Cultism and the Left

    Direct Action has been re-launched, this time as the paper of the ( LPF + MSN = ) Revolutionary Socialist Party. This follows the exciting news that the ( ISO + SAG + Solidarity = ) Solidarity site is all systems go. Note that during the mid- to late- nineties and thru until the late-naughties the Wobblies in Australia also published a zine titled Direct Action. And may still…

A few years ago I stumbled upon Dennis Tourish’s essay on ‘Ideological intransigence, democratic centralism and cultism: a case study from the political left’ (Cultic Studies Journal, 1998). I thought it was an interesting examination of ‘cultism’ as it applied to one particular left-wing grouping, the Socialist Party (a member of the Committee for a Workers’ International) in the UK. The essay was later expanded upon in a book dedicated to examining political cultism more generally, On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left (Dennis Tourish & Tim Wohlforth, M.E. Sharpe, 2000). The book is reviewed — and condemned — by Bob Pitt in ‘Cults, Sects and the Far Left’ (What Next?, No.17, 2000): “Tourish and Wohlforth claim that one of their purposes in writing On the Edge is to counter the negative methods of the far left and encourage “a balanced form of political activity on the part of many more people”. Which is an entirely admirable aim. Unfortunately, this malicious and incoherent book contributes virtually nothing to the achievement of that objective.”

    Above: SAlt members in Sydney hear the good word on Paris ’68

I recently cited the essay (on Leftwrites) as perhaps being of interest in the context of Bob Gould’s account of a Sydney meeting of Socialist Alternative (SAlt), titled ‘Mick Armstrong’s prayer meeting about May 1968’. It gave a rather caustic account of the meeting, comparing it — and SAlt — to the Hillsong Church. Not unexpectedly, Bob’s post and the subject of cultism on the Left have proven to be controversial. It’s also sparked a few comments by Tourish, which I think are sensible and bear repeating:

1) My attention has been drawn to this discussion. I know little about [SAlt], and have no desire to comment at length on something I have not studied. However, an organisation which thinks that convening public meetings in which the only purpose appears to be the presentation of a party line by its leaders without public discussion, debate and disagreement appears at the very least on a worrying trajectory.

Someone has also posted a link to my paper on the CWI [Committee for a Workers’ International], in which I argue (I believe convincingly) that it is a cult. I won’t repeat those points: anyone interested can follow them up in the paper concerned. The wider point is that many of the cult like dynamics I identify within the CWI are shared by many groups on the left, I believe to the detriment of the cause they advocate. A member of the CWI in Ireland responded to this criticism some time ago, and a very spirited debate ensued. Anyone interested might like to follow that up at the following.

I also find it interesting that almost always my arguments are rejected on such grounds as the fact that I am an academic. Well, yes, guilty. (Incidentally, I know of at least one prominent activist in [SAlt] who lectures in a business school at one of Australia’s main Universities – evidently, I am not alone in sinning). We all have to earn a living somehow. I chose to earn mine by working in a University, as much as anything because it permits me to write and say what I think – a privilege not found in a growing number of other occupations. There is much wrong with the University system, but this is about the major thing that is still right. I have used this privilege in the past to, for example, denounce managerialism in Australian higher education in the pages of The Australian [Management bent on worst practice, January 18, 2006]. I am against authoritarianism when it is practiced in business organisations, in the public sector, in Universities – and, amazingly enough, when contemplating far left groups who trumpet an emancipatory agenda, but deliver the opposite in their own practice. The word that best describes this paradox is: hypocrisy. Exposing it is an elementary duty on the part of anyone interested in building a better world than the one we currently inhabit.

2) A defender of [SAlt] writes, of my own contribution here: ‘Yes, slamming groups dedicated to making the world a better place by ascribing to them the characteristics of reactionary religious organisations is truly a worthwhile use of academic freedom.’ I have actually said very little about [SAlt], but have suggested that the cult like dynamics of many far left groups are an obstacle to the achievement of their goals, and that activists interested in social change should study these dynamics, learn from past mistakes, and create better organisational structures in the future. I believe that these forms would value dissent, debate and internal democracy, rather more often than the monolithic and oppressive structures that far left groups habitually create at present. Again, my readily available writings on the CWI spells this out in some detail. It is for others to judge whether any of this is applicable to [SAlt], DSP or other Australian groups on the far left. It appears that at least some of it is.

However, ‘Chav’ sees something inherently wrong in suggesting that groups on the left can share some organisational forms with reactionary religious organisations (the Moonies etc). I question this. As is well known, the Stalinist parties in the 1930s, at least in words, espoused socialist goals – but as Trotsky among others pointed out they actually shared many norms and organisational practices with fascist organisations. Of course the Stalinists howled – but it was a fair point. History knows all kinds of transformations. It is quite possible to start out with noble goals, but end up adopting organisational forms which are destructive, dysfunctional, oppressive and which act as a barrier to these goals. Why wouldn’t it be? Jim Jones, who led 900 of his followers to suicide and murder in Guyana in the 1970s, also espoused socialist goals. Should the existence of such goals have prevented us exposing his organisational methods to some scrutiny? Gerry Healy in the WRP in Britain promoted a Trotskyist agenda, and no doubt deep down inside himself was firmly in favour of human liberation – so long as everybody did precisely what he decreed in the interim. As is now well known, he actually created one of the most vicious political cults that we know of. Why should the existence of emancipatory goals automatically emancipate people from having their organisational practices scrutinised? It is well known that the Catholic Church favours celibacy for its clergy and sexual abstinence – this hasn’t exactly prevented many of its priests from abusing children. I don’t see why Trotskyist organisations should be immune from the well known, and all too human, dynamics of hypocrisy and inconsistency. A belief system isn’t a magic talisman, warding off the evil spirits of impurity.

Ultimately, these organisations advocate revolution. They want the leadership of the working class. They want to replace existing mass parties with mass formations of their own. It would be crazy not to look closely at what they actually do, and crazier still to avoid highlighting examples of abuse, oppression and – yes – cultism where it applies. A little less sensitivity to such examination, and a greater willingness to argue the issues, might well be in order.

As things stand, such organisations mostly burn out the energies of enthusiastic young people, turn them off politics for life, and achieve very little other than a colossal waste of everybody’s time. I modestly suggest that we can do better.

3) I’d like to thank Andrew for his comments on my piece on the CWI. Although the discussion on this site is mainly about SA, I suppose people may feel that many leftist groups have things in common in terms of ideology and organisational dynamics, so there may be some worth in studying such groupings across the board. I won’t say anything about the CWI in Australia, which I have not studied, but would like to comment on a couple of Andrew’s general points.

The first is that he seems to reject my analysis as being somehow ‘post-modern.’ This is news to me. I am not a postmodernist: it is the modern syphilis of intellectual engagement. My long article on the CWI sets out a definition of cults, identifies their main characteristics, and then seeks to explore the extent to which these characteristics are present or not present in the CWI. This does not seem like a post-modern endeavour to me. But that’s not a huge point.

Cults are organisations which display a fanatical obsession with a theory or ideology, which is usually held to be the key to solving all the world’s problems (this could be a religious belief; one of personal development, such as found in some ‘counselling’ systems; or politics). The notion is that only this particular organisation understands the ideology correctly – thus, for example, the CWI sets itself up as the defender of ‘genuine Marxism’, from which all its rivals are said to have deviated. Fired up with this conviction, a leader (or two) become viewed as demi-Gods by the membership, who are naturally encouraged not to question them too carefully. Influence flows from the leader to the followers, rather than the other way round. Rather, the role of other leaders and certainly of followers is to cheer lead the insights of the extraordinary leaders – and do what they say. Events and conferences become showcases for the latest wheezes of the leaders: the followers listen and applaud. Recruiting others to the one belief system, or programme, that is indispensable for the salvation of humanity follows next. People work at extraordinary levels to achieve their goals – selling, recruiting, persuading, and running in circles. Quick, no time to lose. We must grow now, or we will miss our historic opportunity. This leaves little time for genuine reflection. If members notice that yesterday’s predictions (such as the CWI’s view that the 1990s would be the most revolutionary decade in human history) have not quite come to pass, there is always the next campaign to distract them. Naturally, some doubts arise. Occasionally, some minor little bit of disagreement is tolerated – all the better to show the organisation’s democratic credentials. The problem is that when this bit of doubt becomes substantial, or involves significant forces, the doubter(s) are excommunicated at warp speed – they have betrayed the movement, become corrupt, gone senile, violated procedures for raising issues, behaved disloyally, split (as with recent shenanigans in Australia’s DSP), and/or engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the leadership.

