Goodbye Leninism

On August 2nd Ian Birchall wrote an article titled “Lenin: Yes! Leninism: No?” for the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21) website that has touched off an ongoing debate. For those trying to create an effective anticapitalist movement, Birchall’s article makes plenty of sense since it goes a long way toward putting the icons of October 1917 where they belong, into the historical archives. For those, however, who want to trace their lineage back to the Bolshevik revolution, like the connection that the Catholic Church makes between Pope Francis (a pretty good guy by the evidence) and Saint Peter, there is a need to uphold the sanctity of “Leninism”. Yet nobody outside the ranks of a Leninist party or the Catholic Church takes the lineage claims very seriously, especially people like me who went through such a painful experience (Leninism, not Catholicism.)

Ian Birchall, like many of the people involved with the RS21 website, was a long-time member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. This group lost many members after it failed to take action against a top leader who allegedly raped a young member, a failure that led to an ongoing crisis that I discussed in an earlier CounterPunch article. SWP leader Alex Callinicos warned members that the revolt was less about the rape charge than it was about defending the party from an attack on “Leninism”, a ploy that probably accelerated the rush to the nearest door.

Born in 1939, Birchall is the author of many books and articles of interest to the left, some of which can be read online on the Marxists Internet Archive. You can also keep up with Birchall at his Grim and Dim blog, where the septuagenarian reminds his readers: “The future, in Joe Strummer’s words, is unwritten”, words that certainly address the problem of living in the Leninist past, even if unintended.

After paying tribute to Lenin the individual, who was as exceptional in his own way as the remarkable pope from Argentina, Birchall aligns himself with Lars T. Lih and others who refuse to fetishize Lenin as the founding father of a secular religion. Lih in particular represents a major challenge to those now building groups modeled on the Bolsheviks. In an 876-page book on Lenin’s 74-page “What is to be Done”, a sort of bible for Leninists, Lih proves that Lenin merely sought to build a party in Russia modeled after the German Socialist Party. For Leninist groups, Lih’s scholarship challenges the old way of doing things. If Lenin’s inspiration was a pluralistic and transparent mass party, why not explore formations such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain as possible modern-day equivalents? Why isolate yourself from the rest of the left in a purist cocoon on the basis of having some special insight into Lenin’s writings, especially when there are 57 varieties of Leninism each with the same claim and ready to read each other out of the movement?

After Birchall’s article appeared, Paul Le Blanc of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) offered a reply. As some of you might be aware, Le Blanc is an outspoken defender of the need for Leninist organizational norms, no matter how counterproductive.

Written in his usual genial style, Le Blanc’s article  amounts to a sleight of hand. As long as we are discarding Leninism, why not dump Marxism as well?

This is well put, and on this basis, it could be argued that perhaps we, too, should not call ourselves Leninists…or Marxists. We are immediately faced with a bit of a puzzle: while Lenin did not refer to himself as a Leninist, he absolutely insisted that he was a Marxist (despite Marx’s explicit disclaimer). The word “Marxist” had assumed a meaning that it did not have while Marx was alive.

Actually, it has assumed multiple meanings–including as representing collection of rather sterile “orthodoxies” that failed to comprehend the richness of Marx’s own thought, not to mention a stilted and conservative ideological construct associated with a system of bureaucratic dictatorships. One could argue that the term Marxism “may be a positive obstacle to developing the kind of political strategy and organization we need for the coming decades.”

But Leninism and Marxism are two different things entirely. Leninism is a particular organizational method used to apply Marxist thought in the class struggle. It involves some rather arcane practices that were codified in the early 20th century largely as a way of turning Bolshevism into a recipe for parties everywhere. To give you an idea of how mechanical some of these “rules for radicals” could be, I refer you to the fifth Comintern congress where organizational norms were handed down to the faithful: “Wherever three or more members, regardless of their nationality or present federation membership, are found to be working in the same shop, they shall be organized into a shop nucleus. The nucleus collects the Party dues and takes over all the functions of a Party unit.”

Marxism, by contrast, is simply a method for analyzing society—like how the two-party system in the USA operates or how the academy has become corporatized. Lenin’s writings about how capitalism was emerging in the Russian countryside or how monopoly capitalism led to WWI were examples of Marxist analysis. When the Comintern instructed Communists about how to form shop nuclei, that was Leninism or at least the sort of mechanical understanding of Bolshevik practice that has hobbled the left.

Not satisfied evidently that Le Blanc’s article would suffice, fellow ISO’er Phil Gasper offered his own response to Birchall  that upheld the core Leninist principle, namely the need to “build a disciplined, centralised revolutionary party based on the most militant, class conscious and politically advanced section of the working class.” My immediate reaction is to break out in hives when I read words like “disciplined” and “centralized” but let’s assume for the moment that Gasper does not have any idea of how such words were used to maintain a cult within the Socialist Workers Party of the USA where they robbed members of their ability to think for themselves.

Gasper’s primary point is that capitalism cannot be overthrown without a mass revolutionary party of the working class. I doubt that any socialist would disagree with that. Furthermore, there’s little argument with the need for discipline and centralization when you are trying to defeat a disciplined and centralized enemy that has the cops, army, and—if necessary—fascist mobs at its disposal.

