Organizational flexibility in building revolutionary parties

Louis Paulsen: Whatever useful parties we can produce will look more like the 'Marxist-Leninist model' than anything else, because it works, and it's what we've traditionally used. Sure, some of them will be mass parties, and will therefore not much resemble politically homogeneous grouplets, but that doesn't mean that the grouplets will not have been crucial parts of their ancestry.

I'm not sure what you mean by the "Marxist Leninist model" or your statement that it "works."

In fact, the (alleged) Bolshevik "model" of a supposedly relatively homogeneous, tight-knit vanguard organization leading broader workers councils based on the factory proletariat in an insurrectional struggle centered in the most important cities has NEVER been repeated. In places where organs of dual power have arisen, these have almost invariably been nipped in the bud or defeated.

In Eastern Europe and North Korea, the "model" seems to have been occupation by the red army. In China, you had a lot of everything, but the overriding feature seems to have been a peasant rebellion. Vietnam was overwhelmingly a struggle for independence against direct foreign occupation. Cuba was something else again ... a vanguard that sprang directly from one of the bourgeois parties, outflanking on the left the established workers movement and parties, including the pro-Moscow Communists of the People's Socialist Party, using a strategic approach that, at first blush, seems to have more in common with Blanqui than Marx.

If what you mean is that after the expropriation of capitalist property, parties that describe themselves as M-L have been consolidated everywhere this took place, that is certainly true. Unfortunately, we are not yet faced with that situation. Then again I would not judge the balance sheet on all these parties taken as a whole as proof that the model works, given the results in Russia and Eastern Europe.

As to "grouplets" being "essential parts of the ancestry" of the revolutionary movements of tomorrow, I suppose that will inevitably be true enough, just as Babeuf's conspiracy of equals and the League of the Just were "essential" forerunners to Marx and Engels's Communist League. But that does not mean we need to repeat history, and form little sectlets that then have to be overcome.

We need to go back to Marx and Engels, to what they did and what they said. Marx and Engels weren't much in the party-building department, at least not organizationally.

The original group that became the Communist League they refused to join until it had come over fully to their positions. Although based in Paris, London, Brussels and other (non-German) cities, it was mostly an organization of German tradesmen. When the revolution of 1848 broke out in Germany, this tiny nucleus liquidated into the revolutionary movements in various parts of the country, abandoning completely its own separate identity. Following the defeat of the revolution, Marx did not try to reconstitute the League, preferring instead to maintain an informal circle of comrades who shared his political outlook.

For about 15 years Marx and Engels were quite happy to abstain from ALL organizational political activity. In particular, they avoided exile politics, which was in many ways quite quite similar to those of today's grouplets. Only with some reluctance did Marx agree to take part in the founding meeting of the International Working Men's Association. However, when he saw that it was a real movement of the working class, he immediately threw himself into its work and became its central leader.

The IWMA was very different from the CL. Although its positions on issues were those of the Communists, it was a loose federation of unions and other groups, not at all what we think of as a "party" or an "international." The defeat of the Paris commune lead to Marx deciding it had outlived its usefulness, at least in Europe, and the central authority of the IWMA was transferred to the United States, where he hoped it might still play a positive role. It withered away in a few years.

A few years later, the second international arose, based primarily on the strength of German social democracy. This party had not been Marxist in its earlier years but eventually Marxist positions prevailed. If Marx and especially Engels, who outlived Marx by several years, ever saw a problem with the way this party was organized, and with the same fairly loose structure being imitated all over Europe, they kept quiet about it.

Mostly what Marx and Engels did throughout their life was investigate and write on all sorts of questions, some of them quite conjunctural, many more general.

This, when one thinks about it, is quite in keeping with what they had written in the Manifesto:

"The communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties," they said, explaining that the communists differentiate themselves only by, in the struggles of any given country, championing the interests of the international proletariat, and in the various stages the proletarian movement, representing the interests of the movement as a whole.

To apply today a formula of creating tiny nuclei modeled on the Communist Parties the third international tried to promote in the early 20s is clearly unmarxist, in my opinion. The real operating principle for these formations is to set themselves up as separate parties opposed to (usually all) other working class parties.

The starting point of these parties is having "the" correct position on X, Y or Z subject -- usually having to do with the Russian or Chinese revolution. Marx would have viewed this as a more or less unhappy misunderstanding. Responding to a German radical named Karl Heinzen on the eve of the 1848 revolutions, i.e., contemporaneously with the drafting of the manifesto, Marx says:

"Herr Heinzen imagines communism is a certain doctrine which proceeds from a definite theoretical principle as its core and draws further conclusions from that. Herr Heinzen is very much mistaken.