I contend that this has been the reality of the CWI. Since I published my piece originally the situation has become worse rather than better. Andrew suggests that each national organisation has in reality great freedom of movement from London and the leadership of Peter Taaffe. Yet in each country they all implement practically the same line, are called Socialist Parties, and stand outside any formal labour movement structures. It doesn’t look very independent to me. Additionally, both in the UK and internationally, there have been a series of splits and expulsions, as groups and individuals who disagreed with Peter Taaffe were excommunicated. For example, one of their leaders in the US – an old friend of mine from Ireland, who does not share my analysis of the CWI – named John Throne was fired as a full timer and expelled some years ago, and incidentally left with unpaid medical bills in the health climate of the US. John’s crime? Apparently he ‘refused to accept the decisions of the CWI’ – whatever that means. No one has ever explained precisely what his alleged crime was, despite repeated invitations to be specific. It looks to me, and many other observers, that it was a ‘thought crime’ – yes, the CWI (or more accurately, Peter Taaffe) ‘decided’ – and John dared to hold onto and campaign for his views. (Nor was he allowed his right of appeal to the CWI’s international congress). I offer this as just one example. In Scotland, Merseyside, Pakistan and elsewhere we have had the same. The CWI is today a shrunken sect of little importance, including in its UK heartland, where it has just a few hundred members. I would suggest that its intolerant internal regime is an important part of the reason for this decline, and it is one other forces on the left would be well advised to learn from rather than emulate.

Andrew draws attention to the fact that people belong also to things like football clubs, to which they have been known to show great loyalty. Well, I suppose everything has something in common with everything else, in this interconnected universe which we inhabit. But this is like comparing the rusty old bicycle in my garage to a Ferrari: what they don’t have in common is more important than what they do. I am not saying that ‘loyalty’ denotes a cult – I am saying that when people have an inordinate conviction that only their group has all the answers to the world’s problems, when dissent from this view results in expulsions, when other groups who share the same basic ideology are demonised and ridiculed, when people work to the exclusion of almost everything else to advance their group, when recruitment, recruitment, recruitment is a daily mantra, when nothing is learned and no ideological advance occurs, when this and the other phenomena I explore occur: then we have a cult. Political groupings are not immune to these processes: leftist groups seem less immune than most. Whether people like or approve of the word cult that I use to describe this, I really do hope that they conclude there must be better ways of organising.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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42 Responses to Cultism and the Left

  1. Liam says:

    Without reading it all (because reading is for losers) the account and criticisms Tourish gives are pretty inline with my time spent with some Sydney communists…

    Especially this: “such organisations mostly burn out the energies of enthusiastic young people, turn them off politics for life, and achieve very little other than a colossal waste of everybody’s time.”

    Youth groups for socialist parties are all well and good, but what these parties must learn is that there is a time when someone stops being a “youth” and shouldn’t be allowed to remain active within that part of the organisation – why? Well because young people are impressionable and often not socially adapted such that they feel free to make decisions that may not go down too smoothly with this “group” they’ve just joined, and so get roped into doing all sorts of shit they don’t have time for nor feel comfortable doing.

    Now I’m sure if a young person did say no, and expressed a desire not to take part in some activity or another, then the group wouldn’t ship them off to a gulag – but the group is guilty of setting up an apparatus in which young people often feel they don’t have that choice in the first place.

    That’s my bit anyway.

  2. liz says:

    I’ve only just read this from Draper on sects.

    interesting perhaps…

  3. grumpy cat says:

    Hi all
    I do think there really is a difference between a ‘sect’ and a ‘cult’. Also the notion of cult implies that they contain social relations distinct from, and worse than, the social relations of ‘normal’ and ‘everyday’ life in liberal democratic capitalism.
    rebel love

  4. Lumpen says:

    Meh. I’ll be generous and say I doubt that SAlt, in particular, are a cult in the same sense as the Jim Jones crew. I haven’t had much contact with any members for a couple of years, but I’d say at worst they’re endemically undemocratic – from an anarchist point of view – and propagandist to a fault (i.e. discussions with carefully constructed boundaries).

    It basically comes across as a denial of the capacity of members to be responsible for their own politics (and therefore not worth listening to). If you have a real opposition to Leninism, which I do, I think you’re better off with arguments against their actions when they come into conflict with the creation of a free society, not speculating on the weaknesses of the rank-and-file.

    Besides which, I would have thought the Young Liberals are far worse when measured against the same criteria.

  5. Dr. Cam says:

    You’re such a sectsist, Dave.

  6. James says:

    How can Socialist Alternative be a personality cult when they don’t have personalities?

  7. Lumpen says:

    They’re also missing a charismatic leader. I should have mentioned that.

  8. juancastro says:


  9. dj says:

    Speaking of cults…

  10. TNC says:

    Interesting post.

    The National Labor Federation (NATLFED) in the US is a similar, rad-left, political cult.

  11. juancastro says:

    Liberals of the world, Unite!

  12. princess mob says:

    speaking of cults, this is an interesting Canadian example:

    most notably, for the writer’s willingness to admit to being so very wrong.

  13. Lumpen says:

    I take back my earlier concession. Please see 9:00 of the video.

  14. No name. says:

    I’ve had a little experience with members of SA. I googled and found this article because my friend and I definitely suspected them to be part of a cult.. For many strange reasons..

  15. @ndy says:

    Well… I don’t really think SA (or SAlt) is a cult. Otoh, I do think it has cultic dimensions, and I’m not alone in that view. This may be a consequence of Trotskyism’s marginality, and the nature of student politics, or may just be my natural antipathy to Trotskyist politics and political vanguards. In any case, I’m not aware of any ex-members making any kind of public claim to this effect, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. I also think some of the criticism of SAlt stems from resentment at the party’s ability to dominate the student left (on several but not all University campuses), rather than any kinda rigorous or systematic analysis. Never having been a member, and knowing of only a handful of ex-members, in the end, I think the membership is generally well-meaning, but the party’s perspectives fundamentally wrong-headed.


    …political cults tend to be characterised by the presence of the following traits.

    1. A rigid belief system. In the case of left wing political cults this suggests that all social, natural, scientific, political, economic, historical and philosophical issues can only be analysed correctly from within the group’s theoretical paradigm – one which therefore claims a privileged and all-embracing insight. The view that the group’s belief system explains everything eliminates the need for fresh or independent thought, precludes the possibility of critically appraising past practice or acknowledging mistakes, and removes the need to seek intellectual sustenance outside the group’s own ideological fortress. All such thinking is dismissed as contaminated by the impure ideology of bourgeois society.

    2. The group’s beliefs are immune to falsification. No test can be devised or suggested which might have the effect of inducing a reappraisal. The all-embracing quality of the dominant ideology precludes re-evaluation, since it implies both omniscience and infallibility. Methods of analysis which set themselves more modest explanatory goals are viewed as intrinsically inferior. Those who question any aspect of the group’s analysis are branded as deviationists bending to the “pressures of capitalism”, and are driven from the ranks as heretics.

    3. An authoritarian inner party regime is maintained. Decision making is concentrated in elite hands, which gradually dismantles or ignores all formal controls on its activities. Members are excluded from participation in determining policy, calling leaders to account, or expressing dissent. This is combined with persistent assurances about the essentially democratic nature of the organization, and the existence of exemplary democratic controls – on paper.

    4. There is a growing tendency for the leaders to act in an arbitrary way, accrue personal power, perhaps engage in wealth accumulation from group members or in the procuring of sexual favours. Activities which would provoke censure if engaged in by rank and file members (e.g. having a reasonable standard of living, enjoying time off, using the organization’s funds for personal purposes) are tolerated when they apply to leaders.

