What sort of party do we need?

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In our ongoing series of debates on the role of Leninism today, Alex Callinicos replies to Ian Birchall's contribution in last month's Review. He returns to the fundamentals of Leninist organisation and presents a different account of the political arguments of the 1980s

There has been a shift in the focus of anti-capitalist debate. A decade ago, in the immediate wake of Seattle, Genoa, and Florence, in a climate of popular revolt against capitalism and war, a major question was: party or movement? In other words, were various forms of localised organisation sufficient for what Michael Hardt and Toni Negri call the "multitude" of those oppressed by capital to break the power of the ruling class? Or was centralised political organisation necessary to focus all the different forms of struggle against the most concentrated form of capitalist power, the state?

That argument hasn't gone away, but it has been joined by a new one: granted that we need a party, what form should it take? This debate has been given force by two developments. First, the spectacular electoral advance of Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, in Greece, has captured the imagination of activists throughout Europe. Second, last year's split in the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France and the more recent divisions in the Socialist Workers Party here in Britain have weakened the European far left. The balance in the debate has tilted in favour of broad parties of the radical left that, to a greater or lesser degree, evade the question of reform or revolution.

The trouble is that, whether or not you fudge this question, it doesn't go away. Its source is the nature of the capitalist state. Again and again - in the student protests here in Britain in 2010, in the Arab revolutions since the beginning of 2011, in the mass movement in Turkey today - we see the repressive forces of the state deployed to defend the existing order.

A renewed vogue for the ideas of the Greek Marxist Nicos Poulantzas has encouraged the illusion that the problem can be finessed thanks to the impact of class struggles in fracturing the state. But historical experience shows that even a capitalist state shattered by mass upheavals preserves a basic unity provided by the apparatuses of coercion. We can see this very clearly in the central role played by the army in Egypt.

So revolutionaries still confront the problem of how the working class and the oppressed can match and ultimately smash the concentrated power of the state, sustained by their own self-organisation. It is this that lies behind the question of "the party": how to marry what Antonio Gramsci called "the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the directing and organising will of the centre"? 1

It was in that spirit that I wrote my article "Is Leninism Finished?" (SR January 2013). But that article was written in response to the storm of attacks on the SWP that followed our conference in January, and itself became a target of polemics whose authors often seemed not to have read my original text. Ian Birchall is, however, always a very careful reader. He has written an interesting reply to my article. Perhaps inevitably, however, it is coloured by the debates that have been going on within the SWP.

Right to be suspicious
Ian makes two important points. First, he is quite right to be suspicious of the blanket idea of "Leninism". The term was invented after Lenin's death by the short-lived "troika" of dominant Bolshevik leaders (Stalin, Zinoviev, and Bukharin) to define a dogmatic "orthodoxy" to legitimise their position and marginalise Trotsky and his supporters. Of course, Lenin creatively developed Marxism in various areas: Ian mentions The State and Revolution, but one can identify others - for example, imperialism, the national question, the development of agrarian capitalism, and the dialectic. Neil Harding has written a valuable study of the systematic development of Lenin's thought.

But it is Georg Lukács, in his little book on Lenin (subtitled A Study in the Unity of His Thought), who highlights the particular importance to him of the question of the party: "Lenin was the first and for a long time the only important leader and theoretician who tackled this problem at its theoretical roots and therefore at its decisive, practical point: that of organisation." 2

So it doesn't seem unreasonable to associate Lenin particularly with his theory and practice on the party. In his monumental study of What is to be Done?, Lars Lih argues that Lenin saw himself as applying the standard model of party organisation developed by the Second International. But, as both Chris Harman and Paul LeBlanc have pointed out, this didn't stop him in reality, and to some extent without being aware of it, innovating.

