Toward a Mass Party

Posted: June 10, 2011 by revunity in Problems of Organization, Strategy

Part of the purpose of the Revolutionary Unity Group is to grapple with the problems of our movement. What is the situation in which revolutionaries find themselves today. How did we get here? How do we move forward? One of the leading revolutionary blogs, The Kasama Project, recently posted a piece, “Dead ends & road maps: Building a new socialist movement,” RU has been discussing internally. We post here two responses.

The responses are the opinions of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of other members of the RUG, nor should they necessarily be taken to represent the views of the RUG.

Peter Moody

While seriously critiquing existing organizational forms, the article didn’t dismiss them entirely, noting that organizations that do exist can produce some of the most aware and honest militants in various movements. I’ve been thinking, somewhat along the lines of what the CPGB advocates, that all the existing socialist organizations potentially have something to contribute; they all carry a piece of the truth, to perhaps put it another way. At the same time, simply lumping all the existing organizations together without any sort of meaningful commitment to a new organizational structure and pluralist politics within revolutionary socialism will simply produce a macro-sect rather than a micro-sect.

The author touches on this with a critical note on the concept of “regroupment,” which after having been exposed to the concept of regroupment versus the different concept of refoundation (which I think the author is arguing for more), I can see the point of the two terms describing two very different things. Unfortunately, in the United States the biggest proponents of “refoundation” have done so around more social-democratic politics than revolutionary socialist ones (such as Solidarity and the soft Freedom Road), thus throwing the baby out with the bathwater in terms of revolutionary organization and politics. So that’s something people thinking about refoundation versus regroupment need to think about; a rethinking of new methods of organising without throwing away the positive lessons of past experience as well. There is a book, Revolutionary Strategy: Marxism and the Challenge of Left Unity, by Mike Macnair of the CPGB, which touches on similar issues to this as well. It’s of book length, though short. Hopefully comrades will find it interesting and useful in this discussion as well.

The concept of “organizational centers” that the author draws out from Hal Draper’s thinking sounds somewhat like the theory of the “intermediate organization” which has come from other sources; that is, a type of organization that doesn’t claim to be a party based around a strong programmatic agreement, but at the same time isn’t just a broad movement open to anyone who cares about a particular issue. In some sense it reminds me of the concept of the united front, where militants can come together around a plan for united action, while at the same time leaving open other questions of program and having the ability to openly criticize the politics other groups in the united front. Unfortunately, this is a difficult thing to balance in practice, and more often that not one of two things will happen: either the unity aspect is overstressed to the point where disagreements are ignored or papered over for the sake of said unity; or the freedom to criticize one another’s politics and the sake of preserving a party’s unique “political brand” is overstressed so that even limited, tactical unity cannot be accomplished.

Both are serious problematic in their own way, with unity leading to ignorance of differences being explained in a public forum, and disagreement leading to isolation of socialist groups from each other and the people at large. So it’s a good guess that building intermediate type organizations will face similar issues as attempts at building united fronts do. However, the main usefulness of building either organizational centers or intermediate organizations is that it suggests an orientation to both masses of workers and “single issue militants” as well as the already existing socialist movement, and as a result has a chance of building a mass-based and meaningful revolutionary socialist party out of these interactions. However, in my view doing so would require at least some sort of pro-party thinking by people involved in these groups, but with the qualification any socialist organization they are a member of, while probably contributing to the construction of such a party, is neither that party nor the embryo of it. Getting over that hurdle is probably one of the first challenges that need to be crossed for revolutionaries to work together on common projects, even if said revolutionaries are coming from different organizations.

Eric Chester

It is good to see some of those who have previously been involved in building cadre parties reassess their position. There is no doubt that the fragmentation of a part of the Left into a multitude of mini-groups each claiming to be the vanguard has been one underlying reason why radicals have been so ineffectual in the United States. Starting with the work of Hal Draper, who steered the International Socialists away from democratic centralism toward a more open form of organization in the 1970s, the latest wave of disillusioned cadre builders has looked into ways of overcoming sectarianism, working on common projects and forming political centers that can enter into a dialogue with similar groups.

