National Sections of the L5I:

A split in the Austrian section

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At the last International Executive Committee (IEC) of the League, five comrades of the Austrian section, calling themselves the Bolshevik Opposition, including long standing members Michael Pröbsting and Nina Gunic, were expelled from the organisation for conducting a deliberately destructive and unprincipled factional campaign in the Austrian section against its new, young leadership, and also planning to take this campaign into Revolution in Austria.

This resolution of the IEC recounts the circumstances leading to the comrades’ expulsion, followed by an explanation of the background to their political collapse. We naturally regret these events, but believe the Austrian section of the League has been put upon a much firmer, more clear-headed and rational political footing as a result. The Austrian section is called the League of Socialist Revolution (abbreviated below to LSR).

The faction fight of the so-called ‘Bolshevik Opposition’: a campaign designed to obscure issues, demoralise and shy away from substantial political argument
1. In our reply to the platform, we pointed out the huge disproportion between the harsh political characterisation and accusations made by the Bolshevik Opposition on the one hand and the incredibly poor political substantiation of these claims on the other: “What is striking is the contrast between the sharpness, the almost hysterical tone, the Faction engages against the majority of the LSR and the poverty of its arguments. Instead of quotes, evidence, substantiation, we read a lot of suppositions, a lot of ‘guessing’ what the majority might mean by this or that position. This even goes so far that the Faction cites documents, which have not been adopted by the LSR-conference as proof of a ‘turning point’.” (‘It is time to call a halt, a reply to the “Bolshevik Opposition’ IS, 1. March 2011)

2. We stated repeatedly, however, that this did not in itself affect the granting of the democratic rights of a faction to the LSR minority within the structures of the League. However, we also pointed out that the lack of political content in the faction’s original platform expressed a very light-minded and, indeed, unprincipled, attitude to inner-party debate. The conduct of the LSR pre-conference discussion and the contribution to the LSR conference by long-standing leaders of the group, Michael Pröbsting and Nina Gunic, who would go on to form the factional grouping, had already revealed an undeclared factionalism and a high degree of disloyalty to other members. Even at this stage, unsubstantiated characterisations tended to substitute for real political argument and debate over the group’s perspectives and tasks.

3. The actual substance of the internal debate and the issues involved did not justify a factional struggle – and certainly not one that used the hardest possible characterisations. The issues discussed were perfectly appropriate for a revolutionary organisation in Austria: the estimation of the class struggle, what to propose to the Austrian left in response to the crisis, how to build a collective leadership in the organisation etc. Indeed, if the discussion inside the section had been simply focused on these issues it seems to us very unlikely that they would have warranted the formation of a faction – which is a body inside the organisation that exists to campaign for the removal of the leadership and its replacement.

4. The perfectly sensible self-criticisms that the section made of its estimation of the Austrian class struggle in the past and its proposals to other left organisations for a united front conference to discuss resistance, amongst other things, met with an outbreak of enormous and unjustified factional hostility by a minority. Unfortunately, the outbreak of this situation did not come as a surprise to us. Rather, it brought to the surface unhealthy trends towards a sharp and uncomradely tone of internal debate and a lack of collectivity in the leadership that had long marked the life of the LSR. Two comrades from the International Secretariat, for example, wrote a letter raising our concerns about this matter to the leadership of the Austrian section back in January 2010. However, even this was by no means the first time that we had confronted similar problems in the section.

5. Any group of comrades has a democratic right to form a faction. But to do so is a very serious step that requires significant justification on political grounds. Factions are a “necessary evil” because they can often lead to the polarisation of differences, a breakdown in comradely relations and even breaches of discipline. This means that factions have a responsibility to the rest of the organisation to conduct their struggle in a disciplined and loyal way that does not disrupt the work of the organisation.

6. We (the League’s international leadership and the Austrian majority) had argued that the Bolshevik Opposition should dissolve their faction and return to normal inner-party conditions for the simple reason that the various political characterisations the faction made against their opponents (petit bourgeois, passive propagandist, Menshevik) simply could not be backed up substantially by any of their arguments. These “polemics” struck us as old-fashioned mud-slinging, which mystified and obscured the issues and could only poison the life of the section.

