Hal Draper: an eye witness account of the Russian Revolution

November 7, 2017 at 4:17 pm (history, Lenin, Marxism, posted by JD, revolution, Russia, socialism, war)

The following discussion by the American Marxist scholar Hal Draper is of a book written by a non-Bolshevik member of the government that took power in October 1917, I N Steinberg. Steinberg was a leader of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, of the faction known as the Left S-Rs, who were in coalition with the Bolsheviks for a few months after October 1917, from soon after the establishment of the Soviet Government.

Steinberg’s book, In the Workshop of the Revolution, was published in 1954 long after he left Russia. Despite the Left S-Rs’ split from the Bolshevik-led Soviet Government, Steinberg tells the truth about the Bolshevik seizure of power and about the early months of Soviet Government.

Even when he subscribes to anti-Bolshevik propaganda about the period after the S-R-Bolshevik coalition broke up, he does it in such a way that the truth, as Hal Draper demonstrates in the following article (Labor Action, 14 and 21 June 1954), is still visible.

In the “Workshop of the Revolution”, Steinberg presents the 1917 upheaval not as a conspiracy but as a real people’s revolution. And he is very inconsiderate of the myths about the “democratic” Kerensky regime which the bad Bolsheviks overthrew, as well as the Menshevik and Right Socialist Revolutionary allies of Kerensky.

Actually Steinberg’s language about the “moderate socialist parties” (Menshevik and Right SRs) is very mild, but the outline of the picture he pains is damning enough. That picture is of an elemental revolutionary upsurge of the masses from blow, determined to throw off all oppression and equally determined to end the war, which the rights and moderates tried to oppose, and which the Bolsheviks (and left SRs) supported. This was the simple difference between the historic reality and the anti-Bolshevik myth of a “conspiracy”.

Of the right wing socialists, Steinberg writes that they believed “that the necessary conditions were not yet in evidence to realise the programme of the people. They conceived it impossible to end the war without the co-operation of the Allied powers. They thought it utopian to transfer political power to the working classes since, in their view the capitalist order in Russia was inevitable. Their interpretation of the revolution as only a democratic bourgeois succession to Tsarism, demanded, of course, a corresponding strategy — the strategy of class compromise and political compliance. This strategy put the moderate two parties (Mensheviks and Right Socialist-Revolutionaries) halfway between the bourgeois and the working-class programmes, gave their activities an air of vacillation and, in fact, fortified the position of the bourgeois camp.”

Now to be sure, the anti-Bolsheviks argue strenuously that anything beyond a bourgeois revolution was indeed impossible, but what Steinberg point up sharply is that this line meant that the right-wingers had to set themselves against and get ready to suppress the revolutionary dynamism of the people. It is because the anti-Bolsheviks have to get around this inconvenient fact that the myth of a “conspiracy” was born.

By the time of the new Kerensky government of 10 July, Steinberg relates, “Kerensky had lost hold of the ties of confidence which once had bound him to the people.” Discreditment rebounded not only against Kerensky but also against the Menshevik and Right SR ministers who joined his cabinet.

“The main speaker for an exponent of this rootless coalition”, writes Steinberg “was the Social-Democrat (Menshevik) Tseretelli. As minister of the interior, he dispatched a circular to the whole country designed to redouble the power of the government commissars against the active local soviets. He ordered these commissars to block the ‘illegal distribution of landed properties,’ the ‘appropriation, ploughing and sowing of other people’s lands.’ He thus sustained the policy of his predecessor, Prince Lvov. Every circular of this kind was like a match thrown into the powder keg of the revolution.”

Being highly concerned with the democratic forms of the revolution, Steinberg especially emphasises the transformation of the Kerensky regime into a “quasi-dictatorship” — with the consent and support of the very democratic Mensheviks and S-Rs who were later to issue howling blasts of anguish at every step the Soviet government took even to defend itself against armed insurrection.
Steinberg’s general sketch of the whole development, of course, contributes nothing new to historical knowledge, its main interest lying the character of the narrator. There are vignette touches here and there. Read the rest of this entry »

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The mighty cry of “All power to the Soviets”

November 4, 2017 at 11:47 am (history, Lenin, posted by JD, revolution, Russia, workers)

Book excerpt: Through the Russian Revolution by Albert Rhys Williams

The US SocialistWorker.org (nothing to do with the UK-based SWP) is running a series 1917: The View from the Streets with excerpts from a firsthand account of the revolution by socialist journalist Albert Rhys Williams, written for the New York Evening Post and published as a book in 1921. Along with the more famous Ten Days That Shook the World by fellow journalist John Reed, Williams’ Through the Russian Revolution provides a riveting picture of the struggle to create a new society as Russian workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants began seizing control over every aspect of their daily lives.

