THE SHORTCOMINGS OF TRADITIONAL LEFTIST STRATEGY

by Mitchel Cohen

A Red Balloon Collective Publication

$5

The Shortcomings of Traditional Leftist Strategy

by Mitchel Cohen

What is the Sound of One Class Struggling?

A Marxist and a Zen monk were approaching a river. The Zen monk began to walk across the top of the water. Halfway across he heard the Marxist calling: “Come back, that’s no way to cross a river.”

THE SPECTRE OF THE VANGUARD PARTY CONTINUES TO HAUNT THE LEFT. Anti-authoritarian communists and anarchists, long disgusted with Marxism (reflecting horrendous experiences with leninist parties over the years in everyday practice), nevertheless continue to structure their organizations “vanguardistically,” often without realizing it.

While many activists have expressed revulsion at the dogmatism and the myriad forms of manipulation by vanguard parties and have enumerated the destructive ways such behavior has tortured movements that started out with so much promise, that has not kept them from reproducing the state in miniature within their organizations, political stances and the way they relate to other people. Over and over again, anti-authoritarians fall into the same traps we denounce in others. As it turns out, some of the biggest stalinists in practice are anarchists and trotskyists acting in the name of anti-stalinism.

How organization is structured and what it does depends upon how leftists conceive of their “mission.” That, in turn, relies upon how one sees the development of “socialist” or “class consciousness” — among organizers, as well as among the mass of workers — and its relevance — if any! — to the process of societal transformation.

While many leftists are critical of Lenin (and especially his vanguard party apparatus), virtually all of those critics ignore his analysis of why a particular formation — the Bolshevik Party — was considered necessary and instead attribute to him (and to those who followed along) evil intent. Some of them even question whether there is any practical point to studying theory at all, a question which borders on absurdity since answering it either way is itself a theoretical statement (or, more accurately, a meta-theoretical statement — a theoretical statement about the need for theoretical statements). Our task, as anti-authoritarian leftists, must go beyond revulsion with the practices of vanguard parties and re-analyze how social movements develop and become revolutionary. In other words, we need to dev­elop a theory of theory and practice on which to base any conception or critique of organization, from which to devise revolutionary strategy. Personal experience is important, but it’s not enough.

  • How do potentially revolutionary social movements form?
  • What is the role in that process of people who try to become conscious of it?
  • What kinds of organizations and activities are required, if any, to catalyze, build, sustain, link, and nurture social movements so that they enable people in them to develop class consciousness and empower themselves to take control over all aspects of their lives?
  • What should be the relationship between those who organize themselves consciously as revolutionaries and those who are not conscious anarchists or anti-authoritarian communists?
  • What form should their organizations take, and are such organizations possible?

The Vanguard Party’s Theoretical Basis

Lenin addressed these themes in What Is To Be Done? (1902), which remains today the organizational bible of the old left. In that work, Lenin observed that socialist thought (i.e., consciousness) had not risen from movements of the work­ing class but had developed in a sector of the intelligentsia independently. Furthermore, he claimed, political movements such as socialism not only had not but could not develop from the economic trade union struggles of the working class on their own. The “spontaneous” motion of the class, he said, gave rise to fragmented struggles that, in turn, gave rise to a fragmented consciousness which could not see itself as a totality, as a class for itself, beyond the confines of, at best, militant economistic (or trade union) battles:

We have said that there could not have been Social Dem­ocratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries show that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legis­lation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophical, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellec­tuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeoi­sie intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoret­ical doctrine of Social Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia. In the period under discussion, the middle nineties, this doctrine not only represented the completely formulated programme of the Emancipa­tion of Labour group, but had already won over to its side the majority of revolutionary youth in Russia.1

For Lenin, “spontaneity” is the form history takes as it unfolds in the present without anyone consciously intervening in it. But this brings up yet another problem: If the motion of the working class cannot of itself give rise to consciousness of its objective role in history in its totality and if the class must act consciously to achieve emancipation, where is that consciousness to come from?

Lenin concluded that a “third party” was required to bridge the historical abyss — a tightly-knit cadre of professional revolutionaries whose self-defined mission was to bring political questions and revolutionary answers into the working class movement from their up-till-then development outside of it, and thus transform it. But to say that consciousness must come from somewhere else only begs the question: What produces that consciousness? Is consciousness itself determined by certain historical conditions? If consciousness is necessary for freedom, and yet arises only as a result of a set of pre-determined conditions, then is free will the product of historical determinism? If one is a robot, can one become aware that they’re a robot? If history freely determines, can one be determined to be free?

The New Missionaries

Lenin’s view that socialist consciousness, in Europe, had developed independent of and parallel to the working class movement was taken from German Marxist Karl Kautsky who, in the 1890s and early 1900s, was gen­erally acknowledged to be the political heir to Marx and a friend of Engels. (Years later Lenin came to denounce him. In reading the official Soviet and Chinese publications of Lenin in my early 20s, it took me months before I realized that Kautsky’s first name wasn’t “Renegade.”)

Lenin’s reliance upon Kautsky’s “separate track” development of socialist consciousness can hardly be overstated. Lenin created the vanguard party form of organization not, as has too often been claimed, because he was a power hungry maniac who craved central authority but because, in his view, the motion of the working class had not and could not lead it, on its own, to even ask the political questions necessary to form a conscious, revolutionary socialist movement, let alone answer them.

Followers of Lenin, as the case with other radicals, have long ignored this dilemma in devising strategy, but that hasn’t prevented them from being affected by it. While a small number of Marxists centered around the Frankfurt school, and some new left­ists, have investigated how revolutionary (or “critical”) consciousness develops, few have worked it into a philoso­phical overview of the total revolutionary process, or seen the importance of doing so. Consequently, little new strategic insight for overthrowing capitalism has been achieved within the official Marxist tradition in the U.S. Yet, failure to “figure it out” or at least to seriously wrestle with the hidden complexities of that fundamental problem — and not assume that “there is no problem; Lenin worked it all out in What Is To Be Done? The answer is obvious” — spells disaster for the left, sending us reeling again down avenues of slaughtered hopes and beheaded dreams.

