Breaking with the cold war consensus

Has today’s anti-Stalinist left sleepwalked into a Stalinoid conception of ‘Bolshevism’? This is an edited and expanded version of the speech delivered by Ben Lewis (CS executive & CPGB)  to the March 31-April 1 Platypus convention in Chicago. First published here.

Get that monkey off your back

I must begin by thanking Platypus for hosting this debate. It is a shame that Pham Binh cannot be present to put forward his views, but the debate he has initiated on Lenin and his legacy is, in my opinion, of great import to our movement today. We in the CPGB certainly want to see this debate widened, deepened and raised to a higher level. Personally speaking, I cannot lay any claim to expertise in Bolshevik or even Russian history more generally. My interests primarily revolve around Germany, not Russia. Much of what I am going to argue is based on the latest theoretical and historical insights of my good friend and collaborator, Lars T Lih.

I would like to preface my remarks with a quote that neatly sums up where we currently are in terms of the debate around the 1912 Prague conference, the 6th Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party: “Prague party conference. Bolsheviks constitute themselves an independent Marxist party … The party strengthens itself by purging its ranks of opportunist elements – that is one of the maxims of the Bolshevik Party, which is a party of a new type fundamentally different from the social democratic parties of the Second International.”[1]

Stalin and Zinoviev

Many on today’s far left share this view. Worryingly, however, the quote is from Joseph Stalin. Moreover, this is not the Stalin of 1912, when, like all other leading Bolsheviks, he vehemently denied that they were out to constitute themselves as a single party. No, it is Stalin from his Short course of 1938, a text in which he is quite patently rewriting and falsifying the history of the RSDLP for his own particular purposes. Of course, the reason Stalin has to reinvent party history is to justify his monolithic party regime: in 1912 the Bolsheviks created a party of one faction, ie, a party of no factions at all. Further, Stalin argues that creating such a single-faction party had always been Lenin’s plan since the RSDLP’s 2nd Congress in 1903. While on occasion the Bolsheviks had sought rapprochement and even unity with the Mensheviks and others, essentially this was a kind of trick, a concealment of the Bolsheviks’ true aims and a way of influencing (duping?) the supporters of such groups – or at least that was what this version drives us to conclude.

Lars Lih has also dug up an extremely revealing comment by Zinoviev a few years earlier. In 1933, looking back to 1912, Zinoviev wrote: “I don’t know why the records of the Prague conference have not yet been published. I think they’ve survived and, I’m pretty sure, in quite detailed form.”[2] (These comments were not published at the time.)

The records of the Prague conference of 1912 did not emerge until 1982, when the academic historian, Carter Elwood, discussed them in an article entitled ‘The art of calling a party conference’. Looking back, we can obviously answer Zinoviev’s question: publishing the records would have completely undermined the Stalinist myth. And we all know what informed these attempts to reinvent Bolshevik history: three years later Zinoviev was murdered in cold blood.

Interestingly, according to Lars Lih, Elwood’s 1982 analysis, as well as that of his recent book, The non-geometric Lenin, overlap with the Stalinist falsification thesis. Perhaps this should be of little surprise. For Elwood, after all, there are two kinds of Lenin: the human being who liked hiking through the mountains and enjoying a glass of beer afterwards, and the geometric Lenin – that is to say, the cold, factional operator, calculator and political manipulator. Thus, as is often the case with Lenin studies, a cosy consensus emerges between bourgeois academic historians and the far left: what Lars Lih has deemed the ‘academic’ and activist’ interpretations of Lenin.

For academic historians, many of whom were nicely funded by the Hoover Institute for their troubles, this interpretation of events proves that Lenin was a liar and manipulator. For the left – particularly the Stalinists – it proves that Lenin was an unrivalled leader and skilled ‘stick-bender’, as Tony Cliff might have put it. I think that recent scholarship, not just from Lars, but from others locating Lenin’s views in the context of Second International Marxism, is helping us to move beyond such a cultish Lenin. But, as I shall argue, I also think that the left has not quite taken on board some of the new insights and understandings. This is also true of 1912, although it would seem that the ball has started to roll …

Why does this matter?