"Communism is not a doctrine but a movement; it proceeds not from principles but from facts... Communism has followed from large-scale industry and its consequences, from the establishment of the world market, of the concomitant uninhibited competition, from the ever more violent and universal trade crisis, which have already begun full-fledged crisis of the world market, from the creation of the proletariat and the concentration of capital, from the ensuing class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

"Communism, insofar as it is a theory, is the theoretical expression of the position of the proletariat in this struggle, and the theoretical summation of the conditions for the liberation of the proletariat."

It is wrong to view "communism" primarily as a programmatic question. It is first and chiefly, a social product, the product of the development of capitalism. It also means it is wrong to view the "true" or "best" communists as members of a given party. Communism is the movement of class conscious workers, who, as the manifesto says, "are, on the one hand, practically the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country... on the other hand, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement."

Lenin's strategy after 1914, in the final form which it acquired in 1917, was essentially to regroup this movement into specifically Communist and no longer generally working class parties. This for very simple and concrete reasons having to do with the situation Marxists faced then: first, the emergence of the labor bureaucracy and labor aristocracy, i.e., of an anti-communist (though not in the McCarthyite sense) wing in the labor movement; second, the existence of a political and social crisis of historic proportions in the leading countries (i.e., WWI), which was tending to push millions of workers towards revolutionary conclusions except that the road to those conclusions was blocked, so to speak, by the labor bureaucracy and labor aristocracy that dominated the parties of the second international. Splitting the working class movement was the dynamite Lenin placed under this roadblock.

I believe Lenin's approach was justified in the leading European capitalist countries. I believe it was fundamentally misapplied in the United States, where the underdevelopment of the workers movement meant that the bureaucracy and labor aristocracy found expression in craft unions and directly in bourgeois politics, and the Debsian Socialist Party as well as the IWW were in fact organized expressions of the movement towards communism by the most committed working class fighters. The split here was unjustified politically. In Europe the only way communists could bring forth the interests of the world proletariat and represent the interests of the working class movement as a whole was to form specifically Communist parties; in the United States the SP itself took an anti-war stance; the only way to justify the split was to imbue American communism with a doctrinaire and sectarian spirit which has plagued it ever since.

And if the split in the workers movement made little sense in the U.S., it made --and, IMHO makes-- absolutely no sense at all in colonial and semicolonial countries where there is no labor aristocracy.

The most basic concept in what Marx and Engels call "the line of march" of the working class is the exhortation that ends the manifesto: workers of the world, unite! For the sake of promoting THAT unity, and attracting more workers to it, European communists were justified in splitting from the parties dominated by pro-imperialist labor bureaucracies and aristocracies. Carrying that split into the "third world" as a general, strategic principle strikes me, frankly, as goofy ultraleftism.

The top-to-bottom split in the world workers movement then was solidified and frozen in place by the victory of the Soviets against the Whites, the consolidation of the USSR (with all its problems), and the extension of socialism following WWII.

Of course, most of the parties that emerged from that split abandoned a revolutionary policy. This did not mean that they stopped attracting revolutionary workers. I think Trotsky was right in the 1930s when he wrote that the crisis facing humanity was essentially the crisis of the proletarian vanguard. His solution -- to replicate with miniscule forces Lenin's call for revolutionary workers to regroup under a new banner -- was, frankly, lame, though I'm hard-pressed to suggest anything else, because the monolithic nature of the pro-Moscow parties seemed to preclude anything else.

At any rate, it must be recognized that, when subjected to the acid test of practice, the Trotslyist movement was bypassed. Its cadres, with one or another individual exception, were unable to become part of the new formations of revolutionary and communist fighters that, in fact, were emerging. The sectarianism inherent in creating communist-only parties where this was uncalled for, multiplied by the doctrinaire decision to set up a true-blue Trotksyist "international", led to a situation where Trotskyist and Trot-derived groups multiplied. (But be it said in passing this is NOT a peculiarly Trotskyist problem: exactly the same thing has happened among Maoists and for precisely the same underlying reason.)

Whatever the merits of Lenin's strategic orientation in WWI and immediately afterwards, I tend to believe that Communists NOW should return to Lenin's pre-WWI orientation. There is no longer a compelling, overriding need for the Communists to constitute themselves as a narrow, programmatically pure separate party on a world scale; indeed if at that moment in history it was rational for Lenin to propose to the communist workers movement that it organized itself into separate parties in the leading countries, does such a proposal make any sense AT ALL today? After all, the manifesto says communists don't call on the workers of the world to unite under OUR specifically Marxist-Leninist Communist banner, we call on the workers of the world to unite AS A CLASS, under THEIR banner.

