“It is like a car. You pull the gear lever and it does not start.”
Let’s begin by talking about reification. I know Cliff, back in the day, liked to talk about “substitutionism”, but it’s worth casting the net a little wider; after all, if we confine the discussion to substitutionism, we open the door to the conceit that there’s some ideological vaccine that will prevent us falling into the trap. No, there isn’t; we can only be aware of the danger and guard against the temptation as best we can.
Actually, the virus of reification can be most virulent amongst the practical people. You know the sort of people I mean. They’re the sort of people who tell you to get off the internet – that ephemeral trend that only students are interested in – and engage with the “real world”. That this injunction can be made with a straight face by full-time apparatchiks who haven’t been involved with the real world for years tells you something interesting about reification.
Let’s begin with a practical person, someone with a strong activist bent. Someone who’s concerned with outcomes and regards processes as unimportant. Your practical person doesn’t understand why we need to spend a couple of weeks discussing what to do about, let’s say, a library closure, when it’s much easier to just organise a demo that the meeting would probably have decided to do anyway. This is the sort of thought process that drives your allies in the campaign absolutely up the walls.
Good old Lev Davidovich had a few things to say about this tendency in Our Political Tasks, way back in 1904:
Comrade Lenin in his “plan” suppresses “discussions” by virtue of an enviable logic: they do not correspond to the requirements of conspiracy and disturb the unity and harmony of the plan! So what are these “discussions” for? The results these discussions tend to reach can be reached by much less costly means: it is enough simply ‘that all participants in the work, all the circles, without exception, have the right to bring their decisions, their wishes, their questions, to the attention of both the local committee and the Central Organ and Central Committee. Such a procedure will make it possible to consult all members sufficiently, without having to create such cumbersome and non-conspiratorial institutions and the “discussions”.’ (Letter) How suspiciously Lenin then alludes to the “dilettante” committees, to the workers’ and students’ circles, composed of “non-specialised” members, who waste their time in “interminable discussions about everything” instead of working over “professional experience.” To think and deliberate “about everything” should be the prerogative of the “Centre”; and the circles, groups and isolated agents must think and deliberate according to their estate, workshop by workshop. The Party’s consciousness is centralised – there is nothing left for it but to make the individual experience of the individual member the patrimony of the Centre (‘to bring to the knowledge of the Centre’); that will be enough to enrich the practice of all individual members who will steep themselves in the consciousness of the Centre – which is conscious by profession.
You may well recognise the pattern of behaviour described by Trotsky here. It hasn’t grown much less aggravating in the intervening century and a bit. This, of course, is the pamphlet containing the famous warning about substitutionism:
For good or ill (more for ill), we are leading the masses to revolution, awakening in them the most elementary political instincts. But in so far as we have to deal with a more complex task – transforming these “instincts” into conscious aspirations of a working class which is determining itself politically – we tend to resort to the short-cuts and over-simplifications of “thinking-for-others” and “substitutionism.”
In the internal politics of the Party these methods lead, as we shall see below, to the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee; on the other hand, this leads the committees to supply an “orientation” – and to change it – while “the people keep silent”…
Quite so. So why talk about reification? Cliff in his treatment of Trotsky treats substitutionism – exemplified in Russia by the Narodnik terrorist tradition – as a temptation to which revolutionaries succumb when the level of struggle is low and the revolutionary movement is small and isolated. Actually, this is only indicative and not an iron law – certainly it wouldn’t explain the March Action in 1921.
Reification, if you like, is turning things on their heads, of understanding the leadership question from the bottom up rather than the top down. There’s plenty that can be said about the thought processes that go on at the top – it’s well worth reading Andy Wilson on this – but we don’t often consider the psychology of the leadership loyalist.
Many years ago, your author used to have a running argument with a leading member of the SWP, who accused me of lacking loyalty to the party. My counter-argument was that “loyalty to the party” (what in Russian we would call partiinost’) was a Stalinist concept – the correct subjects being the working class and socialism, and the party being a means to an end. In fact, the party could become an obstacle, and then another means would have to be sought, just as Trotsky concluded that the Comintern was irreformable. Don’t get me wrong, loyalty is a thoroughly good human trait, but blind loyalty, the loyalty that simply says “my party right or wrong” is, well, blind.
So it’s not merely a question of the party substituting for the class and the apparatus for the party etc – those are real phenomena, but we need to ask why the members let it happen. And there are powerful subcultural influences at work here – there’s the arrogance one gains on joining a Marxist group, or for the older cadre the emotional investment and ties of comradeship one has built up of years, even decades, in the party. In smallish, highly counter-cultural groups struggling through hard times, those influences are all the more intense.
