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Liquidate Zinovievism! (By means of Zinovievism?)

Joel Geier’s talk on “Leninism vs. Zinovievism” at the Socialism 2013 conference is a welcome attempt to recover the Bolshevik model of democratic centralism from the undemocratic practices introduced into the Communist International following Lenin’s death. It is, unfortunately, a failed attempt. As this short polemical reply will show, Geier’s argument is infected with the very disease he means to cure. The comrade makes at least two major errors:

  1. He asserts that the leadership should be a (permanent) faction; and
  2. He asserts that “multi-issue” or permanent (opposition) factions are intrinsically illegitimate.

As a result of these serious mistakes, Geier does not overcome Zinovievism; he merely constructs a kind of “Zinovievism with a human face.” Our movement can and must do better.

Leadership as a/the faction

Geier says:

The leadership is always a faction. It should be! It has to represent the politics of the organization, externally and internally…and to convince the membership of the politics of the organization.

Implicit in this statement is the notion that the leadership has a single point of view; furthermore, since leadership obviously cannot be changed with every different issue that arises, Geier assumes that the leadership is effectively united on every important issue before the organization. In other words, the leadership is politically homogeneous.

This conception of the leadership is alien to the Bolshevik experience. The Central Committee (CC) of the Party was divided on such momentous issues as taking state power in 1917; concluding a peace treaty with Germany in 1918; the formation of a conventional army in the early days of the Civil War; the “trade union question” and other problems in 1921; economic policy after 1923; and many other issues. All of these matters were debated publicly–often ferociously–with CC members on all sides. How could the leadership argue “its” point of view when it had no one collective point of view?

Moreover, this “disunity” of the Bolshevik leadership was a feature, not a bug, of the Party’s democratic centralism. As Geier certainly knows, even the Tenth Congress that banned factions elected a CC representing all major factions present at the Congress. Naturally such a CC could not possibly be expected to have a single point of view. (Incidentally, Geier badly bungles the description of what was at stake in Lenin’s argument with Riazonov at the Congress. This is addressed in the Addendum below.)

Amusingly given Geier’s hostility to permanent factions (see below), his ideal leadership is precisely a permanent faction. However, in a centralist organization, if the leadership acts as a permanent faction, it is virtually impossible for any other faction to succeed. Even if the leadership is completely scrupulous, the advantages available to it–superior lines of communication, control over all the organization’s internal and external media, the talents of the full-time staff, etc–are exceptionally difficult to overcome, even if an opposition has better political ideas. That is to say: if the leadership is effectively a faction, then it is effectively the faction–and all the “old crap” of Zinovievism returns.

None of this means that the leadership should be “consensus-seeking” or decline to lead in the face of open disagreement. Leadership bodies should have a “working majority” and be authoritative–even imposing when the practical situation makes it strictly unavoidable. Nonetheless the leadership qua leadership represents the whole of the organization, whereas factions are necessarily adversarial and partial. Even if a leadership were (unfortunately) homogeneous for historical reasons, it would have to go out of its way not to act factionally, rather than valorizing its ability to do so.

A one-legged stool

Geier gives the following example to motivate his contention that “multi-issue” factions constitute an unhealthy amalgam:

We could have a group, for example, that says, ‘Well, we disagree with what the organization is doing on ecosocialism….’ Great! Somebody else has [a disagreement] on trade unionism. Somebody else has it on the war on Syria. That’s all very good.

What happens when you get a group that says, ‘We have a different position on the war on Syria, ecosocialism, and trade unionism.’ What?! What connects those three things? There are just two possibilities really…. Either you have a clique…a power group or something like that…. [Or] you have the potential of a different organization, of a split.

Now as it happens, Geier’s ostensibly “distinct” issues could easily be linked. Suppose a faction believes that the group doesn’t lay enough stress on anti-imperialist agitation generally. It could then quite naturally contend that the group does too little about Syria; does not draw sufficient attention to the ecological destructiveness of war; and fails to challenge the chauvinism of the union bureaucracy. And just like that, for thinking in a totally normal and organic way, these comrades are a “clique,” they are “splitters”!

Rather than being unnerving, it seems rather unsurprising that a faction might advance views on a number of “distinct” yet interlinked issues. “Everything is connected to everything else,” as Lenin noted. Indeed, a faction that raises a disagreement on perspectives is likely to have disagreements on a number of questions, since perspectives are, ostensibly, at the center of all the organization’s activity. To demand that a faction not “bundle” political questions is, in effect, to demand that no faction challenge the leadership majority’s perspectives.

