Britain: Socialist Workers Party members debate 'Leninism', party democracy (updated Feb. 3)

The first document below was produced by opposition members of British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) (authors listed at its conclusion, the best known include Richard Seymour, Neil Davidson and China Miéville). The SWP is the dominant party within the International Socialist Tendency, with affiliates around the world. The SWP is presently in the midst of a major dispute over inner-party democracy. The article is a reply to SWP leader Alex Callinicos' recent article, "Is Leninism finished?"

Following that are two articles by Tom Walker, a former Socialist Worker journalist who resigned from the SWP during the current dispute.

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[For more on the British SWP, click HERE. For more on revolutionary organisation, click HERE. for more discussion on Leninism, click HERE and HERE.]

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January 30, 2013 -- International Socialism blog -- Alex Callinicos’ article on the crisis in the SWP purports to be a defence of Leninism in the face of a 'flood of attacks' – by which Alex means the crisis that has engulfed the party [SWP] over the mishandled investigation of allegations of rape and sexual harassment against a Central Committee member.

The piece does nothing of the sort, but is rather an encapsulation of the flaws that have brought us to this pass. It is clearly intended as an opening salvo in the CC’s response to the growing opposition within the party. In particular it draws on the long tradition of dealing with dissent over particular issues by means of the absurd implication that that dissent is an attack on the heritage of the October revolution, accompanied by an airy dismissal of the actual facts. This maneouvre assumes the following equivalences: that "revolutionary party" means the model of democratic centralism adopted by the SWP in the 1970s; that this model replicates that of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the decisions of the current leadership therefore embody the legitimacy of that revolution, which we can expect to be replicated in the conditions of the UK in the 21st century.This is pure substitutionalism – and on its own measure of providing strong interventionist leadership, is a complete failure.

First of all, take note that this is the first public intervention by a CC member, with the exception of the re-posting of an internal Party Notes statement. Alex’s article is clearly similarly aimed at an internal audience: no one could use these arguments in their workplace to defend the SWP, for which the "strong interventionist" leadership is supposed to provide the means. If members doubt this, they might test it in practice. When asked about allegations of a rape cover up in the SWP, by a workmate or fellow student or union activist, give Alex Callinicos’s answer: euphemise about a "difficult disciplinary case" and then mention that Owen Jones is a Labour Party supporter. See if that works. See if the Party still has their respect next time it launches an initiative. Then consider that the CC, having brought about this situation by their decisions, expect you to do what they will not, which is defend it in public.

Of course, it may be possible that your activist or trade unionist comrade has simply been misled by the gossip and half-truths of the "dark side of the internet". Incidentally, this blimpish insult is a disgrace: it implies that comrades concerned about the treatment of an allegation of rape and sexual harassment within the SWP are equivalent to child pornographers and 401 scammers. Alex brushes aside the offline "real world" motions calling for an emergency conference passed (at the time of writing) at eight SWP branches, the motions critical of the CC passed at a further eight and the statements of opposition issued by 13 SWSS groups [Socialist Worker Student Society -- see statements from LSE SWSS, Birkbeck SWSS, Kings College SWSS, Leeds SWSS, Sussex SWSS, Brighton SWSS, Manchester SWSS, Queens SWSS, Portsmouth SWSS, Brunel SWSS, Kent SWSS, UEA SWSS, Liverpool SWSS, Essex SWSS, East London SWSS, FE SWSS]. But what are the internet lies and half-truths? Alex does not tell us, but instead attempts to introduce into circulation an evasive euphemism by referring only to a "disciplinary case'. Everyone knows this is an allegation of rape and sexual harassment. What are the "lies" circulating about it? Are they:

1) That a complaint was made in July 2010 against comrade Delta? Alex may rely on the bureaucratic claim that no formal complaint was made to the disputes commission (DC): this contradicts basic common sense as well as the introduction given by the DC member who opened the 2013 conference session, who referred to an ‘informal complaint’ in July 2010 and mentioned "how the complaint was handled in 2010".

2) That the nature of this complaint was obfuscated and the impression given that it was merely a case of unhappiness in a failed relationship? If so, why did the CC use conference time on a personal matter?

3) That the disputes commission into the complaint issued in September 2012 contained five close colleagues and associates of comrade Delta, and two members of the Central Committee on which he sat?

4) That one member of the DC found that it was likely that Comrade Delta had committed sexual harassment and that the rest found the case "not proven" not that Delta was exonerated as a "member in good standing'? The DC ruled "not guilty" on the charge of rape: they therefore distinguished between "not guilty" and "not proven". This implies that the CC believe that a member whom the DC consider may be a sexual harasser – to a degree significant enough not to be given the protection of a "not guilty" decision -- is still "in good standing".

5) That the complainant was denied the right to put her side of the case to conference in 2013?

6) That a second woman, having complained of sexual harassment by Delta, did not have confidence in the DC to deal with her complaint because of the way in which it had dealt with the first case?

7) That the women involved were asked questions about their drinking and relationship habits? They claim to have been: if Alex denies this, he is saying they are liars, not the internet.

Which of these are lies? If they are not lies, how on earth are comrades meant to defend these points to the class? Perhaps we are to rely on the notion that SWP members possess a "political morality" that ensures they adjudicate correctly whether their comrades have raped someone. Try that also – there is no way it would be accepted by anyone outside the SWP, and hopefully not by many within it. Would you accept that argument of any other organisation? It cannot withstand scrutiny from our own comrades in the (avowedly Leninist) sister organisations of the International Socialist Tendency, leading members of which are now participating in a boycott of SWP events and publications – let alone the wider layers of the class and its organisations which we formerly called "our periphery" but to which Alex now refers as "Owen Jones and his like"


What has this to do with the defence of Leninism? It is linked, although not in the way that Alex imagines: that because the conference voted for (by a handful of votes and not a majority of the delegates) the DC report, the matter is now closed. Alex simply makes a banal statement about majority votes being binding (as they are in trade unions, rugby clubs, parliament, corporate AGMs …) without specifying the actual debate that is currently going on. It is the current model of party organisation in the SWP that leads to the disconnection from reality behind the defence of Comrade Delta and the paralytic response to the crisis it has engendered. Alex suggests that this model bears the legitimacy of the October Revolution and that those who depart from it have abandoned the project of working-class revolution. Let us state clearly: this claim is false. The Bolshevik leadership of 1917 was elected individually. There was no ban on factions. On the eve of the October Revolution, Zinoviev and Kamenev publicly opposed the insurrection in Maxim Gorky’s newspaper (the "dark side" of the printing press, perhaps) and resigned from the Bolshevik Central Committee. They were not expelled from the party.

The model operated currently by the SWP is not that of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a version of the Zinovievite model adopted during the period of “Bolshevisation” in the mid-1920s and then honed by ever smaller and more marginal groups. When Alex implies that somehow we have developed a "distilled" version of Bolshevik democratic centralism he is not holding to the tradition of October: it is asking us to choose the model that has led to three of the most serious crises in the SWP’s history in quick succession over the model that actually did lead the October revolution.

Alex concedes in passing that there are different models of democratic centralism, but ends by effectively arguing that there is really only one: the model which currently exists in the SWP. But merely invoking the term “democratic centralism” does not tell you anything about which level of decision get made by which people, how frequently decisions are made or what mechanisms should exist for review, let alone how to elect a Central Committee or of whom it should consist. Two examples will show how our current model is weighted towards centralism at the expense of democracy.

The first is in relation to decision making. According to the theory, conference discusses and decides (democracy) and then comrades, including those who opposed the agreed position, carry out the decisions (centralism). Fine: but what does conference actually decide? It is presented with a series of general perspective documents which are usually so bland and platitudinous that it is virtually impossible to disagree with them: the economic crisis is not going to be resolved, times are hard but there are also opportunities, we must not be complacent over the threat of fascism, and so on. To agree with this kind of statement is not to make a decision over strategy or tactics, or anything specific enough for the CC to be held to account. The real decisions about actual policy – to establish united fronts, to join electoral coalitions – are almost always made by the CC itself between conferences, with conference asked to ratify them after the event.

The second is in relation to the composition of the CC. The CC self-selects: it has an agreed political perspective; when someone dies or resigns it chooses as replacements comrades who agree – or who are thought to agree – with that perspective; at no point is the chain ever broken by open political debate. And if the perspective is wrong? The problems extend to the membership of the CC. What are the requirements of a potential CC member? There are apparently two: that they should live in or around London and that – with a handful of exceptions – they are full-time employees of the party. So -- the comrades who are eligible for membership of the CC are those who until their selection have been paid to carry out the decisions of the previous CC and who, because they tend to have been students beforehand, rarely have any direct experience of the class struggle. How can a leadership this narrow be capable of forming an accurate perspective?

To deal with one diversionary objection: to complain about the composition of the CC is not to demand that "federalist" structure. We do not want a CC in which its members represent trade unionists, or community activists or students – but we do want a CC which embodies the actual experience of these groups. Some roles on the CC can only ever be carried out by full-timers, notably the editor of Socialist Worker and the national secretary, but the balance should always be towards those for whom the experience of the “real world” is inescapable.

After the catastrophes of the last five years a measure of humility would also be welcome. Alex is part of the "strong, interventionist" leadership that has presided over this disaster with no effective response, following on from a period of near permanent crisis that began with the failure of the Respect adventure – for which Alex surely also bears some collective responsibility, as a member of the CC at the time. When will this strong, interventionist leadership ever hold itself responsible for what happens on its watch? What do they think has gone wrong? If they can’t manage this, how will they cope in a revolution?

We agree with Alex that the SWP is the best hope for developing a revolutionary party in in Britain. It has at least two great historic achievements to its credit in the Anti-Nazi League and its successors, and the Stop the War Coalition – movements which actually helped to change aspects of British society for the better, particularly in relation to racism. They are among the reasons why many have remained members in spite of the obstacles which successive leaderships have thrown up to democracy in the party. But if the SWP is ever to achieve its full potential the current situation cannot be allowed to continue.

