Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 13, 2014

Goodbye, Lenin

Goodbye Lenin


I hope that CounterPunch readers will forgive me for taking valuable time away from my film reviews of neglected treasures while I answer one of my critics from the “Leninist” left. As it happens, Paul Le Blanc, the International Socialist Organization’s avuncular scholar of Bolshevik history, devoted pretty much of a whole chapter to me in his latest book “Unfinished Leninism” (the chapter has the same title) and I would like the opportunity to use CounterPunch for my reply.

I am not accustomed to answering points made in a book but since many of the arguments about what Lenin stood for and whether he has any relevance for today’s left take place in books and in Historical Materialism, a high-toned print journal behind a paywall, I really have no choice. As a strong believer in the Internet, I would prefer to debate there since I see it as the modern counterpart of the Gutenberg press, the primary means of communication of our rebel forerunners. My guess is that if the quarrelsome Lenin were alive today, he would be conducting his debates on the Internet as well.

As a history professor, Le Blanc is obviously much more comfortable holding forth from a lectern or the printed page. That’s true for the rest of the ISO as well that sees the Internet as a necessary evil. As a handy tool to distribute an electronic version of their print publications, it would be much better if it weren’t a breeding ground for bilious critics and those who circulate their top-secret internal bulletins.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/06/13/goodbye-lenin/


  1. Good stuff. Louis. I would include Solidarity in your left merger proposal. I am forcing myself to read Al Glotzer’s bio of Trotsky much of which you might agree with, although it is written in such a plodding style that as one of my students said about the assigned text “it should be sold in a drug store as a sleeping pill”. Glotzer, a personal associate and aide to Trotsky, unfortunately ended up as a social democrat a la Schachtman, although not as rabid as that crowd. I’d be interested in hearing your views on that book, if you’ve read it.

    Comment by Peter Myers — June 13, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

  2. “Lenin scholar Lars Lih held that Lenin’s goal both before and after that conference was to build a party in Russia modeled on the German social democracy.”

    This is a relationship that is poorly understood. Both the German SPD and the Bolsheviks were politically pluralistic, and both gravitated towards more autocratic practices, the SPD because of its decision to support World War I and subsequent suppression of the Spartacists, the Bolsheviks under the pressures of the Civil War.

    Levi therefore found himself in the middle of a debate where the Comintern was demanding acquiescence to the 21 Conditions while Hilferding was opportunistically opposing them, or would have been perceived as doing so. Levi probably did the best he could in a difficult situation where accepting the conditions with the hope of modifying the severity of their application within Germany was the only viable political alternative.

    Lenin’s adoption of the SPD as a model had other consequences, especially his adoption of Taylorist production practices after previously condemning them. Regardless of whether one considers his adoption a short-term expedient measure or not, the social organization of production will be a critical issue for social movements, and it will be necessary to evaluate Leninist practice in light of contemporary conditions, conditions which are much different than those experienced by Lenin.

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 13, 2014 @ 4:38 pm

  3. Mr. Proyect:

    I’ve heard you criticize democratic centralism on many occasions. What organizational strategy do you propose that groups like ISO and SAlt replace it with? I’m happy to just get a URL in reply to somewhere where you’ve answered this question.

    Comment by jiminykrix — June 13, 2014 @ 10:42 pm

  4. Interesting stuff.

    “To put it bluntly, Fidel Castro did not ask Che Guevara how he stood on the Kronstadt revolt. He was only interested in finding out whether he could pass muster as a doctor and a combatant.”

    This is where I always run into problems. On it’s face it seems best to organize and unite around possibilities for real action. The question is action toward what?

    What if the Maoists and Trots and minor union leaders all got together, launched a huge party and took power. Then what? The Maoists would be looking to install their own little Stalin, the Trots with their labor discipline, the unionists with their social democracy.

    The minor stuff can be left for debate but there does need to be some kind of program that makes inroads against capitalism with proletarian democracy at its heart, otherwise the “best” result may be another Iran, where a broad based movement of pure action against a hated regime ends up putting an even worse set of fanatical despots in power.

    What do you say?

    Comment by Kuya Samuel — June 14, 2014 @ 5:21 am

  5. In the “what kind of party do we need” post you say:

    “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. ”

    Can I get a link to some source material on that?

