With some sadness and with not the least desire to devalue the experiences I have had with comrades, nor to minimize the hard work, nor the consciousness and concience, nor the friendship of many comrades, I am herein announcing and explaining my definitive rejection of Marxism in its current organizational forms, be they called Marxist-Leninist or Trotskyist or Maoist.
This decision comes after months of intense reflection. I will not attempt to separate the personal from the political reasons. My personal life, as a spouse, father, grandfather, friend, and member of local and poltical communities, is my most direct window on the world, and the experience against which I have to measure any political belief or organizational theory. Even moreso, as I now find myself indefinitely caring again for an infant; and thereby bound to the house in the same way as many women, constantly being confronted with the most immediate and practical necessities. The kind of politics that does not take these constraints as the starting point of all politics is what I am now taking under long review.
One of my primary disappointments has been what I consider the failure to take seriously the struggle against patriarchy, and to give it the same weight in our organizing as we do class and national oppression. There have been only token efforts in this regard, and no serious initiative that I have seen to go outside the canon to understand this system. Worse, there has been a reactive embrace of liberal-libertarian “feminism” by many comrades… which I consider to be a sly academic reassertion of male power in the consumer-choice package of “freedom,” undermining the whole analysis of gender as a system. But this is not the crux of the issue for me. Feminism was the gateway to a number of other interrogations of the assumptions of organized Marxism.
My own last association with organized Marxism was with members whose work I greatly admire. In particular, I was attracted to their analysis of national oppression, which remains in advance of most of the US left, and their stated committment to refoundation of a politically efficacious left in the US.
It is this project, refoundation, which carries with it wherever it goes another question, that has preoccupied me for my entire tenure in and out of Marxist formations. The associated question, of course, has been “What happened? Why is there no organized left with the attention and support of broad masses of peope in the US?” What is the nature of this “Crisis of Soicialism”?
The Marxist method (as opposed to doctrine) of interpreting these issues led me to address that latter question with deeper ones still? What do we mean when we say “organized”? Who do we mean when we say “masses”?
In arriving at tentative answers to these questions, I have — almost with a sense of grief — concluded that neither Marxist-Leninist nor “Trotskyist” nor Maoist, nor Guevarist, etc etc etc, organizations are suitable to the task, no matter the quality of the individuals who populate them. The history of these organizations has been, for more than six decades minimum, a string of failures, punctuated by periodic successes only in mass work that was self-organizing outside Marxism to some extent anyway. I have come to believe this is a failure of the structure and of the over-reaching scope of these organizations.
Marx himself began his career preoccupied not with questions of economics, but of human happiness. What he observed was oppression of one by another, and the sense of personal fragmentation — of alienation — that permeated modern society; and he determined that these two things were related.
Since then, the accumulation of historical experience has provided us with both confirmations and rebuttals of the “lessons” of Marx and Engels. A series of thinkers and leaders after them, in the same tradition, elaborated on that connection between social power and personal alienation.
Unfortunately, the struggle to give these intellectual and practical breakthroughs organizational assertion has been one of hostile encircelment — literal and figurative — which gave rise to a bunker mentality.
This bunker mentality led to the transformation of Marx’s analyticial toolbox into a quasi-religious organizing doctrine, and one that was fought out almost like an epoch religious struggle in painful cycles of orthodoxy and reformation, then reformation itself morphing into orthodoxy.
Marxism-Leninism is a term coined by Stalin to establish an imaginary line of predestination (Stalin had his opposition shot as a demonstration of his own ardency on the issue.) from Marx-the-Godhead to himself as a way of mapping his encircled-and-militarized state leadership onto the collective consciousness of Eurasian mass still steeped in the episteme of hierarchical and patriarchal religion, complete with its struggle-to-salvation teleology.
It was this disciplinary regime that inherited and ossified in its own image the notion of a Leninist Party as the last word in political organization, and “democratic centralism” as its organizing principle. It remains to this day the axiomatic faith of Marxism-Leninism and all the other variants.
From the very beginning, however, this principle that worked during the contingencies of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions — both still majority peasant societies (look at Nepal and Haiti today) — was never an organic match to the social conditions nor the prevailing consciousness in the United States. For this reason, I believe, the mismatch between the idea-driven M-L organizations and the lived experience of US society at large has consistently been a history of leadership sects without a solid, organic popular base, especially since the World War II.
