The great Lenin debate of 2012

(Or, the bankruptcy of “Leninism” Rediscovered)

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Over the past several decades, much of the international Left has come to question the “Leninist” party-building model that was hegemonic among Western socialists for the majority of the twentieth century. In the United States, it appears that the crisis of “Leninism” has sharpened in the years since 2008. While “Leninist” groups are notoriously prone to factional strife in general, this period seems to have witnessed an intensified tendency toward splinters and splits within these groups. Inevitably, this trend has generated new scatterings of disaffected ex-members, at least a portion of whom remain active in politics and activism. This process has been aided by the writings and (in some cases) the ongoing interventions of previous generations of ex-”Leninists,” who have, no doubt, helped many newly purged and “bureaucratically excluded” comrades to make sense of their experience within the sect-based Left. To this end, influential roles have been played by the likes of Louis Proyect and other former members of the 1970s-era U.S. Socialist Workers Party. Many former “Leninists” have also been influenced by such historical critics of sect-based socialist organizing as Hal Draper and Bert Cochran.[1]

This dynamic is certainly reflective of my personal experience as a newly-expelled member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). To summarize my story in very brief, I was booted out of the ISO in February alongside my comrades in the (now officially disbanded) ISO Renewal Faction. During the course of our hard-fought factional struggle within the ISO, members of the Renewal Faction discussed a number of articles critical of “Leninism” and socialist sects. To mention a few pieces in particular, at the height of the factional fight, we passed around and debated Hal Draper’s “Toward a New Beginning” (1971) and “Anatomy of the Micro-sect” (1973), as well as a number of more recent documents, including Scott Jay’s “On Leninism and anti-Leninism.”[2] Naturally, these pieces helped us make sense of the stultifying, undemocratic environment within the ISO and our experience of being ostracized and defamed by the leadership and their loyalist followers. Notably, since being purged from the ISO, members of the Renewal Faction appear to have adopted differing views on the subject of Leninism – and, for that matter, Trotskyism, as well. Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that our experience has led us all to develop profound critiques of the party-building approaches adhered to by socialist sects like the ISO.

For me personally, I can say that – since February – I’ve done a great deal of reading into some of the many Leftist debates and studies that deal with the deep-seeded historical and methodological flaws at the heart of the party-building model still adhered to by much of the Left. Like so many of my fellow “Leninist” burnouts, I’ve been particularly influenced by the writings of British academic historian Lars Lih – the author of the paradigm-shattering study, Lenin Rediscovered, first published in 2005.[3]

Beyond this, I’ve taken particular interest in reviewing one recent debate that deals specifically with the ISO’s approach to “Leninist” party building. This is the so-called “Great Lenin debate,” set in motion in January 2012 when Pham Binh, a former member of the ISO, wrote a scathing review of a now dated political biography of Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin.[4] Pham’s review — published online by the Australian socialist journal Links — focused on Building the Party (1975), the first volume in a three-part series on Lenin by the late Tony Cliff, the key leader of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP).[5] In the months follow its initial release, Pham’s review led to a volume of responses by activists and scholars in both the United States and Britain. While most of the replies dealt predominately with historical questions, the debate inevitably came to take on a more practical posture as well, with questions of party-building strategy quickly rising to the fore.

Naturally, at the time, this debate garnered widespread exposure within much of the Anglophone Left – a development that, I’d argue, relates to the profound relevance of many of the points brought to light in Pham’s initial review. Despite this, it’s my view that this debate is important enough to warrant renewed attention.  For this reason, I have chosen to compile a complete listing of the contents of this debate, which I’ve included as a “reading list” below. By doing this, my goal is to assist other activists –  including past, present, and future members of the ISO – that are attempting to make sense of the the flawed state of the Left today. The greater purpose behind all of this, of course, is to contribute — in whatever way possible — to the collective, ongoing task of renewing the international Left.

Before proceeding to this list, however, let me first provide a short summary of the debate, followed by a few insights about the debate’s lasting importance.

