Bolshevism was not a safe space for opportunism

Political differences need to be expressed in honest, frank and where necessary colourful language. Mark Fischer argues that the past has many important lessons for Left Unity

VI Lenin: ‘oppressive’ towards opportunism

Leaving aside the bizarre nature of some of the proposals in Left Unity’s draft ‘safe spaces’ document, LU members should reject the whole shebang on the basis of what might be called its guiding ethos. Essentially, the proposal is based on the assumption that LUers are constitutionally fragile porcelain figurines, liable to shatter at the sound of a harsh word or a contrary opinion, unless protected by elaborate internal controls and safeguards. In turn, this reflects a wider tendency of mainstream society towards the infantilisation of adults and the growth of an intrusive nanny state to protect the poor dears from themselves.

The left should have a more robust culture than this - not for the sake of macho posturing, but to actually facilitate the struggle for political clarity and principle. As we try to show below, this is a conflictual process, where sharp lines often need to be drawn and opinions stated in undiplomatic forms. Attempts to police the language of the left to avoid ‘insults’ or comrades’ (real or feigned) hurt feelings only facilitate the domination of the movement by opportunism and bureaucracy.

An excellent example of this is the attempt by the German social democrat, Heinrich Cunow, to silence left criticisms of the collapse of the SPD’s right (and others) into social chauvinism:

The opposition to our Reichstag fraction’s vote on August 4 and December 2 last year is assuming ever more obnoxious forms. Those who do not agree with the vote on war credits undoubtedly have the right to criticise it - in an objective, party-comradely fashion, of course, although even under this condition one could be of the view that for certain reasons it would be better to postpone criticism until after the war. Yet when the German social democratic working class and its leaders are accused by opponents in Germany and abroad of cowardice, betrayal, a lack of principles, abdication, collapse and so on then surely there can hardly be any talk of objective criticism.1

On a rather more prosaic level, it now seems pretty clear that the case against Laurie McCauley - a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and LU’s Communist Platform originally suspended on the basis of non-specific accusations of “bullying” and “oppressive conduct” - consists largely of the offence that some comrades took to his politics and his unfortunate habit of openly expressing them.2

Of course, the publication comrade McCauley is associated with - the Weekly Worker - also has a bit of a reputation, when it comes to publishing material that some in the movement claim to find ‘insulting’. But we do not have some ‘principle’ of rudeness for rudeness’s sake. We are for comrades’ right to speak in a sharp manner that others may claim to find ‘rude’ or ‘insulting’.

Hard bastard

Mike Macnair wrote on the ‘safe spaces’ document just over a month ago and made the point that the general concept is “illusory and poisonous”.34

In fact, implemented conscientiously, a measure like ‘safe spaces’ would make LU comrades more or less incapable of “[taking] on the real world”. Instead we are in the business of promoting a ‘dangerous spaces’ culture on the left. Not in the sense of putting comrades at personal risk physically, not in the sense that those who refuse to tone down political criticisms and make what they say acceptable to elected leaders and committees should be suspended or driven out. No, LU needs to become a ‘dangerous space’ where over time, with due patience, pro-bourgeois, liberal and backward ideas can be taken on and defeated. There are rich lessons here within our common tradition (large numbers of prominent LUers are, or were, members of one or another so-called ‘Leninist’ organisation).

For example, let us take the history of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Its second congress, held in Brussels and then London in July-August 1903, was to have been the culmination of the Iskraist project to create a centralised party on a coherent revolutionary programme. The economists - the main opportunist trend Iskra had fought when attempting to reconstitute the party - were present at the congress, but they were a small minority.

In the first phase of the gathering a solid Iskraist bloc - including prominent future Mensheviks - carried the day. The Iskraists voted unanimously for a programme that included elements later associated with Leninism. Yet beneath this seemingly solid front there were considerable tensions, most importantly between Lenin and Martov.

Even before the congress began, Martov was generally known as a ‘soft’ and Lenin as a ‘hard’. Those Iskraists who favoured a more conciliatory attitude to the opportunists looked to Martov as their natural leader; those inclined to an intransigent revolutionism to Lenin.

We are perhaps too accustomed to view the bare facts of this congress - a defining moment - with rather cold eyes. There is another, more emotive, more human aspect to it, which is not without political significance, however. When the split in the camp of the Iskraists erupted over the paragraph of the party rules that defined membership, it set in train a whole series of events that was to cleave the ‘hards’ from the ‘softs’ politically.

