Bolshevism and NGO politics, in history and today

Submitted by AWL on 24 October, 2018 - 11:16 Author: Martin Thomas

Martin Thomas discusses In Defence of Bolshevism and some other modes of politics.

This book, by way of polemics and discussions from different eras, explains what “Bolshevism” means in the field of left-wing political organising. Another way of summing it up would be: the opposite of 38 Degrees.

38 Degrees is a left-wing movement which sees itself as exceptionally progressive, democratic, and attuned to “people power”. It declares that its “campaigns are chosen and led by our three million members”. Its leaders would, I guess, consider “Bolshevism” to be old-fashioned and too hierarchical. For some that may be because they mistakenly equate the Bolshevism of the faction, and then party, within the Russian labour movement of 1903-17 which built a revolutionary organisation and then led the revolution of the workers’ councils in October 1917, with something very different. They may equate 1917 Bolshevism with the “Bolshevism” exported to the world in the “Bolshevisation” drive of 1924-5, which was shaped by the bureaucracy which had emerged in the civil war and then congealed. Or even with the Stalinism which over the following decade crushed what was left of 1917 Bolshevism. The equation is wrong, and the idea that 1917 Bolshevism is outdated is also wrong. Or so I shall argue.

Examine 38 Degrees. It is broadly on the left. It describes itself as working to “defend fairness; protect rights; promote peace; preserve the planet; deepen democracy”. But its members are just people who have signed up to its e-list. There are e-consultations about the choice of campaigns, but voting figures from those consultations are never (as far as I can find) published, and almost surely only a tiny fraction of the three million take part. There are no conferences or elected committees. In practice everything is decided by its 37 office staff, paid between £20,000 (for “interns”) to above £50,000 (for “higher” staff: no figures seem to be available for the highest). There is also a “board” of worthies (chosen by whom? it doesn’t say). The board meets, on its own description, only a few times a year.

38 Degrees was floated on money from charitable trusts and foundations back in 2009, but now subsists on donations from the minority of the three million who choose to make them. 38 Degrees mostly does e-petition campaigns, though it says that it “sometimes... acts offline, like visiting an MP or minister, taking out ads in newspapers, holding public meetings or fundraising for legal action”. Fundamentally, members pay money so that the office can do politics (of a sort) on their behalf. The loose (or zero) obligations for members are seen by some as a signal of democracy. In fact the opposite. If the decisions of the organisation imply no or few obligations for members, then there is no real collective life of the membership other than mediated through the office, and no possibility of real collective decision-making.

NGOs like 38 Degrees construct activities from an office with the aim of nudging and lobbying established power in a particular direction, and seek general public assent or support for those activities. And the Bolsheviks? By contrast, their work was designed to encourage and stimulate the working class (and to some degree other groups, e.g. students) to organise their own activities, from the base, and to educate themselves and those around them on the potential and scope of those activities in winning new political and social forms.

Their members had high obligations. They educated themselves. They threw themselves into the party’s ideas and debates. Every day, everywhere they could get a hearing, they promoted the party’s democratically-adopted ideas and initiatives through circulation of its newspapers and books and through meetings. They were always to the forefront in workplace union organising, in strikes, in demonstrations. If members disagreed with the current majority view, they felt the duty (not just the right) to argue out the issue, not just to dissociate passively. Lenin discharged that duty often and vigorously.

That was why the party (or, strictly speaking, the Bolshevik faction until 1912, “party” only after that) was democratic. It was “democratic centralist”. For the Bolsheviks — as for the Mensheviks, who coined the term “democratic centralism”, and pretty much all active socialists of the time — that meant just that they strove to act as a coherent collective. That was difficult, in the conditions of illegality in which they had to operate. Although from 1912, the policy of the Bolsheviks had been to organise separately (initially, together with “pro-party Mensheviks”) from what they saw as the “liquidationist” Mensheviks, as late in early 1917 Bolsheviks outside the major cities were often in a single organisation with the local Mensheviks. But the Bolsheviks worked at coherence. The “centralism” was not imposed by a big, well-paid office staff.

