Looking backward, looking forward: Pointers to building a revolutionary party

by John Percy


We are at a very interesting stage of building the socialist movement in Australia and internationally. It's all too easy to get submerged in the immediate political tasks, so it's worth reminding ourselves regularly of some of the main features of the objective and subjective reality we face, and relating these to steps towards greater understanding of our central task of building a revolutionary workers party that can lead the workers and oppressed in overthrowing capitalist rule.

It's now more than ten years since the final collapse of the Soviet Union, the final discrediting of that historic betrayal of the promise and the ideals of that first successful workers' revolution, and our final payment for the crimes and mistakes committed many decades ago, which have so seriously handicapped the socialist movement. There are both positive and negative impacts of that long-drawn-out victory and defeat. The collapse or decline or strange transformation of parties that banked everything on the bureaucracy in Moscow is now played out.

Depending on the country, it's also at least ten years since most social democratic or labour parties have been thoroughly exposed as just another capitalist party, desperate to run the capitalist state more "efficiently", and if necessary more brutally, more arrogantly, than their openly conservative rivals. The time frame also depends on the strictness of the definition of "betrayal" and "exposure" that is applied. Again, for the working class there are both positive and negative impacts of that change. But such parties are now very much less a factor in any left calculations than they have ever been.

At the same time, there has been the huge upsurge around the world of the movement against neo-liberal globalisation. The political pace had been picking up since the mid-1990s, and the movement itself dramatically burst into international consciousness at Seattle in 1999.

The developing movement was not buried, not cowed, by the September 11 terrorist attack and imperialism's ghoulish response. The new activists were not fooled by imperialism's "anti-terrorist" war drive. The mobilisations have been even bigger, especially in southern Europe, in Spain, France, and Italy. Even before Bush could start his all-out war on Iraq, the demonstrations have been absolutely huge and inspiring—400,000 in London, 300,000 in New York and San Francisco, a million in Florence.

Also in the last year or two there have been big mobilisations, and even victories, in Latin America. There were huge mobilisations and politicisation in Argentina following the country's bankruptcy; the defeat of imperialist-backed coup attempts against Chavez in Venezuela; Lula's election victory in Brazil; the recent left election victory in Ecuador; successful mass campaigns against water privatisation in Bolivia; the large gatherings at the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre.

Around the world, the discrediting and break-up of the "old left" parties has been matched by the creation of new movements, and increasingly new parties and alliances, or the growth and strengthening of parties that have not caved in to capitalist fake triumphalism, or have not been ossified and stuck in old sectarian rigidities and schemas.

In Australia we've seen the same basic pattern, if on a smaller, less dramatic, scale, unfortunately not matching anything like the movement developing in southern Europe and Latin America. The dissolution of the Communist Party of Australia [CPA] more than ten years ago, and the thorough discrediting and decline of the Australian Labor Party [ALP] after thirteen years of the Accord1 following 1983 was nominally a decline of left and working-class forces. But we had also noticed here the rising struggles around many issues towards the end of the 1990s, where we often had an impact—demonstrations against Pauline Hansen's racism, for the independence of East Timor, defending the Maritime Union of Australia, the successful blockade of the World Economic Forum on September 11 (S11) in 2000, the M1 2001 May Day demonstrations at which we blockaded the stock exchanges, big and diverse demonstrations supporting refugees, and encouraging mobilisations against war.

The Democratic Socialist Party's weight on the left, compared to ten to fifteen years ago, has increased considerably. Certainly, it's a smaller left, with the CPA gone, aside from a few ghosts. The Greens have grown, with high public recognition and a growing vote, if not yet a large number of activists. But the DSP is clearly recognised as by far the largest and most active socialist group. We came through the difficult years, and have grown. Others declined, or disappeared. But there are also many individual activists out there—ex-members of different parties, or newly radicalised young activists who have not been in parties.

Our policy has been to reach out. Internationally, we reached out to new parties and parties from different traditions in the Asian region, with Links magazine in 1994 and with the Asia Pacific Solidarity Conferences in 1998 and 2002.

We began a reach-out on the left in Australia as well, initiating the Socialist Alliance in early 2001. It was launched initially by nine socialist groups, but has joined up more than 2000 members, the majority of whom weren't members of the affiliated groups.

In September 2002, the DSP National Executive launched a proposal for discussion in the DSP leading up to our congress at the end of December. The proposal would strengthen the Socialist Alliance and advance the process of left regroupment. We foreshadowed that, if the membership agreed, we would stop operating publicly as the DSP, and move towards functioning just as a tendency in the Socialist Alliance and making our cadres and resources available for building and recruiting to the Socialist Alliance [see the first article in this edition of Links and the documents following it]. Of course, any actual changes in the operation of the Socialist Alliance would be up the Socialist Alliance itself and the democratic decisions taken in its own structures. The proposals aroused considerable enthusiasm among the members of the Alliance, and interest from others on the left in Australia and internationally.

Unfortunately, the International Socialist Organisation [ISO], the second largest affiliated group, after the DSP, reacted by threatening to quit the Socialist Alliance if the DSP kept to its timetable of operating as a tendency in the Alliance from January. The ISO wanted to restrict the Alliance to being merely an electoral alliance, ruling out any possibility that it would be a vehicle for socialist regroupment. The ISO characterises the Socialist Alliance as a "united front of a special type", and wants its policies to be limited to the "old Labor" policies abandoned by the current ALP leadership, while the ISO itself would function as "the revolutionary party". The ISO has not specified whether it regards the other affiliated socialist organisations, or other members of the Alliance, as revolutionaries.

