Recently some folks have suggested that I take a look at texts associated with communization theory, in part because of the critique of the party raised in these texts. "Leninism and the Ultra-Left" is on the list (presented initially in 1969, by Gilles Dauve and Francois Martin). The text criticizes both Leninism and ultra-leftism. The primary charge against the ultra-leftist view is that it remains too tied to Leninism in its own critical rejection of Leninism. Thus, ultra-leftism fails to address the economy in the way that it should. My own view is that the criticisms of Leninism summarized in the text are not persuasive. At the same time, recognizing why they are not persuasive illuminates a place where some of my ideas about the party converge with the idea of a party of communists suggested at the end of the piece.
Although the ultra-left designates groups and positions that changed over time, for the sake of clarity Dauve and Martin present the ultra-left view of organization as follows:
any revolutionary organization coexisting with the organs created by the workers themselves, and trying to elaborate a coherent theory and political line, must in the end attempt to lead the workers. Therefore revolutionaries do not organize themselves outside the organs "spontaneously" created by the workers: they merely exchange and circulate information and establish contacts with other revolutionaries; they never try to define a general theory or strategy.
Attempting to lead the workers is bad (actually, impossible and because it is impossible the attempt always results in defeat). Leadership is an unavoidable by-product of the elaboration of coherent theoretical and political line. Revolutionaries, then, should not organize outside of organs created by the workers. Instead, they should just exchange information and make contacts with one another (in other words, their role is limited to networking and providing information--no wonder this position is so powerful today; it describes the behavior of intellectuals in communicative capitalism).
1. This ultra-left position contrasts directly to a position attributed to Lenin. Leninism is described as rooted in the idea that the labor movement and the revolutionary movement are two separate movements ('severed' from each other) and that revolutionaries introduce revolutionary ideas to the workers 'from the outside.'
In a previous post on Zizek and the party, I noted that 'from the outside' does not mean from outside class struggle. It means from outside the specific economic struggle. Since intellectuals are also within the class struggle (to which there is no outside), it can't be the case that, for Lenin, the labor movement and the revolutionary movement are 'severed' from each other.
That said, Lenin did agree with Kautsky that the key contribution of Marx and Engels was their merging of workers struggle with socialism (two currents in 19th century struggle that did not consistently overlap). Lars Lih describes the project as one of 'bringing the good news' to the workers of the true point of their struggle. Lih explains that for Lenin the key figure in the spread of awareness was the 'purposive worker,' that is, the worker with right kind of consciousness. Purposive in this context designates a quality of action, a compulsion to act or feeling of being impelled to act collectively. It is not the same as intellectual knowledge of socialism. Yet Lenin saw the purposive worker as the natural leaders of the worker movement.
In this vein, Lih criticizes readers of "What is to be Done?" who construe Lenin as 'worried about the workers,' detailing the multiple ways workers figure in Lenin's account: as dedicated fighters, as organziers of their own economic struggle, as audience, as students, as those who actively push forward leaders from their own midst. Lenin reproaches intellectuals 'for wasting their time doing what the workers are fully capable of doing themselves.' At any rate, it should be clear at this point that the assertion that Lenin thought "revolutionaries live in a totally different world from that of workers" is simply wrong.
2. The ultra-left position also emphasizes that "capitalist society itself produces a communist party which is nothing more than the organization of the objective movement." I will take this in two sections.
a. Capitalist society itself produces a communist party. This is completely vague. One could say that all institutions and organizations that exist in a capitalist society are produced by capitalist society: family, church, gang, garden club, reading group, S/M swingers circle. If this is what the statement means, then it is too indeterminate to be useful. It is just another way of saying that there is no outside to capitalism. So, this is likely not the best way to understand the statement. A second meaning might be to say that capitalism producers its own grave-diggers. This isn't controversial either--we all agree on this. What we don't agree on is how this comes about.
A third and more likely interpretation is that the party is a political form that emerges in the context of the rise of parliamentary democracies in Europe. These institutions were (and are) the political form of capitalist class domination. To the extent that one adopts a party form, one is adopting a form given to us by the political form of capitalist class domination. To my mind, this is the most generous way of interpreting the claim (so I mean it as a good faith effort in understanding; the other two interpretation were introduced polemically as a way of demonstrating how vague the sentence is). If this is correct, then the argument is "you can't use the Master's tools to dismantle the Master's house." I don't agree with this. A bomb can blow up militarists as much as it can militarism's victims. Or, we can put the point like this: we do not control the uses of the things that we make; there are always unintended consequences, forms of misuse, misassembly, misappropriation. Users always change up the things that they use. Only if one adopts a view that says tools, words, institutions, and things can only be used in the ways determined at their origin or by their makers could one find the idea that capitalist society creates the communist party a damning criticism.
b. Which is nothing more than the organization of the objective movement. No. the party is the organization of the subjective movement. Not only does it concentrate the forces of the movement as it incorporates it into a political body, but it also makes the movement present to itself as the movement. It is that extra point of concentration, incorporation, and naming that makes the movement the movement of a subject.
3. The argument continues to hold that insofar as the communist party is a historical product of capitalist society,"totally determined by social evolution," revolutionaries don't need to build it or fear it. This claim makes a mistake that Zizek identifies in multiple places: failing to include oneself in the picture (or failing to include the frame). Our subjective attitude, actions, practices are part of the very scene that we diagnose. Our diagnoses are part of the setting out of which they arise and which they create. The desire (or compulsion or need) to build organizations, to try to create a party, cannot be other than part of the setting out of which it arises. This, then, is where the fantasy that there is an elsewhere or an outside where the intellectual is situated takes place, here at the point where the revolutionary or theorist excludes himself from his context, displacing action onto others acting in a time and place from which he is perpetually exiled.
4. The essay continues by urging a move away from Lenin altogether which it then attempts to execute by turning to value theory. I can't go into those details here. The primary repercussion of the argument is that socialist ideas of managing the economy remain capitalist because the economy is capitalist. The goal, then, is the complete destruction of capital. Sometime in the nearish future I will try to take up some of these discussions. If part of the point is to say that communism won't be just another way of managing an economy rooted in growth, then I agree. I expect there will be other points of agreement as well.
5. Dauve and Martin end this piece by rejecting nonaction under the pretense that 'the workers must decide for themselves. They write:
For, on the one hand, the workers only decide to do what the general situation compels them to do; and on the other, the revolutionary movement is an organic structure of which theory is an inseparable and indispensable element. Communists represent and defend the general interests of the movement. In all situations, they do not hesitate to express the whole meaning of what is going on, and to make practical proposals. If the expression is right and the proposal appropriate, they are parts of the struggle of the proletariat and contribute to build the "party" of the communist revolution.
I like this ending because I like the way intellectual work is referred to as a proposal. We make proposals. These proposals can be and often are rejected.