communist pluralism: diversity not diffusion

11 12 2009

A discussion article by Chris Kane ahead of The Commune aggregate meeting this Saturday

we should avoid being pigeon-holed

One of the terms which has been closely identified with The Commune has been ‘communist pluralism’. There is a twofold aspect to this concept I believe: on the one hand is the fragmentation of the international communist movement over many years since the defeat of the First World Revolution 1916-1921 and transformation of the Russian Revolution into its opposite. The second has been the immensely retrogressive culture which has arisen on the left over this long period, concepts of ‘democratic centralism’ becoming little more than cover for Jesuit Marxism with hierarchical structures and rigidity.

A communist organisation comprises a voluntary association, adhering to the principles of communism. This implies full and free discussion for every member, democracy implies selection of officials/holders of responsibilities by the membership and complete accountability and recallability. It is also a ‘party of action’ where such discussion leads to the greatest clarity both in theory and practice – how else can communists ‘represent the future in the present’ as the Communist Manifesto defines? Pluralism should be the negation of Jesuit Marxism but it also should aim to be within an organisational framework that can offset the damaging affects of incessant factionalism and divisiveness.

Contrary to anarchist mythology this not a hallmark of ‘Leninist vanguardism’ but also of ‘ultra-leftism’ which tends towards abstentionist attitudes and sectarian self-isolation. In that sense pluralism is not about a free space for the radical intelligentsia and middle-class.

Trotsky observed from the inside in 1909 how for example the early Russian Marxism saw the socialist intelligentsia introduce into the workers party:

“all their social traits: a sectarian spirit, intellectual individualism, and ideological fetishism; to suit these peculiarities they adapted and distorted Marxism. Thus for the Russian intelligentsia Marxism became the means to carry every bias to an extreme.”

Symptomatic were innumerable splits, factions and warring groups behind the workers’ backs and bearing little relation to their struggles. Of course it was not always like that. As the parties developed, particularly in periods of upsurge a framework existed which maintained a unity in diversity. It was very common in both wings of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party for local committees to have their own newspapers: this saw an immensely diverse body of opinion within the organisation.

At present with a handful of people we are of course a very, very long way from such experiences. But we can of course draw lessons from history. Pluralism should create an organisational framework which actually builds into it from the start freedom of opinion and discussion in a manner which negates the constant splitting of communists: but a freedom increasingly geared towards goals and unity of action in common principles.

One aspect of what might be called the re-unification of communists is the need for The Commune to recognise that this principle of pluralism can be turned into its very opposite. This can arise from the problem of being pigeon holed by others who seek to categorise our network. Of course pigeon holing has certain inevitability in a left bereft of any experience of communist pluralism, which has not existed in any meaningful way for nearly a century: i.e. Weekly Worker recently reported us as a “left communist” organisation. If communist pluralism is to succeed it also demands an effort to offset the danger of inadvertently acquiescing in us being pigeonholed.  In that I am referring to the tendency of The Commune to be regarded as a ‘left-communist’ or ‘libertarian communist’ organisation. There are comrades coming to events and interested in The Commune who believe that to be the case.

I consider this can be off-putting to possible new comrades who are not of this tradition, whatever its merits. If we consider a problem of the left is erecting false-historical traditions rooted in fragmentation which emerged from defeat we need to recognise this applies not only to Trotskyism but the libertarian left also.

Importantly there are those of us who do not consider ourselves libertarian socialists etc. I consider if all comrades are committed to pluralism then we have a responsibility to find a way of making it clearer if we are to avoid an inevitable re-fragmentation and turning The Commune into just another anarchistic group.

One means of maintaining the momentum of pluralism can be more open platforms or fractions. Obviously like minded existing communist currents joining our network would assist in this development. Our present numbers and level of organisation do restrict how far we can have platforms etc. There is a need to discuss how to avoid the more destructive aspects of factions and platforms, there has been a degree of this in the experience of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy. Whilst on the other hand the current Russian Marxist Labour Party has maintained within its party various trends, a Leninist and a left-communist one. There is a need perhaps to begin a discussion around the very concept of factions and tendencies, perhaps seeking to reconceptualise the need for them to be more based around schools or thought than constantly vying for leadership.

Another means is that I think we need to publish a more balanced level of pamphlets that do not simply reflect for example German left communism. I would like to publish a selection of writings of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany), PCI (Italian CP) such a Gramsci’s Lyons Theses, and some Russian Communist Party writings, perhaps the Workers’ Opposition and others.

I consider this question of pluralism very important to iron out at the beginning as if we do not built it into the cornerstone of the group we will inevitably take a different trajectory which is the opposite of a new beginning.

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7 responses

11 12 2009

I do not find the label “left-communist” by one article in the Weekly Worker particularly troubling, although I myself am not a left-communist and the group is not left-communist.

