Of all the tens of thousands of memes that have crossed my newsfeed on Facebook, one of my most favorite is this: “Leadership is not wielding authority. It is empowering people.”
In 1883, Karl Marx wrote a letter to Jules Guesde, organizer of the French Workers Party (Parti Ouvrier Français in French), and his own son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, the party’s leading theorist, accusing them of “revolutionary phrase-mongering” for their opposition to “reformism”. It included his famous statement that “if this is Marxism, all I can say is that I am not a Marxist”.
The origin of this dispute was the Programme of the French Workers Party drafted in London in 1880 by Marx, Guesde, Lafargue, and Friedrich Engels. Marx wrote the programme’s preamble, or maximum section, while all four collaborated on the following political and economic sections of the document, which were together known as the minimum section. Marx and Engels were especially proud of the economic section, which Marx in particular praised it as deriving from the demands of the proletariat themselves which were closely achievable goals on the way to a full revolution while Engels recommended it to the German Social Democratic Party in his 1891 Critique of the Erfurt Programme.
As a whole, the Programme of the French Workers Party is notable in socialist literature for its brevity and clarity. It can be found in its entirety on the Marxist Internet Archive under the name “Programme of the Parti Ouvrier”.
The dispute between Marx and his two French proteges arose three years after the document’s drafting when the latter two disdained both parts of the minimum section as “reformism”, referring to its principles as mere bait to lure the working-class away from Radicalism movement. Radicalism in this case is the general name by which the left opposition movement of French republicans has been known since the constitutional July Monarchy of Louis Phillipe I. He came to power in 1830 after his Orleanists overthrew the House of Bourbon which had been restored after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814. His government made it illegal for political parties to call themselves “republican”, so the former “republicans” adopted the moniker “radical” from the Brits. The movement’s current incarnation is the Union of Democrats and Independents.
It would be fair and accurate to describe the self-proclaimed Marxist but actually anti-Marx positions of Guesde and Lafargue as “proto-Leninist”, since Lenin followed their ideology of using democratic and human rights demands of the working class as bait to lure in its members for his and his faction’s own ends.
Leninism and all its offshoots and derivatives—Trotskyism, Zinovievism, Stalinism, Maoism, Fidelism, Dengism, Prachanda Path, Hoxhaism, Titoism—directly descend not so much from the ideology of Marx and Engels as from the “revolutionary phrase-mongering” of the two who wrongly claimed to be their heirs. Engels chosen heir, in fact, was Karl Kautsky. Kautskyism Luxemburgism, and council communism are the only legitimate branches of actual Marxism.
Kautsky, unfortunately, originated the doctrine of vanguardism, a departure from Marx and Engels, which Lenin corrupted for his own purposes, its origin giving his mutated, anti-democratic ideas legitimacy. Kautsky also popularized the term Marxism for his ideas in direct opposition to his own mentor’s wishes, largely in opposition to the revisionist Eduard Bernstein, who also began to use the term afterward. Engels, in fact, strongly opposed the designation on the grounds that his and Marx’s philosophy should not be a personality cult.
I always think of the term “revolutionary phrase-mongering” when I encounter self-proclaimed leftist revolutionaries of any of the Leninist brands denouncing all types of reformism, even that advocated by the man in whose name they claim to speak. To them, Marx—who sided with imperial capitalism against the slavocracy of the American South and supported the Young Ireland nationalists—would not count as a “true Marxist” in the same way that Dragging Canoe would not qualify for any of the three federally-recognized Cherokee tribes because his father was born Nipissing and his mother was of the Natchez.
In the same vein, that phrase comes to mind when those same type people and their fellow-travelling pundits and intellectuals defend such authoritarian figures in Southwest Asia and North Africa as Mohammed Morsi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and, lately, Bashar al-Assad, all in the name of a false anti-imperialism. When they denounce the White Hats in Syria as false flags or victims of Syrian regime atrocities, Russian bombings, and Iranian attacks as paid actors, they remind me of right-wing pundits in the United States, or its current president, condemning victims of mass shootings the same way, as paid actors. They share the same lack of morality and truthfulness.
To the revolutionary phrase-mongering pseudo-Left, the only paradigm that counts is East vs. West, which, among other things, ignores the North-South paradigm. In addition to lack of insincerity and lack of authenticity, this tendency stems from an archaic hangover from the Cold War. To these people, every act of the West is born out of imperialism and neocolonialism while those of whomever claims to act against the West acts are always acts of liberation. As well as archaic, this point-of-view is itself neocolonialist since it erases the native voices of the people in whose name they claim to speak.
In truth, though, these people do not speak in the name of any of those people but in the name of the governments oppressing them. Their approach flips the meme I praised at the start of this piece from “Leadership is not wielding authority; it is empowering people” to “Leadership is not empowering people; it is wielding authority”, because wielding authority, and power, their own authority and their own power, is all that they are about.
One of the best pieces I’ve read on this aspect of the civil wars in Syria is called ‘The anti-imperialism of idiots’ by Leila Al Shami, published on her blog. I highly recommend it. At its end, Leila writes: “I won’t lose any sleep over targeted strikes aimed at regime military bases and chemical weapons plants which may provide Syrians with a short respite from the daily killing. And I will never see people who place grand narratives over lived realities, who support brutal regimes in far off countries, or who peddle racism, conspiracy theories, and atrocity denial, as allies.”