Of Saviors and Liquidators: V. I. Lenin, Alvaro Cunhal, Sam Webb.

On Coping with a Political Defeat

Certain Features of the Historical Development of Marxism is a work of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In it he dealt with the consequences of the defeat of the first Russian revolution of 1905.  At that time, many party members (including many recently enrolled intellectuals) left the revolutionary party in droves. Soon after that, the farewell to Marxism, which we too experienced in 1989-1991, became the fashion.

As a reflection of this change there occurred profound disintegration, confusion, shaking and swaying of all sorts – in a word, there appeared a very serious internal crisis of Marxism. The resolute defense against this decay, the determined and persistent struggle for the basics of Marxism, again came on the agenda.

That was Lenin’s diagnosis.

It was — and still is — important for us German Communists to examine what conclusions other Communist parties later drew from the defeat of socialism in Europe and the USSR.

First of all, I think about the leadership of the Communist Party of Cuba, which had already adjusted to this disaster before the shameful end of Mikhail Gorbachev who drove to ruin Soviet socialism, his country, and his party. Cuba — the country and the Communist Party – understood this: the harsh “drought” of the Special Period would govern the 1990s and early 2000s. Without its revolutionary, Marxist-Leninist character, the Communist Party of Cuba would have given up its socialist goal.

Self-awareness or Self-doubt?

I recall one Communist leader, prominent but, unfortunately, less noted in Germany , Alvaro Cunhal (1913-2005), the longtime general secretary of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). At the time of the fascist Salazar dictatorship, Cunhal’s underground  struggle, his inspiring and mobilizing role during and after the 1974 victory of the “Carnation Revolution,” as well as his shrewd leadership, are legendary.

The advance of the socialist stage of the revolutionary upheaval in Portugal was stopped by the united and coordinated actions of U.S. imperialism, NATO, the EU, the main European imperialist states, international social democracy, and domestic reaction.

Thanks to his personal resourcefulness, Cunhal embarked upon a strategic retreat. With a party united by a Marxist-Leninist program, he achieved the preservation of the PCP and its mass influence. He developed its clear profile, which it keeps today, as a revolutionary party of the working class, peasants and other working people.

To this day, his conclusions about the character of a Communist Party at the beginning of the 21st century are well worth reading. In his 2001 work, As Seis de Caracteristicas Fundamentais do Partido Comunista (The Six Basic Features of a Communist Party) Cunhal goes into the internal situation of the Communist movement at the beginning of the 21st century. He writes:

The international Communist movement, and the parties from which it is made up, were subject to profound changes as a the result of the collapse of the USSR and other socialist countries and capitalism’s success in its rivalry with socialism. There were parties who denied their militant past, their class nature, the goal of a socialist society, and revolutionary theory. In some cases, they were transformed into system-integrated parties, and they eventually disappeared from the scene.

In 2011 as well, this finding is relevant and correct.

Features of a Communist Party

The Communist movement as a whole – Cunhal went on – has achieved flexibility in its composition and reached new limits. Admittedly, though there is no model of a Communist Party, nonetheless “six basic features can reveal a Communist party, regardless of whether the party bears that name or another.

Briefly, their traits could include:

1. To be a party completely independent of the interests, ideology, pressure and threats of capitalist forces;

2. To be a party of the working class, the working people, in general, the exploited and oppressed;

3. To be a party with a democratic internal life and a unified central leadership;

4. To be a party which is both internationalist and which defends the interests of its country;

5. To be a party that defines its goal as the building of a society which knows neither exploited nor exploiters, a socialist society;

6. To be the bearer of a revolutionary theory, the theory of Marxism-Leninism, which not only makes the explanation of the world possible, but also shows the way to change it.

In its simplicity and plainness, the last point sounds like it is of little interest, just as the other five points appear to include too little that is new. And yet these “self-evident truths” are not self-evident truths – not even for Communists. But more of that later.

