Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 3, 2019

John Molyneux, Hal Draper and the organizational question

Filed under: British SWP,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

John Molyneux

In the July 1, 2019 edition of International Socialism, a quarterly journal of the SWP in Britain, there is a nearly 9,000 word article by John Molyneux titled “In Defense of Party Building” that defends “Leninist” norms by taking apart an article by David McNally that was posted to the ISO website as it was going through the process of dissolution. I have the impression that Molyneux’s article was meant to dissuade ISOers from building a non-sectarian network such as Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century that was formed by ex-SWPers who had left the sect in droves after a rape cover-up.

Since the ISO was going through the same kind of paroxysms as the SWP, the English group that spawned it, Molyneux likely expected a similar non-sectarian experiment in the USA. Instead, the ex-ISOers, at least those that I have been exposed to, have attached themselves to the DSA and the Sanders campaign with the same kind of zeal they used to exhibit in defense of state capitalism. Unlike the USA, Britain has a Labour Party that many on the left, including RS21 members, have become active in. It is unfortunate that within the Jacobin/DSA/ex-ISO milieu, there is a mistaken idea that Sanders has something in common with Corbyn. While it is true that both are social democrats, the Democratic Party is not a social democratic party. It is instead the world’s longest-functioning capitalist party and a graveyard for radicals trying to make a home within its bowels.

Molyneux takes issue with David McNally’s article “The Period, the Party and the Next Left” that was originally a letter written to the ISO in 2009, when the group was virtually unchallenged on the US left. Essentially, McNally urges a course that I have been advocating since I hooked up with Peter Camejo’s North Star in the early 80s. McNally draws from Hal Draper’s writings but Peter Camejo’s articles such as “Against Sectarianism” were influenced much more by the Central American left, particularly the FSLN. While Camejo remains my main influence, I have also drawn from Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s attempt to develop a non-sectarian approach in the 1950s that is still very relevant, especially Cochran’s May 1954 “Our Orientation”:

We approach all these strata, however, in the spirit of Marx’s Communist Manifesto which proclaimed that the revolutionists had no interests separate and apart from the working class, that we are not a special sect, cult, or church, which seeks to draw people out of the broad currents into its backwater, but rather as American Marxists, we seek to join with others in advancing the existing struggles to a higher stage and on a broader front. We are convinced that out of these struggles and experiences, even before big mass forces take to the field, Left currents will arise with which we shall be able to cooperate and fuse; that the American Marxist tendency, as a stronger formation than at present, will thus be able to discharge its role as a left wing in the big movement—as part and parcel of the struggle to create the mass revolutionary party in the United States. That is our perspective.

Just compare that to Hal Draper and you’ll see how a one-time Shachtmanite drew the same kind of conclusions:

The sect establishes itself on a HIGH level (far above that of the working class) and on a thin base which is ideologically selective (usually necessarily outside working class). Its working-class character is claimed on the basis of its aspiration and orientation, not its composition or its life. It then sets out to haul the working class up to its level, or calls on the working class to climb up the grade. From behind its organizational walls, it sends out scouting parties to contact the working class, and missionaries to convert two here and three there. It sees itself becoming, one day, a mass revolutionary party by a process of accretion; or by eventual unity with two or three other sects; or perhaps by some process of entry.

Marx, on the other, saw the vanguard elements as avoiding above all the creation of organizational walls between themselves and the class-in-motion. The task was not to lift up two workers here and three there to the level of the Full Program (let alone two students here and three intellectuals there!) but to go after the levers that could get the class, or sections or the class, moving as a mass onto higher levels of action and politics.

When I first got wind of the ISO’s decision to dissolve, I had high hopes that some would take McNally’s advice from 2009 about dropping the “Leninist” crap. After expressing this on FB, somebody clued me in that it didn’t work for McNally who had tried to start something based on Draper’s ideas in Canada but it folded, just as Cochran and Braverman’s Socialist Union had folded in 1959. Since such efforts are far more modest that those that are typical of “vanguard” formations, it is difficult to see them as if it were the Titanic crashing into an iceberg or the Hindenburg blowing up–apt metaphors for the SWP, both American and British.

For Molyneux, the failure of McNally or Bert Cochran to build a mass revolutionary party was vindication of his own approach, which boiled down to Zinovievism. This schematic version of Lenin’s party was always capable of consolidating a group of 1 to 2,000 members—or even more, as was the case with the British SWP until the rape crisis. What Molyneux obviously does not understand is that such groups have been around since the 1930s and fail to do very much for the simple reason that they operate under a glass ceiling. History teaches us that groups like the British SWP or the American SWP that I belonged to can consolidate around a fully articulated “program” that a zealous membership defends like Jehovah’s Witnesses but that are never embraced by the masses. For argument’s sake, as compelling as the ideas of Tony Cliff are, they can never be the foundation of a revolutionary movement since they are operate in such a narrow spectrum ideologically.

