The Necessity of Revolutionary Leadership
Who We Are—Introducing Bolshevik
‘‘The whole history of the struggle between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks is dotted with this little word ‘process.’ Lenin always formulated tasks and proposed corresponding methods. The Mensheviks agreed with the same ‘aims’ by and large, but left their realization to the historic process. There is nothing new under the sun.’’
—Leon Trotsky, ‘‘To Comrade Sneevliet on the IAG Conference,’’ Writings (1934-35)
Bolshevik, political journal of the Bolshevik Tendency (BT), takes its name from the party that led the first and, to date, only successful workers’ revolution—in October 1917, an event which stands as the high-water mark of the international class struggle. The destruction of the Soviet workers’ state in 1991, after almost seven decades of Stalinist misleadership, represented an enormous historic defeat for the international working class. But the bright promise of the early days of the Russian workers’ state under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky still illuminates the path to the liberation of humanity from the accelerating irrationality of capitalist global disorder.
The Bolshevik Tendency is committed to applying the politics of Lenin and Trotsky to the issues confronting the contemporary workers’ movement. We stand on the record of the first four congresses of the Communist International; on the struggle of the Left Opposition against Stalinist political counterrevolution; on the founding documents of the Fourth International and the revolutionary record of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) under the leadership of James P. Cannon. By the early 1960s the degenerating SWP had effectively abandoned the difficult struggle to create a viable Trotskyist leadership in favor of embracing a supposed “objective revolutionary process” personified by Fidel Castro at the head of the guerrilla army which overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
This ersatz liquidationism was opposed by the Revolutionary Tendency (RT), precursor of the Spartacist League/U.S. (SL) which defended, and in some ways, extended, the Trotskyist program during the 1960s and 70s. This is the tradition to which we lay claim. The Bolshevik Tendency was launched in the early 1980s as an “External Tendency of the international Spartacist tendency” (ET) in an attempt to reverse the SL’s descent from a revolutionary Trotskyist propaganda group into a pseudo-revolutionary obedience cult. For a few years, before this qualitative transformation was complete, the degenerating SL’s formally revolutionary program remained qualitatively superior to its ostensibly Trotskyist competitors, most of whom were openly identifying with Poland’s capitalist-restorationist Solidarnosc, embracing the counterrevolutionary “democratic socialist” legacy of Karl Kautsky and hailing Ayatollah Khomeini’s reactionary “Islamic Revolution.” The ET’s founding statement declared that:
“while the SL’s program remains revolutionary, its leadership collective increasingly exhibits hyper-centralist, paranoid and personalist characteristics. These tendencies on the part of the leadership have reached a point where they call into question both the possibility of significantly enlarging the organization and of reproducing Trotskyist cadres within it.”
Attributing the SL’s disorientation to “frustration” generated by “eight years of stagnation and increasing isolation in a rightward-moving political milieu” the ET pronounced the group’s central cadre to be “too consciously cynical to be capable of spontaneous self-reform” and called on the ranks to actively oppose “the practices and policies of the present leadership which are disorienting and destroying the iSt [international Spartacist tendency] from within.” While our struggle to save the SL was unsuccessful, our analysis of its political trajectory proved entirely correct, and 37 years after the ET was founded, a majority of the signatories to its October 1982 founding declaration remain supporters of the Bolshevik Tendency today.
The Problem of Revisionism
Since we launched the journal 1917 in 1986, the international “far left” has continued to drift to the right. The SL has long since completed its break with its revolutionary past, a process we documented as it occurred and summarized in “Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?” (2005) and “Leninism and Nationalism” (2019).
Revolutionary Marxists have always politically combatted bourgeois ideology in the workers’ movement. From the polemics of Marx and Engels against the Bakuninists in the First International, to Lenin’s excoriation of the social-imperialist traitors of the Second International during World War One, to Trotsky’s heroic struggle to preserve the heritage of Bolshevism from Stalinist corruption, genuine revolutionists have always engaged in hard polemical combat with leftists who capitulate to the pressure that capitalist society exerts on those seeking to blaze a path to the socialist future.
