Beyond Leninism?


Luke Cooper argues that the rejection of political plurality contributed to the collapse of the Russian Revolution into authoritarianism

Today’s radical left has participated energetically in diverse social movements, yet it has not been able to translate this experience into rapid political growth or been able to penetrate the political mainstream with a resurgence of socialist politics. In order to explain this, in Beyond Capitalism? we contend that today’s ‘crisis of the left is still a crisis of the sect’[i], reflecting the inability of organisations that each claim a ‘monopoly in the sphere of politics’[ii] to relate with any organicity to new mass movements that are characterised by political plurality and imbued with a strongly democratic, participatory ethos.[iii] It is because dogmatism is characterised by ideological intolerance that it easily leads into political authoritarianism, as the repression of hostile ideas becomes the sine qua non of the sect-like organisation.

This is not an especially novel claim,[iv] but it is one that has since become particularly pertinent to the current climate of political re-evaluation on the radical left. The crisis in the Socialist Workers Party, by far the most serious of its history, has provided a dramatic further impetus to this new bout of rethinking. Driven by the leadership’s handling of a rape allegation against a Central Committee member, the crisis also raised a series of political questions about the party’s internal democracy. Many commentators identified the organisation’s attachment to Trotskyist-Leninism as the central cause of its sickness. Owen Jones typified a widely held opinion when he labelled the party a ‘Leninist sect, lacking any semblance of internal democracy, obsessed with replicating a revolution that took place in a semi-feudal country nearly a century ago’.[v] Former SWP journalist Tom Walker linked the alleged cover up of the rape allegation with the party’s internal regime, arguing that ‘the issues of democracy and sexism are not separate, but inextricably linked – the lack of the first creates space for the second to grow, and makes it all the more difficult to root it out when it does’.[vi] It is not the place here to subject the specifics of the case to critical scrutiny. Indeed, to be clear, this is most certainly not an article about the crisis in the SWP. But I do wish to explore the thesis that Trotskyist or Leninist organisation is particularly prone to create a climate of the type that Walker has described.[vii] One in which a party elite enjoys an unaccountable position of power in relation to the ‘rank and file’ that is justified on ideological grounds.

In Beyond Capitalism?, we confronted the political consequences of the ‘monopoly in the sphere of politics’ – i.e., a left still marginalised despite the rising tide of anti-austerity social movements –whereas here my focus is on the democratic consequences of intolerance to plurality. I explore these questions through a critical appraisal of the debates in Russia that led to the creation of one-party rule from 1920 to 1921. I do so not because I am ‘obsessed with replicating a revolution that took place… a century ago’[viii], but rather because this remains the consummate example of revolutionary action for the Trotskyist left.

The argument is developed through three parts. Firstly, I consider the anatomy of ‘the sect’, reflecting upon recent arguments put forward by China Mieville on the nature of ‘cult-like-thinking’. Secondly, I outline the debates in the Russian communist party that resulted in the creation of one-party rule in 1921. Lastly, I apply the young Trotsky’s concept of substitutionism as a critique of left authoritarianism.


Leftist sects in historical perspective

Many people consider divisions on the left to be inevitable, and, in a sense, they are right. Plurality, differences of perspective, tradition, outlook, and strategy, are a natural part of coming to terms with the complex world that we live in. This fact of life can be located within the most basic assumptions of historical materialism. Consider, indeed, how human beings have an innate capacity to transfer knowledge, imagined ‘memories’, and traditions across generations. In modern environments this intensifies with the overall acceleration social change, as rapid development undermines the accepted order of things and produces an enormous variety of contested attempts to appropriate knowledge about the world.[ix] The historical evolution of Marxist thinking testifies to this tendency towards plurality and complexity in the conceptions we form to make sense of the modern world; as history accumulates year-on-year, there are more experiences, more lessons, more raw material for new ideas and more destabilising forces undermining status quo assumptions. The problem of left unity emerges when differences are not embraced as a natural part of politics, but are seen as a problem to be overcome through intransigent struggle. Moreover, lodged within the same historical process exists the potential for worldviews to ossify around a received set of wisdoms. All traditions on the left and right do this with varying degrees of success. Even in periods of great social change past histories impose themselves on our subjectivity. ‘The tradition of all dead generations’, as Marx aptly put it, therefore, ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’, for even in moments of revolutionary change we ‘anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, and borrow from them names, battle cries, and costumes in order to present this new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language’[x]. Marx’s evocative suggestion is that the very speed of social change in the modern world encourages a retrenchment into the familiar – the politics of the ‘better the devil we know’. The marginal left sect derives reassurance and meaning from its relationship to an ideological tradition. But the danger that develops lies in how the worldview can justify marginalisation – the need to organise a distinct ideological trend – that then, by virtue of its very isolation, leaves it cut off from social change, with the resulting tendency for its ideas to ossify.

A more serious problem than mere deference for tradition also asserts itself when the radical left undertakes the conservative retreat into the familiar. This occurs when an organisation, and specifically its leading members, claims to have distilled the lessons of a totality of experiences and embodied them in a hermeneutically sealed doctrine. A theoretical inspiration for this approach is arguably found in George Lukacs’ Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought.[xi] As David Renton has recently put it, ‘the beauty of this pamphlet, for those inclined to what Hal Draper called “socialism from above”, is that it provides a perfect justification for a party which can do anything, led by a caste of intellectuals who are philosophically incapable of ever being wrong’.[xii] For Lukacs, the party simply expressed the historical mission of the proletariat – and indeed of history itself – and Lenin’s special power consequently lay in his ability to understand the ‘actuality of the revolution’, i.e. the moment of active intervention on behalf of the historical process. Lukacs’ work arguably testifies to how ideological ‘monopolism’ feeds into an unaccountable elite culture, in which deference for leaders that determine the ‘perspective’ is a cornerstone of party life.

Cult-like thinking

Cult-like thinking

In a recent article, China Mieville helps us to develop these points in a contribution on the nature of cult-like thinking in left wing political organisations.[xiii] He identifies a tendency to apportion moral and political primacy to a revolutionary leadership that is then used to justify the hollowing out, or simply the absence, of any living mechanism of democratic accountability and control by the membership.[xiv] Mieville claims that this constitutes idealism – a denial of the material reality that humans are fallible – and thereby results in a ‘Great Men’ theory of history.[xv] As a consequence, democracy is eroded, for the elite claims a special ability to formulate the tasks of the party in a manner that can shift the balance of events, negating the utility of participatory forms of ‘bottom up’ decision making.[xvi] A further consequence of this approach is a leadership’s rejection of the possibility that they may be subject to ‘conflicts of interest’ in disciplinary matters, making recuse unnecessary due to their ‘political morality’.[xvii] If we consider Lukacs’ discussion of Lenin’s ‘genius’, then we can see the same method at work that Mieville describes so well. He wrote:

[Lenin] with the perception of genius, immediately recognize the fundamental problem of our time – the approaching revolution – at the time and place of its first appearance. From then on he understood and explained all events, Russian as well as international, from this perspective -from the perspective of the actuality of the revolution.[xviii]

Take a moment to reflect upon what is actually being argued here. At most, if we cut through the verbiage, all that is being stated is that Lenin predicted the Russian Revolution and analysed events from this assumption. Far from this making him a genius of great originality, which may or may not be true, the anticipation that Tsarism would be overthrown characterised all the debates among Russian Marxists.[xix] Lukacs has a clear tendency to mobilise the banal to justify deference to party elites, which becomes clearer as his argument becomes more and more overblown:

The development which Marxism thus underwent through Lenin consists merely – merely! – in its increasing grasp of the intimate, visible, and momentous connection between individual actions and general destiny – the revolutionary destiny of the whole working class.[xx]

Lukacs’ language is almost deliberately obfuscating and the formulation is at best puzzling. If we ignore the exaggerated language, the basic argument resolves on the connection between individual actions – the subjective component of political ‘intervention’ – and the objective potential of communist transformation in the existence of an exploited working class. Lenin, Lukacs seems to argue, was particularly adept at formulating concrete tactics suitable to realising the communist goal. There are therefore two elements: a philosophical foundation and Lenin’s ability. In terms of the first, a founding principle of historical materialism (the unity of ‘subject and object’ and the central role of political struggle in social change) can hardly be seen as a ‘development of Marxism’. Instead it is the second, Lenin’s persona, along with ‘Lenin’s of the future’, i.e. those capable of reading the situation to formulate revolutionary tactics, which becomes central. In this way, a movement takes place from the banal to the deferential, one that encapsulates the kind of ‘deluded sanctimoniousness’ that Mieville sees as indicative of cult-like thinking.[xxi] It might be reasonably argued that Lenin had a particular ability to formulate tactics on the basis of a concrete situation, but the extreme emphasis that has been put upon this in ‘Leninism after Lenin’ has resulted in the ‘stick bending’ model advocated by Tony Cliff’s in his biography[xxii] of the Russian Marxist.[xxiii] According to this perspective, leaders of the ‘interventionist party’ have a special ability to analyse the political situation and propel the organisation in the direction of a decisive ‘necessary turn’. This, in turn, supposedly elicits rapid growth and provides leadership to the working class. Left sects on the margins have applied this ‘model’ with scant results and insofar as it privileges the ‘perspective forming’ leaders over and above the ‘activist’ members, then it creates a power hierarchy in tension to communist principles.[xxiv]

It is easy to poke fun at Lukacs’ persistent use of tautology. His pamphlet was also written in 1924 as Stalin was consolidating his dictatorship in the Soviet Union, and its more embarrassing formulations are plainly influenced by the new ‘Lenin cult’. Despite some still praising Lukacs’ work as ‘the philosophically most sophisticated account of the revolutionary party that anyone has developed’,[xxv] it is easy to categorise firmly within the Stalinist school of thought. The Trotskyists were, of course, famously anti-Stalinist. Trotsky went into opposition in 1923 to challenge Stalin’s growing despotism, spent the rest of his life attempting to rebuild the communist movement on healthier lines, and was assassinated by a Soviet agent in 1940. Yet, Trotsky’s anti-Stalinism would always be coloured by the ideological justifications that he had provided for one-party rule in 1920 to 1921. This overall period, from 1920 to 1924, had a profound impact in shaping the notion of ‘Leninism’ that emerged out of it as a global phenomenon. The Communist International was cohered around a Bolshevik model in 1920 to 1921, which was then defined as ‘Leninism’ from 1923 to 1925. This means, crucially, that Leninism – as an explicitly articulated ‘doctrine’ – was born as Stalinism.[xxvi] The uncomfortable question for Trotskyists is whether the cultish characteristics that were writ large after 1923 had an earlier genesis in 1920-1921. Much of the literature on the early Communist International tends to contextualise it merely in terms of the international situation, e.g. the rising tide of workers’ struggle in Europe from 1918 to 1920, followed by the period of stabilisation that resulted in the turn to the ‘united front’ tactic. This dials out of the analysis the ‘Russian context’ that saw dictatorial rule established in 1921.


