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The proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticise...There can be no mass party, no party of a class, without full clarity of essential shadings, without an open struggle between various tendencies, without informing the masses as to which leaders and which organisations of the party are pursuing this or that line. Without this, a party worthy of the name cannot be built.-- Lenin

One of the central ideas of the revolutionary Marxist tradition is the need to unify intervention in the class struggle with the task of developing the theoretical basis of Marxism in order to make it more effective. Marxism is unique among anti-capitalist traditions in its understanding of the significance of both these elements, and its refusal to privilege one at the expense of the other. Lenin's famous remark that "Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary practice" does not just express the idea that theory is essential for revolutionary practice; it also means that revolutionary theory is inseparable from its practical application in the class struggle. Marx made the same point in the Theses on Feuerbach:

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

The history of the attempt by Marxists to apply this understanding shows, however, that it is one thing to grasp it abstractly, but quite another to carry it through as a guide to action. The revolutionary left is littered with examples of those who, despite their protests to the contrary, either collapse into unthinking activism (syndicalism and 'economism') or build elaborate theoretical constructs with no bearing on, or relationship to, class struggle. Understanding the 'unity of theory and practice' in theory is clearly not enough to make it a reality. However, many Marxists seem to think that repeating a phrase often enough is the same as to carrying out its meaning.

This failing has had disastrous consequences for attempts to build revolutionary groups and parties. The experience of even Marxist organisations that are also anti-Stalinist - the Trotskyists - follows a depressingly familiar pattern. They either adopt an insanely 'pure' theoreticism which only marginalises them from mainstream working class organisation and experience, heightening their sectarianism and encouraging the development of an internal regime that is ossified and inflexible; or, they become solely 'activist' organisations in which theory is the preserve of the leadership and the members are discouraged from developing anything but the most cursory understanding of the Marxist tradition. In both cases, the result is elitist.

Neither of these types of organisation has the capability to develop into a mass working class party with the ability to lead a revolution, as neither can recruit the best worker activists and develop them into revolutionary leaders with the ability to fight both inside and outside the party for the strategy and tactics necessary to win in any struggle. Without a membership capable of formulating strategy, testing the perspectives of the party in the working class movement, and, if necessary, challenging the party leadership when it makes mistakes - in other words, without a membership that is loyal to the party but not deferential to its leadership - no revolutionary organisation can develop strategy and tactics, maintain a healthy internal regime, and recruit militants.

Many working class militants are suspicious of the revolutionary left for this reason. Anybody who has spent time involved in 'Leninist' organisations will have come across workers who agree with Marxist politics but refuse to join the party because they believe it to be undemocratic and authoritarian. Many draw the conclusion that Leninism itself is at fault, as every organisation that proclaims itself Leninist appears to follow the same pattern.

Only one organisation on the British revolutionary left - the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), formerly the International Socialists (IS) - has a tradition of at least attempting to avoid these dangers. The SWP prides itself on its serious orientation on the working class movement, and also on its distinctive theoretical contribution to the development of Marxism as a tool capable of understanding an ever-changing reality. Through its theories of state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, and deflected permanent revolution, the SWP has shown the continuing relevance of Marxism for anyone who wants to overthrow class society. For this reason, the SWP is by far the largest and most visible revolutionary organisation in Britain today, and has managed to avoid, to some extent, the pitfalls that have engulfed other organisations.

This relative success has, however, been achieved despite a failing that threatens to drive the SWP down the same dead-end that the rest of the left has ended up in. The SWP has never developed a coherent theory of the party and its relationship to the working class, and, in the absence of such a theory, it exhibits features of authoritarianism and sectarianism that mark other revolutionary organisations. The SWP's 'theory' of party and class - and its practical implementation - consists of one-sided borrowings from various of Lenin's writings that are completely insensitive to the context in which they were written, their limitations, and even where Lenin was just plain wrong. As such, they are an inadequate guide to action and lead to practical political failings. This is not, then, just a theoretical question, but one that has a real impact on the growth of the revolutionary movement and its capacity to lead workers' struggle. If the conclusion drawn is that the SWP's weakness in this area has fatal consequences, revolutionaries must draw practical lessons from this fact and act accordingly. Which Leninism? It is impossible to understand the development of Lenin's thinking about revolutionary organisation and its relationship to the class struggle without recognising its historical context. On the question of how the working class develops political consciousness, for instance, the Lenin of 1894-96 appears to contradict the Lenin of 1902, and the Lenin of 1905 again contradicts the Lenin of 1902:

...the workers' struggle against the factory owners for their daily needs automatically and inevitably spurs the workers on to think of state, political questions, questions of how the Russian state is governed, how laws and regulations are issued, and whose interests they serve. Each clash in the factory necessarily brings the workers into conflict with the laws and representatives of state authority. (1895, Collected Works Vol. 5, p.115.)