Molyneux regards much of McNally’s critique of sectarianism as based on straw-men. For example, he denies that the SWP ever believed that it was “the custodian of the authentic revolutionary tradition”, a typical sectarian nostrum. He writes:

A revolutionary Marxist organisation—group or party—will obviously try, as best it can, to embody the “authentic revolutionary tradition”, but this is entirely different from imagining that it is the “custodian” of that tradition as if it could somehow be copyrighted or deposited in the group’s bank account.

He misses the point. We are not talking about revolutionary traditions but ideology. The British SWP has made Tony Cliff’s state capitalist theory a litmus test that sets it apart from its rivals on the left. This means, for example, publishing Mike Gonzalez articles on Cuba that would make most people on the left balk at the idea of ever becoming a member. In a way, it is a reverse litmus test since it puts an obstacle in the way of convincing many radicalizing people to join. For those on the left who have not already been indoctrinated into Cliff-think, they would likely find the notion of Fidel Castro building capitalism rather nutty. Whatever the merit of such ideas, I think it is important to debate out questions such as the class nature of Cuba but only in the back pages of a theoretical journal open to a diversity of opinion.

To elevate the question of whether Che Guevara was a Stalinist to the same level as whether to support Brexit demonstrates an inability to keep your eyes on the prize. In reality, this state capitalism stuff is just a way to distinguish the SWP brand from other left groups, like detergents or soft drink advertisements. As Peter Camejo told me back in the early 80s, we have to put historical and international questions on the back burner. I should add that even when there are sharp differences on something like Syria or Ukraine, this does not mean that should be split questions. I have no problem defending my ideas on Syria in CounterPunch even though there are articles that defend Assad. Back in 1992, the National Guardian, the American radical newsweekly that no connection to the British newspaper, opened its back pages to contending analyses of the war in Bosnia. This is a model that can certainly work if we keep our eyes on the prize.

Referencing the British SWP’s various party-building experiments since its inception that ranged from its work in the Socialist Alliance to its creation of small branches that might facilitate more rapid growth, Molyneux scoffs at the idea that it was a “one-trick pony”. He writes:

Cliff in particular was always very conscious of the fact that the IS/SWP and any other would-be mass revolutionary workers’ party would have repeatedly to transform itself, its methods of work, its structures etc, in interaction with the working class in struggle, in order to get anywhere near its goal.

That might be true but what exactly was its goal other than becoming a mass Leninist party? Tony Cliff came out of Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International and absorbed all of the subterfuges that his followers perfected in pursuit of Zinovievist goals. For example, if you read James P. Cannon’s “History of American Trotskyism”, you’ll find out that he carried out an “entryist” tactic in the Socialist Party inspired by Trotsky’s “French Turn”. Other party-building tactics in later years had nothing in common with that but all of these tactics were subordinated to the goal of becoming hegemonic on the left. Cliff carried out the same kind of maneuvers himself, even taking part in an entryist project in the Labour Party of the sort that his contemporary Ted Grant carried out for decades. In my view, all such tactics are a sectarian mistake and should be abandoned once and for all.

Molyneux’s article concludes with comparisons between the SWP and other groups on the left, as well as Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, that never considers the possibility that the Zinovievist principles that he and Ted Grant or James P. Cannon were operating on entailed completely different understandings of how to build a vanguard party:

I want to stress that I’m not citing these examples to criticise the CWI, the SWP or the ISO (still less to suggest that if everybody had adopted the correct model all errors would have been avoided). Indeed, I would say it is literally impossible to engage in party building for any length of time without falling victim, in one way or another, to these opposing pressures. The Bolshevik Party itself, let us remember, was sectarian in its initial response to the Soviets in 1905, ultra-left over participation in the Duma in 1906-7 and opportunist in the first phase of the revolution in 1917. Simply getting bigger, while obviously desirable, is not in itself a protection as it may well increase the pressure of reformism. Staying small and “pure” is not a solution since the “purity” increases the likelihood of the sect mentality taking over.

He also assumes that Lenin’s “democratic centralism” operated on the same basis as the SWP:

In fact democratic centralism, though not a guarantee or panacea (there isn’t one), is the best available method of ensuring party leaders are subject to democratic control. This does not mean that in all stages of an organisation’s development and in all conditions democratic centralism should be applied in the same way. Organisational forms have to change according to changing circumstances.

