Editor’s note: This document was initially circulated within our Party in advance of our 3rd Party Congress in April 2016 — and publicly released in September 2016. It addresses the historical and contemporary relationship between revolutionary theory and revolutionary practice, the combination of which is referred to in the communist tradition as “praxis.” The primary thesis of this document is that there has been a rupture in the ideological continuity of the people’s movements in the U.S.; namely, that Marxism and communism have fallen into disrepute.
The radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s were situated in — or at least deeply influenced by — revolutionary Marxism. They understood that politics is a struggle for power. Today, on the other hand, the issue of power has been replaced by the demand for identity-based recognition and self-determination over spaces. While the word “socialism” has been popularized recently, what is needed is for the revolutionary theory of socialism to be popularized. The document discusses the origins of the break in ideological continuity and how we should address it to foster communist praxis.
Marxist theory cannot sustain itself. If relegated to academia, it will lose its revolutionary vitality. Elementary Marxist conceptions, elementary in the sense that they were accepted by advanced working-class forces throughout the world for many decades, are now virtually unknown. The link or legacy of Marxist theory has been snapped, broken, and a new generation of activists and fighters are unfamiliar with the core features of the theory.
According to Lenin, the success of Bolshevism was premised on two features: (1) the assimilation of Marxist theory as the “granite foundation” and (2) that the party and its cadres “went through fifteen years of practical history (1903-17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience.” (from “Left-Wing” Communist, an Infantile Disorder, quoted more extensively below)
We cannot snap our fingers and create the varied succession of different forms of the movement, such as was experienced by the Bolsheviks during those 15 years. The stages and circumstances of struggle are created not by a vanguard organization, but by objective conditions outside of the control of any political organization. Our comrades are going through different experiences. They are learning. They are not simply involved in agitation or propaganda, but are in fact accumulating critically necessary organizational experiences and skills. But the period we have been living through inside the United States does not approximate the intensity that the Bolsheviks experienced between 1903 and 1917. Again, that is outside the control of any organization.
What is in our control is our capacity to review, learn, and comprehensively understand and promote Marxist theory as it applies to the struggles that are taking place inside the United States and around the world. Many people underestimate the central significance of theory or think that the questions of theory should be left in the hands of a small number of people, but in the Leninist conception, and according to the organizational principles of Leninism, the role played by theory is central.
Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolution. That is a cornerstone of Leninist strategy. Most of the intellectuals in 1903 went to the camp of the Mensheviks and reformists. Lenin’s genius included bringing revolutionary Marxist theory to the workers and educating the key worker organizers in Marxism. He stated, the struggle to assimilate revolutionary Marxist theory was a primary and not secondary task. It was a point of priority and struggle:
While the Bernie Sanders campaign and, more importantly, the movement around it, have helped popularize the word “socialism,” they have not popularized socialism or Marxist theory. This is a primary task for communists in the coming period.
The essence of Marxist theory
Marxist theory, unlike Sanders’ program, is the doctrine for the liberation of oppressed working classes. The essence of Marxist theory, that which makes it distinctive, new and revolutionary, is that it proclaims that the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie will be replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat as the precondition for the abolition of classes and class divisions in society. This is critically important for our members to understand. Marx wrote Capital; The Communist Manifesto; Critique of Political Economy; The Poverty of Philosophy; The Critique of German Ideology; Wage, Labor and Capital; Value, Price and Profit; The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon; and many other major political, economic and sociological works. The prolific writings of Marx and his chief collaborator, Frederick Engels, constitute a body of literature without parallel. All of these works have been studied and used by the workers’ movement to educate the working class and its leaders just as much as they have been the subject of critique, ridicule and denunciation by armies of bourgeois intellectuals.
Because the works of Marx and Engels are so far reaching and touch on so many subjects, there are many attempts to characterize the essence of Marxism.
