An exchange between John Riddell and Paul Le Blanc
- Part One of this special feature contains Paul Le Blanc’s talk “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party Today.”
- Part Two is an exchange of emails between John Riddell and Paul Le Blanc about that article.
- We encourage feedback: Reader comments on both parts are here.
Comment by John Riddell
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.
Response by Paul Le Blanc
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.
“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.
Paul Le Blanc
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