So What Do We Do?

This essay is not about “debunking” the political and historical analysis of U.S. MLs or Marxism-Leninism more broadly. Instead, it is one contribution towards a critique of MLism as a trend in the U.S.

Submitted by Mike Harman on March 19, 2018

We still identify the need for an organization to bind various elements of the class and articulate a revolutionary content, but we do not think the way to do that is to set up small, highly centralized organizations bound to a particular ideology or “brand” of Marxism. More than anything, because we take revolutionary politics seriously, we have no desire to repeat the failures of the New Communist Movement, and waste another generation making the same mistakes.

We do not have the answers, and we think the first step to finding them is to admit our ignorance. Tentatively though, we would argue that base-building is the primary task of our current juncture. Historically, social democracy and then the Communist movement based their support on the existing strong base of trade union organization. But today, trade unions are at a historic weak point. Without a mass base of working class institutions, we will not have the power or basis to build a revolutionary working-class party. This means building working-class infrastructure on all fronts: tenants unions and workers’ co-ops, but also institutions of culture, leisure, art, sport, etc. We must also engage with popular struggles such as BLM. In other words, we must build a proletarian civil society.

Building working-class infrastructure must go hand-in-hand with party-building. There are no shortcuts to building a Party; without doing the daily grind of organizing on a mass basis, we will never get there. For the immediate tasks at hand, we believe that a relatively lower level of political unity is needed than is practiced in most Marxist sects. We also believe that we cannot necessarily know ahead of time what organizational form will achieve revolution, as several historical examples demonstrate that revolution is not necessarily carried out by a single, centralized revolutionary vanguard:

The interrelationship between the growth of the Party and the revolutionary movement which occurred in Russia was not unique to that country. Other major twentieth century revolutions have been made without the leading role of a single classical Leninist Party. The Cuban Revolution is a major case in point. An essentially military organization (the 26th of July Movement) played the leading role in the seizure of power and (together with the Communist Party into which it merged) in the socialist transition. In El Salvador the revolutionary process in 1980-1981 was guided by a coalition of revolutionary groups all working together. Although the Communist Party played the primary role, the revolutionary transformations of most of Eastern Europe in the post-World War II period in fact occurred under the joint guidance of Communist and left socialist parties working in close coalition. Parties which as a rule merged after the seizure of power. It is thus a viable scenario that 2, 3 or 4 parties could grow up together each with a viable mass base (as in El Salvador) which merge (as in much of Eastern Europe) mostly after the seizure of power. It is also quite possible that revolutions in the West could be led by parties like Lenin’s, i.e., one with organized factions that doesn’t tighten up its democratic centralism until after the Revolution. Given both the failure of Lenin’s Party’s to lead a successful revolution in any advanced capitalist country other than Czechoslovakia, and the abysmal failure of the New Communist Movement, these possibilities must be seriously considered by honest revolutionaries.1

We must keep this history in mind as we attempt to organize in ways that are most effective in our time and place.

For those in the Marxist-Leninist trend who have already joined organizations, our recommendation moving forward would be to place more of an emphasis on base-building rather than street protests and “activist networking”. We find it encouraging that some ML groups have already begun this work. For instance, New York City branch of PSL has opened the Justice Center en el Barrio, a community center where they hold fitness classes, open mics, and other programming. This space was also used to collect donations to be sent to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which should be considered a base-building activity given the majority of Puerto Ricans in East Harlem. The development of a “Justice Center” strategy within the rest of the PSL would likely be a positive development2. We would also like to see MLs engage in debates around strategy and tactics not just with other ML groups but also with other tendencies entirely.

For those who are currently unaffiliated with any organization, there are several options that we believe would be fruitful.

We are partial towards the Marxist Center milieu that prioritizes the base-building/dual-power strategy to build a new revolutionary socialist party. This informal, loose grouping of organizations (such as Philly Socialists, Communist Labor Party, Red Bloom Communist Collective, Austin Socialist Collective, and Kentucky Workers League) has its sights set on eventually building a countrywide socialist organization. Marxist Center groups focus on projects such as tenants unions, ESL classes, community gardens, community self-defense, and other base-building projects. The Marxist Center is perhaps the first new trend in U.S. Marxism since the 2008 financial collapse other than the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revival.

Another movement that we believe everyone should be learning from is the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) and in particular Cooperation Jackson. These organizations are building a multi-pronged grassroots movement in Jackson, Mississippi. Their efforts include a solidarity economy (focused on co-ops and sustainability) as well as a successful mayoral campaign with Chokwe Lumumba and then his son Chokwe Antar. Cooperation Jackson is a vibrant organization with healthy internal struggle and base-building activities with the Jackson working class. Cooperation Jackson, like the Marxist Center, can be considered part of the modern base-building trend.

