Often we are told to move on and get past the Dead Russians. But why would anyone who claimed to be an anti-capitalist or a revolutionary not want to study and absorb the experiences of previous generations of revolutionaries whether they be Bolsheviks or Zapatistas, Wobblies or Guevaraists? It seems to me to be an essential part of being a socialist- the understanding of the successes and failures of the movement past- so much so that it is almost silly to have to defend it. While basing our politics and activities on the needs of the now and not of the past to say that the past is best buried is the worst kind of post-modernist ahistorical twaddle.
Lenin was born on this day in 1870. The enormous contributions of Lenin to the liberation of the working class need to be understood and contextualized, reevaluated and, where necessary, re-appropriated. We post a speech by Paul Leblanc from last year’s Socialism conference (this years conference site here). While I have my differences with Paul he has done as much and more than anyone in the States to rescue Lenin from the muddle of his “followers” and detractors alike. Vladimir Ilyich Presente!
Lenin and the Revolutionary Party Today
We are focusing here on someone generally acknowledged to have been one of the greatest revolutionary theorists and organizers in human history: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, whose intimates knew him affectionately as “Ilyich,” but whom the world knew by his underground pseudonym – Lenin. He was the leader of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian socialist movement, and this revolutionary socialist wing later became the Russian Communist Party after coming to power in the 1917 workers and peasants revolution.
For millions Lenin was seen as a liberator. Appropriated after his death by bureaucrats and functionaries in order to legitimate their tyranny in countries labeled “Communist,” he was at the same time denounced for being a wicked and cruel fanatic by defenders of power and privilege in capitalist countries – and with Communism’s collapse at the close of the Cold War it is their powerful voices that have achieved global domination. But the ideas of Lenin, if properly utilized, can be vital resources for challenging the exploitation of humanity and degradation of our planet.
There are Marxist-influenced democratic socialists who would argue that “whoever wants to reach socialism by any other path than that of political democracy will inevitably arrive at conclusions that are absurd and reactionary both in the economic and political sense.” In fact, these are the words of Lenin himself. Many critics of Lenin have pointed to his repressive policies of 1918-1922, when the early Soviet republic was engulfed and overwhelmed by multiple crises, accusing him of being the architect of the Stalinist totalitarianism of later decades. Much of my recent book Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience (Routledge 2006) is devoted to disproving this grotesque distortion. Contrary to the claims of his detractors, Lenin’s writings reveal a commitment to freedom and democracy that runs through his political thought from beginning to end. They also reveal an incredibly coherent analytical, strategic, and tactical orientation that has relevance for our own age of “globalization.”
In my remarks today I would like to do three things. First, I want to touch briefly on what I think are essentials of Lenin’s thought. Second, I want to touch on a couple of major problems that have cropped up in efforts to build organizations aspiring to be Leninist. Third, I want to talk about the necessity of building such an organization.
Essentials of Lenin’s Thought
As we can see from some of his earliest writings, Lenin’s starting-point is a belief in the necessary interconnection of socialist ideas with the working class and labor movement. The working class cannot adequately defend its actual interests and overcome its oppression, in his view, without embracing the goal of socialism – an economic system in which the economy is socially owned and democratically controlled in order to meet the needs of all people. Inseparable from this is a basic understanding of the working class as it is, which involves a grasp of the diversity and unevenness of working-class experience and consciousness.
This calls for the development of a practical revolutionary approach seeking to connect, in serious ways, with the various sectors and layers of the working class. It involves the understanding that different approaches and goals are required to reach and engage one or another worker, or group or sector or layer of workers. This means thoughtfully utilizing various forms of educational and agitational literature, and developing different kinds of speeches and discussions, in order to connect the varieties of working-class experience, and, most important, to help initiate or support various kinds of practical struggles. The more “advanced” or vanguard layers of the working class must be rallied not to narrow and limited goals (in the spirit of “economism” and “pure and simple trade unionism”), but to an expansive sense of solidarity and common cause which has the potential for drawing the class as a whole into the struggle for its collective interests.
