Lenin and the bolshevik party a reply to Tony Cliff and the International Socialists

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A reply to Tony Cliff and the International Socialists

By Bruce Landau


There is no more pressing task for revolutionary Marxists today than the construction of a party capable of leading the proletariat’s struggle against world capitalism. But as the record of the past decades has shown, building such a party requires more than good intentions. It requires a scientific understanding of the relationship between the proletariat and its class-conscious vanguard. No one understood that relationship better than Vladimir Ilyich Lenin; he proved that by building the strongest, most flexible, and most successful workers’ party in history – the Bolshevik Party.

Tony Cliff, the chief spokesman for the International Socialists (IS) of Great Britain, has now written the first volume of a projected three-volume political biography of Lenin. This volume deals with the period ending in 1914, and its title (Building the Party) indicates Cliff’s main focus: How did the Russian Marxists manage to construct the Bolshevik Party, the only party which proved able to lead the working class in the conquest of state power and then to consolidate and defend that achievement in the face of the ferocious resistance of world imperialism? What were Lenin’s fundamental guiding party-building principles, and how did he apply them at different times and at different stages in the development of the class struggle?

Writing in the magazine International Socialism, Cliff’s associate Duncan Hallas has praised Cliff’s new book in the most glowing terms:

This book is the most important work on the theory and practice of building a socialist organisation that has appeared for a long time. As a biography it has its faults. It would be no great exaggeration to say that it might well have been called Building the Party – Illustrated from the Life of Lenin. No matter. A manual for revolutionaries – and that is what we have here – is needed more urgently than a fully rounded biography. This is a work whose lessons can and must be applied to the practical tasks of party building.1

Hallas is right in one regard. A “manual for revolutionaries”, a history of the Bolshevik Party which actually laid bare the method of that party’s construction, would be of incalculable value to revolutionaries today. There are few subjects which are so important, which get so much lip-service, but which receive so little serious study as this one. Such a manual would certainly contain precious lessons.

Cliff’s book, however, is not at all the book we need. It is a complete failure. Its failure is most glaring precisely where it claims to be a success, in its treatment of the revolutionary party in general and the Bolshevik Party in particular. This is, of course, unfortunate. But it is not at all surprising. The author is politically hostile to his subject. This is apparent not only in this latest book of his, but even more so in his earlier writings on the subject of Lenin, Leninism and the revolutionary party’s nature and role. What distinguishes Cliff’s Lenin from his earlier works is this, that where the earlier works were candidly hostile to Leninism, the new volume pretends to be a partisan defence of Leninism against its critics. The change in pose conceals a fundamental continuity in Cliff’s political viewpoint.

From Cliff’s angle, there is good reason to package his old views in a new wrapper. Another candid, straightforward attack on Lenin would find only a limited readership among Marxist revolutionaries today. An attack dressed up as a celebration – a “manual” in Leninism, no less – stands an excellent chance of getting a very wide circulation indeed. It is this which makes Cliff’s new book so dangerous, and it is this which makes it so important to remove the book’s protective camouflage.

We will begin by examining Cliff’s earlier writings on Leninism and the Bolshevik Party, writings in which the point of view is the most clearly presented. We will then proceed to demonstrate, point by point, how the candid anti-Leninism of the early Cliff is smuggled into Lenin: Building the Party in the guise of militant Leninism.

1. Cliff’s earlier hostility to Leninism

One of Cliff’s earlier discussions of the nature of the class struggle and the role of the revolutionary party in conducting it appears in his pamphlet Rosa Luxemburg (first edition, 1959; second edition, 1968).

Rosa Luxemburg was an outstanding revolutionary leader. She was the single figure most responsible for leading a protracted struggle against the alliance of centrists and reformists which dominated German Social Democracy at the beginning of this century. She was the principal founder of the German Communist Party. She was an important economic theoretician. She died a martyr, and in death, she occupies a richly deserved place of honour in the Marxist tradition. But none of this alters the fact that her views on the relationship between the proletariat and the party were confused, semi-spontaneist, erroneous on balance. Her errors here represented her most notorious political failing.