Alex reiterates that if the SWP did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. We agree – and that for the party to continue to exist, it is necessary to reinvent it. This is not alien to our tradition: perhaps it is best to leave the last word to one of its brightest lights, David Widgery in his review of the third volumeof Cliff’s biography of Lenin:

The blossoming-blighting process which Cliff documents froze over Leninism and only mass revolutionary working-class action is able to melt it from its icy limbo. Lenin is therefore trapped in his moment, surrounded by a thicket and awaiting political rescue: ‘An old communist conceives an embryo of longing’. One day, his Modern Prince will come. Until he is woken with the proletarian kiss, the problem is not that Leninism has failed, but that it has not been tried.

The time for Leninism to be tried is now long overdue.

Jamie Allinson
Neil Davidson
Gareth Dale
China Miéville
Richard Seymour
John Game
Alex Anievas
Gonzalo Pozo
Hannah Elsisi
Kris Stewart
Jamie Pitman
Ciara Squires
Keith Paterson
Nathan Akehurst
Toni Mayo
Linda Rodgers
Andy Lawson

The SWP: where did it all go wrong?

[Tom Walker is a former Socialist Worker journalist who resigned from the SWP during the current dispute.]

By Tom Walker

January 27, 2013 -- Rethinking the Left -- There are only two ways out of the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party: transformation or disintegration. Which one prevails will be decided by an internal struggle that now looks like it will be messy and protracted, as the opposition continues to grow and the central committee (CC) attempts to stifle it bureaucratically. Nevertheless, when the weekly membership bulletin Party Notes feels the need to insist that the party is not “facing annihilation or isolation”, you know it’s only a matter of time. Like the government minister who tells the press “I am not resigning”, the act of denial exposes the fear of the inevitable.

The immediate question posed is whether there can be a ‘revolution’ within the party: to begin with, the removal of the entire leadership, but then a thoroughgoing process of trying to fix the SWP and somehow make amends for the disastrous way it handled the rape allegation at the centre of this crisis. Paradoxically it seems my own public resignation from the party was part of a series of events that opened up more space for this possibility. I still think it will be extremely difficult to succeed, but it is clear that members are determined to try, and I stand with them in that (though I think they should be ready to leave if they do not succeed). On the flip side, if the leadership can keep control, it will mean more expulsions and resignations – and a husk of a party left behind, fading away, likely keeping a small hardcore but too politically toxic for anyone else to touch.

Either way, whether it’s inside or outside the SWP, the opposition is about to face the task of building the organisation anew. My thinking and reading has been very much influenced by their own writings, but I hope to add some more thoughts about where the party went so wrong, in a wider theoretical and historical context – and suggest how we might avoid making the same mistakes again.

The echo chamber

I’m not going to restate in detail my view that the SWP’s lack of democracy created the conditions where, despite the party’s politics on women’s liberation, sexism and abuse could not be effectively challenged. But events since have shown just how deep the rot goes.

The opposition has put forward a good analysis of the CC bureaucracy and its role as what Emma Rock calls “a conservative layer now firmly ingrained in the party and focused on preserving its position”. But how do we explain the fact that a relatively large section of the rank and file membership is either silent on this most awful of issues or determinedly supportive of the leadership?

The party’s inability to deal with its crisis – in fact the CC and loyalists’ denial that it is even happening – is a symptom of the huge disconnect that has opened up between the party and the wider world, and its incredibly insular culture as an organisation. Contrast the response of party members to the response of anyone else on the left who hears about this scandal. It is as if much of the SWP has come to exist on a different plane of reality. In other words, unfortunately, it is not just the leadership who are “totally divorced from the class”.

The CC-supporting members deny what’s in front of their noses. They post up Facebook statuses waffling on about how great their paper sale was, and how everyone was so angry about the Tories and the rest of it. They re-dedicate themselves to aggressively continuing exactly as before. There is no crisis. Loyalty trumps reality.

The party has some fine theories about ‘party and class’, but once it becomes unable to face up to reality, that relationship completely breaks down. Instead there is only a feedback loop of self-delusion. The leaders tell the members that everything is fine. Then the members that the leaders speak to – the ones who follow the twists and turns of the line, and as a consequence aren’t considered ‘conservative’, ‘slow to move’ and the various other epithets the CC like to throw at the rank and file – are asked how things are going. Being loyal line-followers, they feed back that, just as you said wise leader, everything is fine. Like a king taking advice from his courtiers, the leadership takes this not as toadying but as reinforcement, and doubles down on its tactics.

In this way the centralised leadership is not only cut off from the day to day rhythms of the workplace, but in fact from any way of genuinely assessing its tactics. Any report that things aren’t working is dismissed as ‘pessimism’, or worse, the development of the dreaded ‘political differences’. There is no reverse gear, only escalation. This echo chamber has operated since long before the current crisis, reinforcing incorrect perspectives long past the point of absurdity and causing a succession of crises as the leadership’s delusions smash at 100 miles per hour into the brick wall of reality. The long-term cadre are the self-selecting group who decided to stick with the CC through every previous time this happened. A crisis of this magnitude is too much for some, but for most it’s another day ‘defending the party’.

I can already hear the various long term ‘oppositionists’ saying they do not recognise this picture. We’re always disagreeing, they say, and we’re tolerated and even listened to. And yes, you may be tolerated – though not trusted – but that is as long as you stay within certain boundaries. The issue is whether you appear to pose a direct challenge to the authority of the CC. If you’re not a threat, then who cares, do what you like, have a debate, write a book, whatever. But if you start to look like a threat, the clampdown won’t be long in coming. This is not openly stated but nevertheless well understood.

It is also the root of the confusion over issues like whether ‘horizontal communication’ between branches is allowed under the party’s rules or not. Surely such a thing couldn’t be banned? Of course most of the time it’s fine – perhaps even encouraged. But just try communicating across branches to organise an opposition! Suddenly you feel the full weight of ‘the rules’ – not the kind that are written down anywhere, but ones that can nevertheless be deployed at a moment’s notice. A conversation on Facebook turns out to be a most dastardly exercise in ‘factionalising’, and you get the boot.

The question is, how was a culture like this allowed to develop? How far back does the problem go? What is the root of this isolation, reality-denial and anti-democracy – and how can we overcome it?

What is the IS tradition?

The first charge levelled at any opposition is that they are ‘outside the tradition’, either because they have consciously abandoned it or because they never understood it in the first place. But let us go back a little into the history of the International Socialism (IS) tradition, and examine exactly what is and isn’t part of it.

The SWP traces its roots back to the IS of the 1960s and '70s, and from there to the 1950s Socialist Review group. This then-tiny tendency, led by Tony Cliff and expelled from the Revolutionary Communist Party, was born out of the crisis of post-war Trotskyism. The failure of the second world war to end in revolution had seen the Trotskyists’ perspectives systematically falsified. They were attempting to deny this in various ways, and collapsing into placing their hopes in Stalinist regimes of one sort or another.

Against the orthodoxy of ‘official’ Trotskyism, Cliff’s group was deeply heterodox. Realising the mess it was in, its members devoted themselves to rethinking and debating. They developed new theory as they attempted to find a way out of the rut. The group’s key contention was that the Soviet Union was state capitalist, and therefore not any kind of ‘workers’ state’, a view that most importantly gave no quarter to those who argued Moscow and its satellite regimes were either socialist or could be pushed that way by internal ‘reformers’. It was also able to take a long hard look at the post-war economic boom and try to explain it, even as other groups were still refusing to admit it was happening.

These two paragraphs from then-member Jim Higgins’ More Years for the Locust, written in his characteristic style, give a feel for the spirit of the group:

In these days of harsh ‘Leninist’ orthodoxy, it is hard to recall the atmosphere at the cusp of the Socialist Review Group and the International Socialism Group. The regime was relaxed and activity was directed by persuasion and moral pressure rather than the threat of sanctions. ... Politics came up and were developed at meetings of editorial boards and at aggregates. It was also the case that changes in line would, as it were, spring fully fledged from Cliff’s left ear. This was less serious than it might seem because there was no insistence on a monolithic line before which the comrades must genuflect in a suitably humble fashion. If Cliff had an advantage, it was that his articles had a better than even chance of appearing once he had written them. On the other hand almost anyone else had a pretty good chance of saying the contrary and also of having it published.
It was this that was stimulating in the Group; it was open and open minded, there was virtually no need for an internal bulletin because there was nothing to be said, worth saying, that could not be said in the open press. Here was a Marxist organisation that seemed to have learned the lessons of the past. It did not require the mindless uniformity that characterises both Stalinism and graveyards, nor did it suffer from the delusions of grandeur that afflicted orthodox Trotskyism and Baron Munchausen. Unlike these two, it had noticed that the real world gave rise to problems for which received wisdom had no answer, and it attempted to provide a Marxist response to these difficulties. … For Cliff, at this time, the Group was a ‘post bolshevik’ formation, not one that was lurking in a telephone kiosk only waiting to spring out, resplendent in Leninist underpants worn bravely over the trousers. For the young who were coming into politics for the first time it gave intellectual coherence to their spirit of rebellion and its libertarian style gave some feel of what a new life might be like under socialism.

Higgins hardly papers over the flaws – but it is still clear to see that this was a model far in advance of what we have ended up with today. The group was hardly free from internal strife, but it was able to grow relatively quickly. Yet Cliff, who had seen the predictions of imminent revolution for what they were just two decades previously, was taken aback by the scale of the events of 1968. He attributed the failure of the French May to end in revolution to the lack of a disciplined revolutionary organisation. With Ian Birchall, he wrote, “The May-June events raised the two issues of the limitation of the effectiveness of spontaneity and the need for a revolutionary party in the sharpest and most urgent way… The May days in Paris showed clearly that, while a few hundred students or workers can build a barricade, to overthrow the capitalist regime and seize state power a much larger centralised organisation is necessary.”

The May events suggested to Cliff that the same situation would soon arise in Britain – he wrote, “We cannot gauge the timing, duration and sweep of the coming revolutionary crisis in British capitalism, but it is not far off.” The loose, undisciplined IS group looked to him ill-suited to the task of challenging for state power. Cliff began the long task of his ‘turn to Lenin’. He started work on his pioneering four-volume biography of the great Russian revolutionary – certainly thorough but very much written to ‘bend the stick’ towards discipline – and began to push for more Leninist discipline in the group. In doing so he provoked a bitter faction fight that ended with many of the IS’s most prominent members walking out. It was after their departure that, in 1977, Cliff declared the transformation of the IS into the Socialist Workers Party – a party designed for revolutionary possibilities that by then were receding. It emerged into an era of defeats, which Cliff later called the ‘downturn’.

