Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Kshama Sawant/SA: Big gains--possible pitfalls

Tony Benn at Militant/CWI conference during Miner's Strike
By Sean O’Torrain and Richard Mellor

Socialist Alternative (SA), the organization to which Kshama Sawant belongs and the driving force behind her election to Seattle City Council and the $15NOW campaign, faces a great opportunity. It has grown dramatically and is widely know among activists and youth. Its victory in Seattle and its very good vote in Minneapolis has given it authority and respect. This is very good and all anti-capitalist activists and those seeking to change the present system should unconditionally congratulate it on its success. 

However! It was Trotsky who said that any change in the objective situation or in the subjective factor itself tended to express itself in internal debate and struggle within the revolutionary organization. This is what is beginning to open up in the SA now. This is a positive thing but how the leadership responds to it is the key. We are also including an article below about the internal life of the Bolsheviks by a former leading member of the CWI in Britain. This article is of extreme importance in helping us negotiate the various ideas and debates, strategies and tactics that are now swirling around the heads of the membership of the SA. We would most strongly ask Comrades to read it. It is more important than this short introduction here. 

The SA has grown dramatically mainly due to its continued correct orientation to the working class as expressed through its $15.00 minimum wage struggle. But it is now faced with a new and welcome challenge; how to integrate these new members. People like ourselves concluded after a long period of interaction with the CWI that its internal life was not democratic. Trotsky said that the healthy period of the life of the Bolsheviks was a period of factions, and not only that, but factions within factions. (See article below) The CWI never embraced this position. So people like the authors of this post concluded that if the CWI/SA was going to grow to become a large organization, never mind a semi mass or mass organization it would have to change its internal life. This is the case with all of the traditional left or socialist groupings.

We ask the reader to think about this for a moment. The larger the SA becomes the more opinions there will be, the more debate and discussion there will be. This is inevitable and natural and healthy. It is to be welcomed. The test for the CWI/SA leadership is whether or not it is able to accommodate all these different opinions. The history of the leadership of the CWI/SA shows that unless it changes its internal life it will not. Its history shows that it will try and stamp down on different opinions and views. This will lead to splits, expulsions, fragmentation and members walking away in demoralization. 

Look at the history of the largest section of the CWI when the CWI was at its height with up to 14,000 members. Its largest section was in Britain where it had 8 to 10 thousand members. What happened? It shattered into pieces. Its powerful Scottish section was driven out; its powerful Liverpool section was driven out. It’s leadership of the Poll Tax movement atrophied and come to just about nothing. The CWI had a member in the leadership of the largest civil service union in Britain and also published for a while a paper, “The Panther” that we used to sell here in the US.  What happened to these efforts?  Most importantly, we argued for years that capitalism would never return to the Soviet Union. We were grossly mistaken.  Has there been a serious internal discussion about this huge miscalculation and how it could occur?

Of course there was the objective situation, but the objective situation doesn’t explain everything.  All too often, spokespersons and theoreticians of the left explain our dismal history, our failure to make any permanent and lasting mark on the working class and its organizations, on objective factors.  “We just got the perspective wrong” is often the explanation.  There is a powerful obstacle to discussing in any way, shape or form, the internal life of socialist organizations, what we did wrong, what mistakes we made, the undemocratic methods and entrenched leadership.  We have nothing to learn from the past it seems.

But a central factor in the collapse of the CWI from around 14,000 members to around 2,000 members was that the internal life of the organization could not accommodate different views and allow for factions and could not see these as inevitable and natural at that time of great changes in the objective situation and also the growth within its own ranks.

We would ask Comrades in the SA, especially new Comrades: have you heard discussion about these events, the drastic fall in influence and membership of the CWI, the reasons for this etc?  Here in the US we had leading people in the trade unions at one time and were on the verge of building a genuine opposition caucus, a broad left if you like, in one of the AFL-CIO’s largest unions, AFSCME.  Why did this fail?  We played an influential role in Anthony Mazzochi’s call for a Labor Party in the US during the 1980’s and 90’s. What lessons have been discussed within the CWI about these major interventions?

