Tuesday, 19 March 2013

How to become a Leninist

A comrade asked me why I had ever chosen to become a 'Leninist'. I reflected on this for a bit and then wrote a reply.Its been suggested to me that it might open up a useful discussion.

I didn't join the SWP because it was 'Leninist'. I joined initially because of the idea of 'socialism from below'. The touchstone of the organisation was 'the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class'. The theory of state capitalism came to be directed against both reformist and Stalinist bureaucrats who saw themselves as doing things on behalf of the working class or the people or the nation or whatever.

This conception had very broad implications for all areas of politics and practice (and I believe still does). One of them involved a revisionist theory of Leninism. We believed that talk of ‘the vanguard party’ had been distorted by the Stalinist tradition (beginning of course with the degeneration of the Comintern from a very early stage) into a species of substitutionalism. Here the vanguard was seen as an elite separated from the class, not that different from various kinds of underground nationalist organisations. Within a degenerated orthodox Trotskyism there were more scholastic and less militaristic forms of elitism. What they had in common was a reification of both ‘leadership’ and ‘theory’ as something that developed independently of the class struggle. In our tradition, by contrast, the vanguard was simply something that already existed in the working class, and our argument was that this vanguard (which hopefully we were a part of) should organise itself: in other words actually existing militants and fighters and not a bunch of experts with some special esoteric theory. We incessantly asked ‘who teaches the teacher?’ to such pretenders.

The Leninism of the organisation was, at least in theory, firmly subordinated to the self-consciously heterodox version of revolutionary socialism which the IS tradition had emerged out of: a combination of dissident Trots, the new left of the 1960s, and many of those attracted to radical politics by the new struggles of the time.

This revisionist Leninism was a doctrine of the rights of fighting minorities, and its truth was pre-figured in the actual life of the class: In the shop stewards movement of the 1920s that said they would follow the leadership where they represented the interests of the membership but act independently if they misrepresented them. In the Great Strike of 1984 where the vanguard of the NUM acted independently of a ballot proposal designed to split the class. In every unofficial walk out, in every protest and campaign.

That's how we linked the texts of old to the more prosaic politics of the present. But this practice also allowed us to debate orthodoxies. I recall criticisms of Trotsky’s 'piston and steam' metaphor as implying too unconscious a conception of the working class and too mechanical notion of leadership. There was the turning of a theses on Feurbach into an incessant question: Who Teaches the Teacher? Steam is not educational and a piston has no brains. We need both. This whole conception could not but also inform our attitudes towards discussions about oppression.

The revolutionary possibilities of self-emancipation emerged together with the working class but these ideas had the potential to galvanise and change the way militants and fighters saw all struggles against oppression and exploitation and inevitably shape the debates and arguments of the oppressed. There is a lot to discuss here about how the analyses of oppression actually went (particularly on gender) but I remain convinced that that framework remains a relevant one, particularly in relationship to developing a critique - that is now so obviously necessary - of the ossified position on women’s oppression. Here it is important to point out that if we opposed what we then described as 'seperatism' we always defended the rights of self organisation in the movement even whilst continuing argument. And we always believed that the oppressed themselves would lead a united fight against oppression.

It was this kind of a (imperfectly realised) Leninist organisation that at various points had succeeded in merging with and carrying with it live streams in real struggles in the outside world. The radical youth in CND of the mid-1960s opposing the arms race and the prospect of nuclear catastrophe. Some of the best of the student militants of the late 1960s taking part in the fight against the Vietnam War and racism. A very important layer of industrial militants in the 1970s at the cutting edge of the class struggle. It always combined this with attracting some of the best intellectuals who came into activity in these battles, not just as ornaments for rallies, but often as key figures in the elaboration of ideas within the group (as well as loudly proclaiming their dissidence at various points). There was also, in a genuine sense, a merging of these different layers of the membership (rather than what often seems an arbitrary division of labour today with its separate conferences for activists and intellectuals, with no real sense of the relationship between theory and practice, and one suspects a reification of both).

The understanding of Leninism as essentially a doctrine of the rights of a fighting minority within the wider movement led to the SWP becoming one of the most important of the forces on the far left outside the Labour Party, although there are of course many debates about how the organisation conducted itself, missed opportunities, mistakes and worse. I joined at the point when the level of struggle had fallen very low but ideological arguments about the way forward for the left were very prominent. It's what we called in our organisation the ‘downturn’ - a period of defeat and ideological retrenchment.

