On July 21st Paul Le Blanc sat down at his Pittsburgh home with Vaios Triantafyllou for an interview on issues related to a radicalization process that he sees unfolding in the United States today, and possible revolutionary strategies for the future. Le Blanc is uniquely qualified to address these themes, with more than half a century of activist experience in social movements, and as internationally recognized scholar of working class history and revolutionary politics. The wide-ranging conversation was animated by extensive reflections on the nature of capitalism, democracy, socialism, the working class, and human nature. It also touched on current U.S. and global developments, the history of the Russian Revolution, relationships between Marxism and Leninism and Stalinism, and more.
Le Blanc is author of the widely-read Short History of the U.S. Working Class (1999). His book on the U.S. civil rights movement (with Michael D. Yates), A Freedom Budget for All Americans (2013), received a Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Title, and his recently published collection Left Americana (2017) has been hailed as “a feat of historical reconstruction around an ambitious spectrum of themes.” His 1989 study Lenin and the Revolutionary Party won acclaim as “a work of unusual strength and coherence,” and his upcoming volume October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy has been described as “a strikingly effective synthesis” and “extraordinary.” Le Blanc has served as an editor of the eight-volume International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest (2009) and of the Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg (begun in 2013).
Given the current shape of the left in the United States and in Europe do you think that it is possible to build a revolutionary movement that is conscious of its demands and tactics? What would the role of the vanguard of the working class be in this process, and how would spontaneity be nurtured into consciousness?
One of the things that I think is important as we are going along is taking a little time to define our terms, what we mean by different things.
I think that, as you said, there is this broad radicalization that is taking place internationally, and in certain countries including my own, with large numbers of people not accepting the status quo, challenging the status quo, reacting against the status quo (which is a capitalist status quo). They are reacting negatively to what has happened to them, in new ways that are consistent with radical ideas, potentially left-wing ideas. Because people are suffering in this country against such devastation to their quality of life, some are moving in a left-wing direction so that they respond to the appeals of a socialist candidate in the Democratic Party, like Bernie Sanders.
But some of these people have also been drawn to Trump, who seems to be outside of the establishment, which is why many have responded positively to him. In part many have responded positively to racist and xenophobic, right-wing perspectives. But for many who voted for Trump, it’s not that. It’s just anger against the established order, and they are hoping that he may provide solutions. I don’t believe that he will provide solutions, so that will lead to the deepening of the radicalization.
All of this does create circumstances for the coming together of a substantial left-wing force in American Politics, and I think the same thing has happened in various other countries. There is nothing automatic about that. It may not be realized, but possibilities exist now that haven’t existed for years in this country for that kind of left-wing development.
I want to talk about more both the word vanguard and the word working class, because there are both so important.
In the past years we saw the Occupy movement, which I participated in. This movement expressed a counter position of the 99% against the 1%. I wouldn’t say that the entire 99% is the working class, but the heart and soul of that 99%, and the great majority of that 99%, are the working class. They are these people who are selling their ability to work for a paycheck. They may have a blue collar, they may have a white collar, but they are dependent on that paycheck, their family members are dependent on that paycheck and also members of the working class. If they are laid off they are unemployed members of the working class, and if they ever get to retire, they are retired workers.
The great majority of people are working class, but this is very diverse. It’s diverse in different ways: its racially diverse, its age diverse, its gender diverse etc. But it is diverse in a different way, as well. There are certain layers of the working class, this broadly defined working class, that are conscious of various problems, are developing ideas on what those problems are, are developing ideas on what should be done, are starting to engage in struggles to bring about changes for the better. This is not the majority of the working class, it’s a layer and I see that as the vanguard layer, so when I talk about the vanguard, that’s what I’m talking about.
I think it’s important to make that distinction because there are many in the left who have designated themselves as the vanguard, because they have “such brilliant ideas in their minds,” ideas about what’s wrong and what is to be done and so forth. They are the “vanguard,” and they organize their own little vanguard party, or organization that doesn’t have a connection to the larger working class. In contrast, this broader vanguard layer of the working class does have connection with the broader working class. To the extent that it becomes organized, to the extent that it becomes more and more represented by a political organization, that organization could be considered a vanguard organization.
It’s more of a natural process.
Yes, and that’s the way it’s done, in my opinion. If you carefully look at the Russian experience—and this is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, after all—and if you look at what Lenin and the Bolsheviks actually represented, actually did, and how they came into being, it was more akin to this natural process that we are talking about. So, the question is: Can something similar to what happened in Russia that is a revolution, happen in our own context?
Things are very different today, they are qualitatively different. In Russia, the majority of the people were peasants, the number of working class people was very small. Russia was industrially and economically backward, in most of the country electricity didn’t exist, etc. Culturally, technologically in many ways, it was a different reality. But we do live in this very dynamic global capitalist economy and there are some similarities between the social dynamics existing in Russia, or Germany, or England in the early 1900s and existing dynamics now. Things have changed, but not everything has changed. So the question is: Can we find lessons and insights from the earlier experience that are relevant to our experience?
I think that relates to the way you were posing the question. Would it be possible for a working class vanguard layer to come into being that has a revolutionary orientation? And then you raised the question about the relationship between that and spontaneity. I think that’s also very important.
One question is, what is meant by spontaneity. If I am guided by a left-wing organization and doing things on behalf of the organization, that’s not necessarily spontaneous. If, on the other hand I (along with my friends, and neighbors, and workmates, and so forth) react against something bad that is happening, trying to do something about it, that could be considered spontaneous.
The thing about that kind of spontaneity, though, is that I am influenced by what others have done. For example, some of my thinking is influenced by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, some of my thinking is influenced by what happened with the labor movement (my parents were part of the trade union movement), and so on and so forth. The fact is that there were left-wing organizations in the past, organizations that shared ideas, that engaged in action, that spread ideas of socialism and human rights and the socialist perspective that all of us have the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness not just politically, but economically. I have soaked that in, and some of my neighbors and workmates may have soaked that in. We don’t know exactly where it came from, but it came from the larger political struggles and culture of previous times and that were influenced by left-wing organizations. Martin Luther King, for example, was a conscious socialist for almost all of his adult life, and he worked with conscious socialists, people who were part of one or another left-wing organization. It’s not that he was manipulated, and it’s not that the millions of people who got involved with the civil rights movement were manipulated, or directed by those left-wing organizations. Rather, there was an interplay between the so-called spontaneity and the more organized thinking and activity of those organizations. That’s the only way it’s going to work.
If a left-wing organization decides it’s too pure for this kind of stuff, and that this kind of stuff is “opportunistic” and wrong, and that “you have to follow the red flag” as interpreted by the particular organization, then that organization is a sect. It’s irrelevant, and it’s not going to go anywhere. But the kind of process that I envision, the kind of process that has been taking place and will continue to take place, is this interplay between organization and spontaneity, the interplay between a left-wing groups that may be competing with each other but which also are all contributing to the larger ferment. There is a interplay of such groups with the thinking and actions of people who are reacting to their experience, as it develops under the present stage of capitalist development.
And what about the kind of spontaneity that chooses to resort to violence?
Well, there are different people, there are different mindsets, there are different possibilities, so we don’t all think in the same way. There are some people in the recent past, and the distant past, too, who have felt that the use of violence is necessary and will be beneficial in advancing struggles against oppression and tyranny.
