Convention Discussion: Upholding Revolutionary Marxism & Dropping Leninism

BY: Fabian Sneevliet| March 20, 2014

Submitted by Fabian Sneevliet of Houston, TX.

A lot of comrades today have been discussing dropping Leninism from ‘Marxism-Leninism’ and simply calling ourselves Marxists. There has been a lot of opposition to this in the Party. The main problem is that neither those who defend the thesis nor those who attack it have correctly formulated the problem.

Sam Webb has been the main proponent of dropping Leninism. He has two arguments for this, which are fairly straightforward. The first that is that Leninism does not resonate with most American working people, and that it is entirely ‘foreign’ to them. He thinks that most American workers who know what Leninism is do not have a good opinion of it (for it was always the subject of critique during the cold war). According to Webb, Leninism has associations of authoritarianism and dictatorship, in which the democratic rights of the masses are not recognized.

This argument does not really work, for if you ask most working Americans what they think of ‘Leninism’, their spontaneous response is the following one, “what is Leninism?” This is because we no longer live in the cold war, and therefore most young workers are not raised on anti-communist propaganda, and older workers have largely forgotten this. I did a survey, asking most of my students what they think of Leninism, and 90% of them had no idea who Lenin is. Therefore, the argument that ‘Leninism’ is off-putting to most working people is not a very good one and should thus be abandoned as an argument against Leninism.

Who would be put off by Leninism? It is mainly the intellectuals in the universities and members of the educated middle-class. Indeed, anyone who has had a university education is likely to be familiar with Leninism and believe it to be something very negative. However, since intellectuals do not represent the level of consciousness of all Americans, arguing for dropping it on that basis does not work.

The other argument given by Sam Webb is that ‘Marxism-Leninism’ has created a culture of dogmatism on the Left and in the Party. This is much truer than the first argument, for it is indeed the case that many comrades sound more like biblical apostles than Communists when they defend ‘Leninism’. For every answer, one must find a quote from Lenin to justify whether it is ‘Marxist-Leninist’: Lenin’s writings are treated like the bible of socialism and are not to be questioned. While Lenin certainly was one of the greatest revolutionaries of the twentieth century and an important Communist strategist, he is not the Saint Paul of socialism. Sam Webb is entirely correct to say that dogmatic adherence to Leninism, involving strict fidelity to What is to be Done?, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and State and Revolution, has stifled any kind of new theoretical analysis in the Party. A lot of very important Marxist theorists, such as Nikos Poulantzas, Santiago Carillo, and David Harvey simply go unexamined because Lenin already has all the answers to pressing questions. Often, comrades take a dogmatic doctrinaire approach to strategic questions by just quoting Lenin instead of actually making an investigation. Instead of doing some research and talking to working people, one finds a quote from Lenin to justify a strategic point. Any opposition to Lenin immediately will lead to denunciations of ‘opportunism’, ‘revisionism’, or ‘social democratic liquidationism’. A Communist should be open to new theories and not be so close minded. Dropping Leninism in order to fight dogmatism is a good way of dealing with the holy apostles of socialism in the Party who claim to have all the answers.

Some comrades say that dropping Leninism will lead to the abandonment of some very important theoretical propositions. One comrade, for example, says that if we drop Leninism, we will no longer have any understanding of imperialism, since Lenin gave us that analysis, which Marx was unable to see. This, in my opinion is ridiculous: to be a Marxist does not mean to only follow Marx, but to develop his ideas, which Lenin did better than anyone else. Lenin, in fact, never called himself a Marxist-Leninist; it was Zinoviev who coined the term, ‘Marxo-Leninism’, which initially was rejected by the CPSU. Only when Stalin took power did the CPSU officially declare itself to be ‘Marxist-Leninist’. Indeed, it was Stalin who started a long tradition in the history of socialism of quoting the ‘respected leader’ to justify all positions: Kim Il-Sung in the DPRK, Ceaucescu in Romania, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and Mao Zedong in China. In all these cases, Party leaders would only quote their ‘dear leader’ to defend their theories, and any opposition was immediately constructed as anti-communist. We sober Communists of the twenty-first century should abandon this tradition and learn from our mistakes in doing so.

We can still follow Lenin without calling ourselves Leninists. However, we should carefully analyze Lenin’s achievements while also being critical of his mistakes. This tendency to idolize Lenin, as was done by all Communist Parties in the past, needs to come to an end in the 21st Century. We will not become revisionists in the process: we can still call for a socialist society controlled by the working class, and drop the title of being Leninists.

There is yet another reason, however, for dropping Leninism, not yet considered by Sam Webb: building coalitions. The people who are likely to be turned off by Leninism are the trade-unions, progressive organizations, and non-Communist socialists (democratic socialists), who are very important allies. Why is this? Because Marxism-Leninism necessarily entails the concept of proletarian dictatorship, which can only mean that under the People’s Power, those very organizations will lose their autonomy. One might protest: but a union is not going to make an alliance with the Communist Party either! Is this really true though? There are plenty of unions that are more than happy to work with the Party, and historically have indeed done so. More important, however, are the progressive non-Communist organizations that we most certainly should work with. It is not likely that an organization such as Working America will have anything to do with a Leninist organization calling for the dictatorship of the proletariat. However, they are likely to go into an alliance with a Marxist organization calling for the control of society by the working people who produce society’s wealth. We should therefore drop Leninism and all references to the dictatorship of the proletariat, with the idea that this can help us to grow in coalitions.

Those who call themselves Leninists often hold to the idealist idea that the Communist Party will be the only vanguard of the working class. Some comrades have the dreamy belief that one day, all working people will look to the CPUSA as their leader and guide. The Party should try to offer guidance and leadership in the mass movement, and offer it a sense of direction. It should put the defeat of the capitalist class and the construction of a socialist state as its fundamental objective. It should try to teach workers that capitalism is the main enemy, and that only socialism can set them free from their oppression. However, there is no need for the CPUSA to be the only Party: instead, the Party should be part of a Left-wing coalition of socialist and progressive organizations, united around a common set of objectives. If the Party no longer calls itself the vanguard, which is what Leninism entails, this does not mean it no longer acts as a leader or becomes part of the mass movement. Rather, the Party should offer the mass movement what it is lacking: a sense of direction, a program, and a guide. In this way, the Party can respect the autonomy of other organizations, while helping them to advance in the struggle for socialism. To abandon Leninism means to abandon the elitist idea of a single-Party state. One can be a revolutionary Marxist, calling for the transition to a society controlled by working class and its allies, while abandoning the title of ‘Leninism’.

Let us continue to hang up posters of Lenin, honoring him as a great hero of the working class, but break with the title ‘Leninism’. We can be revolutionary Marxists, fighting for the seizure of State power that seeks to align itself with an international movement lead by the working class.

The views and opinions expressed in the Convention Discussion are those of the author alone. The Communist Party is publishing these views as a service to encourage discussion and debate. Those views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Communist Party, its leading bodies or staff members. The CPUSA Constitution, Program, and all its existing policies remain in effect during the Convention discussion period and during the Convention.

For details about the convention, visit the Convention homepage
To contribute to the discussion, visit the Convention Discussion webpage

30th National Convention, Communist Party USA
Chicago | June 13-15, 2014


Related Party Voices Articles

For democracy. For equality. For socialism. For a sustainable future and a world that puts people before profits. Join the Communist Party USA today.

Join Now

We are a political party of the working class, for the working class, with no corporate sponsors or billionaire backers. Join the generations of workers whose generosity and solidarity sustains the fight for justice.

Donate Now

CPUSA Mailbag

If you have any questions related to CPUSA, you can ask our experts
  • QHow does the CPUSA feel about the current American foreign...
  • AThanks for a great question, Conlan.  CPUSA stands for peace and international solidarity, and has a long history of involvement...
Read More
Ask a question
See all Answer