Forgotten legacies of Bolshevism on revolutionary organisation

"Iskra. It is often argued that the early period of the organisation of Iskra resembled the small, highly homogenous and monolithic cadre grouping that today is promoted as the sine qua non of revolutionary organisation, but if one looks at the original concept of the Iskra editorial board, we can see it promoted debate among a plurality of tendencies."

[Click HERE for more discussion on revolutionary organisation.]

December 28, 2012 -- Anticapitalist Initiative, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author -- In the context of debates on the contemporary left, this article discusses the forgotten legacies of pre-1917 Russian Marxism. Against the traditional conception of a "vanguardist" and monolithic party, he argues that the Bolsheviks should be situated within a tradition of building broad parties that allowed for a plurality of tendencies, and saw themselves as a tendency seeking to fuse a revolutionary democratic and communist politics with the militant leaders of the working class struggle. Contrary to the Stalinist caricature of the top-down party, this re-articulated version of "Leninism" has lessons for the building of new, democratic revolutionary organisations today.

* * *

By Simon Hardy

The history of the revolutionary left in the 20th century has not been a happy one. If our goals are conceived in terms of achieving a socialist transformation of our global society along democratic and emancipatory lines based upon the working class subject, then we have experienced a "double failure". Socialist regimes either collapsed into authoritarianism and nationalism, or were born with these features, and capitalism achieved a degree of political hegemony at the end of the last century that even its most devout supporters had never dared imagine was possible.

The strength or weakness of the revolutionary forces tends to be linked to the confidence and militancy of the working class and popular radical forces more generally, but the left cannot just keep blaming “objective” factors for their failures. We have to look at our own practices and methods as well.

In many countries today, the revolutionary left is suffering an unprecedented degree of marginalisation, despite the rise of mass anti-austerity struggles and anti-capitalist movements such as Occupy Wall Street. The blame for this decline is usually laid at the door of the working class (“too backward”) or other left groups (“they keep recruiting people who should be with us!”).

If the working class has not yet adopted a revolutionary political outlook and left-wing politics remains dissonant from working-class communities – then it naturally poses the question of whether this is "their fault or ours"? In this context, we could either reappraise our own forms of organisation and politics to make them more relevant, or develop more theoretical justifications for our own marginalisation as a left.

I want to argue that  the former course is ultimately much more fruitful than the latter one. The weakness of the radical left today may well be a consequence of unfortunate circumstances or factors beyond our control, but there are errors which are hard-wired into the DNA of Trotskyist-Leninist groups that confound their ability to take advantage of the opportunities that plainly exist. These mistakes emerge through a misreading of traditional doctrines (or a too strict interpretation) which results in inflexible forms of political organisation being unproblematically deduced from the theory. More generally, "lessons" are derived from the past in a manner that suggests were we simply to repeat the same actions, then the same ends would result, thus forgetting Trotsky’s dictum that "history does not repeat itself".

Modern "Leninism" in particular is plagued by the idea that disunity on the political level is unimportant, at least relative to the apparent dangers of building a party that doesn’t have the politics considered absolutely correct for the struggle. In contrast, I strongly believe the problem of fragmentation and division is an important contributing factor to the weakness of the left. It is not just that energy is expended on similar publications, websites and campaigns, not merely the psychological problems of socialists hating members of other groups almost as much as they hate the class enemy, or the practical problems of [for example] a divided anti-cuts movement in Britain today.

Rather, the real problem is that we have come to accept this state of affairs as normal. It is considered normal for almost any country in the world to have myriad far left groups, some bigger than others (but all mostly small in the grand scheme of things). The status quo has been established by decades of decline and splits, and then cemented by theorisation and justification for those splits. The revolutionary left has to stop spending time legitimising its own practices and a bit more energy on figuring out new ways of working together that can maximise our positive energies and negate or offset our (self)destructive tendencies.

While there is an important discussion to be had about the relationship between Leninism and Stalinism, how to account for the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, and at what point in the years after the revolution did the top-down bureaucratic form of party organisation become generalised and accepted as a "Leninist" model, that debate is for another time.

This article is addressed to those who identify with the Bolshevik or Leninist-Trotskyist tradition, because building a revolutionary left today must involve a dialogue with people from this tradition. More importantly modern-day Bolsheviks need to stop reifying their own history and uncritically accepting how their tradition has ended up being synonymous with sect-ridden failure as if it was just inevitable or necessary.

What follows is an attempt to introduce some critical thinking which might encourage changes in how socialist organisations operate on the ground. We need to work towards making the left more relevant, larger and overcome decades of decline and political confusion.

This is a contribution to that goal, which connects to the work I have done on Beyond Capitalismand is based upon criticisms that a group of us developed during our time in Workers Power, which led to us to ultimately leave that organisation in the hope of building a more plural radical left.

Bolshevism in practice – not just a one-sided story

While Bolshevism as a political tendency was hardly averse to the use of force in the pursuit of working-class power and certainly the leadership could be ruthless in implementing its perspectives, the revolutionary tradition in Russia is not a simple black and white tale of nasty monolithic Bolsheviks versus more democratic organisations in the workers' movement. Neither is it a party educational lesson of Leninists who got the job done because they were hard-nosed organisers who told people to shut up and get on with it.


One surprising fact about the history of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (Bolshevik faction) or the Bolshevik party (after 1912 [1]) was that despite there being some very serious arguments between members in public, and breaches of agreed positions, very few people were actually expelled.

In fact the central committee had no specific power of expulsion in the constitution adopted in 1903 – the organising principles of the party simply state that a two thirds majority is needed to co-opt or expel anyone from any party organisation.

Compare this to most Leninist-Trotyskyist 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). Indeed, it appears that Bogdanov and his allies were the only faction that was really “purged” prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917 (they were expelled in 1909).

While there was a definite program and party unity around it, there was also relative leeway for members, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the debates, to develop their ideas and criticism in public forums or through literary work, such as pamphlets or books (today that would be on secure web forums and email lists as well as the public press). Even when the disagreements got quite serious and people “broke” discipline, it was very rare for organisational/constitutional reprisals to be brought to bear on individuals or tendencies.

Let’s take three important examples, all in the year 1917.

1) Bolshevik military organisation – Nikolai Kuzmin, Vladimir Nevsky and Podvoisky Nikolai Ilyich were editors of Soldiers Truth and also on the Bolshevik central committee. They called for an armed demonstration in support of the soviets against the wishes of the rest of the Bolshevik leaders. Their actions resulted in “July Days”, serious repression of the workers' movement by the provisional government, the arrest of prominent socialists (for instance, Trotsky) and the suppression of the Bolshevik Party per se. Lenin famously whispered to one of them before a rally “You should be horsewhipped for this!”. Yet none of them were expelled for the July Days fiasco, and no one was horsewhipped.

