Students for a Democratic Society vs. Leninism February 2, 2004 by RedStar2000
The unhappy confrontation between the Students for a Democratic Society and the Leninist currents of the late 1960s has not received a great deal of attention.
Perhaps it should...especially in light of the fact that the objective conditions to support a movement like SDS might well be re-emerging.
...people need a hardcore leadership -- so their "rivulets of struggle" become a single torrent that can reshape the world.
This seems to be one of those sentiments that has been repeated so often and in so many different ways that people just "assume that it's true" and move on.
The evidence for it was never very strong; it's really just a variant of the "great man" theory of history that goes back to the very roots of class society--the Epic of Gilgamesh for example.
Things happen because leaders "will" them to happen; their great strength, courage, foresight, etc. "inspire" their followers to a "unified effort" to "change the world".
In this view, the masses of people are a sort of passive lump of dough...until the "yeast" of leadership is added.
The masses may "make history"...but only if they are "properly led". By themselves, they "don't do much".
Upon close examination, this concept of history breaks down rather dramatically. It cannot explain why yesterday's "great leader" so frequently becomes today's "great failure".
If there were really an objective quality of "greatness" that a few possess but most do not, then it would "show"...the "great man" would rise to pre-eminence in adulthood and display his "greatness" for the remainder of his life.
That almost never happens.
The careers of "great leaders" in history are "all over the charts"..."dazzling successes" followed by "catastrophic failures" and vice versa, a mixture of partial successes and partial failures, etc., etc., etc.
The random mixture of failure and success makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that "leadership" is anything much more than pure chance. The leader may be somewhat more intelligent than average, but not greatly so. Genius is certainly not required (though often claimed).
It's sometimes said that "leaders" possess a quality called "charisma"...the ability to inspire loyalty and devotion independent of actual competence.
If so, it is also a curious quality...in that it is effective with large numbers of people but equally ineffective with large numbers of others. And it likewise appears to fluctuate with time and fortune.
So if you repeat the time-worn formula, "the people need a hardcore leadership to unite their efforts", then you are accepting the idea that without a strong-willed, courageous, moderately intelligent, very charismatic, and lucky leader, nothing much good is going to happen.
The struggle for communism then reduces itself to waiting for the leader to enter upon the stage of world history...or searching for him among all the hordes of "leader-wannabes".
The great insight of Marx and Engels was that all this fuss over leaders was so much froth upon the surface of an ocean of material conditions. When the ocean is calm, the leaders are "mediocre". When the ocean is stormy, various tumultuous characters rise and fall...it is an "era of great men".
It is not, in the Marxist view, leaders who "make history"...it is history that makes leaders.
In the case of proletarian revolution, it makes them out of workers.
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on January 17, 2004
People need someone to point the way forward.
Yes, in any group of people, someone has to be the first to say "let's do this"--there's no such thing as telepathic spontaneity.
But, if Marx was right, there is a "climate of receptivity" that ultimately derives from material conditions.
There are times when someone says "let's do this" and is met with thunderous indifference or even active hostility.
In other situations, the suggestion "catches fire" and "takes off"...as if large numbers of people were already thinking along those lines and had already reached those conclusions. It was only a matter of chance who said it first...it was going to be said, no matter what.
It was "in the air".
There are many examples of this in history but, as it happens, it is something I can speak of through first-hand experience.
In the late 1950s & early 1960s, discontent among American youth was "in the air". Something was "going to happen". You could actually "feel it".
The winds of change were rising.
It was all very fuzzy and incoherent; politics and culture and drugs and sex...seperate strands mixing and re-mixing together. There were even a few "old lefties" around who had not "made their peace" with monopoly capitalism and imperialism...and they gave us the benefit of their long experience through the 1930s and 1940s as well as our first glimpse of revolutionary integrity.
I was present in New York when a small group of leaders of the tiny Students for a Democratic Society (less than 1,000 members) planned the April 1965 March on Washington against the war in Vietnam. I still remember how it was "hoped" that we could get "two or three thousand" kids to come...that with "a lot of hard work" we could "maybe" do this.
