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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy

Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy

Ben Lewis and Tom Riley with Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 47 | June 2012

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording]

On March 31, 2012, the Platypus Affiliated Society invited Ben Lewis of the Communist Party of Great Britain and Tom Riley of the International Bolshevik Tendency to speak on the theme of “Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy” at the 2012 Platypus International Convention held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The original description of the event reads as follows: “The occasion for this panel is, in part, Pham Binh’s recent critique of Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, which was circulated on the web and published in the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Weekly Worker, and the responses in on-going debate by Paul LeBlanc and Paul D’Amato. This panel discussion is to be focused on political tasks of the Left in the present (especially after the emergence of #Occupy) in light of the history of Marxism and Lenin’s place in it. Specifically, the present paralysis or rearguard character of the Marxist Left, as well as the preponderance of anarchist political sentiments, need to be addressed in light of Lenin’s mixed and highly contentious legacy: What is to be done with Lenin?” What follows is an edited transcript of the event. A full audio recording is available online at <>.


Chris Cutrone: Our third panelist, Pham Binh, had an emergency and is unable to attend. I will introduce briefly the topic for this panel, and then I will try to represent the most recent instantiation of Pham Binh’s critique of the International Socialist tradition’s—the International Socialist Organization (ISO)’s in the U.S. and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)’s in Britain—interpretation of Lenin. I am going to try to represent how Binh has articulated his interest in raising this issue in the context of #Occupy.

The title of this panel is “Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy.” The occasion for this is Pham Binh’s recent critique of Tony Cliff’s multi-volumed biography of Lenin, originally written in the 1970s. This critique by Binh was circulated on the web, first on Louis Proyect’s blog The Unrepentant Marxist, and then republished in the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Weekly Worker.[1] Several responses and an ongoing debate have taken place, conducted by representatives of the ISO, namely, Paul LeBlanc, a scholar of this period in the history of Marxism, and Paul D’Amato, a leading member of the ISO.

In Pham Binh’s absence, let me represent what he had to say about why he has been motivated since last summer, before the emergence of #Occupy, but also through the experience of participating in #Occupy, and, then, the quiescent period of #Occupy during the winter, to return to a project of critiquing Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, and specifically the International Socialists’ tradition of interpretation of Lenin since the 1970s. In his most recent article, he states that the question of politics, of political party, and of political form, has been raised by #Occupy. He interprets Lenin not as a vanguardist in the sectarian sense, in the sense of a political organization that acts as the vanguard for the movement; rather, he interprets Lenin as very much concerned with political form. #Occupy is, for Binh, such a political form: #Occupy is a vanguard of democratic struggle and the struggle against capitalism, to achieve socialism.

In that respect, this reinterpretation of Lenin has also found expression elsewhere, namely, Lars Lih’s retranslation and reinterpretation of What is to be Done?,[2] as well as his more recently published political biography of Lenin;[3] also, in some of the work done around the CPGB in terms of looking at Lenin’s relationship to 2nd International Marxism, the Kautskyan conception of Marxism and the party.

The other point that I would make, that Binh doesn’t raise but that I think is important with respect to Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, is looking back to the 1970s, because I think it bears on the question of #Occupy. If we think about the 2008 crisis and its ramifications in similar terms to the crisis of the 1970s, then we must recognize that this Tony Cliff International Socialist tradition made a deliberate turn in the 1970s, away from how they conceived their Marxism in the 1960s as a kind of “Luxemburgism,” and shifted in the 70s to an avowed “Leninism.” Cliff himself, in taking up this multi-volume biography of Lenin in the 70s, was motivated by a renewed currency and relevance of Lenin that was widely shared. In the 1970s, there was a Marxist-Leninist turn, there was a growth of Maoism, as well as of Trotskyism; there was a “return to Leninism.” The difference in the post-2008 moment is the conspicuous absence of the currency and relevance of Lenin.

Leninism: “Irreconcilable ideological demarcation”[4]

Tom Riley: We are indeed living in peculiar times: The Marxist critique of the irrationality of production for profit is powerfully vindicated on a daily basis. “Capitalism” has become a dirty word, and the popular legitimacy of the existing social order is as low as it has ever been since the 1930s. Yet the organized Left has never been weaker in terms of numbers, influence, and the ability to project a vision of a plausible alternative to the endless horrors of the “free market.” This is clearly a very contradictory situation.

We believe that the struggle to politically rearm the Left and lay the basis for a resurgent revolutionary workers’ movement must begin by assimilating the essential lessons—both positive and negative—of the generations of militants who have preceded us. Above all this means studying the lessons of October 1917, the only successful workers’ revolution in history.

Let me begin with what I think is the bottom line: the essential precondition for the success of the Bolshevik Revolution was recognizing the necessity to split the workers’ movement. That is, for revolutionaries to organize themselves separately from opportunists, centrists, and reformists.

James P. Cannon, the best communist leader America has produced so far, contrasted Lenin’s role with two other revolutionary giants, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg:

Trotsky’s greatest error, the error which Trotsky had to recognize and overcome before he could find his way to unity with Lenin, was his insistence that the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks had to unite….Lenin’s policy was vindicated in life. Lenin built a party, something that Luxemburg was not able to do with all her great abilities and talents; something that Trotsky was not able to do precisely because of his wrong estimation of the Mensheviks.[5]

Trotsky explicitly acknowledged this in the first chapter of his 1929 book, The Permanent Revolution:

I believed that the logic of the class struggle would compel both [Bolshevik and Menshevik] factions to pursue the same revolutionary line. The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purpose of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party.[6]

Trotsky was a bit slow to absorb that lesson. He had been in the movement a long time by 1917 when he finally came around to Leninism. But once he learned it he never forgot it. The Left Opposition, which he led and which alone upheld the political heritage of Bolshevism through the Stalinist nightmare, was built on the basis of always putting "program first."

Lenin’s conception from relatively early on was that a revolutionary organization should be composed exclusively of revolutionaries, i.e. people who understood and agreed with the Marxist program and were prepared to act in a disciplined fashion to carry it out. The famous split at the 1903 RSDLP [Russian Social Democratic Labor Party] Congress between Menshevik “softs” and Bolshevik “hards” over this question prefigured the eventual division over whether to support or overthrow Kerensky and his bourgeois provisional government in 1917.

