Being a Leninist Today

by Paul Le Blanc

An important new collection of writings by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin has just been published by Pluto Press under the title Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings, edited by a former editor of Bulletin in Defense of Marxism (the predecessor of this journal) and a frequent writer for Labor Standard, Paul Le Blanc.

Paul discusses his views on the contemporary relevance of Lenin’s ideas in this article written especially for Labor Standard.

It is possible to review the table of contents, a portion of the editor’s introductory essay, and the index at the following:

With the recent publication of a book of writings by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, Selected Writings (London: Pluto Press, 2008), which I have edited, I have hoped to help generate discussion and debate about which way forward in the struggle for socialism. As I argue in my introduction to that volume, Lenin’s ideas remain relevant to our time. I have made that argument more than once in the pages of this journal, and I am hoping that readers will consider these ideas and move beyond words in order to help bring the ideas to life.

The necessity of a working-class revolution to bring about a socialist democracy in the United States and globally has never been more urgent than today.

But this does not mean that it is possible to carry out such a revolution today. Asserting that we cannot achieve our goal today is hardly a refutation of the need and possibility of the goal. It is, in fact, one of the starting-points to eventually being able to accomplish that which is urgently necessary. We need to be actively involved in a process to create the conditions for the triumph of workers’ power. These are ABCs of what Karl Marx called scientific socialism. Only foolish sectarians, or people who are ignorant of Marxism, are incapable of understanding this. The approach of Lenin has much to teach us about how to engage, as revolutionary activists, in practical struggles in the relatively non-revolutionary here and now — to help win short-term gains for the workers and the oppressed in a manner that advances the revolutionary cause.

Similarly, the necessity of building a revolutionary party in the United States, rooted in the perspectives of Marx and Lenin, has never been more urgent than today. But such a party cannot be brought about through the proclamations of a handful of well-meaning people. Here too, we will have to be engaged in a process — recognizing that while we make history, we do not make history exactly as we wish. We must function under circumstances not of our own choosing, and the realities that we encounter today are sometimes quite different from those of bygone eras. The realities of 1919, a year of global revolutionary upsurge by mass workers’ movements, are not the same as the realities of which we are a part in 2009.

It is worth reminding ourselves of Lenin’s argument in Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder that there are three necessary conditions for a genuinely revolutionary party. First is the revolutionary class-consciousness of a vanguard layer of the working class. Second is a correct political strategy and tactics on the part of organized revolutionaries. Third is an intimate and sustained contact “with the broadest masses of working people.” Without these conditions being met, Lenin tells us, all attempts at a disciplined revolutionary party will “inevitably fall flat and end up in phrase-mongering and clowning.” (See the relevant excerpt in Revolution, Democracy and Socialism, 306.) For the most part, revolutionary Marxists in the United States today cannot honestly say that either the first or the third of these necessary conditions exists for a crystallization of what Lenin himself would have considered a serious revolutionary party.

A very large part of my own political life from the 1970s down to the present moment has been devoted to contributing, as best I can, to advancing processes that might lead to the coming into being of a U.S. equivalent to a genuinely Leninist party — a mass working-class party that is democratic and cohesive, informed by Marxist theory and committed to the socialist goal. A fairly succinct summary of my views were elicited, recently, with the assistance of Mary Scully, who was once a good comrade in the Socialist Workers Party and Fourth Internationalist Tendency (organizations to which we both belonged) and who disagreed with the understanding and application of Leninist perspectives that I developed.

This apparently “controversial” conception is rooted in my book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and in the lengthy essay I wrote entitled “Leninism in the United States and the Decline of the Socialist Workers Party,” which is contained in the volume I edited for the FIT in 1992, In Defense of American Trotskyism: Revolutionary Principles and Working-Class Democracy and, with slight revisions, in the collections of essays by George Breitman, Alan Wald and myself, Trotskyism in the United States: Historical Essays and Reconsiderations (and can be found in the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line in the section of FIT documents).  

