by Tim Horras* (Originally published September 2017)
*It should be noted that, while this document attempts to sum up some key points of our trend’s practice, it is not the definitive word on any of these matters, which would need to be fully discussed within a programmatic framework. Any faults, mistakes, or omissions are solely the responsibility of the author.
A new trend is developing within the socialist movement. Having gained momentum coming out of the Conference on Base-Building, an exploratory convention held in Philadelphia in August of this year. Its influence reaches beyond the narrow confines of the local collectives assembled at the conference; passionate advocacy by these groups around a “base-building” political praxis has initiated discussions far and wide within a socialist movement just finding its feet after years of inactivity.
The Marxist Center, is quite young, the oldest group involved being barely half a decade old. Yet, in that short period of time, and with very little fanfare, nearly a dozen locally-based socialist collectives have blossomed and grown. These groups, including Philly Socialists, Red Bloom, the Communist Labor Party, Austin Socialist Collective, etc.
While all of these groups came into being independently, they have gradually converged on a few shared political principles: the necessity for working class political independence (and concomitant opposition to socialists working to promote bourgeois political parties), the need for robust democratic practices within socialist organization, flexibility of tactics in the service of building a proletarian base for socialist politics, along with the cultivation of an “oppositional sovereignty” in relation to the bourgeois state and related consensus that the proletariat should use the struggle for reforms as a testing ground for the seizure of power.
The strength of the approach of the Marxist Center was recently manifested in the recent polemic by “Rust Belt Revolution.” The author raises a number of criticisms of the politics of the Marxist Center. Some of these criticisms are fair, others are misunderstandings or perhaps even intentional slanders.
Let’s take this opportunity to set the record straight.
Claim: The Marxist Center imagines the period of socialist regroupment as a permanent state of affairs.
Reply: The idea being floated by our critics is that the various independent local groups have no intention of eventually consolidating into a single organization, but rather that we want to continue indefinitely as independent local groups, that we oppose the idea of coordinating at the national level, etc.
To support this argument, the author attempts to tar us with the brush of FRSO (OSCL) and Kasama, neither of whom were ever able to move beyond the regroupment phase (perhaps they didn’t want to, as the author suggests). None of the Marxist Center groups had any direct lineage with these groups, so the attempt at guilt-by-association misses the mark, but the argument does speak to a potential danger within our milieu, that we stay in the pre-party phase for too long.
However, if anything the opposite danger is the greater one at this point, what the author refers to thusly: “There should never be some small miniparty declared that comes up magically with immediate programmatic insights and that demands that all streams that make up this [left] “ecosystem” should flow into it.”
Given the abject failure of the party-building efforts within the New Communist Movement in the 1970s and 1980s, we should perhaps be a bit more circumspect about prematurely announcing ourselves as the vanguard of the class.
Verdict: False. We believe that struggling for unity should be a protracted process, with individual collectives hashing out and debating differences with the eventual goal of uniting into a single organization or party. Setting artificial deadlines to unification talks at this stage would be counterproductive. However, most everyone in the Marxist Center milieu see ourselves as moving toward the creation of a single organization for our tendency within the next five years.
Claim: The Marxist Center rejects Leninism.
Reply: One of the problems our opponents within the socialist movement have — both the social democratic right and the sectarian left — as they attempt to politically marginalize us is that our theory and practice eschew easy ideological labels. Part of this stems from our emergence as a constellation of functionally independent collectives, part stems from our theoretical eclecticism (which is not a bad thing, but a good thing), part stems (as the author acknowledges) from our relative newness as a trend vis-a-vis the rest of the anticapitalist left, and part stems from our incoherent articulation of our collective politics (a serious defect in our trend).
Are we Leninists? That’s an interesting question. Do we possess enormous respect for Lenin as a theorist and practical politician? Yes. Do we seek to learn from the Russian Revolution, to better understand its positive and negative consequences? Yes.
But none of that is what our opponents mean by “Leninism” or “Maoism.”
For our rightist social democratic opponents, they mean simply that we are “authoritarians” who have impudence to believe we could replace the bourgeois state with something better.
For our left sectarian opponents however, what they mean is that we have insufficient fidelity to the various historically-situated political positions the communist movement has taken on at different times in our history, positions which they elevate outside of concrete circumstances and reify into dogma.
While the author doesn’t address anything of substance directly, we can attempt to pull something salvageable from their criticism by bringing forward one of the defining practical features of contemporary “Leninist” sects: democratic centralism.
While it lies far outside the scope of this response, we can say with some confidence that suppression of dissenting voices within our movements, the use of administrative measures to handle issues which should be struggled out politically, forcing everyone in a group to parrot a “party line” even if they disagree with it, etc. are all bad practices which have unfortunately existed in the communist movement historically, both here in the United States and beyond.
Our opponents will likely argue that the above defects were perversions of democratic centralism rather than the real thing. To prove otherwise will be a task for another day. For now, let us simply state that the communist movement is overdue for a serious discussion about “democratic centralism,” what exactly the phrase means, the various ways it has been practiced, whether or not we should use it, and what, if anything, is salvageable from the idea.
Verdict: True, if by “Leninism” we mean toy mini-parties of a few dozen people practicing “democratic centralism.” False, if we mean critically appraising and incorporating the best elements of the theory and practice of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) and its leaders.
Claim: The politics of the Marxist Center are co-equivalent to the politics of Podemos, Syriza, and the Labour Party of the UK.