2) John Reed accounts how, at a joint meeting of Bolsheviks, Left Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and Menshevik Internationalists a vote was taken on whether to suppress the bourgeois newspapers. Larin and the Left SRs opposed while Lenin and the Bolsheviks were in favour. Reed explains that: “The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviks, Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction of the freedom of the press.” [2] Riazanov subsequently signed a public statement of the Left SRs against the decision, making his opposition to the Bolsheviks position public. Reed also noted that; “Kamenev, Rykov, Milutin, Zinoviev and Nogin resigned from the CC of the Bolshevik party and made public their reasons.” None of the Bolsheviks involved in this were expelled or disciplined by their party for breaking the line in public.

3) A better-known example concerns the insurrection itself. Zinoviev and Kamenev published a letter in Maxim Gorky’s paper saying they disagreed with the decision to launch an insurrection and said they had resigned from the Bolshevik CC. Lenin was furious, calling them “strike breakers”. Afterwards, Lenin called for Zinoviev and Kamenev to be expelled from the party, but many members of the central committee came to their defence, while rebuking their actions. Stalin argued that they could not be expelled from the party for what they had done, Sverdlov pointed out that the CC had no power to expel members, but could accept their resignation. Zinoviev and Kamenev were not expelled, and became leading members again, until Stalin had them shot in 1936.

What do these three examples, all from the most important year of the revolutionary struggle in Russia, show us?

It shows that, while 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.

Even Lenin himself in 1917 became so agitated about the urgency for revolution that by September he was defying the party central committee and writing letters directly to Bolshevik factions of sailors telling them to march on Petrograd and seize power.

The sailors read the letters and then, unsure of what to do, decided to burn them. He wrote desperate letters to rank and file members of the Moscow and Petrograd branches of the party urging them to “take power at once!” [3] even though the majority of the CC was delaying any seizure of power until the second congress of Soviets. Of course, Lenin was acting in the spirit of a decision by the leading committee, but he certainly was not acting under the authority of anyone but himself. I am not using this example to argue that party leaders should be privledged to break their own rules, it simply means that anyone can “break the rules” at times and there are better ways of dealing with it than drumming them out of the organisation.

Before the revolution there was a substantial degree of tolerance in the Bolshevik ranks which might also be surprising to many people today.

Bukharin, a supporter of Lenin who had been influenced by Bogdanov, developed various heretical positions at the start of WWI, including wanting to broaden membership of a future international out to the Zimmerwald Left and Trotsky (which Lenin opposed), and set up a quasi-tendency with some others who supported Rosa Luxemburg on the national question. After initially trying to publish a paper with their views (which they subsequently dropped after a Bolshevik conference in Switzerland), they established a new journal called Kommunist that had Lenin on the editorial board. But the journal quickly became a platform for their views, which Lenin rejected. He resigned from the board and made it clear he would oppose them politically – either in the official Bolshevik press or by publishing a pamphlet with articles by both himself and Bukharin. Ultimately, the journal ceased publication and Bukharin moved closer to Lenin during 1916-17. The matter was settled through a combination of debate and practice, while also being overtaken by circumstances (the growing revolutionary tide in Russia itself)[4]. But at no point did Lenin propose expelling Bukharin or his supporters (even though there is no shortage of scathing comments regarding this episode in Lenin’s Collected Works).

Of course, it would be wrong to give the impression that the RSDLP and the Bolshevik party were a free-for-all where anything goes and people had complete freedom to say whatever they wanted whenever. The struggle for program and strategy in the RSDLP and the Bolshevik faction (as well as the so-called Bolshevik party after 1912) was something that was taken very seriously, as we can see from the sheer number of debates, resolutions, papers, pamphlets and books which were produced. Lenin himself knew how to make hard decisions about when to work with people and when to break from them – he was single minded in his determination to build a revolutionary party in Russia, no matter the personal cost. The style of polemics that Lenin wrote about political opponents would be notorious today for he was incredibly harsh about those that he considered renegades from Marxism. So it would be wrong to picture the Bolshevik faction as a “soft” political environment to inhabit. Under the conditions of tsarist Russia, plainly revolutionaries were pretty hardened; they faced serious hardship and persecution, so they needed political and personal toughness.

But we have to be wary of those who prefer the model of the Russian revolutionaries as a hyper-centralised force, the image of the Leninist party as one of iron discipline and unshakeable clarity on all positions, dominated by the master strategist, Lenin himself [5]. The reality is that while the RSDLP and subsequently the Bolshevik party no doubt was made up of highly dedicated and active people, it was a party which succeeded in managing differences internally and striking the right balance between democracy and united action. Lenin strived for a homogenous faction within the RSDLP to counteract the equivocations of the Mensheviks and the floating cadres like Trotsky. Of course, Lenin demanded loyalty to the Bolsheviks from its adherents: after all he was building a fighting force to overthrow an autocratic regime, but it was impossible to demand complete unanimity of all members on political questions across the whole of Russia – even within his faction.

In fact what made the revolutionary party in Russia so effective was that before 1917 (and for several years afterwards) it existed in a state of dynamic tension as various individuals, tendencies and political viewpoints emerged as the course of the class struggle developed, all existing within an organisational framework that proved effective in intervening into the workers' movement and eventually marshaling the forces to overthrow capitalism. Through numbers and influence they were able to prove different policies right or wrong in practice in many of the debates that emerged – while theoretical differences were debated (albeit in the context of a common rejection of reformism), the party as a whole resolutely focused on practical intervention around its program for a revolutionary overthrow of tsarism.

Indeed, any serious reading of the history of the Russian experience reveals that it was not a free for all. The Bolsheviks had a definite program and that is what kept them together, however their program  was relatively short and contained key demands which are mainly strategic in nature. As such tactics and slogans agreed by local units of the organisation could be quite varied at times.

The RSDLP program

So, what was the programthat succeeded in attracting tens of thousands of workers? The program that was adopted in 1903 – and not fully updated again until 1919 – was made up of a lengthy preamble about the importance of an independent working-class organisation, which had as its goal the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The program then goes on to acknowledge that Russia is still economically “backward” and trapped in many semi-feudal institutions inhibiting its development, so the most immediate political task of the RSDLP was “the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy and its replacement by a democratic republic”.

There follow 14 of what can be generally called democratic demands (freedom of movement, freedom of speech, a sovereign people’s assembly), 16 broadly economic demands (shorten the working day, stronger labour laws, more health and safety inspections) and then five demands to improve the life of the peasantry. The program concludes with the paragraph: “In striving to achieve its immediate aims, the RSDLP supports every oppositional and revolutionary movement directed against the social and political order prevailing in Russia, while at the same time resolutely rejecting all reform proposals which are connected with any sort of extension or strengthening of tutelage by the police and officialdom over the labouring classes.” [6] It concludes with a call for a constituent assembly.

