Lenin and Democracy in America

lenin america


Socialist Principles and Their Emergence Under Capitalism

If I may speak for the US Left for a moment -- I believe we are agreed that we are for a socialist society. The signature distinction between socialist and capitalist ideologies is pretty simple: socialists, at least since Karl Marx, call for the abolition of private property in the means of production as the fundamental economic feature required to sustain a just and prosperous society organized on the principle "from each according to his ability to each according to his or her work". *

Neither Marx nor history has provided a concise answer as to how fast, slow, sudden or drawn out the abolition of property is realized. Further, history provides no clear answer as to how long commodity production whose products are appropriated privately and sustain the institutions of private property against diverse socialization pressures will persist. As long as they do persist so will the divisions and re-divisions of labor and capital persist. If you try to abolish them before their time of departure is at hand-- they will only re-emerge in a different, often worse, form.

Based on 20th Century experience, the battles and transitions between public and private property, and between public and private institutions, have taken and will take many forms. Nonetheless, the advance of the public sector, and socialization, is evident in nearly all dimensions of economic life. Its expansion has been both universal -- in every nation -- and profound in its effects, as production and exchange of both commodities and public goods become ever more social and interdependent in character. Follow the scientific, intellectual, engineering, materials, services, financial, production and labor supply train that put your iPad in your hands, and permit you to access the virtually infinite resources and information to which it can connect, and you have grasped part of the universe of social production. Now picture the public infrastructure -- schools, transportation, regulation, security, publicly funded R & D, licensing, etc, etc -- and that universe expands by another order of magnitude. Not to diminish the innovative work of Apple -- but the logo, patent and copyrights  should really read: Apple, inc, and the peoples of the United States and 14 other nations.

The ideal expressed in the principle above is democratic in its essence. Increased public wealth is impossible with out the advance of culture, science and art among all who labor, and such advance is impossible without both political and economic  empowerment. From each according to his or her ability, to each according to their work -- I have never met a worker who disputed the truth or value of this fundamental goal. However, while the principle reflects the socialist vision of equity and economic justice, it also reflects a vision rooted in the world of commodity production. Commodities are traded in markets because they are scarce and of necessity require a  method of dividing and distributing them according to a standard. That standard is ultimately labor -- the cost of production, and the distribution of rewards is preserved by property. You buy the hammer -- its yours. Its price reflects its cost, including capital costs, and allocation by supply and demand -- all of which have finite limits.. If you cannot own it, you will not likely buy it.

The principle above also implies the need to invest in the abilities of the people as a foundation of growth no less important than markets: the more investment in the more people, the more potential for creaativity, innovation and growth. It also implies a distribution of wealth in proportion to labor productivity as long as there is a division of labor. Accompanying the division of labor is a division of the products of production in the form of property. China's mixed socialist/capitalist economy is an official exception to this, as it does not have, as yet, a private property law. However it has devised some unique aliases for private property -- because commodity production cannot really develop without it.

Relying on bureaucratic and command methods of allocating commodities is too inefficient and corruption-prone to be sustainable. The rise from a primitive agricultural society to a post-industrial, services based one, requires the coercive divisions and redivisions of labor and production relations for which markets, capitalism and the demand for ever  greater  efficiency  are famous.  The development of commodity production rapidly expands broader non-agricultural working and middle classes of both producers and consumers, and thus compels the abandonment of primitive agriculture in favor of large scale, scientific and mechanized farming. This is a revolutionary feature of capitalism. In the US, it contributed to the destruction of both the slave system and the yeoman farmer class which was at the heart of the Jeffersonian vision of enlightenment republicanism.

Marx, in distinction from many socialists, also foresaw that science and technology could ultimately allow the "springs of common wealth to abundantly flow", making most commodities so cheap as to be universally available -- like rights.  In other words, like  public goods: goods with a negligible per person cost; or, goods so necessary to all participants in the economy --  roads, lighthouses for example -- that they must be provided to all for other more valuable work to be possible.  Such a condition would obviate in proportion to its advance the need for a division of labor in the market sense, and serve as the foundation for what he described as communist society, a society based on the principle: "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need" -- a society in which labor is elevated from a coercive and alienated condition to life's prime want: living to work instead of working to live.

