Reading Lenin in the light of the collapse of the SWP and the ISO

A comparison of Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party with Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party

A clear, deep blue sky against which is a sunlit statue of Lenin, pointing to the viewer's left, palm open. His own left hand hold's the lapel of his coat for balance and his expression is determined. A 1954 Communist vision of Lenin.
The ISO self-destructed, the UK SWP shrank to a rump and the Irish SWP dissolved: what does that mean for the interpretation of Lenin that they shared, one derived from Tony Cliff’s book Lenin: Building the Party?

In 2013, not long after the British SWP went into dramatic convulsions over the way their party failed to support a young member in her allegation that a very much older and more senior member had raped her, I had reason to be in Chicago. While there I met up with the International Socialist Organisation (at the time a relatively successful example of a revolutionary party), gave a talk on Ireland’s revolutionary years and attended a dayschool of theirs on Lenin and the revolutionary party. The bookstall had copies of studies of Lenin by Lars Lih, Paul Le Blanc and Tony Cliff.

Anyone wanting to encourage the development of a revolutionary party has, of course, to form an opinion of Lenin. Before the ISO fell out with their British equivalents (i.e. the SWP), their approach to Lenin would have been profoundly if not exclusively shaped by the British SWP and in particular by the leading figure in that party, Tony Cliff. It interested me that the ISO had a wider outlook on the subject than was usual in the SWP and the enthusiasm of the bookstall organiser meant that I came away with a copy of Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party.

The cover of Paul Le Blanc's Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. A collage of a picture of Lenin speaking outdoors with a march of women workers. Black and white with a red bar dropping down from the top right corner with the author's name.
The cover of Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party

This book was first published in 1990 and I had never read it because having inhabited a rather closed-minded organization, I felt there was little that someone closely aligned to the politics of Ernest Mandel would have to say on the subject that would be useful. After all, as I was told and believed at the time, I had been guided in my understanding of Lenin by someone with vastly superior politics to those of Mandel: Tony Cliff. More than this, as an SWP organiser in the UK and then in Ireland I had always used Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party as the essential text for explaining the theory behind SWP party-building methods to those members who I anticipated would go on to play leading roles in their branches and nationally.

A photo of the jacket of the 1986 edition of Tony Cliff's Lenin: Building the Party (Bookmarks). The title is in thick black letters across the middle of a white cover, beneath a picture of a barricade taken during the 1917 revolution. The word Lenin is in mauve, in. the bottom right corner.
1986 edition of Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party (Bookmarks)

The ISO – in the words of one of their organisers – said at the time that they drew on a canon of the best of other traditions and individuals to inform their attitude to Lenin and the lessons for today in regard to the revolutionary party. This sounded admirably open-minded. But I couldn’t help wondering if this willingness to promote other studies of Lenin than that of Cliff was, in fact, a watering down of the revolutionary Lenin in favour of a more Occupy-friendly version.

Given the 2019 collapse of the ISO, it is also reasonable to ask whether a move away from their traditional, if one-sided, reading of Lenin contributed to the crisis?

Then too, there was the 2018 submergence of the Irish SWP (I was a member at the time they voted to become a network within People Before Profit, yet I had no opportunity to vote on the decision; no documents were sent to me for consideration; no invitation was made for me to offer my views. I accidentally discovered from an online post that the party I thought I was a member of had gone). When you combine this with the self-destruction of the ISO and the rape-apologist behaviour of the UK SWP, the word ‘crisis’ is barely strong enough to encapsulate what has happened to parties of this type, who were once all thriving and united in a common organisation: the International Socialist Tendency.

It seemed evident to me that the failure of these parties meant that every aspect of SWP theory had to be looked at again with new eyes. Moreover – somewhat reluctantly, since it was time consuming – I felt that I had to make more of an effort to re-examine my attitude to Lenin. Without doing so, I was missing out in regard to developing my own understanding of the issues of party of class in an age when new means of communication mean some of the the old certainties, such as the essential role of the physical newspaper (a major topic in Cliff’s book), were fast becoming obsolete. So I reread Cliff and studied Le Blanc.

Side by side: Tony Cliff vs Paul Le Blanc on Lenin

The first thing to say about these books is that the story they tell is an inspiring one. Lenin became a Social Democrat (i.e. Marxist) in 1893, at the age of 23. Twenty-four years later, at 47, he led the successful Russian Revolution. Trotsky met revolutionaries in 1896 at the age of 17; he was 38 when he oversaw the October insurrection. Reading again the story of Lenin reminded me that when I became a revolutionary, during the great miner’s strike of 1984-5 in the UK, I thought that by now I would be living in a post-revolutionary era. After all, it took only twenty-four years for Lenin to go from next-to-nothing to the 1917 revolution.

