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Workers Socialist Review

Magazine of the Workers Socialist League

Written: 1984.
First Published: Autumn 1984.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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Workers Socialist Review
No. 4, Autumn 1984

Leninism and sectarianism

The nearest thing to a seriously argued section in the DCF platform is the one which argues that we are sectarians. It tries to pull at number of things together, to explain our alleged sectarianism and to point to its alleged roots in our attitude to the world Trotskyist movement.

Smith and his group have been saying things like this for a long time now, but the primary representative of the view in the DCF platform is Parsons. He wrote in his document for the February 1983 conference:

“I would sum up the approach of the document [of Cunliffe, now Parsons’ ally and chief author of the DCF platform!] as nothing more than ‘Spartacism with a human face’ . . . As far as I am concerned [Cunliffe’s document] spits on the history of the struggle of all the sections of our world movement to build the Fl. ”

“My own approach is somewhat different. I look at our movement not with rose-tinted spectacles but from a point of view which starts not from its weaknesses but from its strengths. I can be a sharp a critic as anyone if the need arises but in my general approach to analysing the world Trotskyist movement I believe that we have to look for the positive contributions, encourage them, publicise them, find ways of linking our work with them, seek to draw them together . . . ”

“Surely the question we should ask ourselves is this, ‘Is there not a case for us to join the USFI? Certainly not on a raid, certainly not with the view that we have all the answers, but recognising that . . . we would have another golden opportunity to fuse our forces with the best of them – to share experiences, learn from each other, strengthen each other’s practical work . . . ”
(IB 32).

To emphasise the “strengths”, the “positive contributions”, of groups like the USFI, the Morenists or the Lambertists is fine – if those features are actually the dominant element of the reality. But the point is that you can find out whether those features are the dominant elements only by honestly analysing the reality as a whole. Parsons proceeds by assuming in advance that the ‘good side’ must be stressed. This is precisely ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ – giving a favourable hue to the reality which comes from your own perceptions and not the reality itself.

The chief ‘good side’ of the USFI that Parsons cites in IB 32 is its ability “to group so many comrades in so many different countries into one movement”. That is indeed a good side – all other things being equal. But all other things are not equal. The grouping together is done on the basis of ideological blurring (the function of the international leadership being mainly to rationalise what the national sections do) and of repeated serious capitulations to Stalinism and petty bourgeois utopianism. Therefore the ‘good side’ is not a good side at all.

From Parsons to the DCF

The DCF takes Parsons’ view as its implicit starting point, and proceeds to argue:

“Kinnell now dumps the whole membership of the old WSL on the same scrapheap as every other member of every other tendency of the world Trotskyist movement. In Kinnell’s view there is not a single political current or comrade outside the old I-CL – Workers Fight tradition who is worth even the time of day. ‘They are all useless’, he told our conference in February 1983 (helping to secure the defeat of the document he was supporting)”.

“In this neat, sectarian world of solid blacks and clear whites, is it surprising that all those opposing Carolan and Kinnell can be so easily consigned to the outer darkness of non-Marxism? After all, if you are the only Marxists, then anyone who disagrees must be a non-Marxist . . . ”

“It becomes the onerous task for the tiny handful of ‘Marxists’ (basically Carolan and Kinnell) accompanied by a loyal band of followers, single-handedly to rebuild the Trotskyist Fourth International against the opposition of quite large ‘useless’ groupings, some of which have the advantage of not being in a single country . . . ”

On one level this is just ill-thought out abuse. To say that the chief international currents of would-be Trotskyism are useless for revolutionary politics is a very different matter from saying that all the members of those currents are useless. Obviously they are not.

Nor have we ever said that all other currents are all useless. We have said precisely which other currents we are politically indebted to – James P Cannon’s SWP up to the early ’60s, and to a lesser extent Lutte Ouvriere – and for what. That sort of acknowledgement is rather more useful than a general expression of self-identification with a big warm consensus of ‘world Trotskyism’.

But the philistine derision of the idea of being in “opposition” to “quite large groupings” represents an important political strand in the DCF.

Revolutionary politics and the truth

What is wrong with the DCF’s whole approach is that it degrades Marxism and displaces it away from the centre of our politics.