For Marx, however, these principles emerge not primarily from their moral power as a subjective social ideal, but from objective contradictions of capitalist society between labor and capital, and in all societies between man and the conditions of the natural world. Because of his commitment to materialism -- the study of the real, not the ideal -- he actually wrote very little on the subject of either socialism or communism, focusing instead on capitalism and the logic of its observable contradictions and development. The division between capital and labor he held as an necessary feature of commodity production and its private appropriation. However private appropriation is at war with the principles of equity. This contradiction is reproduced in new forms in the successive divisions of labor -- both mental and physical -- that the development of production relations and technology (the means of production for Marx) demand. But it also generates endless turmoil and instability in the political and social institutions that arise and fall on the changing economic foundations of  production --- which leads to the central role of democracy in the class struggle. If there must be turmoil and change, then its rewards should lift ALL, not just a few at the expense of the many.

The Battle for Socialism is the battle for Democracy

In practice, in the history of the United States, almost all resistance to capitalism arises indirectly from excessive inequality and instability. A more democratic society is the  political expression that describes the  programs  the working class as a whole and the political left have pursued throughout our history to redress  grievances. Further, the expansion of democracy is inseparably associated with establishing as rights those services, working conditions, or goods that formerly were scarce or rare.  The development and expansion of democracy in this sense is typically at odds with the domain of private capital, although there is division due to the fact that new entitlements and rights also create a platform where new products and services become marketable.

The abolition of slavery, the extension of suffrage without property requirement, the 8 hour day, universal suffrage for African Americans and women, progressive taxation, safe workplaces, anti-trust legislation, unemployment insurance, public education, the right to organize unions, social security, occupational safety and health legislation, civil rights against racial, gender, disability and nationality discrimination are historic examples of the rise of entitlement and rights. Today the battles to establish health care as a human right, for the government to serve as an employer of last resort in recessions/depressions, for a 'greener' and more democratic industrial policy than the existing one (defense) to give more public and scientific direction to sustainable economic and environmental development --- these are all democratic struggles to further extend entitlement, and whose success depends upon the expansion of the public sector to redistribute wealth in numerous ways, and the expansion of public goods available to all.

Once something is identified as a right -- it must be accorded to citizens universally. Markets cannot provide anything universally. Markets function well  in the domain of commodities -- goods produced solely for exchange that have a price. They allocate scarce (i.e. inherently NOT universal) resources. The objective connection between democracy and socialism is thus not a simple matter of winning a "good" idea over a "bad" idea. It is not a morality play. Complexity arises because its original ideals were authored by revolutionary capitalists and their ideologists  in their struggle against monarchy and autocracy. The Declaration of Independence and the US constitution are primary documents in that revolution. To establish democratic republics, monarchies had to be overthrown in most cases.The great majority of working people were overwhelmingly farmers, or hired farm labor who aspired to be independent farmers, or slaves. To overthrow the monarchy this majority had to be won to the project, participate directly or indirectly in armed insurrection. They had to be guaranteed political rights as part of the bargain. Thus the ideals of the enlightenment and republicanism could actually, not just in theory, be founded on the sovereignty of the people, not on the divine right of Kings, over all institutions only by bringing the whole people consciously and willingly into the process.

Each wave of struggle that has lifted up the people has been powered by, and subsequently powers anew, radical changes and shifts in the configuration and contradictions of class forces and interests that find a new equilibrium only to be transformed again by technological change and further class struggles. Today less than 3% of US workforce work in agriculture, compared to 90% in 1776. The rest labor for wages and salaries -- and for many some division of capital as well -- in manufacturing and services. The last relative equilibrium achieved after the New Deal and WWII lasted about 30 years. The financialization boom that began in the mid-1970's has now eroded many of the economic gains that democratic struggles of previous eras achieved as the giant corporations decided they required a massive re-accumulation of capital -- and the political freedom in which to do so -- in order to reproduce their positions. It has led to the latest, and perhaps the most degraded, cycle -- a new worldwide depression -- in the evolution of US capitalism, which is now a global system embracing millions of workers and communities beyond our national borders.