    5. Leader figures, alive or dead, are deified. In the first place, this tends to centre on Marx, Trotsky or other significant historical figures. It also increasingly transfers to existing leaders, who represent themselves as defending the historical continuity of the “great” ideas of Marxist leaders. In effect, the new leaders are depicted, in their unbending devotion to the founders’ ideals, as the reincarnation of Marx, Trotsky or whoever. There is a tendency to settle arguments by referring constantly to the sayings of the wise leaders (past or present), rather than by developing an independent analysis. Even banal observations are usually buttressed by the use of supporting quotations from sanctified sources.

    6. There is an intense levels of activism, precluding outside interests. Social life and personal “friendships” revolve exclusively around the group, although such friendships are conditional on the maintenance of uncritical enthusiasm for the party line. Members acquire a specialised vocabulary (e.g. they call each other “comrade”), which reinforces a sense of distance and difference from those outside their ranks. The group becomes central to the personal identity of members, who find it more and more difficult if not impossible to imagine a life outside their organization.

  16. CG says:

    SAlt are a joke.

    I am, as my friend recently described me “a resolute socialist”. Cool.

    I’m a socialist, but these Socialist Alternative hacks are not socialists. They are Marxists and more widely Trotskyists. Socialists don’t want a revolution, they want to work within the power structure and government.

    These people are disgraceful, and they give the left a bad name, and more so socialists a bad name.

    I wish they did not call themselves socialists, because (a) they are not socialists, (b) they make actual socialists [e.g. me] look like radical imbeciles and (c) they are very rude and ignorant as to what socialism is.

  17. @ndy says:

    1. Yes. SAlt are Trotskyists. Of sorts. Cliffites. Or one sub-species thereof. Politically, close to Solidarity.

    2. Yes. If you define socialists as ‘those who do not say they wanna revolution, but wanna reform the government’ then SAlt are not socialists: they do say they wanna revolution. But then lotsa self-described socialists have also called themselves revolutionaries (we even have a Revolutionary Socialist Party in Australia).

    3. Lotsa things are called socialist, including many forms of tyranny.

  18. Melburn says:

    There are solid people involved with SAlt, but treating people as trophies to win to an ideology/cause seems to be very much part of SAlt’s culture. All the garbage you continually hear from them about ‘keeping the vanguard pure’, refusing to support anything that in their terms ‘doesn’t have potential for building mass movement’, approaching struggles from the outside with no long-term strategy (apart from ‘building the party’ piece by piece and zoning in and out of issues/flavour of the month), the routinised hysterical A-B sanctioned march, flooding their papers like charity muggers do (“scoff-but don’t you CARE?!”), the insular meetings with pre-planned responses, the weird crowding around people and firing questions etc etc – not only drains any remnants of protest but at best leaves people with little connectivity and capacity for nuts and bolts organising; at worst turns people off class-struggle politics completely. Take a look at the discussions on Green Left columns, endless talk about who’s got bigger numbers, like members are capital.

  19. @ndy says:


    I dunno. What SAlt’s doing seems to be working for them–after a fashion. That is, since the group’s formation in 1995, it’s slowly built itself into (possibly) the largest (and most active) Leninist group in Australia (a title for which it would seem to vie with SA). In doing so, it’s also managed to outgrow and to eclipse its closest rival in Solidarity (nee IS/O).

    I haven’t examined the online debates on the GLW list for some time so I can’t comment on that, but FWIW my general impression is that SAlt’s ideology and practice has remained fairly consistent over the last 15 years.

    Speaking of SA v SAlt, SA’s Adam Baker has a crack in Marxist vacuums: the rise and rise of Socialist Alternative, Alliance Voices, Vol.12, No.5, June 2012.

  20. Comrade No. 1, NAlt (No Alternative) says:

    Some facts:

    We at NAlt wear the descriptors ‘sectarian,’ ‘cultist’ and ‘just plain nuts’ as badges of revolutionary honour.

    We legitimately pride ourselves on having achieved a correct interpretation of the teachings of comrades Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky and our party is a manifestation of this.

    We are in possession of THE correct political line. All other so-called revolutionary organisations are pretenders and/or saboteurs.

    The working class, whose historic mission is to inaugurate the glorious, classless, communist future, has No Alternative but to follow our party line if it is to achieve its historic aim.

    We regard the likes of SAlt as spineless, centrist pussies who objectively work for the continuation of capitalist oppression in all its forms. This is evidenced by the pathetic SAlt ‘demonstration’ across the road from the Zionist chocolate shop in Newtown, Sydney, which involved no more than placard-waving and slogan-shouting, with a police escort to protect SAlt from the cat-calls of the Nazis. If NAlt had organised this action the streets would be running with, if not blood, then certainly, chocolate! SAlt should be ashamed of themselves and must immediately leave the political terrain to the real revolutionaries – NAlt.

    All power to the working class! Death and discomfort to class traitors!

  21. LeftInternationalist says:

    I don’t think most people in SAlt really regard themselves as a political vanguard, or aspire to become one in the sense of an authoritarian mould by which the term ‘vanguard’ is usually meant. I think the term ‘Leninist’ is also much too limiting a term to describe SAlt (not for the RSP though), which draws from a much broader array of sources and influences than that- particularly ideas relating to ‘socialism from below’ and from the New Left. The IWW in Australia, in its heyday, still only organised a minority of workers. It was a militant and democratic organisation. It took direct action which often went against the mainstream and majority views in the labour movement, did so based on reasons of principle and what was the right thing to do, and tried to win others to their views. It was a genuine vanguard. We admire them today precisely because of this, that they were ahead of their time. They stood head and shoulders above most other organisations in the labour movement, rejecting widely held racist views and other unsavoury attitudes which infected the labour movement.

  22. @ndy says:

    I dunno what SAlt members think, I can only judge the organisation by its ideology and practice. Thus, it would simply be a sign of delusion if a SAlt member were to seriously claim that the party constituted the political vanguard of the Australian proletariat; otoh, this is what the party aspires to be, either in its own name or via the creation of some other party.

    This seems relatively uncontroversial to me.

    The relationship between the vanguard and the class, both theoretical and historical, is the subject of a good deal of debate, both within and outside of the Marxist tradition. Thus what is meant by the term — and what it implies — is hardly clear, but certainly, the number of political projects which publicly proclaim their intention to construct an ‘authoritarian’ vanguard is very few. Further, despite having penned the ‘libertarian’ text State & Revolution in 1917, Lenin himself played no small role in the construction of the ‘authoritarian’ Communist state.

    Chomsky on Leninism:

    SAlt is Leninist in the sense that it draws upon a particular political tradition based upon the thought of Uncle Vlad and his epigones — it might also be termed Trotskyist or neo-Trotskyist. Such ascriptions inevitably raise questions of orthodoxy and genealogy. Anyone interested in pursuing SAlt’s own family tree can do so quite easily. In terms of ideology, its influences of course range beyond Lenin, but are still fairly narrow in the sense that they’ve remained essentially unchanged since perhaps the 1960s. Within this tradition, the concept of ‘socialism from below’ was popularised by Hal Draper… In any case, I’ve been over this ground before (and in response to another SAlt member):

    I think perhaps the most accurate description of the political perspective of SAlt is neo-Trotskyism. As indicated above — and in numerous other places — the chief deviation from Trotskyist orthodoxy concerns the nature of the Soviet Union. For Trotsky himself, it was a degenerated workers’ state; for Cliff, a ‘state capitalist’ formation. Cliff, in other words, was a revisionist, who helped to establish a political tendency based on this thesis, one which eventually developed into the International Socialist Tendency; out of which, in turn, emerged, in Australia, the ISO; and out of it, SAlt. “Neo-Trotskyist” is kinda clunky-sounding though, so the approach most often employed is to describe SAlt as adhering to a (fraudulent) conception of ‘socialism from below’, popularised within the Marxist world, from 1960 onwards, by Hal Draper. Tom Keefer provides a critique of this concept in Draper’s work in Marxism, Anarchism, & the Genealogy of “Socialism From Below” (Upping the Anti, 2, 2005).

    Re the IWW, that’s another story.