Lenin, on the other hand, indeed asked, Where does working class consciousness come from? How does it develop? What forms does it take? How does it interact with and become conditioned by capitalism and absolutism? Whether or not one agrees with his answers, he articulated them sharply in What Is To Be Done? and they have had profound (if not decisive) influence on the course of socialist organizations thereafter.

Take the original cast that formed the U.S. Communist Party in 1919. In terms of policy, the almost all-male, all-white grouping was as violently anti-electoral as today’s anarchists, as a matter of principle. The early CP opposed all work with trade unions, which it correctly saw as driven by anti-IWW hacks like Samuel Gompers, and followed Lenin’s example by denouncing union leaders with a scorn that would make today’s CP and other old left officials — let alone today’s Labor Party advocates — cringe in a corner and beg for mercy.

The things that today we label “leninist” and scorn were once-upon-a-time considered attributes of anarchism. And positions that today are derided as “anarchistic” were once-upon-a-time fundamental attributes of the leninist form of organization. (A leading New York City anarchist paper of the 1930s even went so far as to call itself “The Vanguard”.)

At the same time, their idea of what their organizations should do — even the underground — was entirely propagandistic.

It was generally assumed back then, same as today, that rev­olutionaries needed to form groups that do something to or for others: raise their consciousness, organize them, win them as recruits to their group — even empower them. Their fights were over which words and positions to promulgate, scavenging the garbage dumps of rhetoric for that one elusive phrase — the key, they believed, to unlocking the workers’ bolted (or “false”) consciousness!

Words, words alone, the correct combination of words! Do leftists really believe that exhortations could convince anyone to be other than they are, could shoehorn consciousness into the squeaky new shoes of revolt? Words! Exposés! The behaviorism is everywhere evident in how they see change occurring. Find the magic words, and Shazzam! The working class will open up to them, they think, legs spread wide and steamy on the bedspread of history. Abracadabra! They have nothing to change in their own lives, no physical attacks to make on any institutions, take no risks. Aufhebüng! Wordy programs, maximum programs, minimum programs, transitional programs — not deeds! Is it any wonder that today’s Marxists wander ratlike through the mazes of their discontent admonishing the working class to hurry and find its way, dammit!, to its predestined cheese of socialism?

If only they could convince enough workers of the need for com­munist revolution and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. So, leaflet those workers to “raise their consciousness”! “Support” strikes by twisting in “Marxist” lessons like bits of lemon at the end of a leaflet. Cajole workers to vote for the Democrat of their choice or, if they are really militant, for a “socialist” candidate. The primary activity of the party: to “raise the consciousness” of the class by, as Lenin put it, “contin­ually exposing abuses of the capitalist system on a nationwide scale.” And then what? They never said. The underlying assumption — today as well as 70 years ago — was that if enough people came to believe in the need for socialism, then it would (magically? spontaneously?) somehow come about. And if we all applaud loudly enough Tinkerbell won’t die!

Exactly how “raising consciousness” would lead to revolutionary movements in industrialized capitalist countries was left mysteriously unexplored. Confused? Join the party.

Authorizing the Question

Well, was Lenin’s analysis of the origin of socialist consciousness, to which his vanguard party was a response, right or wrong? With the exception of Rosa Luxemburg, what Marxist has even dared raise that question? Almost no one.2 Yes, many have challenged this or that aspect of how the vanguard party should be organized. A few within that tradition — a very few — have even rejected the need for a vanguard party, claiming that socialist ideas can be brought into working class movements without requiring a rigid, ultra-disciplined, and democratic centralist party of professional revolutionaries. But even fewer radicals — and here I include anarchists as well as Marxists — go back to those original questions pertaining to “consciousness” — what is it?, where does it come from?, how is it to be organized?, what is its role in the revolutionary socialist transformation of capitalist society?, and what is the difference between the “consciousness of a class for itself” and thousands of individual workers being “class conscious”? — in order to assess the legitimacy of Lenin’s (and their own) organizational strategy.

The problem could not be posed more sharply: If, as Lenin and the Second, Third and Fourth Internationals believed, social­ism is not a movement that spews up like lava from the volcano of worker rebellions and indeed, if it has a wholly separate genesis and historical trajectory, is it possible to connect the two, is it legitimate to do so, and how could that be done?

This is the theoretical puddle in which all of social-democ­racy splashed, including Luxemburg and Lenin. Unlike later generations, their attempts to grapple with the question of consciousness guided their organizational efforts.

Karl Marx also believed there needed to be an organization of conscious revolutionary communists — as did, by the way, Bakunin, Makhno and many other anarchist leaders. But Lenin’s theoretical basis for the creation of the vanguard party, as put forth in What Is To Be Done?, contradicted Marx’s analysis of thirty years before, for Marx believed that political consciousness arose “spontaneously” (I prefer “organically”) from the economic circumstances and strug­gles of workers.3 In Marxism and the Party, John Molyneaux perceptively summarizes Marx’s views:

The key theoretical problem [for Marx] was the nature of the relationship between economics and politics, and specifically between the economic struggles of the working class and the development of its political consciousness and organization. There are various texts of the period which show that, essentially, Marx held the view that political conscious­ness arises spontaneously from the economic circumstances and struggle of the workers.4

Molyneux quotes Marx from a speech to a delegation of German trade unionists in 1869:

Trade unions are the schools of socialism. It is in trade unions that workers educate themselves and become social­ists because under their very eyes and every day the struggle with capital is taking place … The great mass of workers, what­ever party they belong to, have at last understood that their material situation must become better. But once the worker’s material situation has become better, he [sic] can consecrate himself to the education of his children; his wife and children do not need to go to the factory; he himself can cultivate his mind more, look after his body better, and he becomes socialist without noticing it.5

Marx assumed that mass revolutionary consciousness would evolve gradually and spontaneously in the broad day-to-day struggles of the working class. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels did offer some general assertions about the role of conscious communists in assisting that process. They were to:

  1. represent the interests of the revolutionary movement as a whole (as opposed to its immediate, trade, sectoral, or national interests);
  2. bring out the international dimension hidden in every local struggle; and
  3. establish a political organization embodying the most advanced consciousness of the working class and not one separate from it.

