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Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 25, 2012


Mangling the Party: Vol. 1 of Tony Cliffs Lenin By Pham Binh
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under: democratic

centralism,Lenin,revolutionary

organizing,sectarianism

louisproyect @ 4:07 pm
Mangling
Vol.

the
1

of

By

Party:
Tony

Pham

Cliffs Lenin
Binh

January 24, 2012


The following is dedicated to anyone and everyone has sacrificed in the name of building
the revolutionary party.
Tony Cliffs Lenin: Building the Party published in 1975 was the first book-length political
biography of Lenin written by a Marxist. As a result, it shaped the approach of subsequent
investigations by academics like Lars T. Lih as well as the thinking of thousands of socialists
in groups like the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP, founded by Cliff), the U.S.
International Socialist Organization, and Paul LeBlanc, author of Lenin and the
Revolutionary Party and former member of the American SWP (no relation to Cliffs group).
Cliff begins his biography by debunking the U.S.S.R.s official state religion of Leninworship that endowed [Lenin] with superhuman attributes. Yet throughout the book Cliff
refers to these superhuman attributes:
Lenin adapted himself perfectly to the needs of industrial agitation.
[Lenin] combined theory and practice to perfection.
If these passing remarks were the main flaws of Cliffs book it would still be useful to read,
full of political and historical lessons. Sadly, this is not the case.
Cliffs errors and distortions begin with Lenins political activity in mid 1890s. According to
Cliff:
Ob Agitatsii had a mechanical theory of the relation between the industrial struggle, the
struggle against the employers, and the political struggle against tsarism, based on the
concept of stages. [W]hatever the official biographers may say, the truth is that in the

years 1894-96, [Lenin] did not denounce Ob Agitatsii as one-sided, mechanical, and
economist. His writings of the period coincide exactly with the line which it put forward.
To show that Lenins writings of this period coincide exactly with the arguments of Ob
Agitatsii, Cliff quotes Lenins 1895 draft Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP)
program and cites his article What Are Our Ministers Thinking About? in which
Cliff claims Lenin urged the expediency of leaving the Tsar out of the argument, and talking
instead about the new laws that favored employers and of cabinet ministers who were antiworking class.
Cliff later states in Building the Party that [n]ot to point out the direct connection between
the partial reform and the revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism is to cheat the workers, to fall
into liberalism. Did Lenin fall into liberalism at this early stage of his career?
Anyone who reads either document will find that Lenins views do not coincide exactly
with those of Ob Agitatsii. Neither the draft program nor the article Cliff cites are mechanical,
one-sided, stageist, or economist. In What Are Our Ministers Thinking About? Lenin did
not urge the expediency of leaving the Tsar out of the argument. Lenin did not fall into
liberalism.
These egregious misrepresentations of Lenins views occur throughout Building the Party.
Bending the Stick
Cliff closes chapter two by claiming that Lenins penchant for bending the stick was a
characteristic that he retained throughout his life.
[Lenin] always made the task of the day quite clear, repeating what was necessary ad
infinitum in the plainest, heaviest, most single-minded hammer-blow pronouncements.
Afterwards, he would regain his balance, straighten the stick, then bend it again in another
direction.
Throughout the book Cliff makes reference to Lenins stick bending, by which Cliff means
deliberately and one-sidedly overemphasising something one day and then the opposite thing
the next day in different circumstances.

If stick bending was Lenins political method, it would mean that none of his writings
should be taken at face value. Each piece would suffer from one-sided overemphasis and
distortion. Such a method would also call into question Lenins intellectual and political
honesty. How could anyone be sure what Lenin reallymeant or thought if his arguments were
always exaggerated in some way? Furthermore, why would anyone in the Russian socialist
movement take what Lenin had to say seriously if the only thing that was consistent about his
message was its exaggerated character? Such a method would create a culture of disbelief and
cynicism among Lenins followers that would grow more toxic with each bend.
Lenins letter to Georgi Plekhanov on the economist trend that Cliff uses to illustrate stick
bending tells us something very different from what Cliff claims:
The economic trend, of course, was always a mistake, but then it is very young; while there
has been overemphasis of economic agitation (and there still is here and there) even
without the trend, and it was the legitimate and inevitable companion of any step forward in
the conditions of our movement whichexisted in Russia at the end of the 1880s or the
beginning of the 1890s. The situation then was so murderous that you cannot probably even
imagine it, and one should not censure people who stumbled as they clambered up out of that
situation. For the purposes of this clambering out, some narrowness was essential and
legitimate: was, I say, for with this tendency to blow it up into a theory and tie it in with
Bernsteinism, the whole thing of course changed radically The overemphasis of
economic agitation and catering to the mass movement were natural.
Here, Lenins real method emerges. The one-sidedness Cliff lauds is not Lenins but a feature
of a particular stage of the Russian socialist movements development, namely the transition
from study circles and propaganda to the field of mass action and agitation. In this transition
some mistakes were inevitable and one should not censure people who stumbled as they
clambered up out of that situation. However, when people elevated inevitable mistakes,
errors, and stumbles into a full-blown theory and then connected it with Bernsteins
revisionism the whole thing of course changed radically. Once the whole thing changed
radically, Lenin wroteA Protest by Russian Social Democrats in 1899.
Cliff conflates features and stages of objective development with Lenins subjective
responses to them:

[F]ear of the danger to the movement occasioned by the rise of Russian economism and
German revisionism in the second half of 1899 motivated Lenin to bend the stick right
over again, away from the spontaneous, day-to-day, fragmented economic struggle and
toward the organisation of a national political party.
Lenin did not transform from an armchair revolutionary in a study circle into an economist
factory agitator, from economist factory agitator into top-down party-builder, and from topdown party-builder into a proponent of building the party from the bottom up around the
elective principle in the name of the spontaneously socialist working class in 1905, attacking
his own former positions all along the way. He continually grappled with the development of
Russias worker-socialist movement through each of its distinct stages, each of which had
unique challenges and opportunities (or tasks). Together, these stages were part of a single
process that Lars T. Lih described as Lenins heroic scenario the RSDLP would lead the
workers, who, in turn, would lead the peasants, oppressed nationalities, and all of the
downtrodden, exploited, and oppressed people of Tsarist Russia in a revolution that would
destroy the autocracy, setting the stage for international socialist revolution.
In polemics Lenin typically reminded his readers about the importance of keeping the whole
process of development in mind and instead of isolating its individual elements:
That which happened to such leaders of the Second International, such highly erudite
Marxists devoted to socialism as Kautsky, Otto Bauer and others, could (and should) provide
a useful lesson. They fully appreciated the need for flexible tactics; they themselves learned
the Marxist dialectic and taught it to others (and much of what they have done in this field
will always remain a valuable contribution to socialist literature); however, in the
application of this dialectic they committed such an error, or proved to be so undialectical in
practice, so incapable of taking into account the rapid change of forms and the rapid
acquisition of new content by the old forms, that their fate is not much more enviable than
that of Hyndman, Guesde and Plekhanov. The principal reason for their bankruptcy was that
they were hypnotised by a definite form of growth of the working-class movement and
socialism, forgot all about the one-sidedness of that form, were afraid to see the break-up
which objective conditions made inevitable, and continued to repeat simple and, at first
glance, incontestable axioms that had been learned by rote, like: three is more than two.
But politics is more like algebra than elementary arithmetic, and still more like higher than
elementary mathematics. In reality, all the old forms of the socialist movement have acquired
a new content, and, consequently, a new symbol, the minus sign, has appeared in front of

