Back to home page
ISR Issue 56, NovemberDecember 2007
Marx and Lenin for today
Paul Le Blanc
Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience: Studies of Communism and Radicalism in the Age of Globalization
337 pages $30
Review by HELEN SCOTT
IN HIS introduction to Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience, South African poet and global justice activist Dennis Brutus writes, “This book does not claim to provide all the answers, but I would hope that thoughtful activists coming from various ideological orientations, by critically engaging with it, will be helped to find answers of their own on how we are to create a better world.”
These words capture something about the tone of this work, which is thoughtful, reflective, eclectic, and hesitant to provide straightforward solutions to the important questions it raises about the possibilities for fundamental social change in the twenty-first century.
The most pressing argument is that Marx and Lenin are not only relevant to the contemporary world, but crucial for progressive political projects. Drawing on a dizzyingly varied array of cultural, political, and historical examples, Le Blanc deftly dismantles establishment attempts to discredit revolutionary marxism. He elaborates the tremendous achievements of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and refutes oft-repeated right-wing assertions such as, “Lenin led to Stalin,” and “Socialism is incompatible with human nature.”
In response to former-leftists-turned-capitalists, such as Max Eastman and David Horowitz, who fixate on the “failures of socialism,” Le Blanc writes:
The stark realities of our time might give rise to reflections on the failure of capitalism.… Specifically, a global power elite that owns and dominates our planet’s economy has gotten richer at the expense of most of the world’s people, for whom there has been a general decline of living conditions.… It is also quite possible that a failure to move beyond the capitalist system could result in the degradation of our planet’s environment to the extent that human life will no longer be possible.The book not only catalogues the horrors of global capitalism, but importantly provides a history of radical resistance, focusing especially on the U.S. in the 1930s—the “red decade”—and the 1960s, the era of mass social movements. The histories he provides are inspiring and moving, drawing on the best of left and labor scholarship, but also on creative literature and the arts more broadly. For example, he cites an uplifting account of the first performance of Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty, which inspired a “spontaneous demonstration” by an audience that “stormed the stage and embraced the man who had voiced their hopes and fears and deepest aspirations.” Elsewhere he quotes a Marge Piercy poem in order to capture the rapid social and cultural transformations of the 1960s: “We are trying to live/As if we were an experiment/Conducted by the future.”
Le Blanc grapples with the historical low points of struggle, too—the defeat of the Spanish Revolution of 1936 and the ascendance of fascism; the Cold War and McCarthyism; the business unionism of the 1950s.
He also reveals the continuities that are often obscured by mainstream history. Despite the defeat of international socialism and the brutal and tragic rise of Stalinism in the 1920s, communists had “a decisive influence on American life—in the labor movement, in anti-racist struggles, in women’s rights efforts, in innumerable reform activists, as well as exercising quite substantial intellectual, artistic, literary, and cultural influence” throughout the 1930s.
And in turn, despite the evisceration of the Left through Cold War anticommunism and the “relatively quiescent 1950s period,” a “variety of socialist, Communist, and Trotskyist currents, as well as libertarian, anarchist, left-liberal, and pacifist influences” were central to the mass radicalization of the 1960s.
Having swept away much of the disinformation surrounding Leninism, Le Blanc delineates its key components: “Connecting socialism with the working class”; “Dealing with diversity within the working class”; “Political independence of the working class”; “Working-class struggle against all forms of oppression”; “A party of the working-class vanguard”; “Struggles for reforms and democracy linked with revolutionary socialist strategy”; “A worker-peasant alliance”; “The united front tactic”; “Comprehending imperialism and nationalism”; “Revolutionary internationalism.”
The book contains chapters on Christianity and anarchism that are thought-provoking and richly referenced, and a chapter called “Tree of life,” after the Goethe quotation used by Lenin: “Theory, my friend, is gray, but ever green is the tree of life.”
Running throughout is what Le Blanc refers to as an “audacious blend of diverse ideological influences,” which stems from the central tension within the book: While it’s necessary to create “a 21st century variant of what the Leninist party was,” the very changed political context, particularly the absence today of the broad global working-class socialist movement within which Bolshevism developed, creates immense challenges. Le Blanc echoes the Marxist-Christian Rev. A. J. Muste, who in the early 1960s looked back half a century and wrote: “we need such a movement in our own time and it is not easy to see how it can be gathered in such vastly changed circumstances.”
In many ways this is a work that is haunted by the right-wing offensive launched after 9-11, and the blow dealt to left-wing political movements by the ensuing military invasions and assaults on civil liberties in the name of the “war on terror.” At the same time, Le Blanc is acutely aware of the deeper radicalization among the U.S. working class that was interrupted but not halted by the events of the opening years of the new millennium. Indeed he explicitly wrote the book for the “new waves of radical activism, and youthful activists” produced by the contradictions of our age.
In Le Blanc’s own words, his collection of “revolutionary studies” thus contains “echoes of tragedy and hope.” Its most important message is that “serious socialists will need to find creative ways of utilizing the perspectives of the Leninist tradition that are in harmony with a grasp of the realities unfolding in the 21st century.” In showing how quickly history turns from crisis and defeat to new mass movements for social change, and in presenting Lenin to a new generation of activists, the book is part of this project.