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.
13 thoughts on “Thinking about Hamerquist on Revolutionary Organization and Lenin”
thought provoking notes, but I am a little bit confused about the reference to the French NPA, as I am under the impression they are an organization on the left edge of electoral social democracy, and thus rather a different animal then any potential future coalition of the revolutionary left.
ex-kapd, sorry for the late response…been out of action for the last week.
apologies for the confusion. I agree the NPA is a different animal. I was kind of short hand on this point:
I was just trying to indicate that this question of regroupment is fairly widespread on the Left right now–both revolutionary left and the “left edge” of social democracy as you put it well.
But beyond those differences, and the basic fact I was trying to gives a heads up to, I think that even with regroupment on that “left edge” revolutionaries will have to deal with. The situation in Europe seems to be parties on the left edge without out roots in an independent working class movement–something I’ve followed mainly through International Socialist Journal, International Viewpoint, and WSWS. I’m not exactly sure what this would look like in the U.S. under very different conditions. If this was to be just another uniting at the top of progressive movers and headliners than that’s one thing, but if it fused with bases of activity in the class then I think revolutionaries have to take seriously how to relate this.
I think it will be useful to turn to Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party, the early Communist Party, the history of the labor party concept in the U.S., and Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns to get some historical perspective.
a lot of the question of how to relate to the left edge of social democracy, depends a great deal on your general view on the broader questions of revolutionary organization and process.
from my perspective the emergence of such forces is both a hopeful sign of mass discontent, and a dangerous obstacle to the autonomy of the class.
I’ll make a few general comments synthesizing some of the key points of Hamerquist’s essay and then I’ll dive into more specific points.
As mlove laid out, I think that Don Hamerquist’s peice on Lenin is most useful in terms of thinking of the possibilities and potential pitfalls of Left regroupment in the upcoming years. As the comments sections on the various Lenin pieces on Gathering Frorces have laid out, this question does seem to be percolating throughout the US Left right now, with parallel dynamics going on in Europe at a larger scale. Why are many Leftists talking more about working together now? My hunch is that many of us on the Left have a sense that there are tremendous tasks ahead of us but not enough forces to intervene to do everything that needs to be done. There is a deepening economic and political crisis. There are important but very uneven and isolated small upsurges against the system starting now… these alone cannot challenge capitalism but as folks go through these experiences new layers of militants and revolutionaries will emerge. The Left needs to think very carefully about how it can get invovled in these struggles and bring these new militants together into larger formations that can make more direct challenges to capitalism itself.
Also, as Hamerquists’ interventions over on the 3 Way Fight blog (and as Peter Little and C. Alexander’s comments over here) suggest, society could be starting to polarize and we are not ready for it… given this, Hamerquist thinks Lenin offers insight into insurgent politics, the need to bloc with rowdy minority in a crowd, workplace, etc. rather than getting tied up in parliamentary procedures or bureaucratic “long marches through the institutions.” There is the suggestion that if the Left doesn’t learn how to do insurgent politics then the Right could beat us too it.
Finally Hamerquist’s piece is useful because he firmly grounds his discussion of building revolutionary organization in a broader discussion of mass movement dynamics and working class self-activity. He draws out the useful aspects of the Leninist tradition that emphasize the self-emancipation of the working class and he rejects the aspects of the Leninist tradition that substitute the activity of the vanguard party for this working class self-activity. This is key. As we develop revolutionary organization we should be catalyzing, not replacing/ dominating/ directing what some call “spontaneous” working class insurgency and organizing. I think we can make this critiuque of the Leninist vanguard party without dismissing the real problems and dilemas the Bolsheivks faced and the sharp, precise ways Lenin addressed these problems. We have to take the questions Lenin was tyring to answer seriously even if we rightfully disagree with the disastrous answers he came to. Many of these questions remain unanswered today… the anarchist tradition has tried to pose alternative answers but I would argue this process is radically incomplete and needs to be taken much much further. In this sense, I like the way mlove puts it, we need to “think through and against lenin at the same time.”
