What is a "Leninist sect"? Is AWL one?

Submitted by Matthew on 11 November, 2015 - 12:22 Author: Sean Matgamna

In 1990, Socialist Organiser was banned by the Labour Party, apparently on the instigation of Frank Field MP, the same Frank Field who now floats the idea of Labour right-wingers contesting elections as “independent” against democratically selected candidates of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

A challenge to the ban at the 1990 Labour Party conference won a majority of Constituency Labour Party delegate votes, but failed to overturn it.

Then, as in the current moves against associates or alleged associates of Workers’ Liberty, the “defendant” received no charges and was given no hearing in which to reply to them. Socialist Organiser was able to reply to the charges only because by chance it received through unofficial channels a copy of the document presented to Labour’s National Executive. The document built its case by saying Socialist Organiser was like Militant (forerunner of today’s Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal), which had been banned in 1986, and was a “Leninist sect”.

Socialist Organiser had actively campaigned against the banning of Militant. And we upheld the political ideals and tradition associated with Lenin. We also explained that our way of doing politics was different from the model of the “Leninism” shaped after Lenin’s death by the Stalinists and then, to one degree or another, adopted by some anti-Stalinist groups. The article below was part of our reply.

The document [presented to Labour’s National Executive by National Organiser Joyce Gould] lays out the thesis that Socialist Organiser is an organisation like Militant.

Now I opposed and oppose the proscription of Militant. I believe that where Militant acts harmfully it must be fought politically. But it is false to equate Socialist Organiser with Militant. The document tries to “prove” its case in two ways.

The first stage of one “proof” is asserting that all such groups as Militant are formed around one individual; Socialist Organiser is said to be so organised around myself; Socialist Organiser and myself are thus asserted to be identical; and my alleged history then recounted to prove Socialist Organiser is what it is alleged to be.

The second way of “proving” that Socialist Organiser is like Militant is to make assertions about how the supporters of Socialist Organiser organise to produce, circulate and sustain the paper.

The document’s account of both my history and how Socialist Organiser supporters organise ourselves is riddled with inaccuracies big and little, many of them preposterous. Worse than that, however, from the authors’ point of view, is the palpable fact though they are engaged in pontificating about the nature of “Leninist” groups and of sects like Militant, the WRP and the SWP, to which they allege Socialist Organiser is identical, they plainly do not understand how such sects function or what it is that gives them their special character.

If they had bothered to do any research into Socialist Organiser — even to the extent of leafing through a file of the paper — they could not have made that mistake. If you place Gerry Healy’s WRP at one end of the spectrum, the SWP at the other and Militant in the centre, you see important differences but also certain things in common which give such sects their character. They are organised as tight single-faction organisations. There is a pro-designated leadership, and a narrowly defined set of ideas which function as shibboleths and are not open to discussion. Internal dissent is not allowed, or is allowed only so long as it does not impinge on the cardinal doctrines of the group. Dissent in the public press is very, very rare, and for most such groups simply unknown. Minorities are not allowed to form factions. The possibility of putting up an across-the-board alternative slate on a distinct political platform to challenge the incumbent leadership simply does not exist. It ceased to exist, for example, in the loosest and most nearly civilised of such groups in Britain, the SWP, years ago (about the time I parted company with that organisation).

But more than that: I have only sketched in the formalities and structures. There is also the spirit of these groups. It is the spirit of the narrow, persecuting religious sect. The feeling and emotions and commitment which are a necessary part of any sustained activity around the old socialist programme of replacing capitalism by “the cooperative commonwealth” are all focused on the group, on its particular ideas and shibboleths, and on its own claimed identity as “the party”, the Church of the Lord. It is that spirit — cultivated and cherished by the organisers of the groups listed above — which gives the final stamp to the groups’ character as sects.

From the spirit flows intolerance, the transmutation of ideas supposedly based on theorising about an evolving and changing world into religious dogmas, believed on faith and separating the faithful and the saved from the sinners and deservedly damned. Such quasi-religious formations need intolerance, need a “party regime” that keeps an iron grip, need the typical internal atmosphere of an intense religious cult — or they disintegrate. They need certainties and dogmas and infallible leaders, and these can be sustained in place only when dissent is forbidden or limited and ritualised.

A political culture in which every participant has the taken-for-granted right to disagree with the majority, to pose awkward questions about both ideas and individuals, and to express his or her opinions and proselytise for them in word and writing would be anathema to the quasi-religious “Leninist” sects. Contact with that way of working would dissolve the pretensions of the leaders of such cults, dissipate the holy aura surrounding the ideas for which they function as a priestly caste.