It is worth noting that the experience of Western revolutionaries 1985 – 2020 has been a low-key one in comparison to the storms experienced by Lenin and Trotsky’s generation or that of the next. This, of course, is about to change and one reason why I’m delighted to have come through the experience of having COVID19 is because socialist politics are clearly going to be relevant in the 2020s.

At the deepest level, the crisis of the International Socialist Tendency is explained by this relative historical quiescence. Although the specific problems that arose in the UK and the USA deserve close analysis (with particular attention being paid to the question of who controlled their assets, worth a great deal), there’s a reasonable chance that the flaws in these parties and especially the emergence of a predatory male elite would not have become fatal had their members been engaged with the ebbs and flows of profound social upheavals such as those dealt with by Lenin. They would have been more deeply rooted in working class communities who would not tolerate the kinds of behaviour that ultimately brought them down.

Lenin’s efforts to build a revolutionary party from 1893 onwards are fascinating and deserving of scrutiny because they culminate in his having decisive influence over the October revolution of 1917. The twists and turns and dialectical inversions and leaps of the development of the Bolshevik party, even in the quiet years, are compelling to read about, because each argument at every stage really mattered. Each conference, debate, new pamphlet, new recruit, split, had consequences that rippled out over time to affect millions. Both books grasp this process well and while Le Blanc’s is the more scholarly in an academic sense, Cliff’s holds up surprisingly well in terms of the effort he made to contextualise each moment of the drama.

Neither author was able to access untranslated Russian source material directly. Cliff was perhaps the more eager to seize upon a tiny detail in a memoir to illuminate a particular moment. Le Blanc prefers to sum up contextual situations by reference to a secondary source, usually a work, to be fair, that is based on a detailed study of the Russian sources. Opening Lenin and the Revolutionary Party at random and finding an example, this type of statement is typical (p. 234): ‘As Hasegawa writes, “by the fall of 1916 the [Menshevik] workers’ group was obviously losing ground to the Bolsheviks and to regain its lost influence among the workers, the workers’ group turned leftward in December 1916.”’ This methodology is often unsatisfactory, as often the point being made by the secondary work comes across as an assertion without foundation. I wanted to see the primary evidence for the point being made.

Another difference between the books is that Le Blanc makes more of an effort to contrast his reading of Lenin with those of right wing or social democratic authors. This works to a certain extent, in ‘rescuing’ Lenin from the stereotype of the ruthless Machiavelli, but it surrounds the story with a commentary that is much less interesting than Cliff’s if your focus is the question: what does this all mean for revolutionaries today? In other words, there is no question but that Le Blanc’s is a much more helpful book for a student battling against ideologically driven attacks on Lenin. But for building the party, Cliff’s approach, potentially, has the advantage. At various points, Cliff puts the breaks on the narrative to digress with generalisations about party building and it is these generalisations that served for years to inform the practice of those on the SWP branch, district and national committees both in the UK and Ireland.

Cover of the 1994 pamphlet, The SWP versus Lenin by Ian Land. Mostly black, a white stencil of Lenin's face is in the lower two-thirds, with the details of the book at the top. Red, white and black colours only
Ian Land’s 1994 critique of Cliff’s view of Lenin remains the most insightful

I say ‘potentially’ because of course, the conclusions about the revolutionary party that Cliff drew do not, in fact, have the emancipatory power I once thought they did. Here, I think the best critique of Building the Party comes from Ian Land in 1994.

The cover of Lars Lih's Lenin Rediscovered. A Kandinsky background, mostly yellow, with the book details in a brown box in the centre upper half.
Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered

Lars Lih does an impressive job of overthrowing various paradigms concerning misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Lenin (not only those of Cliff), using 600 pages of densely sourced argument in his book Lenin Rediscovered. And that is very valuable. But to understand what particular lens was distorting Cliff’s view of Lenin you only need a few lines. In Cliff’s experience of leading the SWP, you had to battle hard for a new orientation for the party and the people you were battling against were those who had most immersed themselves in the old orientation. Your weapons? Exaggeration and youth. Cliff was expert in galvanising the openness of new members to new tactics to turn them against older members who might resist the new course.

So we learn this about the young Lenin from Cliff:

This readiness to bend the stick too far in one direction and then to go into reverse and bend it too far in the opposite direction was a characteristic that he retained throughout his life. It was already clearly apparent at this early stage of his development as a revolutionary leader.

Later, in discussing the rules of the party, Cliff wrote:

An overformal party structure inevitably clashes with two basic features of the revolutionary movement: (1) the unevenness in consciousness, militancy, and dedication of different parts of the revolutionary organisation; and (2) the fact that members who play a positive, vanguard role at a certain stage of the struggle fall behind at another.

