The following essay was written and published by Struggle for a New World’s fraternal publication in the U.K., The Lever, in the summer of 2018, prior to our coming together as a collective. We are republishing it with their permission because it was one of the theoretical interventions which led to the creation of our platform. We consider this polemic to be a valuable contribution to the rearticulation of revolutionary communism in English-speaking imperialist countries, and we largely agree with it and uphold it. We hope that interested readers will be in touch with us and The Lever about the ideological and practical positions outlined therein, and in other pieces on our platform and theirs.
We wish to extend our most comradely greetings to Avery Minnelli and Eliezer Levin, the authors of Where’s the Winter Palace? On the Marxist-Leninist Trend in the United States, and those behind the blog The Left Wind. We have found the analysis of US Marxism-Leninism contained within the essay to be extremely timely. We find our issues with the broadly trotskyite organised left in the UK reflected in your essay. We thus hope that through developing criticisms of your work to come to a greater understanding of our own positions, and further develop our own theory and practice. We also believe the piece to be broadly correct in it’s analysis and recommendations for moving forward. We hope to offer comradely criticism in the hopes that it will be useful for both sides in developing our ideas further, hopefully bringing us closer together.
We have kept our criticism within the boundaries of what we think is appropriate for our means and ends. We have no organising experience in the US, and are thus unable to comment directly on your points related to this. We do however have a number of issues with your work which we feel it necessary to comment on. The following paragraphs set out these criticisms.
THE PARTY AND DEMOCRATIC CENTRALISM
We welcome the criticism of sect culture which has blighted the US left in a similar way to the UK left. We particularly think it is important to understand the historical context of how party structures we associate with Leninism were understood in the process of formation, and welcome the engagement with authors who engage this history, even Trotskyites such as Hal Draper, and particularly Lars T. Lih’s work placing texts like What Is To Be Done? and the evolving Bolshevik conception of the party and Democratic Centralism. We feel that this comes at a time where many who have been drawn into the western Marxist-Leninist milleu are beginning to question – through their own involvement with these organisations or through various publicised cases of misconduct by members and the utterly appalling way that ‘Democratic Centralism’ has been used to shut down legitimate and necessary criticisms of party conduct in these matters.
In our piece Better Late than Never we have tried to articulate what such a ‘Democratic Centralist’ party may look like in practice, and what it should seek to embody:
‘To defend a politics which sees leadership and centralism as necessary for a movement of the oppressed to win, we must articulate a form of democratic centralism which sweeps away the autocratic and cultic forms which are predominantly practiced in this country today. For this to be successful, we have to develop robust methods of party democracy which sees the relationship between leadership, lower, and middle cadre as one of teaching and learning. As important as leadership is, it is incapable of leading without the organisational, theoretical, and democratic input of all cadre. Cadre are unable to provide this input without entering into an organic and dialectical relationship with the class as a whole.
A party should seek to embody an organic social trend which tends towards freedom and justice, and use the practical means at our disposal to raise this social trend to the level of a genuine social force. It should seek to articulate new social grievances as they arise. We argue for a party that is centralist in form, but democratic in essence.
We believe in the necessity to build a party not attached to some dead and stale dogma, but part a living creative tradition of liberation.’
We believe that this is something that has played a part in Leninist organising in all periods of the existence of the Leninist party, even in those periods of ‘acute civil war’ which are discussed in Where’s the Winter Palace. This has perhaps taken it’s most explicit form in the Maoist conception of the Mass Line (embodied in the phrase ‘from the people, to the people’), however, we do not see this (or Maoism in general) as a decisive break from Leninist practice before this, indeed, the dialectical relationship between the subjectivities of mass and organisation have been articulated even prior to articulations of “Leninism” as such, by such Marxist theoreticians as Rosa Luxemburg.
The piece crucially links the dogmatic and faulty application of Democratic Centralism with a dogmatic focus on ‘party line’ experienced in the US. We feel the issue of ‘line’, and the relationship to theory and practice is one in dire need of re-theorising in general, and in the US and UK in particular, and believe that your piece takes a significant step in this process of re-theorisation.
