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ISR Issue 50, NovemberDecember 2006
What kind of movement do we want?
Socialist organization-lessons past and present
By AHMED SHAWKI
WHAT KIND of organization do socialists need to build in the here and now in the United States? We certainly do not need another organization like the one that passes for the so-called opposition in this country, the Democrats, or any such formation. Moreover, since the Democrats do not claim to be a socialist party or a party that advances the interests of workers, we have no further need to mention them.
This is meant to be a discussion of some of the theory and ideas and traditions that lie behind the thinking of socialists and Marxists about what kind of organizational norms and organizations we need to develop to be the most effective we can possibly be in the fight against capitalism-what kind of norms and political positions such a party should take, how it should be organized, and the like.
There are three reasons that this question is important. The first is that it is essential to understand some of the historical background that lies behind the approach to building such an organization.
Second, we also have to face reality and say that this kind of party was once wanted by much larger sections of the Left and is no longer part of their outlook. Understanding how that situation came about requires some explanation as to what happened to the last major wave of radicalization that took place during the 1960s and 1970s, and what ideas flow out of the defeated period of radicalization. There was a crescendo, an impasse, and then a decline and a stepping back of the Left, with a number of ideas coming into prominence that reject the idea of political organization or a political party. This is a crisis that still plagues sections of the revolutionary Left today.
Thirdly, the question of what kind of party to build today is taking on particular forms internationally and has spilled over into this country. There is now a discussion among sections of the revolutionary Left internationally of creating broad, anti-capitalist parties as one strategy, and of contending for electoral advances as a major focus of energy. There are a number of options like that that socialists need to take stock of.
It's a broad topic, and of course its main importance is to promote the discussion and understanding of the tasks that face revolutionary socialists in the United States. In discussing these tasks, we have to take note of the problems that face us as well as potential developments.
Political parties and political representation
Ever since the birth of the Marxist wing of the socialist movement, though not exclusively the Marxist wing, there has been a premium placed on the question of the political representation of the working class.
The writings of Marx and Engels and the early socialists recognized the need for the working class to have its own political representation. Wrote Marx in 1850:
Even when there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces, and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is indefinitely more important than the disadvantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.1In other words, the capitalist class and the old feudal classes all have their own political parties, Marx and Engels argued. Workers needed a way to politically represent themselves.
That was the initial assumption of all Marxists: the need for political representation of the working class. Broadly speaking, the view of the party was of an all-encompassing working-class party, which brought together different factions, different groupings of the working-class movement.
In part, this is because the early working-class movement was not dominated with one single political ideology. People may have read that at one stage, Karl Marx said, “I am not a Marxist.” That was to reject some would-be followers who interpreted his views in a particular way, and created political organizations that had nothing to do, as Marx and Engels saw it, with the direction they wanted the movement to go.
Marx himself had placed some emphasis on the attempt to build political organization. But he was working in a period of the rise of capitalist social relations. Therefore, in large part, the bulk of Marx's own personal activity lay in developing theory rather than political organization.
Engels participated much more effectively in the construction of the Second International, playing a formative role in the construction of what was to be the model socialist organization of the day, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). This organization produced, after a period of illegality, dozens of newspapers and sustained a mass membership and hundreds of elected officials. The theoretical leader of the SPD was Karl Kautsky, who was described at the time as the “Pope of Marxism” (that was supposed to be a good thing as opposed to a negative thing), the main authority on Marxism following Marx's and Engels' deaths.
So by Kautsky's time, at least in Europe, there are mass political organizations that saw themselves as representing the entirety of the working class. These contended for political office, had political representation, and led the trade unions and many of the civic associations. Different countries, different strengths, other countries, certain weaknesses-but this was the model of socialist organization, and with it, you had the appearance of a united socialist movement internationally, under the Second International.
Many historians look back at this period and conclude that Lenin was an early heretic. They look at Lenin's short pamphlet, written in 1902, called What Is to Be Done? Plucking a few quotes from this pamphlet, these historians conclude that it represents the epitome of everything that's wrong with Leninism-pointing to the fact that instead of the broad model of organization, Lenin insisted on a professional party organization, a strict hierarchy, and centralism, although when possible, the democratic component being instituted.
The reality is that Lenin's views on the party in the first instance were highly conditional to the specific circumstances under which socialists were operating in Russia. Thus, at the formative conference of the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1898, something like two-thirds of the delegates were arrested by the police. So the conditions in which you organize an open democratic party are somewhat different than in a context where the police repress open political organizations.