  23. LeftInternationalist says:

    Hitchens called the IS ‘Post-Trotskyist’ which I think is relatively accurate, in that though the IS clearly began its existence as a (highly unorthodox) Trotskyist grouping, it has since significantly widened its horizons without completely plunging a pick axe into Trotsky himself. SAlt members would be highly delusional to call themselves the vanguard of the proles- but to be fair, they don’t consider themselves that, and don’t even consider themselves a party, thinking it pretentious to make such grand claims for what is still, essentially, a small, committed, and increasingly visible grouplet. Lenin of course played a significant role in the construction of an authoritarian state, and he must take responsibility for that (whatever his original aspiration was) just as much as for the good things he can lay some credit to (opposing WWI, the October Revolution, etc). After all, Cliff was hardly not aware of this, as any reading of his 3rd volume on Lenin (covering 1917-1923) shows- hell, one of the chapter titles, ‘We Need State Capitalism’ is a quote from Lenin! I would not say their commitment to socialism from below is fraudulent- their commitment to radical council democracy as an alternative form of social organisation is just as strong as any council communist group with pictures of Pannekoek on their bedroom walls, or anarchists with pictures of Durruti. That aspiration for council democracy is something all (revolutionary, and even some reformist) socialists share- essentially the main difference is on strategy and tactics. The main criticism anarchists and other socialists can make of SAlt is that there are obvious contradictions between some of the political figures they admire (i.e. Trotsky) who, on occasion, strongly deviated from stated aims and aspirations, and clearly were inconsistent in their commitment to ‘socialism from below’- the only question then is how much personal responsibility can be laid on these figures for a number of repressive acts, issues with their ideology, etc, or whether it was the extreme circumstances of the time which were mainly responsible for the emergence of an authoritarian state- personally, I cannot accept the usual Trotskyist explanation, but do admit there is some merit their- but neither can I fully accept the typical anarchist explanation of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution either, though I strongly sympathise with many aspects of the anarchist critique (such as Alexander’s Berkman’s critique). Among the people I have the greatest respect for are those who have positively appropriated from both anarchism and (for lack of a better designation) Marxism- Victor Serge, Daniel Guerin (I’m waiting for someone to write a biography in English on his life) and so on- they are thus capable of seeing through particular faults, historical failures, and regressive tendencies in both.

  24. LeftInternationalist says:

    It matters a lot less to me what people and political groups choose to call themselves, or who they admire, but what they are committed to (direct democracy, self-management, autonomy- ‘socialism from below’ -, seeking to expand democratic rights and civil liberties, improve living standards, etc, in whatever way one can), and what their self-activity and organisation does and is capable of accomplishing- and who’s side they are on. The slogan of 1789 is still the best- Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

  25. LeftInternationalist says:

    Yes, even in State and Revolution, Lenin’s most libertarian work, there are issues there, most notably, his admiration of the German post office and other kinds of massive centralised enterprises which merge government and capitalist aspects. He thought they were a model of efficiency- which, in a sense, was indeed true- but tended to ignore the authoritarian aspects and particular problems of this mode of organisation, of what was happening at the level of the enterprise (the micro as opposed to the macro) and how empowered/disempowered the workers were (an issue the Marxist economist Richard Wolff has pointed out) even if it were administered by soviets, factory committees, trade unions, a workers party, etc. A wrong view and a mistake Rosa Luxemburg never made, it should be said.

  26. LeftInternationalist says:

    David Rovics on capital-V vanguards on the American Left

  27. @ndy says:

    A few things:

    1. Labelling SAlt — whether as simply ‘socialist’, or Marxist, or Leninist, or Trotskyist, neo-Trotskyist or even post-Trotskyist — obviously brings with it various issues. Some of these issues can be resolved merely through clarity. That is, what distinguishes a Trotskyist organisation from a neo- or post-Trotskyist one? Indeed, what are the defining characteristics of a Trotskyist group? Assuming one can arrive at some kinda definition, it’s also necessary to acknowledge the existence of competing claims. The Trotskyist tradition is somewhat notorious for doctrinal hair-splitting and there are a number of groups within Australia — and many more overseas — which claim either descent from or to embody the ‘real’ Trotskyist tradition. They include AWL, CL, FSP, RSP, SA/Resistance, SAlt, SEP, SP, Solidarity, The Spartacists and TP. (FWIW, such claims to orthodoxy play a much lesser role in terms of SAlt’s own politics than, say, the CL or SEP or the SLA.)

    Re Hitchens and the SWP: yeah, I guess. I mean, Trotsky died in 1940 and the FI had gone in many different directions by ’68 (which is when he joined the IS). Chronologically speaking, then, the IS was (literally) post-Trotsky(ist). Politically speaking, however, I’m not so sure that ‘post-Trotskyist’ is apt, but this depends on what’s considered to be the core doctrines of Trotsky-ism: it may be that agreement with Trotsky’s main thesis on the nature of the Soviet Union as being a degenerated workers’ state is central, or it may not. I’d suggest that the IS (1962) — and later, the SWP (1977-) and its Australian satellites — are more neo- than post- given that they retain other key aspects of the Trotskyist (and Leninist) tradition, including the central aim (and activity) of building a revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat to seize state power (one which will then proceed to construct a workers’ state).

    Finally, a) as I think I’ve suggested to you before, I think Aufheben has provided a useful summary of these debates about the Soviet Union; b) aside from the above, I’m unsure in what ways you believe the IS (or SWP or ISO or SAlt) has significantly altered its basic commitment to some form of Trotskyist or Leninist politics — or how their analysis departs radically from Leninist doctrine.

    2. Yes: to claim that SAlt is the vanguard of the proletariat is delusional. Do you disagree that this is the party’s aim?

    3. There’s Lenin, Lenin-ism, the Bolsheviks/Russian social democracy and a lot more besides that’s relevant to a discussion of this particular historical epoch. Further, a distinction that Marxists (and others) often make between ideology and practice, or self-conceptions and wider, ‘objective’ realities. That said, the state capitalism that was in some respects the achievement of the German social democrats did inspire Lenin and other Russian social democrats and yeah, he did make noises about it. Aufheben:

    For both Lenin and Trotsky there was no immediate prospect of socialism let alone communism in Russia, and in his polemics with the left at this time Lenin argued that, given the backward conditions throughout much of Russia, state capitalism would be a welcome advance. As he states:

    “Reality tells us that state capitalism would be a step forward. If in a small space of time we could achieve state capitalism, that would be a victory.” (Lenin’s Collected Works Vol. 27, p. 293)

    Trotsky went even further, dismissing the growing complaints from the left concerning the bureaucratization of the state and party apparatus, he argued for the militarization of labour in order to maximize production both for the war effort and for the post-war reconstruction. As even Trotsky’s admirers have to admit, at this time Trotsky was clearly on the ‘authoritarian wing’ of the party, and as such distinctly to the right of Lenin.

    Etc., etc., etc.. Otherwise, Brinton’s essay elaborates upon precisely how the Bolshevik state proceeded to destroy workers’ power.

    4. The notion of ‘socialism from below’ is ‘fraudulent’ — or false — precisely in the sense that it carries within it a contradiction between the centralised power and authority of the state on the one hand and the existence of autonomous forms of workers’ power (such as councils) on the other. The Bolshevik counter-revolution consisted of the affirmation of the state principle and the concomitant dismantling of the soviets and other independent expressions of cultural, economic and social activity by the working masses; this undertaking was largely accomplished by 1921 and provided the foundations for the totalitarian state which was built upon it (‘Stalinism’ in the Trotskyist vernacular). Partly, perhaps, this failure may be traced to the under-theorisation of the state by Marx and other socialist thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

    5. I dunno what other anarchists have to say about SAlt; the only person I know to have bothered writing something, apart from myself, is a Wobbly (and then largely in response to some stuff Daniel Lopez wrote about the IWW). But as far as I’m concerned, I think you’re wrong. That is, my political antipathy to SAlt is not due to some problems I have with some of the Bad things what Trotsky done and neither is the Russian Revolution or the Bolshevik role within it reducible to the opinions of this or that individual (though of course Trotsky, as commander of the Red Army, was in a very different position of responsibility — legal, ethical and political — to one of the sailors of Kronstadt, subject to execution for disobedience).

  28. LeftInternationalist says:

    [NB. In future, USE PARAGRAPHS.]

    A well considered response.