THE ISSUE OF “LINE”
– Where’s The Winter Palace
Certainly, the concept of “line” as an end to itself is dangerous and damaging to the movement, particularly when combined with the sectarian approach to the party which this essay outlines so well. However, the theory/practice dynamic is twofold – just as there can be no correct theory which does not result in correct practice, so too will even the most correct practice become unmoored quickly is it does not crystallise into a correct theoretical architecture. It was with this understanding that Lenin famously said “Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”
Our concern is that this essay places too much emphasis on developing correct practice but doesn’t recognise that the importance of the relationship between theory and practice. Furthermore, we wish to emphasise that fundamentally this relationship is dialectical. Theory and practice should be in constant tension, with developments in one informing and developing the other. The experience of the ML movement in the US is not simply one where abstract line was placed over concrete practice, by one where this dialectical process was arrested by sectarian organisations which were unable to manage the multiplicitous contradictions between theory and practice as they arose.
As such, in doing away with the sect system, organisations must also reset the balance between theory and practice. We believe that it is only an organisation operating on the principles we have outlined above has the ability to begin this process.
– Where’s The Winter Palace
– J. V. Stalin, Foundations of Leninism
We disagree that historical or international questions (such as ‘is China socialist?’) have little or direct bearing on practical tasks. At the same time, we agree with the authors that cadre should be able to have free and frank discussions about such issues, and that holding fierce battles over these questions in organising spaces (within one or between several organisations) can be distracting, even fully counter-productive in many cases. However, such nonchalance on crucial topics is typical of a lack of focus on the internationalism which should be at the core of any socialist organising.
The positions various groups take on international and historical issues show us how various organising tendencies apply the Marxist method, which is intimately linked to their day-to-day organisational practice. Whether China is socialist or not may seem like an abstraction, but it involves crucial questions that must be discussed, such as the issues of the dictatorship of the proletariat, debates on ‘productivism’, imperialism in the 21st century, and how we conceive of the contradictions of class society on a national and international level.
The fact that US Marxist-Leninists have debased the idea of internationalism and international solidarity to who they ‘uphold’ and who they denounce is indicative. International solidarity is built by fostering real connections with comrades who are struggling in many different contexts, providing them material and ideological support where possible, and with principled criticism where necessary. Ultimately, we feel that the incorrect approach to internationalism seen amongst the US ML movement and many ‘anti-imperialists’ in the UK boils down to seeing states, rather than the revolutionary international proletariat in diverse particular contexts as the motive force of revolution and history. In their defence of actually existing socialism, they have come to identify the state as the agent of revolution, rather than a form the revolution reifies as part of a process of social organisation necessitated by the current stage of historical development, which is used as a tool by the revolutionary class in pursuing and consolidating revolution, with all the risks and contradictions this engenders. To come to this conclusion, it is necessary we believe to engage in discussion and investigation on the topic of ‘revisionism’ in the 20th century Marxist-Leninist movement, not merely as a formal defence of the figures of Stalin, Mao, or Hoxha, but in terms of a real loss of the historical and dialectical materialist method outlined by Marx and solidified in practice from Lenin onwards in diverse countries, with all their successes and failures, our common heritage from which we must learn.
Here we come again to the need for the construction of a vanguard organisation which is able to stand with the people in their daily struggles and also connect those struggles to the struggles of other workers and oppressed people internationally. It is no minor thing that the slogan of our movement has always been some variation of ‘workers of the world, unite!’
It is vital at this juncture that we discuss our history and where our class stands now, both nationally and internationally. Despite all the victories of the last century, we stand here, a century after the October Revolution, utterly unable to comprehend the scale of what we have lost. We have lost practically every political structure that could support us in constructing a new revolutionary movement in either of our countries, and we must come to terms with this loss by taking a thorough account of the last century, and making an unflinching assessment of where we stand, and in which direction we are travelling. Posing as vanguards, so many who fancy ourselves communists are sectarians who are marching in radically different directions from the proletariat. Only by understanding our own failures will an organisation be able to operate as a meaningful vanguard, as the advanced detachment of the working class, as the body which the class uses to lead itself.
We believe now is the time to undertake this historical reckoning, and to instigate a thoroughgoing struggle against revisions to the Marxist method. We do not seek to rehash the petty ideological squabbles of the past, but to begin with investigation and comradely criticism and self-criticism, always with the goal of uniting our disparate forces and preparing our class for the revolutionary struggle ahead.
A REVOLUTIONARY SITUATION?
