How Marxism Leninism Drives People Away from Socialism
One of the major events of this holiday season for the US left was Freedom Road Socialist Organization member, Stan Goff's public rejection of Marxism-Leninism.
For those who aren't familiar with the US revolutionary left, Freedom Road is a Maoist organization bringing together a number of smaller Maoist groups. My own experience of FRSO was that they combined a bizarre loyalty to Stalin and the Cultural Revolution, solidarity with groups such as the "Shining Path" of Peru, and attempts to build coalitions with liberals within the Democratic party. Thus, they emulated the most pragmatic elements of Stalinism in their own practice, while simultaneously maintaining unquestioning support for far-flung groups of Maoist third-world guerillas (and recently in posts here, for the Baathist elements of the Iraqi resistance) in seeming total disregard for their liberal political associates, not to mention notions of universal human rights and democracy. This made for sometimes shocking experiences for those people who had been members of "coalitions" organized or led by FRSO. Some members of the group I was once a member of, Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, proclaimed their own disillusioning experiences with the FRSO front group, The Progressive Student Network, as their primary reason for rejecting the Marxist left and embracing Anarchism.
By the end of the 1990s, FRSO had split into two groups, one adhering more to the social-democratic practical politics called "refoundation", and the other focusing more on traditional M-L principles of revolutionary cadre organization and retaining solidarity with patently undemocratic movements and regimes. Goff was on the side of the refoundationists. Thus, his break from the movement has led to two responses among its members, summed up by a poster to the Maoist website redflags as:
from the refoundationists: "what connection?" [between Goff's rejection of Marxism and refoundation] and (from the cadres): "told you so, you Refoundation suckers. Now let us praise Kim Jong Il who descended from heaven (okay well, he didn't, but let's just pretend)."
Before discussing responses, it makes sense to quote Goff himself.
In his blog post Doctrine, Goff, a long-time anti-war activist & Maoist, announces that he has
concluded that neither Marxist-Leninist nor “Trotskyist” nor Maoist, nor Guevarist, etc etc etc, organizations are suitable to the task [of building a successful revolutionary movement] no matter the quality of the individuals who populate them. The history of these organizations has been, for more than six decades minimum, a string of failures, punctuated by periodic successes only in mass work that was self-organizing outside Marxism to some extent anyway. I have come to believe this is a failure of the structure and of the over-reaching scope of these organizations.
Marx himself began his career preoccupied not with questions of economics, but of human happiness. What he observed was oppression of one by another, and the sense of personal fragmentation — of alienation — that permeated modern society; and he determined that these two things were related.
Since then, the accumulation of historical experience has provided us with both confirmations and rebuttals of the “lessons” of Marx and Engels. A series of thinkers and leaders after them, in the same tradition, elaborated on that connection between social power and personal alienation.
Unfortunately, the struggle to give these intellectual and practical breakthroughs organizational assertion has been one of hostile encircelment — literal and figurative — which gave rise to a bunker mentality.
This bunker mentality led to the transformation of Marx’s analyticial toolbox into a quasi-religious organizing doctrine, and one that was fought out almost like an epoch religious struggle in painful cycles of orthodoxy and reformation, then reformation itself morphing into orthodoxy.
Marxism-Leninism is a term coined by Stalin to establish an imaginary line of predestination (Stalin had his opposition shot as a demonstration of his own ardency on the issue.) from Marx-the-Godhead to himself as a way of mapping his encircled-and-militarized state leadership onto the collective consciousness of Eurasian mass still steeped in the episteme of hierarchical and patriarchal religion, complete with its struggle-to-salvation teleology.
It was this disciplinary regime that inherited and ossified in its own image the notion of a Leninist Party as the last word in political organization, and “democratic centralism” as its organizing principle. It remains to this day the axiomatic faith of Marxism-Leninism and all the other variants.
From the very beginning, however, this principle that worked during the contingencies of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions — both still majority peasant societies (look at Nepal and Haiti today) — was never an organic match to the social conditions nor the prevailing consciousness in the United States. For this reason, I believe, the mismatch between the idea-driven M-L organizations and the lived experience of US society at large has consistently been a history of leadership sects without a solid, organic popular base, especially since the World War II.
** He goes on to say many other things, including these biggies.
Goff argues that the problem is with Marxism itself. He argues three significant big points: 1) Marxism is hopelessly bound up in a man-nature dualism and imagines an "industrial utopia" which current environmentalists tell us won't work. 2) Because of the first problem, Marxism doesn't address patriarchy, which Goff now sees as more fundamental than capitalism as a cause of the problems in the world, and 3) The industrial working-class is not the engine of the revolution because it is dependent on the very industries that are destroying the earth AND this class is privileged to the point that they share more interests with the ruling class than with oppressed racial minorities and third world people. Look at history, he says, and wake up socialists, the working-class is not he engine of socialist revolution.
As I see it, many of the points Goff makes, though couched in anti-ML language, come directly from existing Maoism, and reflect the Maoist-Soviet split of the 1960s about the respective roles of the industrial working-class and the peasantry, about the relative importance of national indepedence struggles against imperialism vs. the industrial working class struggle w/the international bourgeoisie. Other elements of his argument, particularly the emphasis on issues of ecology and anti-authoritarian radical feminism, are more closely connected to the anarchist tradition.
I don't agree with everything Goff says, and I agree with the critics that Goff is on solid ground when criticizing Marxism-Leninism, but not when talking about Marxism in general.
