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notes on Spartacists on Lenin and the vanguard party

I am writing with some notes and suggestions for discussion on the Spartacist League pamphlet on "Lenin and the vanguard party" (1978):

I'd like to quote at length from Spartacist founder James Robertson's 1973 speech "In Defense of Democratic Centralism" that is included in the pamphlet as supplemental material (and is edited in the pamphlet but given in its entirety on-line):

"What we are dealing with in the period from the founding of Iskra to the founding of the Bolshevik Party in 1912 is the transformation of the Bolshevik faction from a revolutionary social-democratic into an embryonic communist organization. The model for the Russian revolutionary social democrats in the early period was the German Social Democracy. In the determination of the Bolshevik wing to pursue a revolution against tsarism, their political practice ran ahead of their theoretical model. And, of course, their organizational practice lagged even further behind and was highly empirical under the clandestine conditions.

"It was possible for Lenin during the period of the reunification of the Russian Social Democracy, 1905-1907, to draw conclusions about the discipline of a party of reformists and revolutionaries which would be rejected out of hand by any Leninist today. That does not make us smarter than Marx or Lenin, it merely means that we are able to face current political questions in the light of their experience.

"Parenthetically, one of our principal differences with Healy and Wohlforth lay in this point. That is, for Healy, words fail me to catch the quality of the arrogance of the assumption that every day and every way he gets better and better -- including [better] than Lenin.

"The truth is historically conditioned; that is, the outlook of the Communist movement of the first four congresses of the Communist International rested upon a historic and successful upheaval of the revolutionary proletariat.

"A comparable theoretical breakthrough and generalization accompanied this massive revolutionary achievement.

"It is as though the theoretical outlook of the proletarian vanguard in the period 1919-23 in the International stood atop a mountain. But since that time, from the period of the Trotskyist Left Opposition until his death and afterward, the proletariat has mainly witnessed defeats and the revolutionary vanguard has either been shrunken or its continuity in many countries broken. One cannot separate the ability to know the world from the ability to change it, and our capacity to change the world is on a very small scale compared to the heroic days of the Communist International.

[Change of tape]

"At the same time one of the great achievements of the Bolsheviks was to recognize that a political split in the working class is the precondition for proletarian revolution. The Bolsheviks had achieved this by 4 August 1914, but they had not generalized it either theoretically or internationally. The German revolutionary left of the time paid with the loss of its leaders, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, and a lost revolution for its failure to have assimilated this lesson."

-- We in Platypus would emphasize the latter point, and expand its significance: the price paid by the German revolutionary Marxist Left also cost the revolution in Russia and Marxism as a whole -- and thus humanity.

A couple of things about this need underscoring: that theory cannot advance on its own without complementary advances in practice; and that theoretical regression also results from regression in practice (something the Spartacists could ill afford to recognize, because it would problematize their model of political tasks and organization!). What Korsch called the separation of theory and practice is to the detriment of both, and in an on-going way.

So, why are we reading this Spartacist pamphlet? -- Which is a particular extension of the question of why we are reading Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, et al.

As I put it at the UChicago reading group last week, looking ahead to this week's discussion of the Spartacist pamphlet, I said that with this pamphlet the Spartacist League redeemed itself as an organized political tendency (their other contributions, while important, can be attributed elsewhere, for instance "revolutionary integrationism" re: the U.S. "black question," could be credited to Richard Fraser and earlier Max Shachtman, and therefore to have redeemed the existence of the SWP/U.S.).

At the same time, Richard Fraser once said (and the Spartacists quoted him about themselves), rather pithily, that the Spartacists were "organizational fetishists." This would be a bit unfair, but is one way of making sense of certain apparently exaggerated emphases in their pamphlet.

I want to call attention, however, to the Spartacist pamphlet's undeniable strengths.

While it might be somewhat off-putting that they begin in the manner of polemics against Tony Cliff (founder of the tendency that includes the SWP/Britain and the ISO/U.S. and Canada) and the Mandelites of the official Trotskyist Fourth International, these are the 2 dominant trends in post-'60s "Trotskyism" and so are of particular importance for the Spartacists -- they necessarily ignore the Stalinist "Leninism" of Maoism, etc., which does not, for instance, take seriously the critiques of Lenin by Luxemburg (not to speak of Trotsky!), and does not take Kautskyism (or the 2nd Intl. in general) particularly seriously, either.

