Celebrating the lessons
Comrades from all parts of Britain and with lengths of CPGB membership ranging from several decades to a few days, and also sympathisers and supporters of other revolutionary political groups, attended the CPGB weekend school on 'The lessons of Bolshevism' on November 11-12 at Caxton House, London. The school was held as part of our commemoration of the October Revolution of 1917, and the first publication of The Leninist in November 1981. With the left in Britain, for the first time since 1920, taking steps towards unity and posing the possibility of a single democratic centralist party, it was particularly valuable to study the lessons of the period leading to the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Comrade Jack Conrad began the opening session, on 'The RSDLP - revolutionary party or united front?', by defining precisely what communists mean by the word 'party'. A Communist Party is the voluntary organisation of the politically advanced part of the working class. This advanced part is certain to contain a wide range of views about theory and tactics, and in any sort of a healthy party these will be democratically debated and tested in practice. What we see around us on the left, the comrade suggested, are not real parties, but sects, organised around rigid belief systems, deviation from which is incompatible with continued membership.
In outlining the history of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, comrade Conrad gave several examples of Lenin's constant adherence to a Partyist, as opposed to sectarian, political line. Before the RSDLP's 2nd Congress the fortnightly political newspaper Iskra, edited by a five-strong team including Lenin, attacked both the Bund (Union of Jewish Workers) and the economist trend in the Russian workers' movement, but agitated for them to take part in the congress which would properly establish the Party. Similarly, in the lead-up to the 1912 Congress Lenin argued for pro-Party elements in both the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings to take part.
Another example used by comrade Conrad to illustrate Lenin's concept of a party, as distinct from a faction, was the expulsion of the Bogdanovites from the Bolshevik faction: Lenin did not expel them from the RSDLP itself. His motivation for expelling them from the faction was not philosophical disagreement, as some sectarians pretend, but their liquidationist refusal to promote or defend practical legal work.
Discussion of comrade Conrad's opening focused on the need to unite organisations working together in the Socialist Alliance with the aim of forming a single democratic centralist party. The Socialist Workers Party believes that it is 'the party' (with the implication that there is no need to build a real one) and that the Socialist Alliance is actually a united front. This is not an accurate characterisation in Marxist terms. The united front is the tactic used by a revolutionary minority of cooperating with a reformist majority and/or its leadership. But the Socialist Alliance does not contain a majority of reformists: about 95% describe themselves as revolutionaries. The CPGB is concerned with finding the best way to attract left reformists to the Socialist Alliance in order to change and organise them as revolutionaries, rather than shaping the SA to fit the kind of Labourite politics they had organisationally broken from.
During this part of the school opposition to the CPGB position came from members of the International Bolshevik Tendency, who provided a living example of the purest form of sectarianism. They claimed, in contradiction to Jack Conrad's account, that Lenin from an early date actually wanted a split with the Mensheviks and to form an ideologically based party. This version of history was used to support their refusal to participate in the Socialist Alliance project, which they justified by criticising the support it gave to Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral election. They described the Socialist Alliance as a swamp with a programme to the right of most of its constituent parts.
Replying to the debate, comrade Conrad said the main task we have now is to build the unity of revolutionaries around a revolutionary programme inside the Socialist Alliance. He contrasted this work with past CPGB involvement in the Socialist Labour Party, which was set up by Arthur Scargill to defend old Labour against New Labour, but was a bureaucratic sect from its foundation - anyone who seriously opposed Scargill was witch-hunted, voided or expelled. In contrast, we have successfully combated bureaucratic tendencies within the Socialist Alliance movement and now take part in it on the basis of unity in action and freedom of criticism.
While we retain this freedom of criticism, it would be the worst kind of sectarian stupidity to adopt the sort of narrow outlook characterised by the Socialist Party in England and Wales, with its insistence on putting its sect's interests above the whole. On the other hand, if we did not openly criticise the reformist programme of the Socialist Alliance, that would be unprincipled unity. But we publish our criticisms every week in the Weekly Worker, so for us the Socialist Alliance is a principled unity.
Opening the second debate, on 'The Russian empire and the tasks of revolutionaries - break-up or overthrow?', comrade Darrell Goodliffe continued the theme of how the approach taken by the Bolshevik Party in the early decades of the 20th century provides useful lessons for today, in this case in dealing with the national question. The comrade outlined the debates around the situation in Poland within the "prison house of nations" which was the Russian empire: whether to fight for Polish independence to weaken the empire or unite with the Russian working class in seeking to overthrow it, as Lenin advocated. The Bolsheviks supported the right of nations to self-determination, but opposed the subordination of the class struggle to nationalism, and fought for the unity of the entire working class irrespective of nation or nationality. The comrade pointed to the obvious relevance of these conflicts to the current struggle against Scottish nationalism.
In the discussion comrade Marcus Larsen made the point that it is no accident that the SWP, with its economism and consequent agnosticism on the national question, now seems prepared to reach an accommodation with the Scottish Socialist Party leadership over its "independent socialist Scotland" line. Such an adaptation to nationalism runs counter to the principle of working class unity. It results from a failure to grasp the essence of both political and economic struggles.
There was a wide-ranging debate covering Ireland, Palestine, Yugoslavia and European federalism, as well as Scotland, in which comrades from the IBT and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty also contributed.
