Paper given as part of a panel on Peter Sedgwick at the London Historical Materialism conference in November 2013.
PETER SEDGWICK, LENIN AND “LENINISM”
Peter Sedgwick is remembered, above all, for his psychological writings and for his translations of Victor Serge. But he was also the author of political commentary, analysis and polemic. He was a fine writer, displaying formidable erudition, and possessing the rare gift of being able to be profoundly serious and hilariously funny at the same time. In particular he wrote a number of remarkable studies of socialist thinkers and writers – Orwell, Deutscher, Marcuse, Guérin….
What Sedgwick wrote of Victor Serge was true of himself: “The journals for which he wrote were in the main scruffy, inglorious and hard to find in libraries.” There is no full bibliography of his writings. Efforts by Raphael Samuel, Richard Kuper, Dave Widgery and others to produce a collection of his writings have proved unsuccessful. Happily we owe to Edward Crawford the fact that there is an excellent selection of Sedgwick’s writings on the Marxist Internet Archive.
Sedgwick wrote of Victor Serge: “There is no such ideology as Serge-ism, and there are no Serge‑ites.” It is true, a fortiori, of Sedgwick himself. He has many admirers at different points on the political spectrum, as was shown by attendance at the celebration of what would have been his seventieth birthday. But beyond a passionate attachment to a socialist movement and goal that would be honest, humane and democratic, there was no coherent doctrine in his work. In 1960 he wrote “Lidchester Leads the Way”, a polemic against the New Left and an insistence that socialists should regard voting Labour as a matter of principle; “In an electoral battle with the employing class, one would always vote for the ‘guards’ van of the proletariat,’ if it really is of the proletariat, rather than for a politically isolated vanguard without a mass following.” Ten years later, in rather different circumstances, he wrote an equally passionate polemic arguing that “this is an election between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, in which voting for either capitalist party will do the working class no good at all”.
Thus it would be utterly alien to Sedgwick’s spirit to try to co-opt him for any particular political tendency. However, I do believe that Sedgwick’s work should still be read, not just for its literary merits, but because I think it continues to be relevant to our present-day concerns. I therefore want to look at one particular theme in Sedgwick’s writings, his treatment of Lenin and of “Leninism”.
Owen Jones recently claimed that “the era of Leninist party-building surely ended a long time ago.” Indeed, Leninism, like Marxism, has been pronounced dead for quite some time. It is perhaps a sign of its resilience that it needs to be buried quite so often.
Was Sedgwick a Leninist? I suspect he would have refused to answer. As he wrote in a polemic on Vietnam in 1966: “To so many inane political questions nowadays (“Are you a Trot?”; “Are you an anarchist?”; “Are you a reformist?”; “Do you defend the Soviet Union?”; “Are you a supporter of the Labour Party?”) one has to answer that the enquiry itself is misconceived.” Discussing the shift in Trotsky’s position on World War II, he commented: “This inconsistency is one of the many that gives one leave to doubt whether there is or has been a coherent ideology of ‘Trotskyism.’” It seems likely, given Lenin’s sharp shifts of position in confronting changing circumstances, that he would have taken a similar position towards Leninism. Certainly he protested vigorously against what he called the idea of an “apostolic succession” in the socialist movement:
The task of socialist theory has too often been conceived as one of establishing an Apostolic succession from the ideas of certain revered forerunners to those of their (usually self-enthroned) successors in the present day. Part of this task naturally consists of casting documentary doubt upon the validity of rival ideological orders. To those confirmed in any of the various true faiths, it may be intolerable to confront a historical record which shows the saints as heretics, and the heretics as at least part-time saints. James Connolly in his role as Industrial Unionist or Morris as revolutionary, or Marx as anti-Semite, or Engels as advocate of Summit Conferences, or Lenin as authoritarian or as democrat, or Willie Gallagher as advocate of Workers’ Control. Some of the orthodox would no doubt like to forget their own past irregularities or those of their deities and devils. Socialist writers should always be reminding the world of these distasteful and untidy facts; not to make a fresh orthodoxy out of unorthodoxy, but in order that their readers and comrades in the working-class movement may never lose the mental suppleness and serious concern with principle that are essential for the planning of Socialist activity. Socialists must be prepared to undertake a perpetual dialogue with deviation.
Sedgwick began his political career in the Communist Party as a student at Oxford. I was once told by someone who knew him then that he was in no way a premature anti‑Stalinist. It seems reasonable to assume he considered himself a loyal Marxist-Leninist. Later he wrote of his experiences of the 1950s, when “For decades the morale of thousands of socialists in Britain had been kept going by the sense that they were all comrades in an international political crusade engaged in steadfast combat in every land where exploitation ruled: a movement whose traditions and tactics stemmed directly from Marx and Lenin and which had won irreversible victories, through the achievement of actual State power, in societies where exploitation no longer ruled, covering one-third of the earth’s surface.”
The Khrushchev speech and Hungary put an end to that view of the world for thousands of Communist Party members. Sedgwick did not just walk away, but fought the CP leadership till his inevitable defeat. Those who broke with the CP became a suspicious generation, determined not to get fooled again. Sedgwick was more suspicious than most, always wary that a new organisation might betray him as the Communist Party had done. For those who left the CP, 1957 was a year of ferment, as the various currents that made up what can loosely be described as the New Left explored its future strategy.
