[Marxism] Sect, party, movement, class - I [Was: Socialists Unite: Statement from Workers World Party & FIST]

Joaquín Bustelo 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 
stop attending.

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 
different basis.

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 
this process.

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.

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 
THAT?! Wankers!!!

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 
desired result.

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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