Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Once again on revolutionary discipline

'A revolutionary party is an instrument for making a revolution. If it is blunted or broken another must be built.'

Such a statement is only half-correct from the standpoint of classical Bolshevism. If a revolutionary party is 'broken' then it is indeed the duty of revolutionaries inside such an organisation to try and join with whatever healthy elements still exist inside that organisation and try and build another such organisation. But how to judge when an allegedly revolutionary organisation is broken? Let us take perhaps the most extreme but also one of the clearest cases from revolutionary history - Leon Trotsky's 1933 break with the Communist International after the rise of Hitler's Nazis to power in Germany and his declaration of the need the need 'To Build Communist Parties and an International Anew'. Trotsky broke with the Communist International as it had been taken over by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia and first created and then continued with its disastrous strategy of equivocating the 'social fascist' German Social Democratic Party with Hitler's Nazis, and so failed to build a united front against fascism in the run-up to the fateful year of 1933. In July 1933, after Hitler had come to power, Trotsky noted that:

The Moscow leadership has not only proclaimed as infallible the policy which guaranteed victory to Hitler, but has also prohibited all discussion of what had occurred. And this shameful interdiction was not violated, nor overthrown. No national congresses; no international congress; no discussions at party meetings; no discussion in the press! An organization which was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of the bureaucracy demonstrates thereby that it is dead and that nothing can ever revive it. To say this openly and publicly is our direct duty toward the proletariat and its future. In all our subsequent work it is necessary to take as our point of departure the historical collapse of the official Communist International.

This is, as I say, an extreme case of a revolutionary party being 'broken' as it had shown no sign of changing course or direction after the rise of fascism to power in a country that hitherto had the strongest working class movement in history. There are other, less extreme examples, of course. As I wrote on this blog just over a year ago, it would be 'absolutely justified' for a revolutionary to leave one's party 'if one's party had made a betrayal of the principles of socialism and the class struggle itself (eg supported an imperialist war/not supported a strike by workers, etc etc)'.

'If the party had made such a betrayal - and showed no signs of correction after one had put the opposing arguments in the democratic forums of the party - then one would have a duty to form a faction within the party to fight for the correct position - and if that did not work - then to resign from the party, form a new revolutionary Marxist grouping and call on the members of your old party to join your new organisation because the old was irredeemably bankrupt and had become 'social-imperialist/class collaborationist/ etc etc'

The failure to break organisationally with the formally 'Marxist' but actually social-imperialist and class-collorationist German Social Democratic Party before the First World War (which the SPD supported) and form a new revolutionary organisation then was perhaps the most serious failing of Rosa Luxemburg, an otherwise outstanding revolutionary, for example.

Yet what if a revolutionary party is not 'broken' but is only 'blunted'? Is it correct for a revolutionary to leave their revolutionary organisation if they think it is 'blunted' as an instrument for making a revolution? Here again, for those who stand in the tradition of classical Bolshevism, matters are very clear - and once again it is worth quoting Trotsky, this time from 1923:

A Bolshevik is not merely a disciplined person; he is a person who in each case and on each question forges a firm opinion of his own and defends it courageously and independently, not only against his enemies, but inside his own party. Today, perhaps, he will be in the minority in his organization. He will submit, because it is his party. But this does not always signify that he is in the wrong. Perhaps he saw or understood before the others did a new task or the necessity of a turn. He will persistently raise the question a second, a third, a tenth time, if need be. Thereby he will render his party a service, helping it to meet the new task fully armed or to carry out the necessary turn without organic upheavals, without fractional convulsions.

For Trotsky, the Communist International in 1923 was not yet the Communist International in 1933, and while it was perhaps distinctly blunted as a revolutionary instrument - hence the German Communist Party's failure to follow the example of the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917 and lead a successful revolution in the 'German October' of 1923 - see Trotsky's The Lessons of October - it was clear that he therefore had a revolutionary duty to try and win the Communist International back for revolutionary politics. As I put it before:

In other words, were one say a revolutionary socialist inside a revolutionary socialist organisation who disagreed with the strategy and tactics of that organisation, one would have a revolutionary duty to persistently raise one's opinion inside of that organisation, even if one was still in a minority. One would critically defend one's independent position within the framework of democratic centralism - within the democratic frameworks of the party - e.g. a national conference - and then 'submit, because it is your party' outside of such times to what was agreed by the majority of the party at that conference - even if one did not agree with the majority. What one does not do, if one is serious about revolutionary politics, is to resign with a whimper from one's revolutionary socialist organisation just because one has lost an argument over strategy and tactics and is in a minority.

