Category Archives: Lenin

What is to be Done? and the Need for Organization

revs97The following essay was written awhile ago and sat around waiting to be fixed up. It can be read as a follow up to notes on Lars Lih’s important book, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context. Only recently the essay was finally fixed up enough to post here.

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It is important to deal with Lenin’s concept of organization in WITBD. The point is not to elevate WITBD into a set of principles that can be abstractly and universally applied. Like any work, WITBD is a product of history. As Lih noted in the beginning of his book such an approach has been an evident enough problem in the history of “Leninism”. However, despite Lih’s attempt to downplay the importance of WITBD in subsequent bolshevik thinking about organization, Lenin’s work—including WITBD—continues to be a necessary reference point for rethinking the role of revolutionary groups and organizations in our own day. By restoring the detailed context of Lenin’s concept of organization and reestablishing its connection to Kautsky, Lih provides the basis to learn from and critique Lenin and Leninism. In doing so he makes WITBD alive again—a renewed and important departure point for thinking about revolutionary groups and organization.

As Lih argues, the importance of WITBD was found in its generalization of already existing practices in the Russian underground, codifying and synthesizing those practices into a broad whole. The generalizing character of WITBD is what continues to make it so valuable today.
The Need for Revolutionary Theory

The first principle that Lenin elaborates is the necessity of revolutionary theory. Lenin writes, “[w]ithout a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement” (696). A revolutionary theory is necessary to understand the system as a whole from the standpoint of the working class and the oppressed, and their necessary struggle for liberation. According to Lenin, only the revolutionary organization can develop such theory and put it in practical relationship with a workers movement through a program and tactics of struggle. For Lenin in such a role the organization articulates the relationship of the class in motion between its historical tasks and its concrete existence. Finally, not only is the elaboration of theory necessary so is its defense against reformists, or what today would be called progressives

The specific tasks that correspond to the construction of theory and its defense only become clearer when Lenin gives an account of the history of the workers movement in Russia. He argues that the strikes of the mid-1890s signaled an important leap in the form of activity by Russian workers. For the first time they demonstrated “the awakening of the antagonism between workers and owners” which was expressed in the form of collective action and specific demands on the capitalists (702). However, Lenin cautions, these struggles remained “a tred-iunionist struggle” and were “not yet a Social-Democratic one” because “there did not exist among these workers—nor could it have existed at that time—an awareness of the irreconcilable opposition of their interests to the entire political and social order” (701-702). In other words, for Lenin revolutionary theory grasps the totality of relations of capitalism and therefore the standpoint of abolishing the system itself. Trade unionism, on the other hand, is form that corresponds to workers as workers. As a result, Lenin implies, trade unionism without revolutionary theory and its organization leads to a focus solely on distribution of the surplus in the form of the wage.
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Notes on Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered

What follows are some notes on Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered. An upcoming second post will conclude these notes with some separate conclusions on the continuing relevance of What is to be Done? in regards to thinking about revolutionary organization.

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Lenin Without “Leninism”

Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to Be Done? in Context is a major reevaluation of the famous (and infamous) work by Lenin. The status of What is to Be Done? in the history of the revolutionary Left since the Russian Revolution has obscured the actual context and meaning of Lenin’s arguments on organization. While Lenin’s book became one pillar for the “vanguard party-building model”, it also evolved into a kind of shorthand for what was to become known as “Leninism”. Taking apart the myth of What is to Be Done? is the subject of Lih’s book, which consists of an almost 700 page commentary and a new translation.

Lih not only takes issue with the revolutionary Left that claims the “leninist” mantle. He also critiques those who see in What is to Be Done? the foundations of authoritarianism and one-party dictatorship. However, it wasn’t only Cold War era academics in the West who crafted this kind of argument. A highly developed form of this idea was also developed by revolutionary marxists, which has continued to characterize WITBD ever since. It is best summarized by Trotsky’s attack in 1904 that what Lenin actually proposed was “subsitutionism” in which “the organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee”. Luxemburg brought an even more distinct leftwing critique, citing Lenin as an example of a marxist who theorized a party of “blanquist” intellectuals as the agent of history rather than the working class.