The Leninist conception of “democratic centralism” is based on full freedom of discussion internally—including the right to modify the program and change the leadership. That is the “democratic” part. The “centralist” element involves the duty of all members to carry out the decisions of the majority—even those decisions that they personally may not agree with—until they win a majority and can change them.

Some people, including the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), who consider themselves Leninists, think it is fine for members to disagree with each other in public. The CPGB has the unique distinction of claiming the Leninist tradition while also embracing “the renegade Kautsky.” Lenin derided this kind of “broad church” approach as “swamp-building.” We agree with him, but to each their own. The comrades of the CPGB are certainly welcome to Kautsky as far as we are concerned.

Of course we are here because of the ripples caused by comrade Pham Binh’s critique of the first volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin. Cliff was neither a great writer nor an outstanding historian, and his book would be of little interest except for the fact that he was the leader of the International Socialist Tendency, an organization which no one could accuse of ever putting “program first.”

Cliff deserted the Trotskyist movement in 1950 when, under the pressure of the Cold War, he refused to defend North Korea (and Red China) against military attack by the U.S. and various other imperialist powers and their vassals. For most of the next two decades the International Socialism Group (IS) was buried in Britain’s social-democratic Labour Party, during which time (in 1959) Cliff published a study of Rosa Luxemburg that provides some insight into his group’s politics at the time. Cliff applauded Luxemburg’s notion, developed prior to the experience of the Bolshevik Revolution, that somehow the working class could more or less spontaneously overthrow capitalism and wield state power without any sort of general staff to provide leadership.

For most of her active political life Luxemburg operated as the leader of a small revolutionary faction within the mass reformist German Social Democratic Party. In contrasting this model with Lenin’s, Cliff concluded: “For Marxists, in advanced industrial countries, Lenin's original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s.”[7] By 1968, when the IS got around to reprinting the book, Lenin was more in vogue, so the offending passage was simply excised without any explanation. That is not how serious Marxists operate, but it is typical of Cliff and the political tendency he created.

While there is much to object to in Cliff’s biography of Lenin, for the most part comrade Binh and I do not share the same criticisms. I do not agree, for example, with his assertion that the original 1903 split with the Mensheviks had no particular importance. For those who may not have read his critique I will quote from it:

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.[8]

When I read this I was astounded. I could not imagine how anyone could dismiss the split with the Mensheviks so lightly. When I went back and checked Lenin’s account in Left-Wing Communism, which Binh used to back up his claim, I discovered the following passage in the fifth paragraph of the second chapter:

As a current of political thought and as a political party, Bolshevism has existed since 1903. Only the history of Bolshevism during the entire period of its existence can satisfactorily explain why it has been able to build up and maintain, under most difficult conditions, the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat.[9]

A little further on Lenin writes,

On the one hand, Bolshevism arose in 1903 on a very firm foundation of Marxist theory. The correctness of this revolutionary theory, and of it alone, has been proved, not only by world experience throughout the nineteenth century, but especially by the experience of the seekings and vacillations, the errors and disappointments of revolutionary thought in Russia….On the other hand, Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through fifteen years of practical history (1903–17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience.[10]

This suggests that Lenin viewed 1903 as somewhat significant.

The first section of the third chapter (which comrade Binh specifically cited) is entitled “The Years of Preparation for Revolution: 1903 to 1905.” I would like to read a few sentences from this:

Representatives of the three main classes, of the three principal political trends—the liberal-bourgeois, the petty-bourgeois-democratic (concealed behind “social-democratic” and “social-revolutionary” labels), [Here the editors of the Marxist Internet Archive comment: “The reference is to the Mensheviks (who formed the Right and opportunist wing of Social-Democracy in the R.S.D.L.P.), and to the Socialist-Revolutionaries.”] and the proletarian-revolutionary [i.e., the Bolsheviks]—anticipated and prepared the impending open class struggle by waging a most bitter struggle on issues of programme and tactics. All the issues on which the masses waged an armed struggle in 1905–07 and 1917–20 can (and should) be studied, in their embryonic form, in the press of the period.[11]

Lenin is quite clearly asserting that the fight between these three trends posed “all the issues” of the subsequent revolutionary struggles of 1905 and 1917 and that they “can (and should) be studied in their embryonic form, in the press of the period,” i.e., in the polemics against the Mensheviks that begin in 1903.

Comrade Binh is similarly mistaken in his assessment that Cliff’s treatment of Lenin’s seminal work, What is to be Done, is “unremarkable” apart from a suggestion that Lenin may have bent some of the party rules now and then for factional purposes. In fact what is “remarkable” was Cliff’s claim that Lenin’s book displayed a “mechanical juxtaposition of spontaneity and consciousness” because he asserted that through their own isolated experiences workers can only develop trade-union consciousness, which, as Lenin explains, is a form of bourgeois consciousness. This is why it is necessary to struggle to bring the workers’ movement “under the wing of the revolutionary” party. Cliff takes this as evidence that Lenin “assumed that the party had answers to all the questions that spontaneous struggle might bring forth. The blindness of the embattled many is the obverse of the omniscience of the few.”[12]

Binh may not find that “remarkable,” but I do, particularly from someone claiming to be writing some sort of manual on Leninism. Cliff’s philistine remark is an attack on the entire Bolshevik conception of the relationship between the conscious revolutionary vanguard and the mass of the “class in itself.” It is textbook anarcho/social-democratic anti-Leninism. Cliff’s organic hostility to What is to be Done? is hardly accidental: Lenin’s whole book is a polemic against opportunists who adapt their politics to whatever illusions are currently popular. Lenin called such people “tailists” and the International Socialists provide a perfect contemporary example.

When Cliff’s book first appeared, Bruce Landau, a disaffected former IS-er, published a stimulating and incisive critique in which he identified a series of critical errors by Cliff: failure to grasp Lenin’s analysis of “Economism;”[13] misrepresentation of the reasons for launching Iskra; and misreading the significance of both the 1903 split and the 1905 turn to mass worker recruitment—which Cliff mistakenly described as Lenin’s “correction” of his earlier conception of a party of professional revolutionaries.

