On the edges of Trotskyism – some of the ones who left the SWP

Friday, 12 July, 2013

This piece was originally written for Libcom, where you can also read it.

Some notes on the IS Network, formed by ex-members of the SWP, and on the ideas of Richard Seymour, one of them.

The SWP crisis is one symptom of Trotskyism on the edge. The crisis produces lots of disenchanted and disillusioned members. It would be tragic if most of these people would simply succumb to demoralization and cynicism. But there is not just Trotskyism on the edge of collapse. Some of these disenchanted (ex-)members do not move away from the struggle, simply regretting the energy wasted and the time lost. Quite a numer of these people move from Trotskyism on the edge to the edges of Trotskyism, and sometimes beyond, beyond the borderline that separates Trotskyist politics from sensible revolutionary approches towards class struggle practice. Let’s have a look at the ones who left.

A group of SWP members who left in March formed themselves into the International Socialist Network. They have a weblog where they make room for a serious re-think of their politics. Much of its moves within a broad Leninist Trotskyist perspective: a vanguard party is needed, democratic centralistn decision making makes sense, but the party building project has to be approached differently than was SWP practice. Much morte stress is laid on the ‘democratic’ in ‘democratioc centralism’, and on the ways in which Lenin and the Bolsheviks, at least up to 1918, had a much more democratic, ‘horizontal’ practice that the SWP version allowed for. What SWP leader Callinicos calls ‘Leninism’, these Leninists call ‘Zinovievism’, after Comintern leader Zinoviev who bears responsibility for the narrow party building formulas, with a heavy stress on discipline and central leadership, that the SWP almost holds sacred. True Leninism, so the implication goes, is not like that: it is much less narrow, much more flexible, much more democratic. From this Leninism, and from the more relaxed political modus operandi of the earlier IS – forerunner of the SWP – these Leninists try to learn and to borrow.

This opens space for re-evaluation, but it also puts limits. It is all well and good to blame Zinoviev for many of the Trotskyist organizational faults. Fact remains that Lenin considered this aspect of Zinoviev’s work valid. Fact remains that Zinoviev could credibly present himself as true and loyal Leninist. There are differences in emphasis. But these are not principled differences. What unites them is the need for a vanguard party to lead the working class in the struggle for state power. There – and not in the specifical organizational forms – lies the danger of Leninism, any Leninism, all Leninism. State power, and the centralized party needed to get there, means constructing organizational forms opposed to workers’ self-liberation. It means constricting the forms that workers themselves bring into life as they try to liberate themselves. The contradiction is fundamental. And even electoral democracy within the organization, combined with free expression and full factional rights, is not enough to counter the constrictions fully, break throught them and push them aside.

The IS Network does not present itself as a party, or a party-in-process-of-formation. But the general idea is that the Network contributes to such a party. In the minutes of organizational meetings, the stress on leadership structures is striking. It all reads as if they are building SWP 2.0. In the minutes of a steering committee meeting, we read already that the group is thingking of “emplying someone to work for the network.”. Not very inspiring at all, this tendency to the usual organizational forms. The best thing about these minutes, by the way, is not their tedious content. The best thing is that they are published on internet, for all too se, a form of transparency that the SWP would never contemplate. However, the story does not end there.

In the first place: there is the name. Not a Party. Not a group, a Faction, an Organization or whatever the name is that leninist groups usually use for themselves. No, a Network – that heretical concept that all kinds of libertarian radicals, anti-authoritarian revolutionaries, Occupyers and anarchists, are so fond of.. It doesn’t sound Leninist. It sounds horizontalist. Now, this does not mean that anarchist ideas suddenly took over. But it does mean something. For many, there is the recognition that the new IS group better not sound too much like a the old one, not to Leninist. What better word than this libertarian-sounding ‘Network’? For them, it is mainly a matter of tact, of presentation.

