Labor historian Paul Le Blanc is the author of more than 20 books and has served as an editor of the eight-volume International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest (2009) and of the Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg (begun in 2013). Le Blanc has more than half a century of activist experience in social movements and is an internationally recognized scholar of working-class history and revolutionary politics.
In this interview, Le Blanc discusses the radicalization process that he sees unfolding in the United States today and possible revolutionary strategies for the future.
Vaios Triantafyllou: Given the current shape of the left in the United States and in Europe, do you think that it is possible to build a revolutionary movement that is conscious of its demands and tactics? What would the role of the vanguard of the working class be in this process, and how would spontaneity be nurtured into consciousness?
Paul LeBlanc: I think that, as you said, there is this broad radicalization that is taking place internationally … with large numbers of people not accepting the status quo, challenging the status quo, reacting against the status quo (which is a capitalist status quo)…. All of this does create circumstances for the coming together of a substantial left-wing force in American politics, and I think the same thing has happened in various other countries. There is nothing automatic about that. It may not be realized, but possibilities exist now that haven’t existed for years in this country for that kind of left-wing development.
I want to talk more about both the word vanguard and the word working class, because they are both so important.
The working class is comprised of people who are selling their ability to work for a paycheck. The great majority of people are working class, but this [category is internally] very diverse. It’s diverse in different ways: it’s racially diverse, it’s age diverse, it’s gender diverse, etc. But it is diverse in a different way, as well. There are certain layers of the working class that are conscious of various problems, are developing ideas on what those problems are, are developing ideas on what should be done, are starting to engage in struggles to bring about changes for the better … when I talk about the vanguard, that’s what I’m talking about.
Things are very different today compared to 1917…. Things have changed, but not everything has changed. So, the question is: Can we find lessons and insights from the earlier experience [of revolutionary uprising] that are relevant to our experience?
One question is: What is meant by spontaneity? If I am guided by a left-wing organization and doing things on behalf of the organization, that’s not necessarily spontaneous. If, on the other hand, I (along with my friends, and neighbors and workmates, and so forth) react against something bad that is happening, trying to do something about it, that could be considered spontaneous.
The thing about that kind of spontaneity, though, is that I am influenced by what others have done. For example, some of my thinking is influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, some of my thinking is influenced by what happened with the labor movement (my parents were part of the trade union movement), and so on and so forth.
The fact is that there were left-wing organizations in the past, organizations that shared ideas, that engaged in action, that spread ideas of socialism and human rights and the socialist perspective that all of us have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — not just politically, but economically. I have soaked that in, and some of my neighbors and workmates may have soaked that in. We don’t know exactly where it came from, but it came from the larger political struggles and culture of previous times and that were influenced by left-wing organizations.
The kind of process that I envision, the kind of process that has been taking place and will continue to take place, is this interplay between organization and spontaneity, the interplay between left-wing groups that may be competing with each other but which also are all contributing to the larger ferment. There is an interplay of such groups with the thinking and actions of people who are reacting to their experience, as it develops under the present stage of capitalist development.
There are several movements that engage in one-issue campaigning. Many people fighting for these rights are liberals opposing socialist principles. How can socialists engage in such campaigns alongside liberals?
There are some liberals who have an anti-socialist perspective, because although they may understand what socialism is, they just believe it won’t work, and therefore they support capitalism. In fact, the majority of people in this country don’t self-identify as socialists. How do you work with them? How do you win them to socialism?
You can’t win them simply by giving them a damn good book, or a leaflet, or by having a series of conversations with them. That may influence their thinking but it won’t win them to socialism. They have to win themselves to socialism, in large measure through their own experience, and discussions that we have will be part of the chemistry of that. But there has to be a certain experience through which the idea of socialism makes sense. Now one thing that is helpful in this is capitalism, and the way it is functioning right now is horrible….
There are many people like Al Gore who now favor single-payer health care, just like Gore is in favor of fighting against climate change, although on the matter of being in favor of capitalism, I would imagine Gore has not changed his mind on that. But I can work in a united front with Al Gore and people like him around an issue. We can build a united front around an issue, agree to disagree on questions of socialism and all kinds of other things, but unite on the issue that we agree on, build enough of a coalition to win the battle. Now, in that struggle, any socialist worth his or her salt will be connecting that to the idea of socialism and to the need for socialism…. We talk, we share ideas, we do good work, and we show that these socialists are good people and good activists, that they do good work, that they have interesting ideas. This is how we will build a socialist consciousness and a socialist movement, not just by giving people a pamphlet to read or giving a speech, but by this practical experience through struggle, through united front campaigns around specific issues.
Do you believe that some principles that govern modern representative Western democracies, such as separation of powers, would still be applicable to a socialist democracy? If not, what would be the “checks and balances” and how would a bureaucratic abuse of power be prevented?
Those are crucial questions. You make a reference to bureaucracy, and with this we have a cluster of questions that anyone who is seriously thinking about socialism has to wrestle with. I want to focus on that in a moment.
We don’t have a clear model of socialism because there has never been a socialist society in the way that I define socialism. There have been societies and countries with governments that define themselves as socialist, but these have generally been dictatorships, some of them terrible, some of them not as terrible, but still dictatorships, not genuinely democratic and therefore not genuinely socialist.
What would socialism look like? Marx, unlike many of the so-called utopian socialists, didn’t draw any blueprints of what the future society should look like. The utopian Charles Fourier, for example, drew up elaborate, fascinating blueprints. One of the reasons Marx didn’t draw any blueprints is that he saw socialism as organically blended with democracy and with the majority class that was coming into being — the working class. Therefore, he didn’t want to be some kind of dictator over the working class, with his own plans and his own blueprint to superimpose on the future society. Rather, the future society is something that needs to be worked out by the people of that society — the working-class majority that is going to shape the socialist society. There are some general principles that Marx articulated. But not blueprints on the exact structure of the economy, or the exact structure of the government. Also, it is impossible to know when and where the revolution is going to happen and what the actual conditions are going to be. So, part of your blueprint might not be relevant to the actualities of that situation. So, Marx’s reluctance about blueprints is valid.
On the other hand, when there was a working-class uprising in Paris, creating the Paris Commune of 1871, there were specific organizational structures that crystallized. Engels afterwards said, “Hey, you want to see the dictatorship of the proletariat? That’s it!” Marx wrote a pamphlet explaining the structure of the Paris Commune and said that’s what we want. That structure involved a certain degree of representative democracy; that is, there were representatives elected to help oversee things, there was a multiparty situation, there was a lot of control by the people over their representatives, you didn’t have a government so far above the people that the people couldn’t control it. All the people in the government were not paid more than a well-paid worker in society, so that there was a close interplay between the genuinely democratic government and the people. Marx and Engels said that’s the kind of thing we should look for.
In my opinion, the transition to socialism will require some kind of representative democracy, at least in much of our political and economic life. Not all of us are in a position to be focusing all of our energy and all of our attention to making sure that the right decisions are made all the time on various complex issues. That has to be delegated to people who we elect, control and trust. That means representative democracy. There needs to be representative democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of organization, freedom to put forward alternatives to the existing policies, whether they are political or economic. There need to be “checks and balances.” The interests of the workers at the workplace are not necessarily fully consistent with government that seeks to represent the general interests of society as a whole. This means that workers need to have some say over what is happening at work — that is a check….
Socialism will require a certain amount of pluralism, and checks and balances can be valuable. The transition period can be chaotic, so there will be a need to determine what is the line of authority, but there have to be various ways for people to express their opinions and discontent and to push for a different balance from what the balance has come to be in a community or workplace. There will be different parties or organizations with different values or plans that they will push for and try to win others to. That is essential for genuine socialism to work. If there is only one party, with one leadership and one program, you can’t have socialism or democracy.
I think that a transition to socialism should be seen in that way. But at the same time, you are talking about people’s lives: food, clothing, shelter. You can’t wait 20 years to get certain things right. There are going to have to be certain things done immediately or in the short-term. Certain basic things need to be guaranteed to everyone as a matter of right, and therefore there is a certain matter of central planning that needs to be implemented right away. Everyone should have a right to good health care, everyone, as soon as possible should have the right to a decent home, everyone should have food — at least a basic, decent diet; there needs to be a decent transit system.
While certain centrally implemented policies will be required from the beginning, it seems to me within such central implementation there have to be checks and balances and democratic expression. Beyond providing for the basic needs, there is greater room for testing alternative policies — we can try one thing or another thing and see what happens. What role can the market play that would be positive? Marxists debate that today. But, there has to be an openness, pluralism, a democracy if we are going to get to socialism.
It seems like a central planning of the economy is a very demanding task, most probably demanding a very sophisticated system, or structures, to translate the concept “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs” from meaningless jargon to a much-needed actuality. Is it possible to create such a blueprint in advance, or is this something that will be developed in the process as you mentioned above? Was there such a plan in the case of the Russian Revolution?
First of all, it seems to me that as we build an effective, large socialist movement that is struggling for power, through reform efforts and people’s assemblies, through trade unions, and through our own political party with running candidates, we must have a program. We won’t have everything mapped out and blueprinted, but there are certain proposals that we should make. Some of them will involve central planning, as I have already indicated: Everyone should get food, clothing, shelter; everyone should get health care and education; there should be mass transit; there must be preservation of a livable environment — these will be part of the program. There are limited resources, and this has to factored into the program, so we cannot promise everything to everyone. There are a lot more resources than there appear to be, because they are monopolized and used wastefully by those who control the economy now. But even if there is a democratization of the economy, there will be limitations and urgent needs. So, built into the actual struggles there have to be program proposals that will be implemented if we take power.
There has also to be an understanding that there will be a transitional period. In the Communist Manifesto, if you take a good look at it, Marx and Engels talk about the development of democracy within the larger economy. They don’t see the transition as an immediate establishment of a socialist economy. As the working class takes power, there will be more and more policies that erode, undermine and ultimately replace capitalism. What that means is that we are not talking about an immediate transition to socialism, and Lenin was aware that this was impossible in Russia, because you didn’t have the economic basis for that. Russia was an impoverished country. Socialism cannot be built on the basis of poverty, because then regardless of what is supposed to happen, people will be competing for scarce resources. Those that will get a little bit more power will be able to get more resources and push others down, and the same thing that has afflicted all class societies will start all over again. This was an idea developed by Marx, and it was keenly felt by Lenin and others: We cannot have socialism based on poverty.
Even in a more prosperous economy, there will have to be a transitional period, which means that there will still be a mixed economy, which means that there will still be capitalism. But there will be regulation of capitalism, the creation of public services that will be guaranteed, and public sectors of the economy. The new government must work to facilitate that with an array of organizations, pluralist organizations — community, city and factory-wide, as well as national entities — that are elected and controlled by the people, that will help push in this socialist economic direction. There will be controversies and there will inevitably be some chaos, as is natural in any political situation, certainly in one of revolutionary transition.
So, it will not be a simple process, and Lenin didn’t envision a simple process. But what he envisioned (and it turned out he was wrong, it didn’t work out this way) was the following: He came in with a plan and one aspect of it was workers’ control of the economy through trade unions and factory committees. This did not mean the workers taking over the factories (and there were workers who wanted to do that, and they put their bosses and managers in wheel barrels, rolled them out of the factories, and dumped them on the street). But what Lenin argued, and what the workers found out, was that they didn’t know how to run the factory yet. It’s one thing to make certain kinds of things in the factory, but then how do you connect it to the rest of the economy and run the economy? It is not a simple process.
And so, Lenin was assuming and hoping that an understanding could be worked out at least with many of the capitalists: they would continue to function, but workers would be watching, workers would be making sure the capitalists would not be cheating, workers would be learning more and more how this operates and eventually there could be a transition. That was the intention of “workers’ control” — the workers would know how to operate this part of the factory, connected to the other factories, and other parts of the economy, workers in conjunction with the central government, and a transition would take place. That was the original notion of how to make the transition.
Lenin was also aware that you cannot have a socialist economy in a single country, because what you had at that time (as well as today) was a global capitalist economy. So, you had an economic interdependence of various national economies, and for this socialist thing to work there would need to be working-class socialist revolutions in other countries as well, which is why Lenin and his comrades were helping to build the Communist International. That issue still is the case, I think, and poses a challenge for us.
But what happened after the Russian Revolution was that successful revolutions did not take place in other countries, and the Russian capitalists didn’t go along with their long-term extinction. As quickly as they could, they helped enemies of the revolution, they got out and tried to take back as much of their factories as they could (that’s why you need workers’ control, too, to stop them from doing that). The result was that the economy was prematurely nationalized. The workers didn’t know how to run the factories and the Communists didn’t know how to run the economy. So, while there was a premature attempt at very extensive central planning, all kinds of mistakes were made. This was taking place amidst a civil war, under the impact of World War I on the Russian economy, as well as under the impact of an economic blockade imposed by capitalist countries. So, you had a super-centralized situation that was destroying the early Soviet economy. As soon as the civil war basically was ended, Lenin and the majority of the Bolsheviks shifted back to the direction of a mixed economy, a New Economic Policy. They did it in many different ways, it’s interesting to look at it — they made mistakes, but some things they did were good, and they got the economy going again.
All of this may not be completely applicable to our situation. We don’t know what the situation is going to be. What we know is that there is going to be a transitional period, that there are going to be screw-ups, that certain balances could be established, that we need to go in aware that we are dealing with life and death issues, and therefore we have to have some initial plans in place.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.