The sociology of Leninist organizations

The behavior of Leninist groups is shaped less by the rules than by the social environment of their organizations.

Submitted by Scott Jay on December 11, 2014

Leninists believe that there needs to be a revolutionary workers’ organization in order for the working class to challenge the capitalist system. Realizing that it is difficult to build a revolutionary workers’ organization, Leninists have often built an intermediate form instead, recruiting and convincing individuals to the idea of building such an organization in the future. The disparity between recruiting people to ideas and building working class power is rarely acknowledged beyond the belief that they will get to it eventually.
The fundamental flaw of the Leninist Model, as we will call it, is this notion that a revolutionary workers’ organization, or the precursor to it, can be recruited into existence. On the contrary, such an organization can only be built as a product of struggle, and yet Leninists have sought to recruit people to Marxist ideas even in the absence of struggle. The idea that a revolutionary cadre can be built by recruiting people, more often than not middle-class, rarely with any material stake in the success of the organization or the struggles they are involved in, is an idealist and moralistic conception that is completely contrary to any understanding of Marxist theory or even to the writings and experience of Lenin himself. Leninists assume, nonetheless, that because they believe this effort is at the service of class struggle that it will all work out fine, as though their organization is exempt from the forces that affect all other institutions in capitalist society.
This article will attempt to provide the beginnings of a materialist analysis of how Leninists have sought to build revolutionary workers’ organizations but have more often built bureaucratic sects instead. The problem is not just that it is quite hard to build the former but also that it is quite a bit easier to build the latter. Sectarian behavior is “normal” and “natural” and Leninists have usually formalized their sectarianism with bureaucratic rules and norms rather than built structures to counteract it. This article will also attempt to bring in some theoretical tools from outside of Marxism, particularly from the sociology of organizations and social psychology, which should help enlighten rather than negate the Marxist method.
We will focus on the Leninist Model, specifically the one subscribed to by the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) for the last few decades. That is, an organization which focuses on recruitment to a very specific set of Marxist ideas; which subscribes to a particular form of democratic centralism in which the leadership debates their views in secret and then present a united front to the membership, who then debate their views in secret and present a united front to the world at large; which places a high priority on recruitment to the organization itself; but which nonetheless engages in social movements including protests and strikes in order to recruit people to this project.
There are problems with the rules of democratic centralism, but the problem lies not in the rules themselves. Rather, the rules merely legitimize the organizational behavior that flows inherently from the Leninist Model. The rules and norms are merely symptoms. What needs to change are the fundamental organizational methods which have distorted the behavior of Leninists without them even realizing it.
How social being determines consciousness
The starting point for understanding the behavior of individuals in organizations is Marx’s famous comment that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Marx 1859) Marxists generally interpret this in the same way as Marx did when he elaborated it in The German Ideology, noting that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” (Marx 1845) The ruling class accepts and enforces the ideas that justify and explain their material interests, while the working-class battles to overcome these ideas as part of the class struggle, a struggle which exposes the emptiness of bourgeois ideology. This is all fundamentally true, but the ways in which “social being determines consciousness” (as it is often translated) has deeper implications.
As Cornelius Castoriadis wrote:

Marxism, itself born in capitalist society, has not freed itself, and could not free itself completely from the culture in which it grew up. Its position–like the position of any revolutionary ideology and like the situation of the proletariat until the revolution–remains contradictory. “The ruling ideas of each epoch are the ideas of its ruling class” does not simply mean that those ideas are physically the most widespread or the most widely accepted. It also means they tend to be assented to, partially and unconsciously, by the very people who oppose them the most violently. In the theoretical sphere no less than in the practical sphere, the struggle of the revolutionary movement to free itself from the hold of capitalism is a permanent struggle. (Castoriadis 1959)

