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  • The Crucible: Witch-hunts and society in crisis

    A new production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible draws out well the resonances between witch-hunts and contemporary politics, finds Lindsey German

  • Brigadistes: Lives for Liberty - book review

    Chris Bambery welcomes Brigadistes, a wonderful collection of portraits of international volunteers for the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War

  • Living with shadows: memory and struggle - Interview with Merilyn Moos

    Lindsey German speaks to Merilyn Moos about the lives and politics of her family and her as outlined in her recently published memoir Living with Shadows

  • The Rebirth of Italian Communism, 1943–44: Dissidents in German-Occupied Rome - book review

    David Broder’s The Rebirth of Italian Communism reveals the important story of the dissident Italian communist resistance in Nazi-occupied Rome, finds Chris Bambery

  • China 1949: Year of Revolution - book review

    As China 1949shows, the CCP victory of that year enabled the country’s rise to global power status, but it was not a workers’ revolution, argues Sean Ledwith

  • 1933: Warnings From History - book review

    1933: Warnings From History republishes an important contemporary analysis of how the powerful German working-class movement was defeated by Nazism, finds Chris Bambery

  • The Railway: An Adventure in Construction - book review

    The post-war experiences of the young E.P. Thompson working on a railway in Tito’s Yugoslavia cannot be taken at face value, finds Dragan Plavšić

  • Alliance of Adversaries: The Congress of the Toilers of the Far East - book review

    The 1922 Comintern Congress of the workers of the Far East underlines the importance of anti-imperialism and the politics of liberation to the revolution, argues Chris Bambery

  • The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923 - book review

    The newly available records of the Comintern Executive Committee from 1922-23 show the importance of the organisation before its later Stalinisation, argues Chris Bambery

  • The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto - book review

    Hal Draper’s edition of the Communist Manifesto with commentary strips away layers of falsifications and misconceptions to reveal afresh Marx’s meaning, finds Dominic Alexander

  • The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War - book review

    The story of the International Brigades’ fight against fascism in Spain is newly told in Tremlett’s valuable account, finds Chris Bambery

  • Claudia Jones: Communism and the Notting Hill Carnival

    Claudia Jones. Photo: Possibly Seattle Times / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    As well as founding the Notting Hill Carnival, Claudia Jones lived a revolutionary life fighting for black liberation and socialism, writes Lucy Nichols

  • The Sharecroppers' Union: against landlord, sheriff and Klan

    Union Meeting. An unidentified woman and Sylvia Lawrence read the "Sharecroppers' Voice". Photo: Louise Boyle/Kheel Center/Cropped and banner added to original/licensed under CC 2.0, linked at the bottom of article

    The Alabama Sharecroppers' Union was one of the most impressive social movements in 20th century America, writes Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

  • Engels' contribution to Marxism

    Friedrich Engels. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    As part of our series on the revolutionary Frederick Engels, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, we repost Tony Cliff's 1996 speech on Engels

  • VE Day: a struggle for the future

    Soviet flag lifted over the Reichstag. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    The Government are invoking a blitz spirit to promote their agenda when the reality for working people during WWII was much more radical, argues Chris Bambery

  • Did Lenin inevitably lead to Stalin?

    Lenin and Stalin, 1922. Photo: Public Domain

    There was nothing inevitable about the grotesque transformation of Russia’s fledgeling workers’ state into Stalin’s Soviet Union, explains John Westmoreland in the third of his three-part series

  • The hidden history of American radicalism: the campaign for the Workers' Unemployment Insurance Bill

    New York May Day parade, 1930s. Photo: Public Domain

    The little-known story of working class organising for a Communist-led initiative in 1930s America challenges assumptions about US workers’ conservatism, argues Chris Wright

  • Lenin and revolutionary organisation

    Lenin in disguise, Russia, August 1917. Photo: pxhere

    On the 150th anniversary of Lenin's birth, John Westmoreland, in the first of a three-part series, takes on the myths and distortions to reveal the politics at the heart of the Bolshevik party up to 1917

  • Engels' Marxism

    Marx and Engels, Berlin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    In the second of our series on the revolutionary Frederick Engels, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, we are republishing this piece by John Rees which first appeared in the International Socialism Journal in 1994

  • Engels 200

  • All power to the Broadband Communists! 


    Free ultra-fast broadband isn't just possible, it's necessary, argues Elly Badcock

  • India after Naxalbari: unfinished history - book review

    An account of the Naxalbari movement in India fails to get to grips with the problems and consequences of the Maoist insurgent strategy, argues Susan Ram

  • A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee - book review

    An American socialist’s memoir of his life in East Germany overturns many standard assumptions about the contrasts of West and East, finds Dominic Alexander

  • Disgraceful and dangerous: European Parliament equates Communism with Fascism

    European Parliament. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    By voting to distort history, MEPs are legitimating fascism and imperialism, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

  • The Coming of the American Behemoth - book review

    Roberto’s The Coming of the American Behemoth argues that fascist-like processes arose from the essential workings of monopoly capitalism in 1930s America, finds Martin Hall

  • Marx and the meaning of private property

    Karl Marx

    Marx's stance on private property is far from the horror we're told it is, writes John Westmoreland 

  • Marx in Engels' words

    Engels and Marx: Photo: Communist Party USA

    Following the attack on Marx's grave in Highgate, we reprint a transcript of Engels speaking at his graveside on why he is worth remembering

  • Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and the 100 year revolution

    large crowd with banners of Luxembourg and Liebknecht

    One hundred years on from the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, their revolution still breathes, writes Evan Sedgwick-Jell

  • Frida Kahlo: artist and revolutionary

    Frida Kahlo, Vogue photoshoot, 1937. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Frida Kahlo was a revolutionary and a politically-committed artist whose art condemned the society she revolted against argues Judy Cox

  • How did socialists respond to the advent of fascism?

