Letter: Responding to Luke Pickrell on 21st Century Marxism

Date: 2023-03-18T00:02:02+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

My thanks to Luke Pickrell for his intelligent comment on my article “For a 21st Century Marxism.” I find it surprising and encouraging that we agree on so many points. He does raise two substantive objections that I will respond to below. But first a thought about this paragraph:  

People might say that winning others to socialism will take too long, or that others will never be won by our ideas. My response remains: what other option do we have? . . . The movement must be of the masses in the interests of the masses. We are not doing a good job if people are not won over to our ideas. The present regime provides us with numerous instances, every day, to expose the undemocratic state for what it is: the rule of one class over another. 

There is a meaningful truth here. But it isn’t the most important truth in response to the question Luke asks us to consider IMO. Revolutions occur not because revolutionaries succeed in convincing people—by ones and twos or even by tens and twenties—that revolution is needed (which is not to diminish the importance of the work Luke describes, merely to put it in its proper context). Revolutions occur when the system breaks down to such an extent that the class struggle itself convinces millions that a revolution is needed. This process can take place in the blink of an eye, historically speaking—unfolding in months, weeks, or sometimes even days. Trotsky once said that revolutionaries don’t make revolutions; we just take advantage of them when they happen. This rapid revolutionization of thought among millions and tens of millions at rare, but nonetheless periodic, moments in the class struggle is the phenomenon he was referring to. 

We can look at a recent process that was only slightly less intense in the history of our own country: During the late 1960s and early ’70s, in a period of just a few years, literally tens of thousands of young people in the USA drew revolutionary conclusions. The primary driving force was not the propaganda work that was done during this period by those who were already convinced that revolution is needed before the mass radicalization of the ’60s began. The main impetus was the combined experience of these tens of thousands of young people with their own government and its actions in Vietnam, along with the resistance to demands for equal citizenship by Blacks and other national minorities. 

When we are considering—and talking to others about—the processes by which revolutionary consciousness develops this dynamic (of how the ideology of millions can quickly become revolutionary, often when revolutionaries are least expecting it) needs to be at the forefront of our understanding. We will return to this point in a moment while considering Luke’s stated disagreements with my essay. He raises two substantive objections: 

The power of the working class lies not primarily in its ability to “cripple society through a general strike” but to organize itself into mass organizations and provide political leadership. Ultimately, the working class understands more readily than other sections of society that its problems are solvable only in collectives. The working class is forced to band together to stay afloat.

This, of course, is a classic restatement of an orthodox Marxist appreciation. There is nothing wrong with that IMO, but my call is precisely for us to ask whether the experience of the last half of the 20th century substantiates this classical viewpoint. I believe a reasonable argument can be made that it doesn’t. I would say that the dynamic Luke describes was present as a generalized phenomenon through the 1940s. Since then we have seen a steady decline in the ability of the working class “to organize itself into mass organizations and provide political leadership” at least here in the USA. I can postulate a direct link between that decline and structural changes in the character of the US working class during this period—the transition away from industrial and toward service or office work as the predominant forms of employment. There are more recent developments in Europe such as France in May-June 1968 or the British coal miners in the 1970s. But even in Europe the trend has, for half a century or at least, been in the opposite direction from the one Luke identifies. 

It can be argued, of course, that none of this is definitive, that the next mass upsurge will once again demonstrates the innate ability of the working class to lead. It would be foolish to rule it out. But I do raise a substantial question, and offer my strong suspicion that things have changed qualitatively since the 1940s from this point of view.  And if my suspicions are correct it stresses the importance of looking to other sectors (in particular oppressed nationalities in the USA) for the leadership we need—not instead of, perhaps, but at least in addition to the working class. 

