Alex in wonderland

Attempts by the leadership to portray the SWP as the only ‘Leninist’ organisation in town are totally at odds with reality, argues Ben Lewis

My abiding memory of Marxism 2013 is a moment at the end of Saturday evening’s main event: namely Alex Callinicos’s presentation, ‘Leninism in the 21st century’. Dutifully following the script, the session’s chair reminded the 800 or so comrades who were there to buy a copy of two new SWP books before they left. Upon mentioning the first author, Ian Birchall, a good number in the audience spontaneously erupted into cheers. The comrade had just eloquently spoken on behalf of the opposition in the debate that followed the opening by comrade Callinicos. The chair then mentioned the second book, authored by Callinicos himself. This provoked a rather pained and cringeworthy attempt on the part of the loyalists to display similar enthusiasm.

It was a highly fitting and indeed richly symbolic moment that concisely captured the current stand-off. While the leadership wishes to carry on as normal and keep singing from the same old hymn sheet, life itself spoilt such plans - the bubbling opposition could not be ignored or silenced. It soon become clear from the reaction to various speeches that around a third of the audience were to one degree or another supporters of the opposition.

This was certainly like no other session I have attended at Marxism. Notwithstanding some of the more ridiculous pronouncements from certain CC loyalists, we really did see something approximating a real debate - even a “festival of ideas”, as Marxism has often been billed in the past. Far fewer uncritical, pre-prepared interventions echoing the main speaker and much more passion and engagement all round. Requests from audience members to speak were sifted through by leading CC comrades Jo Cardwell and Esme Choonara, ensuring that the debate was so constructed that an opposition speaker would immediately be followed by a speaker loyal to the leadership, in what at times felt more like an SWP conference session.

Contrary to a rather odd report from comrade Anindya Bhattacharyya from the SWP opposition, I did not get the impression that “many comrades listening” found the debate “confusing and demoralising”.1 I got the opposite impression - as we made our way out there was a real buzz, with people really engaged by what they had just heard.

Back foot

Not that there was much that was particularly new in comrade Callinicos’s presentation. He gave a standard outline of SWP-style ‘democratic centralism’, as it had evolved over the last few decades on the basis of a “particular model developed from a broad understanding of Leninism”. In general the presentation very much gave the impression of a man who was on the back foot: not daring and audacious, but somewhat laboured and beleaguered.

Comrade Callinicos cautioned that we should be rather “suspicious” of an all-embracing term, ‘Leninism’, since there was a cult of Lenin established in the factional heat of the 1920s, leading to a dogmatic approach. Nonetheless, Callinicos was more than happy to repeat the idea presented by the Hungarian Marxist, Georg Lukács, in that period: Lenin was the first Marxist to think about organisation theoretically, he said. Of course, Lenin’s particular contribution to the debate on organisation was extremely rich and far-sighted, but the notion that he was the first thinker to do so in theoretical terms is somewhat bizarre. After all, what about the role of Marx and Engels in the Communist League and the drafting of its programme/manifesto, their battles in the International Working Men’s Association, their fierce polemics and strident interventions on the programmes and outlooks of the parties that would form the Second International? Apparently, so Callinicos claimed, Marx and Engels thought that the gradual attainment of political consciousness within the working class would be a “natural, more organic process”, leading one to wonder why both of them were so at pains to develop the strategy and programme of the “political economy of the working class” throughout their careers.

Comrade Callinicos also stressed that there was “no such thing as a Leninist organisation”, pointing out that things would look rather different in Britain to how they would in Egypt, for example. Again, as a general statement, fair enough. Yet what kind of organisations should we be aspiring to build under the best conditions?

His arguments will probably be familiar to readers: the SWP’s take on democratic centralism sees a period of “concentrated debate” - concentrated both in a “political and temporal sense” - with “critical reflection on failure and success”. He also mentioned that there was an emphasis on a “particularly important role of the elected CC” (which is a fluffy way of saying that it appoints all full-timers and local organisers), and then the implementation of policies agreed upon at conference.

It is worth pausing here. Imagine what it would mean if such standards were to apply to the (thoroughly rotten and undemocratic, as Socialist Worker will tell you) major parties on the British political scene. It simply would not work. Is it really possible to seriously intervene in the real world on the basis of three months of debate per year and no genuine public discussion of different strategic and tactical issues for the next nine months? Yes, any living party must decide on particular actions constantly, but what is so thoroughly unconscionable about criticising, say, an obviously incorrect decision in retrospect? If mainstream politicians and thinkers can air their differences in the bourgeois press, then why cannot we do so in ours?

