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.
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.
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.
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’.
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 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.