Why "vanguard" formations implode

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Apr 23 07:34:59 MDT 2001

For many of the subscribers on this list who have never had contact or
experience with Trotskyism or the American Trotskyist movement, many of
these exchanges about the SWP probably seem arcane. However, keep in mind
that if Trotskyism was ever to have had any possibilities, the American
party was seen as its best hope. Trotsky was on record as having said that
the SWP was the best example his movement had to offer. Unfortunately,
while Trotsky was a gifted political analyst--particularly on questions
such as permanent revolution, fascism, etc.--he was not as sharp on
party-building questions. There was little evidence that he ever questioned
the methodology that led to frequent schisms in his movement. Rather his
answer seemed to devolve on what Phil Ferguson called the "human material"
question. All of the people who failed him (Van Heijenoort, Shachtman, et
al) were subpar.

But when a movement continuously spawns leaders who abuse democracy and
foster cults around them (Cliff, Healy, Barnes, Posadas, et al), you have
to begin to ask yourself whether it is because they are flawed
psychologically or ethically; or is it because there is something about the
LOGIC of the "vanguard" model that leads in this direction.

Obviously by posing the question in this manner, it should be clear that I
have come up with an answer that is at least satisfying to me. I have
written about this problem extensively, the two longest articles are:

1. Lenin in Context:

2. The Comintern and German Communism:

This is the final two sections of the second article. It tries to explain
how the Comintern reacted to a disastrous defeat in Germany in 1924 by
creating even more rigid organizational structures than those that were in
place previously. Ironically, it was those same organizational structures
which accounted for the defeat in Germany. For the specifics on that, I
refer you to the entire article.


The German Communist Party went through 3 wrenching experiences from 1921
to 1923.

1) Bela Kuhn, the Comintern agent "assigned" to Germany, inspired the party
to take part in the ultraleft 1921 putsch. Paul Levi, the German Communist
Party leader, objected to this course and spoke up publicly. He was
expelled for his trouble.

2) Levi was replaced by Ernst Reuter-Friesland, who objected to Comintern
"intervention" in German trade union politics. He was also accused of being
too friendly to the recently expelled Levi who had argued for a united
front of working class parties, now official Communist policy.
Reuter-Friesland was expelled in 1922.

3) After Reuter-Friesland's expulsion, the mediocre Heinrich Brandler took
over. Summoned to Moscow, Brandler, against his own instincts, was
persuaded to embark on a fight for state power in early November, 1923.
Trotsky's role was to convince Brandler's and to set a fixed date. When the
isolated German Communist Party failed to lead the masses to power, the
Comintern once again found a convenient scapegoat in Brandler. He was
expelled and replaced by the ultraleftist Ruth Fischer, who had been lining
up support in the USSR.

While these wrenching changes were being foisted on the German Communist
Party, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was going through its own
tumult. Factional lines between the triumvirate of Zinoviev, Stalin and
Kamenev on one hand, and Trotsky on the other were being drawn. The
triumvirate decided to use the German events as a bludgeon against Trotsky,
since Karl Radek, his close ally, was the chief architect of the failed
German revolution. The scapegoating of Radek was in line with the
degenerating state of affairs in Russian politics.

The Russian party had become more and more bureaucratized. Lenin proposed
to Trotsky that they wage a fight against Stalin, who they saw as a
emerging bureaucratic dictator. Stalin's heavy-handed treatment of the
Georgian nationality particularly incensed Lenin. When Lenin's wife
Krupskaya was dispatched by Lenin to gather information on Stalin's
handling of the Georgians, he treated her rudely. Lenin interpreted this as
a declaration of war.

Meanwhile Trotsky had developed criticisms of the NEP. He thought that too
many concessions were being made to the peasantry and to the NEP-men.
Trotsky won the support of many veteran Bolsheviks who were disturbed by
the trends in the party and nation. They put forward a New Course that
articulated their ideas on the direction the Soviet Union should take. It
was the first formal critique of the embryonic Stalinist system. In a
letter to branches of the Communist Party, Trotsky defended the New Course:

"Away with passive obedience, with mechanical leveling by the authorities,
with suppression of personality, with servility, and with careerism! A
Bolshevik is not merely a disciplined man [sic]: he is a man who in each
case and on each question forges a firm opinion of his own and defends it
courageously and independently not only against his enemies but inside his
own party."