This fundamental orientation is the basis for most of what Lenin has to say. And as I was preparing the selection of Lenin’s writings on revolution, democracy, and socialism that Pluto Press is about to publish, (Revolution, Democracy, Socialism7) I was struck once again by the intellectual and practical seriousness (the lack of dogmatism or sectarianism) in the way Lenin utilized Marxist theory.
This came through in many different ways – such as his understanding of the necessity for socialist and working-class support for struggles of all who suffer oppression, and in his way of integrating reform struggles with revolutionary strategy. We see it in his insistence on the necessity of working-class political independence, and on the need for working-class supremacy (or hegemony) if democratic and reform struggles are to triumph. It came through in his approach to social alliances (such as the worker-peasant alliance) as a key aspect of the revolutionary struggle, and also in his development of the united front tactic, in which diverse political forces can work together for common goals, without revolutionary organizations undermining their ability to pose effective alternatives to the capitalist status quo.
We can see it in his profound analyses of capitalist development, and of imperialism and of nationalism. It shines forth in his vibrantly revolutionary internationalist orientation that embraces the laborers and oppressed peoples of the entire world. We see it and learn from it in his remarkable understanding of the manner in which democratic struggles flow into socialist revolution. It certainly came through in his analysis of the nature of the state in history and class society, and in his conceptualization of triumphant working-class struggles generating a deepening and expanding democracy that would ultimately cause the state to wither away. Interwoven with the analyses and theorizations about the oppressions of today, and about a possible future of the free and the equal, we find a tough-minded practical orientation of struggle involving strategy, tactics, education, slogans, and – of course – organization.
And precisely here – James P. Cannon once argued – was “the greatest contribution to the arsenal of Marxism since the death of Engels in 1895.” That was the development of Lenin’s Bolshevik organization as a revolutionary vanguard party which (in Cannon’s words) “stands out as the prototype of what a democratic and centralized leadership of the workers, true to Marxist principles and applying them with courage and skill, can be and do.”
Elsewhere I have summarized Lenin’s conception of organization in this way:
“It is … a serious “organization of real revolutionaries,” a “body of comrades in which complete, mutual confidence prevails” and in which all “have a lively sense of their responsibility.” For Lenin, the preconditions for this phenomenon are a commitment to a revolutionary Marxist political program and – flowing from that – an effectively, centrally organized party that encourages critical thinking and local initiative; the integration of such thinking and experience into a partywide process of development; and, inseparable from all of this, a deeply ingrained democratic sensibility that manifests itself even when unusual conditions preclude the formal observance of democratic procedures. A democratically centralized organization based on a revolutionary program – this was … the essence of the Leninist conception of organization.”
Generations of revolutionary activists, in regions throughout the world, have found much of value in all this. Coming out of such a quintessentially American radical formation as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Jim Cannon later recalled the powerful impact of “the ideas of the Russian Bolsheviks” among U.S. left-wing activists in the wake of World War I and the 1917 Revolution. He cited IWW leader “Big Bill” Haywood, who commented in an interview with Max Eastman that the Leninist party was consistent with key insights of American radicalism:
“You remember I used to say that all we needed was fifty thousand real IWW’s, and then about a million members to back them up? Well, isn’t that a similar idea? At least I always realized that the essential thing was to have an organization of those who know.”
There have been, since the Russian Revolution of 1917, many efforts – inspired by Lenin’s ideas and example – to create such revolutionary organizations of “those who know.” Some of these efforts have given us inspiring pages in the history of the labor movements and working-class struggles in various countries, although many have also been undermined and fatally compromised by the later impact of Stalinism in the world Communist movement. Parties organized according to the revolutionary ideas of Lenin are qualitatively different from those organized according to the authoritarian forgery of Leninism developed under the Stalin dictatorship.
But even anti-Stalinist versions of Leninism often amount to what Tariq Ali once called “toy Bolshevik parties.” They have often shown themselves to be quite different from, and inferior to, the revolutionary-democratic Bolsheviks of 1917. That’s certainly been the case in the United States during my lifetime. I think there are two problems that help make this so. Both have to do with a failure to connect socialism with the actual working class.
