All Tomorrow’s Parties: A Reply to Critics

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Though my arti­cle “The Actu­al­ity of the Rev­o­lu­tion” cen­tered on Lenin and 1917, it was really about the present. I think this became clearer as the debate on the arti­cle pro­gressed, encom­pass­ing ques­tions within the Occupy move­ment. For this rea­son, I’ve decided not to quib­ble over details, but rather to review the his­tory in a way that more clearly shows how this debate, and the role the Bol­she­viks played in 1917, speaks to our cur­rent his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture. Since the press­ing ques­tion, the one that tied all these arti­cles together, was actu­ally the ques­tion of the party, I will try to clar­ify and elab­o­rate my analy­sis of the func­tion of the party form, respond­ing to the three cri­tiques of my orig­i­nal argument.

Spon­tane­ity

Mal­colm Har­ris begins by sug­gest­ing that a changed class com­po­si­tion requires a changed form of strug­gle. He writes:

The same traits that the “knowl­edge econ­omy” val­orizes (spon­tane­ity, ambi­tion, self-organization, quick always-on com­mu­ni­ca­tion, work­ing in teams) are what have enabled the occu­pa­tions to take hold in the par­tic­u­lar form that they have. “Idle chat­ter” between work­ers was a threat on the Fordist pro­duc­tion line, now it’s a site of cap­ture. We’re trained to do it. Of course the rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers went to look for Lenin at the cru­cial moment – but would we?

The con­clu­sion is that it is pre­cisely those spe­cific traits val­orized by a given regime of accu­mu­la­tion that can be strate­gi­cally turned against that regime. Cap­i­tal, in other words, pro­vides us with the raw mate­ri­als that we can then use to destroy it. But hav­ing poten­tial weapons to work with and actu­ally over­throw­ing the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion are two very dif­fer­ent things. There is a gap between these moments, and a great leap must be made to turn this poten­tial­ity into an actu­al­ity. One does not organ­i­cally grow into the other; some­thing must actu­ally be done to mate­ri­ally trans­form these traits into points of disruption.

It’s easy to sim­ply per­form a the­o­ret­i­cal magic trick: to assume that the move­ment from a poten­tial army cre­ated by cap­i­tal to an actual antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject con­fronting cap­i­tal will just hap­pen on its own. The the­o­ret­i­cal hole is thereby plugged by recourse to the con­cep­tual stop­gap known as spon­tane­ity. There is no need for a pro­gram, for an orga­ni­za­tion – for any­thing, really. The masses, espe­cially today, with our par­tic­u­lar class com­po­si­tion, marked as they are by “spon­tane­ity, ambi­tion, self-organization, quick always-on com­mu­ni­ca­tion, work­ing in teams,” will nat­u­rally become that polit­i­cal sub­ject since they are already implic­itly that very subject.

It is at this point that Todd Chre­tien makes a deci­sive con­tri­bu­tion to the debate. Look­ing back on the his­tory of the Bol­she­viks, he observes that in 1917, the process that Mal­colm describes did not take place spon­ta­neously at all:

As Alexan­der Rabi­now­itch demon­strates exhaus­tively, the Party can­not be reduced sim­ply “lead­ers” and “masses.” Rather, hun­dreds, and thou­sands, of local lead­ers, work­place mil­i­tants, sol­dier and sailor activists, intel­lec­tu­als and a net­work of news­pa­pers and shop and trench papers bound the cen­tral com­mit­tee organ­i­cally to the influx of new members.

In other words, the masses did not nat­u­rally come together as an army; nor were they blindly led by a leader. They turned them­selves into such an army only by way of innu­mer­able over­lap­ping lay­ers of orga­ni­za­tion. Some were quite vis­i­ble, like the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee, while oth­ers, like some of the affin­ity groups, went by entirely unnoticed.

Some of these orga­ni­za­tional con­nec­tions were forged after Feb­ru­ary, oth­ers dur­ing the great exper­i­ment of 1905, and still oth­ers stretched as far back as the 1890s. To use Ser­gio Bologna’s expres­sion, we can say that “microsys­tems of strug­gle,” involv­ing gen­er­a­tions of polit­i­cally mature mil­i­tants, had already been formed through a series of accu­mu­lat­ing cycles of strug­gles. While we may in ret­ro­spect see this whole process – the build­ing of an army against cap­i­tal – as spon­ta­neous, this is only because the intri­cate lev­els of orga­ni­za­tion that worked to build that army have now been for­got­ten. This is why care­ful his­tor­i­cal analy­sis should not be dis­missed as pedantry. If we ignore these exact­ing his­tor­i­cal details, we end up for­get­ting what actu­ally hap­pened, reach­ing for illu­sory con­cepts like spon­tane­ity that mis­rep­re­sent how a very com­plex his­tor­i­cal process unfolded.