...the spontaneous development of the working class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology... for the spontaneous working class movement is trade unionism..., and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie. (1902, Collected Works Vol. 5, p.384.)

Revolution undoubtedly teaches with a rapidity and thoroughness which appears incredible in peaceful periods of political development. And, what is particularly important, it teaches not only the leaders, but the masses as well... But the question that now confronts a militant political party is: shall we be able to teach the revolution anything? (1905, Selected Works pp.50-51.)

This contradiction can only be resolved, and organisational conclusions drawn for revolutionaries today, by understanding how Lenin's theoretical development is bound up with the historical experience of the Russian working class. This is not to say that Leninism is irrelevant outside of the Russian experience, as some have claimed, but it means that revolutionaries should be suspicious of schematic, one-sided applications of this or that element of Lenin's thought. An example of this schematicism is the way that Lenin's 1902 polemic What is to be Done?, with its attacks on the 'economist' idea that working class struggle inevitably leads to political consciousness, and its emphasis on the need for a highly centralised organisation of professional revolutionaries to bring socialism to the working class 'from without', is held up in practice by contemporary Leninists as the model of democratic centralist politics. But Lenin himself wrote in 1907 that "What is to be Done? is a controversial corrective to 'economist' distortions and it would be wrong to regard the pamphlet in any other light" (Collected Works Vol. 13 p.108). Lenin was right to attack the 'economists', and right to call for an independent organisation of revolutionaries, but his argument that socialist consciousness comes to the working class only 'from without' is not just a case of 'bending the stick too far'; it is wrong.

The period beginning in 1894 saw the transformation of the Russian Marxist intelligentsia from an utterly marginal force of propagandistic study circles, of necessity involved in theoretical debate about the nature of the coming revolution, the role of the peasantry in relation to the working class, and so on, into a still marginal but nonetheless significantly more agitational force with emerging success in the leadership of sectional strike activity. Lenin was involved with Martov and others in the St Petersburg League, which had a systematic orientation on the St Petersburg working class movement and regarded agitational activity as crucial to winning workers to Marxism.

The success of this movement of the intelligentsia into direct involvement with the class struggle was the spur to the development of the 'economist distortions' that Lenin later attacked in What is to be Done? Economism drew the conclusion that Marxists should subordinate everything to the economic struggle of the working class; that such struggle, inevitably and by stages, would lead to the development of socialist class consciousness. This tradition mirrored that of Bernstein's 'revisionism' in Germany, with its sharp division of economics from politics and its emphasis on gradualism as the key to socialist transformation of society. The logic of this position is well described by Richard Pipes:

Whereas in theory agitation was political, in practice it remained confined to economics. From agitation, which pushed politics into the background as a matter of political expedience, it was only one step to economism proper, which subordinated politics to economics as a matter of principle. (Social Democracy and the St Petersburg Labour Movement, 1963, p.124.)

Lenin's response to this development in What is to be Done? was to insist - against his own earlier writing and practice as well as against the economists - that socialist politics had to be brought to the economic struggle from the outside, from an organisation of professional revolutionaries "trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected." (What is to be Done?, p.69.) Spontaneous trade union activity would not lead to social democratic (Marxist) consciousness.

What is to be Done? is not only an attack on economist spontaneism, however; it is also a statement of the kind of organisational structure Lenin felt was needed if Marxists were to capitalise on the growing confidence of the working class movement and win a leadership position within it. But again, the structure that Lenin recommends cannot be understood without recognising that the revolutionaries were operating in an autocratic state under conditions of complete illegality. Lenin argues for a tightly disciplined, centralised, top-down structure and a membership limited to those who are willing to be professional revolutionaries. He did not, however, regard this as a necessity under all circumstances, but purely as a response to the political repression meted out by Tsarism. It should be remembered that in this period he still regarded Karl Kautsky as his mentor, and the German SPD as a model of political organisation in a bourgeois democracy:

in an autocratic state, the more we confine the membership of such an organisation to people who are professionally involved in revolutionary activity and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult will it be to unearth the organisation. (What is to be Done?, p.121.)