What people characterize as Leninism was conditional to illegal conditions inside Russia. The main difference was conditional on the objective circumstances Lenin saw, and those should not be seen as Leninism-illegality, professional revolutionism, that only the committee above another committee can instruct what people should do. As Lenin wrote, “Under conditions of political freedom our party will be built entirely on the elective principle. Under the autocracy this is impracticable for the collective thousands of workers that make up this party.”2
To be sure, this does not mean that Lenin was identical to Kautsky. You can see that Kautsky, for example, once clearly made the point that the German Social Democratic Party is a “revolutionary party,” but not a “revolution-making” party. In other words, it was a party that sought the transformation of society, but not by working towards a revolution.
Lenin insisted always on the revolutionary character of the Bolsheviks, in part because they operated under Tsarism and in part because of events after the writing of What Is To Be Done?
Reformists and revolutionaries
The critical event that divides out the socialist movement and has bearing on the question of organization is, of course, the First World War. On August 4, 1914, the main pillar of social democracy, the German SPD, votes to appropriate money (war credits) to pay for the slaughter. With the exception of the radical SPD deputy Karl Liebknecht and a handful of others, the SPD and the rest of the socialist movement in other countries follows suit. At this point, Lenin begins to develop ideas about organization which are much more important and relevant to us. These are focused not on the question of illegality and professional revolutionism, but on the question of political representation.
Lenin focuses on the idea that there is a built-in contradiction between building a political organization that combats capitalism and one that from the outset represents the entire working class. He concludes that you have to begin by grouping together militants and activists-not talking commentators and writers, but people who are involved in the actual struggle against capitalism-into a party that can politically lead other sections of the working-class movement through the ebbs and flow of the working-class struggle.
He used the term “vanguard” for this. He means the people who are in advance in consciousness-that is, who are enemies of capitalism, rather than half-opposed and half-accepting of it. By characterizing some as “accepting” capitalism, Lenin means no insult. He simply notes that the reality for most people means that they hate the system, but don't know what else you can put in its place. The point, then, was how to put together a political organization that, in reality, represented the best fighters of the working-class movement-and which contributed to the development of the movement.
As Lenin put it: “The stronger our party organizations, consisting of real social-democrats, the less wavering and instability there is within the party, the broader, more varied, richer and more fruitful will be the party's influence on the elements of the working-class masses surrounding it and guided by it. The party, as the vanguard of the working class, must not be confused after all with the entire class.”3
The idea of organizing a “vanguard party” became enshrined in the history of the revolutionary movement for one reason: the Russian Revolution. It was not so much due to Lenin's writings as to Lenin's actions. The Russian Revolution was the first successful revolution. In terrible conditions, it brought a weak working-class movement to power, and it laid open the question of working-class power internationally. And from that experience, the main principles of working-class organization were codified, and an attempt was made to generalize these internationally.
The problem begins not there, but with the defeat of the Russian Revolution. Because with the defeat of the Russian Revolution, instead of codifying the actual real experiences of both Russia and an understanding of the particular national conditions of different movements, which Lenin always insisted on, what became codified was an idea of a world centralized party dominated by the central committee and the Politburo of the USSR, under which function the central committees of other countries, forming the world movement of socialism.
This Stalinist conception of the party and leadership is a negation of Leninism as it was really practiced. For example, in the 1905 Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks were initially hostile to the workers' councils as they arose. But once they see that the councils have mass working-class support and can provide a basis for the fight against the government, the Bolsheviks reevaluate and become champions of the councils (the “soviets”). This illustrates that, in Lenin's day, the vanguard wasn't considered to be infallible. It had to learn by the experience of the class struggle as well. Only later, under the Stalinized Comintern, does the concept that all truth flows from the central leadership arise.
The fire last time
Why is all this relevant? Because that Stalinist conception became the understanding internationally of what it meant to build a revolutionary socialist or communist party. It became the principle model about which the revolutionary Left that re-emerged in the 1960s debated, and from which different elements were taken.
A small minority of the movement-in large part, the Trotskyist elements in the movement, but not solely the Trotskyist elements-began to look toward the original Lenin rather than the Stalinized Lenin for ideas of the party.
