Rules of the road


On the Shelf

« People of the Shining Path video, readings on the PCP – and analysis of the "peace accords" | Main | Mexico Is Erupting »

November 30, 2006


MLM (ML–LR/October – Maximum Unity Fraction)

My favorite line in this discussion so far is from Modern Pitung:

"Strange how not setting people up as idols to begin with means not having to smash them as false."

Not strange at all.

the burningman

Modern Pitung also writes:

"on what we truly need -- which is not some vague "defense" of Marxism-Leninism but a real means to push it forward and through the barriers put upon it -- this is work FRSO/OSCL is undertaking presently, which will be made public soon."

I await that, truly.

MLM Today

Chuck Morse

Burningman, I am (sincerely) glad that you’ve been able to enjoy uniquely egalitarian gender relationships, but your personal experience doesn’t change the fact that Stan is right to say that communists have a major problem with gender. As you know, patriarchy is a secondary issue for all Marxists, derivative of and subsumed under class contradictions.

That is why, for example, Marxists have never been leaders in the battle for women’s liberation in the United States. The problem wasn’t that some adopted the wrong “line” but rather that their--your--theoretical framework de-prioritized gender.

Obviously i am not saying anything new. People first began making this point about forty years ago and a serious confrontation with this issue should take into account at least some of the rich discussions on the topic that have occurred over the last four decades. If you dismiss all of this as the “blind alleys of what was called "Radical Feminism" and the resulting identity politics,” then you will deprive yourself of important insights into social reality as well as a compelling legacy of resistance. The loss will be yours.

Christopher Day

Chuck is right that Burningman's (edited) personal experiences do not answer Stan's central point. An excellent illustration of that point is, of course, this discussion. I know many of the people posting here. Maybe there is a woman or two in the mix, but if there is its a well kept secret in a way that the (masculine) gender of most of the other posters is not.

At the same it is important to acknowledge that Burningman's experiences are not aberrant. There is a sincere commitment today among most revolutionary Marxists I know to womens equality that is manifest in all sorts of ways. But at the same time there is a striking reproduction of a gendered division of labor precisely when it comes to these sorts of theoretical discussions.

Stan locates the causes of this in the very essence of the Leninist project. Maybe. I'll look forward to finding out what he thinks after some years working in the trenches of the "concrete," "local," and "organic" projects he is presently upholding as the one true path.

While I think that it is true that on balance one will find more women in leadership in these sorts of projects (or at least some of them), this does not neccesarily reflect an overcoming of this division of labor. Rather it often reflects the fact that this "leadership" is effectively restricted to concrete and local questions by the nature of the projects themselves. But since these aren't the only questions that matter, the more abstract and global questions end up getting taken up in informal networks (greatly facilitated now by the internet) that are once again dominated by men. Anybody who thinks that Leninists have some special claim to male domination in this respect should take a stroll over to the anarchist theoretical discussion boards at Infoshop.

While Chuck's response to Burningman is less explicitly self-congratulatory about the great strides anarchism has made in women's liberation, he resorts to a crude characterization of Marxist thinking on questions of gender. While it is certainly an accurate description of the outlook of many groups and individuals, the vulgar class reductionism Chuck rightly bemoans can be found in abundance in anarchist circles as well. And more importantly it is not an accurate description of Marxism in its totality.

From the discussions of womens oppression in the "Communist Manifesto" to Engels' "Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State" to Alexandra Kollontai's efforts to theorize family and sexual relations under communism to Mao's "class" analysis of his own family structure, to much more serious recent writings, the best Marxists have striven to grapple with the complex intersection of class and gender more frequently than Chuck is willing to acknowledge. (By comparison I would argue the anarchist literaure is actually both quantitatively and qualitatively impoverished.) It wasn't an anarchist who first alerted me to the important work of Maria Mies, it was a member of Freedom Road.

Having said all that, Stan's observations stil carry their sting. Not because anybody else is doing a much better job, but because the job done by the communist movement has NOT been what it needs to be. Chuck is right here that dismissing out of hand the results of “blind alleys of what was called "Radical Feminism" and the resulting identity politics,” only impoverishes our understanding. It is an undeniable truth that the women's liberation movement was not lead (significantly) by Marxists and yet achieved dramatic changes in the cultural and legal status of women. Burningman's suggestion that his mom was able to be who she was simply as a result of the enlightened outlook of the communist movement of which she was a part ignores the ways that the communist movement largely in fact tailed feminism in this period, railing against its petit-bourgeois errors while quietly incorporating elements of its critique along with the rest of society. Nowhere was this tailing more in evidence than in the very tardy development of the thinking of most in the communist movement on homosexuality.

Substantively I believe the efforts of the better Marxists to ground their understanding of womens oppression in an historical and materialist understanding of its relationship to the totality of capitalist social relation is the only foundation for a truly emancipatory politic. Marxists still have plenty to learn from non-Marxist feminists however. Once common suggestions that the oppression of women is peripheral or will be automatically eliminated in the course of proletarian revolution, which in any event were never restricted to the Marxist wing of the revolutionary left, have rightly been largely repudiated. Pretending otherwise deprives Chuck of important insights into social reality as well as a compelling legacy of resistance. The loss is his.

