Rises in the marble tomb
On guard with the fighters forever -
The world is our room!
- Langston Hughes, Ballad of Lenin
Lenin put American Communism on a hard scientific footing. Daniel Mason reports that "The interplay between Lenin and the United States was very extensive. Lenin had learned the English language early in his career and became an avid student of US economics, politics, education and social life." (He Changed The World! foreword to Lenin's Impact on the United States, edited by Daniel Mason and Jessica Smith, New World Review, NY, 1970)
Confusion and utopian schemes ruled during the wilderness years of the American Left. Lenin's writings and warm personal contact with US comrades swept away this discord. Early Party luminary William Z. Foster evokes the bombshell effect of Leninism on the course of his own political maturity: "after more than 20 years of intellectual groping about, I was at last, thanks to Lenin, getting my feet on firm revolutionary ground." (William Z, Foster, Pages from a Worker's Life, 1939, International Publishers)
William Z. Foster, yesteryear's fighting CPUSA National Chairman and lead organizer of 1919's Great Steel Strike, wrote eloquently in History of the Communist Party of the United States:
"Marxism-Leninism made its impact upon the American left Socialist movement not only by means of the practical example of the Russian Revolution and Lenin's major writings, but also by direct counsel from Lenin himself. Lenin knew the American situation profoundly and was deeply interested in it. He wrote a basic work on American agriculture, and twice he sent major political letters directly to the American working class - once, in 1916, in answer to a manifesto of the Socialist Propaganda League, and the second time in 1918, in his famous Letter to American Workers. Also, during the early years of the Communist International, Lenin often spoke about the 'American question.'
"The initial influence of Marxism-Leninism on American Marxist thinking was tremendous. Lenin provided the basic answers to many complicated problems of theory and practice which for decades past had confused and crippled the American Socialist movement. This clarification, besides acting with crushing effect upon the right-wing sophistries, also tended to liquidate the traditional sectarian errors of the left wing. Lenin exposed the De Leonite theories, syndicalist and sectarian, which had plagued and dominated the left wing ever since the death of Engels almost a quarter of a century earlier. Lenin provided a solid theoretical basis for the left's fight against Gompersism in the trade unions, and he also refuted the pseudo-Socialist pretenses of all sections of right-wing Social-Democracy - including its Bernsteinian and Kautskyan varieties. This had a clarifying and strengthening effect upon the American Marxist movement.
"Highly important from the American standpoint was Lenin's scientific analysis of imperialism. With powerful emphasis, Lenin pointed out the qualitative differences that develop within the whole structure of capitalism with the growth of monopoly. Previously, without clearly differentiating itself from the right wing on this question, the left wing had tended to consider the growth of monopoly as merely a quantitative development of capitalism, and it's 'expansionism' (imperialism) as simply a secondary policy manifestation, instead of a basic expression of monopoly capitalism. This error led to a profound underestimation of the aggressive character, reactionary aims, and war making potentialities of imperialism. Lenin cleared up this confusion.
"Lenin also made clear the road of all-out political mass struggle to socialism. In so doing, he annihilated for Americans the prevalent De Leonite, syndicalist ideas that the workers would win their way to power by 'locking out the capitalists' or by means of simply a general strike and other kindred illusions.
"Among his other contributions to the American revolutionary movement, Lenin clarified the question of the role of the farmers, which had always been a weak spot in Socialist Labor Party and Socialist Party policy, especially after the advent of De Leon. Lenin stressed the vital necessity of labor co-operating with the oppressed and exploited strata of these toilers, and he indicated the basic conditions under which such co-operation , with working class leadership, should be carried out. Lenin also, with his strong anti-sectarian position and his supreme genius for mobilizing all the potential strength of the anti-capitalist forces, laid the basis for a clarification of the question of the labor party.
"Smashing through the crippling De Leonite policy of non-participation in the broad, elemental mass movements of struggle, Lenin categorically, like Engels long before him, supported participation is such movements. Lenin likewise clarified the knotty question of partial political demands, which had also been a bone of contention in left-wing ranks for many years, especially under De Leon's intellectual tutelage. Indeed, Lenin had made this question quite clear in Russian practice, long before the Bolshevik Revolution. He showed that partial demands are an integral part of the workers' whole struggle. And Stalin, in his Foundations of Leninism, points out that reforms are by-products of revolutionary struggle and reforms can and must be used in the fight for socialism.
