[Marxism] Why "Leninism" persists

Ken Hiebert knhiebert at shaw.ca
Thu Feb 7 18:39:46 MST 2013

Pham Binh said:
Someone asked why the “Leninist” form persists despite the fall of the USSR and the fact that our historical context is nothing like Lenin’s. The proper, historical materialist answer of course must be context-specific: Louis Proyect joined the American SWP in 1967, I joined the ISO in 1999, Dan Dimaggio joined Socialist Alternative in 1999(?), and our experiences differed in many ways. However, there are also commonalities. 

Some of the underlying reasons these organizational forms persist and why they manage to continually attract enough “fresh layers of activists” to survive are the following: 

- The groups are built to survive, to self-perpetuate. They are built to resist hostile political environments; they are, in a sense, timeless. The flip side of their change-resistant, inflexible nature is that they (despite their best intentions) end up blocking the growth of bigger and qualitatively better forms (CWI’s withdrawal from ULA is a case in point; when the going got tough, they got going), forms that can gain a mass following and become a home to radical workers instead of just small numbers of students and ex-students when objective conditions become favorable to these types of initiatives. 

- These groups have answers. Not just any answers, but the answers. This is what Wayne Collins was talking about in his piece, “The Trotskyist Experience.” Toy Bolshevism on the face of it is a pretty serious-looking arsenal: a disciplined organization, a newspaper, a publishing company, a routine of activities, a mapped-out strategy of how to end capitalism (supposedly) based on historical precedent. 

All of this adds up to a sense of certainty and clarity that really is priceless on the battlefield; it’s why militaries spend so much time conditioning recruits to act without thinking, shoot without  questioning. Yours is not to reason why, yours is to do and die, for the “greater good.” Like cannon fodder, your sacrifice may cost you a lot individually but in the big scheme of things it will pay off in helping defeat the enemy (capitalism). 

- There Is No Alternative. This is the final reason these groups persist. The number of people who are attracted to and join these types of groups tends to dry up (or perhaps pales in comparison is a better way of saying it) once big historic (class) battles get moving. Witness the failure of these types of groups to grow into anything approaching a mass force in Venezuela over the past decade (2002-2012), in Egypt during the Arab Spring over the past two years, or to use American examples, the U.S. SWP in the 60s and the 30s despite the tremendous role that organization played in the Viet Nam era and in the Teamster fights out in Minneapolis. 

The attractiveness of these groups to radicals is inversely proportional to the level of class/anti-capitalist struggle. When the 60s tide receded, people clung as hard as they could to what hope they had by staying in groups like the SWP despite their dysfunctional nature because they, through their own choices and experiences, were conditioned to do anything but think outside the box. It was only after they left or were expelled, independent of the group and its group-think, that they began to really think for themselves (this applies to my own case as well). (Someone wrote a book about this dynamic called “Bounded Choice.” Well worth looking into if you’re into untangling this mess from the insider’s point of view.) 

Ken Hiebert responds:
Pham, in my view, sees only negative reasons why someone would join a small left group.  I see a positive reason.
My recollection of 1966-67 is that as I radicalized I felt an urgent need for action. I was drawn to others who were active.  As long as young people are presented with a choice between a group of activists and a collection of embittered ex-members, it is a safe bet that they will choose the activists.  This activism could be as little as regular propaganda work.  Of course, if the ex-members continue to contribute to a variety of struggles, that is a different matter.  These ex-members can expect that their views will get a hearing.
I recall that I was drawn to the "New Left."  In (English) Canada the Student Union for Peace Action was a rough equivalent of SDS in the US.  I bought their entire catalogue of pamphlets.  i had time to read them in the summer of 1966 as I was in a remote place working a summer job.  When I got back to Vancouver I was hoping to get active in SUPA.  This did not happen.  They were not organized as a group in Vancouver, although I believe there were some supporters.
I still felt a need to get active with like-minded people, so i took the next choice, the Young Socialists, associated with the League for Socialist Action.  I joined with some apprehension, fearing they would seek to impose an intellectual strait-jacket on me.  But that was not my experience and to this day i remain a supporter of the Fourth International.

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