Monthly Archives: June 2015

Le Blanc/Unfinished Leninism

It is the rare book which keeps you reading to the finish until 2am on a Friday night/Saturday morning. Rarer still is the insomnia-inducing volume that deals almost exclusively with Marxist-Leninist theory. Such is Unfinished Leninism, a relatively new collection of essays which attempt to resurrect the good work of Leninism, after being besmirched for decades by Stalinism and the fossilization of the national experiment that Lenin himself tried to create.

Part of the reason why Unfinished Leninism is so compelling and addictive to read is the fact that this is a manual for militants; this is not another Verso collection of nearly unreadable theory that they pass off as the work of “Radical Thinkers“. This is instead an attempt to make Lenin’s theory relevant to the actual workers, radicals, and activists in the West, not another stab at persuading the reader that there are X number of angels dancing on the head of a pin.

Le Blanc was a union activist in that most proletariat of American cities, Pittsburgh, and while he is currently making a living as an academic, the ties to militant trade union activism can be discerned throughout the volume. That is precisely a part of Lenin’s theory itself – the notion that organic intellectuals can rise from amongst the ranks of the working class and attain political consciousness, upon which the intellectual/activists try to pass on to the more conservative elements of his/her environment.

The first half of Unfinished Leninism is, sadly, a historiography of all of the interpretations of Lenin’s thought for the past century. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this set-up, and it gives Le Blanc the opportunity to shoot down critics like Robert Service, who are more interested in character-assassination than genuine critical thought. Unfortunately, this history of histories may only be of use  to the most die-hard Leninist thinkers.

The work kicks into high gear in the latter half, however, as it links elements of Leninist thought into the standpoint of 21st Century modern activism. There are great lessons to be drawn from this presentation, as I have already posted Le Blanc’s “What to do/What not to do” tactical outline for the emerging Neo-Marxist groups. Standpoint politics are particularly emphasized – it’s possible to maintain one’s own standpoint (e.g. Neo-Marxism) while still being able to interact and act with other radical groups.

Le Blanc makes the interesting point that we are not living on the verge of total revolution, a la 1917 or 1871. This period in which we live is more like 1898, when the creation of the ground-level of a revolutionary movement needs to take place. Lenin essentially created the Bolsheviks during critical junctures such as 1905 and the emergence of the Great War, and the lessons and interpretations of situational politics are just as vital today as they were a century ago.

If nothing else, Unfinished Leninism will make you run for the classics; I re-read The State and Revolution for the third time, and the fresh approach that Le Blanc provides created new viewpoints and interpretations of work with which that I was already richly familiar. Furthermore, it dragged these Leninist works out of the grave and into the present, making them dynamic handbooks rather than curios from the past.

The ISO and the SWP, the largest Marxist-Leninist groups in the US, are not very healthy at the moment, which was what compelled Le Blanc to produce Unfinished Leninism in the first place. Lenin’s own periodic isolation (both physical and philosophical) appears to be particularly noteworthy given the similar contexts. Lenin was a decisive, yet often misunderstood figure, as misnomers such as the revolutionary vanguard and the dictatorship of the proletariat continue to be reviled by certain elements of the left. Le Blanc dispenses these illusions, and if you’re only going to read one defense of Leninism, this is the book you’ve been looking for. And if you’re an activist who likes 1917 and 1871, and would like to see a better repeat of those two events, Unfinished Leninism is your handbook. Lenin is by no means “finished” – he will continue to grow and develop as long as left-wing authors such as Le Blanc are there to sound the alarms.

“What to do/What not to do” are the new “What is to be done?”

