Return to Debate menu

Debate on Leninism

Applying Leninism in a time of retreat

John McAnulty

31 July 2008

Some time ago we opened a discussion on the role of Leninism in revolutionary struggle today with the views of US Marxists Mary Scully and Paul LeBlanc.  Their early debate echoes more recent discussion in which Marxist scholars and intellectuals have begun to step forward to defend Leninism from the tide of slander and misrepresentation that has engulfed it from those proclaiming themselves ‘left’ critics of Lenin. 

I thought these conflicting views important because they indicated to some extent the divergent paths that sections of the revolutionary movement had taken since the fall of the USSR, with the majority following the direction indicated by Paul LeBlanc and attempting to build broad formations and a minority supporting the path indicated by Mary Scully and defending the role of the Leninist party. In expressing my views I am addressing the general strategies, rather than addressing directly the individual views of either comrade.

Essentially neither wing of the movement has been successful.  Broad front has followed broad front.  In the words of one commentator; “a mile wide and an inch deep”. They collapse with depressing frequency, but no-one ever seems to learn anything from the experience and a new attempt is made, usually with the movement taking a few more steps to the right.  On the other hand attempts to build Leninist parties, while being a least a great deal more coherent, have been equally unsuccessful on a smaller scale, while a number of groups identified (wrongly) as Leninist bring discredit on the movement through their naked sectarianism.

The dispute

The basic argument put forward by Paul LeBlanc is that Leninism is a truly inspiring branch of Marxist thought.  We have much to learn from it but we should beware of the Leninists.  This is because the layers of the working class that formed the social base of Leninism have decayed.  In the absence of this base we cannot build a Leninist party and must be content with broader movements based on more diffuse and undefined policies while we await the revival of these layers or of new layers to replace them.  Attempt to build a party are bound to fail and in fact have a negative impact because they breed dogmatic and inward-looking sects.

In response Mary Scully correctly points out that the Leninist concept of vanguard layers of the working class is a political concept, not a sociological one.  As long as there is class struggle there are bound to be those who learn from them and move into the vanguard of the class.  Putting forward the task of building a broad formation is just a long-winded way of moving to the right.  The basis of political action is no longer a revolutionary programme, even for the former revolutionists, but something more palatable, because it is less revolutionary.  She also points out, quite correctly, that honest attempts to adopt a Leninist perspective and orient to the struggles of the working class is actually a way of trying to avoid the dangers of sectarianism and dogmatism.  It is in the broad formations, open to every opportunist fad, where different currents of the petty-bourgeois hold sway, where the organisation becomes more important than the class and unrestrained hatred of other currents is let loose.

However there are weaknesses in Mary’s formulation.  Political isolation in itself can easily breed dogmatism and sectarianism. Implicit in her argument is the idea that there are significant layers of advanced workers with the political consciousness to form a Leninist party, but that these workers are obstructed by the failures of the left.  She cites same significant struggles by US workers, but these struggles were all defeated.  It is completely unconvincing to imply that this was a failure of the socialist movement.  The socialist movement simply wasn’t significant enough to have this effect. She goes on to argue that workers had an advanced consciousness where they saw the betrayals of the labour bureaucracy that led to their defeat.  This too seems unconvincing.  An advanced consciousness is not needed to tell you when you have been sold out.  High morale and consciousness are needed to convince you of the effort needed to organise independently and fight both the bosses and the bureaucracy. In fact, as blow after blow rains on them, the workers cling more firmly to their traditional leaderships in the hope of some limited protection.

Both Mary and Paul seem to draw a connection between the background environment and Leninism which I feel is mistaken.  Paul argues that conditions are not ripe for revolution and that therefore Leninism is impossible. Mary argues that conditions are overripe and therefore the immediate establishment of a Leninist party is essential.

We think that it is evident that the conditions for the working class to take power are not ripe, given the widespread collapse of working class consciousness in many areas, but that that does not in the least detract from the need for Leninist politics and for organisations committed to the methods and politics of Leninism. 


We can explain this better by looking at a number of conceptions common to the broad movement campaigns.

· There is a spectrum of difficulty in political theory, with workers naturally gravitating towards a social-democratic consciousness when times are tough and only capable of absorbing revolutionary theory when the tide is on the up. 

· There is a fixed spectrum of views, so that as social-democratic movements move more to the right, a space or a gap opens up that the socialists can fill if they take up the policies that the social-democrats have abandoned.

· The spectrum idea also involves the belief that social-democracy and socialism are different versions of the same thing rather than polar opposites, with one committed to the preservation of capital and the other to its destruction.

· Unity is unity of the small groups who understand the way in which events are unfolding. The task of unity is therefore a task of diplomacy that will bring them together rather than one of mobilising the class.  Because the groups have opposing political programmes, unity is best achieved by obscuring political issues rather than by hammering out agreement.

· As class struggle declines, many of these movements become increasingly electoralist, and the task of mobilising workers is replaced by the need to get people in general to mark ballot papers in appropriate ways. 

