[Marxism] Stan Goff on Marxist Doctrine -- a Critical Analysis, by Steve Bloom
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sun Dec 10 06:44:40 MST 2006
Stan Goff on Marxist Doctrine-
a Critical Analysis
by Steve Bloom
Stan Goff, who is well known for his contributions to building an antiwar
movement in the USA in recent years, has posted an explanation on his blog
[http://stangoff.com/?p=423] of why he has come to reject Marxism (the
doctrine, he tells us, not the analytical method-though it seems to this
reader that his critique is extremely far-reaching). This comment on Goff's
notes will be divided into three parts:
I. A question about one aspect of his statement that remains unresolved for
me after reading the entire essay: What, precisely, does Goff mean by
II. A conversation about the one aspect of Marxist doctrine that is clearly
at the core of his critique: a rejection of the idea that the working class
has a key strategic role to play in transforming capitalist society.
III. A series of other questions-which seem secondary to that really big
one. Still, it remains important to clarify history, separate correct
generalities from questionable examples, and correct specific formulations.
I will actually quote the majority of Goff's words (within each section in
the order he presents them) because clarity and accuracy seem so important
in a situation like this. I want to make it easy for the reader to go back
and check the validity of my characterizations. In addition to using
quotation marks I am putting Goff's text in boldface below. Wherever I have
deleted portions of his comment I indicate this with a
I. What does Goff mean by "Marxist doctrine"?
Goff seems to be using this term in a way that is not familiar to me. Yet it
must be one that has a common collective meaning in the Marxist milieu he
comes from. To help him clarify for the rest of us, I will explain the
distinction between doctrine and method as I understand it, coming from a
For me the Marxist method is the dialectical-scientific (materialist)
approach to the study of history and human culture which has allowed
Marxists to draw certain conclusions about class society and the process of
social change. Marxist doctrine, then, is the set of conclusions that we
have drawn about class society and the process of social change using this
method. The method remains constant. Our conclusions (doctrine), however,
can and must change-constantly if we are talking of subtle things, less
often if we are dealing with more fundamental aspects-as we gain more
experience and knowledge. Indeed, a willingness to change our doctrine is an
essential aspect of the Marxist method.
Thus any change Goff may propose in our collective conclusions (doctrine) is
perfectly reasonable, so long as we have good reason to question old truths
(or things we thought were truths) based on more recent experiences, or on
the re-evaluation of old experiences. There is, of course, (and should be) a
natural conservatism, a strong tendency to value conclusions once they are
reached, and especially once they are consistently confirmed by subsequent
experience. Things should not be readjusted willy nilly in response to
passing intellectual fashions. But each and every aspect of Marxist doctrine
is, and can be, subject to challenge and change-so long as we remain rooted
in the Marxist method as we discuss changes.
Goff, however, seems to be using the term "doctrine" in a different way, one
that sees specific conclusions, in particular with regard to "democratic
centralism" to be fixed, rigid, and unchangeable: Otherwise he could not
draw the sweeping conclusions he does in the statement: "But Marxism - the
organizational doctrine, not the interpretive method - may well be part of
the problem of the Crisis of Socialism."
Any aspect of our doctrine that becomes part of the problem should simply be
changed. It does not require us to overthrow the entire package, to reject
Marxist doctrine as a concept. Yet that is what Goff proposes.
The critique Goff presents of "organizational doctrine" may or may not be
appropriate for the specific milieu he has been part of. I'm not in a
position to judge. But as a universal critique of "Marxist doctrine" more
broadly (and especially of the Troskyist tradition that Goff throws into the
mix, though apparently without really taking the time to familiarize himself
with it) his comment seems strange. I could cite countless examples of
Marxists organizing in ways that cannot reasonably be called "democratic
centralist"- in the very restrictive sense Goff is criticizing- without
having discarding "Marxist doctrine" taken as a whole.
Even more clearly he writes:
"Democratic Centralism has put a series of socialist governments in power;
and in almost every case, the restoration of capitalist relations of
production (the instruments of capitalist production were kept, and even
sought out) has been accomplished, or the society has fallen into collapse.
. . ."
"The single exception where the revolution has been effectively defended to
any degree has been in Cuba, but Cuba began with smaller scale (ergo,
greater social embeddedness, in the Polanyian sense), and Cuba was forced to
decentralize and re-localize as a survival strategy. The centralism of DC
was forced to give way to the democracy of effort required to re-localize
the very basis of Cuban survival and independence; and the successes of Cuba
have largely been predicated, since 1990, on implementing deviations from
the norms of Marxism-the-doctrine."
Here "Marxism-the-doctrine" seems to refer specifically, and exclusively, to
a top-down, bureaucratically planned, "command economy" (to use the term
coined by the Trotskyist movement). Again Goff's contention that this is an
aspect of Marxist doctrine at all, let alone that it is universally
accepted, unchanging, and unchangeable, seems a bit odd to a Marxist who was
trained in a tradition that specifically rejected any such bureaucratic
economic model, insisting that economic planning of this kind was actually
the antithesis of Marxism, a betrayal of the goals of the Russian
So if Goff is merely asserting that there are aspects of Marxist doctrine
(in the sense I understand Marxist doctrine) that we ought to reconsider, he
will not get much of an argument from me. We can consider each point on its
merits. I would simply insist that he pay more attention to currents within
the Marxist movement that have actually been struggling, for decades, with
some of the questions he raises. If he is saying that we should reject the
caricatured, top-down, bureaucratic practice of so-called "democratic
centralism" and bureaucratic planning I will cheer him heartily. But neither
of these things require the absolute rejection of doctrine that is at the
core of Goff's appeal. So I sense that he has a different understanding of
what doctrine is. I need him to explain that understanding to me.