Despite this, when I see people trotting out the usual defenses of Marx with quotations from the original texts, they just seem to verify Goff's criticisms of the hidebound and quasi-religious nature of Marxism. In the article linked above, Louis Proyect argues that Goff isn't a good reader of Marx, because he ignores Marx's writings on technology and the environment. True, and it's fair to say that if Goff is going to criticize Marx and Marxism as the root of the problem, he ought to know what Marx actually wrote.
On the other hand, I don't think that reading Marx is the answer to our current environmental crisis, and I think Goff is right to say that Marxism doesn't have all the answers on this issue. Contemporary environmentalists have much to tell us - even if what they say contradicts Marx. Call me an apostate, but I, perhaps with Goff, think current environmental science is more relevant than what the Old Man wrote in a book more than 100 years ago. I'm sympathetic to Goff's critique of the Marxist parties' rigid adherence to Marx, because like fundamentalists who insist that the world is only a few thousand years old, doctrinaire Marxists refuse to pay attention to actual world circumstances, but cling instead to a holy book! What makes Marx's writings so useful and still applicable in many cases was the fact that he was himself a man of science, not religion. Doctrinaire Marxism, which insists, despite evidence to the contrary, on the truth of its holy books, is, as an anarchist friend of mine once said, "a fine religion, as religions go."
It is for this reason that I agree with the overall points in Goff's essay, which address the failures of the Marxist left to face realities and be flexible. It's for the same reason that I remain attached to anarchism, despite that movement's flaws, while embracing many of the insights and observations of Marx. Anarchism has more potential than Marxism-Leninism to overcome its flaws and to respond to the context of the times without sacrificing real principles because it's not based on doctrinal loyalty to a set of texts. In order for the radical left to succeed, I think it has to embrace the anarchist tendency (without the entire host of works by problematic anarchist philosophers) to creativly draw from and synthesize different movements and to reject dogma as a general rule. In 'Love and Rage" we called this "revolutionary pluralism."
Where Goff goes astray, in my view, relates to the major flaws in anarchism as well as to some of the more pragmatic elements of Stalinist practice. The major flaw of anarchism is its historic resistance to the materialism at the center of Marx's overall philosophy: the idea that the relations of production shape the entire structure of society. I think this point has been confirmed pretty well by historical evidence. If you see the world this way, there is no culture that operates outside of or independently from the class conflicts that shape it. If you neglect the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, or dismiss it, as Goff seems to, you wind up talking about "culture" in a "common sense" way, looking at the surface of the society, examining its appearance without knowing its roots.
Goff argues that "patriarchy" is a more fundamental problem in our society than capitalism. It is certainly true that patriarchy is older than capitalism, but I don't know that toppling it would end capitalism, stop war, or save the environment. There has yet to be a feminist analysis that is capable of seriously explaining or collectively responding to imperialism, war, or class inequality. The idea that we are currently at war in Iraq primarily because of "the rule of the father" remains unconvincing to me. Certainly, ideals of masculinity can support a war, and can aid it, but to say that male authority is the root of all war relies too much on naturalized categories of gender that I reject.
Another of Goff's major critiques of Marxism is that it is "alien" to the culture of the United States; this is where I think he borrows a bit from Stalinist pragmatism. On the question of indiginaety, Anarchism seems to have the advantage. Its roots in the varied reform movements of anti-slavery Quakerism, utopian socialism and women's rights struggles, gives it a firm foundation in American "soil." However, these movements, like the current feminist politics than Goff embraces, are also rooted in a society divided by class - and by the institution of slavery. Their advantage is that they address the role of slavery in the American economy in a more central way than Marxists of their time did, but some of the most energetic and radical ante-bellum reformers grew interested in socialism and labor activism in the post-Civil War years. John Swinton, Albert and Lucy Parsons and others chose Marx's theory because of its superior explanatory power on so many fronts.
There's another problem with the notion of Marxism as an "alien" philosophy in the US. The notion of a "native American culture" itself is based on a historical fallacy. The "culture" of America, like that of other countries, is a product of changing historical circumstances. The American working-class was and continues to be imported. The people who brought Marxism to the US were European workers such as Louis Lingg of Chicago via Germany. They chose Marxism because his theories fit their own experiences - in both America and in Germany. Marxism's continuing relevance for people all over the world, who have joined Marxist parties, suggests that Marx's analysis of capitalism, and the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat will continue to exist internationally. Marxism has only incresed in relevance since the fall of the Soviet Union, as I see it.
Finally, Goff's intense pessimism about the revolutionary potential of the industrial working-class, where he enters an ideological battle that currently divides a good deal of the left, centers around the role of race and empire.
Goff at this point, quotes Joaquin Bustelo's rhetorical question:
I can’t imagine how it is possible to deny that there is not now nor has there been for a very long time a working class movement worthy of the name in the United States (a “class-for-itself” movement). Does anyone disagree? Does someone want to correct me on the half-century long decline in union membership, the decline in the number of strike-days, etc.? Does someone want to let me know about the thousands of Anglo workers who organized their workplaces to walk out last May Day in solidarity with Latino and immigrant protests?
Bustelo, who's a member of "Solidarity" a "non-sectarian" Trotskyist group, doesn't therefore wash his hands of the working class, but argues, much like new abolitionists, such as Noel Ignatiev and David Roediger, that whiteness must be destroyed before there can be a genuine working-class movement in the United States. FRSO, Goff's organization, has tended to be much more active and serious in dealing with race than the Trotskyists have on the whole, but even they, Goff implies, still fetishize the existing labor movement as if it were an expression of the "working-class."
On this point, I am in total agreement with Bustelo and Goff, and I think that the fetishization of the white/advanced European industrial working-class that you see in most Trotskyist formations is one of the biggest obstacles to working-class unity that exists today.