In today’s context, after the experience of the Comintern and the Fourth International, the RSDLP program is actually posed quite generally: it is more a series of policies, rather than definite tactics and the wider strategy is also quite broadly defined. For instance, it makes no mention of using strikes as the primary method for bringing down a government but merely calls for freedom for strike action. What the program was pointing towards was the central importance of a left-wing party that was orientated to the working class and its immediate concerns as well as the importance of the struggle for bourgeois democracy in Russia. It was broad brush strokes, without much finer detail, but something that was new because it was opposed to Russian populism, liberalism or anarchism. This is what made it distinctive as a working-class party.

In broad terms, we can say the following: the RSDLP had a program but the Bolsheviks had a particular strategy. After all, the Mensheviks also supported the program of the party, they just had an alternate strategy (which evolved from putting pressure on liberals for social reforms and ended up supporting Kerensky and the Provisional Government).

Even though the program was quite broad, between 1903 and 1917 a number of differences broke out among the Bolsheviks over programmatic and strategic questions, but these were usually resolved through debate and discussion over a period of time. When the differences were irreconcilable, then a split would occur, but these did not tend to happen over tactical issues.

The splits in the RSDLP

After the 1898 first congress of the RSDLP the socialist movement de facto split into a number of local socialist propaganda groups that did not have a national centre, but it was also divided between those who wanted to focus on trade union issues, and those that saw a revolution against tsarism as being a fundamental part of an independent working-class politics (the subject of Lenin’s polemic in What Is To Be Done?).

Between 1900 and 1903 this is why the Iskra editorial board persistently hammered away at the need for a revolutionary democratic movement, for an independent working-class party and an all-Russian paper to propagate a common line. It is often argued that this early period of the organisation of Iskra resembled the small, highly homogenous and monolithic cadre grouping that today is promoted as the sine qua non of revolutionary organisation, but if one looks at the original concept of the Iskra editorial board, we can see it promoted debate among a plurality of tendencies:

Although we carry out our literary work from the stand point of a definite tendency, we do not in the least intend to present all our views on partial questions as those of all Russian Social-Democrats; we do not deny that differences exist, nor shall we attempt to conceal or obliterate them. On the contrary, we desire our publications to become organs for the discussion of all questions by all Russian Social-Democrats of the most diverse shades of opinion. We do not reject polemics between comrades, but, on the contrary, are prepared to give them considerable space in our columns. Open polemics, conducted in full view of all Russian Social-Democrats and class-conscious workers, are necessary and desirable in order to clarify the depth of existing differences, in order to afford discussion of disputed questions from all angles, in order to combat the extremes into which representatives of various views, various localities, or various “specialities” of the revolutionary movement inevitably fall. Indeed, we regard one of the drawbacks of the present-day movement to be the absence of open polemics between avowedly differing views, the effort to conceal differences on fundamental questions.

One can argue, indeed, in direct inverse to the typical conception of "pre-party" organisation as monolithic, that this concept suggests a substantial amount of political plurality is needed, which allows different positions to co-exist within a single organisational framework and for debate among them to be necessary to clarify differences, and to arrive at conclusions in such a way as it strengthens the unity of the political organisation.

The most widely discussed split in the Russian social democracy is obviously that between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. While it initially arose over the political question of how to organise the Russian party – whether it should be a party of activists, disciplined with a common line, and an editorial board for a national paper that reflected the majority line at the party congress – it was ultimately about which class, the working class or the bourgeoisie, would be able to bring the peasants under their banner and play lead the democratic revolution against tsarism.

Beyond this there is the split between the liquidationists. This was a part of the Menshevik faction that advocated the dismantling of the illegal party apparatus, which could only mean advancing a de facto reformist program in relation to tsarism, but who split from the Mensheviks in 1912.

And there was the split between the Bogdanovites and the Bolsheviks in 1909: while it drew on philosophical questions, it was ultimately about whether the party should participate in the Duma [parliament].

There were persistent attempts by the Bolsheviks to try and win unity on a principled basis (democratic revolution, independent working-class politics, leading role of the working class, opposition to revisionism etc.) that reflected the positions of the 1903 program.

The latter is an interesting document. It is revolutionary, but it contains few of what we would term transitional demands. It provided though a sufficient framework within which other differences were debated.

A lesson to be drawn is the ability of Lenin in particular to identify what were the key points that were essential for unity to be principled at any one time. For Iskra between 1900 and 1903 it was democratic revolution, independent working-class politics and an all-Russian paper/party.

In 1917 he rejected unity with the Mensheviks, because the Bolsheviks had to fight independently for all power to the soviets, for militias, no support to the provisional government and so on, but this did not exclude attempting to bring in Internationalist Mensheviks and sections of the Socialist Revolutionaries that were closer to his position. It underlines a good degree of flexibility in how we conceive the role that the program plays in cohering wider forces around the questions that become critical for revolutionary agitation at a given conjuncture.

What was What is to be done? for?

Lenin’s book What is to be done? (WITBD) has many useful lessons for revolutionaries in a general sense and is often cited as the foundation stone for subsequent Leninist practices. But it is not a handbook or manual for party building for time immemorial, and certainly on tactical questions it is limited how transferable the conditions of Russia 1902 is for us today.

The arguments and debates that Lenin was having in WITBD are very much a product of the situation in Russia, as Lenin himself subsequently argued.[7] It was first of all a polemic against the "Economists" and second of all a practical guide to uniting the disparate and scattered workers and intellectual circles in Russia at that time into a unified party. Lenin and his collaborators around Iskra were trying to build a section of the Second International, modelled on the German Social-Democratic Party but adapted to Russian conditions.

An important part of WITBD concerns centralism, which for Lenin meant establishing a centre, a political leadership for the scattered groups and branches of the RSDLP. This required a paper and a leading committee that was invested with some authority and respect among the membership, i.e. not just a self-appointed group of leaders, but people democratically elected and tasked with giving political guidance to the party activists.

At the second congress Lenin actually warned against seeing WITBD as a universal handbook: “It is obvious that here an episode in the struggle against ‘Economism’ has been confused with a discussion of the principles of a major theoretical question (the formation of an ideology)... We all know that the 'Economists' have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other direction, and that is what I have done.”