For those of us who are not Leninists, and, indeed, have never been interested in creating a vanguard party, these discussions seem to miss the point. We already have a viable organizational form, the multi-tendency party. The Socialist Party of America a century ago provides one example to learn from, as do the current examples of several Western European parties such as the Scottish Socialist Party and the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) of France.

We need to form a multi-tendency party that can be rooted within the working class. In this context, the fragmentation of the Trotskyist and Maoist Left is a secondary issue. The primary problem we face is the hegemony of liberal reformism. Liberal reformism has been the dominant perspective counter-posed to “free market” conservatism since the 1930s and the New Deal. This dominance has been reinforced over the recent period by the failure of the U.S. working class to effectively organize against the capitalist onslaught on wages, working conditions and employment, and its inability to create grass-roots organizations that can act independently of the Democratic Party, and of the trade union bureaucracy that is tightly intertwined with liberal Democrats. The hegemony of liberal politics has led most of the Left, including those in the microsects, to adapt to liberalism. This is where we find ourselves within the Socialist Party, but the problem is pervasive.

We want to become part of a large, broad, multi-tendency socialist organization, but we don’t want to spend our time within a “socialist” organization arguing with those who have capitulated to liberal reformism. There is no easy answer to this dilemma, which is rooted in the objective circumstances. We have begun to wrestle with this problem in RU, pointing out the need for a Statement of Principles that clearly defines our politics and that is a prerequisite for membership.

Unfortunately, the SP as now constituted is not a viable organization. As we move toward a new formation, whether it be called the Socialist Party or not, we are going to have to deal with these issues. There is always a tension between trying to maintain a cohesive organization that agrees on certain fundamental principles and can act on common projects and having an open, dynamic organization that welcomes a variety of viewpoints. Neither an organization where everyone does whatever they want and where the leadership is not accountable to the membership nor the top-down structure of democratic centralism provide a positive model for organization. Learning from past and present examples, and from socialist feminist theory and practice, we can forge a multi-tendency party that can work together on common projects and yet is at the same time internally democratic and non-hierarchical.

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Comments
  1. Scott says:

    It’s good to see people engaging around these issues, and pursuing an open approach to try and find solutions without presupposing we have them.

    As one of the people who worked on formulating the intermediate level analysis, I wanted to clarify from stuff from that perspective

    “In some sense it reminds me of the concept of the united front, where militants can come together around a plan for united action, while at the same time leaving open other questions of program and having the ability to openly criticize the politics other groups in the united front.”

    I think this is true of Hal Draper & the Kasama people, but for MAS and others who have developed similar concepts (the FARJ in Brasil and Solfed in the UK are two that come to mind) I think this is not quite what we were going for. Draper’s centers are in essence revolutionary level organizations that are multi-tendency. Chester is right to say there are already other models of that, and it’s significance is likely best understood within leninism as trying to find new realities with the break down of those forms and practices. Draper uses Lenin’s concept of publications and that work from the pre-revolutionary period as an example. In essence this was a forerunner to the pre- or proto- party formations of which Solidarity and Freedom Road Socialist Organization are the most obvious examples.

    The intermediate level however is a common place for organizers in mass movements and revolutionaries active in such movements to plan their battles, develop currents, and build consciousness. This is not a political movement per say, but instead a space for developing continuity, political education, and strategies as an organized group within mass movements. That component of mass work is lacking for the conception put forward by Kasama editors and Draper who largely have other ideas about how to do that work (positions of leadership, union reform, etc).

