I appreciate the overview Don Hamerquist has written dealing with the meaning of Lenin and Leninism for building revolutionary organization today. I think the timing of Hamerquist’s essay couldn’t be better for personal and historical reasons. For the last three years many around what is now Gathering Forces have been thinking about the relationship between revolutionary organization and mass politics in ongoing organizing efforts. Thinking through and against the history of the Bolsheviks, in particular Lenin, has been one way of many ways this process has taken place.
The historical reasons are also important and explain a lot about what on the surface only seems like a relatively isolated process. This is a moment of ideological recomposition where we can’t take up any kind of ready-made ideas and practices. Many of the old divisions of different traditions have been scrambled.
At this time there is no way I can take up all the issues Hamerquist raises. Important questions I won’t address here are, nevertheless, part of the mission of the GF blog and will be taken up over time, all of which go well beyond a specific discussion about Lenin.
I have broad agreement with much of what Hamerquist writes, even if I have specific questions over where we might disagree: the question of the state and the transition to communism and the question of consciousness. I also have a lot of agreement with what Tom Wetzel writes in Anarchism, Class Struggle and Political Organization, the original article Hamerquist is partially responding to, as well as Wetzel’s response. Unfortunately, I don’t have time right now to synthesize these agreements or dive in fully to what Hamerquist sees as the failure to take power seriously in this tradition, which Wetzel would would deny.
Rather than taking them up in a point-by-point way, what follows are a number of brief thoughts, not fully developed in any way, which overlap with the concerns of all these essays. There is a lot of work to be done in a time where I think a lot of us feel we are rooted in some basic principles but have to work through this contemporary moment and construct a new historical tradition and way of working in order to arrive at some answers to fill these principles out in theory and in action.
The main purpose of the essay is to think about the groundwork for some kind of regroupment between some Marxists and some Anarchists. The idea of regroupment is definitely on the table and desperately needed today. I know there were attempts in the 1990s around Love and Rage to unite anarchists and similar attempts among some Trotskyists. But these were before my time. Currently there is the Revolutionary Work in Our Times conference and, on a much larger scale, the Anti-Capitalist Party in France. When Hamerquist says “We certainly have lots of “mysteries,” but lack the collective political practice necessary to test and evaluate alternative strategic initiatives that might provide some rational solutions” I’m reminded that groups of 15, 20 and 30 people are not enough to take the next step in really evaluating the interaction between revolutionary organization and mass formations on the kind of scale that these times demand.
While in principle I see it as possible the kind of regroupment Hamerquist has in mind, I would ask where exactly are these groupings? There are possibilities of bringing together the broadly libertarian left, in which I would include class struggle anarchists and those who draw from the post-Trotskyist anti-state capitalist Marxist left. However, I would once again ask who specifically. Like the response of the WtH blog, I’m also skeptical of a broad regroupment of a left-libertarian milieu as a whole.
Instead I see regroupment and broader tendency building in this moment along the following, though not exclusive, lines.
First is where one falls around race and imperialism. This can’t be underestimated because it determines the approach and culture of organizing. This “ideal” milieu (if I can call it that since it doesn’t exist in practice) is deeply divided over this. The question of white supremacy is decisive and those conceptions and approaches that reproduce it are red-lines. This is all the more critical given the regression over race within official society and in parts of the Left and radical Left as well.
Second is a generational one. Because the Left is so small a younger generation in its teens and twenties has no particular allegiance to “anarchism” or “marxism”. There is no need to take up a whole historical legacy, defend and elaborate it within its confines that have been to some extent passed by history. While being rooted in broadly left-libertarian principles, which I would include direct democracy, the self-emancipation of the working class, and opposition to a “progressive” or “revolutionary” state, we need a reassembly of various ideas and experiences that fall along these lines, framing the problem of confronting the system as a whole and that of co-option and absorption into that system. Key ideas, problems and approaches can be traced through various bodies of historical experience and the theory it produced, anarchism and its many branches, libertarian marxism, marxist philosophy, national liberation movements from below, workers and social movements and oppositions, feminist movements etc. In short, this process will not happen among existing and well-worn Leftists alone, and might exclude a great number.
Third is that it will take movements and rebellions to clarify these divisions and lay the groundwork for new fusions. This can happen on a localized scale–response to a police killing, workplace occupation, or a student strike–but it will take more than this to really create not only the urgency for new fusions, but to clarify in practice the correctness of different methods and, importantly, to create the kind of social weight that is needed to make new types of ideas and formations.
