Trotsky on building the party

Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party was originally written during an internal crisis in the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The authors, Diane Feeley, Paul Le Blanc, and Thomas Twiss were writing in response to the erosion of democracy within the organization and the swing towards complete adoption of the models of social change and revolution being put forward in Castro’s Cuba. With dissenting members being harassed and discussion of the shift almost nonexistent, these three committed revolutionaries set out to assemble a document which would put forward not just a defense of inner party democracy, but to begin to distill the lessons on building organization assembled by Leon Trotsky throughout his decades as a revolutionary. 

While the context in which the book has been written has long since passed, and its defense of democracy within the SWP ultimately unsuccessful, the writings they assembled—essentially illuminating quotes and statements, arranged by subject, from the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky—remains important for those trying to build revolutionary organizations. Toward the end of his life, Trotsky noted that his work in rebuilding socialist organizations and parties in the aftermath of the degeneration and counterrevolution led by Stalin in the USSR was the most important of his life. The authors of this book have helped distill lessons from Trotsky’s effort to keep revolutionary socialism alive and embodied in organizations and parties. 

The first theme of the book is the argument for a revolutionary party. For a working-class revolution to be victorious, the working class must organize for itself a revolutionary party. But the authors do not leave it there, rather, they endeavor, and succeed, to explore the characteristics needed to ensure that the party remains viable. They stress again and again that at-its-root the revolutionary party must be an organization of critical minded individuals working together in a democratic organization to advance the cause of working-class revolution. 

Writes Trotsky, “It is indeed the general testimony of history . . . that up to now the weakest link in the chain of necessary conditions has been the party. The hardest thing of all is for the working class to create a revolutionary organization capable of rising to the height of this historic task.” And on the temperament of those who make up such a party, “A supporter of the theory of scientific communism does not take anything on word. He judges everything by reason and experience . . . Revolutionary discipline does not exclude but demands the right of checking and criticism.” 

The party, rooted in the vanguard of the working class, could never rise to its historic role if it were made up of uncritical thinkers. Members collectively must subject every experience, every experiment in organizational approach and movement work, to the most open and political assessment. Only through this process of open debate and discussion can a leadership be in a position to move with the full strength of the membership at its back. 

The second main theme is the practical expression and exploration of democratic centralism. That organizational model is captured in the phrase, “freedom of debate, unity in action.” Trotsky fleshes this out, explaining that,

The function of democratic centralism is to make the revolutionary program a living reality: to develop fully (as activists, organizers and critical minded Marxists) increasing numbers of revolutionary cadres, to join them together as an effective political force, to enable them to determine collectively how the revolutionary program shall be applied in the ongoing struggles of the workers and the oppressed. 

Most importantly, the emphasis here is on the balance between having out the arguments and disagreements of the day in the open, while also maintaining cohesion between the various wings in the course of the debate, stressing substantive political debate carried out by the entire body of membership, rather than administrative reproaches or apolitical intrigue. “Questions of revolutionary tactics,” Trotsky writes, “and internal questions facing the opposition should be the property of every member of the . . . organization.” And further, “Within the ranks of Communism and the entire proletariat there must be free discussion, without breaking up meetings, without falsified citations, without venomous vilification—but an honest interchange of opinions on the basis of proletarian democracy.” 

Trotsky stresses that the leaders of a revolutionary organization must “retain firmness on the political line, [while] exercising the greatest caution and mildness, the greatest possible tolerance and tactfulness in all personal conflicts and misunderstandings.” This later point is also used to highlight the difficulties of transitioning from small propaganda groups to larger, more rooted, and more influential ones. 

That is the third theme of the book. During such a process many challenges arise, and not only from those who are content to retain the talk-shop dynamics of the sect, but also from an influx of newly radicalized working-class fighters now organizing side by side with veterans of the class struggle. Every revolutionary is precious, Trotsky argues, and “building the revolutionary party requires patience and hard work. At any price, the best should not be discouraged, and you should show yourselves capable of working with everyone. Each person is a level to be fully utilized to strengthen the party.” 

Juggling the challenge between the youthful and often, but not uniformly, inexperienced new members and a more experienced cadre is among the most difficult and essential tasks for revolutionaries. Indeed, it is the section where Trotsky’s advice to the early membership of the American SWP offers the most insightful wisdom for us today. While some are simple and almost common sense, there is much to be said for seeing them collected and distilled; never do more than you can, strengthen bonds between comrades, maximize the development of comrades thorough conscious steps, and understand that confusion and questions among the leading elements of the working class will be reflected among the membership. Thus, concludes Trotsky, “pedagogical patience is absolutely necessary on the part of our comrades toward the new and fresh elements. That is the genuine meaning of party ‘democracy.’” 

The most important conclusion is that there is no guidebook, no golden rule for building a socialist organization. It requires vigorous struggle to maintain the principles of working class self-emancipation in the course of every step of revolutionary work, whether in the heat of an upsurge or during the low points between the crests. For those of us engaged in building a left capable of winning a revolution where the vast majority of society, the working class majority, rules in its own interests, every ounce of experience, every memory of prior attempts, is as precious today as is every newly engaged radical. This book lays out important lessons to keep in mind as we engage in building the socialist organizations of today and the revolutionary parties of tomorrow. 

Issue #67

September 2009

Iran: rebellion and reaction

Issue contents

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Reviews

  • Humanitarian imperialism and its apologists

    Ashley Smith reviews The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War by Conor Foley; Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani; Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War by Jean Bricmont; Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law by China Miéville; and The Liberal Defense of Murder by Richard Seymour
  • Debating how to change the world

    Eric Kerl reviews Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History by Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic
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