Marxism is about science, about defining the truth about our reality so that we have the real knowledge needed to change it. Revolutionaries must seek knowledge and fearlessly face the implications. Trotsky put it well polemicising against the semi-revolutionary 1930s French socialist leader Marceau Pivert:

“Without plumbing the gist of programmatic differences, he repeats commonplaces on the ‘impossibility’ of any one tendency claiming to incorporate in itself all truth’ Ergo? Live and let live. Aphorisms of this type cannot teach an advanced worker anything worthwhile; instead of courage and a sense of responsibility they can only instill indifference and weakness . . . Revolutionary ardour in the struggle for socialism is inseparable from intellectual ardour in the struggle for truth”
(‘Trotsky on France’, p.245).

You could paraphrase the attitude of the classics of our movement by paraphrasing Moses’s First Commandment with the truth speaking instead of Jehovah: I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have false gods before me. It was Trotsky who brought the word ardour into it. You must assay and analyse reality, however bitter it may be.

Trotsky again, writing when the would-be revolutionary part of the world labour movement was under the combined dictatorship of the GPU gun and the big Stalinist lie:

“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be . . . these are the rules of the Fourth International”
(‘Transitional Programme’).

Now of course such attitudes can lead to narrow dogmatic intolerance – to Savanarolas, Robespierres and Enver Hoxhas. It can lead to the Spartacists, who, until recently anyway, were relatively honest sectarians who fearlessly followed through the logic of certain ideas in Cannon’s version of Trotskyism.

But what is wrong with the DCF platform – and it is very unashamedly expressed – is that it renounces in advance (and denounces us for not renouncing in advance) the task of defining the state of the world would-be Trotskyist movement. We dare not undertake that task – because if we are too honest it will isolate us.

The irreplaceable task of Marxism – keeping the world under review – is replaced at the centre of our concerns with diplomacy. Or, as Marx put it:

“If restraint shapes the character of inquiry it is a criterion for shying away from truth rather than from falsity. It is a drag on every step I take. With inquiry, restraint is the prescribed fear of finding the result, a means of keeping one from the truth . . . The essential form of mind is brightness and light, and you want to make shadow its only appropriate manifestation . . . The essence of mind is always the truth itself, and what do you make its essence? Restraint . . . ”
(‘Comments on the latest Prussian Censorship Instruction’).

Again, in his preface to ‘Capital’:

“Every opinion based on scientific criticism is welcome. As to the prejudices of so-called public opinion, to which I have never made concessions, now as aforetime the maxim of the great Florentine [Dante] is mine: ‘Follow your course, and let the people talk’.”

But according to the DCF, the first question we are to ask is not, what is the truth about the ideas and performance of this or that organisation which calls itself Trotskyist. The first question is: what will be the consequences for our relations with X or Y if we think things through and arrive at conclusions?

That is both the spirit and the letter of what the DCF say. They do not think – or try to think – honestly about the experiences and the problems of the Trotstyist movement. Philistine fears of isolation frighten and paralyse them from thinking before they start.

They know what our criticisms are of the USFI and the other currents, and why those criticisms lead us to define the USFI as centrists and the Lambertist and Morenists as worse. Cunliffe actually wrote out the gist of those criticisms in his document last year. The DCF do not now attempt to refute those specific criticisms, or even to argue specifically that the criticisms have been given exaggerated weight. No: they content themselves with the general thought that there must be some good somewhere.

Trotsky said it well and to the point about this sort of thing when he said that without ardour for the truth you could not have a revolutionary movement. He was merely echoing Lenin’s idea that without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. Smith will understand what both Trotsky and Lenin were talking about when he learns to understand his own experience, and specifically the whys and wherefores of theory break-up into small fragments of the old WSL.

Inverted Sectarianism

To the silly screeching of Cunliffe, Parsons, Levy and Smith that our attitude implies that we think there are only two Marxists in the world, there is not much to say.

The DCF’s thinking here is a form of inverted sectarianism, psychologically anyway. They cannot conceive of people taking their ideas seriously without narrow sectarianism. When they took their own ideas seriously, back in the days, before they got demoralised and fell into broad church politics, they were narrowly and arrogantly sectarian.

Now Cunliffe, Levy, have softened up and lost confidence in themselves and in the neo-Healyite politics which suited the old WSL in the days when it had a bit of vigour about it.