The SA will not be able to become a large organization, never mind a semi mass or mass organization unless it changes its internal life. If it continues as it is then it will fragment and split and there will be expulsions and demoralization. The SA membership must not underestimate the determination with which its leadership will hold on to its positions. It will do so no matter what damage it does to the organization as a whole. It will put its own interests above that of the organization and the working class. It has done so before and it will do so again unless it is stopped by its membership.  Any organization that has the same leader for half a century is not a healthy organization.

What has to be done now to build on the very good work of the SA is to change the internal life of the   The image included here is that of Labor Party icon, Tony Benn speaking at the Militant (CWI) conference at Wembley during the British Miner’s Strike (1984-85) It was taken by one of the authors on this blog. Also on the podium are pretty much the same individuals that lead the CWI 30 years later as well as a young woman member who was on the executive of the British Labor Party, a party that has governed a nation.  She is no longer in the CWI but the reader can imagine the excitement young people felt at such a spectacle. So you see, there have been such successes in the past. 
--> It must be made democratic, it must be opened up to different views and factions must be allowed and accepted as natural democratic debate has to occur in the branches and upward. It this does not happen then the success of the SA will be like a shooting star which flares up in the night sky only to lose its brightness and pass by. Those of us who either left or were driven out remember being as excited and hopeful as many new young members must be in the wake of the Sawant and $15NOW campaign

 The tendency for the CWI leadership and Sawant/$15 NOW campaign to rely too much on the left or liberal wing of the labor hierarchy or to broaden the campaign or control it from the top down rather than build a broader movement will ensure that the success so far will be for nought as democratic debate among the membership and aggressive and independent thinkers are shut down and the movement retreats.

For sharing these views we will be labeled as people with an axe to grind or disgruntled members and other such personal remarks.  But that’s not a new thing.  We are socialists, we want to change society, rid ourselves of this rotten system that is destroying the planet and likely life as we know it. We simply believe we have to learn form our past and our mistakes not just champion short-term gains.

Here is the very useful and interesting piece on the internal life of the Bolsheviks during their healthy period. 

Bolshevik Internal Life and Democracy

The Internal Life of the Bolshevik Party: Now let’s briefly look at the internal life of the Bolshevik Party during this period.  There is another myth that the Bolshevik Party was a tightly controlled, highly centralised organisation. In fact, the external refugee leadership located abroad was far removed from the party membership inside the Russian empire for very obvious practical reasons: huge distances, poor communications and severe state repression. As many historians have demonstrated, the social democratic workers on the ground tended to ignore the splits among the refugees abroad,  and thus Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and other factions worked together in Russia in the same organisations, only separating  during the open struggles in 1917.

On the question of debate, Pravda, the Bolsheviks’ daily newspaper in the period before the War often carried material that made Lenin’s hair stand on end. In this the paper was reflecting the various moods that existed among party members and party organisations. These ranged from the orthodox positions of the party all the way over to Menshevik ideas. It took Lenin a long time to secure an editorial board more representative of the party’s programme.

During the 1917 revolution itself, there were fierce and fundamental public arguments even about the very aims of the revolution. These were reflected in the many party newspapers.

 Let’s take the example of Lenin’s April Theses. In the first weeks of the revolution the leadership of the Bolshevik wing of the social democrats adopted a similar political position to the Mensheviks. They supported the Provisional Government and even were flirting with the idea of supporting the war effort ‘on democratic grounds’. They were also moving towards a merger between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and had agreed a joint conference to discuss the question. Lenin had heard about this backsliding and was hopping mad about it. Thus, instead of happily greeting old Bolshevik comrades that he met en route back to Russia he tore into them with a fierce critique.

It was in this mood that Lenin arrived in Petrograd in early April. As has been attested to by various accounts, when Lenin arrived at the train station he turned his back on the Soviet welcoming committee which included representative of the various left and liberal parties. Mounting an armoured truck he addressed the crowd directly, laying into the Provisional Government, calling for its downfall, and for a socialist revolution. In doing so he was obviously breaking with the democratic centralist rules of the party which according to the Leninist and Trotskyist movement today forbids party members from expressing disagreements in public.

