On the Sociology of Leninist Organizations

Libcom, a vast repository of leftist materials on the internet, came out with a critique of Leninist organizations in December last year. It must be said that the author must be congratulated for taking up such a vital issue which seems to attract far lesser attention than it should get. The critique is based on a materialist analysis of class divided society and says that by such analysis it follows that an organization that wishes to fight capitalism and unite the working class must also be based on social practice. It uses the example of Socialist Workers’ Party to make its case. It would be worthwhile mentioning at this point that it was only last year that a major debate had been sparked off by the startling revelation of a rape being covered up in the SWP.  The debates too many shades but fortunately one of them took the line of critiquing the very foundational principles on which a Leninist organization is formed. The article from Libcom should be seen as a part of this rather recent legacy.

One may mention at this point that there have been debates going on regarding the formation of the Leninist party among stalwarts in the Marxist brigade like Lars Lih and Paul Le Blanc. However, these debates have been mostly confined within a Leninist framework, not really transcending that barrier. The present article in question is different in this sense because of its engagement with the Leninist organization from outside the Leninist school.

Taking the example of SWP, the article shows how it has become a practice for Leninist organizations to replace involvement in class struggle as a mode of building organization with merely recruiting via persuasion. It goes on to use sociological concepts of “cognitive dissonance”, “subuniverses” and “groupthink” to explain the kind of phenomena that goes on inside these orgs that tend to legitimize the stagnation and lack of imagination characteristic of such groups. What I instead propose here is that it is not out of a lack of involvement in class struggle, but a question of power and hierarchy as to why these organizations face chronic lack of momentum in terms of political maturity.

The Sociological Tools

Suppose you smoke cigarettes. You come across an ad that asks you not to smoke as it is harmful for your health. What do you? The theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that you will choose not to upset your “subuniverse”, i.e. your preferred mental reality based on inputs from the external reality. So as a smoker you may choose to believe that you will not be harmed by smoking as there are many who smoke but don’t have cancer. In other words, if you are a member of a Leninist organization, you will rather choose to keep on believing in the leaders of the org or in the superiority of your org over other ones etc. You will believe that the org is going on the right track, despite the fact that there may be objective reasons to think otherwise. You will choose to rationalize and create your own sets of arguments, often devoid of rationality or empirical basis, to legitimize your actions and above all your steadfast belief and faith in the org.

A closely related concept is that of “groupthink”. This is the critical sociological explanation as to why would members of a group choose to think in a certain way. The main crux of this theory is that when in a group, the safest bet is to take the majoritarian route. To go against the flow is to risk becoming unpopular. Not many want to ruffle feathers as that might cause unnecessary distress which one wants to avoid any cost. No one wants to be bullied, cornered, facing social boycott from the group by virtue of holding on to a hostile opinion. This is what Scott Jay says will explain the kind of monolithic ideological consensus that is found within the Leninist groups. I will call this consensus as artificial one, because it is forged or brought about by enlightened deliberation and engagement but rather by a practice of just “nodding” away – which is why I have coined the word “noddy” for such membership status – uncritically to avoid attracting the wrath and scorn of the remaining lot.

What Scott Jay misses out, despite using extremely useful sociological concepts, is that there is a power relation at work, a certain hierarchy which actually enables and perpetuates the “noddy” culture. Think of a non hierarchical setup in society and you will find disagreements being a common practice. It does not mean that each of the arguments are backed by logic, rationality or evidence but at least there is far great proportion of divergent opinions even in a tea stall discussion than in the typical, average intra-Leninist org discourse. The diversity can be artificially suppressed by making people tag along the official lines for fear of social retribution. But how is this fear instilled in the first place? What makes the Leninist org any different from a social gathering, even ones with a definite purpose, which apparently even the Leninist orgs have? It is, in this context, the hierarchy – the presence of an all powerful leadership that cannot be questioned. The discourse, the Laxman Rekha of which, must not be crossed, is created not by accident or by a natural outcome of friction of ideas but by the compulsions of a politics that must serve the hierarchical organizational order.

Leninist Leadership

Scott Jay uses a very interesting quote by Maurice Brinton, famous for his work on the workers’ councils in Soviet Russia that were systematically demolished by the Bolshevik Party, to make a point about the Leninist leadership. It would be worthwhile reproducing this quote in its entirety:

The Bolshevik method of self-appointed and self-perpetuating leaders, selected because of their ability to “interpret” the teachers’ writings and “relate them to today’s events” ensures that no one ever intrudes with an original idea. History becomes a series of interesting analogies. Thought becomes superfluous. All the revolutionaries need is a good memory and well-stocked library.

