Category Archives: book review

The Return of Lenin’s, “What is To Be Done?”

It’s worthy to point out that our comrades in Unity and Struggle have published a serious review of Lars Lih’s book on Lenin’s What is to be done. This review argues the strengths and weaknesses of Lenin’s, What is to be Done.

The article by Unity and Struggle begins by explaining how Lenin emphasized the importance of revolutionary theory, as vital for any revolutionary movement. This was a clear position Lenin openly advocated. What is to be done is often attacked, claiming it advocated socialist professionals to substitute themselves as the professionals to lead workers into victory. This bourgeois-anarchist critique of What is to be done ignores how Lenin advocated the development of workers as agents of revolutionary theory as a basis for such a movement. Lenin states, the workers “participate not qua workers, but qua theoreticians of socialism…they participate only insofar as they succeed to a greater or lesser extent in attaining a command of the knowledge of their century and in advancing that knowledge.” For workers to accumulate revolutionary knowledge, so they can lead revolutionary struggle is not a hierarchical centered perspective, but one that actually fosters a horizontal spirit of struggle. But the development of such theoretically developed revolutionary workers also forms the content for forming a revolutionary organization. The foundation of such an organization, a necessary body to coordinate struggle and train militants, was explained through an analogy of bricklaying work.

Lenin states,

When bricklayers lay bricks in, various parts of an enormous, unprecedentedly large structure, is it “paper” work to use a line to help them find the correct place for the bricklaying; to indicate to them the ultimate goal of the common work; to enable them to use, not only every brick, but even every piece of brick which, cemented to the bricks laid before and after it, forms a finished, continuous line? And are we not now passing through precisely such a period in our Party life when we have bricks and bricklayers, but lack the guide line for all to see and follow?…If we had a crew of experienced bricklayers who had learned to work so well together that they could lay their bricks exactly as required without a guide line…But it is unfortunate that as yet we have no experienced bricklayers trained for teamwork, that bricks are often laid where they are not needed at all, that they are not laid according to the general line, but are so scattered that the enemy can shatter the structure as if it were made of sand and not of bricks.

This activity, the formation of revolutionary militants is what needs to be done today. The economist and those partisans of spontaneity abandoned the revolutionary political training of the workers, particularly the advanced workers. Today, we don’t even have the revolutionary organizational force to offer such training, even if we agreed that is work that should be done. The formation of a new revolutionary organization needs to be able to train workers in revolutionary organizing, by first theoretically training them in marxist theory, then carrying out political work that directly flows from such theory. The young anarchist protesters find such a proposal disgusting. Action is what is wanted. But in our recent period of “actions,” capital has been able to oppress workers and movements without any real resistance. Such action is laughed at by the American capitalist. This is why Unity and Struggle’s article concludes with, “Lenin believes, militants must become institutional bearers that reproduce a common approach based upon a common theory. As militants reproduce this common approach, following Lenin’s bricklaying analogy, the masonry line is no longer needed.” In short, the movement of a Leninist approach of forming revolutionary theory in political practice, is an egalitarian act far from being guilty of what the bourgeois-anarchist critique claim. It is the concentration of working class power, and necessary political project to seriously engage in the revolutionary transition of capitalism. A new generation must struggle, and engage Lenin’s works, that focus on building revolutionary organization, in order to have the basic perspective to build a revolutionary organization today for our historical moment.

Lenin WITBDThe following essay was written awhile ago and sat around waiting to be fixed up. It can be read as a follow up to notes on Lars Lih’s important book, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context. Only recently the essay was finally fixed up enough to post here.

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It is important to deal with Lenin’s concept of organization in WITBD. The point is not to elevate WITBD into a set of principles that can be abstractly and universally applied. Like any work, WITBD is a product of history. As Lih noted in the beginning of his book such an approach has been an evident enough problem in the history of “Leninism”. However, despite Lih’s attempt to downplay the importance of WITBD in subsequent bolshevik thinking about organization, Lenin’s work—including WITBD—continues to be a necessary reference point for rethinking the role of revolutionary groups and organizations in our own day. By restoring the detailed context of Lenin’s concept of organization and reestablishing its connection to Kautsky, Lih provides the basis to learn from and critique Lenin and Leninism. In doing so he makes WITBD alive again—a renewed and important departure point for thinking about revolutionary groups and organization.

As Lih argues, the importance of WITBD was found in its generalization of already existing practices in the Russian underground, codifying and synthesizing those practices into a broad whole. The generalizing character of WITBD is what continues to make it so valuable today.
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Lessons from Domitila’s Experience

The following is less of a book review and more of an interpretation of the lessons which Domitila Barrios De Chungara’s classic autobiography, Let Me Speak, can teach us as a new generation of revolutionaries.  It was written by a Bay Area comrade and we see it as an important testament to the knowledge and wisdom we can gain from engaging revolutionary autobiographies and applying these lessons within our class struggles today.

Lessons from Domitila’s Experience

I just finished reading Let Me Speak!, Testimony of Domitila, a Woman of the Bolivian Mines. The book is a personal narrative by Domitila Barrios, where she explains her life’s struggle against poverty, sexism, exploitation, hunger…and capitalism in general. Domitila Barrios was the wife of a Bolivian miner in a region of Bolivia called Siglo XX. She breaks down their situation, detailing how the lives of miners are cut short due to overwork, bad pay, and silicosis, a lung disease mining people are all too familiar with. It’s a personal story which reflects on the historical situation of Bolivia at the time.

