• strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/members/autonomedia/sites/interactivist.autonomedia.org/web/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 906.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_validate() should be compatible with views_handler::options_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/members/autonomedia/sites/interactivist.autonomedia.org/web/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 607.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_submit() should be compatible with views_handler::options_submit($form, &$form_state) in /home/members/autonomedia/sites/interactivist.autonomedia.org/web/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 607.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_boolean_operator::value_validate() should be compatible with views_handler_filter::value_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/members/autonomedia/sites/interactivist.autonomedia.org/web/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter_boolean_operator.inc on line 159.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_term_node_tid::value_validate() should be compatible with views_handler_filter::value_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/members/autonomedia/sites/interactivist.autonomedia.org/web/sites/all/modules/views/modules/taxonomy/views_handler_filter_term_node_tid.inc on line 302.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_validate() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_validate(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/members/autonomedia/sites/interactivist.autonomedia.org/web/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_row.inc on line 134.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_submit() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_submit(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/members/autonomedia/sites/interactivist.autonomedia.org/web/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_row.inc on line 134.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/members/autonomedia/sites/interactivist.autonomedia.org/web/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 906.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/members/autonomedia/sites/interactivist.autonomedia.org/web/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 906.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/members/autonomedia/sites/interactivist.autonomedia.org/web/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 906.

Paul Le Blanc, "Lenin’s Return"

"Lenin’s Return"

Paul Le Blanc


Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context
by Lars T. Lih

Leidin/Boston: Brill, 2006
867 pages, including index. Hardcover, $181.00

James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left,
by Bryan D. Palmer
Urbana and Chicago: University of
Illinois Press, 2007
542 pages,including index. Hardcover $50.00.

Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth
edited by Sebastian Budgen,
Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Žižek
Durham: Duke University Press,
337 pages, including index. Hardcover $84.95, softcover $29.95.

About 40 years ago, my great-uncle (now long dead) gave me an old
handbill printed in red ink, issued by District 2 of the Workers Party,
which proclaimed LENIN LIVES! It urged us to “Come En Masse” to
Madison Square Garden to a Sunday afternoon event chaired by Ben Gitlow
(a central leader of U.S. Communism who later devolved into a
professional anti-Communist on the far-right), an event which included
the 400-voice Freiheit Chorus, a 100-piece symphony orchestra, and
speeches from William Z. Foster, C. E. Ruthenberg, Moissaye Olgin, and
Jack Stachel – for an admission fee of 50 cents (not a negligible sum
in 1925) and with an exhortation at the handbill’s bottom: LONG LIVE

The relevance of the handbill now, in relation to these three
remarkable books, is a reflection of the terrible times in which we
live. Consider three films that capture aspects of our reality as we
feel our way toward the close of the new century’s first decade.

The poignant German comedy “Goodbye Lenin!” (2003) – reflecting on the
beautiful, tarnished, murderously corrupted, deadeningly bureaucratized
dreams of the Communism that proved so utterly unsustainable throughout
Eastern Europe – shows a monstrous statue of Lenin being carried away,
through the air, by a helicopter, as a stunned female
Communist-idealist (herself close to premature death) watches with
uncomprehending wonder.

The edgy thriller “Syriana” (2005) shows us ruthless machinations of
Communism’s triumphant and relentlessly profiteering adversary, as the
corporate-capitalist driven Empire “takes out” a thoughtful,
progressive, radical-nationalist of an oil-rich country, perpetuating
the global exploitation and misery of millions which – in turn, thanks
to the absence of revolutionary alternatives – generates suicidal
fundamentalist violence.

Fast forward to the year 2027 portrayed in the uncompromising “Children
of Men” (2007): in the absence of a socialist alternative (protest
movements for global justice were not enough), the world has begun its
downward slide into barbarism, a vast cemetery, with the final enclave
of “civilization” standing as an increasingly authoritarian and
exclusionary (anti-immigrant, anti-refugee) husk whose inhumanity
infects many who struggle against it – but images of Lenin appear, in
the midst of religious icons, in an obscure, nurturing haven of those
who hope and reach for humanity’s future.

