Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 29, 2019

Paul Le Blanc’s lamentations

Filed under: ISO,Lenin,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

paulleblancphotobyalexbainbridge
Paul Le Blanc

Despite being highly critical of Paul Le Blanc’s dead-end support for “Leninism”, I found something poignant about his 6,100 word attempt to provide an answer to “What happened to the International Socialist Organization?” This is now his third attempt at constructing or reconstructing a Leninist party in the USA. In the first go-round, he was one of the many long-time members of the SWP who was expelled for opposing Jack Barnes’s ideological assault on Trotskyism that was carried out bureaucratically. He then became part of a group led by Frank Lovell and George Breitman that published the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, a futile attempt to persuade the SWP membership to return to the party’s roots. His next stop was Solidarity, a group that wisely eschewed “Leninist” norms but was never able to become much more than a network of people around the magazine Against the Current. His final stop was the International Socialist Organization, a group he joined a decade ago and that has just disbanded. My guess is that this will be his last hurrah as far as Leninism is concerned unless in the next decade or so there is a massive radicalization in the USA that will help to foment a revolutionary socialist organization that is the counterpart of Lenin’s party. If that happens, you can be assured that such an organization will look nothing like the myriad of groups that sought to construct one from scratch. As a rule of thumb, revolutionary organizations can only emerge out of a mass movement and all such attempts to create an embryo of one according to some ideological construct will either implode like the SWP or ISO, or muddle along like the British SWP, Lutte Ouvriere or others too obscure to mention.

Paul states that the analytical framework he uses in trying to make sense of what happened “can be found in various writings (particularly the essays in Unfinished Leninism published by Haymarket Books in 2014).” Since there are arguments against my critique of Leninism in that book, I was obviously motivated to compare his analytical framework to mine on the passing of the ISO.

Paul subheads the section that deals with the ISO’s failed attempt to live up to his Leninist ideals Avoiding sterile ‘vanguardism’, which leads me to pose the question whether ‘vanguardism’ can ever be anything but sterile. For Paul, this is an opportunity to find a silver lining in the SWP’s dark cloud. He writes that George Breitman and Frank Lovell were quite open and non-dogmatic in their approach, as opposed to the younger leadership loyal to Barnes. I didn’t know Breitman and Lovell all that well but since they gave their blessing to Jack Barnes’s “turn to industry”, I have my doubts. In fact, just before I left NY to save my soul in a Kansas City factory, I challenged Lovell’s assertion at a city-wide meeting that in 1978 the American working class was more radical than ever. It was only in the hermetically sealed environment of American Trotskyism that such a workerist dogma could be expressed.

Paul saw the ISO as better and more open than this, which I would describe as setting the bar about an inch off the ground. He assures us that by the time he joined, there were no delusions of grandeur about it being the revolutionary vanguard party or even the nucleus of the future mass revolutionary party. Unfortunately, this concession to reality made little difference since the group dynamics were pretty close to that of the SWP or any other “Leninist” group. As a rule of thumb, any group that publishes a magazine and newspaper, which for its entire history hosts not a single debate by party members, is willy-nilly creating a homogenous political culture that fosters “sterile dogmatism”. In contrast to Lenin’s party that used Iskra to provide a platform for debates, the Socialist Worker newspaper has never reflected the diversity of opinion that exists on the left. It was always seen as the voice of an ideological current associated with Tony Cliff seeking to preserve market share on the left. Who knows how they envisioned a future revolutionary party? Would it be something like a holding company that had different brands, with state capitalists being offered to consumers alongside Maoism and old-school Trotskyists like those in Alan Woods’s orbit? That has been tried both in England and Australia with meager results. When a true Leninist party emerges in the USA, it will likely be focused on contemporary American issues rather than when Russia became state capitalist. That, of course, pretty much describes the DSA and what would be exactly what is needed right now if it stopped functioning as the leftwing of the Democratic Party.

Some of what Paul writes strikes me as buyer’s remorse. He extols the practical activism in social movements that was essential for SWP branches but not the norm for the ISO. Practically sneering, he describes this as a deficiency all-too-often justified by what struck him as pseudo-revolutionary strictures against “movementism.” Now I have no idea what ISO norms were like but I would guess that given the low ebb of social movements in the past 30  years or so it reflected a more realistic expectation of membership. After 1973, I saw the “activism” of the SWP as artificially generated, an attempt by the party tops to provide “busy work” to keep us from drifting away. By 1977, this was superseded by the “turn to industry” with its absurd job committees meeting 3 times a week to figure out how to place members in factories or, failing that, at least getting them to go out six in the morning to sell the Militant at plant gates to bleary-eyed workers speeding by en route to the parking lot.

