Big Fish, Small Ponds

The following article was a contribution to a planned issue 70 of the Communist Party of Australia’s Australian Marxist Review. Unfortunately, that issue was scrapped despite being ready for publication due to precisely the behaviour criticised in the article. (On a side note, the AMR has ceased publication for 2019, as its editorial board was dissolved.) Keen to protect their personal interests over those of the Party, opportunists took advantage of the General Secretary's resignation to silence criticism of the elements who are now in charge of the CPA.

While they may have shut down the AMR and denied Australian Marxists a platform for sharing their analysis, they can't hide their true scales forever.

Michael Hooper's article clearly shows why the Australian Communist Party needed to be founded. It contains analysis of the current errors that some communist parties in western countries (especially in Australia) have fallen into.

The realisation of these issues and the impossibility of navigating a way forward within the current political Left groups in Australia resulted in the formation of the Australian Communist Party. It is committed to bringing a Marxist-Leninist class analysis strong enough to address the fundamental errors and building new relationships to the masses of this country.

Big fish in small ponds: The poisonous effect of petty bourgeois individualism on Anglophone communist parties

Michael Hooper

Around the globe, the capitalist class is on the offensive. During the past several decades, a sustained and successful campaign of ideological attack has caused trade unions and communist parties to lose their way and fall into “left” and, mainly, right errors. Fascism is returning to mainstream politics under a new disguise. Unlike the last time Fascism reared its ugly head, the working class’s own political forces are nowhere near as organised. Under these conditions of retreat, which form of opportunism among communist party members poses the greatest threat?

Rather than a particular deviation to the Right, such as the narrow trade union outlook or to the “Left” such as volunteerism, I believe that the most dangerous form of opportunism facing Anglophone communist parties today is the consistent placing of personal interests over those of the Party, or in other words, bourgeois individualism.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that communist party members should completely ignore their own basic needs. No one is suggesting comrades should abandon their families, sell everything they own and dedicate themselves to the cause until they keel over due to exhaustion. Instead, what bourgeois individualism represents is fundamentally valuing one’s own interests over those of the working class, the Party and the cause. It is the willingness to actively harm the Party and other comrades to serve petty personal desires.

The Anglophone parties exist in the heartlands of capitalism and work within a political culture dominated by the most experienced, sophisticated defenders of bourgeois ideology. Although all forms of opportunism are harmful, bourgeois individualism is especially pervasive in countries such as Australia and the way it attacks the basic democratic centralist mechanisms of Marxist-Leninist parties prevents memberships from rallying to defeat it in the same way they could any other harmful trend.

The founders of Marxism-Leninism covered at length the specific sources of bourgeois individualism, so instead this article will focus on modern manifestations of this trend and why it is particularly dangerous when compared to other forms of opportunism. I have been privileged over the years to have had contact with well-placed representatives of the parties in question. It is from these discussions and observations of our parties that I offer the following remarks.

Features of modern bourgeois individualism in the current era

At its heart, individualism is about placing the interests of the individual over those of the collective. These interests may range from seeking to amass power and wealth to less tangible concepts like attention, admiration and boosts to one’s ego. Opportunists within communist parties that hold state power may seek to grow rich from their positions or to dominate others. In China, for example, many people who don’t actually care about the cause of the working class join the communist party to help secure a safe job with good conditions. Sincere Chinese communists refer to this behaviour as “eating Marx’s food”. However, in conditions such as those in Australia, it is the intangible concepts that opportunists are more able to gratify within the Party.

With the above in mind, I believe that there are two particularly noteworthy principles that define the thinking of those suffering from bourgeois individualism under our current circumstances.

Firstly, that one’s ego is held dearer than the interests of the Party. The egotism of these comrades defines their attitudes to others and their actions within the organisation. The gravest sin a comrade can commit against such a person is to say or do anything to damage their ego. Directly criticising their shortcomings or making them look worse by achieving more than they do will cause them to react disproportionately and in a very personal way. Wanting to be admired by others can lead people to work harder and achieve more, but individualists are unwilling to seek help to overcome their own deficiencies and would rather tear other comrades down instead. This principle is responsible for much of the disruption that occurs in inner party life as affected individuals sabotage comrades and endeavours. Of course, the disruption is cloaked in high-sounding appeals for a supposedly better application of democratic centralism, for greater transparency and consultation. In fact, their efforts are aimed at frustrating initiative and activity, which they fear. Ultimately, this principle leads to the “big fish in a small pond” phenomena. For an egotistical individual, keeping the Party small better serves their interests. A growing membership of engaged and talented individuals is a threat as there will be increased competition for responsible positions and the individualist’s inadequacy will be exposed.

