Marx, Engels and Lenin and the party question (was Re: To Juan (PS))

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Aug 2 07:04:00 MDT 1999

>Carrol is surely right. I am intrigued by this whole Comintern discussion.
>It's another case of scapegoating, this time by blaming the
>USSR/Zinoviev/Bolshevism for the abject
>historical failures of our own 'revolutionary' movements, whose history has
>generally been characterised by cowardice, caprice and treason.

I disagree. The problem is not cowardice at all. You will simply not find
braver souls on the face of the earth than the men and women who devoted
their lives to building the Communist Party. In the great documentary
"Seeing Red", long-time CPer Bill Bailey talks about a demonstration on the
NYC docks when he was the first to hit the deck of a German freighter that
had the Nazi flag flying. He climbed up the mast and tore it down, while
vastly outnumbered by German sailors who punched and clubbed him. He then
went on to volunteer in the Lincoln Brigades and was wounded numerous
times. Or read the great memoir "Cause at Heart", now sadly out of print,
by Junius Scales who I interviewed 3 years ago at his mountaintop home in
the Catskills. He joined the CPUSA in the 1930s, because he was appalled by
racism in his native North Carolina, where he was raised in a patrician,
slaveowning dynasty. He was a field organizer for the CP in the 1950s and
traveled through 10 different states using assumed names and staying in
cheap hotels. He was finally arrested and convicted under the Smith Act,
the first CP'er to suffer this fate. He is a great and wise man, to whom
the word cowardice, caprice and treason simply do not apply.

We are discussing two other problems, which have nothing to do with human

One, is the Zinoviev party-building model, which was adopted by both the
Trotskyist and Stalinist movement. It has led to sect-formation, everywhere
it was adopted. On the simplest level, the idea of "democratic centralism"
means that people defend a political line in public that they don't
necessarily agree with. This kind of intellectual discipline was never
known in the Bolshevik Party or any social democratic party for that
matter. It has led to sycophancy everywhere, as rank-and-file Stalinists
and Trotskyists--operating under peer pressure--compete with each other to
be the most articulate defenders of the wisdom of the central committee,
and by implication, the central leader who is of course the avatar of
Lenin. How do I know about this? Because I was just such a person myself.
For 7 years I was a factional hired gun for the SWP political committee,
going around the country smashing opponents of the party line. And then, in
my last 4 years, I decided that I disagreed with the party line but didn't
have the guts to openly state my disagreements because I knew from
experience that dissidents became ostracized. I would get up at party
meetings in 1978 and say that the workers were radicalizing everywhere,
even though I didn't believe that bullshit. Just to let everybody know that
I could be "trusted".  The same nonsense goes on the CP. That is no way to
build a revolutionary party.

The other question is politics. As I pointed out in my post on the FARC,
the CP of Colombia believed (and maybe still does, until continuing
research proves otherwise) that the bourgeois-democratic stage of the
revolution has to be consummated before the socialist stage is undertaken.
This is the same line of the CP of South Africa, that Patrick can attest
to, I'm sure. The problem is that this doesn't work. It doesn't work
because countries in the periphery or semi-periphery like South Africa have
not had the capacity to form a bourgeois class that is independent and
ambitious enough to carry out such a revolution to finality. (This brackets
out the question that Comninel raised about whether such a bourgeoisie ever
existed, even in the French Revolution.)

This was Stalin's concept. No, let me take that back. It was actually
Lenin's concept up until 1917. Moreover, it was by all evidence what
orthodox Marxists everywhere, except Trotsky and Parvus, thought. In every
country that had not successfully completed a French Revolution type
transformation, socialists had to join with the national bourgeoisie in
helping to carry one out. Socialists in effect become class-conscious
Jacobins of the most uncompromising character. In 1909 Lenin writes an
article that characterized the idea of socialist revolution in Russia as an
adventure. He says that Russia has not had its 1789, so efforts to carry
out a Paris Commune on a nationwide level would lead to a disaster.  But
that's what the April Theses were about, weren't they? Mark sent me a photo
of Lenin defending the April Theses at a mass meeting, which I scanned and
put on the homepage of the Marxism list. It's there for a purpose. It
symbolizes the importance of making socialist revolution the sine qua non
of progressive politics in the late 20th century, despite the
disillusionment of ex-guerrillas in Latin America.

So in the great Stalin-Trotsky debate, where does this question of stages
fit in? It is absolutely clear that when Stalin defended Lenin's pre-April
Theses stagism against Trotsky's permanent revolution theory that he was
turning the clock back to a period in the Marxist movement when cross-class
alliances were considered necessary. I of course defend Trotsky's theory,
just as I defend Castro's polemics against the Latin American CP's during
the period of the OLAS conference. As Castro said at the time, unless the
revolution is socialist, it is just a caricature of a revolution.

The problem with Trotskyism, however, is that it has taken the theory of
permanent revolution and turned it into a dogma. Just as Stalin created a
formal logic schema for defining a nation, so has Trotsky's epigones
strictly defined what constitutes "genuine" examples of permanent
revolution. This was Moreno and Healy's curse. Because Soviets did not
exist in Cuba, Castro had to be a radical petty-bourgeois nationalist. Even
after nationalizing every last nail in every last bodega in the country,
Castro remained a petty-bourgeois nationalist.

Leaving all these questions aside, the most important consideration is what
to do now. As James P. Cannon, who I love to bash on most days, said: the
art of politics is knowing what to do next. Clearly, the search for
"revolutionary continuity" would be a huge mistake in either this mailing
list or in the Marxist left in general since it leads to sectarian
divisions. Arguing in favor of Stalin versus Trotsky, or vice versa,
amounts to the sort of succession debates that take place in religion. Who
really exemplifies the teachings of Jesus, the Catholics or the
Protestants? And if you are a Protestant, is it the Baptists or the
Lutherans? Ad infinitum. Ad nauseum.

One of the most ridiculous arguments I used to hear when the original
Marxism mailing-list was swamped by hard-line Trotskyists and Stalinists
was over what Lenin really meant in his last testament. Yes, Stalin was
rude but he was after all the general secretary. On the other hand, Lenin
specifically called for his removal. IT DOES NOT FUCKING MATTER. The more
we obsess and quarrel over these sorts of questions, the more irrelevant we
are to the real concerns of workers and peasants today. We are not
interested in who should sit on Lenin's throne. We are interested in
clarifying what attitude revolutionaries and anti-imperialist activists
should take toward FARC and ELN connections with cocaine traffickers and
growers. There is nothing in the byzantine party struggles of 1923 Soviet
Union that can answer such questions.

Although I find Mark's research on Stalin fascinating and an excellent
antidote to what Castro calls "simplism", I told him privately and now
state publicly that they are mistaken when they turn into a search for
"revolutionary continuity". Frankly, I am trying to encourage the most
aggressive kind of iconoclasm on this list and lead by own example. If a
week does not go by, when I don't take a rude swipe at Lenin, Stalin or
Trotsky, send me a private note and I will make sure to do so.

Louis Proyect


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