Justifying the new authoritarianism in Soviet Russia

Tsarist Russia’s impoverishing economic landscape, once confronted with the traumas of industrial modernisation, had created a dynamic of disintegration, under the pressures of the world war, that led to power falling into the hands of the Russian Bolsheviks. The tragedy of the revolutionary moment lay in how the social conditions that had made taking the path of socialist transformation possible simultaneously put barriers in the way of progressive realising its utopian goals and aspirations. Even once withdrawal from the First World War was negotiated, the Soviet regime was plunged into a civil war backed by the major colonial powers. And it is hard to exaggerate the social costs that it inflicted upon an already war-ravaged society. Inflation was out of control and state finances suffered from extreme dysfunction.[xxvii] A de facto barter economy had developed with wages paid in kind in response to hyperinflation.[xxviii] There were no state budgets from mid-1919 to early 1921.[xxix] Attempts by the state to impose its monopoly on distribution had failed utterly with the black market responsible for two thirds of the food supply and for four times as much food grain as the official sources.[xxx] Industrial production had collapsed to just 21 per cent of 1913 levels. Agricultural output was at 60 per cent of the 1913 level.[xxxi] The population of 40 provincial capitals had plummeted by an average of 33 per cent since 1917. In the urban heartlands of Moscow and Petrograd this measure came to 44.5 and 57.5 per cent respectively.[xxxii] In these conditions, the survival of the state, even if it was becoming bureaucratised, increasingly was seen as an end in itself.

Kronstadt assault 2

Russian Civil War

The impoverished political and economic landscape created organic tendencies for an authoritarian form of rule; a ‘temptation’, so to speak, arising from the need for ‘order’ in the face of disintegration. The tragedy of twentieth century socialism lies in how a general vision of socialism, which involved highly authoritarian one party rule, became established and justified according to general principles, despite emerging in these barren and exceptional circumstances. It took shape in the period of ‘War Communism’, which was a policy of extreme political and economic centralisation of power.[xxxiii] Many communist party members hoped expanding the power of the state would realise speedy modernisation, but the shift to the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921, which restored a form of state-led capitalist development, effectively accepted the policy had failed. Recognising this economic context is essential for any historical account of Stalinization, but, nonetheless, for our purposes, we are concerned with how the political architecture of one-party rule emerged and was justified ideologically. The Civil War eroded the material basis for working class control of industry as it was decimated in size and deeply impoverished.[xxxiv] Labour discipline was soon enforced ‘from above’ through a series of coercive labour codes, concluding in 1920 with a forced labour scheme in clear contradiction to socialist principles.[xxxv] Trade unions were operationally integrated into the state and membership of them made compulsory for all workers.[xxxvi] A multi-party element in the soviets did not survive 1918 as the Bolsheviks accused the Mensheviks and SRs of colluding with the White Army during the war and expelled them.[xxxvii] However, neither party were fully illegalised until the dramatic changes following the Civil War.

The moral and political trauma of this period for the Bolshevik party has been brought out eloquently in Isaac Deutscher’s Trotsky: The Prophet Armed.[xxxviii] For Trotsky played a central role in the unfolding tragedy by providing many of the ideological justifications for the establishment of an authoritarian form of rule from 1920 to 1921. The American translators of Trotsky’s pamphlet Terrorism and Communism initially published the work under the title Democracy versus Dictatorship and given the substantive argument of the text their decision was arguably quite reasonable. Trotsky justified the centralisation of power into the hands of both the party (and within it the leadership, ‘the last word belongs the Central Committee of the party’[xxxix]) along almost identical lines to those Lukacs used in his pamphlet on Lenin. He wrote:

The exclusive role of the Communist Party under the conditions of a victorious proletarian revolution is quite comprehensible. The question is of the dictatorship of a class. In the composition of that class there enter various elements, heterogeneous moods, different levels of development. Yet the dictatorship pre-supposes unity of will, unity of direction, unity of action… The revolutionary supremacy of the proletariat pre-supposes within the proletariat itself the political supremacy of a party, with a clear programme of action and a faultless internal discipline. The policy of coalitions contradicts internally the regime of the revolutionary dictatorship. We have in view, not coalitions with bourgeois parties, of which of course there can be no talk, but a coalition of Communists with other “Socialist” organizations, representing different stages of backwardness and prejudice-of the labouring masses.[xl]

Here we have each of the elements David Renton found in Lukacs’ pamphlet:[xli] a party that can achieve anything due to its ‘programme of action and faultless internal discipline’, an elite that cannot be wrong because they claim the mantle of revolutionary consciousness in the face of ‘heterogeneous moods’; and a rejection on principle of coalition governance within a system of democratic soviets (of the like that Lenin had once described in State and Revolution[xlii] and pursued in 1917 to 1918). It is similarly the case that the idealism, which Mieville sees as indicative of cult-like thinking, is present in Terrorism and Communism. For Trotsky makes frequent appeals to political morality in the form of asserting the communist party’s ‘faultless discipline and unquestioned authority’.[xliii] ‘Happily for the revolution’, he argues, ‘our party does possess in an equal measure both of these qualities’.[xliv] In short, what we have here is not a ‘Great Men’ theory of history, but a ‘Great Party’ theory that fails to recognise the inherent human fallibility of a party hierarchy, especially at a time of acute social decay. Indeed, Trotsky is almost explicit on this point as he continues:

Whether in other countries which have not received from their past a strong revolutionary organization, with a great hardening in conflict, there will be created just as authoritative a Communist Party by the time of the proletarian revolution, it is difficult to foretell; but… on this question, to a very large extent, depends the progress of the Socialist revolution in each country.[xlv]

In other words, the Trotsky of 1920 to 1921 – no doubt writing in ‘propagandistic’ terms reflecting the politics of the civil war – ascribes the discipline and unquestioned authority of the party, both essentially ‘moral’ dispositions, a prime-mover status in the transition to a new mode of production. In short, ‘if you are Good enough’, as Mieville puts it, ‘you can effectively shape your own consciousness, by choice’.[xlvi] Abstracted from this are naturally the socio-economic and class contradictions, which introduce a whole host of material incentives for the corruption of a society, and necessitates the fullest democratic control and rights as a condition of socialism.

Kronsdadt Lenin and Trotsky cover

Rebellion crushed

Deutscher would later rue how ‘at the very pinnacle of his power, Trotsky, like the protagonist of a classical tragedy, stumbled. He acted against his own principle and in disregard of a most solemn moral commitment’.[xlvii] Deutscher added, by way of explanation, how it was ‘circumstances, the preservation of the revolution and his own pride’ that ‘drove him into this predicament… yet in acting how he did he shattered the ground on which he stood’ (ibid). Indeed, Trotsky would personally experience the deeply corrosive potential of the one party rule he once advocated. But at the Tenth Congress in March 1921 his position, for a formal system of one-party governance, was rejected and Lenin’s passed, which conceived of it as a merely short term and emergency measure connected to the need for economic recovery. This retained a commitment to soviet democracy in words, but without any of the formal mechanisms of control and accountability to regulate its operation in deeds. Most of all, there would be no free multi-party soviet elections. In truth, the Bolsheviks did not believe they could win a majority given the state of disrepair that blighted the economy and the levels of discontent it had bred.[xlviii] These positions did not, however, go unchallenged, either within the party or outside of it. In 1920, Alexandra Kollontai and the Workers’ Opposition formed as a minority faction in the Bolshevik party; they called for the unions to be fully independent bodies, for the return of workers’ control in industry and highlighted how a new layer of unaccountable technocrats had coalesced in the state.[xlix] Importantly, Kollontai directly linked the attacks on freedom of speech to the social decay of urban life fostered by top-down control. ‘The harm [of bureaucracy]’ she wrote, ‘lies in the solution of all problems, not by means of an open exchange of opinions or by the immediate efforts of all concerned, but by means of formal decisions handed down from the central institutions’.[l] Workers in the production line were excluded from decision making in favour of the rule of ‘one person or…an extremely limited collective’ above them and ‘freedom of thought and opinion’, encouragement of ‘self-activity’ was effectively proscribed.[li] In prophetic remarks, she concluded that this erosion of the democratic life of the Soviet state was the ‘greatest danger to the future existence of the Communist Party itself’. Whether Kollontai imagined a bureaucratic take-over of the party from within or its overthrow by this new elite from without, her basic concern that the emancipatory vision of the revolution was being extinguished proved to be a prescient one. The uprising of Kronstadt sailors raised very similar demands – particularly for the restoration of free elections in the soviets – and it took place while the Tenth Congress was in session. It was crushed by the Soviet state and precipitated the complete illegalising of the SRs and Mensheviks that had both supported the uprising. The Workers’ Opposition (who did not support the uprising but supported the actions of the party) were also banned, as were all organised oppositions within the party that, while not at this stage extinguishing all dissent or freedom of speech, nonetheless, allowed bureaucratic control to take full flight.[lii]


Beyond Leninism via Trotskyism?

The collapse of the Soviet regime into authoritarianism was closely connected to the NEP policy. The Bolshevik party leadership, and the armed power of the state they stood at the head of, came to be seen as the principal force capable of keeping in check the resurgent capitalist tendencies of the new policy. In effect, the party would ‘substitute’ itself for the absence of a powerful, socialist working class. This provided the basic historical backdrop for Lukacs’ pamphlet on Leninism, for the idea of the party leadership as guardian of historical proletarian interests is its central theme. As David Renton[liii] has observed Lukacs goes much further than Lenin ever did in emphasising the central role of the party leadership in avoiding a situation where the ‘ideological spokesmen’ do not unwittingly ‘forsake… the interests of the class as a whole.’[liv] Indeed, Lukacs makes explicitly clear that the party exists to negate political plurality in favour of an ideological monolithism; the ‘homogeneity of thought and action’ policed by the leadership, observing the principle of ‘the strictest selection of party members on the basis of their proletarian class-consciousness’.[lv]

All of these debates pose the question of whether the form of party organisation that the Bolsheviks advocated was inherently Stalinist, i.e., inclined to create a cult-like structure of deference towards an unaccountable party elite (as the supposed guardian of the ‘historical mission of the proletariat’). In recent years, a growing body of literature has, however, challenged this depiction of the pre-1917 Bolshevik party as an elitist organisation and instead emphasised how the party developed as a mass organisation with a relatively high degree of political plurality. This has been led by Lars Lih’s claim that Lenin’s political project, famously encapsulated in ‘What is to be done?’, has to be put in the context of his general orientation to build a social democratic party in Russia on the model of the mass German party that led the international movement.[lvi] In light of this work it is easy to refute Lukacs’ claim – stated, in a manner typical of his work, i.e. as an abstract assertion without any reference to historical facts – that the Bolshevik Party was characterised by ‘singleness of purpose… and universality’, and this contrasted with the Menshevik faction that brought together ‘a confused tangle of different interest groups’ and thus ‘only through inner compromise does it ever manage to take any action.’[lvii] But in the history of pre-1917 Bolshevism there were in fact many compromises amongst relatively heterogeneous currents within the Bolshevik party.