Tony Cliff and Pham Binh

So why is it that a review of Tony Cliff’s Building the Party – a book released some 37 years prior to the outbreak of “the great Lenin debate” – proved to be such a lightning rod for the socialist Left in 2012? The most substantial reason for this relates to the importance of this particular book within the U.S. ISO – and for that matter, the group’s former British sister organization, the SWP (as well as other affiliates and ex-affiliates of the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency). Since the ISO’s formation in 1977, the group has used Building the Party as a textbook to guide their organizational activity. This is, fittingly, the very purpose that this book was written to serve. As Cliff’s fellow SWP member Duncan Hallas wrote at the time of the book’s release, Building the Party was intended as a “manual for revolutionaries.” Thus, by calling into question the factual accuracy and interpretative merit of Cliff’s book in his 2012 review, Pham simultaneously cast doubt on the very party-building model and core mission of both the ISO and the SWP. For this reason, Pham Binh’s critique of Building the Party functioned not just as a book review – it also served as an exposition of the methodological flaws and the historical inaccuracies at the heart of the organizational project adhered to by these groups.

As an ex-ISO member that had become thoroughly disenchanted with the stultifying, undemocratic culture that permeates the ISO, Pham undoubtedly wrote this review with the intention of bringing these very issues to light. Notably, Pham makes this point in a somewhat explicit manner in a follow-up piece, released less than a week after his initial review article:

I drew my conclusions about Cliff’s book only after I closely studied what Lenin said and did and compared it to what Cliff claimed Lenin said and did. The more I studied, the more striking the divergences became.

As someone who was a member of the US International Socialist Organization for many years and used Building the Party as a text to (mis)educate people on Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the nature, scale and pervasiveness of Cliff’s distortions continually shocked me as I discovered them.[6]

So what kind of dirt does Pham bring to light in his analysis?

Interestingly, Pham structures his review as a exposition of the factual errors present in Cliff’s book. The piece thus takes the form of a chapter-by-chapter analysis of Cliff’s mistakes and distortions. In this way, Pham frames the review as something of a scholarly intervention, aimed at calling out Cliff for his sloppy, factually-inaccurate historical account. On a more subtle level, however, Pham’s review implies that the real problem with Building the Party is not just the sheer volume of “errors, falsehoods and lies” contained within the book — rather, it relates to the political importance of Cliff’s many factual blunders. As Pham reveals, Cliff presents an image of V.I. Lenin as being what amounts to an apparatchik and a cunning bureaucratic operative. Thus, in Cliff’s account, Lenin frequently resorts to deception and behind-the-scenes scheming in order to enforce his will within the Russian socialist movement. Such actions helped to bring about positive political results, Cliff’s account seems to imply, because of Lenin’s unprecedented skills as a Marxist and socialist leader – gifts that endowed him with the ability to continuously perceive the correct path forward long before other comrades had come to realize the tasks of the day. As Pham notes in the opening section of his review, Cliff’s depiction ascribes what amounts to “superhuman attributes” to Lenin. This is evident – Pham asserts – in Cliff’s assertions that “Lenin adapted himself perfectly to the needs of industrial agitation” and “[Lenin] combined theory and practice to perfection.”

While Pham does not spell out this point in detail in his initial review, it’s clear that the flawed depiction of Lenin in Cliff’s Building the Party is a matter of significant political relevance. Historically, the basis for this faulty analysis stems — in part — from Cliff’s bureaucratic, top-down view of the socialist movement and his immediate political agenda at the time he wrote the book in the mid-1970s.[7] Over the years, this flawed political vision has — in turn — had a negative residual impact on generations of ISO and SWP members that have been encouraged to view this book as a “manual for revolutionaries.”

Given the political implications of Pham’s review, it isn’t surprising that this piece provoked a shrill, vituperative response from the leadership of the ISO. This is most evident in a reply article by Paul D’Amato — a longtime member of the ISO Steering Committee and one of the group’s leading dogmatists. In his rebuttal, also published in Links, D’Amato blasts Pham’s review as being a “hatchet job” and “a series of poorly aimed potshots” at Tony Cliff.[8]

Even prior to the release of D’Amato’s piece, Pham’s review had also prompted Leftist historian Paul Le Blanc – a former member of the U.S. SWP who joined the ISO in 2009 – to pen a pair of dismissive response articles in the days following the review’s release.[9] Just as D’Amato was soon to do in his rebuttal, Le Blanc’s articles stridently defend Tony Cliff while simultaneously denouncing Binh for the critical tone of his review. As Le Blanc proclaims in the introduction to his first reply piece, “I have found Comrade Pham’s article… to be disappointing – rendered much less useful than it could have been, given that its obvious purpose is to persuade the reader that Tony Cliff’s book is little more than a mass of ‘egregious misrepresentations’ and ‘has so many gross factual and political errors that it is useless as a historical study of Lenin’s actions and thoughts’. This is a demolition job. It doesn’t offer much that we can use and build on as we face the challenges of today and tomorrow.”[10]

