Donate to Links


Click on Links masthead to clear previous query from search box

GLW Radio on 3CR



Recent comments



Syndicate

Syndicate content

Paul Le Blanc: Marxism and organisation

By Paul Le Blanc

This presentation was given at the Chicago educational conference of the US International Socialist Organization, Socialism 2011, on the July 2-3, 2011, weekend. The text first appeared at Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières.

* * *

It is always worth examining the question of Marxism and organisation because, if we would like to be organised Marxists who effectively struggle for socialism, we have a responsibility to know what we are about -- and such knowledge is deepened by ongoing examination. There are scholarly reasons for going over such ground, but for activists the primary purpose is to improve our ability to help change the world. There are three basic ideas to be elaborated on here: 1) there must be a coming together of socialism and the working class if either is to have a positive future; 2) those of us who think like that need to work together hard and effectively -- which means we need to be part of a serious organisation; and 3) socialist organisations must be a democratic/disciplined force in actual workers’ struggles -- that is the path to socialism. In what follows I will elaborate on this.

When speaking of Marxism, I don’t just mean the ideas of Karl Marx -- I am referring to a very rich political tradition that encompasses an impressive array of people and experiences. For example, I will be making reference here to Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and others whom I believe were in many ways close to the perspectives of Marx. This is related to the understanding that we must not bow down to timeless dogmas but rather must be guided by a living body of thought and experience. It has multiple facets, and it evolves though interaction with changing global realities, with variations that are influenced by the specifics of distinctive national and cultural contexts.

The kind of world we want to see is a socialist world. The way we understand the word socialism is grounded in the way that Marx discussed it. It does not mean the government taking care of us, or the government running the economy. Unlike the notion of anti-socialists of the “Tea Party” variety (and other varieties), it does not mean more government control over our lives. Socialism means the ownership of the economy by the entire society, the democratic control of the economy by all of us, and the utilisation of our economic resources to meet the needs of all people -- enabling all people to live full and fulfilling lives characterised by freedom, community and creative labour. If democracy means “rule by the people” (as it does), socialism is an economic democracy.

If that’s what socialism is, then what is a socialist organisation? What is the purpose of a socialist organisation? Why does a group like the International Socialist Organization -- for example -- exist?

Not getting it wrong

One way of looking at it is to think of it as a club, like an organisation for those who have a special interest or hobby. If you are interested in history, you might join a history club. If you are into stamp collecting, you might join a stamp collecting club. If you have an incredibly high IQ, you might join Mensa in order to be able to get together with really smart people like yourself. One could see a socialist organisation as a sort of affinity group for those who like socialism.

If that is how you see it, I hope you won’t be offended when I say that I believe this is a stupid reason for organising a socialist group. Because if you would really like to see socialism come into existence, you won’t be able to make that happen in such a group.

A key to getting at the answer to the question is to realise that Karl Marx and his co-thinker Frederick Engels -- politically active in Germany, France, Belgium, Britain and elsewhere -- developed their thinking, what they called “scientific socialism”, through a serious and ongoing interaction with working-class activists.

This scientific socialism -- which after Marx’s death came to be called “Marxism” -- is a complex and multi-faceted body of thought with multiple sources. It was grounded in the ideas of the Enlightenment and also of heroic Romanticism, drawing from German philosophy, French revolutionary thought and British political economy, powerfully influenced as well by the capitalist Industrial Revolution and the rise of the working class, and by the struggles of the working class.

It involves five basic components. One of these is a dynamic philosophical orientation, or methodology, which is dialectical, materialist and humanistic. Another of these involves a theory of history -- which sees economic development and class struggle as shaping the way history unfolds. A third component involves an analysis of capitalism -- how it is structured, how it works, how it exploits a growing number of people (the working class), how it opens up new possibilities but also is incredibly irrational and destructive when it comes to human needs. A fourth component of Marxism is based on the notion that the working-class majority has the power to replace capitalism with socialism, so here Marxism provides a basic political program for the working class. And the fifth component -- which we have already touched on -- involves the vision of a socialist future.

What is essential to Marxism is the key notion that there must be a fusion of socialism with the working class if they are each to have a positive future.

The working class, the way Marx and Engels defined it, is composed of those who make a living by selling their ability to work (which consists of energy for manual labour, intellectual labour, or both). It is those whose labour creates the goods and services all of us depend on. It also includes family members and others dependent on the paychecks of those who sell their ability to work -- and also unemployed and retired workers. It is the creative majority, whose labour creates and sustains the economy on which society depends, those without whom capitalism could not function. Marxists see this as a force that potentially has the interest and the power to challenge capitalism. If they join together, the workers have the power to bring to birth a new and better world.

This provides the basis for defining the purpose of a socialist organisation -- but there is still room to get it wrong. If we simply see ourselves as a bigger, better affinity group whose purpose is to share our wisdom with the workers and recruit them into our ranks, we may be in for a big disappointment.

Some of us may have had the kind of experience of being part of a socialist group that appeals “from outside” to a romanticised abstraction, the Heroic Working Class, urging people to listen to our socialist ideas, buy our socialist literature, come to our socialist meetings and join with us in thinking revolutionary thoughts. This can be a way to attract some handfuls of thoughtful people. It is actually because of such activities that some of us may have become socialists and have become members of a socialist organisation. But some of us have also had enough experience to know that this doesn’t work as a means for mobilising a working class majority in the effort to replace capitalism with socialism.

There has been a temptation for some anti-capitalists to conclude that it is not possible to mobilise a working-class majority, and that -- few as we are -- we should simply take matters into our own hands, substituting ourselves for the “revolutionary proletarian masses” who stubbornly refuse to materialise. Perhaps if we take drastic action, we can shake up and radicalise a working-class majority -- or at least we can become militant avengers of the oppressed.

Getting it right

But Marx himself didn’t see things this way. He was convinced that only the working class itself could free itself from capitalist exploitation and oppression. Only the working class, as a class, has the power to do that. Also, it happens to be the case that genuine freedom -- defined as self-determination (taking control of your own life) can only be gained by each of us, and that genuine democracy -- defined as rule by the people -- can only come about, when people take power into their own hands. Marx believed that only the struggles of the working class could move reality in the direction of such freedom and democracy, providing the basis for socialism.

This is why an essential part of Marxism, put forward in the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere, involves a political program for the working class -- that is, an outline of what to do to push back capitalist oppression and to achieve a socialist future. Marx based this program, to a significant degree, on the kinds of struggles he saw working-class activists engaging in.

If you read the Communist Manifesto carefully, and also Marx’s 1864 "Inaugural Address to the International Workingmen’s Association", you will find classical statements of this program for the working class. The program consists of different parts. One involves building organisations of workers at their workplaces -- these are known as trade unions -- in order to struggle for and compel capitalist employers to pay higher wages, provide better (healthier, safer) working conditions, to agree to a shorter workday (10 hours instead of 12, eight instead of 10 and so on) and to allow for more dignity on the job. In addition to building trade unions, the Manifesto encourages workers to push for reforms (which means improving life in the here and now, before a revolution takes place), which could be fought for by social movements for a shorter workday, for giving all people the right to vote, for women’s rights, for an end to child labour, for public schools, for an end to racism, in opposition to war policies and so on.

In addition to building such trade unions and social movements, Marx advocated the creation of an independent labour party of the working class to struggle for reforms and ultimately to win political power for the working class majority. Marx and Engels called this “winning the battle of democracy”, establishing working-class rule politically in order to expand it economically, with a revolutionary transition to socialism. That’s the program.

It is important for revolutionaries to know what time it is. Not every aspect of the strategic program can be implemented regardless of specific conditions. It will take an accumulation of experiences and the spread and deepening of working-class consciousness for the working class to build its own political party and struggle to take power.

Social democracy and the rise of communism

By the late 19th century, with the development of industrial capitalism throughout Europe, militancy and solidarity grew within the growing working class, resulting in mass labour movements and large socialist workers’ parties influenced by the ideas of Marx. The outstanding example was the German Social-Democratic Party, which attracted millions to the socialist cause. Its activists did admirable work -- from which we have much to learn today -- in building a massive socialist movement that involved not only an effective electoral party but also a powerful trade union movement, organisations and struggles for women’s rights, organisations for young socialists, a rich and well-read party press, and multifaceted cultural groups and activities (embracing art, literature, theatre, music, sports, hiking, camping and more). It came to be seen as a model for socialists influenced by Marx, inspiring other labour and social-democratic parties that arose in many lands during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In part because it grew by leaps and bounds, many came to believe that socialism’s ultimate victory was inevitable. Within the leadership of the trade union and organisational apparatus, there were even elements which argued -- given this presumably “inevitable” victory -- that Marx’s revolutionary outlook should be abandoned, that the socialist movement could just keep on piling up reforms to painlessly and gradually eliminate the negative features of capitalism. Among the outstanding leaders of the German Social Democratic Party were the working-class organiser August Bebel and the Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky, both of whom made vital contributions in building up their party and the international socialist movement.

Both insisted that Marx’s revolutionary perspectives were not out of date. Unfortunately, in the years leading up to his death in 1913, Bebel increasingly felt it necessary to accommodate to the reformist and bureaucratic elements in the German workers’ movement, and by 1910 Kautsky was doing the same. This would ill-prepare the German socialists for the period of war, political upheaval, revolutionary opportunity, economic depression and fascist assaults that were going to materialise in coming decades.

Rosa Luxemburg became one of the most effective leaders in the revolutionary wing of the German Social Democracy and the international socialist movement. She was one of the most brilliant analysts and theoreticians in the movement -- approaching Marxism in a creative and critical-minded way in order to make sense of new realities and upcoming challenges.

Luxemburg sharply challenged the reformist turn away from revolutionary strategy -- insisting that Marx was right in seeing the interplay of reform and revolution as the best way to develop the consciousness and political experience of more and more workers, and that he was also right in seeing capitalism’s violent destructiveness as something that could only be overcome by the revolutionary mobilisation of the working class.

Luxemburg was alert to new organisational problems in the socialist movement. She was concerned over the rise of a bureaucratic-conservatism of the organisational apparatus of the German Social Democracy. Her critical discussion of the reality of bureaucracy in the labour movement became an important new component of Marxist thought. Luxemburg felt this bureaucratic-conservatism could only be overcome by greater working-class democracy in the movement and by the semi-spontaneous mass actions of the workers that would periodically be generated by the workings of capitalism. She insisted that capitalism would not be ended unless the working class itself -- organised and mobilised by effective revolutionary organisations -- consciously and actively brought about the transition to socialism.

One of the most serious Marxist theorists to deal with the question of organisation was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of the revolutionary wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party known as the Bolsheviks. (“Bolshevik” means majority-ite.) By 1912 they broke away to form their own separate revolutionary party, which soon came to represent the majority of the Russian working class. The example and ideas of Lenin and his comrades have powerfully influenced many others for the past century -- including the US International Socialist Organization.

Lenin’s conception of organisation defined members of the revolutionary party as (1) being in basic agreement with the revolutionary Marxist program, (2) paying dues to help sustain the organisation’s activities and (3) working together with other comrades as part of the organisation -- carrying out the activities jointly decided upon by the party. This included sharing socialist ideas with more and more workers, as well as being involved in social struggles, political struggles, trade union activity and so on. He insisted that the party must be both democratic and cohesive, effectively combining local initiative and national coordination.

From his earliest days in the socialist movement, Lenin insisted on taking seriously Marxist theory but also taking activism and organisation seriously -- calling for freedom of discussion, unity in action. Lenin shared with others a commitment to what was called democratic centralism, though he was more consistent than many others. He favoured free, critical-minded discussion before decisions were made -- but once the decisions were made, they should be implemented by the organisation as a whole. Decisions should be democratically made, but one of the meanings of democracy is that such decisions should not be blocked by those who disagreed with them. He believed that the organisation’s leadership should be chosen by and answerable to the membership, but then its authority should be respected by the membership. He favoured a significant degree of local autonomy, but also a significant degree of national coordination. Decisions of the organisation should -- at appropriate times -- be critically evaluated, but the entire organisation should be involved in that process. This could help provide a sound basis for future decisions and activities.

The organisational process favoured by Lenin highlights the dynamic quality of his conception of the revolutionary party. The highest decision-making body of the organisation is the national convention (or party congress), held at regular and short-term intervals, made up of democratically chosen delegates from all of the local branches of the organisation. There should be full discussion and debate within the branches and throughout the organisation, before the convention takes place, around the matters to be decided at the convention. The convention should elect a national leadership -- a national committee and a more compact political committee -- to oversee the organisation’s activities (and help ensure the carrying out of decisions) between national conventions.

The purpose of all this, of course, was to have a cohesive organisation capable of reaching out more and more effectively to increasing numbers of Russia’s labouring and oppressed majority. Bolshevik efforts culminated in a revolutionary alliance of the workers and peasants of Russia. As a Marxist organisation, the Bolshevik party gave special attention to education and mobilisation of the working class against the absolute monarchy represented by tsarism and also against capitalism. Because the most oppressed layers of the working class -- women workers -- were among those the Bolshevik party reached out to, they were to play a key role in the 1917 revolution.

Crises of war, tsarist tyranny and capitalist irrationality brought about a mass revolutionary upsurge. This was organised on the ground by working-class activists educated and trained in the Russian socialist movement over a period of years. Lenin and his comrades (particularly Leon Trotsky) rallied a majority of the workers and peasants to carry out the triumphant revolution of 1917. They hoped to create a working-class democracy (in alliance with the peasants) that would move forward to socialism -- although they insisted that genuine socialism could only be created on a global scale. This had a powerful impact throughout the world. Lenin, Trotsky and others -- taking on the name “Communists” in order to distinguish themselves from non-revolutionary elements in the socialist movement -- helped to create a worldwide network based on the revolutionary program and organisational principles that had animated them, the Communist International.

