I have criticisms of Alex Callinicos article Is Leninism finished? I actually have quite a few problems with it. While delighted to see the start of a fightback against Richard Seymour (who is not mentioned by name), Alex concedes far too much to the critics while failing to exploit the divisions within the CC’s critics, recognising that some of them may actually have a point or two, which they definitely do when it comes to, for instance, the slate system.
The attack on Owen Jones contains many excellent points. However even that doesn’t get everything right, in my ‘humble’ opinion.
Like Chris Harman, I support ‘Hegelian Marxism’. I’m pretty confident this has a bearing on my differences with Alex on this as on many other things. I am committed to examining political realities as a totality, processes rather than structures as fixed entities, the unity of opposites, the transformation of quantity into quality, the key role of subjective agency rather than taking objective reality as an unequivocal given to which Marxists can do nothing but adopt a contemplative stance.
Alex’s approach to the Labour Party is anti-dialectical, in my opinion. Labour will gallop ever rightwards only to the extent that its leadership believes it can take their core working class vote for granted.
George Galloway’s spectacular victory in Bradford West demonstrated how inept such a strategy is. A correct approach by TUSC can substantially eat into Labour’s core vote. That in turn can strengthen the hand of the likes of Owen Jones with the rank and file of his party. So long as Ed Miliband only has Rupert Murdoch and the BBC’s propaganda machines to worry about, to precisely that extent can we expect him to dance to their tune, with union bureaucrats writing one blank cheque after another.
But TUSC can be seized upon by Labour’s voters to teach Miliband an invaluable lesson. That will have reverberations within Labour’s parliamentarians and others regardless of whether we want that or not. But we should not be anxious about this. On the contrary, in precisely the same way that Nigel Farage exposing the Tories right flank has shifted David Cameron’s party into joining in the Eurosceptic chorus, creating a massive headache for Miliband, TUSC can do much the same thing.
TUSC can, as an absolutely unavoidable byproduct of electoral advances, lead Labour MPs into engaging in the sincerest form of flattery. To the extent that Ed Miliband and co echo socialist rhetoric (however half heartedly), they help the SWP and the Socialist Party to create a political climate more conducive to working class struggles.
Miliband may play into our hands for purely short term electoral reasons, just as he will probably embrace a referendum on EU membership for purely electoral reasons. The united front is an excellent idea for Leninists. What makes it so great is that heads we win, tails we also win. Either we force reformist leaders into our orbit, playing into our hands, or we give them enough rope to hang themselves, accelerating recruitment to a genuine socialist organisation. And that brings me to the arguments about the Labour Party’s ‘electoralism’.
The SWP must mothball all such syndicalist arguments which damaged the SWP for far too long. Anyone who examines Lenin and Trotsky and will find they demanded that Marxists made full use of elections at virtually every opportunity, with boycotts of elections justifiable in only exceptional circumstances: when workers’ power was on the immediate agenda!
There is no good reason why being a party committed to exploiting parliamentary elections leads to jumping to the tune of ruling ideas of society: the ideas of the ruling class. That is simply untrue, as is obvious to anyone who examines the electoral interventions of the Bolsheviks or the KPD or PCI until the mid-1920s.
Elections allow Marxists to educate the working class about the role of surplus value in the global economy, and how the exploitation of wage slaves by a class of parasites makes class struggle inevitable while fully justifying resistance to it on the part of the working class. Elections, in other words, are no optional extra. They are an indispensable weapon in the arsenal of the Marxist Party.
Alex also makes the mistake of underplaying the divisions between different oppositions to the SWP central committee.
Richard Seymour’s Democratic Faction is utterly hostile to the politics of Leninism. That is simply not true of many other critics. The attempt to dismiss all the CC’s critics on the question of factions plays right into the hands of Richard Seymour.
The SWP central committee needs to embrace a healthy open debate about what potentially positive role factions can play vis-a-vis the SWP. This is an open question. Factions in general are required to make a Leninist organisation sufficiently flexible to prevent splits, provided the rights and duties of all members to the organisation as a whole is understood.
The Bolsheviks had factions. More important, when the Bolsheviks were hostile to factions that took place in extraordinary conditions. Also their leaders tended to see less of a need for them when they operated as a cohesive faction within the broader RSDLP.
The desire for factions within the SWP arises from anxieties on the part of a minority. Such minorities are alienated from at least a part of the politics, strategy and tactics of the majority. Factions can function as a safety valve. Factions can give the minority the hope of convincing colleagues to correct what they are convinced are errors. This gives them an alternative to walking away into the wilderness of private life or forming yet another breakaway sect, to the utter bewilderment and frustration of the less class conscious workers who are crying out for left unity.
An electorally successful TUSC with a vibrant membership can become the RSDLP of Britain in the 21st century. That would allow the SWP to aspire to play the part of the Bolshevik faction within TUSC, with the Socialist Party providing healthy competition. In any event, factions can play a constructive, rather than destructive, role within a democratic centralist party. Alex Callinicos’s rejection of this plays into the hands of Richard Seymour. That, in my opinion, is a very foolish mistake.
If Alex is correct in the unavoidably divisiveness of factions, then Stalin was right to persecute Trotsky’s Left Opposition, and Bukharin was right to join Stalin in persecuting the United Opposition which brought on board Trotsky’s factional group the supporters of Zinoviev and Kamenev. Who was right: Trotsky or Stalin? Trotsky, obviously.
Factions do not necessarily have to play the paralysing role suggested by Alex. A healthy democratic centralist party can see to it that all party members are partisans of the party. The role of factions is necessarily subordinate to the health of the party as a whole given that it is the most authoritative organ of class consciousness.
Factions, for genuine revolutionaries, exist to help the entire party of class conscious workers most rapidly find its way to truth and to act upon its understanding of the truth in a disciplined manner.
Factions exist in a Leninist party to help minorities explain to the majority what it is that they have got wrong. That still imposes a duty on the minority to accept and abide by democratic decisions, which exposes the fact that Richard Seymour’s ‘faction’ bears no similarity to any faction that would be tolerated by Lenin or Trotsky.
What legitimises factions is they grant minorities a hope of convincing comrades why what they have been doing is problematic. Factions are not exempt from collective discipline. To the extent that any so-called faction flouts collective self discipline, then they have breached the rules and placed a question mark over their right to party membership.
To the extent that an individual faction seeks to hide its aims, organising secret meetings, saying one thing in public and something very different away from prying eyes, then such a faction is clearly anything but constructive. Members of such a faction are preparing for a split. But the membership of a Leninist party can be trusted to distinguish between such people.
Albert Einstein engaged in factional work to further the interests of humanity. He attempted to convince his colleagues why quantum mechanics was wrong, and played a key role in the advancement of science even though all his thought experiments proved the opposite of what he had hoped. Cyril Burt, on the other hand, fabricated data for his own reactionary ends. Employing factional methods is not inherently constructive or destructive within the party of scientific socialism any more than it is in community of natural scientists.