    Hitler and Mussolini

    As the far right gains energy across Europe, John Riddell reminds us of how the emergence of fascism was met by socialists

  • Marx200: the Paris Commune and the Marx family

    Barricades defending the Paris Commune, April 1871. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    The Paris Commune only lasted from 28 March to 28 May 1871 but it inspired Karl Marx and continues to inspire and inform socialists today argues Judy Cox

  • Marxism in 800 words

    As we approach Karl Marx's 200th birthday, Alex Snowdon summarises Marx's key ideas in as few words as possible

  • Arthur Ransome on the Russian Revolution

    Arthur Ransome. Photo: Hugh Lupton

    100 years on from the October revolution, Judy Cox introduces Arthur Ransome's pamphlet The Truth about Russia

  • W.E.B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line

    bill mullen

    This biography reveals W.E.B. Du Bois as a radical and revolutionary thinker who challenged capitalism, imperialism and racism, finds Adam Tomes

  • Resisting the erasure of the legacy of Georg Lukács

    Lukács legacy will not be erased. Photo: thebrooklyninstitute

    Right-wing governments can destroy statues, but to destroy the memory and the intellectual legacy of Lukács is impossible - Anita Zsurzsan reports from The Legacy of Georg Lukács: An International Conference

  • Georg Lukacs and the actuality of revolution

    Lukacs' grave

    Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs is under attack. We repost a talk given by Chris Nineham at the recent conference in Budapest to defend him  

  • Art and politics in revolutionary Russia – part 1

    El-Lissitzky, ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge!’ (1919) Typeset on paper.

    The Russian Revolution inspired a generation of artists to create new forms of artistic expression. In the first of a series of illustrated articles Paul Rouhan explores the art of the revolution

  • This is what revolution looks like

    Louise Bryant in 1917. Source: Wikimedia

    The Revolution 1917 event is this Saturday 25th February at Rich Mix London. Louise Bryant, an American radical and journalist, wrote a stirring account of what she witnessed in revolutionary Petrograd. This is an excerpt from her book 'Six Red Months in Russia'

  • Lenin's State and Revolution

    Lenin by Andy Warhol

    Lenin's State and Revolution offers crucial insights to those campaigning to change the world 100 years later, explains Paul Vernell

  • The moon and stars: Bolshevism and Islam

    Muslim fighters from Tatarstan join the Bolshevik Red Army in 1918. Source: Dawn

    The young Soviet Union took measures which were radical in giving power to indigenous people, including the Muslim peoples of Central Asia

  • We can't move forward if we don't understand our past

    Lenin speaking at Petrograd. Photo: Modified from Getty Images

    We need to talk about the Russian Revolution now more than ever, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

  • To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921

    to the masses

    The sharp and dramatic debates during the Third Congress of the Comintern contain lessons on strategy and tactics of crucial relevance today, argues Chris Bambery

  • A Hidden History Of The Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerillas' Victory

    cushion cuba

    When is a revolution socialist? Recent books on Cuba show the importance of revolutionary organisation for the working class, argues Dominic Alexander

  • Radical reading for the holidays

    Charlie Chaplin eats a boot in his 1926 film, The Gold Rush. Photo: Pixabay

    A scorching hot list of summer political reading selected by Mark Perryman

  • The Communist Manifesto - key texts

    Karl Marx and Frederich Engels in lego form

    The Communist Manifesto is a pamphlet that refuses to die. As incendiary as the day it was published, Paul Vernell unpacks this founding document

  • Paul Robeson: erased from history - podcast

    Born in 1898, Paul Robeson was an activist, athlete, actor and singer. Source: Wikimedia

    Portraying Paul Robeson on the 40th anniversary of his death, actor Tayo Aluko talks to us about this prodigiously talented singer, actor and socialist

  • Where next, after Syriza? A view from the left in South-Eastern Europe

    Protests in Romania in 1989

    Vladimir Unkovski-Korica analyses some of the challenges faced by activists trying to re-build the radical left in the Balkans and Eastern Europe since 1989

  • Rosa Luxemburg on parliament and political power - key texts

    Portrait of Rosa Luxemburg. Source: Wikimedia

    Vladimir Unkovski-Korica introduces a chapter from Reform or Revolution by Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg as part of our 'key texts' series

  • Is Marxism still relevant? Key texts

    Karl Marx

    The 'S' word is back. Here Chris Nineham introduces a brilliant short defence of Marxism by Tony Cliff as part of our 'key texts' series

  • Zimmerwald 1915: A new socialist resistance against war

    'War and Corpses'

    John Riddell on how a small gathering held in Switzerland 100 years ago, on September 5-8, 1915, marked a turning point in the world socialist movement

  • Classic texts 2: a summary of Lenin's 'Left-Wing' Communism - an infantile disorder

    Warhol Lenin

    The question for Lenin was: do you stand on the side lines, or engage in joint activity, including electoral activity, in order to break the hold of those who were fudging the issue of reform and revolution?

  • The principles of liberation: how Lenin rescued Marx

    Reconstructing Lenin

    Chris Nineham reviews 'Reconstructing Lenin. An intellectual biography' by Tamas Krausz

  • From dreamers to builders

    Aneurin Bevan

    Mark Perryman argues that Labour's '45 Landslide should remain a cause to celebrate 70 years on

  • Why Marx's Manifesto is still a revolutionary bestseller

    Karl Marx

    The new Penguin edition of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto was an immediate bestseller. It’s even on sale in Tesco’s. Katherine Connelly explains why this book should be on your shopping list

  • E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays and Polemics

    Book cover

    Enduring problems of class, class consciousness and political organisation are illuminated in this important new collection of E. P. Thompson’s essays, finds Dominic Alexander

  • 1945 - 2015 Whatever happened to the politics of hope?

    Days of hope

    Few outside of Scotland would claim to have been inspired by the General Election campaign, Mark Perryman previews a post-election seminar which will ask why?