Lenin and kindred spirits

Contrary to common misconceptions, Lenin’s organisational outlook was not unique to him. In fact, even Karl Kautsky -- who ended up badly compromising his own Marxist convictions -- had in earlier years given eloquent expression to revolutionary political and organisational perspectives. People like Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Antonio Gramsci (a brilliant founder and leader of the Italian Communist Party in the 1920s) and others -- influenced by the revolutionary orientation of Marx -- shared the organisational orientation we are discussing here.

A few brief quotes from Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci can be offered as a summary of what is often portrayed as a distinctively “Leninist” organisational perspective. Of course, Trotsky and Gramsci ended up as explicit adherents of “Leninism”, but Luxemburg has never been accused of that. Nonetheless, in her Mass Strike pamphlet she characterised the socialist party as “the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat”, interacting with “every spontaneous people’s movement” in order to “hasten the development of things and endeavor to accelerate events”, and she called for a “social-democratic centralism” in order to make such efforts effective -- terming this as “the the ‘self-centralism’ of the advanced sectors of the proletariat”. It was in this spirit that Lenin asserted that “the working class is instinctively, spontaneously socialist, and more than ten years of work put in by the socialist movement has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness”.

Engaging with the same conceptualisations, Trotsky wrote: “In the revolutionary vanguard, organised in a party, is crystallised the aspiration of the masses to obtain their freedom”, adding that “revolutionary education requires a regime of internal democracy. Revolutionary discipline has nothing to do with blind obedience”, for “the will to struggle has on every occasion to be independently renewed and tempered”.

Similarly, Gramsci insisted that a revolutionary party is necessary “in order to construct an intellectual-moral bloc which can make politically possible the intellectual progress of the mass and not only of small intellectual groups”. Warning that the revolutionary organisation must not fall into “neglecting, or worse still despising, so-called ‘spontaneous’ moments” of mass action among the workers and oppressed, he also -- like Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky -- emphasised an interplay “between ‘spontaneity’ and ‘conscious leadership’” and a “democratic centralism, which is so to speak a ‘centralism’ in movement -- a continual adaptation of the organisation to the real movement”.[1]

The outlook of these revolutionaries adds up to this: a revolutionary socialist organisation needs to be an organised force that is both democratic and cohesive, critical-minded and disciplined, that will be active in actual working-class struggles of all kinds -- helping to make them effective -- while at the same time helping to spread socialist ideas. Socialist organisations can help to spread such ideas and also vital organising skills, but they must be able to learn from working-class activists who are not (or not yet) in the socialist organisation, at the same time reaching out to such activists -- who constitute a vanguard layer of the working class -- and drawing more and more of them into the organised socialist movement. Such a movement, if it is effective in sharing more and more socialist consciousness and political organising skills, can assume mass proportions, becoming a powerful sub-culture in society, a moral-intellectual bloc, which has the potential for bringing about a fundamental power-shift, a power-shift that can result in a transition to socialism.

These organisational conceptions found expression in the perspectives of the Communist International founded in 1919. They animated the early Communist movement before its mainstream was irredeemably polluted by the authoritarianism represented by Joseph Stalin. This authoritarian corruption that developed in the Communist movement is related to the fact that a key development expected by Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolsheviks was blocked -- and this problem would eventually throw their revolutionary-democratic socialism off the tracks. Russia was a huge but economically backward, impoverished country. Along with Marx, the Bolsheviks believed that socialism could only be achieved in more advanced economies that had sufficient resources to provide a decent life for all. They also believed -- with Marx -- that global capitalism could only be replaced on a world scale, and that the economically more developed socialist countries could work cooperatively with economically less advanced regions (such as Russia) to develop a global socialist economy beneficial to all. They believed that the Russian Revolution would -- over the next decade or so -- help to inspire socialist revolutions in more and more countries, especially given the incredibly destructive nature of capitalism.

Stalinism versus revolutionary Marxism

It is true that capitalism was incredibly destructive -- it had generated a devastating, imperialist World War, it was generating murderous fascist and Nazi movements, it would soon generate the Great Depression, and after that it would bring about an even more horrific Second World War. But the working-class movements in other countries had not developed organisations that were politically strong enough to bring about socialist revolutions. There were revolutionary uprisings, but they were defeated.

Germany came very close to the working class coming to power, but by then the German Social-Democratic Party was dominated by reformists who blocked the overthrow of capitalism, and — guaranteed government positions by the powers that be — it collaborated with Germany’s upper classes to divert the revolutionary upsurge into non-revolutionary channels. In the wake of the almost-revolution, growing right-wing forces in Germany carried out a vicious campaign to murder revolutionary workers and their leaders -- such as Rosa Luxemburg. Such defeats meant that revolutionary Russia was isolated in a hostile capitalist world and this soon led to the weakening, decline and authoritarian corruption of Communism. Some of the leading Communists in Russia were deciding to build their own power, their own control of the state and party organisational apparatus. This apparatus -- increasingly separate from the working people -- is what we call the bureaucracy. Those dominating this bureaucracy wanted to build up their own power in order to modernise Russia while also taking more and more material privileges for themselves (modernisation plus selfishness). Not all of the Communists were inclined to go in this direction -- Lenin, for example, did not favour such a development, but after his death in 1924, Joseph Stalin helped to initiate a power struggle which resulted in this decisive shift.

Stalin and his supporters utilised revolutionary rhetoric but left the old revolutionary commitments behind. They turned the Communist Party into a very different kind of organisation -- one that was neither democratic nor revolutionary -- in order to achieve their purposes (modernisation plus bureaucratic selfishness), largely at the expense of the masses of workers and peasants. Many people throughout the world came to view Lenin’s organisational outlook as one that is extremely undemocratic, and to view Marxism as extremely rigid and dogmatic, because these became characteristic of Communism as it developed under Stalin. But this so-called Marxism-Leninism of Stalin was not revolutionary, not Marxist, and not Leninist, although it claimed to be. It was designed to advance the purposes of the bureaucratic dictatorship.

What Stalinism certainly did not do was to defend the principles of workers’ democracy that had animated the Russian Revolution in 1917, nor did it help to advance the revolutionary principles that had animated the early Communist movement. There were Russian Communists who defended the original democratic and revolutionary principles -- and they often fought heroically, but they were defeated and most of them ended up giving their lives for what they believed in.

These uncorrupted political and organisational perspectives have guided those seeking to remain true to the revolutionary Marxist method and goal. This was especially the case among many of those who gathered around the banner of Trotsky, as he opposed the Stalinist distortion of the Communist movement. The fact that the mainstream of the Communist movement throughout the world came under the domination of Stalinism greatly weakened the left-wing of the labour movement. But over and over again, the nature of capitalism has caused the old revolutionary perspectives -- including Lenin’s Bolshevik orientation -- to remain relevant. That is why revolutionary Marxism flared up and had an impact within the momentous class struggles of the 1930s. Although capitalism continued to change in significant ways, it also remained the same in significant ways, generating struggle through the following decades. The revolutionary Marxist outlook continued to resonate within the insurgencies of the 1960s. Human rights struggles throughout the 20th century were influenced by these perspectives. The US International Socialist Organization represents a continuity with such perspectives.

Building a revolutionary organisation

The problems that capitalism creates for the diverse sectors of the working class, and for the working class as a whole, continue to generate discontent and struggle in our own time -- although there is a crying need for the struggles to become more effective. Such effectiveness is not automatically or inevitably achieved. Even though a majority of the working class -- which is the great majority of the people in the United States -- opposes the present-day imperialist wars and occupations, we see a continuation of the violent foreign policy that advances the interests of the rich, at our expense and at the expense of people of other countries. To the extent that there are significant mobilisations against such policies, they are powerfully influenced by socialist organisations.

The only way that such struggles can be organised and advanced is if people work hard to organise and advance them. To a significant degree, those who organise such struggles -- including some of the sharpest struggles today for economic justice -- have been influenced by revolutionary and socialist perspectives, and have learned organising skills from experienced socialist activists. But so far, this has not been enough. More and more working-class people need to be drawn into tough, democratic trade unions and social movements that are not afraid to fight hard for what they believe in.

If Marx was right (and we think he was) there is also a need to bring about a mass socialist consciousness. Socialism and the struggles of the working class cannot remain separate from each other if either is to be victorious. Because such things do not happen automatically or inevitably, it is important for more and more of us -- who by and large happen to be part of our vast, multi-faceted working class -- to work very hard to help bring such things about. It is easier to work effectively if more and more of us work together in a democratic and coherent manner. This means being part of a socialist organisation guided by the revolutionary Marxist traditions touched on in this presentation.

Consistent with such organisational traditions, are two kinds of growth -- what might be called reaching out and reaching in. Marxist organisations must reach out to share socialist ideas and analyses essential for socialist consciousness; to participate in struggles of the working class -- through unions, community groups and social movements; and to draw more and more people to activism and socialist consciousness. They must at the same time reach in, reach inward, building up their organisation by recruiting new members and by learning, learning from others inside and outside the organisation, and also absorbing more and more experience -- all of which enhances their ability to reach out; their members must develop their understanding of working-class history and socialist theory and of current realities; and the members must develop their own political experience and organisational skills -- experience and skills both for outreach efforts and for “internal” activity. The socialist organisation must not be outside of the working class but instead must be organically connected to it, in large measure through helping to build reform struggles, social movements and trade unions. These are interactive with each other, with the socialist organisation and with the working class as a whole. This interaction helps to transform each and all of the interactive elements.

The socialist organisation brings a valuable mix of socialist theory, political analysis, activist experience and organisational skills into the larger struggles and movements of the working class. But all of these are further developed and added to by the socialist organisation’s engagement with the various components of the class struggle. The organisation itself is renewed, expanded and revitalised. The trade unions and social movements are strengthened and their perspectives deepened by what the socialists have to bring. Within the working class as a whole, at least in this chart, a radicalisation process is underway which enables the working class to play a powerful role in the current economic, social and political situation, and to alter the course of history.

If we do our work right, then a deepening class consciousness may generate a mass labour party, animated by a socialist consciousness, that will be capable of bringing the working-class majority to power, opening the way for a socialist reconstruction of society.

This is the approach with which Marxists hope to build a massive working-class force capable of bringing socialism into the world. That is quite a tall order, however, and because this is about things that are so incredibly important, we cannot afford to end the discussion here. It will be crucial for us to learn from our experiences in trying to apply Marxist organisational perspectives to the realities around us.

Sources

Paul Le Blanc. From Marx to Gramsci (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1996).

                  — Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1994).

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings, ed. by Paul Le Blanc (Pluto Press, 2008).

Lars Lih. Lenin (London: Reaktion Books, 2011).

         — Lenin Rediscovered (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006).

Rosa Luxemburg. Socialism or Barbarism: Selected Writings, ed. by Paul Le Blanc and Helen C. Scott (London: Pluto Press, 2011).

Notes

[1] Quotations taken from Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1996), 58-60.

Comments

If Marxism is so good, why are Marxist parties so bad?

Paul le Blanc writes quite reasonably on Marx(ist) theories of organisation. But unlike the great Marxists he quotes, he fails to relate the problem of organisation to contemporary capitalist conditions.

Did I miss his references to a globalised, computerised, networked, financial and service-led capitalism? Or even to the (20th Century) existence of not just one vanguard/mass party but several, customarily denouncing the others (when they weren't murdering them), each claiming to best organise the working class and best express socialist ideas? Folk with a more sceptical view of the party as organisational form may be interested to be reminded that there were in Egypt, in the 1940s maybe five Communist Parties. And that, according to an Egyptian informant, there still are (not necessarily the same ones, and I stand to be corrected on the precise quantities concerned).

The Party is over, Comrade Le Blanc. So, indeed, is the Trade Union. In each case as the Core, Central, Privileged bearer of socialist transformation in the first case, defence of the global(ised) working classes in the second. Forward to the networked labour movement of the future!

The historical forms will not disappear since institutions remain long after they have become unfit for purpose, long after the conditions for which they were appropriate (or anyway thought to be so)have disappeared.

The question therefore is not one anyway of the appropriate 'organisation' (as it was in the 19th-20th centuries) but of the appropriate 'articulation' (meaning both mode of connection and of expression).

Marxists are increasingly writing about this, sometimes even with reference back to one or other Marx(ist). But this is another story and about a world that Paul seems unaware of. Pity.

Response to Peter Waterman

My apologies. The article "Marxism and Organization" was based on a talk given at a conference, with time constraints which did not allow for going into some of the issues raised in the mini-critique. I do explore some of these things, however, in several books -- From Marx to Gramsci (1996), especially and most searchingly Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience (2006), and Work and Struggle (2011) -- though I am not sure that what I have to say would satisfy my critic, given his sweeping assertions and condescending tone.

I must confess that I do not fully understand what is meant when I am told: "The Party is over, Comrade Le Blanc. So, indeed, is the Trade Union." It seems to me that we need to organize ourselves to fight effectively against the oppression and exploitation of capitalism, and for a better world. While the sectarian entities and bureaucratic-opportunist formations that have gone by the name of "Party" and "trade union" in the late 20th century proved inadequate, it does seem to me that democratic-cohesive organizations of revolutionary activists and also organizations of workers struggling for better conditions and better pay at their workplaces both continue to make sense in present-day capitalism -- along with social movements struggling for life-giving reforms. It seems to me that the interplay of such things (revolutionary organizations, trade unions, social movements) continues to make sense, even if this notion dates back to the writings of long-dead Marxists (starting with the admittedly quite old Communist Manifesto).

Assuming that Peter Waterman has a better idea, it would be helpful for him to indicate what that is beyond the vague term "networked labour movement of the future." That would bring the discussion beyond mere dismissiveness.

Back to the Future...Again!

Paul:

Apologies for any note of condescension in what was only meant to be polemical.
And thanks for the rapidity of your reply. Hasta el dialogo siempre! (For Continuing Dialogue!).