In practice we clearly are to the left of the Trotskyist etc. groups and we have proven to be pluralistic. To me the fact that we are very anti-statist is the reason why people might see as as ‘libertarian’/’ultra-left’ and that is in ways a good reason for attraction to our group, not simply a burden, even though we should not nurture such labelling. We should not abandon our pro-self management/anti-statist definition to seem pluralistic (i.e. legitimising the mainstream of any of the leading post-Third International currents) in that sense.

I do not agree with the implication that even if we were all “libertarian socialists” that would make us an “anarchistic group” and indeed am very tired of the accusation that anything to the left of Leninist orthodoxy should be labelled anarchism. I know that is not Chris’s intention, but I think we should stubbornly reject the idea.

One thing we in general avoid, and should avoid like the plague because it both is and seems weird and insular (and confirms what we have to say is not relevant for today), is reverent quoting of the revolutionaries of a hundred years ago, of whatever stripe.

So we have published one pamphlet from the German communist left. I am not averse to publishing from the KPD, PCI etc. however it is also important to ground our ideas in the here and now rather than just having a heterodox approach to the debates of the 1920s!

11 12 2009

It has nothing to do with one example in the Weekly Worker, which is an example not to be exaggerated. The fact is many people have this impression and members of the network will not help by perpetuating such an impression unless they want The Commune.
It seems David you consider my quotation of an historical figure reverend quoting. I was citing evidence of frissure in Russian Marxism of a bad example of pluralism – I did not live in that period of time so I need to cite someone else as evidence!!
Actually of the pamphlets we have published are three reprints from the libertarian socialist organisation Solidarity of the 1970’s, one other extensively from that organisation and one anarchist pamphlet on Venezuela!
Anti state-socialism and pro-self-management has been pioneered by Marxism, included those of us who not professional anti-Lenin types. For example Hal Draper, not to mention the League of Communists of Yugoslavia’s Marxist-Humanists.
Communist pluralism is not just space and tolerance of left-communist and libertarian comrades, it cuts both ways.

13 12 2009

Well if we only accept articles that are in line with the platform, then clearly that means that some could theoretically be excluded. This is necessary, since all organisations must draw lines in the sand somewhere.

I believe that quoting long dead revolutionaries can be useful, and I did this with Marx in my most recent article. I think it becomes ‘weird and insular’ when this is done merely to score sectarian points – i.e. Hal Draper said this in whatever year, so you are wrong, whereas we are right.

However, the works of dead revolutionaries can definitely be used to illustrate current events, or stimulate debate. It is healthy that we consider there to be no ‘holy texts’, and therefore question anything, but until our generation produces its great revolutionary writers, the dusty old volumes of forgotten analysis can help us along the way.

Furthermore, it seems to me that ‘divisions’ between ‘left communists’, ‘libertarian communists’ at present are not much more than what books we’ve read. It’s hard to see what policy differences could exist. If they do present themselves, hopefully The Commune will still be here so we can thrash them out!

14 12 2009

I agree that we should get away from using labels like left and libertarian communist, although of course I would defend political positions which might easily be defined as such by others.

But equally, Chris uses expressions in this text like “anarchist mythology”, “sectarian self-isolation”, “ultra-left” etc. Perhaps each of these is justified, but he does not say why, which means that they are examples of the same labelling the text criticises. These phrases are used as slogans rather than to rationally persuade those supposedly guilty of these faults.

Draper and Praxis argued against state socialism, for sure, and were not anarchists, for sure. However, the critique of Leninism is not that all people who have identified with him to some extent are state socialists, but rather that in 1918-21 he played a significant role in undermining self-management and soviet democracy. And as for the expression “professional anti-Lenin types” – what is the point of this?

“Communist pluralism is not just space and tolerance of left-communist and libertarian comrades, it cuts both ways” – well, indeed. If anarchists have done x, y and z wrong then you have to explain precisely how, not just assert that they are wrong/historic failures/sectarians. Pluralism can only work if we take the views of others – in and outside our network – seriously, in good faith and for what they are, and reply in a comradely manner.

That is the case even if to us they may seem utterly wrong. I have never met anyone I disagreed with on the left who did not have at least some sincere reasons for their views, so they should be taken for what they are.

In response to Adam, I agree that works of dead revolutionaries can be useful to illustrate current events, or stimulate debate. However, the problem is that this usually takes the form of debate about what Marx/Lenin/Trotsky etc. “really” meant and they themselves become the very subject of the debate… This is complex since some people really do misrepresent Marx to justify their own ideas, but we have to fight this without just trying to reclaim orthodoxy, or worse still, saving him from his own faults.

