Why the Crisis in the SWP? "The politics of IS" - a 1969 polemic

Submitted by martin on 12 February, 2013 - 11:48

The explosion of political discussion in IS, ignited by the sudden change of line by Cliff in favour of building the embryo of a "revolutionary party" seemed six months ago to be the most hopeful thing on the British left. Many, seeing also the new-type IS positions on Vietnam and the Middle East — a radical break with the abstentionist attitude of the group to this kind of struggle in the first 15 years of its existence — wondered whether the leadership might not even disavow other aspects of its past.

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

Democratic centralism was of course impossible given the level of consciousness and commitment in the group. It was possible (just!) that the leadership intended to carry out a campaign to transform the members and methods of work. This question has in the last four months been answered decisively - in the negative. Those who last autumn were making passionate speeches for "democratic centralism" suddenly switched off the juice once formal centralisation had gone through. A merely formal structural change had taken place in the group, necessitated in the eyes of the leaders on technical grounds (1,200 to organise! - see Cliff's document of June 68) and presented in their usual style in a suitable demagogic sauce as "Leninist democratic centralism".

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

The events since the November conference, the tremendous degree of confusion expressed in shifting positions, realignments and dramatic volte faces; leaders mouthing new slogans one day, and venting hysterical spleen when their slightly critical followers remind them of the self-same slogans the next day; the loose use and misuse of terms like democratic centralism, Bolshevism, etc.; the methods of the leadership against their opponents and even against mild and loyal critics: gossip distortion, the arbitrary raising of organisational issues and deficiencies - all this is the sign of a serious political and organisational crisis and ferment in the group.

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

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

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

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

Thus the absence of an explanation of the past line of Cliff and Co on the party, allied to half-hearted change in forms and the clash of various interpretations of democratic centralism (even within the outlines of general IS politics) result sin the present political and organisational confusion and incoherences.

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

The proletariat, its class party, and the state

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

(Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol II p193)

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

(Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October)

The class party of the proletariat

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

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

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

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

For the proletarian revolution, politics dominates!

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

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

The super-exploitation of the colonial workers and peasants notwithstanding, even if that exploitation temporarily means an easing of the pressure on the West European and US proletariat, this remains true. For this reason Lenin said that for the proletarian revolution politics dominates. i.e. politics is the means for economic emancipation, for the proletariat's seizure of the means of the production, which have grown to gigantic size, bloated with its own sweat and blood, and an end made of class society.

Class cultures

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

The proletariat has no key to the arts, culture and sciences, and the Churches are bought and paid-for lackeys of the ruling class. This lack is more serious for the last class to establish its own rule (if the question can be posed like that), than it would have been for the bourgeoisie. For us consciousness is vital, a conscious participation of the masses of the proletariat based on a clear understanding of what is. No mystification, no blundering for the class that represents the first step of humanity out of class society, that corridor that divides its existence as part of the animal kingdom from its future existence as a truly human organism, more and more in control of its environment.

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

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

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

The proletarian ideology - Marxism

The battle for a favourable outcome from the current class struggle between bourgeois and proletarians thus becomes a question of a conscious fight. Bourgeois society is at the end of the dark tunnel of class society and represents a very high level of control and understanding of his environment by man. Thus man can begin to understand the laws of that environment - society - created by all his own past history. Certain layers within bourgeois society become aware of the issues, of the true nature of the modern class struggle that has dominated Europe and the world since the days that Marx and Engels wrote of the haunting spectre of communism.

Paradoxically, it is not the proletariat, the subject of future history, that first becomes conscious of the situation - nor even a section of that class. It is sections of the bourgeois intelligentsia who become aware of the real nature of the molecular processes of society in general and modern society in particular.

It could hardly be otherwise. Understanding of the objective laws of nature including society could only be possible for those with full access to science, the highest of modern science, inevitably bourgeois science: the custodian and systematiser (creator if we remember that they merely theorise from the gigantic practice of society) of that science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia. This is a result of the separation of mental and manual labour in all class society. The "mingling" of Marxist science and the proletariat is the necessary beginning of the first step towards the reintegration of mental and manual labour - the end of alienation.

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

Thus Marxism emerges out of a synthesis of the best in bourgeois thought (economics, philosophy, history) and is immediately denounced by the bourgeoisie, who shy away in terror and immediately castrate that science bred by itself which had produced a revolutionary ideology for the revolutionary class (resulting in modern bourgeois economics, philosophy, history). Therefore by a peculiar dialectic the proletariat and its organic movement arises separately from scientific socialism. The "mingling" of the two takes many forms, not all of them conducive to the most positive outcome. The openness of the proletariat to the influence of the science generalised in part from its experiences and expressing its interests is dependent on the ebbs and flows of society, and Marxism itself comes under immediate attack, open and subtle (attempts to tone it down, adulterate it with a wide variety of bourgeois trash, etc.)

A minority party

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

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

This party will be scientifically conscious and permanently organised for the proletarian class struggle, the regular army of the class, which en masse can only approach revolutionary consciousness in sharp periods of crisis, and even then not permanently, not scientifically. It must be militant on all three fronts of the class struggle: the economic (the spontaneous), political and the ideological - here it must defend revolutionary Marxism and combat the ideology that springs up in the working class movement under bourgeois influence. This party must be so organised and disciplined that it can fulfil its role of skeletal structure of the proletarian class in all its struggles, linking and co-ordinating the various aspects of the struggle. If it is to fulfil its tasks this party must fight continuously, consciously to perfect itself, subordinating its organisation form to the tasks rigorously imposed by the nature and course of the struggle.

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

We exist in a country where all the interactions of the material environment have produced a peculiar type of workers' organisations: the trade unions and their political equivalent, reformist bargaining within the bourgeois political set-up as an organic part of that system. As Engels pointed out the class struggles takes place on at least three levels: the economic, the political and the ideological. The British labour movement grew up spontaneously in a way that has been compared to plants growing chaotically in an untended garden. Its history is a series of zigzags, at one time lurching to over-emphasis of the 'political', then fetishising the economic struggle - with a general, almost complete neglect of the struggle on the ideological front.