But surely the images of Lenin as nurturing hope are misplaced – even
radicals agree with liberals who quote conservatives who assure us that
Lenin was a monster. In his little essay on Lenin in Time/CBS News
"People of the Century: One Hundred Men and Women Who Shaped the Last
One Hundred Years," David Remnick explains to us that the great
revolutionary held a “view of man as modeling clay and sought to create
a new model of human nature and behavior through social engineering of
the most radical kind,” and he goes on to quote Richard Pipes that
“Bolshevism was the most audacious attempt in history to subject the
entire life of a country to a master plan. It sought to sweep aside as
useless rubbish the wisdom that mankind had accumulated over
millennia.” Such an inhuman approach to humanity inevitably breeds
nothing but inhumanity – unless the liberal/conservative allegation is
a lie.

As my book Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience was about to
be published in 2006, I was unable to shake the feeling that what I was
doing in that book hardly reflected my own thoughts alone. Against what
had become so standard an interpretation of Lenin, as I was writing in
the post-9/11 world, it felt that dominant ideologies were being
undermined by political and social crises that would be generating
insurgent forces ready to connect with the ideas of the “universally”
dismissed revolutionary. Perhaps, I thought, we are about to see a
Lenin revival. The appearance, at approximately the same time, of
these three volumes (two of which I was able to quickly take note of on
my book’s page proofs) reinforce that sense.


Taking the most recent first, Lenin Reloaded presents a remarkable set
of essays by an impressive set of 21st-century intellectuals – with
contents causing the working-class child in me to recoil in panic,
fearing that I will be too dull-witted to understand what all these
learned people, using strange words and esoteric allusions, are saying
with such apparent fluency. As I labor over what they have written, I
bump into the militant young activist within me who scoffs at such
“over-intellectualizing,” yet the aging scholar in me feels unable to
follow the young comrade’s impatient advice to close this book – in
part because what many of these people are saying is so interesting, so
strikingly put, and (yes) so mind-expanding.

Frederic Jameson, beginning with an account from Trotsky’s 1932 diary
of a dream-conversation with Lenin, describes Lenin’s formidable
writings as coming from a man who is unaware that he is dead –

He doesn’t know that the immense social experiment he single-handedly
brought into being (and which we call Soviet Communism) has come to an
end. He remains full of energy, although dead, and the vituperation
expended on him by the living – that he was the originator of Stalinist
terror, that he was an aggressive personality full of hatred, an
authoritarian in love with power and totalitarianism, even (worst of
all) the rediscoverer of the market in his NEP – none of those insults
manage to confer a death, or even a second death, on him. How is it,
how can it be, that he still thinks he is alive?

This imagery is an eloquent way of stating the simple premise that
“Lenin still means something,” but it gains one attention, nonetheless.
So does Slavoj Žižek’s description of a Slovenian Communist who led a
heroic uprising in a fascist prison, an uprising that became part of
the mythology of a triumphant Communist state, a state that then
arrested and imprisoned the same man and assigned him to forced-labor
work brigade that was creating a monument glorifying the anti-fascist
uprising that he had led – “a perfect metaphor for the twists of

There is Terry Eagleton’s challenging and clever essay –
with wonderful turns of phrase (he describes Lenin’s Materialism and
while defending it, as “a work in which one can hear
the occasional gurgling of a man well out of his depth”). Eagleton
reflects on Lenin’s much maligned notion of a “revolutionary vanguard”
(commonly dismissed as the arrogant elitism of a middle-class
intellectual) with this fine point:

Those members of the Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers who fought with
James Connolly against the British imperial state in the Dublin Post
Office in 1916 constituted a vanguard. But this was not because they
were middle-class intellectuals – on the contrary, they were mostly
Dublin working men and women – or because they had some innate faculty
of superior insight into human affairs, or because they were in serene
possession of the scientific laws of history. They were a vanguard
because of their relational situation – because, like the revolutionary
cultural avant-gardes in contrast with modernist coteries, they saw
themselves not as a timeless elite but as the shock troops or front
line of a mass movement. There can be no vanguard in and for itself,
as coteries are by definition in and for themselves. And a vanguard
would not be in business unless it trusted profoundly in the capacities
of ordinary people, as elites by definition disdain them.