In order to prevent an ISO walkout, the DSP withdrew any specific timetable for implementing its proposal to operate only as a tendency within the Socialist Alliance, without stepping back from supporting the proposal itself. The ISO conference on December 7-8 was unable to decide what approach to take towards the Socialist Alliance. Faced with a 50-50 division on whether to remain in or pull out, the conference resolved to continue the discussion and take a decision at the ISO National Committee meeting following the New South Wales state elections in March 2003.

The DSP congress from December 28 to January 1 reaffirmed our commitment to strengthening the Socialist Alliance and our belief that the transformation of the Alliance into a united organisation remains necessary and possible. The congress empowered the incoming National Committee to act to advance left unity further, and to decide if and when the DSP should cease to build itself publicly and become a tendency within the Socialist Alliance.

So the discussion continues about how best to advance the Socialist Alliance, how best to build a stronger socialist movement, how to build a revolutionary party, and what sort of revolutionary party.

At this important and interesting stage in the development of the Australian left, it's worthwhile reminding ourselves of some of the lessons we've learned in the last few decades as we've worked to build a revolutionary party in Australia. What lessons have we learned about what sort of revolutionary party is needed, and how it might be built. To put it another way, how did we get this far, and how can we go further?

What sort of party?

Certainly it's also worth reaffirming positions the DSP has developed on the need for a revolutionary party. There's basic agreement that the workers and oppressed "need to get organised". But more than that, a revolutionary party is needed. This is more than just the "constitution of the working class into a political party". Marx and Engels envisioned something further than that, namely a centralised party of revolutionary action.

Such a party is "the accumulated and organised experience of the proletariat", as Trotsky wrote in 1921.

It is only with the aid of the party, which rests upon the whole history of its past, which foresees theoretically the path of development, all its stages, and which extracts from it the necessary formula of action, that the proletariat frees itself from the need of always recommencing its history: its hesitations, its lack of decision, its mistakes.2

Although distrust of parties as such is understandable in anyone with experience of the terrible betrayals and utterly bureaucratic practice of social democratic and Stalinist parties, the need for a revolutionary party is not generally contested by those still defending a Marxist position, by those groups still recognising the positive experience of the October Revolution and Lenin's Bolshevik Party. This is the case, for example, with all the initially affiliated groups in the Socialist Alliance, although there are big differences among us about what sort of party and how to get to it—which means what constitutes a revolutionary party today.

However, the idea of a revolutionary party, sometimes even any party, is fiercely opposed in some of the political arenas we're active in. Sometimes this seems the centrally defining political position for some currents: opposition to a party.

In the anti-globalisation movement, especially where it's weak and no serious labour movement forces are involved, advocates of varieties of anarchist/autonomist positions try to impose their orthodoxy of "no parties", no organisation, on the whole movement where they can get away with it. (They were not successful at S11 2000 in Melbourne; they were given too much legitimacy in the lead-up to the recent anti-WTO demonstrations in Sydney.)

In Florence the contrast was magnificent—with a strong party, the Party of Communist Refoundation [PRC], and huge working-class involvement, "black bloc" idiocy and attacks on "authoritarian marshals" seemed totally absent. In fact, in spite of the incredible success and impact of the Florence demonstration, there have been some whinges of disappointment from quarters that felt marginalised by the masses. An article on Florence from Voice of the Turtle, reprinted in the ATTAC newsletter, was positive but subdued, focusing on individuals. It complained: "Yet the tentative alliance of international anti-capitalism was diminished by certain absentees. There were fewer NGOs than I expected. Anarchists were represented around the cultural events, but not so much in the conference halls."3

The idea of a revolutionary socialist party, or one taking any cues from the Bolshevik experience, is also hotly contested in the milieu, the "party" of former members of parties, reformed Leninists who've seen the error of their ways. Many people pass through revolutionary parties, here and around the world. The revolution is a great devourer of people, that's a fact, and this can be intense in difficult objective situations in which we are pushing uphill. Some comrades tire out, some have bad experiences, and some get other priorities in their lives. Most move on, some adapt to the prevailing political orthodoxy, but some still haven't settled with their past in the revolutionary party and for a while can spend a good part of their political activity attacking their own past by attacking those still actively building a party.

The Marxism List based in the US has many people with this sort of background and outlook, who have espoused or developed a description of their perspective as "anti-Zinovievist", although I haven't seen any attempt by them to clearly distinguish themselves from anti-Leninism. Really, that's what they are, even if they feel better hiding behind Zinoviev.

In both these milieus in Australia, it seems at the moment that the DSP is the main demon, the target of many polemics about our supposed sectarianism. In a way, that's a backhanded compliment, emphasising the fact that we are the organisation that has not only survived, but grown. (Real examples of the extreme sectarian practices, incredible perversions of Leninism, such as the Socialist Labor League, of which some of these fierce anti-Leninists once were members, have collapsed and don't draw their fire.)

But it's not so much in order to directly counter the views of people in these two milieus, or anyone influenced by them, that I think it's worthwhile to re-examine and remind ourselves of the lessons of our own experiences in building a party, and what methodological lessons we've learned.

No, the main reasons for reminding ourselves of the lessons and experiences of our actual party-building practice of the last three decades is to educate the many new recruits to revolutionary Marxism who are coming around us, and to be absolutely clear and sharp as we embark on more complex—and more consequential—projects in the coming years, continuing our perspective of building the mass revolutionary workers' party that will be essential for leading the working class in the overthrow of this rotten capitalist system and the building of a socialist society.

