“Left-wing” communism and the movement today

Aug 20, 2018

Image design: Megan Lemons

Editor’s note: A Spanish translation of this article is available here.

It’s essential for Marxists–and anyone on the Left–to firmly grasp the lessons of Lenin’s Left-Wing” Communism and how those lessons relate to our the tasks of party building, mass work, and advancing the struggle for social and economic justice overall. In this article, I’ll discuss some of the relevance of the work to our times.

The job of a revolutionary is to help make the revolution. In order to do this, we need to make more revolutionaries. Our party was formed with the understanding that the objective conditions are ripe for a revival of socialism. But only socialists can build socialism; it will not spontaneously arise. And socialism can only come about with a revolutionary overthrow of the current social order.

Right now, our comrades are learning and struggling all over the nation on how to build mass organizations, how to strengthen and steel the party’s ideological line, how to consolidate the gains our party has made, and how to build a revolutionary movement that is fundamentally anti-imperialist and anti-racist. More broadly, the masses are in motion everywhere. Capitalism is entering into another pre-crisis period, the objective movement of capital and its internal processes are beyond the scope of our control. What we do control is the subjective forces of the revolution: how organized, disciplined, ideologically steeled, and connected we are to the masses of working and oppressed people.

The path to revolution is one of many obstacles–we must not be one of them!

As we have seen from the Egyptian revolution to Occupy Wall Street, if we, the revolutionary forces of society–who have a vision and program for the transformation of society–are weak or unable to strongly influence, if not lead the masses of people, then we will simply have a reconstitution of the same bourgeois social order with minor changes at best.

For the party to grow into a force that can lend sustained leadership to the struggles of the masses of working and oppressed people, it is important that we assimilate the lessons from revolutionary movements that have not only challenged capitalism, but actually set out to build an alternative: socialism.

As we are not academics, none of us are trying to wage a “war with words” and obscure the glaring necessity for fundamental social transformation. It is this necessity for socialism that drives all of what the party does. We want to be a vehicle for revolution, a body capable of holding together the various struggles of the masses of people and directing fatal blows to capitalism.

In Left-Wing” Communism, Lenin notes that “Russia achieved Marxism, the only correct revolutionary theory, virtually through suffering, by a half century of unprecedented torment and sacrifice, of unprecedented revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, testing in practice, disappointment, verification and comparison with European experience.”

We cannot state ahead of time that we can overcome every obstacle our class will face. We cannot even predict what obstacles will confront us. But what we can do is prepare ourselves by imbibing the lessons of not just Russia but of all the lessons of the global class struggle: from Egypt to France, from Venezuela to Nepal, and Greece to Turkey. We must learn from the suffering, sacrifices, and victories of our comrades in struggle all over the world, for we are all linked by our common oppression under imperialism. If we refuse to learn, to assimilate, and humble ourselves; we will certainly become obstacles to ourselves and to building a revolutionary movement.

March with the masses–not ahead or behind them!

Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong describes two outlooks of revolutionaries who are “rightist” and “leftist” in their thinking:

“Those with a Rightist way of thinking make no distinction between ourselves and the enemy and take the enemy for our own people. They regard as friends the very persons whom the broad masses regard as enemies. Those with a ‘Left’ way of thinking magnify contradictions between ourselves and the enemy to such an extent that they take certain contradictions among the people for contradictions with the enemy and regard as counter-revolutionaries persons who are actually not counter-revolutionaries.” (Quotations from Chairman Mao-Zedong, p. 49)

Today, we see various tendencies cropping up within the broad Left and progressive movement. We have new forms of rightism and leftism, and while we must reflect on the past communist movements, this cannot substitute for a concrete analysis of the concrete conditions of the day.

We see that some tendencies tend to see no contradiction between building working class power and collaborating with the Democrats. Often times this comes up in our coalition and mass organization work where we run into individuals and organizations that cannot tell a friend from an enemy or an opportunist from a confused person trying to grapple with politics.

At the same time, we run into those who are of the “leftist” orientation. They make enemies out of friends and obscure the contradictions among the people by magnifying our differences to the point where we are not only at each other’s throats, but where our movement is unnecessarily circumscribed. These “leftists” march so far ahead of the people and magnify secondary and minor contradictions to the point where one would be left to believe that a revolution is not made by the masses of people – as they are coming out of capitalism – but are made solely by the reddest of red communists and socialists.

This is a grave error, and fortunately our party has the wisdom of decades of experience in the struggle to be able to educate new comrades and navigate correctly. We are reminded here of Lenin’s words on the same matter:

“One of the biggest and most dangerous mistakes made by Communists is the idea that a revolution can be made by revolutionaries alone. On the contrary, to be successful, all serious revolutionary work requires that the idea that revolutionaries are capable of playing the part only of the vanguard of the truly virile and advanced class must be understood and translated into action.” (On the Significance of Militant Materialism)

Black revolutionary Assata Shakur affirms this:

“…without the support of the people, no movement for liberation can exist, no matter how correct its analysis of the situation is. That’s why political work and organizing are so important. Unless you are addressing the issues people are concerned about and contributing positive direction, they’ll never support you. The first thing the enemy tries to do is isolate revolutionaries from the masses of people, making us horrible and hideous monsters so that our people will hate us.” (Assata: An autobiography, p. 181)

These two quotes are very significant for us at the stage we are at now. At a time when socialism is being popularized, crises are pending, and the prospects for mass struggle remain ambivalent with the reactionary liberal opposition to Trumpism, we cannot afford to isolate ourselves from the masses of people.

