Interview with Pham Binh on Leninism and its discontents
Pham Binh has been a revolutionary socialist since he was 16. He’s from from Rochester, NY, and has been active against the death penalty, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many other issues. He is currently an editor of the North Star. He has served on the editorial board of Traveling Soldier, an anti-war newsletter aimed at helping active-duty troops organize, and his writings have been published in the International Socialist Review, Asia Times Online,Counterpunch, Znet, and Dissident Voice.
C. Derick Varn: You have written a good bit over at the North Star on Leninism and the implications in of the SWP fallout. Why do you think the question of “Leninism” doesn’t go away?
Pham Binh: “Leninism” refuses to die because it must be superseded in practice by forms of organizing that are bigger, better, more effective, and more durable. That is a much harder task than exposing its internal contradictions by closely examining the historical practices and methods of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party from 1903-1917 as I have done repeatedly since summer of 2011 and as Lars Lih has done since 2008. It remains an attractive form of organizing for many revolutionaries because it is timeless, applicable everywhere in almost any context; it is the easiest answer to the hardest question — what is to be done, right now, today and tomorrow? No matter what, when, where, why, or how, for “Leninists” the main and decisive task is always to build such a party.
The failure of a given struggle to lead to our goal of working-class rule, whether that struggle is the destruction of apartheid in South Africa or the end of the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, is easily and falsely attributed to the lack of a revolutionary “Leninist” party in every overturn.
In some respects, this problem is nothing new. The sect form existed long before “Leninism.” The Communist League that Marx and Engels helped found had its roots in a sect called the League of the Just which merged or regrouped with the Communist Correspondence Committee. The rise of the Second International (and, on the anarchist side, the CNT in Spain and the IWW in the U.S.) did a lot to emasculate the sect form as the dominant method of organizing on the revolutionary left. Unfortunately, a lot of what was built over decades through the blood, sweat, and tears of literally millions of working and oppressed peoples all over the world no longer exists, so we are, to a large extent, starting over from scratch. This is especially true in the United States where the unionization rate is almost in the single digits and where there has not been a mass radical workers’ party in a very long time but less true in places like Greece where the class war is more two-sided than one-sided and there are multiple workers’ parties of varying degrees of radicalism.
C.D.V.: Do you think that the crisis of the SWP will open up a way of talking about organization that goes beyond the vanguard party structure?
P.B.: No. Comrades who reject “Leninism” for the right reasons like Laurie Penny correctly view the SWP’s self-destruction as a vindication of their position on the organization question while comrades who accept “Leninism” like Richard Seymour, China Miéville, and the SWP opposition are reduced to arguing that the SWP is doing it wrong rather than stepping back to re-examine their fundamental and erroneous assumptions regarding vanguard parties and how they develop. In other words, the SWP’s self-destruction is not opening up new discussions or a realignment of forces on the British left. The only new people that I am aware who are thinking “beyond the vanguard party structure” thanks to this crisis are former SWP members Tom Walker and Kevin Crane. The SWP opposition’s political bankruptcy on the organization question will eventually reveal itself, most likely after they are voted down yet again by the membership and are forced to either 1) split to save what is left of their honor or 2) remain a defeated minority in an organization that will forever be associated with rape and has been stuck in terminal decline since the death of its founder Tony Cliff.
C.D.V.: Do you agree with Lars Lih that Leninism itself seems to be an insult to the pluralism of Lenin, and thus is misunderstanding and rigidification of Lenin’s organizational flexibility? Or do you think that Lenin himself is the root of the problem?
P.B.: That is probably not an accurate statement of what Lars Lih thinks about “Leninism.” He has studious and wisely chosen to stay out of left debates over the political and organizational implications of his work as a historian. “Leninism,” as practiced by self-styled “Leninist” groups, certainly is an insult to and a denigration of Lenin and his life’s work as a revolutionary social democrat. He had very little to do with the creation of sects that operate in his name and was far more interested in creating mass-based, class-based parties. In line with this orientation, the Communist International (Comintern) insisted that various national revolutionary groupings fuse and merge into single, united parties if they desired to be affiliated with the Comintern. Historically, the creation of “Leninist” sects is Trotsky’s doing, not Lenin’s.
C.D.V.: I should said seems as his book Lenin Reconsidered does have certain implications for political praxis even if those implications only come from a close reading of primary text and the historical record. To change to a related topic: What do you see as a way to organize labor as the Union movement declines?
