Taaffe: Superannuated teacher, superannuated politics

Peter Taaffe’s approach to Bolshevik history reveals the mindset of a man more committed to preserving his sect regime than learning from our movement’s past. Ben Lewis responds to his review of Lars T Lih

Ever since the appearance of his groundbreaking Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context in 2005, Lars T Lih, the esteemed scholar of Russian history based in Canada, has become something of a household name on the left. With good reason. Lih’s ideas should have profound implications for all Marxists active today. Why? Not least because of his damning observation that many a sect ‘historian’ - having gone down a long and winding road to build the ‘party’ - appear to have swallowed numerous myths on the history of Bolshevism.

Sadly, these myths reflect the cold war agendas, prejudices and distortions of well-remunerated, pro-establishment historians, that or the Stalinist school of falsification. Hence the actual theory and practice of Russian Social Democracy, Bolshevism and VI Lenin still remains unknown to many of today’s socialist activists. So, what is the common or garden version of Lenin and the Bolsheviks? Well they are often portrayed as cynical, calculating manoeuverers lording it over a working class they held in disdain. Then there is the contention that Lenin would often completely change his mind and junk long held perspectives as a way of ‘catching the tide’ of this or that movement. Against this sort of stuff, Lih has usefully stressed the underlying continuity in Russian revolutionary strategy - from its origins inspired by the success of German social democracy in the 1890s (what he calls Lenin’s “Erfurtian drama” and “Russian Erfurtianism”) through 1903 and 1912 to the seizure of power in 1917. Lih thereby not only unravels the etymology of some of the all-pervading concepts common to much contemporary ‘Marxist’ thought (‘the vanguard party’, ‘the party of a new type’ and so on), but has applied his own specialist knowledge to the translation of Russian words and concepts, such as ‘spontaneity versus consciousness’ or the idea of the ‘conspiratorial’ party.

Such an approach should obviously provide food for thought for those of us committed to working class rule and human freedom. Just as social democracy and Stalinism proved dead ends in the 20th century, taking the latter’s ‘Leninism’ as our point of departure in the 21st can hardly provide solid foundations for revolutionary politics.

We on today’s left need to get this purportedly ‘Bolshevik’ monkey off our back. As against the hapless philistines who decry those on the left who refer to ‘dead Russians’, Marxism must be characterised by the foremost rigour in historical inquiry. The history of our movement informs, shapes, its current and future practice. Useless history, then, has a tendency to produce useless political practice.

Step up Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, with his recent review for Socialism Today of another of Lars’s books, the short biography, Lenin, published in 2011.1 In an article entitled ‘Lenin’s revolutionary legacy’, comrade Taaffe soon makes it clear that he is not at all impressed.

His ‘review’ is actually more of an array of (occasionally quite bizarre) distortions and painfully uninformed assertions, interspersed with political chest-thumping about how comrade Taaffe and SPEW, as pretty much the sole guardians of the real revolutionary legacy of Bolshevism, have subsequently been proved right on more or less everything over the last 20 years or so. Taaffe soon makes it clear that he has nothing to learn from one of the world’s most important historians on Lenin.

While he concedes that Lih’s Lenin doubtless represents “an advance over the malicious distortions of Lenin and Trotsky’s ideas” by those like Robert Service, he sees a danger that it will sow “further confusion” (one recurring feature of this review is, undoubtedly, comrade Taaffe’s own confusion). You see, given the capitalist crisis and the renewed interest in Marxism, ruling class ideology requires “a more subtle approach” than the character assassinations of Service, Orlando Figes and others. This, he claims, without any substantiating evidence, is Lih’s role - he is writing “in response” to this purportedly “new situation”. In Taaffe’s world, Lih is the response of an academic establishment in disarray to radicalised students who are turning to Marxism. As an affectation Taaffe pretends that Lih’s work is nothing but a slightly less hostile variant of the literary output of well-heeled establishment historians earning money from bashing the Bolsheviks (for what it is worth, Lars’s study of What is to be done? was written without any institutional support or funding).


So why, at this particular moment, has Taaffe bothered to write a review of a book that was published nearly three years ago, by an author with whom Taaffe is so glaringly unimpressed and even more glaringly unfamiliar? Keen readers may have already noted (see Paul Demarty’s article, p12) that several members of Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International have actually taken the time to study Lih’s output and think about its implications for a purportedly Bolshevik group like the CWI.

