[Marxism] Long posts not allowed??

Joaquin Bustelo jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Wed Sep 16 00:27:21 MDT 2009

Carroll: "none of those posts ever bothered even to hint that perhaps we
should ask Lenin's question (even if we didn't accept his answers, which fit
1905): WITBD."

"The absence of interest in this question; in fact the absence any hint that
the question existed, pretty much convinced me that the list was only
concerned with daily movement for its own sake (a la bernstein), with hopes
for the future occasionally thrown in for decoration."

Those of us that have been around for a while have all had occasion, often
many, to hear and perhaps even participate in formulating very self-assured
and categorical responses to the question of What Is To Be Done. While some
may disagree, blaming the vicissitudes of their particular sect or current
on objective circumstances, the perfidy of the bureaucracy (whether of the
misnamed "socialist" countries of unhappy memory or the almost as misnamed
U.S. "labor" movement), I believe the fault lies not in the stars, but in

Never mind not believing his answers a century ago apply to our situation,
Lenin posed the question WITBD at a specific time, when the Russian labor
movement was mature enough to make possible the drawing together of
scattered elements into a genuine workers party. The conditions that would
make possible the drawing together of such a party do not exist in the
United States nor have they for many decades. (I leave aside the question of
whether the Henry Wallace Movement, the Peace and Freedom Party, the Greens,
the Nader campaigns or similar could have eventually opened the door or led
to such a party. At any rate none of those efforts were a labor party, not
even in embryo because they lacked any real or organic connection to the
class movement, and that mainly because there is no politically independent
class movement.)

All the myths about "Leninist party" notwithstanding, WITBD is not about
organization at bottom but rather about the relationship between the nascent
party and the working class movement of which the party is the political
expression. That is why despite his insistence on the need for skilled
conspirators working underground ("professional revolutionaries") he did not
treat the RSDLP as a closed circle with only members allowed access to
"internal" debates but rather these were carried out in public through
articles in the periodical press and special pamphlets. That is because in
Lenin's conception, which is the Marxist conception, the party is rooted in,
grows out of the actual class movement when it reaches a certain level of
development. That sort of class movement is precisely what we lack.

The most eloquent testimony to the lack of conditions anything like those
that led Lenin to pose his famous question is that with all sorts of
socialist groups in the U.S. adopting policies of colonization of factories,
industrial concentration, making their home in the working class, turning to
industry, or whatever phrase the specific outfit chose in order to claim
they were doing something different from everybody else, when in reality
they were all doing pretty much the same thing, none of them recruited a
single genuine hereditary proletarian from all their union and workplace
focus, or as close to as makes no difference. Instead, the union work
"recruited" socialists by the score into dropping their work as socialists.
This is not just a question of people adopting a mask or being discrete to
protect their livelihood or approaching their coworkers at a level they can
understand. I believe rather it is a function of the kind of labor movement
that we have, what Lenin called "a bourgeois labour movement." (See
"Imperialism and the Split in Socialism" here:

Attempts by socialists to seriously lead current unions have led to some
more militant, combative or honest union leaderships, but has not meant a
break with the bourgeois labor movement, and cannot do so under current
circumstances because it is not a question of ideas in someone's head but
rather social realities. Bourgeois forces are completely hegemonic in the
organized labor movement. So for example, arguments in favor of political
independence from bourgeois parties in unions today have a completely
theoretical and unreal character, because a real party of working people
does not exist. And even if you had been able to convince some local or
other body to back Nader in one of his presidential campaigns, or McKinney,
the real meaning of that position is that the union is trying to pressure
the bourgeois  parties, usually the Democrats, into making more concessions.
And for all the other positions involved in the election, for Congress,
state legislature, city council, etc., the unions will back the Democrat or
if s/he is particularly repugnant, abstain in the given race, which has
pretty much the same meaning as voting for Nader, a move to pressure the
Democrats, not a break with them.

A similar statement could be made about the Black community and Black
organizations. Among Latinos things are a little looser because of the large
number of non-citizen immigrants and especially the undocumented. That said
there is no alternative there either. 

