You Can’t Use Weatherman To Show Which Way The Wind Blew: The Unfinished History Of the New Left; Participatory Democracy, Marxism, and the Goal of a Democratic Constitution

Author: Gil Schaeffer

I was a member of Students for a Democratic Society at Princeton from 1967-1970 and of the Revolutionary Union in Oakland from 1970-1975. email

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  1. I was referred here by your recent marxmail posting and enjoyed reading your paper this weekend. Three interrelated themes run through the paper, in my reading of it: First, you consider the nature of a constitution of a democratic republic; the second theme is a history of the New Left, including how members of Students for a Democratic Society viewed democracy and what they missed; the third Lenin’s apparent change of emphasis on democracy before and after the October Revolution.

    Regarding Leninism, I was with Louis Proyect, whom you mention in the paper, when he decided to quit the SWP in 1978. I left then, too, and thought there was something wrong with either Leninism or the SWP’s implementation of it. So my interest was piqued by your conclusion that something changed after 1917 in Lenin’s advocacy of democracy. The effects of the Civil War, War Communism, and Thermidor certainly kept the soviet republic under siege. Your paper might do more to illustrate the before and after statements by Lenin on democracy and consider why this change occurred after WWI.

    Your paper notes that neither Lenin nor Luxemburg lived in democratic nation states prior to WWI, and their respective SDPs included demands for national democracy in their programs. As you noted, Marx and Engels did the same with regard to the Chartist Movement. Despite what they wrote, however, is it possible that the demand for a democratic republic was merely a tactic to mobilize the working classes against aristocratic rulers and set the stage for confronting the emerging capitalist rulers? Or was it a strategy, as I think you argue, that leading Marxists up to Lenin and 1917 saw democracy as intrinsic to Marxist theory and practice? I think you established your point, however, that generations of Marxists after 1917 did not critique the constitutions of their respective nations or formulate democratic demands related to them – apart from participating and leading movements to expand democratic rights such as the US Civil Rights movement. And the New Left shared this blind-spot, in your telling.

    Before reading your paper, I thought of these western constitutions simply as bourgeois constitutions that, according to Marx, would be replaced to form socialist republics during the transitional period. You reminded me that democracy in Marxism builds on the US American Revolution and the French Revolution. Certainly, Cannon and others saw this as part of the left SP tradition that they passed down a long time ago. Marxist thought on democracy could stand some updating. I think that national, regional and international constitutions are a worthy focus and enjoyed reading your paper.

    thanks, Mark

    PS. Regarding “democracy,” have you considered defining your use of the word? Your paper lists the major deficiencies of US “democracy,” but the US has polluted the word to the extent that it might help to state what it is and what it ain’t. Can you have true democracy (e.g. political equality) without economic equality? To what extent can you political equality in capitalist countries? Is Denmark as good as Bernie says it is?


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