Another work that came out around the same time, which dealt with Cliff in passing, was Lenin and the Vanguard Party by Joseph Seymour, the leading intellectual of the then-revolutionary Spartacist League. We consider this pamphlet to be an extremely valuable study of the origins and development of Bolshevism and have posted it to our website.[14]

I found Lars Lih’s commentaries on the discussions at the 1905 congress and the 1912 Prague conference to be among the more informative contributions to the discussions of Binh’s critique of Cliff. Contrary to comrade Binh, the Prague conference is generally seen as marking the point of no return for any prospect of a Bolshevik/Menshevik reunification, although, as Seymour observed:

Even before 1912, the Bolsheviks were essentially a party, rather than a faction, because Lenin would refuse to act as a disciplined minority under a Menshevik leadership. The Menshevik leaders, including Plekhanov, reciprocated this attitude. Unity with the numerically small “pro-Party” Mensheviks did not challenge Lenin’s leadership of the party as he reconstructed it at the Prague Conference.[15]

Comrade [Ben] Lewis and I briefly discussed the 1912 conference last night and I was rather surprised to discover that we could agree that, from that point onward, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks maintained separate underground apparatuses, leaderships, finances and publications (with sharply divergent political positions on most issues). The only thing they shared was a name—the RSDLP. To my mind that signifies that they constituted two separate and distinct organizations. Comrade Lewis draws a different conclusion which he will no doubt explain shortly.

Finally, I want to comment on what comrade Binh sees as the inevitability of bureaucratic degeneration in groups with a democratic-centralist organizational structure. I think he is mistaken. There have been groups which operated within that framework for decades that maintained democratic internal regimes. I would cite the American Trotskyist movement led by James P. Cannon from the 1920s to the 1960s as an example of a group that operated in an essentially democratic fashion, where dissident points of view could get a hearing and minority rights were respected. I believe there are other examples as well.

In the decade between the launch of Iskra and the 1912 conference, the Bolshevik faction evolved from a revolutionary social-democratic formation (inspired by the German social democracy led by Kautsky) into an embryonic revolutionary combat party. Along the way a few sticks were bent, some doors were slammed, voices were raised and harsh words exchanged. Lenin undoubtedly made some mistakes and got some things wrong. But he had a pretty good record of correcting his errors and probably came as close as anyone has to “combining theory and practice to perfection”—a phrase in comrade Cliff’s book that Binh found objectionable. The simple fact is that Lenin’s party succeeded where every other attempt has failed. That was no accident—and I submit that we all have a great deal to learn from that experience.

Breaking with the Cold War consensus[16]

Ben Lewis: I would like to preface my remarks with a quote that neatly sums up where we currently are in terms of the debate around the 1912 Prague conference, the 6th Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party: “Prague party conference. Bolsheviks constitute themselves an independent Marxist party….The party strengthens itself by purging its ranks of opportunist elements — that is one of the maxims of the Bolshevik Party, which is a party of a new type fundamentally different from the social democratic parties of the Second International.”[17]

Stalin and Zinoviev

Many on today’s far Left share this view. Worryingly, however, the quote is from Joseph Stalin. Moreover, this is not the Stalin of 1912, when, like all other leading Bolsheviks, he vehemently denied that they were out to constitute themselves as a single party. No, it is Stalin from his Short course of 1938, a text in which he is quite patently rewriting and falsifying the history of the RSDLP for his own particular purposes. Of course, the reason Stalin has to reinvent party history is to justify his monolithic party regime: in 1912 the Bolsheviks created a party of one faction, i.e., a party of no factions at all. Further, Stalin argues that creating such a single-faction party had always been Lenin’s plan since the RSDLP’s 2nd Congress in 1903. While on occasion the Bolsheviks had sought rapprochement and even unity with the Mensheviks and others, essentially this was a kind of trick, a concealment of the Bolsheviks’ true aims and a way of influencing (duping?) the supporters of such groups—or at least that was what this version drives us to conclude. Never mind the fact that Lenin had a Menshevik chairing the Prague conference!

Lars Lih has also dug up an extremely revealing comment by Zinoviev a few years earlier. In 1933, looking back to 1912, Zinoviev wrote: “I don’t know why the records of the Prague conference have not yet been published. I think they’ve survived and, I’m pretty sure, in quite detailed form.”[18] (These comments were not published at the time.)

The records of the Prague conference of 1912 did not emerge until 1982, when the academic historian, Carter Elwood, discussed them in an article entitled “The art of calling a party conference.” Looking back, we can obviously answer Zinoviev’s question: Publishing the records would have completely undermined the Stalinist myth. And we all know what informed these attempts to reinvent Bolshevik history: Three years later Zinoviev was murdered in cold blood.

Interestingly, according to Lars Lih, Elwood’s 1982 analysis, as well as that of his recent book, The Non-Geometric Lenin, overlap with the Stalinist falsification thesis. Perhaps this should be of little surprise. For Elwood, after all, there are two kinds of Lenin: the human being who liked hiking through the mountains and enjoyed a glass of beer afterwards, and the geometric Lenin—that is to say, the cold, factional operator, the calculator and political manipulator. Thus, as is often the case with Lenin studies, a cozy consensus emerges between bourgeois academic historians and the far left: What Lars Lih has deemed the “academic” and “activist” interpretations of Lenin.

For academic historians, many of whom were nicely funded by the Hoover Institute for their troubles, this interpretation of events proves that Lenin was a liar and manipulator. For the Left—particularly the Stalinists—it proves that Lenin was an unrivalled leader and skilled “stick-bender,” as Tony Cliff might have put it. I think that recent scholarship, not just from Lars, but from others locating Lenin’s views in the context of Second International Marxism, is helping us to move beyond such a cultish Lenin. But, as I shall argue, I also think that the left has not quite taken on board some of the new insights and understandings. This is also true of 1912, although it would seem that the ball has started to roll.

Why does this matter?

