Seven years ago, Eric Blanc’s “National liberation and Bolshevism reexamined: A view from the borderlands”made quite a splash, at least within the tiny world of Marxist scholarship. I welcomed a defense of those caught in the Czarist prison-house of nations, especially those that hoped to make revolutions themselves. At the time, Blanc had not yet become a Social Democrat. Therefore, there were little inklings that “the borderlands” would become a lynchpin for his aggressive attacks on revolutionary socialism that made their most recent appearance recently in a Jacobin article titled “Socialists Should Take the Right Lessons From the Russian Revolution”.
The “right lessons” turned out to be that the only “plausible path to socialist transformation in parliamentary countries is a radical form of democratic socialism.” And guess what that “radical form” amounts to: “socialists should only take executive office like presidencies during a socialist revolution.” In other words, Lenin was all wrong. He should not have fought for Soviet power but waited as if the “socialist revolution” were an embryo in the ninth month. Blanc would still insist that he is an orthodox Marxist, but Karl Marx made it patently clear that the dictatorship of the proletariat would not rest on “executive office.” Instead an armed people would rule in their own name—the Paris Commune, in other words.
In 2014, Blanc was likely still a member of Socialist Organizer, a tiny Trotskyist sect led by his father Alan Benjamin. They were in a satellite of Pierre Lambert’s version of the Fourth International based in France. If the training he received in this sect helped him develop his theories about the borderlands, that’s to their credit. Since he has never written about his political evolution, we have to assume that his flight from the Lambertists was motivated by a need to hook up with broader trends on the left. He joined the ISO at some point and presumably was one of the people who voted for its dissolution under the impact of the Sanders campaigns. His final destination was the DSA, where he functions as an éminence grise justifying work in the Democratic Party as the best way to recover the Kautskyist Social Democratic tradition that lost all of its authority after the Bolshevik revolution. Blanc is trying to turn back the clock in his latest article to recreate this Shangri La of social democracy. You can bet that it will be studied in depth by the house intellectuals at Jacobin and those DSA’ers who identify with The Call, a magazine put out by Blanc’s Bread and Roses caucus. Unlike the average DSA’er, these comrades try to establish their revolutionary continuity to Karl Marx as if anybody cared. To me, such efforts remind me of the genealogy charts of thoroughbred horses more than anything else.
Blanc has dug deep in the well of radical history to find an excuse for voting Democrat today. He keeps coming up with new examples, the first being The Nonpartisan League in Minnesota that used to run candidates both in the Republican and Democratic Parties on a “tactical basis”. Calling this the “dirty break” strategy, Blanc concluded that “the Democratic Party is not an unsurpassable horizon, despite what liberals and many on the Left would have us believe.” Let’s see how this pans out after four years of Biden that will have made little difference in the ongoing capitalist crisis in the USA, now suffering from apocalyptic heat waves.
Drawing upon his borderlands erudition, Blanc drags up the Finnish Revolution of 1918 by its hair to establish, according to Finnish scholar Risto Alapuro, that the “ballot box did not prove to be the coffin of revolutionaries, as so often has been argued. In Finland’s case, the ballot box turned out to be their cradle.” Do you get the picture? The ballot box was likely not just the cradle but the womb that preceded it.
A few words about Finnish society might help readers unfamiliar with Blanc’s frequent forays into a stillborn revolution between 1917 and 1918. To start with, despite its geographical location so close to Czarist Russia, it had far more in common with Germany in the early 1900s. It was a heavily industrialized country, primarily in the production of timber and paper. Also, it had no feudal past and a landed gentry that weighed so heavily on both German and Russian society.
For hundreds of years, Finland amounted to a colony of Sweden but was ceded to Czarist Russia in 1809 in a treaty that ended the war between the two powers. Formally becoming the Grand Duchy of Finland owing fealty to the Czar, the country enjoyed relative freedom as compared to Ukraine or Georgia. Given its rapid capitalist development in the early 1900s, its democratic norms, its wealth, and the growth of a powerful industrial working class, its Social Democratic Party soon became encrusted with the same kinds of reactionary parliamentarians and trade union functionaries that could be found in Germany. As was the case in Germany, the Finnish counterparts of Karl Kautsky were hardly capable of mounting a resistance capable of leading a successful revolution in 1918. The results were disastrous. Scholars estimate that more than 95,000 Finns died at the hands of the counter-revolution. Back then, Finland had a population of just over 3 million people. So this meant that if the country had the same population as the USA today, the mountain of skulls would rise to nearly 10 million. If Finland was a success, I can only wonder how a failure might appear.