The Problem of Texts and Contexts
First of all, there is a profound difference between “the Leninism of Lenin” and the immediate possibilities that we face in a context that is, in some ways, qualitatively different from his. To transpose the texts that come from Lenin and his time into our very different reality can lead to serious political confusion.
Lenin’s Bolsheviks came into being within a very specific context. They were part of a broad global working-class formation, part of a developing labor movement, and part of an evolving labor-radical subculture. To try to duplicate Lenin’s party today, outside of such a context, will create something that cannot function as the Bolsheviks functioned in Russia, nor can it function in the way the early U.S. Communists functioned in the 1920s or in the 1930s.
The existence of a class-conscious layer of the working class is a necessary precondition for creating a genuinely revolutionary party. Workers’ class consciousness – that involves more than whatever notions happen to be in the minds of various members of the working class at any particular moment. It involves an understanding of the insight that was contained in the preamble of the American Federation of Labor from 1886 to 1955:
“A struggle is going on in all the nations of the civilized world, between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between the capitalist and the laborer, which grows in intensity from year to year, and will work disastrous results to the toiling millions, if they are not combined for mutual protection and benefit.”
Not all workers have absorbed this insight into their consciousness, but those who have done so can be said to have at least an elementary class consciousness.
Such consciousness does not exist automatically in one’s brain simply because we happen to sell our labor-power (our ability to work) for wages or a salary. But in the United States, from the period spanning the end of the Civil War in 1865 down through the Depression decade of the 1930s, a vibrant working-class subculture had developed throughout much of the United States. Often this “subculture” was more like a network of subcultures having very distinctive ethnic attributes, but these different ethnic currents were at various times connected by left-wing political structures (such as the old Knights of Labor, Socialist Party, IWW, Communist Party, etc.) and also, to an extent, by trade union frameworks. Within this context flourished the class-consciousness that is essential to the creation of a revolutionary party.
Those who founded the Trotskyist movement in the United States (which sought to build a revolutionary Marxist party – the Socialist Workers Party, the SWP) were a product of this radical workers’ subculture. And they sought to make their own revolutionary contributions to it, and to help it become a revolutionary socialist force capable of transforming society.
After 1945, there was a dramatic break in the continuity of this labor-radical tradition due to the realities that resulted from the Second World War, and the transformation of the social, economic, political, and cultural realities in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Essential specifics of workers’ occupations and workday experience underwent fundamental changes. The organizations associated with the labor movement were similarly transformed – impacted by a complex combination of assaults, co-optations, corruptions, and erosions. The communities, culture, and consciousness of the working class became so different from the mid-1940s to the 1960s that only faded shreds of the old labor-radical subculture remained.
It is not the case that the working class was eliminated. The working class is bigger than ever. But there has been a combined decomposition and recomposition of the working class, and the old labor-radical subculture is long gone. It, too, needs to be recomposed, and within a very different reality than once existed.
Because of this, there was a significant disconnect between the actual working class and the organized Left (including the SWP) that sought to represent the best interests of that class. This had grave implications. Back in the 1950s, after decades of Leninist and Trotskyist experience in the United States, James P. Cannon commented:
“The conscious socialists should act as a ‘leaven’ in the instinctive and spontaneous movement of the working class. … The leaven can help the dough to rise and eventually become a loaf of bread, but it can never be a loaf of bread itself. … Every tendency, direct or indirect, of a small revolutionary party to construct a world of its own, outside and apart from the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, is sectarian.”
The experience of many activists influenced by Lenin from the 1950s down to the present demonstrates that efforts to create Leninist parties all-too-often degenerate into the construction of sects, with well-meaning activists penned up in a world of their own, separate and apart from the working class.
My generation of young 1960s and 1970s activists can hardly be said to have started out in a sectarian mode. We helped to fundamentally change the political, social, and cultural landscape of the United States. But we saw the real social struggles of our time as involving opposition to such things as racism and poverty and war and sexism, but definitely not as the central expression of an organized labor movement The unions had had become highly bureaucratized and relatively conservative, largely inclined to hold back from – or even oppose – the radicalization and social struggles of the time.
