The trouble with Lenin

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Continuing the debate on the role of Leninism, Joseph Choonara argues that the Bolshevik leader's concept of the party remains the model around which socialists should unite.

"Dead Russians," Respect MP George Galloway once said, "must be discussed in private." But Lenin and the contested tradition known as Leninism have today become a topic of intense public discussion among many who consider themselves radical opponents of capitalism. Much of the commentary is negative.

There are two strands of criticism that are often intertwined in people's heads. The first is a long-standing argument that Leninism is inherently dictatorial and oppressive. The strongest evidence for this is the actuality of societies such as the Soviet Union that claimed to exemplify the ideals for which Lenin stood.

Such criticism stretches right back to the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and therefore an extensive literature contests this claim - by Leon Trotsky, who led the first great challenge to Stalin's caricature of Leninism, and from many writers since, including Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas and Chris Harman in the tradition associated with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). They each stressed the gap separating Leninism from Stalinism.

It was the small but militant Russian working class that had provided the democratic basis for the revolution. Realising the Bolshevik slogan of "All power to the soviets" meant that, for a brief period, power lay in the hands of democratically elected councils in which workers were the main force. But, in the years that followed, the working class was broken by civil war and foreign invasion. Furthermore, the revolution remained isolated from the working classes of Europe and the advanced means of production required to build a society that could democratically meet human needs. As the revolution degenerated, a growing bureaucracy emerged, presiding over a war-torn and impoverished country.

Initially this bureaucracy tried, in desperate conditions, to defend the revolution against the forces that sought violently to reverse it, hoping that the working classes of Europe would take power. But ultimately, with the ebbing of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe after the First World War, the bureaucracy, now headed by Joseph Stalin, sought to impose its own interests on society.

That meant, after Stalinism was consolidated in 1928-9, building up a military and industrial base by squeezing peasants and workers in the most brutal manner possible.

Far from representing a continuation of Leninism, this involved the wholesale butchery by Stalin of most of those who had constituted Lenin's own organisation. Trotsky was not exaggerating when he wrote of the 1936 show trials, "The present purge draws between Bolshevism and Stalinism not simply a bloody line but a whole river of blood.

"The annihilation of all the older generation of Bolsheviks, an important part of the middle generation which participated in the civil war, and that part of the youth that took up most seriously the Bolshevik traditions, shows not only a political but a thoroughly physical incompatibility between Bolshevism and Stalinism."

But today a second forceful criticism of Leninism comes from people who accept that there were distinctions between Lenin and Stalin. Their objection is that the notion of a Leninist party was appropriate to a particular set of conditions and therefore, given the irrefutable gap between Russia circa 1917 and Britain today, there is little that can be drawn from Lenin. Such arguments are not simply common on the radical left; they are the common sense.

Now, this criticism contains a substantial element of truth. It is certainly the case that the specific forms adopted by Lenin's Bolsheviks cannot be uncritically applied in Britain today. Such posturing should be left to cults and historical re-enactment enthusiasts.

But there is a problem with the criticism, because it fails to separate out what is specific in Lenin's conception of the party and what is general. What does the general concept of Leninism rest on?

Workers can liberate themselves only through a mass revolutionary process, driven from below. But in making a revolution, workers face three interconnected problems. The first is that of the state. The economic power of the capitalist class is founded on its control over the means of production and the fact, therefore, that workers must sell their labour power to a capitalist in order to work.

In the process, workers are exploited - profits are pumped out of them by the capitalist class. But the resulting economic antagonism is concentrated in the political organisation of capitalism, in particular a repressive state machine defending the general interests of the ruling class.

This state is highly centralised. It consists of unelected hierarchies - the judiciary, civil service, army, police, etc - that, at their pinnacle, are overseen by members of the wider ruling class. In times of upheaval, when these hierarchies are thrown into disorder, restoring the chain of command in the state machine is our rulers' priority.

Confronting, and ultimately smashing, this centralised state in a revolutionary situation requires a political organisation capable of drawing together the struggles taking place and seeking to give them an overall direction and focus. For this reason a Leninist party has to be both rooted in the day-to-day battles of workers and capable of intervening in a unified manner.

The importance of the state leads to the second problem Leninism addresses. Lenin was determined that the Bolsheviks should not simply participate in the economic struggle, but that they should also intervene politically. Oft quoted is Lenin's argument that revolutionaries' ideal "should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects".

The rest of the passage is also important: revolutionaries should be "able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation", using each example to demonstrate the "world-historic significance of the struggle for emancipation of the proletariat".