The above quotation just hits the nail on the head. What Jay wants to convey by this quote from Brinton is that it is assumed that the leaders have a monopoly over theoretical knowledge. They are supposedly the only ones with ideas and the rest are meant to just follow their lead. However, what Jay argues in the context of the SWP is that these are merely theoretical leaders as they do not have any role in mass movements. In other words, he seems to argue that had the leaders been involved in mass movements this would not have been a problem. He actually makes a similar argument later in the article in the context of lack of democratic debate, openness and transparency, all which are related to the tight control maintained on the members through the phenomenon of “groupthink”. However, the problem with a closed minded leadership and a stagnant organization is not just that the leaders are removed from mass struggles. This may be the case with SWP in particularly, something that I cannot comment for want of information on the same. However, at least in the case of the Leninist orgs here in West Bengal, it can be safely said that many of the leaders, including the theoretical leaders, are actually involved in mass struggles or “Class struggle”.  What then is the reason for such stagnation of the orgs? Surely the answer does not merely lie in the hierarchical division of mental and physical labor within a Leninist org but in something more fundamental. It is the imbalance of power and hierarchy itself which is responsible for such lack of mobility and fluidity within the Leninist org.


Recruiting their way out of every problem!

One of the most promising arguments in the article is that the Leninist org member will typically think that to increase the number of members of the org is a big achievement in itself. Once again, Scott Jay, in taking the example of SWP, assumes that the org in question does nothing other than just recruiting from a college or a factory and so on. But clearly, our own experience in West Bengal or perhaps in the whole of India will show that the Leninist strategy of increasing membership at any cost continues unabated even when they, admittedly, do take part in protests and struggles which break out in the heart of society. In other words, one of the major short term goals is to increase the membership count. Now, there is nothing particularly wrong about wanting to bring more people over to your side. After all, how can one win the war against capitalism without winning more individuals to the socialist camp. However, the role of ideological persuasion cannot be overlooked. This is where I will differ considerably from Scott. For him, it is an idealistic practice to try and create an organization on the basis of ideological intersections. In other words, for him the only type of organization that has materialistic basis for surviving and functioning properly is the one like a trade union, with which one’s livelihood is associated. That is, if one were to leave a Leninist org, it would not make any difference to them but if they leave a trade union like org, they will lose out in terms of bargaining power.

This is in my view a very mechanistic application of the philosophy of materialism. This is because discussion and ideological persuasion is not idealistic. Of course it is not being suggested that one can be won over to the socialist camp without any sort of practical work and association with ongoing struggles. However, it makes little sense to say that only those orgs with which one has a connection of livelihood are materialistic in nature. This is because how exactly are people going to come together in the struggles for gender, class, caste, linguistic and many other kinds of oppressions? After all, an upper caste male worker may not have faced the same kind of exploitation as a Dalit woman who works as an IT employee. Their worlds are very different but surely as socialists we can  dare to aspire that they can indeed come together to fight for socialism, without ever casting aside their differences. Scott’s surprisingly narrow conceptualization of a materialistic organization totally eliminates the possibility of intersection without which any progress towards a holistic systemic change would be impossible as different struggles would only be limited within their specificities and contextual localities.

All is not fine

The strongest part of the article by Scott is the ending whereby he mercilessly points out the complacency of Leninist orgs. He says that the culture of groupthink ensures that any dissenters have a torrid time as out of fear of facing social boycott themselves, none of the members of the organization will tend to stand up against the majority and in particular the leadership. This in turn means that propagation of old ideas would continue unchallenged. On top of that, the orgs typically set for themselves small achievable targets [say, we will recruit 10 people in x period of time] and feel accomplished whenever a part of this target is met. I might add that there is also frustration within the Leninist camp, which arises out of a very similar reason – that of not meeting some short term goals. Whether it is euphoria or a general frustration that is prevailing, it is ultimately a lack of critical engagement with the ideological content of an organization that characterizes present day Leninist orgs. It is only about competing with other Leninist orgs in terms of winning over more members after each isolated social movement. The members are encouraged to fall in line in accordance with the groupthink principle rather than critically engaging and discussing in details. As Scott very aptly quotes Rosenthal: “Leaders who enforce top-down control are left with only submissive members who challenge little of anything.”

What this also means is that there is little across the orgs criticism. In other words, there tends to be what political scientists like to call “competitive consensus” regarding the modus operandi of the various sectarian Leninist groups. Since none of them will question the fundamentals of operation of their own orgs, it is convenient to avoid getting into the business of even bringing these issues of organizational functioning up while critically assessing other orgs. Of course, hypocritical criticisms are not very rare either.

By Kisholoy


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