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

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

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

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

"Crisis of leadership"

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

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

Leadership arises within parties and classes because of unevenness of development; all people haven't got the same training, the same experience, the same inclination, the same drive. We, when we develop a revolutionary party, aspire to have that party as a whole, as an organism, function as the leadership of the class. Likewise within the party, albeit on a higher level, there is a repetition of the unevenness. Here too unevenness of development means sharp differences in consciousness, political understanding and above all in serious commitment to the preparation for the proletarian revolution: certain people emerge who embody the best - consciousness, the drive, the organisational propensities necessary to the party. And of course there is a 'hierarchy' down to branch level. Even in groups (e.g. anarchist) where leadership is regarded as original sin it can be seen how de facto certain people always dominate, either generally, or in particular fields. Unlike the anarchists, Bolsheviks recognise this. For us consciousness is the vital spark, the beginning, and this means not only recognition that leadership will evolve but that leadership, the most conscious political centre, is the most important element. We recognise that specialisation and concentration develop people, that only by such serious revolutionary leadership can the revolutionary party keep abreast.

For us leadership is not an evil - we frankly recognise that in this period of unevenness of development generally, there must be a division of function, a delegation of authority, and this must be on the basis of ability.

Revolutionary party the key

Let the anarchists bemoan this; let the State Caps deny it; let Ted Grant take refuge behind the SLL caricature - history shows the need for a special type of revolutionary proletarian party, organised in a special way. Let those who want guarantees from history shudder in fear lest a highly centralised party aid 'degeneration' in an unfavourable future: the organisation of single cells into multi-cellular bodies gave rise to the phenomenon of death - it also made life as we know it possible. Melancholics may bemoan that the organisation of the human body implies death: we content ourselves with observing that no body equals no life.

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

'But', the comrades will ask: 'is all this really necessary, in an RSL Internal Bulletin?' We think that, unfortunately, it is. Such things as the paragraph in the July Internal Bulletin are neither accidental nor meaningless. Neither is it accidental that a member of the Secretariat can respond to talk of leadership by accusing us of wanting to teach the workers to suck eggs. The conception of the Bolshevik party which is a basic idea of the Fourth International has receded so far into the distance for our leadership, it has become so meaningless in practice, that all talk of the revolutionary party has now become a mere platonic ritual. The attitude expressed in the Internal Bulletin represents the real practice of the leadership - it therefore represents their real position. The organisation must no longer be content with platonic declarations from them - we must demand practical demonstrations.

Side by side with vulgar mechanical ideas of the centre - ideas which amount to crude determinism, we have its necessary concomitant: the implied idea of a full spontaneous ripening of the working class. This leads to our practice of passive waiting on this ripeness; which in turn leads to a disparagement of the role of conscious activity, of the Bolshevik combat party. (For these people it exists, if at all, in the future; here and now it is non-existent even in embryo - how then can it exist in the future?).

There are people, such as the Cliffites [proto-SWP], who explore this attitude theoretically and appear to believe in some absolute ripeness (see Tony Cliff: International Socialism magazine, autumn 1960). Despite their garbled repetitions of the position of Bolshevik Trotskyism, our leadership have in practice exactly the same position. In fact, practically, they go much further in this direction than the Cliff group, (which also seems to be reconsidering its former position) [In 1968 the proto-SWP would switch back to calling itself 'Leninist', 'Trotskyist' and 'democratic centralist'].

There are those who look back over the past 50 years and say: 'The workers were defeated - "immaturity"; capitalism has developed tremendously since then, despite sharp and very costly downswings including World War Two; it has given birth to a virtual second Industrial Revolution, despite all the continuing contradictions - which proves that, in keeping with Marx's axiom that no social system ever disappears until all the productive forces contained within it are exhausted, it could not possibly have been overthrown.'

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

Also they distort history, they confuse and reverse cause and effect. The West European workers have not failed to take power because capitalism mystically contained within itself hidden seeds of future development, these seed being protected by some Guardian God even in times when capitalism was prostrate: no, rather, capitalism continues, because the working class, impelled by the monstrous convulsions of capitalism (particularly and initially after World War One) revolted and were betrayed and delivered up to the reactionary butchers by their own renegade apparatus. Neither was the degeneration in the USSR inevitable because the revolution itself was a world-historic accident hopelessly premature and inescapably doomed; this degeneration being aided, speeded, by the structure of the Bolshevik Party. Rather was it the absence of such democratic centralist parties in the West, to fight the apparatus that was the product within the European labour movement of the past era of conservative accommodation to the status quo. This absence it was that ruined the European Revolution and left the successful revolution in isolation to degenerate and sink into the backward Russian mud.

That capitalism could pick itself up again, in time, out of the troughs that have included the betrayed and defeated proletarian revolts, is easily explainable by the nature of capitalism itself - in the nature of its development mechanism it experiences periodic booms and slumps, expressions of its inner contradictions: beginning in 1914 the same forces led to such catastrophic events that the continued existence of the system was in question. We have briefly considered the results; the point is that the very depth of the crisis, its social wastage, played the same role for the system as the earlier, smaller blood-lettings, the slumps which cleared the way for a new boom each time.

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

But side by side with this the recurrence of crises where the overthrow of the system becomes again possible is inevitable. Only an atomic war could remove the inevitability of such recurrences. The revolutionary party is thus the key. Those who deny the primacy of the combat party - in theory or in practice - work against the force which will be decisive for victory even in the most favourable circumstances.

The party is a living, fighting organism

The democratic centralist party is conceived as an active, functioning organism. It is not an accidental conglomeration of individuals or of so much democracy, so much centralism etc. added up, but an organic fusion of these things into a higher unity. Each member is a cell, and there can be no dead, inactive cells. This aspect is absolutely vital both for centralised activity and for full democracy. A combat party, strongly centralised, can have no dead-wood; its function is to prepare, organise and fight the class struggle; it is an army on the march (Lenin: "the column of steel"); its measure must be its will and ability to respond to events decisively and sharply. This means that the central leadership, democratically elected and controlled, must be in full position, having been appointed as the highest active consciousness, to give directives which are binding. To do this effectively it must know exactly what resources are available - and where. Unless it knows as near as possible what forces it can muster, then even an approximate calculation (to be submitted to the test of practice) is not possible i.e. Bolshevik-type activity is not possible. Centralism demands an active membership.


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

The function of a democratic centralist party is to usher in the future. In the matter of an active membership it must antedate that future. The bane of working class organisations is that the pressures of daily life under capitalism for the workers prevent full interest, full activity on their own behalf by the masses - even where formal democracy exists. Lenin proposed an immediate shortening of the working day, irrespective of the economics involved, because he saw this block on the self-activity of the masses as a terrible barrier. We can observe its effects in the unions and Labour Party now. The revolutionary Bolshevik party, existing here and now with all the pressures of capitalism, must, if it is to perform its function, overcome the pressures sufficiently to enable it to have an active membership and a conscious democratic life. We must be able, by our consciousness of our responsibilities to create such conditions for ourselves, ahead of the masses of the class, or we will never lead that class out of slavery. Only those who seriously devote their lives to socialism, who organise their lives around the single purpose of fighting for and with the class can be revolutionary socialists of the vanguard. It is a hard logic - but one imposed by an equally hard reality. And it is this reality, with its tremendous pressures, dragging us down to accommodation, that we must rise above and overcome.

