Return to Debate menu
Response to “Applying Leninism in a Time of Retreat”

Mary Scully

16 August 2008

My response to John McAnulty is based on developments primarily in the U.S., but I believe, has theoretical application everywhere.

“A time of retreat”

“Retreat” is an ambiguous term, open to all sorts of interpretations. What does it mean for revolutionary Marxism? Who is retreating? Does this retreat mean we have cause for pessimism about the possibilities for socialism? It’s true that there is a low level of antiwar and union activity relative to other periods; it’s true there have been decisive defeats of union struggles; and it’s true there is widespread demoralization. But it is also true that there have been mobilizations numbering in the millions of immigrant workers over the past few years—non-unionized, undocumented, illegal workers risking arrest and deportation, and defying the repressive political climate post-911.

Who is Retreating?

Sections of the working class are momentarily cowering from capitalist assaults, following on the betrayals by its class collaborationist leadership (and the absence of a class struggle alternative). But it is the socialist movement that is in wholesale retreat! In its majority, it has given up on class politics and instead is chasing the chimera of a harmonious and ecumenical socialist movement.

Maybe sections of the working class are also in retreat, but so what? The tasks of Marxists remain the same: to apply the theoretical method of dialectical materialism to understanding the developments in the class struggle; to look for openings in the working class where we can apply the program of Marxism, the method of the Transitional Program and the tactic of the united front.

There is no question that with the retreat of socialists from class politics, the building of Leninist parties has become a much more difficult task. Experienced cadre and ties to tradition have been lost; so we need to begin in the same way as Leon Trotsky after his expulsion from the Soviet Union—we need to begin by seeking international allies to collaborate with, in order to develop a theoretical analysis of the processes of the class struggle and its consequences for the revolutionary movement.

An essential part of this theoretical analysis would be to examine the forces that are advancing at the expense of the working class, i.e., the capitalists. Emboldened by the collapse of the Soviet Union, they are trying to recreate the political climate of the Cold War in the 1950’s, with anti-terrorism replacing the red scares, and a frontal assault on the civil liberties won by the massive social movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s—movements, it should be said, that were led by students, not the working class.

For over 30 years, they have conducted a massive (and global) campaign against working class militancy, with massive layoffs, threats of importing jobs overseas, deskilling, the use of new management techniques (i.e., union busting), and the use of part time workers. 

Just as importantly, they have conducted a vicious campaign to reverse the gains of the Civil Rights movement, targeting Black youth in particular with resegregation of public education, massive unemployment and underemployment in dead end, low paid jobs, and massive incarceration for low level offenses. The continuance of racism is fundamental to capitalist rule and not just in the U.S. This malignant ideology justifies inequality, colonialism, and imperialist war. It is an indispensable weapon in the capitalist arsenal, which is why they systematically inculcate it in their assault on the working class. 

The appeal in the capitalist threat to move jobs overseas to “foreign workers” is not just to national chauvinism but also to promote racism, where foreign and immigrant workers, and workers of all oppressed nationalities are seen as rivals and not as allies. Workers in the advanced capitalist countries have advanced at the expense of workers in the colonial countries, and also at the expense of oppressed nationalities in their own country. In order to strengthen its hold and assault on privileged workers, imperialism plays them off against workers of oppressed nationalities.

The “Retreat” and the antiwar movement

It is certainly true that in many countries antiwar mobilizations today are dwarfed compared to those at the beginning of the war. Socialist Democracy reported 20,000 demonstrators in Belfast at the beginning of the war and only 200 in March 2008.  In the U.S., despite polls showing overwhelming opposition to the war, demonstrations number in the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands. Election years always negatively impact independent mobilizations; another contributing factor is the disunity of the antiwar leadership and the hegemony of social democrats and Stalinists within it. But of major importance is the capitalist propaganda offensive against the antiwar movement (depicting it erroneously and malignantly as spitting on returning soldiers) and the destruction of civil liberties following the post-911 antiterrorism scares. 

The shadow of U.S. imperialism is very dark indeed but apparent quiescence can change in the blink of an eye, as the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe makes perfectly clear.

Once again, on LeBlanc and the “mass left wing workers subculture”

LeBlanc is so vague on which sections of the working class comprise the “mass left wing subculture” that we are left to speculate on who they are. Judging from the period of his description, we speculate that he means the industrial working class. (If I misread LeBlanc, he has the duty and again an opportunity to answer me and rebut my arguments, which heretofore, he has neglected to do.) Of course, excluded in this “golden age” of the subculture are women, Black and other oppressed nationalities, due to the racism and misogyny of the union leadership, which is why the American South (with a predominance of Black workers) and women workers remain largely non-unionized up to today. But in this country, Blacks, other oppressed nationalities, and women workers will play a leading role in revolutionary social transformation, or it won’t happen. 

Let me make myself perfectly clear: I am not accusing LeBlanc of racism or misogyny. Such an accusation would be beneath contempt!  But his caricatured depiction of the historic past of the labor movement is based on the view of workers as those employed in factories (still despite affirmative action a majority white males), and those who were a part of the working class ferment of the industrial revolutions. 

Marx, Engels, Lenin, et al, studied the development of the working class; they were writing in a period of the ascendancy of the industrial working class. Does anyone seriously believe that these thinkers would make a fetish of industrial workers and ignore the shifts in class development that have taken place since the industrial revolutions and dismiss Black, women, service, and immigrant workers as secondary revolutionary agents, as ancillary to the heavy battalions of the working class, i.e., male, industrial workers?

Manufacturing steel and military armaments and moving trains are important but so are food and clothing, health care, and education. Modern labor realities put non-unionized women and immigrant workers at the heart of the working class. We’re talking grape and lettuce pickers, nurses, teachers, and service workers; we’re talking Black, female, Mexican and Latino workers. The social base of Leninism includes all of these workers.

Leninism is not an ideology for the industrialized working class; it is an ideology that encompasses the transformative, revolutionary potential of the whole working class, not just a minority of male workers, and this holds true in every country, the newly industrialized as well as the U.S. and European working classes. 

So instead of talking about retreat—or god forbid, rout—we should be looking for which segment of the working class is in motion against their oppression. And right now, in the U.S., they are not men working in steel refineries or armament factories; they are field hands.

Historically, immigrant workers have been denied not just unionization, but all human rights. Their intransigent struggles challenge labor law, immigration law, racism and class collaboration in the labor movement.

At issue is the unionization of the most oppressed layers of the working class—and although I prefer not to use this language because it is formulaic and not elucidating—they are in the vanguard of the working class today.

Industrial workers are not obsolete, or irrelevant. But right now they are not in the leadership of the working class despite the strength of their position as organized workers. In fact, for a very long time, as a result of the Cold War in the unions, they have been among the more conservative layers of the working class. They have played no independent role in the antiwar movements of the past 50 years (in fact, they have aligned themselves with the CIA internationally); glorifying war is a dominant feature in these unions.  They have played no independent role in the struggle for women’s rights, and not only have they played no independent role in advancing Civil Rights, but they have actively campaigned against racial justice—pitting white privilege against the democratic rights of Blacks and other nationalities.

Industrial workers are among the most privileged and in the strongest position to oppose capitalist oppression, but their deference to their racist, misogynist, and class collaborationist leadership has been an enormous impediment to class struggle. Revolutionists need to be in those unions, advancing the program of Marxism, but we also need to recognize and be involved in the momentous struggles of unorganized workers. After all, union workers in the U.S. comprise only about 9% of all workers. In terms of revolution, 9% is chicken feed!

Call me crazy, but I see enormous potential in the working class, the potential for receptivity to the analyses of Marxism. I see it in the industrial unions and I see it in the unorganized, immigrant workers mobilizing against enormous odds, including the threat of deportation.

LeBlanc argues that we need to wait for the reemergence of the mass left wing workers subculture to build a Leninist party; I insist we wait for no man. We direct our energies to immersing ourselves in the class struggle, wherever workers are active against their class oppression, regardless of the consciousness of other sectors of the working class, and regardless of the odds against us. And for that commitment a Marxist program and Leninism is required.

LeBlanc on Leninism

The essence of Leninism is a Marxist program, politics—not organizational form; Leninist organizational form is what is required to carry out that program. While LeBlanc may regard Leninism as “a truly inspiring branch of Marxist thought”, the effect of his arguments is to undermine Leninism and deny the entire political and organizational history of the Marxist movement; however, they are entirely within the scope of centrism—repudiated by none more vehemently than Lenin and Trotsky. You can’t have it both ways: you cannot repudiate Leninism as an organizational form without repudiating the program of Marxism because they are inseparable for revolutionary social transformation. LeBlanc’s call for “doing good work” in place of the Transitional Program, while we wait out the reemergence of the “mass left wing workers subculture” is programmatic bankruptcy; it is a rejection of Marxism and Leninism altogether and a retreat from revolution to philanthropy.

What is a Marxist program?

How it astonishes me that there is so much confusion today on what comprises a Marxist program for socialist revolution and what distinguishes Marxism from centrism from sectarianism. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxembourg and others have written volumes on the question. 

I refer you to something I wrote in the U.S. movement’s debate regarding these questions:

At the risk of self-plagiarism, let me quote myself from that polemic:

Program is not a body of doctrine to which we pledge allegiance. It has nothing in common with the Bible or the U.S. Constitution, which   reportedly contain all the answers to all of life’s problems. It is not a theoretical scheme or rules and regulations that we invented for how to act in the class struggle. The Marxist teachers have spelled it out a million times; program embodies the dialectic which is a method, a theory of development, of evolution, a theory of the class struggle and of the revolutionary role of the working class. Political life is not a collection of dead facts and Marxism is not a series of stale platitudes and dogmas to apply to them.

The transformation of class consciousness and the problems posed by the class struggle need to be assessed at every stage of development, using Marxism as a method and not as a static body of doctrine or a catechism.

That means that the developments in class politics today require the theoretical analysis of Marxism; for this a revolutionary party is required in order to develop a plan of action for the working class and to find a way out of the impasse created by class collaboration.

What is sectarianism?

If sectarianism were simply the product of political isolation, how do we explain the Papacy, or religious fundamentalism like the American Baptists? Their dogmatism and sectarianism is unparalleled (even by so-called Trotskyist sects) and they have millions of members worldwide. (How else explain the Inquisition?) 

For Marxism, sectarianism is political and organizational isolation from the working class. We have a dialectical and immediate relationship with our class; we are not interlopers or mere “outside agitators” with nothing to learn. We are daily, active participants with something to say and lots to learn. We do not merely “orient” to the class; our connection is programmatic and organizational, and undaunted by the obstacles, including the level of working class consciousness. 

Again, let me refer comrades to a piece I wrote on sectarianism in the disputes within the American socialist movement: As I argue there, Marxists have never had a soft spot for sectarianism, which they consider a disease. And as I have insisted, LeBlanc’s perspectives will lead directly to the sectarian obscurity he derides.

Doing Leninism?

So why struggle for Leninism “when the level of working class self-organization is so low”? (Once again, what about the mobilizations of immigrant workers?)  LeBlanc is not, as McAnulty argues, “quite right in seeing a decline in Leninist consciousness as following on from a decline of the working class base”; he is simply dead wrong in assuming that the industrial working class is the social base of Leninism; he is simply dead wrong in rejecting a Marxist program and class struggle in their relevance to the working class today; he is simply dead wrong in blaming the working class for the failures of the socialist movement; and he is dreaming in thinking you can improvise a revolutionary party after the “upsurge” has begun. Regardless of his intention, LeBlanc dooms Leninism to obscurity, not out of political malice but due to the political compromise called centrism, due to the erroneous attempts to get along with everybody by jettisoning programmatic disputes and the interests of the working class. The decline in Leninist consciousness is not the fault of the working class, for god’s sake. It is the fault of the socialist movement, of the Leninists who now declare Leninism premature and a prelude to sectarianism. The decline in Leninist consciousness is within the socialist movement, and consequently within the working class. 

Is revolution on the immediate agenda?

There can be no more erroneous misreading of my dispute with LeBlanc than to say that I think revolution is on the agenda in any country. I could not agree more that “it is evident that the conditions for the working class to take power are not ripe”, as McAnulty argues. It is, however, Leon Trotsky (and not just Mary Scully) who argued that the conditions for revolutionary action are “overripe” and that the existence of a Marxist party is a “colossal factor” in the maturity of working class consciousness. That does not mean revolution is on the immediate agenda. Only a fool would hold such a view! 

What Trotsky meant by “revolutionary action” is not that we are on the threshold of revolution; he meant the painstaking work of building a revolutionary party.  Leninism is an immediate imperative because the developments in class politics require the application of a Marxist analysis and the development of a program for action, regardless of the consciousness of any sectors of the working class.

McAnulty argues that revolution is not on the agenda due to “the widespread collapse of working class consciousness in many areas”. I don’t know what this means since I have not seen evidence of such a phenomenon anywhere I look. What I do observe is the betrayal of the social democratic trade union leadership and confusion and demoralization among the ranks of labor; what I do observe is a disintegration of the revolutionary left and a retreat into ecumenism, historically known as centrism. There is most certainly a dialectical relationship between this disintegration and the defeats suffered by the working class, and most importantly by the collapse of Stalinism.  This is a central problem that needs to be evaluated using the method of Marxism; it is not an excuse for inactivity and pessimism.

The “widespread collapse of working class consciousness” is certainly not a new phenomenon: it goes back to the Cold War, with it’s racism, misogyny, and social patriotism! But once again, what part of the working class are we talking about today? Certainly not the immigrant workers, male and female, and in their majority, Mexican and Latino!

McAnulty says that there is a “silent periphery to the socialist movement, interested in Leninism but reluctant to commit themselves while the balance of forces seems so unfavorable”. We are not interested in the reluctant; we are interested in the resolute like the millions of illegal workers who risk arrest and deportation to fight for their rights! 

Unorganized immigrant workers are a battering ram against the racism that hogties the privileged working class and their struggle will not leave those unions unaffected. So long as American workers identify with the racist ideology of their class enemy and do not oppose it, they will be hogtied to the very system that degrades them. Leninists don’t wait for organized workers to catch up; we take our stand with those workers actively engaged in opposing class oppression and racism. 

I did not imply for a moment that the defeats suffered by the working class over the past 30 years were the responsibility of socialists. I thought I made it quite clear that the defeats suffered were the result of the class collaborationist leadership of the social democratic trade union movement and their refusal to mobilize the willing battalions of the working class. But historically, the fact that we are still fighting these battles is due to nothing else but the betrayals of the socialist movement—social democrats (since WW I) and Stalinists.  Marxism has another program for revolutionary social transformation and it does not include waiting out the class struggle until things are more to our liking and more suit our prejudices. Nurses, teachers, immigrant workers are taking matters into their own hands. Every revolutionist worth the name stands with them. Or risks obscurity!



Return to top of page