Each of these sects then competes with all others for the extremely finite pool of potential recruits. In such a market competition, the competing “sellers” are obliged to explain and emphasize their differences, not their similarities — a point made very clearly by Louis Proyect — and in emphasizing differences over unity, a climate of perennial sectarianism has been created that seems inescapable. This has also created an internal climate in each of these organizations of consolidating members into an ideological conformity… to the point where members ask leadership questions like, “What do we think about this?”
This has further led us to believe that the obstacle to consistent influence — as opposed to temporary and contingent successes, mostly in mass work — has been the “false consciousness” of the masses. My own last affiliation was better than most of the other M-L formations in eschewing the establishment of the One True Revolutionary Party, not hawking sectarian newspapers, and looking self-critically at the left (as evidenced by their collecitve preoccupation with the “crisis of socialism”).
It is not what has been done well by members of these organizations that concerns me; it is the fact that the people who have done well would have done well with or without the organizations. In my own last gourp, there is a very good, very committed, and very non-sectarian impulse that is widely shared by the members. The flaws with which I cannot myself be reconciled are flaws in Marxism-Leninism itself, the orgnizational fetish of democratic centralism, and the unavoidable overreach of any inorganic effort to “build a national organization” on the basis of an alien ideology and political practice. And Marxism-Leninism, as it is presently organized, as well as its Trotskyist cousin, constitutes a structurally alien formation within American culture.
It is the organizing principle of the “Leninist Party” that still carries the day, democratic centralism, and the method inhering in that organizational model, which requires “the line,” which I have come to believe is responsible not merely for a failure of the left to gain a consistent foothold among the broad masses, but which is — more significantly — an illusion that “the left,” as we define it, is the only appropriate vehicle to carry out the transformation of society. This illusion is shared by many elements in what we widely call the left, that “correct ideas lead to correct practice,” yet we have never questioned the whole notion of correctness, with its hubristic assumptions of cookie-cutter universality.
While I observed some formations last year, responding to Katrina, put the brakes on actual relief efforts in the process of trying to develop a line on the response to Katrina, it was impossible not to notice that in the spaces abandoned by patriarchal white supremacist capitalism, the more decentralized efforts of one group’s volunteers managed to move into those abandoned spaces and establish outposts, operating in a very immediate and practical way, and exercising the utmost tactical agility. This was when it occurred to me that the notion of unity at the core of Leninist organizing philosophy is one that is a centralized and imposed unity, and an imposed ideological and practical unity which reaches for a scale that cannot keep pace with social development. It is, then, constantly mismatched with the social reality of the masses these ideational vanguards wish to lead.
And yes, I still believe in vanguards… but that is another topic.
There are things the Hezbollah can teach us that the former Chinese Communist party cannot; and distance and scale set material limitations on the ability of political cadres to simultaneously administer themselves in a singular organization and remain conversant with emergent social and political realities.
The Leninist tradition in organization, whether taking its cue from Trotsky, Stalin, or Mao, is uniformly possessed of this crippling combination of internal comformity, external lack of an organic class-for-itself, the illusion that bigger is better, the market-trap of competing orthodoxies, and the patriarchal attachment to “conquest of nature” dualism.
It is this latter issue which led me — in familiarizing myself to the extent possible — to try and understand the epistmeology, social structure, and psychic realities of gender as a system of men’s social power, and which has contributed to my own decisive break with Leninism. The other area of study that has led me to reject Leninism is that of energy as both a phsycial and social phenomenon. These are connected in my mind, and point directly to the major errors not only of Leninism but within the whole Marxist tradition more generally… and I still consider myself in many respects a Marxist.
The industrial utopia imagined by Marx and touted by Lenin (who even embraced the soul-killing efficiency doctrine of Frederick Winslow Taylor) is not possible in the real world, and less so each day, and it is a Man’s world in any case, a notion based fundmentally on the patriarchal belief in Man-Nature dualism (and the gendered pronoun is not an accident, nor has it ever been neutral). It is the Marxist method of inquiry that exposes the fetishism of the machine — the idea that technology is innocent of the social system that produced it, and that a factory under socialist control works differently than one under capitalist control, even though the spirit-murdering machinery of capitalism remains unchanged. It was Lukacs theses on reification that gave rise to the most radical version of Western feminism, which also called the Man-Nature dualism to account. And these were summarily rejected by the “organized” left.
These are not incidental errors. The theories of socialism that stumbl;ed again and again through the world system of the 20th Century were fundamentally shaped by these basic assumptions, and the rejections of the basic premises necessarily implies at least the dramatic reformulation of the whole theory. Marxism is effective to study one dimension of capital accumulation; and Marxism has provided some valuable interpretive instruments, like fetishization, like reification, like commodification. But as Myles Horton said, Marxism is a good tool box, but a bad blueprint.
