Reply to Ed's Party Building
edgeorge at usuarios.retecal.es
Tue Sep 30 09:20:59 MDT 2003
Domhnall: 'Effectively, then you are saying that social democratic
formations tend to decouple the parliamentary from the other sites of
struggle. Is this what you mean?'
What I am saying is that social democracy (the term understood in its
modern sense) tends not only to decouple the parliamentary site of
struggle from all others but to subordinate the latter to the former.
Domhnall: 'This is something which needs expansion and clarification.
Why is this the case? Is it to limit the influence/empowerment of the
workers/popular forces by excluding them from the parliamentary centre
What I am also saying is that this is an 'organic', natural, tendency
within working class politics under capitalism. It is not done
consciously to exclude workers from parliament: it is not done
consciously in this sense at all, even if it does have the objective
consequence of subordinating overall struggle to winning parliamentary
Why have the western European workers' movements consistently thrown up
parliamentarist organisations, be they social-democratic or communist in
origin? It is because within the capitalist social fabric at its most
developed a real separation between the social and economic spheres
takes place. Under even the most developed systems of bourgeois
democracy your democratic rights - which we unhesitatingly defend, I
should add - amount merely to the right to determine who are your
political, i.e. parliamentary, representatives. Within the social
sphere, if you have rights at all, they are at best merely consultative.
The demand for real workplace democracy, for example - the right to
elect your own boss - is ordinarily seen as wild and impractical
leftism. Thus the real separation between the social and the political
that occurs within capitalism - between the social relations of
production and the state, a separation which is at best only germinal in
pre-capitalist societies - finds its reflection in the way that the
oppressed classes are admitted into the political process, which in turn
finds its reflection in the type of organisation that the oppressed
classes develop. It is of cardinal importance not to see this process as
simply one of 'betrayal'. Reformist socialist leaders - real reformist
socialists, of course, not the bunch of petty bourgeois hand-raisers
that today run, for example, Her Majesty's British Labour Party - do not
generally set out with the intention of betrayal, but with the intention
of really fighting for the amelioration of working class conditions
through parliamentary struggle. But the parliamentary system
structurally diverts these struggles away from the real source of
bourgeois political power, the state. So why have we so consistently
focused our energies on parliament and not the state? Isn't it obvious
that the locus of bourgeois rule does not lie in parliament? No it
isn't, and this is the point. What appears to be obvious is precisely
that parliament operates as a kind of 'executive committee' of society.
But society is composed of classes, and parliament operates as a fictive
cloak for the real dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, doesn't it? But this
is not obvious either, which is why most people who live in bourgeois
democracies in normal times don't think so.
The logical first step in bourgeois democracies for people wanting to
'politicise' their grievances is to turn to existing parliamentary
structures and parties. That the true objective necessity for working
class struggle is the overthrow of the bourgeois state is not at all
automatically revealed as obvious (what is the normal reaction of people
who find that parliamentary democracy does not live up to their
expectations - they become disillusioned with politics rather than
revolutionaries) but is posed once the experience of many struggles is
collectively generalised (in a revolutionary party, and that is its
function), and is even then only undertaken seriously when all else has
really failed. 'Parliamentary cretinism' is not really cretinism at all,
but, all else being equal, the logical common sense way forward that
capitalism seems to offer for political change.
And we cannot underestimate its attractive power: the British state
Militant tendency, for example, whatever else we may have to say about
them, built a mass, working class socialist youth movement in the 1980s
and 1990s on precisely the view that socialism could be won through a
socialist parliamentary majority in Westminster passing the right
Domhnall: 'Perhaps this is abcs, but I don't see it as without needing
justification in a histmat sense.'
I think it does need such a justification because it is not understood.
at all well. The standard understanding of parliamentarism on the
revolutionary left (which in an obverse way is as much a phenomenon of
'partial consciousness' as is parliamentarism itself) is to dismiss it
as illusory, and as the result of 'betrayers' (the British SWP come to
mind here, but the error is near ubiquitous). This is the theory of
bureaucracy as the lid of a pressure cooker: take the lid off and the
revolutionary steam is released. What this theory does not do - and
cannot do - is account for why the lid is there in the first place. This
conception leads to a rejection of a true critique of parliamentarism,
which just cedes the political ground to the parliamentarists.
Domhnall: 'One might say that bureaucrats have no strategic vision? That
they fail to see beyond their own little sphere of activity.'
This is the point. The type of organisations we need to build are those
that consciously seek to break out of 'little spheres of activities',
or, more accurately, to generalise from many 'little spheres of
activities'. This is, on my reading of it, what Lenin is saying in What
is to be Done?
