We can dream, or we can organize

The swift rise, and swift crumbling, of the Occupy movement brings to the surface the question of organization. Demonstrating our anger, and doing so with thousands of others in the streets, gives us energy and brings issues to wider audiences.

Yes spontaneity, as necessary as it is, is far from sufficient in itself. For all the weeks and sometimes months that Occupy encampments lasted, little in the way of lasting organization was created and thus a correspondingly little ability to bring about any of the changes hoped for. Nor is social media a substitute for mass action.

Organization, specifically a party, is the missing element, Jodi Dean argues in her latest book, Crowds and Party.* Leftists who want to create a better world have to get past their criticisms of the party form, and not become trapped in their own self-critique or allow critiques of specific parties to become a universal rejection of the party form. The party is a permanent body that can channel the crowd’s promise of justice into organized political struggle, she argues.

Crowds and Party coverWith a sustained, organized movement, real change is not possible. How then to sustain the enthusiasm of a spontaneous “crowd,” such as Occupy? Through a more structured form capable of organizing activists toward concrete goals worked out through mutual discussion, distilling practice and experience, and providing the necessary scale. The ideology of individual autonomy is a product of capitalist ideology; a Left that promotes individualism is a Left that is reinforcing capitalist ideology.

Professor Dean argues that to do so is to accept markets and the capitalist state as a given; focusing on individuals is a substitute for focusing on necessary revolutionary transformation. She writes:

“The realism in which the Left has been immersed in the neoliberal decades has meant that even when we are fully conscious of the deep inequality of the system in which we find ourselves, we confirm and conform to the dominant ideology: turn inward, enclave, emphasize the singular and momentary. … [W]e found ourselves participating in individuated, localized, or communicatively mediated activities without momentum, duration, or a capacity for political memory. Or we presume that we have to focus on ourselves and thereby redirect political struggle back into ourselves. In a brutal, competitive, and atomized society, psychic well-being is so difficult that success on this front can seem like a significant accomplishment. Trying to do it themselves, people are immiserated and proletarianized and confront this immiseration and proletarianization alone.” [pages 71-72]

The ‘beautiful moment’ is a start, not a culmination

What Professor Dean calls the “politics of the beautiful moment” represents a beginning, not an end. By this “beautiful moment,” she refers to a spontaneous outburst of popular action, such as Occupy, and the tendency among some to see such spontaneity as an end in itself. The “crowd,” as she terms this spontaneity, provides an opportunity for an emergence but the party is the form for meeting the challenge of maintaining the fidelity of an event. Those who mistake an opening for the end,

“treat organization, administration, and legislation as a failure of revolution, a return of impermissible domination and hierarchy rather than as effects and arrangements of power, rather than as attributes of the success of a political intervention. The politics of the beautiful moment is no politics at all. Politics combines the opening with direction, with the insertion of the crowd disruption into a sequence or process that pushes one way or another. There is no politics until a meaning is announced and the struggle over this meaning begins.” [page 125]

The imposition of the popular will over the National Guard at the dawn of the Paris Commune is an example of a “crowd event,” Professor Dean argues, but this event did not create the Commune — the Commune was pre-figured by earlier attempts. The overlap of the Commune form and the “crowd event” created the space for emancipatory egalitarian politics. Similarly today, the crowd is not an alternative political arrangement, it is an opening for a process.

Without targeting the capitalist class, there can be no end to exploitation. Movements inevitably run up against state power — how can a movement sustain itself in the face of repression? An unorganized movement can’t, and indeed Occupy withered once the Obama administration, the federal security apparatus and local police forces combined to suppress it.

Or, to put it another way, you can ignore the state all you want, but the state will not ignore you.

Centralization and hierarchy have been problems in Left parties of the past, but this is nothing unique to the Left; all political organizing runs this risk. Political organization unavoidably creates a gap between the few and the many, and organizing means creating differentiation, but, Professor Dean argues, this gap need not be permanent nor with set divisions. This gap is also a social space where the crowd’s association creates space for an alternative perspective to arise. The effects that arise when large numbers of people organize can’t be avoided and to believe otherwise is to indulge in “the fantasy of the beautiful moment.”

Opponents of parties and formal organization are incorrect in charging that workers were excluded from Left parties and that the leaders of those parties believed that an intellectual vanguard held all knowledge. This is a misreading, Professor Dean writes:

“Lenin’s point is that political consciousness comes from outside the economic struggle, not [outside] the class struggle. The economic struggle takes place between particular interests within the field of capital. The terms of the struggle are set by capitalism. The political struggle—for communists—is over the field itself. When ‘we’ is used as the designator for the subject of a politics it asserts more than a collective will. It announces a will to collectivity, a will to fight together on terms that challenge rather than accept the given. Class consciousness is not spontaneous. As [Slavoj] Žižek emphasizes, what is spontaneous is misperception—the perception that one is alone or that one’s circumstances are unique. The political ‘we’ of the party ruptures this immediate consciousness to assert a collective one in its place.” [pages 198-199]

No going forward if we erase the past

Anti-party critics seek to have nobody hold political knowledge, the author charges, and that is a serious failing: Erasure of the past is renouncing revolutionary power. The collective space of struggle creates the conditions for new perspectives to arise, and the party establishes this space.

Professor Dean, in the last two chapters, provides several inspiring examples of communist activists finding power in their collectivity. The young Jewish woman who finds the courage to stand up to her tyrannical father because she feels the power of her party comrades behind her; the impoverished Black laborer who enters the Communist Party illiterate because of his poor schooling yet becomes a strong organizer and eventually writes a book; the organizers who do far more than they ever thought possible and continue to push themselves forward. When a new recruit had to have basic concepts explained to him, he wasn’t ridiculed or made to feel inferior; instead, the more experienced took the time to patiently explain in detail.