But Marx and Engels, unlike Lenin, thought more in terms of consciousness “emerging” among wide layers of workers as opposed to its being “imparted.” Thus, they never felt the need to fully elaborate a specific overview of how revolutionary consciousness develops and, consequently, what forms groups of conscious com­munists would need to take; they never created a “theory of the party” nor developed an explicit account of why such an organization of conscious communists would be needed in the first place to perform even the few general tasks they’d assigned to it. As Marx wrote:

The political movement of the working class has as its ultimate object, of course, the conquest of political power for this class, and this naturally requires a previous organization of the working class developed up to a certain point and arising from its economic struggles.

On the other hand, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and tries to coerce them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular trade, to force a shorter working day out of individual capitalists by strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand, the movement to force through an eight-hour, etc., law, is a political movement. And, in this way, out of the separ­ate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say, a movement of the class, with the effect of enforcing its interests in a general form, in a form possessing generally socially coercive force.6

Marx indicated, many times, the importance of working class struggles not only in achieving political victories in the larger society, but on the formation of communist consciousness within the working class itself. This transformative capacity of even economic struggles was, for Marx, paramount. For instance, as early as the The German Ideology (1845), Marx and Engels had written:

For the creation on a mass scale of communist con­sciousness, as well as for the success of the cause itself, it is necessary for individuals themselves to be changed on a large scale, and this change can only occur in a practical movement, in a revolution. Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because only in a revolution can the class which overthrows it rid itself of the accumulated rubbish of the past and become capable of re­constructing society.7

Five years later, in a speech before the Central Committee of the Communist League, Marx again emphasized the ongoing actuality of the revolutionary struggle on the subjectivity of the working class:

We say to the workers: You have to endure and go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil war in order to change the circumstances, in order to make yourselves fit for power.8

For Marx and Engels, consciousness was not some state of individual enlightenment to be attained from outside workers’ struggles as a class. Class consciousness is part of an ob­jective process inherent in, bound up with and emerging from those struggles. In fact, at times Marx sees class consciousness not as having to do with the consciousness of individuals at all, but something qualitatively different and independent of that. Sometimes, for Marx, consciousness is the constituitive factor in the consolidation of class itself: There is no “objective” working class without class-based organizations, struggles — i.e., without at least some degree of class consciousness, as defined by the objective organization of the class (just as there can be no forest without trees). The greater the consciousness, the more the working class can be said to exist.9 This is a complicated dialectic, missed by virtually all Marxists writing today. I’ll discuss it more in the following chapters. It is enough to say here that, for Marx, the subjective and objective are inseparable, that the objective existence of a class cannot be posited separately from its consciousness of itself and its interests.

Destiny, It Seems, Has Taken A Hand

Despite Marx’s brilliant historical writings — particularly The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850; and The Civil War in France: The Paris Commune, in which the intricate relations between classes are vividly examined, there is nevertheless a need to detail the processes by which workers become conscious of their own class interests and how they might organize themselves to change the world, and not simply posit the need for that to happen. That grand omission in Marx, and among post-Marx Marxists, anarchists and other radicals, has left the door open for a sort of inevitability to wander into the whole question of consciousness, which Molyneux points out:

The strength of Marx’s conception, [Molyneux writes], lies in its materialism, its emphasis on learning through experi­ence and struggle; its weakness lies in its economic determinism and optimistic evolutionism. History has demonstrated not only the process of development outlined by Marx, but also a wide range of counteracting forces serving to block the transition from trade-union consciousness to socialist conscious­ness.10

Molyneux goes on to look at this in light of Marx’s concept of revolutionary working class organization:

The struggle of ideas and tendencies within the work­ing-class movement will [Marx and Engels believed] sort itself out as the class tendencies of the workers assert themselves. … There is, therefore, a strong element of fatalism in Marx’s attitude to the formation of the party.11 [my emphasis]

Lenin, as usual, complicates things even further, as profound revolutionary thinkers always do. For although on the one hand the working class is destined by historical circumstances to be unable, through its spontaneous motion, to know its true condition, says Lenin in What Is To Be Done?, on the other, he insists — virtually standing alone on this point with some anarchists — that human beings could and must intervene politically and, by conscious exertions of will, overturn the relations of capitalism and achieve a free socialist society.

Such a bold, perplexing, and in some sense utopian assertion by Lenin is far from self-evident in the tangle of his dialectic. Lenin’s view — that people, en masse, can exert their col­lective “will” in spite of all — is more an ex­istential declaration than a Marxist one. Human will is shaped by — and yet somehow has the ability to itself shape, transcend and transform — historical conditions, even as the motion of the class within capitalism precludes it from developing socialist consciousness as long as it remains “in itself,” within its historically-pushed (and bound) motion — that is, within its determinism.

The assertion that we can somehow “act freely to change the conditions preventing us from acting freely” is an age-old paradox. It is supremely ironic that it was the “hard as nails” Lenin who held an almost utopian faith in the abil­ity of people to rise to the occasion and seize their destinies in their own hands, albeit only once the vanguard party had brought them the information they supposedly required, while so much of the so-called “democratic” socialist organizations in Western Europe and the U.S. co-opted working class political struggles into piecemeal “reforms,” basically accepting the legitimacy of capitalist property relations. While some sectors of the working class did win im­provements in wage levels and conditions on the job, the forms those struggles were forced into (corporate union­ism, electoral politics, etc.), have overall served to enhance capital’s control over more and more arenas of society, expanding its domination of daily life. No wonder that in his own day Lenin was considered an anarchist by many Marxists and social democrats — a harsh charge for them, indeed.