Shorn of its more libertarian elements, the SWP had a newfound rigidity. It became unable to change course, and had difficulty relating even to a struggle on the scale of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. Then the defeat of that great strike turned the ‘downturn’ from a reverse to a rout. The party went further in locking itself down, to try to hold its members through the turmoil as large sections of the left gave up on the working class and started to look elsewhere. The SWP clung tight to the certainties of the 1970s, keeping the flame burning in anticipation of the day when it would all become true again.

The party was able to hold itself together through these ‘bunker years’ – but it came at a price. The outside world came to be seen as a risky place, full of renegades who were turning their back on socialism and capitulating to the market. Better the insular life of the party. The leadership were the repository of correct revolutionary perspectives. The class, and by extension the members, were not to be trusted. ‘Democracy’ is little more than a way of bringing the errors (or ‘unevenness’) of the outside world into the party, and so should be resisted.

By the turn of the century, when the leadership recognised the new political radicalisation of the anticapitalist movement and attempted to look outwards once more, the party was deeply scarred by its years of insularity. It came out of the bunker, but could not break with the bunker mentality. The result has been protracted crisis, from the break-up of Respect to the departure of a section of the leadership and then the awful handling of the recent rape allegation. All have their roots in behaviour by leading members of the party that those outside it see as nothing short of scandalous, but each time the problem was denied internally until the pressure finally became too much.

If we accept my diagnosis, the problem is: how does the party return to reality? How do members break long entrenched habits and attempt to ‘de-fossilise’ the organisation?

Going back to the IS would be a start, but insufficient on its own. Indeed a large part of the problem is that party courses on the ‘IS tradition’ present those heterodox theories of the 1950s as a codified dogma. We can’t just pick up where we left off. As ‘Roobin’ has argued, its three “pillars” of theory are still relevant in parts, but are nothing like as potent as they were back then. The IS was of its time – we do not live in the same world.

Nevertheless, the real IS tradition is surely to be found in the iconoclastic spirit of those years. To ‘defend’ this tradition means not parroting its writings but rethinking them – it means throwing out the old, stale formulas, and making a genuine attempt to engage with the world and how it has changed. It means a new wave of fundamental theoretical work. It means letting members speak, tell us what they truly think, and be heard. It means a cacophony of debate, where ideas are taken seriously instead of being dismissed, critiqued through the prism of dogma, or seen as a ‘distraction’ from struggle.

It means, most of all, admitting our mistakes.

A reckoning delayed

Speaking of admitting mistakes – if you didn’t read their statement on the SWP crisis too closely, you might think my line of argument has something in common with that of Counterfire, the ex-SWP splinter group set up by John Rees and Lindsey German in 2010. True, they also trace the roots of the problem to the leadership’s “failure to relate to the changing world as it actually is”. Unfortunately, however, admitting their own mistakes couldn’t be further from their minds. The main thrust of their statement’s argument is that Rees and German were right all along, and those who held them to account inside the organisation are to blame for the most recent crisis.

So, for example, they are still contemptuous of the mild reforms of the 2009 SWP Democracy Commission, which they opposed at the time. There’s also all the usual Counterfire stuff in there about how the working class is a bit rubbish and the anti-war movement is much better. But it’s this part of the statement that really gives the game away:

As the minority warned Alex Callinicos and Martin Smith in December 2007, an attack of this kind [on Rees and German] would, first, irreconcilably split the leadership; second, it would split the party; and, third, it would ‘unleash a factionalism into the bloodstream of the party that would prove impossible to remove’. That prediction proved depressingly prescient.
In this view, ‘factionalism’ is an unmitigated evil, caused by disgraceful slurs against the party’s rightful leadership, Rees and German. Better to keep it all hushed up and away from the members. The problem, it turns out, is not that there is too little democracy, debate and dissent in the organisation, but too much! The problem wasn’t the egocentric leaders who blew up the Respect crisis, but any attempt at holding them to account. They see their removal as a sort of glasnost moment, opening the way for a level of dissent far beyond what the leadership intended.

Trotsky mocked those who fear ‘factionalism’ in this way: “Just look, the lid of our apparatus has just scarcely been raised and already tendencies toward groupings of all sorts are manifesting themselves in the party. The lid must be jammed back on and the pot closed hermetically. It is this short sighted wisdom that pervades dozens of speeches and articles ‘against factionalism’.”

Then, woe upon woe, Counterfire says that “Demoralisation, in turn, has provoked demands for greater internal democracy.” If only you’d listened to us, they tell the SWP CC, we would have kept a lid on all this democracy nonsense! Who cares, you might say – but while the party may have broken with Rees, it never really broke with his methods.

Does that mean I’m for that great bogeyman of ‘permanent factions’? There is no doubt that such an arrangement can distort the internal life of an organisation. Yet the far greater danger is the ban on factions, because it gives the leadership the right to subject any member who disagrees to disciplinary measures if they so much as mention them. After all, comrade, why are you talking about your disagreements to others, if not to set up a faction? The same goes for any enforcement of temporary factions, which leads to the ‘you may never speak of this again’ pronouncements that came from the CC after conference. Trotsky again on the absurdity of this: “If factions are not wanted, there must not be any permanent groupings; if permanent groupings are not wanted, temporary groupings must be avoided; finally, in order that there be no temporary groupings, there must be no differences of opinion, for wherever there are two opinions, people inevitably group together.”

The unconditional right to set up factions as you see fit is the only defence against such tyranny. Yet at the same time factions remain a symptom of a culture where debate is suppressed. Members should not have to set up factions to get a hearing – instead anyone with an alternative view should feel not just allowed but encouraged to speak and write about it, whether they are in a minority of 200 or a minority of one.

To return to the party’s former leaders: Among an opposition devoted to democracy, the widespread contempt for Rees and German is understandable. (Some might even have contempt for Chris Nineham, if they remember his existence.) The memory of their anti-democratic attitude is all too fresh – the people who fought their attempts to cling to power are part of this fight too. The ex-leadership resemble nothing so much as one of those ‘national councils’ of former regime elements, waiting for their chance to swoop in and scoop up the unwary.

With those insults out of the way, though, we might acknowledge that ‘Rees-ism’ is somewhat double-edged. For all its many, many faults, it did represent an attempt to open up the SWP and engage once more with the outside world, beginning by understanding the significance of the 1999 ‘Battle in Seattle’. It was the driving force behind arguably the party’s most successful ever initiative, the drawing together of the Stop the War Coalition.

The problem was that, having turned to mass movements, the Rees-German leadership attempted to dominate them in the old way, turning themselves into the self-appointed ‘leaders of the movement’ and working out their own, very problematic, view of how ‘united fronts’ should work. Original ideas and initiatives were discouraged as far as possible, because the leaders of the movement had decided its correct priorities. A clique used to being in control could brook no challenges to its authority. John Rees’ post-split book Strategy and Tactics, with its endless military metaphors, raises control-freakery to the level of cod-philosophy. I wouldn’t recommend reading it, but I have always thought the cover image of a chess game tells you all you need to know. Rees is the player, and we – the party, the movement, the working class – are his pawns. He’s just having to make do with a smaller chess set these days.

In Respect their rotten manipulations caught up with them, as they were outwitted by an even more cynical political operator in the form of George Galloway and then, yes, scapegoated by the rest of the CC for a fiasco they all bore the blame for. But the CC could only get away with that because of how badly Rees and German had treated the rank and file over the years – the people they kicked on the way up, as the saying goes, kicked them twice as hard on the way down.

Unfortunately the remainder of the leadership decided that the way out of the Respect crisis was to ‘turn the clock back’, and retreat to the comfort zone of the 1980s. Back came the emphasis on building the party in splendid isolation, and the Tories won the 2010 election just in time to let us re-use all the old slogans as well.

Frozen in time

Gramsci observed that parties have a “tendency to become mummified and anachronistic”:

Parties come into existence, and constitute themselves as organisations, in order to influence the situation at moments which are historically vital for their class; but they are not always capable of adapting themselves to new tasks and to new epochs.
He noted that the parties of France at the time were “all mummified and anachronistic historico-political documents of the various phases of past French history, whose outdated terminology they continue to repeat”. He locates the problem in the party bureaucracy, but argues that what he calls a “crisis of authority” in the state would tend to expose such anachronisms and exacerbate the party’s inability to respond to the situation, leaving it “as though suspended in mid-air”.

If we look across the left in Britain 2013, in this period of capitalist crisis, it is not hard to spot the anachronisms, with each organisation stuck in what it considers its “heroic period”. For the SWP, as we have seen, this is roughly the early 1970s to the early 1980s, running from rank-and-fileism to the Anti Nazi League. For Counterfire it is the early 2000s, and most symbolically of all the great anti-war march of 15 February 2003. (This is not some defect of the IS tradition. Just look at the Socialist Party, formerly Militant, constantly reliving the period from the Liverpool council battle of 1984-5 to the anti poll tax campaign of 1990-1.)

Of course our history matters, and has much to teach us – but we cannot simply map all future struggles onto it, clinging to the models of the past instead of looking for the models of the future. The tragedy of ‘Donny Mayo’, by the way, is that he saw that being stuck ten years ago is in many ways better than being stuck thirty years ago, but went much too far in believing that the re-enactors of 2003 could be part of the answer to the problem we now face.

Any attempt at a stitching-together of the anachronistic groups, along the lines of the Socialist Alliance or more recently the Convention of the Left, will fail unless it can somehow achieve the near-impossible task of getting them to break with the multifarious dogmas they hold so dear. In fact what Gramsci points us towards is that as the crisis of capitalism continues and intensifies, so will the crisis of the existing left.

If we want to rebuild, we will have to look far beyond the existing groups, to their numerous ex-members but more significantly to the immeasurably bigger number who passionately want rid of capitalism but are currently repelled by our stale analysis and harsh organisational regimes. We cannot let ‘small left unity’ be a barrier to this ‘big left unity’.

If we are to reach out to these people, we need to think much more fundamentally about what kind of organisation we need – and how we can stop it turning into yet another sect.