This is true not only of the reactionary ideas were are all brought up with but also in relation to the organizational habits that we take for granted.
Ultimately, how “social being determines consciousness” is a psychological question which has been studied in depth for decades by social psychologists. Specifically, the study of cognitive dissonance initiated by Leon Festinger and others has helped explain how the human mind deals with ideas that conflict with reality. The feeling of psychological discomfort created by the dissonance of holding contradictory ideas causes humans to rationalize the irrational rather than reconcile the contradiction. This was first documented by Festinger in a study of a millennial UFO cult that believed the apocalypse was only months away. When their prediction failed to come true, they came up with an even more outlandish explanation–that their fervor actually saved the world–and increased their proselytizing for the time being. (Festinger 1956)
People will tend to go along with all sorts of social pressures, accepting that the many friends and colleagues who tell them something outlandish must be well informed and honest, as this is easier for the human mind to accept than the idea that these people are liars and scoundrels. For example, studies have documented how subjects are willing to apply increasingly dangerous electric shocks to another human being who is crying and screaming simply because it is suggested by an authority figure–a psychologist in a lab coat. Everything is fine, so long as the authority figures continues their reassurances.
On a more simple level, cognitive dissonance has a way of convincing you that you are always right. If you have to make a decision, then once that decision is made and you carry it out, every action and result will appear to be a justification for that decision. This may even lead you to make further, poorer decisions that do nothing more than justify the original decision. This is not just the psychology of a UFO cult but everyday human behavior. We all do it, and nothing about adherence to Leninism or Marxism makes you exempt. These psychological studies help explain how the human mind is so susceptible to sectarian and cultish behavior. We are all susceptible to this behavior in all of our social relationships, but most of us don’t codify this behavior with Leninist rules and norms.
A common case of cognitive dissonance lies in the fact that nobody likes to be criticized. The two contradictory ideas that “I am an open-minded person” and “I do not like how I feel when I am criticized” often lead to the conclusion that “my critic is a jerk who is just trying to make me feel bad.” This is much easier to deal with and to rationalize than the belief that “I am wrong for getting so upset.” Many high-pitched arguments between Leninists have been rooted in precisely this problem. Some of the more cynical Leninist leaders even realize that attacking their critic and calling them names encourages their comrades to think of the critic, and not the leader, as an unprincipled scoundrel. In other words, when bad ideas come crashing into reality, those bad ideas will often get worse, especially when there are social consequences to preferencing reality.
The other problem created by cognitive dissonance is that the more somebody does something, the more they believe it is right. It is quite difficult to accept that all the work one has done for years or decades has been pointless. This is one of the problems with creating an organization that is based on what seems possible now and not what is needed later. When later arrives, the dissonance of dealing with the reality that “what we have done all this time makes no sense” is quite difficult to overcome. (See Aronson 1999)
The sociologists Berger and Luckmann have also written convincingly about how social groups create institutions when they come together to carry out common tasks, after which they develop common habits and assumptions about those tasks. This can occur in the institution of the nuclear family or just a group of men who build a canoe. These assumptions can also expand to take up common beliefs about the world at large. But at some point these common assumptions and agreements and habits take on a life of their own, because no individual can overturn their social environment alone, even when they helped create it in the first place:

This means that the institutions that have now crystallized (for instance, the institution of paternity as it is encountered by the children) are experienced as existing over and beyond the individuals who “happen to” embody them at the moment. In other words, the institutions are now experienced as possessing a reality of their own, a reality that confronts the individual as an external and coercive fact. . . The “There we go again” now becomes “This is how things are done.” A world so regarded attains a firmness in consciousness; it becomes real in an ever more massive way and it can no longer be so readily changed. (Berger and Luckmann 1966, p 58)

