Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 1, 2013

A reply to Paul Le Blanc

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

Paul Le Blanc

Paul Le Blanc of the International Socialist Organization just wrote an article titled “Leninism is Unfinished” that tries to circumnavigate the differences between my approach, that of Alex Callinicos, and his own.

I will turn to Paul’s article but only after providing some background. I have been debating these questions with him since 1998 when he still shared the perspectives of The Fourth Internationalist Tendency, a small group that had recently disbanded and entered Solidarity as a group. The FIT had operated as an expelled faction trying to persuade the SWP of the United States to return to its gloried past. I certainly hope that the British comrades don’t get any silly ideas in the course of reading back issues of the FIT’s magazine about wooing their own leadership back to Planet Earth.

Unlike me, Paul viewed the American SWP’s collapse as a function of a radicalization that had run out of steam combined with Jack Barnes’s abnormal psychology. Although I put little stock in the psychological angle, I did get a smile when reading this:

The impact of Barnes in the SWP is a reflection not of Leninist principles or the tradition of Cannon, but of basic human psychological dynamics. The functioning of some SWP members, responding to the powerful personality and tremendous authority that Barnes assumed, brings to mind Freud’s insights on group psychology: ‘the individual gives up his ego-ideal [i.e., individual sense of right and wrong, duty, and guilt] and substitutes for it the group-ideal as embodied in the leader.’ The authority of the leader (in the minds of at least many members) becomes essential for the cohesion of the group, and the approval of the leader, or a sense of oneness with the leader, becomes a deep-felt need that is bound up with one’s own sense of self- worth.

But why do we have so many crazy Trotskyist leaders? Were they crazy to start with or does the burden of being “the Lenin of today” make people crazy? When you get Pablo, Posadas, Moreno in Latin America, and Gerry Healy, Jack Barnes, and now Charlie Kimber in the English-speaking world carrying on like the cast of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, you have to wonder if it is something in the way these organizations are structured rather than their qualification to be listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual.

I want to start off with a clarification. Paul states my article contains a contradiction, namely that I defend Lenin’s approach even though I blame “the Zinovievist Comintern of the 1920s, which Trotsky adopted as a model” for the British SWP’s problems, as well as the American group of the same name that is virtually extinct. He wonders if a more appropriate title for my essay would have been: “Cominternism is Dead, Long Live Genuine Leninism!” and drives the point home with this: “Among the many problems…is the fact that the 1920s Communist International of Zinoviev and Trotsky was also the Comintern of Lenin himself.” So how can I be critical of Lenin when he launched the Comintern, not Zinoviev?

I don’t expect Paul to be familiar with my thinking on Lenin’s role in all this, but I have written:

There are no shortcuts in building revolutionary parties, but the overwhelming tendency in “Marxism-Leninism” is to do things in the name of expediency… Unfortunately, this type of behavior is deeply ingrained in the Communist movement and got its start in the very early days of the Comintern, even when Lenin was in charge.

This is an excerpt from my article on The Comintern and German Communism that takes pretty strenuous exception to how Lenin treated Paul Levi, despite being applied in the name of “democratic centralism”. If Lenin’s organizational principles of the early 1920s represent the fruition of some sort of breach with the Kautskyite orthodoxy of “What is to Be Done”, then I’ll stick with the old soft drink rather than the new and improved formula.

What the Communist Party of the Soviet Union tried to do immediately after taking power was to create a model that other parties could follow. The first clear statement on organizational guidelines appeared in July of 1921. They stipulate: “to carry out daily party work every member should as a rule belong to a small working group, a committee, a commission, a fraction, or a cell. Only in this way can party work be distributed, conducted, and carried out in an orderly fashion.” It is not hard to understand where this kind of mechanical application of the Bolshevik experience was coming from. When you have a successful revolution, there is a tendency to write cookbooks with recipes for every occasion. That happened with the Cuban Revolution as well, the sad evidence being Che’s ill-fated venture in Bolivia based on Regis Debray’s “Revolution in the Revolution”.

Lenin was uneasy with these guidelines, writing “At the third congress in 1921 we adopted a resolution on the structure of communist parties and the methods and content of their activities. It is an excellent resolution, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is taken from Russian conditions.” I think if he had lived longer, he might have dumped them altogether. Indeed, the fact that he was considering moving the Comintern to another country showed his grasp of problems that would only deepen.