About 25,000 kids showed up...and SDS membership exploded. And you know what happened after that.
It was "in the air".
Who were these "leaders"? Where did they come from? And whatever happened to them?
Well, I sort of knew some of them. They were pretty bright kids who'd read a lot more political stuff than most members of their generation. None of them were Leninists or vanguardists in any formal sense, though some of them had read Lenin. They were very impressed with "left-bourgeois" radical critiques of modern capitalism; C. Wright Mills was as popular then as Noam Chomsky is now. They were very leery of "communism"--Stalin, etc.--though Castro's revolution impressed them.
Only a few of them (if any at all) knew anything of anarchist traditions; as far as they were concerned, they invented the idea of "participatory democracy", the regular rotation of people out of office, term limits, the autonomy of the local collectives, etc.
During the years 1965-69, SDS--like America itself--boiled with internal controversies and ideological struggle. Conventions--though technically limited to one per year--in effect took place four times a year and were attended by 800 to 1,200 members and delegates...and it always seemed to me that every last one of them had something to say.
Sad to say, SDS underwent a three-way split in June of 1969...and all three factions were, loosely speaking, based on the Leninist tradition. All three regarded themselves as the "real leaders" of the movement.
The enormous movement that had surrounded SDS essentially dissipated from 1970-75; here and there, local groups continued to function for a while (producing underground newspapers was a popular project, one that I took part in).
A few people wrote books...not bad but not so great either. Some ended up in academia...with all the political sterility that such a fate implies. Most, I suspect, just quietly entered the working class and, whenever they remembered their "glory years", just had a good chuckle over their youthful naivetι.
Imagine! A bunch of ordinary people thinking they could change the world.
From these experiences, I've drawn a conclusion. That when material conditions grow "ripe" for proletarian revolution, the leaders will come from the ranks of "people you never heard of". They will not be anything like the mental picture of a "great leader" that you may have.
What they will do is articulate what is already "in the air", what millions of workers have already concluded needs to happen. When they speak, their words will "catch fire", setting the whole political landscape in flames.
Not because they are geniuses or have a "correct understanding" or because of charisma or any of that crap.
Their "rise to fame"--such as it will be--will take place because they, by chance, were the first to speak a new truth for a new age.
And I'm convinced that such a truth, when finally spoken and heard, will echo what we said in SDS nearly 40 years ago: let the people decide.
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on January 18, 2004
But while rebellion can be "in the air" that doesn't make revolutions. Revolutionary moments and situations can be "thrown away" because (though the people had the potential to go for it) there was not powerful organized force and leadership to direct the discontent of the people into a revolutionary movement. Or one that can successfully lead a revolutionary movement to take and hold power, and actually take the socialist road.
A succinct summary of the Leninist-Maoist hypothesis.
The question is: can the discontent of the people be "directed" into "taking power"?
And if so, how could this possibly be done?
Of course, you can "call" on people to occupy government buildings, for example. Will they do it?
You can "call" on the army to "defect to the people's side". Will they?
What Leninist parties have traditionally done is to substitute themselves for the people. Their own cadre arm themselves, occupy the government buildings, and "proclaim" the "provisional revolutionary government", and hope that people will accept that...particularly the army (or most of it).
If they have at least some mass working class support, they can make a pretty good run for "the big prize".
Lenin's coup against the Kerensky regime is a text-book case; there were enough Bolshevik factory worker detachments and enough units of the military that were willing to "take orders" from the Petrograd Soviet Military Committee (controlled by the Bolsheviks) that key points in Petrograd (government offices, the telephone exchange, the railway stations, etc.) were occupied with hardly a shot being fired. The Kerensky government was arrested while sitting around a table in the old Winter Palace arguing about "what to do".
The next day, Lenin informed the opening session of the All Russian Congress of Soviets that "state power had been seized in their name"...and the congress promptly approved a new government dominated by Bolsheviks and led by Lenin...their first and last act of any political significance.
After that, it was "Lenin & the Bolsheviks" all the way.
