultimately doomed its rule, was crucial to making the October Revolution possible. But the Bolsheviks succeeded in bringing a plural working-class movement organised in the soviets behind them. As is well known, the Bolsheviks did not undertake the seizure of power in 1917 alone, but were supported by the Left Social Revolutionaries (SRs), and a majority of the delegates in the soviets. Indeed, the Bolsheviks’ claim to leadership was conditional on the legitimate authority bestowed by the soviets. Moreover, the Bolsheviks adopted the agrarian programme of the SRs as a concession to win unity. So much for ‘one program, one party, one revolution’!

It is Stein’s decision to directly locate his views of party building in the experience of October that makes his further remarks all the more troubling. His insistence that the US Socialist Workers Party "are monopolists in the field of politics", "we can’t stand any competition", "we can tolerate no rivals", are particularly disturbing in light of the post-1917 Russian experience. As I have discussed in a recent article it was similar assumptions that provided the justification for the gradual closing down of socialist democracy in favour of one-party rule by 1921. His conclusions that "we [the US SWP] are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretence of being a working class revolutionary party" are surely indefensible in this light.

It might be better to turn Stein’s remarks on their head in light of this history. Revolutions are in fact made by coalitions. The dangers a socialist revolution faces "from within" lies in how it centralises political and economic power into the hands of a single state. The 20th century showed that if democratic mechanisms do not exist able to remove a single party then despotism results. If these controls were strong enough then different parties within the system could seek to destroy one another "politically" and democracy would still survive. But, of course, in the last century no revolutionary state consolidated such mechanisms. As a result, the destruction of one party by another was taken literally to mean destruction. The result was one-party states.

A quite justified defence of Stein’s remarks at this stage would argue that this is precisely what he stood for: a genuine working-class democracy in the spirit of Trotsky’s program famously outlined in The Revolution Betrayed. The detour into the Russian events might therefore reasonably be seen as a non sequitur. Yet it is not quite as simple as all that. For the problem lies in the way in which the single-mindedness of the mission – and the opposition to organisational and political plurality – can feed into a deep desire to subordinate the movement to the party. Only the party can realise the mission. All other parties threaten the mission. All other parties must be "destroyed". Regardless of whether we are operating in a pre- or post-revolutionary environment this view of socialist politics surely needs to be critiqued.

Not only can it easily be drawn upon to justify a dictatorial relationship to the class, but it also involves the idealist illusion that a party could make sweeping claims to have discovered "the Revolutionary Truth" about a complex and diverse world. Rosa Luxemburg’s remarks are arguably pertinent here. Shortly before she died she was concerned with how one-party rule in the Soviet Union was being justified and urged a healthy scepticism towards the idea that a party could claim to have a monopoly in the sphere of politics. Luxemburg argued the merit of historical materialism lay in its rejection of idealist schemas and its scientific desire to experiment:

The tacit assumption underlying the [approach] is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is, unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – not the case. Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction... Thus we know more or less what we must eliminate at the outset in order to free the road for a socialist economy. But when it comes to the nature of the thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships, there is no key in any socialist party program or textbook. That is not a shortcoming but rather the very thing that makes scientific socialism superior to the utopian varieties.

Luxemburg’s discussion is focused on the task of "socialist state building" following a working-class revolution, but can they not equally be said to hold true in the revolutionary movement long prior to the seizure of power? This is perhaps of particular importance for small parties, like the US SWP was with its 2000 members, because to overcome isolation they have to generate a "thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small".

This introduces a contingency and relativity into how the political organisation relates to the working class. It suggests experimentation with tactics and forms of organisation, a healthy hostility to grand schemas, and patient work to put down long-term roots inside the working-class movement is required. It equally suggests that a degree of plurality is beneficial for how the revolutionary organisation formulates its ideas. If a discussion draws from a wide array of viewpoints then the conclusions may well be more appropriate to the tasks.

Plurality in revolutionary organisation

An important qualification at this late stage is to make clear that I am certainly not accusing Le Blanc of advancing a Stalinist conception of the relationship between party and class. Instead I am challenging his attempt to interpret the Stein comments along lines that would make it compatible with a plural and democratic conception of revolutionary organisation. A more radical critique of these remarks is, I believe, needed, without at all abandoning the entire tradition from which they came or failing to recognise the individual contribution of Stein.

Le Blanc’s defence of Stein hinges on the following rhetorical questions:

Should there be competing revolutionary socialist groups or is the merger of the different revolutionary groups preferable? On the other hand, can there be a merger of socialists who are revolutionary with socialists who are against revolution? Can there be a merger of socialists who insist on democracy with socialists who shrug it off? Can there be a merger of socialists who are anti-imperialist with socialists who are aligned with imperialism? Or is there a need for irreconcilable struggle of revolutionary socialists with those who are against democracy, those who are opposed to revolution, those who are aligned with imperialism?

