[Marxism] Refoundation from Below ( was "Re: When Left Parties are Appropriate")

Joaquín jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Wed Aug 18 16:02:31 MDT 2004

[This article was written by me at the end of February and beginning of
March for the preconvention discussion leading up to Solidarity's recent
convention. There is nothing tremendously super-internal in it, although
its original audience should be kept in mind as you read it (references
to "us" and so on).

[It was originally a formatted word document, which means that things
like italicizing of emphasized words, and dictinctive typefaces on
section headings have been lost in changing to plain text for this list.
If someone wants a copy of the original, write me at
jbustelo(AT)bellsouth.net and I'll send you a copy.

[I daresay quite a few, if not most members of Solidarity would agree
with the general approach I outline here, but this isn't something the
organization has formally adopted. 

[I'm sharing it with the list at this point since it deals with the
issues that have been posed in the "When Left Parties are Appropriate"
discussion. The question it addresses is what to do *next* in working
towards greater unity of revolutionary socialist forces.  -- Joaquín.]

*  *  *


"Herr Heinzen imagines communism is a certain doctrine which proceeds
from a definite theoretical principle as its core and draws further
conclusions from that. Herr Heinzen is very much mistaken. Communism is
not a doctrine but a movement; it proceeds not from principles but from
facts."  –F. Engels, “The Communists and Karl Heinzen,” October 1847.

"Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar." ("Traveler, there is
no road; the road is made as one walks.") --Antonio Machado

The communist movement in the United States is in terrible disarray.
Split into various parties, leagues, organizations, groups, circles and
countless atomized individuals, it is plagued by sectarianism,
dogmatism, vanguardism and factionalism. 

This fractured condition in turn provides innumerable fissures through
which national and sexual chauvinism and other negative influences that
come from broader society contaminate the movement and weaken it

The various groups suffer from “localism,” not just in a geographic
sense, but also in a political sense. They focus and do work, perhaps
excellent work, on one or a few issues, communities, unions or sectors.
They tend to reproduce themselves in their own image and likeness,
re-enforcing one-sidedness and political and organizational blind spots.

This means that the theoretical and political challenges modern society
presents aren’t being met, especially at the level of practice coherent
with theory.

Changing perhaps one or another formulation, I think most people in
Solidarity, just like most people in some other left groups (notably
FRSO and the Committees of Correspondence), and many experienced
socialist political activists unaffiliated with any Marxist group, would
agree with this description. 

The question is what to do about it?

>From its inception, I think Solidarity has explicitly understood this
reality and viewed contributing to overcoming this situation as its
reason for being. It is both a tool to promote what traditionally has
been called “regroupment” among Trotskyists and a place for people to
“regroup into” pending a broader reconfiguration of forces.

I can’t pretend to even give a brief summary description, much less a
rounded evaluation of, what Solidarity has and hasn’t done over the
years in this field. I’m an “older” member but only in terms of age:
Solidarity I joined only a year and a half ago.

But “regroupment” in the Trotskyist tradition that I’m most familiar
with (the U.S. SWP) has a certain narrowness that I want to take up. It
is a process driven by the search for ideological and programmatic
convergence, with the aim of reconstituting a full-program propaganda
league with a somewhat larger cadre in the short term (and, usually,
immediately). Those were what the regroupments carried out by the U.S.
followers of Trotsky in the 1930’s, first with the American Workers
Party (the followers of A.J. Muste), and then with the left wing of the
SP, represented.

That is not the kind of regroupment that is possible or that we need
today. The FRSO comrades call what we need “refoundation” (inspired, I
guess, partly by the Italian example); others talk about reconstitution
or reconfiguration of the revolutionary left. The term isn’t really
important, even “regroupment” will do, provided we’re clear on what we

I very much like the term “refoundation,” not because of how it was done
in Italy (frankly, what I know about that experience could fit in a shot
glass and still leave enough room for the rum to make a good Cuba Libre)
but because I think it captures the essence of the process we should try
to promote. That is the foundation of a revolutionary workers party in
the United States.

It underlines that what we’re about is not relaunching the same old sect
under a new name with a few dozen or few hundred more members, but
something new, starting on a new basis.

FRSO, in its very thoughtful documents on this issue, talks about a
process leading to the creation of a “Party of the Dispossessed.” 

