Daniel Bensaïd, a central leader of the French Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR), spoke on 'Leninism in the 21st century' at the 'Marxism 2001' event organised by the British SWP. Phil Hearse spoke to him there.
Lenin made important contributions to Marxist thinking about imperialism,
the national question, revolutionary strategy and socialist democracy.
But when parties and groups call themselves 'Leninist' they are generally
referring to organisational forms. Yet the modern experience of such
organisations has shown they have quite diverse organisational practices.
What is special about 'Leninism' as an organisational form?
We have to start by remembering that the very term 'Leninism' only
appeared after the death of Lenin, notably in the speech by Zinoviev
to the Fifth Congress of the Communist International (1924). It corresponds
to the codification of an organisational model then associated with
the 'Bolshevisation' of the Comintern, which allowed the Kremlin to
brutally subjugate the young Communist parties to its own tutelage,
in the name of combating social democracy - which had been corrupted
invention of 'Leninism' as a religiously mummified orthodoxy, was
part of the process of bureaucratisation of the Comintern and the
Soviet Union. That's why, as far as possible, I personally avoid utilising
this 'ism'. However, if you attempt to summarise what appears essential
in Lenin's own organisational ideas, I would highlight two ideas which
seem to me essential revolutionary conceptions for this epoch, and
which retain their validity today.
first, which was at the centre of the polemic in What is to Be
Done, and in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, is the distinction
between the (revolutionary) party and the (working) class, which rejects
all confusionist attempts to conflate or identify the two. This distinction,
elementary from the point of view of the Marxism of the Second International,
implies thinking through the specificity of the political field, its
relationship of forces, and its own concepts.
terrain is not simply a reflection or an extension of the social relationship
of forces. It expresses the transformation of the social relations
(and class struggle) into political terms, with its own - as the psychoanalysts
say - displacements and condensations. I would above all highlight
that this distinction between the social and the political, between
parties and classes, paradoxically opens up the possibility of thinking
through the idea of pluralism; if the party is not simply the incarnation
of the class, not simply a one-to-one expression of its social substance,
then it becomes thinkable that the party can be represented by a plurality
a corollary the class can build instruments of resistance independent
of parties. Thus it doesn't seem to me accidental that Lenin had the
most correct position during the early 1920s debate in Russia on the
role of the trade unions.
second essential idea is in relation to what appears to be one of
the most debatable characteristics of Leninism, democratic centralism.
To the extent that this idea became associated with the bureaucratic
centralism of the Stalinist period, what one remembers above all is
centralism and the image of a semi-military discipline.
for us the democratic aspect is fundamental. If, after free discussion,
there doesn't exist a collective effort and a mutual involvement in
putting all the decisions to the test of practice, the democracy of
an organisation remains purely formal and 'parliamentary'. It becomes
reduced to an exchange of opinions without real consequences, everyone
can participate in the debate with their own convictions, without
a common practice to test the validity of a political orientation.
How has the LCR's conception of Leninism evolved since its founding
conference in 1969?
Because of the strong spontaneist illusions which the May 1968 movement
in France engendered among the youth, the foundation of the Ligue
Communiste as a section of the Fourth International in 1969 was the
result of a lively debate, notably on the question of organisation.
With more than 30 years of hindsight, this founding debate seems to
me decisive. It permitted us to create an organisation which resisted
the retreat after 1968, and survived the test of subsequent defeats.
a critical review of that
period is necessary. In the context of the period, we had a tendency
to fetishise the party as the direct and immediate adversary of the
state (inspired by a questionable reading of Poulantzas), and gave
our 'Leninism' a slightly 'militarist' twist ('ultra-left' if you
prefer). In this you can see the influence of Guevara, his voluntarism
and the role attributed to 'exemplary' actions.
that sense, our interpretation partially created a sort of 'Leninism
[pressé]', criticised by Regis Debray in his book A Critique of Arms.
For more than a decade we have seen groups which refer to Leninism
operating inside quite broad formations like the PT in Brazil, the
PRC in Italy and now we have the experience of the Scottish Socialist
Party. Isn't there a danger that prolonged immersion in these parties
will atrophy the political independence of such Leninist groups, and
adversely affect there ability to operate as a coherent striking force
in times of political crisis?
The examples mentioned in the question represent different experiences
of party construction, each one different in its context, each one
specific - from the birth of a mass workers party (Brazil), to the
conflicts within the old Communist parties (Italy), to regroupments
of radical currents.
that, despite this diversity, these experiences are embedded in a
situation of redefinition and political recomposition, opened by the
end of the 'short 20th century' since the fall of the Berlin Wall
and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This is only the beginning
of a long period of mutation and redefinition of the forces within
the progressive social movements.
idea of a 'prolonged immersion' doesn't seem to me appropriate to
talk about these experiences, to the extent that it seems to evoke
the experiences of 'entrism' in the mass workers parties, in the 1930s
or after the second world war. There's nothing 'entrist' about the
presence of revolutionary currents in the Brazilian Workers Party
(PT). They participate in a process of pluralist party construction,
rather similar to the mass workers parties before the first world
war (where the notion of entrism also had no sense).
