Steve Zeluck: Revolutionary Marxist

Against the Current, No. 65, November/December 1996

Charlie Post

I FIRST MET Steve Zeluck in the fall of 1979. At 25, I thought of myself as a “seasoned political.” I had joined the organized revolutionary left in my late teens and had gone through a round of “splits and fusions” in the mid-1970s that failed to create a stable political group. Steve was then 57, a veteran of nearly forty years of militancy in both the labor and revolutionary socialist movements.

When we met, Steve was a leader of a small group of comrades who had left the International Socialists (IS) and were promoting the idea of a broad U.S. revolutionary socialist regroupment. The group they founded, Workers Power (WP), tried to be an example of the sort of multitendency revolutionary organization they hoped to build on a much larger scale–a group that could act effectively in various arenas of struggle without complete unanimity on every political or theoretical issue. They also launched the first Against The Current, then edited primarily by Steve and Bob Brenner, as a forum for debate and discussion among revolutionaries.

I was immediately drawn, personally and politically, to this older Jewish man. Steve was a warm and loving person, who took a deep interest in comrades’ personal lives and political work. For younger comrades, like myself, who radicalized during the Vietnam war and the wave of “wildcat” strikes that shook U.S. industry between 1969 and 1974, Steve was a link to an earlier generation of revolutionaries. Steve was a product of the pre-World War II tradition of working-class radicalism. His politics had been shaped when the ideas of class struggle, revolution and socialism were the common parlance of a sizeable “militant minority” of the U.S. working class.

This experience had instilled in Steve a unique combination of political strengths. On the one hand, Steve was committed to revolutionary socialist ideas and activism, to Marxian theory and practical engagement in the class struggle. On the other, Steve “doubted everything” He questioned the traditional theories of the revolutionary left, seriously considered the arguments of our political opponents and learned from other currents. Bob Brenner, in his tribute to Steve at the March 1985 New York memorial meeting, captured this aspect of Steve’s political personality:

” . . one of the things that set Steve apart from most of the politicos around him was that he was a political leader who held quite particular ideas very strongly, yet did not delude himself into the belief in his absolute correctness. On the contrary, Steve lived more or less permanently, I think, in the agonizing tensions between an unshakable revolutionary commitment and the knowledge that he would never have certainty about the course he was taking.

The fruits of these “agonizing tensions” can be seen in Steve’s contribution’s to the old ATC. Steve was central in shaping a journal, supported by a tiny political group and a relatively small layer of sympathizers, that had a clear and consistent revolutionary socialist perspective and welcomed contributions from the widest possible variety of political contributors.

The old ATC published articles not only by well-known (and not so well-known) revolutionary Marxist activists and intellectuals (Ernest Mandel, Johanna Brenner, Peter Drucker, Anthony Thigpen, Mike Davis, and others), but essays by left-anarchists (Noam Chomsky), “Marxist-Leninists” (the editors of Theoretical Review), and left social-democrats (Manning Marable and Stanley Aronowitz).

Steve’s influence can be seen as well in the range and clarity of the journal’s editorials. The editorials on the tumultuous class struggles in Poland (Winter 1981, Spring 1982) and the Mitterand regime in France (Fall 1983) hammered home the utopian character of reformism and the strategy of “self-limiting revolution,” whether pursued in the capitalist “west” or bureaucratic “east.”

Editorials on the disastrous PATCO strike (Spring 1982) and on the defeats at AT&T (Fall 1983), Continental Airlines and Greyhound (Winter 1984) pointed to the paralysis of bureaucratic business unionism faced with the employers’ new found aggressiveness, and presented elements of an alternative strategy based on rank-and-file organization and action. The editorial on the rise of revolutionary struggle in Central America (Summer 1981) recognized that, whatever legitimate criticism revolutionaries in the U.S. might have of the leaderships of the Central American revolutions, these new, working class movements were a central locus of resistance to the global imperialist offensive.

Steve also contributed articles to nearly every issue of the old ATC. The topics ranged over nearly the entirety of Steve’s political and intellectual interests. [For better or worse Steve wrote nothing on literature or film, two of his great passions.] One issue might include an analysis of a recent convention of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (Spring 1982), another a discussion of the Hatcher administration in Gary, Indiana (Winter 1984), and yet another a review of the “socialist” IAM President Wimpisinger’s latest book (Spring 1985). In each of these short essays, Steve would use a specific book or event to raise broader political and theoretical issues, whether the social character of the labor bureaucracy, the problems of rank-and-file organization or the dilemmas of holding office in a period of capitalist crisis.

