Leninism vs. the New Social Democracy

“What is Political Party for the Left?”

In August 2014, the New York branch of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (a social democratic think-tank affiliated with the descendent of East Germany’s former ruling Party of Democratic Socialism) invited 100 “influential leftists and progressives” to a conference entitled, “Mapping Socialist Strategies.” Participants included the editor of the radical liberal Nation, members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and representatives of various community-based coalitions around the country. Among the featured guests were two members of Syriza, which many attendees apparently saw as a potential model to emulate. Event organizers reported that Bhaskar Sunkara, publisher of the popular left journal Jacobin, regretted that “we don’t have the conditions to form a left party in the United States right now.” Sunkara was also reported to have remarked: “We don’t really know what a left social democracy would look like in actual practice. When and if SYRIZA (the coalition of the Radical Left) takes power in Greece, we may find out.”

In January 2015, Syriza won a plurality of seats in Greece’s national election. It is hardly a surprise that when a “left” reformist party comes to power (particularly in coalition with a bourgeois party) in the 21st century, it “looks like in actual practice” the French “Union of the Left” in France in the 1980s or Salvadore Allende’s Unidad Popular in Chile in the early 1970s. There is plenty of talk about solidarity and struggle, and a few minor reforms get introduced, but at no point is any serious threat to capitalist interests posed. Given that Syriza had advertised this in advance of the election, we advised Greek workers not to vote for it (see “Managing the Greek Crisis: Syriza & the Dangers of Popular Frontism,” 1917 No.37).

This was one of the themes discussed at a public meeting in Chicago on 11 April 2015 on the topic “What is Political Party for the Left?” [audio] held as the closing plenary of the Platypus Affiliated Society’s annual conference. The panel included Platypus president Chris Cutrone, Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), Adolph Reed Jr., who played a major role in the former U.S. Labor Party (see “Stillborn in the USA,” 1917 No.19), and Tom Riley of the IBT.

The following is an edited version of Riley’s remarks at the event supplemented by excerpts of the ensuing discussion among the panelists. Riley’s description of Cutrone’s political experience with the Spartacist League was inaccurate. Cutrone’s factual correction appears in the discussion below.

The question of what kind of party we should seek to build very much depends on what objective we want to achieve, because different forms of political organization are appropriate for different tasks. We in the IBT take the view that the essential task facing humanity is the expropriation of the capitalist class and the destruction of the military and security apparatus that serves and protects it. This cannot be accomplished through persuasion or incremental reform because the capitalists will not cooperate in their own destruction – that’s obvious. It will take a convulsive social revolution. This is a precondition for constructing a rationally planned, ecologically sustainable, equitable social system where the working class and its allies rule directly.

It hardly needs to be said that right now in the U.S., and the rest of the imperialist countries, we are a very, very long way from a proletarian revolution. But that is the task for those who are serious about a socialist future – there’s no alternative.

We have more than 200 years of experience to draw on, reaching back to Gracchus Babeuf and Philippe Buonarroti and their “Conspiracy of Equals” in the 1790s. There have been a lot of failed attempts to overcome capitalist hegemony – ranging from the putsches of the Blanquists, to the electoral cretinism of the social democracy and the popular frontist “two-stage” strategy adopted by the Stalinized Communist International in the 1930s.

Lenin sketched four necessary conditions for a successful workers’ revolution in the conclusion of “Left Wing Communism.” The first is that the ruling class, confronted with a crisis which it is unable to solve using its traditional methods, begins to polarize into different factions pursuing different policies. Secondly, the intermediate social layers between workers and capitalists begin to lose confidence in the viability of the ruling regime. Thirdly, the working class begins to exhibit a combative attitude and to look for solutions outside of its experience under capitalism and the framework of the established structures. These first three factors were all present to a greater or lesser degree in the Paris 1968 events, among other pre-revolutionary situations. What was missing was the fourth, and decisive, factor: the existence of a mass revolutionary workers’ party with a tested and competent leadership. In the run-up to the Nazi victory in Germany, Leon Trotsky observed:

“The class, taken by itself, is only material for exploitation. The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious.”
— “What Next?

Marxists conceive of revolutionary organization on an international scale – the object is the creation of a single world party with national sections. The basis for such a party has to be a common political program, i.e., a system of ideas that address the fundamental problems that confront humanity in general and the working class in particular. One of Trotsky’s favorite maxims was: “It’s not the party that makes the program; it’s the program that makes the party.”