Comrade Taaffe cannot countenance such a thing. For him, “Lars’s ideas have become the current fashion for those who are fleeing from genuine Marxism and the real traditions of Lenin and Trotsky.” Translated from sect talk, this means: ‘for those who have the temerity to doubt the timeless wisdom of Taaffe, the great leader’.2

The review was written, then, because SPEW’s bureaucratic-centralist regime is being questioned through reference to the real history of Bolshevism, and London HQ needs to maintain control at all costs. It is an attempt to justify recent disciplinary moves. Indeed, as we shall see, on occasion Taaffe’s claims border on the embarrassing. Were he not engaged in the justification of a membership cull, one could almost feel sorry for him.

For Taaffe, Lih is out to “reinvent the leader of the Russian Revolution as some kind of woolly liberal”. Yet Taaffe fails to produce any evidence of this. One passage is of note though. He writes that Lih’s “‘new’ Lenin is almost a ‘liberal’ in his alleged acceptance of open, public, unrestricted discussion in a revolutionary party”. The implication here is that the open and public discussion that was, contra Taaffe, the very norm of Bolshevism through to 1921 at least, is tantamount to liberalism. What utter nonsense - and what whitewashing of liberalism.

Lih’s work consistently brings to the fore Lenin, the polemicist and fighter for political clarity, as well as the Bolsheviks’ long-term strategic thinking - Lars’s “heroic scenario” - that positively distinguished Bolshevism from the half-hearted, vacillating and uninspiring outlook of the various forces of actual liberalism under the Russian tsar. Taaffe could also not be more wrong in alleging that Lih portrays Lenin as an advocate of “unrestricted” discussion in the revolutionary party.

Taaffe can undoubtedly be believed when he finds it “overblown, to say the least”, that Lih’s book “presents a striking new interpretation of Lenin’s political outlook”. But Lih has never claimed to be “strikingly new”. Indeed, Taaffe quotes Lih making this precise point: “My view of Lenin is not particularly original and chimes in closely with most observers of Lenin and his time.” Nonetheless, Taaffe smells blood. Is Lih not aware that “most observers” with whom his work chimes “are still not ‘sympathetic’ to Lenin’s views … particularly … when it comes to the character of the kind of party the working class will need for a successful struggle against capitalism and for socialism”? As anybody broadly familiar with Lih’s work will know, Lih’s “observers of Lenin and his time” refers to Lenin’s contemporaries - not least his comrades - from whom Lih constructs the appropriate context of Lenin’s life and work - a context often obliterated in the way we think about Bolshevism.


It gets worse. He protests: “It is ludicrous to identify the regime founded by Lenin, as Lars does, with that presided over by Stalin, already, 10 years after Lenin’s death, one dominated by a privileged, bureaucratic elite.” This would, indeed, be “ludicrous”. But even more ludicrous is the claim that this is what Lih actually does. An unbiased reading of the passage quoted by Taaffe reveals no such thing. In fact, Lars has consistently stressed that, in assuming power in 1917, it was common sense among all Bolsheviks that the peasants could never be coerced into socialism along the lines of Stalin’s forced collectivisation, but had to be organised, educated and integrated into the struggle for higher social relations. Here Germany and the victory of revolution in Europe was the crucial factor.3

Taaffe then warns us - and, more importantly, SPEW members tempted to go and read Lars - “that there are many misleading, and consequently erroneous, statements like this in the book and it cannot therefore be fully embraced as a correct account of Lenin’s role in history”. Of course, Taaffe has a hatchet job to do. So when he actually gets down to discussing the issues it becomes positively embarrassing. Taaffe accuses Lih of not dealing “adequately, with some parts of the history” of What is to be done? Doubtless this is true ... of his Lenin biography. But before that, in 2005, the man did author the monumental Lenin rediscovered, a work of 867 pages which minutely detailed the history of What is to be done? But Taaffe appears unaware of the existence of Lenin rediscovered - shameful, not least because he at least pays lip service to the existence of Lih’s “other writings”. It seems that he has not bothered to read them.

