Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Clay Newlin

Praise Lenin Less, Study Him More Diligently

First Published: The Organizer, Vol. 3, No. 6, August 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Organizer Introduction: In the face of the organizational consolidation of dogmatism in the form of a number of different “vanguard” parties, Marxist-Leninist forces continue to grow and mature. While the RCP and the newly formed CP-ML reassure themselves that the period of collectives, circles, and local organizations has passed, the continued proliferation of these forms show that this assessment is false. The failure of the major pre-party organizations to attract more than token participation of these forces in their rush to form the party is an indication of the bankruptcy of dogmatism. It is a damning expose of the pretensions of these organizations. . .their self-congratulatory posture of having succeeded in “uniting the Marxist-Leninists” when in fact they have done nothing more than change the letterhead on their stationery.


But at the same time the continuation of circles and local organization stands as an indictment of the state of our movement. The fragmented and primitive character of Marxist-Leninist organization is a reflection of the low level of ideological development and the tenuous character of our practical work. The challenge posed now is to develop a coherent Marxist-Leninist trend that stands in opposition to both revisionism and dogmatism. We believe that such a trend presently exists in embryo. It must now take on greater political definition.

Over the last period the Organizer has focused on drawing and deepening the lines of demarcation between Marxism-Leninism and revisionism and dogmatism. While this process obviously needs to continue, we now intend to shift our focus to the critical differences that exist within the Marxist-Leninist trend over the question of party building. A principled debate over this question is a key element in forging the political understanding and unity that will allow us to take concrete organizational steps toward the formation of a party.

Central to this debate is the question of the role of fusing Marxism-Leninism to the class struggle of the proletariat. The PWOC holds that this is at the heart of the party building process, while other forces counterpose to it the unification of the existing Marxist-Leninists.

* * *

The Guardian editors proved to have more foresight that we thought. In printing our article (Radical Forum, April 13) they rejected our suggested title, “The Fusion Confusion” in favor of “On Combating ’Straw Men’” an unfortunate but seemingly cosmetic change, we now see that they anticipated Silber’s reply (Fan the Flames, May 4) which was largely an effort in combating straw men.

In our article we developed the following points:

•Silber is incorrect to counterpose the task of party-building to the task of fusing communism with the class struggle of the proletariat.

•The essence of party building is the struggle to fuse an independent elaboration of Marxism-Leninism with a significant section of the advanced workers.

•Silber’s party building view provides a cover for 1) the downgrading of our theoretical tasks, 2) amateurism in our movement, and 3) the disorganized state of Marxist-Leninists.

•Silber’s view can only gain adherents to the extent that it adapts itself to the petty-bourgeois intellectual.

•Both Silber’s view and economism must be combated if we are to succeed in developing a national pre-party organization.

Silber does not address himself to a single one of these points. Not one!

Rather, his reply contains numerous attempts to evade the issue, several distortions of the PWOC’s position, several obfuscations of our differences and a significant error in fact as well. We could write an entire article on these but it would be both of little interest and largely diversionary. A frank discussion of our real disagreements is clearly preferable. However, it is first essential to remove some obstacles that Silber has erected to obscure the vision of the careless reader.

Silber begins his article by arguing that he was not the first to raise the question of whether ’party, building or fusion comes first’. In addition he comments that “the Guardian can hardly be ’combating straw men’ by raising it” given that others have raised it as well. From Silber’s comments, one would be likely to conclude that the PWOC had criticized him for “raising” the question and for “combatting straw men” by discussing it.

But a careful reading of our article will reveal that we did neither. What we criticized was, first, the way he posed the question, i.e., as if there were a contradiction between party building and fusion, and second, that by doing so he got himself into a muddle. Silber ought to address the real questions at issue.

Silber also tries to tar the PWOC with what he terms the Potomac Socialist Organization’s “economism”. He asserts that the PSO “says that its own ideas have grown out of their study and agreement with the views of the PWOC.” On this basis he argues that the PWOC “cannot shun all responsibility for “the PSO’s “localism”.

Now this is a feeble argument. If Silber wants to make his tar stick, he will have to demonstrate that our line on party building accommodates economism and localism. But Silber does not (and cannot) demonstrate any such accommodation. Therefore, raising the PSO can only be a dishonest attempt to obfuscate our real disagreements.

