Any serious consideration of the prospects of a socialist future must begin with an assessment of the only successful workers’ revolution, as well as the organization that led it—the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky. Among those groups on the left that continue to lay claim to this political heritage, Lenin is invoked to justify a range of organizational and political methods, many of which run directly counter to his actual practice and writings.
As the “far left” has continued to lose influence and drift rightward in recent decades, some groups have begun to suggest that Leninism is not so very different from pre-WWI social democracy. Those who advance such arguments embrace Karl Kautsky’s model of broad, programmatically diffuse “parties of the whole class,” rather than “vanguard” formations composed solely of revolutionaries.
Tom Riley of the International Bolshevik Tendency was invited to participate in a discussion of Leninism at the Platypus International Convention in Chicago on 31 March 2012. Pham Binh, a prominent Occupy Wall Street activist who had recently published a controversial critique of a 1975 biography of Lenin by Tony Cliff (founder of the International Socialist Tendency), was slated to speak, but withdrew at the last minute for personal reasons, leaving Riley and Ben Lewis of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) to debate.
Lewis presented the CPGB’s view that a socialist organization should permit internal disputes to be aired publicly. He dismissed as “Toytown Bolshevism” the democratic-centralist model in which members of a revolutionary organization are free to discuss their differences internally, but are required to defend the majority line in public. He also dismissed as a Stalinist invention the idea that Lenin’s Bolsheviks were a “party of a new type.”
In response, Riley argued that Bolshevism represented a qualitative step forward from the Second International:
“Lenin’s party, in its maturity, is premised on the basis that there is a section of the [working] class that is corrupted by imperialism....You don’t want those people in the party. You want the revolutionary elements. You want the vanguard to extend its influence over as many workers as possible. But you don’t want opportunists, you don’t want social-chauvinists, you don’t want social imperialists in the vanguard. That is a party of a new type. That is not a party of the whole class.”
Lenin built a combat party designed to lead the working class in a revolutionary struggle for state power. This was a very different conception than that of the social-democratic parties of the Second International, which focused on participation in bourgeois parliamentary politics and included the pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracy and the more privileged layers of the proletariat.
After leading the Russian workers to power in October 1917, the Bolsheviks sought to launch a new revolutionary workers’ international (the Third, or Communist, Inter-national). Organizations wanting to join the Communist International (aka Comintern) had to accept “Twenty-One Conditions” specifically designed to exclude reformists and centrists. As Riley put it, the Comintern was “set up to split the Second International and build revolutionary organizations all over the world.”
Riley argued that the CPGB’s attitude amounted to a repudiation of the policy of Lenin’s Comintern. Lewis responded:
“I actually agree with a lot of the stuff you said….I think that the degeneration of the self-conception of Bol-shevik organization does set in earlier [than Stalin] and Lenin does bear some responsibility for that….In 1920, the Bolsheviks, under the pressure of the civil war and what’s happened, they do actually have to change their organizational model, which they did export….The Twenty-One Conditions were basically ‘purge yourselves of the opportunists and the reformists, and organize on that basis’….
“The problem we’ve got is that has been generalized as a political method in order to combat opportunism and right wing ideas. And that’s not going to get us anywhere.”
Lewis rejected the idea that the CPGB embraces the “renegade Kautsky” and specified that they identify only with Kautsky prior to the outbreak of World War I, when he was an effective Marxist propagandist. Lewis conceded that Kautsky’s capitulation to the social chauvinists was prefigured by his failure to politically attack the right wing of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) with the kind of vigor that Lenin displayed toward the Russian Mensheviks. Nonetheless, he argued that on balance the organizational conceptions of the Second International represent the best option for leftists today.
Kautsky’s capitulation to the tide of social patriotism that accompanied the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914 stunned those leftists in the Second International (including Lenin) who had seen him as a paragon of revolutionary integrity. Kautsky’s status as an “orthodox Marxist” theorist made his role in rationalizing the political descent of the Second International into chauvinism and social imperialism particularly odious.
Paul Frölich, in his important biography of Rosa Luxemburg (the preeminent leader of the revolutionary left wing of the SPD), described how Kautsky attempted:
“to cover the shame of the socialist movement with a web of platitudes, sophisms, and misrepresentations. He asserted [in October 1914 in Neue Zeit] that it was impossible to determine the character of the war because it had not broken out in the normal way….And he airily dismissed the collapse of the International with the brilliant statement: ‘It [the International] is not an effective weapon in wartime; it is essentially an instrument of peace.’”
