Revolutionary Organization Today: Part Two

An exchange between John Riddell and Paul Le Blanc

Comment by John Riddell

Dear Paul,

Thank you for sending me your article “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party Today.” Reading it was a liberating experience. It is so good to hear a statement of the case for building a revolutionary organization that is decidedly anti-sectarian.

I’d also like to raise a few points where your argument could, in my opinion, be taken further.

1. You talk of the lack of a broad labor-radical subculture. However, if I may take Toronto as an example, there is such a subculture. In terms of activism, it includes thousands of people. That’s not a mass base; it is a lot fewer now than during some periods in the last half-century, but in some ways this subculture is more advanced. It is now largely free of the influence of Stalinism, which was so dominant in the past, and Social Democracy is much less influential. It is not marked by the ultraleftism so prominent in the sixties; its political activities are broadly speaking on the mark. Also, this subculture has links to a broader constituency: for example, the 50-odd Islamic anti-Imperialists whom we meet fairly frequently can on occasion mobilize thousands, and so on in other sectors.

Moreover, this subculture is not limited geographically. It extends out internationally into several continents, and all that tumult of world class struggle gets drawn into our little city.

In my experience, today’s revolutionary socialist groups have a conflictual relationship with this subculture. Each revolutionary group identifies its own organization with the historic interest of the working class and prioritizes its organizational purposes over the needs of the broader movement. This is widely perceived by activists and strongly resented. In addition, most revolutionary groups prioritize an orientation to the “masses” as against collaboration with activists.

2. You say that attempts to build a “nucleus of the revolutionary party” turn in a sectarian direction because of the lack of a context of a radical subculture. Yes, but there is more to it than that. The revolutionary groups attempt to follow a fixed model of Bolshevik organization, regardless of their stage of development. This inflexibility in organizational conceptions is actually the opposite of the Bolshevik approach.

In addition, each revolutionary group today has a body of doctrine going back a century, which provides a predetermined answer to every major question, plus an apostolic succession of guiding theorists whose views cannot be challenged. The group’s politics are fixed and inflexible. The Bolsheviks, by contrast, had less fixed doctrine. In Lenin’s time, there were repeated sharp shifts in their politics in reaction to changed conditions and the lessons of experience.

3. The Bolshevik organizational model implemented by revolutionary groups today actually differs radically from the Bolsheviks in decisive ways, for example:

  • The Bolsheviks encompassed a broad spectrum of revolutionary fighters; today’s revolutionary group embraces only one ideological current.
  • The Bolsheviks were political heterogeneous; today’s revolutionary group can encompass only one font of political authority. An enduring difference between two central leaders usually leads to a split.
  • The Bolsheviks held their discussions in public, before the working class; today’s revolutionary group discusses in private.
  • The discipline of the Bolsheviks was directed primarily against the ruling class; the discipline of today’s revolutionary groups is directed primarily against each other.
  • And so on.

4. In the classic era of Trotskyism, the workers’ movement was cleanly subdivided into Stalinist, Social Democratic and Trotskyist currents, with some centrist sub-currents. As Trotsky said, the Fourth International was the only revolutionary current worthy of the name. Now, these divisions are much less clear. Movements like the Venezuelan Bolivarians cannot be neatly assigned to any category. The division of 1914-1920 into revolutionary and reformist currents has broken down and must be fought through again.

5. In this changed context, and with the collapse of organized Stalinism, it is not so clear what Trotskyism represents.

I judge Trotskyism on the basis of the broad range of groups acknowledging this theoretical heritage. What I say here should not be viewed as a criticism of any specific group.

Trotskyism is certainly not the only revolutionary current today. With regard to many Trotskyist currents, the revolutionary quality seems purely verbal: they do not relate to living revolutionary movements. Trotskyism today tends to underplay anti-imperialist struggles. Trotskyism tends to ignore the peasantry. Trotskyism is characterized by a sceptical attitude toward mass struggles in poor and dependent countries. None of this was true of the Trotskyism of my youth. Criticism has its uses, but the revolution will not be made by scepticism alone.