Out of the initial upsurge of struggle around the war in Vietnam, the Black liberation movement and others, many people took wholesale some of the ideas of Stalinized Leninism and applied them. It led to all kinds of peculiarities, not the least of which was the cult of personality most obvious in the Stalinist movement and in the Mao-influenced section of the revolutionary movement. Leaders of small groups of ex-student radicals appointed themselves “chairman” of revolutionary parties and the like.
You had a situation in which revolutionary parties emerged quite differently from the era of the Russian Revolution. By and large, in most of the Western countries in which the revolutionary Left developed, it didn't emerge out of a mass workers' movement that represented the working class, but largely among elements wholly outside the existing organized working-class movement.
That's different from country to country. In the United States, you had one of the most extreme divorces between socialists and the working-class movement. In some countries like Britain and other places, there wasn't the same kind of distorting impact. But internationally, you had the whole movement dealing with the fact that, first of all, the authentic Marxist tradition on the question of organization had been Stalinized and distorted by the experience of Stalinism, but also with the reality of capitalism.
That is, it wasn't simply that the Left of the 1960s and 1970s failed because it had the wrong ideas. It also faced a different environment, with a stronger and more resilient capitalism, than the socialists of the early twentieth century had faced. It inherited the ideas that came before them and was trying to work its way through them, but it's also the case that capitalism fought back, and the Left was unable to reestablish a relationship with a mass working-class movement in time.
Today, there is an idea that the construction of a socialist organization is, in and of itself, a flawed project. In short, we've been there and done that in the 1960s and 1970s, and that this model of organization doesn't work. One could answer this with the retort: the 1960s/1970s activists just did it wrong. We won't make the same mistakes. But there's more to it then that. The more sophisticated answer would be that not only did the Left in the 1960s inherit models of organization from the past, but also it was itself dislodged from its historic role and placed outside of the working-class movement. And this was despite valiant efforts of many sections of the Left to reconnect with the working class, which should be applauded, not derided.
Filling a political vacuum
What are the conclusions to be drawn from this? First, socialists face a situation much different from those who came before us. In the 1960s, you had the dominance internationally on the left by big communist parties and big social democratic parties. Those were seen as the main opposition to capitalism. This may not have been the kind of opposition we would organize, but those organizations were the main pillars of opposition. Today, part of the weakness of the Left is that those organizations don't exist as organizations that resist capitalism. To see this, you only have to note that Tony Blair's Labor Party doesn't even use the rhetoric of anti-capitalism or socialism.
Social democracy exists, but basically, around the world, it has adopted neoliberalism and pro-capitalism outright as its program. The communist parties don't exist as the force that they once did, which means that in communities, in neighborhoods, in particular struggles, a number of people who were the identifiable activists before aren't there now.
This leads to a conclusion that there is a space politically for a party that is not revolutionary-one that doesn't have the overthrow of capitalism as its aim. Therefore, there is a political vacuum that exists internationally, which people are seeking to fill. But there is no guarantee that it will be filled in the manner that people seek to fill it.
It's one thing to say that social democracy has moved to the right and adopted neoliberalism, and that Stalinism has largely disappeared organizationally, and in that space, we can build a broad, anticapitalist, but not necessarily revolutionary, movement. That is being proposed in a number of situations, such as in the attempt in Brazil to build the Party of Socialism and Liberty to the left of Lula's Workers Party (PT). Revolutionary socialists can be friendly toward this argument because it comes from people who are trying to regroup forces opposed to the system.
But it isn't clear to me at all on an international scale what this means in reality. The main activists involved in this kind of project internationally are themselves members of revolutionary organizations, or are largely inspired by the project of building a revolutionary organization against capitalism. The goal is to try to capture some of the dissension and the anger that exists against the system, but which is unorganized. Nobody should denigrate this opposition outside the system that's unorganized.
Yet in terms of understanding what it means to build an organization, the main thing that's been lost from the classical Leninist model is how you actually begin the process of the retraining, re-educating, and re-launching a revolutionary cadre, no matter what the organizational structure. How do you take a new generation of people and transform them from isolated or individual militants against the system to what is a self-conscious revolutionary cadre?
A worker-activist who belonged to the Socialist Revolutionary Party described how Bolsheviks in the factories in pre-revolutionary Russia worked:
There were few socialist workers [party members] and they were supported by the conscious workers. The latter were ten times more numerous as the socialists…. Each was, in a way, [a] “juridically reasoning individual” capable of understanding all that surrounded him.That really is the main task of revolutionary socialists today. The road to get from where we are now and where we want to get is the multimillion-dollar question. What kind of party do we want? We want a revolutionary party of some size rooted in the working class: multiracial, multi-ethnic, and geared to the conquest of state power internationally. Easier said than done.