Lukács and organisation
In his master-work History and Class Consciousness, Lukács again highlights the strategic importance of the question of organisation as addressed by Lenin:

"Organisation is the form of mediation between theory and practice. And, as in every dialectical relationship, the terms of the relation only acquire concreteness and reality in and by virtue of this mediation. The ability of organisation to mediate between theory and practice is seen most clearly by the way in which it manifests a much greater, finer and more confident sensitivity towards divergent trends than any other sector of political thought and action. On the level of pure theory the most disparate views and tendencies are able to co-exist peacefully, antagonisms are only expressed in the form of discussions which can be contained within the framework of one and the same organisation without disrupting it. But no sooner are these same questions given organisational form than they turn out to be sharply opposed and even incompatible."3

Secondly, Ian points out that "the form of organisation adopted by the Bolsheviks varied enormously according to objective circumstances." As he acknowledges, I said the same thing in my original article. Nevertheless, it bears repeating. In the polemics unleashed by my article, Lenin would often be quoted out of context - for example, supporting highly decentralised forms of decision-making when the Bolsheviks were in the same party as the Mensheviks and he was trying to preserve the maximum room for manoeuvre - as if he were stating timeless truths.

Ian goes further, implying that there is nothing in common between how revolutionaries should organise today and the varying ways the Bolsheviks organised. He also says that I think "the SWP takes as its model 'the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin's leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution'". But this isn't what I wrote. I said that in 1968 we decided to take the Bolsheviks' experience as "our reference point" in how we organised.

A reference point, not a model
As a statement of historical fact this seems undeniable. Ian knows better than anyone how instrumentally minded Tony Cliff was. He didn't write a four-volume biography of Lenin for fun or as an academic exercise. He did so to educate himself and the rest of us in how Lenin addressed the problems of revolutionary politics and organisation. Those who want to study Lenin's thought as a whole may be better off looking at Lukács's or Harding's books, or Marcel Liebman's Leninism under Lenin. Cliff, for example, ignores Lenin's philosophical writings. But his book offers an unmatched primer in revolutionary leadership.

But to take Lenin and the Bolsheviks as our reference point is not the same as making their organisational methods our model. It would be ridiculous to try to copy how Russian revolutionaries operated in conditions of illegality under the Tsarist knout or the Bolsheviks as a mass party before the First World War or during 1917 itself.

It is true that in the 1970s we were quite influenced by how the Communist Party of Great Britain organised during its revolutionary years in the 1920s. This was for obvious reasons: like the early CP, we were a small revolutionary organisation (though much less proletarian than our predecessor) seeking to increase our influence in a workers' movement dominated by a massive reformist bureaucracy but confronting a major bosses' offensive. But in reality since the mid-1970s we have been evolving our own distinctive model of party organisation.

What does it mean to say that we nevertheless take the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks as our reference point? Fundamentally, it concerns the problem revolutionary organisation seeks to confront. The fragmentation of experience under capitalism and the hold of existing traditions mean that even the greatest workers' struggles tend to be self-limiting.

How, then, do revolutionaries - normally a small minority in the working class - organise in order to relate to the majority and to move growing numbers of workers in a revolutionary direction? This question faced the Bolsheviks. It faced the German Communists in the early 1920s (a subject on which Ian has written about recently). And it faces us as well. In working out our own answer, it would be - to say the least - irrational not to try to learn from our predecessors, particularly since they were rather more successful than us.

Our answer has involved developing a particular version of democratic centralism that in my original article I summed up as involving two features:
"First, decisions must be debated fully, but once they have taken, by majority vote, they are binding on all members. This is necessary if we are to test our ideas in action.

"Secondly, to ensure that these decisions are implemented and that the SWP intervenes effectively in the struggle, a strong political leadership, directly accountable to the annual conference, campaigns within the organisation to give a clear direction to our party's work."

Ian doesn't reject this model outright and indeed, like me, he rejects permanent factions, which institutionalise internal divisions. The bulk of his criticism is directed at how the model is applied. His main point is that leadership isn't dependent on holding certain positions or achieving formal majorities. It has continually to be earned, above all by winning political arguments and mobilising the conviction and enthusiasm of the members.

