Revolutionary Spontaneity? February 12, 2005 by RedStar2000
The Leninist hypothesis concedes that spontaneous uprisings of the working class periodically take place...but argues that such uprisings "always lose" -- fail to actually overthrow the capitalist class -- unless a "vanguard party" is present to "guide" them to the conquest of power.
Is that true?
Because if it were, we'd be in pretty sad shape.
And a revolutionary party doesn't have to look like a classless society.
The kind of political organization that you build and function in -- regardless of what you name it -- generates and encourages certain kinds of behavior and stifles or otherwise discourages certain other kinds of behavior.
What we do is, in large measure, who we are...and a pretty good predictor of what we will do in the future.
If we actually want a classless society "after the revolution", then our revolutionary movement had better support that behavior...or else we'll get something entirely different from what we want.
And it won't be pretty.
"Spontaneous" uprisings, without a strong, centralized revolutionary party, don't lead to revolutionary governments.
Well, they haven't so far...is that "the end of the story"?
Particularly in light of the track record of those "revolutionary governments" that were established by "strong, centralized revolutionary" parties.
Leninists delight in crowing "we can win, the masses by themselves can't win". But what did you win? And how long were you able to hold onto it?
These days, both Maoists and Trotskyists are politically insignificant factors in the "west". In fact, the only significant Leninist parties in the "west" after World War II were in France and Italy...and then only because they were openly reformist.
Every Leninist party says that this will change and their party will, someday, "get it right" and "lead the masses to victory".
But if one is in the mood to consider possibilities, then is it not equally valid for others, like myself, to say that someday the masses will "get it right" and "lead themselves to victory"?
The historical record suggests that the best the Leninists can do for us is a benevolent despotism (Cuba). More often they've done considerably worse.
That's not "good enough". At least not for me and that means not for anybody.
Those of you who are content with the idea of a "socialist despotism" ruled by a "vanguard party"...well, pick one or start your own. The field is "wide open".
I'm in favor of communism, myself...regardless of how long the odds against us may appear at the present time.
Was it Eugene Debs who said it? It's better to fight for what you want and not get it than to fight for what you don't want and get it.
Political parties are the means by which classes administer state power. That's why workers need one.
Yes, I think Lenin said that.
But he was wrong, of course. Political parties are a bourgeois invention for the purpose of administering state power by the capitalist class.
Before that, class power was "a family affair", literally.
This suggests that political parties may be totally irrelevant to working class power in a post-capitalist society.
Incidentally, the "half million members" should pretty definitely show that a Bolshevik party is not just a "small group of leaders".
Hmm...and what was the population of the USSR when the half-million members of the CPSU(B) ran everything "from top to bottom"? 180,000,000 or something like that?
Not to mention that most of those 500,000 party members were "order-takers" -- bureaucratic underlings. The matters of greatest importance were decided by a much smaller group at the top of the party -- rather like a large, modern corporation.
The objective of a Leninist party is to lead the class, not substitute for it.
That's what's on the label; when the box is opened, the content is just the opposite.
On the contrary, democracy implies majority rule, which if it is to be meaningful requires everyone to comply with the majority decision.
More false advertising. Leninist parties follow a rather predictable trajectory. When they are young and small, there's quite a bit of both formal and informal democracy. As they age, their leadership becomes more and more entrenched, opposition and even criticism becomes less and less welcome. They become sclerotic.
In the end, they rather strongly resemble an "oriental despotism" -- a "god-like" leader, a small surrounding "council of ministers", and the party membership, who are little more than slaves.
When the "emperor dies", then there is a scramble at the top to determine who the new emperor will be. Otherwise, things continue as before.
In the course of this trajectory, coherent opposition occasionally arises...this is punished with banishment from the realm (expulsion).
Such a party may win state power in a backward country...but their behavior doesn't change.
The social order they will establish will reflect the party's own place on that trajectory. If the party comes to power while it is still young, things may be fairly democratic...for a while.
But out of power or in power, Leninist parties move on that trajectory. At a "rough guess", any Leninist party more than 25 years old is probably hopeless with regard to internal democracy.
Remember that this is not a consequence of "personal villainy"...in fact, personalities have almost nothing to do with it.
It's a consequence of a chosen method of political work.
Organizations that don't elect leaders willy-nilly develop unelected leaders, and organizations without centralism willy-nilly let individual leaders do whatever they please, regardless of the will of the ranks.
Any organization, with or without leaders (elected or unelected), is a product of the collective will of its membership. The ambition of that centralized leadership is to reduce the contribution of the membership to "voting yes".
In the Leninist paradigm, the leaders are very good at this.
