Thursday, March 8, 2012

Some Thoughts on Lih's intervention in the "Cliff/Lenin Debate"

(Note: I wrote this post a couple of weeks back and didn't have the chance to "revise" it until recently (although, by "revise" I should not like to imply that the following post is anything more than a sketchy jumble of half-formed thoughts). I see now that Lih's polemic has since drawn return fire from Le Blanc among others. I thought I would go ahead and post this anyway, even if it is less interesting now than it might have been earlier this month).

Many readers may have noticed a debate, instigated by a polemic by Pham Binh against Tony Cliff's biography of Lenin, which has subsequently generated several replies and rejoinders from Lars T. Lih, Paul Le Blanc, and Paul D'Amato. In what follows, I'd like to discuss some of what I take to be shortcomings of the intervention made by Lih in particular, although I'd like to say something about the debate in general as well.

Of course, I am not a scholar on Lenin, I do not speak Russian, and I have not examined closely may of the relevant primary sources here. I do not aim to make a move within the terms of the debate such as they've been defined thus far, though it is interesting in many ways. Instead, I want to take a step back and ask a broad question about the political character of the debate itself (with an eye to make sense of Lih's contribution in particular).

That question is the following: what exactly is the political significance of discussing certain aspects of the history of the Russian workers movement in general, and of Lenin's role within that movement in particular? This question is unavoidable and everyone in the debate has a position—whether it is explicitly stated or merely implicit. In evaluating Lih's contribution we shall have to get clear on what his answer to this question is.

Now, I'd like to preface my remarks by saying that, in general, I find great value in Lih's work on Lenin. It is refreshing, rigorous and urgently needed in times such as these. In blowing apart the "textbook" interpretation of Lenin (e.g. that he was, from the beginning, an authoritarian monster always plotting to expand his own personal power, etc.) through careful scholarship, Lih has done the Left a great service. His short book on Lenin, which summarizes many of the conclusions he reaches in his 800 page tome, Lenin Rediscovered, is extremely useful and carefully argued.

But Lih—far more than the other players in the debate—avoids the political question above and tries to distance himself from judgments about political conviction, value and significance. In order to position himself as a mere scholar—rather than activist—Lih repeatedly invokes his expertise and specific role as a "historian" (as well as his command of Russian and the primary sources) which leads him to verge on being pedantic at moments. There are, to be sure, academic spheres in which this non-political posture is important and, indeed, itself politically useful. Getting people to actually look at what Lenin said, even in an ostensibly "neutral" way, is a huge improvement over dismissing it out of hand as "totalitarian".

Still, although there is instrumental value in casting one's arguments in certain ways in certain contexts, one cannot avoid judgments about political significance. So far as I can tell, Lih, however, explicitly avoids making such judgments in favor of an ideal of scholarly neutrality. Intervening in this debate, Lih argues that the main question seems to be whether or not we get the right answer to specific points of detail relating to matters such as the 3rd Congress in 1905 and the Prague Conference in 1912. Lih even concedes that his main motivation for entering the debate is to get it right on these two specific points of detail.

But the question remains: why is this significant? What, politically speaking, is at stake here?

There is no such thing as a purely academic, purely neutral assessment of the historical facts. Why not? I don't mean to suggest that there's no such thing as "getting it right" in the arena of historical research. Contra the totalizing suspicion toward truth among some postmodern theoreticians, there is such a thing as getting the facts right (or wrong). Rather, what I mean to say is that when doing historical work there is no way to avoid substantive value judgments—which are ultimately political in nature—that guide our assessment of what is significant and what is insignificant within the set of all historical facts. We can't study everything, and nor would we want to. We study, debate, and discuss some historical ongoings because they have practical significance for us. And we ignore others because they lack significance.

To illustrate: There is a fact of the matter about what Lenin ate for breakfast on June 13th of 1904, but nobody gives a damn. One could be "substantively right" (or wrong) about whether the number of times Lenin used a past-tense verb in his corpus is even or odd, but nobody gives a damn. There is a fact of the matter about how many leaves fell on the ground in the fall of Petrograd in 1903. Again, nobody gives a damn.

So, when doing historical work, there is no neutral way to proceed. We can't avoid making some judgment about what's important—and worth studying and writing about—and what's not. And importance isn't some fuzzy personal matter that bottoms out in claims about individual "preference" or taste. Importance or significance is a social, political and public matter that people can (and do) argue about with one another. Significance is always significance for us, right here, right now. We have to justify, then, why we read Lenin right here, right now, rather than, say, phone books. Our answer, inevitably, will something to do with our practical political commitments, goals and self-understanding.

The only unbiased, purely neutral way to proceed would be to say that everything is significant—how many leaves fell on the ground in 1903 (and every year before and after), whether Lenin consumed an even or odd number of meals in his lifetime, the exact volume in liters of ink used by Lenin in 1917, and so on and so forth. But of course, such a neutral posture is completely absurd—and useless.

So, while Lih—and Pham Binh to to the extent that he instigated the debate—focus the attention of large swaths of the Left on various points of detail in the Russian socialist movement, we have to ask: why are we debating this right now? How does this advance the struggle? How does this help us to clarify our assessment of the present conjuncture? And, in particular: how does it help us get clearer on what kind socialist organization we need today?