Test of practice

The first and most fundamental lesson, or starting point, is that our political projections, our tactics and strategies, must be rooted in reality, and continually tested in practice. This is a lesson reaffirmed for us many times, but shouldn't ever be in doubt, because it's so fundamental to our Marxist method. We base ourselves in material reality; our ideas are related to facts, not schemas plucked from the air or from the great mind of a guru.

The ultimate test of practice, of course, is a revolutionary situation, where masses are in motion, capitalism is in crisis, and the role of a revolutionary party will really be tested in the heat of battle.

This has led some theorists to conclude falsely that a Leninist party is possible only in such circumstances, that a Leninist party is needed only in such a situation, and that in other times, lesser forms of organisation are adequate, or even better.

This argument is belied both by common sense—the required instrument isn't going to spring ready-made from the ground when the revolutionary situation matures, especially since revolutionary situations can be quite short and arise quite rapidly. It's also belied by our experience: without our perspective of building a Leninist party, we wouldn't have the team of cadres, the wealth of experience, the resources and tools such as Green Left Weekly that we have today. It's also belied by the whole practice of the Bolshevik party, still our best and most successful example of a revolutionary workers' party.

It's also explicitly answered by Lenin, for example, when he wrote after the 1905 revolution, during a particularly demoralising downturn in the Russian workers' struggle. He answered those who argued that you didn't need a party in a period like this, that later, when the struggle revived and it wasn't so difficult, it would be appropriate to build a party: "Whoever finds the work tedious, whoever does not understand the need for preserving and developing the revolutionary principles of Social-Democratic tactics in this phase too, on this bend of the road, is taking the name of Marxism in vain".4

So while we are always attempting to build a party as the advanced detachment of the working class, we realise that the party is not just a society for the preservation of the truth, but a process of continually testing and developing ways to go forward. It's certainly ridiculous just to proclaim that we're the party, or to act as though we're already such a party when there's so far to go. But such a party is still necessary—a real Leninist party, not a caricature. And we continually test our course in practice and try again.

Our proposals for the Socialist Alliance, for example, and our timing, are based on our assessment of the real political and social situation in Australia and internationally. We observe how people are breaking from the establishment parties; we gauge the sentiment for unity among activists; we look at the situation with other forces, such as the Greens; we test our perspectives through engagement with the movement.

Too often the tendency of small revolutionary groups, the Trotskyist movement in particular, which we left in the mid-1980s, was to get enmeshed in schemas, for example, the schema that entry into the Labor Party had to be a permanent perspective. Other currents had their own schemas—Maoists, for example, often elevating the tactic of rural guerrilla warfare to a permanent strategy. We don't begin from abstract projections, or crude sectarian schemas. We're not sucking our tactics from abstract formulae. We broke with that way of doing things twenty years ago.

That method was characterised by a tendency to erect a rigid all-encompassing schema, based on a generalisation about "the working class" as a whole, not looking at the many differentiations in the working class and trying to regroup or mobilise the sections, the vanguard, that are actually moving.

On the basis of the initial regroupment and step forward with part of the working class, we can use this advance to reach out to and mobilise and educate further layers, pull others along the road. That's our method, the Leninist method. We begin from the facts, international and local, the balance of class forces, what sections of the class are in motion, the real possibilities.

Facts vs schemas

This very basic principle of testing in practice is related to an even more basic guideline: respect for facts. We're fond of quoting US Marxist George Novack's epigram—"Facts are stubborn things". But facts are often deliberately ignored by sectarians, who adopt schemas that blinker them and prevent them straying from their predetermined path.

The classic case in recent left history is the Cuban Revolution, an example we use in our party to illustrate the difference between currents that responded to reality, and currents that refuse to recognise facts, even in the form of an actual revolution. The 1959 Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro and the July 26 Movement was not expected or understood by any of the Trotskyist currents. However, as the revolution unfolded, some, such as the US Socialist Workers Party, and leaders of the European International Secretariat of the Fourth International, such as Ernest Mandel, (the FI having split in 1953) were able to recognise what was happening and welcome and support it. Others, such as the Socialist Labour League in Britain led by Gerry Healy, refused to support it—it wasn't led by a Trotskyist party! (Other currents outside the FI framework, such as the state capitalist current led by Tony Cliff, were also hamstrung by their theory, and were unwilling to adjust their schema.)

Another more recent case is the implementation of the "turn to industry" in the Fourth International in the late 1970s. This turn was initiated by the US SWP, and followed by others in the FI, including our own party, still in the FI at the time. The arguments for the turn were based on the prediction of a working-class upsurge in the advanced capitalist countries, of which there were some signs. In this scenario, the working class, especially in the US, would move to centre stage, and revolutionaries would have to be alongside workers in the coming struggles. We carried out that turn, with some positive results and useful experiences, although of course there were costs too. When it became clear that the predicted working-class upsurge on which the turn was predicated was not occurring, we made adjustments, allowing us to quickly step up our political work among students, and in the varied campaigns and movements. But the US SWP refused to face facts, persisted in their turn, even "deepening" it, rolling it out again and again (I think they're in their fourth turn now). That's not the only factor contributing to the degeneration of the US SWP, but it was a major contribution—their refusal to face facts, and all the political distortions that flowed from that.5

The ability to recognise facts, and to test in practice and change its perspectives if necessary, is a fundamental feature of any party aiming to make a contribution to the revolutionary transformation of society. It means we'll sometimes make mistakes. But any party that claims it never made a mistake, or never had to make changes in policies or tactics in response to changed circumstances, is only fooling itself. It wouldn't be able to react to new events in the class struggle; it certainly wouldn't be able to respond in a revolutionary situation, where changes happen rapidly and immediate reactions will be required from revolutionaries.