Spectre of Cliff

Taaffe wants to lecture Lih on the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party as if he was the teacher and the Lenin historian was a mere child. A bad idea. According to Taaffe, Lih “touches on the disagreements over the formulas of Lenin in answer to the ‘economist school’, who believed in concentrating on the purely day-to-day struggles. Lenin ‘bent the stick’ too far, in his own words, in his description of how socialist consciousness arises in the working class movement.” This is where things start to become really desperate. After all, ‘bending the stick too far’ is not taken from Lenin “in his own words”, as Taaffe maintains, but from the sectarian Lenin of Tony Cliff - how appropriate!

It is precisely this Cliffite/Taaffeite framework that is critiqued in such detail in Lih’s Lenin rediscovered. Let us take just one of its many passages on this point to illustrate how hapless comrade Taaffe, our defender of “genuine Marxism”, is when it comes to this history. Here is Lars: “Turning to Lenin’s actual words, we find he never said ‘bend the stick too far’. On the contrary, he said at the 2nd Congress in 1903: ‘We all know that the ‘economists’ bent the stick in one direction. In order to make the stick straight it was necessary to bend the stick in the other direction, and that is what I did. I am sure that Russian Social Democracy will always straighten [vypriamliat’] the stick that is bent by any kind of opportunism, and that our stick will therefore always be straight as possible and as ready as possible for action.’”4

This wrong point of departure then leads Taaffe into another mistake that abounds on today’s left: Lenin’s anti-economistic formula, taken directly from Karl Kautsky and surely ABC for all Marxists, that rounded, socialist consciousness does not emerge spontaneously out of the struggle between the worker and the employer, but is brought from outside this sphere. Hence Marxist theory, parties, programmes and so on. For Taaffe, this “from without” formula is supposed to prove that Lenin, although he supposedly “corrected this later” (in 1905, another fairy tale), was suffering from a certain sectarian elitism that is all too reminiscent of what Taaffe deems “to justify the haughty approach of self-appointed ‘leaders’, usually by tiny organisations, proclaiming to be ‘the’ leadership of the working class” (not that Taaffe himself suffers from any such illusions, of course). I am astounded that, not least given Lars’s demolition of it in Lenin rediscovered, this hoary old myth still has any purchase today. As Lars himself puts it in a long essay touching on the 1905 struggle within the party and Lenin’s supposed ‘self-correction’ regarding the idea that workers should sit on party committees, “Anyone who maintains that one of Bolshevism’s most influential texts [ie, What is to be done? with its Kautsky passage] turned local Bolshevik activists into fanatic opponents of putting workers on party committees does not understand Bolshevism.”5


Unsurprisingly, for Taaffe, all of these issues were long settled by Leon Trotsky’s writings of the 1920s and 1930s: “Trotsky, who barely gets a mention in this book, gives a much richer account of the real history of Bolshevism in its initial phase in his unfinished biography of Stalin, albeit in a sketchy fashion. He also outlines clearly the views of Lenin on the crucial issues of the character of revolutionary party needed, and on the structures and practices of such a party, including democratic centralism and its origins.”

Again, Taaffe writes with the pomposity of a superannuated school teacher who foolishly imagines he has nothing to learn. Yet in reality Taaffe just exposes his ignorance. Lars has written extensively on Trotsky’s historical narrative, as well as those of the others who wrote on Bolshevik history in the factional heat of the 1920s and 30s. They thereby often suffer from a certain ‘false memory’ syndrome, certainly producing accounts that do not fully accord with the actual records and primary source material, be that 1903, 1905, 1907 or 1912.6 Again, this underlines the importance of Lars’s point about the “observers of Lenin and his time”.

When it comes to “democratic centralism and its origins” too, comrade Taaffe is full of haughty disdain, rolling out the very same Trotsky quotes he has been using for the last 20 years, thereby spectacularly missing the point.

He charges that, when it comes to democratic centralism, Lih makes “sweeping, incorrect statements” that have “no basis in the actual practice of Bolshevism”. This could not be more wrong. Using neglected sources such as Vladimir Nevsky’s history of the Bolshevik Party, Lars has simply shown that “democratic centralism” as a term was not the codified, canonised - and thereby extremely distorted - shibboleth it later became, but a “pre-revolutionary formula” that “was simply not applicable to the underground party. Democratic centralism existed only during those brief periods of relative political freedom when the party could operate above ground. The post-revolutionary formula of democratic centralism makes sense only in the context of ‘acute civil war’ and a party that has taken on state functions.”7

Lars would be the last to deny that the pre-1917 Bolsheviks were radical democrats. What he is doing though, to the benefit of us all, is querying whether democratic centralism can be regarded as a constituent part of the “essence of Bolshevism” and tracing the evolution and application of the idea throughout the entire Bolshevik experience. Lih is simply asserting that there were different emphases on this question in different times of relative political freedom, on the one hand, and illegality and political reaction, on the other. Hence his use of italics in the respective cases in the passage above. So, when comrade Taaffe thunders that different emphasis is “given to democracy or centralism depending upon the concrete circumstances”, he is, in fact, tilting at windmills.


