How are revolutionary parties built?

This document was submitted by the US International Socialist Organization Steering Committee to the organisation's convention in Chicago, February 68, 2004. A report along these lines was presented by International Socialist Review editor Ahmed Shawki, and the perspectives were adopted by the convention.

1. The entire history of revolutionary movements proves conclusively—more often in the negative than the positive—that unless revolutionary parties are built prior to the advent of a revolutionary situation, success is not possible. "[D]uring a revolution, i.e. when events move more swiftly, a weak party can quickly grow into a mighty one provided it lucidly understands the course of the revolution and possesses staunch cadres that do not become intoxicated with phrases and are not terrorised by persecution", wrote Trotsky. "But such a party must be available prior to the revolution inasmuch as the process of educating the cadres requires a considerable period of time and the revolution does not afford this time."

Waiting to build such an organisation until it can arise "organically", i.e. in the heat of mass struggle, invites a level of inexperience and immaturity that can doom that organisation to fatal errors and lead to defeat. That is certainly the experience of the German revolutionary upsurge between 1918 and 1921. Prior to the first world war, German revolutionaries did not even organise a left faction inside German Social Democracy. "Not even later Communist historians looking hard for traces of emerging leftwing organization before the war", writes Rosa Luxemburg's biographer J.P. Nettle, "were able to make any case for the existence of an organized radical group". The results are well known—the defeat of the German revolution as a result of a series of mistaken tactical turns by the new, inexperienced Communist Party at key turning points of the class struggle. Conversely, the Bolshevik experience shows the benefits of recruiting and training an organised revolutionary cadre through a more or less lengthy period of class struggle, through various advances and retreats under wideranging political and economic conditions, between 1903 and 1917.

2. Building a revolutionary organisation in nonrevolutionary periods, however, carries with it the twin dangers of sectarian isolation and/or political adaptation. The problem is that very often the left has historically posed the question as if the choice was between these two poles—either you adapt to the current struggle as it is or you build a revolutionary sect. Most have chosen the former—adaptation to the "possible". This idea is reinforced by what we must admit were less than successful attempts, by virtually every tendency on the 1960s left (i.e., from Maoism to Trotskyism), to build revolutionary parties after 1968. Many on the left have concluded that such efforts at "party-building" are necessarily sectarian and fruitless. As a result of these failures, the "anti-partyism" that influences a whole layer of newly radicalising people is not solely driven by hatred of the existing bourgeois and reformist parties.

There is no general formula for how a revolutionary party is created. But it must involve the organised activity of conscious revolutionaries and not their renunciation of the task on the grounds that conditions are not yet "ripe"—that would be bowing to conditions as they are without an active orientation toward how to move beyond them. As Lenin noted in his debate with the Economists, who argued that the tasks of socialists was to "assist" the workers' movement and not "overstep" the level of consciousness in the class by attempting to give it any lead,

To say … that ideologists (i.e., politically conscious leaders) cannot divert the movement from the path determined by the interaction of environment and elements is to ignore the simple truth that the conscious element participates in this interaction and in the determination of the path.

Revolutionary organisations of sufficient size and influence, organised properly, can have a tremendous impact on the shape and course of the struggle, so long as they strive to unite and strengthen the chances of success of each struggle, and utilise each struggle to advance the general cause of socialism. Our watchword remains that of Marx in the Communist Manifesto:

The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.

3. The ISO's "Where We Stand" states: "To achieve socialism, the most militant workers must be organised into a revolutionary socialist party to provide political leadership and organisation. The activities of the ISO are directed at taking the initial steps to building such a party." The ISO, since its inception, has understood that it is not a revolutionary party (let alone the revolutionary party)—it has not the sufficient size, working-class membership or influence in the class struggle to claim the title. No organisation does, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the low level of class struggle and the historically weak political traditions among workers that is still to be overcome.

