Leninist assumptions and cult hierarchies

Simon Pirani was part of a panel of three who addressed the CPGB's Communist University under the title of 'They fuck you up, the left'. This is an edited version of his speech

I was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party from 1972, when I was a teenager, until 1985. For a year before that I was in the Young Communist League, along with friends from school, and after I left the WRP I was in its largest offshoot until the early 90s. Since then, although I have been active in politics, including writing about contemporary Russia and a book about the Russian Revolution, I have not been a member of any organisation.

I am going to talk not about the particular politics of the leftwing groups, but about their culture. In other words, the way they operate, the way their members live their lives. This includes the relationship between members of the group and other people; what we might call their ‘moral code’; and the often unspoken assumptions that group members have about the way they behave - about big things, such as work, family, enjoyment, friendships; and about smaller things, such as the way we speak, the way we dress, etc.

It is very easy to think of things we do not like about the behaviour of leftwing groups. An obvious example is the way members of some of them unquestioningly repeat the party line and behave intolerantly towards those who do not accept it. I would argue that these symptoms are part of the culture of these groups in a wider sense.

Context

Leftwing groups, including those that resemble sects, operate in a society dominated by a ruling class that is hostile to their aims. Inevitably they are profoundly influenced by the morals and culture of that society, and find it difficult to counter that influence.

This is partly because they limit themselves almost entirely to political questions and do not think about or discuss morals and culture. They do not think about how we live and how we behave, and so everything remains on a superficial level. In my opinion the movement to communism cannot be defined merely as a political movement: it is something much deeper than that.

Arising from this context, there are cult-like and highly negative aspects about the vast majority of the groups - including some that were relatively successful in their own terms. An example that recently struck me is that of the Black Panther Party of the United States, an organisation I absolutely worshipped when I was 13-15 years old. To me these were the guys who were really doing it. They were at the centre of the beast and defying the state. They had a much stronger influence, and were much better anchored in local communities, than any of the groups most of us were involved in. Nevertheless, from the discussion now going on among former members, and publications by them, what is very clear is that a culture of intolerance and authoritarianism, hierarchical relationships within the group, subordination of women to men - that was all there in the Black Panther Party. I am picking that example deliberately because, of the many groups of the 70s and 80s, that is one that comes out looking pretty heroic.

I think there is a problem with the legacy of Bolshevism - although there is also plenty of evidence of hierarchy, authoritarianism or intolerance in anti-Leninist groups, such as anarchists. What I would say about Leninist groups, including Trotskyists, is that the ideological assumption that the Bolshevik Party was the model to follow - and usually completely misunderstood versions of what the Bolshevik Party was and did - is used to reinforce hierarchies. In the 70s and 80s the Leninist groups consciously embraced the idea that they were a vanguard: bringing ideas to relatively ignorant working class people; in Lenin’s words, quoting Kautsky, bringing consciousness to the working class “from without”.

Now such groups are much less significant than all sorts of other types of organisations and movements, and generally I think that is a good thing. But then, certainly, the groups had this belief, which seems to me to be a glue that held together many of the very negative things about them.

Once you reject the assumption that the working class needs these ideas to be brought to it in this particular way, the reason for the groups to operate in that manner - and indeed to exist - is called into question. This vanguardism also underpins a lot of reactionary nonsense about the role of strong individual leaders.

WRP

The WRP exhibited many of the tendencies I have mentioned in a very extreme way: authoritarianism, hierarchical relationships, etc. It was also quite extreme in the sense that it had at its centre a group of about 100-200 people (of which from the age of 16 or so, for about 10-12 years, I was one) - so-called ‘professional revolutionaries’, who, in most cases, lived very much as a sect.

When I say ‘as a sect’ I am not talking about sectarianism in the political sense, but about being cut off from family and from former friends, and living a life dominated by a small range of political tasks. This was underpinned by a lot of rubbish about self-sacrifice, Bolshevik discipline, etc.

The other extraordinary aspect of the WRP was that its leader, Gerry Healy, was not only an authoritarian bully in public: he also conducted a string of abusive sexual relationships with women members of the organisation in private. Healy was expelled from the WRP in 1985 on the grounds of (1) this sexual abuse; (2) quite serious violence against one person conducted in private; and (3) behaviour of which the entire organisation was aware - groundlessly accusing another member of being a police agent was the particular example that was mentioned; it was the sort of thing he did absolutely routinely.

In relation to the sexual abuse, we are talking about serial rape, such as might be practised on girls by their fathers or uncles, or within institutions such as the Catholic church; and for which perpetrators might expect long jail sentences in cases where they are caught and tried.

It is important to underline that most members of the organisation were completely unaware of this sexual abuse. It was inflicted on people in secret. However, we unknowingly created the conditions for it by our acceptance of things we were aware of: a hierarchical structure; tolerance towards bullying by individual leaders; intolerance towards people who were outside the group; the deliberate ritual humiliation of members in large meetings - particularly senior members with whom Healy was picking a fight for one reason or another; the expulsion of all those who voiced substantial political disagreement and some who did not - that goes almost without saying; and the use of violence.

Just to explain what I mean by ‘violence’, it was of the intimidatory type that is used within families - pushing and shoving, etc. It was sometimes a bit more serious than that, but not as serious as the violence used by some national liberation movements against internal dissent, up to and including torture and murder. Such extreme violence has also been used in the course of internal conflicts by so-called socialist organisations that run into political trouble in circumstances of armed struggle and repression. I often think that if the WRP had existed in a context in which guns were available some of its lunacies might have ended up being expressed in people turning guns on each other, as happened, tragically, in some of the fragments of the Irish Republican Socialist Party.

We set out to fight oppression - that is why people joined the organisation - and we ended up creating a machine for disciplining, humiliating and at worst abusing ourselves and other people like us. So destroying that machine in 1985 was a great thing. At another meeting recently I stated that expelling Gerry Healy, which led to the break-up of the WRP in its old form, was “the most revolutionary thing the WRP ever did”. I was criticised for saying it, but I think it was right, so I am repeating it here.

Lessons

The importance of the particular case of the WRP is that it shows the depths of the problems created by cultures of authoritarianism and discipline; and by the cult-like nature of the groups.

Obviously not every section of the Catholic church has priests who abuse young male members of their congregations. But an atheist could very well construct an argument that the Catholic church’s very nature prepares the ground for that to happen. I think there is a parallel. There is circumstantial evidence of behaviour similar to Healy’s - albeit on a smaller scale - by leaders of other political groups. Obviously a factor here is the sect-like quality of the groups. In so far as a number of Trotskyist groups, particularly in rich countries, ended up like this in the 1970s, that is relevant to the history of Trotskyism in general, although it is only one small aspect.

I would be the last to suggest that there are not other aspects of that history that are more important: Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism; the Trotskyists’ role in the USSR - until they were defeated and silenced there - and in those countries where they achieved substantial influence in the labour movement, such as France, Bolivia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, etc.

Neither would I say that the sexual abuse, or the culture of authoritarianism and discipline that made it possible, is the whole story of the WRP. It was involved in the class struggle in many ways: the WRP - and the groups that preceded it in the 1950s and 60s - conducted significant activity in the labour movement. For example, during the crisis of the Communist Party that followed the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the group carried out a lot of important union activity among miners, shipworkers, carworkers, etc. In the 70s and 80s, WRP members of my own generation played an important part in various trade union struggles.

That was the contradictory nature of the WRP and, I expect, many groups - a politics that appeared anti-capitalist and in some sense revolutionary was married to a culture that was deeply anti-revolutionary. That culture is absolutely inimical to any movement towards communism