They have reacted from taking their own ideas seriously in a sectarian way into the sort of demoralised ecumenism most clearly exposed by Parsons – there is a world Trotskyist movement with lots of rich and varied traditions, nearly all differences are misunderstandings, and one day it will all combine into one powerful movement, if only all the sectarians will stop worrying about politics.

This is not politically serious. It is a phenomenon of personal and organisational dissolution on the part of the old WSL hard core.

No movement can be built or sustained with such attitudes. Nothing solid can be built by people who mock and sneer at the idea of setting themselves up in opposition to “quite large groupings” like the USFI, as the DCF platform does.

We have to try to be honest Marxists who think things through fearlessly, who train ourselves to think in terms of the brutal truth of the real world of class slavery in which we live, so that we can create a clear revolutionary organisation capable of coming to grips with reality and changing it.

The ‘World Trotskyist Movement’

The central truth about the ‘world Trotskyist movement’ for us is that it is in a state of advanced political corruption and decay. The measure of its terrible state is to be found in the fact that the best of the big international currents is the Mandelites – people with a very dismal record over the last 30 years.

Trotskyism is divided up into a whole range of political mutations in which bits and pieces of historic dogmas and aspirations are amalgamated with other and alien currents, from different sources of Stalinism, through Catholic nationalism in Ireland, to Islamic reaction in Iran. We cannot change that by pretending it is not so. We must not fear to define things as they are because people won’t like us for it.

The only way to drain the swamp of post-war ‘Trotskyism’ is to face up to what t is and has been, and work to renovate the revolutionary communist tradition. It may be that we ourselves lack the capacity to achieve much: but if all we manage to do it to define the state of things within the ‘world Trotskyist movement’ accurately, then so be it. We must function as honest Marxists and do what we can.

Honesty and rigorous thinking does not imply sectarian isolation or aloofness. The history of the WF / I-CL tendency shows that. On the EEC, for example, we have been more or less alone in mounting an internationalist refusal to go along the little Englandism. It has not stopped us working with prominent anti-Marketeers on issues like Labour Party democracy. (And now the tide has begun to turn our way on the EEC issue itself).

Ex I-CL DCFers

Given the old WSL leaders’ record, it is understandable why Smith, Cunliffe, Levy etc., should adopt their attitude of philistine derision of our attempts to think things through like Marxists and to “say what is”. It is not so clear why people like Gunther, Oliver and Armstrong put their names to such rubbish.

After all, they have spent many years insisting that the various ‘Trotskyist’ groups were chauvinist on the EEC. After all, it is only four years since the ICL was virtually alone among the ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ groups of the whole world in condemning the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and calling for withdrawal of Russian troops.

What’s the matter, comrades? Is it because you are suffering from a middle-aged softening of the backbone and brain that you put your names to this philistine jeering by the inverted sectarians Cunliffe, Parsons and Smith?

For our part we will continue to try to be Marxists, to criticise the so-called Trotskyists and in general to say what is. We will seek dialogue with those with whom we have differences and collaboration with them where that is possible. We reject the defeatist attitude that we should relate to the bigger ‘Trotskyist’ currents as if they were serious mass working class parties (like the Comintern) and not what they in fact are – weak propaganda groups whose politics are heavily adulterated with alien petty bourgeois and Stalinist content.

Negative Cultism

One final word about the attitude of the old WSL core of the DCF leadership here.

The is something ridiculous in the combination of their philistine jeering – the argument that those who dare to criticise the ‘world Trotskyist movement’ rigorously must think they themselves are ‘the only Marxists in the world’ – and the support for the pretentions of Smith as a political arbiter that they write into their resolution for conference (in relation to Afghanistan).

In a certain sense the attitude of Levy and Cunliffe is a sort of negative cultism. All their political lives they have practised deference to ‘great men’ – Healy or Thornett – living in their shadows as organisational or literary servants. The ‘great men’ demanded deference, had ascribed status, made claims to pre-eminence by virtue of who they were, and so on.

Cunliffe and Levy view what we say through the prism of their own experience, and slot us and our concerns into the deferential politics pattern that has dominated their political lives. To dare to criticise comrade Smith rigorously is to challenge comrade Smith and to want to replace him as the centre of the system of deference.