It is hardly the case that all of these writers are in agreement with
each other. Antonio Negri argues that “not only must Lenin’s thought
be re-examined with energetic fidelity, but it must also be reframed –
as it were – ‘beyond Lenin'.” Of course, in going beyond Lenin, Negri
and co-thinker Michael Hardt presented a notion of the world, in their
stimulating best-seller Empire, that argued for the obsolescence of
Lenin’s classic Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. This is
in stark contrast to what Georges Labica argues in this volume –
“contemporary globalization is nothing other than Lenin’s ‘new
imperialism,’ now reaching a still higher stage of development.” It is
worth pondering how this yet “higher stage” is described:

If we finally take into account elements unknown to the old “new
imperialism,” since they simply did not exist, or at least in some
cases not on such a scale, such as the weight of debt controlled by
international monetary institutions, which has led to the ruin of an
entire continent (Africa), we have such things as the threat of nuclear
weapons, the dangers to the environment, the foreseeable shortage of
drinking water, and the general commodification that extends to the
sale of organs and the massive prostitution of children, so that we
should not be afraid to speak of a regular “criminalization of the
world economy.” The drug trade, another element previously unknown,
stands at the head of world commerce, narcotics being the commodity
with the highest rate of profit. ….

Also in these pages are prominent leaders of would-be Leninist parties,
such as Alex Callinicos of the British SWP, and Daniel Bensaïd of the
French LCR – capable intellectuals from substantial organizations.
Callinicos articulately challenges among other things, what one might
call traces of Stalinist residue among others in this volume, yet with
comradely tone and with a respect for the common ground they share in
relation to what has been the sterile anti-Leninist consensus. He
usefully concludes his contribution with a serious-minded discussion of
Lenin’s relevance to today’s Left – having to do with what he sees as
1) Lenin’s strategic analysis of capitalism, 2) his perspective of the
specificity and centrality of politics, and 3) his view on the
necessity of political organization. This seems remarkably consistent
with points made in Bensaïd’s own distinctive essay, which concludes
with the thought that “a politics without parties whatever name –
movement, organization, league, party – they are given) ends up in most
cases as a politics without politics: either an aimless tailism toward
the spontaneity of social movements, or the worst form of elitist
individualist vanguardism, or finally a repression of the political in
favor of the aesthetic or the ethical.”

As suggested in Negri’s earlier-noted comments, there are those who
emphasize how one can use Lenin to go beyond Lenin. In exploring
Lenin’s radical engagement with Hegel of 1914–1916, Kevin Anderson
comments that “by widening the orthodox Marxian notion of the
revolutionary subject, he helped pave the way for later attempts to
widen this still further, to embrace not only, as Lenin had begun to
do, national and ethnic liberation movements, but also those of women,
ecologists, gays and lesbians, and youth.” At the same time, Anderson
goes out of his way to stress that one can “still appreciate the many
attractive features of this great revolutionary leader without in any
way self-identifying as a Leninist, which in the dominant discourse
usually means an adherence to his elitist concept of the vanguard
party.” We have noted that some of Anderson’s fellow contributors
differ with him here – but none so completely as another scholar who
also avoids “self-identifying as a Leninist,” Lars T. Lih, who
buoyantly argues (against critics like Anderson and against more than
one defender in this volume) that the Lenin of the 1902 classic What Is
To Be Done?
– no elitist at all – got his perspectives on organization
from none other than Karl Marx himself, “but more concretely and
effectively from Marx as incarnated by European Social Democracy and
the German SPD in particular.”

All of this is interesting, and yet we happen to live in a time when,
as the editors of this collection observe, “global capitalism appears
to be the only game in town and the liberal-democratic system as the
optimal political organization of society, [and] it has indeed become
easier to imagine the end of the world than a far more modest change in
the mode of production.” Their response: “For us, ‘Lenin’ is not the
nostalgic name for old dogmatic certainty; quite the contrary, the
Lenin that we want to retrieve is the Lenin-in-becoming, the Lenin
whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a
catastrophic new constellation in which old reference points proved
useless, and who was thus compelled to reinvent Marxism.”