Workers and politics

We're for a working-class revolution, and it won't happen unless the working class mobilises and overthrows the capitalist class. That's a first step to understanding, the need for the constitution of the working class into a political party, and all socialists have taken that first step. But some don't go much further. Lenin understood most clearly and argued the case for a centralised party of revolutionary action, for socialist politics, against the illusion of working-class spontaneity.

In What Is To Be Done?, he pointed out:

The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.6

However, he also noted that workers were not without politics altogether, but it was bourgeois politics. "… the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology … the spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism … and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie."7

So socialist politics has to be campaigned for in the working class, in the process of fighting on all relevant issues and for all oppressed sectors of society:

Working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected _ unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a social democratic point of view and no other … [The ideal should be] not the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people 8

That is the second step to political wisdom: the need for socialist policy, a Marxist program. We had that understanding from the beginning—not just championing economist, "workers" issues, like some on the left who decried struggles for international solidarity, environmental issues, for the rights of women, gays, etc.

Program and program-ism

A Marxist program is a real, living program, developed and tested in practice. It's not some holy scripture. Too many groups claiming to be revolutionary have been unable to make this third step, developing a real program rather than the "correct program-ism" that results in Byzantine splits and the multitude of little groups.

In the 1980s we started to understand better that the program for a party primarily had to have a revolutionary perspective and approach to the issues facing the working class in Australia today. Rather than defining ourselves, and differentiating ourselves, by historical or international questions, we had to focus on the way forward for the class struggle in our own country. We'd broken with the conception that "the one true program", often based on past battles, was the only basis of forming a party to respond to today's needs. As our document "The Struggle for Socialism in the Imperialist Epoch", written in 1984 and adopted by our January 1985 congress, put it:

The objective need of the proletariat and its allies is the maximum possible unity of revolutionary forces to provide leadership in the struggles against capitalism and imperialism. This need is a pressing one and cannot be made hostage to organisational sectarianism or past programmatic disputes with little or no relevance for today's tasks. Marxists therefore seek to unite in action with all those forces that in practice seek to implement the specific measures that would lead the proletariat and its allies forward on the revolutionary path. Whether such unity consists of temporary united fronts, longer-term alliances or organisational merger will often be determined by circumstances outside our control, but the goal is the highest degree of unity to advance working-class struggles.

Our program can be a source of the necessary revolutionary solutions. But this can happen only if two conditions are met: The program must be a living one, constantly being checked and enriched by experience; it must be taken to workers and others in struggle by an active, interventionist party. These two conditions are of course closely linked, since much of experience depends on interventions.9

In the 1980s we were also looking to learn from other revolutionaries, those more connected with the mass struggles and more able to test and learn from their experiences than we were—the Cuban revolutionaries and those looking at their experiences, in Central America, for example. Contrast that with the many small groups or "Internationals" that claim only they are the true revolutionaries, because only they have the true program, differentiating themselves from all others without their shibboleths, and from those who have actually made a revolution.

We also acquired a necessary modesty about our actual achievements and tests, something lacking in so many of the small left groups, often Trotskyist, claiming to be the only true heirs of Trotsky and of the Russian Revolution. Everyone else on the left was characterised as reformist, centrist, Stalinist, or with some other dismissive label.

We decisively broke with that "true program-ism"—which is not to be confused with respect for and involvement in studying and developing Marxist theory. We became a more non-sectarian, but no less revolutionary, party. And our understanding of Marxism increased—these political developments of our party were in response to and fed into our full-time party Marxist school that we organised throughout the 1980s.

Self-proclaimed vanguards

Nothing draws more vitriol and scorn than the idea of a "vanguard party." It's partly justified—not only by the horrors of Stalinism, but also by the proliferation of so many self-proclaimed vanguards.

Lenin argued that a revolutionary party "is worthy of its name only when it guides in deed the movement of a revolutionary class".10 And again, "It is not enough to call ourselves the `vanguard', the advanced contingent; we must act in such a way that all the other contingents recognise and are obliged to admit that we are marching in the vanguard".11

This is very much the Cuban view too. Jesús Montané Oropesa, of the Cuban Communist Party Central Committee, said in a speech in the early 1980s:

It is true that the Latin American and Caribbean revolutionary movement has been significantly enriched during the last 25 years, and this heritage contains useful lessons of great value which no fighter in our countries can ignore.

Notwithstanding, we believe that nothing could be less Marxist than to elevate today's revolutionary experiences into prescriptions for all future situations.