This singular event in history has profoundly influenced three generations of revolutionaries...even though it's never been repeated. (Probably the closest parallels took place immediately in the wake of October...the brief Hungarian Soviet Republic and the even briefer Bavarian Soviet Republic.)
Was the Bolshevik victory a "fluke"? Was it a crucial error to impose this event as a "template" on all future attempts to make revolution?
Is it a justified conclusion that Lenin was "right" about "directing revolution to victory"?
Aside from Lenin's revolution, the major examples of (temporarily) successful revolutions of the 20th century have been "protracted people's wars" (peasant revolutions)--which we could call the Maoist variant of Leninism. In these revolutions (China, Yugoslavia, Cuba, IndoChina), it really was a case of "directed revolutions"...organized by a "powerful leadership".
So if you live in a "backward" country, with an enormous peasant majority, burdened with a colonial bourgeoisie and a rural aristocracy...it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Maoism is "the way to go".
Meanwhile, we who live in the advanced capitalist countries and who expect proletarian revolutions on the model initially suggested by Marx and the Paris Commune have a dilemma.
Lenin's model never "caught on" in the west...most workers rejected its "iron discipline" and "centralized leadership". And Mao's model is totally unsuitable for obvious reasons.
It seems logical to me to therefore look at the model of Barcelona...where the anarcho-syndicalists seized practical control of the city--though making the crucial blunder of failing to disperse the old government and its politicians. Knowing little of Marx (and that little probably being mis-information from the pen of Bakunin), they neglected to "smash the bourgeois state apparatus"...which, in due course, came around to bite them in the ass with a vengeance.
Would a "strong leadership" have made a difference in Barcelona? Or would the wide-spread knowledge of that "final step" that had to be taken been sufficient?
I think the latter is the case. I think that if the working class is informed by communists from the beginning that the old bourgeois state apparatus must be destroyed...that when revolutionary upheaval takes place, they can and will do that easily.
What need, then, for a "strong leadership" if communists have always fully informed our class of what actually has to be done?
Unless you want to argue that most workers are "incapable" of grasping the basics of anti-capitalist revolution or how to organize an egalitarian and libertarian post-capitalist society, then those are things that can be learned in the decades that precede the actual revolution itself.
Barcelona, after all, was 30 years in the making...and the working class knew how to do everything but that one crucial step.
It wasn't an "inevitable" mistake.
The whole thing of "participatory democracy" was a rather naive feature of SDS (similar to the consensus approach of today's anarchist circles) -- and really, there were networks of "movement heavies" operating behind the scenes, while everyone pretended it was run by "participatory democracy."
Which meant you had leadership --- but because it wasn't officially chosen, or discussed, or evaluated, or supervised, it was often hard to struggle with the functioning leaders of SDS and help them improve.
Well, yes and no. You know that a really large movement in a turbulent situation has many currents. Yes, I was made aware, on occasion, that there were things going on "out of sight" of the membership...but nothing all that "heavy", if you understand my distinction.
The crucial aspect of "participatory democracy" is that there was no "formal mechanism" for imposing "unity of theory and practice".
Because, as Marxists, we learn at an early age that such unity is desirable, some succumb to the temptation of "democratic centralism"...which does have a mechanism for imposing that unity.
In SDS, you not only had to win a "formal majority" at a convention for your proposed theory & practice...the local chapters had to actually decide whether or not to carry out what the convention had decided and, if so, in what way. And even if your proposal "lost" by a significant majority, some chapters might think it was a good idea and implement it anyway...and return to the next convention with enough "success stories" that your idea might win approval at the national level after all.
Those are things that "can't happen" in a properly-run Leninist party.
The other thing, of course, was the regular rotation of officers at the national level in SDS. We never developed a "mystique" of "leadership" as such; a common saying in SDS was "we are all leaders"...and we believed that.
Leaders in SDS were never formally criticized in the fashion that some Leninist parties have employed from time-to-time; no one ever sat down and drafted a 50-page indictment of some guy who was "on the skids".