But, then again, to say that the bureaucracy doesn't think strategically
is to seriously underestimate the problem. If you take people like Benn
and Scargill, for example, serious reformist socialists in the true
sense of the words, it is clear that they absolutely think
strategically, and that they developed a sophisticated understanding of
how socialism would be achieved. They were, and are, wrong, in my view -
because they didn't understand how classes rule and how parliament and
the state fit into that equation. But to say that they are wrong simply
because they are at the left end of a social layer who cannot think
politically beyond defence of their own narrow material and pecuniary
interests is to disarm us in the objective necessity of confronting the
central strategic problem for revolutionary socialists in western
Domhnall: 'How then are we ever to combat such bureaucracy - sometimes I
think I like Mao's cultural revolution of consistently challenging
authority (in concept rather than reality - perhaps meaningful
participatory for a coupled with recall would be better than popular
The point is that in order to challenge bureaucracy we have to know what
it is and where it comes from. Bureaucracy is not just a product of
material privileges, although that is of course a factor. It precisely
comes from the tendency of capitalist society to compartmentalise and
sectoralise things. The way of thinking that a revolutionary
organisation needs to develop is 'your struggle helps mine' not 'your
struggle might jeopardise mine'. But this is again not something
necessarily organically revealed as obvious, as history shows (Russia!).
Material bureaucratic privileges are just the icing on this particular
cake. As for 'Cultural Revolution', the problem with Mao's Cultural
Revolution was that it was a weapon used by one section of the Chinese
bureaucracy against another, but the spirit in which you offer it is
right. I like the formulation 'a ruthless criticism of everything
existing'. Or as Louis put it the other day, 'thinking outside the box.'
But can you think of any actually existing revolutionary organisation
that could really tolerate this within its internal regime? I can't.
Domhnall: 'This is the whole crux of it. What difference do this make
with how we educate our people. More importantly, since real (mass)
education only happens as a social phenomenon - e.g. education through
struggle, what social phenomenon need we set in place (or better
exploit) to ensure that these tendencies are overcome.'
Yes. But struggle alone is not enough. We need to build organisations
capable of *generalising* the lessons of *many* struggles.
Domhnall: 'Clearly, a core part of all this must be the creation of
participative fora to push forward mass empowerment - however, getting
that off the ground (despite the lip-service paid by the political
establishment to 'partnership' and 'consultation' is not easy as it
implies an undermining of their absolute political control). Stop me if
I sound too much like an autonomist, but isn't this it?'
Yes it is. What are today called 'partnership' and 'consultation' are
not what they say they are because they are based on a false - based on
surface appearances - conception of what society really is. 'Mass
empowerment' (let's call it revolutionary socialist consciousness) only
really arises through the collective struggle to generalise all
progressive struggles within (global) capitalist society. The
'participative forum' we need to construct is exactly what a
revolutionary party worthy of the name would be.
Domhnall: '[...] But this course and task could only ever be determined
and implemented by a dominant, truly revolutionary core with little to
no, democratic input. Its a strategic thing, true vanguardism. The
problem is getting people to buy into that en masse. Okay, in a
semi-revolutionary society but in a non-revolutionary one, it must be
damned difficult altogether. The other thing is that there's the whole
trap of voluntarism - we could overbend the stick trying to avoid
economism and end up with another sect. It's all got to be fine-tuned to
the demands being made (most of which, if not all, are going to be
reformist in character - but strategically determined to effect maximal
impact in terms of undermining the hegemony of the enemy).'
I see the problem. But - forgive me - this is undialectical. By what
token would we know whether this vanguard, this truly revolutionary
'core', is revolutionary or not? Let's go back to Lenin, for whom the
guiding principle of the revolutionary party was to be Marxism. For
Lenin Marxism was a science: 'Without revolutionary theory there can be
no revolutionary movement.' And: 'The role of vanguard fighter can be
fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory.
But where does this revolutionary theory come from? After the
revolution, summarising the experiences of Bolshevism in a text directed
at socialists in the new Communist Parties outside Russia, Lenin
asserted that 'Correct revolutionary theory [...] assumes final shape
only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and
truly revolutionary movement'. Perry Anderson lucidly and correctly
draws out the full significance of what Lenin said:
'Every clause [...] counts. Revolutionary theory can be undertaken in
relative isolation ¾ Marx in the British Museum, Lenin in war-bound
Zurich: but it can only acquire a *correct* and *final* form when bound
to the collective struggles of the working class itself. Mere formal
membership of a party organisation [...] does not suffice to provide
such a bond: a *close connection* with the *practical activity* of the
proletariat is necessary. Nor is militancy in a small revolutionary
group enough: there must be a linkage with the *actual masses*.
Conversely, linkage with a mass movement is not enough either, for the
latter may be reformist: it is only when the masses are *themselves
revolutionary*, that theory can complete its eminent vocation.'
The whole thing is a process, in other words - a process of successive
approximations to the revolutionary truth. But what is the truth?