We are sure of one thing, however: the advance of the people's processes on this continent and the development of their potential will be largely dependent on the subjective factor—the ability of the revolutionary vanguards and their leaders. The importance of this ideological element is steadily increasing. As always, those who learn from others and think for themselves will lead the struggle. Those who do not lack determination and courage will deserve to be in the vanguard. Those who demonstrate the ability to judge situations, mobilise the people, win them over, advance along the path of unity, select the most effective methods of struggle for every stage and carry out a correct strategy by means of equally correct tactical measures will deserve to be leaders.12

Revolutionaries have to win that leading role, not "exercise" it, as the Socialist Party of Australia, now the CPA, and so many other little groups argue. You don't become a vanguard through a franchise. As Fidel Castro said in 1967:

Anyone can give themselves the name of "eagle" without having a single feather on their back. In the same way, there are people who call themselves communists without having a single communist hair on their heads. The international communist movement, to our way of thinking, is not a church. It is not a religious sect or a Masonic lodge that obliges us to hallow any weakness, any deviation; that obliges us to follow a policy of a mutual admiration with all kinds of reformists and pseudo-revolutionaries.13

No permanent tactics

How to get there? How to win those "feathers"? How to build a party that can lead in practice? It's difficult, that we know. Not many have succeeded. History is littered with broken efforts, and broken individuals.

All tactics should be available to us, with none ruled out, but none elevated into a permanent, single strategy suitable for all situations: from basic propaganda and one-to-one recruitment; entries into other parties or organisations; involvement in mass campaigns and united fronts; to all types of alliances, regroupments and fusions.

The biggest schema to break with in the Trotskyist tradition was the tactic of entryism into the Labor Party. It could have been a useful tactic in certain situations, at particular times. But it came to be elevated into a permanent strategy, and its defenders were forced into elevating the nature of the ALP beyond what it is—a bourgeois party.

Building a revolutionary party is not an even, simple, linear process. It requires flexibility. We can expect leaps, and we have to grasp opportunities when they come, because they don't last forever. Alex Callinicos from the British Socialist Workers Party recognises this in his article on "Regroupment, Realignment, and the Revolutionary Left" when he states

… the history of the workers' movement shows very clearly that mass revolutionary parties do not develop through a linear process in which a small Marxist group gradually grows bigger and bigger by recruiting more and more members. Like history more generally, the development of revolutionary parties involves qualitative leaps and sharp breaks.14

There's lots of debate about how to build a party, and no simple recipe. There are very specific conditions in each country, different objective situations and social conditions, different movements and political histories, different subjective forces, the parties and political forces and currents on the ground. There are big differences between imperialist countries, and the Third World, between Europe and countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Nevertheless, we certainly have to look carefully at the varied experiences of regroupments and alliances in Europe, with positive experiences in Denmark, Portugal, Italy, France and Scotland. Certainly there are different tactical problems faced in each country, but there should be pointers for us in countries where there has been a Labor Party formation, for example in Scotland, with the Scottish Socialist Party, and in England, with the Socialist Alliance.

These experiences prompted us to initiate the Socialist Alliance nearly two years ago, and investigate taking the process forward after initial positive experiences. Of course, the development of a qualitatively stronger revolutionary party beyond this promising point of departure will be a process, and none of us have the road map right now. It will develop through leaps and take different forms, but we're confident that building a stronger Socialist Alliance is a step in the right direction.

Flexibility of forms

Another lesson we have re-won in the course of our own experience is the need for flexibility regarding the form of a revolutionary party. Of course, it's obvious that the form of the party must vary according to the different conditions from country to country. The level of state repression will determine whether a legal party is possible, or whether you have to operate underground. The size of our own forces will partly determine what organisational forms are possible. The relationship of revolutionaries to the masses, and to other political forces, will also influence what forms of organisation are needed.

This was the approach adopted by the Third Congress of the Communist International in July 1921 in its theses on organisation:

There is no absolute form of organisation which is correct for all Communist Parties at all times. The conditions of the proletarian class struggle are constantly changing, and so the proletarian vanguard has always to be looking for effective forms of organisation. Equally, each Party must develop its own special forms of organisation to meet the particular historically determined conditions within the country.15

Our motivation for the Socialist Alliance, and for this recent bold move for the DSP to move further into the Socialist Alliance, to operate as a tendency, is based on the real political developments in Australia and internationally. Some of the reasoning is outlined in the September 2 National Executive report by Peter Boyle, "For a new step forward in left unity", and the letter we sent to the Socialist Alliance.

However, it's not something out of the blue, not a "turn" in our fundamental perspectives. It's predicated on our previous thinking, rethinking, breaking with old schemas, that was such a feature of our party, then the Socialist Workers Party, in the 1980s.

That was another time of challenge, requiring tactical boldness. We'd completed the turn to industry, and had developed a small but confident team of cadres, a dedicated, committed party of activists. We'd broken with a lot of the Trotskyist dogmas and sectarianism, on permanent revolution for example.

In that period we were also looking for new forms, for all possibilities for regroupment, or unity with other left parties.

We participated in broad trade union defence campaigns, and campaigns against the Accord, but recognised that that was insufficient: we needed a political alternative to the Labor betrayals.

We had the exciting Nuclear Disarmament Party experience—a rapidly growing new party based on opposition to Labor betrayals on nuclear disarmament, peace and uranium mining. We had changed enough to be able to respond and join the ndp early on and build it. The experience helped deepen our understanding of the ALP and sharpen our election tactics.16

We had small fusions with Revolutionary Path, a group of Turkish revolutionaries, with Socialist Fight (now Workers Liberty), and with a group of militant mineworkers in Rosebery, Tasmania. We were not afraid of welcoming into the party groups from different political traditions.

We had the experience of the New Left Party, attempting to regroup with the old Communist Party of Australia. The dilemma of the CPA has been a major question for the left in Australia, and worth a thorough study—their left turn in the late 1960s, why they still pursued fundamentally right-wing policies; the CPA role in initiating the Accord. Extending its slight shift to the left in 1986, and merging with us, was the last chance for saving the CPA cadres and the positive elements of its tradition, before its ignominious dissolution in 1991.