A revolutionary party in the US will not be created solely by the addition of members to the ISO until we are of a sufficient size and influence to declare ourselves a party. It will likely be built through a process of splits, fusions and regroupment of forces as the struggle thrusts up new forces and new configurations. The current radicalisation which has begun to take shape requires therefore that

the ISO now pay much more attention to our role in building a broader left and our relationship to other organisations and forces on the left.

This is not to downplay our accomplishments. The ISO took those "initial steps" in a period of left retreat. When the rest of the left was rapidly moving away from revolutionary organisation —and into the Democratic Party, trade union bureaucracies, solidarity committees or simply dropping out of politics—the ISO maintained that it was not only possible, but necessary, to maintain, however modestly, a revolutionary organisation based upon the ideas of genuine Marxism. Coming out of a period in which the distortions of Marxism, in the form of Stalinism, Maoism and to a lesser extent orthodox Trotskyism, had a tremendously negative impact on the building of a revolutionary alternative, we placed a premium on a correct understanding of the capitalist nature of the USSR, the centrality of the working class and reintroducing a "sane" sense of perspective and a noncaricatured presentation of the real Bolshevik and international socialist tradition, while always keeping an eye on opportunities for engaging in struggle.

Our orientation to new forces rather than the decomposing left may have to some degree isolated us from the rest of the left, but it had a singular advantage in that it allowed us to build up a cadre of activists oriented to the real world, political but not inward-looking.

4. Historically speaking, revolutionary parties have formed, depending on the circumstances, through fusions, splits and regroupings of various parties, organisations and tendencies in periods of social polarisation. This was the case in the formation of Communist parties after the Russian revolution. In a number of cases, Communist parties were formed when the revolutionary wings of various reformist social democratic parties split away after these parties put their support behind their "own" countries' imperialist war effort. This is what happened in Italy and Germany, for example. But in Britain, the Communist Party formed out of the amalgamation of several national and regional organisations: the British Socialist Party; the Shop Stewards' and Workers' Committee Movement, the Socialist Labour Party (centred mainly in Scotland), Sylvia Pankhurst's Workers Socialist Federation based in London, and the South Wales Socialist Society. Later in Germany, the leftwing Spartakusbund (which had earlier split with the Social Democratic Party—SPD) merged with the left wing of the United Socialist Party (the USP, a very confused centrist party which had been expelled from the SPD) to form the Communist Party. In Russia, the Bolshevik Party fused with an organisation in Petrograd of several thousand workers and intellectuals, the Interdistrict Committee, after Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks. And in 1917 the Bolshevik Party ended up working closely with the left wing of the Social Revolutionary Party.

The point is that any period of rising class struggle throws up new groupings and organisations among workers and the oppressed, locally and nationally, as well as radicalising sections of existing organisations. The general leftward turn creates the possibility of building united fronts, common organisations and, in some cases, fusions of different forces that are moving toward common political aims but which have different origins. It would be sectarian for a revolutionary organisation to wall itself off from these developments. But a proper orientation to them requires a method and an approach.

First and foremost, regroupment must take place in the context of a forward movement, and on the assessment that its outcome will be larger revolutionary forces acting in unison. Such a regroupment can take many forms—the absorption of one group by another; the merging of two organisations and a division of positions in its leading bodies and editorial boards; the recruitment en masse of a locally emerging workers' or students group.

If we have trained and experienced cadre, well versed in our politics and tradition, then merging and regrouping with other forces can help to advance our movement rather than "dilute" it.

The classic example is the merger of Trotsky's Interdistrict Committee and the Bolsheviks mentioned above. This merger flowed from the Bolsheviks' longterm effort to consolidate a cadre with roots in the mass struggle into a united revolutionary party capable of acting with unity and decisiveness. That is why there was no contradiction between the slow, individual accumulation of cadre 1903-1905 and again in 1907-1912 and the fusion with Trotsky's group. During these difficult periods, building revolutionary organisation often took the form of serial recruitment of individuals won over time through common work, and socialist propaganda. Yet eventually, the development of the revolutionary workers' movement itself clarified many of the issues that had divided revolutionary socialist groups in previous years: the working-class character of the Russian Revolution, the bourgeois nature of the Provisional Government, and the imperialist character of the First World War, to name a few. The dynamics of the struggle created a context in which Trotsky's group could join the Bolsheviks en masse and strengthen the revolutionary party.

