Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 6, 2012

Paul D’Amato and the Red Condom

Filed under: Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:49 pm

Paul D'Amato

In the latest installment in the ISO’s defense of Tony Cliff against Pham Binh’s critique (the entire exchange can be seen here), Paul D’Amato makes a highly revealing statement in the conclusion of an article titled “The Mangling of Tony Cliff”:

Binh appears to be taking Trotsky’s pre-1917 “conciliationist” line (which Trotsky later repudiated) that the differences were not substantial enough (since both saw Russia’s revolution as “bourgeois”) for a split. After the Prague congress Trotsky attempted to organise the “August Bloc”, an effort to unite all the different factions of the movement. It began to collapse immediately after its first gathering. “The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy”, Trotsky later wrote of his policy of unity at any cost, “was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purposes of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party”.

Binh apparently rejects these conclusions. Perhaps his model is the August Bloc. This isn’t a guess. He says in his article “Occupy and the tasks of socialists”:

Out of clouds of pepper spray and phalanxes of riot cops a new generation of revolutionaries is being forged, and it would be a shame if the Peter Camejos, Max Elbaums, Angela Davises, Dave Clines and Huey Newtons of this generation end up in separate “competing” socialist groups as they did in the 1960s. Now is the time to begin seriously discussing the prospect of regroupment, of liquidating outdated boundaries we have inherited, of finding ways to work closely together for our common ends.

Above all else, now is the time to take practical steps towards creating a broad-based radical party that in today’s context could easily have thousands of active members and even more supporters.

First of all, is absurd to compare the sectarian rivalries of the 1960s, in which Maoist and Stalinist sects without [I believe that the comrade editor of the ISO magazine meant “with” rather than “without” here]  practically identical politics railed at each other about who is the “true vanguard”, to the factional disputes in the Russian movement between its revolutionary and reformist wing—organisations that had become mass parties in 1905 with deep roots in the working class. Secondly, a “united” socialist organisation that has in its ranks both those who consider North Korea, China and Vietnam socialist, and those who think that they are bureaucratic despotism; both Stalinists and genuine Marxists; and both supporters and opponents of the Democratic Party would be a still-born project. It is one thing for leftists of different politics to “work together”—this has and will continue to happen. It is another thing to think that simply lumping forces together with diametrically different politics and methods of work will create any kind of functional, practical unity. Certainly that is one lesson of the Bolshevik experience worth preserving. That is not to say that broad socialist party independent and in opposition to the Democratic Party wouldn’t be a great advance if such a thing were possible in the United States today—what Binh proposes, however, would not produce such a result.

You’ll note that D’Amato does not include Cuba alongside the other “bureaucratic despotisms” (a curious term given the ISO’s past insistence on describing such societies as “state capitalist”. Maybe that’s because it would irritate Paul LeBlanc, who despite his enthusiasm for the ISO’s approach, might still consider Cuba an exemplary society despite the onerous conditions it operates under. More to the point, is it really useful to apply the term “socialist” to Cuba, if it is one that can only be satisfied by a powerful industrialized country of the sort that Marx and Engels wrote about in the 19th century as being the first expected to break with capitalism?

One can certainly agree with D’Amato that we cannot build a party with supporters of the Democratic Party but that is something of a red herring since the CPUSA or the Committees of Correspondence would have little interest in a broad based socialist party to begin with.

This is not the only example of wariness about such a project heard from an ISO leader. In 2007 Todd Chretien gave a speech titled “Lenin’s theory of the party” that drew a sharp distinction between Eugene V. Debs and V.I. Lenin. It sounds very much like the sort of thing that would be presented to “newbies”, some of it bordering on the comical–especially the business about Lenin scratching his head:

Lenin developed a very different approach. He began with an idea very similar to Debs’ because that was basically how all socialist parties in the world—from Germany to the United States to France—organized at that time. Lenin started with that broad tent idea that the central issue was for all socialists to form a single, united party. At first they tried at the local level in Petersburg in the early 1890s, forming a group called the League for the Emancipation of Labor—perhaps not the best name anyone ever thought up. Lenin and his friends did have some early success, organizing protests and inspiring strikes or influencing spontaneous ones, and they were able to introduce socialist ideas to an important number of workers. However, this type of organization faced two problems. First, just like in the American Socialist Party, tension began to develop between emerging left and right wings. Compounding that problem in Russia was the question of tsarist repression. A couple of years after forming the league, Lenin and most of the other leaders found themselves in prison. So, after sixteen months in solitary confinement, Lenin scratches his head and says, “Well, that really didn’t work. We can’t just go around handing out leaflets, asking everyone to join us, because the police just send spies to get our membership lists. [missing closed quote in the original]

