2 comments on “Applying Leninism in a Time of Retreat

  1. The particular article by Paul LeBlanc, which I assume John is referring to, reads almost line-for-line like a similar such piece written in 1994, which is actually what Mary Scully replied to. So, are we to then to believe that in the course of almost 14 years, absolutely nothing has happened that has altered the dreary landscape described by LeBlanc back then. One would think that the mass mobilizations that took place against “globalization” and against the Iraq war would have had, at least, some impact on the left and the workers movement. They may not have had the same effect as WWI, the Russian Revolution and the rise of fascism in Europe did in their day, but, then, neither did the struggles of the sixties that radicalized LeBlanc’s generation. Nonetheless, the leadership of the SWP, his party at the time, proclaimed that they were “deeper” and more “thorough going” than those that had proceeded them, even though they never involved the organized working class as a component of them, at least here in the US. Leaving aside the visions of grandeur entertained by the likes of George Brietman and Jack Barnes and the SWP’s political proclivities at that time, should radical activists, and we’re not just talking about the SWP, or even just “Trotskyists” here, not have actively intervened in those specific struggles with the aim of connecting them to the overall struggle for socialism? Should they never have gone beyond the naivities of the “New Left” to finally not only “name the system” that they were struggling against but to counterpose a socialist alternative to it? These are just a few of the questions that LeBlanc’s approach would raise if carried through to its logical conclusion.

    That the continuity of the radical working class sub-culture that LeBlanc speaks of was broken by the prosperity and repression of the post-war boom years is not in doubt. The question is whether or not revolutionaries can help to create a new one or are doomed to sectarian impotence and irrelevancy until this sub-culture (or ”layers” as John calls them) have been revived or new ones have replaced them. That the advanced or “vanguard” layer of working class militants has “recomposed” itself many times over since the days of the 1946 post-WWII strike wave is taken for granted as capitalism itself has changed its spots many times over as well, while still remaining a crisis-ridden system of exploitation and oppression. However, conscious intervention by groups of vanguard militants has certainly played some part in this process, even if not the same exact role played by the the Trotskyists in the Minneapolis Teamsters strike in 1934. Were they all pre-ordained by objective circumstances beyond their control to be utter flops and failures? After-all, in his many writings on American Trotskyism, or rather his particular branch of it, LeBlanc sings paeans of praise to what he sees as the positive contributions made by his comrades in their hey-days of the 1960s and early 1970s. Yet he refuses to see the abandonment of a transitional, class-struggle perspective by the SWP of that period, in favor of single-issueism, sectoralism (today referred to as “identity politics”) and movementism, as playing any role in the process of that group’s degeneration. This assumes an importance here since it is the evaluation of the “SWP experience” that, above all else, underlies LeBlanc’s overall permanent pessimistic assessment of the possibility of ever “doing Leninism.”

    What we are dealing with here in terms of overall methodology is an objectivism, or mechanical materialism, akin to that of Karl Kautsky and the other leading lights of the Second International. Their interpretation of historical materialism forbid there being a socialist revolution in backward Tsarist Russia until that country had undergone a capitalist transformation akin to that experienced by some of the countries of Western Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries. For upsetting this iron law of history, the Russian Revolution was doomed from the start, condemned to suffer the fate of Stalinism for the subjectivist sins of the original Leninists. Similarly, any of us who dare attempt to construct “Leninist” groupings until the objective circumstances are deemed ripe for them, will suffer Spart-style sectarianism, not quite as deadly as what the USSR went through, but certainly nothing to look forward to. I deliberately use the term “grouping” as opposed to “party” because a group of self-styled vanguard militants does not simply become a vanguard party because it thinks it, as opposed to everyone, has the “program” to prove it. When a group of such militants is able to merge with the advanced, “vanguard” layer of the class in whose name it claims to speak, and through that layer, win influence amongst the broad masses of working people, then, and only then, do we have a “party.” That’s at least how the Bolsheviks become one, or the the German KPD, when they merged with the USPD left in 1920, if one prefers an advanced, industrialized country, somewhat similar to the US.