Reply: Our trend has hailed the class movement which has thrown up quite swiftly a variety of mass working class organizations, and have actively sought to engage with proletarian elements within groupings of these types.
However, we cannot submit to merging with such formations, as doing so would violate a key principle: avoiding class collaboration. Specifically, we admonish the movement to avoid entering into an electoral coalition with bourgeois parties or taking over the administration of the bourgeois state.
We are socialists, but unlike the social democrats, we believe the existing bourgeois state cannot be reformed or “transformed,” but must be smashed and replaced by a truly democratic workers government.
Claim: We reject the need to create a working class party, led by communists, possessing a socialist program.
Reply: For the main groups within the Marxist Center, the need to build a revolutionary party is an uncontroversial point of unity. Philly Socialists’ founding documents from 2012 referred to its main task as “building a Party over 40 years by organizing the unorganized.” Similarly, the Austin Socialist Collective calls for the establishment of “a new party of the working class and oppressed.” As for the Communist Labor Party, well… the word “party” is sort of in the name. So there doesn’t appear to be any validity whatsoever in this critique.
The author here rejects a patient, protracted and principled approach to party-building. They appear to be of two minds about the subject. They admit, yes, that “the prerequisites of a “party” are difficult to accumulate… [and] can’t be wished into existence by subjective desire.”
But then the author turns around and promote a subjectivist attitude toward the process of accumulation of forces: “we are initiators! Come walk the revolutionary road with us, and stop being so damn confused all the time!”
The author’s confused position stems from their recognition that the current moment requires a looser, deliberative phase of regroupment, as local groups engage in heuristic practical learning and accumulation of forces, but the moment they acknowledge this point, they throw their entire political project into question, so must ultimately reject the recognition on purely ideological grounds, i.e. castigating the objective conditions for failing to live up to the subjective desires of communists!
Much like King Canute rebuking the tides for not following his orders, it is a common left sectarian error to imagine that by chiding and scolding the mass movement we will somehow create the conditions needed for forming a party through sheer force of will.
On the contrary, communists must recognize that under current conditions, neither the objective nor the subjective preconditions for forming a socialist party exist. Our role in this moment is humbly working to create the material preconditions for such a party. This means we can’t simply declare ourselves the vanguard and act as if our actions represented the political expression of the working class. We must earn a place in the vanguard, not through our ideological pedigree or our superior command of theory, but through our strategy, dedication, and practice.
The insufficiency of the subjective factor is why (to address a later criticism) the question of insurrection is premature. Why would we force the issue of seizure of power without first building a mass base and establishing a party?
Claim: By not engaging in immediate armed struggle, the Marxist Center capitulates to “de facto legalism” and puts off the idea of insurrection indefinitely.
Reply: We are not afraid to admit that we see the primary task of the socialist movement today to be facilitating a growing nonviolent mass movement against the government.
The charges of indefinite postponement of insurrection is nothing more than left opportunism. If this criticism was being leveled at us by individuals who were presently engaged in armed struggle against the US government, the context might be quite different. However, we are unaware of any groups on the left which are currently engaged protracted people’s war, despite the grandstanding rhetoric of a handful of leftbook windbags.
For the left adventurists, all that is needed is to engage in violence, which will expedite the process of party-formation. Their critique of “de facto legalism” is disguised focoism: the idea that small group terrorism will excite the masses and telescope what would otherwise be a protracted period of party-building. Focoism has been tested in practice by the radical left at one time or another in almost all the imperialist nations — as a strategy it has yet to bear fruit; on the contrary, generally has led to tragic failure.
The Marxist Center puts forward instead the notion of holistic self-defense: which means understanding that protecting our movement and our working class communities will entail defending ourselves from a wide variety of threats, sometimes with force of arms. But not all threats to the working class come from fascist provocation or state repression, and a conception of self-defense that ignores the most pressing threats to our communities: a lack of adequate health care, hunger, housing insecurity, etc. would fail to adequately address the needs of the masses.
Verdict: False, although if we fail in our project of building a socialist party capable of contending for power, this criticism will turn out to be proven as true.
Claim: The Marxist Center groups are disorganized and don’t put forward their politics with a unified, articulate voice.
Verdict: True. This is a major issue with our trend at this time and one in serious need of rectification.
In answering the charges of the left sectarians, we should avoid the mistake of answering charges of insufficiently developed theory, etc. by snapping back into the temptations of orthodoxy. If we have difficulty spelling out what a revolutionary theory would look like in the USA in 2017, it is simply because such a theory does not currently exist (even if important elements have already been developed). Instead, it must be created.
There are no shortcuts to creating a successful revolutionary theory and practice in one’s own time and place. The temptation of orthodoxy is to imagine a “royal road” around these difficulties, and instead of struggling to more deeply investigate our conditions and to sum up our experience, we can simply state that the answers to all theoretical questions have already been solved, we need only apply the insights of Lenin, Trotsky, or Mao, or whomever.
Polemics and criticisms strengthen our movement, because they force us to better articulate our politics. A revolutionary trend must be capable of explaining itself to the world. Clearly, the Marxist Center has fallen short in effectively expressing our collective vision, our strategy for moving toward a world without exploitation and oppression.
In the future, we resolve to press our Marxist Center to speak up with its own voice, instead of having misconceptions and half-truths foisted on us by our sworn enemies. We have nothing to hide and nothing to fear from the truth.