But by 1958 Sedgwick had made a new organisational commitment – to the extremely tiny (around thirty-six members) Socialist Review Group. The SRG had emerged as a fragment of the British Trotskyist movement. Its dominant figure, Tony Cliff, continued to see himself as a follower of Lenin, though it is doubtful whether the majority of the members would have considered themselves as such. The organisation was fairly loose, and worked inside the Labour Party. Cliff was a man of great intellectual ability, but was tightly, indeed passionately, focussed on building the organisation. Sedgwick was distinctly lacking in organisational skills, and had much wider intellectual sympathies and interests. Yet he and Cliff co-existed in the organisation for nearly twenty years, with not only mutual respect but mutual affection. Years later Cliff commented: “Every organisation should have one Peter Sedgwick, but no organisation could survive with two of them.”
One of Sedgwick’s first articles for Socialist Review was a debate with one Robert Emmett. The debate arose from developments on the left that were taking place in 1958. Some very good activists from the CP (Peter Fryer, Brian Pearce, Brian Behan) had come together with the Trotskyist fragment led by Gerry Healy to launch the Newsletter grouping (which the following year became the Socialist Labour League). This made no secret of its aim to establish a party in the Leninist tradition.
Emmett’s article was a sharp polemic against both the Communist Party and the Newsletter group. He accused both of operating from outside the labour movement, and in particular of trying to “gatecrash” strikes. His claim was that a genuine socialist movement could be built only from within the existing shop stewards’ organisation. He was particularly critical of the Newsletter group’s intervention in the 1958 South Bank building workers’ strike.
Sedgwick’s response can scarcely be described as “Leninist”. On the contrary he devoted a good deal of his article to attacking the Newsletter group for what he called their “somewhat weird self-description of ‘Bolsheviks’”. He distinguished himself sharply from the orthodox Trotskyist claim that all was well with the Russian Revolution as long as Lenin was alive and Trotsky was in the leadership:
For the Newsletter, the claim of Trotsky to the Marxian mantle must be kept inviolate. Soviet degeneracy must therefore have begun when Trotsky was under attack, not when he shared the power. The butchery of the Kronstadt rebels, the expulsion of the Workers’ Opposition, the dragooning of the Soviets and unions, the betrayal of the anarchist armies, the creation of the one-Party State, all of which took place in Trotsky’s hey-day, are passed over in silence. All controversy with the CP takes place within the assumptions of Leninist centralism. “The proletariat can take power only through its vanguard … The Soviets are only the organized form of the tie between the vanguard and the class. A revolutionary content can be given to this form only by the party.” (Trotsky, Stalinism and Bolshevism, 1937.)
And he went on to make the more fundamental point that the real problem for socialists was not leadership, but consciousness:
The Newsletter Marxists are Pretenders in a double sense. Not only do they pretend to the title of Bolshevik leadership; they also have to pretend, to themselves as much as anybody, that the possibility of attaining this title genuinely exists. The workers, we are always being told, are waiting for a revolutionary lead. All that is needed is somebody to stir them up. The British working man prefers the TV set to the TU meeting, not because of full employment, not because of Imperialist prosperity, not because he likes being with his wife and kids, but because the Labour and CP leaders have betrayed his deep militant aspirations.
Yet in the end he did distinguish himself from Emmett, recognising the Newsletter group’s achievements as well as its limitations:
His implication that the November Rank-and-File Conference “was called to set up a counter-machinery to the union branches” is simply untrue. While the claims of the Conference’s sponsors smack of the Hysterical Materialism noted above …. it was obviously tremendously useful as a gathering of militants from all over Britain, and its Charter of Demands is an excellent program indeed. This remains true however much we may criticize several aspects of the running of the Conference.
And he concluded:
All the tendencies which have been criticized above have substantial achievements to their credit in the movement. All of them contain in their numbers many Socialists of outstanding calibre, before whose experience and principle any of us must feel humble. Any political formation, like any individual person, possesses not one self, one “role,” one nature, but many, varying from situation to situation, some good and some bad .
Clearly at this stage Sedgwick was not committed to any organisational tradition, not even that of his own organisation. But while he was sceptical of “Leninist centralism”, he was also concerned not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And he made no concessions whatsoever to the thesis of Lenin-Stalin continuity, seeking to balance voluntarism and determinism:
There is a story that the exiled Trotsky was once greeted by an admirer with the speculation: “If only Lenin had lived! You would be with him to this day in Moscow!” Trotsky replied: “Not at all, he would be with me in Mexico.” Since Trotsky was hardly a fatalist in practical politics, the story is probably apocryphal. But it exhibits the temptation; it is necessary to beware of conclusions, however founded upon hard economic data, whose equivalence in practice would seem to be passivity.
With the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament new organisational forms emerged, in particular the non-violent direct action advocated by the Committee of a Hundred. Sedgwick wrote two articles in Socialist Review discussing and fraternally criticising such activity. Here he advocated that socialists should work within direct action campaigns and engage their activists in fraternal discussion. As he pointed out, there was much common ground:
To begin with, a simply immense amount has to be conceded to the anarcho-pacifist cause, both as a set of ideas and as an actual movement. Direct-Action pacifism is part of the same family of beliefs as revolutionary Socialism: Peace News shares with Socialist Review a commitment to “permanent-revolutionary” politics, that is to say politics which see struggles on particular issues extending in a continuous dynamic to other and wider issues, and from particular places to other places and other countries, up to the point where an international revolution against the whole existing social order becomes the objective. The anarcho-pacifist and the revolutionary Marxist share a deep distaste for any form of “Popular Front” politics, in which incompatible allies muck in and shut up about their differences on the wider issues involved, and for any two-stage view of struggle: first get rid of the Bomb, then talk about socialism, first reduce international tensions, then deal with domestic issues, first unite with anybody and everybody against Fascism, then (when the war is over) start to think about dealing with capitalism.
