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Radicals in a Box

Goodbye Lenin

by LOUIS PROYECT

I hope that CounterPunch readers will forgive me for taking valuable time away from my film reviews of neglected treasures while I answer one of my critics from the “Leninist” left. As it happens, Paul Le Blanc, the International Socialist Organization’s avuncular scholar of Bolshevik history, devoted pretty much of a whole chapter to me in his latest book “Unfinished Leninism” (the chapter has the same title) and I would like the opportunity to use CounterPunch for my reply.

I am not accustomed to answering points made in a book but since many of the arguments about what Lenin stood for and whether he has any relevance for today’s left take place in books and in Historical Materialism, a high-toned print journal behind a paywall, I really have no choice. As a strong believer in the Internet, I would prefer to debate there since I see it as the modern counterpart of the Gutenberg press, the primary means of communication of our rebel forerunners. My guess is that if the quarrelsome Lenin were alive today, he would be conducting his debates on the Internet as well.

As a history professor, Le Blanc is obviously much more comfortable holding forth from a lectern or the printed page. That’s true for the rest of the ISO as well that sees the Internet as a necessary evil. As a handy tool to distribute an electronic version of their print publications, it would be much better if it weren’t a breeding ground for bilious critics and those who circulate their top-secret internal bulletins.

In the introduction, Le Blanc recollects what his trade union organizing father once told him: “Lenin was tough, and he was for the workers.” That certainly captures the image cultivated by the veteran Trotskyists I met as a young recruit in 1967, particularly Farrell Dobbs, the former teamsters organizer. His prize pupil Jimmy Hoffa once said: “The Trots taught me everything I know about union organizing.” That became a powerful mystique working on a 22-year-old philosophy student like me. A decade later it was the same Farrell Dobbs who helped turn the Socialist Workers Party into a workerist sect. The same flinty disposition that helped him to organize the teamsters came in handy when bulldozing almost two thousand young socialists into a foolish “colonizing” expedition targeting American factories and mines.

In chapter one (“Lenin’s Return”), Le Blanc takes note of Zizek’s collection titled “Lenin Reloaded” that was published by Verso back in 2007, the results of a London conference that included top-drawer intellectuals like Alain Badiou and Frederic Jameson. In some ways, Lenin had the same appeal for Zizek as it did for Le Blanc’s father: a tough guy who didn’t bother with democracy and all that other folderol. A decade ago Zizek wrote an article about freedom in In These Times, a left-liberal newspaper, that approvingly quoted Lenin’s menacing words to his Menshevik critics in 1922: “But we say in reply: ‘Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that.” As it turns out, Lenin was using the term firing squad in a figurative sense, drawing upon an analogy with the recently concluded civil war—not that this would matter to anybody whose image of Lenin owes more to Warner Brothers B movies than Soviet history.

In a way, it matters little that academics are drawn to a version of an iron-fisted Lenin shared by his Sovietologist detractors since neither the intellectuals who attended Zizek’s conference nor the small groups who worship at the “tough” Lenin’s shrine have the political power to enforce their will on society. In the final analysis, their only victims are the dissertation students and the party rank-and-file at the mercy of their superiors’ whims.

Titled “Leninism for Dangerous Times”, chapter five assumes the almost impossible task of making SWP leader Morris Stein’s statement to a 1946 convention appear reasonable:

We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in the sphere of politics and we operate like monopolists.

Le Blanc says that it was understandable that Stein would make such a super-sectarian statement in 1946 because his party was in a struggle with the Communists, one of those pretenders to the Leninist throne. As it turns out, one year later an opposition would develop over exactly that question, whether the CP was the enemy. After coming to the conclusion that Stalinophobia infected the SWP, Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman sought a way to unite the American left on a non-sectarian basis. During seven dark years in the 1950s, they put out a magazine titled “The American Socialist” that broke definitively with the “Leninist” model and in whose footsteps I follow. Compare Bert Cochran’s words with Morris Stein’s in order to figure out where our future lies and to understand why I describe myself as a neo-Cochranite:

I AM convinced, in the light of this reading of the American scene, that there is a real need for genuine American radicalism. By that I mean a movement that understands this country, that is sensitive to the feelings and aspirations of its people, that knows how to establish communication with them and how to make itself heard, that has the ability to come up with drastic structural solutions which recommend themselves to significant bodies of people as meaningful and realistic. I don’t mean by radicalism, the pettifogging, the quotation-mongering, the pseudo-Marxian profundities, the dogmatics, the circle bickerings and soul-destroying factionalism which have distinguished, I am afraid, all of us on the Left for the past years, and which carry a heavy onus of the responsibility for our ineffectiveness and disintegration.