Silber tries a third ruse in his discussion of the differences between the U.S. in 1977 and Russia between 1898 and 1900. In addition to his absurd contention that the PWOC maintains that Marxist-Leninists in the U.S. must repeat the party building process followed in Russia “in all of its particulars”, Silber argues that there are significant differences between the “objective and subjective” conditions of Lenin’s time and our conditions today.

Silber points out that in Russia “a bourgeois democratic revolution was on the agenda” and that “the trade unions were illegal.” But while Silber tantalizes his readers with these facts, he provides absolutely no insight into their implications. For all he discusses them, he might just as well have said: Nicholas II was Czar.

If Silber thinks Lenin’s views on fusion are not applicable to the U.S. he should have the courage to say so. Otherwise, to raise the questions of differences in the “objective and subjective conditions” is both an idle display of historical knowledge and a diversion.

However, Silber’s knowledge of Russian history fails him on a rather essential point. He maintains that in Russia, between 1898 and 1900, “the Russian Marxists already had a party – the Russian Social-Democratic Party,” and that “all of the significant Marxist political trends operated within the Russian Social-Democratic Party.” This is strange, indeed!

Apparently Silber has heard that the First Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Party was held in March, 1898. But it is sheer idealism to think that a congress is equivalent to a party. According to the History of the CPSU (Bolshevik) the real significance of the First Congress was formal:

But although the First Congress had been held, in reality no Marxist Social-Democratic Party was as yet formed in Russia. The Congress did not succeed in uniting the separate Marxist circles and organizations and welding them together organizationally. There was still no common line of action in the work of local organizations, nor was there a party program, party rules or a single leading center. (p. 22)

Is this the kind of party Silber wants to build?


And finally Silber writes, “the PWOC rests much of its conclusions on the notion that the Marxist-Leninists of 1977 in the U.S. while somewhat versed in theory, are singularly lacking in practice.” This is pure fabrication; the PWOC has no such “notions”. While we do think the practice of Marxist-Leninists (ours included) leaves a great deal to be desired, it is our position that this practice is, nevertheless, in advance of our theory. That is, the questions raised by our practice have yet to find theoretical solutions. Thus it is theory which is “singularly lacking” not practice.

These examples of Silber’s tactics make his verbal endorsement of “facing the questions posed seriously” a bit hollow, to say the least. Undoubtedly, Silber should “have no compunctions about joining in the discussion”, but he ought to “decline the honor” of such evasions, distortions and obfuscations. He should also be more certain of his facts.

Silber does, however, raise two questions that are worth serious discussion. The first is the question of the communist current. We wrote in our article “Dogmatism and the Struggle for the Party” (The Organizer, Oct.-Nov. 1976) that “the fusion of communism with the advanced workers assumes the development of a communist current in the working class movement.” Silber interprets our remark to mean that “in essence, the PWOC argues that it is not only possible to develop ’a communist current in the working class movement’ without having a party to do it, they say it is essential to do it before you can form the party.” Thus, Silber exclaims, the PWOC, itself, has “given an answer to the ’which comes first’ question.”


Here again Silber’s counterposing of ’party buiding’ to ’fusion’ gets him into a muddle. His fixation on the ’ “Which comes first” question causes him to try to press the PWOC’s views into his mechanistic mold. He cannot bring himself to understand how party building and fusion can proceed in tandem because he is incapable of grasping the fact that party building is in essence a question of fusion.

In fact, the PWOC argues neither that a full-blown communist current can be developed without a party nor that it must be developed before we can form the party. Silber is quite correct that the “very concept of a communist current” implies “the need for a party”. Unfortunately, he is unable to go beyond such truisms.

Dialectics teaches us that a party, like any other object, must be taken in the context of its development. A party develops as a result of a series of quantitative changes which eventually yield a qualitative transformation. That is, Marxist-Leninists strive to develop revolutionary theory, to mold communist cadre, and to win the advanced workers to communism throughout the entire process of party building. But it is only when the process matures to a significant extent that it attains the qualities necessary to be transformed into a real party through a party congress. Up until that congress, that movement is, in reality, only a communist movement in embryo. Should we then argue, as Silber implicitly does, that party building can be reduced to the organization of a party congress?