Luke’s second objection deals with the question of organization:
I don’t look at the Bolsheviks as theoretical inspiration for the party we need. I’d argue we need something more akin to the mass parties built around a program of the 2nd International, in particular, the German SPD. . . . Fierce ideological battles will have to be waged within the mass party. The revolutionary faction will work hard to win over reformist or otherwise nonrevolutionary forces by arguing for the greatest possible democracy (including freedom of criticism and free speech) within the mass party so that all positions can be expressed. 

Let me ask Luke to consider this: If “fierce ideological battles will have to be waged within the mass party” by a “revolutionary faction” (no disagreement from me) then we do not have, in this mass party formation, something that is actually an alternative to a Bolshevik-style organization. What we have is simply an example of a Bolshevik-style organization acting as a revolutionary faction in a broader mass party rather than as a stand-alone formation. The Bolshevik-style organization is still needed. Who else do we think is going to constitute the “revolutionary faction”?  

This is a perfectly reasonable and appropriate form of Bolshevik organization on many occasions. So perhaps Luke and I are not so far apart here. There remains a lot of ground to explore at some point in terms of implications—in particular what potential actually exists for such a mass party to be maintained for any length of time in this state of tension between revolutionary and non-revolutionary forces. But for today I will leave it with the appreciation that the kind of party Luke describes is not an alternative to Bolshevik-style organization. It is simply one potential form through which such an organization might manifest itself. 

There is, however, still a reason for us to focus on “the revolutionary faction” and its role per se which is not captured in the conception Luke offers us. True: one task that this faction has in normal (that is, in non-revolutionary) times is to engage in the process of persuasion he describes. In revolutionary times however—that is at those historical moments when the class struggle itself convinces millions and tens of millions that revolution is needed as described above—it’s suddenly too late for patiently trying to convince individuals in the mass formation who have not yet been convinced. At that moment the time has come to galvanize all who already understand that revolution is needed into a social force (political party) that can solve the key problem Luke astutely poses at the end of his paragraph about the working class: 

Say the working class does cripple society – what next? People will gravitate towards whatever political party can provide law and order. Without an organized political alternative, the same political forces (or the military) will step in to fill the vacuum that power abhors. 

The solution is to have a revolutionary vanguard that is capable of either a) pointing to that “organized political alternative” if it has already been created by the mass movement (like the Soviets in Russia in 1917) while agitating for this specific “organized alternative” to become the new state power or else b) creating the alternative that is needed out of whatever raw material the mass upsurge may have generated. That’s the primary role of a Leninist vanguard formation like the Bolsheviks in revolutionary times. It seems rather unlikely to me that this role can be played by a faction which remains part of a coalition-party with reformist forces. I guess I won’t exclude it theoretically, but it is hard for me to envision how it would work. It seems far more likely that in order to provide the revolutionary leadership that’s needed during a revolutionary crisis such a faction would have to split with the reformist elements of any mass party it might previously have been part of.

More important, however, for our present conversation is this: If the task at the moment a revolutionary crisis erupts is to galvanize such a revolutionary faction as an actual leadership of a potentially revolutionary mass upsurge, then the process of pulling together a formation capable of achieving this cannot wait to start until the moment such a crisis erupts. It has to be engaged—side by side with the task of patiently explaining revolutionary ideas in the context of whatever non-revolutionary mass formations might exist—during those less revolutionary times that precede the kind of social explosion we are talking about. A party which is capable of filling the vacuum of power created by a general strike with a political alternative that actually represents the insurgent mass movement (to prevent the old order from reasserting itself in some form) cannot be successfully constructed in the few weeks or months during which a revolutionary crisis rises, peaks, and then inevitably starts to ebb if it is not victorious. The task of creating such a formation has to begin years, arguably decades, before a revolutionary crisis breaks out.

All of what I present above is also a classical understanding. I invent nothing new in this conception of a Leninist or Bolshevik-type organization and its role. I am, however, identifying a truth more often neglected than acknowledged, sometimes even by otherwise sincere and honest revolutionaries, and with demonstrably tragic consequences in case after case. 

-Steve Bloom

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