In 2017, Blanc wrote an article titled “Lessons from Finland’s 1917 revolution”that anticipated the latest one. He states that “This strategy of revolutionary social democracy — with its militant message and slow-but-steady methods — was spectacularly successful in Finland.” He probably slipped up by having a favorable reference to Otto Kuusinen, a centrist leader of the Social Democracy, who was anything but impressed with his party. Here is the telling quote from Kuusinen in the article: “We Social-Democrats, ‘united on the basis of the class war,’ swung first to one side and then to the other, leaning first of all strongly towards revolution, only to draw back again.”
When Duncan Hart wrote a polemic against Blanc’s article drawing extensively from Kuusinen’s pamphlet on the fiasco, Blanc would react by trashing the Finnish Social Democrat as an “ultraleft” who even Lenin repudiated. Immediately after the bloodbath, Kuusinen threw in his lot with the Comintern and built the Finnish Communist Party. To tarnish his reputation, Blanc cites historian Anthony Upton who notes that the draft program of the Finnish CP written by Kuusinen was “riddled with what Lenin later defined as ‘left-infantilism’.” Yet, in Lenin’s 1921 letter to Kuusinen in 1921, there is little evidence that he saw him as unhinged. That year, the Finn was a delegate to the Comintern world conference who submitted “Theses on the Organisational Activities of the Communist Parties’ on the Methods and Content of their Work” for consideration by the delegates. Lenin’s reaction was hardly dismissive:
I have read your article (3 chapters) and the theses with great pleasure.
I advise you to immediately find a German comrade (a real German) to improve the German text (of the article and the theses). Perhaps this comrade, on your behalf, would read your article as a report at the Third Congress (it would be much more convenient for the German delegates to hear a German.
My advice is to read Kuusinen’s pamphlet and judge for yourself. It is also essential to read Blanc’s version of what took place in Finland and to ask yourself whether the social democrats had a strategy that surpassed Lenin’s. Even Blanc himself admits there was a problem: “The SDP Left’s focus on parliament, and its relative lack of mass action traditions, certainly contributed to a tendency to stick with the parliamentary arena at a moment when this was arguably already politically anachronistic.” When the most revolutionary component of the Finnish social democracy was connected by an umbilical cord to such a hidebound reformist party, no wonder 1918 was a disaster in the making.
Instead of having a separate and distinct party steeled in struggle since at least 1905, when the industrial proletariat began to show the same kinds of militancy as Russian workers, it adhered to a unity that in the end crippled it. Blanc is essentially recommending the Finnish version of Kautskyism to the American left because it embodies the same kind of class-collaborationism that runs in his veins today. We vote for Bernie Sanders, who then uses his authority to keep the practical politics of Democratic Party liberalism on life support. While it is sheer madness to think that a genuine mass Social Democratic party can be built out of the Democratic Party in the USA today, given the decrepitude of the class forces behind it (Hollywood, hedge fund billionaires, and Silicon Valley), it still amounts to the closest analogy. For as long as it exists, people like Blanc will continue to promote it.
This excursion into ancient Finnish history probably left my readers gasping for air. Let me try to unspin Blanc’s dodgy defense of voting Democrat since that is the real goal of his article, not educating his readers about an abortive revolution 103 years ago. That is only window-dressing for the cognoscenti.
For Blanc, the essential distinction between Kautskyists like him and those who still prefer Lenin is over our supposed infatuation with “insurrectionary” tactics, as if we go out on weekends with a Marxist gun club to take target practice with an AR-15. Who would be so nutty to prepare for insurrection when most workers would try to use existing democratic channels to advance their interests? When you draw a contrast between “insurrection” and using democratic channels, you tip the scales in favor of the latter. Everybody understands that democratic channels help win reforms, but if you are one of those “insurrection” crazies, you end up looking like the socialist counterpart of the mob that invaded the Capitol.
Blanc has an idealized notion of how elections can advance the class struggle. He writes, “electoral work was important principally because it helped build up class consciousness and workers’ organization — a dynamic that has been “amply demonstrated in the US revival of socialism since Bernie’s insurgent run in 2015.” With the bloom fading from the Sandernista rose, it is hard to take this seriously. It turned out that once the Democratic Party power elite decided to stop him in his tracks, the Sanders campaign came to a screeching halt, leaving most of his supporters searching for answers to its failure.