  • Why one Guardian writer should be heading to Tesco’s this May Day

    The Guardian May Day article misrepresents Marx and detracts from the critical lessons learned from his life and work argues Susan Newman

  • Marx for Today

    Buy online: an essential and accessible summary of the foundations of Marx’s thought

  • Greek election: by their infomercials, ye shall know them

    Kevin Ovenden looks at the party election broadcasts and what they say about the parties in his sixth dispatch from Greece

  • Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine

    Unfinished Leninism

    Leninism, so frequently misunderstood, is shown to be of vital relevance for contemporary politics in Paul Le Blanc, Unfinished Leninism, argues Alex Snowdon

  • A breath of fresh air


    Mark Perryman reviews an exceptionally strong list of autumn political reading

  • PolyluxMarx: An Illustrated Workbook for Studying Marx’s Capital


    PolyluxMarx is an innovative and valuable introduction to Marx’s Capital, finds Sean Ledwith, despite a few disagreements in method and theory

  • An Impatient Life: A Memoir

    An Impatient Life

    Daniel Bensaïd’s memoir of a life as a socialist in France provides an engaging account of a revolutionary life during the 1960s and after, finds William Booth

  • A People’s History of Scotland: World War I and Protest

     A People’s History of Scotland

    In this final extract from A People’s History of Scotland, Chris Bambery reveals the range of protests during and opposition to the First World War that erupted in Scotland

  • Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire

    Sylvia Pankhurst Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire

    The importance and coherence of Sylvia Pankhurst’s lifelong activism is revealed by Katherine Connelly’s grasp of her political commitments, making this book an important new account her life

  • The ABC of Socialism: becoming a socialist

    The first chapter of our recently republished book 'The ABC of Socialism' by John Rees

  • The ABC of Socialism

    Book cover

    John Rees introduces a new reprint of his popular book in the preface reproduced here

  • The Scottish Lenin: the life and legacy of John Maclean

    John Maclean's name remains a byword for radical socialism - he left a lasting impression on the social history of Glasgow and Scotland writes Sean Leadwith

  • Leninism for Dangerous Times

    LeninWhat can we learn from Lenin about how we organise to transform society? Paul Le Blanc provides some answers in this text of his talk presented at Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times, 31 May 2013

  • Introduction to Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder

    LeninMarx 101 is a series of meetings to introduce the Marxist classics to activists in the twenty first century. Elaine Graham Leigh concludes the present series with a look at Lenin's Left-Wing Communism

  • Introduction to Lenin’s State and Revolution

    Lenin and the stateMarx 101 is a series of meetings and resources designed to introduce the Marxist classics to activists in the twenty first century. Neil Faulkner begins the series with a look at the Marxist theory of the state

  • Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life

    Trotsky’s eventful life is a natural story for biographers, but the key thing is to engage with his real politics rather than textbook caricature, argues Peter Stauber

  • The real Lenin

    Lars Lih’s recent biography of Lenin overturns textbook distortions and gets us back to the real Lenin that is needed for the movement, argues Alistair Stephens

  • Trotsky: Writings in Exile

    Alex Snowdon recommends a collection of Trotsky’s that gives access to some of the best Marxist writing on a wide range of subjects

  • Winning the argument for revolution: Trotsky and the Transitional Programme

    TrotskyChris Bambery discusses Trotsky's attempts to use transitional demands to relate socialist ideas to the real world

  • Gramsci’s Leninism

    A portrait photograph of Gramsci in 1916.

    Chris Walsh explores Antonio Gramsci as a Leninist, the originality of his thinking and the relevance of Gramsci today

  • Sofka: The princess who became a communist

    Sofka Dolgorouky smiles in a photograph unearthed in Britain’s MI5 archivesTansy Hoskins reviews the play Sofka based on the biography of the Red Princess; Sofka Dolgorouky

  • Trotsky’s ‘French Turn’: Lessons from crisis and radicalisation in Europe’s past

    How should revolutionaries relate to the new Left rising up across Europe? Chris Bambery argues lessons can be learned from the approach Leon Trotsky took to this question in the mid-1930s

  • Party and class: lessons from the birth of British Communism

    Minority Movement coverHow socialists relate to the working class has always been a source of tension within the socialist tradition. Chris Bambery suggests that the early years of British Communism provide lessons that are still very relevant to debates today.

  • Lenin and us: building revolutionary organisation today

    I recently published a series of posts restating the case for revolutionary organisation. The article below is a slightly edited version of those posts, merged into a single text (with some video of Tony Cliff - speaking on Lenin and the revolutionary party - as an extra). It's nearly 4000 words, so I recommend you make yourself a cuppa and find a comfy seat before starting.  

    This article aims to answer two questions. First, why build a revolutionary socialist organisation? Second, what is required to build such an organisation?

    There are many left-wing and radical activists who take a dim view of ‘Leninism’. This is often influenced by caricatured versions of what Lenin thought, wrote and did in relation to political organisation, or by negative experiences of groups which claim to be in the Leninist tradition.

    I want to clarify the Leninist tradition's relevance to the current challenges of strategy and organisation. The specific focus is therefore the need for an organisation of revolutionary socialists. This is at the heart of debates about how socialists fight to change the world.

    Class consciousness and revolutionary organisation

    Capitalist society is full of contradictions. It is, for example, a society in which the ugly reality of poverty and inequality contradicts the enchanting rhetoric of fairness, equal opportunities and social mobility.

    There are contradictions at the heart of how the system works. Although a system of competition, capitalism depends upon people co-operating with each other to do the work necessary for it to function. Capitalism expands and transcends boundaries, yet nation states remain important for the ruling class. We live in an increasingly interconnected world, yet divisions of nationalism, racism and so on remain.

    One of the most important contradictions concerns the ideas we have about the world and ourselves. Marxists argue that society is divided into classes - a ruling class, which is a tiny minority, and a working class, which is the vast majority. It is in the interests of the great majority of people to make a revolution against a wealthy, powerful ruling class, seize control of the economy, and create a society based on radically different priorities.

    Karl Marx insisted that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class. Fundamental social change - moving from capitalist barbarism to a free socialist society - cannot be delivered from above. Working people must free themselves.

    There's a contradiction, though, between our material interests and the fact that - most of the time, in most places - we seem to be a long way from socialist revolution. There is a contradiction between Marx's self-emancipation of the working class and another of Marx's observations - that the ruling ideas in any age are the ideas of the ruling class.