all the figures; our wiseacres, however, have stubbornly continued (and still continue) to
persuade themselves and others that minus three is more than minus two.
It was Lenins appreciation for the totality of development, not stick bending, that led him
to write polemics against economists, Mensheviks, followers of Bogdanov, liquidators, left
communists, and Karl Kautsky, all of whom did not make the transition from one stage of the
heroic scenario to the next by adapting themselves to the new tasks.
In chapter three, Cliff continues his bending the stick narrative:
It was fear of the danger to the movement occasioned by the rise of Russian economism
and German revisionism in the second half of 1899 that motivated Lenin to bend the stick
right over again, away from the spontaneous, day-to-day, fragmented economic struggle and
toward the organisation of a national political party.
This is totally false. The 1895 draft RSDLP program Lenin wrote and Cliff cited in chapter
two proves that Lenin sought to build a national political party years before the economist
trend emerged:
The Russian Social-Democratic Party declares that its aim is to assist this struggle of the
Russian working class by developing the class-consciousness of the workers, by promoting
their organisation, and by indicating the aims and objects of the struggle. The struggle of the
Russian working class for its emancipation is a political struggle, and its first aim is to
achieve political liberty.
Anyone who reads Lenins draft program will know where he stood on the party question in
1895. Fear had nothing to do with Lenins commitment to organizing a national political
party.
Lenin and Party Rules
Cliffs chapter on Lenins What Is To Be Done? is unremarkable except for the section
dealing with Lenins attitude towards party rules. Cliff quotes Lenins 1902Letter to a
Comrade on Our Organizational Tasks that was circulated as an RSDLP pamphlet in 1904 to
show that Lenin had a distaste for red-tape and rule-mongering. Cliff goes on to say:

Lenins faction was for a long time very informal indeed. He started to build his organisation
through Iskra agents. When, after the second Congress, as we shall see, he lost the support of
his own Central Committee, he reorganised his supporters around a newly convened
conference that elected a Russian Bureau.
There are a number of errors here.
The first is that the purpose of Iskra agents was to build the RSDLP, not an organization loyal
to Lenin (another falsehood that runs throughout Building the Party is the notion that
Bolsheviks and/or the central committee were his).
The second and more serious error is to use Lenins actions in the aftermath of the RSDLPs
second congress that gave birth to the Menshevik-Bolshevik split as proof of Lenins
preference for informal or loose rules. One of the central charges that Lenin and his
Bolshevik co-thinkers levelled at the Mensheviks was that their resignations, boycotts of
party institutions, refusal to call a third congress despite the expressed will of the majority of
the 1903 congress delegates, and declaration that the League of Social Democrats Abroad
was autonomous from the RSDLP all violated the rules adopted at the 1903 congress.
Anyone who reads Lenins One Step Forward, Two Steps Back will find that Lenin paid very
close attention to rules, regulations, procedural minutiae, and abided by them. One of the
central reasons why Lenin spent years working to convene the 1903 congress in the first
place was to eliminate the informal rules and procedures that prevailed in the socialist circles
and replace them with the formal rules necessary to govern the workings of a professional
political party. In contemporary terms Lenin sought to overcome what feminist Jo
Freeman described as the tyranny of structurelessness.
Lenins Letter to a Comrade on Our Organizational Tasks proves the opposite of what Cliff
claims. In that letter Lenin writes:
It would be all the less useful to draw up such Rules at present [1902] since we have
practically no general Party experience (and in many places none whatever) with regard to
the activities of the various groups and subgroups of this sort, and in order to acquire such
experience what is needed is not Rules but the organisation of Party information, if I may put
it in this way. Each of our local organisations now spends at least a few evenings on
discussing Rules. If instead, each member would devote this time to making a detailed and

well-prepared report to the entire Party on his particular function, the work would gain a
hundredfold.
And it is not merely because revolutionary work does not always lend itself to definite
organisational form that Rules are useless. No, definite organisational form is necessary, and
we must endeavour to give such form to all our work as far as possible. That is permissible to
a much greater extent than is generally thought, and achievable not through Rules but solely
and exclusively (we must keep on reiterating this) through transmitting exact information to
the Party centre; it is only then that we shall have real organisational form connected with
real responsibility and (inner-Party) publicity. For who of us does not know
that serious conflicts and differences of opinion among us are actually decided not by vote
in accordance with the Rules, but by struggle and threats to resign? During the last three
or four years of Party life the history of most of our committees has been replete with such
internal strife. It is a great pity that this strife has not assumed definite form: it would then
have been much more instructive for the Party and would have contributed much more to the
experience of our successors. But no Rules can create such useful and essential definiteness
of organisational form; this can be done solely through inner-Party publicity. Under the
autocracy we can have no other means or weapon of inner-Party publicity than keeping the
Party centre regularly informed of Party events.
Here Lenin stressed the importance of reporting and inner-party publicity as opposed to rules
because he believed (correctly) that proper decisions about rules could only be made if the
RSDLPs leaders were fully aware of the work each of its members engaged in. (Lenin
viewed the centralization of information regarding members activity into the hands of the
party leadership as a response to operating as an illegal organization; presumably information
would be decentralized among the membership as a whole through the medium of a
newspaper if the party was legal.)
Lenin closed this letter with the following words:
And only after we have learned to apply this inner-Party publicity on a wide scale shall we
actually be able to amass experience in the functioning of the various organisations; only on
the basis of such extensive experience over a period of many years shall we be able to draw
up Rules that will not be mere paper Rules.

