IS (SWP), Tony Cliff and the Question of the "Revolutionary Party"

Submitted by AWL on 11 May, 2009 - 5:13 Author: Sean Matgamna

“... The year 1919... The entire structure of European imperialism tottered under the blows of the greatest mass struggles of the proletariat in history and when we daily expected the news of the proclamation of the soviet Republic in Germany, France, England, and Italy. The word ‘soviets’ became terrifically popular. Everywhere these soviets were being organised. The bourgeoisie was at its wits’ end. The year 1919 was the most critical year in the history of the European bourgeoisie... What were the premises for the proletarian revolution? The productive forces were fully mature, so were the class relations; the objective social role of the proletariat rendered the latter fully capable of conquering power and providing the necessary leadership. What was lacking? Lacking was the political premise; i.e. cognisance of the situation by the proletariat. Lacking was an organisation at the head of the proletariat, capable of utilising the situation for nothing else but the direct organisational and technical preparation of an uprising. of the overturn, the seizure of power and so forth — this is what was lacking.” (L D Trotsky: The first five years of the Communist International.)

“Events have proved that without a party capable of directing the proletarian revolution, the revolution itself is rendered impossible. The proletariat cannot seize power by a spontaneous uprising. Even in highly industrialised and highly cultured Germany the spontaneous uprising of the workers in November 1918 only succeeded in transferring power to the hands of the bourgeoisie. One propertied class is able to seize the power that has been wrested from another propertied class because it is able to base itself upon its riches, its cultural level, and its innumerable connections with the old state apparatus. But there is nothing else that can serve the proletariat as a substitute for its own party.” (L D Trotsky: Lessons of October.)

The explosion of political discussion in IS ignited by the sudden change of line by Cliff in favour of building the embryo of a “revolutionary party” seemed six months ago to be the most hopeful thing on the British left.

But actually the leadership disavowed none of its past. Cliff said he had always advocated a revolutionary party, and had in fact always been right on the issue. Some of us remembered differently. However, the important question was and is not the meting out of historical Justice — but whether or not a real turn had been made by Cliff and company towards the building of a revolutionary organisation after the model of Bolshevism and the Fourth International.

Democratic centralism was of course impossible given the level of political consciousness, education, and commitment in IS. It was possible (just!) that the leadership intended to carry out a campaign to transform the members and methods of work. This question has in the last four months been answered decisively — in the negative. Those who last autumn were making passionate speeches for “democratic centralism” suddenly switched off the “juice” once formal centralisation had gone through. A merely formal structural change had taken place in IS, necessitated in the eyes of the leaders on technical grounds (1200 to organise!) — see Cliff’s document of June 1968) and presented in their usual style in a suitable demagogic sauce as “Leninist democratic centralism” .

But Leninism is much more than an organisational formula — and blind empirical turns (such as the one which led to the “new line”) are the very antithesis of Leninism. Moreover the leadership became terribly alarmed after the last conference by how seriously some of the members took the demagogy. Whether or not they ever intended other than a change of forms, they have moved noticeably backwards in the last four months, as if startled by their own boldness in having moved forward at all. The group has merely achieved a loosely centralised version of its old self, which doesn’t in any sense approach democratic centralism. The methods of the leadership are adamantly anti-Leninist and remain what they were before the “new turn”.

What are the roots of the crisis? Why are the old leaders so politically mercurial on this question? Why does IS, the numerically most imposing revolutionary group in Britain, need to go through a deep convulsion to even arrive at an agreed conception of the sort of party it must become — or if it should become any sort of party? Those who said “no party” (and reacted in horror and consternation to Cliff’s proposals) were not only new people, but included also hard-core members.

The root of the crisis is that for many years IS has propagated an attitude of hostility to, scepticism regarding, and theoretical rejection of, the idea of building a Leninist revolutionary party, and in particular of the conception of a small revolutionary socialist party functioning in any sort of centralised fashion.