7. We guaranteed the comrades of the Faction their full faction rights, but also pointed out the unhealthy character of their conduct. Bad conduct marked the life of the faction. Indeed, even before its foundation there were quite remarkable and unveiled threats to breach the organisation’s discipline. At the LSR conference, Pröbsting and Gunic were in a minority of 6 to 10 on all the substantive questions, but argued for a leadership slate composition of 4 members of what would become the faction and only one member of the majority. Their reasoning was quite shocking. They argued such a leadership would be a “safety valve” against the bad decisions of the conference. In clear and open terms this meant that they were proposing a leadership on the premise that it would not follow the decisions of the majority of the organisation. At a meeting of the League’s Secretariat on 8 February, Pröbsting repeated this view, even attempting, quite bizarrely, to find justification for it in the first Bolshevik-Menshevik split of 1903.

8. Open threats of indiscipline continued to characterise the faction. Pröbsting and Gunic even abstained on a resolution requiring the BO-members “to operate according to democratic centralism i.e. to carry out the decisions of the conference and the leadership elected by it”. Pröbsting claimed they did so because this was part of a longer resolution with which they disagreed. However, as it turned out, this was not the case and Pröbsting had clearly tried to deceive his fellow Secretariat members on the question.

9. These points all found their reflection in the faction platform. It was light on substantial political critique and argument, contained no statement of loyalty to the democratic centralism of the group, contained no commitment to overcoming differences through debate and common implementation of the group’s work, but in the place of these things made a series of outrageous slanders on members of the majority.

10. They accused them of having “the most backward consciousness – in more extreme cases even sexist, social-chauvinistic or even grass roots democratic and individualistic (attitudes)” and this was evidenced by reference to past incidents involving individual members of the majority. In one case, an ex-member of the section was included in a desperate attempt to find justification for their campaign.

11. We were of the view that such behaviour violates the rights afforded to factions. Why? The right to form a faction carries with it responsibilities. One such responsibility is to behave in a way that is conducive to the work of the organisation, does not actively undermine it, and does not deliberately poison its internal life. If there were any truth in these serious accusations, then the correct procedure would have been for them to be investigated in a non-partisan way through a collective leadership. To use them as a justification for a factional struggle inside the organisation was to actively abuse the rights of a faction.

12. In truth, these accusations were raised with deliberate malice. They were designed to poison the atmosphere inside the organisation, to demoralise members to the point where they left and thus create conditions for the faction to win a majority. They therefore represented a pursuit of a factional struggle by entirely illegitimate means. This is totally alien to the revolutionary tradition and basic principles of communist morality and the normal comradely relations of internal party life. No serious organisation could or should tolerate such behaviour within its ranks.

13. At an aggregate on 6 March 2011, the Austrian section adopted the “Resolution on the 'Bolshevik Opposition' to the Aggregate on 6 March 2011” calling on the BO to withdraw these disloyal and unsubstantiated slanders or to substantiate them where they constituted issues of discipline that should be resolved in a non-factional way. In its reply, the BO formally withdrew one particular sentence - but only in order to repeat and expand upon the same slanders in subsequent passages. The faction was then suspended by the Austrian section and the matter was referred to the IEC. At an IS meeting on Tuesday 22 March, Pröbsting and Gunic were suspended from the International Executive Committee and Pröbsting was suspended from the IS and the matter was referred to the IEC in April.

We had no option but to expel the five comrades

14. In the light of further discussion and investigation, it turned out the BO had not only broken the spirit of democratic centralism and conducted its struggle in a way that was clearly designed to split the organisation, but had also rejected the discipline of the organisation: the commitment to conduct their campaign internally within the group while continuing publicly to support its work and to work under the discipline of its leadership. Some of these instances were ‘small’ but nonetheless quite telling breaches of indiscipline – for example, Pröbsting, despite being paid as a part-timer for the organisation, refused to update the website, while Gunic announced her intention to move back into youth work and rejoin Revolution and when told it was up to the majority of the organisation to determine her area of work, accused us of being ‘bureaucratic’. These relatively minor indiscretions were, however, part of a plan to establish their own inner-discipline and structure, prepare for a split, and carry out their campaign outside the framework of the LSR. This was revealed to us in a bizarre document, called the “Bolshevisation of the Friday branch”, an internal document of the faction, which, while typically short on any kind of substantial political argument, was full of shrill phrases about how the faction would colonise a branch of Revo Austria to fight the ‘Mensheviks’ – by which was meant the representatives of the LSR’s elected leadership. It contained various plans to promote promising “proletarian” members, remove established LSR leaders etc, etc. It was politics-lite but it made up for this with the sheer malice with which it spoke of other LSR comrades.

