There’s an essay on that topic by Don Hamerquist here. Definitely worth a look, as are the responses. I took notes on a printout of the essay, I’m working on typing them up in the body of this post, when I’m done I need to read over all these notes and see what, if anything, they add up to, then I’d like to bang them into a more concise and coherent reply to at least some parts of the essay. (Don suggested I might do something that “extends Wetzel’s response in relationship to “autonomy for mass organizations”” and asked about my views “on democracy, participation, consciousness, and organization in terms of revolutionary strategy.”)

Notes on the main essay:
Part of the essay’s agenda is to argue that leftists today should take Lenin seriously. That’s fair, and convincing. The piece also argues that at least elements of Lenin’s practice at the time were useful and advanced the revolutionary process. (I can’t assess that claim and while it does matter I don’t think the argument about why take Lenin seriously hangs fully on that latter point.) I’m not sure about the need to appeal to the historical examples for that, but I appreciate them as I’d like to know more about all this history, and I appreciate the piece for its willingness to criticize Lenin despite arguing for Lenin’s importance.

The piece makes two more historical claims early on. One, that there were “emerging capacities to elaborate a revolutionary practice” which were derailed, and, two, that none of this was inevitable and in fact there were at the time alternative courses of action debated. Later in the piece Hamerquist asks “Is there a clear path from Lenin’s approach to revolutionary organization to the Third International orthodoxy? ” and says no, but then asks “is there a central weakness within Lenin’s perspective that facilitated this development?” and says yes. So, for the piece, Lenin is problematic but salvageable via critically taking him up. Part of the reason to study this history is to undertake an “examination of the exercises of working class authority and power prior to, during, and following revolutionary crises” and “a thorough criticism of the actions of organized revolutionaries in these periods” in order to learn lessons for the present. The piece rightly notes that notions of inevitability as well as notions of accidental mis-steps obstruct our learning from history in this way.

The real force of the piece though is prescriptive less at a level of what to read and think about the past and such, it’s more at a level of what radicals ought to think about and do in the present. Early in the piece Hamerquist identifies a few aspects of Lenin’s politics back in the day that I get the impression he thinks are still important for us to have today. (This is in the paragraphs just before the section titled “The needed review.) I understand these to be:
1. radicals should oppose ‘their’ government in its role in imperialism and capitalism, this includes support for national liberation movements/aspirations
2. legality and illegality are tactical questions, not a matter of principle
3. challenge others on the left when their wrong, form small groups around political unity in order to be effective in a larger milieu
4. oppose a long term/gradualist/evolutionist approach, instead take a more short term sudden interruption type approach
5. minimize the role of radicals controlling things

Among the implications for the present, the piece seems to suggest a pan-left or pan-(semi?)libertarian left perspective of some sort, referring to “the necessary discussions and joint initiatives within and between circles that should be able to move ahead.” I like this, despite having a sectarian streak. The piece also refers (a bit wistfully?) to the need for “the development of a working political and intellectual framework for the distressingly small cadre of radicals that are committed to liberatory working class revolution” today. Part of the stakes of the piece over all seem to me to be about the degree to which Lenin(ism?) forms/is a resource for such a milieu or for the creation of such a framework today. (The piece rejects “the ‘party/state’ formation that emerged in both the Soviet Union and China” as well as rejecting democratic centralism [though now I’m not so sure … it certainly rejects democratic centralism as generally practiced and understood from the mid-twentieth century to the present]; it retains what it calls a “particular insurrectionist” communist perspective.) The lack of such a framework means radicals today “lack the collective political practice necessary to test and evaluate alternative strategic initiatives.” To begin to rectify this situation, Hamerquist suggests we “self-conscioulsy bring together social anarchists and those Marxists and Leninists that could live with the lower case ‘m’ and ‘l’.” I like that idea, though it depends very much on the terms of this bringing together. I consider myself a marxist and an anarchist, and I like a great many capital M Marxists, but … well, here’s a way to put it – this would also require Anarchists who can live with the lowercase ‘a’, and I’m not sure how many of those there are.