Only a fully active membership can be an approach to a guarantee of full democracy. Members who are fighting actively know that every turn, every twist of the leadership, every lapse of the centre has a direct immediate bearing on themselves, that their local work may be ruined by the national leadership. Consequently they will be vitally concerned with what goes on. They will be compelled, as they value their party and its work to keep everything under review, to decide, take a position on every issue to the best of their ability.


As we have seen democratic centralism is not a measured quantity of both - but a dialectical fusion. A flexibility of both aspects is part of its structure: the flexibility of steel. Depending on the environment and the tasks which it consciously works out and sets itself, it is capable of the most rigid discipline (imposed by the political authority, established by the practical leadership of the centre) needed to fight the bourgeois state, and of the flexibility needed for the fullest possible democracy in the given situation.

It is capable of working underground without democracy, or in conditions of full democracy: full democracy prepares the way educates and disciplined the organisation to enable it to transform its structure underground when forced to. The original Bolshevik party is of course the classic example of this. It was able, from 1903 onwards to respond organically to conditions where no democracy was possible and, when conditions permitted as in 1905, to expand like a great plant, broadening its base, generating the fullest democratic life: then once again in 1907/8 it faced rigid retrenchment.


Without centralism there can be no practical revolutionary activity. The function of a democratic centralist party is political action (or preparation for action). This must be as effective as possible, bringing the fullest weight of the whole party to bear on one given point which may be decisive. This is only possible with strong central leadership, closely connected with all the local branches by strong organisational sinews; it is only possible where dissenters accept a duty to carry out in practice majority decisions. And this in turn is only possible where such internal relations exist that decisions are arrived at democratically: that the minority's "submission" is seen, by both sides, as really a submission to the test of events.

This is the second co-efficient of democratic centralism. No democracy equals no unanimity of action, no confidence in the directives of the leadership. Trotsky compared democracy here to oxygen, i.e. not a liberal fetish but a functional need for an organic party such as we have in mind (and which could be done without for a period, in exceptional conditions, but at a cost). Democracy, in decision, in equality of rights for majorities and minorities; in the complete 'neutrality' of the party machine in face of internal differences, played the vital function of allowing the party to live and grow and adapt and change aspects of its line where necessary.

Minority rights played the vital function of preventing monolithicism of line; the 'leadership' wasn't God-appointed, functioning with papal pretensions to infallibility, but its positions were submitted to experience; its abilities to practical demonstration. Minorities were loyally active dissenting (obviously within certain limits) groups which were potential alternatives: they were reserves, accepted and preserved as such by the party as a whole. The mutilation of this by the Communist Parties was possible only by the installation of hacks who had no position except of dog-like regard for the slightest flicker of an eyelid by the Soviet bureaucracy - the Dutts, the Thorez, the Togliattis.

Revolutionary ideology

Lenin said: "No revolutionary ideology means no revolutionary practice." Without revolutionary Marxism there can be no consistent fight to build the democratic centralist party. Without a conscious fight for Marxism, necessarily the job of the highest pinnacle of the movement, the revolutionary centre, the would-be revolutionary party will find itself inevitably accommodating to the broad labour movement (and in the final analysis capitalism) in practice, and it will find its supposedly 'revolutionary' ideas ever more compartmentalised, ever more "prayer" like: ever more "a credo and not a guide to action."

The ideological front is the crucial battle-front in the laying of the foundations and the building up of the democratic centralist political organism which the class absolutely needs. A vital part in maintaining the status quo of capitalism is played by traditional ideology: only a crude 'materialist' would minimise the importance of ideology in cementing the ties between masters and slaves in capitalist society. Engels pointed out that it was only in the field of ideology that men became aware of the conflicts that take place in the material world. It has been said many times that ideas assume the power of material forces when they grip the masses. And this does not only apply to correct ideas - it applies even more to the illusions.

The prerequisite of a revolutionary party is to break decisively, clearly with all bourgeois ideology. We must fight against all fully developed bourgeois ideology and in the working class movement in particular we must fight that ideology which springs up spontaneously and which must be classified, after Lenin, as bourgeois, even when it includes elements of a naive 'socialism'. There are no half measures here, no 'neutrality', no abstentionism - we either fight bourgeois ideology or we succumb to it. This fight is first conducted within the party. The party is the instrument for waging the struggle to break the ideological chains that help bind the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. The importance of this fight cannot be overstressed. It is the to-be-or-not-to-be for revolutionary politics.


" ... The most important observation to be made about every concrete analysis of forces is this: that such analyses cannot and must not be ends in themselves (unless one is writing a chapter of past history), and they only acquire significance if they serve to justify practical activity, an initiative of will. They show what are the points of least resistance, where the force of will can be applied most fruitfully; they suggest immediate tactical operations; they indicate how a campaign of political action can best be presented, what language will be best understood by the multitudes, etc. The decisive element in every situation is the force, permanently organised and pre-ordered over a long period, which can be advanced when one judges that the situation is favourable (and it is favourable only to the extent which such a force exists and is full of fighting ardour); therefore the essential task is that of paying systematic and patient attention to forming and developing this force, rendering it ever more homogeneous, compact, conscious of itself ..."

(A. Gramsci, The Modern Prince, p173)

" ... the presence of a revolutionary party, which renders to itself a clear account of the motive forces of the present epoch, and understands the exceptional role amongst them of a revolutionary class; which believes in that class and believes in itself; which knows the power of revolutionary method in an epoch of instability of all social relations; which is ready to employ that method and carry it through to the end - the presence of such a party represents a factor of incalculable historical importance."

(Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, p18)

" ... The great historical significance of Lenin's policy ... his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation, and, when necessary, split for the purpose of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party ... "

(L. Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, p 49.)

