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The New International, May–June 1952

D. Harris

Books in Review

Old Fables in New Jargon


From The New International, Vol. XVIII No. 3, May–June 1952, pp. 171–175.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Organizational Weapon, A Study of Bolshevik Strategy and Tactics
by Philip Selznick
The Rand Corporation. Published by McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1952.

Of the rapidly expanding list of books by non-Marxists purporting to analyze the nature of Stalinism, few can be credited with a serious attempt at a theoretical explanation. To the list of works by would-be scholars and quotation-collectors there has recently been added another which deserves some attention, not because of its intrinsic merit but merely for the fact that its stock anti-Bolshevik clichés, innuendos and prejudices which have been woven together into a supposedly scientific theory may because of their political popularity achieve a degree of academic respectability. Philip Selznick, the author of The Organizational Weapon, attempts to develop a theory of Stalinism as the extension and application of “Leninist principles of organization.”

Naturally, in such an attempt he draws not only upon the stock stories about Kronstadt, which circulate so freely in certain circles, but where his theory needs amplification he does not hesitate to give birth to new inventions. Thus he can write that “elections in the Communist parties do not involve the normal processes of faction and debate: a fundamental Leninist principle states that ‘no movement can be durable without a stable organization of leaders to maintain continuity.’ Challenges to the leadership as a whole are not tolerated in a Communist party.” This description, it must be remembered, refers not to Stalinism where it would be correct, but to its ideological counterpart, Leninism, which supposedly unlike non-Bolshevik movements, rejects the perspective of gaining power “by propaganda alone.” Lenin, the fountain of totalitarian ideas “urged the need to forge a group which, beginning with an ideological commitment, would use whatever means were available to influence decision in society. For him, the task was not so much to spread the ‘truth’ as to raise to power a select group of communicants,” and so forth and so on for dozens of pages.

It is important to recognize, however, that fundamental to Selznick’s theory is a rejection not only of Leninism, but also of all fundamental principles of Marxism, a further factor which will tend to make this book “popular” particularly with the ex-Marxists whom Selznick represents. In opposition to Marxism which holds that class divisions in capitalist society are irreconcilable to the extent that they can only be suppressed through the efforts of the state, Selznick presents the state as a “voluntary association” while classes are replaced by masses and “elites” who manipulate them, or at least attempt to do so.

The basic distinction made between political tendencies is their recognition or rejection of the “commonly accepted rules of behavior which control legitimate controversy.” Democratic movements (as opposed to “subversive” ones) have aims which are “limited,” which can be absorbed into the established framework of the going political system, which have “a stake in the status quo” and aims which are consistent with its preservation, or at least its modification by methods acceptable to all elements of the political community, i.e., to all social classes.

Beginning with these premises, Selznick proceeds to define Leninism as that “modification of Marxism” which consists of the “subordination of all doctrinal precepts to the needs of the struggle for power.” Its aim is “the concentration of total social power in the hands of a ruling group.”

Selznick continues: insofar as Stalinism can be distinguished from Leninism, it is only to the extent that the former has “matured” or “developed” Leninist ideas by freeing them from “sectarian” doctrinal orientation. For those who will not accept this too readily Selznick points out that Stalinism does not represent the genuine interests of the working class. Somehow or other this is intended to prove that Stalinism has no class content but represents the efforts of a group of obviously evil men who have at least partially succeeded in the Leninist objective of gaining “a total monopoly of social power.”

We must interject a comment about Selznick’s style at this point. The stale dish he has been serving us is made positively inedible by the pretentiousness and fuzziness of its “sociological” jargon. Avoiding “Marxist jargon” is indispensable in most sociology circles today. But we suggest that these “sociologists” might write books with greater literary and scientific merit if they developed a jargon used with tasteful economy which might more precisely sum up intelligible ideas.

The jargon freely used by Selznick cannot hide the inadequacy of his devil theory of history explanation of Stalinism. The harm in this theory is that inherent in it is a confession of an inability to intelligently cope with the origin and nature of Stalinism; and not to be able to understand the nature of Stalinism is to facilitate its victory. How can Selznick explain the loyalty of French Stalinist leaders today to the Kremlin if Stalinism in Russia is merely a group of evil, power-hungry men with no social interests or motivations deeper than their insatiable appetites for power. How can one explain the growth of Stalinism in Europe and Asia and its unswerving fealty to Russia. And within Russia how is Stalinism perpetuated if it is not a class society? Is the group of power-hungry men in the Kremlin whose modus vivendi is More Power going to sustain itself by recruiting men who are equally unpleasantly motivated by a power drive? How does Selznick explain the differences between, let us say, Bukharin and Stalin on the agricultural question? Were these conflicts merely between power-hungry men? There are thousands of such questions which cannot find a rational answer from anyone holding to the devil theory of history. It is a poor substitute for a more painstaking analysis of Stalinism. To attempt to search for an explanation of Russian Stalinism outside of the social development and political events surrounding the degeneration of the Russian revolution, to fail to recognize that Stalinism on a world scale today has its roots within the decay of capitalist society itself, not to acknowledge Stalinism as a powerful social movement, means that we can develop no program or movement capable of combatting Stalinism on a healthy, democratic basis. To attempt to explain Stalinism in personal and psychological terms alone is to perform an unwitting service to Stalinism.