There is no transformation without organization, the author argues:

“To reduce the Party to its excesses fails to recognize its indispensable capacity to generate practical optimism and collective strength. Such a reduction likewise reduces the world, contracting possibility into what can be done instead of forcing the impossibility of what must be done. … The party continues the moment of belonging, intensifying and expanding it in solidarity purpose.” [pages 247-248]

Here, however, the author could have strengthened her argument with a discussion of those excesses. Communist parties did have weaknesses (as all parties do). She touches on some of this, briefly, in the introduction, pointing out that the authoritarianism of Left parties in the East, the surrender to capitalist assumptions of Left parties in the West, and the failure of Left parties to incorporate identity politics as reasons for so many turning their backs on the party form.

Why was this? One reason was the imbalance between theory and practice; practice with too little theory behind it leads to practice that spins its wheels in place. For all the good that the British and U.S. communist parties achieved in the lives of people it reached, particularly in the 1930s, that activity did not lead to an ability to grow beyond small followings. The extreme policy zigzags of alternately denouncing all other organizations with tailing those groups previously denounced, and embarrassing episodes such as Lysenkoism, demonstrated not only fatal over-centralization but an organization in which theory had disastrously fossilized into incontestable dogma.

Parallel to this is the concept of the single party: Why can’t there be multiple organizations working toward a goal of full human emancipation? No organization, much less an individual leader, has all the answers. Regardless of how we see this question, however, there is no escaping that organization and learning from the past are critical to sustaining any movement that purports to bring a better world into being. The answer is to learn from past mistakes, not to throw out the past. “To advance, we need to organize,” Crowds and Party correctly concludes. “We need a party for the people in the crowd.”

The title Crowds and Party is carefully chosen. Professor Dean has linked these two, and given us a powerful defense of organization, of demonstrating that only as part of collectives, rather than as individuals, can we hope to overcome the mounting horrors that capitalism unleashes on the world.

* Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party [Verso, London 2016]

45 comments on “We can dream, or we can organize

  1. wideangle1 says:

    Read part of this. Very interesting. The reason I left Occupy was that it didn’t really take hold in the suburbs.

    • Occupy did take root in hundreds of places across North America, and many encampments were in small, rural towns. But otherwise in cities. Perhaps that is because that is where street movements take place, not in suburbs. Had it been given time, perhaps we would have seen Occupy spread to suburban towns, but that is unknowable.

  2. Sally G says:

    I also read part of this, and agree that it did spread to many locations, urban, suburban, rural, all in different forms (and some with names like De-Occupy, particularly in locations with largely indigenous populations: Albuquerque and Vancouver spring to mind). What bothered me is the assumption—and maybe I am misreading—is that without the camps, Occupy was and is meaningless and “over”. I am still organizing with various individuals and organizations I met through Occupy, as are many others I know. Sometimes I use the name Occupy, othertimes I am working under another umbrella, or alone–to me, that is irrelevant, what matters more is that our goals are being advanced, that we are working toward the better world that Occupy proclaims is possible.

    • There was no intention on my part to suggest Occupy was “meaningless,” and I was at the Occupy Wall Street encampment nearly every day myself. I am also aware that there are groups that formed as part of Occupy and continue to do good work — for example, the Alternative Banking committee.

      But, as a movement, it was based on occupying public space and when the state moved to take away that space, Occupy faded and ceased to be the significant factor that it had been. So it did fail to cohere as a sustained movement, and we ought to be honest in assessing why that came to be.

  3. newtonfinn says:

    I don’t believe that we can organize to take down global capitalism. We can, however, organize locally and regionally to survive global capitalism’s inevitable collapse. Our efforts should be focused on creating alternative communities and networks to produce and distribute essential goods and services by methods compatible with the environment and the human spirit. The necessary movement right now is from the ephemeral to the concrete, from the philosophical to the physical.

    Arguably, the most revolutionary action being taken today is community-building focused on local food production, a phenomenon that includes both “back to the land” and urban agriculture movements.Similar community-based initiatives must address other fundamentals of survival–water, shelter, clothing, education, medicine, security, etc. Thus, in the words of ancient wisdom, will the meek be able to inherit the earth.

    • Newton, I fully support all the initiatives you mentioned, and I agree these are the types of activities in which more people need to be participating. People seeing successful examples of cooperatives and other ways of living that work, and are more humane than capitalist institutions, are crucial if we are ever to overcome that tired mantra of “there is no alternative.”

      But you can ignore the state all you want; the state will not ignore you. Capitalist governments ruthlessly suppress challenges, and without organization the alternative structures you envision will have difficulty surviving. And as long as cooperatives are tied to capitalist markets, they will not be able to avoid the ills of capitalist competition.

      We really have no alternative to transcending capitalism. And it can be overturned — nothing of human creation is permanent. Community-based, local initiatives focused on food and other basic human needs are part of the answer to how we accomplish that, but only a part. We ignore the gigantic structures and forces that hold the world capitalist system in place at our mutual peril.

  4. I always saw Occupy as the opening of a movie, the 1st Act, one which was electrifying, beautiful and dynamic. I expected that the Act 2 would take years in developing…and perhaps this is what is being played out in our 2016 elections and the various movements that have sprung from Occupy–public banking, cooperatives, farming by a younger generation, money out of politics etc.
    I resolved to get involved in the local Green Party but I did not have the strength to attend so many meetings and the personality conflicts. Maybe this is part and parcel of any new group but I could not handle it. However, I see your point about being part of a political party. Although, I am not working to establish the party in our city, I will vote for Jill Stein in the 2016 elections.

    • Greetings, Nelson. I like your concept of a “second act” still in development — activities arising from Occupy will continue, and we should not lose sight of the fact that Occupy put class and inequality back in the picture. The concept of the 1% vs. the 99% was a masterstroke.

      Being in a party can be difficult; I have my own history with the Green Party, having left it after three years of intense organizing and internal struggle in the early 2000s. But better that it is there than not being there, and there are many good people doing good work within it. Some of whom continue to be part of the remaining groups of Occupy.

  5. Steady, sustained organizing is a hard slog, but it’s a great cure for depression. To quote Eugene Levine, “We communists are all dead men on leave.”

