Our Thoughts on the Marxist Center Conference
By the Austin Revolutionary Organizing Collective (AROC)
Over the weekend of November 30th, more than twenty revolutionary organizations from across the United States came together in Colorado Springs to unite under the banner of the Marxist Center. This put a new layer of formality onto what has been until now an informal, if still robust community of communist organizers active on social media and in their local formations. Already the group is likely one of the largest radical left organizations in the US today, drawing membership from every region and exciting hundreds of communists eager to increase the pace and scale of their work through a larger alliance.
This is an important development, and if their work is successful it will be a huge benefit to the Communist movement in the United States and to humanity at large. All honest revolutionaries in the US ought to hope for such an outcome. Unfortunately, a number of major political errors threaten this project. This concerns us deeply as comrades and at least marginal sympathizers of the Marxist Center project.
By refusing to answer the question of the Party, commit to all of the tasks of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, or make almost any historical judgments at all they leave the door open to liberal degeneration. In an effort to avoid sectarianism, Marxist Center has also neglected necessary ideological conflicts with anarchism in particular. This amounts to an unprincipled unity, which is already a seed of liberalism sprouting in their midst.
We wanted to outline and draw Marxist Center’s attention to these errors for the sake of possible rectification. It is this possibility that keeps us engaged with these comrades, and if successfully carried out might be grounds for a future principled unity with their organization. If these questions remain unaddressed, we do not believe that Marxist Center will succeed in its mission, and with it they will have failed the proletariat and the oppressed people of the world.
What threatens the Revolution?
Marxist Center is a dynamic and still embryonic “multi-tendency” formation, but they have constituted themselves as a unitary political actor by way of a set of Points of Unity adopted by their Colorado Springs convention. The Points of Unity are as follows:
After years of dormancy, the working class movement has woken from its slumber. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the liberal-democratic illusions of the post-Cold War Consensus were shattered.
At this key juncture in the reawakening of the working class, we the undersigned gather together in order to collectively affirm the necessity of establishing a socialist current which unapologetically and openly advocates revolution, practices and advocates the broadest and most thoroughgoing democracy possible,and critically appraises past attempts to establish socialism while recognizing the necessity to break with past dogmas and develop revolutionary analysis which maps onto existing conditions
1. Commit to building institutions of and for the working class, using local organizing to unite the workers of the world to execute the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Understand the working class as a diverse and varied class that encompasses both productive and reproductive workers. Commit to the access of all people to our organizing spaces, communications, and documents, including language accessibility, prioritization of work schedules, and the accommodation of physical needs, disabilities, children, and transportation needs.
2. Support the creation and growth of solidarity unions towards the aim of a unified labor movement, while working towards revolutionizing existing unions towards this end.
3. Acknowledge and educate about the conditions existing for the proletariat and work towards their dismantling and liberation of all people through the foundation of socialist principles. Recognize capitalism’s role in perpetuating racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic violence, while simultaneously recognizing that these forms of oppression and marginalization result from material divisions of labor and serve to reinforce class society. Fight against privilege and oppressive behavior within the working class.
4. Reject the strategy of administering or reforming capitalism and recognize that the capitalist state can never be made to serve the interests of the working class as a whole. Work against the interests of the capitalist state even if holding government office.
5. Fight for the reorganization of the economy in line with socialist principles. Demand and organize democratic worker control over the means of production and the state.
6. Support democratic self-government by the working class in all spheres of collective life, including the empowerment, support, and self-determination of oppressed people.
7. Oppose and refuse compromise with all forms of US settler-colonialism, imperialism, and domination. Oppose the exploitation of countries affected by colonialism by the imperialist core. Recognize that the United States is a setter-colonial entity. Support the complete emancipation, decolonization, and self-determination of indigenous and oppressed people. Work within the core to undermine imperialist development, and achieve reparations in the global south.
8. Work towards developing historical materialist analysis and strategies rather than basing tactics on inherited dogmas. Recognize that Marxist analysis requires investigation into the constantly changing dynamics of capitalism.
9. Recognize that climate change caused by capitalism constitutes an existential threat to all life, to the working class, and to the people of the world. Commit to a socialist/communist politics that is fundamentally ecological. Commit to supporting specific environmental struggles when they occur in our areas.
10. Recognize that we can not make use of the ready-made machinery of the capitalist state. Work towards the abolition of police, prisons, and all related systems of capitalist state violence, oppression, control, and surveillance. Work towards building democratic alternatives for our class, including transformative justice.