But for Lenin, the fate of the revolution was the paramount consideration. After shocking both party members and the representatives of the rival parties, he proceeded to the Bolshevik party headquarters where he addressed a large crowd outside, repeating his criticisms of party policy. Then he went down to the basement where he berated an internal gathering of party cadres and called for a change of direction. The account we have of this was written by Sukhanov, a left Menshevik member of the Soviet Executive Committee, who was specifically given permission by the Bolshevik leaders including Lenin to attend the internal Bolshevik cadre meeting.

So much for party secrecy!
The next day, a conference had been arranged by the Petrograd Soviet to discuss reunification of the Social Democratic Party. Lenin appeared at the conference and marched up to the platform to launch into a furious denunciation of the conference and the idea of reunification. Sukhanov again reported how “at the beginning of his speech Lenin had definitely said and even emphasized that he was speaking for himself personally, without having consulted his party.” Where is the practice here that forbids party members from disagreeing in public?

It might be said that Lenin was only repeating long-held party policy and it was the internal party leadership who were out of step. But Lenin was actually arguing for a totally new policy: a socialist revolution in backward Russia. When this concept had been put forward by Trotsky many years before in his theory of Permanent Revolution, Lenin with the support of the Bolshevik faction had strongly resisted it. This policy continued up until the outbreak of the February Revolution. However, it was the practical tasks posed by the revolutionary situation of 1917 that caused Lenin to adopt the main part of Trotsky’s strategy.

Lenin’s new programme which came to be known as the April Theses, was submitted to Pravda. It was published on April 7 but only under Lenin’s signature. The next day Kamenev replied in an editorial statement entitled ‘Our Disagreements’. This “disassociated the Bolshevik leadership from Lenin’s position, stating that it represented his own private views which were shared neither by the editorial board of Pravda nor by the Bureau of the Central Committee.”

Once again we must ask where was the application of a rule that forbade public disagreement? Or would the present leaderships of the Leninist and Trotskyist groups who insist on this rule have preferred that Lenin not publicly campaign for the policy that opened the way to the October Revolution?

There are many other examples of public disagreement that occurred in the Bolshevik Party before the revolution. It was precisely this open atmosphere that allowed many people who had previously disagreed with the Bolsheviks, such as Trotsky and his comrades in the Inter-District Group, to join the party during the course of 1917. The recruitment of these former opponents of the party was an important factor in the success of the revolution with their members going on to contribute a large section of the future leadership during and after the October revolution.

Comparing the Bolshevik Experience With the Party Strategy of the Leninist Movement today: The Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (majority) was a mass movement which had established itself as the main party of the working class for at least five years before the revolution. It was only the severe repression of the Tsarist state that prevented the party from maintaining a very large membership. As soon as the repression was lifted in February 1917 the gates were opened for hundreds of thousands of militant workers and youth to stream into the party. This is a world away from the masonic one by one ‘invitation-only’ recruitment policy of the revolutionary groups today. Somehow these groups believe that when a pre-revolutionary situation arises they will be able to quickly rise from being a small vanguard group generally unknown to the mass of workers to rapidly become the leadership of the working class. This is as far removed from what happened in the Russian Revolution as it is possible to imagine. It just will not happen like this. And that is without even considering the fact that in most cases there will already be established mass working class parties who already have the ear of the workers. As Al Richardson, the founder of Revolutionary History, put it so succinctly:
"Mass revolutionary parties have never been built by recruitment in ones and twos to a sect, or even by an accumulation of such sects."

The differences between the Bolsheviks and the model of party that dominates the Leninist and Trotskyist movement today also apply to their internal life. The Bolshevik Party was not a monotone organisation but included many different tendencies and allowed public debate of its differences.

 It is the task of scientific socialists today to develop an organized wing of the movement with the aim of winning a majority in the mass organisations of working people. For this it shouldn’t seek to hide significant differences within itself but find a way to constructively involve working people in discussing them. It is only on this basis that a credible alternative can be offered to society and the forces amassed to achieve the end of capitalism.

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