Lessons past and future for the U.S. left

Vaios Triantafyllou reviews two books by socialist author Paul Le Blanc that take up key questions for today's movement, in an article first published at MRonline.org.

Striking textile workers march in Gastonia, North Carolina, during the Great DepressionStriking textile workers march in Gastonia, North Carolina, during the Great Depression

FOLLOWING THE revolutionary experiences and struggles of the past century, intense debate has emerged on the relationship between socialist theory and practice. How is socialist theory applied during struggles for civil and economic rights, and how is it applied when a revolutionary struggle is successful? What is the role of democracy in such a process, and how are democratic principles incorporated in the pursuit of socialism? Were the mistakes and failures in the effort to build a socialist society inherent to its premises, or were there other factors that led to those failures?

Writing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Paul Le Blanc analyzes these issues in a fusion of theoretical concepts and practical experience. Le Blanc is a historian and has produced extensive literature on working-class history and revolutionary politics. His socialist orientation is influenced not only by Karl Marx, but many others as well, including V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci and C.L.R. James.

Le Blanc has done a remarkable job of succinctly analyzing socialist theory and practice in two recent books, Left Americana: The Radical Heart of U.S. History, published this year, and Revolutionary Studies: Theory, History, People, which will be out later this year. Together, these two books provide a firm understanding of the interplay between theory and practice; the significance of historical materialism in analyzing economic relationships within society; the significance of class, identity and consciousness; and how the process of radicalization can bring about a revolutionary socialist movement.

Review: Books

Paul Le Blanc, Left Americana: The Radical Heart of U.S. History. Haymarket Books, 2017, 400 pages, $22.

Paul Le Blanc, Revolutionary Studies: Theory, History, People. Haymarket Books, 2018, 369 pages, $19.

The first part of Revolutionary Studies is primarily focused on theoretical questions and begins by defining a matter-of-fact and accessible "Plain Marxism." Le Blanc moves on to an application of Marxist theory, analyzing European history through the lens of Trotsky's theory of uneven and combined development. As Le Blanc explores questions of class, identity and democracy, he develops unique concepts, such as "radical labor subculture" and the "activist/fatalist dichotomy." In the second part of the book, Le Blanc shows that there are different ways of analyzing the post-revolutionary society in the USSR, dedicating an additional chapter to Trotsky's struggle against Stalinism. He then offers critical analyses of the Cuban Revolution, the Nicaraguan Revolution, and the struggle to overthrow apartheid in South Africa. The earlier theoretical section of Revolutionary Studies complements the later part of the book, which focuses on how key concepts took shape, and how they were deployed in different ways by people depending on their location and historical circumstances.

Left Americana provides case studies of socialist struggles in the United States that similarly dovetail with the theoretical concepts outlined in Revolutionary Studies. It begins with an examination of diverse Marxist analyses regarding the absence--but also the concealed or embryonic existence--of socialism in the United States. It goes on to present studies of the remarkable anarchist-socialist-communist Haymarket revolutionaries of the 1880s; Brookwood Labor College of the 1920s and early 1930s; and the nature and role of labor vanguards in the upsurge of industrial struggles of 1930s. This history is punctuated with a loving memoir of a little-known working-class socialist of that time, Ruth Querio. Le Blanc then turns his attention to the Black liberation movement, focusing on C.L.R. James, Martin Luther King and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. After an autobiographical account of growing up and becoming an activist in the 1950s and 1960s, he analyzes the triumph of conservatism in U.S. politics, then examines the development of the New Left, Maoist and Trotskyist movements in the U.S., concluding with discussions of the recent Occupy Movement and its relevance to twenty-first century radicalism.

Between Le Blanc's analysis of socialist thought and his examination of case studies, several important recurring themes emerge independently of the specific circumstances of each movement or revolution. First, there is a consistent connection (or interplay) between the tactics chosen and the given historical constraints (or circumstances); second, the way power has been exercised (i.e., the form of authority) after the revolutions under consideration follow a typical pattern.

