Alex Callinicos: haunted by the real Lenin

Ben Lewis observed few signs of ‘revolt’ at last weekend’s SWSS day school

The March 3 ‘Revolt’ day school in London, organised by the Socialist Worker Student Society, was conceived of as a ‘mini-Marxism’ to sign up new activists sympathetic to SWSS and to provide new comrades with an understanding of the ‘International Socialist/Socialist Workers Party tradition’. Following on from another event in Manchester a week earlier, the school was an opportunity for leading SWP comrades to provide the usual openings on introductory questions (‘Why the working class?’; ‘What is exploitation?’) as well as on contemporary political themes. However, this event was not, and was never going to be, ‘business as usual’.

After all, as this paper has reported, SWP students have been at the sharp end of the ongoing factional battles. Many of the more spurious and underhand central committee tactics in the recent period have been directly aimed at SWSS groups, at least a dozen of which have spoken out against the ham-fisted handling of the rape allegations against ‘comrade Delta’.

At the 11th hour, for example, leading SWSS member and dissident Jamie Woodcock was summarily removed as a candidate for the National Union of Students national executive committee elections. For similar reasons, Shereen Prasad’s nomination to the NUS NEC was also withdrawn late in the day. At an important time of local student union elections and campaigning, there has been talk of the national student office effectively breaking off all contact with local groups. Complaints have also been made about the organisation of the ‘Revolt’ school itself, with off-message student speakers suddenly replaced by CC loyalists.

For me, the ‘Revolt’ event itself underlined how the SWP really will take a big hit if it loses the core of its student cadre. ‘Revolt’ obviously suffered from the breakdown in relations between SWSS and the parent body on a number of levels. Firstly, the event was small, with no more than 90 attending. Considering that both SWSS and the SWP place greater emphasis on the numbers they mobilise than on political clarity and education, this is not insignificant. It is hard to tell whether the low turnout was due to disgruntled SWSS members boycotting the event, a breakdown in the student office or simply the general fate of SWSS in the present period.

Secondly, it was badly organised. SWSS events often see orchestrated interventions from the floor - usually to hammer home the ‘line’ or to draw out the speaker on a particular issue that the leadership wants to emphasise. As it was, though, the opening speeches were often met with a rather embarrassing silence. This ensured that the discussion from the floor was dominated by me (apart from two International Bolshevik Tendency members, I was the sole non-SWSS member/supporter present, as far as I could tell) and this or that full-timer/longstanding SWP member that also happened to be in the audience.

Greece and Syriza

The first session was on ‘Crisis, perspectives and revolution’, with three panel speakers. While there was much talk about the crisis, there was unfortunately very little about perspectives or revolution. Interestingly, the student speaker was Shereen Prasad, the comrade whose NUS candidature had been blocked. She gave a well-delivered, if slightly one-sided and optimistic talk about the prospects for resistance, stressing that it was now incumbent upon SWSS to build student-worker networks, so that “when the attacks come you can respond”. Correctly, she also stressed the need to fight in the NUS. Her comment that “this is why we have stood strong candidates for NUS elections” drew some ironic laughter from a group of student comrades in the audience, but unfortunately none of them got up to argue against the manoeuvres to which SWSS had recently been subjected. A shame.

For a comrade of such obvious talent, CC member Esme Choonara really did talk a lot of nonsense. From the ‘Millbank moment’ through to the November 30 2011 strikes, etc, everything was going forward and it was all so simple. There was no real assessment of revolutionary perspectives - simply an attempt to pep up new recruits. Nor was there any attempt to deal with the current weakness of our movement generally - for her it is this “vicious, rotten government” that is “weak”. One wonders how long a government has to last before it is not weak.

