In the United States today, there exists a political trend which describes itself as Marxist-Leninist. This trend is organized as a loose constellation, orbiting around organizations such as the Workers World Party (WWP) and the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), and to a lesser extent the Freedom Road Socialist Organization-Fight Back (FRSO)1. Members of this trend associate in forums such as r/communism on Reddit, on Facebook in pages and groups such as Bro, We Are Communist. Problem? and Karl Marx’s Red Reading Room, and on Twitter. Though containing members of all generations2, this contemporary Marxist-Leninist trend has a particular character among millennials, including those in their early thirties or late twenties radicalized during the protests against the Iraq War or in the Occupy Movement, and younger members radicalized during Black Lives Matter or the election of Trump. The authors count ourselves among many others who politically “came of age” within this trend.
This trend is united in support of “Actually Existing Socialism” historically3 and the continued centrality of the “Five Heads” of Marxism-Leninism (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao). They stress the importance of anti-imperialism to revolutionary practice in the “belly of the beast”, and additionally support for national liberation struggles historically and today as well as support for national bourgeois governments which are targeted by U.S. imperialism (e.g. Iran, Syria). This trend upholds Stalin against Trotsky, views Khrushchev as a revisionist, and supports the USSR’s interventions in ‘56 and ‘68. Social Democrats, anarchists, and others denigrate it as Stalinism and condemn its members as “tankies”. Those in the Maoist movement consider it to be revisionism.
The contemporary Marxist-Leninist trend views itself as the continuation of the world communist movement of the twentieth century, including the anti-imperialist struggles of the century more broadly. It proudly sees its own history as being that of the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and the Cuban Revolution; in the U.S., its local heroes include the Black Panther Party, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, and so on. Its study guides feature lots of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, and to a lesser degree Stalin and Mao. Its propaganda features, for instance, Thomas Sankara, Fred Hampton, and Fidel Castro.
Stalin provides the canonical definition of Marxism-Leninism historically:
Leninism is Marxism of the era of imperialism and the proletarian revolution. To be more exact, Leninism is the theory and tactics of the proletarian revolution in general, the theory and tactics of the dictatorship of the proletariat in particular. Marx and Engels pursued their activities in the pre-revolutionary period, (we have the proletarian revolution in mind), when developed imperialism did not yet exist, in the period of the proletarians’ preparation for revolution, in the period when the proletarian revolution was not yet an immediate practical inevitability.4
This is a major touchstone for contemporary MLs. Since imperialism still dominates and proletarian revolution is still the aim, ML is considered to be a still-applicable way of approaching politics. Dictatorship of the proletariat is still considered necessary, as is a vanguard party run along democratic centralist lines.5
The Appeal of Marxism-Leninism
We believe there are several positive aspects of U.S. MLism that have drawn millennials into its orbit.
First, MLism, as a revolutionary trend, provides an alternative to the reformist wing of the nascent socialist movement led by the right wing of the DSA, the Jacobin milieu, and the movement around Bernie Sanders. New radicals who were unsatisfied by the prospects of social democracy or the Democratic Party have found a viable option in Marxism-Leninism, which explicitly calls for the total overthrow of the bourgeois State by any means necessary.
Second, MLism prides itself on organizational discipline. This aspect attracted a lot of militants to Leninism in the late 60s due to the disarray of loose New Left organizations such as the original Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). These activists came to realize that “structureless” or “non-hierarchical” formations often meant in practice the despotism of unelected, media-appointed leaders, combined with anti-democratic practices like the refusal of the minority (or worse, individuals) to bow to the decisions of the majority6. Similarly, post-Occupy radicals have turned to more disciplined organizational structures after participating in a movement without clearly defined organizational structures or articulated political goals. Organizational discipline has also appealed to ex-anarchists from the Seattle ‘99 tradition, some of whom have adopted Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and other Leninist trends.
Third, MLism is a trend known for its strong stance on national liberation and anti-imperialism. In the U.S. in particular, the early CPUSA was known for its commitment to Black liberation, especially through organizing sharecroppers in Alabama and placing an emphasis on Harry Haywood’s “Black Belt” thesis, the idea that African-Americans constituted an oppressed nation within the United States. Today, the ML trend participates in popular anti-racist struggles, in particular #BlackLivesMatter as well as anti-imperialist struggles, particularly against U.S. wars in the Middle East. Today’s ML groups largely call for self-determination for oppressed nations as well as the return of land to indigenous peoples. For many young militants, especially radicals of color, this focus on self-determination is a breath of fresh air compared to the class-reductionism that crops up in other U.S. leftist trends.
Fourth, Marxist-Leninists generally hold positive views of the 20th century socialist states. For those who wish to draw positive lessons from this experience, MLism presents an appealing alternative to the Cold War anti-communism often propagated by layers of the reformist, anarchist, and Trotskyist trends.
We have outlined how the Marxist-Leninist trend in the U.S. sees itself today, and how it presents itself to the broader Left. But as Marxists, we are not content with knowing how things present themselves to be; we seek to understand their real content. To that end, let us explore the contemporary practices of the political groups which are central to the contemporary ML trend in the U.S.: the WWP, PSL, and FRSO. How do the political convictions of MLs today play out in practice?
- (back) There is also the Party of Communists USA (PCUSA) and the American Party of Labor (APL), but they are much smaller organizations than the three named above.
- (back) It is worth noting that, due to the weakness of the communist movement from the mid-80s into the late 90s, there is a large generation gap in the U.S. communist movement.
- (back) U.S. MLs generally define “actually existing” or “real” socialism as a lower stage of the communist mode of production. It is distinguished from capitalism by the ownership of the commanding heights of the economy by a workers’ state. It is distinguished from high communism by the continued existence of commodity production, remuneration based on work, and division of labor, such as between city and countryside or mental and manual labor. MLs tend to look to five countries as currently socialist: China, Cuba, DPRK, Vietnam, and Laos. There is the most agreement around Cuba being socialist and the most disagreement around China (and subsequently Vietnam and Laos). Most U.S. MLs consider the Eastern Bloc to have been socialist until the counter-revolutions of 1989-1991.
- (back) Joseph Stalin, The Foundations of Leninism (1924)
- (back) “Dictatorship of the proletariat” is an idea originating in Marx that after the bourgeois State is dissolved, a proletarian apparatus of force is necessary to guide the transition to communism. We will discuss the party form later in the essay.
- (back) See “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman, a highly influential feminist essay from the early 70s.