  6. Marc Batko says:

    “When the state trusts citizens, citizens trust the state,” said Justin Trudeau, the new Canadian Prime Minister. Vancouver B.C. has 26 community centers, some with swimming pools that take your breath away. The Carnegie Center in the poorest part of Vancity is open from 9AM to 11PM and has a cushioning and multiplying effect with surrogate classroom and counseling opportunities. Casserole dinners are $3.50. At another center, you bring your laundry and it’s done for you the same day! Community centers could be a “third way” beyond the state and the market giving working and non-working a sense they are included and welcome in the modern era

    • I suspect Vancouver’s community centers have provincial and city support, so they are not necessarily separate from the state.

      Having a social safety net, and social benefits, such as you describe, can be provided on a local basis and operated by local people who understand the needs of their community but are supported through remittances from higher levels of government, including the national.

      So I would say what you describe isn’t a “third way” so much as it represents an enlightened use of public resources for public benefit. Or what any civilized society ought to do, including involving people in the design and operation of facilities intended for their benefit.

      • Social safety nets can be provided on a local basis, in an exclusionary and inadequate way, but any true inclusionary safety net can only be provided by a “welfare state”

  7. Sky Wanderer says:

    “The ideology of individual autonomy is a product of capitalist ideology; a Left that promotes individualism is a Left that is reinforcing capitalist ideology.”
    I find this statement utterly contradictory to the actual reality. The idea that Capitalism is an individualistic system has been a pro-capitalist misleading propaganda, it has never been reality.

    In fact the opposite is the case: Capitalism has done an excellent job in creating the collectivist basis for the communialist-fascist Agenda 21 all over the West. Especially the younger generations of the West have been conditioned to always obey peer-pressure, and when it comes to Right-wing politics the majority absolutely lack independent thinking to the degree of mirroring Hitler’s collectivist fascist followers.

    The facts in front of our eyes prove how capitalism has raised generations of collectivist, anti-individualist ideals on both left and right. Both the Left and the Right lack the ability to go beyond the cliche-thinking they copy from one another under the capitalist establishment. If the citizens of America, the root-country of Capitalism were dominated by individualistic characters, neither the populist Trump nor the equally populist Clinton would have ever gained the mass-support they enjoy today. If we wish to find people capable of independent thinking, we should look around in regions where the Western dominance is/has been minimal.
    Only recently, under the Sanders campaign can we discover signs of individuality among the US citizens, a wonderful new development, which however is a trend against Capitalism, not one brought about by capitalism.

    • We’d be better off not throwing around the word “fascist” too loosely and not making easy comparisons to Hitler.

      Of course we live in an individualist society — we are all supposed to be good consumers who express themselves through putting personal flourishes on corporate products. We should never join unions, nor act collectively, only as individuals who rise and fall based solely on their individual merits. There are no collective, class or group interests; only individual interests. Think of Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society.” Think of the “rugged individual” as an ongoing icon in the U.S.

      Don’t confuse the mass intensive and pervasive corporate ideology that drums into heads that we are all “unique individuals” with a collective message. It might be considered an irony, if one wished (although I don’t), that mass propaganda techniques are used to impart an individualist ideology. How else is any message supposed to be imparted other than through mass media? Let us not confuse apples and oranges, or message and delivery methods of message.

      • Sky Wanderer says:

        I find this a very thought-provoking discussion/post, and I very much appreciate your thoughts, Pete. I am not disagreeing with you on essential level – what I am arguing with is if it indeed individualism that we wish to discard when seeking a better world and envisioning a better society? I do find that it is evil and being neutral to the evil (which is enabling evil) is what people collectively follow and copy whereas individualism is something that always stands out in a positive way and improves society. For example, I do find your work an example of individualism – in the sense of individualism when it is properly defined.
        It is individualism that makes people question dogmas, obsolete paradigms and other factors hindering a society’s development. It takes individualism to develop and express new ideas as you do.

        Our “disagreement” comes down to clashing and fluid definitions. Individualism does not equal selfishness. All the great innovators, thinkers, novelists, artists, scientists, etc. had to be individualists and their works had a benevolent impact on society. It would be difficult to convince anyone that Marx, Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo (eg) were collectivists. They were individualists. Equally, it would be hard to convince anyone that they did harm to society – to the contrary.

        To start a business, to develop a new smart phone – and to buy one in each month – is everything but individualism. To be a good consumer in a capitalist economy and to adjust to a profoundly sick society is everything but individualism – to the contrary. It is being part of the crowd, going with the flow, no matter how evil it is. This is why Zionism is still alive and well – people – collectively – just learn to live with the fact that children are mass-massacred.

        In your reply you indirectly agreed with my point. Please notice that someone with genuine individualism would NOT obey any “mass propaganda techniques are used to impart an individualist ideology”.

        Also, when I use the term fascism, I don’t do so lightly. My purpose has always been to call a spade a spade, even if and when it sounds politically incorrect. You have read my post where I show how Capitalism inevitably leads to corporatism and corporatism – even as per the definition given by Mussolini himself – is just another word for fascism. There are different forms of fascism – we live under its covert version that any time may develop into a new overt form – as Dr. Richard Wolff pointed out in a recent program.

        Chris Hedges also calls the US establishment fascists. The US has become a fascist country, where corporations and banks took control over the government, when the Zionist standards prevail, innocent people are imprisoned without due course of law, and the detained are tortured and used as slaves in prisons, innocent people are killed in the street by the police for no reason. Demonstrations are violently oppressed and large crowds – the fascists – are celebrating this system. If there were no individualists activists against this collective trend the situation would be far worse than it is.

        As for individualism, it is just another question how to define it. Swimming upstream, to follow Einstein’s advice to seek becoming a person of value rather than success requires a huge dose of individualism. Einstein was another individualist and he did deliver great value to society. It was the evil gathering of power-craving collectivists who developed WMDs upon his theory – it was never his fault.

