Marxism, Leninism and a new language of revolution (and evolution)
I recently witnessed a extended, actually recurring, dispute between two trends running simultaneously through several Left parties/orgs. I won't name them because it will only distract from an underlying thematic unity (or perhaps thematic discord) I hope to illuminate.
The left trends were roughly -- not neatly, but roughly -- divided between those favoring Bernie, or favoring Hillary in the Democratic presidential primary.
The ones that favored Hillary, like not a few African-American, Latino, labor and women voters, mainly did so out of insufficient knowledge about Bernie Sanders. To anyone who has been around the "Left" for long, there are a lot of loudmouthed, capable agitators, but not many with any actual governing experience or demonstrated legislative ability. So its not unnatural or perverse to expect many to withhold judgement in a campaign where the democratic and basic economic stakes are so high. Bernies numbers improved in all areas, but especially among youth, as people got to know him better. But skepticism remained that he was "too left" to be the effective leadership of the "anti-right" coalition, a concept also drenched in a long US Marxist theoretical history.
Some in this trend expected Sanders to do a Nader and split the anti-Trump vote. There are plenty of Left trends that would gladly do that; and some Sanders supporters who are nearly in mourning, shocked over Sanders endorsement of Clinton. But the latter was no surprise to anyone who knew or worked with Bernie Sanders over the years. Nor was the seriousness and tenacity of his campaign a surprise. Bernie runs to win, not make some loser statement or strike a pose. He understands governing. He understands majorities. And he has been utterly loyal to his working class base and values for his entire political career. But not everyone knew these things.
On the other hand there are those, thankfully dwindling in number, who, at the first sign of support for Clinton, start dragging out 100, or 150, year old phrases from Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, or from the catalog of "Marxism", or "Leninism", in rants against bourgeois political parties, compromises with IMperialism and Wall Street, and so-called "lesser-evilism". For these folks, the perfect is very often the enemy of the good. They adopt "principled" postures and then wash their hands of the contest between the Clinton Coalition and the Trump fascist excrescence, or damn her with faint praise while passing on garbage from the right wing lie machine, as if there was nothing really important at stake. Maybe not for them (there is a hint of privilege in that "posture") -- but the latter sentiment is not a working class unity perspective, strategy or tactic.
Soon a debate of contrasting phrases and concepts that stretch over the length of socialist history in the United States and the world for a century and a half are trotted out again and again to bolster one tendency or another. Should we look in Lenin's State and Revolution, or Left wing Communism? Should we consult Marx's The Manifesto, or the debate with utopian socialism in the Gotha Program? I know of only one participant in all the recent debates along these themes, on several socialist listservs, and webinars, that bothered to provide the ACTUAL HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL CONTEXT for his review of Lenin's concerns on how non-Russians might easily misunderstand Russian revolutionary politics and apply tactics, especially in the more advanced capitalist countries, in very dangerous and inappropriate ways. Providing that context took some time, and preparation -- because it relates circumstances that are light years away from listeners in 2016 in the US.
Was that presentation enlightening and useful? Yes. If you take the time to immerse yourself in the context, a study of Lenin and/or Marx will yield many rewards. But is there not a shorter, less conflicted and less remote, path to a set of values and objectives that can do what Bernie has done -- without dogma of any kind -- for working class unity in reversing austerity? The lions share of "Marxist" or "Leninist", phrase-making is without such foundations as provided by my learned friend.. And thus, on balance, the transition of a debate into "Marxist" terms, is often a transition toward confusion and further division, not clarity, politically. It is a vocabulary of disunity, in part because there is no credible way to attach the terms and concepts to immediate experience without a staggering measure of interpretation. Shared experience is the heartbeat of shared humanity, and the fountain of understanding.
Listening to the debates in "Marxist" vocabulary (I put the term in quotes to suggest a sharp distinction between the ism, and Marx), the entire example and meaning of Sanders historic campaign --- WHICH WAS DOGMA FREE -- and remained focused on higher wages, the 99% and equality, can be easily lost forever in an ensuing debate about what the "Leninist", or "Marxist" authoritative answer to the 2016 US Democratic primary might be.
The vocabulary of revolutionary and evolutionary struggles to raise and advance the interests of working people can and must be reframed in exclusively democratic terms, to be of use in uniting working class and all democratic forces to reverse austerity and bring globalization under broader, multipolar and democratic control. Most socialists actually picture socialism as a perfected democracy, with or without any capitalists still around, but a society in line with a "perfect union". Working on perfecting democracy gets all of us where we want to go.
So a new theory of democracy must also be advanced alongside these struggles. I have been reading and re-reading with great interest and pleasure the Schumpeterians (a student of Marx), and there is a lot of economic heterodox theory that is more useful than classical theory as the pace of technological change (and the economic and social and financial structure changes/cycles associated) increases.
While we see a lot of ideological work in social and economic sciences, the meaning of an "economic democracy" that can still grow to satisfy human wants is still very imprecise and far from comprehensive. This includes what mix of public and private works aligns best with a particular society, culture, geography. These questions are burning for longer range sustainable answers, but remain not well defined, despite being critically important to understand at every level of government, including ward or community leadership.
We need not just a political theory, but a list simple values, perhaps, indeed, commandments for leadership (which in a perfected democracy includes every citizen) that, if emboldened and made sacred by example, summarize the humanity of the democratic quest: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship We will need warriors too, while imperfections remain to threaten, so we will have to add to the values of strength, sacrifice and solidarity with those who do the work of the world..
This point of this post is easy to summarize
To "Marxist" Sanders supporters: Be like Bernie: drop the dogma.
To "Marxist" Clinton supporters: Be like Bernie. drop the dogma.