Yet he insisted that, though some direct action tactics could be usefully adopted by the left, “anarcho-pacifism is an absurd and defective political creed”. Interestingly, a major point in his critique of the direct action “anarchists” was precisely their stress on discipline and their failure to recognise spontaneity:
… anarcho-pacifism is guilty of a more fundamental political vice. It makes no allowance for the spontaneous action of masses. The non-violent resisters must be minutely briefed and drilled in the spirit of active passivity. A few deviationists breaking a cordon, smashing a shop-window, shouting at the police or locking up the Prime Minister or even one such benighted idiot and the dreadful provocation will have been offered. If the attempt fails, it fails because of the undisciplined few.
I should add that in 1964 Sedgwick said to me in conversation that he thought the left should consider assassinating leading military personnel. I think, however, this was a passing remark rather than part of an elaborated strategy.
He had little time for the debate on “Leninism” and “revisionism” taking place in the Communist movement with which he had now irrevocably broken: “The spectacle of rival bureaucrats combing the Highly Selected Works of Lenin for quotations to fit their own case is of no serious interest.”
But if Sedgwick never idealised Lenin, he also on occasion defended him against Rosa Luxemburg, despite her privileged status in the pre-1968 IS. Reviewing Lenin’s correspondence with Camille Huysmans, he noted : “Of particular interest to IS readers will be the sidelights shed by this documentation on the relations between Lenin’s and Rosa Luxemburg’s respective spheres of influence at this time. A number of letters and circulars deal with the dispute within the Polish party (SDKPL) which led to the use of disciplinary measures and charges of police provocation by the Luxemburgist executive against the Leninist Warsaw Committee. Rosa emerges from this exchange less creditably than Ilyich.”
Sedgwick continued to be critical of organisational forms emerging elsewhere. His article on “The Two New Lefts” made a devastating critique of the politics, analyses and social composition of the milieu around New Left Review. He noted in passing that “The Young Socialists, a solidly proletarian body, remained unscathed by New Left ideas”. As Sedgwick was well aware, the people who had penetrated the Young Socialists were the various Trotskyist groups, notably the Socialist Review group (now renamed the International Socialists) and the Socialist Labour League, who substantially renewed and expanded their cadre thereby.
More generally, Sedgwick noted the failure of the New Left to make any impact in the working-class movement, even by the modest standards of the far left:
Shop stewards and rank-and-file worker militants were rarer here than in any left-wing grouping in Britain. This extraordinary defect in composition could not be corrected (as some of us tended to believe) by a more class-aware, more responsible orientation on the part of the New Left leadership. It was inherent in the terms of the group from its outset, in the Clubs no less than the Review; Fabian organizational forms cannot accommodate working-class (let alone revolutionary) politics.
Sedgwick did not make the point explicitly – for nothing was further from his temperament than triumphalism – but it was clear that he regarded the organisation he belonged to as potentially more effective than any of the currents of the New Left.
Sedgwick’s disdain for the New Left milieu continued; in a review of the 1967 Socialist Register and the first edition of the May Day Manifesto he expressed his scorn of intellectual groupings which did not focus on involvement in working-class struggle:
Intriguing are the adaptations and rationalisations of the radical intelligentsia. The avoidance of activity has become a major imperative in the breasts of those who spurn Wilson and LBJ but are unable for personal or theoretical (i.e. personal) reasons to involve themselves in any movement outside the charmed circle of the middle classes.
And he concluded with the withering observation:
The old round of seminars, study-circles and similar suffocating trash is starting up again. I hope I will be proved wrong, but so far the Manifesto Campaign does not appear to be on its way to selecting revolutionaries, or possible revolutionaries. Several of the sponsors I know to be zombies or faint-hearts who have no intention whatsoever of carrying through the Manifesto’s purported aims.
Yet Sedgwick’s attitude to the question of organisation remained pragmatic. In 1966 various individuals from the New Left milieu launched the short-lived Centre for Socialist Education; basing himself on experience in Oxford, Sedgwick wrote a short piece of eminently practical advice about how to organise a local branch of the CSE. He stressed the importance of trying to draw in a new audience:
The main areas that seem to be worth covering are: industrial topics with a social/political implication; local labour history; local civic issues with a democratic or welfare content. It may be possible to introduce sophisticated political topics; by “sophisticated” is meant anything outside the personal life-experience of most workers, and Vietnam is in this sense a sophisticated issue. If you can manage this without landing up with the selfsame committed Left as you started with, good luck.
He also stressed the importance of breaking with traditional educational methods:
We need a renewed attention to the details of interpersonal behaviour in face-to-face study: the amount and distribution of the tutor’s utterances as well as their content, the physical distance separating speaker and audience, the shape of seating arrangements. We must be realistic about reading-lists and bibliographies; if we have the audiences we want, they will not have the leisure to do a lot of reading.
