Getting our priorities straight: Paul Le Blanc responds to Luke Cooper

Flint sit-down strike (1936-1937). A vanguard layer of the working class, reflected in the vibrant militancy and radicalism of the massive Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The following is a reply to Luke Cooper's "Debating 'Leninism': a reply to Paul Le Blanc", which was a response to Le Blanc's "Leninism for now". More articles by or about Paul Le Blanc can be found HERE.Click HERE to see the entire discussion between Paul Le Blanc and Luke Cooper.

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June 21, 2013 -- IS Network, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Paul Le Blanc's permission -- First of all, I would like to thank Luke Cooper for his thoughtful engagement with some of what I had to say in my presentation at this year’s “Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times” gathering. Although – alas! – he has chosen only a fragment of my remarks on which to focus, and in doing so has risked what seems to me a distortion in what should be a more interesting conversation. I will engage with what he actually says, but I intend to push outward from that in the final portions of this response. (My “Leninism for Dangerous Times” presentation can be found here, and Luke’s “Debating ‘Leninism” is here.)

I suspect that Luke and I (if only we lived in the same country) might well belong in a common, united revolutionary organisation, if not now then perhaps soon. The reasons for that will be hinted at in some of what I have to say here. In any event, I look forward to a richer and more useful discussion between us than is allowed for in the terrain that he seems to have mapped out for this particular interchange. I will want to take up the historical questions that are posed in Luke’s article, but first I do want to deal a bit more with the road not taken.

The road not taken

Among my favourite poems is that by Robert Frost, which has the same title as the above subtitle. It ends with these lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

The norm among all too many on the left, in our time, is to indulge in polemics in which one shows that one’s own views are Correct, in stark contrast to those of the Opponent. So much energy of those identifying with socialist revolution is devoted to hacking away at others also identifying with revolutionary socialism, with less energy and attention being devoted to the daunting task of how – practically speaking – one can really advance toward the goal that both claim to desire. Little grass grows on that polemical pathway these days, it being the much easier road to take.

Luke had an opportunity to take the road less travelled by. Given the quality of the valuable book he co-authored with Simon Hardy (Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics), and of the interventions of his Anti-Capitalist Initiative group, I am inclined to expect quite a lot from him and from his immediate circle of comrades. So I am disappointed that he chose to rivet his attention on the historical questions having to do with US Trotskyism in the 1940s, where I expressed a difference with him. He passes over in virtual silence the bulk of what I had to say, where I think there may be more common ground, but also a number of tough practical-political issues that require much more collective effort.

There are a couple of practical political matters that do surface in what Luke has to say, however, and I will touch on these after moving through the bulk of his polemic.

I must confess that I am startled that Luke considers it a fitting rejoinder to me to assert: “TROTSKYISM is dead. Long live Trotskyism.” He then concludes with a long quote from a couple of decades back, which appeared in an article by my good friend and comrade Alan Wald – the end of the actual quote being “TROTSKYISM is dead!!! Long live trotskyism.” All of which poses a terrible dilemma. What should we do? How many exclamation points? (Should there even be none?) How many letters should we capitalise or not capitalise – all the letters, only the first, or none? What do these differences actually mean? And who cares? And why?

Perhaps my reaction is related to the fact that I have just spent a week and a half in the wondrous continent-country of Australia, bathed in the comradeship of wonderful people, largely members of a couple of different revolutionary socialist groups. I would happily be a member of either Socialist Alternative (which I think considers itself Trotskyist) or Socialist Alliance (which definitely does not consider itself Trotskyist). And I would be working for revolutionary socialist unity in each – patiently but diligently – while also working to make my organisation (whichever it was) an effective force for revolution, democracy and socialism.

And now to the historical questions.

The historical questions

I am sympathetic with the spirit, but I am not sure that I fully agree with substance, of Luke’s relatively sweeping assertion that "revolutions are in fact made by coalitions".

I have studied closely three twentieth century revolutions – the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979, the Cuban revolution of 1959 and the Russian revolution of 1917. All could be said to have involved coalitions of one sort or another. But to make the point in the manner that Luke does, it seems to me, is actually to distort the historical reality.

