Reply to a Trotskyist on the party question

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Jan 29 08:25:53 MST 2000

James Paris, a young activist with a small Trotskyist group in Detroit
called the Marxist Workers Group challenged me on the Trotsky newsgroup to
spell out my ideas on the party question:

"May I make a recommendation?  Perhaps you should take a little time and
write out a comprehensive document on the issue of organization today.
Forty-year-old articles from Hal Draper doesn't cut it, IMO.  I'm open to
hearing what YOU have to say."

My reply:
Time does not permit me to prepare a comprehensive document, but I do have
some ideas about how a revolutionary organization will emerge in the United
States and how will it be structured internally.

1. Since working class composition is an important criterion for you, let
me say at the outset that working class members will have to be able to
participate on a completely different basis than is expected in "vanguard"
organizations today. When you are on an assembly line for 8 hours, and have
family obligations like most working people do, it is unrealistic to expect
that you will go to the headquarters after work and sit in a 2 hour
meeting. This is one of the main reasons no working people have joined the
American SWP in the 25 years following their "turn" toward industry. The
Cochranite opposition, which was expelled in 1953, understood this
instinctively. In correspondence with Christopher Phelps, who is writing a
book on American Trotskyism and the black struggle, Erwin Baur states,
"Attendance to SWP auto fraction meetings was always greater than branch

2. Until a pre-revolutionary situation emerges, any socialist current must
concentrate on propaganda, socialist education and regroupment. The most
pressing need in the US today is for Marxists to gain a hearing in trade
unions and on the university campus. Nearly left group and individual is
involved in this project, but some do it better than others. I have my own
opinion on the matter, which is no secret. I believe that Marxist thought
is underdeveloped today for two reasons. In the organized Marxist
"vanguard" groups, there is a tendency for most of the thinking to take
place at the top, while the rank-and-file sees its duty as one of worker
bee, to go out and propagate the message. This approximates the
intellectual-manual labor dichotomy which is at the heart of capitalism and
which must be abolished. One of the worst legacies of "Marxism-Leninism"
has been its tendency to produce a dull and pliant party membership. This
must change. The other challenge is to fight for hegemony in the academy
against the trendy post-Marxist academic figures who dominate the scene
there now. I have been doing this myself, largely through the Internet and
obstreperous interventions at academic conferences, with some measure of
success. This job is roughly analogous to the one carried out by Lenin in
his fight with Bogdanov, or Trotsky's with James Burnham. But on the basis
of farce rather than tragedy. Being a clown by nature, I am up to the task.

3. Ecology must occupy a central role programmatically, which unfortunately
it does not now. Except for the Australian DSP, there is no organized
Marxist grouping in the world that places a proper emphasis on these
questions. The reason for this is that dogmatic interpretations of the
technology-nature question have been accepted by Stalinists and Trotskyists
alike. Here I am not speaking solely about the weird evolution of the LM
grouping, but about outfits like the Spartacist League as well, who
champion nuclear power. It is absolutely mandatory for Marxism to engage
with ecological thought on at least the same plane as Marx himself who
regarded the soil chemist Liebeg as being much more important for
understanding the contradictions of capitalism than any economist. Drawing
upon Liebeg, Marx came to the conclusion that the town-country dichotomy
must be abolished if humanity was to survive. The same thing is true today.

4. Marxism must embrace the struggles of indigenous peoples, who are at the
cutting edge of capitalist contradictions today. Indian reservations are
our concentration camps. Inside them, people are being systematically
destroyed economically and culturally. The lack of interest in American
Indian struggles in Marxist circles can only be explained by Social
Darwinist deviations which have a long history. Kautsky read Charles
Spencer before he read Marx.

5. Finally, the biggest problem facing revolutionaries in the United States
is the Democratic Party, which is an unfortunate legacy of Stalinism. When
there was a massive radicalization in the US during the 1930s, the CP,
which enjoyed hegemony in the labor movement, endeavored to corral labor
militancy into support for the New Deal. Even after the CP lost influence,
left radicals continued to play this role. During the late 60s, for
example, people like Tom Hayden and Dave Dellinger were always trying to
figure out ways to hitch the radical movement to the wagon of "peace"
candidates. That is the reason I support all sorts of electoral
alternatives even though they do not correspond to the ideal that Marxists
have in their mind. I endorse Green Party campaigns and will contribute
both money and time to the presidential campaign of Socialist Party leader
David McReynolds. If the Labor Party managed to finally run a candidate, I
would support him or her as well. Unfortunately, this party seems to be
withering on the vine.

6. Finally, such a party will be distinguished by its heterogeneity. The
programmatic parameters will be a lot wider than anything in the world of
"vanguard" parties. I would expect that it might bear some resemblance to
the Guardian Newspaper which unfortunately folded about 12 years ago. I am
not sure you are old enough to remember, but the paper ran debates on
Yugoslavia, not unlike those that appear on the Internet today. I
remembered how valuable that was and what an example that was for Marxism.
People are naturally attracted to organizations that have a lively internal
life. Although I am the last person in the world to appeal to authority, it
is useful to remind ourselves how open to public debate Lenin was in a
context of fierce Czarist repression. What is our excuse for promoting
ideological conformity when we enjoy nearly full political freedoms,
including the use of the Internet, which will be as important to our
revolution as the printing press was to earlier ones. From Paul Leblanc's
"Lenin and the Revolutionary Party":

Not long afterwards [after 1906], Lenin published some additional thoughts
on the meaning of democratic centralism. The central committee of the RSDLP
had proposed "limits within which the decisions of Party congresses may be
criticized." It assured "full freedom to express personal opinions and to
advocate individual views" in the party press and at party meetings, but
not at public meetings. Lenin complained that this was too restrictive. He
wrote: "The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party
organizations implies universal and full freedom to criticize so long as
this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all
criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided
on by the Party." Lenin argued that "the Central Committee has defined
freedom to criticize inaccurately and too narrowly, and unity of action
inaccurately and too broadly." He insisted that "criticism within the
limits of the principles of the Party Program must be quite free . . . ,
not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings.

Louis Proyect
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