Revisionism in the Marxist movement is ultimately an expression of capitulation to the perceived immutability of capitalist rule and a concomitant lack of confidence in the capacity of working people and the oppressed to act in their own historic interests. While typically presenting their proposals as creative adaptations to changing objective circumstances, revisionist currents are almost always engaged in resuscitating schemes and notions historically discredited by the Marxist movement. As Rosa Luxemburg noted in Reform or Revolution, revisionist proposals are often presented as extensions of Marxist doctrine, rather than its negation:
‘‘To expect an opposition against scientific socialism at its very beginning, to express itself clearly, fully, and to the last consequence on the subject of its real content; to expect it to deny openly and bluntly the theoretic basis of the social democracy [i.e., the Marxist movement]—would amount to underrating the power of scientific socialism. Today he who wants to pass as a socialist and at the same time would declare war on Marxian doctrine…must begin…by seeking in Marx’s own teachings the points of support for an attack on the latter, while he represents this attack as a further development of Marxian doctrine.’’
In the introduction for the first issue of 1917, we argued:
“Revolutionists must take account of the political and social climate within which they exist. One must necessarily adapt the style of presentation to the existing level of class consciousness and experience of one’s audience. But a revolutionary organization cannot adapt the content of its program without thereby ceasing to be revolutionary. The Marxian program represents the historic interests of the proletariat as a conscious factor in world politics—a ‘class for itself.’ As such it is necessarily counterposed to the existing, false consciousness of the class ‘in itself’ in bourgeois society.”
We also observed that:
“Careful attention to questions of program and theory and the vigorous defense of the political acquisitions of the past is neither an exercise in Talmudic scholasticism, nor a form of ancestor worship, as is often imagined by the smug and cynical proponents of ‘non-sectarianism.’ What may appear to the novice or dilettante as pointless hairsplitting over minute nuances of a position often represents profound differences in political appetite with enormous implications in the future. Politics is a field in which a difference of one percent will often prove decisive.”
Observing that “A revolutionary tendency need not always be correct—indeed it cannot always be correct—but it must always be correctible,” the document noted that organizations like the Spartacist tendency, where the leadership opts to “appropriate an effective monopoly of political expression internally, in the interests of ‘efficiency’ (i.e., by short-circuiting the necessarily time-consuming and difficult process of settling political disputes through democratic internal struggle) prepare their own inevitable political degeneration.” It concluded:
“A vibrant and democratic internal political life in a revolutionary organization is not a desirable option but a vital necessity. It is simultaneously the only mechanism for the correction of errors by the leadership and the only framework within which revolutionary cadres can be created.”
We have no reason to change a word of the above, but our recent experience demonstrates that “a vibrant and healthy internal political life” while absolutely necessary, is not in itself sufficient to guarantee that members of a revolutionary organization will necessarily successfully resist revisionist pressures, particularly in periods where political reaction is ascendant.
The Struggle Over ‘Russian Imperialism’ in the IBT
In 1990 the Bolshevik Tendency fused with the New Zealand-based Permanent Revolution Group (PRG) whose founding cadres had also been former members of the Spartacist tendency. The fused organization, soon joined by the German Gruppe IV. Internationale (GIVI), adopted the name “International Bolshevik Tendency.” For almost two decades the IBT, operating as a small propaganda group, was able to work out a common political approach to major developments in global geopolitics through a process of vigorous internal discussion.
This changed in August 2008 when former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili made a bid to forcibly seize South Ossetia, a nominally Georgian territory whose population identified closely with Russia, and which had enjoyed virtual autonomy following the 1991 destruction of the USSR. Vladimir Putin responded to Saakashvili’s provocation by sending in the Russian army which swiftly pushed Georgian troops out of Ossetian territory, destroying a lot of new military hardware donated by Tbilisi’s American patron in the process. The imperialist media immediately sprang to the defense of “poor little Georgia” and furiously denounced Putin, but Washington was ultimately not prepared to risk a global showdown with Moscow.
