Leninism and 21st century socialism

Leninism and 21st century socialism

Most members of the former 21st Century Socialism Tendency have now resigned from Socialist Alliance.  But I think it is still worth critically discussing some of the Tendency’s ideas.

The Tendency seemed to dismiss the whole history of the international left during the past hundred years as a “failed” project.  In one of their documents (Formation of the 21st Century Socialism Tendency) they said:

“A modern, non-sectarian socialist party that has as its aim a mass party of the working class needs to comprehensively break from all of the failed traditions of the international left, not just some of them.  Socialist Alliance has come a considerable way along this path, but if we fail to tackle the organisational problems that are hangovers from a failed, century-long project, we will lose the gains we’ve made and the wisdom we’ve accumulated through our experimentation so far.  We need to walk the talk of the broad, non-sectarian party”.

They don’t spell out what they mean when they talk of a “failed century-long project”.  But since the Russian revolution occurred in 1917 - about a century ago - it seems likely that they are referring to a “project” that began at that time.  Presumably when they talk about “failed traditions” they are referring to what are often called Leninist or Bolshevik traditions.

It is true that parties claiming to be Leninist have not succeeded in making a revolution in an advanced capitalist country.  They can therefore be said to have “failed”.

But “broad” socialist parties have not succeeded either.  Syriza is a recent example of a “broad” party that has “failed”.

No socialist party has yet proven the correctness of its approach by actually leading the people of an advanced capitalist country in making a socialist revolution.  By that criterion, all socialist parties in such countries have “failed”.

However, I don’t think we should take an “all or nothing” approach.  During the past 100 years there have been some partial victories for the socialist movement, as well as some horrendous defeats.  There have been both advances and setbacks.

I don’t think we can simply say that Leninism has “failed”.  The picture is more complex than that.

Many different political currents (Stalinists, Trotskyists, Maoists, and others) have claimed to be continuing the Leninist tradition.  We should therefore be cautious about making sweeping generalizations about “Leninist” organisations.

Some parties claiming to be Leninist have at times played a significant role in leading mass struggles.  An example is the positive role of the US Socialist Workers Party in the movement against the Vietnam war.  Unfortunately the SWP later underwent a sectarian degeneration.

Parties claiming to be Leninist have led revolutions in less developed capitalist countries such as China, Vietnam and Jugoslavia.  These revolutions introduced significant reforms for the benefit of the workers and peasants.  But attempts to advance towards socialism were largely unsuccessful, due to the combined effects of imperialist pressure and errors by the revolutionary leaderships.

Thus the history of “Leninism” is a mixture of success and failure.

The Tendency seemed to see a contradiction between Leninist traditions and support for a “broad, non-sectarian party”.  But Lenin’s own approach to party-building was not static.  During certain periods he took a relatively “broad” approach, being willing to unite with the Mensheviks at times when it appeared there was sufficient agreement to do so.

Of course, it would be foolish for us to simply imitate the strategy, tactics and organisational methods of the Bolsheviks.  (Those who claim to do so usually don’t know much about the reality of Bolshevik practice).

But this does not mean we should write off the Leninist tradition as a “failed century-long project”.  We can learn from past experience without trying to imitate it exactly.

Those who led the revolutions of the twentieth century (e.g. Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Josip Tito and Fidel Castro) were inspired by the Russian revolution, but did not simply imitate it.  They each developed strategies which they thought were appropriate to their own conditions.

In some of these countries the revolutionary governments made some disastrous decisions.  These were not the result of following a supposed “Leninist” model.  For example, Mao’s Cultural Revolution was not a result of “Leninism”, but a departure from the Leninist tradition.

(For a brief account of the Chinese revolution, including the Cultural Revolution, see:  http://links.org.au/node/2349)

Revolutions have degenerated due to a combination of objective conditions and the mistakes and crimes of particular leaders.  Objective circumstances can overwhelm a promising revolutionary experiment.  An example is the Russian revolution.

In 1917 Europe was engulfed in a war that had killed millions of people and turned tens of millions into military slaves (conscripts).  The aim of the Bolsheviks was to end the war through a revolution in Russia that would inspire revolutions in all the warring countries.  They also wanted to free the peasants from semi-feudal oppression.  If the revolution had spread across Europe it would have created the conditions for an international socialist revolution.

This was a project for the liberation of humanity from capitalism, feudalism and war.  But the actual outcome fell far short of this goal.

The revolutionary uprising was successful in Russia, but uprisings in Western Europe were defeated.  This left Russia isolated and under attack from foreign armies and local counter-revolutionaries.  Thus the Bolsheviks were immediately faced with a new war.

War tends to affect every aspect of society.  Resources are diverted to military needs.  Military-style discipline tends to be imposed on civilian life.  Society becomes militarised.

Russia was no exception.  War, international isolation, backwardness and poverty caused the revolution to degenerate, leading ultimately to Stalinism.

(See: http://links.org.au/node/3630)

The Tendency’s reference to a “failed, century-old project” seems to imply that the problems of past revolutions were due to mistaken practices by the leaders of these revolutions, and can be avoided by adopting new practices and new forms of organisation.

I don’t discount the importance of revolutionary theory, strategy, tactics and organisation.  But objective conditions are also very important.  If a revolution remains isolated in a backward country, the pressures are enormous.

Socialist experiments in the 21st century are not immune from the same pressures that caused the degeneration of revolutions in the 20th century.  Even when there is no actual war, the isolation of a socialist government in a capitalist world creates huge pressures.

In Venezuela, the sharp fall in oil prices has deprived the government of resources to meet people’s needs, and has created huge tensions.  Corruption is a serious problem.

In Greece, the Syriza government capitulated to pressures from the rulers of Europe to implement austerity policies.

Thus the problems facing socialists in the 21st century are essentially the same as those of the 20th century.  Only revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries can ease the pressures on socialists in the poorer countries.

This poses the question of whether it is useful to talk about “21st century socialism”.  What does the phrase actually mean?

I am not sure if there is a commonly agreed definition.  Probably the phrase reflects an aspiration to avoid the bureaucratic practices of the former Soviet Union and similar regimes.  But this aspiration did not begin with the turn of the century.  It has a long history.

For example, Cuba, while remaining an ally of the Soviet Union, tried to develop a more democratic political system, known as Peoples Power.

(See: http://links.org.au/node/1170)

Hugo Chavez was one of those who spoke of “21st century socialism”.  At the same time, Venezuela collaborated very closely with Cuba, whose revolution occurred during the 20th century.  Cuban doctors – educated in the spirit of internationalism by this “20th century” revolution – helped in building Venezuela’s “21st century socialism”.

I don’t think it is useful to counterpose the socialism of the 21st century to that of the previous century.  The forms taken by socialist movements, and the attempts at building socialist states, have varied widely according to objective conditions and the specific ideas of their leaders.  I don’t think they can be put into two boxes labeled “20th century socialism” and “21st century socialism”.