First posted at RevLeft on February 1, 2005
People who love "radical democratic" solutions (like direct control by workers) think that people automatically know what they want and need.
It's not a matter of "automatically knowing" -- like some simple Newtonian clockwork. There are always people who are "advanced" in their understanding...who know more.
Those people must speak up, over and over again...even when people "don't want to hear it".
The difficulties arise when those who are advanced in their understanding get "the big head" and think their greater insight automatically confers the right of command.
Those who dislike "radical democratic" perspectives (like direct control by workers) are prone to summon up irrelevant "parallels".
The captain commands the ship, not the ship's cook. The chief surgeon commands the operation, not the scrub nurse.
"Therefore", The vanguard party commands the revolutionary movement, the socialist order, and the transition to communism...not ordinary workers.
What's wrong with these "arguments"? They confuse a limited example with the whole.
It's possible -- and happens all the time -- that really intelligent people learn how to captain a ship or perform surgery. However complex these tasks are, they are well within the range of individual human comprehension and mastery.
But note that even here, things are more complicated than they seem. A ship's captain cannot do without the chief engineer...he can't look at the engines himself and figure out what's wrong. A top surgeon cannot do without the anesthesiologist. And so on.
When we pass to the question of the transition from class to classless society -- the most dramatic and complicated change in human society in the last 10,000 years -- matters have reached a degree of complexity that will require the "brain power" of hundreds of millions of people to master even partially. There's no small group -- even if it were composed of a hundred thousand "Karl Marx's" -- that could work out a "fail-safe" plan...do this and then do this and then do this, etc.
The Leninist conceit is that "our party and its leader" sees "the road ahead" with such outstandingly superior clarity compared to the working class as a whole that...we should command and the class should obey.
That's on a par with claiming to have personally counted and cataloged every star in our galaxy...it simply beggars belief.
I would never assert that the working class as a whole will "always get it right" while a Leninist vanguard party would "always fuck up".
I'm speaking rather on the grounds of probability: the direct participation of and control by the revolutionary masses is more likely to succeed in a successful transition to communism than the command of any possible elite -- no matter how brilliant, dedicated, or both.
I think Marx understood this point when he wrote the emancipation of the workers must be the work of the workers themselves.
That is the source of my "radically democratic" interpretation of Marx and Marxism.
A revolutionary communist movement must be radically democratic within its own ranks and in its relationship to the working class.
Communists should participate in a proletarian revolution...not "lead" it.
If any transitional "state" is thought necessary at all, it should be a "Paris Commune-type" -- radically democratic to the core.
The only legitimate purpose of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" is to crush the remnants of the old ruling class; it cannot be legitimately used as an instrument of ideological/political struggle within the working class itself.
The introduction of communist forms of decision-making, production, and distribution should begin immediately following the revolution itself and proceed with all deliberate speed to full communism.
And we'll see how we do.
First posted at RevLeft on February 5, 2005
Over the last century or so, all over the world, there have been a fair number of spontaneous workers' uprisings, without centralized revolutionary leaderships...It's fairly clear that it's more than coincidence, then, that the privileged classes always hold on to power in the wake of this kind of uprising.
That's an "inevitability" hypothesis that may be worth considering.
Are there alternative hypotheses?
What of, for example, the "general" level of consciousness of the working class as a whole?
You'll recall the words of Lenin himself...
...the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organization embracing the whole of the class, because in all capitalist countries...the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts...that an organization taking in the whole proletariat cannot direct exercise proletarian dictatorship. It can be exercised only by a vanguard.
The Trade Unions, The Present Situation And Trotsky's Mistakes, December 30, 1920.
Let's say that Lenin's reservations were valid in his time and, it would follow, at the level of even the most developed capitalist countries of his time.
Is that something that "must" be true in perpetuity?
Is there something "within" the working class as a whole or that is "always" characteristic of objective conditions that results in the working class "always" being "divided, degraded, and corrupt"?
With the consequence that spontaneous working class uprisings "must always" fall short of actually overthrowing the capitalist class.
I frankly think that such a perspective would be deeply a-historical. What we've seen is that the revolutionary consciousness of the class as a whole rises to a certain level and then falters, failing to carry the revolution through to a definitive conclusion -- the complete overthrow of the old ruling class.
Back when the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class, it anticipated this trajectory on many occasions...coming "oh so close" to smashing the feudal order only to fall back and allow the old aristocracies to retain their grip on the levers of power -- or choosing some "business-friendly" despot to do the actual ruling.