Cliff does not agree with this appraisal. His pamphlet merely alludes gently to “Rosa Luxemburg’s possible underestimation of the role of organisation and possible overestimation of the role of spontaneity…”2 And Cliff is anxious to soften even this mild reference by adding:

While pointing out some of the deficiencies in Rosa Luxemburg’s position regarding the link between spontaneity and leadership in the revolution, one should be wary of concluding that her critics in the revolutionary movement, above all, Lenin, were at every point nearer a correct, balanced, Marxist analysis than she was.3

We must be wary of Lenin above all, explains Cliff, because Lenin formulated a theory of the party in 1903-4 which championed “the separation of the conscious minority from the unconscious majority, the separation of mental and manual labour, the existence of manager and foreman on the one hand, and a mass of obedient labourers on the other…”4

That theory, Cliff insists, “may be grafted onto ‘socialism’ only by killing the very essence of socialism, which is the collective control of the workers over their destiny”.5 Naturally, Cliff generously concedes, Lenin’s pernicious socialism-killing theories did not fall out of the clear blue sky. They were, a reflection, you see, of the terrible conditions in Russia in those days, conditions which necessarily nourished theories which underestimated the proletariat and overestimated the role of leadership:

Lenin’s views on organisation, his bending of the stick too far over to centralism, must be considered against the background of conditions in Russia.

In backward Tsarist Russia, where the working class was a small minority, the idea that the working class alone can liberate itself could very easily be passed over.6

On the basis of the argument quoted above, the first edition of Rosa Luxemburg rendered its summary judgement in a manner quite in keeping with the author’s central thesis: For Marxists in the advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s.7

By 1968 and the issuing of the pamphlet’s second edition, Cliff had prudently decided to simply delete the last sentence quoted (without, however, either acknowledging or explaining that deletion). But the removal of the single sentence failed to alter the over-all thrust of his argument, which still concludes with the same summary judgement – even if it is now presented less forthrightly:

Where Rosa Luxemburg’s position regarding the relationship between spontaneity and organisation was a reflection of the immediate needs facing revolutionaries in a Labour [sic] movement controlled by a conservative bureaucracy [that is, in conditions like those “in the advanced industrial countries of today”! – BL], Lenin’s original position that of 1902-4 – was a reflection of the amorphousness of a vital, fighting revolutionary movement at the first stage of its development under a backward, semi-feudal and autocratic regime.8

In 1960, Cliff discovered a second ally with whom to jointly attack Lenin’s views on party and class. This time it was to be Leon Trotsky. Not the Leon Trotsky who joined the Bolshevik party in 1917 and masterminded the October insurrection. And not the Leon Trotsky who led the fight for Leninism against Stalin’s subsequent state-capitalist counter-revolution. No, Cliff’s ally was the Leon Trotsky of 1903-4, at and immediately following the Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) of 1903. That is, Trotsky while he was aligned with the Mensheviks. Cliff recorded in an article in International Socialism (“Trotsky on Substitutionism”) that:

Quite early in his political activity, when only 24 years old, Trotsky prophesied that Lenin’s conception of party organisation must lead to a situation in which the party would “substitute itself for the working class”, act as proxy in their name and on their behalf, regardless of what the workers thought or wanted.

Lenin’s conception would lead to a state of affairs in which “The organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally, the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee…”9

Cliff accurately adds that, “To Lenin’s type of centralised party made up of professional revolutionaries, Trotsky counterposed a ‘broadly based party’ on the model of the Western European Social Democratic Parties.”10

Trotsky’s later attitude to the remarks quoted by Cliff is well known. In the course of transforming himself into a Bolshevik, a Bolshevik leader, Trotsky completely repudiated the letter and spirit of his own early attacks on Leninism. In his autobiography, for example, Trotsky acknowledged that “there is no doubt that at the time I did not fully realise what an intense and imperious centralism the revolutionary party would need to lead millions of people in a war against the old order”. Moreover, he added, his dire predictions made at that time concerning the outcome of Lenin’s party proposals were incorrect because “at the time of the London Congress of 1903, revolution was still largely a theoretical abstraction to me. Independently I could not see Lenin’s centralism as the logical conclusion of a clear revolutionary concept”.11

