[lbo-talk] Julian Assange, Lenin/bad times on the left

John Glastonbury jglastonbury at gmail.com
Tue Jul 12 15:09:33 PDT 2011

---------- Forwarded message ---------- From: Carrol Cox <cbcox at ilstu.edu> To: lbo-talk at lbo-talk.org Date: Sat, 09 Jul 2011 22:26:30 -0500 Subject: Re: [lbo-talk] Julian Assange, a Leninist in practice?

Julian, I've read only the following portion of your post so far. I'll comment on that part in a bit. But first, I'm rather amazed that you picked up Lih to read, yet don't seem familiar with the "Lenin" that Lih is seeking to 'do away with'; that is, the Lenin created by Stalin, Trotsky, various Mensheviks and bourgeois scholars after Lenin's death. Lih claims, and I find his claims rather persuasive, to have dug back to the "real" What Is To Be Done, and gives alternative translations and interpretations of some of the more famous (or infamous) phrases and sentences in the book. My knowledge comes from Lih's response to critics in a symposium on his book in a recent issue of Historical Materialism. I have not read the book itself. Also, actually, I had it read to me, since I'm legally blind and can't see text. I have a somewhat sloppy scanned text of the article and have read parts of it. It is a densely written text and I have yet to achieve a firm grasp of it.

Now, very roughly as a start: If LIh is correct, there is no such thing as "Leninism" -- i.e. an abstract theory of socialist revolution. On the contrary, Lenin accepted Kautsky as a correct interpretation of Marxism; and even after 1914, when Kautsky became a renegade in Lenin's eyes, Lenin continued to regard the pre-1914 Katusky as the best guide to Marx. Lenin's _theory_ then is simply Kautskyism. And he regarded the SPD as the proper model for a revolutionary socialist party _in a democratic society_. But Czarist Russia was not a free society. There was no freedom of speech or freedom to organize. Therefore something different had to be worked out in Russia. Previous Russian revolutionary groups or parties had been _conspiratorial_, and did not attempt agitation and propaganda - education and outreach, as a free paraty in Germany could. Lenin did not want a conspiratorial party; he wante one as close to the SPD and its internal freedom as was possible in Russia: a party of a new type, not the old conspiratorial kind of party. Such a party had to a great extent been built up in the yhears after 1890 by "Committees" in various localities, which conducted agitation among workers. Lenin was a member of such a Committee in St. Petersburg - and they all got arrested and sent to Siberaia. Nevertheless by the early 1900s there had emerged in Russia in connection with these Committees a number of people who had mastered a certain skill or trade: the skill or trade of not getting arrested. In references to this skill in all English translations of WITBD they are called "Professional Revolutionaries." In Trotskyist / Stalinist organizations they are also usually referred to as "cadre." The concept thus translated has wreaked endless havoc on revolutionary work in the west for a 100 years.

[Slight digression: Lenin's faith in Kautsky was misplaced. Lenin's faith in the SPD was misplaced. We still don't really know what kind of a political organization is needed to build a revolutionary movement in advanced capitalist democracies. That has to be worked out in practice, not deduced from abstract pricnciples found in Marx's books or the books by Stalin or Traotsky et al. We do not have a revolutionary theory - and there is in fact no such thing as a revolutionary theory.]

It's hard to say. Lih is emphasizing Lenins insistence on working for democracy in Czarist Russia, and in keeping the RSDLP as democratic as possible (which was not very democratic - but not as bad as some claim either). He was engaged in what the Chinese call "Thought" rather than "Theory." One might describe the result as "Kautskyism-Lenin Thought." And the whole point aboaut "Thought" (as opposed to theory) in this Chinese sense is that it is relevant only to the concrete conditions of a given time and place. Its not exportable. Even in Russia WITBD, after around 1910, ceased (eand in Lenin's own opinion as well) to be relevant. It was forgotten until Stalin turned it into a Bible after Lenin's Death, and Trotsky claimed it for his Church and so forth.

Lenin was a great man; I rather think he does stand over the 20th century. But not for the reasons usuallyl given, that he was a greata theorist and passed on to us a great theory which we have only to implement to go on to utopia. He didn't, and he would laugh at us for thinking that he did.

So yes and no you are correct in the paragraphs quoted. But you are incorrect in thinking that is the key to revolution. There is no such key.


************** Yes Carrol, you're right, I forgot to stress the importance of the Erfurt programme, the German SPD, and pre-1914 Kautsky.

I'm only 21; I've actually, the past few years, especially prior to subbing to this list, tried to avoid reading or learning much about Trotsky/Lenin/the Russian Revolution, primarily because I knew enough to know that anything resembling an impartial account, or at least one that wasn't ideologically loaded by anti-communists or soviet apologetics.

