Leninism for Dangerous Times
This is a talk presented in London on May 31, 2013, at the Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times gathering.
How can we move from capitalism’s violent oppressiveness to the economic democracy, the genuine freedom, the socialism that we desire? This question was central to the life and work of V.I. Lenin. In exploring that, I want to pin my remarks around quotations from Georg Lukács, plus an old U.S. Trotskyist, Lenin himself, and a couple of young British activists.
In 1924 Lenin died, several years after, the brilliant intellectual Lukács had committed himself to the cause of working-class revolution and socialism. As a leader of the Hungarian Communist Party seeking to apply Karl Marx’s ideas to the struggles of the workers and the oppressed, Lukács emphasized that Lenin’s thought was infused by a sense of “the actuality of revolution,” which would be essential in establishing (as Lukács put it) “firm guide-lines for all questions on the daily agenda, whether they were political or economic, involved theory or tactics, agitation or organization.” That is to say, Lenin was concerned in all of his political thinking and activity with the question of what must be done—actually, in the real world—for the workers to take power. Not rhetorically or theoretically, but in fact, figure out what it would take and then do exactly that.
Our purpose—as revolutionary socialists—is not simply to persuade people that socialism could be so much better than capitalism. Our purpose is not simply to protest, and organize protests, against capitalist injustice. Our purpose is not simply to organize struggles to bring about improvements under capitalism. Our purpose is not simply to interpret history and current events (or anything else) from a revolutionary socialist standpoint. Our primary purpose is to overturn existing power relationships, and to put political power into the hands of an organized, class-conscious working class (the class that we are part of, the class of the laboring majority), which is the key to establishing a socialist democracy.
If we fail to do that, our future—in my opinion—is suggested by that brilliant film, Children of Men, and by Rosa Luxemburg’s prediction of a downward slide into barbarism, as the alternative to socialism.
Now I want to tell you something about my friend Morris Lewit, who died at the age of 95 in 1998. It meant a lot to me to know him—a revolutionary working-class intellectual and activist who never gave up, who helped to make history, and never turned away from his commitments and principles. He was born in the Russian empire (in what is now known as Belarus) in 1903, the same year as the birth of Bolshevism, and he was a teenage participant in the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik revolution and the Russian civil war.
In 1920 he fled from the murderous onslaught of anti-Semitic and anti-communist White armies that were funded by the governments of Britain, France and the United States, to crush the revolution. He found passage on a ship carrying immigrants to the United States, and on the ship he met a vivacious teenage Bolshevik activist named Sylvia Bleeker. They loved each other and became lifelong companions, members of the early Communist movement in the United States, immersed in trade union struggles, and by 1930—in reaction against the lethal infection in the Communist movement of Stalinist tyranny—members of the U.S. Trotskyist movement.
There is much more to be said about this tough but gentle man and his companion, class-struggle militants throughout the tumultuous 1930s and beyond. But here it is enough to note that in the 1940s, when the central leaders of the Socialist Workers Party were imprisoned because of the organization’s anti-imperialist position during the Second World War, Morris was chosen to be acting national secretary of the SWP. In that capacity, under the party name of “Morris Stein,” he said something that has been more than once attacked as representing a negative quality in the Trotskyist tradition. Before looking at that, I want to share other things he said in the same speech, words that fit in with the Lukács notion of “the actuality of revolution.”
In his 1944 remarks, Morris commented that “history has imposed on us a great mission, the mission of liberating humanity from the rotten putrid capitalist system.” In his opinion “this fight is the only fight worth the sacrifice of one’s freedom and even of one’s life,” and for him it involved “a responsibility that demanded that differences be resolved in the democratic way by majority vote rather than by the method of factional struggle, personal recriminations, etc.” For Morris, this included a “spirit of collective leadership where the collectivity gives greater strength and greater wisdom to each individual.” He added that “our revolutionary program and policy is best served by a party of democratic centralism,” which he defined in the traditional Trotskyist manner as “centralism in action; fullest democracy in the internal life of the organization.” He emphasized that “our movement must be imbued with the comradeship of people who are in the life-and-death struggle for a common cause.”