Until August 1917, when they were able to set up a small “secretariat”, the Bolsheviks mostly had to improvise their “office” operations by a series of makeshifts from exile (often from Switzerland). In April 1922, Josef Stalin was elected “general secretary” of the Bolshevik party. The title, taken I think from British trade unions, was new to the Bolsheviks.

Between August 1917 and 1922, Elena Stasova, Yakov Sverdlov, Nikolai Krestinsky, and Vyacheslav Molotov had been successively “chairs” or “secretaries” of the “secretariat”. No-one imagined that “general secretary” meant “leader”, rather than “admin back-up person”. It was to the surprise of the Bolsheviks, and by the destruction of their old norms and traditions, that Stalin made “general secretary” mean “supremo”.

The German Communist Party, the most important one outside Russia, did without any notion of “general secretary” as “supremo” even into the Stalinist period (Ernst Thälmann was “chair of the central committee”). The job titles are revealing.

Despite the aura of despotism that the term “general secretary” acquired through its use in Stalinist parties, it is not sufficiently managerial and top-down for many leftish NGOs. NGOs have renamed their top officials as “Executive Director” or such. David Babbs, whom 38 Degrees calls its “Executive Director”, describes himself as “CEO”. The managerial trend has seeped into the labour movement, too. Some trade unions have renamed their “general secretary” as “CEO” (example: the Australian MEAA, where Michael Crosby, the foremost ideologue of the so-called “organising model” of trade unionism, used to work).

In the Labour Party now, key jobs have titles like “Executive Director of Strategy and Communications” and “Chief of Staff”. Global Justice Now (formerly the World Development Movement) is among the least hierarchical, most open, of the NGOs. It has local groups — not many, and not very active, but it has them. Its council (equivalent of the unelected “board” of 38 Degrees) is elected by a conference. It publishes the pay rates of its office staff. All that, however, shows how far the NGO model of politics is from the organised workers’ movement model represented in its best, most lively, form by the Bolsheviks.

“Global Justice Now” has a “Director” in charge of its staff. The Director gets paid a conventional manager’s salary, £64,000 in 2017. GJN takes pride in the fact that they limit the top person’s salary to 2.5 times the lowest wage for their staff. In organisations like the Bolsheviks, the office staff are people who have stepped up from being exceptionally vigorous activists “in the field” while scraping a living in “ordinary” jobs, or as unemployed, or as students, and are ready to subsist on a minimal stipend because they want to put their full energies into changing the world. No-one in such organisations would imagine that the “senior” people on the office staff should be paid more than the “junior”.

Instructively, even the British Communist Party in its last years, utterly raddled from decades of Stalinism, was more influenced by traditions of workers’-movement activism, less hierarchical, than these supposedly “people-power” NGOs.

When Gordon Maclennan was appointed last-but-one general secretary of the CP in 1975, he was paid £2,000 a year — the equivalent of £16,000 in today’s prices, or about 15% below the average worker’s wage then. Even the CP paid organisers on the basis of getting the maximum number of activist-hours for politics from a limited budget, not of creating a conventional managerial office staff. In the NGOs, the “Directors” and “Executive Directors” and “CEOs” are people making a career in the NGO world. They come to their well-paid posts not from “rank-and-file” activism in the NGO — generally, that scarcely exists — but from less-high-up managerial jobs in other NGOs.

Of course they have chosen careers as leftish NGO managers rather than as arms-dealers or bankers. Probably they could have made even better money if they had gone the arms-dealer or banker road instead. They are not insincere. But they are in a sort of politics which is about nudging, influencing, lobbying, not about educating, mobilising, emancipating.

Two decades on from 1917, Leon Trotsky summarised the rules of Bolshevik politics like this: “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives...”

NGO politics is more about always seeking the line of least resistance, finding “tactical” formulas, basing them on calculations about how best to nudge established power. The Blair-Brown epoch boosted NGO politics, and now cultures and norms originating in it are endemic in the labour movement. It represents not a bright innovation, but much more a recycling in changed form of the aristocratic modes of politics current before the workers’ movement pioneered the idea of the democratic political party.

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