That’s how Smith sees it, too. That’s how Smith saw every political discussion in the organisation, and that’s why real political discussion with Smith was impossible.

Under every ‘political’ discussion was the issue of how it affected the status of Smith in the organisation.

The “All-Inclusive Party”

The entire political content of what they say on minorities within the organisation is anti-Bolshevik. They write: “Nobody can seriously imagine a mass-based workers’ party with the ideological homogeneity of a small faction”.

Hasn’t the DCF ever heard of the Bolshevik party? That party, when it became a mass based party, had a high degree of homogeneity which did not exclude full democratic rights for people with differences within it. Hasn’t the DCF ever reflected on the idea that the building of a revolutionary party is not a process of building an ever wider coalition of ever more diverse tendencies, but a constant struggle for political clarification and homogenisation? A party can become broader and richer in the numbers and the experience that it embraces, and simultaneously more homogeneous ideologically.

And haven’t the comrades pondered the experience of . . . the old WSL? That was the organisation which numerically never got beyond the stage of being a small faction; yet ideologically it never attained the homogeneity of a small faction. That, in my opinion, is one reason why it fell apart.

The DCF conflates two very different things, losing the essential distinction that separates them. It collapses the question of democracy within a democratic-centralist Marxist party – the right of tendency and faction, the centrality of the party machine during internal political disputes, etc – into the question of the relation of widely different groups which cannot relate to each other within a democratic-centralist framework. In doing so it confuses both questions.

Implicitly they advocate not democracy within a democratic-centralist framework but the breaking up of any such democratic centralist framework so as to organise the co-existence within one organisational framework of disparate ‘Trotskyist’ groups incapable of bonding together in a Bolshevik democratic centralist framework.

If Levy’s repeated talk about a new sort of party regime, different from ‘the sectarian Trotskyist tradition’ means anything, it is this. If his idea of the ‘equality’ of different tendencies within the organisation – right and wrong, majority and minority- is at all thought through, it is the opposite of a Bolshevik fight for political precision.

A Combat Party

In essence their solution to the existence of many ‘Trotskyist’ groups is to abandon the historical programme of building a democratic centralist party – substituting for it the antagonistic project of assembling a loose federation. They pretend or believe that they are discussing the question of democratic centralist rules of functioning: in fact their concern for ‘democracy’ here is a means of packaging and selling the proposal to scrap democratic centralism and substitute for it ‘democratic’ rules according to which a loose federation would function. Under the guise of attacking “a regime” they attack the historical project which is the raison d’etre of the WSL.

I believe that the DCF simply do not know what they are doing here. Nevertheless what they in fact revert to is the idea – long discredited among revolutionary Marxists – of the all-inclusive party.

The difference is of fundamental importance. For there are limits to the degree of all-inclusiveness possible to even the most democratic of democratic centralist parties. Those limits arise out of one of the basic ideas of democratic centralism – that there is a central party line, which guides what the party does, including what any minority does, under a centralised regime. There has to be a party line, control of what each member does by the central committees, subordination of all minorities to whatever decisions are taken by the party as a whole. Otherwise you have a gaggle of socialists, not a combat party capable of preparing and leading the socialist revolution.

Within this democratic centralist model you can get the sort of relaxed liberal attitude to minority opinions that the WF / I-CL tendency had. There can be a wide scope for access to the public press for minorities. However, the limiting fact is that the tendency of all such public equality of the organisation and its minorities in the press must be to undermine the possibility of a clear and unambiguous expression of the party’s position. Beyond a certain point public freedom for minorities would destroy the revolutionary centralism of the organisation.

To write into the constitution the right of minority access to the press is explicitly to destroy the democratic centralist character of the party and to make it into some sort of federation. The history of our own WF / I-CL tendency shows that it is possible to contain wide political differences provided that all those involved agreed to and stick to democratic centralist rules. Splits come, as with the Smith group, when such agreed rules of functioning cannot be established or break down.

Change the Rules

Organisations break down for all sorts of political reasons, or because of personal or other conflicts. That is what actually happens, deplorable though it is. What the DCF proposes is to change the rules to avoid such splits by abandoning democratic centralism – the organisation of the party as a centralised single unit. Instead of provisions for differences that arise in the course of building the Bolshevik-type combat party which all of history shows to be irreplaceable for working class revolution, they are in fact discussing a different type of organisation.

