Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

Reading Lenin in the light of the collapse of the SWP and the ISO – Independent Left – Conor Kostick

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Conor Kostick, a supporter of the Irish Independent Left Organisation, offers an interesting analysis of the problems facing the radical left in Ireland and across the globe.

In 2013, not long after the British SWP went into dramatic convulsions over the way their party failed to support a young member in her allegation that a very much older and more senior member had raped her, I had reason to be in Chicago. While there I met up with the International Socialist Organisation (at the time a relatively successful example of a revolutionary party), gave a talk on Ireland’s revolutionary years and attended a dayschool of theirs on Lenin and the revolutionary party. The bookstall had copies of studies of Lenin by Lars Lih, Paul Le Blanc and Tony Cliff.

Anyone wanting to encourage the development of a revolutionary party has, of course, to form an opinion of Lenin. Before the ISO fell out with their British equivalents (i.e. the SWP), their approach to Lenin would have been profoundly if not exclusively shaped by the British SWP and in particular by the leading figure in that party, Tony Cliff. It interested me that the ISO had a wider outlook on the subject than was usual in the SWP and the enthusiasm of the bookstall organiser meant that I came away with a copy of Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party.

The cover of Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party
This book was first published in 1990 and I had never read it because having inhabited a rather closed-minded organization, I felt there was little that someone closely aligned to the politics of Ernest Mandel would have to say on the subject that would be useful. After all, as I was told and believed at the time, I had been guided in my understanding of Lenin by someone with vastly superior politics to those of Mandel: Tony Cliff. More than this, as an SWP organiser in the UK and then in Ireland I had always used Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party as the essential text for explaining the theory behind SWP party-building methods to those members who I anticipated would go on to play leading roles in their branches and nationally.
— Read on independentleft.ie/reading-lenin/

I have not read the books Conor refers to. I have read (and re-read) a different book about Lenin, Marcel Liebman’s “Leninism Under Lenin” – which belongs to, broadly speaking, the Ernest Mandel tradition which Conor describes.

The opening paragraph of this review might persuade readers that time spent reading Liebman on Lenin would not be wasted :

Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin, first published in 1973, is a scrupulous study of the political life of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party he helped build. Liebman impressively documents almost three decades of Lenin’s political activities, from his efforts to build a vanguard party to his struggle to preserve a workers’ state. In doing so, he uncovers a Lenin that is neither the flawless ready-made hero depicted by Stalinists, nor the evil self-serving dictator depicted by liberals.https://isreview.org/issue/107/grappling-real-lenin

What are the practical results of implementing the Tony Cliff analysis?

As Conor Kostick observes, John Molyneaux is one of Cliff’s most astute followers, and is a member of the Irish People Before Profit (PBP) Organisation, ultimately controlled by the Socialist Workers’ Network (SWN), the only permitted faction within the PBP.

John Molyneaux explains, and Conor Kostick dissents :

Here’s how one staunch defender of Cliff puts it in more recent times:

Cliff had learned from experience that shifting an organization of several thousand members (as oppose winning an academic or historical debate) from one strategic orientation and one way of working to another to meet the challenge of changed circumstances, required an almighty great tug on the relevant levers and, sometimes, a certain exaggeration. For Cliff achieving the desired end was more important than terminological exactitude or consistency and he rather thought, as do I, that Lenin felt the same way. http://johnmolyneux.blogspot.ie/2006/11/lihs-lenin-review-of-lars-t-lih-lenin.html

There is an evasion here. The argument is not whether Lenin was fussy about terminology but whether Lenin ever felt it necessary to deliberately exaggerate ‘to achieve the desired end.’ John Molyneux believes so. I do not. Lenin was fully aware the dialectics of revolutionary socialism do not allow for the separation of means and ends. The means you adopt will shape the end you arrive at. The moment you cease to tell the truth, no matter how unpalatable or how it works against the point you want to make, is the moment you abandon the prospect of realising a socialist society. I say this for entirely practical as well as moral reasons.

Secondly, look again at the question of party structure. It is an observable fact that all revolutionary parties are uneven, Cliff’s (1), but (2) is not as clear cut as it seems because it contains a value judgement. Who decides whether a member is falling behind? While another member is being ‘positive’? The true test has to be in regard to how effective the respective members are in changing the world. And judging that effectiveness is a complicated matter, where collective decision-making, honest accounting and democratic forms are essential. But in Cliff’s hands, this piece about rules can be read as follows: rules are all very well, but when some idiot is dragging the party down, it is necessary to find those who are getting results and use them to smash the conservatives, even if that means violating formalities.

We come back, again and again, to the question of bureaucratised radical left parties Versus internally democratic radical left parties.

John Meehan

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