So while it is true that Lenin detested rule-mongering, it is equally true that Lenin spent the
better part of 1904 and 1905 fighting in defense of the rules adopted by the 1903 congress
and against the informal methods that the Mensheviks proved unwilling to part ways with.
Chapter five on the 1903 congress is again replete with errors. In discussing the famous
debate between Lenin and Martov over what the definition of a party member should be, Cliff
attacks Martov and Trotsky for supporting Lenins organizational plan as laid out in What Is
To Be Done? and then opposing Lenins formulation on membership, writing:
To combine a strong centralist leadership with loose membership was eclecticism taken to an
extreme. [T]he revolutionary party cannot avoid making strong demands for sacrifice and
discipline from its own members. Martovs definition of party membership fitted the
weakness of his conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Cliff fails to note that Martovs membership definition became the basis for recruitment into
the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP for three years until the Mensheviks agreed (in conjunction
with the Bolsheviks) at the 1906 party congress to a formulation in line with Lenins 1903
wording. According to Cliffs logic then, the Bolsheviks during 1903-1906 were guilty of
eclecticism taken to an extreme for combining strong centralist leadership with loose
membership and weakness with regards to proletarian dictatorship, while the Mensheviks
were innocent of these things after 1906 because they supported Lenins definition of party
membership.
Eclecticism indeed!
In this regard, Cliff is like most other Leninists who invest the 1903 membership debate
with an artificial and ahistorical significance. If Lenin did not mention the issue in his
discussion on the Principle Stages in the History of Bolshevism in Left-Wing Communism:
an Infantile Disorder written for foreign communist audiences unfamiliar with RSDLP
history it could not have been a terribly important issue from his point of view.
Cliffs next egregious error comes in his discussion of Lenins actions after the 1903
Congress that gave birth to the Menshevik and Bolshevik trends within the RSDLP:
With the aid of Krupskaya in Geneva, and a group of supporters operating inside Russia,
[Lenin] built a completely new set of centralised committees, quite regardless of Rule 6 of the

party statutes, which reserved to the Central Committee the right to organise and recognise
committees.
He goes on to say that these completely new and centralised committees began to agitate
for a new RSDLP congress in 1904 to resolve the disputes that arose between the Mensheviks
and Bolsheviks at the end of the previous congress.
If Cliffs statement is true, then Lenin was a hypocritical and ruthless faction fighter who
attacked his political opponents for not playing by party rules that he exempted himself from.
If true, it would have fatally undermined the whole basis of post-1903 Bolshevik agitation for
a new congress because it was based on the following rule adopted by the second congress:
The Party Council must call a congress if this is demanded by Party organisations which
together would command half the votes at the congress. If Lenin himself violated these rules
by creating completely new centralised committees it would have been impossible for him
to attract support within the RSDLP for his claim in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back that
it was the Mensheviks who were making a mockery of the RSDLPs rules.
Cliffs assertion has no footnote, so it is unclear what the source of his claim is. What is
certain is that there is no mention of illegal (in the sense of being against the RSDLPs rules)
and completely new set of centralised committees in Krupskayas memoirs. Surely if Lenin
had done what Cliff claims the Mensheviks would have pounced on this monstrous fact and
included it in their bitter attacks on Lenin in the pages of the post-congress Iskra.
Another element that appears in this chapter and throughout Building the Party is Cliffs
truisms about a variety of topics that have no basis in things Lenin said or did.
For example:
[T]he leadership of a revolutionary party must provide the highest example of devotion and
complete identification with the party in its daily life. This gives it the moral authority to
demand the maximum sacrifice from the rank and file.
Lenin certainly appreciated the sacrifices people made for the revolutionary movement, but
this was not limited to those who were party leaders or even party members (for example, his
attitude towards earlier generations of Russian revolutionaries, the Narodniks and
Decembrists). At no time did Lenin use his position as a party leader to demand maximum
sacrifice from the rank and file. This sounds like something from the Stalin era or from
Maos Little Red Book which is full of timeless, moralistic phrasemongering.

Cliffs references to Lenins imaginary disregard for rules serves an important purpose in
the Building the Party narrative: Lenin has to constantly circumvent rules and fight against
his own followers who become conservative and formalistic in their approach to politics
by resisting Lenins continual stick bending. This narrative reaches its climax in chapter
eight which celebrates Lenins fight at the third RSDLP congress held in April 1905 against
the Bolshevik committeemen over two issues: recruiting workers to party committees and
democratizing the party in the midst of the 1905 revolution. According to Cliff, [b]uttressing
themselves with quotations from What Is to Be Done? [the Bolshevik commiteemen] called
for extreme caution in admitting workers into the committees and condemned playing at
democracy.
The problem with Cliffs account is that Lenin and the Bolsheviks never fought about either
recruiting workers to party committees or democratizing the party at the third congress. It
simply did not happen. Lih discovered that this episode in Building the Party was lifted
wholesale from Solomon Schwarz, a Bolshevik-turned-Menshevik who wrote The Russian
Revolution of 1905: the Workers Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and
Menshevism (wholesale meaning copied word for word).
Cliffs plagiarism is a relatively minor issue compared to the real scandal: he evidently never
bothered to read Lenins Report on the Third Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic
Labor Party written in May 1905! Had Cliff read Lenins account of the third congress he
would have discovered that Lenin makes no mention of any conflict, debate, or friction over
whether to recruit workers and democratize the party in light of the new conditions created by
the 1905 revolution. The report is positively glowing about the results of the third congress,
which included more clearly defined party rules (so much for Lenins alleged informality)
and a series of resolutions guiding the RSDLPs conduct during the 1905 revolution.
The conclusion is inescapable: either Cliff did not read what Lenin said about the 1905 third
congress or he knowingly repeated a falsehood taken from someone elses work in order to
support his narrative of Lenin versus the party machine he built. Neither is acceptable for a
political biographer of Lenin.
It is in this chapter that the contradictions embedded in Cliffs Lenin must continually fight
the party machine he built narrative become most apparent. Suppose that Cliff was right that
the committeemen did indeed defeat Lenin on the issue of recruiting workers at the third
congress and stubbornly resisted such recruitment efforts. The question then becomes: how

did the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP grow so rapidly? How could workers join the party
against the will of the people who were the party? Cliff does not explain this impossibility
but exclaims, nevertheless it moves and quotes figures showing the rapid growth of the
Bolsheviks in 1905 and after. Cliffs Lenin was evidently a magician who could make the
party take actions the people who constituted the party opposed.
Democratic Centralism and Party Discipline
In chapter 15 Cliffs litany of errors continues. The 1905 revolution created strong pressure
from the RSDLPs rapidly growing ranks to unite the Menshevik and Bolshevik factions.
This unity was consummated at the RSDLPs 1906 congress held in Stockholm. Cliff
neglects to mention that this congress elected a central committee of three Bolsheviks and six
Mensheviks. He recounts that an RSDLP conference in Tammerfors held in 1906 decided to
create an electoral bloc with the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), a liberal party backed by
big business. Lenin insisted that the decisions of this conference were not binding on local
party bodies. A surprised Cliff writes:
What had happened to the democratic centralism so dear to Lenin? For years he had argued
for the subordination of the lower organs of the party to the higher, and against the federal
concept of the party. In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, written February-May 1904,
he had said that the undoubted tendency to defend autonomism against centralism is a
fundamental characteristic of opportunism in matters of organisation.
What Cliff means by democratic centralism is subordination of the lower organs of the
party to the higher and a non-federal party. What Lenin meant by democratic centralism
was altogether different.
The quote Cliff cites from One Step Forward, Two Steps Back is misplaced because Lenin
was arguing against those, like Trotsky, who held that the editorial board of the partys
newspaper should be autonomous and not subject to the democratic control of the party
congress, a very different issue from the autonomy of local committees or local party
branches to make decisions regarding local work. The notion that local autonomy was a new
element in Lenins thought in 1907 is mistaken. Lenin noted that the third congress of the
RSDLP in 1905 affirmed this principle:
The autonomy of the committees has been defined more precisely and their membership
declared inviolable, which means that the C.C. no longer has the right to remove members