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Tactics and Circumstances at Hand

Revolutionary Studies and Left Americana suggest that there are two aspects to the specific circumstances of a movement: internal circumstances, such as the degree of consciousness and radicalization of a given movement, or the significance racial and other divides within the movements; and external circumstances, relating primarily to the level of development of the economy and society within which the movement is struggling. Le Blanc beautifully describes the prerequisites for the existence of class consciousness:

(a) Understanding that there is a capitalist system that is oppressive and exploitative toward the working class to which one belongs, (b) that it is possible and necessary for workers to join together to advance the interests of themselves and the working class as a whole, (c) that this involves a power struggle with the capitalist class that can be won partially in the short term, and definitively in the long term, and (d) that this struggle leads to an economic, social and political order that is truly democratic and in which the free development of each person will be the condition for the free development of all. (Revolutionary Studies, p. 17)

Each of these points might be developed to different degrees in the minds of the working classes in different societies. Within American society, for instance, Le Blanc agrees with C.L.R. James that there exists a latent socialism, and goes on to suggest that:

the genuinely revolutionary and socialist tendencies...can become triumphant only to the extent that they become conscious, are organized and mobilized--and there are no guarantees that this will happen on its own. Elements within the working class, including people like ourselves, will need to work hard to help make it happen. (Left Americana, p. 115)

Secondly, internal circumstances of a given working class are dependent on the multiple identities (or degree of intersectionality) that constitute the working class. A working class can be divided based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality or race. In fact, it was the latter that proved to be of substantial importance in the case of South Africa during the struggle for Black liberation in the 20th century in the U.S., but also in the contemporary "Black Lives Matter" movement, especially after the atrocities that have taken place with the shootings of Black people throughout the United States over the past years. Le Blanc quotes James' important point on how white chauvinism is often confronted by militant Black consciousness insisting on Black control of the Black struggle:

Such a desire is legitimate and must be vigorously supported even when it takes the form of a rather aggressive chauvinism. Black chauvinism in America today is merely the natural excess of the desire for equality and is essentially progressive while white American chauvinism, the expression of racial domination, is essentially reactionary. (C.L.R. James, quoted in Left Americana, p. 102).

This was the case with the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, the goals of which were: (1) "to help the Black community become aware of its own identity," and (2) "to help the Black community to create a sense of its own power." (Revolutionary Studies, p. 190) These goals were also crucial to Malcolm X, whose goal was "Black self-determination, Black control of the Black struggle, and Black control of the Black community." (Left Americana, p. 160)

Thirdly, internal circumstances of a movement can also be dependent on the correlations that are formed between the people within the movement. On the one hand, destructive idiosyncrasies can damage an organization. Le Blanc discusses such an example from the history of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, to which he once belonged. Even C.L.R. James's "style proved too autocratic for some." (Left Americana, p. 99) Alternatively, destructive dynamics might involve the inclination of particular vanguard elements within the working class toward either an ultra-left radicalism that alienates other workers, or towards "a more 'pure and simple' trade unionism" in which the needs of all workers are set aside by a privileged layer compromising with capitalism. (Left Americana, p. 76) In order to alleviate such problems, Gramsci sees great value in developing "organic intellectuals" and "seeking to 'stimulate the formation of homogeneous, compact social blocks, which will give birth to their own intellectuals, their own commanders, their own vanguard,'" which will, according to Lenin, be able not simply to develop a revolutionary program, but also "to link up, maintain the closest contact, and--if you wish--merge, in a certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people." (Revolutionary Studies, p. 64, 69)

Apart from internal factors affecting insurgent groups and movements, there are also external factors, such as the degree of industrial development, or backwardness, of a given country. As Leon Trotsky points out: "Unevenness, the most general law of the historic process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity their backward culture is compelled to make leaps." (Trotsky, quoted in Revolutionary Studies, p. 28)

This was, of course, the case in both the Russian and the Cuban revolutions, and the lack of self-sustainability of the two countries presented significant difficulties in their post-revolutionary efforts. In the case of the USSR, it was the very reason for which the concept of "socialism from above" was introduced, to bring about a rapid collectivization and industrialization of the economy.

