A Note on Cyril Smith

Werner Bonefeld

(March 2003)

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 importance.

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 radicals?

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 certainty.

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.