There is, for instance, Tom Walker, former Socialist Worker journalist and one of the ones who left rather early in the crisis. He basically says: we should get rid of the whole Leninist terminology, especially ‘democratic centralism’. “To continue to use such a loaded phrase, the battle cry of the left’s drop-of-a-hat-expellers over all these decades, is to make a fetish of language over meaning – and to risk being misunderstood. The left is full of groups claiming to employ ‘real democratic centralism’ (and of course claiming that theirs alone is of a ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ variety) – how do we make clear that we are not just another one?” Here, it is mainly the odious sound of the word that is reason to avoid using it. This is still moving within the confines of Leninism, while finding nicer language. It sounds like: let’s think Leninist but let;’s not use the usual Leninist words.

However, it would be too dismissive and cynical it we left it at that. If you stop talking like a Leninist, it influences your thinking as well. And there are noises within the Network that sound prepared to stretch the limits of Leninism to breaking point, and even beyond. The question ‘what IS this democratic centralism, and do we actually need it in ANY form?’ is lurching in ther background.

Re-publishing old document of earlier oppositions strengthen this impression. A 1978 Richard Kuper piece in which he opposes the move towards stringent democratic centralism forms, is a case in point. He talks about “the dangers of democratic centralism” and asks: “Given our broad agreement on socialism as the self-activity of the working class and the necessity of smashing the bourgeois state, the question (…) is the following. What kind of centralisation will enhance and develop the struggles, self-organization, self-confidence and self-activity of those groupings who share this view of socialism? What kind of centralization (i.e. organization) will win others to this conception.” Here, centralism already is synonymous wj ith organization – or is it the other way around? Confusion there. In any case, the criterion for whatever organizational method is self-activity, not organizational efficiency. Kuper already moved on the edges.

And it gets better. “Under condition of an ebbing revolutioonary wave, democratic centralism has proven extremely harmful.” Does it make more sense during the height of such a revolutiionary wave? What about Russia 1917, that old time favourite? Not quite: “in arguing that the Bolshevik party was not monolithic in 1917, the examples brought out always show that when party leaders were divided on issues they felt strongly about they had no hesitation in taking matters outside the party, both to the soviets and other working-class institutions and to the non-party press.” In other words, as soon as the party was seriously divided, democratic centralist procedure was happily ignored. “One might well ask in what sense it was the democratic centralism of the Bolshevik Party that brought about October.” These are heretical views from any Leninist viewpoint: if democratic centralism was dangerous in times of relative quiet, and was usefully ignored during the revolution, there is not much time or space for it left. No, the idea that the party was ‘crucial’ for the revution, is not challenged. This is not anarchism. But it is a step in anti-authoritarian direction.

Yes, this is one old article. But publishing it on this site makes it part of the debates this Netweork is having now. In these debates, there are Leninists – but also people moving beyond Leninism, in anti-authoritarian directions. There are signs that history – especially Russian revolutionary history that foundation stone of orthodoxy – is being re-evaluated as well. “Trotsky and Serge”, by Tim Nelson, is a case in point. Victor Serge, anarchist turned Bolshevik around 1917, and from the twenties a anti-Stalinist socialist – is often brought forward by Trotskyist defenders against anarchist critics. The usual line here is: look, even your fellow libertarian, Serge, defends the Bolshevik regime, he even accepted the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt in 1921 als legitimate self-defense!

Nelson’s attitude is different. He discusses the debates between Serge and Trotski – who hardly can bear any left-wing criticism of Bolshevik practice in what he calls the ‘heroic years of the revolution’, 1917-1921. Nelson mentions, for instatce, Serge ‘s attitude on Kronstadt. Serge accepted the need for this suppression, but criticized the methods by which it was done. This was already more that Trotsk was prepared to find agreeable. “Serge worried that, despite Trotsky having led a heroic struggle against authoritarianism and dogmatism in the USSR, his rigid stance and refusal to recognize the mistakes of the Communist Party was translating into a deeply sectarian attitude among his followers.” Moving to a later period: “Trotskyism to many has become synonymous with splits, isolation and hostile factions. Trotskyists have not only continued to be hostile to other strains of revolutionary thought, but are arguably even worse-behaved towards one another. Serge developed an antidote to this. That is not to say he provided all the solutions to the problems, but his ideas can give us an insight into what has gione wrong, and provide us with clues about how to put it right.”

