1. Lenin: "The worst sin we commit is that we degrade our political and organizational tasks to the level of the immediate, 'palpable,' 'concrete' interests of the everyday economic struggle; yet they singing to us the same refrain: Lend the economic struggle itself a political character!"
Sometime I find it so strange, so puzzling, that the spontaneity, immediacy, concreteness, amateurism, and emphasis on the everyday that Lenin condemns as primitivism and economism is taken so widely for granted among so many left activists and intellectuals.
Is this uncritical acceptance a reaction to what many see as the mistakes of the Soviet period? Is it a more recent response to the failures and compromises of communist parties in other countries (I'm thinking mostly of Italy here)? Is it a reaction to the rigidity of some communists in the US and the UK, a reaction by those who associate themselves with a new left?
Or are other explanations equally or even more compelling--absorption of a 100 years of anti-communism, cooptation by the pleasures of capitalism, relief through forfeiture of responsibility for the terribly hard work of organizing?
So many strands of intellectual ideology converge: don't speak for another, appreciate differences, celebrate locality. It's no wonder that a politics can't emerge. Dogmatism, demands, and organization are discounted in advance. I should put this differently. There is a politics here: an individualist politics whose sole principle is that of individual freedom, where this freedom is reduced to particular choice and decision, even as it blocks access to organized contestation and rebuilding of the conditions of choice and decision.
Did I choose to live in a society where security is privatized, where required home and car insurance is subject to a market and a set of corporations whose interest is in profit and not my well-being? Did I choose to live in a society where wealth is held in more esteem than fairness, creativity, or scientific curiosity? Did I have a choice to live in a society where a collective good like space exploration is subordinated to tax breaks for the top one percent?
2. For Lenin, mass movement and "professional revolutionaries" are not alternative organizational forms. Each is necessary:
Such workers, average people of the masses, are capable of displaying enormous energy and self-sacrifice in strikes and in street battles with the police and the troops, and are capable (in fact are alone capable) of determining the outcome of our entire movement--but the struggle against the political police requires special qualities; it requires professional revolutionaries.
Lenin gives one reason for the need of professional revolutionaries--the police make every strike and every demonstration a secret. They prevent news of the strikes from spreading.
Do we have the same problem? Cutting of Internet services in Egypt suggests a contemporary version of this kind of policing role, as do the attacks on journalists and the disruptions of Al Jazeera's signals. Yet news from Cairo was getting out and it was circulating in the country, even more, news of the struggles in multiple cities reinforced the struggles' as dimensions of one struggle. No one will deny that Egypt has been under authoritarian rule for decades. It's not surprising, then, that there are resonances with Russian at the beginning of the 20th century.
The situation of the US, UK, and Europe under communicative capitalism suggests a different problem. The effect of the police--non knowledge of strikes and resistance--is achieved differently, now via over-kill, deluge, distraction, and obfuscation. Too much information becomes too little. Too much analysis and commentary deflects and displaces. The culture of media circulates and redirects energies away from direct confrontation. No wonder turning off the internet in Egypt had energizing effects--people had to get information from each other on the streets.
Under communicative capitalism, some professional revolutionaries will need to be hackers. And they will necessarily operate secretly. Perhaps less secrecy is necessary for those who draw up plans and tactics--although it's important to note here the instruction not to place on Facebook the plans connected with the revolution in Egypt.
3. Sometimes I over-emphasize the communicative side of communicative capitalism. What gets lost here is labor, organized workers. It's as if networked communication makes trade unions unnecessary. This is wrong. It repeats the same distancing from unions and workers' organizations part of new social movement ideology. This distancing contributed to and continues to contribute to the weakness of unions (their declines in membership). In US media, the New York Times is a particularly apt example, unions are reduced to interest groups whose claims are somehow antagonistic to the rest of us, as if the rest of us were investors and CEOs. This is upside down--especially when we recognize the persistent demand for unions in the US, a demand that has been unmet.
Notice how US politicians and pundits treat people in the US as consumers and households. We either shop or we live in reproductive units (ostensible sites of personal fufillment). Freedom is consumption and sex (not for everyone, not yet, although anyone who restricts sexual expression to opposite sex couples is a dog). But production? Where did that go? The fast answer is China, but that's misleading in two ways. There is still manufacturing in the US. And, there is nothing inevitable or necessary about our current arrangements. My point here is simply that a lesson of Lenin for us is that any mass movement worthy of the name has to be a movement of workers, that is, of those of us who don't restrict our self conception to acts of consumption or familial-sexual relations but instead think in terms of what we make and who controls the conditions of our making. Thinking in terms of work, moreover, incites us to desires to organize our rage against those whose so-called work is remunerated with millions and billions of dollars and benefits, while the rest of struggle from paycheck to paycheck, bereft of our own futures because of mountains of debt.
4. Backwardness. There are backwards "sections" of any mass struggle. Contemporary political correctness is confused on this. On the one hand, racists and sexists and homophobes are obviously backwards. On the other hand, multicultural tolerance incites an appreciation of cultural difference that, particularly in some religious formations, remains backwards. The problem of the tolerant, then, is how to accomodate both views (hence they are necessarily accomodationist). Some political theorists think that the way out is for the tolerant to look at themselves, recognizing and addressing their own hidden sources of intolerance in an effort to be more generous to others. This might not be a bad exercise (I sometimes learn something from filling out innane quizzes in women's magazines). It's not a politics, though.
From Lenin, we get a different alternative, a properly political one. "Backwards" makes sense only with regard to revolutionary political struggle. Does a program or position contribute to the consciousness, activity, and organization of the people? Does it further agitation, does it extend the workers' field of action? Backwards is what constrains rather than extends.
5. Lenin's problem in 1901 and 1902 is our problem: "a crisis entirely due to the lack of sufficiently trained, developed, and experienced laders to guide the spontaneously awakening masses." No party in the US, no left organization, has been in a position to organize and direct the fury over the financial crisis, recession, and job situation (not to mention Wall Street excesses). Imagine if Lenin's response would have been to say, "oh well, this is post-politics, isn't it." Our setback is serious--the Tea Party and the Republicans will keep pushing, eliminating what minimal social security provisions we have left. And their Democratic enablers will do the same--New York's governor Cuomo is to the right of Reagan--no taxes, no taxes, austerity, austerity, austerity!
1. no revolutionary movement can endure without a stable organization of leaders maintaining continuity;
2. the broader the mass brought into the struggle, the more urgent the need for organization and the more solid the organization needs to be;
3. the organization should be primarily one of professional revolutionaries;
4. the better trained and focused the professional revolutionaries, the greater the number of workers and others who will be able to work actively in the movement.
In light of this last point, Lenin emphasizes that the need for secret professional revolutionaries engaged in work against the government in no way implies the centralization of all the functions of the movement. It's not all or nothing here. So against those who want to dismiss Lenin as exclusively a centrist--you're wrong. The active and widespread participation of the masses benefits from the secret work of some in drawing up leaflets and working out plans. Some secret, centralized revolutionaries enhances the quality of mass struggle.