To a certain extent I would have sympathy with the thesis of social decay.  Rather than use the word decay I would use the word retreat and the subject of the retreat is the most advanced sections of the working class.  The class has been driven back by the collapse of the USSR, by the advance of finance capital and the globalised repositioning of manufacturing capital, by the imperialist war drive, the collapse of national liberation struggles and by many other factors.  In some areas the retreat has increased in pace and become a rout of the working class forces.

If we use this metaphor of a reactionary tide running against the working class then it becomes evident right away that there is no space to the left of the social-democrats and the attempt by socialists to fill this space is simply the way in which the generalised retreat expresses itself inside the socialist movement. There is plenty of evidence for this.  Always a new unity project, always the project involves a movement to the right, the project fails, with the socialists moved to the right, the spiral begins again.  In some cases the left has collapsed into a bedrock of small social groups in NGOs, community organisations and the base of the trade union. Politics has constricted into attempts to survive within these small social milieus.  At this point the pretence that there is some debate about strategy falls apart.  The further evolution of these groups is marked by amnesia, where each failed project is immediately forgotten about, omerta (silence), where the last thing wanted is internal or external debate about a practice set in stone and finally slander, with a mountain of abuse and burning hatred for socialists who try and stand against the tide.

Doing Leninism

So why struggle to be a Leninist?  Well, Leninism and Trotskyism are simply the most modern forms of classical Marxism.  They provide the best understanding of world dominated by imperialism.  The theoretical tools that they have left us are unfinished, as all of Marxism is, but it is far better to start with what is clear than accept theoretical constructs that are confused and contradictory.  Above all the method of Leninism, much misunderstood as a particular organisational form, in the end boils down to acting together so that we can see the effects of our actions and from the actions of the workers and form a clearer understanding of the tasks needed to prepare for revolution.

Of course this form of praxis is much reduced when the Leninist organisations are tiny and when the level of working class self-organisation is so low. To that extent Paul Leblanc is quite right in seeing a decline in Leninist consciousness as following on from a decline of the working-class base, though quite wrong in seeing this as some inevitable outcome.  In any case the social factors that weaken Leninism also weaken social democracy, democracy itself and even rational thought. In the long run being determines consciousness and it is possible to imagine a world in which the victory of capital is so great that the ideas of Marxism simply disappear, but the dialectical truth also applies, consciousness determines being, and as long as Leninist groups exist they have the possibility of contributing to working class victories and seeing the turn of the tide in the class struggle.

The main contribution is to say what is. Socialist Democracy have done this partially in relation to the collapse of the anti-imperialist movement in Ireland and in analysing the contradictions of the society the imperialists have built on this collapse.  We have been able to say something about the development of the semi-colonial project in the formally independent zone in Ireland and the role of the trade union bureaucracy in policing the working class. 

We have kept up a consistent critique of the ‘broad movement’ in Ireland, arguing constantly that unity requires an object and documenting the series of unity drives that lack any agreement and that end in failure.

We have also argued for political unity, with one rather tiny fusion and a number of campaigns with other groups. We have demonstrated that the democratic content of Leninism means that it is not necessary to have absolute political agreement to be members of a common organisation and that principled agreement around simple political demands is all that is necessary to build joint campaigns.


In my view, given our experiences, it is certainly possible to consider the beginnings of international regroupment, a unity based around consideration of the needs of the working class rather than diplomacy between political rivals.  The central and immediate task of such unity would be to describe capitalism today.  At the moment Trotskyism describes the epoch as one involving the death agony of capitalism.  Clearly most of the left don’t believe this.  By their actions they clearly believe that capitalism has never been stronger and it is necessary to retreat to the right to accommodate capitalism’s new power. The response to this must not be to simply assert capitalism’s doom.  We must explain both the parasitic and crisis-ridden nature of modern capital and the success of the blows it has struck at the more advanced sections of the working class.  That means an international division of labour, a lot of hard work and research and a forum were views, analysis and experiences can be shared.

We must popularise such discussion, the results of the discussion and the body of theory underlying the discussion.  Today more than ever there are means of mass communication available to us and there is in principle a large audience, unsure but willing to be convinced.

Insofar as workers and activists are aware of the different directions within socialism, the broad front approach offers the possibility of a short-cut to victory, although, as with all opportunist positions, it always fails to deliver.  The big disadvantage of the political approach is that a realistic description of the balance of class forces is so pessimistic that many workers and activist recoil from the long and intense struggle required.  A credible international body would make the task of revolution more palatable and realistic.

Difference is not enough to justify separate organisation in the eyes of the working class. The difference must be great enough to make common action impossible.  A genuine anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, political honesty in debate and a willingness to accept the decisions of majorities while continuing to disagree are probably enough form an initial basis for unity.

Does the existing left provide a base on which a new movement con be built?  Our experience suggests that demoralisation has made many sectors so dishonest and opportunist that there is no credible possibility that they will in the future provide a revolutionary leadership.  It would however be a tremendous handicap if we had to start again from square one and recruit directly, with our tiny forces, from the mass of the working class.  There is some evidence for a silent periphery to the socialist movement, interested in Leninism but reluctant to commit themselves while the balance of forces seems so unfavourable.  By our actions we can shift this layer and put the question of revolution by on the agenda.


Return to top of page