    In this case, mechanical materialism serves to provide a rationale for opposing the building of revolutionary parties, or groups aspiring to become parties, rather than opposing the actual carrying out of a revolution. Of course to actually have a socialist revolution, workers need to have an organization and a leadership that is not only rooted in their ranks but has some idea of what it wants and how it intends to get it, ie, what Marxists refer to as a “program,” since a socialist revolution represents the first attempt in the history of class society of the exploited majority acting in its own name and interest. So, opposing the building of a revolutionary party does seem to translate into opposing revolution itself, even if its advocates don’t go as far as a Kautsky or a Plekhanov did in their endeavors…although both of them considered themselves to be acting, not only as “Marxists,” but as the real Marxists as opposed to the “sectarian” anarcho-Blanquist Lenin.

    Usually, and in this case, this is done by supporting what John politely calls “broad formations” or what LeBlanc once called “doing good work,” as opposed to “doing Leninism.” As someone who briefly participated in one of these “broad formations” in the early nineties, I think that I would use somewhat stronger language to describe what some of them were, and still are, especially those that take place in periods of “retreat.” Most of these “regroupments” are of retreating radicals, who, in a mood of defeat and despair, come together in a scotch-tape unity, where the only thing that they really agree on is that having burned their fingers on it during the proceeding period, revolution is off the agenda for all those to come. Blowing with the prevailing winds of bourgeois “public opinion,” as mediated by the petty-bourgeois “progressive” milleau, no less than they did during the previous period of upsurge, is the standard operating procedure in these outfits, which have fared no better in the US, indeed probably worse, due to the lower level of consciousness and organization here, than the ones John refers to in Ireland and the UK. Certainly they have achieved no better results than those achieved by the ostensible “Leninist” vanguard sects that proceeded them and a lot worse results than some of the other groupings that still attempted to maintain a “Leninist” perspective during the same time span.

    As far as I’m concerned, Leninism is Marxism for the imperialist epoch, or, to put in more trendy terms, the globalized world economy. As expressed by the “vanguard party,” which simply means the party of the most consistently militant and active section of the working class and its allies, it is predicated upon the uneven nature of working class struggle and consciousness under capitalism, not whether revolution is perceived to be around the corner. Indeed, in periods when it is not, this unevenness makes it more important for the “collective memory” of the class to continue to function, even if it is in a minority, to prepare for the sudden twists and turns that crisis-ridden capitalism’s booms and busts have in store for us. In the epoch of wars and revolutions that we remain are in, this still holds true, even if a number of post-capitalist countries went out of business between 1989 and 1991, taking countless radicals, who also chose to throw in the towel, with them.

    Contrary to Francis Fukuyama, history didn’t stay ended for long. Mass movements arose against the increased exploitation, inequality and aggression that “globalization,” with or without a gun, brought with it. Never one to swim against the stream, even Fukuyama wound up calling for an “international” of those on the short end of “globalization’s” stick to take on the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank. Sound familiar? Had those who claimed to defend Leninism come together back in the dog days of the 80s and early 90s around a program and perspective of fighting for the future in the present (Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto) by linking the everyday struggles of the masses to the overall goal of socialist revolution (Trotsky’s Transitional Program), instead of abandoning them in despair, then perhaps they could have played a decisive role in transforming those mass movements. Not just to build them for the sake of building them the way the partisans of “broad formations” advocate, ie, losing themselves in them, but to fight for the hegemony of the working class and socialism within them. Then maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t be in such a state of retreat today. But since we are, let us revolutionary-minded individuals call a halt to our retreat and try “doing Leninism” again. To paraphrase the late Isaac Deutscher’s response to those who suggested that Marxism was “out of date” in the 1960s, anyone got any better ideas?

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  2. Interesting argument as it addresses the sort of contradictory situation we seem to be in. But I cannot for the life of me see where an ‘international regroupment’ has enough substance by itself to alter the game plan at the local level. Surely thats’ a massive trap because it panders to a sort of toy cominternism rather than address the brutal business of working at your own coal face. There is a danger that it becomes a substitute for tackling the hard yards.

    That’s the Fourth International’s handicap isn’t it? The only real “regroupment” internationally has to be on the basis of local projects doing their stuff and deferring to learn from each other. While I’m all for discussion and debate surely that is insufficient to overcome some of our collective hurdles.

    The related problem with this piece is its sense of demoralisation even though it tries to distance itself from LeBlanc. Grant you Irish politics seem to be in the doldrums but it must be a question of what you can do — what is to be done? — NOW rather then seeking some born again synthesis off shore.

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