Neil Faulkner of the Mutiny group has published a series of articles about the ideas of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky on revolutionary parties, prompted, he says, by "an online meeting on the future of the British Left in which I participated on 12 July".
Faulkner's series takes off from a polemic against the emphasis of the Red Flag speaker, K D Tait, on "different programme and strategy". He makes no comment on what the Workers' Liberty speaker, Ruth Cashman, said.
Cashman and other AWL speakers proposed getting common activities where we agree. We cited a number of campaigns we're working on where we'd welcome Mutiny and RF getting involved or more involved. We also spelled out some of the main areas where we have, or seem to have, differences, and suggested discussion on those.
How else can we deal with differences other than by discussing them? If discussion and debate are ruled out as ways of dealing with differences, then any new difference of real import can lead only to a new split. In fact, to the reproduction on a larger scale of Faulkner's own experience.
Long a prominent member of the Socialist Workers Party, he became a leading figure in the Counterfire split. He then split from Counterfire to set up Brick Lane Debates, a group apparently now defunct. And now Mutiny. I don't say Faulkner was wrong to quit the SWP, or Counterfire; but evidently "don't debate differences" doesn't guarantee against fragmentation.
Debate, however, can lead to groups being convinced by each other, developing a broader view which supersedes the differences, or finding that events have superseded them. It may not, but it can. The forerunners of AWL have brought off three fusions in our time, one in fact with forerunners of Red Flag, and each one depended on lots of preliminary debate and discussion on differences with the people we were fusing with.
Here I'll leave aside many strands of Faulkner's articles which seem wrong to me, and focus on his main counterposition, of a scheme for a mass revolutionary party, which he says should not have democratic centralism, as an answer to the "sectism" of today. Somewhat a "one leap, and Jack was free" answer, it seems to me.
Faulkner is right, I think, when he criticises the "Zinovievist" version of party-building which was promulgated by the Communist International's "Bolshevisation" in 1924-5. That was later congealed into a full bureaucratic system by Stalinists, "read back" into Lenin's writings of 1902-3, and adopted in too-great measure also by anti-Stalinist Trotskyists.
I think what Faulkner has in mind, in terms of lived experience of "Zinovievism", is the typical regime of the SWP. "Zinovievist" that indeed is. He misidentifies, however, where "Zinovievism" came from and exactly what it is.
In the years after the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks and their co-thinkers outside Russia strove to weld effective revolutionary parties out of the disparate elements brought together by the inspiration of the Russian revolution.
They had large chunks of old social-democratic parties, notably in France, where the new Communist Party was in fact the renamed majority of the old Socialist Party, including much of the old parliamentary-oriented SP leadership.
They had conglomerations of small radical socialist groups, notably in Britain.
The majority, in many countries, were young people radicalised around the end of World War 1 and with no political experience.
And there were miscellaneous older figures: the first Communist MP in Britain was Cecil Malone, a former Lieutenant-Colonel, member of the British team at the Versailles peace talks, and Liberal MP, who had been converted to communism by a visit to the USSR in 1919.
The Communist Parties were generally pieced together with much difficulty, and started off as ramshackle assemblies. Bit by bit, from 1918 onwards, the Bolsheviks strove to help them make themselves more coherent.
In 1924-5, after Lenin's death, there was a new turn. Zinoviev, as president of the Comintern, launched a drive for forced-march "Bolshevisation". Picking up on the justified desire of the activists for more effective organisation, he wove it into the frame of a demagogic campaign against "Trotskyism" and "Luxemburgism" and converted it into a drive for bureaucratic control by leaders made and unmade from Moscow.
It was decreed (though not fully enforced until the onset of full Stalinism, which took a good while) that internal "factions" were banned, that debates should take the form of a chase for "deviations", and that the party must appear in public as a monolith, with members duty-bound to pretend to agree with whatever "line" the leaders handed down.