Some of those people made the American Revolution, some of those people made the French Revolution, some of those people made various revolutions, even Mahatma Gandhi who helped forge a non-violent struggle for the Indian Revolution had to factor in the question of violence. So, one part of the answer is violence happens to be part of our world and naturally arises in various social struggles.
There are some people who want to initiate violence with the belief that they are being revolutionary. But if they do it and it’s just a few people, not only do they not have monopoly on violence, but the forces of status quo, the forces of law and order, have much more violence at their disposal. So, small group violence will result in repression.
There is also another problem with small group violence: large numbers of people don’t understand it intellectually or emotionally. That’s not where they are at. They may be angry about austerity, they may be angry about racism, they may be angry about declining living standards and living conditions, they may be ready to struggle against war and imperialism. But they are not ready to engage in street battles with the police, they are not ready to break windows, they don’t understand how this advances anything. So the small groups that engage in violence cut themselves off from the large numbers of people who will actually be necessary to bring about the real social change, thus undermining the struggle.
But there are people who do that nonetheless. In some cases they may be on the pay on the police. In many cases, such people are absolutely sincere and trying to be as revolutionary as they can be, and it’s a mistake, in my opinion. So, I agree with you, in some cases spontaneity can result in some people using counterproductive violence. That needs to be discussed in the larger movement and it needs to be critiqued, because if we want to bring a change we need to discuss how to do it and how not to do it. So, I see small group violence as an issue that many of us have addressed and will continue to address as we work to bring about the actual change that’s needed.
How would the working class as a whole protect themselves from opportunist factions or politicians that might be seeking short-term gains for the working class or even personal gain both at the expense of long-term socialist principles?
That is also an excellent question, and is one that historically the movements for social change have been dealing with for centuries. There is no simple answer. We have to learn from experience. Some say: “We can come to an agreement or an understanding with powers that be.” Can we? And what would that agreement look like? Maybe the person that says we should come to an agreement is actually interested in cutting a deal with the powers that be, and benefitting materially from pushing potentially radical mass struggle into a more moderate direction. Sometimes, though, the leaders that push for moderation are sincere.
In some cases those leaders may be committed to real, fundamental, radical change, but realize that it takes time to build a force that can result in that change. Rosa Luxemburg, for example, and other revolutionary socialists of her time argued that we must build reform struggles. I am defining reform as a change for the better within the status quo, within the existence of capitalist society. It might be social programs, it might be higher wages, it can involve various struggles for gains that can be won in the here-and-now, if enough workers organize to put enough pressure on politicians and bosses to cause them to give such a reform.
That, in my opinion, and in Rosa Luxemburg’s opinion, is a good thing for three reasons: 1) It helps people join together to fight for their rights. 2) It gives people the sense you can win something if you do that. 3) It gives people some benefits in the here-and-now. If you are hungry, you can do something to make yourself less hungry. If you don’t have schools for your kids, you can establish schools for your kids. Those are good things not bad things, and that will help increase the morale and consciousness of the working class.
Luxemburg also argued that, given the way capitalism functions, you will not be able to simply pile up reforms to solve all the problems. The way capitalism functions, it will generate more problems that will continue to radicalize working class people. It will undermine and erode and take back some reforms that were won. People will see the limitations of the reforms, they will push for more reforms, they will get stronger, they will get better organized, and they will develop a revolutionary consciousness. So she argued through the struggle for reforms, we build the struggle for social revolution.
But of course, Rosa Luxemburg was killed, and many of the revolutionaries representing that orientation were killed, many of them were defeated in various ways in the course of the 20th century. The more dominant force in the labor movement, in the movement for social change was reformist. That is, it didn’t simply struggle for reform, but it said that’s all we have to do. That’s all we have to do: accept the current structure of capitalism as it is, fight for better working conditions, better living conditions, more social programs, and gradually by piling up these reforms we will have eliminated the bad things about capitalism, and we will have a welfare state. That became the dominant ideology of the labor movement, certainly in Europe, in a different way in the United States, and in many other countries. The problem with that is, what Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, capitalism cannot accommodate that indefinitely. It will erode it, it will undermine it, it will demolish it ultimately in the interest of maximizing capitalist profits.
So in various ways, through globalization, through global economic restructuring, the gains that had been won through that reformism, were largely destroyed with Reaganism, with Thatcherism and so forth. The reformist labor movement that had been committed to that strategy, largely has been destroyed. Many of the residual forces and the rising forces within the labor movement, within the movement for social change, have continued to put forward this reformist orientation. Our experience demonstrates historically that we have to go beyond that.
I may believe that, and you may believe that, based on what we understand has happened. But large numbers of people don’t have that understanding yet. We need to explain that to them. There will always be those kinds of politicians you are talking about. The ones that for their own gain, or due to their own illusions, are arguing against a revolutionary perspective. We need to discuss that, we need to debate that in the context of a larger struggle, and win more and more people to an understanding of the reality we are actually facing. We cannot abolish the danger that you are talking about. We have to understand it arises naturally.
Isn’t Bernie Sanders seeking reforms within capitalism?
Bernie Sanders is a very interesting case. The answer to your question, I think is yes and no. I want to start with the no. Bernie Sanders is a self-described socialist, in stark contrast to the mainstream of liberal reformism in the United States, which says capitalism is fine and we can make it better. Bernie Sanders says “capitalism is not fine, and that’s why I am a socialist.”
Now what he means by socialism, how he defines it, is not adequate, in my opinion. He holds up as his hero Eugene V. Debs, and that’s wonderful. Debs, I think, had a good understanding of socialism and he defined it as the economy being socially owned and democratically controlled, and utilized to meet the needs of all people. At the same time, however, Sanders says they have socialism in Denmark. I’ve been in Denmark; I’ve talked to socialists in Denmark. I can assure you there is not socialism in Denmark, and socialists in Denmark will tell you that. What you have are welfare state reforms, some of which have been recently overturned, but some of which are still in place, and which were gained through struggles of the working class. Those are good things. But there is still a capitalist economy, so we need to go beyond what was achieved in Denmark, according to the perspective of Eugene V. Debs. We need to go beyond that. We need to go beyond the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt that Sanders has also held up as a model. We need an economic democracy, instead of the economic dictatorship that capitalism is.
Sometimes Sanders tilts in that socialist direction. He is different from mainstream liberal reformist politicians in that sense, and that is one reason why so many people responded to him, because of that element in his orientation. At the same time, as I have already indicated, he tends to modify or dilute that, and bring people into the Democratic Party as a perspective of achieving something like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, or something like what they have in Denmark and Sweden. He does this under the banner of socialism, and I think that that is a limitation, and we will need to go beyond that limitation. Perhaps Sanders himself will ultimately conclude the same, or maybe not, but I know that many of his supporters are already going beyond that framework, towards actual socialism.
So I think that the Sanders campaign is a mixed bag, but it has been very positive, it has been a reflection of the larger radicalization we have talked about, and it has helped sharpen the discussion by bringing at least the idea that there is a socialist alternative to the capitalism that we are experiencing.
Do you believe that appealing to the authority of 19th and 20th century socialist intellectuals is common practice among leftists today? Is it important to place their sayings in the context that they said them? How would one adapt their thoughts to the 21st century?
