[Marxism] Re: When Left Parties are Appropriate

Joaquín jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Thu Aug 19 12:20:58 MDT 2004

Lou Paulsen writes: >>First: is your new party going to be centralist,
or will individuals and subunits be free to have political fights with
other individuals and subunits in public?  If they are, then how will
the situation differ from what we have today?  All the existing
groupings would just be independent factions of the new party.<<

This is the sort of undialectical, all-or-nothing, Zinovievist school of
"democratic centralism" that has contributed to creating the mess on the
left that we have. 

I suggest that Lou try to reconcile his concept of democratic centralism
with Lenin's failure to get any support AT ALL for his demand in Oct.
1917 that Central Committee members Kamenev and Zinoviev be expelled for
scabbing, to wit, for having criticized in the non-party press an
unpublished decision of the Bolsheviks (which was to work towards an
insurrectionary resolution of the dual power crisis), with the aim of
torpedoing the decision.

Or try to reconcile it with the numerous Bolshevik bodies and committees
that took mutually exclusive contradictory positions on the attitude
towards the provisional government set up in the wake of the February,
1917, revolution. Or with Lenin breaking whatever discipline there may
have been to defend whichever one of those was the "official" position
by publicly presenting his "April Theses," which was, among other
things, an attack on the political line of pretty much every Bolshevik
body that had pronounced itself on the question.

Lenin's kind of democratic centralism, unlike what the Comintern under
Zinoviev came to teach, cannot be reduced to a series of rules or
obligations, but requires conscious and thoughtful political leadership,
among other things, including a fairly loose internal regime and a
fairly porous border between "the party" and other groupings and

In particular, the idea that Bolshevik party discipline in Lenin's time
extended to people not being able to express themselves freely both
within and without the party is simply false. Defending positions you do
not agree with, as if you did agree with them, is a total mindfuck and
was *never* a part of Lenin's "Leninism."

The idea of freedom of opinion was so ingrained that the Bolshevik CC in
1917 would not take up Lenin's motion expel Zinoviev and Kamenev for
trying to torpedo preparations for an insurrection, even though that was
the sum and substance of the article they wrote, as Lenin explained.

*  *  *

More concretely, in the world we live in today, it will not fall apart
if members of the same socialist group take different positions in some
coalition meeting. 

Yes, functioning in traditional Zinovievist fashion, with all members
following the lead of a floor leader even on the smallest questions of
procedure, does give the socialist group a greater impact. But there is
a price to be paid for this disproportionate impact, both in the broader
coalitions such groups are part of and in the cadre that is formed under
those conditions.

It is typical in self-proclaimed "Leninist" formations for all political
projects and initiatives to be carried out only after a collective group
decision to do so, usually at the initiative of some leadership body,
and in the precise forms and modalities decided on by the collective. 

I believe, yes, it is totally correct for a national socialist group to
set certain priorities and common organization-wide projects, including
decisions on tactical approaches. 

But I also believe it is necessary and essential to have room for local
and sectoral autonomy and initiative by the subunits of the national
organization, as well as for individual autonomy and initiative. That
this will sometimes give rise to different and even counterposed
approaches is inevitable and a good thing, provided the differences and
especially the practical experience is honestly assessed. We need to
learn to maintain unity despite differences, and learn especially what
the Sandinistas eventually concluded, that different approaches are not
necessarily mutually contradictory but can often and consciously be made
to be complimentary. 

The archetypal Zinovievist mode of functioning, which is possible only
with a an extreme degree of political homogeneity, creates political
habits and a political culture that is antithetical to a true
revolutionary spirit. 

*  *  *

However, Cominternist "Leninism" as it has been practiced also does
something else: it tends to drain the political life of a coalition or
movement that the particular party plays a major role in of any real
content, because that gets sucked into the party and its fractions.

When people say something like that some "World Action Coalition" is a
front for a "Workers International Party" that's the phenomenon they
have in mind. Not that the "WIP" has through subterfuge created a
mechanical majority on the "WAC" steering committee (though such things
have *also*  happened), or abused executive positions in the broader
coalition, but that the center of gravity of the political life of the
"WAC" is really *inside* the "WIP."

The party pre-chews any significant decision (as well as any number of
insignificant ones) and its fraction comes into the coalition or broader
movement meeting with a proposal or "line" all members are bound by.
Sometimes party or fraction leaders will be intelligent and flexible and
ameliorate some of the damage, others are clumsy and compound ot. But
the inherent tendency is for the party or fraction to have the *real*
seminal discussions about the overall direction or next steps for the
group. That is what is thought of as a vanguard party playing its proper
role, it is the "brain" that tells the arms and legs what to do and the
mouth what words to speak.