The parties were reshaped on the lines of the increasingly Stalinised ruling party of the USSR, or at best on the lines of the Bolsheviks as they had been forced to improvise things during the civil war.
Essentials of the legacy of the Bolshevik party which had led the 1917 revolution were lost. In that real Bolshevik party, as Pierre Broué well describes it, public dissent and debate, in the frame of discipline for collective activity, were not only a right, but a duty.
Lenin "argued always, bent sometimes, but never renounced the aim of convincing, for it was thus and only thus... that he carried off his victories…
"From Krassin to Bukharin, his comrades will show that for them it was an awful drama of consciousness to take up opposition to Lenin. Nonetheless they did so, for that was a duty, 'the first duty of a revolutionary', he said, the duty of criticising one's leaders; the pupils would not have judged themselves worthy of their master if they did not dare to fight against his views when they thought him wrong.
"Besides, a revolutionary party cannot be built with robots. [Lenin] knew this when he wrote to Bukharin, that if clever men were excluded on the grounds that they were not very disciplined, in order to keep only disciplined fools, the party would be ruined…"
The Bolshevik culture worked against demagogy. The activists knew that effective collective action was necessary, but also how that differed from a "monolithism" impossible unless people did convert themselves into robots.
Workers' Liberty has worked for many years now to practise those pre-revolutionary Bolshevik methods, as best we can, with our limited skills and resources. Neither those methods nor any others guarantee against splits. Nothing can. Indeed, splits are not always undesirable.
But anyone who reads our literature can verify that, at least, our approach has enabled us to deal with many differences within AWL, acrimonious and angry differences too, without splits. We have also advocated those pre-revolutionary Bolshevik methods as a necessary basis for broader left unity, for example in a special issue of Workers' Liberty.
Faulkner, however, seems to identify "Zinovievism" with "democratic centralism".
"Democratic-centralism does not appear to have been a preoccupation of the Russian revolutionary leadership until they were confronted by the enormous challenges represented by civil war, economic and social collapse, and world revolution in the period 1917-23.
"The concept seems to have gained prominence during Zinoviev’s stewardship of the early Comintern (the Third International) between 1919 and 1923, when it was a feature of attempts to pressurise foreign affiliated parties to "Bolshevise'…"
Actually, "Bolshevisation" was in 1924-5. In 1919-23, Zinoviev foisted some documents on the Comintern which foreshadowed later "Bolshevisation", but in the earlier years he was corrected and counterweighted by figures like Trotsky and Radek and Lenin himself, and by a range of formidable and feisty activists from the non-Russian Communist Parties.
The term "democratic centralism" was first coined by the Mensheviks, in 1905-6. They used it to summarise what they had learned, or hoped to learn, from the Jena congress of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD), in September 1905.
SPD organisation had previously been ramshackle and diffuse, partly because of the difficulties of organising anything tighter under the Anti-Socialist Law (banning the SPD) in force from 1878 to 1890. For example, the central SPD office had no files: the office workers continued a practice, learned under the Anti-Socialist Laws, of destroying all correspondence as soon as it was dealt with.
Lenin, commenting on Jena, praised the "tendency towards further, more comprehensive and stricter application of the principle of centralism, the establishment of a stronger organisation".
The left in the SPD, and the Mensheviks, who despite everything tended to identify more with the left in the Second International than with the right, also welcomed the Jena congress's move towards more coherent organisation. They saw it as a move for more effectiveness, and for more collective control over the activities of the SPD's parliamentarians, especially in south Germany, where they notoriously veered to opportunism.
"Democratic centralism" was not a topic of contention among Russian Marxists before 1917, because they all agreed with it, in general. It seemed "obvious". They disputed only over particular applications. The general idea became important as the Communist Parties were assembled after World War 1 because it was a concise way of saying that they must move away from the diffuse, low-activism, parliamentary-focused ways which the old Social-Democratic Parties had fallen into, and towards:
• an activist membership, educated in revolutionary politics and in the duty to debate and dispute differences, so that their organisations would be effective on the wide range of fronts and with the promptness of response they needed, and so that they would have the groundwork of a committed and knowledgeable membership needed to make democracy real
• democratic control over the party's parliamentarians, trade-union officials, and editors. In the old Social-Democratic Parties, those were the parties' main public voices, but they increasingly adapted to their environment, generating an "operational" politics increasingly at odds with the Marxism of the parties' official declarations.