EVEN in countries where the class struggle is such that vanguard fighters are well advised to group themselves into a tightly-knit, conspiratorial, disciplined organization, the idea that this MUST be a specifically Marxist-Leninist-communist doctrinnairely pure organization --rather than one built around the concrete tasks facing revolutionaries in those countries-- is a sectarian one.

In his obituary of Sam Marcy, Louis points out that even a tiny nucleus can have a very disproportionate political impact when united in action around a common line. But, frankly, that is not something communists should be trying to teach young rebels attracted to the working class movement. We SHOULD NOT aspire as communists mostly to have "a disproportionate political impact," we aspire to be the best and most far-sighted fighters of a class that has a world to win.

The "principle" of a "Leninist" party that "must" be "built" to "lead" the workers to power --leaving aside both whether the current general understanding of what constitutes such a party is TRULY "Leninist" AND the fact that Lenin "built" such a party by ... fighting for precisely its opposite, a single united social democratic party of all the Russian workers-- is profoundly un-Marxist and un-Leninist.

Lenin's call to build specifically communist parties in response to social-democracy's betrayal of the working class in World War I shows that, for Marxists, ALL organizational forms are SUBORDINATE to the task of favoring the unity of the workers AS A CLASS, as a politically independent force. Thus Lenin, when the political situation required it, did not hesitate to BREAK what seems to be the ONLY organizational "principle" Marx and Engels ever formulated: "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties." For if ever there was at attempt by Communists to form separate parties OPPOSED to other working class parties, the founding of the Comintern was surely it.

The "principle" of the Leninist Party, floating above time, place and circumstance, is a political fetish. It transforms communism from a living movement into a church. It imbues communists with the idea that they are the bearers of invaluable, separate principles with which to shape and mold the proletarian movement; that the purpose of the proletarian movement is to bring Communism to power, rather than the other way around. In their dealings with European socialists in the 70s, 80s and 90s, Marx and Engels recommended fusions, splits, participation in vaguely-defined workers organizations and parties, struggles to strictly codify Marxist programs, strategy and tactics in party programs, advise to "adapt" to bourgeois legality, advice to break with the narrow confines of bourgeois legality, the works.

The tactical course they counseled was always guided by the goal of the workers in different countries uniting as a class, i.e., as a political force, a party, with a clear, unambiguous, revolutionary, Marxist program. But they understood that such a party could not be "built" by aggregating forces to a nucleus built around communist theory or a communist programmatic statement. They knew such parties would have to emerge from the class struggle and the development of the workers movement. In particular, in the relations and work with the German party, they placed the greatest stress NOT on making sure the party had a correct "program" and "theory" -- but rather that is follow a combative, independent class policy in practice. When the development of the party required that it adopt a clearer programmatic statement, Engels dusted off Marx's critique of the Gotha program -- which had gone unpublished for 15 years -- and led the fight for a programmatic clarity.

In building the second international, Engels had two main strategic axis. He wanted the new international to take clear, independent working class positions grounded in Marxism, but he also wanted it to make sure the more backward national sections of the labor movement -- expecially English trade unionism-- did not get left out. One of the ways this was accomplished was to give the second international -- initially -- absolutely no structure whatsoever, its only expression was its Congresses.

To summarize: the example of Marx, Engels and Lenin, as well as their writings, teach extreme flexibility in organizational forms, to the point of maintaining NO organization whatsoever. And they specifically resisted the temptation to set up "ideologically pure" grouplets, preferring instead to work in broader formations -- sometimes mass organizations, sometimes big workers parties, sometimes vanguard workers organizations the majority of whose members and leaders were not Marxist, sometimes armed formations. For long years their political work was strictly literary, and --Marx especially-- resisted all entreaties to become involved in the "practical" "party-building work" of developing a microscopic nucleus into a miniscule one. Yet their very first organization -- the Communist League -- certainly was a small, programmatic nucleus.

You might conclude from this that Marx and Engels, and Lenin, were total impressionists on the organization question, randomly adopting first one approach, then another. The opposite is the case. At each and every stage they examined the question of organization on the basis of fundamental principle. The important thing for them was NOT what kind of group they should build, but what organizations was the working class creating as it groped its way towards political class consciousness. Whatever its form, That's the organization they joined and tried to influence.

Jose Perez