Spirits of Revolution

Against the Current, No. 128, May/June 2007

Michael Löwy

Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience.
Studies of Communism and Radicalism
in the Age of Globalization
by Paul Le Blanc
New York, Routledge, 2006, 337 pages, $29.95 paper.

IN THIS MOST welcome and refreshing contribution to the discussion on the present relevance of 20th Century radical traditions,  Paul Le Blanc offers insightful and sympathetic assessments of Marx, Lenin, and currents ranging from Radical Christianity to Anarchism. Despite its limited geographical focus — Eastern Europe, Russia, USA, Spain — this collection of clearly written as well as inspiring essays raises issues of universal interest.

What, for example, what can be the relevance of the Communist Manifesto after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe?  In fact, as Le Blanc emphasizes (and as even media as unsympathetic to Marxism as the New York Times acknowledged on the Manifesto’s 150th anniversary), Marx’s description of the demonic power of the capitalist market on a world scale is if anything much more accurate today.

Of course, important issues are missing in the Manifesto: ecology and gender, to mention only the two most significant. But as a most unlikely wittness for Marx wrote, “the exploitation produced by inhuman capitalism was a real evil,  and that’s the kernel of truth in Marxism” (Pope John Paul II!)

But what about the classless Communist society proposed by Marx and Engels — didn’t it miserably fail with the collapse of the Soviet Union? No, argues Le Blanc, in the same way as the teachings of Jesus cannot be equated with the evils committed by the various Churches in the name of those teachings.

Religion and Revolution

One of the book’s most interesting essays discusses “The Kingdom of God”: how Marxists tried to understand Christianity and its history. In fact, a certain religious/spiritual sensibility runs through the entire book. But didn’t Marx dismiss religion as  “the opium of the people”? According to Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy (quoted by Le Blanc), his views were much more complex:

“Clearly Marx thought of religion not as an evil but as a necessary human reaction to oppression and misery. For him religion was a symptom of an unacceptable state of affairs, of a world that had to be changed.”

In a classical Marxist study on The Origins of Christianity (1908), Karl Kautsky contrasted primitive Christianity — a “proletarian,” revolutionary and even “Communist” movement — with the Church as an autocratic and bureaucratic ruling power after the 4th Century. The history of the following centuries, as several Christian authors emphasize, includes some horrendous atrocities: the Inquisition, persecution of heretics, witchhunts, anti-Jewish pogroms.

Yet people like Martin Luther King, Dorothee Soelle and A.J. Muste — a favorite figure of Le Blanc — and recent movements  such as Liberation Theology, too briefly touched upon in the book, show a radical potential within Christianity.

Two Lenins

The two central chapters in the book deal with Lenin, the meaning of “Leninism,” and its relation to the moral and political disaster of Stalinism. The author doesn’t hide his sympathy for Lenin the revolutionary, fighter against  imperialism, and organizer of the Party that was able to take the lead in the October Revolution.

Following Bertrand Wolfe and Moshe Lewin, he distinguishes between “two Lenins”: the pre-1918 revolutionary democrat whose Bolshevik Party had much room for dissent and free debate, and the revolutionary in power who, after 1918, under difficult circumstances — civil war, imperialist interventions — ended up establishing “an authoritarian regime that increasingly and systematically violated human rights.” As Le Blanc soberly comments, “there were things done that perhaps can be understood and explained,  but cannot be defended.”

What I miss in Le Blanc’s otherwise very insightful presentation of these issues is a discussion of Rosa Luxemburg’s prophetic pamphlet The Russian Revolution, written in prison in 1918 (it is quoted in the book, but not really analyzed) where — while supporting the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary action — she warns against the curtailment of democracy as a mortal danger for socialism.

Lenin was perhaps blind to dangers that would lead to Stalinism, but does this mean that there is a direct continuity between them? Following Trotsky and many others, Le Blanc strongly rejects this view, which is common to both Stalinists and Cold-War Anti-Communists.

In support of his critical perspective Le Blanc quotes an interesting argument from an unexpected observer, hardly suspect of Leninist tendencies: “There is no doubt that Lenin suffered his greatest defeat when, at the outbreak of the civil war, the supreme power that he originally planned to concentrate in the Soviets definitely passed into the hands of the party bureaucracy “ Therefore, to declare that “Stalinism was the outcome of Leninism” just obscures “the sheer criminality of the whole regime” established by Stalin’s bureaucracy (Hannah Arendt).

And what about Leninism in the United States? During the so-called “Red Decade” of the 1930s, the Communist movement — and on a lesser scale, other radicals of Trotskyst, Socialist or Anarchist tendencies — had a significant social, political and cultural influence, and mobilized people well beyond organized leftwing ranks in support of worker strikes, Black people’s rights, the defense of Republican Spain, anti-fascism.

There are two souls in American Communism, argues Le Blanc: on one side deep idealism, a profound opposition to oppression and exploitation, an uncompromising commitment to a society of freedom and equality; on the other side, an uncritical attitude towards the USSR and the Stalin dictatorship. Two decades later, thanks to McCarthyism but also to the disappointment with the USSR (particularly after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes, in 1956), Communism ceased to be a significant force in U.S. political life.

Revisiting Anarchism

A similar even-handed assessment is proposed on the rich radical tradition of Anarchism, which both intersected and challenged Marxism. While Plekhanov rejected it out of hand in his pamphlet Anarchism and Socialism (1895), Lenin in State and Revolution (1917) considered this sort of piece as “philistine” and insisted on the common opposition of the Marxist and Anarchist traditions to the modern State machine. (The difference was not over whether to destroy the capitalist state, but rather over whether a transitional formation, a workers’ state, was necessary for the working class to begin organizing a socialist society.)

Confronted by real revolutionary processes in Russia and Spain, however, Anarchists finally failed. In Russia, as Makhno, the leader of the powerful Ukrainian Anarchist rebellion wrote, disorganization reduced the Anarchists to impotence; his own movement was defeated, among other reasons, because it ignored or despised the urban working masses.

As for Spain, where the Anarchists were much better organized thanks to the revolutionary trade-union movement CNT, after the initial revolutionary upsurge of 1936, they finally decided to join the bourgeois Republican government. Le Blanc’s conclusion is that Anarchism can be effective as a vision of the future and as a protest against oppressive realities, but did not demonstrate a capacity “to link such protests with the realization of the vision.”

Here I must disagree: during the crucial revolutionary months of 1936-37, the Anarchists in Catalonia, and in some other areas of Spain, were able to organize an impressive movement of rural and urban colectivizations, expropriation of capitalists and/or landowners, and collective self-management of production. This is well documented in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as well as in Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom.
It is true that the unrevolutionary policy of the Anarchist leadership did not permit this movement to extend beyond local and regional spheres; nevertheless it was a very substantial form of realization.

New and Old Dreams

Le Blanc’s last chapter is called “Tree of Life,” in reference to Goethe’s famous dictum (a favorite of Lenin): “Gray is theory but ever green is the tree of life.” The tree here is the radical movement of the sixties — including the civil rights, SDS, the anti-war struggles — and the recent upsurge around the Global Justice Movement: in each case a powerful radical culture emerged from blended traditions.

A quote from Lenin — “we should dream” — and a celebration of daydreams by the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch are discussed in the conclusion of this open-minded and persuasive book.

ATC 128, May-June 2007