“Give us an organization of revolutionaries, and we will overturn Russia!” V.I. Lenin
The US left suffers from two maladies that persistently thwart any effort to move beyond the malaise of internet negativity and the false activism of online petitions. Setting aside those still desperately clinging to the Democratic Party womb, well-intentioned and serious radicals, young and old, have yet to draw the lessons necessary to unify and focus the seemingly limitless committees, coalitions, and centers that constitute our dysfunctional left.
Most damaging is the mindless and groundless faith in spontaneity. Far too many of our brothers and sisters believe that political action, organization, and change will come the way it does in Hollywood horror movies. The people will emerge from their homes, recognize the danger, and rally to confront the alien threat. Danger combines with self-interest to generate a spontaneous common resistance and a common response. While it makes for entertaining fiction, it seldom if ever happens in real life.
The Occupy movement was the latest iteration of this faith. Life proved that the notion of spontaneous organization and governance would end, leaving barely a trace of its prior existence. Decades before Occupy, the so-called New Left cast its fate to spontaneity. Programs, parties, agendas, etc. were eschewed; the “Movement” would find its own way. Oracles of that flawed thinking have gone on to their life's work as professors, professionals, and Democratic Party operatives.
In the rear-view mirror of bourgeois historians, political movements are depicted as spontaneous risings-- a kind of spontaneous combustion sparked by a particularly hostile affront or violent act. The US colonial rebellion against the British was “sparked” by the Boston Tea Party or the confrontations at Lexington and Concord, never mind the years of debate, struggle, and planning by the Sons of Liberty and other evolving organizations of resistance. Similarly, popular history poses the Civil Rights Movement as a burst of activism ignited by Rosa Parks' courage and channeled by police dogs and fire hoses. The decades of organized and planned resistance that prepared for this moment are largely ignored.
Faith in spontaneous struggle, trust in an instinctive, automatic confrontation with power, spawns inaction. If the oppressed and exploited will unerringly marshal resistance, there is no need to organize and agitate among them; they will find their way without the uninvited help of organizers and agitators. Professional revolutionaries need not apply. They must simply add their bodies to the “movement” when the magic moment arises.
A logical conclusion of the faith in spontaneity is the dangerous and destructive notion that “the worse things get, the better.” When enough pain is felt, the masses will rise; until then we meet in our diverse and numerous causes, sending checks, signing petitions and reassuring each other that something big will undoubtedly erupt.
Among Marxists, the cult of spontaneity takes the form of what V. I. Lenin called “economism.” By acknowledging only the objective conditions, the unseen operations of the laws of capitalist development, the tendency for capitalism towards crisis and the “immiseration of the proletariat,” these “Marxists” see no role for agitation and organization; they see no need for a party of revolutionaries. Instead, they count on the grinding inevitability of crude determinism.
Marxists (and trade union leaders) who fall into the trap of “economism” invariably bury the Marxist principle of class struggle in the day-to-day administration of trade unionism. In writing about the Marxist “economists” of his time, Lenin charged that they “demoralized the socialist consciousness by vulgarizing Marxism, by advocating the theory of the blunting of social contradictions, by declaring the idea of the social revolution... to be absurd, by reducing the working class movement and the class struggle to narrow trade-unionism and to a 'realistic' struggle for petty, gradual reforms. This was synonymous with bourgeois democracy's denial of socialism's right to independence and, consequently, of its right to existence; in practice it meant a striving to convert the... working class movement into an appendage of the liberals.” (What Is To Be Done?)
Faith in spontaneity diminishes politics. Neither the vulgar belief that collective pain will birth action nor the “sophisticated” and distorted Marxist claim that objective laws will inexorably bring change stands the test of history. Agency-- the planned, concerted, and collective effort of organized groups-- make history.
“If only we had a Lenin, Martin Luther King, Ralph Nader, etc., etc....”
A different, but closely related malady retards political action on the US left: the Knight in Shining Armor syndrome. Like spontaneity, it postpones action until something unknown and unpredictable happens; it replaces planned, concerted action with faith.
Many on the left are frozen with inaction while waiting for the next great emancipator or political super-star. This variant of celebrity worship is nurtured by the all-too-common brief appearance of prominent figures on the political stage while leaving no lasting movement or organization in their wake.
