The Leninist Party and the Left

by Barry Weisleder, with generous assistance from Gary Porter and Robbie Mahood.  This text formed the basis for a presentation at the Socialist Action international education conference, “How to Make a Revolution”, held on June 5, 2021.

V.I. Lenin, and his famous book “What is to Be Done?”, are hated by the entire political establishment.  Even scholars who consider themselves Marxists are uncomfortable with Lenin.  Why?  Because Lenin built a party that led a socialist revolution.  He proved that workers could overthrow capitalism.

Lenin’s 1902 book was decisive in the early debates of the Russian revolutionary movement.  A fight was already underway between Marxism and Populism, especially with a group called Popular Will which espoused individual terrorism.  Then, Lenin took on the advocates of “Legal Marxism”, who abandoned revolutionary Marxism and embraced the parliamentary path to nowhere.

He challenged the opportunism of the “Economists”, a prominent reformist current. Today, in Canada, Lenin’s strategy opposes the path of reformism — whether it be the NDP and labour bureaucrats’ comfortable accommodation to capitalism, or more militant-sounding younger voices.  The latter hate capitalism, but they don’t grasp the centrality of the class struggle, nor the capitalist state as an implacable enemy of the working class. Such groups include the Democratic Socialists of Canada, Democratic Socialists of Vancouver, and Courage.  We love to work with them, but we must be honest about our political differences.

Lenin’s writings also address the errors of present-day groups like Fightback and the Communist Party of Canada.  Such organisations, as soon as they get close to the working class, adapt their propaganda to the reformist milieu within the labour movement, while at the same time elevating “activism” to a panacea.  Take Courage for example.  While it is critical of NDP leaders, and employs innovative communication techniques, the platform of Courage strives only for “democratic economic control and an inclusive society”.  It makes no mention of public ownership of basic industry under workers’ control. It issues no call for expropriation of the big polluters; it utters no demand for the socialist transformation of Canada, let alone the world.  The so-called Progressive International of Yanis Varoufakis, Slavoj Zizek and Naomi Klein is much the same:  Not a word about socialism as its goal, oblivious to the fact that many opinion polls show young people prefer socialism to capitalism.

Like the “Economists” in Russia, they lower the level of “the working-class movement and the class struggle to narrow trade unionism and to a ‘realistic’ struggle for petty, gradual reforms.”  According to the “Economists”, workers were interested only in economic or “bread and butter” issues.  This view reflects the snobbishness of intellectuals who imagine that the way to win workers is to pander to their prejudices.

Lenin wrote “What is to Be Done?” to criticize the right wing in his own party.  His tendency’s newspaper, Iskra, waged a struggle to build the party based on sound principles.

For Lenin, a ‘democratic centralist’ party was essential to lead the masses to victory.  Lenin understood that such a party could not be improvised, “since it is too late to form the organisation in times of explosion and outbursts”. Instead, it must be consciously built before such events occur.  It starts with assembling a cadre of “professional revolutionaries.”  Democratic centralism means full democracy in debate, and firm unity in action.  

While conditions in Tsarist Russia were extremely difficult and required underground methods of work, Lenin’s theory of organisation was not determined by Russian conditions. Lenin later wrote “State and Revolution”.  In it he described all capitalist states, not just the Russian one. States are instruments for the rule of one class. They are purpose-built and cannot serve the interests of another class.  In Canada, a group of academics called the Socialist Project proposes to reform the bourgeois state from within.  As its name implies, the SP opposes building a party.  Never in history has the ruling class given up its power and privileges without a struggle, a fight in which no-holds are barred. History shows that the revolutionary class requires a party and leadership which are prepared to overcome all obstacles. Despite the heroic role of the masses, without such a party the revolution will not succeed.  Conversely, the defeats suffered by the working class over the last 100 years can be ascribed to the absence of a Bolshevik-type party.  Defeats have led some activists to become cynical. Some older labour bureaucrats began as militants and now are negative, privileged and undemocratic.  Instead of building a revolutionary party, they talk about “building the movement” and “building the left”. They fail to understand that you cannot artificially create a movement. The movement of the working class arises from great events. Inevitably, the ‘movement-ists’ end up in the swamp of reformism.

The Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party split in 1903.  The majority (Bolsheviki) supported Lenin. The minority (Mensheviki) did not. It was here that the myth began that Lenin’s so-called “elitist ideas” on organisation lead to a dictatorship.  Bourgeois academics and reformists claim that these methods gave birth to Stalinism.  This is completely false. Stalinism arose from the isolation of the revolution in a backward country, not a set of organisational norms. Stalin literally climbed over the dead bodies of Bolshevik leaders he had killed.

The revolutionary party strives for clarity and unity.  A genuinely homogeneous party is much stronger than a heterogeneous one. Over a period of time, the party can attract all kinds of accidental elements, with alien ideas, that can play a very negative role. The party is not a play-ground for such types. It was far better to politically split with those who were moving towards reformism.

Lenin explained that the struggle against Marxism was led by the bourgeois intelligentsia in the universities and transferred to the reformists and opportunists in the Labour movement. That’s still true. The cadres of the revolutionary party therefore needed to be theoretically equipped to answer the arguments of its political enemies, above all in the places of ‘higher learning’. Lenin explains in What is to be Done? that the “Economists” were part of the opportunist trend in the world movement, led by revisionists Eduard Bernstein in Germany and Alexandre Millerand in France.  Lenin saw his struggle against “Economism” in Russia as part of an international struggle.

Who are the “economists” today?  Above all, they are the trade union leaders who negotiate contracts based on bread-and-butter issues (which they do rather poorly).  From their petit bourgeois position of relative comfort and privilege, they look down on the workers who they claim are not interested in, or capable of understanding political issues.  But this is nonsense.  Lenin said, “To repeat these words in a period of theoretical disorder is like wishing mourners at a funeral many happy returns of the day”.  The Labour Forward campaign is a direct challenge to this insulting bureaucratic outlook.

Lenin insisted that “the fundamental economic interests of the proletariat can be satisfied only by a political revolution that will replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by the dictatorship of the proletariat…” In other words, beginning with the immediate problems of workers, it is necessary to generalise these experiences and link them to the wider struggle to change society. This means being able to link together agitation, propaganda, and theory. While the opportunists separate the struggle for reforms from revolution, Lenin emphasizes the inseparable link between them. Revolutionaries want to raise wages, but that is not the end of the matter. We want workers to govern society.

Of course, Lenin urged revolutionaries to work in unions and to raise specific issues. But he shows the limits and dangers of this approach if done in a one-sided way. For Lenin, socialists must be revolutionaries first and foremost, and trade unionists, feminists, environmentalists, etc., second. The party has a duty to inoculate its members against opportunism by raising their theoretical level, ensuring they attend party meetings, and seeing that their work is carried out under the direction of the party.  This was a condition of membership. It is particularly important where party members take positions in the workers’ movement, where there is the danger that they can be sucked in to becoming, as Lenin put it, simply a “trade union secretary”.

For Lenin, the revolutionary press is a key tool for party building. “It would fan every spark of the class struggle and of popular indignation into a general conflagration.” Around the party newspaper is assembled “a regular army of tried fighters who systematically receive their training.”

Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolshevik party drew around itself the best of the working class to conquer state power. Today’s Marxists must do the same. 

Now, consider the Left in Canada.  The biggest component is Social Democracy in the form of the labour-based New Democratic Party.  Its leadership is ardently pro-capitalist.  However, its massive working class membership and electoral base is in fundamental conflict with the capitalist status quo.  Socialists intervene in the NDP, just as we do in the unions, to fight for a Workers’ Agenda, pointing to the need for a party of a radically different kind.

Among the strongest opponents of party building are the anarchists.  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first to declare himself an anarchist. His 1840 book “On Property”, popularized the slogan, “Property is theft”.  Proudhon was referring to the property of the rich.  He vigorously defended the right of small artisans and trades people to possess their own dwellings, land and tools that they needed to work and live.  Proudhon’s program reflected the viewpoint of this stratum of petty proprietors. Hostility to the state was based on its role as a regulator rather than as an organ of class power. Proudhon and his followers called for the abolition of the state and its replacement by a decentralized federation based on free contractual relations between independent artisans. Proudhon opposed both working class political action and labour unions.

Marx challenged Proudhon and his acolytes for their moral rather than scientific critique of capitalism and their allergy to the state and political parties.