While Trotsky surely believed these words, it is regrettable that he did
not take them seriously himself when he was wearing down the hapless
Brandler. It was a servile Brandler who decided to plunge ahead with the
foolish bid for state power in Germany and it was the decidedly courageous
Paul Levi who would have argued Trotsky down.

In any event, Trotsky's letter captured the imagination of many Communists.
An organized grouping already existed that concurred with many of Trotsky's
New Course criticisms, even though the group could hardly be considered
Trotskyist. While it included his close allies like Preobrazhensky and
Antonov-Ovseenko, it also included members of the ultraleft Workers
Opposition. Shortly after the opposition emerged, it began to win followers
everywhere. At least one-third of the Red Army party units sided with the
opposition as did a majority of the student organizations.

The triumvirate launched a bitter and unprincipled counter-attack which
culminated in the thirteenth party conference in May, 1924. They did
everything they could to turn the fight into one of the Old Bolsheviks
versus the upstart. Trotsky was depicted as "anti-party", a rather
inflammatory but meaningless term that is often used myself against
factional opponents in any internal struggle in a "Marxist-Leninist" group.
While Trotsky spoke in the name of the workers, the triumvirate claimed
that he was really articulating the interests of the students and
intelligentsia. In other words, he was a spokesman for the
petty-bourgeoisie. Finally, they said his hatred for the party machine
indicated that he continued to harbor anti-Leninist sentiments. He was an
unreformed semi-Menshevik.

In brief, all of the methods of dehumanizing and smashing a political
opponent were mobilized against Trotsky. He was a petty-bourgeois and a
Menshevik. He did not believe in the primacy of the working class. The
triumvirate's underhanded attack on Trotsky is of course the first line of
defense of so-called "Marxist-Leninists". What better way to demonize one's
political opponents than by treating them as a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Bolshevik in name only, the opposition was in league with the

The problem that the triumvirate faced was that Trotsky had an unblemished
reputation internationally. He was considered to be the preeminent leader
of the Russian Revolution, next to Lenin. When word was received of the
anti-Trotsky crusade, the French and Polish Communist Parties protested and
demanded that the differences between the two factions be resolved in a
comradely manner. Unfortunately, most of the other Communist leaders had
long given up any pretense of independence. In the process of eviscerating
the German Communist Party leadership, the Comintern eliminated the
possibility of independent voices being heard against bureaucratic
maneuvers. Unfortunately, Trotsky himself had participated in the weakening
of the German party. At the May, 1924 Russian CP conference, only the
French delegate Boris Souvarine stood up for Trotsky. The rest of the
delegates joined in a procession of anti-Trotsky denunciations.

A month later the "Bolshevization" Fifth Congress of the Comintern took
place. This congress was designed by Zinoviev and Stalin to export the
monolithic model that the Russian party had adopted. Whatever independence
remained in the world-wide Communist movement would soon disappear after
this congress. Zinoviev and Stalin had one and one interest only: to line
up the world's revolutionary forces behind their faction. Ironically, the
model that this monstrous Comintern congress adopted was identical to the
one that the world Trotskyist movement itself adopted. This
"Marxist-Leninist" monstrosity has been the organizational lynch-pin of all
party-building attempts from 1924 on. Trotskyists have always disavowed the
political decisions made at this congress, but have never addressed the
organizational methodology that was ratified at the same time. The
bureaucratic politics and the monolithic party-building model go hand in

The Fifth Congress gave the new leader of the German Communist Party, Ruth
Fischer, the opportunity to rail against Radek, Trotsky and Brandler. They
were all Mensheviks, opportunists and "liquidators of revolutionary
principle." In the words of Isaac Deutscher, "she called for a monolithic
International, modelled on the Russian party, from which dissent and
contest of opinion would be banished. 'This world congress should not allow
the International to be transformed into an agglomeration of all sorts of
trends; it should forge ahead and embark on the road which leads to a
single Bolshevik world party.'"

