[Marxism] Sect, party, movement, class - I [Was: Socialists Unite: Statement from Workers World Party & FIST]
jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Sat Jul 10 17:36:21 MDT 2010
This --I think-- is going to be a multi-part discussion centered around
the more general considerations and concerns from which my posts around
the WWP "Socialist Unite" sprang. It starts formally as a response to
David Walters but that's an accident of the way I happened to dive into
this, intending originally a much more limited comment. Yet it was a
tale that grew in the telling, and rather than rewrite from the word
"go" I've decided to leave as I drafted it, trying only to break it up
into parts. If I succeed in doing so with some degree of coherence,
there will be a part II. In the meantime, here goes:
On 7/9/2010 7:11 PM, DW wrote:
> Personally, I'm glad Andy's group, Socialist Action, is leading trying to
> hold something together in terms of a broader based anti-war movement. I'm
> glad PSL is around to give some organizational strength to solidarity
> actions like last weeks action on the docks in Oakland. I'm glad my own
> group, Socialist Organizer, along with the much bigger ISO, was around last
> year to act as a successful mass-action counter weight to the Anarchists and
> the reformists of the student gov'ts.
I have no way of judging from her to what degree this may apply, since I
live at the other end of the country from the Bay Area, but the way
David Walters formulates his point worries me.
It worries me because in the past, I have seen various socialist groups
provide an organizational backbone to broader protest or social movement
coalitions. Even very small leftist groups can voluntarisitically
substitute for energy or motion that just isn't there in the broader
group. But in the process they often also suck whatever life may remain
in the coalition, because things tend to be decided in the "party
fraction" (the group of socialists "assigned" to be in the coalition).
In the United States, in the case of most social and protest movement
actions one can say they are organized by "coalitions" only in a limited
way. In most "coalitions," the groups involved are just expressing moral
support for the cause the coalition supports. They do not take
organizational responsibility for planning events, mobilizing people to
attend, or carrying it out in good order.
The "coalition," now meaning not just the listing of groups that support
the cause, but the meeting of those actively involved in order to plan,
divide tasks, etc., the actual working "coalition," is in reality more
of an *action committee* of individual activists. A few may be there
really representing a member group, but usually those who are formally
representing an organization are really there mostly in a personal
capacity, as individual activists, not carrying out instructions or
reporting back in detail, carrying offers from or making commitments for
the group they're from, etc.
You put a party "fraction" into this sort of activity, where the
fraction has pre-discussed and pre-decided most significant issues
beforehand, and you suck the life right our of the coalition meeting.
The "independents" (non-party affiliated activists) stop coming because
they can sense that their presence is superfluous. They may even have
had the experience of making some proposal only to find several people
at the meeting immediately shoot it down with carefully prepared
arguments. The "coalition" meetings become a formality; most activists
And pretty soon you have a situation where you have in fact an issue or
cause which mobilizes a lot of people but whose formal structures, like
a coalition, are only kept afloat thanks to the role played by one or a
couple of left groups.
IMHO this is very unhealthy. Even if the socialist group involved didn't
mean for this to happen, the coalition comes across to others as a front
for the "party."
And then there are the other cases. One is where the "oomph" for the
effort is no longer there. The "movement" is being kept alive
artificially by the radical group(s) involved. This may seem
inoffensive, or even beneficial. But I have the opposite opinion about
these frankencoalitions. They are an obstacle to the emergence of
formations in the same or adjoining fields more in tune with current
conditions. And they drain activist energy that would be better invested
The other case is more serious, in my opinion. And that is when left
groups act to prevent the "coalition" --the action committee of
activists-- from growing and evolving, becoming something more and
eventually something different from what it started out to be.
That IS the natural tendency of issues, conflicts and movements, as the
Communist Manifesto explains in the case of the grievances of a worker
with his or her employer.
The individual worker's issue becomes a collective grievance against the
particular employer. The collective grievance becomes a movement in a
locality or specific branch of production. And the local/sectoral
movement becomes a nationwide struggle between the working class and the
class of owners. But a class struggle is a political struggle. Thus the
generalization of economic fights give rise to a political party of the
laboring class that fights to essentially re-found society on a
Each of those changes brings transitions in consciousness, program,
organizational forms, methods of struggle, etc., that grow out of the
previous stage and become dominant in the next stage.
