Revolutionaries get lost in history, defining themselves by reference to a context of struggle that has no present-day correlate. They draw lines in sand which is no longer there.
— Endnotes, A History of Separation
The following is a response to Austin Revolutionary Organizing Collective (AROC)’s reflections on the recent Marxist Center conference. Full disclosure: while I was not at the conference, I am a member of a Marxist Center group. All opinions expressed below are mine and mine only.
See also Alyson Escalante’s response to the below piece.
by Avery Minnelli
The AROC critique of the Marxist Center (MC) conference is based on the assertion that we reject two core tenets of communist theory: “The Party” and “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Coming from a more orthodox Maoist/Marxist-Leninist perspective, AROC considers these concepts to be crucial for revolution.
AROC bases their concerns on the argument that the most immediate threat for revolutionary groups today is “degenerating into liberalism or other bourgeois politics,” citing the CPUSA’s support for Hillary Clinton and the New Communist Movement’s support for the Jesse Jackson campaigns in 1984 and 1988. I will return to these historical examples later, but so far the point is sensible, if nearly tautological. But of course, the devil is always in the details.
AROC acknowledges MC’s wholesale rejection of liberalism in our points of unity, but argues that “this is clearly no defense against the threat of degeneration.” This point, of course, begs the question as to whether there is some other language we could insert into the POU to prevent degeneration as a sort of “anti-degeneration clause.”
AROC then argues that the MC’s “base-building” strategy is inferior to the “mass line” strategy of orthodox Maoism.1 I think it is true that we have too often emphasized base-building without adequately answering the question “building a base for what?” but it is unclear to me how this strategy is inferior to or even incompatible with the “mass line.”
In this section on the mass line, AROC asserts that we are wrong to leave open the question of “actually existing socialism” in particular:
Marxist Center’s understandable desire to avoid the kind of sectarian hair splitting over history that has plagued the US left has instead led to this very error of refusing any definitive historical stances. This opens the door to an implicit historical judgment rejecting not just all “actually existing socialism” but Leninism altogether. Their “nonsectarian” commitment has in fact extended to Kautsky revivalists and anarchists who hold exactly such a line.
Speaking for myself, while I don’t wholesale “reject” 20th century state socialism (I think there are positive lessons to be drawn), I don’t consider it to be a viable model to base our politics on today. But more fundamentally, it’s unclear to me what the advantage would be to closing this debate immediately upon founding the MC federation. Just reading the room in Philly Socialists, I know many comrades are less interested in or well-studied on these topics, so I don’t think we are ready to take a “stance” on the 20th century. Furthermore, I’m not sure that learning and drawing from this history requires that we reach a final verdict of appraisal. If anything, such a verdict may close us off from creatively using insights from such a vast and rich array of experiences of the 20th century.
The core of AROC’s argument is that the Marxist Center repudiates “the Party” and “the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” In the section on party-building, AROC argues that “only a communism focused on the project of building a revolutionary party of the proletariat is worthy of our energy,” a bold claim.
From the idea that a communist party is necessary for revolution, it does not automatically follow that the party-building strategy of the NCM and other movements actually works. Of course, it’d be great if a communist party were to form, but that does not imply the strategy of declaring ourselves “the party” (or even a pre-party formation, just a step back in the same teleology). Who are “we” and why are “we” equipped for such a task; is it because of our ideological chops? The MC is at most 400 people. Most workers have no idea who we are.
Earlier in the document, AROC cites the Jesse Jackson campaign as the degeneration of the NCM into liberalism. However, the Jackson campaign wasn’t until 1984, and I would argue that the NCM had already degenerated pretty severely by 1977 at the latest. But even at its height, the NCM was never very large or influential among the working class. Dozens (or hundreds) of New Communist groups stressed the importance of party-building and “theory” (i.e. inherited verdicts from the 1930s or earlier), but none of these groups were able to grow past secthood.2
The last remaining NCM group, the Revolutionary Communist Party, has become a cult of Bob Avakian. Where does this fit into the “repression or liberalism” schema? Is there no danger of left-sectarianism, or worse, cultism? What about the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center, that ate itself alive in a fit of polemicizing and vicious sectarianism? Based on the abject failure of “party-builders” in the anglosphere the last 70 years or so (especially the NCM in the U.S. and the Trotskyist movement in the U.K.), what indicates that such an approach will work in 2018?
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat
In this section, AROC quotes the famous Marx letter in which he asserts that his fundamental contribution was not the recognition of the class struggle, which bourgeois historians had already done, but “that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
It is ironic to construct this argument around Marx himself, who hardly ever used the term “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and certainly never defined it with any sort of precision.3 The way Marx used the term was loose and synonymous with “working class governance” or “proletarian rule.” Engels characterized the Paris Commune as a DOTP, which was not led by a communist party, nor did it look much like what I imagine Maoists mean when they use the term.