Today, when leninism and anarchism are seen as polar oppo­sites within the radical left, the charge of “anarchism” against Lenin seems absurd. And yet, and this will no doubt come as a surprise to many on both ends of the spectrum, most an­archists share certain key assumptions with Lenin about the role of revolutionary organization — the positive, almost utopian assertion that people can do something to change their conditions, everything is not predetermined; and the negative vanguardist strategy (yes, among anarchists, social democrats and liberals too) that sees the mission of revolutionaries as one of “raising the masses’ consciousness” — although the ways they’ve chosen to organize themselves to accomplish their self-designated duty may differ. All “consciousness-raisers” — anarchists and leninists alike, as well as religious zealots — are, like it or not, vanguardists on a mission from God, or Truth, or the Dialectic, or History, or the Bible, activists who organize themselves as a cadre of “consciousness raisers” to lobby government, pass legislation, and “inform the masses” about how bad things are, haranguing them to write letters to congress, or follow their tedious annual exhortations to subsidize Washing­ton-bound bus companies to be a body in yet another futile protest. They see themselves as dumpers of “important facts” down the coal chutes of consciousness into the empty bins of people’s heads, hoping they will overcome their “false consciousness” and get out there and revolt.

What when the proselytizing fails, as it must? What when that old mole the working class turns out to be a lousy rodent, after all? Instead of questioning their assumptions about how they conceived of their own role, program-mongering leftists conjure up all sorts of theories about others, social conditions, objective forces, to rationalize their failures.

Failure is always portrayed as somehow “inevitable,” as out of their control. The “objective limitations of the historical period,” they preach, preclude revolutionary ac­tion by the working class and thereby justify all sorts of opportunism. The Second International, for instance, moaned that conditions weren’t ripe for a truly popular uprising against World War I — this, when millions of people were being slaughtered throughout Europe! Or the Communist Party in France, 1968, sabotaging the wave of mass strikes and direct actions across the country, under the pretext: “Objective conditions are not ripe for revolution.”

And because history, in both cases, had not yet moved to a point where people could do anything to dramatically change their situation, workers were — and always are — left with their only option: to lobby the state and their employers for “reforms.” In the case of World War I, the Second International — hoping to share in the booty should “their” country win — endorsed the militarist acts of “their” ruling class while denouncing the carnage of others, and provided the cannon-fodder for the war, just as they do today and in every war, from within the ranks of the workers. They staked their hopes for trade union victories for “their” workers on the defeat of “other” workers at home and abroad. In 1968, the official communist party again used the historical determinist argument — “objective conditions aren’t ripe” — to betray the aspirations and concrete actions of the working class.

Rarely, if ever, do they discuss what they should do, what kind of actions they should take, what risks they should run. All they care about is how to get the rats to run their maze. In a quandary, they hide behind the curtain of determinism. And, if it is not “objective conditions,” it is “lack of the correct program”: Not enough workers have yet rallied around “their” slogans pertaining to the inevitability of so­cialism (and therein securing their own positions as “leaders” conducting that tired old locomotive of history down its predestined tracks). Ironically, we find leninists and labor bureaucrats using opposite sides of the determinist coin to come to the same hopeless conclusion.

In the meantime, they appeal, petition and beg those in power on behalf of the oppressed to limit their excesses until such time that the rats’ … er, masses’ … “human nature” will sufficiently change so they would not need the state, poor things, to protect them from themselves (unlike the rat-masters who need the state to fund their experiments … er, “scientific research”). “We are not too bad off, but oh, those poor workers.” And where is the vision of a new world? Subsumed in an in the meantime analysis. In the mean­time, socialism is made into a change in management, not a change in humanity! In the meantime, rely on the “ben­evolence” of the capitalist state, religious leaders, congress, experts (those who know better than you), mommy, daddy, even Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed (currently selling us American Express). In the meantime, the vision of people empowering themselves, of collectively, consciously seizing control of everything shaping their lives through their own direct actions, is undermined by missionaries who call themselves leftists!

It is precisely that apparent contradiction — the rel­ationship between free will (“subjectivity”) and his­torically determined necessity (“objectivity”) — that seems to have dropped out of discussions of how revolutionary consciousness arises and the role of conscious revolutionaries, if any, in fostering it.

Marx insisted that there is a very taut non-circular relationship between attaining consciousness of one’s world and the material conditions of the very world that would enable one to be conscious of it. He writes:

We do not face the world in doctrinaire fashion, de­claring: “Here is the truth, kneel here. …” We do not tell the world, “Cease your struggles, they are stupid, we want to give you the true watchword of the struggle.” We merely show the world how it actually struggles; and consciousness is something that the world has no choice but to acquire, even if it does not want to.12

How was the world to inevitably acquire such consciousness? For Lenin, it would necessarily require the intervention of some sort of force either not subject to or having, for one reason or another, overcome those historical blinders. That agency was the party. Once one accepts Kautsky’s “separate track” claim and Lenin’s strategy for overcoming it, everything else follows pretty much in tow.

Form and Content

Any project is, ultimately, a concretization of a philosophy of organization in which the objective and subjective reflect off of and shape each other and, in revolutionary periods, merge. Different definitions of purpose give rise to different organizational forms, which, in turn, give rise to qualitatively different kinds of experience. You can’t separate lack of internal democracy from the way organizational members (or cadre) perceive their own purpose, objective structure from subjectively-conceived mission. In such conditions, the form generally undermines the revolutionary potential of the content.

The question, thus, is not “anti-organization” vs. “organi­za­tion,” although both leninists and anarchists have tried to frame it that way — the former feeding fears of chaos, and the latter of hierarchy, bureaucracy and domination — but, “What kind of organization?” How will it function? What is its vision, and how is that embodied in and facilitated by the particular form?

The leninist form of organization is, ultimately, built upon a leap of faith, from the historical mission of the vanguard party to the inevitable victory of the working class in creating a new society. Socialism becomes “inevitable.” Progress always advances on its “forward march” predetermined to triumph over the forces of darkness. And, like the Jews of biblical times, self-anointed revolutionary intellectuals long to be its “chosen people,” “conductors” aboard the “great locomotive of history” steaming inevitably across Cyberia — all aboard the Quark Express! — generating an enormous sense of self-importance and fervor to insure the unimpeded continuation of the grand historic mission, leading the proletariat inevitably to victory in the Canaan of socialism.