You say:

'While the sectarian entities and bureaucratic-opportunist formations that have gone by the name of "Party" and "trade union" in the late 20th century proved inadequate, it does seem to me that democratic-cohesive organizations of revolutionary activists and also organizations of workers struggling for better conditions and better pay at their workplaces both continue to make sense in present-day capitalism -- along with social movements struggling for life-giving reforms.'

A couple of points.

1. Critique of the party and trade-union form have been staples of anarchist and libertarian socialist writings since maybe the 1860s, certainly the 1900s. These tendencies were marginalised, crushed and sometimes literally
killed off by the rise and rise of the Social-Democratic and Communist parties and unions in the 20th century. You surely know the literature better than I do.

The crisis and/or disappearance of the major 'sectarian/opportunist' organisations/ideologies/institutions/practices toward the end of the 20th century has not, however, given rise to your preferred kind of organisations and combinations. It has, rather, given rise, as you surely also know, to a revival/reinvention of the anarcho/autonomista/libertarian tradition, and to the prominent role of social movements defined, in part, by their autonomy from the traditional trade union/party form.

2. Your revolutionary activists and - implicitly - economistic workers are combined with social movements capable only or reforms (if life-giving). The 'real movement that changes the present order of things' (pace Marx) is actually this wave of radical-democratic social movements, acting quite independently of the traditional party/union forms. These are running behind, trying either to catch up with or to capture the movements. I wish them luck with the first and bad cess with the second.

My 'networked labour movement of the future' was a top-of-the-head paraphrase from an essay by Richard Hyman (one-time member of the International Socialists in the UK). Let me see if I can find the essay or a reference to it.

'It is easy to recognise that an urgent current need is for new models of transnational solidarity and for enhanced capacity for transnational intervention...sustaining and enhancing the scope for initiative and mobilisation at the base, to develop both stronger centralised structures and the mechanisms for more vigorous grassroots participation [...] To be effective at international level...trade unionism must...reconstitute unions as discursive organisations which foster interactive international relationships and serve more as networks than as hierarchies […M]odern information technologies offer the potential for labour movements to break out of the iron cage which for so long has trapped them in organisational structures which mimic those of capital...Forward to the "virtual trade union" of the future’. (Richard Hyman 1999:111-12)

Quoted http://www.commoner.org.uk/Waterman16props.htm.

As for a more 21st century conceptualisation of the relationship between the social and the political, I offer you something from the Argentinean autonomist, Ezequiel Adamovsky:

'I shall argue that if we are to present a new political strategy that is both destructive and creative at the same time, we
need to collectively explore and design an autonomous “interface” that enables us to link our social movements to the
political plane of the global management of society. I do not mean by this to endorse the traditional prejudice of the
traditional Left, according to which social self-organizing is just fine, but the “real” politics starts only in the realm of
party and state politics. When I refer to the “passage from social to political” I do not imply any higher value to the
latter. On the contrary, I believe that autonomous politics needs to be firmly anchored in processes of social selforganization,
but it also needs to expand so to “colonize” the political-institutional plane.' http://www.choike.org/documentos/adamovsky_autonomous.pdf.

Both ideas or sets of ideas are based on recognitions of the dramatic transformations of both capitalism and social movements, related to the present stage of what I call a globalised, computerised, networked capitalism.

To re-assert ancient verities rather than to confront contemporary capitalism, contemporary social movements born within, against and beyond such, is to assert faith over critique, creativity and, indeed, effectivity.

It reminds me of the cartoon (US) on a colleague's door:

A: We have been doing this over and over again and it just doesn't work.
B: What if we do it the other way I suggested?
A: But what if it doesn't work?

SLOGGING ON IN PITTSBURGH

Peter, I find your elaboration more helpful than the initial critique – thanks for that. This makes it easier to advance our discussion.

As I indicated in my earlier response, I do take up some of what you raise in Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience, especially in the final chapter entitled "Tree of Life," which draws on insights of Herbert Marcuse and Henri Lefebvre, Naomi Klein and activists of the early 21st century global justice movement (including anarchists, radical pacifists, revolutionary Christians -- and revolutionary Marxists too). But more directly relevant for me in our discussion, at this particular moment, is what I have been experiencing as I have tried to help organize struggles on the ground where I live.

Based on this experience, I think what Rosa Luxemburg outlined over a hundred years ago continues to define most clearly the challenge we face: “On the one hand, we have the mass; on the other its historic goal, located outside of existing society. On the one hand, we have the day-to-day struggle; on the other, the social revolution. Such are the terms of the dialectical contradiction through which the socialist movement makes its way. It follows that the movement can best advance by tacking betwixt and between the two dangers by which it is constantly being threatened. One is the loss of its mass character; the other, the abandonment of its goal. One is the danger of sinking back to the condition of a sect; the other, the danger of becoming a movement of bourgeois social reform.” (Rosa Luxemburg, Socialism or Barbarism: Selected Writings, pp. 100-101)

The way I have been trying to deal with this challenge may not be perfect – but it’s more or less the best I can do. I have been open to other possibilities and over the years have participated in testing approaches different from the one I advance in “Marxism and Organization.” But variations of that approach still seem to me more coherent and effective than any other.

Among other things, where I work and teach I have advanced a radicalized notion of "human rights" similar to the broadened conceptualization developed in recent years by some of the folks in Amnesty International -- especially making reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and the similar 1963 "Pacem in Terris" encyclical by Pope John XXIII, both of which contain, given today's realities, what Trotsky might have called "transitional demands."

I am immersed in the work of the long-lasting peace and justice center here, started by radical Catholics but now quite ecumenical, the Thomas Merton Center -- especially its Anti-War Committee and its Economic Justice Committee -- and help, in broad coalitions, sometimes in Pittsburgh mobilizing hundreds and sometimes mobilizing thousands against war, against the G-20, against racism, against cuts in human services and public transit, against the assaults on the working class by the capitalist corporations and their various politicians. It is especially helpful to me to utilize various streams and contributions of Marxist theory to help me to understand what's happening and -- translating that into popularly-understood language -- to help others have a sense of that understanding.

I do not understand what you mean when you make reference to "my" economistic workers -- the working-class people I know (among whose ranks I include myself, since I make my living by selling my ability to work for a paycheck) are concerned with much more than economic issues. We are a divese lot, but many of us are worried and angry about the gas companies drilling and fracking in the Marcellus Shale, are indignantly opposed to the wasteful and murderous U.S. wars and occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, are resistant to racist and sexist and homophobic oppression. And yes, we are deeply angry that "the Golden Rule" has come to mean that those who have the gold make the rules, and that our living standards and quality of life are more and more and more being sacrificed on the altar of the corporate profiteers, backed by Republicans and Democrats alike.

What I have been trying to do, along with others – some of whom are revolutionary socialists like myself, with whom I work closely in order to be more effective in what I do – is to reach out to others in this diverse and multi-faceted working class. We are rich in many-layered identities but united as an exploited majority-class, and those of us who are activists seek to mobilize more and more people in efforts to push back against all of the oppression we face, including for sure the deeply-rooted and pervasive economic humiliation and degradation. Does this make us "economistic"? Fine.

There is no question that the trade union movement has been badly damaged by years of bureaucracy, reformism, debilitating class-collaboration, in some cases outright corruption. But unions provide certain essential protections for workers on the job, wage struggles (sometimes effective) for better working conditions and living standards, and they still give voice to important values having to do with workers’ rights and the dignity of labor. For such reasons as these, they still have the allegiance of a significant fraction of workers. I argue in my book Work and Struggle: Voices from U.S. Labor Radicalism that there is an elemental radicalism at the very core of trade unionism (reflected, for over two hundred years, in the speeches and writings of fourteen men and women presented in my book), that the marginalization of this radicalism has brought the trade union movement close to death, and that the revival of the labor movement is dependent on the recovery and revitalization of the labor-radical subculture that flourished in the working-class movement from the 19th century down to the late 1940s.

Trade unions are hardly the be-all and end-all of the struggle for a better future. Like a majority of other workers, I am not presently part of a trade union. In Pittsburgh, I find myself in groups and coalitions struggling for positive changes within the capitalist framework -- which include Greens and feminists, certain fine anarchists, certain outstanding trade unionists, activists from black and white working-class communities, religious radicals -- and through such coalition efforts we sometimes pull off mass mobilizations that win partial victories. Such mobilizations and partial victories are not enough in and of themselves, but they can be part of a politicization and radicalization of more and more and more people, and that can be the basis for the more fundamental social change that we need.

The goal of rule by the people over the economic resources and institutions of our society -- that is, the goal of socialism -- needs more and more to permeate the movements and struggles we build, needs to become part of the consciousness of more and more layers of the working-class majority. When I work together with revolutionary socialists, in a common organization, it is easier for me to do this as we help build, to the best of our abilities, the movements and struggles against violence and oppression.

I am not persuaded that all of this (which is consistent with what I write in "Marxism and Organization") represents a dead-end. So I intend to continue on this path as long as I am able. If others are able to do good work, and to teach us valuable new lessons in one locale or another, under the banner of "autonomism," that's fine by me. And if there are such people in Pittsburgh who are prepared to join in and help build our struggles (in a manner that is thoughtful and comradely and instructive), they will be most welcome. But there is too much of value in the tradition of revolutionary Marxism for me to turn away from it.

The Bolshevik Experience and the "Leninist" Model

Although the following is written in response to Paul Le Blanc's "Marxism and Organisation" essay, it is not a line-for-line response, nor do I believe that he personally subscribes to all of the positions I attribute to "Leninists" in general. I have nothing but respect for him and his life's work (changing the world for the better); I have re-read his "Lenin and the Revolutionary Party" many times and referenced it occasionally as I wrote the following response. My hope is that it leads to comradely but sharp debate, something that is sorely lacking on the far left where insults, epithets, and name-calling are all too common.

"Leninists" project their conceptions of organization back in time onto the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party to the point that the actual historical development of the RSDLP becomes incomprehensible. There is a tendency to see the ultimate outcomes of the RSDLP's disputes as foredained and inevitable; this mistake is compounded when revolutionaries believe that we must form our own organizations based on those outcomes. What Lenin did or pushed for at any given time was determined not only by his own political preferences, but also by the actions of his opponents. For example, it was the refusal of the Mensheviks to abide by majority votes they lost on at the 1903 congress even though Lenin dutifully yielded on issues he lost votes on that compelled him to call for a third party congress.

Both the Menshevik and the Bolshevik wings of the RSDLP supported the same "revolutionary Marxist program" up until spring of 1917: overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy. Their differences concerned strategy, which, of course, had organizational ramifications (Lenin later correctly characterized the 1903 split as "an anticipation"). What divided the two factions? The Bolsheviks believed the working class should play the leading role in overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy; the Mensheviks argued (logically) that only the capitalist class could play the leading role in establishing their rule via a capitalist democracy (the Bolshevik idea of a worker-led revolution voluntarily handing power to their exploiters and enemies didn't make any sense to them).

The point is that the "revolutionary Marxist program" did not separate the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks for most of the RSDLP's history. What separated them was the actual class struggle and their practical orientation to it. When the program they shared with the Menshviks became an impediment to fighting for the interests of the working class, the Bolsheviks modified it.

This brings me to my second point.

"Democratic centralism" is not a special principle/mechanism practiced by the Bolsheviks. Lenin believed in organizing the party in a thoroughly democratic way. That, more than anything else, is what motivated Lenin in his struggle against the Mensheviks in 1903/1904. The Mensheviks expected Lenin and the Bolsheviks to respect the decisions of the party congress that they disagreed with; at the same time, the Mensheviks flouted the congress decisions they disagreed with politically. For Lenin, this was an intolerable situation that made a mockery of the very idea of a party, much less one where majority rule prevailed.

Lenin's commitment to democratic organizing meant that the central committees of both the RSDLP and of the Bolshevik faction were elected as individuals by secret ballot, not the slate system (that was introduced in 1921 at the 10th party congress where they banned factions ending the democratic norms that characterized the pre-revolutionary Bolsheviks) that to my knowledge all "Leninist" groups use today.

Electing the central committee in this way did something important. Party members elected and were led by the party's most outstanding and popular leaders, making it far more likely members would voluntarily implement decisions by their leaders. As individuals, these leaders had different approaches, different experiences, and different temperments; this heterogeneity gave rise to sharp debates and clear differences of opinion that taught the entire organization how to work through them in a comradely, productive, and practical way. It created a culture of debate, dissension, majority voting, and collective implementation to resolve contentious issues, many of which did not have a clear-cut "right" answer. This culture came straight from the top of the organization and filtered down into every branch, every cell, and involved every member.

A slate system, by contrast, encourages political conformity at the top (only "team players" need apply), which filters downward, robbing the party of its dynamism. "Leadership" becomes based on who is the loudest/most enthusiastic proponent of the line coming from the top, rather than a process of initiative, trial, error, learning, reassessment, and moving forward. Discipline ends up being a question of rote, obedience, and passive-but-non-believing submission; where those fail, administrative measures are applied. All of these are mental and moral poisons for revolutionaries; no organization can flourish in the long run in this manner.

Furthermore, if you can elect a slate of 12 Lenins prior to a revolution, great; but what if you elect 12 Zinovievs? Then what?

The thoroughly democratic practices and habits of the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP were decisive in 1917. It was only on the basis of this thorough democracy that the erroneous parts of the party's strategy could be modified and an outsider like Trotsky elected to the party's highest body, despite Lenin's uninterrupted political attacks on him for almost a decade and a half prior. An organization without democracy can't fix its program or be changed from below. Even if said organization's program is 110% correct, it is doomed to fail the test of revolution because only by fully airing differences within its ranks can it have a chance (not a guarantee) of coming to the right decision about what to do in the heat of the moment.