Now, there is much to criticize here for anarchists. Trotsky still is treated by Nelson as a revolutionary leader, instead of the co- builder of the Russian state that he was – a state built on the back of the workers’ and peasants’ revolution as an instrument and expression of counterrevolution. And Trotsky was not just a leader of the Bolshevik party building this state. From 1918 to 1921, he was leader of his most disciplinarian, militaristic and authoritarian right wing. Serge’s criticism of the authoritarian character of the Bolshevik state did not move beyond talking about “mistakes”; a rejection of Bolshevism in practice as a form of counterrevolution is beyond him. Here, he and the anarchists of whom he was one before 1917 part ways.

But to read a defense of Serge agains Trotsky, including his critical attitude to post-1917 Bolshevik repression, as a discussion piece on a blog of an grouop coming from the IS tradition is delightful. It challenges the usual uncritical attiotudes on Bolshevism in power, 1917-1921. It challenges the undeserved respect for Trotsky as a revolutionary icon. It moves political debate within a group with Trotskyist roots towards the edges of Trotskyism, towards the limits of Leninism, and implicitly, beyond, in libertarian revolutionary direction.

Maybe more important than this shift in attitudes to history, Trotsky, Bolshevism and Russia are some more current debates and alalyses on contemporary problems. There is analysis on women’s oppression and liberation, on rape and related subjects. And rightly so: it was the mishandling of a rape accusation that brought to the surface not just a lack of democracy but also a rather schematic and superficial analysis of gender and related oppressions, and a light-minded attitude when things went seriously wrong.. To take one example of writing on the subject from the Network’s website. Toni Mayo wrote the excellent “Violence against Women”. In the article we read how horrtendously common rape and sexual abuse actially ios; how scandalously general is the attitude were the victim gets part of the blame, how powers-that-be – whether BBC management of SWP leadership – protect perpetrators. We also read about the question who benefits. Yes, in the long run there is benefit for the rulers, not for the exploited class which only becomes weaker as much as half of it is oppressed. But “reducing this to an argument about class solidarity is no longer tenible for revolutionary socialists. In every one of the cases discussed in this article, as is the case in all domestic and sexual abuse, the male perpetrators experienced a tangible benefit. They gained something that they had no right to – either sexual gratification or power or both.” Yes, men do benefit, yes there is “privelege” involved. This is a break with the usual way of reasoning in the SWP, where women’s oppression is explicitly not seen as benefiting “men”, but only the capitalist class through dividing its enemies.

But there is much more going in in and around the network that makes it interesting to watch. One of the leading lights, first of the opposition, now of the IS Network, is Richard Seymour, blogging on Lenin’s Tomb. This Seymour is an interesting figure in his own right, clearly with a mind of his own. There is for instance his impressive analysis of neoliberalism, explaining how deeply it damages traditions of working class solidarity, how much it pushed us back to our individual role, standing uop for ourselves as if we were all private entrepeneurs. This goes much deeper than just a few austerity measueres and some privatisations. Neoliberalism is a thorough-going political-economical project, having already done ebnormous harm , not only to living standards but to basic solidarity. It is a far cry from the usual picture in Trotskyist publications, where there is always workers’ struggle bubbling to break out if it were not for those nasty trade union leaders that keep struggle in check. The problem goes deeper than that, and within the IS Network, there is awareness of the dept of the problem without the usual pretense of having “The Solution”.