Simon Hardy has argued that there were actually very few expulsions from the Bolshevik party, and at least in terms of its practice, there was considerable leeway for political plurality.[lviii] He gives several examples of compromises that flatly refute Lukacs’ central claim of total homogeneity: Nicolai Bukharin launched a public journal, Kommunist, that advocated a number of minority positions on the national question, anti-war work, and the new international; Bolshevik central committee members that published the periodical, Soldiers Truth, were responsible for the agitation that led to the adventurist July Days uprising in 1917, which was entirely unsanctioned by the party leadership; a minority of Bolshevik party leaders voted against the repression of bourgeois newspapers following the seizure of power; and Zinoviev and Kamenev even openly argued against the insurrection of October 1917. In none of these incidents were these minority currents that violated the central ‘line’ expelled from the party, which, given they were leaders, clearly refutes Lukacs’ claim that members were ‘strictly selected’ for party membership according to the extent to which they articulated the ‘proletarian line’. lenin_cartoon_square_250

Yet, while these accounts are useful to undermine the mythology, created by Leninists and Stalinists alike, of the iron-discipline of the Bolshevik party as an organisation of steeled cadres, they nonetheless only deepen problem. For they pose the question of why a political party that was relatively open and democratic, even in semi-illegal conditions, still went on to create a state that was highly authoritarian. The problem arguably lies in the failure of the Bolsheviks to theorise the need for political plurality. It might be better to see their ability to sustain a broadly defined political unity, despite internal ideological divisions, as pragmatic compromises that were seen as necessary to build a large revolutionary socialist party prior to the revolution and un-necessary to maintain their grip on power afterwards. This is not to say, however, that nothing can be gleamed from the earlier history. For the real facts provide a challenge to Lukacs, as they illustrate how working class ‘interests’ are necessarily contested, are subject to interpretive controversies, and contain nuanced differences as well as principled ones. Recognising such plurality is arguably necessary for Marxism to develop as a multi-sided and diverse theory of social reproduction to underpin political action.

The rupture between the pre and post revolutionary practice can be seen in the difference meanings given to the term ‘democratic centralism’ by Lenin. Indeed, a recent study by Lih makes for intriguing reading on the relationship between the pre and post 1917 experience.[lix] He argues there were only two distinct periods where Lenin made extensive use of the term, in 1906 to 1907[lx] and 1920 to 1921. In the earlier period, the emphasis was firmly on the elective or democratic principle, in the second it was instead put on centralism. As Lih explains:

The phrase, ‘democratic centralism’, always has a working part and a decorative part. In 1906-07, the working part was ‘democratic’ and the formula referred to intra-party elections, control from below, and so forth. In 1920-21, the working part was ‘centralism’ and the formula referred primarily to the uniform policies required by a ruling party. ‘Democratic centralism’ is in essence a homonym: two distinct formulas that use the same words.

In the debates around 1920 to 1921, Lenin attacked those, such as the Workers’ Opposition and Democratic Centralist Faction, who advocated the democratisation of party life, and a break with the politics of one-man management in state administration. The ban on factions was part of a package of measures that gave rise to the canonised version of Leninism as a system of top-down control. Indeed, the vision of the top down party was not just the preserve of Trotsky but was present in the debates on political organisation that were taking place across the international. The famous ‘Twenty-one Conditions’ for entry of parties into the Communist International reflected this general tendency to assimilate democracy into centralism:

The parties belonging to the Communist International must be built on the basis of the principle of democratic centralism. In the present epoch of acute civil war the communist party will only be able to fulfil its duty if it is organised in as centralist a manner as possible, if iron discipline reigns within it and if the party centre, sustained by the confidence of the party membership, is endowed with the fullest rights and authority and the most far-reaching powers.[lxi]

This clearly echoes the formulation of Trotsky, ‘faultless discipline and unquestioned authority’[lxii], and thus carries with it the same problem of ascribing the centralised party leadership a prime-mover status in socialist transformation. In the writings of Lukacs, Trotsky, and the ‘Twenty-One’ conditions, and in the attacks on pro-democracy factions within the Russian party, a pattern clearly emerges in which centralisation of power in the hands of the leadership becomes the sine qua non of the emerging notion of ‘Leninist’ organisation.[lxiii] It was arguably in this post-revolutionary phase that the ‘non-factional’ (i.e. ideologically monolithic) ‘party of a new type’ that was ‘cast from one mould’ emerged.[lxiv] It was then retrospectively applied to the history of Bolshevism through ‘canonistic’ works, such as Gregori Zionviev’s History of the Bolshevik Party (1923)[lxv] and Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism (1924).[lxvi] This was summarised in highly ‘Lukacsian’ terms by Vladimar Nevsky in 1925 when he wrote, ‘maximal freedom of all members within each organisation coexists with a single will of a single centre, willingly recognised by everybody, along with the strictest execution of its directives’.[lxvii] Such formulations formed part of the creation of a secular religion; one in which the individual can only find meaning through his or her subservience to the ‘single will’ of the despotic elite.

Against this canonised description of history, Eric Hobsbawm argues correctly that the pre-1917 ‘Bolshevik Party… behaved much less like a military staff and much more like an endless debating society.’[lxviii] Organisational solutions were generally improvised responses to concrete political problems amongst a small band of revolutionary activists trying to plot a way forward. Yet, it was equally the case that ‘a uniquely efficient disciplined cadre of professional revolutionaries, geared to carrying out the tasks assigned to them by a central leadership, was potentially authoritarian.’[lxix] Indeed Russian Marxists, along with Rosa Luxembourg,[lxx] had long pointed this out. Lenin’s contemporaries, in this sense, saw him as an advocate of elitism. In ‘Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy’ Luxemburg argued that Lenin’s One Step Forward, Two Steps Back represented a ‘methodological exposition of the ideas of the ultracentralist in the Russian movement. This tendency is pitiless centralism’.[lxxi] In reply, Lenin essentially argued that she had misunderstood his position, which recognised the elective principle that party leaderships were subordinated and accountable to the national conference, i.e. that ‘sovereignty’ lay with the base. It seems fair, however, to admit there was a consistently centralising tendency in his overall approach. ‘Although Lenin supported electoral procedures as long as they were in place’, writes Lih, ‘centralism is what he is really fighting for in the pre-revolutionary period’.[lxxii] But what this meant prior to taking power was radically different to what it meant afterwards. Lenin was, in effect, arguing for central institutions that either did not exist or were not enforcing the majority ‘line’ that he supported.[lxxiii] But once this centralising tendency was combined with a military state in conditions of deep social decay it helped foster a despotism that Lenin himself had never aspired to realise. His organisational formulas were arguably insufficiently alert to this danger of bureaucratism in top-down organisation.

The young Trotsky attacked 'substitutionism'

The young Trotsky attacked ‘substitutionism’

The tragic irony of the extreme centralisation that Trotsky proposed in 1920 and 1921 lay in how it represented a dramatic volte-face from his more libertarian youth. Back in 1904, amidst the bitter divisions in Russian Marxism at the time, Trotsky claimed Lenin’s vanguard party model would extinguish the democratic, self-activity of the working class, displacing it by a the dictates of the party elite. Whether this was a fair critique of his contemporary or not, his words nonetheless prophetically described the process of Soviet bureaucratisation that developed rapidly in the 1920s:

 … 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; on the other hand, this leads the committees to supply an “orientation” – and to change it – while “the people keep silent”. [lxxiv]

Trotsky captured the basic truth that forms of political organisation that do not contain mechanisms which subordinate hierarchies to the democratic control of the base will tend towards despotism. They will cultivate elites that cannot be controlled by the grassroots and thus owe their position of power to the good will of those above them within the hierarchy. This tendency to despotism – the substitution of the self-activity of the working class for an elite – became a cornerstone of the Stalinist party-state structure in the twentieth century. For example, the People’s Republic of China was one amongst several regimes that adopted this form of political rule and ‘Article 2 of the 1982 Constitution’ expressed the substitutionist logic Trotsky had warned against. Indeed, its formal description echoed Trotsky’s prophecy almost word-for-word:

Subordination of the individual [party member] to the organisation, subordination of the minority to the majority, subordination of lower levels to higher ones, and subordination of the whole Party to the Central Committee.[lxxv]

In all likelihood this was an unconscious parroting of the young Trotsky’s fears. But it underlines his most basic elementary point that a remorseless logic takes hold the moment at which the working class ‘below’ is denied control of the administrators and leaders ‘above’ them within the structure. But in Terrorism and Communism, in a barely concealed attack on his younger self, Trotsky explicitly rejected this:

In this “substitution” of the power of the party for the power of the working class there is nothing accidental, and in reality there is no substitution at all. The Communists express the fundamental interests of the working class. It is quite natural that, in the period in which history brings up those interests, in all their magnitude, on to the order of the day, the Communists have become the recognized representatives of the working class as a whole.[lxxvi]

This positing of an unmediated relationship between working class interests and the actions of the party elite would be frequently used in the twentieth century to justify Stalinist dictatorship. It foreshadows the formulas that Lukacs applied in 1924 and underlines the potential for authoritarianism once political plurality is rejected. The young Trotsky had again directly attacked this very argument. For he argued that between the ‘two realms’ – the objective interests of the working class in a transition to a new mode of production, and the extent to which this had been apprehended by them in their consciousness – there ‘lies the realm inherent in life, that of clashes and blows, mistakes and disillusionment, vicissitudes and defeats’.[lxxvii] The party could not therefore simply claim to express the historical mission by a merely doctrinal attachment ‘brought out by theory’.[lxxviii] It was, rather, through the process of merging socialist ideas with the workers’ struggle that their content would change and develop with the political tasks the movement confronted. Relative ideological plurality – that recognises the utility of many viewpoints to an anticapitalist project – thus becomes the essential core of a working class party founded on the principle of self-activity.