from local committees or to appoint new members without the consent of the committees
themselves. Every local committee has been accorded the right to confirm periphery
organisations as Party organisations. The periphery organisations have been accorded the
right to nominate candidates for committee membership.
The principle of autonomy was first affirmed at the RSDLPs second congress in 1903:
All organisations belonging to the Party carry on autonomously all work relating specially
and exclusively to the sphere of Party activity which they were set up to deal with.
Another element missing from Cliffs account of democratic centralism is the following
rule, also adopted at the second congress:
Every Party member, and everyone who has any dealings with the Party, has the right to
demand that any statement submitted by him be placed, in the original, before the Central
Committee, or the editorial board of the Central Organ, or the Party Congress.
This rule seems to have been designed to prevent secret expulsions and other abuses of power
by party officials that plague all Leninist organizations, abuses which are almost always
justified on the grounds of democratic centralism. The term has been abused to such an
extent that it no longer conveys the organizational norms that prevailed within the RSDLP
among Mensheviks (who first coined the term) and Bolsheviks alike until the 1917
revolution.
Lenin famously defined democratic centralism as freedom of discussion, unity in action.
Cliff appropriately quotes Lenin on what this meant in practice:
After the competent bodies have decided, all of us, as members of the party, must act as one
man. A Bolshevik in Odessa must cast into the ballot box a ballot paper bearing a Cadets
name even if it sickens him. And a Menshevik in Moscow must cast into the ballot box a
ballot paper bearing only the names of Social Democrats, even if his soul is yearning for the
Cadets.
Note what freedom of discussion, unity in action did not mean. It did not mean that the
minority had to publicly champion the line or argument of the triumphant majority. Unity
in action for a dissenting minority simply meant acting in concert with the majority, not
singing their tune or arguing for their line. Nowhere did Lenin say a Bolshevik in Odessa

must argue with his workmates that supporting the Cadets is the way to go, or a Menshevik
in Moscow must convince everyone he knows to vote Social Democrat even if his soul is
yearning for the Cadets. A line of action and a line of argument are two different things;
unity in action did not mean unity in argument or political position.
Given this understanding of what democratic centralism meant to Lenin and the
RSDLP, the following lines by Cliff are wildly, unfathomably wrong:
A couple of months later, in January 1907, Lenin went so far as to argue for the institution of
a referendum of all party members on the issues facing the party certainly a suggestion that
ran counter to the whole idea of democratic centralism.
Polling the party to determine the partys course of action is antithetical to democratic
centralism only if we use Cliffs definition of the term and not Lenins. The answer to Cliffs
question, What had happened to the democratic centralism so dear to Lenin? is simple:
nothing.
Cliffs failure to understand the meaning of democratic centralism becomes a problem
again in chapter 17 when he discusses a Menshevik-led party trial of Lenin in 1907.
Surprisingly, Cliff agrees with the Mensheviks that Lenin was guilty of violating party
discipline, writing:
Lenins behavior at the trial is very interesting, because it shows the relentless way in which
he conducted a faction fight against the right wing of the party. As the trial opened, Lenin
calmly acknowledged that he used language impermissible in relations between comrades in
the same party, but he made absolutely no apology for doing so. Indeed, in fighting the
Liquidationists and their allies in the movement, he never hesitated to use the sharpest
weapons he could lay his hands on. Moderation is not a characteristic of Bolshevism.
The incident that precipitated the trail occurred after the Mensheviks in St. Petersburg created
an electoral bloc with the Cadets in defiance of the majority of the local RSDLP organization.
Lenin wrote a pamphlet attacking the Mensheviks for doing so. The Mensheviks retaliated
against Lenin by having the RSDLP central committee, on which they had a majority, charge
Lenin with violating party discipline. So it was the Mensheviks who were violating the rules
of the RSDLP, notLenin.
The Bolshevik Party: Not Formed in 1912

In chapter 17, Cliff discusses Lenins fight against the liquidationist trend in the RSDLP. He
notes that a January 1910 RSDLP conference vote forced Lenin to disband the Bolshevik
faction, close its newspaper, and break off relations with the boycottists in their ranks while
the Mensheviks were obliged to do the same: disband their faction, close their newspaper,
and break with the liquidators in their midst. Lenin dutifully complied. His Menshevik
counterparts did not.
After the Mensheviks proved unwilling to follow through with their obligations, Lenin
launched a new weekly paper at the end of 1910, Zvezda. Cliff omits this fact and instead
picks up the story with the Prague Conference held in January 1912. He also omits the fact
that this conference elected a pro-party Menshevik (one of two who attended) to the RSDLPs
central committee. This is important because the 1912 Prague Conference is almost always
referred to as the beginning of the Bolsheviks as a separate party from the Mensheviks. Cliff
evades this issue by referring to those elected to the central committee in 1912 as hards, a
term used nowhere else in Building the Party.
After chapter 17, Cliff claims the RSDLPs daily newspaper Pravda played a central role in
building the Bolshevik Party, declares that the Bolsheviks became a mass party in 19121914, and says that the Bolshevik Duma deputies finally ended relations with their
Menshevik counterparts in late 1913 (when World War One broke out the deputies issued a
joint statement, so this is false). Based on these claims it is clear that Cliff adheres to the
myth that the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks separated into two parties in 1912.
However, a cursory glance at Lenins writings in 1912 reveals how wrong this view is.
Shortly after the 1912 Prague Conference, Lenin wrote the following in an explanatory note
to the International Socialist Bureau:
In all, twenty organisations established close ties with the Organising Commission convening
this conference; that is to say, practically all the organisations, both Menshevik and
Bolshevik, active in Russia at the present time.
The 1912 Prague Conference separated pro-party Mensheviks and Bolsheviks from the
liquidators. The Menshevik-Bolshevik divide did not culminate in two separate parties until
the 1917 revolution. Cliffs account of the 1912-1914 period is terribly flawed because it is
predicated on falsehoods. The Bolsheviks were not a party, therefore they could not become
a mass party, nor could Pravda have played a central role in building the Bolshevik Party