The piece defines the vanguard party as disciplining and centralizing the working class, this is the bad version of the party, and as “a unified, disciplined, and centralized” body that is “able to act as the leadership of the working class in struggle,” the less problematic version. Hamerquist references someone I’ve not read, Larry Gambone, who argues that Lenin conflates centralize with unify, and argues that, as Hamerquist puts it “organizational centralization is problematic surrogate for political unification.” Whether or not Lenin does conflate these, the distinction is crucial – the former is about formal structure and official intra-organizational power, the latter is about informal power and structure and relationships, and is the more important politically. The piece later cites Lenin dealing with an analogous problem among the party faithful, arguing that some have “a propensity to ‘administrative solutions’, resolving ideological and theoretical issues through bureaucratic authority – sometimes even militarily.” That strikes me as an incredibly important point, and one which is possible at much lower scale/scope (in much smaller organizations in less heady times) than Lenin was talking about.

(Oh yeah, before I forget, the piece references v10 of Lenin’s collected works as one important source on all this, and also apologizes for not referencing more volumes, due to issues of access. Note to self, check out v10.)

The piece references Althusser’s Leninism (and Althusser comes off looking bad, I still need to closely read Hamerquist’s other recent work on Althusser), with a quote that Lenin saw the objective conditions of a Russian revolution and set out “to forge its subjective conditions, the means of a decisive assault on the weak link in the imperialist chain, in a Communist Party that was a chain without weak links.” The piece calls Althusser’s statement a “historically laughable assertion.” While I’ve got no interest in arguing the point, I just don’t understand it – what part is historically laughable? The assessment of the CP? Anyway, I like the point about forging the subjective conditions.

The piece changes gears about half way through, setting aside most of the historical agenda and engaging with recent ideas, including Tom Wetzel’s reply to Cindy Milstein. Hamerquist starts from an idea that I know Tom shares, that the emancipation of the working class will be carried out by the working class.

The piece references some “general principles for the relationship of communists to the mass struggles of working people” detailed in the Communist Manifesto, which Hamerquist describes as “communists should ‘represent’ the interests of the whole in the movements of parts, and they should ‘represent’ the interests of the future in the movements of the present.” I think this is tremendously important, though I’m not sure about these particular terms, but I’m going to have to come back to this. [Note to self – this relates to my conversation the other day with my pal Mike K about that letter I objected to.] Hamerquist notes that individualist anarchists (I’m tempted to say “individualist so-called anarchists”) will object to this entirely, on the grounds of this stuff as infringing their individual (petit bourgeois) liberty; he also notes that in the US these sort “present a potent source of resistance to virtually any left political strategy.” I’m of two minds here – I agree, in that those folk are generally useless at best, often obstructionists and so on. On the other hand, I’m not sure we need to actually deal with them, couldn’t we just ignore and exclude them?

Hamerquist notes that so-called autonomists would likely oppose this perspective (this is a great point in my opinion, and further confirms my suspicion that at least right now autonomist perspectives are generally little different than insurrectionary and lifestylist anarchist perspectives, and the more useless sort of ultraleftist perspectives [I’ve recently heard the phrase “lifestyle communism” for this which I like very much]), on the grounds of concern with substitutionism. I think this concern is right, but badly expressed – it seems to me that part of Hamerquist’s goal is to argue for a non-substitutionist leninism. The autonomist perspective that Hamerquist criticizes tends to “see the changing class composition of the working class as the motor and primary determinant of historical change, but more or less independently of the conscious intent of its participants.” That’s a good way to describe some of that stuff and is a mistaken idea, particularly in the Negri side of things which seems to take the technical composition as the engine for the political composition, precisely the opposite of the force those ideas could and should and occasionally do have – if reversed, we get a political history of the economy as a balance of class power, a subjective explanation of objective conditions. Hamerquist explicitly criticizes the Johnson-Forest Tendency version of this idea as well as the Italian one. It seems to me that the JFT perspective is basically what Noel Ignatiev puts forward in his short piece on James (notes below). Hamerquist sums up the argument – or rather, the assumption – of this autonomist work as the assumption “that almost every organized intervention by communists has and will result in a net subtraction from the working class struggle. Therefore the best course for communists is to stand aside and just ‘describe’ – or to self consciously limit their role to helping out – possible following some variant of Lynd’s notion of ‘accompaniment.'” I agree, but I don’t get the Lynd reference, Staughton Lynd I assume?

Against all of this Hamerquist poses those who like Tom Wetzel see “the unevenness in consciousness and development in the working class and the need for an organized minority to motivate and consolidate organizing projects that advance and expand the general struggle. This necessarily entails a degree of ‘representation’ of the interests and potentials of social groups that are not organized and politically unified by a revolutionary organization that hopefully is. However, it does not necessarily imply any delegation of authority to the revolutionary organization.” [A thought – Stirner says somewhere that children belong to their future freedom, somewhat similar point.]