In hindsight, Lenin bitterly regretted his failure to identify Kautsky’s opportunism earlier, and reproached himself for having defended the SPD leader against Luxemburg’s leftist criticism. Frölich cites Lenin’s observation in a letter he wrote to A.G. Shliapnikov in October 1914:
“Rosa Luxemburg was right; she realized long ago that Kautsky was a time-serving theorist, serving the majority of the party, serving opportunism in short. There is nothing in the world more pernicious and dangerous for the intellectual independence of the proletariat than the horrid self-satisfaction and base hypocrisy of Kautsky, who glosses over everything and attempts to lull the awakening conscience of the workers with sophistry and pseudo-scientific verbosity.”
The following is an edited transcript of Riley’s presentation.
We are living in peculiar times—the Marxist critique of the irrationality of production for profit is powerfully vindicated on a daily basis, “capitalism” has become a dirty word, and the popular legitimacy of the existing social order is as low as it has been since the 1930s. Yet the organized left has never been weaker in terms of numbers, influence and the ability to project a vision of a plausible alternative to the endless horrors of the “free market.” This is clearly a very contradictory situation.
We believe that the struggle to politically rearm the left and lay the basis for a resurgent revolutionary workers’ movement must begin by assimilating the essential lessons—both positive and negative—of the generations of militants who have preceded us. Above all this means studying the lessons of October 1917, the only successful workers’ revolution in history.
There is little time today to address such an enormous topic, so let me begin with what I think is the bottom line: the essential precondition for the success of the Bolshevik Revolution was recognizing the necessity to split the workers’ movement—that is, for revolutionaries to organize themselves separately from opportunists, centrists and reformists.
James P. Cannon, who was in our opinion the best communist leader America has produced so far, contrasted Lenin’s role with two other revolutionary giants, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg:
“Trotsky’s greatest error, the error which Trotsky had to recognize and overcome before he could find his way to unity with Lenin, was his insistence that the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks had to unite….Lenin’s policy was vindicated in life. Lenin built a party, something that Luxemburg was not able to do with all her great abilities and talents; something that Trotsky was not able to do precisely because of his wrong estimation of the Mensheviks.”
—“Again: On ‘Unity with the Shachtmanites,’” 2 September 1945
Trotsky explicitly acknowledged this in the first chapter of his 1929 book, The Permanent Revolution:
“I believed that the logic of the class struggle would compel both [Bolshevik and Menshevik] factions to pursue the same revolutionary line. The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purpose of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party.”
Trotsky was a bit slow to absorb that lesson—he’d been in the movement a long time by 1917 when he finally came around to Leninism. But once he learned it, he never forgot it. The Left Opposition, which he led and which alone upheld the political heritage of Bolshevism through the Stalinist nightmare, was built on the basis of always putting “program first.”
Lenin’s conception from relatively early on was that a revolutionary organization should be composed exclusively of revolutionaries, i.e., people who understood and agreed with the Marxist program and were prepared to act in a disciplined fashion to carry it out. The famous split at the 1903 RSDLP [Russian Social Democratic Labor Party] Congress between Menshevik “softs” and Bolshevik “hards” over this question prefigured the eventual division over whether to support or overthrow Kerensky and his bourgeois provisional government in 1917.
The Leninist conception of “democratic centralism” is based on full freedom of discussion internally—including the right to modify the program and change the leadership. That is the “democratic” part. The “centralist” element involves the duty of all members to carry out the decisions of the majority—even those decisions that they personally may not agree with—until they win a majority and can change them.
Some people, including the CPGB, who consider themselves Leninists, think it is fine for members to disagree with each other in public. The CPGB has the unique distinction of claiming the Leninist tradition while also embracing “the renegade Kautsky.” Lenin derided this kind of “broad church” approach as “swamp-building,” and we agree with him. But to each their own, and the comrades of the CPGB are certainly welcome to Kautsky as far as we are concerned.