Lih calls these approaches to What is to Be Done?—whether from the left or right—the “textbook interpretation”. He defines this approach as one that sees WITBD as a break with the prevailing social democratic marxism of its time. While the rightwing use of the “textbook interpretation” argued that WITBD cast in terms of organization an authoritarian and undemocratic worldview, the leftwing use said that it showed a clear rejection of the central role of worker self-activity.

Lih equally takes to task a more subtle use of the “textbook interpretation”. He writes:

The textbook interpretation is thus, on the whole, a postwar creation. One reason for its rise is a great forgetting of what prewar international Social Democracy was all about. The principal reason for this loss of context is the watershed of the 1917 revolution, which split prewar Social Democracy in two and gave the name ‘Social Democracy’ only to the more moderate side. On the other, a number of writers with no or very shallow roots in the Second International—Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch—created a theory (not shared by Lenin) that Leninism was the principled rejection of the fatalistic Marxism of the Second International and of Kautsky in particular. (32)

Lih points to a version of this interpretation in the Trotskyist tradition. Perhaps the best example is Tony Cliff’s classic four-volume work on Lenin. The Trotskyist recuperation of WITBD, Lih argues, sees Lenin as establishing a real if not completely realized break with social democratic marxism. While there is no doubt, the argument goes, WITBD overstates the role of a party working on an “unconscious” proletariat, Lenin “bends the stick” back during the 1905 Revolution, to not only reinsert the category of workers self-activity into his theory of revolution, but also into his approach to organization when he castigated rank-and-file bolsheviks for not “opening up” the party to the masses of newly radicalized workers.
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Libertarian Marxism meets Leninism: some thoughts on STO’s “Towards a Revolutionary Party” (1971)

Towards a Revolutionary Party, the Sojourner Truth Organization

I am a member of Unity & Struggle in Texas and I want to share an early pamphlet of the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) that I re-read recently that has been a critical supplement for me of our group’s organizational studies.  It is called “Towards a Revolutionary Party” (TARP) and was written in 1971, just two years after STO was founded and after the collapse of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the national student civil rights and anti-war network from which it emerged.

STO, like many New Communist organizations, grew out of the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) opposition to the Progressive Labor Party’s (PLP) dominate tendency in SDS called Worker Student Alliance (WSA).  When PLP took the position that all nationalism is reactionary it overnight put them in opposition to every national liberation struggle and hence every revolutionary Left tendency including the American Black movement which was then seen by many as a national liberation fight.  RYM formed as a broad opposition to the WSA which inevitably led to another broad opposition to the Weathermen faction (which became RYM I), a group that emphasized and undertook armed struggle then and who felt that the American working class was inherently backward, and RYM II.  It was out of RYM II that many Marxist Leninist pre-parties and grouplets would take shape and this included what would become the STO.

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The Debate on Strategy in the Anti-Budget Cuts Movement

by Mamos

As an anti-budget cuts organizer in Seattle, I am excited by the important debates Advance the Struggle (AS) has raised with their piece Crisis and Contradictions: Reflections and Lessons from March 4th.    I basically agree with the perspective that AS is putting forward;  it confirms and advances a lot of the perspectives that my comrades in Unity and Struggle have been developing, especially with our anti-budget cuts work with Democracy Insurgent in Seattle, with ella pelea! in Austin, and our comrade’s work at Berkley.  For those who don’t know, Unity and Struggle is a revolutionary organization animated by a belief in the self-emancipation of oppressed people; for more info, check out the “About US” section of the Gathering Forces blog.    I would consider Unity and Struggle and a lot of the milleiu around Gathering Forces to be part of  the “class struggle Left” tendency that AS outlines and calls for; like AS we are attempting to chart a third path that is independent from both the centrists (the “we need to meet people where they are at” folks) and the adventurists (the “Occupy Everything Demand Nothing” folks).  We appreciate the chance to dialogue with AS and other  like-minded activists around the country and we also appreciate the chance to have principled debate with comrades from the other two tendencies.

The response pieces written by Socialist Organizer (SO) and Labors Militant Voice (LMV), raise some important challenges to this third tendency and highlight some key differences between us and the centrist tendency.  It is important to note that LMV’s piece raises important critiques of SO’s piece and I engage with those here  – I have no intention of lumping them together.   I offer my notes on these responses  in the hope of furthering the debate.