Why should not the failures of 20th century spontaneous working class uprisings be a very similar phenomenon? I would surmise that most working people in the last century, even in the midst of a revolutionary upheaval when power was "there for the taking", did not believe "in their guts" that they themselves were "fit to rule".
Just as the rising bourgeoisie prostrated themselves endlessly before fools and rogues with a title of nobility...before finally developing the confidence to brush aside the old aristocracy for good.
Is it possible for the working class to develop that confidence in its fitness to rule? Can that happen in the waning decades of capitalism itself?
If not, why not?
Just because it has not yet happened is not a very strong reason.
We have one (1) example of a revolutionary workers' party taking power and afterwards being turned into an instrument of counterrevolution and rule of a privileged bureaucracy.
Yes (accepting for the sake of argument your very truncated definition of a "revolutionary workers' party).
And we have zero examples of a "revolutionary workers' party" taking power and leading a successful transition to communism.
We have, as you say, more failures than you do...because we've had more "at-bats". But both of us have the same batting average: .000
Regardless of what we want, we're not going to have a classless society immediately after the revolution.
Nor did I say otherwise.
If any transitional "state" is thought necessary at all, it should be a "Paris Commune-type" -- radically democratic to the core....
The introduction of communist forms of decision-making, production, and distribution should begin immediately following the revolution itself and proceed with all deliberate speed to full communism.
I thought what I said there was pretty clear.
Nevertheless, a Leninist party does discourage certain kinds of behavior that are a liability both in the struggle both today and in the transition to socialism: selfishness and material greed, for example.
I agree that such is often (though not always) the case.
But Leninist parties also highly value and reward obedience to the party's central organs.
In addition, they frequently (though not always) couple this with a "cult of personality" centered around a "great leader".
Those are behavioral patterns that are clearly incompatible with the revolutionary transformation of society. Over time, they generate a false "picture of the world".
The Leninist attempts to convince working people to rebel and throw off the rule of their capitalist masters...but his/her own behavior sends an entirely different message -- obedience to "the good master" is a "virtue" and should be "cultivated".
In some cases, as noted, the "personality cults" of leading capitalist politicians, media figures, etc. are ruthlessly (and justifiably) attacked...but the Leninist's behavior regarding his/her own "leading personality" sends, once more, an entirely different message. "Personality cults" are "ok" as long as you pick "the right personality".
Action that is taken within such a framework is almost certain to be futile because it's based on a false understanding of material reality.
If we wish the working class to become rebellious, then first of all, we must demonstrate that by our own behavior. A superstitious reverence for authority is "the kiss of death" for a revolutionary organization.
If we wish to assist our class to develop the confidence in its own fitness to rule, we must first of all refrain from elevating any of our own to the status of "Moses"...much less "God".
"Moses" was a myth.
First posted at RevLeft on February 6, 2005
Conscious, voluntary discipline is needed for any kind of workers' struggle, even the most basic strike - everybody has to go on strike including those who voted not to.
This is a not uncommon metaphor; a proletarian revolution is "like" a strike.
Except that's not really true. The normal strike in capitalist society is "ceremonial" much more than substantive. The union leadership calls a "strike vote" (union members usually can't do that) or calls the strike itself (members of some unions don't even get to vote on whether or not to strike). The union leadership can call off the strike and even offer the bosses unconditional surrender...and rarely can the membership do anything about that. The union leadership decides if a contract should be put before the membership for ratification -- in some unions, a summary of the contract made by the leadership is all the members get to vote on...the full text may become available or not long after the strike is over. (There was one union -- I think it could have been the United Mine Workers, but I'm not sure -- that at least at one time kept the current contract on file in their Washington D.C. headquarters...and if you were a union miner, you had to actually go to Washington to read it!)
Does this bureaucratic ritual really have anything in common with proletarian revolution? Aside from involving large numbers of organized workers, I mean?
Doesn't a genuine proletarian uprising have an entirely different character from the periodic dance of "capital & labor"?
If there's any parallel in capitalist society with proletarian revolution, it seems to me that the logical choice is the wildcat strike. In a way, it's a "miniature" version of the revolution itself...it's "outside official channels", has its own spontaneous leadership emerge directly from the workers themselves, formulates its own demands, etc.
Being a direct expression of working class determination, there is no question of "discipline" as an "abstract virtue" -- people know what they want and are determined to fight for it.
This would apply as well to spontaneous occupations, of course.
As capital is conscious of its collective interests, and is willing to sacrifice individual capitalists for the benefit of the whole bourgeoisie, so the proletariat in its struggle with the enemy class must adopt at least partially that enemy's modus operandi, particularly if the proletariat is to be effective in contesting the bourgeoisie on its terrain.