Some might think that agonizing over the exact course of events at a conference that took place just over a century ago is of little relevance to the tasks of the Left today. Fiddling while Rome, or Athens, burns. But Marxism is, or should be, deeply historical. Getting out of the mess the far left is currently in, or at least thinking about how to get out of that mess, requires a rigorous interpretation of our own history—warts and all.

It is undoubtedly the case that we still live in the gloomy shadow of what passed itself off as "communism" and "socialism" in the 20th century. This is not only true of how the majority of people perceive our movement today, but also of our own ideas and alternatives. The 20th century saw an enormous defeat for the working class movement internationally, and this has manifested itself in a crisis of working class politics. We must confront this crisis openly, boldly, and honestly—the only way we can seek to rearticulate the political project of Marxism as a viable alternative to capitalist decline.

Yet some of the material that is being uncovered in the course of the discussion on 1912 is revealing. In many ways those of us who call ourselves “Bolsheviks,” “Leninists,” and “Trotskyists” do so on the basis of a cold war caricature, a Stalinoid misrepresentation of the organization that was able to lead the masses to power in 1917. Given the subordinate position of the working class in society, and the general confusion that surrounds us as a result of our defeats and setbacks, perhaps this is no surprise.

Yet such a conception of “Bolshevism” directly feeds into some of the real, concrete problems we face today, not least in the proliferation of competing sect regimes and outfits. Stalinists and Maoists, for example, can justify the existence of their monolithic organizations on the basis of Stalin’s arguments about 1903 and 1912. Similarly, many Trotskyist groups will deploy such arguments as a way of clamping down on public dissent and factionalizing—witness, for example, how comrades on the Left usually refer to internal discussion and debate. Apparently, most left groups have a very healthy internal regime. But how would anybody on the Left, let alone in the working class more generally, know unless they join?

The necessary concomitant of this form of so-called “Bolshevik” organization is splits, disillusionment, and fragmentation, not partyist unity. Moreover, the slight resurgence in anarcho-libertarian ideas recently can be partly explained by the existence of bureaucratic centralist regimes claiming the mantle of “Bolshevism.” If that is “Bolshevism,” so many anarchists reason, then we want nothing to do with it. Again, the result is further fragmentation and strategic disorientation/valorization of spontaneous struggle, as opposed to political strategy.

Basing ourselves on this kind of toy-town Bolshevism, the Left today is rendered near impotent in the face of enormous historical tasks and challenges. We cannot seriously unite anyone because we cannot unite ourselves. There are various forms of latent and actual resistance against the effects of the capitalist crisis, but at present we are collectively failing to offer anything viable, practical, or inspirational.

More fundamentally, the question of the party form, the kind of party regimes we fight for and organize around today, cannot be separated from the kind of society we are trying to build, the way we conceive working class rule. For us in the CPGB, revolution must be the conscious act of the majority of the population, aware of what they are doing, why they are doing it, and able to organize if that plan is not sufficiently being carried out or being undermined. The degeneration of the Bolshevik Party, along with the retreat and defeat of the Russian Revolution itself, underlines this basic point. In order to rule, the working class needs democracy at all levels of society. It certainly could not exercise political power through the kind of bureaucratic centralist regimes that are features of the Left and held up as “Bolshevism.” Hence the importance of this discussion: it is certainly not a “waste of ink.”

Moving forward

As I mentioned before, recent scholarship has taken some great strides in terms of understanding the history and evolution of Lenin and the Bolsheviks: firstly with 1903 and now with 1912. Many on the Left have quite rightly applauded the efforts of those like Lars Lih. But I think we have not taken on board what implications these insights have for our own practice. For example, when I watched the Socialist Workers Party’s John Molyneux debate Lars at Marxism back in 2008, I heard Molyneux say something along the lines of “This is a great book for students of Russian history who want to prove that Lenin does not lead to Stalin, but cannot quote a non-academic source like Tony Cliff.”[19]

But, while Molyneux may not think so, we are gradually beginning to understand the context of the emergence of Bolshevism—namely in the Second International—and we are beginning to see that Bolshevism was a mass phenomenon, aimed at merging the workers’ movement with a program for society as a whole, not just for issues directly affecting the working class. Fundamentally, this meant fighting for the “light and air” of political freedom, leading other classes to challenge for state power. The class unity required for such a momentous task was based around the acceptance of a Marxist program, not agreement. This was a crucial distinction, and informed the partyist democracy which the Bolsheviks upheld. Unity did not, as in many left groups today, revolve around philosophical or historical agreement, but political commitment: Unity in action and freedom of discussion.

This led to robust political debate and discussion both between the competing factions of the RSDLP and within the Bolshevik faction itself: Electoral tactics, the national question, the question of a second revolution in April 1917 etc., are all noteworthy examples. This conception of the party is often portrayed as one “of the whole class,” but this is just a tired repetition of arguments made back in 1977–78 by Joseph Seymour in his Lenin and the Vanguard Party. This view implies that anybody could be allowed into a revolutionary party, and that this was the major flaw of so-called “Second International Marxism.”

But this is simply untenable—it was the program that decided. For example, the Second International was formed on the basis that all those who rejected class political action, like the syndicalists, were automatically ruled out. Moreover, those who broke with the basic programmatic outlook of the Second International were expelled, e.g., the “governmental socialist,” Alexandre Millerand. The Bund was excluded from the RSDLP, etc. Membership of the party was not open to everyone. Nevertheless, it must be stressed that we wish to win as many to our banner as possible. But the problem is that it is simply impossible to unite millions in the kind of bureaucratic centralist organizations that characterize most left groups—where membership is often predicated on particular historical positions, like the class nature of the USSR, etc.

Although the dating and particular motives vary depending on the particular organization and dogma, most of today’s far left is convinced that Lenin and his comrades ultimately broke with the guiding programmatic and strategic pillars of the Second International. But—and it gets a little tiresome to repeat this—it was Kautsky and his supporters who broke with, reneged on, the outlook they had helped to shape (note the linguistic connection between “renegade” and “renege”).

