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(en) The commoner #7 - A Note on Cyril Smith - by Werner Bonefeld

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 17 Jul 2003 08:33:53 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

Cyril's review of What is to be Done? Leninism, anti-Leninist
Marxism and the Question of Revolution Today (hereafter: the
book), has to be welcomed. His unenthusiastic review reveals, by a
strange dialectic of the possible, the book's significance and
He disapproves of the book with such vehemence that, when he
comes to the assessment of individual contributions, one can not
help but be surprised that, with a few exceptions, he is in fact full of
praise. If his review is anything to go by, he seems to be caught in
the middle of two irreconcilable positions - one emphasising the
need to go beyond Leninism, and the other to rescue it from critique.
I am responding here to Cyril's review and thus say 'he'. But it is in
fact not 'he'. His troubles, his humanity and courageous attempt to
free himself from corrupt and bankrupt revolutionary conceptions, on
the one hand, and his evident difficulty to do just that, on the other,
expresses the turmoil of many who embark on the difficult transition
away from Leninist certainties. Courage, humanity and the all too
understandable apprehension in the face of uncertain shores
combine into an explosive tension. Neither 'yes' nor 'no', but both at
the same time.

His review bears testimony of this towing and frowing. In his
attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, he is torn between praise
and rejection, hounded by past affiliations and eager to cut the cord,
to reach new shores, only to by caught in the current. Trotsky was
ill when Kronstadt was resolved in blood. He was however
responsible. Kollantai who was the most recognised representative
of the workers opposition, she too, as he points out, was in favour of
the Bolshevik resolution of Kronstadt. Brendel, a council communist
since 1930, must thus be wrong. Yet, Brendel speaks of the worker
opposition, that is the opposition by the workers themselves, not the
opposition of those who campaigned from within the Bolshevik
party, and that is within the institutions of the workers state, in the
name of the workers. Cyril is absolutely right that the liberation from
the Leninist past requires great care of assessment and scrupulous
objectivity. These criteria are corrupted by a hammer and chisel
assessment of Leninism. I agree with him here too. And he is right
too that crude assessments merely reinforce leftist folklore. This is
his main objection to the book: some contributions are said to
hammer and chisel at Leninism. His identification of worker
opposition with workers opposition, an opposition within the
institutions of the communist party and its state, is puzzling.

Who are the contributors who stand rejected as hammer and chisel

He praises John Holloway's contribution. He is not dismissed as a
hammer and chisel radical.

Johannes Agnoli's contribution too is not charged in these terms.
Instead it is charged with offering an argument that is as
instrumental as Lenin's model. Agnoli, then, is seen as somebody
who is advocating institutional politics, seeing the state as an
instrument of emancipation. Agnoli is said to be impressed with the
experience of the German Greens. Cyril's reading of Agnoli is most
puzzling. Agnoli is neither impressed nor does he advocat
institutional politics. His argument is that emancipatory movements
have to be anti-institutional. Cyril does not read the 'anti'. Agnoli
does, of course, speak about the German Greens as an example of
what happens to a social movement when it seeks to bring its
radicalisation into bourgeois institutions. Cyril does not read Agnoli
this way. He reads him in spite of what Agnoli has to say. The anti
in anti-institutionalism is important. Agnoli's chapter must have
disturbed Cyril a lot. He thanks Agnoli for concluding his
contribution by saying that the resolution to the basic question of a
revolutionary movement, that is, the anticipation of the goal of
emancipation in its organisational means, cannot be determined
theoretically. What do we make of Cyril's Thank You? His praise of
Holloway's contribution, where the same conclusion is reached,
would suggest that, in the end, he is quite happy with Agnoli's
chapter. This, though, is not the case. His 'thank you' is in fact a
dismissive 'thanks a lot!' I fail to see why similar conclusions can
bring about such contrasting assessments, unless his distribution of
praise and critique is a means of reconciling the irreconcilable: YES
and NO.