Furthermore in 1904, the Bolshevik faction wrote a potted history of Iskra and its motivations without mentioning Lenin’s tract or the role it played in forming his tendency. [8]

Rosa Luxemburg's criticisms

Rosa Luxemburg had written a critique of the Russian section that disagreed with what she saw as an overbearing centralising tendency on the part of Lenin and his Bolsheviks. She compared it to the German party where there were hundreds of thousands of members and many daily and weekly papers published by local branches and regions with a relatively healthy flow of ideas and debates internally. There was also a national paper and theoretical journal. But Luxemburg’s criticisms were entirely misplaced. Dealing with them directly, Lenin argued; “Comrade Rosa Luxemburg says … that the whole controversy is over the degree of centralization. Actually that is not so … our controversy has principally been over whether the Central Committee and Central Organ should represent the trend of the majority of the Party Congress, or whether they should not.”[9]


So, a key part of what Lenin was fighting for at the 1903 congress was that the paper and the leading committee elected at the congress should reflect the majority decisions at that congress. For the Russian socialists the opportunities for democratic decision making were few and far between, with many of them in exile across Europe and constant police raids, the party had little time for elections or large gatherings. When they did eventually meet at great expense (actually the expense was largely carried by the German party which paid for their travel and lodgings), Lenin wanted to make sure that the congress decisions would ultimately be carried out. This is why he was so outraged when the losers of debate on the party constitution (led by Martov) won a majority on the editorial board of the paper. He was worried that the minority would use their position to not implement the decisions of the congress. That was the cause of the factional dispute.

Despite calling for quite a centralised and tight-knit organisation of professional revolutionaries who took matters of security and organisation seriously, after the democratic spring post-1905 revolution, Lenin argued for the party to broaden out, to take advantage of the new political liberties won by the revolution. He called for the party comrades to “devise new forms of organisation” to take in an influx of workers, new forms that were “definitely much broader… less rigid. more ‘free,’ more ‘loose.’” [10] 

After the reunification congress in 1906 he urged freedom for party members to debate in public, “Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free (we remind the reader of what Plekhanov said on this subject at the Second Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.), not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such 'agitation' (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited. The Party’s political action must be united. No 'calls' that violate the unity of definite actions can be tolerated either at public meetings, or at Party meetings, or in the Party press.”[11] Interestingly it was the Mensheviks who tried to close down public debate and voted to only allow criticism in the party press, but never in public. While this reflected the balance of forces within the party (the Mensheviks were a majority at the time), it would be doing Lenin a profound disservice and playing into the caricature of him as a mere real politic figure that had scant principles, if we thought of this as a merely expedient statement.[12]

The more disciplined, centralised model was considered necessary for matters of security as the level of police repression was almost crushing (despite these precautions most RSDLP activists spend the majority of their time in prison). But as soon as the opportunity arose he urged the party to break out and adopt as many open, lose, legal forms of organisation as possible. Bringing in new members was very important to the future health of the party.

This policy achieved spectacular results. There had been 8400 members of the RSDLP (both Bolshevik and Menshevik wings) in Russia at the start of 1905, by 1907 there was 84,000 (with 46,000 in the Bolsheviks). Lenin praised the St Petersburg committee of the organisation, which was one of the largest, saying that “all the Party members decide questions concerning the political campaigns of the proletariat, and that all the Party members determine the line of tactics of the Party organisations."[13] This was no top-down branch, it was a grassroots organisation with a leading committee, but the members were actively involved in decision making and formulating policy.

Around the same time Lenin called for a full and frank public exchange of views and public knowledge about the party’s internal life: “We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question.”[14] 

While Lenin was describing the workings of united party and not a faction, in conditions of a more liberal democracy this is clearly the most honest and democratic way of organising a revolutionary organisation – full stop. Matters of security naturally factor into any such discussions but they are not an excuse for total secrecy all down the line.

Several years later, as Paul Le Blanc puts it, “In 1917 all major questions were subject to an internal party debate and a vote, there was no conception that the executive committees had to be monolithic and represent only the majority view point – that practice was instituted later."[15] Indeed, it is clear that the RSDLP of Lenin’s time was not the monolithic and top down organisation of deified leaders that Stalin would later present it as.

Although it is a little historically strained, it is worth considering whether the conditions of building a revolutionary organisation today are closer to autocratic 1902 Russia or more democratic 1906 Russia. If the situation is more democratic than not, then the appeals that Lenin made to a more open organisation should surely be implemented? Wouldn’t this help create a more stable united organisation where freedom of debate exists?

Even the 1912 Bolshevik Party, which was based on a more tightly defined and homogenous faction, emerged with a considerable degree of political openness and was based upon appeals to unite the social-democratic movement in one party. As Paul Le Blanc has argued, “The Bolshevik party did indeed allow a very substantial degree of freedom for its members to express themselves to each other, to the party as a whole, to those not in the party, even if they held dissident views. Individual activists as well as local organizations also were encouraged to exercise a considerable amount of initiative in carrying out their activities. At the same time, there was an expectation that a significant degree of loyalty to the party, its program and its organizational statutes would guide these activities. In addition, there was provision that democratically elected leadership bodies would seek to ensure the functioning of the organization in a manner consistent with its democratically established program and organizational principles.” [16]

As is now at least becoming more accepted on the left, the totally monolithic party, not just internally but externally, was really developed after the War Communism period in 1921, and codified properly by Zinoviev in his “Bolshevisation drive” of the Comintern from the fifth congress in 1924.

It was supposedly an attempt to develop totally homogeneous combat parties of the vanguard in the face of a capitalist upswing and growing support for reformist parties, but in practice curtailed criticism and dissent in the international.

Looking at the practice of groups like the British Socialist Workers Party today, with a slate system for elections, strangled public debates and an expulsion-happy CC – surely this is more a caricature of late 1920s Stalinism, not the legacy of pre-1917 Russian revolutionary tradition?

It would be too easy, however, to simply see the “Bolshevisation” drive alone as representing the origins of the degeneration away from healthy conceptions of the revolutionary party in the communist movement.


1921 was arguably a major turning point on this question, i.e. a period in which the communist movement was largely under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky (posthumously referred to as the "revolutionary Comintern"), because in March the Russian Communist Party made the tragic error of banning internal factions and in July the Communist International produced a resolution on the Organisational structure of Communist parties that contained no reference to the right to form minority factions either, no reference to the relative autonomy of national sections or local branches, nor even very much about democracy (the section on democratic centralism is almost entirely about centralism in party work).

This represented an important departure from the pre-1917 traditions of Russian Bolshevism. Little wonder that Lenin would later comment the resolution was “too Russian”, that is, presumably, he meant it was too based on the contemporary experience of the Russian party[17]. As with any political experience, it is necessary to put this in context.

The Comintern was splitting forces away from social-democratic parties and seeking to form tight, cadre parties, but the question remains whether they ended up bending the stick too far and foreshadowing the later process of outright Stalinisation. The resolution certainly emphasises the centralist aspect of party building, no mention of internal democratic rights – for instance tendency or faction rights. The resolution reflected the decisions taken at the Russian Communist Party congress in March of that year when factions were banned and effectively rolled out an operational manual across the whole movement which made that tragic mistake an international principle.


It would be wrong to try and draw, out of these specific experiences within the revolutionary movement in Russia, a timeless blueprint for revolutionary socialist change. A properly historical materialist conception of Marxism should start by recognising how the political programs and perspectives thrown up across decades of ideological debate and workers’ struggle will always reflect the specificities of their circumstances. This, however, also underlines the need to take lessons from prior experiences that are sufficiently general to be pertinent to a range of historical contexts.

