Vladimir Lenin. This name for most radicals, militants, and progressives has largely become irrelevant. The problems, issues, and experiences of Lenin are considered to be part of another historical era in another country. Sometimes the differences are even expressed in racial terms in that white folks did that worker’s revolution stuff while people of color can’t because they do not have the privilege or do not struggle that way.
I believe that the dilemma of Lenin still remains with oppressed people and pocs today not only in Russia, but across the world. It does not matter if you are a woman, Latin@, Muslim, or Queer; the themes which occur in Lenin’s life have to be taken up. Just like every oppressed group can learn from the life of Malcolm on the importance of standing up for yourself and your people, for being strong, unapologetic, etc., so can every oppressed group learn certain things from Lenin. I know this is not popular to say considering the dominance of identity politics and privilege in the American Left. But the path to liberation is not a straight and linear line.
While I am not a Leninist, there are a lot of things I have learned from him. This post tries to summarize some of the basics of what can be taken away from Lenin’s experiences building revolutionary organization—a project I am committed to.
One of the most interesting and important aspects of Lenin is that there is no agreement on what the historical Lenin is, and what this means for revolutionaries who try to study and learn from his political-organizational thought and practice. In other words put ten different revolutionaries in a room and you will get ten different understandings of Lenin and what that means for today. This is so because Lenin’s political-organizational praxis reflected tensions inherent in his praxis or the very nature of what he was doing. This tension has been the center of immense debate on whether Lenin’s and the organization he was involved with, the Bolshevik Party, was a model and tool for the emancipation of oppressed people, or whether it was actually a Trojan horse for a another ruling elite. Anarchists have generally believed the latter, arguing that the Bolshevik Party was a professional class of revolutionaries, whose only interest was to lead the working class, and use their self-activity to put themselves in power. The best of Anarchism reminds this historical Lenin that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself and not a party above the working class. Anarchists (Trotskyists have written about this as well) remind followers of the Bolshevik tradition that for almost its entire history the Bolshevik Party, including Lenin, believed that while oppressed people would lead and build the new government, it would fundamentally carry out middle class/ bourgeois radical reforms. This is very different from a revolution that is supposed to be an immediate communist revolution.
Trotskyists, Maoists, and Stalinists have believed that the Bolshevik Party model is generally the correct way to build revolutionary organization and eventually emancipate the working class. Each of these three traditions—Trotskyists, Maoists, and Stalinists—has their own readings of what the Bolshevik Party did and thought. Stalinists have made a monstrous caricature out of Lenin’s legacy by understanding the party as a place where orders are given from above to mindless functionary/ revolutionaries who then instruct/ lead the masses. In this conception, the party is the all knowing organization which only has to convince the “stupid” masses of the need for revolution. If the masses are treated in such a manner, the internal life of the organization is no better, where the all knowing power of the leadership is unquestionable, where debates are limited, and being expelled for the wrong political perspective can happen at any moment. This was all justified in the tradition of the Bolshevik Party and Lenin and the appropriate quotes and actions from both were cited to prove themselves right.
The New Left initially reacted against this tradition and the rise of Anarchist thought since the 1990s is due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Stalinist parties around the world. What the trend of the 1960s and 90s show is that the Stalinist conception of revolutionary organization not only has haunted young radicals, but it is also the prominent conception of revolutionary organization that many people hold, which is a major barrier to building this project. It is no surprise that people do not want to touch this project with a ten-foot pole, when it has largely been understood along the lines of Stalinism. It is vital that the idea of revolutionary organization is clarified from such misconceptions.
I believe the Trotskyist tradition has also made important contributions to thinking about Lenin. The Trotskyist tradition comes directly out of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky participated and times led the 1905 and 1917 revolution. He worked very closely with Lenin after the 1917 revolution. This is important history to consider because Trotskyism sits on the organizational and political perspectives of authoritarian and libertarian/ direct democratic perspectives. This is so because of its close association to the from below struggles of the Russian revolution which has shaped its ideological, organizational, and political perspectives. At the same time, Trotskyism has held onto a vanguard conception of organization rooted in the historical conditions of the time. What is also important about the Trotskyist tradition is that they have been constantly at the wheel of building organization, have a lot of experience, have done this through many different periods in history, and under extremely difficult circumstances. Their experiences are real lessons to every issues I take up in this post.
Meanwhile the libertarian-Marxist tradition of Johnson-Forest Tendency (CLR James, Raya Duyanavskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs) had a much more mixed interpretation of Lenin. For the purposes of this post, Facing Reality give us a sense of what they thought of the vanguard party/ Bolshevik Party. (Although Raya had left the organization by the time FR was written.) While they were together, they generally agreed that the Bolshevik model of organization was meant for Russia and was useful under those conditions, but in the era of modern capitalism, they bent in the direction of nearly liquidating the need for revolutionary organization. One point which they did get right, is that the vanguard organization is dead. At the same time disagreements over the need for organization and intervention in movements would be the basis for future splits in this tendency.
