Leninism in the wake of Occupy

March 21, 2013

Paul Le Blanc responds to an ongoing discussion about revolutionary organization.

IF WE hope to change the world, as more than one Marxist has emphasized, we must see the present as history, learn from our current and recent experiences, generalize what we learn, and connect this with the historical generalizations that are already a part of the revolutionary Marxist tradition. The purpose of this interactive flow is to help orient us as we try to map out what we will do next.

Joaquín Bustelo's continuation of our discussion ("Lenin's idea of party-building") sparked by the essay "Leninism is Unfinished" has the virtue of trying to move back and forth in this way for the purpose of contributing to a more effective revolutionary activism. What he now says reveals a convergence with some of what I wrote in that essay, while leaving some points around which we can continue our comradely argument. I too will shuttle between the contemporary "now" and the historical "then"--starting with what is happening in the present.

Our discussion on Leninism is actually part of an intensive global process taking place among layers or radical activists around the classic questions of where we go from here and what is to be done. One of the flashpoints of this global discussion has been the terrible internal crisis currently devastating the British SWP, but more profoundly has it been generated by the broader political "moment" that we find ourselves in.

The challenge of the post-Occupy moment

A multi-faceted capitalist crisis (involving a deep and long-lasting recession and instability, coupled with a decades' long assault on the quality of life of the global working class, matched by the growing enrichment of the global capitalist elite) has generated a mass radicalization and series of insurgencies throughout the world. This has shaken but by no means overturned the system which continues to oppress us--new mechanisms and strategies being devised to keep us in our place and to keep enriching a tiny and powerful minority at the expense of our planet and its peoples.

Paul Mason, in his invaluable Why It's Still Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Verso, 2013) has emphasized the centrality of the internet as a revolutionary tool in the upsurges--and it remains a revolutionary tool for those thrashing out and seeking to comprehend the meaning of our recent experiences and current situation. My language limitations restrict me to what activists throughout such English-speaking areas as the U.S., Britain, Canada, and Australia are saying to each other, but I know this is happening everywhere.

There are also valuable new books, not only Mason's, but also one by two British activists associated with the Anti-Capitalist Initiative in Britain, Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy, Beyond Capitalism?: The Future of Capitalist Politics (Zero Books 2012). These two comrades seem to have been intimately involved, as some of us were here, in recent mass struggles, and they celebrate and defend the Occupy movement for all the right reasons, hitting the nail on the head with this comment:

By focusing attention on the super-rich it provided a startling opportunity to open a debate about class interests in American politics. Of course, Occupy as a conception was always necessarily limited; its tactic of choice--the city centre camp--was unsustainable in the long-term. All such movements that involve frequent and intense forms of direct action, from occupations to other forms of civil disobedience, will generate a burst of activity fuelled by the adrenalin of participants, which then has to give way to a period of contemplation and recovery.

I know that this is quite definitely what happened with Occupy Pittsburgh, with a significant layer of Occupy activists regrouping in structures engaged in community-labor struggles for economic justice, but also continuing to wrestle with questions of what we must do in order to advance the revolutionary vision that had animated so many of us in late 2011 and early 2012.

Leninism for our time

It is worth following Cooper and Hardy as they seek to draw theoretical elements from the history of revolutionary Marxism to help with the present-day problem that they have identified:

The moment of mass mobilization cannot endure forever at which point the masses will fall back on their existing institutions. The political lesson lies in what Antonio Gramsci called "the war of position," of trying to build, over the long-term, durable political organizations that have deep roots in society, so that when the moment of crisis and mass mobilization emerges, they are in a position to make what once appeared to be the politically impossible become the politically inevitable.

This valuable insight is worth unpacking. We need to build "existing institutions" which can help us in the struggles for genuine gains for workers and the oppressed in their here-and-now, but also "durable organizations" deeply-rooted in the struggles of working-class and oppressed communities which, as the same time, can help lead the way--"when the moment of crisis and mass struggle emerges"--to revolutionary transformation. For Antonio Gramsci, a founder and leader of the Italian Communist Party and a leading figure in the Communist International, such a durable organization was a revolutionary party (adapted to Italian conditions) that drew from the Russian current of revolutionary Marxism represented by Lenin.