The “old guard” was educated in this view; the recent recruits were in practice educated by the normal mode of functioning of an organisation which drew (and draws) the practical conclusions from this attitude to the Leninist party. The “democratic centralism” proposals created such consternation because they implied an (unacknowledged) repudiation of the old theory and practice of IS. The consternation continues because the leadership in no way changed or wants to change the essence of its approach. In fact it goes along happily with methods legitimate under the old theory but monstrous if one formally accepts the Leninist conception of the party and is nominally trying to lay its foundations. The consternation also continues because many of the members have taken seriously the need for a change in political content as well as form.

But the IS leadership insist on attempting to combine their old methods of operation with the declaration of a formal democratic centralist group (now with much less emphasis) and also with .... the declaration that they haven’t changed their views on the party!

The absence of an explanation by Cliff and Co. of their history and their past zigzags on the party, allied to half-hearted change in forms and the clash of various interpretations of democratic centralism (even within the outlines of general IS politics) results in the present political and organisational confusion and incoherence.

If IS was genuinely changing and the implications of the new formal politics were being effected, then it would be disruptive and muck-raking to make an issue of Cliff’s past views. But in the given situation there is no other way forward. To advance, the theoretical roots of the present situation must first be uncovered: the crisis in IS will be resolved either by a genuine advance to a Leninist organisation, or by a consolidation of the present Cliffite back-sliding and the stabilisation of IS as a better organised centrist group).


In the succession of class societies the changeover from one system to another has taken a number of different forms. European Feudalism arose as a synthesis between the Germanic tribes and the decaying Roman Empire, which had always had an element (the coloni) inside the slave-operated latifundia comparable to feudalism.

The bourgeoisie on the other hand grew up within the womb of feudalism, as part of a developing division of labour inside that society. It was subordinated to the overall rule of society by the feudalists and the absolute monarchists but never as the main exploited class, the source of surplus produce. It was itself an auxiliary participant in that exploitation, a secondary appropriator of the labour of the peasants. It developed organically, slowly ripening within feudalism’s womb, only attacking the feudalists to eliminate all rivalry with and restrictions on itself.

This is true even in the Great French Revolution, where the development of their struggle for power went beyond the aims of the bourgeoisie proper and fell into the hands of the radicals, the Jacobin leaders of that group (the sans-culottes) standing nearest to the modern proletariat. The fact that the bourgeoisie developed their own means of production, their own forms, under the old system meant that they had leisure and the material resources, etc., to generate their own class culture, and the possibility of sufficient education, independent of their feudal rivals, for the ripening of the objective conditions for their assumption of full power to be adequately reflected in their collective consciousness (though not fully rationally or consciously, and often clothed in mystical garb).

Trotsky wrote that he who possesses surplus product possesses the key to the Church, the Arts and the sciences. Before the bourgeoisie’s revolution triumphed they didn’t have the only key — but they certainly had a key. The bourgeoisie as a whole, already within feudalism the possessors of the new means of production, could benefit from a “political” revolution, such as the French or even the English, which was not directly of their doing, not directly in their immediate control.

With the proletariat it is altogether different. It remains a slave class right up to the point of taking power. The economic ripening that creates the necessary preconditions for its assumption of power, the growing socialisation of anarchic individualistic capitalist production, takes place organically when the means of production are still in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The role of the proletariat during this process is that of wage-slaves, the basic exploited class.

(The “degenerated and deformed workers’ states” are a special case, but, without going into details, all revolutionary Marxists agree that the process there will only be completed when the masses of the proletariat take direct power — i.e. make a political revolution, but one with very big “social” effects. It is this which separates the revolutionary Marxists of all the different shades from the Stalinists and all their Deutscherite fellow travellers.)

The super-exploitation of the colonial workers and peasants notwithstanding, even if that exploitation temporarily means an easing of the pressure on the West European and US proletariat, this remains true. In the proletarian revolution, politics dominates. That is, politics is the means for economic emancipation, for the proletariat’s seizure of the means of production.