Rethinking the left

It is easy to see this entire discussion as a merely parochial investigation, which is of little relevance to a modern project of anticapitalist transition. But critically reflecting on the lessons of the collapse of the Russian Revolution into authoritarianism is arguably crucial, unless we are to repeat the mistakes of an earlier era. It is also important to relativize the overall conclusions we might draw from this study. For a number of organisations that have come from the Trotskyist tradition long ago reconsidered where they stood in relation to political plurality and democracy.[lxxix] Indeed, a younger Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, prior to his conversion to Leninism,[lxxx] had identified the schism between the young and old Trotsky on substitutionism.[lxxxi] Recognising the enduring temptation of this aberration of socialist politics, he argued that the ‘only weapons to fight the substitutionism of the revolutionary party for the class, and hence the transformation of the former into a conservative force, is the activity of the class itself, and its pressure not only against its social enemy, but also against its own agent, its party’.[lxxxii] The recent travails of the Socialist Workers Party ironically, indeed tragically, confirm these prescient remarks. It illustrates how Cliff followed the same ‘circle’ of Trotsky, succumbing to the temptation of creating a party hierarchy firmly in the spirit of ‘socialism from above’.

At this stage in the argument some, rather belated, qualifications are in order. Not least to make clear the real hope and radical vision that the Russian Revolution inspired all over the world. For as David Widgery argued long ago, ‘the Russian Revolution saved the honour of Marxism’, whose official parties had become hopelessly implicated in the brutal carnage of the First World War, yet it is a tragic fact that ‘the Soviet Union proceeded to lose it again’.[lxxxiii] Against the dichotomy of those who saw in Bolshevism nothing but an ‘inherently hierarchical and inevitably dictatorial’ politics, or deluded themselves into thinking that the ‘heads of state who flank[ed] the nuclear missiles in Red Square every year [were]… revolutionaries-of-a-sort after all’, Widgery drew attention to the complexity of the Russian events:

It requires more imaginative effort to comprehend that the Russian revolution was both overwhelmingly and genuinely a mass social revolution and yet that it began to lose its authentic socialist character within months of the workers’ seizure of power.[lxxxiv]

It is also important in this context to not revive canonistic debates about Luxembourg versus Lenin or the young Trotsky versus the old Trotsky on political organisation. None of these Marxists substantively theorised the need for participatory and pluralistic forms of political organisation as a condition of successful struggle against capitalism and transition to an emancipatory mode of production. At most, it might be argued that Trotsky and Luxembourg prophesised the bureaucratisation of the Russian Revolution and the German social democracy respectively, without fully developing a positive alternative to the dangers they identified. But Lenin too was not wholly committed to ‘socialism from above’. Unfortunately, the vision of the commune-state Lenin advocated in State and Revolution,[lxxxv] or the ‘socialism from below’ present in writings such as ‘How to Organise Competition?’[lxxxvi], gave way to a much more cold-hearted struggle of the new state for survival at all costs after the Civil War. The brutal poverty imposed on the Russian state by colonial intervention very much shaped this process, even if it did not render authoritarianism ‘inevitable’.[lxxxvii]

For the Communist International, the hierarchical vision of revolutionary organisation contained in the Twenty-One Conditions also grew eminently out of historical circumstances and experiences. At the centre of their project’, writes Charlie Post, ‘were parties free of the forces of ‘opportunism’ – independent organizations of revolutionary worker activists and leaders’.[lxxxviii] They rejected the old division between political parties that contested elections and unions that engaged in collective bargaining, in favour of a conception of political struggle that was rooted in extra-parliamentary resistance to capitalism. On this there can be no question that it was a justified and necessary project of enduring legacy and significance. But the mistake came in imagining that top-down centralised control – apportioning an idealistic moral primacy to a leadership – provided protection from reformism. The repeated and often catastrophic errors of opportunism and reformism committed by the official communist movement of the last century confound this assertion. Indeed, it shows that the form of organisation was antithetical to revolutionary politics. As such, the reverse of the original assumption holds true, only fully democratic, participatory organisations that are run by members, not elites, can successfully resist reformist ‘temptations’. As Post go on to argue the rejection of ‘socialism from below’ plainly undermined the revolutionary cause:

After 1923, the Comintern leadership imposed what the twentieth-century left has come to know as ‘Leninist norms of organization’ – cells at a local level operating under the direction of an unaccountable ‘democratic centralist’ leadership, bans on internal tendencies and factions, defining ‘cadre’ in terms of political and organizational loyalty to the party leadership, an extremely narrow political and organizational ‘homogeneity’, and the like. In the wake of these organizational changes, rank-and-file worker communists lost whatever control they may have exercised over the policies, action and leadership of their organizations.[lxxxix]

Today, an alternative approach can arguably retain the core of the critique of reformism, but connect it to a non-hierarchical vision of political party organisation. Against the backdrop of a rising tide of global protest imbued with a spirit of direct democracy, now more than ever the left needs to rediscover the politics of ‘socialism from below’. Developing it will be a long journey that has only just begun, but to aid these efforts we will need to offer genuine assurances that revolutionary politics will not succumb again to the allure of left authoritarianism as it did in the last century. Left parties that do not critically reflect on this history are liable to create it within the lifeworlds of their own sect in the cultish fashion Mieville warns against. In this spirit, a few principles could arguably usefully contribute to the building of a new left:

(i) A critique of substitutionism and asserting the centrality of the self-activity of the exploited classes. This is central to obstruct the despotism that emerges ineluctably if we build organisations with a power disparity between an unaccountable caste of party officials and lay members.

(ii) A Marxist account of autonomy. If our vision of communism is a society in which ‘the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all’ then we need to realign this vision with our present-day practice. Building ‘from below’ is essentially to developing a coherent challenge to capitalist state power, but it also needs to be made concrete and workable and not merely a catcheism.

(iii) Critique of bureaucratism. A critique of substitutionism has implications beyond the confines of debates on revolutionary organisation. Alienating structures, which leave members atomised and disempowered in the face of bureaucracy, are a fundamental feature of the modern labour movement.

(iv) Plurality in revolutionary politics. If plurality is a fact of human life and Marxism requires multiple viewpoints and tendencies to develop as a living theory, then the creation of ossified traditions, which are unresponsive to the evolution of social thought, is plainly antithetical to the communist project. Opening up to this plurality is crucial to dispelling the cult-like thinking which goes hand-in-hand with the slide into authoritarian forms of organisation.

All of these points speak to the need for a reassessment of the ‘pre-figurative’ nature of organisation in the classical Marxist tradition. This is often emphasised by Occupy activists, and is based upon the idea that we should try and organise ourselves today in a manner that is befitting of the society we are seeking to achieve. And it is just as often scorned by Leninists who turn this conclusion ‘on its head’ by drawing a radical distinction between how we operate today and what we want tomorrow. Recent experiences on the left illustrate how dangerous this is from an ethnical and moral standpoint, and how it has a particular consequences for whether organisations really constitute ‘safe spaces’ for oppressed groups, just as much as it has underlined how politically catastrophic the dominant ‘Leninist’ conception can be. Not all Leninisms are the same and the Socialist Workers Party has suffered from a particularly acute bureaucratic deformation. But whatever label we attach to our method it is plainly the case that revolutionary organisations in the 21st century must accommodate plurality and difference to a significantly greater degree than they did in the last. And this opens up avenues for unity with radical traditions that reject reformism, but operate on more open and less hierarchical lines to the traditional radical left.

Stating these positions in theory is, however, the easy part. Real assurances about the democratic nature of the society we are seeking to win needs more than words. It has to be reflected in our actual deeds, of doing politics in a different way, and developing a genuinely democratic ethos. Such an approach is also essential to genuine application of the classical “merger formula” – that socialist and anticapitalist ideas have to to be fused with the struggles of the subaltern classes –, but it recognises how this process is “messy” by its very nature. In the messiness comes the scope for creativity and imagination, of experimenting with new forms of organisation, strategy and tactics. If it is done democratically and in a participatory way, then the socialism or communism that emerges as a mass movement will be plural and multi-dimensional. It will not create a leadership above the working class that “defends” its consciousness, but creates a space where individuals involved can come to their own conclusions. A collective, coherent strategy can emerge out of this process, and it will surely be more meaningful if it is arrived at in a manner that recognises plural democracy.



Thanks to Charlie Post, Simon Hardy, Ishan Cader, and David Renton for comments on earlier drafts of this essay. 