because such an entity did not yet exist. This explains why, when Lenin referred to Pravdas
success against its liquidationist rival Luch he wrote, four-fifths of the workers have
accepted the Pravdist decisions as their own, have approved of Pravdism, and actually rallied
around Pravdism instead of using the terms Bolshevist and Bolshevism.
Cliffs treatment of the history of Lenin and Pravda is just as error-ridden as the rest
of Building the Party. For example, he claims, Lenin practically ran Pravda. What he
neglects to mention is that 47 of Lenins articles were rejected, and that many of Lenins
published articles were heavily edited to weaken their factional content. If Lenin practically
ran Pravda, why would he reject so many of his own articles and censor himself politically?
Pravda was run by a team of editors, not by Lenin, and the initiative for it came from the
lower ranks of the party. It was not Lenins Pravda as Cliff claims, but a workers paper to
which Lenin was one contributor among many (Plekhanov, Rosa Luxemburg, and Kautsky
also wrote for it). The overwhelming majority of Pravdas content, including poems and
humor columns, was written by workers, not by higher-ups in the party or the papers
editorial team.
Conclusion
Building the Party has so many gross factual and political errors that it is useless as a
historical study of Lenins actions and thoughts. This conclusion is inescapable for anyone
who reads the book closely and compares it with the writings of Lenin and the historical
record. Those who read Building the Party and take it seriously will need to unlearn the
falsehoods and misinformation contained in its pages if they want a reasonably accurate
picture of Lenins work in the context of the Russian socialist movement of the early
twentieth century.
Bookmarks in Britain and Haymarket Books in the U.S. should think twice before
republishing, selling, and profiting from Building the Party since it contains so many errors,
falsehoods, and lies about Lenin.
Pham Binhs articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal, The
Indypendent,

Asia

Times

Online, Znet, Counterpunch and

thenorthstar.info,

collaborative blog by and for occupiers from across the U.S. His other writings can be
found at www.planetanarchy.net

Comments (88)
December 23, 2011
What kind of party do we need? A reply to Ahmed Shawki
Filed under: democratic centralism,revolutionary organizing louisproyect @ 6:36 pm
I am not exactly sure why the ISO reprinted a 2006 speech by party leader Ahmed Shawki on
What Kind of Party We Need in their latest newspaper but it seems to be a retreat from
Paul LeBlancs more recent thoughts on the subject that partially reflected the insights of
scholar Lars Lih and others working through the problems of Leninism.
Mostly Shawki tries to communicate the idea that party-building concepts have evolved since
the days of Karl Marx, almost in a Darwinian fashion. There are still lots of dinosaurs around
but survival of the fittestimplicitly understood in terms of a superior programwill sort
things out.
He says that Marx was too preoccupied with theorizing about capitalism to really give much
thought to organizational questions:
Marx himself had placed some emphasis on the attempt to build political organization. But
you were talking about a period of the rise of capitalist social relations, and therefore, in large
part, the bulk of Marxs own personal activity lay in developing theory rather than political
organization.
Outliving Marx and ostensibly past the thorny problems of theorizing capitalism, Engels was
more directly involved with such nitty-gritty efforts:
Engels participated much more effectively in the construction of the Second International and
played a formative role in the construction of what was to be the model socialist organization
of the daythe German Social Democratic Party (SPD), an organization that produced, after a
period of illegality, dozens of newspapers, a mass membership, elected officials. The SPD
was led by a man called Karl Kautsky who was described at the time as the Pope of
Marxismthat was supposed to be a good thing as opposed a negative thing.
Understanding that What is to be Done? is quite clear about Lenins insistence that the
German party was a model for what he advocated in Czarist Russiaallowing for the need to

develop ways to fend off repressionShawki tries to draw a distinction between Kautsky and
Lenin that is a bit lost on me:
Im not saying that Lenin was identical to Kautsky. You can go back and read Kautsky, for
example, where he says clearly in the period of the late 1800s that the German Social
Democratic Party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. In other words,
were a party that seeks the transformation of society, but were not about to make a
revolution.
Lenin insisted always on the revolutionary character of the Bolsheviks, in part because they
operated under Tsarism and in part because of events after the writing of What Is To Be
Done?
Perhaps there is a subtle distinction that requires a higher level of dialectical insight than I
can muster at this point, but the difference between a revolutionary party and a revolutionmaking party was not obvious to me at first blush. But after consulting chapter five of
Kautskys The Road to Power, it all became clear to me. In fact Kautsky is simply warning
against Blanquist schemas and trying to explain that revolutions cannot be created. They
are the products of profound crises that serve as imperatives to fundamental change:
The Socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that
our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our
power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part
of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it. And since the revolution
cannot be arbitrarily created by us, we cannot say anything whatever about when, under what
conditions, or what forms it will come.
One surely hopes that comrade Shawki does not object to the idea that the revolution cannot
be arbitrarily created by us.
Furthermore, a strong case can be made that Lenin viewed Kautskys Road to Power as
exemplary long after What is to be Done? had been written and even after he had broken
with Kautsky over WWI. In the latest issue of The Weekly Worker, the organ of the
Communist Party of Great Britain (a group devoted to fresh thinking about such matters even
if does tend a bit toward scandal-mongering, a reflection of the bad habits of the British press
no doubt), theres an articleLenin, Kautsky and the new era of revolutionsby the

redoubtable Lars Lih that documents Lenins respect for Kautskys book, couched as it was in
anger at Kautskys subsequent evolution:
In autumn 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Lenin wrote to his associate,
Aleksandr Shliapnikov: I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile,
dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy. This pungent summation of Lenins attitude toward Kautsky
an attitude that remained unchanged for the rest of Lenins life is often cited. Ultimately
more useful in understanding Lenins outlook, however, is another comment, made around
the same time to the same correspondent: Obtain without fail and reread (or ask to have it
translated for you) Road to power by Kautsky [and see] what he writes there about the
revolution of our time! And now, how he acts the toady and disavows all that!
Lenin took his own advice. He sat down a few weeks later, flipped through the pages of
Kautskys Road to power, and came up with a page-and-a-half list of quotations that he
inserted into an article entitled Dead chauvinism and living socialism. He then commented:
This is how Kautsky wrote in times long, long past, fully five years ago. This is what
German Social Democracy was, or, more correctly, what it promised to be. This was the kind
of Social Democracy that could and had to be respected.
While I certainly agree with Lars on the need to see the continuity between the pre-WWI
Kautsky and Lenin, I sometimes wonder if he tends to go overboard on all this. That
continuity is certainly of immense interest to Lenin scholars but the more burning issue for
revolutionists today is not the relevance of Kautskys turn-of-the-century socialist party but
the kind that we need today. Breaking down the misconceptions about Leninism is of
course important but unless we begin to think creatively about our tasks todayas both
Kautsky for a time and Lenin didwe will not solve what Leon Trotsky described as: The
world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the
leadership of the proletariat. Trotsky might have been in error about the solution but he
certainly got the problem right.
Which brings us back to comrade Shawkis speech:
At this point [after 1914], Lenin begins to develop ideas about organization which I think are
much more important and relevant to usfocused not on the question of illegality and
professional revolutionism and so on

