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

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Aug 2 09:57:47 MDT 1999

>The U.S. working class had *always* been fatally split by white racism.
>It was impossible to split it any further than it already was. A U.S.
>working class that does not make anti-racism the cutting edge of its
>struggles is a class unfit for any revolutionary task. The CPUSA,
>prodded by the Comintern, first made race a significant issue for
>the U.S. left.

Actually, this is not quite accurate. The very first expression of
organized Marxism in the United States had a very good understanding of
class/race connections. What happened is that Karl Marx himself overrode
this promising group and gave his benediction to a faction led by Sorge,
who made concessions to racism. (How about that for iconoclasm? Denouncing
Marx himself.)

>From my webpage:

Dogmatic Marxism's hostility toward "non-class" demands has been around for
a very long time, judging from the evidence of Timothy Messer-Kruse's "The
Yankee International: 1848-1876." (U. of North Carolina, 1998) Furthermore,
you are left with the disturbing conclusion that this problem existed at
the very highest levels of the first Communist International, and included
Marx himself.

The people who launched a section of the Communist International in the USA
were veteran radicals, who had fought against slavery and for women's
rights for many years. They saw the emerging anti-capitalist struggles in
Europe, most especially the Paris Commune of 1871, as consistent with their
own. They saw revolutionary socialism as the best way to guarantee the
success of the broader democratic movement. What European Marxism would
think of them is an entirely different matter.

The names of some of the early recruits should give you an indication of
the political character of the new movement. Included were abolitionists
Horace Greely, Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner. Feminist Victoria
Woodhull joined in and put her magazine "Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly" at
its disposal. The weekly not only included communications from Karl Marx,
but spiritualist musings from Woodhull. The native radical movement of the
1870s was a mixed bag. Socialism, anti-racism, feminism, pacifism and
spiritualism co-existed comfortably. The Europeans were anxious to purify
the movement of all these deviations from the very start. Unfortunately
they put anti-racism, feminism and spiritualism on an equal footing.

Victoria Woodhull was unquestionably the biggest irritant, since she
defended all these deviations while at the same time she spoke out
forcefully for free love, the biggest deviation imaginable in the Victorian

"The sexual relation, must be rescued from this insidious form of slavery.
Women must rise from their position as ministers to the passions of men to
be their equals. Their entire system of education must be changed. They
must be trained to be like men, permanent and independent individualities,
and not their mere appendages or adjuncts, with them forming but one member
of society. They must be the companions of men from choice, never from

Marx decided to put an end to all this nonsense and threw his weight behind
the German-American Frederic Sorge, who was assigned to clean house.
Against the Yankee swamp, Sorge would ram through a "scientific socialism"
that was true to the tenets of Marx and Engels. Furthermore, the
orientation of the American section would not be to women and blacks, but
only to the white workers and their embryonic trade unions. It seemed to
matter little that Sorge understood next to nothing about American
politics. His mastery of Marxist doctrine would produce the desired
results: "Fellow-workman," he proclaimed, "Keep our standard pure & our
ranks clean! Never mind the small number! No great work was ever begun by a
majority." With sectarian nonsense like this, it should surprise nobody
that Sorge's group remained small in number. What does surprise us is that
Sorge was Marx's hand-picked leader.

The Yankees and the German-American "orthodox Marxists" split and began to
carry out their respective orientations, which are instructive to compare.
Although the Sorge group was formally in favor of racial equality, their
actions often fell short of the verbal commitment. The simple explanation
for this is that they adapted to the prejudices of the white workers whom
they curried favor with.

Woodhull's group made no such concessions, as their political traditions
were rooted in the abolitionist movement. Indeed, when they called for a
mass demonstration in New York City to commemorate the martyrs of the Paris
Commune, the first rank in the parade went to a company of black soldiers
known as the Skidmore Guard. The demonstration passed by a quarter million
spectators and the sight of armed black men in the vanguard was
electrifying. Sorge's group complained that the demonstration was a
distraction from working-class struggles, whose participants would lose a
day's pay by participating. He called for a boycott.