In a recent contribution on the Anti-Capitalist Initiative website, Simon Hardy, focusing on "forgotten legacies" of the left, urges "taking into account the actual evolutionary process that rendered Bolshevism successful as a living oppositional force within the workers movement." He suggests this can help us "replicate the kind of organic development of a working-class party which was so essential to what became known as Leninism."

Critical of how the Leninist tradition played out in the post-Second World War era (with the mutual intolerance of small-group polemical slug-fests), Hardy sees much in the example of Lenin and his comrades that can help "lay the basis for a united, revolutionary organization in Britain, one that will inevitably combine different already existing tendencies and individuals, whilst broadening itself out to people who have never been in an organization before."

This is consistent with the understanding of genuine Leninism that Comrade Bustelo assures us he himself embraces. This understanding is rooted in the excellent quotations which he draws from the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and from Marx's correspondence about the sectarian tendencies that needed to be overcome in the socialist movement--emphasizing that communists, revolutionary socialists, are and must be inseparable from the real struggles of the working class.

It is also consistent with something expressed by two U.S. working-class revolutionaries of the past. Vincent Raymond Dunne, in describing what he and other Trotskyists were doing when they led the victorious Minneapolis general strike of 1934, commented: "Our policy was to organize and build strong unions, so workers could have something to say and assist in changing the present order into a socialist society." We find similar sensibilities in a letter written to Dunne two decades later by James P. Cannon (reflecting on letters by Frederick Engels):

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 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.

Yet Comrade Bustelo points precisely to Cannon as representing the wrong kind of "Leninism," and it is worth following him to the source of this interpretation (which in my opinion is flawed) to sort through remaining differences.

Comprehending the Leninist contribution

As Bustelo tells us, Cannon was "the central founding leader of the Trotskyist movement in the United States. At the time of his break with Stalinism (1928), he was a mature political cadre, 38 years old, and one of the central leaders of the CPUSA. He had been a delegate to the Fourth and Sixth Comintern Congresses, a delegate to the Executive Committee of the Communist International and a member of its Presidium." For an excellent account of this remarkable working-class activist, and of the early U.S. Communist movement, one should consult Bryan Palmer's fine study, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (University of Illinois Press, 2007). Here is the 1967 quotation from Cannon that Bustelo dislikes:

The greatest contribution to the arsenal of Marxism since the death of Engels in 1895 was Lenin's conception of the vanguard party as the organizer and director of the proletarian revolution. That celebrated theory of organization was not, as some contend, simply a product of the special Russian conditions of his time and restricted to them. It is deep-rooted in two of the weightiest realities of the 20th century: the actuality of the workers' struggle for the conquest of power, and the necessity of creating a leadership capable of carrying it through to the end.

Why does this represent the kind of "Leninism" that Bustelo rejects? Because, he says, "what Lenin really believed [was] plain old Marxism with no hyphen after it"--that is, not "Marxism-Leninism." This was in contrast to "what Cannon and his entire generation of working-class leaders that joined or came up in the groups affiliated with the Comintern and its descendants believed." They were wrong, apparently, to believe "that Lenin made a huge contribution that took Marxism to a higher level, and specifically on the organization question." One can argue (and a number of people have argued) that Karl Kautsky and also Lenin's Russian Menshevik adversaries were also believers in "plain old Marxism," and that--contrary to Cannon--there is nothing at all distinctive in Lenin's views on the question of revolutionary organization.

But this misses the historical reality. Lenin and the Bolsheviks--unlike their Menshevik comrades and ultimately unlike Kautsky--were prepared to follow the implications of the revolutionary Marxist orientation through to the end. Kautsky and the Mensheviks became compromised. Their "plain old Marxism" turned out to be different form Lenin's, and this had organizational implications.

The Mensheviks adhered to the dogma that Russia must first go through a democratic-capitalist transformation, that a working class socialist revolution would not be on the agenda until many years later. Based on this, they became committed to a worker-capitalist alliance to overthrow the tsarist monarchy, which naturally created pressures to compromise the class-struggle elements of Marxism. This increasingly impacted on the kind of organizational structures they favored--many being inclined to back away from (and "liquidate") structures pulling workers in a revolutionary direction. Even those Mensheviks not agreeing with the "liquidators" shied away from making common cause with the intransigent revolutionaries of Bolshevism.