An organization with a faulty program that has the capacity to change and learn from its mistakes is in a much better position than one that has the right program but no capacity for critical self-reflection. I keep returning to this point because one of the single most damaging problems within the revolutionary wing of the socialist movement post-1917 has been an obsession with "defending the program." This obsession has led to feretting out "renegades" i.e. dissidents and elevating secondary political issues or tactical disagreements into all-out wars to "defend the revolutionary Marxist program."This is especially absured when tiny, uninfluential socialist organizations in one country split over strategy and tactics adopted by socialists in another country.

If we are going to be "obsessed" with anything, it should be with leading our side to victory in struggles, big and small, by any means necessary. Our measure of success should be the gains and reforms won by our initiatives, however small or fleeting. Only by accumulating those victories will our side rebuild its confidence, providing the basis for a revolution.

So if democracy and not a formally correct program is key, what about the Mensheviks? Why couldn't they just modify their program and march lockstep with Lenin and Trotsky to October?

By the time of the 1917 revolution, their faction had ossified around their orientation towards pressuring/encouraging/cheerleading Russia's capitalists to play a stronger role in the fight to overthrow Tsarism. This was particularly true after the defeat of the 1905 revolution (during 1905 the two wings of the RSDLP nearly united, giving lie to the notion that Lenin made up his mind to not unite with the Mensheviks prior to 1912 as part of his life's mission to create a "party of a new type"). Menshevik organizers tended to be middle class intellectuals or older, more conservative workers who renounced the "foolishness" of their 1905 days in favor of "realism". Bolshevik organizers tended to be younger and involved with militant actions (illegal strikes, underground organization) because their faction stressed that the working class could only get anything by its own strength and organization, whereas the Menshevik faction tended to downplay militant worker activism since it would scare big business into deserting the revolutionary cause.

The Bolshevik party emerged as an organic part of Russia's workers' movement and had a role in a huge array of workers' activities -- strikes, protests, demonstrations, social insurance societies, unions, student organizations, war industry committees (despite their hostility to WWI), and managed to win seats in Russia's sham legislature despite unfavorable electoral laws; it was part of the class from the party's inception; its program was derived from and a response to Russian conditions and problems; when conditions changed, so did the party's program. It succeeded as a revolutionary workers' party because it was rooted in the class it sought to lead and thoroughly democratic from top to bottom.

This is the key to understanding why the attempt to export conclusions drawn after almost two decades of trial and error in Russia in the early 20th century and impose them "from above" or a priori in the West via the Third/Fourth Internationals has led to complete failure on the part of all "Leninist" groups to lead working-class revolutions.

The early Comintern is often hailed as the high point in the international revolutionary workers' movement, and it was, but the reality is that the Comintern's practical influence on the course of the class struggle in other countries was decidedly, almost totally, negative during its "golden years". The KPD;s policies, actions, and slogans became subject to the decisions of an executive thousands of miles away from the front lines; that's putting aside the unprincipled, apolitical, and bureaucratic nonsense that went on before anybody knew who Stalin was.

Why anyone would look to a model that put the communist movement's Zinovievs and Bela Kuns in charge of mass workers parties that were being ably led by experienced revolutionaries of the calibre of Rosa Luxemburg (RIP), Paul Levi, Clara Zetkin, Antonio Gramsci, and Angelo Tasca is really beyond me. Louis Proyect wrote a piece that should be read carefully and absorbed by everyone who is a Marxist and wants a workers' revolution: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization/comintern_and_germany....

Is it any wonder the KPD leadership failed to learn how to think for itself and became ever-more dependent on Moscow's directives when the Comintern's executive continually decapitated the KPD leadership? This occurred at least three times before Lenin's death: Paul Levi was expelled in 1921 (with Lenin's approval), leaving the party in the hands of the ultra-lefts who were partly responsible for the "March Action"; Reuter-Friesland was expelled in 1922 for protesting against mistaken Comintern directives concerning Germany's union movement; and Brandler was removed from the KPD's leadership in 1923 after he failed to conjure up a German October at Moscow's behest.

These expulsions, coming on the heels of the murders of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknict, and Eugen Levine, meant that the KPD was finished as an independent force able to draw conclusions from its own experience and to respond with quick changes to its political "line" necessitated by rapid shifts in the balance of class forces. By 1923, the KPD was led by the leftovers of leftovers of leftovers; this was the fault of the Comintern and no one else. The development of self-confident national parties was crippled by the Comintern experiment, which deepend Russia's isolation. Trying to replicate this flawed model is the height of folly.

So what does all of the above mean? Is there nothing we can learn from the experience of the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) or the early Comintern?

It means a few things:

1) We have to analyze the Bolshevik party historically rather than project our (mis)conceptions about "Leninism" backwards in time by reading into debates that took place in 1903-1917 things that became clear later and after much struggle, the outcomes of which were not inevitable. Trying to implement Comintern resolutions from 1919-1921 (or worse yet, Lenin's prescriptions from 1902/1903) instead of finding our own path will only create sects, not a party of working class fighters and organizers capable of winning socialism. "Leninism" and "party-building" have been tried in dozens of countries in many, many different circumstances for the last 90 years, and not once has there been a success! Refusing to acknowledge the inherent flaws of the model we've inherited as the last/first word in how to organize and what to do by continually blaming unfavorable "objective conditions" isn't going to help.

2) There are no cut-and-dried organizational/practical schemas that can serve as templates how revolutionaries should organize, everywhere and always.

What has come to be known as "Leninism" -- setting up a disciplined "democratic centralist" organization with a "revolutionary Marxist program," a newspaper modeled on and motivated by Lenin's 1902 article "Where to Begin?" and his 1903 book "What Is To Be Done?", an excessive focus on selling said paper (the result of elevating the newspaper to a matter of principle and revolutionary duty rather than using it as one expedient among many), and creating a miniature cariacature of the Bolshevik party, complete with a dozen full-time salaried central committee members, many of whom occupy the same posts for decades(!), all in anticipation of a revolution even though working-class militancy has been at historic lows for two or three decades now -- needs to be discarded.

3) Our reality and modern-day conditions have to be our starting point for any discussion of how to organize and where/how to "draw boundaries." We are materialists, after all. We need to figure out the way forward for our class without relying (mechanically) on what Lenin and his contemporaries said and did. There's no use importing solutions from a bygone era when we are operating in a radically different context. We should use what we find useful in the experience of others but not copy anything wholesale. Above all else, we have to find ways to be rooted in the class struggle today, such as it exists, if we hope to actually influence its direction, rather than comment/lament on it from the outside.

4) "Party line" newspapers written by toy Leninist groups never have and never will command more than passing attention from workers, although they have managed to absorb a disproportionate amount of the time, energy, and attention of each generation of revolutionaries in the 90 years since the Russian revolution.

The American working class has a long history and tradition of humor, songs, icons, and much more we should be drawing from in our own media (see the disgruntled Whole Foods employee's farewell letter, for example). In our day and age, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter inform people's politics a lot more than "old" forms of propaganda like newspapers and pamphlets. We should be discussing how to best utilize the mediums people actually use to influence them politically, rather than figure out how to get them to conform to our preconceptions, especially when those preconceptions are largely erroneous or based on a flawed reading of history in the first place. The more we harp on Russia and the universality of Lenin's glorious struggle against liquidators, economists, oztovists, and Mensheviks, the more remote we become from the concerns, interests, and lives of workers in the here and now who are desperate for a party that won't sell them out or screw them over.

To sum up, we need to be flexible tactically and organizationally while remaining steadfast on our goals. Just as the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP developed answers and prescriptions to problems that arose in the course of leading workers in struggle, we must do the same. We would would do well to emulate the approach of Malcolm X who continually reinvented himself in the struggle to win black liberation, and shed the Nation of Islam's conservative sectarianism in the process. If the socialist movement could do the same, we'd be in a much better position.

If this conclusion is vague and unsatisfying, we can always turn back to the sect with its ready-made and unchanging answers to all problems. Personally, I'd rather not.

A dialogue on the characteristics of revolutionary groups

A dialogue on the characteristics of revolutionary groups

An exchange of nine recent comments by Pham Binh and John Riddell on this website explores how the example of the early Communist International can assist – or mislead – Marxist organizations in North America today. Totaling 5,000 words, this dialogue encompasses relationships to social movements, leadership selection, international centralization, and the example of the Communist Party [...]

Go to http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/a-dialogue-on-the-characteri...

The Bolshevik Experience and the "Leninist" Model

I agree with some of Binh's points and disagree with others.

Binh says: Both the Menshevik and the Bolshevik wings of the RSDLP supported the same "revolutionary Marxist program" up until spring of 1917: overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy. Their differences concerned strategy, which, of course, had organizational ramifications (Lenin later correctly characterized the 1903 split as "an anticipation"). What divided the two factions? The Bolsheviks believed the working class should play the leading role in overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy; the Mensheviks argued (logically) that only the capitalist class could play the leading role in establishing their rule via a capitalist democracy (the Bolshevik idea of a worker-led revolution voluntarily handing power to their exploiters and enemies didn't make any sense to them).

My response: The Bolsheviks believed workers AND PEASANTS would make the democratic revolution. They expected that the revolution would give rise to a provisional revolutionary government, supported by armed workers and peasants, that would carry out the confiscation of landed estates, and also implement reforms for the benefit of workers, such as the 8 hour working day.

Lenin said that this government would be democratic but not socialist. Why? Because the peasantry - the majority of the population - were not yet ready for socialism. Writing in 1905, Lenin said there was an "...immense peasant and petty bourgeois population which is capable of supporting the democratic revolution, but is at present not capable of supporting the socialist revolution". (Lenin Collected Works, vol. 8, p. 284)

Binh talks of "the Bolshevik idea of a worker-led revolution voluntarily handing power to their exploiters and enemies". What the Bolsheviks actually said was that the proposed provisional revolutionary government should conduct elections for a constituent assembly. Given that most peasants were probably not yet ready to vote for socialists at that stage, such an election would presumably have been won by bourgeois parties that would have set up a capitalist government.

Lenin's position seems quite reasonable to me. I think it was correct in 1905.

But by 1917 new developments had occurred. The first world war had shown the destructiveness of capitalism on a vast scale. The idea of a socialist revolution spreading rapidly on an international scale seemed both necessary and possible.

In this context the Bolshevik government that came to power in October 1917 disbanded the bourgeois-dominated constituent assembly and moved fairly rapidly to expropriate capitalist property.

In other revolutions the speed of the transition from the democratic to the socialist stage has varied depending on objective conditions, and on the attitudes (cautious, confident or impatient) of the leadership. For example, Cuba moved rapidly to expropriate capitalist property, whereas Venezuela has moved much more slowly.

Binh says: (during 1905 the two wings of the RSDLP nearly united, giving lie to the notion that Lenin made up his mind to not unite with the Mensheviks prior to 1912 as part of his life's mission to create a "party of a new type")

CS: I would add that as late as 1912, Lenin tried to unite with the "pro-party Mensheviks" led by Plekhanov. The latter was half-hearted about unity and soon drifted away. Nevertheless the attempt at unity helped the Bolsheviks win broad working class support.

Binh says: "Leninism" and "party-building" have been tried in dozens of countries in many, many different circumstances for the last 90 years, and not once has there been a success!

CS: This is too sweeping. It is true that Leninist parties have not made any successful revolutions in advanced capitalist countries without significant feudal remnants. But those leftists using other strategies (e.g. anarchists, non-party movement builders, etc) have not made revolutions either. And Leninist parties have at times played a positive role in the class struggle.

For example, the US SWP played a significant role in building the movement against the Vietnam war in the 1960s and 1970s.

It is true that the SWP later degenerated. This was due to a combination of factors. The end of the Vietnam war meant the end of the mass anti-war movement. This created a vacuum that needed to be filled with new forms of activity for the SWP. In reorienting to the new situation, the SWP made some serious mistakes.

It made certain errors of analysis of the US and world political situation, and it adopted some mistaken tactical and organisational decisions based on its wrong political analysis.

I don't think it is useful to blame these mistakes on "Leninism". I think we should distinguish between sectarian and non-sectarian interpretations of Leninism.

Bink says: There are no cut-and-dried organizational/practical schemas that can serve as templates how revolutionaries should organize, everywhere and always.

CS: I agree.

Binh says: In our day and age, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter inform people's politics a lot more than "old" forms of propaganda like newspapers and pamphlets.

CS: I don't think we should counterpose "old" and New" forms of propaganda. We can and should use both.

Binh says: To sum up, we need to be flexible tactically and organizationally while remaining steadfast on our goals. Just as the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP developed answers and prescriptions to problems that arose in the course of leading workers in struggle, we must do the same.

CS: I agree.

Again on the Folly of "Leninism"

"Binh says: 'Leninism' and 'party-building' have been tried in dozens of countries in many, many different circumstances for the last 90 years, and not once has there been a success!

"CS: This is too sweeping. It is true that Leninist parties have not made any successful revolutions in advanced capitalist countries without significant feudal remnants. But those leftists using other strategies (e.g. anarchists, non-party movement builders, etc) have not made revolutions either. And Leninist parties have at times played a positive role in the class struggle."

This is a weak response to my argument that we cannot reverse-engineer our way to a 1917-style workers' revolution by taking the ending point of the Bolshevik party as our starting point.

Leninists have "have at times played a positive role in the class struggle" sets the bar too low. After all, social democracy, union bureaucracies, the anarchists, and just about every political trend within the workers' movement has played a positive role at one time or another since the 1840s. The alternative to building a "Leninist" party is not necessarily anarchism, non-party movement building, etc.

The first step is to start with where we are actually at today -- an overly divided socialist movement, obsessed with recreating 1917 by selling papers, fighting over "the revolutionary Marxist program," and creating organizations dominated by full-time "professional revolutionaries," meanwhile the workers' movement is being hammered relentlessly and its current leadership is unable/unwilling to put up even a half-hearted fight.