You are posing key questions that those of us in the left need to be wrestling with. Jean-Paul Sartre, also a figure of the past who is dead now, said something interesting in 1960. He said “Marxism remains the philosophy of our time because we haven’t superseded the conditions that brought Marxism into being.” That continues to be true. The conditions in the time of Karl Marx were very different from conditions in our own time. But there are some things that were the same back then. There was a capitalist economy that he analyzed very well. It has changed in all kinds of ways, but there are insights in his analysis that help us to understand the dynamics of that economy even today. There was a working class developing in his time. It was being pushed into struggles for its own survival and betterment. The class struggle generated a considerable amount of experience and Marx analyzed that. Things now are different, the working class is different, it’s bigger, it’s more diverse, it’s different in many different ways, but it’s still a working class within a capitalist society. Marx’s analyses still have resonance.
Some of the analyses and some of the insights that Marx and others in the 19th century, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, and into the 20th century Lenin, Trotsky, Antonio Gramsci and others developed continues to have value. There are some people on the left that have been so convinced of that, but have therefore blinded themselves to the fact that things keep changing all the time. But it was part of the methodology of Marx that things keep changing all the time. You have got to revise, refine, and continue to develop your analysis. It has to be based on the actualities of one’s society. There are changes and if you are stuck back in 1848 and try to build barricades across the broad boulevards of Paris, for example, it won’t work. You can’t simply copy or duplicate all the past analyses and experiences and try to superimpose them on current realities. It doesn’t make sense, nor would Marx or Lenin or anybody who was intelligent from that time feel otherwise.
But, I think that we can’t simply dismiss the work that has already been done, because then we would be blinding ourselves in a different way. So, what we must do is grasp the insights, grasp the methodology and utilize them to make sense of the new reality—not losing sight of the continuity, but not losing sight of all the changes. That’s how we should function, that’s how they functioned. Whether you are a Marxist or not, that is an intelligent approach.
I understand that a lot has changed since the 18th century. How has the way that capitalists take advantage of the working class has changed since then, and how can those insights be adapted to the current globalized free market economy ruled by huge multinational companies?
There are several pieces to that. When you look at the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels put out in 1848, some people say it’s out of date, but actually some aspects of it are truer now than they were in 1848. Back then the working class was a minority in most of the world, it was just becoming a majority in England, it wasn’t yet a majority in Germany, but it was going to become a majority. They said “workers of all countries unite.” It was hard for workers of all countries to unite, there was a global capitalist economy, but it was also national capitalist economies competing with each other on a global terrain. Today, the working class in more and more of the world is absolutely the majority class. It is easier for them to unite today, because we are drawn together thanks to globalization.
However, globalization has destroyed many of the gains of the past. For example, let’s take the United States. In 1848 the majority of the people weren’t working class yet, and few of them were organized in socialist groups or trade unions. Over time, the great majority of the people in the U.S. became working class, and that is still true today, even more so. The organized labor movement grew, and trade unions grew. In my childhood in 1956 over one-third of American workers were organized in unions. And when the American Federation of Labor merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the AFL-CIO was powerful as an economic force and as a reformist political force operating inside the Democratic Party. There had been struggles to establish many social reforms through the New Deal, not a strong welfare state as existed in the Scandinavian countries and other European countries, but beneficial to the great majority of the people, a social safety net.
Those gains have been destroyed. About 7% of American workers are in unions now, the trade union movement is very weak. The Democratic Party politicians for the most part have found the interests of the workers and the unions to be expendable. So they haven’t done the kinds of things they felt compelled to do earlier that would be beneficial to the working class. Therefore, the living standard of the workers have declined dramatically: greater economic inequality has developed over the past 20 years, the social safety net has been largely demolished, things have gotten worse and worse, the gains have been eroded.
Capitalism does that. Marx said as much. These thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries predicted those kinds of things that we are seeing. We are facing a mixed situation. Much of it is demoralizing and disorienting. You had a large labor movement, you had a certain kind of working class ideology and consciousness, that may have been largely reformist, but now it has been blown all to hell. People are not sure what do to, but they are getting mad, they are looking for answers and solutions to the problems that are cropping up in their lives. But the left that had helped to bring about some of the positive changes has disintegrated. So there is a radicalization that has taken place within the larger population and at the same time a disintegration of the old organized left.
And what is to be done? Some of us have been trying to rebuild a left, recognizing that we need to rebuild a large left-wing movement to resolve the problems. But we are at the very early stages of that. It seems to me that applying the analyses of those thinkers to today is not a simple question but there is useful stuff there as we wrestle with the problems and try to address them in ways that will move us forward to more human rights, more human liberation, genuine democracy, liberty and justice for all, socialism.
Can you give us a brief definition of Leninism? Connecting this with our previous discussion, how is Leninism applicable to our time?
The word Leninism is tricky. I consider myself to be a Marxist and a Leninist, but the words Marxism, Leninism, socialism, communism are tricky words. They have different meanings for different people, so it is important to define what one means by these words.
As you know I have defined socialism basically as economic democracy. It assumes the existence of political democracy; it is the deepening of democracy into the economic realm. Marx and Engels used the words socialism and communism as synonyms They referred to themselves as scientific socialists. Marx, in one of his writings talked about the different stages of communism: right after the revolution, and in the far future. This latter phase there would be essentially an anarchist society, that is no government over and above the people, with a free association of the producers on a very high technological level. Lenin, when he wrote his classic The State and Revolution, took that same schema and, for reasons that in my mind are not good enough (because they introduce a confusion), he talked about the first stage being socialism and the second stage being communism. I am inclined to use the words in the way that Marx used them, as synonyms.
An additional problem is that “Communism” is associated with some of the worst dictatorships in human history, for various historic reasons. So when somebody asks me if I am a communist, I say, “It depends on what you mean by that, because I am not in favor of dictatorship, and certainly not of the kind of dictatorship represented for example by Stalin.” Lenin, I think it can be demonstrated, was not in favor of the kind of dictatorship represented by Stalin either. But Stalin was a comrade of Lenin’s, he was part of the Bolshevik party and after Lenin’s death when there was a struggle for power and a struggle over what orientation Soviet Russia should take in developing itself, Stalin won. He represented himself as Lenin’s true heir, and what was called Marxism-Leninism became the official ideology of the Soviet Union and of the world Communist movement, at least the mainstream of the world’s Communist movement. That kind of “Leninism” I am opposed to and I don’t think its genuine Leninism.
Some people have argued that we should just drop the word “Leninism” altogether. But the way that I use the term Leninism is the theoretical, practical and organizational orientation represented and developed by Lenin. But then the question poses itself, what is that orientation, and that gets closer to the heart of what you are asking.
One thing is that Lenin absolutely embraced Marxism, so much of Leninism is actually Marxism (particularly his interpretation of Marxism, which I think to a large degree was good and insightful). Then, it involved his attempt to apply Marxism, with a critical and creative mind, to the new realities inside of Russia and in the world, and there were various perspectives related to that. At the same time, he wanted to create an organization of revolutionaries rooted in the vanguard layer of the working class that would be capable of bringing about a socialist revolution, utilizing the Marxist program that was to be used in a creative way. Overall it seems to me that orientation—what I understand as Leninism—is valid and useful.