…[The socialists] all to a greater or lesser degree, understood the situation of the workers and their relations with the factory owners. Life itself transformed them into the vanguard of the working masses…. This self-made agitator spoke of that which each worker had in his head but, being less developed, was unable to verbalize. After each of his words, the workers would exclaim: “That's it! That's just what I wanted to say!”4
The problem is that no organization embodies this ideal today. Socialists must look at the rest of the Left in this country and internationally and say truthfully what our numbers and our strengths are collectively. We are not at the point where we're talking about a mass party.
Getting from here to there
Therefore, the real question is how you get from here to there. That's the most difficult thing to do, because there's not just one path to getting there. But having said that, it's important to realize that not all the paths are of equal value. For example, there isn't much space for a broad, anticapitalist party in the United States. On the other hand, in Brazil, there is space for a large anticapitalist, socialist party that has been expelled from the Workers Party.
The experience there is one in which the best of the Brazilian Left built the PT and is now finding that its aspirations, hopes, and ambitions are being opposed by the leadership of the party it created. They're being expelled and marginalized by a PT committed to neoliberalism. At the moment, the PSOL, the main party formed out of that expulsion, is polling anywhere from 7-11 percent against Lula. So there's not only a space for that kind of organization, but a reality.
The problem for us in this country is that we don't have that kind of Left. Everybody talks about regroupment of the Left, but it runs up against a number of questions and problems. For example, what, in reality, is the Left, and what does it organize? What would it actually mean to regroup? Would regroupment mean forward momentum, or a miring in a series of endless discussions and debates? These are some of the questions that affect us.
We believe that the main task for socialists today is to be involved and develop links and relations with every sector possible in the struggle against capitalism, racism, militarism, and sexism. Socialist organization must be committed not just to commentary or criticism on struggles, but to be fully in solidarity with and involved in those struggles. Given the small size of most socialist organizations today, it is impossible to do everything. But it is possible to ally with or solidarize with every struggle, even as socialists arrive at priorities about where and to what they can best contribute.
Second, beyond this general political outlook, it's also important to state that organization can't simply be active and enthusiastic. It also needs to be educated in the traditions, the language, and in the theory and the practice of the past. Members of a revolutionary socialist organization today must be leaders in the mass movement. But to do that, you can't simply be an activist. You've got to have some grasp of politics and theory.
Third, socialist organizations must grow substantially. There should be no contradiction between that goal and being involved in many struggles. Many people on the left attack socialists for trying to “recruit” out of struggles. Socialists should not run away from this argument. The essential idea that a political organization needs to grow is something that should be defended.
We can also defend another notion: it has to be a party that is explicit about its radical nature and about the character of its project. One of the weaknesses of the Left coming out of the 1960s has been a de-emphasis of politics and theory, reinforcing a tendency that the radical movement in the United States has always had. But most serious activists today want political discussion and political theory. There has been a tendency to think that being an open socialist is something that is impossible to build around in the United States. In fact, the opposite is the case.
When the movements of the 1970s hit their peak and were looking for new departures, there were choices to make. One choice was to retreat from the project of building a directly working-class organization into an emphasis on labor work. Another was to build an organization committed to working-class power, but in the main looked toward youth and students.
That was one of the debates between comrades in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and comrades in the International Socialists (IS) some years ago. Thirty years later, it is undoubtedly the case that comrades in the IS and Labor Notes have done extremely good work in the labor movement. But from the point of view of the project of Leninism-of building the seeds of a socialist organization committed to the transformation of society-the ISO has made a contribution which has at least kept together that potential.
Getting to this point has been quite an accomplishment. But the real accomplishment is proving your relevance in the struggle. The next stage will be to forge the constituent elements of an organization that, with experience and with collaboration with others, can become the kind of party that is needed.
Ahmed Shawki is the editor of the ISR.
1 Karl Marx, “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League,” Saul K. Padover (ed.), On Revolution (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), 113.
2 See V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 8 (Moscow, 1962), 196.
3 V.I. Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1904/onestep/index.htm.
4 Words of V. Buzinov, quoted in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1990), 201, 202.