        We live in a relativist era when everything goes except for the objective definitions. What is trending is expensive words, new fancy, elitist terms to substitute simple old definitional meanings – this is a global plague that breaks down real, meaningful communications. Those who attempt to bring back objective real definitions and straightforward expressions are shunned, ignored. All because of the overwhelming collectivism and relativism versus individualism and objectivism.

        Capitalism – and the political/ideological establishment securing that system – heavily relies on relativism (fluid and distorted definitions) and mass-deception to the deepest philosophical levels, to the degree of redefining all relevant concepts into their opposites. The way how individualism is currently defined by the Capitalist establishment is just another part of the mass-deception, a distortion. It is defined as the Randian “virtue” of cut-throat competition and selfishness as a “collective value” in a “democracy” – again the distorted way how Capitalists define “democracy”.

        Note: A secret that someone needs to expose is the fact that Ayn Rand and her followers were neither objectivists nor individualists. There was nothing individualistic or objective about her “philosophy” – it is a subjective, pro-Capitalist, elitist, fascist, pro-eugenics social Darwinian collectivist ideology, this is why she needed to rely on a wide plethora of logical fallacies when she devised her “moral philosophy” of selfishness. And a fascist crowd is nothing but a collectivist crowd of selfish, self-serving individuals, and each of them are everything but individualistic in their ways of life and ways of thinking.

        I hope this clarifies the point I am trying to make.

      • Sky Wanderer says:

        Addendum to my former comment:

        Marx famously said: “If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist.”
        This indicates Marx was an individualist who did not subscribe to the collective interpretation
        (misinterpretation) of his work.
        As for individualism, under the neoliberal status quo, when uttering the name Marx is an abomination, it evidently takes individualism to be a Marxist (and I am a Marxist).

        As for fascism, I wish you were right, Pete, and the term fascist would not be applicable to our societies.

        But in fact both John Pilger and Chris Hedges use the term:

        And Fazal Rahman Phd:

        Another scholar calls extant neoliberal system – and rightly so – genocide:

        Click to access Neoliberalism.pdf

        Again, if only these authors were wrong, and so was I.

        To support your stance, another article from 2012, which concludes: the US is not yet fascist, but is evolving into that direction.

        Click to access raceandclass.pdf

        Sometimes calling a spade spade can be a sort of wake-up call.

        • I appreciate your thoughtful, well-reasoned reply. You are correct in that we are using different terminology more than having a disagreement.

          We do, however, have a disagreement on what is fascism. At the risk of repeating myself too much, I believe seeing the difference between a sham formal democracy (one that is obviously headed in the direction of right-wing authoritarianism) and outright fascism is what enables us to organize effectively against the drift toward fascism. If we are already living under fascism, then there is no need to oppose its coming. That is dangerous, in my opinion, as a study of early 1930s Germany clearly demonstrates. That distinction is important because outright fascism is a drastically stepped-up level of repression, when all pretenses to the rule of law are jettisoned.

          No topic sets the readers of this blog in opposition to me anywhere near as much as when I write about fascism. Rather than repeating myself, here’s the link to what I wrote on this a couple of years ago: https://systemicdisorder.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/what-is-fascism/, which in turn is based on a pamphlet I wrote years ago.

          Incidentally, the reason for Marx’s famous statement that he “is not a Marxist” had to do with his denial that he had created a set of rigid rules or instructions that adherents are expected to follow. The term “Marxism” didn’t come into common usage until after Marx’s death. The entire basis of Marxism is collective action — oppressed people organize themselves to free themselves.

          Again, I don’t wish to quibble too much with your intelligent argument. I’ll conclude with a gentle thought that agreeing on the meaning of words is important and sometimes we have to compare with how we use a word and how it used more generally, lest misunderstandings arise.

          • Isnt opposition to individualism practically opposition to individuality?

            • rote says:

              I don’t think so, if by ‘individualism’ we’re talking about politics based on individual /power/ as opposed to an ‘individuality’ of recognizing and allowing for differences between different people. If that’s not more or less what you mean, just say so, but –

              When we look at individual politics, what we’re looking at is things like the idea of ‘personal responsibility’. Of course we’re responsible for what we do, but we don’t live in circumstances of our own choosing. The ideology of responsibility takes that truth much further – saying that the path to societal change is to be the change we want to see, that people always get what they deserve, etc etc…

              It shouldn’t be hard to see why the ruling class likes that ideology – not only does it suit their class interests, but it personally justifies their actions which are (rightly) condemned under many other philosophies.

              It’s not just them, though. Look at, say, some of the individualist ideas on the left, such as the postmodern (or post-postmodern, or whatever) idea that power is expressed primarily through individual, atomized personal relationships, and that have to make social change through correcting our interpersonal interactions rather than changing any kind of system.

              The intentions are very different, but both are equally disempowering – collectively /and individually/. If we look at individualism as including more than consumption, even than art etc, including more than the choices we make but the conditions we make them under, then having political power through a healthy democratic system is /necessary/ for individual agency to mean much.

              Until we reach your utopia of choice, that is going to mean collective organizing for collective struggle; while organizing can be seen restrict each individual’s freedom to act politically, it does not in reality – we organize voluntarily, and the only possibilities it ‘closes’ are ones that would still never be open otherwise.

              I obey the collective votes my organization makes, even if I disagree with them. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up my political individuality – it means I gain the opportunity to express it in a greater way than throwing rocks at cops or making political paintings. A party which is sometimes wrong but has real democratic structures is always better than no party at all.

              • Fair enough but to me capitalism crushes individuality and thus “individualism” and that’s my main source of opposition, I don’t wish to water down or eliminate “individualism”, I want to reach it. But I’m also the type that doesn’t want to join any political organization and wishes to just think for themselves.

  8. David Culver says:

    As WH Auden has written, “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”

  9. “Centralization and hierarchy”

    These things will always be around and that’s fine. Being against “centralization and hierarchy” in the abstract is like being against teachers, managers and political representatives all together, which of course is silly.