On the whole, Trotskyism seems to have lost much of its revolutionary edge in the last 30 years. It needs to be revitalized through cross-fertilization with other class-struggle currents.

6. Recently we have seen signs of a renewed vitality of Trotskyist currents in the United States. A conference is coming up next month in New York, which includes speakers from many Trotskyist currents. This could be a step along a road to revitalization. It is always positive when revolutionary socialists find a way to discuss together and collaborate together.

But my mind keeps returning to your comment about the revolutionary group’s relationship to the broad labor-radical subculture. To say that this subculture doesn’t exist seems like a cop-out. We have to relate to what is there. An insistence on the uniqueness of Trotskyism as a revolutionary current can become a barrier to this. And to relate to labour radicalism, we have to come to grips with a number of aspects in our heritage which – whatever their original justification – have now become signposts to sectarianism. Only in that way will be able, as you say, “to learn from people, to listen to people.”

Thanks again for your stimulating comments.

John Riddell

Response by Paul Le Blanc

Dear John,

I want to emphasize how pleased I am to receive your comments and critical thoughts. I will respond to those point by point. I may also send you some posts that have been made to our pre-conference discussion-list that address some of the themes that arise in you remarks.

1. One fact that may not have been expressed clearly in what I have been writing is that I know the United States, and function in the United States, and my points regarding the lack of the labor-radical sub-culture that stretched at least from the Civil War to World War II is focused on the United States. I don’t assume that what I describe in the U.S. is global. It seems to me that the opposite is true — though I suspect there may be some element of relevance in at least some other countries. I would love to come to Toronto (I was there only once, and fleetingly) and see more of Canada as well. I don’t doubt at all what you say about the existence of some such sub-culture existing there, and I imagine there would be much for me to learn.

For that matter, I do think that there are elements for the recomposition of such a sub-culture in my own country. I believe a recomposition process is already underway, although it seems to me it has a ways to go before it crystallizes on a sufficiently mass scale and with sufficient clarity of consciousness within certain segments of the working class here.

You write:

“Revolutionary socialist groups have a conflictual relationship with this subculture. Each revolutionary group identifies its own organization with the historic interest of the working class and prioritizes its organizational purposes over the needs of the broader movement. This is widely perceived and strongly resented. In addition, most revolutionary groups prioritize an orientation to the “masses” as against collaboration with activists.”

That seems to me extremely problematical. Unfortunately, within the U.S. there is all too much of that as well. It seems to me that we might have different takes on certain details and specifics — I don’t know — but what you describe in general terms seems consistent with my own point of view.

2. I think I agree with what you say when you write:

“The revolutionary groups attempt to follow a fixed model of Bolshevik organization, regardless of their stage of development. This inflexibility in organizational conceptions is actually the opposite of the Bolshevik approach.”

Of course, here we have to walk through specifics. It is certainly, unquestionably the case that the “Bolshevism” of the SWP was increasingly problematical, increasingly rigid and distorted, from 1972 through the 1980s. I can cite many specifics (and I have — particularly in my long essay of long ago entitled “Leninism in the United States and the Decline of the Socialist Workers Party,” which can be found in the Fourth Internationalist Tendency section of the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line).

I also agree that the misuse of revolutionary theory as Handy Dandy Manual for Know-It-Alls, all-too-prevalent among many would-be revolutionaries, must be rejected. What we need is a revolutionary Marxism that is a method for critical-minded analysis and guide to action (not abstention) that must be undergoing constant utilization, enrichment, refinement, modification, and development. It seems to me that the notion that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky were people who may have been wrong about one thing or another (and MUST have been wrong about at least SOME things) is an essential element to any socialism that claims to be “scientific.” It does seem to me that these amazing comrades (and I would add others to the pantheon — especially Rosa Luxemburg, also Gramsci, arguably some others) gave us much that is fundamentally correct, but the only way to determine what is correct and what is not is to use it and evaluate it, in the process adding to the valuable elements that are already there.