The second noteworthy principle is that, to the bourgeois individualist, political quality and consistency is irrelevant. Holding a correct, principled political position is difficult and requires years of dedicated study and practice in real political struggle. It requires one to publicly make a stand and risk being wrong. Principled comrades are not afraid of being criticised for making mistakes. By honestly laying bare their understanding of Marxism- Leninism and how to apply it to the world around them they are able to benefit from comradely criticism and the wisdom of the collective. Their political level improves and they are of greater use to the cause. However, such a process is anathema to egoists. Accepting criticism or being seen to be wrong wounds their pride. So instead, they mouth vague Marxist-sounding phrases and write facile fluff pieces on the safest topics. As a result, their understanding of Marxism is never tested nor applied to our ever-shifting reality. Not holding a principled position also means that they can form alliances and engage in factional battles without a whiff of remorse. They may, for example, side with ultra-lefts one day then, when they see which way the wind is blowing, they may switch sides and pretend they stood with the principled comrades all along!

These specific principles manifest into a wide range of activities that harm the party. Gossip, accusations of others acting without bringing along the collective, suspicion cast on sincere active comrades, resort to bourgeois legality, etc. are all used to preserve a political culture within the Party that protects those not wishing to take the appeal of our cause to the public where it will inevitably meet resistance.

Manifestations of bourgeois individualism

Members whose thoughts and actions are guided by these principles disrupt and harm the work of the party in countless ways. Bourgeois individualism regularly manifests in practice through unprincipled inner party struggle, sabotage, promotion of stasis and “mountain strongholdism”. Affected members are also far more susceptible to political deviations of both the right and “left” varieties.

In the course of political work, it is natural for disagreements to occur, ranging from specific tactical points such as the best time to host an event, to matters of fundamental principles. When it comes to Marxist-Leninist parties, the question isn’t how to avoid conflicts, but rather how to resolve contradictions in a principled way. Bourgeois individualism runs completely counter to this principle by engendering unprincipled inner party struggle for the benefit of individuals over the wellbeing of the Party.

A bond exists between the members of a Marxist-Leninist party. The joint, voluntary commitment to achieve the greatest task humanity has ever known and to sacrifice anything for that cause builds a spirit that should permeate all inner party relations. Bourgeois individualism negates that spirit, replacing it in affected individuals with a willingness to sacrifice anyone for petty personal interest. As a result, these members will gladly carry out vicious character attacks, often projecting their own failings, against comrades who have offended their ego or threaten their selfish interests. Unfortunately, their unprincipled behaviour isn’t limited to public attacks.

With no respect for the norms of a Marxist-Leninist party, and disdain for the spirit of comradeship, these members stitch together factions and spread rumours in secret. Rather than seeing all members, regardless of how misguided they may be, as comrades, in their minds the Party is divided into “our” comrades and “their” comrades. “Our” comrades are praised and promoted regardless of merit. “Their” comrades are harassed at every turn and slandered regardless of achievement. No question of tactics is too small to be falsely raised to a question of the utmost principle and used as an excuse to attack targeted members. Should any important meeting be called, the bourgeoisie individualist will wheel and deal until they are sure they will prevail. So low is an opportunist’s regard for comrades and the Party that they are even willing to call upon the authorities of the class enemy for help. This behaviour is at the extreme end of the disruption caused by these individualists and is utterly intolerable in a Marxist-Leninist Party.

All of the above count as a form of sabotage. The comrades who work the hardest and the most promising initiatives are all purposely disrupted, in part to promote an atmosphere of stasis. The result of all these efforts is to cause some Party organisations to be utterly unattractive to potential members. Aside from the lack of public visibility coming from these practices, meetings appear (and often are) pointless. The desire of a sincere prospective recruit to join and meet the challenges we face as a class is tested. Genuine people realise that to contribute to the struggle, they must first change their Party organisation. Unless that is done, rather than amplify their efforts in the class struggle, the Party can be seen as a brake on their work. They are bewildered by an apparent lack of respect from some individuals towards the Party and its leadership. In these circumstances, the Party faces a potential “lose/lose”. A sincere person may choose to walk away; others will choose to stay and may become part of the problem.

This lack of respect for the Party and its members is made clear by the willingness of opportunists of the bourgeois individualist stripe to build what was known in the early days of the Chinese party as a “mountain stronghold”, i.e. an organisation of the Party dominated by egotistical individuals that sits outside the influence of the central party’s guidance and which contributes little or nothing to its efforts. Mountain strongholds are fortified outposts of opportunism. Their internal workings are a mystery to the rest of the Party as a code of secrecy among opportunists exists to prevent “outsiders”, i.e. comrades from outside the stronghold, from knowing the true state of affairs. Without guidance from the centre and accountability to the rest of the party organisation, individualism runs rife and effective party work in that area grinds to a halt.

The erosion of Democratic Centralism

Bourgeois individualism’s effect on Party life is poisonous. It undermines democratic centralism and the internal mechanisms that allow a Marxist-Leninist party to function. It paralyses activity, erodes cadre forces and creates a toxic environment that drives away recruits.