Moreover, any attempt to establish a perfect replica of the "Leninist party" as it is commonly conceived will inevitably collapse into an idealist romanticism, which is quite dissonant from its living historical reality. The latter saw Bolshevism emerge out of an attempt to build broad parties, which allowed a diverse number of tendencies to co-exist within a common political project to crystalise a socialist consciousness in the Russian working class.

In the next article (below) I will try and look more practically at how revolutionaries should organise today in the absence of large revolutionary Marxist parties, and in a context where the Leninist-Trotskyist left has been reduced to the existence of "warring sects".

For now, it is worth saying that drawing more general, abstract lessons from the experience of the Bolsheviks prior to 1917 might create greater scope for unity with wider political tendencies outside this tradition.

To develop an anticapitalism for the 21st century then a broad range of experiences and insights from a variety of radical traditions will need to be drawn upon. The contribution of the Leninist tradition needs to be put across in a vernacular that renders it meaningful to today, but retains the lessons of that experience. Among other things it can be drawn upon to emphasise:

  • Political parties that put down roots in working-class communities and rebuild belief in an alternative to capitalism are needed. They need to promote the idea that human society need not live in want and scarcity, but a communist alternative is possible – one that is radically democratic, and recognises autonomy and diversity.
  • They will need to be parties of struggle, seeking to develop active resistance, and not fall back into the facile parliamentarism of social democracy, and the hopeless illusion that we can return to a golden age of moderated, corporatist capitalist production.
  • Against the top-down and bureaucratic notions of Leninist party organisation that still blight the movement, political parties need to be built from the bottom up, emphasising individual and branch autonomy, freedom of expression, and substantial political plurality.
  • That we put the question of power back on the agenda. As Leo Panitch has recently put it, "we have to rid ourselves of the illusion that you can change the world without taking power. It is utterly impossible to progress towards a better world unless the balance of social forces that are in conflict in any society find expression in the transformation—in terms of organisation as well as policies—of the states in those societies."

[Simon Hardy is a supporter of the Anticapitalist Initiative and was a spokesperson for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts during the student movement of 2010-11. He is co-author of Beyond Capitalism? The future of the Radical Left (Zero Books 2013) and runs a blog, Marxist Theory. You can follow him on twitter @Simon_Hardy1.]


[1] A lively debate happened in 2012 between Pham Binh, Lars T Lih and Paul Le Blanc about the meaning of the 1912 conference and whether it actually was a “split” conference in the way that is popularly understood. The Pham Binh-Paul Le Blanc-Lars Lih debate can be found HERE.

[2] Reed J, Ten Days That Shook the World, pp.177-178.


[4] Le Blanc P, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, pp. 232-233.

[5] Zinoviev’s history of the Bolshevik Party was notorious for romanticising it in this way – the first presentation of the Bolsheviks as the Stalinist charicature that they became.


[7] Lih L, Lenin Rediscovered, pp. 26-27.

[8] ibid, pp.177-178.


[10] Quoted at


[12] This is what Doug Lorimer does in defending a position on public expression of differences that is almost identical to the traditional Workers Power approach on the question.

[13] Lenin, “let the workers decide”,


[15] Le Blanc, p. 267.


[17] V.I. Lenin, “Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution,” CW, vol. 33, pp. 430-43.

The problem of ‘monopoly in the sphere of politics’

By Simon Hardy

January 1, 2013 -- Anticapitalist Initiative, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author -- Part one of this essay considered the forgotten pluralism of Russian social democracy and specifically Bolshevism, in this second installment, I want to reflect upon how this might apply to smaller groups of revolutionaries who don’t enjoy mass support in the working class. These are groups that cannot claim to be a party that represents the leadership of a broad cross section of the working class and are therefore generally more modest in their reach and goals.

In the 21st century, the Trotskyist-Leninist left has been mostly reduced to such organisations, that invariably concentrate on disseminating communist ideas and playing a role in developing wider social struggle. This description is seemingly uncontroversial, but the problem lies in the actual practice of small communist organisations in the context of the disintegration of the Trotskyist movement before and after the war, and their pronounced tendency to collapse into confessional sects.

With Stalinism hegemonic on the left wing of the workers’ movement in the last century, and with its parties that identified with the states of Russia, China and Eastern Europe, the tendency was to create small, highly homogenous organisations that each claimed a monopoly on truth with their theoretical output seeking to elaborate a doctrine that can then be organisationally embodied in the small organisation. Much of the Trotskyist movement also tended to mimic and adapt to Stalinism, either in their organisational ‘party building’ practices, or in their political accommodation to the Stalinist regimes perceived to be more radical, e.g. Yugoslavia, China, and Cuba. The result was the creation of a myriad of new orthodoxies defended by the organisational form of the sect. Trotskyism was one, perhaps the most enduring, but in the context of the 1930s and 1960s there was competition from various other trends, from Branderlerites to the Maoists and council communists.[1]

This article is largely a critique of the “sect form” and a plea for greater plurality, organisational unity, and flexibility on the radical left.

Monopolists in the sphere of politics

The need for the sect to define itself against the rest of the left, and in turn school its adherents in the codified ‘fundamentals’ of its tradition, fosters a binary, “right or wrong”, conception of Marxism. The resulting tendency for party adherents to try and ”get it right” above all else undermines the encouragement of critical thinking, able to draw upon the plurality of viewpoints and theories, that is necessary for Marxism to develop as a living and scientific mode of thought. This outlook was sadly exemplified by US Trotskyist Morris Stein at the 1944 convention of the SWP (US) :

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

Even if the party in question could claim 80,000 members in a mass working class of millions it would be a hopelessly authoritarian approach to political discourse within the working-class movement. Yet is down right ridiculous coming from a leader of a revolutionary organisation with around 1000 members or less. You simply do not have the range of experiences, the intellectual resources, the organic relationship to broad cross section of the masses, that could justify a claim to have a monopoly on truth nor even a special claim to be the leadership in waiting of the working class.

Quite simply all you have is your “tradition” or “program” which is the flag by which you define yourself.

Few on the Trotskyist left would look at Stein’s comments and remark, “yes, Stein has captured how small groups of revolutionaries should relate to the wider working-class movement”. Yet, his remarks – in their crude and unmediated form – actually have the merit of articulating the underlying methodology that is accepted by numerous organisations on the modern revolutionary left. Its dangers lie the authoritarian desire of the monopolist in the sphere of truth to defeat those who are "wrong", in order to lay the basis for the political hegemony of their sect in the wider movement.