Given the poverty of Blanc’s strategic advice, it was inevitable that Marxists still committed to both Marx and Lenin’s political legacy would begin to counter-attack. In the pages of the brilliant new journals Tempest and Spectre, you can find a continuous critique of much of the pablum that appears in Jacobin written by either Blanc or his cohorts. Among the most cogent was Spectre Journal’s editor David McNally’s article titled “What Is the Meaning of Revolution Today? Beyond The New Reformism”. He defines the “new reformism”:
Stimulated in part by the episodic successes of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns of 2016 and 2020, a layer of intellectuals and activists in and around the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has embraced the parliamentarist legacy of German social democratic theorist Karl Kautsky. Today, the new Kautskyism reinforces a fixation on the electoral arena that threatens to disable sections of the socialist left. The embrace of electoralism underpins left practices that de-emphasize mobilization in defense of Black lives, evade or oppose calls to defund the police, and fail to lift a finger on behalf of union organizing drives at Amazon. There is a political logic to this since, as Kautsky himself half conceded, his was a “passive radicalism” mistrustful of socialist efforts to build working class insurgency.
Despite McNally’s rejection of electoralism, he certainly must understand why it has such a powerful pull on young self-described socialists today. Unlike the 1960s and 70s, there is not much of a mass movement in the USA today except for Black Lives Matter. In 1967, when I joined the Trotskyist movement, the Vietnam antiwar movement and ghetto uprisings made it relatively easy to conceive of a socialist America by 1990 at the latest. Revolutionary times make for revolutionary consciousness, after all. McNally’s article grapples with today’s reality when there appears to be no alternative to ringing doorbells for a DSA-backed candidate.
Even if we are in a prolonged ebb, there’s still a need for establishing a theoretical basis for socialist revolution in preparation for the stormy upheavals of the future. For McNally, this means restoring the role of dual power to the center of revolutionary strategy. He gives examples of struggles happening today that foreshadow the formation of a new workers state in Russia based on the Soviets, perhaps the most vivid example of dual power in history:
Advocates of the dual power strategy, on the other hand, tend to be more deeply focused on grassroots workplace organizing, building tenants unions and strikes, mobilizing in solidarity with #BLM, supporting International Women’s Strikes, campaigning for queer and trans rights, mobilizing for Palestine solidarity, building local defund-the-police projects, and creating grassroots organizations in communities and workplaces.
While such struggles constitute the heart and soul of radical politics today, there is little to suggest that they had much in common with the Soviets in 1917. Even the DSA takes part in them, even if without the same kind of commitment it makes to electing progressive Democrats.
As might be expected, Blanc scoffs at the idea of dual power and reminds his readers that there were far more examples of workers simply trying to elect socialist governments since 1917. Unmentioned in his survey of such efforts is the reality of Stalinist hegemony that made electoralism the central strategy. When the CPUSA had about as many members as the DSA in the 1930s, it was inevitable that electing FDR became the dominant strategy of the left, even if the patrician’s main motivation was preserving the capitalist system.
While I generally agree with the strategy outlined by McNally, I have a somewhat different idea about what is needed. Although I broke with Trotskyism decades ago, I still hold its leader James P. Cannon’s words close to my heart: “The art of politics is knowing what to do next.”
The most urgent task is building a new party of the left that breaks with the sectarianism of the 1960s. Rather than being organized on a theoretical basis of defining the USSR, its emphasis would be on gathering together the people in motion that McNally alluded to above. I’d estimate that there are over 50,000 people in the USA who would join such a party and be willing to adhere to far more professional standards than the amorphous and directionless DSA.
While much of what the “vanguard” sects did in the 60s and 70s was self-defeating, they did try to create political infrastructures that were long-lasting. We would start by opening up a headquarters with a bookstore that could serve the needs of the city’s left. Our mistake was in conceiving this as serving the needs of our sect rather than the radical movement in general. We held weekly forums (I was the director) that routinely drew in 60 to 100 people including one covered by local TV. Among the activities we prioritized was putting an end to KKK terror in Houston, which was highly successful as a united front between liberals and revolutionaries.
If only we had dropped the Trotskyist nonsense and simply repositioned ourselves as a broad-based left party with affinities with the Green Party (that unfortunately has not lived up to its initial promise). On such a basis, it is not out of the question that we might have reached 30,000 members by now. Trust me. That number, a third of the DSA’s, could have made a huge difference as the 60s radicalization came to an end. While not in any position to bring about dual power, it certainly could have helped create a counterforce to the kind of pallid social democracy now hanging like a wet dishrag over the left.