Now for the more specific points:
1. Hamerquist argues against anarchist polemics that dismiss the Bolsheviks as capitalists in disguise. Certainly, it is easy to point out, as Ron Taber did in his book on Leninism, that the Bolshevik party was for a capitalist revolution, not a socialist one for most of its history. Lenin rejected this in spring of 1917 and called for “all power to the Soviets.” Why then, was he unable to prevent the smashing of soviet power and the rise of state capitalism in Russia? Why did so many of his actions contribute to it? I agree with Hamerquist that we can’t just attribute all of this to bad faith on the part of Lenin because then we risk repeating the same mistake again. We need to zero in on what specifically went wrong and what specific mistakes did he make. Again, what questions was he asking and why did he end up coming with such terrible answers? .
I agree wth this. This is where the Johnson Forrest Tendency is useful – in books like Facing Reality and State Capitalism and World Revoltuion, they showed how the development of state capitalism in Russia was part of a larger process of the development of state capitalism globally which happened because of the increasing centralization and mass Taylorist factory organization of the means of production.
However, Hamerquist seems to dismiss the JFT’s contributions on this point. He writes, “I remember how difficult it was for the Facing Reality Crew [the name that the JFT took after their split] to explain why revolutionary political work was meaningful when state capitalism appeared as the ordained result of every conceivable political struggle and alignment of forces: “Organize a successful anti-capitalist insurrection – end up with state capitalism; get crushed by a fascist street force and lose to a totalitarian capitalist reaction – end up with state capitalism; shape a mass popular upsurge into a movement for basic structural reforms – end up with state capitalism.” Only a faith in some underlying teleology, not to be disrupted by meddling communists, differentiates this from various capitalist “end of history” and neoliberal “There Is No Alternative” conceptions.)
I agree that CLR James and Facing Reality (if not the rest of the Johnson Forrest Tendency) had trouble articulating a robust vision for what revolutionaries should be doing beyond recognizing and recording the self activity of the working class. In the link that mlove posted, Noel Ignatiev mentions how CLR James kind of side stepped his question when he asked him what revolutionaries should be doing. On Gathering Forces we posted similar critiques of Facing Reality from Loren Goldner. However, all that being said, I’m not sure if Hamerquist’s asessment of Facing Reality is totally accurate. Didn’t CLR James also say that state capitalism is an important experience the working class is going through and after going through it the next insurrections will lead to direct democracy (as he thought they did in Hungary and as he thought they were about to do with the wildcats in Detroit and in revolts against European social democracy?) Didn’t Facing Reality hold up the Hungarian revolution as a counterargument to the conception among some liberals and trotskyists that stalinist dictatorship could not be overthrown until the far distant future? If anything, it seemed they wrote that book to challenge the assumption that “There Is No Alternative.” I might be misreading things here, but as far as I can tell Facing Reality thought that Stalinism in the USSR, social democracy in Europe, and Fordist/Taylorist facotry organization in the US created shop floor conidtions that would encourage workers to form workers councils to rebel against monotony, speed up, and divided job classifications. Folks would try to master the complexities of the production process, and this, combined with the educational potential of the modern mass media, could lead to revolutionary direct democratic possibilities opening up – what they called the “invading socialist society.”
This critique aside, I do think that Hamerquist delves more directly and honestly into the quesitons the Bolsheviks were trying to answer than anyone else I’ve read including CLR James and the rest of the Facing Reality crew. In particular, he points out how the Bolsheivks were haunted by the spectre of the fall of the Paris Commune, the possibility of the revoltuioany cities getting choked out by a reactionary countryside. I’m
going to pull a quote out from his piece that I think is an outstanding summary of what went wrong during the Russian Revolution:
“There were real problems confronted in post revolutionary Russia that cannot be reduced to an abstract lust for
power by the Bolsheviks. As the likelihood of successful working class insurgencies in Europe diminished,
the strategic problems of holding together the poor peasant/working class popular base for Soviet Power grew
more pressing. The specter haunting the Soviets was not the Kolchaks or Denikins, the Allied Intervention, or
any other attempt of the defeated ruling class to retake state power, it was the ‘Revolutionary Paris, Counter-
revolutionary France’ dichotomy. The first generation Bolsheviks were always preoccupied with the memory
of the Paris Commune. (Remember the story of Lenin dancing in the snow when the Soviets survived a day
longer than the Commune.)