“The specific nature of the party will need to be worked through in the
course of an extended discussion, debate, analysis, and summing up of
practice,” the document says. “We need to rely on those currents within
Marxism that show willingness to learn from each other and from earlier
socialist experience in order to assert a Marxism that is truly
revolutionary, democratic and internationalist.” (The whole document is
here: http://www.freedomroad.org/orgdocs/leftrefo.html)


Nevertheless, even if we agree that the goal is not just “regroupment”
in the narrow sense, but refoundation, what is actually on the agenda
today, or if not quite yet today, then tomorrow, is an initial part of
refoundation, likely involving a regroupment as a stepping stone towards
refoundation, probably a series of regroupments. 

Of course this is “regroupment” in a broader sense than what I refer to
above. My idea isn’t to create a new Soli or a new FRSO or a new ISO
based on existing structures but rather, that through the process of
engaging with these and/or other comrades as revolutionary socialists,
that we actually begin coming up with some of the forms through which to
build up to a higher level of organizational unity. I call it
“regroupment” to indicate this is something mostly involving existing
organized groups, the XX Century Left, trying to grope its way through
to figuring out how to become part of the process of giving birth to a
revolutionary movement for the XXI Century, and is not yet “the”

Why not view this as “the” refoundation? 

On one level, simply because I believe a lot of the cadres of the future
“Party of the Dispossessed” are today still in formations that have not
yet seen their way clear to having a real “willingness to learn from
each other,” and many more, the bulk, are dispersed, unaffiliated
comrades that it will take time to draw into the process.

On another level, this isn't (yet) refoundation because “refoundation,”
as I view it, is working through a whole series of political,
theoretical and organizational challenges or crisis. This includes
remaking or re-elaborating Marxism as the socialist, feminist,
ecological and anti-racist world outlook of a real, living movement. It
isn’t just a question of, for example, “theoretical work” on the
relationship between class and gender. It is a question of assimilating
those insights, and then translating them into a coherent practice. 

The groups that still cling to vanguardist concepts and functioning do
not view communism as a movement, they do not understand themselves,
with all their strengths and weaknesses, as a social product of a long
and complex evolution resulting from the interaction of economics,
politics and ideology, among other factors, as these have impacted
fighters who have sought to make themselves conscious elements in the
struggle against capitalism.

Instead they see themselves as unique, the bearers of a doctrine, who
have a special role to play for that reason.

That’s why I put that quote from Engels at the beginning of this
contribution. What these comrades need to realize is that they may be
truly excellent communists, but by the very nature of the social
processes that created them, they cannot be the only ones. They have
things to learn as well as to teach.

I do not propose that we make an a priori list of suitable regroupment
partners based on an ideological evaluation of “how close they are to
us” or “who is willing to let themselves be influenced by others,” but
rather that we test those things in practice, and conscious that all
involved are being equally tested – including us, as individuals and as
a group.

The approach I advocate is based, in part, on some of the insights of
the FRSO comrades as laid out in their document, but mostly it is based
on our experiences in Atlanta in the last year and a half.

The term “Refoundation from below” itself (at least this is how I came
across it) comes from private discussions with a FRSO member where we
were talking about how to transmit to and promote in our two national
organizations the degree of intimate political collaboration we’d
achieved in Atlanta around the opportunities and challenges of the
immigrant movement and the union-officialdom-initiated freedom ride.

And we agreed that what was wanted wasn’t so much a fine-sounding unity
statement or declaration of principles but a widespread political
conviction, based on real practical experience on the ground, that
together we’re much more than we are separately. 

“Refoundation from below,” the comrade said, having for some time  taken
our “catch phrase” of “from below” as his own because it fit so well
exactly what we were fighting for – creating a space for the immigrant
movement to be able to assert itself from below.

The essence of “refoundation from below” is a political decision to
function together as communists, as Marxists, as revolutionary
socialists, on the ground, day to day. 

There has to be a basis for it, of course, prior friendly collaboration
that’s led to some level of candor and mutual confidence. And that is
based on important levels of actual, living political agreement – again,
not so much in a document, as in practice. 

But there also has to be a conscious choice on both sides to do it.

Refoundation from below is more than collaborating together well in a
coalition, or even, I would say, acting as a left bloc or caucus within
a coalition framework. 