At the same time as engaging with the British New Left, Sedgwick was working on his translation of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Serge’s identification with all that was best in the Russian Revolution, while scrupulously recognising its defects, fitted Sedgwick’s position. As Michael Kidron said of Sedgwick’s article on Serge, “it’s not a portrait of Serge, it’s a portrait of Sedge”. Sedgwick used Serge to demarcate himself from both Cold War anti-Communism and the more simple-minded defenders of Leninism:
Over the last twenty-five years or so considerable controversy has waxed over the question: is Stalinism the logical, organic, and inevitable continuation of Bolshevism? Most Western observers have replied with a simple affirmative; and an equation of similar form, but with the signs of all quantities reversed from negative to positive, was propounded until quite recently by political algebraists within the Soviet sphere of influence. On the other hand, the Trotskyist school of Marxism has long insisted that Stalinism is the “direct negation” of Bolshevism, while official Soviet theory after 1956 has increasingly tended to posit much the same kind of polar opposition between “Leninist norms” and at least some of the “excesses, abuses, and crimes” of Stalin’s day. Victor Serge’s answer to the problem was persistently double-sided. As against Trotsky and his followers he stresses the fatal rigidities and ambiguities of Leninist and Marxist doctrine, and the sources of degeneracy in such early Soviet institutions as the Cheka. As against the pairing of Bolshevism with Stalinism, he simply describes what, in his experience, Bolsheviks and Stalinists were like, and details the severe limitations set upon a free development of Soviet Socialism by the Civil War and its aftermath of havoc. Serge was suspicious of any notion tending to establish historical fatalism, and this set him both against the easy appeal to necessity which Leninists and Stalinists employed in their apologias of butchery, and against the common Western habit of regarding the degenerescence of revolutions into tyranny as virtually the only Iron Law which it is still permissible to detect within history.
For Sedgwick, as for the whole of the left, 1968 was a crucial turning-point. Observing the events unfolding in France, Sedgwick noted the significance of anarchism, while at the same time being clear that anarchism was no alternative to the Marxist organisation he looked to:
Where there is revolution there is anarchy, the first stirring, the first cry, the first position, before organisation begins. We must greet and welcome anarchy. It is not the sword of revolution, only its herald. But a herald performs a genuine service.
1968 was also a year of change for Sedgwick’s organisation, the International Socialists. Tony Cliff, impressed by the way the French events had put revolution back on the agenda, argued that IS must turn itself into an interventionist organisation, and in order to do so must adopt a democratic centralist structure. Cliff argued this in an internal document, but the case was most fully developed in the pamphlet he wrote jointly with myself, France: The Struggle Goes On.
Sedgwick reviewed the pamphlet. Though generous towards it, he dissented clearly from the central argument about the way in which the French events had demonstrated the need for a revolutionary party; he continued to assert the importance of consciousness rather than leadership, as he had done ten years earlier:
The entire gap between militant strike-consciousness and revolution is termed “the political vacuum” which is attributable to the absence of the organisational prerequisite for co-ordinating action, i.e., the revolutionary party. Trotsky’s evasive phraseology of “the pre-revolutionary situation” is resurrected for the occasion. The pre-revolutionary situation (if it means more than the fact that the revolution has not happened yet) must mean that the revolution could happen if … The pamphlet’s listing of the sins of the Communist Party and the other “Left” groups imply that for the revolution to have taken place there would have to have been a different leadership. The evidence, however, indicates that there would also have to have been a different working class.
In particular, he dissociated himself strongly from the sort of revolutionary party advocated in the pamphlet:
The formation of a democratic workers’ party can proceed in step only with the formation of democratic workers; and when it comes it is most unlikely to imitate the centralism-and-democracy mix prescribed by Trotsky. The “responsible central and local bodies, stable in their composition” (i.e., the same people get elected) “and in their attitude to their political line” (i.e., they pretend not to change their minds) belong to the traditions of a religious order (the Comintern) breathing the stench of an era of defeat and recession within the international proletariat. That era is not ours.
At the end of 1968 the International Socialists adopted a democratic centralist constitution. As far as I recall, Sedgwick opposed this, but he accepted the decision and remained a leading and influential member, serving on the National Committee and the Editorial Board of International Socialism. The main target of his criticisms in this period were what might be described, to give a slightly different sense to Merleau-Ponty’s term, as the “ultra-Bolsheviks” – those who wanted to introduce more tightly centralised organisational forms. One demand raised in some sections of the organisation was for the introduction of probationary membership. At a conference in 1969 Sedgwick dismissed this with a succinct one-liner: “We do not put the working class on probation; we are on probation to the working class.”
More generally he was sceptical of the tendency to resolve debates by quoting classic texts (of which his knowledge was considerably greater than that of most comrades), and of the formal arrangements for factional organisation with IS. At a conference in (I think) 1969 he circulated what was known as the “focument” (an abbreviation for “forged document”). This contained reference to a character (perhaps based partly on the late Chris Harman) who possessed a special edition of the works of Marx and Lenin printed on one side only of gummed paper, with perforations between the lines, so that quotations could be easily pasted into articles and documents. The dénouement came when the unfortunate comrade, who owed his place on various leading committees to being a representative of a faction, changed his mind.
A more serious confrontation with the IS leadership came in 1970. Since 1968 there had existed inside IS a permanent faction known as the Trotskyist Tendency (led by Sean Matgamna, it was the forerunner of today’s Alliance for Workers Liberty). This in fact was a party within a party, having its own democratic centralist organisation, its own membership subs and probationary membership. The National Committee attempted to draw up some rules to restrict the activities of this faction. Sedgwick’s response was sharp and angry:
The NC has now endorsed a political and organisational structure for IS which is anti-democratic in content and totalitarian in tendency.
If implemented, it would render IS more intolerant towards the minorities, in certain key respects, than the most sectarian Trotskyist groups. To limit the propagation of ideas to “group members” only is fitting only for a sect: to make such a limitation a disciplinary rule, to be infringed only at the risk of expulsion, violates every principle of revolutionary democracy, and to create a rule whereby comrades can be expelled or disciplined merely for meeting together is a hollow mockery of everything for which IS used to stand,
I therefore terminate my membership of the National Committee and of the IS Editorial Board which I have been on for some while.