As the last enslaved class and the first ruling class having no exploited class under it, and standing at the beginning of the transition to classless society, the development of the proletariat presents formerly unknown problems in the question of political consciousness. Because they were politically semi-conscious embodiments of an organic development towards new class society, the bourgeoisie did not need to be clearly, fully, rationally conscious of what they were doing. The English bourgeoisie thought they served the word of God, and the French bourgeoisie thought they served abstract Reason, Liberty, Democracy, Fraternity. No matter: they still blundered their way empirically towards a society which expressed their needs, of which they were only instinctively conscious.

The proletariat has no key to the arts, culture and science. This problem is more serious for the last class in history to establish its own rule than it would have been for the bourgeoisie. For us, consciousness is vital — the conscious participation of the masses of the proletariat based on a clear understanding of what is. No mystification, no blundering for the class that represents the first step of humanity out of class society!

But not only that. The proletariat in capitalist society, without the possibility of developing an independent culture, is not a blank page: inevitably it becomes pervaded with the ideas of the ruling class. Ideological chains buttress and make firm the economic chains that hold them down. This is even more true in times of relative social peace.

The growth and concentration of the means of production create the prerequisite for working class power and also cement and organise the proletariat in gigantic industrial concentrations, in a way impossible, for example, for peasants. The possibility thus exists for a transition to a higher stage, and of the workers taking power. And the tidal movements, the crises inevitable because of the contradictions of capitalism, time after time in different countries propel the workers into the streets in a struggle for power, more or less consciously conducted. This struggle too flows inevitably, organically, from the nature of capitalism.

But it does not result in victory. Victory is not inevitable. As early as the Communist Manifesto the issue is stated clearly. The inevitable class struggle has two possible outcomes transition to a higher stage as a result of the victory of the progressive class, or regression by way of social and economic anarchy and the mutual ruination of the contending classes. Nazi Germany and the present potential of world destruction can leave no doubt about this.

The battle for a favourable outcome from the current class conflict between the bourgeois and the proletarians thus becomes a question of a conscious struggle. Bourgeois society represents a very high level of control and understanding by man of his environment. Thus humanity can begin to understand the laws of that environment — of society — created by all its own history. Certain layers within bourgeois society become aware of the issues, of the true nature of the modern class struggle which dominates Europe and the world now as in the days when Marx and Engels wrote of the haunting spectre of communism.

Paradoxically, it is not the proletariat, the subject of future history, that first becomes conscious of the situation. Not even a section of that class. It is sections of the bourgeois intelligentsia who become aware of the real nature of the molecular processes of society in general and modern society in particular.

It could hardly be otherwise. Understanding of the objective laws of nature (including the laws of society’s development) could only be possible for those with full access to science, the highest of modern sciences, inevitably, bourgeois science: the custodian of that science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia. This is a result of the separation of mental and manual labour in all class society.

By its nature, capitalist society prevents an objective view by the majority of the intelligentsia of their own doomed society. But the development of bourgeois science, particularly up to the mid-decades of the 19th century (while the bourgeoisie was still progressive) still had a portrayal of objective reality at its base, creating the possibility of a new synthesis, Marxism, which embodied the newly discovered laws of social evolution and provided the necessary understanding to enable the proletariat to rise above that crude religious, dreamers’ socialism concocted out of half-remembered elements from its past and hostility to the existing system. Marxism could imbue the social struggles imposed on the proletariat by the movements of society with purpose and comprehension.

The proletariat and its organic movement arise separately from scientific socialism. The “mingling” of the two takes many forms, not all of them conducive to the most positive outcome. The openness of the proletariat to the influence of the science which is in part generalised from its own experience and which expresses its interests is dependent on the ebbs and flows of society. Marxism itself comes under attack, both open and subtle. Attempts are made to tone it down, adulterate it with a wide variety of bourgeois trash, or distort and caricature it.

The proletariat is not a homogeneous class and even in the most favourable conditions only a limited section can become fully conscious. The Communist Manifesto, while pointing out that the communists had no interests apart from the proletariat, also added: “The Communists are, practically, the most progressive and resolute sections of the proletariat of all countries.... They have, theoretically, the advantage over the great mass of the proletariat of understanding the line of advance, conditions and general results of the proletarian movement.”