11. Commit to the self-defense of all vulnerable, marginalized, and working class communities.
Altogether there is much to praise here, in particular their commitment to struggling against imperialism and settler colonialism, something to radically distinguish them from the social chauvinism at the forefront of the popular US left today.
Furthermore, despite allowing members to join Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), they clearly uphold a revolutionary line incompatible with social democracy. Yet it’s here that their errors begin to emerge. If they are serious about revolution they must root themselves in a defense against the two primary causes of revolutionary defeat across history: suppression by the state and degeneration into liberalism and other bourgeois politics.
Suppressed revolutionary movements of the past include the Paris Commune, Germany in 1919, Indonesia, the left across Latin America in the 1970s and 80s, and many others. But this is a threat we must earn, and aside from persistent extralegal threats from officially tolerated fascism, the threat of suppression is not acute right now for the US left.
Far more immediate is the threat of degenerating into liberalism or other bourgeois politics. This has been the lot of the US left, as the Communist Party USA can attest when they endorse Hillary Clinton for president, just as the once more militant New Communist Movement broke down and formed the basis of the Jesse Jackson campaign in the 1980s. In the imperialist First World this is far more common a fate for our efforts.
The Marxist Center Points of Unity feature a flat rejection of liberalism, but this is clearly no defense against the threat of degeneration. Militant groups with far more advanced revolutionary politics such as the aforementioned Communist Party USA, the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) or even the Black Panther Party and the Weather Underground boast veterans now involved primarily in NGO-based liberal politics, academia, and Democratic Party electoralism. We believe that such a degeneration is more or less unavoidable if Marxist Center maintains its present line of march.
Base building and the Mass Line
Marxist Center’s greatest threat of such degeneration arises precisely from their most important political goals. Their central praxis is what they call “base building,” with the basic philosophies of this political practice outlined in their March 2018 document “It’s All About That Base” — adopted on a much more informal basis than their Points of Unity. Base building entails various efforts to build direct action political organizations among the working class, establishing a material class base from which revolutionary politics can then be waged.
The piece “Base-Building: Activist Networking or Organizing the Unorganized?” in the “It’s All About That Base” collection says that the practice “is sometimes referred to as the ‘mass line’ method.” But despite its superficial similarities to the mass line, “base building” as the Marxist Center conceives it is something different and inferior to a mass line strategy. It is an effort to strip mass line praxis of its historical judgments and aims.
The mass line is not a mere “best practices” strategy developed by communists of the past, it is the application of the dialectical materialist conception of knowledge summarized by Mao Zedong applied to the work of revolution. Mao’s indispensable work “On Practice” teaches:
“Thus it can be seen that the first step in the process of cognition is contact with the objects of the external world; this belongs to the stage of perception. The second step is to synthesize the data of perception by arranging and reconstructing them; this belongs to the stage of conception, judgement and inference…
“Rational knowledge depends upon perceptual knowledge and perceptual knowledge remains to be developed into rational knowledge — this is the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge… The dialectical-materialist movement of knowledge from the perceptual to the rational holds true for a minor process of cognition (for instance, knowing a single thing or task) as well as for a major process of cognition (for instance, knowing a whole society or a revolution).”
Communists take the experiences of the masses — their direct perceptions of their conditions — and combine them with the correct concepts and judgments developed by Marxist analysis to produce a new understanding that enables them to deepen their political practice. These concepts and judgments are themselves the fruits of previous exercises of this process of knowledge, combining theoretical insights (drawn from even earlier observation) with accumulated historical experience.
The most important historical experiences for the purpose of correct conceptual development in our work are the experiences of revolutionary politics in the past — both defeated revolutions and revolutionary movements that successfully took power. Any social practice in the communist space already entails conclusions drawn from this history — either implicit or explicit. If they are left unstated — and treating flatly contradictory conclusions as equally valid is functionally the same as making no conclusions at all — then hegemonic conceptions are certain to impose themselves.
This is in fact the definition of ideological hegemony. This will then cause repeated political errors pulling practice in a liberal direction.
Marxist Center’s understandable desire to avoid the kind of sectarian hair splitting over history that has plagued the US left has instead led to this very error of refusing any definitive historical stances. This opens the door to an implicit historical judgment rejecting not just all “actually existing socialism” but Leninism altogether. Their “nonsectarian” commitment has in fact extended to Kautsky revivalists and anarchists who hold exactly such a line.
There are plenty of questions of history that can be set aside for now or even indefinitely, the sorts of obscure topics silly sectarian splits have been made over in the past. The question of whether a century of communist struggle following Lenin’s contributions to Marxism ought to be ditched altogether is not a marginal topic. Failure to take it up in a principled way will result in the very sort of political vacuum that we are certain will prompt a liberal degeneration in Marxist Center.
Punting on the Party
Marxist Center does in fact explicitly align with Lenin’s theory of the state. Their fourth Point of Unity outright rejects participation in the bourgeois state and their tenth extends this by calling for the destruction of this state’s repressive apparatuses. They further acknowledge the imperialist character of capitalism at this juncture in their seventh Point, another key Leninist doctrine. The main conclusion they refuse to make is on the question of the Party.
In so doing they distinguish base building from the mass line again by stripping out the concrete historic aim of the mass line — building and guiding the Communist Party. The Communist Party of the Philippines declares as much in their training essay “On Mass Work.”
“The mass line is the basic Marxist-Leninist principle which guides mass work and other tasks of the Party in advancing the revolution,” they write. “It is based and conforms thoroughly to the historical materialist outlook on society and revolution.”
The mass line is a mechanism for building the party, by identifying the political line among the masses that can unite their advanced elements, win over the intermediate elements, and expose the errors of the backwards, isolating and neutralizing them. The party is the institution for making concrete this unity and action.
The “It’s All About That Base” document acknowledges the party building task in a piece by the short-lived DSA Refoundation caucus. “By uniting a deeply rooted political base with a clear socialist vision, we can begin to build institutions capable of waging class struggle, thereby laying the foundation for more developed and ambitious fights for class power,” it says. “This is the foundation necessary to build a mass, socialist-led Workers Party.”
The Points of Unity, however, are far less clear or concrete, speaking instead of a “current” and undefined “institutions” of the working class. The party is a qualitative advance beyond any other institutions existing before it, and so mention of them in the Points of Unity is not an adequate substitute for setting this task.
Marxist Center’s Points of Unity point to a broad socialist goal (Points 5, 6, 9, and 10) and some broad principles of socialist politics (Points 3, 4, 7, and 11) but they point to no strategy other than the amorphous “institutions” (Point 1) and solidarity unions/revolutionary work within existing unions (Point 2). Are we to understand the movement as syndicalist then? If so then we have a whole other set of criticisms, but at their core is the one we put forward here: without unified political leadership the political task of revolution cannot be accomplished.
Political parties are the institution of unitary political leadership for a class or fraction of a class, and only a communism focused on the project of building a revolutionary party of the proletariat is worthy of our energy. The UCFML (Union of French Communists Marxist-Leninist) expressed the work of party formation this way:
“…the party must be constructed in the fire of struggles, step by step, under the control of the mass political movement. In France today, this party does not exist. It is not a question of self proclaiming it.
“This is why we declare that we are not the Party. We are a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist political group FOR the foundation of a communist Union. This Union, having proven itself, and gathering a significant fraction of the vanguard workers, will itself have to determine the conditions and stages for the foundation of the Party.”
If Marxist Center’s base building is attuned to this sort of end, gathering a vanguard of the working class to then take up the tasks of party building for themselves, they should say so. If they have no commitments of any sort on this question we must conclude with what UCFML comrades from the past said to their contemporaries trying to build revolution without a party: “you are not serious. You have no historical consciousness. You cultivate defeat.”
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Anarchism
Most serious of all in terms of Marxist Center’s errors, however, is not their silence on Leninism, but in fact their silence on the central tenet of Marxism. In an 1852 letter Marx famously wrote:
“Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was (1) to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; [and] (3) that this dictatorship, itself, constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”
Without a commitment to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat there is no Marxism — it is at best a form of utopian or revisionist socialism a la Owens, Proudhon, or Bernstein. The historic fruits of all such movements are universal degeneration into liberalism at best, and outright reaction in many cases. Marxist Center wisely moves away from this with their explicit commitment to historical materialism, but they fail to explicitly follow its logic to its inevitable ends.
Again, they acknowledge only half of the task of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat — the construction of socialist relations of production — but not the other half, suppressing the bourgeoisie and its agents. As a result they have a massive black box in the midst of their program: they have a present commitment to a particular sort of praxis (base building) and an imprecise and distant commitment to a socialist political economy, with no intervening strategy or theory of socialist construction to unite the two.
The present left has divided itself in risible ways over the most nit-picky details of these topics, and this should be rejected. Plurality on some of these issues would be exciting to see in practice, but just as the basic commitment to the party is too fundamental to leave unaddressed, so too is the basic task of suppressing the bourgeoisie and establishing an outright class dictatorship for the proletariat. Leaving this open ended is an invitation for revisionist, reformist, and liberal politics to corrupt their efforts.
We fear that Marxist Center is prioritizing a “non-sectarian” tolerance of anarchists and anarchistic elements in their formation over a commitment to Marx’s most important conclusions. This is not because anarchists cannot be brave fighters for our class or allies in many struggles, but because the gulf in strategy between Marxists and anarchists is too wide to bridge within a single movement. Repressing an enemy class, by definition, necessitates a repressive apparatus of class rule, which means that the Dictatorship of the Proletariat is necessarily a period of rule by a workers state. Anarchists categorically reject the state form, and therefore the practical work of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Attempts by “libertarian” socialists to call for revolution without a revolutionary state do so at the expense of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and authentic Marxism.
This is also why Marxist Center fails to take up the strategic horizon of building a party, as the primary purpose of such a party will be to discipline the political forces of the class and subordinate all competing priorities to the program of the party. Such “authoritarianism” — the ability to tell someone else what to do — is anathema to anarchists and quasi-anarchists. Presently it appears that Marxist Center is maintaining unity with these elements at the expense of basic commitment to Marxist politics. If they persist in this they will ultimately accomplish only what anarchism has in the field of world revolution: nothing.
What is To Be Done?
The alternative to a party with the power to order its members or constituent bodies to take up one set of tasks and not another is some sort of loosely affiliated network of like-minded organizations each with their own distinct program, each competing with the others. This is precisely what we have now with the NGO left, and without clarifying these questions of the party and the proletarian dictatorship the obvious question is what new does the Marxist Center really offer? What is the base being built for?
The answer “revolution” is so imprecise that any competing project with some sort of concrete outcomes identifiable in any definite time frame will capture the energy of these organizations. Reforms, elections, grant-driven projects with their “deliverables,” protest culture: each is more compelling than an abstract idea with no strategy behind it. Liberals build bases for these ends all the time, and if Marxist Center does not identify an alternative set of aims they will end up building a base for the class enemy.
Carrying out a revolution is an incredibly difficult and complex task, and it is no more likely to happen spontaneously than you are to spontaneously learn how to fly an airplane. They do not need to outline every task or get into pointless detail up front, but they do need to tell us what flight school they plan to attend.
Correctly answering the questions at hand would likely look like amending Point 1 to explicitly center the necessity of a proletarian political party for accomplishing the aims set forth there and either modifying Point 5 to add in the other main task of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat — suppressing the bourgeoisie — or adding another point calling for such a dictatorship. Anarchists or others who do not accept these projects will either have to shift for the sake of unity or organize elsewhere. This does not mean that friendly exchange or tactical collaboration on specific projects cannot be done, but ultimately our paths are distinct and contradictory.
If Marxist Center decides instead to capitulate to the anarchistic line and reject both of these tasks then they should acknowledge that they reject the validity of all past communist revolutions. They should probably change their name as well at that point, and we will have no interest in aligning with such a formation.
Of course, if Marxist Center does adopt the established tasks of genuine Marxist politics this will prompt analysis of past revolutions where bourgeois restoration has occurred or is at least imminent. Answering why and how this came to pass is going to be difficult to avoid at that point, which probably also helps explain Marxist Center’s hesitancy to pull on these threads.
There is no way to avoid this work, however, and Marxist Center is well-placed to cultivate original insights, analysis, and debates that can help us advance revolutionary politics in our time. We would be very interested in joining in that conversation at the very least, and possibly the formation itself if it takes up those inquiries satisfactorily. We believe that developing a clear political conception from that past and applying it through “base building” to the future task of building a real Communist Party is the basic work of revolutionary organizing. One way or the other we will happily join with them if they take this up consciously and explicitly.
Again, we hope that this piece is taken in the spirit in which it is written: as concerned comrades that desperately want to see a left effort like Marxist Center succeed. Success in our minds means one thing only: revolution in our lifetimes. Without embracing the advances achieved by our comrades from the past and present we will fall short of that goal, and so we urge our Marxist Center comrades to heed their lessons boldly and quickly.
We look forward to an affirmation of that vision by Marxist Center, and — we hope — a commitment to rectifying these simple but serious errors.