Centralism and interventionism

One achievement of the SWP opposition has been to force the CC to argue its theory of organisation openly, exposing for all to see what rot it is. Against those gently suggesting that our practice should be more flexible, the CC argued:

our model of democratic centralism is the distillation of over forty years of experience in building the largest far-left organisation in Britain and one of the largest in the world.
Big fish, small pond. This distillation argument, as expounded several times by Alex Callinicos in the conference, is purest triple-filtered nonsense.

‘Democratic centralism’, as practiced in the SWP today, has gone far beyond even the strictest version of Lenin’s regime in conditions of illegality. There are obviously plenty of disagreements on the CC – it would be extraordinary if there weren’t – but this is denied in the name of a ‘united leadership’, a sort of mock-Bolshevik version of collective cabinet responsibility. Members are then not allowed to publicly disagree with the CC line – but not only that, as I elaborated in the section on factionalism, you are not allowed to privately disagree either, whether it’s on Facebook or in the pub. You can ask cadre whether they back the line, and they will say they cannot tell you or lie to your face. Hell, I’ve done it myself.

The ‘democratic’ forums of the party, such as the national committee, party councils and conferences, are subjected to ‘interventionism’ by the CC and their paid apparatus, to ram through the pre-agreed CC line. This is the real meaning of their ‘interventionist leadership’. In this way we do not even have “three months of democracy and nine months of centralism”, as a few have put it – we have twelve months of ultra-centralism and an elaborate exercise in rubber-stamping.

This is a recipe for one person who holds sway on the CC subjecting the party to their whims. As Trotsky wrote in 1904,

The organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.
Tony Cliff quoted this approvingly in 1960, and added, “The history of Bolshevism since 1917 seems to have completely vindicated Trotsky’s warning of 1904.”

But simply condemning the CC as ‘dictators’ doesn’t help us get to the root of this. We need to more seriously look for the theoretical problems that have led them up this alley.

Cast your mind back to the CC’s ‘reply to Paris and Ruth’ that opened the third internal bulletin before SWP conference [pdf]. It was made up in large part not only of slanders and misrepresentations of the two of them but also, somewhat out of nowhere, a lengthy attack on Rosa Luxemburg. The semi-anonymous voice of authority tells us:

Luxemburg conceived the revolutionary party primarily in terms of the propaganda of ideas rather than intervention into the class struggle.
What ahistorical rubbish. A leadership that can write this is not just politically bankrupt but actively attempting to distort the history of Marxism. It’s all the more extraordinary when the party’s own constitution explicitly says [pdf]: “We belong to and develop the revolutionary communist tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky.”

What could have motivated this crude attack? What are they scared of? It’s that, as they well know from their education in the IS tradition, the most damning critique of what they have become is to be found in what Luxemburg argued all those years ago.

Luxemburg, most importantly, had a very different conception of party and class to that of today’s SWP central committee. As Tony Cliff put it in his 1959 pamphlet on Luxemburg:

The party … should not invent tactics out of thin air, but put it as its first duty to learn from the experience of the mass movement and then generalise from it.
Or as Luxemburg herself wrote,
In general, the tactical policy of the Social Democracy [ie. revolutionaries] is not something that may be ‘invented’. It is the product of a series of great creative acts of the often spontaneous class struggle seeking its way forward.
She condemned the “blind subordination, in the smallest detail, of all party organs to the party centre which alone thinks, guides, and decides for all”.

Cliff goes on to elaborate her point, arguing that it was the workers of France who set up the Paris Commune, with Marx only later realising the significance of it, and it was Russian workers who spontaneously invented the soviet (workers’ council) during the 1905 uprising – that was a year in the future when Luxemburg was making the argument. At the time the soviet faced some hostility from the Bolsheviks, who again only later realised what it represented. These great theorists of history, in the great moments of history, got their ideas not from any party but from the class.

This cannot happen when we have erected what Rosa Luxemburg warned would be the result of “ultra-centralism”: an “air-tight partition” between party and class. For a would-be revolutionary party, such a partition cuts off our only supply of oxygen. Ultimately this adds up to taking seriously the idea that, in Marx’s phrase, “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.

Luxemburg was no spontaneist opponent of centralism – in fact she was a defender of her own conception of centralism against Lenin’s. But equally she understood the importance of apparently spontaneous action and what it can teach us, and believed no one had an organisational model that would be correct for all situations. Like all these debates, it was about looking for the best way of organising in the circumstances we find ourselves in. She wrote:

Centralism in the socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labour movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle.
Or more famously, “the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”

Luxemburg is, in my view, the best place to start in further reading if you want to understand the problems of the SWP and think about how a better left could organise. Start with her relatively short 1904 work, Organisational Questions, then from there – and especially if you think 1917 invalidated her earlier criticisms – read The Russian Revolution, written in 1918 and posing some hard questions about the Bolsheviks’ theory and practice. I’ll elaborate some more thoughts on Lenin’s legacy in a future essay.

Some questions

I want to finish for now by putting forward a few questions of my own.

There are some more immediate issues. I hope people by now see the slate system for the stitch-up it is – but the various proposals around it pose the question of precisely what kind of leadership a revolutionary organisation needs. A modified ‘central committee’ type structure, or something completely different? Whatever it looks like, I feel sure that it should be rooted in the workplaces and the movement instead of drawn from a free-floating full-time apparatus. How can we break down the unchallengability and hostility to new ideas that any leadership tends to develop over time? Would term limits help? Formal powers of recall?

How can we drive sexism out of our organisation, beyond the points I have already made about greater democracy giving us a better chance of rooting it out? I haven’t said much about this in this essay, mostly because I’m conscious that our methods have failed and I don’t have ready-made answers. I would suggest, though, that at the very least any socialist organisation should have a proper women’s caucus, alongside LGBT and black and Asian ones, both to organise our activity in the movement but also to allow internal problems around oppression to be aired properly rather than brushed aside, before they become crises. Further: can we learn from the feminist movement and the way it has attempted to construct ‘safe spaces’?

What has changed since the party’s period in the ‘bunker’? It’s been a long time. Clearly debates around oppression are one thing. What about the state of the working class? It doesn’t look quite like it did before. Someone went and invented the internet – what does that mean for us? One objection to more democracy has been that we ‘can’t have a vote on every decision’, but the internet surely allows for much wider democratic discussion, even in time-sensitive situations. Could we decide things in a more agile way, without subjecting ourselves to long journeys to hear long speeches telling us things we already know? While we’re at it, is devoting so much of our energy to paper sales the best use of our time when tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, will read what we have to say online? How can we best use our resources to harness the internet’s massive potential?

You might completely disagree with the direction of my thinking so far. Of course I want to hear critiques. But more importantly, wherever you stand, I think we all need to take a little time to think, discuss and debate.

You have to make a mental break with the CC’s idea that it should do your thinking for you, and your only role is action. Step one is making a little space, away from the frenetic pace of ‘interventions’ and building whatever you’re being told is this week’s ‘next big thing’ (it will get along fine without you). Step two is reading, thinking, and working out a thought-through position of your own, first getting out the anger at the CC over the current crisis but then going beyond it, and being adventurous in looking at which bits of the party’s overall theory and practice currently work, and which don’t. Step three is that you start to write and argue it out openly.

The CC may push a stifling orthodoxy, but the SWP is full of hidden heterodoxy, bubbling just below the surface. Here is a group of thousands of experienced socialist activists, and the monolithic face the CC attempts to present to the world is deceptive. People with a whole spectrum of different views have stayed in the party, sometimes for decades, because they’re convinced of the need for socialist organisation and the SWP looks like the best hope. They will have valuable things to say about the way forward that they are keeping to themselves as part of a misguided pretence at ‘unity’. Now is the time to hear them.

If you can speak out now, and encourage others to do the same, then whether the SWP can be transformed or is doomed to disintegration, we are on our way to a healthier left.

You can get in touch on If you've read this far, why not follow me on Twitter: @tomwalkr.

Lenin versus ‘Leninism’: for revolutionary experiments, not blueprints

By Tom Walker
“Socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created. It does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators.” Rosa Luxemburg

February 2, 2013 -- Rethinking the Left -- Leninism is, if we’re honest, never the most popular of political concepts at the best of times. Much of the wider left, from experience as much as anything, treats Leninist groups with at least suspicion and often hostility. So it’s not surprising that the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party – still ever-escalating, thanks to the leadership’s intransigence – has produced a new round of obituaries for Leninism, seeking once more to bury it.

Perhaps their most helpful assistant in jamming on the coffin lid is one Alex Callinicos, the leading light of the SWP central committee who has appointed himself the patrician defender of ‘Leninism’ against such rogues. His article ‘Is Leninism finished?’ spends most of its time laying into everyone else on the left, not least Owen Jones who we are told is, shock, in the Labour Party. There is not a moment of reflection on how things went so disastrously wrong in the SWP. Callinicos’ article does not contain the word ‘rape’, speaking only of a ‘difficult’ case. (Difficult for who? You, Alex?) It only uses the word ‘victim’ once – to refer to the SWP.

You could summarise it as ‘Leninism means never having to say you’re sorry’.

But Callinicos is playing into a fear many SWP members and sympathisers hold. He is trying, albeit badly, to appeal to those who think the leadership’s handling of this has been pretty awful all round but are desperate to see the party survive – he wants to scare them into silence by pointing to the wilderness we will all surely find ourselves in without his very particular conception of a ‘Leninist party’. Reformism! Movementism! Never mind that he is the one willing to tear the party apart in order to protect one man.

Let’s try to allay some fears. We can keep hold of the best of where we’ve been while we try to scrap the worst. To do so means looking in more detail at ‘Leninism’ as a concept and as a narrative that has been much used and abused over the decades. It means recognising that Leninism is continuously contested, constructed and re-constructed in ways that usually have little to do with the actual Lenin who lived, and thinking in contrast about what our approach should be.

Will the real Lenin please stand up?

The opposition has already done well in unpicking the various lies and distortions in Callinicos’ article, so I won’t repeat their collectively written work [and above]. (On one level Callinicos has rapidly moved from ‘big fish, small pond’, to ‘big fish, small barrel’ – though the opposition still display good aim.) But their statement also goes further than answering his immediate argument by labelling the SWP’s current practice ‘Zinovievism’.

