Paul Le Blanc: Leninism and organisation today

[For more on revolutionary organisation, click HERE. For more discussion on Leninism, click HERE and HERE. More articles by Paul Le Blanc can be found HERE.]

By Paul Le Blanc

March 14, 2013 -- Socialist Worker (USA), posted at Links Internarional Journal of Socialist Renewal at the author's suggestion and with his permission -- I appreciate the comradely spirit of Joaquín Bustelo's contribution to the discussion ("There's no universal model of Leninism"). The issues he raises are important--from the standpoint of revolutionary politics and also from the standpoint of revolutionary history. It is possible to be wrong on one and right on the other, although I will argue that my old comrade is partly wrong on one (politics) and entirely wrong on the other (history).

Before proceeding to a discussion of the history that Comrade Bustelo gets wrong, I want to touch on the political framework within which this discussion is taking place.

Leninism is a dead end?

Joaquín tells us: "Based on the nine decades since Lenin fell silent, I think the verdict of actual experience is quite clear...What we have come to know as 'Leninism' is a dead end that has 'blocked our own road to further success.'"

A key, of course, is the phrase "what we have come to know as Leninism." There is more than one way to understand Leninism.

Over the years, millions of people throughout the world had a Stalinist (anti-democratic, bureaucratic, sometimes murderously opportunistic) understanding of "Leninism," and this certainly was, in multiple ways, a barrier to any genuinely revolutionary success. But for some, there is the notion that the Stalinist "understanding" of Leninism is accurate, and this often becomes an argument against any kind of revolutionary politics (which is precisely what Lenin himself represented).

On the left, there are some who advance that anti-Leninist notion in order to support a social-democratic reformism which seems reasonable to many until it hits the wall of capitalist crisis and austerity onslaughts, not to mention imperialist war--and it generally proves unable to do more than adapt to such things.

Others on the left see the limitations of reformism, and stake out a more revolutionary stance that blends, nonetheless, with a similar rejection of Leninism. The result, generally, involves a very moralistic personal-political practice blended with romantic hopes for spontaneous uprisings--which periodically are generated by capitalist crisis and oppression, but which (without a practical political program and adequate organizational structures) have tended to dissipate, finally, like great gushers of steam. When the steam clears, nothing is left but reformist efforts and the capitalist status quo.

One of the great strengths of the Communist Manifesto, the writings of Rosa Luxemburg, and the writings of the actual Lenin--all based on considerable class-struggle experience--is that they offer something more. The goal was not to sustain the never-ending story (with capitalism the permanent "reality" and anti-capitalism a perpetual rebellion). Nor was it simply to pile up an accumulation of reform efforts, some of which would make things a bit better for a while. Nor was the goal to create an escapist small-group universe of the politically pure-minded.

The goal was to bring a socialist-minded working class to political power--to begin an actual transition to socialism. And those around Lenin a hundred years ago seem to have gotten it right, at least initially, with the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Challenges we face

One of the great challenges for revolutionaries is that the heroic achievements of the Russian Revolution and the amazing revolutionary mass workers movement associated with it (not only in Russia, but the whole wide world around) did not endure. Yet capitalism has endured, quite successfully and destructively imposing itself on our own time, leaving only diluted and fragmented elements of the working-class Left that had played such an important role in earlier times.

Bustelo and others have rejected Leninism in part through their own experience with groups that claimed the Leninist mantle while explicitly rejecting Stalinism. The problem was that these groups embraced a very stilted understanding of Lenin's ideas.

That is how he and Louis Proyect explain their outlook--that Lenin himself was no "Leninist." Having gone through this experience, I think there is much that is positive in this orientation of theirs, which includes an insistence that no would-be revolutionary deserves the name if he or she prefers to cling to some small-group "Leninist" universe as an alternative to engaging in the actual and potential mass struggles of our time.

Such struggles are partly described in the new version of Paul Mason's valuable journalistic account, Why It's Still Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Verso, 2013), ranging from the Arab Spring to mass struggles against neoliberal austerity, the Occupy movement, and more. Of course, aspects of what Mason describes are events that some of us have been intimately involved in, and many of us keenly feel the need to do better than we have been able to do up to now.