What this does, in effect, is to set the Party in a hierarchical
relation to the mass movement and its organizations, as a "higher body."

It does not respect the autonomy or the independent political dynamics
or life of those organizations. That is how it tends to play out in real

The party cadre are expected at all times to function as the party's
agents *within* the mass movement organization; if the leadership of the
mass movement organization has a private consultation, that privacy is
not respected vis a vis the party; but any attempt on the part of other
leaders of a coalition or independent grouping to inquire about the real
life of the party that is playing such a big role in the coalition or
movement's life will be rebuffed with a wall of silence.

Yes, there may be times when, in a sharp confrontation with reformists
or ultralefts, it is necessary to function in a 'disciplined' matter in
a coalition or movement. But even then, careful thought needs to be
given as to whether it is the party *fraction* that needs to be the
organizing core or whether it should be the caucus of supporters of a
given position within the coalition or movement. 

The irony in this is that in just about every "party" that I've ever
heard of, including those who claim to respect the right to caucus or to
tendency or to faction, when a section of the party behaves in this
fashion towards the rest of the party, as a tight-knit disciplined
membership caucus with its own internal life that other members aren't
privy to, that is resented and pretty much automatically viewed as a
declaration of war; yet when party members themselves behave in this
fashion in other groups, even the most healthy and well meaning
criticisms or observations about this are rebuffed with outrage as
"red-baiting" and McCarthyism.

*  *  *

Lou writes, "See, I think it's a mistake to think that parties are
-predominantly- an organizational form.  Parties are the organizational
embodiment of definite coherent political approaches to the concrete
situation. Parties that do not have this kind of raison d'etre, and are
held together only by organizational and personal ties, sect mentality,
etc., die (or fail to thrive)."

I thank Lou for this especially concise and clear exposition that I
think helps bring out what is wrong with what is presented on the left
as the "Leninist" concept of organization (and which was not, I believe,
Lenin's concept of organization *at all*.)

For Lou, a party is formed around its *ideas*. In the beginning was the
Word, and the party is the messiah in whom the Word will be made flesh
for the salvation of all humanity.

I believe, on the other hand, that parties are the expression of social
forces, of social motion and evolution. In the case of Marxist parties,
what is involved is the self-conscious bringing together of a social
product, a layer of people, which I call "the communist movement," and
giving it a specific organizational form. 

If there is a single, overriding mistake I believe organized U.S.
Marxists make it is this, to fail to see ourselves in a Marxist way, to
view ourselves primarily as the bearers of revealed or scientifically
discovered truths, rather than as a product of historical development. 

Obviously as a political phenomenon political parties have ideas or
principles or "approaches" as Lou says. But these ideas do not fall from
the sky but rather are historically evolved expressions of a social
class (or layers of a class). Viewed from this angle, WWP, Solidarity,
ISO, Freedom Road, etc. etc. etc. are not different parties AT ALL but
fundamentally sections of the same party, or, if you prefer, different
"parties" of a common family involved in an insane internecine feud.

What party/family is that? I would say it is the working class party,
the collection of people who are for the working class organizing itself
in order to take control of the political direction of the country and
the world. 

Or perhaps it would be better to call it the Marx party, to reflect that
this is a conscious thing on all our parts. For I think it is accurate
to say that despite the admixture of other elements, the overlapping
phenomena of the Nader/Camejo campaign and the Greens are, in the main,
also movements in the direction of workers organizing themselves
independently on a class basis, even if this isn't something conscious
on the part of all those involved.

Now, what Lou proposes is the idea that these different parts of the
same party, or different parties, groups and currents within the
"family," will compete with each other for hegemony and eventually the
one with the clearest, best ideas and so on will win.

I suggest that historical experience is rather definitive in rebutting
the presumption that "correct ideas" will win out in this sort of
"market of socialism" scenario for the same reasons that they do not in
other markets. Just look at Windows.

*  *  *

Lou says, "WWP is not going to grow by merger with other groups whose
core values are antithetical to our own.  It is going to grow by
recruiting people who share our core values, which, we believe, more
workers will share as the times become more revolutionary."

But let's do a reality check. Does this really correspond to the
experience of people on this list? Is it true that the group we joined
as we became radicals and socialists was the one we picked from a menu
of options, after careful consideration of the alternatives, or is it
more like that we joined the first group we came across that was fairly
reasonable (and sometimes not even...) and whose members helped convince
us of the correctness of basic socialist ideas?

I submit that most of us were *recruited*  by a group we just happened
to accidentally be in contact with, and, further, after "recruitment"
underwent a period of indoctrination aimed both at consolidating a basic
socialist outlook but also aimed at hardening us up against all the
other currents with an essentially similar or identical socialist

I believe that is the truth about the majority of people in WWP, ISO,
the SWP, and so on. 