    The ruling class control the media, education system and other means of spreading their views, ensuring their ideas come to be seen as a kind of 'common sense'. Yet it is never, thankfully, as simple as that. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian revolutionary, referred to 'good sense' co-existing alongside this 'common sense'. He meant that ideas more in line with workers' material interests, and opposed to capitalist ideology, were also part of working class consciousness.

    There exists a mix of different ideas and worldviews inside the working class. It's also true that an individual can have a set of complex, contradictory set of ideas inside their head. They may (for example) be implacably opposed to public sector cuts but support the maintenance of the royal family, despite the monarchy being an institution that legitimises class privilege and inequality.

    Consciousness is contradictory. It is uneven. This provides the starting point for discussing strategy and organisation for changing the world.

    Reformism is, in normal circumstances, dominant inside the working class movement. This finds organised expression in the Labour Party, which is a reaction to the unambiguously ruling class politics of the Tories but also reflects the uneven consciousness of the working class. Some things are rejected; others are accepted.

    The Labour Party seeks to unite a broad spectrum of opinion within a single organisation. It also aims to reconcile opposition to many aspects of capitalism with that very system. Lenin called Labour a "capitalist workers' party" because it appeals to workers and largely reflects their ideas, but is nonetheless dedicated to managing capitalism and working within its constraints.

    Reformism isn't just about big social democratic parties like Labour. It is rooted in contradictory, uneven consciousness, and can find different expressions. When a new protest movement develops there are those who want to work within safe, established channels, or who insist on polite lobbying over direct confrontation. There will be those who seek compromise and negotiation, or who soften their demands.

    Revolutionary organisations take a different approach. A revolutionary organisation seeks to bind together those in a small (often tiny) minority who consistently reject capitalist ideas and have a revolutionary socialist outlook. This organised revolutionary minority is characterised by clarity and agreement on political ideas, by consistency in rejecting the contradictory positions generally held by reformist parties.

    This does not, however, mean rejecting the vast majority of working class people who look to the reformist organisations as an alternative to the ruling class and its political representatives. Revolutionaries relate to broader layers and work together in joint political and campaigning activity, in trade union struggles, and so on. Revolutionaries fight for reforms alongside those influenced by reformist ideas.

    Those who characterise revolutionary groups as elitist or sectarian miss this vital element in what it means to be a revolutionary: not separating yourself off, to retain 'purity' of revolutionary commitment, but rather getting stuck into the struggle, being in the thick of it.

    Revolutionary organisations can decay when they weaken their politics and make compromises with dominant ideas. But they can also decay when they retreat into inglorious sectarian isolation, standing aloof from the partial but important resistance to the system involving non-revolutionaries.

    Revolutionary organisations can seem marginal most of the time, but in a revolutionary situation - and, as 2011 is demonstrating, these do happen - they can become critically important. An organisation built in advance, with roots in the wider working class, can play a decisive role when there is mass resistance and confrontations with the old order.

    Revolutionaries, movements and class

    Lenin argued that revolutionaries must be more than merely good activists in a particular sphere, e.g. solid trade unionists fighting for better pay, but should be 'tribunes of the people' championing a range of causes, linking them together, and challenging exploitation and injustice wherever it may be.

    Every issue, every campaign, every act of resistance, is interconnected. Highlighting these connections, relentlessly promoting solidarity, forging links between groups - these are crucial tasks for revolutionaries. A revolutionary organisation, furthermore, is about (as Marx wrote) generalising from the historical and international experience of the working class.

    It is the memory of that class struggle. But more than that: events are never a simple repetition of history, so theoretical distillation of experience (not just the reciting of it) is essential. It is probably too grand to refer to a revolutionary group as a "university of the working class", but at least in microcosm that's precisely what it is.

    There are two constant tasks for any revolutionary organisation: to organise and to educate. These two processes inform each other. The world is constantly changing, so the lessons to be derived from our 'historical and international experience' are always evolving.

    Each new situation must be analysed in its own right, though the analytical tools and intellectual framework may be inherited. What matters is what Lenin called the concrete analysis of the concrete situation.

    Stale dogma is no guide to action. Marxist theory guiding concrete analysis is, however, invaluable in plotting next steps, in answering the "what is to be done" question. Constant interaction between theory and practice is essential.

    What about the interaction between revolutionaries and wider movements of resistance? A sectarian stands apart from partial struggles - such struggles don't go far enough, or involvement in them requires 'diluting' political purity. The opposite is also a danger: becoming absorbed in specific struggles without any bigger picture of the need to smash capitalism altogether and build a different kind of society.

    The alternative is to do two things simultaneously. The two interconnected poles of revolutionary organisation are political independence and participation in the broader class struggle. This is the basis of Leninism.

    It means building a politically independent organisation, grouping together those who are committed to socialism from below, while taking part in movements, campaigns and trade unions in their efforts to defend existing conditions from attack or win specific reforms.

    Revolutionaries' attitude to the unions can only be understood in this framework. It would be sectarian for a socialist group to distance itself from union organisation, which is vital for protecting workers against the ravages of an exploitative, profit-hungry system. Socialists take unions very seriously, and help build them, precisely because they bring together large numbers of working class people and - when they move into action - boost the confidence of our side to resist.

    Anything which increases working class combativity is important. Anything which wins even small reforms, especially if it is through workers' own activity, is a boost. Victories, however minor, provide hope and act as a spur to further action.

    Revolutionaries also recognise the limits of unions. They can win reforms but not end the system that breeds inequality, oppression and injustice. The same applies to all sorts of campaigns and protest movements. It is therefore necessary to maintain political and organisational independence.

    This recognition of two fixed, mutually reinforcing, poles - political and organisational independence combined with participation in broad-based struggles - is the starting point for developing any kind of united front strategy, i.e. working with reformists in coalitions and campaigns across a range of issues. A united front approach is the way out of the twin dangers of sectarianism and opportunism.

