Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 12, 2009

In reply to a comrade

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

The day before yesterday I received this email:

Hi Louis,

The longer that I am on the Marxism list the more that I find that we only disagree when it comes to the big organizational question. I see you defending the proper analysis on so many issues that I felt I had to take a very close at this organizational issue.

Given the recent developments in Italy, England and France this might be the foremost issue (for Marxists in/around the FI or non-stalinist marxists) of our time. Obviously we have a wealth of documentation detailing the debates in recent times (Callinicos, Sabad, etc), but I am interested in perspectives from the early 20th century to round this out. You often refer to Zinoviev as the originator of these views, and I was wondering if you know of anyone who called him on it in those days, or debated him? Basically, was there anyone else who put forward a different viewpoint? Also, how do you feel about the SWP entering and leaving the SP (I know it was before the SWP was formed) back in the 1930s? Would you criticize that move in the same vein as how you did with SWP (Britain) in Respect? Also, how do/did you feel about the Black Panthers, who purported to be a vanguard party as well but seem to have worked well with other groups better than most sectarian trotskyist groups of today?

I have read your blog posts on these issues to make sure I didn’t ask you something you’ve already answered, but if I somehow missed an answer I apologize. If you only have the time to answer one question I think my question on Zinoviev is the most important to me. Thanks for your perspective.

Since it would have required a fair amount of time and energy to prepare a reply and since the questions raised would be of general interest to Marxists, my correspondent gave me permission to answer him publicly.

To start with, nobody challenged Zinoviev’s organizational ideas on either side of the Stalin-Trotsky debate. In the 1920s and 30s, Trotsky never really paid much attention to “democratic centralist” norms since he was obviously far more preoccupied with questions such as fascism, the popular front, and the true nature of the USSR.

Trotsky had a tendency to dismiss leftist alternatives to the “democratic centralist” model as centrist, the most important example being the POUM in Spain. While the POUM made serious mistakes, they at least figured out how to reach the masses through constructing an organization that was far more rooted in Spanish culture and society. In a way, the POUM anticipated later developments such as the FSLN and FMLN.

In comparison to the POUM, the program of the Spanish Trotskyists was superior but they failed to make much of an impact on the mass movement. Although the American Trotskyists were far more rooted in the mass movement, largely as a function of James P. Cannon’s experience in the IWW and the broader left, there was still a tendency to view party-building as a kind of project rooted in “Defending the Program”, which unfortunately spawned sectarian tendencies everywhere it was attempted.

In 1929, the Militant published Trotsky’s letter to Cannon that included this tell-tale passage:

The revolutionary Marxists are now again reduced (not for the first time and probably not for the last) to being an international propaganda society….It seems that the fact that we are very few frightens you. Of course, it is unpleasant. Naturally, it would be better to have behind us organizations numbering millions. But how are we, the vanguard of the vanguard, to have such organizations the day after the world revolution has suffered catastrophic defeats brought on by the Menshevik leadership hiding under the false mask of Bolshevism? Yes, how?

For me, this encapsulates the problems that have dogged the Trotskyist movement since its inception. The assertion that you are the “vanguard of the vanguard” based on a set of ideas reflects-obviously-an idealistic approach to politics. It has led to innumerable splits in the Trotskyist movement as differences over one question or another have led small groups to split, and then split again.

The Communist Party never had such problems because they were blessed by rapid growth wherever they were founded. Even though they followed the same kinds of mechanical “party building” ideas as the Trotskyists, this did not stand in the way of them becoming massive. Such was the power of the USSR to inspire millions of workers to join the party even though the party always found ways to screw things up in the mass movement. A split in a CP might have been fairly easy to recover from, since there were always fresh bodies to fill the ranks. In the small and fragile Trotskyist movement, a split would often prove fatal.