  10. Joel Meyers says:

    I believe that Lenin’s Bolshevik perspective crucially and definitively diverged from that of the rest of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party’s Mensheviks in that Lenin called for a party of professional revolutionaries, uniting the most advanced workers and communist-minded intellectuals, and, as basic qualifications for membership, active participation in the work of at least one party unit, in addition to paying dues.

    The Mensheviks and undifferentiated factions, on the other hand, favored more a party of the mass of ordinary workers, who could simply buy membership by merely paying dues. All the other differences resulted from this organizational composition strategy, because a crowd of ordinary workers could overwhelm a leadership that had a revolutionary perspective beyond whatever might be more popular at a particular moment, the ideas of society being predominantly the ideas of the ruling class.

    For example, in the reception of Lenin’s April Theses, rejected by all other RSDLP factions, and by the bulk of the Bolshevik leadership, but attracting the rank and file Bolsheviks and many Menshevik ranks held back by their chosen leaders over the years. Further, only the Bolsheviks had enough revolutionary energy to conceive of the “October” insurrection which created the workers’ state, much less organize it and maintain it to the victorious taking of power. Even after the overthrow of the capitalist state, instead of belatedly celebrating and joining, the Menshevik leadership linked up with counterrevolutionary forces to resurrect a bourgeois state through the Constituent Assembly.

    The Bolshevik-led workers’ state’s dispersal of that Constituent Assembly was the stated motivation that triggered the attempted assassination of Lenin by Fannie Kaplan, leaving Lenin with a severe bullet wound, contributing to the deterioration of his health and hastening the onset of his death.

    • I’ve long believed that “dispersal” is not the right word to use in terms of the closing of the Constituent Assembly. I’ve argued that the Constituent Assembly had become irrelevant and that it did not reflect the true composition of voters.

      The SRs ran as a single slate despite their split; the Left SRs had become more popular than the Right SRs. At around this time, there were two elections to peasant assemblies where they did run separately and if we average the difference between the two votes, the Left SRs out-polled the Right by a 2-to-1 margin. Were we to assign this ratio to the total SR vote total for the Constituent Assembly, the combined Bolshevik/Left SR vote would have been about half.

      Given the heterogeneous nature of the rest of the vote, the Bolshevik/Left SR coalition would have controlled the Assembly. Had they done so, they would have simply declared power is in the hands of the soviets, and thus the Assembly would have been no more than a footnote. Note also that groups like the Cadets were also against the Assembly on the basis that it was unable to discharge any duties.

      Finally, as you know, the Mensheviks and Right SRs consistently opposed the convening of the Assembly, using one delaying tactic after another to prevent it. They only became in favor of it after the October Revolution, a hypocritical position.

      • In any event, the Bolshevik Revolution was the death knell of the new Russian democracy.

        • The occupation of much of the country’s bread basket and raw materials bases by Germany and Austria-Hungary, the invasion by 14 countries, the brutality of the White armies and the massive destruction of World War I was the death knell of the new Russian democracy. Nor did the brutality and lack of education and political culture imposed by the tsarist regime, no easy matters to swiftly overcome, help.

          The outcome of the Russian Revolution is a tragedy that needs to be explained, but does not require us to make ritual condemnations.

          • Russia was not a monarchy during World War 1, and the brief time it experienced any real democracy was in free elections like the Constituent Assembly, which the Bolsheviks of course eventually crushed, Lenin was no democrat. Russia wouldn’t experience any real democracy again until the late 80s and it’d be a brief experience yet again. So it’s not a “ritual condemnation”. it’s just an acknowledgement that the Bolshevik experiment didn’t lead to a desirable outcome. You have to learn from history.

            • Woops, meant to say Russia was a monarchy during WW1. My point being there was an actual democratic experiment after WW1 and the February Revolution, until crushed by the Bolsheviks. They even crushed the Soviet model not long after when that became too unruly toward them. There’s not a lot to admire in the Bolsheviks and their model, at least IMO

              • The Sandinistas after all created and preserved democracy in the face of similar deprivations, and while that story also doesn’t have a happy ending, it shows the ends don’t always justify the means if you catch my meaning. I agree with Samuel Farber that Leninism more or less created Stalinism and so I dislike both. Though ironically neither the Soviets or the Sandinistas or anyone else in the 20th century ever really broke with capitalism, which was all their downfalls, whether reformist, revolutionary or whatever.

              • newtonfinn says:

                What about Cuba post-USSR? There should be more attention paid to how such a non-capitalist model might be scaled up, since, according to the WWF, it’s the only sustainable society on the planet. And it’s swimming in doctors, literacy (99.7%), healthy coral reefs, locally-grown organic produce, etc., while keeping at bay hunger, homelessness, gun crime, and other social deterioration. Focusing on Cuba post-USSR also gets us past these endless arguments about earlier communist fracturing and the failed Soviet oligarchy.

              • I wouldn’t consider Cuba “non-capitalist”, especially as the country has been slowly opening itself up to multi-national corporations for the past 20, 25 years. Of course, you’ll get different answers from different people, but I feel Cuba is “state capitalist” and certainly not “socialist” if socialism is to mean a different mode of production and relations. Also the model is being phased out by the very people who created it on the Island, doesn’t bode well for that model.

              • Cuba right now is undergoing a large experiment with cooperatives, although the intention is for the state to remain the leading sector. I expect to be writing about this in the near future. Incidentally, no country has ever advanced to socialism; states that used the word for themselves froze in attempting to make a transition from capitalism. Thus, I prefer to use the term “post-capitalism” (a concept adapted from Isaac Deutscher) as a better description.

                As to Russia in 1917, learning from history means analyzing the material conditions and totality of the circumstances rather than making blanket statements about somebody or some party not supposedly not being democratic. I emphatically reject the tired canard that Lenin “created” Stalinism, as if there is no difference. That’s standard right-wing propaganda and I am quite surprised to hear somebody as intelligent and independent thinking as you repeat it.

                There was nothing whatsoever “inevitable” about Stalinism, and that that is the very point of my book, which is the product of five years of research and writing. The very fact that Stalin massacred the Old Bolsheviks and drowned the party in blood is due to the fact that he was so drastically changing the nature of the party and its ideology.