This is especially true as an interest in socialism is on the rise. No matter how “correct” our analyses are, if we fail to translate this into concrete policy, policies that not only “meet people where they are at” – which is often used as an excuse to keep people where they are at – and raise the consciousness of the masses, then we will not succeed in our goals of building a revolutionary movement.

Of means and revolutionary necessity

So what does it mean for us that socialism is increasing in popularity? Does it mean that we simply declare loudly that we are socialists? Well, yes, but this is not all, nor is it even primary for us.

Even more important is that we demonstrate what is distinctive about our party. Our party is a vanguard party. Vanguard simply means to lead and the party cannot declare itself as the vanguard, that must be left to the masses and history. As the Black Panthers put it, the vanguard is merely the tip of the spear, and the rest of the spear, the mantle or butt is what does the real deep damage. Our movement’s ability to land blows against imperialism depend simultaneously on the sharpness of the vanguard and the determination of the masses. If the masses are determined and our links with them are deep and broad, then the spear will not only pierce our enemies but land a fatal blow.

Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party had this to say on manifestations of ultra-leftism after former Panther Eldridge Cleaver defected from the Party:

“In their quest for freedom and in their attempts to prevent the oppressor from stripping them of all the things they need to exist, the people see things as moving from A to B to C; they do not see things as moving from A to Z. In other words, they have to see first some basic accomplishments in order to realize that major success are possible. Much of the time the revolutionary will have to guide them into this understanding, but he can never take them from A to Z in one jump because it is too far ahead. Therefore, when the revolutionary begins to indulge in Z, or final conclusions, the people do not relate to him.” (The Huey P. Newton Reader, p. 203)

Revolutionary theory and the “paralysis of analysis”

Often times in our movement we see what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “paralysis of analysis” where activists and would be revolutionaries are so caught in analyzing phenomenon that they forget the essence of Marxism: the act of changing the world, not just understanding it.

In the work that we do, we must have a mass based approach. We cannot proceed from what we subjectively desire, but from a concrete analysis of the conditions. Many “leftists” make this error of subjectivism, of substituting their personal desire for what is necessary for a particular set of conditions. Lenin remarks on this same phenomenon:

“…without a revolutionary mood among the masses, and without conditions favoring the growth of this mood, revolutionary tactics would never be converted into action; but we in Russia have been convinced by long , painful and bloody experience of the truth that revolutionary tactics cannot be built up on revolutionary moods alone. Tactics must be based on a sober and strictly objective estimation of all the class forces in a given state as well as of the experience of revolutionary movements. Expressing one’s ‘revolutionariness’ solely by hurling abuse at parliamentary opportunism, solely by repudiating participation in parliaments, is very easy; but just because it is too easy, it is not the solution for a difficult, a very difficult problem.” (Left-Wing” Communism)

No amount of revolutionary phrase mongering and flag waving can make a revolution. We have to merge theory and practice and make our politics speak to the people. Our comrades are activists and organizers. They are in the streets with the people, struggling in mass organizations to win demands of the masses (whether they be around housing and gentrification, prisons reforms, wages and union battles, and the fight against police terror). Our campaign, during this very polarizing time, seeks to be a pole for all of those disaffected by the system to draw them to socialist politics. We have a political program which puts forth demands as far as reparations for African Americans, Hawaiians, and other oppressed nations, the dismantling of the US imperialist state, and the combating of women’s and LGBTQ oppression.

One way we promote our program to the people is by participating in elections. We have been criticized by internet leftists who put forward the idea that the bourgeois elections are pointless, that we should simply “boycott them” and call for “revolution now!” They deem the elections to be a farce of democracy, and we tend to agree. But, our point of demarcation is in the spirit of Leninist tactics outlined in Left-Wing” Communism. Lenin criticized those “lefts” who refuse to work in reactionary trade unions. Today, when most unions that remain, are mainly not class struggle unions, should we refuse to work in them? In the various coalitions and mass organizations that exist, and the ones that are yet to be formed or currently being formed, should we refuse to work in them because not everyone is “red enough?” Surely, we would be simply charlatans of the highest order if we refuse to do this arduous and necessary work. We would in fact be throwing workers into the arms of the social-chauvinists, opportunists, and right wing forces that exist in those formations.

“If you want to help the ‘masses’ and to win they sympathy, confidence and support of ‘the masses’ you must not fear difficulties, you must not fear the pin-pricks, chicanery, insults and persecution of the ‘leaders,’ but must imperatively work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of every sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently precisely in those institutions, societies and associations – even the most reactionary – in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found.” (Left-Wing” Communism)

Universal suffrage within the framework of the bourgeois state “cannot and never will be” more than a “gauge of the maturity of the working class” Engels states. We have yet to even truly master this tactic, yet we are seeing the results. Our campaign won nearly 75,000 votes which is more than any socialist ticket since 1976, and the second most votes any California Peace and Freedom presidential candidate has ever received.