The most interesting opening was given by Petros, a Greek SWP member and councillor for Antarsya, the ‘anti-capitalist’ electoral coalition. He described some of the devastating effects of austerity in Greece, and reminded comrades of the enormous levels of struggle there of late, with around 30 general strikes reflecting the deep anger in society. In terms of going forward, he rightly stressed the need to look to our own strength, not ‘above’ to the capitalist state. We should be building workers’ control and self-defence organisations against the far-right Golden Dawn, fighting for laws that would ban sackings, cancel the debt and nationalise the banks. Significantly, he took some time to criticise the left-reformist grouping, Syriza.

In terms of the SWP leadership’s ‘message’, coming down hard on Syriza was a common theme throughout the day. This is no surprise, given that the prominent SWP oppositionist, Richard Seymour, has written favourably about this very successful left-reformist grouping.1 As far as they go, the SWP leadership’s criticisms are reasonable: the hopes that so many revolutionaries are placing in Syriza are sowing enormous illusions. But what perspectives in Greece, then? Could a Greek left government ‘go it alone’ in the face of capital flight? And what about the tiny matter of Greece’s relationship to the EU? When discussion was opened up to the floor, I raised some of these questions on ‘perspectives’.

Comrade Petros’s response made clear that his critique of Syriza did not simply concern its illusions in forming a capitalist government in Greece, but also that it had, so he claimed, made clear that it was no longer willing to discuss pulling out of the EU and the euro: it was going to stay in. So it became clear that his ‘anti-capitalist’ programme for Greece (in the SWP world there is no such thing as a Marxist programme) involved withdrawing from the EU and leaving the euro, taking on the banks and so on. Greece is “not a big country, but it is not small - it is part of the euro”, he stressed. So, while it might not be a question of socialist revolution in Greece today, we can’t act simply on the assumption that there will not be “world revolution tomorrow”. So that’s settled, then …

Responding to my question about left parties and elections on these shores, comrade Choonara was desperately uninspired and uninspiring: unity of the left is not about “gathering together for warmth”. There are lots of ways you can unite the left, she said. It is “breadth” that unites people. Cue a list of several front organisations like Unite Against Fascism, at whose annual conference the day before Owen Jones and Ken Livingstone had spoken, for example. This breadth unites, and then the strategic questions arise when people move into struggle and feel an expression of their power. But how are we going to exercise our power? After all, while the SWP is now currently keen on clamping down on “reformist illusions” in Syriza, it is worth noting that, when it comes to its electoral political practice, it has done nothing but spread reformist illusions at the ballot box: Respect, Left Alternative, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and so on. Has the CC now come to the conclusion that revolutionaries should stand for parliament on a revolutionary platform, then? No, the answer is more self-styled SWP ‘united fronts’, ie, uncritically tailing the forces of … reformism.

The next session I attended was ‘Is capitalism becoming less democratic?’ The most notable aspect was how little the speaker had to say about how to advance the cause of democracy in the here and now. I asked him about the kind of democratic demands that should be championed by our movement today, in order to win what Marx and Engels called “the battle of democracy”. What could we learn from the programmes of classical Marxism, which foregrounded the struggle for democracy, the republic, the armed people, annual elections, etc? This prompted Jo Caldwell, one of the newly elected members of the SWP CC, to roll out the hoary old ‘Peace, land and bread’ myth of the Bolsheviks in April 1917. What they mobilised the masses around, you see, were these three very simple demands, which in and of themselves were “not very revolutionary”, but in the actual context of a system that could not deliver them, became so.

If I had a pound for every time I have heard this nonsense, then the Weekly Worker would probably be a daily … Yet, given the lack of discussion from the floor, I was able to respond to her, saying that these were simply slogans, behind which stood the Bolshevik political programme and strategy, something that had been painstakingly developed and updated since 1903, with demands such as the arming of the people, the distribution of land to the peasants, the republic, etc, etc. Comrade Caldwell left the room and so was unable to come back on this.