The fierceness of the debates at the congress and the splitting apart of the organisation were totally unexpected. Lenin subsequently spoke of his own “frightful irritation”, of how he acted “frenziedly”.5

Paul Le Blanc comments:

It is impossible to understand what happened simply on the basis of abstract political principles. Political ideas are held by, and political organisations are composed of, human beings. We cannot afford to lose sight of the interplay between political principles and human dynamics as we attempt to grasp the vibrant reality of an organisation’s life and development. The 1903 congress of the RSDLP is a classic illustration of this truth.6

The split in 1903 came when Lenin proposed an alteration in the composition of the Iskra editorial board. It consisted of four Martovite ‘softs’, plus Lenin and Plekhanov. Lenin proposed the committee be reduced to three, with himself and Plekhanov as a ‘hard’ majority. This proposal was highly contentious, as the veterans, Axelrod and Zasulich, were sentimental favourites in the party.

Why had Lenin proposed this seemly brutal measure? He later explained to Potresov that previously relations on the board had a “family character” marked by “painful, long drawn-out, hopeless quarrels ... which were often repeated, making it impossible for us to work for months on end ...” The idea that political squabbles would predominate over political considerations, and policies that would affect the entire organisation would be settled by “arrangements among ourselves” was intolerable to him. The three he proposed at the congress had done the bulk of the writing and editorial work, and each represented a distinct element within the leadership. He wrote that he considered “this trio the only businesslike arrangement, the only one capable of being an official institution, instead of being a body based on indulgence and slackness, the only one to be a real centre, each member of which, I repeat, would always state and defend his party view, not one grain more, and irrespective of all personal motives, all considerations concerning grievances, resignations and so on”.7

Trotsky later recalled the hurt consternation this ‘hard’ proposal caused among many congress participants, himself included:

In 1903, the whole point at issue was nothing more than Lenin’s desire to get Axelrod and Zasulich off the editorial board. My attitude toward them was full of respect, and there was an element of personal affection as well. Lenin also thought highly of them for what they had done in the past. But he believed they were becoming an impediment for the future. This led him to conclude that they must be removed from their position of leadership. I could not agree. My whole being seemed to protest against this merciless cutting off of the old ones when they were at last on the threshold of an organised party ... [Lenin’s] behaviour seemed unpardonable to me, both horrible and outrageous.8

Clearly, this ‘hard’-‘soft’ divide prefigured a fundamental division over the nature of the party being built and - implicitly - the nature of the revolution it was preparing for. In the semi-hysterical atmosphere of the 1903 congress, the political issues at stake were either obscured or had not sufficiently separated themselves from the ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ individuals who personified them. As Krupskaya noted,

Many were inclined to blame Plekhanov’s tactlessness, Lenin’s ‘vehemence’ and ‘ambition’, Pavlovich’s pinpricks, and the unfair treatment of Zasulich and Axelrod - and they sided with those who had a grievance. They missed the substance through looking at the personalities. Trotsky was one of them. He became a fierce opponent of Lenin. And the substance was this - that the comrades grouped around Lenin were far more seriously committed to principles, which they wanted to see applied at all costs and pervading all the practical work. The other group had more of the man-in-the-street mentality, were given to compromise and concessions in principle, and had more regard for persons.9

Hal Draper, a perceptive commentator on Marx and Engels, reinforces a similar point when he talks of one aspect of the duo’s political development towards communism, which was:

… not purely personal and not quite theoretical: it stands between these two categories in a fashion which is as unmistakable as it is indefinable. Obviously rooted in character and temperament, it intertwines with the questions of theory we have already discussed and eventually shows up in a principle that lies at the heart of Marx’s politics ...

This factor of character or temperament has a tag, usually derived from the experience of the Russian revolutionary movement: the division between the ‘hards’ and the ‘softs’. In individuals this division underlies formal differences in political opinion and programme. Two pieces of statuary, both representing the same reality, may be made one of wax, the other of steel; so also the apparently same political view may be held by a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’. The difference concerns the degree to which an individual finds revolutionary oppositionism congenial or tolerable - not simply as an occasional or symbolic gesture, but as a relationship to the established currents of society around which to build one’s life ....

In life Marx’s character naturally excited a ... variety of reactions, since they were mostly dependent on a prior response to what he represented politically. Those who were appalled by his ‘revolutionary fanaticism’ (Carl Schurz, for example) were also offended by his character, for its most striking trait was a hard strength, a thrusting intensity that outraged the ‘softs’. To the latter, a character built around a steel frame was an insult.10


Of course, the great irony of initiatives in the spirit of LU’s draft ‘safe spaces’ document is that they would greatly facilitate a bureaucratic stranglehold by any potential leadership elite and consequently multiply the opportunities for members of any faction or tendency to actually have their democratic rights infringed, be abused or bullied by apparatchiks. The robust and transparent approach we champion is a far better way to generate a mutually respectful, comradely atmosphere in left organisations and the wider workers’ movement. We have explored this theme a number of times, but, given the discussion as it is now unfolding in Left Unity, it is worthwhile summarising our approach again.