Their starting point is that the organisational model of the SWP today, which Callinicos claims is based on “the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin's leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution”, in fact deviates from that of the Bolsheviks in all sorts of ways. As the opposition says:

[Callinicos’] manoeuvre assumes the following equivalences: that ‘revolutionary party’ means the model of democratic centralism adopted by the SWP in the 1970s; that this model replicates that of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the decisions of the current leadership therefore embody the legitimacy of that revolution, which we can expect to be replicated in the conditions of the UK in the 21st century…
The Bolshevik leadership of 1917 was elected individually [ie. not using the ‘slate system’ –TW]. There was no ban on factions. On the eve of the October Revolution, Zinoviev and Kamenev publicly opposed the insurrection in Maxim Gorky’s newspaper (the ‘dark side’ of the printing press, perhaps) and resigned from the Bolshevik Central Committee. They were not expelled from the Party.

The model operated currently by the SWP is not that of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a version of the Zinovievite model adopted during the period of ‘Bolshevisation’ in the mid-1920s and then honed by ever smaller and more marginal groups.

This statement shows how brilliantly the opposition’s analysis and discussion has developed over these weeks. They locate the historic break much further back than most criticism of the central committee so far, and gently suggest that the problems of democracy that have exploded now were unfortunately reintroduced into the IS tradition in the course of the ‘turn to Lenin’.

Other critiques of Callinicos’ article have come from various angles, from Paul LeBlanc to the different approach of Pham Binh), but all make a good case that the way the SWP works has very little to do with how the Bolsheviks were organised.

In particular, when it comes to one of the issues that gets central committee supporters most worked up – whether party members should be disagreeing with each other in public or not – the critics throw back the mountains of evidence that the Bolsheviks did so constantly, in the middle of life-and-death struggles. On the horror of ‘factionalism’, the loyalists’ other great bugbear, we should listen again to Trotsky for a moment:

The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions.

Callinicos and co will not engage on this terrain of historical fact because they know they’re not onto a winner. For all the bluster about ‘defending Leninism’, they are well-read enough to be very well aware that the internal party regime they are defending is so much stricter than the Bolsheviks – despite conditions of 21st century legality! – that it is not even a caricature. It is, instead, a set of anti-democratic practices that has developed over time to defend the party bureaucracy.

(While we’re at it, the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France haven’t declined because they allowed factions – an analysis the central committee is putting forward to serve its own purposes. There are all sorts of political reasons for its decline, but the biggest is that the Front de Gauche has eaten the NPA’s support for lunch.)

But if Callinicos’ ‘Leninism’ is little more than whatever serves his current purposes, surely our task in opposing him is to uncover the ‘real Leninism’ by closely examining the Bolsheviks’ actual historical practice and drawing our conclusions from that?

Lenin the libertarian?

If we’re going down that road then the group who recently broke from the 1974 IS split Workers Power to focus on the Anticapitalist Initiative have done some of the work for us already. Simon Hardy’s widely circulated recent article on the ‘forgotten legacies of Bolshevism’ is an account of the Bolsheviks’ history aimed squarely at the various cherished myths that most of the far left holds about Lenin’s theory and practice.

In these days of the hovering axe of explusions, we might note his contention that throughout the history of the Bolsheviks “despite there being some very serious arguments between members in public, and breaches of agreed positions, very few people were actually expelled”. As well as the example of Zinoviev and Kamenev publicly opposing the insurrection (as referred to in the opposition statement above), there’s also the leaders who broke discipline and caused the ‘July Days’ not being expelled, and five CC members who went public with their opposition to a decision to suppress bourgeois newspapers also not being expelled. Hardy writes:

What do these three examples, all from the most important year of the revolutionary struggle in Russia, show us? It shows that, whilst the Bolsheviks strived for unity in practice on agreed political lines, there were many occasions when this was not achieved and people ‘broke discipline’, but no one was expelled for it.
All this should surely be a standing rebuke to any explusion-happy central committee. And yet:
Compare this to most Leninist-Trotskyist groups today where the CC is usually the main instigator of purges (what Lenin called an ‘extreme measure’ in post-revolutionary Russia has become normal practice for Leninist-Trotskyist groups in liberal democratic countries).

Such contributions are certainly helpful when it comes to showing up the leaderships of all the various far left groups, and in starting to make the case against the left’s sectarianism and in favour of a more pluralistic approach. It is worth reading in full and discussing further.

Hardy’s argument in part draws on the efforts of Lars T. Lih, whose weighty tome Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context represents a comprehensive effort to reassess Lenin on a historical basis. It makes a strong case that is still being debated across the international left.

But while Lih’s work is an achievement that I would never want to do down, it does encourage a somewhat scriptural approach to Lenin. It’s like we’ve got the ‘King James Version’ of Lenin, and now the task is to retranslate it and explain that Lenin didn’t really mean what the left since has generally thought he meant. While we obviously care a lot about what Lenin really said, did and thought, such debates risk reinforcing the view that there is a ‘true Leninist blueprint’ to be uncovered, if only we could figure it out.

Lenin the disciplinarian?

Before we move on, one big limitation of such an approach is that, however many sources you pore over to build your case that Lenin was keener on democracy than generally thought (and he was), there’ll always be someone waiting round the corner with a quote like this:

the experience of the victorious dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia has clearly shown even to those who are incapable of thinking or have had no occasion to give thought to the matter that absolute centralisation and rigorous discipline of the proletariat are an essential condition of victory over the bourgeoisie.
or this (about the Zinoviev/Kamenev incident):
I shall, at whatever cost, brand the blackleg Zinoviev as a blackleg. My answer to the threat of a split is to declare war to a finish, war for the expulsion of both blacklegs from the Party.
or even this:
Dictatorship, however, presupposes a revolutionary government that is really firm and ruthless in crushing both exploiters and hooligans, and our government is too mild. Obedience, and unquestioning obedience at that, during work to the one-man decisions of Soviet directors, of the dictators elected or appointed by Soviet institutions, vested with dictatorial powers (as is demanded, for example, by the railway decree), is far, very far from being guaranteed as yet. This is the effect of the influence of petty-bourgeois anarchy, the anarchy of small-proprietor habits, aspirations and sentiments, which fundamentally contradict proletarian discipline and socialism.
And yet, and yet. Lenin also said this:
Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free … not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings… The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action.
and this:
No democracy or centralism would ever tolerate a Central Committee elected at a Congress having the right to expel its members.
and this:
The whole organisation is built from below upwards, on an elective basis. The Party Rules declare that the local organisations are independent (autonomous) in their local activities... Since the organisation is built from below upwards, interference in its composition from above would be a flagrant breach of democracy and of the Party Rules.
The reality is that Lenin held all sorts of positions during his life, depending on the circumstances. He deliberately exaggerated depending on what he thought was the priority at that time, and argued tactically to try to win the argument of the day. He wrote an incredible amount of material, and we have verbatim accounts of a very large number of his speeches. This means the raw material is there to build almost any Lenin or ‘Leninism’ you want. I could have just supplied you with a grab-bag of quotes that support my own case and sent you on your way. But is that useful?

As Jim Higgins wrote:
Such is the frequency with which some of the Lenin quotes are used that I would like to make a modest proposal that would save ink and paper – a vital consideration in these ecologically sensitive times. In the logging camps of North America the lumberjacks were isolated for months on end and before long they had heard one another’s jokes so often that they gave each one a number. Thus, just by calling out the number – so long as you avoided number 37, which was too disgusting even for lumberjacks – you could get the laugh even though you had forgotten the punch line. By the same token, why not give these Lenin quotations special codes? Using a modified Dewey system we could arrive at LC17/430/2/1-5, which would indicate a reference to Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol 17, page 430, paragraph two, lines one to five. As it happens this is a very boring denunciation of the fake liberalism of the Cadet party in 1905, but it might have been an absolute cruncher like LC56/54/1/4-10. To which the only reply, and that a purely defensive one while you regroup, is LC24/623/1/1-4.

Frequently our exchanges of quotes really are that ritualistic. Let us draw an end to that long war of quotation.

Lenin the myth

To put it simply, Lenin was not always right, whatever Stalinist mythologising may say. No one can be. And when he was right, he was right in specific historical circumstances, not right for all time. As in any life, he contradicted himself frequently, and attempting to deny that will lead to spectacular contortions. Most of the ‘Leninist’ left agrees on this in its better moments, even as it ignores it in practice.

The many problems we have ended up with today, however, are not just down to misinterpretation and misuse of Lenin. Much of it goes back to when Lenin and the Bolsheviks, after they had been forced into all sorts of changes to their previous practice by the circumstances in which they found themselves after October 1917, attempted to ‘distil’ their experiences into a ready-made model for adoption for Communist Parties across the world.

Rosa Luxemburg in 1918:

It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances [ie. the war] they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions. The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics… they render a poor service to international socialism for the sake of which they have fought and suffered; for they want to place in its storehouse as new discoveries all the distortions prescribed in Russia by necessity and compulsion.
Nearly a century on, it’s worse than she thought. As Luxemburg points out, there was already some distortion very soon after the revolution. By the time we get to ‘Zinovievism’, it has been distorted again – and that is where we ended up with a large part of ‘democratic centralism’ as we know it. But that’s not the end of the story. Instead of thoroughly challenging this model, Trotskyists have tended to see it as ‘pre-Stalinist’ and therefore fine to adopt, with a few modifications, without accounting for how far the degeneration of the revolution had gone by the early 1920s. In 1921 Lenin was repeatedly referring to “the evils of bureaucracy” (at the same congress that infamously banned factions). As Trotsky later wrote:
The very center of Lenin’s attention and that of his colleagues was occupied by a continual concern to protect the Bolshevik ranks from the vices of those in power. However, the extraordinary closeness and at times actual merging of the party with the state apparatus had already in those first years done indubitable harm to the freedom and elasticity of the party regime. Democracy had been narrowed in proportion as difficulties increased.

When the SWP re-adopted a version of the 1920s model in the 1970s, Cliff would also have come to it through the prism of his own experiences in post-war Trotskyism. And, of course, that model has also been distorted many times before and since. How could it not be when you see what the Trotskyist left has been through during that time?

