Chris Harman: the turn to a Leninist organisation in 1968.

1 02 2013

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 128

8  As above p. 133

9 Harman page, p.19

10 Paul Mattick , Anti Bolshevik Communism, p. 66

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5 responses

2 02 2013

when I joined the IS in 1968 as a politically raw young worker what impressed me about Harmans party and class argument was the many assertions that democratic centralism(undefined) would result in a knowledgeable,informed and theoretically minded party membership. But that was not the result. Harman never explained how his strong centralised leadership would differ from say Zinoviev or the many Stalinist Parties that had adopted it.

Tony Cliff had rooted the democratic centralist party in the uneven conscious of the working class, but as he acknowledged,this explained the presence of political groupings in general. Unevenness in consciousness,did not explain the need for democratic centralism. The history of a democratic centralist is the history of bureaucratic organisational regime’s. Its origins are probably in German Social democracy and the social democratic vanguardism criticised by Marx . A strong leadership, which has always resulted in the domination of a leadership circle might have made temporary sense in Russia in 1904,is completely inappropriate in today’s circumstances.

If you are an SWP member and your main intellectual leader regard’s criticism,the life blood of marxism,as power without responsibility then you must realise that something is wrong. IN 1968 I was not really aware how all the talk of theory was elitist. So thinking and writing correct ideas doesn’t always mean that they will be followed even by the person who writes them( Roy Ratcliffe, 2003, Revolutionary Humanism and the anti Capitalist Struggle.) The History of Trotsky is a warning about leaders from on high who become separated from the struggle at the grass roots.

2 02 2013

It really is time to get over wanting to label oneself as a Bolshevik or Leninist.
Obviously those with a higher degree of class consciousness will want to organise together. But the point is to spread this consciousness. Not to put others off by organising in such a hierarchical way that those who consider themselves most ‘advanced’ make all the decisions & use the fig-leaf of ‘democratic centralism’ to become an established elite.

3 02 2013

Tom Walker seems to be arguing for an updated Leninism. But if you are forging a new Leninism for the modern times, why circulate old myths? In his latest statement he quotes Trotsky as saying, “the present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline” At the 12th congress, Trotsky said no comrade can be right against the party. The party is always right even when it is wrong. There is no place for factions in this outlook. Even as late as 1926 in a statement of the left opposition, he signed with Zinoviev to state agreement with opposition to factions. And Trotsky and presumably Tom walker know there were no factional rights or minority rights in the Bolshevik tendency 1909/12. Its time to nail the coffin lid down on Lenin. Although as Tom Walker writes Callinicos might be doing the Job for us anyway.

5 02 2013
16 02 2013

Ian Land makes the following comment, ‘stick bending is about tactics. Emphasising the key point is not the same thing as reducing reality to one point,and Lenin never did this’ But Lenin did often reduce reality to one point or rather distorted reality.

Take ‘economism’ and ‘the economists’ The Credo was a private paper by two intellectuals with no organised following. But it was used by Lenin as a stick to beat what he perceived to be rival leaders such as Akimov and his revolutionary organisation. Akimov never argued that politics should be left to the Liberals or political organisation was not important or necessary. Stick bending became false polemics. The one point became a figment of Lenin’s imagination. This stick bending or falsely exaggerating an element of reality was a habit of Lenin’s. Were those who wanted to discuss religion and alienation really god builders? Was the dictatorship of the party over the class necessary because the class had become de-classed or economistsic and so on.

At the second congress when it was pointed out that WITBD was at odds with Marx and the self emancipation of the working class,Lenin simply shrugged his shoulders and said: I had to straighten out what the economists had bent. But he never said what the correct balance was. He did not repudiate WITBD. What light should his polemic have been seen in? The famous comment from 1905 about the working class spontaneously gravitating to socialism was followed by noting that ten years of Social democratic work had contributed to this consciousness.

The relationship between party and class in WITBD, Socialism brought to the class from outside their material class struggle by the party,was expressed in the substitution of the party for the class. As long as the Bolshevik old guard were in charge you could have State capitalism,Taylorism,one boss in the factory,because the Red Jacobins would preserve the socialist future. The party is everything the class is nothing.

Ian makes a very important criticism of Harman when he writes,’Harmans position carries the danger that democracy can be treated as useful or necessary when it concurs with the centralism of the party,but if this is the case,then it isn’t really democracy at all’ But this is democratic centralism. The strong, highly centralised leadership which determines the political character of the organisation decides when the unity in action around strategy and tactics is disrupted by criticism. Decision making and policy formation are concentrated at the top. Democracy is always second best.

Trotsky tried to explain what democratic centralism was in 1937,’the formula for democratic centralism must inevitable find a different expression in the politics of different countries in different stages of development of one and the same party’ This is not a definition. Its some kind of leadership method.The only constant is a small centralised leadership which mirrors a bourgeois cabinet. Who decides when to ban factions or how much democracy is allowed. In effect the leadership, which has a strong grip on the organisation and its resources. When the leadership lose that grip the organisation tends to disintegrate.


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