For Kautsky, by 1910, it became clear that he would become marginalized within the increasingly bureaucratic-conservative German Social Democratic movement unless he subtly but increasingly diluted his seemingly unequivocal and eloquent commitment to revolutionary Marxism. This meant an adaptation to organizational structures adapted toward reformist rather than revolutionary policies, with labor bureaucracies in the trade unions and the party fostering passive and obedient (non-revolutionary) memberships. By 1914, when the German Social Democracy supported the imperialist war policies of the Kaiser's government, and in 1917, in the face of the Bolshevik Revolution, Kautsky became utterly compromised.

Lenin's Marxism was different from what passed for "plain old Marxism" among a majority of the world's socialists by 1919, when the Communist International was formed. What is distinctive about Lenin's Bolsheviks is that they did not compromise, they doggedly followed through to the end the implications of the revolutionary Marxist orientation as expressed in What Is To Be Done?, The State and Revolution, "Left-Wing" Communism, and elsewhere in Lenin's writings.

This suggests that there was something to Cannon's assertion after all--that there was a decisive element of difference, when all was said and done, between the kind of party that Kautsky was a member of in Germany and the kind of party that Lenin and his comrades were actually building in Russia. At the same time, Lenin's thought can most fruitfully be understood not as a break from, but in continuity with that of Marx. This is the fruitful element in Bustelo's point (and both Lenin and Cannon would have agreed with that).

Diversity among revolutionaries

One of the troubling if unintended consequences of the approach we find in Bustelo and others of like mind, however, is that it tends to present Lenin not as one among a diverse collection of capable comrades, but as the authoritative representative of True Marxism. His comrades in Russia and globally are dismissed--they got it wrong, they misunderstood, they failed to remain true to the "plain old Marxism" of their would-be mentor.

A now-common accusation leveled at the early Communist International is that it was (and therefore James P. Cannon was) under the malignant influence of Gregory Zinoviev, who headed this world federation of Communist Parties from 1919 to 1926. This is why the 1921 theses on organization were targeted by Bustelo. While Comrade Bustelo now seems to back away from his earlier critique of the 1921 organizational resolution of the Communist International, he continues to contrast Lenin with the Comintern as such--embracing what he terms "real, non-zinovievist 'Leninism' which is simply Marxism." This is problematical in more than one way.

One problem, already noted, is the genuinely divergent political trends claiming to represent what is "simply Marxism." There can be more than one way of interpreting and utilizing Marx's ideas. But more than this, reality certainly changed dramatically between the year of Marx's death in 1883 and 1918 (or 2013). No Marxism can be worth much unless it creatively develops in order to deal with the changing realities. Why dissolve Lenin's contributions into "simply Marxism"?

Yet another problem is the dismissal with the presumably perfidious "Zinovievist" tag of the Communist International, which contained a rich diversity of revolutionaries. This is not to deny that sometimes Zinoviev played a problematical, undemocratic, opportunistic, manipulative role within the Comintern--as indicated, for example, in reminiscences of some who worked with him (Alfred Rosmer, Victor Serge, Angelica Balabanoff and others). But this should not be used to dismiss all the work of Lenin's comrades, and of Lenin himself, in this remarkable global collective of revolutionaries. Nor should it be used to dismiss all the work, including sometimes outstanding contributions, of Zinoviev himself.

A primary authority often cited by the critics of Zinovievist "Leninism" is Lars Lih, whose recent biography of Lenin and massive study Lenin Rediscovered are powerful additions to Lenin historiography. Whether one fully agrees with him or not, it is always worth considering what this outstanding scholar has to say. A contribution helping to provide a more rounded consideration of Zinoviev is his essay "Zinoviev: Populist Leninist" (reprinted in a book he co-edited with Ben Lewis, Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle). While hardly uncritical, Lih writes:

Two comments by [prominent Bolshevik Anatoly] Lunacharsky seem to me to hit the right note: he called Zinoviev "a person who had a profound understanding of the essence of Bolshevism" and one who was "romantically" devoted to the party. I will present Zinoviev as someone who was under the spell of the Leninist drama of hegemony, but with a decidedly populist bent.