The rich, diverse contributions offered in this book – in some cases
jostling aggressively against each other, while unified around the
common perspective voiced by the editors – is a challenge for all
serious intellectuals and activists of our time.


A limitation of Lenin Reloaded is that its essayists do not have an
opportunity, between the covers of this specific volume, to demonstrate
amply the virtues embodied in Lenin that are implied in their
provocative, sharp-edged assertions. This cannot be said, however,
about the volume that one of them has recently produced. Lars T. Lih’s
Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context, reminds me of a
saying a Swede once shared with me – “enough to choke a horse.” It is
massive, almost overwhelming – and yet, it is a magnificent
contribution to our understanding of Lenin, Bolshevism, Marxism, and
the history of the Russian revolutionary movement and of Communism.

Clearly written, well-reasoned, effectively documented, it is a work
that no scholar seriously examining the life and thought of Lenin will
be able to ignore. More than this, it is a gift to serious political
activists seeking to draw on traditions and lessons of the past in
order to get present-day and future possibilities into sharper focus.
It is unfortunate that this book’s price is prohibitive for most
activists, and that the sheer bulk of the volume (more than 860 pages)
will be daunting for many. But those who seek to bridge the gap
between serious scholarship and serious activism by helping deepen
their comrades’ understanding through the development of more widely
accessible educational materials will certainly want to draw on this
outstanding resource.

Lih’s primary target for criticism is “a strong consensus of informed
experts” who “at least from the mid-1950s” have put forward a reading
of What Is To Be Done? that “has found its way into textbooks of
political science and of Russian history, and, from there, into almost
any secondary account that has reason to touch on Lenin. The two or
three famous passages that form the textual basis of this reading are
endlessly recycled from textbook to popular history to specialized
monograph and back again.” He sums up: “Putting all the assertions of
the textbook interpretation together, we realize that WITBD is a
profound theoretical and organizational innovation, the charter
document of Bolshevism, and the ultimate source of Stalinism” – a set
of contentions unable to withstand this scholarly onslaught.

Lih presents a Lenin who is absolutely committed to the establishment
of political democracy as essential to the struggle for and the
realization of socialism, a Lenin who has immense confidence that the
working class has a natural capacity for absorbing revolutionary
socialist ideas and committing itself to the struggle for a radically
better world, a Lenin who is determined to help build a broad
working-class party with a principled socialist program flowing from a
Marxist understanding of the world. He demolishes the notions that
Lenin diverged qualitatively from Marx, that he distrusted the workers
and their “spontaneity,” that he was an elitist and an authoritarian.

There is, in my opinion, a problematical feature of Lenin Rediscovered.
While his primary anti-Communist target is effectively dealt with, he
also has a bone to pick with how Lenin has been understood by
“activists in the Trotskyist tradition” (specifically “writers such as
Tony Cliff, John Molyneux and more recently Paul Le Blanc” – here
referring to my 1990 book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party). The
activists, he claims, have been inclined to give too much ground to the
academics’ positing an elitist and authoritarian content in Lenin’s
1902 classic. While he does have some nice things to say about us, he
suggests that the activists are swayed by the unfair and inaccurate
anti-Lenin polemics of 1904 advanced by Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky
(which are also employed by many of the academics). As I argue in a
review to appear in the journal Historical Materialism, aspects of this
argument strike me as too broadly put and somewhat off-base. Yet this
strikes me as a minor problem within what remains a splendid

Lih is able to demonstrate, with scholarly thoroughness, that this
vision is at the core of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? and other writings
from the mid-1890s up to the revolutionary upsurge of 1905. Thanks to
his knowledge of Russian, he is able to comb through existing English
translations to identify problematical formulations not existing in the
Russian original. In fact, about one-third of the text consists of a
retranslation of What Is To Be Done?, with two sections of detailed
annotations – an incredible contribution by itself. He also combs
through an immense quantity of other Russian-language materials that he
utilizes to help bring the context of Lenin’s writings into clearer
focus than ever before. For those of us laboring without Russian
language skills, this in itself is a precious offering.

More than this, noting that Lenin unambiguously projected a Russian
version of the German Social Democratic Party as the kind of
organization to bring about socialism in Russia, Lih focuses sustained
attention on the German party and its powerful influence on the Russian
Marxists. In doing this, he gives a well-merited respectful attention
to the early contributions of Karl Kautsky and to his importance for
the revolutionary Left, Lenin most of all.

One might argue that he “bends the stick” too far – being rather
dismissive of the powerful critique of “so-called fatalistic Marxism”
of the Second International advanced in the 1920s by the likes of
Lukács, Korsch and Gramsci, and not being alert to the critical
insights that Rosa Luxemburg and other revolutionary Marxists
(Pannekoek, Riazanov, Parvus, Trotsky, Radek, Rakovsky, etc.) were
developing at the time. These critical insights that found
confirmation in the debacle of 1914, causing Lenin himself to revise
his earlier positive judgments and to recast and sharpen his own
Marxism. But a serious understanding of Lenin and the other Russian
Marxists of the early 1900s can be advanced by setting these matters
aside in order to fully comprehend the understanding they had at the
time of the Marxism of the Second International and of Germany Social
Democracy. And as he does this, Lih helps us to see the strengths and
grandeur of these truly impressive entities.

What, according to Lih, was the Leninist vision of the revolutionary
party as put forward in his 1902 classic? His view of Lenin’s
orientation could be summarized this way: The creation of a
revolutionary workers’ party, guided by a serious-minded utilization of
socialist theory and scientific analysis, drawing increasing numbers of
working people into a highly conscious struggle against all forms of
oppression – this could not be expected to arise easily or
spontaneously. It had to be created through the most persistent,
serious, consistent efforts of revolutionary socialists. The working
class would not automatically become a force for socialist revolution,
but it could develop into such a force with the assistance of a serious
revolutionary workers’ party. Such a party – making past lessons, the
most advanced social theory, and a broad social vision accessible to
increasing numbers of workers – would be a vital component in the
self-education and self-organization of the working class, helping to
develop spontaneous working-class impulses toward democracy and
socialism into a cohesive, well-organized, and powerful social force.

The greatest limitation in this huge study, perhaps, is that it is not
three or four times as huge – that is, it stops in 1904. It needs to
be extended two more decades to help us see how Lenin’s party, and his
ideas, continued to evolve in ways that brought about the workers’
revolution of 1917, and what happened in the revolution’s aftermath to
help transform Lenin’s party into something other than what he
intended. It might be good to add the consideration of an additional
ten years, to examine the further transformation of what had been the
revolutionary party of Lenin into the bureaucratic tyranny of Stalin.
Those are realities that must also be understood if we are to
comprehend the “Leninism of Lenin” in a manner that will be useful for
those who wish to change the world for the better.


Those arguing in Lenin Reloaded that we need to consider how to
translate Lenin into our own distinctive realities can do little –
again because of space limitations – to illustrate what such efforts
might look like. To get a sense of how some have tried to do this very
thing (with complex and often mixed results, to be sure), it is worth
looking at the history of the early Communist movement that arose in
the week of Lenin’s revolution in Russia.

Bryan Palmer’s James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American
Revolutionary Left
is one of the finest books yet produced on the early
Communist movement in the United States. This is not surprising given
the nature of Palmer’s work to date. He was a young colleague of the
incomparable British labor historian E. P. Thompson, of whom Palmer has
written a rich and insightful biography worthy of its subject. In his
writing a fluid and clear literary style seems always to be matched
with a searching and disciplined analytical mind. His mastery of the
secondary literature on U.S. Communism is matched by his own
cutting-edge research, pushing the edge of scholarship significantly

Cannon, a figure often dismissed by academics, intellectuals, and
political opponents as unworthy of serious consideration. But Palmer
cuts through the dismissive tangle to reveal a remarkable figure. The
young Cannon was intensely active in the Socialist Party led by Eugene
V. Debs and in colorful and rambunctious Wobblies – the Industrial
Workers of the World (IWW) – before becoming a key founder and a
central leader of the early Communist Party in the United States.
(Cannon’s role in the later Trotskyist movement will be the focus of a
projected second volume, but what we offered here stands quite well on
its own.)

The wonderful blend of literary and scholarly skills greatly enhances
what Palmer is able to do for us. The first two chapters on Cannon’s
boyhood – which unearth new material – are written with considerable
charm, giving a sense of a boyhood reminiscent of Tom Sawyer or
Huckleberry Finn. Other early chapters convey a sense of what the
early Socialist Party was like on the local level as Cannon was coming
of age in a socialist household in Rosedale, Kansas. The young
activist soon struck out on his own, attracted with many others of his
generation to the rough-and-tumble revolutionary unionism of the
Wobblies, and Palmer gives a marvelous on-the-ground picture of the IWW
during the Progressive era in such places as New Castle, Pennsylvania,
where Cannon edited a Wobbly paper and helped provide leadership in
organizing and strike struggles. Also very well done is the account of
the merging of local radical streams (under the impact of World War I,
government repression, and the Russian Revolution) into the early U.S.
Communist movement.

The historiography of U.S. Communism has been a minefield. The
contributions of Theodore Draper – in two volumes focused on the first
ten years of American Communism — long dominated the field, and this
terrain was extended into the 1930s by Draper protégé, Harvey Klehr.
Draper and those identifying with him strongly emphasize the decisive
influence of the USSR in shaping and dominating American Communism,
telling a grim story of authoritarian corruption and wasted idealism.
This “traditional” orientation (compatible with traditional Cold War
liberalism and more recent neo-conservatism) has been sharply
challenged over the years by a very substantial and incredibly rich
body of “revisionist” scholarship (compatible with “new left” and
socialist perspectives). The “revisionists” have insisted on the
indigenous roots of U.S. Communism and – while not denying negative
influences emanating from the USSR – highlight inspiring struggles and
positive contributions on American soil.

Palmer stakes out a new position in this highly contentious field. He
does not allow the story of triumphant Stalinism to obliterate the fact
that capitalism is an oppressive system, and that the early Communists
were often insightful, creative, and heroic in confronting it – both
drawing from and contributing to the rich traditions of the U.S. labor
and radical movements. In contrast to many of the “revisionists,”
however, the story of American Communism’s subordination to the vicious
Stalin dictatorship that came to dominate the USSR and the world
Communist movement is no less central to Palmer’s account than it was
to Draper’s.

Most historians of American Communism have focused on other periods:
the first moments, when John Reed and others respond with joy and
boundless optimism to the Russian Revolution of 1917; the mass
struggles and growing influence of the 1930s; the shift from
significant influence during World War II to the disasters of the
anti-Communist Cold War era; the crisis and collapse in the wake of the
revelations of Stalin’s crimes. Here we are offered a coherent and
detailed story about the converging streams of vibrant labor radicalism
that resulted in U.S. Communism’s beginnings, its promising initial
growth in the glow of the Russian Revolution’s early promise, and its
painful disorientation and corruption as the revolutionary promise of
Lenin and the Bolsheviks was replaced by the bureaucratic tyranny of
the Stalin regime.

One of the great strengths of Palmer’s book is that it so effectively
challenges a common misconception perpetrated by many latter-day
students of U.S. Communism, to some extent beguiled by rationalizations
of many who embraced the Stalinist dilution of Communism prevalent from
the mid-1930s onward. According to such accounts, the U.S. Communist
Party of the 1920s Communist movement was little more than a hot-bed of
sterile sectarianism that was only overcome by the broad-based
reformism of the later “people’s front” era. Palmer shows us, however,
is that this movement represented, “for all its internal divisions, a
leading edge of the labor Left, as well as an important force in
defending civil rights for oppressed minorities and class-war
prisoners,” all in all “a momentous advance for the revolutionary Left,
albeit one that would soon stumble and eventually fall backward.”

The formation of the U.S. Communist Party had been the culmination of
half a century of experience since the Civil War, involving the
cumulative development of a vibrant labor-radical sub-culture, and the
corresponding evolution of three generations of labor-radical
activists. Uneven, full of contradictions and sometimes absurdities,
the Communist Party of the 1920s, with a membership fluctuating between
7000 and 12,000, exercised significant influence in labor, radical, and
even liberal circles. Under William Z. Foster’s leadership, and with
the assistance of Cannon and others, an influential network was created
in the American Federation of Labor through the Trade Union Educational
League (TUEL), to which many progressive union leaders and activists
rallied. (Palmer’s critical assessment of Foster’s mis-steps and
limitations provides worthwhile insights into TUEL failures.)

The Party was also involved in defending human rights and civil
liberties in the United States, particularly those of workers, through
the International Labor Defense (ILD) that was conceived of during 1925
discussions between Cannon, his companion Rose Karsner, and the
legendary IWW leader “Big Bill” Haywood. Indeed, Palmer’s book offers
the first sustained examination of the ILD (which has generally been
subjected to scholarly scrutiny primarily only around the Herndon and
Scottsboro cases later in the 1930s). There were many other components
of the Communist movement – focusing on the rights of oppressed racial
and national groups, women’s rights, immigrant rights, the interests of
young people and aspirations of students, the opposition to war and
imperialism and militarism. Significant attention was given to
educating around and building support for the Soviet Union, where many
felt a bright socialist future was being built. There were a variety of
publications, educational efforts, cultural activities, and more.

Describing Cannon as “a figure stamped with the unmistakable marks of
the native-born proletarian agitator, [who] nevertheless cultivated
relations with some of the more cosmopolitan and theoretical elements
in the communist movement, such as Alexander Bittleman, just as he
rubbed shoulders with the cultural wing of the revolutionary Left,
reviewing books by Mike Gold, drinking and breaking bread with the
likes of Tom Tippett and Joseph Freeman, and impressing a youthfully
radical Claude McKay with his acumen at a Comintern gathering in

Although rich in material on the internal workings of the Communist
Party, as well as on the interesting details of Cannon’s life, this big
book goes much further. Connections with larger economic, social, and
cultural developments in the United States are frequently made, with
contextual explications, as well, of both national and international
political realities. A discussion of the interplay between shifting
dynamics within the Communist International and factional fluctuations
among the early U.S. Communists is central to the latter part of the
narrative (and is a key to Palmer’s own interpretation) without,
however, obliterating the larger narrative. One gets a vibrant sense
of problems and struggles among workers, with the importance of the
Passaic strike and the Sacco and Vanzetti case, for example, shining
through – and in some cases helping to illuminate – the internal
conflicts that wracked the Communist Party in the same period.

Palmer does not hold back from tackling larger issues of U.S. labor
radicalism, including such questions as “why is there no socialism in
the United States?” and – at least by implication – how obstacles to an
effective socialist movement might be transcended. He explores the
relationship of the USSR, as opposed to indigenous traditions, to U.S.
Communism, while tracing contributions of the Communist movement to
social struggles and social changes in the larger society. He also
gives attention to the “organization question” and how different ways
of dealing with it have had a significant impact on the fortunes and
effectiveness of a political organization and movement. In this last
matter, he is part of the rising current of sharp-thinking left-wing
scholars who are moving well beyond the fashionable bashing of “the
Leninist vanguard party” as the root of all evil. The example and
influence of Lenin and the Bolsheviks are far more positive than
negative in this narrative. Cannon’s stubborn adherence to the early
revolutionary ideals is what gets him into trouble with the
bureaucratic-authoritarian degeneration of international Communism with
the advance and consolidation of the Stalin regime.

The book concludes with the decision of Cannon and a few handfuls of
comrades to adhere to the Left Opposition headed by Trotsky. Their
expulsion from the Communist mainstream (with even former adherents
such as William Dunne and Gil Green turning against them) was
engineered by leaders of a rival faction, Jay Lovestone, Bertram D.
Wolfe, and Ben Gitlow, who soon were expelled themselves for being
insufficiently Stalinist, and who a couple of decades later were
prominent Cold War anti-Communists. The distinguishing characteristic
of Cannon and many others who rallied around Trotsky’s banner was that
they would remain true to the revolutionary and working-class socialist
ideals that had animated the early Communists, in the face of the
incredibly more powerful and “relevant” yet incredibly more ugly forces
– the totalitarian lure of Stalinism and the exploitative materialism
of capitalism.


If the words “LENIN LIVES!” are to be more than rhetorical posturing,
they will have to go beyond the intellectual constructions contained in
essays of the eighteen intellectuals represented in Lenin Reloaded.
Some of that volume’s essayists insist on this themselves. “Without
revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary movement, to be sure,
which at one level means no more than that you can’t have a women’s
movement without the idea of feminism,” Eagleton tells us. “But at the
same time, according to Lenin, there is no adequate theory without
revolutionary practice. Correct revolutionary theory, he insisted,
assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical
activity of a mass revolutionary movement.”

Living “Leninism” is not encompassed in a one and a half dozen
intellectuals (the number associated with this book) – they are not
“the revolutionary vanguard” of which Lenin spoke, nor is an
organization of 1800 activists that has simply declared itself to be
so. The words “mass movement” suggests that the vanguard Lenin has in
mind constitutes a more substantial, measurable percentage of the
working class. My uncle’s old handbill, an artifact from the time of
which Palmer writes, reflects the fact that serious efforts to
implement Lenin’s perspective were rooted in a political, social,
cultural phenomenon adding up to a section (or vanguard) of the working
class. This seems so alien to our own reality!

Yet long before radical academics were intoning the mantra of “race,
class, and gender” and to exploring even more diverse and dynamically
intersecting identities, such sensibilities could be seen (despite
inadequate vocabularies and the inevitable clumsiness of beginners)
within the Leninist tradition. The Workers Party of America sought to
represent women as well as men, young and old and everyone in-between,
workers of all colors and cultures and ethnicities, each and every
person who suffered oppression under capitalism, and to draw more and
more of the working class into an independent economic, social, and
political force capable of effective challenging the multi-faceted
power of capitalism, and to transfer that power into the hands of the
working-class majority – to allow the free development of each to
become the basis for the free development of all.

“For Lenin, the knowledge that the working class can have of itself is
indissolubly linked to a precise knowledge of the reciprocal relations
of all classes in contemporary society, a knowledge which is not only
theoretical, we should say is less theoretical than founded on the
experience of politics.” This according to Bensaïd, who adds: “It is
through the test of practical politics that this knowledge of the
reciprocal relations between classes is acquired. To paraphrase Lenin,
this makes ‘our revolution’ into a ‘revolution of the whole people.’”
Callinicos – challenging the notion prevalent among many activists that
“the dispersal of campaigning energies serves to confuse the corporate
establishment and keep it on the defensive,” which he warns could lead
to “confusion and exhaustion among activists” – adds that “any
effective radical movement requires some means of fitting together
specific grievances into some more comprehensive picture of what is
wrong and how to remedy it and some systematic means of translating
this vision into reality.”

Smart as these leftist intellectuals are, they are not the only ones to
whom such ideas are occurring. Our world is in trouble. “Mainstream”
politics and the logic of the market seem unable to keep things from
getting worse. Varieties of reformism, anarchism, fundamentalism
(secular as well as religious) have been tried, continue to be tried,
and yet the times in which we live seem to grow more terrible. There
is a growing unease, questioning, searching for new pathways of thought
and action. These books, which ten or fifteen years ago might not have
been taken seriously, will today still not be read by masses of people.
But what masses of people are experiencing and feeling and thinking
today gives these books a greater resonance than before, and so they
may find a greater “market” – a broader and more intense readership –
than before. It is even possible that these intellectual stirrings
will contribute to thinking and activity among an emergent layer of
activists that, in turn, could facilitate larger political shifts.

Lenin has returned, possibly to be followed by a
re-emergence/revitalization of some variant (or variants) of Leninist
politics. Whether this will advance struggles for human liberation,
with activists learning from (not repeating) sectarian and tragic
derailments of the past – this is a question that may yet become