The remainder of Paul’s article gets into the minutiae of how democratic centralism was understood variously by Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. I would prefer to deal with a question that is not addressed in the article but one that is essential to the tasks that face us today. Ironically, they are very much bound up with the opening words of Leon Trotsky’s “Transitional Program” that are embraced by some of the worst sectarians on the planet: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” The sectarians feel that forging a revolutionary program and recruiting cadre around it can resolve the crisis. This is how James P. Cannon, Tony Cliff and every other Trotskyist of note started out.

But I don’t think that Trotsky really understood how the crisis could be resolved. It was not by launching small propaganda groups that competed with each other, like small businesses each advertising its unique product line. Instead it requires building a framework that will allow the natural leadership of the working class to come together in a common framework.

Here is the problem. Ever since I have been involved with the left, there have been exceptional individuals who have emerged in the mass movement with socialist politics but who belong to no group. For example, many of the left wing leaders in the trade union movement are unaffiliated. The same thing is true with the Black, Latino, women’s and gay movements. I estimate that the layer of revolutionary leaders steeled in the struggle numbers in the tens of thousands.

The same situation confronted Lenin in 1903. He proposed that a newspaper be created that could provide a framework for the already existing working-class leadership that had no party. When there was a massive social democratic consciousness in Czarist Russia that had spread like a wildfire from Western Europe, the primary task was to help link up people like Kamenev, Bukharin, Trotsky, Plekhanov and Martov.

For example, Bukharin’s political life began at the age of 16 when he and his friend Ilya Ehrenburg built support for the 1905 revolution in student circles. The leadership of the Russian social democracy was men and women who had proven themselves in battle long before a party existed.

The problem with groups like the British SWP, the American SWP, the ISO et al is that they can never hope to attract the broad layers of such a leadership even though occasionally someone as talented as a Peter Camejo or a Richard Seymour is drawn into their ranks.

If you had visited Nicaragua in the 1980s, you would have met FSLN members who were neighborhood leaders of the fight against Somoza. They were leaders before they joined the FSLN. All the FSLN did was give the natural leadership of the Nicaraguan working class a vehicle for their aspirations. The same thing was true of the July 26th movement in Cuba. Ironically, despite the hatred directed against Stalinism from the Trotskyist movement, the Vietnamese CP was far more like the Bolsheviks than any section of the F.I. in this regard. I opposed the repression of the Trotskyists in Vietnam after WWII but like most of their co-thinkers they had no possibility of ever reaching the masses. Ho Chi Minh understood better.

In the final analysis, I don’t have any problem with the ISO being constituted as it is at present. They have little interest in the kind of approach I am laying out and know that if anybody spoke this way to me in 1969 when I was in the SWP I would have denounced them as petty bourgeois centrists, swamp dwellers, talk shop kibitzers, etc.

My appeal is really to independent-minded young people (and even some old fogies) in the tens of thousands who are sick and tired of the capitalist system and have learned to fight. They—we—need our own organization that can allow everybody to thrive within it and to draw upon each others’ abilities to move the struggle forward. I have seen encouraging signs of movement toward such a new approach and am sure that by the time my life is over a new period of revolutionary history will have begun.

I want to conclude with an article I wrote about a decade ago. I have posted it before but feel it is worth posting again since I have attracted many new readers since the last time it was posted. Instead of dealing in abstractions about how reach the workers, etc., it is a pretty specific set of proposals. I am no Lenin but I think the SWP would have been a lot better off if it had followed them.

The Speech that Jack Barnes Should Have Given in 1974

Comrades, 1974 is a year that in some ways marks the end of an era. The recent victory of the Vietnamese people against imperialism and of women seeking the right to safe and legal abortion are culminations of a decade of struggle. That struggle has proved decisive in increasing both the size and influence of the Trotskyist movement as our cadre threw their energy into building the antiwar and feminist movements. Now that we are close to 2,000 in number and have branches in every major city in the US, it is necessary to take stock of our role within the left and our prospects for the future.

In this report I want to lay out some radical new departures for the party that take into account both our growing influence and the changing political framework. Since they represent such a change from the way we have seen ourselves historically, I am not asking that we take a vote at this convention but urge all branches to convene special discussions throughout the year until the next convention when a vote will be taken. I am also proposing in line with the spirit of this new orientation that non-party individuals and organizations be invited to participate in them.