History, before the rise of the modern proletariat, had evolved a form of the organisation of an advanced section of a class — the political party. The struggle to fuse the spontaneous movement of the working class with the ideas that represent its long term interests must take the form of a struggle for the organisation of the advanced layers of the class into a party that is acutely class-conscious and ideologically clear.

This party will be scientifically conscious and permanently organised for the proletarian class struggle. It will be the regular army of a class which can only approach revolutionary consciousness en masse in sharp periods of crisis, and even then not permanently, scientifically.

It must be militant on all three fronts of the class struggle: the economic, the political, and the ideological. Here it must defend revolutionary Marxism and combat the ideology that springs up in the working class movement under bourgeois influence.

The party must be so organised and disciplined that it can fulfil its role of skeletal cadre structure of the proletarian class in all its struggles, linking and co-ordinating the various aspects of the struggle. If it is to fulfil its tasks the party must fight continuously, consciously, to perfect itself, subordinating its organisational form to the tasks imposed by the rigorous nature and course of the struggle.

Not only must it fight vigorously against the bourgeoisie in the front line of the class struggle, but also against those inside or close to its own ranks who represent the class enemy or bend under its pressure. Indeed, its ability eventually to overthrow the bourgeoisie will depend on a successful prosecution of the fight against all vacillation and all accommodation to the established order. This party will conduct the struggle of the proletariat in a militant spirit — to win.

We exist in a country where all the interactions of the material environment have produced a peculiar type of workers’ organisations: the trade unions and their political equivalent, reformism, bargaining within the bourgeois political set-up as an organic part of the system. The British labour movement grew up spontaneously like plants growing chaotically in an untended garden. Its history is a series of zigzags, at one time lurching to over-emphasis of the “political” front of the struggle, then fetishising the economic struggle — and with a general, almost complete neglect of the struggle on the ideological front.

Bolshevism, on the other hand, was born in the virgin territory of Russia; it was consciously built by revolutionaries who drew on the immense experience of the west European proletariat, including the negative aspects of this experience — opportunism and its rationale, revisionism. Bolshevism was the alternative type of labour movement to the apparently imposing but actually chaotic and fragmented organisations of Western Europe. Its essential basis was a conception, following Engels, of the class struggle as a unity of three fronts, with the party as the consciousness and skeletal structure of the class in the various stages of the movement, co-ordinating the various aspects of what was essentially the same struggle.

Lenin’s point about the ideological battle-front being decisive can really be understood when we realise that the tremendous energy and decades-long activity of the British working class have resulted in no basic political gains, and the economic victories are built on shifting sand. The British working class, left to spontaneity, through a peculiar combination of historical circumstances, has been utterly defeated ideologically. And this has conditioned everything else.

On the ideological front we are the warriors of the proletariat. We wage the fight for the merging of Marxism with the spontaneous struggles of our class. And not only do we “mingle” an existing Marxism. Our primary possession, lying at the base of all the developed ideas of Marxism, and the progenitor of all future developments of the theory in line with reality, is the Marxist method. We must understand the dialectics of development. There is a necessary interaction and possible enrichment of the developing struggles by Marxism and of Marxism by the developing reality. Lenin said it very well: theory divorced from practice is sterile, and practice divorced from theory is blind.

We are faced not with a fresh proletariat as were the Bolsheviks, but with one that has a long history and is encrusted with a definite set of organisations. In every sense it is the victim of the conjunction of its own ideologically and politically blind activity and the relatively conscious bourgeois system. Without the class we are impotent; the class without Marxism is doomed to defeat, however magnificent its strivings in crisis periods, however glorious its struggles. The Spanish revolution of 1936-7 proved that conclusively. If October 1917 was the positive demonstration of the need for a new type of workers’ party, then the betrayal and defeat of the heroic Spanish workers — equal in their spontaneous activity to the Russian workers — teaches the same lesson negatively.