Following several initial exchanges between Binh and this duo of ISO theorists, a group of other Leftist authors also joined the fray. Notable among them was none other than renowned historian Lars Lih. On February 16, Lih published the first of a series of detailed articles focusing on historical questions brought to light by this debate in the Communist Party of Great Britain’s journal, Weekly Worker.[11] Crucially, while these articles are posed as impartial, scholarly contributions, Lih’s analysis consistently aligns with arguments presented in Pham’s review. At the same time, Lih is also harshly critical of a number of factual and interpretative points presented by both Le Blanc and D’Amato. Most remarkably, at one point in his February 16 essay, Lih calls out Paul D’Amato for depicting Lenin as a being what amounts to a duplicitous liar. (Specifically, Lih’s critique deals with the assessment D’Amato provides of Lenin’s handling of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party’s 1912 Prague conference). As Lih insinuates, this is particularly troubling since D’Amato obviously views Lenin as being a figure worthy of political emulation. In summarizing this point, Lih raises a series of sharp questions about the ethical outlook of “Leninist” sects in general and the ISO (and Paul D’Amato) in specific:

D’Amato’s description of Lenin’s duplicity (sorry, “advantageous tactical maneuvering”) is essentially the same as the one made by Lenin’s most vehement critics at the time – only D’Amato seems to approve of rather than condemn Lenin’s behavior. After all, it helped Lenin fool the Europeans and get party funds! …

I am not a member of any left organization and so I cannot comment on whether this kind of casual cynicism is the norm – I seriously doubt that D’Amato would apply it to issues today. But, speaking as a historian, I maintain that Lenin would have been severely annoyed by this defense: ah, that Lenin, he was a clever one – by stating the exact opposite of his real intentions, he reaped factional and financial advantage! As opposed to the D’Amatos on the left and the Elwoods on the right, I maintain that Lenin actually behaved in an honest way during this episode, saying what he meant and meaning what he said.[12]

In addition to Lih’s intervention, this debate also prompted response pieces by, among others, Louis Proyect and a pair of Leftist authors from the Communist Party of Great Britain – James Turley and Marc Macnair.[13]

After the initial flurry of exchanges released from late January to April, this debate eventually morphed into something of a scholarly discussion (albeit one with substantial practical relevance) between Lars Lih and Paul Le Blanc. For the remainder of the spring and much of the summer, the two historians published a number of articles in both Links and the Weekly Worker that grappled with various historiographical issues raised by the debate. Ultimately, the closing shot in this exchange came on September 1, when Links published a final contribution by Paul Le Blanc. The article provides a fitting title for this epic, seven-month-long historiographical battle — “The great Lenin debate.”[14]

So why is “the great Lenin debate” important?

As I see it, this debate is important because it provides compelling proof that the organizational model relied upon by “Leninist” sects in general – and, in specific, the ISO – is based upon a false reading of history.

Granted, this same point has been compellingly argued both prior to and since the release of Binh’s 2012 book review. To cite one particularly notable example, Hal Draper’s 1990 article “The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Concept of The Party’ – or What They Did to What Is To Be Done? backs up this point with eloquence and substantial historical documentation.[15] What’s more, as already noted, Lars Lih’s academic writings have also done much to show the faulty understanding of “Leninism” that underpins so much of the contemporary Left.

Nonetheless, I’d argue that “the great Lenin debate” is somewhat unique in its ability to expose the fallacious nature of the “Leninist” approach to party building. The reason for this stems from the noticeable influence of real-life class struggle and on-the-ground socialist organizing within this particular exchange. Unlike most the studies and exchanges on this subject, “the great Lenin debate” took place within the context of an important moment in the U.S. class struggle – namely, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which reached its crescendo in mid-November 2011, just over two months before the release of Pham’s initial review article. Crucially, this context appears to have done much to imbue this exchange with a practical focus that bellies the esoteric, scholarly nature of the debate itself. The reason for this has much to do Pham Binh’s close involvement in the Occupy movement. As documented in a series of journalistic accounts and essays about the movement published throughout late 2011 and early 2012, Pham was an active rank-and-file participant in Occupy’s New York City encampment. Naturally, Pham’s writings on the movement are thus infused with the outlook of someone with a vested interest and material stake in this struggle. To this end, Pham’s analysis of OWS – while certainly problematic in a number of regards – is, nonetheless, written with the goal of helping to push this important movement forward. Pham’s astute critiques of the ISO and the socialist Left from this period fit within this mold.[16]

In addition to the influence of Occupy, the “great Lenin debate” also greatly benefits from the intervention of Lars Lih. In his four contributions to this debate — each published in Weekly Worker — Lih provides detailed empirical research to back up a number of claims initially advanced by Pham Binh. To cite one particularly significant example, Lih’s articles provide ample evidence to back up Pham’s contention that, prior to 1917, the Bolsheviks never considered themselves to be a political party. Rather, they saw themselves as a faction within a broader, more inclusive, multi-tendency socialist party – the RSDLP. (And as Lih has repeatedly pointed out in his other writings, the RSDLP was modeled after none other than the German Social Democratic Party).

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Before proceeding, I wanted to say a brief word about how I’ve gone about formatting the reading list. For one thing, in contrast to typical bibliographies (which are, of course, ordered alphabetically), I’ve chosen to structure this list chronologically. Since the debate includes multiple responses and counterresponses written over the span of several months, structuring the list in this manner is essential in order to render the content of the debate easily comprehensible.

What’s more, in addition to the actual debate itself, I’ve also included a short appendix bibliography that lists other documents of substantial relevance. This includes a series of articles from a 2010 symposium in the British academic Marxist journal Historical Materialism focusing on Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered.[17] Notably, according to Pham Binh, this symposium provided much of the initial inspiration for his review of Cliff’s Building the Party. As Pham later pointed out, “What prompted me in the first place to look at Cliff’s book carefully, chapter by chapter, in the summer of 2011 was Lars Lih’s response to Chris Harman and Paul Le Blanc in Historical Materialism 18. Here, Lih mentioned some of Building the Party’s factual errors. I was curious to see if there were any errors that Lih had not brought to light. The rest, as they say, is history.”[18]

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“The great Lenin debate”:
Reading list

1. Pham Binh, “Mangling the party: Tony Cliff’s Lenin,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 24, 2012.

2. Paul Le Blanc, “Revolutionary method in the study of Lenin – A response to Pham Binh,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 31, 2012.

3. Pham Binh, “Paul Le Blanc’s defense of Tony Cliff’s ‘Building the Party,’“ Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 31, 2012.

4. Paul Le Blanc, “Five points in response to Pham Binh,” Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 1, 2012.

5. Paul D’Amato, “The mangling of Tony Cliff,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 4, 2012.

6. Louis Proyect, “Paul D’Amato and the Red Condom,” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist, February 6, 2012.

7. Pham Binh, “United States: Another socialist left is possible – a reply to Paul D’Amato,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 10, 2012.

8. Paul Le Blanc, “Revolutionary organization and the ‘Occupy moment,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 16, 2012.

9. Lars Lih, “Falling out over a Cliff,” Weekly Worker, February 16, 2012.

10. Paul Le Blanc, “The Lenin wars: Over a Cliff with Lars Lih,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 19, 2012.

11. “Some Thoughts on Lih’s intervention in the ‘Cliff/Lenin Debate,’” Pink Scare, March 8, 2012.

12. James Turley, “Fur flies over Lenin,” Weekly Worker, March 22, 2012.

13. Pham Binh, “Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin,” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist, March 27, 2012.

14. Pham Binh, “Wanting to get Lenin wrong,” Weekly Worker, March 29, 2012.

15. Paul Le Blanc, “1912 and 2012,” Weekly Worker, April 5, 2012.

16. Marc Macnair, “Both Pham Binh and Paul Le Blanc are wrong,” Weekly Worker, April 5, 2012.

17. Paul Le Blanc, “The birth of the Bolshevik party in 1912,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, April 17, 2012.

18. Lars Lih, “A faction is not a party,” Weekly Worker, May 3, 2012.

19. Paul Le Blanc, “Bolshevism and party building — convergence and questions,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, May 5, 2012.

20. Pham Binh, “Liquidating lies,” Anticapitalist Initiative, May 8, 2012.

21. Lars Lih, “How Lenin’s party became (Bolshevik),” Weekly Worker, May 17, 2012.

22. Lars Lih, “Bolshevism and revolutionary social democracy,” Weekly Worker, June 7, 2012.

23. Paul Le Blanc, “The great Lenin debate — history and politics,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, September 1, 2012.