Eventually, agreements about the world at large become themselves institutionalized and need to be protected. So rather than just a common agreement about some tasks, there develops a common agreement about the ideas developed to legitimize those tasks. This may all be necessary in order to make sense of day to day life, not just to continue on the tasks of the day but to reproduce the ideas and institutions that make sense of the tasks of the day. Obviously, this is more so the case in a religious community and less so among a group of men building a canoe. Until, of course, the canoe builders are ruled over by a single monarch whose rule is justified by appeals to God or some other force.
Whatever legitimizes the social order among however small a group, though, itself needs legitimizing and defending. This creates what one might call an ideology, but Berger and Luckmann describe as a subuniverse of meaning, which forms a deep grip on individual behavior. This is not a strictly economic analysis, if by economic we refer to money and wealth production, but it does help explain how social being determines consciousness. Moreover, individuals who spend their entire lives working in groups, organizations and institutions to meet their material needs will certainly carry out the same habits when working with groups that have other goals.
These two concepts–cognitive dissonance and the construction of subuniverses–explain an enormous amount of organizational behavior and Leninist organizations are not exempt. The social pressures that are consistent throughout human experience–from UFO cults to everyday life–described by sociologists and social psychologists are common among Leninists. For example, t is much easier to believe that the outlandish perspectives that expect “war and revolution” in the short term, than it is to believe that all of their comrades have simply lost touch with reality. Furthermore, the consequences of rejecting rather than embracing the outlandish claims can be severe and humiliating. In fact, regardless of the unprincipled and dishonest behavior of their comrades, including the leadership of their organization, there is always some explanation for why they are all acting in good faith. This is precisely the problem. People who carry out outlandishly unprincipled actions probably are acting in good faith because they too are susceptible to the effects of cognitive dissonance. Whether or not their soul is pure is completely irrelevant.
Idealism in Marxist organizations
Marxists believe that the revolutionary struggle and organization of the working class can overthrow capitalism. What Leninist have taken from this far too often is that it is their job to convince people of the importance of Marxist ideas and the need for a revolutionary workers party–in the future. This has not precluded them from participating in mass struggle. The SWP played a significant role in the largest protest in British history in 2003, for example. But ultimately they have always prioritized the need to convince people of Marxist ideas and to recruit people to their organization over the need to build up the direct organization of workers. Ultimately, they judge their success on the former and not the latter. This is a fundamentally idealist approach to organization which is widespread among Trotskyists.
Marxists should criticize the idealist approach to organization, but we cannot situate the roots of idealism in more idealism. Ultimately, we need a materialist analysis of the roots of idealism in Leninist organizations. Bad ideas do not just come from other bad ideas, and they are not simply communicated via another set of bad ideas. They are thought up, communicated, debated, altered, and defended by individuals, specifically groups of individuals who find common cause for promoting them and who do so via organizations.
To compound this issue, the ideas which these Leninists recruit people to are not just general agreement with Marxism or or opposition to capitalism but a very precise and specific conception of the Soviet Union and the governments of China, Cuba and others. Entire organizations have distinguished themselves not simply on a difference over the progressive or reactionary nature of these regimes but on their different analyses of exactly why these regimes are progressive or reactionary. These are fundamentally idealist organizations, which may seem like a contradiction as they are all avowedly Marxist but it is ideas and not material reality which distinguishes them and to which they recruit people to. Some have better ideas than others but organizationally they are largely the same.
Compare this approach to organization to a trade union, where members have not come together because they agree on a common set of ideas. Rather, they probably have widely differing ideas, from revolutionary socialists and anarchists to liberals to racists and misogynists and maybe even fascists. They have come together in a common organization not by their own choosing but because of their common circumstance. Their commitment to carrying out the work of the union–attending meetings, filing grievances, organizing workplace action–is based fundamentally on their material needs. They can stop attending union meetings if they want to, but that does not remove them from the tasks of the union, it merely removes their involvement in decisions which affect their daily working life and even the well being of their families. Ultimately the only way for a worker to genuinely be removed from the tasks of the union is to quit their job and go work elsewhere. That is, their relationship to the union is fundamentally a material relationship.
The debates they have out in the union also have real, fundamental consequences over their daily life. They do not simply vote on whether to do this or that, rather they decide on a course of action which they hope will have material results in their workplace. The people they elect will negotiate their wages and benefits regardless of what ideas they espouse. In short, the workers have come together not over ideology but in spite of their ideological difference and there is far too much at stake to just walk away.
This is fundamentally different than the typical Leninist organization, unless we are talking about the genuinely mass Communist workers’ parties of decades past. The decisions and the activity of most participants of Leninist groups have almost no impact on the daily life of their members, who in fact might be much better off materially if they spent less time at their weekly meetings. The commitment is based on a deep ideological agreement and social solidarity amongst the comrades. They believe in the ideas and they believe in each other.
Marxists have a particular interest in struggles and organizations of the working class precisely because workers have a common, direct interest in the outcomes of these struggles. Urban and industrial workers massed together in relatively small spaces have the potential for mass, militant struggle that can challenge the system. Workers with wildly different ideas can still have a very immediate, common interest in collective action. The Leninist, however, goes about building an organization that is entirely the opposite–bringing together disparate groups of people with relatively little in common with a set of activities that are highly unlikely to have an impact on the lives and working conditions of their members. The Leninist model is essentially un-Marxist, but that rarely bothers the dedicated Leninist.
There is a paradox in that somebody ultimately has to have the idea of revolutionary workers’ organization before they go out and create it, and they will have to recruit other people to help them carry out this project. The point is not that such an organization must happen spontaneously without anybody thinking about it. Rather, the point is that the idea must be put into practice, not eventually but as a part of the life of the organization itself.
The very concept that people can be recruited to the idea, that revolutionaries can be convinced rather than forged in struggle, that organizational problems can be solved by recruiting more people, that the goal is to convince more people who can convince more people, is all fundamentally idealist. If one believes in the need for revolutionary workers’ organization, they should go out and build it. If instead they focus on convincing others, they are doing something else. It may not even be solely an academic talk shop but it is not founded on a materialist basis.
Groupthink and splitters
There is a tendency among Leninists to seek a high level of agreement on political questions in their organization, but also to split into ever smaller and hostile grouplets over seemingly trivial ideological matters. This can become enshrined in the very definition of leadership with disastrous results.
Maintaining a leadership based on their strengths in theoretical work and not on their role in the class struggle is an inherently undemocratic, not to mention class-biased, organizational model which cannot help but to lead to stagnation. Pat Stack, a former member of the Central Committee of the SWP, described the problems that developed when his organization moved toward this model of leadership, noting how difficult it became to challenge the leading intellectual figures:

After all who knew more about the Russian Revolution than [Tony] Cliff, The German Revolution then [Chris] Harman, the Comintern than [Duncan] Hallas. Even if the off individual developed a ‘heresy’ how could it be tested, and why would the membership trust ‘gobby would-be intellectual’ against the people who had lived and breathed this stuff all their adult lives. In other words, who could teach the teachers? This meant that a whole cadre was developed with a high level of political knowledge, but little experience of ‘challenging the leadership’. For them loyalty to the party, and loyalty to the leadership were to become synonymous. (SWP 2013 PCB #3, p 104)