    The word 'vanguard', a military term meaning those in the front of the struggle or battle, is much-derided. Its use by the Leninist tradition is often viewed, perhaps understandably, as elitist.

    But what can loosely be termed a vanguard is inevitable in capitalist society. If there is uneven consciousness, with the vast majority of working class people (in non-revolutionary times) partially accepting dominant ideas, a small minority which rejects capitalist ideas becomes an ideological vanguard.

    If the working class is uneven in how it resists the system, a practical vanguard will be formed. This is true whether or not they are gathered together in an organisation. Lenin's point is that it makes sense for these anti-capitalists - those who are ideologically and practically consistent in opposing the system - to form an organisation.

    Georg Lukacs wrote a short book on Lenin in the 1920s. He explained how this vanguard must constantly interact with the larger class. It must not cut itself off. Lukacs referred to how a revolutionary organisation must be 'always a step in front of the struggling masses... but only one step in front so that it always remains leader of their struggle.'

    Lukacs stressed the combination of principle and flexibility, the latter being essential because the tempo and shape of struggle inevitably change. Revolutionaries' strategies, tactics and forms of organisation must inevitably change alongside changes in the course of resistance. He put it strongly: 'all dogmatism in theory and all sclerosis in organisation are disastrous for the party.' Strategy, tactics and organisation must be changeable.

    What is democratic centralism?

    The principles of democratic centralism are simple. An organisation needs democratic structures such as an elected leadership, annual delegate conferences and regular opportunities for thorough discussion of policies, tactics and so on. Leadership at every level must be accountable to the broader membership.

    Furthermore, what is agreed through democratic decision-making should then be implemented in practice. There should be an internal culture of free and open discussion, in which criticism and disagreement are respected. All voices are heard and valued.

    Most of this is widely accepted - not just in revolutionary organisations - as important for a group to function democratically. Similarly, 'centralism' is far from being exclusively the preserve of the revolutionary socialist tradition. It means that an organisation needs to co-ordinate and prioritise its resources (time, money etc), which requires centralised mechanisms. If decisions which have been made democratically and collectively are to be implemented there has to some centralism.

    For example, a trade union has democratic structures but in order to implement decisions it is necessary to appoint full-time officers, hire office space, produce resources which can then be distributed widely, and so on. These things can be regarded as 'centralism'.

    What is the alternative? If we take the issue of resources, the alternative is that each branch has to produce materials themselves, which is wasteful and leads to huge duplicating of effort. It makes sense to pool our resources - the time and skills we can offer - to be as effective as possible.

    Take a revolutionary organisation like Counterfire, the hub of which is our website. Our elected editorial board (EB) oversees the website and all other national organisational matters. A number of us are specifically responsible for running the site. We are accountable to the wider EB and in turn the organisation's membership. We have regular all-members meetings, so if people are unhappy with aspects of the website or want to make changes they will soon let us know!

    The website - like all other aspects of our work at national level - is therefore an example of democratic centralism in action. In Lenin's time, selling socialist newspapers provided the infrastructure for building the Bolshevik Party - paper sellers created networks of activists and supporters, in factories and communities, through sales of their newspapers. It was a very dynamic kind of democratic centralism.

    But there are three further points worth making to understand what we mean by democratic centralism in the revolutionary tradition, as distinct from reformist parties, unions and broad-based campaigns.

    Firstly, a revolutionary group lays huge stress on self-activity. In the Labour Party, and even more so in trade unions, the great majority of members are inactive or have a very low level of activity. In Labour it's a thin layer of activists who do almost everything, but in most revolutionary organisations a higher proportion of members will be active - and many of them will devote a great deal of their spare time to politics.

    Local branches will be run by dedicated lay activists, with most members actively involved in some way. Routine discussion and democratic decision-making are essential for such an activist organisation to function effectively.

    This is as true at local level as it is at national level. The initiative and dynamism of grassroots members is the driving force. Local members should not 'wait for instructions', but take a lead in their own locality, based on their local knowledge and expertise. This doesn't guarantee a democratic culture, but it certainly helps.

    A second issue to consider is the relationship between local and national levels, which is different in the revolutionary and reformist traditions. In the Labour Party, leadership bodies will tend to have an ambivalent attitude to local initiative and democracy: they want activists to operate as a stage army for election canvassing and leafleting, but that's about it.

    Labour leaders want to manage the system, not overthrow it, and operate within narrow parliamentary constraints. They are politically to the right of many Labour members and are preoccupied with the 'centre ground' of politics.

    This political tension between leading members and grassroots members does not exist inside a revolutionary organisation. On the contrary: national leadership bodies will want maximum democratic participation from the full membership. The structural reasons for why Labour and trade union leaders are vulnerable to compromise aren't present in a revolutionary group.

    For example, union leaders typically earn far more than their members (which can distance them from members' experiences), but that won't be the case in a revolutionary organisation. Labour MPs are professional politicians, but in a revolutionary organisation it's likely that lay members, i.e. those with normal jobs (or students, unemployed etc), will have leading roles far more than in a reformist party.

    Thirdly, it is necessary to consider the specific nature and tasks of a revolutionary organisation, as distinct from a broad-based party or campaign. A group like Counterfire has a high level of political agreement: there won't be total agreement on all issues among all members, but there's still a large degree of political homogeneity.

    The Labour Party, trade unions and campaigns like Stop the War and Coalition of Resistance are rather different. While they may have agreed national policies, they are far more politically heterogeneous. A consequence is that they are likely to adopt looser structures. Take the Green Party, which is a fairly broad church. It allows a fair amount of local autonomy, with local branches given more scope than you will find in most socialist organisations.

    This is a consequence of being a different kind of organisation. Counterfire, for example, has distinctive politics and stands in a particular left-wing tradition. For it to be politically effective, local groups need to carry positions which have been agreed via the national organisation's democratic structures. It would be politically weaker if local groups could simply make up their own positions on issues. There's an important degree of centralism involved here, though it is centralism rooted in a highly democratic culture.