If you are trying to explain to a party member why, having campaigned on a certain issue in a particular fashion, the party is now doing something radically different, these formulations are a great help. They address an important truth, which is that the currents of revolutionary politics are fast changing and the party has to be able to make swift turns and not be trapped, for example, by the moralism of a declining campaign, into substituting for a real movement. Nor must a revolutionary party be afraid of pouring every resource behind a critical strike, say. But Cliff’s formulations address this truth in a one-sided fashion.

Is it accurate to characterise Lenin as believing he was being excessive but that the outcome would justify his exaggerations? In other words, was Lenin willing to deliberately present a distorted picture of the world to win his perspective? In short, the answer is ‘no’. Le Blanc and Lars Lih and my own reading of Lenin’s works convince me that fundamentally at every stage Lenin believed that the truth was on his side, at least until events proved otherwise. Holding doggedly to a particular focus and task for the party is not the same as telling the party something which deep down, you do not actually believe, but which you consider expedient.

Here’s how one staunch defender of Cliff puts it in more recent times:

Cliff had learned from experience that shifting an organization of several thousand members (as oppose winning an academic or historical debate) from one strategic orientation and one way of working to another to meet the challenge of changed circumstances, required an almighty great tug on the relevant levers and, sometimes, a certain exaggeration. For Cliff achieving the desired end was more important than terminological exactitude or consistency and he rather thought, as do I, that Lenin felt the same way. http://johnmolyneux.blogspot.ie/2006/11/lihs-lenin-review-of-lars-t-lih-lenin.html

There is an evasion here. The argument is not whether Lenin was fussy about terminology but whether Lenin ever felt it necessary to deliberately exaggerate ‘to achieve the desired end.’ John Molyneux believes so. I do not. Lenin was fully aware the dialectics of revolutionary socialism do not allow for the separation of means and ends. The means you adopt will shape the end you arrive at. The moment you cease to tell the truth, no matter how unpalatable or how it works against the point you want to make, is the moment you abandon the prospect of realising a socialist society. I say this for entirely practical as well as moral reasons.

Secondly, look again at the question of party structure. It is an observable fact that all revolutionary parties are uneven, Cliff’s (1), but (2) is not as clear cut as it seems because it contains a value judgement. Who decides whether a member is falling behind? While another member is being ‘positive’? The true test has to be in regard to how effective the respective members are in changing the world. And judging that effectiveness is a complicated matter, where collective decision-making, honest accounting and democratic forms are essential. But in Cliff’s hands, this piece about rules can be read as follows: rules are all very well, but when some idiot is dragging the party down, it is necessary to find those who are getting results and use them to smash the conservatives, even if that means violating formalities.

Anyone expelled – or rapidly thrust from leading bodies within the SWP – by Cliff in the UK or Kieran Allen in Ireland will be familiar with what this depiction of Lenin meant in practice. But I think this depiction of Lenin also helps explain something of the attitude of those who have been in these parties for a long time and unfailingly endorse the initiatives of the leadership. Such long-term members have internalised the same ideas as profound revolutionary truths, which leads them to reason along the following lines: ‘I don’t want to be like the committee-men of 1905 who resisted the party’s turn to the class, therefore I will overcome my reservations and embrace the latest line. After all, this is the best way to test a perspective.’

Over time, the membership of the party learn to accept (and justify to themselves and others) that they have no meaningful input into the creation of new initiatives or the party’s position on crucial issues. This is in marked contrast to the vigorous and lively internal life of the pre-1917 Bolshevik party.

As a guide to the nature of a successful revolutionary party, Cliff’s interpretation of Lenin’s approach to rules only works if the party leader is always right. But who judges the judge? Who corrects the leadership when they are wrong? History? History has made its judgement upon Cliff’s party and its associates.

If Cliff’s Building the Party is flawed in this way, i.e. flawed at the points where it addresses the methodology of ‘stick bending’, is Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party the better tool for guiding revolutionaries in the theory and practice of building the revolutionary party? I don’t believe so. In fact, despite the criticism I’ve just made, I’d rather give someone Cliff’s book, mainly because of its activist focus. Le Blanc’s is a very good history written by someone with a clear understanding of the political stakes in the various debates but it has half an eye on academia. This means the standard of scholarship is high, but at the cost of the book being less of a manual for revolutionaries. It also has some political weaknesses, perhaps the most important being the failure to articulate the full scope of Lenin’s anti-imperialism. The author has a soft spot for the Sandinistas, bringing them up to the level of the Bolsheviks, and also for Cuba. This means Lenin’s emphasis on not giving anti-imperialist movements ‘communist colouring’ is entirely lost.

Where does this leave me in regard to reading Lenin? I’m faced with a situation where an uncritical approach to Cliff’s works no longer serves, but where there is no obvious single alternative. Best, then, to read a variety of books from different perspectives and, of course, the works of Lenin himself.