II The working class and Marxist doctrine
"Every one of the Marxist formations, in accordance with its most
teleological assumption - that the working class, once forged in struggle as
a class-for-itself - will be the inevitable midwife of socialism (claim for
which there is not yet one shred of supporting evidence), have hewn to a
dying trade union movement in the US, and one with its remainder so woven
into the military-industrial-security complex as to be almost
indistinguishable from it. The Crisis of Socialism can be found here, I
believe, in the heart of Marxist doctrine, and not in treasons and
deviations and contingent 'errors.'"
Here, well into Goff's narrative, we reach his genuine (even useful, in the
sense of posing essential questions) critique that does actually touch "the
heart of Marxist doctrine." It is this rejection of the working class as the
primary social force that can actually create a new society which
constitutes his main, and the most valid, basis for rejecting recent Marxist
praxis and present attempts at Marxist organization. Indeed, if we do not
believe that the working class is an indispensable element in the transition
from capitalism to socialism (or to whatever new system Goff now envisions
to replace capitalism, see below) then there is no compelling argument
whatsoever for socialist/Marxist organization today.
I believe that Goff is wrong in a number of his central assertions, however:
1) His summary of the Marxist viewpoint is inaccurate in one important
respect: "that the working class . . . will be the inevitable midwife of
socialism" (emphasis added). Marxism does not, and cannot, make any claim
for inevitability. Trotsky, explicitly, in his later writings discussed what
it would mean for humanity of this did not happen. So did Rosa Luxemburg in
her famous counterposition of "socialism or barbarism." If the victory of
the working class and socialism is inevitable, then there is no need to
discuss barbarism as a possible alternative. The only assertion Marxism
makes is that the working class is an essential social force if the
socialist revolution is going to succeed. There is nothing whatsoever
inevitable about that success.
2) The idea of the working class as the midwife of socialism has
considerable historical evidence in its support-including positive
revolutionary experiences such as 1917, as well as negative experiences such
as Indonesia in 1965. It is also supported by the development of
less-than-revolutionary working-class struggles, like the rise of the CIO in
the USA. True, any and all such experiences are subject to alternative
interpretations. Until the final victory of socialism, resulting from a
working-class revolution, there can be reason to doubt the hypothesis. But
to say that "there is not yet one shred of supporting evidence" for this
idea is, at the very least, a badly skewed polemical exaggeration.
3) The idea of the working class as the midwife of socialism is also based
on a logical assessment of historical experience, first developed by Marx:
No social transformation from one mode of production to another has ever
taken place unless and until there was a social class that had both the
material interest, and raw social power, to impose that transformation by
force. True again, until the working class succeeds in playing this role in
a genuine socialist revolution, the Marxist theory that this is possible is
merely a working hypothesis. But if Goff wants to convince me that I should
stop working based on this hypothesis he needs to suggest an alternative
social class that can make the transition to a new mode of production in the
USA and around the world-or else explain to me how capitalism can be
adequately reformed without such a transformation. Because if the working
class cannot do it, and if there is no alternative social class that can,
and if capitalism cannot be adequately reformed, then we are simply doomed.
Rather than passively accept my doom I will choose to continue working based
on a Marxist hypothesis. If there is even just a ten or twenty percent
chance that this hypothesis is correct, that Goff's pessimistic conclusions
are the result of his present-day experience which will turn out to be
merely a brief episode (historically speaking), I would rather work to
build a meaningful socialist/Marxist organization in the hopes of realizing
that 10-20 percent possibility, rather than capitulate to my doom (and
therefore perhaps even become part of the historical inevitability that has
4) It is illogical for Goff to talk about the trade union movement,
acknowledge that it represents only a small portion of the US working class,
and then draw generalizations about the working class as a whole strictly
based on the reality of the US trade union movement.
5) It is a peculiar formulation to say that Marxists in the USA "have hewn
to a dying trade union movement." Subsequently Goff seems to be indicating
that this is, somehow, at the expense of paying attention to other kinds of
working class organizations. But I know Marxists who are paying attention to
the immigrant rights movement, to organizing around Katrina, to working in
community struggles, workers' centers, etc. So that can't be the main
objection. Does Goff believe that we should abandon the present trade union
movement entirely? It is still a mass movement, organizing millions of
members-a very large percentage of whom are women, Blacks and other
oppressed minorities-with a history of class struggle and even an occasional
spark that shows how the future could revive that class-struggle reality.
This seems to be Goff's main disagreement with Marxists who remain engaged
in the US union movement today: the idea that there is still an occasional
spark, demonstrating that the future could revive a class-struggle reality.
