The ISO and “Leninism”

In my mind, the thorniest of questions – the $64 question is: what do/can we take from Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks that can actually be useful to us today in 2014 under US Imperialism? I first want to quote from Lenin himself at the beginning of The State and Revolution where he decries the fate of leaders after death under bourgeois society’s relentless propaganda machine:

[It has] happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.

This is the fate of such disparate past leaders as Antonio Gramsci, Che Guevara, MLK, Malcolm X, Abbie Hoffman, Huey Newton, and hundreds of others too numerous to mention—not to mention V.I. himself!

On the other side of the coin are those who lay claim to flawless heroes, radical and revolutionary icons who never wavered, fought doubts, or made mistakes. We reject both myths equally: that of Lenin as an unscrupulous, power hungry politician whose methods set the stage for Stalin’s dictatorship, and that of Lenin as the genius-leader who never erred, hesitated, or admitted that a theory does not always provide ready-made answers for every problem and circumstance.

When the crises in the British SWP became public last January (2013), I wrote the following to our Providence comrades list:

A critical question that the historical record has shown to be as of yet [un] answered is the temporal viability of the ‘Leninist’ project of party building over periods of decades as opposed to the experience of the RSDLP [Bolshevik wing] which was 15 years (1902-1917).

The question is not so much one of time compression as it is of the compression of class struggle during that period. Lenin makes this clear in Left Wing Communism:

On the other hand, Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through fifteen years of practical history (1903-17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience. During those fifteen years, no other country knew anything even approximating to that revolutionary experience, that rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement—legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, local circles and mass movements, and parliamentary and terrorist forms. In no other country has there been concentrated, in so brief a period, such a wealth of forms, shades, and methods of struggle of all classes of modern society, a struggle which, owing to the backwardness of the country and the severity of the tsarist yoke, matured with exceptional rapidity, and assimilated most eagerly and successfully the appropriate “last word” of American and European political experience.

Trotsky makes similar points towards the end of Lessons of October and likewise Georg Lukacs in The Actuality of Revolution.

The Russian working class triumphed on the back of a mass peasant uprising against the land owners during the collapse of an empire at war with its neighbors. The Russian peasantry was “organized”, not by the Bolsheviks or the SRs, but by the Czarist state in the form of its military mobilization for World War I. The young Russian working class was extremely active during the whole period and developed, from below, its own form of mass representation – the Soviets – upon which the dictatorship of the proletariat power was based. The Bolsheviks, primarily, but not exclusively under Lenin’s leadership, were able to successfully take advantage of, organize and centralize (no small feat) the class struggle as presented to it by the Russian masses.

How does this Bolshevik (“Leninist”) experience in any way compare to the development of the ISO over the last 35 years; whose base has been on campuses and students and which has existed primarily during a period of neo-liberal expansion and broad attacks and across the board retreats by our class, not the least of which included the fall of so called ‘communism’ (the Stalinist dictatorships)? How do groups of revolutionaries who look to Lenin and the Bolsheviks manage when the very conditions (mass class struggle/vanguard layer) which facilitated the development of Lenin and the Bolsheviks do not exist?

Many have concluded that “Leninism” (which ever variant they subscribe to) is DOA under modern 2014 US imperialism. I think they want to throw out the baby with the (admittedly filthy, disgusting) bath water. To my mind, there’s a huge contradiction here which Ernest Mandel writes about well in his introduction to Paul LeBlanc’s book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. Mandel basically concludes that the need for a revolutionary party corresponds to an historical aspect of mass anti-capitalist struggle, and NOT out of organizational necessities. Simply put, the capacity of the working classes to engage in mass struggle is episodic, reflexive, (often defensive), and extremely uneven.

As Trotsky wrote in his History of Russian Revolution: “The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime.”

Or as Lenin put it in The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up: “The social revolution cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements.”

In a review of Marcel Liebman’s book Leninism Under Lenin, Mandel elaborates:

“The spontaneous activity of the working-class masses always revolves around immediate problems. In normal times, these immediate problems are concerned with aspects of socio-economic and political reality which do not directly challenge the very nature of the capitalist regime (“immediate demands”). Moreover, these spontaneous movements arise, almost inevitably, in fragmented form, determined by the special features of a particular workplace, branch of industry, town or district. The masses become conscious through their [own] experience in action. Fragmented action can engender only fragmented consciousness. But class-consciousness results, precisely, from the [class] transcending of everything that is corporatist, narrow, partial and fragmentary in the consciousness of the working people. The purpose of political centralization is thus, above all, to make possible the confluence and integration of the workers’ scattered and fragmentary experiences of action, so as to form a totalized experience such as alone can enable the widest circles of the working class to acquire class consciousness in the deepest sense of the term. It is not a matter of “stifling” spontaneity but of unifying spontaneous activities into a total revolutionary enterprise.