Since the whole exchange was instigated by Pham Binh's piece, he bears a greater burden of explanation here than other participants. But the biggest drawback of his polemic against Cliff's Building the Party, in my estimation, is that he does not clearly and explicitly answer these political questions. As I say above, considerations about significance and politics necessarily motivated Pham to write the piece in the first place. But these are neither explicitly stated nor defended adequately with argument. What does come through clearly, however, is the sense that Pham thinks Cliff's book is of zero value and should be thrown in the dustbin of history. He makes it sound as if the most important debate right now is, in some sweeping sense: "Tony Cliff: Yay or Nay?" But I'm not convinced that that is so and, from the looks of it, neither is Paul Le Blanc or Paul D'Amato. As both of them point out in their contributions, this debate ought to be about the relevance of Lenin thought and practice to contemporary political struggle. Pace Lih
—and perhaps Pham as well—I don't think that defending some of the substance and practical import of Cliff's book commits one to being a "Cliffite" or agreeing with everything Cliff said.

Scholarship and historical accuracy aside, Cliff's book was self-consciously written with an eye to draw practical conclusions about organizing a socialist organization in the here and now. Whether or not his book is a success on this score is one question. But the narrow, merely "academic" question of pure scholarship, while undoubtedly related, is ultimately another matter.

The real question, in my estimation, is this: how does the debate about Lenin's thought and practice speak to where the socialist movement is and where it ought to be heading? On this question, Lih's intervention and Pham's polemic are basically silent.

There is, of course, Pham's virtually unexplained dedication to his piece which reads “to anyone and everyone who has sacrificed in the name of ‘building the revolutionary party’”. But a substantive political claim like this should defended in the body of the article, not added as garnish by way of dedication. It also conflates a series of historical claims Cliff makes with the practical points he offers activists as to how one should build a revolutionary group. The litany of quibbling complaints about this or that error made by Cliff does nothing in the way of substantiating or elucidating the claim that "building the revolutionary party" is a bankrupt political goal.

If there is one relatively clear political implication of Pham's intervention, it seems to be that Lenin was "an orthodox Kautsykist" and that the distinction between Second International reformism (associated with Kautsky and the SPD) and early Third International revolutionary politics (associated with Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Lenin) is historically inaccurate. But I have a hard time seeing how any good comes from blurring the line between the trajectory of the late Second International and the trajectory of the revolutionary energy running through the development of figures such as Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci. Was Lenin an avid "Kautskyist" in some sense at one point in his development? Sure. So was Rosa Luxemburg, who initially moved to Germany with the aim of building Kautsky's SPD. But what matters for socialists today is when, where, and why he (and, for that matter, Trotsky, Luxemburg and others) broke with Kautsky, and why they thought it necessary to build an entirely new international. What matters today is how events like the 1917 October Revolution were organized and what we can learn from them. (The errors and ultimate defeat of the German Revolution are similarly important to study and understand here). I don't see how this goal is advanced by muddying the waters so much that Lenin and Kautsky appear to us today as pals.

Lih also offers little insight into the questions that really matter here. The self-understanding of his intervention seems to be more academic than political. He seems more interested in setting the record straight about his scholarship than he is in advancing our understanding of the contemporary conjuncture and struggles within it. That's fine, as far as it goes. But insofar as we're to take what he says seriously and accord it practical significance, we need answers to the questions raised above. Yet he doesn't deliver in his intervention into the discussion. Even his claim that Lenin's polemical interventions should be taken at face value (rather than critically examined as potentially strategic maneuvers within a contested field of debate) lacks political umph.

Now, I'm not saying that history doesn't matter for the Left today. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some historical debates and arguments on the Left are extremely important. But others matter less and still others shouldn't really matter at all. We need to be clear about which is which.
Everything depends on what our tasks are and what shows up as significant for us given what we're up against right now.


Richard said...

"But what matters for socialists today is when, where, and why he (and, for that matter, Trotsky, Luxemburg and others) broke with Kautsky, and why they thought it necessary to build an entirely new international. What matters today is how events like the 1917 October Revolution were organized and what we can learn from them. (The errors and ultimate defeat of the German Revolution are similarly important to study and understand here)."

I agree with this, especially in relation to the German Revolution, which, unlike the Russian one, was expected to transform the most proletarianized society in Europe, if not the world. There was a tremendous upsurge of radical worker activism, manifesting itself in many strikes and direct actions, starting at least as far back as 1915 or 1916, and yet, it failed. An examination of the reasons for it, as well as the reasons why the Italian protest movements of the 1970s did as well (as alluded to yesterday) might be worthwhile (and, note, the most current issue of the New Left Review apparently has an article by Tronti that connects the 1970s Italian experience to present day conditions, haven't read it yet, though).

t said...

I agree about the need to study the German Revolution and why it failed. I got two books on the German Revolution, one by Chris Harman and another by Broue, neither of which I have read yet. I don't know much about Italian Autonomism. I am aware of Tronti only vaguely, and only second-hand. I wasn't aware that he was still alive, in fact. I should take a better look at the Italian Left in general (the only recent thing I read was a pair of pieces by Perry Anderson that appeared in London Review of Books about two years ago). I'll look out for the NLR article.

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard said...

The Broue one is excellent, although it is a more of a top down history instead of a social one, placing party politics at the center. Still pretty impressive, though, because Broue did, for his time (I believe the book was written in 1962), integrate the politics into the broader social framework of German society. From looking at his footnotes, it appears that most works with a more bottom up, social orientation, will, sadly, never be translated into English, so you have to be able to know German to read them. Haven't read the Harman one.

Mark Thomas said...

Hi Richard, strongly recommend reading Harman first - it gives an excellent overview that integrates an attempt to provide a total picture of the class struggle in the process of a revolution and the political responses especially of the key forces ni the workers' movement. Broue really homes in on the Communist party, the KPD, and indeed on the leadership of the KPD and the strategic choices facing it - fascinatining for anyone interested in the problems of builidng a revolutionary party (especially where, unlike in Russia, there are deep mass reformist traditions). My advice is to start with Harman then move onto to Broue

Binh said...

My response to this: