[Marxism] Paul Le Blanc on the SWP crisis

Manuel Barrera mtomas3 at hotmail.com
Fri Feb 1 10:53:34 MST 2013

Paul LeBlanc is a revolutionary with much insight and
thoughtfulness and of all those associated with the ISO, I have found him less
sectarian and close-minded than much of what I hear from them when they become
defensive about how close-minded they can be regarding their interactions with
other revolutionaries. My impression has been that many ISO members are
genuinely hard working and focused on socialist politics and their “interventions”
into the mass movement but their participations in many of the political
discussions here and elsewhere seem often trenchant and dismissive; much like,
I think, was my experience when I was active in the U.S. SWP. Indeed, Louis has
often remarked here that ISO members remind him of many of us in the former
U.S. SWP during our time of “broader appeal”. So, it was great interest that I
read Paul’s contribution to the discussion on the UK SWP crisis. I was
interested to see how he might provide some guidance to ISO members for how to
engage the issue of what I would prefer to call democracy and action rather
than “democratic centralism”. 

There is much to read in Paul’s commentary, but I prefer to
let others like Louis to engage a more detailed analysis and reply to it. I do
not care to try to “out-understand Lenin” and the history of the Russian
Bolsheviks with Paul; the topic, frankly, has always left me puzzled about
its true relevance for a period that is so much more different and advanced—in the
sense that Time has moved on—as we now endure. I’m sure Paul “has it right”
when he details his understanding of Lenin’s role (and, perhaps, “tactical”
complicity?) with the aspects of democratic centralism and the “traditions” of
Bolshevism. In fact, I believe both Paul and people like Louis “have it right”,
paradoxical as it may seem. This is my point; there is a fallacy about
correctness “by quote” inherent in many of the polemics we have been all too
accustomed to engaging, an exercise in “if only we just get an accurate ‘reading’
of what Lenin meant, we will be able to convince more people or at least make
our opponent in the debate put to shame, you know, for our immensely superior
command of fact and embedded principle”. 

At bottom, when all the quotes have been made and all the
analysis accurately made in eloquence and erudition, what we have is two (or
more) people’s opinion of fact and principle. What everyone else who reads and
opines is left to doing is to follow one or another formula, based on “Leninist”
principles, for how to “make a revolution”. 

Sadly, no revolution can be made this way because, well,
revolutions, by definition, will not follow a recipe and the “true”
revolutionary party will not come forward based on “tradition”. The historic
flaw in “Leninist analysis” by so many, especially, the organized socialist
movement today has been this very notion; that a party that leads the
revolutionary class will occur based on the notion that “the organizational
forms and norms associated >with Leninism< [my emphasis] must be applied
creatively and flexibly, continually adapting to the shifting political,
social, cultural realities faced by revolutionaries” (LeBlanc). If Lenin, didn’t
operate in such a way—both Louis and Paul essentially make that point, Louis
directly and Paul by elucidating how Lenin’s approach changed at different
times—how would such a formula be relevant to us today? 

In my view, Louis is
correct to observe that the forms of “Leninism” really have more to do with
sectarian applications of a dated historical event—the Russian Revolution and
the Bolsheviks’ role—and are neither accurate nor directly applicable. Louis
argues for not circumscribing the development of a revolutionary party based
some extant organization, no matter how “creatively and flexibly” Leninist
principles are applied because the only true revolutionary party that is
relevant is the one that is created by the revolutionary upsurge that will necessarily
occur if a revolution comes into being. Everything that organizations do until
then to create “networks” and build a common tradition of unity will facilitate
the strength and effectiveness of such a Party as it comes into formation in
the context of an actual struggle. Paul argues that a Leninist party is the one
which will “creatively and flexibly” apply Leninist principles including democracy
and centralism combined. He argues further that Louis, and others may have a
point, but that point is just a description of what he and ISO are already
doing, so, what’s the problem? To be fair, I do believe that ISO, as one
example, is indeed “creative” although I would not consider them all that flexible.

The problems really seem to emanate from the “formula” or,
rather the attraction to formulae for building revolutionary leadership; the
attraction to the one erudite leader or group of leaders. But if, indeed, a
party—in this “Pre” pre-revolutionary period is to be creative and flexible,
might it not recognize that no matter how successfully it attracts members and
educates then that such “largeness” is paradoxical in the development of an
actual mass party? If a revolutionary organization—as opposed to a mass
revolutionary party—is truly conscious as a “vanguard layer, might it not
understand that they could not possibly encompass the wealth of talent and
knowledge within their perhaps larg(er), but not “mass” confines? That, perhaps
not only might other such organizations actually attract and educate additional
cadres with a different perspective on “tradition” or that there may be in the “general
population” of revolutionaries, more independent-minded comrades who are not
interested in the confined space of a revolutionary “vanguard” organization,
but are truly interested in getting to the larger mass phenomenon that would
result in a veritable mass revolutionary party? In short, might it not be
possible that we should never confuse our “success” in getting “bigger” with
the need and the future development of an actual mass revolutionary party? 

believe that was what Marx meant when he wrote the following in the Communist

“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the
other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from
those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian
principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”
(Chapter 2)

Hence, I was struck by Paul’s 4 “principles” that he
attributed to Louis as constituting the basis of Louis’ argument. I am not sure
if Louis would agree with Paul’s interpretation of his views, but I do not.
Regarding point #1, Paul asserts that a revolutionary vanguard layer “consists
of those who have more information, analyses, organizing know-how, a sense of
how to get from the oppressive "here" to the more desirable
"there," and a greater conscious political passion than the majority.”