AROC argues that, by not addressing the question of the DOTP, we are not acknowledging the task of “suppressing the bourgeoisie and its agents.” Is AROC imagining some scenario in which “we” (MC?) smash the bourgeois state and then “decide” whether or not to defend the revolution through suppression? The Bolsheviks did not decide on Civil War; it was necessitated by the struggle itself. There are no ready-made formulas that can anticipate the needs of a revolutionary process, and I’m not sure what we gain by making explicit the DOTP, especially if by “suppressing of the bourgeoisie and its agents” we mean the horrors of forced labor camps and mass executions.
This point by AROC is directed not primarily at reformists but at anarchists (which contradicts their earlier contention that liberalism/rightism is the main danger), as AROC claims “the gulf in strategy between Marxists and anarchists is too wide to bridge within a single movement.” This claim is not substantiated, but is rather based on old divisions. But even then, in the early 20th century U.S. socialist movement, the dividing line between communists and anarchists was actually quite blurred; the early IWW was ideologically eclectic, and may IWW leaders ended up joining the CP. Dividing lines must be drawn based on the necessities of future junctures, not on past debates and divisions. The superficial labels of “anarchist” or “Leninist” do not necessarily determine political content, as we know from history that reformists and sectarians have worn both labels.
AROC argues that if we maintain unity with anarchists, we “will ultimately accomplish only what anarchism has in the field of world revolution: nothing.” In this conception of politics, anglophone Leninists are able to claim the historical mantle of revolution by proxy, “identifying with” the Russian or Chinese revolutions out of ideological alignment. It is a team sports politic that allows us to gloss over the cold fact that neither anarchists nor Leninists have achieved much of anything in the anglosphere in the past 50 years.
Speaking on Philly Socialists, there are many anarchist comrades whose work I deeply value, and sometimes I agree with them on strategy and tactics more than I do with those of the more Leninist flavor. I reject the notion that working with anarchists is liberalism tout court; I’d go as far as to say that anarchist comrades can be just as Marxist as their Leninist counterparts.
AROC ends the section with returning to the party question, stating that “the primary purpose of such a party will be to discipline the political forces of the class and subordinate all competing priorities to the program of the party.” I don’t know where to even start with this, but AROC leaves unsubstantiated this claim. I’m not sure if a historical party has ever managed to “subordinate all competing priorities” to its program, or if such a feat is even possible (or desirable). If we’re in the habit of quoting Marx, I might add that “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”4
In the next section, AROC argues:
The answer “revolution” is so imprecise that any competing project with some sort of concrete outcomes identifiable in any definite time frame will capture the energy of these organizations. Reforms, elections, grant-driven projects with their “deliverables,” protest culture: each is more compelling than an abstract idea with no strategy behind it.
Why is “revolution” any less precise than “the party” or “the dictatorship of the proletariat”? Furthermore, many or even most so-called revolutionary “parties” in the U.S. are embedded in precisely this protest culture and ambulance chasing, not even to mention the reformist communist parties such as the PCI and PCF. How would becoming yet another group trying to become The Party avoid this pitfall? The correlation between AROC’s “party-building” strategy and successfully avoiding reformism/protest culture is left as an exercise for the reader.
AROC suffers from what plagues most of the U.S. left, namely delusions of grandeur. These assertions that “We” must “Build The Party” rest on a conception of politics that is at best voluntaristic and at worst places us as the pivot of world history due solely to our beliefs.
There are no ready-made blueprints for revolution. The idea that some revolutions (usually Russia or China) yield “universally applicable lessons” is a misleading way to study history. At the risk of sounding “spontaneitist,” revolution is a messy, unpredictable, complicated process. All revolutions involve multiple social blocs, forces, and organizations. I am almost completely certain that it will not be carried out solely or even primarily by the existing U.S. left or even what comes of it in the coming years.
I have my own reservations and concerns about the Marxist Center network, from our small numbers to our racial composition to our lack of strong base in the class (all related issues). I am also concerned that we harbor our own illusions about what our role is in struggle. But one concern I do not share with AROC in the slightest is that we are not doctrinaire enough.
We reject two types of conception of the party: the first, that which sees the consciousness of the necessity of the party, of an organized political leadership, as sufficient to create the conditions for the development of the party; the second, that which sees revolutionary political leadership, the party, as the linear continuation of a past revolutionary tradition (be it Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Marxism-Leninism-Maoism) which has been at different times in the past corrupted and regenerated. In this conception, revolutionary strategy is always seen as the ”return” to the ”correct” revolutionary tradition.
For us, the correctness of revolutionary leadership, strategy, and organization derives neither from past revolutionary experience nor from the consciousness that the party is necessary. Their correctness derives, in the final analysis, from their relationship to the masses, and their capacity to be the conscious and general expression of the revolutionary needs of the oppressed masses…
— Adriano Sofri, Organizing for workers’ power
- (back) I know Maoism is a fraught term with many meanings and variants (Gonzaloite, Avakianite, Filipino, Mao Zedong Thought, etc.). I use Maoism here in the broadest sense of any Leninist ideology that draws heavily from the theory and practice of the Chinese revolution and Mao Zedong.
- (back) For a detailed history on the New Communist Movement see Revolution in the Air by Max Elbaum.
- (back) See “Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” by Hal Draper.
- (back) Marx to Bracke