Burying Lenin

by Dario Cankovic on February 4, 2013

As an aspiring socialist activist I’ve kept a close eye on developments on the left, and have watched with interest the crisis that is sweeping the Socialist Workers Party (U.K.), as I think the crisis (instigated by the appalling sexist treatment of female comrades and the atrocious mishandling of rape allegations by the Party) represents an opportunity for a decisive break with sectarianism and the failed “Leninist” party model, not just within the SWP (UK) but for the broader socialist left.

20th-century socialists seem intent on restaging the tragedy of the Russian Revolution, “conjuring up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes.” Yet for those of us living in the 21st-century—over two decades after the collapse of “actually existing socialism”, and the embrace of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (i.e., capitalism in red drapes) by China; and nearly a century since the Russian Revolution—the costumes and battle slogans of the Russian Revolution come off as farcical. For somebody who came to Marxism on his own, not through any socialist sect, I find the continued obsession with the Russian Revolution and the effort to model contemporary socialist organizations on “the Party of Lenin” (to borrow a line from the old Soviet anthem) bewildering. Not least because—as Pham Binh, Lars T. Lih, Louis Proyect and others have argued—“Leninism” has little to do with Lenin and the RSDLP, the true heirs of which all “Marxist-Leninists” (i.e., Trotskyists, Stalinists, Maoists) claim to be. What is more bewildering is the idea that the organizational structure and tactics of the Bolsheviks, who were operating in largely agrarian Tsarist Russia, can or should be a guide for socialists today in advanced capitalist countries.

What the various defences of Leninism by Sandra Bloodworth, Alex Callinicos, and Paul LeBlanc have in common is the presupposition, as Bloodworth eloquently puts it, that “[w]hile capitalism is constantly restructuring the world system, the fundamentals do not change. It remains a system of exploitation and crisis, and so the need for and the possibility of revolution link our times to those of the Bolsheviks. In spite of differences of detail, the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks is a guide to the kind of organization which needs to be built again today.” LeBlanc, while admitting that “the organizational forms and norms associated with Leninism must be applied creatively and flexibly, continually adapting to the shifting political, social, cultural realities faced by revolutionaries,” insists that “in seeking to accomplish what the Bolsheviks accomplished, but to do it better, we need to engage with the praxis (thought and practical experience) of Lenin and his comrades, making use of it in facing our own realities.” Callinicos believes that “the Bolsheviks succeeded in breaking the grip of the reformists … and winning the active support of the majority of workers for the conquest of power” because of their organizational structure (a structure he thinks is emulated by his SWP).

To hear them say it, the success of the Russian Revolution is almost entirely due to the “organizational forms and norms associated with Leninism”; Lenin unlocked the secret to revolutionary success, and what we must do is apply it. This same account is applied to explain the degeneration into reformism of the social-democratic parties of the Second International: the Social Democrats had the wrong type of party, which is why they became reformist; the Bolsheviks had the right type of party, which is why they were able to seize power when the time was right (the particular historical circumstances in which the Russian Revolution took place are looked at almost as an afterthought).

This apotheosis of Lenin and the Bolsheviks is understandable in historical context. The prestige of having successfully seized state power, combined with the perceived betrayal of revolutionary socialism by the social-democratic parties of the Second International, saw many socialists “seek to accomplish what the Bolsheviks accomplished” by copying the Bolsheviks, and the Bolsheviks encouraged and eventually enforced this on the parties of the Comintern. The success of the Russian Revolution and the failure of all other revolutionary attempts was taken as proof of the effectiveness of the Bolsheviks’ methods.

We can forgive socialists at the time for thinking this. After all, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution it might have looked like a good idea to try and do what the Bolsheviks did. But with nearly a century of experience of continued failure of Leninist parties in the advanced capitalist countries to grow beyond small, largely ineffectual, sects, we have to reconsider the idea that Leninism holds the secret to building a socialist party and movement. The successful seizure of state power by the Bolsheviks had more to do with particular historical circumstances and political machinations than it did with the organizational forms and norms. The view that their organizational forms and norms are universalizable to all socialist parties, regardless of time or place, is absurd.

To take a lesson from Marx: “The socialist revolution of the 21st-century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the 21st-century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.”

Rather than being weighed down by Leninist organizational forms and norms, and by Leninist slogans and costumes, socialists today need to begin the real work of building a mass socialist movement fit for present conditions—not those of Tsarist Russia. Leninism has been tried. It has failed. It is time to try something else.

Lenin died; Lenin is dead; Lenin will stay dead. It is high time we stopped dragging his corpse around with us. Let’s finally bury him and move on, and with that unburden our brains from the traditions of dead generations.

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Gahtan February 4, 2013 at 9:48 am

Thank you. Breath of fresh air.


Ross Wolfe February 4, 2013 at 10:11 am

I like the inversion of Maiakovskii’s poem toward the end.