* Openness: Polemics between comrades must be rigorous and clear in their language. We strive to make transparent all political relationships and causal connections between organisations, the people that constitute them, their programmes and the things they do - precisely the process Herr Cunow above finds so “obnoxious”. Naturally, this means trying to accurately represent the views of opponents, but pulling no punches. We call a spade a spade. The target of criticism, the angularity and colour of language, are determined by our aims.

Ironically, Martov neatly summarised this approach. He, Lenin and the other editors of Iskra “strove to make sure that ‘all that is ridiculous’ appears in ‘a ridiculous form’” and to “expose ‘the very embryo of a reactionary idea hidden behind a revolutionary phrase’”.11

As I have explained above, the form of the polemical struggle is framed by a clear understanding of political tasks. The organisation and the proletariat operates in a world permeated by and saturated with the ideas of an enemy class. Bourgeois consciousness - and its working class political form of opportunism - is constantly reproduced as a spontaneously generated poison.

Our struggle is for working class independence. At its core, this is not an organisational attribute - it is political/theoretical. The struggle for our politics thus takes the form of drawing sharp, unambiguous lines of political demarcation. The tendency to blur such lines, to be coy about political differentiation, to let opportunists off the hook in the name of ‘respecting differences’ is the expression of a slide away from principled working class politics, as an accommodation to the influence of the bourgeoisie in the workers’ movement.

Here is Liebman on the political basis to Lenin’s infamous ‘angularity’:

Unconcerned with those preoccupations about unity which almost inevitably lead to the making of compromises, Lenin was able to give a sharp outline to his doctrine, using the incisive language that he preferred and, as he often stressed, aussprechen was ist (‘to say what is’: ie, to describe things frankly as he saw them), without having to worry about the feelings of any partners. This absence of ambiguity not only helped separate the revolutionary trend from the reformist one: it also maintained and reinforced the distinction between the Russian socialist movement and bourgeois ideology. No doubt the weakness of liberalism in Russia limited its power of attraction: not sufficiently, though, to prevent the Mensheviks from becoming susceptible to it. Leninism, however, by its twofold opposition to bourgeois liberalism and socialist reformism, accentuated the split between the world of the bourgeoisie and that of the proletariat ...12

Thus, Trotsky commented that “Leninism is warlike from head to foot”.13. This was not for the sake of upsetting people, but the agreed programme and tasks.

* Struggle: Therefore, the political accuracy we are striving for - engaged as we are in the class struggle - does not emerge out of a gentle exchange of painfully polite, ‘constructive criticisms’, with no comrade being emotionally bruised by the experience. In fact, the search for truth is often an active process of heated, sometimes hurtful, conflict.

Instructively, Iskra’s ruthless exposure of “the very embryo of a reactionary idea hidden behind a revolutionary phrase” - a “polemical style that was destined to enjoy a brilliant future in the Bolshevik Party” - was damned by many of its contemporaries in terms that would sound familiar to many a partisan of the Weekly Worker: “On all sides, Iskra’s opponents condemned the polemical methods of this journal, which was accused, to quote Trotsky’s testimony at the time, of ‘fighting not so much against the autocracy as against the other factions in the revolutionary movement’.”14

Some LU comrades may object that such a culture simply sows division and fragmentation in our movement - something we have had more than enough of over the past decades. In fact, history tells us that this sort of culture of frank - even occasionally intemperate - exchanges of views helps fuse people who are serious about their politics. As the heroic Leopold Trepper, put it, “During Lenin’s lifetime, political life among the Bolsheviks was always very animated. At the congresses, in the plenums, at the meetings of the central committee, militants said frankly what they thought. This democratic and often bitter clash of opinions gave the party its cohesion and vitality.”15

* Science: The notion of a scientific approach to working class politics and theory has had very bad press for quite some time now, thanks largely to the mechanical distortions of Stalinism. However, on one level it should simply denote a process of analysis that moves beyond the observation of relatively simple, cause-consequence relations and surface connections to the formulation of more profound and fundamental laws of social being and thinking. This is the context in which Marx comments that, if the surface appearance of things and their inner essence coincided, then there would be no need for science.

It may seem a contradiction to suggest that a ‘scientific’ political approach implies conflict and sharply counterposed schools of thought that fight things out. However, the fact is that there are plenty of sharp and long-running polemical battles amongst scientists themselves. And if we accept that the basic laws of science are hidden beneath the ‘accidental’ and ‘chaotic’ surface appearance of things, how does it come into the world? Always and everywhere as the viewpoint of either individuals or small minorities.

The majority of the earth’s population did not suddenly arrive at spontaneously correct conclusions about the position of the planets in the solar system or the evolution of the species. The minorities or individuals that achieved these sorts of insights often had to fight life-or-death battles (sometimes literally) against established orthodoxies, the regimes and institutions that gained sustenance from conventional beliefs and the mass ‘common sense’ that accepted them.