Basically when you look at the realities of the Bolshevik organization that Lenin was building up to 1917, contrary to the assertions of some people, it had a very high degree of internal democracy. Also, in terms of its perspectives, it sought to advance struggles for democracy. It was absolutely in favor of a deepening, radicalizing, expanding, struggle for rule by the people, especially by the working class, and it linked the struggle for socialism to that struggle for democracy. And because they were effective in how they were analyzing the situation, the campaigns that they were coming up with, and the way that they were organizing within the working class over a period of time, they were able to become the leadership when a radicalizing upsurge, spontaneous to a large extent, and generated by the various problems of the time, took place, and they were able to bring about the October Revolution of 1917.
Their initial perspective was: we want to give all power to the democratic councils of the workers and the peasants (the soviets). And this process has to be international, so the Russian Revolution has to be the start of a worldwide revolutionary wave: Germany, France, Italy, China, India, more and more countries will be swept into a socialist revolution. This meant backward Russia by itself would not try to build some kind of socialism somehow, but rather there will be a rebuilding of a global economy. That would that be socialist and democratic, meeting the needs of the people. That was the Leninism of Lenin up to 1917.
After 1917 all hell broke loose. It was civil war, there were imperialist interventions, there were all kinds of problems, there were big mistakes that the Bolsheviks themselves made, and there was the defeat of possible revolutions in various countries, so Soviet Russia found itself isolated. Out of the problems arose undemocratic emergency measures, including terrible mistakes and bad precedents. Out of the isolation and bad precedents, there arose the Stalin bureaucratic dictatorship.
So we have much to learn from these lessons. The basic orientation of Lenin, it seems to me, is still useful. It involves understanding capitalism as a global system, and understanding that inherent in the globalization that exists now are the dynamics of imperialism and militarism that Lenin pointed to. Capitalism is a global system that must be resisted globally, so working class internationalism and internationalism of the oppressed is something that is essential. At the same time, within our specific countries and cultures we must build mass movements of the workers and the oppressed to fight for a better world and economic democracy, and to have international solidarity with other who are doing the same.
We need to apply Marxism in a critical-minded and creative way to our actual surroundings, to organize ourselves democratically and well, respect and value the spontaneous struggles that are arising and interact with them, help to lead them forward, and out of that kind of dynamic it is possible that a revolution could take place, and out of such a revolution it is possible that socialism could take place. That is the fundamental orientation of Leninism as I understand it.
There is one more point that needs to be made about this. I have been a member, in the past, of something that claimed to be a Leninist party. Many people who feel some kinship with the Leninism that I am talking about, have also been members of organizations, or so-called parties, that have described themselves as Leninist. Some of them haven’t been Leninist in my opinion. Lenin talks about this in a very important pamphlet, Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. At the time of the Russian Revolution, there were many revolutionary-minded people around the world who said, “The Bolshevik Party is a good model, let’s adopt it. Let’s abandon reformism and trade-unionism and build a rock-hard party, a revolutionary party that will lead the revolution to victory.” And they built sects that were divorced from the masses of the people and from the actual struggles of the working class. They had all kinds of “iron discipline,” but according to Lenin they were posturing and clowning, and fell flat on their faces.
The way to build what has to be built is not to proclaim yourself the Leninist party, or the revolutionary party that has all the answers. Instead you have to be immersed in the actual struggles and experiences of more and more people, with very definite and clear revolutionary analysis and proposals, but operating in a way that you earn leadership because what you say makes sense to more and more people. So, a revolutionary vanguard party cannot be proclaimed, it has to arise organically from this kind of process. That’s what Lenin argued in 1920 in his pamphlet, about people and groups trying to carry out shortcuts that were disastrous. Being a Leninist in our period of time, to me, involves avoiding those kinds of mistakes that are often made in the name of “Leninism.” At the same time, we can benefit from the positive stuff that can be drawn from the Leninist experience.
There are several movements that engage in one-issue campaigning such as climate change, gay rights, or even minimum wage. Many people fighting for these rights are liberals opposing socialist principles (although the rights themselves are not contrary to socialism.) How can socialists engage in such campaigns alongside liberals when, for example in the case of climate action, the problem seems to be rooted in the nature of free market economy and corporate greed?
This is also a key question, and it needs to be broadened because we are not simply talking about dealing with liberals and conscious liberals, there are people who self-identify as conservatives who are working-class, people who are Trump supporters who are working class. If you ask them do you believe in socialism, they will say absolutely not. For them, socialism means some kind of dictatorship or a big government bossing them around and trying to take care of them like they are children, taxing them and doing bad things to them. That’s what socialism means to them and that’s why they are anti-socialists. There are some liberals who have an anti-socialist perspective, because although they may understand what socialism is, they just believe it won’t work, and therefore they support capitalism. In fact, the majority of people in this country don’t self-identify as socialists. How do you work with them? How do you win them to socialism?
You can’t win them simply by giving them a damn good book, or a leaflet, or by having a series of conversations with them. That may influence their thinking but it won’t win them to socialism. They have to win themselves to socialism, in large measure through their own experience, and discussions that we have will be part of the chemistry of that. But there has to be a certain experience through which the idea of socialism makes sense. Now one thing that is helpful in this is capitalism, and the way it is functioning right now is horrible, and it does negative things, as you indicate, in terms of climate, and it does various other bad things as well. Of course, there are different kinds of capitalist policies, and some may be better than others, but even the better capitalist policies won’t automatically come into being unless we—on the ground, in the streets—push against the worst things.
Let me give you an example that I lived through in Pittsburgh. There was in Pennsylvania a defunding of the public transportation system. Certain Republican politicians—conservatives, libertarians and so on—wanted to see the elimination of public transit, and the privatization of the transit system. Some say privatization and profiteering will also provide the solution to health care, to education, to criminal justice and prisons, and so on. There has been a whole push towards privatization and the destruction of public services in multiple ways.
But the start of the destruction of the transit system impacted not just on socialists but on everybody regardless of their ideology, whether it was liberal or conservative, or something else. It was damaging to the population of Pittsburgh and to the various communities in Pittsburgh, and the majority of our community is working class. (Most of the people in the United States are taught to believe that they are part of the middle class: you are not rich, you are not poor, you are somewhere in the middle. Even if you are poor, you are not the poorest of the poor, so you get to be in the middle class in the minds of some people. So, you don’t even have that elementary consciousness in part of the working class.) But people’s life experience as part of the working class, with this defunding of public transit, was that things were getting worse, and they were being hurt, and they didn’t want this to happen. Some of us, who are socialists, and also some people radicalized by the Occupy movement, and others connected with the transit workers union, built an organization, a movement called Pittsburghers for Public Transit. We began circulating a petition around something that we call the Transit Bill of Rights. This said that our community needs public transit, just like we need streets, and roads, and street lights, bridges and so forth. We need public transit as part of our infrastructure to maintain our communities. Everybody has the right to public transit ,and the rich need to pay their fair share for it. Big corporations, big businesses should help to pay the bill. It was a fairly clear, succinct, punchy bill of rights, and we got thousands of signatures from liberals, conservatives, socialists, as well as people who didn’t have a defined ideology. We built protests against the transit cuts and against the funding cuts that were resulting in the transit cuts. We helped to build a state-wide coalition which included liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, Green Party members and independents and socialists, trade unions and small businesses and others—all in defense of public transit.