I will finish with another Zinoviev quote which might help to clear things up for those who are still in doubt. The quote comes following the ignominious collapse of the Second International: “We are not renouncing the entire history of the Second International. We are not renouncing what was Marxist in it….In the last years of the Second International’s existence, the opportunists and the ‘center’ obtained a majority over the Marxists. But, in spite of everything, a revolutionary Marxist tendency always existed in the Second International. And we are not renouncing its legacy for one minute.”[20]

Nor should we. Moreover, we should note that the attempt to create a gulf between the Second International and the later “party of a new type” is something that sets in later, with the retreat of the Russian Revolution and the attendant problems—not exclusively, but primarily, with the Stalin school of falsification on party history. To the best of my knowledge, the concept of a “party of a new type” is not Lenin’s. Fundamentally, such a perspective bears the fingerprints of Stalin, as does the common interpretation of Prague 1912. If Stalinism was one of the key subjective obstacles to the formation of working class politics in the 20th century, then similar perspectives cannot exactly provide a strong starting point for working class politics in the 21st.


CC: Tom, it sounds like you are characterizing Binh’s criticism of Cliff as coming in some way from the right, so that Binh’s critique of Cliff is worse even than Cliff himself. Also, with respect to democratic centralism and the SWP/US as a model, could you get into some concrete examples of a healthy Marxist party with democratic centralism in the later history, after the Bolsheviks under Lenin?

Ben, could you address, and this relates to the substance of what Tom was raising, the difference between splits and purges? How might we think about splits in the history of Marxism in terms of transformation? Because some of your discussion had to do with problematizing characterizations of breaks, emphasizing lines of continuity, and it seems to me that we might think about transformation rather than breaks.

TR: I don’t know comrade Binh, but it does seem there’s a whiff of anti-Leninism in his critique, and his criticisms of Cliff are not very substantial. I’ve tried to suggest this with reference to his claims that 1903 is insignificant and his further claim that Lenin viewed it the same way. The very thing he cites as proof that it’s not important, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, is a text in which Lenin not only mentions 1903 but he says there that it prepared the way for the success of the October Revolution.

Do I think the comrade is somewhat to the right of Cliff? Well, if Cliff says that 1903, the initial break with the Mensheviks, is important and lays out at least some of the case for that, then certainly he’s correct. If Binh says it’s not important, it’s not so much right as uninformed, but it’s hard for me to know. Certainly Binh’s project, that the whole Left should get together and join #Occupy, to form one giant party, puts him a little bit to the right of comrade Lewis here, who presumably doesn’t want to include everyone in one group. D’Amato’s response to this, if you put Stalinists, social democrats, people who want to vote for the Democratic Party, and people who never want to vote for the Democratic Party, if you put them all in the same group you’re not going to have a very effective operational group. It’s an obvious point. I just think Comrade Binh lacks experience. Anyone who has been in a serious Left organization has heard from people, when they are out on the campus or at the factory, “All you small groups, you should all get together! Why aren’t you all together?” Comrade Lewis thinks this is a good criticism. We think there’s good reason why people aren’t together. There is a reason why Bob Avakian has not fused with Platypus.

I think it’s good what Lars Lih is doing. I have not read all of it, but certainly any investigation is good. It is quite possible that Carter Elwood has written a good book. I was unaware of it and I appreciate your bringing it up. There’s a lot of good bourgeois historiography. Leopold Haimson wrote a book in 1955 that was more or less commissioned by the American government so they could figure out what Bolshevism was in order to better combat it, still it is an excellent book. He of course concluded that 1903 had a certain significance!

As for the history of the SWP: There’s a French turn, and Cannon had fused with [A.J.] Muste, and they were going to make the turn towards the SP. Hugo Oehler, who was a very talented mass worker and a very important Cannonite cadre, one of their leading working class organizers, led a factional fight that led to a third or at least a quarter of the group splitting, arguing, in effect, that they should stay out of the SP just as Lenin broke with the 2nd International for good reason, they killed Luxemburg, etc. It is the same with the [Max] Shachtman split: Can the Soviet Union be defended -- is it not a degenerated workers’ state or not? The same thing with [Alex] Goldman and [Felix] Morrow in 1946 and with [Bert] Cochran and [George] Clarke in the early 1950s. Cannon, like Lenin, had a reputation for “door-slamming.” Lenin was not going to have his hands tied by the Mensheviks telling him what he could and couldn’t do.

Let me touch on a few points Comrade Lewis raised. On “the party of a new type:” The party that Lenin organized was different than the model of 2nd International. In the 2nd International the conception was “the party of the whole class.” Those elements of the working class which were not socialists or revolutionary on this view were holdovers, petty bourgeois fragments, people who had not been fully incorporated into the working class. That’s not true of the Leninst party. Lenin’s party-organizational conception, in its maturity, is premised on the notion that there’s a section of the class that is corrupted by imperialism and welded to the interests of the imperialists. That is the labor aristocracy, the agency of the capitalists in the workers movement. Lenin argued that you do not want those people in the party. You want the revolutionary elements, the revolutionary vanguard, which can then extend its influence over as many workers as possible. You do not want opportunists, social chauvinists, or social imperialists in the vanguard. That is a party of a new type and not a party of the whole class.

The Comintern, i.e., the international organization that is set up after the October Revolution to split the 2nd International and build revolutionary organizations all over the world, had an organizational model which is the organizational model I just described, not the organizational model Comrade Lewis describes. That was Bolshevik practice. They felt the best way for American Communists to organize themselves was not to put all of their differences out in the public so they could be ridiculed by the Chicago Tribune, Fox News, and any other backward elements in the working class, but rather they should dispute questions of revolutionary theory between themselves. So I have to say that Comrade Lewis is mistaken, a revisionist, because comrade Lewis insists that we have to support the likes of the Avakianites and I am saying we should not.

