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Friday, August 26, 2011


The Bolshevik Experience and the "Leninist" Model: 
reply to PLB's "Marxism and Organisation"

by Pham Binh

Although the following is written in response to Paul Le Blanc's "Marxism and Organisation" essay, it is not a line-for-line response, nor do I believe that he personally subscribes to all of the positions I attribute to "Leninists" in general. I have nothing but respect for him and his life's work (changing the world for the better); I have re-read his "Lenin and the Revolutionary Party" many times and referenced it occasionally as I wrote the following response. My hope is that it leads to comradely but sharp debate, something that is sorely lacking on the far left where insults, epithets, and name-calling are all too common.

"Leninists" project their conceptions of organization back in time onto the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party to the point that the actual historical development of the RSDLP becomes incomprehensible. There is a tendency to see the ultimate outcomes of the RSDLP's disputes as foredained and inevitable; this mistake is compounded when revolutionaries believe that we must form our own organizations based on those outcomes. What Lenin did or pushed for at any given time was determined not only by his own political preferences, but also by the actions of his opponents. For example, it was the refusal of the Mensheviks to abide by majority votes they lost on at the 1903 congress even though Lenin dutifully yielded on issues he lost votes on that compelled him to call for a third party congress.

Both the Menshevik and the Bolshevik wings of the RSDLP supported the same "revolutionary Marxist program" up until spring of 1917: overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy. Their differences concerned strategy, which, of course, had organizational ramifications (Lenin later correctly characterized the 1903 split as "an anticipation"). What divided the two factions? The Bolsheviks believed the working class should play the leading role in overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy; the Mensheviks argued (logically) that only the capitalist class could play the leading role in establishing their rule via a capitalist democracy (the Bolshevik idea of a worker-led revolution voluntarily handing power to their exploiters and enemies didn't make any sense to them).

The point is that the "revolutionary Marxist program" did not separate the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks for most of the RSDLP's history. What separated them was the actual class struggle and their practical orientation to it. When the program they shared with the Mensheviks became an impediment to fighting for the interests of the working class, the Bolsheviks modified it.

This brings me to my second point.

"Democratic centralism" is not a special principle/mechanism practiced by the Bolsheviks. Lenin believed in organizing the party in a thoroughly democratic way. That, more than anything else, is what motivated Lenin in his struggle against the Mensheviks in 1903/1904. The Mensheviks expected Lenin and the Bolsheviks to respect the decisions of the party congress that they disagreed with; at the same time, the Mensheviks flouted the congress decisions they disagreed with politically. For Lenin, this was an intolerable situation that made a mockery of the very idea of a party, much less one where majority rule prevailed.

Lenin's commitment to democratic organizing meant that the central committees of both the RSDLP and of the Bolshevik faction were elected as individuals by secret ballot, not the slate system (that was introduced in 1921 at the 10th party congress where they banned factions ending the democratic norms that characterized the pre-revolutionary Bolsheviks) that to my knowledge all "Leninist" groups use today.

Electing the central committee in this way did something important. Party members elected and were led by the party's most outstanding and popular leaders, making it far more likely members would voluntarily implement decisions by their leaders. As individuals, these leaders had different approaches, different experiences, and different temperaments; this heterogeneity gave rise to sharp debates and clear differences of opinion that taught the entire organization how to work through them in a comradely, productive, and practical way. It created a culture of debate, dissension, majority voting, and collective implementation to resolve contentious issues, many of which did not have a clear-cut "right" answer. This culture came straight from the top of the organization and filtered down into every branch, every cell, and involved every member. 

A slate system, by contrast, encourages political conformity at the top (only "team players" need apply), which filters downward, robbing the party of its dynamism. "Leadership" becomes based on who is the loudest/most enthusiastic proponent of the line coming from the top, rather than a process of initiative, trial, error, learning, reassessment, and moving forward. Discipline ends up being a question of rote, obedience, and passive-but-non-believing submission; where those fail, administrative measures are applied. All of these are mental and moral poisons for revolutionaries; no organization can flourish in the long run in this manner.

Furthermore, if you can elect a slate of 12 Lenins prior to a revolution, great; but what if you elect 12 Zinovievs? Then what?

The thoroughly democratic practices and habits of the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP were decisive in 1917. It was only on the basis of this thorough democracy that the erroneous parts of the party's strategy could be modified and an outsider like Trotsky elected to the party's highest body, despite Lenin's uninterrupted political attacks on him for almost a decade and a half prior. An organization without democracy can't fix its program or be changed from below. Even if said organization's program is 110% correct, it is doomed to fail the test of revolution because only by fully airing differences within its ranks can it have a chance (not a guarantee) of coming to the right decision about what to do in the heat of the moment.

An organization with a faulty program that has the capacity to change and learn from its mistakes is in a much better position than one that has the right program but no capacity for critical self-reflection. I keep returning to this point because one of the single most damaging problems within the revolutionary wing of the socialist movement post-1917 has been an obsession with "defending the program." This obsession has led to ferreting out "renegades" i.e. dissidents and elevating secondary political issues or tactical disagreements into all-out wars to "defend the revolutionary Marxist program." This is especially absurd when tiny, uninfluential socialist organizations in one country split over strategy and tactics adopted by socialists in another country.

