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How should the left organise?

[Since I am occasionally engaged in online fracas and am known to comment at length I  have adopted the habit of archiving my interventions as a sort of running notation of my developing POV.  Here is one that I've dug up because it made more standalone sense than the many others. It was posted as part of an online comment thread to one of Derek's posts.]

 Derek Wall (Socialist Unity)Leninism is not what you think it is:

Just been blogging about the SWP crisis, its a wider crisis of a kind of Marxist political organisation that in my view simply does not work. I have never been a Leninist but Lenin may have been very different in his approach to what is normally imagined. The ever excellent Dave Riley let me know about this article, its food for thought, let me know what you think and lets not just use this as an excuse to bash each other. How should the left organise? 

If I can add a few comments…

(1)The complication of “Leninist Party” politics is that it is carried out by organisations who believe that they are indeed a “Leninist Party” without any reference to the actual living situation they may be at.They could be 5, 50, or 1500 members but they all presume they are working at Leninist best practice regardless of how embedded they are in the working class.They are “Leninist” because they say so.

(2)What’s happened through the sponsorship of Trotsky and the counterposition of “Trotskyism” to “Stalinism” is that programatic questions have been elevated to a level of some sort of Jungian archetype which only the ordained have access to.This idealist approach — one devoid of the living test of day to day struggle and roots in the class –is totally at odds with the approach of a dedicated Marxist materialism. It only leads to a cottage industry of boutique socialist patents competing with one another.

(3)In my experience of party organisations operating under ‘Leninist’ first principles there is always a sharp tension between being too tight and being too loose. This conundrum is always tied to the question of exclusivity and the overbearing pressure to maintain ‘party’ ‘norms’. I think this is real such that small parties tend to flip and flop between opening up and closing down/reaching out and returning to the bunker. One example I can think of is the response of the SP/CWI when it left the British Labour Party. Thereafter followed a relaxing of approaches to other currents and a dedicated reach out internationally.But in the wake of the loss of most of its Scottish section (which formed the SSP) and a dispute and falling out with its section in Pakistan (The Labour Party of Pakistan) the SP/CWI turned inward and retraced its steps to the bunker. Even the whole rationale of its “united front of a special find” melarky by the English SWP is premised on this tension — that there is a threshold and once passed you dilute/liquidate your politics and cease to be revolutionary. This spectral fear is what haunts almost all the parties of the far left. It is developed as a response to surviving the long haul and counterposing your politics to Stalinism in a position of isolation in the working class. This is, if you like, the conditions and responses that congeal as sectarianism.

(4)After years of surviving the long detour the conditions we now face — with the self evident deference of social democracy to neo liberalism, the world wide collapse of Stalinism in the wake of 1989, the biggest economic crisis capitalism has faced since 1929, and a major ecological catastrophe bearing down on humanity — the conditions under which we operate has changed greatly so that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the comfort of ‘business as usual’ will suffice. Old habits die hard. Old cultures persist. The far left, in fact, becomes entwined in and entrapped by its own rhetoric. While there may indeed be more than one way to proceed, as socialists, Marxists and activists we must know that left unity is our most powerful weapon. But how we proceed to do that — regroup the left — requires not only reach out ways and means but a considerate re-formatting of our own internal perspectives. It is in this context that the study of Lenin has taken another course — away from just referencing his writings into a more considered and broader approach to the actual history of the Bolskevik party; and as Kellog (and Liebman) argues it is not what we may have thought.

(5) What divides the far left today — if we put aside the shibboleths born as they were in the context of the Cold War — are tactical questions.Essentially day to day that’s always tended to be the case.Nonetheless even with those differences in mind what divides us is very small indeed given what unites us. And what specifically unites us is that despite the rigors of the last few decades we collectively enter the 21st century as committed revolutionists with skills and savvy but without the large numbers adhered to our banner.

(6) That doesn’t mean we enter a mea culpa historical moment. What it does mean is that we shift our perspectives and open up our politics like no other time in our historical experience. And, if you like, our task is adapting what we know of “Leninism under Lenin” to the challenges of the here and now. Personally and theoretically this is a major challenge because the new conditions we may choose to embrace don’t lend themselves to easy schemata. NOR is it an excuse to embrace a free fall liquidation of our hard won organisational and political assets. The dialectics of this change are very complex and in each country they are likely to follow different paths as no one size is gonna fit all.We also face the complication that a ruling on early experiments in this new Left politics has not reached a consensus in the way that in the 1920s the far left wanted to replicate the experience of the Bolsheviks and , as Kellog points out, were encouraged to import it as a one size fits all party template.

(7) It is not our role to rejig the politics of social democracy and create a left-of-Labour Labour Party. Some on the left believe that and with the example of Germany and Die Linke as well as the rise of Green Parties internationally in front of us we should junk all the criteria of revolutionary socialism for the sake of a very much broader and very much softer political relevance buoyed up be a dedicated electoralism. But is that what we want — a sort of stage-ist approach to generating revolutionary politics? Marx via the route of practical reformism? A corollary of this perspective is the belief — that today dedicated broad socialist parties cannot be built and win mass support. This is the view of the SWP I’m sure (even if it is not stated)and is no doubt the standard response of most left orgs while en route back to the bunker. But if you check, the approach of Lenin was very different while still adhering to the core goal of socialist revolution. I remember one quote from whoever that tells us so much, ” You all know Lenin forged a great revolutionary socialist party, but you don’t realize what he had to forge it with.” And inherent in the outlook of the far left orgs is a elitist fear that straying too far from programatic purity etc only serves to dumb down our politics.

(8)While we are all familiar with the role of imperialism and the way the reformism gutted the 2nd International but really is that what we should allow to haunt us? The drowning of the 2nd International in competing jingoistic reformist currents occurred in a very precise context of world history. While similar conditions may prevail today, we are here requesting of currents who have survived the political challenges of the last few decades, and remained revolutionary, to lead this new process of broadening out. That’s a big difference. To not see it in those terms only encourages a certain functionalism — a belief that these new parties will arise because the space exists for them to do so. But then, taht space can be filled just as ‘functionally’ by outfits like the BNP. So who leads this process is crucial to what sort of party is created.

Comment by Dave Riley — 27 December, 2009 @ 3:23 am

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