Within these experiences there are contradictions which we must recognise and engage. A party like the Brazilian PT is subject to strong pressures, because its presence in parliament and role in local and regional governments. At the same time, this enables the accumulation of social experiences on a grand scale. Does this mean that a revolutionary current risks blunting its cutting edge and losing its revolutionary spirit? Without doubt. But on the other hand, if a revolutionary current remains separate it also risks losing its revolutionary soul, and becoming simply a sect which denounces, without getting its hands dirty.
the two risks it is necessary to choose, looking for the best solutions
to the dangers (like the education of militants) knowing there are
no absolute guarantees.
any case, every organisation creates conservative tendencies (including
the Bolshevik party in 1917) and nobody can be sure of being up to
the job if there is a revolutionary crisis; the crisis itself is a
test of the validity of a construction project, and the verdict is
not known in advance.
Why, in principle, should capitalism not be overthrown by an alliance
of mass social movements, each of which is organised around partial
emancipatory projects - especially if they all see capitalism as the
The question doesn't seem to me to be the best way to approach it.
From a certain point of view, capitalism will indeed be overthrown
by an alliance, or a convergence, of mass social movements. But even
if these movements, because of their liberatory projects, perceive
capitalism to be their enemy (which perhaps is the case for the women's
movement or the environmental movement, not just the workers movement),
I don't think these movements all play an equivalent role. And all
are traversed by differences and contradictions which reflect their
position, in the face of capital as a global mode of domination.
is a 'naturalist' feminism and a revolutionary feminism, a profoundly
anti-humanist environmentalism and a humanist and social environmentalism.
In discussing this, one could perhaps integrate the sociological contributions
of Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu on the growing social differentiation
of modern society and the diversity of its social arenas. If you consider
theses arenas are not structured in a hierarchy, but simply juxtaposed,
then perhaps you could devise a tactic of putting together changing
coalitions ('rainbow coalitions' on immediate questions). But there
would be no solid strategic convergence in such an approach.
think, on the contrary, that within a particular mode of production
(capitalism), relations of exploitation and class conflict constitute
an overarching framework which cuts across and unifies the other contradictions.
Capital itself is the great unifier which subordinates every aspect
of social production and reproduction, remodelling the function of
the family, determining the social division of labour and submitting
humanity's conditions of social reproduction to the law of value.
If that is indeed the case, a party, and not simply the sum of social
movements, is the best agent of conscious unification,.
The foundation of Lenin's post-1914 strategy was that imperialism
was in its 'death agony', and was by definition a period of capitalist
decline. How does this stand up after nine decades?
A. In don't interpret that characterisation of the epoch, an epoch of wars and revolutions, as a conjunctural judgement, or a mechanical judgement about the inevitable collapse of the system. Retrospectively, the 20th century does indeed appear to have been the century of wars and revolutions. And the 21st century, alas, won't be any different from that point of view. The forms of imperialist domination change but they don't disappear. The relevance of the heritage of Lenin and Trotsky, understood in a critical and non-dogmatic way, resides in the contemporary reality of capital and imperialism itself.
Several revolutionary organisations outside the Fourth International
(for example LO, the SWP and the DSP) tend to argue that the French
LCR is badly organised and lacks political centralisation. Do you
agree that the LCR's deep and permanent involvement in diverse mass
movements and united fronts has reduced its capacity for rapid mobilisation
around central campaigns. And if so, is this an inevitable choice
in modern conditions?
There's an element of truth in that. The LCR was able to resist the
defeats of the 1980s and 90s essentially thanks to its activity in
the mass movement - in the trade unions and in the mass social movements
(unemployed, women and anti-racist). Everyone recognises in France
that the renewal of fighting trade unionism, or that of AC and Ras
L'Front (1), couldn't have seen the same level of development without
the militants of the LCR.
the framework of a weakening in workers' resistance, the usefulness
of the mass social movements seemed more obvious than that of a political
organisation like ours, which could appear at a certain point just
as a network and a forum for discussing ideas.
certainly led to an organisational loosening, which we regret and
have been trying to correct for several years, say since 1995-7. But
we prefer that problem to being a 'besieged citadel'. Lutte Ouvriere
(Workers Struggle) has certainly maintained a higher level of party
patriotism, but the price has been exorbitant; a sectarian petrification
and an incomprehension of the social movements.
again, there is always a tension between the building of a political
party and intervention in united fronts, between the risk of a sectarian
response and that of dilution of your political profile. One can't
resist that double temptation by a magic formula, you have to work
your way though it concretely in each case.
a demonstration LO (if it participates) can have a contingent numerically
bigger than the Ligue's, but the militants of the Ligue are also present
in the contingents of their trade unions, Attac, Ras L'Front etc.
I think we do more to develop the 'real movement for the abolition
of the existing order', which is the very definition of communism.