The piece criticizes Marxist-Leninists and class struggle anarchists alike for an “incrementalist and evolutionary” approach, as opposed to Lenin’s insurrectionary approach. I’m not sure what to make of that, or how to discuss the disagreement here. This is I think one of the key political issues in the piece and that Hamerquist wants to discuss, and it’s at least in part a theoretical matter. He refers to “rapid, but temporary and reversible shifts in political potentials in epistemological break situations, particularly those with insurrectionary possibilities.” [Have to think more about this.] At the end of the piece he states that “The development of mass revolutionary sentiment is not an extended and uniform process, but the result of sharp breaks and new normals that produce a strata of revolutionaries today that may not even have been the reformists of yesterday. These are not people who are discovered through a process of patiently arguing and convincing, but people who create and discover themselves through the unexpected leaps in perception and self conception that happen in actions, fights, struggles.” The “revolutionary organization should work to precipitate” this kind of occurence, he argues.

The piece seems to still advance the seizure of state power as a goal, that’s a big disagreement with the anarchist milieu. It states that “The real test of whether a seizure of power has initiated a trajectory towards socialism is whether working class and popular self organization and self rule is expanding.” This includes “the essential requirement that there be significant concrete steps toward replacing the administration of people with the administration of things.” I think a common anarchist assumption is that no seizure of power could in the long run meet this test.

There’s a lot more in the piece than I can treat, much of which I like (like the criticisms of ‘real socialism’ and so on). One of the key issues in the piece for the milieu I’m in is “the issues of democracy and participation within mass struggles.” Hamerquist criticizes Tom Wetzel for not being detailed enough, “there’s just not enough here to answer some very basic questions facing any revolutionary strategy, what is to be done; what are the concrete conditions and obstacles; what are the potentials; how do we proceed?” I have to say I don’t really understand this criticism.

Hamerquist makes what are to my mind really good points about democracy and participation. He points a view that tends to see “greater democratic participation as the answer to most problems without fully appreciating its limitations and the resulting importance that revolutionaries collectively formulate and advance their own positions and confront the underlying issues in their own name.” He writes later that “[m]ost episodes of mass and class struggle include elements of a struggle for ‘better terms’ within capitalism, for reforms, as well as at least an implicit struggle against the capitalist system. Clearly moments occur in mass struggles when participatory majorities tacitly or explicitly acknowledge their subordination in exchange for selective concessions and a circumscribed security.” Hamerquist notes that radicals are usually in the numerical minority most of the time. He agrees with anarchists that there can be no “substitute for the actual change in the collective understanding of what is and what is possible” on the part of large groups of people. This can only occur “through the experience of active resistance to the power of capital and from the construction out of this resistance of a popular alternative.” He says that “The introduction of notions of general ‘objective’ interests of some broader social group in so situations can sometimes be helpful or even necessary, but it is no substitute for decisions that the actual participants in the struggle can recognize as their own.”

I think it’s important that “recognize as their own” is not the same as “make for themselves.” He says “Participatory majorities” in this sense are not necessarily numerical majorities. He adds that “even in early stages of struggle formally democratic procedures within it will not always promote the expansion and intensification of the struggle.” I think that is absolutely correct. In at least some contexts “a democratic and participatory approach will result in decisions that will not move the struggle forward, at least not in the opinion of the revolutionary grouping. So there may be moments in a struggle when a confrontation with democratically expressed ‘common sense’ is important.” Some of the time formal democracy can “substitute lowest common denominator approaches that accept the logic of capital for much less comfortable and less popular initiatives that might challenge this logic.” He points out that this does not “mean that revolutionary groups should always urge the fight forward.” There are times when digging in an holding ground is the better move for the long range than always pressing onward. We should be aware that “waves of enthusiasm can promote tactics that are not sustainable and objectives that are not attainable,” which “can result in significant and predictable setbacks.” It is possible that there can be “militant majorities that do not properly calculate the gaps and unevenness between what they are willing to do at a given moment and what they and others, possibly not so directly involved, will support over time.” This means “there will be (and have been) points where it may be necessary and important to retrench, to consolidate advances and accept necessary losses, even while additional victories still seem attainable to many participants in the movement. It will be certainly be unpopular, but it may be right to question or even challenge a militant majority under such conditions.”