The experience of the working class in Russia, Germany and Spain led the Trotskyist movement (as earlier the Communist international) to declare that only the construction of democratic centralist parties, fully grounded on the theory and practice of Marxism and Leninism, could lead the class to power. It denounced those who said there could be an absolute maturity of the working class which would lead to an automatic transition to power. The most magnificent risings in Germany, Spain (and to some extent Britain) had been led to frustration and defeat by the working classes’ own conservative and bureaucratic labour-movement apparatus. The fight therefore was to overcome the “crisis of leadership” in the working class — to create parties that would embody the historical interests of the working class.

This is our task: this task will be completed or the working class in the future will go down to defeat in Britain as in Europe. There must be no equivocation. No easy, false optimism. The issues must be stated clearly. The outcome of the future battles will only be a working-class victory if the advanced layers of the working class can organise themselves into a class conscious Marxist party.

Leadership arises within parties and classes because of unevenness of development; not all people have got the same training, the same experience, the same inclination, the same drive. We, when we develop a revolutionary party, aspire to have that party as a whole, as an organism, function as the leadership of the class. Within the party, there is a repetition of the unevenness. Here too unevenness of development means sharp differences in consciousness, political understanding and above all in serious commitment to the preparation for the proletarian revolution: certain people emerge who embody the best — the consciousness, the drive, the organisational propensities, necessary to the party. And of course there is a “hierarchy” down to branch level. Even where (for instance in anarchist groups) leadership is regarded as original sin, it can be seen how, de facto, certain people dominate, either generally or in particular fields.

Unlike the anarchists. Bolsheviks recognise this. For us, consciousness is the vital spark, the beginning, and this means not only recognition that leadership will evolve but that leadership, the most conscious political centre, is the most important element. We recognise that specialisation and concentration develop people, that only by such serious revolutionary leadership can the revolutionary party keep abreast.

For us, leadership is not an evil — we frankly recognise that in this period of unevenness of development generally, there must be a division of function a delegation of authority, and this must be on the basis of ability. History shows the need for a special type of revolutionary proletarian party, organised in a special way. Let those who want guarantees from history shudder in fear lest a highly centralised party aid “degeneration” in an unfavourable future: the organisation of single cells into multi-cellular bodies gave rise to the phenomenon of death. It also made life as we know it possible.

For us in politics the Bolshevik party is like the body. It has the advantage that degeneration is only possible in certain highly unfavourable conditions. And modern history shows that no Bolshevik-type party in times of crisis means no revolutionary life for the proletariat.

Side by side with the vulgar mechanical ideas of the Militant group [forerunner of the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal] — ideas which amount to crude determinism — we have the necessary concomitant: the implied idea of a full ripening of the working class. This leads to the practice of passive waiting for this ripening; which in turn leads to a disparagement of the role of conscious activity and of the Bolshevik combat party. There are people who explore this attitude theoretically and appear to believe in some absolute ripeness.

There are those who look back over the past 50 years and say: The workers were defeated — which proves “immaturity”. Capitalism has developed tremendously since 1919, despite sharp and very costly tribulations, including World War 2. It has given birth to a virtual second Industrial Revolution, despite all the continuing contradictions: according with Marx’s axiom that no social system disappears until all the productive forces contained within it are exhausted, this proves that capitalism could not possibly have been overthrown.”

Those who take this line belong neither by temperament nor outlook to the work of preparing the proletarian revolution; at best they can be well-wishers and describers of a process. In no case can they join or build an organisation that proposes to march boldly onto the highway of history and play an active part.

They also distort history. They confuse and reverse cause and effect The west European workers have not failed to take power because capitalism mystically contained within itself hidden seeds of future development, these seeds being protected by some guardian God even in times when capitalism was prostrate. No. Rather, capitalism continues because the working class, impelled by the monstrous convulsions of capitalism revolted and were betrayed and delivered up to the reactionary butchers by their own renegade apparatus.

