The Need for Revolutionary Socialist Organization

Another talk I gave for the ISO several months past:

In the time of the Occupy movement, perhaps the most positive development in that past decade, we need to think urgently about what kind of organization we want if the movement is likely to succeed. In this, we have lots of people rejecting our sort of organization in the ISO, in favor of more spontaneous tactics. This goes back to the history of the left in the past 40 years.

As Noam Chomsky, for instance, wrote, “The Leninist intelligentsia have an agenda… They fit Marx’s description of the ‘conspirators’ who “pre-empt the developing revolutionary process” and distort it to their ends of domination… For the Leninist, the masses must be strictly disciplined…”

The experience of building revolutionary organizations inspired by Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, was a failure which deeply demoralized much of the left, causing some to reject organized politics in favor of the “autonomy of movements,” or anarchist politics which reject the party as a model. I want everyone to think about this because I’ll return to it at the end.

We live in a world where class struggle under that name is only just reasserting itself. Most activists including myself have had a range of experience in movements such as anti-war, environment, gay and women’s liberation, but may have never actually been on or visited a picket line. In such a situation the importance of uniting various struggles around a single perspective becomes necessary.

As Marxists, we argue that the question that unites all the various movements for racial, gender, sexual, or national liberation, social justice, the survival of the ecosystem and so on is the question of capitalism. The capitalist system produces divisions among the 99% of the population who actually make the system run through their brains and muscle, including divisions of nation, race, sexual orientation. It kills people far away from us in Iraq and Afghanistan for our rulers’ continued profit and domination. It undermines our environment at an alarming rate in order to generate the most profit as fast as it can.

This perspective is superior because it raises the issue of the working class, which we as Marxists suggest is the only force capable of stopping capitalism in its tracks. To hold rallies of thousands of people may not be able to stop our rulers from (example) going to war or passing a law that limits women’s right to abortion. The power workers have is that when they stop working, so does everything else. Their power poses a direct challenge to the survival of the capitalist system, which is why so much effort has been expended over the last 30 years in this country on making sure they can never use that power.

So, the purpose we propose for organizing ourselves is to build structures that can eventually unite with workers at the point of production to shut down the system – for good. I’ll talk more about that in a little while. For now let’s consider the question of experience in different struggles.

Movements, even revolutionary movements, are never a blank slate. The people who today participate in Occupy come to the occupation with certain ideas about how society works and how best to change it. The terrain of struggle on which Occupy arose was already cluttered by various people and groups. Though there have been a small minority of revolutionaries and socialists, Occupy immediately attracted insurrectionary anarchists, Ron Paul supporters, and liberals.

All of the groups, movements, and individuals came into Occupy with their own ideas about how best to carry the movement forward. Insurrectionary anarchists in the black block believe that physical confrontation with the police can radicalize the movement to the point of a mass “revolutionary rupture.” Liberals may believe that Occupy has the best chance of succeeding if we “occupy the voting booth” for Barack Obama in November. Ron Paul supporters wanted to turn Occupy into a crusade against the Federal Reserve. I am sure that all these people believe they are acting in the interest of the movement, just as sure as I am that they are all hopelessly wrong.

The need for revolutionaries to articulate their own point of view becomes clear when we consider the current crisis of Occupy. Right now some argue for a “general strike” on May 1, but without the participation of labor unions. If we do not argue with this, we risk Occupy isolating itself from the key force, organized labor that can take the movement forward, as I talked about a minute ago. In other words, we risk wrecking the movement. Revolutionaries must advocate their point of view on how best to carry the struggle forward consistently and fearlessly.

This does not mean for a second that we refuse to work with liberals, anarchists, or even Ron Paul supporters necessarily. We will work with anyone serious about participating in movements that challenge the system, but with the understanding that – as Trotsky said – “we are going all the way.” Or in the famous words of the Communist Manifesto,

In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?

They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.

They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.

The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

To strive to build a revolutionary party anywhere means to try and create the kind of organization where any single member can be experienced and confident enough to lead entire movements. The kind of organization we want is described by this passage detailing the work of Russian Bolsheviks in one factory:

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.

…[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!”