Classics Taken at their Word

Cunhal made available to us the following explanation for his six points. It is cited here, in more detail, because of its uniqueness and distinctiveness:

All the slanderous, punishing, anti-Communist campaigns are lies. Marxism-Leninism is a living, anti-dogmatic, dialectical, creative theory, which is further enriched by practice and by its responses to new situations and phenomena, which is its job. It drives the practice of enrichment and development, dynamically and creatively using the lessons of practice.

Marx in Capital and Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto analyzed and defined the basic elements and characteristics of capitalism.

In the second half of the 19th century, however, the development of capitalism underwent an important amendment. Competition led to concentration and monopoly. We owe to Lenin and his work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism the definition of capitalism at the end of the 19th century. These theoretical developments are of exceptional value. And the value of research and systematization of theoretical knowledge is rated as high.

In a synthesis of extraordinary clarity and rigor, a famous article by Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism explains it. In the philosophy of dialectical materialism, historical materialism is its application to society. Political economy is the analysis and explanation of capitalism and exploitation, and the theory of surplus value is the cornerstone for understanding exploitation. The theory of socialism is the definition of the new society, the abolition of exploitation of man by man.

During the 20th century and the social transformations accompanying it, much new theoretical thinking was added. However, there also was scattered and contradictory thinking which made it difficult to distinguish what is theoretical development and where it is a question of revisionist deviation from principles. Hence the urgent need for debate without preconceptions and without making truths absolute. It’s not about the search for conclusions deemed to be final, but rather the intensification of joint reflection.” Quoted from: www.kommunisten.ch

Cunhal is now dead six years. His party, the PCP, however, considers him not an idol on a pedestal, a “historical figure” whose thoughts and ideas slowly but gradually have been forgotten. Today, his theoretical and programmatic conclusions determine the path and self-understanding of the PCP. But, unfortunately, it is quite different elsewhere.

On Slippery Ground

The current example of this is the thinking of the chairman of the CPUSA, Sam Webb. Political Affairs, the theoretical organ of his party, published in February this year under the title: “A Party of Socialism in the 21st Century: What It Looks Like, What It Says, and What It Does.” It has now appeared in German on the news portal of the German Communist Party’s website,  www.kommunisten.de

Why are Webb’s theses of interest beyond the CPUSA?

For example, why did the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), despite the demands of the controversies and class struggles raging in that country, to which it devotes so much energy and combativeneness, send a really dramatic appeal To the members and cadres of the Communist Party USA! To U.S. militant workers! It was also addressed to all the Communist and Workers’ Parties, “in order to protest against these theses.”

And now, why do German Communists deal with the Webb theses too?

Sam Webb stressed at the beginning of his 29 theses, each different in detail and very different in theoretical significance, that he was on slippery ground. The publisher of the theoretical journal of the CPUSA, Political Affairs, also knew well what he was getting involved with by posting it. The preface that introduces the article makes this clear.

The following article represents only the views of its author. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the official views of any organization or collective…

And Sam Webb, too,  seemed to suspect, that there would be some critics reading his theses who would be reminded of the old proverb whereby the overconfident donkey will go out onto the ice and dance, i.e., take unreasonable risks.

At least this would apply to those who judge mental capers not by their intricate originality and self-circling conclusions, but rather by the donkey’s ability to keep its balance and pursue a course that will give meaning to its (political) acrobatics.

Apparently, to avoid such criticisms, Webb emphasized in the introduction that it was a “draft,” an unfinished manuscript, and that “readers will surely note inconsistencies, contradictions, silences and unfinished ideas.”

This is all too ostentatious modesty, and the ensuing fishing for compliments belies the altogether clear and complete implications of the theses.

Communists without Lenin

In the end Sam Webb delivers a very consistent idea, although it is not original. A letter in the German Communist Party weekly Unsere Zeit has already pointed out:

What is so exciting, new and important for us in these theses of Comrade Webb…? I cannot see it. Readers of Marxistische Blaetter already read and evaluated the core of his “Reflections on Socialism” in mid-2008 (In Focus: International Marxism, March 2008). And in our party, since the mid to late 1980s, we have discussed other theories (for example, the reduction of Marxism to a mere method, or the orientation to a “Marxism without Lenin.” Not only did we do this thoroughly, but we developed collective responses crowned with a new party program’. Lothar Geisler, “Theses Not New,” Unsere Zeit, July 1, 2011, p. 12)

In fact, most of the 29 theses do not contain much that is new. Though he writes of merely one in the article mentioned in Marxistische Blaetter from 2008, in its approaches, the quixotic intellectual journey already discernible in 2008 continues, but it now ends as a break with central points of Communist theory — socialism, and the doctrine of the Party. He runs aground on the shoals of a left–pluralist Marxism; or the earlier “Eurocommunism,” or the current democratic socialism of the German Left Party,European Left, respectively.

I mention particularly the rejection of the theory of Marx, Engels and Lenin as a unified, revolutionary theory of the working class.

What is original here is a hitherto less well-known chauvinistic undertone. As noted in his Thesis #2:

As for “Marxism-Leninism,” the term should be retired in favor of simply “Marxism.” For one thing, it has a negative connotation among ordinary Americans, even in left and progressive circles. Depending on whom you ask, it either sounds foreign or dogmatic or undemocratic or all of these together.

Granted, Lenin was no Russian exile finding safety in the U.S., taking out U.S. citizenship, and Americanizing his first or last name – perhaps to Sam Cook or Sam Smith.

But do ordinary Americans deem Karl Marx to be a fellow American?

And does Marxism really sound so terrifically American, that perhaps Sarah Palin herself, the icon of ordinary Americans, understands by Marxism a sweetness and innocence, causing her patriotic sentiment to peal like a church bell?


So the real test awaits Jim and Jane, ordinary Americans.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth comes to my mind, with its sigh, almost a curse:

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But the meaning of Webb’s theses is more than noisy fury.

We long-suffering European Communists are quite accustomed to this counterposing of Marx and Lenin, and the elimination of the latter from what is coyly called “Marxism” or – even more subtly – “scientific socialism.”

A Diminished Picture of History

In the early 1980s, the German Communist Party grappled intensively with a forerunner of today’s “Webbism,” the idea of a Western “plural” Marxism, and a Marxism without Leninism. It arose in the study and seminar rooms of the West Berlin professor Wolfgang Fritz Haug.

At the same time, the highly relevant Marxist journal Argument was being published (compare Marxism. Ideology. Politics. Crisis of Marxism, or Crisis of the Argument? Frankfurt am Main, 1984. Editors: Hans Heinz Holz, Thomas Metscher, Joseph Schleifstein, and Robert Steigerwald.)

The second argument pushed by Webb for the amputation of Marxism-Leninism is even less original. And it is no less wrong. Back then it was also formulated by the Haug school. Allegedly, Marxism-Leninism is not “classical Marxism.”

Sam Webb’s allegation of “simplification” of the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and other early Marxists in the form of “Marxism-Leninism” in the Stalin era is simply wrong.

In the Soviet Communist Party and the Communist International, after the death of Lenin and long before the nonsensical enthronement of Stalin as the “one true disciple of Lenin,” acknowledgement began of Lenin as the third classical author of Marxism.

The careful processing, safeguarding and development of Lenin’s theoretical legacy by many CPSU and Comintern theorists is hidden by the Webb theses in a way that ignores history.

The general assertion that “Soviet scientists under Stalin’s leadership systematized and simplified earlier Marxist writing,” not to mention adapting it to the needs of Soviet state ideology, is nothing more than repetition of the old anti-Soviet slogans.

There were, in the course of seventy years of Soviet party history and scientific history, numerous introductions to the academic and theoretical papers of Marx, Engels and Lenin. They were simplifications, just as in any scientific discipline there is simplification in all introductions, compendia, and so forth. They are merely introductions.

In no way was there systematic falsification of the inheritance. Even in the post-socialist era, the collected works of classical authors have still not finally emerged. This does not change the fact that, in a few texts of Lenin, there also was one or another politically motivated "editorial reworking” or omission, although this was justified and made transparent.

It is not true that Marxism-Leninism was — or is — an impoverished,simplified version of the true Marxism.

Certainly there was and is, in every theory and in all science, phases of greater or lesser creativity and development. And undoubtedly there was and will be future phases, just as in any scientific doctrine, in which revolutionary Marxists/Communists do not evaluate promptly new social and/or natural scientific phenomena. Or they do so too late. Or in a way that is only partly correct. In general, it is the nature of science that it moves in a contradictory manner between faster and slower stages of development.

Webb’s more far-reaching conclusion is that even what he designates as his new “Marxism” is only a “scientific method.”

He thinks his altogether limited and schematic scientific-theoretical view surpasses the comprehensive legacy of the three classic founders of Marxism-Leninism.

A “method” which brings to light no apparent content, is worthless. And in the thesis of Sam Webb, the method goes straight to this “new-old” distinction and the rejection of content.

A German Version of Webb?

After the defeat of real socialism, the Left could not fail to weigh its previous relationship with Lenin and Leninism. The PDS [Party of Democratic Socialism] originating in a Marxist-Leninist party did this too. It broke with its Leninist heritage. In May 1990 at a closed meeting of the former PDS Executive Board, Gregor Gysi spoke about the new theoretical basis of his reform-socialism-turned-political-party. In this context, he explained both the departure from Marxism-Leninism and the move to an “ideologically pluralistic” party in which the Communist component would enjoy only a marginal existence, tolerated and allowed.

Thus far the statements by Sam Webb are nothing new. The same applies to his “new” concepts of organizational theory. They are in theory 27 ideas presented to remodel the party structure into an informal communication network, mainly Internet-based, whose members interact with each other primarily via e-mail.

Abolition of the unity principle and the commitment to the party program and decisions amounts to a vote for the open liquidation of the Communist Party.

Reassuring evidence that the huge distances between widely scattered individual U.S. Communists absolutely requires use of modern means of communication, in this context, is not completely convincing.

It’s clear Webb doesn’t mean to modernize the lines of communication. Such modernization, of course, is useful and necessary.

This is about something entirely different: the liquidation of a strong organizational structure, clear criteria for party membership, a common collectively developed program, binding revolutionary strategy and tactics, and in general decisions grounding the party in the working class, in working people, in the revolutionary youth and among oppressed women, in production enterprises and scientific institutions, and in the intelligentsia worn out by capital.

He also thinks joining this structure existing only in cyberspace should be slapdash – “no more difficult than joining other social organizations.” This is a logical consequence of the destruction of a party once in political struggle against the capitalist system – a party consisting of real, like-minded people coordinated with each other. The party is downgraded to a loose, small electoral force primarily concentrating on the support of the election campaigns of the Democratic Party.

Sam Webb has still provided the remnants of a party. “Teams” will be traveling around as “meet and greet” and support groups.

This is nothing more than window dressing.

Does the U.S. workers’ movement need such a party? I doubt it very much. But it has to decide for itself.

In any case, German Communists do not need it. Nor do we need an “open-ended and interesting” discussion of this plea for the end of Marxism-Leninism and the Communist Party.

We have better and more important things to do.

Dr. Hans-Peter Brenner, a psychologist and psychotherapist, is a member of the national leadership of the German Communist Party and co-editor of Marxistische Blaetter. This article appeared July 9, 2011 in Junge Welt, a Marxist daily newspaper published in Berlin.


Unabridged translation by Bill Miller