Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 11, 2011

Paul LeBlanc on Marxism and Organization

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 4:57 pm

This was a talk that he gave at the ISO conference a week ago. I carved out some time today in order to prepare a response. I agree with Paul on many things but have found him veering too much in a “Zinovievist” direction for my own tastes (for lack of a better word.)

Surprisingly or maybe not so surprisingly, I found nothing to disagree with here:


I quote the section “Not getting it wrong” that is truly inspired:

One way of looking at it is to think of it [a socialist organization] as a club, like an organisation for those who have a special interest or hobby. If you are interested in history, you might join a history club. If you are into stamp collecting, you might join a stamp collecting club. If you have an incredibly high IQ, you might join Mensa in order to be able to get together with really smart people like yourself. One could see a socialist organisation as a sort of affinity group for those who like socialism.

If that is how you see it, I hope you won’t be offended when I say that I believe this is a stupid reason for organising a socialist group. Because if you would really like to see socialism come into existence, you won’t be able to make that happen in such a group.

A key to getting at the answer to the question is to realise that Karl Marx and his co-thinker Frederick Engels — politically active in Germany, France, Belgium, Britain and elsewhere — developed their thinking, what they called “scientific socialism”, through a serious and ongoing interaction with working-class activists.

This scientific socialism — which after Marx’s death came to be called “Marxism” — is a complex and multi-faceted body of thought with multiple sources. It was grounded in the ideas of the Enlightenment and also of heroic Romanticism, drawing from German philosophy, French revolutionary thought and British political economy, powerfully influenced as well by the capitalist Industrial Revolution and the rise of the working class, and by the struggles of the working class.

It involves five basic components. One of these is a dynamic philosophical orientation, or methodology, which is dialectical, materialist and humanistic. Another of these involves a theory of history — which sees economic development and class struggle as shaping the way history unfolds. A third component involves an analysis of capitalism — how it is structured, how it works, how it exploits a growing number of people (the working class), how it opens up new possibilities but also is incredibly irrational and destructive when it comes to human needs. A fourth component of Marxism is based on the notion that the working-class majority has the power to replace capitalism with socialism, so here Marxism provides a basic political program for the working class. And the fifth component — which we have already touched on — involves the vision of a socialist future.

What is essential to Marxism is the key notion that there must be a fusion of socialism with the working class if they are each to have a positive future.

The working class, the way Marx and Engels defined it, is composed of those who make a living by selling their ability to work (which consists of energy for manual labour, intellectual labour, or both). It is those whose labour creates the goods and services all of us depend on. It also includes family members and others dependent on the paychecks of those who sell their ability to work — and also unemployed and retired workers. It is the creative majority, whose labour creates and sustains the economy on which society depends, those without whom capitalism could not function. Marxists see this as a force that potentially has the interest and the power to challenge capitalism. If they join together, the workers have the power to bring to birth a new and better world.

This provides the basis for defining the purpose of a socialist organisation — but there is still room to get it wrong. If we simply see ourselves as a bigger, better affinity group whose purpose is to share our wisdom with the workers and recruit them into our ranks, we may be in for a big disappointment.

Some of us may have had the kind of experience of being part of a socialist group that appeals “from outside” to a romanticised abstraction, the Heroic Working Class, urging people to listen to our socialist ideas, buy our socialist literature, come to our socialist meetings and join with us in thinking revolutionary thoughts. This can be a way to attract some handfuls of thoughtful people. It is actually because of such activities that some of us may have become socialists and have become members of a socialist organisation. But some of us have also had enough experience to know that this doesn’t work as a means for mobilising a working class majority in the effort to replace capitalism with socialism.

There has been a temptation for some anti-capitalists to conclude that it is not possible to mobilise a working-class majority, and that — few as we are — we should simply take matters into our own hands, substituting ourselves for the “revolutionary proletarian masses” who stubbornly refuse to materialise. Perhaps if we take drastic action, we can shake up and radicalise a working-class majority — or at least we can become militant avengers of the oppressed.


  1. Indeed, I always consider socialist formations in the US to be akin to the various period reenactment groups — Civil War, US Revolutionary War — that congregate in similar numbers. Renaissance fairs also come to mind.

    There are subtle differences. War reenacters only get together on the 4th of July, Memorial Day and a few weekends a year. Socialist formations have no formal costume requirements and are much less dramatic, though people still sing Internationale. Most reenacters probably operate from stereotypes and aren’t well read. But most socialist members are extremely intellectual and significantly contribute to furthering the tradition of socialist history.

    But there is one significant difference. The historical fundamentalist political genuflection to Lenin, Trotsky and all makes the REENACTER appear sane since they likely know their activities are no more than a hobby and just part of role-playing and make-believe.

    Comment by Aaron — July 18, 2011 @ 9:54 pm

  2. I think Aaron underestimates the geekiness of reenactors when he comments that they “probably operate from stereotypes and aren’t well read”.

    Quite the opposite is typically true. Granted, it’s unlikely many read leftist sources on their periods of interest, but very few people do, and, of course, it’s rare for leftist sources to contain much in the kind of detail they are interested in.

    Comment by Alan B — July 19, 2011 @ 12:22 am

  3. I think the only group that really came close to “historic Bolshevism” in the U.S. is probably the I.W.W. They were revolutionary, democratic, and led some class battles. Their leaflets and media reflected an incredible level of class consciousness and a lot of it was funny as hell too. What do you think Louis?

    Comment by Binh — July 23, 2011 @ 3:21 am

  4. Binh, it is interesting to note that Lenin considered inviting the IWW to join the Comintern if memory serves me right. Of course, most of its leaders (as well as that of the SP) joined the CP in the early 20s, a mistake in many ways.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

  5. Check out the tone of their “appeal” to the I.W.W. (http://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/australia/iww/open-letter.htm):


    Instead of patiently explaining, we have insulting exhortation by Zinoviev. Is it any wonder the I.W.W. didn’t care to listen?

    I’m curious what you think of the CPUSA’s experienc in the 30s. Sure their politics were garbage, but they became a mass party with real influence/roots in the working class, and they had all the trappings of Zinovievism — a paper, disciplined fraction interventions, etc.

    Comment by Binh — July 23, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

  6. Binh, are you receiving my emails? I just wrote you two notes that you have not replied to. Please drop me a line to touch base.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

  7. I only received 1 email which I replied to.

    Comment by Binh — July 25, 2011 @ 12:19 am

  8. This is frustrating, Binh. Something must be going on with your spam filter. I am going to write you from my Columbia email address and see if that works.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 25, 2011 @ 12:43 am

  9. I suspect the ghost of Zinoviev has hacked my email.

    Comment by Binh — July 27, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

  10. Louis, are you going to post your reply at some point? I’ve got a lengthy response I will post there soon.

    Comment by Binh — July 28, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

  11. […] the following is written in response to Paul Le Blanc’s “Marxism and Organisation” essay, it is not a line-for-line response, nor do I believe that he personally subscribes to […]

    Pingback by A response to Paul LeBlanc’s “Marxism and Organization” « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 29, 2011 @ 2:28 pm

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