For that reason such groups not only control or stifle elements of such an approach within their own ranks, but they also cultivate and foment extreme hostility and hatred for it when it comes from outside their own band. Instead of teaching their supporters to reason about the world, they teach them dogmas. Complicated theories are reduced to phrases packaging hopes and wishes about, for example, the Middle East or Ireland, which then fill the space that should be filled by a rational account of the world we have to deal with. That is the spirit of the cults and the sects, ranging from the still relatively civilised SWP through to the Militant and beyond to the old, openly crazy WRP.

Demonstrably Socialist Organiser is not of that type. Nobody who reads the paper could honestly make a case that we belong to that spectrum of polities. A few SO supporters, and most prominently myself long ago, have a distant background in such political formations. But we have tried to learn the lesson of the awful fate of the people who try to be honest socialists but tragically fall back into the primitive semi-religious approach characteristic of the dawn of the labour movements in the last century and earlier. Socialist Organiser conducts its discussions openly in the pages of our paper. There are no sacrosanct ideas or individuals that cannot be discussed or questioned, no religious awe around either our ideas or our activities. To a considerable extent, the debates that should have occupied the whole Left, but have been absent from it, have taken place in Socialist Organiser over the last ten or so years. The list of subjects is a long one.

Strategy for the left in local government occupied Socialist Organiser in the early ‘80s; nobody could write a serious history of the left of that period without using the Socialist Organiser discussions as essential raw material. Even after most of those who thought the best course was high rates [local property taxes which councils then levied] had parted company with Socialist Organiser, the discussion continued. We have had the only debates on the left in the ‘80s on the European Community. The same with Ireland: in no other paper has there been a wide-ranging discussion — a discussion involving participants from the full range of the left — on Ireland’s long war. We have discussed the Arab-Israeli conflict at length, and, more recently, the nature of the old systems in Eastern Europe.

In those discussions the people who are assigned the roles of high priests and gurus in the document Joyce Gould uses have had to participate “on the floor”, arguing their case with the same rights as other participants and no privileges. I am SO’s pope according to the document: the pages of the paper show me arguing in democratic debate — and not infrequently being abused — on questions ranging from Ireland through Europe to the Middle East. I have been in the minority in some of those debates — on the Middle East, for example — for a long, long time.

If Socialist Organiser were in fact organised like the cults and sects I have described above, then it would dissolve when its alleged gurus and leaders were subjected to such rules and such treatment, when the freedom in the pages of the paper exercised by Socialist Organiser supporters challenged the leading ideas with argument, scorn, irony or denial.

In fact Socialist Organiser has thrived on such discussion because we are a democratic collective, committed to rational democratic working-class politics, not a cult with gurus and disciples. The indisputable evidence of what Socialist Organiser is is there for the examining in the files of the paper.

A sect like, say, Militant could not survive if it ran an open paper like Socialist Organiser. In short, the attempt by the author of Joyce Gould’s document to identify Socialist Organiser with the “Leninist” cults shows simply that the author does not understand the nature of the thing he or she wants to denounce.

The author gets all the detail of how Socialist Organiser functions wrong, but even if some of it were accurate he or she would still be like the small child who notices that matches are red and then tries to make matches by dipping sticks in red paint. The author simply does not understand the nature of the things being compared and analysed, does not understand why they are what they are and how it all fits together.

Defending the tradition of Lenin

I do not repudiate the tradition of Lenin and those who made the great working-class revolution in Russia in 1917. On the contrary, I believe that I defend that tradition as it really was.

That the outcome in history of the 1917 revolution was — by way of Stalinist counter-revolution — a negative and horrible outcome, was not the fault of Lenin or his “tradition”, but of those socialists in the West (those in whose “tradition” the majority of Labour’s NEC are proud to stand) who left the Russian workers in the lurch and made their peace with their own ruling class.

Rosa Luxemburg, who was a bitter and forceful critic of some things the Bolsheviks did as well as being their partisan, said it all very well in 1918, in the course of criticising Lenin and his comrades. “Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness, and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky, and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honour and capacity which western social democracy lacked were represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian revolution, it was also the salvation of the honour of international socialism”.

Post-Stalinist socialism will have to be rethought, and the elements of socialism recast. Lenin’s tradition will and should be part of that process.