Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Revolutionary organisation and the 'labor-radical subculture'

There's an exchange on 'revolutionary organization today' from 2008, featured on John Riddell's excellent blog, that I find very illuminating.

The starting point is a piece by Paul Le Blanc. John Riddell then responds to a number of issues raised in it, followed by Le Blanc's reply to Riddell, and finally there are shorter comments from a range of other socialists.

Paul Le Blanc has written or edited a number of books about the marxist tradition, including 'Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience'. Once a member of the US Socialist Workers Party (unrelated to its British namesake), he joined the US-based International Socialists Organization in 2009. John Riddell, the world's leading historian of the Comintern, is based in Canada and edited the six-volume anthology 'The Communist International in Lenin's Time'. 

The whole exchange is worth reading. It is a model of constructive dialogue on the revolutionary left, with the discussion enabling a richer understanding than the original article (admittedly first-rate) can provide on its own.

One of the central issues raised by Paul Le Blanc in his article is the relationship between revolutionary socialist organisation and what he calls a 'broad labor-radical subculture'. He considers how this subculture relates to class consciousness, how it has evolved historically (especially in the US), how revolutionary organisations have sought to relate to it, and current difficulties concerning this.

It is a cluster of issues that goes to the heart of any serious thinking about prospects for building revolutionary socialist organisation - not just in the US but elsewhere - today.

What I've done here is to extract the relevant section (on revolutionaries and the 'labor-radical subculture') from the article, then followed it with the relevant parts of Riddell's reply and of Le Blanc's subsequent rejoinder. Basically, I think John Riddell's comments are correct and worth exploring in greater depth, but all in all it's a very useful exchange.

From Paul Le Blanc's article:

First of all, there is a profound difference between “the Leninism of Lenin” and the immediate possibilities that we face in a context that is, in some ways, qualitatively different from his. To transpose the texts that come from Lenin and his time into our very different reality can lead to serious political confusion.

Lenin’s Bolsheviks came into being within a very specific context. They were part of a broad global working-class formation, part of a developing labor movement, and part of an evolving labor-radical subculture. To try to duplicate Lenin’s party today, outside of such a context, will create something that cannot function as the Bolsheviks functioned in Russia, nor can it function in the way the early U.S. Communists functioned in the 1920s or in the 1930s.

The existence of a class-conscious layer of the working class is a necessary precondition for creating a genuinely revolutionary party. Workers’ class consciousness — that involves more than whatever notions happen to be in the minds of various members of the working class at any particular moment. It involves an understanding of the insight that was contained in the preamble of the American Federation of Labor from 1886 to 1955:

“A struggle is going on in all the nations of the civilized world, between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between the capitalist and the laborer, which grows in intensity from year to year, and will work disastrous results to the toiling millions, if they are not combined for mutual protection and benefit.”

Not all workers have absorbed this insight into their consciousness, but those who have done so can be said to have at least an elementary class consciousness.

Such consciousness does not exist automatically in one’s brain simply because we happen to sell our labor-power (our ability to work) for wages or a salary. But in the United States, from the period spanning the end of the Civil War in 1865 down through the Depression decade of the 1930s, a vibrant working-class subculture had developed throughout much of the United States.

Often this “subculture” was more like a network of subcultures having very distinctive ethnic attributes, but these different ethnic currents were at various times connected by left-wing political structures (such as the old Knights of Labor, Socialist Party, IWW, Communist Party, etc.) and also, to an extent, by trade union frameworks. Within this context flourished the class-consciousness that is essential to the creation of a revolutionary party.

Those who founded the Trotskyist movement in the United States (which sought to build a revolutionary Marxist party — the Socialist Workers Party, the SWP) were a product of this radical workers’ subculture. And they sought to make their own revolutionary contributions to it, and to help it become a revolutionary socialist force capable of transforming society.

After 1945, there was a dramatic break in the continuity of this labor-radical tradition due to the realities that resulted from the Second World War, and the transformation of the social, economic, political, and cultural realities in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Essential specifics of workers’ occupations and workday experience underwent fundamental changes.