We are faced with the question of how we can get from where we are to where we need to go. I have argued that the tradition of Lenin and his comrades is a resource for us.

Bustelo and Proyect tell us that tradition is a dead-end. It seems to me they have chosen to explain the "how and why" of their own negative experiences and of the historic dilemma we are facing with an overly simple narrative--the problem is Leninism. Their narrative tries to "save" Lenin from association with significant aspects of his own political thought and example, and from a valuable collective of global revolutionaries gathered in the Communist International.

One can only hope that if it is demonstrated that Lenin himself was intimately associated with the "Leninism" they now reject, they will be stimulated to rethink that rejection, instead of broadening it to include Lenin himself (as so many others have done).

One way of seeing Leninism

Comrade Bustelo, along with others, never quite defines the Leninism he is rejecting. Perhaps it would be helpful for me to define what I am defending.

Lenin's quite unoriginal starting point (shared with Marx, the younger Kautsky, Luxemburg throughout her life, and others) is a belief in the necessary interconnection of socialist theory and practice with the working class and labor movement. The working class cannot adequately defend its actual interests and overcome its oppression, in his view, without embracing the goal of socialism--an economic system in which the economy is socially owned and democratically controlled in order to meet the needs of all people.

This fundamental orientation is the basis for most of what Lenin has to say, which taken together constitutes the "Leninism" of Lenin. The scope of his political writings embraces various aspects of the labor movement: class-consciousness and culture, trade unions, social movements for reforms, the relationship of reform to revolution, electoral struggles, dynamics of party-building, united front coalitions, class alliances (especially the worker-peasant alliance), the interplay of democratic and socialist struggles, questions of nationalism and imperialism, ways of utilizing Marxist theory and more.

Lenin, not bent on being "innovative," did not invent all of this, although he was a creative thinker who advanced certain lines of thought--it can be demonstrated--in ways that were different from many others in the Marxist intellectual camp. In any event, he put the elements summarized above together in a manner that had powerful impact in his native Russia and throughout the world.

Bustelo, Proyect and others tend to focus, in their discussion of Leninism, on organizational questions. It may be that they would agree that Lenin's views on these questions involved a coherent conception of organization that is practical, democratic and revolutionary. They might argue that such notions were also prevalent among the best of Second International Marxism--and I would agree with that.

But I would argue that Lenin, in his practical work, in what he did to build the Bolshevik organization, contributed new elements that were entirely consistent with the best of Second International Marxism, but which helped the Bolsheviks do what a majority of the organizations in the Second International proved unable to do. Lenin and his co-thinkers then went on to invest their painfully acquired insights into the revolutionary international that they attempted to create in the wake of the First World War.

This is far too precious an acquisition for revolutionaries of today and tomorrow to toss aside. And yet when Bustelo, Proyect and others dismiss the Communist International (which they are far too inclined to view as the instrument of an apparently proto-Stalinist Gregory Zinoviev, the flawed but unfairly-maligned chairman of the Comintern), they toss aside incredibly important contributions.

The 1921 Comintern theses on organization

This brings us to the 1921 Comintern theses, "The Organizational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work," which Comrade Bustelo attacks. If one consults Lenin's correspondence in this period, we can see that these theses were put forward in the Comintern's Third Congress at Lenin's insistence.

Not only did Lenin help to shape the theses, he also defended them after they were adopted. (See his letters to Otto Kuusinen and Wilhelm Koenen in Collected Works, Volume 42, pp. 316-319, and to Gregory Zinoviev in Collected Works, Volume 45, pp. 185-186, where he says he read the theses "with great pleasure," considered the document to be "a very good job," offered input on improvements for the theses, and urgently pressed Zinoviev that it is "necessary" for the document "to be presented at this conference without fail.")

Yet according to Bustelo, in the following year Lenin himself scathingly attacked this very same document. He asks us: "Can a denunciation be stronger than saying that a resolution diminishes the prospects for world revolution? How much bigger does a repudiation get than saying that with this one resolution 'we blocked our road to further success.'"