Way before the recent SWP crisis, he already showed disturbing signs of being able to think independently from any party line, and – at first hesitantly and indirectly – saying so. Last summer he wrote extensively about strategic choices of the Greek left. The SWP and its Greek sister organization supported a small anticapitalist coalition in the elections. Seymour disagreed, and explained why he thought it tactically better to support theradical but not explicitly anticapitalist party Syriza. A Syriza victory might open the road towards a left wing government, opening all kinds of opportunities for escalation ot the struggle.

Now, I disagree with all of this. I do not think that there is any solution to be found in electoral support of whatever left wing party looks the most succesfull or the most attractive. But that is not the point. The point is Seymour’s preparedness to develop an independent analysis, and then stick to his guns. He just is no party liner, and he deserves credit for that. Many of his tactical preferences, alas, lie somewhat to the right of the SWP. He is more positive toweards left reformists like Syriza, more interested in electoral politics in general. The SWP, after the horrendous experience of the respect party, has basically retreated to the bunker of orthodoxy, under the glorious leadership of Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos.

On other subjects than Greece, electoralism and ‘workers’governments’, Seymour has a much more radical opinions than the SWP, even flirting with autonomist concepts. Already in May 2011, he wrote a piece called “Towards a New Model Commune”. In this article, he reflects upon the experience of Tahrir Square in the revolt against Mubarak. First lines: “What are we fighting for? I think we are fighting for self-government. I think all our efforts so far have been a way of saying that we should be collectively in charge of our own lives.” What is the problem? “And we find that in all but the most mundane matters, when it comes to the activities and processes that constitute the major part of our lives, we have no autonomy. We do not govern ourselves.” And he points to the Tahrir experience as an effort in self-government: “They set up a city within a city, and colectively coped with many more challenges than the average city would have face in an average day. There was ofcource commerce(…) Yet, far more of their actions were driven by solidarity, collective decision-making, and democratic delegation, thanis ever usual for a city. Tahrir was the beginning of a commune.” Not a workers’ state, mind you. A commune.

There is a pattern here, things like this have happened before: “In almost every revolution, there arte workers’ committees, cordones, shuras, soviets, popular councils, cooperatives, collectives, syn dicates of some kind, some attempt to work out the protocols of self government.” As such, this does not yet contradict Trotskyism. If this was Tony Cluff writing, we would now be treated to a call for the “most class-conscious workers”toorganize to convince the “rest of the working class” that the councils should “”take power”and “form a workers’ state “.

Seymour, however, continues like this. “Even in protest movements and revellions short of outright revolution, people always confront the problem of how they organize themseves properly, democratically; sometimes that has to confront issues of oppression, sexual, gendered, or racial oppression(…); sometimes it just has to do with developing procedures that genuinely include everyone, avoiding majoritarian tyrannies (this is why in the students’ occupations, we’ve seen experiments with things like consensus decicion-making)”. He ends this paragraph with: “in striving towards self-government, toward the commune in other words, we always encounter unanticipated levels of complexity, but the basic problem remains one of self-government.”

Mind you, the basic problem is not Building the Party, Conquering State Power or setting up a Workers’ State in order to Build Socialism. Self-government, to solve out lack of autonomy, is the problem. Even consensus procedure is mentioned without the usual ridicule or haughty dismissal. Here, we entered deeply in horizontalist territory. This is the politics of prefiguration, a concept central in anarchist/ autonomist discourse. You just do not read stuff like this from the stalwarts of Socialist Worker. This is not Leninism, though the weakness of socialist presence in Tahrir is mentioned in passing. And all this was written in may 2011, when Seymour was still an externally loyal SWP member. Not bad at all.