And just what all this has to do with “Leninism in the 21st century” is beyond me. This ‘Leninism’ is not just a watery image of ‘Leninism under Lenin’, as it were, but one that is often so far removed from, so much at odds with, the historical experience of Bolshevism that it does not warrant the name ‘Leninism’ at all.

Left reformism

At several occasions in his presentation, Callinicos sought to juxtapose the SWP, this ‘Leninist party’, to the currents of “left reformism” (like Syriza) and “movementism” (Occupy). Quite correctly, he noted how the latter forms of struggle invariably fudge the question of state power. He also had a dig at the main motivators behind the Left Unity project for holding illusions in The spirit of ’45 and the post-war Labour government. Yet in the absence of any meaningful programme that could avoid fudging such a question, it can hardly be said that the SWP has always had a principled and unwavering take on the question of state power in recent years (as illustrated by the Respect disaster). Such reformist illusions do not seem to be wholly consigned to the past, either. In his summing up, comrade Callinicos even stated that he “would be delighted” if “Left Unity became a left-reformist party”, despite lecturing us about reformist evils! This is presumably so that the SWP might, if the project gets off the ground in any serious way, be able to act as the “best fighters” and “true revolutionaries” within that project and thus pick off ones or twos. In other words, the very same failed method of the ‘broad party that points towards the revolutionary party’ of some in LU.

Callinicos lamented the fact that some comrades had unearthed what he deemed “disingenuous” Lenin quotes from 1906 about the need for the autonomy of party branches. Fully in line with cold war historiography (of both a Stalinist and bourgeois hue), he argued that Lenin’s thought was “situational” and thus “bent towards a particular problem”, meaning that often when stressing more democracy and autonomy he was actually seeking to “maintain room for manoeuvre” against the Mensheviks and so on - not that Lenin was a “cynical manipulator”, comrade Callinicos quickly added ...2

He finished by claiming that the SWP had achieved much in its history and that this should not be “jeopardised” - yet what comrade Callinicos exactly had in mind by this only became clear during the course of the discussion and his response.

And what a discussion it was. Not that you would know much about it if you happened to be an SWP member who could not attend Marxism, let alone a militant worker catching up in Socialist Worker. One of the most interesting exchanges I have ever seen at Marxism warrants just a couple of lines: “Leading SWP member Alex Callinicos ... on Lenin saw a lively debate on how revolutionaries should organise”.3 You’re telling me ...4 But what “debates” exactly? What were the different positions put forward? And what does this reveal about the nature of the crisis in the organisation that the paper presumably wants you, its readership, to join? What utter contempt for ordinary people and the truth - an insult to our movement. Just what is the SWP leadership scared of?

The first contribution from the floor, by a certain Adam Cochran, reminded us that Owen Jones said that the SWP “punches above its weight”. The reason for this, so comrade Cochran’s flawless logic went, was that - you guessed it - “we are not a debating society”. The comrade also wanted to mention something that Callinicos had forgotten (quickly adding, rather cravenly, “although I’m not criticising him”): namely that permanent factions are bad because people concentrate more on the faction than anything else - “we were proved right”, he added to loyalist cheers.

Things got more interesting when Rob Owen spoke for the opposition. He said that the party faced this debate because of flaws in its understanding. He urged comrades to look at the state of the SWP, rightly pointing out that it is absurd to regard the SWP as the “finished article”, something always implied in Callinicos’s presentation. He said that SWP members have to clear their organisation’s name and, very interestingly, “fight for the party”. What was needed was not more diktat, but humility and discussion. Given that he then made the call for a “mass Communist Party”, I was somewhat surprised at the level of enthusiasm and applause he received from the floor. Rob was followed by loyalist Paul McGarr, who urged moderation in the arguments and said that the SWP cannot pretend to have a “monopoly over the truth”. He also wanted discussion. However, this should not come at the cost of something that “Rob did not mention”: namely “unity in action”. I seriously doubt whether comrade Owen would oppose such a thing, however.

The next speaker to properly address the discussion at hand was Dan Swain, who also pointed out that the SWP cannot assume that it is right all the time and must account for why it had “failed to integrate a generation of activists”. CC member Esme Choonara came next. She underlined the need for a “combat organisation” to “move struggles along”. Did we not know that “Karl Marx broke with idealism”, for example? You see, “you analyse the world in order to change it”, which is presumably why we on the left must organise in a dreadfully bureaucratic fashion and make ourselves look ridiculous.