Comrade Scully’s contention, over the years, has been that my views involve equating Leninism with sectarianism and diverge from the basics of revolutionary Marxism. In arguing this, it seems to me that she has distorted essential elements of what I actually think and say. She has also claimed (more than once) that I have never responded to her criticisms. In fact, I did respond, with a very substantial article, “Culture, Consciousness, and Class Struggle: Further Notes on the relevance of Leninism,” in the April 1994 issue of the journal Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, later renamed Labor Standard (which I edited at the time), immediately after we published her original two-part polemic.*

More recently, in an on-line discussion list in the summer of 2008, in preparation for a conference on revolutionary traditions of Leon Trotsky and U.S. Trotskyism, Comrade Scully intervened with a repetition and elaboration of her old charges. At one point, she challenged me with five questions (and later an additional two). I sought to utilize her initial five questions in order to clarify, in a serious, succinct, and comradely manner, what my views are. I am reproducing the questions and answers below (followed by a few concluding comments).

My thanks to Mary for her good and helpful questions.

1) Can you elaborate on what the “present conditions” are that prohibit the formation of a Leninist party?

The primary condition preventing the formation of a revolutionary vanguard party is the fact that a revolutionary vanguard layer of the working class does not exist.

2) How do Marxists organize themselves to change these “present conditions” in order to be able to build a genuine Leninist party? Do we merely engage in “doing good work”? (Whatever that means!)

I think Marxists should try to build an organization (based on a revolutionary Marxist program, and functioning according to principles expressed most consistently by Lenin) which, at the same time, recognizes that it is not “the party” or even “the nucleus of the party.” And yes, all the work the organization does, and that individual Marxists do, should be good — not bad, not mediocre, not “let’s pretend.” They should develop research, education, political action projects of various kinds, giving special attention to the recruitment and development of cadre (i.e., knowledgeable, skilled, dedicated Marxist activists) and to the development of a labor-radical subculture that is essential for the development of a revolutionary vanguard layer of the working class.

3) Why is it so that those who seek to build a Leninist party will only create a sect? Isn’t sectarianism (per Marxist history) based on estrangement from the working class?

Those who claim to be members of a revolutionary vanguard party — independently of a revolutionary vanguard layer of the working class — are pretending to be members of such a party, creating a little organizational universe of their own, disconnected from the actual lives and struggles and consciousness of the working class. This is a definition of a sect and of sectarianism — as you note, “estrangement from the working class,” in the form of a so-called Leninist party.

4) Exactly how should we organize ourselves to promote the recomposition of this revolutionary layer of the working class? Who is this layer of the working class? Are they white male industrial workers? Are they immigrant workers? Are they nurses, teachers? Who?

The revolutionary layer of the working class is not defined by occupation, by race or ethnicity or place of birth, by gender. It is defined by consciousness (by the level of class-consciousness it has attained), as well as by its organizational skills and its influence within the working class.

There is a very good preliminary discussion of this in Lenin’s 1899 article “A Retrograde Trend in the Russian Social-Democracy,” which is in his Collected Works, vol. 4, especially pages 280–282. (I summarize this in my book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, pages 44–46, and I share more extensive background information on the reality of what Lenin is talking about in various sections of that book.) Lenin distinguishes between a relatively small layer of “advanced workers” and a larger layer of what he calls “average workers” — and both of these layers are genuinely class-conscious, and a further distinction is made between these and what he calls “the mass that constitutes the lower strata of the proletariat.”

Exactly how should we organize ourselves (in my view) is suggested in my response to question #2. The question of what specific sectors and struggles such an organization should engage with to help promote the recomposition of a revolutionary layer of the working class is not something that can be adequately determined by two individuals on a discussion list — but that is precisely a question that should grappled with by an organization of revolutionaries. As individuals, we simply need to do the best we can (good work) where we happen to be.

5) Only the existence of what layer can provide the basis of a genuine revolutionary party? Could you be more specific? Who are these workers? What do they do? Why are they so pivotal? Why do they exclude the mobilizations in the millions of unorganized, undocumented workers?

Only the existence of a layer of the working class with a certain level of class consciousness (what Lenin called “advanced workers,” who have a connection with and authority among the class-conscious “average” workers that he spoke of) can provide the basis of a genuine revolutionary party. So the question is, what kind of consciousness are we talking about?

“A struggle is going on in all the nations of the civilized world, between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between the capitalist and the laborer, which grows in intensity from year to year, and will work disastrous results to the toiling millions, if they are not combined for mutual protection and benefit.”