But I’m not planning on writing a summary of the book, but rather point out some of the major lessons Domitila’s experiences offer us.

Theory & Practice

One thing that really struck at me was how critical, undogmatic, and radical she was without having done much theoretical study. Whereas many of us radicals in the belly of the beast understand these conditions through political study, Domitila learned the contradictions of capitalism because they were brutally enforced on her and her people. She didn’t need to read State and Revolution to understand that the Bolivian military and police served the foreign and domestic capitalists, made all too clear through the frequent massacres, arrests, and deportations of people in struggle. She didn’t need to read Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism to see how American imperialism sucked Bolivia’s mineral wealth dry in order to build up its own economy and how this put Bolivia in a state of extreme dependence and subservience to foreign interests. She didn’t need to read the Communist Manifesto to understand that the workers and peasants were in a life and death class struggle against their oppressors. In fact, simply to exist, to eat, to work and to educate themselves required great sacrifices and political commitment. I love how Domitila insisted that if intellectuals and university folks were to come to help guide working people as to the laws of capitalism and the world situation, they’d better speak in terms the people can understand and not in their theoretical jargon. The concepts of class struggle, capitalism, and revolution can  be grasped by the oppressed in resistance if it is done in a way that connects the dots between their personal experiences and the objective laws of our society and is not done in an elitist or condescending manner. Not that she didn’t do any political study; the repeated brutality of the military and police against her, the accusations her of being a communist and liaison to Che Guevara’s guerrillas, and the knowledge that socialism, an alternative to capitalism, existed in other parts of the world during her time, prompted her to study socialism and communism and see it as the only real path towards human liberation.

Women’s Liberation

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Introducing “The Magical Blue Pamphlet”

Capital and Today’s Crisis by Raya Dunayevskaya

Magical Blue Pamphlet

Click Here to touch 5MB of the magic! (Blueness not shown.)

Millions of workers have been laid off since the 2007 crisis, creating a new political world where turbulence is to be expected in the coming period.  A new generation of activists has been reading Karl Marx’s Capital to understand our changing contemporary political reality.  This new political reality demands a political theory to explain and help transform it.  Who is building a revolutionary framework for this process?  The contemporary revolutionary left is largely an extension of 1960s Trotskyist and Maoist groups, fighting for correct leadership over movements, or anarchist and insurrectionist currents, trying to set a spark to the dry wood of the people.  Are these our only revolutionary political options? Raya Dunayevskaya, great but generally-ignored Marxist theorist, was at one point Trotsky’s secretary but later broke from and critiqued Trotskyism through the Marxist method.  Well-known Trinidadian co-thinker CLR James (author of The Black Jacobins on the Haitian slave revolution) has overshadowed her, and she is often dismissed as a cult leader.  One day, a member of Advance the Struggle found a Dunayevskaya pamphlet that AS militants informally labeled “The Magical Blue Pamphlet” (MBP).

It is often assumed that Marx’s Capital is a work that explains Capitalist economics.  And it does, but to reduce it to that ignores the revolutionary fire built into the text.  Raya recontextualizes Capital by demonstrating how it embodies the experience of revolutionary movements; this provides a direct challenge to theorists like famous Trotskyist Ernest Mandel, whose “vulgarization of Marx’s analysis of the dialectical relationship between production and its reflection in the market” Raya smashes on in “Today’s Epigones Who Try to Truncate Marx’s Capital.”  One of Dunayevskaya’s central points is that capital is not a thing that oppresses us but a relationship we are subjected to.  She explores how the American slave revolts and the Paris Commune formed and deepened Marx’s understanding of capital, summarizes the three volumes of Capital as a singular political unit of revolutionary logic, then finishes the pamphlet by exploring the Russian revolution.

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A New Generation Engages with Angela Davis

This is a review of Angela Davis’ Autobiography, written by a friend of AS who does not consider herself a communist or a revolutionary but is learning about both as she organizes against budget cuts at a Bay Area community college. We are posting it because we like its raw feel and honest approach to issues that Angela Davis confronts throughout her life. These issues are political and personal, two dimensions to human existence that AS does not see as being separate.  We do not necessarily agree with all the conclusions our friend reaches in this, her first publicly posted writing. Nonetheless, we support the open-minded bAngela Davis Autobiographyut critical engagement with primary source materials that is crucial to the development of creative, scientific, non-dogmatic revolutionaries. We are excited to present her views to the blogosphere so that she may learn from the diverse perspectives that visit our blog, and so that you all might learn from a fresh new voice.

Angela Davis spent the majority of her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama. In the beginning of her autobiography she speaks of the intense racial tension between whites and blacks, the inferiority of her black elementary school in comparison to the whites, and the self hatred within the black community that she experienced growing up in the south. This part of the book was one of the most memorable parts for me. The bombing of houses with black families by racist white people was such a sad, traumatic experience for Davis but, even more sad, was her growing desensitization to the bombings. They happened so regularly that she grew to accept them as just another part of being black in the racist south. I felt so sick and angry reading this part of the book. I can’t imagine how this black community must have felt and I would think that many of them would have wanted to retaliate by bombing the houses that whites resided in.

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