[i] Cooper, L. and Hardy, S. 2013. Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics (Zero, Winchester), p. 155.
[ii] Ibid, p. 112
[iii] Ibid, pp. 83 – 107
[iv] Back in 1973, Hal Draper made this point in even stronger terms, locating it within the nature of the sect whose outlook becomes defined against the mass movement: “The road of the sect has always been a blind alley; yet socialist movements have come into existence. There has never been a single case of a sect which developed into, or gave rise to, a genuine socialist movement – by the only process that sects know, the process of accretion. The sect mentality typically sees the road ahead as one in which the sect (one’s own sect) will grow and grow, because it has the Correct Political Program, until it becomes a large sect, then a still larger sect, eventually a small mass party, then larger, etc., until it becomes large and massy enough to impose itself as the party of the working class in fact. But in two hundred years of socialist history, this has never actually happened, in spite of innumerable attempts.” Draper, H. 1973. ‘Anatomy of the Micro-Sect’ on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 23 April 2013).
[v] Jones, O. 20 January 2013 ‘British politics urgently needs a new force – a movement on the Left to counter capitalism’s crisis’ The Independent (online)–a-movement-on-the-left-to-counter-capitalisms-crisis-8459099.html (Accessed 23 April 2013).
[vi] Walker, T. 10 January 2013 ‘SWP’s Tom Walker: Why I am resigning’ Weekly Worker (Accessed 23 April 2013).
[vii] Walker, T. ‘The SWP: where did it all go wrong?’ Rethinking the left (Accessed 23 April 2013).
[viii] Jones, O. 20 January 2013 ‘British politics urgently needs a new force – a movement on the Left to counter capitalism’s crisis’ The Independent (online)–a-movement-on-the-left-to-counter-capitalisms-crisis-8459099.html (Accessed 23 April 2013).
[ix] Berman, M. 1983. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air; The Experience of Modernity (Verso, London), p. 15.
[x] Marx, Karl. 1969. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Selected Works Vol. I, 398 – 487. Lawrence and Wishart: London, p. 398.
[xi] Lukacs, G. 1924 Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought, available on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 24 April 2013). See also Lukacs, G. 1919 – 1923 History & Class Consciousness, available on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[xii] Renton. D. 23 April 2013 ‘Lukacs and the Pretenders’, Lives; Running (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[xiii] Mieville, C. 12 April 2013 ‘On Cult-like Thinking’ International Socialist Network (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[xiv] ibid
[xv] ibid
[xvi] ibid
[xvii] ibid
[xviii] Lukacs, G. 1924 Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought, available on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[xix] It was the class character of the revolution and the role of the capitalist class within that was substantively contested. On this debate see Day, R. B. and Gaido, D. 2009. Witnesses to Permanent Revolution; the Documentary Record Leiben: Brill.
[xx] Lukacs, G. 1924 Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought, available on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[xxi] Mieville, C. 12 April 2013 ‘On Cult-like Thinking’ International Socialist Network (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[xxii] Cliff, T. 1975 Lenin (volume 1); Building the Party London: Pluto Press.
[xxiii] Roobin, 24 April 2013 ‘Getting off square one’ IS Network (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[xxiv] Renton. D. 23 April 2013 ‘Lukacs and the Pretenders’, Lives; Running (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[xxv] Rees, J. ‘Lukács on Lenin – John Rees – Marxism 2009’ You Tube Video, (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[xxvi] See Post, C. 2013 ‘What is left of Leninism? New European left parties in historical perspective’ Socialist Register volume 49.
[xxvii] Flewers, P., 1997 ‘War Communism in Restrospect.’ What Next? Journal (5).
[xxviii] Carr, E. H., 1966 The Bolshevik Revolution: 1917-1923 Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, p. 233.
[xxix] Ibid, p. 251
[xxx] Nove, A., 1969 An Economic History of the U.S.S.R London: The Penguin Press, p. 62.
[xxxi] Ibid, p. 68, p. 94
[xxxii] Carr, E. H., ibid, pp. 197 – 198.
[xxxiii] Paul Flewers discusses how enterprises that employed just one person – i.e. the middle class – were requisitioned, in violation of the Bolshevik’s own programme, amidst a dash to nationalize the entire economic infrastructure. See Flewers 1997, ibid.
[xxxiv] Flewers, ibid.
[xxxv] ibid
[xxxvi] Barry, D., D., 1979 Soviet Law After Stalin: Soviet Institutions and the Administration of Law Leiden: BRILL. P. 267.
[xxxvii] Brovkin, V., N., 1991 The Mensheviks After October: Socialist Opposition and the Rise of the Bolshevik Dictatorship Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp. 231 – 232.
[xxxviii] Deutscher, I., 2003 The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 London and New York: Verso, pp. 405 – 432.
[xxxix] Trotsky, L. 1920 ‘The Working Class and Its Soviet Policy’ Terrorism and Communism on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 26 April 2013).
[xl] ibid
[xli] Renton. D. 23 April 2013 ‘Lukacs and the Pretenders’, Lives; Running (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[xlii] Lenin, V. I. 1917 The State and Revolution on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 29 April 2013).
[xliii] Trotsky, L. 1920 ‘The Working Class and Its Soviet Policy’ Terrorism and Communism on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 26 April 2013).
[xliv] ibid
[xlv] ibid
[xlvi] Mieville, C. 12 April 2013 ‘On Cult-like Thinking’ International Socialist Network (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[xlvii] Deutscher, I., 2003 The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 London and New York: Verso, p. 405
[xlviii] ibid, p. 420
[xlix] Kollontai, Alexandra. 2009. The Workers Opposition in the Russian Communist Party: The Fight for Workers Democracy in the Soviet Union. Red & Black Publishers. (Accessed 14 March 2013).
[l] ibid
[li] ibid
[lii] Deutscher, I., 2003 The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 London and New York: Verso, pp. 431 – 432.
[liii] Renton. D. 23 April 2013 ‘Lukacs and the Pretenders’, Lives; Running (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[liv] Lukacs, G. 1924 Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought, available on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[lv] ibid
[lvi] There has been a wide-ranging debate stimulated by Lih, L. 2006 Lenin Rediscovered; What is to be done? in context Leiben: Brill. A major debate on Lenin and Leninism has involved Paul le Blanc, Pham Binh and others, and many of the articles can be read at the Links website on the following link:  
[lvii] Lukacs, G. 1924 Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought, available on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 24 April 2013).
[lviii] Hardy, S. 2012 ‘The forgotten legacies of Bolshevism on revolutionary organisation’ (Accessed 28 April 2013).
[lix] Lih, L. 2013 ‘Democratic centralism: Fortunes of a formula’ (Accessed 28 April 2013).
[lx] It was introduced into discussions by the Mensheviks in 1905 and does not feature in ‘What is to be done?’.
[lxi] Communist International, ‘Twenty-one Conditions’ or ‘Conditions for Admission to the Communist International’ on Wikipedia (Accessed 28 April 2013).
[lxii] Trotsky, L. 1920 ‘The Working Class and Its Soviet Policy’ Terrorism and Communism on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 26 April 2013).
[lxiii] This was, it should be stressed, a complex and contested process. The Communist International’s ‘Guidelines on the Organizational Structure of Communist Parties, on the Methods and Content of their Work’ was written in July 1921 – a few months after the crushing of Kronsdadt and the abolition of the right to form organised oppositions within the Russian party. It contains no right to form internal opposition factions, but, nonetheless, advocates the ‘norms’ of the elective principle that leadership bodies are elected by and accountable to the sovereignty of the national conference. But it was also firmly rooted within the ‘iron discipline’ notion of revolutionary organisation, with party members expected to undertake daily work under the close direction of the party apparatus. See Communist International 1921 ‘Guidelines on the Organizational Structure of Communist Parties, on the Methods and Content of their Work’ on Marxist Internet Archive. (Accessed 28 April 2013).
[lxiv] Lih, L. 2013 ‘Democratic centralism: Fortunes of a formula’ (Accessed 28 April 2013).
[lxv] Zinoviev, G. 1923 History of the Bolshevik Party London: New Park Publications
[lxvi] Stalin, J. 1924 The Foundations of Leninism on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 29 April 2013).
[lxvii] Cited in Lih 2013.
[lxviii] Hobsbawm, E. 1994 Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 London: Michael Joseph, p. 386.
[lxix] Ibid
[lxx] For a useful discussion of the debate between Luxembourg and Lenin see le Blanc, P. 1993 Lenin and the Revolutionary Party New Jersey: Humanities Press, pp. 79 – 87
[lxxi] Cited in ibid, p. 81
[lxxii] Lih, L. 2013 ‘Democratic centralism: Fortunes of a formula’ (Accessed 28 April 2013).
[lxxiv] Trotsky, L. 1904 ‘Part II: Tactical Tasks’ in Our Political Tasks on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 28 April 2013).
[lxxv] Baehr, P. 1994 Human Rights in Developing Countries: Yearbook 1994 Hague, London and Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, p. 163.
[lxxvi] Trotsky, L. 1920 ‘The Working Class and Its Soviet Policy’ Terrorism and Communism on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 26 April 2013).
[lxxix] The New Anticapitalist Party in France is a positive recent example. To this might be added the Fourth International tradition per se. For a very recent summary see, for example, Hearse, P. 2013 ‘Build a broad left party, fight for Marxist unity’ on Socialist Resistance website (Accessed 28 April 2013).
[lxxx] See Birchall, I. 2008 ‘Seizing the time: Tony Cliff and 1968’ International Socialism Journal (Accessed 29 April 2013).
[lxxxi] Cliff, T. 1960 ‘Trotsky on substitutionism’ on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 28 April 2013).
[lxxxiii] Widgery, D. 1979 ‘Post-electronic Leninism’ on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 29 April 2013).
[lxxxv] Lenin, V. I. 1917 The State and Revolution on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 29 April 2013).
[lxxxvi] Lenin, V. I. 1917 ‘How to Organise Competition?’ on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 29 April 2013).
[lxxxvii] There is certainly a tendency on many sides of the ‘Russian question’ debate to see authoritarianism as emerging ipso facto from the isolation of the regime. Cliff, for example, writes that ‘Only the expansion of the revolution could have spared Bolshevism from this tragic fate. And on this probability Bolshevism hinged its fate’ (See Cliff, T. 1960 ‘Trotsky on substitutionism’ on Marxist Internet Archive (Accessed 28 April 2013). From a quite different political perspective Justin Rosenberg draws the same conclusion. He quotes Lenin’s remark that ‘At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed’, and concludes simply, ‘well, it did not. And they were’ (Rosenberg, J. 1996 ‘Isaac Deutscher and the Lost History of International Relations’ New Left Review (I/215). In my view, these positions impart to great a degree of historical fatalism to the process, as scope existed for various other outcomes, either progressive or reactionary, which, in terms of the former, could have included gradual (rather than rapid) industrialization that re-established a viable base for democracy in a strong working class.
[lxxxviii] Post, C. 2013 ‘What is left of Leninism? New European left parties in historical perspective’ Socialist Register volume 49, p. 7.
[lxxxix] Ibid, p. 8


  1. May 31, 2013 at 4:45 pm · Reply

    Thank you for an interesting article. I studied the Bolshevik party’s interaction with workers’ organisations in Moscow in the period from 1920 to 1924, in large part because I was interested in the questions you raise. I think there are many threads that link the discussions of the early 1920s with what we are tangling with now, but that the relationship is complex. I would point you in the direction of voices, both Bolshevik and non-Bolshevik, outside the texts that have been translated into English long ago. My research covered not only the Bolshevik party, which until 1921 and in some senses for two or three years afterwards was incredibly heterogenous, but also the relatively rich mix of socialist trends in the workers’ movement outside the Bolshevik party. These various groups took a hammering from the government but were not silenced until 1922 in some cases, and even later in others. Non-party socialists who swept the board in the large factories in the Moscow soviet elections in April-May 1921, on policies that were vague but implied democratising soviet power, were treated with derision by the Moscow Bolsheviks, and then to a systematic campaign of bullying and threats. You’ll get some sense of my conclusions from here and from my exchange with Kevin Murphy here I’ve even been told pdfs of my book, in which I tried to draw a picture of working-class politics at the time, and to examine the rise of bureaucracy in the soviet state in greater detail, are pirated on line.

  2. Luke Cooper
    June 1, 2013 at 9:00 am · Reply

    Hi Simon,

    Thanks very much for your comments.

    I will certainly read your pieces on the two links. My analysis of the post-Civil War period was taken from the closing chapters of Deutscher’s Prophet Armed and I would be the first to admit I need to study these questions in more detail.