15. It also showed that the opposition had lost all sight of reality. The document was a surreal mixture of hysterical calls to political struggle against the “Mensheviks” with hardly any political content, but combined with bizarre organisational proposals like the “Bolshevisation of introductions”. It revealed a real sect-like thinking, a tragedy really that comrades could think that this constituted revolutionary politics. How else could one explain the comparison of Lenin's struggle against Menshevism with various organisational manoeuvres in the LSR or the Friday branch of Vienna REVO except as evidence of a complete loss of contact with reality? Here the tragedy of the opposition turned into a farce. Quite apart from the completely patronising and regressive attitude this showed towards the REVO group, the faction’s aim of building itself a base in another organisation, without openly declaring their factional motives, was designed to harm the relations between ourselves and our fraternal organisation.

16. For these reasons, we were left with no choice but to expel the faction and its members. We regret the loss of the members of the Faction. We are well aware that they are committed militants. But their political trajectory over the past period, culminating in this disloyal faction struggle, meant that we had to go our separate ways. We naturally hope they will turn back, make a self-criticism and commit to working in a sensible and comradely way within our ranks in the future.

17. Our basic position is this. Any grouping inside the League, whether formally declared as a faction or not, has to conduct its campaign in a comradely way in order to ensure that debate is focused on the issues involved and on the best development of the organisation, to ensure that their struggle serves the best interests of the organisation and observes basic principles of democratic centralism. Mutual trust and comradeliness is essential to this, as is a commitment to collective working and trying at all times to see both sides of the argument. The shrill campaign of denunciation carried through by the faction did not observe any of these basic principles. The sad truth is that anyone who does not understand such elementary things will never, ever, succeed in developing a new revolutionary party and international.

What lies behind the political collapse of these comrades?

18. Obviously, these developments and the political positions raised, as well as the disruptive, unprincipled and un-comradely conduct of the faction struggle, are a shock and a sad event for many members and leaders of the League. We have been working together for years and, in the case of comrade Pröbsting, for decades, as close comrades. We all know that he and the other comrades played an important role in creating a genuine revolutionary Trotskyist organisation in Austria, the ASt and later LSR, which has demarcated itself from the political and programmatic degeneration of centrism in that country and established a genuine revolutionary current.

19. Amongst its core achievements are the establishment of a correct understanding of social-democratic reformism and of the stages of party building, a rejection of the impatient and ultimately opportunist desire to leap over the early stages of organisational development as well as of passive propagandism, a clear record of international solidarity with the workers and oppressed and of consistent anti-imperialism, an active intervention into the anti-capitalist movement and the building of an independent, revolutionary youth organisation in political solidarity with the League.

20. It is these achievements, the LSR majority and the IEC defend – and which we increasingly had to defend against the so-called “Bolshevik Opposition”. What triggered the collapse of the opposition was an inability to meet the challenges of the current world historic period. As we pointed out, one of the political consequences of the new period, which opened in 2007/2008, is the need for a systematic application of the united front tactic in the struggle against the strategy of the bosses and bourgeois governments to make the workers and youth pay for the crisis of the system.

21. In countries like Austria, this has to be done against the background of an imperialist state in which there have been relatively low levels of class struggle during the crisis because Austrian capitalism could benefit from the German upswing and the continued strength of social partnership as the predominant form of political rule of the capitalist class. This, and the almost monopolist position of social democracy in the Austrian workers' movement, made, and makes, the united front tactic in relation to the mass organisations of the working class both difficult and extremely necessary. It is imperative to try to win all those working class and far left forces in and outside the reformist organisation who are willing to fight, to co-ordinate for common action – with the trade union and SPÖ leaders where possible and without them where necessary.