Some might think that agonising over the exact course of events at a conference that took place just over a century ago is of little relevance to the tasks of the left today. Fiddling while Rome, or Athens, burns. But Marxism is, or should be, deeply historical. Getting out of the mess the far left is currently in, or at least thinking about how to get out of that mess, requires a rigorous interpretation of our own history – warts and all.

It is undoubtedly the case that we still live in the gloomy shadow of what passed itself off as ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ in the 20th century. This is not only true of how the majority of people perceive our movement today, but also of our own ideas and alternatives. The 20th century saw an enormous defeat for the working class movement internationally, and this has manifested itself in a crisis of working class politics. We must confront this crisis openly, boldly and honestly – the only way we can seek to rearticulate the political project of Marxism as a viable alternative to capitalist decline.

Yet some of the material that is being uncovered in the course of the discussion on 1912 is revealing how in many ways those of us who call ourselves ‘Bolsheviks’, ‘Leninists’ and ‘Trotskyists’ do so on the basis of a cold war caricature, a Stalinoid misrepresentation of the organisation that was able to lead the masses to power in 1917. Given the subordinate position of the working class in society, and the general confusion that surrounds us as a result of our defeats and setbacks, perhaps this is no surprise.

Yet such a conception of ‘Bolshevism’ directly feeds into some of the real, concrete problems we face today, not least in the proliferation of competing sect regimes and outfits. Stalinists and Maoists, for example, can justify the existence of their monolithic organisations on the basis of Stalin’s arguments about 1903 and 1912. Similarly, many Trotskyist groups will deploy such arguments as a way of clamping down on public dissent and factionalising – witness, for example, how comrades on the left usually refer to internal discussion and debate. Apparently, most left groups have a very healthy internal regime. But how would anybody on the left, let alone in the working class more generally, know unless they join?

The necessary concomitant of this form of so-called ‘Bolshevik’ organisation is splits, disillusionment and fragmentation, not partyist unity. Moreover, the slight resurgence in anarcho-libertarian ideas recently can be partly explained by the existence of bureaucratic centralist regimes claiming the mantle of ‘Bolshevism’. If that is ‘Bolshevism’, so many anarchists reason, then we want nothing to do with it. Again, the result is further fragmentation and strategic disorientation/valorisation of spontaneous struggle, as opposed to political strategy.

Basing ourselves on this kind of toy-town Bolshevism, the left today is rendered near impotent in the face of enormous historical tasks and challenges. We cannot seriously unite anyone because we cannot unite ourselves. There are various forms of latent and actual resistance against the effects of the capitalist crisis, but at present we are collectively failing to offer anything viable, practical or inspirational.

More fundamentally, the question of the party form, the kind of party regimes we fight for and organise around today, cannot be separated from the kind of society we are trying to build, the way we conceive working class rule. For us in the CPGB, revolution must be the conscious act of the majority of the population, aware of what they are doing, why they are doing it and able to organise if that plan is not sufficiently being carried out or being undermined. The degeneration of the Bolshevik Party, along with the retreat and defeat of the Russian Revolution itself, underlines this basic point. In order to rule, the working class needs democracy at all levels of society. It certainly could not exercise political power through the kind of bureaucratic centralist regimes that are features of the left and held up as ‘Bolshevism’. Hence the importance of this discussion: it is certainly not a “waste of ink”.