The British socialist Maurice Brinton made a similar point:

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. (Brinton 1961)

This approach results in the long-term stability of the leadership of the Leninist group because it is extremely difficult to challenge the accepted dogma even when it is allowed. Those in the leadership who are employed full time by the organization have an inordinate amount of time to read, both history and current events. The assessments they make of theoretical questions and their perspectives on current events will therefore always be backed up by a higher level of understanding of the problems and a deeper knowledge of the basic facts. They simply have more time to investigate these issues and their jobs depend on it. Ordinary members who work full-time and have families simply will not be able to compete over the battle of ideas because they will not be able to keep up, and they will not appear to be nearly as impressive as the full-timers. They may have a better sense of working-class life, the mood on the shop floor and the needs of the struggle, but they will never seem as impressive as the full-time labor expert.
The above factors help create a social bubble which has been described as groupthink. The classic study of groupthink was not about UFO cults but rather about several modern US presidents and how their Ivy League educated advisors could not see through the debacles they were obviously careening toward. The problem was not mind control or a cult of personality, but rather an environment in which nobody wanted to break the esprit de corps, the social solidarity that seemed necessary for the group to work together constructively.
“According to the groupthink hypothesis,” writes Irving Janis in the original study of the concept, “members of any small cohesive group tend to maintain esprit de corps by unconsciously developing a number of shared illusions and related norms that interfere with the critical thinking and reality testing. (Janis 1982, p 35) The symptoms include: “[a]n illusion of invulnerability,” “[a]n unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality,” “[c]ollective efforts to rationalize in order to discount warnings,” “[s]elf-censorship of deviations from the apparent group consensus,” “[a] shared illusion of unanimity concerning judgements conforming to the majority view,” “[d]irect pressure on any member who expresses strong arguments against any of the groups stereotypes,” and “[t]he emergence of self-appointed mindguards.” (Janis 1982, p 174-5)
Many Leninists will recognize quite a few of these symptoms in their own organizations. But why is groupthink so prevalent among Leninist groups? The problem is that their structures and methods tend to develop a groupthink environment because of how the organization is built. Attempting to avoid these pitfalls–in the rare case that they are even acknowledged–is unlikely to succeed without altering the material reality that encourages them. The rules do not create the social environment, rather the rules are a consequence of the social environment.
The people who comprise the group join not on the basis that the organization solves a problem in their lives–how to defend oneself against police brutality or organize a strike for better wages–but on their belief in the organization’s ideas. Rather than people coming together because they have a common class interest in the group–even if they do happen to be working-class–they come together from disparate backgrounds and no real need to work together beyond an ideological and moralistic commitment to these ideas, a commitment which may be quite high and even self-sacrificing, but is essentially ideological and moralistic nonetheless.
What keeps the group together, then, is not a stake in the decisions but a belief in the stated goals of the group itself. The failure or success of the decisions carried out by the group will not affect the members’ lives, but they may affect the vitality of the organization. Differences of opinion will not result in the success or failure of a strike, but they may result in more or less recruitment. Rather than carrying out a battle inside the group because the member’s life depends on it, the battle happens because the life of the group depends on it. Instead of the individual dictating the behavior of the organization, it is the organization which dictates the behavior of the individuals. In other words, social being determines consciousness. What holds the group together is not a material commitment to the results of the group’s actions but a commitment to the group itself. Janis called this an esprit de corps, a general sense of social solidarity, which is quite different than a common class interest.
For somebody with a material interest in the results of the group, breaking this solidarity may be vital to their lives as the decisions will have real consequences. But to somebody without a material interest in the group’s actions, breaking this solidarity threatens the life of the group. There very well may be mindguards and authoritarian enforcers in the leadership, but ultimately the membership will self-censor themselves so as not to break group solidarity. When disagreements break out, the cognitive dissonance of believing one thing but being told another is far more likely to cause irrationally defensive behavior than in the case where the disagreements have genuine life consequences.
Class background is certainly relevant, as middle-class Leninists are unlikely to have a material stake in the organization–unless they are employed by it, of course. But working-class members from disparate neighborhoods and workplaces building an organization that recruits people to pro-working class ideas will also run into the same problems. Which is not to say that there is anything at all wrong with having a commitment to supporting and building struggles against the oppression and exploitation suffered by others. This is a perfectly noble way to live one’s life and is a fundamental part of what it means to be a revolutionary. It is, however, a very poor basis for building a revolutionary organization–rather the organization needs to be built up of people who have an interest in fighting for themselves and for their class as a whole. Building an organization of people on the basis of their belief in revolutionary struggle with no practical experience or even material interest in such struggles is an organization built on sand. This is one of the fundamental conclusions of classical Marxism, and yet Leninists have somehow spent decades building these organizations anyway.
Having achieved an extraordinarily high level of ideological agreement, the tendency toward split is a natural consequence. If there is no room for disagreement or even debate, and a groupthink atmosphere which discourages it, the only place to go with a difference of opinion is elsewhere.
Leading SWP member Alex Callinicos describes this problem in depth in his study of the US and British Trotskyists. (Callinicos 1990) However, he places the inability of Trotskyists to come to terms with reality in their a priori commitment to the predictions of Trotsky and their unwillingness to break with them. This is true, but it does not go far enough. Ultimately, this situates the problems of post World War II Trotskyism in an idealist framework–develop the correct theory and all will be resolved. Callinicos describes the splits over various heresies and orthodoxies, but the real problem is that these groups did not form or split over the needs of the class struggle but rather over which set of ideas made the most sense out of reality. The constant search for the right line on Stalinism was the very source of their problems, no matter how right some of them may have been. The struggle of Trotsky’s followers to make sense out of the world based on his flawed predictions and analyses was a genuine problem, but it was a very different problem than organizing a cell of workers in a workplace or defending African-Americans against lynchings.
Callinicos’s approach is rooted in idealism, but Marxists need to provide a materialist explanation for these problems. We need to ask the question: why is there an organizational commitment to an idealist approach in the first place?
The previous discussion is one attempt to answer this question–Marxists with little or no relationship to the class struggle attempt to build organizations committed to spreading the gospel of Marxism, which tends to appeal to their own middle-class sensibilities. When they do engage in social movements–and they certainly do–their approach is further distorted by their efforts to win people to ideas rather than build class power.
As far as the endless ideological splits, a better explanation was given by Neil Davidson, formerly of the SWP, in reference to the disagreements among the leaders of his own organization, which were kept secret until the eve of the split:

Democratic and open debate of such positions is the only way to arrive at conclusions that can be tested in practice. The current set-up almost guarantees that this will not happen: if an issue is sufficiently important to divide the [Central Committee], it will fester amongst its members, who tend then to leave the organisation rather than give up the positions of authority (and, presumably, careers) to which they have become accustomed. At this point, there are always enough rank-and-file members of the party dissatisfied with the internal life to leave with the fallen leader, and form a new organization. Political clarity is not reached but rather smothered in the ensuing atmosphere of defensiveness. (SWP 2013 PCB #3, p 45)

An organization with a base in workplaces and neighborhoods would be far less likely to split over the bruised egos of the leadership, because splitting would result in a loss of organized power. Instead, for many, splitting is an improvement over hum-drum, undemocratic party life and the only way to pursue an alternative political direction.
To this should be added, if the leaders and the members have a material stake in the unity of the organization, such a split would be far less likely. Instead, the battle over ideological questions simply festers until it must break out, at which point the leaders actually have a stake in splitting the organization rather than being removed from their position, which would mean losing their full-time status and having to go get a real job.
The role of secrecy and denunciation
Leninists typically not only hold secrets but they formalize them with rules about who is and is not allowed to hear these secrets. The leadership bodies–the Central Committee of the SWP, for example–carry out their discussions in private, even out of the view of their own members. When they have come to a common agreement, or have decided to adopt a majority decision at least, they present their common agreement to the membership as a united front. The membership as a whole are then allowed to discuss these decisions, for a period of time anyway, in internal meetings and internal bulletins. Eventually a formal decision is made and the membership is expected to follow the decision and carry it out in public, often without airing further dissent.
This approach helps maintains a spirit of solidarity based on superficial agreement, except among those few who bother to dissent. When those brave few stick their necks out, it is far easier delegitimize these dissident thinkers if nobody realizes that their opinions are held among some of the leadership and some of the rest of the membership.
What is the purpose of all this secrecy, especially for an organization whose activities are almost entirely legal? The purpose is to maintain a subuniverse of meaning, as Berger and Luckmann called it. There are structures that need to be maintained, such as the elected leadership bodies, rules that need to be followed, such as “democratic centralism,” and habits that need to be continued, described as meetings and paper sales. The stability and predictability of the subuniverse is maintained by all of these and the secret discussions not only legitimize these habits–because we are the chosen few–they protect them so outsiders cannot see the cracks in the edifice. The irony is not only that the membership are made outsiders to the decision making process of the leadership, but also that they are made outsiders in their own organization when they step out of line and air dissenting opinions. This process is what Berger, in a sociological study of religious sects, called “existential assassination”:

Rejection of authority of the system is an act of rebellion, which must be expiated by repentance or punished by some form of existential assassination. . . Perhaps no other sentence characterizes more adequately our modern sectarian situation. The character of the existential assassination may vary. Thus a man may be cast into outer darkness by being officially excommunicated from a religious body, or be branded an inferior beast worthy of liquidation by a political tribunal, or be classified by a psychologizing science as acting under compulsion. The principal remains the same. (Berger 1954)