Little of this had changed when – as our experiences and growing awareness further radicalized us – many of us went in a Marxist direction. Although the writings of Lenin, Trotsky, and Cannon were avidly read, discussed, and internalized by young SWP activists such as myself, the context in which the revolutionary “teachers” from earlier decades had lived and the context in which the avid students of the 1960s lived were qualitatively different. The relationship of the new radicals to the rest of the working class, not to mention the culture and consciousness of both the actual proletariat and its would-be “vanguard” in the 1970s, were far different from what was true in the early 1900s or the 1930s.
A failure to comprehend the meaning of this ruptured continuity contributed to the rise of a fatal disorientation that accelerated within the SWP as the 1970s flowed into the 1980s, culminating in fragmentation and implosion. This happened especially as we sought to – once again – fuse socialism with the working class. This did not come naturally to my generation, and many of us really didn’t know how to do it (though we were afraid to admit that).
This failure, however, more or less afflicted all Marxist-oriented organizations in the U.S. from the late 1970s through the late 1980s. Ironically, this occurred as influences from the 1960s radicalization permeated much of the U.S. population, and as negative impacts from the early manifestations of “globalization” created remarkable new openings for left-wing developments within the working class. At the same time, much of the basis for the organized power of the working class – in the highly-unionized industries – was wiped out with the so-called “de-industrialization” of the U.S. economy. The labor movement’s ability to mount effective struggles went into sharp decline.
The Problem of Fusing Socialism with the Workers’ Movement
Sometimes clarity can be achieved if we shift from our own context to consider the experiences of comrades elsewhere. There is a working-class South African “township” activist, a revolutionary who has been on the cutting edge of the global justice movement that has challenged the imperialist thrust of modern-day “globalization.” His name is Trevor Ngwane, and he says this:
“Some in the anti-globalization movement say that the working-class is finished, that the social movements or even ‘civil society’ itself are now the leading force for change. But if we’re honest, some of these [so-called] social movements consist of nothing more than an office and a big grant from somewhere or other. They can call a workshop, pay people to attend, give them a nice meal and then write up a good report. They build nothing on the ground.”
Ngwane finds the abstraction of “civil society” even more problematical, a class-jumbled hodge-podge “expanding to the business sector,” mixed in with “NGOs [non-governmental organizations that deal with social issues] tendering for contracts for private government services.”
Ngwane embraces aspects of the global justice movement (such as the World Social Forum) that involve dialogue, information-sharing, and coordinated efforts between activists like himself from various countries – but he stresses that “the working class … remains a key component of any alternative left strategy.” A majority of workers are not in trade unions, and problems faced by workers extend well beyond the workplace. This requires seeing the class struggle as something larger than union struggles. He adds that
“the high level of unemployment is a real problem here. It does make workers more cautious. We need to organize both the employed and the unemployed, to overcome capital’s divide-and-conquer tactics.”
As a township activist, he emphasizes,
“in the end we had to get down to the most basic questions: what are the problems facing people on the ground that unite us most? In Soweto, it’s electricity. In another area, it is water. We’ve learned that you have to actually organize – to talk to people, door to door; to connect with the masses.”
For Ngwane, however, this is necessarily linked with “the issue of political power,” and ultimately “targeting state power.” He concludes his discussion of local grassroots organizing with the comment that
“you have to build with a vision. From Day One we argued that electricity cuts are the result of privatization. Privatization … reflects the demands of global capital… We cannot finally win this immediate struggle unless we win that greater one.”
He then comes back to the essential point:
“But still, connecting with what touches people on a daily basis, in a direct fashion, is the way to move history forward.”
