"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)
This is the first issue of 1917, the political journal of theBolshevik Tendency. We take our name from Year One of theproletarian revolution, the year the Russian working class smashedthe chain of world imperialism at its weakest link. The OctoberRevolution was not primarily a Russian event in its significance--it was the beginning of the international struggle for power by theproletariat.
The bright promise of the early years of the revolution has beendimmed by six decades of Stalinist treachery and betrayal. Todaythe Kremlin is no longer the headquarters of the proletarianrevolution but the domain of a nationalist bureaucratic stratumwhich is a roadblock to socialism and which must be overthrownthrough workers political revolution. Nonetheless the lessons ofthe Russian Revolution retain all their significance for therevolutionary future of the working class and the defense of thesocial gains of 1917 remains a litmus test for demarcatingauthentic revolutionaries from the assorted social democrats of the"Third Camp."
We are partisans of 1917. We base ourselves on the program andstrategy of the leadership of that revolution, Lenin and Trotsky.We stand on the documents of the first four congresses of theCommunist International; on the struggle of the Left Oppositionagainst the Stalinist political counterrevolution; on the foundingdocuments of the Fourth International and the revolutionarytraditions of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) led by James P.Cannon from the 1930s to the 1950s. The SWP leadership abandonedthe struggle to build a Trotskyist vanguard in the early 1960s infavor of reliance on the objective process of history (personified,in the first instance, by Fidel Castro). The RevolutionaryTendency, the progenitor of the Spartacist League (SL) was born inthe struggle against the liquidationist implications of the ersatzCastroism of the SWP majority. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s theprogrammatic heritage of Trotskyism was represented by theSpartacist tendency. This tradition we claim as our own.
The founders of the Bolshevik Tendency are, for the most part,veterans of the international Spartacist tendency (iSt) who werepurged, along with dozens of other cadres, in the course of thatorganization's transformation from a Trotskyist propaganda group toa pseudo-revolutionary obedience cult. Initially organized outsidethe iSt as an "External Tendency," we decided that given our formalprogrammatic similarity it was appropriate to reapply formembership in the Spartacist tendency. We did so with the declaredintent of crystallizing an opposition to the organization'saccelerating political degeneration. The SL leadership (which atone point pretended to be interested in our reintegration)responded to our application with a barrage of slander andinvective designed to slam the door shut once and for all. We havesince succeeded in consolidating an organization which representsthe continuity of the Trotskyist tradition which the SL had carriedforward from the SWP two decades earlier.
The Spartacist League can no longer be considered, in any sense, arevolutionary organization. An early indication of the SL'spolitical break with its Trotskyist past was the leadership'sdecision to rip up the group's implantation in the industrialworking class. It has been a wild ride since then. From apocalypticproclamations of an incipient fascist coup in San Francisco in July1984 to misogynist characterizations of black feminist opponents as"female doberman pinshcers in heat," the SL is today one of thenuttier (and nastier) centrist outfits on the left. Theirs is apeculiar type of centrism--political banditry--in which the formalpolitical positions of the group are subject to wild fluctuationsaccording to the perceived exigencies of maintaining "the party"(in particular its organizational apparatus and other assets)and/or the whim of the "founder-leader," Jim Robertson. One of thearticles of faith required of all those who take up residence in"Jimstown" is the paranoid delusion that virtually every othertendency on the left is involved in a gigantic web ofpolice-sponsored intrigue aimed at (what else?) the SpartacistLeague. This schema is referred to in Workers Vanguard as the "BigLie Campaign" and it is used to "justify" SL exclusions andcop-baiting against its opponents on the left.
Program and Period
The current period in North America is characterized by a generalrightward shift across the political spectrum and concomitantshrinking of the organized left. A wide variety of ostensibly"revolutionary" organizations, notably the once formidable Maoistcurrents, have simply closed up shop and gone out of business.Those which have survived, particularly among the ostensibleTrotskyists, have shifted significantly to the right in search ofa milieu within which to operate. This is perhaps most evident inthe case of the adherents of Ernest Mandel's "United Secretariat"of the Fourth International (USec). Fifteen years ago youngMandelites were running around Paris and London waving the flag ofthe Vietnamese National Liberation Front and singing the praises ofHo Chi Minh. No more. In the past few years the USec has embracedevery anti-communist mass movement from Ayatollah Khomeini's"Islamic Revolution" to Lech Walsea's capitalist-restorationistSolidarnosc. The Mandelites capped their orientation to socialdemocracy with the formal adoption at their 1985 World Congress of"Socialist Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat" inwhich these illegitimate pretenders to the mantle of the FourthInternational propound the "democratic socialism" of Karl Kautskyand the Second.