That movement was essential. Its perversion into "Bolshevisation" came later and as a result of incipient Stalinism.
Faulkner is right that the "monolithic" version of "democratic centralism" invites mockery. "What actually happens – in the supposedly democratic-centralist organisations of which so many of us have practical experience?... Does anyone actually get expelled for voting against and then not turning up?"
Of course real democratic centralist organisations don't purge members who are slow and dilatory in activities they've voted against, rather than positively disruptive. They seek to convince them and mobilise them, and often succeed. But Faulkner has the SWP in mind. Many SWP members never turn up to anything very much.
What "democratic centralism" means in the SWP and SP is that the inactive (but compliant) stay "on the books", and those who dissent forcefully get purged. Their caricature of "democratic centralism" is bad for that reason. It doesn't do what real democratic centralism aims to do, that is, forge an educated, activist, effective membership, and exert control over the organisation's members who "win positions".
We've recently seen a big chunk of the SP's top people in the PCS union, which they had dominated for two decades, split off from the SP to adhere to the group around general secretary Mark Serwotka. They have worked in the union's bureaucratic machine for decades. We now see that the union's bureaucratic machine has worked in them, and more effectively.
The SWP has had similar experiences with people they have got into leading positions in the CWU and in the PCS. In the top circles of the NEU now the SWP acts as a left flank for the established leadership. There too we have the union's bureaucratic machine working on the leading SWPers more than the SWPers working effectively within the union machine for the socialist ideals which inspired them as young activists.
It's not easy for a small group to exert control over members who "win positions". We ourselves had trouble enough with members who won not-very -exalted positions as Labour councillors (on left councils) in the early 1980s, and ended up having to expel some and seeing others fall away.
It is hard to develop a good "democratic centralism". But it is essential. Otherwise we will train those who "win positions" in the spirit that they should value the instructions of their revolutionary organisation less than those of the conservative environment.
I won't here go further into the details of Faulkner's discussion of Lenin. He can't and doesn't really deny that Lenin strove for centralisation of the Russian Marxist movement (a difficult thing to achieve with Tsarist repression and poor communications) and gave priority to a regular (centralised) "party" newspaper, which all the "party" members would work to distribute, as a collective propagandist and also a collective organiser.
Faulkner is generally favourable to Lenin, and up to a point he is saying (truly) only that Lenin was not as crudely "centralist" as later myth would have it. On Trotsky, however, Faulkner's own chosen list of "Further Reading" (Duncan Hallas, John Molyneux) suggests he has drawn his ideas from the SWP. That should give him pause.
The SWP, since 1957-8 anyway, has been contemptuous of or dismissive of Trotsky's efforts to build revolutionary organisations in the 1930s as "sectarian" folly. That contempt or hostility has not led to a good, well-educated democratic regime inside the SWP.
Faulkner rightly points to the limitations of one-by-one recruitment to a predefined revolutionary nucleus as a road to an actual revolutionary party. But the SWP has been the prime advocate of that sort of "party-building". Its lack of democratic regime derives from it - from the idea that revolutionary activity is all about building a large enough party "machine", that precise politics don't matter as long as you can "build", and that discussion and debate which might distract from "building" are unaffordable luxuries.
Trotsky, in many writings, outlined an alternative: a perspective of building revolutionary parties in and through a fight to transform the existing mass labour movements, with a process of splits and fusions along the way. Workers' Liberty works for that alternative today.