In 1970 too Sedgwick published an article in an academic collection surveying the tendencies of the British left. As ever, he achieved a nice balance of commitment and scepticism. With a delightful sense of irony, he argued that the Gaitskellite right of the Labour Party had something in common with Lenin:
…as in Lenin, a political party, armed with this [Marxist] knowledge and drawing upon what is best in modern scientific and organizational technique, can master the blind, unconscious elements of a competitive economic system and oversee the installation of co-operative, egalitarian and expansionary values at essential switchpoints within the social mechanism.
Turning to the far left, he noted the debate about the social nature of Russia, China and other state-owned economies, and the relevance of this to views on forms of revolutionary organisation; in so doing, he managed a side-swipe at some members of his own organisation:
On the whole it is those who are most sympathetic to the Socialist pretensions of any or all of these regimes who are most inclined towards a tight, centralized framework for their own (ideal or actual) political organizations; conversely, a penchant for organizational looseness goes with a reluctance to consider these states as representing any form of Socialism. This correlation, however, is so approximate that it might well decline to insignificance if an actual sample were taken. The exceptions to it are striking: anyone who knows the contemporary Left will be familiar either with the hairy hash-inhaler, libertarian in his personal life to the point of downright indiscipline, who will blench and bridle at any suggestion that Ho Chi Minh was other than a kindly uncle, or at the other extreme with the stern denouncer of all existing governments as State Capitalist tyrannies, who is still ready to expel any of his comrades and peers at the drop of a deviation.
As for the International Socialists (of which he acknowledged his own membership) he stressed eclecticism rather than Leninist orthodoxy, noting the
… complex heterogeneity of views, from semi-anarchist to orthodox Trotskyist, represented within it. Originally a splinter-group from Trotskyism … it rapidly discarded a number of traditional theories, including both the Leninist concept of “the labour aristocracy” (with its implications of a revolutionary mass of workers beneath the thin crust of bribed traitors) and the “State ownership” criterion for determining the existence of a Workers’ State or Socialist Country.
And in 1972, in a debate on Ireland, he stated quite baldly: “Most of Lenin’s writings on the attitude of Marxists in the epoch of imperialist colonialism, when political self-determination was the key question, are of very little help today.”
Yet Sedgwick’s brushes with the “Leninism” of the International Socialists did not lead him to a break with the heritage of Lenin. On the contrary. In 1972 he published his second Serge translation – Year One of the Russian Revolution. Whereas much of Memoirs of a Revolutionary had dealt with the rise of Stalinism and the increasing isolation of the Left Opposition, here Serge was dealing with the most heroic phase of the Russian Revolution. Basing himself on Serge’s account, Sedgwick makes a number of interesting points, two of which are worth drawing out.
Firstly, he argues that while Serge effectively refutes those who see the Revolution as a mere putsch, he also goes against the orthodoxy of the anti-Stalinist left by seeing the beginnings of the degeneration of the Revolution much earlier than is commonly believed:
There are many, too, on the Left who would gladly endorse Serge’s characterization of Bolshevism’s initial victory, as the advent to power of authentically revolutionary mass institutions, and yet would reject his chronology of the movement’s speedy decline. 1918 has indeed been offered but rarely as a significant date by Left-wing interpreters of Russian Communist history; most accounts of the trajectory of Stalinism are sprinkled with references to such salient years as 1937-8 (the great purge), 1929-30 (collectivization and famine), 1927 (defeat of Left Opposition, expulsion of Trotsky), or if a critic is sufficiently bold – 1921, the year of the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion and the banning of factions inside the Bolshevik Party. There are very few interpretations which both proclaim the 1917 October Revolution as a valid and genuine proletarian insurrection and go on (as Serge does) to date the erosion of mass involvement in the revolution within a matter of months.
Sedgwick also argued something rather more striking. He claimed – with qualifications, as always in Sedgwick – that Serge’s account undermines the claim that the increasing authoritarianism of the revolutionary regime could be derived from Lenin’s pre-revolutionary view of party organisation:
Here Serge parts company with all those critics of Bolshevism who have predominantly emphasized the ideological factor of “Jacobinism” or “Leninism” (detected as residing within the intellectual marrow of the Bolshevik Party since 1903) as the germ of the later State autocracy under Lenin or even as a prime cause of Stalin’s totalitarian rule. The ideological case may be illustrated very simply by quoting one or two predictions made by Leon Trotsky in his pre-revolutionary polemics against Lenin’s centralism. “In the internal politics of the party these [Lenin’s] methods lead the party organization to ‘substitute’ itself for the party, the Central Committee to substitute itself for the party organization, and finally a ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.” And: “If the anti-revolutionary characteristics of Menshevism are already in full view, the anti-revolutionary features of Bolshevism run the grave risk of only revealing themselves after a revolutionary victory.” These are only the most sensational extracts from an indictment of bureaucratic “Leninism” developed by Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and the Menshevik wing almost a decade and a half before Lenin’s politics found a manifest application in the exercise of State power.