**Click here for the complete 23-article collection compiled into a single PDF file.

Related literature of note

Binh, Pham. “A response to Paul LeBlanc’s ‘Marxism and Organization’.” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist (June 29, 2011).

____________. “Occupy and the tasks of socialists.” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal (December 14, 2011).

Blackledge, Paul; Ronald Grigor Suny, Robert Mayer, Chris Harman, Alan Shandro, Paul Le Blanc, and Lars T Lih. “Symposium on Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered.” Historical Materialism 18 (2010): 25-174.

Cliff, Tony. Building the Party: Lenin, 1893-1914. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002. Available online through the Marxists Internet Archive.

D’Amato, Paul. “Marx, Lenin, and Luxemburg: Party, organization, and revolution.” International Socialist Review 92 (Spring 2014).

Shawki, Ahmed. “What kind of party do we need?” Socialist Worker (December 2, 2011).

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1. See Louis Proyect, “The Leninist Party: an annotated bibliography,” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist, March 11, 2009.

2. Hal Draper, “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect,” 1973, available through the Marxists Internet Archive; Hal Draper, “Toward a New Beginning – On Another Road: The Alternative to the Micro-Sect,” 1971, Available through the Marxists Internet Archive; Scott Jay, “On Leninism and anti-Leninism,” to the victor go the toils, November 25, 2013; Joaquín Bustelo, “Lenin Was Not a Leninist,” The North Star, March 13, 2012.

3. Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).

4. Pham Binh, “Mangling the party: Tony Cliff’s Lenin,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 24, 2012.

5. Tony Cliff, Building the Party: Lenin, 1893-1914 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002). Available in full online through the Marxists Internet Archive.

6. Pham Binh, “Paul Le Blanc’s defense of Tony Cliff’s ‘Building the Party’” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 31, 2012.

7. See Jim Higgins, More Years for the Locust: The Origins of the SWP (London: IS Group, 1997). Available online through the Marxists Internet Archive.

8. Paul D’Amato, “The mangling of Tony Cliff,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 4, 2012.

9. Paul Le Blanc, “Why I’m joining the US International Socialist Organization: Intensifying the struggle for social change,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, October 2009. Paul Le Blanc, “Revolutionary method in the study of Lenin – A response to Pham Binh,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 31, 2012.

10. Le Blanc, “Revolutionary method in the study of Lenin.”

11. Lars Lih, “Falling out over a Cliff,” Weekly Worker, February 16, 2012.

12. Ibid.

13. Louis Proyect, “Paul D’Amato and the Red Condom,” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist, February 6, 2012. James Turley, “Fur flies over Lenin,” Weekly Worker, March 22, 2012. Marc Macnair, “Both Pham Binh and Paul Le Blanc are wrong,” Weekly Worker, April 5, 2012.

14. Paul Le Blanc, “The great Lenin debate – history and politics,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, September 1, 2012.

15. Hal Draper, “The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Concept of The Party’ — or What They Did to What Is To Be Done,” 1990, available online through the Marxists Internet Archive.

16. See Pham Binh, “Occupy and the tasks of socialists,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, December 14, 2011.

17. Paul Blackledge, Ronald Grigor Suny, Robert Mayer, Chris Harman, Alan Shandro, Paul Le Blanc, and Lars T Lih, “Symposium on Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered,” Historical Materialism 18 (2010): 25-174.

18. Pham Binh, “Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin,” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist, March 27, 2012.



20 thoughts on “The great Lenin debate of 2012

  1. I slept on the floor of some church in Jamaica Plain, Boston, during the desegregation fight in the early to mid-nineteen-seventies for a longer period of time than Pham graced us with his sensational insights.

    But in all seriousness (and placing P.B. in the same sentence with folks like Tony Cliff, or for that matter, Paul LeBlanc is not serious), I think the kind of party we need is wholly dependent upon the character of the enemy we face. The class we confront is quite capable, after all, of sticking people in ovens because of their nationality and religion and dropping atomic bombs on defeated cities. They will show no mercy when it comes to preserving the profit system and their class dictatorship.

    Therefore our party will need to be, in addition to a mass party, a party that is disciplined, well-educated, and where those who are members see their vocation as bringing about the victory of the socialist revolution, not teaching college courses in Labor History and “Marxist” economics.

  2. What Pham Binh brings to the discussion is that anyone who doesn’t reach the same conclusions he does, on their own, is by defination, a low life worthless sack of shit. Nothing like comradely debate.