Not that Taaffe is in any position to preach about democratic centralism. By rejecting the airing of public differences and discussions within SPEW, and by treating oppositionists in a crude and heavy-handed manner, Taaffe and his co-thinkers have not only conspired to create one of the British left’s most unreadable publications, The Socialist. They have also accepted an organisational and political norm of Stalinism and dressed it up to represent the “real ideas of Lenin and Trotsky”. The fact that comrade Taaffe will, quite sincerely, express his outrage at the crimes of Stalinism does not alter this basic fact in any way. Hell, even the thoroughly bureaucratised ‘official communist’ CPGB had the facility for members to write critical comments in the run-up to congress which were available to be read by the general public. What’s the problem for SPEW?

Taaffe has, as it were, history on this matter. In the Militant split in the 1990s, the heated exchanges that preceded it were not fought out in the pages of Militant’s press, but in the pages of The Guardian, whose readership certainly has the odd “woolly liberal” among its number. Both Taaffe and the SWP’s Alex Callinicos continue to insist, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that Bolshevism is not characterised by making the shades and nuances of opinion amongst those claiming to lead it the common property of the workers’ movement. But their fake history is not only wrong about the past, it hinders our efforts in the present. Refusing to make internal debate public is a sure-fire way to compound the left’s current sect like existence.

Taaffe is correct that the right has attempted to “systematically discredit the ideas of socialism and genuine Marxism”, yet he seems utterly oblivious to the fact that Lih’s research provides us with the means to rebut much of that. Despite what comrade Taaffe thinks, “the understanding of how to build a movement capable of transforming society is in danger of being lost” not because of Lih’s historical work, but because of the enduring myths of ‘Bolshevism’ peddled by those like Taaffe himself in the interests of preserving their bureaucratic centralist sects - sects which now do a huge disservice to our movement.

Those of us who are attempting to uphold the Marxist tradition and to cleanse it of the nonsense that has besmirched it can only welcome Lars T Lih’s work.


1. www.socialistparty.org.uk/keyword/Social­ist_Party_and_CWI_public_figures/Peter_ Taaffe/18007/21-01-2014/lenins-revolutionary-legacy.

2. Taaffe does have a point, however, about the use by some of Lars’s historical studies to justify absurd political projects. After all, although hardly anybody remembers now, it was not so long ago that the US activist, Pham Binh, was arguing that the Occupy movement had not only completely transformed the political landscape, but that it also represented the 21st century manifestation of Bolshevism! Some have even invoked the spirit of Lih to argue that Bolshevism was a ‘broad party’ project. Essentially, such people simply invert the schema of Taaffe and co in such a way that this faulty history is not addressed, but compounded. Elitist, conspiratorial and anti-democratic ‘Bol­shevism’ is turned inside out to become a broad, amorphous and fuzzy mush and we do not move an inch closer to grasping either the history of Bolshevism or what actually is important about it as a phenomenon. However, Lars T Lih can certainly not be held responsible for the prevailing confusion among today’s far left.

3. See inter alia his comments on Grigory Zino­viev’s approach to the peasantry in B Lewis and LT Lih (eds) Zinoviev and Martov: head to head in Halle London 2011, pp51-59.

4. LT Lih Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context Chicago 2008, p27.

5. LT Lih, ‘Lenin disputed’ Historical Materialism 18 (3):108-174 (2010), p153.

6. If comrade Taaffe is interested, then he can read how this has found expression in the Bolshevik ‘origin myths’ of 1912: ‘A faction is not a partyWeekly Worker May 3 2012.

7. For more on this see ‘Fortunes of a formula’ Weekly Worker April 11 2013; and ‘Further for­tunes of a formulaWeekly Worker July 25 2013.