Abstention from political questions both surrenders the terrain to rival political forces content to work within the existing system and ignores the need to convince oppressed groups that their liberation is ultimately possible only through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

The third problem is the unevenness of the working class. Workers are not some homogenous mass. Some workers vote Tory, have racist ideas or scab on strikes. This reflects the degree to which workers feel atomised, powerless and alienated and therefore accept ideas that run contrary to the collective interests of their class.

Some workers have revolutionary ideas and consistently fight oppression and exploitation. Most workers hold in their heads at any one time a potentially unstable mixture of ideas. This provides the basis for the hold of reformist ideas and organisation, stressing gradual, piecemeal change. It also reinforces the need for revolutionaries to engage in political battles, to contest the reformist common sense, alongside efforts to raise the economic militancy of the class.

Mass party
What Lenin discovered, largely through the practical experience of building a party in Russia, was a form of organisation through which the revolutionary minority could be drawn together and armed with the arguments, publications, methods of struggle and so on required to try to pull wider forces around them. In doing so, they could not only strengthen the struggles taking place, but also implant themselves more numerously and firmly in the working class movement. Ultimately that could forge the kind of mass party required to lead workers to victory in a revolutionary situation.

The interesting thing about these aspects of Leninism is that the problems they address are not specific to early 20th century Russia at all. They are general to capitalist societies. Today in Britain a small minority continues to control the means of production, while some 30 million wage labourers work for them.

The key social relations binding different classes together have not been fundamentally transformed, even if much else in society has changed. Workers' consciousness remains uneven. A centralised capitalist state continues to preside over British society. Political questions, ranging from the scapegoating of migrants to the problem of Labourism, remain absolutely crucial.

If the general conditions that made Leninism relevant remain intact, what about the specifics? Here, few assumptions can be made. Even Lenin's own organisation periodically transformed itself to fit with changing conditions. The party Lenin helped to forge from the late 1890s, based on a core of highly dedicated "professional revolutionaries", operating in conditions of illegality, simply did not fit in 1905 when revolution erupted. Now Lenin ended up in a fight with the stalwarts of Bolshevism.

"Really, I sometimes think that nine-tenths of the Bolsheviks are actually formalists," he wrote. "We need young forces... Enlarge the committee threefold by accepting young people into it, set up half a dozen or a dozen subcommittees, 'co-opt' any and every honest and energetic person. Allow every subcommittee to write and publish leaflets without any red tape (there is no harm if they do make a mistake...)"

Leninism, then, must be tremendously flexible because its organisational forms are subordinated to the changing needs of the class struggle.

The way the party changes, though, is rarely straightforward. In order for it to be effective at all, a party has to develop a degree of organisational inertia, ways of doing things, routines and habits. These can suddenly clash with a transformed situation.

Trotsky offers this account in his "Lessons of October": "Generally speaking, crises arise in the party at every serious turn in the party's course, either as a prelude to the turn or as a consequence of it. The explanation for this lies in the fact that every period in the development of the party has special features of its own and calls for specific habits and methods of work. A tactical turn implies a greater or lesser break in these habits and methods. Herein lies the direct and most immediate root of internal party frictions and crises...

"A revolutionary party is subjected to the pressure of other political forces. At every given stage of its development the party elaborates its own methods of counteracting and resisting this pressure. During a tactical turn and the resulting internal regroupments and frictions, the party's power of resistance becomes weakened.

"From this the possibility always arises that the internal groupings in the party, which originate from the necessity of a turn in tactics, may develop far beyond the original controversial points of departure and serve as a support for various class tendencies."

Given the inevitable internal clashes, how does a Leninist party try to ensure that it chooses the correct answers to the problems posed by intervention in struggle? Here we can say something, again at a very general level, about the relationship between democratic debate and centralised organisation.

The phrase "democratic centralism" is often seen as synonymous with Leninism. In fact, many workers' organisations (and probably many horticultural societies or chess clubs) practise some form of democratic centralism.

At its most basic it means that there is collective democratic discussion of the problems faced, followed by collective implementation of the decisions reached. But beyond this relative simplicity there is a great deal that can be learnt from the historical example of Bolshevism.

For one thing, this history shows that democracy is an absolute necessity in developing our theory and practice. When we say that the workers who make up the party are the "most advanced" we do not necessarily mean that, at any given moment, every member is engaged in the highest level of struggle.

Often capitalism throws up situations in which non-revolutionaries are driven to fight in militant ways. Revolutionaries - who are the most advanced in their commitment to overthrow capitalism and their grasp of Marxist theory drawing on the historical lessons of struggle - can find themselves in workplaces where workers are not fighting.