Under the influence of Marx and Engels, the First International, founded in 1864, affirmed that the great duty of the working classes was to conquer political power.  Against this position was an anarchist minority led by the Russian aristocrat, Mikhail Bakunin, who wanted nothing to do with “the state in general” whatever its class character and therefore was adamantly opposed to political action.  Marx and Engels regarded anarchism, first with Proudhon then with Bakunin, as an alien petit-bourgeois current in the working class movement, that would vacillate between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

The dispute between Marx/Engels and Bakunin paralyzed the First International, leading to its dissolution in 1874. It was replaced by the Second International, which made rapid gains, especially in Germany.

In the late 19th century, anarchists committed to the propaganda of the deed carried out assassinations of members of Europe’s royal families and prominent capitalist politicians of the day.  The capitalist propaganda machine used this to ‘justify’ repression of the entire labour movement.

Eventually, anarcho-syndicalism abandoned its hostility to strikes and unions while retaining the traditional anarchist antipathy to political parties or running in elections.

TheIndustrial Workers of the World was the foremost example of the militant anarcho-syndicalism that spread rapidly throughout the US and Canada in the years prior to WW1. The ‘Wobblies” had three major weaknesses:  First was its self-definition as anarchist.  It kept conservative workers at arms’ length, rather than strive to unite all workers against the boss, thus isolating itself from the rest of the labour movement.

Secondly, it was a loose, unstructured movement, that could not mount a united response to the fierce state repression that hit the socialist left during and after the First World War. Nor did it campaign consistently against this imperialist war, which Eugene Debs of the American Socialist Party did.

And finally, the IWW and anarcho-syndicalism as a whole, were not prepared for the electrifying news from Russia in 1917. There, a mass disciplined party carried out a revolution in the name of workers councils or soviets that did not abolish the state but instead, transformed its class character.  After 1917, many Wobblies joined Communist and Socialist parties.  Anarchism gained mass influence in Spain, especially in the industrial working class of Catalunya and the agricultural proletariat of Andalusia.  A revolutionary upsurge in the mid-1930’s in Spain culminated in mass factory occupations and confiscation of large estates and enterprises. The anarchists were in a commanding position in Barcelona, the epicentre of this mass uprising.

Yet, in 1937, at the crucial moment when power had effectively passed into the hands of workers and poor peasants, the leadership of the large anarchist organizations drew back and ceded power to the bourgeoisie and its Stalinist allies. They could not accept the formation of a state based on a new class power. In the end, they even joined the bourgeois republican government and were active participants in the demobilization and violent repression of revolutionary workers and rural labourers who did not want to abandon their gains. At that moment, the struggle to defeat Franco was lost. The result: 36 years of a fascist dictatorship.

Anarchism regained influence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese bureaucracy’s turn to capitalism, and the wholesale retreat by the trade union and social democratic leaders.  It pointed to the anti-globalization movement and various autonomist currents such as the Zapatistas who proposed anti-capitalist, even revolutionary change without seizing power.

The Occupy Movement of 2011 was arguably the most advanced expression of this anarchist-influenced trend, coming on the heels of the 2008 financial meltdown, the Arab Spring and the Movement of the Squares in Spain.

But Occupy could not live up to its promise of radical democracy. The movement inspired long discussions about democracy, but without actually making any collective democratic decisions. Like a mirror of bureaucratic capitalist politics, real decisions in Occupy could be made only by tiny unelected and unaccountable groups.  In the end, the movement collapsed when Obama ordered the Department of Homeland Security to clear the camps.

Extinction Rebellion duplicates many of the contradictions of the Occupy movement, including the absence of clear demands directed at the state.  Black Lives Matter and the movement to defund the police, on the other hand, make clear demands but have proven vulnerable to cooptation and subordination to liberal or reformist electoral projects. Quebec Solidaire is a distinct Quebec variant of this revival of reformism.

That brings us to the Stalinist current, and specifically to the Communist Party of Canada, which broke from Leninism more than 80 years ago.  Today, the CP is reformist and Canadian nationalist to the core.  It strives for a multi-class or ‘popular front’ government.  The popular front, as opposed to the workers’ united front, subordinates workers’ parties to capitalist parties in the pursuit of power. In Canada, the popular front idea includes the “progressive wing” of the Liberal Party.  It incorporates the mistaken view, also held by CPC-ML, that Canadian nationalism is progressive.  While the CP admits that the Canadian state is an imperialist power in its own right (after all, it’s hard to ignore the giant Canadian banks, mining corporations and the Canadian military as part of NATO), the Stalinists are still pining for an alliance with a wing of the Liberal Party.  The CP supported the power bid by the combination of Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois in December 2008.  In fact, the CP wanted to be part of it.  Stephen Harper killed their dream by proroguing Parliament, twice, and winning the election in May 2011.