Black militias were an important fixture of northern urban politics in this
period. When black men donned uniforms and marched in formation, they were
making a statement not only about their full rights as citizens, but their
determination to back these rights by any means necessary. The black
Eighty-Fifth Regiment in NYC was one of the more radical and
internationalist militias in the city. They had marched alongside Irish New
Yorkers in honor of Fenian heroes and gave their units names like the
"[Crispus] Attucks Guards" and "Free Soil Guards." This regiment decided to
name Tennessee Claflin, Victoria Woodhull's sister, their commander and
supplied her with a uniform. Woodhull had become the presidential candidate
of the Equal Rights Party in 1872 and her vice-presidential running mate
was none other than Frederick Douglass. This combination symbolized the
commitment of the Yankee Marxists to racial equality and woman's liberation.

While the Sorge faction held the black struggle at arm's length, they at
least gave lip service to it. No such concessions were made to Chinese
workers whom they treated as outright enemies of the white worker.
Woodhull's group took a strong stand against immigration bans, but the
"orthodox" Marxists caved in completely to white prejudice. Unfortunately
Karl Marx was little help in standing up to bigotry, since he regarded
Asians as locked in "hereditary stupidity" and the unproductive Asiatic
Mode of Production, an economic theory that had no basis in fact. Marx also
warned about the importation of Chinese workers as "rabble" who could
"depress wages."

At the NYC branch of Sorge's section, a San Francisco worker addressed his

"The white working-men see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor
in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know
assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes
of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of
white men, women, girls and boys.... They are in all branches of the
manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will
monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to
exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon."

The Yankees refused to go along with the anti-Chinese xenophobia and viewed
the Chinese as brothers and sisters in struggle. Woodhull wrote:

"The population of the country is forty millions. If the Chinese should at
the rate of five thousand a week, even that figure will nothing near equal
the present ratio of the Irish and German immigration, and it would a
hundred and fifty years to import forty millions. . . The economical idea
of immigration is that every new comer is a producer; he directly
contributes to the wealth of the community; he will not consume all that
produces. . . As for any immediate influence of John Chinaman on the labor
market and rate of wages that is an impossibility. The workingmen of New
York protest against two or three hundred foreigners. What injury can
accrue to them?"

Sorge's group picked up a new recruit in 1872, an English immigrant and
cigarmaker named Samuel Gompers. Gompers was impressed with the
"working-class" and trade union tilt of the German-American followers of
Marx, while regarding the Woodhull section as "dominated by a brilliant
group of faddists, reformers, and sensation-loving spirits." He was as
repelled by them as some old leftists were repelled by the 1960s New
Leftists. Gompers was tutored by Ferdinand Laurell, a fellow cigarmaker who
he met at the Manhattan Lower East Side factory where both were employed.
Laurell initiated him into the profound scientific socialism of the
Communist Manifesto and placed special emphasis on the centrality of the
trade unions. "Study your union card, Sam, Laurell said, "and if the idea
doesn't square with that, it ain't true."

What gradually happened is that Gompers let the revolutionary socialism
fall by the wayside while allowing trade union fundamentalism to take
charge, including the virulent racism of the time. As Gompers climbed the
ladder into officialdom, he found that anti-Chinese racism gave him a foot
up. He endorsed the labeling of cigar boxes as made by white men, to be
"distinguished from those made by the Chinese." After Gompers attained the
AFL presidency, women, ethnic minorities, African Americans and those who
did unskilled work found themselves without a friend in organized labor.
The Bolshevik revolution inspired a new Communist movement in the US 50
years later, which began to remedy this injustice. The Cold War reversed
this progress.