Chapter six refers to the “Great Lenin Debate of 2012”, one of whose bones of contention was a conference of Russian Marxists held a century earlier in Prague. Lenin scholar Lars Lih held that Lenin’s goal both before and after that conference was to build a party in Russia modeled on the German social democracy. For Le Blanc, the 1912 conference marks the beginning of a new party that departed from Second International norms. Lih got involved with the debate after being persuaded by former ISO member Pham Binh that the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks remained factions of the same party until 1917. Le Blanc now feels vindicated that Lih has moved much closer to his own position by admitting that the two groups began functioning as separate parties even though they were formally united. Paying only fitful attention to the debate as it unfolded, my reaction eventually became one of bemused indifference. For groups like the ISO, it is essential to see the Bolshevik Party as something radically different from everything that came before it so they obviously had a big investment in the outcome.

As such, studying Lenin’s writings to penetrate to the inner soul of Bolshevism becomes paramount. The deeper your comprehension of his ideas, the more capable you are of developing a winning strategy and tactics. If you are a chess player, even a patzer like me, you understand where this line of thinking comes from. When Bobby Fischer was starting out, he would devour books by Steinitz, Tarrasch et al to figure out which moves worked and which did not. However, the class struggle is not like chess. It is far more complex and involves decisions that cannot be based on pre-existing rules. More to the point, when Lenin and his comrades were trying to make the right moves in the early 20th century, whom did they study? They were in unchartered territory after all. Even if Marx had deep insights into how capitalism worked, it would be difficult to derive strategy and tactics from the chapter on the rate of surplus value in volume one of Capital.

Unlike the “Leninists”, Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and Che Guevara did not pore through the collected Lenin to figure out how to overthrow Batista and establish a new government committed to the liberation of the workers and farmers of Cuba. They studied Cuban society and developed strategy and tactics that flowed from the class relationships of a society that was stunted by underdevelopment and imperialist domination.

What possible guidelines to political action could be derived from studying Fidel Castro’s career? He started out as a candidate of the Ortodoxo Party and then decided to organize an unsuccessful attack on the Moncada barracks. After being released from prison, he began recruiting people for a trip on the Granma from Mexico to Cuba, where they would launch an armed struggle against the dictatorship. Once in Cuba and barely surviving an army assault on his tiny ranks, he began coordinating rural guerrilla warfare columns with urban resistance mounted by the July 26th Movement.

In 1960, the SWP tried to summarize the Cuba experience. A socialist revolution was taking place without the aid of Lenin study groups. In 1961 Joseph Hansen, one of Leon Trotsky’s bodyguards, referred to the Cuban leaders as “revolutionists of action.” This amounted to saying that they took power almost by accident. He gave them a passing grade but hoped that “some of them may now venture into the field of theory with commensurate contributions.”

Now it should be mentioned that there were “Leninist” groups in Cuba at the time, including one dedicated to the teachings of J. Posadas who argued that UFO’s proved that socialism existed on other planets. How could they have reached the planet Earth unless they had superior technology of the sort that only socialism could deliver?

While the Posadists were obviously one of the more exotic varieties of “Leninism” in Latin America, there were certainly many others that were a lot closer to the SWP or the ISO in adhering to more conventional “Leninist” norms, which meant defining yourself in relationship to the Russian Revolution, starting a newspaper, opening bookstores and party headquarters, holding regular conventions that voted on line resolutions according to “democratic centralist” principles and all the rest. But it was exactly these methods that condemned both the Trotskyists and the Maoists to irrelevancy. A revolutionary movement grows organically out of the class struggle. The “Leninist” method adopted by groups such as the SWP or the ISO sets them apart from the broader mass movement since it is by definition based on an ideological litmus test that most people on the left will refuse to submit to, like a urine test for drugs. To put it bluntly, Fidel Castro did not ask Che Guevara how he stood on the Kronstadt revolt. He was only interested in finding out whether he could pass muster as a doctor and a combatant.

Let me conclude now with the chapter titled “Leninism Unfinished” that is a response to an article I wrote titled “Leninism is Finished” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/01/28/leninism-is-finished-a-reply-to-alex-callinicos/). My article was prompted by Alex Callinicos’s invocation of “Leninist” orthodoxy in the aftermath of the rape cover-up that tore apart the British SWP. Le Blanc’s article originally appeared in the ISO newspaper and can be read there now.

As a way of putting his criticisms into context, I have often referred to the term “Zinovievism” that is meant to describe the imposition of strict “democratic centralist” norms at the 1924 Comintern congress after the German Communist Party carried out a series of ultraleft adventures that discredited it in the eyes of he working class. Against the better judgment of the elected leadership, the Comintern encouraged those adventures and even demanded them on occasion. The tightening up of discipline in the name of building “tough” parties was a reaction to questioning in the worldwide movement over both the wisdom of Comintern instructions from above and the top-down structure that allowed parties to be manipulated like chess pieces.

Le Blanc points out that it was Lenin’s Comintern as well, thus catching me in an apparent contradiction. If Zinoviev was the root of all evil, how could I let Lenin off the hook who not only gave his benediction to Zinoviev’s leadership but tended to agree with him until his death in 1924?