At that time, we had a conservative Republican governor who was forced to back away from his cuts. We got a coalition of Democratic and Republicans in Pennsylvania state legislature to vote to maintain the funding, and this happened through the popular pressure that we were building, and the consciousness that we were helping to generate. Then, after we won that, we began fighting to restore services to areas that had been cut. One of the first struggles for resumed services was in a white working class area were many people vote Republican. They did not consider themselves socialists, if asked “are you in favor of socialism?” they would say: “Absolutely not!” The struggle was also built in impoverished black working-class areas, where people were not necessary thinking about socialism at all, but they were also suffering from the cuts. And we were active in racially integrated areas also, around the Transit Bill of Rights and the goal of restoring the public transit system that all of us need. And these communities won victories, beneficial to people/s lives, which also helped to generate consciousness.
Now that did not result in a big socialist movement, but it was a struggle that was good, and if we build those kinds of struggles more consistently, for example around the demand for single-payer health care, there can also be positive results. There are many people like Al Gore who now favor single-payer health care, just like Gore is in favor of fighting against climate change, although on the matter of being in favor of capitalism, I would imagine Gore has not changed his mind on that. But I can work in a united front with Al Gore and people like him around an issue. We can build a united front around an issue, agree to disagree on questions of socialism and all kinds of other things, but unite on the issue that we agree on, build enough of a coalition to win the battle. Now in that struggle any socialist worth his or her salt will be connecting that to the idea of socialism and to the need for socialism. That’s not the united front platform, but within the united front we can say that, we can criticize the Democratic and Republican parties. Not everyone within the united front has to agree with that. But we talk, we share ideas, we do good work, and we show that these socialists are good people and good activists, that they do good work, that they have interesting ideas. This is how we will build a socialist consciousness and a socialist movement, not just by giving people a pamphlet to read or giving a speech, but by this practical experience through struggle, through united front campaigns around specific issues.
What are the principles of democratic centralism? Do you believe that this principle is applicable to the society as a whole, or is it just a term that applies within an organized party?
There are certain terms that have taken mystical connotations. “Democratic centralism” can be such a mystification, and its used like the word “Leninism” to represent things that are the opposite of Leninism of Lenin. The term democratic centralism did not start with Lenin, it started earlier in the labor movement. It seems to have been introduced, according to my research, into the Russian Revolutionary movement not by Lenin’s Bolshevik faction, but by another faction in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, the Menshevik faction. In 1905 they put forward a resolution calling for democratic centralism within that party. Lenin and the Bolsheviks embraced the term and passed somewhat similar resolutions. What the term meant was: there should be full democratic discussion of what should we do, and then a decision. It should be decided by democratic vote—majority rules, this is our policy—and then we should carry it out. If there are problems with the policy we adopt, you will learn that through experience, and there could be another democratic discussion, coming to a decision, and you carry out that decision. But you cannot test the decision unless you are carrying it out. What I am describing doesn’t have to be called “democratic centralism.” It can be called something simpler: Democracy.
Discipline in a sense. That is, if we all agree to have an election in our organization for chair person, and I win while you lose, then yes you have to have discipline. You have to say, “You win, you are the chair person of the organization.” Another way to respond would be to say, “No, I don’t accept that, I should be the chairman. I am better.” That would be a violation of democracy, not only of discipline.
On the other hand, there are some people who have taken the word “discipline” and have used it in a way to obliterate democracy, and I’ll come to that in a moment. However, I think discipline is important. Let’s say we are in a trade union. Should we go to strike or not? Perhaps I think, “We are going to be beaten, the boss is too strong, we got to make a deal, let’s not go on strike.” Okay, in the union we have a discussion, a vote, and I lose. Let’s imagine I say, “No, I’m not going out on strike. I will keep working.” What is the word for that? We call that person a scab, because they are not being disciplined. They are not being democratic. You can’t have that. In any democracy, if it’s going to be a genuine democracy, then the decision has to be respected and carried out. If the whole thing is just talking, and then everybody does whatever they want, you have chaos.
So essentially democratic centralism is not different from democracy?
In some ways it is, and that gets to your larger question of distinctions between the functioning of an organization and the functioning of society. I want to work my way towards that, but for right now we are focusing on organizations. In a certain sense, as you suggest, it is not different from genuine democracy. Things are complicated in an organization. So if we make a democratic decision, how is that carried out. Let’s say we have an organization with several thousand members. We can’t keep meeting all the time. We will elect some kind of coordinating body to oversee the implementation of the decision. There needs to be agreement on that, and if we think something is going wrong, there can be some kind of rectification of that, with additional discussion and another vote. But there is a certain amount of discipline that is required.
An aspect of democratic centralism is that we democratically elect the coordinating body that helps ensure our organization carries out the decisions that we democratically voted on. Also the coordinating body, within the framework of changing realities, and within the framework of the decisions, makes attempts to develop ongoing policies and implementation. If we who are the members don’t like the way they are doing it, then we need to change that body. If we think the decisions we made were a mistake, then we need to change those. But just for the sake of coherence, there has to be a time and place for that change in decisions, it can’t be ongoing all the time—whether you are talking about a trade union, or any political organization, including a revolutionary party.
So democratic centralism came to be associated with that kind of organizational democracy, and that is how the Bolsheviks functioned. In fact, they functioned in a more coherent and disciplined way than the Mensheviks and some of the others on the Russian Left, and therefore they were more effective over time. But that it basically the way they functioned.
Democratic centralism came to have a different meaning particularly during the civil war that afflicted Russia from 1918 to 1921. A lot of democracy associated with the 1917 Revolution evaporated, and you had militarized situation, a horrifically difficult situation. Discipline became more rigorous, and there wasn’t enough time and opportunity for democratic discussion. Some of the people who were raising questions and criticisms were seen as undermining the defense of the revolution and of society. The situation became more authoritarian and militarized, and a small group of people were the leadership. There had been an election at some point, but generally orders came down from the top. You were a disciplined comrade, and you carried those out in this situation. That also took on the name “democratic centralism,” but it was an emergency situation, very difficult.
Then, with the bureaucratization of the Communist movement, particularly under Stalin, that mode of functioning became the norm, and it meant subordination of the membership to the leadership body. There would be some kind of discussion that all of us would participate in, then there would be a decision from on high, and then we would be expected follow orders from the leadership. That’s what democratic centralism came to mean—an authoritarian, non-democratic meaning. I am opposed to that kind of “democratic centralism.” There are some people who say that this is the only way you can make a revolution, but I don’t believe that is an effective way to do that, and it should be opposed. The earlier form of genuine democratic centralism makes sense to me and I am in favor of that. It involves a lot of openness and flexibility as the norm.
You pose the question: What about society as a whole? Some people have argued that you need this authoritarian top-down democratic centralism to make a revolution and then you establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. The term originally meant political rule by the proletariat as a whole, but it came to mean in the minds of many political rule by the Communist party in the name of the working class. It meant the Communist party coming to power and establishing its dictatorship in the interest of socialism, the workers, the oppressed, and so forth. I am opposed to this model; it is not the so called Leninism that I favor.