In fact the DCF’s proposals would not avoid a split with the Smith group. Nothing in the world could reconcile the Smith group to remaining very long within an organisation whose politics they “fundamentally” repudiated on every major question, whose leadership is “worse than the trade union bureaucracy”, and which no Trotskyist world-wide “will touch with a barge-pole”. All the DCF’s proposals could provide for is a period of paralysis and gang warfare – conferences every three / four months – before the inevitable split. The leaders of the DCF must know that. Yet in their attempt to present a plausible ‘case’ they take up pre-Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik ideas of organisation.

In their model you have no party line – or no party line that is binding on anyone, least of all the leaders. The organisation has as many public faces as there are groups and tendencies within it. There is inevitably a babble of voices rather than a clear political line. Which voice is loudest is determined by the public prestige of different leaders. Instead of clear political distinctions and accounting, you get the politics blurred.

In fact, every such party known to history – whether it be Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party USA, within which the Trotskyists worked in the mid-’30s, or Tony Cliff’s 1960s International Socialists, within which Workers’ Fight worked – has been subjected to more or less undemocratic rule by dominant groups or cliques. They have not even preserved the all-inclusive party they said was central to their organisation. Every time the logic of political struggle and the pressure of political events intruded to break up these cosy worlds based on illusions.

Instead of ‘all-inclusiveness’ allowing maximum growth, it prepares splits and disruptions. Only a politically coherent formation bound together by firm rules of democratic-centralist functioning is capable of growing a mass party based on a Bolshevik model. On that basis it is possible to have a liberal regime for minorities which agree to operate the democratic centralist constitution and to have discussions without disruption and without irresponsibility towards the organisation’s work in the class struggle.

Range of differences

The Smith Group are devotees of an all-inclusive, organisationally broken-backed party. We follow Trotsky and Cannon in categorically rejecting such a notion.

On the other hand we want maximum internal freedom and recognise it as a fact of life that wide and comprehensive political differences arise in a common basis. We let the functioning of the organisation determine the range of differences. So long as they can continue to function together on the basis of defined majorities and minorities and agreed democratic centralist rules of functioning, people with a very wide range of political differences can work together in a Trotskyist party.

For example, eleven years ago a segment of Workers Fight developed for a brief while what were very close to explicit syndicalist politics. There were open and frank discussions. People tried for sharp definitions and self definitions. It all remained essentially friendly and constructive, without factions or splits.

The DCF are quite right that for an organisation to rule out a specific range of ideas is a dangerous, destructive and self-sterilising business. But it is they, not we, who declare that: “Non-Marxists don’t belong in a revolutionary party”.

We believe that a doctrinal definition of what is Marxist and what is not cannot regulate the range of differences contained within a party. This should be left to regulate itself spontaneously within a democratic-centralist organisational framework.

We cannot demand – as the DCF do – that every shade of opinion in the organisation be considered just as good Marxists as anyone else: that would compromise the necessary struggle for political clarification. We simply establish a framework of majority discipline.

At a certain point of difference, if it comes to that, organisational relations will break down and a separation will come about – because the minority finds the political subordination intolerable, because its ideas reflect or begin to make it vulnerable to other class or group pressure, etc.

We cannot find a formula to prevent all splits and divisions; but a relatively broad range of coexistence is possible in a democratic centralist framework such as we have, provided that:

1. The political positions are worked out and defined as clearly and honestly as possible.

2. There is honest working of the rules for coexistence. Conference decisions are binding, and minorities continue to argue for their ideas within the framework of being a loyal and constructive minority.

Because they rejected (1) – going for consensus and woolly ideological averaging-out – and also rejected (2), the old WSL leadership ended expelling the Spartacists for their politics. The advocates of an all-inclusive party expelled colonists formally not for being colonists but for their politics.

The DCF pose a false alternative: either a catch-all party in which every faction are just as good Marxists as everyone else, or a narrow-minded sect. What we need is a party which guarantees broad democratic rights on the basis of a constant fight for scientific precision in politics and common discipline in action.

As history shows, the cosy liberalism of the DCF’s conception is not consistently democratic. It turns nasty at points of high political tension.

Workers Socialist Review Index (1981-84)

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