Below are some excerpts from a presentation that I made 17 years ago. Yikes! Anyway thought they might be germane to some of today’s discussions. At the time I was the National Chair of the Communist Party, but since then stepped down and am no longer even a member of CPUSA. But that is another story.
I don’t stand by every word of what appears below, but who would when so much time has passed and so much has happened. At the time I was in the middle of rethinking marxism and politics. And that process continues.
Opening to the National Board, Communist Party (March 2000)
‘History generally, and the history of revolutions in particular is
always richer in content, more varied, more many-sided, more lively and
‘subtle’ than even the best parties and the most class conscious vanguards
of the most advanced classes can ever imagine.’ (Lenin, Left Wing
Communism, An Infantile Disorder, p. 76)
We are living at a time marked by profound changes in the political, economic, and social landscape on
a global level. It is, arguably, a new era in world development.
These changes, as you would expect, bring with them new theoretical
problems and challenges. In a fast changing world, the pat answer of yesterday
is sometimes patently wrong today.
Thus, a timely and fresh approach to questions of theory and ideology
To insure the most fruitful discussions, we should strive to create
an atmosphere that encourages comrades to break new ground, to think outside
the box. We need an atmosphere that welcomes for theoretical exploration
No one should feel constrained by what they think the ‘party line’ is
on this or that question. Nor, as I said at the NC meeting, should anyone
assume the responsibility of ideological guardian of Marxism-Leninism.
That is the role of collective bodies and even collective bodies should
exercise that function in a considered way.
Moreover, we should suspend raising our eyebrows, muttering under our
breath, and seeking out sympathetic eyes across the table when comrades
make a remark that goes against the grain of our thinking.
An excessive zeal for what we understand to be doctrinal purity stifles
theoretical inquiry and discussion. It dampens our theoretical imagination
and willingness to think about problems in a fresh way.
The founders of scientific socialism never claimed, as far as I know,
that what they wrote was the last word on politics, economics, or ideology.
They never viewed their theoretical innovations, immense as they were,
as anything but a foundation for further analysis of a wide range of problems.
Lenin once said that Marxism is not a closed and inviolable system, while
Engels years earlier echoed a similar concern,
‘The materialistic conception of history,’ he wrote to a comrade, ‘has
a lot of them nowadays, to whom it serves as an excuse for not studying
history … our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not
a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian. All history
must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations
of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to
deduce from them the political, civil law, aesthetic, philosophic, and
religious views corresponding to them. But instead too many of the younger
Germans simply make use of the phrase historical materialism (and everything
can be turned into a phrase) only in order to get their own relatively
scanty historical knowledge constructed into a neat system as quickly
as possible and then they deem themselves very tremendous’ (Letter to
C, Schmidt, August 5, 1890)
Marx, of course, shared Engels view. These great minds appreciated the
dynamic nature of world capitalism and insisted on creatively and constantly
developing their insights and thinking in line with a changing world.
Never did they attempt to shoehorn facts to theory. Rather they elaborated
and adjusted their theoretical constructs to order to illuminate a fluid
and ever changing historical reality. And they did it eagerly and fearlessly.
We should try to follow their example in our discussions on ideology
and theory in the NB.
THEME OF THE OPENING
About a week ago, I was in Chicago for a meeting of the National Labor
Commission. While there someone asked me what the theme of my opening to
the NB was. I thought a moment, but somewhat embarrassingly, came up blank.
Needless to say, this concerned me. After all, I should know what the
general line of my presentation is. So I immediately skimmed my very rough
notes, hoping that I could cull from them the main thrust of my argument.
I wish I could say that I saw the light at once, but that wouldn’t be
the truth. Nonetheless, after reading the notes a few times, I hit on
what I believe is the main theme of my opening. And it is this: I hope
to make a case against stiff and rigid concepts of class.
In my experience, stiffly constructed concepts of class are never appropriate.
And particularly now when political, economic, and ideological life is
so fluid, when new opportunities exist to strengthen working class, multi-racial,
and all people’s unity.
What I would like to do is to discuss in order the class struggle, class
exploitation and social democracy, class-consciousness, and finally the
Part 1: THE CLASS STRUGGLE
‘The history of all hitherto existing societies,’ wrote Marx and Engels,
‘is the history of class struggle.’ This profound observation by the founders
of scientific socialism challenged conventional wisdom. Up until then,
the historical process was seen as accidental and arbitrary. If human
agency played any role in historical change, it turned on the actions
of great personalities and dominant social classes. Marx and Engels, by
contrast, turned the historical process on its head. Constructing a new
theoretical model, they persuasively argued that historical change was
in large measure the outcome of the collective struggle of millions against
their class oppressors rather than the result of either the whims of individuals
perched at the top of the social structure or historical accidents.
In doing so, Marx and Engels transformed in the realm of theory the
exploited and oppressed from an inert mass into makers of history. This
insight has provided hundreds of millions in every corner of the globe
with a new way to understand as well as influence the historical process.
And that is precisely what people have done, sometimes in dramatic ways,
including in the US where we have had our own moments when ordinary men
and women stormed heaven.
With any new concept, however, there is always the danger of misinterpretation
and oversimplification. And there is no reason to think that this idea
of Marx and Engels is safe from such dangers.
To be sure, the class struggle is the main thread in historical development,
but it is not the only thread, it is not the only causal factor. The historical
process is exceedingly complicated and other struggles leave their imprint
on history’s record as well.
In fact, the class struggle mingles with other social struggles and
the relationship is complex and reciprocal. The relationship is not one
way, with the class struggle always ruling the roost.
Only at a high level of theoretical abstraction does the class struggle
appear in pure form, does it dance on the stage of history untouched and
untainted by the world swirling around it. Closer to the ground, closer
to the actual course of events, the class struggle is embedded in a complex
social process in which it structures and is structured by other processes.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, history abhors pure forms, the compartmentalization
of social phenomena, neat lines of demarcation and static relationships.
Let’s face it, the historical process is messy.
Marx, Engels and Lenin particularly appreciated the entangling nature
of historical development. If it were a choice between complexity and
simplicity of explanation with regard to historical change, they almost
always chose the former for fear that the latter concealed as much as
They were suspicious of historical explanations that drained the historical
process of variation, discounted new experience, and resisted the modification
of theory under any circumstances. By and large, they never gave the same
explanatory weight to the elegant phrases that appear in their writings
that later Marxists and Marxist-Leninists did.
While acknowledging the primary role of the class struggle in the historical
process, these theoretical giants allowed for novelty, embraced new experience,
and altered their views to changing reality. Historical change for them
was not reducible to some sanitized version of the class struggle.
‘To imagine that social revolution,’ Lenin wrote, ‘is conceivable without
revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary
outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all of its prejudices,
without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian
masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy,
To imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines
up and says, ‘We are for socialism,’ and another army lines up somewhere
else and says, ‘We are for imperialism,’ and that will be social revolution
… Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see
it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding
what revolution is all about.’ (The Discussion of Self-Determination Summed
And on another occasion, he said,
‘All nations will arrive at socialism – this is inevitable, but all
will do so in not exactly the same way, each will contribute something
of its own to some form of democracy, to some variety of the dictatorship
of the proletariat, to the varying rates of socialist transformation in
the different aspects of social life. There is nothing more primitive
from the viewpoint of theory or more ridiculous from that of practice,
than to paint, ‘in the name of historical materialism’, this aspect of
the future in monotonous grey.’ (A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist
Such an approach to theory and ideology would suit us well today given
the emergence of new political, economic, and ideological patterns, given
the emergence of capitalist globalization and everything that comes in