The experiences of sect warfare on the activist left that we are all familiar with are rooted in this basic psychological assumption about the relationship between one’s sect and the wider left and working-class movement. It is often expressed in putting organisational advantages for your party ahead of the interests of the wider movement, something that we have seen time and again in Britain in the repeated refusal of the radical left to work towards a united anti-cuts movement.

Of course, confidence in one’s own politics is a necessary basis for any critical debate – to argue about anything one has to believe in one’s position, but the truth is that the contemporary left often substitutes rhetoric for a real, living illustration of its ideas, i.e. an illustration subject to practical verification in struggle. For a debate to be worth having, and for an idea to have relevance to real politics, then you have to hold out the possibility that you might be wrong, even going so far as to define the circumstances that would disprove your core claim.

Democratic centralism or monolithism?

The post-WWII left, radical organisations tended to be homogenous to the point of being monolithic in their ideas with a secretive conception of democratic centralism, that withheld their strategic discourse to party members, outside the view of the working class. In this sense, they embodied a practice closer to Stalinism in form if not in content. This model tends to deny personal initiative in theoretical questions by insisting the great majority of analytical or theoretical questions have to be agreed by the leadership of the organisation before being published. Likewise it insists upon absolute unanimity in public expressions of party line and outlaws any fraternal public criticism of the organisation as a breach of discipline.

Is this a good way to organise? Or, to be more specific, is this really the best way to organise? I want to make the point that the position “maximum debate internally, maximum unity in public” or “internal debate, unity in action”, are best seen as ideal aspirations for the political practice of the revolutionary left. Those who argue that smaller revolutionary cadre organisations need to keep all internal debate and party life secret from the public are only fostering a bad practice that exacerbates the tendency towards schisms. By giving minorities in small communist groups no rights of public expression at all, a hothouse atmosphere is often created where disputes spin out of control and far out of proportion to the differences that they (usually) substantively involve. This in turn actually increases the likelihood of a split and compounds the tendency to sect isolation (i.e. small size).

So, communist organisations that are highly closed, i.e. do not open their discussions up to a degree of plurality and difference and insist their their group embodied the “true”  Marxist program, are more likely to split, as minorities have no choice but to split, if they want to simply be able to express a divergence of line from a majority position.

This is often seen as a classical model, one rooted in the orthodoxy of Leninism, but as I argued in part I (above), the debates within Russian social democracy and their interchange with the parties of the Second International and Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky, were entirely open. Arguments were had out in front of the working class, making possible the testing of positions against the real experiences of living struggle, and developing a collective, socialist political culture of free and open interchange. Even in conditions of illegality in Russia, the exile community of Marxists continued their lively debates and arguments in full view of the entire movement.

The so-called "classical" model of democratic centralism – i.e. the view that the sect has to keep all its debates secret to itself, and only present its conclusions to the working class – actually developed in the period of the collapse of the movement into the conditions of the sect.

It has nothing in common with the best traditions of early 20th century Marxism.

Defenders of this so-called "orthodox" position often cite the experience of the International Marxist Group (IMG) in Britain (one time British section of the Fourth International, led by people such as Tariq Ali, Alan Thornett and Peter Gowan in the 1970s) that allowed "permanent factions" (no one had to dissolve their factions after conference) and was apparently paralysed by internal debate. This example, so it is argued, is seen as proof that allowing a degree of plurality will always lead to disaster for a revolutionary group, i.e. permanent debates among cliques that can’t agree a common strategy.

History, however, tells a slightly different story. The IMG grew quite successfully in the 1970s, despite its permanent factions. Its internal debates did not qualitatively hinder its ability to intervene into the struggle. What tore it apart was politics, simply the fact that different wings of the leadership began to pull in different directions, some towards a Castroite orientation, others towards a strategic Labour Party entryism (what became Socialist Action) and others wanted to orientate to the new social movements (what became the International Socialist Group/Socialist Resistance).

Would banning factions have prevented this? It may have delayed it, but it was the objective impact of world politics and shifting international alignments which tore through most of the radical left in any case. This did for the Fourth International section – reducing that complex process to the problem of "permanent factions" is so shallow it does violence to any general analysis. Furthermore, banning factions or tendencies or insisting upon absolute agreement of program and method in this instance would only have resulted in the necessity of creating a kind of witchhunt in the party, as cadre loyal to the leadership identified “bad elements” and targetted them for exclusion. Not quite the kind of culture we want to create, surely?

Plurality is a fact of human life – deal with it

Plurality must mean relaxing some of the constitutional rules concerning the one party line in public. The argument that a minority must be silenced in public to implement the political arguments of the majority and that through this joint work the veracity of one side of the other can be proven in practice, needs to be critically reconsidered. For the Bolsheviks maximum unity in action meant exactly that, unity in action around commonly agreed policies. But within the RSDLP public criticism was allowed so long as it did not disrupt these actions, and did not constitute attacking the party in public. The Bolsheviks demanded a greater degree of homogeneity because they were a faction within a wider party, but as we saw in part I, the idea that every member of the faction argued one line and was punished with expulsion if they deviated from this is not backed up by the historical record.

Either way, we can make a positive case for greater public displays of political debate. Allowing for freedom of criticism actually helps an organisation refine its arguments, clarify its points of agreement, differences, and better inform the actions it chooses to take in the future.

It is nonsense to think that ideas can be “tested” in a public argument in the way that concrete action can, because discussions over principles, theory, perspectives and analysis, will involve different interpretations of the practical activity the organisation has undertaken together.

This is because the argument that silencing the minority to “test the majority perspectives” has something of a flaw in it. Simply put, a small communist organisation can rarely prove its slogans or perspectives in practice. A slogan calling for a general strike cannot be “proven” through agitation by a propaganda group. It may be possible to win some hearing for it and therefore increase the influence or size of the organisation, but that does not "prove" a policy correct, as any number of people can support all kinds of ideas. The truth is always contested, requires theoretical justification as well as empirical verification, and, in any case, we will be able to achieve the closest approximation of the truth if we have a common organisational framework for the argument, rather than it taking place in public between rival sects and in private behind the walls of the given sect.

Likewise, debates over perspectives and the "mood" of the class always have to be mediated by fact of a lack of implantation and a tendency to substitute accurate impressions for schema, or mistake anecdotal episodes for general trends across a whole cross section of the class. Socialists often read into their experiences through the prism of revolutionary optimism, which can lead to quite inaccurate assessments of where people are at more generally.

Furthermore, it can be hard to judge whether your slogans have had much impact on consciousness. In all these senses "testing" your perspectives can be a difficult task. In the Trotskyist tradition arguments over these kinds of issues have often led to sharp internal struggles and splits. But this should not be the case. Rather the crucial thing should be whether there is a common method, for example, an agreement that you should not tail arguments to what reformists will accept but to argue, and take practical steps to seek to achieve, what is necessary to win. All of this points to a relaxing of the standard Leninist mindset of "all or nothing, my way or the highway" and a certain modesty about where we are at now.