The points that Ngwane makes are consistent with the points made by Lenin’s companion Nadezhda Krupskaya many years before, when she described how some ultra-left Bolshevik comrades asserted that the revolutionary goal precluded the struggle for “mere reforms.” Such a view, she insisted, was “fallacious,” because “it would mean giving up all practical work, standing aside from the masses instead of organizing them on real-life issues.” Referring to the actual history of the Bolsheviks, she insisted on the very same connections we find in the comments of Ngwane:
“The Bolsheviks showed themselves capable of making good use of every legal possibility, of forging ahead and rallying the masses behind them under the most adverse conditions. Step by step, beginning with the campaign for tea service and ventilation, they had led the masses up to the national armed insurrection.”
The blend of the practical and the principled, the interplay of the real struggles of the workers and oppressed with the revolutionary goal are here at the heart of Bolshevism:
“The ability to adjust oneself to the most adverse [non-revolutionary] conditions and at the same time to stand out and maintain one’s high-principled positions – such were the traditions of Leninism.”
There is another point that was made some years ago by my mentor and comrade George Breitman of the Socialist Workers Party. In examining the mass radicalization that swept the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, Breitman identified the mighty social movements and the early beginnings of what some have labeled “identity politics” in this illuminating manner: “It is idiotic and insulting to think that the worker responds only to economic issues. He can be radicalized in various ways, over various issues, and he is.” Breitman developed this point:
“The radicalization of the worker can begin off the job as well as on. It can begin from the fact that the worker is a woman as well as a man; that the worker is Black or Chicano or a member of some other oppressed minority as well as white; that the worker is a father or mother whose son can be drafted; that the worker is young as well as middle-aged or about to retire. If we grasp the fact that the working class is stratified and divided in many ways – the capitalists prefer it that way – then we will be better able to understand how the radicalization will develop among workers and how to intervene more effectively. Those who haven’t already learned important lessons from the radicalization of oppressed minorities, youth and women had better hurry up and learn them, because most of the people involved in these radicalizations are workers or come from working-class families.”
This perception was entirely consistent with the perspectives of Lenin, of course, who told us that a revolutionary socialist’s ideal should be “the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of people it affects; who … is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
It seems to me that it is not a simple thing to meet this challenge of fusing socialism with the struggles, the movements, and the consciousness of the working class. I think a problem for many revolutionary socialists has been a trend toward sectarianism and what could be called “propagandism.” Their focus is discussing socialism and Marxist ideas in their own organizational universe, and from that universe sending out revolutionary socialist messages to the workers on planet Earth.
I think a problem for other revolutionaries has been a trend toward what Lenin criticized as “economism” – immersing themselves in the immediate struggles of one or another sector of the working class in a way that avoids efforts to spread socialist consciousness, in hopes that this consciousness will somehow spontaneously crystallize in workers’ minds through “pure and simple” economic struggles for higher wages or better conditions or more democratic unions (or other reform efforts).
It is not a simple thing for revolutionaries to find the right balance between, or the right blend of, talking about revolutionary theory and being involved in actual day-to-day workers’ struggles.
In the Socialist Workers Party of the late 1970s, large numbers of us went into the factories, shipyards, mines, garment shops, and other industrial workplaces of this country with the explicit intention to – as we put it – “talk socialism to workers.” I think that by the early 1980s, for the most part, we were getting it wrong. Despite the sometimes incredibly good work of individual comrades, the SWP as a whole tended to talk socialism at workers. Too many of us didn’t really listen to the people around us, didn’t really engage with their actual lives and struggles, and so we were incapable of making our socialist ideas relevant to their struggles and to their lives.
But there are wonderful examples, including from our very own tradition of American Trotskyism, of those who got it right. Back in the 1930s, in his classic book American City, reporter Charles Rumford Walker described the role of Vincent Raymond Dunne in organizing the 1934 Minneapolis teamsters strike, one of the turning-points in the history of the U.S. labor movement. “Probably four or five hundred workers in Minneapolis knew ‘Ray’ personally,” according to Walker.
“They formed their own opinions – that he was honest, intelligent, and selfless, and a damn good organizer for the truck drivers’ union to have. They had always known him to be a Red; that was no news.”