He concludes that you have to begin by grouping together militants and activistsbecause
were not talking here about commentators and writers, but people who are involved in the
actual struggle against capitalisminto a party that can lead politically other sections of the
working-class movement through the ebbs and flow of the working-class struggle.
He used the term vanguard for this, to mean people who are in advance [sic] in
consciousnessthat is, who are enemies of capitalism, rather than half opposed and half
accepting. This isnt an insultits the reality for most people, that they hate the system, but
dont know what else you can put in its place.
Theres only one problem with this. After 1914 Lenin never writes about organization as
such, something Shawki virtually admits when he states: That idea became enshrined into
the history of the revolutionary movement for one reasonit wasnt Lenins writings so much
as Lenins doing. Yet there is no evidence that his ideas about the vanguard were any
different than they were in 1903, ideas we must insist are exactly the same as the European
social democracy. Furthermore, it is a bit problematic to extract party-building concepts out
of Lenins doing especially since the party that came into existence in 1903 operated on the
same basis as it did 14 years later.
There were no organizational innovations. Instead he is preoccupied with uniting the
antiwar left internationally first of all and then seizing power in Russia, matters that involved
strategy and tactics rather than new thinking about how a vanguard is constructed. Try as
you may, the Marxist Internet Archives will reveal nothing along the lines of What is to be
Done? between 1914 and 1917.
Once Shawki moves forward in time to the 1960s, things dont get much better Im afraid. He
states:
Today, there is an idea that the construction of a socialist organization is in itself a flawed
project. In short, its been there, done thatwe tried it in the 1960s and 70s, and this model of
organization doesnt work.
It is not exactly clear what this is a reference to. In my view, what was tried in the 60s and
70s is something I refer to as Zinovievism, a mechanical version of democratic centralism
that led to sect and cult formation in the Trotskyist and Maoist movements. By this period,
the CPs had transformed themselves into something much more like the social democracy so
they were out of the running in the race to construct vanguard parties.

Shawki does seem to recognize that the party-building methodology was flawed:
I think that theres a reaction that we can sometimes have to say you just did it wrongwhich
is a good answer to a been-there-done-that kind of remark.
But I think the more sophisticated answer would be that not only did the left in the 1960s
inherit models of organization from the past, but it was itself dislodged from its historic role
and placed outside of the working-class movement. And this is despite valiant efforts of many
sections of the left to reconnect with the working class, which should be applauded, not
derided.
Now it would be useful to get his thinking on inheriting models of organization from the
past but to my knowledge this is just something that never gets explored much in ISO
publications. Unless there is something about the ISO that I have missed, the methodology is
pretty much the same one that they inherited from the British SWP, their one-time mother
ship. For about as succinct a presentation of their ideas on democratic centralism as can be
found, you can read Todd Chretiens article on Lenins Theory of the Party that appeared a
year after Shawkis speech. I should say at the outset, however, that Lenin had no theory of
the party. Tony Cliff did, and thats where Todds ideas come from basically. He writes:
So what is democracy? Its not a happy-go-lucky-everybody-gets-a-say kind of thing for the
sake of fairness. Instead, democracy, if it works, has to be a contentious, active, participatory,
argumentative, organized process. We have formal votes on agendas, delegates, leaders,
actions, policies, etc. In fact, Id venture a guess that the ISO is one of the most democratic
organizations in the world. So, yes, there have to be formal mechanisms of democracy within
the party, but more than that, democracy has to be active and participatory. Why? In order to
confront the beast we are up against, you need to have as many people as possible looking at
the problem, studying the problem, engaged in trying to get rid of the problem
The second part is centralism, because if the ISO is not a utopia, its also not a talk shop. We
dont have academic conferences. Now there are some very good academics, but there are
also many academic conferences where everyone talks and nothing comes out of it because
no one ever expected anything to come out of it. The ISO is not a talk shop. We want to act.
We want freedom of discussion to have our debates out, but then we want to take a vote.
Whichever side wins will be put into practice and then were going to see if it works. If our
decision is wrong, then the people who opposed it can come back and say, See that was

wrong. But the only way to test things in practice is to make a decision, have all members
try to implement that decision to the best of their ability, and then assess the outcome. If
members dont take decisions and actions seriously, then you never know if it was your
tactics that were wrong, or it was in the implementation that went wrong. In other words,
giving something a half-assed try is no test at all.
I doubt if any veteran of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S. or the RCP et al would have
described how it was put to them as a new recruit any differently, and thats the problem.
This business about a talk shop is something I heard when I joined the SWP in 1967. It
meant that you could talk until you were blue in the face during preconvention discussion but
once the party made up its mind about a given orientation, then you had to switch gears and
to into action mode. As we know today, this is not really the way that the Bolsheviks operated
in real life, no matter how hard Zinoviev tried to give that impression. They did not designate
special periods when party members could debate with each other behind closed doors. Their
debates were held in public.
If you want proof of this, just read John Reeds Ten Days that Shook the World where there
is a reference to divided votes among party members over key questions such as whether to
expropriate the bourgeois press. At a November 17th 1917 mass meeting, Lenin called for the
confiscation of the capitalist newspapers. Reed quotes him: If the first revolution had the
right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois
press. Reed continues: Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist
Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24.Among
the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible
for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press.
So during the heat of battle, not only do you have Bolsheviki arguing against Lenin, they
vote against him in public. Neither was expelled. In fact not a single Bolshevik was ever
expelled except Bogdanov and I probably would have voted for that myself.
Finally, I want to address myself to the key political question in Shawkis speech that he
formulates as follows: there isnt much space for a broad, anti-capitalist party in the United
States. Now since this was written 5 years ago, it is understandable that he might not have
anticipated what has transpired over the past few months. But with that in mind, I strongly

recommend that the ISO comrades pay careful attention to Pham Binhs article Occupy and
the tasks of socialists, especially the conclusion:
The most basic and fundamental task facing socialists is to merge with Occupy and lead it
from within. Socialist groups that insist on intervening in the uprising will be viewed as
outsiders with little to contribute in practice to solving Occupys actual problems because
they will be focused on winning arguments and ideological points rather than actively
listening to, joining hands with, and fighting alongside the vanguard of the 99% in
overcoming common practical and political.
One difficulty the socialist left faces in accomplishing this basic and fundamental task is the
divisions in our ranks that serve in practice to weaken the overall socialist influence within
Occupy, thereby strengthening that of the anarchists. They have their Black Bloc, but where
is our Red Bloc? Where are the socialist slogans to shape and guide the uprisings political
development?
Out of clouds of pepper spray and phalanxes of riot cops a new generation of revolutionaries
is being forged, and it would be a shame if the Peter Camejos, Max Elbaums, Angela
Davises, Dave Clines, and Huey Newtons of this generation end up in separate competing
socialist groups as they did in the 1960s. Now is the time to begin seriously discussing the
prospect of regroupment, of liquidating outdated boundaries we have inherited, of finding
ways to work closely together for our common ends.
Above all else, now is the time to take practical steps towards creating a broad-based radical
party that in todays context could easily have thousands of active members and even more
supporters. Initiatives like Socialist Viewpoints call for a joint revolutionary socialist
organizing committee in the Bay Area is a step in the right direction. We need to take more of
those steps, sooner rather than later. The opportunity we have now to make the socialist
movement a force to be reckoned with again in this country depends on it.
Anyone who agrees with this conclusion, whether they are in a socialist group or not, and
wants to take these steps should email me so we can find ways to work together.
December 30, 2010
Once more on democratic centralism