The unbeareable darkness of splits

The sect “as monopolists in the field of politics” is a definite factor in the multiple splits in the post-war Trotskyist tradition that is distinctive from the problems of opportunism and sectarianism. It is a general problem, a pervasive set of practices and way of thinking about how politics should be done.

In the 21st century this will have to change for Trotskyism to be able to reach out to wider layers. The choice is simple: remain closed and isolated or open yourselves up to criticism, greater plurality and difference, and allow your ideology to properly crystallise in the minds of the masses.

Small groups will tend to split insofar as they have to be monolithically homogeneous in public, because it closes down any possible space for a release valve for the disagreements or for a healthy engagement with the wider movement.

If the program or strategy is conceived as all-encompassing and if perspectives are also thought of as fundamental to elaborating the program, then any disagreements that emerge over any of those issues will be treated as “from a scratch to gangrene”.

That is, a break from the program or tradition and an ineluctable collapse into “centrism”. The use of terms like centrist or liquidationism, "a collapse away from Leninism and Trotskyism", etc, in a manner out of proportion to the real differences, will exacerbate this tendency, and, as categorical statements of revolutionary de-legitimation, substitute for genuinely rational discussion. A similar phenomenon that accompanies this is ad hominem accusations that people are police spies, agents of other groups, "degenerate" or any other slur under the sun. Ironic really because historically speaking, Trotskyists in particular should to be aware of how Left Opposition activists were shut down in the Soviet Union by being labelled as “fascists”, “pro imperialists”, “saboteurs” and so on. Consider how the abusive term “Trotskyist” is used by union leaders of managers to isolate and smoke out working place militants. It stems from a similar approach. Sadly the personalist attacks on party members during bitter faction fights are often only a reflection of the way they refer to other socialists most of the time anyway. An example of this is the number of times I have heard other socialists dismissed as “crazy” or “mad” for expressing a different political view. [3]

Everything can be blown out of proportion by party cadre (“we are fighting to save the very essence of the revolutionary program which only we have!”) and this means they cannot test the veracity of falsity of their ideas in the working class. The result is that the minority often simply to leave and set up their own group (“To hell with this, these people are crazy!”). Of course every time this happens there is a lot of self justificatory talk about how the new group will go forward and be better in every way than the last group which has degenerated, become petty bourgeois, and so on (the remaining majority declare that the splitters “will pass into the dustbin of history” and have “entered the swamp” etc). But in such circumstances each group faces loss of members, influence and even potential ruin as a result. Often the most important thing is they lose their credibility.

The problem with being monopolists is that everyone is educated to think they are the bearers of truth, and when two truths collide then the result is usually a break down, or break up. In this logic no plurality of opinion is possible because it is impossible for truth and falsehood to co-exist in the same space – one must drive out the other. Tactical differences can be containable, but the internal logic of the organisation tends to blend tactics in with perspectives and strategy, snowballing disagreements into unsolvable debates.

If the politics of the organisation are seen as one totalising line which is utterly interconnected and interwoven with history, theory, perspective and so on, there is a tendency to raise secondary tactics to matters of principle. Shall we vote Labour or not? Should we support a disaffiliation from the Labour Party motion? These are often debated as if they are issues of principle, despite the fact that they plainly are not – they are questions of tactics.

Before people think this is a plea for relativism, I can assure you it is not. It is not to say there is no such thing as right and wrong – some things are just wrong and some things are just right. For instance capitalism is a system that exploits and oppresses billions, it must be replaced by something more democratic, egalitarian and just. Likewise, the capitalist state at its core is an apparatus of class rule, it is impossible to imagine how it could be completely captured and used by the working class to overthrow the bosses. The appeal for more plurality of views and acceptance of debate as part of a necessary recomposition of the left, is rather to appeal to the classical Greek notion of dialectics, “the art of conversation”.

This involved the revolutionary idea that a participant in a debate should seek to understand the other side’s position, try and develop the strongest possible argument in favour of it, either to incorporate them into one’s own argument or to develop a stronger rebuttal.

The monolithism of the Trotskyist movement and its organisational forms tend heavily towards ruling out just such a practice, while claiming to be the upholders of democractic practices in the workers' movement.

Can we be more flexible?

Since all groups want to develop “party lines” or policy – and it is only correct that they do – it is important to sometimes have a wide tolerance for interpretation or even how it is used in any situation. While having members meetings and voting on policies, slogans and campaigning priorities is essential in any democratic organisation and mobilising the organisation to fight for these is a necessary fact of political life, the essential point is that too much of “Leninist” thinking is unduly flexible and overly centralist in its attitude.

After all, often in politics a “line” operates only at a certain level of generality. It might refer to something quite specific (a vote in an election) or it might be a more general point about an analysis or theoretical argument (imperialism, the nature of reformism, etc). Let’s go back to the Russian example, since people are generally inclined to look there for answers.

In Lenin’s understanding of slogans and tactics there was often a necessary degree of mediation between them and the strategic goal. For instance, while writing from abroad during World War I, he made the case for revolutionary defeatism as a strategic goal in Russia (turn imperialist war into a civil war ending in a revolution). He was not advocating “defeat for Russia” as an agitational slogan on the ground. Jean-Paul Joubert describes his position thus:

The position of Lenin cannot, therefore, be summed up in the one word "defeatism". He regarded revolutionary defeatism as the result of a strategic line – which he was not alone in recommending – the transformation of the imperialist war into civil war. When we study his writings closely, we find that he refers to "defeatism" less frequently than the subsequent use of the word by commentators might lead us to expect. In the final analysis, Lenin did not make acceptance of "revolutionary defeatism" a precondition, or even a preliminary, to joint activity: the formula is found neither in the unity proposals which he addressed to the Nashe Slovo group in 1915, nor in the draft resolution and manifesto of the "Zimmerwald Left’".[4]

Leaders like Bukharin preferred more general anti-war slogans that could reach out to a wider anti-war mood among the working class. Lenin had his reasons for why revolutionary defeatism was correct – and the revolution of 1917, which was of course a "civil war" in the broad sense of the term, validated his core perspective - but it is impossible to imagine that the Bolshevik members in the regiments carried much propaganda advocating the defeat for Russian soldiers (them and their comrades) at the hands of the Germans. That literary output was orientated more towards the terrible conditions of the army, the heartless and callous attitude of the generals and government ministers, the expansionist nature of the war, and so on. As long as the strategic concept of opposing both German and Russian imperialism was there, then there was flexibility about slogans on the ground. But on the surface this (falsely) looks like a “compromise” with Menshevik Internationalism (simply being anti-war and not anti-imperialist). Giving the members and local leaders some leeway to explore the practical implications of a strategy is a necessary part of building an organisation. Lenin wrote about it long before 1914 when he talked about the branches having “autonomy” from the centre to produce their own materials and so on.[5]

The reality is that although many left groups refer to themselves as pre-party formations or factions-without-a-party, they generally act as if they were much larger parties. By this I mean they have all the trappings of a mass party, membership structure, branches, national committees, political committees, editorial boards, an auxiliary youth organisation and so forth. They produce a paper and have a definite program that encompasses pretty much everything. They organise like a party and behave like a party – just a very small one. In fact, the only trapping of a mass party that is lost in the pre-party formation is the right to expression of external differences. Why is this singled out as the one variable that is essential to cut in the pre-party stage?