In a world of dead things, where nothing has meaning, History quickly degenerates into a mechanistic and self-indulgent enterprise in which it becomes a prison, an absolver, an excuse, a crusade, a justification, an armchair, a locomotive, a sword, a dragon, a windmill, a force, a spirit — whatever is needed to rationalize one’s academic niche in which too many had long ago grown comfortable and sedate, if not secure. And it wears many disguises. Call it God, the Proletariat, the Vanguard Party, Big Science, Objective Reality — the Dialectic of History works in mysterious ways. “And if Malcolm X were still alive,” said the insufferable speaker for the Socialist Workers Party one fine evening in New York City, “he’d be out there with us leafleting for the march on Washington next week.” “Uh-huh,” the blessed faithful aspirate, nodding vigorously.

Inevitability of any sort requires blind faith and a panoply of saints and martyrs. Reading it into history’s intricate tango slamdances the masses into the churches/parties/line of the moment. For the Beatles it was the “inevitability of the youth rebellion.” For Christians, the “inevitability of the afterlife.” For leninists, God (usually going by his everyday name, “History”) is always on their side. Faith is what we use to transcend the psychological abyss wrenched open by desire, on the one hand, and strategies incapable of meeting that desire, on the other. It is how we are able to live with ourselves when wracked with contradiction and alienated from our potential, gasping like berries in the mouth of forgiveness.

But historical inevitability requires a faith we can no longer afford. The luxury of wielding the sword of Objective Historical Inevitability to cover up the chasm of our own impotence can no longer be sustained by stirring dec­larations: “History is on our side. Workers arise! Join the Party! Long live the Third (or Fourth, or Fifth!) International!” despite the power of those appeals. True, in the Kingdom of the blind the one-eyed soul is God. But faith — “inevitablist” faith promoted by old left parties and a vulgarized understanding of Marxism, “absolutist” faith promoted by religions of the west, “great nation, we’re Number One” faith promoted by capital, “absolute lea­der” faith promoted by fascism among those with broken egos and shattered dreams, the kind of faith that relinquishes vision in exchange for vicarious (and ul­timately even more hurtful) pseudo connection to some larger-than-human transhistorical force — even when it is only partly blind is a very dangerous creature indeed. The course of revolutionary movements is littered with the corpses of those who were slashed to bits by “comrades” acting in the name of “historic forces,” proclaiming their faithful allegiance to an authority beyond themselves and their com­munities, serving it sometimes obediently, sometimes critically — the better, as apostles of the Holy Truth, to rationalize their abusive actions in the name of organizational discipline and higher cause, and win converts.

How we crave forces beyond our own frail human hands to bless our activities and imbue them with meaning beyond the immediate, whose emblems we could engrave upon our shields and whose scarves we could wrap around our lances or embroider on our baseball caps, in whose name we could fight. How the left needs its History that way, invents its History. Whether or not history functions that way is beside the point. We need it to function that way, whether it wants to or not.

Faith eases our transgressions and, if only in our minds, turns failure into success. What disempowered person doesn’t yearn for some force (say, a Tornado to whisk them from Kansas to Oz) to empower them, especially when things seem hopeless? Faith, its batteries charging us with non-stop activity, provides an excuse for leftists to avoid dealing with fears, emotions, child­hood abuse and conditioned “needs.” It causes us to re­produce all the destructive relations of the society we’re trying to transform.

Determinism dissipates the urgency of every moment and, consequently, the actuality of revolution inherent in it. The Left’s vision of a new and better so­ciety twines itself around its faith in the inevitable dissolu­tion of the old one. Vision and Faith are twin helixes that both empower and rigidify, disempower and make things feel hopeless and lonely, embolden armies that we need to win and yet sow the seeds of our own destruction, all at the same time.

Faith in some larger-than-life force stirs the kettle of meaning in our souls, a meaning built upon a sense of serving some higher Absolute which wends its way objectively regardless of what we do. But, then, why would History need us to do its bidding? Such obvious inquiry is dismissed with a wave of the dialectical wand and a shrug of shoulders.

The Tragedy of Strategy, Paralysis of Analysis

Lenin, to his credit, did not shrug his shoulders and shy away from examining the premises underlying his activities as he became aware of discrepancies. When the 1905 revolution in Russia demonstrated that the working class did indeed fashion embryonic socialist formations for itself in the period of revo­lutionary upsurge, namely workers’ councils (or, in Russia, “soviets”), Lenin was forced to reconsider the assump­tions he’d made in devising the role of the party. He wrote that What Is To Be Done? “should not be treated apart from its connection with the concrete historical situation of a definite, and now long past period in the development of our Party.”13 How much of this actually made a fundamental difference in how the party conceived of itself? I think, very little. And it has had zero effect on old left parties around the world, who rarely raise the issue and who, where they continue to exist at all, carry on in the fallacious philosophical footsteps of What Is To Be Done?

Unlike today’s Marxists, Lenin came back to those underlying questions repeatedly over the course of his life. Particularly with his readings of Hegelian dialectics in 1914-1916, Lenin realized the falsity of his earlier philosophical positions upon which the entire idea of the vanguard party had been constructed.

But, as Raya Dunayevskaya, alone among later Marxists, took pains to point out, Lenin nevertheless retained the formation he built — the vanguard party — even though he had based it on a theory of consciousness and how it arises that even he had come to reject.

The fact that political questions and socialist consciousness did not need to be brought into working class struggles from “the outside,” that they did indeed emerge powerfully within the class in revolutionary periods, and that the original premises for formulating the party as vanguard were found to be erroneous and thereby irrelevant to advancing the revolutionary process made no difference to Lenin, who continued to build the party with minor modifications here and there. Its cadre, including Lenin, persisted in conceiving of it as the vanguard, and its mission defined within that scope.