    I will also check out your book!

    I agree its important to contextualise these issues historically. And also not limit our analysis to what the Bolshevik leaders said, but actually try to understand the circumstances faced by the people (‘history from below’), and the variety of socialist tendencies and cultural currents that in one way or another contested one party rule.



  3. Stuart King
    June 1, 2013 at 7:18 pm · Reply

    A few caveats to Luke’s analysis of the problems of “Leninism” in the Russian revolution, the general thrust of which I agree with.

    It is not quite true that ideas of “political plurality” only existed within the Bolsheviks up to the revolution. Indeed the Bolsheviks did construct a multi-party workers government in October 1917 with the left SRs. The fact was this fell apart quite quickly over differences on signing the Brest Litovsk peace treaty with Germany. The Left SRs not only went into opposition but military opposition to the government, proceeding to assassinate leading Bolsheviks. This left a bitter legacy of non co-operation between the socialist parties in Russia.

    While the Mensheviks never went so far, they too openly supported those trying to overthrow the government by force of arms, often backed by the imperialists. So criticisms of the Bolsheviks for not pursuing “socialist pluralism” have to be made in the actual context of the revolution.

    1921 was certainly a turning point because by that time the remaining elements of pluralism and socialist debate were only retained within the ruling party (not the soviets). Therefore the banning of factions had a crippling effect on the development of the revolution and paved the way for stalinist monolithism. We had a debate of this in the PR magazine ( will take you to various contributions).

    Simon’s book is interesting precisely because it shows that post-1921 and NEP there was a real chance of restoring multi-party democracy in the Soviets, which as he says was squashed rather than encouraged.

    Last point – in defence of the 21 conditions quoted. We can and should emphasise the “democratic” in democratic centralism in conditions such as we have Britain today. We are not about to seize power, or to go underground, therefore party organisations should be as free, democratic and pluralistic as possible.

    But it would be utopian to believe that in a revolutionary situation, where the seizure of power is on the agenda (a military-political task) you could do without a high degree of centralism as a mass party leads the working class in the struggle for power. It was this situation that the 21-conditions were written for.

    • June 2, 2013 at 5:15 am · Reply

      It didn’t help that the Bolsheviks stacked the 5th congress of soviets to prevent the Left SRs from having a majority. I believe their military opposition was a product of this.

    • Luke Cooper
      June 4, 2013 at 6:47 pm · Reply

      Hi Stuart,

      I read your piece and it seemed like a sensible viewpoint. I’m not totally familiar with the literature from the PR debate, but it seemed there was a tendency to iconoclastic exaggeration on the other side which you were rightly critiquing, one that involved some pretty stretching claims, especially when it came to the ‘original sin’ of Trotskyism.

      Where I disagree with both sides in the debate – and with the Marxist tradition in the early Soviet era too – is over whether it is helpful to cast the whole debate in terms of the so-called ‘thermidor’ analogy. Deutscher shows very well how this caused great confusion, but he then attempted to render the analogy ‘consistent’ by seeing the bureaucracy as capable of realising a transition to a new mode of production (in the way that the thermidorean state created the conditions for capital accumulation to go forward in France).

      But, while this gave the notion admirable consistency, it ran up against the problem that democracy was essential to a transition to socialism, and had not been so for a transition to capitalism – it was only belatedly necessary, in a limited form, to give the mode legitimacy and therefore greater stability. I think we need dispense with the analogy once and for all! 😉

      I am trying to approach the question a bit more philosophically – without being pretentious about it! – in the sense of asking whether there was a political assumption of monolithism that was built into the modus operandi of much of the revolutionary left (including Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, they were all guilty of it) that proved important, though not of course in itself decisive, to the way in which the authoritarian state was established. I tend to think if you look at the 21 conditions, if you look at Terrorism or Communism, the Lukacs text on Lenin, and so on, then you can see a clear lack of socialist plurality in how they understood both political organisation and the transition to a new mode of production.

      That doesn’t mean I am against all centralism – let alone in revolutions! But I do agree with Lars Lih that the term ‘democratic centralism’, when it was operated by the Russian Marxists, either denoted a democratic form of organisation (with a subordinated but nonetheless present element of centralisation) OR a centralised organisation without democracy. Instead of this, I think we should be talking about ‘democratic organisations’ that recognise a degree of centralism as a necessary, but subordinated, component of political organisation.

      Thanks for your comments.



  4. June 2, 2013 at 5:37 am · Reply

    Lukacs’ book really is terrible and thinly disguised hagiography. Why anyone should listen to him on party-building and revolution given the fate of the Hungarian soviet republic that he helped lead with Bela Kun?

    • June 3, 2013 at 4:18 am · Reply

      Paul Le Blanc salutes Hardy, Cooper… and Lukacs in the name of “Leninism”:

      Glad he read Beyond Capitalism.

    • Luke Cooper
      June 4, 2013 at 6:48 pm · Reply

      I agree!

  5. June 2, 2013 at 8:45 pm · Reply

    Hi, I’am a militant from the PTS in Argenitna on the Trotskyst Fraction – Fourth International
    I’am rather bad at writing in English so my comment will be really short.
    I do no agree with many of the points made into the article since I think the problem is dealt in an abstract form. I could perfectly agree with the four principles made but I think that the fourth could mean quite different things. I agree with Pahm Binh that Lukacs’ views are quite poor and shouldn’t be used as a guide.
    Also Stuart made a good point on about the 21 conditions and the multi-party Goverment in 1917.

    I see that you completely ommit the views from Trotsky after the bureaucratization of the Soviet Estate. It’s rather strange. A good example is this:

    It is a temporary non-statutory and voluntary grouping of closest co-thinkers within a party, whose aim is to convince the party of the correctness of their viewpoint in the shortest possible period of time. The appearance of factions is unavoidable even in the most mature and harmonious party, owing to the extension of its influence upon new layers, the cropping up of new problems, sharp turns in the situation, errors of the leadership, and so on. From the standpoint of monolithism a factional struggle is an “evil” ; but it is an unavoidable evil and, in any event, a far lesser evil than the prohibition of factions. True enough, attempts at the formation of factions lacking an adequate principled basis in consequence of political immaturity, personal ambition, careerism, etc. are frequently observable, especially in young parties. In all such cases it is the task of the leadership to expose, without recourse to police measures, the hollowness of these enterprises and in that way to discredit them before the party membership. Only in this way is it possible to create profound attachment for the party so that episodic conflicts, no matter how sharp, do not threaten its unity. The existence of factions, in the nature of things, provokes friction and involves an expenditure of energy, but this is the inevitable overhead expense of a democratic regime. A capable and authoritative leadership strives to reduce factional friction to a minimum. This is achieved by a correct policy tested by collective experience; by a loyal attitude toward the opposition; by the gradually increasing authority of the leadership; but never by prohibition of factions, something which cannot fail to invest the struggle with a hypocritical and poisonous character. Whoever prohibits factions thereby liquidates party democracy and takes the first step toward a totalitarian regime.


    After refusing the opposition the right to struggle for a majority (“hegemony”) in the party, and in accordance with this prohibiting factions, that is, trampling underfoot the elementary principles of a democratic régime, Pivert is imprudent enough to counterpose the democracy of the PSOP to Bolshevik centralism. A risky contraposition! The entire history of Bolshevism was one of the free struggle of tendencies and factions. In different periods, Bolshevism passed through the struggle of pro and anti-boycottists, “otzovists,” ultimatists, conciliationists, partisans of “proletarian culture,” partisans and opponents of the armed insurrection in October, partisans and opponents of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, left communists, partisans and opponents of the official military policy, etc., etc. The Bolshevik Central Committee never dreamed of demanding that an opponent “abandon factional methods,” if the opponent held that the policy of the Central Committee was false. Patience and loyalty toward the opposition were among the most important traits of Lenin’s leadership.

    It is true that the Bolshevik party forbade factions at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, a time of mortal danger. One can argue whether or not this was correct. The subsequent course of development has in any case proved that this prohibition served as one of the starting points of the party’s degeneration. The bureaucracy presently made a bogie of the concept of “faction,” so as not to permit the party either to think or breathe. Thus was formed the totalitarian régime which killed Bolshevism. Is it not astonishing that Pivert who so loves to talk about democracy, freedom of criticism, etc., should borrow not from the vital, vigorous and creative democracy of young Bolshevism, but rather from the home of decadent Bolshevism take his bureaucratic fear of factions?

    • Luke Cooper
      June 4, 2013 at 6:51 pm · Reply

      Hi there,

      This is not an account of the bureaucratisation of the Soviet Union! The work of Simon Pirani (I have only read his excellent piece in ISJ) seems like a better port of call to address that question! I simply wanted to put in historical context some of what I would hold to be partial consequences of the ideological monolithism that tended to blight the classical Marxist tradition. I certainly don’t mean to reject everything that Trotsky said – far from it – but I do think a clearer statement about the role of plurality, and multiple viewpoints, etc, in democratic working class organisation is necessary to build healthy revolutionary organisations. The mistaken ban on factions is only a small part of this wider question.



  6. billj
    June 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm · Reply

    “It is also important in this context to not revive canonistic debates about Luxembourg versus Lenin or the young Trotsky versus the old Trotsky on political organisation. None of these Marxists substantively theorised the need for participatory and pluralistic forms of political organisation as a condition of successful struggle against capitalism and transition to an emancipatory mode of production.”

    Leaving aside the terrible prose, this is total cobblers. Soviets anyone?

  7. Mark Hoskisson
    June 5, 2013 at 7:17 pm · Reply

    Luke wrote:
    ” I’m not totally familiar with the literature from the PR debate, but it seemed there was a tendency to iconoclastic exaggeration on the other side which you were rightly critiquing, one that involved some pretty stretching claims, especially when it came to the ‘original sin’ of Trotskyism.”

    If you are not totally familiar with something my advice is refrain from comment until you are. Otherwise your comments expose your ignorance rather than your insights.

    By all means take a view but please don’t make things up – “original sin”??????? Oh dear.

    • Luke Cooper
      June 5, 2013 at 7:23 pm · Reply

      Hi Mark,

      The reference to ‘original sin’ is a quote from Stuart’s reply to you. Sorry if that wasn’t clear, but I thought you would have realised that given how familiar you are with the debate in PR.

      Best wishes,


      • Mark Hoskisson
        June 6, 2013 at 8:16 pm · Reply

        I know where the quote comes from Luke and the sarcasm about my familiarity with the debate is is uncalled for. My point is why re-use it with regard to my piece as though it were your view despite you confessing to not being familiar with the debate?