– Where’s The Winter Palace
An important question is asked here – are we in a revolutionary period in the US right now? However, what remains unasked is the more important question – what is a revolutionary situation? Lenin stated in 1915 that:
– V. I. Lenin, The Collapse of the Second International
It is crucial to grasp that, upon the arrival of objective conditions, there must be a corresponding subjective push to change the possibility of these conditions into a real change. But when Lenin says: “the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, “falls”, if it is not toppled over”, he emphasises a strength of subjective actors, which does not arrive out of nowhere and is not independent of the objectivity in which it operates: the truly heightened political consciousness is one that understands that our subjectivity is not only shaped by our objective conditions, but at every stage, plays a role in shaping it. We cannot will a revolution out of nothingness, but we also cannot stand idly by and allow our ideological enemies to shape the narrative and the objective conditions without any resistance from our side.
Here in the the UK, we are also not in a period where the objective conditions for a revolutionary situation yet exist. However, we believe that it is also necessary understand the tendencies of struggle by the working classes and the contradictions in society which can be directed towards such a moment, and which can challenge the hegemonic forces throughout the process.
As unlikely as it is that revolutionary situations will develop in the declining core imperialist power such as the US and the UK, the decline in their hegemony produces and is produced by an international crisis which we have not yet seen the end of, and may prove terminal. The last US election revealed deep divisions within the US ruling class. Since the election of Donald Trump as president, we have seen a nakedly xenophobic wing of US national capital gain a strong hand against the traditional tendencies of international capital in the US and their partners abroad. In spite of the actions of the majority of forces within the Democratic and Republican parties to suppress this trend as well as the upsurge in socialist rhetoric and action in the name of business as usual, the centre is eroding and the contradictions are being laid bare. This significant rift shows only signs of deepening – with ultimately the working class and oppressed nations of the US, as well as migrants, refugees and the working and oppressed peoples of peripheral and semi-peripheral countries paying the price.
However, we also see new resistances growing, whether it be against the horrors of ICE, or through a resurgent social democratic and even socialist politics within the DSA, or in the projects of Black liberation and autonomy exemplified by Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi. It is our task as revolutionaries to unify these struggles, learn from them, raise them higher, and prepare the proletariat for the possibility of a revolutionary situation. This is why we agree with the authors that there should be a focus on base building in the short and medium term. The building of the base, just like the building of a Marxist organisation, however, is no end in itself. Both are actions which must be carried out with the consciousness of higher unity in struggle by the masses themselves, and intervene on a broader and deeper scale. It is to bring the working class and oppressed peoples back onto the stage of history as the third, decisive force in our separate contexts, to topple all forces of reaction and bring a new society, where the poor and downtrodden control their own lives, into being.
– J. V Stalin, Foundations of Leninism
Revolutionary situations are revealing themselves around the world at this very moment, revolutionary parties and mass movements are grappling with how lead the broadest masses to power against the oppressor ruling classes. Along with the Leninist dictum that the imperialist chain breaks at its weakest link, we see revolutionary struggles which have been decades in the making reaching new and higher levels, and facing new and more perilous challenges. The Kurdish national liberation movement in North and West Kurdistan, the Communist Party of the Philippines. Political crisis grips Turkey, where the fascist dictatorship presently headed by the AKP has governed for nearly two years by emergency decree, and changes election rules constantly while calling election after election in an attempt to push the progressive HDP out of parliament. In these areas where contradictions are sharpening, and dominant and oppressed classes come closer and closer to all out war, we see Marxist theoreticians producing theoretical output at an astounding rate to account for their own social contradictions and social developments the world over.
Parties involved on the front lines of organising in these countries are to be found in new international forums, for example the International Coordination of Revolutionary Parties and Organizations (ICOR) and both organisations named the International Conference of Marxist-Leninist Parties and Organizations (ICMLPO/ICMLPO) – to share their theoretical and practical experiences and to coordinate solidarity work. We must follow the example of these parties in seeking to unite our revolutionary organisations in new forms of international organisation.
MARXISM-LENINISM AS A HISTORICALLY CONTINGENT IDEOLOGY
– Where’s The Winter Palace
As we have stated, we believe many of the criticisms of the US Marxist-Leninist movement are correct. However, we still believe it is important to uphold something called ‘Marxism-Leninism’, though something that is radically different from what is practiced by those revisionist organisations which dominate the theoretical discourse in the US and the UK today.