If the general period was bleak there was also struggle. We were flung into the miners' strike and after some initial mistakes and a bit of sectarianism, we succeeded in becoming a central force on the far left at that time as well. Even during a ‘downturn’ it was the connection between the party and those involved in struggle that was the most important thing (and it was that connection that led to the development of cadre: educationals are a poor substitute, and work best when comrades can relate them to their own experience).

The arguments about the need for a party were ones I agreed with and it was clear to me at the time that socialists did need to be organised and should avoid being merely a lobby group or on the other hand simply campaigning in the Labour Party. It also seemed true that whilst there were many interesting independent intellectuals without organisation, they inevitably faltered on the question of political agency. My own attitude towards the Eurocommunism of Marxism Today was shaped by this: it wasn’t about hostility towards theory - this was stuff where the ‘to do’ part wasn't addressed to activists on the ground. In short it was writing which had very little conception of agency other than the conventional ones of public opinion, politicians and parliament.

Having said all this what seems to have happened to the SWP is that as one struggle after another was defeated disorientation led to new forms of substitutionalism and the resulting reified practice came to be associated with Leninism. The high profile of debates about Leninism (as if this phrase summarised our entire tradition) is in itself a mark of the decay of the tradition I have tried to describe above and, I believe, its increasing irrelevance to the politics of the SWP today. This is not the place to talk about the process that led to this ossification. But the reality is that I still hold to a distinction between socialism from above and socialism from below, still believe that there must be an organised extra-parliamentary left, still believe then, in a distinction between revolution and reform. Its important to say that I still think these remain real divides in the movement and my goal would not be to fudge them but to clarify them - without using such clarification as reason to avoid working with those with whom I disagree.

One of the things that hits me most about the contemporary SWP isn't some outlandish fossilised Leninism. Its the close resemblance between the forms of organisation they have adopted and the kinds of things we see with politicians right across the spectrum today. One thinks of the endless emphasis on 'punching above our weight', 'leadership', the substitution of managerialism for politics, the hierarchy, the instrumental approach to politics etc. The logic of praxis, the logic of self-emancipation has become an excuse for little more then a crude realism in which all that matters is to keep the machine ticking over. The whole thing is like a brand not a political party at all. It was terrifying to me that many believed that without apparatus you couldn't get people to do stuff or make things happen. What kind of a Leninism is this? It is not the Leninism of a fighting minority but a Leninism much more akin to the dead hand of the unrevised Leninist tradition.

I remain broadly a Leninist in the sense that I want to see organisation based on the most militant sections of the movement rather then simply a passive organisation reflecting the whole class (or, to put it in contemporary language, the electorate). I don't think though that democratic centralism is appropriate for the small band of socialists that exist at the moment (I do think a network is much better) and I think a new leadership should be built from the bottom up in the localities. I think the notion of a democratic centralism without such a base can only end with the absurd idea that 'leadership' can be built outside the context of class struggle.

If there is a crisis of leadership in the country I think it’s a crisis of not enough organised socialists on the ground. We don't need more bureaucratic united fronts (surely the class by now has enough competitors to choose from, and of course, where appropriate we should work with them whilst recognising their limitations). The same is true in terms of would-be pretenders to lead the vanguard.

We need to grow the left from below right across the country around existing campaigns and struggles in a non-sectarian way.

We need to learn to work with forces to our right without collapsing into either opportunism or sectarianism.

We don’t have to be in charge of every movement we take part in (whether we are IS network or SWP) because if we are its likely to be insignificant (and if not it probably soon will be).

We are a fighting minority within and not outside the wider movement.

We need to drop the grand pretensions and catastrophism but keep in mind that we have a distinctive tradition which might contribute to the building of a real mass alternative.

My vision of such an alternative is of democratic centralism without a single full-timer, with formal leadership of every kind based on the electoral principle from top to bottom. If we need a paper we can write it ourselves, if we need speakers we do it ourselves - we don’t require herding around or substituting for. It’s a challenge, organising democratically in such conditions: but I think such a challenge can be met. More importantly if it could be done it would put flesh on the bones of the proposition that self-emancipation is compatible with mass socialist organisation.

- John Game

IS Network members can join the discussion on the forum


  1. Agreed on all points. When do we start?

  2. I think this is a brilliant piece, although I have a few questions and disagreements.

    First of all, I'm a socialist from the United States and a member of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), which makes my background quite a bit different from somebody in the U.K. coming straight out of what we might call a "third camp Trotskyist" organization. However, because of the Freedom Socialist Party's insistence on socialist feminism and the vanguard role of the most oppressed, we've been watching what has unfolded in the British SWP quite closely (To be clear, this is by no means any kind of official statement of the party, just my personal thoughts). I have been particularly thrilled by the militant socialist feminism of the former SWP Opposition.