Perhaps some form of organization was needed for other reasons; but then those reasons required articulation. The kind of organization to be built, the way it would be structured — indeed, its entire raison d’être — needed to be redesigned accordingly, which never happened. The closest the Bolsheviks came to doing that was in embracing the slogan: “All Power to the Soviets!” — true working class dual-power formations — which the Bolsheviks stripped of any real authority shortly after they assumed state power, a tragedy that would haunt the Soviet Union and, indeed, the world socialist movement from 1917 on. By then the party had taken on new purpose; it had become an instrument for carrying the Bolsheviks to the verge of achieving state power for and in the name of the proletariat. And while many consider the immediate success of that “putsch” a refutation of all criticisms of the vanguard party construct offered here and elsewhere — holding state power by whatever way one comes to it carries, for many, its own validity — many of the “betrayals” yet to come were wrapped up in that fundamentally misconceived notion of the role of consciousness in the historical process, and what forms to build.

Instead of fundamentally transforming the Bolshevik party — either before or even after the seizure of state power — Lenin continued to prop it up. Here was Lenin’s (and the old left’s) Original Sin: He kept the apple of the party and polished it, giving ever newer rationalizations to avoid reconceptualizing its original mission even after the actions of the working class had relegated What Is To Be Done?‘s underlying theory of the party — and consequently, the need for its existence — to the sauceries of history.

It’s My Party, I’ll Cry if I Want to

Most leftists take on forms handed down from the past without question, or they create new ones out of utopian impulses of “how we’d like to relate in a new world,” severed from an analysis of the social-psychological-political-economic nexus of the one we live in and how those new forms would intersect the desired goals. These formations serve specific psychological functions. Among them, they: 1) re-create security in authority and in requiring unified political positions (whether correct or not, unanimous or not) in contrast to living in a disempowering system where no action one takes seems to make much real difference, and 2) substitute a sense of voluntary community in our organizations for the lack of real community in our lives. The first point characterizes most leninist parties (I include trotskyist, as well as stalinoid, within that category), and the second one a stunted version of feminism, anarchism, and the new left, although they are not mutually exclusive and often overlap.

It should be clear by now that differing analyses of “where revolutionary consciousness comes from and how it is fostered” require different forms of political organization based on them. Consequently, the importance of the discussion.

Molyneux digs deeper into it:

The root of the problem lay in the conception of the relationship between the party and the working class, a conception which neither Marx nor Engels ever clearly challenged; i.e., that of a broad party steadily and smoothly expanding, organizing within ever wider sections of the proletariat, until at last it embraced the overwhelming majority.

As Chris Harmon has written: “What is central for the social democrat is that the party represents the class.” If the party represents the class, then it must contain within it the different tendencies existing within the class, and Marx and Engels, though they strove for the dominance of Marxism, accepted this. . . . The consequence is that the re­lationship of representing the working class in its reformist phase turns into opposing and betraying it in its revolutionary phase. . . . The party does not cease to represent the interests of the class as a whole, but to do this it has to restrict its membership to those for whom the interests of the class as a whole predominate over individual, sectional, national or immediate advantage, i.e. to revolutionaries.”14

Marx and Lenin projected different conceptions of how the working class would come to be politically organized as a class for itself. These political differences across the early Marxian generations would play themselves out later in the philosophical debates over free will vs. historical determinism that Jean-Paul Sartre and the existentialists brought to the fore in Europe following World War 2; in the strategic debates on party formation between Rosa Luxemburg and V.I. Lenin, who were contemporaries; and in the cultural and ideological debates within the new left of the 1960s, between what was inside people’s heads and what was outside of them, conditioning them. Almost every philosophical question pertaining to revolutionary strategy has its roots, one way or another, in the separation of subject from object and the unconscious acceptance and repro­duction of it in our daily lives.

As I wrote in “Help, I’m Voting and I Can’t Get Up,” that dualism spills into many “secondary” (but crucial and painful) dualities involving seemingly unbridgeable abysses: between freedom and determinism; cause and effect; the whole and the parts; universal and particular; abstract and concrete; absolute and relative; form and content; mechanisms of conditioning and independent consciousness; quality and quantity; worker and consumer; fact and value; reason and emotion; sadism and masochism; revolution and reform; mind and body; production and consumption; education and direct action; vanguard and mass; opportunism and adventurism; and, spontaneity and organization.

Almost all the important debates within the left have stressed one side or another of these dualities. But these are all false dualities reflecting, from different angles, the same severed Unity, requiring a leap of faith to bridge them. It is not a matter of choosing free will or determinism, spontaneous conscious development or consciousness from “out­side,” changing the world or changing oneself, direct action or education, “as if they are hot and cold sausages on the counter of history,”15 in Rosa Luxemburg’s immortal phrase. A new theory of theory and practice would address the origins of revolutionary consciousness and its relationship to mass movements.16 (The left’s failure to do so has led to disastrous organizational consequences, and it is on these reefs that the old left’s ship tore apart, as did the Soviet Union.) It would seek to transcend such invidious distinctions by using them as portholes through which to swim back into that ocean of Oneness and examine and reconnect our lives.

LESSON NUMBER ONE

Revolutionaries must hold onto the Totality with all our might! Don’t allow yourself or your organizations to be put in a situation of promoting or choosing from false dualities. Always strive to find a way to unask the questions that lead down one branch or another of the false duality, and to reframe the options generated, which will enable you to hold onto the Totality even in the face of unbearable pressures to do otherwise.

Time and again we are presented with emergency choices: Forced collectivization of food production in the Soviet Union in 1927 or mass starvation in the cities; wait generations for the full development of a proletarian working class before making revolution (when socialism would have at least a class basis and a much greater chance of success) or organize insurrections to seize the state apparatus for the future working class, as safe-guarders, protectors, and condition-creators of that future class because people are dying now (the case made by the Communists in Afghanistan and in many other places); become a “fifth col­umn” inside the U.S. as part of the Vietnamese, Nicaraguan, or El Salvadoran revolutions because world revolution is truly “one struggle, one fight, no boundaries,” or organize within the domain of accepted opposition to change government policy towards those others to keep them from being murdered now, which would require different alliances, coalitions and organizing tactics. These are all life-and-death decisions; we have to respond one way or another once the situation arises. But we are never prepared, it seems, to deal with them. Their severity, when they do arise, results from previous decisions that sent us down one branch or another of a false duality leading to the seemingly hopeless crisis, paving the way for an endless series of even greater crises in the future.