I would argue that it is important to understand there is a difference between the revolutionary organization, which I believe has to be democratic, and the socialist society that we want, which also has to be democratic. But, the way that an organization functions and the way that a society functions are not the same. Each has to be democratic, but the dynamics in the organization cannot be the same as the dynamics within the society as a whole. If you are interested in a genuinely socialist society, this involves a genuinely democratic society which assumes pluralism, different organizations, different options put forward and discussed and decided on. There is a commonality in relation to the organization and the society, that is there must be democracy in both, but there are differences too. The mode of functioning of an organization cannot be superimposed on society, or you don’t have democracy, you don’t have socialism.
Do you believe that some principles that govern modern representative western democracies, such as separation of powers, would still be applicable to a socialist democracy? If not, what would be the “checks and balances” be and how would a bureaucratic abuse of power be prevented?
Those are crucial questions. You make a reference to bureaucracy, and with this we have a cluster of questions that anyone who is seriously thinking about socialism has to wrestle with. I want to focus on that in a moment.
We don’t have a clear model of socialism because there has never been a socialist society in the way that I define socialism. There have been societies and countries with governments that define themselves as socialist, but these have generally been dictatorships, some of them terrible, some of them not as terrible, but still dictatorships, not genuinely democratic and therefore not genuinely socialist.
What would socialism look like? Marx, unlike many of the so called utopian socialists, didn’t draw any blueprints of what the future society should look like. The utopian Charles Fourier, for example, drew up elaborate, fascinating blueprints. One of the reasons Marx didn’t draw any blueprints is that he saw socialism as organically blended with democracy and with the majority class that was coming into being, the working class. Therefore, he didn’t want to be some kind of dictator over the working class, with his own plans and his own blueprint to superimpose on the future society. Rather, the future society is something that needs to be worked out by the people of that society, the working class majority that is going to shape the socialist society. There are some general principles that Marx articulated. But not blueprints on the exact structure of the economy, or the exact structure of the government. Also, it is impossible to know when and where the revolution is going to happen and what the actual conditions are going to be. So, part of your blueprint might not be relevant to the actualities of that situation. So Marx’s reluctance about blueprints is valid.
On the other hand, when there was a working class uprising in Paris, creating the Paris Commune of 1871, there were specific organizational structures that crystallized. Engels afterwards said, “Hey, you want to see the dictatorship of the proletariat? That’s it!” Marx wrote a pamphlet explaining the structure of the Paris Commune and said that’s what we want. That structure involved a certain degree of representative democracy, that is there were representatives elected to help oversee things, there was a multiparty situation, there was a lot of control by the people over their representatives, you didn’t have a government so far above the people that the people couldn’t control it. All the people in the government were not paid more than a well-paid worker in society, so that there was a close interplay between the genuinely democratic government and the people. Marx and Engels said that’s the kind of thing we should look for.
I want to give more attention to the matter of bureaucracy. We live in a very complex world. In order to run an economy, in order to run anything that’s large, a university, a city government, a factory, a set of offices, you need organizational structure to keep it all coherent, and often this structure is referred to as a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy largely involves hierarchical structures that make sure that everything functions in the way that is necessary for coherence. These bureaucracies often become divorced from the people, and they are generally controlled from the top by a small group. In a capitalist corporation, it is the owners who give the orders, but even here there is often an elaborate bureaucratic network that they may not have control over. In a political dictatorship, the dictator and the small elite or oligarchy around the dictator might give the orders. But even if the government is a democratic republic, there is a question about how the people can actually have control over an elaborate bureaucratic network.
In a society transitioning to socialism, the people may be able to pressure their representatives, if there is freedom of expression, freedom of organizations, but the existence of bureaucracy and complex society adds a potential problem. In the Soviet Union for example, what you had was a situation where the upper levels of the bureaucracy ruled over the people and society, making decisions that often impacted negatively on the people and society, without the approval of the people and society, and sometimes to the benefit and the profit of those at the very top of the bureaucratic apex. That is a danger and we can find many examples of organizations—that although they are supposed to be democratic, they have been bureaucratized and democracy has been compromised. That is a big issue that has to be confronted. Lenin, in his last years was frantically attempting to find ways to prevent the growth and domination of bureaucracy, and he failed. That is a major issue that has to be wrestled with by anyone who wants a democratic society.
In my opinion, the transition to socialism will require some kind of representative democracy, at least in much of our political and economic life. Not all of us are in a position to be focusing all of our energy and all of our attention to making sure that the right decisions are made all the time on various complex issues. That has to be delegated to people who we elect, control and trust. That means representative democracy. In my opinion, we don’t have economic or political democracy today. Our presumably democratic republic in the United States has been undermined and corrupted from the beginning by big money. Even though formally there is a democracy, there is actually a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, that is big business and capitalists dominate the political and economic system. If we are to have genuine democracy, it has to be not only political but also economic. For that matter, we can’t simply take over the existing political structures, because they have been corrupted by bureaucracy and authoritarianism. If there is to be a socialist democracy, new structures will be needed.
As we transition toward socialism, there needs to be representative democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of organization, freedom to put forward alternatives to the existing policies, whether they are political or economic. There need to be “checks and balances.” The interests of the workers at the workplace are not necessarily fully consistent with government that seeks to represent the general interests of society as a whole. This means that workers need to have some say over what is happening at work, that is a check. Perhaps there are more than one ways of doing this, for example in the early years of the Soviet Republic there were trade unions, there were factory committees, there were people who put up wall newspapers criticizing the management of the factory, there were all kinds of ways of expressing the needs and the discontents of the people at the workplace and ways of addressing those discontents.
Socialism will require a certain amount of pluralism, and checks and balances can be valuable. The transition period can be chaotic, so there will be a need to determine what is the line of authority, but there have to be various ways for people to express their opinions and discontent and to push for a different balance from what the balance has come to be in a community, or workplace. There will be different parties or organizations with different values or plans that they will push for and try to win others to. That is essential for genuine socialism to work. If there is only one party, with one leadership and one program, you can’t have socialism or democracy.
Now there is the start of a rich discussion on what socialism will look like. A book to which I contributed an essay, Imagine Living in a Socialist USA, is an effort to help advance that discussion, which is the beginning of a collective process that needs to go on. There are other perspectives on this that have been developed by other people. One debate, for example, involves to what extent should the economy be centrally planned economy, to what extent should socialism be blended with the market? Some people have talked about market socialism as a positive thing, some people have said it will undermine genuine democracy. So that’s a live issue. It seems to me that getting to the socialism that we want, it is not like making an instant cup of coffee, it is a gradual process. Various things will be tried and refined, or replaced by something else that will turn out to be worse or better, and it will be an ongoing process.
I think that a transition to socialism should be seen in that way. But at the same time you are talking about people’s lives: food, clothing, shelter. You can’t wait twenty years to get certain things right. There are going to have to be certain things done immediately or in the short-term. Certain basic things need to be guaranteed to everyone as a matter of right, and therefore there is a certain matter of central planning that needs to be implemented right away. Everyone should have a right to good healthcare, everyone as soon as possible should have the right to a decent home, everyone should have food, at least a basic, decent diet, there needs to be a decent transit system. These are things that any society, especially a socialist society, must guarantee. In my opinion we have reached a crisis in terms of climate change and we don’t have half a century to figure things out, so a socialist revolution will have to be made so that includes as part of its central program saving the planet.