    • That’s odd: I never got that from reading Pham Binh’s articles at all. Such a sensational charge — it occurs to me — warrants attribution.

      But, then again, it strikes me that you are simply regurgitating a charge that is frequently leveled against internal dissidents and former-members-turned-critics of the ISO. Funny enough, during the most recent pre-convention period, the ISO leadership defended its own outrageous, undemocratic behavior against the Renewal Faction by accusing us of similar crimes.

      • Although P.B. was never at the top of my reading list, I never got the feeling he was particularly uncharitable to those he disagreed with either. I just find it amusing that after many months of complaining about how rotten every socialist organization was, he decided it was time to retire. I mean, he’s what – in his late thirties?

        In a strange twist, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the ISO, in practice, is approaching the politics of P.B. in the sense that they are heading fast in the direction of the broad social democracy of the DSA, Jacobin magazine and like entities. The speaker’s list at the upcoming ISO summer conference is completely dominated by college professors, writers, academics, etc… If I had been confronted with such a list when I was a lad I would have run in the opposite direction at break-neck speed. If I were a betting man I would place odds that the days of the ISO are numbered. The revolutionaries that remain will soon move on, leaving the rest to pursue their careers.

      • To date, I’ve never had the good fortune of meeting or conversing with Pham myself.

        But I can say that — in general — I completely understand the need for socialists to take temporary breaks from political writing and activism. Such decisions result, almost inevitably, from the constant, dehumanizing pressure that capitalism places on us. And as someone that’s gone through similar crises myself, I have nothing but sympathy and solidarity for comrades that encounter situations like this in their lives.

      • I never got that from Binh at all and I talked with him one on one many times at great length. Critics would come to the North Star page and go after him, but he engaged everyone and he didn’t let any snark get to him.

        Funny, I saw a leading ISO person publicly trash Pham Binh out of the blue on Facebook. I remember her using the word, “arrogance”. Oh there was lots of arrogance there, but none of it came from Binh.

  3. Consider for example the two individuals who executed the two policemen and a Wa-Mart shopper over the weekend past. They where involved with the Bundy ranch militia movement and are a taste of what we can expect as the worker’s movement gains in strength. The notion that the working-class can defend against a violent, street-based, mass movement comprised of these types without a party that has the ability to strike together is folly. And as the stakes become higher, that party that is now in gestation will become more centralized, not less.

    As our history has shown, there will be many from the middle-class and the upper middle-class that will come over to the side of the exploited, intellectuals who will serve the workers of the world and whom will be welcomed with open arms by the working-class and their organizations, providing they come over fully. This is nothing new. But our history has also shown that our fighting formations cannot be dominated by professionals and academics. It is also true that workers are quite capable of becoming Marxist intellectuals as well, along with those who posses a more formal type of education.

    There were hundreds of thousands of workers during the 1960’s and 1970’s who took part in the mass movements who read and conquered, as a result of being participants, the lessons of Marx and Lenin, among others. What’s missing today that existed then was a flowering of Marxian culture, first on the campuses and then into the class, but that will re-emerge with time as well.

    • The problem is that — at present — it would be utterly impossible to start building a “centralized” working-class party of any sort given the diminutive current state of the class struggle. With this in mind, it occurs to me that attempts to build a single national party along these lines right now are largely doomed to become exercises in sect construction.

      For one thing, such a party would, at the outset, consist primarily of intellectuals and academics. As such, it would inevitably tend to be inhospitable to working people. The reason for this relates to the fact — as summarized by Hal Draper — that, “the life of an ideological sect is congenial only to ideologists, to intellectuals.”

      That said, I think it is possible at this point in time to begin forming local groupings and networks of radicals and working-class fighters with the goal of pushing the class struggle forward and conducting socialist propaganda work. To speak for myself, I’ll say that this is one of the things that I’ve been involved with in recent weeks down in Atlanta.

  4. There were hundreds of thousands of workers during the 1960′s and 1970′s who took part in the mass movements who read and conquered, as a result of being participants, the lessons of Marx and Lenin, among others.


    It is fantasies like this the led so many groups to colonize industry. In fact I doubt that there more than a handful of workers who ever joined Maoist or Trotskyist groups after they began sending their members into industry. I am planning on writing a response to Le Blanc’s book on Counterpunch next week that will take a cold hard look at the realities of the American working-class. A “Leninism” that is premised on the workers becoming ‘center stage’ of the mass movements any time soon really has to be examined carefully. The last time there was a massive working class radicalization in the USA occurred before I was born and I am pretty fucking ancient.