The struggle for state power here is chimeric. There is not the slightest chance of any Marxist-Leninist group ever taking state power in the US, or of any movement under the sway of Marxism-Leninism, or Trotskyism, or Maoism, et al. It is a theoretical doctrine that is alien to the American experience: one that has made some of us smarter than the average American, in some sense, but which has no chance — because it is so culturally alien — of ever making us stronger than the mass of US residents who will continue to reject it. It is not organic to our reality; and like a failed organ transplant, it will continually be expelled from this body. This in no way reflects negatively on the people in M-L organizations, who are some of the smartest, most tireless, and dedicated people I have ever known.
There is some “sense” in the recapturing and cumulative strategic principle of mass line, as a way of assessing work within movements. But M-L organizations who employ mass line, and other dotrines, apply them to reified instances like the anti-war movement, which is not a social transformation movement at all, but a very contingent and heterogeneous response to a symptom of the crisis of empire. The role of Marxists in this movement has been mixed. On the one hand, they were quick to do the grunt work required to cohere opposition to the war into some political focus; on the other hand, they brought their competing agendas and lines into the heart of American response against the war… and we cannot know what deletrious effect that had at the end of the day, because we cannot know what might have happened without the great UFPJ-ANSWER struggle. It was, however, without a shadow of a doubt, a sectarian struggle between Marxists. We have employed our doctrines in the context of work with a national scope, in the spoken and unspoken belief that the larger scale work will be determinative of local work, and that this is a sound strategic docrine.
If it is, then I am having difficulty seeing the evidence of it. Top-down strategies do not work. We are not turning our fingers into a unified fist. We are building one-sized beds for a thousand Procrustes.
Every one of the Marxist formations, in accordance with its most teleological assumption — that the working class, once forged in struggle as a class-for-itself — will be the inevitable midwife of socialism ( claim for which there is not yet one shred of supporting evidence), have hewn to a dying trade union movement in the US, and one with its remainder so woven into the military-industrial-security complex as to be almost indistinguishable from it. The Crisis of Socialism can be found here, I believe, in the heart of Marxist doctrine, and not in treasons and deviations and contigent “errors.”
First, our conception of socialism as a blueprint for state power that addresses the questions rasied by dualism and industrialism only after some imagined political victory ignores what we haven’t studied (or have selectively ignored as a “deviation”) from Ivan Illich to Alf Hornborg to Maria Mies. This inherently patriarchal, industrial, state-socialist “theory” is as dead as my great grandfathers. Second, the trade union movement is not the whole working class, and the trade unions in the US have chosen — more often than not — patriarchy and-or white supremacy and-or reactionary nationalism at almost every turn. The exceptions do not disprove the rule. There is a reason for that. An imperial working class has imperial privilege, and their livelihoods are lashed to the survival of a system designed for domination and war. As a friend — Joaquin Bustelo — recently put it:
“I can’t imagine how it is possible to deny that there is not now nor has there been for a very long time a working class movement worthy of the name in the United States (a “class-for-itself” movement). Does anyone disagree? Does someone want to correct me on the half-century long decline in union membership, the decline in the number of strike-days, etc.? Does someone want to let me know about the thousands of Anglo workers who organized their workplaces to walk out last May Day in solidarity with Latino and immigrant protests?
“That white male workers would try to decert their union because they don’t want to be in the same collective as Blacks and Latinos, doesn’t that tell you something? That’s going on right now, TODAY in my area. And things like that have been going on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade for a VERY long time in the United States. (‘Things like that’ = white Anglo male workers identifying their interests with those of their nationality, gender and ruling class instead of with their class. But this isn’t an exclusively white, male thing. You will find varying degrees and sorts of privilege –male privilege, ‘legal’ privilege, ‘citizen’ privilege, age privilege– among women, Blacks, Latinos, and so on, where it also tends to have a corrupting influence but that is a much more complicated discussion.)
“This is not ‘a period of reaction,’ this isn’t ‘the downturn after a defeat,’ nor ‘a lull during a prolonged prosperity,’ nor anything else like that.