In the Russian insurrection of 1917, the Bolsheviks were joined (as Luke notes) by Left Socialist Revolutionaries, but also by anarchists, plus some left Mensheviks, plus many others not involved in any of these, working through the all-embracing soviets. (By the way, contrary to Luke’s assertion, I think it can be argued that it was not a “concession to win unity” that caused Lenin to embrace the demand of all land to the peasants but rather the belief that this was necessary to secure peasant support for winning the revolution. More accurate, I think, is the oft-repeated assertion that the Bolsheviks “stole” the Socialist-Revolutionary party’s program – although this contributed to the Left SR party making common cause with the Bolsheviks.)

But there simply would not have been an insurrection without the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik party was the only cohesive force capable of providing the leadership for what happened. There is no serious, fact-based historical narrative that I am aware of arguing otherwise.

The same seems to me to have basically been the case in Nicaragua. The key force was the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front), combining a powerful revolutionary Marxist orientation with guerrillaism and revolutionary nationalism – which had undergone a split into three factions (the Prolonged Peoples War tendency, the Proletarian tendency, the Insurrectional tendency) but then reunited to blend their differing tactical approaches into a winning strategy. Other groups and forces were also involved, but the key – the revolutionary leadership – was the FSLN.

(For details related to the above two paragraphs, I refer fanatically interested readers to my PhD dissertation, “Workers and Revolution: A Comparative Study of Bolshevik Russia and Sandinist Nicaragua”, University of Pittsburgh, 1989, available through University Microfilms International in Ann Arbor, Michigan.)

From what I know of the Cuban revolution, the cadres (both guerrilla and urban forces) who were united around Fidel Castro in the July 26th Movement also constituted – with a blend of Marxist insights with revolutionary nationalist traditions – the decisive force. The Communist Party and the student-based Revolutionary Directorate, both quite important, fell in behind that leadership. (See Paul Le Blanc, “On the Origins of the Cuban Revolution”, Against the Current, January-February 2007.)

Unlike what I am hearing (or mishearing?) from Luke, I am not inclined to insist that some pattern from past revolutions must define the specifics of what we do in the very different world of tomorrow. But it does seem to me that the historical pattern he claims to see may look a little different under more careful scrutiny.

The primary problem with Luke Cooper’s critique of my comments on the Morris Stein “monopolist” statement is that he acknowledges my point about contextualising those remarks – and then ignores the actual contextualisation that I offer. He returns instead to the universalising abstraction with which he began – and in the process of elaborating on it, relentlessly smashes down a door that is wide open. I will briefly restate the basic point I made regarding 1944, then try to repair possible damage to the open door.

First, though, I want to repair a bit of unintentional damage in regard to the historical question on which Luke focuses – the presumed sins of US Trotskyism in the 1940s.

An inattentive reader might assume that Luke believes the position articulated in the quotation from Morris Stein (whose actual name was Morris Lewit) – summarised by Luke as calling for “one program, one party, one revolution” – is organically connected to a belief in the necessity of a one-party state. Actually, Morris and other US Trotskyists had played a role in developing the Transitional Program, authored by Leon Trotsky in 1938. This explicitly called for multiple legal parties in the democratic councils (soviets) to be established by the revolution – “the workers and peasants themselves will by their own free vote indicate what parties they recognise as soviet parties.” We must recognise, whether or not we agree with his views on what it would take to make a revolution, that Morris never thought of rejecting this key element in the Transitional Program that he voted for in 1938 and defended for the rest of his life.

The quote from Morris describes the Socialist Workers Party defeating the other parties on the left and, on its own, leading the hoped-for workers’ revolution that would result in socialism. I think Morris’s 1944 comments, and James P Cannon’s comments from 1946, which Luke also mentions, had credibility in those years for two basic reasons. First of all, there actually existed a more or less vanguard layer of the working class, reflected in the vibrant militancy and radicalism of the massive Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Second, the other major forces on the left consisted of Stalinism and social-democratic reformism, both of which were hostile to the strategy and goal of socialist revolution. While the Socialist Party was dwindling, the Communist Party had a membership and periphery that gave it particular weight in the CIO unions and in social movements against racism, for democratic rights, for economic justice, etc. The key would be – through showing the way forward in the actual class struggle – to smash the influence of Stalinism within this vanguard layer of the working class, winning workers to a revolutionary orientation (as had been done, for example, in the victorious Minneapolis general strike in 1934).