The bizarre denunciations that are common on the Leninist left play this role. When somebody is “denounced” for their errant views, called “ultra-left” or, in Lenin’s terms, a “renegade,” their views are simply being placed outside of the terms of acceptable debate by the guardians of the acceptable. So long as the mindguards are able to police the terms of acceptable debate, nothing close to a majority will move toward these views as nobody wants to be an “ultra-left.” Instead, the would-be agreers simply keep their heads down and let the lone dissident suffer the denunciations in solitude.
Canadian socialist Susan Rosenthal described how this process plays out in socialist organizations:

When members of a group observe other members being snubbed or sidelined, they also distance themselves for fear of being sidelined. The targets are never told why they are getting the cold shoulder. Should they question it, the usual response is denial because this is not supposed to happen, especially in a socialist organization. (Rosenthal 2013)

The cognitive dissonance of seeing highly respected leaders throwing around personal insults in just the same manner as the other tiny, competing organizations they have looked down on for so long can be quite shocking. It is much easier to conclude that “the dissident deserves it” or some other such thing, than it is to conclude that their own leaders are undemocratic bullies. As irrational as this rationalization is, it is much easier to deal with than the consequences of stepping out alongside the dissenter. The prospect of being yelled at, insulted and shunned by comrades and friends will lead people to do and say and even think things that make little sense to the outside observer.
Members of Leninist organizations who have suddenly discovered this behavior from their leaders should keep in mind one simple fact: it works. While the membership-wide denunciations are often orchestrated with keywords like “ultra-left” appearing to summon it, they often do not need to be coordinated from above. Years of habits in defending the subuniverse train people in how to deal with a dissenter. Preemptive assassination can be preferable to summoning an even uglier monster–a wounded leadership.
As Robert Michels wrote over a century ago in a critique of the European socialist parties on the eve of World War One:

The rank and file of the working-class parties have a certain natural distrust of all newcomers who have not been openly protected or introduced into the party by old comrades; and this is above all the when the newcomer is derived from another social class. Thus the new recruit, before he can come into the open with his new ideas, must submit, if he is not to be exposed to the most violent attacks, to a long period of quarantine. In the German Socialist Party, this period of quarantine is especially protracted, for the reason that the German party has been longer established than any of the others, and because its leaders therefore enjoy an exceptional prestige. (Michels 2008, Ch 7)

Disagreements will often be given a trial period in which the dissident can recant, but eventually the denunciation may be necessary in order to reel the comrade in or turn them into an outsider and banish them. A harsh political criticism causes cognitive dissonance which needs to be resolved, and destroying the critic and their reputation allows everybody to relax. It is not that we are doing anything wrong, it is merely that there are horrible people out there who want to destroy us, they conclude. “Out there” is simply the place where horrible people reside, whereas “in here” lies the comfortable solace of social solidarity.
This gets to another problem, which is why it is so hard to convince a Leninist to ever change their mind. As Mike Marquese, a London-based socialist who worked with the SWP during the ill-fated Socialist Alliance, said in a talk about his experience:
Everyone here will have had the experience of attending a meeting ostensibly to discuss or organise an initiative or campaign only to find themselves faced with a block of SWP members who have arrived with a pre-determined line and set of priorities. The non-SWPers present may hold a variety of views or doubts, but these end up rotating around the axis established by the SWP. It’s a lop-sided and ineffectual discussion because a key participant – the SWP – is playing by a different set of rules, and not engaging openly and fully with the debate as others see it. (Marquesee 2003)
But it is not just that there are rules that require agreement, rather there is a social atmosphere that punishes disagreement.
Even the brightest Leninist comrade ultimately has to squeeze every political discussion through the filter of what is acceptable to their organization. If they ever change their minds based on an argument with an outsider, they would be in the unfortunate position of being one of these lone dissenters, brought up in front of the comrades to be stoned and pilloried. It is far easier to hem and haw and make arguments with little sense, arguments that might not even hold up within the organization, but at least they do not put this poor comrade at odds with their organization. When arguing with a Leninist, it is not a single person that is being argued with but hundreds or thousands of their comrades who are being argued with as well. The weight upon the individual’s shoulders is simply too much to overcome. The larger the organization and the deeper their social connections in it, the greater the weight will be. Granted, if their livelihood depended on the Leninist changing their mind, this pressure would be easier to overcome, but this is rarely the case.
Social psychologists are well aware of these pressures and have been studying them for decades but Leninists do not even bother to investigate any of this–and those who do quickly realize how disruptive it would be to their subuniverse and therefore drop it. This is the paradox of the Leninist Model, the social cul de sac which sometimes seems impossible to escape.
The Leninist hamster wheel
It should be no surprise that Leninist groups are so ineffective given the above, but it is not the case that they don’t do anything. In fact, they can spend years and even decades on a hamster wheel, churning away at the same set of tasks but with little to show for it.
One of the limitations of Janis’s groupthink hypothesis is its narrow set of outcomes. He assumes that groupthink tends to lead to a fiasco, as one of the components of groupthink is stereotyping the “enemy” and overestimating one’s own strength against it. But what if there is no enemy? We are not talking about an ideological enemy–for Leninists, there are many, ultimately organized around the capitalist system itself. But what if the tasks of the organization are not to confront and weaken the enemy? What if there are, merely, a series of tasks to be done?
There is no “enemy” to recruitment, certainly not the recruit. Instead, there are a series of tasks–meetings, study groups, one-on-one discussions–which, hopefully, will convince people to join. These tasks can be performed for years on end without confronting an enemy. There will not necessarily be any fiasco, just an endless hamster wheel of meetings and paper sales. How organizations can find themselves in such a rut has long been studied by sociologists.
For example, the Hawthorne Studies were a series of industrial psychology experiments which took place at a Western Electric plant in the 1920s. Each experiment involved isolating a group of workers in a room and altering the lighting to determine which setting would provoke the highest productivity. Inexplicably, psychologists found that regardless of whether the lighting was increased or decreased, so long as the change did not actually hinder their work, productivity increased. Increasing the lighting increased the productivity, but decreasing the lighting back to its previous state increased it even further. In short, they discovered (among many other things) that changing the environment for a group of workers who knew they were being watched and tested and were even special for being placed in that situation resulted in a productivity increase. (Perrow 1986, p 79-81)
Additionally, a study of “street-level bureaucrats”–government agents that spend more time with the public than stuck in an office–similarly described how measuring success and failure can distort the results:

First, street-level bureaucrats will concentrate on the activities measured . . . By virtue of simply putting some tasks over others street-level bureaucrats can improve their performance on quantitative measures . . . This is neither surprising nor deplorable, but simply probable . . . A problem is created, however, when the measure induces workers to reduce attention to other aspects of their jobs when there is no control on the quantity of work produced. (Lipinsky 2010, p 166)

This leads to the tendency toward “creaming,” or skimming the easiest cases off the top:

In every case of creaming the agency’s incentives reward success with clients, but they provide no substantial rewards for the risks taken. Since not all potential clients can be served, the reward structure of the agency is adopted as its implicit agenda in the absence of powerful incentives to the contrary. (Lipinsky 2010, p107)

If an organization does not have a built in structure to reward risks–that is, a membership that needs the organization to struggle for their livelihoods–then it will also become risk averse. It will measure its success based on short-term goals, which will then become the ongoing goals of the organization itself.
It is not uncommon for Leninists to make a whole series of organizational changes that “seem” to work in the short-term but ultimately get it nowhere–except for gaining a few more recruits at the cost of losing a few old timers. Local branches in particular fall regular victim to this short-term thinking. Leninists move their local branches from one part of town to another, from neighborhoods to campuses, from big branches to small branches and every combination of the above. Each time there is an additional motivation to try something new and it will often succeed in the short-term, even bringing in a few recruits.
This approach is an obstacle to building long-terms roots in a single community and becoming entrenched in the issues the community faces, but the need for a short-term success overrides this problem. After all, the tiring cadre need to see positive results. “What could possibly go wrong?” they ask on the one hand, then “Why is there a ceiling to our growth?” they ask on another, as older members tire of the treadmill and nobody relates one issue with another. This is also the reason why Leninists are far more likely than other radicals to uncritically embrace symbolic protests, even those organized by liberal NGOs trying to channel dissent rather than unleash it. The problems these actions inflict on social movements provide a solution to another problem, in that they provide opportunities to build the morale of Leninist organizations.
As Berger and Luckmann noted, “One does certain things not because they work, but because they are right–right, that is, in terms of the ultimate definitions of reality promulgated by the universal experts.” (p 118) Their rightness is defined by the maintainers of the subuniverse and continuously chasing after short-term successes justifies the strategy even though it gets them no closer to building a revolutionary workers’ organization. The success of short-term goals proves nothing beyond that the fact they were achievable, but social psychology tells us that the participants will conclude that successfully achieving these goals will be interpreted as proving how right they were to begin with.
The fundamental misconception that Leninist groups have is the belief that they can recruit themselves out of any problem. No matter how bad things get, either internally or in the world, just move to a campus and recruit some students. It feels great. No revolutionary can possibly resist the opportunity to convince a young person to become a revolutionary. The end result, though, is the creation of an organism that they cannot control or understand, which has its own laws separate from the class struggle, which can only “succeed” by a series of organizational changes that just might make the problem worse.
Everything is fine
Leninist organizations thrive when everything is fine–when the ideas seem consistent with reality, the actions of the group seem to be successful, when it is easier to convince people that the organization makes sense of the problems of the world and what to do about them. There is, then, a large social pressure to assure that everything seems fine all the time, even when it is not. This is a completely different pressure faced by an organization that fills the material needs of their members–either by meeting that need, or enabling them to fight for it. The idea, in the latter case, that “everything is fine” has little reassurance to the person who joined out of a genuine life need. They will not worry about upsetting the delicate apple cart of Leninist stasis because the consequences of not doing so are far worse than being denounced and shunned.
Such is the basis for the failures and outright treachery on the part of Leninists who go about covering up the misdeeds of their comrades, because the real goal–though they probably do not understand this themselves–is to keep everything seeming fine. It is not that there is a conspiratorial master plan–though there might be if somebody is going to, say, cover up a rape. It is simply that everybody knows that the organization will only succeed when morale is high, and experienced members have spent decades learning how to maintain this. No matter what is going wrong they can just kick up some activity, organize a big meeting and recruit a few people and everything is fine again.
The organizational lessons learned in this process have almost nothing to do with the class struggle, but they are necessary to keeping the group together, which in itself is the presumed precursor toward building a successful socialist movement. The problem is, these methods are an obstacle to building a revolutionary workers’ organization.
It is bad enough when well meaning Leninists raise thoughtful disagreements and then face the wrath of their comrades. However, when these disagreements are not merely over ideological questions, or perspectives on future struggles, but are related to the actual misdeeds of leading comrades toward their other comrades or disasters they have inflicted on social movements, at that point the Leninist organization becomes a barrier toward radical change. At that point, it is merely fighting for its own organizational legitimacy, restraining its members from learning how to deal with real problems. It produces organized docility when the goal should be to mobilize an uncontainable rebellion:

All who question the social order are rebels, and rebels won’t put up with authoritarian leaders in the movement. They will challenge the lack of democracy, or they will leave. Leaders who enforce top-down control are left with only submissive members who challenge little of anything. (Rosenthal 2013)

The members who remain do so under the pretext that they will not disrupt the peaceful status quo of the organization by challenging the leadership. A ruthless criticism of all that exists is put aside in favor apologetics to avoid cognitive dissonance. The ability of such an organization to radicalize social movements is then reliant on the willingness of the leadership to do so, even though these are precisely the people with the greatest material interest in avoiding risks to the stability of the organization.
Everything is fine, as long as nobody is willing to look outside the subuniverse of the Leninist organization. The human mind has an enormous capacity for rationalizing the irrational and the only way around this is to build organizational structures among social groups that counter these tendencies rather than enshrine them.
Aronson, Elliot, The Social Animal, Worth Publishers, 1999.
Berger, Peter L., “The Sociological Study of Sectarianism”, Social Research, Vol. 21, No. 4 (WINTER 1954), pp. 467-485.
Berger, Peter L. and Luckmann, Thomas, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Open Road Media, 2011.
Brinton, Maurice, Solidarity, I, 6 (May 1961),
Callinicos, Alex, Trotskyism, University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
Castoriadis, Cornelius, The Working Class and Organization, 1959,
Janis, Irving L., Groupthink, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1982.
Lipinsky, Michael, Street-Level Bureaucracy, The Russell Sage Foundation, 2010.
Marqusee, Mike, “The Socialist Workers Party and the Stop the War Coalition,” What Next? No.26, 2003,
Marx, Karl, The German Ideology,, 1845.
Marx, Karl, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,, 1859.
Michels, Robert, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, Evergreen Review, Inc., 2008.
Perrow, Charles, Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay, McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1986.
Rosenthal, Susan, Pain on the One Side, Fear on the Other: Retaining Members in Socialist Organizations, Dissident Voice, 2013,
Socialist Workers Party Pre-Convention Bulletin #3, November 2013, (SWP 2013 PCB #3).


art francisco

9 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by art francisco on January 13, 2015

I finally got around to reading the essay this morning. I read it carefully and I have to say that I'm pretty impressed. It has to be one of the most thorough essays on the subject I've read.

I didn't like the way it was organized much, and I felt that some of the phrasing was a little too abstract. I also don't think that this only applies to "Leninist" organizations (a bias for the Libcom audience perhaps?), and there seems to be a binary mistake that the "Leninists" are corrupted by middle class composition, which I don't think is necessarily accurate or that important. There are a few formulations I'll have to think about, but appear to be mistaken such as "When they do engage in social movements--and they certainly do--their approach is further distorted by their efforts to win people to ideas rather than build class power." I've personally found that it becomes more difficult to keep things consistently tight when writing a long theoretical piece.

That all said, there are many excellent points made. The essay is well worth a read and is an great starting place for class struggle activists dedicated to building a movement that is real. That will mean examining the present subjective and objective environments and political ecosystems, avoiding the pitfalls of yesterday in carrying out work for tomorrow. This article will deserve a more thorough review in the future.



9 years ago

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Submitted by deltmosh on May 28, 2015

Here's what a friend wrote on this article.

"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."