He characterizes unions in the US as "so woven into the
military-industrial-security complex as to be almost indistinguishable from
it." This is true to an extent (though at a bureaucratic level it is less
true today than it was 15-20 years ago). The problem is that such a
statement makes no distinction between the union leadership and the union
ranks-in particular the Blacks and other oppressed minorities that are
represented in substantial numbers by these organizations. The Marxists I
know, who continue to dedicate themselves to work within the existing trade
union movement in the USA, are concerned with mobilizing an independent
power of the rank and file in ways that are incompatible with the labor
movement continuing to be woven as tightly as it is with the
military-industrial complex. We can argue whether individual efforts are
done well, or not so well. But it seems strange to argue that they should be
abandoned entirely. If our goal is to create labor organizations that are
not woven so tightly with the military-industrial complex, why should the
most conscious elements, who have a different vision of what labor unions
ought to be, simply walk away and leave the bureaucrats to call the shots
"The trade unions in the US have chosen - more often than not - patriarchy
and-or white supremacy and-or reactionary nationalism at almost every turn.
The exceptions do not disprove the rule. There is a reason for that. An
imperial working class has imperial privilege, and their livelihoods are
lashed to the survival of a system designed for domination and war."
Currently, in Against the Current, there is a discussion about the idea that
Goff expresses here. Charlie Post has written a piece (issues #123 and #124)
rejecting any theory that the backward consciousness of white workers in the
USA is the result, in substantial part, of their material privileges (what
Lenin described as the "labor aristocracy"). I have written a reply
defending Lenin's conception that will appear in the next issue of the
magazine. In an original draft I listed 6 counter-trends that push workers
in the imperialist nations toward an engagement in ant capitalist struggles,
despite the privileged status described by Goff that does indeed hold them
back. Unfortunately that part of my article had to be cut for the magazine
itself. It will be included in an expanded text that is scheduled to appear
on the Solidarity website [www.solidarity-US.org]. If anyone reading this
comment would like to get a copy directly, please email me at
[sblm at earthlink.net], with "LABOR ARISTOCRACY" in the subject line..
So while I do not disagree with Goff when he writes, "An imperial working
class has imperial privilege, and their livelihoods are lashed to the
survival of a system designed for domination and war," this is only one
aspect of a multi-sided and complex reality, not the whole picture by any
"I would add that it might be time to reconstruct a politics of resistance
that is not Marxist, in the sense that Marx himself said, 'I am not a
Marxist.' This and that formation have been ahead of the pack on
deconstructing privilege as a material feature of whiteness (far less so
masculinity); but as 'Marxist' formations, they inevitably return to the
default position - sometimes by a circuitous route - of the working class as
the key, and democratic centralism as the organizational principle. When we
have seen all the other variables tested, and no fundamental change has
happened, then it seems time to question the untested variables. But Marxism
- the organizational doctrine, not the interpretive method - may well be
part of the problem of the Crisis of Socialism. I tend to believe that this
Marxism has never, legitimately, privileged any particular form of
resistance to oppression as more important, more worthy of support, more
morally superior to any other. It is, precisely, the "politics of
resistance" in its totality that should be the subject of our enterprise. To
the extent that some people calling themselves Marxists have abandoned this,
Goff is correct to call for an about-face.
If this is the result, even in part, of some particular "organizational
doctrine" of "democratic-centralism" then that version of
democratic-centralism also needs to be rejected. But Goff is attaching this
paragraph to a discussion about the potential role of the working class, as
a core Marxist doctrine. And such a link is completely misplaced. A belief
in the potential power of the organized working class to bring about a
socialist revolution privileges working-class resistance in one way, and
only one way: This is the resistance with the power to change the oppressive
reality we live under. But neither Marx nor serious Marxists after him (in
the sense that Marx was a Marxist) have ever contended that other cultures
of resistance were less important in any other respect. Indeed, in many ways
a feminist culture of resistance, a Black and Latino culture of existence,
an LGBT culture of resistance, are key elements in the development of any
working-class resistance that is likely to generate the necessary social
upheaval. At the very least there is no built-in necessity for a
counterposition of these things that would force us to abandon Marxist
doctrine and Marxist organization. A working-class socialist revolution that
does not result from, and address, any and every form of resistance to
capitalism and oppression is not a socialist revolution worthy of the name.
Personally I was taught this all the way back in the 1960s when I joined the
Young Socialist Alliance. It is not something I just discovered. True,
understanding this in the abstract does not guarantee that we will get the
balance right in our practical work. In fact, it is almost inevitable that
we will get the balance wrong in our practical work-if only because the
proper balance is constantly shifting, a reality that even the most
conscious Marxists will always be running to catch up with. So it is useful
to develop any and every critique of our practical work. What is not useful
is blaming Marxism for this problem-whether on the level of doctrine or
"My friend (Joaquin Bustelo) goes on to say:
"'Building a socialist movement for the 21st Century means starting from the
premise, and very palpable reality, that the socialist movement of the
second half of 20th Century, viewed as a whole, largely DID NOT WORK. And it
especially did not work in the places where Marxist theory says it was
SUPPOSED to work, in the advanced capitalist countries with a
fully-developed working class that is the big majority of the population.'"