I would argue that Leninism's orientation towards the importance of leadership makes it vulnerable to reproducing patriarchal patterns of power relations internally. Abandoning this central element of the Leninist project, however, as I suggested above, only has the effect of externalizing these relations, not eliminating them. The real solution to this problem is not abdicating revolutionary leadership, but rather struggling against the reproduction of patriarchal relations within that leadership, something that some groups have done a lot better than others, but that none are in a position to crow too loudly about.


Thanks for your thoughtful reponse Chris.

I wanted to add two points: 1] not every critique of Marxism is automatically correct; anarchists often take this opportunist approach but we as Marxists should not react defensively, 2] you say "Marxists still have plenty to learn from non-Marxist feminists however." I agree, but feminists have a lot to learnn from us too.

the burningman

Chris responded while I was writing this, so his points are not addressed. I'll get to those in a minute.

Chuck, I do not "know" that gender is a "secondary" issue, nor that it is "de-prioritized." It is not engaged in the sense that there is a "women's issue" in antagonistic contradiction with, say, national oppression or, say, the political fight for socialism.

I'm also not saying my own shit doesn't stink, just so we're clear.

Or that in (any of the) trends I sympathize with I haven't seen some ill interpersonal shit go down... But the organizations I've been part of have had both working norms to struggle with not just male chauvinist attitudes (among men and women), but the practical weights of tradition on habit.

I don't think this experience is unique. Not by a long shot.

Those critiques go back FURTHER that 40 years, and many of them have come from communists within and without social and political movements.

I would argue that there is no social philosophy on earth that has, SINCE ITS EARLIEST DAYS, made women's liberation such a central part of its program. Inconsistently to be sure, but seriously bro. Look around.

For example, in the novel Cement – Stalin's favorite – a male war hero comes back from the Soviet civil war to find that his wife doesn't have cookies baking for him. She's become politically involved, including in experiments in "post-family" arrangements with collective (participatory) childcare. He's angry and confused, but the question is put to him by HER: "what did you think you were fighting for?"

The first law "imposed" in China (just for you, Chuck) after liberation wasn't land reform; that was the second law. The first was marriage reform. You might want to investigate everything bound up in that (for a quarter of humanity!).

So too today in Nepal, as the link above makes reference to. As it most certainly is among active MLM communists in the USA.

The parties that have embraced MLM refuse to make this a "subordinate" issue. See the writing from Iranian Maoists on this very question, linked below – and the degree to which hackneyed "anti-imperialists" will justify or ignore the program of (say) Hezbollah or Hamas (or the ayatollahs of Iran) on these very questions.

MLM is different, I guess, from many other ML parties. But, again note the irony, not becuase it is "dogmatic." I'm aware of how shallow the critiques tend to be among "competitors." Maybe the practice is more divergent than I'm aware.

But even there – taking Freedom Road as an example. This has not been my experience with them either. Though I've only known men involved in Freedom Road, I have to say they've always had (for many years now) an excellent practice on these matters in terms of bringing a women's liberation perspective to their mass work. Really.

Again, this is not to say all interpersonal matters are perfect or that we're carrying little pieces of utopia in our pockets. Or that every project I've worked on rises to this standard.

The Indypendent, for example, has long been a distinctly masculine paper – which I've made repeated, concrete efforts to address.

Taking what Chris said about the sexual division of labor... He is correct. And this discussion EXACTLY demonstrates the truth of that... If women are writing here, it's not clear and I am assuming that all, or most, are men with a college education.

Just like the leaders of communist movements don't tend to be from the proletariat. Just like men are physicists and philosophers and judges and politicians... Blaming the forces of liberation for being formed in the very world they fight against is WRONG WRONG WRONG.

And it will be paralyzing. Should the men here just shut up pending some equal gender exchange? I don't think so. It is a party, such as the CPN-M, which is able to enforce gender recognition as with the upcoming constituent assembly in Nepal – NOT, repeat NOT through a spontaneous expectation or ID reduction of the issue to "womenism" in one form or another.

Compared to what I've experienced ANYWHERE else in the world – MLM organizations are leagues beyond, consciously and by design.

Chuck, the "blind alley" I refer to is in the ID politics fixation on ranking oppression. Radical Feminism, as a distinct movement, became "white, middle class feminism" exactly because IT ranked oppressions in such a way that made contradictions "among the people" into contradictions between the "people and the enemy." It puts identity, so-called, in contradition with politics in such a way that it *inevitably* becomes a "blind alley."

I don't think this is what Stan is arguing, but I totally and categorically reject the claim that the insights of the New Left were "ignored" or downplayed, or that this issue dates back to Sisterhood Is Powerful or something.

