Party Building in the 70s

Jose G. Perez jgperez at
Mon Mar 12 20:35:06 MST 2001

I think the idea of moving people around like this when you were dealing
with the YSA'ers circa 1970, in the political and social context of the
times, was okay, and has a long and honorable tradition in the American
radical movement going back to the Wobblies.

But, of course, it is one thing to do that in the extremely fluid student
millieus of a youth radicalization, and quite another to keep on doing it in
the long period of relative quiescence that have followed. And it's one
thing to do it with college age youth, another to do it with an older group,
and by now much, much older group in labor union and community millieus.

In terms of organizational doctrine, the MAIN problem with the SWP was the
"Leninist Strategy of Party Building," reifying a (false) picture of the
Bolshevik experience into THE "classical" model which revolutionists MUST
try to replicate. This is a problem they share with the general current of
"Bolshevik" and "Leninist" organizations on the revolutionary left. It is a
quintessentially idealist and anti-Marxist conception that goes against the
very grain of the founding document of the Communist movement, which quite
explicitly repudiates the idea that Communists have some sort of magic
formula with which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.

Like every other political question, the question of what is the best form
of organization for a given group of working class revolutionaries at any
given time is a *concrete* question, not one that has a priori answers.

The current form of organization --none-- of the group of Marxists in and
around this list, for example, is merely an updated version of the form
which Marx chose throughout the period of reaction of the 1850s and into the
1860s, until the founding of the International. Marx kept up with his
political friends through correspondence and through weekly sessions of "Dr.
Marx's Circle" --as the publican called it-- in the private room of a London
bar where both the beer and political discussion flowed freely.

Nor is it true that the Bolsheviks were an organization that was anything
like the latter-day Leninists are trying to build. First, because throughout
MOST of their existence, the party the Bolsheviks were trying to build was
the RSDLP. Second, because it would not have occurred to them to try to keep
their most important political and theoretical discussions out of public
view. Third, because the idea of censoring comrades and making the all
parrot the same "line" handed down from above would have been anathema to
Lenin. And if the Bolsheviks has been an ultra-disciplined,
ultra-centralized, strictly hierarchical, top-down party like those of the
modern "Leninists," there would have been no Russian revolution in 1917 like
the one that took place. It would have been decapitated, left leaderless.

Of course, in the FALL of 1917, when it was necessary to strike a
coordinated military blow, the Bolsheviks COULD and DID impose strict,
conspiratorial military discipline. But it doesn't take a Lenin to figure
out that it's one thing to operate in that fashion when you're planning an
insurrection, and quite another when what's involved is a lit table or a
plant gate sale.

At bottom, I think more is involved than a misinterpretation of historical
lessons. It has to do with how you view the relationship between "the party"
and the working class. A real workers party has to emerge out of the actual
experiences and motion of the class towards political consciousness. It
can't be "built" by force of will or sacrifice. Nor can it be built by
creating a pure nucleus that is perfect in its form, and which, when dropped
into the supersaturated solution of a rise in the class struggle, will
simply grow larger and larger retaining in every detail the configuration of
the original seed crystal. Life isn't like that. You don't build a hous by
starting with a miniature doll-house-size structure and gradually expanding
it. It is put together from wood and wire and brick and none of the
components look at all like the end product.

There's now been enough experience in a variety of countries where mass
revolutionary movements/organizations have emerged and taken power to allow
us to say that the party in this sense can and does take on all sorts of
peculiar and individual forms that flow from the history of struggle of
working people in the given country. The only rule is that there are no
rules. There is no model.

The debate between the LTF and the International Majority in the USec in the
early 70's was sterile, among other reasons, because it was simply a
counterposition of two schemas, based on (a misundestanding of) two concrete
succesful revolutions, the Russian and the Cuban revolutions. It was also
sterile because the idea that you can have one international political
approach sufficiently coherent so it could be called a line as to the
strategy and tactics to be followed by revolutionaries in totally disparate
situations and with totally disparate forces is fundamentally unsound. It
needs to be broad enough to encompass everything from book publishing to
insurrection, and of course the real issue becomes whether such-and-such a
group in Timbuktu properly applied the "general line" dreamed up in Brussels
or New York, which eventually degenerates into the "Lenin of our time"
d'jour dictating tactics in situations he (and, yes, it is almost always a
he) knows nothing about. But long before total zombification sets in, you
get this revolutionary messianism in which your group views itself as the
savior of whatever playpen "international" you happen to be affiliated with
at the moment (and God knows there are certainly enough of them).


----- Original Message -----
From: "Mark Lause" <lause at>
To: <marxism at>
Sent: Saturday, March 10, 2001 8:22 PM
Subject: Party Building in the 70s

I've taken the liberty of changing the subject line to reflect better what
seem to be discussing.

You are all right that this was the standard procedure.  I didn't know Louis
was ever in Kansas City.  I was recruited there in 1970, part of the
of the YSA in areas where the debris of the old SDS was still plentiful.  We
built an urban-based YSA local up to 21 or 22 members, but were asked
one-at-a-time to move to branch areas.  I wound up in Houston in 1971.
after, the party grafted a branch into K.C.  This was the norm.

One question occurs: Why would any radical organization really interested in
building something rooted in the real world do this?  Isn't the best answer
preoccupation of the leadership with control?  with making itself the
of the membership's perceptions?  It is an aspect of the greater question of
movement democracy.

In soldiarity,

Louis Proyect wrote:

> >With the closure of the Austin Branch several years later, it became
> >clear to me that the SWP was never much more than a group of Leftist
> >carpetbaggers in the South.
> >
> >Later the SWP failed to be able to build anything either, in its Dallas,
> >New Orleans, Miami,  Norfolk and Birmingham branches.       Conclusion
> >to the record of the SWP in the US South???      It was a total failure.
> >
> >Best wishes, Tony
> Let's not adopt such a haughty attitude toward the carpetbaggers. The
> hatred directed toward them by official AmeriKKKan historiography has a
> to do with resentment toward the abolition of slavery and the radical
> democratic aftermath during reconstruction.
> When I arrived in Houston in 1973, the party was still in the middle of a
> huge battle with the KKK. The Klan had dynamited the Pacifica transmitter
> *twice* and pipe-bombed our headquarters. It had also machine-gunned the
> home of Fred Brode, a branch member and activist in the Vietnam antiwar
> movement. When we put sandbags in front of his house, it made the front
> pages of the local newspapers.
> Houston had developed the reputation for being under Klan control,
> into municipal government and the police department. A Time Magazine
> article showed a Houston cop sitting in the front seat of a squad car with
> a hood on his head.
> The SWP rallied local peace and civil liberties groups to stand up to the
> Klan. Eventually the local ruling class decided that bad publicity risked
> its bid to become a major financial and industrial center like Atlanta, so
> they started arresting people. This was the SWP's proudest moment. The
> tactics they applied came from deep within the arsenal of American
> socialism, adapted to local conditions.
> The reason that the SWP failed to sink roots in Houston is the same reason
> it failed to sink roots anywhere. It built branches by importing cadre and
> then recruited people through propaganda activity. It had about as much
> clue in Houston as it did in Kansas City, my last branch before dropping
> out. A Marxist party can not be built in this fashion. It has to be built
> the way that the Bolshevik party was built, by gathering together Marxist
> activists around a fighting class struggle program broadly defined. Our
> will come.
> Louis Proyect
> Marxism mailing list:

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