On what basis does Joaquin say that this is where Marxists believed it was
supposed to work? He ought to know better, because Joaquin and I share a
history as part of an international movement that quite explicitly rejected
any such schematic notion. The founding document of a reunified Fourth
International after the Cuban revolution was based on a concept called the
"three sectors of the world revolution." It was, precisely, an explanation
(based on an extension of Trotsky's appreciation of uneven and combined
development) that the anti-colonial (anti-imperialist) struggle in the third
world was coequal in terms of its importance, and far more likely under the
circumstances prevailing during the mid 1960s to reflect a militant
class-struggle activity. This was the "Marxist doctrine" that I was
recruited to at that time, and which I have adhered to ever since.
If Joaquin's premise is so badly flawed, his conclusion cannot possibly be
III. Clarifying history, separating correct generalities from questionable
examples, and correcting specific formulations.
We now start at the top of Goff's presentation and work our way through what
"I am herein announcing and explaining my definitive rejection of Marxism in
its current organizational forms, be they called Marxist-Leninist or
Trotskyist or Maoist."
Goff no doubt has legitimate complaints about "current organizational
forms." But to start this way misleads the reader. If he had confidence in
Marxism in other respects, his rejection of current organizational forms
would lead him to a quest for better ones. Instead he is rejecting any
effort to generate an organized Marxist movement as inevitably and
irreparably flawed. For that to be true the problem cannot really be our
organizational forms. It must be a political analysis that underlies the
very idea of a Marxist movement in the first place.
Later, as noted, Goff acknowledges this, because his primary rejection is
not of organizational forms but of something far more substantial in Marxist
doctrine: the role of the working class as a necessary agent in the
transition from capitalism to socialism. As already noted, without agreement
on this there is, in fact, no point whatsoever in discussing organizational
"This decision comes after months of intense reflection. I will not attempt
to separate the personal from the political reasons. My personal life, as a
spouse, father, grandfather, friend, and member of local and political
communities, is my most direct window on the world, and the experience
against which I have to measure any political belief or organizational
theory. Even moreso, as I now find myself indefinitely caring again for an
infant; and thereby bound to the house in the same way as many women,
constantly being confronted with the most immediate and practical
necessities. The kind of politics that does not take these constraints as
the starting point of all politics is what I am now taking under long
This is very honest, and worth considering. But there is more than one
possible conclusion, even on a personal level.
There are times in history when human beings find that they are able to
transcend the kinds of constraints Goff describes. These are rare, but real
nonetheless. And they are the moments in history when revolutions become
possible. Revolutions are simply not possible at times when politics refuses
to transcend "the most immediate practical necessities.".
During those times when revolutions are impossible revolutionaries are in a
preparatory mode. To remain revolutionaries during such times it is
essential to keep focused on the reality we are preparing for: that there
are rare historical moment when politics transcends the kind of individual
constraints that Stan asserts as the necessary starting point of all
politics. It is the "all," therefore, that we would take issue with.
Revolutionaries should certainly take account of these constraints as we
develop our transitional politics. And if Stan is trying to tell us that we
haven't been doing so adequately in recent decades it is certainly a point
worth considering. But when his critique goes just that one last step, when
it asserts that this must become the be-all and end-all of our politics, it
is necessary to raise an objection.
"One of my primary disappointments has been what I consider the failure to
take seriously the struggle against patriarchy, and to give it the same
weight in our organizing as we do class and national oppression. There have
been only token efforts in this regard, and no serious initiative that I
have seen to go outside the canon to understand this system.."
This impresses me as Stan being trapped in a particular discourse in a
particular milieu, and making the logical error (a common one) of
generalizing his own experience as universal. Again, who could argue that
the Marxist movement does not have a lot more to accomplish along these
lines? But to say that Marxism, as a current, has failed to take the
struggle against Patriarchy seriously, skews the discussion so badly at the
outset that a genuine consideration of the real issues becomes impossible.
Marxists have been taking this issue seriously since the time Engels wrote
"Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State"-that is, from the
"Worse, there has been a reactive embrace of liberal-libertarian 'feminism'
by many comrades. which I consider to be a sly academic reassertion of male
power in the consumer-choice package of 'freedom,' undermining the whole
analysis of gender as a system. But this is not the crux of the issue for
me. Feminism was the gateway to a number of other interrogations of the
assumptions of organized Marxism."
If "many comrades" have made this mistake, while even a few have not, how
can we blame Marxism as an ideology? Are those who avoided the mistake being
guided by a different ideology? Clearly, the task is to set Marxism
straight, reinforce the Marxism of the few against the Marxism of the many
(a need that has arisen often enough in the past that it shouldn't surprise
us to see it again).
"What happened? Why is there no organized left with the attention and
support of broad masses of people in the US? What is the nature of this
'Crisis of Socialism'?
"The Marxist method (as opposed to doctrine) of interpreting these issues
led me to address that latter question with deeper ones still: What do we
mean when we say 'organized'? Who do we mean when we say 'masses'?
"In arriving at tentative answers to these questions, I have - almost with a
sense of grief - concluded that neither Marxist-Leninist nor 'Trotskyist'
nor Maoist, nor Guevarist, etc etc etc, organizations are suitable to the
task, no matter the quality of the individuals who populate them. The
history of these organizations has been, for more than six decades minimum,
a string of failures, punctuated by periodic successes only in mass work
that was self-organizing outside Marxism to some extent anyway. I have come
to believe this is a failure of the structure and of the over-reaching scope
of these organizations."