The basic political questions Lenin sought to address, not so much those specifically related to the context in which he was writing, remain essential. It’s not so much the rigidified organizational doctrines that were essential, as these were largely a response to the realities of the tsarist police state. I might write something up to this effect.


Ben Campbell February 4, 2013 at 10:14 am

Check out the response to this article by @17soulable on twitter.

But more seriously, I think that these sentiments will ring true for many “aspiring socialist activists”, and indeed you can find them in my writings on this site. But trying to push a little deeper, I would be interested in Dario’s thoughts in why this type of “Leninism” persists, if it is so ineffective. Is it merely that these comrades are mistaken? Or is it, as Peter Camejo suggests, because this form of behavior is actually a capitulation to capital? Or is it simply that there is no better alternative?

How we explain the problem, naturally effects how we attempt to transcend the problem.


Brandy Baker February 4, 2013 at 11:16 am

“Or is it, as Peter Camejo suggests, because this form of behavior is actually a capitulation to capital?”

Huh? Peter rejected Leninism later in his life. That is why he encouraged us all to look to the slavery abolition movement instead of the Russian Revolution for guidance.


Brandy Baker February 4, 2013 at 11:17 am

Oh wait, I read that wrong, my bad.


Ben Campbell February 4, 2013 at 11:26 am

Yes, I meant sectarianism and “Leninism” as being the capitulation to capital, from Camejo’s perspective.


Brandy Baker February 4, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Oh, that’s you, I thought that was the dude on twitter sayin that, and I was responding to him, sorry.

I’m just going to bow out of this thread because I clearly don’t know what the hell’s going on.


Ross Wolfe February 4, 2013 at 11:25 am

That’s a whole lot of caps lock in the responses by Kenny Cairns. Funny thing is, Lenin always wanted to be buried next to his mother. Not preserved in some grotesque mummified form. The mausoleum was originally intended to be temporary, just to let the masses pay their last respects. That’s why it went through three phases of construction. An original wooden version in 1924, a more durable wooden version in 1925, and finally a stone version in 1929.

Anyway, my own sentiment is that “Leninism” actually died long ago, and what is dying today is rather a kind of diluted New Left version of what “Leninism” supposedly is or was. My opinion, predictably, largely accords with the following assessment of “The relevance of Lenin today”:

The reconsideration of and return to “Marxism/Leninism” in the latter phase of the New Left in the 1970s, circa and after the crisis of 1968, thus recapitulated an earlier moment of reconfiguration of the Left. The newfound “Leninism” meant the New Left “getting serious” about politics. The figure of Lenin is thus involved in not only the division between “reformist” Social Democrats and “revolutionary” Communists in the crisis of World War I and the Russian and other revolutions (such as in Germany, Hungary, and Italy) that followed, or the division between liberalism and socialism in the mid-20th century context of the Cold War, but also between anarchists and Marxists, both in the era of the Russian Revolution and, later, in the New Left. It is in this sense that Lenin is a world-historical figure in the history of the Left. “Leninism” meant a turn to “revolutionary” politics and the contest for power — or so, at least, it seemed.

But did Lenin and “Leninism” represent a progressive development for Marxism, either in 1917 or after 1968? For anarchists, social democrats and liberals, the answer is “No.” For them, Lenin represented a degeneration of Marxism into Jacobinism, terror, and totalitarian dictatorship, or, short of that, into an authoritarian political impulse, a lowering of horizons — Napoleon, after all, was a Jacobin! If anything, Lenin revealed the truth of Marxism as, at least potentially, an authoritarian and totalitarian ideology, as the anarchists and others had warned already in the 19th century.

For avowed “Leninists,” however, the answer to the question of Lenin as progress is “Yes”: Lenin went beyond Marx. Either in terms of anti-imperialist and/or anti-colonialist politics of the Left, or simply by virtue of successfully implementing Marxism as revolutionary politics “in practice,” Lenin is regarded as having successfully brought Marxism into the 20th century.

But perhaps what ought to be considered is what Lenin himself thought of his contribution, in terms of either the progression or regression of Marxism…

Lenin was a figure of the struggle for socialism — a man of a very different era. But his self-conception as a “Jacobin” raises the issue of regarding Lenin as a radical democrat. Lenin’s identification for this was “revolutionary social democrat” — someone who would uphold the need for revolution to achieve democracy with adequate social content. In this respect, what Lenin aspired to might remain our goal as well. The question that remains for us is the relation between democracy and capitalism. Capitalism is a source of severe discontents — an undoubted problem of our world — but seems intractable. It is no longer the case, as it was in the Cold War period, that capitalism is accepted as a necessary evil, to preserve the autonomy of civil society against the potentially “totalitarian” state. Rather, in our time, we accept capitalism in the much more degraded sense of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous expression, “There is no alternative!” But the recent crisis of neoliberalism means that even this ideology, predominant for a generation, has seemingly worn thin. Social revolution seems necessary — again.

