Saturday, June 14, 2014

What Would Lenin Do?

Louis Proyect writes a wonderful article under the title Goodbye Lenin, appearing Counterpunch. He responds to friendly fire from our former comrade, Paul Le Blanc (not to be confused with the president of the University of Southern New Hampshire). Mr. Le Blanc was a member of the Socialist Workers Party (US SWP) when I joined, and has subsequently cycled his way through to the International Socialist Organization (ISO), his home since 2009.

Mr. Proyect's article is the latest volley in an on-going discussion from the consequences of the British SWP's collapse in a sex and rape scandal. I have not followed that at all, but apparently it has resulted in a serious leadership crisis. That larger issue was addressed by a prominent Marxist theorist, Alex Callinicos, in an article entitled Is Leninism Finished?He maintains that whatever the specific fate of the British SWP, the truth remains that a Leninist vanguard Party is necessary to lead the working class in revolution.

Mr. Proyect responded with an answer to that question: Leninism is Finished, contending that the concept of democratic centralism is no longer helpful. He argues that the Leftist net must be cast wide, and that ideological purity is probably not the most important thing. Otherwise one ends up as a small, sectarian group, such as today's US SWP. His argument is similar to the one I make here.

Mr. Le Blanc picks up his cudgel in a piece entitled Leninism is Unfinished, where he tries to split the difference. Democratic centralism is still important, he maintains, but he thinks the modern grouplets purporting to be Leninist don't understand the concept. Lenin meant it in a much weaker sense, though how weak is a matter of dispute.

Here is how I summarize the three points of view:

Mr. Callinicos: Democratic centralism means vigorous, internal discussion of program and policy, followed by unity of speech and action presented to the outside world. That's the Trotskyism I grew up with.

Mr. Proyect: Democratic centralism means a united voice in parliament.
All discipline meant [according to Lenin--ed] was a deputy voting according to instructions from the party’s central committee, etc. For example, if Alex Callinicos was elected to Parliament and instructed to vote against funding the war in Iraq, and then voted for funding, the party would be entitled to expel him.
Outside of parliament, freedom of speech and action (within the "principles of the Party") are permitted.

Mr. Le Blanc defines democratic centralism succinctly: Freedom of discussion; Unity of action.

So let's consider an example. Back in the 1980s Nat Weinstein--then a member of Socialist Action (SA)--wanted to run his own newspaper. There were no important programmatic differences between SA and Weinstein and his friends, but nevertheless this perfectly simple and reasonable desire led to a split. And given the traditional conception of the "revolutionary press," it had to. The Party can't have two, independently edited newspapers.

Mr. Callinicos will agree with SA's decision to expel the Weinstein grouplet.

Mr. Proyect will probably agree with me and suggest that there's nothing wrong with Mr. Weinstein publishing his own newspaper under the SA umbrella. There is precedent for that, albeit not Trotskyist. The Daily Worker and People's World were both separately edited publications of the US Communist Party, with slightly different points of view. SA, of course, was too conservative to even consider the possibility.

I can't predict Mr. Le Blanc's opinion. Is publishing your own newspaper disunity of action, or freedom of discussion?

The last word, so far, belongs to Mr. Proyect in Goodbye Lenin. I can't do justice to his argument in the space here, nor indeed to any of the arguments. Rather than attempting any kind of summary, let me pick out some items that caught my fancy. I'll add that all three of my correspondents are very good writers, and if you're at all interested in debate on Marxist arcana, this is a good way to get there.

  • Mr. Proyect repudiates the charge of "Zinovievism," supposedly leveled against him by Mr. Le Blanc. I'll let you figure out what that means for yourself--I did promise you Marxist arcana.
  • Mr. Proyect indicates that the Internet changes everything, or at least a whole lot. Mr. Le Blanc appears not to like the Internet very much--witness the fact that his books are not available on Kindle. That means I'll never read them.
  • Mr. Proyect touts the work of Lars Lih, an author whom Mr. Le Blanc seemingly does not think so highly of. The dispute may arise because Mr. Lih is an independent scholar, and not part of the academic priesthood to which Mr. Le Blanc belongs. Or it may be that Mr. Lih releases his books on Kindle. Indeed, I have downloaded his blessedly short Lenin biography, and am finding it quite enjoyable.
So I basically agree with Mr. Proyect--Leninism is dead. Misters Callinicos and Le Blanc are members of what some have called the Dead Russians Society. It's an apt name. As I read Mr. Lih, I am struck by how different Russia a century ago is from the modern world. Not only is there an Internet today (and therefore no "revolutionary press" worthy of the name), but there isn't even a proletariat. The working class of Lenin's day has long since been replaced by machines and robots. It's no longer sensible to speak of an intelligentsia--anybody who wants to read has access to all the information they could ever want.

Mr. Proyect is certainly correct that the Leninist grouplets of the sort I cover will remain completely irrelevant. That includes both versions of the SWP, along with Mr. Le Blanc's ISO, along with whatever variant of SA you care to imagine.

For all that, there is an air of unreality the pervades all the articles we've discussed. Mr. Callinicos spends most of his pixels on the evils of "neoliberalism." He demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how the modern economy works, nor the remotest comprehension of how to solve our serious problems. If this be the best Marxist theory can offer, then they've got worse problems than Leninism.

Mr. Proyect shares this view of the world, as demonstrated by his alternative to the Leninist project. He puts forward the Greek party SYRIZA as a role model. Now I think SYRIZA is mostly a group of government employees, and since the Greek government employs a very large proportion of the workforce, this is a sizable organization. The problem with these people is that they are totally unproductive. Every member of SYRIZA could go on strike and nobody would even notice. Rather than the proletariat, they represent the parasite, lumpen class.

SYRIZA believes that there is some huge stash of cash hidden somewhere, and if they just throw a big enough temper tantrum then the bank vaults will be opened an all problems will be solved. Of course it's delusional--nobody with any money remains in Greece. Worse, they conflate currency with money with wealth--all of which are completely different things. Currency is easily redistributed, but money less so. Wealth is almost impossible to redistribute since it is almost always intimately tied to the abilities of the wealth owner.

In Zimbabwe they liberated the white-owned farms that then subsequently fell into ruin. Because not only do you need land to run a farm, you also need expertise, access to capital, and access to markets. The Mugabe thieves had none of that--the wealth was impossible to capture. A similar story is playing out in Venezuela--by expropriating the oil industry the government is destroying it. Within the next decade (barring dramatic political change) Venezuela will not be an oil exporter, and for the same reason Zimbabwe isn't a food exporter.

Leninism won't get you to the socialist heaven of which Misters Callinicos, Le Blanc, and Proyect dream. But nothing else will either. Socialism is impossible.

Further Reading:

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