All this is true enough. It is, however, one-sided because it doesn't sufficiently address how arguments are won. Thus Cliff was a great believer in what he called "creating facts". In other words, the leadership should be prepared to take new initiatives and then, if they were successful, go back to the organisation and argue for the experience to be generalised. This is, for example, how the debate over whether or not to set up factory branches was resolved in 1972-3. This requires a leadership that has the confidence and authority to move faster than the bulk of members and doesn't see itself as simply reflecting the arithmetical sum of opinions in the organisation.

Ian must at some level agree with this since he spends a lot of time trying to refute the idea that votes can settle arguments within revolutionary organisations. He appeals to the SWP's history:

"A good example of this is the extended debate which took place in the SWP in 1979-82 about the "downturn", winding up rank and file groups and the closure of Women's Voice ...The debate continued over an extended period; there was no attempt to close it by a single vote (though of course particular policy decisions were taken); good comrades were lost, but relatively few. This was because the leadership had the self-confidence and the patience to go on till they won the argument."

A different memory
Having been on the SWP Central Committee (CC) at the time, I remember things rather differently. Starting with the leadership, the party became deeply divided in 1977-8 over the questions Ian mentions as well as others, for example, black self-organisation and contesting parliamentary elections. This reached a crescendo in the summer of 1978. The party conference voted overwhelmingly to condemn a misguided attempt to make Socialist Worker more popular (the so-called "punk paper"). This decision rankled with Cliff, who persuaded the CC a couple of months later to sack the newly appointed editor of Socialist Worker, Chris Harman.

Cliff certainly showed himself no respecter of majorities then. But it wasn't him at his best: defying the conference in this way threatened to split the organisation. That the disaster was avoided had a lot to do with restraint showed by the minority on the CC (apart from Chris, Steve Jefferys, Jack Robertson, and me) in accepting Chris's dismissal. Had he and Jefferys chosen to challenge Cliff and contest the decision, a split might have been hard to avoid. This underlines that, yes, the SWP is a voluntary organisation based on conviction, but its functioning sometimes requires the minority to step back, however much they resent the majority decision.

A critical precondition for having the debates to which Ian refers was the reconstitution of an effective leadership since, in the late 1970s, the CC was widely perceived as weak and divided. This involved both sharp arguments leading to a series of votes at the 1979 conference and a gradual process of compromise affecting some (though not all) of those who had been on opposite sides but who increasingly came to agree on the analysis of the class struggle and in rejecting separate women's and black organisation.

As the leadership came together and became more confident, it moved decisively to resolve the most controversial questions and to argue that the SWP should cease to publish Women's Voice and wind up the various rank and file "organisations" that, whatever their original strengths, were withering in the blast of the Thatcherite offensive. In both cases, the time frame was quite short, starting with the publication of an article in International Socialism (respectively by Cliff and by me), followed by debates, and culminating in votes at the 1981 and 1982 party conferences. And there was a price, in the departure of comrades who weren't prepared to accept these decisions.

Winning the argument
A broader point concerns what "winning the argument" means. Science, as both Engels and Lenin wrote, is an infinite process. At the level of abstract theory, arguments are never definitely "won". They can go on forever. But in a revolutionary party discussion has to issue in action. That means that decisions have to be taken. Where there are serious disagreements, there is no alternative to taking votes in which the majority prevails. Often, of course, some comrades remain unconvinced, sometimes vehemently. Precisely when, as TS Eliot put it, "to force the moment to its crisis" is a matter of political judgement. But not to push for a decision is to condemn an organisation to paralysis and eventual disintegration.

It is nevertheless useful that Ian has posed the question of what's involved in leadership in a revolutionary party. And he's right to remind us that the leadership is never infallible. Leadership moreover is always a relationship based on dialogue and shared experience. But it's also worth remembering that the real political leadership is always much broader than formal bodies such as (in the SWP) the Central and National Committees. Ian himself is part of this broader leadership. And with leadership comes responsibility. So we both have a duty to ensure that, after a period of bruising internal debate, the SWP is re-united and turns outwards towards the struggles where we really live.

1 A. Gramsci, Selections from the Political Writings 1921-1926 (London, 1978), p. 198.
2 G. Lukács, Lenin (London, 1970), p. 25.
3 G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (London, 1971), p. 299.