The Soviet response to the weakening of the strategic class alliance was to accelerate production, guided by
limited and narrow economic notions of the forces of production, to meet the sometimes conflicting demands
and needs of the working class (small) minority and the peasant (large) majority. That this was also Lenin’s
response can be clearly seen in his remarks to the 11th CPSU Congress. (Zizek uses some phrases from this
for one of his “ruthless Lenin” provocations.) This response was implemented through the party’s growing
monopoly of positions of governmental authority. Less and less priority was put on transforming the rela-
tions of production and reproduction through the expansion of democratic and participatory institutions,
and when moves in this direction potentially conflicted with economic growth, as they almost always did,
the initiatives were routinely crushed.
It was true that significant economic growth was needed to satisfy enough of the practical expectations
that people had of the revolution to maintain the class alliance between workers and peasants. However, when
the growth was not easily achieved, the increasingly centralized party authority opted for capitalist concep-
tions of industrial efficiency, Taylorism and one man management. The centralization of the party took on
an increasingly technocratic character, promoting notions that its leadership and “guiding role” could and
should be exercised through monopolizing positions of bureaucratic authority. This essentially ended any
discussions about alternative approaches. Where such alternatives emerged, including attempts to expand
popular control, they first were seen as disruptive and – rather quickly – as counter revolutionary.”
What’s great about this is Hamerquist is NOT using the technological underdevelopment of the means of production as an excuse for the Bolshevik’s solidification of state capitalist dictatorship. He leaves open the possibility of a more democratic/ libertarian way of reorganizing the economy to “satisfy enough of the practical expectations that people had of the revolution.” But he is challenging the Left, and particularly anarchist critics of the Bolshevik answer to this question to come up with better answers. I do think this is key – a revolution will lead to all sorts of expectations folks will have of immediate material improvement. If the economy can’t be reorganized to deal with questions like the destruction of midwest production centers (Detroit, Gary, etc.), or the ecological crisis, or the need for health care, then folks will go over to the counter-revolution. How can all of this be done in a direct democratic, less ruthlessly centralized way? I think it can be done, but we need to seriously think in through, as always building and expanding from the self-activity of the working class today and not from some technocratic blueprint for the kitchens and farms of the future.
Some of the specific questions of the working class-peasantry alliance does not apply to the class realities of the US, but we do still have to wrestle with the regional (and racialized) unevenness of US politics. For example, if the North became revolutionary and the South did not we’d be back in the same trouble we’ve faced in the past in this country: civil war. I just read an article about the rapid growth of all white “exurbs” – as people of color move into the suburbs a second round of white flight is happening again now, and these Crackervilles are breeding grounds of vicious white supremacy and anti-immigrant reaction. In particular, this seems like a disaster because it’ll make it hard for the increasingly majority people of color working class to win over elements of the petit bourgeoisie to the side of the revolution. If the petit bourgeoise is located in the same city as the working class then it can be persuaded through mass mobilization to support working folks…. but if it’s sequestered with the elites in racist compounds then it’ll be a lot harder to deal with.
For a long time, I was relatively convinced by Murray Bookchin’s idea of libertarian municipalism. He holds the Paris Commune up as a model and points out that cities have often been the bases of direct democracy. He imagines cities becoming autonomous polities, self-sufficiently integrated with the immediately surrounding countryside. I’m not so sure of this anymore. In a revolution, West Seattle will have more in common with Watts then it will with Redmond (home of Bill Gates). And if “Cascadia” (urban Seattle -Olympia-Tacoma, etc.) can’t win over the rural proletariat of Eastern Washington then we could end up in a civil war with white reactionaries. I think Wetzel gets at the same critique of Bookchin in his response to Hamerquist’s piece.