We attempted to unite with the Socialist Party of Australia, (now renamed the CPA), and ran Socialist Alliance election campaigns. There were specific circumstances, with agreement on opposition to the Accord, and other key issues of Australian politics. The big differences on history and international perspectives were held in check by the policies of perestroika and glasnost coming from Gorbachev in Moscow. But this alliance couldn't withstand big events like the Tienanmen Square massacre by the bureaucrats in Beijing.

We made various efforts to link up with left greens, were involved in founding initiatives for the NSW Greens in 1984 and attempted to be involved in the process for a national green organisation in the early 1990s.

We tried those many regroupment efforts, and exhausted the possibilities. We ran out of possible partners, so we changed our name to Democratic Socialist Party and launched Green Left Weekly, a successful effort to reach out to the many individual activists and former members of left groups looking for an alternative voice. Our 1980s unity efforts weren't successful, but were extremely useful experiences. We learned many lessons, including the need for flexibility regarding forms.

Those efforts in the 1980s were predicated on our political reassessments, breaking with schemas: don't convert tactics into strategies; don't get stuck with permanent tactics; get clarity on the ALP, the big schema.

Our initiative for the Socialist Alliance and our new proposals for strengthening it are in the framework we developed in the 1980s, but they themselves are not fixed or limited forms. We should always be alert to other possibilities, other openings, based on the actual situation.

Furthermore, we shouldn't limit the types of regroupment or the variety of forms for moving forward that might emerge. Look at the real political situation, the actual forces and possibilities, and don't reject opportunities just because they don't fit into our existing conceptual boxes. If you do, you get trapped by your own schemas.

The UK SWP/International Socialist Tendency's practice in different countries regarding alliances and left regroupment has varied widely. This is certainly a correct recognition of the reality of the different objective and subjective political circumstances from country to country. However, it does highlight the contradictions in their position when they try to argue from fixed abstract principles for a particular course they take in one country. For example here, their initial objections to our proposal have been based on what they present as generally applicable schemas.

Internationals and internationalism

We can learn from good examples in other countries, and adopt tactics that seem to show promise. But it's important that the thinking through about what is to be done and the decisions are made by the party here, and take account of all the local circumstances.

This highlights another important lesson we've learned ourselves: the importance of internationalism, and the disaster of fake "internationals". In the early 1980s we became very clear about the danger of "Cominternism", whether the centre of control was in Moscow, with authority based on a successful revolution, or in New York, Buenos Aires, London or Paris, with mother parties with much narrower credentials.17

Such a method imposes ideas and tactics from outside, and often even imposes leaderships from outside. It universalises tactical mistakes, and hinders the development of an independent party, with a leadership that thinks for itself.

Such fake "internationals" have nothing in common with internationalism, and usually in fact are a hindrance to real internationalism. An internationalist perspective is absolutely essential for revolutionaries in an imperialist country like Australia, to educate our ranks and inoculate ourselves against the nationalist and racist poison dished out by our own ruling class. Of course, our primary political task is to make a revolution against our own ruling class, but that revolution will be aided by the solidarity we organise with people oppressed by imperialism.

Our real internationalism, real solidarity, and real fraternal links with other revolutionary parties in other countries stands out compared with the internationalism practised by most of the other left groups. Too often they substitute membership of their narrow—usually tiny—"International" for real international work. Unfortunately, too often it has dire results for their own organisation too, in terms of building an organisation able to stand on its own feet without interference from the mother party.

Throughout our party's history, our record of internationalist solidarity has been exemplary, from our origins in the struggle against the Vietnam War, opposing our government's imperialist interventions in the region, to our current campaigns against imperialism's war drive and our solidarity with various people's struggles in Asia. For the last two decades, our current has had a politically leading role in championing socialist renewal and breaking from sectarianism: our 1980s experiences with unity and regroupment, our 1990s initiatives with Green Left Weekly and Links magazine, our ambitious organisation of international left gatherings, recently the Asia Pacific Solidarity conferences.

As a result, we've built good relations with many developing Marxist organisations throughout the region, and have developed an Asian network of left parties, coming from different traditions, origins, and circumstances, who collaborate closely.

Democracy and centralism

Over the years of our experience in building the DSP, we've developed a better understanding of how a revolutionary party operates. We adopted democratic centralism as our method of operating, but perhaps initially had a tendency to see it as a set of rules, a constitution. We developed a better understanding of the principles involved as we matured, and had more experience in actually building a party.

Simply defined, it's full freedom of discussion, and unity in action. "In the heat of battle … no criticism whatever can be permitted in [the party's] ranks", Lenin wrote.18 But before the call for action, the broadest possible discussion was needed. Understood properly, this is common sense, but it is vital for a successful revolutionary party.

As Lenin wrote in 1904 in the final paragraph of One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, his summary of the split with the Mensheviks:

In its struggle for power, the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation. Disunited by the rule of anarchic competition in the bourgeois world, ground down by forced labour for capital, constantly thrust back to the "lower depths" of utter destitution, savagery, and degeneration, the proletariat can, and inevitably will, become an invincible force only through its ideological unification on the principles of Marxism being reinforced by the material unity of organisation.19

Lenin ended with a final swipe at "the opportunist phrase-mongering of the Girondists of present-day Social-Democracy", "the self-satisfied exaltation of the retrograde circle spirit" and the "tinsel and fuss of intellectualist anarchism".