Mandel concludes that a revolutionary proletarian party is a necessary instrument in order to make a reality any possibility of uniting the workers across their divisions (race, sex, nationality, etc.), charting an independent, militant course, and leading them to victory:

“The concept of a vanguard organization corresponds, moreover, to a materialist analysis of the structure of the working class and the course followed by its struggles. The modern proletariat is homogeneous, neither in its origins nor in its functions, nor in its remuneration (standard of living), nor in the degree to which it is permeated by bourgeois ideology. This stratification of the working class cannot but have a bearing on the rapidity and the form of its development of consciousness. Nor do workers’ struggles, the essential sources of class-consciousness, proceed in straight-line fashion. They have their ups and downs (at least, where struggles of a certain scale are concerned). The cyclical nature of these is verifiable empirically, though this has not yet been adequately studied by Marxists.”

A revolutionary party develops itself (and its program) through intimate engagement with the workers during (a series of events in) the class struggle. Such a party should be a repository of the lessons of class struggle throughout history (mostly defeats, but victories as well), and have an understanding of the major lines of march of the class struggle in the given conditions of international capitalism. But it’s not enough to simply outline the broad contradictions and attempt to overcome the contradictions through that simple outline. It’s necessary to discover and analyze the mediationsthe intermediate links – which elucidate the contradictions in total.

The RSDLP developed by learning the lessons of 50 years of variegated struggle against Czarist oppression and then uniting the “Marxist” elements which had developed out of those struggles. In other words, the RSDLP began by uniting many small groups of revolutionaries under the banner of Marxism, ideas mostly taken from Plekanov, Kautsky, Luxemburg and the 2nd International. This “bottom up” approach is in stark contrast to the ISO which began as a small centralized propaganda group (with many of its central leaders coming out of Brown University) and strong ties to the International Socialist Tendency. The best “theoretical capital” the IST had was Marx’s self-emancipation, struggle [Socialism] from below, which to its credit, was the main tradition it carried forth. All other “theory” the ISO inherited from the IST became weighty baggage that, despite its expulsion from the IST in 2001 (where the ISO was forced to declare its independence), inhibited its theoretical development, especially on feminism, white/male privilege, national oppression, and LGBTQ oppression. To its credit, the ISO, while handicapped by its mechanical and reductionist oppression “theory”, was fully supportive of the LGBTQ struggle for civil and human rights when much of, but certainly not all of, the “left” was outright reactionary on these questions. The events we read about in horror in San Diego were the logical outcome of that lack of correct ‘oppression’ theory (and practice).

The ISO inherited a flawed organizational methodology from the IST as well. Here the contradiction is “historical” (in material terms, the lack of class struggle and a vanguard layer) as well as “conscious” – a mechanical interpretation of “Leninism”, i.e. a fetishization of a certain brand of “Leninism” and interpretation of the Russian Revolution. The group, while correct in not declaring itself a party, organized itself under “democratic centralism”, a methodology dialectically integrated into the party formation. Small propaganda groups can only possibly constitute a tiny part of the pre, pre-cursors to the formation of a revolutionary workers party. As a small propaganda group, the ISO did well, primarily by targeting campuses for recruitment and preserving self-emancipation and socialism from below as its main tenants. But life is not static, and the class struggle (in reality the class retreat) is certainly not static. The question of quantity turning into quality weighed heavily on the ISO. Surrounded as it was by a sea of NGOism, liberalism, and opportunism, the ISO couldn’t help but be influenced by these forces. Recognizing, correctly I think, its ideological/propaganda role, the leadership formed the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC), primarily to publish Haymarket Books, one of the most successful projects the group has embarked upon and a great resource for the left. But, contradictorily, CERSC brought the pressures of NGOism, with its attendant conservatism, into the core of the ISO leadership.

In The First Ten Years of American Communism, James P Cannon, a founding leader of the American Communist Party, wrote about the decline of the early American CP in much the same way, except the material pressures then were from the economic recovery after World War l. While it is widely assumed that the degeneration of the American CP came primarily from the increasingly Stalinized Comintern, Cannon gives equal weight to the material forces at work on US soil as well:

The party was influenced from two sides—nationally and internationally—and this time adversely in each case. Its decline and degeneration in this period, no less than its earlier rise, must be accounted for primarily, not by national or international factors alone, but by the two together. These combined influences, at this time working for conservatism, bore down with crushing weight on the still infant Communist Party of the United States…….It was difficult to be a working revolutionist in America in those days, to sustain the agitation that brought no response, to repeat the slogans which found no echo. The party leaders were not crudely corrupted by personal benefits of the general prosperity; but they were affected indirectly by the sea of indifference around them….The party became receptive to the ideas of Stalinism, which were saturated with conservatism, because the party cadres themselves were unconsciously yielding to their own conservative environment.

Note: the American CP had 60,000 members at the time. Add the Socialist Party’s 40,000, and there were 100,000 organized socialists in a country of less than 100 million at the time. In the case of the 1920s American CP, the decline in class struggle brought about by the post war economic prosperity was combined with an increasingly Stalinized Comintern to “[bear] down with crushing weight” on the party.