    As a member of the FSP, an organization that split from the American Socialist Workers Party back in the 1960's, I disagree in many ways with your characterization of "orthodox" Trotskyism. I think that the socialist left today should consider the practices of Trotysky's Fourth International of the 1930's and 1940's.

    I believe that Trotsky's democratic centralism, as factional as it was at many times (and the International Socialist tradition is the outcome of one of these factions), it remained at all times very democratic. It was Marxist because it believed in dialectical materialism, etc. etc., and it was Leninist because it was democratic centralist. I don't think it's fair to say that this isolated it from the working class as a whole. Indeed, the American Socialist Workers Party of the 1930's and 40's has recently been criticized in a Weekly Worker article for being TOO interested in trade union work! I believe this is a compliment, not a criticism, revealing the Fourth International's connection to the working class as a whole.

    Ultimately, I believe that a new, mass anti-capitalist party like the Russian Social Democratic Party is needed to break the factionalism of the left. Because this will not happen overnight, I believe that a serious discussion must be held throughout the international left over how we should organize. I sincerely hope that this discussion will succeed in overcoming sectarian barriers that have been fixed for far too long. I am sympathetic to your call for a new democratic centralism, but I have a few questions. Primarily, I wonder what, concretely, would be the difference between a network with "leadership built from the bottom up in localities" and healthy democratic centralism.

    The time for division is over. Let's unite as a class on a democratic basis and in so doing overcome the contradiction between self-emancipation and socialist organization.

    Schuyler Kempton
    Poughkeepsie, NY USA
    Freedom Socialist Party (Socialism.com)

  3. Richard, The meeting on the 17th is vital as starting point. A small step today might be to sign up for the IS network forum.

  4. "Primarily, I wonder what, concretely, would be the difference between a network with "leadership built from the bottom up in localities" and healthy democratic centralism."

    My own take is that the one is a pre-condition for the other. I think the experience of the SWP is (one) example of what happens if you get this the wrong way round.

    1. I completely agree with that. I think that the precondition for ANY healthy organization is a democratically elected leadership that can be revoked at any time AND free discussion within the organization.

      Basically, my point is that I believe that these conditions existed with Trotsky's Fourth International before it all fell apart. I hope that resigning members of the SWP and supporters of the International Socialist Network will enter into a broad debate about organization and strategy with the Marxist left as a whole.

      The issue of state capitalism vs. degenerated workers' state prevented that discussion from happening before. I hope that this will no longer be a barrier now. Let's debate the lessons of the past so that we can work most effectively moving into the future.

      Feel free to contact me at leftunited@gmail.com

      Schuyler, Freedom Socialist Party (US)

    2. Why do we need leaders?


  5. Comrades might find this article by Duncan Hallas of some use:


  6. what a utter load of old tosh.
    Go away and read G M Tamas 'Telling the truth about the working class.' Then graduate on to anything by Anselm Jappe. Its all in the Libcom library.
    Comrades! One more effort to be a Marxist...

  7. You could at least leave a link Sean.

  8. http://theory-in-progress.lnxnt.org/inhalt/geschichte/telling%20the%20truth%20about%20klasses.pdf

    G M Tamas. Pure skill.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. I think it's about time we organised without leaders. Every leader the working class has ever followed has led us into the shit. A REAL democratic organisation does not need leaders. Think for yourself for a change!

  10. Have some disagreements with your aversion to 'full time' party workers but this stood out for me.

    "We need to learn to work with forces to our right without collapsing into either opportunism or sectarianism.

    We don’t have to be in charge of every movement we take part in ...

    We are a fighting minority within and not outside the wider movement."

    These are three important points which I think we really need to realise.

  11. In terms of discussions about full timers etc. We're coming out of an organisation which increasingly had a full time political leadership. I don't think this is a necessary part of a contemporary Leninism although a really mass organisation would perhaps require some full time workers. What *kind* of full timers clearly requires further discussion: however one important point is that the IS network is a network and not that kind of an organisation anyway. I would hope that it might provide the basis for an organisation of the type that I happen to believe would be ultimately desirable. But part of my argument is that such an organisation cannot possibly emerge by proclamation.