He doesn’t seem to grasp the sharp differences between the Bolsheviks and all these other groups led by Tony Cliff, Peter Taaffe, Alan Woods, et al over democratic centralism. The Bolsheviks applied democratic centralism to action rather than ideas. For example, a Bolshevik deputy in the duma was expected to vote on the basis of what the party membership mandated. Also, when a strike was approved by Lenin’s party, its trade union membership was expected to throw themselves into carrying out the strike. In Zinovievist groups, it applies just as much to ideas as it does to action. It was strictly enforced in the American SWP, especially in the 1980s when it was determined to get rid of all the older cadres that still adhered to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Telling someone at a Militant Labor Forum that an article in the Militant supporting Lenin’s “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was a mistake could get you expelled, even if you had been in the party for 30 years. This kind of thing actually happened.

In Lenin’s party, debates were carried out in public. In fact there were numerous Bolshevik newspapers, all with their own independent editorial boards that saw things their own way and wrote about them with their own perspective. Not only that, the Bolsheviks occasionally put out newspapers jointly with their supposedly worst enemies, the Mensheviks. One such newspaper was Severny Golos (Voice of the North) that called for a general strike and insurrection in 1905. Around that time the Bolsheviks were grappling with the significance of 1905. Nachalo, an official Bolshevik paper, called for a dictatorship of the proletariat while another paper Novaya Zhizn advocated a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. Now we all understand that such doctrinal differences have led to numerous splits in the Trotskyist movement, but back in the good old days it did not seem to bother Lenin very much who wrote, “But have not disagreements of this kind been observed at every socialist party in Europe.”

If public disagreements of this sort were standard in Lenin’s day, imagine how impossible it is today to keep debates bottled up internally as is the customary practice of groups like the SWP. The internal documents of the ISO and the British SWP during pre-convention always get circulated on the Internet. Maybe the only way to implement the kind of strict democratic centralism of yore is to do what the SWP did in one pre-convention discussion that involved some questions under hot dispute when I was a new, young member. They handed out numbered print copies at the beginning of the meeting and collected them at the end of the meeting. Any copy that was missing would be tracked down and that was that.

All of these measures were designed to keep the prying eyes of the rest of the left from seeing our top secrets. It was a kind of behavior that made no sense in a bourgeois democracy where conventions were frequently hosts of sharp debates over race, war, and other questions that deeply affected the citizenry. What’s needed now more than ever is transparency and accountability. Who knows? Maybe if these principles had guided the ISO and the SWP, those rape cases would have not led to wholesale defection and dissolution. Of course, the question of why groups committed to woman’s liberation were prone to sexual assaults in the first place remains unanswered.


  1. The key problem with the SWP, and many similar sects/cults, is their fundamental political ontology is flawed. They therefore seek organisational-bureaucratic solutions to the problem of their persistent political isolation, the causes of which they do not understand. As a result they engage in absurd organisational twists and turns that lead to demoralisation, fragmentation and even further isolation.

    The problem is that the SWP view the relationship between class and revolutionary politics as a structural rather than a historical one. This means they tend to understand the barriers to growth and influence in conspiratorial and voluntaristic terms: the working class is detached from its natural embrace of revolutionary politics by reformist betrayals, while all forms of working class mobilisation can be read as presenting ‘revolutionary opportunities’ that can be fully exploited if the vanguard party exerts sufficient ideological and organisational steeliness.

    But of course the very limited appetite for revolutionary politics among working people in the leading capitalist countries today has very little to do with ‘union bureaucrats’ or a lack of effort by the bearers of eternal Leninist truth. The class has been disorganised and depoliticised as a class for itself by decades of defeats and recomposition at the hands of Keynesians and then neoliberals.

    There is no magic mix of correct programmes and Zinovievist norms that will suddenly propel groups like the SWP to their desired historical destiny. At this time socialists need to focus on better understanding why we are where we are, and making new socialists partly by proving the relevance of socialist theory and practice to those who are struggling for different more human lives. Many of those in struggle view groups like the SWP with suspicion and contempt – and who can blame them.

    Comment by Mike — July 4, 2019 @ 3:54 am

  2. Why build anything when you can join the middle class green party, help get Obama elected so he can deport record numbers of immigrants without criticism, make big bucks in the stock market by participating in the exploitation of workers, then die and be hailed as a social justice warrior and comrade?

    Comment by Carlin — July 4, 2019 @ 8:07 am

  3. As a former member of the English and Wales CWI sect, where I was a member 2004-2012, your website, along with others and investigating various historical documents was a lot of help in assisting me in moving away from sectarian politics.

    The part of contention I wish to raise with you is that in the various posts you have made on this issue where you attempt to trace the historical examples of challenging the sterile “Lenninist” organisational forms, the furthest I have ever seen you go back is to the 1950’s but I would be most interested in hearing your own thoughts on the Goldman/Morrow faction in the US SWP and their own contributions to this topic.