Cliff on the party

"The Bolshevik party has shown in action a combination of the highest revolutionary audacity and political realism. It established for the first time the correspondence between the vanguard and the class which alone is capable of securing victory. It has proved by experience that the alliance between the proletariat and the oppressed masses of the rural and urban petit bourgeoisie is possible only through the political overthrow of the traditional petit-bourgeois parties. The Bolshevik party has shown the entire world how to carry out armed insurrection and the seizure of power. Those who propose the abstraction of the Soviets from the party dictatorship should understand that only thanks to the party dictatorship were the Soviets able to lift themselves out of the mud of reformism and attain the state form of the proletariat. The Bolshevik party achieved in the civil war the correct combination of military art and Marxist politics. Even if the Stalinist bureaucracy should succeed in destroying the economic foundations of the new society, the experience of planned economy under the leadership of the Bolshevik party will have entered history for all time as one of the greatest teachings of mankind. This can be ignored only by sectarians who, offended by the bruises they have received, turn their backs on the process of history.

"But this is not all. The Bolshevik party was able to carry on its magnificent 'practical' work only because it illuminated all its steps with theory. Bolshevism did not create this theory: it was furnished by Marxism. But Marxism is a theory of movement, not of stagnation. Only events on such a tremendous historical scale could enrich the theory itself. Bolshevism brought an invaluable contribution to Marxism in its analysis of the imperialist epoch as an epoch of wars and revolutions; of bourgeois democracy in the era of decaying capitalism; of the correlation between the general strike and the insurrection; of the role of the party, Soviets and trade unions in the period of proletarian revolution; in its theory of the Soviet state, of the economy of transition, of fascism and Bonapartism in the epoch of capitalist decline; finally in its analysis of the degeneration of the Bolshevik party itself and of the Soviet state. Let any other tendency be named that has added anything essential to the conclusions and generalisations of Bolshevism. Theoretically and politically Vandervelde, De Brouckere, Hilferding, Otto Bauer, Leon Blum, Zyromski, not to mention Major Attlee and Norman Thomas, live on the tattered leftovers of the past. The degeneration of the Comintern is most crudely expressed by the fact that it has dropped to the theoretical level of the Second International. All the varieties of intermediary groups (Independent Labour Party of Great Britain, POUM and their like) adapt every week new haphazard fragments of Marx and Lenin to their current needs. Workers can learn nothing from these people.

"Reactionary epochs like ours not only disintegrate and weaken the working class and isolate its vanguard but also lower the general ideological level of the movement and throw political thinking back to stages long since passed through. In these conditions the task of the vanguard is, above all, not to let itself be carried along by the backward flow: it must swim against the current. If an unfavourable relation of forces prevents it from holding political positions it has won, it must at least retain its ideological positions, because in them is expressed the dearly paid experience of the past. Fools will consider this policy 'sectarian'. Actually it is the only means of preparing for a new tremendous surge forward with the coming historical tide.

"Great political defeats provoke a reconsideration of values, generally occurring in two directions. On the one hand the true vanguard, enriched by the experience of defeat, defends with tooth and nail the heritage of revolutionary thought and on this basis strives to educate new cadres for the mass struggle to come. On the other hand the routinists, centrists and dilettantes, frightened by defeat, do their best to destroy the authority of the revolutionary tradition and go backwards in their search for a 'New Word'."

Stalinism and Bolshevism, Leon Trotsky (1937)


The IS nucleus was perhaps nowhere more guilty of the sort of theoretical backsliding from the ABC of communism described here by Trotsky than on the party question - the cardinal question for revolutionaries who want no merely to comment on history but to actually take part in it and try to dominate it; more merely to laud proletarian spontaneity or play a fifth wheel to it - but to prepare in advance for it, to help transform it, and organise it so that it is not just an explosion but an effective self-controlled force to achieve the transformation of society.

The old IS position on the party comes under the following headings:

a. The concept of the relationship between class and party as elaborated by Leninists in the light of the victory in Russia and defeat in the west, was abandoned.

b. Cliff advocated an old fashioned social-democratic concept of the party - based on Luxemburg's ideas, "Luxemburgist" in the worst and most unenlightened sense. Cliff abandoned, if he every understood, the Leninist theory of the role of consciousness. And he distorted the experiences of history (e.g. Germany 1918) which underlie the theory of the party.

c. The role and type of Bolshevik leadership was rejected as "substitutionism"; Leninist-type leadership was seen as necessarily leading to substitutionism; an organised part of this sort was presented as almost invariably conservative, and any demarcation of such a group from the class as reactionary. The conception extended into the consciousness and methods of the group as it was built.

d. Cliff's writings asserted a causal relationship between Bolshevik centralism and Stalinism.

e. This was done largely by ignoring the ideas of the Trotskyist (Leninist) movement on these question. Cliff jumped backwards half a century, glorified Luxemburg's mistakes and set out to emulate them. Occasionally distortions and even misquotations were resorted to.

In the last year some of the above have been surreptitiously amended and removed from the record (e.g. the new passages in the 1968 edition of Luxemburg which quietly substitute for old ones) in a manner which shows contempt for theory and therefore for the essential basis of a Leninist party, and which creates a massive incoherence in the line of the group. The use of certain Trotsky quotations in the exposition of the party question in the France pamphlet which harks back to the Leninist theory of the party, also adds to the confusion when Cliff still insists he was right on the party and particularly on substitutionism.

Whether these assertions are true or not can be checked by examining the article on substitutionism and the 1959 edition of Luxemburg, Chapter 5. There is a serious difficulty in that Cliff does not very clearly expound all his views on the question - he confines himself to "hints and half-thoughts" for much of the time. Attempting to draw the loose threads into a knot may be a little tedious - but it is necessary. I hope the roughness of these notes will be forgiven.

Cliff, Luxemburg, p.49: Marx's statement ("the proletarian movement is the self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority") and Lenin's, that revolutionary Social Democracy represents "the Jacobins indissolubly connected with the organisation of the proletariat", are definitely contradictory.

Cliff goes on to caricature Lenin's remark (which in fact anticipated the actual connection that was to develop between the workers' organisation - soviets - and the communists in Russia) with talk about conscious minorities manipulating unconscious majorities. This (Lenin's idea? Or Cliff's caricature?) "may be grafted onto 'socialism' only by killing the very essence of socialism, which is the collective control of the workers over their destiny."

What Lenin was actually in process of doing was to solve, to find in practice the answer to a contradiction within the Communist Manifesto between the statement Cliff refers to and another, that "the dominant ideology in any epoch is that of the ruling class". A contradiction in real life also, because of the subordinate position of the workers. Lenin was in fact taking seriously another idea of Marx and Engels, that the class struggle takes place on the three fronts of economic, politics and ideology, and rigorously (in a Russia saturated with "legal Marxism" where everyone, even liberals were Marxists, and proletarian Marxists needed exceptional sharpness and consciousness) building an organisation dedicated to this conception of Engels - an organisation which subordinated considerations such as size, and number of worker members, to a clear revolutionary Marxist line in the various types of circumstances that evolved: a small, elite, non-elective compact group with few workers when that was the only way to maintain the political line; and an expanded, open, mass elective group when that became compatible with maintaining a Marxist line.