    OK, on the revolutionary vanguard- the Bolsheviks in 1917, particularly Lenin, who had to argue against many in his own party who thought he had become an ‘anarchist’ by advocating all power to the soviets (although interestingly, some anarchists opposed this slogan as authoritarian because they thought ‘power’ was an authoritarian concept- I believe Voline rejected becoming a leader of the Soviet in 1905 because he thought something along these lines, and instead Trotsky was elected to a leadership position)… in fact, if I remember correctly, his own wife thought he had gone a bit mad. Lenin identified the soviets as an alternative form of state power, a ‘workers’ state’ (an awkward term I’ve never liked), a ‘semi-state’ (a much more accurate description). His previous position had been much more typically social-democratic, where he believed in capturing the existing state, along the lines of the German Social Democratic Party, which was the largest and most influential Marxist-social democratic organisation around, though he criticised it severely for its general ‘patriotic’ line on WWI, despite big opposition among its own ranks who saw it as a rank betrayal.

    I think SAlt does desire to become a ‘vanguard’ if we want to use that term, but not in the authoritarian sense- I think they hope to become an influential, popular, democratic mass organisation with mass influence, certainly, but I do not think that their goal is for them, themselves, to seize power. Callinicos has been very clear about this: ‘We in the Revolutionary Marxist tradition don’t seek the seizure of power by a particular party. Not by ourselves in particular. Simply the seizure of power- the seizure of the state by a political party, however committed its members, however radical its program, would in the end simply reproduce the existing hierarchy of domination and exploitation. By the conquest of power, by taking power, we mean something radically different. We mean the development of workers councils, the working class self-organised, spreading networks of workers councils across countries, indeed across the world ultimately, that take power, wrest power away from the corporations and the state, and take over the running of society, create a radically democratic, self-managed society, on ultimately a global scale’.

    On the revolutionary party: ‘The role of a Revolutionary Marxist party… is not to substitute itself for this council democracy, but help to knit together the different struggles in a focused struggle for power’. That’s a pretty clear position.

    Clearly, this was not the position of Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party, which was a bureaucratic cult with an authoritarian leader. This comes back to one’s conception of the October Revolution. Do you believe it was a Bolshevik coup? I don’t believe it was. I think it really did give power to the soviets. The Bolsheviks had the most influence in them because, at that time, they were the most popular organisation. Berkman believed the October Revolution was genuine. The October Revolution, as Wayne Price has noted, was really the victory of a unofficial united front between various kinds of revolutionary socialists (like the Left Socialist Revolutionaries) and anarchists. That’s a good thing- political pluralism is a barrier to the development of autocracy, unaccountability, and a party-state. Major and dramatic changes took place, a liberation of women, sexual liberation, all sorts of democratic rights and civil liberties were won immediately because of October. Antisemitism was outlawed- it can probably be said, with justification, that up to that point in history, no-one did more than the Bolsheviks to prevent the persecution of Jews, who suffered pogroms frequently, and indeed also at the hands of the Whites in the civil war. That’s a major achievement in a country with a long tradition of popular antisemitism. That’s partly why Hitler (along with the fact that many prominent Bolsheviks were Jewish) denounced ‘Jewish Bolshevism’.

    It was only because of the October Revolution that the peasants got the land- the provisional government, despite the participation of many Socialist Revolutionaries, was unable to realise its own program, an extremely popular program which basically amounted to ‘all land to the peasants’. So it took Bolsheviks, who themselves had a different land program (mostly nationalisation of land and the development of a collective farming system) along with the Left-SRs, with anarchist support, to finally give the peasants the land. The Bolsheviks, in my view, should have worked much harder to maintain their coalition with the Left-SRs (and not repress the anarchists, obviously, who had generally supported the Bolshevik-Left-SR coalition anyway) who had the support of the peasants- the Left-SRs acted stupidly sometimes, but their land policy was much better than the Bolshevik one (who had some dogmatic theories relating to the peasantry, who were, after all, the vast majority of the population) and they were radical, democratic socialists. The fact they Voline was so dismissive of them, seeing them as little more than just a ‘statist’ party who were just like the Bolsheviks, is a major failing of his.

    Socialism from below did exist for a while, before it was ultimately usurped by the party-state, whose institutions developed over and above the soviets, eventually becoming totally unaccountable. I do not agree with the view that Soviet Russia was a one-party state before the civil war, though I am not blind to negative developments in that period. I do agree 1921 was a turning point, and that 1923-4 was really the last chance for liberty and democracy to triumph to some extent. The Bolsheviks could have redeemed themselves by relinquishing their monopoly on power after the civil war ended, as there was no longer any possible, justifiable reason for that monopoly. They had a choice. But to their eternal shame, they chose not to do that, fearing counter-revolution, and no doubt worried that they might all be killed. And thus Kronstadt, which they misinterpreted as a counter-revolutionary uprising, when it was nothing of the sort. Although it should be said that even into the 1920s, women’s rights were represented and higher on the social agenda than anywhere else in the world. Although there were restrictions, there was a cultural life for a while. Elections were still held in the soviets, and non-party, SRs and Mensheviks could still get elected, but with a Bolshevik monopoly on power, it became increasingly hollow.

    Though the revolutionary factory committees of 1917-18 no longer existed, soviet workers in the 1920s did enjoy trade union rights- ‘they were protected by a new labour code and the eight hour working day, and Soviet trade unions represented workers directly on the factory floor, arguing for improved conditions and defending workers interests against party and state’ and material conditions did improve, strong welfare provisions introduced, and educational opportunities extended (The Dictators, p.310). So workers’ rights were considerably better than in most other countries at that time. Wage differentials under Lenin and Trotsky were 4:1 – that is a higher level of equality than anywhere else in the entire world, a world of difference from the often hundreds to one comparison of the wage differential between a CEO and the average worker in a typical corporation- in Mondragon I believe the difference between managers and workers is 10:1. None of this denies the extensive degeneration of the regime by this point, which made it easier for Stalin to attain ultimate power, but it is worth pointing out that not all the social gains had been entirely liquidated. A 4:1 wage differential, applied across the public and private sector in Australia, would dramatically lessen inequality, lessen the power of managers, administrators and CEOs, and increase the social power of labour against capital. Do you disagree?

    In the 1930s Trotsky did advocate for a multi-party soviet democracy, although still holding to the mistaken view the the USSR was a degenerated workers’ state (although interestingly, this was not necessarily the majority view of the Left Opposition inside Russia- key figures much less well known than Trotsky, whose views were not widely publicised because of their imprisonment and isolation, were much closer to a bureaucratic collectivist position- there were also some state-cap advocates as well). That’s not enough to redeem him, but it is something. And obviously, it’s quotes like ‘socialism needs democracy like the human body needs oxygen’ that attracts people to Trotsky, not ‘the party is always right’ or that the Workers Opposition ‘have come out with dangerous slogans. They have made a fetish of democratic principles. They have placed the workers’ right to elect representatives above the Party. As if the Party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy!’ A struggle for a libertarian-democratic socialism must always fight against any and all manifestations of authoritarianism. And pointing out the contradictions in Trotsky’s politics is, of course, part of that struggle.

  29. LeftInternationalist says:

    Really vanguardist (in the nasty sense), authoritarian Marxist-Leninists with a penchant for Cuba have noticed that SAlt do have a strong commitment to the ‘self emancipation of the working class’ and council democracy, noted that they have a:

    ‘utopian, anarchist pipe dream of how they imagine socialist democracy should function in a Third World country besieged by imperialism’

    Furthermore, they are deluded because they cannot see that:

    ‘Without a Marxist-Leninist party at the head of the Cuban Revolution there would be no revolution and none of the impressive social achievements’

    Clearly this ‘Marxist-Leninist’ views ‘democracy’ as what is handed down to the population, arbitrarily, by the Cuban state, without the chance of regular elections, political pluralism, the ability to recall representatives and delegates, etc. For a ‘Communist’ he is not even an advocate of the ‘Communist maximum’ where the salaries of bureaucrats are no more than the wages of a skilled worker. And this state of affairs is to last as long as Cuba has to deal with imperialism. Which is probably going to last, well, forever.

    A good recent book on Cuba that looks at it from the revolution to now from a critical socialist perspective is the one by Samuel Farber, who also wrote the excellent book Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy. One of the people who praises the book notes that:

    ‘Samuel Farber doesn’t pretend to be impartial: he advocates a transition toward a revolutionary, participatory socialist democracy, based on majority rule, civil rights, and liberties.’