If we are going to be "obsessed" with anything, it should be with leading our side to victory in struggles, big and small, by any means necessary. Our measure of success should be the gains and reforms won by our initiatives, however small or fleeting. Only by accumulating those victories will our side rebuild its confidence, providing the basis for a revolution.

So if democracy and not a formally correct program is key, what about the Mensheviks? Why couldn't they just modify their program and march lockstep with Lenin and Trotsky to October?

By the time of the 1917 revolution, their faction had ossified around their orientation towards pressuring/encouraging/cheerleading Russia's capitalists to play a stronger role in the fight to overthrow Tsarism. This was particularly true after the defeat of the 1905 revolution (during 1905 the two wings of the RSDLP nearly united, giving lie to the notion that Lenin made up his mind to not unite with the Mensheviks prior to 1912 as part of his life's mission to create a "party of a new type"). Menshevik organizers tended to be middle class intellectuals or older, more conservative workers who renounced the "foolishness" of their 1905 days in favor of "realism". Bolshevik organizers tended to be younger and involved with militant actions (illegal strikes, underground organization) because their faction stressed that the working class could only get anything by its own strength and organization, whereas the Menshevik faction tended to downplay militant worker activism since it would scare big business into deserting the revolutionary cause.

The Bolshevik party emerged as an organic part of Russia's workers' movement and had a role in a huge array of workers' activities -- strikes, protests, demonstrations, social insurance societies, unions, student organizations, war industry committees (despite their hostility to WWI), and managed to win seats in Russia's sham legislature despite unfavorable electoral laws; it was part of the class from the party's inception; its program was derived from and a response to Russian conditions and problems; when conditions changed, so did the party's program. It succeeded as a revolutionary workers' party because it was rooted in the class it sought to lead and thoroughly democratic from top to bottom.

This is the key to understanding why the attempt to export conclusions drawn after almost two decades of trial and error in Russia in the early 20th century and impose them "from above" or a priori in the West via the Third/Fourth Internationals has led to complete failure on the part of all "Leninist" groups to lead working-class revolutions.

The early Comintern is often hailed as the high point in the international revolutionary workers' movement, and it was, but the reality is that the Comintern's practical influence on the course of the class struggle in other countries was decidedly, almost totally, negative during its "golden years". The KPD's policies, actions, and slogans became subject to the decisions of an executive thousands of miles away from the front lines; that's putting aside the unprincipled, apolitical, and bureaucratic nonsense that went on before anybody knew who Stalin was.
Why anyone would look to a model that put the communist movement's Zinovievs and Bela Kuns in charge of mass workers parties that were being ably led by experienced revolutionaries of the caliber of Rosa Luxemburg (RIP), Paul Levi, Clara Zetkin, Antonio Gramsci, and Angelo Tasca is really beyond me. Louis Proyect wrote a piece that should be read carefully and absorbed by everyone who is a Marxist and wants a workers' revolution: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization/comintern_and_germany.htm

Is it any wonder the KPD leadership failed to learn how to think for itself and became ever-more dependent on  Moscow's directives when the Comintern's executive continually decapitated the KPD leadership? This occurred at least three times before Lenin's death: Paul Levi was expelled in 1921 (with Lenin's approval), leaving the party in the hands of the ultra-lefts who were partly responsible for the "March Action"; Reuter-Friesland was expelled in 1922 for protesting against mistaken Comintern directives concerning Germany's union movement; and Brandler was removed from the KPD's leadership in 1923 after he failed to conjure up a German October at Moscow's behest.

These expulsions, coming on the heels of the murders of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknict, and Eugen Levine, meant that the KPD was finished as an independent force able to draw conclusions from its own experience and to respond with quick changes to its political "line" necessitated by rapid shifts in the balance of class forces. By 1923, the KPD was led by the leftovers of leftovers of leftovers; this was the fault of the Comintern and no one else. The development of self-confident national parties was crippled by the Comintern experiment, which deepened Russia's isolation. Trying to replicate this flawed model is the height of folly.

So what does all of the above mean? Is there nothing we can learn from the experience of the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) or the early Comintern?

It means a few things:

1) We have to analyze the Bolshevik party historically rather than project our (mis)conceptions about "Leninism" backwards in time by reading into debates that took place in 1903-1917 things that became clear later and after much struggle, the outcomes of which were not inevitable. Trying to implement Comintern resolutions from 1919-1921 (or worse yet, Lenin's prescriptions from 1902/1903) instead of finding our own path will only create sects, not a party of working class fighters and organizers capable of winning socialism. "Leninism" and "party-building" have been tried in dozens of countries in many, many different circumstances for the last 90 years, and not once has there been a success! Refusing to acknowledge the inherent flaws of the model we've inherited as the last/first word in how to organize and what to do by continually blaming unfavorable "objective conditions" isn't going to help.

2) There are no cut-and-dried organizational/practical schemas that can serve as templates how revolutionaries should organize, everywhere and always.