There is only one time in history that a revolutionary party led the working class in a successful seizure of power. Despite the fact that this occurred almost a century ago in a predominantly peasant country, the fundamental elements of political organization and strategic orientation that made that success possible, and distinguished the Bolshevik party from the mainstream social democrats of the Second International, remain of vital significance for the future. It is our view that serious revolutionaries should model their activity on the Bolshevik success, rather than the repetitive failures of reformist gradualism, multi-class alliances and the all-embracing formlessness of episodic “new” phenomena like the New Left or Occupy that, when they initially appear, are seen as something completely unprecedented, but eventually turn out to be merely the square wheel reinvented.

Leninism is not currently popular among most young people who don’t like capitalism. This is largely because, as well as being seen as old-fashioned, it is also derided as authoritarian and hierarchical. As a system of organization, Leninism is indeed hierarchical – it involves layers of organization, possession of authority and chains of command with certain bodies empowered to issue binding instructions on lower bodies and individual members. If you are in a Leninist organization, you don’t just get to do what you feel like.

As for authoritarian, we recall Frederick Engels’ observation in his dispute with Bakunin that: “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon” (“On Authority”). So yes, revolution is authoritarian and to that extent Leninism is “authoritarian” as well. To get anything done we are going to have to impose the will of the working class (represented by its democratically-elected leaders) on those who are presently imposing their will on us. If you don’t like that, then you do not belong in a Leninist organization.

A Leninist organization is more than that and, like a healthy workers’ state, it has to be characterized by feedback loops which give the rank and file the means to determine the strategic direction of the organization, to change and adjust policies as situations develop and, if necessary, to replace leaders found to be deficient. That sort of democracy is indispensable, and without that you do not have a Leninist organization. Any political movement inevitably has a leadership. The question is whether it operates openly or secretly behind the scenes. That’s your choice.

A serious socialist movement must not only be able to challenge the ideological dominance of the capitalist elites and their agents, but also develop the capacity to overcome the resistance of the existing state apparatus in order to carry out the expropriation of the ruling class. This requires the construction of what Lenin described as a “combat organization,” the prototype of which had, 100 years ago in Russia, sunk roots throughout the working class, and also extended its reach into almost every level of society, including, and particularly, the ranks of the armed forces. When the opportunity presented itself in the midst of the crisis of the Tsarist regime during WWI, the Bolsheviks successfully outmaneuvered the equivalent of the FBI and Homeland Security apparatuses and put together a coalition with other radicals, particularly anarchists and Left Social Revolutionaries, that successfully carried out a working-class seizure of state power.

The October Revolution of 1917 was the greatest event in history. Ultimately the revolutionaries were defeated, but they had set a powerful example and actively organized parties embracing hundreds of thousands of workers (the sections of the Communist International). That was their highest priority – they had an internationalist perspective from the beginning and they understood that their revolution could only succeed if it spread. The organizational model developed during the first four congresses of the Communist International – that is when Lenin and Trotsky were leading, not Stalin – is not a secret. In our view, this model remains fundamentally valid in all important respects. The fact that we are a very long way from being able to create such parties does not make them any less necessary.

And how does the Platypus Society stand in relation to the question? The sort of party needed today is in our view no different from what was needed 25 years ago when Chris and others bounced off the degenerated former Trotskyist Spartacist League. I do not know the particulars of what transpired [in fact Riley’s version of events was inaccurate – see below] but it is my impression that Chris at least was wrong on a substantial programmatic difference he had with the SL leadership – the question of whether Marxists should militarily side with Saddam Hussein’s loathsome regime against the attack by U.S. and associated imperialist militaries in NATO. Of course we should – revolutionaries should always side with neocolonies that are attacked by imperialists. That’s a no-brainer.

But Chris was young and could think for himself. Perhaps he was already an incorrigible element, I don’t know. But I do know that the SL for at least a decade at that point had a tendency to play “hardball” with any sort of internal dissidence, whether from the left or the right. The group’s leaders sought to short-circuit the necessarily time-consuming process of open internal discussion and debate because you lose people. It seemed easier to just squash opposition before it began to develop. In the short term this gives you an organization with greater efficiency and more clout, but in the long term you lose political capacity. Open internal debate is not an option – it is essential for a revolutionary organization. And it was characteristic of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, the Left Opposition under Trotsky, the American Trotskyist movement under James P. Cannon and even the SL in its healthier period. By the 1980s the SL had hardened into “Jimstown,” where the leadership’s slogan was “our party, love it or leave it” (see “Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?”). New recruits were still taught the formula about the importance of internal discussion and debate in a Leninist organization. But in reality there was very little space for thinking or expressing differences in the SL, and anyone who did was usually subjected to a vigorous internal campaign designed to break them or drive them out of the organization.

