Sunday, January 27, 2013

Toward a Politics of Urgency: Leninism in the Age of Social Media, Part 2

Within the last two decades, we have seen two significant technical changes in the forces of production, either of which alone should have been sufficient to compel a historical materialist re-examination of all inherited strategies, tactics, organizational methods and truisms of working-class radicalism:
  1. A dramatic transformation in the means and pace of communication, by way of information technology, and
  2. The emerging scientific consensus that industrial sources of greenhouse gases will transform or have already transformed the Holocene climate from that in which human civilization came to be(as summarized in Bill McKibben's eaarth and my discussion of it).

That I am not aware of any attempts to address these developments that do not either default into an argument for business as usual or abandon the central hypothesis of Marxism--that is, the potential revolutionary agency of the working class--is cause for great concern. It may well be that there are examples that I am just not aware of, whether because of language barriers, or recent health problems, or the fact that there is just not enough time in the day. I have no particular pride of authorship in the notion that these facts need to change how those who claim the banner of communist revolution go about their business. I would prefer not to be alone in that perception, and therefore encourage readers to post examples of individuals, groupings or texts that they believe have made attempts worthy of consideration.

To carry on doing the same thing year in and year out regardless of results, particularly when facing the threat of a relapse into barbarism, fits Einstein's definition of insanity, not scientific socialism--and Einstein knew more than a bit about science (and less, but still some, about socialism). The particular "something" that I have in mind is the attempt to build propaganda groups along democratic centralist lines. This is not something I am absolutely opposed to: I hypothesize that it was historically necessary for a certain period, from about 1933 until some time in the late 1990s, certainly no later than 2000. I was engaged in the continued effort to create such a group, in various ways, for most of my adult life--well beyond the point at which I now believe it to have been outlived. (If I ever have to look my daughter in eye and apologize to her for something, it will be for having expended so much of my intellect and energy in a method of trying to transform the world that had been outlived. Many of us have apologies to make to future generations.)

The concept of a democratic centralist propaganda group emerged in the Trotskyist movement in the course of the 1930s, as an ad hoc response to a situation brought on by the Stalinist counterrevolution. (It is not unique to the Trotskyist tradition--similar developments and groupings, albeit with a different nomenclature, can be found in the ultra-left and Maoist milieus at various points.) It was a situation defined by scarcity: scarcity of cadres, scarcity of experience, and scarcity of means of communication. With the few remaining cadres with direct experience of the Russian Revolution, the post-World War I European outbreaks and the Chinese Revolution of 1925-7 getting destroyed, physically or psychologically, by fascism, Stalinism and war, it was perhaps inevitable that the few remaining survivors (including Trotsky himself) would carry an immense authority. Trotsky's correspondence from this period shows him trying (and at times failing) to walk a delicate balance between allowing his comrades the chances to learn from their own mistakes and asserting his authority to try and prevent them. After all, he was operating under a similar shadow of urgency, that of recognizing the impending catastrophe of the next World War and, like Cassandra, being believed by hardly anyone.

In response to an unprecedented situation, Trotsky and the Trotskyists innovated. Yet precisely because their claim to revolutionary leadership depended upon continuity with past revolutionary victories, they couched their innovation in a tactically necessary appeal to tradition. As already alluded to, the arguments which most people politically schooled in the Trotskyist tradition will use in favor of democratic centralism and propaganda groups derive, at varying removes, from Lenin's What Is to Be Done?. What is less often noted is that these two phenomena belong, in Lenin's presentation of the history of the RSDLP, to two distinct periods. The propaganda groups form an early stage in the party's development, in fact precede the party, and belong to a period of localism during which dissident intellectuals came into contact with rebellious, intelligent workers and attempted to come to terms with the theoretical and strategic debates between Marxism and Russian Populism. For Lenin by 1901, that period was definitively in the past, and now was the time for democratic centralism--not in matters of propaganda, which he follows Plekhanov in defining as the presentation of "many ideas to one or a few persons"--but in matters of action, tactics, and the then all-important question of who was to serve on the editorial board of a newspaper and how that newspaper would relate to the party's Central Committee. There are important historical and academic lessons to be drawn from the points made, by Lars T. Lih and others, about the extent to which Trotskyists and other putative Leninists have misinterpreted that book. That, by itself, does not invalidate a particular method of political organizing: Political movements, no less than nations, states and religions, must at times base themselves upon invented traditions. We, in recognizing it as invented, can feel free to re-invent it as needed to address the "burning questions of our movement".

Continuing the historical presentation, then, we come to the phenomenon--by no means universal among Trotskyist groupings, and used to such ignoble aims in the current scandal in the British SWP--of post-conference bans on factions. At least for anglophone organizations like the SWP that employ it, it derives from the 1939-40 faction fight between the U.S. SWP majority led by James P. Cannon and the minority led by Max Shachtman, and the (pardon the pun) Cannon-ical documents collected as The Struggle for a Proletarian Party. It is at this point that the scarcity of means of communication, felt so acutely by Trotsky, is elevated into a central point in the argument: Cannon appeals to the fatigue felt by the mimeograph machines and the people charged with operating them in the central office as a reason to put the debate to an end.

Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of Cannon's approach today, it should go without saying that the argumentum ad mimeographicum has no place in politics today. When we consider the scarcities described above, we find that the scarcity of cadres and experience are if anything even more dire today than in the late 1930s, but the scarcity of communication is a thing of the past. (And this is not just a "first world problem." Here's a challenge: Find a population center without a single smart phone.) It is no longer communication and information that are scarce, but attention. When information on outbreaks of struggle pour in faster than the smartest member of the best-trained Central Committee can possibly assimilate, the conservatizing tendency of centralism that Rosa Luxemburg predicted (albeit a century too soon) comes decisively to the fore.

What, then, is to be done? Well, it was the depressing realization that I was neither Lenin nor Trotsky that was among the reasons I have, the last couple years, retreated to literature and private life. At this point, though, I think I have a mature enough sense of what I can contribute, and will do so, soon. (I know I promised more positive suggestions in this installment, but the historical presentation took longer than I expected, so I'm going to go ahead and publish this, and begin working on a Part 3.) In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts, whoever you may be, in the comments.

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