“You cannot explain the state of the U.S. working class movement by pointing to economic cycles or things like specific punctual or exceptional circumstances, even ones lasting many years. It wasn’t the post-WWII boom, because that ended three and a half decades ago. It wasn’t the cold war, that’s been dead and buried for a decade and a half. Try to think of the reasons why this situation has come to be… It is time we start reconstructing Marxism to explain the real world, instead of dreaming of catastrophic scenarios that will restore the real world to compliance with our Marxist class-reductionist dogma.”
And to that, I would add that it might be time to reconstruct a politics of resistance that is not Marxist, in the sense that Marx himself said, “I am not a Marxist.” This ande that formation have been ahead of the pack on deconstructing privilege as a material feature of whiteness (far less so masculinity); but as “Marxist” formations, they inevitably return to the default position — sometimes by a circuitous route — of the working class as the key, and democratic centralism as the organizational principle. When we have seen all the other variables tested, and no fundamental change has happened, then it seems time to question the untested variables. But Marxism — the organizational doctrine, not the interpretive method — may well be part of the problem of the Crisis of Socialism. I tend to believe that this is so.
Democratic Centralism has put a series of socialist governments in power; and in almost every case, the restoration of capitalist relations of production (the insturuments of capitalist producion were kept, and even sought out) has been accomplished, or the society has fallen into collapse. The machinations of imperial governments cannot be discounted in this; but that is a real thing, too.
The single exception where the revolution has been effectively defended to any degree has been in Cuba, but Cuba began with smaller scale (ergo, greater social embeddedness, in the Polanyian sense), and Cuba was forced to decentralize and re-localize as a survival strategy. The centralism of DC was forced to give way to the democracy of effort required to re-localize the very basis of Cuban survival and independence; and the successes of Cuba have largely been predicated, since 1990, on implementing deviations from the norms of Marxism-the-doctrine.
My friend goes on to say:
“Building a socialist movement for the 21st Century means starting from the premise, and very palpable reality, that the socialist movement of the second half of 20th Century, viewed as a whole, largely DID NOT WORK. And it especially did not work in the places where Marxist theory says it was SUPPOSED to work, in the advanced capitalist countries with a fully-developed working class that is the big majority of the population.”
Unless and until we face this fact, and ask the critical question, Why?, then refoundation of an effective politics of resistance in the US will never happen. We will simply become more and more politically irrelevant, and grasp every contingent breakthrough, like our important roles (which I recognize) in the antiwar movement, as proof that Marxist (meaning Leninist) organization works, whereupon — with the inevitable waning of that influence as the fissures close — we rely again on the explanations that we are experiencing “periods,” “lulls,” and “downturns.”
The tendency to compartmentalize, to which I myself fall prey, and which is an essential part of the dominant ideology into which we are all trained from birth, combines with the conservatism of institutions that characterizes even very radical political formations. That combination provides us with the excuse that “the ideas are right, but the method, or tactic, is wrong.”
One of the most difficult but important realizations that I am coming to in this process of trial and error is that the ideas and the methods and the tactics are all both determinants and products of each other.
The Marxist doctrinal belief that the working class represents the potentially liberatory force within the primary contradiction — a notion that is, in my view, plain mysticism posing as a “scientific doctrine” — of bourgeois-proletariat, attempts to override the demonstrable fact that patriarchy is an older, deeper, and more durable “contradiction,” that the most turbulent and transformative struggles of the 20th Century, while often under the leadership of Marixists, had a primarily national character, and that they were more often carried out by majority-masses of peasants, not proletarians.
The Marxist history of bourgeois revolutions makes prominent note of the fact that the bourgeoisie gestated its social power outside the “primary class contradiction” of its time — artisocrat and serf. Why do we believe a metropolitan industrial proletariat will — even recognizing its exploited position — rise up against the system upon which it is completely dependent, and from which it takes its very identity? The advantage that a peaseantry had in emerging capitalism was that it was not yet locked into the capitalist unity of opposites. The implications of this fact seem to have been lost on us.
The last thing a metropolitan industrial working class is going to do is embrace a project that threatens the only stability it knows. Boeing workers are not going to oppose the military-industrial complex. Prison guards are not going to oppose prisons. Agri-business workers are not going to oppose processed foods. Auto workers are not going to oppose cars.
Our experience is that this class in the US, with occasional exceptions, fights for its privileges within that class — male, national, and white. Moreover, the collapse of the current system faces this working class with catastrophe, beginning with the fact that it is thoroughly dependent on military spending to hold back that catastrophe. I can only conclude that an imperial working class is not and never will be the midwife of anything except reaction.