Caffentzis' contribution too is not criticised in terms of a hammer
and a chisel. Caffentzis' view that Lenin was the first professional
revolutionary appears to summon Cyril's wrath. For Cyril this honour
has to be preserved for Marx. However, the main thrust of his
critique of Caffentzis is not who applied Marxism to Marxism first,
Marx the revolutionary bookworm or Lenin the professional
revolutionary. The real reason is Caffentzis' endorsement of Lenin's
so-called 'communication model' of revolution. Cyril rejects it
because he believes Caffentzis to say that revolution is a piece of
computer software. Poor Caffentzis! In distinction to Cyril,
Caffentzis is arguing the case for the creation through means of
communication, of a proletarian public sphere. Is this really as
ridiculous as Cyril makes it out to be?

Sergio Tischler's contribution is also not criticised as a hammer and
chisel argument. Cyril found it difficult to read and where he was
able to read clearly, he praises Tischler's important insights. At
least, in contrast specifically to Agnoli, he treats Tischler with care.
He does not assess what he fails to read.

His assessment of my contribution is full of praise. I hope it is
deserved. Yet, a critical point needs to be made. I am, he argued, led
astray by Behren's dream-like account of Kronstadt. Behrens,
however, does not write about Kronstadt, except once: 'The end of
the council model was at Kronstadt. From then on, the idea of a
democracy of workers' councils was only represented by the worker
opposition which brought about only its own persecution' (p. 45).
Was I led astray by this?

Alberto Bonnet's contribution is seen to be unimportant, though
interesting, for the discussion of What is to be Done. No hammer
and chisel job here. Bonnet shows the fragility that is at the heart of
contemporary capitalism. Whether this is unimportant, or not, would
depend on the understanding of the aim of the book, that is, the
positing of revolution as a question of our time.

He agrees wholeheartedly with Rooke's contribution. There is not
even a hint of a hammer and a chisel here.

Clarke's contribution too is praised! Yet, Clarke is said to go astray
when he tries to exempt Kausky from the charge of being a faithful
follower of Plekhanov! Clarke points out that Kausky differed from
Lenin. Does Clarke's differentiation lack what Rooke demands: a
careful argument? The real point of contention, however, is that
Clarke is criticised for asking the wrong question! Clarke's question
'was Lenin a Marxist' - which Clarke answers in the negative,
misses the point. The real question is rather: Was Marx a Marxist?!

And the contribution by Behrens? Cyril says that it provides a useful
account of left criticism of Lenin. Yet, he charges Behrens with a
significant omission. Behrens assesses Luxemburg's critique of
Lenin. Cyril is not arguing against that. But for Cyril, Luxemburg,
and her humanist Marxist legacy, is less important than Trotsky.
Behrens omitted Trotsky's more savage attack on Lenin! Did
Behrens, like Stalin before him, hammer and chisel Trotsky out of
the picture? Do we, have to read Luxemburg through Lenin or do we
have to replace her by Trostky? Or should we enquire about the
contemporary significance of Luxemburg's contribution to the
understanding of the dialectic of movement and organisation?

The real target, and indeed only target of his hammer and chisel
critique, is the contribution by Cajo Brendel, a council communist
since the 1930s, a Man of great dignity and resolve who has written
widely on council communism, council communist uprisings such as
those of 1956, the Spanish civil war, a collaborator of Pannekoek's,
and the author of a recent, highly acclaimed book on Pannekoek.
Brendel, Cyril says, messes up the whole story. When Brendel
speaks about worker opposition, Cyril reads workers opposition,
reducing the working class struggle to the fractional fights within
the Bolshevik Party. Brendel's focus is on worker opposition, the
struggle for self-determination by the working class itself. Has the
dismissal of Brendel to do with his council communist disrespect for
the heroes of revolution from whose mistakes Cyril wants us to
learn? Brendel is the only contribution that is wholeheartedly council
communist. It is this contribution that, for Cyril, engages in a
hammer and chisel job.