The Statutes of the Communist International adopted at the fifth congress
were a rigid, mechanical set of rules for building Communist Parties. All
of the Communist Parties were subordinate to the Comintern and members of
the parties had to obey all decisions of the Comintern. The world congress
of the Comintern would decide the most important programmatic, tactical and
organizational questions of the Comintern as a whole and its individual
sections. It would be appropriate, for example, for the Comintern to
overrule a member party that had decided to support Trotsky's New Course.
The Statutes also included the sort of ridiculous measures that mark most
of the sect-cults of today. For example, statute 35 declares that:

"Members of the CI may move from one country to another only with the
consent of the central committee of the section concerned. Communists who
have changed their domicile are obliged to join the section of the country
in which they reside. Communists who move to another country without the
consent of the CC of their section may not be accepted as members of
another section of the CI."

It was a ruling like this that was used as the pretext to expel Peter
Camejo, long-time leader of the American Socialist Workers Party. Camejo
had moved to Venezuela for a year to take a leave of absence to study Lenin
and develop a critique of SWP sectarianism. When he returned to the United
States, he was prevented from rejoining because his move was
"unauthorized." He was victimized for his political beliefs rather than any
form of "indiscipline." Compare these unbending strictures with the norms
of the Bolshevik Party. In the Bolshevik Party, there was no such thing as
formal membership. A Bolshevik was simply somebody who agreed with the
general orientation of Iskra. Nobody had to get permission to transfer from
one Bolshevik branch to another because such a concept was alien to the way
the free-wheeling Bolsheviks functioned.

Even more insidious than the Statutes were the Theses of the Fifth Congress
on the Propaganda Activities of the CI and its sections. This document sets
in concrete the methodology of dividing every serious political
disagreement into a battle between the two major classes in society. It

"Struggles within the CI are at the same time ideological crises within the
individual parties. Right and left political deviations, deviations from
Marxism-Leninism, are connected with the class ideology of the proletariat.

Manifestations of crisis at the second world congress and after were
precipitated by 'left infantile sicknesses', which were ideologically a
deviation from Marxism-Leninism towards syndicalism....The present internal
struggles in some communist parties, the beginning of which coincided with
the October defeat in Germany, are ideological repercussions of the
survivals of traditional social-democratic ideas in the communist party.
The way to overcome them is by the BOLSHEVIZATION OF THE COMMUNIST PARTIES.
Bolshevization in this context means the final ideological victory of
Marxism-Leninism (or in other words Marxism in the period of imperialism
and the epoch of the proletarian revolution) over the 'Marxism' of the
Second International and the syndicalist remnants."

So the legacy of the Fifth World Congress of the Comintern was
organizational rigidity and ideological conformity. This has been the
unexamined heritage of the Marxist-Leninist movement since the 1920s. Any
attempt to veer from this method has been dubbed "Menshevik." Zinoviev was
the architect of these measures. He himself was soon deposed by Stalin who
found the guidelines perfect for his own bureaucratic consolidation.
"Trotskyism" soon entered the vocabulary of curse-words that now included
"Menshevik", "opportunist" or "syndicalist".

The Comintern was transformed by these measures, even though the seeds of
the transformation were present at the time of the 21 Conditions. There
were signs that Lenin was troubled by the drift of the Comintern. He
considered moving the headquarters to Western Europe where the Russian
influence would be much less preponderant. He also was developing a
critique of the organizational model of "democratic centralism" that had
been encoded in the Second World Congress in a document he found "all too

But Lenin did not survive his stroke. We have no way of knowing what the
outcome would have been had he lived. After all, Stalin's power did not
rest on his charisma but on his roots in a powerful social layer: the state
bureaucracy. The only way that history can be changed is not by rewriting
it but by creating it anew. We have the opportunity today to uproot this
rotten "Bolshevization" methodology which belongs to the tortured early
years of the Soviet Union.