Depending on how you define your terms, I think it may be a bit of an overstatement to say that “the Bolsheviks did not have much fixed doctrine,” but it is precisely because some of their key leaders — Lenin most of all — used Marxism as a truly revolutionary approach (a la Marx) that, as you say, “there were repeated sharp shifts in their politics in reaction to changed conditions and the lessons of experience.”

3. You write: “The Bolshevik organizational model implemented by revolutionary groups today actually differs radically from the Bolsheviks in decisive ways.” There may be some revolutionary groups that are better than this, but much of what you say is all-too-true. I pretty much like the points you make. It would be worth discussing them in greater detail, with more reference to specifics, in order to get the clarity that I imagine we would both be satisfied with. But the thrust of what you say is absolutely correct.

4. I continue to self-identify as a Marxist, a Leninist, and a Trotskyist. But to my mind, this needs to be understood in a new way, because the realities you point to — the divisions are much less clear than in 1938, there are and have been new revolutionary currents that do not fit into the old categories, “the division of 1914-1920 into revolutionary and reformist currents has broken down and must be fought through again” — are, in fact, realities.

5. You write: “In this changed context, and with the collapse of organized Stalinism, it is not so clear what Trotskyism represents.”

The usual thing I was taught in our movement in response to this question (what is Trotskyism?) was that Trotskyism represents revolutionary Marxism, the standpoint of Bolshevik-Leninism, extended into the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and beyond. What I have said about Lenin’s orientation goes for that of Trotsky. In addition to what Lenin said and wrote, it especially involves an analysis of fascism, an analysis of Stalinism and of the USSR’s bureaucratic degeneration, and the theory of permanent revolution (understood intelligently, not stupidly — see my article on uneven and combined development in International Viewpoint or my writings in the 1980s on the Nicaraguan Revolution). For me, a Trotskyism that Trotsky would relate to today would be consistent with all that can be found above.

I do not know if your criticism of “Trotskyism today” is applicable to all of the groups that present themselves as Trotskyist, but I believe that it is applicable to some, and I know that such “Trotskyism” is not the same as Trotsky’s actual perspectives — and it is certainly alien to my own views. I do believe that “the mainstream Fourth International is different,” though the weakness of the FI makes it difficult sometimes to identify some of the views of its “mainstream” (looking through International Viewpoint may be helpful in that respect).

I would not disagree with the statement that “Trotskyism seems to have lost much of its revolutionary edge in the last 30 years. It needs to be revitalized through cross-fertilization with other class-struggle currents.” In my most recent book (Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience) I reached for some of that, and the same is true in my interview in the MRzine a couple of years ago — http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/yates280806.html.

6. I believe the Trotsky Legacy Conference coming up at Fordham University in New York City, July 25-27, will be a place for important discussions having to do with the kinds of things we are discussing here. My hope is that it will be, as you say, “an initial step along the road to revitalization.”

This relates to the final point you make about the labor-radical sub-culture. You write: “To say that this subculture doesn’t exist seems like a cop-out.” It can be a cop-out if we use such a notion to do just that — cop out. We need to define what is in order to figure out what to do — or, as you put it, “We have to relate to what is there.” That is absolutely true. You say: “An insistence on the uniqueness of Trotskyism as a revolutionary current can become a barrier to this.” I agree with that. We can’t allow it to happen.

You assert that “to relate to labour radicalism, we have to come to grips with a number of aspects in our heritage which — whatever their original justification — have now become signposts to sectarianism.” I agree.

I believe there are essential elements from Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, and others from the revolutionary Marxist tradition that are crucial for a victory of the workers and the oppressed worldwide. To pretend to be the Keepers of Revolutionary Truth is inconsistent with passing on the truths that these comrades helped to discover.