    • When the working-class enters the fray it is impossible to tell. The sections of the middle-class that are closest to the working-class and who are sympathetic to the cause of social justice usually present first, because they generally have the time and the money to do so. Workers in their mass join the battle when they are left with little other choice. That they will do so in the future, in the United States as well as everywhere, is inevitable. It is not if, it is when.

  5. I was talking about the world at large, not the United States exclusively. Of course there weren’t hundreds of thousands of workers (or hundreds of thousands of anyone) in this country alone won to the ideas of scientific socialism. But still, there WERE thousands of workers who did become acquainted with the ideas of Marx and Lenin in this country at that time, particularly among the African-American, Puerto-Rican and Hispanic populations. Nor did I mean to imply that there was mass recruitment of workers to any of the socialist organizations during this period, obviously. My was this: that workers, including industrial workers, and including workers without much in the way of a formal “education” have in the past and will in the future be capable of assimilating the ideas of Marxism and socialism, as shown by experiences from the past, including in the 1930’s, before you and I were born.

  6. This stuff casts a long shadow.

    The failure of the Bolsheviks to properly understand European conditions combined with the bureaucratisation of the comintern meant that by the time ‘Leninism’ was formulated (and to be honest sometime before) there was an oscillation between blanquism (ie putschism) and opportunist attempts to gain access to leadership through short cuts, arrangements with leaders etc.

    There is a confusing way in which both left Social Democratic components of the new communist parties and some of the left Communist components made symmetrically correct criticisms of all this at the time One can see this comparing on the one side Paul Levi’s rebukes about the March Action, Pannokoek’s warnings about Blanquism, Korsch’s comments on workers councils and Rosmer’s disquiet about Lenin’s pamphlet on ultraleftism-all these were revolutionaries of very different persuasion, some of whom detested each other, but in retrospect their criticisms paint a more unified picture then one might expect (its perhaps worth adding that all of these figures had a long history of hostility to Kaustky-but that’s another debate) . Hence the official ‘Leninism’ of the comintern after 1924 treated both “Luxemburgism”, held to represent the remnants of the old social democratic left, and ‘Trotskyism’ and ‘leftism’ (by this time treated as interchangeable though they certainly were not) as symmetrical sins to be driven out. This was actually existing ‘Leninism’ and there never was a ‘Leninism’ that proceeded it.

    This ‘Leninism’ was the creation of Zinoviev’s ‘Bolshevisation’. In order to drive out organic thinking militants on both right and left existing mass and sometimes smaller organisations had to be utterly atomised and the beheading of the European communist movement begun by the right wing counter-revolution was completed by the bureaucratic comintern. Typically the process involved the centralisation of leadership with a symbolic workerist leader on the one side, and an ‘intellectual’ to act as a sidekick on theother. The actually existing cadre were treated as a problem and new ones trained up on an entirely artificial basis, as local structures were dismantled to undermine the possibility of cadre communicating with each other or taking direction from anywhere but the centre.

    The dynamic of oscillation between ultraleftism and opportunism representing different types of substitutionalism can be seen in the entire history of even post-68 Leninisms (whose ideological monolithism was mainly the product of small size rather then bureaucratically engineered) despite often self conscious attempts to combat these tendencies.

    This real element of self conscious ‘critical Leninism’ is left out in recent discussions: possibly because of more recent experiences. But it does remain true that the experience of these Leninism’s continued to contain tendencies to short cut internal democracy the better to carry out substitutionalist strategems in the wider movement, with a continuing need to train up successive generations of ‘cadres’-usually in enforcing some particular line or the other rather then in leadership in the class struggle. This was not always by design but was re-enforced by the fact that unlike the early Communist Parties they had no genuine organic roots in an existing labour movement.

    These are all real differences with the actual Bolshevised Communist Parties of the 1920s and should be taken into account in any critical assessment of the post-68 party building experience. The sources of these problems was not always deliberate design. But the key difficulty here has been a tradition which could attract many excellent militants because of an ability to punch above its weight etc, but in the end could not be transformed into any variant of mass politics because most workers would never accept organisations even more undemocratic then already existing ones. Importantly a minority, with some grumbling often, would accept this situation, because of good things organisations did (and enabled them to do) but in the end, once organisations built in this fashion reached a certain size, it became clear this was a self limiting strategy.