Finally, on 1912: In the year 1912 there are two organizations, two leaderships, two underground networks, two lines. That is, in effect, the point of no return for the RSDLP. Lenin makes an offer. He contacts every underground organization in Russia and invites them to the conference. At the time, there were some Menshevik underground organizations, though mostly the Mensheviks were doing legal, above-ground work. These latter Lenin called the liquidators and they were not invited. But there were Mensheviks invited and some of them came. This was Lenin’s attempt to reach out to the healthy elements of the Mensheviks and to separate them from the leadership. He was interested in the Mensheviks who were actually running the risks in the underground. Lenin thought, “They should be in our party. If they had a few deviationist ideas, we can work that out.” Lenin was quite happy to have a minority of people who didn’t necessarily agree on everything. What he didn’t want was to be in an organization where people wanted to have unity with the capitalists.

BL: A lot of this is just setting up a straw man. On “the party of the whole class:” The SPD was not the party of the whole class. That is Seymourism. That’s a standard misconception that goes back to Lenin and the Vanguard Party. What did the SPD do? It excluded syndicalists! The Second International was founded on the basis that the anarchists were excluded. It actually, at several points, debated with, and, indeed, threw people out of its ranks who broke the programmatic outlines that the International adopted. Millerand in 1898 becomes part of a French capitalist government, for which he is expelled. In the 1890s debates with the German (SPD) right, Kautsky puts forth motions to expel people like farmers, it’s not just everybody in the same class get them together in the party, it’s the program, it’s the acceptance of the program and its strategic vision. It’s not based on “Do you agree with the first four conferences of the Comintern, and that the Soviet Union is a degenerate workers state, and that Cannon was right against Shachtman?” No, it was a question of program in the here and now, one of programmatic political commitment. That’s what Lenin took from the SPD.

On “Left-Wing” Communism: The generation of the self-conception of Bolshevik organization actually sets in earlier and Lenin bears some responsibility for it. Still, “Left-Wing” Communism is the first time where Lenin says that the 1903 Bolshevik-Menshevik split was of fundamental significance. Pham Binh is right insofar as in none of his writings up until this point does Lenin talk about “the Bolshevik Party.” The only references in his Collected Works to “the Bolshevik Party” are actually inserted by the editors afterwards. We have to get our heads around that. So, in 1920 the Bolsheviks under the pressures of the Civil War and all that had happened, do have to change their organization, and to come up with a model that they did export. I did a book on German Social Democracy and the 21 conditions. The 21 conditions were basically, “Purge yourself of the opportunists and reformists and organize on that basis.” I defend those conditions under the circumstances they then faced. The problem we have is that is being generalized as a political method in order to combat opportunism and right-wing ideas. That is not going to get us anywhere.

What the Bolsheviks did and the SPD did not do (and this is why it is a different organization and why Kautsky failed), is that they did not openly attack the right. If you look at the mass strike discussion around 1906 you get the sense that the German center, the orthodox Marxist wing, were not willing to go and say, “Actually [Karl] Legien and the people he’s in deals with, they are bastards and they are going to sell you out.” With the Bolsheviks they did not insist on organizational separation, at least until later on. What they did was to have head-on ideological warfare, but that’s factional. Yes, there are Mensheviks and Bolsheviks with separate press, separate organizations, but those were factions. The Party we should be aiming for will bring together factions. It is not simply, “Let’s get together with Bob Avakian.” It’s on a higher and more fundamentally political level than that. To take the IBT: We have said to you on several occasions in Britain, “You should join us as a faction. You will have the right to change the leadership of the organization, change the politics of the organization, etc.” If we cannot get together and have out our political difference in this way, we are failing. We are miserably putting up with this stupid situation which is based on the notion that “We are pure and we must continue as an organization. The revolution will come and we will win.” It is nonsense. That’s the fundamental lesson that we should draw from history. Factions were a healthy part of the RSDLP. Open political struggle was part of it. That was why you had separate leaderships, separate finances, etc. They were factions.

On purges and splits, 1920 is an absolutely justified split, but there is also sometimes what Adorno called a “negative dialectics” in splits, in the sense that both sides come out worse. There is a difference between transformation and breaks. It is not that the Bolsheviks just did the same thing that they said in 1903. They actually added to their strategy. They took on board what had happened. But they did have a fundamental strategy, which was the merger of socialism and the workers movement, the minimum and maximum program, democratic revolution to the end, and mass party organization on all levels of society. That’s the ABC of Second International Marxism and that is what took the Russian working class to power in 1917. It was Bukharin the maximalist who was saying, let’s rubbish the minimum program now that we are in power and Lenin who says don’t be stupid, we need the minimum program because we might lose power.

On Leopold Haimson, I agree with you by the way, The Making of Three Russian Revolutionaries is one of the rich treasures in Cold War historiography. The problem I have—Lars Lih makes the point—is that when it comes to Lenin, all historiographical standards do not apply.


While the radical left are experts in putting out visionary programs, splitting, finding, and forging revolutionary leadership, the fact is that they are leading no one anywhere. Might one of the reasons for this be that even those orthodox defenders, against Stalin, have in fact adopted a rigid concept of Leninism, of what Lenin did? Is that a possibility?

BL: Broadly speaking, yes. I think even the most formally anti-Stalinist currents have sleepwalked into Stalinoid forms of organization.

Would you say that Binh’s article, what its failings, is right about Occupy? That the Left is unable to adequately account for the dynamism of Occupy mired as it is in its attempt forge revolutionary leadership.

BL: It is incumbent on the Left to get its act together and unite on a serious basis, not on a Stalinist or Avakian basis, but with a viable vision that we can take to Occupy and to the working class more generally. Lenin built a party out of the wreckage of all these local groups, some with crazy ideas, and forged them on a higher level. Now, Occupy might stay or go, but that is also our task.

Korsch draws out how Marxism itself is a phenomenon of the emergence of the proletariat, so in what relationship does something like an organized Marxist party stand to the working class? How can those historical disputes of the Second International actually have bearing for us?

TR: I think that it is quite possible if you are serious about wanting to be able to see a Left which is able to wield significant influence and actually able to combat austerity programs. What we need to do is to at least think our way through how we got into the situation we are in now. I think that Stalinism is an enormous part of that, and an aspect of Stalinism of course is Maoism. Earlier today, Mike Ely said that we should be in a different place than we are now. He said this speaking as someone my vintage, and I felt I knew what he meant.