Inequality by any measure has steadily increased throughout this era, as has political instability and polarization. The depression beginning in 2008 and its corrosive effects continues unabated across most of the world. It shows few signs of self-correction, and some of falling even deeper into stagnation. Anti-democratic forces have risen sharply to block pressure democratic institutions to maintain and improve a fair division of wealth. The effect has been to nullify those institutions from taking corrective action: Congress, financial regulatory bodies, labor rights, the EPA, the Department of Education, state and local governments, progressive taxation and many other domains of social life have lost effectiveness, despite a president generally favorable to this pressure.

So great are the pressures and tensions generated by rising inequality in this depression that it is impossible not to ask if the current relations of class power can be sustained at all. We have had to ask this question before in our history: In the beginning -- can we live as a nation under the divine right of a King and his nobles? The answer was no. Divine right, nobility, and their entitlements were abolished. Can we live with chattel slavery? The answer was no. Both slave holder and enslaved social classes, and the political and social institutions that arose on them, were abolished, at the cost of 600,000 lives. Can we live with the dictatorial rule of one section of capital? Both WWI and WWII, taking a total of 80 million lives, were wars against this danger. The answer was each time no. Each time a wave of reforms and/or revolutionary change, both nationally and globally, arose to restrain the danger, although final judgement on the rule of capital was delayed. The rise of socialist, social-democratic and revolutionary-democratic, anti-imperial and anti-colonial, movements across the world, including the upheavals under both Roosevelt eras in the US made dramatic advances against the abuses of the rule of the giant corporate players and their political machines.

New and renewed abuses of corporate power now threaten equity, stability, security, progress and peace. We again have to answer fundamental questions about the class configuration of society. We will have to find a new equilibrium. We will have to address revolutionary change in the prerogatives of monopoly power and devise new strategies of economic and political organization to move forward toward a better life than the one we inherited. We will have to build new protections: against the poisoning and corruption our democratic institutions with fascist-like threats, against the promise of our revolutionary heritage of equality of opportunity for all and the public commitments that entails; against resistance to the necessary steps toward environmental and energy sustainability; against the transition to seek diplomatic and cooperative over military solutions to the many dimensions and challenges of globalization and peace.

This is a revolutionary democratic challenge --- and a task in which the rise of working people to greater self-consciousness and self-organization are indispensable. The defeat of the ultra right and the division of monopoly forces along side the rise of working people are the chief tactics of this era and both are a precondition for escape from this terrible crisis and movement forward.

Which brings us to V. I. Lenin.

Writing about V.I. Lenin in the United States always runs the risk of erecting a formidable wall with American readers. "Wasn't he proven wrong when the USSR imploded? A discredited dictator? What value could one possibly learn from the founder of the Soviet state relevant to the challenges of American democracy?" I have heard reasonable and progressive folks ask all these questions and more -- and that does not include the incurious dismissal Lenin gets from most elite media sources...

Here is the short answer: when the existing social relations and major institutions of wealth and power are widely held to be failing and unsustainable, the struggles to defend or advance the empowerment of working people tend to assume a revolutionary edge. As existing institutions are nullified or unresponsive, the idea that "we are our own protection" takes hold. The paralysis in Congress, the spontaneous occupy movements, the rebellions led by labor in Ohio and Wisconsin are recent examples of this developing edge. Especially where reaction employs repressive tactics, where the currents of change become swifter, where raw class forces contend and reveal themselves more directly, where political and social institutions must realign themselves -- sometimes sharply, to accommodate new modes of production and new divisions class relationshipe ----  In such times consulting a writer who assesses all questions from a single-minded class perspective adds a very useful methodological tool -- and tonic -- to one's understanding of politics and ideology.

Now, by "class perspective" I mean a focus on fundamental economic interests that a particular historical division of labor and capital impose on political culture as a means of anchoring political and ideological analysis. A person's class interest (or interests -- they can have more than one) are defined by the what they must do in society to obtain, preserve and advance their means of life: work, profession, interest or capital all have their own logic of necessity that underpins and drives association, politics, and ideology.

Reading Lenin for the first time is much like a first reading of Charles A Beard's Economic Interpretation of the US Constitution. With respect to understanding the constitution, for example, I had always been told, and read, that great men, or the great ideas of the Enlightenment, like "government should be founded on the consent of the governed", were the deciding factors in early American history.
The role of men -- and women -- and ideas cannot be denied and yet, before one reads Beard, the great and wise seem to walk with their feet planted in mid-air. After Beard, they are flesh and blood, representing diverse constituencies, occupations, and forms of wealth and commerce in the early republic. Some critics will scream "determinism! determinism" -- not true. Thinking through the words and deeds of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Paine and Hamilton after knowing their direct material interests for or against a union stronger than the Articles of Confederation does not make them less heroic. Nor does it diminish the liberating power of the ideas of the enlightenment. Instead, a large common ideological ground of interests and ideas is established across the centuries that adds great explanatory force to the narratives of the founders, narratives with which we can better connect and converse -- both directly and by analogy.

Class analysis does not -- and should not pretend -- to explain everything. But it has the great virtue of quickly and efficiently sorting political and ideological positions into interests.  For example, Lenin's class analysis of society in 1905 Russia decomposes the country's interests and parties into components that can  by degree and kind be usefully compared to 1860 United States without engaging in fantasy or idealist notions. Large scale industry and their proletarian workforces were expanding in both Russia and the US. Millions of "peasants" existed in enslaved or semi-enslaved conditions in both countries. Farmers -- middle peasants in Russia, yeomen in the US -- strained against the boundaries of slavery and/or feudal relations. There are big differences too -- the concentration of industry and labor was much advanced in 1905 St Petersburg and Moscow over 1860 US -- and sustained a genuine social-democratic labor party. In addition class lines were a much more powerful, entitled and direct force in Russia and hardened all political parties and polemics against any compromising spirit. There was no Russian  parliament in which such spirit could take root, and repressions against democrats were pervasive and cruel.

Capitalist forces in the US were much more confident, independent and thoroughly disabused by the failed history of relations with the South since the "half-slave,half-free" "Great Compromises" of 1820 and afterwards. Land and society were far less entangled with monarchy and treaty. The worker-farmer classes had opposite interests to the expansion of slavery. In the US the industrial capitalist forces supported and helped lead the armed suppression of the Confederate rebellion against freedom. By contrast, in Russia similar forces tried to cut a deal with the Tsar. The "deal" with the Tsar led to the ruin of the country through secret alliances, debts and and corruption that ended in the catastrophe of World War I. But in both nations the pre-eminent challenge was to advance democracy, and to empower the working class as a key force in liberation.

Lenin's approach is from the standpoint of the working class whose objectives are clear:

"1) the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy; (2) its replacement by the democratic republic,[including provisional government to disarm the Tsar and actually constitute a Constituent Assembly based on universal suffrage and freedom of political association]; (3) the sovereignty of the people, safeguarded by a democratic constitution, i.e., the concentration of supreme governmental authority entirely in the hands of a legislative assembly composed of representatives of the people and forming a single chamber."

The responses of the capitalist parties in Russia to this was to support a "Constituent Assembly", but one  that failed to "constitute" any authority over the Tsar. instead it focused on creating an "upper house" primarily designed to protect "minority" rights -- which turned out to be merely a tool through which wealthy forces could bargain with the monarchy. To which Lenin replies:

"Can there be any doubt that every consistent democrat is obligated to accept all these [democratic] slogans? .... But the main contradiction, the contradiction between the desire of the bourgeoisie to preserve private property at all costs and its desire for liberty, is so profound that spokesmen or followers of the liberal bourgeoisie inevitably find themselves in this ridiculous position."

I can easily rewrite the first 2 points of the above program and principals as lessons learned from the US Civil War, which Lenin and many others around the world studied carefully:

The ability of the emerging capitalists and slaveholders to form an alliance with working and middle classes in the American Revolution, and throw off the monarchy by force, set the stage for the success of the Union agenda and its requirements in the Civil War (which were learned in the progress of the war): 1) the complete overthrow of the Confederate 'autocracy' and the destruction of its army; 2) the establishment of universal suffrage in a thoroughly democratic republic throughout the South (Reconstruction).


The third item in Lenin's list is interesting to think about. The protection of "minority" rights was a very important item in the American constitutional convention, as Beard thoroughly documents. Who was the minority? It was the rich: both merchants and slaveholders --- who created the complex balance of two chambers of Congress, an independent Judiciary and, as an inevitable result of the collision of these institutions, a powerful executive to protect themselves from "the mob". That would be you and me, reader. This had some important consequences:

1) it prolonged the time in which the South could expand slavery into new territories -- and thus its geographic and Senatorial strength. It had lost its ability to nullify in the House as early as the late 1840's. 

2) it compelled anti-slavery forces to essentially destroy the Whig party and reform itself into a consistent anti-slavery, and ultimately revolutionary Republican party -- again, revolutionary in the sense that it forces a major class realignment in the country;

3) it prolonged and in fact nullified democratic Reconstruction in the years following the Civil war;

4) it accelerated the post-war increasing domination of corporations and industrialists including their seizure of control of the Republican party, the Senate, and the presidency.

Given the current policy of popular and democratic nullification by monopoly corporate forces in the US Senate, Lenin's unicameral reform is a constitutional change very much worth considering as this crisis intensifies, although we are not at the point where constitutional change is yet practical. His conclusions about the ridiculous position of capitalist forces tying themselves to the Tsarist autocracy in Russia instead of joining the working and middle classes and peasants was prophetic indeed. The failure to overthrow and abolish the Tsar completely fatally compromised the Russian 1905 revolution and created instead powerless legislative bodies -- the Duma -- that followed. No reconstruction or reform of any kind persisted. In fact reaction attempted to crush resistance with brutal violence, none of which could save Russia from the catastrophe which failure to restructure its society brought upon it. When the regime finally collapsed in the midst of WWI, nothing of value -- no legislature, no constitution, no courts, vast illiteracy, no legal party, no local or regional infrastructure, virtually no part of the former pre-war economy -- could be salvaged. The entire state failed; armed enemies on every side were prepared to savage the nation like wolves. The Bolshevik party was the only coherent political force. It finally led the overthrow of the Tsar -- but had to build a new society under the harshest conditions imaginable.

So what are the chief lessons of value from Lenin's advocacy in 1905, and his conclusions from study of the US Civil War, for workers facing a profound crisis in American democracy? Half-measures, fatal compromises that leave the main obstacles to progress in power, only lead to a greater debacle, a bigger catastrophe, a more difficult struggle, and a MORE uncertain future.

● We can wait on real financial reform and fail to take public control of the "too big to fail" parts of the financial system. But if we do -- the problem will return on an even bigger scale. In fact it is highly unlikely the current configuration of government so strongly influenced by corporate corruption can fix the current depression at all.

● We can wait on seriously addressing the many fronts of increasing inequality -- taxation, housing, health care, education, poverty, hunger, labor rights, retirement, persistent racial and national discrimination, gender barriers, criminalization of poor people, immigrant rights, LGBT discrimination But if we do -- social chaos will most certainly grow--and repression and fascist like measure by reaction will increase, and more and more institutions of our democracy will be nullified and useless; soldiers WILL be in the streets.

● We can wait until waves of doom wake us up to the need to take control of national energy policy and directly address the human-created components leading to climate change. But if we do, more and more cities and states will become disaster areas and "emergency executive orders and detentions", and the military -- not democracy -- will occupy our own land. The military is great at winning wars -- but a failure at governing and occupying.

● We can be satisfied with well-intentioned words and speeches about the above reforms and assume that WE -- the working people of this great nation -- who are busy with all the tasks of survival and have so little time for politics -- will NOT be called to the arduous labor of self-organization, self-consciousness of our own interests, and self-responsibility for fate of US democracy, and for the future we will bequeath to  generations. President Obama has demonstrated he is open to being moved by the broad democratic masses. He has made stirring speeches that in most cases point in the right direction. But he will not be successful, nor will ANY leader, unless the working class stands for itself and does so on behalf of the entire people. We are our own protection in revolutionary times. You have to join the union on your own -- the old labor song says. No one can do it for you. And we must walk the valleys, to get to the mountain.

There are barriers any reader that dives seriously into the study of Lenin's work a hundred years or more after it was written must cross. The parallels between 1905, the Civil War and today are not far-fetched, or difficult to draw, and learn from. But on many questions circumstances and conditions have substantially changed since he was writing -- and more serious research into the history of the European and working class movements before the world wars is necessary to avoid misunderstanding or, worse, dogmatic affectations of "Leninism". Lenin made several efforts in later years to discourage dogmatic and infantile interpretations of the Russian revolution and his own works -- but after his death dogma replaced understanding in not a few quarters. Nonetheless, the careful and thoughtful student will find a treasure of intellectual and political rewards as long as he or she 1) takes the time understand the historical context of the material at hand; and 2) takes into account the all important issue of social and economic class which thematically unites all of Lenin's work. That done, readers may find many ideas and propositions with which they may agree and/or disagree, as I do -- but I promise -- your thinking about politics will be changed forever. For an introduction to Lenin's thinking on the democratic revolution in some depth, I recommend Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution.


* a paraphrase of the "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" expression adapted to Marx's ammendment of the principle for socialism, or "the first, lower stage of communism"  from Critique of the Gotha Program.








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  • Thank you! What is to be done? Wake up America, the sooner the better.

    Posted by bolivar ona, 01/14/2012 3:40pm (10 years ago)

  • Good article. Thoroughly enjoyable. Far too often people get caught up in what they believe to be the essence of a person or their teaching, and in doing so they completely miss the point altogether.

    I don't think your assessment of Obama was totally correct. He says the right things, to be sure, but he has no interest in backing a losing team, which is why the masses will never gain his support, and he will ever concede to the demands and wishes of the Right and the corporate aristocracy which rules this country. He cannot forfeit his masters's will, especially not in an election year. We've seen this already with his signing of the defense bill and his unprecedented appearance at the Pentagon earlier this week.

    Posted by Tony, 01/08/2012 2:08pm (10 years ago)

  • V. I. Lenin himself, supplies us, albeit about 100 yrs ago, with an invaluable guide to overcoming the murkiness of brother John Case's article here.
    The name of the article is Russians and Negroes. It is highly recommended for all readers and activists at this post(Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Volume 18, pp. 543-544).
    For its brevity, it would take about 1 minute to read.
    In this Russians and Negroes, Lenin contrasts and the compares serfs in Czarist Russia with Negro serfs in the antebellum and postbellum U. S. , South, instructively over two distinct, yet interrelated periods :

    1. Around 1861, with a direct comparison between Russians and Negroes there, in the SAME time frame (referencing serf bondage).

    2. Around 1911(about 50 yrs later)with a direct comparison between Russians and Negroes, in the SAME time frame (referencing literacy).

    This makes the comparison more easy to understand and direct. Brother Case, comparing the 1905 period to the 1860 opens the door for confusion.

    Lenin shows, in one fell swoop, how Negroes win more substantive liberation than " white" counterparts, and how, more importantly, Negro slavery(how the"white skin"labor is enslaved also, as labor in the"black skin"is branded)enslaves all labor-a source of what should be shame to an "advanced country"like the North America Republic.
    The unity of African Americans and all Americans, for democracy, is what the lesson is for today's struggles.
    These struggles, revolving around peace, jobs and freedom for all Americans and all Russians, for all the people on Mother Earth.
    Ultimately, this is the message of Lenin and Democracy in America.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/06/2012 2:54pm (11 years ago)

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