Rediscovering Leninism – Invitation to debate
27 May 2008
The SD site was recently contacted by Mary Scully, a leading American Marxist, at one with us in seeing the writings of V I Lenin as representing a hymn to workers self-activity, autonomy and democracy rather than the grim proto-Stalinist portrayed by his enemies. She praised us as one of a number of Marxist sites across the globe attempting to repopularise Lenin and the ideas that he espoused, to answer the slanders and distortions of the Leninist world view and oppose the sectarianism and opportunism that the socialist movement falls into when it steps back from any serious or principled approach to politics. Mary suggested that we carry a document written by herself at a time when US Marxists turned away from Leninism, an article which she felt described many of the issues facing Irish socialism today. We have agreed in the hope that those who dismiss Lenin will consider more carefully and will be willing to comment on the work and give us, and Mary, the chance to answer the many mistaken criticisms and prove the relevance of the Leninist model of liberation to today’s working class.
Introduction by Mary Scully
Although this polemic was written over a decade ago, the issues it raises have taken on much greater urgency. The socialist movement has continued to disintegrate and retreat and the politics of social democracy gain ascendancy. Broad political formations of diverse ideological currents have substituted for revolutionary parties, the united front, the transitional program, and a Marxist program. Those who remain steadfast to a Marxist program are shunned and branded as sectarians.
Critiques of this disintegration have focused on “Leninism”, i.e., democratic centralism and organizational form as the problem but this is a matter of looking for answers in all the wrong places.
With the collapse of the Stalinist states, leading to the decomposition and decline of Stalinism from its preeminent political position, the Trotskyist movement followed suit rather than gained importance, and the politics of social democracy advanced. What is required of Marxism is a political analysis of the disintegration of the socialist movement, i.e., an examination of the political causes for the retreat from revolutionary perspectives into a false ecumenism and these are rooted in the profound processes of the international class struggle. With such an analysis we can begin to see the way forward and determine what kind of party will be capable of leading a socialist revolution.
That is where Engels began in his critiques of the program of the Second International; in much the same way as Lenin, Luxembourg, Trotsky and others assessed the capitulation of social democracy prior to the First World War. They focused on the political program of social democracy, not it’s organizational form, and that is what revolutionists must do today to find a way out of this impasse. That evaluation is long overdue. Program, not organizational form, is the very heart of this discussion. It is also the heart of the differences between Marxists and the rag tail and bobtail political formations hoping to substitute for Leninist parties. Can revolutionary social transformation come from groups of those with unquestioned good will and good intentions but no unified program, or is a Marxist program required?
Although “Leninism”, or democratic centralism has become the focus of rejection, what in fact is being rejected is a Marxist program to lead the working class. This does not obviate the importance of united fronts in defense of the working class but emphasizes that a false ecumenism is not a substitute for Marxism.
In the face of the Iraq war, the deepening world economic crisis, the devastation of the colonial countries, and imperialism riding high, the crisis of leadership of the working class remains the central problem. These political problems require revolutionists to think out and creatively develop and apply a Marxist program rather than retreat from that task. Socialist Democracy plays a leading role in that necessary debate.
Mary Scully: Marxism, Centrism, and Sectarianism
Does Leninism Equal Sectarianism?
Leninism and The ‘Mass Left-Wing Workers Subculture’
Paul LeBlanc, who has long advocated the Leninist, i.e., the revolutionary form of organization, now challenges the possibility and the advisability of building such an organization, either nationally or internationally, in this historic period. He claims that there cannot be a Leninist party in this country without the prior existence of a “mass left-wing workers subculture” which is “minority numbering in the millions”. Furthermore, he argues, any attempt to build such an organization will inevitably lead to sectarianism.
According to LeBlanc, this “subculture” existed in the U.S. from 1860 through the 1930s but passed into oblivion during the 1940s and 1950s due to several factors: the effects of the Second World War, Stalinism, a class-collaborationist trade union leadership, the Cold War, and economic prosperity. Because this “subculture” showed such intransigence by managing to survive for 80 years, including through the First World War, anarcho-syndicalism, a class collaborationist trade union leadership, numerous red scares, prolonged economic depressions, and economic prosperity, we need to know exactly what factors led to its demise.
LeBlanc doesn’t tell us much about the workers in this “subculture” except that there were a lot of them. Were they an unorganized group with undefined political sentiments or were they a conscious movement with a philosophical viewpoint? What was their political philosophy? Were they class conscious? Or only partly class conscious? Did they believe in class struggle? Did they believe in the need for socialist revolution? What were the theoretical disputes that engaged them? Was this “subculture” the “class struggle left-wing” or was it even broader? LeBlanc leaves so much unexplained. Precisely, we need to know why the absence of this subculture invalidates the need for a Leninist party, its strategy, and its leadership? And what exactly is it that prohibits Leninists from functioning, even as a minority, to accelerate the formation of this “subculture”?