For Faulkner Trotsky is notable mainly for two "mistakes". "Trotsky’s desperate decision to launch a new party in 1938: the Fourth International... was a grave mistake"; and a further "mistake [was] inherent in the publication of The Transitional Programme in 1938".
In general Faulkner argues that "no organisation of [only] a few thousand members… should be concocting a 'program'…"
Faulkner should be aware that the SWP's hostility to organisations having "programs" (there was some argument about that in the SWP in the 1970s) is more than (reasonable) hostility to pretentiousness and fake grandiosity. It has always been about freeing the SWP leadership to do and say whatever "fits the mood" and helps to "build", without being fettered by statements of principles or documented points of reference.
Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky were not at all fetishists of formal "program" documents, but Faulkner can't really get around the fact that they were frequently concerned to summarise and codify ideas in manifestos, platforms, and so on. The Transitional Program of 1938 was an extended summary, written by Trotsky at a time when he feared (rightly) that he himself might not have much more time to live, of a whole series of such manifestos and platforms, from the good years of the Communist International through the various documents of the Left Opposition and the Movement for a Fourth International.
The Transitional Program contained errors of assessment (on the USSR, and on the possibilities of adaptation of capitalism). And the Fourth International was thrown out of kilter very soon by the 1940 split (over Stalin's invasion of Finland) between "Orthodox" and "Heterodox" Trotskyists, in which Trotsky threw his weight on the ideologically-weaker side. So we think, anyway, and so we have explained in, for example, the Introduction to our book The Fate of the Russian Revolution.
Trotsky and his comrades made mistakes. But if we wait to organise, and to codify ideas, until we are sure not to make mistakes, then we will never move. And that they organised, and tried to codify their ideas: those were not mistakes.
Trotsky argued for formalising the "Movement for the Fourth International" into "the Fourth International" in 1938 because he knew World War was coming soon. He expected (rightly) that the Trotskyist groups would be dispersed, unable to communicate, many of them shattered by repression. He wanted to organise the maximum of cohesion while he could.
He thought that the Fourth International would at least have more cohesion than the Zimmerwald Left in World War 1, and it would have potential to rally mass support towards the end of the war as the revolutionary internationalists had in World War 1. That potential was not realised because the labour movements had been more shattered, ideologically and organisationally, by the 1930s than the labour movements were in World War 1, and because the ruling classes (guided by memories of 1919-23) proved more adroit in reorganising after 1945 than they had after 1918. It does not follow that Trotsky was wrong to strive towards the best possible outcome.
Faulkner describes the launching of the Fourth International as a "desperate decision to launch a new party". But, organisationally, the Fourth International of 1938 was little different from the Movement for the Fourth International of 1936. Should Trotsky not have gone for that, either? What does Faulkner propose instead? That Trotsky should have confined himself to writing books, and made no special effort to pull his co-thinkers together into active and coherent collectives?
In fact, Trotsky had been pushing the rearguard-Bolsheviks to organise into aspirant parties (groups, leagues, etc.), ever since he was exiled from the USSR in 1929 and became able to communicate with them. He put great effort, for example, into helping the rearguard-Bolsheviks in France, previously scattered in different little circles, to come together round a weekly paper and an activist orientation.
He advised Maurice Paz, editor of one of the little Oppositionist publications in France, who wanted to continue with his own "circle" type operation, that he should climb down and work with the "young comrades [who] were completely prepared to give their time, their forces, their means for a weekly paper, and to mobilise others".
"You can have revolutionaries both wise and ignorant, intelligent or mediocre. But you can't have revolutionaries who lack the willingness to smash obstacles, who lack devotion and the spirit of sacrifice".
Faulkner acknowledges that Trotsky "kept alive the real Marxist tradition – the theory and practice of international working-class revolution – through the ‘hell-black night’ of triumphant Stalinism and Fascism". But if Trotsky and his comrades had not kept it alive in an activist sense, as well as in books and archives and Maurice-Paz-type circles, "Trotskyism" would have been just another taste in the late-1920s and 1930s stew of many different "opposition-communist" impulses, most now forgotten. The young Neil Faulkner, when he looked for revolutionary socialist ideas in activist form, would not have found "the real Marxist tradition" available, even in the garbled shape he got from the SWP.