We also think that Marxists can work productively in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). While the DSA was founded on the principles of Zionism and Democratic Party lobbyism, and to this day maintains a conservative old guard, we believe that the recent influx in membership upon the election of Trump has destabilized the old leadership and given the organization a more “massy” character, which may provide Marxists with the opportunity to expose new socialists to our ideas and methods of work. The organization currently has over thirty thousand members, of which at least twenty thousand have joined since the 2016 election3. Most new members are young and ideologically unformed; they don’t join DSA because they agree with “democratic socialism” intellectually, but because it’s a visible socialist organization with a growing political culture and an orientation towards local struggles. This situation is ideal for carrying out what Draper identifies as the primary steps towards cohering an organized revolutionary tendency around a political center:

[Create] a body of doctrine, a body of political literature expressing a unified kind of revolutionary socialism;
[Form] cadres of party workers and militants around this political core
[Establish] its “kind of socialism” as a presence in left politics, with its own physiognomy and name.2

This work of organizing a revolutionary wing or tendency within DSA remains possible because the reformist wing, traditionally in power, has been overwhelmed by the massive influx of new members, most of whom are more receptive to radical ideas than the old guard. Additionally, the decentralized structure of DSA, in which local chapters have a high level of autonomy, makes it impossible for a reformist leadership at the national level to dictate the work of the entire organization. As long as the reformist tendency is not able to cohere, win hegemony over the majority of new members, and/or centralize organizational leadership so as to wholly direct the work of the organization, the formation of a revolutionary Marxist tendency within DSA remains not only possible, but urgently necessary3 . Groups like DSA Refoundation and the Communist Caucus, and prominent individuals like R.L. Stephens, are taking up this work, particularly attempting to shift DSA’s activity away from Democratic lobbying and towards more serious base-building as part of a revolutionary orientation.

Base building, as it matures, will also come with developing new theory. We believe that rather than simply “applying” an ideology codified nearly a century ago, we will need to create new Marxist theory based on a “concrete analysis of our concrete situation” in the United States in 2018. While we do not know what this new theory will look like, it will have to account for the peculiar contours of the United States, in particular its legacy of slavery and genocide as well as its continued national oppression internally and imperialism externally. Socialist revolution has never been made in a settler-colonial, imperialist bourgeois democracy like the United States. It would do us well to take seriously the lack of knowledge and experience we have to draw from, while not forgetting the lessons of history. We believe that in order to do this we must break from ML orthodoxy and not be afraid to be “heretical” in our approach. Dogmatism and hero worship can only impede this necessary process:

[F]or all its calls to study, the [NCM]’s worshipful attitude toward the Marxist-Leninist classics distorted the intellectual development of its adherents. Virtually all the movement’s pioneer organizations stressed the “universal truth” of Marxism-Leninism and argued that, theoretically, the challenge before US communists was solely to “apply” this truth to concrete conditions in the US. This outlook suggested that all truly important theoretical questions had already been resolved; and it betrayed a certain fear that too much exploration of new theoretical terrain would lead inexorably toward a revisionist betrayal of revolutionary principle.4

We believe that, in the U.S. in 2018, the truly important theoretical tasks have not been solved. We are in a period of a nascent socialist movement since the 2008 financial crisis. We should not be afraid of new ideas, and should look forward instead of harping on the 20th century. Without bending to reformism or adventurism, we must feel free to put everything back on the table and come to build strategy and theory through struggle.

  • 1Albert Szymanski, “The New Communist Movement: An Obituary” (1981)
  • 2Hal Draper, “Toward a New Beginning — On Another Road” (1971). This is exactly the kind of strategy that Jacobin Magazine has already employed to grow its own influence within DSA.
  • 3Radicalizing the DSA would not be a historical anomaly, either. Students for a Democratic Society, a major mass student organizations of the 1960s which would act as the seed bed for the future New Communist Movement, broke from its parent organization the League for Industrial Democracy in an analogous way. (Ironically, DSA founder Michael Harrington was an LID officer and clashed with the radicalizing SDS.) Additionally, those interested can read Lenin’s advice to the nascent Communist Party of Great Britain on the topic of affiliation to the Labour Party, which he argues for on the basis of the autonomy possible at that time within the very loose Labour Party. For a thoughtful critique of the limitations of revolutionary organization in the DSA, see this article by a comrade from the Austin Socialist Collective.
  • 4Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air, pg. 130