But it is not necessary to look any further than Karl Marx himself for this definition of the essence of what became known later as Marxism (Marx would never have described himself as a “Marxist”):
This critical passage described in Marx’s own words the essence of his theory. It is noteworthy that it was Lenin himself who rescued this definition of Marxism, restoring Marxism to its revolutionary role at a time when the mainstream socialist movement in Europe had reduced Marxism to a doctrine of gradualism and social reform. It was Lenin who emphasized this passage in his pamphlet The State and Revolution.
Our Party reprinted The State and Revolution in our latest book Revolution Manifesto. In addition to Lenin’s pamphlet, our book also included several key articles outlining and explaining how Lenin’s and Marx’s theory was valid and fundamental for revolutionary activists to study in the 21st century. Our book also updated Lenin’s thesis, taking into account the profound changes that have occurred in the last century (the pamphlet was written in 1917).
The PSL also reprinted Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism in a previous book titled Imperialism in the 21st Century. We consider this, too, to be an essential feature of modern-day Marxist theory. It was a major contribution by Lenin to Marxism. Unlike the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a precursor stage to the abolition of classes, a concept fully developed by Karl Marx based on the experiences of the class struggle in Europe following the 1848-1849 bourgeois revolution that ended in defeat, Lenin’s thesis on imperialism was entirely original. Marx could not have analyzed imperialism as a global system based on monopoly, the domination of finance capital, and the complete division of the world into colonies and semi-colonies because this global system only arose following his death.
We are fully justified in using the formulation of “Marxism and Leninism” because Lenin added something new to Marxism (again, in keeping with Marx’s own modesty, Lenin would have rejected any label such as “Leninism”). Lenin always made the point that his revolutionary orientation was in keeping with the teachings of orthodox Marxism. He would have described himself as a Marxist — period. But in fact it is impossible to be a Marxist who is a revolutionary socialist in the contemporary period without a full understanding of Leninism and Lenin’s contributions to Marxism as they pertain to the modern era, which is the era of monopoly capitalism, the domination of finance capital over industrial capital, militarism and endless war. Just to clarify: It is critically important for our Party as a Leninist organization to have a complete understanding of just what Leninism is, but this does not mean that we should only study and review the writings of Lenin. There are hundreds of other revolutionary leaders and thinkers whose works have made contributions to Marxist theory.
Bernie Sanders’ program and the program of social democracy, non-Marxist anti-capitalist radicalism and anarchism do not constitute any sort of fundamental challenge to the domination of society by the imperialist ruling-class cliques, nor do they constitute a threat to the monstrous domination over society by the capitalist state. State power has become thoroughly connected to the hold on power by the capitalists. The centrality of state power is observable in all features of modern capitalist society. It was the bourgeoisie’s domination over state power that made it possible for it to utilize the government to save the largest sectors of finance capital. Likewise, it is state power that allows U.S.-owned transnational corporations to have a favored position throughout the globe. It is state power that provides the military infrastructure for U.S. economic intervention in most countries of the world. It is state power that protects U.S. capitalists in their interactions with the rest of the capitalist world vis-à-vis so-called trade pacts like NAFTA, KorUS FTA, TPP, CAFTA and others. It is state power that allows the bourgeoisie to suppress, repress and control the working class on the job, and in working-class and oppressed communities.
The role of state power and socialism
In The Communist Manifesto Marx writes about the state power: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”
Later in The Manifesto, he states:
As we can see, The Communist Manifesto introduces the idea of the working class taking political power or state power and using the state to begin the gradual implementation of socialist measures, but it is not explicit as to how this political supremacy is to be achieved. As Lenin points out in The State and Revolution, it was only later — after the experiences of the defeat of the 1848-1849 revolution and, even more importantly, the rise of the Paris Commune and its eventually defeat in 1871 — that the question was answered for Marx and Engels. The existing state power under the leadership of communists or revolutionary socialists could not be utilized as the vehicle for the socialist reorganization of society. The state power had to be smashed and a new state, a workers’ state, had to be constructed. The old powers of society — the bourgeois-led army; the existing police forces; the judges, courts and prisons; and parts of the old bureaucratic government apparatus — had to be smashed and replaced with a new working-class-led army, police and courts.