    Let's return to the starting point in this section: the necessity of democracy. Lenin referred to the combination of 'freedom to criticise and unity of action'. Freedom of criticism is essential. No member should feel inhibited from expressing their views in meetings, conferences and discussions. Open, tolerant discussion and debate are the lifeblood of an organisation.

    There may be instances of public criticism being inappropriate - if this undermines the organisation's 'unity in action' - but limiting that on occasions doesn't inhibit an organisation's internal democratic culture. The bottom line is that a revolutionary socialist organisation must be effective in action, which requires some version of the kind of democratic centralism I have outlined here.

    Seizing the key link

    A revolutionary organisation combines principle and flexibility. The politics remains consistent over time: marxist ideas, at the core of which is the self-emancipation of the working class, provide continuity and root practical activity in a general political understanding of the world.

    Tactics are informed by changing political circumstances, however, as well as unchanging principles. Recall how Lenin insisted on a concrete analysis of a concrete situation - not the unthinking repetition of dogma. This concrete analysis in turn shapes choices of strategy and tactics at any given historical moment.

    Specific tactics are formulated in that larger context: a political analysis of the whole of society, historical and international experience, and a strategic understanding of how to transform society.

    Some critics of the Leninist tradition accuse revolutionary organisations of 'opportunism' because of this tactical flexibility, when in fact consistent political principle anchors tactical twists and turns in a larger political project. The same critics claim Leninism is fundamentalist dogma, so it's perhaps worth taking their words with a pinch of salt.

    A number of practical points follow this understanding. It becomes obvious that at any given time there must be a clear grasp of priorities. Resources must be allocated according to an organisation's democratically agreed priorities, which evolve over time (and sometimes alter dramatically).

    Priorities are influenced by analysis of the balance of forces in the struggle between classes: where there are weak points in their side, where breakthroughs are possible, where we are strongest and can be most effective. Small acts have to be seen as interconnected with much bigger struggles.

    Lenin wrote:

    'Every question 'runs in a vicious circle' because political life as a whole is an endless chain consisting of an infinite number of links. The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain of events.'

    Occasionally there are events of great significance for revolutionaries, underpinning their political priorities over a fairly long term period. The terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001, and the response of US imperialism, triggered a sharp re-orientation by many revolutionary socialists. Anti-imperialism became politically central and the priority was to build a broad, active anti-war movement. This rested upon prior analysis of imperialism in the modern world, but in practice a major shift in prioritising was needed.

    Around September 2008, with the financial crash, the challenge of organising a response to the crisis of neoliberalism became especially crucial. Neoliberalism and US imperialism were, and are, both in crisis. September 2001 and September 2008 - the commencement of the 'war on terror' and a new economic crisis - are the defining events of this political period.

    We can add important factors like the restructuring of the working class, the rise of Islamophobia and so on to this picture. Since May 2010 the neoliberal crisis has found more concrete forms in British politics too: a programme of mass austerity imposed by a Tory-led government.

    In 2011 a further development has become vital for socialists everywhere: the Arab Spring, and its impact on imperialism and the dynamics of global politics. These contexts shape what we as revolutionaries do and, often in tiny ways, how we prioritise out tasks.

    This all means it is necessary to, in Lenin's phrase, 'bend the stick' towards a particular priority at any given moment. It's not the case that all issues and tasks are equal. For a socialist organisation to be effective, there must be prioritising - which means 'bending the stick' to a course of action that can bring decisive breakthroughs.

    Tony Cliff, in 'Building the Party' (his book about Lenin and the Bolsheviks), wrote:

    'In real life the law of uneven development dominates. One aspect of the movement is decisive at any particular time. The key obstacle to advance may be a lack of party cadres, or, on the contrary, the conservatism of the party cadres may cause them to lag behind the advanced section of the class.'

    This explains why not only political priorities but methods of organising can change, sometimes sharply change, at different times in a revolutionary organisation's development. What works at one stage may later become an obstacle to progress. Lenin's ideas, not to mention his record in leading the Bolshevik Party, thus remain invaluable guides for building a living, breathing and fighting organisation of socialists today.

  • Lunacharsky on Lenin: reading, writing... and cats

    Lenin (without cat)
    This blog is named after Anatoly Lunacharsky, who ran the education ministry in Russia's revolutionary government after 1917. At our recent May Day event in Newcastle I bought his book 'Revolutionary Silhouettes' from a left-wing bookstall. I've previously read some of it online, but having the book is much better.

    The book, published in English in 1967 but written in 1919, is a series of profiles of Russian revolutionaries. The chapters on Lenin and Trotsky are worth reading. Here's a bit of Lunacharsky on Lenin, plus an appropriate video clip:

    'In his private life, too, Lenin loves the sort of fun which is unassuming, direct, simple and rumbustious. His favourites are children and cats; sometimes he can play with them for hours on end.

    Lenin also brings the same wholesome, life-enhancing quality to his work. I cannot say from personal experience that Lenin is hard-working; as it happens I have never seen him immersed in a book or bent over his desk. He writes his articles without the least effort and in a single draft free of all mistakes or revisions. He can do this at any moment of the day, usually in the morning after getting up, but he can do it equally well in the evening when he has returned from an exhausting day, or at any other time.

    Recently his reading, with the possible exception of a short interval spent abroad during the period of reaction, has been fragmentary rather than extensive, but from every book, from every single page that he reads Lenin draws something new, stores away some essential idea which he will later employ as a weapon. He is not particularly stimulated by ideas that are cognate with his own thought, but rather by those that conflict with his. The ardent polemicist is always alive in him.'

  • Lenin: Class Society and the State

    A collage image of a riot police officer with baton and Lenin in 1895.

    The violent and centralised modern political state has been on display both on the streets of Arab cities and Britain. How should socialists view the state? Alex Snowdon introduces Chapter One of Lenin's classic work The State and Revolution

  • Luxemburg, Lenin and how socialists should organise: reply to Rowbotham

    Sheila Rowbotham has a disappointingly poor article on Rosa Luxemburg in today's Guardian. Damning with faint praise, she displays surprisingly little grasp of Luxemburg's ideas, lapsing into misunderstanding and tittle tattle.