Under conditions of political freedom our party will be built entirely on the elective principle. Under the autocracy this is impracticable for the collective thousands of workers who make up the party. (Collected Works Vol. 8, p.196, my emphasis)

The 1905 revolution necessitated another change of direction, with Lenin arguing that the working class is "spontaneously, instinctively social-democratic" and fighting hard against sectarian and conservative tendencies within the Bolshevik party that had developed precisely as a result of the earlier emphasis on centralism and anti-spontaneism. The 'spontaneous' invention of the soviet by the Russian working class in 1905, and the distrust of sections of the Bolsheviks towards it, showed clearly that centralised vanguard organisation alone does not guarantee political clarity, and that leadership both inside and outside the party has to be won and re-won as circumstances change.

The above sketch should show that present-day Leninists cannot simply parrot isolated quotes from Lenin and call the result a theory of party and class. It is not Lenin's attitude at any particular moment, but his method that needs to be applied, and it is in this light that I now want to turn to the SWP's approach to these questions. The SWP's Leninism The two most important attempts within the SWP tradition to understand Lenin's theory of democratic centralism are Chris Harman's pamphlet Party and Class (originally published in International Socialism journal at the end of 1968), and Cliff's four volume biography of Lenin published between 1975-79. Harman's pamphlet was written against the backdrop of the explosive growth of the revolutionary left after May 1968, a left which in many cases rejected Leninism in favour of various strands of libertarian Marxism and anarchism. Harman's pamphlet is an attempt to explain why party organisation is necessary, and to justify it theoretically. Cliff's biography, however, has a much more directly practical purpose: to defend a particular conception of party leadership through historical illustration. Harman makes this point himself in the preface to his pamphlet:

[Party and Class] does not begin to deal with the immense practical and political problems of building a socialist party in actual historical circumstances, of the twists and turns that are needed from time to time to ensure that the revolutionary organisation is combining principled politics with an organic connection with the most militant and active sections of the class. For this, readers are advised to follow up this pamphlet by reading the first volume of Tony Cliff's biography of Lenin." (Harman, Party and Class, SWP 1983, p.3.)

I want to argue that this is bad advice, because Cliff's reading of Lenin is used by the SWP leadership to justify an undemocratic, militarised and unprincipled attitude to both party and class; and that this contradicts the conception of Leninism that Harman argues for in theory. I also want to argue, however, that Harman's pamphlet itself contains confusions that carry the seeds of an authoritarian reading of Lenin. Harman's Party and Class Harman stresses, rightly, that the apparently contradictory elements of Lenin's thought sketched above (his emphasis on the spontaneous possibilities of working class struggle on the one hand, and his insistence that revolutionaries must organise as a vanguard on the other) can be resolved. As Harman explains:

... the real theoretical basis for [Lenin's] argument on the party is not that the working class is incapable on its own of coming to theoretical socialist consciousness... The real basis for his argument is that the level of consciousness in the working class is never uniform. However rapidly the mass of workers learn in a revolutionary situation, some sections will be more advanced than others. To merely take delight in the spontaneous transformation is to accept uncritically whatever transitory products this throws up. But these reflect the backwardness of the class as well as its movement forward, its situation in bourgeois society as well as its potentiality of further development so as to make a revolution. Workers are not automatons without ideas. If they are not won over to a socialist world view by the intervention of conscious revolutionaries, they will continue to accept the bourgeois ideology of existing society. (Harman, p.13.)

This unevenness in the working class does not only make it necessary for Marxists to form a party; it also determines the organisational form this party should take. The aim of the party is to organise the most advanced, class-conscious workers in such a way that they can most effectively intervene in the class struggle to win the rest of the class away from bourgeois and reformist leadership. In order to achieve this, the party must be both politically principled and tactically flexible. Hence Lenin's formula of 'democratic centralism.' Again, Harman puts this well:

The revolutionary party exists so as to make it possible for the most conscious and militant workers and intellectuals to engage in scientific discussion as a prelude to concerted and cohesive action. This is not possible without general participation in party activities... 'Discipline' means acceptance of the need to relate individual experience to the total theory and practice of the party. As such it is not opposed to, but necessary prerequisite of the ability to make independent evaluations of concrete situations. That is also why 'discipline' for Lenin does not mean hiding differences that exist within the party, but rather exposing them to the full light of day so as to argue them out. (Harman, p.17.)

