Saturday, May 24, 2014


A Reconstitution of the Left?

A month ago a member of Worker’s World came from New York to talk at Mayday.  He hosted a discussion on why the left should unite.  His organization – or former organization - Worker’s World - originated out of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the 1950s.  It is very activist, runs candidates and is heavily involved in the anti-war movement in the U.S., where it is influential in one national coalition.  It also recently endured a split.  It calls itself "Marxist-Leninist," works in a somewhat heavy-handed manner and does not allow known factions in its ranks from my experience.

I welcome this initiative.  Most people on the left – and by this I mean the Marxist left - intellectually ‘know’ that the left needs to unite in some way to have any impact in a massive country like the U.S., among a very diffuse and variegated working class.   After hearing his talk and some discussion, members and supporters of Socialist Action, the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Communist Party, along with independents, nodded in agreement that unity was a ‘good idea.’  But when a resolution was raised to write a letter to the heads of the various left groups in the U.S. to suggest unity talks, it was not taken up.  

As the joke goes, ‘workers of the world unite’ is all fine and good for the hoi polloi working class, but it certainly can’t apply to Marxists!  After all, Lenin – ah Lenin – split with those damn Mensheviks and after all – all those OTHER groups are Mensheviki too!  So why should we unite with ‘Mensheviks’ and deviate from our unilateral effort of ‘building’ the perfect “Marxist-Leninist” Party?  The flip side is that 'those people' are hopeless ultra-lefts and no one can work with them.  Or so the rhetoric goes. And some of it is true.

But here’s why.  Because the term “Leninist” in the present context does not mean what it meant on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution.  It is a code word that theoretically justifies the isolation of small groups of leftists, and which as a consequence, gives them very limited influence.  It is reflective of a ‘small group mentality’ - which Lenin denounced himself.   Oddly enough, for more than 14 years, from 1898 to 1912, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks existed in the same organization, even under conditions of illegality for a time.  The 1912 split occurred only 5 years before the October revolution.  The split naturally evolved in the Russian context and was definitive when the Mensheviks backed the imperialist World War I in 1914.  It reflected the growth in consciousness of the working class movement in Russia, not a pre-determined schema imposed from the past.  The so-called Leninist form of organization is especially suited for the taking of power and for illegal work, and neither of these conditions exist presently in most countries. 

Contributing to the myth of Leninism is the extreme fetishization of the revolution in Russia.  It is the wet-dream of every American leftist that never ends.  Everyone loves success!  But when you have to hark back to something almost 100 years ago in a country with a small working class, a weak bourgeoisie, a ruling royal clique and a very large peasantry, you are not describing very many countries in the world anymore.  Most of the world has crossed over to urbanism.  Kings are few and far between, except in certain Muslim countries.  Especially the international bourgeoisie is far stronger in most places.  Certainly the U.S. is nothing like Russia in 1917.  The German revolution of 1918-1919 is far more reflective of conditions in the U.S. and other developed and semi-developed countries – and certainly, that was unsuccessful, even then.  But it should be studied for that very reason.  It involved more than a dozen significant large mass organizations that supported the move to a working-class ‘council republic’ – not just the Spartacus League.  More modern events, like May-June 1968 in France and attempted revolutions in Pakistan and elsewhere should also be studied.  Certainly the more recent an event involving the working classes, the more valuable it is to look at.

Success is what people want, which is why there were so many Soviet, then Chinese, then Cuban, then Vietnamese acolytes in the 1960s and 1970s – all now come to grief or chastened.  The Chinese, Korean, Yugoslav, Albanian and Vietnamese revolutions were part of a massive anti-fascist / anti-imperialist struggle originating out of World War II, not based on urban revolutions posing a sole ‘class v class’ perspective.  The Vietnamese (and Cubans) won later, based on guerrilla warfare, backed by the majority of the population.  The Vietnamese staked their struggle on anti-imperialism, the Cubans on an anti-dictatorial/anti-imperialist slant.  In retrospect, without World War I it would have been harder for the successful insurrection in Russia and the unsuccessful insurrections in Germany and Hungary to come about.  Without World War II it is doubtful that the Soviet Army would have rolled into Poland, Hungary, and the rest of Central Europe and backed the move to workers states there.  (Which might surprise so many American anti-communists.) 