Forty years ago, we had demonstrations of up to one million people that I attended against the war in Vietnam, and this was ongoing. Thousands, tens of thousands of young leftists went into factories to get in touch with workers, maybe a total of ten thousand in the United States and North America so that they can go and proselytize, in stupid sort of ways that didn’t have a big impact. But you know there was a real attempt to carry things out, and the New Left of course didn’t begin at this, it began as “oh, to hell with all this bullshit.” But, after a while and in many attempts and false starts, we collectively worked our way back around to realizing we actually we needed to take seriously this thing about organizing, we needed to be organized, we needed, probably, eventually many of us came to the conclusion, reluctantly, that we had to become Leninists again, and that we had to go to the working class. But, because of the configuration of world politics at that point it appeared that Mao was our leader. Mao told us to fight U.S. imperialism resolutely, smash revisionism. So everybody tried to carry out Mao’s dictums. Consider the example of the United Front against imperialism, which sought to find the progressive element of the U.S. ruling class, to unite against the imperialist element, and stated that “China’s line is our line.” That is where the Avakianites started. Eventually the Chinese said, “You know what, if you are truly loyal, truly loyal, you will dissolve your organizations and you will renounce communism.” Because they didn’t want an international “Maoism.” So most of the Maoist groups went out of business shortly thereafter. The Avakianites, to their credit, did not. So what does that tell us? What that tells us is that there was a large opportunity, potentially, in the 1960s and early 1970s that was squandered, because people didn’t actually work out the experience that had preceded them. I think we are in a similar situation now. Occupy is more primitive in many ways, but more sophisticated in some ways than the New Left was. I don’t think it’s likely—I certainly hope—that Occupy continues to ferment and do some exciting things. I think that lots of things are possible, but without understanding the past we will not conquer the future.

BL: I am going to start where you finished off. I made the point yesterday about the historical situation we currently find ourselves in and we certainly do live in the shadow, the negative legacy, of what went before. So my starting point in that sense is history: We have to look back to at what we built in order to rebuild. And that really pertains to your question, what does a partyist project, what relationship does it have to the here and now, to Occupy, to society more generally in this very difficult period? And I think the answer on one level is very simple and on the other level slightly more complex. The simple level is that we need to rebuild the working class movement at more or less from scratch. We can do that: We see that from the history, the positive impact that unity has had on the working class movement, the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920, a very small organization in relation to France, Germany, Italy, had a massive impact on class organization and the trade union struggle. In 1875, in Germany, they actually went out and built the trade unions from the organization that was formed. We also need to educate again, the level of Marxist education across the board at the moment is very, very low because it is not taken seriously. People in left-wing groups are treated as leaflet fodder. They are not taught to actually think and take seriously Marxist theory, to articulate their differences. I do think we need a cultural revolution on the Left. And with that, then you can actually seriously think about doing—at least coming to terms with—some of the enormous challenges that come our way.

One of the passages that I find interesting and thoughtful in Lenin and the Vanguard Party is where Seymour asks, “Why didn’t Marxists from the 1860s to the 1900s try to form parties of the Leninist type?” He gives an economist response and I wonder what you think the answer is to this puzzle. On the question of what changed circumstances meant for Lenin’s formulation, I wonder whether in fact Lenin’s position from 1903–1914 or 1917 really doesn’t represent an intermediate step, because he didn’t fully break with the left-wing of the Second International until World War I? Moreover should they have done so before the crisis of 1914? As an aside Ben, as I think about this, I obviously think that the CPGB as a project has much more in common with Platypus than the IBT.

BL: I disagree.

TR: 1860s–1910: That’s an interesting span to speculate about. There was a lot of experience that had to be achieved before certain things that we take for granted. There was, for instance, the experience of the Paris Commune, which was enormous, and changed Marx’s view of how socialist revolution would take place. Also, it maybe made it clear that there was real potential in a fairly immediate prospect, if things had been done right. On the other hand, everything was done wrong, for if there’s ever an argument for an organization that had an idea of what it was doing, it was the Paris Commune, which had really no Marxists participating in it. It was a mélange of left liberals, radicals, greens, and everything else.

BL: Greens?

TR: Well, the equivalent: Proudhonists. There was also the development of capitalism itself. In the 1860s we don’t have imperialism, in a sense there’s the British Empire and the colonies, but capitalist development is intersected by the Leninist organizational form in ways that was not applicable earlier.

What about Engels in the 1890s?

TR: Of course there is the First International that Marx participates in and the lesson there is that you cannot include everybody—the CPGB goes that far. I recognize that the 2nd International didn’t take absolutely everybody, but when Seymour says party of the whole class, the conception was that working class should have a party, and that there would be a workers party that would include the whole class. That was not Lenin’s conception! His conception is that there is a section of the working class that is bought off, corrupted, and the party should not attempt to include the whole class, it should be the organized revolutionary vanguard of the class putting the program first. First you define the program then you recruit to it. This is not applicable to very, very small groups that say, “we’re the party, join us.” There needs to be a political struggle for clarity. If you look at the development of Trotskyism in the United States, for example, you find that Musteites brought something that that the Cannonites previoulsy lacked. On 1903-1914, I think the short answer to that is that Lenin’s practice went beyond his theory, essentially. That’s often going to be the case when we encounter new phenomenon, new problems if we are able to grope our way towards a solution. Sometimes looking back on it you theorize it rather than look at a problem, come up with a correct answer and then implement that. You try to do that, but in the course of doing that you’re going to retrospectively check it back. That’s the whole point about 1912. What we’re saying, what Seymour says, and what most bourgeois historians, and everybody else says, is that after that there’s only a name in common. There are two separate organizations, there are two separate programs, at that point they are roughly similar sized, in the next two years the Bolsheviks were four times the size of the Mensheviks because they had a different orientation, not to act within the legal limits allowed by the tsar, but to act illegally and to go and make trouble for the tsar. It turned out that a lot of workers preferred that, so the Bolsheviks grew faster than the Mensheviks as a result.