Democratic centralism, thus understood, has nothing in common with either its Stalinist distortion in the Communist Parties or the abstract leadership fetishism of the various Trotskyist groups which, ironically enough, mirror the Stalinist tradition in this respect. The picture Harman paints is of a party with both the most thorough-going internal democracy and the strongest possible external cohesiveness, with both elements essential to the party's development as a vanguard organisation of the working class in fact as well as theory. However, some of Harman's formulations contain dangers.

First, he argues that centralism is primary in the sense that it is the prerequisite for party democracy:

Centralism for Lenin is far from being the opposite of developing the initiative and independence of party members; it is the precondition of this. (Harman, p.17.)

Now, while it is true that centralism is necessary for the democratic decisions of the revolutionary party to have any practical impact on the class struggle, Harman is overstating the case. In fact, his position is the exact opposite of that argued by Lenin even in 1902, at the height of his polemicising against the economists for a centralised vanguard party:

We must centralise the leadership of the movement. We must also... as far as possible decentralise responsibility to the party on the part of its individual members, of every participant in its work, and of every circle belonging to or associated with the party. This decentralisation is an essential prerequisite of revolutionary centralism and an essential corrective to it. (Lenin, Letter to a Comrade on Our Organisational Tasks , 1902.)

Harman's position carries the danger that democracy can be treated as useful or necessary only when it complements the centralism of the party; but if this is the case, then it isn't really democracy at all. Sometimes revolutionary democracy is directed against the centralised organs of the party, and with good reason. Think of the numerous occasions during the 1905 and 1917 revolutions when the party organs were to the right of the mass of the party membership and had to be pushed from below to respond properly to changes in the objective situation. Lenin is right: in these circumstances, the democracy of the party is what shifts it, not its centralised 'will.' If centralism is to be a political centralism, and avoid the dangers of bureaucratism and authoritarianism, it must be based on a political culture of independent and critical thinking from the party membership.

Harman's second weakness is related to the first. Both Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky criticised Lenin's formulations in What is to be Done? as being substitutionist and bureaucratic. Harman gives the two most famous quotes:

The unconscious comes before the conscious. The logic of history comes before the subjective logic of the human beings who participate in the historic process. The tendency is for the directing organs of the socialist party to play a conservative role. (Rosa Luxemburg, Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy, 1904, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder 1970, p.121.)

the organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally 'the dictator' substitutes himself for the Central Committee. (Trotsky, quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, Oxford 1954, p.90.)

Harman's response is that bureaucratism is only a danger for certain types of organisation:

In the writings of Lenin there is an ever-present implicit recognition of the problems that worry Luxemburg and Trotsky so much. But there is not the same fatalistic succumbing to them. There is an increasing recognition that it is not organisation as such, but particular forms and aspects of organisation that give rise to these. (Harman, p.11, my emphasis.)

This is an inadequate response to the very real problems Luxemburg and Trotsky raise. Whilst it is undoubtedly true Lenin was right against both Luxemburg and Trotsky in his organisational formulations, it is simply complacent to assume, as Harman does and Lenin never did, that the organisational form itself is a sufficient guard against the dangers of substitutionism and bureaucratism. Such distortions arise organically in any organisation that has a central leadership and they must be recognised and consciously fought. This is not because of 'human nature', or because 'power corrupts', as the anarchists would have it, but because the development of a party is always uneven. As the class struggle rises, new leaders emerge, but when the struggle ebbs, these leaders become separated from those that put them in power, they begin to develop their own interests (mostly in clinging on to their power), and a low level of struggle means that the rank and file lack the confidence to hold them to account. In this way, the development of bureaucracy is rooted in the combined and uneven development of the class struggle.

Once again, the best guarantee against such distortions is for party democracy to act as a limit on the centralism of the party organs and leadership. This is not to argue for federalism, or some kind of libertarian alternative to Leninism, and is the very opposite of fatalism, as it recognises that the party regime must be continuously shaped and reshaped through the experience of the struggle. It is simply to recognise the reality that Luxemburg and Trotsky were right to attack the dangers of bureaucratism regardless of the fact that they were wrong against Lenin in the specific circumstances of the debate surrounding What is to be Done?