I maintain this is true NOT ONLY of the movement of workers as such, but
of other social, political and protest movements. But the sects stifle
Consider: why didn't the social and protest movements of "the sixties"
give rise to a broader and more generalized organized political struggle?
Certainly the consciousness was there, those of us from that generation
will remember how we used to speak of "the movement" meaning not any one
specific movement, like the Black movement or the women's movement or
the antiwar movement, but to "the radical movement" as a whole.
Many factors contributed to this, including that it was probably
necessary for wide layers of activists to go through the experience of
trying to change society through the Democratic Party first.
But a big factor was the attitude and actions of the radical groups,
like the Trotskyist SWP that insisted that action committees and
coalitions must be almost exclusively around the war. This issue came up
*constantly* in the Student Mobilization Committee (SMC) to which the
SWPers would answer with a formalistic refrain: that you were proposing
to change the SMC's character from an antiwar group into an overall
radical political organization or party, and instead you should just
join the YSA, the SWP's quasi-autonomous youth wing.
At first blush, the pacifist-Stalinist "People's Coalition for Peace and
Justice" may have seemed to be a step above this but it was designed as
a pool to collect people and channel them into Democratic Party
politics. And if you wanted to go BEYOND bourgeois electoralism, then
you should join the YWLL, the youth organization the pro-Moscow CP was
This HOSTILITY to simply letting "the movement" BE a *movement* and
evolve, growing and morphing into new forms, is an example of what I
referred to in my last post as the sectarianism inherent in forming
sects, i.e., tightly disciplined formations structured around a doctrine
And so DOMINANT was the sect-forming model at that time that the most
prominent figures of the most successful radical group, and the only one
to really approach a MASS character, completely DESTROYED it in an orgy
of factional warfare over HOW to transform that group into a sect.
I am referring of course to SDS, Students for a Democratic Society,
which by the beginning of 1969 had grown to hundreds of chapters and
tens of thousands of members and by the end of the year no longer
existed at all.
What happened is that the Maoist "Progressive Labor Party" intervened in
SDS with a narrow, workerist line. Its caucus (the "Worker-Student
Alliance") was small but well organized and thus came to have undue
weight in the formal structures (but not the real grassroots life) of
the group. It argued for transforming the organization into a bizarro
sect of student radicals who modeled themselves on a reactionary,
masculinist stereotype of workers by wearing work boots, jeans and work
shits and adopting tough guy macho language and mannerisms. Politically
PL combined ultraleft utopianism (they were going to abolish commodity
production and money by decree the morning after the seizure of power)
with a workerism so primitive it bordered on bigotry (denunciation of
Black nationalism, the women's movement and so on).
In reaction, other major figures in SDS organized the Revolutionary
Youth Movement, whose manifesto "You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know
Which Way the Wind Blows" -- a line borrowed from Bob Dylan's
"Subterranean Homesick Blues" -- was the origin of the name of the sect
this faction gave birth to, the insanely ultraleft Weather Underground
Many others also played a role in helping to destroy SDS, from the
inside job operation of the Lynn Marcus (Lyndon LaRouche) cultists of
the National Caucus of Labor Committees (that later morphed into a
fascist-like grouplet) to outside snipers like those of the SWP/YSA who
insisted there were two and only two choices: "single issue"
coalition/action committees and "full program" sect formations like the YSA.
And as SDS imploded, many leading activists formed local groups, a good
number of which would become part of the sect-building New Communist
Movement, the socalled "Maoists."
EVERYONE had this in common: REJECTION of the movement as such; as a
real movement; as an inchoate, shifting mass held together more by a
common sensibility and sense of direction than by carefully worded
demands and carefully worked out proposals; as a real living organism of
hundreds of thousands of people where a hundred flowers bloomed and a
hundred schools of thought contended.
Did I say everyone? I meant everyone with the exception of 99% of those
who looked to and identified with the movement at the end of the 1960s.
They are the ones you lose when you go from a *movement* to a *sect.*
Those aren't the really committed, the serious people, we --all of us
sectists-- argued at the time. But there's a synonym for the "unserious"
and "uncommitted" that should be introduced here. That synonym is "the
masses." As in what army are you going to topple the old regime and make
a revolution with.
That EXCLUSION, that BARRIER, that SEPARATION, that DEMARCATION, that
BORDER between member and non-member is precisely what I referred to in
my previous post as the sectarianism inherent in forming a sect.