To rephrase what Stein and Cannon were getting at: it was possible to win a majority of working-class militants away from Stalinism and social democracy, and move forward to socialist revolution, but only with a self-confident and determined force, represented by the US Trotskyists. Whether or not one considers this to have actually been possible (and for reasons just given, I consider it to have more credibility than Luke will allow), that was the basic point they were trying to get across.

There are, of course, historical complications in this phase of US Trotskyist history, and in the phase that came after. There existed not only the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) led by Cannon, but also another Trotskyist group, led by Max Shachtman, the Workers Party (WP). The 1944 and 1946 comments were partly aimed at a small minority in the SWP that favoured unity with Shachtman’s WP, and that minority, led by Albert Goldman and Felix Morrow, had a much gloomier view of revolutionary prospects in the United States and the world. (The gloomier prospects turned out to be not totally correct but much closer to what actually happened than the vision of triumphant Trotskyism.)

In fact, unity with the Shachtman group was seriously considered in 1947, though this quickly fell apart. Shachtman and his comrades soon renamed their group the Independent Socialist League, then merged into the Socialist Party of America. From there – among other things – they played an incredibly important role in the US civil rights movement, documented in a book I’ve co-authored with Michael Yates, A Freedom Budget for All Americans, to be published by Monthly Review Press this August, in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Shachtmanites and their Socialist Party comrades played a central role in helping to organise that historic march and its aftermath. There is much for serious revolutionaries to learn from what these comrades did. Sadly, Shachtman and many of his comrades also evolved into Cold War anti-communists, helped to lead activists into the pro-capitalist Democratic Party, supported US foreign policy against Cuba and Vietnam, and in general became classically de-radicalised social democrats.

Historical realities can be incredibly complex – it is easier to distort them in order to argue in favour of something you would like to do today, but it is better to take the time to try to learn its often contradictory but invariably rich lessons. Such lessons, of course, provide no blueprints for tomorrow, but they can provide useful insights as we try to make our way through the complexities that we face.

The complexities we face

I think the approach of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s and afterward can and should be critically examined. I myself have wrestled with such things (in a lengthy and footnoted essay from the early 1990s and in a shorter talk from 2008). I consider it to be a valid point for discussion whether and to what extent serious limitations, mistakes and problems from the earlier period contributed to terrible dilemmas that cropped up later. What should be beyond dispute is that the situation we face is qualitatively different from that faced by revolutionary activists of the 1930s and 1940s.

This is a central point that I put forward in my talk at the “Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times” event, and Luke simply ignores it. The problem is not for us to “get right” some timeless organisational logic or ethics that certain comrades of past days violated. The problem cannot best be grasped in terms of philosophy, but rather in terms of history and sociology. Our historical moment, and the situation and consequent tasks related to that moment, is dramatically unlike what was faced by Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and Morris Stein. Here is the point I made in my “Dangerous Ideas” talk:

The class-conscious layers of the radicalising working class prevalent in the early 20th century and in the 1930s and 1940s did not exist, except as battered shreds and disconnected threads, in the years of Cold War anti-communism and of relative affluence... The organisations that claimed to be Leninist parties consequently tended to end up mired in phrasemongering and clowning, which – far from sustaining contact with the broadest masses of working people – created little revolutionary universes.

This had a distorting impact on the SWP of the United States, no less than on other would-be “Leninist” groups in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s. There can be no “revolutionary vanguard party” worth the name unless there is a class-conscious “vanguard” layer of the actual working class of the time and place in which we exist. We need a revolutionary party, a mass revolutionary force, that can play the role that the Bolsheviks played leading up to October/November 1917. We need it in order to move forward to the possibility of a socialist transformation. But it cannot exist simply because we will it to be so.

In the present ongoing, fluctuating crisis of capitalism, however, new struggles and insurgencies are opening up amazing new opportunities. The responsibility of any revolutionary group worth its salt will be to help create the preconditions necessary for the emergence of such an organised force among radicalising sectors of the working class. The kind of mass base and mass consciousness that made the Bolsheviks an actual vanguard party (because they were rooted in actual vanguard layers of the oppressed and exploited working class) have yet to crystallise in the United States, Britain or Australia. As I urged in my “Dangerous Ideas” remarks, the existing, relatively small revolutionary socialist groups must help define and initiate struggles, or join in already-existing struggles, to win improvements in the here-and-now for more and more sectors of the working class and the oppressed. Such transformative struggles, combined with revolutionary socialist popularisations and educational outreach to more and more people, can help to get us where we want to be.