"Lenin also clarified American Marxists on the question of religion. The Socialist Party, from its inception, had a confusion of policy on the matter, ranging from a cultivation of petty-bourgeois 'Christian socialism' to the placing of 'God-killing' as the main task of the Party. Lenin, reiterating Marx's statement that 'Religion is the opium of the people', stressed its class role in the exploitation of the workers, and declared: 'We demand that religion be regarded as a private matter so far as the state is concerned, but under no circumstances can we regard it as a private matter in our own party.' Lenin insisted, on the one hand, upon the complete separation of Church and State, and on the other, on an educational campaign by the Party. However, 'the propaganda of atheism by the Social Democracy must be subordinated to a more basic task - the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters.' The Party should not write atheism into its program. It should, however, freely admit religious minded workers to membership and then educate them to a scientific outlook on life.
"To all these great contributions of Lenin to the American movement must be added at least another. It was Lenin, above all others, who finally knocked on the head that chronic American sectarian disease, the dual union illusion. Ever since the days of Debs' American Railway Union in 1894 and De Leon's Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance in 1895, American left-wingers had been obsessed with the idea that the way to revolutionize the labor movement was to withdraw from the conservative trade unions and to organize independent, theoretically perfect industrial unions. The general effect of this policy had been to leave the Gompers machine in virtually unchallenged control of the basic mass organizations of the working class and to waste the strength of the dynamic left-wing fighting trade unionists in innumerable utopian industrial union projects.
"Lenin had encountered the problem of such abstention from the unions in Russia in 1908, on the part of the Otzovists, a group among the Bolsheviks. These elements, among other wrong tendencies, refused to work in the trade unions and other legally existing societies. Lenin, with his keen ability to go straight to the heart of a problem, and thus with a penetrating analysis to settle it once and for all, sailed into the Otzovists and destroyed their position completely.
"Lenin dealt again and crushingly with this particular sectarian abstentionist tendency shortly after the beginning of the Russian Revolution, when 'ultra-lefts' in Germany, Holland, England and other European countries, in the exuberance of their revolutionary spirit, had no patience for work in the old trade unions, but sought short cuts by setting up new revolutionary labor organizations. Lenin sharply denounced this practice as a serious form of sectarianism. He declared that 'to refuse to work within reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward working masses under the influence of reactionary leaders, agents of the bourgeoisie, labor aristocrats or 'bourgeoisified' workers.' This criticism applied with triple force to the United States, where the dual union fallacy had reigned almost unchallengeable in left circles for many years, thereby doing incalculable damage to the revolutionary movement.
"Lenin, in fighting for a correct political line, fought on two fronts. That is, he combated both the right danger and all forms of pseudo-leftism. This two front fight was particularly necessary in the United States, with its ingrained historical right weaknesses of American exceptionalism and its long affliction of 'left' sectarianism.
"The long-continued sectarianism of the left wing was basically an immature political reaction against the extreme opportunism of the Socialist Party and A.F. of L. leaders, which was bred of the especially corrupting influences of American political life. The left's dual unionism, anti-labor party, anti-farmer, anti-immediate demands, anti-parliamentary and other ultra-revolutionary policies and attitudes were short-cut methods aimed to create powerful trade unions, a militant workers' party and a mass Socialist ideology. A historical influence, too, producing left sectarianism was the pressure of the vast body of foreign-born workers, who were as yet little integrated into American economic, political and social life.
"Important also in this general respect was the fact that the American Marxist movement, in the imperialist epoch, had produced no outstanding Marxist theoretician, capable of immediately and basically solving the many complex problems faced by the working class. During many years, from the 1890s on, the great Lenin was developing Marxism into Marxism-Leninism and building the core of the eventual powerful Bolshevik Party. At this time, the American Socialists, in an extremely difficult objective situation, were being gravely hindered in their development by the powerful but revisionist influence of the ultra-left sectarian and semi-syndicalist theoretician, De Leon.
--William Z. Foster, History of the Communist Party of the United States, 1952, International Publishers
(Text transcribed by Michael Wood, Gus Hall Action Club)