With the ISO, retreating class struggle over 35 years, combined with NGOism, has brought conservatizing pressures to bear on it, resulting, not in a Stalinized party, but in sect/cult tendencies. The world capitalist economic crises, precipitated by the Wall St crash in 2008, threw the ISO off its game and exposed the wholly inadequate (in reality shallow) political perspectives and organizational model it had, up to then, followed. Unfortunately, the fact that the core ISO leadership is now materially supported by CERSC and has been in place for decades reinforces bureaucratism, and makes it impossible to replace said leadership. The rot also goes much deeper into the foundations of the IST and, as we saw at convention, the current membership of the ISO as well. The faction first formed as a “Renewal” project, but we learned through this process some very hard lessons – just how impossible “Renewal” for the ISO [leadership] is. A truly “Leninist” project, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks lived and developed it, is impossible in the absence of mass class struggle, much less with a mostly student base during a period of mass class retreat. The essential objective and subjective conditions do not exist for political centralization of the class struggle: there are neither nationwide mass movements, nor a vanguard layer of the working class that seeks coordinated action.

A genuinely revolutionary party can only develop organically, (i.e. from below) during periods of intensified class struggle emanating from several “centers” (encompassing geographic, struggles against oppression, and across industries). In Providence, we’ve seen an extremely early glimpse of how this process could develop. When Mayor Taveras fired almost 2,000 Providence teachers, several independent radicals, ex-ISO member, “socialists”, emerged (out of the woodwork) to fight in common struggle against, not only the firings, but several school closures and school privatization. Occupy Providence exploded on the scene, taking up the public education defense. Workers at Verizon from IBEW 2323 were on strike for two weeks. During this whole period, hotel workers at the Weston and Renaissance hotels, a workforce that is largely made up of immigrant workers from Latin America, have been engaged in struggle against unfair labor practices. Last year, the ‘United Slate’ won all the top union positions at Teamster Local 251, representing 5700 workers. They ran on a 10-point platform to democratize the union and energize it from below, and fight for workers’ rights. This new, young leadership will be severely tested in the coming months, as contracts at RI Hospital and other work places come due. In the bigger picture, the RI ruling class forced through the “model” now being emulated nationwide for pension “reform” – a major defeat for all RI workers.  Most of these small, local struggles have ended in defeats. Basically, while you can see the potential for a socialist organization to play an important and even leading role in all this, the struggle has to become more generalized before centralization can take place.

The experiences of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks do have a lot to teach us, but they are of a much more generalized character than narrow interpretations of ‘democratic centralism’. For instance:

1) Class independence. In this country, that means opposition to the Democratic Party. I use the word opposition instead of “no support for” because it takes an active stance, as opposed to the more passive “no support for”.

2) Internationalism. Capitalism is more globalized than ever before in history. US imperialism has penetrated into every nook and cranny of the World. Its dependence on fossil fuels now threatens the planet and is the major source of wars. The global proletariat is now the majority class worldwide which makes the character of class struggle more international than ever before. Socialism in one or a few isolated countries is not possible. As James P Cannon wrote after visiting Soviet Russia five years into the revolution, “after all, Soviet Russia is not a ‘country’. Soviet Russia is a part of the world labor movement. Soviet Russia is a strike—the greatest strike in all history. When the working class of Europe and America join that strike, it will be the end of capitalism.”

3) A Revolutionary Workers’ Party. Both as historical repository of the lessons of past class struggle and to centralize the living class struggle as it develops. It will require the utmost flexibility in tactics and organizational structures that can fit the struggle as it develops.

4) And of course, a realistic assessment of the period, the balance of class forces, the lines of march of world imperialism. As the faction stated in our organizational perspectives: federalize the initiative, centralize the political lessons; empirical adjustments are not assessments, nor can they substitute for same.

Paul Hubbard

One thought on “The ISO and “Leninism”

  1. I agree with a great deal of what Paul puts forward here. For one thing, I think he provides a strong analysis of the ISO’s historical development over the course of the past 35 years and how the group’s “party-building strategy” and its use of “democratic centralism” has been utterly incongruent with the needs and possibilities of the class struggle during this period. I also agree with Paul’s assessment of the problematic nature of much of the ISO’s established political theory — particularly the group’s views on “feminism, white/male privilege, national oppression, and LGBTQ oppression.”

    Beyond this, I share Paul’s opinion that, as it stands today, it would utter folly to attempt to build a nationwide “Leninist” vanguard party — or, for that matter, any other form of centralized, nationwide socialist organization. (Obviously, this is a complete given for most politically-active independent radicals that have spent time as members of the scattering of socialist sects currently in existence.) As Paul’s article aptly summarizes, during the current period, “The essential objective and subjective conditions do not exist for political centralization of the class struggle: there are neither nationwide mass movements, nor a vanguard layer of the working class that seeks coordinated action.”

    With this said, it seems that my main difference with Paul pertains to the usefulness of the Russian revolution as a contemporary source of historical lessons for socialists. Of course, during the current period, I do think that there’s a desperate need for revolutionaries and radicals to begin to come together, build solidarity, and discuss ways to advance the class struggle — particularly on a local level. But in approaching this endeavor, it occurs to me that the Left stands to benefit from looking elsewhere than the Russian revolution as a source of inspiration and lessons to aid us moving forward.

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