While our political work of the 1960s was a necessary “detour” from the historical main highway of the socialist movement, it is high time that we began to reorient ourselves. There are increasing signs that the labor movement is beginning to reject the class collaborationist practices of the Meany years. For example, just 4 short years ago in 1970, various Teamsters locals rejected a contract settlement agreed to by their president Frank Fitzsimmons and the trucking industry. They expected a $3.00 per hour raise but the contract settled for only $1.10. The rank and file went out on a wildcat strike that Fitzsimmons and the mainstream press denounced. Fitzsimmons probably had the student revolt on his mind, since he claimed that “Communists” were behind the teamster wild-cat strike. Nobody took this sort of red-baiting to heart anymore. The burly truck-drivers involved in the strike were the unlikeliest “Communists” one could imagine. The trucking industry prevailed upon President Richard Nixon to intercede in the strike at the beginning of May, but the student rebellion against the invasion of Cambodia intervened. The antiwar movement and the war itself had stretched the US military thin. National guardsmen who had been protecting scab truck- drivers occupied the Kent State campuses where they shot five students protesting the war. In clear defiance of the stereotype of American workers, wildcat strikers in Los Angeles regarded student antiwar protesters as allies and invited them to join teamster picket lines. The wildcat strikes eventually wound down, but angry rank and file teamsters started the first national reform organization called Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF).

It is very important for every branch to investigate opportunities such as these and to invite comrades to look into the possibility of taking jobs in those industries where such political opportunities exist. What will not happen, however, is a general turn toward industry that many small Marxist groups made in the 1960s in an effort to purify themselves. Our work in the trade unions is not an attempt to “cleanse” the party but rather to participate in the class struggle which takes many different forms. We are quite sure that when comrades who have begun to do this kind of exciting work and report back to the branches that we will see others anxious to join in.


We simply have to stop observing this movement from the sidelines. There is a tendency on the left to judge it by the traditional middle-class organizations such as the Audubon Club. There are already signs of a radicalization among many of the younger activists who believe that capitalism is at the root of air and water pollution, etc. Since the father of the modern environmental movement is an outspoken Marxist, there is no reason why we should feel like outsiders. Our cadre have to join the various groups that are springing up everywhere and pitch in to build them, just as we built the antiwar and feminist groups. If activists have problems with the record of socialism on the environment based on the mixed record of the USSR, we have to explain that there were alternatives. We should point to initiatives in the early Soviet Union when Lenin endorsed vast nature preserves on a scale never seen in industrialized societies before. In general we have to be the best builders of a new ecosocialist movement and not succumb to the sort of sectarian sneering that characterizes other left groups who regard green activists as the enemy.


This will strike many comrades as controversial, but I want to propose that we probably were mistaken when stood apart from all the various pro-NLF committees that were doing material aid and educational work. We characterized them as ultraleft, whereas in reality those activists who decided to actually identify with the Vietnamese liberation movement were exactly the kind that we want to hook up with. In the United States today there are thousands of activists organized in committees around the country who are campaigning on a similar basis for freedom for the Portuguese colonies in Africa, against neo-colonialism in Latin America, etc. Nearly all of them are Marxist. Their goals and ours are identical. While we have had a tendency to look down our noses at them because many of the insurgencies they were supporting were not Trotskyist, we have to get over that. For us to continue to regard the revolutionary movement in a Manichean fashion where the Trotskyists are the good forces and everybody else is evil is an obstacle not only to our own growth, but the success of the revolutionary movement overall. This leads me to the next point.


One of the things I hope never to hear again in our ranks is the reference to other socialists as our “opponents”. Let’s reflect on what that kind of terminology means. It says two things, both of which are equally harmful. On one hand, it means that they are our enemies on a permanent basis. When you categorize another left group in this fashion, it eliminates the possibility that they can change. This obviously is not Marxist, since no political group–including ourselves–is immune from objective conditions. Groups can shift to the left or to the right, depending on the relationship of class forces. The SWP emerged out of a merger with other left-moving forces during the 1930s and we should be open to that possibility today.

The other thing that this reflects is that somehow the SWP is like a small business that competes for market share with other small businesses, except that we are selling revolution rather than air conditioners or aluminum siding. We have to get that idea out of our heads. We are all struggling for the same goal, which is to change American society. We only disagree on the best way to achieve that.