Her example of good leadership and a fine balance of debate and unity? How the party worked with Unite Against Fascism (a front group) against Islamophobia. Talk about “breaking with idealism” - I never cease to be astounded at how so many clever and articulate comrades end up spouting the most dubious nonsense in the name of CC expediency.

Loyal loyalists

A good example of such a case is John Molyneux, who has recently flipped from ‘loyal oppositionist’ to ‘loyal loyalist’, as evidenced by his contribution. Showing that his relationship with reality is tenuous, he claimed that the unfolding debate actually had nothing to do with a disputes commission (its first mention, from memory) or democracy, but was a reflection of reformist ideas infiltrating the party. He spat at so-called “new” ideas, asking just what these ideas are supposed to be.

Molyneux’s decision to end with an analogy of a surgeon performing some kind of operation probably did not do much other than help to wind up a Scottish comrade, Willie Black, who was up next. In a forceful speech, he thundered against the notion that the differences in the SWP somehow revolved around “those who did not think but did everything” and “those who thought but did nothing”. Much to my appreciation, he pointed out that a revolutionary party is a debating society in one crucial respect: it constantly debates, assesses and reassesses. He said that he was an opponent of permanent factions, but wanted to see radical change at leadership level: presumably the removal of the slate system. About a third of the room cheered.

Yunus Bakhsh was certainly louder than comrade Black, but no more coherent for it. He reminded us that “revolution is not a parlour game”, arguing that once everybody votes one way then they all have to pull together. Fine, as far as it goes. But does that mean that issues cannot be revisited when they refuse to go away? By this logic, would SWP members writing on the recent rape allegations in The Guardian actually be scabbing on the organisation and its vote?

It was Ian Birchall, the septuagenarian SWP historian, who stole the show. While it may have taken him a little longer to get to the podium than the others, in delivering his speech he was far more composed and confident than comrade Callinicos. He said that Callinicos had spoken at such a level of abstraction and generalisation that he could agree with 95% of what he had said, which probably also reflected the many years they had spent in the SWP together. Picking up on something comrade Callinicos had written on the need for a “confident leadership with authority”, comrade Birchall was damning. A confident leadership, he said, would allow proper time for a full debate, not 25 minutes for the leadership and six minutes for the opposition (as in the local aggregates to elect delegates to the special conference). It would also be able to change tack when it gets things wrong. Comrade Birchall mentioned the authority of Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership: could the current CC really claim such authority after all that has happened of late? “I would be happy to wait until the pre-conference period”, claimed Birchall, but he then pointed out that the actions of the CC (such as the recent round of suspensions and their subsequent lifting) mean that the “pre-conference period has started now”. He wanted to see real changes in the leadership.

While one could criticise comrade Birchall for not arguing against the whole concept of a “pre-conference period” (which certainly has nothing to do with ‘Leninism’), the speech was extremely effective and very well received. A moral victory for the opposition, which was underscored by the final speaker, who rather strangely accused those raising internal criticisms of the party as somehow seeking “an internalised short cut of the perfection of the party” when very important things were going on in the world ...

Put up or shut up

Replying, Callinicos moved from the abstract to the concrete: his ‘democratic centralism’ actually means laying down an ultimatum to those with the temerity to disagree with him and the CC. He spoke of “the faction”, upon which a section of the audience replied: “Which faction?” After all, there is the small matter of the leadership faction that has immediate access to Socialist Worker, Party Notes and other outlets whenever it wishes to respond to ongoing events. The opposition, of course, can only have recourse to internal bulletins for a very short period of time.

His message to the opposition was clear: “You will fail. You could kick me out, but I don’t think you will convince the majority of comrades”. So “What are you doing to do?” He implored the opposition to “carry on working as revolutionaries” - ie, to be good old, disciplined ‘Leninists’ and shut up about their differences for nine months a year. “You can’t continue to argue if you have the lost the vote,” he insisted. Bureaucratic centralism for the 21st century encapsulated.

He accused Rob Owen of the “purest opportunism” in his attempts to “form a specific thing into a general condemnation of our party”. Ian Birchall, “an intellectual”, should be “ashamed” for arguing against abstraction, Callinicos added. He then proceeded to list the party’s successes, which will presumably be indelibly inscribed in the pages of history: ie, the SWP intervention at the People’s Assembly, its response to the Woolwich murder and work in the bedroom tax campaign. His argument went something like this: our relationship may be terrible, but do you think you can do better than me? Look around!