One of the biggest problems that the piece is concerned with, but which I feel like it only partially engages with – it more seems to just say “This is a problem that needs to be dealt with” than saying much on how to deal with the problem – is the relationship between insurrections and organizations (between spontaneous and willed activity?). The main engine (as far as I can see) in the piece for changing people is insurrection. I don’t think this is because Hamerquist thinks that’s all that changes people, I think it’s a matter of scale – those things will change more people more, if organizations are around to capitalize on them.

This is one of the biggest disconnects for me in the piece, the issue of insurrection, the scope of the implied stuff the piece can imagine. Maybe this is just me being conservative or maybe limits of my experience but smaller scale fights seem hard enough (perhaps I’m a crypto-gradualist) and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the large sort of tectonic shifts that the piece seems to suggest are possible and which communists need to be prepared to take advantage of.

The piece notes that if the left isn’t sufficiently working class based then it needs to become so, the left needs recomposing. I think that at least for the circles I’m around the left is based in the working class but largely among younger people who by virture of where they’re at in their lives and the presence of their families have more options that older people and people with families of their own. (And suddenly I’m more sympathetic to Alquati’s remarks on “young labor power,” which I previously thought were weird and a departure from class analysis.)

my own view is on smaller scale changes of people through struggles, accomplishing the recomposition of the left and of the class – its transition to the class for itself – at a pace of a few people at a time who will have a more long term perspective. Put another way, the piece seems to call for some kind of refoundation/regroupment [milieu-creation? context-production? plain old relationship building?], something short of but tending toward in an institutional manner – bring together social anarchists and marxists and leninists. It seems to me we need an informal or pre-institutional project: we need to make more anarchists and marxists! And do so through experiences of struggle. Chicken or egg, I suppose. I’m tempted to see part of the disconnect here as one of a break in historical memory or generational connection/transmission, and a difference in experiences across generations of the left.

Notes on replies to Hamerquist

Tom Wetzel –
Tom’s reply starts off with the historical case. He argues that Lenin and the Bolsheviks don’t offer an example with the sort of importance that Don’s piece suggests. I don’t have any knowledge of any of this so I can’t really assess the claims, but Tom’s arguments on this fit with my own initial prejudices. I’d really like to know more about all this so I could make a clearer judgment. In any case, over all, this doesn’t mean there’s no reason to know about Lenin on historical grounds, and really Don’s arguments and agenda aren’t primarily about/based on history, they’re about present issues.

Among the issues Tom raises in assessing the Bolsheviks and in the present is the issue of democratic participation. This is I think one of the most important issues in disagreement between Don and Tom, though I wonder how much of this disagreement is a matter of principle and how much a matter of the form of the discussion (that is, I wonder how much they’d differ in actual actions within the same contexts). As Tom puts, one key role for radicals is to work on the transition from the class in itself to the class for itself, in some ways at an individual level – to spread the skills, knowledge, confidence, and other determinants among workers. That’s at least part of why democratic participation is important, because we learn and are improved through participation. Tom also notes though not in these terms that there’s a needed context or background for the efficacy of democratic participation – this is his point about unionism in Spain in the 30s. I take a large part of Tom’s point to be that among other things radicals need to build that context where/when it’s lacking (like nowadays) and to maintain that context where it does exist. (Tom references “the Spanish anarchist concept of capacitacion – developing capacities of rank and file working class people,” something I’d like to read more about and which in this passing reference seems to resonate with my experiences and the efforts of me and my closest comrades in a lot of our work together.)

Tom also makes the point that the issue of the mass/vanguard relationship has to be seen a dynamic one.

I share Tom’s uncertainty about the utility/advisability of the idea of insurrection.

Dave Ranney –

Dave Ranney’s reply deals among other things with the relationships between revolutionary organizations, working class movements, and philosophical reflection, tied to the experiences and development of the circle around Raya Dunayevskaya and News and Letters. I have a lot of respect for all that, but it seems to me that, as far as I can understand the project, that the project is really a wager. They’re betting on an as yet to be achieved relationship between all of this, one which they see are possible and desireable. It not having been achieved yet (or has at best been achieved in fleeting instances which we after the fact have not yet fully grasped), its desireable effects are at best only partially delineable, and likewise for the steps needed to achieve this synthesis. As such, I wish comrades nothing but luck in working it all out, but I’m not sure how much weight to give to the project or the concerns motivating it.