        • I posted a response awhile back but it doesn’t seem to have gotten through, so I’m posting a more detailed and thought-out one now. My original response was a bit hasty and may even have been a bit rude, given I was surprised at your reaction, so I hope you find this comment a lot more polite and level-headed, and that you’ll ignore my original response if you get it. Anyway, here’s my new one:

          First, to call any analysis that links Leninism to Stalinism as “right wing propaganda” is naive at best, and ideologically dismissive and a bit paranoid at worst. First of all Rosa Luxembourg famously railed against Lenin and the Soviet leaders for forming a dictatorship that would lead to a violent bureaucracy, she didn’t comment on Stalinism as it didn’t exist, but its rise more or less corresponds with her analysis and predictions. The famous American socialist writer Hal Draper also criticized Leninism and its authoritarianism. And ironically, all my sources are left wing and in fact Marxist: from Samuel Farber to John Marot to Erik Wright to even Slavoj Zizek. And leftists in general have often made this analysis, especially anarchist and democratic socialists. Noam Chomsky even argues Lenin was to the right of many socialists at the time. So to accuse me of buying into “right wing propaganda” is pretty silly.

          I also don’t see how I’m not being “independent and intelligent” by criticizing a political figure, you’ll have to fill me in on this.

          As for Cuba, it is not true that there’s a massive “cooperative sector” brewing and exploding in Cuba, there’s a small and rather apolitical one being tolerated, but not much more than that. The Cuban elite have zero interest in transitioning to democratic socialism, why would they? They’d lose their power. And there’s no democratic elections in Cuba, it’s not like the people can just vote the Communist Party out of office, and the Cuban elite are clear that they want to transition to a Sino-Vietnamese model. The Cuban people get no say.

          As for “post capitalism” I don’t view any of the “socialist” governments of the 20th century or the ones existing now as having actually gone past capitalism, so we’ll have to disagree there. Even if they did, they achieved rather undesirable results, sometimes worse than the capitalists they claimed to have hated so much.

          • Also, your book doens’t make a great case that Lenin and his system wasn’t complicit int he rise of Stalin, indeed your very book details the repression that the Leninist state entailed that allowed Stalin to rise to power in the first place. Stalin purging the Communist Party doesn’t exonerate Lenin.

          • As to the original comment that didn’t go through, WordPress once in a while holds up a comment from a regular commentator randomly. A glitch in the system, I suppose, but I can always manually approve.

            As to the substance of your critique, it is true that many Leftists do assert that Lenin led directly to Stalin. I had my book turned down by a potential publisher precisely because the publisher’s specialist believed this and said I should change my text to reflect that. Needless to say I refused to do so.

            So why do I call this a right-wing idea? Because it is a standard line put forth by right-wingers and anti-Marxists in general. This is done to discredit the entire idea of socialism or anything other than capitalism because, the promoters of this line assert, Stalinism is an inevitable result of attempting any socialist revolution. This idea is one we would like to knock down, yes? I understand you, and others you cite, come from a much different perspective, one from a critique from the Left. But it’s too pervasive for me not to push back against, and we should understand why such arguments are made by others, and by whom.

            You argue my book didn’t make that case. I only reply I regret that. I hope I have made that case more successfully to other readers. If I failed to convince you in my book, nothing I write here will convince you, and thus I must accept you have a different perspective.

            To pluck out one piece of what you wrote, however, it is a misconception that Luxembourg argued that Lenin was creating a “violent bureaucracy.” Her criticism was rather subtle than that. She did criticize Lenin for centralizing tendencies and opposed the creation of the Third International on the basis that the Russian party would be too dominant (because the other parties were weak) and that the Bolsheviks would have too much sway over other parties. On this, she of course was proven entirely correct.

            But it should be noted that Luxembourg and her partner Jogiches ran their Polish social democratic party in a far more tighter and centralized manner than Lenin ever ran the Bolsheviks. That control was due to the harsh conditions that Polish social democracy had to operate in the portion of Poland that was then part of the Tsarist Russian empire; the party could not have operated otherwise. This bit of history is unknown, but should be before we promote Luxembourg’s ideas.

            I am 100 percent in favor of quoting Luxembourg, and I probably quote her more than anybody else in my book, with the possible exception of Lenin. I did that because her work is so valuable and still speaks fully to us a hundred years later. But let’s look at her record in its full complexity.

            Finally, Cuba is undergoing a widespread experiment in cooperatives, and this is being led by the party. Although some of this is bottom-up, most of it is top-down and that is a weakness. So it is not at all true that the emerging cooperative sector is “tolerated” — it is being organized by the party and government. How this will play out is unknown. The three experts who discussed this at a panel I attended at the Left Forum (all of whom have done extensive work in Cuba) believed that part of the opaqueness of this process is due to different factions within the government continuing to work out their differences.

            • “As to the original comment that didn’t go through, WordPress once in a while holds up a comment from a regular commentator randomly. A glitch in the system, I suppose, but I can always manually approve.”

              It’s not a problem, it’s probably because I sent it from my phone and it didn’t register it as me. Oh well, doesn’t matter, I do hate not being able to edit comments though on WordPress…

              So why do I call this a right-wing idea? Because it is a standard line put forth by right-wingers and anti-Marxists in general. This is done to discredit the entire idea of socialism or anything other than capitalism because, the promoters of this line assert, Stalinism is an inevitable result of attempting any socialist revolution.”

              This doesn’t make any sense. You’re saying that since “right wing” figures and individuals make this claim, it’s a “right wing” claim by default and furthermore it’s said to discredit “socialism” in the abstract. First of all, this leftist publisher you mention above, I doubt that was his or her attention, alongside every other leftist who says this. And of course this isn’t a claim that “socialism” is bad or whatever, it’s a claim that Leninism leads to undesirable results (at least if you want freedom and democracy, which not all socialists want), not an indictment on socialism or even communism. I’m a socialist but I’m as anti-Leninist and USSR as they come. Sorry, it doesn’t make me “right wing” and out to “destroy” an economic model I accept and actually want to see implemented.