In the excerpt below from chapter six, Williams describes the final days before the insurrection that toppled the Provisional Government on October 24-25 (November 6-7 on the calendar we use today) as the workers and peasants of Russia put their hopes in the workers’ councils. SW‘s series on 1917 is edited by John Riddell and co-published at his website.

The soviets of the Russian Revolution provided a model of the basic building block of workers' democracy
Above: The soviets provided a model of basic workers’ democracy

ANOTHER WINTER is bearing down upon hungry, heartsick Russia. The last October leaves are falling from the trees, and the last bit of confidence in the government is falling with them.

Everywhere recklessness–and orgies of speculation. Food trains are looted. Floods of paper money pour from the presses. In the newspapers endless columns of hold-ups, murders and suicides. Night life and gambling-halls run full blast with enormous stakes won and lost.

Reaction is open and arrogant. Kornilov, instead of being tried for high treason, is lauded as the Great Patriot by the bourgeoisie. But with them patriotism is tawdry talk and a sham. They pray for the Germans to come and cut off Petrograd, the Head of the Revolution.

Rodzianko, ex-President of the Duma, brazenly writes: “Let the Germans take the city. Tho they destroy the fleet they will throttle the Soviets.” The big insurance companies announce one-third off in rates after the German occupation. “Winter always was Russia’s best friend,” say the bourgeoisie. “It may rid us of this cursed Revolution.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Despair Foments Rebellion

Winter, sweeping down out of the North, hailed by the privileged, brings terror to the suffering masses. As the mercury drops toward zero, the prices of food and fuel go soaring up. The bread ration grows shorter. The queues of shivering women standing all night in the icy streets grow longer. Lockouts and strikes add to the millions of workless. The rancor in the hearts of the masses flares out in bitter speeches like this from a Vyborg workingman:

“Patience, patience, they are always counseling us. But what have they done to make us patient? Has Kerensky given us more to eat than the Tsar? More words and promises–yes! But not more food. All night long we wait in the lines for shoes and bread and meat, while, like fools, we write ‘Liberty’ on our banners. The only liberty we have is the same old liberty to slave and starve.”

It is a sorry showing after eight months of pleading and parading thru the streets. All they have got are lame feet, aching arms, and the privilege of starving and freezing in the presence of mocking red banners: “Land to the Peasants!” “Factories to the Workers!” “Peace to all the World!”

But no longer do they carry their red banners thru the streets. They are done with appealing and beseeching. In a mood born of despair and disillusion they are acting now–reckless, violent, iconoclastic, but–acting. Read the rest of this entry »

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Catalonia, the ‘Norwegian way’ and Lenin

November 3, 2017 at 10:09 am (civil rights, class, history, internationalism, Lenin, Marxism, national liberation, nationalism, posted by JD, solidarity, spain)

Catalonia general strike

By Martin Thomas (this article also appears on the Workers Liberty website)

“It is the bounden duty”, wrote Lenin, “of class-conscious workers to conduct systematic propaganda and prepare the ground for the settlement of conflicts that may arise over the secession of nations, not in the ‘Russian way’, but only in the way they were settled in 1905 between Norway and Sweden.

“This is exactly what is meant by the demand in the program for the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination”.

The “Russian way” meant the way national conflicts were settled under the Tsar (and would be settled again under Stalin). Oppressed nations were told to shut up and submit.

Lenin argued that capitalism simultaneously generated democratic impulses and openings, and tended to undermine them, empty them out, block them. Socialists could and should take up battles for democracy even within capitalism; we could win them; that would be of value even within capitalism.

This was the Norway-Sweden model which Lenin cited: Read the rest of this entry »

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Matgamna and Hornung on Lenin and the Russian Revolution

October 16, 2017 at 7:59 pm (AWL, class, From the archives, history, Lenin, Marxism, posted by JD, revolution, Russia)

Above: the young Lenin’s police mugshot when arrested in 1895.

By Sean Matgamna and Andrew Hornung (adapted from a series of articles first published in Workers’ Fight in 1974).

Read online (below), or download pdf

Who was Lenin? He led the workers of the Tsarist Russian Empire to make the most profound revolution in history in 1917. He was the leader of the Russian Bolshevik Party, without which the workers would have been defeated.