"CS: I don't think it is useful to blame these mistakes on "Leninism". I think we should distinguish between sectarian and non-sectarian interpretations of Leninism."

Leninism is inherently sectarian because it takes makes 1917 (or the early Comintern) the starting/ending point of the discussion around socialist organization instead of starting/ending with the context in which revolutionaries are operating in today.

There is a contradiction between agreeing with the Marxist contention that "all that is solid melts into thin air" under capitalism and asserting that "Leninist" party-building remains the way to go as long as we have capitalism. Continuing to straddle that contradiction leads to paying lip service to the notion that “no cut-and-dried organizational/practical schemas that can serve as templates how revolutionaries should organize, everywhere and always” while in practice continuing along the dead-end path of “Leninist” party-building.

I am open to the idea that "Leninism" in the way that we understand it made some sense when tens of thousands of workers around the world flocked to the banner of Bolshevism in the decade or two after 1917 (this flood ended up in dead-end Stalinist parties). However, even at that time, it was highly flawed at best, leading to the creation of a multitude of "4th Internationals," over splits and expulsions over the class nature of the USSR, DPRK, PRC, etc., or strategy/tactics applied by revolutionaries in nations thousands of miles away, instead of spltting/uniting/expelling over developments in the actual class struggle of the country a given "Leninist" group was operating in.

This habit of “Leninists” has nothing in common historically with the practices of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

For example, Lenin didn't try to engineer a split with Bukharin and his co-thinkers despite their disagreement on the right of nations to self-determination. The RSDLP's position on that question was enshrined in the RSDLP's 1903 program; therefore, their dissenting opinion would place them outside a "Leninist" organization today because nowadays membership is conditioned on agreement with party's program. Here again we see how for the RSDLP the "revolutionary Marxist program" was conditional, negotiable, flexible, and historically conditioned.

Working-class vanguard parties are not created by trying to win workers in ones and twos to permanent revolution, the class nature of the USSR, why Pablo was right/wrong, why entryism is right/wrong, why we must continue to uphold/denounce the 1938 Transitional Program, why Tony Cliff was right/wrong, why such-and-such socialist groups are petty-bourgeois opportunist reactionary apologists/enablers of union bureaucracies/imperialism.

Working-class vanguard parties are created by deep and organic involvement in the actually existing class struggle, however meager, however "apolitical," however "backward", however "low level" that struggle is.

Consider why no Leninist organization has grown to influence the direction of the class struggle in places where the level of militancy is much higher than in the U.S. like Greece or Latin America. It’s not because said organizations are making tactical mistakes or adopting the wrong political line, it’s because their methods, approach, and model is foreign, alien, and did not organically originate from the experience of the working class in those countries.

Marx long ago warned against us trying to shape and mould the workers' movement according our conceptions, principles, and ideas. We would do well to heed him.

left unity

Binh says: "The first step is to start with where we are actually at today -- an overly divided socialist movement, obsessed with recreating 1917 by selling papers, fighting over "the revolutionary Marxist program," and creating organizations dominated by full-time "professional revolutionaries," meanwhile the workers' movement is being hammered relentlessly and its current leadership is unable/unwilling to put up even a half-hearted fight."

I agree we have "an overly divided socialist movement". How do we overcome this?

When considering the possibilities of left unity, several questions arise:
* Who do we want to unite with?
* What is the political basis of unity? What do we need to agree on before unity is possible? What questions can we agree to leave for future discussions within a united organisation?
* What form should the united organisation take?

I won't try to give a comprehensive answer to these questions in this short contribution. (The answers may vary in different circumstances)

But I will say that I don't think we have to agree on every aspect of the world political situation. For example, we don't have to agree on the nature of the governments of Cuba and Venezuela. However, I think we do have to agree on opposing imperialist attacks on Cuba and Venezuela.

Binh says: "Leninism is inherently sectarian because it takes makes 1917 (or the early Comintern) the starting/ending point of the discussion around socialist organization instead of starting/ending with the context in which revolutionaries are operating in today."

I am not sure whether the differences over "Leninism" are real or merely terminological. Is it just that Binh criticises "Leninism" whereas I criticise "sectarian interpretations of Leninism"? Or are there major differences over what to do today? I don't know Binh's views in enough detail to decide.

Binh says: "Working-class vanguard parties are created by deep and organic involvement in the actually existing class struggle, however meager, however "apolitical," however "backward", however "low level" that struggle is."

The class struggle in Australia is certainly at a "low level". I agree that we should support, participate in, and help to build whatever struggles do occur - union struggles, campaigns for indigenous rights and refugee rights, anti-war and international solidarity movements, environmental campaigns, etc.

Left groups are in fact active, to varying degrees, in all these campaigns. But this does not, in itself, resolve the problem of building a strong and united socialist organisation.

The left remains divided. While tactical differences can occur within particular campaigns, the divisions on the left are more due to differences over historical and theoretical issues, and over some current international issues (e.g. attitude to the Cuban and Venezuelan governments).

We need to convince the members of left organisations that these differences are not a sufficient basis for the existence of separate parties. Once this is accepted, then we can move on to discuss the political basis and organisational form of left unity.

Leninism and Vanguard Parties

LU: "I am not sure whether the differences over 'Leninism' are real or merely terminological. Is it just that Binh criticises 'Leninism' whereas I criticise 'sectarian interpretations of Leninism'? Or are there major differences over what to do today? I don't know Binh's views in enough detail to decide."

My view is this: Leninism as we know it -- recruiting people to an organization with a "revolutionary Marxist program" that sells a newspaper modeled ostensibly on Iskra, has a handful or two of full-timers leading it, all in anticipation of a future workers' revolution -- is inherently sectarian.

We have learned the wrong lesson from the Russian revolution on the question of how to organize a political party. It is wrong to abstract one moment (fall of 1917) from the history of Bolshevism and turn that into a supra-historical guide for how to organize in all places and at all times.

Consider this: if someone had come to Lenin in 1898 or after the 1903 Congress and said: "Comrade! The split with the Mensheviks is final! They are reformists who will betray the interests of the working class in the impending revolution. You must never unite with the Mensheviks and rally as many RSDLP members around the program of socialist revolution as possible because without a revolutionary party, the workers are doomed to defeat" Lenin would've dismissed them as a wingnut, and rightly so. If Lenin had tried to build a Leninist party instead of trying to engage with the living, actually existing currents and trends within Russia's workers' movement in the way that he did, there would have been no 1917.

Leninism is based on a highly flawed reading of the history of the RSDLP and is fundamentally ahistorical. I may write up an article to elaborate more on just exactly what I mean and how I came to this conclusion.

LU: "The class struggle in Australia is certainly at a 'low level'. I agree that we should support, participate in, and help to build whatever struggles do occur - union struggles, campaigns for indigenous rights and refugee rights, anti-war and international solidarity movements, environmental campaigns, etc. Left groups are in fact active, to varying degrees, in all these campaigns. But this does not, in itself, resolve the problem of building a strong and united socialist organisation."

Agreed. I don't think any Leninist would oppose or refuse to build the various struggles you mention. That is not what my disagreement centers around.

Here is another way of thinking about: the difference between a revolutionary party and a vanguard party. I think there is a difference between the two. The former is one with a "revolutionary Marxist program," like the Bolsheviks post-spring 1917, that can and will be able to lead a socialist revolution; the latter is a broader term that includes the Bolsheviks post-spring 1917 but would also include the Black Panther Party, the Communist Parties in post-WWII France, Italy, and Greece, the pre-WWI Industrial Workers of the World in the U.S.

Most of these groups did not have a "revolutionary Marxist program"; nonetheless, they encompassed some of the most conscious and most militant elements of their respective working classes and had tremendous prestige, credibility, and authority among non-members. Lenin was on to something when he listed "heroism" as one of the first preconditions for a successful vanguard party that could overthrow capitalism in his book, Left-Wing Communism.

People didn't join those groups because they were Leninist, because they had the "right line" on a given question, or because they enjoyed reading praise for the North Korean dictatorship (the Black Panthers' paper regularly hailed Stalinist dictators for their "anti-imperialism" and "socialism"); they joined those groups because they were in the forefront of important struggles, leading tremendous fights against racism, fascism, and/or capitalism. Many of these struggles were hampered by the shortcomings of the politics of the groups in question (the I.W.W. refused to sign contracts, for example), but political ideology wasn't primary, struggle was, results were.

The Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP was the vanguard, the most politically conscious, militant section, of the Russian working class; it emerged as a party of the class; it fought for the interests of the working class and all oppressed people; and it was organized democratically. All of this -- not adherence to a "revolutionary Marxist program" or selling a newspaper -- is what made 1917 possible.

That said, I appreciate your thoughtful reply. The three questions you ask are the key. The answers depend on context. Why there should be so many competing Leninist organizations in the same country is something they ought to think long and hard about.

Binh's idealism

Binh tells us: "Working-class vanguard parties are created by deep and organic involvement in the actually existing class struggle, however meager, however "apolitical," however "backward", however "low level" that struggle is."

He doesn't provide any examples to back up his dubious claim that "working-class vanguard parties" can be successfully built out of an arbitrary low levels of class consciousness and class struggle. That's a bit like a microbiologist telling us that they've discovered a miracle bacterium that grows and multiplies on a sterile petri dish.

Here, he sharply contradicts his earlier plea to abandon caricatured
attempts to build Leninist parties. In doing so, he misses the whole point about why it has been do damn difficult to build such parties in the imperialist countries since the demise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: the relative stability and prosperity of the advanced capitalist countries during the past two decades.

Put simply, there has been nothing like the deep crisis of capitalist rule that radicalised the working masses of Tsarist Russia and drove them into the arms of the Bolsheviks. Nor anything like the contrast of filth and opulence in pre-Chavez Venezuela that created the conditions for the opening of the first post-1989 socialist revolution.

The poverty of the objective conditions is the elephant in the room, not the dogmatic attachment to organisational schemas by those who seek to learn from the Bolsheviks. These objective conditions include what we call "the subjective factor", that is, the level of class consciousness and combativeness of the masses. These are at historically low levels in the West for the time being.

I don't believe it's possible to build "working-class vanguard parties" out of "the actually existing class struggle, however meagre, however 'apolitical', however 'backward', however 'low level'", if "the actually existing class struggle" is so "apolitical", "backward" and "low level" that nobody has been able to build any kind of progressive activist party oriented to mass action, let alone a working-class vanguard party.

Binh appears to assume, without foundation, that there is no lower limit on the level of spontaneous struggle and elementary class consciousness capable of sustaining the construction of a working-class vanguard party that's worthy of the name. How can anti-capitalists have "deep and organic involvement", as he puts it, in something that's shallow and ephemeral? It seems to me Binh has fallen into empty phrasemongering, a Leninist phrase that has withstood the test of time.

Better intelligent idealism than stupid materialism

"Binh tells us: 'Working-class vanguard parties are created by deep and organic involvement in the actually existing class struggle, however meager, however 'apolitical,' however 'backward", however 'low level' that struggle is."

"He doesn't provide any examples to back up his dubious claim that 'working-class vanguard parties' can be successfully built out of an arbitrary low levels of class consciousness and class struggle. That's a bit like a microbiologist telling us that they've discovered a miracle bacterium that grows and multiplies on a sterile petri dish."

The RSDLP is one example. The 1905 I.W.W. is another. The Chinese Communist party was founded in the early 20s by a handful of people; by 1926, they were a mass party. I guess all that is just dubious history.

"Here, he sharply contradicts his earlier plea to abandon caricatured attempts to build Leninist parties. In doing so, he misses the whole point about why it has been do damn difficult to build such parties in the imperialist countries since the demise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: the relative stability and prosperity of the advanced capitalist countries during the past two decades."

This is economic determinism.

"Put simply, there has been nothing like the deep crisis of capitalist rule that radicalised the working masses of Tsarist Russia and drove them into the arms of the Bolsheviks. Nor anything like the contrast of filth and opulence in pre-Chavez Venezuela that created the conditions for the opening of the first post-1989 socialist revolution."

If a Leninist party can only be built in "ideal" conditions, then Leninists must sit and wait for such conditions to reappear. This argument makes sense coming from someone who thinks the class struggle is comparable to lab work.

"The poverty of the objective conditions is the elephant in the room, not the dogmatic attachment to organisational schemas by those who seek to learn from the Bolsheviks. These objective conditions include what we call 'the subjective factor', that is, the level of class consciousness and combativeness of the masses. These are at historically low levels in the West for the time being."

The high point of working-class militancy in the United States was in 1945, judging by the strike statistics for that year, and yet the Socialist Workers' Party (and the Workers' Party which split from it) was unable to develop into a party with mass influence on the workers' movement. Why?

"I don't believe it's possible to build 'working-class vanguard parties' out of 'the actually existing class struggle, however meagre, however 'apolitical', however 'backward', however 'low level'', if 'the actually existing class struggle' is so 'apolitical', 'backward' and 'low level' that nobody has been able to build any kind of progressive activist party oriented to mass action, let alone a working-class vanguard party."

This statement is a perfect example of the circular defeatism that afflicts Leninists: we can't build a vanguard party of workers because the level of struggle is too low, the level of struggle is so low because there is no vanguard party of workers.

"Binh appears to assume, without foundation, that there is no lower limit on the level of spontaneous struggle and elementary class consciousness capable of sustaining the construction of a working-class vanguard party that's worthy of the name. How can anti-capitalists have 'deep and organic involvement', as he puts it, in something that's shallow and ephemeral? It seems to me Binh has fallen into empty phrasemongering, a Leninist phrase that has withstood the test of time."

I'll let the striking workers at Verizon know that their struggle is shallow and ephemeral. Maybe they'll be convinced and buy your newspaper.