The organizations associated with the labor movement were similarly transformed — impacted by a complex combination of assaults, co-optations, corruptions, and erosions. The communities, culture, and consciousness of the working class became so different from the mid-1940s to the 1960s that only faded shreds of the old labor-radical subculture remained.

It is not the case that the working class was eliminated. The working class is bigger than ever. But there has been a combined decomposition and recomposition of the working class, and the old labor-radical subculture is long gone. It, too, needs to be recomposed, and within a very different reality than once existed.

Because of this, there was a significant disconnect between the actual working class and the organized Left (including the SWP) that sought to represent the best interests of that class. This had grave implications. Back in the 1950s, after decades of Leninist and Trotskyist experience in the United States, James P. Cannon commented:

“The conscious socialists should act as a ‘leaven’ in the instinctive and spontaneous movement of the working class. … The leaven can help the dough to rise and eventually become a loaf of bread, but it can never be a loaf of bread itself. … Every tendency, direct or indirect, of a small revolutionary party to construct a world of its own, outside and apart from the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, is sectarian.”

The experience of many activists influenced by Lenin from the 1950s down to the present demonstrates that efforts to create Leninist parties all-too-often degenerate into the construction of sects, with well-meaning activists penned up in a world of their own, separate and apart from the working class.

My generation of young 1960s and 1970s activists can hardly be said to have started out in a sectarian mode. We helped to fundamentally change the political, social, and cultural landscape of the United States.

But we saw the real social struggles of our time as involving opposition to such things as racism and poverty and war and sexism, but definitely not as the central expression of an organized labor movement. The unions had had become highly bureaucratized and relatively conservative, largely inclined to hold back from — or even oppose — the radicalization and social struggles of the time.

Little of this had changed when — as our experiences and growing awareness further radicalized us — many of us went in a Marxist direction. Although the writings of Lenin, Trotsky, and Cannon were avidly read, discussed, and internalized by young SWP activists such as myself, the context in which the revolutionary “teachers” from earlier decades had lived and the context in which the avid students of the 1960s lived were qualitatively different.

The relationship of the new radicals to the rest of the working class, not to mention the culture and consciousness of both the actual proletariat and its would-be “vanguard” in the 1970s, were far different from what was true in the early 1900s or the 1930s.

A failure to comprehend the meaning of this ruptured continuity contributed to the rise of a fatal disorientation that accelerated within the SWP as the 1970s flowed into the 1980s, culminating in fragmentation and implosion. This happened especially as we sought to — once again — fuse socialism with the working class. This did not come naturally to my generation, and many of us really didn’t know how to do it (though we were afraid to admit that).

This failure, however, more or less afflicted all Marxist-oriented organizations in the U.S. from the late 1970s through the late 1980s. Ironically, this occurred as influences from the 1960s radicalization permeated much of the U.S. population, and as negative impacts from the early manifestations of “globalization” created remarkable new openings for left-wing developments within the working class.

At the same time, much of the basis for the organized power of the working class — in the highly-unionized industries — was wiped out with the so-called “de-industrialization” of the U.S. economy. The labor movement’s ability to mount effective struggles went into sharp decline.

From John Riddell's response:

You talk of the lack of a broad labor-radical subculture. However, if I may take Toronto as an example, there is such a subculture. In terms of activism, it includes thousands of people. That’s not a mass base; it is a lot fewer now than during some periods in the last half-century, but in some ways this subculture is more advanced.

It is now largely free of the influence of Stalinism, which was so dominant in the past, and Social Democracy is much less influential. It is not marked by the ultraleftism so prominent in the sixties; its political activities are broadly speaking on the mark. Also, this subculture has links to a broader constituency: for example, the 50-odd Islamic anti-Imperialists whom we meet fairly frequently can on occasion mobilize thousands, and so on in other sectors.

Moreover, this subculture is not limited geographically. It extends out internationally into several continents, and all that tumult of world class struggle gets drawn into our little city.

