Barry Biddulph critically reviews Chris Harmans , Party and Class, published in 1968, as part of the turn to Leninism by the leadership of the International Socialist Group, later to become the Socialist Workers Party.
In 1968 the SWP’s predecessor the International Socialists decided to adopt a Leninist model of organisation. Harman argued that the Bolshevik Revolution was the only successful revolution, and other revolutions, such as the Paris Commune, were defeated. Yet the Paris Commune was an inspiring defeat, with mass creativity and an open fight to the end. In contrast, outside the year of the masses in 1917, the Russian revolution was an unclear defeat. The counter Revolution took a Leninist form, originating in the Bolshevik party. “The most horrible thing about the way the revolution died in Russia is that the counter-revolution won and called itself Socialism” (1).
Harman’s rough polemical target was one of Tony Cliffs insights, expressed in the 1959 edition of his pamphlet Rosa Luxemburg, that “for Marxists in the advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s organizational position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg” (2). Harman dismissed this undogmatic position as Cliff’s unscientific enthusiasm. He then juxtaposed the spontaneity of workers in struggle and organisation, in a crude version of Lenin’s view of the relationship of party and class in What is to be done. He made no attempt to assess the concept of democratic centralism or the history of Bolshevism. Instead, Harman dishonestly distorted the positions of Luxemburg and the young Trotsky. Their dispute with Lenin was the degree of centralism and the weight of leadership within the party. In Harman’s heavy hand this becomes Luxemburg’s fatalism: she preferred to wait for the spontaneous development of the masses (3). The young Trotsky’s position is also misinterpreted as distrusting all centralist organisation (4).
Harman claimed that Luxemburg was not aware that, if the masses “are not won over to a socialist world view of the intervention of conscious revolutionaries, they will continue to accept the bourgeois ideology of existing society”(5). He was also aware this Leninist world view was a one-sided polemic against the so-called economists and so he changed tack to claim that the real basis for Lenin’s argument is that the level of consciousness in the working class is never uniform. This is why a strong centralized leadership is considered necessary. But what Lenin actually argued in WITBD was that socialist consciousness was introduced into the workers material struggle from the outside. The continuity of a small number of talented leaders and their theory is what was decisive for Lenin.
Harman’s approach seems to be based in the Trotskyist tradition of distrust of the changing spontaneous moods of the masses, who are assumed to have a low culture or are backward. This probably originates in the older Trotsky’s experience of state building and acceptance of the dictatorship of the party as the dictatorship of the working class in Russia 1918 to 1923. In his reply to Victor Serge, the masses have nothing to do with it, Trotsky asserts that strong centralisation is necessary to correct the swings in the moods of the masses, and to cut through amorphous democracy. He writes in an intolerant tone, as if communists were separate from the class and were somehow immune to mistakes. Workers democracy is assumed to be peripheral or of little consequence, particularly where the state has to act against backward workers (6). In a similar way, in 1918 “Lenin had become quite ambivalent in his attitude to the workers” (7). By 1920 Kollonti summed up the problem as: “there can be no self-activity without freedom of thought and activity…we give no freedom to class activity. We are afraid of criticism; we have ceased to rely on the masses” (8).
For Harman, to “merely delight in the spontaneous transformation, is to uncritically accept whatever transitory products this turns up”. He assumes this is what Luxemburg is all about: the worship of spontaneity. But the world is more complex than Harman’s polemics. The Bolshevik party uncritically accepted the transitory products of the spontaneous transformation of land ownership by the peasants, which was reflected in the programme of the Socialist Revolutionaries. In the Mass Strike, Luxemburg explained how Social Democrats could not wait with folded arms for the spontaneous outbreak and their agitation helped make the strikes a dramatic political struggle. But the Social Democrats had difficulty keeping up with the creative dynamism of the masses in 1905 as in 1917. The continuity of the class struggle was decisive.
Harman claimed” that for Lenin the party is not the embryo of the workers state-the workers council is”(9) This is a totally misleading. Shortly after the October Revolution Lenin chose to ground the new regime in the party leaders (Sovnarkom) with the party apparatus fusing with the state. Factory committees and Soviets were emasculated. In 1918, Trotsky complained “that not all soviet workers have understood that our administration has been centralised and that all orders from above will be final” (10). The road to socialism could pass through State Capitalism, one man management, capitalist production methods, as long as the Bolshevik old guard was in control. This was pure utopianism or Jacobin dictatorship. It was also pushing the workers back not advancing their struggle.
The organisational form which will emerge in todays conditions is one which will learn from anti capitalist struggles. We have to remember that the forms of revolt are also part of the social organisation of the future. Sometimes the self-proclaimed vanguards can be in the rearguard: previously unorganised workers can become more militant than the long time organised. Politics and economics are not separate. This unevenness is part of life. To artificially attempt to straighten things out from the outside can often be an attempt to push things back. Alex Callinicos wrote like a reactionary newspaper editor when he warned of the dangers of comrades exercising power without responsibility when they made critical comments on the internet. Openly organising , publically discussing ideas, communicating and sharing information is the future. Leninist vanguardism is the past.
1 The International Communist current, (2005) The Russian Communist left, page 89
2 Quoted in Chris Harman,Party and Class,1968, p. 21.
3 Chris Harman, p. 9
4 Chris Harman, p. 8
5 Chris Harman,p. 13
6 The Serge Trotsky Papers,edited by David Cotterill, 1994.page187.
7 Richard Sakwa, 1999, The rise and fall of the Soviet Union 1917-1991.page 128
8 As above p. 133
9 Harman page, p.19
10 Paul Mattick , Anti Bolshevik Communism, p. 66