Even if this was intended to enlighten new-comers to the socialist movement, it is not that far removed from what LeBlanc and other ideological heavyweights stated in response to Lars Lih in a Historical Materialism symposium that I discussed a while back. They gave props to Lih for documenting Lenin’s commitment to building a party modeled on Kautsky’s party in Germany, but insist that Lenin came up with something new under the impact of the betrayal of socialist parliamentarians in 1914, when they voted for war credits. This breach was only a culmination of growing differences over principle that was reflected earlier in 1912 when Lenin broke with the Menshevik “liquidators”.

I summarize all the arguments against Lih here but will include just one example below to give you a sense of their consensus around the idea that Lenin built a party of a “new type” unlike the swamp that Eugene V. Debs presided over, or the Russian social democracy before Lenin wised up and booted the Mensheviks. These are Paul LeBlanc’s words:

The reality of German Social Democracy was certainly more problematic than what Lenin was able to glean from the very best writings of Karl Kautsky. This became clear to Lenin himself in 1914. At that point, it became obvious that Lenin was building a very different party than the actual SPD.

D’Amato feels that Pham Binh wants to destroy all the progress that the left has made since 1912-1914, when Lenin moved inexorably toward purging the Mensheviks from the Russian revolutionary movement. He likens him to Leon Trotsky, whose cardinal sin was trying to keep the party together. Let’s repeat what D’Amato wrote:

Binh appears to be taking Trotsky’s pre-1917 “conciliationist” line (which Trotsky later repudiated) that the differences were not substantial enough (since both saw Russia’s revolution as “bourgeois”) for a split. After the Prague congress Trotsky attempted to organise the “August Bloc”, an effort to unite all the different factions of the movement.

If you want to get the full flavor of what Lenin thought of Trotsky’s efforts, I recommend “The Liquidators Against the Party”:

There is one little lesson to be drawn from this affair by those abroad who are sighing for unity, and who recently hatched the sheet Za Partiyu in Paris. To build up a party, it is not enough to be able to shout “unity”; it is also necessary to have a political programme, a programme of political action. The bloc comprising the liquidators, Trotsky, the Vperyod group, the Poles, the pro-Party Bolsheviks, the Paris Mensheviks, and so on and so forth, was foredoomed to ignominious failure, because it was based on an unprincipled approach, on hypocrisy and hollow phrases. As for those who sigh, it would not be amiss if they finally made up their minds on that extremely complicated and difficult question: With whom do they want to have unity? If it is with the liquidators, why not say so without mincing? But if they are against unity with the liquidators, then what sort of unity are they sighing for?

Gosh, who would want to be a latter-day Leon Trotsky given this searing indictment? As should be obvious from this, there were two parties in Czarist Russia, one was reformist and the other was revolutionary. Trotsky’s sin was trying to mix the two together, coming up with a Debs-type formation that would have certainly been inadequate to overthrowing the capitalist system in 1917. Forming the Bolshevik Party was necessary to keep the workers movement free from class-collaborationist germs—a red condom so to speak.

There’s only one problem with this. When Lenin issued the April Theses in 1917, he was opposed by a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee. Was there a hole in the condom?

Meanwhile, the promiscuous Trotsky who liked to sleep around with reformists was the only prominent socialist leader who embraced the April Theses, understanding them as consistent with his own theory of permanent revolution. Within the year, Trotsky decided that Lenin was right all along on the “broad” party question and became committed to safe sex, the end-product of which is the various abortions of the Fourth International and parties that grew out of it like Tony Cliff’s international organization. All were committed to the idea that you formulate a “true” program of revolutionary socialism and indoctrinate new members into holding high its banner. Sadly, history has pointed out the similarity between this methodology and that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Scientology.


  1. All were committed to the idea that you formulate a “true” program of revolutionary socialism

    ‘ For two decades the SWP and the IST mocked the very idea of having a programme. As Tony Cliff repeated ad nauseam, “who needs a picture of a machine gun: what you need is the bloody gun ”.’

    But don’t let me stop you lumping everyone in together.

    And Xenu forfend that your final comparisons are accurate. Now if you’d aimed a bit lower and named the Boy Scouts, I’d be prepared to say you could find a quote from Cliff saying that’s exactly what he was after.