The question is one of revolutionary discipline. To quote from Chris Harman's excellent article on 'Party and Class':

"Discipline” means acceptance of the need to relate individual experience to the total theory and practice of the party. As such it is not opposed to, but a necessary prerequisite of the ability to make independent evaluations of concrete situations. That is also why “discipline” for Lenin does not mean hiding differences that exist within the party, but rather exposing them to the full light of day so as to argue them out. Only in this way can the mass of members make scientific evaluations.

Yet what of the argument that allowing such disagreement means the revolutionary party will be 'afflicted by factionalism'? It is true that it is a problem if 'factionalism' and internal arguments over strategy and tactics become preponderant and mean that a revolutionary organisation spends most of its time looking inwards rather than outwards to the wider working class movement. This is, for example, what happened to the International Marxist Group around Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn in Britain during the 1970s. Yet the idea that therefore in order to avoid the danger of 'factionalism' a revolutionary who thinks that their own organisation is 'blunted' would just resign from that organisation without arguing for their position is even more problematic from the perspective of classical Bolshevism. As Tony Cliff noted in the first volume of his biography of Lenin, Building the Party:

'Once while walking, Leo Tolstoy spotted in the distance the figure of a man squatting and gesturing strangely; a madman, he thought – but on drawing nearer he was satisfied that the man was attending to necessary work, sharpening a knife on a stone. Lenin was fond of citing this example.’

In other words, if one thinks a revolutionary party is 'blunt' - and no revolutionary would ever be so complacent to think that there are not areas where a revolutionary party could be 'sharper', then one does not just go and 'build another organisation' - one devotes themselves to 'sharpening' up that organisation. It may look 'mad' or 'factional' to do this to outsiders - but in fact as anyone who has as much as glanced at the Collected Works of Lenin knows, internal disagreement and argument is central to Bolshevism (which is why internal party democracy is so fundamental). All this should not really need stating - but it is worth re-stating here and now quite simply because it is critical if 'Leninism in the 21st century' is to have any meaning whatsoever.

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At 8:11 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, the analogy is a bit ridiculous. One party has a tiny toehold in the working class (despite its ambitions and many good things about it) and the other had the loyalty of millions of workers worldwide.

The other question is one of duplicity - and I am by no means in a position to say this is the case here - if the minority fills they have been purposefuuly misrepresented and adminstratively closed down, how can one fight for ones position effectively.

The party notes statement reads like something out of Hoxha's Albania where a comrade charged with important work (and previously held in good stead if the party press is to be believed) suddenly becomes a notorious opponnent overnight. It's not an edifying spectacle for new members.

Again, I think it shows that this stuff should be debated openly within party publications like, dare I say, the best traditions of Bolshevism.

At 10:08 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Just a brief response for now (I wrote a longer one but blogger somehow lost it):

1. Yes perhaps the anology is a little stretched, but in my opionion questions of revolutionary principles are generally much clearer when seen from the heights of revolutionary experience and history rather than low level more mundane examples of betrayals and retreats from revolutionary politics.

2. On 'duplicity' etc - well, the idea that if Rees and German et al - people who had been leading figures in the party for decades - had resigned from the CC (or been voted off) and just fought for their positions as ordinary members of the SWP they would not have been given a fair hearing at party conferences/ in internal bulletins etc etc to argue their position is frankly impossible to imagine - they would have still carried lots of credibility and respect in the wider party. Unfortunately, it was them who could not stomach just returning to being 'ordinary rank and file SWP members' like the rest of us and fighting for their position from that position - they thought they were somehow above all that - an ugly strain of elitism that runs through their politics. I am a little surprised/disappointed by Bambery - who I thought did have a less elitist attitude and a slightly better grasp of Leninism.

At 12:14 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't disagree with most of that. I did write a longer bit about openness, the fact that the statement on CB in Party Notes is in precisely the type of language that alienates people and (although I have no truck with JR/LG's and Bambery's politics) I think that the SWP's strategy via RTW is misguided. However, I decided that this is not the place for it (the place is Socialist Worker and, perhaps, the SWP website). Quickly though, thankfully in my area there is no RTW as such and SWP members are playing an extremely constructive role in the local anti cuts group.

At 3:20 pm, Anonymous johng said...

agree with snowball's response to anon, but this:

"Again, I think it shows that this stuff should be debated openly within party publications like, dare I say, the best traditions of Bolshevism"

I'm afraid just obvious now. If there had been open debate of differences on the CC before the membership none of this would have been remotely possible. We need to ensure that this kind of thing never happens again if there is to be any future for the organisation. Its not as if this debate has not been had before. I'm furious with bambery. But I'm much more furious with those with whom I am politically much more sympathic.

This whole situation is absurd and unneccessary. And the time is long gone for worrying about appropriateness. There won't be any appropriate forums left (or rather no one will care anyway) if changes are not made quickly.

At 5:44 pm, Blogger partha said...