Again, there can be no revolution without a revolutionary theory. Marxism is that theory. It is not a plaything for bourgeois intellectuals. Marxist theory is a guide to action. Its application becomes a compass as the struggle for liberation enters into different stages. The Marxist theory on the state, that part of Marxism that is rejected by social democracy, is foundational for the success of the socialist project.
For example, we can see from the recent political experience in Latin America, especially in Venezuela, that the inability to smash the old state power, expropriate the expropriators and create a completely new state power, means that the revolutionary process is especially vulnerable to destabilization by the old capitalist elites, the affluent classes who work hand-in-glove with world imperialism to destroy a socialist project.
For the PSL or any revolutionary socialist organization to succeed, it must have a politically correct assessment of new developments and be able to utilize flexibility and suppleness in tactics, but it must rest on the foundation of Marxist theory.
Flexibility and suppleness in tactics allows us to intervene in mass movements or mass actions. That is necessary, but if we approach this work simply as activists without promoting the distinctive revolutionary theory of Marxism, it would not advance the movement much at all. Our approach to the Sanders campaign or to the new acceptance of “socialism” means that we can talk to a broader part of the population, and the starting point for those conversations have to be where the people are now, not where we hope they will be later. But if we uncritically become absorbed inside of mass work without promoting Marxist theory, we will have failed to do the job of a revolutionary socialist party.
The exciting part of the Bernie Sanders campaign is the mass revitalization of agitation against the capitalist bankers and the space created to talk about what socialism is. It is completely natural that when masses of people awaken to political activity they at first gravitate to the organizational forms that are the easiest or what might be called the path of least resistance. A bourgeois election campaign is a familiar path. It is legal, considered legitimate and a revered aspect of bourgeois democracy. It is legitimate in a bourgeois sense and it is safe — no one will be arrested, beaten up or fired from their job because they are supporting a candidate in a Democratic Party presidential campaign. That is what we mean by the path of least resistance. It is the height of foolishness for revolutionaries to condemn or criticize the masses of people for participating in or taking a path of least resistance when they first enter the political arena. More complicated, difficult and revolutionary organizations become an option for masses of people only when the easier paths seem to end up leading nowhere or when they are forcibly closed down because of bourgeois repression.
The PSL’s task in the coming period is twofold: to widely and popularly promote the basic ideas of socialism, to engage in socialist agitation that is aimed at the masses of people, and to make that work a priority; and to establish the Marxist and Leninist pole within the broader revival of socialism. The second task means we must emphasize the role of revolutionary theory, to study and learn ourselves, and to engage in communist propaganda. By propaganda we mean presenting a broader range of Marxist ideas aimed at a smaller subset of the population. In contrast, when we speak of agitation, we are referring to promoting one or two ideas aiming at an audience of millions of people.
Popular definition of socialism
It is now possible to discuss socialism in the public arena, but the term itself lacks meaning. Sanders’ definition of socialism is nothing more than social democracy, which, again, would be a very big step forward for the working class at home, but would not alter in any way, shape or form the imperialist character of the United States of America.
But social democracy is not socialism. It is a variant form of capitalist rule.
We propose this as a popular definition of socialism:
Socialism is a society where political and economic power is in the hands of the working class and the oppressed. Socialism is a society where the basic needs of the population and the planet are planned for and guaranteed.
This definition raises the issue of power. It does not talk about revolution or the tasks of revolutionaries in relationship to the state power. It does not say “smash the state” and “replace it with a workers’ state.”
This definition, however limited it is, presents a very good formula for popularization of revolutionary socialist theory. To have political and economic power in the hands of the working class implies that that power must be removed from the hands of the capitalist class. The second part of the formulation that the “basic needs of the population and the planet are planned for and guaranteed” is also sufficient at this stage for our agitation and popularization of socialism.
It is a must, as a matter of political and organizational priority, to do everything within our means, using the available media, social media platforms and one-on-one outreach, to bring this popular definition of socialism into all of our work and into the work that we do within popular movements, mass organizations and to the general public.
Absent a concerted effort to agitate around this definition of socialism, the non-revolutionary and social democratic socialists will be the ones to define socialism. Their definitions lead nowhere. It is just a warmed-over version of liberalism and wishful thinking.