    That sounds like the right perspective to have on Cuba to me.

  30. @ndy says:

    A few general observations:

    1. I’m reasonably familiar with orthodox Trotskyist accounts of the Russian Revolution, as well as those produced by anarchists (Berkman, Goldman, Maximoff, Voline et al) and of course others;

    2. That said, I’m not especially interested in (re-)writing a history of the Russian Revolution, one which takes into account everything from Trotksy’s participation in the St Petersburg soviet in 1905 to the reception by other Bolsheviks of Lenin’s April Theses… the understanding of the concept of power by Russian anarchists of the early twentieth century to the participation by the former Illegalist Victor Serge (‘The Trotskyist’s Anarchist’) in the Communist Party’s internal debates in the early 1920s… the relationship of the Bolsheviks to the Social Revolutionaries and other revolutionary parties to the history of their repression and that of the soviets in the period 1917–1921… and so on and so forth (for those interested, An Anarchist FAQ has an Appendix which goes into lengthy and painful detail regarding The Russian Revolution);

    3. I’m also reasonably familiar with political debate and discussion around the life and work of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin & Co. — both the ways in which these debates inform the ideology of the handful of organisations in contemporary Australia which frame their politics around the ideas of these men (and their numerous epigones) and in terms of the wider history of political philosophy;

    4. I see no real advantage in discussing the relative merits of their respective positions on Cuba / precisely when the Russian workers’ state began to degenerate / their competing claims to embody the best of the Marxist tradition… In any event, I’ve nothing especially interesting to add to this discussion at this point in time, and for those who are interested there’s a virtually endless supply of relevant material easily available online.

    In particular:

    Your central concern seems to be to defend SAlt from the accusation that a) it considers itself a ‘vanguard’ (in the sense in which this term is used by Leninists) and b) if it does aspire to create such a vanguard, it is one which will — consistent with SAlt’s apparent commitment to ‘socialism from below’ — assume a non-authoritarian form.


    It’s my considered opinion that, while SAlt may not promote itself as such (and for good reason), the organisation as a whole is committed to building a revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat: a political party capable of leading the Australian working class in a victorious struggle for state power (such power being a necessary condition for the creation of a socialist society). In other words, and to be clear, I’m not suggesting that your average member regards SAlt as already fulfilling this role, or even that the organisation will at some point in the future be large or skillful or popular enough to do so; rather, that this aim constitutes one of the group’s defining features and one of the reasons it may be located within a broad, Trotskyist tradition (cf. The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International).

    Now, as you intimate, there are certain political problems with the notion of a vanguard which SAlt and others committed to some such project need to address. Apart from the practicality of such a vision, there is the question of its desirability. It’s in this context that the distinction b/w an ‘authoritarian’ and a ‘non-authoritarian’ vanguard becomes relevant, and so too notions of hierarchy, socialism from below and/or above, the state and workers’ autonomy. As I noted earlier:

    “The relationship between the vanguard and the class, both theoretical and historical, is the subject of a good deal of debate, both within and outside of the Marxist tradition. Thus what is meant by the term — and what it implies — is hardly clear, but certainly, the number of political projects which publicly proclaim their intention to construct an ‘authoritarian’ vanguard is very few. Further, despite having penned the ‘libertarian’ text State & Revolution in 1917, Lenin himself played no small role in the construction of the ‘authoritarian’ Communist state.”

    When I referred to the lack of clarity regarding the concept, I meant to suggest two things: a) that its meaning and actual history is the subject of political contestation; b) SAlt’s account, like others of its ilk, avoids some facts and over-emphasises others. Thus, the Bolsheviks were no ‘vanguard’; in reality, they trailed behind the masses. Gabriel (and Daniel) Cohn-Bendit (Obsolete Communism) write:

    On reading Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution we are struck by a fundamental contradiction: as an honest historian he shows us just how much the Party lagged behind the masses, and as a Bolshevik the­orist he must reaffirm that the Party was necessary for the success of the revolution. Thus he writes: ‘The soldiers lagged behind the shop com­mittees. The committees lagged behind the masses … The party also lagged behind the revolutionary dynamic – an organisation which had the least right to lag, especially in a time of revolution … The most rev­olutionary party which human history until this time had ever known was nevertheless caught unawares by the events of history. It recon­structed itself in the fires, and straightened out its ranks under the onslaught of events. The masses at the turning point were a hundred times to the left of the extreme left party.’ (History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 1, 403f.)

    This passage alone should suffice to destroy the myth of the Bolshevik Party as the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat. Its ‘lag­ging behind’ was patent even during the first days of February 1917 – the overthrow of the Czar and the creation of workers’ councils, were the work of the masses themselves. In this connection Trotsky quotes Mstislavsky (a leader of the left wing of the Social Revolutionaries who subsequently went over to the Bolsheviks) as saying: ‘The revolution caught us napping, the party people of those days, like the foolish vir­gins of the Bible.’ To which Trotsky himself adds: ‘It does not matter how much they resembled the virgins, but it is true they were all fast asleep.’ (op. cit. Volume I, 147.)

    Blah blah blah.

    To put it another way: my understanding of the Russian Revolution — what it consisted of, what made it valuable, what made it remarkable — is at odds with yours and that of other SAlt members (as well as that of the Leninist tradition as a whole). Thus I make a distinction, as have others, between the popular transformation of social relations and the (re-)establishment of state control over the Russian territories; the ideological debates that took place with the policies enacted by the state (with or without popular support); the creation of the soviets as a vehicle for working class power and their destruction by the Bolsheviks. Further, as Brinton (The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control: The State and Counter-revolution) concludes after looking at this period:

    …there is a clear-cut and incontrovertible link between what happened under Lenin and Trotsky and the later practices of Stalinism. We know that many on the revolutionary left will find this statement hard to swallow. We are convinced however that any honest reading of the facts cannot but lead to this conclusion. The more one unearths about this period the more difficult it becomes to define – or even to see – the ‘gulf’ allegedly separating what happened in Lenin’s time from what happened later. Real knowledge of the facts also makes it impossible to accept . . . that the whole course of events was ‘historically inevitable’ and ‘objectively determined’. Bolshevik ideology and practice were themselves important and sometimes decisive factors in the equation, at every critical stage of this critical period. Now that more facts are available self-mystification on these issues should no longer be possible. Should any who have read these pages remain ‘confused’ it will be because they want to remain in that state — or because (as the future beneficiaries of a society similar to the Russian one) it is their interest to remain so.

    In other words, the Good things that emerged in Russian (and other Eastern European societies) at this time — you nominate women’s and sexual liberation, democratic rights, civil liberties, land redistribution and (somewhat oddly) a reduction in anti-Semitism — were not “won immediately because of October”; on the contrary, analytically speaking, the October ‘revolution’ had two, competing conceptions: one centred on the (re-)creation of the state — and which employed as temporary props the soviets and the other instruments of popular organisation (‘socialism from below’) — and the other libertarian in character, existing largely in opposition to, struggling against and eventually succumbing to the domination of the Bolshevik state. This ‘usurpation’ was no accident; like the crushing of the Kronstadt revolt, it was correctly diagnosed by Trotsky as a ‘tragic necessity’, the rational elaboration of the Bolshevik program. It’s equally false to claim that ‘The Bolsheviks’ could simply have renounced the state power they’d fought decades to capture (a feature of ‘revolutionary Marxism’ of this kind that Callinicos singularly fails to note in the unsourced extracts you provide).

    That’s All For Now Folks.

    PS. We’ve covered much of this ground already, a little over a year ago.
    PPS. On trade unions and Bolshevism, see Trade unionism : purposes and forms by Ross M. Martin (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1989).

  31. LeftInternationalist says:

    The Callinicos quotes are from the talk/debate ‘Lenin Today’ between him and Michael Albert. It’s somewhere on this site I believe you can find it on youtube as well.

    As I’ve said, I don’t agree entirely with SAlt’s perspectives, and neither with the general anarchist line. I fall in-between.

    Which is why I defend a plurality of perspectives, and see particular merit in having a number of different approaches to emancipatory politics- think of it as ‘anarchism without adjectives’ if you like. I just happen to think that Platformists, anarchist communists/syndicalists, libertarian socialists et al share far more with revolutionary socialists of a Marxist/Trotskyist/Luxemburgist/Autonomist variety than they do with Crimethinc, The Invisible Committee et al, who have written some wonderfully romantic and utopian tracts, but offer precious little of a way forward.

