“...If a Communist took it into his head to boast about his Communism because of the ready-made conclusions he had acquired, without putting in a great deal of serious and hard work, without understanding the facts which he must examine critically, he would be a very deplorable Communist. Such superficiality would be decidedly fatal.”
Lenin’s speech to these young Communists in the early twentieth century could very easily be given to young people learning Marxism in the USA of the twenty-first century. It is much easier to talk the talk than it is to walk the walk. It is easy to one day wake up and say, “I think I will call myself a Communist today.” From there, we could buy a t-shirt with Karl Marx’s face on it, and we could put a little hammer and sickle emoji in our Twitter profile, and we could tell everyone we believe in Communism. But would this make us a Communist?
Probably not, right?
If we are interested in viewing things from the Marxist perspective, this is backwards from how we should be going about things. It is not, after all, people’s consciousness that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness. From the Marxist perspective, the material world is primary, and our thoughts and ideas are reflections of that primary material world. The idea does not determine reality. It is reality that determines the idea.
And you know, speaking of Lenin - in the Soviet Union, people did not simply decide to call themselves Communists. Being a Communist was something you earned, something you achieved. It meant you had passed all of the tests and joined the Communist Party. You had built yourself into a Communist, rather than made a decision on how you choose to perceive yourself. The difference between the two begins at the level of worldview, of ideology. In twenty-first century America, the way we see things, think, and the characteristics of the way we approach issues and problems is by default a reflection of what Marxists call the “economic base”. That material world is primary, and our thoughts and ideas are reflections of it, right? And so this is a reflection of the brand marketing economy, that what matters is the brand of a thing, rather than the product itself. In this case, the brand is Communist.
There is a whole lot more that goes into how peoples’ identities are shaped these days, but that’s so far outside the scope of this paper that you’d need a telescope to see it from way over there. So we’ll briefly mention that Carlos Garrido dissects this in his recent book The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism, wherein he says, “In the era of profilicity, where, as Hans Georg Moeller and Paul D’Ambrosio argue, identity formation takes the form of profile curation, the socialist identity is most clearly seen in people’s social media bios, where they mention the sort of socialism they identify with, either through the word itself or through emojis (democratic socialist rose, communist hammer and sickle). In the context of the hyper-individualist West’s treatment of socialism as a personal identity, the worst thing that may happen for these ‘socialists’ is for socialism to be achieved. That would mean the total destruction of their counter-cultural fringe identity. Their utter estrangement from the working masses of the country may in part be read as an attempt to make socialist ideas fringe enough to never convince working people, and hence, never conquer political power. The success of socialism would entail a loss of selfhood, a destruction of the socialist-within-capitalism identity. The socialism of the West is grounded on an identity which hates the existing order but hates even more the loss of identity which transcending it would entail. This is how Western Marxism’s purity fetish manifests itself in the sphere of identity formation in the age of profilicity. What matters is having the perfect bio, the perfect posts, the perfect online comeback. The conquest of political power by the working class is, in short, an existential threat for the identity-socialists of the West,” and get back to the matter at hand, shall we?
If we’re speaking of genuinely embodying this thing called “Communist”, and viewing what that is from the Marxist mode of the material being primary, well, then we must understand that a Communist is a universal thing that must concretize in particular form, embodying the process of Communism itself - the new society taking shape in the shell of the old, and embodying the best traits of the revolutionary class in society. Even being a member of a Communist Party isn’t enough. How many members of our own Party have no interest whatsoever in actually overthrowing capitalism or in becoming the type of people capable of carrying out such an immense task? How many lie and cheat and engage in the scummiest of middle class prejudices, looking down on the people of their own country, rather than being guided by a love of the people?
This, my friends, is no Communist. As Che Guevara once said, a true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is IMPOSSIBLE, he explained, to imagine a genuine revolutionary lacking that quality. And a Communist must at the same time be a revolutionary.
But that isn’t the whole list of things we must build ourselves into. Not even close.