Yesterday Nick Fredman of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, a very promising attempt to
transcend sectarianism initiated by comrades of the Democratic Socialist Party who have
quite correctly dissolved into this broader formation, raised a very important question about
caucuses, drawing implicitly into consideration the whole question of democratic centralism.
He wrote a comment under my post about the SWP/Laurie Penny dispute:
Which is why I dont understand at all Louis absolute stricture against caucusing before
movement meetings. Theres a big difference between on the one hand, say, a small student
action group meeting with the majority there members of far left groups each repeating points
already made about the absolute necessity of a rally being on this date rather than that, before
voting on party lines (been there, wish I hadnt), and on the other, say, a large meeting of
union delegates with a small minority of socialists who had worked out some proposals
beforehand that were better than the bureaucrats course, and some sensible (and different)
things to say in support if they get the chance, which may well win people over (been there,
glad I was). One also doesnt have to scream at or expel people who dont follow such
discipline (when its decided its worthwhile to have such), as opposed to a sense of
proportion and a bit of patient explanation when appropriate.
This is absolutely correct. Caucuses are absolutely necessary in the mass movement. Socialist
groups must expect their members to vote based on majority rule in such circumstances. That
in fact is what the centralism part of democratic centralism is all about. It is anti-democratic
for a socialist parliamentarian to ignore his or her partys wishes. When workers donate their
time and money to elect a member to parliament, the least they can expect is to see their
wishes expressed there. One of the great scandals of 1914 is that some socialist deputies
voted for war credits despite the partys antiwar declarations.
The problem, however, is that for small, self-declared Leninist formations, the discussions
about policy take place behind their organizational firewall. I saw this all through the
Vietnam antiwar movement when the SWP held what we called fraction meetings before a
key national gathering. We were told that we were for a, b and c and that we should follow
the lead of our floor captains when a crucial vote came up. This was what made so many
people hate Trots. It was so obvious that someone like Fred Halstead or Gus Horowitz was
calling the shots.
The way to resolve this problem, of course, is to go back to the real Bolshevik Party rather
than the fictional version cooked up by James P. Cannon or any other men (and they were

almost exclusively men) from that generation. Lenin did not believe in organizational
firewalls. He believed in absolute transparency, except when it involved the security of the
party.
In June 1905, Lenin wrote an article titled The First Steps of Bourgeois Betrayal that
defined the relationship between the mass movement (back then, exclusively proletarian) and
the working class party, drawing a sharp distinction with the bourgeois democrats of the
Cadet Party:
We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking
pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion
within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know
what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question. The enlightened
bourgeois of the Osvobozhdeniye fraternity surround themselves with secrecy from the
people, who know nothing definite about the much-talked-of Constitutional-Democratic
Party; but they make up for this by taking the tsar and his sleuths into their confidence. Who
can say they are not democrats?
Does that sound anything like the way that our latter-day Leninist parties operate?
Methinks not.
Something else must be said. The Bolsheviks were not committed to democratic centalism as
a method of functioning in opposition to the Mensheviks. When I was being indoctrinated
into the Trotskyist movement, we always used to hear something that went like this. The
Bolsheviks were democratic centralists who knew how to get things done, unlike the
Mensheviks who hated democratic centralism like a cat hates water and who preferred talk
shops of the kind that Irving Howe and Dwight McDonald hosted at Upper West Side
salons.
In fact the term predates Lenin by many years and was first used in 1865 by J.B. Schweitzer,
a Lassallean. (The discussion here owes much to Paul LeBlancs excellent Lenin and the
Revolutionary Party.)
The Mensheviks first used it in Russia at a November 1905 conference. In a resolution On
the Organization of the Party adopted there, they stated: The RSDLP must be organized
according to the principle of democratic centralism. A month later the Bolsheviks embraced
the term at their own conference. A resolution titled On Party Organization states:

Recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the Conference


considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting
elected centers full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the
same time subject to recall, their actions are given broad publicity, and they are to be strictly
accountable for these activities.
There is virtually no difference between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks about the need
for democratic centralism or its meaning. So claims that the two factions differed over this
Leninist organizational breakthrough are simply mistaken. Moreover, the two groups had
resolved many outstanding differences following the 1905 revolution. Menshevik leader
Pavel Axelrod said, on the whole, the Menshevik tactics have hardly differed from the
Bolshevik. I am not even sure that they differed from them at all. Lenin concurred: The
tactics adopted in the period of the whirlwind did not further estrange the two wings of the
Social Democratic Party, but brought them closer togetherThe upsurge of the revolutionary
tide pushed aside disagreements, compelling the Social Democrats to adopt militant tactics.
In any case, whatever differences would resurface in the period leading up to 1917,
democratic centralism was not one of them. At a unity conference held in 1906, the
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks voted for a resolution that stated: All party organizations are
built on the principles of democratic centralism.
A Menshevik, Zagorsky-Kokhmal, gave the report on the commission that adopted this
resolution. It stated: we accepted the formula for membership unanimously. In other words,
there was no objection to what some would characterize as Leninist norms. The reason for
this is simple. Democratic centralism was never an issue.
Since Rosa Luxemburgs critique of Lenins 1904 One Step Forward, Two Steps
Backwards revolves around the charge that he was susceptible to centralism, you might
get the impression that these differences revolved around the need for democratic centralism.
In

fact,

this

term

does

not

appear

in

her

critique

that

is

online

at http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/index.htm
For example, Luxemburg writes, Lenins thesis is that the party Central Committee should
have the privilege of naming all the local committees of the party. Whatever else might say
about this, it is not what we think of ordinarily when we hear the term democratic centralism.
It is instead a reference to a specific practice rooted in the exigencies of the Russian class