22. For a small fighting propaganda group, this will often take the form of dissemination of our ideas, of repeated and patient argument with the most conscious sections of the working class and the youth that such a policy is necessary. It will need to deal with both sectarian and opportunist objections to this. And it will need to take initiatives, where it can, to agitate for such a policy and initiate common action. However, there has been a trend with those comrades in the LSR who formed the faction to turn their backs on a Leninist and Trotskyist understanding of the united front towards an ultimatist understanding of it, resembling the Third Period “united front from below”.

23. This explains why they responded so hysterically both when the majority concluded that the group had in the past made some misestimates of the tempo of the class struggle and to the initiative taken by the LSR conference to call for “conference of the left” in order to discuss the balance sheet of the struggle against the cuts package and how to build a stronger, united response and struggle against it. The opposition increasingly turned away from the united front as a tactic that involves both (a) seeking to achieve common action with non-revolutionary forces and (b) seeking to prove the mis-leadership of the reformists in practise and to criticise them concretely in that process. They more and more misunderstood the tactic as an ultimatist appeal designed merely to “demonstrate” the unwillingness of reformist leaderships and centrist organisations to fight together. In reality, such an approach was not designed to lead to common action (and therefore could never have achieved either of its purposes, i.e. neither unity in struggle nor the testing of non-revolutionary forces in practice). Rather, it became a “tactic” to “prove” to themselves and their periphery of contacts that they were the only genuine revolutionary organisation in the world. In other words, it was not the united tactic as understood by Trotskyists at all.

24. To give some examples: at the end of the student occupations in 2009, when the movement was clearly starting to decline, Pröbsting proposed to demand of the student leaders an all out occupation and, if rejected, use this to declare the “hopelessness” and “betrayal” of the libertarian and reformist leaderships of the student movement. Whilst the occupation was clearly a desirable objective, the forces on whom he wanted to place the demand were no longer in a situation where they could have successfully led such an action – and this was already a concern amongst most of the activists of the movement. The necessary task of the day, therefore, was not an all out occupation but a campaign among those in struggle for the necessary organisational steps that could have revived the movement at a time when it was facing a down turn. Pröbsting's proposal did not have the effect of “exposing” the leaders of the movement because it did not connect with the actual state of the movement and ignored the concrete balance of forces. A similar error was made with the “open letter” from REVO for the school students' strike in Autumn 2010, which did not only call on the organisations to join in common struggle but also to remove their leaderships in order to do so – and – surprise, surprise – was not met with a positive answer. The general strike slogan was also presented as the acid test of whether other forces were willing to fight or not. Whatever one thinks about the utility of this slogan in Austria at the time, it was not used as a goal to be fought for but as an ultimatum that “proved” that all others “were not willing to fight” and not willing to “say what is”. Another example was the self-revealing polemic of Pröbsting in the BO-Bulletin against the LSR-majority's call on the centrist and reformist left to organise the above mentioned conference, because the first call on these organisations to get together and discuss such a proposal was not combined with “sharp” characterisations and denunciations of them as centrists and reformists.

25. Combined with this ultra-left deviation from the united front tactic, Pröbsting, Gunic and their handful of co-thinkers developed a supposed substitute for its proper application – the creation and fetishisation of front organisations. The successful building of REVOLUTION in many countries in which the League has sections was “generalised” irrespective of the conditions and political basis of such work. Previously, we had promoted REVOLUTION on a clear political basis as an independent revolutionary organisation. But in 2010, Pröbsting and Gunic proposed the creation of a revolutionary women's organisation in Austria on a completely inadequate programme, which did not include a Marxist analysis of women's oppression and its roots and did not call for a working class women’s movement. Instead, the programme was heavy on rhetoric and criticisms of centrist groups that were largely irrelevant to the issue of women’s oppression. This was of minor concern to the comrades, since they felt that the “revolutionary character” of these fronts should be secured simply by subordinating them de facto to the LSR, not by winning the group to a clear set of politics.
This is a worked example of how ultra-leftism, combined with impatience for success, can open the way to an opportunist adventure that is quick to downplay the importance of basic principles.