    [Note:the link to Massad being dissed on Marxmail gives a Not Found error]

    Comment by skidmarx — February 6, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

  2. “First of all, [it] is absurd to compare the sectarian rivalries of the 1960s, in which Maoist and Stalinist sects with practically identical politics railed at each other about who is the ‘true vanguard,’ to the factional disputes in the Russian movement between its revolutionary and reformist wing—organisations that had become mass parties in 1905 with deep roots in the working class.”

    I agree this comparison is absurd, which is why I never made it — D’amato did.

    The number of errors and absurdities in the conclusion of his reply to my book review (as if that were the approrpriate place to talk about Occupy and what it means for us!) is staggering.

    Comment by Binh — February 6, 2012 @ 8:31 pm

  3. There is an element both in Louis Project’s post in re Amato and in the comments–well, the two comments posted before I started writing this–of wanting to win this particular argument so much that one risks losing sight of the larger goal.

    OWS has always struck me as providing unmistakeable evidence that a true left-wing mass movement may be possible, in the United States but not only here, in a way that didn’t emerge forty years ago–and this in the context of world industrialism and the development of a world-wide proletariat, which seems to be a comparatively recent phenomenon.

    Many of us are far more preoccupied with understanding what a non-sectarian, possibly Leninist, Marxist movement (or party) would look like than we are with the dialectical nuances of proving this or that alleged revolutionary to be dangerously mistaken.

    The question is not so much what’s wrong with the ISO or whether Trotsky redeemed himself (or had to redeem himself) in 1917–or even if Binh is wrong about some of the things some people say he is wrong about (though who can tell when the debate comes to rest on scholarly, which is to say, endlessly debatable, matters)–but what a feasible, genuinely socialist alternative may be now to the hopeless dead weight of all the non-Marxist political traditions, the Frankfurt School and its pseudo-Marxist likes, and the fraudulent accompanying academic historical and philosophical “discourse.”

    I get it that d’Amato, plausible-sounding dialectician though he may seem to the amateur, is an ass. But where does one turn in order not to be an ass oneself? (Never mind the cheap shot–it’s too obvious to be any good.) How does one accept the Bolshevik insistence on correctness as a strategic and tactical as well as ethical necessity and yet avoid sects and schisms, especially in the absence of an actual revolution and the entry into play of actual, achievable state power?

    Is it possible that Marxism-Leninism in all its forms simply relies too much on debate itself–the winning of arguments come hell or high water–not only as a necessity in deciding courses of action, but as the way of discovering truth itself? The result being not synthesis, but endlessly bifurcated contradiction in the sense of people contradicting each other more and more as they talk on and on?

    Fair disclosure. I do not consider myself to be nor advertise myself as a revolutionary. I am a “concerned citizen”– title bestowed at a demonstration by one of Avakian’s boys who agreed that I wasn’t a revolutionary, but that that didn’t necessarily make me a “politically unreliable petty bourgeois intellectual,” which is what I was afraid of. I thought that was ok in spite of who said it and why.

    I mention this because I believe there are a significant number of people outside the circles of self-identified revolutionaries who take or could be induced to take a deep interest in the outcome–not all of them PhDs in exile from academia, like me.

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — February 7, 2012 @ 12:07 am

  4. Joe, for one thing I don’t think it is appropriate to call D’amato “an ass,” for a whole host of reasons, moral and political. I also don’t care about “winning the argument” — the debate that my Cliff book review sparked has led Lars Lih to begin writing on these topics, and I have a feeling I’ll be on the receiving end of some (hopefully not all) of whatever blows he lands.

    For me, the answer to many of the questions you raise is to look back at the historical experience of the Bolsheviks, which is what I began to do in summer of 2001 before the outbreak of Occupy here on Louis’ blog: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/07/29/a-response-to-paul-leblancs-marxism-and-organization/ What I “discovered” (nothing original really, but for me it was a series of revelations) contradicted a lot, if not most, of what is commonly held to be true among “Leninists” about the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party.

    These things won’t be settled by debates in publications or on the internet. It will be settled in the streets and everywhere socialists organize. The alternative will have to be built from scratch, from the ground up, by lots of people with different experiences, and yes, different points of view. Once the bandwagon gets going, the groups that today say such experiments are “doomed to fail” will be first in line to jump onto that bandwagon; we saw the same process happen with these groups and Occupy.

    If you are interested in working towards this goal together ask Louis for my email Joe and let’s figure it out. I should hope that not only self-identified revolutionaries and “PhDs in exile from academia” would be interested in making socialism a mass force in American politics once more.