I picked up Lih's book on the strength of the recommendations I've heard here. I didn't finish it, class and life interfered, but it's delivered Lenin to me as a worthwhile role model/figure worth studying, and with enough 'revision' that I can read between the lines of less careful works.

By 'key' to revolution, I mean that the outlook of Lenin, who never tried to stick to one position, but rather tried to 'bend the stick' this way or that, tried to keep his propaganda in 'tune' with popular opinion, seems very different than the academic/sectarian rigor mortis that has plagued left wing politics for some time.

I see similarities with Julian Assange on this point inasmuch as, though he has hinted at a more expansive vision of his philosophy, or his vision of 'free access to human history/knowledge,' he sticks to the simple slogan of 'free speech,' which is much more inclusive of many different people than perhaps his more particular vision.

I really like your distinction between 'thought' -directed at the concrete, and 'theory' -directed at the ostensibly universal.

---------- Forwarded message ---------- From: c b <cb31450 at gmail.com> To: lbo-talk <lbo-talk at lbo-talk.org> Date: Tue, 12 Jul 2011 16:08:55 -0400 Subject: [lbo-talk] Julian Assange, a Leninist in practice?

^^^^^^^ CB: You might consider that in Lenin's concrete situation there was a monarchy -Czarist absolutism. So, before the revolutions of 1917 ( the bourgeois revolution in February and the socialist revolution in October) Lenin's line was to lead the working class to ally with liberals to overthrow Czarist absolutism. The main public demands were for bourgeois reforms of the monarchy. In the US, we have had bourgeois democracy for 225 years. In our concrete situation, a "Bolshevik" program can include social democratic planks such as full employment, universal health care, reduce the military spending drastically, government control of financial institutions et al.


Generationally speaking, I have never 'gotten what I wanted' via this bourgeois democracy. Not once. Not an end to the drug war. Not universal healthcare. Not a lowering of the drinking age. Not mass transit. Not an end to the stupid wars in Iraq, Afghanistan. Not a move to green energy. Not positive reform in education at the high school or college level. Not a massive reconstruction effort following the BP oil spill. Not amnesty for 'illegal' immigrants. Not a decrease in military spending.

And, I think that many people of my age would agree with me on that point. We have never seen 'democracy in action' give us anything resembling what we want, not within the two-party paradigm, not within the capitalist paradigm. Not even close.

Which is why I think that my comparison between Julian Assange and Lenin is based on a belief in the need for a 'democratic restoration' of sorts. A dismantling of the CNN/FOX/NPR 'political discourse' that excludes huge swathes of popular opinion. Lessening of the huge weight that is put upon the shoulders of young people, via stagnant wages, rampant unemployment, and outright state persecution via the drug war, the '21' drinking age, etc. The cultural status as second class citizens in comparison to say, repressed white wage earning 45+ men.

Let me dovetail this with the discussion of bad times and the left, as I think my admiration of Julian Assange, Lenin, and in fact the pre-1914 SPD ties into this discussion.

I have not seen democracy in my lifetime. I have seen a complicated electoral shell game that rewards money, rewards only certain classes of americans, and fails/fucks over/ignores the rest. This is not 'left wing' or 'extreme' among young people; it is self-evident truth, and real reason for total despair/apathy/serfdom.

This perspective is a dark one; and it excludes a lot of options, hopes, or pieties that some on this list have. I have seen 9/11, Katrina, Iraq, Afghanistan, the BP oil spill. I have not seen the Marshall Plan rebuild Europe, or the US land on the moon, or student protests of any magnitude like '68.

And outside of a few large metropolitan areas, most young people have no chance, let alone hope, of getting engaged/active/involved in transformative politics.

For all these reasons, I am drawn more to the 19th century, and pre-1914 models of left wing struggle as more applicable and relevant; the lack of the Soviet Union, the Gilded-Age type inequality, the increasingly retrograde cultural politics, frankly a Neo-Victorianism (Anthony Weiner, Bill Clinton, etc.); the quality of democracy in the US and elsewhere have little in common with the 1919-1989 epoch, which had strong left wing institutions like the unions, communist parties, the Soviet Union itself. I feel we are up against capitalism without the velvet glove, without fear of real existing socialism, without need for Social Democracy; and this type of capitalism is making itself known in the 'austerity' we are facing worldwide.

Bad times are bad; and, for most people my age, there is no reason for hope within living memory; hence why Julian Assange is so inspiring, and why the inchoate student protests, inspiring as they are, have remained intermittent and frenetic over the past few years. The arab spring has given me optimism; but most people my age have no clue about what's going on at any level of government or in any part of the world. They have the helpless pessimism of serfs, limited primarily to 'oh the noble has raised our levy; and he wants to go to war, God have mercy on our souls.'

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