I would not characterize Louis’ points that way, but in any
case, I do not believe that the existence of a vanguard layer is based on those
who “know” more. Rather, there is a conscious layer of revolutionary-minded
people and within that are activists who have had a tremendous wealth of experience
for how to get from “here to there”, but that is not the same thing as saying
that such a layer “knows” how to make a revolution or “to connect with and help
radicalize and mobilize growing sectors of that working-class majority.” If “they”
did, where did that happen so that they could “know” how to do it now? The fact
that a “vanguard layer . . . is multifaceted, not concentrated in a single
organization, and some who are part of it are not necessarily in any
revolutionary organization” is only a reflection of the fact that we are All
too small and that we need to be much more humble in our appraisals of our “information,
analyses, . . .and greater conscious political passion than the majority”. 

Then, Paul goes that the notion of left unity (at least what
he attributes to Louis) is that “Only through the coordinated efforts of
different components of this broad vanguard layer will it become possible to
mobilize tens of thousands . . . in serious challenges to the capitalist status
quo”. This point seems a little mechanistic if it were an accurate reflection
of Louis’ or anybody else’s thinking. Again, my reading of Louis’ works do not
read that way to me, but more importantly, the point of a true left unity is
not about creating some military “strategic command” from which all leftists
will work in concert to mobilize the masses. Rather, I believe (and I hope
Louis and others do also) that we can never hope to contribute to a “tradition”
of coordinated mass united action within the revolutionary class if we do not
actually practice it. We may not end up as the “leaders” of a mass
revolutionary party, but we certainly will not if we do not develop such
traditions ourselves in the here and now. To argue that left unity is about us,
now, “coordinat[ing] efforts . . .to mobilize” the masses is just another
version of vanguardism and Paul would be correct to ask why do that if ISO or
whomever is the “big kid on the block” are already trying to be such a
vanguard? Organizationally, revolutionary “vanguardists” (and ISO is one, too)
seem to like to put “the cart before the horse” thinking that the steps and
stages of a mass revolutionary movement begin with a kernel and then grow from
there. Revolution isn’t a crop and revolutionaries are not farmers. As Malcolm
X once said “I’m for whatever gets results”. That should be our tradition. We’ll
do what it takes, no concern for our personal “correctness”, no hubris in being
“the biggest” and no complacency in some “long view” of history. History will
of course take longer than we like, but because that is so, it does not mean we
act as if we “have all the time in the world”. We fight for results; we try to
do it now and the time it will take will be just that.

LaBlanc then attributes to Louis the notion that building revolutionary
consciousness through democratic and public debate “while continuing to
collaborate closely in the mass struggles” as “the pathway to revolution. I do
not believe democracy and public debate are pathway to revolution, but that
such a tradition has a more limited albeit crucial goal; to build trust among
revolutionaries that all ideas should be tested in struggle and the concomitant
development of democratic traditions for engaging in the very real processes of
democratic government once the working class actually comes to power. The
masses of people, especially in our “America” of power equaling privilege, will
need for the revolutionary leadership to lead in the fight to develop
democratic traditions that combat bureaucracy, demagogy, and hierarchical thinking
on how socialism must actually work to be successful. Democratic and public
debate for purposes of testing our perspective in the real world and with our
class are not some formula for “revolution” but a necessary skill and tradition
that will presage the very kinds processes we need at the advent of working
class power—one of the true lessons we should have learned from the Bolshevik
Revolution and its subsequent demise at the hands of imperialist hegemony and the
revolution’s succumbing to scourge of bureaucracy born of want and economic
warfare. Socialism is all about democracy and “we” do not have it if we do not
practice it.

Finally, Paul describes Louis’ notion that “there is no need
for programmatic agreement” among a united revolutionary left on what may be “irrelevant
matters” in history; that the decisive element in orientation should be the
Communist Manifesto and all other matters are subordinate to those elements. Of
all the principles that Paul attributes to Louis, this one seems less
contentious to him and, as Paul expresses, “makes sense” to him. It’s a pity
that desire and behavior are not always in concert. 

I was glad to see that Paul was so much more supportive,
certainly more so than others, of the notions of unity, but as we can see,
those notions are only interpretable from our own predilections and world view.
If you are in a “Leninist” organization, what makes “sense” to you may not
actually be what—or how—you are reading or hearing. Learning, at least for a
Marxist, should always be defined as a change in behavior. What we do defines
what we actually mean about what we “say”. In a different post, comrade Pham
Binh has observed that the ISO is by far in the best position to lead by
example, but as yet today, what we read and hear—and see—are agreements about
what “makes sense” to them, but precious little leadership to move outward; not
that every other tendency or individual is by no means any better. A collective
will is necessary to be established and that can only happen by changes in
behavior not words. Talking, make no mistake, is good. Indeed, we should do
more of it and, most important, face to face. A tradition of real dialogue—let it
first be about the dialogue itself if we wish—means that what we do will aid us
in what we eventually decide to say (and, by the way, these ideas do not
emanate from Skinner and rats, but from L. Vygotsky, a forgotten, but important
Marxist voice in the context of learning and education). 

Further down in the Communist Manifesto—below the earlier
phrase about communists not forming parties to oppose other working class
parties (yeah, he may have meant unions and such, but I choose to believe it to
be applicable to us, too), Marx writes “In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the
single sentence: Abolition of private property.” I submit that we should
take that point to heart when it comes to the building of a mass revolutionary
party as well. None of us “owns” the franchise to revolution. We must build it
together. It begins by doing together. 

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