I have finished plowing through the brilliant collection of essays by Paul LeBlanc, Unfinished Leninism, and like every other great book it raises issues and questions. I was under the impression that Unfinished Leninism would be directed towards finding applicability of Leninism in modern era activism, and while the latter half of the volume certainly reflects this, the first 50% is historiography, a history of histories, analyses, schools of thought, etc that have been influenced by the long arm of Leninism for the past century.
However, LeBlanc does offer some fruitful insight into the making of a revolutionary party, which I’ve transcribed and included with this email. I am very curious to know what people think – this was written in the US in 2013, so certain matters of context have to be taken into consideration, but I still find LeBlanc’s arguments very compelling. What do people think? Should I even be using this platform to bring up questions like these? Is LeBlanc crazy or correct?
There will be a longer review of Unfinished Leninism later this week – suffice to say that this is one of the more “important” books that I’ve read/reviewed in a while. It is a very contemporary approach to an ideology that has been bogged down and drowned in academia for far too long.
This is taken directly from the volume; if either Haymarket Books or LeBlanc himself want it taken down for copyright infringement, I will do so. Nevertheless, this is a very intriguing contribution to Leninism as it is applied today:
What not to do – Paul LeBlanc
Imagine a group of half a dozen young activists who believe they have the Correct Program and that they are building the genuine nucleus of a Revolutionary Vanguard Party. Imagine that they make a point of throwing themselves into the struggle against major cuts in their city’s public transit system, and that they also go down, during the Occupy Wall Street movement, to the related Occupy site in their city to talk to activists to talk about socialism.
So far, so good.
But then imagine that they did not actually participate in the Occupy movement – that instead they went down to lecture to it, to sell their literature, and to try to recruit away from that struggle. They view it as a non-working class, essentially petty-bourgeois enterprise mired in the chaos of ideological confusion; a chaos of anarchist and left-reformist and radical Christian and free market libertarian and revolutionary socialist and idiosyncratic personal notions swirled around in the incredibly animated debates and discussions.
But I would argue that the class composition of the occupiers – when we strip away the conceptual fuzziness of the “middle class”- was essentially working class. Occupy was hated by members of the working class who inhabited the Fox News universe, but a majority of the working-class approved of their message of challenging the mega-wealthy 1% and standing up for the 99%. Major sectors of the organized labour movement stood up for, and materially helped the Occupy movement.
But the sterling class-struggle socialists, in all the magnificence of their tiny little group, decide to stand aside. They become irrelevant to the Occupy movement, and unsuccessful in their missionary work, so they finally stop bothering with it. Imagine also, that in a slightly different way, they also draw back from the transit struggle in which they played an important role. After selling pamphlets and magazines containing socialist discussions of the transit struggle, after working to recruit transit activists to their own specific projects, after new forces (including some from the Occupy movement) came into the struggle, and at the moment when push was coming to shove in the transit struggle, imagine that they pull back in order to focus on consolidating their own members and organization. There are groups that have pretty much functioned in this way. It is unlikely that such a mode of operation can result in a genuinely revolutionary party.
In reaction against such sectarian small-group politics, there are some who have advanced a “unity” recipe. This is premised on a recognition that all of us adhere, in various ways, to the same basic principles (as codified, for example, in The Communist Manifesto) and that – in the amazing new period that is opening before us, behind us, and all around us – now is the time for a unified socialist organization of several thousand people working together. This is opposed to the bits and pieces of such an organization competing with each other, brandishing separate newspapers, organizing separate educational conferences, promoting separate projects, articulating separate political lines.
But it is not clear that an attempt to merge into a single group would be a fruitful expenditure of one’s time – but because it may not yield the positive results that its proponents imagine. Imagine throwing one’s self into intensive unity discussions and negotiations with those who are in the small sectarian group just described. Multiply that by ten – with some other groups considering socialism as a goal that can be achieved by working in the Democratic Party, or as a goal consistent with the oppressive regime of North Korea, or in some cases as a goal that can probably not really be achieved, or in other cases as a goal that will be achieved through their own particular, rigidly worked out game plan.
Even if we were able to create such a unified organization, encompassing all these tendencies, it is not clear that the result would be worth much. It could turn out to be a big multi-factional sect that is not able to play an effective role in the actual struggles of our time, or to present a coherent perspective and a hospitable atmosphere for the radicalizing layers of the working class that are just about ready to embrace socialism as part of their evolving class consciousness.
What to do
So what should we do instead to advance the goal of building a revolutionary party in the United States? First of all, we must recognize that the most we can do at this moment is help create the preconditions for such a party. Things may be different in ten years or even five years [this was written in 2013 – ed] – but that is the situation now.
To advance this, the primary thing is to be immersed in the actual struggles of our time- the Occupy movement, the transit struggle, the opposition to war and racism, the ongoing class for economic justice, and more. As part of this immersion, we must learn and learn more, help advance the struggle to the best of our abilities, and (when we are able) to teach – teach how to do things, how to strategize, how to function, how to analyze a situation (using socialist perspectives and Marxist ideas in a way that is open and yet comprehensible to others).
Related to this, of course, we need to help share and develop Marxist theory, and a Marxist understanding of history, in ways that can be helpful to people in comprehending and advancing the struggles of today. Both things together – the immersion in struggles and the engagement with socialist theory and education – are essential, in my opinion.
To advance both of these tasks, I think it helps to be part of a Marxist organization that is committed to doing both, an organization n that understands clearly that it is not the Vanguard, but instead that it is a part of a process, a process of creating the preconditions for the emergence of a revolutionary party that will encompass activists from a number of organizations (and people who are members of no organization and in some cases not even activists yet).
The kind of organization that I would be a part of should, in my opinion, avoid hothouse efforts to create The Revolutionary Party. Instead, it should focus on being immersed in, helping, and learning from the actual struggles of our time, and both in that context of struggle and also transcending that context give attention to teaching and using and developing socialist consciousness and Marxist theory.
We should go out of our way to work with others, especially taking seriously any common work we can carry out with other socialists – and anarchists too, some of whom are fine and principled revolutionary activists. In some cases, we will simply be doing good work in a transit struggle or Occupy action or union effort. In some cases we will be able to establish more formal united front efforts. And with it all, I think, we should reach for an increase of discussion, comradely debate, friendships, and more.
And the “more than friendship” I have in mind refers not to love affairs (although I imagine there may be some of those, and that’s okay), but involves seeing all of this as preparing conditions out of which a revolutionary party can emerge – representing an evolving and broad vanguard layer of the working class.
There is another aspect of this party-building perspective that needs to be raised. A genuinely revolutionary party cannot simply be a collection of “jolly good fellows” who have gotten to know each other during an accumulation of struggles. We need to be united around a program – an understanding of where we are, where we want to end up, and how to get from here to there. We do have a basic program in the Communist Manifesto, of course, but we to have a sense of how this applies to 21st Century realities and how we need to be applying this to US conditions of our time. These will need to emerge from hard work – involving especially learning from our struggles, but also through some research and study, and from debates and discussions with our various comrades in struggle. Such a process of developing our program will need to evolve as part of the general process of preparing the conditions for a revolutionary party.
In trying to advance this complex and incredibly important process of building a revolutionary party, it seems to me that it is useful to compare notes with comrades in different contexts, with different experiences, with different insights and notions. We need to keep thinking, keep learning from our experiences and from each other, and keep engaging in outreach and struggles and creative efforts to reach more people, drawing more people into this molecular process of composing a vanguard layer for revolutionary struggle, providing the social basis and needed experience for a revolutionary party capable of bring thing the fundamental, life affirming changes we genuinely need.