Nearly 100 years on, we're still having to contend with such retrograde trends, (with refinements of tinsel and fuss that Lenin couldn't have possibly dreamed of; imagine Lenin at one of these "spokes-councils"; imagine ordinary workers there).

Our understanding of how to organise a party functioning according to the principles of democratic centralism is refined by actually participating in building such an organisation.

We aim for centralism in order to act collectively in an effective manner. Our conception is not centralisation of power in the hands of a bureaucracy, but the centralisation of party activity.

We've developed democratically elected leadership bodies, with the consequent authority to act between congresses.

We take it for granted that any party we are in—certainly a revolutionary party, an anti-capitalist party or a party in the process of moving in that direction—would respect the right of tendency, the right for different views to organise and argue for their positions.

We learned lessons about how to respect different viewpoints in the party. We've also got extensive experience of how tendencies with different viewpoints can act loyally, and build the party while still arguing for their views.

Inclusive party

A lesson we learned well and have stressed continually is that we're building an inclusive party, with an inclusive leadership. In a report to our National Committee in September 1980, DSP National Secretary Jim Percy elaborated on some of the party-building lessons of the first ten years of the DSP.20 He grouped some of these important lessons under four headings:

  1. We had developed a broad leadership team; we were an inclusive party.
  2. We were building an independent party.
  3. We were a party built on Leninist organisational principles.
  4. We were an ambitious party.

On the first point, the question of an inclusive team, he outlined in that report some of our experiences, some of the splits that we'd gone through, some of the fusions that we'd attempted—some which were failures and some which succeeded—but they showed the general thrust of our attempt to unite with other forces. He went through our history and our efforts in the 1970s. He pointed out how we recruited from different periods and different cities, and comrades from different countries, and how these comrades, recruited from different situations, made up the current leadership of the party.

He pointed out that these sincere attempts at unity—the attempts to unite with other forces—laid the ground for future successes. He said it also "allowed us to build a team—not a closed team but a team that was a pole of attraction and a framework for new and developing leaders."

On the basis of those early lessons, in the next decade of the party, we were able to develop into a truly independent—and ambitious—party.

As well as building an inclusive leadership team, and as well as reaching out to try to build the party and include new forces in the leadership of the party, we also want to make the most out of individual comrades. We have to make every effort to integrate all activists into the party.

We want to set high standards of activity, but not so high that people will feel unable to join or maintain membership. The long-time leader of the US Trotskyist movement, James P. Cannon pointed out once:

We don't want an excess of Bolshevisation [in the party, so that] every time we bring one person into the party we drive two others out by our impractical and unrealistic demands upon them. We've got to grow up to the level of political people who are able to make use of members who want to belong to the party. Lenin was a great master at utilising material that wasn't 100 percent perfect and he even succeeded in making a revolution with this defective material. One of the best stories I have ever heard was the remark made by Serge Evrikoff, a leader of the left opposition and secretary of the party under Lenin, when he was in this country. He remarked to some American comrades, "You will never begin to understand the genius of Lenin or to appreciate him in his full stature. You know that he made a revolution, but you don't know the material he made it out of."21

But while we seek to include in our ranks all genuine socialist revolutionaries, the DSP is not "all-inclusive" in the manner of the Labor Party. We strive for homogeneity—political agreement about what to do next.

Party, class and movement

The socialist revolution is the first conscious revolution, made by the lowest social class. But working-class consciousness is uneven; it has to be transformed into political class consciousness.

Engels underestimated this. At the end of his life, he thought the old social democratic parties would somehow embrace the whole working class: "The simple feeling of solidarity based on the understanding of the identity of class position suffices to create and hold together one and the same great party of the proletariat among the workers of all countries and tongues".22

But Lenin understood it more clearly: "Precisely because there are differences in degree of consciousness and degree of activity, a distinction must be made in degree of proximity to the party".23

James P. Cannon wrote:

Under class society and capitalism, the toilers are stratified and divided in many ways; they live under very dissimilar conditions and are at disparate stages of economic and political development. Their culture is inadequate and their outlook narrow. Consequently they do not and cannot all at once, en masse and to the same degree, arrive at a clear and comprehensive understanding of their real position in society or the political course they must follow to end the evils they suffer from and make their way to a better system.24

So the revolutionary party always begins as a minority of its class, but strives to grow, to reach out to and win the broadest masses. Lenin's method of building a party can't be separated from the mass struggles of workers and other oppressed out of which a vanguard develops, and which we seek to mould into a party. The party's program interacts with those mass struggles, is sharpened, more people are influenced by the party's perspectives, and the party grows and develops. It's an interactive process.

Full involvement to the best of its capacity in the key struggles and movements is essential for a revolutionary party. Revolutionaries both learn from and lead the struggle, being the best, most intelligent and effective fighters for the interest of the working class.

We do not counterpose building the movements to trying to build the revolutionary party, or even project first one, then the other. It's essential to build the movements and intervene in them to build the party at the same time. We don't elevate the movement into something above the party, nor separate the party from the movements. It's a relationship which builds the movements and builds the party.

Dedication and commitment

But even with all these refinements and understandings of what's needed to build a revolutionary party, we won't get anywhere without the special quality that drives a revolution and inspires a revolutionary party: dedication and commitment.

All successful revolutionaries had this in full measure. There's a multitude of unsuccessful revolutionaries who lacked that dedication, drive, seriousness.