    Comment by Binh — February 7, 2012 @ 1:05 am

  5. This was written in reply this morning, but UM server issues prevented a posting. Let it be clear that by a “united front party” – which after all is what the Debs Socialist party really was – I don’t mean the traditional Trotskyist tactic of the “united front”, but something else logically analogous.

    The claim appears to be: Binh merely seeks to traverse again ground already covered by the Bolsheviks up until 1917. This indicates that Binh has not really absorbed the well known lessons from that period.

    It was also stated that the different tendencies of the Russian movement had “become mass parties in 1905 with deep roots in the working class”, and that this therefore has little in common with the revolutionary socialist scene today in the U.S..

    These two, plus a secondary juxtaposition within the second, are juxtaposed without irony. It is precisely because the situation today bears little resemblance to Russia in 1905 that the call for a united front “party” of all the revolutionary socialist organizations is relevant. It is forgotten that to arrive at the situation of 1905 and beyond, a struggle for the organizational unity of all the socialist tendencies then in Russia had to be waged from the 1890’s onward.

    And yes, this does mean traversing the ground first covered by the Bolsheviks. Isn’t that the main idea? The “lessons of the Bolshevik experience” are not simply a set of abstract principles. They are meant, precisely, to be *relived concretely*, in the reality of a different time and place. This ground does need to be concretely retraversed. That hasn’t happened, and won’t ever happen so long as revolutionary socialists divide their scarce resources between their partylet bailiwicks, while presenting a disorienting and ultimately unappealing face to new currents moving into struggle.

    A united front party would of course be multi-tendential from the start. It would require the maturity to distinguish differences in principle from those of perspective and theory (is North Korea a bureaucratically deformed worker’s state or state capitalist?, and so forth), because its object is not to arrive at the final sorting out of such perspectives, but to pool its scarce resources and present a single face, a single point of reference, to currents emerging into the struggle, so that we may at last arrive at a situation comparable to 1905. There are no guarantees that this united front party wouldn’t also repeat the experience of the splits, but at least it would be on the basis of having become “become mass parties with deep roots in the working class”.

    Let’s get real: In a large country such as the United States it ain’t going to happen any other way. That is one point where the U.S. movement has something to learn in a very concrete, specific way from the experience of that other large country, Russia.

    Comment by Matt — February 7, 2012 @ 2:33 am

  6. Cliff was an idiot but this is not an attack on his centrist leanings but on Lenin who correctly, as Trotsky conceded later, defended the Marxist method and its conclusions against the liquidators. The internal regime of a marxist outfit should be thoroughly democratic and its external relations non-sectarian, exemplary, principled but there is one thing that is not up for negotiation: that it be Marxist.

    Comment by David Ellis — February 7, 2012 @ 4:49 pm

  7. Cuba is a bureaucratic despotism. Whether it is labelled ‘state capitalist’ or not. Its ruling class is just as oppressive as any other, if not more so. Does no one remember the ‘re-education camps’ Cuba had for so called ‘sexual deviants’? Hardly an example of socialist democracy or an extension of liberty. Or the fact that it is a monarchy, with power passing directly from Fidel to his brother. I thought socialists were opposed to monarchies? I know I am, but many are not, even to this day when no one could possibly justify their illusions in Cuba. To talk about Castro as if he were some revolutionary democrat is the most arrant nonesense, whatever efforts he has made to cultivate this illusion worldwide, and especially in Latin America. Seriously, the socialist movement has been tainted to death by Stalinism and association with dictatorships- why continue on this ignoble path? Chavez and Morales have been far more democratic than Fidel and his cronies, who have long ago spent whatever respect they deserved by overthrowing Batista by maintaining a one party state. As such, Chavez and Morales, while never forgetting their problems, faults, and deficiencies, deserve far more of our admiration.

    Comment by the red star twinkles mischievously — February 8, 2012 @ 10:55 am

  8. I would prefer engaging in this debate if it were presented in the serious fashion it deserved–and by serious I don’t mean so much dropping the condom metaphor but that the post seems to be more concerned with throwing mud than clarifying the basic issues. For all the irony about the simplicity of the “party of a new type” arguments in question, the basic idea that it was the Bolsheviks at the helm of the only successful socialist revolution, that they did it AGAINST the Mensheviks and that something was different than figures like Debs refusing to attend party conventions, L & L in Germany, etc.–that basic idea is ignored.