The Sorge section of the First International began to fall apart because
its sectarian, workerist and essentially reactionary politics guaranteed
this. The immediate heir of Sorge's politics was a group called the
Socialist Labor Party, founded by Daniel De Leon in 1877. This group also
saw itself as the guardian of Marxist orthodoxy, but never even made the
attempt to intervene in the trade union movement. It was content to issue
racist broadsides from the sidelines like condemning the "importation of
Coolies under contract." It survives today as an embalmed purist sect-cult
with zero influence in the labor or social movements, thank goodness.

Marxism as a revolutionary idea transcends the dogmatic mistakes of people
such as Sorge and De Leon. What is even more confounding is that it
transcends Marx's own mistakes. Marx was wrong to back the workerist
backwardness of Sorge. One of the great things about Marx is that he was
capable of change, even when he was in the late stages of his career. After
denouncing Russian populism for most of his adult life, he became persuaded
that he did not understand the movement adequately and saw great
possibilities for it. To maximize his understanding, he began to study the
Russian language in his 60s.

The greatest obstacle to the development of Marxist thought has been the
tendency of its adherents to not see contradictory aspects of society and
politics dialectically. Clearly Sorge's failure was to see the dialectical
connection of the black struggle to the trade union movement. If anything,
the naïve Yankee radicals understood the dialectical connection better than
the "orthodox" Marxists.

Even though there is a tendency for small sectarian groups of today to
search for a "revolutionary continuity" going back to Marx, it is better to
understand Marxism as the product of deep internal tensions that can only
be resolved through struggle. If the "workerism" of the First (and Second)
International had not been confronted and defeated, then the Marxist
movement would have not had the impact it has had in the 20th century.
Although these very same sectarian groups see Lenin as the Pope who
succeeded Pope Marx, in reality Lenin was more like a Protestant
Reformation revolutionary who attacked old beliefs at their root. His
articles were nailed to the door of institutionalized Marxism.

Lenin was the very first Marxist to SYNTHESIZE the proletarian and
non-proletarian elements of the revolution. Unlike Sorge, Lenin was eager
to embrace every form of rebellion against the absolutist state and not
question whether it was "orthodox" or not. His most radical departure was
to support the demands of the Russian peasantry who had been regarded by
orthodox Marxism as an alien and hostile class. Closely related was his
support of self-determination for oppressed nationalities, which he
understood as having an anti-capitalist dynamic. Even when the oppressed
nationality was led by reactionary or clerical fakers, he still backed
their demands.

Although all of our latter-day Bolsheviks pay lip-service to Lenin's
example, there is evidence everywhere that they have more in common with
Frederic Sorge. When the black nationalist, feminist and gay revolts
erupted in the 1960s, the Marxist-Leninists found every excuse they could
to repudiate the new mass movements. These movements were petty-bourgeois
"diversions" from the real class struggle based in the trade unions.

The answer to dogmatic Marxism is not Judith Butler, as Doug Henwood seems
to think. Butler is not interested in synthesizing the social movements
with the broader struggle for working-class emancipation. Rather she is
interested in promoting radical individual behavior, as if this could stop
the bombing in Iraq or famine in Russia. But the solution to capitalist
oppression can only be found in collective action, which is of little
concern to a high-profile academic.

A true synthesis of class, race and gender won't be found in books
published by the University of Minnesota or Duke. It will be found in
struggle. You get some sense of this in a film like "Wretched of the
Earth," about Chicano miners and the women who found ways to express
feminist demands in the course of a bitter strike, while convincing their
husbands that these demands were just. It will be found in AMNLAE, the
Sandinista woman's rights government agency. Or the black caucuses of the
UAW in the early 1970s, which eventually inspired white workers to follow
their militant lead. Marxists should be looking for every opportunity to
promote such class, race and gender alliances. If the early American
Marxist movement screwed up, let's at least study what they did wrong and
avoid the same mistakes. A good place to start with is Messer-Kruse's
brilliant scholarly research.

Louis Proyect


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