This is useful as a specific critique of existing organizations, with one
noteworthy exception: Our understanding of the Marxist method ought to
easily explain why our periodic successes would be "in mass work that was
self-organizing outside Marxism to some extent anyway." That is the way it
must be, if we have a proper understanding of the relationship between
vanguard organizations and mass movements. It is hardly an indication that
something is wrong when Marxists are unable to suck real protest movements
(successes) out of our thumbs.
"Marx himself began his career preoccupied not with questions of economics,
but of human happiness. What he observed was oppression of one by another,
and the sense of personal fragmentation - of alienation - that permeated
modern society; and he determined that these two things were related."
But what Marx then discovered was that he could not seriously or
successfully address the question of human happiness without simultaneously
addressing questions of economics, philosophy, politics, and socialist
organization. It is the intersection (dialectic at work) between these
things that represents the genuine Marxist analytical method (not doctrine).
By suggesting a retreat to the question of human happiness, while pushing
aside all of these other elements, Goff is not proposing a return to Marx's
appreciation of human happiness, nor rededicating himself to a Marxist
method (as opposed to doctrine). He is, in fact, negating these things.
"Unfortunately, the struggle to give these intellectual and practical
breakthroughs organizational assertion has been one of hostile encirclement
- literal and figurative - which gave rise to a bunker mentality.
"This bunker mentality led to the transformation of Marx's analytical
toolbox into a quasi-religious organizing doctrine, and one that was fought
out almost like an epic religious struggle in painful cycles of orthodoxy
and reformation, then reformation itself morphing into orthodoxy."
There are certainly people who call themselves "Marxists" who function in
this way. But if we can find even a handful who do not it is hardly valid to
blame Marxism itself for the problem. It would be as if we blamed Darwinism
had history taken a slightly different turn and the Eugenicists somehow come
to dominate the world.
"Marxism-Leninism is a term coined by Stalin to establish an imaginary line
of predestination (Stalin had his opposition shot as a demonstration of his
own ardency on the issue.) from Marx-the-Godhead to himself as a way of
mapping his encircled-and-militarized state leadership onto the collective
consciousness of Eurasian mass still steeped in the episteme of hierarchical
and patriarchal religion, complete with its struggle-to-salvation
This is why the tradition I come from never called itself
"Marxist-Leninist." This paragraph makes it explicit that Stan is speaking
from his own experience with a particular historical current. From my
vantage point his words certainly seem like a valid critique of that
tradition. It is even a valid critique of many who call themselves by other
names. But again, if we find even a few exceptions to the rule we are
compelled to acknowledge that there are other, more enlightened pathways
also opened up for us by Marxism as a method (and perhaps even as a
doctrine). Why should we reject such pathways, especially if there is a
genuine/essential possibility of discovery here? Personally, I prefer to
fight for the more enlightened path, not abandon Marxism to those who would
negate it through doctrinaire, or quasi-religious infighting.
"It was this disciplinary regime that inherited and ossified in its own
image the notion of a Leninist Party as the last word in political
organization, and 'democratic centralism' as its organizing principle. It
remains to this day the axiomatic faith of Marxism-Leninism and all the
This is simply false. It shows a very narrow understanding by Goff of "all
the other variants." There have been currents ("other variants"),
historically, that rejected "democratic centralism" and a "Leninist Party"
as defined by Stalin's "disciplinary regime" (please note emphasis). Goff
can be legitimately critical of any and all variants. But he has no right to
paint them all with that particular brush. At least he has no right to do
this and expect those of us who have some alternative conceptions (and a
history of a different practice) to accept his critique.
"From the very beginning, however, this principle that worked during the
contingencies of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions - both still majority
peasant societies (look at Nepal and Haiti today) - was never an organic
match to the social conditions nor the prevailing consciousness in the
United States. For this reason, I believe, the mismatch between the
idea-driven M-L organizations and the lived experience of US society at
large has consistently been a history of leadership sects without a solid,
organic popular base, especially since the World War II."
The premise here is simply wrong. The Stalinist style "Leninist Party" and
"Democratic Centralism" that Goff is talking about never worked, ever, not
anywhere-not even in Russia or China. It did not work in Russia because the
real Bolshevik Party that made the Russian revolution had nothing in common
with the Stalinist caricature that Goff asserts to be universal. It did not
work in China because we can see, today, the ultimate fruits of a
"successful" revolution carried out by such a party.
If this Stalinist-style "vanguard party" did not work in Russia or China,
then the problem in the USA cannot be some attempt to transplant the thing
which worked elsewhere onto foreign soil.
"Each of these sects then competes with all others for the extremely finite
pool of potential recruits. In such a market competition, the competing
'sellers' are obliged to explain and emphasize their differences, not their
similarities - a point made very clearly by Louis Proyect - and in
emphasizing differences over unity, a climate of perennial sectarianism has
been created that seems inescapable. This has also created an internal
climate in each of these organizations of consolidating members into an
ideological conformity. to the point where members ask leadership questions
like, 'What do we think about this?'"