Moving forward

As I mentioned before, recent scholarship has taken some great strides in terms of understanding the history and evolution of Lenin and the Bolsheviks: firstly with 1903 and now with 1912. Many on the left have quite rightly applauded the efforts of those like Lars Lih, but I think we have not taken on board what implications these insights have for our own practice. For example, when I watched the Socialist Workers Party’s John Molyneux debate Lars at Marxism back in 2008, I heard Molyneux say something along the lines of ‘This is a great book for students of Russian history who want to prove that Lenin does not lead to Stalin, but cannot quote a non-academic source like Tony Cliff …’[3]

But, while Molyneux may not think so, we are gradually beginning to understand the context of the emergence of Bolshevism – namely in the Second International – and we are beginning to see that Bolshevism was a mass phenomenon, aimed at merging the workers’ movement with a programme for society as a whole, not just for issues directly affecting the working class. Fundamentally, this meant fighting for the ‘light and air’ of political freedom, leading other classes to challenge for state power. The class unity required for such a momentous task was based around the acceptance of a Marxist programme, not agreement. This was a crucial distinction, and informed the partyist democracy which the Bolsheviks upheld. Unity did not, as in many left groups today, revolve around philosophical or historical agreement, but political commitment: unity in action and freedom of discussion.

This led to robust political debate and discussion both between the competing factions of the RSDLP and within the Bolshevik faction itself: electoral tactics, the national question, the question of a second revolution in April 1917 etc, are all noteworthy examples. This conception of the party is often portrayed as one ‘of the whole class’, but this is just a tired repetition of arguments made back in 1977-78 by Joseph Seymour in his Lenin and the vanguard party. This view implies that anybody could be allowed into a revolutionary party, and that this was the major flaw of so-called ‘Second International Marxism’.

But this is simply untenable – it was the programme that decided. For example, the Second International was formed on the basis that all those who rejected class political action, like the syndicalists, were automatically ruled out. Moreover, those who broke with the basic programmatic outlook of the Second International were expelled: eg, the ‘governmental socialist’, Alexandre Millerand. The Bund was excluded from the RSDLP, etc, etc. Membership of the party was not open to everyone. Nevertheless, it must be stressed that we wish to win as many to our banner as possible. But the problem is that it is simply impossible to unite millions in the kind of bureaucratic centralist organisations that characterise most left groups – where membership is often predicated on particular historical positions, like the class nature of the USSR, etc.

Although the dating and particular motives vary depending on the particular organisation and dogma, most of today’s far left is convinced that Lenin and his comrades ultimately broke with the guiding programmatic and strategic pillars of the Second International. But – and it gets a little tiresome to repeat this – it was Kautsky and his supporters who broke with, reneged on, the outlook they had helped to shape (note the linguistic connection between ‘renegade’ and ‘renege’).

I will finish with another Zinoviev quote which might help to clear things up for those who are still in doubt. The quote comes following the ignominious collapse of the Second International: “We are not renouncing the entire history of the Second International. We are not renouncing what was Marxist in it … In the last years of the Second International’s existence, the opportunists and the ‘centre’ obtained a majority over the Marxists. But, in spite of everything, a revolutionary Marxist tendency always existed in the Second International. And we are not renouncing its legacy for one minute.”[4]

Nor should we. Moreover, we should note that the attempt to create a gulf between the Second International and the later ‘party of a new type’ is something that sets in later, with the retreat of the Russian Revolution and the attendant problems – not exclusively, but primarily, with the Stalin school of falsification on party history. To the best of my knowledge, the concept of a ‘party of a new type’ is not Lenin’s. Fundamentally, such a perspective bears the fingerprints of Stalin, as does the common interpretation of Prague 1912. If Stalinism was one of the key subjective obstacles to the formation of working class politics in the 20th century, then similar perspectives cannot exactly provide a strong starting point for working class politics in the 21st.


1. JV Stalin Kraktii kurs 1938 (emphasis added). Quoted in LT Lih, ‘The non-geometric Elwood’ (forthcoming).

2. G Zinoviev Izvestiia TsK KPSS, 1989, No5, p196.

3. To be fair to comrade Molyneux, he did at least review Lars’s Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context:

4. Quoted in J Riddell (ed) Lenin’s struggle for a revolutionary International New York, p105.

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