5. Often a period of political ferment throws up organisations that vacillate between reform and revolution, or at least blur the distinction (such as the USP mentioned above). Such organisations at certain times can act as a lightning rod for activists who are moving left but have not yet broken with reformism. Trotsky, writing in the mid-1930s, defined the phenomenon:

Under conditions when the traditional mass organisations are in the process of collapse and decomposition, centrism represents in many cases an inevitable transitional stage—even for progressive working class groupings. Marxists must be able to find access to all such tendencies, in order by example and propaganda to speed their passage to the revolutionary road.

Such organisations are by definition unstable, liable to break up under the pressures of outside events that force upon them sharp decisions. "Centrist" formations can flare up and become mass organisations in periods of class ferment and revolutionary crisis—but they reflect a temporary convergence of heterogeneous forces moving in different directions. Such parties, as Trotsky pointed out, can be very positive because they bring into their ranks workers and activists who have been awakened to struggle and are moving leftward.

Our criterion for evaluating centrist formations and parties is whether or not they advance the process of radicalisation—are they a product of, and a help to, shifting working class, student and radical activists to the left? That is why, for example, we rejected the regroupment perspective in the 1980s—in a period of defeat, regroupment projects tended to act as stepping-stones for leftists on their way out of revolutionary politics, not conduits for those moving toward it.

6. The growth of the global justice movement, the reemergence of class struggle (albeit defensive) and the adaptation of the main reformist parties in Europe to the neoliberal model have created a political space on the left to bring together old and new forces into new political formations (partially electoral and partially movementoriented) which are to the left of social democracy and give political expression to the new period.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) is one example. The LCR (Revolutionary Communist League) in France plans to organise a joint electoral platform with lo (Workers' Fight), and has also put out a call for the formation in France of a new "anticapitalist" party:

The LCR addresses itself to all those who want a left alternative that breaks with all the policies conducted by the socialliberal left as well as by the right. We want to say to them that we are ready to unite as of now with all those who are willing to, of course to develop struggles and mobilisations, but also to build a new broad, pluralist political force, radically anticapitalist and resolutely democratic.

In Greece, a coalition of forces around an initiative formed in 2001, "The Space for Dialogue and Common Action of the Left", has also issued a call, "Declaration of the Initiative for the Regroupment of the Left", which brings together Synaspismos, a leftward moving, reformist electoral party that won just over three percent of the vote in 2000 and gained six parliamentary seats, the cp and left groups that split from the cp, along with radical green and far left organisations like our sister group dea (International Workers' Left), as well as groups with Maoist roots.

Murray Smith, a former member of SSP and now a member of LCR, outlines the political justification for new parties:

The forces for a new party will come out of the really existing workers'movement in all its fragmentation, recomposition/decomposition, mixing elements of the old and of the new: militants of the traditional parties, trade unionists, militants of the new social movements, of the antiglobalisation movement, of the far left.

Smith argues that the necessity of building new parties

is the transformation of social democracy (and in Italy of the PCI [Communist Party]) into parties that openly defend capitalism in theory and practice, by turning against their own social base, with the resulting disaffection of activists and of their electoral base. The surviving CPs are caught up in a spiral of decline, torn between tailending social democracy and falling back on a sterile sectarianism. That is new and that's what allows us to speak of a crisis of the political representation of the working class.

We can question the categorical way in which Smith outlines the trajectory of these developments, for the precise character of how these new parties, coalitions and organisations form is still unresolved. Differences in levels of struggle and peculiarities of organisations and parties in different countries will create different combinations and possibilities. What we can say is that these are positive developments, creating opportunities to build a stronger left united around a rejection of neoliberal capitalism. Revolutionaries would be cutting themselves off from newly radicalising forces if they did not participate in them.