    Proyect would like to dismiss all that with “There’s only one problem with this. When Lenin issued the April Theses in 1917, he was opposed by a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee. Was there a hole in the condom?” Yes there was a hole in the condom–many holes as the Bolsheviks weren’t perfect and no party ever will be but more specifically because Lenin’s approach was only an approximation of what was necessary and what the Third International started to develop further: he was prepared to see the reality of permanent revolution when it was in his face but he had theoretically inadequately prepared the party leadership with his theory of democratic dictatorship and he had to break from it (or evolve past it). The “party of a new type” was also not yet consciously being fought for or developed as an international leadership which it must be.

    Also key is that Proyect’s witticism (oh, if only such witticisms could clarify fundamental questions of revolution) is that he focuses on the CC for a reason and that reason is Proyect knows Lenin was aware he could rely on the ranks of the party and the ranks of the radicalizing workers being brought into the party to overcome the CC…but he couldn’t and wouldn’t compromise with the Menshevik organization and fought against those same CCers on that issue that Proyect holds up here as an counter-argument.

    Proyect can only sweep the question of party and program under the rug with a comparison to Scientology by ignoring these issues. A lot of good that does anyone.

    Comment by Jason Rising — February 10, 2012 @ 2:36 am

  9. Comrades Louis and Jason, I suggest reading Lars Lih’s work on the April debates:
    http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/10.1163/187633111×566048 (I can email either of you this document if you want)

    Lih’s work seriously undermines Trotsky’s version of events in which Lenin comes from afar to save the day from the Old Bolshevik leadership with his own version of “Trotskyism” (April Theses).

    Comment by Binh — February 11, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

  10. I had read the CPGB article before–haven’t read the other one (jason.socialist@googlemail.com for Lih doc). My take on Lih is that he’s a great historian and a terrible political thinker. I could accept based on his research that the canonical summary is oversimplified if that were explained better, but he doesn’t even attempt to address key political questions of the difference between “no support to the provincial government” versus support it insofar as it does well and why Z&K scabbed in the press on the Oct. revolution, why the Bolsheviks couldn’t merge with the Mensheviks (which much of the Old Bolsheviks wanted), etc. It’s like all great political debates come down to translation errors for us and misunderstandings for the participants. If it’s so simple, one wonders why there hasn’t been another October. Perhaps the longer article will cast more light, we’ll see.

    Comment by Jason Rising — February 11, 2012 @ 11:21 pm

  11. The Lih article is useful but only confirms my evaluation of Lih as not understanding the politics. He admits that Old Bolshevism’s conception was “democratic revolution to the end”, wants to say Old Bolshevism “triumphed,” yet doesn’t address the conflict with Lenin’s idea that October was a socialist revolution that established a workers’ state. On a less theoretical level, it doesn’t address the issues I already raised:
    * Z&K scabbing in the press on October and Lenin’s worry that he would have to resign from the CC to take the revolution forward.
    * He doesn’t understand why Lenin’s no support to the imperialist government was different than seeing the Provisional Government as “counterrevolutionary” in the abstract but being willing to support it “insofar as”.

    Comment by Jason Rising — February 24, 2012 @ 7:21 am

  12. – Z&K scabbed because they feared an insurrection would fail. Their letter which Trotsky quotes in “Lessons of October” has not been reproduced in English so it’s impossible to see what the substance of their arguments were outside of Trotsky’s lens.

    – The Bolsheviks defended the Provisional Government from Kornilov. If that’s not “support insofar as” I don’t know what is.

    Comment by Binh — February 28, 2012 @ 4:40 am

  13. […] addition to Lih’s intervention, this debate also prompted response pieces by, among others, Louis Proyect and a pair of Leftist authors from the Communist Party of Great Britain – James Turley and Marc […]

    Pingback by The great Lenin debate of 2012 | Red Atlanta — June 9, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

  14. […] addition to Lih’s intervention, this debate also prompted response pieces by, among others, Louis Proyect and a pair of Leftist authors from the Communist Party of Great Britain – James Turley andMarc […]

    Pingback by The Great Lenin Debate of 2012 | Red Party — June 18, 2014 @ 8:19 pm

  15. […] addition to Lih’s intervention, this debate also prompted response pieces by, among others, Louis Proyect and a pair of Leftist authors from the Communist Party of Great Britain – James […]

    Pingback by The great Lenin debate of 2012 | External Bulletin — June 21, 2014 @ 5:51 pm

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