    Comment by Kuya Samuel — June 14, 2014 @ 5:54 am

  6. What if the Maoists and Trots and minor union leaders all got together, launched a huge party and took power.

    That has about as much shot as a socialist UFO invasion of the planet Earth that J. Posadas would have endorsed.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 14, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

  7. A party that makes decisions, arrives at programme and develops its perspectives democratically then carries them out is what the working class needs. In fact it is what every institution claims to be including your great Congress. If more people had understood Lenin’s description of how a democratic centrist organisation should conduct itself they would have realised they were actually in a sect. Of course the opportunists in the trade union bureaucracy or even the congress are fully aware that they are in a self serving bureaucracy and are happy with that. Those who reject Lenin’s efforts to arm the Russian and world working class with a theory of organisation which is both democratic and combative are simply doomed to built either a sect or to be swallowed up by the opportunists.

    Comment by davidellis987 — June 14, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

  8. I think the key to building a new type of organisation that’s in words and actions democratic, is that its a bottom to top organisation. That the municipal committee is the governing body for membership in a town; county committee for a county wide organising; state committee for state wide organizing around state wide issues or concerns; national committee for national issues and concerns

    There would be no paid functionaries or organizers; no need for a politburo or orgburo with phone conferencing, face-time, Facebook, vine, instagram, and YouTube. A LC or NC member could organise work around a given cause, issue, or event; another could volunteer to handle finances; all members are responsible for recruitment. You can print things at home or staples these days.
    No officers other than a revolving chairship; an outside accounting service could audit the books. Offices would be mainly virtual. Conventions and meetings would be Skype and podcast. All meetings would be open to full membership except those determined by vote; a reason would be given for why to full membership via email or website post. Each state committee would have an opportunity to host the national convention and a major issue concerning that state would be the convention theme…..these are just a few thoughts I have on what type of organisation is needed.

    Comment by Jim Brash — June 14, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

  9. Also I’d like to add that suspensions, expulsions should be handled locally almost exclusively and by full membership of the local , county, or state not just its governing body.

    Comment by Jim Brash — June 14, 2014 @ 5:30 pm

  10. I’ve posted some comments on this article here: http://trotskyschildren.blogspot.com/2014/06/what-would-lenin-do.html

    Comment by Dan King — June 14, 2014 @ 9:10 pm

  11. Louis, Dan King ends his blog response with, “socialism is impossible”. So far every revolution has ended in betrayal; turned out to be a nationalist revolution led by Marxists/Leninists; never progressed beyond state capitalism, or at some point returned to capitalist relations. Socialism is possible, we have to start organizing our organisations today more communally. That means abandoning hierarchical systems and vertically intergrated organisations NOW. We need build organisations that are horizontally intergrated with no hierarchy.

    Not to quote mythology but Arthur’s round-table signifies the equality of all the knights present. We need to build organisations in which all members are viewed as equals in our present otherwise Mr. King’s statement that ” socialism is impossible”, will be proven correct for the foreseeable future.

    Comment by Jim Brash — June 15, 2014 @ 12:27 am

  12. The problem is that the knights were a caste like the Kshatryias in India., so I don’t believe we aspire to that model. Otherwise your post is laudable, Jim.

    Comment by Peter Myers — June 15, 2014 @ 1:06 am

  13. Peter Myers, I was at a lost for an illustration, but I’m glad u understood where I was coming from. We talk about communal society, communes, and the socialization of relations but these discussions don’t have a reflection in the organs/apparatuses of the movement.

    Comment by Jim Brash — June 15, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

  14. Cut the crap Mr Proyect. You knew I was making a basic example.

    You want to build a united left party. Problem is the left isn’t united. Some people want a party dictatorship, some want workers democracy, and all the issues like the law of value, labor vouchers, markets, money, standing armies, etc. Etc.

    Even if a united left party took power through pure action these questions would tear it apart. I’m asking you to address that.

    Comment by Kuya Samuel — June 16, 2014 @ 4:48 am

  15. “So far every revolution has ended in betrayal; turned out to be a nationalist revolution led by Marxists/Leninists; never progressed beyond state capitalism, or at some point returned to capitalist relations.”

    Exactly what Marx said would happen. Read what he wrote about early putsch attempts by small blanquist groups having to resort to dictatorial methods, or attempts at socialism in backward countries only being able to “socialize shit” and poverty, and attempts to build socialism in one country leading to a “return of all the old shit.” It’s all there on the paper.

    Meanwhile there were genuine workers revolutions like Paris Commune, Great Strike of 1877 and St Louis Commune, long hot summer in Italy, Krondstat, and more recently Oaxaca. They were perhaps premature, but certainly drown in blood (often with the help of “Marxist-Leninists”).

    Comment by Kuya Samuel — June 16, 2014 @ 4:54 am

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