              ” This idea is one we would like to knock down, yes?”

              Well no, not really, because history simply doesn’t back up this claim, so there’s no need to knock it down. Socialists have come to power in a variety of means across the world and have not always instituted a Stalinist government, therefore the claim is bogus. Indeed socialists around the world have instituted robust democratic (at least representatively) governments and fought for civil liberties. One doesn’t have to look far to debunk the idea that socialism = dictatorship or authoritarianism, which is the actual right wing claim and one I obviously reject. Marxist-Leninists on the other hand, have always instituted some sort of authoritarian one party state, oftentimes mirroring Stalin’s regime to some extent, from as diverse places as Hungary to Afghanistan to Cuba. This is a claim that does stand the test of history I believe. I would love to see your challenge of course, because if I am wrong, I would like to be corrected.

              “You argue my book didn’t make that case. I only reply I regret that. I hope I have made that case more successfully to other readers. If I failed to convince you in my book, nothing I write here will convince you, and thus I must accept you have a different perspective.”

              I was unaware you were even trying to make this case in the book. You demonstrate that Lenin and Stalin were different people with different styles of leadership, this is true and practically all historians agree with this, however you don’t make the case that the “Leninist” state was something so vastly different and alien from the “Stalinist” state in the sense that Stalin basically just came down from a UFO and conquered the country and transformed it. No, intentionally or not, you detail all kinds of deprevations and repressions under Lenin that clearly created the atmsophere for someone like Stalin to swoop in. Ironically two people I sided, Samuel Farber and John Marot, actually are Leninists (one’s even a Trot!) and they still admit that Leninism in Practice led to Stalin, with its suppression of multple parties and democracy allowing someone to accumulate so much power. That being said, I don’t think Stalin was a mustache twirling villain, I think he thought he was indeed doing what was needed for “communism”.

              “To pluck out one piece of what you wrote, however, it is a misconception that Luxembourg argued that Lenin was creating a “violent bureaucracy.” Her criticism was rather subtle than that. She did criticize Lenin for centralizing tendencies and opposed the creation of the Third International on the basis that the Russian party would be too dominant (because the other parties were weak) and that the Bolsheviks would have too much sway over other parties. On this, she of course was proven entirely correct”

              Well, I’ll just quote her:

              “Public control is indispensably necessary. Otherwise the exchange of experiences remains only with the closed circle of the officials of the new regime. Corruption becomes inevitable. (Lenin’s words, Bulletin No.29) Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois rule. Social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering, etc., etc. No one knows this better, describes it more penetratingly; repeats it more stubbornly than Lenin. But he is completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconian penalties, rule by terror – all these things are but palliatives. The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion. It is rule by terror which demoralizes.”

              “Without general elections, without freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, without the free battle of opinions, life in every public institution withers away, becomes a caricature of itself, and bureaucracy rises as the only deciding factor.”


              “But it should be noted that Luxembourg and her partner Jogiches ran their Polish social democratic party in a far more tighter and centralized manner than Lenin ever ran the Bolsheviks. That control was due to the harsh conditions that Polish social democracy had to operate in the portion of Poland that was then part of the Tsarist Russian empire; the party could not have operated otherwise. This bit of history is unknown, but should be before we promote Luxembourg’s ideas”

              Perhaps but this is irrelevant to the discussion. I’m not a Luxemburgist or trying to extoll Rosa Luxembourg’s way of doing things, I simply used her as an example of an “anti-Leninist’ leftist, and happen to agree with her analysis on Lenin. However, I’m not a Communist and I find a huge deal to disagree with in Luxembourg as a whole, just like I do Lenin, Trotsky and all the other communist figures.

              “Finally, Cuba is undergoing a widespread experiment in cooperatives”

              I’ve only heard this from eager American (and some European) leftists. Cubans and Cuban Americans I’ve read have said quite the opposite.

              “Although some of this is bottom-up, most of it is top-down and that is a weakness.”

              From what i’ve read, it’s practically all small scale and apolitical, there’s practically no “massive transformation” going on. Again, why would there be?

              “So it is not at all true that the emerging cooperative sector is “tolerated” it is being organized by the party and government. ”

              Well being that much of it is private, yes it is “tolerated”. The government efforts you mention are small and minuscule, not much more than the private efforts however.

              Every Cuban I’ve read (that doesn’t paint a rosy picture of Cuba by default) has stated that Cuba is transitioning toward the Sino-Vietnamese model and the “cooperative” sector is highly exaggerated.



              I have no reason not to believe them.

              But regardless, I don’t think local “worker self management” and cooperatives are the answer to developing democratic socialism in any case.

            • Btw, I don’t think just introducing multi-party democracy is the solution to the “democratic deficit” and human rights abuses in places like the USSR and Cuba. Obviously a multi-party system is necessary (as you even say at the end of your book), but to quote Richard D. Wolff:

              “Is the lesson then that adding political democracy could have saved the GDR? Not necessarily: If political parties had proliferated, what would have prevented a GDR-type government from controlling and manipulating them? What would have prevented political democracy from being as merely formal in the GDR as it is in most capitalist countries today, where multiple parties have hardly prevented capitalists from effectively dominating parties and politicians?”

              Political democracy can only exist when on top a truly democratic economy, which local cooperatives aren’t going to achieve…

            • As for not being able to convince me, you got me all wrong. I was unaware your book was even trying to make such a claim, perhaps I’m just that oblivious, this is no insult to your book at all, the initial praise I gave it in my first comment to you still stands, and being that I’ve dug much deeper into the book (it’s almost as big as the Bible, I haven’t read every page yet), I find it all the more illuminating. All that would convince me is evidence and a good argument. I’m def. open to that. If you wish, we can have an e-mail correspondence or just continue here. I highly respect your writing and working, regardless if you’re a Leninist or not (although I imagine you’re not a Leninist?), and I don’t want you to think I’m writing you off. I’m not an academic or a “credentialed expert” I’m just an aspiring activist, so I don’t claim to be right about everything.