We need to think about how we can deal with all of these questions without reinforcing the capitalist domination of the city over the countryside or the general political domination of the coastal US over the interior. Anarchists and libertarian socialists need to come up with better solutions than building farming cooperatives and such in the countryside where many Brown and Black folks will not want to go. We also need to do better than simply focusing on urban movement building on the coasts without trying to do the difficult and often functionally illegal organizing that needs to be done in places like the decentralized manufacturing centers of small towns in the US South and along the US Mexico border. I want to make it clear this is a self-critique of my own organization too and something we need to seriously think about in the upcoming years.
Well, I better get to sleep so I don’t fall asleep at work tomorrow… I’ll finish up the rest of my points this weekend…..
Great comment, thought provoking stuff and the summary of DH’s points is helpful. Just one comment, i’d really like to hear your (individually and collectively, you personally and GF as a group) thoughts on regroupment/refoundation more generally. I say this because I’m deeply conflicted on the issue as well as murky on different ways it could play out.
Thanks man. In terms of regroupment, I am also pretty conflicted on it and I generally think that we need to see what kinds of formations and reformations of organizations and groups happen as movements break out before we’ll have more clarity about it.
Also, at least in Seattle, Democracy Insurgent is finding it difficult to build united fronts. We keep trying over and over again to reach out to the entire left and to bring folks together to fight around the labor struggles we’re involved in. We keep finding very few groups willing to commit time, energy, and resources to it. At the same time though, individuals keep coming around us who are either new to activism, who are revolutionaries from other tendencies like Common Action folks, or who were around other groups in the past but got frustrated with their lack of action. So we are part of a milleiu of individuals from different political perspectives and are functioning as a center (as I laid out in my comments on Will’s piece). This is a very good development because it means our organizing project is growing. But at the same time, it’s limiting because we are unable to catalyze a united front that could really help make this a mass struggle. I’m not quite sure why this is happening or what it means yet, but I think it does indicate something about both the possibilities and the potential pitfalls of regroupment.
Beyond this I’d just build off of what mlove says in his response to Hamerquist. He agrees with your skepticism about immediate regroupment and lays out 4 criteria for how a broader process of gathering forces/ tendency building could proceed. (my summary adds a bit to what mlove lays out but my sense is he’d probably agree with me on these points):
1) we need to continue to be a majority people of color, multiracial tendency. We can’t merge with groups whose organizing culture is overwhelmingly white or who reproduce white supremacy. This is key to building multiracial org. today.
2) regroupment needs to be based on the expectations of a younger generation. Analysis can draw from Marxist, anarchist, libertarian socialist, feminist, nationalist traditions, etc. but we need to avoid focusing too much on well-worn debates among older generations of the Left. We can learn from earlier history by reinterpreting it in terms of new problems we face today.
3) as I said above, it will take movements and collaborative organizing to clarify and catalyze the process of regroupment.
4) The sensibility, the historical examples we draw from, etc. need to focus on direct democratic/ anti-state tendencies in communities of color, even if these are not explicitly called “anarchist”, “libertarian socialist”, or “Marxist.” The Intifada, the Kwanju uprising, the Oaxaca commune, Black Reconstruction, etc. should be our starting points. We need to connect with and be a part of similar developments that could happen today.
ex-kapd, agreed with this exactly:
“from my perspective the emergence of such forces is both a hopeful sign of mass discontent, and a dangerous obstacle to the autonomy of the class.”
I want to take up one aspect where I did have a question.
you take exception to what Hamerquist is critiquing about CLR James in Facing Reality:
“However, all that being said, I’m not sure if Hamerquist’s asessment of Facing Reality is totally accurate. Didn’t CLR James also say that state capitalism is an important experience the working class is going through and after going through it the next insurrections will lead to direct democracy (as he thought they did in Hungary and as he thought they were about to do with the wildcats in Detroit and in revolts against European social democracy?) Didn’t Facing Reality hold up the Hungarian revolution as a counterargument to the conception among some liberals and trotskyists that stalinist dictatorship could not be overthrown until the far distant future? If anything, it seemed they wrote that book to challenge the assumption that “There Is No Alternative.””
Is this what Hamerquist is questioning? Maybe I’m misunderstanding you.