Is Marxism-Leninism a historically contingent ideology? Yes, in the broadest terms, all such ideologies are historically contingent. We do, however, hold that there is a contemporary ideology in existence today which may be described as Marxism-Leninism, a practical political theory for the era of imperialism and proletarian revolution, which continues to prove to be the most vital and revolutionary ideology today.
We agree wholeheartedly that we must read outside of a narrowly defined ‘Marxist-Leninist canon’ if we are to revitalise Marxism-Leninism in the anglophone world. But it was never the position of Marx or Lenin that our reading or our work were to be trapped within the narrow confines of party-approved thinkers. Lenin read Hegel in a time of crisis, Marx’s writings are filled with literary references. Beyond such historical references, however, we believe our ideology to express the truth in the totality strongly enough that there is of course nothing wrong with reading, engaging with, and working with persons from diverse ideological commitments. It has never been our position that anarchists and Trotskyites, for example, are “heretics”, simply that these formal labels happen to reflect a broadly different historical perspective than our own. In our practical work, however, many who identify with this traditions have proven themselves greater than many “Marxist-Leninists”, and important insights from sincere critics of the established order, even those who identify with merely as liberal democrats, may be engaged with to produced a fuller analysis. If the truth is in the totality, as dialectical thinkers believe, we will understand the social processes which produce diverse thinkers and political trends, rather than sectarianly dismiss them as heretics while rereading, with no critical eye or sincere understanding, a few works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin as if they were sacred texts to be regurgitated to suppress critical thought.
The traditions of Marxism-Leninism which we believe are most vital are rarely seen inside the anglophone world. In Turkey, Kurdistan, Sri Lanka, India, Latin America, the resurgence of Maoism in the Philippines, India, Afghanistan, and even China. In this sense, the incorrect ideas and lines of various communists are a result not just of their sectarian behaviour, but of their inability to develop on the nascent revolutionary traditions which have developed in their own society (for example the heroic socialist Black liberation trend from the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense onwards). This has been exacerbated by the lack of contact with revolutionary traditions outside of the US since China closed itself of to revolutionaries and opened itself up to foreign capital, or since the death of Enver Hoxha (notable exceptions are the Revolutionary Organisation of Labour and the relatively new American Party of Labour, who have made active attempts to grapple with deep theoretical and practical debates happening between organisations in diverse countries). Imperial arrogance and great nation chauvinism lifts the likes of Sam Marcy in the United States, or Tony Cliff in the United Kingdom, to great theoretical leaders, and as such, any true internationalist tendencies which existed in these countries withered on the vine, meaning that now, as the need for a revolutionary communist approach to mass organisation is needed, we find ourselves without the tools we need to develop one.
There is no better time for a piece such as Where’s The Winter Palace to be published. We believe that it’s positive reception amongst many in the US and Anglophone left is indicative of its correct analysis of many of the problems of the US Marxist-Leninist movement which we believe are also applicable to the context of UK Trotskyite organisations as well. We see it as particularly important in this context, as we have seen a rise of a number of young, vocal, self-declared Marxist-Leninists on social media joining these organisations (in particular the PSL). We support the authors in their critiques of the movement as it stands, and have high hopes that through interventions such as this, a stronger, fighting proletarian movement can be built.
We level our critiques here in the spirit of proletarian internationalism and comradely criticism, and we hope they are taken as such. Our critics focus on seeing the need to unite the strong focus on new revivified forms of practice and party organisation, with an equal focus on revolutionary theory. We wish to highlight again the importance of internationalism for every and any organising effort which parties undertake, and believe we have set out the criteria needed for this to be done on a principled and effective basis to avoid the pitfalls that the authors have so effectively demonstrated in the work.
We hope that this essay is the beginning of a fruitful and productive exchange between our two publications.
– The Lever Editorial Group.
* The title was chosen as a tribute both to the original League of Struggle in St. Petersburg which would go on to lay the foundations for what would become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) to emphasise the need for theoretical development that will complement practical work, and also for the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, an organisation from the heroic era of the Communist Party USA when they fought for Black liberation, prior to selling out Black people in the US south in 1935. We believe the name “League of Struggle for Negro Rights” was chosen as a tribute to the history of the communists in the Russian empire who fought for the liberation of so many peoples suffering under the Tsarist yoke prior to the revolution. We hope that interested US communists will appreciate this heroic moment in their own history, brief though it was.