The ID politics of Radical Feminism did tremendous damage to the popularity and effectiveness of the single most effective social movement in the last half of the 20th Century. This is where our common understanding of what "proletarian line" is breaks down. It's not "workerism," if you follow me.

Women who wanted liberation did not mainly view "men" as the enemy – and believe this became a dominant line in the 1970s. The effect was awful, to the point that women largely reject "feminism" today.

Recognizing the limitations of Radical Feminism, cultural nationalism, and in a related phenomenon, the immediatism of anarchism – is not to reject what these philosophies and methods APPEAL to or seek to address. It is to say that they will fail, or that they miss the nature of the actual problem, playing into (ultimately) liberal conceptions of "right" and reform.

It is a proletarian line that seeks complete human liberation through changing the terrain on which we live, the force brought to bear on social oppression – and seeks the unity of oppressed people towards conscious liberation.

So, a couple links...

Iranian Maoists Make Plans in the Shadow of War:

NOTE: Maoists have been sharply criticized in some circles for this, and protests on International Women's Day (a communist holiday) against the misogyny of Iran's theocratic regime. In other words, for NOT viewing this as "subordinate" to "anti-imperialism."

Obituary for Andrea Dworkin, featured on her memorial website and printed by the Indypendent:

the burningman

The one time I really spent time commenting on Stan's blog was in a discussion following a Robert Jensen piece on pornogrpahy.

Not explicitly about Marxism and women's liberation, the argument does engage the distinction between liberal conceptions of "right" and the communist orientation towards "liberation."

And it gets sharp! Just think of how this apparently minor dispute concentrates so very much about our worldviews...

Christopher Day

Burningman writes: "When the EZLN rose up, they did not break the plantation system of Chiapas or even DENT it! They didn't even try from what I know (and I'm eager to be proven wrong by new facts on the ground)."

This is simply factually untrue. In the wake of the 1994 uprising the EZLN led a wave of land seizures by landless workers that had a profound effect on agrarian relations in parts of Chiapas. They may not have overthrown what Burningman calls the "plantation system," but they certainly dented it. While the EZLN's main base of support was indigenous villages organized as ejidos, some of the fiercest Zapatista communities were precisely those established as I described above.

The land situation in Chiapas before and after 1994 was anything but simple. There are a variety of forms of land tenure and labor utilization, as well as considerable variation in the fertility of land and the density of communications and transport infrastructure. This makes simplistic overgeneralizations quite dangerous. The finca system Burningman conflates with plantations has been significantly displaced by ranching and more modern forms of agricultural wage labor. While the struggles of landless workers have been important, the main struggles have been on the part of indigenous communities fighting for either the legal recognition of or the expansion of their land titles.

It is also important to recognize here that while the Zapatista uprising set off these land seizures, they weren't all carried out by Zapatistas. Many were carried out by folks affiliated with several other major independent campesino organizations. It is important to understand that the pluralism of the EZLN's discourse on organization is in part a reflection of its need to navigate a situation in which it could not simply impose its will on these other organizations but needed their support if the Zapatistas were not to be isolated and crushed. This DENSITY of competing organizations is distinct from, the conditions that have obtained in many other circumstances, and I would argue is the product largely of global processes that have occurred over the past forty years. Getting back to our original discussion, I would argue that it is precisely these sorts of transformations that force a re-evaluation of the Leninist model which was articulated under conditions, for example, of near universal peasant illiteracy and political disorganization in the modern sense.


In terms of women's liberation, queer and revolution I would highly suggest folks read Herbert Marcuse's "Counter Revolutiona and Revolt" as well as "An Essay on Liberation."

the burningman



Chris -

The info on the EZLN is pretty useful. A good reminder about the importance of concrete investigation.

However, I have a question. You write: "It is important to understand that the pluralism of the EZLN's discourse on organization is in part a reflection of its need to navigate a situation in which it could not simply impose its will on these other organizations but needed their support if the Zapatistas were not to be isolated and crushed." So is their refusal to impose their will a matter of principle or pragmatism?

As for the 'Leninist model' I'm not exactly sure what you or others mean by it. If you mean strict implementaton of the Leninist party structure from 1917 Russia in all circumstances I agree but that's a banal argument isn't it? Anyone who suggests this should be treated as a 'flat-earther.'

On the other hand, if we recognize Lenin's party as a response to the concrete necessities of the time, I don't think it's wrong to ask the same questions he asked. Mao did this and came up with 'surrounding the cities from the countryside' in China. I think it's more fruitful to consider Leninism a set of problematics which can generate different answers. The key problematic here being one of state power.

When dealing with a powerful state apparatus I think it will be a long time before we can simply dispense with the idea of a democratically centralized party, for a strategy localized resistances. I don't know enough about Mexico to say more but I doubt it can be taken off the table completely there.

Chuck Morse

Hey Burningman,

I don’t doubt that most Maoist parties have instituted relatively progressive legislation on gender when they’ve been able to. I am also not surprised to hear that many individual communists are much more conscious of gender dynamics than the rest of the population. The majority of leftists that I’ve met (of any variety) have been highly idealistic and self-conscious.

