The British Socialist Workers Party, perhaps the largest far-left group in the English-speaking world in recent years, is disintegrating. While the issue that has brought the SWP to the precipice is toleration of sexual assault in the organisation, the backdrop to this is the bureaucratic-centralist nature of the group. Its ultra-bureaucratic regime stands in stark contrast to its ideological supposed commitment to ‘socialism from below’. However, the British SWP is far from alone in this. Its chief rival on the far left in Britain is the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SPEW), the dominant section of the ‘Committee for a Workers International. Like the SWP leadership, SPEW/CWI tops are deeply hostile to letting democracy flower in their ranks. While supposedly committed to democratic centralism, there is a vast distance between the ideology and practice of many of these types of far-left groups and the real history of ‘democratic centralism’ in the Bolshevik Party which they mimic. This vast gulf has become impossible for the bureaucratic-sect leaders to ignore in recent years due to the internet – people, including their own members, can now discuss the politics and organisational practices of the sects despite the leadership’s monopoly control over the ‘party’ apparatus and internal discussion and decision-making. Moreover, in the past few years the work of left-wing academic Lars T. Lih on the real practices of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in terms of party democracy has pointed up how little many of the ‘Leninist/Trotskyist’ groups have in common with the actual Bolshevik Party. One of the ironies is that the internal regimes of many of these groups function like the ‘Stalinist’ party machines such leaders have long decried.
Below is an article that first appeared in last week’s Weekly Worker which deals with the response of SPEW to work by Lih. Peter Taaffe is the dominant leader of SPEW and the CWI. We run it not in order to single out Taaffe/SPEW/CWI, but because the same kind of points hold against a wide range of far-left groups and because Lih’s work is still probably little-known in New Zealand. Redline contributors would have different views - as is politically healthy – about some of the terminology used by Ben, and it’s clear that ‘Trotskyism’, as well as ‘Stalinism’ and social democracy, have failed in the twentieth century.
by Ben Lewis
Ever since the appearance of his groundbreaking Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context in 2005, Lars T. Lih, the esteemed scholar of Russian history based in Canada, has become something of a household name on the left. With good reason. Lih’s ideas should have profound implications for all Marxists active today. Why? Not least because of his damning observation that many a sect ‘historian’ – having gone down a long and winding road to build the ‘party’ – appear to have swallowed numerous myths on the history of Bolshevism.
Sadly, these myths reflect the cold war agendas, prejudices and distortions of well-remunerated, pro-establishment historians, that or the Stalinist school of falsification. Hence the actual theory and practice of Russian Social Democracy, Bolshevism and V.I. Lenin still remains unknown to many of today’s socialist activists. So, what is the common or garden version of Lenin and the Bolsheviks? Well they are often portrayed as cynical, calculating manoeuverers lording it over a working class they held in disdain. Then there is the contention that Lenin would often completely change his mind and junk long held perspectives as a way of ‘catching the tide’ of this or that movement. Against this sort of stuff, Lih has usefully stressed the underlying continuity in Russian revolutionary strategy – from its origins inspired by the success of German social democracy in the 1890s (what he calls Lenin’s “Erfurtian drama” and “Russian Erfurtianism”) through 1903 and 1912 to the seizure of power in 1917. Lih thereby not only unravels the etymology of some of the all-pervading concepts common to much contemporary ‘Marxist’ thought (‘the vanguard party’, ‘the party of a new type’ and so on), but has applied his own specialist knowledge to the translation of Russian words and concepts, such as ‘spontaneity versus consciousness’ or the idea of the ‘conspiratorial’ party.
Such an approach should obviously provide food for thought for those of us committed to working class rule and human freedom. Just as social democracy and Stalinism proved dead ends in the 20th century, taking the latter’s ‘Leninism’ as our point of departure in the 21st can hardly provide solid foundations for revolutionary politics.
We on today’s left need to get this purportedly ‘Bolshevik’ monkey off our back. As against the hapless philistines who decry those on the left who refer to ‘dead Russians’, Marxism must be characterised by the foremost rigour in historical inquiry. The history of our movement informs, shapes, its current and future practice. Useless history, then, has a tendency to produce useless Read the rest of this entry »