Lenin refined Marx's conception. Marx was correct insofar as every revolutionary situation calls forth the activity of the masses, often reaching advanced levels of consciousness. This is expressed in great class organs - soviets - which have the potential of power. Lenin's great merit was to solve in practice the problems posed by the bourgeois tendency to dominate the proletariat (directly or through accommodation and revisionism); to appreciate and fight for demarcation of the revolutionaries from the others and thus to prepare for the victory of the masses of the class when they moved.

Thus Cliff - in 1959! - caricatures Bolshevism.

Lest this be taken as faith in automatism of development, Cliff quotes Luxemburg on the impossibility of socialism without self-conscious action of the majority of the proletariat there can be no socialism: (Luxemburg). But where is this going to come from in a society dominated by the ruling class? A sort of spontaneous ripening of consciousness, embodied in a general proletarian organisation, arrived at through the experience of the class? Presumably.

For Leninists such confusion (of pre-1914 social democracy, including Luxemburg) was clarified by understanding the relationship between the mass spontaneous activity of the class and the hard organised minority: the spontaneous action would by definition, happen anyway; the point is to build to prepare for it, at the same time interacting with it as it developed. Luxemburg lost her life because she hadn't adequately done so.

Cliff presents Luxemburg's "possible" over-estimation of spontaneity and "possible" underestimation of organisation as stemming from opposition to the entrenched German party bureaucracy. She counterposed spontaneity as the first step in revolution to reformist sterility. But, he says, she generalised from this truth so as to embrace the struggle as a whole.

He concludes: Rosa Luxemburg "perhaps" underestimated the role of a revolutionary party - but her strength lay in her complete confidence in the workers' historical initiative... "The really great historical merit of Rosa Luxemburg, in face of prevailing reformism, was to emphasise the most important power that could break the conservative crust - that of workers' spontaneity". While Luxemburg had some deficiencies, 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". And - in opposing mass action to bureaucratic reformism she "may have bent the stick a little too far..." towards spontaneity.

Cliff never conceives of the need to build a non-bureaucratic organisation to help ensure the victory of the mass upsurge against the bureaucrats. He never appreciates Lenin's role in building such an organisation. He ignores the fight of the Bolsheviks against Mensheviks and liquidators, and its importance for the workers' victory in 1917. Instead he sees that victory as all a matter of automatism, that the environment decreed it. Cliff criticises Luxemburg for underestimating the labour bureaucracy - but at the same time he ignores and dismisses those who advocated a conscious fight for Marxist clarity against such forces; and adamantly defends Luxemburg from even a hint of criticism for not having built an anti-bureaucratic revolutionary organisation earlier.

Under the heading "Against sectarianism", Cliff discusses the relationship of Luxemburg and the left to the German social democracy:

"Emphatic as she was that the liberation of the working class can be carried out only by the working class itself, Luxemburg was impatient of all sectarian tendencies which expressed themselves in breakaways from the mass movement and mass organisations". (She failed to organise the fight because of her mechanistic conception of the armageddon that would raise the proletariat to clear out the social-democratic Augean stables. Yet Cliff quotes Engels to justify her. He equates minority leadership with sectarianism).

"She insisted despite her conflicts with it that revolutionaries should remain in the social democracy. Even after 1914, and after Liebknecht's expulsion (1916) from the parliamentary group, she and Liebknecht stayed on the grounds that to break away would turn a revolutionary group into a sect. She persevered in this view when the Spartakusbund gained influence and was becoming quite a recognisable force as the war dragged on".

Cliff approves! As the mass opposition movement, mass strikes with political implications, developed, Luxemburg, despite the pressure from the ranks, advocated remaining in the SPD, to say and fight and thwart the policy of the majority at every step. When the Independent Social Democrats split in 1917 she went with them. Only after the outbreak of the 1918 November revolution did the Spartakusbund form the Communist Party of Germany.

Cliff, p.53: "Rosa Luxemburg's reluctance to form an independent revolutionary party is quite often cited by Stalinists as a grave error and an important cause for the defeat of the German revolution of 1918. They argued that Lenin was opposed to the revolutionary left's adherence to the SPD and continuing association with Kautsky. There is no truth at all in this legend". (This passage has been expurgated from the 1968 edition). Luxemburg, he says, made a clearer assessment than Lenin of Kautsky - and much earlier.

Lenin, July 1921: "We know the history of the Second International, its fall and bankruptcy. Do we not know that the great misfortune of the working-class movement in Germany is that the break was not brought about before the war? This cost the lives of 20,000 workers..." Not only Stalinists considered it a grave error!

It is true that Luxemburg understood the German "Centre" sooner than did Lenin. The point however is that Cliff is blithely dismissing the whole question as a Stalinist myth (and Stalinist myths are usually of a different order...) and therefore - in 1959 - refusing to draw the conclusions from the event - and the German events were decisive for the conception of the party put out by the Comintern. It was not a question who said what first, but of a mature summing up by Lenin and the Communist International of the defeat of the German revolution. When Cliff dismisses this he is dismissing not a Stalinist legend but the Leninist theory of the party.

Thus we see Cliff endorsing with mild criticism Luxemburg's stress on spontaneity versus reformist bureaucracy - in opposition to a policy of building a non-bureaucratic organisation to serve the proletarian spontaneous struggles.

The role of Marxists

In line with his endorsement of Luxemburg's attitude and practice in Germany, Cliff in the "Substitutionism" article reaches conclusions on the role of Marxists which are legitimate only on (1) a conception of a mechanistic development of the whole class; and (2) complete abandonment of any conception of Bolshevik-type leadership.

"The role of Marxists is to generalise the living evolving experience of the class struggle, to give a conscious expression to the instinctive drive of the working class to reorganise on a socialist basis".

Merely an expression? Not the development of the permanent consciousness of the class with the concomitant duty to lead? "Organised expression" - is this not substitutionism or sectarianism? Or merely pointless, when it will all happen anyway? The conclusion could only be (and it was for IS) passivity, a variety of the "blackboard socialism" model, with its casual whisper in the ear.

This line, which simply removes any leading role for a revolutionary party as conceived by Leninists (as opposed to the "technical" party that Cliff acknowledges) is only rational on the basis of a vulgar evolutionary conception of a maturation of the class. It excludes sharp breaks and jumps in class development, the points where the activity of an organised Leninist combat party can be decisive. It ignores the fact that the working class en masse only sporadically reaches a peak of revolutionary activity.