This certainly does provide a puzzle--that Lenin was so severely denouncing his own work of the previous year. What could account for such a thing?

What could account for it is that Bustelo misunderstands Lenin's 1922 criticism. Even if one reads carefully the Lenin quote he presents us, we see that Lenin asserts, in fact, that "the resolution is an excellent one." In fact, Bustelo cuts out some of Lenin's praise: "the resolution is excellently drafted; I am prepared to subscribe to every one of its 50 or more points."

It is true, as Bustelo says, that Lenin criticized it for being too long and "too Russian"--but he went on to explain (in a passage also not quoted by Bustelo) that "we have not learned how to present our Russian experience to foreigners."

The big mistake that "blocked the road to our further success," according to Lenin, was that "foreign comrades have signed it without reading and understanding it." Far from denouncing and repudiating the resolution, Lenin said: "That resolution must be carried out. It cannot be carried out overnight that is absolutely impossible." He repeated that "the resolution is too Russian, it reflects the Russian experience."

Rather than saying the resolution should therefore be overturned, he concluded that the foreign comrades "must assimilate part of the Russian experience." (For these passages of Lenin's speech, see John Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, 303-305.)

Bustelo, like so many others, provides selective quotes from Lenin's 1922 speech about the 1921 theses, but he does not provide a serious examination of the theses themselves. An excellent summary of the matter is provided in a fine essay, "Party Democracy in Lenin's Comintern--and Small Marxist Groups Today" by John Riddell, the pre-eminent chronicler of the early Communist International:

The Comintern and its parties sought to function according to the norms of "democratic centralism." This term was understood to mean proletarian democracy in taking decisions and choosing leaders, combined with unity in carrying out a decided course of action. Marxists have much the same concept today. But in the early Comintern, the focus was different: its chief concern was grappling with bureaucratism and electoralism.

The main constituent units of Comintern parties outside Russia came out of the old social-democratic movement. These component parties had shed their reformist wings, but still preserved much of the old parties' structures and habits. The parties from which they came had devoted their energy mainly to electoral campaigning and associated educational work. They were led by a bureaucratic layer of functionaries, rooted above all in the parliamentary fraction, the journalistic apparatus and allied trade union leaderships.

The Comintern's democratic centralism sought to break the grip of bureaucratism. It aimed to bring parliamentary, journalistic and trade union work under party control; to unify leadership and ranks into a homogenous movement; and to equip the party to intervene in mass struggles.

The need to make this transition is the overriding theme of the Comintern's 1921 resolution on organization. The resolution's section on democratic centralism denounces parties where "functionaries became estranged from members, a vibrant collaboration was replaced by the mere forms of democracy, and the organizations became split between active functionaries and passive masses."

The resolution stresses members' obligation to be active and to organize along lines that would enable them to carry out party policy in mass workers' organizations. It called for "living ties and interrelationships both within the party, between its leading bodies and the rest of the membership, and also between the party and the masses of proletarians outside its ranks".

Strengths of the 1921 theses

It seems to me that the kinds of excellent and non-dogmatic points Lenin makes in such writings as Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder find their way into this document.

Far from a dogmatic effort to impose "the Russian model" on all Communist parties, for example, there is this insistence on relative national autonomy:

There is no absolute form of organization which is correct for Communist Parties at all times. The conditions of the proletarian class struggle are constantly changing, and so the proletarian vanguard has always to be looking for effective forms of organization. Equally, each Party must develop its own special forms of organization to meet the particular historically-determined conditions within the country.

And then there is this insistence on leadership authority being rooted in flexibility and in close contact with the actual working class and its struggles:

To lead the revolutionary class struggle, the Communist Party and its leading bodies must possess great fighting power and at the same time the ability to adapt to the changing conditions of struggle. Successful leadership presupposes, moreover, the closest contact with the proletarian masses. Unless such contact is established the leaders will not lead the masses but, at best, only follow them."