This definition also puts the field of battle into the framework of the class struggle. Without the working class taking political and economic power, which of course is the high point of the class struggle, nothing else is really possible.
Formal legal rights for oppressed peoples and for the working class generally have hit a brick wall in this latest stage of neo-liberal monopoly capitalism. Legal democratic rights within the framework of this social and economic order in its current phase cannot lead to meaningful reforms or forward progress; in fact, they typically lead to reversals.
For instance, the centrality of the Black liberation movement within the U.S. class struggle is a constant even when the movement for Black liberation has entered an ebb stage. U.S. capitalism was constructed on the basis of the enslavement of African peoples and sunk its roots throughout the entire continent based on the genocide and dispossession from the land of Native peoples.
With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, formal legal rights for African American people became enshrined into law. That took more than 350 years since the nascent North American capitalist class took shape as a slave-owning class. It came an entire century after the Reconstruction Amendments following the Civil War legally established the citizenship of Black people.
African people in North America, who as a consequence of their distinctive and special oppression within American capitalism, eventually emerged as a distinct and oppressed nation located within the geographic confines of the U.S. republic.
The Black liberation movement has in many ways been the most consistent and driving force in the U.S. class struggle. Like all struggles, it has gone through up and down periods, but in every period of advancing struggle, the Black liberation movement has become the magnet and vanguard for all other struggles.
Because it is at once a movement for national liberation, a movement against racism and an integral part of the U.S. class struggle, it will require the “taking of political and economic power in the hands of the working class and oppressed” for there to be the realization of Black liberation.
Likewise, women in the 20th century achieved formal, legal rights. Women won the right to vote and changed their status from that of being the property of men. But aside from those victories, the status of women in many ways has been under attack and reversed in many areas.
Fighting for Marxism vs. post-modernist identity politics:
What is the core difference?
For the agitation around this definition of socialism to become popular, we have to be able to use very basic information to show how power in society is concentrated in the hands of the ruling-class capitalists. The courts are dominated by judges who are corporate lawyers and prosecutors. There are no workers in the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate. The decision to close factories, stores and other enterprises is completely in the hands of the capitalists. The two political parties that dominate politics are ruling-class parties dominated by big money.
The issue of power is never really discussed. It is just assumed that power is as it should be and that the working-class and oppressed sectors of society have to holler and scream around the edges hoping that the rich and powerful will do “something good” or “something not so bad” as they make the decisions about everything having to do with politics and the economy.
For this definition to become accepted and understood requires endless intervention, explanation and repetition. We have to write about it. We have to study it. We have to have persuasive agitation in regard to the issue about power and who has it. The question of having power is a distinctive outlook of Marxism in contrast to other progressive and radical political trends, tendencies and factions.
The PSL should be understood as an organized effort to maintain the Marxist and Leninist theoretical and political/organizational continuity that has been broken in the broader movements for social change.
Before this two-generation-long break, the vanguard of the Black liberation movement was an essentially communist movement and a vanguard force not only for the Black struggle but for all the other struggles as well.
For the 35 years between 1980 and today, the ruling class moved dramatically to the right, and carried out neo-liberal assaults against the working class and the Black, Latino, Native and other oppressed communities. In the absence of a robust communist-led Black liberation movement, and with the parallel destruction of the worldwide communist movement following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc nations (1988-1991), communism and socialism were essentially disintegrated as an intellectual and political force. Under these circumstances, post-modernist identity politics became a substitute intellectual trend for Marxism in the United States and in several western countries while right-wing Islamic parties filled that intellectual space in many of the Middle Eastern countries that suffered not only from the destruction of communist parties but the imperialist-led attacks against the social democratic regimes in Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Post-modernist identity-politics-based constructs do not put the issue of power — that is, the taking of economic and political power from the ruling class and concentrating that power in the working-class and oppressed people — as a pressing issue. In fact, the issue of power is replaced by the demand for identity-based recognition and self-determination over spaces rather than the taking of power for the purposes of reorganizing society to have a “society where the basic needs of the population and the planet are planned for and guaranteed.”
Marxism (and certainly revolutionary Marxism) has existed since its inception as a polemic, an argument, against other political trends and currents. The core theory of Marxism is in complete contrast to the underlying assumptions of post-modernist identity politics.
The contrast between Marxism and post-modernist identity politics is not about the issue of identity per se or the importance of identity in society. Marxism does not say, for instance, as it has been caricatured, that class is always more important than other forms of oppression. That is not true at all. That is a vulgarization of Marxism.
The core point that distinguishes Marxism is that it articulates the concept that the only way towards the liberation of oppressed classes and oppressed people is to take the power away from the capitalist ruling class so that the people, the broad majority of working people, can reshape society to meet their needs.
The working class, as a class, can only end its exploitation and liberate itself from exploitation by collectivizing the means of production. The working class does not own property. It only lives by selling its labor for wages. It cannot liberate itself except through the socialization or collectivization of the banks, factories, stores and other enterprises. Nor can the scourge of endless war end by any means other than taking hold of the economic and political power of society by working people. Corporations and banks need an imperialist foreign policy. Working people want peace.
Ideological continuity and our role
The greatest danger to a revolutionary process is not the experience of a political downturn, such as we have experienced during the past decades. In fact, it is not uncommon at all for the working-class movement to experience periods of decline, setback and retreat. If one examines the history of the class struggle, the periods of downturn and reaction are more common than revolutionary advances.
As an oppressed class, the workers — or, to be more precise, the toiling classes, which would include those in the countryside, domestic workers, and everyone involved with value production and realization — have always resisted their oppression. There have been thousands of uprisings and rebellions. With rare exception, they have ended in defeat, after which the oppressing classes repress and suppress the movement, and try to banish the ideas that fomented rebellion.
Precisely because the ruling class has more power and more tools at its disposal than the oppressed classes, it is normally able to overcome and defeat the resistance from below.
The working-class rebellions of 1848 and 1849 were defeated. The great hopes and aspirations of young revolutionaries were dashed. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who wrote The Communist Manifesto on the eve of the 1848 revolution, took stock of the defeat by the end of 1849. It was then that Marx decided to retreat from practical political activity and he spent the next 15 years in the library writing his monumental thesis, Das Kapital (Capital).
The next stirrings of the workers’ movement did not take place until the mid-1860s, at which time Marx re-entered practical politics and became the de facto leader of the First International. Marx and Engels always talked about their comrades, who were few in number, as “the party.” But, in fact, the movement was not strong enough to actually create a communist party.
The Paris Commune of 1871 marked another high point for the workers’ movement. The working class of Paris, in the circumstances of a war with Germany and the defeat of France, felt compelled to take power in the city. The Paris Commune, too, like the revolution of 1848 and 1849, was eventually drowned in blood. Tens of thousands of workers were slaughtered as the bourgeoisie retook Paris.
August 1914 marked another huge defeat. When the imperialist powers went to war against each other in Europe, the great influence of the Second International, the socialist movement, seemed to shatter. Instead of hoisting the banner “workers of the world, unite” as they had pledged to do, most of the major parties in the Second International ended up supporting their own ruling classes. Instead of solidarity, the working class — including socialists — went into the battlefield under the banner of patriotism to the fatherland and slaughtered each other. This was a catastrophe for the socialist movement.
What was true in Europe was also true in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Rebellions by oppressed peasants were generally defeated time and time again.
In North America also, the same phenomenon was clearly visible. Indigenous peoples resisted, but over time they were destroyed. Against all odds, enslaved African people engaged in acts of resistance, big and small, against the system. Inspired by the successful slave revolution in Haiti, revolts and rebellions of enslaved people took place inside of the United States. All of them were defeated, the leaders were executed, and their legacy and words were not only demonized but became, if expressed by others, punishable crimes.
The point here is that setbacks and defeats are not uncommon. They are not the exception to the rule. On the contrary, victories of the oppressed classes are the exception.