What did Lenin mean by his concept of professional revolutionaries, "people who make revolutionary activity their profession"?25 What does it mean? Not that all comrades are on full time, but that we all see our revolutionary activity as our life's work. We take a serious attitude to the enormous task we've set ourselves. If we're cynical, we won't even be able to take the first steps.

We welcome all contributions to the struggle. Comrades' contributions will vary according to their situation. There will be different levels of activity depending on circumstances—jobs, age, family commitments, health etc. And we also recognise that we're in it for the long haul, so we can't afford to get totally exhausted, but have to allow for the difficulties of surviving in a capitalist society. But we still need to have that 100 percent commitment, not be dabblers. And if we ourselves can't be very active for particular reasons, let's not look down on serious—even "fanatical"—activists, but cheer them on and admire them.

We're serious when we say the future of humanity depends on the struggle for socialism. It really is a situation of socialism or barbarism. Today it's even more so, with weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the mad dogs in Washington. So to make the struggle for socialism our lifelong task, our profession, is the only really rewarding one under capitalism.

We've quoted—frequently in the 1980s—Lenin's astute comments on "How is the discipline of the proletariat's revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced?" from "Left-wing" communism _ an infantile disorder. Others have quoted it more recently, and sometimes selectively. Lenin's not just making a one-sided point, to ridicule fake discipline in sectarian outfits.

What does Lenin put first in answer to his question? Dedication and commitment: "First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard, and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism". So many of those who have rejected Leninism, whether from confusing it with Stalinism, or for other reasons, leave this essential ingredient out of their practice, and of course build nothing.

The next element relates to the necessary flexibility and testing of political perspectives through involvement with mass struggles: "Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people".

Finally, Lenin writes: "Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct". That is, leadership has been demonstrated in practice, through the vanguard's own experience. This is where I began: discussing to act (which is democratic centralism, after all) and testing in practice.

Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party really capable of being the party of the advanced class, whose mission it is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved. Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrasemongering and clowning.26

Future directions

Whatever eventuates with the Socialist Alliance in 2003, the party-building perspectives that we've learned and developed up to now will be essential.

Whether our perspectives are adopted, and the Socialist Alliance becomes stronger, more visible, and takes on more the attributes of a broad socialist party rather than an alliance; or whether the opponents of our perspective harden their stance, refuse to move in that direction, issue further ultimatums or withdraw, so that the Socialist Alliance might have a more limited role, or be less all-encompassing, or other ways of advancing a stronger socialist movement have to be tested.

Whatever the case, our Leninist party perspective will still guide us, whether in the DSP, or as a Democratic Socialist Tendency, or as a strengthened Socialist Alliance party, or as a United Socialist Party. We have to be able to withstand bourgeois pressures, swim against the stream, to be critical and creative, but not reject the methodology and strengths that got us to where we are.

All of us have to absorb Lenin's method, not strict recipes from an earlier period and a different country, and learn from how we've applied and tested it here. The lessons and general guidelines sketched above will still be necessary.

[At the time of writing, John Percy was the national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party. This article is based on a contribution to the Activist, the internal information and discussion bulletin of the DSP, prior to the party's congress, held from December 28, 2002 to January 1, 2003 in Sydney.]


1. The Accord was a social contract between the ALP and the trade unions that resulted in a huge shift of wealth from the working class to the capitalist class and a disastrous weakening of the unions.

2. Leon Trotsky, Lessons of the Paris Commune, New York, Pathfinder Press, 1969, p. 53.

3. Dave Renton, <voiceoftheturtle.org>.

4. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 15, p. 459.

5. See the report on the US SWP by Doug Lorimer to the January 3, 1984, DSP National Committee meeting, published as a pamphlet, The Making of a Sect, Pathfinder Press Australia, 1984.

6. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 375.

7. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 384.

8. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 423.

9. The Struggle for Socialism in the Imperialist Epoch, Pathfinder Press Australia, 1984, p. 100.

10. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 194.

11. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 426.

12. Jesús Montané, "Revolutionary Perspectives in Latin America and the Caribbean", Intercontinental Press, January 31, 1983, p. 60.

13. From a speech delivered to the University of Havana on March 13, 1967. Fidel Castro, Those Who Are Not Revolutionary Fighters Cannot Be Called Communists, Merit Publishers, New York, 1968, p. 49.

14. Printed in the first international bulletin of the SWP's international organisation, the International Socialist Tendency, and available on their web site, <www.istendency.org>.

15. Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Ink Links, London, 1980, p. 234.

16. See the DSP pamphlet, Labor and the Fight for Socialism, which contains a report by former DSP national secretary Jim Percy analysing the ALP, the NDP and the 1984 elections, and the resolution we adopted on the ALP. Printed in three editions in the 1980s.

17. See the DSP pamphlet, The Democratic Socialist Party and the Fourth International, Resistance Books, 2001, which contains reports by Jim Percy and Doug Lorimer to the DSP National Committee in 1984 and 1985.

18. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 10, p. 381.

19. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 7, p. 412.

20. Reprinted in Socialist Worker, Vol. 2, No 3, December 1982, and soon to be reprinted in a book.

21. James P. Cannon, "It is Time for a Bolder Policy in the Unions", The Socialist Workers Party in World War II, New York, Pathfinder, 1975, p. 196.

22. Marx-Engels Selected Works, Vol. 3, p. 190.

23. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 7, p. 260.

24. Cannon, The Revolutionary Party, New York, Pioneer, 1968 p. 4.

25. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.5, p. 452.

26. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 31, p. 24.