New York activist Tom Smith elaborates on this further. In the Soviet Union following the October 1917 revolution, he writes,

the same circumstances that forced the Bolsheviks to utilize more coercive measures might themselves have been the result, in part, of coercive policies decided upon previously, when the Bolsheviks had more leeway to elect upon alternative, less coercive, more democratic policies. During the civil war, there was tremendous famine in the cities. This famine forced the Bolsheviks to find ways to obtain more grain to the cities. They chose a policy of forcibly expropriating grain. Such forced expropriation created class conflict between the working class and the peasantry, … laying the seeds for the bureaucratization of the revolution. At that point in the historical process — given the policy choices already made by the Bolsheviks – such forcible expropriation was probably an absolute necessity because of the famine. But could that famine have been partially prevented, made less severe, had the Bolsheviks instituted two policies immediately after the seizure of power: the expropriation of the landed estates for cooperative cultivation by the rural workers and the poor, landless peasants; and the creation of a system of universally elected assemblies, national, regional and local? 17

At each step along the way, the emergency of the moment was used to preclude the creation of the space and time needed that would foster the development of class consciousness. As a result, over the years, it became possible for the State to motivate people only through appeals, more and more, to the “nationalistic” or “bourgeois” side of their longings.

How quickly the left forgets that, for 30 years, Boris Yeltsin was a leading member of the Soviet Coummun­ist Party, as though his politics, along with those of the two-thirds of the new Russian leadership that had been Communist Party bureaucrats, is somehow a betrayal and not a continuation of the politics he mastered all those years as a party leader, and upon which the Soviet state was based. Yeltsin et al.’s power-grab/land-grab is no anomaly. He, more than anyone, embodies the playing out, albeit to the extreme, of the old left’s one-sided appropriation of state power and vanguardism as an “objectively necessary” force working at the behest of history. Yeltsin is Malcolm X’s chickens coming home to roost, the Robespierre of the modern age beheading the illusion of socialism in the guillotine of the “free market.”

In the face of the current privatization orgy — an extension of the privatization of the CP’s direct line to God … er, History, but torn from any semblance of humanitarian moorings — is it any wonder that so many people, in disgust, reject altogether what they are taught is Marxism and leninism? Hence, we come to God’s little joke on the universe: As capitalism’s star rises grimly over the East, it is in the U.S. and perhaps Mexico, Brazil and South Africa that the conditions for rev­olutionary socialist movements are again beginning to emerge. For the first time in recent memory, we in the U.S. are being invited to stop the slaughter and bring on the laughter. Never before has so much hinged on the removal of a single letter, on kicking the “s” of the ruling class, throwing our heads back, and laughing at the humor of History, sneezing new punchlines in our direction.  ♦

FOOTNOTES

1 Lenin, V.I., What Is To Be Done?, in Selected Works, International Publishers, 1967, Vol. 1, p.122.

2 Aside from Rosa Luxemburg’s Organizational Question of Russian Social Democracy and other works, I’ve come across only several Marxists since the debates at the turn of the century who have raised that issue systematically: CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya, both of whom led a rather famous split from the Socialist Workers Party in the 1940s called “The Johnson-Forrest tendency.” Some of Georg Lukács’ writings come close, particularly his Lenin, in which he attempts to synthesize the frameworks of Lenin and Luxemburg, and History and Class Consciousness.

3 Lenin’s early views on the nature of party organization and on the consciousness underlying what he saw as the need for it contrasted sharply with Marx’s (as we have noted), and it is important for us today, in devising rev­olutionary strategy, to fully explore these differences.

By “political,” Lenin meant questions about the state, the government, and conditions of society beyond what we today term “trade union” consciousness. In order to battle the reformists of his day, Lenin counterposed those questions to “economistic” ones in his early writings, especially in What Is To Be Done?, which is the work that most “leninists” today swear by. That is why I spend so much time with it in this chapter even though, after 1905, Lenin himself moved beyond its underlying philosophical basis. Indeed, if Lenin were alive today to see the AFL-CIO’s support for U.S. murder in Central America (just as it had done in Vietnam most of us have taken to calling it the AFL-CIA), allegedly a working class formation, he would rightfully exclaim, “Aha! That’s exactly what I meant when I said that the working class, as a result of its own motion, will not produce the kind of political challenges to the capitalist system that need to happen.” As a result of the way in which the labor movement has developed in the U.S., many workers don’t even see themselves as part of the working class, regardless of their objective situation and relationship to the means of production. Instead, they apply the pervasive (and non-Marxist) sociological label “middle class” to themselves, which impacts on the way workers act, and the organizational forms workers create — indeed, ideology becoming a material force.

4 John Molyneux, Marxism and the Party, Pluto Press, 1978, p. 29.

5 Karl Marx, cited in David McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx, pp.175-176. (Page numbers in McLellan refer to the 1971 London edition.) As quoted in Molyneux, ibid., p. 29.

6 Karl Marx, letter to Bolte, November 23, 1871, in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow 1965, pp. 270-271.

7 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology. The full text, translated slightly differently, can be found in Easton and Guddat, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, Anchor Books, 1967, p.431, and in McLellan, op. cit., p.87. The quoted paragraph was noticeably edited out of Tucker’s Marx-Engels Reader, and also from International Publishers’ The German Ideology.