It is thinking and discussing through the work on a strategic level as
conscious Marxists and then “summing it up” together, or as at least
some of us who come from Trotskyist traditions tend to say, drawing up a
“balance sheet.”

This is not something that we came up with here in Atlanta all on our
own; on the contrary, we drew on experiences from other areas. 

For example, at one point I heard or read about a joint branch meeting
that had been held in New York and raised with out folks and the FRSO
ones doing that. I think those joint meetings were extremely important
in advancing the process and especially generalizing the experiences a
few of us were having more broadly in both groups locally.

Nor is it a pre-existing concept we or some of us in Atlanta had that we
then tried to implement. We did, obviously, have a general idea of
favoring unity among revolutionaries but at least for me, the actual
path we took turned out to be completely unexpected.

One way to think of it is that what “Refoundation from below” involves
is creating the “fraction” or work commission of the fused organization
we don’t yet have.

Recently, discussing this idea (the “fraction” of the party we don’t yet
have) with the FRSO comrade I mentioned earlier, he said something like
yeah, but that’s not how we saw it at the time. And that is true. This
is a conclusion drawn afterwards, looking back. 

That is why I put the second quote at the beginning of this article. It
says, “Traveler, there is no road, you make the path by walking.”

Refoundation from below is the decision to make the path by walking.
Starting right now. And to not walk alone.

So it isn’t a question of designating a body or committee, of coming up
with a structure. The essence of it is how people involved in concrete
work approach the collaboration with comrades in other groups or in no

It means not having an agenda you can’t share with those comrades, that
you can’t work together with them on. It means being true, in a very
direct, immediate, and transparent way, to the founding Manifesto of our

“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other
working-class parties. 

“They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat
as a whole. 

“They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to
shape and mold the proletarian movement.”


The steps in a given locality or area of work may be very small at
first, and very informal. I tend to favor specific initiatives around
immediate things without sweeping commitments, institutionalized
structures, etc. Instead, I’m for figuring out what the path is as we go
along, borrowing ideas, as we did here with the New York one of joint
internal meetings, based very directly on practical experience.

But the kind of collaboration I describe is only possible if practical
work is approached and evaluated from a strategic level. In the case of
the comrades involved in Atlanta from the two groups, I think both sides
shared several key strategic concepts that we identified (eventually) as
central in carrying out the practical work.

These included the concept of the united front; the inherently
progressive character and central importance of the struggles of
nationally oppressed peoples within the United States; and the “from
below” approach (i.e., applying the underlying concepts of the
rank-and-file strategy to “community” work). 

It was also very important that we approached the movement not with the
idea that we were going to teach, but to learn, and not with the idea
that we were going to lead, but that we were going to support the
leaders that had emerged from the communities of oppressed peoples.

The fact that we were coming, not just from two different organizations,
but two different traditions, and even used different terms for some
things, forced us to grapple more with these sorts of issues to make
sure we had a common view at a fundamental level. But the real test came
at meetings when some important issue would come up, for example,
respecting the autonomy and independence of the immigrant movement, and
comrades from both groups would defend the same position.

This does not mean we had all along nor have even today complete
agreement with the FRSO comrades on all tactical questions in fields
where we work closely together. Solidarity orients much more strongly,
and I think it is fair to say more supportively, towards the traditional
left and progressive peace movement activities and groupings; FRSO does
this to a significantly lesser degree. My impression is their people
here simply don’t view these particular forms as having that much
importance at this stage. Instead FRSO has been very focused on trying
to reshape the antiwar movement to one based on the Black and Latino
communities, which we agree with and also focus on, but not to the
exclusion of participating in less-than-optimal formations.

Solidarity has also related much more actively to movements and events
on the campuses than FRSO has.

What I’ve observed over time is a gradual convergence of our approaches,
without, however, completely closing the gap in emphasis. But also, I
think comrades on each side have become comfortable with the other
having a slightly different take on things. It is also clear to me that
these differences are no bigger or more significant than those we
already have within Solidarity itself, or that FRSO probably has in its
own ranks.

I think one of the most important lessons to draw from our experience is
that both FRSO and Solidarity gained more from working together, even
when viewed as individual groups, than we would have gotten going it
alone, or even maintaining very friendly but not intimately comradely
relations with their people in the arenas where we’re together.