P.B.: Before that question can be tackled, we have to step back and diagnose the reason for the union movement’s seemingly unending decline.
Today’s AFL-CIO apparatus (or what is left of it) is very much a product of the 1950s context in which it was born (the federation came together in 1955), that is, hemmed in by Taft-Hartley which outlawed secondary strikes and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules and bureaucracy that constantly interferes with organizing efforts. The creation of these hurdles occurred during a period of unprecedented prosperity and capitalist economic expansion. Back then, the capitalist class felt that peace on the shopfloor was worth paying for and as a result, workers enjoyed good contracts and generally rising living standards from 1945-1970 without a tremendous amount of struggle. If you told Big Bill Haywood before he died in 1928 that, in two decades, American mass production workers would be able afford to send their children through college to get white collar or managerial positions, he’d probably slap you for spouting pie-in-the-sky pro-capitalist propaganda. It’s hard to overstate the change in capital-labor relations in the pre- and post-World War Two eras. Successive generations of workers and union leaders grew accustomed to getting good contracts without much of a fight; when strikes did break out, they tended to be short, non-violent, fairly tame affairs. Eventually management backed down or union leaders would come back to the bargaining table, and an agreement amenable to both sides was reached.
Those days are over and they have been over for a long time. However, the union movement and the working class as a whole has not really caught up to or adjusted to this change. The tactics and traditions inherited from an era of “class peace” weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. As a result, unions in the private sector have almost been wiped out (the percentage is in the single digits), so public sector unions have become disproportionately important to the AFL-CIO by default. The problem is that, in addition to Taft-Hartley and NLRB, there are state laws that outlaw strikes by these public sector workers. Advocates of a labor party used to argue that unions without a party of their own meant that labor was fighting with “one hand behind its back,” meaning the labor movement needed to fight not only on the economic side but on the political-legislative side as well. Today, we are in a situation where labor is fighting with both hands tied behind its back since strike action is almost illegal in practice and we have no workers’ party to combat new anti-union measures that are passing in state legislatures.
So we are in big trouble, to put it mildly.
Now, it’s easy to blame the conservatism of union bureaucrats and bureaucracies for the labor movement’s fate, which is what the far left (“Leninist” and otherwise) does. But the blame is not solely theirs; we should not pretend that we can put labor’s house back in order by electing better, more radical/militant/Marxist labor leaders. Labor’s problems are much bigger, or more deeply ingrained, than this or that treacherous, cowardly leader or even whole layers of treacherous, cowardly leaders. The other side of the union movement’s bureaucratization is the relatively passive, quiescent rank and file who bear the brunt of the attacks and have the most to gain from effective resistance.
In the final analysis, the union movement is only as strong as its rank and file is class conscious, militant, and organized and will only win what it is prepared to fight for, which apparently is not much. Until that changes, until a do-it-yourself ethos becomes a lot more common than it is now among unionized or unionizing workers, efforts to revive the existing labor movement like AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s latest initiative will go nowhere fast because they will quickly run up against Taft-Hartley, NLRB, a whole series of anti-union laws, and the absence of a labor party, which is what happened with the exciting Our Walmart initiative. (I’m not saying Our Walmart is dead, a failure, or anything like that; I’m using that experience to point out the difficulties for unions to succeed at doing anything beyond merely surviving in the political and legal context of present-day America.)
There is no “magic bullet” solution or organizational form to the union movement’s problems and I do not pretend to have all or even most of the answers, especially on this question. I have never been in a union although my parents have, and I think my lack of experience in the trenches of the union movement is unfortunately nearly universal for working people of my generation. The existing alternative models to the AFL-CIO like the Industrial Workers of the World have not fared too well either; they are, of course, under-funded, often isolated from the broader union movement, and their efforts to organize at small businesses and large employers alike have not met with great success despite a lot of courageous effort and militant, unorthodox tactics. It was the combination of these tactics (or Occupy-esque militancy and flexibility) and AFL-CIO resources that led Our Walmart to have its initial success.
As a general rule, I don’t think the union movement is going to get anywhere unless and until it begins to defy or find ways of circumventing bourgeois legality. People, including working people, tend to take the path of least resistance, and when you have a family that depends on you for food, clothes, and shelter, risking arrest is not something that is undertaken lightly; this is especially true for working single mothers who struggle just to find babysitters and child care week to week as they slave away for corporate behemoths like Wal Mart, McDonald’s, or Starbucks. At the same time, if every effective tactic is outlawed or ruled illegal by a court injunction, every union is going to face a stark choice between bowing to legality and losing or risk losing everything for an illegal win as the Transit Workers Union Local 100 did when it went on strike here in New York City in 2006. They struck and the union was crippled when a judge took away automatic dues payment as punishment for breaking the state’s anti-strike law.