In practice the line in 1959-60 said simply: wait around in the Labour Party.

Party embryo or discussion group?

Following from this concept the role of the party in relation to the class was a concept of the small party as a variety of discussion group. And this is in fact largely what IS was until the last year or two.

"The path to socialism is uncharted" (Cliff on Substitutionism). True - but isn't it indicated by the experiences of Russia and the ever-recurring events such as France's May? For Cliff in 1960 it obviously wasn't. Bolshevism was, apparently, merely a Russian experience, perhaps an unfortunate one or at any rate one teaching only negative lessons.

"Wide differences of strategy and tactics can and should exist in the revolutionary party... The alternative is the bureaucratised party or the sect with its 'leader'." How wide the differences? Organised in which way? Under democratic centralism - with clear internal demarcation? Obviously not. No - wide as a discussion group called 1960 IS. This could only be possible for an organisation where "tactics" and "strategy" are largely unconnected with practice. This formulation, without mention of democratic centralism (in a context that rejects it), excludes the possibility of a combat-party type of group.

Cliff advocates no alternative here - merely a waiting game. But the sects and leaders arose not from lack of looseness but because of the erosion of revolutionary consciousness in a period of isolation, of tactical fetishism, etc. Even this has a positive side - the preservation of revolutionary ideas (even at the cost of dehydration) and preparation for the future. Which IS conspicuously failed to do.

The party and the class identical?

Cliff: "The party has to be subordinated to the whole". He might as well have used the word "identical" here. He advocates extreme open discussion of every issue before the mass of the class - without qualification. "The freedom of discussion which exists in the factory meeting, which aims at unity of action after decisions are taken, should apply to the revolutionary party. This means" - why? the party is not the class - "that all discussions on basic issues of policy should be discussed in the light of day: in the open press. Let the mass of the workers take part in the discussion, put pressure on the party, its apparatus and leadership".

Thus the party is seen not as a freely selected grouping of opinion, but as the forum of the class. And Cliff's final position in this article is therefore based on a conception of an almost homogeneous working class (seen as the way to overcome the danger of substitutionism) and of the possibility of some absolute condition of ripeness. "Let the mass of the workers... put pressure on the party..." - this happened favourably in 1917 in Russia. But when there is a downswing in consciousness?

Then the effect of such "pressure" is reactionary, and how can it be overcome and counteracted unless the party stands alone, to a degree: clearly demarcated, capable of resisting the class enemy even when the pressure is exerted through sections of the working class? The point about a situation like 1917 when the masses were ahead is that it is exceptional - highly exceptional. The machine of a revolutionary party may tend towards conservatism in spontaneous upsurges - but it is normally the vanguard, normally massively in advance, precisely because it is the permanently organised force. And it must maintain itself from being dissolved in the class in times when the class is not in advance of it. The ability to combat bourgeois and reactionary ideology in the class is impossible if the party is to be open to pressure from it: do we allow the dockers when they march for Enoch Powell to put pressure on us? But then, Cliff lost sight completely of the battle on the ideological front. This battle must be fought, or the party as such will cease to exist.

In conditions like 1940 America, when a reneging, capitulating petty-bourgeois section of the SWP wishes to appeal to the general public to put pressure on the party, it is reactionary. This is what Cliff advocates in the 1960 article.

In the long term the interests of the class and the party are identical. But they must be separate - or the party will cease to operate in the interests of the workers and will operate against their interests.

Revolution - bourgeois and proletarian

Nevertheless a party, apparently, is necessary (p.39-40, Luxemburg). Cliff cites the spontaneous beginnings of 1789, 1905, and 1917, and their "later" need for leadership. Amazingly he entirely ignores the cardinal difference between the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions in this juxtaposition of the French and Russian revolutions. For him the conception of the party is merely one of a technical necessity and therefore it is essentially the same for both types of revolution: hence he fails to differentiate between them.

The France pamphlet reproduces this section from Luxemburg on the need to go beyond spontaneity. Into it he interpolates a quotation from Trotsky to differentiate the French and Russian revolutions. Yet another belated change.

Cliff discusses Lenin's conception

Lenin, Cliff stresses, faced an amorphous labour movement, unlike Luxemburg, who faced a bureaucratic one, and his views must be seen against this background. Faced with amorphousness in the labour movement Lenin stressed the need to supplement the flaring spontaneous workers' movement by "the consciousness and organisation of a party". Socialist theory must come from outside and was "the only way the labour movement could move directly to the struggle for socialism". The projected party would be made up of a highly centralised band of revolutionaries. He quotes Lenin on the need to organise the party from above down - "from the congress to the individual party organisation".

Stalinists and "non-Stalinists" have quoted What is to be done? as applicable in toto to all stages of development in all countries. "Lenin was far from these so-called Leninists. As early as 1903, at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party, he pointed out some exaggerations of the formulations in What is to be Done..." "The basic mistake of those who polemicise against What is to be Done? today is that they tear this work out of the context of a definite historical milieu, a definite, now already long past period of development of our Party ... What is to be Done? polemically corrected Economism, and it is false to consider the contents of the pamphlet outside of its connection with this task". Lenin was concerned that What is to be Done? should not be misused.

However, Lenin wasn't quite saying what Cliff makes him say.

"The basic mistake made by those who now criticise What Is To Be Done? is to treat the pamphlet apart from its connection with the concrete historical situation of a definite, and now long past, period in the development of our Party. This mistake was strikingly demonstrated, for instance, by Parvus (not to mention numerous Mensheviks), who, many years after the pamphlet appeared, wrote about its incorrect or exaggerated ideas on the subject of an organisation of professional revolutionaries.

"Today these statements look ridiculous, as if their authors want to dismiss a whole period in the development of our Party, to dismiss gains which, in their time, had to be fought for, but which have long ago been consolidated and have served their purpose.

"To maintain today that Iskra exaggerated (in 1901 and 1902!) the idea of an organisation of professional revolutionaries, is like reproaching the Japanese, after the Russo-Japanese War, for having exaggerated the strength of Russia’s armed forces, for having prior to the war exaggerated the need to prepare for fighting these forces. To win victory the Japanese had to marshal all their forces against the probable maximum of Russian forces.

"Unfortunately, many of those who judge our Party are outsiders, who do not know the subject, who do not realise that today the idea of an organisation of professional revolutionaries has already scored a complete victory. That victory would have been impossible if this idea had not been pushed to the forefront at the time, if we had not 'exaggerated' so as to drive it home to people who were trying to prevent it from being realised.