    Therefore, there is room for constructive engagement and alliances- the radical left has only ever had any success when it unified and worked together in united front type alliances- i.e. POUM/CNT, many other instances. Actually, this is necessary if we are to have any noticeable impact on the wider political landscape at all, given our pitiful numbers.

    There is no room for purity and ‘going it alone’ if we ever want to achieve anything substantive or long lasting. If we want to do more than just dare to struggle, but dare to win, we will need to do so together.

  32. @ndy says:

    1. If in 2004 during the course of a debate with Michael Albert the son of the Hon. Ædgyth Bertha Milburg Mary Antonia Frances Lyon-Dalberg-Acton has for some reason repudiated his party’s legacy, Amen.

    2. Yr not a member of SAlt? I thought you was. My apologies.

    3. There’s always gonna be a plurality of perspectives — the only thing you can really determine is yr own.

    4. I think a lot of the stuff that CrimethInc has produced is neat; so too the transparent frogs.

    5. I’ve tried! Here’s Uncle Ken:

    Note on Stalinism and Trotskyism

    For those who are not familiar with the international political background of Ngo Van’s story, it may be helpful to make a few remarks about Stalinism and Trotskyism and to outline some of the twists and turns of the Third International under Stalin’s control.

    The Russian Revolution of 1917 consisted of two relatively distinct stages. The “February revolution” was a series of largely spontaneous popular struggles beginning in February and continuing over the next several months; the “October revolution” was essentially a coup d’état carried out by the Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. The Bolsheviks had a reputation as radical revolutionaries, due in part to their having been one of the few leftist groups to oppose World War I; but once in power they repressed grassroots radical tendencies and morphed into a new ruling class. Although they changed their name to “Communist Party” in 1918, the system they created had nothing to do with communism in the true sense of the word; it was simply a cruder and more concentrated version of capitalism. Private ownership was replaced by state ownership, but capitalism itself (the system of commodified social relations) was in no way eliminated. The workers who were formerly exploited by a multitude of private capitalists were now exploited by a single all-owning capitalist enterprise: the state. Although this process was complex and gradual, the transformation had become pretty clear by 1921 when the revolutionary Kronstadt sailors were crushed by the “Communist” regime under the direct leadership of Trotsky. (See Voline’s The Unknown Revolution and Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control: 1917-1921.)

    Following Lenin’s death in 1924, the Communist Party faction led by Stalin became increasingly powerful, to the point that Trotsky was put on the defensive and eventually expelled from the Party and forced into exile. Stalin then imposed the various internal totalitarian developments which will not be discussed here since they are generally well known — police-state dictatorship, forced collectivization, Gulag labor camps, show trials, etc. (Good accounts of this process include Boris Souvarine’s Stalin: A Critical Survey of Bolshevism, Ante Ciliga’s The Russian Enigma, and Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary.)

    The Stalinist regime also exerted a malignant influence on radical movements in other countries all over the world. The Third International (a.k.a. Communist International or Comintern) had been formed in Moscow in 1919 to unite revolutionary communist parties around the world, after most of the socialist parties of the Second International had betrayed their socialist and internationalist principles by rallying to their respective governments during World War I. Under Stalin’s control, the Comintern became increasingly centered on the goal of defending Stalin’s regime at all costs. To this end, over the next two decades it imposed a succession of zigzagging policies on the subservient Communist parties in other countries, most of which worked out disastrously.

    Following some “adventurist” debacles in the early 1920s (Germany 1923, Estonia 1924, etc.), the Comintern shifted to a defensive policy of compromises and alliances with various bourgeois forces around the world. The most dramatic failure of this policy was in China in 1925-1927. At the very moment when radical workers were attaining significant victories in the major cities of China, Stalin insisted that the Chinese Communist Party subordinate itself to the Guomindang, the nationalist party led by General Chiang Kai-shek. When the workers of Shanghai had taken over the city in April 1927, the Communist leaders thus urged them to welcome Chiang Kai-shek’s army and to turn in all their weapons. When they did so, Chiang’s army entered the city and massacred the radical workers by the thousands. (See Harold Isaacs’s The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.) This catastrophic result of Stalin’s policy, which Trotsky had accurately predicted and sought to prevent, was undoubtedly an important factor in accounting for the readiness of Vietnamese radicals to rally to Trotskyist positions in the following years.

    In 1928 Stalin imposed another policy change, arguing that, after the initial post-World War I period of revolutionary upsurges (1917-1923) and then the ebbing, defensive period (1924-1928), the international workers’ movement had entered a new “Third Period” in which radical revolutions were once again on the agenda. The primary enemy was now supposedly the socialist parties, which the Stalinists referred to as “social-fascists.” Following this policy, the German Communist Party focused on attacking the German socialists while largely ignoring the Nazis, thereby helping pave the way for the Nazis’ seizure of power in 1933 (which soon led to the destruction of both the socialists and Communists in Germany).

    In 1935 the Comintern line flipped to an opposite extreme. Now it was supposedly necessary to ally with the socialists, and in fact with just about anyone who wasn’t outrightly fascist, including centrist and even conservative parties, to form a “united front against fascism.” This policy led to the victory of Popular Front governments in Spain and France in 1936. But the radical currents that had supported those fronts now found themselves compromised, their hands tied due to their alliances with more centrist forces. On the Spanish Popular Front, see Note 2. In France, the Popular Front government, pressured by a nationwide wave of strikes and factory occupations, passed some progressive legislation (40-hour week, paid vacations, right to strike, etc.), but did nothing to eliminate French colonialism and scarcely anything even to improve conditions in the colonies beyond a few minor reforms that were mostly not implemented. This put the Vietnamese Stalinists in the awkward position of having to defend the French colonial regime that they had been fighting so desperately for so long.

    Then the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 caused yet another zigzag. Now the focus was once again on the struggle against France, while the menace of fascism was played down (although Nazi Germany was on the verge of invading France and Japan was on the verge of invading Indochina).

    Then, when Hitler double-crossed Stalin by invading Russia in 1941, it was once again a “war against fascism.” The Vietnamese Stalinists thus once again found themselves allied with their French colonial masters (although the colonial regime in Indochina was pro-Vichy and thus more or less allied with the fascists).

    Then, in the power vacuum following the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, at a time when the Vietnamese people were in a position to prevent any significant French forces from reentering the country (France was recovering from years of Nazi occupation and demoralized by the Vichy regime’s collaboration with the Nazis, and most of its armed forces were half way around the world), the Stalinist leader Ho Chi Minh made a succession of compromises with the Americans, the British, the Chinese and the French, which enabled him to augment his power, destroy the Trotskyists and other potential rivals, and assume total control over the nationalist forces, but which at the same time enabled the French forces to reenter the country, thereby leading to thirty more years of war to obtain the national independence that might well have been won in 1945. Only in 1975 was the country finally liberated from its foreign masters — while remaining subject to an indigenous Stalinist dictatorship.

    Most of these Stalinist policies had been sharply criticized by Trotsky. From around 1923-1934 Trotsky and his followers referred to themselves as the “Left Opposition,” meaning an opposition within the Russian Communist Party, attempting to recapture power from the Stalinist faction so as to turn the party back into a revolutionary and internationalist direction. After being expelled from the Russian party in 1928, they turned their attention to Communist parties in other countries and to the Third International. This strategy proved equally unsuccessful as Trotskyist tendencies were systematically eliminated from the Stalin-dominated parties around the world. By 1933 or 1934 most Trotskyists had concluded that the Third International had gone hopelessly astray and that it was necessary to form a Fourth International. This took place in 1938 (which is why some interim groups such as Ngo Van’s League of Internationalist Communists referred to themselves as “for the Construction of the Fourth International”).