While certain centrally implemented policies will be required from the beginning, it seems to me within such central implementation there have to be checks and balances and democratic expression. Beyond providing for the basic needs, there is greater room for testing alternative policies –we can try one thing or another thing and see what happens. What role can the market play that would be positive? Marxists debate that today. But, there has to be an openness, pluralism, a democracy if we are going to get to socialism.
It seems like a central planning of the economy is a very demanding task, most probably demanding a very sophisticated system, or structures, to translate the concept “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs” from meaningless jargon to a much needed actuality. Is it possible to create such a blueprint in advance, or is this something that will be developed in the process as you mentioned above? Was there such a plan in the case of the Russian Revolution?
First of all, it seems to me that as we build an effective, large socialist movement that is struggling for power, through reform efforts and people’s assemblies, through trade unions, and through our own political party with running candidates. We must have a program. We won’t have everything mapped out and blueprinted, but there are certain proposals that we should make. Some of them will involve central planning, as I have already indicated: everyone should get food, clothing, shelter; everyone should get healthcare and education; there should be mass transit; there must be preservation of a livable environment—these will be part of the program. There are limited resources and this has to factored into the program, so we cannot promise everything to everyone. There are a lot more resources than there appear to be, because they are monopolized and used wastefully by those who control the economy now. But even if there is a democratization of the economy, there will be limitations and urgent needs. So built into the actual struggles there have to be program proposals that will be implemented if we take power.
There has also to be an understanding that there will be a transitional period. In the Communist Manifesto, if you take a good look at it, Marx and Engels talk about the development of democracy within the larger economy. They don’t see the transition as an immediate establishment of a socialist economy. As the working class takes power there will be more and more policies that erode, undermine, and ultimately replace capitalism. What that means is that we are not talking about an immediate transition to socialism, and Lenin was aware that this was impossible in Russia, because you didn’t have the economic basis for that. Russia was an impoverished country. Socialism cannot be built on the basis of poverty, because then regardless of what is supposed to happen, people will be competing for scarce resources. Those that will get a little bit more power will be able to get more resources and push other down, and the same thing that has afflicted all class societies will start all over again. This was an idea developed by Marx, and it was keenly felt by Lenin and others: we cannot have socialism based on poverty.
Even in a more prosperous economy, there will have to be a transitional period, which means that there will still be a mixed economy, which means that there will still be capitalism. But, there will be regulation of capitalism, the creation of public services that will be guaranteed, and public sectors of the economy. The new government must work to facilitate that with an array of organizations, pluralist organizations—community, city, and factory-wide, as well as national entities—that are elected and controlled by the people, that will help push in this socialist economic direction. There will be controversies and there will inevitably be some chaos, as is natural in any political situation, certainly in one of revolutionary transition.
So it will not be a simple process, and Lenin didn’t envision a simple process. But what he envisioned (and it turned out he was wrong, it didn’t work out this way) was the following: he came in with a plan and one aspect of it was workers’ control of the economy through trade unions and factory committees. This did not mean the workers taking over the factories (and there were workers who wanted to do that, and they put their bosses and managers in wheel barrels, rolled them out of the factories, and dumped them on the street). But what Lenin argued, and what the workers found out, was that they didn’t know how to run the factory yet. It’s one thing to make certain kinds of things in the factory, but then how do you connect it to the rest of the economy and run the economy? It is not a simple process.
And so Lenin was assuming and hoping that an understanding could be worked out at least with many of the capitalists: they would continue to function, but workers would be watching, workers would be making sure the capitalists would not be cheating, workers would be learning more and more how this operates and eventually there could be a transition. That was the intention of “workers’ control”—the workers would know how to operate this part of the factory, connected to the other factories, and other parts of the economy, workers in conjunction with the central government, and a transition would take place. That was the original notion of how to make the transition. Lenin was keenly aware of the backwardness, not only economically but culturally, of Russia. Questions of literacy, questions of accounting, questions of operating a rational economic structure on a capitalist basis, let alone on a socialist basis, would be a problem, and this would require a period of transition towards socialism, and it would take time.
Lenin was also aware that you cannot have a socialist economy in a single country, because what you had at that time (as well as today) was a global capitalist economy. So you had an economic interdependence of various national economies, and for this socialist thing to work there would need to be working class socialist revolutions in other countries as well, which is why Lenin and his comrades were helping to build the Communist International. That issue still is the case, I think, and poses a challenge for us.
But what happened after the Russian Revolution was that successful revolutions did not take place in other countries, and the Russian capitalists didn’t go along with their long-term extinction. As quickly as they could, they helped enemies of the revolution, they got out and tried to take back as much of their factories as they could (that’s why you need workers’ control, too, to stop them from doing that). The result was that the economy was prematurely nationalized. The workers didn’t know how to run the factories and the Communists didn’t know how to run the economy. So while there was a premature attempt at very extensive central planning, all kinds of mistakes were made. This was taking place amidst a civil war, under the impact of World War I on the Russian economy, as well as under the impact of an economic blockade imposed by capitalist countries. So you had a super-centralized situation that was destroying the early Soviet economy. As soon as the civil war basically was ended, Lenin and the majority of the Bolsheviks shifted back to the direction of a mixed economy, a New Economic Policy. They did it in many different ways, it’s interesting to look at it—they made mistakes, but some things they did were good, and they got the economy going again.
All of this may not be completely applicable to our situation. We don’t know what the situation is going to be. What we know is that there is going to be a transitional period, that there are going to be screw-ups, that certain balances could be established, that we need to go in aware that we are dealing with life and death issues, and therefore we have to have some initial plans in place. Jeremy Corbyn, when he was running in the Labor Party campaign earlier this year, was not running on a platform that said “let’s have socialism now,” but he did have a clear platform about certain basic practical policies to be implemented if Labor won. We should have a program with certain basic policies to be implemented. If we propose going in a socialist direction, then there have to be some basic, practical policies that we are proposing to take us in that direction. You and I could create a little platform here after the interview that would be ridiculous. But as the socialist movement is growing and getting closer to the possibility of actually struggling for power, it has to have a program in place that will address at least the beginnings of this period.
Two questions arise here, that I wasn’t planning on asking you: First, what is the role of incentives for people? Right now they have the incentive of making money, and the possibility that they will become rich. What happens if somebody doesn’t have such an incentive?
In regard to incentives, that is incredibly important. I don’t think that most people have the delusion that they are going to get rich, unless they win the lottery. They are not going to get rich by working like hell for their boss. There are some people who are in a certain position to work their way up. Most people understand that they can make some money, maybe more money and get a little bit of promotion and so forth, and that is the incentive. The other part of the incentive is that if you don’t work hard, you are going to get hungry, which is actually the whip of fear. All of this is relevant for a socialist society, but we need to avoid a powerful illusion about what makes people tick. According to that illusion, I am only motivated by a desire to make more and more money. If I am not going to make more money for something, why should I do it? For that matter, if I’m already as rich as I can be, why should I do anything? Maybe the whip of fear –that if I don’t work I am going to go hungry—will motivate me, but I’m not going to do amazing things if there is no money in it.