struggle, forced to operate under repressive and clandestine conditions. For example, I dont
recall James P. Cannon ever favoring this practice, despite being committed to the sort of
democratic centralism that evolved under Zinovievs authority.
Not that Luxemburg is opposed to centralism itself. She is not a Foucauldian. When it takes
shape from the self-activity of the working class, it is a good thing. Centralism in the
socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labor
movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and
political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle.
Of course, the democratic centralism that defines Leninist organizations today had little to
do with Lenins call for freedom to criticize, but unity in action. Somewhere along the line
it became a formula for ideological homogeneity. It states that the freedom to criticize is
permissible during preconvention discussion, a period that tolerates atypical behavior every
couple of years or so, more or less like Spock undergoing Pon farr, the Vulcan version of
mating season.
Those who have experienced this version of freedom to criticize understand that it is no
such thing. Instead it is mainly an opportunity for the secondary leadership of the party to
salute the central leadership for the brilliance of the line resolutions presented to the
convention. Those who reach the conclusion that the line resolutions are full of baloney are
ultimately viewed as scratches that are in danger of turning into gangrene. In such
organizations, however, the main danger from the standpoint of medical analogies is
hardening of the arteries.
I will conclude with a point that must be made in relation to Nick Fredmans comment. While
I agree that discipline must be expected in hostile settings like a parliament or a trade union
dominated by class-collaborationist bureaucrats, I think that a different attitude must prevail
at movement gatherings like during the Vietnam War. Although the people gathered there
might not be members of a socialist group, they deserve to be treated like comrades rather
than raw material that can be shaped by the partys iron will. Despite all its objections to
Stalinism, the SWPs characterization of itself as the big red machine smacked of the same
kind of bureaucratic mentality that would be the undoing of the CPUSA and for that matter us
after the turn.
Comments (1)

March 3, 2009
In Response to Mick Armstrong
Tom OLincoln, a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia, graciously invited me to
submit a critique to their magazine Marxist Interventions of SA leader Mick Armstrongs
book From little things big things grow: strategies for building revolutionary socialist
organizations. As many of you know, I regard groups such as Socialist Alternative claiming
to be based on Leninist principles fundamentally mistaken on organizational questions.
While I find little to differ with the comrades on programmatically (except for the Russian
questions), I think that they are going about building a revolutionary party in the wrong way.
While most of my efforts over the years have been devoted to reorienting their rivals on the
Australian left, the Democratic Socialist Perspective, I welcomed the chance to get a hearing
in their magazine, something the DSP has been averse to despite the polemic against me in its
own pages some years ago.
I invite you to read the entire article but will only include the first few paragraphs here:
One of the more rapidly growing groups on the left is Socialist Alternative. Unfortunately it
would appear from a book by Mick Armstrong that they remain wedded to party-building
conceptions that will inhibit future growth. It is understandable why such self-styled Leninist
formations would cling to counter-productive methodologies since the dead hand of tradition
weighs heavily on any group seeking to establish itself as the avatar of Marx, Engels, Lenin,
and Trotsky. Perhaps a better approach would be to start with a fresh sheet of paper, an
approach virtually ruled out for small propaganda groups obsessed with revolutionary
continuity.
Mick Armstrongs party-building ideas are contained in From little things big things grow:
strategies for building revolutionary socialist organizations. Apparently, the title of
Armstrongs book was inspired by a left wing song by Paul Kelly that deals with Aboriginal
and labour struggles in Australia. Perhaps I am reading too much into the title, but I am afraid
that it reminds me of the nucleus analogy from chemistry or physics that is used so often in
would-be Leninist circles. Basically, a mass revolutionary party starts with a nucleus of
Marxists steeled with a correct program, which more often than not revolves around a correct
interpretation of the Russian questions. If you dont have the correct position on 1917 or
some other ostensible benchmark date, you will not progress toward the final goal of seizing
power. Thus, a program and the initial cadre assembled around that program are like the

nucleus of an element like carbon or uranium. What is misunderstood unfortunately by those


who think in these terms is that a chemical nucleus rests on materialist foundations while a
program is simply a set of ideas.
I do want to turn my attention now to Micks rebuttal, which appears immediately after my
critique. I once again urge you to read both pieces in their entirety but want to respond to
some of his points here:
Mick writes, Proyect opposes building clear cut revolutionary socialist organisations and is a
supporter of the broad party model for building the left today. Actually, I do have a model
and that is Lenins Bolshevik Party. Despite their commitment to building Leninist parties,
Mick and other advocates of democratic centralism have no explanation for the differences
between Lenins party and their own. In the entire history of the Bolshevik Party, only a
single member was ever expelled: Bogdanov. Even after members of Lenins central
committee broke discipline and spoke out against seizing power in 1917, none of them were
expelled. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks carried out their debates in public. Probably the best
documentation for this is John Reeds 10 Days that Shook the World, in which Reed refers to
the fight in the Bolshevik party about whether power should be seized from Kerensky in
chapter 2:
However, the right wing of the Bolsheviki, led by Riazanov, Kameniev and Zinoviev,
continued to campaign against an armed uprising. On the morning of October 31st appeared
in Rabotchi Put the first installment of Lenins Letter to the Comrades, one of the most
audacious pieces of political propaganda the world has ever seen. In it Lenin seriously
presented the arguments in favour of insurrection, taking as text the objections of Kameniev
and Riazanov.
As it turns out, Rabotchi Put is not an internal discussion bulletin of the kind that we were
warned never to allow outsiders to see in the American Trotskyist movement, but the daily
Bolshevik newspaper that was sold on the streets all over St. Petersburg and elsewhere.
Lenins article is found in the appendix to Chapter 2 and it is a real eye-opener. Against
Kameniev and Riazanovs argument that we have not a majority, Lenin replies that they
simply dont want to look the real situation in the face and draws the readers attention to
the peasant uprising sweeping Russia, which cannot be readily reflected in parliamentary
totals.

Needless to say, this is simply not the way that modern-day self-styled Leninist parties
operate. They have convinced themselves that public debates will lead to social democratic
deviations. Unfortunately, the only conclusion that you can draw is that internal debates will
strengthen sectarian tendencies.
Mick ends up by making an amalgam between my ideas on party-building and the
degeneration of the Workers Party in Brazil, a group that I have spent the past five years
denouncing on the Marxism mailing list. It seems rather far-fetched to explain their downfall
in terms of having debates in public. In fact, the Communist Party of Vietnam is totally
committed to democratic centralist principles and has basically followed the same
trajectory as Lula.
Of more interest is Micks claim that Socialist Alliance type formations in Great Britain and
Australia somehow prove that straying from democratic centralism will lead you down the
road to perdition. Although I have doubts that Mick has ever read what I have written about
such formations, his comrade Tom OLincoln must surely know that I thought they were
doomed to failure since the dominant tendencies tended to be Leninist parties maneuvering
in the self-seeking manner devised by the Trotskyist movement during the French turn.
The only French turn I advocate is the one that the LCR has taken. I sincerely hope that small
propaganda groups like SA and the DSP will pay close attention to French developments,
which have the potential to reinvigorate the revolutionary left everywhere. While nobody can
predict that the new anti-capitalist party will take power someday, one thing is certain. The
democratic centralist model clung to like a security blanket by SA, the DSP, et al does not
work. History has rendered its merciless judgment on that.