But now we come to the presumably poisonous aspect of Morris’s remarks, in which he described the Socialist Workers Party of the United States in this way: “We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make a revolution can do it through only one party and one program... We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists. Either through merger or irreconcilable struggle. We have proved this by the whole history of our movement.” Before judging this statement, we need to understand its meaning. The history of the U.S. Trotskyist movement involved decisions to merge with, not compete with, other revolutionary socialist forces on the left—the American Workers Party headed by A.J. Muste in the mid-1930s and the left wing of the Socialist Party in the late 1930s. There were also “irreconcilable struggles” against the authoritarian Stalinism dominating the Communist Party and against the thoroughgoing social-democratic reformism dominating the non-revolutionary remnants of the Socialist Party. There was also the very sharp struggle with the split-off from the SWP led by Max Shachtman, although in 1947 there was, in fact, the prospect of a merger. That prospect was closed off by growing differences over the question of Cold War anti-Communism and by the Shachtman group’s gradual reformist trajectory.
Still, one can raise the question as to whether the Stein position was totally wrong. Should there be competing revolutionary socialist groups or is the merger of the different revolutionary groups preferable? On the other hand, can there be a merger of socialists who are revolutionary with socialists who are against revolution? Can there be a merger of socialists who insist on democracy with socialists who shrug it off? Can there be a merger of socialists who are anti-imperialist with socialists who are aligned with imperialism? Or is there a need for irreconcilable struggle of revolutionary socialists with those who are against democracy, those who are opposed to revolution, those who are aligned with imperialism? This suggests that there is a different way of understanding Morris Stein’s remarks than that advanced by his critics.
But also Morris was speaking at a certain historical moment. The United States in 1944 had just come out of the great class struggles of the 1930s, and it was on the eve of a new wave of class-struggle militancy that would burst forth at the end of the Second World War. There was the significant layer of socialist and semi-socialist elements in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the Communist Party was at its numerical high point. All of this provided a certain context for Stein’s remarks.
One can argue whether or not those remarks were the best ones to make or believe in the 1940s, but the orientation made little sense when I joined Morris’s party in the quite different context of the 1970s. Those of us in that later period couldn’t even understand the meaning of the Leninist concepts that had developed in that earlier context, although we read Lenin and considered ourselves Leninists. When I was in my 20s, as a member of the SWP back in the 1970s, I believed that the left was divided up into three pieces: first, those who were the revolutionary vanguard—which meant those of us already in the SWP; second, those who were either our allies or contacts; and third our opponents. We had a monopoly on Revolutionary Truth.
And when it first became clear to me that things were beginning to go terribly wrong in the SWP, as inevitably they did back in the early 1980s, I initially felt the darkest despair: if the revolutionary party, humanity’s only hope, was fatally flawed, then there could be no real possibility of a socialist future. But as I turned (at the urging of an older comrade, George Breitman) to the study of the actual history of the Russian workers’ movement in which Lenin and his comrades built an effective revolutionary party, I realized that many of us who considered ourselves Leninists suffered from a fundamental misunderstanding.
The revolutionary vanguard is not those who claim to be building a revolutionary vanguard party under the banner of Lenin. The vanguard is a broad layer of the working class that has a significant degree of class-consciousness, that has some understanding of capitalism and the need to go beyond it, with some accumulated experience and commitment in the struggle against oppression and exploitation. Only when an organization has a significant membership base in this layer can it be considered a revolutionary vanguard party.
And that brings us to the Lenin quote.
This can be found at the start of the second chapter in Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, where Lenin argues that there are three necessary conditions for a genuinely revolutionary party. First is the revolutionary class-consciousness of a vanguard layer of the working class. Second is a correct political strategy and tactics on the part of organized revolutionaries. Third is an intimate and sustained contact “with the broadest masses of working people.” Without these conditions being met, Lenin tells us, all attempts at a disciplined revolutionary party will “inevitably fall flat and end up in phrase-mongering and clowning.”
The class-conscious layers of the radicalizing working class prevalent in the early 20th century and in the 1930s and 1940s did not exist, except as battered shreds and disconnected threads, in the years of Cold War anti-communism and of relative affluence that I grew up in and became politically active in. The organizations that claimed to be Leninist parties consequently tended to end up mired in phrase mongering and clowning, which—far from sustaining contact with the broadest masses of working people—created little revolutionary universes. They believed they were repositories of Revolutionary Truth, and this made them dogmatic and rigid, with hostility and contempt for other left-wing groups that were very much like themselves.