The need for revolutionary organization exists because society is divided into classes, or more simply speaking into the oppressed and the oppressor. But simply saying society is divided into the oppressed and oppressor does not explain how this happens. I believe historically and contemporarily, oppressors have built their own institutions. The most basic are institutions of violent coercion: the army and the police. As society has advanced the institutions have gotten more complex and at times have had to rely on less and less violence.
In the meantime, what are the institutions that represent oppressed people? Through what organizations will oppressed people fight for their own interests? Where can oppressed people learn about their own history, understand the current world, and find ways to free themselves? Most revolutionaries have responded to these questions by building revolutionary organizations. However, all revolutionary organizations are not the same. There are also other types of organizations which revolutionaries have built as well, such as networks, mass organizations, and unions.
The Contemporary Left
Individual Anarchist revolutionaries have said that there is no need for revolutionary organization. That any type of organization, even one for the oppressed, will turn into a collective overlord, which will destroy individual liberties. Another strain of Anarchists have been willing to go as far as forming networks sometimes describing these networks as a large federation. Platformists have tried to learn from the lessons of the Russian Revolution and have tried to create a hybrid organization. The results of the Platformist’s experiments in the USA are questionable in achieving their aim. Anarchists who agree with the Platform do not seem to be any more organized than those in federations. At least that is the reality of American Anarchism.
There is also a tradition of revolutionaries, ranging from Trotskyists, Maoists, and Stalinists, who in the tradition of Lenin have tried to replicate the Bolshevik model of organization in contemporary times. They have tended to look at the Bolshevik party at a given moment and tried to model their organization from that moment. This is a very difficult thing to do because taking a snap shot of the Bolshevik organization can leave an inaccurate picture. The only way to understand this organization was to see its development from the beginning to the end. The Bolshevik organization was always changing. What was policy one year would be incorrect the next year. This is so because Lenin was always thinking of revolutionary organization in relationship to mass movements, and the political and economic situation.
On Revolutionary Organization
Lenin believed that revolutionary organization was something that could not be built the night before the revolution. A look at what happened in the late 1960s and early 70s in the US, when many revolutionary organizations were built is a very important story to study. Many revolutionary organizations were overwhelmed by changing movement dynamics, overwhelmed by a lack of experience in political work, overwhelmed by not being connected to oppressed people, disoriented by political differences, and disoriented by what they were building themselves. Lack of study and planning had led to immense confusion between what were mass organizations, networks, and revolutionary organizations. The Black Panthers, League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Congress of African People, Revolutionary Union, League of Revolutionary Struggle (part of the New Communist movement), the International Socialists (representatives of the new Trotskyist formations) to name some of the groupings which came together pretty quickly, but were not prepared for the precise task of building revolutionary organizations in the difficult environment of the 1970s and 80s.
Revolutionary organization is a process, meaning that it takes years to build because the revolutionary organization is a product of participating in all oppressed struggles. While some militants have argued that the time is not right for building a revolutionary organization in the United States, I have to disagree with them. The argument is that you need massive social movements and crisis of large magnitude to build such organizations. But the historical evidence shows that this approach leads to people being unprepared to build such an organization and develop a healthy relationship to mass movements and organizations. I do agree with a certain angle of these arguments which is that the dangers of revolutionaries becoming isolated and sectarian is immense when mass struggles are not breaking out. In quieter periods, revolutionaries become prophets of words only and foreground the correctness of their politics again and again, creating barriers between themselves and non-revolutionaries. This is a natural and unfortunate reality of the project. Revolutionary politics can only be understood in its full dimension of practice and theory. The practice side of revolutionary politics is the most militant of what the Black Panthers did: cop watch, setting up community health clinics, setting up a newspaper, conducting radical educational classes in the community etc. But when this is not going on, revolutionaries become increasingly one-dimensional.
Building a revolutionary organization means involving oneself in the struggles of oppressed people. People are not won to revolutionary ideas just by a revolutionary standing on a soapbox and proclaiming that the rulers suck and we need to over throw them. Nor are people won by insurrectionary and militant acts against the state or other oppressive institutions. There are no short cuts. It is through practice, struggles, victories and even defeats that people learn the way forward. It is only in this context which revolutionary organizations can be built.
Leadership Versus Vanguardism
The process of revolutionary organizations also working with mass movements and organizations also results in the training/ development of revolutionaries from oppressed layers. Revolutionary organizations are the place where oppressed people are taught to become sharper, stronger, smarter fighters in the class struggle. If the mass movement is the actual battlefield, then revolutionary organization is the key institution, which develops an activist to be the most effective organizer and militant possible. It is in the very nature of movements that people do not get time to think, assess their own actions and thoughts, and study history collectively, etc.