Missing from Paul’s analysis is any engagement with the obvious growing resistance to “democratic centralist” norms suffocating the ISO. Sometimes I wonder whether Paul bothered to reply to a crank like me when he wrote Unfinished Leninism on the outside chance that ISO’ers were being seduced by my anti-Leninist notions. Among the documents submitted to the most recent convention of the ISO was one titled “For building a new model of revolutionary socialism” that was signed by 133 members. Here is a relevant paragraph:

Since our break with the British Socialist Workers Party, the ISO has asserted that it is not the nucleus of a revolutionary party. While we understood this in the most vague and long term of ways, the seeds of that conception remained, as reflected in the distorted way that building the ISO as the ISO became an end in and of itself. Democratic centralism meant two people holding the information and building based on what ended up being unwarranted trust. [emphasis added]

In the concluding paragraphs of his article, Paul writes:

How should revolutionaries organize themselves today in order to do what must be done?

We are not starting from scratch. There are residual elements from the ISO itself – formally independent entities that it helped bring into being and sustain: the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC), connected with both the immensely valuable publishing operation of Haymarket Books and the yearly Socialism conferences. Former ISO members can connect with these and various other publications and conferences. There are also other socialist organizations, some avoiding the pseudo-Leninist trap of “vanguardism” – and former ISO members are considering options and possibilities. Realities are fluid, and other structures might be developed to facilitate networking and collaboration, as we seek to transform this defeat into a luminous victory.

In my view, there are some encouraging signs on the left. Despite my sharp disagreements with the hopes of the people around Left Voice to breathe life into the Leninist project, they at least have the courage of their convictions to challenge the “democratic socialist” circumlocutions of the Jacobin/DSA. They have not yet cohered into a cadre organization and might yet be convinced that a united revolutionary organization around basic core agreements on the environment, class struggle unionism, anti-imperialism is still possible. You also have the Marxist Center that has brought together groups like the Philly Socialists. What they might lack in numbers as compared to the DSA, they certainly make up for with class struggle principles and rootedness in communities of those fucked over by capitalism. I also have hopes that Howie Hawkins’s campaign for President will help generate some momentum back into the Green Party. There was a time when the ISO made up the activist core for Peter Camejo’s campaign for governor in California and perhaps the ex-members can see the wisdom of helping Howie’s campaign serve as an alternative to whatever the Democrats offer up, even—dare I say it?—if it Bernie Sanders.

Speaking of Peter Camejo, the last time I saw him before he died, he was a guest speaker at an ISO regional conference at CCNY. We briefly spoke about the prospects of the ISO that he regarded as the best thing happening on the left. That was something I also heard from Sol Dollinger who was a member of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union in the 1950s, a group I strongly identify with.

Although I obviously had much less of a commitment to the ISO than either of these two old friends and comrades, I—like Paul—was sorry to see it fold. I had been sustained for the past 7 years by the courageous and principled articles about Syria in Socialist Worker, as well as the uncompromising resistance to joining the leftwing of the Democratic Party.

I plan to be at the Socialism 2019 conference in Chicago between July 4—July 7, the first ISO conference I have ever attended. Ironically, I am still looking forward to it even if it is now being co-sponsored by Jacobin/DSA. There is intense interest in how to move the left forward in a period of deepening social and political crisis and I would hope that others make plans to attend this conference since it will surely draw the lessons of the passing of the ISO and enhance the prospects of something rising Phoenix-like from its ashes.

10 Comments »

  1. Proyect loves his shibboleth.

    Comment by Dave Riley — May 30, 2019 @ 12:04 am

  2. What is not clear from Le Blanc’s article is why the “scandals” and “additional facts of significance” required the dissolution of the whole organisation. This has involved suspending/ending publication of the International Socialist Review – one of the better journals on the radical left.

    This appears to be an act of willful self-destruction out of all proportion to the issues at hand. No matter what the problems are in any organisation, you don’t set fire to the whole joint when there are valuable achievements and structures that could be preserved.