But there is an unmistakable shying away from such tasks on the Left today. Political party, never mind revolution, seems undesirable in the present. For political parties are defined by their ability and willingness to take power. Today, the people — the demos — seem resigned to their political powerlessness. Indeed, forming a political party aiming at radical democracy, let alone socialism — a “Jacobin” party — would itself be a revolutionary act. Perhaps this is precisely the reason why it is avoided. The image of Lenin haunting us reminds that we could do otherwise.

It is Lenin who offers the memory, however distant, of the relation between political and social revolution, the relation between the need for democracy — the “rule of the people” — and the task of socialism. This is the reason that Lenin is either forgotten entirely — in an unconscious psychological blind-spot — or is ritualistically invoked only to be demonized. Nevertheless, the questions raised by Lenin remain.

The irrelevance of Lenin is his relevance.


Brandy Baker February 4, 2013 at 11:45 am

“That’s a whole lot of caps lock in the responses”

Yes, this site does seem to piss off a lot of people, which shows that it is sorely needed. “Leninist” aren’t used to all of this backtalk.


Dave R. February 4, 2013 at 12:32 pm

In that I am closing in on my sixtieth year, and in that I joined the Young Socialist Alliance in 1974, when I was nineteen, I feel I am in a position to offer an opinion on the month-long discussion that has erupted yet again, this time as a result of the current situation in the U.K. SWP. Advancing age, shall we say, has it’s rewards. The things I heard, upon becoming a member of this Leninist organization, was this: Why did you join a cult, and why do you have to sell that newspaper everywhere you go? These inquiries were made mostly by good intentioned (from their point of view) members of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the New American Movement (the two organizations would merge to form the Democratic Socialists of America in the early 1980’s), which were active on the campus of The Ohio State University in the 1970’s. I assure you there is nothing substantially new about the themes being raised today, the only difference is the year. So my question is, why don’t the brothers and sisters with these political leanings join the DSA? As far as I know it still exists, and such an entry would provide an organizational bulwark to disseminate your views, with access to publications that are already established, and would allow adherents to hook up with like-minded people. I mean, why reinvent the wheel?


Ben Campbell February 4, 2013 at 1:24 pm

This is an absurdly false dichotomy. For one thing, the DSA supports political activity through the Democratic Party. As far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong), the people posting in this thread do not.

Secondly, even if people did join the DSA, they would still be within their rights to critique other organizations. This idea of joining a group and not talking (publicly) about the other groupings is part of the problem.

If you have been in the socialist movement for forty years I am sure you realize all this. You are conflating a critique of form and content. The implication is that anyone who has a critique of “Leninist” forms must be some sort of reformist. It is really not much different then the standard “Leninist” dismissal of opposition as “petty bourgeois reformist”.


Louis Proyect February 4, 2013 at 1:21 pm

So my question is, why don’t the brothers and sisters with these political leanings join the DSA?

The DSA is solidly entrenched with the Democratic Party, as much so as the CPUSA. We do, however, need a Debs type party desperately. That is why SYRIZA type formations are critical. They give revolutionaries the opportunity to be part of a mass movement as opposed to the sectarian kibitzing that characterizes the “Leninist” left.


Richard Estes February 4, 2013 at 1:40 pm

The Bolsheviks succeeded because of their response to the prevailing social conditions of their time. Getting engrossed in organizational forms (oddly enough, a bourgeois activity, as evidenced by the extensive literature on this subject in relation to corporate governance) in the absence of engagement with the conditions of our time is a sterile, pointless enterprise. For an excellent example of someone who has addressed contemporary social conditions as they relate to women, families and the elderly from a radical left perspective, I recommend the PM Press release of a compilation of Silvia Frederici articles in “Revolution at Point Zero”. Regardless of whether you agree with her conclusions, she is noteworthy for her careful attention to every day struggles as she pays careful attention to the personal experiences of people, media reports and scholarship outside the left. Only through such an understanding can the left reach people and organize itself in a way that will be effective.


Dave R. February 4, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Okay, I take your word for it. Last time I had anything to do with the DSA was, admittedly, many years ago, and they were quite activist at the time. Still, this “anti-Zinovieist” current, for lack of better word, and of which we speak, will need to jump the shark from an internet discussion to some kind of organizational form on some level. But that was part of my point, Ben; in the DSA, or at least in the DSA I remember, you would be free to raise the question of the Democratic Party and engage other currents to your heart’s content. But as Louis suggests, maybe not. They may throw out on their ear anyone who betrays any ill will to the Democrats.


Ben Campbell February 4, 2013 at 2:27 pm

No, the DSA will not throw you out for questioning the Democratic Party, and you are right that they still engage in “activism” and that Democratic Party politics are not their primary focus. Having said that, the entire leadership still orients towards the Democratic Party, and so the idea of using that organization to “disseminate our views” would not exactly be easy; there would basically have to be an entire leadership change. And it’s not like they really have any great infrastructure that could be commanded even if were taken over. So in short, it’s not worth it.

Perhaps a better question is “why not join Solidarity?” I think that would be a more compelling option for many who hold critiques of traditional “Leninist” forms. But again, even if people here did join Solidarity (and there are Solidarity members around here) this type of discussion would still be useful.


Andrew February 4, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Great piece. Ben raises a good question in asking *why* the M-L groups persist. They of course offer structure and identity, both largely built of inertia (to the degree pathetic cults, groupuscules, and moribund forms can claim any). One of the ironic secrets of M-Lism is that it’s a form of identity politics –a countercultural niche, a form of nerdism.


Brian S. February 4, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Well, one of the reasons they exist is that they fill an important space – in situations like the current one, with a growing crisis of existing institutions and the emergence of new currents of opposaition – many with limited famiilirty with left ideas and traditions, organisations that can provide perspective, coordination and education are needed. The problem with the existing “Leninist” formations is that they don’t fill that space productively : they do it badly, half-heartedly, or destructively. Robert Gahtan in another thread steered me towards the video of Jodi Dean’s presentation (available more extensively on this site): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUyYfC524M0. What struck me as impressive was the clear sense of the need for more developed organisational forms, and the serious desire to discuss ways of getting there.
The question of “the Party” is far too important to leave to the “Leninists.”


Matt February 4, 2013 at 1:59 pm

I like the allusion to the Eighteenth Brumaire in reference to mock-“Leninism”.

I am wholeheartedly in support of overcoming the absurd pattern of sectarian-bureaucratic division and re-division of our revolutionary Marxist-socialist movement. That is what cancer cells do, and that usually comes to no good.

I’d only caution North Star-ers not to wobble to the “other side” of what should be a dialectical approach – another old-fashioned 19th century legacy that nevertheless has much to offer in terms of successfully sorting through still open issues – with respect to both revolutionary strategy and tactics, and “anti-imperialism”. So the actual process of the Russian Revolution still has partial lessons for us today. It is not an all or nothing proposition. Otherwise why should Lars Lih spend 800+ pages rehashing an “irrelevant” past, and why should we read it if there are no lessons to be extracted other than to toss the whole experience in the famous garbage-heap?


Dave R. February 4, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Ben: I don’t really think in terms of “Leninist” and “petty-bourgeois, reformist”. But that’s because I don’t believe a revolutionary socialist party will be built by “uniting the left”, but rather (will come about) as a result of no-option-explosions within the working-class and their producer allies, like farmers. In the meantime, I do what I can do, try to keep my cool, approach other socialists in a fraternal manner sans the traditional insults, and hope for the best.


Ben Campbell February 4, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Okay, thanks for explaning your orientation. Sorry for jumping to the unwarranted conclusion that you were a member of one of the “Leninist” organizations attempting to dismiss legitimate criticism.


Dave R. February 4, 2013 at 2:27 pm

I am today a supporter of that same “Leninist” organization, but never would I dismiss criticism or debate. I just have a different historical perspective, or opinion, when it comes to why things are the way they are today, and why it has proven so hard to build a revolutionary socialist party. I have been a participant in the socialist movement for almost as long as Louis (e-gads!), but I have never deemed myself or any0ne else to be infallible. That’s one of the things about getting older, you become comfortable with the idea that everyone is not going to agree with you.


Andrew February 4, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Re: electoralism, the closest thing to a leftist electoral party w/ any success in N America is Quebec Solidaire. There’s a radical current or left flank in QS but it’s not a radical party. This is a good interview on QS, fwiw. http://socialistworker.org/2012/08/30/left-wing-challenge-in-quebec


Dave R. February 4, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Ben writes, “Perhaps a better question is “why not join Solidarity?” I think that would be a more compelling option for many who hold critiques of traditional “Leninist” forms. But again, even if people here did join Solidarity (and there are Solidarity members around here) this type of discussion would still be useful.”

That may not be such a great option either. I hear, and I admit this is second hand news and is not verified by yours truly, that Solidarity allowed it’s members, if so inclined, to campaign for Obama in the last election.


Louis Proyect February 4, 2013 at 3:10 pm

That may not be such a great option either. I hear, and I admit this is second hand news and is not verified by yours truly, that Solidarity allowed it’s members, if so inclined, to campaign for Obama in the last election.

Yes, they should have been sending in their Christmas bonuses to the Solidarity national office instead.


Dario Cankovic February 4, 2013 at 3:19 pm

While I hope that all forms of ‘Marxist-Leninism’—all forms of hyphenated-Marxism—are in their death throes, if we are to succeed at building a mass socialist movement where Leninists failed, we have to understand not just WHAT went wrong with Leninism (that much is clear), but also HOW and WHY the once vibrant left degenerated into the pathetic state that it is in today. I don’t think Leninists are ‘merely mistaken’, that their behaviour is ‘a capitulation to capital’, nor that it is`a form of identity politics’ that appeals to the self-image of its members. I find all these explanations overly idealistic.

In the first half of the 20th-century, when the Soviet Union still represented an alternative to capitalism in the eyes of many, it is understandable why people would try to flock to Leninist organizations. Not to mention, throughout the 20th-century the Soviet Union, the PRC, and various other `actually existing socialist’ states funnelled tons of money into various Leninist organizations around the world. As if the prestige of the Russian Revolution wasn’t enough, the Chinese Revolution, and the success of various national liberation movements, such as the Vietnamese, lead by a nominally ‘Leninist’ party, lent further credence to the claim of Leninists that they could successfully lead revolution. Unfortunately many Marxists were blind to the fact that these ‘revolutions’ all happened in the developing world, as evidenced by the establishment of many Maoist sects; how Maoism, an ideology and strategy based on a massive peasant class, is of any relevant to advanced industrial countries is beyond me.

The existence of the Soviet Union, especially in the immediate aftermath of WWII, where even many bourgeois thought that the Soviet Union represented a new type of society, an alternative to capitalism, gave the ruling class an incentive to give considerable concessions to the working class in the advanced industrial countries. Not to mention, during the so-called post-war ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’, where the rate of profit was still relatively high, capital could afford those concessions. Reformism seemed to be working, in fact, even reformism, in its traditional sense of an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, approach to building socialism was abandoned. The social-democratic parties took on the task of ameliorating the worst effects of capitalism, of building `a capitalism with a human face’. It is no wonder that the working class in the West, which enjoyed unprecedented standards of living, and unprecedented rise in standards of living, would ally itself with social-democracy. Especially seeing as the Soviet ‘socialism’ wasn’t able to deliver the same standards of living as capitalism. This also explains the appeal of the Soviet model in the developing world, but not the developed: the Soviet Union represented a massive step back for the developed world, but a massive step forward for the developing. Hence Leninists parties found most success in the developing world.

Since the crisis of the 70’s that brought an end to the post-war book, an end to the Golden Age, capital has taken back all the concessions. And this neoliberal assault on the gains of social-democracy continued unabated, and has in fact intensified, in the wake of the latest crisis. The discrediting of the Soviet model in the eyes of most workers in the advanced industrial countries, and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union itself, as well as China’s adoption of capitalism, has done away with the raison d’être for concessions. The Leninist sects which still linger in the wake of collapse of the Soviet Union are dying out, especially if they prove themselves irrelevant, as I believe they have, to the contemporary struggle. Leninists playacted as though they were the vanguard of the proletariat, that all the working class was waiting for was the spark to set off the revolution, and when that revolution didn’t come, when the working class ignored them, they turned on each other, bickering over minutia, blaming each other for their failure.

In short, not only is the Leninist model not suited to building a mass socialist movement, the material conditions for building one in the advanced industrial countries wasn’t right. It wasn’t just that they had the wrong kind of organization—to say that would be to make the same mistakes that the Leninists make—but that the working class wasn’t ready for struggle. Capitalism was working for the working class—in large part thanks to the efforts of the socialist movement and to the fear of revolution by the ruling class—now that it no longer is we have a window of opportunity to rebuild the socialist movement. Leninism. a product of the 20th-century, a degeneration of Marxism which emerged in agrarian authoritarian conditions, isn’t fit as a model for building a 21st-century socialist movement.

I think we should go back and re-examine the Second International, they still represent the largest and most successful mass socialist parties outside the Leninist tradition. The experience of social-democracy in the 20th-century has taught us the dangers of reformism, I think we can learn those lessons without completely jettisoning the entire heritage of the Second International, as the Leninists tried to do. Not to mention, capital can no longer afford concessions. The second half of the 20th-century was a remarkably stable period for capitalism, I think we have finally returned to another unstable period, another revolutionary period. After the 20th-century’s long detour through Leninism, it’s time to go back to plain old Marxism and see where that takes us.


Pham Binh February 4, 2013 at 10:23 pm

I think we should do that but go back further to the First International. Marxists have more common ground with many anarchist elements than they do with the ahistorical idealists claiming to be “Leninist.”

Where I disagree is on this, “Not to mention, capital can no longer afford concessions.”

The average CEO in the U.S. makes 500x what the average worker makes. They can afford to give us raises. We will be fighting on the terrain of reforms and of bourgeois democracy for decades before a revolution breaks out.


Dario Cankovic February 4, 2013 at 11:23 pm

“Ahistorical idealism”, ha, I like that term.

Agreed. A rapprochement with anarchism is long overdue. And likewise for the second point, forget that I said that, I agree: capital can afford concessions.

“We will be fighting on the terrain of reforms and of bourgeois democracy for decades before a revolution breaks out.”

I find this a very important observation. I have a feeling that many socialists long for some sort of revolutionary rapture that will do away with capitalism overnight, forgetting the decades of struggle and setbacks involved in trying to overthrow the old and build a new world.


Pham Binh February 5, 2013 at 9:45 am

“Ahistorical idealism” is poached from my upcoming essay on the Arab Spring. :)

I came to that conclusion re: terrain after thinking about Venezuela and Bolivia where neoliberalism has been forcibly reversed. Marx was prescient when he said, “The point of view of the minority is dogmatic instead of critical, idealistic instead of materialistic. They regard not the real conditions but a mere effort of will as the driving force of the revolution. Whereas we say to the workers: ‘You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and national struggles not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power’, you say on the contrary: ‘Either we seize power at once, or else we might as well just take to our beds.'”

Replace “seize power at once” with “build the revolutionary party” and it applies with equal force today.


Ross Wolfe February 4, 2013 at 11:47 pm

I don’t think going back further than the First International is an answer. In fact, I think that “going back” is part of the problem. That doesn’t mean having a knowledge of what happened isn’t helpful (it can be, and clearly everyone here seems to have some familiarity with it), but our poetry must come from the future and not the past, as Dario indicated.

The First International was a fiasco, botched almost from the start. And it wasn’t so much the anarchist-Marxist split that precipitated it as its obscurity, disorganization, and overriding Lassalleanism (this would persist into the Second International, however). The Second International was far and away the most significant of the workingmen’s internationals.

Incidentally, when push came to shove, most of the revolutionary anarchist elements reconnected with the more revolutionary currents in Marxism from 1905-1923, whereas the Bernsteinian and later Kautskyite tendencies inevitably veered toward reactionary, militarized liberalism. But even then, the Second International, whatever promise it may have had, isn’t a viable model either for the present either.

So I agree with you, Binh, insofar as I think we stand closer in terms of political consciousness to a post-1848 moment, though more likely a post-1852 moment (after generalized reaction had set in), but not insofar as idealizing an anticapitalist Left in a state of innocence, before anarchists and Marxists were distinct. Because even within what came to be associated with socialism and anarchism the political terrain was already riven with debates; Proudhon and Marx polemicized against the predecessors Blanc and Babeuf as well as against each other. And these debates deserved to take place.

Anyway, further down this comment thread, Dario made what I consider to be the most essential takeaway from all this:

we have to understand not just WHAT went wrong with Leninism (that much is clear), but also HOW and WHY the once vibrant left degenerated into the pathetic state that it is in today

The problem is twofold: first, the object we’re dealing with isn’t even “Leninism” per se, but an extremely debased and vulgarized version of it; second, even if we had a perfect understanding of what Leninism was historically and how pitiful the various parties that invoke it are by contrast, we still would have to comprehend the peculiarity of our present moment and the conditions that preclude any such notion of a “return” or mere “fidelity.”


Arthur February 5, 2013 at 8:43 am

I agree that it isn’t a question of “return” but of development. But suggestions that current political consciousness is comparable with 1848 or 1842 are absurd. Its important to grasp that the level of mass political consciousness has progressed enormously. Ideas which were radical in the 1960s, let alone the 1860s are mainstream today. Its the left that has failed to move forward, not the masses.


Brian S. February 5, 2013 at 10:01 am

There are lessons to be learned from many historical experiences: but this needs to be done by critical examination and assimiliation. And its not necessarily a matter of “going back” – its an attempt to locate the issues we are confronting in rather abstract terms at the moment in contexts where we can explore them in more concrete form. From this point of view there’s no one single moment that we can map our situation on to: in organisational terms its like the 1880s, when socialists were trying to unite disparate sects into more coherent organisations and make the first forays into involvement in popular struggles. their ideas; programmatically its more like the 1900s (and most of history thereafter) when socialists were trying to connect the socialist vision of a new social order with the concrete concerns of the mass of the population.
As long as we keep this critical dimension to our examination of history at the forefront, we should not exclude that of the communist movement, even in its various stalininst phases.


Arthur February 5, 2013 at 8:33 am

Side issue. Reduction of CEO “compensation” from say 500x to say 5x wage levels could be a practical reform. But it would be in common interests of the actual capitalist owners and the workers rather than a concession by capital to the workers. Does not in itself challenge private ownership of capital.


Dario Cankovic February 5, 2013 at 12:44 pm

True, it doesn’t, but neither the demands of the Communist Manifesto. Unfortunately I think we’re a long way off before we’re in a position to challenge private ownership of capital, getting there will require decades of struggle for radical reforms against inequality and to deepen and widen democracy as much as we can within the limits of bourgeois society, `not only to bring about a change in society but also to change ourselves, and prepare ourselves for the exercise of political power’ (to borrow from Binh’s quote from Marx).


Ben Campbell February 4, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Thank you for elaborating Dario, and I’m quite sympathetic to these arguments. Just to clarify, the point about “Leninism” and “sectarianism” being a “capitulation to capital” is not that these mark some sort of idealist character flaw. Rather, the point is that capital in a way selects for its own opposition—it sees effective opposition as “barriers to be overcome”, thus leaving in its wake ineffective forms of opposition that are just, as you say, “playacting”, and entirely superfluous. While it is a little frustrating for those of us who might be relatively new to Marxism to see the left as so dysfunctional, it really should not be surprising—that is exactly how we would expect capital to operate, by eliminating its most effective opposition and leaving us with entirely ineffective forms that pose as opposition, but are really a form of resignation or capitulation: social democracy, anarchism, and “Leninism”. Thus, when you speak of a return to Marx, it is certainly worth remembering how Marx got his start, by critiquing the various ineffective socialisms and communisms of his day. The difference of course, between today and 1848 is that we have the failed legacy of Marxism, and thus what seems to be really required is a Marxist critique of “Marxism” itself.


Andrew February 4, 2013 at 6:35 pm

“Solidarity allowed it’s members, if so inclined, to campaign for Obama in the last election.”

As opposed to what, expelling people?


Dave R. February 4, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Dario writes, “I think we should go back and re-examine the Second International, they still represent the largest and most successful mass socialist parties outside the Leninist tradition. The experience of social-democracy in the 20th-century has taught us the dangers of reformism, I think we can learn those lessons without completely jettisoning the entire heritage of the Second International, as the Leninists tried to do. Not to mention, capital can no longer afford concessions. The second half of the 20th-century was a remarkably stable period for capitalism, I think we have finally returned to another unstable period, another revolutionary period. After the 20th-century’s long detour through Leninism, it’s time to go back to plain old Marxism and see where that takes us.”

It’s quite astonishing the degree to which the debate has crystallized in the past couple of weeks. It’s all in the open now. I think that’s a good development. I still think you should consider the DSA. Or perhaps Solidarity.


Dario Cankovic February 4, 2013 at 10:36 pm

“I still think you should consider the DSA. Or perhaps Solidarity.”

I’m Canadian, so that’s not really an option.

That being said, I’m not sure whether it is better to join an existing organization and work for unity amongst the left, or to start with a clean slate, to begin anew. Secterianism is, unfortunately, still strong, and I fear that any project for left unity that tries to start with an existing organization will be a non-starter, because members of other organizations will perceive such a call for unity simply as a means by which one sect can displace all others. Also, I find the structure of many existing socialist organisations both antiquated and not democratic enough, if not outright undemocratic. I think it would be easier to build something from the ground up—perhaps a party along the lines of Quebec Solidare, where existing socialist parties (and not just socialist parties, but activist organizations) can join—rather than to reform already existing socialist parties.


Arthur February 4, 2013 at 10:47 pm

Sorry, I don’t have time to engage at the moment, but I’m still for Marxism-Leinism (“Maoism”) and will just jot some quick notes:

1. The sects and their form of organization should be called “sects”. Calling them “Leninist”, “Maoist”, or “Stalinist” is a symptom of still taking them seriously, not a convincing argument against anything at all from Lenin, Mao or Stalin. Adopting a term like “Zinovievist” is a caricature example of sect jargon.

2. Social Democracy and the second international failed long ago. There never was a solution to the problem of how to organize revolutionary movements in the advanced capitalist parties. Previous attempts in both the Second and Third Internationals failed (and the “Fourth” was not even an attempt). We have to develop something new.

3. I agree with a lot of the long quote from Ross Wolfe. Hope its taken up for further discusion.

4. A lot of what people find appealing about the Second International is simply what it had in common with the Third International. That is serious mass political parties that aimed to exercise political power as opposed to sects. Focus on that rather than thinking in terms of a return to Social Democracy.

5. There is currently one example of a mass party that has led a revolutionary struggle and won free elections. The social conditions and tasks are so vastly different from advanced capitalist countries that there is not much danger of attempting to blindly follow their example. But its still worth paying attention to it and especially worth noting that it was a Marxist-Leninist (Maoist) party that led a successful armed struggle and won free elections in Nepal.

6. The sects are not the cause but merely a symptom of the absence of a mass based left. When there was a last small based left in the 1960s the sects were basically peripheral and irrelevant (as they still are today but now filling a vacuum). When there is a large mass based left they will be invisible.

7. We need to focus on the problem of why there isn’t a large mass based left and what to do about it.

8. Fundamentally I believe it is because capitalism successfully adapted to meet most of the urgent demands that were previously raised and has delivered significant improvements in social conditions while remaining within the system. The sects simply deny that, claiming that things are continually going from bad to worse. Naturally most people don’t pay much attention.

9. It looks like we are now moving into a different period in which capitalism is no longer able to deliver. It will remain true that “There Is No Alternative” as long as we fail to come up with an alternative.

10. Breaking with the reactionary pseudo-left (not just the sect form of organization) is essential for coming up with an alternative to capitalism. You cannot begin to think about how to govern a modern society while still associated with people virulently opposed to basic democracy nor about how to run modern industry while associated with people virulently opposed to modern industry.


Andrew Ray Gorman February 5, 2013 at 2:37 am

If we are going to seriously discuss building a socialist party, I think we need to do this from the bottom up. As in each state will have to do the leg-work themselves, although there is nothing stopping us from pooling resources (like informational pamphlets online).

Some states would be a lot harder than others due to draconian ballot access laws that make it virtually impossible. Perhaps in those specific situations entryism into the Democrats in order to break off a sizable portion of their membership into a new party should be considered. This is counterposed to my saying to just join the Democrats and stay – something I do not recommend.

In states where it is relatively easy, there is likely an already existing left, although in multiple organizations. They would have to utilize the spirit of cooperation, rather than competition, in order to figure out how to move forward in solidarity with one another. This might mean promoting rank-and-file action in groups that are more top-down controlled, than so be it.


Brian S. February 6, 2013 at 5:20 am

Stimulating piece from the left economics journalist Paul Mason in today’s Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/05/arab-spring-global-revolution?INTCMP=SRCH
“If I could list only one and not 20 reasons why it is still kicking off, it would be the rise of the networked individual colliding with the economic crisis. Something fundamental has happened – a shift in human consciousness and behaviour as momentous as that triggered by the arrival of mass consumption and mass culture in the 1900s.” Maybe a slightly premature overstatement – but I think taps into the possibilities in the “current period”


Pham Binh February 7, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Someone asked why the “Leninst” form persists despite the fall of the USSR and the fact that our historical context is nothing like Lenin’s. The proper, historical materialist answer of course must be context-specific: Louis Proyect joined the American SWP in 1967, I joined the ISO in 1999, Dan Dimaggio joined Socialist Alternative in 1999(?), and our experiences differed in many ways. However, there are also commonalities.

Some of the underlying reasons these organizational forms persist and why they manage to continually attract enough “fresh layers of activists” to survive are the following:

– The groups are built to survive, to self-perpetuate. They are built to resist hostile political environments; they are, in a sense, timeless. The flip side of their change-resistant, inflexible nature is that they (despite their best intentions) end up blocking the growth of bigger and qualitatively better forms (CWI’s withdrawal from ULA is a case in point; when the going got tough, they got going), forms that can gain a mass following and become a home to radical workers instead of just small numbers of students and ex-students when objective conditions become favorable to these types of initiatives.

– These groups have answers. Not just any answers, but the answers. This is what Wayne Collins was talking about in his piece, “The Trotskyist Experience.” Toy Bolshevism on the face of it is a pretty serious-looking arsenal: a disciplined organization, a newspaper, a publishing company, a routine of activities, a mapped-out strategy of how to end capitalism (supposedly) based on historical precedent.

All of this adds up to a sense of certainty and clarity that really is priceless on the battlefield; it’s why militaries spend so much time conditioning recruits to act without thinking, shoot without questioning. Yours is not to reason why, yours is to do and die, for the “greater good.” Like cannon fodder, your sacrifice may cost you a lot individually but in the big scheme of things it will pay off in helping defeat the enemy (capitalism).

– There Is No Alternative. This is the final reason these groups persist. The number of people who are attracted to and join these types of groups tends to dry up (or perhaps pales in comparison is a better way of saying it) once big historic (class) battles get moving. Witness the failure of these types of groups to grow into anything approaching a mass force in Venezuela over the past decade (2002-2012), in Egypt during the Arab Spring over the past two years, or to use American examples, the U.S. SWP in the 60s and the 30s despite the tremendous role that organization played in the Viet Nam era and in the Teamster fights out in Minneapolis.

The attractiveness of these groups to radicals is inversely proportional to the level of class/anti-capitalist struggle. When the 60s tide receded, people clung as hard as they could to what hope they had by staying in groups like the SWP despite their dysfunctional nature because they, through their own choices and experiences, were conditioned to do anything but think outside the box. It was only after they left or were expelled, independent of the group and its group-think, that they began to really think for themselves (this applies to my own case as well). (Someone wrote a book about this dynamic called “Bounded Choice.” Well worth looking into if you’re into untangling this mess from the insider’s point of view.)

In closing, I highly recommend this video which is well worth the half hour time investment. I stand by every word of it:


Brandy Baker February 7, 2013 at 8:05 pm

IfI hear one more “Leninist” say to me,”yes, they’re like that, but we’re different” ………


Richard Estes February 12, 2013 at 4:39 pm

From the SWP CC call for a special conference:

“7. It is not controversial that feminism can be part of a process
that leads people into struggle and towards a Marxist understanding of
the world. We are always on the side of feminists against oppression.
But we are also for winning women, and men, to a revolutionary socialist
view, not adapting to a different view.”

Feminism, a sort of ideological washing of the dishes and clothes for the benefit of male Marxists carrying on the struggle. These people really need to get out more.


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