The Communist Party, like several other organizations on the Canadian left, is generally hostile to collaboration with competing leftist parties – unless it takes the form of an alliance that they dominate.  The Venezuela Solidarity Coalition in Toronto is an exception. But Palestine solidarity and the annual May Day celebrations confirm this pattern of sectarianism.  The CP shuns the broad, multi-party May Day Committee.  Instead, it holds a separate gathering that limits speakers to its own fellow-travelers.  Another example of CP sectarianism is its attitude towards the labour-based New Democratic Party.  The NDP is not a socialist party. But it is the only mass, labour-based political party in North America.  In the United States, where there is no labour party, the CP-USA usually backs the big business Democratic Party.  In 2020 it supported Joe Biden for President.  It does not strive to build a labour party. 

Why is the Canadian CP so hostile to the NDP? It’s not due to opposition to reformist policies. After all, the CP is equally reformist.  In the 1920s, communists helped to form the Canadian Labour Party.  But today the CP is opposed to the existence of the NDP because it stands in the way of the CP’s dream of an alliance with left-Liberals. The NDP occupies an electoral space that the CP would like to occupy, or to share with the Liberal-left.

In its programme, the CP calls for an “Anti-monopoly government, based on a parliamentary majority.”  That formulation embodies two big strategic errors.  Firstly, there is no section of the Canadian capitalist class that is “anti-monopoly”, because in the current epoch of monopoly capitalism that would entail being anti-capitalist. Capitalism and monopoly are inseparable. They go together like a horse and carriage.  Secondly, an anti-capitalist government that bases itself “on a parliamentary majority” is doomed to disaster, as we saw in Spain in 1936, in Indonesia in 1965, in Chile in 1972, and many other places.  An anti-capitalist government, that is, a Workers’ Government, may have members of Parliament. But it would need to base itself fundamentally on mass mobilizations of the working class, on institutions of workers’ power, workers’ councils in work places and communities, not on “a parliamentary majority.”  Today’s CP does not call for a revolutionary break with the capitalist state.  Instead, it seeks reform of the state and a gradual transition to socialism.  As all history teaches us, that road leads over a cliff.

Due to its commitment to reform of the state, the CP is for the preservation of Canadian Confederation.  Thus, it is for the subordination of national liberation struggles of Indigenous people, Quebecois and Acadians to the state.  Revolutionary socialists, on the other hands, are for the break-up of the colonial setter state, the Canadian prison house of nations. Socialist Action is for a Red North America based on a free, voluntary association of workers’ states.

       Another example of the CP’s reformism is its approach to the labour movement.  It does not seek to remove the conservative union bureaucracy.  Rather it seeks to join it. How? By allying with slightly-left-of-center labour-fakers.  The International Socialists have a similar approach. Both parties supported the campaign of Hassan Husseini, a CPer who ran for president of the Canadian Labour Congress in 2014. He pulled out of the race at the last moment to support Hassan Yussuff who proved to be a right wing labour bureaucrat in office.

       The Workers’ Action Movement, formed in 2015, is now running a team of militant candidates for the top four positions in the CLC.  WAM’s main goal is to build a movement, from the bottom up, to replace the labour and NDP bureaucracy and fight for a Workers’ Government.

On the revolutionary left in Canada, today the two fastest growing parties are Socialist Action and Fightback.  They are a study in contrasts.  SA is committed to the united front approach.  SA challenges the conservative labour and NDP leadership and it champions Freedom for Palestine, for an end to the Zionist Apartheid state.  Fightback avoids unity in action.  It supports the soft left in the workers’ movement.  It opposes BDS; it upholds the discredited 2-state Bantustan solution against Palestine liberation; and it works inside bourgeois parties in Pakistan and Mexico.  SA is for a green, planned economy, and for a Workers’ Revolution; the other group calls for nationalizing only a few of the largest corporations within the framework of the existing capitalist state.

       Socialist Action stands firmly in the tradition of the founders of communism in Canada 100 years ago.  SA best represents the revolutionary continuity of those who charted the path for the united front, for proletarian internationalism and for genuine democracy in the workers’ movement.  In answer to the question “What Is To Be Done?” we say:  Build the revolutionary working class party, the party of Lenin and Trotsky!