When dealing with a prosperous economy, though, with an economy that is heavily industrialized, Le Blanc explains that we observe the phenomenon of "Fordism" which, as explained by Gramsci, is: "'An ultra-modern form of production and of working methods' in which industrial and commercial life is able to develop on a 'sound basis,' allowing increased efficiency and productivity. 'These economies affected production costs and permitted higher wages and lower selling prices.'" (Gramsci, quoted in Left Americana, p. 25)

This phenomenon, which only contributes to relatively higher wages in the short term (and with disproportionately larger benefits for the owners of the means of production) and lasts until the next recession or crisis of the capitalist economy kicks in can, in turn, contribute to the de-radicalization of workers due to increased prosperity. (Revolutionary Studies, p. 67) Yet such conservatism, according to Harry Braverman, "can be sloughed off with great rapidity when [they realize their] income is threatened." (Left Americana, p. 26)

These very differences in the economic circumstances of each country, the subsequent results upon the consciousness and militancy of the respective working classes, and the interventionist practices by the capitalist superpowers constitute the struggle for socialism in each country is a very hard task, as the case studies presented by Le Blanc suggest. These lessons come through in Left Americana's thorough analysis of specific case studies, as well as Revolutionary Studies--if not explicitly, then through the Le Blanc's exploration of socialist theoretical concepts. By bringing the reader's attention back to these concepts repeatedly, Le Blanc vividly and quite aptly demonstrates the fact that the strategy and tactics to be followed by each socialist movement are not given; rather they must be developed in connection with given circumstances confronted in each struggle. In Lenin's words, the "correct revolutionary theory is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement...and their own experience" (Lenin, quoted in Revolutionary Studies, p. 69)

This concept is actually very closely tied with one of the first concepts that Le Blanc introduces in Left Americana: "activist/fatalist dichotomy," (Left Americana, p. 3). It is one of the reasons that I, personally, have been fascinated by Le Blanc's thought since the first time I read one of his books (Lenin and the Revolutionary Party). It was clear to me then, as it is clear in both books under review, that he has a genuine faith in the ability of socialist movements--or any kind of mass movement for that matter--to organize, learn from their past experiences, and adapt to the circumstances at hand. From his insistence on the importance of activist perception, it follows that for Le Blanc, socialism is not something that will inevitably come because of the fatal nature of free-market economy and capitalism, but as the result of a conscious pursuit, a dynamic process, the outcome of which will be shaped by the very people taking part in a given struggle. In my opinion, this is the very essence of the ideal of socialism--one that Le Blanc clearly grasps and conveys beautifully.

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Pursuit of Socialism: Inseparable from Democracy

The second theme that emerges from these two volumes is Le Blanc's unremitting dedication to the idea of an inseparability between socialism and democracy. Indeed, an entire chapter of Revolutionary Studies is dedicated to democracy. He bases his analysis upon Aristotle's assertion that "The real difference between democracy and oligarchy is poverty and wealth. Wherever men rule by reason of their wealth...,that is an oligarchy, and where the poor rule, this is a democracy..." (Revolutionary Studies, p. 99) Le Blanc critiques modern representative democracy, focusing on the obvious example of the two-party duopoly in the United States, captured as it is by multinational capital.

Le Blanc does not fail to critique the lack of democracy in the former Soviet Union, calling "the ideology and practices of Stalinism close to being the opposite of classical Marxism." (Revolutionary Studies, p. 107) He goes further, arguing:

This concentration of power, advanced by new technologies, had much in common with developments in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy--with the key difference that capitalism's market economy was replaced by a collectivized "planned economy," and that lip service continued to be paid to democratic, humanistic, and egalitarian ideals repugnant to the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. (Revolutionary Studies, p. 41)

He also highlights Sam Farber's analysis of the Cuban Revolution: "Although the great majority of the population was encouraged to participate, it was not allowed to control and direct the revolution," (Revolutionary Studies, p. 142). This also found reflection in the FSLN's top-down structure in the case of Nicaragua.