John Molyneux, who has sadly now turned himself into a staunch defender of the SWP leadership, wrote in 1978:

Naturally the Leninist theory of the party, for so long defended by Trotsky, has not remained unscathed by this degeneration of Trotskyism. While all Trotskyist sects adhere to the letter of this theory, its ‘spirit’ has undergone two kinds of revision. The first could be characterised as extreme dogmatic sectarianism. In this variant the organisation, no matter how manifest its smallness and insignificance, proclaims and demands its right to the leadership of the working class. It defines itself as the revolutionary party not on the basis of its role in the class struggle but on the basis of its possession of the ‘correct theory’ and the ‘correct line’. Essentially the party is seen as separate, not only from the working class as a whole but also from the advanced workers. If, for Lenin, the party was both educator and educated, in this version of Trotskyism the party attempts to play schoolmaster to the working class. Internally such organisations tend to authoritarianism and witch-hunting and even at times to the cult of the leader. Externally they exhibit gross delusions of grandeur, paranoia and above all an inability to look reality in the face.

How unfortunate to become your own most damning critic, as you defend the Nineteen Eighty-Four situation of people being expelled to ‘protect democracy’.

But his is not a new betrayal. If we look beyond our corner of the left in our corner of the world, internationally there are many thousand ‘Leninisms’, all claiming to be the one true interpretation – a ‘hall of mirrors’ of revolutionary parties.

Lenin the experimenter

Against the warring blueprints, we should assert that our task is not to go back and plunder history in a quest for the ‘correct’ model. If it were, presumably we would spend our days and nights poring over Lenin’s correspondence (preferably in the original Russian), until we had ‘fixed’ the party – until our conference looked exactly like that of the Bolsheviks, all our structures were precisely the same, our paper looked the same, and so on. It means thinking, like Callinicos, that revolutionary organisation works something like KFC, with its ‘secret blend of herbs and spices’. Most of the far left has gone far enough down that road already.

It will never work to attempt to condense any great revolutionary’s life and work into a particular set of universal organisational rules. This is certainly not our approach, for example, to Marxism. Instead we understand it as a philosophy, a set of tools and a method. And that was always the strong point of the International Socialist tradition – its rejection of fixed orthodoxies and products of historical circumstance in favour of using the Marxist method to look at the world anew.

So this is a call, above all, for experimentation. We will not take everyone with us at first, but we shouldn’t fear to go ahead and start making the path by walking. As Cliff wrote:

If there are ten people in a group, one or two will be ready to experiment, to try new things; one or two are so conservative that even a successful experience will not convince them, while the majority will vacillate between the two extremes, and will learn through experience. The key is to be part of the one or two ready to experiment, to find new ways to take things forward, and if successful, to win the majority for the new direction.

Lenin, after many years of trying, experimenting and refining, found a model for the time and place in which he lived, the mostly agrarian Russia of the early twentieth century. In fact the Bolsheviks insisted, against the Marxist orthodoxy of the time, that there could be not just a bourgeois but a socialist revolution in a ‘backward’ country like Russia. (And of course, theirs wasn’t a perfect model – it was one that gave us a glimpse of the potential for socialism, not a socialist world.)

Discovering a model for our own circumstances – liberal, democratic capitalism in 2013 – will mean doing that level of systematic work again. We have a huge wealth of history to learn from, but it seems likely that what we come up with will look very different to what Lenin came up with, just as Lenin’s model was different to that of previous generations of revolutionaries. And that’s OK! Lenin was about learning from the best of the past and using it to fight for the future. That is the Leninism we need today.

There is hope on our side. Capitalism may be more entrenched, but the working class is far bigger now both in Britain and internationally than either Marx or Lenin could have dreamed of. We may have scattered, smaller workplaces instead of the Putilov Works, but we also have drastically better methods of communication. (Including, yes, the scary internet!) Saying Lenin found the one true way to socialism is like saying the sailors of history figured out everything we need to know to build a rocket. We will surely borrow some of their practices and terminology, and definitely build on their innovations in navigation, but we will need to come up with many ideas of our own.

If Marxism is a science then we need to experiment, learn, make modifications, and experiment again. We do not need a yearly schedule of doing the same thing over and over again, never learning from our mistakes, even the most awful ones. If we do that we will spend our whole lives ‘building the party’ but never see it grow, damaging the left as we chew up members and spit them out. Cliff once more: “the moment Marxism stops changing, it is dead.”

If you have ‘forty years of experience’ of Leninism, and your organisation is about the same size now as it was when you started, you’re doing it wrong.

Get in touch: Follow me on Twitter: @tomwalkr.

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SWP “opposition” members have launched a blog to bring together their efforts into one place. Visit the International Socialism blog for more info.

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PLEASE NOTE: Due to ridiculous levels of spam, comments have been switched off temporarily. If you would like to leave a comment, please email your comment direct to Linkssocialism [at] and indicate which article you would like it placed below.


We are all union activists who work with SWP members in our union branches, in the various democratic bodies in our unions and in the wider union movement. Some of us have SWP members in our workplaces, some of us participate in SWP led campaigns or vote for SWP members in elections. Many of us, whatever our politics, recognise that our SWP comrades can be relied on to speak up for our class and union members’ interests, to be at the forefront of campaigns, to turn up on picket lines, and to support those of us who are victimised for our union activities.

For these reasons, we have not been able to ignore the recent crisis in the SWP. We have been concerned, and at times appalled, as we have heard about complaints being swept under the carpet in 2011, disciplinary committees including close friends of the accused, women quizzed about irrelevant details of their behaviour and drinking habits, SWP members instantly dismissed for discussing these matters, while another member who has been the subject of complaints continues to represent SWP campaigns, and the revelation that the word ‘feminist’ is used as an insult within the party.

No one is saying that other left organisations have an unblemished record when it comes to dealing with sexism, sexual harrassment, or sexual assault, but the SWP Central Committee now appear to be ignoring the many voices both inside and outside their party who are telling them that they have got it badly wrong. Instead, Alex Callinicos wrote an article that avoided all mention of the women involved, and dismissed accusations of harrassment, and worse, as “gossip”. It is clear that the CC are not listening to the significant number of members who are expressing their dismay at recent events.

While many of us welcome the recent open letter from academics and others who speak at SWP events, our message to you is different. We are not saying we won’t work with SWP members. That isn’t even an option, while we are in the same unions we will of course be working side by side. But, your members are right, it has changed things. We are dismayed, we are appalled, we feel uncomfortable round SWP members unless we know that like many of your members, they are equally appalled.

If the CC continue to respond by ignoring the issue or closing down debate, as well as losing some great activists, you are going to find your remaining members have a harder time organising, campaigning, and making connections with other union members, through no fault of their own, but through the fault of their Central Committee, who are putting them in an impossible position.

Fortunately there is still time to reconsider, and we hope that you do.

All names in a personal capacity.

Glyn Harries, UNISON Local Govt
H. Akram, UNISON Health
H. Smith, GMB
Harry Stephens, UNISON HE
Jack Green, UNISON Local Govt
James Collins, UNISON Health
Jon Rogers, UNISON Local Govt
and UNISON National Executive Committee
Kirstie Paton, NUT
Louise Lambe, UNISON HE
Marshajane Thompson, UNISON Local Govt
and chair of UNISON United Left
Mille Wild, UCU
Naomi Bain, UNISON HE
Phil Dickens, PCS
Richard Brodie, UCU

Dan Jeffrey Lambeth UNISON
Jon Fanning York UCU
Mark Lancaster PCS
C. Gent UCU and IWW
Mark Boothroyd UNISON Health
Ronnie Williams IWW and USDAW

If you are a union rep and would like to add your signature, please email


Reflections on the 2001 crisis in Linksruck (German IST section) and possible lessons for the current debate in the SWP. By Florian Wilde

This letter was written in a strictly personal capacity and reflects my personal views alone.

January 21, 2013

Dear comrades,

I – as well as others on the German revolutionary left – have followed the developing crisis in the SWP with a mix of great concern and a bit of hope. There is an immense danger that this crisis will result in a substantial, long-term weakening of the SWP and have destructive effects on the entire International Socialist Tendency (IST). However, this crisis also presents the possibility of a democratic renewal of the SWP and the IST – and with it a strengthening of the entire revolutionary left.

There are many structural similarities between the present crisis in the SWP and the deep crisis and subsequent split of the German IST section Linksruck in 2001. This paper aims to relate the experience of 2001 and develop some practical suggestions from it. As it was written in a short period of time, I am forced to limit myself to a series of short theses. It should be noted that this paper relies on my own recollection of events as I do not have access to the relevant documents at the moment.

Brief history of Linksruck

The German section of the IST, the Sozialistische Arbeitergruppe (SAG), was founded in the late 1960s. It managed to play a modest role in the political upturn of the 1970s and in the 1980s adopted the SWP’s orientation for the so-called “downturn”: focus on propaganda and the gradual accumulation of cadre. Starting in circa 1989, expecting a rapid upturn in class struggle, the roughly 50 members of the SAG shifted towards an interventionist strategy and recruited heavily, mostly in the anti-fascist movement of the time. By 1994 the group had grown to roughly 300 members, before promptly dissolving itself and entering the social democratic youth, the Jusos, as “Linksruck”.

In many ways the transformation from SAG to Linksruck was symptomatic of the internal democracy (or lack thereof) in the IST. Following a massive intervention by Tony Cliff and the leadership of the SWP, the old leadership of the SAG was pushed aside in favour of younger members who had begun work in the Jusos. The decisive strategic debates and arguments that led to this reorientation were conducted in small circles, and only the conclusions were presented to the organisation. The price of this course of action was high: many long-standing cadre left in disgust at the way the decision had been made, and many younger members from the radical and autonomist left refused to join the Jusos. My local branch in Kiel had grown to 20 members in 1994, but after we joined the Jusos in the middle of the year we were reduced to three. Even worse, the top-down approach during the transformation into Linksruck left the nucleus of the crisis that was to come: the leadership of the organisation found that it was legitimate and correct to conduct important debates amongst themselves and if necessary enforce them against the will of the membership. An overemphasis on leadership became a problematic hallmark of Linksruck.