Lih tells us that in the Soviet Republic in the early 1920s Zinoviev was insisting that "there should be a party reorganization to get cells closer to the factory floor. Party democracy--especially in the sense of free discussion--should be intensified as the basic means of party education." He adds (based on a critical examination of Zinoviev's writings): "My impression is that Zinoviev was genuinely concerned about the problems faced by ordinary people." Regarding his influence in the Comintern, Lih writes:

Zinoviev's emphasis on the concept of hegemony makes one think of Antonio Gramsci. As a foreign communist, Gramsci would have dealt more with Zinoviev than with any other Bolshevik leader and must have been influenced by his particular understanding of Leninism. Certainly it would have been satisfyingly ironic if the despised Zinoviev turned out ultimately to have more enduring intellectual influence (via his talented pupil Gramsci) than any other top Bolshevik.

I would argue that enduring intellectual influence can more rightly be credited to Lenin himself, and also to Leon Trotsky. But Lih's emphasis on the need to take Zinoviev seriously as a revolutionary seems to me well placed, nonetheless. Another pillar of Bolshevism in the years leading up to the 1917 revolution was Zinoviev's sometime ally, Lev Kamenev, whom Lih highlights in "The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context" (Russian History, 38, 2011). Here he challenges the standard account of Lenin reorienting the Bolshevik party in preparation for the October Revolution, writing that "Kamenev seems to think he won the debate with Lenin in April 1917," and Lih suggests that Kamenev was right. Even if one disagrees with that, it is still possible to appreciate this information:

In 1922, Kamenev published a 700-page collection of his articles written between the 1905 revolution and the outbreak of war in 1914. He introduced these articles by claiming with great pride that the revolution of 1917 had vindicated the analyses of Russian society made by prewar Bolshevism. "The literal realization of a whole series of arguments and predictions in the Bolshevik literature about the role and the tactics in the revolution of social groups, classes, parties and even specific leaders and parties is a brilliant proof of this."

The point of all this, it seems to me, is that the tradition associated with Lenin is more complex and far richer, and more useful, if we do not abstract Lenin from the context of his revolutionary comrades, Russian and international. If we tear him from the context of his comrades, we cannot fully understand his Marxism and what Simon Hardy refers to as the "organic development of a working-class party which was so essential to what became known as Leninism."

Returning to the struggles of "now"

The point is not merely to interpret history in various ways but to change it, and to utilize a closer and closer approximation to what happened in history in order to help us bring the change we are seeking. My friend Joaquín is very much on-target in wanting to help young activists avoid a stilted understanding of what actually happened in the history of the revolutionary Marxist movement, and therefore to avoid illusory models, false examples, dead-ends.

It seems to me, however, that the conception of "Zinovievism" has all-too-often become an impediment to looking at what actually happened. It sometimes blocks an actual engagement with the ideas and examples of revolutionaries tainted by this artificial "-ism" (from Zinoviev himself to the entire Communist International of 1919-1925 to substantial swathes of the Trotskyist movement). This is said not to shield any of these from criticism, but to push in the direction of serious examination rather than simplistic dismissal.

The Marxism we need is neither "plain" nor "old" but rather--as Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy have put it so well--"a collective process involving many practitioners," a process which "is always contested, and always involving competing claims of truth and falsity" that can be tested in practice, in struggle, but requires "a plurality of diverse and different viewpoints" necessary for "avoiding the trap of an ossified Marxism." Each in their own way, this describes the revolutionary collectivities that were the early Communist International and the Bolshevik party.

Neither of these can, of course, be replicated in the here-and-now. But each of them, properly understood, can provide resources for the work that we can do today and tomorrow. This involves--in the wake of Occupy, and in the midst of continuing ferment and insurgency--laying the groundwork, developing the preconditions necessary for the next steps. Such "next steps" will include building durable political organizations, deeply rooted in the workplaces and communities and struggles of our diverse working-class majority. If these are built well, when moments of crisis and mass mobilization come, they will be "in a position to make what once appeared to be the politically impossible become the politically inevitable."

Further Reading

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