And I think there is a reason why we have a "bourgeois labour movement,"
which is the relatively privileged position of working people in the U.S.
compared to the world as a whole. This is what Lenin pointed to about the
proletariat of imperialist countries that had led to the emergence of
opportunist bourgeois labor parties or trends in one country after another.
Lenin cites Engels, and what Engels said about a tendency in Britain in the
1850's is true about the United States a century and a half later.

>From Lenin's article:

"In a letter to Marx, dated October 7, 1858, Engels wrote: '...The English
proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most
bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession
of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the
bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course
to a certain extent justifiable.'"

Lenin emphasizes that Marx and Engels followed for decades this opportunist
current born from the privileged position of many workers in England. "In a
letter to Kautsky, dated September 12, 1882, Engels wrote: 'You ask me what
the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as
they think about politics in general. There is no workers' party here, there
are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the
feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.'"

Although the position of the U.S. in the world economy has slipped over the
decades, it is still by far the richest and most powerful imperialist
country, "first among equals" by a huge margin. (And the main imperialist
countries taken as a whole also have enormously privileged populations, but
that is a subject for someone else).

I do not believe that this situation is *absolutely* deterministic. Both
because lived experience contradicts it: the sixties were a period that
culminated an extraordinary quarter-century rise in living standards but
were also a period of intense radicalization in the United States, and also
because in general such vulgar materialism is clearly wrong. But just as
clearly the bourgeoisification of the US Labor Movement is rooted in that

And we should keep in mind that even a radicalization as widespread and
powerful as the 60's, which threw into motion layer after layer of victims
of specific types of oppression, did not lead to a "workers movement"
comparable to, say, the Black movement or gay movement. And for all the
criticism of "identity politics" among Blacks or women or whoever, it hasn't
occurred to anyone to complain about working class identity politics. The
working class is not cohered even at the most primitive level.

So what has kept socialist groups alive? 

The truth is that since the late 1950's U.S. socialist groups have been
attracting primarily by young people from the campuses, i.e. the
intelligentsia or those headed in that direction. The group that has been
(relatively) more successful in recent times --the ISO-- has the campuses as
their main arena, as the SWP/YSA did during their period of greatest success
decades ago. 

In the 60's and early 70's, some groups also recruited among younger Blacks
outside the university arena and milieus, but that was due to the intense
radicalization and the Black struggle which had been sustained for more than
a decade. As it turned out, the bourgeoisie was able to re-establish its
hegemony over the Black community although not without substantial
concessions, not just abolition of Jim Crow and other legislative measures,
but also including extensive Black political representation and the creation
of a qualitatively larger and much more privileged Black middle class from
which some genuine bourgeois have begun to emerge. And, of course, a savage
wave of repression first against radicals and now sustained against the bulk
of the Black community as such.

I do not believe there has been in the more recent decades significant Black
affiliation to radical groups that is fundamentally different from that of
the general population. 

I believe there is a straightforward explanation for this. The basic idea is
explained in the Manifesto of the Communist Party:

"Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the
progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the
whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that
a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the
revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as,
therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the
bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the
proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who
have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the
historical movement as a whole."

Obviously, at least in the United States, we aren't nearing "the decisive
hour" but that isn't true on a world scale. The decisive hour, considering
the world as a whole, has been with us for more than 90 years. And it is
certainly true that "the ... dissolution going on ... within the whole range
of old society, assumes ... a violent, glaring character." The injustices,
abuses, absurdities, and most of all the chasm between what is and what
could obviously be given existing technology if only society were organized
differently is what radicalizes young people who are focused on ideas and
social and political questions. I think that is enough -- unless I misread
Marx and Engels, "comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a
whole" doesn't mean having Marx and Engels's understanding but rather an
overall vision that sees the kind of society we have and should have. And it
is a much broader layer than the Manifesto suggests, as a result of the
social changes since then. In those days, the number of people who devoted
themselves to studies of ideas, etc., even if only for a time, was very
small and obviously therefore drawn from the thinnest upper crust of
bourgeois society. Today it is a much broader and much more substantial

I think it is time that the socialist left accepted this reality, and
reoriented accordingly. It would be ideal if the better, non-sectarian or at
least less sectarian largely dispersed older cadre that has drawn at least
some lessons from our experiences cohered to transmit those insights to new
generations. However, the chances of this happening are not encouraging, nor
do I have any realistic plan to achieve it.