    I believe this has also been reflected politically: the way in which broader and often successful initiatives have usually collapsed once they reached a certain size: the energy, discipline and commitment of revolutionaries often being important in their setting up: but the reverse side of the coin: substitutionalism, control freakery and an inability to be accountable too often wreaking these good intentions: the point here is that this is not the product of bad individuals..its the product of a flawed politics inherent to the old Leninist project.

    A generation of revolutionaries embraced this Leninism despite many having had bruising experiences with existing Stalinist and some-times Trotskyist ‘vanguards’ of precisely this type (particularly true in Britain where a whole generation passed through the CP and then the SLL forrunner of the workers revolutionary party, some of the most talented ending up in IS-from Jim Higgins to Alasdare MacIntyre). The cycle started up again despite all contrary intentions. Daniel Ben-Said has talked in his memoirs of an ‘impatient Leninism’ of the ’68 generation. In many ways its an odd story.

    So despite not being huge fans previously, many adopted this hastily improvised form of Leninism (in the early IS in Britain its adoption created a huge row-the documents of which are still interesting to read). This suggests to me that panic and the compulsion of events played a role (as does the quite extraordinary way in which some of the constitutional features of Bolshevisation were borrowed: surely not self consciously!). You have a looser network of organisation, your going along nicely, and then suddenly ’68, gee, must have ‘Leninism’. This is generally taken to vindicate the decision to adopt Leninism: as if its not possible that the pressure of circumstances can lead to mistakes as well as correct decisions.

    The difficulty is that when Leninist groups fall apart there is a temptation to just fall into one or other of the oscillations which happen to be the opposite of the existing oscillation in the parent organisation (whether its in left sectarian or bandwagon hopping phase). Its quite easy for ‘all the old shit’ just to start up again in these circumstances. Its not really true in other words that people make these mistakes just because of dogmatic beliefs. Circumstances can conspire to make people make wrong decisions. This is one thing to guard against and one reason why re-examination of this history is useful. Its not that post-68 Leninism failed because it was not a correct reading of Lenin. It failed because it was a short cut to building a mass organisation, a short cut first devised in the early 1920s in far more favourable circumstances, that proved a failure even then.

  7. One thing I do want to do is tackle a side to the new revisionism I’m not keen on: for me Lars Lih is absolutely right that Lenin saw himself as a second international Marxist till very late, and never really shifted from the basic politics (instead seeing the second international as having betrayed those principles).

    I think this is a wholly (or mostly) accurate reading of Lenin (despite the inordinate attention people pay to Lenin’s footnotes on Hegel). This is then used to argue against the philosophical critics of the second international-whether its Hegelian Marxists and Council Communists like Korsch or even the undisciplined Rosa Luxemberg with her wild talk of Mass Strikes (as Korsch was to note the formal alliance of orthodoxy against revisionism in the second international was hugely misleading).

    This is a logical conclusion given Lars Lih’s politics but I don’t think its a necessary one. The leftist critics of the SPD before the first world war understood the European labour movement much better then Lenin did, and not just earlier as is frequently suggested, but differently (and this was true of the different lefts inside and outside the SPD as well as many of the revolutionary syndicalists and anarchists).

    The legitimacy of the left critique of Trade union bureacracy and SPD apparatus’s (as opposed to the often crude demagoguey of the comintern, which could switch remarkably easily from denunciation to stitch up, and was often based on a very crude understanding of the nature of reformism) I think deserves re-stating against an argument which seems to imply that one way forward is simply to become left Social Democrats.
    (its a real argument in the real world today of course).

    This wider patrimony of revolutionary politics is something I’d like to defend and develop. Hence the idea I have about the need to delineate a post-Leninism of the left: as opposed to simply suggesting that organising against the right in the labour movement was a sectarian mistake: I think the implication of more right wing versions of post-Leninism. Hence the remark about Kautsky.

  8. Duncan Hallas remarking that the more he thinks about the Comintern leadership the more he thought they were a ‘right bloody shower’ was one inspiration for making enquiries in the above direction. Characteristically Duncan gets nowhere near to the end of his account but its an bloody interesting journey.

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  9. Pingback: The Great Lenin Debate of 2012 | Red Party

  10. Pingback: The great Lenin debate of 2012 | External Bulletin

  11. Pingback: A reply to Paul Le Blanc on the ISO crisis | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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