At the same time, Lenin has been attacked for not only building leaders, but building a vanguard organization. This is another way of saying a group of professional revolutionaries, who are separate from the class, tend to give orders to oppressed people, and are a future State/ oppressors in the waiting. My argument is that a non-vanguard organization and leaders can exist. I will admit this is easer said then done. But what if revolutionaries are rooted in the oppressed layers of society, develop a collaborative relationship with mass movements, and are against all forms of the State? This is the challenge which faces the revolutionary left today.
But this still does not answer the more difficult question if some people have to dedicate more time to political study and activity and others, does this make them professional revolutionaries with skills which others do not have? Is this a slippery slope back into the vanguardist conception of revolutionary organization? At what point does an organization become a vanguardist organization? How can these things be prevented?
Strategy and Organization
Lenin believed that the revolutionary organization was meant to lead oppressed people. At the same time the organization itself was made up of oppressed people. So it can be looked at as the advanced layers of oppressed society leading another layer of oppressed society. But what happens if the revolutionary organization is wrong on a certain political question or strategic decision. History shows that at times this actually happens and the best revolutionaries have done their best to change their party’s course, block with forces outside the party, and even break with their respective party. This is a dynamic Lenin demonstrated several times in his life.
This a crucial part of breaking the vanguardist aspects of such organizations. In political, organizational, or cultural issues different layers or forces outside the revolutionary organization can be more advanced, correct, sensible or militant. I will say that this can happen in any type of organization and it is not just revolutionaries who fall victim to these tensions. Anyone who has been involved in decent organizing knows that their organizations are not always correct and after a certain period of debating, it is sensible, and I believe actually the responsibility of good organizers to leave such groups and build new ones.
Some deeper questions remain which can be explored in the discussion section. When and how does politics become a formula and become transformed into an art? What is the difference between tailing mass movements, being a vanguard, and having an organic relationship to them? This is where politics becomes an art. At a certain point, once the fundamentals of politics and organization are learned, it is creativity, experience, intuition, will, real knowledge of the on the ground conditions and courage which shape the way forward.
Revolutionary Organization’s Relationship to Other Organizations
I mentioned earlier that revolutionaries have built other organizations besides revolutionary organizations. Some organizations which come to mind are Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society. Today equivalent organizations might be anti-war groups, Non-Profits, and groups doing cop watch, etc. What is striking about these groups is that while many of them are vital, they are not the same thing as a revolutionary organization. Each of these groups take-up narrower issues and are inherently reformists. That is not a bad thing per se. In fact it is an important way which millions of people can first become involved in political struggle. The problem is that they alone cannot transcend their reformism.
Lenin argued that revolutionaries should participate in all mass struggles and organizations where oppressed people were willing to take action against the oppressor. This means that revolutionaries and their organizations have to make real contributions to the movement. This does pose many tensions and difficulties for revolutionary organization. It must have enough resources and people to actually make a difference. This is vital because this plays a role in how other organizers who are not in the revolutionary organization see the latter’s necessity. At the same time, revolutionaries cannot ignore the specific needs of their own organization.
Student organizations, community groups, trade unions, non-profits, Church or Mosque groups, and networks are important organizations which oppressed people build when they initially want to confront a problem. These groups can be very effective in fighting for the specific issue they were created to address. They can run into systemic barrier or opponents which block their goals from being accomplished. They can also have limited connections to others doing similar work. Another common problem is that the people in these groups, especially if they are young, have little historical knowledge of past mistakes and successes. They also tend to lack the massive resources needed to fight the powerful forces they want to change/ address. In periods when generalizing or broadening the struggle might actually lead to its success these groups tend to be hesitant because they do not see how we live in a inter-connected world. These tendencies can be overcome with the interaction of a revolutionary organization.
At the same time revolutionary organization without mass organization ends up isolated, and at best turns into a publishing center of ideas, or at worst a sectarian outfit. Sometimes this is the fault of revolutionary organizations because they put so many barriers between themselves and others. At other times, the economic and political conditions of a period can make for very difficult organizing, and mass organizations might be difficult to participate in let alone build. Mass movements are supported by mass organizations, and mass organizations by revolutionary organizations. This is done through painful organizing, winning over militant layers and leaders, struggling for victories and hanging in their during moments of defeat. There is no shortcut.
It should be obvious looking at US history that mass movements and organizations can be absorbed into the capitalist system. The energy and political ideals can be dissipated into the channels of voting for “progressive” congressman/ woman A or B. In such channels, the framework for discussion, strategy and even goals change and the initiative of the oppressed is lost. This usually results in a more liberal assimilation of a once radical struggle and demand. This is where revolutionary organizations can make a vital contribution to movements, by placing the interests of the oppressed over the interests of progressive bureaucrats, congress people, capitalists and even other progressive activists. The task of the revolutionary organization is to help organize the largest forces, most militant layers, with the most radical politics possible in the hopes of winning the most decisive victory.