Mass movements that go up against the confines of capitalism go through a process of radicalization under favorable conditions. The most incredible thing about Occupy was that it raised the issue of class in a very concrete way, opening up the masses of people’s ears to the potentiality for revolutionary change. As Lenin said, “the working class is spontaneously, instinctively social-democratic,” or revolutionary.

This does not mean, however, that we can wait for the movements to agree with revolutionary Marxism. The consequences of failing to win revolutionary leadership in a movement can be quite serious, as I have pointed out about Occupy. Let me go through a few more examples.

The struggle against the Iraq War in 2003 mobilized hundreds of thousands in the US, and many millions across the world. Yet, the actions of the main anti-war coalition in the US, United for Peace and Justice (UPFJ) prevented a movement-wide critique of warmongering politicians in both main parties. The idea that anti-war activists had to support a pro-war candidate, John Kerry, for president, confused and demoralized many of the best comrades in that movement, leading to its early collapse.

Over a year ago, I was lucky enough to participate in a rally of over 100,000 people for labor in Wisconsin, against Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-collective bargaining law. The downside was that it was this rally that began to wind down the mass movement in favor of recalling Republican state legislators. Once Democrats were in control, we were told, they would repeal the law for us. Most people grow up being taught how you change things is to vote for the right bum, and to people who do not have a very good idea of their own power, it makes a certain amount of sense. But it resulted in the end of the movement.

The revolutionary left in the US was far too small in both cases to wage an effective ideological battle against liberal forces and ensure the survival of the movements. This only means that we have to continue to try, not become demoralized and abandon organization or politics altogether. As our comrade Joel Geier writes in ISR,

We use lulls in one movement to shift resources into building another. We use lulls in the struggle for reading, discussing, educating, and training ourselves politically and organizationally to be stronger for the new upturn of struggle. We maintain a link between the struggles of the past and the future ones. We draw the lessons, and we train people so that when the next struggle begins, it doesn’t begin on the same primitive level as the preceding one.

The consequences of not having revolutionary organization can be much worse than the examples I already gave, especially in revolutionary times. The history of the 20th century is littered with failed revolutions. To give just one example: many people do not know that the Iranian revolution of 1979 started as a revolution of workers, who overthrow the Shah through shutting down Iran’s major cities. In the ensuing revolutionary situation, politics were increasingly dominated by a Shia Muslim revivalist movement led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The revolutionary left was small and isolated, and the People’s Mujahadeen, the only mass organization that could be called revolutionary, was focused on a guerrilla war strategy and isolated from the working class. The collaboration of the Stalinist Tudeh Party with Khomeini led to the destruction of the shorahs (workers’ councils), the cooptation of the revolution and a reign of terror against revolutionaries.

We are far from a situation in this country where the consequences of failing to provide revolutionary leadership would be so dire. Which is all the more reason why we must lay the groundwork for revolutionary organization here and now. As countless revolutionaries discovered in the past hundred years or so, it is next to impossible to build a revolutionary party from scratch.

The successful example we look to as revolutionaries is the October Revolution of 1917. In contrast to the repeated failures that came before and after it, a revolutionary mass party led the conquest of power by the working class, transferring control of government to that class organized in their councils – Soviets.

Though the Russian Revolution quickly degenerated under the impact of three years of civil war in an already devastated and backward country, it remains the only example to this date of the working class seizing and exercising power over a country, for however limited a time. This is why we as socialists try to take the example of the Bolshevik Party to heart.

Chomsky is wrong when he says Leninist organizations have an agenda of dominating movements and revolutions for their own sinister ends. The history of anarchism, the tradition he affiliates with, has produced not one even partially successful example of revolution. But his challenge to us needs to be seriously answered.

We should be clear that without a revolutionary party, revolutions do not work. But we need to be just as clear that true Leninism has nothing to do with the Stalinist caricature of it. The history of top-down, Stalinist parties is also one of cooptation and betrayal of mass movements and revolutions.

In contrast, we want a democratic organization of revolutionaries in which literally every member has the ability to become a leader. To do this, we believe that it must be centrally organized. More loose organization, as history as shown, can lead to a lack of accountability on the part of the leadership and to a lack of effectiveness as an organization. Centralism is necessary for democracy to function.

As the British revolutionary socialist Duncan Hallas wrote, “a revolutionary party cannot be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.” How exactly that sort of party can be created, I will have to leave to the discussion.

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