Those of us who have a sense of those genuinely revolutionary insights and perspectives have a responsibility to share them in ways that make sense and are useful to those engaged in struggles of today and tomorrow.

To be able to do this requires a certain openness that is consistent with the method of Marx, Lenin, and the rest. We have to be able “to learn from people, to listen to people,” if we have any hope of being able — and the same time — to share the genuine revolutionary Marxism that will be needed for the triumph of socialism.

That’s what I think, anyway.

Warm regards,

Paul Le Blanc

17 thoughts on “Revolutionary Organization Today: Part Two

  1. Paul Le Blanc

    As promised in my previous note, here is information on the upcoming Trotsky Legacy Conference.

    The Legacy of Leon Trotsky and U.S. Trotskyism: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
    JULY 25 — 27TH 2008, Fordham University, New York City

    A diverse group of veterans of the Trotskyist movement have organized a conference to discuss and better understand past and present struggles, to clarify issues and to build the socialist movement today and tomorrow.
    It’s shaping up to be an exciting event!

    Plenary Sessions include:
    Permanent Revolution and the Evolution of World Realities
    Social Movements and Class Struggle in the United States
    What Kind of Political Organization Do We Need?
    Lessons of the SWP Experience

    Speakers will include:

    *Esteban Volkov, Leon Trotsky’s grandson

    *Celia Hart, Cuban revolutionary (likely via electronic hook-up)

    *Bryan Palmer, author of “James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928”

    *Ahmed Shawki, Editor of International Socialist Review

    *Gus Horowitz, SWP national antiwar director, and founding national co-coordinator, Student Mobilization Committee

    *Suzi Weissman, biographer of Victor Serge; Host of KPFK radio show “Beneath the Surface,” Mondays 5-6

    Workshops (preliminary list):
    SWP memory project, health care, women’s liberation, electoral action, student and youth, the national question, race-class-gender, gay issues and rights, Cuba, labor and the environment

    Theoretical and political perspectives to be discussed:

    *What remains relevant in the Trotskyist theoretical and political tradition?

    * What do developments of the late 20th and early 21st century indicate regarding the value of such concepts as permanent revolution, workers’ states (and/or workers’ and farmers’ governments), workers’ democracy, the revolutionary potential of the working class, the revolutionary potential of social movements, Lenin on the vanguard party and democratic centralism, imperialism, the national question, and the relation of democratic struggles to the revolutionary struggle?

    *And what we should do now?

    * What is the best way to organize for change in the world today? What is the political situation that we face, particularly from the standpoint of those who continue to want to create a socialist society? What is the situation in Cuba today and how does that impact permanent revolution in Latin America in countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia? What are the dynamics in the Middle East created by US Empire building and US wars? What is happening on the Left, in the unions, in the immigrant rights movement, the antiwar movement, among environmentalists, and in other social movements? And what are the lessons of the SWP experience that can help to point the way forward today?

    Cost: $60/day for room (dorms) and board (3 meals/day, on-site cafeteria) + a registration fee of $40/full conference or $25/day

    Donations: We would like to offer scholarships to defray registration costs and expenses for those unable to afford them. ($100 or more gets you a DVD of some conference highlights; $50 gets you a CD of the same.) Please send pledges (payable before the conference) or donations to:

    Paul LeBlanc
    9000 Babcock Blvd
    Pittsburgh, PA 15237
    leblanp1@LaRoche.edu

    For more information, contact the Conference Coordinators:
    Linda Thompson: 203 453-2770, lthompson321@aol.com on the East coast &
    Robin David: 415 285-8548, robindavid@speakeasy.net on the West coast

    We are looking forward to your support. There is a lot of excitement and interest generating for this event.

  2. Paul Le Blanc

    I am very pleased that John Riddell’s and my exchange has generated such a good and interesting discussion. A number of contributions are the sort of thing that will make me want to read through them more than once and to think about them.