        Seems to me that far from encouraging a new style of civilised debate that sort of thing is simply rehashing an old style of unscrupulous polemic. By all means disagree with what I have written – but maybe consider reading it before doing so.

        On your main point, whether or not the analogy with Thermidor is useful I would certainly agree that analogies can often obscure more than they clarify. But even dispensing with the analogy the principal point of the articles I wrote was to demonstrate that – as in the English Civil War, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution – counter-revolution can be delivered by those who were revolutionaries. The English, French and Russian revolutions were not defeated from without but from within. That makes the concept of Thermidor as a term to describe a process of counter-revolution from within, useful. I am not sure I was particularly iconoclastic, I don’t know that I exaggerated, or that my claims were “pretty stretching”.

        Indeed when you write:

        “Whether Kollontai imagined a bureaucratic take-over of the party from within or its overthrow by this new elite from without, her basic concern that the emancipatory vision of the revolution was being extinguished proved to be a prescient one. The uprising of Kronstadt sailors raised very similar demands – particularly for the restoration of free elections in the soviets – and it took place while the Tenth Congress was in session. It was crushed by the Soviet state and precipitated the complete illegalising of the SRs and Mensheviks that had both supported the uprising. The Workers’ Opposition (who did not support the uprising but supported the actions of the party) were also banned, as were all organised oppositions within the party that, while not at this stage extinguishing all dissent or freedom of speech, nonetheless, allowed bureaucratic control to take full flight.[lii]”

        you are repeating several of my iconoclastic and exaggerated claims.

        • Luke Cooper
          June 6, 2013 at 9:02 pm · Reply

          Hi Mark,

          My comment wasn’t meant sarcastically, sorry if it came across that way. I thought you had forgotten that was a quote from Stuart’s document. To be honest, I also didn’t realise you considered the term ‘original sin’ to be an unfair characterisation of your position. I can understand why you’d say it *did* constitute an ‘original sin’, insofar as Trotsky did not only not account for it. On the contrary, as you know, he defended it, right up till the late 1930s when it was raised by the Spanish anarchists. And we *should* account for it today too… Where I think you overstretch the argument badly is in the idea the failure to account for the ‘original sin’ is the source of bureaucratism in the modern radical left, the SWP, etc. If this isn’t your position then I stand corrected. I would just point out the Fourth International broke with this method in the late ’70s, even if they did not address the specific issues of 1921 (as far as I know…). Then there is the early IS/Cliff tradition, Deutscher’s analysis of 1920-21, the link he made to the critique of the young Trotsky, etc. In short, there is a long history of critique of this even on the Trotskyist left.

          To be clear, when I say I’m not that familiar with it, it doesn’t mean I haven’t read it – I have an awareness of the broad terrain of argument, and read it at the time, just not of late. Also sorry if the term iconoclastic was uncivil. It wasn’t really meant in that way. I’m just not sure how useful it is to label Trotsky and Lenin as counter-revolutionaries in 1921, and this relates to my scepticism about the use of Thermidor as a category across the two epochs that we’re talking about. It seems a bit over the top. That’s not a very ‘scientific’ response to your argument, I admit, but I feel we need to be a bit more concrete. I am happier to say that Trotsky and Lenin had an insufficiently plural (tendency to top-down, etc) conception of radical political organisation. This contributed to, but did not wholly determine, the collapse of the Russian Revolution into authoritarianism by making it easier for Stalin to lead a bureaucratic counter-revolution. This is obviously a nuanced difference. Like you say, there is a lot of common ground.

          I also do take on board Stuart’s points about the nature of politics in a revolution. That’s why I’m most concerned with where authoritarianism has been theoretically justified on principle (the exceptional circumstances become the norm, etc) – which Trotsky certainly did in Terrorism and Communism, and Lenin also pushed towards in some of his formulations around the 10th congress. You could be in the most advantageous post-revolutionary circumstances – e.g. in a large, prosperous country with a big working class – but if you took Terrorism and Communism as your political guide, then you might still end up with an authoritarian state. That’s why we need to critique it.



  8. billj
    June 6, 2013 at 9:21 am · Reply

    Let’s unpick this a little;

    “I am trying to approach the question a bit more philosophically – without being pretentious about it! – in the sense of asking whether there was a political assumption of monolithism that was built into the modus operandi of much of the revolutionary left (including Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, they were all guilty of it) that proved important, though not of course in itself decisive, to the way in which the authoritarian state was established”

    So you’re approaching the question of whether there was an assumption to monolithism – but you’ve already answered that question as the people who you cite were all in your words “guilty of it”. So you’re not actually asking a question – as you’ve already answered the question you were asking.
    This was important you say – it would be given that Trotsky and Lenin were the leaders of the revolution – but not decisive – but why wasn’t it decisive – if the leaders of the state were guilty of monolithism?
    Meaningless guff.

  9. Stuart King
    June 7, 2013 at 2:48 pm · Reply

    Couple of points on Luke’s contributions. I’m just not sure what this “political assumption of monolithism built into the modus operandi of much of the revolutionary left” (Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg) means. The Russian Social Democracy can hardly be accused of “monolithism”, it contained many factions and tendencies all of which argued their positions, as did the German SPD. I would have thought the tradition was the opposite of monolithic – multi tendency and pluralist.

    The Russian SDLP split over strategic questions after the 1905 revolution, basically between reformists and revolutionaries, a split consummated in 1912 in separate organisations. Even after this slit both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks continued to have open tendencies and platforms within them.

    If the charge of “monolithism” refers to this splitting into politically separate organisations around defined party programmes, then it is wrong. Indeed it would have been much better for the revolutionary wing of the SPD to have split earlier than it did (either as a public faction or organisation). To have done so would have put it in a much stronger position in the revolutionary situation of 1918-19 and possibly prevented some of the leftist errors that ended in disaster.

    On the Fourth International and “Socialist Democracy”. Mandel’s positions on internal democracy in the late 1970s always seemed to me sensible (especially having been purged with hundreds of others from IS as a result of Cliff’s turn to a caricature of “Leninism”. )

    But the resolution adopted by the FI Congress, as much a polemic against the internal regime of the SWP(US) as a statement of principles, remained a dead letter as far as changing anything in the USA, or in Latin America for that matter. As a result if offered no protection at all for the various oppositions to the increasingly bureaucratic leadership of Barnes et al.

    The problem was that the FI was, and is, federalist not democratic centralist and as a result decisions taken by the majority of the membership can be disregarded by the national sections at will, as the oppositionists in the SWP (US) discovered to their cost! Surely an argument for an element of centralism to achieve the democratic part?

  10. Luke Cooper
    June 7, 2013 at 3:57 pm · Reply

    Hi Stuart,

    The point on the pre-1917 RSDLP and Bolsheviks seems to me resolves on this. Prior to taking power they were certainly multi-tendency and pluralist in practice. But this was a pragmatic adaption to the needs of building a large party. For example, in one of his articles Simon notes how Bukharin was permitted to launch a journal with a minority position on the war. Ok, sure, this was accepted, but in private Lenin was furious about it. I think in one of his letters he even says he should be expelled. It is pretty obvious that Lenin is fighting for centralism in the pre-revolutionary period as much as he is afterwards. So while there are pragmatic adaptions to avoid splits, maintain a strong organisation, etc there is no principled or theoretical standpoint on pluralism as a good thing in and of itself. This clearly relates to the positions taken after the revolution. That’s why I try to move away from the “pre-1917 good after 1921 bad” analysis in the article, and ask if there wasn’t a more fundamental problem with the lack of plurality in how political organisation was conceived. A pragmatic pluralism that was considered necessary prior to the revolution was considered unnecessary, even dangerous, afterwards.

    On the other hand, in “The Russian Revolution, The Problem of Dictatorship” in 1918, Rosa Luxemburg does outline the beginnings of a statement of socialist pluralism / socialist democracy, as a principled position, specifically warning against the consequences of the closing down of the free press and the partial repression of the Mensheviks and SRs. I think the normal critique of her is that she underestimated the situation in the Civil War, and so on. But if you look at her argument its deeper than that – because she makes general points that counter the kind of, similarly general, arguments that Trotsky would go on to codify in Terrorism or Communism. By essentially discussing the role of ideological pluralism and democracy, her arguments are also perhaps more significant than Kollontai’s Workers Opposition pamphlet, which tends to pose the question in terms of working class creative, self-organisation, and control of industry, rather than the importance of political pluralism to a democratic state. It makes me think that had Luxemburg not been killed shortly afterwards she would have developed an alternative to Leninism. I just don’t think she had the chance to fully worked out, or turn into practice, these remarks, so she wasn’t able to complete her break with ‘monolithism’! These issues do feed into the question of ‘programme’ too, for I tend to agree with what Luxemburg says about programme in that chapter too, i.e. she challenges the idea that there is simply a “right line” that you then need to “enforce” through centralism to realise a transition to socialism. She basically says, ‘its much more complicated than that’ and we need to experiment and I find myself agreeing with her.

    On how the Fourth International organises, I can see the problems. But ultimately I think you have to persuade people and have the debate. I think the era of an “International Executive Committee” imposing a “majority line” on a national section is over. Especially when the “lines” don’t mean very much for small groups of revolutionaries being able to turn them into practice is obviously limited. It would be a different question if you were able to organise huge democratic, international delegate assemblies, where the majority position would really means something, i.e. if you had a new revolutionary international, or new socialist states, and so on. In the absence of that, its better to maintain a unified grouping of people debating out different lines, and putting them to the test of practice in the best way they can.

    Best wishes,


    • June 7, 2013 at 5:17 pm · Reply

      1. Lenin was furious because Bukharin wanted to issue a party journal with factional views on disputed questions (right of nations to self-determination). He made all kinds of proposals to allow Bukharin and co. to air their views but in their own name and not the party’s. See:

      The point here is that centralism had nothing to do with any of this. In fact, one could argue that the whole squabble was really more about how democratic norms expressed themselves in a given situation. Democratic centralism worked because it was democratic, not because it was centralist.

      2. Luxemburg’s “originality” on this has been vastly overblown. She was simply repeating Kautsky’s statement in the Erfurt Program:

      “The free press is made especially necessary by the development of modern means of communication. It is possible now for a capitalist to import strike-breakers from far-lying districts. Unless the workers can organize unions covering the entire nation, or even the entire civilized world, they are powerless. But this cannot be done without the aid of the press.

      “On this account, wherever the working-class has endeavored to improve its economic position it has made political demands, especially demands for a free press and the right of assemblage. These privileges are to the proletariat the prerequisites of life; they are the light and air of the labor movement. Whoever attempts to deny them, no matter what his pretensions, is to be reckoned among the worst enemies of the working-class.”

