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The Philosophical non-Issue of Organization

Academic marxists in North America, and sometimes in Europe, have wasted too much time and energy focusing on the so-called philosophical problem of organization.  In social contexts where there does not appear to be a viable revolutionary organization capable of posing a significant challenge to capitalism, at the centres of imperialism where it is often difficult to mobilize the masses in a lasting manner against the bourgeoisie, many marxists often assume that we require a new theory of organization.  Although I agree that there are numerous and significant philosophical problems surrounding the practice of organizing, I also believe that most academic marxist attempts to re-theorize the concept of the revolutionary organization is a philosophical dead-end that does little more than attempt to (forgive the cliche) reinvent the wheel.

Due to the failure of the world historical socialist revolutions in Russia and China there is a tendency amongst academic marxists to reject Lenin's insight of the party formation and the dictatorship of the proletariat.  New methods of militant organizing are demanded, the theory of the party of the advanced guard is often straw-personed, and so much ink is wasted on imagining alternatives––none of which have ever worked and all of which continue to fail to do anything more than lead to mass spectacles and/or academic conferences where only the "converted" argue about their competing brands of communism.  Movementist solutions, assembly structures (nothing more than politically diluted council communist attempts), and the fetishism of spontaneity and vague "horizontalist" theories, are suggested and debated.  At least the anarchists know they reject organizational and theoretical "authoritarianism"; communists at the centres of world capitalism, often adrift in the void between theory and practice, want to be communists in essence and anarchists in form.  Perhaps this is because anarchists, and anarchist styles of practice, have actually been fighting in the North American and European streets since the anti-globalization movement in the late 1990s whereas the majority of communists, when they weren't hiding in universities, have simply tailed the anarchist movements.  Or perhaps this is simply because marxist academics, being academics, enjoy turning philosophical non-issues into papers and debates.

If we begin by assuming that the theoretical method of organizing a revolutionary movement and overthrowing the capitalist state is a philosophical problem, then obviously we are forced to accept the conclusion that a new organizational method is required.  But if we find the starting proposition dubious, then the argument becomes little more than a false syllogism.  And I want to suggest that the starting position that results in the over-fetishization of "new" methods of communist organizing is philosophically dubious that is often assumed, a priori, and generally without any reflection other than: "well Lenin's idea of the party vanguard and the dictatorship of the proletariat is stupid."  Sometimes the Leninist development of revolutionary communist theory is straw-personed ("vanguards are BAD because they are AUTHORITARIAN") with very little understanding of what Lenin actually meant, or how the concept has been developed historically in contradiction to what some imagine it means.  This straw-personing allows for suspect historical claims, such as those made by some autonomists, where the failure of Leninist-style revolutions is attributed to the theories of the vanguard party and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

To be fair, I agree that the universality of these Leninist concepts should also communicate with the particular concrete circumstances that emerge from specific social contexts.  The revolutionary party does not have to always perfectly resemble the party of the Bolsheviks––only dogmatists and purists would argue otherwise––and, in fact, in those places where the revolutionary party has succeeded in either leading revolutions or seizing power, they have not been identical (much to the hatred of the dogmatists) to the party under Lenin.  The Chinese Communist Party under Mao, for example, while accepting the universal insight of the vanguard and the necessity to seize state power and build the dictatorship of the proletariat, was also different in its composition and internal structure––going so far as to eventually produce new universal insights that would also need to be adapted to other concrete particularities.  In a previous entry I discussed this dialectic between universality and particularity; I won't waste time rephrasing the argument here.

While I would agree that there are some philosophical issues surrounding the theory of revolutionary organization, this does not mean I think it is philosophically useful or historically rational to reject Lenin's concept.  Whether or not the party should combine a certain level of horizontalist organization with a verticality, for example, that is always held to account, but unified with an overall revolutionary theory, is something worth discussing; this could be a way to apply Mao's theory of the mass-line––another universal insight––but has nothing to do with abandoning the theory of the vanguard.  Nor does figuring out how to organize a revolutionary party at the culture industry dominated centres of imperialism mean that we reject Lenin's insights; it only means we have to figure out how to build an organization in the first place––and even here it is still worthwhile to look at past historical experiences.  So sticking with the cliche, the wheel might require updating––no reason in keeping a wagon wheel in the era of cars, and maybe the wheel could do with some hubcaps––but it still possesses universal validity.  Similarly, we do not scrap mathematical concepts simply because we don't like them or because we misunderstand their applicability.

The rejection of Lenin's theory of organization, the search for "new" methods, is often a result of, as aforementioned, the realization that the world historical revolutions of Russia and China collapsed.  And yet the rejection that emerges from this realization is barely more than a badly theorized category mistake where the moments before and after the revolutionary seizure of power are conflated.  A very simplistic teleology is ascribed to the revolutionary party, resulting in the argument that all militantly organized revolutionary parties that seize state power contain, from the moment they organize and despite the significant differences in parties throughout the world, the seeds of counter-revolution simply because they are parties that seize power.  None of this is to say that there aren't elements internal to the party preceding revolution (i.e. an unrecognized two-line struggle, a lack of mass-line) that will affect the same party post-revolution, but it is a fallacy of composition to infer that negative elements internal to the whole are identical to a negativity of the whole.

The point is that Lenin's theory of organizing a revolution has been proved both by its successes and the failures of every non-revolution based on alternate theories.  If Lenin's theory is about seizing state power and founding a socialist process––a process that includes placing the bourgeoisie under the command of the proletariat––then it is the only theory that has succeeded in doing so.  The collapse of socialism has nothing to do with this theory since it is a theory that is, simply put, only about establishing socialism and creating the very basic and very crude context to defend socialism.  The problem of organization is not this theory, which accomplished its primary aims, which is about organizing to establish revolution; the problem is about organizing socialism and pursuing the withering away of the state post-revolution.  This is the problem, as I have noted at so many points on this blog, that Mao theorized, thus creating the universal demand to pursue class struggle under the dictatorship of the proletariat, but also failed to solve––despite so many attempts, sometimes confused and sometimes temporarily successful.

Rejecting Lenin's theory means rejecting the type of revolution in which communists believe.  Anarchists reject this theory because they usually have a theory of history and human nature that gives them good reason for doing so.  But communists, who believe in theoretical unity and the universality of class struggle, really have no good philosophical reason to wander an imaginary philosophical wasteland in search of a new organizational oasis that doesn't exist.