Of Karl Marx’s fate at the hands of his alleged followers in the early socialist movement, Lenin wrote that it was often the fate of revolutionaries that after their deaths their names were made into legends to console the oppressed, while their ideas — their real politics, what they had stood for in life — were thrown out and replaced by something else. Something very like that happened to Lenin himself. It happened to him almost immediately after his death. The bureaucracy which ruled the USSR mummified his poor physical remnants, built a great ‘Lenin Mausoleum’ and created an obscene national shrine around the mummy.

Lenin had stood for maximum working class democracy. The rulers who made him — and Marx — into a holy icon of their pidgin-Marxist state religion, proceeded in the decades after his death to build an anti-socialist totalitarian state on the groaning backs of the people of the USSR. Lenin had liberated the many oppressed nationalities of the Tsarist empire: Stalin put them back under the control of Great Russian chauvinist jailers and oppressors. Lenin had stood for the international socialist revolution. Stalin tried to build ‘socialism’ in backward Russia, substituting “socialism in one country” for Lenin’s programme of international socialism. Lenin had defended the right of independent trade unions to exist in the USSR: everywhere Stalinists ruled and rule, such organisations of the working class are systematically and brutally rooted out.

At every important point the Stalinists, who lyingly call themselves Leninists, radically cut away what Lenin had really stood for and adopted anti-working-class policies — the very opposite of those which Lenin spent his life fighting for. Now that Stalinism has fallen in the USSR and Eastern Europe, we have the inverse process. Lenin, who spent his last crippled years fighting incipient Stalinism, is scapegoated for the discredited despotic system which rose up on the defeat of Lenin’s last struggle, continued after Lenin’s death by Trotsky and others.

This pamphlet is offered to the reader as an introduction to what Lenin — the man who led the greatest working class revolution so far — really did in his life, what he said and what he fought for and against.

The contents were published as a pamphlet in 1987, based on articles in the weekly Socialist Organiser in 1982 (nos. 108-113). They have been slightly edited for this reprinting. The 1982 text was adapted from a series of articles in the paper Workers’ Fight in 1974.

The beginning of Bolshevism

Born in the provincial town of Simbirsk, into the family of a schools administrator, Lenin was no stranger to revolutionary ideas other than Marxism. His brother Alexander had been hanged in 1887 for planning the assassination of the Tsar. Alexander had been a member of the populist, agrarian socialist Narodnik organisation. But if the execution of his brother sharpened Lenin’s sense of injustice, it was not the views or the methods of the Narodniks that influenced him, but those of Marx, Engels and Plekhanov. By the time he was 19 Lenin had already read Marx’s Capital and begun to ground himself seriously in its scientific method. Read the rest of this entry »

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Eric Lee debates the AWL on ‘1917: Freedom or Tyranny?’

July 4, 2017 at 3:57 pm (AWL, democracy, Eric Lee, history, Lenin, Marxism, posted by JD, revolution, Russia, stalinism, USSR)

From Eric’s blog:

Last night I participated in a debate with the Alliance for Workers Liberty in central London on the subject of “1917: Freedom or Tyranny?”. The following is the text of my opening remarks.

I want to begin by congratulating Paul (Hampton) and the AWL on the publication of this book. While we will disagree on some important things – which we will come to this evening – we agree on the enormous historic importance of the 1917 Russian revolution, and I welcome any attempts to grapple with the issues raised.

Paul’s book offers new insights, such as the critical discussion about Lenin’s “revolutionary defeatism”. And of course I welcome all the very positive references to Karl Kautsky and the German Social Democracy, which are often lacking in the writings of those who come from the Leninist tradition.

Let me very briefly comment on four of the questions that were posed for this evening’s debate:

Was the Bolshevik party of Trotsky and Lenin a conspiracy of elitist “professional revolutionaries”, or a mass movement organically rooted in the Russian working class?

Maybe it was both.

The Bolsheviks were elitist and conspiratorial and this was pointed out by such leading revolutionary Marxists of the time as Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky himself.

Rosa Luxemburg wrote a blistering critique of Lenin’s view of the Party way back in 1904. She ended her essay, which had the catchy title of “Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy” with this memorable sentence:

“Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”

In that same year, Trotsky wrote this memorable critique of Lenin:

“these methods lead … to the Party organisation ‘substituting’ itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee.”

Yet thirteen years later, Trotsky joined Lenin’s Party, and tragically witnessed his own prophecy come true.

But it was not all about conspiratorial elites.

As the Provisional Government in 1917 failed to deal with the challenges facing the peoples of the Russian empire, in particular ending the war and dealing with the peasant hunger for land, the Bolsheviks picked up considerable support among workers in Petrograd and, most importantly, in the army garrison in the imperial capital.