Although critical, Le Blanc offers a strong defense of both the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions, and of course rejects the notion that there is a structural barrier to socialist democracy. For example, he details the severe external pressures faced by the USSR in the early years; likewise in Cuba, especially after imposition of the embargo. In this way, we come to terms with the constraints placed upon post-revolutionary movements, given the fact that capitalist imperialism has (and continues to) severely distort the development of democracy--in post-revolutionary and capitalist societies alike.

It could make sense, in pursuing the "genuinely democratic rule" that Le Blanc identifies as Marx's view of socialism, to freely make use (as did Marx, according to Le Blanc) "of 'non-Marxist' and even bourgeois thinkers." While Le Blanc offers a critique of James Madison, one of the authors of the U.S. Constitution, in Revolutionary Studies, perhaps there might be value in utilizing Madison's notion of "separation of powers" (executive, judicial, and legislative) to avoid abuses that could result from unrestrained centralized economic planning.

Apart from political democracy, however, Le Blanc also assesses so-called "economic democracy." It is important to create ideas on how such an economic democracy might be formulated. Once again, Le Blanc gives no rigid blueprints, only potential guidelines for a socialist economic framework that should be changed and improved upon (or even abandoned and replaced), through a constant process of assessment. Scarcity of resources, their unregulated use, as well as other factors might push many of us historical materialists to advocate for more centralized economic planning that will, hopefully, result in a more just appropriation of resources. However, what are the mechanisms of such a planning? To what degree will such a planning be autonomous, and to what degree will it be directly influenced by the people?

It seems that both the theoretical background Le Blanc provides in his two books, as well as the thorough study of various cases of revolutionary struggles, their short-term victories, as well as their losses, give us significant insight in trying to answer those questions. All of us who are serious about the pursuit of socialism have to struggle with these questions. We have to go beyond the use of Marxist methods to transform socialism into science; we have to aim at going a step further, and look at it from the perspective of engineering real-world solutions to be applied in a socialist society according to our deductions from the pursuit of scientific socialism, as well as present-day realities.

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Revolutionary Studies, Left Americana and the Outlook for Tomorrow

These two books demonstrate the two pillars of thought that Paul Le Blanc has put forth, and which are important in studying socialism in general: an activist perspective of socialist and revolutionary struggle, and the belief that socialism is inseparable from both political and economic democracy.

These concepts are beautifully illustrated in the 1962 Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society that, according to Le Blanc, "added up to genuine socialism":

In a participatory democracy, the political life would be based in several root principles: that decision-making of basic social consequence be carried on by public groups; that politics be seen positively, as the art of collectively creating an acceptable pattern for social relations; that politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means of finding meaning in personal life; that the political order should serve to clarify problems in a way instrumental to their solution; opposing views should be organized so as to illuminate choices and facilitate the attainment of goals; channels should be commonly available to relate men [i.e., people] to knowledge and to power so that private problems--from bad recreation facilities to personal alienation--are formulated as general issues. The economic sphere would have as its basic principles: that work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-directed, not manipulated, encouraging independence; a respect for others, a sense of dignity and a willingness to accept social responsibility, since it is this experience that has crucial influence on habits, perceptions and individual ethics; that the economic experience is so personally decisive that the individual must share in its full determination; that the economy itself is of so much social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation. (quoted in Left Americana, p. 167)

What is needed now more than ever is to build on the foundations of such thinkers as Le Blanc, to take advantage of the clarity of thought and analysis, so that we may fully integrate a dynamic process of learning from past revolutionary experiences. The lessons, concepts, and tactics derived from such a process open the possibility of integrating new lessons--derived from our collective experiences as participants in present struggles--in a coherent and constructive way. This is no doubt a key to building the level of solidarity necessary to turn away from our current path toward barbarism, and make a decisive advance toward socialism.

First published at MRonline.org.