“Freedom of discussion, unity of actions”i is one of the phrases used by Lenin to describe democratic centralism in action. There is of course more to democratic centralism than that, but this is one of its important principles. Bourgeois individualism attacks this basic tenet by making free discussion impossible. Comrades can’t freely ask the collective to test the validity of their ideas because opportunists will seize upon any errors as an excuse to attack personal enemies rather than to educate. The freedom of discussion mentioned by Lenin is also used maliciously to harass active members by launching spurious criticism of their every word and action. In the same way that activists in the wider movement are silenced by specious lawsuits they don’t have the funds to defend against, so too are comrades forced to waste valuable time defending themselves against obviously absurd claims. Not only is time wasted, but a “chilling effect” occurs where other members decide to keep silent to avoid becoming the target of similar attacks. In such an environment, the freedom of discussion envisaged by Lenin that is so important for the functioning of democratic centralism is stifled.

The democratic aspect of the democratic centralist formula ceases to function if members are intimidated into silence by the actions of opportunists. Decisions cease to be collectively made if members can’t express their positions without fear of being singled out for harassment. Perhaps even more seriously, collective supervision and criticism are undermined as mechanisms for keeping opportunism in check. Instead of being held to account for their opportunism, those infected with bourgeoisie individualism make use of the climate of intimidation they have built around themselves to continue brazenly serving their own selfish interests at the expense of the Party, safe in the knowledge that few will dare to criticise them. After all, those who take a principled stand are not only going up against the opportunist in question but also against the faction they have built.

Bourgeois individualists further undermine inner party life by forming factions, an activity that Lenin specifically called out as “harmful and impermissible”ii. Unlike many of the factions of Lenin’s time, factions established by individualists may not have a specific platform of political beliefs that extends beyond the personal interests of those involved. Rather, they are groupings of mates who cooperate to attack enemies, shield each other from criticism and stack important meetings with the numbers to secure their goals. These factions undermine party unity, the spirit of comradeship and democratic centralism.

Just as Ebola targets the very immune system that is supposed to defeat it, so too does bourgeoisie individualism directly attack the mechanisms within a communist party that ensure its healthy functioning.

The most dangerous form of opportunism

Bourgeois individualism is the most dangerous opportunist trend because it strikes at the very principles that define a strong, successful Marxist-Leninist party. Specific political deviations are harmful but can be corrected as long as internal party life is healthy. Good faith, evidence-based discussions at all levels of the Party combined with solid education work and adherence to the principles of Democratic Centralism are mechanisms for ensuring the Party as a whole pursues the best possible line and course of action at any given time.

However, bourgeois individualism leads comrades to directly sabotage the work of communist parties in pursuit of their own interests. Their efforts drive away recruits, burn out dedicated cadres, create a toxic environment of stagnation internally and kill all initiative. Ultimately, it undermines Democratic Centralism, denying parties the principle mechanism of remedying opportunism.

This form of opportunism isn’t new. Liu Shaoqi’s description of the individualism among communists in the early 40s in China goes to show this is a timeless problem rooted in the continuing dominance of exploiter class ideology. However, despite this influence, the Chinese managed to shake its grip and win liberation.

Although the grip of individualism under our own circumstances is stronger than in Liu’s case and there are modern distinguishing features, we too have the potential to break free of individualism’s grasp. Communist parties in Anglophone countries need to recognise bourgeois individualism as an existential threat and unite to defeat it.

To this end, members should be trained regarding the source of bourgeois individualism, its principles and how to identify it when it manifests. Democratic Centralism in practice, rather than words, should be emphasised in inner party education and in daily branch life. Members who begin to show signs of bourgeois individualism should be confronted and educated about the damage they may cause while incorrigible comrades who have engaged in unprincipled conduct over a long period should be expelled.

By taking these and other measures, the Anglophone communist parties can significantly reduce the influence of bourgeois individualism and will see a major improvement in all aspects of party work.

Conclusion

The Communist movement today faces many challenges. For parties in the Anglophone countries, the most dangerous opportunist trend is the continuing grip of bourgeois individualism on members. For some members, the urge to preserve a small pond where they are the big fish, takes precedence over the greater needs of the Party and the cause of the working class. The regular, systemic problems holding us back from achieving a critical mass largely stem from this rotten core of opportunism. Our parties absolutely must confront and resolve this issue. By doing so, communist parties will be in a good position to start providing leadership to the working class during this period of overwhelming capitalist assault.

i Lenin, V. “Report on the Unity of the Congress of the R.S.D.L.P” in Collected Works, Vol 10, accessed: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/rucong/viii.htm
ii Lenin, V. “Preliminary Draft Resolution Of The Tenth Congress Of The R.C.P. On Party Unity” in Collected Works, Vol 32, accessed: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/10thcong/ch04.htm