Unfortunately, Cliff’s article of 1960 did not quote Trotsky’s later self-criticism. Perhaps this is because it was precisely the immature, Menshevik views which Trotsky expressed in 1903-4 which Cliff found most appealing. For Cliff holds that:

In Trotsky’s words about the danger of “substitutionism” inherent in Lenin’s conception of party organisation, and his plea against uniformity, one can see his prophetic genius, his capacity to look ahead, to bring into a unified system every facet of life.12

Trotsky, thus, considered that his early attacks on Lenin reflected an overly abstract way of thinking, a blindness to the bonds between revolutionary program and revolutionary organisation. For Cliff, on the contrary, Trotsky’s youthful Menshevism represented just the opposite qualities – historical foresight (“prophetic genius”) and a unique understanding of the concrete (“unified systems”).

Neither Tony Cliff’s Rosa Luxemburg nor his “Trotsky on Substitutionism” were early mistakes subsequently outgrown and repudiated. Rosa Luxemburg (as already noted) was reissued by Cliff in 1968, and its elevation of Luxemburg’s views on party and class consciousness over Lenin’s was repeated afresh in Cliff’s “Introduction” to the 1972 edition of Paul Frohlich’s study of Luxemburg. “Trotsky on Substitutionism” was reprinted in the IS pamphlet entitled Party and Class, also in the early 1970s.

This, then is the author of our new “manual for revolutionaries” who has drawn from the history of the Bolshevik Party “lessons [which] can and must be applied to the practical tasks of party building” in our time. He seizes on the starkest weakness of Rosa Luxemburg and the crippling mistake of the young Trotsky in order to counterpose them to Lenin’s single greatest contribution – his understanding of the necessity, role and nature of the vanguard party and his practical struggle to build it. Better acquainted with this author, the reader may now better understand his latest volume on this subject.

2. The nature of Economism

Lenin: Building the Party deals with an extended period in the history of the Bolshevik Party, a period beginning during the party’s prehistory in the 1880s and ending in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. It is impossible in a single article to expose all the errors of fact and interpretation which fill Cliff’s history of this lengthy a period. We will therefore focus on Bolshevism’s formative years, 1895 to 1905, from the strike wave which gave the Russian Social-Democrats their first mass base until the year of the first Russian revolution. We will concentrate especially on the years 1900-03, during which Lenin published the paper Iskra. For the purpose of studying the central principles of Bolshevism, this narrowing of the focus is permissible because (as Trotsky later noted):

It was precisely during this short time that Lenin became the Lenin he was to remain. This does not mean that he did not develop further. On the contrary. He grew in stature – and at what a rate – until October and after; but this was really organic growth. The leap from illegality to the seizure of power on October 25, 1917, was enormous; but this was, so to say, outward, the shooting upward of a man who had already weighed and measured all it was possible to weigh and measure, while in the growth which occurred before the split at the Second Congress of the Party there was the imperceptible, and all the more fundamental inward development.13

This formative period is also the period in which Cliff’s account wreaks the greatest havoc with the facts.

Cliff’s first major distortion of history occurs in his discussion of the “Economist” tendency in Russian Social Democracy.

What was “Economism?” What was its mainspring, its significance? What did it represent? It is impossible to underestimate the importance of these questions. Their answers determined much of Lenin’s ideas about party and class, not only in 1900-1903 but for the rest of his life.

How does Cliff characterise the Economist tendency? He does not waste too many words on it. He begins by briefly criticising the pamphlet written by Kremer and Martov, Ob Agitatsii (On Agitation), which subsequently became an important source of inspiration for Economism. Says Cliff:

Ob Agitatsii had a mechanical theory of the relation between the industrial struggle, the struggle against the employers, and the political struggle against Tsarism, based on the concept of “stages”. In later years this became the theoretical foundation for the development of “economism”, so harshly condemned by Lenin.14

And a little more specifically:

This [Ob Agitatsii] formula opened the door to the theory of stages characteristic of the future “economists”. Socialists should limit their agitation to purely economic issues, first to the industrial plant, then to inter-plant demands, and so on. Secondly, from the narrow economic agitation the workers would learn, through experience of the struggle itself, the need for politics, without the need for socialists to carry out agitation on the general political and social issues facing the Russian people as a whole.15

Cliff then goes on to forge his link between this pamphlet and the Economist trend as a whole. He quotes the liberal historian Richard Pipes, who characterises Economism as that trend “which subordinated politics as a matter of principle”, and Cliff affirms that here Pipes has “put the ‘economists’ in correct perspective”.16

This is Cliff’s interpretation. To bolster it he could have cited not only Richard Pipes but also the critique of Economism formulated by Mensheviks like Theodore Dan. Dan, too, agreed that Economism’s original sin was its supposedly rigid fixation on economic – to the exclusion of political – issues and demands.17

But this critique is an extremely superficial one and therefore wrong. Pipes is wrong, Dan is wrong and Cliff is wrong. All three of them are transfixed by Economism’s form, by its temporary appearance, and they therefore miss its essence entirely.

The essence of Economism was its fundamental, unwavering opportunism, its determination that the role of Marxists was to passively tail after the mass working-class movement at each stage of its development rather than to act as the class’s vanguard. It refused to assume the responsibility to speak to the proletariat about its class tasks as a whole, to pound away at what the class in general did not yet know and refused to believe. The Economists preferred to bow before every prejudice currently harboured by the workers with whom they made contact.

The initial insistence by the Economists that socialists give exclusive attention only to economic, not yet political, demands was merely a passing manifestation of this opportunist method, reflecting the fact that the more backward workers were at that time not yet struggling against the government but were already very much aroused over issues and demands aimed at their own employers and immediate economic grievances.

Even Julius Martov’s account of the rise of Economism showed more clearly than does Cliff’s the relationship between Economism’s defining opportunism and its temporary “stage theory” fad. Certainly, notes Martov, it is true that “what was proposed was agitation on the basis of everyday economic needs that led to a clash between proletarian and employer. There was not even a mention of any agitation on the basis of other social interests – on grounds of political, civil, ethnic oppression, or cultural demands”. But Martov also puts his finger on the underlying method which gave rise to this approach (without, of course, repudiating that method himself):

Instinctively, we were following the line of least resistance, taking the average worker as he was at the time, limited as he was at the time, limited by his local and shop horizon and by what appeared to be the impassable abyss that separated him from the social life of other classes.18

The Economists took the average worker as he was when they found him, and they politically adapted to him. That it was the opportunism which was characteristic, permanent and “principled” while the elevation of economics over politics was merely secondary and fleeting – this was made clear by history itself. The strike movement to which the Economists were adapting overcame its disinterest in politics by 1901 (without the help of the Economists), producing bloody clashes with police and troops.19 Once this change was registered and acknowledged by the Economists, they were quick to abandon their rigid stage theory, their alleged subordination of politics “as a matter of principle”. Their slogan now became – still tailing after events – “Lend the economic struggle a political character!”.

Did this mean that Economism as such was now dead? Not at all. The switch from tailing after the spontaneous economic struggles to tailing after their resultant political struggles changed nothing fundamental about Economism. Least of all did the switch involve abandoning their defining opportunist nature, their “instinctive” gravitation toward “the line of least resistance”, their characteristic adaptation to “the average worker as he was at the time”. As early as 1900, Economist spokesman B. Krichevsky had explained in the opportunist journal Rabocheye Dyelo (Workers’ Cause) his attitude toward political slogans:

Political demands, which in their nature are common to all Russia, must correspond initially to the experience extracted from the economic struggle by a given stratum of workers. It is only on the grounds of this experience that it is possible and necessary to move on to political agitation.20

Thus, by September 1901, Krichevsky could deem it completely appropriate to push for the political demands – without at all abandoning the Economists’ tailist method:”

The change of tactics of Rabocheye Dyelo was a praiseworthy attempt to help orient the Social-Democrats to the new situation that had arisen. Basing ourselves on the general Marxist view that revolutions happen and are not made, we attempted to act as every revolutionary should act at a moment which forewarns the coming of revolution... The task of a revolutionary Social-Democrat is to hurry objective developments by his conscious work and not to depart from them or alter them through his subjective plans.21