"What Is To Be Done? is a summary of Iskra tactics and Iskra organisational policy in 1901 an4 1902. Precisely a “summary”, no more and no less. That will be clear to anyone who takes the trouble to go through the file of Iskra for 1901 and 1902.[6] But to pass judgement on that summary without knowing Iskra’s struggle against the then dominant trend of Economism, without understanding that struggle, is sheer idle talk.

"Iskra fought for an organisation of professional revolutionaries. It fought with especial vigour in 1901 and 1902, vanquished Economism, the then dominant trend, and finally created this organisation in 1903. It preserved it in face of the subsequent split in the Iskrist ranks and all the convulsions of the period of storm and stress; it preserved it throughout the Russian revolution; it preserved it intact from 1901-02 to 1907.

"And now, when the fight for this organisation has long been won, when the seed has ripened, and the harvest gathered, people come along and tell us: “You exaggerated the idea of an organisation of professional revolutionaries!” Is this not ridiculous?

"Take the whole pre-revolutionary period and the first two and a half years of the revolution (1905-07). Compare our Social-Democratic Party during this whole period with the other parties in respect of unity, organisation, and continuity of policy. You will have to admit that in this respect our Party is unquestionably superior to all the others—the Cadets, the Socialist-Revolutionaries, etc.

"Before the revolution it drew up a programme which was formally accepted by all Social-Democrats, and when changes were made in it there was no split over the programme. From 1903 to 1907 (formally from 1905 to 1906), the Social-Democratic Party, despite the split in its ranks, gave the public the fullest information on the inner-party situation (minutes of the Second General Congress, the Third Bolshevik, and the Fourth General, or Stockholm, congresses). Despite the split, the Social-Democratic Party earlier than any of the other parties was able to take ad vantage of the temporary spell of freedom to build a legal organisation with an ideal democratic structure, an electoral system, and representation at congresses according to the number of organised members.

"You will not find this, even today, either in the Socialist-Revolutionary or the Cadet parties, though the latter is practically legal, is the best organised bourgeois party, and has incomparably greater funds, scope for using the press, and opportunities for legal activities than our Party. And take the elections to the Second Duma, in which all parties participated—did they not clearly show the superior organisational unity of our Party and Duma group?

"The question arises, who accomplished, who brought into being this superior unity, solidarity, and stability of our Party? It was accomplished by the organisation of professional revolutionaries, to the building of which Iskra made the greatest contribution. Anyone who knows our Party's history well, anyone who has had a hand in building the Party, has but to glance at the delegate list of any of the groups at, say, the London Congress, in order to he convinced of this and notice at once that it is a list of the old membership, the central core that had worked hardest of all to build up the Party and make it what it is.

"Basically, of course, their success was due to the fact that the working class, whose best representatives built the Social-Democratic Party, for objective economic reasons possesses a greater capacity for organisation than any other class in capitalist society. Without this condition an organisation of professional revolutionaries would be nothing more than a plaything, an adventure, a mere signboard. What Is To Be Done? repeatedly emphasises this, pointing out that the organisation it advocates has no meaning apart from its connection with the 'genuine revolutionary class that is spontaneously rising to struggle'.

"But the objective maximum ability of the proletariat to unite in a class is realised through living people, and only through definite forms of organisation. In the historical conditions that prevailed in Russia in 1900-05, no organisation other than Iskra could have created the Social-Democratic Labour Party we now have. The professional revolutionary has played his part in the history of Russian proletarian socialism. No power on earth can now undo this work, which has outgrown the narrow framework of the “circles” of 1902-05. Nor can the significance of the gains already won be shaken by belated complaints that the militant tasks of the movement were exaggerated by those who at that time had to fight to ensure the correct way of accomplishing these tasks".

For Marxists today (and in 1959) it was not enough to point to the peculiar conditions of Russia. That may explain origins - it is not a summary and nor can it be a dismissal. The conscious method, the combat party, and all that is Bolshevism developed not in one stage but in a whole struggle for the Bolshevik party (1902 - 1905/7 - 1912 - 1917) up to the Revolution and also after it. International Bolshevism rests on the whole body of writings and experience of which What is to be Done? is only a part. Cliff in 1959 did not seem aware of this. The essence did not depend on external - and it was this essence that was "exported". It was this that Trotsky defended in the Fourth International. And it was this, in the 1959 context, that Cliff rejected - by false methods. He drew conclusions which could only legitimately have been drawn from the full picture up to 1919 and beyond on the basis of a one-sided and falsified version of 1904.

And the same on p.93: "For Marxists, in advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can serve much less as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s, notwithstanding her overstatements on the question of spontaneity. Rosa Luxemburg's conception of the structure of the revolutionary organisations - that they should be built, from below up, on a consistently democratic basis - fits the needs of the workers' movement in the advanced countries much more closely than Lenin's conception of 1902-4, which was copied and given an extra bureaucratic twist by the Stalinists the world over".

(This passage has been partly expurgated in the 1968 edition).

(1) To simply describe the Stalinists as "copying" Lenin in 1902-4 is grotesque - it ignores Stalinism's essence: the misunderstanding is possibly significant for much of Cliff's attitudes.

(2) It misunderstands the 1902 position and its connection with the whole evolution of Bolshevism.

(3) It is false to counterpose 1902 and later Bolshevism (as Lenin points out).

(4) It is false to counterpose Lenin's views of 1902 to Luxemburg, without giving a rounded picture of Bolshevism as we now have a view of it. He winds up endorsing Luxemburg's views in their totality without ever really discussing Lenin's full views.

Stalinism and Bolshevism

Cliff's writings of this period clearly saw and responded to a serious connection between Bolshevism and Stalinism. This is quite unambiguous in a whole series of nuances.

"However, if the State built by the Bolshevik Party reflected not only the will of the party but of the total social reality in which the Bolsheviks in power found themselves, one should not draw the conclusion that there was no causal connection at all between Bolshevik centralism based on hierarchy of professional revolutionaries and the Stalinism of the future" (emphasis added).

What was this causal connection? Cliff is by no means lucid, merely connecting it in general with the phenomenon of "unevenness". "From this unevenness in the working class flows the great danger of an autonomous development of the party and its machine till it becomes, instead of the servant of the class, its master. This unevenness is a main source of the danger of 'substitutionism'. The history of Bolshevism prior to the revolution is eloquent with Lenin’s struggle against this danger..", i.e. centralism and a machine amount to an inherent tendency to substitutionism.