              • Actually, I have no opinion on Cuba’s cooperative experiment as I need to learn more before writing. I appreciate the links you posted and will read them as part of my preparatory work. None of us know how this experiment will work out, so it is premature for any of us to issue a judgment, and I won’t be doing so.

                I appreciate the compliments on the book, and I assure you I took no offense at all, nor do I see your positions on Leninism vs. Stalinism as contradictory to your earlier praise. I’m the first to say I have written a book that has something for everybody to disagree with. And it’s OK to not be right about everything, because none of us are, certainly including me. I’m not an academic, either — I’m an activist.

                As I said in my previous comment, I am quite aware that Leftists taking your position on Lenin are making a much different argument that someone on the Right does. But because the Right attempts to discredit all efforts at socialism, it is important that Leftists taking a position such as yours be careful to differentiate.

                I think this is a generational impasse: I’m old enough to have been around for the Soviet bloc to have been intact into adulthood and am sensitive to the standard arguments of that time. For your generation, it’s all history and you have different perspectives and don’t carry that baggage. People under 30 are more open to socialist idea because it’s not a bogey to them the way it is to those of your parents’ and grandparents’ generations. I suppose I am still fighting against those bogeys because they remain pervasive.

                So let us get down to the bottom line. You write:

                “Political democracy can only exist when on top [of] a truly democratic economy, which local cooperatives aren’t going to achieve.”

                Here we are in firm agreement. Cooperatives will be a part of a democratic economy, but they are insufficient in themselves. Cooperatives can be quite compatible with capitalism. Thus cooperatives have to cooperate with one another and be rooted in their communities. As I have said repeatedly, without economic democracy there is no such thing as political democracy.

                The Soviet model is not and was not the answer, and that model will not be resurrected. But we had better study it thoroughly to learn what not to do next time. Incidentally, in response to Professor Wolff’s commentary on East Germany, Czechoslovakia did have multiple parties, but those other parties had no independent existence in what was in reality a dictatorship of the communist party. But to turn this around, if capitalists have multiple parties, we can’t we have multiple parties? We’d better have them because working out and sustaining a democratic economy will require a lot of work and debate.

              • Thanks for the response, I’m glad this didn’t degenerate into a a shouting match or a fight, I really appreciate that.

                As for multiple parties, RD Wolff is not making an argument against a multi-party pluralistic system, the opposite, he’s simply saying having multiple parties in and out of themselves isn’t the overall solution, though multi-party legislatures are typically far superior to single, dual or zero party legislatures. I don’t see a future without political parties and representative elections honestly, therefore I’m a major supporter of multi-party politics and one of the goals of my life is to open the American political system from the “two party” dictatorship, which is a major defense of capitalism. I agree with your conclusions on parties and elections at the end of your book, I imagine most socialist these days would.

                I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert on Lenin or Leninism, perhaps it is just the fact I grew up after the Cold War so practically everything associated with the USSR was shown to me to be unworkable garbage. Yes, Lenin clearly had a very different idea on doing things than Stalin and the first five years of the USSR are certainly different than the Stalinist terror, but Lenin did think the ends justified the means, and Stalin, while ramping that up times ten, and certainly transforming the economy, seems to have been enabled in an atmosphere of stifled dissent and speech, but of course, I could be totally wrong. To be fair, even liberal historians like Stephen Cohen attest that the early Bolshevik party was internally quite democratic.

                As for Cuba, I’m not expert either, I simply go by what I’ve read. I don’t trust Cuba’s government for a second simply because I don’t feel that they have any incentive to give up power. I don’t think this is like the Prague Spring, where the Czech government and Communist Party actually from above joined with the forces from below, I think the Cuban elite and government are looking for a way to preserve their own power.

                As for defenses of socialism, I understand you grew when the USSR was a reality and not just some piece of history, and when all socialism, from mild social democracy to revolutionary Marxism and everything in between was associated with whatever the Soviets were doing, I get that. To some extent that is still done, though clearly to much less effect in the world. But I think responding with a kneejerk defense of all “socialists” is equally bad, because in that case we have to defend Stalin, and North Korea, and Pol Pot and all kinds of unsavory figures who labeled themselves socialist and Marxist, which is a losing game because that essentially verifies the right wing claim that socialism = gulags and destruction. I’d rather put a line in the sand between truly democratic socialism and other so called forms of socialism.

              • Yes, Professor Wolff was/is making those points on multiple-party systems, and it is without question that a multi-party system is better than a two-party system. Again, the basis of a two-party system lies in the fact of winner-take-all, single-seat districts because voters are forced into voting for a lesser evil.

                I agree emphatically that we should not be the habit, as some unfortunately are, of knee-jerk defenses of any regime that calls itself “socialist,” certainly not, for example, the Kim family’s absolute monarchy. If it isn’t democratic, it isn’t socialist, even if intended to travel the road toward socialism.

              • Now that we got all that out of the way, was the Prague Spring dedicated to making Czech politics “multi-party” or did they simply focus on economic democracy? I know the Communist Party was liberalized (in the political sense) and reformist, but was it willing to cede its dominant role? It just seems like the Prague Spring ironically is the closest any society has come to “real” socialism, maybe outside the late 70s socialization attempts in Sweden.

                Also, this is barely related, but was hoping to get your perspective on this: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/05/north-korea-pyongyang-kim-jong-un-trotskyism/
                Trotskyism is an interesting analysis and ideology, even if I have serious disagreements with it, I find a lot of its approaches quite useful.

  11. newtonfinn says:

    I will look forward to reading your thoughts about Cuba. While worried about potential infections of greed, consumerism, etc. resulting from renewed contact with the U.S., I have been heartened by the move toward worker-owned/managed cooperatives, which seems to offer a promising alternative to failed attempts at top-down bureaucratic control from both the right and the left.

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