Revolutionists must take account of the political and socialclimate within which they exist. One must necessarily adapt thestyle of presentation to the existing level of class consciousnessand experience of one's audience. But a revolutionary organizationcannot adapt the content of its program without thereby ceasing tobe revolutionary. The Marxian program represents the historicinterests of the proletariat as a conscious factor in worldpolitics--a "class for itself." As such it is necessarilycounterposed to the existing, false consciousness of the class "initself" in bourgeois society.
1917 will be both partisan and polemical. A blunt knife draws noblood. To struggle for revolutionary Marxism in our time meansabove all to politically combat those fake-revolutionary formationswhich are the organizational embodiments of bourgeois ideology inthe working class. The history of the Marxist movement is one of acontinuing struggle against those currents, which, under the bannerof "continuing," "deepening" or "extending" Marxism, attempt tocorrode (or revise) the fundamental tenets of the revolutionaryprogram.
"Revisionism" at bottom reflects the pressure of bourgeois societyupon those who seek to change it. The common denominator of allsuch currents is the "pragmatic" resignation to the immutability ofthe world as it is. The form of the political accommodationproposed varies according to circumstance but in generalrevisionist tendencies add little that is new--rather they tend toresuscitate schemes and impulses long discredited by the historicalexperience of the proletariat.
Revisionism in the Marxist movement rarely appears full-blown underits own colors. Initially, at least, it expresses itself in theterminology of Marxism. Rosa Luxemburg commented on this phenomenonin a polemic ("Reform or Revolution") written almost ninety yearsago:
"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."
Careful attention to questions of program and theory and thevigorous defense of the political acquisitions of the past isneither an exercise in Talmudic scholasticism, nor a form ofancestor worship, as is often imagined by the smug and cynicalproponents of "non-sectarianism." What may appear to the novice ordilettante as pointless hairsplitting over minute nuances of aposition often represents profound differences in politicalappetite with enormous implications in the future. Politics is afield in which a difference of one percent will often provedecisive.
From the origins of our tendency we have insisted that theorganizational question is a political question of the first orderfor a revolutionary grouping. A revolutionary tendency need notalways be correct--indeed it cannot always be correct--but it mustalways be correctible. Whether or not it is correctible is afunction of the internal regime which prevails. This is notprimarily a question of adherence to formulae but of the livingreality of the internal life of the organization. James P. Cannon,the founding leader of American Trotskyism once observed that:
"It is perfectly possible for slick leaders to write ten constitutions guaranteeing freedom of criticism in a party and then create an atmosphere of moral terrorization whereby a young or inexperienced comrade doesn't want to open his mouth for fear he will be made a fool of, or sat on, or accused of some political deviation he doesn't have in his mind at all."
--The Socialist Workers Party in World War II
A vibrant and democratic internal political life in a revolutionaryorganization is not a desirable option but a vital necessity. It issimultaneously the only mechanism for the correction of errors bythe leadership and the only framework within which revolutionarycadres can be created. Groupings like the SL of the late 1970s, inwhich the leadership is able to appropriate an effective monopolyof political expression internally, in the interests of"efficiency" (i.e., by short-circuiting the necessarilytime-consuming and difficult process of settling political disputesthrough democratic internal struggle) prepare their own inevitablepolitical degeneration.
The membership of a Leninist organization has the right to electthose individuals to positions of leadership in whom it has themost political confidence and to replace them as it sees fit. Atthe same time a revolutionary organization can only operate on thebasis of strict centralization, with the leading bodies having fullauthority to determine the public political line of theorganization as a whole and to direct the work of all subordinateparty bodies as well as individual members. Protection of the rightto dissent within the party (and particularly of the right ofminorities to struggle to replace the leadership) and the politicalconsciousness of the membership itself provide the only guaranteesagainst the degeneration of the vanguard short of the victory ofthe proletarian revolution.
The revolutionary vanguard is distinguished above all by the factthat it is the bearer of the historically derived programmaticknowledge necessary to advance the struggle for workers power. Thisis not something which can be announced or proclaimed, it must beproven by the responses of the organization to the events of theclass struggle. Centrists scoff at those who carefully check thehistorical record in evaluating an organization's revolutionarycredentials. To them this is all so much "bookkeeping." But thebest test of what an organization will do in the future is not whatit promises today but rather what it did at critical junctures inthe past.
The importance of a revolutionary organization in the workersmovement in periods of ebb in the class struggle is primarily toserve as an ideological pole to which to recruit and train thecadres necessary to lead the inevitable struggles to come. Arevolutionary vanguard cannot be improvised on the spur of themoment. It will not emerge semi-spontaneously in the "process" ofthe class struggle. It must be forged in advance in politicalcombat between revolutionary Marxism and the entire panopoly ofworking-class misleaderships from social democrats tofake-Trotskyists. It is to this struggle that 1917 is dedicated.
"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"
Last updated on 4.1.2003