BL: Seymour is consistent with the bourgeois scholarship, but Cliff’s discussion of 1903, as Lars [Lih] has shown in terms of What is to be Done?, is also taken from Menshevik or pro-bourgeois sources and that is not a crime. There are riches in bourgeois history. But I do think that we need to break with the caricature that’s being presented. For a lot on the Left and the Cold War warriors there is no doubt that Lenin was a manipulator. If that is the case, then “Sorry, Lenin, I’m not a leninist, you’re a liar and a manipulator.”

So what’s changed since 1860? You did get Marx and Engels sitting in Engels’s living room writing the Parti Ouvrier in 1878, minimum and maximum program, just for a Trotskyist current. They did contribute as much as possible to mass Marxist parties at that time. The SPD was obviously the breakthrough. Engels did his bit as well. I think one of the real seeds of fault in the SPD is that they actually did not take seriously the democratic republic as a form of working class rule. Engels takes that up in a very good text, the Critique of the Erfurt Program, in 1891. In that text, he says that this was a major flaw. We’ve got some wonderful demands, armed people, elected judges, but what does it all mean, what does it all culminate in? Lenin, in the 2nd Congress, to something Plekhanov said, said the SPD consciously adapted to opportunism from the start: They didn’t include the Dictatorship of the Proletariat/democratic republic in their demands.

On neo-Kautskyism: We have to locate the serious flaws in Kautskyism and how they are reflected in some ways in Lenin. Kautsky’s understanding of the state, and I’m doing a lot of work on that at the moment, is flawed in my humble opinion. So you say I have a neo-Kautskyan position on the party question, but I’d say I have a neo-Leninist position on the party question because that’s what Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks looked to. That was their model. There’s a lovely quote in 1912—again, for people in doubt about what Lenin’s aims were he’s talking about how to organize in the June 3rd (or July 3rd?) regime. He writes an article after Prague saying the model we should be looking to is how the SPD organized under the Bismarck anti-socialist laws. So even in 1912 he’s saying this is a model party, you know the red postal service, and all of that stuff.

I think the only way we can become mass is to break with the organizational, bureaucratic form, which is a mini-representation of the dictates of the labor bureaucracy, actually, that stifles open political debate and culture and forces comrades into fits. You join the Left, you have a disagreement, what are you going to do? Literally, how are you going to win the working class, the great unwashed masses that are corrupted by bourgeois? You have to split, and unless we can break with that, comrades—this is the fundamental point whether you agree with my particular take on Kautsky and all the rest of it, the fundamental point we organize in the most stupid, pathetic of fashions. We cannot unite ourselves, let alone the millions of people, the millions of people we need to win to our banner to change the world. Marx and Engels’s contribution to their understanding of socialism is the victory of democracy, the conscious act of the overwhelming majority. We’re not going to get anywhere near that if we continue to base ourselves on quite frankly fairy tale understandings of Bolshevism, which are tainted by the past. We need to break with that fundamentally and only then can we seriously think about—it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be fun, particularly. I don’t think Iskra in the 1890s and early 1900s, particularly in illegality and under tsarist repression was particularly the easiest political climate to operate in, but they did it because they were serious politicians who wanted a political party. And I don’t think the Left is serious at the moment about a political party. It contents itself with being silly little groups that actually have very little influence on anything and the danger exists that we disappear up our own backsides, to use a lovely little English phrase, and simply become millenarian sect. Why are we here? I have put forward some explanation—I’m not saying I have the answers, but unless we break with the models we’ve inherited, which are anti-working class, which are forms of manifestation of the labor bureaucracies, we will not go anywhere. I think the fundamental thing that I’m doing with my research and political work is looking back to these things in order to move forward. Bolshevism is rich in history and has some wonderful lessons that we can draw on to move forward. Otherwise, I could join the IBT tomorrow, but I’d disagree with them on something.

TR: No, you couldn’t.

BL: Exactly. It’s frankly childish and not up to the task thrown our way today, in this period. |P

Transcribed by Brian C. Worley

[1]. Pham Binh’s articles are “Mangling the Party of Lenin,” Weekly Worker 899 (February 2, 2012), available online at: <>, and “Wanting to Get Lenin Wrong,” Weekly Worker 907 (March 29, 2012), available online at <>. A longer version of the latter, including its second half, on #Occupy, is titled, “Over a Cliff and into Occupy with Lenin,” and can be found online at: <>.

[2]. Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: “What is to be Done?” in Context (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008).

[3]. Lars T. Lih, Lenin (London: Reaktion Books, 2011).[[3]]

[4]. Originally published online at: <>.

[5]. James P. Cannon, “Again: On ‘Unity with the Shachtmanites’,” The Struggle for Socialism in the “American Century,” ed. Les Evans (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), 139.

[6]. Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1931 [1930]).  Available online at <>.

[7]. Tony Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg (London: Socialist Review Publishing Company 1969 [1959]). Available online at <>.

[8]. Binh, “Mangling the Party of Lenin.”

[9]. Vladimir Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder,” in Collected Works Vol. 31 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964 [1920]). Emphasis added. Available online at <>.

[10]. Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism.” Emphasis added.

[11]. Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism.” Emphasis added.

[12]. Tony Cliff, “Lenin 1893-1914: Building the Party, vol. 1,” (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002 [1975]), 62.

[13]. Bruce Landau, “Lenin and the Bolshevik Party: A Reply to Tony Cliff and the International Socialists,” Available online at <>.

[14]. Josesph Seymour, “Lenin and the Vanguard Party,” originally published in Workers Vanguard in 1978–1979, available online at <>.

[15]. Seymour, “Lenin and the Vanguard Party.”

[16]. Originally published in Weekly Worker 908 (April 5, 2012). Available online at: <>.

[17]. Joseph Stalin, Kratkii kurs, (1938). Emphasis added. Quoted in Lars T. Lih, The Non-Geometric Elwood (forthcoming). Available online at <>.

[18]. Grigory Zinoviev, Izvestiia TsK KPSS, No. 5 (1989), 196.

[19]. See Molyneux’s review of Lars T. Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be Done?’ In Context, available online at <>.

[20]. Quoted in J. Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York: Pathfinder, 1984), 105.