That sounds plausible...but the "effectiveness" of that approach has not been demonstrated. We have a long history in the west, involving hundreds of vanguard parties, with almost every possible variant of the Leninist paradigm...with nothing to show for it.
The only successful Leninist revolutionary was Lenin himself...and even his success soured rather quickly.
I might add that contesting the bourgeoisie "on its terrain" is a sucker's bet...strategies based on electioneering or otherwise infiltrating the bourgeois state apparatus always come to grief.
Our "terrain" consists of the workplaces and the streets...we win there or we don't win at all, ever.
Don't Marxists, as communists, need to do better than this sort of 'democracy,' which is economically determined and obfuscatory?
Obviously! It's fake...and we should be telling our class that over and over again.
Oddly enough, very few Leninist parties do that -- it's considered "ultra-left".
A vanguard is the repository of class consciousness when the class lacks direction and awareness of itself as a class.
Sometimes. But most of the time they are, at best, museums of earlier and (sooner or later) unsuccessful efforts.
In our own day, we see people try to "apply" Lenin and Trotsky (or Lenin and Mao) to contemporary conditions...again, with almost nothing to show for their efforts. The "class consciousness" that they preserve is only a memory.
Spontaneity of the working class is unreliable, and easily (as history has demonstrated) dead-ends in temporary sectoral gains (trade unionism pure and simple). Lenin's point was that the vanguard acts for the totality of the class, even for rights of minorities belonging to the bourgeoisie when these can impact the working class.
It claims to "act for the totality of the class" -- that's not quite the same thing as actually doing it.
Further, if working class spontaneity has been "unreliable" (thus far), what can we say of all the Leninist vanguards?
Has even one of them "shown us the way forward"? Has even one of them ever formulated a clear, consistent, and principled strategy that has paid off?
To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht...
Those who lead the workers into the abyss
Call ruling too difficult
For ordinary men.
First posted at RevLeft on February 7, 2005
In a wildcat strike, usually an active minority - dare I say, a vanguard? - throws up a picket line or otherwise calls out the rest of the workers.
Accounts that I have read suggest that wildcat strikes begin in some immediate outrage by the bosses directed against a sub-group of workers (people in a particular department). The workers there talk about the outrage amongst themselves, agree to walk, and then "spread the word" to other departments...if this is effectively done, a drift or march to the gate begins within hours. The picket line is the last thing to go up...when everyone who's coming out is already out.
I would not object to using the word "vanguard" to describe the workers who initiated the wildcat...except that it would merely confuse people. Those rebellious workers have no ambitions (presumably) to secure for themselves a plush chair in the Ministry of Central Economic Planning or some other bureaucracy. They are not running for a seat in parliament or even the official leadership of the local. They are not and do not aspire to be politicians.
The old IWW had a slogan: An injury to one is an injury to all!
The wildcat strike brings it back to life.
True, it is likely that few self-professed vanguard organizations adequately discharge this 'duty,' and remain locked in memory (maybe even 'false memory'). But that fact doesn't negate the need for a vanguard in the revolutionary process.
Few? Try none.
I agree that such does not constitute "the end of the dispute"...if it could nevertheless be demonstrated that there actually is a "need for a vanguard in the revolutionary process" -- a formal, self-designated vanguard party, that is.
As noted above, I'm sure there will be a multitude of "informal" and spontaneous "vanguards"...but that's not really the same thing.
In this thread, we're talking about people who claim a "special expertise" in making revolution and leading the transition from capitalism "through socialism" to communism. All the rest of us are supposed to follow them the way we follow "doctors' orders".
If their claims were justified by historical experience, then we'd be very foolish indeed to ignore them.
But they are "doctors" whose patients always die.
Even when the operation was "a success".
The virtue of a vanguard is more than its ability to bring together diverse elements of the struggle; also, it is to analyze, adapt, and direct from the vantage of the totality.
Yet inspite of their "mastery of the dialectic", they still fail.
In the west, they fail miserably. If you gathered all the members of all the self-proclaimed vanguard parties in the U.S. together, you couldn't fill a small minor league ball park.
I'm not a fan of "dialectics" myself...I think it's all 19th century mysticism.
But if there were anything to it, then according to its own terms, it would manifest itself universally -- meaning that even a spontaneous uprising could achieve, at least in principle, a de facto understanding of the totality of their struggle.
Unless, of course, you wish to argue that "dialectics" is the private domain of philosophy professors and "great leaders".
That would be ok with me -- I'd gladly leave that pompous nonsense to those two groups...they are, after all, uniquely qualified to appreciate it.
First posted at RevLeft on February 7, 2005
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