A fourth criteria is to work in James’ spirit of “Americanize Bolshevism”. This is related to the second point I made but needs to be said again. I was once visiting a friend in a neighborhood that was predominately black. Along one of the main streets were flyers up on the light poles announcing an anarchist presentation on the lessons of the Spanish Civil War. I doubt this group would ever have done discussions or events around black history and resistance. Instead, this event is used as a kind of ossified relic held up to protect against the impurities of actual history, living society, and real people.
Hamerquist is trying to wrench Lenin away from the Stalinist and Trotskyist conceptions on the one hand, and Anarchist conceptions on the other. He makes clear he is not trying to reconcile Lenin’s contradictions, but then calls himself a “leninist”. This may be for polemical effect, but I’m not sure if Hamerquist’s plea is to fight for the legacy of Lenin or simply to take him “seriously”. I’m not a Leninist, but I agree we should take him seriously. If avoiding the need to fight for the soul of Anarchism or Marxism is a good thing, then thinking with and against Lenin is consistent with the kind of pluralistic approach we need.
On one level how revolutionary organization and mass politics intersects with the contradictory tendencies in Lenin’s thought remains a problem today. This is the space between the Lenin who returns to Hegel and the April Theses, and the Lenin who was a Second International Social Democrat whose model of socialism was the German post-office and the author of “What is to be Done? and Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. These two poles still define much of the radical imagination the Left today.
However, he isn’t the only revolutionary of his time to embody these contradictions and really this whole world revolutionary period, its situations, organizations and individuals are important ground for us today to dig into. What really makes Lenin important to engage with is around the specific role of forming unitary organizations and the relationship of those to mass political activity. In this regard the history of the Russian movement continues to frame many, if obviously not all of the problems we face today.
For Hamerquist, Lenin provides a model that he sees lacking in Wetzel’s interpretation of the relationship between the revolutionary organization and mass politics. Hamerquist stresses those crucial moments of conflict, breaks or gaps between revolutionary minorities and the arena of mass politics that Wetzl seems to downplay. In the future I hope GF will take up this question in the tradition of anarchist-communist “especifismo”–something many around GF have an affinity with. Nevertheless, Hamerquist raises an important question: what is the basis for the conditional (or dialectical) autonomy of the revolutionary organization for those who uphold the self-emancipation of the oppressed? For Social Democracy and Stalinism and its successors this is answered by the “science” of Marxism that provides special access to an objective reality that is only available to the party leadership.
Today the need for a revolutionary organization has been liquidated, though there is some evidence that among this generation this is changing. Lenin’s advocacy of an organization unified along basic programmatic and methodological lines that, nevertheless, is not a monolithic group, but one of contending ideas and methods that can be judged on the basis of practice, while obviously not unique to him, provides a record of organizational thought that can’t be ignored for other reasons, many of which Hamerquist takes up.
We confront a general tendency today to continue to confuse mass organizational forms with revolutionary organization. The lack of revolutionary organization has meant a detoriation of independent and cohesive theoretical understanding and practice on contemporary realities and problems. The effect is the strangled-hold of progressivism anchored by the NGO-complex and the trade union bureaucracy. Meanwhile, many continue to say that to build revolutionary organization is sectarian, but the irony is that what replaces it is an extemely narrow vision of work that appeals to a particular declassed subculture—sectarian indeed.
There is another tendency to carry out often very important mass organizing projects, but without any attention to the need to build revolutionary organization. As a result these become highly localized and unable to replicate and establish firm organizational links to other areas of work or regions. The lack of theoretical independence and development leads them to de facto reformist perspectives and no ability to maintain organizational independence from de facto institutions of “progressivism”. There is no chance to popularize revolutionary perspectives and meet and continue to develop rank-and-file leadership based on these perspectives.
The Russian movement is perhaps one of the classic examples of this problem. Lenin was correct in his struggles within the revolutionary circles at the turn of the century. Against liquidating revolutionary organization into mass organization, he called for an organized group that was not separate from mass struggles, but distinct. A specific organization of revolutionaries was necessary to carry out the “political” struggle that could not be obscured by mass work. The political struggle, the building of a revolutionary organization around a common philosophy, methodology and strategy would be necessary to cohere, facilitate, strengthen and deepen the mass movement. Only in conjunction with revolutionary organization could mass movements be sustained deepened and heightened. Through developing and popularizing revolutionary perspectives, meeting and training rank-and-file leadership, spreading more systematically methods of work and ideas, the organization would enhance and act decisively against the enemies of revolution. In our case, if not in Lenin’s, this has to be enemies of the self-organization of the working classes and the oppressed.