Three longer essays by Steve exemplify his commitment to the development of a non-dogmatic Marxism. Steve’s “On The Theory of the Monopoly Stage of Capitalism” appeared in the first issue of the old ATC (Fall 1980). Steve dissected “one of the oldest and strongest ties which binds together liberal and `radical’ analyses of American society. The concept of `monopoly capital.’” (44) Steve contrasted the Marxian understanding of real capitalist competition, where concentration and centralization of capital intensifies competition, with Paul Sweezy’s theory of “monopoly capital,” where the emergence of large-scale capitalist firms “reduces” competition. He went on to demonstrate that the real world did not correspond to the claims of the “monopoly” theorists–there was little empirical evidence that concentration and centralization of capital led to the decline of competition or that “administered prices” produced consistent “surplus profits” for “monopoly capitalists.”

While recognizing that many defenders of the “monopoly capital” theory (including Lenin, who actually argued that “monopoly capitalism” led to sharpened competition) would reject social-democratic politics, Steve outlined how “monopoly” theory created “giant openings into reformism.” (51) Steve’s critique of “monopoly capital” helped prepare our current to be among the first on the U.S. far left to emphasize how the global capitalist crisis that began in the 1970s would lead to sharpened domestic and international capitalist competition, rather than the strengthening of “monopolistic” and “oligopolistic” tendencies.

In “On Third World Development,” Steve took on another pillar of left “common sense”–the notion that imperialism led necessarily to “underdevelopment” in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Steve began his critique of the “dependency school” (Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, etc.) with data that showed growing industrial investment and output, urbanization and a class of wage workers in Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan.

The sources of this rapid and unexpected capitalist development were the decline of colonialism, the emergence of bourgeois states capable of both negotiating some measure of economic autonomy for domestic capitalists from imperialism and repressing a growing urban working class, and the post-war restructuring of global capitalism (growth of IMF, multinationals, etc. Unfortunately, Steve’s analysis of the “newly industrialized countries” did not take adequate account of changes in rural class structure in these societies.)

Avoiding the “stagism” of both the “dependency school” and Marxists like Bill Warren, who claimed that imperialism would eventually abolish global inequality, Steve argued that capitalist development, throughout its history, was a process of “uneven and combined development” In other words, capitalist accumulation and competition accounted for both the rapid growth of capitalist industry and the persistence of “underdevelopment” in different parts of the capitalist world economy.

Steve’s last published political essay was “The Evolution of Lenin’s Views on the Party Or, Lenin on Regroupment” (Winter 1985). Drawing upon Marcel Liebman’s pathbreaking history of the Bolsheviks, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1975), Steve argued that Lenin’s conception of the party was not a “revealed truth” that suddenly emerged in an unalterable form in 1903. Instead, it was the product of conscious involvement in and contemplation of the living class struggle.

Lenin held onto Kautsky’s notion of an “all-inclusive” working-class party until the “orthodox Marxists” failed to oppose the first imperialist war in 1914. Only then did Lenin realize the need for a separate organization of revolutionary workers and intellectuals.

Steve–like Ernest Mandel and other revolutionary Marxists–believed that the core of Lenin’s theory of organization was the need for revolutionaries to organize separately from the rest of the working class and social movements in order to pose an alternative to the social forces of “fficial reformism”(labor bureaucrats, parliamentary politicians). He also shared their commitment to democracy in revolutionary organizations, with the full rights for political minorities to present their views internally and externally. [See Mandel’s “The Leninist Theory of Organization: Its Relevance for Today” in S. Bloom (ed.), Revolutionary Marxism and Social Reality in the 20th Century: Collected Eessays (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1994.)]

Steve believed that only the “corrective of differences” allowed revolutionaries to overcome the effects of the heterogeneity of the working class and its vanguard, the isolation of full-time leaders, and the limitations of any activists’ partial experience and knowledge. In short, internal democracy and debate were, for Steve, necessary and desirable features of an effective revolutionary organization.

Steve’s conception of revolutionary organization was the foundation for his tireless pursuit of revolutionary socialist regroupment in the United States during the last decade of his life. He recognized that the existing scattered revolutionary cadre and unorganized revolutionaries did not have the material resources nor the relationship to the working class needed to either effect the class struggle nor elaborate a strategic perspective for U.S. socialists. A regroupment of revolutionary socialists would reverse the fatal fragmentation of the revolutionary left in the United States and allow us to make a first, tentative step toward the common practice and political discussions necessary to begin the slow reconstruction of a broad workers’ vanguard and a revolutionary socialist presence within it.

Steve did not live to see the fruits of his efforts. Six months after his death in March 1985, the IS, WP and Socialist Unity (SU–a group of former members of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party) merged their journals (ATC, Changes, Socialist Unity) to create the new ATC.

In March 1986, the IS, WP, SU and a number of independent revolutionaries and local collectives came together to form Solidarity, a multi-tendency revolutionary organization. The new ATC and Solidarity, their promotion of revolutionary socialism without any pretense of unanimity or absolute certainty, are fitting, living memorials to Steve’s unswerving commitment to revolutionary politics and his knowledge that any particular position he held could be mistaken.

ATC 65, November-December 1996