A Reply to Doug Lorimer


Posted to www.marxmail.org on December 29, 2003


From "The Bolshevik Party and 'Zinovievism': Comments on a caricature of Leninism" by Doug Lorimer:


Louis Proyect, a former member of the US Socialist Workers Party and the moderator of the Marxism List, has written a response to John Percy's article on that internet site. In it he attempts to defend his view that the Democratic Socialist Party's conception of the organisational character of the Leninist party is based, not on the actual Bolshevik experience, but on the distorted interpretation of this experience imposed upon the Communist International in 1924 by Comintern president Grigory Zinoviev, after Zinoviev had formed a political alliance with Stalin in the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. (The full article can be read at http://www.mail-archive.com/marxism@lists.panix.com/msg45804.)



Lorimer's entire article can be read at: http://www.marxmail.org/Lorimer.htm. The following are comments on selected passages.


Lorimer: The disintegration of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union opened an important debate within the Marxist movement about how to evaluate the history of the socialist movement, and especially of the Bolshevik Party, the party that led the world's first successful socialist revolution. One of the central aims of Links has been to provide a forum for such debate.


Reply: Actually the best forum for such a debate would be the Internet and the Marxism list specifically. Unfortunately, not a single DSP member, including John Percy who is subbed to Marxmail I believe, has ever taken up these questions with me. It has fallen mainly on the shoulders of a party sympathizer Alan Bradley.


Lorimer: Proyect's comments miss the point entirely. Lenin's concern about the 1921 resolution was not that it would lead foreign Communists (most of whom had come from the left wings of the reformist social democratic parties) to create parties imbued with a "Russian spirit" or parties that were schematic caricatures of the Bolshevik Party. As he himself says, his concern was that, because they lacked an understanding of the history of the Russian Marxist movement, they would fail to understand the resolution and it would therefore remain "a dead letter", i.e., the new Communist parties would retain the non-revolutionary, bureaucratic practices of the reformist social democracy. The whole thrust of the resolution counterposes to those practices the revolutionary party-building methods and organisational practices of Bolshevism. That is why Lenin says the "resolution is excellent, and I subscribe to every one of the fifty paragraphs".


Reply: Frankly, I don't think that Lenin had fully grasped the nature of the problem. He was preoccupied with the survival of the infant Soviet republic and had never really completely thought through the problem of setting up a Comintern in Moscow and defining party-building strictures for the rest of the world. The concerns alluded to above suggest that he was grappling with a real problem, one that Lorimer blithely prefers to ignore--at his party's risk, I would add.


Lorimer: Thus, according to Cohen's account, there was no public debate between Lenin and Bukharin on the national question, and Bukharin's request to the party's central leadership for such a public debate was opposed by Lenin, a position the Bolshevik leadership agreed with.


In a March 1916 letter to fellow Bolshevik leader Aleksandr Shlyapnikov, Lenin explained why he was opposed to allowing Bukharin and his co-thinkers to have their views on the national question published in the party press:


'We must refute such people, expose them, give them time to study and think, and be in no hurry to humour them: "Here are editorial rights for you, distribute your nonsense among the workers!!"


Reply: I have no idea why Lorimer is so committed to the idea that the Bolsheviks used Iskra in the same way that the American SWP uses the Militant or they use Green Left Weekly, as a way of disseminating a "line" decided by the central leadership between conventions. Not only is this not the way that the Bolsheviks operated, it makes for a more boring newspaper (except for my film reviews in GLW.)


In fact there were numerous Bolshevik newspapers, all with their own independent editorial boards that saw things their own way and wrote about them with their own perspective. Not only that, the Bolsheviks occasionally put out newspapers jointly with their supposedly worst enemies, the Mensheviks. One such newspaper was 'Severny Golos' (Voice of the North) that called for a general strike and insurrection in 1905. Around that time the Bolsheviks were grappling with the significance of 1905. Nachalo, an official Bolshevik paper, called for a dictatorship of the proletariat while another paper Novaya Zhizn advocated a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. Now we all understand that such doctrinal differences have led to numerous splits in the Trotskyist movement, but back in the good old days it did not seem to bother Lenin very much who wrote, "But have not disagreements of this kind been observed at every socialist party in Europe." (Lenin, Collected Works, V. 10, pp. 251-252; cited in Paul LeBlanc's "Lenin and the Revolutionary Party", p. 108)


Lorimer: Next Proyect cites an incident [in John Reed's 10 Days that Shook the World] in which two Bolsheviks voted against the position of the party in a mass meeting, implying that such a breaking of the common party front was a norm of Bolshevik organisational practice.