To my knowledge, the review of the Zinovievist model did not really begin until after WWII when Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman decided to not only transcend the dead-end of the Stalin-Trotsky debate, but to adopt party-building methods that were far more geared to the tempo of the mass movement and the need to respect ideological diversity. This was a period in which many others were trying to figure out a new way of doing things. The Guardian newspaper and Monthly Review were both launched as an effort to break with sectarian and dogmatic habits of the traditional left. For his part, Hal Draper, who came out of a Shachtmanite background, was seeking similar ways of moving forward. I consider this period to be very instructive for the one that we are in now, since it too was on the cusp of a new radicalization.

But it was difficult for their efforts to bear fruit since the existence of the USSR tended to reinforce the old Stalin-Trotsky divide. The CP’s found “democratic centralism” useful in enforcing ideological conformity; so did the Trotskyists. The CP’s tended to use the bureaucratic hammer to stifle dissent, while the Trotskyists relied much more on peer pressure.

On the Trotskyists in the SP, I believe that this was a big mistake. While it might have been inevitable that the rightwing of the party find some excuse to get rid of the Trotskyists, the Trotskyists did not help their own cause by basically carrying out an “entryist” tactic, which should have been transparent to all members. For all of the bad reputation that the SP leaders deserve, the plain truth is that someone like Norman Thomas was far to the left of Ralph Nader today. If you read Sol Dollinger’s account of the Flint sit-down strikes, you will learn that Thomas was instrumental in building support for the strikers. If the Trotskyists had viewed the SP in more or less the same way that the French LCR now views the new anti-capitalist party, American politics would look a lot different today. The SP would have entered the Cold War as a party of 20,000 with a strong left wing and without the taint that the CP had earned to some extent by its own crappy policies during WWII.

On the Panthers, I have to be up front about this. In my view, they were far less important than Martin Luther King Jr., particularly during the end of his career when he was becoming more and more militant. He was able to mobilize Black workers in a way that the Panthers never did. Instead, the Panthers relied much more on “serve the people” efforts such as the breakfast programs which simply reflected a misguided effort to emulate the Maoist experience of the 1930s and 40s.

The other problem with the Panthers was their tendency to operate as a militia, which opened them up to victimization. It was far harder to mobilize public opinion against killer cops when their targets insisted on marching with guns and using “off the pig” rhetoric. If the Panthers had modeled themselves much more on Malcolm X’s Organization for African-American Unity, they would have had much more success. In Malcolm’s entire career, he was never photographed with a gun nor did he call for armed struggle. He always stressed the need for self-defense, which actually is what happens in all revolutionary struggles.


  1. Proyect’s argument isn’t with Zinoviev, but with Bolshevism. As James P. Cannon pointed out:

    “Democratic-centralism has no special virtue per se. It is the specific principle of the combat party, united by a single program, which aims to lead a revolution. Social Democrats have no need of such a system of organization for the simple reason that they have no intention of organizing a revolution. Their democracy and centralism are not united by a hyphen but kept in separate compartments for separate purposes. The democracy is for the social patriots and the centralism is for the revolutionists.”
    — Letter to Duncan Conway, April 3, 1953

    Comment by Red Cloud — February 12, 2009 @ 11:31 pm

  2. Well, if Cannon said it, it must be true.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 12, 2009 @ 11:33 pm

  3. While I’m an outsider to Trotskyism, I find much to agree with in Louis’s sum-up. I particularly share his view of King vis-a-vis the Panthers.

    A couple of comments on the Panthers: they actually were pretty sectarian in their attitude towards other black groups, though Cointelpro had something to do with that. They had a very hard time dealing with the would-be allies from SDS, for class as well as racial reasons–the purism of the proto-Maoists and the adventurism of the trashers. On the other hand, I think it is a common mistake to underestimate the political sophistication of BPP leaders like Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Fred Hampton on the ‘organizing’ side, and Dhoruba bin Wahad and Kathleen Cleaver on the ‘guerrilla’ side. [Eldridge Cleaver was something else again.] I also think there is a myopic tendency to view the Party’s base as ‘lumpen’ rather than working class, because they targeted youth. But most inner city youth [let’s say in that period] led lives that intersected with the lower strata of the working class and the criminal world of street gangs. The Panthers were very successful in reaching that mass, much more than King, partly because of their paramilitary posturing and cop-killing rhetoric. On the other hand, the influence of the last years both of King and of Malcolm was apparent in the BPP 10-point program, their service programs and in their openness to allying with white radicals [still taboo among other left nationalist groups from 1966 to about 1973].

    Another note: Malcolm did indeed pose with a gun for a photo that still is widely circulated–for the wrong reasons. When the Nation of Islam put a hit out on Malcolm, he had a photo taken of himself in his living room, peering through the drapes with an automatic weapon in hand. The message was, ‘anyone who wants to harm my family had better be prepared to die.’ Out of context, some take the photo to mean “I’m a badass.”

    Comment by ethan young — February 13, 2009 @ 2:27 am

  4. Malcolm with gun out of context

    Comment by Horacio Oliveira — February 13, 2009 @ 3:16 am

  5. Louis is the most fearless inventor of facts that I’ve come across. The historical basis for his claim that Zinoviev invented his own brand of democratic centralism in opposition to Lenin’s idea on same is zero.
    The claim that Trotsky was too busy to bother to delve into the subject is hilarious. Louis have you read Trotsky’s biography of Stalin? It was one of the last things he did before he died. Trotsky’s description of the Bolshevik party’s internal regime was that of a hierarchy with Lenin and other party thinkers at the top, the party organizers in the middle (an incipient bureaucracy he called it.)and the militants below. All this talk of organization seems to me to be a waste of time because everywhere a revolution occurred it was not done by a mass party but by a numerically weak party with great influence on the masses. Louis if you know of a mass party that did not adapt to the status quo please let me know. If you wish to create such party just say so and stop trying to use Lenin’s name for something that would have been against his nature.

    Comment by noname — February 15, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

  6. Louis is the most fearless inventor of facts that I’ve come across.

    Really, did I make up the fact that nobody except Bogdanov was ever expelled from the Bolsheviks? Or that Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev did not even stand trial for indiscipline after opposing the April theses publicly? In contrast, the Trotskyist sects expel people for having the wrong interpretation of which sect to support in another country.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 15, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

  7. My conclusion is the opposite of yours.

    I think the SWP suffered so many splits, was because the leaders were better organizers, than Marxist theorists.

    Even the 1934 Teamster strike in Minneapolis, never went beyond great trade unionism. Questions as expropriation never were raised.

    Under Cannon the organizer trumped the theoretician.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — February 17, 2009 @ 8:05 am

  8. I don’t know, Renegade Eye. I think the games the SWP used to play trumped them as both organizers and theoreticians. Ted Grant said in his history of British Trotskyism that Cannon and the SWP were forever inflating numbers of active members of committes at meetings and stirring up sectarian games with professional sectarians like Gerry Healy. I’m sure Grant’s memory is somewhat selective, but his accounting of the battles within the British trots that Cannon helped to stir up is backed up by a couple of other sources who were at the time participants in the French section of the Fourth International.

    CLR James and the Johnson-Forrest tendency led a split from Cannon and the SWP themselves. But in the time they were out of the party, they made some real inroads with black working class organizers in a manner that the SWP was never that adept at, bringing on board activists with organizing strengths like James Boggs, Charles Denby and Martin Glaberman. When they attempted reunification with the SWP, they found Cannon playing a lot of what they believed were the same tired games seen in the Communist Party, so they left again.

    I’m sure Cannon and Boggs had their golden moments, maybe Cannon with the old American Communist Party before it began expelling oppositionists, and certainly Dobbs during the over-the-road trucker struggles in the 1930s. But again, it seems to me from what I’ve seen in a number of different sources their political games made them useless on both organizational and theoretical questions in too many instances.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — February 17, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

  9. Louis,

    I generally like this analysis. On the Panthers, though, I would suggest that they did play more of a signficant role than you suggest. Yes, MLK was far more significant in terms of the mass support he enjoyed, but I don’t feel that this is a proper comparison. The Panthers emerged after the MLK/Malcolm X period, in my view as an ultra left response to the demise of both. That said, the Black Power message they espoused did help to radicalise the anti-Vietnam War movement, especially the black troops that were fighting in Vietnam.