A Communist must hold his or herself to the highest standard possible, even if the Party they belong to has not yet built or rebuilt itself into an institution capable of demanding they do so. In fact, in doing this building, they are helping to build that Party into just such an institution, and leading those not there yet, like the folks mentioned above, by setting an example. The Bolsheviks were just such a Party, but we should always be realistic and approach our current situation with clear eyes and clear heads. In 2023, we are in a period of ascendancy, but there is a lot of ground to cover to even bring ourselves to the level of the old Communist Party in the USA, let alone surpassing that and becoming the institution capable of leading the American people through the struggles ahead of us and into revolution. And we’re not going to get there by putting hammer and sickle emojis in our Twitter profiles and then telling everyone who doesn’t have every opinion we do how awful they are. The Bolsheviks did not gain the support and respect of the working masses of the Soviet Union by bragging and talking down to them. The massively powerful and effective Chinese Party doesn’t win their support (an 85% approval rating) by continually organizing witch hunts against each other, or “trolling” each other, or making up wild fantasies about each other in order to look down on each other.
They lead by example.
And an American Communist must do the same.
If we are serious about what we say our goals are; if we intend to overthrow the most powerful ruling class in human history, then even learning our theory, analyzing the world with Marxism, and dropping bourgeois standpoint epistemology is not enough. Shaping the theory of our era is not enough. We must also deal in shaping ourselves into the people who can earn the respect and support of the toiling masses. And, in fact, it is that theory that leads us to this conclusion. If we keep in mind that the default way that the people are trained to view things (without even knowing other ways are possible) is through that brand marketing economy, then we must create a brand of “Communist” that disproves all the lies spread about us from the ruling class over the last hundred years, in ALL their forms. Even being correct is not enough. If we do not package a correct message in a way that appeals to regular working class people, we are learning nothing about the people and allowing middle class prejudices that wormed their way into our organizations over the last period of history to maintain dominance. And I don’t know about you, but pretending we are the enlightened few and hating everyone not as “enlightened” as we think we are seems to be a sign that we have done neither. This is precisely what Mao was talking about when he said that a Communist must humble him or herself before the people. In order for Communists to lead the people, we must recognize that the people are the ones leading Communists.
And this means we must carry ourselves in a certain way. We must work on making ourselves into a certain thing. We must be above reproach and humble, strong, capable, and intelligent. We must never take ourselves too seriously, even as our task is the most serious task in the world.
For every hundred people I see who call themselves Communists these days, I can honestly say I see only one who actually carries themselves as such. So, let’s go over a few qualities a Communist must have, because it is very easy, as noted above, to simply say we are a thing. It is quite another to embody that thing and become a person worthy of leading the working classes, worthy of the word Communist.
Above all, a Communist needs to prove to the rest of the working masses of their society that they are not just worthy of their respect, but of leading them into revolution and a new state that is genuinely of, by, and for the people. A Communist does not demand respect without earning it like a petulant child. A Communist earns that respect through his or her actions.
This is an incredibly difficult task, and I don’t think we can ever be truly done with it. For me, there are certain people I try to imagine the opinions of, when deciding what I should do in a given situation. My father (whom everyone in the union and the neighborhood fondly referred to as “Pops”), who was one of the greatest people I’ve ever known, and taught me everything I know about what it means to be a man - the epitome of what it takes to earn respect through action; Henry Winston, the man who could inspire better in everyone around him and the greatest American Communist in history; and JV Stalin, whose character was above reproach and whose hard work and dedication helped lead the Soviet Union, the first land of the working class, from rural huts to space in a handful of decades. Or I think about whether or not my son can look at me and say, “That’s my dad. I’m proud of him and I want to be more like him when I grow up.”
And so, if we are deciding on a course of action, think about having to explain it to your children (or maybe your future children), or your parents, or… Henry Winston, if you don’t have any of these in your situation. Would they respond by saying what you are doing is a good thing? Would they respect it? Would Henry Winston see you trying to bring yourself up at the expense of a random stranger online and greet it with admiration, or with disappointment?
If we can embody all of the traits above, if we can approach that question with honesty and humility, we can begin to build ourselves into the kind of people worthy of the respect of the toiling masses.
The contradictions of capitalism are growing more acute every day. We have run out of time to waste. Our ruling class is quickly leading us to destitution and nuclear war. The impossibility of continuing on in the old way grows as re-proletarianization does. The time for childishness and larping is over. The time for action is now.
So let’s get to action.
Noah Khrachvik is a proud working class member of the Communist Party USA. He is 40 years old, married to the most understanding and patient woman on planet Earth (who puts up with all his deep-theory rants when he wakes up at two in the morning and can't get back to sleep) and has a twelve-year-old son who is far too smart for his own good. When he isn't busy writing, organizing the working class, or fixing rich people's houses all day, he enjoys doing absolutely nothing on the couch, surrounded by his family and books by Gus Hall.