Artic­u­la­tion

Every cycle of strug­gle invents, or at least attempts to invent, a set of his­tor­i­cally appro­pri­ate forms of pro­le­tar­ian self-activity. After a messy process of col­lec­tive exper­i­men­ta­tion, one of these forms usu­ally emerges as dom­i­nant, and thereby pro­vides the frame­work within which the oth­ers develop. In 1917 this was the soviet – nested coun­cils of orga­nized work­ers, peas­ants, and sol­diers push­ing for the self-management of the means of production.

At the most ele­men­tary level, the soviet, as the dom­i­nant form of pro­le­tar­ian self-activity at that spe­cific his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture, was essen­tially a gath­er­ing point. In pro­vid­ing a space where dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the work­ing class could come together, it ulti­mately allowed that class to develop its inter­ests autonomously. The class could dis­cuss, and act upon, its own unique needs, con­cerns, and desires, trans­form­ing the soviet into an alter­na­tive space, the pre­fig­u­ra­tion of a dif­fer­ent way of liv­ing, and, con­se­quently, the open­ing through which the pro­le­tariat could under­take its exo­dus from the cap­i­tal rela­tion itself.

But even all this was insuf­fi­cient to make a rev­o­lu­tion, since the sim­ple appear­ance of the sovi­ets did not in itself guar­an­tee that the pro­le­tariat would con­front cap­i­tal in a directly antag­o­nis­tic way. The sovi­ets were spaces where the entirety of the work­ing class, from its most advanced ele­ments to its most back­wards, could be brought into dia­logue. This meant that all work­ers, regard­less of their polit­i­cal posi­tions, could express them­selves demo­c­ra­t­i­cally. This did not mean that they would there­fore all be in favor of over­throw­ing the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. Many months after Feb­ru­ary, in fact, most sovi­ets remained opposed to directly tak­ing power from the hands of the Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment. They cer­tainly pos­sessed their fair share of rad­i­cal ele­ments, but they were also com­posed of mod­er­ates, and even con­ser­v­a­tives. Their Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tees, really up until the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion itself, were largely dom­i­nated by Men­she­viks and SRs who rep­re­sented great sec­tors of the work­ing masses that were still adamantly opposed to mak­ing any kind of rev­o­lu­tion against capital.

There is, in other words, a great dif­fer­ence between gath­er­ing the work­ing class together and forg­ing that het­ero­ge­neous mass into what Mal­colm has called an army. Sovi­ets can in fact coex­ist with cap­i­tal for a time; they are not, in and of them­selves, against cap­i­tal. Even­tu­ally, if the sovi­ets fail to over­throw it, cap­i­tal will sim­ply incor­po­rate them into its own processes of reorder­ing. This is, in part, what hap­pened in Ger­many in 1918. Coun­cils appeared all over the coun­try, but despite their empha­sis on pro­le­tar­ian auton­omy, and the need for self-management of pro­duc­tion, they never put the cap­i­tal rela­tion itself into ques­tion.  Fail­ing to directly con­front cap­i­tal, they ended up just man­ag­ing it bet­ter, and with it, their own exploitation.

“Work­ers’ strug­gles,” Mario Tronti has writ­ten, “deter­mine the course of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment; but cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment will use those strug­gles for its own ends if no orga­nized rev­o­lu­tion­ary process opens up, capa­ble of chang­ing that bal­ance of forces. It is easy to see this in the case of social strug­gles in which the entire sys­temic appa­ra­tus of dom­i­na­tion repo­si­tions itself, reforms, democ­ra­tizes and sta­bi­lizes itself anew.”  So some other ele­ment, beyond that of autonomous strug­gles, had to be present in order to build that army, turn this aggre­gate mass into a fully antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject, and directly assault the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. With­out this ele­ment, what­ever it may be, these strug­gles would sim­ply end up help­ing cap­i­tal improve itself.