On the second day comrade Larsen began the third session, on 'The April theses - was Lenin a Menshevik before 1917?' He outlined what he described as a common Trotskyist myth: that Lenin held a semi-Menshevik position before April 1917, then became a 'Trotskyist' - either spontaneously or as a result of reading Trotsky. The comrade easily disproved this myth. Quoting from the programmatic document adopted by the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1917, he showed that the April theses represented an update of the Bolshevik programme, made necessary by the overthrow of tsarism, and certainly not the ditching, neither in principle nor in method, of the Bolshevik minimum-maximum programme.
The interesting question is why such a distorted view of history persists among Trotskyists and groups such as the SWP, which came from the Trotskyist tradition. Comrade Larsen argued that the myth functions not simply to glorify Trotsky: it also downplays the importance of democracy and excuses economists from consistently upholding political tasks.
It all hinges, explained the comrade, on the understanding of the term 'bourgeois revolution'. Lenin characterised the anticipated revolution in Russia as a bourgeois revolution, which would produce a 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry'. This would in effect undertake the 'bourgeois' tasks of developing capitalism under the rule of the working class in alliance with the peasantry. Since there can be no socialism in a single country, the supersession of capitalism itself would depend not only on the balance of forces inside Russia, but, crucially, on the pace of the world revolution.
Trotskyists insist that before April Lenin somehow stood for the handing back of power to the capitalists after a successful revolution led by the workers and peasants. He then switched to Trotsky's 'Transitional programme' and was apparently converted to the necessity of immediately implementing socialist measures. This ignores the fact that after the October revolution the Bolsheviks did indeed in certain respects attempt to develop capitalism in alliance with the peasant-based Left Socialist Revolutionaries, and, more to the point, through the rule (i.e., in Marxist terminology, the dictatorship) of the soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers (in the main, peasants in uniform). Wholesale nationalisation - mistakenly synonymous, for much of the left, with 'socialism' - was forced on the Bolsheviks in 1918 by the capitalists' abandonment of the factories and productive units. Then there was the New Economic Policy.
In order to stress that Lenin remained a consistent democrat both before and after April 1917, comrade Larsen quoted an attack by Lenin on those who would leave the struggle for democracy to the bourgeoisie, from the conclusion of Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution (1905): "Whoever disparages the tasks of the political struggle transforms the social democrat from a tribune of the people into a trade union secretary. Whoever disparages the proletarian tasks in a democratic bourgeois revolution transforms the social democrat from a leader of the people's revolution into a leader of a free labour union" (VI Lenin CW Vol. 9, Moscow 1977, p111). He then cited a passage from 1917 where Lenin writes of the continued relevance of these strategic formulations.
In the debate Paul Hampton of the AWL described the Trotskyist version of history outlined by comrade Larsen as a "caricature" - but then appeared to lend his support to the 'theory' of Lenin's 'conversion' in 1917. He defended the superiority of the 'transitional method' over the minimum-maximum programme, and argued that in Russia in 1917, and in all subsequent revolutionary situations, the peasantry has been unreliable and incapable of acting as a ruling class. Therefore, for him, Lenin had mistakenly overstated its role in the alliance with the working class. The call for a 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' was incorrect, he said, as proved by Stalin's subsequent unprincipled application of this slogan in China. Actually, in Stalin's hands Lenin's correct algebraic formula for a backward country - i.e., the 'revolutionary (not reformist) democratic (not elitist) dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat (the force for socialism and world communism) and peasantry (the majority)' - excused a tailist alliance with the national bourgeoisie - fatal for the workers, as proved by the Shanghai massacre of 1927.
The final session was introduced by comrade Mark Fischer, who spoke on 'The Third International and its epigones'. He said that, just as a Communist Party is the highest organised part of the working class, an International, which is a world Party, is a strategic part of the world working class, and it requires a high level of mass consciousness. A true international expresses the universality of the working class, and its identity of aims across the world.
Comrade Fischer argued that Trotsky's so-called Fourth International, established in 1938, was not a legitimate successor to the Third International: such a successor has still to be built. He compared the process of formation of the two organisations and the conditions in which they operated, and went on to argue that the dogmatic sectarianism seen in the Trotskyist groups today can be traced back to Trotsky's own method and errors.
Comrade Fischer approvingly quoted a letter from Victor Serge to Trotsky (March 18 1939): "I am convinced that one cannot build an international while there are no parties ... One should not play with the words 'party' and 'international'. But there are no parties here ... Only small groups managing to hold on somehow in this deadlock, but they have no dynamism, no influence, nor even a common language with the working class movement. One cannot build an international organisation on intolerance and the Bolshevik-Leninist doctrine, for in the whole world there are no more than 200 people (except the surviving inmates of Stalin, perhaps) who are in a position to understand what Bolshevism-Leninism is ... For the time being, no one in the Fourth International groups thinks except through your head" (quoted in H Ticktin and M Cox (eds) The ideas of Leon Trotsky London 1995, p274).
This sentiment summed up the key message of the weekend: that the idea of Party is crucial. It does not yet exist as a social force, but it is our task to propagate, foster and advance it. In claiming the name of the CPGB, we do not imagine we are the Party. Rather we point to what is necessary for working class self-liberation.