      Of course Kautsky disgraced himself by failing to live up to his own words when push came to shove and WWI broke out, but the intrinsic connection between democracy and socialism was universally accepted by all social democrats (for ex., Lenin’s invaluable Two Tactics) up until the Russians made “innovations” once they were responsible for governing the country in a civil war. Kautsky’s post-1917 work on Russia contains a lot of material and discussion along these lines; I would even say it is fundamental to his wholly negative view of the soviet government, although if there had not been a vicious civil war that forced the Bolsheviks’ hand to do many things that contradicted their state principles, who knows where Kautsky’s “Luxemburgism” would’ve ended up. Hard to see how anyone could champion the democratism of the Constituent Assembly convened in early 1918 elected using out of date party lists from summer 1917 over a really thriving, democratic grassroots government of soviets with multiple parties and tendencies within those parties. We’ll never know because that was not the outcome; soviet democracy died out pretty quickly, i.e. by summer of 1918 things were in pretty bad shape on the democracy front.

      3. Stuart’s points are just a recapitulation of myths, that the Mensheviks were “basically” reformists, that the revolutionary wing of the German SPD could have and should have split from the party instead of staying inside the only mass-based party the German working class had to battle the Schneidmans, Noskes, and Kautskys for influence in the class’ party.

      Luxemburg concluded that this course of action would create a sect since it would not have been based on an actual mass movement within the class but purely on the sentiments or ideologies of revolutionaries. She was right.

  11. billj
    June 7, 2013 at 5:27 pm · Reply

    I inadvertently pressed send too early.
    Actually all that Luke’s points amount to are a psuedo-psychological analysis of Lenin. Lenin we are told wanted a dictatorship in the party before 1917 – but the only difference was he couldn’t get it then, he was impeded by the need to build a mass party. As soon as the Bolsheviks took state power, these impediments were removed and the *true* monolithic character of Leninism was revealed. Hence Luke is against the pre-1917 *good* post-1917 *bad* analysis of Bolshevism, actually it was *bad*, in the sense of monolithic, all along.
    There’s nothing really novel about Luke’s position at all – you can read it in any bourgeois account of the revolution.
    What strikes me is the dependence on *analyses* as a cure for bureaucraticism. There’s nothing materialist about this. Instead of various critiques of this and that we need to change practice and structure.
    All *leaders* should be directly elected by an actual body that meets and can recall them.

  12. Mark Hoskisson
    June 7, 2013 at 7:31 pm · Reply

    Thanks Luke. No hard feelings. Here though are the actual points I made with regard to the impact of 1921 on the left:

    Let me codify exactly what this article is saying so that the precise elements of its “revisionism” are clear:
    • The Bolshevik Party led a successful working class revolution in Russia commencing in October 1917
    • The ultimate fate of that revolution – as Lenin always recognised – was tied up with the fate of the European wide revolution. International revolution had to come to the aid of Russia or Russia would fall
    • By consolidating working class power through the early months of 1918 and then through the civil war up to 1920, the Bolsheviks were rightly trying to keep the Russian Revolution alive and trying to use its continued existence as a means of rallying the international working class to revolution
    • Despite the inevitable erosion of every day workers’ democracy that was evident at times during the civil war – and that was a real threat to the revolution – the Bolshevik Party itself remained a fundamentally democratic organisation. Its survival as a democratic organisation was a pledge for the future of the revolution even though the revolution was going through a stage of terror, one party rule and the growth of a dangerous level of centralisation and bureaucratism in the state
    • The absence of soviets and any real vestiges of the democracy that had been characteristic of the days after October 1917 meant that the survival of party democracy was vital for the future healthy development of the revolution especially since, after the end of the war with Poland, it became clear that the international revolution was not on the short term agenda
    • The task of revolutionary Bolshevism in 1921 was therefore to preserve party democracy as a stepping stone to reviving real soviet democracy
    • Instead of pursuing this road Lenin, supported by Trotsky, moved to curtail party democracy at the 1921 Tenth Party Congress, specifically identifying factions with counter-revolutionary dangers and therefore banning factions within the party
    • From 1921 to 1923 Stalin was able to use his base within the party apparatus to consolidate absolute control over it and thereafter use that control to consolidate the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. He was precisely able to do this because of the decisions of the Tenth Party Congress. This congress, not 1924, marked the beginning of Thermidor
    • The Trotskyist left’s failure to confront this truth is a fatal flaw in its political DNA: its fundamental notion of party organisation incorporates the Thermidorian inheritance of 1921.

    In the article itself you will find a recognition that Trotsky confronted the issue of the organisational inheritance and I agree with you that others have done so – including Cliff. But none of them did so on the basis of recognising the long lasting implications of the organisational model embraced after 1921by the entire revolutionary left (and codified in the Comintern’s theses) and which has always been reproduced by organisations at a certain point in their development at the cost of (eventually) destroying those organisations as revolutionary instruments.

    That is a political DNA not an original sin. We can experiment and change genetic structures – we cannot wipe away original sin!

  13. bill j
    June 8, 2013 at 7:42 am · Reply

    What’s also missing from Luke’s account is the purpose of revolutionary organisation – its missing from his book too – but that’s a different and much more long winded story.
    the strength of Lenin’s organisational proposals encapsulated in WITBD was how they assisted revolutionaries fighting the autocracy.
    The advantage of a narrow group – compared with Martov’s woolier proposals – was that it enabled actual activists to control the discombobulated intellectuals. The do nothing poseurs who want to tell the activists what to do but do nothing themselves. There were plenty of them on the left then too.
    By restricting the party to actual activists it meant that poseurs could be more easily held to account. That’s a very good lesson for today. We need an organisation of doers not poseurs. A narrower rather than broader party.

    • June 9, 2013 at 2:00 am · Reply

      Problem with this line of reasoning is that Lenin’s formulation was defeated while Martov’s accepted by the 1903 congress and so the RSDLP from 1903-1906 was built on the basis of Martov’s rule clause not Lenin’s; the Bolshevik faction was built on the basis of Martov’s rule. In 1906, both factions supported amending this rule in favor of a Lenin-like formulation. Woolier didn’t work so bad for them judging by the party’s massive growth during those three years, and we need to exercise a lot more caution is trying to justify current positions based on skewed interpretations of RSDLP particulars.

  14. June 9, 2013 at 3:29 am · Reply

    “By restricting the party to actual activists it meant that
    poseurs could be more easily held to account. That’s a
    very good lesson for today. We need an organisation
    of doers not poseurs. A narrower rather than broader

    This is an important tenet of “Leninism” that needs re-examination.

    No one wants a party/organization of poseurs and do-nothings. But too often on the Marxlst left, the alternative to a broad, inclusive party/org has been one that is so narrow it excludes a priori single moms, people working 2-3 jobs, working students, and anyone who are to busy wage-slaving cannot dedicate 15 or more hours a week to party-bullding/activism in the form of meetings, meetings to plan meetings, and meetings to plan planning meetings (if you’re on a leadership body of a “democratic centralist” group, you’ll know what I’m talking about). This is a big reason why “Leninist” groups remain forever stuck in the student and ex-student milieu despite their phrasemongering about the centrality of the working class. The very people who should be leading the fight for liberation from capitalism end up excluded from groups who proclaim this to be their sole aim and purpose!

    There is a happy and necessary medium between the above extremely narrow party/org and a free for all.

    A mass party is not made up of people who carve out 20 hours a week to convert and retain new party members, it is made up of people who agree with basic principles (not a series of ideological positions like Russia as Thermidor but socialism not capitalism) and partake in some way in party/movement activity.

    For some working/oppressed people, all they can do is Xerox flyers in mass quantities once a week, or come to party-organized picnics/socials once a month, or attend their union’s meetings, or put up flyers in their neighborhoods, or do a monthly study group — all of these people should be part of the party/org. we aim to build even though they can “only” dedicate one hour a week to the struggle. This is what the RSDLP was like; one person could smuggle literature, another put up an Iskra agent from out of town for a night, another person could obtain fake documents, all of them doing different things at different levels of activity in tandem for a single, great cause. This is why networks — in the absence of conditions for creating a mass party — are a good alternative to the sect model. They allow these divisions of labor to develop organically, and if we understand that a party is really just a densely layered network, the individuals doing whatever activity they engage in where ever they are (in their workplace, school, neighborhood) will constitute the nucleus of a cell-based structure once said networks move into more coherent forms.

    So down with poseurs and do-nothings, up with broad activist parties of single moms and over/underemployed!

    • bill j
      June 24, 2013 at 3:32 pm · Reply

      I don’t think the point of an activist organisation is to exclude activists. There are a surfeit of people on the left who want to tell activists what to do, but who do little or no activity themselves. They even write barely legible books explaining their new insights.
      The organisation question was not a make or break but indicative of a method. One privileged the intellectuals above the activists. The other priviledged the activsts above the intellectuals. And before people claim that Lenin and Trotsky were vagrant do nothing intellectuals just remember – they were political exiles who had been jailed for their beliefts.

  15. Sergii Kutnii
    June 23, 2013 at 4:35 am · Reply

    Many thanks from Ukraine!

    Having very similar Leninist and post-Leninist experience, I was thinking of writing a similar critique of Leninism but you simplified my task.

  16. June 23, 2013 at 2:19 pm · Reply

    “Of course Kautsky disgraced himself by failing to live up to his own words when push came to shove and WWI broke out”

    How unfortunate to see Pham Binh repeat the same falsifications about Kautsky that are widespread in “Bolshevik” circles.

    Kautsky did not “disgrace” himself. Kautsky, along with that bete noire Bernstein, was part of the anti-war wing of the SPD.

    As far as I can tell, the sole source claiming Kautsky’s support for Germany during the outbreak of war is the English-language Wikipedia page on him, which does not even source the claim.

  17. July 8, 2013 at 2:27 pm · Reply

    Anyone who is interested in a thoroughgoing theorization re: pluralism I strongly encourage to check out Kautsky’s Terrorism and Communism, which in my view is the single most damning criticism of the Bolsheviks from a historical materialist standpoint and one that really builds on and extends Rosa Luxmburg’s insight’s in her Russian Revolution.

    • Luke Cooper
      July 8, 2013 at 8:46 pm · Reply

      Thanks Pham, I’ll give it a read.

      • July 8, 2013 at 9:53 pm · Reply

        Your welcome. I’m re-reading Luxemburg’s work now. She might be described as a “revolutionary Kautsky-ite” in this context. Their parallel criticisms are in many ways synonymous.

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