Unfortunately we have tended to exaggerate our differences with other small groups in such a way as to suggest we had a different product. This goes back for many years as indicated in this quote from a James P. Cannon speech to the SWP convention nearly 25 years ago. “We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.”

Comrades, we have to conduct an open and sharp struggle against this kind of attitude. The differences between the SWP and many other left groups is not that great and we have to figure out ways to work with them on a much more cooperative basis. For example, La Raza Unida Party in Texas shares many of our assumptions about the 2-party system and they are open to socialist ideas, largely through the influence of the left-wing of the party which has been increasingly friendly to the Cuban Revolution. We should think about the possibilities of co-sponsoring meetings with them around the question of Chicano Liberation and socialism. The same thing would be true of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in the United States, which shares with us a positive attitude toward the Cuban revolution. In terms of the Marxist movement per se, we have to find ways to work more closely with the activists around the Guardian newspaper. While many of them continue to have Maoist prejudices, there are others who have been friendly to our work in the antiwar movement. The idea is to open discussion and a sure way to cut discussion off is to regard them as “opponents”. Our only true opponents are in Washington, DC.

This new sense of openness to other groups on the left has organizational consequences that I will now outline.


Much of our understanding of “democratic centralism” has been shaped by James P. Cannon’s writings. Although the notion of 500 to 1500 people united ideologically around a homogenous program has a lot to recommend itself, it can only go so far in building a revolutionary party. This was Cannon’s contribution. He showed how a small band of cadre dedicated to Trotsky’s critique of Stalin could emerge as a serious force on the American left.

Although this will sound like heresy to most of you, I want to propose that Cannon’s writings are a roadblock to further growth, especially in a period when Stalinism is not a hegemonic force. In reality, Lenin’s goal was to unite Russian Marxism, which existed in scattered circles. Our goal should be identical. Despite our commitment to Trotsky’s theories, we are not interested in constructing a mass Trotskyist movement. That would be self-defeating. Many people who are committed to Marxism are not necessarily committed to Trotsky’s analysis of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, etc. We should take the same attitude that Lenin took toward the Russian left at the turn of the century. We should serve as a catalyst for uniting Marxists on a national basis.

Are we afraid to function in a common organization with Castroists, partisans of the Chinese Revolution, independent Marxists of one sort or another? Not at all. We should not put a barrier in the way of unity with the tens of thousands of Marxists in the United States, many who hold leading positions in the trade union and other mass movements. The only unity that interests us is the broad unity of the working people and their allies around class struggle principles. Our disagreements over historical and international questions can be worked out in a leisurely fashion in the party press. In fact we would encourage public debates over how to interpret such questions in our press, since they can make us even more attractive to people investigating which group to join. It is natural that you would want to join a group with a lively internal life.

This question of ‘democratic centralism’ has to be thoroughly reviewed. Although the Militant will be running a series of articles on “Lenin in Context” this year, which explores the ways in which this term was understood by the Bolsheviks and then transformed by his epigones, we can state with some assuredness right now that it was intended to govern the actions of party members and not their thoughts. The Bolshevik Party, once it voted on a strike, demonstration, etc., expected party members to function under the discipline of the party to build such actions. It never intended to discipline party members to defend the same political analysis in public. We know, for example, that there are different interpretations of Vietnamese Communism in our party. We should not expect party members to keep their views secret if they are in the minority. This is not only unnatural–it leads to cult thinking.


As many of these proposals seem radically different from the principles we’ve operated on in the past, I want to make sure that all disagreements–especially from older cadre who worked side by side with James P. Cannon–are given proper consideration. The last thing we want is to railroad the party into accepting this new orientation. Since a revolution can only be made by the conscious intervention of the exploited and oppressed masses into the historical process, its party must encourage the greatest expression of conscious political decision-making. There are no shortcuts to a revolution. And there are no shortcuts to building a revolutionary party.


  1. What is interesting about the (unfortunately) fictional speech, Louis, is that at the time that you propose this speech should have been given, I, at least remember how many of us were doing exactly as many of the suggestions you make about outward work; I was personally involved in the anti-nuclear movement for most of my last years in the party (left @1981) and remember so vividly many discussions and debates among quite a few of us on issues of the solidarity movement and the revolutionary nature of the organizations of the national liberation struggles. I was also involved in early efforts to connect politically with La Raza Unida including our participation (albeit as “observers”) in the first national Raza Unida convention in El Paso, Texas. Much of what you describe should be done was what many of us actually tried to do. The problem as you well explain was we made a turn to industry that served to block any of those efforts over time.