On the contrary, Sedgwick argues, “The whole blame for the evolution of the Communist-state into the Party-State is therefore laid by Victor Serge to the account of the counter-revolutionary peril.” And this leads him to a remarkable defence of Lenin, in which he stresses the anti-authoritarian elements in Lenin’s thought, and shows such variations in Lenin’s evolution as to make the very term “Leninism” meaningless:
In any case. the account of pre-revolutionary “Leninism” presented by the ideological critics of Lenin is seriously misleading. Ideological explanation requires, in the first place, an accurate description of the ideas which are alleged to have been causaIly operative: and the description of Lenin as a “centralist” or “Jacobin” is only a half-truth at best. The Lenin of 1905-6, for example, is not the “centralizer” of 1902-4: the Leninist model of party organization developed for the unification of Russia’s warring factions (following the joint Bolshevik-Menshevik congress of 1906) was fully democratic in content, involving not only normal election procedures for leading committees but also the use of referenda among the membership on controversial issues and the strict mandating of delegates by their local branches (it is this model of organization, incidentally, that was first termed “democratic centralism” – a formula acceptable to Mensheviks no less than to Leninists – in distinction from the unqualified and explicit “centralism” of Lenin’s position in 1902-4). For the first year or so after the Bolshevik seizure of power, the democratic and even semi-anarchist strains in Lenin’s organizational theory become even more pronounced: Serge is eager to emphasize these elements (visible not only in the classic State and Revolution but in many speeches and writings of the period) in his own narrative of the Year One, and the excessive significance attached to these libertarian statements by Serge (understandable in a former anarchist trying to reconcile himself to Soviet authority) should not blind us to the persisting reality of a Lenin who found both “democracy” and “centralism” to constitute key values in the construction of a Socialist order.
A smaller defence of Lenin came at around the same time. The October 1969 Internal Bulletin had published a passage from Trotsky arguing against the mandation of conference delegates. Sedgwick responded with typical wit, composing a letter from Lenin allegedly “received on the York Ouija-board”. Through this he firmly aligned himself with Lenin against Trotsky (of course even to note that there were differences between the two has often been a source of embarrassment to the more orthodox Trotskyists):
I would err grievously in my revolutionary duty, not only to the Party comrades but also to the non-Party masses of the entire world, if I failed to reply to the arch-bureaucratic contribution of Comrade Trotsky in the latest Internal Bulletin. Comrade Trotsky, as I have pointed out before, distinguished himself by an excessively administrative approach to Party matters, and he has never at any stage, I think, engaged himself in the real, Soviet work of building the Party, side by side with the class-conscious workers against the renegades of social-patriotism, the Lieberdans and the Scheidemanns and the Wilsons and all of that ilk. It is true that ever since October there has been no better Bolshevik; but in my opinion he lacks experience in the elementary tasks of persuading and winning the Party comrades to his position, and he is apt to make up for this inexperience by an excessive over-confidence and high-handedness in matters of detail.
“Lenin” went on, referring to “to the English edition of my Collected Works put out by the bourgeois firm of Lawrence and Wishart”, to point out that
In January 1907, after the principle of democratic centralism had first been introduced into our Party constitution, I had to insist on the strictest observance of the mandate principle at the conference of the St. Petersburg party committee. Any delegate who attended the meeting without written evidence that his local had mandated him after a full discussion on all matters that were to be voted upon was forced to surrender his credential.
Interestingly, this period of enthusiasm for Lenin seems to coincide with a time when Sedgwick felt most at home in the International Socialists, despite his reservations about its political basis. Briefly he wrote a column in Socialist Worker: one piece described a tenants’ meeting in a Northern town:
The International Socialists (whose activists have been principally responsible for starting tenants’ work on this estate) would never have got to know any of these stewards if it had relied on “industrial contacts” and the lists of names from official trade-union publications. We had to organise in the working-class community to find a way through to the factories.
The other oddness (perhaps it isn’t so odd) is to see how very respected the IS-man is who has been doing most of the spadework.
There is this obvious non-tenant, non-working class type, an energetic dropout in early twenties, delivering reports on the situation, consignments of leaflets, and bursts of Marxist political analysis.
Everybody accepts his place there and what he is doing
The IS bloke is stood five pints by public subscription and the latest issue of this paper is bought by most present. Some of us can remember the days when we stood outside meetings.
Perhaps this sense of belonging gives some clue to why Sedgwick stayed so long with the International Socialists, although he was obviously ill at ease with party discipline at a time when the organisation was becoming more and more explicitly “Leninist”.
Yet it was perhaps not in Sedgwick’s nature for things to run smoothly for too long. In 1972 he became involved in the debate about the proposed programme for the International Socialists. The Internal Bulletin carried an “Open Letter from York Branch” (almost certainly largely inspired and written by Sedgwick) which challenged the way the programme was constructed. In particular it argued:
One main trend of the draft is a consistent attempt to legitimate ourselves in terms of lineage, in effect to indoctrinate new members of IS into the past ideological history of the older members of the organisation. This is at odds with the view of the group which has seen it as a place at which comrades from very different ideological backgrounds could arrive, agreeing in general method and orientation of work. We do not suggest that we can write off the past, but rather that different traditions from the past lead to IS. We should not try to consolidate a single political route leading from Marx’s day to our own, or encourage people to look back along this route and agree, as part of the basic collective definition of our organisation, that the search backwards for precedents is bad in that it tempts us to evade the central problem of revolutionary politics, that it is we, now, who create the precedents and forge the tradition.
Though Lenin was not named, this was a clear rejection of the view held by Cliff and the IS leadership that IS stood firmly in the tradition of Bolshevism, the first four congresses of the Comintern and the Left Opposition.