So the parallel is that Marxist politics - as the scientific world view of the working class - come first into the world as minority politics, fighting for a hearing. A scrap that is not for the squeamish.

MN Pokrovsky, a Russian historian of the revolution, comments that an “essential quality” of Lenin was his “colossal political courage”. He goes on:

The characteristic trait of Ilyich was that he was not afraid to assume the responsibility for political decisions of any size. In this respect he did not retreat in the face of any risk; he took upon himself the responsibility for steps on which hung the fate not only of his own person or of his party, but that of the whole country and to some extent the world revolution. Because this was such an unusual political phenomenon, Ilyich always launched all his actions with a very small group, in as much as there were very few people to be found who were bold enough to follow him.16

Did the views Lenin defended normally start in a minority because he was rude, ‘oppressive’ or not ‘objective’ enough? No - it was precisely because his politics were characterised by exactitude, by a striving to grasp what was essential to a political phenomenon, and by his determination not to be diverted by “all that was external, accidental, superficial”. Lenin insisted on the need to arrive at conclusions that “reached to the heart of the matter and grasped the essential methods of action”.17 This is why the cryptic allusions, the woolly phraseology, the blurring of lines of political differentiation in favour of some swampy compromise that is the modus operandi of so much of the contemporary left is worse than useless in the struggle for socialism.

In truth, it is an attribute of opportunist trends that reflects the pressure of ruling class ideology in the workers’ movement. In these brief lines, Lenin explains why this is so in a debate on the nature of the Constitutional-Democratic Party, the major party of the liberal monarchist bourgeoisie in Russia founded in 1905:

Unimportant though the question of name may appear at first glance, here too we immediately find material that explains why the bourgeoisie, unlike the proletariat, must content itself with political vagueness and even defend it ‘in principle’; it ‘must’ do this, not only on account of the subjective moods or qualities of its leaders, but by reason of the objective conditions governing the existence of the bourgeois class as a whole.18

However, our politics are not akin to physics. We cannot expect victory to simply materialise through the unfolding of the objective laws of history’s development: it is not like waiting for the seasons to change, for water to boil or for a solar eclipse. Politics - like warfare - is an art and an essential aspect of it is polemic.

Marxist polemics are required to carve out an audience, to make other, larger forces sit up and pay attention. To do battle against the prevailing flow of political ‘common sense’, they must often be expressed in the starkest terms. It should be obvious to us that when a political opponent starts at our use of a particular phrase, when they make demands that we ‘withdraw’ an accusation or even try to stop us expressing it, the likelihood is that we have touched a raw nerve.

Lenin is refreshingly clear on this point: “To discuss complaints or accusations on this plane would be the same as if we were to condemn the word ‘strike-breaker’ as being impermissible, without going to the essence of the question of whether the behaviour of the person concerned was actually that of a strike-breaker or not.”19

Those comrades in LU who would distribute political Asbos to the Weekly Worker and its comrades for their use of polemical language actually help to blur clear political lines between principled working class politics and opportunism. To be coy about sharp political differences is to let opportunists off the hook; it is an expression of a veering towards bourgeois politics in the workers’ movement.

We have seen it often enough in the past, of course. Lenin writes of his factional opponents, the Mensheviks, and their “love of platitudinous phrases, their evasion of the concrete exposition of a question …”20


1 H Cunow Parteizusammenbruch? Ein offenes Wort zum inneren Parteistreit Berlin 1915, p3.

2 See ‘Freedom to criticise must be defended’ Weekly Worker June 19.

3 Weekly Worker May 29.

4 Weekly Worker June 19.

5 Cited in P Le Blanc Lenin and the revolutionary party New York 1993, p73.

6 Ibid p73.

7 VI Lenin CW Vol 34, Moscow 1977, pp161-166.

8 L Trotsky My life Atlanta 1970, p162.

9 NK Krupskaya Reminiscences of Lenin Honolulu 2004, p96.

10 H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 3, New York 1974, pp194, 210 - my emphasis in second quote.

11 Quoted in M Liebman Leninism under Lenin London 1985, p29.

12 Ibid p107 - my emphasis.

13 L Trotsky On Lenin London 1971, p194.

14 M Liebman Leninism under Lenin London 1985, p107.

15 L Trepper The great game London 1977, p44 - my emphasis.

16 MN Pokrovsky Russia in world history Michigan 1970, p189.

17 L Trotsky On Lenin London 1971, p194.

18 VI Lenin CW Vol 8, Moscow 1977, p488.

19 VI Lenin CW Vol 12, Moscow 1977, p429.

20 VI Lenin CW Vol 12, Moscow 1977, p321.