In other parts of the empire, most notably in Georgia, the Bolsheviks had hardly any support at all.

In other words, there are aspects of the October revolution that resembled a popular uprising and others that look more a military coup.

There were elements of both. Read the rest of this entry »

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Matgamna: What is Trotskyism?

August 23, 2016 at 5:47 pm (AWL, class, history, labour party, Lenin, Marxism, posted by JD, Shachtman, socialism, trotskyism)

We publish the following piece by Sean Matgamna (of Workers Liberty) in the light of recent scare stories about alleged ‘Trotskyist’ infiltration of/influence over, the Labour Party:

Shachtman (rt) with Trotsky & Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1937

What is Trotskyism? (written 2007)

Click here for the debate around this contribution.

19th and 20th century socialism is a house of many rooms, cellars, attics, alcoves, and hidden chambers (not to speak of private chapels and “priest-holes”).

There are in it the utopian socialists of our pre-history reformists and revolutionists, parliamentarians and insurrectionists, “direct action” anarchists and union-building syndicalists, council communists and kibbutz-building utopian Zionists.

And then fascists sometimes proclaimed themselves socialists (national-socialists). So did many Third World political formations, often more fascist than socialist, such as the “Ba’th Arab Socialist Parties” of Iraq and Syria.

And Stalinism. The political reflections and tools in the labour movements of the Russian Stalinist ruling class proclaimed themselves “communists” and “socialists”, and for much of the 20th century were accepted as the main force of communism and socialism, in bourgeois propaganda as well as their own.

The great names of real socialism are numerous, and are far from being at one with each other: Gracchus Babeuf, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Etienne Cabet, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Auguste Blanqui, Mikhail Bakunin, Ferdinand Lassalle, Louis Michel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and his son Karl, August Bebel, George Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, Jules Guesde, Jean Jaures, Victor Griffuelhes, Paul Lafargue, Laura Lafargue, Eleanor Marx, Pavel Axelrod, Peter Kropotkin, James Connolly, Daniel De Leon, Jim Larkin, Eugene Debs, Christian Rakovsky, Henry Hyndman, Ernest Belfort Bax, William Morris, Keir Hardie, Klara Zetkin, Sylvia Pankhurst, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Shliapnikov, Leon Trotsky, Chen Duxiu, Antonio Gramsci, Leon Sedov, James P Cannon, Leon Lesoil, Pantelis Pouliopoulos, Abram Leon, Ta Thu Thau, Henk Sneevliet, Max Shachtman…

The Communist International picked up and subsumed many of the threads of earlier socialism, and wove them into a more or less coherent strategy of working-class struggle for power — the direct action of the French and American syndicalists, the political “syndicalism” of the De Leonites, the revolutionary parliamentarianism of Liebknecht, the sometimes acute criticism by communist-anarchists of the parliamentarians of the pre-1914 Socialist International, the concern with national liberation of such as James Connolly, and all that was healthy in previous socialist activity and theorising.

They denounced bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism in the name of the fuller democracy of workers’ councils — their criticism of bourgeois democracy would later, like so much else, be annexed and put to its own pernicious uses by totalitarian Stalinism.

The Russian working class, in their unprecedented creativity — for instance, in creating soviets (workers’ councils) — and the Bolsheviks who led them to victory had in life found solutions to many of the problems that had perplexed earlier socialist thinkers.

What had all the different strands of socialism in common? What, with their different methods, tempos, and perspectives, did they seek to achieve?

All of them — the socialist reformists such as Keir Hardie, too — sought to abolish capitalism and the exploitation and wage-slavery on which it rested, and to replace it with a non-exploitative, rational, humane society.

Their ideas of what would replace capitalism differed greatly, for instance between anarchists and Marxists, but all the socialists sought to replace private ownership of the means of production and exchange with collective social ownership by the workers and working farmers.

All of them — in one way or another, with one qualification or another — looked to the working class, the slave-class of the capitalist era, to achieve this great social revolution.

Read the rest of this entry »

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In defence of Leninism (against the SWP leadership)

February 3, 2013 at 8:54 pm (AWL, democracy, Jim D, Lenin, socialism, SWP, trotskyism)

The degenerate and imploding SWP and its toff-leader Alex Callinicos (above) invoke “Leninism” and “democratic centralism” against their internal critics:

Motions to the SWP National Committee, 3 February 2013

Motion one: Central Committee

1) The SWP stands out on the left by the fact that it has a history of genuine democratic debate without permanent factionalism. We have developed democratic and accountable structures from our branches, elected district committees, the national committee and disputes committee, central committee, party councils and conference. In the recent period these structures were re-examined and strengthened by the work of the SWP democracy commission. We have full confidence in these structures and the method of democratic centralism.