Like the German party, the American Communists were molded by the Comintern
during the 1920s. And like the German party, the transformation took some
time. In 1917, the people who would go on to form the Communist Party in
this country had no inkling of what a "Marxist-Leninist" party was. For
example, Charles E. Ruthenberg explained Bolshevism in 1919 not as
something "strange and new", but something similar to the revolutionary
traditions of the United States. His own Socialist-syndicalist background
led him to believe that the Soviet state was a "Socialist industrial

The process of transforming the American movement into a caricature of
Lenin's party took a number of years and it was the authority of the
Comintern that made this transformation possible. After all, if the
Russians tell us to have "democratic centralism", they must know what
they're talking about. They do have state power.

The first organizational expression of the American Communist movement
showed its roots in the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs. The party was
organized on the basis of branches rather than cells, as the Comintern
dictated. Another feature of the American Communist movement that was
distinct from what is commonly known as "democratic centralism" was the
open debates that various factions took part in. While it is beyond the
scope of this article to trace all the divisions within the American
movement, suffice it to say that they tended to reflect very real
differences about the character of the movement--whether it should orient
to the more radicalized foreign language speaking workers, or develop roots
in the English speaking sector of the class. The Comintern, needless to
say, used all of its power to shape the direction of American revolutionary
politics despite Zinoviev's open admission in 1924 that "We know England so
little, almost as little as America."

The Fourth National Convention of the Communist Party was held in Chicago,
Illinois in August, 1925. This convention was inspired by the
Bolshevization World Congress of the Comintern that was held in 1924. The
American delegates came to the United States with the understanding that
their party would adopt more stringent organizational norms in line with
Zinoviev's directives. To give you a sense of the importance of the
language question, the proceedings of the convention report that there were
6,410 Finnish members as opposed to 2,282 English speaking members.

The American party had its own dissident minority that the new
"Bolshevization" policy could be used as a cudgel against. This minority
was led by one Ludwig Lore, who was the main demon of the American movement
as Leon Trotsky was in the Soviet movement. The Majority Resolution laid
down the law against Lore:

"We also endorse fully and pledge our most active support to the Comintern
and Parity Commission decisions providing for the liquidation of Loreism in
our Party. We demand that the Party be united in a uncompromising struggle
against this dangerous right wing tendency. We pledge our fullest support
to the whole Comintern program for Bolshevizing our Party, including a
militant fight against the right wing, the organization of the Party on the
basis of shop nuclei, and the raising of the theoretical level of our

This is quite a mouthful. They are going to liquidate a dangerous right
wing tendency and reconstitute the party on the basis of factory cells all
in one fell swoop. And "the raising of the theoretical level of our
membership" can mean only one thing. They are going to get politically
indoctrinated by the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin faction in order to destroy
all of its opponents wherever they appear.

Poor Ludwig Lore was in a political fight with other leading Communists
about how to relate to the Lafollette Farmer-Labor Party. This third party
was an expression of American populism and it was not clear which direction
it was going. The disagreements over how to approach it are similar to the
sorts of disagreements that crop up today about how to regard, for example,
the Nader presidential campaign.

So Lore found himself in a bitter dispute about a purely American political
question. What he didn't figure out, however, was that he had no business
being open-minded about Trotsky while this dispute was going on. Lore had
befriended Trotsky during a visit to the USSR in 1917 and retained warm
feelings toward him, just as the French Communist Boris Souvarine did. Not
surprisingly, Lore had very little use for Zinoviev. On one occasion,
according to Theodore Draper, Lore told Zinoviev to his face that his
information about the American labor movement was questionable. Considering
Zinoviev's track record in Germany, this hardly comes as a surprise.

What really got his name in the Comintern's little black book, however, was
his caustic observations about the infamous "Bolshevization" World Congress
of March, 1924:

"The Third International changes its tactics, nay, even its methods, every
day, and if need be, even oftener. It utterly disregards its own guiding
principles, crushes today the these it adopted only yesterday, and adapts
itself in every country to new situations which may offer themselves. The
Communist International is, therefore, opportunistic in its methods to the
most extreme degree, but since it keeps in its mind the one and only
revolutionary aim, the reformist method works for the revolution and thus
loses its opportunistic character."

