A 2019 Introduction to “Where’s the Winter Palace?”
In late 2017, we began drafting what would become “Where’s the Winter Palace? On the Marxist-Leninist Trend in the United States” (WTWP). Its release launched this blog exactly one year ago today. In the past year, we have learned a lot through our political work and studies. The political terrain has changed significantly since WTWP: leaving aside globally significant events such as the migrant caravan, the yellow vests movement, and the ongoing coup attempt in Venezuela, the U.S. Left itself has recomposed considerably in the last year. Many of the sects have shrunk (especially Workers World Party), the DSA has predictably continued to grow, and the Marxist Center has grown from an informal milieu into a formal federation.
We wrote WTWP as a critique of the tendency within which we “came of age” politically (U.S. “Marxism-Leninism”). In order to develop our politics moving forward, we felt it necessary to settle accounts and come to terms with the flaws and limitations of our previous political worldview. In that sense, save the “So What Do We Do?” section, WTWP was in essence a negative critique.
Overall, the past year has borne out the veracity of our critique more rapidly than we might have imagined. Workers World Party has all but completely collapsed, losing several large branches in light of the mishandling (to put it mildly) of a sexual violence case and allegations of abusive employers and landlords within WWP leadership. A recent conflict within the PSL regarding misogyny brought to light that PSL does not allow “horizontal communication” between rank-and-file members of separate branches, a fairly severe instance of milieu control and isolation that would be nearly impossible to justify with reference to Lenin. And the PSL’s People’s Congress of Resistance project has gone nowhere, as far as we can tell, failing to accomplish any of its short term goals. All of this has mirrored similar crises within other small and old sects.
The organizational and sociological critique we leveled against U.S. MLism was the heart of our argument, and we still stand by it. We wanted to critique the trend as it actually exists in practice and in its organizational structures, rather than what it says about itself or what it believes. We considered this approach more strictly materialist than simply confronting the trend in its ideology rather than its actual substance, its role in class struggle. In this sense, we thought a critique of this nature would cut closer to the actual “essence” of U.S. MLism as something that really exists in the world. Too often we fail to apply a Marxian critique to our own movements and milieus, and we believe the “Wikipedia Marxism” dominant in today’s internet age encourages such a suspension of self-reflection.
A year later, we would have handled a few things differently. With regards to the section on Workers World Party in the “Practice” chapter, we actually wish we’d laid into them a lot harder. The critique was quite harsh to begin with, but did not discuss several important issues due to not wanting to reveal the “party”’s inner workings. These issues include: a complete lack of voting, elections, or democracy; a lack of any written rules, procedures, or processes (including accountability processes to deal with serious issues such as sexual violence); and finally, a cultic internal culture. Now that WWP’s issues have boiled over and been brought to light publicly, there is no reason to stay silent.
The section on the PSL relies too heavily on one document (the party program), and after releasing WTWP we read several PSL congress documents on Liberation School that suggested that rather than having no strategy (which is implicit in our treatment of their program), the PSL has a rather explicit strategy. However, these other documents only confirmed and made explicit our theoretical and strategic disagreements with the organization, so the spirit of our argument stands; we simply could have argued it better.
The “Party Of An Old Type” section, largely a textual exegesis, was not meant to be an argument in favor of Second International or other pre-Comintern organizational forms, nor was it an attempt to legitimate our views by appealing to the authority of Lenin. Rather, the point was to debunk the mythology surrounding “democratic centralism” within the U.S. ML belief system and to show that their draconian organizational practices in fact do not accord with the tradition from which they claim to draw. Several people brought up the point that “democratic centralism” is necessary in order to repel state repression. We never argued against centralism or “unity of action” as such; in fact, we explicitly endorsed its importance in certain contexts. Our argument was primarily focused on (1) the ahistorical construction of “democratic centralism” as a concept originating in Lenin and (2) the consolidation of “demcent” around not just action, but also ideas. As an aside, we have spoken about these topics with historian Aaron Leonard, who has written extensively about FBI infiltration into U.S. communist organizations, and he believes that miniaturized “democratic centralism” actually facilitated rather than prevented FBI infiltration and repression.
Overall, our sociological critique could have been taken further. In the past year, we have delved further into topics such as group dynamics, political cults, and the sect-form. Some of our later conclusions can be found in “Delusions of Grandeur.” WTWP would have been stronger within a broader critique of the cult of activism, and the revelation of even more deeply cultic behaviors within WWP makes us wish we’d gone further.
Our political perspective has grown in other ways too in the past year. When we were writing WTWP, we were genuinely agnostic on a lot of the questions which define modern U.S. MLism. We were no longer sure what to think of hotly debated issues (online at least) such as Stalin, the USSR, modern China, or Syria. We sidestepped the debate by arguing that there’s no reason for organizations in the U.S. to have party-lines on whether China is socialist or whether we should “support” the government of Bashar al-Assad. But we overstated the case, and looking back, it is not a coincidence that we used these hotly debated examples instead of another international example such as Palestine, where we had more agreement with the MLs. Imagine if we had said that a position on Palestine was of no use! At any rate, we are no longer Marxist-Leninists; we disagree with the MLs on key questions and take a more ecumenical approach to the Marxist tradition.
What we were really criticizing, we think, was the siloing off of organizations based on highly specific lines on historical questions, rather than today’s burning questions (which we clearly didn’t count China or Syria among; while we are more clear today that those questions aren’t unimportant, we don’t think they’re worth dividing an organization over). Further, when we criticized ML organizations for a “hyper-focus on ‘line’,” we did not mean that they spend all their time in reading groups discussing esoteric theory instead of “doing work.” Many responses to our essay focused specifically on demonstrating how much work ML cadre do, and we never meant to suggest that MLs only study. ML cadre, like activists of many organizations, do a lot of work. Instead, we meant that (1) they are siloed off from other groups based on their ideology and (2) they place a heavy emphasis on agitprop and winning converts to their worldview (which, again, one is required to agree with as criteria for joining the group).
After a year, we’ve adjusted our view of social change considerably, in favor of a far less isolated Left. Rather than socialism or communism being a set of criteria by which one can easily categorize historical or present countries, we have begun to operate along Marx’s definition of communism as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” In history, we orient towards progressive developments, when class organization was strong and large amounts of people were in motion politically. We’ve recontextualized our views on the historical Communist movement on this basis, which has actually made us probably more sympathetic to it overall (while becoming more critical of Stalinism, including its repressive and productivist aspects); and we’ve developed a further interest in other examples of “the real movement,” for instance DuBois’s analysis of Reconstruction. Today, we find it more useful to have a realistic sense of the Left’s weakness, and we orient towards broader signs of movement among the oppressed.
Now, a year later, higher tides have redrawn the lines of battle. A year ago, we launched a structural and sociological critique of our corner of the sect Left, hoping to fight for something better. Now, the sect Left is largely decomposing, and we must develop strategies, organizing methods, and a worldview distinct from those of the nascent socialist movement’s right wing. While WTWP places hope in the “base-building strategy,” it betrays a somewhat “magical thinking” that was common at the time. As both municipalists and electoralists begin to use “base-building” for distinct and different purposes, the question arises: building a base for what? This question is currently being re-framed and re-debated in our own milieus, and we look forward to further developments. With our sights set towards the recomposing class itself, both in its motion and its cognition, we can begin to see “the real movement” and our humble roles within it.
With these considerations in mind, we present “Where’s the Winter Palace?” one year later, not uncritically, but with a mind towards furthering our critique as the political moment continues to unfold.
Avery Minnelli and El Levin
March 2nd, 2019