Returning to the question of a communist current it should be clear that such a current can mature to a significant degree prior to the first congress of our party. While a full-blown communist current assumes the existence of a party, a communist current in embryo does not.

But not only can we develop such a current in embryo prior to the first congress, we must. In fact, only someone totally divorced from the living dialectics of the class struggle can fail to see that the development of a communist current is inseparably bound up with the question of winning the advanced workers to Marxism-Leninism.

This is true for two reasons. First, the process of winning the advanced workers to Marxism-Leninism will inevitably tend to create such a current. The advanced workers are not an isolated phenomenon. They are ’advanced’ owing to their leading role in the working class movement; they form a part of that movement. Thus their transformation into Marxist-Leninists will inevitably tend to produce a section of the working class movement which is made up of communists and their followers – a communist current.

Secondly, creating the conditions for the development of such a current is an indispensable part of the process of winning the advanced workers to communism. What holds back the advanced workers from embracing scientific socialism more rapidly is their fear that an open espousal of Marxism-Leninism will lead to an irrevocable isolation in the working class movement. Only progress towards the development of a communist current can demonstrate that any ’isolation’ they suffer will be temporary and not permanent.

It should be clear then, that Silber’s counterposing of ’party building’ to the development of a communist current inevitably leads to liquidating the question of the advanced workers. And moreover, by denying the importance of winning the advanced workers to Marxism-Leninism, Silber separates party building from the class struggle and, therefore, does indeed advocate the building of a party for a class other than the proletariat.


The second point that Silber raises which is worthy of discussion is the question of voluntarism. Silber argues that by criticizing voluntarism on party building, the “PWOC reveals the fundamental flaw in its thesis.” What is this “fundamental flaw”? The fact that the PWOC does not recognize that “a party is by its very nature a ’voluntaristic’ organization!”

Now, Silber is quite right that we do not recognize this profound “truth”. And if he chooses to stand by his thoughtless endorsement of a voluntaristic party, he will be equally correct that our differences will be fundamental.

Silber argues that “a party is, by its very nature, a ’voluntaristic’ organization” because it introduces a conscious element into the class struggle that does not flow spontaneously from that struggle. If this were all that is meant by the word voluntaristic we would have no quarrel with Silber’s use of it.

For a Marxist, however, the term voluntaristic is inseparable from the doctrine of voluntarism. Voluntarism is an idealist trend which holds that the human will is the essential basis on the development of society. It denies that social progress is determined by objective laws which operate independently of human consciousness. Marxism belongs to the exact opposite school.

What has this to do with the party? While the party must certainly introduce a conscious element into the class struggle, it must not do so in a voluntaristic manner. It must base its intervention on a strictly scientific assessment of the correlation of class forces, the relative consciousness of the masses and the objective content of the class struggle. It must focus its energies on those actions which would bring about the most rapid political advancement possible in the given conditions.

Voluntaristic intervention would follow a different line. Since voluntarism sees human ideals as the motive force of societal progress, it would be likely to set about molding perfect communist human beings oblivious to the fact that objective conditions make such a development impossible. Thus, no Marxist-Leninist party can be, “by its very nature, a voluntaristic organization”.

Silber is not the first to praise Marx and yet advocate a voluntaristic party. Voluntarism was also the standpoint of the Narodnik movement in Russia. N. Mikhailovsky, a leading Narodnik ideologist, advocated a theory of revolutionary struggle in which the masses, as Plekhanov put it, were viewed as nothing more than an infinite number of zeros that could become positive only through the intervention of a critically thinking intellectual. And based on this view, the Narodniks called for a party which was, indeed, “by its very nature, a voluntaristic organization.”

Lenin summed up this trend’s views as a “theory of Utopian, petty bourgeois socialism, i.e. the dream of petty bourgeois intellectuals” (Wks., Vo. 20, p. 106, italics in original). Silber’s advocacy of a “voluntaristic” party just serves to prove the correctness of our assertion that his party building views can only gain adherents by adapting themselves to the pipe dreams of the petty bourgeois intellectuals.

In closing, Silber ought to reflect on Lenin’s remark to the Narodnik voluntarist: “Mr. Mikhailovsky should praise Marx less and read him more diligently.” (Wks., Vol. 1, p. 135).