But neither the party nor its machine ever became the master - Stalinism and Bolshevism were not twins. Stalinism did not flow evenly either from organic changes in Bolshevism, or from such changes in its role. It was its dialectical negation.

Thus when Cliff argued against any identification of Stalinism and Bolshevism in 1968, he confronted his own past and those miseducated by it.

Cliff on substitutionism

Throughout Cliff's writings runs the thread that the danger of substitutionism arises from leadership, which arises from unevenness; the corrective to this is mass action, and therefore any minority leadership of the type necessary in the beginning for a small party that wants to be more than either a servicing agency or a commentator is ruled out and branded as a form of substitutionism. Cliff quotes figures from the high point of the 1905 revolution and from 1917 on party membership: he concludes that... small groups can't substitute for mass revolutionary parties! But there were and are other periods when the revolutionary organisation is condemned to smallness - and how they operate then is not unconnected with their prospects of serious growth in upsurges.

The business with the quotation from Lenin above shows Cliff as not able to see Lenin's point on the connection between the foundations and the later development of Bolshevism, between the fundamental cadre of a group and its looser flesh. Here he applied the same blindness to Britain, in what was meant as a rejoinder to the SLL.

What his ideas implied as the most passive commentating and propaganda, while awaiting the class to move. The result of equating leadership with substitutionism - as the ideas percolated into the group - were drawn in IS journal 31 on ENV: the stewards "were - quite rightly - afraid of being 'adventuristic', but adventurism is better than nothing. In a way the stewards' legitimate fear of substituting themselves for the majority of the workers was, we feel, carried too far... at the most general level they saw only that substitutionism was a danger, but did not see that the theory of substitutionism (with which IS has often been identified) implies no rejection of the need for leadership" (Rosser and Barker). Unfortunately that is what it was interpreted as implying in the group's practice.

The article on substitutionism is a highly polished example of the permanent method of comrade Cliff, that is, eclecticism. No consistent analysis is rigorously adhered to: incoherence necessarily follows. He repeats the materialist analysis of how substitutionism took place: "Under such conditions the class base of the Bolshevik Party disintegrated – not because of some mistakes in the policies of Bolshevism, not because of one or another conception of Bolshevism regarding the role of the party and its relation to the class – but because of mightier historical factors. The working class had become declassed". End of discussion? No! Cliff has more to add - speculations, hints and half-thoughts about some "causal connections" - and some semi-anarchist conclusions, etc.

(Literary) reform or revolution?

In Luxemburg, edition '68, Cliff is a changed man! Nowhere is the result more startling than in the final paragraph of the chapter on Luxemburg and Lenin.

1959 edition: "For Marxists in advanced industrial countries, Lenin's original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg's, notwithstanding her overstatements on the question of spontaneity."

1968 edition: "However, whatever the historical circumstances moulding Rosa's thoughts regarding organisation, these thoughts showed a great weakness in the German revolution of 1918-19."

Of course people change their minds. When Marxists do so it would be good to know why and how. The important thing here too is method. A Marxist's exposition is based on an analysis of the real world to which he brings certain conceptions: his conclusions are drawn from his analysis. Thus the train of thought is clear, the reasoning and considerations are designed to expound, to convince. In this case there is a mystery: one and the same exposition (without supplement) leads to opposite conclusions. Why? How does Comrade Cliff reach his conclusions?

Results and realities

Thus the IS attitude to the question of the Leninist party has been a compendium of the attitudes of a senile "Luxemburgism", tailism, and contempt for the idea of organising a small propaganda group as a fighting propaganda group.

The current change - motivated allegedly on the May events in France but seemingly owing as much if not more to the happy coincidence that the Group had just too many members to make federalism comfortable: after all, what conclusions were drawn from the Belgian General Strike in 1961? - has resembled not so much a rectification of theory and practice by serious communists, as an exercise in the medieval art of palimpsestry.

An element in the incoherence is comrade Harman's article in the current IS - clearly a muffled polemic with Cliff's old views - or rather a surreptitious attempt to bring "the theory" of the group in line with what the leaders have been saying recently. It is not in any sense a signal for a change in methods of functioning and serves only as decoration for a practice no different form the past in its essentials. It is therefore an academic exercise (useful, despite the strange silence on the Trotskyist movement's struggle to maintain the conception of the combat party against social democracy and Stalinism for 40 years). It clears up none of the practical or theoretical confusion: to do this plainly requires an attempt to relate the reality of the group to the theory that has moulded it.

The leadership continue as of old with as little understanding of the conscious Leninist approach: no attempt at serious planning of work; no conception of an activist rather than a tailist, accommodationist approach (e.,g. industry, Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, youth). IS remains a group without a programme, with only the ravaged remnants of the programme of Trotskyism patched with a few eclectic rags. It does not begin programmatically, objectively, and map out its tasks - it trims empirically, subjectively.

If Cliff's confusion on substitutionism in 1960 was - essentially - the result of casual eclecticism, the "new approach" to the party today is similar: an assemblage of various conceptions and approaches without consistency and in danger of falling between all the stools. Neither a loose left social-democrat-type group big enough to survive beyond the revival of left social democracy itself (probable after Labour's defeat), nor a Bolshevik cadre group tempered and organised and capable of entering into and changing, or gaining from, events - including a such a revival when it develops.

The leadership does not have a clear conception of the party that needs to be built. "Whether the IS group will by simple arithmetic progression grow into a revolutionary party, or whether the party will grow from a yet unformed group is not important for us" (Political Committee document, October 1968). On the contrary, it is vital. If the strategy is one which expects any big changes from the shift to come in the already organised labour movement (all experience in the past suggests that this is the likely way a real mass revolutionary movement will develop in a country like Britain) rather than by arithmetical accretion, then this decrees the need for us to build a cadre movement to be able to intervene. The lack of a clear strategy on the relationship of IS to the class and the organised labour movement is obvious. Consequently IS is being built as a loose, all-in type of group. Lacking a strategy the leadership looks always for short cuts.

Ironically the theorists of "substitutionism" have in the last three years come close to substituting (as a fifth wheel) for the rank and file industrial movement, and now for a broad left social-democratic one. This is only possible, however, in the absence of a genuine left social-democratic grouping - i.e. for a very short period.

IS's growth is largely the result of a series of unpredictable events - e.g. the suicide of the SLL - which have left IS as the only contender in the field and thereby transformed it from a discussion group without a future into a potentially serious revolutionary organisation. IS is thus going through a crisis of identity. It is not often that it is given to organisations to make a sharp turn, a second dedication. IS has this opportunity. It has still not decided definitively which way it will go.

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