*This is reblogged from Marxists.org. It is by Murray Bookchin, originally published in 1969. When I first came across this in the 1990s, I have to admit it didn’t speak to me all that much. But now I’m finding it very timely. Much is different now, but much is evidently similar as well. Let’s not forget the hard, confusing lessons of the 20th century. To contextualize this a bit, Murray Bookchin was very much influenced by Marxism in his theories. In fact, as far as his philosophy is concerned, is is certainly within the tradition of Marx and Marxism. Politically, Bookchin was not a Marxist. He articulated in outline a vision for the ideal society that he called “libertarian municipalism,” which involved sustainability, decentralization, and participatory democracy.
**I snagged the photo of the cover of the old pamphlet from Robert Graham’s Anarchism Weblog.
All the old crap of the thirties is coming back again—the shit about the “class line,” the “role of the working class,” the “trained cadres,” the “vanguard party,” and the “proletarian dictatorship.” It’s all back again, and in a more vulgarized form than ever. The Progressive Labor Party is not the only example, it is merely the worst. One smells the same shit in various offshoots of SDS, and in the Marxist and Socialist clubs on campuses, not to speak of the Trotskyist groups, the International Socialist Clubs, and Youth Against War and Fascism.
In the thirties, at least it was understandable. The United States was paralyzed by a chronic economic crisis, the deepest and longest in its history. The only living forces that seemed to be battering at the walls of capitalism were the great organizing drives of the CIO, with their dramatic sit-down strikes, their radical militancy, and their bloody clashes with the police. The political atmosphere throughout the entire world was charged by the electricity of the Spanish Civil War, the last of the classical workers’ revolutions, when every radical sect in the American left could identify with its own militia columns in Madrid and Barcelona. That was thirty years ago. It was a time when anyone who cried out “Make love, not war” would have been regarded as a freak; the cry then was “Make jobs, not war”—the cry of an age burdened by scarcity, when the achievement of socialism entailed “sacrifices” and a “transition period” to an economy of material abundance. To an eighteen-year-old kid in 1937 the very concept of cybernation would have seemed like the wildest science fiction, a fantasy comparable to visions of space travel. That eighteen-year-old kid has now reached fifty years of age, and his roots are planted in an era so remote as to differ qualitatively from the realities of the present period in the United States. Capitalism itself has changed since then, taking on increasingly statified forms that could be anticipated only dimly thirty years ago. And now we are being asked to go back to the “class line,” the “strategies,” the “cadres” and the organizational forms of that distant period in almost blatant disregard of the new issues and possibilities that have emerged.
When the hell are we finally going to create a movement that looks to the future instead of to the past? When will we begin to learn from what is being born instead of what is dying? Marx, to his lasting credit, tried to do that in his own day; he tried to evoke a futuristic spirit in the revolutionary movement of the 1840s and 1850s. “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” he wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
“And just when they seem to be engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something entirely new, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther donned the mask of the Apostle Paul, the revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the revolution of 1848 knew nothing better than to parody, in turn, 1789 and the tradition of 1793 to 1795. … The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past. … In order to arrive at its content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead. There the phrase went beyond the content; here the content goes beyond the phrase.”
Is the problem any different today, as we approach the twenty-first century? Once again the dead are walking in our midst—ironically, draped in the name of Marx, the man who tried to bury the dead of the nineteenth century. So the revolution of our own day can do nothing better than parody, in turn, the October Revolution of 1917 and the civil war of 1918-1920, with its “class line,” its Bolshevik Party, its “proletarian dictatorship,” its puritanical morality, and even its slogan, “soviet power.” The complete, all-sided revolution of our own day that can finally resolve the historic “social question,” born of scarcity, domination and hierarchy, follows the tradition of the partial, the incomplete, the one-sided revolutions of the past, which merely changed the form of the “social question,” replacing one system of domination and hierarchy by another. At a time when bourgeois society itself is in the process of disintegrating all the social classes that once gave it stability, we hear the hollow demands for a “class line.” At a time when all the political institutions of hierarchical society are entering a period of profound decay, we hear the hollow demands for a “political party” and a “workers’ state.” At a time when hierarchy as such is being brought into question, we hear the hollow demands for “cadres,” “vanguards” and “leaders.” At a time when centralization and the state have been brought to the most explosive point of historical negativity, we hear the hollow demands for a “centralized movement” and a “proletarian dictatorship.”
This pursuit of security in the past, this attempt to find a haven in a fixed dogma and an organizational hierarchy as substitutes for creative thought and praxis is bitter evidence of how little many revolutionaries are capable of “revolutionizing themselves and things,” much less of revolutionizing society as a whole. The deep-rooted conservatism of the PLP “revolutionaries” is almost painfully evident; the authoritarian leader and hierarchy replace the patriarch and the school bureaucracy; the discipline of the Movement replaces the discipline of bourgeois society; the authoritarian code of political obedience replaces the state; the credo of “proletarian morality” replaces the mores of puritanism and the work ethic. The old substance of exploitative society reappears in new forms, draped in a red flag, decorated by portraits of Mao (or Castro or Che) and adorned with the little “Red Book” and other sacred litanies…