This elementary class-consciousness (expressed in the founding preamble of the American Federation of Labor), combined with the three best known verses of Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever,” combined with the basic principles in the Communist Manifesto and some sense of the history of the class struggle — that is the level of consciousness that I think Lenin was talking about.

Without a working-class vanguard layer that has this level of class-consciousness, there will be no revolutionary vanguard party. There can be vitally important mass mobilizations an insurgencies around many things (immigrant rights, women’s rights, opposition to racism, opposition to war, opposition to the degradation of our environment, etc.) without an organized vanguard layer of the working class having this level of consciousness. But there cannot be the revolutionary vanguard party that we need without it.

Why are such workers so pivotal? The whole of Lenin’s writings — from the 1899 “A Retrograde Trend…” (referred to above) to the 1920 Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder and beyond — explains why. Those who would build a Leninist party could do worse than to reflect on Lenin’s answers to this key question.

The times we live in are extraordinary. There has been a radicalization process going on for more than two decades, impacting in diverse and contradictory ways on the massive, multi-faceted, diverse U.S. working class. There is an accumulation of experiences (and more are on the way) that are opening up opportunities for the development of the kind of revolutionary class consciousness and for the recomposition of the accompanying labor-radical subculture that it will take to sustain a revolutionary vanguard layer of the working class.

If we are serious about wanting to build a Leninist party — a real one, not a pretend one — then our priority must be to do all that we can (all the good work that we can, not shoddy, mediocre work or “revolutionary” posturing) to advance that process. As individuals we must do what we can where we are. But we also need to build effective organizations (not pretend “Parties” that create their own little revolutionary universes), organizations that can help Marxist activists do what needs to be done at this present conjuncture. 

In reaction to the above, Mary wrote the following:

Paul, are you refuting (with your exegesis of Lenin’s writings) Leon Trotsky’s insistence now over 60 years ago that the overwhelming evidence from American politics is that the conditions for revolutionary action are not premature; rather they are “overripe”?

More importantly, are you refuting his insistence that the existence of a revolutionary party was a “colossal factor” in the political maturity of the working class?

In response to each question, I replied with one word: “No.” Comrade Scully then wrote:

“No” isn’t particularly elucidating. Your view that we have to wait for the development of Leninist class consciousness before we embark on the project of a Leninist party, seems to contradict Trotsky’s view that a Leninist party is a “colossal factor” in class consciousness. Elaboration, beyond “no” is required. Don’t you think?

To which (by now impatient and needing to move on to other work, particularly around the conference I was helping to organize) I responded: “No.”

But Mary was certainly right in urging me to elaborate. I will make up for that here.

First of all, it seems obvious to me, as a Leninist and Trotskyist, that the realities of 1918 or 1938 (or, for that matter, 1993–94) were different in important ways from the realities of 2008, and now 2009. It makes no sense — in stark contradiction to the method of Marx and Lenin — to blur this all together in an ahistorical polemic disconnected from what is happening and what is to be done.

Lenin’s method and positions were different from this, and despite Mary’s unintentional implication, it seems to me that nothing in Trotsky is in contradiction to the Leninist method and positions. Seven decades after Trotsky’s Transitional Program, the specific realities of the workers’ movement, the specific consciousness of the working class, and the specific tasks we face as revolutionaries, are not exactly the same. We can and must do things now (doing good political work, not passively waiting) to help create certain conditions. This would involve the spread and deepening of mass working-class consciousness, which is the precondition for the revolutionary party that will be capable of changing the world.  

In order to do such work, it seems to me that those of us who see such things as necessary must join with like-minded people in organizations that can recruit activists and train cadre, and participate in the struggles of our time, by utilizing the critical, creative political orientation of Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and others who are part of the living revolutionary socialist tradition of Marxism.

At the present moment — 2009 — new opportunities are opening up which give a greater urgency to such organizational engagement. Of course, joining such organizations is not the same as joining the revolutionary party that might be capable of bringing about socialism. The primary task of the various revolutionary socialist organizations must be to help create the preconditions for the emergence of such a party.

* I will be happy to send scans or photocopies of those articles to anyone who is interested, along with the earlier two-part article that she was attacking, “Notes on Building a Revolutionary Party in the United States,” which appeared in the June and July-August issues of 1993.