And this brings us to concluding remarks on revolutionary socialist unity.

Revolutionary socialist unity

The point for revolutionary groups today is not to sharpen the definition about how our groups are different from each other (and how our particular point of view is superior to that of the others). Instead, to repeat what I argued in the talk Luke polemicises against, we should concentrate on working together in real, practical struggles, with an eye towards possible unity, but with a focus on the actual struggles. Those struggles are the necessary, transformative precondition for possible unity.

Accepting my point that for socialists to unite there needs to be an acceptance of certain core principles (I mentioned “democracy, revolution, anti-imperialism”), Luke writes, “we might add anti-racism, feminism, and the critique of Stalinism”, then poses these questions: “But do we need to have the same analysis of what the Soviet Union became? Can we have differences in our analysis of the modern working-class subject in the neoliberal age? And, if we debate our differences in terms of their practical conclusions, rather than their more abstract assumptions, can we even have differences over whether we think ‘Leninist’ is an appropriate term to describe revolutionary organisations today?”

Working my way back through the questions, I’ll start with “can we even have differences over whether we think ‘Leninist’ is an appropriate term to describe revolutionary organisations today?” This is easy. For me, the obvious answer is “yes”, but my answer doesn’t end there.

The experiences and insights of the Leninist tradition can be helpful, but I don’t care if we use the “Leninist” label. The key is not the label. I do not want to be a member of a group claiming to be “the Leninist party” when in fact it is a sect. Nor do I want to belong to a different kind of sect which contains would-be “Leninists” and outright “anti-Leninists” (and diverse others) who, while in a common organisation, are not able to work effectively together to build common struggles and effective campaigns against capitalist tyranny.

I do want to be part of a cohesive and democratic collective in which I can work together with comrades to carry out activities that help push back the exploitation and oppression and violence of capitalism, an organisation that also helps to build mass socialist consciousness and organising skills. I want that organisation to be focused on creating the preconditions and possibility for the emergence of a mass working-class party guided by a revolutionary socialist program. I see this as an equivalent of what Lenin and his comrades did.

“Can we have differences in our analysis of the modern working-class subject in the neoliberal age?” It seems to me that such differences are inevitable, given the complexities we face with the decomposing and recomposing working class, containing multiple identities in addition to those of class. Openly discussing our differing analyses will be fruitful, assuming that we are all listening to each other and actually testing out the theories (in some cases at one and the same time) in our practical work.

“Do we need to have the same analysis of what the Soviet Union became?” Actually, what the Soviet Union became was not socialist and, whatever it was, proved incapable of enduring. If we’re clear on this (roughly equivalent to an agreement that the Earth is round), I think the question should be open. Marcel van der Linden’s fine study, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union, demonstrates to my satisfaction that useful insights can be gleaned from the “state capitalist” and “bureaucratic collectivist” and “degenerated workers' states” traditions of analysing the nature of the Soviet Union – and also from approaches that are independent of all three of these. (See a review here.) My experience in the International Socialist Organization provides practical confirmation.

Additional thoughts on all of this are indicated elsewhere in my presentation at the “Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times” conference, but even more in a presentation I gave in Australia to gatherings of excellent comrades of Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative, who are actively exploring the possibility of revolutionary socialist unity (see “Organising for 21st century socialism – Reflections on the history and future of Leninism”).

The only fruitful unity will come on the basis of joint action in such real, practical struggles. The differences currently separating our groups must be frankly considered and discussed, and it is especially important not to rush into what Lenin once warned against as “a revolutionary chaos” through which a fleeting unity would give way to factional war and demoralising splits.

It is not clear to me exactly what Luke has in mind when he characterises my comments on unity as being “unnecessarily cautious”, but what I see on the ground in Australia suggests to me that this rather vague criticism is not true for my comrades there. Sometimes moving more slowly and patiently is the fastest way to get the desired result – genuine unity among revolutionary socialists, grounded in practical experience. If Luke’s reference point in Britain justifies his “less cautious” inclination, it might help if he spelled that out a little.

I look forward to further discussions among revolutionaries about – very practically – how to get from here to there.