What the incident might suggest to Leninists is that Riazanov and Lozovsky were "beta" Bolsheviks, who had not firmly understood that "to weaken or break the unity of the common party front is the worst breach of discipline and the worst mistake that can be made in the revolutionary struggle". In fact, Riazanov and Lozovsky were recent recruits to the Bolshevik Party, joining it in 1917. Fortunately, their breach of discipline did not result in the defeat of Lenin's motion.


Reply: So Riazanov and Lozovsky were not "real" Bolsheviks. Even though this sort of business reminds me of unsavory "old Bolshevik" attempts to isolate Trotsky, I will refer once again to John Reed. In Chapter 2 ("The Coming Storm"), Reed refers to the fight in the Bolshevik party about whether power should be seized from Kerensky:


"However, the right wing of the Bolsheviki, led by Riazanov, Kameniev and Zinoviev, continued to campaign against an armed uprising. On the morning of October 31st appeared in 'Rabotchi Put' the first installment of Lenin's 'Letter to the Comrades,' one of the most audacious pieces of political propaganda the world has ever seen. In it Lenin seriously presented the arguments in favour of insurrection, taking as text the objections of Kameniev and Riazanov."


Can't get much more "old Bolshevik" than Kameniev and Zinoviev, can we? They somehow had no problems with airing their differences in public, did they?


Lorimer: While there is a paucity of documentation on individual expulsions from Lenin's party (since such expulsion would have been carried out by local party units), there are two well-documented examples of mass expulsions. The first was in April 1905. At the Third Congress of the RSDLP, which was attended only by Bolsheviks, on the initiative of Lenin a resolution was adopted expelling all the Mensheviks -- several hundred RSDLP members at the very least.


Reply: And right after the expulsion, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were putting out newspapers together. On the other hand, when people got expelled from Cannon's party, they were not only cut out of the party political life; they became persona non grata. Just talk to Cynthia Cochran if you want to know what happened to people who got on James P. Cannon's wrong side. It is like being excommunicated from the Catholic Church--probably worse.


Lorimer: Not only does Proyect imply that the Bolsheviks weren't really concerned about their organisation's internal discipline, but he asserts that "ideological uniformity" is a deadly threat to the political health of a revolutionary party. By contrast, Lenin was very concerned about building up the internal discipline of the Bolshevik organisation and saw its ideological uniformity as essential to developing and maintaining such discipline.


Reply: This is followed by long quote from "Ultraleft Communism, an Infantile Disorder" to the effect that ideological homogeneity is a good thing--in other words, the sort of boilerplate self-justification that is found in all small socialist groups today. However, at the very time that Lenin was writing this, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was about as ideologically diverse as can be imagined. There were left factions with their own public voices. Party theoreticians from Preobrezhensky to Bukharin were evolving their own solutions for the deep crisis of the infant Soviet republic. In any case, Lenin's words tell us very little about what *concrete steps* are required to build a revolutionary party. Being told that "correct revolutionary theory" is necessary is about as useful as learning that the capitalist system must be abolished for humanity to survive.


Lorimer: The implication of the last paragraph is that the DSP is politically "based on an interpretation of some historical question, such as the class nature of the USSR under Stalin". The DSP is politically based on a program that includes the lessons learned by the Marxist movement from the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution (which does require a Marxist interpretation of this historical experience - one of the most important in the history of the international workingclass movement). But people seeking to join the DSP are not required to agree with this interpretation.


Reply: No, they only have to be reconciled to belong to an organization that will never publish an alternative interpretation. I myself think that it is preferable to leave aside questions of "bureaucratic degeneration", etc. even if you are not required to "agree" with it. (I can't imagine having much of a social life in the DSP if you think that Stalin was not all bad.)


Lorimer: After the Bolsheviks constituted themselves as the RSDLP in 1912, they rejected the idea that minorities had a right to use the public press to criticise the majority position.


Reply: By your own admission, Lenin thought exactly the opposite in 1906. In any case, according to John Reed, public debates between Lenin, Zinoviev and Kamenev over whether to seize power or not were being held in 1917. So I wouldn't put much stock in Bolshevik history, especially when you are embarked on a "turn" that has very little in common with that history. If a Socialist Alliance is to succeed, it will have to have much more diversity and public airing of differences than anything seen in the Bolshevik Party, which operated under Czarist repression.