    The piece is prompted by the publication of 'The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg' (newly translated by George Shriver), which Rowbotham uses to wrongly portray the Polish-German revolutionary, active in Marxist politics from the late 1880s until her assassination in 1919, as anti-Leninist.

    Luxemburg was a leading figure in Germany's radical left for two decades, at a time when the country was undoubtedly the centre and dominant player in the European left and workers' movement.

    She wrote widely, including 'Reform or Revolution' (1900) and 'The mass strike' (1906), both important contributions to the Marxist tradition of socialism from below. They analysed the rise of reformist currents and mass trade unions, assessing the significance of these developments for the struggle for socialism.

    Rowbotham is concerned, however, with rescuing Luxemburg from the revolutionary Marxists. She claims:

    'My generation of left-libertarians did indeed hail Luxemburg's defiance of Lenin's "night-watchman spirit". Against his emphasis on the centralised party, many of us were drawn to Luxemburg's conviction that workers' action brought new social and political understandings.'

    Later  - much later, after some quite irrelevant gossip - in the review she contradicts this:

    'The Communist party would retrospectively label her as an advocate of a naive spontaneity. But while she saw action as generating a transformed consciousness, her letters testify to her belief in the need for revolutionary organisation too.'

    Confused? Many readers won't have the stamina to get that far into the article, so their overriding impression will be formed by the earlier reference to Luxemburg as a bravely libertarian beacon of anti-Leninism.  

    But it is wrong. Both Lenin and Luxemburg were revolutionaries; both recognised the need for socialist organisation in some form; both rejected 'naive spontaneity' while nonetheless seeing 'action as generating a transformed consciousness'; both had 'conviction that workers' action brought new social and political understandings.'

    There were differences between Lenin and Luxemburg, which were ultimately secondary to the big questions on which they agreed. But to juxtapose them as Rowbotham does is profoundly dishonest.

    The two great revolutionaries shared an understanding that spontaneity alone is insufficient for advancing working class struggle, even (or especially) at times of dramatic revolutionary upheaval. Organisation is key. Let's not forget that Luxemburg belonged to socialist parties throughout her life.

    Lenin, though, had a sharper grasp than Luxemburg of the need for independent revolutionary organisation. In this he was vindicated by the Bolsheviks' role in 1917's Russian Revolution. A revolutionary organisation built in advance of the revolutionary upheaval - rooted in broader working class resistance and organisation - was indispensable to leading the revolutionary events of autumn 1917.

    Germany, which had a revolutionary situation the following year, suffered in large part because there was no independently organised alternative to the Social Democratic Party - Luxemburg had spent many years, before World War One, as a leading activist and theorist on the left of that party.

    Rowbotham also fails to acknowledge that Luxemburg, in her last two years, moved closer to Lenin's views on political organisation. It is as if her ideas were entirely static - she serves as a constant 'libertarian' antidote to the unspecified defects of a supposedly unchanging Leninist party model.

    There is in fact no single model of organisation for revolutionaries. Lenin never suggested there was - his Bolshevik Party evolved enormously in all aspects of organisation, adapting to changing circumstances. But it is nevertheless possible to derive some key points from the experiences of revolutionaries in the years leading up to and after 1917.

    An independent organisation needs a combination of principled commitment to revolutionary socialist ideas and tactical flexibility. While its political tradition may be a running thread, there will be twists and turns in precise forms of organisation, specific tactics, etc. Political and organisational independence doesn't mean isolation or elitism. It is complemented by active, constant involvement in larger organisations, e.g. trade unions, protest movements, and resistance.

    It is strange that Rowbotham fails to note the differing outcomes between Russia and Germany. She would find it extremely difficult to claim Luxemburg's caution about establishing revolutionary organisation was vindicated by the events of 1917/18 (or the following few years in Germany). The defeat of Germany's revolutionary movement paved the way for the rise of Nazism.

    She relies, in fact, on the erroneous assumption that Leninism led inexorably to Stalininsm, with the seeds of the latter in the (get ready to spit the word) 'centralised' party associated with Lenin. In fact Stalinism was a violent break with the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky; the bloated Soviet bureaucracy had nothing in common with the vibrant democratic centralism of the Bolsheviks.

    Rowbotham writes: 'Luxemburg's criticism of Marxism as dogma and her stress on consciousness exerted an influence on the women's liberation movement which emerged in the late 60s and early 70s.'

    Where is the evidence that Luxemburg perceived Marxism as dogmatic? She rightly criticised overly dogmatic and inflexible versions of Marxism, but that makes her a serious and genuine Marxist - just like Lenin, Trotsky and indeed Marx himself - not a critic of Marxism. I can't help thinking Rowbotham is, a little too conveniently, rationalising her own move away from Marxism over 30 years ago.

    Marx had a deep understanding, further enriched in the 20th century by Lukacs and others, of the role of consciousness - how it is formed and how it can be transformed in the course of revolutionary action. One of Lenin's great contributions to Marxism was precisely his grasp of the kind of political organisation needed to help transform consciousness and achieve social change.

    Rowbotham's reference to the women's liberation movement is misguided too. Any 1970s feminist citing Luxemburg as the basis for 'consciousness raising', i.e. the then-fashionable retreat from mass political action into intellectual navel-gazing - would be doing her a great disservice. She had a superior understanding of the unity of theory and practice, of ideas and action.  
    Today's revolutionaries can gain by learning from both Luxemburg and Lenin. We won't be helped by bizarre mis-readings of Rosa Luxemburg as someone defined by her supposed anti-Leninism and spurning of organisation.