The focus on party building and recruitment developed by the SAG was also followed by the leadership of Linksruck and proved to be correct and effective: we became the fastest growing organisation on the radical left while the other revolutionary organisations of the 1990s collapsed. It was a period of hyper-activity: newspaper sales, shop sales, weekly public meetings, and one campaign after another. We were unable to retain a lot of the new members, but the organisation nevertheless counted 1,000 members (on paper) by the turn of the millennium, including 700 dues-paying members and a stable cadre of several hundred. In 1997 we ceased our work in the Jusos. The success of their perspective encouraged the leadership and confirmed their view that a central focus on party building was critical to success. Symptomatic of this mood is the fact that we never took the time to reflect upon our experience in the Jusos – the next campaign, meeting or paper sale was always more important than conducting a serious internal debate about the organisation’s last three years of activity. To this date there are no written analyses of the period.

The political basis for founding Linksruck and joining the Jusos was the alleged necessity of breaking with the “swamp” of the German radical left in the early 90s. This led to complications when we began to increase our work in the anti-globalisation movement and sought to relate to and recruit from the radical left again, as many new members in turn brought feminist and autonomist ideas from the movements back into the organisation. These ideas collided with our well-established theoretical and practical traditions. Our years-long refusal to engage with this political spectrum in a productive but critical manner meant we lacked an internal culture capable of tolerating differences of opinion over the medium term. This came back to haunt us as it became an element in the approaching crisis.

2001: Crisis and split in Linksruck

In mid-2001 Linksruck entered a deep crisis that resulted in a split in the organisation. An accusation was raised within the organisation that the CC had covered up a case of sexual assault involving a member of the organisation’s inner circle and even protected the accused. Following this, multiple cases of sexual harassment and assault by another member of the CC came to light. The CC had been aware of these allegations for some time but had not reacted to them. This accorded to their logic that leadership was the critical element in building the organisation, and thus must be protected at nearly all costs. After this we learned of another CC member’s embezzlement of party funds to pay for calls to phone sex hot-lines. The outrage amongst the membership was, as you can imagine, immense. The new comrades from the social movements viewed the behaviour of the leadership as sexist; many of the comrades who had been members for years were also no longer prepared to follow the leadership of the CC.

The situation escalated at a national conference at the end of September 2001. The CC argued that the group’s political orientation in the wake of 11 September should be debated first in order to establish a political basis upon which we could discuss the internal issues. A majority of delegates moved that the crisis of the organisation, in which many of them felt they could no longer work, would be discussed first. Then, the majority demanded the CC’s resignation. The CC refused, invoking the lack of a necessary statute in the group’s constitution – they would only resign with the mandate of a general assembly. This was the greatest political shock of my life, as I had spent years arguing for exactly that type of statute, which the CC had always rejected, arguing that leadership is based on trust – not on formal rules. Without the trust of the membership the leadership would be nothing. Now that the membership’s trust had clearly been revoked they cited formalities to retain their positions.

Many members were furious. A phase of intense internal conflict began. The persistent accusations of sexual assault simultaneously threatened to isolate the group on the radical left. Three different factions emerged from this situation:

- Arbeiterpolitik: the “conservative” faction of the CC and older comrades. They essentially argued to “stay the course”, coupled with a limited retreat from the social movements and a stronger orientation towards the labour movement. They accused the two other factions of adopting feminist and autonomist positions.

- Diametrically opposed was the faction Seattle-Bolschewiki. They gave the ultimatum that all members of the current CC resign immediately, demanded an increased orientation towards the movements and strived toward a fusion of Leninist and autonomist politics. However, they drew moral strength and most of their arguments from sharply formulated criticisms of the sexist relations in the organisation and especially its leadership.

- In between them, even temporarily representing the majority, was the very heterogeneous faction Demokratischer Zentralismus (DemZ) to which I belonged. The thread that held them together was the demand for a comprehensive democratic reform of the organisation as the prerequisite step for a possible strategic reorientation, combined with consequences addressing the accusations of sexual assault; but without demanding the resignation of the entire CC. Instead the faction called for an expansion and renewal of the leadership as part of a democratic renewal of the entire organisation.

Arbeiterpolitik was able to come out in front fairly quickly. The CC suspended one of the comrades accused of sexual assault, expelled another from the organisation, and established a committee to investigate the matter. This took some of the wind out of DemZ’s sails. In addition to this they offered a coherent political orientation: a staying of the course, but with more focus on the labour movement and industrial organizing. DemZ had nothing of the sort, their unity was based primarily on the demand for clarification and reforms to establish a culture of democratic internal debate for all members. As the CC finally addressed the accusations and enforced consequences, DemZ lost one of its primary planks. Many leading cadre left DemZ and (depending on one’s perspective) were either convinced by or capitulated to the CC/Arbeiterpolitik faction. Their original goal to fundamentally reform and renew the organisation and thereby offer disappointed and demoralised members a new perspective was not achieved. Instead several members of DemZ were integrated into the new leadership.

Linksruck’s general assembly was held in November 2001. The Seattle-Bolschewiki gave an ultimatum: the resignation of the entire CC, which they accused of collectively protecting a sexual offender. Although many members were critical of the conduct of the leadership in dealing with the allegations of assault, they were not willing to accept the accusation that the entire organisation was guilty of sexism. When they were unable to win a majority, the Seattle-Bolschewiki left the room and the organisation. They took many activists and cadre with them, some of them new, others longstanding. They founded a new organisation, “Anticapitalistas”, seeking to develop a fusion of Leninist and autonomist politics embedded in the movements. Within half a year and the publication of two newspapers the organisation collapsed, its leadership led it into a dead end. They were not able to achieve either of their aims: first the renewal of Linksruck, and later the building of a new organisation. Some of its members became politically passive, others remain active somewhere today. But they were not able to survive as a collective entity for longer than a few months.

The outcome of the 2001 crisis was a political tragedy. Of the over 1,000 members we counted before the crisis less than 300 remained. Many branches (Hamburg, for example, had five branches before the crisis and only half of one after) and many of the cadre we had carefully recruited and trained fell away from the group. The movements of the following period – the anti-war movement and the anti-cuts movement – lacked the strong revolutionary current that we had sought to build and had even come a bit closer to in the late 90s. Years of hard political work had essentially been for nothing. The remaining members of Linksruck clung to the group’s principles and spent a few years as a small, isolated rump. Back then I disdained and pitied them for their obstinate conservatism.

In retrospect, however, it has to be said that the members of Linksruck accomplished something extremely valuable: the retention of an organised, interventionist core of cadre. The Anticapitalistas disappeared and many of the DemZ members who left Linksruck became passive. Some of them, like me, remained active, but none of us who left the organisation were able to achieve what had once been a core principle of our political understanding: building a revolutionary organisation. This was not the case with the CC and the Arbeiterpolitik faction – they pressed on as Linksruck and later, after the founding of Die Linke, continued to work as Marx21. They maintained a political structure that was capable of playing an important and positive role on the left. They accomplished that which I also hold to be essential but was never able to achieve myself: building a visible Marxist pole within Die Linke, around which a new generation of young revolutionary socialists could form. Many of the comrades from DemZ who later joined the CC/Arbeiterpolitik faction in the leadership (and whom I had once derided as capitulationists) played a key role in developing a new, non-instrumentalist relationship to the movements and later Die Linke. Over time they were able to change the internal culture of their organisation. Because of this success they have been able to be productive, commendable members of the Die Linke working as Marx21.

Marx21 today with its 340 supporters, three representatives in parliament and important members in the leadership of Die Linke is the most important current of the revolutionary left within the party. Without the interventionist politics of Marx21, many of Die Linke’s important campaigns like the anti-fascist march in Dresden and the G8 mobilisations would not have been that successful. And Marx21’s strong base in the party’s student league Linke.SDS has allowed them to win a new generation of young cadres to revolutionary socialism. Nevertheless, it must be said that Marx21’s influence could be substantially greater had they not lost hundreds of members and cadres to the crisis of 2001.

Because of the traumatic experience of the 2001 split I have hesitated to join Marx21, and will not do so until an honest and open debate is conducted about the democratic deficit of the IST as well as the IS tradition – both in terms of internal democracy as well as the structures of the IST itself. (1)

Conclusions and suggestions for the current debate in the SWP

1. The heritage of the IS tradition – the emphasis on a revolutionary perspective, the centrality of the working class, the necessity of the revolutionary party, the concept of socialism from below – as well as our decades of experience in building revolutionary organisations constitute an immensely important contribution to the new revolutionary left of the 21st century. Beyond the IST many revolutionary continuities have been lost to history, the IS is one of few who have maintained and extended these traditions. A substantial weakening of the organisation that carries on these traditions and experiences would strike a serious blow against the revolutionary left as a whole; thus the SWP cannot be frivolously abandoned.

2. The leadership of the SWP is responsible for the current crisis. It was their handling of the rape allegation, their expulsion of four comrades agitating for democratic reforms before party conference, and their authoritarian response to the internal revolt that has brought the party to the point it is at now.

3. The opposition assumes grave responsibilities in this situation, as it appears to have become a new internal current supported by hundreds of comrades. You must work painstakingly and systematically toward a fundamental democratic reform of the party. Only this will renew the perspectives of hundreds of disappointed and demoralised members and prevent the split and/or collapse of your organisation. Building up revolutionary organisations – even small ones – can take years, if not decades. Destroying them only takes a matter of weeks. You cannot allow this to happen! Regardless of the CC’s provocations, you must avoid the logic of escalation that could destroy the organisation. Always take a moment to step back and reflect upon your activities.

4. The SWP opposition cannot not repeat the mistakes of the Seattle-Bolschewiki! Motivated by a sense of moral outrage, they presented a series of ultimatums that could not be won in the immediate term and left the organisation shortly thereafter. Although they originally insisted that they would stay in the organisation and fight over the long haul, the combination of moral outrage (which quickly developed into a deep hatred of the CC) and demands presented as ultimatums fed a logic of escalation that led the Seattle-Bolschewiki out of the organisation and later into a political desert. It is very likely that a split by, for example, the outraged SWSS groups would end with similar results. The overwhelming majority of splits in the history of the IST have degenerated rapidly into sects or collapsed as quickly as the German Anticapitalistas. The SWP leadership’s ability to build such a large organisation is almost unique on the left and cannot be easily duplicated.