Harman's argument that only particular kinds of organisation are prone to bureaucratism leads him to confusion on the debate between Lenin and Luxemburg. He suggests that Luxemburg's critique of Lenin is really directed against the German SPD:

there is a continual equivocation in Luxemburg's writings on the role of the party... Such equivocation cannot be understood without taking account of the concrete situation Luxemburg was really concerned about. She was a leading member of the SPD, but always uneasy about its mode of operation. (Harman, p.8.)

This suspicion of the SPD is hardly a criticism of Luxemburg! It is important to recognise that in the period 1903-04, when Lenin was attacking opportunism and revisionism, his target was not Karl Kautsky - Lenin still regarded Bolshevism as a continuation of Kautskyism - but Bernstein. It was Luxemburg who recognised the conservatism of Kautskyism and her attacks on Lenin have to be understood in this light. When she argues against Lenin that organisational methods may encourage opportunism and bureaucratism, not guard against them, she is right and Lenin is wrong, and the experience of Kautskyism is proof of this. As Trotsky wrote in 1934, in an article defending Luxemburg against Stalin:

There is no gainsaying that Rosa Luxemburg impassionately counterposed the spontaneity of mass actions to the 'victory-crowned' conservative policy of the German social democracy especially after the revolution of 1905. This counterposition had a thoroughly revolutionary and progressive character. At a much earlier date than Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg grasped the retarding character of the ossified party and trade union apparatus and began a struggle against it. (Trotsky, Luxemburg and the Fourth International, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p.452.)

One does not need to be a defender of spontaneism or an opponent of Lenin to see that Harman's metaphysical idea that democratic centralist organisation is in some way inoculated against bureaucratism does not stand up to scrutiny. When Leninists talk of the vanguard party, of the correct balance between democracy and centralism, they should be wary of assuming that declaring it to be so is sufficient to make it so. The revolutionary party has a duty to prove to the working class that it is capable and worthy of leadership. Democratic centralism is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for the revolutionary party to lead a revolution. And the party's centralism, as Luxemburg suggests, must arise from the actions and will of the most class-conscious sections of the working class. If it does not, it will inevitably mark a break with the norms of the revolutionary Marxist tradition.

The fact is that the social democracy is not joined to the organisation of the proletariat. It is itself the proletariat. And because of this, social democratic centralism is essentially different from Blanquist centralism. It can only be the concentrated will of the individuals and groups representative of the most class-conscious, militant, advanced sections of the working class. It is, so to speak, the 'self-centralism' of the advanced sectors of the proletariat. It is the rule of the majority within its own party.

The indispensable conditions for the realisation of social democratic centralism are: (1) The existence of a large contingent of workers educated in the political struggle. (2) The possibility for the workers to develop their own political activity through direct influence on public life, in a party press, and public congresses, etc. (Luxemburg, op. cit. p.119.) Cliff's Lenin If Harman's Party and Class contains the seeds of an authoritarianism quite alien to the spirit of the IS tradition, surely Cliff's monumental four volume biography of Lenin can act as a corrective?

Sadly, this is not the case. Cliff's reading of Lenin, particularly in volume one, suffers from the same weaknesses as Harman's pamphlet. However, these weaknesses are amplified by the fact that Cliff makes Lenin's tactic of 'stick bending' (or, rather, his own interpretation of it) the organising principle of the book. This is the point at which the argument is no longer simply one of theory; a close reading of Cliff's book shows that the authoritarian and undemocratic internal practices of the SWP discussed elsewhere in this pamphlet have their roots here.

Cliff's study of Lenin is inseparable from the history of the SWP. It was at least partly written as an intervention in an internal debate the IS conducted in the late 1960s as to whether to move from a federal structure to a centralised, Leninist organisation. As a result, the book still has the status of a cadre's handbook in the organisation - in early 1994 leading comrades and organisers were once again being encouraged to study it - and the leadership techniques the party have adopted show its influence clearly.

The book suffers, however, from a schematicism that is at odds with the spirit of Lenin's writings, and from the fact that it exhibits a method that elevates one tactic - stick bending - to the status of a general strategy for party building. So, what is Cliff's understanding of 'stick bending', and how does it relate to Lenin's? Cliff's clearest statement of the method is this:

The uneven development of different aspects of the struggle made it necessary always to look for the key link in every concrete situation. When this was the need for study, for laying the foundations of the first Marxist circles, Lenin stressed the central role of study. In the next stage, when the need was to overcome circle mentality, he would repeat again and again the importance of industrial agitation. At the next turn of the struggle, when 'economism' needed to be smashed, Lenin did this with a vengeance. He always made the task of the day quite clear, repeating what was necessary ad infinitum in the plainest, heaviest, most single-minded hammer-blow pronouncements. (Cliff, Lenin Volume One, Pluto 1975, p.67.)