Geier’s error on “bundling” is likely connected to his apparent self-contradiction on permanent factions. He correctly cautions against banning them; yet he says:

What you get with permanent factions is a loyalty to the faction rather than to the organization…. Why would you have a permanent faction if your loyalty is to the organization as opposed to the faction?

Here one is reminded of Marx’s mordant comment on the Constitution of the French Second Republic: “Liberty in the general phrase, abrogation of liberty in the marginal note.” That is, permanent factions aren’t technically banned, but they are buried under such a mound of calumny that no one would dare try it.

In any event, it’s simply not true that permanent factions indicate disloyalty to the organization–unless we think that Lenin was disloyal to the RSDLP from 1903, or that Trotsky was disloyal to the Communist Party from 1923. (The latter claim, at least, seems literally Zinovievist.)

Certainly everyone can agree that permanent factions are the sign of an unfortunate situation. Divorce is similarly a sign of an unfortunate situation–but also very often a rational and progressive step. If a permanent faction arises, comrades should not panic and assume ill intent, but rather consider, based on the concrete circumstances, whether the situation is politically rational.

Conclusion

While there is much of value in Geier’s lecture, the serious mistakes described above mean that the comrade does not make a true break from Zinovievism. A “monolithic” substance seeps out from under an attractive “democratic” shell. The comrade deserves credit for posing the question of “Leninism vs. Zinovievism,” but an entirely different approach will be required to resolve it.

Addendum: Lenin’s argument with Riazonov

Referring to the debate on banning factions at the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party, Geier claims that Riazanov proposed that factions “should be banned forever.” This is simply false; if nothing else, Riazanov would have realized that no Congress could bind the action of a future Congress by enacting anything “forever.”

Riazanov’s proposal was an amendment to Lenin’s resolution “On Party Unity” that mandated the ban on factions. Here is the relevant section from Lenin’s resolution:

In the practical struggle against factionalism, every organisation of the Party must take strict measures to prevent all factional actions. Criticism of the Party’s shortcomings, which is absolutely necessary, must be conducted in such a way that every practical proposal shall be submitted immediately, without any delay, in the most precise form possible, for consideration and decision to the leading local and central bodies of the Party. Moreover, every critic must see to it that the form of his criticism takes account of the position of the Party, surrounded as it is by a ring of enemies, and that the content of his criticism is such that, by directly participating in Soviet and Party work, he can test the rectification of the errors of the Party or of individual Party members in practice. Analyses of the Party’s general line, estimates of its practical experience, check-ups of the fulfilment of its decisions, studies of methods of rectifying errors, etc, must under no circumstances be submitted for preliminary discussion to groups formed on the basis of “platforms,” etc, but must in all cases be submitted for discussion directly to all the members of the Party. For this purpose, the Congress orders a more regular publication of Diskussionny Listok [Discussion Bulletin] and special symposiums to promote unceasing efforts to ensure that criticism shall be concentrated on essentials and shall not assume a form capable of assisting the class enemies of the proletariat.

Riazonov’s amendment read: “While condemning all factional activity, the Congress vigorously opposes any election to the Congress by platform.”

Lenin strongly opposed this:

I think that, regrettable as it may be, Comrade Riazanov suggestion is impracticable. We cannot deprive the Party and the members of the Central Committee of the right to appeal to the Party in the event of disagreement on fundamental issues. I cannot imagine how we can do such a thing! The present Congress cannot in any way bind the elections to the next Congress. Supposing we are faced with a question like, say, the conclusion of the Brest peace? Can you guarantee that no such question will arise? No, you cannot. In the circumstances, the elections may have to be based on platforms. (Riazanov: “On one question?”) Certainly. But your resolution says: No elections according to platforms. I do not think we have the power to prohibit this. If we are united by our resolution on unity, and, of course, the development of the revolution, there will be no repetition of elections according to platforms. The lesson we have learned at this Congress will not be forgotten. But if the circumstances should give rise to fundamental disagreements, can we prohibit them from being brought before the judgement of the whole Party? No, we cannot! This is an excessive desire, which is impracticable, and I move that we reject it.

The reader may consult the relevant portion of Lenin’s Collected Works. Ernest Mandel also wrote a useful analysis of the debate.

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  1. December 4, 2013 at 10:52 am
  2. July 1, 2014 at 10:21 am

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