Some of Lenin’s critics accused him of wanting to create armchair revolutionaries who would organize ideas rather than with people, that he would have revolutionaries abstain from the struggle. They argued that the energy and time involved in internal organizational building, preparing the ground to meet, influence and develop new layers of people could be better spent passing out even more flyers and working in the strike movement. Lenin responded by pointing out that there was a relationship between the two, that with the a well established organization the pace and extent of this work would double. He argued that the work that revolutionaries were doing was haphazard, small and isolated from each other.
Between Two Poles: Anti-Vanguard Vanguard and Self-activity
Don writes, “I think that most of us (but not all, unfortunately) can agree that many strategic problems concern how to conceptualize and implement Marx’s injunction – also Bakunin’s – that the emancipation of the working class can only be accomplished by that class itself.”
“In addition, and much more problematic–also far less clear in Lenin’s writings and political practice than with the “Leninists” that succeeded him–is the conception of the party as a core institution that should aim to unify, discipline, and centralize the entire working class and/or the “revolutionary people” around itself.”
“However, every one of these terms, “unified,” “disciplined,” “centralized,” etc., is ambiguous. Lenin interpreted and applied them all differently at different points”
I think Don here has staked out the two poles which we need to be traveling between. However, as he says, the space in between is nowhere nearly mapped out in the way it needs to be.
If anarchist-communism is underdeveloped in its theory and its historical experience and needs to be supplemented, then the libertarian marxist/ultra-left currents Hamerquist mentions, specifically mentioning Italian workerism and post-workerism, as well as the Johnson-Forest Tendency, has its own problems. Don says, “Implicitly, and frequently explicitly, the importance of ideology and self conscious organization in the process of the class becoming “for itself,” is diminished, replaced by some assumption of an underlying historic dynamic.” This underlying happy Hegelianism is why this current also needs supplementation–something GF pointed to in a post on CLR James’ “Facing Reality”.
Lenin is one such supplement then in thinking about the need and role of an “interventionist” organization. Specifically, the institutional role it plays in mass struggles and its composition as a living organization that has a dialectical relationship with mass activity. It is a catalyst to the self-organization of mass activity, while at other times this activity is a catalyst for deep and necessary changes in a revolutionary organization. The argument for Lenin’s idea of “professionalization” is found in the necessity to sustain the organization as one school of communism, to help develop new militants, meet and build ties with rank-and-file leadership, support the building the social and political institutions of the working class and the oppressed, help maintain the continuity of struggle through down-periods and, as Hamerquist points out, it tries to “guarantee[ ] advances” of rebellions and movements “will be cumulative and irreversible”.
This activity can’t be centralized in the revolutionary organization alone. It has to take place in overlapping formations and circles that correspond to the specific needs, ideas and types of activity that any particular group of people are engaged in. These are not only a means for people to fight day-to-day struggles, but way to prepare for outbreaks of rebellious action. Lenin provides frame of reference for thinking about this process as concrete and developing. Members of a revolutionary organization sometimes play a role in starting such formations, sometimes they don’t. These circles and formations are the means to meeting people where they are at, working to clarify contradictions in practice (of the revolutionary organization and mass politics) and reveal the radical content of mass struggles based on forming new social relationships and community. Revolutionaries need to be good citizens and good militants.
For the organization to be living it has to meet people were they are at and not through ideological or organizational abstractions. This doesn’t mean that historical ideas and forms of struggle can’t be introduced by revolutionaries. That is one of their tasks. But that they need to be rooted in the popular conceptions through which people are struggling everyday. Here I would disagree with Hamerquist that the relationship between revolutionaries and workers consciousness is one of replacing the “ruling ideas” with communist ones. Ruling class ideas are refracted and contested through workers’ experience and new ideas develop out of this process. Even the idea that people today believe there is no alternative: this much more the product of the absence of radicals, rather than a belief that there can’t be a better way of organizing society.
Lenin remains a major reference point for thinking about how these intersections exist within contradictory tensions, are always developing and make up the terrain where revolutionaries must sometimes act to break up existing methods of work, at others consolidate them, while at the same time sometimes seize key links or pressure points at critical moments, and at others break open the organization as mass activity and potential far outstrip the conceptions and methods of a conservative organization and cadre, acting as a block or drag on this activity.
Finally, the revolutionary organization cannot be the only representative of the “historic”, “objective” interests (whatever word you want to use) of the oppressed. Conferences, assemblies, rank-and-file bodies that cross sectional interest, will equally serve this kind of representative function, all of which revolutionaries will participate and democratically argue in, but can’t subordinate to their own organizational imperatives.