Trotsky explained it well:
"The whole mass will never be mature under capitalism. The different strata of the mass mature at different times. The struggle for the 'maturing' of the mass begins with a minority, with a 'sect', with a vanguard. There is not and cannot be any other road in history". (1939).
"The mass organisations have value precisely because they are mass organisations. Even when they are under... reformist leadership one cannot discount them. One must win the masses who are in their clutches: whether from outside or from inside depends on the circumstance. Small organisations which regard themselves as selective, as pioneers, can only have value on the strength of their programme and of the schooling and steeling of their cadres. A small organisation which has no unified programme and no really revolutionary will is less than nothing, is a negative quantity" (Writings 1935-6 p.294).
Faulkner is even more dismissive of all strands of Trotskyism after Trotsky than he is of Trotsky. "The post-war Trotskyist tradition was formed in the darkness of the 1930s. When it re-emerged in the 1950s, it was stamped with a sectarian character". All was unrelievedly dark and confused, it seems, for almost a century, from Lenin to Faulkner.
The "Orthodox" Trotskyist tradition did acquire sectarian twists, not because it wanted to build parties, but because the unrealism of its theories of Stalinism inescapably gave a "millennial" turn to its thinking. (See The Fate of the Russian Revolution and much else we've written). The "Heterodox" Trotskyist tradition avoided the "millennialism", but, beset by pressures, faded away from activist party-building by the mid or late 1950s, so much so that to rediscover its valuable legacies in the 1990s we had essentially to search in archives rather than connect ourselves with something activist still living.
We have to presume from Faulkner's citations of Hallas and Molyneux that he thinks the SWP/IS tradition is at least a partial exception to his condemnation. But he doesn't say what was good about it, or say what is to be learned from what he must reckon to be its turning-bad. In our view, the SWP/IS actually, and paradoxically, despite its links with the "Heterodox" Trotskyists in the early 1950s, evolved into a sort of "Orthodox" Trotskyism plus quirks and minus the better traits of the better "Orthodox" Trotskyists.
With the Trotskyists of all sorts, the main problem has been theoretical and political errors, miscalculations, aberrations. Politics. Then they lacked the resources to correct the errors, and over time (to varying degrees) they either developed "Zinovievist" regimes which cramped even what their limited human resources could achieve, or faded into passivity.
Faulkner's description of the Trotskyist movement as having been "formed in the darkness of the 1930s [and] re-emerged in the 1950s" oddly omits the 1940s.
In fact, the Trotskyists of different stripes did heroic work in World War 2. Over the 1940s, the Workers Party in the USA produced a wealth of material which there is still much to learn from, and the activity of the "Orthodox" Trotskyists deserves respect too.
Around the end of World War 2, contrary to Faulkner's story of Trotskyists always splitting, they managed in many countries to merge different groups into unified organisations. Those unified organisations, like the PCI in France or the RCP in Britain, managed to be voices for revolutionary Marxism in a political landscape otherwise dominated by Stalinism and cold-war liberalism. They declined and split in the late 1940s and early 50s through impossibly adverse conditions and political perplexity and error, not just generic "sectarianism".
By the 1950s, of course, the Trotskyists were battered, much reduced in numbers, and forced into retreat. In France, for example, the various Trotskyist factions were down to maybe one-tenth of the numbers of their peak around 1946. Unsurprisingly, some groups just disappeared or dwindled into literary circles. The biggest group, the PCI, split in 1952.
We've chronicled in our book The Left in Disarray how ideological malaises incubated in the 1940s and 50s have exploded into a deadly epidemic since the mid-1980s, for example with "absolute anti-Zionism". (Beginnings for it can be found back in the 1940s, but nothing like what has developed since the mid-1980s). With that epidemic of ideological disarray has come an epidemic of splits. The "Zinovievist" regimes, where minorities are obliged in public to pretend to agree with the "line", so have no option but to shut up or split, have made that worse.