That said, he does make an important point that we have retain “clarity about the goal of the revolutionary project as human self development rather than simply state power let alone “party building.””

I don’t share his sense that there’s been some important change in/at/in the meaning of the point of production that changes anything politically, maybe because I grew up after the change that he sees as having occurred. I’m more inclined to see this as a matter of perspectives hegemonic within parts of the left which may have once made some sense (but that doesn’t mean they were right) and may make less sense now. As part of that it may be though that nowadays we have a more obvious need that was widely recognized before to expand the historical and spatial/economic range of examples we draw from (I’m for being waged-workplace-centric, but factory centeredness makes less sense [though it shouldn’t be entirely abandoned]).

I’m sympathetic to Ranney’s point about a new international communist milieu, though I don’t know enough about previous ones or the existing one.

Noel Ignatiev –

Ignatiev’s piece is about CLR James and organization. Ignatiev begins by noting that James both rejected the idea of the vanguard party and retained a commitment to organization. What’s that organizations for, though? Ignatiev lays out a few answers to this question from James’ works:
– record positive developments that happen (presumably this recording involved the idea of presenting these developments back to people in the hope that doing so would aid those developments by deepening them or spreading them)
Ignatiev spends a lot of time on the views of Facing Reality, James’ organization, about race relations and black workers, and speculates that the left in the US might productively spend a lot of time working on prisoners’ right to vote. Aside from the historical particulars, Ignatiev notes that the specific organizational functions stressed here are to educate workers (mainly but not solely through its newspaper), and will maintain “a resolute determination to bring all aspects of the question into the open, within the context of the recognition that the new society exists and that it carries within itself much of the sores and diseases of the old.” Ignatiev gives an example of a walkout at a workplace, and radicals responding to that by pushing for discussions on how the walkout could become “the starting point of a new shop-floor organization based on direct action.” I’m sympathetic to this but it’s a disconnect from my experience – I’ve got little experience with the sequence implied here, that sequence being the existence of a group of radicals, then the actions of a group of workers largely on their own initiative, then the radicals respond by trying to move the process a step further or to retain the positive developments. I’ve got much more experience in situations of radicals playing a large (but by no means exclusive) role in generating the initiative – or the tissues of relationships and emotional responses and ideas that lead to the initiative – to take the workplace action. After that the sequence proceeds basically the same and can eventually lead to situations of less politicized workers taking their own initiative without the conscious intervention of radicals.

Ignatiev also shares some anecdotes about workers bringing guns to work to kill foremen. To some extent I appreciate the empathy expressed there, but only partially, and I can’t shake the a negative reaction to the anecdotes. I mean, yeah, defending people and spreading the idea of defending people is great, but really really limited – the shooter’s life is still pretty messed up, this hardly sounds to me like an inspiring example for radicals to aim for (“if we work really hard, we can see that workers who get desperate and shoot their bosses don’t executed but instead get committed!”)

Ignatiev ends with this paragraph – “The task of revolutionaries is not to organize the workers but to organize themselves to discover those patterns of activity and forms of organization that have sprung up out of the struggle and that embody the new society, and to help them grow stronger, more confident, and more conscious of their direction.”

I both disagree and think there’s a bit of a logical slip or something here. I don’t see an argument here that the task of radical is not to organize, I just see an assertion. An assertion based largely on “James and his group saw it this way.” That doesn’t convince me. I suppose there are circumstances where this description is right. But I don’t see why this description should be right for all circumstances. Surely it stands to reason that there are instances when things would be better if workers organize, and yet workers don’t. In that case, if there are radicals present who don’t even try to organize, well, that’s just got to be a failing. And, there’s an implication here of a distnction between radicals and workers. Some radicals aren’t workers, and the reverse is certainly true (many workers aren’t radicals). What about radical workers, though? Surely one of our tasks *is* to organize our fellow workers – to organize with them if they’re already organizing, but to get them organizing if they’re not already doing so; the long term goal being to get people to the point where we can genuinely organize with them as equals, and they have the capacity to really take on struggles on their own initiative. Put another way, “disciplined spontaneity,” as Ignatiev calls it, doesn’t always have to be left to produce itself or otherwise be produced without the conscious initiative of anyone.