8 McLellan, David, The Thought of Karl Marx: An Introduction. Harper & Row, 1971, p.53.

9 See, for instance, Marx’s letter to Kugelmann (in, London, n.d., p. 19, as cited in Bertell Ollman, “Marx’s Use of ‘Class,’ ” in Social and Sexual Revolution: Essays on Marx and Reich, South End Press, Boston: 1979. “The plurality of criteria Marx uses in constructing classes,” Ollman writes, “is reminiscent of present day confusion on this subject. It is not enough to argue — as some have — that Marx’s idea of class develops over time, for many of the complications we have drawn attention to are found in the same work or writings of the same period. (p. 37) … The secret of class in Marxism lies hidden in the socialist philosopher’s conceptualization of it as a complex rather than a simple relation. In “class” Marx conflates a number of social ties (relations between groups based on various standards) which are generally treated separately. He views them as interacting parts of an organic whole, the society in question, such that development in any one necessarily affects (more or less, sooner or later) the others. (p. 40) … It is only, in other words, because Marx found groups in his society with different relations to the prevailing mode of production, sets of opposing economic interests based on these relations, a corresponding cultural and moral differentiation, a growing consciousness among these groups of their uniqueness and accompanying interests, and — resulting from this consciousness — the development of social and political organizations which promote these interests that he constructed his peculiar concept of “class.” Of overriding importance is that “class” in Marxism is not just a label for groups carved out of society on the basis of a discernible set of standards but expresses as well the involved interactions which Marx believed he uncovered between these standards. (pp. 42-43) … For Marx, the meaning of “proletariat,” “capitalist,” etc., develops as the analysis of these classes, especially of their interaction with one another, proceeds. Further, the meaning of these concepts along with the number of people included in each class varies somewhat with the problem under consideration and the focus (width or narrowness) with which he views it. Consequently, if class and the different particular classes are and cannot help but be some of the elements with which Marx begins his inquiry into capitalism, as complex relations which emerge through the course of his study, they are also versions of what is found. The distinction is well captured in E.P. Thompson’s claim that “class is not this or that part of the machine, but the way the machine works once it is set in motion.” To offer a strict definition of “class” where brief, relative and conditional indications are called for undermines the effort to grasp the larger social movement within the developed notion of “class.” It also illustrates the distance which separates what is popularly known as “class analysis” from Marx’s dialectical method. (p. 44)

10 Molyneux, John, op cit. p.30.

11 ibid. p.31.

12 Karl Marx to Ruge, September 1843. The complete letter is printed (different translation) in Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, WW Norton & Co., 1972, under the title: “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” pp. 9-10.

13 Lenin, “Preface to the Collection Twelve Years,” Collected Works, vol 13, p. 101. Cited in McLellan, Marxism After Marx, Houghton Mifflin, 1981, p. 88. McLellan also goes on to quote Lenin: “The Economists,” [he said at the 1903 Russian Social Democratic Labor Party congress (the one in which the famous split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks took place) -- MC], “have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other direction — and that is what I have done.” (Lenin, “Speech on the Party Programme,” Collected Works, vol. 6, p. 489.) But it is not clear whether Lenin was here referring to the mission of the party per se, or, more likely, to the excellent critique he offered in What Is To Be Done? of, as he says, the economists, which is a somewhat separate thread in that book.

14 Lenin, “Preface to the Collection Twelve Years,” Collected Works, vol 13, p. 101. Cited in McLellan, Marxism After Marx, Houghton Mifflin, 1981, p. 88. McLellan also goes on to quote Lenin: “The Economists,” [he said at the 1903 Russian Social Democratic Labor Party congress (the one in which the famous split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks took place) -- MC], “have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other direction — and that is what I have done.” (Lenin, “Speech on the Party Programme,” Collected Works, vol. 6, p. 489.) But it is not clear whether Lenin was here referring to the mission of the party per se, or, more likely, to the excellent critique he offered in What Is To Be Done? of, as he says, the economists, which is a somewhat separate thread in that book.

15 Luxemburg, Rosa, Reform or Revolution. Pathfinder Press, 1970, p.49. Luxemburg uses this analogy in discussing the false duality of legislative reform and revolutionary action, but it is so expressive that it pertains to any false duality, as I’ve used it here.

16 The Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT), in a break from the vanguard model that dominates official Marxism in Europe, has been wrestling from its inception with these contradictory tensions, and has devised a complicated but historically-conscious apparatus designed to avoid the pitfalls of prior socialist parties. See, The Workers Party of Brazil: Building Struggle from the Grassroots, by Maria Helena Moreira Alves, available from the Red Balloon Collective.

17 Tom Smith, Brooklyn NY, unpublished letter to International Socialism, available from the author.

4 Responses

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  • Thomas Smith says:

    What seems to escape my good friend the author is that Lenin did not just talk about the party imposing socialist consciousness from without. He also spoke of the party recruiting workers into the party, and the party learning from the workers. A dialectical process of party building and consciousness raising. The one quote you have here from Lenin doesn’t do justice to all the richness of this perspective.

  • Thomas Smith says:

    Other things that bother me here:
    a) where and when did either Lenin or the early CP swear off working with trade unions? M.C. confuses a healthy penchant for critique of the trade union BUREAUCRATS with such swearing off.
    b) the article is drenched in the peculiar anarchist version of Christianity, a hybrid of Protestantism and Catholicism. The Protestant part is that each individual must prove his worth in the eyes of–whom, exactly? God? the ghost of Marx? All by him or herself. Without all those “words, words.” As if human beings, let alone revolutionaries, shouldn’t talk to each other for fear of oppressing each other. The Catholic part is that this proof of worthiness to enter the Kingdom of activist Heaven, must be done by…good deeds! Not words. Words are…behavioristic?! Since when? It is the author who seems to resort to a version of bahaviorism, with his emphasis on deeds rather than words.

  • Thomas Smith says:

    One more, then you’ll have to wait for the thorough refutation. You say that Lenin never answers various questions like, for example, what is to be done. Hunh? If Lenin had no answers–and I assure you that he did, if you’d only care to look and give him the benefit of the doubt–then who made the Russian Revolution? I mean, cut me a break! You certainly DIDN’T DO THAT for Lenin!

    • MITCHEL COHEN says:

      Tom, I urge you to go back and re-read what I wrote. I NEVER said that Lenin never answers various questions. I said that today’s Leninists don’t raise them, except to uphold the questions and answers that Lenin provided in “What Is To Be Done?” — which Lenin later reformulated. That’s one of the whole points of this essay!

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