LeBlanc marshaled no evidence for his claim, when so much is riding on it. It would have been useful if he had described the formation and character of this “subculture”, something of its history and activities, the process and dynamic of its development and decline. If the existence of a Leninist, i.e., a revolutionary party, is dependent upon its prior existence then the revolutionary movement ought to study its formation concretely and in detail, in much the same way as our movement has analyzed the phenomenon of soviets. This elaboration would necessarily become part of the theoretical arsenal of Marxism. Since we have not seen reference to this phenomenon anywhere else in the annals of the revolutionary movement, and because it might crop up in some other country, LeBlanc ought to explain whether this “subculture” is related to peculiarities in the development of the American class struggle or whether it has application to other countries.
The only logical conclusion of LeBlanc’s argument—a conclusion he does not hesitate to draw—is that a revolutionary party be substituted by and subordinated to some undefined broader political milieu on the basis of no program until the “mass workers subculture” reemerges in American politics. So we are not dealing here with a difference of opinion over which organizational form the revolutionary movement should take, as important as that is, but rather with matters of principled significance. His argument is reducible to: “the objective conditions do not exist, the relationship of forces is against us”. The relationship of forces is usually to the disadvantage of the revolutionary movement, so what exactly is it about the current state of the American class struggle that prohibits the application of the Transitional Program and the application of the united front tactic? And how would substituting political vagabondage for Leninism effect the relationship of forces to our advantage? To eliminate the need for a revolutionary party LeBlanc has to deny in general the possibility for revolutionary action, i.e., the possibility of applying the Transitional Program. What he proposes, quite explicitly, is the cessation of revolutionary work within the working class and the substitution of reformist opposition activity within some broader social context. His call for “doing good work” is certainly not the transitional approach of Marxism; it isn’t even the discredited and impotent “minimum program” of social democracy. This formulation—”doing good work”—is so thoroughly bereft of class content and so suggestive of philanthropy, if not religious charity, that it is hard to distinguish from the bumper sticker sentiment “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”.
To accomplish this conceptual feat, i.e., to provide the rationalization for abstention from the class struggle, LeBlanc unfortunately retreats to the classic refuge of the reformists -historic and contemporary—in the labor movement: he unloads the responsibility on the working class itself, on its alleged immaturity evidenced by the absence of this “subculture”. But the overwhelming evidence from American politics today is that the conditions for revolutionary action are not premature; rather they are, as Leon Trotsky put it 50 years ago, “overripe”. It was also Trotsky’s conviction that the existence of a revolutionary party was a “colossal factor” in the maturity of the working class. Trotsky, of course, did not view this revolutionary party as a doctrinaire clique, nor as a small, exclusive circle of partisans without influence on events, but rather as a realistic political party of action, a fighting party, which was willing to pose before workers not only the necessity for socialism but which had something to say and do about the concrete problems facing the working class today.
Actually LeBlanc’s description of this “subculture” is so sufficiently vague that one could argue it already exists, that it reemerged with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s. In the past few years we’ve seen antiwar, pro-abortion, anti racist, homosexual rights, and environmental mobilizations numbering in the millions; not to mention the hundreds of thousands of workers who have been out on strike, the workers who gave millions of dollars to the Hormel strike in the late 1980s; or the Los Angeles rebellions which expressed the acute anger of an extremely important section of the American working class. How can a schematic formula like the need for a “subculture” substitute for an analysis of these dynamic and contradictory phenomena?
What these social, political, and economic struggles really show is that capitalism is in its decline, and that there are not the least grounds for expecting more favorable conditions for revolutionary action, particularly given the crisis of leadership in all of these struggles. The working class is being decimated, numerically and politically; the legions of the unemployed are growing. History has conclusively shown that mass unemployment, which exploits the divisions within the class—particularly the racial and sexual divisions—does not increase but rather diminishes the fighting capacities of the working class and has a negative effect upon its consciousness. To subtract the need for a revolutionary party from these considerations is in reality to substitute an abstraction, i.e., the need for a “subculture”, for the class struggle itself. The construct of such a “subculture”, as a precondition for a Leninist party is not an American historical novelty. LeBlanc is not elaborating here a new revolutionary paradigm replacing that of the Russian Revolution; rather he is unwittingly borrowing old errors from the archives of the revolutionary movement, namely fatalism, spontaneism, and empiricism. He is tripping up over the most fundamental questions in revolutionary politics: the nature of class consciousness, the contradictions and dynamics of the class struggle, the relationship of revolutionary leadership to the working class, and the revolutionary potential of the American working class.
The “Mass Left-Wing Workers Subculture”: A Non-Historical Concept
We cannot here recapitulate the entire history of the American working class movement or the history of the revolutionary movement which is such a part of it, but we must at least introduce the dialectic and the class struggle to that historical inquiry if we are to understand it and draw on it in order to advance the class struggle today in the interests of the working class. Even a cursory examination, but certainly a Marxist analysis of the political workers movement from 1860 through 1930, reveals a very different character than the linear development suggested by LeBlanc, who fails to take into account the development of capitalism or the nature of class conflict. The political development of the working class does not show a steady growth during these 80 years, as LeBlanc indicates. Every phase of the development of American capitalism—the development of its industry and commerce—has had specific features and conditions, which determine the economic and political possibilities of the working class. LeBlanc’s “Golden Age” of the “subculture” includes the conflict between Northern and Southern industry leading to the Civil War and the emancipation of slave labor; the formation of the working class and the organization into labor unions primarily of its skilled workers; the genesis of American imperialism, leading to colonialism and wars of annexation; the great western expansion, including the rise of whole new industries and the defeat and genocide of the indigenous population; World War I, indicating the growing predominance of American imperialism in the world; the huge waves of immigration, which in part introduced the advanced ideas of the European workers movement to the American class struggle; severe economic depressions; the industrialization of American labor and its unionization, excluding the South because of its preponderance of Black workers and the racism of union leadership.
It should be evident that the working class movement would be powerfully, but unevenly, effected by these different phases of capitalist development. It should also be evident that working class consciousness could not be a mechanistic and one-sided aggregation of all this experience because it was so adversely affected by racism (established with the very foundations of American capitalism), war, capitalist repression, and the profound processes of the class struggle.
There is simply no evidence of this unspecified social formation-is it political, economic, cultural? —called the “mass left-wing workers subculture”, spontaneously generating and numerically proliferating, but there is plenty of evidence for the class struggle, sometimes to the advantage of the workers movement, sometimes to its disadvantage. We observe discontinuities, ruptures, leaps forward, steps backward. But isn’t that the nature of class struggle? We observe the political focus shifting to different layers in the working class—from the former slaves to immigrant and newly urbanized workers to migrant workers to the emerging industrial working class—depending on the development of capitalism and the exigencies of the class struggle. We also observe the working class movement advanced, then divided, disoriented, betrayed, advancing anew, then misled again by sectarians, anarchists, syndicalists, bourgeois democrats, utopians, “sewer socialists”, Christian socialists, middle-class do-gooders, racists, misogynists, Stalinists, and last, but not least, capitalist repression.
Different ideological currents within the working class, which anyway represent different class forces, held political hegemony and influence at different times, depending very much on the development of capitalism and other factors like the degree of capitalist repression: prior to World War I was the classic period of social democracy and the rise and expansion of syndicalism, which Trotsky argued, based itself on the lack of development and the prejudices of the working class. Not only the capitalist persecution of radicals prior to World War I signaled the end of the influence of anarcho-syndicalism, but the war itself divided the political workers movement between the social patriots and the revolutionists. The Russian Revolution in 1917 divided the already weakened workers movement, separating the syndicalists and utopians from the revolutionists, who were a minority. The realignment of class forces internationally now counterposed Soviet power to world imperialism, strengthening the revolutionary movement and its authority within the working class.
The degeneration of the Russian Revolution, under the leadership of Stalin, was a blow struck at the world working class. That degeneration demonstrated conclusively that class-consciousness is not a static process of accumulation, as LeBlanc suggests, but rather it is a dialectic and relative process. Just as the victory of the Russian Revolution testified to the “maturity” of working class consciousness, a few years later that very same working class, due to exhaustion, permitted the revolution to be strangled by a bureaucracy that arose from its ranks.
Jim Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, poignantly describes how the early American Communist Party, inspired by the ideals and model of the Russian Revolution, became disoriented and corrupted not just by the Stalinization of the Comintern but by their exhaustion and loss of conviction in the revolutionary potential of the American working class due to the relative economic prosperity of the 1920s. Little could these class fighters foresee, he pointed out, either the impending depression or the great class battles of the 1930s that were just around the corner.
By the time those class battles erupted, the Communist Party was thoroughly Stalinized and permeated with petit-bourgeois political vices. Its degeneration and influence in the workers movement deprived the revolutionary movement of the possibility of positively influencing the class struggle in the direction of socialist revolution. It could not, however, stop the class struggle, nor did it destroy the workers movement or the decisive impact of the revolutionary movement within it, as the 1934 Minneapolis teamster’s strike led by the Trotskyists makes clear. Only one question remains: where was the “mass left-wing workers subculture” in all of this? Where did it stand on the Russian Revolution and in the struggle between Stalinism and Marxism? The influence of a Leninist organization is not measured only by its size but primarily by its support in the working class and its impact on the class struggle. In 1934 the American Trotskyist movement had only several hundred members and in Minneapolis less than a dozen members but they led the nationally important teamsters strike and between 1934 and 1940 were crucial to the development of the teamsters union in the U.S.
World War II, misleadership by the class-collaborationists, (particularly the Stalinists) and the repressive Cold War (which was directed not only at socialist revolution internationally but against the influence of the revolutionary movement in the American labor movement) profoundly and negatively effected the workers movement, but they also indicated the growing crisis of imperialism.
A concrete analysis of this period would require an anatomy of the pernicious role of Stalinism in support of the war, its betrayal of the labor movement, and its impact on the revolutionary movement, as well as an assessment of the impact of the war and of capitalist repression on those movements. Once again, where was the mass workers “subculture” in all of this? Where did they stand? And how were they so decisively routed by the very same class forces that they had so intransigently withstood for 80 years?
Such an analysis would show that the formidable military and repressive resources of capitalism used against the revolutionary movement, i.e., against the working class, could not stop the class struggle from erupting, so unbearable were the contradictions. The antiwar movement that swept the armed forces at the end of the war coincided and interlinked with the great postwar strike wave. Internationally, not only the Korean War and the Cuban Revolution, but the eruption of the anti-Vietnam War Movement showed that anti-communist hysteria generated by the capitalist propaganda machine could not sufficiently restrain opposition to imperialist war, even against a revolution. Such an analysis would also show that the American Trotskyist movement, although reduced by capitalist persecution to only a few hundred people, remained committed to its revolutionary organization and principles. Even as an insignificant minority, they opposed World War II, the Cold War, imperialist war in Korea, and defended the Cuban Revolution. Their adherence to the Marxist program, against all odds and in such unfavorable political conditions, began to attract revolutionary-minded youth to the fight for socialism, putting the movement in a position to take advantage of the new openings in the class struggle just around the corner.
In the U.S. the spontaneous eruptions of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1960s were not outside or mere adjuncts to the class struggle but reflected a shift in focus to those sections of the class who felt the most acute distress, namely women and oppressed nationalities. Just because the more privileged layers of the class, i.e., primarily the organized labor movement under class-collaborationist leadership, did not involve itself as a distinct force in these movements does not mean they remained unaffected. Despite the conservatizing effects of the witch-hunt in the unions they were, unavoidably, drawn into the vortex of social dissatisfaction. The impact of the social movements on the broader working class, combined with and dialectically related to the developing economic crisis, ideologically undermined the racist and sexist divisions within the class as well as the anti-communist ideology from the Cold War. Overcoming the “Vietnam Syndrome”, i.e., mass popular opposition to imperialist war, has prepossessed the capitalist’s ideological arsenal and determined the conduct of its wars ever since, from Granada to Panama to the Gulf War to Somalia. That opposition to war is an ideological gain of the antiwar movement and the direct consequence of the influence and leadership of the American Trotskyist movement within it. Not only have the reformist leaderships of the anti racist movement and the women’s movement restrained those movements from advancing further, but the crisis of American Trotskyism has made sustained revolutionary work within them impossible. The disintegration of the revolutionary movement has left the leadership of the antiwar movement in the hands of Stalinists, sectarians, and reformists who have divided it and disoriented it so that mass public antiwar opposition to the invasions of Granada and Panama, to the war in Central America, and to the Gulf War was divided and inconsistent; there has been no public opposition to the U.S. invasion of Somalia.
That’s the dialectic and the tempo of class struggle: years of capitalist growth and then stagnation; wars and revolution; crescendos in the working class movement, repression by the capitalists; betrayal by the class-collaborationists; ebbs and flows leading to despair; oscillations, vacillations, opportunism, then confidence, all reflected not only in the working class but in the revolutionary movement, and underlying all, the class struggle itself.
Democratic Centralism & The Political Genesis Of Sectarianism
LeBlanc makes the claim that the attempt to build a Leninist organization today would inevitably lead to sectarianism. He is talking a different language here than the language of Marxism. This sarcasm is simply a new twist on the old slander the Leninism inevitably leads to Stalinism. Marxist refutations of this slander, particularly that of Leon Trotsky, show the class approach, the scientific method of analyzing social and political phenomena. Marxism exposed not only the class basis of Stalinism but also the political bias of those who make such odorous imputations against Leninism, namely the bourgeois apologists who oppose and want to discredit socialist revolution. LeBlanc, once again, does not describe the process of the degeneration from Leninism to sectarianism but his articles suggest strongly that democratic centralism is at the root of the problem.
This is puzzling since as a simple organizational formula democratic centralism (which means a serious group bound together by its ideas using democratic debate to advance theory and determine its practice and with enough discipline to act as a united body) could be put to good purpose by any number of organizations, say, e.g., the Boy Scouts. It should also be pointed out that Leninism has operated under many different forms depending on the historical and political conditions (underground, conditions of legality, as opposition tendencies, etc.).
Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Cannon and numerous others have all discussed at length and in detail and with much chagrin the roots of sectarianism in American revolutionary politics; to the person they agreed that it was caused by estrangement from the working class movement. We have the example of the first American Marxists, German immigrants who refused to learn English and met in beer halls to debate Capital; we have the example of the divisive tactics in the labor movement of the early Socialist labor Party under Daniel Deleon; we have the example of the early Communist Party who attempted to form revolutionary unions outside of the existing labor movement, and who in response to capitalist persecution in the 1920s went underground and despite the possibilities for legal political activity and the exhortations of Jim Cannon would only probe the new openings under the political direction of the Third International under Lenin and Trotsky. Much more currently, we have today an entire smorgasbord of so-called Trotskyist sects, not one of which broke with or separated itself from the Fourth International over organizational matters but rather over political questions of the greatest importance like the Cuban Revolution, opposition to imperialist war, trade union policy, and the fight against national and sexual oppression.
What distinguishes Leninism from sectarianism is not that sectarians declare the final goal of socialism and Leninists do not, but rather the sectarian refusal to fight for immediate demands (like wages and hours and health care) or for democratic demands (like women’s rights and self-determination) in the course of the struggle for socialism. Leninists will fight on every one of these life and death issues. As Cannon put it, sectarians stand aloof from the struggle and demand “the unconditional surrender of the capitalist class” in place of organizing the working class to accomplish its own emancipation. Any scientific anatomy of sect politics—and there are plenty around for sociological and political evaluation—would confirm in spades the judgment of Cannon, and the other socialist leaders. The question emerges: what distinguishes this political orientation of sectarians from the proposals of LeBlanc? When Engels, Cannon and the others castigated the American movement for its abstention from the working class movement they did not place any preconditions on the class for that participation. They knew the relationship of forces was against the numerically small and dispersed revolutionary movement. Yet they did not hesitate for a moment to urge the movement to do systematic and sustained work in the workers movement. Now isn’t this precisely what LeBlanc is opposing today? And won’t his alternative perspectives lead directly to the sectarian obscurity that he so correctly abhors?
LeBlanc’s proposals will not only lead the revolutionary movement into isolation and sectarianism, it will put us in the preposterous position of “waiting for the upsurge” in the class struggle, at which point we will improvise a Leninist party out of a bunch of amateurs and parvenus and ad-lib our way to the socialist revolution. You don’t lead a revolution by the seat of your pants. The revolutionary movement does not have time to kill. We live in a period of intensified class struggle involving one war after another, revolutions, deep-going social changes, economic competition and instability. The equilibrium that LeBlanc observes in the working class simply does not exist. The Cold War did not represent stasis in the class struggle but rather repression against the labor movement and that legacy is now beginning to weaken. Mass and spontaneous upsurges are not some distant prospect but present political reality. The absence of revolutionary leadership remains the most urgent political problem facing the working class.
The crisis of imperialism and the related crisis of Stalinism have sent not only the Stalinist movement but the revolutionary movement into a tailspin. It is certainly true that the rebellion against Stalinism in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe has discredited the socialist alternative in the minds of millions of workers. But the blows struck at the working class by the deepening economic decline is creating a new political consciousness which will inevitably propel them to seek radical solutions. The class-consciousness of American workers is as yet underdeveloped; they have not yet, as a class, risen to the point of undertaking independent political action. But the capitalist crisis of leadership has led thousands of workers to an understanding of the need for a party of their own, a party which represents working class interests. Why precisely at this moment does LeBlanc argue that our efforts are premature, fruitless, and the inevitable overture to sectarian degeneration? Why would it be better for us to disperse and become political vagabonds or parasites in some broader movement? What can be so objectionable about an active minority held together by its ideas functioning in the working class? Does LeBlanc not realize that class politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum? Does he not see that, as the revolutionary movement has gone into a tailspin another political current, a compromising reformist current, has prospered and stepped into the breach-namely the social democrats? Unreconstructed Stalinists, vagrant and disoriented Trotskyists, sectarians, confusionists are all ending up refugees in the camp of social democracy. Climbing over each other in the jockey for formal posts within the trade unions, they are reassuming their historic position in the working class in order to more effectively mislead and betray it.
The Crisis Of Leadership
LeBlanc’s perspective, in order to be persuasive, has to ignore some awfully formidable facts. For one thing, the capitalist class is a powerful and well-organized enemy with a deliberate plan of action and enormous resources at its disposal to accomplish it; they at no point and on no question take the equilibrium of the working class for granted. Right now they are organizing on an international scale and are engaged in a vicious offensive against the working class. There is nothing our class enemy would like better than to see the revolutionary movement disperse and retreat “until the upsurge” happens. That dispersal will not prevent eruptions in the spontaneous movement of the class but it will leave it without political leadership, or more precisely it will leave it to the leadership of the class-collaborationists. Another troubling reality that LeBlanc overlooks is that the working class needs its own organization and plan of action to answer the capitalist offensive. When it comes to identifying their problems American workers are way ahead of anybody else. They have lots to say about the threat of unemployment, the increase in temporary and part-time workers, the New Management Techniques and union-busting, NAFTA, “globalization”, racial and sexual oppression. American workers are facing catastrophe and they want explanations and solutions for the problems that confront them. They, better than anyone else, know they need to formulate a plan of action; thus they grasp, better than anyone else, that they have a crisis of leadership.
There have been significant class battles involving hundreds of thousands of workers: from PATCO, to Hormel, the airlines, the railroads, Caterpillar, the mineworkers, nurses, teachers, newspaper workers, farm workers. In all of these battles, despite the willingness of workers to risk everything, the class collaborationist union leadership has demonstrated its treachery by its incapacity and unwillingness to lead these strikes to a successful conclusion by mobilizing the ranks of labor. What the working class needs is a new leadership and of this they are fully aware. Every activist in the trade union movement in every part of the country has heard hundreds of workers rail against “corporate greed” and repeat in almost formulaic fashion “What the unions should have done when Reagan was trying to bust PATCO was to call every union member in the country out on strike.” In those concise words, they express at once their understanding of the need for labor solidarity, the latent and untapped power of organized labor, and the bankruptcy of the present trade union leadership. Capitalist politicians have long-since demonstrated their political corruption and bankruptcy to American workers: from Watergate to Irangate to Contragate, to the S&L scandals, the Clarence Thomas hearings, and the bipartisan support for NAFTA. The internal and political corruption of the AFL-CIO fat cats galls most American organized workers; these officials are viewed on the shop floor as “sleeping with the enemy”. To the workers demand for a plan of action to counter the capitalist offensive, the AFL-CIO responds with its pathetic, not to mention racist and class collaborationist campaign to “Buy American” along with its advice to “write your congressman”.
So how can American workers formulate a plan of battle? Antagonisms and conflict between the different layers of the class mean that a new leadership cannot be immediately improvised but must earn its place. Schooled as workers are in capitalist ideology and class experience, they have come to believe that “power corrupts”. So who can they turn to, who can they trust to elaborate a plan of action and to defend their best interests without compromise? Isn’t that the role of revolutionists?
Culture And The Working Class
Although extremely heterogeneous, socially and politically, the American working class is not all doped up on consumer goods, as LeBlanc so offensively suggests, but it is stressed out and overworked. When LeBlanc says, “Many working-class consumers appear to maintain a critical mind and a sense of humor” he only demonstrates the folly of impressionism. They’re critical all right but they are not in a light-hearted mood. They are extremely testy, beleaguered, ill tempered, volatile, and afraid.
When LeBlanc addresses the cultural aspects of working class life he focuses on sports, music, sneakers, and home decorating which in importance does not distinguish itself from the preoccupations of hunting and gathering societies. LeBlanc’s intention is to demonstrate that American workers are spoiled, ’turned into passive sheep by a mass commodity culture”. Conspicuous consumption is a problem in American life: one only has to watch “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” on TV to see the extravagances. To speak of such a problem within the working class, however, is to be out of touch with economic realities. Let us be clear: Marxists have never been opposed to workers enjoying material wealth; in fact, we want it in abundance but we want it for everyone. Let us be frank: the relative prosperity of American workers has certainly been attained at the expense of workers in the undeveloped countries. But let us also be rooted in economic reality: at the highest levels of the working class today, in order to afford refrigerators, colored TVs, VCRs, and microwave ovens, workers must forego the eight-hour day and the five-day week. Excessive overtime and two wage-earner families are required. For the average working class family one-half a weeks pay is for food and the other half is for mortgage or rent. Is that consumerism? Cultural events like concerts or ball games cost at least a half-week’s pay; if the refrigerator breaks down it may cost a whole week’s pay. Is that consumerism? At the lower levels of the working class today, meaning its majority, i.e., the underpaid and underemployed who are mostly young, Black, and women workers with children, ball games are out of the question, let alone microwave ovens or commodity fetishism. So which layer of the working class is LeBlanc talking about?
Workers watch “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”; they see full well the material resources this society has which are unavailable to them. What bothers them, however, is not reduced access to consumer goods, but the fact that amidst all this wealth, public education is being undermined, that their kids cannot even consider college without substantial scholarships, that there are inadequate medical and social services for their elderly, that the majority of them have no health care at all, that there is no decent or affordable childcare available, that there are no jobs for their kids.
The cultural changes of political significance within the working class pertain not to commodity fetishism but to the impact of the social movements and the economic crisis. The ideas of the feminist movement in conjuncture with the necessity of women working has not just legitimized the demands of women’s equality (like equal pay and childcare) but has generalized them to demands of the class as a whole. Marriage, the family, sexuality, and leisure time have all been effected by this cultural change. The impact of the Civil Rights Movement eliminated “Jim Crow” laws in the South but by no means ended racial oppression. By exploiting working class racism and ignorance about the actual gains of the Civil Rights Movement, the capitalist propaganda arsenal has employed the so-called “War on Drugs” to camouflage what is really a war of violence against Black youth and against civil liberties. This has exacerbated racial tensions within the working class. Nevertheless, racism has been discredited ideologically in wider layers of the class than ever before. The increased hours of work necessary to maintain a family has led to considerably reduced leisure time and a very stressed out workforce, increasing family violence and mass addiction problems. The environmental movement has generated new health awareness as well as greater concern about health and safety on the job. These are only some of the cultural and contradictory changes which effect workers and which need to be politically assessed.
The conditions of the present crisis are creating new opportunities for revolutionists precisely because they are creating the greatest difficulties for the reformists. These phony leaders are losing the confidence of the working class because their plan of action, steadfastly opposed to class struggle, has not improved the condition of our class but has worsened it. The working class has usually dealt with its corrupt leadership by bouncing them out of union office, but that is only possible on the local level because of the lack of democracy in the unions. Today more and more workers understand that the corruption goes all the way to the top. Certainly millions of American workers watched the AFL-CIO officials huff and puff against NAFTA for the TV cameras; many surely drew comparison with the PATCO fiasco and wondered why, once again, on such a life and death question as NAFTA, the ranks of labor were not mobilized to oppose it.
It is true that fear, pessimism and opportunist moods prevail in large sections of the class. However, there is also developing within the trade union movement a rebelliousness against the official leadership as well as against capitalist politicians and linked to this a steadily growing tendency in favor of a labor party. The large number of militant strikes indicate the potential for the emergence of a “class struggle left-wing”. To even suggest at this point that revolutionists withdraw from this struggle is to propose that we abandon the working class to the class-collaborationist schemes of the reformists against the vicious offensive of capitalism.
The revolutionary movement has frequently debated the question of how the working class develops class-consciousness. There have been different schools of thought on the question. One line of thinking—that of Marxists—holds that workers cannot draw revolutionary socialist conclusions from their working class conditions. Dialectical materialism is not the logical philosophical conclusion of social, political, and economic misery. Religion and addiction represent only a few of the philosophical options. That does not mean that workers cannot develop advanced ideas. They can and do have informed and profound insights on all sorts of questions, cultural, political, scientific. They can be antiwar, for women’s rights, antiracist, and even anti-capitalist. They can and do recognize the class nature of society and even the need for some kind of workers revolution but that recognition does not in the least provide the answers for how to accomplish it, the nature of it, or the decisive role of the working class in transforming society. Scientific socialism, which alone elaborates the theory of socialist revolution and the role of the working class, is not the product of common sense or perspicacity (which the working class has in abundance) especially since it is the method of empiricism that is drummed into workers heads through every agency and channel of capitalist rule. Complex social, political, and economic phenomena like the nature of fascism, the nature of imperialism, Bosnia, the Gulf War, the economic crisis require the application of Marxism.
Overcoming the philosophical programming of empiricism and acquiring and applying the science of dialectical materialism to these phenomena is a process of extreme difficulty, not only for individuals but for the revolutionary movement as a whole. The ideological history and ferment of the Marxist movement makes that crystal clear. The formidable opposition and hold of capitalist ideology is a factor of the greatest importance. Another line of reasoning maintains that class-consciousness is a systematically growing by-product of the class struggle, i.e., that misery leads workers spontaneously to revolutionary conclusions. The preponderance of historical and contemporary evidence shows otherwise; not only are workers not made more combative by misery but they become demoralized and begin seeking the easy way out through opportunism, reformism, and capitulation. This view is unfortunately the one held by LeBlanc and he lays it out with admirable frankness. He argues that class-consciousness results from “an accumulation of struggles”. He elaborates in litany form: “An accumulation of trade union struggles, an accumulation of social movement struggles, an accumulation of coalition efforts, an accumulation of creative cultural efforts will be a necessary precondition. Also essential will be those developments which cannot be planned beforehand—economic, social, and political crises that generate mass action among large numbers of workers, opening up new possibilities. When such things come together some variant of a mass working class party can be brought into being.”
Not only have all these preconditions been abundantly met so that we should be able to proceed with the task of rebuilding a Leninist party, not only can we be certain of more crises, but LeBlanc reveals here a misunderstanding of class dynamics and the development of class consciousness that simply staggers the mind. There can be no more undialectical grasp of the nature of class-consciousness and no clearer exposition of the method of empiricism. Marxism is a scientific philosophy, not an experiential one. There are after all experiences and experiences. Fascism, war, economic depression, and mass unemployment are experiences too but ones which we concentrate all of our theoretical and tactical energies to averting!
This “accumulations” concept of LeBlanc has a disconcerting similarity in embryo to the gradualist concepts of Edward Bernstein. LeBlanc needs to show us how it distinguishes itself from the theoretical foundations of revisionism. If class-consciousness did develop in the linear fashion that LeBlanc describes his conclusions would be absolutely correct: there would be no need for a revolutionary party, its program, or its leadership. But class-consciousness is not of such a static and mechanistic nature. The working class is more complicated than that. There is ideological, social, and cultural stratification within the working class that creates antagonisms and conflict; there is the pressure of external forces like war and revolution; and there is the ever-vigilant capitalist ideological arsenal, along with the capitalist forces of repression. Underlying all of this ideological ferment, of course, is the class struggle itself that like nature is “red in tooth and claw”.
Marxism Vs. Revolutionary Ecumenism
”The ruling ideology of an era is the ideology of its ruling class.” That means the working class is indoctrinated and imbued with capitalist ideology. But the capitalist class takes no chances; it uses all of its enormous resources to maintain its philosophical and political hold, including the media, think tanks, schools, religion, the police, courts, law, trade union officials, racial and sexual segregation, spies, and corruption. To the stinking mendacity of all this the revolutionary movement must respond with the scientific analysis of Marxism and our conception of the class struggle between labor and capital. Wresting the masses from the hold of capitalist ideas is a complex, complicated, and protracted process requiring not just experience in struggle by the working class but also theoretical and tactical combat with other ideological currents—who represent other class forces—contesting for leadership. In the interests of the unity of the class we are willing to cease fratricidal struggle but sometimes criticism of these political tendencies is necessary to build that unity. We do not want to break with the broader movement. On the contrary, that’s why we devised the united front tactic. That tactic means that we will collaborate with anyone, regardless of our differences, to advance the struggle of the working class. But that doesn’t mean we are willing to degrade Marxism theoretically by subordinating it to the needs of some phony and sentimental harmony within the ’broader revolutionary movement’. No such harmony exists between the two opposing classes or certainly in the trade unions or social movements where activists must combat class collaboration on a daily basis. So why should we demand it in the socialist movement? And why should we liquidate our program and our party to accomplish it?
We cannot, in the interests of good relations, eliminate theoretical combat with other tendencies within the movement unless we first eliminate the antagonisms between the classes and between the different layers of the class, say, e.g., between racist workers and Black workers, or between misogynist workers and women workers. We cannot subordinate our political program and perspectives just because other political currents don’t agree with us. The questions at stake in this ideological conflict are not over trifles, the differences between us do not merely involve “petty competitions”, as LeBlanc argues, but are of the gravest consequence. Witness the disunity of the antiwar movement during the Gulf War, a division created by the sectarian and reformist leaderships of that movement. Among the more unspeakable atrocities of the war is that 47,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 were killed as a direct result of the U.S. bombing. This is not a trifle, but a catastrophe. This is not to blame the sectarians or the reformists for the crimes of imperialism but to demonstrate the gravity of our differences and the consequence of abstention from theoretical dispute. The revolutionary priority in the antiwar movement was its unity in opposing imperialist war and against all odds we counterposed that to the divisive agenda of the sectarians and reformists.
A look at the history of the socialist movement internationally shows the folly and naivety of LeBlanc’s desire for harmony. The revolutionary Marxist movement has been decimated by the class-collaborationists—social democrats, Stalinists, and sectarians-including persecution, frame-ups, murder, prison. In the movement today we face redbaiting, physical threats and assaults, slanders, and character assassination from these same political forces. Our debates have not usually taken the form of academic and diplomatic exchanges; nor have they always involved differences over the tactics of the movement; just as often we have had to defend ourselves against fists, clubs, and numchucks wielded by these forces. Often the provocations of these groups provided cover for police attacks not only against the revolutionary movement but against the mass movement.
The purpose of this struggle against other political currents is to win the political respect and leadership of the class, i.e., for scientific socialism to gain acceptance and dominance in the working class both in its ideas and its method of struggle. We don’t make any bones about it or any apologies for it because socialist revolution depends upon it.
To reduce the political differences between the various political currents—sectarian, centrists, Stalinists, social democrats, Marxists—to the political equivalent of “I’m OK, you’re OK” is to degrade the theory of Marxism. In practice it means subordinating the demands of the working class in deference to good will; it means abandoning the class struggle in the name of some phony harmony with other left groups. This we cannot do.
The Fourth International And Ecumenism
LeBlanc applies the exact same concept of a tranquil and harmonious revolutionary movement to the Fourth International. He speculates about the possibility of an international above the Fourth International, a “broader revolutionary international” of which the FI is only a part, even a minority part. What LeBlanc really wants is an international above program, above conflict, above the class struggle. Only Zen Buddhism (which anyway has a program Marxism rejects) can offer such a prospect. The founders of revolutionary Marxism viewed the International as the world party of socialist revolution, not as a center for diplomatic fraternization. Viewing the Fourth International as a clearinghouse where we can engage in diplomatic exchanges while waiting for more “accumulations”, invent new theories (as if theory was conceptual invention and did not derive from the class struggle), and establish harmonious relations with other disparate political tendencies is not a caricature but a fair summation of LeBlanc’s ideas. It is certainly the quickest route to sectarian oblivion and political impotency. If the condition of the class struggle in the U.S. afforded revolutionists such a desultory approach, as LeBlanc lays out—and it most certainly does not—the international class struggle issues an immediate call to arms: the Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti. Revolutionists have a duty to respond to these crises whatever the consciousness and understanding of American workers concerning them.
LeBlanc maintains that there are legions of revolutionaries, globally, who “are not inclined even for a moment” to join the FI. Hadn’t we better find out why these revolutionaries have such a profound abhorrence for the revolutionary Marxist movement and why they recoil so strongly from it? What exactly is it about the FI that so repels them? After all, the FI, despite its weaknesses and mistakes, was alone able to formulate an explanation for the rise of Stalinism and the phenomenon of fascism; it has organized and led opposition to every imperialist war; it has built international solidarity with every revolution against capitalism and imperialism.
If harmony and good will within this ’broader revolutionary movement’ can only be bought by the ecumenical gesture of liquidating our Marxist program, by rendering our program devoid of class struggle—which is anyway the objectionable part—wouldn’t the interests of the world working class be better served if we told these revolutionary comrades in no uncertain terms to hit the road?
We cannot close our eyes to the fact that the disintegration of Stalinism and, above all, the almost unbroken series of defeats and setbacks suffered by the world working class in the past several years have produced a profound effect on the thinking and the morale of the political workers movement. After the slaughter in the Gulf War, the shadow of the awesome power of American imperialism is very dark. It would be absurd to imagine that the Marxian wing of the workers movement, represented by the Fourth International, could be immune from this reaction.
If imperialism’s “New World Order” has made socialism only a remote aspiration, then a tightly disciplined combat party with a professional leadership, i.e., a Leninist party, is not necessary today; it would be like playing soldier. But it is certain that as the economic crisis breaks into full force in this country, wider circles of workers will consider revolutionary possibilities. As in the time of the formation of American Trotskyism (due to the ascendancy of Stalinism), the movement now (in the decline of Stalinism) needs to rearm itself through educational, literary, and propagandistic work. Revolutionary work within the working class today is untiring, energetic, and daily work; it means leading the fight for the regeneration of the revolutionary movement and the workers movement and the raising of class-consciousness. A Leninist party remains as much as ever “a colossal factor” (Trotsky) in that process. Nothing can do more to focus our energies and resources on those tasks than a positive assertion that we see the prospects for the American socialist revolution and are organizing for it.