2) This newly elected National Committee notes that the commission on “What sort of Party do we need?” that set out the democratic principles for guiding our current practice was approved by 239 votes to 91 by annual conference in January 2013.

3) At the core of democratic centralism lies the understanding that we have full and honest debate among comrades in order to reach decisions followed by united action to implement and argue for those decisions.

4) We therefore condemn the actions of those members who have circumvented these principles by campaigning to overturn conference decisions outside the structures of the party, using blogs and the bourgeois media. Many of these contributions have been characterised by the use of slurs, abuse and un-comradely language that seem designed to stop serious debate and make joint work impossible, as well as damaging the party’s reputation.

5) This undermining of our democracy should stop forthwith. We reaffirm the right of the Central Committee to impose disciplinary measures for violation of our democratic constitution.

6) Many of these contributions have been fuelled by the outcome of the Disputes Committee report to conference. This NC affirms its belief in the integrity of the comrades on the DC and of the investigation they conducted. We note the DC was re-elected without challenge at the January 2013 conference. The DC report was approved by conference and the case concerned must be regarded as closed.

7) This NC notes that immediately following the original DC hearing of this particular case, information about it was leaked to people, some hostile, outside the party. This helped fuel rumours and misinformation about the DC within the party. This NC also notes the disgraceful covert recording of the DC session at conference and the appearance of a transcript on a site hostile to the party in addition to the reports and debates in public blogs and internet forums regarding these internal party arguments.

8) This has created difficulties for any future DC hearing. Therefore it is in this light that the NC thinks it sensible to consider these issues, in particular:

i) how the future confidentiality of DC proceedings can be safeguarded ii) how future findings of the DC should be reported to the party

These issues should be considered by a body composed of four members elected from the National Committee today, two from the Disputes Committee and one by the Central Committee. It will report to a subsequent meeting of the NC.

9) The NC supports the right of the CC, in consultation with the Conference Arrangements Committee, to set out a reasonable deadline for calls for a special conference. We do not believe that it can be acceptable for such calls to be collected together over a period of several months. This would institutionalise a practice of constantly presenting motions to our branch meetings. The NC agrees that the deadline for the recent calls for a special conference was 1 February.

10) We believe that underlying many of the recent debates in and around the party lie a series of vital political questions where we need to seek urgently to assert, develop and win our political tradition. Some of the key debates include:

a) The changing nature of the working class.

b) Lenin’s conception of the party, and its relevance in the 21st century.

c) Oppression and capitalism.

d) The trade union bureaucracy and the rank and file.

e) The radical left, the united front and the SWP.

11) The CC and NC are strongly committed to leading and facilitating extensive discussion and debate around such issues in every forum of the party. This requires a serious, systematic and urgent effort in all our publications, through branch and district meetings, wider party events such as Marxism and through educationals and day schools.

Central Committee


…Martin Thomas of the AWL defends ‘Leninism’ against the Callinicos/SWP distortion:

The Central Committee (CC) of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has changed its line. For the first while after the SWP’s unhappy conference on 4-6 January, the CC said that the conference had decided the controversial issues. The case was closed, SWP members were instructed to think and talk about other things, and, as for non-SWPers, it was none of their business.

Now it has felt obliged to open a public polemic. Alex Callinicos published a blast against the SWP opposition online on 28 January. It will appear in print in the SWP magazine Socialist Review.

Callinicos closes his article by declaring that he thinks the SWP will not collapse. The CC is rattled: it’s as if someone, asked about an ailment, replies that she or he thinks it won’t be fatal.

Far from resolving the SWP’s problems, Callinicos’s article epitomises them. Entitled “Is Leninism finished?”, it uses the old polemical method of the “amalgam”, a favourite of Stalinists. Callinicos tries to discredit his SWP opponents by lumping them in with others.

The writer Owen Jones, so Callinicos claims, looks to the Labour Party as an answer; the SWP splinter group Counterfire looks to the broad “movements”; both fail to see the need for coherent revolutionary-socialist organisation. Whether he’s right about Jones or Counterfire is debatable; but in any case they are in the article only so as to smear the SWP opposition as similar.

Callinicos suggests that the SWP opposition is saying that “Leninism” is “finished”, and he and the CC are defending “Leninism”. Sliding from formulation to formulation, he describes the issues at stake successively as:

# “the model of democratic centralism… that the SWP has developed”

# “the revolutionary Marxist tradition”

# the “Leninist model of organisation”

# “acting as… a ‘vanguard party'”

# coherent revolutionary-socialist organisation as against reliance on Labour or on broad movements

# failing to recognise the historic “centrality of workers’ struggles”, and thus, in a time of “absence of a sustained revival of working-class militancy”, accepting miscellaneous broad movements, or a Labour Party which you hope to push left, as a substitute for revolutionary socialist organisation.