It is only possible, then, in my view for now, at least — and I am enthusiastic about saying I could be wrong — to effect the basis for any genuine and sustainable resistance movement in the United States by first attending to the question of local community independence, beginning with the material basics: food security, water security, energy security, acess to learning, and a health infrastructure.
We have mostly ignored the laboratories for exactly these things, calling the “utopian,” i.e., intentional communities; and we have looked on locally organized efforts to impact local politics as somehow less developed than we are… when these formations are often well advanced of anything being done by the M-L and Trotskyist left. They don’t need a line. Their practice is always responding to things immediate and concrete; and their leadership, though this practice, is very very smart, in very very practical ways.
World systems theory has gained an element of acceptance within Marxism, but only to a degree that doesn’t contradict the canon. But there are other theorists, Hornborg stands out on the issue of unequal exchange and Carole Pateman on the flaws in “labor power” as a concept, who have taken siginficant steps toward overcoming all that is normative in Marxism, and incorporated the best and most universal values of Marxism into theories that are far more adequate accounts of imperialism and gender than anything still residing within the canon of the M-L and Trotskyist left.
One of the reasons we have had such difficulty keeping up with these genuine breakthroughs has been our sectarian insularity — a feature of our organizations even when we struggle against it, as several aborted attempts at “integration” should be telling us. We recruit, then we push through an educational program to consolidate new membership around the line, relying on our own group-by-group canon, and our respective exigeses of dead revolutionaries in the Marxist pantheon.
Not only have we not incorporated the laws of physics (energy) into our world view, we have not incorporated any of the discoveries that have permanently altered the science known by Marx and Lenin, except to elaborate on their Cartesian dualism. Ivan Illich wrote in 1973 (in typical sexist fashion, but accurately aside from that):
“If a ruler could draw power from sources other than men, his control over this power still depended on his control over men… Political control coincided with control over physical power, and the control of power depended entirely on authority. Equal power and equal direct control of power [generated by individual bodies] were both features of preindustrial societies, but this did not guarantee an equal autonomy in the exercise of this control.”
This was the beginning of a comprehensive critique of industrialism, and one which Carolyn Merchant and Alf Hornborg and others have elaborated on at length. The implications of the incorporation of energetics, and chaos theory, and of the patriarchy in the very DNA of the myth of “scientific objectivity,” are not add-ons to Marxism that will leave its basic structure unaltered. The produce a comprehensive change in how we understand the world… and if we are in a DC organization, that means we reject it.
Hornborgs’ thermodynamic analysis of unequal exchange (in understanding imperialism in a mesaurable, non-normative way) yields dozens of new insights into the dynamic of imperialism that address apects of the world system that Lenin and Hilferding never touched. And the reason Marxism has been so far unable to accommodate these new insights has been a kind of reactive reluctance to hear anything that might suggest that Marxist organization (and therefore practice), and the class-reductionism that has been carried forward for 150 years, no longer match reality.
By and large, we remain trapped in the development paradigm, which still fails to grasp energy physics as the zero-sum game that it is, and establishes goals that would leave the masses at the mercy of machines and bureaucrats. This has not only led us to remain insular; it continually leads us into competition for people and resources with more organic efforts that have more traction and relevance than the projects flowing out of our DC process, making a fetish of collectivity, and stifling individual initiative and the creativity that goes with it.
Any revolutionary movement that has a prayer of taking hold in the US must be organic, that is, self-organizing… and consist of small and many independent, but networked, practical efforts. The larger any organization is, in personnel or in scope or in geography, the more the institutional tail begins to wag the mission dog. This is no longer pop science. With increased scale, the tooth-to-tail, operations-to-adminstration/management ratio of any organization shifts correspondingly. Larger scale, smaller ration of energy invested in operations, higher into management. The average human is only bio-psychologically equipped to handle around 150 relationships in the absence of administration (Dunbar’s number), and a bunch of those people are already family and friends. But has the left even studied this cross-disciplinary discovery? No. We just say we have to struggle against bureaucratism without ever trying to identify its origins. If it hasn’t been mentioned by the pantheon, we don’t know it. And if it doesn’t extend directly from the pantheon, we reject it.
Again, this is not a moral or intellectual failure. It is, I believe, a failure that is hard-wired into the organizations’ structural-practical dialectic, into Marxism-as-a-doctrine.
It is my opinion, at least at this point in time, that leftist organization in this disciplinary cadre model is not only incapable of bringing the refoundation of an effective politics of resistance into being, it stands as a real impediment to any refoundation process for a wide-scale politics of resistance.