The Jesse Jackson Democratic primary campaigns of 1984 and 1988 are cases in point. Jackson offered the most progressive Democratic Party platform since the New Deal. In the first primary battle, he captured nearly 20% of the popular vote. In 1988, he ran again, establishing himself as the front runner after handily winning the important Michigan primary and finished by more than doubling his previous vote total and securing 11 states.
And then he was gone, disappearing from Democratic Party politics, leaving neither a movement nor a political impact on the Party's destiny. By 1992, the Party had moved permanently rightward to embrace right-centrist, Bill Clinton. And twenty-five years later, the progressive wing of the Party waits hopefully and patiently for another celebrity arriving fully armored and on a powerful steed!
Similarly, the Nader Presidential campaigns brought great interest to the Green Party. But the ever-earnest Ralph Nader had little interest in party-building. Though serious, he walked away, leaving others to attempt to construct an on-going political party from the good will left from his runs. Fortunately, the Green Party's latest candidate, Jill Stein, has a more developed understanding of political theory. What she lacks in celebrity status, she more than makes up for with organizational savvy and historical perspective. Her innovative, clever development of the “shadow” cabinet concept is particularly impressive.
But it's not solely the fault of Jackson and Nader--two well-meaning candidates-- that these celebrity campaigns were comet-like. Rather, it is the naïveté of the left that failed to see beyond the immediacy of these political events, that felt no urgency to subordinate an unrealistic chance to actually win to the necessity of leaving something permanent upon which to build.
Behind the Knight in Shining Armor syndrome stands the Great Man (or Woman) theory of history: great events are the work of great personalities. For example, the Pharaohs built the Great Pyramids (All by themselves? to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht). The masses are merely the obliging instruments of superior minds and talented leaders. Lenin refers to this thinking as in the “Ilovaisky manner,” referring to the author of many Russian textbooks who saw Russian history solely as the work of czars and generals.
The political expression of this in Lenin's Russia came from the Norodniks who saw themselves as the saviors of the peasants. Middle class intellectuals impressed with their own superior abilities, the Norodniks “colonized” peasant society in order to surgically implant the great leaders they felt the peasantry lacked. In the words of Soviet writer V.P. Filatov, they believed “that only 'heroes' made history” and that they could turn “the mob into the people.”
Adding the 'Conscious Element'
Lenin's writings demonstrate that there is nothing new or unique in the false ideology of spontaneity. Further, we can learn from Lenin's conclusion: “[A]ll worship of the spontaneity of the working class movement, all belittling of the role of 'the conscious element',... means quite independently of whether he who belittles that role desires it or not, a strengthening of the influence of bourgeois ideology upon the workers...” (What is to be Done?) In other words, only attention to the “conscious element” can advance our cause beyond the false path of spontaneity.
But what does Lenin mean by the “conscious element”?
Going forward depends upon a correct assessment of what constrains our progress. It requires a consciousness of the ideas essential to successfully challenge power. It requires an ideology. Moreover, that ideology must be radically different from the ideology of the forces resisting change. Nor can it compromise with the enemy ideology. Thus, it is a revolutionary consciousness.
But revolutionary consciousness must be converted into mass revolutionary consciousness. For that we need an organization. Because its mission is to take the ideology of revolutionary change to those both most in need of it and most able to use it, that organization counts as a vanguard. It is the idea of a vanguard that allows us to advance beyond the illusion of spontaneity.
Opponents of Leninism charge the idea of a vanguard with elitism, the idea that a select group of revolutionaries knows better than the masses. It is nothing of the sort. Rather, a vanguard is the transmission belt for ideas that will not and cannot arise spontaneously within the working class or broader movement.
In our time, the ideology of resistance is decidedly and necessarily anti-capitalist. But that is not enough. A revolutionary ideology must offer an alternative to capitalism, an alternative that is neither cosmetic nor fanciful. That alternative is socialism.
Popular illusions abound: regulation can wean corporations from rapacious accumulation and dominance; small-scale “social” enterprises and cooperatives can erode the unprecedented political and economic power of monopoly enterprises. Such ideas fall far short of ideological credibility. Only socialism—the elimination of the process of private accumulation through labor exploitation-- reaches that credibility.
And who is to deliver the message of socialism; i.e., who is to serve as missionary for the revolutionary ideology?
The answer is as it was in Lenin's time: An organization dedicated to that task above all else; an organization not encumbered by the fetish of bourgeois elections; a party of revolutionaries; a Communist Party.