Dunne explained what he was doing in this way:
“Our policy was to organize and build strong unions so workers could have something to say about their own lives and assist in changing the present order into a socialist society.”
I think that’s the kind of involvement in the life and struggles of the working class, and the kind of balance, that a revolutionary socialist organization should strive for.
The Need to Share Knowledge and Skills to Change the World
I want to conclude with some additional thoughts on the need for the revolutionary organization that – so far – we do not have, and on the possibilities of developing it. I want to do this first by summarizing some of the points I have already made, and then reach for a new thought.
Most people in our country are oppressed, exploited, damaged, and made indignant – in many different ways – by the capitalist system. In order to overcome such things, they would greatly benefit from the contributions developed by previous generations of revolutionaries. In most cases, these are things of which they have no knowledge.
How will the experiences and invaluable lessons, the skills and the knowledge, of our revolutionary brothers and sisters of previous generations (and of our generation) be passed on to the rest of the working class today and tomorrow?
This will not happen automatically. It is certainly not in the interest of those forces that dominate the informational and educational and cultural media and institutions of our society to ensure that this knowledge is communicated to people – especially if those people are part of the diverse working-class majority.
The powerful elites secure their amazing privileges and vast wealth through their control and exploitation of the world’s laboring majorities. They prefer that the history of revolution and protest be consigned to what George Orwell called “the memory hole,” or to glorifications that distort everything, or to commemorative postage stamps. Everything emanating from the institutions of the status quo (with relatively few subversive exceptions) encourages people to do other things than engage with, emulate, and advance the efforts of past revolutionaries.
Genuine revolutionary and class-struggle knowledge, and the awareness of the people and the struggles through which such knowledge was accumulated, will surely evaporate unless some people draw together to preserve such things, and use them, and pass them on.
The skills and knowledge necessary to build effective protests, to advance life-giving reform efforts, and to create revolutionary possibilities, will only be passed on through the work of those who are dedicated to helping change the world – to challenge, undermine, push back, and overturn the powerful elites, to open the way for rule by the people, for the free development of each and all, in harmony with the life-nurturing environment of our planet.
But to be effective in doing this – now as before – it is necessary for at least a significant number of such conscious revolutionaries to concentrate and coordinate their efforts, to work together in a revolutionary socialist organization that is committed to the preservation, utilization, and spread throughout the working class of the perspectives, the knowledge, and the skills associated with the traditions of revolutionary Marxism. Without organization, their efforts will be too diffuse, too amateur, too isolated.
This runs into the problem already identified: Attempts by small numbers of people to construct a revolutionary party – even the so-called “nucleus of the revolutionary party” – outside the context of a broad labor-radical subculture generally tends to result in the construction of a political sect. The members of such a political sect by definition cut themselves off from the possibility, the actual work, of helping to create a broad labor-radical subculture capable of sustaining a revolutionary class-consciousness and class-struggle. A critic of my recent book Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience has put it this way:
“A mass labour movement underpinned the emergence of the Bolsheviks as a mass party in the years 1912-17 in Russia and formed the world in which US Communism operated in the 1930s. Today all this is gone, argues Le Blanc, therefore Leninism must be a fish out of water, doomed to shrivel into marginal sects that fruitlessly try to impose models from classical Marxism without recognizing that the context that allowed it to emerge as a serious force has changed.”
As the young bad guy says near the end of the film Cold Mountain: “That’s what they call a conundrum!”
It seems to me that the puzzle has a solution. The high risk, or even general tendency, of sectarianism is not the same as an “iron law” of sectarianism. It is possible and necessary for “those who know” something of the ideas and skills associated with the revolutionary Left to interact with those who don’t. But we have to do this in a systematically interactive way. We have to be able to learn from people, to listen to them, in order to be able to share knowledge with them.
Only in this way can left-wing knowledge and skills become relevant to their lives (to the lives of all who are engaged in this double-sided teaching process). Only in this way can socialism begin, once more, to permeate broader sectors of the working class, and become a greater force among its activist layers in the labor movement and the other social movements.
That is the challenge for us today and tomorrow.
Notes can be accessed here.