Each of these remarks poses a question around how to define the limits of political plurality for retaining a revolutionary Marxist project. A united socialist organisation is preferable. Democracy is essential. So too is a revolutionary and anti-imperialist perspective. Politically challenging ("irreconcilable struggle") reformist ideas in the movement does indeed remain crucial for the Marxist left.

The problem, however, lies in how it would be difficult (but certainly not impossible) to find a revolutionary socialist tendency that pugnaciously asserted its opposition to democracy, to revolutionary change and its support for imperialism. Across a number of generations the left has become more and more political fragmented. Left-wing organisations have tended to become narrowly defined according to a particular distillation of the lessons of historical change.

It is a far from entirely negative process. They retain a memory of past struggles and train a new generation in these historical experiences. But the obvious danger lies in the potential for ideas to ossify. This is point that Le Blanc has made elsewhere, also in relation to the US SWP:

Another aspect of the internal culture of the SWP that may have contributed to… [its decay] is a certain narrowness in the way Marxism came to be engaged with. There was a tendency to be ingrown, to be dismissive of all Marxists whose Leninist-Trotskyist credentials were not clear and in order, and – with a self-assured arrogance – to be rigid and polemical in ways that Marxism was to be understood and applied.

It is difficult to look at the Stein remarks and not conclude that this rather dogmatic tendency was already present in the party in the 1940s. But regardless of this history we can all agree that critical thinking and heterodoxy needs to be encouraged to be encouraged in the development of a healthy revolutionary tendency. Modern politics are complex and changing: to understand this complexity and formulate effective tactics many viewpoints will be needed.

There is something especially interesting about the current process of political re-evaluation taking place on the revolutionary Marxist left internationally. Many of us are starting to question whether the differences that we once almost universally considered to be uncontainable within a revolutionary organisation might actually be more containable than we had previously thought. It all comes down to whether we can build organisations that are elastic enough to contain differences but still politically coherent enough to turn ideas into action.

To democracy, revolution, anti-imperialism we might add anti-racism, feminism and the critique of Stalinism, to name but a few core principles for the revolutionary left crucial to any healthy unity process. But do we need to have the same analysis of what the Soviet Union became? Can we have differences in our analysis of the modern working-class subject in the neoliberal age? And, if we debate our differences in terms of their practical conclusions, rather than their more abstract assumptions, can we even have differences over whether we think "Leninist" is an appropriate term to describe revolutionary organisations today?

Seen in these terms Le Blanc’s conclusion that "the socialist left" should not "rush into hothouse efforts to forge some premature organisational unity" seems unnecessarily cautious. Joint work together in practical struggles is indeed a condition of unity. And unless a culture of common work is encouraged then our debates will inevitably take on a rather "propagandistic" character. But the new possibility opening up lies in the creation of heterodox revolutionary tendencies. A coming together, that is, of different traditions in a plural form of organisation elastic enough to allow diverse strategies to co-exist in a dynamic tension. The task ahead of us is to turn these more abstract aspirations into concrete political and organisational prescriptions appropriate to the circumstances that we face.

The exciting aspect of the current moment therefore lies in the possibility that is opening up to put into practice some of the concerns, which underpinned Alan Wald’s critical piece on the history of US Trotskyism. It seems fitting then to conclude this brief rejoinder to Le Blanc with his concluding remarks summarised in the clarion call, "TROTSKYISM is dead. Long live Trotskyism”:

It must instead (of the ‘monopolist conception’) be recognized that no programme or group of cadres or organization exists as “the heir and continuator” of the revolutionary tradition; that the programmatic task is not to render it more precise and apply it “correctly” but to profoundly revamp it in friendly interaction with rival perspectives, aimed at developing method more than precise policy; that leadership (even if united and to some degree centralized) is not something that should fall into the hands of a single group but should grow organically from the struggle with various kinds of political activists participating side-by-side with (and with veterans learning from) the participants more than “leading” them; and that one should be an anti-monopolist in the field of politics, learning from and defending the rights of political rivals. However, to repudiate the strong elements of sectarianism, leader idolatry, hairsplitting, and so forth, which have afflicted and disabled U.S. Trotskyism, has nothing in common with the vulgar anti-Trotskyist views that the movement produced nothing of worth, that all forms of anti-Stalinism must lead to deradicalization or “objectively” aids reaction, that Trotskyism is simply Stalinism without power, and so forth. To sum up: TROTSKYISM!!! is dead. Long live trotskyism.”[7]

Notes

[1] Not to be confused with the British Socialist Workers Party, out of which the IS Network emerged during its crisis of 2012-13. The US Socialist Workers Party was the largest section of Trotsky’s Fourth International.