If Selznick’s book provides no answer to the problem of the nature of Stalinism, what is the significance of his discussion of the “combat party?” It is common adherence to this conception, presumably, which make Leninism, Stalinism and Trotskyism basically similar if not identical. The “theoretical model” of what is supposed to be the key to Bolshevism is constructed on the basis of (1) descriptions of actual Stalinist practices; (2) quotations from Lenin, Stalin, Dimitrov, a whole series of lesser figures, as well as Trotsky and James P. Cannon (whose remarks are considered as being “especially significant”) and (3) Selznick’s own fanciful ideas or logical deductions from his own theory. Thus it is easy to demonstrate that, up to the time of Stalin’s “Bolshevization” of the parties of the Third International, no such creature as Selznick describes ever existed. For example, the idea that factions, factional organs and the unrestricted right of criticism are inimical to Lenin’s ideas on organization simply has no basis either in his writings or in the rich history of the pre-Stalin Communist movements. (The providential quotations from Cannon’s “organizational document” certainly do no credit to “Trotskyism”; they serve less, however, as evidence against Lenin’s conceptions than as testimony to the peculiar misinterpretation to which these are subjected in the Socialist Workers Party.)

Selznick, however, who certainly knows or should know what the real practices of Lenin’s party were, stresses the importance of his conceptions, and their significance with regard to two aspects of Party functioning. These are (1) the attempt to gain the “total involvement” of the individual in the party and (2) the attempt to create a “managerial organization” out of a voluntary association. Basically, Selznick’s thesis can be reduced to this: that the evils of Bolshevism flow from the attempt to build a party which demands responsibility and activity from its membership. It is these principles which make Lenin’s writings on organization the “bible” of Stalinism, and which, in practice, have lead to the totalitarian development of Stalinism.

Because Selznick is not writing from the standpoint of socialism, it is not necessary for him to question the relationship of Lenin’s “organizational principles” to his political, i.e., his socialist ideas. Selznick can dismiss the latter as mere rationalization by showing that Stalinists consistently violate Marxist political principles. Yet for Lenin, the significance of organization, of building a socialist party, followed from the idea that “the proletariat can become and inevitably will become a dominant force only because its intellectual unity created by the principles of Marxism is fortified by the material unity of organization which welds millions of toilers into an army of the working class.”

Contrary to popular opinion, Lenin did not believe that he was introducing any “new” ideas about organization into the socialist movement. Time and again he pointed to the example of German Social Democracy as his “model” party, subject to modifications because of the special conditions of Czarist illegality. And, much as it may surprise some, even in his emphasis on centralism he always stressed the democratic nature of such principles: that the majority of the party has the right to decide policy, and the duty to see that it is practiced. Those who disagree have the right to criticize, to form factions to fight for their viewpoint, or to leave the party if they feel their differences sufficiently important. Lenin’s own political history shows he never considered “party loyalty” to be more than subordinate to political ideas.

Revolutionary Marxists are not committed to any total, much less uncritical acceptance of Lenin’s ideas on organization, any more than to any other aspect of his thought. Insofar as they were originally developed and intended to apply to a movement which was necessarily conspiratorial (and certainly subversive) the same emphasis need not be placed on the need for secrecy and a highly limited membership (as Lenin pointed out would be the case in democratic countries). And where a Bolshevik action was undemocratic (such as in the case of temporarily abolishing factions in 1921) it is possible (and necessary) to criticize such practices even while showing that they do not follow from any real or alleged “Leninist principles of organization.”

But before we accept what would automatically follow from Selznick’s thesis that the attempt to create a socialist party on the basis of “democratic centralism” is the road to totalitarianism we must examine the alternatives. Selznick’s alternatives, insofar as they serve as non-totalitarian “models” are the British Labor Party and ... Norman Thomas, neither of which are known to be free from bureaucratic traits. His, however, is a political judgment as well as an organizational one: what is important about Norman Thomas is that when the alternatives are “harshly posed” capitalism is supported over communism (and over the Third Camp as well).

As opposed to the theories of all those who are preoccupied with the “importance” of the organizational question, as the key to politics, Marxists make organization subject to sociology and politics. Different conditions and different classes call forth parties of different types and organized according to different “principles.” The opulent capitalism of America has produced the corrupt machines which exist on the basis of patronage and social demagogy. Stalinism creates bureaucratized and monolithic parties to serve as instruments for international bureaucratic collectivist aims. The working class needs parties of a different kind.

There can be no rules for creating a socialist party, much less for “guaranteeing” it from degeneration. Those who search for guarantees, in organizational principles independent from political practice are bound to be disappointed. While bad organizational practices may contribute to, or even generate the development of political differences, to attribute any independent significance, and more than that, a predominantly influential role to them, is to turn matters upside down.

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