Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 29, 2011

A response to Paul LeBlanc’s “Marxism and Organization”

Filed under: Pham Binh,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

(A guest post by Pham Binh)

Although the following was written in response to Paul Le Blanc’s “ Marxism and Organisation ” essay, it is not a line-for-line response, nor do I believe that he personally subscribes to all of the positions I attribute to “Leninists” in general. I have nothing but respect for him and his life’s work (changing the world for the better); I have re-read his “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party” many times and referenced it occasionally as I wrote the following response. My hope is that it leads to comradely but sharp debate, something that is sorely lacking on the far left where insults, epithets, and name-calling are all too common.

“Leninists” project their conceptions of organization back in time onto the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) to the point that the actual historical development of the RSDLP becomes incomprehensible. There is a tendency to see the ultimate outcomes of the RSDLP’s disputes as foredained and inevitable; this mistake is compounded when revolutionaries believe that we must form our own organizations based on those outcomes. What Lenin did or pushed for at any given time was determined not only by his own political preferences, but also by the actions of his opponents. For example, it was the refusal of the Mensheviks to abide by majority votes they lost on at the 1903 congress even though Lenin dutifully yielded on issues he lost votes on that compelled him to call for a third party congress.

Both the Menshevik and the Bolshevik wings of the RSDLP supported the same “revolutionary Marxist program” up until spring of 1917: overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy. Their differences concerned strategy, which, of course, had organizational ramifications (Lenin later correctly characterized the 1903 split as “an anticipation”). What divided the two factions? The Bolsheviks believed the working class should play the leading role in overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy; the Mensheviks argued (logically) that only the capitalist class could play the leading role in establishing their rule via a capitalist democracy (the Bolshevik idea of a worker-led revolution voluntarily handing power to their exploiters and enemies didn’t make any sense to them).

The point is that the “revolutionary Marxist program” did not separate the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks for most of the RSDLP’s history. What separated them was the actual class struggle and their practical orientation to it. When the program they shared with the Menshviks became an impediment to fighting for the interests of the working class, the Bolsheviks modified it.

This brings me to my second point.

“Democratic centralism” is not a special principle/mechanism practiced by the Bolsheviks. Lenin believed in organizing the party in a thoroughly democratic way. That, more than anything else, is what motivated Lenin in his struggle against the Mensheviks in 1903/1904. The Mensheviks expected Lenin and the Bolsheviks to respect the decisions of the party congress that they disagreed with; at the same time, the Mensheviks flouted the congress decisions they disagreed with politically. For Lenin, this was an intolerable situation that made a mockery of the very idea of a party, much less one where majority rule prevailed.

Lenin’s commitment to democratic organizing meant that the central committees of both the RSDLP and of the Bolshevik faction were elected as individuals by secret ballot, not the slate system (that was introduced in 1921 at the 10th party congress where they banned factions ending the democratic norms that characterized the pre-revolutionary Bolsheviks) that to my knowledge all “Leninist” groups use today.

Electing the central committee in this way did something important. Party members elected and were led by the party’s most outstanding and popular leaders, making it far more likely members would voluntarily implement decisions by their leaders. As individuals, these leaders had different approaches, different experiences, and different temperaments; this heterogeneity gave rise to sharp debates and clear differences of opinion that taught the entire organization how to work through them in a comradely, productive, and practical way. It created a culture of debate, dissension, majority voting, and collective implementation to resolve contentious issues, many of which did not have a clear-cut “right” answer. This culture came straight from the top of the organization and filtered down into every branch, every cell, and involved every member.

A slate system, by contrast, encourages political conformity at the top (only “team players” need apply), which filters downward, robbing the party of its dynamism. “Leadership” becomes based on who is the loudest/most enthusiastic proponent of the line coming from the top, rather than a process of initiative, trial, error, learning, reassessment, and moving forward. Discipline ends up being a question of rote, obedience, and passive-but-non-believing submission; where those fail, administrative measures are applied. All of these are mental and moral poisons for revolutionaries; no organization can flourish in the long run in this manner.

Furthermore, if you can elect a slate of 12 Lenins prior to a revolution, great; but what if you elect 12 Zinovievs? Then what?

The thoroughly democratic practices and habits of the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP were decisive in 1917. It was only on the basis of this thorough democracy that the erroneous parts of the party’s strategy could be modified and an outsider like Trotsky elected to the party’s highest body, despite Lenin’s uninterrupted political attacks on him for almost a decade and a half prior. An organization without democracy can’t fix its program or be changed from below. Even if said organization’s program is 110% correct, it is doomed to fail the test of revolution because only by fully airing differences within its ranks can it have a chance (not a guarantee) of coming to the right decision about what to do in the heat of the moment.

An organization with a faulty program that has the capacity to change and learn from its mistakes is in a much better position than one that has the right program but no capacity for critical self-reflection. I keep returning to this point because one of the single most damaging problems within the revolutionary wing of the socialist movement post-1917 has been an obsession with “defending the program.” This obsession has led to ferreting out “renegades” i.e. dissidents and elevating secondary political issues or tactical disagreements into all-out wars to “defend the revolutionary Marxist program.” This is especially absurd when tiny, uninfluential socialist organizations in one country split over strategy and tactics adopted by socialists in another country.

If we are going to be “obsessed” with anything, it should be with leading our side to victory in struggles, big and small, by any means necessary. Our measure of success should be the gains and reforms won by our initiatives, however small or fleeting. Only by accumulating those victories will our side rebuild its confidence, providing the basis for a revolution.

So if democracy and not a formally correct program is key, what about the Mensheviks? Why couldn’t they just modify their program and march lockstep with Lenin and Trotsky to October?

By the time of the 1917 revolution, their faction had ossified around their orientation towards pressuring/encouraging/cheerleading Russia’s capitalists to play a stronger role in the fight to overthrow Tsarism. This was particularly true after the defeat of the 1905 revolution (during 1905 the two wings of the RSDLP nearly united, giving lie to the notion that Lenin made up his mind to not unite with the Mensheviks prior to 1912 as part of his life’s mission to create a “party of a new type”). Menshevik organizers tended to be middle class intellectuals or older, more conservative workers who renounced the “foolishness” of their 1905 days in favor of “realism”. Bolshevik organizers tended to be younger and involved with militant actions (illegal strikes, underground organization) because their faction stressed that the working class could only get anything by its own strength and organization, whereas the Menshevik faction tended to downplay militant worker activism since it would scare big business into deserting the revolutionary cause.

The Bolshevik party emerged as an organic part of Russia’s workers’ movement and had a role in a huge array of workers’ activities — strikes, protests, demonstrations, social insurance societies, unions, student organizations, war industry committees (despite their hostility to WWI), and managed to win seats in Russia’s sham legislature despite unfavorable electoral laws; it was part of the class from the party’s inception; its program was derived from and a response to Russian conditions and problems; when conditions changed, so did the party’s program. It succeeded as a revolutionary workers’ party because it was rooted in the class it sought to lead and thoroughly democratic from top to bottom.

This is the key to understanding why the attempt to export conclusions drawn after almost two decades of trial and error in Russia in the early 20th century and impose them “from above” or a priori in the West via the Third/Fourth Internationals has led to complete failure on the part of all “Leninist” groups to lead working-class revolutions.

The early Comintern is often hailed as the high point in the international revolutionary workers’ movement, and it was, but the reality is that the Comintern’s practical influence on the course of the class struggle in other countries was decidedly, almost totally, negative during its “golden years”. The Communist Party of Germany’s (KPD) policies, actions, and slogans became subject to the decisions of an executive thousands of miles away from the front lines; that’s putting aside the unprincipled, apolitical, and bureaucratic nonsense that went on before anybody knew who Stalin was.

Why anyone would look to a model that put the communist movement’s Zinovievs and Bela Kuns in charge of mass workers parties that were being ably led by experienced revolutionaries of the caliber of Rosa Luxemburg (RIP), Paul Levi, Clara Zetkin, Antonio Gramsci, and Angelo Tasca is really beyond me. Louis Proyect wrote a piece that should be read carefully and absorbed by everyone who is a Marxist and wants a workers’ revolution: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization/comintern_and_germany.htm

Is it any wonder the KPD leadership failed to learn how to think for itself and became ever-more dependent on Moscow’s directives when the Comintern’s executive continually decapitated the KPD leadership? This occurred at least three times before Lenin’s death: Paul Levi was expelled in 1921 (with Lenin’s approval), leaving the party in the hands of the ultra-lefts who were partly responsible for the “March Action”; Reuter-Friesland was expelled in 1922 for protesting against mistaken Comintern directives concerning Germany’s union movement; and Brandler was removed from the KPD’s leadership in 1923 after he failed to conjure up a German October at Moscow’s behest.

These expulsions, coming on the heels of the murders of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknict, and Eugen Levine, meant that the KPD was finished as an independent force able to draw conclusions from its own experience and to respond with quick changes to its political “line” necessitated by rapid shifts in the balance of class forces. By 1923, the KPD was led by the leftovers of leftovers of leftovers; this was the fault of the Comintern and no one else. The development of self-confident national parties was crippled by the Comintern experiment, which deepend Russia’s isolation. Trying to replicate this flawed model is the height of folly.

So what does all of the above mean? Is there nothing we can learn from the experience of the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) or the early Comintern?

It means a few things:

1) We have to analyze the Bolshevik party historically rather than project our (mis)conceptions about “Leninism” backwards in time by reading into debates that took place in 1903-1917 things that became clear later and after much struggle, the outcomes of which were not inevitable. Trying to implement Comintern resolutions from 1919-1921 (or worse yet, Lenin’s prescriptions from 1902/1903) instead of finding our own path will only create sects, not a party of working class fighters and organizers capable of winning socialism. “Leninism” and “party-building” have been tried in dozens of countries in many, many different circumstances for the last 90 years, and not once has there been a success! Refusing to acknowledge the inherent flaws of the model we’ve inherited as the last/first word in how to organize and what to do by continually blaming unfavorable “objective conditions” isn’t going to help.

2) There are no cut-and-dried organizational/practical schemas that can serve as templates how revolutionaries should organize, everywhere and always.

What has come to be known as “Leninism” — setting up a disciplined “democratic centralist” organization with a “revolutionary Marxist program,” a newspaper modeled on and motivated by Lenin’s 1902 article “Where to Begin?” and his 1903 book “What Is To Be Done?”, an excessive focus on selling said paper (the result of elevating the newspaper to a matter of principle and revolutionary duty rather than using it as one expedient among many), and creating a miniature caricature of the Bolshevik party, complete with a dozen full-time salaried central committee members, many of whom occupy the same posts for decades(!), all in anticipation of a revolution even though working-class militancy has been at historic lows for two or three decades now — needs to be discarded.

3) Our reality and modern-day conditions have to be our starting point for any discussion of how to organize and where/how to “draw boundaries.” We are materialists, after all. We need to figure out the way forward for our class without relying (mechanically) on what Lenin and his contemporaries said and did. There’s no use importing solutions from a bygone era when we are operating in a radically different context. We should use what we find useful in the experience of others but not copy anything wholesale. Above all else, we have to find ways to be rooted in the class struggle today, such as it exists, if we hope to actually influence its direction, rather than comment/lament on it from the outside.

4) “Party line” newspapers written by toy Leninist groups never have and never will command more than passing attention from workers, although they have managed to absorb a disproportionate amount of the time, energy, and attention of each generation of revolutionaries in the 90 years since the Russian revolution.

The American working class has a long history and tradition of humor, songs, icons, and much more we should be drawing from in our own media (see the disgruntled Whole Foods employee’s farewell letter, for example). In our day and age, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter inform people’s politics a lot more than “old” forms of propaganda like newspapers and pamphlets. We should be discussing how to best utilize the mediums people actually use to influence them politically, rather than figure out how to get them to conform to our preconceptions, especially when those preconceptions are largely erroneous or based on a flawed reading of history in the first place. The more we harp on Russia and the universality of Lenin’s glorious struggle against liquidators, economists, oztovists, and Mensheviks, the more remote we become from the concerns, interests, and lives of workers in the here and now who are desperate for a party that won’t sell them out or screw them over.

To sum up, we need to be flexible tactically and organizationally while remaining steadfast on our goals. Just as the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP developed answers and prescriptions to problems that arose in the course of leading workers in struggle, we must do the same. We would would do well to emulate the approach of Malcolm X who continually reinvented himself in the struggle to win black liberation, and shed the Nation of Islam’s conservative sectarianism in the process. If the socialist movement could do the same, we’d be in a much better position.

If this conclusion is vague and unsatisfying, we can always turn back to the sect with its ready-made and unchanging answers to all problems. Personally, I’d rather not.


  1. There is a great deal to be learned from the life, work and experiences of Malcolm X. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to develop a new organizational form during the brief period he lived after he was forced out of the Nation of Islam.

    Malcolm’s elimination from the scene – as someone who understood how to speak to the people of the United States, and to the Black population above all, in a clear language that ordinary people can understand, was a blow from which this country has yet to recover.

    Thanks for linking Malcolm X to the broader discussion of how to build a revolutionary movement in the United States which is properly adapted to the specific situation of this complex society.

    That’s why, in my opinion, Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolutionaries were able to succeed in making a revolution and holding onto power up until now, where others have not been able to do as much. That doesn’t mean emulating what the Cubans did, but learning as much as we can about our own countries, its histories and circumstances, to build something which would work where we live and work today. And struggling actively against injustice in our own ways while also studying and learning.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — July 29, 2011 @ 2:52 pm

  2. This is by no means an extensive response, but here are a couple of thoughts (they correspond to the numbers in the post):
    1. Agreed. But who is it that does this, exactly? Take Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin “Building the Party” that focuses on his life 1893-1914, which has been very influential as a source of organizational ideas for groups like the ISO. Say what you want about Cliff -we need not (and, indeed probably should not) agree with everything the man did or said- but I don’t think one finds any of the anachronistic backward-projection that you worry about in “Building the Party”. Cliff offers a detailed look at Lenin’s political development, how he became a Marxist, when and why his views on organization changed when they did, and so forth. The conclusions Cliff draws aren’t mechanical, nor do they reify Lenin’s organizational insights into a static, unchanging mass. Cliff emphasizes that “Lenin never adopted abstract, dogmatic schemes of organization, and was ready to change the organizational structure of the party at every new development of the class struggle.”
    2. Fine, but who thinks this? Whose politics does this infect? And, once we agree that there is no cut-and-dry organizational form for all times and places… what follows? It surely doesn’t follow that we should start from scratch. The history of struggle, and the history of the working class movement in particular, should absolutely inform contemporary socialist organization. I think a scientific approach (trial and error, group assessment, learning processes, etc.) is in order, which is a good reason (in my book) to think that a so-called “Leninist” approach is worthwhile.
    3. You imply that things are radically different, but I think you exaggerate the difference. We still live in a capitalist society. Though much has changed, surely you wouldn’t want to say that we’ve made a clean break with the capitalism of the early 20th century such that none of the insights (political, critical, organizational, etc.) are still valid. That sounds too much like Right triumphalism for my liking. It can’t turn out that because things have changed, none of the history of struggle is relevant for contemporary leftists.
    4. I think the anti-print criticism is a bit facile. Of course the Left should make *every* possible use of the internet. For the most part, we are! But it doesn’t follow that we should therefore stop using print and leaflets entirely. To think that is to fetishize one particular form of communication (internet) to the exclusion of others. This, I think, runs afoul of your view that organization should be dynamic and specific to concrete interventions (not one-size-fits-all). I don’t know what you mean by “party line”, but I don’t think you would want to suggest that a political group shouldn’t have clear politics or a solid self-understanding about what holds the group together. To be sure, there are obscure sects that print articles in their newspapers dealing with arcane, ultimately irrelevant debates. So, there I agree with you: the paper should focus on the interests, needs, concerns, struggles, etc. of contemporary working people. But isn’t that exactly what groups like the ISO (see http://www.socialistworker.org) are already doing?

    Comment by T — July 29, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

  3. “that were being ably led by experienced revolutionaries of the calibre of Rosa Luxemburg (RIP), Paul Levi, Clara Zetkin, Antonio Gramsci, and Angelo Tasca is really beyond me”
    Whatever criticismism I have of some of the agents of the Comintern this comment by you is beyond my comprehension. On Germany I’d argue a look at Harman’s Lost Revolution (or if you prefer a non IST source Ben Fowkes’ Communism in Germany Under the Weimar Republic) would show that not everything was rosy in the garden of German Marxism. Surely the murders of Rosa and Karl show what happens if revolutionary leaders cannot constrain some of their followers?
    As for Italy the PSI was a mess after WW1, and in all the factionalism that aided Mussolini’s I’m perhaps much less of a fan of Gramsci than most in the IST, the most I’d say was he was the best of a very weak bunch.
    In retrospect we can all spot mistakes (needless to say we never agree what they were) in the policies of parties and of the Comintern in the revolutionary period up to 1923/4, but it does your case no favors at all to pretend that things were hunky dory in marxist parties in Italy in Russia.
    I’d feel more confident arguing the case for Paul Levi, who I think is much undervalued, if I could only afford the new book of his writings that has just come out.

    Comment by harry monro — July 29, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  4. 1. Yes, let’s take Tony Cliff’s “Building the Party” as an example.

    First of all, it’s rife with errors and omissions. In chapter 19, Cliff claimed that “Lenin practically ran Pravda” from exile prior to WWI when, in fact, almost 50 of his articles were rejected by the paper’s editorial team, while others were heavily edited to make them “less factional.” Cliff doesn’t tell us that the impetus for Pravda came from the local organizers in Petrograd in response to a perceived need to have a workers’ paper that didn’t have quite so much factional content; he didn’t tell us that Pravda had an editorial team rather than a single editor, which meant that it was extremely collaborative rather than one person’s fiefdom; he didn’t bother to mention the fact that the paper’s offices had open hours so workers could come by and talk to someone personally about their problems or issues; Pravda regularly carried poems and humorous pieces by workers. I’d go on further, but the online version is down because marxists.org isn’t working for whatever reason. In the meantime, check out Louis’s entry about Pravda: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/bolshevik-newspapers-myth-and-reality/

    This is just one example of where Cliff got the facts wrong.

    In chapter 2, Cliff wrote that Lenin “perfectly” adapted himself to factory agitation. I’d cite more examples, but the online version is down because marxists.org isn’t working (at least for me). If this isn’t reification, I don’t know what is.

    This is putting aside the fact that Cliff never once discussed how the Bolshevik CC was elected in any of his Lenin biographies. If he did, SWP members would know that the Bolsheviks didn’t use a slate system. This is important because when the SWP ran into problems with their project, RESPECT, their CC split and made John Rees and Lindsey German the scapegoats for the mistakes of the organization as a whole. The last 5 years or so the SWP has been characterized by resignations, splits, and expulsions because the organization is structurally incapable of dealing with significant differences of opinion in its ranks, to say nothing of mistakes and political difficulties.

    2. Who thinks this? Anyone who agrees with the following: “What we need now is a vanguard party that has a newspaper, a central committee made up of salaried full-timers, and a revolutionary program, just like the Bolsheviks had when they seized power in 1917.” Or, if you prefer, this: “Because Rosa Luxemburg and her comrades failed to build a revolutionary socialist party the way Lenin did prior to the German revolution of 1918, the revolution was defeated.” Or: “Because sixties radicals failed to build a revolutionary socialist party that was like the Bolsheviks, the various movements of the time were defeated and we’ve been on the defensive ever since.”

    Those are excellent examples cut-and-dried formula applicable to all times and all places, regardless of facts, context, or historical development.

    No one is talking about “starting from scratch.” The debate is not between not “Leninism” vs. “let’s pretend the working class hasn’t been fighting for its interests since the 1840s or so.” Once we can agree to debate each other’s actual positions rather than imaginary ones, then we can get somewhere productive.

    3. Yes, things are radically different. Large and growing numbers of workers in the early 20th century were getting involved in struggle and increasingly identifying with Social Democracy and anarchism; eventually they created mass parties and militant unions to fight for their interests. This is nothing like the context that revolutionaries are operating in today in most countries. As Duncan Hallas put it, “In human terms, an organised layer of thousands of workers, by hand and by brain, firmly rooted amongst their fellow workers and with a shared consciousness of the necessity for socialism and the way to achieve it, has to be created. Or rather it has to be recreated.”

    Does that sound like “capitalist triumphalism” to you?

    4. Again, you’re wasting time arguing against things I never said and arguments I never made. The piece focused on the problems with Leninism/Leninists in general, not an attack on or a critique of specific organizations. The problems and issues I raise manifest themselves in all Leninists organizations, but how it occurs concretely differs from group to group because their particular shibboleths and the routines that are built upon those shibboleths vary.

    The main question I’m interested in is this: how can we expect to make political/organizations conclusions and solutions developed over 15+ years of debate, experience, and struggle in early 20th century Russia the basis of our organizing today and expect any hope of success given that our context is radically different? I have yet to hear an answer, except that “we still live under capitalism” (duh).

    I’m not going to comment on the ISO because the problems and issues I raised are much, much bigger than any one one group. I am considering writing something about how, through my experience as a member of the ISO, I came to the conclusion that “Leninism” needs to buried along with the old man’s body if we’re going to have a fighting chance at a workers’ revolution but remain undecided.

    Comment by Binh — July 29, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

  5. Harry, who said everything was “rosy in the garden of German Marxism”? Not me. Where did I say things were “hunky dory”? Having an able leadership doesn’t mean you’re living in a workers’ paradise. Just look at Russia in 1921.

    What happened to Rosa and Karl was very close to happening to Lenin during the July Days, even though the Bolsheivks did successfully “constrain some of their followers” (for the most part). Fortunately, he listened to his followers (Stalin and others) who urged him to get the hell out of dodge.

    The bottom line is that the early Comintern really screwed up the development of communist parties around the world. Imagine if an agent from the 2nd international told Lenin after the 1903 congress that he had to split from the Mensheviks immediately and never look back or face expulsion from the RSDLP/2nd international? If such an event occurred, I can guarantee you there would’ve been no 1917.

    I’ve read Harman’s book multiple times, along with Broue’s. I stand by my arguments.

    Comment by Binh — July 29, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

  6. As for Italian communism, yes it was weak, but the Comintern’s actions there contributed to that situation. Paul Levi had a big fight in the KPD because he opposed the timing of the split that the Comintern’s agent (a no-name) insisted on. Again, why should the leadership of the German party take heat because they disagreed with what someone who had the backing of the leadership of the Russian party argued for in party inside of Italy. Absurd, absurd, absurd!

    Comment by Binh — July 29, 2011 @ 5:11 pm

  7. Hi,

    Hope all are well.

    “This is especially absurd when tiny, uninfluential socialist organizations in one country split over strategy and tactics adopted by socialists in another country.”

    The reality is that if you want to win the people you will have to serve the people. You can preach your theory all you want but give people results or at least get them to believe that what you offer and you will get results.

    What would this amount to in the United States? Employment, medical care, a secure future, an end to the war, environmental protection; sum it up in general a better life. It took Lenin, Trotsky and company the most dramatic conditions to successfully pull off the revolution. Compare the suffering of the serf, the soldier and the workman in Russia to the impoverished in the U.S.A. There was a long dismal war where the soldiers lacked supplies. The soldiers were willing to die for the cause; they were dying already for the imperialistic agenda. The serfs, they had nothing so any move up would be better. The workers were almost no better off.

    There are elements of this in the U.S.A. but we are not in the extreme. Yet the more the conditions of every day people get worse the likelihood of revolutionary change increase. Meanwhile the government, the system, the bankers, etc are tightening their noose and increasing their control. In the lust for power and control people will being to resist. The more they suffer the more fed up and angry they will be. At a low point they will be willing to listen to solutions because their own solutions will be demonstrated as an obvious failure by their own life’s conditions.

    There are lessons to learn and there will be much controversy. Take a long hard look at why the Russian Revolution succeeded. And almost important is why its success was derailed.


    John Kaniecki

    Comment by John Kaniecki — July 30, 2011 @ 12:15 am

  8. John,
    I know what you men, I think. If Russia: 1917 was the great revolutionary model, then we’re in for some bad news. None of those circumstances exist in the capitalist core of the US/West EU.
    I have heard speakers from the CPGB (communist Party Great Britain) say that they do not desire the weakening of capitalism because that would mean the weakening of the working class. They claim that theirs is a mission to expand consciousness. throughout the working class. I admire them and I love their online videos. I hope the continue uploading videos.

    However, What are they waiting for, a return to 1960s high wage earnings before really pushing their revolutionary agenda?
    No, trained as a scientist, I must say that the failure of a system is the most compelling denunciation of that system. The idea of telling a man who just got a home loan approved so that he might make a home for his wife and children, the idea of telling him that he’s just a useful tool in a great inhumane machine, well it’s just not going to happen.

    Comment by Brian Gallagher — July 30, 2011 @ 7:55 am

  9. Whoa. two comments made into one thanks to internet typing. Be Advised: those (above) represent two different comments.

    Comment by Brian Gallagher — July 30, 2011 @ 7:57 am

  10. I don’t want to take up comment space so everyone, do not reply to my comments, specifically, but feel free to address the ideas.

    Comment by Brian Gallagher — July 30, 2011 @ 8:01 am

  11. Binh, thanks for your reply, I do like your over the to style “absurb, absurd, absurd” it warm the cockles of the heart of any orthodox Trot, however you’re not one, and neither am I, so I’ll not throw my rattle out of my pram.
    Of course I’m not suggesting you said German or Italian were living in a “workers paradise”, how could they be there had been no revolution – indeed as we’d both agree the period following the Bolshivik Revolution was no workers paradise either. However you did say “ably led” which considering the history of the two countries is I believe just wrong. I think your arguments against the comintern would be strengthened if you actually considered the real problems of the parties on the ground, the perceptions of these problems by Lenin (which may well have been wrong, at least in some cases), the horrid mistakes made on the ground by some comintern agents, and the local circumstances which in some cases were more responsible for further disasters than the comintern advice. Ignoring or playing down these factors makes it easy for some to ignore your arguments, that would be a shame as we do need more orginal and critical analyses of the period. For instance I may admire Levi but his behavior at times made it very easy for the ultra-left to isolate him in the KPD.

    Comment by Harry Monro — July 30, 2011 @ 10:47 am

  12. Hello,

    Hope all are well.

    Marx/Engels is outdated. We no longer have capitalism for the most part but a financial oligarchy. Capitalism implies competition for the resources. World War 1 is an excellent exmaple of a capitalistic war. With the invention of the international coperation all the owners are on one side. That is their own. The top one percent controls the majority of the wealth.

    If we had capitalism there would be competition. When was the last time oil companies or health care providers competed? Now when Mcdonalds slashes the prices on the Big Mac and Burger King in turn offers a two for one deal on whoppers that is competition. Europe is now united, if loosely so we won’t have a repeat of WW1 just yet.

    Marx/Engels optimistically saw the improvement in the state of man. From capitalism history would naturally continued to progress into communism. Not so!! We have taken a step backwards. We must acknowledge the communism is not inveitable but can only be achieved through hard work. Not theorizing or quoting people but by becoming one with the people in every way. To unite our fates collectively.

    We must see that the impoverished, starving man in the third world is our brother. The child dying is our daughter or son.


    John Kaniecki

    Comment by John Kaniecki — July 30, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

  13. For an insightful and nuanced dialectical take on the Subject/Object issue, take a look at Theodor Adorno’s “On Subject and Object” – a short essay directly addressing the relationship between the two. It come from Adorno’s perspective of the “primacy of the Object”, without devolving into vulgar materialism. I think this could be quite useful for the value problem, and would be interested what you make of it. Most of it can be read here: http://books.google.com/books?id=SswjM_Nx33UC&pg=PA137&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false, but for the full thing I would be glad to send a PDF.

    Comment by V. Richter — July 30, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

  14. (Sorry, that last post can be deleted; irrelevant.)

    Comment by V. Richter — July 30, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

  15. Hello,

    Hope all is well.

    As an outsider looking in, as somebody who is not a Marxist necessarily but a Christian looking in it appalls me the way you treat one another; the abusive language and so forth. Do you not all share the final outcome?

    That is the attraction for me; to create a world without oppression, hunger, war, starvation; where one gives as they have talents and nobody is exploited.

    That is my attraction to Trotsky, who in my limited knowledge is the greatest of the Marxists. First and foremost he was extremely talented, a peer of Lenin. Secondly he attempted to keep everybody together, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Then when he realized that Lenin had the opportunity to be successful in the revolution he risked it all and committed himself to it. My favorite scene is when Trotsky is before the crowd and they ask “Why aren’t you with the people fighting?” His reply was, “I’m going right now,” and then he left the place to do as he said. Trotsky also exhibited bravery in the Civil war putting his life at risk. Then when he quarreled with Stalin he bowed out. I believe Trotsky could have made a stand to make himself legitimate ruler of the Soviet Union but I think he realized that if he caused too much internal strife he would destroy the fragile movement. After all Trotsky did have the loyalty of the armed forces. And until the end he continued to fight for what he believed in.

    Trotsky was a man of vision who knew when to compromise and when to stand firm. He was a dedicated hard worker that sacrificed personal ambition for the cause.

    Perhaps through my limited knowledge my historical perception is not accurate.


    John Kaniecki

    Comment by John Kaniecki — July 30, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

  16. Harry: I believe Levi and his co-thinkers in Germany were able leaders, hence my comment about being “ably led.” The Comintern’s interventions in Italy and Germany aided the ultra-lefts, as did some of Levi’s behavior. Personally I think by the time he resigned from the Zentrale and later expelled he was so fed up with the Comintern and the ultra-lefts in his own party that it prevented him from acting in a calm, cool, and productive manner. I know quite a bit less about Italian communism, but I know that there were big fights over the timing/method of splitting with the PSI, and some of that fed into Bordiga’s nonsense which hampered the infant CP and may have prevented them from effectively fighting Mussolini’s rise to power. If you have any reading suggestions, they’d be appreciated. (Last thing I read years ago was “Proletarian Order” about Gramsci and his paper “New Order.”)

    An able leadership makes mistakes but then corrects or addresses them. The way the Comintern — with Lenin and Trotsky at the helm — handled the aftermath of the “March Action” disqualifies them as an “able leadership.” Lenin was 100% right in Left-Wing Communism when he said the hallmark of a serious party is how it handles mistakes.

    Comment by Binh — July 30, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

  17. Hi Pham, you should submit a serious historical article to the ISR or elsewhere to have out a real debate. I personally find the ex-member “personal testimonial” genre annoying and grist for the sectarian mill. Louis has been making the points you do for over a decade but nothing has come out of his critique organizationally. What do you propose as a model for the US today? You want less centralism…Is Solidarity your model? Left Turn? The NPA? What will keep your original model from degenerating into a sect? Or just more critique with no action?

    Comment by Andrew — August 2, 2011 @ 6:17 am

  18. Andrew, there are no guarantees in life. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Marx: “World history would indeed be very easy to make if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances.”

    I missed the part where I said I wanted less centralism. Can you quote my piece where you’re getting that from?

    As for a model, I’m open to almost anything, depending on context and politics. I’m going to look at every group that is not “Leninist” and go from there, as long as its a real movement. Groups I have in mind in the U.S. would be the I.W.W. and perhaps S.P.U.S.A. Like I said at the end of my piece, you may find my conclusions unsatisfying, but it’s hardly my fault that grassroots worker militantcy is at historic lows, thereby making it harder to know exactly where to go or what exactly to do to rebuild.

    If you have an “in” with the ISR, I’ll submit something. I’ve already written “for the waste basket” by submitting stuff to SocialistWorker (a reply to Gilbert Achcar’s support for the U.S. attack on Libya and a piece slamming Ron Paul) and I don’t care to repeat the experience with the ISR. Let me know.

    Comment by Binh — August 2, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

  19. Pham, I’ve also had stuff rejected from SW, they published several articles on those topics…you should write a serious piece– if the ISR doesn’t take it, maybe ATC or New Politics will.

    Of course life is uncertain. But you give yourself an out by relying on objective conditions to excuse your not knowing “what to do to rebuild.” But these conditions don’t figure into your invective against unnamed “toy Bolshevik” groups. Why? It is easy to be

    Comment by Andrew — August 2, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

  20. …critical of the existing far left, less easy to propose and build an alternative. There is a kind of “anti-sectarian” sectarianism here, which is why I don’t think Louis has gotten anywhere organizationally after so many years. Also his harshness toward the IS tradition’s supposed lack of democracy seems strange coming from an uncritical admirer of the Cuban regime. I’ll take Cliff and his many errors myself over Castro, but that’s me. I think a critique of
    centralism runs through your piece, i’ll let
    readers judge for themselves. Certainly you will
    find far less of that in the IWW or SP than in the ISO or Solidarity for that matter. I think you raise some interesting questions and I look fwd to a longer piece. But before adapting Louis’ critique of Leninism I might reflect why it has produced a good listserve but little else. You are free to reject Leninism, but the question “what is to be done?” remains.

    Comment by Andrew — August 2, 2011 @ 9:38 pm

  21. Andrew, my position is that a revolutionary party can only be built out of a mass movement. The last time we had anything like that was in the 60s. My generation, largely out of the lingering impact of the Russian revolution but understood undialectically, screwed things up. My goal is to orient people in their twenties to not make the mistakes we made. It is not just me. You can read a similar analysis from Max Elbaum in “Revolution in the Air” or on Kasama Project. At the age of 66, I am in no position to build anything even if the mass movement began to take shape. The only ambition I have at this point is to help build a non-party socialist website after I retire, which will not be too long from now.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 2, 2011 @ 10:25 pm

  22. Louis,

    Do you believe a revolution is still possible in the United States? If so, why are you effectively telling young people interested in Marxism that they should wait for a mass movement to emerge before trying to build a revolutionary socialist organization? Would you have given the same advice to the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt? Or the anti-capitalist groups who now have a fast-growing audience in Greece? Islamists and reformists didn’t wait around for a mass movement to start building organizations. Why on earth should socialists?

    It seems to me that it makes a great deal more sense to start trying now, in however modest a way, to knit together an organization of socialists, so that when a mass movement inevitably emerges, we can help to maximize its potential impact. What if there had been 100 or 500 organized socialists in Wisconsin, with some roots in the unions, instead of 30 or 40? Perhaps the outcome would have been the same, but perhaps not.

    The primary problems of the party-building experiments of the late 60s and 70s were that 1) along with the rest of the far left globally, they were almost all, to varying degrees, infected with Stalinist and Maoist politics, and 2) nearly all of them developed highly overblown perspectives that crashed on the rocks when the system re-stabilized in the late 70s. All of these groups were only minimally implanted in the working class to begin with, and so were subject to the hothouse cultishness that invariably takes place among middle class ex-students when bad political theory and reality sharply diverge. That’s how you get the Jack Barnes of the world. They are not doomed to reappear.

    Your message seems to boil down to, “Kids, we tried all that. Don’t bother, you’re getting it all wrong. You’re toy Bolsheviks. You don’t understand Leninism or the Bolsheviks the way I do.” I find a lot of your writing great but as far as organizational advice this is not “orienting” people, it’s disorienting and condescending. My advice to you and Pham, for whatever it’s worth, is to drop this sectarianism and try to fraternally relate to those who do think it’s worthwhile trying to build a socialist organization before mass struggle explodes in America.

    Excuse me for sounding a bit irritated, but I am. People don’t like being pissed on, especially when those pissing have no alternative on offer— except to wait.


    Comment by Andrew — August 3, 2011 @ 10:49 am

  23. Andrew: Do you believe a revolution is still possible in the United States? If so, why are you effectively telling young people interested in Marxism that they should wait for a mass movement to emerge before trying to build a revolutionary socialist organization? Would you have given the same advice to the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt? Or the anti-capitalist groups who now have a fast-growing audience in Greece? Islamists and reformists didn’t wait around for a mass movement to start building organizations. Why on earth should socialists?

    Louis: I think all “revolutionary socialist” groups perform a valuable function in the USA (except for obviously demented formations like the SWP) but my point is that a true revolutionary party will have little to do with the small propaganda groups of today. I think that the ISO in particular does very many good things but there are too many worrisome signs that it still does not grasp what has to be done. I say this despite Paul LeBlanc’s excellent talk.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 3, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

  24. Andrew, I don’t even know what ATC or New Politics are. I guess that makes me a sectarian who hasn’t written anything “serious” (whatever that means; maybe you are objecting to the lack of footnotes?).

    You couldn’t come up with anything that I said against centralism and have avoided the substantive and methodological issues I raised. Instead, you attack positions I don’t even hold and decry the fact that I openly admit that I don’t have all the answers as to what is to be done (which depends on where you live, what’s going on there in terms of struggle/organization, and what you want to accomplish).

    “Leninists” by and large have an inability to engage opponents in honest debate, and that is one of the reasons why I came to reject the sterile past time of trying to build an organization that copies the outer forms of the 1917 Bolshevik party outside of and apart from the working class as it actually exists today and without the democratic norms that are indispensible for any working-class organization. We can’t strawman our way to soviet power, unfortunately.

    Comment by Binh — August 3, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

  25. ^- One more reason why I think submitting anything to the ISR on this topic is probably pointless. There won’t be any effort to actually engage the arguments advanced because they 1) challenge the entire framework of the ISO’s practice and 2) shows that the ISO is not modeled on the actual practices of the Bolshevik party.

    Comment by Binh — August 3, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

  26. Of course the members of the existing socialist groups won’t accept Binh’s tendentious claims that they are “relying (mechanically) on what Lenin and his contemporaries said and did” or building a “sect with its ready-made and unchanging answers to all problems.” I’m sure the members of these groups feel pretty strongly that they are trying to creatively apply the lessons of the Russian Revolution (and other historical mass struggles) to contemporary circumstances. Once you start framing your criticisms in the terms Binh chooses, you’re either going to elicit a yawn or a pretty defensive reaction–in either case, you fall into the “embittered ex-member” sub-genre and you’re not going to get much of a hearing.

    As Louis noted, the problem is the lack of any serious working-class fightback in this country. That makes life in a small socialist group pretty difficult, quite frustrating, and frequently dispiriting. Trust me, I know how easy it is to fall back on arguments like “if we were just doing things more/less like the Bolsheviks really did them, we’d be in a much better position.” And of course, we should always welcome discussions about new ideas, new methods of organizing ourselves and reaching people outside the movement, etc.

    But Andrew is right. These new approaches are going to need to prove themselves in practice at some point. At the moment my sense is that groups Binh would deride as “toy Leninists” (the ISO and PSL, for example) are some way ahead of the groups who have broken with this method.

    So…I’m not trying to shut down the debate. But let’s keep the tone more constructive. And give us something practical to work with.

    Comment by James — August 3, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

  27. @26: At the moment my sense is that groups Binh would deride as “toy Leninists” (the ISO and PSL, for example) are some way ahead of the groups who have broken with this method.

    Well, of course. There are things you can do in the “primitive accumulation” stage of “Leninist” party-building that can’t be done in a framework like Solidarity, for example. The problem is that you inevitably run into a glass ceiling. But don’t get me wrong. I think that the ISO is performing a very useful function on the American left but the comrades are kidding themselves if they think that the party we need will have any connection to the ISO. At the very best, we can only hope that the comrades can recognize such a party when it begins to take shape and to have the good sense to dissolve themselves into it. But all this is pretty abstract given the low level of political activity in the USA.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 3, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

  28. James, I mentioned the existing socialist groups only once in my entire piece where I discuss their use of the slate system. The rest of it speaks in general terms. If members of said groups feel defensive, that is understandable and legitimate. If anything, it’s an indication that a lot of what I said rings true to some extent and produced a reaction; removing the word “sect” or changing some of the terminology wouldn’t have changed those reactions.

    However, the reaction of “Leninism’s” defenders does not eliminate the substantive problems and issues I raised, none of which have been grappled with or even acknowledged (much less debated thoroughly) by my critics in this thread (I’m assuming they consider themselves Leninists).

    And that’s precisely one of the problems with “Leninists” — an inability or unwillingness to give those perceived as political opponents a fair hearing, even when said opponents agree with on ultimate goals but differ on strategy/tactics. Perhaps James will be an exception to my experience thus far on this score.

    Of course “new approaches” (I don’t think I’m arguing anything novel) need to prove their superiority, but falling back on the fact that “Leninists” are “way ahead” of social democrats, anarchists, Greens, Solidarity, union bureaucrats, or others isn’t saying much and sets the bar too low.

    “Leninism” needs to be evaluated in terms of whether it can lead to a socialist revolution or not. My argument is no, it can’t and won’t, because it is an attempt to reverse-engineer the Russian revolution by taking the forms of their finished product (the 1917 Bolshevik party, newspaper, CC, program) as the starting point of a discussion of how revolutionaries should organize.

    Comment by Binh — August 3, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

  29. Louis, I apologize if I misrepresented your position. I do think the ISO could be one element of a future party, but the group explicitly does not see itself as the ‘nucleus’ of such a party. What worrying signs do you see? I am more than willing to take constructive criticism on board. Pham, “terminology” does actually matter. Calling the ISO or other decent left groups toy Bolshevik sects is hostile and sectarian. It is not the basis on which you fraternally engage with other socialists, if that’s what you’re actually interested in. Your anti-Leninist critique could be very profound and original, but nobody except other sectarians will take you seriously. That is why I encourage you to drop the sectarianism and write a publishable piece. If you feel your piece will be too devastating a critique for the ISR to handle, you can google New Politics and ATC is Against the Current.

    Comment by Andrew — August 3, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

  30. What has been a little disappointing so far in this interesting discussion is its strange confinement (except for some short allusions from Louis) to the limits reached by the ‘critical Leninism’ of Duncan Hallas, Tony Cliff and Chris Harman in the 60’s and 70s. It is good to hear what is effectively the ‘Old IS’ tradition defended and renewed by Paul Le Blanc and then elaborated sympathetically but critically by Pham Binh. But this tradition, or rather its organisational forms even in their best embodyments, is being tentatively transcended today by a series of new political parties and formations in Europe, South America and (through some pioneering theoretical attention) North America and Australia. That is that the debate has moved further along from how to build, in the present, a non-sectarian revolutionary group to the option of, on the road to the eventual mass revolutionary party, the ‘revolutionary organisation’ versus the broad class struggle party. Indeed the US organisation ‘Solidarity’ was an early herald of this departure.

    The reply to the question ‘what is to be done’ now includes a plurality and heterodoxy within expansive and principled limits. A plurality not just of united, rather than competing, ‘revolutionary’ groups, but of revolutionary, radical and left social democratic currents developing together in a relatively unified and fighting anti-capitalist political organisation. (The degree to which the ‘revolutionaries’ or the various currents of revolutionaries need to maintain their separate organisation within this wider organisation can be left to a sub-debate).

    Louis has made some stabs at theorising this innovation within the Bolshevik tradition, a re-studied, corrected and reclaimed Leninism (cf. https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/from-the-lcr-to-the-npa/ and other contributions dotted about ‘The Unrepentant Marxist’). As have, and with equally persuasive claims to a rescued Lenin, Murray Smith (e.g. http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=5&issue=100 ) and Phil Hearse (e.g. http://www.marxsite.com/DemCentBLP.html ). The Australian/International internet journal ‘Links’ is a wide window onto this entire field (http://links.org.au/ ; and particularly http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/88 and http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/8 ). A new book entitled ‘New Parties of the Left: Experiences from Europe’ ( cf. http://www.iire.org/nl/component/content/article/230-new-book-on-the-left-in-europe.html ) promises to throw new light on this new organisational era.

    I realise that Paul’s original talk was aimed at the ISO in particular but I feel that his scholarship, experience and openness would, if directed at the new broad parties, greatly contribute to placing a new and necessary way of organising firmly within the marxist tradition and its theory of organisation since the First International, and putting it on firm materialist feet.

    Comment by Des Derwin — August 4, 2011 @ 1:07 am

  31. Andrew writes: “Pham, ‘terminology’ does actually matter. Calling the ISO or other decent left groups toy Bolshevik sects is hostile and sectarian.” Two points: I never claimed terminology does not matter, nor did I ever call the ISO or other left groups “toy Bolshevik sects” (in comment 19 you admitted that when you said said groups were “unnamed”). So according to your argument, neither I nor my article are “hostile” or “sectarian.” Again, you avoid all of the issues I’ve raised in the piece and instead make demonstrably false accusations about me and my political positions. Most people would consider that hostile behavior.

    Des, I appreciate your contribution. To be clear, I’m no fan of the “Leninism” of Harman, Hallas, and especially Cliff, who single-handedly destroyed the British International Socialists and threw away the chance to rebuild a rank-and-file workers’ movement in the mid-1970s in order to create the Socialist Workers Party. His “critical Leninism” was nothing short of criminal, at least if Jim Higgins’ “More Years for the Locust” has more than a grain of truth to it.

    Comment by Binh — August 4, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

  32. Point taken Pham. I was referring to the ‘critical Leninism’ of ‘Party and Class’ (1971). Hitting me with Jim Higgins serves me right for leaving him, and ‘The IS Opposition’, out.

    Comment by Des Derwin — August 4, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

  33. Pham: Your article is written in response to an ISO member speaking about the ISO. The ISO is the largest far left group in the US. You are a former ISO member. To throw around stuff about “Party line newspapers written by toy Leninist groups,” as you do, WITHOUT naming names is not only sectarian, it’s also disingenuous.

    Comment by Andrew — August 5, 2011 @ 10:58 am

  34. Des, it’s hard to take that “critical Leninism” seriously when it is belied by the practice of the authors. I lost respect for Hallas when I found out that he toured the U.S. in the early 80s as part of the UK SWP’s factional campaign within the ISO to shut down its women’s caucus.

    Andrew, you must have missed the first paragraph of what I wrote — it’s a response to LeBlanc, but not a point-by-point “rebuttal.” I did not identify myself as a former ISO member in the piece because it was not relevant to the arguments I presented. If I wanted to write a piece trashing the ISO, I would. I’m not afraid to name names where it’s needed.

    Again, you continue to evade the arguments I presented and make bogus accusations about me. Good luck leading anything, much less a workers’ revolution, with a “method” like that.

    Comment by Binh — August 5, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

  35. Andrew, do you have membership figures for the ISO? If not, what is your claim that “the ISO is the largest far left group in the US” based on? Feelings? Intuition? I’m curious.

    Comment by Binh — August 5, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

  36. T, in re-reading Tony Cliff’s “Building the Party,” I discovered another factual error, this time a major one. In chapter 17, Cliff claims that the Bolsheviks proclaimed themselves the only legitimate faction of the RSDLP at the 1912 Prague conference, a de facto expulsion of the Mensheviks, Trotsky’s followers, and Plekhanov’s group as well. In fact, pro-party Mensheviks who followed Plekhanov participated in this conference; not only that, but two of their members were actually elected to the central committee!

    Why does this matter? It shows that the Bolsheviks did not irrevocably break with the Mensheviks in 1912. In fact, they formed a bloc with some of them (the pro-party elements) against others (the liquidators). I have confirmed this fact with Ralph Elwood Carter by email. You can read about it here: http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Proparty+Mensheviks

    Tony Cliff, like all Leninists, re-wrote the RSDLP’s history to conform to the narrative of a purely Bolshevik, single tendency revolutionary party built prior to 1917 in an attempt to justify the practices of their newspaper-selling revolving-door-membership sects.

    Leninism (or Zinovievism as Proyect terms it) is an attempt to create something that never existed and which never can exist by definition. It’s ahistorical idealism at its worst.

    Comment by Binh — August 26, 2011 @ 6:59 pm

  37. Pham, there’s really a hardened ‘point-scoring’ quality to your tone and mode of argumentation. Can you recognize this? **Those “newspaper-selling revolving-door-membership sects”! I’m gonna show them who’s right!”** It’s the same thing with your new blog post on Libya. Instead of new evidence or investigation of what’s actually going on, you start from your sectarianism toward the IS tradition: **”The ISO is coming dangerously close to adopting the PSL’s position!”** This approach is not Marxist, dude, it’s sectarian scholasticism— it’s the sort of thing that idiots in groups like the Sparts or the CPGB expend nearly all their energies doing. Isn’t that a waste of your valuable time and intelligence? Is that what you want your pol. contribution to be?

    Even if you’re right it’s a shitty way to argue. **The ISO doesn’t understand the Arab revolution.** I mean, come on. You argued in print that the US was DEFINITELY going to attack Iran several years ago. You were proved totally wrong. What if someone used that to say **Pham is in error. He predicted and argued several times in print the US would definitely attack Iran. He was wrong. That means he doesn’t understand imperialism.** That’s just a shitty method imo.

    Your fact-checking of Cliff’s book may have turned up something important. I will look it up. But do you think you’ve really disproved the existence of Leninism as an organizational form? Really?

    Comment by Andrew — August 28, 2011 @ 9:32 am

  38. >>>Andrew, do you have membership figures for the ISO? If not, what is your claim that “the ISO is the largest far left group in the US” based on? Feelings? Intuition? I’m curious.<<<

    If I had membership numbers, I wouldn't share them on the internet with you. I'm making an educated guess. I'm not bragging, the ISO is pathetically small and very modest about its size. But would you care to name a group that might have a chance at being larger? I don't think so, comrade.

    Comment by Andrew — August 28, 2011 @ 9:44 am

  39. Andrew, if you don’t agree with my views on Libya, the proper place to debate them is in the relevant thread. Again, you are just evading the substantive issues I raised in this piece. I don’t need to “disprove” Leninism — the Bolsheviks have already done that. I’m glad that you recognize that your claim that the ISO is the largest left organization in the U.S. isn’t based on fact but on your guesswork. Now that we agree that facts are important, let’s try to stick to the topic at hand and deal with the issues raised. Your move.

    Comment by Binh — September 14, 2011 @ 12:10 am

  40. Pham,

    You are right that my claim that the ISO is the largest group on the revolutionary left today is guesswork. But I suppose my question again is, can either of us name a possible contender? I don’t think we can. I am not trying to brag about the size of the ISO– it is a tiny organization relative to what it aims to achieve. I’m just stating a claim that I think neither of us can offer a counter-claim for. We’re both familiar with the terrain of the revolutionary socialist left; it’s not a very large terrain.

    And there is the far more serious point, isn’t it? The entire organized radical left, including the ISO, is miniscule and must grow if we seek to have any influence on what appears to be a very explosive period of class struggle ahead. I think we are seeing tastes of that struggle breaking out all over the place. I also think recognizing the gap between the revolutionary left’s low level of organization and massive tasks is a source of frustration for all revolutionary socialists today, or it should be. “If you’re not frustrated, you’re not paying attention,” as the saying goes.

    The problem is what James identified above: we can lament and ruthlessly critique what exists, but if we can’t answer the question “what is to be done?,” if we can’t propose alternatives, what is the ruthless critique meant to achieve? We are both familiar with the internet sectarian type who is an expert nitpicker but offers little to the struggle. But “filling the gap” I’ve identified is a goal I’m confident that we both seek to overcome. We are both active revolutionaries. And I apologize if the frustration I’ve identified seeped into this thread in an unproductive way from my end. We are both familiar with a certain pedantic style of debate found on the internet— the cheap rhetorical devices; casting your opponents arguments in the worst possible light; dishonest paraphrasing, etc. I believe that this style itself is a product of the objective difficulties revolutionaries face today– the frustration. But it rarely clarifies matters, so I pledge to refrain from it, and will ask you to do likewise.

    As far as the substantive issues you raise… I am in fact totally agreement with most of them. We need to be flexible in our organizing; we should not fetishize the Bolshevik experience (or any other for that matter); we must learn from the rich history of radicalism in the US. I’m not sure what specific issue you want me to address, but I will try. It’s a bit hard because you’re directing critique at the contemporary US far left, but then say you’re not specifically talking about its largest organization, and not proposing any concrete changes except things I agree with. We certainly need to learn from Malcolm X and Sojourner Truth and Eugene many others, not just Marx or Lenin. This seems like a useful but uncontroversial point.

    I am not sure what you mean by the Bolsheviks “disproving Leninism.” To me ‘Leninism’ is simply the name for an organizational practice that involves building up an independent current/organization of revolutionaries within the workers’ movement which has as its aim the self-emancipation of the working class. We need it not because we should seek to mimic the Bolsheviks, but because 1) consciousness develops unevenly in the class, so the most militant workers need to be organized independently to influence the rest 2) revolutionaries face not only a hostile ruling class, but also must compete with organized reformism and other class forces within the workers movement which fight to steer the struggle away from confrontation with the class enemy. Egypt today is instructive, as I think you’d agree; the liberals and Islamists are highly organized, and they are doing everything they can to prevent the class struggle developing into a reckoning with imperialism, capitalist class power, and the state machine. Egyptian workers need an organized counter-force of revolutionaries to help lead the struggle to victory.

    I think history shows we do indeed need such a revolutionary counter-force if we have even the slightest hope of winning a socialist revolution— especially in the United States, given that it is the largest imperialist power. Not a centrist half-way house, not an anarcho-syndicalist federation, but a mass revolutionary workers party. I think October 1917 demonstrates this argument in the positive; many other examples prove it in the negative. For the sake of discussion, it would be helpful for me to know if we agree on this as a common point of departure. Lenin played a major role in helping to build such a party in his time, a party which led the only socialist revolution in history to victory. That is why his name is associated with the revolutionary party-building project— that, to me, is Leninism.

    The ISO does not pretend to be even the nucleus of such a party at present, as you know. This is important– we are modest about our influence. But building a socialist organization today can hopefully help lay the basis for something bigger and better in the future. We do have to start somewhere. We must start somewhere. If you think the IWW or the Socialist Party might be better places to start, I would be interested to hear your reasons why. I have great respect for militants in those organizations, but it’s not clear to me why they are the best places for revolutionary Marxists to put their energies at present.

    Re: “democratic centralism”… I’m not sure I see the controversy here. Democracy in the workers’ movement means very little if we vote and then everyone goes and does their own thing. We face a powerful, highly centralized class enemy that is extremely coordinated ideologically, physically, etc. So you need maximum democracy but then you need to strive for maximum unity in action. This is part of an ongoing process. After you take action you come back and assess– was the action that the group collectively voted on and carried out correct? Democratic centralism is above all a practical process, not a dogma or set of rigid formal procedures— you learn as you go. Leadership is judged over time based on which individuals and groups of individuals provide the most effective way forward. As Gramsci taught us, leadership is involved in every struggle. The question is whether it is conscious and accountable.

    As far as full timers go, I disagree with you here. Are you concerned full-timers will corrupt revolutionary organizing? I think a serious socialist organization needs full-timers to do valuable tasks: editing and writing for its publications; traveling to cities where you don’t have branches to help get them on their feet, coordinating national movement work, etc. Historically they have and should be paid a livable worker’s wage– and do enormous amounts of relatively thankless labor.

    The slate system issue is interesting. I tend to think a slate system can be more democratic for a central organizing body, because a slate of leaders can be held accountable to carrying out a perspective that the organization votes on in a way that individuals cannot. In other words, if a central organizing body is voted in as individuals, what happens if the leadership screws up? It leaves open the question– who was responsible? If the slate fails, you vote in a new slate. There is collective accountability.

    However, in a real revolutionary party, if serious conflicting tendencies developed which represented the views of different sections of the membership, then I think you might want something different. In that case I think individuals with minority positions that represent a real divergence of opinion within the group (ie. not just lone dissenters with little or no support) should be represented on a central organizing body. Regardless, I think the highest decision making body of a socialist organization should not be based on a slate system, but on an elected body of delegates representing the totality of the organization. This is the structure in the ISO and in some other radical parties/groups as well. It is not a guarantee of success– there are no such guarantees– but I think it’s critical to have that democratic structure.

    If there are particular points you’d like me to address, I will try my best.


    Comment by Andrew — September 25, 2011 @ 3:49 am

  41. I’m glad you decided to deal with the substantive issues I raised.

    My point is that size is irrelevant to any of the arguments I raised in the essay, even more so when the group in question refuses to disclose even a rough, ball park figure. The revolutionary left in the U.S. doesn’t suffer from a “low level of organization,” it suffers from self-imposed isolation from the working class and artificial divisions within its ranks. Launching a new grouping around every conceivable theory about what the USSR was, Cuba is, etc. is idiotic and has zero to do with how the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP operated.

    What is to be done? Since most of the U.S. revolutionary socialist left insists on implementing what they think are the lessons of the Russian revolution and the Bolsheviks, the first thing to do is to study closely and really seek to understand what it was the Bolsheviks were, how they did things, and so on.

    The Bolsheviks were not a Leninist organization. They were not an “independent current/organization of revolutionaries within the workers’ movement,” if independent means organizationally separate from the Mensheviks, the economists, and other groupings within the RSDLP. Cliff in Building the Party claimed the Bolsheviks became a separate party in 1912, but this is completely wrong. The 1912 Prague conference expelled the liquidators who opposed all underground organizing under Tsarism, and two pro-party Mensheviks (supporters of Plekhanov, who opposed the gathering) were elected to the RSDLP central committee alongside Lenin and Zinoviev. Some RSDLP locals didn’t pick sides in the Bolshevik-Menshevik dispute until 1917, including the interdistrict group that Trotsky was affiliated with. Even in 1917 Lenin hoped that some type of collaboration could happen between the Bolsheviks and the Menshevik-Internationalists led by his old friend Martov.

    The aim of the Bolsheviks was not socialism per se or the “self-emancipation of the working class”; their aim was a worker-led anti-Tsarist revolution that would completely and totally uproot feudalism. Their aim was to carry the bourgeois revolution “to the end.” (Lars Lih has great stuff on this question under the heading of “Old Bolshevism.”) Lenin’s proposed revisions to their program in spring of 1917 mentioned socialism only once and spoke of a “gradual” transition to a Soviet government.

    The need for a revolutionary party of worker-militants does not flow from uneven class consciousness, it flows from the unevenness of the class struggle. It may seem like nitpicking, but it’s not. If the need for a party stems from uneven consciousness, then its role is mainly propagandist, to influence the rest of the working class with socialist ideas. The problem is the working class doesn’t develop socialist consciousness because a small minority within the class puts forward those ideas; it develops those ideas on a mass scale in the heat of conflict with the bosses and the state.

    Reform, revolution, centrism — all these are somewhat meaningless terms in today’s American context, given the extreme difficulty our side is having even winning reforms. These distinctions no longer exist in the form that they did after the Russian revolution. We have no workers’ party, much less two or three of them, so its useless to apply terms that only make sense in the context of them. Historically, mass revolutionary workers’ parties emerge from mass reformist/centrist workers’ parties. The notion that we can get to the Bolsheviks’ endpoint by skipping the mass reformist/centrist stage that we find to be abhorrent bis not born out by historical experience in any country in the last 80 years. I’m not suggesting a stageist conception of political development; it is possible to build parties/organizations of worker-militants without reformist politics, but not using a “Leninist” model.

    I don’t know enough about the practice of the SPUSA or the IWW to have an opinion. I will say that their work in Seattle through Seattle Solidarity Network is really outstanding, a model of what any “Leninist” group should be doing locally. They are beating bosses and landlords through mass, direct action. That’s Bolshevism, at least to me.

    The ISO’s version of “democratic centralism” goes much further than your description. Once the organization takes a vote on a position or a “line”, all members are duty-bound to defend and support that. That’s not “freedom of discussion, unity in action.” That’s also not how the Bolsheviks did things. People who lost votes on very important matters, like the Brest-Litovsk treaty, continued to agitate for their point of view before the whole party. They didn’t lie or pretend to agree with something that they actually opposed. Trotsky never defended the offensive against Poland after he lost the vote in the Revolutionary War Council, for example. Zinoviev and Kamenev were never expected to drop their opposition to the insurrection in 1917 (the issue was that they undermined the action by leaking it publicly).

    The point I made about full-timers is that there is no relationship between the number and activities of full-time organizers and the overall level of class struggle and concrete needs of a relatively small organization. It has nothing to do with “corruption” and I’m well aware of how much they sacrifice. I convened a branch for almost two years and never heard from either the national office or the regional organizer. Probably they were too busy with more important (read: bigger) branches. I didn’t even know that I should be in contact with them until much later, long after I was no longer convening.

    The Bolsheviks elected their CC as individuals via secret ballot, although there were lots of slates proposed. It worked fine for them. What the ISO uses (following the SWP, like most ISO practices) is a “closed” slate system, meaning to change one or two leaders for whatever reason would require an entirely new slate of leaders. Hal Draper’s Independent Socialist League and the SP youth group he led used to elect their leadership body of 7 in the following way: any number of candidates would be nominated, some on slates, some not; every delegate to a national congress got 7 weighted votes, meaning the first choice got 7 votes, the second choice 6 votes, etc. This set up meant that it was very rare for a single tendency or slate to sweep an election and did a lot to guarantee that differences of opinion emanated from the top and filtered downward to all members. Personally I think a weighted vote system would make it more complicated to count votes, especially if a national congress has hundreds or thousands of delegates, but I have to say it would be much better than the closed slate systems that most latter day Leninist groups use.

    Whoever is responsible for screwing up will be dumped by the membership as individuals. People tend not to re-elect failures in organizations where there is real accountability and control from below.

    Furthermore, since the ISO doesn’t talk about membership figures (even the Bolsheviks disclosed membership figures in conditions of Tsarist repression) and spends so much time recruiting and retaining members, how can anyone judge if “the leadership screws up?” The ISO might have grown, shrank, or stagnated over the last 10 years and no one would be the wiser. Without metrics it’s impossible to judge who did a good or bad job.

    The only reason I mention the ISO in all of this is because it’s obviously you’re point of reference in this debate. I wrote the piece in a general way because the problems endemic to “Leninism” are much bigger than the ISO and I didn’t think it was wise to “attack” the ISO because it would simply trigger a defensive reaction among members that would hamper substantive discussion. It seems even a passing reference to “toy Bolsheviks” managed to do the same thing even though most people on the left don’t consider the ISO to be toys.

    Comment by Binh — October 1, 2011 @ 6:42 am

  42. Pham,

    You write that “Reform, revolution, centrism — all these are somewhat meaningless terms in today’s American context, given the extreme difficulty our side is having even winning reforms.”

    Before responding to your points above, I guess I want to make sure we share the same overarching goal. For me, that goal is socialist revolution in the US, and on a global scale— the working class taking democratic control of society’s productive capacities, smashing the capitalist state machine, and creating an organized ‘counter-power’ to defend the revolution’s goals and advance its interests. This is the goal that shapes the way that I have decided to organize.

    Is that also your overarching goal? Socialists have different conceptions of what we are fighting for. Before moving on to specific arguments about Leninism, I don’t want to take this for granted. I am not trying to be pedantic, just want to be sure we’re on the same page before discussing organization.


    Comment by Andrew — October 2, 2011 @ 7:22 am

  43. My goal since I was 16 was to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a dictatorship of the proletariat that would pave the way for a classless, stateless, oppression-free society. Unless capitalism magically starts feeding every body, puts an end to wars everywhere, and abolishes its myriad types of oppression, I won’t be changing my mind on this question any time soon.

    Comment by Binh — October 5, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  44. […] true that ‘line is key.’ Lines can change. Control from below and the ability to adapt are key. Unfortunately there is no vaccine against political/organization […]

    Pingback by Different meanings of line: Far-sighted grip on purpose is decisive « Kasama — January 30, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

  45. […] in today’s context, although my views on party building today were made abundantly clear in two different articles prior to the Cliff debate and one article after […]

    Pingback by Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 27, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

  46. […] in today’s context, although my views on party building today were made abundantly clear in two different articles prior to the Cliff debate and one article after […]

    Pingback by Socialist Party NYC » Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin — April 2, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

  47. […] Paid full-time leaders of “Leninist” groups stay in power for many years and decades; they accumulate huge gaps in their resumes and professional development that make returning to the labor market almost impossible; therefore, they have a very personal stake in maintaining their paychecks and livelihoods which are derived from their office. So they institute closed slate systems to make their removal all but impossible; they expel dissidents; they prevent horizontal communication and discussion between branches of the organization; they appoint reliable yes-men and yes-women to positions of power over the membership; and they accuse anyone who objects to any of this of being anti-Leninist and opposed to democratic centralism, as if these practices remotely resemble those of Lenin or the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party! […]

    Pingback by “Leninism” Meets the 21st Century — January 14, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

  48. […] Paid full-time leaders of “Leninist” groups stay in power for many years and decades; they      accumulate huge gaps in their resumes and professional development that make returning to the labor market almost impossible; therefore, they have a very personal stake in maintaining their paychecks and livelihoods which are derived from their office. So they institute closed slate systems to make their removal all but impossible; they expel dissidents; they prevent horizontal communication and discussion between branches of the organization; they appoint reliable yes-men and yes-women to positions of power over the membership; and they accuse anyone who objects to any of this of being anti-Leninist and opposed to democratic centralism, as if these practices remotely resemble those of Lenin or the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party! […]

    Pingback by Seymour and Co.: The Fools on the Hill | The Chair Leg of Truth — March 14, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

  49. […] Paid full-time leaders of “Leninist” groups stay in power for many years and decades; they      accumulate huge gaps in their resumes and professional development that make returning to the labor market almost impossible; therefore, they have a very personal stake in maintaining their paychecks and livelihoods which are derived from their office. So they institute closed slate systems to make their removal all but impossible; they expel dissidents; they prevent horizontal communication and discussion between branches of the organization; they appoint reliable yes-men and yes-women to positions of power over the membership; and they accuse anyone who objects to any of this of being anti-Leninist and opposed to democratic centralism, as if these practices remotely resemble those of Lenin or the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party! […]

    Pingback by Seymour and Co.: The Fools on the Hill — March 14, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

  50. […] Paid full-time leaders of “Leninist” groups stay in power for many years and decades; they      accumulate huge gaps in their resumes and professional development that make returning to the labor market almost impossible; therefore, they have a very personal stake in maintaining their paychecks and livelihoods which are derived from their office. So they institute closed slate systems to make their removal all but impossible; they expel dissidents; they prevent horizontal communication and discussion between branches of the organization; they appoint reliable yes-men and yes-women to positions of power over the membership; and they accuse anyone who objects to any of this of being anti-Leninist and opposed to democratic centralism, as if these practices remotely resemble those of Lenin or the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party! […]

    Pingback by “Seymour and Co.: The Fools on the Hill,” by Corey Ansel | The Charnel-House — March 17, 2013 @ 5:35 am

  51. […] to be based on modern conditions, on modern methods, and on what gets results now rather than on models that arose a long time ago in countries far, far away that truthfully we have little first-hand […]

    Pingback by Next Stop: Regroupment? — May 11, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

  52. There is a thoroughgoing misconception in all these discussions that a slate system means exactly the same thing everywhere and at all times. Where I come from the slate system – as opposed to votes on individuals (which can also be called a popularity poll) or election by representation of other bodies (local committees or branches, particular sectors such as sectors of workersm women, lgbt) which is federalism – is the way of guaranteeing balanced representation and thus forming a collective leadership team.

    Comment by Penny — August 18, 2013 @ 10:14 pm

  53. And further to the point I made above, these conceptions (collective team, balanced representation based on many criteria) are innovations and strengthening of a Leninist approach. Not what they did in Russia in 1917.

    Comment by Penny — August 18, 2013 @ 10:28 pm

  54. […] Pham. “A response to Paul LeBlanc’s ‘Marxism and Organization’.” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist (June 29, […]

    Pingback by The great Lenin debate of 2012 | Red Atlanta — June 9, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

  55. […] Pham. “A response to Paul LeBlanc’s ‘Marxism and Organization’.” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist (June 29, […]

    Pingback by The Great Lenin Debate of 2012 | Red Party — June 18, 2014 @ 8:20 pm

  56. […] Pham. “A response to Paul LeBlanc’s ‘Marxism and Organization’.” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist (June 29, […]

    Pingback by The great Lenin debate of 2012 | External Bulletin — June 21, 2014 @ 5:51 pm

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