As I understood Hamerquist’s critique, he is focusing on the question of revolutionary organization in Facing Reality as the problem. One of the problems of Facing Reality is that it has little role for such an organization beyond a propagandistic one. It seems this conclusion is partially connected to the weak side of CLR’s Hegelian-marxism (something I have a lot of affinity with) in at least two related ways.
The first is he assumes the social relations of production have reached a historical stage where it seems workers no longer need the mediation of the kinds of political activity that have historically been associated with “separate” political organization. Of social relations of production I’m specifically thinking here of workers’ self-conceptions, the culture of workers’ association and relationship to work.
The second is CLR builds the picture of a kind of abstract self-activity unmediated by any contradictions, reversals, antagonisms and tensions that won’t necessarily just work themselves out. This is what I had in mind when I referred to “happy hegelianism”. Anyway, there’s much more to this but I think the picture is clear.
“as far as I can tell Facing Reality thought that Stalinism in the USSR, social democracy in Europe, and Fordist/Taylorist facotry organization in the US created shop floor conidtions that would encourage workers to form workers councils to rebel against monotony, speed up, and divided job classifications. Folks would try to master the complexities of the production process, and this, combined with the educational potential of the modern mass media, could lead to revolutionary direct democratic possibilities opening up – what they called the “invading socialist society.”
But keeping what I just said in mind, then why didn’t the rank-and-file upsurge in the factories lead to major rebellions? Why didn’t this upsurge of struggle link up with the black freedom movement in a consistent way? And why was the student movement not connected with this development until it was too late? Why didn’t the “invading socialist society” take hold? Why did a period of reaction slowly, if not always clear at the time, take shape and take hold by the early 1980s?
We could think of many historical reasons for this: uneveness, deep divisions in the American working classes, the more complicated picture of union bureaucracy and workers self-activity than CLR’s Facing Reality gives, and a lot more.
However, in all of this there also has be some thinking about the organizational question and its particular political tasks. To be clear I don’t mean this in a subsitutionist way–that a revolutionary organization can substitute for the self-emancipation of the oppressed as a whole. Nor is this simply the missing link that solves the riddle of the whole 1960s and 1970s period. A look at the experience of the “New Communist” movement or the International Socialists confirms that.
So I saw Hamerquist seeing what is missing in CLR’s later work in the U.S. and Britain (the work in Caribbean and Africa of the 1960s and 1970s is different issue) is an appreciation for the role the revolutionary organization can and needs to play among many others types of organizations.
Thanks for clarifying that point. I agree 100% with what you laid out. I think JFT/ Facing Reality didn’t recognize the uneven development of class struggle, the deep divisions over race and gender in the class, and the potential for breaks, reversals, etc. in the self-activity of the working class. All of this is a reality, and all of this prevented the wildcat strikes, revolts, etc. from generalizing into a new society. I do think that building an interventionist revolutionary organization is necessary to help catalyze, but not to substitute for, this process of generalizing and connecting workers’ self activity internationally.
I’m not taking issue with Hamerquist’s essay on any of those points.
All I was arguing was that JFT/ Facing Reality did not assume that state capitalism was unbeatable or that it was the natural outcome of revolution as so many right wing critics of socialism have concluded.
If anything, they were TOO optimistic about the working class going through a phase of state capitalism and coming out the other end at the promised land of direct democracy. They couldn’t foresee that the breakdown of state capitalism could bring neoliberalism, not direct democracy, because the worker’s revolts during the mid-20th century were crushed.
So I guess the only issue I have with Hamerquist on this point is that when we draw from JFT/ Facing Reality we need to be more concerned about inoculating ourselves against their Hegelian optimism rather than any supposed pessimism on their part.
After writing that I almost feel like that’s a trifling point though…. the more important point, which I think you, Hamerquist, and I all agree on, is that an interventionist revolutionary organization is needed to build off of but not replace workers’ self activity and the “invading socialist society.” Also, I think we’d all agree that building such an organization will not lead “automatically” to state capitalism simply because the Bolsheviks were an interventionist organization and they helped build state capitalism.