In summing up, however, the speaker noted how the SWP was flexible, with different demands at different times. For example, it called for “Troops out now” in 2003, and “We won’t pay for their crisis” in 2008. Yet, once again, these are slogans. Slogans can, and will, vary at different times - even on a daily basis, when it comes to particular struggles. Yet slogans cannot substitute for programme, for strategy. Indeed, the former have to flow from, and be informed by, the latter, openly showing people what we stand for and how it links to our aims to bring about the rule of the working class majority.

Stalinist caricatures

The session that everybody was particularly relishing, of course, was Alex Callinicos’s presentation on ‘The politics of Leninism’. The advice of the student organiser who urged, “It would be good if everybody didn’t go to Alex’s session” - ie, at the expense of the others running at the same time - was not heeded: I would say that around 80%-90% of those at the school were crammed into this session.

Comrade Callinicos spoke in a composed and clear manner. There was to be no talk of “lynch mobs” and so on. It was a “dogmatic mistake”, he argued, to see Leninism as a general theory. For him there were many Lenins: the one who supposedly wanted a party of full-timers in What is to be done? and another who then completely changed his mind on this in 1905, for example.2 This was just one of several historical inaccuracies given in his talk, but it was nothing compared to what was to come.

Despite the comrade asserting that he was out to argue against the “Stalinist caricature” of the vanguard party, he did a fairly admirable job of repeating the usual Stalinist origin myths and fairy tales from Uncle Joe’s infamous Short course (1939). He contrasted “those like Karl Kautsky”, who believed in a party of the whole class, like Syriza (!),3 with Lenin’s concept of a vanguard party. You see, for those like Kautsky (and presumably Marx and Engels in the early 1880s, then?), the vision was one of “broad parties” that reflected the class as a whole, leading to a lack of distinction between “party and class”.4 This is unforgivably poor history. Unlike Syriza, the Second International was built on the basis of Marxist programmes. Of necessity, the Erfurt programme of 1891 and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party programme of 1903 were not ‘broad’. They excluded anarchists, ‘state’ socialists, ‘socialists of the chair’, syndicalists - not to mention other ideas present in the “class as a whole”.

Mentioning the question of the elections to the duma parliament, comrade Callinicos stressed the tactical flexibility of Lenin’s approach, which could entail quite sharp turns and varying approaches in attempting to influence, and win, the majority. These rapid shifts, according to comrade Callinicos, did not make Lenin an opportunist, because he had “central Marxist principles” and a “fundamental confidence” in them. No doubt Lenin was confident. Yet again, the question of where those firm principles were crystallised - ie, in the party’s programme - is a complete blind spot for the comrade. Presumably they simply existed in Lenin’s head and party members held him accountable in this way?

In 1917, when the Bolsheviks suddenly became a “mass party” and took power, they had to have public debates - “of necessity”, as Callinicos put it. Precisely because he sees so many chops and changes in the Bolshevik’s strategy, he cannot see the obvious connection between the open and public approach to party debate in its publications, right from the small groups around Iskra, through to the mass party of 1905, and beyond to the heights of state power.

For Callinicos, there are three stages in the democratic-centralist process: discussion (albeit, unlike with Bolshevism, restricted to internal channels); majority decision (with no public articulation of where the majority and the minority in the party could be found); and then full implementation of the decision (without the possibility of publicly accounting for and criticising it afterwards). The idea that there could be a serious and open debate in the pages of Socialist Worker, as in publications like Iskra or Pravda, is pure anathema to Callinicos. Yet, as one critical SWSS member, Amy, put it from the floor, “Different decisions require different levels of debate.” You can’t just rely on the “blind faith” of activists in the party, but actually need to “win them politically”. She added: “We shouldn’t be afraid of having discussions on democratic centralism.” Quite right.

