Myths of the Pop-Up
I'm deeply saddened by the standoffish attitude of articles published first in Socialist Worker and now Socialist Review towards the Pop-Up union.
As a student, part time worker and member of the Pop-Up and Unison at Sussex I have been deeply involved in the dispute since its inception and have been inspired by the innovative ways in which staff and students have sought to fight privatisation.
Sandy Nicoll's article mirrors the myth that the Pop-Up is formed of a "militant minority" who have "walked away" from their existing branches. The vast majority of Pop-Up members are members of other unions. The Pop-Up is not populated solely by radicals; it is populated by workers who have joined on the basis that they work together and want to defend their conditions - there is no political or ideological prerequisite for membership. This is a success in itself and we encourage these people to join an established union.
The second mistake is to assume that an organisation such as the Pop-Up runs contrary to building up a rank and file. In fact it has been invaluable for workers to begin to grasp their power within union branches where the leadership is constantly using bureaucratic methods to hold back struggle. The Pop-Up does try to involve people on the broadest basis, a broader basis than the three other unions in that we do not organise on a sectional basis whilst remaining active in our existing union branches.
I would invite those sceptical (as I first was) to become better acquainted with the Pop-Up and the complex nuances on the ground - hopefully on a picket line some time soon.
No set formulas
Ian Birchall's reply to Alex Callinicos on the Leninist Party must be greatly welcomed (What Does It Mean To Be A Leninist?, Socialist Review, June 2013). Ian's emphasis on the fluidity of democratic centralism certainly rings truer than did the rather more formulaic piece Alex wrote.
As Ian argues, there is no one Leninist model with sets of rules carefully laid out, rather a fluid and open dialogue, a continually reassessed set of structures, changes of emphasis, and most of all the primacy of politics determining organisation.
So it is that the author of What Is To Be Done, becomes the champion of opening the doors of the party, the declarer of war on the Committee men, and the chief promoter of the key importance of younger member ("leave the old men of thirty to the Liberals").
So it is that the champion of democratic centralism was more then once prepared to defy majority decisions, and carry his arguments to the party.
As Ian argues, Lenin did not have set formulas, but developed the theory of party organisation that suited the needs of the party in relation to the class and levels of class struggle. The key was that the experiences of the class, and particularly the most advanced sections of it be brought into the party to better inform it, that the experiences and views of the members were fully aired so as better to inform the leadership, and that the leadership was fully engaged with the membership so as to convince them that a certain form of action was correct, rather than simply push through a vote.
It is out of this process rather than sets of rules and constitutional dictat, that a Party united in action is much more likely to emerge and successfully lead in the day-to-day struggles and ultimately the struggle to change the world.
Disciples of Lenin
In his response to Callinicos' article Ian Birchall argues that it is questionable whether Lenin was himself a Leninist (What Does It Mean To Be A Leninist?, Socialist Review, June 2013).
He is correct to point out that there no such thing as the "Leninist Party" outlined in What Is To Be Done? He is also correct to point out that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were flexible in the ways that they built the revolutionary party. However, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, Tony Cliff, in his autobiography, does describe himself as a "disciple of Lenin." If our party has been built in the Leninist tradition over the last forty years - does this not make us Leninists? Does Birchall now deny this?
To claim, as Birchall does that, "insurrections cannot be carried out by majority vote" is not true. Three times the Bolshevik central committee voted on motions for an insurrection. In the final vote, there were 20 votes in favour, 2 against, and 3 abstentions.
With Russia ripe for revolution, and the majority decision carried out, the insurrection was organised, and it was successful. This was the 1917 October Revolution.
In the 1980s the SWP conducted a three year debate over whether "men benefit from women's oppression". No faction was formed - it was argued out in our publications and at our annual Marxism event. Eventually a vote was taken at our annual conference. After the vote was carried rejecting the political position, John Molyneux, former advocate of the "men do benefit" position told conference delegates that they must now all accept the vote.
Building a "Leninist Party in the 21st Century" is not to follow a dogma or a formula.
At the heart of the Leninist method is the dialectical relationship between theory and practice, the party and the class, and between our elected centralised leadership and party members. Implementing this in practice is how we renew Leninism in the 21st Century.