And thus it is that, since the party is the memory of the class (sometimes I think the organised amnesia of the class is more like it) and the great repository of theory and programme, that the party can be assumed to see the interests of the class better than the class itself. So we identify the interests of the party with the interests of the class; and, if we trust our leadership unquestioningly, we identify the interests of the party apparatus with those of the class. All the more so if we are in a strongly hierarchical group which makes great play of an “interventionist leadership” that’s constantly bending sticks.
This can be extremely dangerous, and it’s a process that has aided many shysters from Joe Stalin to Gerry Healy to Jack Barnes. Because, in unscrupulous hands, the ethic of partiinost’ allows comrades to be guilt-tripped into believing that expressing criticism of the leadership is a betrayal of the party, a capitulation to Menshevism, etc. One sees a lot of this in the recent discussion and, without wanting to get personal, someone who has written a book about Bukharin should know a thing or two about the rise of Stalinism. Notably, that Stalinism originated precisely as a degeneration within our own movement.
Well, these dangers are inherent. And there’s no cure for them except to have an ingrained suspicion of established leaderships – not necessarily to distrust the individuals, but to be aware of the traps that even the best leadership can walk into. Here is Rosa Luxemburg on the leadership question:
It is a mistake to believe that it is possible to substitute “provisionally” the absolute power of a Central Committee (acting somehow by “tacit delegation”) for the yet unrealizable rule of the majority of conscious workers in the party, and in this way replace the open control of the working masses over the party organs with the reverse control by the Central Committee over the revolutionary proletariat…
The unconscious comes before the conscious. The logic of the historic process comes before the subjective logic of the human beings who participate in the historic process. The tendency is for the directing organs of the socialist party to play a conservative role. Experience shows that every time the labour movement wins new terrain those organs work it to the utmost. They transform it at the same time into a kind of bastion, which holds up advance on a wider scale.
And again yes! While admitting that Luxemburg was not a libertarian, she had enough experience of the bureaucratic regime in the SPD to know what she was talking about. This doesn’t map across directly to qualitatively smaller and poorer revolutionary groups, but any bureaucracy, no matter how small, tends to confirm Lord Acton’s good joke about power.
One more point from Luxemburg that really shouldn’t need saying:
More important is the fundamental falseness of the idea underlying the plan of unqualified centralism – the idea that the road to opportunism can be barred by means of clauses in the party constitution… A manual of regulations may master the life of a small sect or a private circle. An historic current, however, will pass through the mesh of the most subtly worded paragraph.
A smart leadership – that is, a modest, open and non-defensive leadership – can counteract this to some extent. A leadership marked by grandiosity, authoritarianism and a defensive brittleness on programme and even day-to-day tactics – not so much.
A couple of points need to be made about Cliff. A perennial question that would come up in argument was whether (and this was often speculation about what would happen after the revolution) the SWP could degenerate into something analogous to Stalinism. Cliff always stressed that of course it bloody could! If the party of Lenin and Trotsky, with all the dedicated and experienced revolutionaries who made up the Bolshevik ranks, could degenerate into the Stalin regime, we’d have to be bloody arrogant to think we were immune.
The other point is to remember one of the paradoxes of Cliff’s style. He was, let us say, forceful in argument and sometimes unscrupulous when it came to getting his own way. But he also welcomed people standing up and disagreeing with him. He revelled in having a proper argument. This, of course, worked best when there were others in the leadership (think of Kidron, or Nigel Harris, or Duncan Hallas) who did disagree with him and were prepared to say so. The benefits were less apparent in his later years, when there were fewer independent thinkers left standing and more sycophants. A deferential culture was much less capable of correcting the leadership’s excesses.
One also recalls Harman, not long before he died, lamenting that he’d written an intentionally provocative article on the economy and nobody argued with it. Well, yes, Chris.
Ideally, your party democracy should be raucous and freewheeling and characterised by a high degree of spontaneity. The questions of the day should be thrashed out openly and vigorously, the better to achieve clarity and correct mistakes. You need a membership that can check the leadership, and a leadership that can rise up from the ranks under its own steam. At one time, IS politics was very much about that sort of thing.
But a bunkered leadership that’s isolated from the members, never mind the class, and responds to real political problems with administrative sanctions? A self-perpetuating clique that sustains itself through cronyism and nepotism, and treats the members with contempt? Perhaps half of the membership being prepared to allow these jumped-up panjandrums to treat them with contempt, because they’ve internalised the idea that the cause of socialism is coterminous with defending every last manoeuvre of the apparatus? You build a party like that, I’ll tell you straight, you’ll never achieve anything.
Rosa Luxemburg again:
The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn the dialectic of history.
Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.
And Duncan Hallas:
Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.
You said it, Duncan.
 This could lead us onto an interesting discussion of false consciousness, a concept that’s had some pretty pernicious effects over the years.
 It’s arguable that the regime Luxemburg and Jogiches ran in the Polish Social Democracy was more stringent than that of the Bolsheviks. It may not be coincidental that Feliks Dzierżyński got his political training in the SDKPiL.