    Comment by Simon — May 30, 2019 @ 5:19 am

  3. […] Source: Paul Le Blanc’s lamentations | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by Paul Le Blanc’s lamentations  – 1848+: The End(s) of History — May 30, 2019 @ 10:35 am

  4. https://redfortyeight.com/2019/05/30/paul-le-blancs-lamentations/
    We have a discussion of the idea of ‘unfinished Leninism’ in terms of the broader idea of the ‘unfinished history’ of socialism. Perhaps Leninism suffered a computer crash: we must review the whole history.
    Consider the confusions of the ‘unfinished history’ which is the same meme as the ‘end of history’ muddle…It is the inherent potential of a socialist ideal that is unfinished, and what is that?

    Comment by nemonemini — May 30, 2019 @ 1:09 pm

  5. Louis is correct I think in pointing out that the way forward is the overarching concern. Shibboleth my foot–what does that even mean?

    I will not be able to attend the Chicago conference, but I hope some focus is placed not only on immediate issues–Howie Hawkins vs. the Democratic Party, etc.–but on the large issue of the type of organization that can move socialism forward in the future.

    I had a talk with a black cab driver yesterday who said he was pro-trump and tried to sell me a MAGA hat. I was bemused. But what struck me afterward was the obvious thing: his fandom–eerily tinged as it was with an element of mockery that made it none the less serious (he was giggling the whole time but clearly meant what he said)–is a reflection of powerlessness. The one thing he never claimed or seemed to want was the slightest ability to actually participate in the decisions that affect his and our future. “Participatory democracy,” IMO, has been a cover for a lot of bullshit over the years–imagine extending Occupy-style stand-up governance to a whole country, let alone the world–but what is certain is that a winning party politically must be a membersnip organization in which all members have personal contact with party organizers and can have input into policy and tactics beyond mere blog posting or answering some insulting Democrat questionnaire with multiple choices for one’s favorite issue.

    It never occurred to my guy yesterday that a citizen might to anything but choose either Ronald Rump or “creepy Joe Biden” as he kept saying even when I told him I’m not a Biden fan. He seems to be a mere consumer of a political product, unable to imagine anything beyond a Marketplace of Ideas in which the basic choices have nothing to do with him. I buy Trump–I might buy Biden. Maybe I drink Pepsi. And then I sell hats. It all comes from television, which includes the internet as people in this country now know and use it. Beyond this buying of the Trump product was a deeper desire to be swept away by some powerful force greater than oneself.

    This is a large part of what socialism has to bust up and replace.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 30, 2019 @ 1:38 pm

  6. “In fact, just before I left NY to save my soul in a Kansas City factory, I challenged Lovell’s assertion at a city-wide meeting that in 1978 the American working class was more radical than ever. It was only in the hermetically sealed environment of American Trotskyism that such a workerist dogma could be expressed.”

    I was growing up in a working class family during this time. There was little happening that could be described as radical, people were trying to survive in the aftermath of the mid-1970s recession, one largely forgotten except by those of us who lived through it and experienced how it lead to the neoliberal restructuring of the global economy.

    You can criticize Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton for many things, but they understood how to appeal to a large part of the working class better than the left did, acknowledging, of course, the mendacity of their efforts. Perhaps, the DSA will be able to do it, given the generational distress of many of its participants, but, for what I see, there is a racial divide that needs to be bridged. Out here in Oakland and Sacramento, they tend to white, not a lot of involvement of black people and POC.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 30, 2019 @ 10:06 pm

  7. The current decline of people’s actual fortunes, despite the happy-face statistics ginned up by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (depending on how you look at them) , goes back in my experience to the Nixon recession. As a Harvard scholarship boy from a tiny Midwestern farming and manufacturing town, I returned in early 1972 from a postgraduate fellowship that led me (stupidly) to the wilds of Afghanistan to find that the superheated economy of the 1960s had vanished like a fever dream.

    College boys used to take fulltime jobs with benefits for a few weeks and quit without notice when they felt like it. Relative to income, the necessities of life were so cheap that they hardly registered on the scale if you had work (basis of the hippie “movement”).