Comrade Callinicos really has no ability to see beyond the sect outlook of the SWP. He dismissed revolutionary regroupment with the “sects”, arguing that they are “more interested in talking to each other than the real world.” Yet mainstream media outlets seem to be interested in covering the ongoing scandals within the SWP. Not that Socialist Worker or any other SWP publication has anything to say on this subject that will deeply concern established allies and friends in workplaces, trade unions and campuses.

One might, then, justifiably ask comrade Callinicos who he thinks he is. Indeed, while the ‘official’ Communist Party and its tens of thousands of members in the 1970s could have dismissed the Trotskyist left as small and irrelevant “sects”, given their relative sizes, it would still have been delusional to think that the CPGB was “the party” that could facilitate working class power. Dreadful politics aside, it was also tiny. But the SWP today pales into insignificance in comparison.

“It is very easy to be a sect. We have a holy programme - to hell with them,” he said. Well, one can also be a sect without a programme, comrade - holy or otherwise. In fact, the absence of a programme provides a real lifeline for sect leaderships in particular: there are no codified and easily digestible outlines of principles to which these leaderships can be held accountable when, say, it is engulfed by movementism or popular-frontist adventures with the British section of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The SWP combines its bureaucratic centralism with a kind of semi-syndicalist approach. This became evident when Callinicos blasted former SWP leader John Rees’s “political and intellectual degeneration”, supposedly evinced by the latter’s recent claim that strikes are just one of many weapons in the class struggle. “Strikes,” Callinicos declared, “are more important than anything else because they are where the workers express themselves”. It is, of course, true that comrade Rees is providing “left cover” for the trade union bureaucracy. Yet on hearing such garbage, comrade Rees may be forgiven for thinking that this alleged “political and intellectual degeneration” may actually be found a little closer to the inner sanctum of the SWP in Vauxhall.

Such an approach may go some way to explaining why it does not even appear to cross comrade Callinicos’s mind that a project like Left Unity can and should be transformed into a party armed with revolutionary politics. The SWP is the revolutionary party, you see.

Cliffite DNA

Comrade Callinicos claimed that the SWP “focuses on power and brings that to every struggle”. Quite how it focuses on power in the absence of any programme mapping out the strategic road ahead is beyond me.

Callinicos was willing to admit that the SWP had made mistakes in attempting to integrate a new generation of students into the party. Why? We had “flattered” them he said, presumably increasing their expectations. How many times did we see SWP speakers comparing the student demonstrations of 2010-11 to May 1968? Who can remember the famous student placard, “What parliament does the streets can undo”, following the decision to increase fees? Where is the discussion in Socialist Worker on how such slogans only create false dawns and rapid disillusionment?

Yet there is a sense in which over-exciting, miseducating and eventually burning out new cadre is built into the very DNA of Cliffite socialism. Every strike, every demonstration has to be exaggerated and played up at the cost of long-term strategic thinking, meaning that the SWP simply tails one ‘movement’ after another.

With increasingly worrying levels of absurd behaviour, this leadership is in fact discrediting revolutionary Leninist politics. For all Callinicos’s talk of the opposition engaged in the “logic of destruction”, it is evidently the CC that is currently driving the SWP to the brink.

One thing is clear: without some kind of concerted, daring and creative fightback, the SWP leadership will drag the organisation further along the road to sectarian irrelevance - that would mean another defeat for the left as a whole.



1. http://revolutionarysocialism.tumblr.com/post/55515965612/m2013-alex-callinicos-on-leninism#disqus_thread.

2. This notwithstanding, Callinicos was at pains to emphasise that one of the great merits of Cliff’s take on Lenin and the SWP’s understanding of him was to undermine “Stalinist constructions” about the overarching “coherence” of Lenin’s thought and practice. Yet as a historical claim this is simply delusional, dismissing as Stalinist those who, instead of a whole number of sharp, contradictory strategic turns (Cliff’s Lenin, as well as the Lenin of those like Neil Harding) see an underlying strategic consistency and vision. Moreover, as historian Lars T Lih and others have convincingly shown, Lenin’s so-called ‘epistemological break’ is actually deeply rooted in Stalinist thought.

3. Significantly, perhaps, Gilbert Achcar does not get a mention - see comrade Sarah McDonald’s report on p8.

4. There is a good spoof of this ‘business as usual’, vague and apolitical reporting of ‘Marxism’ written by a leftist blogger: http://bloggingjbloggs1917.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/marxism-2013/. Funny because it is true.