I can’t blame Le Blanc for not being familiar with my writings since there is so much there to wade through–more so than ever now that I am retired. But if you are going to refer to “Zinovievism”, which Le Blanc’s book does on numerous occasions, you should at least make the effort to see what I wrote about the Comintern when Lenin was still alive and kicking:

The favorable news of Red Army advances [during the civil war] emboldened triumphalist moods in the Kremlin. Even though the French Socialist Party and the German Independent Socialist Party attended the [Comintern] congress as friendly consultative delegates, the Russian Communists seemed in no mood to placate these “half-hearted” or centrist formations. To the contrary, this congress passed the famous 21 conditions for entry into the Comintern, which they envisioned as a single Communist Party with branches in different countries. These 21 conditions were drafted by Zinoviev with Lenin’s agreement. [emphasis added] One provision urged by the Italian ultraleftist Bordiga was particularly stringent. It demanded that all party members be expelled if they rejected the 21 conditions. These 21 conditions could only be considered a slap in the face by the French and German socialists, who in every other way were sympathetic to the revolution.

When the congress was over, [Paul] Levi returned to Germany in a mood of despair. The Independents also faced a difficult situation. Even though they felt constrained by the 21 conditions, they still sought to ally themselves with the Soviet revolution and the organized revolutionary movement that identified with it. They convened a special congress to consider the 21 conditions. A debate was held between Zinoviev in favor of the 21 conditions and Rudolf Hilferding opposed. The hall was decked out with Soviet regalia, which helped to deepen the polarization of an already polarized situation. Hilferding argued, quite correctly [emphasis added], that the 21 conditions were a schematic projection of Russian organizational norms on other countries with different traditions.

In other words, the problems did not begin with Zinoviev. They began with Lenin. Lenin’s 21 Conditions were an obstacle to the building of a fully democratic worldwide socialist movement. Despite his deepest hopes for the abolition of capitalism, Lenin’s mistakes on basic organizational questions thwarted their realization. It would have been best if Lenin had lived since he appeared troubled by the dynamics of an organization that operated out of the Soviet Union in the fashion that the Vatican was the hub of the Catholic Church, even suggesting at one point that headquarters be moved to Europe. Zinoviev was untroubled by those prospects.

This is what tends to happen in successful revolutions. There are attempts to schematically reproduce them, such as with Regis Debray’s “Revolution in the Revolution” and Che Guevara’s tragic errors in Bolivia. Foquismo was to Cuba as the 21 Conditions were to the USSR. We are always better off coming up with our own strategy and tactics, as well as our organizational guidelines. The Cubans learned from their mistakes and abandoned a rural guerrilla warfare orientation after it proved incapable of ending capitalist rule. For those who still have faith in the Comintern nearly a century after its formation, change will be more difficult—proof of which is Le Blanc’s efforts in chapter 12 to make the 21 Conditions seem reasonable in retrospect, a task just as daunting as the one to be made on Morris Stein’s behalf.

Having said all this, I still hold out hope that the members of the International Socialist Organization can begin to think outside the “Leninist” box and make good on the promise that another type of left is possible. Despite his attempts to burnish the reputation of Morris Stein and the 21 Conditions, Paul Le Blanc makes some very good points on the need for unity on the left. It would be a great shot in the arm if the ISO and Socialist Alternative fused at some point. If they could only rise to that occasion, many on the left would feel inspired.

I think that conditions are ripening in the United States for a SYRIZA type development that will unite the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who either took part in or identified with the Occupy movement. Activists in the ISO and Socialist Alternative could play an important role in bringing that to fruition and even become convinced in the process that their “Leninist” security blanket was no longer necessary.

An op-ed piece by Thomas Edsall that appeared in the June 10th New York Times describes a declining standard of living that cannot be resolved under capitalism, even though the word is not used once in the article. Referring to a new economic study (http://economics.mit.edu/files/5554), Edsall comments:

College graduates are forced to take jobs beneath their level of educational training, moving into clerical and service positions instead of into finance and high tech.

This cascade eliminates opportunities for those without college degrees who would otherwise fill those service and clerical jobs. These displaced workers are then forced to take even less demanding, less well-paying jobs, in a process that pushes everyone down. At the bottom, the unskilled are pushed out of the job market altogether.

If you’ll recall, it was the frustration of a Tunisian street peddler that drove him to self-immolation and touched off the Arab Spring. At some point, the accumulated injuries of Walmart type jobs, environmental devastation, racial oppression, nativist attack on immigrant rights, and police brutality will touch off a grass roots rebellion in the United States that will be nothing like we’ve seen in our lifetime. When that time comes, we should say goodbye to Lenin and begin to think of our role in terms of the way that Bert Cochran defined them in 1955, to build “a movement that understands this country, that is sensitive to the feelings and aspirations of its people, that knows how to establish communication with them and how to make itself heard, that has the ability to come up with drastic structural solutions which recommend themselves to significant bodies of people as meaningful and realistic.”

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.