On the basis of his experience, Chris and his comrades apparently concluded that the SL’s version of Leninism, which had presumably sounded plausible enough when they joined, had some deep flaw that needed to be transcended. Looking around, they perhaps found that the rest of the left was, in one way or another, just as bad. But in fact the SL in this period was not a genuinely Leninist organization, and therefore I think the founders of Platypus were fundamentally mistaken in their assessment of the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition. To be fair, the Platypus society has continued to show some respect, at least in terms of the reading lists they distribute, for elements of the tradition they rejected.

I don’t have time for a few other things I wanted to talk about, so I will conclude. I expect many people here today think that there is little prospect of forming a viable “left party” in this country, and I expect that there is a near consensus that it is impossible to imagine recreating a mass Leninist International. There is no question that this is an extremely remote prospect at this point in history, but if we are serious about undertaking a struggle for fundamental social change – that is, getting rid of capitalism and replacing it by socialism, which given our present circumstances really amounts to a fight to save humanity from extinction – it surely makes sense to start from what is objectively necessary, rather than from what seems to be achievable in the present circumstances.

Excerpts of Political Exchanges

Chris Cutrone

I will say to Tom, one little personal note, there was no break between me and the Spartacist League over any political disagreement. I upheld their slogan about defending Iraq during the Gulf War. It wasn’t anything like that. It was actually my personal demoralization about two things that happened. Namely the LA [Los Angeles] riots and the election of Bill Clinton, basically told me that there is not going to be a socialist revolution any time soon.

And I would sort of push back on the issue of whether me and Richard got turned off to the question of Leninist politics for ever more. No, but I think that we were clear as the Spartacists were clear in the way they talked to us that a propaganda group is not a party, and a propaganda group is essentially a formation that is appropriate to a historical moment of splits and regroupments. And that splits and regroupments is a historically conditioned phenomenon and we haven’t been living – even though Maoists and Trotskyists in the 1970s seemed to think that it was a good moment for splits and regroupments for political constitution in that way (perhaps it wasn’t and that certainly subsequently in the 1980s and 1990s up to the present) – we haven’t lived in an era of splits and regroupments. And so therefore the propaganda group model has come up against limits.

Tom Riley

To Chris: well okay I’m sorry, I certainly did not mean to falsify your personal history. I thought that was a rough approximation.

Here’s what I’d say about the propaganda group perspective: okay, well maybe there’s not going to be a revolution very soon. I have to admit that when I was very young there was a widespread perception in my circle that there was going to be a revolution within five years. I no longer have that expectation. However, I would say this: it’s often very difficult to know what’s around the corner, and sometimes things are much closer than you think.

Personally I was not really despairing about the LA riots. I was just thinking what an enormous amount of anger there is stored up in American society among the people who are suffering the most, and what a tragedy it is that this can’t be tapped in some organized way and it has to take this chaotic and nihilistic expression. That was my sense of it.

I would recall for comrades that in January 1917 Lenin wrote a letter from Switzerland back to Russia in which he said [paraphrasing] “well it looks like we of the older generation probably won’t live to see a revolution because there is not much going on is there?” That’s a famous example, but you can’t know. Now we do know that 20 years after you left the Spartacist League there wasn’t going to be a revolution.

I would also say this about propaganda groups about the size of the Spartacist League when you left it. In 1934 there were three successful general strikes – one in Toledo, one in Minneapolis and one in San Francisco. What they all had in common was that there were small groups of cadre formations that kicked them off. One was the Musteite group, which was called the Workers Party; one was the Trotskyist group, which was led by James P. Cannon. Both of them were smaller than the Spartacist League was when Chris and I belonged to it.

There was a context in 1934 where the workers were prepared to struggle. We can’t go out and make that happen today. But small groups of people can actually achieve significant things sometimes. Even our own small group, we were able, because of prior implantation that we inherited from the Spartacist League, to initiate a successful 11-day boycott of apartheid cargo on the west coast of the U.S., which Nelson Mandela hailed when he visited the U.S. And we got letters from South African trade unionists who were living underground praising the organizers and saying how encouraging it had been and what a great thing this was. And that continued to resonate for years (see “Class Struggle on the Waterfront”). In 2008 the same people, many of them, who were involved in that boycott managed to organize a one-day – only one day – shutdown of every port on the west coast of the United States in protest against the Iraq war (see “Anti-War Strike,” 1917 No.31). That happened because a very, very small group, very small, had a little meeting around somebody’s kitchen table initially in 1984 and planned that and made it happen. There were pre-existing connections that you get from cadre formations and that don’t exist otherwise. And that in fact kicked off the CIO in 1934. So it’s entirely possible that a group of 200 people in the United States could make a huge difference. But, they have to be willing to put up with “authoritarianism” and hierarchy, in a democratic framework of course.