But anyone of antiquarian curiosity who wants to look through a few old issues of New Left Notes will find plenty of critical letters. (Many university libraries have files of New Left Notes on microfilm...I'm sometimes a little tempted to go back and have a look at my "youthful follies" myself--but, so far, I have resisted temptation.)
The absence of a "leader mystique" kept the channels open for creative thought and action from the membership and the local chapters. We did not have to await "the Leader's" next "brilliant revelation" before we could do anything; we were free to innovate according to immediate conditions of struggle.
And, of course, we were never "painted into a corner" by the outcome of the last convention; we never suffered what many Leninists privately complain of all the time--trying to "carry out a line or a project" that is known to be hopeless.
I know that we all have a tendency to "edit" our memories as time passes, not to mention looking back on our youth--our "glory years"--with "rose-colored glasses".
One thing that would have helped SDS a lot was much greater horizontal communications between chapters--we did have some regional groups that tried to do some of this, but as one who took a lot of interest in what other chapters were doing, I was often frustrated by the lack of real information. Today, in the age of the internet, there'd be no excuse for that.
My understanding is that the rule in Leninist parties (perhaps there are exceptions) prohibits horizontal communication. Information goes up to the top and orders come down from the top.
It must be confessed that SDS was theoretically "weak" and "left-bourgeois" ideology often permeated its analyses. I don't think people in SDS (for the most part) even really grasped why "participatory democracy" was something different and better than what the "old left" had to offer.
We had "something" that seemed to "work" and we never paused to inquire why.
That made us very "vulnerable" to the appeals of Leninism (yeah, me too!). Leninism seemed more "serious" and was definitely more "coherent".
In my view, our theoretical weakness caused us to "lose our way"--becoming entangled in bitter Leninist rivalries that, in retrospect, were utterly pointless and totally counter-productive.
But those were the times.
(Note: there was never much in the way of "consensus" in SDS--perhaps we were more "volatile" than some of today's anarchists.)
First, the movement did not "dissipate" because SDS split. The dissipation happened because the upsurge subsided.
Not right away it didn't. Nearly a year after the June 1969 split was Kent State...and something like 130 campuses went on strike/occupation. Had SDS still existed, who knows what could have come of that?
Perhaps another period of explosive growth for SDS.
And more: it was necessary to...develop communist cadre who would go deep into the working class and connect revolution with untouched sections of the people.
Ah, the irony. In my city, workers approached us...asking for our assistance in class struggle. I understand that this happened in a few other places as well.
Two of the three Leninist factions in SDS told us that we had to "go to the workers" and...they were already beginning to come to us.
I don't believe this at all. And one of the deep problems of the 1960s is that the movement did not have mature, developed, thoughtful experienced communist leaders -- and real communist organization, when the movement was at its most powerful.
The 60s could have gone much farther, but ran into the contradiction of the lack of such leadership and communist organization.
If you just articulate what is already "in the air" you will have radical times, but not a revolution.
There were many older people around then who claimed that they were "mature, thoughtful, experienced, communist leaders".
They were lying or, to be charitable about it, profoundly mistaken...as you know.
And not much has changed in that regard. Many today proclaim themselves the heirs of this or that dead revolutionary. Many claim that "only they" know the "path forward". Many are those who style themselves guardians of the sacred flame and wearers of the ring of power. I daresay there are some who eagerly look forward to seeing their portraits...on the sides of 20-story buildings.
No...that really doesn't "fly" any more. When the next great rising comes, I think people will be even less trusting of "great leaders" than we were in the 1960s. "Personality cults" may still sell movies and cds...but not politics and especially not revolutionary politics.
Most people these days regard a group that features a personality cult as...a cult.
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on January 25, 2004
More on SDS...nostalgia is kind of fun, isn't it?
Leadership was informal and often not accountable to anyone. And there was no "mechanism" for summing up experiences, setting policies, deepening the understanding of common experience etc.
On one hand you complain that SDS "sadly" shattered into a million pieces... on the other hand, you celebrate that they had no sophisticated organizational structure (which played a huge role in how they shattered.)