“Lend the economic struggle a political character” was the slogan which signified the persistence of opportunism among the Economists even after the anti-politicism had disappeared. This slogan meant that the political slogans which Marxists must present and fight for must be limited to those already being presented by the masses on their own. In the political as in the economic struggles, the tasks of the Marxists was to tail passively after the movement, not to lead it, not to struggle to push it onto an explicitly Social-Democratic (i.e., class conscious, Marxist) basis. For this reason, the newly found “politicism” of the Economists expressed itself as abject capitulation to the political struggle of (on the one hand) individual terrorism and (on the other) bourgeois liberalism.22

This was, in fact, the heart and soul of the critique of Economism which Lenin presented. He did not at all share Tony Cliff’s confusion. Even in the writings of Lenin which Tony Cliff quote, Lenin separates himself from Cliff’s superficial critique of Economism. Thus Lenin wrote in “Our Immediate Task” in 1899 that:

It is the task of the Social-Democrats, by organising the workers, by conducting propaganda and agitation among them, to turn the spontaneous struggle against their oppressors into the struggle of the whole class, into the struggle of a definite political party for definite political and socialist ideals.23

The same article goes on to hammer precisely this point home (although Cliff does not see fit to quote this further passage):

The task of Social-Democracy is to bring definite socialist ideals to the spontaneous working-class movement, to convert this movement with socialist convictions that should attain the level of contemporary science...24

This was Lenin’s recurrent theme in the attacks he waged on Economism in the pages of Iskra from 1900 to 1903. And he drew out the essence of his attack more clearly than ever in his 1902 pamphlet, What Is To Be Done?. Lenin argued that the fundamental significance of Economism was that it provided “a theoretical basis for their slavish cringing before spontaneity. It is time to draw conclusions from this trend, the content of which is incorrectly and too narrowly characterised as “Economism”.25

In presenting his own revised version of Lenin’s critique of Economism, Cliff entitles that section of his book “The Need to Generalise the Struggle”.26 But as the following passages from Lenin make clear, Lenin had only scorn for those whose solutions to the labour movement’s parochialism consisted merely in spreading, in “generalising” it. That was the solution offered by the Economists themselves! Lenin, in contrast, insisted on the need to change the programmatic basis of that struggle, to give it a Social-Democratic basis:

[T]he first issue of Rabochaya Mysl shows that the term “Economism” (which, of course, we do not propose to abandon, since, in one way or another, this designation has already established itself) does not adequately convey the real character of the new trend. Rabochaya Mysl does not altogether repudiate the political struggle; the rules for a workers’ mutual benefit fund published in its first issue contain a reference to combating the government. Rabochaya Mysl believes, however, that “politics have always obediently followed economics” (Rabocheye Dyelo varies this thesis when it asserts in its programme that “in Russia more than in any other country, the economic struggle is inseparable from the political struggle”). If by politics is meant Social-Democratic politics, then the theses of Rabochaya Mysl and Rabocheye Dyelo are utterly incorrect. The economic struggle of the workers is very often connected (although not inseparably) with bourgeois politics, clerical politics, etc., as we have seen. Rabocheye Dyelo’s theses are correct, if by politics is meant trade-union politics, viz., the common striving to secure from the government measures for alleviating the distress to which their conditions give rise, but which do not abolish that condition, i.e., which do not remove the subjection of labour to capital. That striving indeed is common to the English trade-unionists, who are hostile to socialism, to the Catholic workers, to the “Zubatov” workers [workers organised into fake “unions” by the tsarist police chief Zubatov – BL], etc.

Thus, Lenin concludes (and he seems to be arguing directly with his latest biographer):

There is politics and politics. Thus, we see that Rabochaya Mysl does not so much deny the political struggle as it bows to its spontaneity, to its unconsciousness. While fully recognising the political struggle (better: the political desires and demands of the workers), which arises spontaneously from the working-class movement itself, it absolutely refuses independently to work out a specifically Social-Democratic politics corresponding to the general tasks of socialism and to present-day conditions in Russia.27

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