Albert Reply to Callinicos #3


I agree that your party has differed even to the point of violent conflict with other Leninist parties. Leninism isn’t one phenomenon, of course. And I agree with you that neither of us should arbitrarily stipulate what Leninism is. We should see what distinguishes Leninists from others on the left and also what all Leninists have broadly in common.

I don’t think that “rigorous application of the majority principle” fills that requisite. A better common denominator might be acceptance of Marxist analysis, plus democratic centralism, plus advocacy of one or another socialist economic vision.

I agree that we should agree to disagree about Leninism, but I doubt that history is going to help us judge whether the SWP or any other Trotskyist Party would devolve into defending botheconomic coordinatorism and political authoritarianism under the pressures of a revolutionary situation because I think no such Party is ever going to win power in an industrialized country. Winning here will instead require a multifaceted movement that pays priority attention to race, gender, class, and power and that is highly anti-authoritarian including building its own infrastructure of self-management even before winning large-scale change.

You are right that some leftists disavow reaching a majority of the population. But I think nonetheless, if the desire to build bigger movements really defined Leninism, most anarchists in history would fit under the umbrella, and certainly folks like Kropotkin and Goldman, etc. I don’t think that saying this speeds us past current problems facing the movement. Such problems of course include understanding the need for a large majority, but they also include combining attentiveness to race, gender, and class without subordinating any one to the others, finding diverse means to reach out very widely, finding ways to retain membership rather than people joining and later leaving, building infrastructure that not only sustains and strengthens us, but also prefigures and prepares institutions for the future, giving attention to singular issues without becoming single-issue oriented, winning reforms without becoming reformist, being strategic without becoming sectarian, and opposing capitalism without becoming coordinatorist. But regarding all this, we should ask whether Leninist or Trotskyist or for that matter Marxist formulations help or hinder our dealing with the problems.

Though peripheral to our debate, since you raised it, I think the WSF cannot as a whole have activist program because it encompasses too many conflicting viewpoints. However, I think the WSF can and should be a venue not only for people meeting and learning from one another, but for people allying and generating shared programs that aren’t taken up by the entire WSF but are pursued by subsets of that community.

I agree with the importance of being strategic but I have to say that I think something about Leninists way of being strategic makes it problematic. I don’t mean to trivialize or paint with a too wide or undiscerning brush, but for me Leninist parties call up images of people selling newspapers who can’t even see the utter disdain of the people they are shoving them at, and who do it beyond human connection, even robotically. I have seen it from ML group to group for decades, and of course not just regarding newspapers, but the line, and so on. Interestingly, most members of Leninist groups see it too, when they look at the practice of a group other than their own.

When I was speaking in England I kept wondering how the SWP people I encountered trying to sell me the newspaper could be in the same organization as you. I mean that seriously, and I think it is something to think hard about. It isn’t genes, or long standing personality traits — it is something about the rank and file practice of Leninist and Trotskyist parties that drags members at the base into this robotic style and content. Meanwhile, other members, nearer the top of the apparatus, don’t have the robotic problem, but as power nears instead develop an authority problem.

I think one of our big differences is that you want to see everything that is worst in your heritage as flowing from Stalin, and since Trotsky opposed Stalin, he is redeemed. For me, not only did the early Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky and not Stalin obliterate bottom-up movements in Russia, they also imposed an economy and polity that I reject as horribly oppressive.  Of course Lenin and Trotsky didn’t intend for Stalinism to reign. But when they left what was in place was a coordinator economy and authoritarian state. Some of the quotes I offered earlier are evidence. One could easily produce more.

Perhaps I have a “fetish” with dumping on Leninism and Trotskyism that causes me to miss the complexity that gives them excuses or makes their behavior contextually reasonable. Or perhaps you have a “fetish” with redeeming Leninism and Trotskyism that causes you to miss a different complexity that makes their actions horrendous. We can’t resolve that now.

Can we agree, however, on some points that are relevant to us today? Can we agree that movements and parties should be multi-focused, highlighting race, gender, class, and power, and understanding each in their own right and as they all interact? Can we agree movements should be committed to incorporating self management not only for the future economy and society, but also in their current institutions? Can we agree that we need to reach out widely to build majoritarian movements and also that we need to build movements whose structure, culture, style, divisions of labor, and modes of decision-making are congenial to and empower people at the low end of race, gender, and class hierarchies? And can we agree that our movements should not only criticize what is, but also offer institutional vision that manifests solidarity, justice, diversity, efficiency, equity, and self management? And, finally, can we perhaps also agree that if parecon is viable and operationally sound, it fulfills those criteria for the economy?

You say “one way of summing up our disagreement about Leninism is that we differ in the relative weight we give to these two elements in the emergence of Stalinism. You [Michael] attach more importance to the Bolsheviks’ political intentions, I [Alex] to their historical circumstances.” But I don’t think the key factor is intentions near as much as I think it is conceptual and institutional commitments. I suspect most Bolsheviks would have been horrified had they seen a preview picture of what destroying the soviets would lead to.

Intentions matter, of course, but intentions arise in context, and for me the Bolsheviks context wasn’t just the state of their nation or the world – but also and even more so the institutions that the movement had adopted, and the conceptualizations it used. There were many in Russia who had agendas quite different than the Bolshevik leadership, including not only anarchists and peasant movements, but many rank and file activists inside the Bolskevik party itself — but the leadership had a very different objective context than all those rank and file folks – largely because of its conceptual framework and organizational roles and conditions.

You say: “For you Stalinism represents the triumph of the coordinator class whose ‘agenda’ Trotsky articulated in the passages you cite.” Nowhere have I said that. I would say it is you, not me, who thinks the problem we are discussing is Stalinism. I have only addressed Stalinism in reply. I think the problem we need to understand and avoid predates Stalin’s major role. If you take the revolutionized Russia and impose on it a democratic parliamentary government rather than Stalin’s, I would still oppose the economy.

I agree that there was a real dearth of coordinator class members in Russia after the revolution because Russia had had insufficient development for them to grow to anything like 20% of the population. The vacuum was filled by the political bureaucracy. In other words I don’t think Stalinism is a phenomenon induced by an evil individual, but, rather, that it is what tends to happen when you create a coordinator economy with a one party authoritarian state but you don’t have a coordinator class to fill the coordinator economic slots. The ruling party then stands in for the largely missing class and its cadres therefore not only run the polity, but the economy as well.

Still, you are right that whatever labels we opt for and however we define them, if we can “work together to build an anti-capitalist (and I would add anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-authoritarian) movement that is as broadly based, as democratically self-organized, as socially powerful, as theoretically self-conscious, and as globally united as possible” then choices between our views will be made based on the experience that unfolds and hopefully we will both be elated at the progress that ensues, regardless of whose views turn out to be more valid – or even if views entirely unknown to us prove most valid.


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