Feet on the ground or fools paradise?

According to Binh, the reason it has been so damn difficult to build working class vanguard parties in the advanced capitalist countries during the past two decades is that people who call themselves Leninists have the wrong approach.

The implication is that if we all just adopt the correct approach, such parties could materialise out of even the historically low levels of working class political consciousness and combativeness in advanced capitalist countries such as the US and Australia today. He labels me a "stupid materialist" for pointing out that this is sheer idealism in the concrete conditions of today: a protracted low ebb in the class struggle in such countries and historically low levels of mass confidence in the idea that socialism is a realistic, attractive and viable alternative to capitalism.

As examples of working class vanguard parties being built in arbitrarily low levels of class struggle, he mentions the RSDLP, the 1905 I.W.W. (in the US presumably) and the Chinese Communist party which "was founded in the early 20s by a handful of people; by 1926, they were a mass party." These examples show that in the concrete conditions in each of these three cases, it was possible to build these revolutionary organisations as they were built. Nothing more. It certainly does not prove that there is no lower limit to the degree of class struggle and class consciousness needed to initiate, advance or hang onto a working class vanguard party at whatever stage of its development.

There may be concrete historical conditions in which it is simply not possible to advance such a project for the time being because the constituency out of which such a party could be built does not exist. Attempts to build something out of nothing always ends up indulging in what Lenin called "phrasemongering and clowning".

If this is the case, and I have no doubt that these are the conditions we face in Australia today, pointing the finger at self-described Leninists and telling them they have the wrong approach, they're too schematic, sectarian, preachy, hard, soft, fluffy or furry misses the point: rebuilding class-struggle left parties can only be done when there is a higher level of what Lenin called spontaneity. Purely local or sporadic or defensive or single-issue struggles that mostly end in defeat won't create the human material needed to revitalise the left and overcome decades of the relentless grinding away of class struggle consciousness and organisation. In Australia, and I suspect the US and perhaps most other advanced capitalist countries as well.

To allow for the possibility that conditions may not be propitious to advance class-struggle parties in certain circumstances, and to draw the provisional conclusion that this is indeed the case on the basis of experience, one's own and others', is not "stupid materialism". It's just materialism.

Does this mean, then, that "If a Leninist party can only be built in "ideal" conditions, then Leninists must sit and wait for such conditions to reappear. This argument makes sense coming from someone who thinks the class struggle is comparable to lab work."? Yes and no. Of courser there are no ideal conditions for party building except in comic books, so that's easy to dismiss. I've dedicated about 15 of my 37 years to such parties and conditions were never ideal. So no, Leninists shouldn't wait for ideal conditions to do anything, even brushing one's teeth.

If you can build a real Leninist party in your country, I'd say go for it because such parties are certainly needed. On the other hand, only someone with a quasi-religious attachment to "building the party", any party, would persist in doing something that isn't working, that's useless or even counter productive. When form becomes ritualised over content and a means to an end becomes transformed into an end in itself, you have to reassess what you're doing. If it's not possible to build a class struggle vanguard party for the time being there are myriad ways Leninists can make a useful contribution to the future prospects for such parties when it actually becomes possible to build them, rather than just argue about them. There is certainly no need to "sit and wait for such conditions to reappear".

Is the class struggle comparable to lab work? There's at least one parallel: it pays to have a scientific approach. By this I mean keeping one's feet on the ground and trying to keep a sense of proportion about what is possible and what isn't in a given situation, and the balance between the objective and subjective factors. Binh seems to think it's all just a matter of will and the right approach. Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. Knowing the difference is the art of politics.

According to Binh, my idea that there may be a lower limit on the level of class consciousness and class struggle needed to even begin to build a working class vanguard party (rather than a sect of one sort or another) is "a perfect example of the circular defeatism that afflicts Leninists: we can't build a vanguard party of workers because the level of struggle is too low, the level of struggle is so low because there is no vanguard party of workers."

The first part of the dilemma Binh poses (in order to dismiss it) is true in my opinion, at least in Australia for the time being: we can't build a vanguard party of workers because the level of struggle is too low. The second part of his dilemma is circular: obviously, if there were such a party its existence would demonstrate that, well, it's possible. In any case the lack of such a party cannot explain the low level of the class struggle, because unless a vanguard party reaches the size and influence of, say, the Cuban Communist Party, it cannot influence the course of the class struggle such that it weighs as a determining factor in this struggle.

Far from illustrating the alleged "circular defeatism" of "Leninists", Binh's dilemma misrepresents the logic of my argument.

This does NOT mean that Leninist (or enthusiasts for building working class vanguard parties or whatever) can't have an influence on the course on the class struggle, unless we literally sit around and do nothing. But let's keep a sense of proportion about this. A few hundred or even a few thousand people don't weigh much in the scales of US or Australian capitalism when we're talking about 300 and 20 million people respectively. Unless you think we're supermen and superwomen, we do need to learn how to "wait" for better conditions to build working class vanguard parties. Waiting does not mean doing nothing, it means doing something productive that contributes in some meaningful way to this goal, whether as an individual or as part of an organisation of some kind.

"I'll let the striking workers at Verizon know that their struggle is shallow and ephemeral. Maybe they'll be convinced and buy your newspaper." That's an appeal to apolitical moralism that doesn;t deserve to be taken seriously. Surely Binh would not deny that the class struggle in the US today is at an historically low ebb?

Finally, Bihn asks: "The high point of working-class militancy in the United States was in 1945, judging by the strike statistics for that year, and yet the Socialist Workers' Party (and the Workers' Party which split from it) was unable to develop into a party with mass influence on the workers' movement. Why?"

Err ... maybe that had something to do with STALINISM? With the dominance of the Stalinists over the anti-Stalinist radicals in the US labour movement at the time? I think so, having read Jim Cannon on the subject. So who is the real economic determinist? Binh, evidently.

Vanguards

"According to Binh, the reason it has been so damn difficult to build working class vanguard parties in the advanced capitalist countries during the past two decades is that people who call themselves Leninists have the wrong approach. The implication is that if we all just adopt the correct approach, such parties could materialise out of even the historically low levels of working class political consciousness and combativeness in advanced capitalist countries such as the US and Australia today."

That this process would be easy or quick was never implied by my argument that "Leninism" is fatally flawed political strategy. The funny thing is that Leninists fail to realize, acknowledge, or grapple with the fact that the Bolshevik party was not built along Leninist lines -- namely, they did not make agreement with the program for socialist revolution the basis of their organizing, they did not try to build their organization based on a particular view of past revolutions in other countries, and they did not make a fetish of selling a newspaper (not selling a paper in today's Leninist groups can get you expelled).

The Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP began as a party of the class and had a program of bourgeois revolution, a far cry from what their would-be imitators would have us believe.

"There may be concrete historical conditions in which it is simply not possible to advance such a project for the time being because the constituency out of which such a party could be built does not exist. Attempts to build something out of nothing always ends up indulging in what Lenin called 'phrasemongering and clowning'."

Ah, thank you for clarifying that there is no working class struggle in the U.S. or Australia. I'll have to keep that in mind every time I see strikers, protestors, or others fighting austerity.

Again, the level of class struggle is much higher in Greece and much of Latin America, so why haven't Leninist groups there been able to grow significantly in terms of numbers or in terms of influence on the class struggle? I have yet to hear an answer from any Leninist.

"If this is the case, and I have no doubt that these are the conditions we face in Australia today, pointing the finger at self-described Leninists and telling them they have the wrong approach, they're too schematic, sectarian, preachy, hard, soft, fluffy or furry misses the point: rebuilding class-struggle left parties can only be done when there is a higher level of what Lenin called spontaneity. Purely local or sporadic or defensive or single-issue struggles that mostly end in defeat won't create the human material needed to revitalise the left and overcome decades of the relentless grinding away of class struggle consciousness and organisation. In Australia, and I suspect the US and perhaps most other advanced capitalist countries as well."

Yes and no. It was out of these kinds of partial struggles that the RSDLP was built, not all of them were successful. The American I.W.W. waged tremendous and heroic fights but they lost almost as much as they won (it didn't help that they opposed signing contracts with capitalists in principle as well as refused to create closed shops).

"On the other hand, only someone with a quasi-religious attachment to 'building the party', any party, would persist in doing something that isn't working, that's useless or even counter productive. When form becomes ritualised over content and a means to an end becomes transformed into an end in itself, you have to reassess what you're doing."

That's all I'm calling for.

"Is the class struggle comparable to lab work? There's at least one parallel: it pays to have a scientific approach. By this I mean keeping one's feet on the ground and trying to keep a sense of proportion about what is possible and what isn't in a given situation, and the balance between the objective and subjective factors. Binh seems to think it's all just a matter of will and the right approach. Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. Knowing the difference is the art of politics."

What I "seem to think" and what I actually put forward are two different things. I'm no voluntarist, nor am I under any illusion that it will take time, effort, victories, and defeats for vanguard-type parties to emerge. My argument is that Leninism is fatally flawed and will never lead to the creation of such organizations. We have almost 90 years of history to back that up. The early years of the Communist International are different because millions of workers flocked to the Comintern's banner, so there was a real revolutionary movement, a material basis underpinning the efforts to create Bolshevik-type parties in that era. But those days are long gone and unfortunately we have to start over in material terms.

"Surely Binh would not deny that the class struggle in the US today is at an historically low ebb?"

I've only pointed this out repeatedly in this thread and in my original comment. For whatever reason, you seem to think we are in disagreement on this issue when we are not.

"Finally, Bihn asks: 'The high point of working-class militancy in the United States was in 1945, judging by the strike statistics for that year, and yet the Socialist Workers' Party (and the Workers' Party which split from it) was unable to develop into a party with mass influence on the workers' movement. Why?'

"Err ... maybe that had something to do with STALINISM? With the dominance of the Stalinists over the anti-Stalinist radicals in the US labour movement at the time? I think so, having read Jim Cannon on the subject. So who is the real economic determinist? Binh, evidently."

The U.S. Communist Party pursued a policy of strikebreaking and class peace even after the end of WWII. Clearly the CP's influence over the American working class was not terribly great since quite a large number of workers went against the no-strike pledge and then struck in even greater numbers after the war's end, going against the CP line. Again, why wasn't the SWP/WP able to build on that and begin to seriously undermine the CP's influence?

ojective conditions and party building

Marce (in his message of 11 August) says that Binh: "...misses the whole point about why it has been so damn difficult to build such parties in the imperialist countries since the demise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: the relative stability and prosperity of the advanced capitalist countries during the past two decades."

Certainly the relative economic stability and prosperity of the imperialist countries prior to the 2008 global financial crisis was one factor helping to explain the limited success of socialist parties.

But socialists do not focus exclusively on economic issues. The environmental crisis, war, etc are part of our critique of capitalism and part of the motivation for people becoming socialists.

Since 2008, economic crisis has been added to the other objective conditions potentially favourable to the growth of socialist consciousness and socialist organisations in imperialist countries.

However there are still some major obstacles to the development of socialist consciousness in these countries.

Firstly, there is the legacy of Stalinism, which discredited socialism. The restoration of capitalism in the former Stalinist states has not solved this problem but instead has added to it, by making capitalism appear all-powerful and beyond any hope of challenge. To most people there seems to be no viable alternative.

Secondly, there is the low level of trade union struggle. (This is the case in Australia, and I believe it is the case in many other imperialist countries, though perhaps not in all of them).

The low level of union struggle is partly due to harsh anti-union laws. Another factor is the increased ability of capitalists to shift production between countries, enabling them to intimidate workers by threatening to permanently close the workplace.

In Australia, the Accord between the Labor government and the union leadership in the 1980s helped undermine unionism. The government attacked any union that defied the Accord, with the support of most union leaders.

A third factor limiting the growth of socialist consciousness is the sectarianism of many left organisations, which often put too much emphasis on their differences and not enough on what they have in common.

Marce says: "The poverty of the objective conditions is the elephant in the room, not the dogmatic attachment to organisational schemas by those who seek to learn from the Bolsheviks. These objective conditions include what we call "the subjective factor", that is, the level of class consciousness and combativeness of the masses. These are at historically low levels in the West for the time being."

Popular skepticism towards socialism can be considered an "objective condition", since popular attitudes created by big historical events can not be quickly turned around by the actions of small left groups. Whether this skepticism will linger on for many years, or whether it will decline rapidly as the capitalist crisis deepens, only time will tell.

However, the fact that the broad masses are skeptical about socialism does not mean it is pointless to build a socialist party. There is still a potential audience for socialist ideas, particularly amongst activists campaigning against the various injustices created by capitalism. To reach such people, a socialist party needs to be actively involved in such campaigns.

Rebuilding union activism is an uphill battle. Campaigning against the anti-union laws is one aspect of this struggle. Building solidarity with those outbreaks on struggle that do occur is another.

The low level of working class struggle and socialist consciousness is not a reason for giving up on building a socialist organisation. There is however a need for such organisations to become more effective. This includes overcoming sectarianism and moving towards left unity.

a vanguard in practice

http://seasol.net/

This group organizes to fight against slumlords, landlords, corporate bosses, and small business owners who take advantage of working people. I think this is a great example of the "model" I put forward that stands in stark contrast to Leninism.

Objective conditions

Cameron: The poverty of the objective conditions is the elephant in the room, not the dogmatic attachment to organisational schemas by those who seek to learn from the Bolsheviks.

---

All I can say is that I lived through a period when millions of Americans were driven to revolutionary conclusions--the 60s and early 70s. If we enter such a period again--as surely we will--god help us from following the formulas of James P. Cannon. Or any other latter-day "Marxist-Leninist".

Conditions & collaboration

Chris Slee wrote: "The low level of working class struggle and socialist consciousness is not a reason for giving up on building a socialist organisation. There is however a need for such organisations to become more effective. This includes overcoming sectarianism and moving towards left unity."