At the risk of being grossly mis­un­der­stood, I will call this ele­ment the party. I take the party to mean that his­tor­i­cally appro­pri­ate form of com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tion which grows out of a cor­re­spond­ing form of pro­le­tar­ian self-activity in order to help this lat­ter form directly con­front the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. In 1917 this was the Bol­she­vik Party. While the soviet was the form which allowed the raw mate­r­ial which cap­i­tal had pro­duced to become a poten­tial army by build­ing its autonomous power, the party was, at least in 1917, the ele­ment which allowed this poten­tial army to become an actual, effec­tive, fight­ing force directed against a clear enemy.

The party accom­plished this through what I have called “artic­u­la­tion.” On the one hand, to artic­u­late is to com­mu­ni­cate, for­mu­late, or express a given con­tent by mov­ing it to a dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter. On the other hand, to artic­u­late is to join sep­a­rate ele­ments together, and the artic­u­la­tor, in this sense, can be under­stood as the joint itself. This term describes the activ­ity of the party in at least two ways: the party artic­u­lated a con­tent and it artic­u­lated a bloc.

The party “artic­u­lated” in this first way by express­ing, or giv­ing voice to, the per­spec­tive of the Russ­ian pro­le­tariat. The soviet, as we saw, was the form that the autonomous activ­ity of the pro­le­tariat assumed at that spe­cific his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture. But pre­cisely because of this, because it was just a form, the soviet did not nec­es­sar­ily carry its own spe­cific con­tent. That con­tent had to be devel­oped, “worked up,” through the inter­ven­tion of some other ele­ment. It was the party, as that other ele­ment, that devel­oped the con­tent of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary project in 1917.

The party “artic­u­lated” in a sec­ond way by join­ing the het­ero­ge­neous, and often hos­tile, ele­ments that made up the broad work­ing classes into a sin­gle antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject. The sovi­ets might have brought these masses together, but there was no guar­an­tee of this inter­ac­tion becom­ing a fusion, and with­out a join­ing ele­ment these work­ers might have remained sep­a­rate even in their unity. It is the party that bonded them together by artic­u­lat­ing them into a bloc. In Rus­sia, in 1917, this meant link­ing the pro­le­tariat to the other classes of Russ­ian soci­ety – most impor­tantly, the poor peas­antry. Let’s not for­get that the peas­ants and work­ers actu­ally had their own sep­a­rate sovi­ets, their own inter­ests, and their own needs. Their “coming-together” could never have been a spon­ta­neous act. It was the cru­cial inter­ven­tion of the party that allowed this alliance to come about by act­ing as a bind­ing ele­ment. It was the Bol­she­viks who tried to help the class over­come divi­sions within itself as well as between it and other poten­tially rev­o­lu­tion­ary labor­ing classes.

It should be appar­ent that these two aspects, artic­u­la­tion as for­mu­la­tion and artic­u­la­tion as join­ing, were actu­ally closely related. Clar­i­fy­ing the con­tent of the most mil­i­tant layer of the work­ing masses actu­ally helped draw this mass together into a sin­gle sub­ject; and draw­ing this mass together actu­ally helped clar­ify the con­tent of its most rad­i­cal ele­ments. The party, at least in Rus­sia 1917, was that ele­ment indis­pens­able to cre­at­ing an antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject with a clear con­tent directly opposed to capital.

The­ory

One of the prin­ci­pal ways in which the party advanced a rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­tent was through the the­o­riza­tion of pro­grams. The party writes a pro­gram in order to clar­ify the con­tent of the strug­gles of the work­ing class; and it is this pro­gram that the party can use to unify the dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the work­ing masses. There are at least two dif­fer­ent kinds of pro­gram. There are those care­fully detailed pieces of the­o­ret­i­cal writ­ing that few will ever see but which actu­ally work to clar­ify mat­ters within the party itself; and there are those broad slo­gans that work to amal­ga­mate dif­fer­ent social lay­ers into a sin­gle rev­o­lu­tion­ary bloc. State and Rev­o­lu­tion was a pro­gram of the first type; “Land, Bread, and Peace” was a pro­gram of the sec­ond. In between these two pri­mary cat­e­gories were moments of medi­a­tion. All were prod­ucts of theory.

Indeed, among other things, the party, or at least a spe­cific layer within it, did the­ory, of which there were at least two prin­ci­pal func­tions. The first func­tion was to allow the party to artic­u­late the com­mu­nist con­tent that could not, as I have already argued above, emerge spon­ta­neously from the sovi­ets. It is cru­cial to empha­size the actual source of this con­tent. The party did not, as Lenin once seemed to sug­gest, impose its con­tent onto the pro­le­tariat from with­out; it actu­ally found the out­lines of this con­tent already present in the autonomous strug­gles of the pro­le­tariat itself, which were them­selves already endowed with polit­i­cal knowl­edge. This con­tent, then, was not dis­cov­ered through sequestered schol­ar­ship but through a care­ful obser­va­tion of the polit­i­cal behav­iour of the class. It was the work­ing class itself, and espe­cially its most advanced ele­ments, that pro­duced the rudi­ments of some sys­tem of polit­i­cal con­tent in its strug­gles. The task of the Bol­she­vik party was to access the view­point of that class in order to extract that implicit con­tent. The­ory worked to ren­der this con­tent explicit, to clar­ify it, deepen it, and then return it to the work­ing class itself in a way that could advance its strug­gles. The work­ing class, through its con­tin­ued strug­gles, devel­oped this con­tent fur­ther, which was then reartic­u­lated by the party, and once more returned to the class. The­ory was there­fore not a plan that some­how pre­ceded the activ­ity of the work­ing class in order to make it bet­ter; it did not solve prob­lems, it did not engi­neer answers, and it did not guide the work­ing class to some pre­de­ter­mined telos.

The sec­ond func­tion of the­ory was to help the Russ­ian pro­le­tariat break with the cap­i­tal­ist state by com­bat­ting it at the level of ide­ol­ogy. The autonomous strug­gles of the pro­le­tariat may coex­ist with the cap­i­tal­ist state for a period of time, which hap­pened in 1917 between the sovi­ets the Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment. This highly unsta­ble sit­u­a­tion, at one point called “dual power,” would have likely ended with the cap­i­tal­ist state suc­cess­fully restruc­tur­ing work­ers’ strug­gles, had those strug­gles not taken the ini­tia­tive by vio­lently break­ing with the state. This break, as I have already tried to argue, was not a nat­ural con­se­quence of those strug­gles, since there was noth­ing ineluctably dri­ving the soviet towards such a deci­sive rup­ture. It had to be made.

This rup­ture had to occur at sev­eral points because the cap­i­tal­ist state itself oper­ated – and con­tin­ues to oper­ate – at the inter­sec­tion of a num­ber of lev­els. One of these, and often the most pri­mary, was the ide­o­log­i­cal ter­rain, even in 1917. Since the cap­i­tal­ist state oper­ated in large part within ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tuses, the rup­ture with the state also had to be, at least in part, a con­se­quence of a pro­tracted strug­gle on the field of ide­ol­ogy. The­ory was the form that class strug­gle assumed on this ter­rain. Its task was to assist the pro­le­tariat in break­ing with the ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tuses that worked to repro­duce the cap­i­tal­ist state, which it did by elab­o­rat­ing clear “lines of demar­ca­tion,” sep­a­rat­ing the pro­le­tariat from cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­ogy, and giv­ing it an open space within which to develop. The ulti­mate aim, of course, was to take self-activity out of the world of “dual power,” the coex­is­tence of state and soviet, and into antag­o­nis­tic subjectivity.

These twin func­tions of the­ory – elab­o­rat­ing a con­tent and fight­ing the state – should be seen as two aspects of the same process. That is, there can be no strug­gle against the cap­i­tal­ist state – and the ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gle is an ele­ment of this – except inso­far as it is con­sti­tuted by the autonomous strug­gles of the pro­le­tariat. So the artic­u­la­tion of these strug­gles is a strug­gle against the state: an autonomous strug­gle takes shape as a strug­gle against the state when it is artic­u­lated with the ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gle. If that autonomous strug­gle is not artic­u­lated with the ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gle, or does not bind with the elab­o­ra­tion of the­ory, then it will nei­ther develop an explic­itly com­mu­nist con­tent nor directly con­front the state as an antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject. It will remain within the con­text of “dual power,” with­out ever push­ing beyond it, even­tu­ally being con­sumed by the state. The­ory must inter­vene to assist the pro­le­tariat in mak­ing this break.

Part of the impor­tance of State and Rev­o­lu­tion is that it serves as an exam­ple of this kind of inter­ven­tion. Lenin’s piece was a prod­uct of the­ory in both senses. On the one hand, it tried to artic­u­late the polit­i­cal con­tent implicit in the pro­le­tar­ian strug­gles that cul­mi­nated in the July Days in a way that deep­ened this con­tent; on the other hand, it tried to strug­gle against the ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tuses within which the Russ­ian state oper­ated by draw­ing a clear “dividing-line,” the phrase Lenin him­self used to under­stand the object of the­o­ret­i­cal work, within the broader ter­rain of ide­ol­ogy. This line could never have been drawn had it not first been informed by the polit­i­cal con­tent thrown up by the autonomous strug­gles of the pro­le­tariat; and this implicit con­tent would have remained merely rudi­men­tary had it not been artic­u­lated with an ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gle capa­ble of pro­duc­ing such a sharp break. The anti-state pro­gram set out in State and Rev­o­lu­tion was itself a join­ing element.

Divi­sion of Labor

Pham Binh raises an impor­tant ques­tion when he reviews the his­tory of the Russ­ian Revolution:

The notion that Lenin artic­u­lated at the level of the­ory the “actu­al­ity of rev­o­lu­tion” and made explicit what was implicit in the strug­gles of the day smacks of the divi­sion between men­tal and man­ual labor, between phi­los­o­phy and action, between the­ory and prac­tice, between intel­lec­tu­als and work­ers, between think­ing and doing.

In a cer­tain sense, Binh is cor­rect to note that this divi­sion is inher­ent to my under­stand­ing of Lenin’s role, and by impli­ca­tion, in my under­stand­ing of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary process itself. I must admit that I do believe there was some divi­sion of labor within the move­ment. But I think this was pre­cisely because cap­i­tal itself – the pro­duc­tive process and its accom­pa­ny­ing sys­tem of social clas­si­fi­ca­tion – nec­es­sar­ily gen­er­ates such a divi­sion of labor. Cap­i­tal always divides the work­ing class into var­i­ous lay­ers, pro­motes dif­fer­ent skills, and places unequal empha­sis on dif­fer­ent sec­tors of pro­duc­tion. This is no less true today than dur­ing Lenin’s time.

If we fol­low Malcolm’s obser­va­tion that we fight cap­i­tal by using it against itself, but turn­ing its attrib­utes into weak­nesses, then it must fol­low that our army will bear the marks of the enemy who bequeathed it to us in the first place. This means that the divi­sion of labor will still be with us. So although one of our prin­ci­pal aims will be to defin­i­tively abol­ish the divi­sion of labor, it is clear that our strug­gles against it will nonethe­less have to take place through it, since our only option is to use this divi­sion of labor against cap­i­tal­ism. To sim­ply wish it away all at once would be utterly utopian.

All this means is that work­ers will work dif­fer­ently, strug­gle dif­fer­ently, and par­tic­i­pate in any kind of move­ment dif­fer­ently; they will play dif­fer­ent roles in the total­ity of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process. It is only nat­ural that some, per­haps those employed more pre­dom­i­nantly in the “knowl­edge econ­omy” of which Mal­colm speaks, will be more involved in the writ­ing of the­ory, while oth­ers, employed in dif­fer­ent sec­tors, will be involved in dif­fer­ent kinds of equally impor­tant sub­ver­sive activ­i­ties. To turn all work­ers into the­o­rists would not only be poor strat­egy, it would frankly be impos­si­ble. Each layer of the work­ing class should autonomously develop strate­gies that will work to amplify their own par­tic­u­lar strengths. In 1917, it was up to the Bol­she­vik party, which was quickly being sup­ported by a num­ber of dif­fer­ent lay­ers, to coor­di­nate these strug­gles at dif­fer­ent levels.

In 1917 the party was com­posed of mul­ti­ple pro­le­tar­ian lay­ers; it included both “intel­lec­tual work­ers,” or “intel­lec­tu­als,” who prin­ci­pally wrote the­ory, as well as other “non-intellectual work­ers,” who prin­ci­pally engaged in other activ­i­ties. But just because one group of work­ers hap­pened to write the­ory, or attempted to artic­u­late the gen­eral inter­ests of their entire class, did not nec­es­sar­ily mean that this layer would have inevitably dom­i­nated all the oth­ers by ele­vat­ing its own tasks to the sum­mit of some for­mal hier­ar­chy. On the con­trary, while these dif­fer­ent lay­ers cer­tainly pur­sued dif­fer­ent tasks, the party, as the site of the encounter between dif­fer­ent seg­ments of work­ing masses, was pre­cisely that which pro­vided the struc­ture within which these dif­fer­ent lay­ers can pur­sue their spe­cial­ized activ­i­ties in a way that pro­gres­sively destroys the very divi­sion of labor that under­girds them, thereby attack­ing the hier­ar­chy at its roots. Even Lenin, who argued so force­fully for a spe­cial­iza­tion of tasks, saw as early as 1902 that one of the pri­mary func­tions of the party was to serve as the place where “all dis­tinc­tions as between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als, not to speak of dis­tinc­tions of trade and pro­fes­sion in both cat­e­gories, must be effaced.” The party was to be a machine where intel­lec­tu­als were to abol­ish themselves.

One of the ways the divi­sion of labor is sub­verted is the explicit trans­for­ma­tion of the­ory into a process, rather than the priv­i­leged activ­ity of some sequestered social group. Although it was cer­tainly “knowl­edge work­ers,” or the for­mer “intel­li­gentsia” that actu­ally wrote the­ory in 1917, the party made the­ory a col­lec­tive process in which these intel­lec­tu­als were sub­mit­ted to the ini­tia­tive of the work­ing class. Dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion the party became some­thing of a trans­mis­sion belt, a kind of “hyphen” between those who wrote the­ory and those who did not: pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences would go to the mil­i­tant the­o­rists, mil­i­tant the­o­ries based on those expe­ri­ences would go back to the broader work­ing class through the party, these newly enriched pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences would return once again to the mil­i­tant the­o­rists, and so on. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, who would later try to rethink such a process for his own time, put it this way: “a rev­o­lu­tion­ary puts before work­ers ideas that allow them to orga­nize and clar­ify their expe­ri­ence – and, when these work­ers use these ideas to go fur­ther, to give rise to new, pos­i­tive con­tents of the strug­gle, and even­tu­ally to ‘edu­cate the educator.’”

So while it may appear that  the­ory orig­i­nated with the intel­li­gentsia, it was actu­ally con­sti­tuted by the work­ers them­selves. Or bet­ter yet, it was really a set of prac­tices col­lec­tively advanced by dif­fer­ent lay­ers of the party. The party, which was com­posed of both “intel­lec­tu­als” and “work­ers,” was what allowed these var­i­ous lay­ers to encounter each other in the first place, and there­fore stood as that cir­cuit link­ing the dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the mil­i­tant work­ing class together. It is only when that fluid cir­cuit slowly eat­ing away at the divi­sion of labor becomes ossi­fied, or just breaks down alto­gether, that the com­mu­ni­ca­tion within the class became uni­lat­eral rather than rec­i­p­ro­cal. This took place after 1917; once this hap­pens, the party either becomes a bureau­cra­tized insti­tu­tion, as it did later in Rus­sia, or these dif­fer­ent work­ers, and espe­cially “intel­lec­tual work­ers” and “non-intellectual work­ers,” just split off and go their own way. Intel­lec­tual work­ers would just pur­sue their own goals, pro­duc­ing iso­lated frag­ments of “knowl­edge” after lengthy rumi­na­tion; and non-intellectual work­ers would be left with­out a the­o­ret­i­cal lan­guage to artic­u­late the polit­i­cal con­tent of their strug­gle, thereby mak­ing it impos­si­ble for them to turn the traits of cap­i­tal into weak­nesses, and to abol­ish it altogether.

This divi­sion of labor, then, can­not be hur­riedly tossed out just because we object to it at the level of moral prin­ci­ples. Nor can we just ignore it, since that would actu­ally lead it to totally dom­i­nate our strug­gles, ulti­mately pro­duc­ing a very destruc­tive kind of van­guardism. We can already observe this risk in Malcolm’s argu­ment. By sug­gest­ing that the nec­es­sary form of polit­i­cal strug­gle today is based in the sen­si­bil­i­ties of “knowl­edge work,” Mal­colm ends up exclud­ing other kinds of work­ers from pol­i­tics. Knowl­edge work­ers like Mal­colm are a very small per­cent­age of the world’s pop­u­la­tion; and while processes of pro­duc­tion across indus­tries and coun­tries are affected by new tech­nolo­gies, there are still many work­ers with dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent forms of life. The Amer­i­can work­ing class, for instance, includes jan­i­tors from El Sal­vador and auto work­ers in Ten­nessee; and the toil­ing masses of the world include farm­ers and slum-dwellers. They have their own demands and they will put forth their own forms of strug­gle; just because we’re knowl­edge work­ers doesn’t mean we should know what they should do.

Lenin

Mal­colm asks if we, like the rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers of the July Days, would go look for Lenin “at the cru­cial moment.” He implies that we would not. But we should first ask what the Russ­ian work­ers were look­ing for when they went look­ing for Lenin. In the his­tory I traced in my arti­cle, Lenin must be under­stood as a kind of metonym for the party – which is, as I have argued above, that bind­ing ele­ment which simul­ta­ne­ously artic­u­lates a con­tent and a bloc. Our task will be to invent our own his­tor­i­cally appro­pri­ate Lenin; not as an indi­vid­ual, but as an artic­u­lat­ing func­tion, as an his­tor­i­cally appro­pri­ate form of orga­ni­za­tion capa­ble of build­ing our tech­ni­cal class com­po­si­tion into a polit­i­cal one in direct con­fronta­tion with cap­i­tal. So I agree with Mal­colm that we do not have a party; but I dis­agree that we will not need one. The func­tion that a party real­izes is still needed today: we still need, despite all the dif­fer­ences between now and 1917, to find some form to bind the var­i­ous lay­ers of today’s pro­le­tariat into an antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject directly opposed to the cap­i­tal­ist mode of production.

While Todd also argues for the neces­sity of the party, I part ways with him on this ques­tion. If I under­stand Todd cor­rectly, his analy­sis turns the bind­ing ele­ment into some­thing of an his­tor­i­cal invari­ant. He seems to sug­gest that the bind­ing ele­ment today must still be some kind of vari­a­tion on the one first devel­oped by Lenin in 1902. So there are two dia­met­ri­cally opposed posi­tions in play. Mal­colm thinks we have no need for a bind­ing ele­ment, and that every­thing will come about organ­i­cally because the present is totally dis­con­nected from the past; hence the value of bliss­ful igno­rance regard­ing past works. Todd feels that we don’t need to rein­vent a new bind­ing ele­ment, and because our moment is still very sim­i­lar to the past, we only need to mod­ify a form of orga­ni­za­tion that has been handed down to us; as a direct con­se­quence, there is great value in stick­ing as closely as pos­si­ble to the works of the past.

This is pre­cisely why he con­tin­ues to insist that Lenin did not dis­tort Marx and Engels. But Lenin, to be sure, dis­torted both facts and inter­pre­ta­tions. On the one hand, he implies in the first chap­ter that Engels him­self coined the cru­cial con­cept “spe­cial bod­ies of armed men.” But as Todd him­self noted dur­ing his talk, there is no men­tion of this term in either Marx or Engels. I would char­ac­ter­ize this as a dis­tor­tion of facts. On the other hand, Lenin reads Engels’ famous pas­sage on the “with­er­ing away of the state,” for exam­ple, as an affir­ma­tion of his own belief in the absolute neces­sity of vio­lent rev­o­lu­tion. He writes, “As a mat­ter of fact, Engels speaks here of the pro­le­tariat rev­o­lu­tion ‘abol­ish­ing’ the bour­geois state, while the words about the state with­er­ing away refer to the rem­nants of the pro­le­tar­ian state after the social­ist rev­o­lu­tion. Accord­ing to Engels, the bour­geois state does not ‘wither away’, but is ‘abol­ished’ by the pro­le­tariat in the course of the rev­o­lu­tion. What with­ers away after this rev­o­lu­tion is the pro­le­tar­ian state or semi-state.” This is clearly a dis­tor­tion of inter­pre­ta­tion. Engels may not have meant what the revi­sion­ists had thought, but he cer­tainly did not mean what Lenin asserts here. As Rus­tam Singh has remarked, “A care­ful read­ing of Engels’ argu­ment as quoted by Lenin reveals that even this is not an exactly cor­rect inter­pre­ta­tion of what Engels says.”

So on the one hand Lenin dis­torted Marx and Engels, and on the other he used this dis­tor­tion to trans­form the the­ory in response to spe­cific his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions. The first is a ques­tion for schol­ars; to show that Lenin was not sim­ply repeat­ing invari­ant doc­trine, I under­lined this in my arti­cle. The sec­ond is a ques­tion for rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies; our under­stand­ing of Lenin’s rela­tion to Marx and Engels directly informs how we in the present might engage with the past. I think it’s clear that far from under­tak­ing an objec­tive exe­ge­sis, Lenin was try­ing to extract out of Marx and Engels that which would be most rel­e­vant to mak­ing the rev­o­lu­tion in his own present. This is why he reads Engel’s famous pas­sage in a way that strongly advo­cates rev­o­lu­tion. I have lit­tle prob­lem with this kind of dis­tor­tion. In fact, all of us are always dis­tort­ing the the­o­rists of the past in this way, Lenin included, because this is pre­cisely what we must do in order to make them speak to the con­di­tions of the present.

The dan­ger in Todd’s posi­tion is that it risks freez­ing his­tor­i­cal texts in a way that would actu­ally cut them off from the present. To read them by the let­ter, which in any case is close to impos­si­ble since the mere fact that we are read­ing past texts from a new van­tage point means that we will dis­tort them, would be to reduce their use­ful­ness today. Insist­ing on purity pre­vents us from think­ing his­tor­i­cally. We have to embrace Lenin’s dis­tor­tions of Marx, just as we must embrace our dis­tor­tions of every other thinker that came before us, since this is the only way to adapt them to our own needs.

Binh adds some clar­ity to the his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion but great con­fu­sion to the con­tem­po­rary one. On the one hand he com­pares Occupy to the “‘Lenin­ist’ vision of a van­guard party.” On the other hand he writes that “the sovi­ets were pro­foundly hor­i­zon­tal and far more demo­c­ra­tic and inclu­sive than our Gen­eral Assem­blies.” In other words, if I under­stand Binh cor­rectly, Occupy is simul­ta­ne­ously the party and the soviet; it is there­fore both the form of pro­le­tar­ian self-activity appro­pri­ate for our own time as well as the form of com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tion nec­es­sary for over­throw­ing cap­i­tal­ism. If this is the case, a rather con­vo­luted course of rea­son­ing has caused time and space to unravel. Mal­colm sug­gested that the rise of knowl­edge work­ers, marked as they are by spon­tane­ity, ambi­tion, and “quick always-on com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” has actu­ally fused the party and the soviet into the uni­tary form of Occupy. Binh now seems to sug­gest, by way of some unclear analo­gies, that this was always the case, even in 1917, thereby col­laps­ing Malcolm’s his­tor­i­cal argu­ment about class com­po­si­tion into an invari­ant model – a model which impos­si­bly assumes that the char­ac­ter­is­tics of knowl­edge work were hege­monic nearly a cen­tury ago. Now all we are left with is a vague model that hasn’t changed from the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion to Occupy.

In my read­ing of the present sit­u­a­tion, Occupy, broadly defined, is not at all a kind of party, van­guardist or oth­er­wise, but autonomous pro­le­tar­ian activ­ity in search of a more sta­ble form. It has thus far exper­i­mented with the occu­pa­tion of pub­lic spaces, then pri­vate ones, and is now con­sid­er­ing other pos­si­ble forms. It is, if any­thing, the embryo of some form of soviet power for our own time. But as for a party – defined broadly as an artic­u­la­tor – we have yet to invent one. Some, like Mal­colm, seem to sug­gest that our his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture is so dif­fer­ent that we no longer have a need for such a medi­at­ing moment, and there­fore ignore this prob­lem alto­gether; oth­ers, like Todd, sug­gest that orga­ni­za­tional form is needed, and it should in many ways pat­tern itself on the one invented in a prior cycle of strug­gle; still oth­ers, like Binh, are very unclear about the whole question.

What form this medi­at­ing orga­ni­za­tion will take, I do not know, and in fact can­not know. It will only be dis­cov­ered through col­lec­tive exper­i­men­ta­tion, not through care­ful rumi­na­tion. But look­ing at the past, and specif­i­cally at 1917, can help us under­stand what the party really was in a pre­vi­ous con­junc­ture, why it was called into being in the first place, and what it set out to do. It seems to me that there are a great many dif­fer­ences between our moment and Lenin’s – we are no longer deal­ing, for exam­ple, with a tra­di­tional intel­li­gentsia, a newly emerg­ing indus­trial work­ing class, a large peas­antry, or a Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment – but many of the cir­cum­stances that forced those com­mu­nists to make a party con­tinue to per­sist. We still need some ele­ment to help bind the dis­parate lay­ers of the work­ing class together into a sin­gle bloc; any­one who has been to any major Occupy event knows how quickly our encoun­ters fade away. We still need some ele­ment to help elab­o­rate an explicit anti-capitalist con­tent; any­one who has been around Occupy knows that it will never spon­ta­neously do this on its own, since the move­ment is com­posed of every­one from lib­er­als to lib­er­tar­i­ans, com­mu­nists to con­ser­v­a­tives. We don’t have to call it a party. In fact, once we have invented a new form for this artic­u­lat­ing func­tion, per­haps we can leave the whole debate on the party behind.


Salar Mohan­desi is an edi­tor of View­point.

Illus­tra­tion by Millen Belay.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.