Proof in the practice
Ian Birchall argues that winning a vote in a revolutionary socialist party is not the same as winning the political argument. He gives an example from the trade unions to illustrate his point. However a trade union is not the same as a revolutionary party. Trade unions include workers from across the political spectrum, the majority of which are passive at any one time. A party like the SWP is an activist organisation made up of a minority of the most class conscious workers.
A higher level of discipline is therefore to be expected from the members of a revolutionary party than a trade union. That is because decision making in a party organised in accordance with Leninist principles does not end with voting. For Marxists, the test of theory is practice.
Clearly discipline in a revolutionary party is voluntary. No member can be forced to do anything they don't want to do. However it is often the case that when comrades carry out a decision of the party that they believe to be wrong they find that it works in practice. The recent Jerry Hicks election campaign in Unite is an example of this.
Conversely there have been times when party policies have proven not to fit when put into practice and had to be changed. Ian gives examples from the miners' strike and the anti Poll Tax campaign. The ability of the SWP to have an influence on so many important campaigns out of all proportion to our size is because most comrades understand the importance of testing decisions democratically arrived at in the struggle. That is the job of serious revolutionaries - not sitting around waiting to be convinced. We abandon that tradition at our peril.
In his article "What does it mean to be a Leninist?" Ian Birchall draws out a number of historical examples.
He uses Lenin's last speech to the Comintern in 1922, where Lenin expresses his view on the Resolution on party organisation as "being too Russian" in that it "reflects the Russian experience". However, Ian leaves out one key sentence; after saying: "They [foreign delegates] must assimilate part of the Russian experience...Just how that will be done I do not know." - Lenin goes on to add a caveat: "We Russians should also find ways and means of explaining the principles of this resolution to the foreigners."
In other words it was not just a question of foreigners studying "the organisation, structure and content of revolutionary work" like some Open University module, but was very much connected to the Russians being proactive in this learning process.
On the issue of democratic centralism, Ian makes a statement that no one could disagree with, that: "For revolutionaries the crucial point is not the winning of the vote but winning the argument". This is difficult to disagree with but it still begs the question that at some point a decision has to be made, often sooner rather than later. What did Lenin actually say about a decision like this? He said the following: "After the competent bodies have decided, all of us, as members of the Party, must act as one man. A Bolshevik in Odessa must cast into the ballot box a ballot paper bearing a Cadet's name even if it sickens him."
Finally, Ian raises the issue of the 1917 insurrection. Zinoviev and Kamenev publicly opposed the insurrection and represented quite a large swathe of the party. Did Lenin hold back until he had won these people over politically?
He actually said: "I shall at whatever cost brand the blackleg Zinoviev as a blackleg. My answer to the threat of a split is to declare a war to the finish, war to the expulsion of both blacklegs from the Party...a party of revolutionaries which does not punish prominent blacklegs would perish."
I would humbly suggest that the general tenor of Lenin's comments were not geared to persuading Zinoviev and Kamenev politically to his point of view or even winning the argument. Rather Lenin was castigating them for not accepting the "life and death" majority decision of the Central Committee. By all means lets debate and discuss Lenin and "Leninism", but in doing so let's be careful not to water down the revolutionary Lenin in favour of a more Occupy-friendly version.
Wrong for the right reasons?
In the main, Ian Birchall's excellent piece on Leninism complements and expands that of Alex Callinicos (What Does It Mean To Be A Leninist?, Socialist Review, June 2013). But I don't agree with Birchall's comment that the SWP leadership was "somewhat sectarian" at the start of the 1984/85 miners' strike and poll tax disputes. In both cases we correctly tried to get these issues into workplaces and trade unions to raise the possibility of solidarity action.
When, after a couple of months, it became clear that workplaces were not going to be central, we switched our emphasis to the community-based resistance that had sprung up - the miners' support groups and the can't-pay-won't-pay campaign.
In its initial approach, SWP (membership as well as leadership) was "wrong for the right reasons" while others on the left (primarily Militant Tendency) were "right for the wrong reasons". As Ian says, we were right to switch when we did.
Not that the Party went through the long downturn completely unscathed. By the 2000s there were indeed "sectish tendencies" at all levels in the Party. For example, the disastrous splitting and then abandonment of branches was based on the absurd idea that workers were "clamouring to join the Party, but the members won't let them," as was claimed by one leading comrade (recently departed).
We came out of the downturn internally scarred but having maintained our fundamental political positions and principles. Can this be said of any other socialist party or tendency?