The heightening of the ecological, economic, and social crises of capitalism during the summer of 2017 from Charlottesville to Houston cast a new urgency on the work of the rapidly consolidating left in the United States. As the left reawakens to popularly reclaim the legacy of Nat Turner, Tom Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harry Haywood, Eugene Debs, William Z. Foster, Huey Newton, Sacco and Vanzetti, and countless others, the age-old specters of Lenin and Stalin are treated with increasing hesitancy. The cop-electing opportunists at the Democratic Socialists of America have led the way, ditching revolutionary politics completely and asserting that American socialists should not get “hung up” on questions from the supposedly distant past. It is an appealing rhetoric for those who want to seek egalitarian politics without abandoning completely the counterrevolutionary mythos of the bourgeoisie: a faith in reform, a deep fear of “tyrannous” working class movements, and a refusal to endorse militant self-defense and revolutionary activity.
But the question of Lenin and Stalin’s relevancy—the question of why we should be Marxist-Leninists in the United States—is a good one. Marxism-Leninism is a science, and if the political conditions of the United States are so radically different from those that faced Lenin, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, Hoxha, etc., then we should seek to radically evolve it to American circumstances. Yet, the struggle in 2017 to protect and empower ourselves against an emboldened reactionary right and an increasingly aggressive police state has revealed similar enemies and allies from the historical struggles of American and Russian Leninists, and similar failures and success of liberal and Marxist solutions. The liberals blame the left for their total inability and unwillingness to mobilize working class Americans, and actively endorse militarism and imperialism. Social democrats claim a “political revolution” is sufficient to mobilize workers, address the violence of American police, destroy systemic racism and sexism, and unseat the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie in the halls of government. The struggles we face today in the United States with imperialism, mobilizing and organizing revolutionary cadre and workers, the undermining threat of reformism, and the general insufficiency of extant popular left platforms to address these issues are the very same struggles Leninism was forged in during Civil and World War. Marxism-Leninism is not only relevant to American circumstances, but essential. An American Leninism is not foreign as the reformists would have us believe, but rather a system of political organization, mobilization, and discipline keenly capable of realizing the aims of three centuries of American revolutionary experience.
Joseph Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism effectively implements a working definition of what Marxism-Leninism was, is, and would be. It is useful specifically for Americans because the text is written in retrospect, addressing the very question of implementation and relevancy that now faces American socialists. For Stalin, the major contribution of Leninist thought to the Communist ideology that nearly toppled European capitalism in 1848 was its integration of imperialism into Marxist revolutionary tactics. “Leninism,” Stalin reviews, “is Marxism of the era of imperialism and the proletarian revolution. To be more exact, Leninism is the theory and tactics of the proletarian revolution in general, the theory and tactics of the dictatorship of the proletariat in particular.” It is not enough, for Lenin and Stalin, to fight for socialism. Socialists in the era of imperialism must consider self-defense and the forging of a party capable of uprooting the deeply entrenched bigotries created by capitalism as a foundational task. The last several months have proven this analysis to be critically important in 2017. We will not reform away the Ku Klux Klan. We will not vote out police departments that joke about racist murder and render rapists the real victims. Nazism and centuries-old antisemitic pogroms were destroyed by the Leninist party, just as the back of American slavery was broken by centralized militant struggle. So it must be with the racist and sexist rot in the political heart of the United States.
The necessity of these time-tested considerations was made patently clear by the nearly immediate implosion of the social democrats in the United States. At their much publicized party conference in Chicago in early August of this year, the Democratic Socialists of America voted the cop-supporting liar Danny Fetonte into their ruling council, and after much outcry, committed to keeping him. It took his own resignation and laughable disillusionment with the party to remove him from party leadership. How can a party that is complacent with being ruled by a publicly acknowledged agent of the police hope to defeat centuries-entrenched racism in America? Lenin considered a similar question when he wrote to American workers in 1918. From Lenin’s perspective, the American left was split into two camps. First there were the social democrats, who “defended ‘their’ imperialist governments and today limit themselves to platonic ‘protests’ against military intervention.” And second, there were the Communists, “a growing number of people who have taken the communist path, the path of Maclean, Debs—.” It is a great irony and tragedy that those who now claim to idolize Eugene Debs and seek to abandon “foreign” Marxist influence would be the same group to elect those who threw Debs in jail after much platonic, “robust” discussion (as the DSA statement defending Fetonte claimed). Leninists, not the social democrats who pick “their” cop over the experiences of thousands of victims of police violence across the country, must pick up Debs banner.
The defeatism that led the liberals to pick favorable imperialists during World War I is the same defeatism that leads social democrats today to claim their brand of social democracy is the only thing that can claim a majority in American society. Seeking a revolutionary movement that creates a majority in its service and actions is unthinkable for the social democrats, because to do so would imperil their political and class position. Lenin identified this problem, arguing that the social democrats in Russia could only “strive for liberty and legality, since without these the domination of the bourgeoisie is incomplete, is neither undivided nor guaranteed. But the bourgeoisie is more afraid of the movement of the masses than of reaction. Hence the striking, incredible weakness of the liberals in politics, their absolute impotence” (“Two Utopias”).
So long as the social democrats in America continue fighting for a so-called “political revolution” through attaining a democratically elected socialist majority, they will remain an impotent flea on the back of bourgeois liberal parties in America. A socialist majority must be won by a revolutionary party of working class people that “will be able rapidly to gain the sympathy and support of the majority of the toiling non-proletarian masses by satisfying their needs” (“Concerning Questions of Leninism”). The Marxist-Leninist party did just this, forging a mass socialist movement that withstood foreign intervention in the Civil War, the crucible of industrialization, and a genocidal Nazi invasion. In the name of winning over as many people as possible, the social democrats shove critical issues under the rug and elect cops, insuring they will never win anything more than a dependent relationship with imperialists. Service, an authentic, centrally decided working class platform, and militant activism win majorities, not opportunism.
Marxism-Leninism is not a foreign non-issue to those struggling in 2017 for the liberation of the working class in the United States. Leninism grew in and conquered remarkably similar issues to those we face today from the challenge of uprooting a reactionary history to addressing the poisonous allure of liberal reformism. It was not social democracy that inspired the 19th century labor unions to wage militant strikes led by the continually imprisoned Eugene Debs, nor was it a desire for a democratic majority that put a gun in Huey Newton’s hand. Instead, what drove the revolutionaries of American history from Tom Paine to Harry Haywood was a desire to forge a new political order through a revolutionary working class party. Wherever resistance movements struggle against imperialism, wherever communities buckle under the weight of police violence and gentrification, wherever a democrat tells the people to wait for educations, jobs, and housing, and wherever a social democrat claims a cop can lead a revolution, we say emphatically: Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live.