Why a book on What is to be Done? I agree with Cyril that the left
has to free itself from the Leninist legacy. He criticises the book
because it does not tell the reader very much about the content of
Lenin's pamphlet nor about his place in the history of the
revolutionary movement. He charged that the book does not place
the heroism and mistakes of Lenin and Trotsky in its proper context
and that it separates the subjective from the objective. I wonder
what Cyril's own account of freeing the left from Leninism would
look like. A textual analysis of What is to be Done?, no doubt. A
carefully written account of its historical place and significance?, no
doubt. A precise assessment of the conditions of the subjective and
objective conditions of Trotsky and Lenin during the historical
process? no doubt. I am sure that such a book might well, in fact it
would have an interesting story to tell. Yet, the book wants to
achieve something different.

The book is not interested in a historical philological discussion, as
Cyril seems to suggest that it should. The aim of the book was not
to offer an assessment of Lenin's text through the fine lens of
historical philological evaluation. The centenary of Lenin's pamphlet
was taken as an opportunity to reflect on the question of revolution.
It asks 'what is to be done', as a question of our time. It asks: 1)
what is the history of what is to be done? and that is, the Leninist
conception of revolution. There was no attempt to discuss Lenin's
What is to be Done?. The attempt was rather to show Leninism's
revolutionary conception and its anti-emancipatory meaning and
consequences. The title 'what is to be done?' raises revolution as a
question - not as a commemoration. 2) what was the criticism of
Leninism by the non-Leninist left and what is its contemporary
significance. This tradition is emphasised in the first part of the
Subtitle: anti-Leninist Marxism. 3) What are the conditions of class
antagonism today and what does posing the question 'what is to be
done? mean today, that is, in a world of growing discontent and
anti-capitalism but little revolutionary resolve - this is indicated by
the second part of the Subtitle.

The relevance of the past does no lie in the past. Its relevance is our
relevance. What then does What to be Done mean today. Does it
mean Trotskyism? Does it mean council communism? Does it mean
non-existing Luxemburgism? Or does it mean to pose the question
of revolution as a question? How was it posed in the past? What
does it mean today? There can not be definite answers. There is no

The book is based on the insight that it is not the past but the
present that demonstrates truth. I agree with Cyril that, if Behrens
would have discussed Trotsky's critique of Lenin, we might have
learned something interesting. However, for us, today, revolution in
terms of Trotsky, with or without the ism, demonstrates no truth.
This is why Behrens discusses Luxemburg for it is her dialectic of
organisation and mass movement that reveals significant insights
for our struggles. Lenin's conception of the state is criticised
because, today, many in the anti-globalisation movement wish to
transform capitalism through the use of the state as an instrument.
Agnoli and Tischler show the dead end of such endeavours. Lenin's
conception of the party was criticised because many on the left see
the party as THE PARTY. Lenin's conception of theory had to be
criticised for the same reason. And Kronstadt? A mere coincidence
or a necessary development of a conception of revolution focused
on the seizure of power by the organised vanguard? The aim of the
book is to intervene into the struggles of our time. Cyril,
unfortunately, is unable to see that. He wants to fight the battles of
the present through the past - he wants to go beyond Lenin and
Trotsky but fears to loose them. He praises most individual
contributions but feels uncomfortable with the book as a whole. He
cannot decide, is torn - dismisses only to praise and praises only to
dismiss. Contradictory positions will find a mode of existence that
allows the tension to express itself, displacing the tension onto a
different level. One example is Cyril's puzzling misreading of both
Agnoli as a closet Leninist and of Caffentzis as an overt Leninist,
and the dismissal of Brendel as a council communist in inverted
commas, is an other. More to the point, he seeks to reconcile the
tension he faces by arguing for an historically careful philological
assessment in order to show the subjective and objective of Lenin
and Trotsky and to evaluate their heroism and mistakes. Cyril is
against the hammer and the chisel but cannot let go.

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