    I’m an “old fogie” (well, on the face of it anyway) and I will join an effort as you describe. Our appeal must be to the young radicalizing people beginning to come into the struggle, especially women, people of color, and immigrant workers. They must take the ball, but I think our experience–both successes and mistakes–will serve all of us well if we commit.

    Comment by Manuel Barrera — February 1, 2013 @ 9:38 pm

  2. Interesting that in his hypothetical speech for the one-armed bandit to give in 1974, Louis omits any mention of gay lib or homosexuals. That can’t be accidental, because the SWP had just adopted Barry Sheppard’s wretched “Memorandum” on homosexuality a few months earlier. Following that convention in 1973, all self-respecting homosexuals fled the SWP, and gay lib was relegated to the outer limits of “social weight.” By 1973, most party members were hand-raisers and sheep who followed the leader. Many, including Louis and Paul Le Blanc stayed on for years. None of the party leaders, including Barry Sheppard, have to this day engaged in any self-criticism over the heterocentric policy they party adopted then en route to its absurd “turn to industry” a few years later (also genuflected to in this hypothetical speech). It’s fine and good to see through the bankruptcy of the “vanguard party” creed, but my experience with most of the left has made me wary of the depth of their commitment to freedom of speech and individual freedom, an area in which most leftist groups arouse no more confidence than the ruling class.

    That said, Louis’s approach here outlined is certainly commendable in comparison to the “democratic centralist” concept–which I too once embraced.

    Comment by David Thorstad — February 1, 2013 @ 10:54 pm

  3. David, I didn’t have sections on women, Latinos, Blacks either. I wrote this–like just about everything–in the heat of the moment. If you weren’t such a fucking nag, you’d write that section yourself. In all the time I’ve interacted with you over the past 5 years at least, it has always been the same fucking nagging. Are you in a long-term relationship? I can imagine you driving your boyfriend crazy. Why didn’t you put the cap back on the toothpaste? Why don’t you mow the lawn?

    Comment by louisproyect — February 1, 2013 @ 11:05 pm

  4. I do object to the labeling of people as crazy: I think it hampers our ability to understand both mental illness and politics. But, even putting that to one side and for what little it’s worth, Charlie Kimber doesn’t seem ill to me. He’s trying to hold a line against all the odds, like like the other people on the SW’s payroll.

    Comment by Duncan Chapel — February 1, 2013 @ 11:45 pm

  5. That seems to be an element of Louis’s dealings with comrades. This blog, the stuff on Swans and Counterpunch is often great, but his “people skills” when dealing with those trying to open a dialogue usually break down to ad hominem attacks if and when he responds at all. Of course he does make thought out replies to the “big dogs” of the left (which in the US is like being the biggest dwarf). It almost seems like he feels above dealing with the unwashed masses of commenters. It’s really unfortunate.

    Comment by Clifford Saint Claire the Beloved — February 2, 2013 @ 6:23 am

  6. I don’t think the approach Louis is advocating is necessarily that far from the one Paul Le Blanc is. He pointed out the existence of a decent sized layer of able, conscious workers and oppressed people, and the need to create the organizational framework for this actual vanguard, “the natural leadership of the working class,” to come together. Le Blanc substantially agrees with this, as well as with Owen Jones’ advocating something similar (not that Jones is talking about quite the same thing, he is after all a reformist). That being said there are clear differences on the subject of democratic centralism. For what it’s worth I’m sympathetic to Le Blanc’s kind of open-minded Leninism.
    P.S. If Jack Barnes, or the leader of any larger revolutionary group, say Michael Klonsky or (don’t laugh) Bob Avakian, had given that speech is 1974, we’d definitely be closer to where we want to be.

    Comment by Brendan Campisi — February 2, 2013 @ 11:25 pm

  7. […] Paul LeBlanc: Leninism is unfinished (reply by Louis Proyect) […]

    Pingback by Socialist Wanker | Poumista — April 16, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

  8. […] Paul LeBlanc: Leninism is unfinished (reply by Louis Proyect) […]

    Pingback by Socialist Wanker | The Chair Leg of Truth — May 17, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

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