We have much to learn from the rich history of working-class struggle and of communist organisations in particular. However taking the high points of past thought as our starting point does not mean we have to drag current debates back to previous ones, particularly as many people have not read the originals and thus cannot follow them. Any idea we wish to explain should be justified on its own merits: there is a risk of using historical ‘legitimacy’ as a substitute for arguing a point thoroughly.

14 12 2009
bill j

Personally I think its fine to be called a left communist. That’s how I would call myself. Being called it by the Weekly Worker, who are if we’re being generous right communist, makes it all the more pleasurable, if by no means a guarantee of accuracy of course.

15 12 2009

I consider there a difference between left-communism and libertarian communism, at least if we take them in their original meaning of the term. The latter being more closely identified with anarchism (Makhno etc) and left-communism being a diverse revolutionary Marxist current within the Second and Third Internationals.
Now on the one hand it is indeed the case that there are those who do cite historical figures as a justification for intellectual sloth. However on the other hand it seems to lead to a self-imposed amnesia which is unnecessary and as helpful as someone who has lost their memory trying to find their way home. But worse it can lead to a level of intolerance as in my experience this only ever seems to be a raised in protest whenever it is figures from certain quarters of the Marxist tradition cited. There is a degree in which it leads to a new orthodoxy where figures such as Lenin and the wider Bolshevik and Comintern experience become almost the anti-Christ beyond the pale of acceptability. Drawing on history, standing on the shoulders of giants does not mean becoming a parrot of the past but being able to see the present more clearly.
It is indeed a common assertion of anarchism that ‘Leninist vanguardism’ bread constant splits arising from an inbuilt intolerance, this however is equally a problem of ultra-left or to use Engel’s term ‘ultra radical’, sectarianism, where such practices as opposition to participation in ameliorative struggles, trade unionism and elections, lead to self-isolation. With corresponding incestuous cultures and constant fragmentation over issues of little relationship to the actual working class or its movement.
The term “professional anti-Lenin types” is a characterization given by Raya Dunayevskaya of the Paul Mattick. It could equally be applied to the views that seem to root the experience of the Russian Revolution rather one-sidedly seeing only the retrogression of the second-half of 1918, and seeing it as almost inevitable as a result of the ideas of Lenin alone. The Russian Revolution was a popular upsurge, the Bolsheviks achieving power not due to Machiavellian organization and ruthless tactics, but actual support amongst the self-organized workers, peasants and soldiers. There is no doubt if Lenin’s ideas did not meet with this movement from below there would not have been an October Revolution as took place. But there not one without the other. Lenin’s ideas did not automatically lead to Stalinism; the civil war, the struggle to survive and isolation had all impacted on the conduct of the revolutionaries and the revolution’s outcome. One cannot view the ideas of any given individual or Party as if they were somehow floating above events on the ground – that would make history a battle of titans not a battle of classes.

However that is history I reallly would like to re-emphasise my point above:

A communist organisation comprises a voluntary association, adhering to the principles of communism. This implies full and free discussion for every member, democracy implies selection of officials/holders of responsibilities by the membership and complete accountability and recallability. It is also a ‘party of action’ where such discussion leads to the greatest clarity both in theory and practice – how else can communists ‘represent the future in the present’ as the Communist Manifesto defines? Pluralism should be the negation of Jesuit Marxism but it also should aim to be within an organisational framework that can offset the damaging affects of incessant factionalism and divisiveness.

16 12 2009
Bill Butlin

The ultra left and the neo-liberal right seem to have one thing in common. Their insistence that trade union struggles are a waste of time, or have their limitations, or will inevitably lead to a defeat and betrayal, and that the inevitability of defeat that has been predetermined by the ‘limited’ or ‘structural’ nature of trade union struggle itself.
The action of the Lindsay oil refinery workers the Leeds dustman and now the BA workers are the best answer to these ‘left’ carping critics of the actual struggles of the working class. This is because in resisting attacks on terms and conditions of employment these workers have chosen to move beyond the one day protest strike and are taking action that will hits the employer hard. That is they are advancing tactics that move beyond the lifestyle politics of the strike as a protest and are developing strategies that are designed to win and have won.
In the BA dispute the threat of 12 days of strike action over Xmas has shown the immense intelligence of the working class, as opposed those on the right and ultra left who insist that the working class and the unions are in a period of ‘terminal’ and inevitable decline.
Indeed the idea that workers can actually win a dispute has thrown the media into an orgy of apoplectic rage.
Clearly there are lessons to be learned here that revolve around developing strike tactics that will win in response to the attacks on workers terms and conditions that will inevitably follow in the year ahead.
Lessons that come from the workers involved in these struggles not some toy town vanguard party.
Given this, it’s simply not good enough to write trade unionism off as as the ultra left and right wing normally do.


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