# and again, to round off, as “our [the SWP’s] version of democratic centralism”.

As if all these are the same, and anyone questioning Callinicos’s version of democratic centralism rejects Marxism and the working class.

The term “Leninism” was coined in the period when Lenin himself was taken out of activity by illness and then death, in 1923-4, by the people in the Bolshevik Party leadership in Russia, Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, and others, who were accommodating to the conservatism and inertia of a state machine permeated by inheritances from Tsarism. It meant them using snippets and phrases from Lenin’s writings to impose their control.

Trotsky, reckoning Lenin’s basic ideas to have been right, and knowing that Lenin himself had urged him in 1922 to take the offensive against Stalin, decided not to provoke an easily-misunderstood debate by rejecting the term “Leninism”, but rather to define it in his own terms (see box).

He defined “Leninism” as the unremitting struggle for ideological clarity, revolutionary honesty, and active political initiative based on the logic of the class struggle.

Lenin used the term “democratic centralism”, but as a commonplace of effective organisation, not as a special new form he had invented. In a letter during World War One to left-wingers in the USA, he wrote: “We defend always in our press democracy in the party. But we never speak against the centralisation of the party. We are for democratic centralism. We say that the centralisation of the German labour movement is not a feeble but a strong and good feature of it. The vice of the present Social-Democratic Party of Germany consists not in centralisation but in the preponderance of the opportunists…”

Democratic centralism was and is a common-sense description of any organisation which is to act cohesively but on the basis of discussion. A choir which discusses democratically what it will sing, and then has all the different singers sing their parts in unison, is democratic centralist.

Revolutionary socialist politics needs a special sort of democracy and a special sort of centralism. It needs a democracy which comprises not just the formalities of voting, but well-informed debate on all the big political questions, driven by a truly revolutionary ardour for truth, and by a membership seriously educated in the whole heritage of socialist theory; and a rigorous accounting for mistakes.

It needs centralism, obviously, in the sense of the organisation acting cohesively to carry out majority-decided policies – to run campaigns, to circulate publications, to throw its influence one way or another on disputed issues in the labour movement.

It needs it more specifically in three senses. The organisation must collectively control its members who get positions in trade unions, or in parliaments and municipalities, rather than let them succumb to the pressures and influences of their positions.

The organisation must ensure that all its members are active, educated, and involved in the organisation’s inner life. It must not, like social-democratic parties, have a big swathe of members who do little or whose political focus is elsewhere, in trade-union routine for example. If there are members who don’t really know the issues in the organisation’s debates, or don’t have the necessary background education, or feel little commitment to carry out the eventual decisions, then the organisation’s debates cannot be sharp and will often (as in social-democratic parties) be fudged, or swayed by demagogy or inertia.

Since the class struggle has sharp twists, the organisation must be able to reorient quickly and decisively. As Lenin put it in that same letter: “If in any given crisis the small group (for instance our Central Committee is a small group) can act for directing the mighty mass in a revolutionary direction, it would be very good”. That capacity is established not by rules, but by the leading committees leading debates in the organisation with insight and honesty, so that they earn political authority.

Within those general guidelines, detailed forms of a revolutionary socialist organisation vary widely. In an intense and rapidly-changing political crisis, the organisation will need to be more brusquely “centralist” than in quieter times. One plague of revolutionary socialist organisations has been to take makeshifts which the Bolsheviks adopted in the Russian civil war – or in its aftermath when they faced problems of economic calamity, mass peasant discontent, and dispersal of working-class cadres – as the norm for all times.

The SWP adopts a model more “commandist” than the Bolsheviks even in the civil war, and more so than any of the Communist Parties in the days before Stalinism.

# A rule requiring all CC members, and all SWP full-timers, always to pretend unanimous agreement with CC decisions. No information to SWP members outside the CC about debates within the CC.

# No space for any articulated challenge to the CC line from the ordinary membership, outside a brief pre-conference period each year. No debate in the SWP’s press, or even in an internal bulletin or internet forum, beyond a very occasional dissenting article in its quarterly journal. SWP members can grumble in their branch meetings, but it is impossible, outside a period of acute crisis like the present, for any group of members to articulate SWP-wide an alternative or amendment to the CC policy. The SWP calls this a ban on “permanent factions” (factions are allowed only in the weeks before each annual conference); but in fact it establishes a regime of one permanent faction in the SWP, namely the CC and its corps of full-time organisers.