Now, this does not make Seymour an anarchist. We already saw his left reformist views on Greece. And there is more: his fascination for marxist theoreticians like Althusser and Poulantzas, who think in a mi uch more statist way. Sometimes he takes a dismissive view of struggle from below. A case in point is his take on the Israeli movement against neoliberal policies, in the summer of 2011, just between the Spanish Indignados and the Occupy protests. Yes, he says, they may be a formn of class opposition. But because Israel is a colonial-settler state the colonial dynamics – Occupation against resistance – takes precedence above the class dynamics. Whether something good comes from it is doubtful and depends on the international context. I found this position wrong and much too negative, and I still do. It shows how things go wrong when anti-imperialism, and its little sister anti-Zionism, take precedence above everything else – a tendency that sits deep in the Leninist tradition, and a tendency that Seymour has not shed.

The fact is that Seymnour is an eclectic thinker, combining truly revolutionary/ autonomist insights witth bits and pieces from academic Marxism and orthodox Leninism. It is an uneasy mix, and if left reformist parties would go from strength to strength -if Syriza would have won the election in greece, set ip an anti-austerity government, and tried to do a Chavez turn – one could expect the left rreformist, electoralist persopectives come to dominate his thinking. But left reformist parties are not moving from one succes s after another, their credibility is not that high. In the meantime, we saw Tahrir, Indignados, yes, the Israeli protests, Occupy, and now Taksim, Brazil and again Tahrir. Revolt from below imposes itself on the mind. Chances are that the anti-authoritarian side of his thinking wil not easily get dron wned by all the less revolutinary elements in his thinking. The fact that he operates in and through the IS Network, werte there are more hints of anti-authoritarianism, might help. Otherwise, outside any radical setting, it would be relatively easy for him to drift of intol the world of left wing intellectual writers and columnisst and slowly move rightwards. He still might end up like that. It happened before. There are no guarantees. But there also is no need to write him off beforehand.

One of the good things about people in the IS Network is the lack of shallow optimism. Workers’ struggle is in bad shape, traditional left wing groups don’t have satisfactory answers, a serious re-think is necessary. That is the spirit, and it it is a healthy one, and in that spirit of rethink, interesting discoveries are made. On 30 June, a report appeared of a meeting of a joint meeting of an IS Network branch and a local of the syndicalist / direct action union IWW in Sheffield. The report is full of praise for the IWW’s “increasingly visible involvement in succesfull grasroots sampaigns is Sheffield”,  while “the left wing groups I have been a member of had no involvement in these campaigns, and offered little if any solidarity.” Many negative preconceptions about the IWW were dispelled.

And this was one result: “Two of our IS Network members joined the IWW after the meeting, and as a group we went away having strengthened opur links as well as hearing some great new methods as well. I ‘m hoping the IWW felt they have got something out of the meeting as well.” What a difference in attitude from the usual haughty dismissive of anything smelling of “anarchism”, “syndicalism”, “autonomism”, you name it! And… no ‘recruitment’ of IWW members by Trotskyists, but IS Networkers joining a direct action syndicalist organization! At least these Sheffied IS Network comrades – yes, comrades, that is what these people are – can no longer be characterized as just another variety of Leninists. They are moving on the edge of Trotskyism – and beyond.

No, this does not apply to the whole IS Network. Not al all. But it is within this network that people are making (re)discoveries, building ties with non-Leninist revolutionary activists and traditions, evalueting their experiences, learning, opening up. Anarchists would do well – as did the Sheffield IWW! – to take a most friendly attitude towards people like these, cooperating as equals, without hiding differences, to be discussed seriously. Yes, Trotskyist formations generally are hostile forces, seen from an anarchist class struggle perspective But this Network is no ordinary Trotskyist sect, though generally it still moves within a broadly Leninist orbit. As long as they do, a fall back into a reformulated Trotskyist orthodoxy is likely, even if that orthodocy would be somewhat less ugly as the one they try to escape from and to shed. But some parts of the IS Network seem to be moving outside that Leninist orbit, in generally anti-authoritarian directions.Among them, there may be some of tomorrow’s anarchists. People moving like this, in any case, are our allies, our friends, and should be treated as such.

Peter Storm

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