I highlighted some of comrade Callinicos’s absurd historical claims, such as his equation of the Social Democratic Party of Germany or the RSDLP and Syriza. I also questioned his mechanical understanding of how decisions are made and carried out. What if the decision made was wrong? How would Lenin have argued for a second revolution in April 1917 if he was a member of the SWP? Did he wait until autumn for the ‘pre-conference period’ of three months and agitate behind closed doors? No, there were public debates and discussions, conflicting articles in the party press and so on. At best, I said, the SWP’s ‘Bolshevism’ was based on post-1921 practice, where the party banned factions under the extreme pressure of the civil war and profound economic dislocation. Limiting factions to internal debates for three months per year was a de facto ban on factions altogether. This was not historical point-scoring, I added, but absolutely crucial to political strategy today: the SWP will never become a revolutionary party that can lead millions if this is its approach.

Following this, a SWSS member also raised the question of 1921 and the ban on factions. Did those conditions really apply to Britain in 2013? Was it really the case that the SWP was about to be massacred by White generals? He also made some very good criticisms of the SWP’s fetishisation of the slate system for the election of the CC and alluded to several Stalinoid features of SWP organisation.

CC member Judith Orr won the prize for being the only speaker to roll out the phrase so beloved of bureaucratic centralists: “We are not a debating society.” Neither is the SWP “a co-op” - “we want to lead”. As if the kind of sharp and rigorous clash of ideas associated with Bolshevism preclude leading many millions of people to change the world, a politically sophisticated class that is aware of all political developments in the party and beyond, and thus able to liberate itself, not be manipulated into power by the ‘clear line’ secretly formulated and then injected into the masses by Socialist Worker each week.

Moreover, genuine leadership requires the constant questioning, testing and correction of the party line from its membership and the class more generally. Take a recent SWP slogan as an example: what about the leadership’s call for “All out, stay out” during the public sector strikes of 2011? Is it anti-Bolshevik to perhaps publicly criticise this slogan after it had become apparent that the strikers actually were keener to go to the pub for a few pints than to storm the barricades and initiate an insurrectionary general strike to ‘kick out the Tories’?

Surely a discussion on such a question, and the attendant issues it raises for Marxist political strategy more generally, would be educational for the hard-working activists who had gone out and agitated for it (only to see it fail), for the trade unionists, shop stewards and pickets coming into contact with Marxist ideas and - last but not least - for the SWP ‘leadership’ that issued such nonsense in the first place? Instead it has just been buried and repressed, like an embarrassing childhood memory. Yet winning communism needs the truth, which is best achieved in the conditions of open, frank and fraternal debate.

Permanent faction

Responding to me and the SWSS comrade who raised the question of the civil war, Callinicos made an interesting point: while it might be legitimate to discuss whether we should organise like the Bolsheviks in 1921 today, the difference between the Bolsheviks in 1921 and the SWP today was that the latter does allow factions, although only for three months per year. Although he did not say so, these factions must - again unlike Bolshevism - keep their business within the party at all costs.

Reiterating a point by comrade Orr, he asserted that the existence of permanent factions tended to make comrades judge political issues not on their merits, but through factional spectacles. The Bolsheviks were not characterised by permanent factions, he claimed, but there were constant realignments and shifting factional alliances, whereby figures like Nikolai Bukharin might be with Lenin at certain times and against him at other times. This is, of course, true. Factional lines - as well as decisions on whether certain positions were outside the remit of the party’s programme, warranting expulsion - constantly changed. Politics is an art, not a science.

Yet what created the necessary trust for revolutionary unity to be forged and reforged was precisely the democratic culture of Bolshevism, where there were public disagreements in the party press on a whole range of issues. In the SWP this culture is lacking because those mechanisms are simply absent. More importantly, there is a permanent faction in the SWP. It is one that undeniably judges political issues in factional terms, especially now: it is the leadership faction, with its control of the party press and its appointment of full-timers and organisers. (In this regard, the SWP’s democratic credentials come a shabby second even to those of the Stalinist ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain - no mean feat.)