26. The tragedy of this development lies in the fact that the particular tactics, methods of organisation and mobilisation that Gunic and Pröbsting developed were, in themselves, often very useful. They were very good, for example, at organising excellent demonstrations and mobilising campaigns for them. These techniques were also generalised and applied successfully by other sections of the League and REVOLUTION. However, increasingly, they drew the wrong conclusions from this experience. They concluded that bold revolutionary agitation, efficient organisation and actions on the streets could somehow allow them to escape the tougher issue of winning large sections of the Austrian working class to a programme of action.

27. They seemed to believe that the politics, programme and leadership of the revolutionary organisation had already been established, at least in its essentials, and that the task now was basically an organisational one of further building. Other members only needed to be taught the established truth and how to implement the correct organisational plans. This led to a neglect of applying and developing the programme and at the same time a fetishisation of the “organisational plan”, its proper implementation and monitoring by the leadership. The political challenges any revolutionary organisation faces, but which a small nucleus with many young comrades has to face up to particularly resolutely, were not seen primarily as issues of programme, analysis, propaganda and its presentation, and carefully and realistically chosen initiatives, but rather as matters of organisational planning and élan in pushing them through. This triggered a turn away from our programme and our understanding of core tactics. For us, these always had to be combined with a revolutionary understanding of how to build a revolutionary organisation based on comradely relations and a commitment to developing members as thinking Marxist leaders, and a collective leadership.

28. Such a membership is indispensable in the early stages of party building. It is indispensable to building and developing an independent revolutionary youth organisation. Only in this way can we convince a new generation of young revolutionaries of the need for a consistent revolutionary programme and scientific socialism through argument and their own experience. It is indispensable if they are to be able, in time, to act as communist workers in their workplace or union. But training needs time. The development and maturation of workers, youth and other cadre necessarily means that comrades will question established politics and methods – just as any democratic and revolutionary workers' organisation will have a lively internal life and often meet conflicts at important points of struggle and/or its own development. It is the task of a revolutionary leadership to ensure that such debates are conducted in a comradely and rational way. The comrades who have now left us entirely lost sight of this.

29. Moreover, a communist organisation must never be understood as an organisation with, on the one hand, a leadership that educates, trains, leads and selects its own new members and, on the other, a membership that needs to be educated and trained and from whom the best are chosen for more responsible functions. The leaders themselves need to be trained and educated and to prove that they are able to meet the challenges of the situation. This can only been done if care is taken to ensure an open, democratic debate and if we understand leadership not just as a selection of the most brilliant individuals, but as a collective body.

30. The expelled comrades, however, erred towards a completely different trajectory. In fact, they actually chose to ridicule the concern for comradely discussion as “petit-bourgeois”.

31. In our reply to their declaration, we pointed out the real break that they had made from the League’s understanding of party building, the need to build fighting organisations based on programme, understanding, commitment and mutual trust – i.e. comradeliness. At the end of the day, this is the basis of democratic centralism. Without this understanding, revolutionary discipline and loyalty are impossible. Without this, democratic centralism becomes just an organisational formula. But.

32. The comrades' turn away from a correct understanding of the party and the class did not only result in a wrong understanding of the united front and a fetishisation of fronts and organisational plans. It necessarily also involved a subjectivist and individualist turn on the question of the revolutionary organisation and leadership itself. Failure to understand the concept of collective leadership went hand in hand with seeing the programme not as something to be applied and developed in the face of new events, but as something enshrined in an already existing leadership and, ultimately, in an already existing leader, a leader who only lacks followers or, should we perhaps say, believers.

33. It was this that led to the constant drawing of a parallel between the opposition and the “Bolsheviks”, the ridiculous comparison drawn between the factional struggle in the LSR and the 1903 split in Russian social democracy, the ludicrous presentation of organisational plans to win a branch of REVO as today's equivalent of the clash between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks.

34. Marx once pointed out that a major difference between the proletarian and bourgeois revolutions and their fighters lies in the fact that the latter need to decorate their struggle with the symbols of the past in order to delude themselves about the narrow class interest behind their struggle. The proletarian revolutionaries on the other hand are objective, self-critical in all stages of the struggle. If we look of the faction we see little of that. Its politics appear like a self-indulgent political carnival. There is no place for such a parody of Leninism in a genuine revolutionary organisation.