Does this mean that I consider union or community work to be worthless, a
waste of time? No I don't, for two reasons. At some point there will be a
resurgence of the class movement, at which point exemplary struggles or
activities or organizing will acquire tremendous importance. And in the
meantime such work can play a big role in the development of cadre. 

But we should not pretend that our organizations today are mainly about
being the precursors or clearing the way to or planting the seed of the
future genuinely proletarian labor movement and eventually party. We can't
possibly know whether that will be true but more importantly, deciding what
we do today on the basis of what we imagine might or must be the course of
development far into the future ("far" in terms of political distance and
evolution, not necessarily in years, in time) is precisely one of the things
experience has shown to be a mistake. Organizational forms and activities
should be determined by the needs of the day, current political objectives
geared to current political realities.

And the current political realities are that the youth/student milieus are
the primary audience and source of potential recruits of the socialist

It was Engels who said that in times of reaction, even sects play a
progressive role, for they keep alive the ideas of socialism. This doesn't
mean going out of our way to set up one or more sects. But in a certain
sense any socialist organization in the U.S. today will be at least a
semi-sect: of necessity it will be isolated from the genuine class movement,
since the latter is precisely what we haven't got. What we should draw from
Engels's comment is that keeping socialist ideas, the U.S. socialist
movement, alive is --or should be-- a central priority.

This is not an attempt to write a modern WITBD for that was not only an
argument rooted in the relationship of the party to its class but a
practical plan to cohere that party, the elements of which already existed
but were scattered. I have no practical plan -- not one that seems to have
any chance of working.

What is needed is for the different socialist groups to come together in a
reasonable, i.e., non-"Leninist" organization. Why not "Leninist"? And why
"Leninist" in quotes? Because what's come down to us as "the Leninist Party"
is largely a post-Lenin creation rooted in an attempt to mechanically
replicate the Russian experience and then corrupted by the emerging Soviet
bureaucracy. (For a fuller treatment of this, see "Critical Comments on
Democratic Centralism," originally written as an article for Solidarity's
Discussion Bulletin. That article is here:

Yet although the evidence is overwhelming that history will dissolve them,
or worse, turn them into monstrous caricatures like happened to the main
Trotskyist groups (but not only them) in post-WWII Britain, United States
and Argentina (at least twice there), none of our Leninist groups have shown
any inclination to abandon this cult of the organization that originated
with the Comintern.

One of the main reasons to abandon Comintern-descended "democratic
centralism" is that in all its variants it has proved unable to contain
differences. Whenever serious divergences, even on strictly tactical
questions arise, or worse, purely theoretical/"political" questions that
affect only articles in the group's newspaper, there is a strong tendency
for a split to take place. 

Another is that you wind up creating not self-reliant cadre able to analyze
and think things through for themselves but people who pretty much
automatically accept whatever revelation the group's top leader or leaders
have had.

But the most important reason is that history has rendered a verdict on the
"Leninist Party" schema. And that is that it doesn't work. After nine
decades, no one has replicated the "classic" Russian model. 

Nothing I'm saying here is new and probably there is nothing here that
hasn't been explained better by others. But so strong a hold does the
"Leninist party" tradition have that even the most obvious things -- like
that the Bolsheviks didn't have "internal" discussions and that their
leadership was a half dozen people, way too small to try to micromanage
local party units -- leave them unaffected. This is one reason why I have
tended to shy away from these discussions in recent years -- there isn't
much point to them because most of the time the "Leninists" will not
seriously take it up.


More information about the Marxism mailing list