I would argue that Lenin had three distinct political stages. The first, his building stage, between 1903 to 1914, Lenin was a Kuatskyist. He could not believe that the second international supported imperialism. He attempted to work really hard in building a german SPD like grouping adapted to Russian political conditions. The semi-religious Leninist who praise WITBD ignore the social democratic statements that openly emulate the german SPD. Louis Proyect praises such social democracy and argues that this shows Lenin’s democratic and open nature. With 1914 collapsing European socialism, Lenin enters his second stage and attacks his own methodological roots, and rereads Hegel. I would argue that 1914-1917 was Lenin’s most radical phase. Zizek correctly points out Lenin’s rich writings of 1917, and one can see how the organizaton of revolutionaries who merge with the mass movement create the soviet power structure. What Lenin argued in State and revolution he once thought was ‘ultraleft’ in the negative sense. He also had argued for the Maoist 2 stage theory of revolution up until 1917 until he moved over to Trotsky’s permanent revolution position in relation to the coming revolution in Russia and its essence is expressed in the April thesis.
But as soon as the civil war brakes out, Lenin enters his third stage and adapts to war like conditions and goes all out against the Whites. This led to much more totalitarian conditions in which Leninist (both trotskyist, stalinist and maoist) argue that imperialism is the central cause, while the liberterian wing blame the Leninist dictatorial nature. What becomes a much more slippery slope is 1921 where Bolshevism is very much fused into statism. Lenin attacks the ultralefts in his famous “infantile leftist” book, crushes the Krondstant rebellion and introduces the New Economic Policy. Bukharin on the side tries to tear apart Luxemburg Accumulation book. With all this said, I think what is needed is Marxist anaylisis of Lenin and Leninism. It is neither simply totalitarianism nor revolutionary purity. And unfortunatly leftist have take an approach where you either accept him or reject him. How dialectical! Lenin stands as an outstanding disciple of Marx that changed the world. We should stand in the spirit of Lenin, by dedicating ourselves towards the development of revolutionary theory and organization against capital. Most stand in the spirit of Lenin by pushing Leninism. But such pushing doesnt seem to materialize much. Lenin mastered the three volumes of capital in his early 20s, and used such theory in guiding the organization he built. I think the same applies today. Mastering marxist revolutionary theory for the creation of a revolutionary organization is the task at hand. Lenin helps shed light on this process, but he is not the silver bullet that many attempt to make him into.
Farabundo M, you gave an excellent overview that puts Lenin into the context of broader historical developments. I see this as very much the same spirit as Hamerquist’s essay – you are both trying to reinterpret Lenin dialectically, avoiding some of the pitfalls of past interpretations of Lenin’s legacy.
I have a few follow up questions for Farabundo M and others:
1) Is there a link between Lenin’s early Kautskyism and his return toward statist and authoritarian approaches during the civil war?
2) do you think it would have been possible for the Russian working class and peasantry to win the civil war, boost economic production to stop starvation and deprivation, etc. without resorting to the one-man management schemes and state capitalist measures that Lenin ultimately opted for?
3) If so, how can we learn from this in terms of revolutionary strategies for today? What can we learn from debates in the socialist movement of 1917-1922 about how to oppose imperialism today? In particular, how can we combine the need for workers’ self-management with the need for rapid economic and ecological reconstruction in areas from Detroit to Lagos to Gaza that have been ravaged by capitalism and white supremacy?
This last question overlaps with the discussion we are having on the Economic Crisis in the Third World post.
On the question and criteria of “regroupment”, I think the following link adds an important dimension.
Actual engagement in mass politics, its challenges etc., is critical. I think intuitively this is something that has informed my thinking but wasn’t made explicit in my own mind as it relates to the reconstitution of a radical left pole.
Very thought-provoking stuff. I’m still reading through it, but it parallels some exploratory (i.e. not line-forming) reading and thinking I’ve done recently. The question of a synthesis of libertarian and leninist modes of organizing around the basic Marxist principle (as mentioned above) that the class itself must make the revolution…..this is one of the very central questions we face today. Good to see folks identifying the same theoretical holes and opportunities for powerful syntheses!