[2] G. Breitman, A. Wald and P. le Blanc, 1996, Trotskyism in the USA, Humanities Press: New Jersey, p. 280. Alan Wald’s article "Problems in History & Theory: The End of 'American Trotskyism'?" has also been published in three parts on the Solidarity website: http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/2853 (accessed June 17, 2013).

[3] James, P. Cannon, 1946, "Theses on the American Revolution", available on Socialist Viewpoint http://www.socialistviewpoint.org/nov_01/nov_01_22.html (accessed June 17, 2013).

[4] S. W. Stedman and M. S. Stedman Jr., 1950, Discontent at the Polls: A Study of Farmer and Labour Parties, 1827–1948, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 33.

[5] F. Lovell, "American Trotskyism: A Response", on Solidarity-us.org http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/2629 (accessed 13 June 2013).

[6] A. Wald, 1996, "Problems in History & Theory: The End of 'American Trotskyism'?", available on the Solidarity website http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/2853 (accessed June 13, 2013).

[7] ibid

Comments

Trotsky

Posted on behalf of Roy Ratcliffe

Trotsky is dead; Long live Trotsky-ism? I would also beg to differ. For a start modern Trotskyists are permeated with deep-rooted sectarianism and this cannot be entirely surprising given their namesake. For example in addressing the Workers Opposition Group in the Soviet Union in 1920 he declared:

They seem to have placed the workers right to elect their representatives above the party, as though the party did not have the right to defend its dictatorship even if that dictatorship were to clash for a time with the passing moods of the workers democracy....What is indispensable is the awareness, so to speak, of the revolutionary historical birthright of the party to maintain its dictatorship in spite of the temporary wavering in the spontaneous moods of the masses." (Trotsky. In T. Cliff. Trotsky. Volume 2 page 174.)

In 1924 at the 13th Congress of the Communist Party he claimed that;

"In the last analysis, the party is always right, because the party is the sole historical instrument that the working class possesses for the solution of its fundamental tasks....I know that no one can be right against the party." (Trotsky. Challenge of the Left Opposition. Pathfinder page 161.)  

This is not the place to dissect Trotsky's sweeping generalisations and gross abstractions (moods etc., or 'sole historical instruments, 'no one can be right' etc.) but to illustrate - in his own words - his elitist concept of party and class. In this and other passages he displayed his complete accord with Lenin and Stalin on questions of party dictatorship and denying working class control of economic activity. One further example.

"..we can have no way to socialism except by authoritative regulation of the economic forces and resources of the country...The labour state considers itself empowered to send every worker to the place where his work is necessary. And not one serious socialist will begin to deny to the labour state the right to lay its hands upon the worker who refuses to execute his labour duty." (Trotsky. 'Terrorism and Communism. page 153.)
 
'Authoritative regulation' and 'Laying hands upon workers' eventually became synonymous with Stalinism and forced labour camps, but on these particular issues Stalin was not departing from the authoritarian precepts of  Lenin or Trotsky.
 
For more detail on sectarianism see ‘Anti-capitalist sectarianism (parts 1, 2 and 3, at www.critical-mass.net . For that trio’s departure from the revolutionary-humanism of Karl Marx see ‘Marxist versus Marx and ‘The Revolutionary Party; Help or Hindrance. also at www.critical-mass.net

Regards,  Roy

 

VERY Brief Note on Trotsky and Lenin

Apologies to Roy Ratliffe for not seeing his message until three months after it was sent.

As a Trotskyist (and Leninist) I share his rejection of the two 1920s Trotsky quotes that he cites. But that is neither the beginning nor the end of the matter. I would argue that both quotes reflect the impact of immense pressures which seriously distorted the thought of both Lenin and Trotsky when they were at their most principled and cogent.

In my book Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience, and also in my introduction to Lenin's writings in Revolution, Democracy, Socialism -- among other places -- I deal with similar distortions to be found in Lenin in the same period. I argue there, and would continue to insist, that to reduce the body of his thought over 28 years to the darkest moments in a four-year period (and to reduce Trotsky's 40 years as a Marxist to the darkest moments in a five-year period) is highly problematical.

There is certainly more to be said on this, and neither Lenin nor Trotsky (nor Marx nor Luxemburg nor anyone else) can be above critical scrutiny and sometimes sharp criticism. But they have much, much more to offer than is indicated in Comrade Ratliffe's comments.

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