Neither was it that the degeneration in the USSR inevitable because the revolution itself was a world-historic accident hopelessly premature and inescapably doomed, with the degeneration being aided and speeded by the structure of the Bolshevik Party. Rather, it was that the absence of such democratic centralist Marxist parties in the west, able to fight the bureaucratic labour-movement apparatus that was the product within the European labour movement of the past era of conservative accommodation to the status quo, that ruined the European revolution, and left the successful revolution in Russia in isolation to degenerate and sink into the backward Russian mud.

That capitalism could pick itself up again, in time, out of the troughs that have included the betrayed and defeated proletarian revolts, is to be explained by the nature of capitalism itself. It experiences periodic booms and slumps, expressions of its inner contradictions. Beginning in 1914, the continued existence of the capitalist system was in question; but the very depth of the crisis and wars, their social wastage, played the same role for the capitalist system as the earlier, smaller blood-lettings, the slumps, which cleared the way for a new boom each time.

That this also meant a continual, indeed very rapid, development of technology is also in the nature of capitalism. At the cost of proletarian blood and degradation, capitalism has survived and sometimes “prospered” in the last 40 years. It is difficult to think of a likely situation of inexorable crisis out of which capitalism, the most dynamic system ever, couldn’t possibly survive.

But side by side with this, the recurrence of crises where the overthrow of the system becomes again possible is an inevitability. The revolutionary party, and its development, are the key. Those who deny the primary importance of creating a combat party work against the creation of that force which will be decisive for victory even in the most favourable circumstances.

The task now is to build a serious cadre organisation, an embryonic Bolshevik party, as the immediate concrete step in the fight to reorganise the British labour movement.

What is the party that we aim to build? Is it just an accidental sum of individuals who agree to propagate a common view of what should happen in the future? Or is it qualitatively different from what usually passes for a group or a party? We think it is. Let us examine it.

The democratic centralist party is conceived as an active, functioning organism. It is not a casual conglomeration of individuals and of so much democracy, so much centralism added up — but an organic fusion of these things into a higher unity. Each member is a cell, and there can be no dead, inactive cells. This aspect is absolutely vital both for centralised activity and for full democracy. A combat party, strongly organised, can have no dead wood; its function is to prepare, organise and fight the class struggle; it is an army on the march; its measure must be its will and ability to respond to events decisively and sharply.

This means that the central leadership, democratically elected and controlled, must be in full position, having been appointed as the highest active consciousness, to give directives which are binding. To do this effectively it must know exactly what resources are available — and where. Unless it knows as near as possible what forces it can muster, then even an approximate calculation (to be submitted to the test of practice) is not possible. Bolshevik-type activity is not possible. Centralism demands an active membership.

Democracy also demands an active membership. Inactive members, dead cells, poison a living organism — and they certainly poison a living Bolshevik organisation’s democratic life. Only an organisation with a fully active membership can be fully and consistently democratic. Look at all the organisations of the labour movement: some members are active, the majority are not. The leadership is only there by default and, through cliquism, is self perpetuating. Differences in experience in organisations where only some members arc active allow some groups to dominate, allow the passive members to be manipulated. How can passive members be directly involved enough, be sufficiently in tune, to appreciate all the issues?

The function of a democratic centralist party is to usher in the future. In the matter of an active membership it must ante-date that future. The bane of working class organisations is that the pressure of daily life under capitalism for the workers prevents full interest, full activity on their own behalf — even where formal democracy exists. Lenin after the revolution proposed an immediate shortening of the working day, irrespective of the economics involved, because he saw this block on working-class self-activity as a terrible barrier. We can observe its effects in the unions and Labour Party now...

The revolutionary Bolshevik party, co-existing here and now with all the pressures of capitalism, must yet if it is to perform its function overcome the pressures sufficiently to enable it to have an active membership and a conscious democratic life. We must be able, by our consciousness of our responsibilities, to create such conditions for ourselves, ahead of the masses of the class, or we will never lead that class out of wage-slavery. Only those who seriously devote their lives to socialism, who organise their lives around the single purpose of fighting for and with the class, can be revolutionary socialists of the vanguard.

This is a hard logic, but one imposed by an equally hard reality. And it is this reality, with its tremendous pressures dragging us down to accommodation with

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.