Here I believe Goff makes a useful and valid point if he is speaking about
recent decades. What is wrong, however, is to blame Marxism as an
ideological current for this state of affairs. It is a product of shifting
times. In previous periods many of the differences really did have to be
stressed by various political currents-for example, the difference between
class-collaborationism in the interest of defending "socialism in one
country" (the bureaucracy in the USSR) vs. promoting class struggle and
self-organization with the goal of making a socialist revolution in one's
"It is not what has been done well by members of these organizations that
concerns me; it is the fact that the people who have done well would have
done well with or without the organizations."
To the extent that this is true today (and that extent is considerable) it
is, I would say, another product of shifting realities in the world over the
last 10-20 years. It is, therefore, hardly a valid generalization even about
socialist organizations in the USA in the lived experience of many who are
still active (including myself). During the anti-Vietnam war movement, for
example, I think it can be decisively demonstrated that the existence of the
Socialist Workers Party was a key element in the development of a movement
with the power and scope needed to help end the war. The various separate
members of the SWP, all acting in isolation on our own, would not have been
one tenth as effective in leading that social protest.
And if Goff will allow us to go back a bit further in history I challenge
him to read Farrel Dobbs's account of the Minneapolis Teamsters Strikes and
then tell me that everything would have worked out just the same had there
been no SWP party branch in Minneapolis, had all the comrades just been
working as individuals. We can point to other currents that played a similar
role-like the CP in the San Francisco general strike, or in the campaign to
defend the Scottsboro boys.
So if the times today require us to scale back our conception (because of
the profound decline of the Marxist movement, I would suggest, not because
of anything that has changed in the objective necessity for a vanguard
organization which could play a leading role) then it is certainly worth
considering this reality. It is not, however, useful to throw out the
totality of Marxist doctrine in the name of making such an adjustment. The
adjustment can only be useful if it is conceived in the context of
everything that still remains valid in Marxist doctrine.
"In my own last group, there is a very good, very committed, and very
non-sectarian impulse that is widely shared by the members. The flaws with
which I cannot myself be reconciled are flaws in Marxism-Leninism itself,
the organizational fetish of democratic centralism, and the unavoidable
overreach of any inorganic effort to 'build a national organization' on the
basis of an alien ideology and political practice. And Marxism-Leninism, as
it is presently organized, as well as its Trotskyist cousin, constitutes a
structurally alien formation within American culture."
I cannot dispute Goff's experience in his own last group. But even if I
accept all of that experience as correctly expressed here, the flaw remains:
his assertion that "the organizational fetish of democratic centralism (in
its "Marxist-Leninist" interpretation) is something universal, something to
which every Marxist and every Marxist organization has been committed from
eternal time past. What's more, even if this were true, the most logical
conclusion would be the need to create a new Marxist organization that was
committed to something different. Why the mad rush to reject Marxist
doctrine (in an organizational sense or any other), rather than to correct
it using the Marxist method?
Any movement for significant social change will, at times, appear to be an
"alien formation within American culture." Abolitionists, women's
suffragists, and many others have first come to life as small, isolated,
seemingly sectarian grouplets (plagued with many of the same organizational
problems that we can identify in the Marxist movement today). It's the
Marxist revolutionary politics that make us seem as if we do not fit in, not
any specific organizational practice. .
"It is the organizing principle of the 'Leninist Party' that still carries
the day, democratic centralism, and the method inhering in that
organizational model, which requires 'the line.'"
OK up to a point. Yes, a rigid and caricatured adherence to the "Leninist
vanguard party" model, without a more profound understanding of what this
meant in Lenin's time, and what it should mean for us today, has been a
significant problem-even within the Trotskyist movement. But if Stan
bothered to read the Solidarity founding statement he would find that at
least some of his "Trotskyist cousins" came to a similar conclusion some two
Much of what follows in Goff's comment reflects that which is correct in his
last paragraph. I could quibble with elements, but to keep this comment from
getting even longer I will refrain, remain focused on the essentials. It's
not so important whether Goff describes all of the problems flowing from a
schematic adherence to "Leninist organization" with 100 percent accuracy.
What's essential is whether his conclusion-that Marxism as an
ideology/doctrine is to blame for the genuine errors-is a valid one.
"The Leninist tradition in organization, whether taking its cue from
Trotsky, Stalin, or Mao, is uniformly possessed of this crippling
combination of internal conformity, external lack of an organic
class-for-itself, the illusion that bigger is better, the market-trap of
competing orthodoxies, and the patriarchal attachment to 'conquest of
There is one clear exception to Goff's condemnation of the Leninist
tradition as possessing a "crippling . . . internal conformity": Lenin's
Bolshevik Party itself, which was a cauldron of debate, discussion,
conflicting currents and tendencies. Further, I believe that Goff badly
underestimates the variation in understanding within the Marxist movement-by
Marx himself, and even by those who count themselves as "Leninists"-of both
gender domination as a system of oppression and the ecological limits of
what is possible for socialist society.
An examination of the historical record on these two points is important,
and I know that others, far better qualified than I, have already taken up
Goff's challenge here. So in this comment I will limit myself to noting that
Goff commits the truly disastrous historical fallacy of faulting Marx and
Lenin for not anticipating-in the 19th century and at the beginning of the
20th-the limits on our ability to "dominate nature" that were clear to no
one back then, could not have been clear based on the state of scientific
knowledge at the time. We can understand these things the way we do now only
as a result of considerable subsequent experience.