    In Egypt, for example, the left now faces the huge challenge of building organisation capable of taking the revolution forward. Lenin and Luxemburg alike can be their guides.  
  • Don't blame Leninism

    Phil BC has posted this commentary in the wake of Tommy Sheridan being sentenced to three years in jail. He generalises from this particular case into a broader critique of Leninist organisation:

    'But what I find most disturbing is the frenzied attacks by those who reside in England and have absolutely no connection to the trial whatsoever. This hatred - for that is what it is - by members of nominally Trotskyist outfits closely resembles what you'd expect from a cult. When Scientologists are criticised, no one is surprised they intimidate and denounce opponents. That is, after all, what cults are all about. But for socialists to ape this behaviour? It speaks volumes of the fundamentally unhealthy organisational practices of self-described Leninist groups.

    Democratic centralism - a principle of organisation Lenin thought appropriate to mass parties, not tiny groups of a couple of thousand - tends not to be exercised around action, but rather is a principle for regulating the boundaries of permissible thought. Freedom of discussion becomes circumscribed discussion. Unity in action is, in practice, unity behind the positions formulated by the opaque and unaccountable executive/central committee. This is no recipe for generating critically minded working class politicians and Marxist cadre. But it does create a small following happy to swallow it all and regurgitate it when occasion demands. Such as when one of their key allies gets in a spot of bother with the law.

    If there are political lessons to be drawn from this episode, they have to centre on the far left's culture, on its promotion of and slavishness toward charismatic leaders, its pronounced tendency toward group think, and its inability to handle disputes in anything but a mature fashion. If some good is to come from the tragic and shameful waste of Tommy Sheridan's fate, a thorough rethink of all this would be it.'
    Below is my hurried reply, which I've posted as a comment on Phil's blog. I haven't changed a single word or punctuation mark in this version, so it's very rough - and obviously doesn't cover the issues comprehensively (feel free to comment here, though it might be better to do so on Phil's original post):  
    'Whatever people may make of Sheridan and his behaviour, it is wrong and regrettable that he's been jailed. Perjury, like many non-violent offences, isn't one that should lead to even a brief imprisonment, never mind 3 years.

    While I sympathise with much of what you write - including your balanced criticism of actions by people on both sides of the dispute on the Scottish far left - I don't think this is a symptom of something rotten about Leninist organisations. It can reasonably be argued there are severe problems with much of the actually existing far left in the UK as a whole, but that shouldn't be generalised into blaming democratic centralism or Leninism.

    One of the issues here is that the far left remains small and weak. There's a tendency to convince ourselves we're not, but that's the way it is. There's a number of good reasons for it - and its an international phenomenon - but it causes difficulties.

    Isolation can breed in-fighting, a lack of perspective on reality, etc. Defeats and weakness breed recriminations, blame, demoralisation etc. In many ways the various current or recent problems - from the SSP and Respect splits to the spat inside NSSN - are symptomatic of a far left that is weak, small, isolated and which has struggled to make breakthroughs.

    They are also mostly influenced by political and strategic misjudgements. Just as it is also possible to make good judgements. But they aren't somehow inherent in a particular form of organisation or strand of politics. You will always be able to find counter-examples and exceptions, and remember that the SSP was for a period successful (how is that explained if you adopt a universalising view like that above?).

    Also, the different sections of the far left don't all subscribe to a single model of organisation anyway, making generalisations impossible. The SSP was never a classic Leninist organisation - it was an alliance of existing groups combined with some independents, in which one group (the former Militant) was dominant for a long while. Respect was a different kind of formation again.

    Even within one Leninist organisation there are sometimes radical changes over time - the SWP of recent years is hugely different from the IS (its forerunner) of the 1960s.

    As for 'cult of leadership' theories... I always treat these with great distrust. Even where there's some truth in this being relevant, it is only one factor among many (and you still need to explain what's given rise to that tendency - it is definitely not innate). Yes, it is to some extent relevant in Sheridan's case, but an explanation is needed of WHY that's happened (and also of why there's been such vitriolic denunciation of him by his former allies).

    But this really isn't some major recurring theme. Healy - yes, obviously. Galloway - to some extent there was a problem, during the Respect crisis, of many people being too uncritical of him. Beyond that I'm struggling for examples.

    Genuinely democratic centralist organisations are profoundly democratic, with high levels of participation and active membership. In this they are distinct from Labour and other social-democratic parties, which are more passive and tend to have a hollowed out democracy, with leaders treating members as a mere 'stage army'. When things go wrong it is because of particular problems of politics or orientation.

    As someone formerly expelled by a Leninist party, I might be expected to share some people's indignation at 'democratic centralism'. But I don't. I was always clear about 2 things in my own case: 1. the political problems came first, and the degeneration in internal culture came after, 2. the recourse to vilification, disciplinary procedures etc was a symptom of deviating from authentic democratic centralism, rather than an expression of it.

    That's probably enough!'

  • Trotsky: The Lessons of October | 70th Anniversary

    On the 70th anniversary of the death of Leon Trotsky, a leading figure in the 1917 Russian revolution, Alex Snowdon introduces a key chapter from the radical book "The Lessons of October".

  • Lukacs after Leninism

    A photograph of Lukács, Hungarian People's Commissar for Food in the Hungarian revolutionary government, 1919.

    Georg Lukacs was arguably the most important Marxist political philosopher since Marx. His theoretical work is a vital reference point in the 20th century revolutionary tradition

  • Counterforum: Lenin & Lukacs

    Lukacs Video from this month's Counterforum which examined the role of two leading Marxist revolutionaries.

  • Leon Trotsky on the United Front - 1922

    Leon Trotsky in SiberiaText of a speech delivered by Trotsky to French Communists during the debates in the Communist International on the question of the united front.

  • Lukács, Lenin, the vanguard party and the working class

    V.I.LeninIt is the Russian Revolution and its achievements that gives Lenin his place in history. But it is also the degradation of the original revolutionary spirit under Stalinism that largely accounts for Lenin's poor reputation, even on the left.

  • Duncan Hallas: The Comintern and the united front

    Writing in 1975, revolutionary socialist Duncan Hallas stressed the need for what is often called the united front method.

  • Sadism, Nazis and Swedish Trotskyism

    Girl with the Dragon Tattoo clipWhat connects these three things? The answer is Stieg Larsson's novel 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'. The film version opens in UK cinemas this Friday.