What has come to be known as "Leninism" -- setting up a disciplined "democratic centralist" organization with a "revolutionary Marxist program," a newspaper modeled on and motivated by Lenin's 1902 article "Where to Begin?" and his 1903 book "What Is To Be Done?", an excessive focus on selling said paper (the result of elevating the newspaper to a matter of principle and revolutionary duty rather than using it as one expedient among many), and creating a miniature caricature of the Bolshevik party, complete with a dozen full-time salaried central committee members, many of whom occupy the same posts for decades(!), all in anticipation of a revolution even though working-class militancy has been at historic lows for two or three decades now -- needs to be discarded.

3) Our reality and modern-day conditions have to be our starting point for any discussion of how to organize and where/how to "draw boundaries." We are materialists, after all. We need to figure out the way forward for our class without relying (mechanically) on what Lenin and his contemporaries said and did. There's no use importing solutions from a bygone era when we are operating in a radically different context. We should use what we find useful in the experience of others but not copy anything wholesale. Above all else, we have to find ways to be rooted in the class struggle today, such as it exists, if we hope to actually influence its direction, rather than comment/lament on it from the outside.

4) "Party line" newspapers written by toy Leninist groups never have and never will command more than passing attention from workers, although they have managed to absorb a disproportionate amount of the time, energy, and attention of each generation of revolutionaries in the 90 years since the Russian revolution.

The American working class has a long history and tradition of humor, songs, icons, and much more we should be drawing from in our own media (see the disgruntled Whole Foods employee's farewell letter, for example). In our day and age, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter inform people's politics a lot more than "old" forms of propaganda like newspapers and pamphlets. We should be discussing how to best utilize the mediums people actually use to influence them politically, rather than figure out how to get them to conform to our preconceptions, especially when those preconceptions are largely erroneous or based on a flawed reading of history in the first place. The more we harp on Russia and the universality of Lenin's glorious struggle against liquidators, economists, oztovists, and Mensheviks, the more remote we become from the concerns, interests, and lives of workers in the here and now who are desperate for a party that won't sell them out or screw them over.

To sum up, we need to be flexible tactically and organizationally while remaining steadfast on our goals. Just as the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP developed answers and prescriptions to problems that arose in the course of leading workers in struggle, we must do the same. We would would do well to emulate the approach of Malcolm X who continually reinvented himself in the struggle to win black liberation, and shed the Nation of Islam's conservative sectarianism in the process. If the socialist movement could do the same, we'd be in a much better position.

If this conclusion is vague and unsatisfying, we can always turn back to the sect with its ready-made and unchanging answers to all problems. Personally, I'd rather not.


  1. Thanks for publishing this. In hindsight, it was too long and unfocused. Based on the feedback I get, I will build on many of the points I made here in shorter, more focused essays in the future. I hope some people in the praxis committee comment on it.

  2. One good example of how "Leninists" re-write the history of Bolshevism is the debate over membership that erupted at the 1903 congress. Typically it is cited as an example of the difference between Lenin's concept of the party-class relationship and the reformist social-democratic conception advanced by Martov and his cothinkers. In reality, the Mensheviks were also in favor of a revolution in Russia (they didn't want to reform Tsarism). Furthermore, Lenin lost that particular vote and Martov's loose definition of what constitutes a member became enshrined in the RSDLP's rules which governed both factions. This rule was changed only in 1906 at the joint Menshevik-Bolshevik congress. Why revolutionaries today should adopt Lenin's defeated formulation over the Menshevik one remains unexplained; clearly it was not a fatal mistake for either section of the RSDLP.

  3. This is a good article. I like it.

    I can't think of anything more likely to drive intelligent, caring people away from political participation and into some form of nihilism, individualism, life style politics, survivalism, counter revolutionary despair, or any other mass symptom of the present, uninspiring, situation, than radicals arguing among themselves and fighting over whose (way is) right about something...

    Being able to experiment with something that you think is wrong, and letting it be tried, and in the process letting the people you work with try out their own ideas and in doing so grow themselves and gain ownership over your shared, collective (revolutionary or otherwise) project, is pretty darn important.

    My suggestion?

    More revolutionaries should leave their cities, their libraries, and their study groups, and come out west to be whitewater raft guides. I've learned more about leadership, initiative, decision making and teamwork here than anywhere else.

    Of course, living in Green River Utah, population 850, I am completely politically irrelevant.... but that's another story!

    Keep the good articles coming, nice to see what this site is turning out to be.

    (also, is this going to be sent to any leftist periodicals as an article submission? I think it should be... sent to all of them!)

  4. Thanks, LF. Such a suggestion would've probably been ignored or dismissed out of hand in the organization I was in, and it's sad because it's a good idea (not to mention fun, relaxing, and [gasp] not narrowly related to politics). Remote areas of the U.S. with small populations aren't politically irrelevant; many of them are where some of the most bitter battles took place between capital and labor in the era before the left was obsessed with building 1917 reenactment societies.

    I may revise this for submission somewhere. Unfortunately, the people who need to read this most are in organizations that are least likely to publish this i.e. "Leninist" groups.

  5. After I wrote this, I did some research about some of the issues raised here and came up with this: