Thursday, November 27, 2014

Divisions on the Left: The great Lenin debate of 2012 - and ISO

Recently the ISO held an event about Marxism and invited people on the MORE listserve to attend. It is clear that there are many views on the left.

The great Lenin debate of 2012

(Or, the bankruptcy of “Leninism” Rediscovered)
Over the past several decades, much of the international Left has come to question the “Leninist” party-building model that was hegemonic among Western socialists for the majority of the twentieth century. In the United States, it appears that the crisis of “Leninism” has sharpened in the years since 2008. While “Leninist” groups are notoriously prone to factional strife in general, this period seems to have witnessed an intensified tendency toward splinters and splits within these groups. Inevitably, this trend has generated new scatterings of disaffected ex-members, at least a portion of whom remain active in politics and activism. This process has been aided by the writings and (in some cases) the ongoing interventions of previous generations of ex-”Leninists,” who have, no doubt, helped many newly purged and “bureaucratically excluded” comrades to make sense of their experience within the sect-based Left. To this end, influential roles have been played by the likes of Louis Proyect and other former members of the 1970s-era U.S. Socialist Workers Party. Many former “Leninists” have also been influenced by such historical critics of sect-based socialist organizing as Hal Draper and Bert Cochran.[1]

This dynamic is certainly reflective of my personal experience as a newly-expelled member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). To summarize my story in very brief, I was booted out of the ISO in February alongside my comrades in the (now officially disbanded) ISO Renewal Faction. During the course of our hard-fought factional struggle within the ISO, members of the Renewal Faction discussed a number of articles critical of “Leninism” and socialist sects. To mention a few pieces in particular, at the height of the factional fight, we passed around and debated Hal Draper’s “Toward a New Beginning” (1971) and “Anatomy of the Micro-sect” (1973), as well as a number of more recent documents, including Scott Jay’s “On Leninism and anti-Leninism.”[2] Naturally, these pieces helped us make sense of the stultifying, undemocratic environment within the ISO and our experience of being ostracized and defamed by the leadership and their loyalist followers. Notably, since being purged from the ISO, members of the Renewal Faction appear to have adopted differing views on the subject of Leninism – and, for that matter, Trotskyism, as well. Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that our experience has led us all to develop profound critiques of the party-building approaches adhered to by socialist sects like the ISO.
For me personally, I can say that – since February – I’ve done a great deal of reading into some of the many Leftist debates and studies that deal with the deep-seeded historical and methodological flaws at the heart of the party-building model still adhered to by much of the Left. Like so many of my fellow “Leninist” burnouts, I’ve been particularly influenced by the writings of British academic historian Lars Lih – the author of the paradigm-shattering study, Lenin Rediscovered, first published in 2005.[3]
Beyond this, I’ve taken particular interest in reviewing one recent debate that deals specifically with the ISO’s approach to “Leninist” party building. This is the so-called “Great Lenin debate,” set in motion in January 2012 when Pham Binh, a former member of the ISO, wrote a scathing review of a now dated political biography of Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin.[4] Pham’s review — published online by the Australian socialist journal Links – focused on Building the Party (1975), the first volume in a three-part series on Lenin by the late Tony Cliff, the key leader of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP).[5] In the months follow its initial release, Pham’s review led to a volume of responses by activists and scholars in both the United States and Britain. While most of the replies dealt predominately with historical questions, the debate inevitably came to take on a more practical posture as well, with questions of party-building strategy quickly rising to the fore.
Naturally, at the time, this debate garnered widespread exposure within much of the Anglophone Left – a development that, I’d argue, relates to the profound relevance of many of the points brought to light in Pham’s initial review. Despite this, it’s my view that this debate is important enough to warrant renewed attention.  For this reason, I have chosen to compile a complete listing of the contents of this debate, which I’ve included as a “reading list” below. By doing this, my goal is to assist other activists –  including past, present, and future members of the ISO – that are attempting to make sense of the the flawed state of the Left today. The greater purpose behind all of this, of course, is to contribute — in whatever way possible — to the collective, ongoing task of renewing the international Left.
Before proceeding to this list, however, let me first provide a short summary of the debate, followed by a few insights about the debate’s lasting importance.

Tony Cliff and Pham Binh

So why is it that a review of Tony Cliff’s Building the Party – a book released some 37 years prior to the outbreak of “the great Lenin debate” – proved to be such a lightning rod for the socialist Left in 2012? The most substantial reason for this relates to the importance of this particular book within the U.S. ISO – and for that matter, the group’s former British sister organization, the SWP (as well as other affiliates and ex-affiliates of the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency). Since the ISO’s formation in 1977, the group has used Building the Party as a textbook to guide their organizational activity. This is, fittingly, the very purpose that this book was written to serve. As Cliff’s fellow SWP member Duncan Hallas wrote at the time of the book’s release, Building the Party was intended as a “manual for revolutionaries.” Thus, by calling into question the factual accuracy and interpretative merit of Cliff’s book in his 2012 review, Pham simultaneously cast doubt on the very party-building model and core mission of both the ISO and the SWP. For this reason, Pham Binh’s critique of Building the Party functioned not just as a book review – it also served as an exposition of the methodological flaws and the historical inaccuracies at the heart of the organizational project adhered to by these groups.
As an ex-ISO member that had become thoroughly disenchanted with the stultifying, undemocratic culture that permeates the ISO, Pham undoubtedly wrote this review with the intention of bringing these very issues to light. Notably, Pham makes this point in a somewhat explicit manner in a follow-up piece, released less than a week after his initial review article:
I drew my conclusions about Cliff’s book only after I closely studied what Lenin said and did and compared it to what Cliff claimed Lenin said and did. The more I studied, the more striking the divergences became.
As someone who was a member of the US International Socialist Organization for many years and used Building the Party as a text to (mis)educate people on Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the nature, scale and pervasiveness of Cliff’s distortions continually shocked me as I discovered them.[6]
So what kind of dirt does Pham bring to light in his analysis?
Interestingly, Pham structures his review as a exposition of the factual errors present in Cliff’s book. The piece thus takes the form of a chapter-by-chapter analysis of Cliff’s mistakes and distortions. In this way, Pham frames the review as something of a scholarly intervention, aimed at calling out Cliff for his sloppy, factually-inaccurate historical account. On a more subtle level, however, Pham’s review implies that the real problem with Building the Party is not just the sheer volume of “errors, falsehoods and lies” contained within the book — rather, it relates to the political importance of Cliff’s many factual blunders. As Pham reveals, Cliff presents an image of V.I. Lenin as being what amounts to an apparatchik and a cunning bureaucratic operative. Thus, in Cliff’s account, Lenin frequently resorts to deception and behind-the-scenes scheming in order to enforce his will within the Russian socialist movement. Such actions helped to bring about positive political results, Cliff’s account seems to imply, because of Lenin’s unprecedented skills as a Marxist and socialist leader – gifts that endowed him with the ability to continuously perceive the correct path forward long before other comrades had come to realize the tasks of the day. As Pham notes in the opening section of his review, Cliff’s depiction ascribes what amounts to “superhuman attributes” to Lenin. This is evident – Pham asserts – in Cliff’s assertions that “Lenin adapted himself perfectly to the needs of industrial agitation” and “[Lenin] combined theory and practice to perfection.”
While Pham does not spell out this point in detail in his initial review, it’s clear that the flawed depiction of Lenin in Cliff’s Building the Party is a matter of significant political relevance. Historically, the basis for this faulty analysis stems — in part — from Cliff’s bureaucratic, top-down view of the socialist movement and his immediate political agenda at the time he wrote the book in the mid-1970s.[7] Over the years, this flawed political vision has — in turn — had a negative residual impact on generations of ISO and SWP members that have been encouraged to view this book as a “manual for revolutionaries.”
Given the political implications of Pham’s review, it isn’t surprising that this piece provoked a shrill, vituperative response from the leadership of the ISO. This is most evident in a reply article by Paul D’Amato — a longtime member of the ISO Steering Committee and one of the group’s leading dogmatists. In his rebuttal, also published in Links, D’Amato blasts Pham’s review as being a “hatchet job” and “a series of poorly aimed potshots” at Tony Cliff.[8]
Even prior to the release of D’Amato’s piece, Pham’s review had also prompted Leftist historian Paul Le Blanc – a former member of the U.S. SWP who joined the ISO in 2009 – to pen a pair of dismissive response articles in the days following the review’s release.[9] Just as D’Amato was soon to do in his rebuttal, Le Blanc’s articles stridently defend Tony Cliff while simultaneously denouncing Binh for the critical tone of his review. As Le Blanc proclaims in the introduction to his first reply piece, “I have found Comrade Pham’s article… to be disappointing – rendered much less useful than it could have been, given that its obvious purpose is to persuade the reader that Tony Cliff’s book is little more than a mass of ‘egregious misrepresentations’ and ‘has so many gross factual and political errors that it is useless as a historical study of Lenin’s actions and thoughts’. This is a demolition job. It doesn’t offer much that we can use and build on as we face the challenges of today and tomorrow.”[10]
Following several initial exchanges between Binh and this duo of ISO theorists, a group of other Leftist authors also joined the fray. Notable among them was none other than renowned historian Lars Lih. On February 16, Lih published the first of a series of detailed articles focusing on historical questions brought to light by this debate in the Communist Party of Great Britain’s journal, Weekly Worker.[11] Crucially, while these articles are posed as impartial, scholarly contributions, Lih’s analysis consistently aligns with arguments presented in Pham’s review. At the same time, Lih is also harshly critical of a number of factual and interpretative points presented by both Le Blanc and D’Amato. Most remarkably, at one point in his February 16 essay, Lih calls out Paul D’Amato for depicting Lenin as a being what amounts to a duplicitous liar. (Specifically, Lih’s critique deals with the assessment D’Amato provides of Lenin’s handling of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party’s 1912 Prague conference). As Lih insinuates, this is particularly troubling since D’Amato obviously views Lenin as being a figure worthy of political emulation. In summarizing this point, Lih raises a series of sharp questions about the ethical outlook of “Leninist” sects in general and the ISO (and Paul D’Amato) in specific:
D’Amato’s description of Lenin’s duplicity (sorry, “advantageous tactical maneuvering”) is essentially the same as the one made by Lenin’s most vehement critics at the time – only D’Amato seems to approve of rather than condemn Lenin’s behavior. After all, it helped Lenin fool the Europeans and get party funds! …
I am not a member of any left organization and so I cannot comment on whether this kind of casual cynicism is the norm – I seriously doubt that D’Amato would apply it to issues today. But, speaking as a historian, I maintain that Lenin would have been severely annoyed by this defense: ah, that Lenin, he was a clever one – by stating the exact opposite of his real intentions, he reaped factional and financial advantage! As opposed to the D’Amatos on the left and the Elwoods on the right, I maintain that Lenin actually behaved in an honest way during this episode, saying what he meant and meaning what he said.[12]
In addition to Lih’s intervention, this debate also prompted response pieces by, among others, Louis Proyect and a pair of Leftist authors from the Communist Party of Great Britain – James Turley and Marc Macnair.[13]
After the initial flurry of exchanges released from late January to April, this debate eventually morphed into something of a scholarly discussion (albeit one with substantial practical relevance) between Lars Lih and Paul Le Blanc. For the remainder of the spring and much of the summer, the two historians published a number of articles in both Links and the Weekly Worker that grappled with various historiographical issues raised by the debate. Ultimately, the closing shot in this exchange came on September 1, when Links published a final contribution by Paul Le Blanc. The article provides a fitting title for this epic, seven-month-long historiographical battle — “The great Lenin debate.”[14]

So why is “the great Lenin debate” important?

As I see it, this debate is important because it provides compelling proof that the organizational model relied upon by “Leninist” sects in general – and, in specific, the ISO – is based upon a false reading of history.
Granted, this same point has been compellingly argued both prior to and since the release of Binh’s 2012 book review. To cite one particularly notable example, Hal Draper’s 1990 article “The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Concept of The Party’ – or What They Did to What Is To Be Done? backs up this point with eloquence and substantial historical documentation.[15] What’s more, as already noted, Lars Lih’s academic writings have also done much to show the faulty understanding of “Leninism” that underpins so much of the contemporary Left.
Nonetheless, I’d argue that “the great Lenin debate” is somewhat unique in its ability to expose the fallacious nature of the “Leninist” approach to party building. The reason for this stems from the noticeable influence of real-life class struggle and on-the-ground socialist organizing within this particular exchange. Unlike most the studies and exchanges on this subject, “the great Lenin debate” took place within the context of an important moment in the U.S. class struggle – namely, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which reached its crescendo in mid-November 2011, just over two months before the release of Pham’s initial review article. Crucially, this context appears to have done much to imbue this exchange with a practical focus that bellies the esoteric, scholarly nature of the debate itself. The reason for this has much to do Pham Binh’s close involvement in the Occupy movement. As documented in a series of journalistic accounts and essays about the movement published throughout late 2011 and early 2012, Pham was an active rank-and-file participant in Occupy’s New York City encampment. Naturally, Pham’s writings on the movement are thus infused with the outlook of someone with a vested interest and material stake in this struggle. To this end, Pham’s analysis of OWS – while certainly problematic in a number of regards – is, nonetheless, written with the goal of helping to push this important movement forward. Pham’s astute critiques of the ISO and the socialist Left from this period fit within this mold.[16]
In addition to the influence of Occupy, the “great Lenin debate” also greatly benefits from the intervention of Lars Lih. In his four contributions to this debate — each published in Weekly Worker – Lih provides detailed empirical research to back up a number of claims initially advanced by Pham Binh. To cite one particularly significant example, Lih’s articles provide ample evidence to back up Pham’s contention that, prior to 1917, the Bolsheviks never considered themselves to be a political party. Rather, they saw themselves as a faction within a broader, more inclusive, multi-tendency socialist party – the RSDLP. (And as Lih has repeatedly pointed out in his other writings, the RSDLP was modeled after none other than the German Social Democratic Party).

On the reading list

Before proceeding, I wanted to say a brief word about how I’ve gone about formatting the reading list. For one thing, in contrast to typical bibliographies (which are, of course, ordered alphabetically), I’ve chosen to structure this list chronologically. Since the debate includes multiple responses and counterresponses written over the span of several months, structuring the list in this manner is essential in order to render the content of the debate easily comprehensible.
What’s more, in addition to the actual debate itself, I’ve also included a short appendix bibliography that lists other documents of substantial relevance. This includes a series of articles from a 2010 symposium in the British academic Marxist journal Historical Materialism focusing on Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered.[17] Notably, according to Pham Binh, this symposium provided much of the initial inspiration for his review of Cliff’s Building the Party. As Pham later pointed out, “What prompted me in the first place to look at Cliff’s book carefully, chapter by chapter, in the summer of 2011 was Lars Lih’s response to Chris Harman and Paul Le Blanc in Historical Materialism 18. Here, Lih mentioned some of Building the Party’s factual errors. I was curious to see if there were any errors that Lih had not brought to light. The rest, as they say, is history.”[18]
Ben Smith

“The great Lenin debate”: Reading list

Click here for the complete 23-article collection compiled into a single PDF file.
1. Pham Binh, “Mangling the party: Tony Cliff’s Lenin,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 24, 2012.
2. Paul Le Blanc, “Revolutionary method in the study of Lenin – A response to Pham Binh,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 31, 2012.
3. Pham Binh, “Paul Le Blanc’s defense of Tony Cliff’s ‘Building the Party,’“ Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 31, 2012.
4. Paul Le Blanc, “Five points in response to Pham Binh,” Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 1, 2012.
5. Paul D’Amato, “The mangling of Tony Cliff,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 4, 2012.
6. Louis Proyect, “Paul D’Amato and the Red Condom,” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist, February 6, 2012.
7. Pham Binh, “United States: Another socialist left is possible – a reply to Paul D’Amato,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 10, 2012.
8. Paul Le Blanc, “Revolutionary organization and the ‘Occupy moment,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 16, 2012.
9. Lars Lih, “Falling out over a Cliff,” Weekly Worker, February 16, 2012.
10. Paul Le Blanc, “The Lenin wars: Over a Cliff with Lars Lih,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 19, 2012.
11. “Some Thoughts on Lih’s intervention in the ‘Cliff/Lenin Debate,’” Pink Scare, March 8, 2012.
12. James Turley, “Fur flies over Lenin,” Weekly Worker, March 22, 2012.
13. Pham Binh, “Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin,” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist, March 27, 2012.
14. Pham Binh, “Wanting to get Lenin wrong,” Weekly Worker, March 29, 2012.
15. Paul Le Blanc, “1912 and 2012,” Weekly Worker, April 5, 2012.
16. Marc Macnair, “Both Pham Binh and Paul Le Blanc are wrong,” Weekly Worker, April 5, 2012.
17. Paul Le Blanc, “The birth of the Bolshevik party in 1912,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, April 17, 2012.
18. Lars Lih, “A faction is not a party,” Weekly Worker, May 3, 2012.
19. Paul Le Blanc, “Bolshevism and party building — convergence and questions,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, May 5, 2012.
20. Pham Binh, “Liquidating lies,” Anticapitalist Initiative, May 8, 2012.
21. Lars Lih, “How Lenin’s party became (Bolshevik),” Weekly Worker, May 17, 2012.
22. Lars Lih, “Bolshevism and revolutionary social democracy,” Weekly Worker, June 7, 2012.
23. Paul Le Blanc, “The great Lenin debate — history and politics,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, September 1, 2012.

Appendix: Related literature of note

Binh, Pham. “A response to Paul LeBlanc’s ‘Marxism and Organization’.” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist (June 29, 2011).
____________. “Occupy and the tasks of socialists.” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal (December 14, 2011).
Blackledge, Paul; Ronald Grigor Suny, Robert Mayer, Chris Harman, Alan Shandro, Paul Le Blanc, and Lars T Lih. “Symposium on Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered.” Historical Materialism 18 (2010): 25-174.
Cliff, Tony. Building the Party: Lenin, 1893-1914. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002. Available online through the Marxists Internet Archive.
D’Amato, Paul. “Marx, Lenin, and Luxemburg: Party, organization, and revolution.” International Socialist Review 92 (Spring 2014).
Shawki, Ahmed. “What kind of party do we need?” Socialist Worker (December 2, 2011).


1. See Louis Proyect, “The Leninist Party: an annotated bibliography,” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist, March 11, 2009.
2. Hal Draper, “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect,” 1973, available through the Marxists Internet Archive; Hal Draper, “Toward a New Beginning – On Another Road: The Alternative to the Micro-Sect,” 1971, Available through the Marxists Internet Archive; Scott Jay, “On Leninism and anti-Leninism,” to the victor go the toils, November 25, 2013; JoaquĆ­n Bustelo, “Lenin Was Not a Leninist,” The North Star, March 13, 2012.
3. Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).
4. Pham Binh, “Mangling the party: Tony Cliff’s Lenin,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 24, 2012.
5. Tony Cliff, Building the Party: Lenin, 1893-1914 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002). Available in full online through the Marxists Internet Archive.
6. Pham Binh, “Paul Le Blanc’s defense of Tony Cliff’s ‘Building the Party’” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 31, 2012.
7. See Jim Higgins, More Years for the Locust: The Origins of the SWP (London: IS Group, 1997). Available online through the Marxists Internet Archive.
8. Paul D’Amato, “The mangling of Tony Cliff,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 4, 2012.
9. Paul Le Blanc, “Why I’m joining the US International Socialist Organization: Intensifying the struggle for social change,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, October 2009. Paul Le Blanc, “Revolutionary method in the study of Lenin – A response to Pham Binh,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 31, 2012.
10. Le Blanc, “Revolutionary method in the study of Lenin.”
11. Lars Lih, “Falling out over a Cliff,” Weekly Worker, February 16, 2012.
12. Ibid.
13. Louis Proyect, “Paul D’Amato and the Red Condom,” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist, February 6, 2012. James Turley, “Fur flies over Lenin,” Weekly Worker, March 22, 2012. Marc Macnair, “Both Pham Binh and Paul Le Blanc are wrong,” Weekly Worker, April 5, 2012.
14. Paul Le Blanc, “The great Lenin debate – history and politics,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, September 1, 2012.
15. Hal Draper, “The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Concept of The Party’ — or What They Did to What Is To Be Done,” 1990, available online through the Marxists Internet Archive.
16. See Pham Binh, “Occupy and the tasks of socialists,” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, December 14, 2011.
17. Paul Blackledge, Ronald Grigor Suny, Robert Mayer, Chris Harman, Alan Shandro, Paul Le Blanc, and Lars T Lih, “Symposium on Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered,” Historical Materialism 18 (2010): 25-174.
18. Pham Binh, “Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin,” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist, March 27, 2012.
[This article was first published on Red Atlanta.]