    But by 1972 all that had changed. I interviewed for a job setting pins by hand in a bowling alley and was told that my personality wasn’t quite right for their mix. I ended up working the graveyard shift part-time at a copy center in Harvard Square and, in desperation, enrolled in a Ph.D program at the University of Virginia, where my former sophomore tutor (temporarily as it turned out) had influential connections.

    The rest–the great, undocumented Ph.D. mass bloodletting of the ’70s the rise of the permanent underpaid adjunct , and the mass flight of them as could into what became known as IT–my “out” from permanent unemployment–followed suit in the long, desolate, downward-grinding spiral of the seventies and eighties, which continues today. None of what’s happening to millennials today didn’t happen to us “boomers”–it just grew and grew and got much worse and more widespread.

    The failure of the ISO IMO reflects this long-term downward spiral. You have to hope that somewhere along the line the declining differential between U.S. workers and the Workers of the World will lead to a dissolution of the imperial dike that currently isolates them from one another. But there aren’t many signs of that actually happening. Instead, we are seeing the rise of global fascism,.

    I think the “horizontalist” analysis of the gilets jaunes is the bunk.–no sign of it happening here, and no evidence that such a movement will even remain on the left, if it doesn’t just vanish overnight like Occupy.

    It’s fairly obvious by now that Ronald Rump will be elected to a second term, probably by a landslide with new majorities in both houses of Congress. It’s conceivable that the farce of U.S. liberal democracy will sputter on in some form, but –while Trump himself is clearly incapable of actually running a dictatorship–here are others in the background who no doubt can and will seize and hold power once the so-called Constitution ceases to function effectively–some future General Mattis and friends, for example, who decide to say the hell with their bullshit Sacred Oaths.

    This is why I think that mass organization overtly for worker safety and mutual aid is being overlooked on the Left. Spontaneous revolution is impossible (gilets jaunes) and groups that exist primarily to field candidates in bourgeois elections have no defense prepared for the possibly immanent future in which those elections cease to be or become merely vestigial–in short, for the more or less inevitable, across-the-board defeat of liberalism in all its forms world wide and in the U.S. in particular.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 31, 2019 @ 11:28 am

  8. sorry for the typos–my eyes just don’t work for onscreen editing

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 31, 2019 @ 11:35 am

  9. “This is why I think that mass organization overtly for worker safety and mutual aid is being overlooked on the Left. Spontaneous revolution is impossible (gilets jaunes) and groups that exist primarily to field candidates in bourgeois elections have no defense prepared for the possibly immanent future in which those elections cease to be or become merely vestigial–in short, for the more or less inevitable, across-the-board defeat of liberalism in all its forms world wide and in the U.S. in particular.”

    I would just add to this excellent post that we frequently ignore the atomization of the working class that has resulted from consumerism, where people can gratify their desires to a high degree of specificity, and the liberation from the factory that young people, lead by the Italians in the mid-1970s, wanted. Freedom to decide when and how to work soon became freedom for even greater exploitation. As a consequence, the communal culture of the working class was lost, resulting in a much diminished capacity for mass mobilization.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 31, 2019 @ 9:08 pm

  10. I would just add …that we frequently ignore the atomization of the working class that has resulted from consumerism, where people can gratify their desires to a high degree of specificity, and the liberation from the factory that young people, lead by the Italians in the mid-1970s, wanted. Freedom to decide when and how to work soon became freedom for even greater exploitation. As a consequence, the communal culture of the working class was lost, resulting in a much diminished capacity for mass mobilization.

    I especially like the analysis of false liberation/freedom from factory, IMO a transformation of capitalist ideology that does not radically change the social forces at work beneath the surface. This is IMO why a live membership organization or coordinated organizations with boots on the ground everywhere is so important. The vehicle of the alienation of which Richard speaks, if I may call it that, in the form of a deceptive false liberation, operates via the intimate extension of television to the internet, led at present) by the smartphone culture. This in turn permits the actually non-liberated person to validate the idea that she wanders at liberty through an endless series of gamelike voluntary transactions mediated only by the ghostly hand of the Free Market.

    The passivity on which this ever-more-seamless fabric of illusion relies might begin to be broken if there were real live organizers whom one knew and could trust personally and who would provide a gateway to engagement and entry into leadership, decision-making, and action. This might provide an alternative to the intimate hallucinatory scenarios of the daily game, breaking the druglike spell.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 1, 2019 @ 2:58 pm


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