The session was interesting. It hinted at the kind of debate that should be the norm in our movement. Had there been more time allocated, with comrade Callinicos and others able to respond on several occasions, then it would have helped to clarify matters even more. Nonetheless, this was the first time that I had seen Alex Callinicos challenged in a direct way by members of his own organisation, which is surely a welcome development. Moreover, while many SWSS members may have looked on, slightly embarrassed, when I was in full flow against their leader, others later thanked me for speaking out.

After all, those questioning comrade Callinicos’s approach certainly have the weight of history on their side. Surely the elementary facts are clear, not least as we have shown over 30 years of publishing: the ‘politics of Leninism’, as defended by Callinicos and others, essentially boils down to a sect caricature. Only the naive new recruit or the self-delusional hack can dispute that the Bolshevik Party before 1921 was consistently characterised by open debate and public political struggle in the party press, meetings and so on.

Most intelligent leftwingers now at least recognise that fundamental disjuncture between the SWP and Bolshevism. The bigger question that those of us committed to a mass, revolutionary Marxist party now have to confront is how to break the false dichotomy that knows nothing other than a (caricatured) ‘permanent minority’ sect outlook passed off as ‘Bolshevism’, on the one hand, and a (caricatured) ‘broad party’ version of the Second International on the other. Both are dead-ends.

Although the SWP version of Bolshevik history overlaps with Stalin’s on several points, it would be wrong to call the SWP a ‘Stalinist’ organisation outright. Rejecting the need for any kind of programme, it is a peculiar bureaucratic hybrid of pseudo-Stalinism and anarchism, with a small, bureaucratically organised permanent minority seeking to influence and control broader fronts and ‘movements’.

This explains the emphasis on 1968 and (on a more ridiculous level) the organisation waiting around for the next ‘Millbank moment’ in student politics.

Student fightback

The final session I attended, on the role students can play in the class struggle, was significant if only for the fact that it was the exact opposite of the Callinicos session, with only about 10 people present. Given that this was a student event, one would perhaps have expected more. However, the session was led off by none other than comrade Caldwell, interestingly introduced as an SWP “student organiser” rather than CC member. One possible explanation for the small attendance is that there was a boycott by students expressing solidarity with those ousted by the CC.

If this is true, then the decision to stay away, and not actively intervene in the arguments, reflects some of the limitations of the current SWP opposition more generally. The lack of fight - or lack of sense of ‘revolt’, if you will - is perhaps a result of the dominant political culture in SWSS. In normal times, SWSS ‘politics’ consists of a very brief discussion about the “weak” government, etc, before moving onto the ‘real business’ of who is going to give out the leaflets, run the stall and so on.

So we should perhaps not expect dissident students to get up and directly challenge their leaders straight away: in such a tradition, raising critical questions is often tantamount to treachery. Nonetheless, more experienced members like comrades Woodcock and Mark Bergfeld (the former student organiser and CC member, who was not even present at the Callinicos talk, for example) should surely be taking a lead in stepping up and arguing back at all possible forums.

All of the problems faced by the SWP at the present time were on display at this event: its short-termism, its programmophobia, its bureaucratism and its aversion to the serious and fraternal exchange of ideas necessary for us to move forward. In short: its continuing malaise is inexorably bound up with its lack of Bolshevik perspectives and its dogmatic reliance on rotten methods.


1. See P Demarty, ‘Seymour in GreeceWeekly Worker January 24 for some background to this discussion.

2. For a solid refutation of this approach, see LT Lih, ‘Lenin disputed’ Historical Materialism No18, pp108-74.

3. In this, comrade Callinicos sings from the same hymn sheet as the Spartacist League. With a fairness and even-handedness typical of the Sparts, they rather desperately try to pass me off as a member of the Syriza fan club, simply because I have argued that the left has a distorted understanding of the Second International, and therefore Bolshevism. See: http://spartacist.org/english/esp/63/neo-kautskyites.html.

4. The title, of course, of Chris Harman’s famous essay, available online at www.marxists.de/party/harman/partyclass.htm. Quite what all the fuss is about regarding this essay, particularly in light of modern research, is somewhat beyond me.