This was just what the Comintern would not tolerate at this point, an
independent thinker. Lore was doomed.

The "Resolution on Bolshevization of the Party" spells out how the American
Communists would turn over a new leaf and get tough with all the right-wing
elements in the party. "...the task of Bolshevization presents itself
concretely to our Party as the task of completely overwhelming the
organizational and ideological remnants of our social-democratic
inheritance, of eradicating Loreism, of making out of the Party a
functioning organism of revolutionary proletarian leadership." And so Lore
was expelled at this convention.

The party was re-organized on the basis of factory cells and a rigid set of
organizational principles were adopted. For example, it stipulated that
"Wherever three or more members, regardless of their nationality or present
federation membership, are found to be working in the same shop, they shall
be organized into a shop nucleus. The nucleus collects the Party dues and
takes over all the functions of a Party unit." What strikes one immediately
is that there is absolutely no consideration in the resolution about
whether or not a factory-based party unit makes political sense. It is
simply a mechanical transposition of Comintern rules, which in themselves
are based on an undialectical understanding of Lenin's party.

The expulsion of Lore and the new organizational guidelines was adopted
unanimously by the delegates, including two men who would go on to found
American Trotskyism: James P. Cannon and Vincent Ray Dunne. Cannon and
Dunne are regarded as saints by all of the Trotskyist sects, but nobody has
ever tried to explain why Cannon and Dunne could have cast their votes for
such abysmal resolutions. There really is only one explanation: their
understanding of Bolshevism came from Zinoviev rather than Lenin.

Cannon's myopia on these sorts of questions stayed with him through his
entire life. In his "First Ten Years of American Communism", he describes
Lore as someone who never "felt really at home in the Comintern" and who
never became an "all-out communist in the sense that the rest of us did."
That says more about Cannon than it does about Lore. Who could really feel
at home in the Comintern? This bureaucratic monstrosity had replaced the
heads of the German Communist Party 3 times in 3 years. It had intruded in
the affairs of the German Communist Party as well, coming up with the wrong
strategy on a consistent basis. Those who "felt at home" in the Comintern
after 1924, as James P. Cannon did, would never really be able to get to
the bottom of the problem. Furthermore, Cannon himself took the
organizational principles of the 1925 Communist Party convention and used
them as the basis for American Trotskyism as well.

Zinoviev was responsible for not only ostracizing Trotsky in the Russian
party, but Lore in the American party as well. Zinoviev was a master of
casting people into Menshevik hell. Cannon himself was plenty good at this
as well. Over and over again in American Trotskyist history, there were
others who were to face ostracism just like Lore. Schachtman in the 1930s,
Cochran in the 1950s and Camejo in the 1980s. In every case, the current
party leadership was defending the long-term historical interests of the
proletariat while the dissident were reflecting petty-bourgeois Menshevik
influences. What garbage.

Cannon's views on Zinoviev were those of a student toward a influential
professor. In "The First Ten Years of American Communism", Cannon pays
tribute to the dreadful Zinoviev: "As far as I know, Zinoviev did not have
any special favorites in the American party. The lasting personal memory I
have of him is of his patient and friendly efforts in 1925 to convince both
factions of the necessity of party peace and cooperation, summed up in his
words to Foster which I have mentioned before: 'Frieden ist besser.'
('Peace is Better')."

What a stunning misunderstanding of the events of 1924-1925. Zinoviev had
broken the back of the German Communist Party and the Soviet party and now
was doing everything he could to destroy any independent voices in the
American party. Zinoviev himself would soon be a victim of the same
process. Yesterday's Bolshevik would become the Menshevik of 1926 and 1927.

The sectarian and rigidity of the Comintern party-building model are still
upheld by the Trotskyists and other "Marxist-Leninists" of today. If these
groups were as critical of their own history and ideas as they were of the
ruling class, much improvement could obtain. This is not something to be
hoped for. Those of us who prefer to think for ourselves must create our
own organizational and political solutions, just as Lenin did in
turn-of-the-century Russian. Any effort which falls short of this will not
produce the outcome we so desperately need: the abolition of the capitalist
system and the development of socialism.

Louis Proyect
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