Speaking about the campaign, comrade Gloria said: “We met thousands of people who responded positively to our platform and campaign. It’s so inspiring to see the growing popularity of socialism and its principles, which include the right to housing, education, healthcare and full rights for immigrants and for all people, and rejection of war, racism, misogyny, mass incarceration or police brutality.” Our candidates campaigned across the country and were covered by many media outlets, which helped take the message of socialism even further.

While the corporate-funded campaigns were shutting down their offices the day the day after the election, Gloria and her campaign organizers were leading mass marches protesting the elevation of racist, misogynist, xenophobe Donald Trump to the office of president. And since the elections, we have not stopped mobilizing. In fact, through the campaign, which served as a massive outreach tactic, we were able to meet new people, convince them of the necessity for socialism, and consolidate them into either the party or a mass organization.

If we were to take the “boycott the elections” approach, which is something we do not rule out, we would be simply revolutionary phrase mongers substituting our subjective desire with the objective conditions which point to the growing realization of the masses of the need for a third party.

Several polls show that the people of the US, especially the youth “say the Republican and Democratic parties do such a poor job of representing the American people that a third major party is needed [NBC News].” The 2016 elections demonstrated for all to see that there is a growing number of people in this country who see themselves as political independents [Observer]. Moreover, 46.9% of eligible voters, did not vote in the 2016 elections at all, not counting the millions of undocumented immigrants and those disenfranchised by the criminal justice system [Cosmopolitan].

So what are we to do? Sit on our hands? Raise the reddest of red slogans and phrases to the masses? Call for revolution? Without the masses?

Cadres and communication

It is not enough to simply join the PSL. For us to truly develop a living and breathing body that can carry on the struggle in a highly concentrated way, after all the protests and street actions take place, we need what is called cadre. Comrades know that we have guidelines, a constitution, and a program. These exist for help comrades to be disciplined. It’s much harder to be disciplined now more than ever in the face of rampant individualism, facilitated by neoliberalism and amplified by social media.

An example of this is just simple conduct online. At times, instead of trying to professionally and clearly explain things to people, we do what is sometimes referred to as “dunking” on people. This is where one assumes what is essentially a ultra-left position. We see ourselves as being “beyond” explaining things to people in terms they can understand. We forget that it is not what we say, but who is watching. And, who is watching (aside from the state!)? Other working class people! Our friends, co-workers, other people in the movement. If we were to assume this position in real life, or “IRL” as people say today, surely, we would isolate ourselves from the masses and the party would become irrelevant. We would be seen as standoffish and snobby, not the patient, disciplined, and pedagogic comrades that we need.

Coming from bourgeois society, with all of its ills, we are inculcated into bourgeois individualism. We see our individual freedom as the endpoint and the axis of what we consider to be genuine freedom. Taking discipline from an organization (that isn’t our job or boss!) and being expected to do more for the party, our mass organizations, and ultimately the coming revolution, hurts our egos sometimes. I’ve been there before, but I outgrew that with the help of our cadres.

Our cadres are to be shining examples of self-sacrifice and dedication. Our commitment to advancing the struggle to victory must be that of a “professional revolutionary,” who carries on when others falter or flee to safety and comfort. Our motto must be “for self nothing, for the masses everything!” Unlike the “lefts” who forget that they are a part of an organization and not a loose organization of like minded individuals, cadres know that a revolutionary vanguard is only as strong and solid as its members or cadre, who must be rooted among the masses in struggle.

It is vital that the cadre be good at communicating and connecting with other oppressed people. We must be the natural leaders of the people whom others look to and seek the opinions of. If we use and abuse our social media and project ourselves simply as individuals, we fail to see that this will harm not only self, but our organization. What good is having a program, guidelines, a constitution, candidacy, if we were simply to just continue to act as if we are just a social group or like minded individuals?

Cadre must be patient, sensitive and tolerant, and most important, be good at listening. As a teacher I see the need for the communication, patience, discipline, listening skills, collectivity, execution, going over mistakes, having a mind for the entire class and more needed to move a body of people forward. Usually it’s my classroom of 20 plus 9 to 11 year olds, but the same applies to our party.

As a teacher, my obligation is to teach all of my students, not just the most advanced or the most engaged. I have to listen to all of my students. I have to learn from all of my students. It’s the same with being a revolutionary.

As the coming wars of aggression mount, the Russiagate witch hunt, the contours of a new socialist movement are being born, we must internalize that “One must not count in thousands, like the propagandist belonging to a small group that has not yet given leadership to the masses; in these circumstances one must count in millions and tens of millions.”

We must be serious, loving, disciplined, attentive, courageous, approachable, and most importantly have a mass based approach. If we simply parade around the most revolutionary of phrases, speak about revolution but not have a mind for the masses or the party, we will be muddleheaded phrase mongers caught in the ‘paralysis of analysis’, isolated from the masses, and substituting fantasy for reality.