I agree that there isn't ever such an objectively low level of struggle that building a socialist organisation becomes impossible or pointless. Certainly, the low level of radicalism in Australia continues to be impeded by the dullifying and pacifying effects of Australian imperialism. But that doesn't mean that the basis for working with workers and students interested in a variety of progressive issues - including international solidarity and anti-racist issues, always important in radicalising Australian youth and workers - nor recruiting them to socialist organising - has suddenly vanished. (However, the more you retreat from the analysis that party-building is possible and try to persuade others of this, the harder you do make it. And the more you attempt to avoid fixing problems by blaming the objective situation, the worse those problems become.)

Moreover, we should take note of the far greater levels of cooperation that exist now in campaign groups around such progressive issues, compared to about a decade ago - even five years ago. The collapse of the Socialist Alliance, and the attempts by most former partners to take stock of what went wrong, and figure out the best ways of increasing socialist collaboration right now, has been very effective in generating a very real thoughtfulness about working together and appreciation of each other.

Hence, I disagree with Chris's implied point that if all socialists are not currently in the one organisation, the culprit is sectarianism. Not only is this hugely negative, in overlooking the very important gains we've made in socialist collaboration over the last 5 years, but also it's wrong about what sectarianism is. Sectarianism is the refusal to work with others on points on which we have agreement simply because we have other political differences. Given the strong levels of socialist collaboration on Palestinian solidarity, refugee rights and various other issues (differing from city to city, according to the state of the campaign groups and level of socialist resources), I see an overall rejection of sectarianism.

I also think it's important to avoid any sense of "if you're not with us, you're not pro-unity" sentiment - although this may not have been what Chris meant. We could all say that we'd like other socialists to join our group (because we think our group has the best political and organisational approach), but if others evidently don't feel it would help them build what they feel is needed, perhaps we need to listen to that, and take note of the experiences of trying to build the SA, which showed that for a unified socialist project at least, a much greater level of working-class radicalisation will be needed.

Conditions & collaboration

Virginia writes: "there isn't ever such an objectively low level of struggle that building a socialist organisation becomes impossible or pointless."

Ever? This sounds more like a statement of faith than a reading of historical or current reality. Unfortunately, there are no absolutes in the real world so a Marxist must admit that it's at least possible that an objectively low level of struggle could make building a socialist party impossible.

Virginia: "Certainly, the low level of radicalism in Australia continues to be impeded by the dullifying and pacifying effects of Australian imperialism. But that doesn't mean that the basis for working with workers and students interested in a variety of progressive issues - including international solidarity and anti-racist issues, always important in radicalising Australian youth and workers - nor recruiting them to socialist organising - has suddenly vanished."

Again, a timeless affirmation. But the facts, reality, has shown that for 8 or 9 years the conditions have been that of a political deep freeze and several valiant attempts to build socialist parties have failed in that time. These groups have tried the gamut of approaches, so the question of party building method can't be the issue. The elephant in the room really is the objective situation.

Virginia: "... the more you retreat from the analysis that party-building is possible and try to persuade others of this, the harder you do make it. And the more you attempt to avoid fixing problems by blaming the objective situation, the worse those problems become."

How does facing facts ever make things more difficult? Doesn't an honest, sobre reading of the actual conditions better enable us to decide on the correct course of action? It certainly can't make things worse as Virginia claims.

Perhaps if we faced up to reality and stopped blaming ourselves and each other we might be able to rebuild some real left unity. The dogged persistance in building one's own facade of a group and repeating the mantra that "we must always build the party in any and all possible circumstances" continues to blind Marxists from the reality of today's conditions and artificially isolates us from each other.

A party is more necessary now than ever. I think we all agree on that. But I think it would be best for us to admit that it's just not possible to build one, *por ahora*, to stop faking it and to try to rebuild some of the trust and political links that have broken down over these lean years so that when things start to shake up a bit in this country - perhaps sooner than any of us imagine - we will be *better* positioned to take advantage of them.

Where we're at

As Virginia points out, the basis for building revolutionary socialist parties in Australia hasn't suddenly vanished. But it has gradually declined over the past decade to the point where all attempts to build such parties are going nowhere, regardless of their ideological nuances.

The empirical evidence suggests, then, that this is not a period in which revolutionary socialist organisations can grow because the background level of radicalisation is below the critical threshold. Socialism isn't cool, parties aren't cool and the very low level of struggle doesn't give people a sense of the power of ordinary people to change society through mass action. It's as simple as that.

For radicals of all political traditions the watchword is not growth but survival: hanging on for better times. Survival takes many forms. For some it means membership in one of the several socialist organisations, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses and all of which contribute something positive to the socialist cause.

Loyalty to tradition, solidarity and the fact that organisations multiply the effectiveness of individual efforts all offer survival advantages over the tyranny of isolation. Even deeply flawed far-left organisations with all kinds of bizarre baggage can preserve certain radical traditions quite effectively. All these groups offer their members a "home", a sense of belonging and a modest livelihood for the full-time staff.

For others, such as myself, none of these groups seem worth committing to because their flaws outweigh their virtues. Given the wretched state of the far left groups these days it may be the case that one can make a more effective contribution to the socialist cause in the here and now by directing one's efforts elsewhere for the time being.

This is heresy to those who elevate the party principle into a dogma. But when the imperative is survival, it may be better to put on a life jacket and chance it in the icy waters of neoliberalism than crowd into a lifeboat where everyone is paddling in different directions and some idiot is burning the oars to keep warm.

I am not suggesting that everyone who is committed to a socialist group should hand in their membership card and do their own thing. All these groups contribute something positive to the socialist cause, and for the members of these groups the organisation is their lifeboat.

If you feel that the best contribution you can make to the struggle for socialism is by being a member of socialist group X, I salute you. I'm not interested in going around sticking thumb tacks in the rubber of your lifeboat. If I think your group is wrong about something I'll say so. Socialist Alternative, I think you're wrong about Cuba. Socialist Alliance, do everyone a favour and drop the alliance posture, you're just another left group and you're not fooling anyone.

Others still are hostile in principle to any variant of Leninist or "Leninist" organisation.

We all look forward, I think, to a real turn-around in the class struggle. Let's drink to that.

conditions for socialist unity

Virginia says: "We could all say that we'd like other socialists to join our group (because we think our group has the best political and organisational approach), but if others evidently don't feel it would help them build what they feel is needed, perhaps we need to listen to that, and take note of the experiences of trying to build the SA, which showed that for a unified socialist project at least, a much greater level of working-class radicalisation will be needed."

In my view, the things that are needed for a "unified socialist project" are:
1. a sufficient level of political agreement;
2. a willingness to unite.

What is a "sufficient" level of political agreement? This can vary depending on the particular situation.

For example, the program of the July 26 Movement in Cuba was democratic, not socialist. It called for the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship and the introduction of democratic measures such as land reform. Later, after the fall of Batista, the July 26 Movement split into socialist and capitalist wings. The level of political agreement that had been sufficient during the fight against Batista was no longer sufficient in the new situation.

Today in the imperialist countries many left groups set the bar of political agreement too high. They make agreement on just about everything a precondition for unity. For example, many groups would not consider uniting in a single party with people who have a different view of the nature of the Cuban state.

Virginia says we should "take note of the experience of trying to build SA [Socialist Alliance]". I will make a few comments on this.

SA was formed in 2001 when 8 left groups came together. It also attracted hundreds on non-aligned individuals.

The two main groups involved were the Democratic Socialist Party and the International Socialist Organisation. Relations between the two groups had been fairly hostile previously.

The DSP and ISO had somewhat different conceptions of what SA should be. The ISO saw it primarily as an electoral alliance. The DSP saw it as a potential step towards a united socialist party. Nevertheless, agreement was reached that SA should combine electoral and non-electoral activity.

The 8 groups remained in existence, each with its own newspaper or magazine and its own meetings. In addition there were meetings of Socialist Alliance branches where members of all the groups, and non-aligned members, came together.

In general it proved possible to reach a fairly high level of agreement on policy for SA. However there were a series of debates around SA structure and organisation. These disputes culminated in most of the affiliated groups leaving SA (around the years 2005-2006,I think).

The DSP and a large part of the non-aligned members remained in SA, which continued in a different form. See http://www.socialist-alliance.org/

Why did the split occur? What lessons can we draw from this experience?

Firstly, the DSP and the ISO, the two main components of SA, had a long history of mutual antagonism. This was not a good starting point for left unity. These attitudes never totally disappeared, despite some good experiences of working together in SA.

I agree with Virginia that building up a climate of collaboration and mutual respect is very important. It is a precondition for renewed steps towards left unity.

Secondly, the ISO and other groups held the view that political differences amongst socialists necessitate the existence of separate organisations. They disagreed with the conception, held by the DSP and most non-aligned members, that SA should aim to move beyond being an alliance of groups and towards becoming a united socialist party.

The question of what degree of political agreement is a precondition for uniting in a single party is something that needs to be discussed in the lead-up to any future left unity experiments.

Reality

I do agree with some of Chris's points about what went wrong in the Socialist Alliance, but I think it's important not to leave out the larger question of the political context. Frankly, in my opinion, the political context of unity attempts affects not only the degree of political agreement that is necessary for the project to succeed, but also the degree of 'organisational' health that is necessary. (Democracy, consciousness about not being complacent about or blind towards the various sick capitalist approaches towards interpersonal relations we're all imbued with - racism, sexism etc - i.e. the interventionist approach towards dealing with these issues that's so vital in order to ensuring we don't destroy the party from within.)

In the context of a big working-class radicalisation, it is much easier to persuade workers of the importance of these issues, and the positive advances possible provide a counter-balance to the negatives as well. Furthermore, a significant working-class radicalisation gives one actual partners with which to work in building this unity project. Substituting for such actual partners (and it's important to note that most non-aligned members of SA were increasingly inactive after 2003, and that SA was meeting rather infrequently in many cities by 2006 (with many DSP and SA branches folding entirely), and many non-aligned members left following the departure of most organisational affiliates, none of which Chris acknowledges) by pretending to be said unity project partners, has been proven to have disastrous political and organisational consequences.

[On that note, the explanation by the RSP's Allen Myers on what went wrong in the DSP and Socialist Alliance is more thorough than I have any desire to be here, and useful in ensuring we do benefit from history, so I'll just link to it here: http://www.lpf.org.au/?q=node/35]

In reference to the assertions by Owen and Marce that my saying that there is no objectively low level beneath which socialist party-building becomes impossible is making an unmarxist abstraction/ timeless assertion, I was indeed basing that claim on the facts around us. Struggle continues. For so long as the working-class is oppressed, it will!! Anti-racist struggle continues. Pro-environment struggle continues. Working-class people continue to be interested in progressive, even socialist, ideas (hence attendance at public meetings hosted by socialists, interest in our literature, etc). I didn't make my claims to have a go at anyone who thinks otherwise, but I really don't believe that temporary dips in some forms of mobilisation are a justification for deciding that we have reached an objective level at which socialist parties become impossible to build. I also don't believe we can't adapt and learn, or that any such attempt constitutes "blaming ourselves and others" - I think that asserting that the "gamut" of approaches have been tried and found wanting is unnecessarily dismissive.

While I agree that "the very low level of struggle doesn't give people a sense of the power of ordinary people to change society through mass action", the reality is that over the last few decades, socialists in Australia who became party cadres were mainly not recruited via the inspiration of mass action anyway. They were recruited because they were interested in socialist ideas. And since people continue to join socialist parties, I don't think we can conclude that this source has dried up.

details

I should also stress that although most of the organisational affiliates disagreed with the DSP's ideas about what role the SA should take at the time (early last decade) we had these discussions about turning it into a multi-tendency socialist party (MTSP), rather than its initial purpose of being largely an electoral alliance, that does not mean that they were opposed to unity for all time. Some of them did raise the specific objection that the general conditions weren't conducive to such a turn.
We in the DSP did make a mistake in not listening to them and jeopardising the collaboration that they were willing to proceed with at that time. Further, it was also the case that the idea for this MTSP came from the DSP and we worked very hard on persuading the non-aligned activists that it was right for Socialist Alliance at that time; it wasn't a case of them pushing for this independently and having only the DSP listen to them.

Further, a point about Chris's formulation that:
"Secondly, the ISO and other groups held the view that political differences amongst socialists necessitate the existence of separate organisations. They disagreed with the conception, held by the DSP and most non-aligned members, that SA should aim to move beyond being an alliance of groups and towards becoming a united socialist party."

It's important to be clear that we in the DSP sponsored this position (early last decade, of convincing non-aligned SA members and organisational affiliates of the MTSP perspective, in order to advance towards a united socialist party, build a larger Marxist cadre force) *precisely because we thought the broader conditions made this possible*. We did not suddenly change our position of building a revolutionary socialist party to thinking that marxists had a duty to build a non-specific socialist party at all times. This is a recent-ish position. I remember it first being advocated by a National Executive member of the then DSP during pre-congress discussion in late 2006, but I don't think it was officially adopted at the following Congress, but becamse official later.

Objective conditions for party building

Virginia: "While I agree that "the very low level of struggle doesn't give people a sense of the power of ordinary people to change society through mass action", the reality is that over the last few decades, socialists in Australia who became party cadres were mainly not recruited via the inspiration of mass action anyway. They were recruited because they were interested in socialist ideas."

The original cadres of our current (the SWP/DSP) came out of the mass movement against Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. During the 1980s and 90s the single biggest source of recruits, cadres and leaders was campus via our socialist youth organisation, Resistance. The decline of the activist left on campus during the past 10-15 years has cut off the possibility of educating and training such cadres in sufficient numbers to keep a revolutionary Marxist party, like the pre-Socialist Alliance DSP, relatively healthy and youthful. Meanwhile, no other source of youth recruits has opened up off-campus. Checkmate.