# A rule requiring SWP members in public always to pretend unanimous agreement with the CC line.

# Each new CC is elected by a for-or-against vote on a slate presented by the outgoing CC, thus making it almost impossible for the membership to correct or amend the CC.

Callinicos does not defend those rules honestly, but hints at a defence by upholding “two things” which “our version of democratic centralism comes down to”.

“Decisions must be debated fully, but once they have been taken, by majority vote, they are binding on all members… A strong political leadership, directly accountable to the annual conference, campaigns within the organisation to give a clear direction”.

What does “binding” mean? Lenin proposed (as he put it in a 1906 article) “full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action”. The minority is “bound” to unity in action, but should be free to explain publicly that they disagree.

AWL tells our members that when they disagree with the majority line, they should argue inside the AWL to change it. If they remain in the minority, then they should not pretend to hold opinions they don’t really have. They should explain publicly what the AWL majority policy is, and the arguments for it as best they can; but they should also explain their own views.

SWP, by contrast with AWL and with Lenin, means, by “binding on all members”, a rule that its members should, in public, pretend to be unanimous. In the long term this is corrupting: to train yourself to argue ideas you don’t really believe is to erode the revolutionary drive to know and explain the truth about class society which is the motor force of socialist effort.

Callinicos’s formulation blurs another, more specific, issue. In the SWP today the CC is saying that the 4-6 January SWP conference vote to endorse the SWP Disputes Committee report closes that issue, and those who object are breaching democratic centralism.

A 50.4% vote to endorse, after a hurried debate, chaired by a member of the Disputes Committee whose report was up for debate, allowing only a scant few minutes for a critic to argue against endorsement, coming after two years of CC mishandling and the CC expelling vocal critics for no greater crime than a conversation on Facebook – that counts as “discussing fully” only in terms of administrative box-ticking. The discussion cannot be made “full” just by the CC declaring it such.

The pious clause about “directly accountable to annual conference” is as much whitewash as the one about all “decisions debated fully”. In any revolutionary socialist organisation, active every day on a dozen fronts, many decisions are taken by committees, by organisers, or by individual members in their workplaces or unions: the organisation is made democratic not by being in permanent conference session, but by full debate on the framing ideas which shape day-to-day reactions, and by constant feedback and discussion on the day-to-day.

The SWP is different not at all in debating more things “fully”, but in a greater number of decisions being taken by the CC and handed down as slogans, by means of browbeating rather than debate.

The CC is “accountable to annual conference” in the sense that the conference has the formal possibility of voting out the CC. But that can only happen if the conference confronts the CC and overturns it in a straight yes/ no vote. There is no possibility of the conference modifying the CC by piecemeal amendment.

Callinicos defines the alternative advocated by the SWP opposition as: “a much looser and weaker leadership, internal debate that continually reopens decisions already made, and permanent factions (currently factions are only allowed in the discussion period leading up to the annual party conference)”.

His presentation is dishonest. As we have seen, in fact the SWP does not really ban permanent factions: it only establishes a rule of one permanent faction, the CC and its corps of full-time organisers.

The SWP frequently reverses “decisions already made”, and usually without explanation or accounting. But… the right to revise decisions is reserved to the CC. The rule against “reopening” kicks in only when someone outside the CC questions a policy.

Political leaderships are not made “strong”, politically, by rules saying that they are strong. The background to the current SWP crisis is a decline in the real strength – that is, the political self-assuredness and authority – of the CC; the inevitable result of it, even if the CC manages to see off the opposition, is a further decline in that real strength.

As Lenin put it: “How is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? … By the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard… By its ability to link up… with the broadest masses of the working people… By the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct… Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrasemongering and clowning… These conditions… are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience”.

SWP members’ “hard-won experiences” have eroded the political authority of the CC, not enhanced it.

Take the Respect fiasco and the “Left List” debacle which followed it. Take the example of the SWP’s slogan “all out, stay out” for 30 November 2011, suggesting that the one-day strike could be made to grow into an indefinite one. It appeared from time to time in speeches or in Socialist Worker articles, but was never agitated for or explained. Presumably there was disagreement in the CC about it. Instead of debate, SWP members were presented with a flickering sloganistic half-thought.

Take the succession of SWP “united fronts” – Organise for Fighting Unions, Right to Work, Unite the Resistance. Each has been a formula for the SWP to organise occasional conferences with a few trade-union leaders on the platform, and a few stunts. The SWP CC hails each as a great advance, then drops it without explanation and goes on to the next one.