It is only in the Trotskyist tradition that the kinds of issues we seek to raise around the context for Lenin -- and hence for Lukacs and Korsch -- are taken seriously. Therefore the rather wide range of competing interpretations of Lenin within "Trotskyism" are a necessary starting point.

-- Please note also that the Spartacists are keen to recognize and attempt to explain (in however a polemical manner), first of all, the vicissitudes in interpretations of Lenin relative to changing politics and ideology on the "Left."

It is through addressing these changes among and most especially in the history of the varieties of "Trotskyism" that the abuses of Lenin in Stalinist politics (e.g., Maoism) also become explicable, and the terms for actually grasping Lenin emerge.

As I pointed out in my previous notes on Lenin's What is to be done?, the assumption is that such debates are potentially very consequential.

As Lenin himself pointed out about theoretical disputes, especially in a "young" movement, they can lead to consequences for further development reaching far into the future.

-- Of course that far-flung future about which Lenin warned is in fact our present.

This point lies behind the Spartacist explanation of the significance of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, which took on a new content, far beyond its original, initial significance, subsequently.

This is because political differences and polarizations, especially in organized form, take on a life of their own. This provides one way for addressing how theory and practice are related and "mediate" each other. -- They are not the same thing: in other words, practice is not "embodied" theory (a Stalinist formulation -- however also taken up by others, such as "anarchists," et al. -- for subordinating theory to practice), etc. The party is meant to be, not the identity of theory and practice, but a (only one, if crucial) way of mediating them.

The story presented in the Spartacist pamphlet is that of the historical emergence of just this insight, as a function of Lenin's practice and theory.

Because the Spartacists emphasize not only the possibility but the necessity and desirability of splits in the workers' movement, the Left, and among "Marxists." The conception of the "vanguard party" the Spartacists present is predicated on and flows from this.

At the same time, I want to say something about "vanguardism," especially as it occupies such a central place in Platypus's reputation and controversy around us (for instance, in Moishe Postone's estimation of us as a group).

Lenin was not a "vanguardist." -- At least not in the sense in which this term is usually used. And the Spartacist attempt to rehabilitate the matter of Lenin's "vanguardism" is their attempt to rescue Lenin from Stalinism, for it was the Stalinized Communist Party that adopted "vanguardism" and reified "the Party" in ways that Lenin would never have sanctioned.

Because the Spartacist pamphlet focuses on Lenin up to 1914-17, many issues bound up with the Bolshevik Revolution cannot be addressed in terms of this week's readings.

But suffice it to say for now that, for instance, in Lenin's State and Revolution, which we will read subsequently, the matter of the "vanguard party" does not figure at all. -- In fact, neither does "the party" in general!

The reason is that Lenin's conception of the party is not itself so central as might be assumed, and is indeed subordinate to or at least constellated with other concerns -- what Luxemburg refers to in the title of her 1906 pamphlet on "The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions," namely that these are mutually conditioning and mediating factors for considering anticapitalist politics. They have different necessary roles to play that cannot be conflated, and most "Leftists" tend to raise one of these roles over the others as if on its own it embodies the key principle of emancipatory politics. (What Luxemburg leaves out in the title -- and text! -- of her 1906 pamphlet, of course, is the yet further element/factor of soviets/workers councils, but that's another matter.)

This doesn't mean that the "party question" is not important, but that it needs to be disenchanted, removed from the paranoid fear with which it is met today, and seen in relation to other concerns: The question needs to be asked, what is the purpose of the party, what is a party of revolutionary Marxists' raison d'etre, what justifies its existence?

This is already the question posed by Luxemburg's Reform or Revolution? and in Cliff Slaughter's "What is Revolutionary Leadership?" and J. P. Nettl's article on the history of the SPD and the real significance of the "revisionist dispute," and Korsch's further elaboration of this, i.e., not "orthodoxy" vs. revisionism but rather the problematic role of consciousness in terms of effective (historical, anticapitalist) political action.

The Spartacists attempt in their pamphlet to work through the changing terms in which this problem emerged, was recognized and developed among the revolutionary Marxists of the 2nd Intl.