(Socialist Alternative? They have some virtues but they sure as hell aren't training Marxist cadres. SAlt is a noisy and colouful pseudo-Marxist sect that tries to compensate for the very low level of class turmoil in this country by "breaking people in" using group-think methods that are ultimately counter-productive. Don't try this at home.)

It may be true, as you say, that "struggle continues. For so long as the working-class is oppressed, it will!! Anti-racist struggle continues. Pro-environment struggle continues. Working-class people continue to be interested in progressive, even socialist, ideas". Yes, progressive campigning of one kind or another continues.

But not all struggles, and not all levels of struggle, create a constituency out of which anti-capitalist parties can be built. When the character of these struggles is overwhelmingly single-issue, episodic, fleeting, small-scale, defensive, isolated and politically shallow it doesn't create the human material out of which activist left parties, let alone a revolutionary Marxist party, can develop.

Unless we recognise this we'll be living in a programmatic abstraction rather like a computer game populated by all kinds of ficticious and fanciful characters that "must" exist because capitalism = capitalism = capitalism. As Lenin said, the truth is always concrete.

"But not all struggles, and

"But not all struggles, and not all levels of struggle, create a constituency out of which anti-capitalist parties can be built. When the character of these struggles is overwhelmingly single-issue, episodic, fleeting, small-scale, defensive, isolated and politically shallow it doesn't create the human material out of which activist left parties, let alone a revolutionary Marxist party, can develop."

This organization in Seattle is a concrete example of what I'm talking about: http://seasol.net/

If far left groups in the U.S. all started networks like this and won real gains, however small, the human material would be created out of which a vanguard party could be built.

Virginia says: "I should

Virginia says: "I should also stress that although most of the organisational affiliates disagreed with the DSP's ideas about what role the SA should take at the time (early last decade) we had these discussions about turning it into a multi-tendency socialist party (MTSP), rather than its initial purpose of being largely an electoral alliance, that does not mean that they were opposed to unity for all time. Some of them did raise the specific objection that the general conditions weren't conducive to such a turn.
"We in the DSP did make a mistake in not listening to them and jeopardising the collaboration that they were willing to proceed with at that time. Further, it was also the case that the idea for this MTSP came from the DSP and we worked very hard on persuading the non-aligned activists that it was right for Socialist Alliance at that time; it wasn't a case of them pushing for this independently and having only the DSP listen to them."

I am not sure who first put forward the idea of turning Socialist Alliance into a multi-tendency socialist party, but it was certainly taken up with great enthusiasm by many non-aligned members. In 2003 a large number of them signed an open letter supporting this idea.

It was the support of most non-aligned members that enabled the DSP to win big majorities for our proposals at a series of Socialist Alliance conferences.

However in some cases it may have been unwise for us push our proposals through against the opposition of the other affiliated organisations. The end result was that these groups withdrew from SA, which was unfortunate.

Other forms of collaboration?

I agree with Chris Slee on this point: "[I]t may have been unwise for us push our proposals through against the opposition of the other affiliated organisations. The end result was that these groups withdrew from SA, which was unfortunate." Indeed.

The hope of the Socialist Alliance progressing from an alliance of affiliated organisations and individuals to a multi-tendency socialist party was predicated on a turn-around in the class struggle that never materialised. The anti-corporate globalisation movement lost momentum after 9/11, and the campaign against Work Choices was a stage-managed ALP election campaign that featured some big trade union rallies.

But I think the debate needs to move on.

Since 2003 when the DSP went "underground" in the Socialist Alliance the conditions for building any kind of activist left party have deteriorated. Today none of the far left organisations in Australia are growing and all such organisations are little more than defensive bunkers.

The argument about whether it's better to build a broad left party or an openly Marxist party such as the pre-2003 Democratic Socialist Party has been displaced by reality: no variant of the activist left party can grow in today's political conjuncture. There are neither the forces in struggle nor the ferment of anti-capitalist ideas to allow such a party to grow even gradually.

We have no idea how long this situation will last because Marxism doesn't endow us with a crystal ball. It could be months, years or decades. For however long it lasts, bunkering down in parties may not be the best way to weather the storm.

Calling on everybody to join the Socialist Alliance sounds nice, but has it got us anywhere? Ten and a half years after it was launched the Socialist "Alliance" is really just another left party. It doesn't embody even ten percent of the left unity dynamic that existed in 2001-3 when eight socialist organisations and hundreds of unaffiliated members signed up in the wake of the September 11, 2000 mass blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne.

The Socialist Alliance is not the answer. This is 2011, not 2001.

We need to be open to other organisational or institutional forms of collaboration among Australian socialists to promote our common interests. Perhaps a useful starting point would be to try to identify what these interests are.

Socialist Alliance is going well

While Marce is correct that it is difficult to build socialist organisations in a period of working-class downturn, I think his broad , somewhat abstract, assertions about just how slow it is, is not reflected by reality, certainly from what I can observe.
There are many opportunities for organised socialists to influence political developments, and to win new people to socialist activity. Granted, nowhere near enough and to the extent that would be gained during a mass upsurge, but there are more than enough opportunities than we can deal with.
And I think it is plain wrong to say that Socialist Alliance does not provide AN answer, of course it is not the only answer. But it is not true to say "Today none of the far left organisations in Australia are growing and all such organisations are little more than defensive bunkers." Socialist Alliance disproves this on both counts. I can only suggest that Marce find a little more about SA before making such sweeping claims.
Nor is the concept of left unity & cooperation, encompassed by the "Alliance" in our name, dead as others claim. While it may be so in terms of the tiny socialist groups who once (some of which had fewer than a handful of members; and/or have ceased to exist) briefly flirted with SA, SA remains a vehicle to foster collaboration between socialists both within and outside SA.
To illustrate, just few items from Socialist Alliance's most recent weekly newsletters bear this out:
* * *
Community Voices finalises full ticket
By ..., Illawarra
Community Voice (CV), the progressive team of campaigners to contest Wollongong City Council elections, has finalised its full ticket.
Michael Organ, former Greens MP for Cunningham, was preselected as CV lord mayoral candidate at a meeting in Port Kembla on Sunday July 31. ...In Ward 1, community activists Frances Burnham and Lewis Wilson will join {SA members} Jess Moore and Chris Williams on the ticket... CV is definitely making waves and upsetting the status quo. ... But now we have a full ticket preselected the team can focus on our platform for change, our energetic, community backed, candidates, and our vision for a sustainable, jobs rich Illawarra!

Alternatives to Murdoch forum & new Resistance Bookshop success
We've had a couple of strong successes in the last few weeks in the new Resistance Centre.
A Green Left Weekly-hosted "Beyond Murdoch" forum was attended by some 40 people and heard from author Antony Loewenstein, journalism Professor Wendy Bacon and Stuart Munckton Green Left Weekly co-editor. The discussion ranged from the corporate media and capitalism, the need for more people-powered media and media alternatives in Venezuela, which is undergoing massive social change.

Latin America solidarity in Sydney
Members in Sydney have had a busy and successful couple of weeks of active solidarity with the people’s struggles in Latin America.
On August 9, more than 40 academics, students and other left activists attended a forum at the new Resistance Centre hosted by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network (AVSN). The speaker was Dr Steve Ellner, visiting Australia from Venezuela as a guest of the Australian national Centre for Latin American Studies at the ANU.

On August 13, the Latin America Social Forum hosted a cultural night in tribute to two Latin American fighters for justice who died last month - renowned Argentine musician Facundo Cabral, who was shot dead in Guatemala by hired assassins on July 9, and life-long Guatemalan revolutionary Alfonso Bauer Paiz, who died on July 10. Ninety people packed into the Resistance Centre to enjoy an impressive line-up of singers, bands, dancers and poets. Apart from being a big success for LASF’s efforts to build activist unity within Sydney’s diverse Latin American community, the event was also a great introduction of the new Resistance Centre to many Latin American left groups.

New England joins action against mining
The screening of GasLand on August 10 attracted 60 people to Progressive Cinema. More than 30 stayed after the film to discuss what to do locally. Carmel Flint from the Northern Inland Council for the Environment alerted those present to plans for coal seam gas mining in the Pilliga Scrub south of Narrabri and for new coal mines endangering native forests. It was decided to form a local action group to stop coal and coal seam gas mining of agricultural land as well as of native forests.
Sustainable Living Armidale and Socialist Alliance New England will be present with stalls at the concert and the Armidale NPA will provide information about the Piiliga for display.
The campaign against coal seam gas mining is not only attracting a lot of media attention, but also a broad range of people of diverse ages and political convictions. Traditionally mining and farming were seen as complementary supports of rural communities. Now even farmers who initially welcomed mining companies onto their land are turning against them. People in the cities are affected as well, if not directly then indirectly through the risks to our water and agricultural land. The risks are immense, but so is the potential for broad alliances resisting corporate might.

RSP?

Marce and Owen,
If you don't mind me asking, what is your assessment of the RSP experience?

Can socialist parties grow today?

Marce Cameron (Aug. 18) says: "The decline of the activist left on campus during the past 10-15 years has cut off the possibility of educating and training such cadres in sufficient numbers to keep a revolutionary Marxist party, like the pre-Socialist Alliance DSP, relatively healthy and youthful. Meanwhile, no other source of youth recruits has opened up off-campus. Checkmate.

"(Socialist Alternative? They have some virtues but they sure as hell aren't training Marxist cadres. SAlt is a noisy and colouful pseudo-Marxist sect that tries to compensate for the very low level of class turmoil in this country by "breaking people in" using group-think methods that are ultimately counter-productive. Don't try this at home.)"

I agree that Socialist Alternative is sectarian, but Marce's outright dismissal of them as nothing but a "pseudo-Marxist sect" is one-sided.

SAlt's sectarianism is reflected in practices such as misrepresenting the views of others on the left in order to portray them in a bad light (e.g. as "Stalinist").

However this does not explain SAlt's growth. They build movements such as those for same-sex marriage, refugee rights and Palestine solidarity, particularly on campus, and recruit students as a result.

Their growth may be an inconvenient fact for those of us who disagree with their politics, but it is a fact nevertheless, and should not be dismissed as easily as Marce does.

Marce (Aug. 20) says: "The argument about whether it's better to build a broad left party or an openly Marxist party such as the pre-2003 Democratic Socialist Party has been displaced by reality: no variant of the activist left party can grow in today's political conjuncture. There are neither the forces in struggle nor the ferment of anti-capitalist ideas to allow such a party to grow even gradually."

This is too pessimistic. The environmental crisis, the world economic crisis, war, refugees, indigenous rights, etc are all issues that can radicalise people and lead them to socialist conclusions.

It is true that the level of struggle around these issues is fairly low, and that most people involved in these campaigns do not spontaneously come to socialist conclusions. But that doesn't make the growth of a socialist party impossible, just more difficult.

Marce says: "We need to be open to other organisational or institutional forms of collaboration among Australian socialists to promote our common interests. Perhaps a useful starting point would be to try to identify what these interests are."

I agree we should be open to new forms of collaboration among socialists. Does Marce have anything specific in mind?

Left groups already work together in a range of campaign groups. I think that at some stage there should be a new attempt at bringing together the left groups in other ways.

This should start with modest steps. One possibility might be a joint election campaign. Another possibility might be a joint website where members of different groups could discuss politics. (The latter is a bit risky, in that it could degenerate into mutual abuse. There would need to be an agreement amongst the groups to require their members to adopt a comradely tone, avoiding the use of terms like "pseudo-Marxist sect")

I don't think SAlt would be interested in either of these options at present. But then, nobody would have predicted the formation of Socialist Alliance even a few months before it happened in early 2001, given the notoriously hostile relations between the DSP and the ISO.

Quick!Hide the razor blades...

Marce Cameron: "no variant of the activist left party can grow in today's political conjuncture"

Come off it Marce. I've been a socialist for 40 years and I can see much more on offer today than for most of those past decades. You build where you can with what you can. It's called flexibility. . You are inferring that a very select few have the right stuff and for now they cannot pass on the goods because the material on hand isn't up to the challenge.

With deference to the thread topic: How truly unMarxist is it to think like that?

It may be one thing to argue that the SA is not your preferred version of Marxism but it is another thing altogether to argue: why bother?

A dialogue on the characteristics of revolutionary groups

Parallel to the discussion on Links, an exchange of nine recent comments by Pham Binh and John Riddell has been posted on www.johnriddell.wordpress.com. The exchange explores how the example of the early Communist International can assist – or mislead – Marxist organizations in North America today.

Totaling 5,000 words, this dialogue encompasses relationships to social movements, leadership selection, international centralization, and the example of the Communist Party of Cuba.

Pham Binh is a New York-based socialist and writer who maintains the website http://planetanarchy.net/.

For the full text see http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/a-dialogue-on-the-characteri....

Summary:

1. Binh: ‘How was the Comintern Executive Committee elected?’

2. Riddell: ‘A nominations committee and the delegations worked up a slate’

3. Binh: ‘I understand that the Bolsheviks used a secret ballot’

4. Riddell: ‘Comintern president Zinoviev was an enabler, not an originator of ultra-leftism’

5. Binh: ‘The Comintern’s actions did a lot of damage to young communist parties’

6. Riddell: ‘Current far-left groups diverge from the model of the Comintern’

7. Binh: ‘Groups imitating the early Comintern are not vanguards’

8. Riddell: ‘To achieve revolutionary unity, the early Comintern tolerated diversity’

9. Binh: ‘Leninist groups since the 1930s have been led astray by methodological flaws’

To post further comment, click on the "comment" line after the "A Dialogue" item on the home page or scroll to the bottom of the article.

To receive e-mail alerts regarding new articles on my website, fill in the box "To be notified of new posts" in the right-hand column at http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/.

John Riddell
Toronto

Powered by Drupal - Design by Artinet