The convergence of Occupy with union struggles provided a brief glimpse of what or how this problem might be surmounted in practice, but Occupy proved to be too inflexible to adapt and survive without its encampments and so this brief convergence did not have time to take hold and develop into something meaningful. Occupy Homes is a campaign that I think also gets at the question of bourgeois legality, although it is a struggle centered not on the point of production and therefore the unions play a subordinate role (if they play a role at all). What Our Walmart decides to do during and after the NLRB-imposed cooling off period will be pretty important to determining what, if any, future unions have in this country.
C.D.V: What to you make of the general Union reliance on Democrats despite the fact state-level Democrats have been arguibly more successful at slow dismantling since labor is less skillful at framing opposition to the party he Unions channel a lot of money to?
P.B.: Unions will never break from the Democratic Party (DP) unless and until there is a reasonably realistic alternative to switch their allegiance to. How awful the DP is for labor on any issue or policy is irrelevant so long as the Democrats do not change the D to an R.
Breaking the strategic attraction of the lesser-evil strategy means breaking the two-party state at the local, state, and eventually national levels. We’ll need Greens or reds in office before we can expect to see unions re-think their political options and strategies.
We are unfortunately a very long way from that.
Things weren’t always this bad. This tradition of unions backing Democratic politicians come hell or high water has its origins in the Communist Party’s (CP) policies in the union movement of the 1930s during the Popular Front period. Prior to that, there were efforts to create labor and farmer-labor parties and unions sometimes ran their own candidates in local elections. The Debs-era Socialist Party polled 20%-30% of the delegates at the American Federation of Labor convention in the early 20th century. The CP put an end to all that. It played a pivotal role in the rise of the CIO and used its immense power and influence in the unions to kill any and all effort aimed at creating a Labor Party that could threaten the Democratic Party. Since then the unions have been the DP’s most loyal organized constituency.
C.D.V.: You still see this in the somewhat bipolar seeming rhetoric of the CPUSA: Do you see this entryism as being not only habitual but pathological?
P.B.: The problem is not one of entryism; the unions, NGOs, and left-liberal organizations are not “entering” the DP because the party as such does not really have formal structures these groups can enter into or take over in any meaningful sense. Rather, they refuse to organize a jail break, an escape out of the confines of the DP mainly because doing so would leave them with even less power and influence than they have now. Until they have another ship to jump to, they won’t jump ship, even if the ship is sinking, or on fire. That’s why I tire of hearing the socialist left propagandistically and pathologically calling on unions and everyone else to “break with the Democratic Party.” We even hear that rhetoric from Socialist Alternative candidates running in local races in Seattle and Minneapolis for non-partisan(!) offices. Instead, I think we need to discuss and think through how to break the Democratic Party, how to split its voting base from its funding base, how to disrupt it, undermine it, and eventually make it a marginal force in American politics. Actually accomplishing that might require some entryism or other unorthodox tactics by radicals. Another pathological problem I see is acting as if the DP is a moral taint or a poison that, once you touch it, will turn you to stone; it’s a very moralistic approach, one that precludes any real struggle dealing with the DP and exploiting its contradictions.
C.D.V.: What ideas do you have on how to concretely start to fracture the Democractic party?
P.B.: The first thing we have to do is look at local, city, and state politics to find where there are openings and weaknesses we can take advantage of. I learned a lot by reading the chapter on Bernie Sanders’ rise in Burlington, VT in the book Radicals In Power by Eric Leif Davin which I can’t recommend highly enough. If you had to choose between buying and reading Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered and Radicals in Power, I would say skip Lih.