5. The opposition also cannot take the path of the German DemZ faction. They allowed themselves to be cajoled back to the side of the leadership through a series of minor compromises and promises on the part of the CC. This price of such a move on your part would be further stagnation and decline of the SWP, not to mention the loss of hundreds of disappointed comrades. The only thing that can prevent the exit of these comrades is to offer them the prospect of a long-term fight in the SWP for the SWP.

6. Despite all of the understandable outrage and disappointment in your leadership due to its conservatism and undemocratic procedures, the example of Linksruck and Marx21 shows that the conservative elements of your party can still play a constructive role on the left. Their many mistakes aside, they stand for an extremely valuable tradition that – despite its numerous problems – has undeniably been one of the most successful on the revolutionary left. Even a bad SWP is better than none whatsoever.
The lack of democracy in the SWP is a structural problem and will lead to repeated conflicts if it is not solved. This means that even if you lose this battle the next one will already be on the horizon. Maybe you will win that one. The experience of the comrades from the DemZ faction in Linksruck and now Marx21 shows that real changes (though in my opinion not far-reaching enough) are possible in IS groups over the medium term.

7. The democracy deficit in the SWP and IST is a fundamental, structural problem of the entire tradition that periodically generates such conflicts and holds IS groups back from growing into genuine mass organisations. The SWP and the entire IS tradition must solve this democracy problem or risk condemning themselves to eternal stagnation and even collapse. All of the controversial questions must be addressed: the ban on permanent factions, the slate system of elections and the lack of democracy in the IST’s international structures, etc. A democratic renewal of the SWP is the prerequisite for renewing its theoretical work. You must develop a culture of democratic internal discussion that allows all members to participate in debates on the party’s strategic orientation.
These are all extremely important tasks that can probably only be accomplished in the medium- to long-term. Should you be able to achieve the democratic renewal of the SWP on a revolutionary basis, you will have made a hugely positive contribution to the entire revolutionary left. However, you will need patience! Do not allow yourselves to be influenced too heavily by disappointment and moral outrage. Do not engage in a hasty split from the organisation. Organise yourselves systematically and prepare to struggle for your goals over the long haul. Fight by any means necessary, but make sure your goal remains the democratic renewal – not the destruction – of the SWP.

Do not allow the tragedy of Linksruck to repeat itself in Britain!

I hope that these anecdotes from the history of the IST in Germany and the suggestions I present can aid you in developing effective strategies in your fight for the soul of the IS tradition.

In solidarity,

Florian Wilde
Historian, member of National Executive Committee of DIE LINKE.

This letter was written in a strictly personal capacity and reflects my personal views alone.

About the author:

I joined the IST section in Germany in 1992 and was an active cadre for circa ten years. I attended the Marxism Festival in London six times, marched with IST contingents at the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Genoa and Prague and left Linksruck in the aftermath of the crisis in early 2002.
I was then active in Rifondazione Communista (Italy) 2002-3, the German organized autonomist left 2003-2007, and since 2007 have been an active member of Die Linke and its student section, Die Linke.SDS. Since 2012 I am also a member of the party’s National Executive Committee.

(1) I also received quite a shock when the American IST section, the International Socialist Organization, was expelled from the tendency based on sectarian reasoning that remains incomprehensible to me even today. That a 1,000-strong socialist organisation in the belly of the imperialist beast could be expelled (leaving a gaping hole on the IST map) without there being any sort of consequences for the IST leadership is unfathomable to me. Since the expulsion of the ISO the IST – which expanded so rapidly in the 1990s – has stagnated. Its leadership has not managed to re-establish the tendency as a relevant point of reference in the international revolutionary left. Indeed, the tendency does not even have an attractive homepage (!). These and other developments, like the IST’s problematic intervention in Germany in 1994 or the disastrous attempts to do something similar in France, could not have happened under a democratic and accountable international leadership.


Written by Andrew Coates

January 30 2013

For the SWP the French Nouveau parti anticaptialiste (NPA) has been a reference point.

While recognising its strengths there have long been criticisms of its internal regime.

This  allows ‘factions’, tendencies and ‘courants‘ to operate. This is not a grudging ‘right to dissent’.  NPA’s Conferences are organised around motions from these groups, or alliances – a practice similar to the internal functioning of the  French Parti Socialiste.

In a long article last year  analysing the marginalisation of the NPA and its coming break-up (France: anti-capitalist politics in crisis International Socialism Issue: 134  Alex Callinicos observed the problems raised by the NPA’s priorities.

Firstly, “The problem is that the NPA’s political life is centred on elections.”

Unlike the SWP whose interest in electing George Galloway in the East End was purely marginal…

Secondly, “the idea that political organisations should respect the “autonomy of the social movements”.

This contrasts with the SWP’s practice of tactical “united fronts” – that is, working with social movements (pressure groups or campaigns) for a short while to organise demonstrations and other protests, and then dropping them in an endless cycle of ‘front-recruitment-new front’. This behaviour has caused great resentment amongst other activists.

The LCR/NPA enjoys a different legacy:  enduring respect from activists and social movements.

But the worst fault of the NPA was this.

 a third weakness carried over into the NPA from the LCR, namely an internal regime of institutionalised factionalism. There are, of course, longstanding differences over how best to organise democratic centralism. The SWP has, for more than 40 years, insisted that political disagreements should be allowed to crystallise into formally organised factions only in the period of internal debate before a party conference. The LCR and its sister sections of the FI have, by contrast, long maintained the right to organise permanent tendencies. In the Ligue this meant that internal discussion was for a long period of structured by a permanent debate between a “majority” that was itself a coalition and the grouping around Picquet.

Callinicos attended the 2011 NPA Congress,

Comrades in the FI sometimes criticise the SWP internal regime for being too homogeneous and dominated by the Central Committee, but, particularly in recent years, there has often been great uncertainty about the outcome of important votes at SWP conferences.

By contrast, he argues, the NPA’s votes were known in advance.

That is because the entire membership had voted beforehand on what they supported and it was not left to the mandated delegates to decide!

At the 2011 congress the Conseil National Politique, the NPA’s leading body, was selected by representatives of the different platforms reading out lists of their supporters to occupy places allocated thanks to their share of the membership votes. At the best of times this kind of setup inhibits real debate, where minds can be changed thanks to the play of argument. But this has not been the best of times for the NPA. With no faction having a majority, the field is open for manoeuvres and bargains

Alex Callinicos now says (Socialist Review)

The New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France imploded in 2011-12, leading to a very serious breakaway to the Front de Gauche led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. This has weakened the far left in Europe, and indeed the rest of the world. The implosion was caused by political differences and setbacks, but it was exacerbated by an internal regime very similar to the one advocated by some SWP members. All the debates within the NPA went through the filter imposed by the struggle between four permanent factions. Members’ loyalties focused on their factional alignments rather than the party itself.

In reality there has been no such things, outside of tiny irrelevant groups like Clarté, as permanent factions in the NPA with their own special interests.

The first faction to leave the old LCR, just as the NPA was founded, is best known for  Christian Picquet . In June 2006 he backed a motion in favour of uniting all candidates to the left of the Parti Socialiste. It got 40% of the votes at the Conference. This tendency received 14% at the last NPA Conference. In other words its actions and its ‘loyalties’  were always part of the flow of debate, and axed towards the general needs of the party. It is now the Gauche Unitaire (formed 2009) and an integral part of the Front de gauche.

Most importantly the former ‘majority’ exploded in 2011.

  • The new majority defending the Candidature of Philippe Poutou  in the forthcoming (2012) Presidential elections.
  • The other arguing in favour of the  Front de gauche.

Of the latter Convergence et Alternative joined the Front de gauche in 2011 in advance of the Presidential election in 2012.

In April 2012  for the First Round of the French Presidential election the NPA’s Phillipe Poutou got 1,15 %  of the vote (411 160).

The Front de Gauche candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon,  got 11,10 % of the vote  (3 984 822).

This undercut the original NPA view that “there is nothing on the left between us and the Parti Socialiste”

Most of the remaining opposition, in the Gauche ant,icapitaliste,   joined the Front de gauche in July  2012.

This account of voting figures from LCR/NPA Congresses do not suggest rigid ‘faction’ behaviour. They indicate a great deal of flexibility,  strategic differences and changing allegiances.

They imply a ‘loyalty’ to tendencies, a condition of developing their analyses for Conference resolutions, and deepening their views. But not blind faith in a mini-leadership.

The NPA’s tendencies and factions  act indeed as a “permanent” democratic control over the party.

The internal structure cannot be blamed when, on an important issue, participation in the Front de gauche, the minority  left.

The political disagreement was simply too great.

There have been none of the psychodramas we see in the present SWP crisis.

What Callinicos is complaining about is democracy.


Posted on behalf of Corey Ansel

This article is a recent piece of mine that is addressing the broader debate on the left (brought about recently by the crisis in the SWP) concerning Lenin and "Leninism." Following Alex Callinicos' piece and the subsequent responses, I thought a different analysis was necessary. Even moreso, the article speaks about the relevance of Lenin even amongst the choruses proclaiming his ineptitude.

Here's the link:


Today has seen two hugely important developments in the ongoing struggle for the heart and soul of the Socialist Workers Party.

The day began with the publication on the Socialist Unity blog of a letter penned by Mark Bergfeld, announcing his resignation from the Central Committee and from his role as National Student Organiser. Mark makes clear that he feels unable to continue as part of a leadership which is on the brink of splitting the party ...

Mark’s resignation has been followed by something even more extraordinary – indeed unprecedented in the party’s modern history. A whole section of leading and middle cadre, which has generally maintained a disciplined public silence on recent events, has broken with the leadership and declared an open faction...

The full text of the faction’s statement with the relevant signatories can be found here: In_Defence_of_Our_Party. Supporters include ten NC members, a number of ex-CC members, and a swathe of well-known SWP speakers such as Pat Stack, Mike Gonzalez, Megan Trudell, Ian Burchill and Charlie Hoare.

In response the original opposition around Richard Seymour, China Mieville et al – the “Democratic Opposition” – has announced its intention to constitute a platform within the new grouping.

For those of us whose background is in the IS tradition, and who would like nothing better than to see that tradition renewed, today’s events provide real grounds for optimism.