Again-as with the question of socialist organization and the errors
committed in its name-the big question is: Does this limitation require us
to reject the traditional Marxist view of socialism (a society based on
production for use rather than profit) as the only viable alternative to
capitalism? Does Goff now suggest that there is some other alternative that
would be better from the point of view of maintaining a sustainable
relationship between human beings and the earth we inhabit? If so, what is
it? If not, then isn't Marxism, as a method of thought and as a doctrine (in
the sense of maintaining the valid lessons about class society and social
change that have been well-confirmed by history) still an essential tool
for us in understanding how to bring about the transition from capitalism to
socialism? Isn't the construction of a better organization-one that
understands the need to develop a nuanced and intelligent (rather than rigid
and doctrinaire) version of Marxism-still an essential task?
"These are not incidental errors. The theories of socialism that stumbled
again and again through the world system of the 20th Century were
fundamentally shaped by these basic assumptions, and the rejections of the
basic premises necessarily implies at least the dramatic reformulation of
the whole theory. Marxism is effective to study one dimension of capital
accumulation; and Marxism has provided some valuable interpretive
instruments, like fetishization, like reification, like co modification. But
as Myles Horton said, Marxism is a good tool box, but a bad blueprint."
The fallacy here is, as before, in the premise. "The theories of socialism
that stumbled again and again through the world system of the 20th Century
were fundamentally shaped by these basic assumptions." Goff is blinded by
his historical allegiance to Maoism and "Marxism-Leninism," which has
traditionally asserted that the states which called themselves "socialist"
in the USSR, China, Eastern Europe, Vietnam and Korea, did, in fact, reflect
"theories of socialism." But that is false. The ideologies that drove the
development of these bureaucratic states was not "production for use rather
than for profit" but "production for the benefit of the bureaucracy rather
than for the profit of the capitalist class." Thus what was involved here
were theories of bureaucratic domination masquerading as theories of
socialism, not theories of socialism in any proper sense of that term. Goff
is quite wrong to blame Marxism for this usurpation of Marxist rhetoric and
terminology in the cause of bureaucratic domination. And it leads him to a
terrible dead-end in terms of his ideological conclusions.
He follows with more explanations of why such an erroneous approach cannot
be transplanted to American soil. No argument from me, or from anyone else
who is actually committed to socialism. But the entire discussion is quite
beside the point. It is meaningless as an argument against genuine socialist
or Marxist organization which does not base itself on a
"The tendency to compartmentalize, to which I myself fall prey, and which is
an essential part of the dominant ideology into which we are all trained
from birth, combines with the conservatism of institutions that
characterizes even very radical political formations."
This is an important and useful observation. I would go even further. I
agree with those who say that the tendency to compartmentalize (to
categorize, to segregate things into classes that are exclusive and
intellectually cut off from one another) is a reflection of the way the
human brain works. It is essential and extremely useful-part of our ability
to think in abstract ways. But it is also constraining, and therefore a
negative, because it keeps us from seeing essential aspects of the reality
we confront every day. We see many details, and yet do not see them. We
allow ourselves to acknowledge only those aspects of what we see that fit
neatly into the preconceived categories we have already constructed.
The Marxist method, based on a materialist dialectic, is the absolutely
essential antidote to this normal human tendency. If we base ourselves on
the dialectical method it allows us to consciously break down the categories
into which we automatically place things, decompartmentalize them, see the
interrelatedness and interconnectedness of particular aspects of reality
that would otherwise remain in exclusive mental categories. Thus the Marxist
method itself holds the key to breaking out of the trap that Goff describes.
Unfortunately, too many people-basing themselves on Marxist doctrine (which,
for all of the reasons described above, does and must capitulate to our need
for abstract categorization)-fail to simultaneously break down these
categories in their thinking using a dialectical method. Too much so-called
"Marxism" is purely academic, schematic, rigid, doctrinaire (that is,
undialectical) and therefore not really Marxism at all. It is this
anti-Marxist Marxism that we need to critique and correct. But to do so it
is necessary to simultaneously reaffirm Marxism-both the method and the
legitimate doctrine, including in particular the centrality of the working
class and the need for active and conscious working-class organization.
"The Marxist doctrinal belief that the working class represents the
potentially liberatory force within the primary contradiction - a notion
that is, in my view, plain mysticism posing as a 'scientific doctrine' - of
bourgeois-proletariat, attempts to override the demonstrable fact that
patriarchy is an older, deeper, and more durable 'contradiction,' that the
most turbulent and transformative struggles of the 20th Century, while often
under the leadership of Marxists, had a primarily national character, and
that they were more often carried out by majority-masses of peasants, not
The very idea of a "primary contradiction" and "secondary contradiction" has
its origins in a particular variety of "Marxist" thought-that of the
"Marxist-Leninist" or Maoist currents. It represents one of the rigid,
schematic, and undialectical aspects of that ideology, and I believe that
Goff is quite right to critique it. He is wrong, however, to call this a
"Marxist doctrinal belief." As noted, we can go back to Engels's "Origin of
the Family" to get an appreciation of how well the founders of Marxism
understood the depth and importance of patriarchy as a system of oppression.