War is a mother of revolution.  Imperialism is a mother of revolution.  When there is no war, what then?  Guerrilla war?  That strategy is not workable for most countries presently, although rural guerrilla groups have been somewhat successful in Nepal and have held their own in India.  As urban areas gain more social weight, this strategy will become more difficult.  Urban guerrilla warfare was somewhat successful 40 years ago in certain countries, but nowhere did it lead to a victory. 

In Europe there are tentative moves in the direction of unity among elements of the ‘hard left’ and even the ‘soft left’ due to the capitalist decay in Europe.  Certainly the SYRIZA bloc in Greece was called forth by conditions, although the Greek Communist Party refused to participate and has adopted a ‘go-it-alone’ strategy.  This SYRIZA block has been imitated now in Italy, especially for the Euro-elections.  The formation of the Anti-Capitalist Party in France is open to all anti-capitalists, but the Communist Party has refused to participate there too, and blocked with the neo-liberal Socialist Party candidates instead.  The formation of “Refoundation” in Italy many years ago was out of Maoist, Trotskyist and former left-CP groups, as the CP itself became an openly social-democratic formation.  Events in Spain are pushing certain groups together - Podemos and the United Left.  In Venezuela the mass socialist party there unites many disparate elements.  You might be able to name other formations across the world, as I do not follow these developments closely anymore.  But that doesn’t change the imperative. (I have been informed by an article by Murray Smith that other similar European organizations are the Scottish Socialist Party, Dei Linke in Luxembourg, the Danish "Red-Green Alliance," the Portugese "Left Bloc and a new organization in Britain, Left Unity.) 

World-wide there has to be a reorganization of the left, a ‘refoundation.’  A process of reorganization of the U.S. left would go something like this.  Call it what you will, by the way.  A ‘left front’ could lead to an ‘anti-capitalist front,’ which could lead to a broad ‘workers front’ – all based on class principles.  Left groups would not lose their existence, but endure as groupings within broader formations.  They would sit on a ‘left front’ steering committee which would be composed of members of constituent groups, and after awhile, elected by the broader organization.  As many independent leftists, socialists and workers join a formation not dominated by a single tendency, that ‘front’ might begin to have an independent existence as something greater than its parts, with more national weight than any one group. It might even pull in left groups that had initially hesitated.  It would be united on certain broad demands and perhaps methods, though not necessarily on a complete agreement on every point of history!  For instance, arguing about Scottish nationalism or the Hitler/Stalin pact at this point should not impede joint work.  Organizations that specialized in certain areas of work could continue that, but under the name of the ‘front.’  Comrades with talents in writing, speaking, educating, organizing, practical and cultural arts, self-defense, tech knowledge and other skills will be able to pool their resources instead of limping along on their own.  In a city like Minneapolis, a left front like this could have hundreds of members pretty quickly if done right, and be influential in a good number of groups. 

This left front could run candidates, participate in union affairs, engage in occupations, strikes, organize both legal and illegal actions where necessary.  Eventually this grouping could attract even proletarian anarchists like the IWW, black and Latino groups that might not be leftist, and anyone who is anti-capitalist, though they might not necessarily be Marxist or explicitly socialist.   A broader anti-capitalist action front could then engage with larger formations, like unions and eventually draw advanced workers, unions,  and working-class community groups into a broad ‘workers front’ based on class struggle across the whole society, in every arena, including the electoral one.   In this whole process, certain groups or people that do not advance the struggle but side with the capitalists or their Parties will be exposed and they will, naturally – as did the Mensheviks – drop away. 