    For now I want to restrict my comments, more or less, to a response regarding only one of the contriibutions. John L. wrote: “For Paul, party building is left to some future time when the consciousness of the class is better and the objective conditions are changed. Trying to build a vanguard formation *now* necessarily leads to the construction of a vanguard sect. I could not disagree more. This is the classic ‘anti-sectarian, sectarianism’ typified by the US group Solidarity.” First of all, a relatively minor point: I do not think the US group Solidarity (of which I am a member) is in agreement on the idea of “party building” in the future or ever. Solidarity includes Leninists, anti-Leninists, people who are not sure about Leninism, and people who don’t know or care about Leninism. There is no common viewpoint on the question.

    I do want to clarify my own viewpoint, however.

    As John Ridell suggested in his response, the comrade seems to have missed the fact that his position and mine are not so far apart as he perceived. Of course, it depends on what one means by the term “party-building” — but in my opinion revolutionary Marxists must be doing whatever they can NOW to build a genuine revolutionary party, while recognizing that such a party cannot actually be built now. Such a party must involve a percentage of the revolutionary vanguard layer of the working class — and until such a layer exists, such a party will not be possible. (Groups pretending to be such parties will be sects, trapped in their own little “revolutionary” universe.)

    But we can and must do things NOW to help create the possibilities for such a party coming into being. And it seems to me that some of us can be most effective in doing this if we work together — as a democratic collective in agreement around basic revolutionary program — in order to carry out such good work. At the same time we should help draw together and train other activists — what I think one person in this discussion was referring to as “cadre.” While not pretending to be “the revolutionary party” (or even “the nucleus” of such a party), such a group could reasonably be said to be organized along Leninist lines.

    As I indicated in my article, while a group existing along Leninist lines runs into the danger of becoming a sect (and most such groups have ended up as sects), there is no iron law dictating that this must be so.

    I myself am hoping in the forseeable future to become part of a group (perhaps an existing group) organized along such lines. If I am part of such an organization, I will continue to work not only to help create the labor-radical sub-culture that I see as a necessary pre-condition for a revolutionary vanguard party, but I will continue to insist that there can be no genuine revolutionary vanguard party without the existence of a revolutionary vanguard layer of the working class (which is inseparable from the existence of such a sub-culture). I will push against its crystallization into sectarianism, so that it can make the greatest contribution possible to the coming into being of an actual revolutoinary party.

    What we should do to help “prepare the groundwork for a party” is something that I very much am interested in talking about, at the upcoming Trotsky Legacy Cnference and after the conference. There are things that a number of us doing now that have been contributing to the sub-culture that I think we need to be building.

    * One example is the Marxist Internet Archive and Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line – which is a huge accomplishment that places a rich Marxist library and invaluable information at the fingertips of anyone who has a computer and access to the internet.

    * Another is Labor Notes and the periodic Labor Notes Conferences, which can and should be focal-points for all of us who want to help build a strong and concious labor left.

    * Another essential project is US Labor Against the War.

    * I think the role that Socialist Action has played in initiating the National Assembly to End the War and U.S. Occupatoin in Iraq, drawing together a broad and somewhat diverse network of anti-war forces, has been extremely important in “helping to prepare the groundwork” and – while it doesn’t self-identify as a “labor-radical” vehicle, it is – and the Cleveland conference of this past weekend has the potential for making a huge contribution to the kind of sub-culture that we need.

    * I think the International Socialist Organization has made some very impressive contributions with three things in particular: 1) the publication of the impressive and high-quality International Socialist Review AND getting that publication into Borders and Barnes & Noble outlets throughout the country; 2) the regular “Socialism” conferences; and 3) the whole Haymarket Books project.