Unfortunately imperialist denunciations of “Russian aggression” found an echo in the IBT when Bill Logan, a former leader of the PRG, declared that the Georgian conflict signaled Russia’s emergence as an imperialist power. This led to a serious division in the IBT which, after an exhaustive internal discussion that lasted a decade, split along the lines of the founding groups.
The debate, documented in our pamphlet “Is Russia Imperialist?”, was conducted in an intense but generally comradely fashion. An article on imperialism drafted by Tom Riley, agreed to by both sides and published in 1917 No 39, (2017), asserted: “The core of what Marxists define as ‘imperialism’ is a relationship in which, over the long term, more backward, semi-colonial, countries suffer a net outflow of surplus value to the more advanced capitalists.” While the IBT “imps” (i.e., the comrades who considered Russia to be imperialist) signed off on this formula, they were never entirely comfortable with it, because it hardly describes the relationship between Russia and its dependents in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS—i.e., Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine).
“Only continuity of ideas creates a revolutionary tradition, without which a revolutionary party sways like a reed in the wind.”
In fact, as the “nimps” (i.e., those who rejected the idea of Russian imperialism) pointed out, far from having value extracted, Moscow’s partners in the CIS generally benefited economically from the relationship through discounted energy pricing (i.e., subsidies):
“Russian oil companies’ export earnings have grown nearly six fold in the last 10 years, but over 90% of revenue is generated by deliveries to non-CIS countries. In 2010, 26.6 million tons out of 250.7 million tons of the total crude oil exported went to CIS countries. This amounts to 10.6% of crude oil exported from the Russian Federation by volume. The average price per barrel of crude was $20.04 less for countries of the former Soviet Union than the rest of the world. This amounts to $1,090.9 million worth of oil sold at a discounted rate. To put it another way, if Russia charged CIS countries the same price as the rest of the world in 2010 for crude, it would have made an additional $3.891 billion in revenue from exports.”
—Ariel Cohen, Politicized Oil Trade: Russia and Its Neighbors, p5
With energy exports accounting for most of Russia’s foreign trade earnings, the record of subsidized oil sales to the CIS stands as an incontrovertible refutation of any notion of “imperialist” exploitation by Moscow. The “imps,” unable to offer a materialist explanation of how this phenomenon could be squared with their “imperialist” characterization of Russia, chose to sidestep the evidence.
The practical implications of our differences became very obvious on 5 March 2014 when leading “imps” released a document calling for “the immediate expulsion of Russian forces from the territory of Ukraine (including its naval base at Sebastopol).” The “nimps” pointed out that expulsion from its Black Sea base would represent a major strategic setback for the Kremlin and a victory for American imperialism, as the recently installed U.S. client regime in Kiev would immediately turn the facility over to NATO. The “nimps” declared that if an attempt was made “to forcibly seize the Russian base and assert Ukrainian nationalist/Nazi western imperialist government control” we would “side militarily with Crimean resistance and any Russian troops to repel the invaders.” The “imps” would have been on the other side in such a confrontation.
Differences Over Islamic Reaction
A second major difference arose in 2016 when elements of Turkey’s officer corps attempted to oust the country’s Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. An essentially similar issue had been posed in 2013 when the Egyptian military, with considerable popular support, deposed Mohamed Morsi’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government. On that occasion most “imps” and “nimps” took a position of defeatism on both sides. Three years later, over the attempted coup against Erdoğan, the “imps” reversed their position on the grounds that the core issue was:
“whether or not the precoup regime fell into the category of bourgeois democracy (i.e., permitted space for open working-class political activity). If it did, then we had a duty to intervene to defeat the forces that were attempting to replace it with a military dictatorship, and our intervention would have included shooting in the same direction as Erdogan’s forces and not, at that moment, at those forces.”