The conditions under which the Communist Party was organised have radically changed. The current party structure has failed teh challenges of our times. Even the method is under rethink. Party sr tructure is central ; but it does not say is laid for aall times to come. For instance Comintern plyed a role and vanished once its job was over. It is time we rethink a suitable structre and also methods and models.

K.S.Parthasarathy, Bengaluru, India

At 1:44 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What kind of changes need to be made?

At 5:20 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

John is right to argue that 'This whole situation is absurd and unnecessary.'

However I disagree slightly when John says that 'the time is long gone for worrying about appropriateness. There won't be any appropriate forums left (or rather no one will care anyway) if changes are not made quickly.'

Personally I think the existing internal party democratic arrangements are/were adequate enough to allow dissent - the problem was that (apart from the briefly existing 'Left Platform') those who wanted to dissent simply refused to use these channels at all and instead just announced they were leaving, partly because they were arrogant enough to think they had an automatic right to a leading position in the party. Bambery's leaving was not an entire surprise - there is no need I think to make any major changes with respect to these in the aftermath of it. That is not to say that the party should not discuss making other changes to try and stop such things ever happening again (more accountability, caucuses etc etc). But I guess these are for the party to discuss in the appropriate forums.

At 4:53 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Snowball am I not right in suggesting that the Bolsheviks considered that the 'appropriate' place to discuss differences within the party was in their public press?

At 11:39 pm, Anonymous Jayjay said...

What might these "appropriate forums" look like Snowball ? Party Conference ? Where a man who has been forced to make an unwilling apology to a young woman for his behaviour towards her, still manages to manipulate the discussion, speak unopposed for nearly 10 minutes with a resulting standing ovation !!

Anyone who questioned the appropriateness of this response to a complaint of harassment was rounded on quite vociferously.

Those are not the actions of a revolutionary party, not even a socialist one.

That Party is indeed a broken instrument.

At 6:08 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't follow

At 1:20 am, Anonymous Jayjay said...

Sorry Anonymous, I wasn't clear in my criticism of internal democracy in the SWP that those who resigned from the Party in Scotland should have made use of.

Snowball states that there exists "appropriate forums" within which differences can be raised.

I posted in too oblique a way that at SWP conference in January of this year that Martin Smith, the National Secretary, despite being forced to apologise to a young female comrade for his behaviour towards her, was able to turn said "apology" into a self promotional exercise that resulted in a standing ovation from the assembled comrades.

My point being that if someone like Martin Smith can manipulate Conference in such a way over a serious matter like sexual harassment, using appeals to party pride, that the dissenting Scots having witnessed such a spectacle would not be confident that their criticisms would have been listened to openly and honestly.

At 12:28 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Sorry - didn't realise the debate had continued on this.

Anon says: 'Snowball am I not right in suggesting that the Bolsheviks considered that the 'appropriate' place to discuss differences within the party was in their public press?'

That is correct anon, the Bolsheviks did have a page in their paper for internal discussions. However, this might have been because of the nature of the conditions under which the Bolsheviks operated - for example, scattered across Russia, many members in prison, and many more in exile across Europe. Given this having a page of their paper to discuss different questions of strategy and tactics kind of makes sense. In 21st century Britain, when members of the SWP can attend national meetings and conferences fairly easily and internal bulletins can be distributed to members easily, it seems less important for a revolutionary party to need to do this.

At 12:51 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Jayjay: 'My point being that if someone like Martin Smith can manipulate Conference in such a way over a serious matter like sexual harassment, using appeals to party pride, that the dissenting Scots having witnessed such a spectacle would not be confident that their criticisms would have been listened to openly and honestly...'

I was not at the conference this year and so did not witness the unedifying incident you describe, but to suggest that 'dissenting Scots having witnessed such a spectacle would not be confident that their criticisms would have been listened to openly and honestly' is more than a little insulting to SWP members I'm afraid - many of whom who did attend conference were not impressed that Martin Smith did get a standing ovation from some delegates.

The idea that someone like Chris Bambery, a former national secretary of the party and editor of SW, or indeed any of the Scottish dissidents, would not have been able to make criticisms of the party at conference and had these listened to and debated in a fair manner is a rather weak argument - he would have had plenty of opportunities to make his views and feelings known as a rank-and-file member of the SWP. However, it seems arrogance and egotism meant he felt he was above just being an ordinary member of the SWP.

The idea that the Martin Smith incident stands as an excuse for SWP members in Scotland declaring the SWP a 'broken instrument' is pathetic frankly - it might show that the SWP made a a bit of a mess of handling an unfortunate situation, but the idea that it now means an organisation made up of several thousand people is no longer 'revolutionary' almost verges on the surreal.

At 5:37 pm, Blogger Rosa Lichtenstein said...

Why is every single revolutionary party aflicted in this way? Is it just bad luck, or are there deeper, materialist reasons?

I think there are:


Rosa L


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