The benefit of present ‘Leninist’ organization is that it preserves a homunculus of activists who are able to carry on theoretical and practical work, even in the worst conditions of working class inactivity.  It trains and educates people in valuable skills that many people do not have.  It is like a seed whose hard shell protects those traditions and that organization, and allows them to endure.  We are all familiar with vague leftist groups that disappeared because of a lack of internal organization – look at the various groups organized around CLR James based on the spontaneity of the class.  However, that same ‘hard shell’ can become sterile when it does not allow roots to grow.  Sorry to go all “Being There” on you, but its pretty obvious if your goal is larger than a seat on the local anti-war committee.    

And after taking power, it should 'whither away.'

I have a theory that, at present, there is a mathematical relationship between the number of full-timers on staff in any group and the number of members required to support them.  Of course, this also relates to how high the ‘tax’ is on the members.   If a group gets too large and ostensibly ‘diverse’ the ‘leaders’ can no longer accommodate or control the group, as most present leaders are not capable of handling groups over a certain size.  Sociologists would be able to pinpoint that number, but it is in the hundreds.  Splits then occur.  This also accounts for the tremendous revolving door that these groups have, and why they generally do not grow, or grow and collapse.  Their long-term behaviour imitates unions, as a clique of experienced old-timers sit at the top, having grown comfortable with each other.  Nothing can disturb this set up until some critical moment comes when there are not enough dues-paying members, and the group implodes. Or leaders have a falling-out.

The impetus for unity will arise from outside the left if there is ever a serious challenge to capitalist power – and it will come from a working class which is puzzled by so many left sects.  Severe economic austerity, war, the rise of fascist organizations, a crumbling of living standards, the weakening of unions, the theoretical bankruptcy of bourgeois parties and neo-liberalism – all put pressure on the left to work together.  Ultimately it is the experience of people in struggle that leads them to understand the issues dividing left groups at present.  No amount of assigned reading will do that.  Marx commented that “one step of real progress is worth a dozen Programmes.”

  A million or two of workingmen's votes next November for a bona fide workingmen's party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform.” – Engels, “Condition of the English Working Class.”  - 1844

For instance, while some people find weaknesses with the practice of Socialist Alternative here in the U.S., their electoral victory in Seattle has put actual ‘socialists’ back on the map, which is no small feat.

If working-class people cannot work together due to ethnic or cultural issues, if unions raid each others turf, if some unions block with management, if some union leaders work with the capitalist parties exclusively, then how can leftists preach class unity when they themselves replicate the very same problems?  The present left is a reflection of the low level of the working class it is produced by, of course.  Cynics will say it can’t be done, and they have a point.  Most leaders of left groups have not been able to get along.  Very little joint activity exists except in broad single-issue coalitions.  Single-issue coalitions by their nature cannot really mount a significant challenge to the class system.  We are overrun with single-issue struggles.   I see no other choice at present than beginning to work together. 

The present ‘Leninist’ organizations hope that one-on-one recruiting to each small group will prepare each for the ‘swell’ of class struggle to lift their little boat to the heights.  Each group has a story to tell to prospective members and to the present cadre, in the past or present or ‘future.’ It is about the great work that was done or is being done somewhere else, or that they just did.  This is the bedtime story of success sung to the comrades - for each group has one or several traditions to rely on.  I certainly listened to it for a time.  As the months or years go by, the glory fades and waiting continues   All in all, on the whole, a sort of passive, economist waiting.  Lenin actually did not believe that ‘events’ are conclusive.  No automatic ‘collapse’ will suddenly expose the capitalist lie – for they can usually weather even the most dreadful storm they have created – like Katrina, the invasion of Iraq, the 2008 market collapse, the bankruptcy of Detroit.  These challenges cannot be fought in the modern U.S. without a significant organization.  Right now that organization does not exist, and will not exist by present methods.

P.S. - The Slovenian "United Left Coalition," which has support from every Slovenian ethnic group, won 6 seats in Parliament in the recent elections.  The left is coming back in the former workers' states!

Red Frog
May 23, 2014

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