In my experience, today’s revolutionary socialist groups have a conflictual relationship with this subculture. Each revolutionary group identifies its own organization with the historic interest of the working class and prioritizes its organizational purposes over the needs of the broader movement. This is widely perceived by activists and strongly resented. In addition, most revolutionary groups prioritize an orientation to the “masses” as against collaboration with activists.

You say that attempts to build a “nucleus of the revolutionary party” turn in a sectarian direction because of the lack of a context of a radical subculture. Yes, but there is more to it than that. The revolutionary groups attempt to follow a fixed model of Bolshevik organization, regardless of their stage of development. This inflexibility in organizational conceptions is actually the opposite of the Bolshevik approach.

In addition, each revolutionary group today has a body of doctrine going back a century, which provides a predetermined answer to every major question, plus an apostolic succession of guiding theorists whose views cannot be challenged. The group’s politics are fixed and inflexible. The Bolsheviks, by contrast, had less fixed doctrine. In Lenin’s time, there were repeated sharp shifts in their politics in reaction to changed conditions and the lessons of experience.

From Paul Le Blanc's subsequent response:

One fact that may not have been expressed clearly in what I have been writing is that I know the United States, and function in the United States, and my points regarding the lack of the labor-radical sub-culture that stretched at least from the Civil War to World War II is focused on the United States.

I don’t assume that what I describe in the U.S. is global. It seems to me that the opposite is true — though I suspect there may be some element of relevance in at least some other countries. I would love to come to Toronto (I was there only once, and fleetingly) and see more of Canada as well. I don’t doubt at all what you say about the existence of some such sub-culture existing there, and I imagine there would be much for me to learn.

For that matter, I do think that there are elements for the recomposition of such a sub-culture in my own country. I believe a recomposition process is already underway, although it seems to me it has a ways to go before it crystallizes on a sufficiently mass scale and with sufficient clarity of consciousness within certain segments of the working class here.

You write:

“Revolutionary socialist groups have a conflictual relationship with this subculture. Each revolutionary group identifies its own organization with the historic interest of the working class and prioritizes its organizational purposes over the needs of the broader movement. This is widely perceived and strongly resented. In addition, most revolutionary groups prioritize an orientation to the “masses” as against collaboration with activists.”

That seems to me extremely problematical. Unfortunately, within the U.S. there is all too much of that as well. It seems to me that we might have different takes on certain details and specifics — I don’t know — but what you describe in general terms seems consistent with my own point of view.



  1. Thanks for picking up on my exchange with Paul Le Blanc, which I agree covers some important ground. But that is from 2008, and a lot has happened since then.

    In Toronto, forces in the left have come together in the Workers' Assembly, an inclusive and non-sectarian formation with a few hundred members. The International Socialists play a constructive role here.

    More important, Quebec Solidaire has continued to develop and is now a significant political force. Counterfire should consider writing on this. Easy to do -- just ask me for pointers.

    And we have the Occupy movement in the U.S. This movement, at its peak, had many characteristics of a political party and was certainly a wonderfully effective tool in bringing together disparate working-class currents.

    I hope there will be an occasion to re-engage the discussion soon.

    John Riddell

  2. Thanks for that update, John. I admit to knowing very little about developments on the Canadian left. The initiatives in Toronto and in relation to Quebec Solidaire - which appears to be a rare case of a plural radical-left electoral formation that is generally going well - sound extremely positive.

    In relation to the 2008 exchange, it sounds like these validate the idea that a milieu does exist for revolutionaries to relate to, connect with and build out of (at least in Canada - and my feeling is it's similar elsewhere, including here in the UK).

    Occupy has been a great inspiration - I think the key question now is what sustainable coalitions or organisations can be built out of it. I am concerned that the existing numerical weakness of the organised left means it has inevitably been marginal to the Occupy movement, and this could greatly weaken the chances of it being a basis for left renewal. Let's see.

    If you can email me about following up Quebec Solidaire - - that would be useful. Thanks.