In an essay written in 1975 Sedgwick still seemed committed to the belief that it would be possible to build a revolutionary movement over the coming years:
It is the march of the spermatozoa into the eggs, the duplication, over and over again, of specialized cells, the use of tiny living templates for the growth of a new organism. A lot of the other sperms from older days have been and gone, quite a few of the eggs got flushed away down the loo, but it wasn’t all a wank or a waste. Because enough little cells got fertilized, as we know now, to achieve the beginnings of a generation. A generation equipped to enter the decisive political battles of the next decade, battles that will either advance the cause of the workers by gigantic strides or else throw them back in a terrible retrogression.
Sedgwick does not seem to have been involved in the sharp factional dispute of 1973-75, which ended with the expulsion of a substantial number of comrades including such veterans as Jim Higgins, Roger Protz and John Palmer. But in 1976 the decision to rename the International Socialists as the Socialist Workers Party proved too much for him and he offered his resignation from the organisation that had been his political home for two decades.
His resignation letter focussed mainly on the electoral strategy adopted by the IS/SWP, the ineffectiveness of which he quite correctly prophesied. He commented with deep scepticism on Tony Cliff’s work on Lenin: “How easy it is in these circumstances to shoot off-course, trusting to the ‘intuition’ which Comrade Cliff has celebrated in the life of Lenin but which is, at its worst, impressionism mingled with emotion.”
But his main conclusion was that the present time, when industrial struggle was on the wane (something the SWP would acknowledge a couple of years later under the name of the “downturn”) was not the appropriate time to found a party:
From being an industrially based combat organisation in 1969-74, we have now moved to the role of a militant propagandist-action group. ….However to declare the Party as a propaganda-act, is tantamount to declaring the Fourth (or Twenty-fifth) International. It is a silly fling, which loses us our good name.
International Socialists are not yet a Socialist Workers Party, and will not get one whit nearer to that position in the working class by some fancy rallying and pseudo-inauguration. Forward with the IS!
What is striking here is that he does not suggest that building and proclaiming a revolutionary party are wrong or undesirable in themselves – he just considers that 1977 was the wrong time to do so.
After his departure from the International Socialists Sedgwick wrote a couple more articles in which he touched on the question of Lenin and Leninism. His article on Daniel Guérin was concerned largely with Guérin’s sexuality, but he did stress that Guérin had been “a mediator between libertarian socialism and ‘authoritarian’ Bolshevism”. Serge had played a very similar role and Lenin himself was at various times very keen to encourage cooperation with anarchists, so there was no break with Lenin here.
Sedgwick’s final incomplete, posthumously published essay on Serge “the unhappy elitist” is a different matter. In one sense it is the final culmination of Sedgwick’s deep-rooted suspicion. Having for two decades used Serge as a means of expressing his scepticism about every other current on the left, he finally turned on his hero. The deep pessimism of this essay can perhaps be explained in part by his personal difficulties, probably too by the deep downturn in struggle and the ascendancy of Thatcherism. Certainly the essay marks a sharp break with his earlier admiration for Lenin, and a stress on the “the authoritarian record of Bolshevism”. Serge’s work from the 1920s, argues Sedgwick
…. is on the whole most unrevealing of any libertarian impulsion in this anarchist-turned-Bolshevik. On the contrary: at this stage what is evident in Serge’s public political alignment is an uncritical retailing of the official legitimations of Bolshevik statism. The contrast is obvious between the Serge of libertarian reputation and the author of these manifestos for the elite leadership of the Bolsheviks. In his account (given in the Memoirs) of the impact made upon him by the Soviet regime on his arrival in Petrograd in 1919, Serge relates what a shock it was to read an article by Zinoviev in the local newspaper proclaiming The Monopoly of Power: “Our Party rules alone … it will not allow anyone …”, etc. Yet most of Serge’s writings from 1922 as far as 1930 show no sense of shock at the Party dictatorship; its monopoly of power is defended as an inevitable law of revolution, on the grounds that every mass upheaval is bound to generate an elite of the clear-sighted.
Yet it would be unwise to take this piece as Sedgwick’s Testament; more sensible to take his work as a whole, full of contradictions, but contradictions that illuminate the complex and uneasy progress of revolutionary politics in the twentieth century.
The last time I saw him was in 1981, at the first meeting to found the Socialist Society, yet another attempt by the New Left to draw together the various currents of the left. Sedgwick was as scathing as ever about the New Left and as sceptical as ever about such forms of organisation. He played no further part in the venture. By now it seems his interests were shifting away from Marxist organisation and he was very much aware of the massive changes taking place in the working-class movement. But John Palmer, who met him only months before his death recalls that he seemed “to be essentially the same humane, heretical and profoundly radical socialist thinker he had always been”.
Sedgwick was not a “Leninist”, whatever exactly that term may have come to mean. But no more was he an “anti-Leninist”. The term can have two meanings, though the distinction is often elided by those who use it: either a hostility to Lenin developed into a system, or a rejection of Leninism as a system. Sedgwick rejected “Leninism” in its various forms, including that increasingly advocated by his own organisation. But for Lenin he maintained, throughout most of his life, a very considerable respect and admiration. Socialists today still have a great deal to learn from Sedgwick.
 Thanks to Colin Barker, John Charlton, Nick Howard, Richard Kirkwood, Richard Kuper, Fred Lindop, John Palmer, and David Renton for comments on a first draft.
 P Sedgwick, “Victor Serge and Socialism”, International Socialism 14 (1963), http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1963/xx/serge.htm
 P Sedgwick, “Victor Serge and Socialism”, International Socialism 14 (1963), http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1963/xx/serge.htm
 See the Peter Sedgwick Archive website http://www.petersedgwick.org/navigation/Biographical.html and I Birchall, “Peter Sedgwick Commemoration”, Revolutionary History Vol 9, No 1 (2005), pp 259-61.