If we want to embed the most important experiences of the class in our organisation, learn the lessons and generalise them among workers, understand the improvisations thrown up, and develop our theory in light of their novelty, these issues must be debated across the party.

Duncan Hallas, in his book "Trotsky's Marxism", puts it well: "A mass party, unlike a sect, is necessarily buffeted by immensely powerful forces... These forces inevitably find expression inside the party also. To keep the party on course (in practice, to continually correct its course in a changing situation) the complex relationship between the leadership, the various layers of the cadre and the workers they influence and are influenced by, expresses itself and must express itself in political struggle inside the party. If that is artificially smothered by administrative means, the party will lose its way."

Leninist parties are not conscripted armies. Members are trained to reflect critically on the world and to carry arguments. They do not salute the leadership and scurry off to carry out their orders. There is always a complex, dialectical and fluid relationship between groups of members and the leadership of a party.

But the party is not a discussion circle either, in which members endlessly debate in the hope that eventually everyone agrees. Debates often conclude with votes so that decisions can be tested practically. Formal agreement on the key tasks, though, does not guarantee that members will carry them out. Sometimes a minority of members must prove in practice that the conclusions reached are indeed correct in order to win over the majority.

Even if everyone really does agree, testing decisions in practice can reveal mistakes in the analysis, forcing debates back onto the agenda.

But no leadership can afford to smother debates that find expression within the party, whether they are debates within the leadership itself or within the wider membership. To do so will ultimately fracture the party into rival factional groupings, paralysing its attempts to intervene.

The need for debate does not, of course, mean that every dissident voice is necessarily correct. As Hallas put it, "An indispensable function of the leadership, itself formed by selection in previous struggles, is to understand when to close ranks to preserve the core of the organisation from disintegration by unfavourable outside pressures - to emphasise centralism - and when to open up the organisation and to use layers of advanced workers inside and outside the party to overcome the party conservatism of sections of the cadre and leadership - to emphasise democracy - in order to change course quickly."

The current period involves a particularly tricky balance between these two aspects. Like revolutionaries in other countries, the SWP has experienced a number of party crises. These have each reflected quite specific problems, but they also reflect the pressures on the party in this period. What are these pressures? The level of sustained struggle by workers has been low for several decades. There are some successful battles that can be learnt from but no obvious "vanguard" from which successful new organisational forms can be derived in a straightforward manner.

Ultimately the conditions of capitalist exploitation will lead to explosions, but it is impossible to know exactly when or where these will occur or precisely what they will look like. That does not mean abstaining from the limited fight that is taking place, but there are limits imposed on us by the objective situation and real frustrations among those who wish to see a higher level of workers' activity.

The relatively low level of struggle, along with the long-term decline of the influence both of social democratic parties such as Labour and Stalinist type parties, means many of those radicalising look to ideas that are distant from even a basic orientation on the working class, and often hostile or indifferent to Marxism, which is associated with tyranny or simply seen as archaic.

At the same time there are important movements developing, often highly complex ones, in which SWP members do intervene. All of this means that there will be sharp arguments within Leninist parties and a need to work out when to "close ranks" against "unfavourable outside pressures", and when to respond to currents within the party that reflect genuine efforts of groups of members to overcome problems by innovating.

In these respects, the life of the revolutionary party is quite different from that in Britain during much of the period from the mid-1980s. Back then there were few contested decisions at conferences and almost no challenges to the leadership. Short of a complete collapse in the level of struggle and a general shift to the right, we are unlikely to return to the previous period.

However, shifting to a high level of debate in these circumstances poses real difficulties. Not least, there is a responsibility on minorities who "lose" a debate to participate fully in the implementation of decisions they disagree with, however bitter the prior arguments. Conversely, the leadership and the "winning" side must ensure that defeated minorities are not marginalised or stigmatised, that, as new debates emerge, new alignments can develop.

Only if there is a healthy culture of debate and discussion - often of a robustly polemical nature - can there be effective, unified intervention in the class struggle allowing the party to test and recalibrate its position. In this conception, "centralism" and "democracy" are not alternatives we have to choose between.

They are two elements bound together in the real, living struggles of the working class in which we seek to intervene. This final aspect of Lenin's politics is worth stressing: for him, the test of theory was practice. Ideas have to take active, organised forms.

While capitalism, founded on the exploitation of the mass of workers, remains intact, so too does the relevance of the broad tradition of Leninism and the Leninist party.