Indeed, why is there such a fetish about a united line on nearly all political issues in public? Supposedly because the "pre-party formation" is a faction without a party and factions must agree on everything? But what if some of the faction begin to disagree and the disagreements become quite fundamental? Then the faction will split and there will be two smaller factions-without-a-party. This is the logic of monolithism in the left.  Despite this, it is still insisted that unity in public is necessary for effective intervention, yet it is difficult to imagine a greater hinderance to public "‘intervention", than a split.

We must be able to afford a little more flexibility and common sense around this issue if we are to build a more healthy revolutionary left.


What does all this point to?

Simply this: that any revolutionary organisation will inevitably have contending tendencies and platforms within it and we have to become better at building more elastic organisations that can manage and even come to take advantage of these differences.

The fact that organisations have historically dealt with this reality badly is part of the problem that we face today. Any organisation that considers itself to be the revolutionary party or the revolutionary party in embryo will have to deal with the nature of plurality and openness.

Denying any public expressions of these differences, closing down debate, demagogically emphasising “centralism” over democratic participation is simply not going to work any more.

As such our goal in the coming years should be to lay the basis for a united, revolutionary organisation in Britain, one that will inevitably combine different already existing tendencies and individuals, while broadening itself out to people who have never been in an organisation before. It may form part of a new radical left coalition (similar to Syriza) or it may not, but a stronger revolutionary challenge to capitalist is an absolute must in the current crisis.

This means we have to incorporate important lessons from what came before without being prisoners of the past.

A new, sizeable revolutionary organisation would forge its own tradition, it could not simply rest content with the traditions of the 1920s and '30s (or the '60s and '70s). The problem is that many socialists take their model from a fixed interpretation of Bolshevism after 1917 – without thinking about how that revolutionary party in Russia was built up over time in constant debate and evolution of its ideas. As we have seen, the reading of the Bolshevik party also mistakenly sees it as excessively homogenous and this underpins the monolithism of the post-war Trotskyist and Leninist organisations (sadly a result of Stalinist influence on the revolutionary left).

If we start from the end point (i.e. 1917-21) and use that as our beginning, without taking into account the actual evolutionary process that rendered Bolshevism successful as a living oppositional force within the workers' movement, then we will be unable to replicate the kind of organic development of a working-class party that was so essential to what became known as Leninism.

I will finish with two quotes, the first an argument made by Alan Wald, a US socialist writing for Against the Current in 1995 who examined the failure of US Trotskyism and concluded the following:

The goal of socialist political cadres must be the development of a broad and democratically functioning team leadership, based on an organisation institutionalising multiple tendencies and pluralism, that balances out strengths and weaknesses in order to sustain a movement diachronically as well as synchronically. [6]

This, in my opinion, is the way forward.

In this sense I think that Murray Smith of the Fourth International was right when he argued (against John Rees and Alex Callinicos of the SWP) in 2002:

The idea that at any given moment living revolutionary parties contain all sorts of currents, tendencies and trends, not all of them revolutionary, some ultra-left, is hardly new. It was true for the Bolshevik Party and for the parties of the early Communist International. We have to approach the building of new parties with a willingness to work with diverse forces and the patience to let clarification come about through debate on common experience. It is quite sterile to approach the tasks of the present period armed with a norm of what a revolutionary party should be, which is in fact just a bigger version of the existing far left organisations. The mass revolutionary parties of the future will not be the SWP or the LCR or Lutte Ouvrière or the Socialist Party writ large. They will be open, pluralist and non-hierarchical. [7]

One might debate the exact meaning of the term "non-hierarchical" but Leninists should remain open minded. I would like the left to be as non-hierarchical as possible, reflecting the principle of human self-emancipation and foreshadowing communist liberation, a kind of start as you mean to carry on ethos – while not ignoring the importance of effective action against capitalism in the here and now.

But, we must also debate such things out with the avowedly non-hierarchal left, who are a key constituency for any radical new project. Any new organisation will need some kind of democratic hierarchy to function, but what that looks like in practice is open to debate and common elaboration.

In this sense, we have to renew revolutionary traditions and politics afresh, taking the best of the revolutionaries that have gone before us, but striking out again, forging a new path in which the factional struggles of the old communist movement can act as a guide, but not a road map.

The final point in Murray Smith’s quote is worth tattooing onto the backs of our hands as a constant reminder or the reality of the radical left today; the fact is that none of the ideological sectlets and "Bolshevik" groups will form the basis for the future revolutionary party.

However, they might very well form the backbone of a new party, but only if they can put the new party/organisation ahead of their own narrowly conceived organisational interests. If they can’t – as they couldn’t do in the the British Socialist Alliance –  then the organisations will be quickly torn apart, merely repeating the same old cycle and confirming the accusations of the Labour left that the revolutionary left can’t build anything credible or sustainable.

The bottom line is simple – either the revolutionary left in Britain regroups to grow stronger or we won’t win. We have to prove to the wider working class and radical forces that we can build a credible organisation and so far we have utterly failed to do that – none of us has succeeded. As long as we continue to build these small groups in isolation and not as part of a wider, more united, and credible revolutionary organisation – we are only indulging in the wretched state into which we have fallen whilst delaying the necessary work to free ourselves from our own self-inflicted purgatory.

[Simon Hardy is a supporter of the Anticapitalist Initiative and was a spokesperson for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts during the student movement of 2010-11. He is co-author of Beyond Capitalism? The future of the Radical Left (Zero Books 2013) and runs a blog, Marxist Theory. You can follow him on twitter @Simon_Hardy1.]


  1. This statament is not referring to those situations where an ideological trend like Maoism was embodied in a million-strong party – we are referring to the left of the Communsit Party organisations mainly in the Western world. ↩
  2. Trotskyism in the USA – Alan Wald ↩
  3. This might seem like a joke or silly jibe, but don’t forget that most Soviet era oppositionists after the war were declared insane by the Stalinist government and sent to asylums that were little better than torture facilities. The logic was simple, we have this beautiful workers' paradise, you must be mentally deranged to oppose it or criticise it – so we will not treat you like a criminal but instead as someone with mental health problems. Consider that logic today on the left ,“we have this wonderful revolutionary organisation, it has generally been proven right at every turn in the class struggle, we have led this dispute and this campaign… you must be MAD to criticise us…” ↩

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