But what in the world does that have to do with the world we live in, at least in the USA, where political consciousness is so low? In the late 1800s and early 1900s socialism was a massive force throughout the working class. Up until the late 1940s, it was still a popular movement, so much so that it took a Red Scare to soften up the country for the Cold War. Gasper admits that our movement is weak but still advocates building a “Leninist” group today that might become part of a larger one down the road:

So how does a group of a few hundred people attempt to build a revolutionary party that will eventually need hundreds of thousands of members? It’s unlikely that we are going to grow ourselves there by recruiting a few members at a time. Most likely, the path will involve merging with other forces that are part of the working-class movement and the left, broadly conceived, but the specifics will vary greatly depending on the concrete situation that exists in different places and countries.

All Leninist groups share this formula. It is couched in modesty—“We are not the revolutionary party”—but projects becoming part of a larger entity that emerges out of a series of corporate mergers with other Leninist groups. But it is entirely possible that the ISO will be left in the dust when a broad-based left movement having very little to do with “Leninist” norms takes root under conditions of a deepening class struggle. For example, the traditional Leninist groups were completely outside the process that led to the triumph of the July 26th Movement in Cuba or the FSLN in Nicaragua. Like a tsunami, these massive revolutionary movements swept across a nation, casting sects aside in their wake.

Perhaps the lesson that can be drawn from the most important revolutionary struggles of the past 50 years or so is that they won’t come out of the Leninist cookbook.

International Socialism, the journal of the British SWP, does not specifically refer to the renegade Birchall in issue 144 but Kevin Corr and Gareth Jenkins clearly have people like him in mind when they write about “The case of the disappearing Lenin”. This 11,625 word exercise in prolixity is a rehash of all the articles that have appeared in the SWP press ever since the crisis over the rape incident coincided with a growing unhappiness with Leninist norms, finally coming together in a perfect storm that led Birchall, Richard Seymour and other of their most talented members to abandon ship.

For example, this formulation will be familiar to anybody who keeps up with the SWP press:

This mood has affected the revolutionary left. For some the problem is the kind of party they used to believe in. Perhaps it is wrong to insist on a rigid distinction between “revolutionary” and “reformist”. Perhaps “mixing” the two can reconstruct a radical left able to fill the gap between a declining parliamentary reformism and a “Leninist” left that cannot grow. This seems to be what lies behind moves to create broad left parties that have the kind of appeal that, for example, Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece and the Front de Gauche in France enjoy. A rapprochement with and re-evaluation of what the revolutionary left termed “left reformism” is therefore required.

Since the primary purpose of the article is to discredit the idea that Lenin would go near anything as tainted as Syriza, the authors almost by necessity have to invalidate Lars Lih, whose claim that Lenin was trying to build what amounts to a Syriza-type party in Russia amounts to anathema: “But his defence of Lenin has led him to interpret Lenin as making no fundamental contribution to Marxism—at least nothing that goes beyond the Marxism of the Second International (the International that united all Social Democratic parties before the First World War), as embodied in its most important representative thinker, Karl Kautsky.”

For those with only a glancing knowledge of the doctrinal disputes of early 20th century Marxism, Kautsky was a figure held both in contempt and profound admiration by Lenin. He credited Kautsky for providing the basic theoretical framework necessary for overthrowing the Czar and Kerensky but never forgave him for having an inadequate analysis of the monopoly capitalism that led to WWI.

It is not surprising that for Corr and Jenkins, the most important question is not organization but theory. They are anxious to make the axis of the dispute how Kautsky failed to maintain a consistent revolutionary outlook through WWI and the Bolshevik conquest of power. By setting the parameters of the debate as one of “revolutionaries” versus “reformists”, it predetermines the outcome. Who would dare forsake the great Lenin in favor of the dastardly Kautsky, a forerunner to Syriza leader Alex Tsipras who promises to maintain membership in the European Union and prefers the economic policies of the Kirchners in Argentina to those of the early Soviet Union? Lucifer incarnate.

Lost in this debate is the problematic of Leninist norms that have since time immemorial led to sect and cult formations as well as gross violations of party democracy such as those that took place in the American SWP that I happily left behind me 35 years ago.

For example, there has never been a serious discussion of “democratic centralism” in the British SWP, a practice that left historians a century from now will regard as incomprehensible. As a rule of thumb, members of such groups will never vote against their leaders at a mass meeting. They are “under discipline” to vote for a resolution even though they might disagree with it. That is the “discipline” that Phil Gasper referred to, as if voting on slogans for a demonstration on global warming is like deciding if and when to storm the Winter Palace.

This has the consequence of leading other activists to feel like they are dealing with robots rather than fellow leftists. When I was at antiwar conferences in the 60s, we SWP’ers used to caucus in the early morning before sessions got started and were reminded who our “floor leaders” were. Look to Fred Halstead to see how we were voting. The implication was that we should leave our brains at the door.

Not surprisingly, Corr and Jenkins come around to defending Paul Le Blanc against Lih, who like them is far more interested in drawing contrasts between the “revolutionary” Lenin and the vacillating (at best) Kautsky. Like the British SWP, the ISO has been leaking members over the past two years or so but not at the same rate. If I were Le Blanc, I would give some serious consideration as to the consequences of being lauded by spokespeople for a party that is the Titanic of the left.

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.