Goff is also quite right to cite the role of peasants and semi-proletarians
in many of the revolutionary struggles of the 20th century, struggles for
national liberation in particular. The only thing a Marxist would say, armed
with the Marxist method and doctrine, is: Acknowledging the importance of
patriarchy, and acknowledging the essential role of the peasantry and
semi-proletarians in struggles for national liberation, the only solution to
the quest for liberation that underlie these struggles is one that also
engages the working class. If the working class fails to overthrow
capitalism then the struggle of the peasantry, and the struggle against
patriarchy are, at best, doomed to a tragic cycle of partial victory
followed by the return of "all the old crap" in a different form. We have
seen this confirmed often enough in the past 100 years.
"It is only possible, then, in my view for now, at least - and I am
enthusiastic about saying I could be wrong - to effect the basis for any
genuine and sustainable resistance movement in the United States by first
attending to the question of local community independence, beginning with
the material basics: food security, water security, energy security, access
to learning, and a health infrastructure."
These are all essential things to pay attention to. But why does Goff insist
on a "first" and second (or third or fourth)? Why cannot Marxists pay
attention to these elements and also to the working class as a class?
Indeed, isn't paying attention to the working class as a class an essential
piece of fighting for the local community independence he describes? Who has
the most obvious interest, and the most obvious social power, in such
struggles? Is Goff not, perhaps, falling into precisely the categorization
error that he warns us against earlier?
"The implications of the incorporation of energetics, and chaos theory, and
of the patriarchy in the very DNA of the myth of 'scientific objectivity,'
are not add-ons to Marxism that will leave its basic structure unaltered.
They produce a comprehensive change in how we understand the world. and if
we are in a DC organization, that means we reject it."
By all means let us not rest secure in an insular structure. Let us
challenge Marxism with every new scientific discovery. As a great fan of
chaos theory, for example, I happen to believe that it can make a profound
contribution to the idea of dialectics as a genuine reflection of the
material world, not merely a convenient philosophical method (something of a
debate among Marxists historically). But let's also be cautious about
adapting to prevailing (inevitably bourgeois) philosophical notions about
what specific scientific discoveries mean for us. In most cases, alternative
interpretations are possible. Consider, again, the philosophical
implications of Darwinism for the eugenicists of the 19th and 20th
centuries. Theirs was the prevailing social assumption of the time. It is
not hard for us to see how important it was for Marxists to resist it. The
random events of quantum mechanics have led some philosophers to postulate
the absolute negation of causality in the world. But we can, reasonably,
take a more dialectical view and insist that causality still reflects a
reasonable philosophical outlook on the macro level.
It is, therefore, unlikely that any particular scientific discovery actually
requires us to accept, or reject, any particular aspect of Marxist doctrine.
These still need to stand, or be challenged, on their own merits.
Finally, I agree with Goff completely when he writes:
"Any revolutionary movement that has a prayer of taking hold in the US must
be organic, that is, self-organizing, and consist of small and many
independent, but networked, practical efforts. The larger any organization
is, in personnel or in scope or in geography, the more the institutional
tail begins to wag the mission dog. This is no longer pop science. With
increased scale, the tooth-to-tail, operations-to-administration/management
ratio of any organization shifts correspondingly. Larger scale, smaller
ration of energy invested in operations, higher into management. The average
human is only bio-psychologically equipped to handle around 150
relationships in the absence of administration (Dunbar's number), and a
bunch of those people are already family and friends."
But we can affirm all of this and still dispute Goff's conclusions that the
entire structure of Marxism (in particular its commitment to the working
class as the one most essential and indispensable agent of social change)
must be overturned in order to achieve the integration he seeks. Indeed,
without that core understanding-and all of the implications that flow from
it in terms of socialist organization-Goff has not achieved an integration
(a dialectical negation, or synthesis) at all. He has achieved a negation
that falls into the very human trap of categorizing things in ways that are
"But has the left even studied this cross-disciplinary discovery? No. We
just say we have to struggle against bureaucratism without ever trying to
identify its origins. If it hasn't been mentioned by the pantheon, we don't
know it. And if it doesn't extend directly from the pantheon, we reject it."
Again, I do not recognize this critique as a valid one regarding the Marxist
tradition I come from. We may fail, because there are human limits
(especially for small groups) in our ability to integrate all of the
contemporary discoveries and realities that it would be useful for us to
synthesize. But there is no ideological obstacle. There is, in fact, a great
ideological hunger. I will not take the time to document this hunger in the
writings of Marxists I admire-from Engels through Trotsky through Ernest
Mandel and others. But I confidently assert that it could be done..
I therefore reject Goff's conclusion:
"Again, this is not a moral or intellectual failure. It is, I believe, a
failure that is hard-wired into the organizations' structural-practical
dialectic, into Marxism-as-a-doctrine.
"It is my opinion, at least at this point in time, that leftist organization
in this disciplinary cadre model is not only incapable of bringing the
refoundation of an effective politics of resistance into being, it stands as
a real impediment to any refoundation process for a wide-scale politics of
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