What I write here is relatively unsystematic because my comrades and I are  in the middle of organizing for a strike at the University of Washington on May 3rd so I don’t have a lot of time to flesh this out. I hope comrades will forgive and correct any points here that are underdeveloped , inaccurate, or unclear. I am writing this from a first person perspective rather than formally representing Democracy Insurgent or Unity and Struggle, the groups I am a part of.   I imagine that most people in both groups would agree with the spirit of what I put forward here but we simply don’t have the time to collectively write and edit a formal response right now because of all of our organizing and study groups.

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Thinking about Hamerquist on Revolutionary Organization and Lenin

I appreciate the overview Don Hamerquist has written dealing with the meaning of Lenin and Leninism for building revolutionary organization today. I think the timing of Hamerquist’s essay couldn’t be better for personal and historical reasons. For the last three years many around what is now Gathering Forces have been thinking about the relationship between revolutionary organization and mass politics in ongoing organizing efforts. Thinking through and against the history of the Bolsheviks, in particular Lenin, has been one way of many ways this process has taken place.

The historical reasons are also important and explain a lot about what on the surface only seems like a relatively isolated process. This is a moment of ideological recomposition where we can’t take up any kind of ready-made ideas and practices. Many of the old divisions of different traditions have been scrambled.

At this time there is no way I can take up all the issues Hamerquist raises. Important questions I won’t address here are, nevertheless, part of the mission of the GF blog and will be taken up over time, all of which go well beyond a specific discussion about Lenin.

I have broad agreement with much of what Hamerquist writes, even if I have specific questions over where we might disagree: the question of the state and the transition to communism and the question of consciousness. I also have a lot of agreement with what Tom Wetzel writes in Anarchism, Class Struggle and Political Organization, the original article Hamerquist is partially responding to, as well as Wetzel’s response. Unfortunately, I don’t have time right now to synthesize these agreements or dive in fully to what Hamerquist sees as the failure to take power seriously in this tradition, which Wetzel would would deny.

Rather than taking them up in a point-by-point way, what follows are a number of brief thoughts, not fully developed in any way, which overlap with the concerns of all these essays. There is a lot of work to be done in a time where I think a lot of us feel we are rooted in some basic principles but have to work through this contemporary moment and construct a new historical tradition and way of working in order to arrive at some answers to fill these principles out in theory and in action.
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Don Hamerquist on Lenin and Leninism

Continuing on the Lenin and organization tip, we are linking to an essay by Don Hamerquist that jumps into this much needed reassessment of Lenin and the question of revolutionary organization for our times. This is followed by several responses that take up different aspects of the essay.

I’ll be posting up some thoughts on Hamerquist’s essay later this week.

Don Hamerquist: Lenin, Leninism and some leftovers

Tom Wetzl: Reply to Hamerquist

What in the Hell blog: Responding to Hamerquist on Leninism

Noel Ignatiev: CLR James on the Marxist organization

Dave Renney: Scattered thoughts on the Leninist party and Don’s paper

Lenin and Revolutionary Organization

by Will

Vladimir Lenin.  This name for most radicals, militants, and progressives has largely become irrelevant.  The problems, issues, and experiences of Lenin are considered to be part of another historical era in another country.  Sometimes the differences are even expressed in racial terms in that white folks did that worker’s revolution stuff while people of color can’t because they do not have the privilege or do not struggle that way.

I believe that the dilemma of Lenin still remains with oppressed people and pocs today not only in Russia, but across the world.   It does not matter if you are a woman, Latin@, Muslim, or Queer; the themes which occur in Lenin’s life have to be taken up.  Just like every oppressed group can learn from the life of Malcolm on the importance of standing up for yourself and your people, for being strong, unapologetic, etc., so can every oppressed group learn certain things from Lenin.  I know this is not popular to say considering the dominance of identity politics and privilege in the American Left.  But the path to liberation is not a straight and linear line.

While I am not a Leninist, there are a lot of things I have learned from him.  This post tries to summarize some of the basics of what can be taken away from Lenin’s experiences building revolutionary organization—a project I am committed to.

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