This is the fourth in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum. I apologize in advance for a brief presence of my bald pate toward the middle of the event for about 10 minutes, which thankfully did not interfere with the audio. A fellow videographer tipped me off about this intrusion and I promise it won’t happen again.
Since the panel included Steve Ellner, I was especially motivated to cover this event. For my money, Steve is the sharpest analyst of Venezuela politics. Period. During the Q&A I commented that despite the fact that I fully supported the process in Venezuela, it seemed appropriate at this point to stop referring to it as “21st century socialism” since there is little likelihood that it will ever lead to the abolition of capitalism. It amounts to a Keynesian type economic program that is committed to the welfare of the masses, something that is inspiring in its own right. Unfortunately, Steve’s reply was not recorded but he made the point that nobody in Venezuela, either on the right or the left, feels that Venezuela is socialist. But what is equally important is the growth of working class institutions of economic and political power that will ultimately clash with capitalist power. This is what explains the sharp clashes in Venezuela now, a focus of the panel presentations that were on a uniformly high level.
This prompts me to say a few words about an article by Chris Gilbert, an American now teaching at a Venezuelan university, that appeared on Counterpunch yesterday. Like many others, particularly among the “Leninists” in the ISO, Gilbert expresses impatience with the Bolivarian process so much so that he invokes the Russian Narodniks as an example of the sort of thing that is necessary in Latin America, including Venezuela.
I am sure that Chris means well but he is a bit confused about the history of our movement, especially when he writes about Marx’s disgust with those who promoted reformism in his name:
Marx himself thought differently. While growing increasingly exasperated by the German Social Democratic party and its ambition to plod (and pact) itself toward a peaceful victory through the tireless accumulation of forces, he found a breath of fresh air in the character of Russian pistol-bearing narodniks whom he called “terrorists.” These folks knew how to live with brio and die with dignity. They had a revolutionary ethic and thought creatively. They read and studied Marx but did not take him to be the last word. Perhaps the twentieth-century figure most like them is the young Fidel Castro.
To start with, Marx was not unhappy with the German party contesting in elections and in other open and legal arenas but with the influence of LaSalle’s ideology on a wing of the party that reflected an opportunist tendency to adapt to the Junkers welfare state taking shape under Bismarck. There is not the slightest hint that Marx proposed “the propaganda of the deed” in Germany. His main goal was to reorient the German party for the need to struggle uncompromisingly against the bourgeois parties until the conquest of power was posed.
Gilbert links to Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marx and the Russian Road” but Shanin’s book based on an analysis of Marx’s letters to the Russian populists has zero to do with shooting Czarist officials. Instead it is an embrace of the idea that the precapitalist peasant communes could form the basis of a revolutionary government that could be the first step in a European-wide proletarian revolution. Marx explained that his focus on Britain’s economic history that proceeded from feudalism to capitalism as a basis for the socialist stage was not a universal template. He thought that the capitalist stage could be skipped entirely.
Chris seems to grasp this to a certain degree when he wrote:
The narodniks of the People’s Will Party used violence because they did not see history as a linear universal progression in which all must follow the same route. They felt that the Russian people were sitting on potential socialism and socialist potentialities. The violence was the means to release these potentialities.
However, the Narodniks did not use violence in order to skip the capitalist stage. Instead, they did so as a way of inspiring the masses to take revolutionary action. Marx’s thinking was entirely different. He believed that socialists should be part of the mass movement, pushing it to revolutionary conclusions. In contrast, the Narodniks operated in small conspiratorial circles and had little interest in organizing strikes or running for the Duma. In fact it was their very elitist method that led to their legal party becoming a reformist obstacle to socialism—the Social Revolutionary Party of Alexander Kerensky. Terrorism and electoral opportunism went hand in hand.
Chris is fed up with the Latin American left that bases itself on Lenin’s critique of ultraleftism, directed against the immature Communist Parties that were trying to emulate the Bolsheviks. While I have no use for those who cite Lenin’s pamphlet to justify support for bourgeois candidates, it remains a good corrective to boneheaded tactics that isolate the left.
But it would be useful to remind ourselves of what Lenin had to say about the Narodniks, who had little to do with Fidel Castro who ran as an Ortodoxo candidate and who was active in the student movement. Even after he took up arms, the July 26th Movement used every opening afforded it under the Batista dictatorship to mobilize the masses, including repeated attempts to build general strikes through the trade union movement that required reaching out to the CP that had supported Batista in the 1930s and 40s.
For Lenin’s views on the Narodniks, I recommend a look at the 1902 article, aptly titled “Revolutionary Adventurism”:
The Social-Democrats will always warn against adventurism and ruthlessly expose illusions which inevitably end in complete disappointment. We must bear in mind that a revolutionary party is worthy of its name only when it guides in deed the movement of a revolutionary class. We must bear in mind that any popular movement assumes an infinite variety of forms, is constantly developing new forms and discarding the old, and effecting modifications or new combinations of old and new forms. It is our duty to participate actively in this process of working out means and methods of struggle. When the students’ movement became sharper, we began to call on the workers to come to the aid of the students without taking it upon our selves to forecast the forms of the demonstrations, without promising that they would result in an immediate transference of strength, in lighting up the mind, or a special elusiveness. When the demonstrations became consolidated, we began to call for their organisation and for the arming of the masses, and put forward the task of preparing a popular uprising. Without in the least denying violence and terrorism in principle, we demanded work for the preparation of such forms of violence as were calculated to bring about the direct participation of the masses and which guaranteed that participation. We do not close our eyes to the difficulties of this task, but will work at it steadfastly and persistently, undeterred by the objections that this is a matter of the “vague and distant future.”
That has far more in common with Fidel Castro’s July 26th Movement than the Narodniks of Lenin’s day or sad attempts to emulate them now.