Yet that does not mean we are for the liquidation of revolutionary forces into these broader organisations. Relating to these developments is a question of strategy and tactics, and does not mean abandonment of revolutionary socialist organisation. We cannot and should not fall into the argument that the question of organisational and political delimitation between reformist and revolutionary organisation is no longer relevant. Smith, for example, acknowledges that the SSP is "strategically nondelimited", but that it is "artificial" to "make a distinction between the radical left and the revolutionary left". He argues that the concept of "centrism" is no longer valid because there is no sharp polarisation today, as in the revolutionary period of the Communist International, between reformist and revolutionary wings of the movement. "A new party must be different from the traditional organisations of the far left", argues Smith, "by its functioning and its relationship with the masses, not by its practical program". Ironically, Smith's own deprecation of political program and his denial of the importance of the distinction between reform and revolution is itself centrist.

We can enthusiastically involve ourselves in these new political formations without, as Smith does here, blurring the crucial distinction between reform and revolution, even though this distinction is as of yet (since the movements are young) still not sharply defined.

7. These new developments on the left are not as far along in the US. But the approach we take should be the same, which is essentially applying consistently the method of the United Front—joint work and collaboration to strengthen struggles, push things leftward and, within that, build a far-left pole of attraction. The class struggle remains at a low ebb, though there are important signs of life. The global justice movement is only beginning to revive after the disaster of September 11. And the impressive antiwar movement went into a lull, yet did not collapse, after the Iraq invasion ended its first phase, set to rebuild as the occupation falters amid growing Iraqi resistance. Unlike elsewhere, the left remains hampered by its support for an openly bourgeois party, a factor which has contributed to the slowness of the North American Social Forum from getting off the ground, for example. Nevertheless, we are clearly in the midst of a new radicalisation. In this context, we are interested in building both the ISO as well as the broader left—in the context of the emerging movements. This involves two kinds of developments, one far broader and one "narrower".

Our work in building antiwar committees and coalitions, as well as building the North American Social Forum and the local social forum events that are emerging in the US, constitute a few examples of the broad left developments that we are participating in and should continue to involve ourselves in. We are also taking part in discussions and exploring the possibility of collaboration in various ways with left organisations more narrowly defined. For example, we talked with leaders of Solidarity a few months ago about the possibility of collaborating with them around the elections, since both organisations reject the Democratic Party (though nothing has yet come of this), and in Los Angeles ISO and Solidarity members in the teachers union have collaborated. We have also cooperated with other left organisations and groupings as part of a left caucus in United for Peace and Justice.

On the West Coast, our comrades are involved in the Socialist Unity Network (in San Diego and the Bay Area), which at this stage involves Committee of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (COC), Democratic Socialists of America, the ISO, the Socialist Party and Solidarity (the Peace and Freedom Party is also involved, but is not formally affiliated). Initiated by COC in May, the network has sponsored three forums on budget cuts, antiwar and one hosting Mike Davis in the Bay Area. These have been primarily forums for left discussion.

It is far too early to tell what will emerge (if anything) from any of these initiatives and discussions among left organisations. But we lose nothing by participating in them. Indeed, we gain by encouraging an atmosphere that promotes healthy collaboration on the left without underplaying the importance of political debate and clarity.

What is important in all of this is that we get the approach right. As Antonis Davanellos wrote in a recent International Socialist Review:

The revolutionary left ought to undertake a double duty. On the one hand, it should accept the challenge to participate and organize a broad current of political resistance to imperialism, neoliberalism and racism. To refuse or underestimate this duty is plain sectarianism. On the other hand, it should not forget for an instant that such a current of anticapitalist resistance cannot be built unless there exists it its heart a stronger and better organized revolutionary left. The period is full of challenges for us to assume significant political roles. We have to do it, knowing very well that this is not a substitute, but the best way to build strong revolutionary organizations.