VE Day, Revisionism and the big fat mouths of Putin and Stephen Harper

A common remark made by American and British Francophobes is that France would be speaking German if it had not been for American and British activity during WWII. The fact remains, however, that those same Francophobes might be sprechen a little Deutsch had it been for the massive efforts of the USSR to bleed Nazi Germany dry during the intervening years. Normandy was not the turning point – Stalingrad was.

History is written via modern context; in this case, it is the context of a new Cold War that is rewriting the past. Putin and his clique, none of whom have a socialist bone in their bodies, have decided to take on the West, using the Ukraine as a proxy war in a new era of East/West tension. For the West’s part, antagonism of Russia is at an all-time high, with sanctions against Russia and military aid being sent to the globally insignificant Ukrainian battleground. This antagonism has taken the form of symbolic gestures as well, with Canada erecting a “Victims of Communism” memorial statue, and more gallingly, a straight-forward snub of Russia at VE-Days around Europe and North America.

The Allies wouldn’t have been able to set foot in France in 1944 if it was not for the enormous bloodletting on the Eastern Front. 80% of all German casualties took place in the East; for their part, the Soviet Union lost 24 million people in the span of four years. Even Winston Churchill, a firm anti-Communist and the man who coined the phrase “Iron Curtain”, admitted that the war in Europe would not have ended had not the Soviets “ripped the guts out of the Wehrmacht” in the East (his own words, not mine).

There will be some critics that have decided that the Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact that predated the war indicates that the two regimes were ideologically simpatico, that Communists were no better or different than the cartoonishly evil Nazis. It should not be forgotten that a) this iron clad pact between “political bedfellows” lasted less than 24 months, and b) Nazi Germany was delighted to take the first opportunity to kill as many Communists as they could lay their hands on in their search for Lebensraum (living space) for the new Nazi Empire, following their runaway success in Western Europe

The Pact, such as it was, was pure power politics, as both countries sought out a buffer zone between the two nations. It was also the result of decisions made by Stalin’s clique – the Russian masses were not asked for their opinion, and it was the Russian masses that suffered the brunt of the Eastern Front. Stalin was not only morally culpable; he was also a terrible strategist, and it took the sheer force of the entire Soviet Union to fight back and win the war against Nazi Germany.

Were war crimes committed by Russian soldiers? Yes, of course – as war crimes were committed by every other combatant nation on the planet during the war, including the US (Hiroshima Mon Amour, anyone?). Even supposedly neutral countries have some blood on their hands – Switzerland happily accepted Nazi gold.

Stalin and his friends in the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) does not represent the sacrifices made by his people, no more than Putin represents anybody but himself and his ruling clique. There must always be a differentiation between the masses and a non-representative party, and while the Soviet Union was a terrifying machine when the tides began to turn, it was not without reason. The masses wanted payback for an asinine non-aggression pact and a virtual holocaust of 24 million dead Russians.

Sanctions against Russia in this present era do nothing but strengthen Putin’s position, as he is more and more seen as the savior of Russia against a belligerent group of Western powers; the top echelon do not feel the hits taken against the economy (North Korea is a perfect example this powerless sanction system), but normal Russians, like the North Koreans are feeling the squeeze, and therefore a nationalist, right-wing megalomaniac like Putin can exploit the situation. Symbolic middle fingers like revisionist history and “tough talk” from a non-entity like Stephen Harper and his neoconservative friends do not constitute good diplomacy either.

The West has hated/misunderstood Russia since at least 1917. And while the imperial ambitions of both Stalin and Putin are indefensible, it is as always the masses that matter, the same masses that have squared off against Nazi Germany and won, and which suffered and endured the long Cold War days. A new Cold War has arrived, and along with historical revisionism, Russian citizens can look forward to their ruling clique ruining it for everyone. Russians can fight back, as evidenced by WWII, but it will take a lot more skill than “tough talk” to finally rid the world of the Stalins and Putins that keep popping up in Mother Russia.