    Their focus on confronting the police, I agree with you, proved their weakness and downfall, substituting as it did a small elite for the masses. That said, some of the theoretical works they produced I’ve found as sharp as anything I’ve read of the period.

    Comment by John Wight — February 17, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

  10. POUM=Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista. Not a “spanish,” but a Catalonian party. The party Orwell wrote so often about; also, more anecdotally, the party Orwell (accordingly to himself as stated in his book ‘Homage to Catalonia,’) Orwell wrote about on a wall of a crapper (his only graffitti ever): “Visca Poum!”, he wrote, (“visca” being “long live” in Catalonian.)

    The Catalonian parties in the so-called “spanish civil war” were also fighting for Catalonia’s Independence, and foremost among them the Catalonian communists, with the great Andreu Nin at their head. Because the Catalonian lost the war, their efforts have been negated, for the castilians (so-called “spaniards”) both from the left and from the right have a vested interest in having the Catalans as second-class citizens – first by the francoist dictactorship, now with the borbonist-francoist dictatorship.

    Comment by peret — February 22, 2009 @ 2:19 am

  11. While I largely agree with Louis’ underlying point about the Panthers’ tactics versus Malcom X, the following passage is definitely incorrect: “In Malcolm’s entire career, he was never photographed with a gun…”

    There is in fact a very famous picture of Malcolm holding a carbine rifle that really captured my imagination as a youth in the 70’s. I first saw it either on the cover or inside a paperback edition of Malcom’s excellent autobiography by Alex Haley. A simple Google search like this will show it:


    The context of the picture, as I recall, was when he and his family were threatened by Nation of Islam thugs and his dwelling was subsequently firebombed. I also seem to recall the picture was taken in Malcolm’s house by Alex Haley as he was interviewing him for his book.

    If any readers missed this book they should put it on their reading list.

    Comment by iskraagent — March 19, 2009 @ 1:00 am

  12. I apologize in advance for my last redundant post about the picture of Malcolm X holding a gun. I hadn’t read the replies to Louis yet when I posted.

    Now that I have I must say that Red Cloud’s point that: “Proyect’s argument isn’t with Zinoviev, but with Bolshevism” is a valid one and that Proyect’s reply: “Well, if Cannon said it, it must be true” reads as a smug evasion of the seeming trusim that the Professor’s problem really is with Bolshevism.

    Perhaps that’s why during the Civil War Lenin told the keyholders of White Guard Dungeons in Finland that he’d “trade 50 Finnish Professors for one Jack Reed any day.”

    While I find the Unrepentant Professor’s blogs very interesting & often quite educational I cannot understand how somebody so seemingly intelligent cannot be aware that his mentor, Peter Camejo, engineered a sinister & devasting split in the biggest anti-imperialist movement in the last decade of the 20th Century when he redbaited the leadership of the 1st Gulf War just because he either had a grudge against Sam Marcy or was jealous of the WWP’s ability to organize such enormous marches against all odds, and even against the sabotage of the “Give Sanctions a Chance” reformists like Camejo & Leslie Cagan which still cripple anti-imperialist mobilizations today, particularly when their decendants in UFPJ & MoveOn.Org habitually redbait & blackout mass events such as the upcoming 3/21/09 mass actions — nevermind that it would’ve been more humane to actually bomb to death a half million Iraqi children & elderly than to slowly starve them with a decade of those murderous “sanctions” that Camejo & his ilk cheered for.

    Notice that out of sheer embarassment the word “sanctions” hasn’t even been mentioned by the left liberal reformists in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan in this 21st Century Imperialist adventure in the MidEast.

    Talk about “enemies” of the working class!

    It’s indeed correct to say that MLK mobilized far more workers than the Panthers — and he did it without redbaiting!

    Alas, if it weren’t for pacifism India’s economy today would likely be indistinguishable from China’s & they’d have a seat at the UN Security Council.

    Comment by iskraagent — March 19, 2009 @ 1:55 am

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