Of course, we are here because of the ripples caused by comrade Pham Binh’s critique of the first volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin. Cliff was neither a great writer nor an outstanding historian, and his book would be of little interest except for the fact that he was the historic leader of the International Socialist Tendency, an organization which no one could accuse of ever putting “program first.”
Cliff deserted the Trotskyist movement in 1950 when, under the pressure of the Cold War, he refused to defend North Korea (and Red China) against military attack by the U.S. and various other imperialist powers and their vassals. For most of the next two decades, the IS was buried in Britain’s social-democratic Labour Party, during which time (in 1959) Cliff published a study of Rosa Luxemburg which provides some insight into his group’s politics at the time. Cliff applauded Luxemburg’s notion prior to the experience of the Bolshevik Revolution that somehow the working class could more or less spontaneously overthrow capitalism and wield state power without any sort of general staff to provide leadership.
For most of her active political life Luxemburg operated as the leader of a small revolutionary faction within the mass reformist German Social Democratic Party. In contrasting this model with Lenin’s, Cliff concluded: “For Marxists, in advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s.…” By 1968, when the IS got around to reprinting the book, Lenin was more in vogue, so the offending passage was simply excised (without any explanation). That is not how serious Marxists operate, but it is pretty typical of Cliff and the political tendency he created.
While there is much to object to in Cliff’s biography of Lenin, I think that for the most part comrade Binh and I do not share the same criticisms. I do not agree, for example, with his assertion that the original 1903 split with the Mensheviks had no particular importance. For those who may not have read his critique, I will quote from it:
“Cliff is like most other ‘Leninists’ who invest the 1903 membership debate with an artificial and ahistorical significance. If Lenin did not mention the issue in his discussion on the ‘Principle Stages in the History of Bolshevism’ in Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder written for foreign communist audiences unfamiliar with RSDLP history it could not have been a terribly important issue from his point of view.”
—24 January 2012, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
When I read this I was astounded. I could not imagine how anyone could dismiss the split with the Mensheviks so lightly. When I went back and checked Lenin’s account in Left-Wing Communism, which Binh used to back up his claim, I discovered the following passage in the fifth paragraph of the second chapter:
“As a current of political thought and as a political party, Bolshevism has existed since 1903. Only the history of Bolshevism during the entire period of its existence can satisfactorily explain why it has been able to build up and maintain, under most difficult conditions, the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat.”
A little further on Lenin writes:
“On the one hand, Bolshevism arose in 1903 on a very firm foundation of Marxist theory. The correctness of this revolutionary theory, and of it alone, has been proved, not only by world experience throughout the nineteenth century, but especially by the experience of the seekings and vacillations, the errors and disappointments of revolutionary thought in Russia.…
“On the other hand, Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through fifteen years of practical history (1903-17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience.”
This all tends to suggest that Lenin viewed 1903 (i.e., the initial political differentiation and split with the Mensheviks) as somewhat significant.
The first section of the third chapter (which comrade Binh specifically cited) is entitled “The Years of Preparation for Revolution: 1903 to 1905.” I would like to read a few sentences from this:
“Representatives of the three main classes, of the three principal political trends—the liberal-bourgeois, the petty-bourgeois-democratic (concealed behind ‘social-democratic’ and ‘social-revolutionary’ labels), [Here the editors of the Marxist Internet Archive comment: ‘The reference is to the Mensheviks (who formed the Right and opportunist wing of Social-Democracy in the R.S.D.L.P.), and to the Socialist-Revolutionaries’] and the proletarian-revolutionary [i.e., the Bolsheviks]—anticipated and prepared the impending open class struggle by waging a most bitter struggle on issues of programme and tactics. All the issues on which the masses waged an armed struggle in 1905-07 and 1917-20 can (and should) be studied, in their embryonic form, in the press of the period.”
—emphasis in original
Lenin is quite clearly asserting that the fight between these three trends posed “all the issues” of the subsequent revolutionary struggles of 1905 and 1917 and that they “can (and should) be studied in their embryonic form, in the press of the period,” i.e., in the polemics against the Mensheviks that begin in 1903. How comrade Binh, citing this, can conclude that Lenin did not consider the 1903 split to be “a terribly important issue” is, I have to say, beyond me.