That is not really my concern (nor Stan’s, I think). My issue is Marxism’s inability to prioritize the battle against patriarchy in theoretical terms. Specifically, if you believe that “all history is the history of class struggle” then you have three options with respect to patriarchy:

1 – write patriarchy out of history (bad choice).
2 – make gender something subsumed under/determined by class (another bad choice, less bad than option 1 but still pretty bad).
3 – construct patriarchy as a form of class exploitation and/or construct class exploitation as a form of patriarchy. This is the best of the three options, and the one that Marxist-feminists choose, but no one has ever been able to pull that off theoretically in my opinion. That’s why there are so few Marxist-feminists these days.

Chris, I don’t why you rail against anarchism when it wasn’t mentioned in my post or Stan’s piece, but you must know that even if you list a thousand anarchist vices, you still won’t have one Marxist virtue. Marxism needs to be defended on its own terms and my guess is that you polemicize against anarchism because you’re unable to do so.

You cite various Marxist works on gender. Congratulations, they exist, but that doesn't mean that they're coherent or valuable. Marxists have also written about race, religion, art, science, ecology, sports, and countless other topics. So what? That doesn’t reduce the significance of the theoretical limitation that I pointed to above.

In any case, since you raised the issue of anarchism, there are reasons why feminists and others dedicated to sexual liberation have gravitated toward it instead of Marxism. One is because anarchism, as a whole, revolves around a critique of domination not just exploitation. It also, as a whole, places a greater emphasis on the role of the individual in historical change (not just classes), which makes it appealing for people who are challenging things normally constructed as private matters. These are some of the reasons why Emma Goldman was an anarchist, why so many radical feminists were anarchist, why ACT UP was anarchist-inspired, etc..

Does that prove that anarchism is better than Marxism? No, of course not, but these historical facts are worth bearing in mind as we confront the failures of the left.

the burningman

" Getting back to our original discussion, I would argue that it is precisely these sorts of transformations that force a re-evaluation of the Leninist model which was articulated under conditions, for example, of near universal peasant illiteracy and political disorganization in the modern sense."

I think this problem, which Chris describes above, is EXACTLY what gives rise to the necessity for a Leninist party. It is EXACTLY that particularization of struggle, the tyranny of the local/immediate among the oppressed that makes NECESSARY a vanguard force to argue (and organize) for the "interests of the working classes as a whole."

That is what is being argued with, essentially – and why whatever particular forms ML(M) parties take is not the *essential* issue. It is that "synthetic" leap, the necessity for *intervention* and re-direction (through Mass LIne) into an actionable solution to the (get ready) primary contradiction of class society.

It was the inability of the Army of the North and the Army of the South to govern in the Center.

It is exactly the situating of the struggle on the existing state's "democratic" practices, or lack thereof, and for EXISTING land titles vs. expropriation of the "fincas" (which I did sloppily conflate with "plantations."

It was you, Chris, who alerted me to the existence and situatin of these fincas throughout Chiapas – in the lowlands, on the most fertile ground. Not the maroon communities of the hills, defending the ejido system so courageously.

This is the essence of proletarian political line – even among (especially among!) those social sectors that are not (categorically) proletarian.

By way of extension, it was not as if the Black Liberation movement MAINLY took place directly under the organizational auspices of the Black Panther Party. As a vanguard – they certainly facilitated and encouraged activists many, many times their number. As it ever was. It was not the Bolsheviks who built the Soviets, not themselves who carried out most of the land occupations in Russia! Of course!

It was the Bolsheviks who "broke" the old ruling classes, their political forms and control of everyday life... allowing, DEMANDING that the people themselves enter the management and ownership of society AS A WHOLE.

Not quantitative change, but qualitative change... also known by the shorthand "revolution."

(And to the degree that autocracy was adopted as a model in the Soviet Union, so did the degree of popular agency wither – and with that withering, the failure of the world's first sustained dictatorship of the proletariat.)

MLM is constantly "re-thinking" Marxism. This is why the lack of engagement with MLM drives me nuts in these discussions. The refusal of some to recognize this, let alone participate, tilts the discussion into exactly the reductions that inform Chuck's politics (as the sharpest example here).

Just because he (and the refoundationists of ALL stripes) stopped engaging this does not mean it isn't happening – or that it can't be observed through "concrete" political practice.

Kazembe is right on to keep Marcuse at the front of our consciousness. Anyone who hasn't read the pieces he's suggesting (as a start) will find some of the most lucid and interesting Marxist philosophy written that contested last half of the 20th Century...

the burningman

...which is also all to admit that I don't quite understand the full thinking behind Stan's *particular* issues with Marxism and feminism...

Nor why he views DC organizations as a literal "impediment" and "obstacle" to the kind of social, "organic" forms he sees as so crucial.

If these groups were so alien, marginal and ineffective – surely they couldn't stop some new, organic form from developing in Idaho (or wherever). Nor does it address that they wouldn't WANT to stop such forms from developing.

This is the limit of anarchism, that demands and often attempts to ENFORCE a divorce between social resistance and political revolution. After all, when was the last time you heard of communists trying to BAN anti-authoritarians from organizing projects (as with the reverse in SDS, Indymedia, the Life After Capitalism conference, and so on...)

Stan's very list of vices includes distributing literature (hawking papers), colonizing mass movements (participating in resistance struggles), setting up front groups (initiating such projects where they don't "organically" exist) and doing all the POLITICAL tasks that ELEVATE partial, reform and resistance movements into radical, revolutionary, and socialist directions.

THIS is the core of the dispute that Stan's letter (essay? ;-) has once again brought to the fore.

James L.

Watching this interesting discussion, I thing Burningman has put his finger on it in the last paragraph above.

"Stan's very list of vices includes distributing literature (hawking papers), colonizing mass movements (participating in resistance struggles), setting up front groups (initiating such projects where they don't "organically" exist) and doing all the POLITICAL tasks that ELEVATE partial, reform and resistance movements into radical, revolutionary, and socialist directions.

THIS is the core of the dispute that Stan's letter (essay? ;-) has once again brought to the fore."

Chuck Morse

Hey Burningman,

You write: “This is why the lack of engagement with MLM drives me nuts in these discussions. The refusal of some to recognize this, let alone participate, tilts the discussion into exactly the reductions that inform Chuck's politics (as the sharpest example here)."

I’m not sure how you figured out what my politics are (or the "reductions that inform" them). I’m an anarchist, but there’s a lot of variety in the tradition, as I assume you know.

In any case, your comment above suggests that you believe that thinkers and activists have ignored Marxism and, as a result, overlooked its riches. I think the contrary is the case and, in fact, I’d venture to say that no political tradition has ever been discussed as fully. There are libraries full of critical works on Marxism, Marxist-Leninism, and Maoism, etc.. Like it or not, people all over the world have engaged the tradition and all but the smallest slice of the population now reject it.

That doesn’t make Marxist-leninism wrong per se, but it should at least set off some alarm bells. I think it also suggests the need for a stronger defense of Leninism than you’ve advanced. Your case for Leninism (from what I’ve read, at least) is purely pragmatic. Your argue that we need a Leninist party because we need a benign, enlightened force to unite our disparate struggles, to elevates us above our petty private concerns, and to lead the war against the enemy.

The problem with this argument is that it is totally ahistorical. It is applicable to all times and all places: articulated as such, it would be just as relevant to Nepal in 2006 as Peru in the 1980s as China under Mao as during the Russian Revolution as during the French Revolution as the Peasant Wars of 1525 as the Servile Wars in ancient Rome, etc. etc.

But it is not a Marxist defense of Leninism, despite how common it is among Leninists today. It is problematic not only because all ahistorical approaches imply all sorts of contradictions but also because it discourages those who embrace it from really confronting the normative foundations of Marxism. This latter task is a necessary part of transcending the failures of the past.


Just wanted to congratulate both Burningman and other useful contributors here e.g. Christopher Day. I thought you made great points very clearly - have this blog in my favourites.
Reinvigorating to see this level of marxist discussion on the internet - makes the lie of all the parodies of marxist thought (and practice) that we see elsewhere. Also makes Stan's stuff look shallow by comparison.

I just wanted to draw attention to the implications of retreating from the unifying function of revolutionary organisations to 'tail-ending' a largely chauvinist population in imperialist centres. This is a critical problem for anarchists I feel. Also, I just don't get how they can be serious about revolution without *organisation*. This opportunism naturally leads to myopic (pacifist) social reformism (as this is the political form of social imperialism).

I have lots of friends here who are anarchists - they are committed to social change and I'm very happy to work with them. I have to admit they are much more democratic than I am used to elsewhere. All the same, they are not the sort of people who are really going to change stuff. Neither btw are the local CP (revisionist) here - who are very similar to the anarchists I meet at protests.

Also thought that both commentators' posts on feminism were strong and to the point. Part of the point of having a strong organisation is that you can begin to counter the natural (organic) exclusion of women. Like Burningman - I work in a team under female direction and alongside females - I like working with women because (I hate to generalise but) they are actually more determined and I think that they are more collective in their approach to decision-making. Again, I guess these are social characteristics rather than anything fundamental.

I also see a huge problem in that many within the US marxist ranks appear not to be clear on whether Marxism is a science of society or whether it is just another 'theory'. Reading Lenin or any of the great marxists is like having my eyes opened. Reading the structuralists is a chore and its mostly all verbiage with no sense. Lenin once said that all revolutionary theory must stand from mass practice and criticism - that's why the 'intellectual' marxists are all awry.

Perhaps relatedly, I was reading a great quote from Kautsky used by Lenin in 'One Step, Two Steps...' where he characterises the role of the intellectual in the struggle. All so true. Good to see some serious revolutionaries seem to exist in the US yet. Keep up the struggle.

Christopher Day

Chuck writes: "Like it or not, people all over the world have engaged the tradition and all but the smallest slice of the population now reject it."

This is simply too tidy. Since 1989 we have lived through a period of capitalist triumphalism loudly declaring the death of Marxism. This has intimidated many people into hiding their Marxism or rebranding it as something else. It has also discouraged a whole generation of young activists from seriously engaging various Marxism(s). This is not an entirely new phenomena. Coming out of the McCarthty era, the early New Left in the U.S. espoused a similar unread sort of social-democratic anti-communism, but as events unfolded many began to rediscover revolutionary Marxism in its several forms.

In short much of the rejection of Marxism in contemporary social movements is not the product of any serious engagement with it.

It should also be noted that while the apparent rejection of Marxism in the U.S. seems near total, things look very different in South Asia and big swaths of Latin America. Whatever your thoughts on its value in understanding other dimensions of domination, there is no serious critique of capitalism that compares with Marxism. Marxism does not enjoy the automatic prestige of association with supposedly successful socialist revolutions that it did during much of the 20th century, but its value in explicating a world of increasing global inequality and immiseration (predictions of Marx that many anti-authoritarians once declared repudiated by the post-scarcity abundance of the period of post-war propserity) is actually currently producing something of a revival in interest in Marxism.

This was particularly evident to me on my recent travels in Mexico where many folks who have been doing Zapatista support work have been joining established socialist groups or forming new ones while continuing to support the Zaps.

Red Star Over Seattle

Methinks Chuck Morse is saying that if we don't treat Marxism like a scholastic exercise, then we aren't really Marxist. If we don't rank oppression in a mechanical way, but see social relationships as having a material basis beyond our personal choices, then we aren't incorporating analysis.

If we don't

MLM isn't a forumlua. It's not reading tea leaves, or a magic 8-ball.

MLM really isn't a set of volumes that we consult like an oracle. It's a methodology that in the Marxist sense means we proceed from the material basis for a particular society, that spontaneous resistance will not see itself through to a radical rupture, and that political revolution alone will not end class struggle.

Maoists in the USA aren't heading to the hills with guns in hand to create a liberated zone in the Rockies.

The local demands of Nepalese Maoists are for a democratic republic, which we already have.

What we see is not a movement trying to impose one template on every struggle, but a method that has local application while also "everywhere and always" putting the interests of the most oppressed at the center of our politics.

Marxism is certainly digested at a narrative in endless books. I've read the God That Failed, and I've also read the Cultural Cold War. I was taught about "Marxism" in high school. What was our text? 1984 and Animal Farm.

I was never taught about Stalingrad or Chinese land reform. I was never taught about the relationship of liberalism and slavery/colonialism.

With anti-communism the state religion of the USA for seventy years or so, plenty of ink was spilled dessicating it. Plenty of Marxoids and Marxians have chimed in. Leninism itself is the stated ideology of widely disctinct groups. No surprise there. "Liberalism" in the classic sense goes from John Locke to LBJ to all those RadLibs pushing personal choice at the edge of sexual subcultures.

Stated ideology is not the same thing as its living manifestations.

Also, if you see socialism as a "failure," Chuck – I have to ask you what are the successes?

For thousands of years people have rebelled, only to collapse immediately or reincorporate into the existing relations of oppression. New ruling classes have displaced old ruling classes.

Until the advent of modern communism, we were never able to put the interests of oppressed people into political form. For the first time, literally ever, the lower classes have been able to govern.

Smooth sailing? No. Who promised you that?

In the last hundred years, we didn't win. Truely we were defeated. Parts of those defeats are related to our mistakes, some earnest, some related to incorrect conceptions in Marxism (such as a worship of the forces of production), and some truly daunting like the mass murders of Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and the second world war.

Stan Goff's concern about going face-to-face with the imperialists is grounded in something real: they have murdered tens of millions to stop anything that threatens their power. They use covert operations and a powerful cultural front to enforce capitalist hegemony.

To note that we are not guaranteed any victory is in my mind no argument for basically surrendering the state, public life, civil society and all that to the capitalists. It's not pragmatic to note that is what Stan is arguing, which is itself deeply and consciously Pragmatic in the philosophical sense.

It's also what I've seen argued by the radical democratic/anti-authoritarian movements in their nadir. See John Holloway, Marina Sitrin, Crimethinc and many others. It's the argument of identity politics, and Alinskyite constituency management.

Leninism argues for the break.

Leninism argues that people can rule politically, and not just their own narrow choices.

It's not about being enlightened despots, but facilitation backed by a muscular appreciation that class struggle has consequences. What the old man said, that "without state power, all is illusion" strikes me as more true than ever.

It is MLM that problematizes what that state is, not the anarchist/radical democratic euqation of power with the problem.

We need power over the enemy. If we don't have it, if we don't BUILD it – they are always up for the task. Always, from Sadr City to Birmingham.

the burningman

Lunch break!

This is turning out to be a real discussion... funny when that happens.

Chuck, I'm not mostly gathering what you think from your participation here. You did edit a magazine or two along the way... People do read that stuff, all that work was not in vain...

I'm pretty familiar with the "57 Varieties" of Anarchism, both explicit and implicit, today and yesterday. It's been a vital force on the left for our generation, and many of the activists I've most respected have been at least influenced by it. For the better and worse.

One thing you should know, since you're engaging this discussion, is that MLM folks are not anti-anarchist in anything like the way that anarchism is anti-communist.

You may have picked that up already, but the irony is choice.

Chuck Morse

Hi Red Star Over Seattle,

I'm glad that you describe Marxism as a method rather than a set of assertions that one simply applies without context. I think that’s right and certainly consistent with the Marx that I’ve read. In my opinion, Marx’s most important claim for social analysis is that “being determines consciousness” or that society’s productive-economic base determines it political super-structure.

Which is why I take issue with Marxist-Leninists who defend Leninism in such ahistorical terms (i.e., “we need state power because we need state power”). That is not a Marxist argument but rather an ahistorical assertion that has more to do with Blanqui than Marx. It's all consciousness, no being.

In fact, it (kind of) surprises me that only one person in this discussion (Chris) has problematized the relationship between Leninism and the evolution of the economic and political forms. Chris said that historical changes in these things require a “re-evaluation” of Leninism. I think he’s being too generous, but at least he's trying to put things in a historical context.

So, let me ask you a question, since you’re a Marxist and defend the Marxist method. Can you analyze the universal failure of Marxist-Leninists to create a communist society *in Marxist terms*? Trotsky had an analysis of the “degeneration” of the Soviet state, although for him it ultimately boiled down to a crisis of leadership. Of course he advanced this before decades of Stalinism, before China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cambodia, Cuba, etc. etc. That made it more feasible for him to point to a crisis of leadership, but now, today, how could a good Marxist make that argument after the repetition of the same failure in every instance?

Wouldn’t he or she have to say that there was actually something else going on? Specifically, wouldn’t he or she have to say (because "being determines consciousness") that the material conditions didn’t allow for the type of revolution being advanced? If that’s the case, wouldn’t a good Marxist have to say that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-il, and all the others had “false consciousness”? If that’s so, why would you identify yourself politically with people’s views who you should be denouncing (as a Marxist)?

I am not trying to play games here. It’s just that Marxism, if it is to be meaningful at all, implies certain methodological commiments and, if nothing else, you should be able to apply this method to yourself. Some try to escape these theoretical problems by defending Leninism in purely programmatic terms, but that’s not tenable in the long run (and ultimately turns into a weird sort of religious faith).

Christopher Day

Chuck asks some questions that I'm surprised he doesn't know the Marxist answers to, but that still deserve a response.

The "universal failure of Marxist-Leninists to create a communist society" is not that hard to explain. Its a long process. Obtaining state power in some parts of the periphery of the capitalist world system could only be a beginning and not an end. The material conditions for the creation of communist (as opposed to transitional socialist) societies did not exist in Russia or China or anywhere else communists have come to power. Furthermore, each of these countries was beseiged in one way or another by the rich imperialist countries. This imposed profound limitations on what could be accomplished, even if the communists were all knowing and pure of heart, which of course they weren't.

The communist parties of Russia, China, and elsewhere were products of their own profoundly tortured societies characterized by widespread illiteracy, profound poverty, minimal/no experience in even bourgeois democracy and so on. What is amazing is not that they failed to abolish capitalism and the state but what they did accomplish -- radical reductions in economic inequality, near univeral literacy, dramatic improvements in the status of women, industrialization, greatly increased lifespans and reduced infant mortality, etc..., etc.... Of course most of these things were accomplished by the rich capitalist countries as well -- but thats not really the relevant comparison. The real comparison is the conditions achieved in the peripheral countries that remained within the imperialist orbit.

These material improvements, of course, aren't communism. But I would argue that they are important conditions of communism. The real question revolves around the other conditions, namely those involving the POLITICAL empowerment of the working class and the peasantry. The key thing to say here is that the record is contradictory. Communist-led revolutions involved both tremendous unleashing of popular power and often brutal repression of that same power. William Hinton's book, "Fanshen" remains an excellent case study of this complex reality in a single Chinese village.

I think that if you want to understand this complex and contradictory situation you need Mao's key insight concerning the continuation of class struggle within the party and the state AFTER the seizure of state power. And here it is worth noting that this understanding only emerged from the experience of attempting a socialist transformation of China and encountering all sorts of resistance and obstacle within the party and the state.

The relationship between being and consciousness is much more complex in Marx than Chuck suggests here and has been the object of intense philosophical debate within Marxism. It is, in any event, not the mechanical relationship that most non-Marxists seem to think it is. This is why the attempts to build socialism in countries with such weak material foundations are still important. Ideas, when they are grasped by the masses in their millions, become a material force.

If Mao though that communism could be achieved in China alone, I would gladly characterize that as a mistaken view (which is not exactly the same as "false consciousness" but thats another discussion). But if he thought that real leaps could be made within China in spite of its underdevelopment and that these would advance the longer-term global project of establishing communism I would argue that he was absolutely right. The question is which of these is the more accurate characterization of Mao's views. And that requirese serious investigation of the Chinese Revolution and not just searching for some choice quotes in order to make a point.

The fact that poor countries like China or Cuba could raise the living conditions of the people on the bottom of those societies as high as they did gives us a taste of what could be accomplished if socialist revolutions were to occur in the rich countries. (A recent compilation of infant mortality statistics by the CIA reveals that for the first time the U.S. has a higher infant mortality rate than Cuba.)

The transition from feudalism to capitalism didn't occur overnight. It took hundreds of years, with all sorts of disasters and set-backs along the way as the capitalist class slowly acquired through experience and reflection an understanding of effective methods of struggle and political forms appropriate to its rule. Hopefully the struggle of the emerging proletarian majority of humanity will not take so long. But we should recognize the experiences of the Paris Commune, Russia and China for what they were: first attempts compromised in all sorts of ways by both objective and subjective limitations. This is, in my view, one of the most important reasons not to embrace the models produced by these experiences uncritically. At the same time I think it is an equally dangerous error to assume that the only lessons to be drawn from these experiences are negative ones.

The fact that Leninist parties have been able to overthrow capitalist states and attempt to construct socialist societies over periods of years and even decades means that they offer us a much richer body of experience on which to draw in imagining the problems and possible solutions involved in the reorganization of a post-capitalist society than, for example, the much more fleeting instances of anarchist dual power (which viewed concretely are quite similar to the early stages of every communist-led revolution). The simple fact that the Soviet Union, for example, never abolished money can be taken as an opportunity to tut-tut about the failures of Leninism. Far more interesting however is an examination of the attempts made by the Soviets to organize their finances along lines entirely foreign to capitalism up to that point as they attempted to navigate the fact that they were still embedded in a capitalist world market. The point here is not that any particular solution of theirs points the way forward, but rather that we are looking at a much more advanced, if still highly contradictory, process than Chuck's question seems to acknowledge.

If Chuck's point is that all of these experiements have ultimately failed in so far as they have produced the unambiguouis restoration of capitalism or some sort grim bureaucratic nightmare state, the question returns to "compared to what"? If failure and defeat mean Marxists should give up the ghost, isn't the record of anarchism (or whatever) even LESS inspiring?


I have written on my blog a post just in this vain. It is interesting how the orthodoxies of Marxism can be the most anti-revolutionary trends.

This concept of "Material conditions" soley determining the consciousness of people is becoming problematic. First of all, it is misused, "material conditions" is simply translated into a simplistic socio-economic relation to consciousness. I am sorry, but hasn't simple Psychology proven that this is off. The world is much to complex to reduce things into such black and white understanding, Consciousness is overdetermined, it is merely just because you work in a steel factory that you can only come to understand Marxism or the need for revolution.

Further the concept of Base and Superstructure as is has to be tossed away. Base does not simply determine Superstructure, the Base and the Superstructure are interdependent of each other.


I'd like to challenge Chris on a number of points. First of all he is wrong if he reduces most criticisms of Marxism to "capitalist ideologies". The foundations of Marxism were challenged way before 1989. Ironically enough the first really serious intellectual challenges to marxism came in a time when anarchism seemed defeated as a discourse(Emma's death in 40 and the spanish civil war a year before that). The challenge utimately came from Marxists themselves. You would think that the intellectual vacuum created from a comatose anarchism would give the Vanguards at the time free reign. Didn't happen. The Critical theorists for example were some of the first to really ask some serious questions about the ideological aspects of marxism. From then on toward the 60s you had the ultraleftists and the situ types(cammatte, debord, vaneigem ect) This was in the 60s when marxism had a seeming intellectual free reign. Part of this consisted of reading outside of Hegal and looking at some updated ontology(freud,nietzsche, heidegger, Derrida ect). these things happened way before 89(Mouffe and Laclau for example were 4 years earlier) and the critical theorists came before even Macarthy. So that should at least be clarified.

Also on your point about tortured societies and "improvements",the improvements you mention are in and of themselves not anything special. What you are essentially doing is robbing people of their everyday subjective conceptions of struggle. Such things as industrialism is hardly an improvement knowing how horrendous that phenomena is for "all" life. Literacy corresponds to a particular set of human social relationships and constructed truths. I made this point in a different thread here but some of those "improvements" are being foisted upon people in Tibet. Various vanguards decided for Tibetans themselves that their lifes needed "improving". How may I ask is this different from the white burdened Christians of the 15th and 16th centuries?. Also the makhnovistas consisted of historically tortured people, were'nt exactly stalins a marching.

As to compared to what, well I would say something quite corporeal and immediate, but that doesn't float your boat anymore does it.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Hot Shots