But I don’t operate that way. You don’t operate that way. A lot of people don’t operate that way. We know we are not going to get rich, but we like to read anyway, we like to make pictures, we like to do gardening, we like to do science. Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity not because he was trying to get rich. This creativity that is essential to humanity, that is operational in all of us. Sometimes it gets stamped out of us by oppression, exploitation, being too hungry and too tired to think. But there is always this incentive to be creative. If we get something out of it, that’s an incentive, but it’s not that we’re going to be rich. Maybe it’s the feeling of satisfaction that we can actually make this factory work well. Knowing you are doing a good job is satisfying. If doing this involves some interesting problems that you have to wrestle with to figure out, and you are good at it, and other coworkers see that you are good, that feels good. There may be some poor jerk who his workmates see as a looser, because he doesn’t do his job, he doesn’t even care. Who wants to be like him? So there is a natural incentive in us to be creative, to do good work, and if we can’t do good work, it’s frustrating to us and we hate it. Those are incentives. And then, there are satisfactions (incentives) that come if we are working hard, and because of that each of us is helping to provide good meals, and good home, and good education for all of us—because we are working hard and we are producing for our kids, for all of us. We can see what we are doing, and we understand that we are creating the wealth on which everything that is good is based. So you feel good about it, you feel proud about it, and you know that you are going to get the good things that are being produced by it. Those are genuine incentives. And there might be additional incentives, if somebody comes up with something really great, they get recognition and a vacation, or other opportunities. That can be part of a socialist culture, of a socialist society. So it seems to me that this incentive question is an important one, and it can be elaborated and developed along socialist lines even further that what I have done.
Second, for the countries that are backward in the sense that Russia was, is it important that they first undergo capitalist development before they aim for a socialist revolution?
This was one of the huge debates in the Russian Marxist movement before the revolution. What Russian Marxists believed was: you had to overthrow the Tsar, the monarchy, and what was left of the Tsarist system, you had to eliminate that through a democratic revolution and create a democratic republic with full democratic rights for everybody, including workers and peasants, and at the same time clear the decks for the development of a thoroughgoing industrial capitalist economy. That would raise the standards of living, raise productivity, create a working class majority, create an economic basis so that if you have a collectivized economy you would have things to share more than poverty (so that the same old crap would not start all over again).
In that context, one of the big differences between Lenin and the Bolsheviks on the one hand and the Menshevik on the other was around who the working class should be aligned with to overthrow Tsarism and carry out this bourgeoisie democratic revolution. The Mensheviks said obviously we should ally with the capitalists: we work with them to overthrow Tsarism, and then they will develop the capitalist economy, and at certain point down the road we will have enough of a developed economy and a strong working class we move on to the struggle for socialism. Lenin said that makes sense to a certain extent, except you cannot trust the capitalists, because they are scared of you, they have read the Communist Manifesto too, and they don’t want that move toward workers’ power and socialism to happen. They will make deals with the Tsar, with land-owners and reactionaries. The only way you could push this through is an alliance between the workers and the peasants, the majority class, and that can push through in a way that it cannot be pushed through if you are relying on the capitalist liberals. The bourgeois-democratic revolution that will overthrow the Tsar must establish a strong government of workers and peasants that will eliminate all vestiges of Tsar and the old Tsarist system and create a genuine democratic republic, not the kind of compromised thing that was created under Otto von Bismarck in Germany, a hybrid of the land owners and the capitalists, and still afraid of the workers. Then Lenin also entertained the notion of “uninterrupted revolution”: maybe we will not stop there. Maybe this democratic revolution will help to generate revolutions elsewhere, in more advanced capitalist countries, and the transition toward socialism will come sooner rather than later.
Trotsky, who had this notion of permanent revolution, said that that the democratic revolution could only be made by the working class in alliance with the peasantry. Once that was made they wouldn’t want to turn things over to the bourgeoisie, to their exploiters who would try to betray them. So they would hang on to power and begin to apply changes and reforms in society going into a socialist direction. Of course, you have the poverty, but you would also be generating an international revolutionary wave. So with the revolution in Germany and in France, the Netherlands and Italy and so forth they would combine with the revolution in Russia to create a global socialist economy.
It didn’t work out that way, but that came to be the orientation of Trotsky, Lenin and the Bolsheviks. So applying that to today, the so-called “backward countries” of that time are much more integrated into the global capitalist economy than ever before: China, India, Russia and more. It is somewhat different. Their working classes are bigger; their productive capacities are bigger. Still you might have a backward economy in some parts of the world, and in certain ways several economies are more backward. But if you have a revolution in that country, especially given globalization, that will have reverberations, and this notion of “it won’t be just that one country,” that there can and must be the spread of revolutions in more an more of the world, provides a hopeful option. My feeling is that the Bolshevik orientation still makes more sense than the Menshevik one, in terms of the question you pose. The Bolsheviks lost a gamble at that moment of history, but it seems to me that we are in a different moment in history where there are more positive possibilities now than before.
After the practical failure to achieve socialism, due to their internal or external factors, this ideology has somewhat been marginalized and the word socialism is polarizing for some people. What is the outlook for tomorrow? How can one overcome public opposition and organize a revolutionary movement?
One thing is that this word “socialism” is actually becoming less and less polarizing. There are reasons why that is so.
The collapse of Communism had different kinds of impacts; some impacts where negative and some, where positive. Negatively, instead of a bi-polar global power structure, there came into being a more or less unified capitalist global power structure that helped to set the stage for the spread of the so-called neo-liberal policies and the destruction of much that had been gained in earlier struggles by the working class. This made it harder for some countries that wanted to avoid exploitation and oppression by the advanced capitalist countries. In the earlier period of time, there was more breathing space to make revolutions and now that became diminished. So at least initially, there was the rise of oppression, exploitation, certain kinds of violence, and the destruction of quality of life for masses of people around the world, including in the former Communist countries. All of this had negative impact.
At the same time, Communism in the minds of millions of people around the world was associated with tyranny and inequality and bureaucracy and the destruction of freedom. That was not just capitalist propaganda, it was related to some of the policies carried out by governments and parties calling themselves Communist. There was a frightening global power structure in which one side was the Communists, and in the minds of many that was a frightening force. That reality is now gone. Some people felt that this tyrannical “Communism” is similar to socialism, and that both are bad. Many who felt that way are dead, the world in which their perceptions were formed is largely dead. Now we have capitalism and the ideas of Marxism, socialism/communism don’t have the same connotations for many people. The reality of capitalism is such that it is driving large numbers of people to look for alternatives. Today there is more inclination on the part of more people to consider genuine Marxism and actual socialism in ways that it was much harder to think about in the earlier time. That opens, for those who are committed to a genuine Marxism, and a genuine socialism, opportunities of a different kind. Capitalism has been hurting more and more of us in multiple ways, and the only way to defend ourselves is to join together to fight back and fight for alternatives. Short-run but also long-term alternatives. There is a radicalization process taking place right now throughout the world. It is not all going toward one direction, but there are opportunities for the development of Marxist thinking and struggles that might be influenced by Marxist insight, and the development of socialist consciousness.
For those of us who consider Marxism and socialism to make sense, if we are engaged in serious, honest discussions with more and more people about what is, and what was, and what might be, and if we are involved in actual struggles, and if those struggles take on a momentum and become compelling, at least partly animated by socialist ideology, then it is possible that genuinely socialist majorities could be created and that in the upcoming power struggles socialism might be an option.
Today, those of us who believe socialism that must work in this direction as honestly and intelligently and thoughtfully and with as much energy as we can. There are great stakes in the balance. We do not have all the time in the world, so if we want to have a good world for humanity in the future, we have a lot of work to do.