You misunderstand. I said there was no mechanism for imposing unity of theory and practice. I think that is what actually helped SDS become the only mass organization of the "far left" since...the Communist Party in the 1930s.(?)
As to "summing up", "deepening understanding", etc., we did that all the time. We just didn't have some guy in the front of the room telling us what we had just done.
It was obvious.
This is of course not true. People like Bernadette [sic] Dorhn, or Tom Hayden (to pick names from very different "wings" were real leaders -- and represented lines.
There are always leaders -- but in some naive organizations people pretend (and even believe) there aren't.
Again, you misunderstand. People like Dohrn and (much earlier) Hayden were known and respected...but no one ever felt the "need" to "elevate" them to "cult status" or "icons". We didn't engage in struggle because we were "inspired" by Dohrn or Hayden or anyone else. Had someone suggested that so-and-so was "the red sun in our hearts", we would have been rolling on the floor in helpless laughter. Had any leader in SDS suggested that they "deserved" to be worshiped in such a fashion, s/he probably would have been expelled...after people stopped laughing.
At the 1969 convention, by the way, Dohrn was heckled vigorously from the floor, Mike Klonsky and a brazen sexist from the Black Panther Party (I forget his name) were booed off the podium, Jeff Gordon (PL) needed about a dozen guys as bodyguards just to get to the microphone at the front of the room, where he was also heckled vigorously.
Not much "respect for leadership" in SDS!
Yes, there are always leaders, but there need not be ***LEADERS***...if you get my drift.
But there is a self-absorbing cycle in "participatory democracy" (or anarchist circles) that acts as if leadership itself is illegitimate -- so people were often criticized for leading, and not nearly so much for the content of their direction and line.
Yes, I've heard that one before. I recall an old ex-CPer complaining at a meeting once that we "don't let our leaders lead".
But I think that's the kind of criticism that has to be specific. If someone does something shitty, they can't hide behind the excuse of "well, I was just providing leadership". And if someone proposes an idea, it's not a legitimate attack to say "stop trying to tell us what we ought to do".
The real question is, in my opinion, this: does revolutionary leadership include the "power of command"?
In other words, if I get up and propose an idea to a group that's perfectly free to reject that idea for any and all reasons, am I exercising "leadership"?
Or is it a case that I am only a real ***LEADER*** if I can get up and say "Just Do It!" and the people in the room have to do it or be expelled.
Isn't that what Leninism really means?
This is upside down -- "participatory democracy" obviously didn't work, though the power of the mass movement washed past such problems for a while. Leninism didn't just "seem" more serious and coherent -- it IS more serious and coherent.
You really can't make a revolution (or even develop a coherent national movement for less than a revolution) based in loose, consensus based chapters based only among students.
"The power of the mass movement washed past such problems for a while"?
That's what's known as a meaningless statement. Participatory democracy worked, period.
In my experience, Leninism in the United States has been neither serious nor coherent. I say it only seemed that way in 1968-69 because SDS was even less coherent. I do think we were much more serious though.
RS then goes into some cynical dissing of anyone who strains to find the path forward.
I'm not going to get a head to head. But the fact that there are fools in the world, doesn't mean we should not strain to be wise.
The fact that there are liars in the world, does not mean we should give up the fight for truth.
And the fact that there has been betrayal of revolution does not mean that we shouldn't cherish communist leaders who have not betrayed us, and who are fighting to forge a way forward.
RS talks loosely about "cults" blah blah blah.
And I am aware that anti-communism is such a strong stink in the air that people actually get angry and offended if we talk about building communist leadership, and a vanguard party.
The reason that people get "angry and offended" is because of your message...that we "need" someone to "command" us. That we "can't" learn to be wise, that we "can't" learn to fight for the truth, that we "must cherish" (cherish!) a "communist" ***LEADER*** who will do these things "for us".
If you think this is "cynicism" or "the stink of anti-communism", then you don't really understand people very well at all...and even less as time goes on.
It's not communism that we are opposed to; it's the dictatorship/worship of "great leaders" that we reject.
Now and forever!
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on January 26, 2004
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