Chris Cutrone

I push again back on the propaganda group model. Obviously at various points in history various tendencies or organizations or even small political parties could be seen to be playing a propaganda role, but to get back again to the issue of politics, what one actually means by politics, meaning who is going to do what, and who those people are. So, the issue of cadres: the question is how would you develop long-term militant cadres today, on what basis, and who would these people be and what would they do and what is the long-term goal?

Obviously part of what the premise of Platypus is in terms of us being ecumenical in these conversations is the idea that each of the perspectives being given here contains an aspect of the truth. And yet, relating those aspects of the truth in a way that produces results is exceedingly difficult. Why? Because we have accumulated historical baggage that we have to work through. In other words there is an obvious inhibition about doing any of the things that are being proposed, let alone all of them, because in fact all of them would have to be done.

Tom Riley

Chris says “how do you develop long-term cadres today?” You develop them in the same way that you developed them in the 1960s, in the 1940s and the 1920s. We are just operating on a very small scale. The left is in terrible shape, there is no question about that and there is not much of a pool to draw from. But when you get an intelligent and committed young person, who begins to understand that the only way out is socialist revolution, and is willing to make the personal sacrifices required for that – of course we are looking for needles in haystacks when we talk about that. But there are such people out there and people can make that journey. A comrade from Tampa [who had made a presentation earlier to the conference] has a group of people around him who have managed to make that leap. I don’t believe that it is impossible that there is another 200 people out there who are trying to do something similar – that’s all we’re talking about: trying to do something similar. Then you need to get together and discuss what the Russian Revolution was and where did it go wrong, and was James Weinstein right about the Socialist Party being a great tragedy … there’s lots of things.

As soon as you get people won over who are serious, you look for places where if they went in and began to develop a following in the working class – as I was saying, you’ve got to have a long-term perspective. We’re talking about decades. If you get in there, there’s layoffs, but if you survive that and get 10 or 12 years standing in a union and you’re smart and you give good advice to the workers, you’ll get a base. You don’t have to hide the fact that you’re a socialist – you might have to keep it quiet for a long time – but you let it leak out. And you start recruiting. That’s how it’s done. It’s not rocket science. It’s not that easy and it’s harder than you think – but it’s still quite do-able.

Mike Macnair

There’s no use in … trying to recreate a social democratic party.… What’s needed is yes, actual Bolshevism. The problem with the tradition of the IBT and the Spartacist League and the Trots in general is that it is not actual Bolshevism. Actual Bolshevism is a party in which the question of what line in spring 1917 was fought out in the public press – between the public press of the central committee and the public press of the Vyborg district of the party. It’s a party in which Lenin says to Zinoviev and Kamenev, when they want to say we’re going to stop this uprising by exposing this in the Menshevik press: 'You have the right to oppose it in the party press, not our opponent’s press.’ The problem is … it’s not just the IBT. I was a member of the Mandelites which also had public debate in the most limited and controlled way and internal debate conducted internally.

The consequence of that is actually you’re not educating the cadre and you’re not educating the working class. Bolshevism is constantly everything is in front of the class as a whole and if it is at all possible to do that under conditions of [inaudible]. We need to go for a party that is revolutionary in character, but a party that is revolutionary in character does not mean an invisible dictatorship, which is what essentially the Trotskyists and the Maoists and the far left in general have reinterpreted Bolshevism – as an invisible dictatorship.

Tom Riley

One reason that I mentioned that the Bolshevik Revolution had sought to internationalize itself and codified the organizational model that it recommended in the first four congresses [of the Communist International] is because that is the organizational model that we recommend, and it is the organizational model that Mike doesn’t think is a very good idea. You don’t support the organizational resolutions of the Comintern.

Mike Macnair


Tom Riley

Right. So, enough on that.

I think actually it is not a very good idea to encourage members to leak plans for an insurrection when things hang in the balance. Mike thinks that’s okay. I think it is okay to hide that from the workers. They won’t want to participate if they don’t want to. I don’t want to be involved in an insurrection run by people who are prepared to print details about it in their paper, in the Socialist Party’s paper or wherever. I mean that, to me, doesn’t make sense.