Organizational discipline in even the best of the groups had a dual function. On the one hand, it could quite positively enable relatively small groups to make outstanding contributions in mass movements against war, for racial justice, for women’s liberation, and so on. But it also served to keep the membership of the organization in line, with an uncritical loyalty to the group’s version of Revolutionary Truth, and to the group’s leadership that oversaw the way that Truth was applied.
One problem with the Morris Stein “monopolist” formulation is that whatever validity it had was historically specific. For many years we have lived in a very different world than the one existing in the mid-1940s. Capitalism still exists, imperialism still exists, the working class still exists, as do the exploitation and oppression and crises that capitalism inevitably generates. But at the same time, all of these things are incredibly different. The working class of the 1940s is long gone, as is the working-class movement of that time. Our own re-composed working-class, and the crisis-ridden, fluidly de-composing and re-composing working-class movement of our time both bear little resemblance to what existed when Morris Stein was still alive and only 41 years old.
The reality we face now and the way that Leninist ideas apply to that reality deserve much more consideration than I have time to offer here. But I want to conclude with a few thoughts that hopefully will be helpful.
First of all, the turn capitalism has taken over the past few decades has knocked the stuffing out of our class, has ridden roughshod over its organizations and communities and has driven down its quality of life. More than this, there has been a proletarianization process engulfing and embracing many occupations and social layers once considered “middle class,” while at the same time technology and globalization have eroded the industries that were once at the heart of working-class employment, replacing them with jobs that pay less and are less secure. And all of this has contributed to a slow-moving, contradictory, but intensifying radicalization process, and out of this process have been emerging new struggles, new forms of struggle and a still-evolving crystallization of a new, diverse vanguard layer of the working class.
The possibilities now exist for the coming together of the kind of revolutionary party that Lenin spoke of. This means that no such party yet exists, and that no unified nucleus or core group of such a party exists—and none can yet exist until there is the crystallization of a radical working-class subculture capable of sustaining a class-conscious vanguard layer of a size substantial enough, in turn, to sustain the kind of genuine revolutionary party described by Lenin. My prediction and firm belief is that the core group, the nucleus, of such a party will be composed of activists who are currently in a number of different revolutionary groups, plus activists who are in no revolutionary group at all, plus some people who at this moment are neither revolutionaries nor activists—but who will become so in future struggles.
The responsibility of any revolutionary group worth its salt will be to help create the preconditions necessary for the emergence of such a party. One aspect of this will involve communicating to more and more people a socialist understanding of what is happening in our society and our world, and doing this in words and ways that will make sense to them. This means also developing a clearer comprehension of that reality. Related to this is the need to help define and initiate struggles, or join in already-existing struggles, to win improvements in the here-and-now for more and more sectors of the working class and the oppressed.
This brings me to the final quote, from authors of an imperfect but important book entitled Beyond Capitalism, which blends experience (for example) from the Occupy movement with Marxist insights. In that book, Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy say this: “The creation of new forms of political organization which draw upon the spirit of the social movements, rekindle grassroots trade union organization, and embolden participation of wider sections of society in social mobilizations is an orientation on which the success of the left ultimately depends.” They elaborate on “the need to regroup the left in new political formations that provide a space for strategic thinking, that allow different strategies to co-exist in a certain tension, while also creating the conditions for unity and action.” They explain that this should not be seen “as an excuse to avoid reflective, strategic discussion but as a starting-point through which we can move towards a greater degree of genuine unity.”
I think it is important for our different groups of the socialist left not to rush into hothouse efforts to forge some premature organizational unity. Instead we should focus on working together in real, practical struggles, with an eye towards possible unity, but with a focus on the actual struggles. Those struggles are the necessary, transformative precondition for possible unity. The only fruitful unity will come on the basis of joint action in such real, practical struggles. If such unity is achieved, the result might be a democratic, durable, well-run organization of several thousand, with full-time organizers and new technologies being utilized to enable more and more people to become activist cadres working together to build local struggles, as well as advancing left-wing educational and cultural work, throughout the country. Such an organization could do a lot to lay the groundwork and create the possibility for the kind of revolutionary party we need.
—Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, May 31, 2013
George Breitman, Paul Le Blanc, and Alan Wald. Trotskyism in the United States: Historical Essays and Reconsiderations (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996).
Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy. Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics (London: Zero Books, 2012).
V.I. Lenin. Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings, ed. by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008).
Georg Lukács. Lenin, A Study on the Unity of His Thought (London: Verso, 2009).