Leninism and small socialist groups

Recently some socialists (for example, here and here) have been writing about the relevance or irrelevance of the Leninist model of party organization for socialist groups of at most a few thousand members in advanced capitalist countries today.

This question was key for a group of Canadian socialists around the magazine New Socialist who left the International Socialists (IS) in 1996 and set out on a path of renewing socialism from below. As a modest contribution to discussion, here we publish the section of a document written while still in the IS that deals with this question:

“The political core of the problem is a particular conception of leninist party-building which has pushed people to attempt to skip historical stages, and in the process to distort their reading of their own capacities and the state of the class struggle.

Lenin’s contribution to the development of revolutionary theory and practice remains a crucial one. The need for a democratic mass vanguard party as part of the process of working class self-emancipation is central to revolutionary socialism. The unevenness of working class consciousness and the centralization of capitalist power in the state makes a party a key component of the process through which the majority of the working class is won to seizing power with their own hands.

However, this tells us little about the immediate tasks confronting us as revolutionaries. We are a small group of socialists on the margins of the working class movement. In so far as we turn to the Leninist tradition to guide us in the task of building small groups, we run into trouble. There is, in fact, no serious Leninist tradition of building small groups. The key lessons of Leninism are based on the experiences of the Bolsheviks in Russia as generalized through the first four Congresses of the Communist International. The Congresses laid down guidelines for building mass workers’ parties in a revolutionary period.

The I.S. is one of many groupings that have taken these guidelines and attempted to use them to direct the development of small groups outside the working class in periods which are not revolutionary. These groups have operated on the assumption that a mass revolutionary party develops through an established series of stages (circle/propaganda group/agitational group/mass party). It is a kind of “automatic Leninism” which works like an escalator that you enter at a particular point with your ultimate destination and route determined in advance.

This approach to building small groups leads organizations into many sorts of problems, whether that means imagining themselves as tiny perfect versions of the revolutionary party or attempting to speed the progress through those stages by skipping crucial historical steps. The current claim that the I.S. is in transition from being a propaganda group into an agitational group capable of influencing large-scale struggles represents an attempt to skip crucial historical steps.

We must begin with a more modest conception of the small group project and the immense gap that separates it from the building of a revolutionary party. This gap is not unbridgeable, but it cannot be crossed by sheer will. it is the specific combination of the spontaneous development of working class insurgency with effective socialist current that creates the basis for a genuine mass revolutionary party. Organized socialists matter in this process, contributing to political clarification and acting as an organizational catalyst. However, small organizations do not automatically “turn into” mass revolutionary parties; they may contribute certain (necessary) elements to something new that is qualitatively distinct from them.

The “Where We Stand” column is therefore wrong to claim under the heading of Revolutionary Party that we “are beginning to build such a party.” This claim leads to a disproportionate emphasis on building the organizations “professional apparatus and a withering of vibrancy and debate. it also leads to silly arguments that the I.S. is reliving the Bolshevik/Menshevik split of 1903 and that the political core of Bolshevism was an obsession with apparatus-building.

We should instead say that we are working to create a socialist current that can develop a new understanding of how revolutionary parties can be built and contribute to that process. We must not assume in advance that the Russian experience provides a general model for the development of socialist organizations. Lenin himself expressed concerns at the way the Communist International generalized the experience of the Bolsheviks into a universal model of party-building, arguing that Marxist from other countries “cannot be content with hanging it [the Russian experience] in a corner like an icon and praying to it.” Lenin always urged other marxists to recognize that new conditions demanded a new analysis. We should not believe that all the answers to all our problems in building a socialist movement can be found in the writings of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Unfortunately, neither Lenin nor the other Bolsheviks had much to say about our situation, as a small group of revolutionaries who are outside the mainstream of the working class, operating in a capitalist democracy, during a non-revolutionary period. We need to take the best of the revolutionary marxist tradition and bring it to life by using it to answer the pressing question of building a small group in the actual conditions we confront today.”

(from Declaration of the Political Reorientation Faction, Jan. 1996)