    * I was able to draw some folks together, a few years ago, to help the Allegheny County Labor Council to develop a website that includes a substantial number of fairly short, readable Pittsburgh area labor history articles (about the uprising of 1877, the Homstead Strike, the founding and early ideals of the AFL, the founding of and the original nature of the CIO, and more – including a suggested reading list for those wanting to know more). This is a very modest thing, but I think it counts for something – and I think there are a large number of very modest things like that around the country that add up.

    * In its own modest way, our upcoming Trotsky Legacy Conference (July 25-27 at Fordham University in New York City) is a contribution. One of the contributors to this Socialist Voice discussion has requested more infromation on that, which I will provide in a separate post.

    These are just a few things that occur to me off the top of my head There is more brainstorming, discussion, and planning that will be worth doing on this matter.

    -Paul Le Blanc

  3. David Camfield

    John R wrote in response to Paul L “You talk of the lack of a broad labor-radical subculture. However, if I may take Toronto as an example, there is such a subculture.”

    I think there may be some disagreement about what is meant by “a broad labor-radical subculture.” In my view, Paul is right to say that one does not exist in the US, and I don’t believe one exists in the Canadian state either. My assessment of Toronto (where I lived from 1990 to 2003, and which I visit from time to time) is different than John’s.

    There is no doubt that there are radical left milieux in Toronto. These are disproportionately drawn from the intelligentsia (a social layer mostly composed of white-collar workers with lots of post-secondary education, and university students). Some are active in community or campus groups of one kind or another, but very few are rooted in communities that are predominantly working-class or poor. Few people in the radical left milieux are union activists, and fewer still are private-sector union activists. I do not believe the radical left milieux in Toronto today are part of a “radical workers’ subculture” of the kind Paul writes about.

    I believe that what Paul writes of the US is basically true in the Canadian context too, except in Quebec, where the radicalization of the 60s and 70s created a radical current within the working class that had no equivalent in English Canada. “After 1945, there was a dramatic break in the continuity of this labor-radical tradition due to the realities that resulted from the Second World War, and the transformation of the social, economic, political, and cultural realities in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Essential specifics of workers’ occupations and workday experience underwent fundamental changes. The organizations associated with the labor movement were similarly transformed — impacted by a complex combination of assaults, co-optations, corruptions, and erosions. The communities, culture, and consciousness of the working class became so different from the mid-1940s to the 1960s that only faded shreds of the old labor-radical subculture remained.

    It is not the case that the working class was eliminated. The working class is bigger than ever. But there has been a combined decomposition and recomposition of the working class, and the old labor-radical subculture is long gone. It, too, needs to be recomposed, and within a very different reality than once existed.”

    I think this pamphlet is a useful reflection on these issues:

    http://www.solidarity-us.org/sot

    DC

  4. Les Evenchick

    I found this exchange interesting but limited.

    First, i would like t knw how to get invlved with the pre conference Trotsky Legacy discussion and the conference itself.

    I tried to contact the only organizer whose name I had and received no response.

    My email is piratefish@yahoo.com

    I was an SWP member frm 1964-1967 in Boston.

    I quit in 1967 over the directin the SWP was going. Things didn;t just start going wrong in 1972.

    A key change was when the preconvention discussin period was reduced from 6mths to 3mths which in the days befre the internet meant that insufficient time existed for proopsals differing from those of the NC majority to be considered and discussed by the membership.

    I left precisely because i saw no possibilty of carrying out a sucessful struggle against what i considered to be the bureaucratization of the SWP.

    Anyway, i would like an pportunity to present my views to the upcoming conference by submitting a document fr discussion but as yet have no idea how to go about it.

    The lack of publicity in the larger activist community makes me think that maybe this is just anther factional gathering. I hope i am wrng about that.

    I am not currently affiliated with any Trotskyist organization and have not been since I quit the workers lague in 1971 (member frm 1970-1971)

    Les Evenchick
    New Orleans

    Operator of the currently inactive Trotsky@yahoogroups.com discussion list

    Operator of Trotsky@yahoogroups.com

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