We will emerge from this period of splits by a combination of a revival of radicalism in society, and of our own efforts - through debate and discussion in the light of active experience, how else? - to work out an adequate reconstruction of Marxist ideas for today's conditions.
Faulkner is right that smaller groups split more easily than bigger. A minority of even a dozen in a group of only dozens can easily think it can do better by splitting over no more than tactical differences. In a party of thousands, let alone tens or hundreds of thousands, it would bite its lip and wait until it can make its case again in the light of new experience.
Trouble is, that law is not abrogated by the small group foreswearing "program" and debate on "differences". Small discussion groups, or semi-activist circles, are as liable to capricious splitting as small activist groups. Or even more so.
In the small activist group an educated awareness of the "big" ideas we have in common can put annoyances and anger over tactical and personal disputes into perspective. Why stay in a small discussion (or semi-activist) group with those who annoy or anger you, when there is no "big" cause special to that group which will lose out from you splitting?
In the debate on 12 July, I thought Mutiny and Red Flag tended to respond to our advocacy of defined general political ideas (where there probably are disagreements, and we need to discuss) and defined immediate possible common activities by advocacy of "schemes".
These "schemes" were not activities we could do (or even work towards) immediately. Nor were they general ideas we could refine through debate. They were essentially recommendations for other people to do desirable things.
Thus Red Flag have been advocating that NHS workers fight for a 25% pay rise. The existing rank and file coordination agitating for a 15% rise is not good enough, so instead Red Flag propose the "scheme" of a better one. On 12 July they proposed:
• A revived European Social Forum
• Labour movement defence squads against far-right demonstrators (this was proposed as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement)
• Action groups on pay and conditions in workplace ("you don't need to be in a union"), linked up in local cross-workplace committees
None of those are bad "schemes". But none of us - not RF, not Mutiny, not us - is in a position to make them happen. And if we were strong enough to make them happen, it is not at all clear that we would want to adopt those particular "schemes" for the purposes they are meant to serve.
If we had the necessary thousands of members well-embedded in working-class organisations across Europe, we would create a broad cross-European coordination. But why would we label it "European Social Forum"? If we had the workplace implantation to build action groups and coordinating committees across a range of areas, why wouldn't we use that workplace weight to push unions into action?
When I read of the management consultant McKinsey being paid £560,000 by the Tories to deliver a "vision, purpose and narrative" document for their new National Institute for Health Protection, I thought of Red Flag. Alas, the left is not likely to pay RF £560,000 for the advice on "schemes" it offers us. But their "author of schemes" self-positioning in relation to the left and the labour movement eerily echoes that of the "management consultant" to business and government.
And Mutiny? Neil Faulkner told the 12 July meeting that we are in the biggest crisis ever in the history of capitalism, that only a mass revolutionary party will meet the requirements, and so we should not be discussing differences.
But that's a "scheme" as much as RF's new "European Social Forum" is. It's a "management consultant" approach as much as RF's is. Neil Faulkner advises the left and the working class that our "vision, purpose and narrative" must be to build a mass revolutionary party.
"A proclamation is not a party", as Faulkner himself says. And, as Trotsky put it:
"The crisis of the proletarian leadership cannot, of course, be overcome by means of an abstract formula. It is a question of an extremely humdrum process... of [grouping activists] whose number and self-confidence must be constantly strengthened, whose connections with wider sections of the proletariat must be developed and deepened…"
In short: actual common activity. Actual discussion of real differences on "big" politics.
One of the best things about the 12 July meeting was that it was the first time for many years that people from different groups had come together for actual discussion, and with groups which had in the past and might again actually cooperate in campaigns. Let's do more of that. And not think we can jump over it by proposing "schemes" for someone else to leapfrog the difficulties for us.