    As a long time reader, I’m well aware that you have examined the Goldman/Morrow faction before, but only in relation to an examination of their European political perspectives, which at this point I think it’s really beyond dispute repented a far more accurate reading of developments than the Cannon majority faction and it’s no secret that in the history of my former tendency Ted Grant recognized the value in those perspectives and ran with them, developing them further and producing some of his best writing in the 40’s, such a his, The Changed Relationship of Forces in Europe and the Role of the Fourth International (1945) or Democracy or Bonapartism in Europe – A Reply to Pierre Frank (1946).

    Discussing these perspectives, while of some value in itself in terms of demonstrating that taking notice of actual facts, as the Morrow/Goldman faction did in relation to what was actually going on in Europe as apposed to what the previous perspective told them was going to happen, is vital to correcting perspectives rather than falling victim to cognitive dissidence and ignoring reality, this was only one of what I consider the to be the three fundamental contributions made by the Morrow/Goldman faction.

    The second of these is the programmatic points they advised that they saw as flowing naturally from their grounded perspectives. While off topic to go into too much detail, they argued for more advanced ‘democratic’ demands to counter social-democracy and Stalinism who were both advancing demands and were indeed carrying out varies degrees or in the case of Eastern Europe total nationalizations of the means of production. Whatever your thoughts on these demands and I confess to not having looked into the issue enough to feel confident enough to give a firm opinion, they were denounced by the Cannon faction as PB ideological concessions to liberalism and for the last 80-years have been used by the various Trot tendencies that stand uncritically with Cannonism of the 40’s to attack the Goldman/Morrow faction’s perspectives with some kind of guilt by association, dismissing the idea out of hand that it’s possible for someone to have a correct perspective but draw incorrect conclusions from it.

    Finally we get to the third issue, which is the one that’s relevant to the topic at hand, their criticism of “Lenninist” party organisational forms. While, as yet, only a small percentage of the Morrow/Goldman material has been put online, if it were up to me and I had the money, I’d take a month off work, fly to the US and pour through their archives, I feel enough has already been uploaded to recognize that they were making some very advanced criticisms that, if it had been adopted, would have pointed a way forward for the fourth international to of emerged as a vibrant Marxist movement and not a sectarian cul-de-sac.

    The most detailed exposition of their criticisms and ideas can be found in the transcript of the October, 1945, Plenum of the National Committee of the SWP titled in the Marxist Internet Archive as Replies to Questions: A Discussion at the SWP Plenum (October 1945) and can be read here,


    Given how close some of their points echo your own,

    “If public disagreements of this sort were standard in Lenin’s day, imagine how impossible it is today to keep debates bottled up internally as is the customary practice of groups like the SWP. The internal documents of the ISO and the British SWP during pre-convention always get circulated on the Internet. Maybe the only way to implement the kind of strict democratic centralism of yore is to do what the SWP did in one pre-convention discussion that involved some questions under hot dispute when I was a new, young member. They handed out numbered print copies at the beginning of the meeting and collected them at the end of the meeting. Any copy that was missing would be tracked down and that was that.

    All of these measures were designed to keep the prying eyes of the rest of the left from seeing our top secrets. It was a kind of behavior that made no sense in a bourgeois democracy where conventions were frequently hosts of sharp debates over race, war, and other questions that deeply affected the citizenry. What’s needed now more than ever is transparency and accountability.” – Louis

    “It is significant that Lenin, writing some years before World War I, gave as his criterion for the democratic nature of the Social Democratic Party of Germany the fact that the party had no secrets and that its conventions were open to the public.

    Every experienced political person understands that it is impossible to keep important discussions in a large party a secret. Why did the Stalinists recently have a bitter public discussion on the differences between Browder and Foster. They certainly do not believe in public discussion as a matter of principle. They simply took it for granted that they could not keep a discussion involving the ranks of the party a secret. I do not claim that this is the only reason for their public discussion but by itself it would have been a sufficient reason.

    It must be taken for granted that in a large party everything that is known to the members is also known to the people who are interested in the life of the party. It follows therefore that practically it is useless to try and keep any discussion a secret by means of an internal bulletin. I insist, however, that our policy with reference to keeping discussions secret must not be based merely on the practical ground that in a large party it is impossible to keep secrets. It must be based rather on the idea that our party life should be an open book to all advanced workers and others who are not members of the party but close sympathizers and are interested in its life. I repeat: the party is a party of the working masses and not a secret society.” – Goldman

    I really would appreciate hearing your thoughts.

    Comment by Dominic Smith — July 4, 2019 @ 9:21 am

  4. Some Trot sectarians never learn anything. John Molyneux appears to be one of them. I’m not saying that we Anarchists don’t have our own problems, too, but a lot of Leninists seem trapped in a time-warp…

    Comment by Kurt Hill — July 8, 2019 @ 2:50 pm

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