Lastly, there is always the danger of confusing mass organizations with revolutionary organizations. Why/ how does this happen? What are some of the precise differences? How can revolutionary organization become a parasite on mass organization? And what about danger of liquidating the revolutionary organization into the mass organization?
Reform and Revolution
One of Lenin’s great strengths was his understanding that all reforms were worth fighting over and should be taken advantage by revolutionaries and oppressed people. Every reform is another inch of power, control, life, and blood taken away from the oppressor and won by the oppressed. It is vital that revolutionaries fight in these struggles. Another reason to fight for reforms is that this is where revolutionaries can build relationships with oppressed forces, demonstrate that they are the most aggressive, active, and militant advocates of radical reform.
Lenin also understood that the struggle for reforms was different from a reformist political perspective, which only understands politics as the struggle for reforms. It is critical that reforms are used to build the confidence of oppressed people, to increase their knowledge of their own powers, to show the limits of capitalist society, and to demonstrate the need for more radical and even revolutionary change. Many radicals today think that reforms are only used to buy off oppressed people. While this dynamic can be true, there has been a tradition of politics, which used reform to corner the oppressors and actually wet people’s appetitive for more change. The fact that reforms are only understood in the former manner is a reflection of how oppressed people have lost their best organizing traditions.
Perhaps the question can be asked, why the need for revolutionaries and revolutionary organizations, if reforms can be won endlessly. I argue that there is a certain limit/ amount of reforms that the rulers give in any period. After you cross that line, they will do what they did to the Black Panther Party and Malcolm. It was one thing to demand that Black people be treated equally in restaurants and when applying to jobs, but a whole other thing when Black people were demanding an end to the ghetto, the right to self-defense, jobs for all Black people, and control of workplaces by Black people.
Lenin’s writings on revolutionary organization are important for the libertarian-socialist/ Johnson-Forest Tendency Left to consider. The sad reality is that this left has made important intellectual and political contributions to the movement and to revolutionary politics, but has been unable to play a more decisive role in mass movements because of its own lack of cohesive organization. It is a tragedy of history that JFT was not able to grow. Will that tragedy continue as new shoots of movements and libertarian-socialist politics pop up in the country? This is a much longer discussion, but I felt I could not ignore such a vital lesson that my tradition must learn if it is going to be a serious player in the political life of our people. We have time and we do not have time.
Lastly, I have to say something about this current economic and political crisis, which demands the need for revolutionary organization. In the last two years any illusion about the social compact between the rich and working people has been withering away quickly. In other words many people are watching Wall Street firms give big bonuses while they struggle just to make ends meet. The rest of corporate America is making some money by making Americans work harder and lowering their wages. The “old America” where the rich and middle class pay a little more in taxes to help the little guy has been long gone. In broader terms, this is the greatest crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression. If progressive and radicals have missed this, it is only because they are disconnected from the suffering and desperation of working people today. Things are bad out there…
In this crisis, the rulers and capitalists have waged an almost systematic attack on working people in the US and abroad (seen most clearly in Pakistan and Afghanistan right now). What organizations can fight this systematic attack? I don’t believe narrow struggles of reform are possible in this period. Narrow social movements will be defeated because the rulers are not willing to give concessions. In other words they will not be powerful enough to defeat even individual capitalists because the capitalists—while they compete with each other—also know that at the end of the day they are on the same team and at this moment they are united in the fact that they don’t want to give concessions to working people.
We are living in a period where some mass activity is coming to the surface as seen in the fight against budget cuts in the UC system in California or the direct action strategies of the Windows Republic workers in Chicago. This brings us back to the points I discussed earlier of how revolutionary organization can relate to such type of activity, and how it can help build new organizational formations, which win huge reforms and push towards more radical solutions to the current crisis.
I fear greatly for the future of the American working class. One of my great fears is that it will have to fight the American rulers and capitalists on their own. That revolutionaries, progressives, and radicals will not have spent time building the links to these movements, helping them advance, and at the same time building revolutionary organization. The danger is that the movements will get huge, colossal and will even shake the foundations of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and empire, but will not have the strategic and organizational courage, energy, coordination and strength to beat the oppressors. Just because you have a big movement does not mean you will have a victory: look at the anti-globalization movement, anti-war movement, and immigrant rights to name some of the largest in recent memory. Why did they not achieve success? We need to remember the oppressors have the FBI, the police, National Guard, and much more. There are also the possibilities of cooptation which is ironically facilitated by progressives and liberals. We know that they will use all these forces to slow or break the movement. What will we build to break this cycle? They cannot be built from above or over night. They must be built starting today. We have time and we do not have time. Either way we must do it because it is the historical mission of our generation.