Leaving aside that final sentence for a moment, the rest is pure hagiography. It gives a picture of a Lenin who always understood the full complexity of any given situation, and deliberately exaggerated the most important task in order to shift his comrades in the right direction. It is a top-down view of Lenin's role and completely at odds with historical fact. There is no evidence, for instance, that Lenin made the shift towards industrial agitation in the period 1894-96 as the result of some great tactical genius; he was just as convinced as everybody else at the time that economic agitation could provide the solution to the politicisation of the class struggle. In other words, his actions in that period reflect a learning process, not a worked-out strategy. To say this is not to deny that Lenin recognised sooner than most the dangers inherent in the agitational approach; it is simply to insist that very often when Lenin argued something he later rejected he wasn't doing it for tactical reasons but because he happened to genuinely believe it at the time. And should this be so surprising?

Lenin did sometimes practice 'stick bending.' Given the complexity of any given period, and the political unevenness within the party as well as within the class, there is no doubt that sometimes it is necessary to stress the main task - 'seize the key link' in Lenin's words - in order to move the party in the correct direction. However, four important points need to be considered:

Stick bending is about tactics. Emphasising the key point is not the same thing as reducing reality to one point, and Lenin never did so. Cliff, on the other hand, suggests Lenin's method is essentially to reduce everything to one idea and then repeat it 'ad infinitum', 'single mindedly' and with 'hammer blows'. This is a completely anti-democratic notion, as it rests on the idea that the party membership have the role of extras, dupes carrying out the 'task of the day' when directed by an omniscient leadership. Stick bending is not the only method for coping with the complexity of reality and not always the most appropriate. Sometimes open debate is the only way to carry an argument, even though it may take longer to move the party, and so from the point of view of the bureaucrat is 'less efficient'. Lenin never dodged such arguments when they were necessary. (Just two examples: the debates at the 1903 congress of the RSDLP as to what kind of organisation was necessary; and the debate about the treaty of Brest-Litovsk.) Indeed, this is generally the way that Lenin attempted to win the party to his positions. When differences of strategy and tactics emerged, Lenin always fought openly and encouraged his opposition to do so also. This is in marked contrast to the 'stick bending' political culture of the SWP leadership, where such debate is regarded as a diversion from the tasks of party building, not essential to them. Overuse of stick bending can exacerbate the problems of unevenness within the party, not solve them. If the party's tasks are always stated in an exaggerated, one-sided way, the party membership can develop an exaggerated, one-sided way of carrying them out. The result is that the party's members do not develop as fully-rounded Marxist cadres, capable of acting independently, but become politically schizophrenic, zig-zagging from one one-sided perspective to another. The result is the sort of 'monochromatic Marxism' that characterises the SWP today. Stick bending is only effective if the party correctly identifies the key link to seize. In order to achieve this, the highest level of debate and analysis is necessary. A party that is unable to develop a cadre for the reasons given above is unable to properly debate its tasks. The result is the intensification of the tendency for the key link to be passed down from the leadership without any real discussion. Even if the key link is correctly identified, the danger is that it will be implemented mechanically and thus ineffectively.

In short, Cliff's reading of Lenin has disastrous consequences for the reality of democracy within the revolutionary party, despite the richness of the IS tradition which he was instrumental in building. His ground-breaking work on the theory of state capitalism saved the revolutionary Marxist tradition from the twin spectres of Stalinism and orthodox Trotskyism. His theory of the party - and more importantly, its implementation in the SWP - threatens to alienate the working class from that tradition.


It is our argument that the political culture of the SWP is based on a bureaucratic distortion of Leninism. It should also be clear that the anti-democratic norms of the SWP are no historical accident, but the logical progression of a theory of organisation held by the leadership and unchallenged by the membership. In recent years the shrillness of the SWP leadership's attacks on any criticism of its methods - from both inside and outside the organisation - has increased, and the cadre of the party has consequently been almost entirely extinguished or demoralised. This is not to suggest that the SWP is on the verge of collapse - it is still a large organisation, capable of interventions in the class struggle that have genuine short-term success. It is, however, to suggest that the SWP is incapable of building or maintaining a cadre; and that, therefore, it is incapable of leading the revolution its members are fighting for.

This article was written by ex-SWP comrades, September 1994.