Writing in 1844 in the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx argued that 'The chief
defect of all hitherto existing materialism[...] is that [...]
reality[...] is conceived only in the form of the *object or of
contemplation*, but not as *sensuous human activity, practice*, not
subjectively.' Marx went on: 'The question whether objective truth can
be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a
practical question. Man must prove the truth - i.e. the reality and
power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over
the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is
a purely *scholastic* question.' 'All social life is essentially
practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their
rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this
practice.' Marx ended with the famous exhortation: 'The philosophers
have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change
This conception is impossible to overestimate in its fundamental
importance for Marxism. For Marx and Engels, what was specific to their
theory was that it could paint a sufficiently accurate picture of the
inner workings of human society that it could be used by humanity to
change, *consciously*, the course of human history. It was this very
*accuracy* of Marxism that made it scientific, and it was its scientific
nature that consequently made it *revolutionary*, for the socialist
revolution demands a degree of accurate theoretical *knowledge and
consciousness* historically speaking hitherto uncalled for.
But the obvious question is where does this theory come from, and how do
we know that it *is* true? Marx is precisely addressing this in 1844: he
argues that a 'correct' theoretical understanding comes not from
abstract contemplation of society from without but from the active
engagement with it from within, and that its correctness is to be
measured in terms of its efficacy in changing the world, in the way that
theory serves as an effective weapon to this end. This is, for me, the
famous unity of theory and practice, but it is a conception generally
This is what confronts us in the construction of a revolutionary party:
this process of engaging in struggle at the same time as collectively
reflecting on it. A revolutionary vanguard is not going to pop up now
from nowhere: it has to be patiently, and collectively, constructed over
time. Neither is it going to pop up fortuitously on the eve of the
revolution, which is why we need to type of party that I am suggesting
we need and not a secret committee of conspiratorial coup-plotters.
Domhnall: 'Do you not think that objective social realities had much
more to do with this that we might like to concede? Also what about
things like the fall of the SU, the drift of China, the initial process
of cutting links between the imperialist centres and now embarrassing
murder regimes in the colonies. It's not enough to simply blame the
Gospel of Zinoviev in isolation.'
No, I agree. It is necessary to take account of objective conditions -
we start from where we are, not where we would like to be. And we need
to recognise that the objective situation in which we find ourselves is
a difficult one. Indeed, Trotsky once remarked, explaining the weakness
of the forces of the nascent International in the late 1930s, that
losses are inevitable when one tries to navigate against the current.
Some ships will inevitably go down, because the current is too strong.
Yet on the other hand we must not use objective difficulties as an
alibi, as an excuse for business as usual. I first joined the
revolutionary movement as something of a callow youth in 1981, when
everything was on the up, and I have come to the conclusion that
'objective forces' are not sufficient reason for our current weakness.
To follow Trotsky's metaphor, in the last twenty years or so we haven't
lost the odd boat or two, we've lost practically the whole fleet, and
what remains afloat is rudderless and lost, unsure not only of where
it's going but also of where exactly it is in the first place. It has
not just been the strength of the current. Faulty helmsmanship and
defective navigation equipment must have played their part in this too.
What has been dubbed 'Zinovievism' (and for the moment I'll forgo a
definition, but we can come back to that if we want) on this list, and
the critiques developed by people like Louis Proyect and José Pérez, who
come from the same political tradition as I do, seem to me to go some
part of the way to explain the difficulties.
But of course the point is not that 'Zinovievism' is to blame: the real
question is why has 'Zinovievism' proved to be such an enduring,
attractive and appealing option when we have tried to build
revolutionary organisations? Why should, for example, the model of
politics that so miserably failed the British Communist Party in the
1920s be the political modus operandi of choice for today's British SWP?
And I think that the answer to that lies in the way that the defective
aspects of revolutionary organisations as we have seen them - fetishism
of leadership correctness, hiding of differences both within the
organisation and in its public face, splitting organisations and
maintaining differences between organisations on the basis of
inconsequential tactical differences, the conception of the struggle for
socialism as fundamentally national in character - fit in to and follow
the natural tendencies towards sectoralism within capitalist society. It
is not that we have to tear up the past and start again, but that we
have to understand the failures of the past within the overall context
of the overall struggle to overcome the defective vision of politics
that naturally arises within capitalism.
It is important to understand that 'Zinovievism' is not a mass delusion:
it arises from real processes and tendencies in society. It is not an
illusion to say that gains can be won through parliament - they
obviously can. What is an illusion is to say that capitalism can be
overthrown through parliamentary struggle. Neither is it an illusion to
say that parties can be built on 'Zinovievist' lines. Clearly they can:
we cannot gainsay the efforts made to sustain the US SWP in what must
have been tremendously unfavourable conditions in the post-WW2 US, and
the British SWP have built themselves an organisation - a medium-sized
sect - which can at times look quite impressive. What is the case is
that these experiences, unless seriously modified, will prove to be
inadequate in the building of the party necessary to overthrow
capitalism, precisely because they do not go sufficiently far enough in
breaking from the method of politics that predominates where the
bourgeoisie maintains its rule. But that the model remains a seductive
one goes some way to explaining the seemingly intractable nature of the
Domhnall: 'Well at least one which is resolved upon the issue of state
And as Engels said: the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
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