To begin with, it was the FRSO comrades who first spotted the developing
immigrant movement, understood its significance, and worked to bring its
issue to the labor-community coalition we were both functioning in.

At one point FRSO, us, and some others had a pretty intense skirmish
inside the peace coalition over the need to place antiwar ads not just
in the mainstream press, but also in the newspapers of the Black, Latino
and other oppressed communities. FRSO and the other more conscious
forces in that coalition would have won whether we in Solidarity had
been there or not, whereas we in Solidarity by ourselves may not have
succeeded, we were less well established in that group at that time.
However, we did play a key role in consolidating that victory by quickly
providing a translation of the ad, as well as an explanation of why the
wording was changed in the translation, which led to some very good and
entirely non-confrontational discussions with some of the less conscious
people in the coalition around things like, who do you include and
exclude when you say “our President” instead of “the President.”

But most of all we have gained as a joint current operating in and
around the labor council and labor-community coalition, the antiwar
movement, the immigrant movement.

One way this was brought home to me was a very last minute surprise
party we put together for one of the FRSO members who has been most
centrally involved in all this. Most people found out about it on the
morning of the party. Many people already had other plans (it was
Valentine’s Day) but looking around the room, I was struck by how much
it showed how far we had come together. 

Among the 15 or 20 people, there was the central leader of the immigrant
movement, four other immigrants including the head of an important UNITE
local who is an undocumented Mexican woman, the central organizer of a
“pride at work” chapter that is just getting off the ground in Atlanta,
a member of the Labor Council executive board who is district director
of a union.

And we had, in addition, those we had already succeeded in drawing
organizationally into membership (in either FRSO or Soli), key leaders
of the Greens, of rank-and-file caucuses in unions, of the
labor-community coalition, of the student movement and others.

That was a fair sampling of the current that the local FR and Soli folks
are at the center of, something neither group could have achieved by


The “refoundation from below” approach is not meant to replace, displace
or go around national and leadership-level relations, consultations,
projects or initiatives. My own guess is that it is probably impossible
to go very far on this road, and it probably isn’t possible to take even
the first step, without those national relations. 

But it is meant to (at least this is the hope) impart a new dynamic to
those relations, one where there is a conscious approach to
systematically seeking to broaden and deepen the collaboration. And it
consciously seeks to find opportunities for this more intimate kind of
collaboration including on the national level (for example, between
people coordinating the antiwar work on a national scale in the
different groups).

On the most immediate practical level, the political perspective
underlying this approach is that, no, it is not okay to continue with
the myriad fragmented grouplets we have today each pushing their own
socialism as if we were dealing with so many brands of soap.

It is also not okay to continue with the status quo until somehow
“objective developments” like a new rise in the class struggle, solve it
for us. Nor is it okay to put off the effort to find vehicles for
building elements of cross-group organizational unity until we have
achieved a high degree of theoretical and programmatic agreement.

As Marta Harnecker points out in relation to the Latin American Left in
her 1999 book La izquierda en el umbral del Siglo XXI. Haciendo possible
lo imposible, (The left at the doorstep of the 21st Century, soon to be
published in English by Zed books, although I don’t know the English
title), the left is facing three interconnected crisis: a theoretical
crisis, a programmatic/political crisis, and an organizational crisis.

Solidarity itself, the way it is organized and functions, is a
recognition and reflection of that reality, and from what I know of FRSO
I believe that is also true of them. 

We are not going to solve all the issues involved, and as a result of
those ideological conquests, overcome the organizational crisis, by
ourselves in the existing groups. None of the groups as currently
constituted have a sufficiently broad base in the historically-developed
Marxist cadre nor a sufficiently extensive practice to allow this.

I believe the method we should adopt instead is to try to find common
ground as communists with other communists in practice, and increasingly
let the common practice and reflection on that practice be the primary
vehicle through which we confront all the outstanding programmatic,
political and organizational questions.

I believe that significant progress in establishing a common practice in
several areas where two (or three, or however many) groups exist should
then lead, after some experience, to a serious discussion about taking a
further step, which is an organizational framework that includes
everyone from the two (or more) groups, whether this be a socialist
alliance-type formation where each group would maintain its own
identity, a complete top-to-bottom fusion, forming a new group, or
something in between.

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