Sanders managed to oust the Democratic mayor, and then he faced an extremely hostile Democratic and Republican city council that effectively sabotaged the first year of his administration. So Sanders and his allies campaigned to oust them too and they won. The remaining (surviving) Democratic and Republican council members then began to compromise and work with rather than against Sanders. Out of Sanders’ campaign came the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP), which I have only begun to study. Their strategy, unlike the Green Party, has been to focus on races for local and state offices exclusively and they endorse Democrats on a case-by-case basis. The latter part of the strategy is generally anathema to the revolutionary left, but it’s hard to argue with results: they’ve managed to build up the country’s most powerful state-based third party and have worked with the Democrats to weaken the Republicans. This extreme tactical flexibility vis-à-vis the Democrats has allowed VPP to avoid the spoiler problem that is built into America’s winner-take-all electoral system which has been the main objective barrier to a robust Green Party. Sometimes you have to compromise with the enemy to fight the enemy, and that is how I view the VPP. Teaming up with Democrats to weaken and undermine the Republicans on a state-wide level is smart because it erodes the spoiler factor that gives the DP so much power overs it voting base. Once you remove the fear factor of a G.O.P. victory from the equation, you empower unions, people of color, women, LGBTQs to make a free choice, a choice of conscience and genuine political preference, which is pretty threatening to the DP since they could never win elections on their neoliberal, G.O.P-lite, free-trade loving, anti-union, and pro-imperialist policies. In many Vermont local races the Republicans don’t even appear to be a factor, so it’s a straight fight between VPP and the DP.
None of the above could have or would have happened without Bernie Sanders running successfully as an independent against the Democratic mayor of Burlington in the 1980s.
C.D.V.: What do you want to see in a broad, multiple tendency and faction left movement emerging?
P.B.: The socialist movement in the U.S. is weaker, more fragmented, and more marginal today than it has ever been. In 1898, there were 6,000 organized socialists in this country. Today, the combined memberships of all the three- and two-letter groups put together might equal that figure on a good day, although now there are 300 million people living in this country, 100 million or so of whom are wage workers.
So we are starting almost from scratch in terms of creating a mass-based socialist movement that is relevant to American politics, one that can throw punches that actually mean something in terms of the class struggle. We’re so far behind every other country in this regard that we haven’t even produced a George Galloway of our own. That’s sad.
Each fragment or sliver has something it can offer and bring to the table, even the Sparticists. There is a time and a place for vitriolic polemics, a time and a place to call out fellow reds for mistakes, opportunism, and so on; the problem is that is all that the Sparticists do. The International Socialist Organization’s publishing house, Haymarket books, is a tremendous asset, and their nonprofit brings in over $1 million a year. They have plenty of talented people, some of whom are union members, and the same goes Solidarity, Workers World Party, and the rest of them.
The smart, strategic thing to do would be for all of these groups to begin cooperating with each other at the local and branch levels, start having joint meetings, panels, discussions, moderated debates, agreements to fight together for strictly local campaigns for desperately needed measures like rent control, police reform and accountability, lower public transit fares, stuff that working class people care about and that would make a difference to their daily lives. Instead, each group sticks to its own mini-campaigns and initiatives, sees their comrades as competitors, tries to recruit like mad to make up for the number of people dropping out or becoming inactive, and won’t enter into campaign mode for a given initiative unless it is controlled by their group and/or not controlled by one of its rivals. It’s the theory and practice of petty proprietorship, not proletarian socialism.
There’s no good, strategic reason not to form a common radical organization that is anti-capitalist on the theoretical side and dedicated to fighting austerity on the practical side. Disagreements on Syria, Greece, Russia 1989 or 1917 are just an excuse not to unite into something bigger, better, and more effective. Everyone wants to be Lenin in 1914 and accuse everyone else of being Kautsky or Plekhanov, as if the three of them were not still part of the same International at that time. No trend within socialism in the U.S. has anything approaching a mass following and never will if the status quo on the socialist left prevails. Imagine what Greek politics would look like if the Maoists, Trotskyists, and eurocommunist forces that constitute SYRIZA today did not start cooperating almost a decade ago in the manner I described above. PASOK’s support would have collapsed, and Golden Dawn would not be counterbalanced by any left force. In the U.S., similar disaffection with the ruling parties leads to the Tea Party on the right and Occupy/anarchism on the left because the socialist left is essentially a vacuum, a non-entity.
A big tent radical organization could unite the independents (who outnumber the group members), fuse the splinters into a single bat, and probably attract a lot of the revolutionary-minded, non-dogmatic class-struggle anarchist-ish types as well who want nothing to do with central committees, paper sales, and recruiting the uninitiated through intensive individual conversion. A serious 3-5 year plan with some sketched out stages/phases of development and benchmarks or metrics to create such an organization undertaken by a few of the existing groups could easily have 10,000 active members at the end of that process provided no group’s control-freakery or ingrained sectarianism shipwrecked the thing before it could get off the ground.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
P.B.: Thanks for taking the time to interview me. You asked a lot of tough, challenging questions and I hope to see some debate, discussion, and progress towards at least some of the goals we all share.