The problem that the workers’ movement faces today cannot be characterized as simply the experience of yet another defeat. The problem is different and it is greater in some ways. The problem today is that the theory of revolutionary Marxism and the entire vision of workers’ power has been discredited and isolated from the people’s struggles. The very memory of revolution has been eliminated and distorted in the minds of today’s militants. The organizational lessons from previous generations of struggle have been suppressed. If some people have criticized the idealism of the 1960s and 1970s generation — for prematurely believing that revolution was imminent — today’s problem is the opposite and far more challenging: the assumption that socialist revolution will never happen, and the masses will always be oppressed.
The victory of the Russian Revolution constituted the first time in the history of the human race where the oppressed and propertyless class seized power and held onto it. That was what made the Russian Revolution so unique. Oppressed classes have always resisted, but this time they seized the power, held onto it and reorganized society on a socialist — that is, collective — basis. It was the first time that a ruling class was based on collectivized property representing the interests and needs of the majority rather than a small clique of property owners.
The overthrow of the Soviet government and its impact on Marxist theory
If the Soviet Union had been vanquished as a consequence, say, of the Nazi invasion of 1940, it would be remembered in history by all other workers as a glorious and inspiring effort to build a new world.
But the Soviet Union was not defeated by the oppressor classes, not directly at least. It was not vanquished on the field of battle as was the Paris Commune, where the workers resisted to the last drop of blood.
Because the Soviet Union was defeated and destroyed by sectors within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, because it was overthrown without a real struggle, the defeat offers no lasting legacy for inspiration. If it had been defeated in struggle, then the Soviet experiment and the communist theory that was foundational to it would be the focus of review and examination by the next generation of fighters from the oppressed classes. If it had been defeated in struggle, communism itself would not have been thoroughly discredited or discarded. But that is what happened. Not only was the Soviet government and the socialist system overthrown in the USSR and in the Eastern and Central European countries, whose social system was the creation of the Soviet Union, the entire world communist movement that had been anchored in Moscow was also dispersed almost immediately. The nature of the defeat was so thoroughly demoralizing that large-scale communist parties that did not hold power split apart, millions of people left the movement, and the oppressor classes had a field day as they cleansed the intellectual world from the now-discredited thoughts, ideas and philosophy that were the underpinnings of communism.
Preserving theoretical achievements
When we started the Party for Socialism and Liberation in 2004, we did so with the idea that there must be an effort to rebuild the political or ideological continuity that had been suspended following the disgraceful overthrow of the Soviet Union by elements from within the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Again, to emphasize: If the workers’ movement or the communist movement suffers a setback as a consequence of intense struggle, there will follow a period of political reaction. The movement can recover from that, as it always has, as long as the earlier lessons learned are retained as the guiding theory for the workers’ movement. In fact, there are periods that make practical advances almost impossible. As alluded to above, this was the conclusion that Marx and Engels drew after the defeat of the 1848-1849 revolution. They could not force events. They decided instead to use the period of reaction to clarify elements of communist theory that were absolutely necessary for the future advances of the movement.
There was a break of continuity in terms of practical politics, but there was no break of continuity in the theoretical and ideological field. In fact, they significantly advanced communist theory during the intervening years, and when the workers movement became a truly mass movement by the end of the 19th century in Europe, the oppressed classes were able to quickly and fully assimilate, embrace and utilize Marxist theory as a guide to action. However, this embrace of Marxism as a guide to action rather than an abstract doctrine by the leaders of the socialist movement did not prevent other extreme distortions of Marxism from taking place under the misguided policies of these same leaders. When Lenin broke from the Second International and the majority of the world socialist movement in 1914, he argued that Marxism under the tutelage of the Second International leadership had been transformed from a revolutionary doctrine into a reformist creed.
Retaining communist theory under the circumstances of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the world communist movement could only be done by the creation of a new communist organization. Academic writings or literary work would not be credible. The communist movement had to be rebuilt from scratch. It would require the education of a new generation of revolutionary leadership. The older left organizations had either been destroyed through splits or defections or had lost all of their vitality. To start over was in many ways the most complicated task, and we knew that this process would go through many stages.