1968 New Leninism
In 1968 the SWP’s predecessor the International Socialists decided to adopt a Leninist model of organisation. In other words, we decided to take our reference point in how we organise the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin’s leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution.
How the Bolsheviks organised as revolutionaries became obscured with the degeneration of the October Revolution, which developed as a result of the isolation of the new workers’ republic and the disintegration of the working class itself caused by civil war and economic collapse.
When the International Socialists rallied to Leninism in the late 1960s we were trying to apply this original model. But renewing Leninism wasn’t simple. In the first place, we faced different conditions from those confronting the Bolsheviks: reformism, rooted in the trade union bureaucracy, was far more entrenched in Britain and the rest of Western Europe than it had been in Tsarist Russia.
We in the IS knew we needed to continue to organise in the tradition of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But of course carrying on a tradition requires its continuous creative renewal. In fact, as Tony Cliff (the founder of the SWP) showed in his biography of Lenin, the Bolsheviks were very flexible in their political tactics and organisational methods.
Even though they led a workers revolution they won despite their flawed organisational methods. As a result of their victory, they went on to develop democratic centralism further, the zenith being reached around 1921 after the first four congresses of the Third International.
Since the early 1970s, the IS and SWP have been in a relatively priviledged position, at least when it comes to organisational questions. For the first time in the history of revolutionary movements and organisation, we have had a long period – perhaps 40 years – of relative stability, and a relatively unchanged political background which has allowed the leadership of the SWP to examine the details of revolutionary democratic centralism and perfect them.
In a number of areas, minor adjustments were made which built on and added to the achievements of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. These developments are now known as Magical Leninism.
One thing that we learnt fairly quickly in the early 1970s was what the Bolsheviks had leant by the early 1920s – that leaders need to lead. Afterall, just like the Bolsheviks we are not a debating society.
Now we’ve had 40 years to focus on the details of organisation, we can be absolutely confident that we have resolved all organisational questions.
So what exactly do we mean by Magical Leninism?
How have we built on the work of Lenin ?
Well firstly, forget about all those rows that Lenin had to have. Publishing the minutes of CC discussions, forcing members to be aware of debates within the leadership, and even having to decide who to vote for on that basis.
Workers don’t join revolutionary parties to read minutes. They want to make a revolution. Only the Central Committee need bother itself with tactical and strategic questions. For democracy to work the membership need to put into practice the CC’s tactics so that the CC can see if it works.
Forget about having 20+ people in the leadership committee. Far too many people to try and persuade. Half it! That’s what Lenin would do today if he’d been able to correct his own errors with our hindsight.
Having internal discussions in front of the workers movement? That’s plain daft. Look at the damage our recent difficulties have done precisely because they were not kept behind closed doors. Imagnine how much stronger the SWP would be today if the Disputes Committee report had stayed confidential.
In a similar vein, Lenin and te Bolsheviks eventually learnt to see the necessity of Party Unity, and the damage done by permanent factions. The moment annual conference is finished, the whole Party must unite behind all decisions made by conference and subsequently the CC.
Members or factions arguing against such decisions can only undermine the democracy of conference. (This is also why it would be undemocratic to havemore regular Internal Bulletins as some have suggested).
So how do we build a leadership? With decades of experience in the leadership of the SWP, CC members develop a knack, or special feeling for knowing what the mood of the masses is and what can be done about it. They also develop amazing insights into who has the leadership potential to be a full timer, and which full-timer is CC material.
This is why we have a “slate system” for electing the CC (see forthcoming article). We have been able to correct another of Lenin’s failings here by ensuring that a full slate is proposed, instead of leaving spaces for oppositioinsts. And its why the slate must be voted on in one go, unlike the Bolsheviks whose leadership elections were more like a poularity contest.
It is this ability to sense moods, both in the masses and within the party, that we call “Magical”, as to less experienced members it can seem incredible that he leadership just seems to always know what to do. Of course, such abilities take time to develop, which is why it makes sense for CC members to serve long tenures. Ideally a lifetime.
Finally, despite the magic, CC members are of course human, and can make mistakes. Given the responsibilities of CC members, it could be quite damaging to have to admit errors. Better to just move on , and discuss them later if absoluetely unavoidable. This way, the membership can focus on intervening in the struggle.
So, please remember the skills and magical abilities of the CC next time it is discussed. The CC has to read the mood of the membership and the masses from which it is technically isolated. It has to act as if the membership are not to be trusted and they will need to be persuaded about a new line. The CC has no reliable mechanism for receiving feedback from the members regarding its leadership, strategic moves, tactics etc.
Thankfully, we can rely on magic.