Chris Cutrone

I mentioned being demoralized by the election of Bill Clinton: a formative experience for me. When I look at young people today, millennial Marxism or Marxishism or whatever you call it – whatever Benjamin Kunkel and Bhaskar [Sunkara] have called it – and I say is this neuroanaesthetics for the Democrats, meaning, is this going to be some elaborate rationale for ultimately voting for the Democrats? It seems like it could be something else. However it doesn’t seem to be spontaneously tending in that direction. Another thing that I’d say … I find a loss of nerve over at Jacobin headquarters with respect to their simple republication of many ISO Socialist Worker articles.

Bhaskar started out trying to overcome the difference between the DSA and the ISO and instead he’s just consummating with the ISO in a way that is rather unfortunate. I know that Baskar has Platypus on his mind when he says things like they are not a pre-political project, they are a political project because they want to be engaged with the activists – parentheses the ISO. And again, is there an alternative to that?

Adolph Reed Jr.

I’ve got a less jaundiced view of Chuy Garcia [runner-up for Chicago mayor], even though he is a liberal Democrat. There is a tendency to fetishize electoral action that meets in the middle. The Democrats say that’s all there is, that’s all you can hope will ever be. And then there is the principled left position. You can’t ever engage in this, this is like a sellout, god forbid, try to figure out how to form alliances with people who don’t agree with you about stuff. And they both wind up in the same place.…

Sometimes you just have to do stuff like that. It made perfect sense, given where things were, especially after the 2012 strike … to challenge Rahm [Emanuel, Chicago’s mainstream Democratic mayor].…

You don’t always win. We need to analyze, and people are, what happened, why the election turned out like it did, what we can learn from it and how those lessons can help us move forward in a movement building project..[Republicans] are out to destroy every bit of social protection that working people have won since the 1920s. And sometimes a popular-front approach.is necessary to fight back against this stuff and to create a little bit of space. And yes, there is always a danger in trying to build the kind of alliance that you need to create the space that we’ll get outflanked.…

Tom Riley

The Democratic Party is the graveyard of the left in America. It’s crippled the entire left. The turn to the popular front in the 1930s was the beginning of the end for the Communist Party. The Communist Party, by adapting to the American bourgeoisie through its Democratic Party face, liquidated most of the political capital they had acquired through providing the shock troops to build the CIO in the first place (predominantly – lots of other left groups contributed).

Their no-strike pledge activity in World War II softened them up for the McCarthy purge, which then drove all the reds out [of the unions]. Unfortunately the American working class was not sophisticated enough to distinguish between the good Trotskyists and the bad Stalinists. They didn’t care what kind of communist you were. That weakened the American working class immensely. There was a resurgence of sorts in the 1960s with the New Left, but the New Left was crippled by a lack of historical understanding. The New Left imagined that it was all new, and we wanted to be original. Eventually experience taught a certain layer of the New Left that actually there had been more to the Old Left than we had thought and that it was necessary to make a turn to the working class and seek to inject some socialist politics into it. They were the best of the New Left and there were thousands of them who were serious and committed people who went into the factories. Few remain, there are some though.

But the role of the Democratic Party was important in corralling and liquidating the mass base. There had been perhaps a few hundred thousand people involved in the New Left at some point and the critical moment in its destruction was the McGovern campaign, where we get the far left of the Democratic Party, George McGovern, who really, really hated the [Vietnam] war and was practically almost sort of a socialist, like this Chuy Garcia guy who is practically a socialist although he wants to hire 1,000 more cops. He’s almost a socialist, he’s the best we can hope for and we have to make historic concessions to him even though he wants to cut workers’ pensions. But still, the other guy’s even worse, so therefore.…

With that kind of thinking we can only be defeated. It is possible to make headway toward smashing capitalism, and people have to be prepared for difficult struggle. We can’t just always choose the soft, the easiest path, the path of least resistance. You can be extremely thirsty out in a boat in the sea. You can get thirsty to the point where you decide you’re going to have just a little bit of salt water. You know it’s not good for you, but you’re so thirsty and this is a genuine emergency, so I’m going to vote for Chui Garcia or I’m going to have a glass of salt water. But guess what? It doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse. It makes you weaker. And then you have to have another glass of salt water and before long you’re probably dead sooner than you would be.…

Adolph Reed Jr.

Cute analysis but it doesn’t have a fucking thing to do with.…

Tom Riley

My point is: don’t vote for people who want to cut pensions and hire more cops because the other guy’s even worse. But that’s Trotskyism for you.

Adolph Reed Jr.

Sure is. And there’s nothing wrong with Trotskyism that can’t be cured.