A leading “nimp” replied that because Erdoğan’s intention “to operate a dictatorship of the pious against the ungodly was unmistakeable,” the question was essentially similar to that posed in Iran in 1979 when the Spartacist tendency correctly refused to back Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution against the Shah’s secular dictatorship:
“I suspect that it might be easier to make a case for Khomeini’s movement in January 1979 representing democratic rights than Erdogan’s in July 2016. There was, as I have noted, the legalization of unions and leftist press and even the creation of Islamist workers’ councils, all of which the fake left celebrated. The analogy seems apt to me at least to the extent that the SL dual defeatist position did not imply ‘staying at home’ …. our differences seem to revolve around our concrete estimate of what the two sides represented.”
The debate over defending Erdogan’s Islamist regime is documented in our 2019 pamphlet “Marxism & Islamic Reaction.” Once again, when presented with evidence which contradicted their position, the “imps” simply refused to engage. We therefore eventually concluded that “continuing these discussions can only be a sterile and pointless exercise”:
“After a decade, it is very clear that there will be no convergence on the issue of ‘Russian imperialism,’ a question at the heart of many contemporary global conflicts. Moreover, as our recent disagreements over Islamist regimes in Egypt, Turkey and Iran demonstrate, the political gap between us is widening. There is rather profound ‘methodological’ divergence which seems very unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. We therefore have concluded that it is necessary to undo the 1990 fusion with the former PRG comrades and resume independent existence as the Bolshevik Tendency.”
—“Why Things Fell Apart,” 24 October 2018
While we regret that we could not win over the “imps,” we recall that the history of the Marxist movement is full of instances where principled differences resulted in the loss of dedicated comrades who once made valuable contributions.
The Necessity of Revolutionary Leadership
Humanity has entered a period of ecological collapse which will increasingly influence all social struggles. This crisis, as well as the acute danger that imperialist warmongering may result in thermonuclear catastrophe and the sinister rise of reactionary demagogues in the U.S., across Europe, in Brazil, India, the Philippines and elsewhere, underlines the very real potential for the destruction of human civilization as we know it. Unfortunately, the present juncture is also characterized by widespread confusion and general ideological disarray in the global “far left”. The task of Trotskyists is to ruthlessly expose the illusions and false consciousness purveyed by centrist and left-reformist pseudo-revolutionists while also seeking to intervene, in an exemplary fashion, in struggles against ecological collapse, fascism and imperialist war. Only through such activities can a new generation of young militants be recruited, trained and equipped to intelligently apply the lessons of the past to the new problems that will inevitably present themselves in future revolutionary struggles to avert catastrophic ecological and social collapse.
A revolutionary leadership aspiring to struggle for proletarian state power must possess the capacity to act decisively wherever and whenever a fleeting revolutionary opportunity presents itself. But the ability to do so requires having first won the political confidence of a significant working-class base, something which can only be accomplished through demonstrating effective, intelligent leadership in practical class struggles.
The revolutionary capacity of any organization cannot be measured by what it says about itself, but rather by its record at critical political junctures. Revolutionary organizations must uphold the fundamental truths of Marxism, in contrast to the array of impatient opportunists who eagerly adapt the content of their political programme to whatever is currently popular, hoping to thereby find a short cut to mass influence. Genuine Marxists, who function as the historical memory of the working class and oppressed, are distinguished by political clarity, a willingness to tell the truth and an ability to swim against the stream when necessary.
The past two centuries of working-class struggle has conclusively demonstrated that a revolutionary vanguard cannot be improvised at moments of historic opportunity, nor will one arise semi-spontaneously in the course of the class struggle. The creation of a Leninist-Trotskyist combat party capable of providing revolutionary leadership to a resurgent workers’ movement will require a political struggle to radically reconfigure the international “far left” through a process of splits and fusions. We are convinced that an essential element in this process will be the assimilation of the programmatic heritage of the revolutionary Spartacist tendency of the 1960s and 70s, as well as that of the Fourth International under Trotsky.
“The decisive element in every situation is the force, permanently organized and pre-ordered over a long period, which can be advanced when one judges that the situation is favourable (and it is favourable only to the extent to which such a force exists and is full of fighting ardour); therefore the essential task is that of paying systematic and patient attention to forming and developing this force, rendering it ever more homogeneous, compact, conscious of itself.”
—Antonio Gramsci, “The Modern Prince”