Our point in Platypus is that it was not well recognized and developed subsequently, in 3rd Intl. Communism, and that Trotsky's 4th Intl. was already more of an attempt to remember the original point of departure for LLT than a qualitative development beyond it (i.e., regression was already taking hold in the 1920s and certainly by the 1930s, with Stalinization etc. -- this is why the 1920s-30s is also the period of the point of departure for the Frankfurt Schoolers, after the height of theoretical reflection achieved by Lukacs and Korsch in the early 1920s).

The Spartacists' discussion of the issue of "philosophy," and "dialectics," etc. in Marxist politics is relatively poor in comparison to Korsch (and Lukacs) but is at least good for disenchanting the relation of philosophy and politics: it is not a matter of having the "correct philosophical approach," but principally one of politics, and what we call "self-understanding."

One way of approaching the Spartacists' text is to address head-on the question of why Lenin goes in and out of style/favor. "Marxist-Leninism" (i.e., post-1960s "New Left" Maoism and other "proletarian hardness") was in vogue in the 1970s, especially after the 1973 downtown. This is what prompted the Spartacists to make their intervention.

In our own background/context, there has been, in the late-'90s - early '00s, some attempt to renew interest in "Lenin" a la Zizek et al. (e.g., the edited anthology based on the conference Lenin Reloaded: towards a politics of truth), after the waning of the initial post-1989 attempt to leave Lenin in the dust. This might be apparently somewhat parallel to our own efforts but in fact is quite different.

Our origins as an "against the stream" counter-intuitive insight into the relevance of Trotskyism during 1989-93, when Richard and I were in/around the Spartacist League is different from those like Zizek and Kevin Anderson who were struggling to retain their relevance after the "death of Communism" and more stalwart New Leftists such as Negri et al. who started having second thoughts after what they wanted -- the destruction of the Soviet Communism -- actually transpired.

For us, the matter is one of the regained salience of the history of what we call 2nd Intl. radicalism, especially after the exhaustion of postmodernism and post-Marxism after the 1990s.

If we are to consider ourselves as an authentic phenomenon of our own moment, we need to inquire after the possibility of a regained salience of Lenin in the '00s.

In one sense this is explicable rather simply, that Lenin regains importance in the context of the degenerate last gasp of vintage 1960s New Leftism contra George W. Bush and the Iraq War as some replay of Vietnam, but seen in a longer duree, the matter becomes deeper and perhaps more significant, that the exhaustion of the 1960s New Leftism throws into certain relief the former 1920s-30s "Old Left" against which the 1960s New Left imagined it was departing, thus posing the question of the origins of the problems of that "Old Left."

It is in this sense that we place not an exclamation mark but a question mark over "1917" and Lenin.

Why Lenin so much over Luxemburg? Not, as the Spartacists put it, because Lenin addressed an organizational issue that Luxemburg supposedly neglected, but rather because Lenin followed through a set of issues bound up in the possibility and necessity of the Russian Revolution.

The Bolshevik Revolution was, in this sense, the first and only successful workers' revolution.

Now, as we know, it's not so simple as this, for 1917 can hardly regarded as a "success," especially in retrospect. For the further trajectory and ultimate outcome (collapse of its last vestigial historical remnants in the USSR in 1989-93) of the revolution that Lenin opened in 1917 casts Lenin and his thought and action in doubt. This is the reason why Lenin remains controversial, and not merely misunderstood. This is why Platypus is also "anti-anti-Leninist" as well as "neo-Leninist" and so cannot be considered simply "Leninist," however much we may want to purify the legacy and get back to and (re)appropriate the authentic, original Lenin.

Our point is that a renewed Marxian Left for the present and future cannot be attained if Lenin is ignored. Lenin remains central because Lenin represents in strong form a problem to be overcome -- but only by working through it. A good starting point is the Spartacists' recognition that Lenin only makes sense in the context of multiple parties, multiple competing tendencies on the Left, that conflict on the Left is not only possible but desirable, indeed necessary, that the real political issues of emancipation in, through and beyond capital will be fought here, and only here.

The paradoxical 1960s-70s "New Left" false "overcoming" and then (equally false) embrace of "Leninism" is not and cannot be ours. Our project is about addressing and trying to grasp and supersede *all* the mid-20th Century problems of "Leninism" (what Postone calls the "primacy of the political," etc.) and "anti-Leninism." This is why we return to (pre-)"Leninism" in such a central manner, to recapture a problem that attained high expression before it was vulgarized and obscured.