Comrade Binh is similarly mistaken in his assessment that Cliff’s treatment of Lenin’s seminal work, What Is To Be Done?, is “unremarkable” apart from a suggestion that Lenin may have bent some of the party rules now and then for factional purposes. That’s the only thing that Binh faults Cliff for. In fact, what is “remarkable”—particularly from someone purporting to be a Leninist—was Cliff’s claim that Lenin’s book displayed a “mechanical juxtaposition of spontaneity and consciousness” because he asserted that through their own isolated experiences workers can only develop trade-union consciousness, which, as Lenin explains, is a form of bourgeois consciousness. This is why it is necessary to struggle to bring the workers’ movement “under the wing of the revolutionary” party. Cliff takes this as evidence that Lenin:
“assumed that the party had answers to all the questions that spontaneous struggle might bring forth. The blindness of the embattled many is the obverse of the omniscience of the few.”
Binh may not find that “remarkable,” but I do, particularly from someone claiming to be writing some sort of manual on Leninism. Cliff’s philistine remark is an attack on the entire Bolshevik conception of the relationship between the conscious revolutionary vanguard and the mass of the “class in itself.” It is textbook anarcho/social-democratic anti-Leninism. Cliff’s organic hostility to What Is To Be Done? is hardly accidental—because Lenin’s whole book is a polemic against opportunists who adapt their politics to whatever illusions are currently popular. Lenin called such people “tailists,” and the International Socialists provide a perfect contemporary example.
When Cliff’s book first appeared, Bruce Landau, a disaffected former ISer, published a stimulating and incisive critique in which he identified a series of critical errors by Cliff: failure to grasp Lenin’s analysis of “economism”; misrepresentation of the reasons for launching Iskra; and misreading the significance of both the 1903 split and the 1905 turn to mass worker recruitment—which Cliff mistakenly described as Lenin’s “correction” of his earlier conception of a party of professional revolutionaries.
Another work that came out around the same time, which dealt with Cliff in passing, was Lenin and the Vanguard Party by Joseph Seymour, the leading intellectual of the then-revolutionary Spartacist League. We consider this pamphlet to be an extremely valuable study of the origins and development of Bolshevism and have posted it on our website.
I found Lars Lih’s commentaries on the discussions at the 1905 congress and the 1912 Prague conference to be among the more informative contributions to the discussions of Binh’s critique of Cliff. Contrary to comrade Binh, the Prague conference is generally seen as marking the point of no return for any prospect of a Bolshevik/Menshevik reunification, although, as Seymour observed:
“Even before 1912, the Bolsheviks were essentially a party, rather than a faction, because Lenin would refuse to act as a disciplined minority under a Menshevik leadership. The Menshevik leaders, including Plekhanov, reciprocated this attitude. Unity with the numerically small ‘pro-Party’ Mensheviks did not challenge Lenin’s leadership of the party as he reconstructed it at the Prague Conference.”
Comrade Lewis and I briefly discussed the 1912 conference last night, and I was rather surprised to discover that we could agree that from that point onward the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks maintained separate underground apparatuses, leaderships, finances and publications (with sharply divergent political positions on most issues). The only thing they shared was a name—the RSDLP. To my mind that signifies that they constituted two separate and distinct organizations; comrade Lewis draws a different conclusion which he will no doubt explain shortly.
Finally, I want to comment on what I gather comrade Binh sees as the inevitability of bureaucratic degeneration in groups with a democratic-centralist organizational structure. I think he is mistaken; there have been groups which operated within that framework for decades that maintained democratic internal regimes. I would cite the American Trotskyist movement led by James P. Cannon from the 1920s to the 1960s as an example of a group that operated in an essentially democratic fashion, where dissident points of view could get a hearing and minority rights were respected. I believe there are other examples as well.
In the decade between the launch of Iskra and the 1912 conference, the Bolshevik faction evolved from a revolutionary social-democratic formation (inspired by the German social democracy led by Kautsky) into an embryonic revolutionary combat party. Along the way a few sticks were bent, some doors were slammed, voices were raised and harsh words exchanged. Lenin undoubtedly made some mistakes and got some things wrong. But he had a pretty good record of correcting his errors and probably came as close as anyone has to “combining theory and practice to perfection”—a phrase in comrade Cliff’s book that Binh found objectionable. The simple fact is that Lenin’s party succeeded where every other attempt has failed. That was no accident—and I submit that we all have a great deal to learn from that experience.