    It would be far too tedious to discuss the complex differences among the numerous Trotskyist groups and tendencies from the 1930s to the present day. Suffice it to say that since Trotsky was himself directly implicated in the process of the Communist Party becoming a counterrevolutionary force within Russia, and since he never recognized that that party had evolved into a new bureaucratic ruling class, his attempts to push the party to resume a revolutionary international policy were bound to fail. “Trotsky was doomed by his basic perspective, because once the bureaucracy became aware that it had evolved into a counterrevolutionary class on the domestic front, it was bound to opt for a similarly counterrevolutionary role in other countries” (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle #112). This is why Trotskyist polemics, however radical they may seem in some regards, always end up floundering back into the same lame conclusion: Stalinism is criticized in many ways, but in the final analysis it is still considered to be “progressive.” Stalinist regimes are referred to as “degenerated workers’ states” or “deformed workers’ states,” implying that the socio-economic system is basically fine, it’s just that it is poorly guided by a faulty political leadership which needs to be replaced by a correct leadership à la Lenin and Trotsky. Trotskyists fail to recognize the origins of Stalinism in the earlier authoritarian practices of Lenin and Trotsky and in the hierarchical structure of the Bolshevik Party, which had already inaugurated the new state-capitalist system well before Stalin came to power.

    It should be noted that none of these political tendencies have much connection with Marx, despite the fact that they all claim to be Marxist. One of the reasons that Ngo Van appreciated Maximilien Rubel was that he convincingly showed how Leninism and Trotskyism (to say nothing of Stalinism) diverge significantly from Marx’s actual views. While Marx had well-known differences with some of the anarchists of his time, his perspective was in reality much closer to anarchism than to any of the varieties of state socialism. The prevalence of statist “Marxism” during the last century has tended to drown out other currents of Marxism that are closer to Marx (and to the more coherent strands of anarchism), such as Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Karl Korsch, Socialisme ou Barbarie, and the Situationist International.

  33. LeftInternationalist says:

    Yes, I’ve got to get around to reading Ngo Van’s autobio. It’s on my to read list. Ken Knabb is (usually) pretty cool too.

  34. @ndy says:

    Do you think support for the Cuban and Venezuelan governments is compatible with membership of SAlt?

  35. LeftInternationalist says:

    Personally, I think it should be taken on principle for any socialist organisation not to support any government at all. Our loyalty should always be to the movement and its organisations and struggles, like cooperatives, committees, unions, social centres, various other kinds of popular organisations, and maintaining a consistent and principled fight for democratic rights, civil liberties, self-management, autonomy, improved living standards, expansion of personal freedoms and self-determination over one’s own life, and so on. It is possible to critically support a government, if it is implementing generally worthwhile and progressive reforms democratically, as long as one does not develop any illusions or pretend to oneself it is anything other than what it is, and all the limitations it will have.

    I seriously doubt SAlt will compromise on its general position on Cuba and Venezuela. I certainly would not join them if they suddenly became uncritical supporters of Raul Castro (dictator) and Hugo Chavez (elected several times, so an obvious improvement on Castro, but otherwise not sure how to view him – he seems to be a kind of left-populist with possible caudillo leanings- a figurehead, I suppose). It’s not him, but the movements in Venezuela that matter. Then again, not many heads of state quote Trotsky and Luxemburg, which makes for a certain level of entertainment every now and then. He did embarrass himself a lot and lost a great deal of credibility, especially in the Arab world where he had been quite a popular figure, when he fully defended the actions of Gaddafi et al last year. See article

    Whether ’21st Century Socialism’ really represents a break with the past, we have yet to see, though important reforms have occurred. For the views of a number of Venezuelan socialists on the ground, see here

    Part of SAlt’s appeal is that they are not apologists for any regime, unlike the RSP, Socialist Alliance, others on the Australian left who have spent decades idealising Cuba, reprint articles by Fidel, and idolise other regimes and figures (like Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam). They are not compromised by Stalinism, Maoism, Castroism or Laborism, when these were the most dominant tendencies on the Left (though they tend to discredit the whole left anyway by making a mockery of everything we claim to stand for).

    This is what distinguishes them and gives them a chance to shape an independent democratic socialist politics without being completely morally compromised. At least I hope they will follow such a path. It is what is libertarian and democratic about SAlt, its emphasis on socialism from below, that has won it its members and followers, who believe their politics represent a democratic and socialist alternative. Compromising on that to get, at most, a few hundred RSP members to join would be crass opportunism. But I doubt it will happen. As I’ve already said, if this does happen, it will be the RSP, and not SAlt, which will have to compromise or tone down its own positions.

  36. @ndy says:

    Personally, I think it should be taken on principle for any socialist organisation not to support any government at all.

    Do you think it’s a socialist principle not to participate in elections or obtain political office?

    I certainly would not join them if they suddenly became uncritical supporters of Raul Castro (dictator) and Hugo Chavez…

    What about critical supporters? And what’s the difference?

    [Chavez] did embarrass himself a lot and lost a great deal of credibility, especially in the Arab world where he had been quite a popular figure, when he fully defended the actions of Gaddafi et al last year.

    He’s aligned himself with a variety of heads of state. But this is typical, both of him and many other heads of state, past and present.

    Part of SAlt’s appeal is that they are not apologists for any regime, unlike the RSP, Socialist Alliance, others on the Australian left who have spent decades idealising Cuba, reprint articles by Fidel, and idolise other regimes and figures (like Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam). They are not compromised by Stalinism, Maoism, Castroism or Laborism, when these were the most dominant tendencies on the Left (though they tend to discredit the whole left anyway by making a mockery of everything we claim to stand for).

    Leaving aside the question of SAlt’s appeal, yes, Trotskyism has attracted those unattractive by the Soviet or Chinese regimes, but I’m not sure the r/ship b/w Trotskyism and these states and global conflict is so straightfwd. To begin w, the Cliffite tendency only really began to est itself in Australia in the 1970s, many yrs after the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions, and at the tail-end of the War in Vietnam.

    Secondly, there was (and remains) idealisation, but this is frequently accompanied by what is otherwise termed ‘critical support’, a matter complicated by the demands of anti-imperialist and national liberationist struggle (which I understand SAlt to support). A domestic analogy may, perhaps, be made inre the recent declaration by SAlt of uncritical support for the Muslim protesters in Sydney (‘we side with the oppressed’).

    Thirdly, SAlt may not function as apologists for any extant regime, but they are apologists for the Russian Bolshevik regime (as are all other Trotskyist parties).

    Finally, while I’m not sure if yr use of the terms ‘left’ and ‘Left’ is deliberate or meaningful, ‘the whole left’ is a strange beast at the best of times, comprising a wide array of beliefs; I’d add that if labourism is a species of leftism, it remains the dominant force on the left. I’m also unsure how the Greens might fit into this picture…

  37. @ndy says:

    The SWP line on anarchism:

  38. LeftInternationalist says:

    Critical or uncritical, it makes no difference to me about how awful it would be if they were to support Raul or Chavez. Laborism is indeed, and remains, the dominant force on the left. I’d say the Greens combine a focus on ecological issues with what the left wing inside social democratic parties have generally supported and advocated for, adapted to a primarily parliamentary tactic with all the compromises that entails. Add on some New Agey ideas about ‘Mother Earth’, a little bit of primitivism and idealisation of nature and indigenous cultures, and you have basically the general ideological viewpoints inside Green parties. Though there are some radical currents within Green Parties (think ecosocialist currents like that represented by Derek Wall in the Green Party of England and Wales) and you get people like Adam Bandt, formerly a Marxist, joining and becoming prominent in Green parties. And of course, Cohn Bendit is the classic case of a militant revolutionary becoming a Green politician (from radical critic of the Bolsheviks to happily accepting the European Union, neoliberalism, electioneering, dictatorship of the banks, etc. How the mighty have fallen. Though I have noticed a tendency for people who previously held to an ultra-rev-rev-revolutionary line in their youth tend to accommodate to reformism in the end. Not that I think the struggle for reforms is a bad thing- in fact, it is essential and key- but no doubt Bendit would have denounced such a perspective in his revolutionary phase). Even so, the Aussie Greens are still not as left wing as the left wing inside the ALP in the 1960s/70s, and, as we have seen while they have held some influence, are not even committing themselves to the kinds of progressive policies that the Whitlam government was capable of implementing. They are not even capable of restraining Labor from its rabid and inhumane refugee policies.

  39. LeftInternationalist says:

    Debate on Spanish Revolution between Andy Durgan and Stuart Christie (of the trying to assassinate Franco fame)

  40. Pingback: Is Socialist Alternative a political cult? | slackbastard

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