What does this ancient history have to do with David Walters and his
David writes, "Small socialist groups...and no doubt bigger
ones...recruit largely not out of ideological agreement. They grow
because young people, primarily, see these groups as the *only* tool
that can seriously amplify and focus their own activism. They represent
a continuity between actions, group activists over a long period, and
provide a forum for discussing longer term issues of strategy and,
analysis of why society is so fucked up."
I could not agree more with most of what David says here. But for me,
this automatically raises the question, if agreement with the particular
ideological nostrums of the given group is not really a factor, why have
more than one group? And why should it have detailed worked out theories
and positions about everything at all? Why shouldn't it LIMIT its
official positions pretty much to those already consciously held by the
sort of people who are joining it?
For example, in relation to the part about the WWP statement that's been
bandied about on the list about revolutionary governments that mentions
Cuba and North Korea. I think Kim Jong Il is a turd but I think the
world of Fidel. That might affect me joining a group where most people
felt the opposite if I lived in North Korea or Cuba, but I live in the
United States. What's relevant is what attitude people take to Obama.
If you say, let's not press too hard on legalization of immigrants in
order not to embarrass him and undercut the Democrat's chances with the
Latino community, we're going to have a problem. Even moreso if you say
I don't like Fidel so let's keep the economic blockade against Cuba. But
if you say, I don't like Fidel but the U.S. has no business telling the
Cubans what to do, then I'm okay with that. You're my comrade.
Now in the olden days, shortly after the discovery of fire and the
invention of the printing press people used to say you could only have
one position on Fidel because your little paper only had so many pages
and if for some reason it needed to comment on Cuba and Fidel, there
really wasn't room for two articles.
I think that's bullshit, but at any rate, it is like totally 1979. And
PRECISELY to overcome this problem God invented the Internet. (Yes she
did. She told me so.) Now everything "fits," unless you're one of those
dead-tree fetishists that worships at the shrine of the printed page and
goes around with ink stains on your forehead bearing witness to your god.
Of course, there are people who are going to say, a party with some
people who like Cuba and some people who don't? What kind of party is
If YOU feel that way, I apologize for wasting your time. I can't imagine
anything I might write as being of interest or relevant to you or your
Now, for the rest of us: Will a tightly-organized party with an
extensive "full" program ever be necessary"? I think probably so. But
even then, I doubt the program will be intercontinental, or even
obsessed with straightening out the other side of the Florida Straits.
But this idea that the party can be "built" beforehand --or at least its
"essential programmatic nucleus"-- is wrong. It does not lead to the
Since this idea was dreamed up in the early days of the Comintern
starting from an oversimplification of the Russian experience, it has
been tried under all conceivable circumstances in every kind of country
and with more variations than those contained in the entire cannon of
baroque music. AND NOWHERE HAS IT WORKED. Not once!
If you look back at the revolutions that have taken place since the
Russian Revolution, each one is unique. While there may be similarities,
there is no commonality of issues or organizational forms or methods of
struggle. There is commonality in many cases in the underlying problems:
but the way those have been attacked in each instance is different.
Someone once wrote in Spanish, and I no longer remember where I saw it
but the idea has stayed with me, that if a revolution is to be a real
revolution it must be "unpublished" ("debe ser inédita"), in other
words, an original work, not a copy.
The idea that the Russian Revolution is a model that can be copied and
reproduced has been disproved by history. There have been no lack of
efforts to do so, and if it COULD be done, it WOULD HAVE been done by
now. And NOT JUST the Russian model.
There have been ... not at many as we would like, but a sufficient
number of revolutions since then. And we can draw this generalization:
the Comintern's strategy of party-building; or the "Prolonged People's
War" theses based on the Chinese experience; or what Che called the
"method" of guerrilla warfare; these and other attempts to turns
specific experiences into a "model" are wrong.
After Che's death the Cuban comrades themselves drew the lessons and
stopped promoting the guerrilla "foco" as the surefire recipe for
revolution. And many groups influenced by the Chinese example also
eventually concluded that it couldn't be replicated, including the GPP
faction of the FSLN associated with Tomás Borge and Salvadorean FPL
headed by Salvador Cayetano Carpio (Commander Marcial).
But the great grand-daddy of them all, the Russian "model,"
party-building (and a very peculiar sort of party at that) continues to
plague the U.S. Left.
THIS idea of a dead generation still "weighs like a nightmare on the
brains of the living."
It is time to abandon it.
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