 P Sedgwick, “Lidchester Leads the Way”, Clarion No. 12, February 1960 http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1960/02/lidchester.htm
 P Sedgwick, “An Electoral Strategy for the Left”, International Socialism 43 (1970) http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1970/04/elections.htm
 P Sedgwick, “Victory for the Vietcong”, Labour Worker, 5 August 1956, http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1966/08/vietcong.htm
 P Sedgwick, “Tragedy of the Tragedian”, International Socialism 31, 1967-68, http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1967/xx/deutscher.htm
 Lenin’s repeated changes of stance in response to changing circumstances are studied in Tony Cliff’s Lenin.
 P Sedgwick, “The Fight for Workers’ Control”, International Socialism No 3 (1960-61) http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1960/xx/workerscontrol.htm
 P Sedgwick, “A Day in the Life of the ’Fifties”, in N Harris & J Palmer (eds), World Crisis (London, 1971) http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1971/xx/fifties.htm
 Interview with Richard Kuper, cited in I Birchall, Tony Cliff , London, 2011, p. 175.
 This was probably a pseudonym. John Palmer has suggested to me that it might be Bernard Dix or Peter Cadogan, but this can only be speculation.
 See Cliff Slaughter, “What is Revolutionary Leadership?”, Labour Review, Vol. 5 No. 3, October-November 1960 http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/slaughter/1960/10/leadership.html
 Robert Emmett, “Socialists and the Labour Movement”, Socialist Review, Mid-November 1958.
 This was partly unfair. Brian Behan, a member of the Newsletter group, had been a militant building worker for some years and it was his dismissal that provoked the strike.
 P Sedgwick, “The Pretenders”, Socialist Review, 1 January 1959 http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1959/01/pretenders.htm
 John Leslie (P Sedgwick), “Towards an African Socialism”, International Socialism No. 1 (1960) http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1960/xx/africansoc.htm
 See also P Sedgwick, “The Direction of Action”, Socialist Review, May 1961 http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1961/05/action.htm
 P Sedgwick, “Non-Violence – Dogma Or Tactic?”, Socialist Review, December 1961, http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1961/12/nonviolence.htm
 P Sedgwick, “Labour’s Great Debate”, Socialist Review July 1960 http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1960/07/debate.htm
 P Sedgwick, “International Nostalgia”, International Socialism No 19 (1964-65), http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1964/xx/huysmans.htm
 P Sedgwick, “The Two New Lefts” International Socialism 17 (1964), http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1964/08/2newlefts.htm
 P Sedgwick, “Thoughts in a Dry Season”, International Socialism 31 (1967-68) http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1967/xx/thoughts.htm
 P Sedgwick, “Centre for Socialist Education”, international Socialism 24 (1966) http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1966/xx/cse.htm
 P Sedgwick, “Victor Serge and Socialism”, International Socialism 14 (1963), http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1963/xx/serge.htm
 Author’s recollection.
 P Sedgwick, Translator’s Introduction to V Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Oxford, 1963 http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1963/xx/memoirs.htm
 P Sedgwick, “Anarchy and Organisation”, International Socialism 34 (1968) http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1968/xx/anarchy.htm
 T Cliff, “Notes on Democratic Centralism”, IS Internal Document June 1968 http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1968/06/democent.htm
 P Sedgwick, “The French May….”, International Socialism 36 (1969) http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1969/xx/may.htm
 I cite from memory as I do not have access to a copy at the moment.
 IS Internal Bulletin, May 1970 http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1970/05/factions.htm
 It should be remembered that the Labour right of the 1950s and 1960s, inspired by Anthony Crosland, possessed a radicalism and egalitarianism almost inconceivable in the modern Labour Party.
 P Sedgwick, “Varieties of Socialist Thought” in B Crick & WA Robson (eds.), Protest and Discontent, Harmondsworth, 1970, pp. 39, 60, 54. (The book was based on a 1969 issue of the academic journal; Political Quarterly.)
 P Sedgwick, “A Note on Ireland”, IS Internal Bulletin, May 1972 http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1972/05/ireland.html
 Harmondsworth 1972.
 P Sedgwick, “The Crucial Year”, International Socialism 50 (1972. (This was also the Translator’s Introduction to Year One.) http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1972/xx/yearone.htm
 An issue which I do not have to hand. The editor was Fred Lindop.
 P Sedgwick, “Letter from Afar”, IS Internal Bulletin, November 1969 http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/19xx/xx/fromafar.htm
 P Sedgwick, “Endpiece”, Socialist Worker 18 November 1972 http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1972/11/tenants.htm
 For a full account of the debate see I Birchall, “The Programme of the International Socialists” http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/2013-the-programme-of-the-international-socialists/
 “Open Letter from York Branch”, IS Bulletin March 1972.
 I wrote a “Reply to York” in the same Bulletin.
 P Sedgwick, “Farewell, Grosvenor Square”, in David Widgery (ed.), The Left in Britain, Harmondsworth 1976 http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1976/xx/grosvenorsquare.htm
 P Sedgwick, “The SWP Fraud”, Socialist Workers Party Bulletin, No.1 February 1977 http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1976/12/fraud.htm
 P Sedgwick, “Guérin; Out Of Hiding”, Salmagundi Nos 58-59 (1982-83).
 P Sedgwick, “The Unhappy Elitist”, History Workshop Journal, No.17, (1984) http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1984/xx/serge.htm
 Robin Blackburn of New Left Review was the driving force.
 Communication from John Palmer, October 2013.