Callinicos’s backstop argument is that the current SWP model “works”, to build a big SWP and allow it to make itself central in bigger operations like Stop The War and Unite Against Fascism.                                                                                                   “If they [the SWP opposition] succeeded, the SWP would become a much smaller and less effective organisation, unable to help build broader movements”.

On that level of argument, the biggest would-be revolutionary organisation in each country in the world could claim that life has confirmed its specific ideas: the Maoist PTB/PvdA in Belgium, for example. Or the organisation which got itself central in organising the big demonstrations against the Iraq war could: the Stalinistic Workers’ World Party in the USA, for example.

It proves nothing; and even on its own level Callinicos’s argument is increasingly hollow.

The SWP still claims 7000 members. In the late 1990s it used to claim 10,000. Most of the nominal 7000 do no activity with the SWP, and many have no contact with it at all.

The SWP opposition reports that the SWP has 93 branches. When the forerunners of AWL were expelled from IS (forerunner of the SWP) in 1971, it had 115.

The notional count of 7000 would mean an average of 75 members per SWP branch. In fact, SWP branches today are generally smaller than they were in 1971, when 20 active members was quite usual. The SWP has declined.

Contrary to all Callinicos’s talk about strong leadership and discipline, the SWP does very badly at ensuring all its members are active and informed. Both CC loyalists and opposition complain about finding meetings suddenly full of “members” not seen for years, drummed up to support the other side.

It also does very badly at another important “centralist” bit of democratic centralism: collective control over its members in trade-union posts. In 2010 its most prominent trade-unionist, CWU president Jane Loftus, resigned after a string of episodes in which she had voted in the CWU leadership against SWP policy. Similar has happened in other unions.

The SWP’s version of “democratic centralism” lacks both the best bits of “centralism” and the special sort of democracy needed by revolutionary socialists.

In all this, what does Callinicos say about the issue which generated the SWP opposition, namely the botched handling of charges by women SWPers of rape or sexual harassment against leading SWP organiser Martin Smith?

SWPers, and not just SWPers, are angry that the CC tried to sweep the charges aside for two years; organised a standing ovation for Smith at the 2011 conference after they first emerged; and declared the “case closed” after an investigation by a Disputes Committee which included two members of that same CC and all of whose members knew Smith well.

Callinicos describes it all as… “a difficult disciplinary case”.

Indiscipline, in a choir, is turning up to rehearsals late, or singing your part unsynchronised with the other singers. Sexually harassing, or raping, another choir member – that is a different matter.

Smith is innocent until proven guilty. The Disputes Committee may well have made a sincere effort. But if Callinicos sees the rape charge as just “a difficult disciplinary case”, that tells you why so many SWPers are angry.

Lenin stood for revolutionary honesty

Revolutionary sense cannot be confused with demagogical flair. The latter may yield ephemeral successes, sometimes even sensational ones. But it is a political instinct of an inferior type.

It always leans toward the line of least resistance. Leninism, on the other hand, seeks to pose and resolve the fundamental revolutionary problems.

Leninism is, first of all, realism, the highest qualitative and quantitative appreciation of reality, from the standpoint of revolutionary action. Precisely because of this it is irreconcilable with the flight from reality behind the screen of hollow agitationalism, with the passive loss of time, with the haughty justification of yesterday’s mistakes on the pretext of saving the tradition of the party.

Leninism is genuine freedom from formalistic prejudices, from moralising doctrinalism, from all forms of intellectual conservatism attempting to bind the will to revolutionary action. But to believe that Leninism signifies that “anything goes” would be an irremediable mistake. Leninism includes the morality, not formal but genuinely revolutionary, of mass action and the mass party. Nothing is so alien to it as functionary-arrogance and bureaucratic cynicism.

A mass party has its own morality, which is the bond of fighters in and for action. Demagogy is irreconcilable with the spirit of a revolutionary party because it is deceitful: by presenting one or another simplified solution of the difficulties of the hour it inevitably undermines the next future, weakens the party’s self-confidence.

Swept by the wind and gripped by a serious danger, demagogy easily dissolves into panic. It is hard to juxtapose, even on paper, panic and Leninism.

Leninism is warlike from head to foot. War is impossible without cunning, without subterfuge, without deception of the enemy. Victorious war cunning is a constituent element of Leninist politics.

But, at the same time, Leninism is supreme revolutionary honesty toward the party and the working class. It admits of no fiction, no bubble-blowing, no pseudo-grandeur – Leon Trotsky, ‘The New Course.’

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