The recent well-attended SWP school 'Marxism 2001' showed again that
the age profile of far left organisations in Europe is not so good
(the majority more than 30, with a high proportion more than 40).
Why? What can be done about it?
What strikes me and seems most important, more than the age profile
than summer schools and meetings like the Marx conferences in France,
is the renewal of interest in the Marxist critique of modern society
and capitalist globalisation. Certainly, we would prefer a younger
attendance, but the fact that a part of the 1960s generation has politically
survived the 'Thatcher
years' or the 'Mitterrand years'
is something of a bonus for the future; there's the possibility
of a continuity and a transmission of experiences. Basing ourselves
on that we have to make an effort to find the way to access the present
forms of politicisation
of young people. For these certainly exist.
the present mobilisations against globalisations we can see parallels
with the struggles which generated the radicalisation before 1968
- like over Vietnam or the Algerian war. We shouldn't mythologise
or exaggerate that pre-1968 radicalisation, by the way.
can also see the present radicalisation
in musical or cultural phenomena. On the other hand, if organisations
like the SWP and LCR are a bit 'hollowed out' as regards the 1980s
generation, they seem to understand the beginning of a new perspective
among the youth.
It was an axiom for Trotskyist organisations in the 60s, 70s and 80s
that Leninism means a permanently high level of activity from all
members. Often this involved moralistic and even quasi-religious overtones.
Is it realistic to expect large number of activists to sustain high
levels of activity for decades? Irrespective of the political situation?
A (voluntary) involvement in revolutionary struggle certainly isn't
a hobby for the weekend. It seems normal that it implies a commitment
to activity, career sacrifices and financial effort. It's not necessary
to achieve that to keep up a self-sacrificing mystique or the religious
spirit of missionaries. Moreover the organisations which practice
such ideological doping are often revealed as the most vulnerable
to demoralisation; the disillusionment and discouragement are then
proportional to the euphoric exaggeration of its motivation. Without
doubt the kind of activism often used in the 1970s was often linked
to an exaggerated appreciation of the chances for socialists, but
also linked to the availability of members who in their overwhelming
majority came from the youth, and were not yet inserted in a work
or family situation. We say that we have matured and that our militancy
has been 'normalised' in the rhythms and needs. The risk could be
from now on the reverse: to fall into routinism.
Is democratic centralism a realisable objective on an international
level? Are we ever going to see a new mass International organised
like the Comintern? In the light of modern experience, is it really
true that revolutionary organisations inevitably suffer 'national
communist' deviations from being outside an International?
We saw earlier that the notion of democratic centralism is difficult
to define. This is all the more so at an international level. The
Fourth International was defined at its inception as a world party.
This engendered confusion in allowing the view that it was possible
to operate with the degree of centralisation of a national party.
That permitted misadventures like that of 1952, when
the elected leadership of the French section was suspended
by the International Secretariat. Such a thing is unimaginable today.
The Statutes adopted in 1974 recognised the sovereignty of national
leaderships. The 1985 Congress made explicit that the International
is composed of sections and not individual adherents, and that implies
a very federal structure.
is necessary to continue the reflection about the type of democracy
possible at an international level. If it is possible to adopt common
positions about great international events, it is however absurd for
European delegates to vote on electoral tactics in Peru or trade union
tactics in Brazil. Rather than discuss a formula (world party, democratic
centralism), it would perhaps be better now to discuss a calm and
objective balance sheet of experiences and practices, to look for
the right balance between a destructive over-centralisation and a
simple network for discussion, without any common commitment or involvement.
It is necessary also to follow attentively the experiences of internationalist
renewal, notably in the movement against capitalist globalisation,
taking up the discussion of past experiences. I remain
personally very attached to the necessity of an International,
and I don't think that it is necessary solely during periods of impetuous
revolutionary advance. However I don't think the Comintern any longer
is a model for this.
The tiny groups fighting to build Leninist parties made their first
breakthroughs in the mid-late 1960s. After more than 30 years effort
it could be argued that the results are quite modest. Doubtless much
of the reason for this is rooted in deep objective factors - defeats
of the working class, neoliberalism, the collapse of 'communism' etc.
In retrospect, were major mistakes made?
Could the results have been better?
The results could no doubt have been better. One could review the
history of the 1930s and make an inventory of the mistakes. In fact
it's not a useless thing to do at all, because these experiences,
these treasures of intelligence, of devotion and of sacrifice were
not at all pointless.
if you consider that the results were limited, with so many avenues
explored, so many theoretical interpretations attempted, then without
doubt the circumstances were very hard. I say the circumstances and
not the objective conditions. For there is a [vice]
in the counterposition between objective and subjective conditions.
The two are obviously linked. If you completely dissociate them, you
fall into paradoxes which have often has disastrous consequences in
the Trotskyist movement. If
the objective circumstances were as excellent as one thinks,
and if the revolutionary movement couldn't capitalise on them, then
it was the organisations, their leaderships, their militants who failed;
or else there were internal traitors. That type of
paranoia does nobody any good.