And we were especially inculcated in a sect spirit of viewing groups
closest to us as "opponents" -- rivals as bad or worse as the ruling
class because they diverted part of the limited supply of "healthy
activists" into their own, false, organizations instead of into our own
one and only Truly Revolutionary Party. And, yes, I know, that is a
caricature and an exaggeration and some of those attitudes have begun to
soften and change. But those are certainly true in the main about the
origins and trajectory of most existing left groups.

*  *  *

There has been no dearth of experience with the matter domestically and
internationally. There have been THOUSANDS of attempts, and the putative
"Bolshevik model" has nowhere been replicated. Isn't it perhaps time
that we recognized that this vanguard party model represents a
misreading of the Russian experience? 

After all, in the wake of the Cuban revolution a lot of people,
including in the Cuban leadership, thought, given certain minimum
conditions, starting a rural guerrilla band provided a sure-fire formula
for success. The idea was put to the test of practice and failed,
sending people back to, among other things, studying the Cuban
experience much more concretely, for much more was involved in the
victory over Batista than just having a guerrilla band -- and then after
Batista fled, i.e., after what most people think of as the revolution,
things got *really* complicated.

And in the case of Russia, and the Bolsheviks, everyone thinks of Lenin
and his intransigent opposition to combining with the Mensheviks. And
everyone forgets that before splitting with the Mensheviks, Lenin spent
many years trying to bring together all those who stood on the common
ground of Marxism together into a single party and then trying to build
that as a single united revolutionary workers party.

So by all means, let's follow the Russian model -- but the model of
1900, 1901 and 1902, when Lenin was trying to unite all these disparate
groups and circles into a common group. That's the part of the Russian
experience applicable to us today.

*  *  *

Lou insists that *there is no real difference*  between all of us
functioning as factions within a common socialist alliance or coalition
and the status quo, and we should just relate to each other in
coalitions and action committees: "What we CAN do, I think, is to demand
that leftists in parties and out cooperate on actual activity - defense
committees, anti-war actions, educational events, 'services' in the
oppressed community - wherever possible."

What this fails to recognize, however, is that we're part of a common
movement with a common background and tradition. We are *more than*
generic "leftists" or "progressives." We are a historical social
product, the Marxist or communist movement. 

"Unity in action" is not enough. You can have "unity in action" with
Dennis Kucinich or Hoffa. The unity that is necessary is the one that
permits us to act together as Marxists. This requires a space not just
for a "united action front" level of discussion, but for strategic
discussion as Marxists, as communists, for us to engage each other on
that basis.

This list is such a space and testimony to the need for such spaces, but
it is insufficient. 

What is also needed is a way to engage in common practice and to reflect
on those experiences together.  That's why I've put forward the idea of
"regroupment" or "refoundation" from below: that revolutionary
socialists belonging to organizations that have at least friendly
relations working together in things like coalitions should discuss and
analyze things together as Marxists, strategically. 

This can start on a very ad-hoc basis but the aim is to begin creating
the "fractions" or "working groups" of the socialist alliance or united
organization we don't yet have. 

And in this, I believe the *essential* prerequisite is that people
abandon this idea that they're the "vanguard" because they, and only
they, have all the correct ideas. 

For one thing, that is not a materialist approach to ideas. Ideas come
from praxis and the interaction between it and previously existing
ideas. All of us who have been in the movement for some time can testify
about how the ideas of various groups we have been in close contact with
have evolved as the material environment surrounding the groups has

Another thing is that I believe on a practical level, much of the sane
revolutionary left works with a common series of positions. If we can
work together on the "unity of action" level, the we should *also* work
and discuss together at a *higher* level of generalization, the
strategic level of promoting the political independence and
self-organization of working people which all Marxists hold in common.

But here is where you get to a problem with groups that are the
self-proclaimed vanguard of the working class. For them, the answer to
the strategic question of how to promote the independent organization of
the class into a party is simply to build the TRP (Our Very Own One And
Only Truly Revolutionary Party, or TRP for short). 

The strategic discussion with the Truly comrades is short indeed. To
them its like ... duh. "Build the Party," meaning the TRP. That's the
answer to everything. Every self-proclaimed Leninist group out there
*agrees* that this is what needs to be done. There have been scores of
them. Comrades in such formation should look at the odds in light of

NONE of these groups ANYWHERE has succeeded in doing what they aim to
do, which is to replicate the Bolshevik experience. MOST of the groups
that set out on this road have died off. MOST of the people that joined
these groups and stayed, becoming cadre, eventually concluded that they
had been wrong and left the given group. Now, what are the odds that it
will turn out that the group that you have the singular honor of
belonging to will turn out to be the REAL one and only Truly
Revolutionary Party that will in the end give us a second edition of
Bolshevism and the Bolshevik Revolution? 