This insistence on engagement with the real, every-day struggles of the working class--a major point stressed in the document--is at the heart of what many of us are arguing for in the here-and-now against the self-contained universes of various would-be "Leninist" sects. We shouldn't shrug it off when the document says such things as this:

Communists make a grave mistake if they stand back passively, are scornful of or oppose the day-to-day struggle of the workers for small improvements in the conditions of their life on the grounds that they have a Communist program and that their final goal is armed revolutionary struggle. However limited and modest the demands for which the workers are willing to fight, this must never be a justification for the Communists to stand aside from the struggle. Our agitational activity should not give the impression that we Communists stir up strikes just for the sake of it and approve of any kind of rash action. On the contrary, we must earn the reputation among the militant workers of being their most valuable comrades-in-arms.

One of the most important aspects of the document is its warning against the very type of centralism that has all-too-often been put forward as "Leninism":

The democratic centralism of the Communist Party organization should be a real synthesis, a fusion of centralism and proletarian democracy. This fusion can be achieved only when the Party organization works and struggles at all times together, as a united whole. Centralization in the Communist Party does not mean formal, mechanical centralization, but the centralization of Communist activity, i.e., the creation of a leadership that is strong and effective and at the same time flexible.

Formal or mechanical centralization would mean the centralization of 'power' in the hands of the Party bureaucracy, allowing it to dominate the other members of the Party or the revolutionary proletarian masses which are outside the Party...

As John Riddell notes, the resolution criticizes the lack of genuine (as opposed to "formal") democracy, a deficiency common in the parties of the Second International. It tells us:

The same divisions emerged in the old organizations of the non-revolutionary workers' movement as had existed in the organization of the bourgeois state: the division between the "bureaucracy" and the "people." Under the paralyzing influence of the bourgeois environment a separation of functions occurred; formal democracy replaced the active participation of working people, and the organization was divided into the active functionaries and the passive masses. Even the revolutionary workers' movement has not entirely escaped the influence of the bourgeois environment and the evils of this formalism and division.

Warnings against the wrong kind of centralism are repeated more than once: "Maximum centralization of Party activity will not be achieved by constructing a schematic, hierarchical system of leadership with a large number of Party organizations, each one subordinate to its superior."

Instead, democratically elected committees in working-class districts and regions should guide the work of the organization in those localities, suggesting a high degree of relative autonomy within the organization. This is projected as a way of providing political leadership in a manner ensuring "that close contact is maintained between it and the broad masses of Party members" in the various locales.

Also, the right to form minority tendencies and factions is assumed as a matter of course, for example in this passage: "serious tactical disagreements which surface in the elections to the central body should not be ignored; on the contrary, they must be discussed by the central body, of which able representatives of the minority view must be members."

Critical engagement

The resolution emphasizes the need for active participation of all members in the organization to replace the "active functionaries and passive masses" dynamic. If I had one criticism to make of the document, it would be that it presents an unrealistic ideal with this questionable formulation: "A Communist Party, in order to ensure that its members are really active, must demand that they give all their time and energy to Party work."

All their time and energy? If I was able to use a time machine to go back to 1921, this is something I would like to raise and argue about with the comrades.

At the same time, this problematical passage stands as a challenge for those of us who are enmeshed in the complex, often alluring, often incredibly destructive culture of the capitalist here-and-now. Personally what is it that I actually do, or fail to do, to bring about the better society that I believe in? What will it take to create movements and struggles to transition from capitalism to socialism? How can I sustain myself, how can we sustain ourselves, in ways that will help us do what must be done? How can revolutionaries help to nurture cultures of resistance that will help to sustain more and more people in pushing back capitalist oppression?

These and other important questions are by no means answered by this document of nine decades past. But it can be a tool (as can other writings by Lenin and his comrades) to help us think through what must be done.

There are positive qualities in the 1921 Comintern resolution, and also points and passages that merit more critical examination, but I hope that what I have offered here gives a sense of the contribution this much-maligned document can provide to the important discussion of building revolutionary organizations in which many of us are engaged today.