Marx and Engels started drafting the Communist Manifesto in 1847, if one
considers the October Revolution to be the one true embodiment of its
application, it took 70 years for that to happen. What are the chances
that after 80 more years, and with the Russian example available for
study, and with everyone and their sister trying to copy and refine it,
no one yet had succeeded in replicating it, and on the contrary, the
socialist revolutions that did take place since then and took quite
different roads are all anomalous exceptions, and the one true road
remains the one everyone has tried and no one has succeeded. If you were
a scientist, and you could somehow replicate in a lab in an accelerated
way these 80 years of history, what conclusion would you draw about the
attempt to reproduce the Bolshevik experience this way?

I submit the conclusion would have to be that one would have to reject
the hypothesis that the experience can be reproduced in this way. And
with an extremely high level of statistical confidence.

The comrades from the TRP should view themselves and their role in the
world materially and historically. They can't be "the" party; "the"
party can't be built without the cadre, and that cadre is a product of a
historical social evolution and in our case it is scattered all over the

And as a result, we do not just have *too many* revolutionary
organizations, we have *deformed* organizations.

ALL our groups suffer from "localism," and not just in a geographic
sense. We are tiny, typically one person for every million people in the
United States or less, and in the case of the larger of the groups, the
ISO, perhaps as many as three per million people. The SWP in its heyday
had a maybe 7 or 8 CPM count (CPM=comrades per million).

This then contributes to a curious phenomenon. There is useful, valuable
work to be done in countless places and sectors. So groups tend to
differentiate and specialize. 

It is very easy to slip into a useful and quite comfortable niche or
role in this or that city or in this or that union or sector. Solidarity
has the labor work and the quasi-academic regroupment-type journal ATC.
Freedom Road has some labor work but also is influential in Black
radical circles and is promoting revolutionary unity around the
refoundation perspective. The Black Workers League plays a big role in
some unions and in the campaigns to organize the South. ISO quite
consciously focuses on attracting and developing an ideological current
and cadre from the student milieus, with notable success. If you need to
organize a big march on Washington, WWP is your answer. LRNA has done a
lot of community organizing work, especially in the Black community.
Books by Che and Fidel? That's the SWP's specialty. And so forth and so

Then there's the flip side to that. Soli isn't particularly well
organized. the SWP has become rabidly sectarian. ISO seems to place very
little stress on the national question as it manifests within the United
States. The BWL may be very strong in a couple of places but most of the
country is terra incognita for their organized functioning. And so on. I
don't want to get into a big running down of all the different groups,
we can all make our own lists of defects.  

But the result of this situation of tiny groups and specialization/focus
is that none of us have a sufficiently broad base of cadre and work to
grapple with the political situation in the country in a rounded way. 

In another post I just sent I mentioned the 2000 elections and the
failure of the left to understand and act in the Florida recount
situation. Most groups let themselves get snookered by the cock-and-bull
story on CNN that it was all about outdated 19th Century technology and
hanging chads. Bull. It was about the 19th Century idea that Black
people and their votes don't count. Yes, people finally started getting
it a couple of months later, in January, with the civil rights
commission hearings. But we needed to have "got it" long before,
immediately after the voting, and stayed with it in the weeks that

In that post, I examined once over lightly the strategic implications of
the left's failure in relation to the Black community, a nationally
oppressed people overwhelmingly working class in composition. And that
is when the Black community looked around to see who was giving voice to
its grievances and its outrage, they could see Jesse Jackson and the
Congressional Black Caucus --Democrats all-- but not Nader and the
Greens, nor the SWP, nor any of the other "P's" on the left. And then
some leftists just can't possibly understand why the Black community
would continue to tied to the Democratic Party. I agree -- that's
terrible. But, what choice have we given them really? Concretely. When
the shit hit the fan in Florida, where were we?

We have to stop pretending things like this didn't happen and don't
continue to happen, or that it doesn't matter because in issue
such-and-such of Challenge, the Communist Newspaper, there was an
article that explained it all. 

We will *never* build a serious party until we take ourselves
*seriously* and realize that for the class, we are largely one group or
a family of related groups however much we dislike the folks in this or
that outfit. And when they look at us and what we do and they say, these
folks are crazy, they're not serious.

It is quite obviously going to take years to overcome this situation.
But we need to stop pretending it is OK, that "this is just the way
things are," that in the fullness of time everyone will see my very own
Truly Revolutionary Party is the answer to all questions. And it is time
we start trying to figure out how to at least begin heading towards a
greater level of collaboration and unity.


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