    Likewise the role of revolutionary organization is rather different. I see Draper and others in that millieu as providing for a transition towards vanguard organization leading movements through direct positions of power, positions of leadership, and entering into existing institutions of power under capitalist society be that in elections, unions, businesses, or NGOs. The intermediate analysis comes from a position of trying to build class power of the popular classes with the revolutionary level working pluralistically within those movements as rank and file militants aimed at catalyzing struggle, expanding transformation in struggle, and developing a conscious revolutionary pole within struggle. The organizational form and content of those organizations has a fundamentally different relationship both internally and in relation to movements from the vanguard parties. Latin America in particular here is interesting because it has more than 100 years of practice in a distinct tradition that developed sophisticated theory and practice of specific political organization apart from the leninist and social democratic models.

    Unfortunately, this is a difficult thing to balance in practice, and more often that not one of two things will happen: either the unity aspect is overstressed to the point where disagreements are ignored or papered over for the sake of said unity; or the freedom to criticize one another’s politics and the sake of preserving a party’s unique “political brand” is overstressed so that even limited, tactical unity cannot be accomplished.

    “Both are serious problematic in their own way, with unity leading to ignorance of differences being explained in a public forum, and disagreement leading to isolation of socialist groups from each other and the people at large. So it’s a good guess that building intermediate type organizations will face similar issues as attempts at building united fronts do.”

    This is true if you conceive of them in terms of political fronts. If they are build upon unity for achieving strategic goals based on concrete material interests and praxis developed in struggle, it is a different story. We clarify this here
    http://miamiautonomyandsolidarity.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/towards-theory-of-political-organization-for-our-time-trajectories-of-struggle-the-intermediate-level-and-political-rapprochement/

    “However, the main usefulness of building either organizational centers or intermediate organizations is that it suggests an orientation to both masses of workers and “single issue militants” as well as the already existing socialist movement, and as a result has a chance of building a mass-based and meaningful revolutionary socialist party out of these interactions”.

    I would frame it differently. The goal of intermediate organization is to advance the revolutionary level, however it’s main objective at this time needs to be to build up combative autonomous mass organization. Without that, it’s unclear what real grounding the revolutionary level has. In this way I actually think the objective of intermediate level organization is integral to revolutionary work, but not merely to serve party building aspirations.

  2. Nelson H. says:

    I have some questions around a particular aspect of the Moody piece.

    For starters, I feel that name calling tends to lead down dead ends itself, but it rubs even more raw when no evidence is presented and it relies on patriarchal concepts to express itself in the first place.

    But I try to be a “no investigation, no right to speak” kinda person, and so I want to ask in all honesty what the author means by the sentence “Unfortunately, in the United States the biggest proponents of “refoundation” have done so around more social-democratic politics than revolutionary socialist ones (such as Solidarity and the soft Freedom Road)”.

    Is this meant as a critique of the practice of left refoundation by either group or more an indictment of the politics of the groups generally? Either way I think using this label requires a decently high threshold of evidence, at least for folks on the left opposed to narrow sectarianism.

    Can any concrete examples be shared? Does it refer to the Revolutionary Work in Our Times (RWIOT) schools or specific workshops the named groups put on at the 2010 USSF? Did other SP comrades similarly ask for evidence when such claims were made in internal discussions?

    Is this really more shibboleth around electoral strategy/tacitcs? This seems potentially unlikely since Solidarity and FRSO/OSCL have some level of difference between dominant trends in both organizations (the former’s dominant trend holding that participation in electoral politics within bourgeois political parties is to be strategically avoided; and the latter’s dominant trend holding that it is a tactical question, this trend itself being pretty multifaceted in how it thinks we apply these tactics in the present moment).

    Also, I think the whole “soft Freedom Road” label is inherintly sexist in its language and demeanor (as if the politics of Brezhnev conveys a masculine hardness), whether its choice was intentional or coincidental should be avoided. (Its use is certainly intentional on the part of some brahmrades around the Fight Back! group, some of whom have a habit of calling others “retards,” “wusses,” “pussies,” etc.)

  3. Peter M. says:

    Hi Nelson,

    My use of the term “social democratic” was intended to be an indictment of Solidarity’s and the FRSO/OSCL’s politics generally, and as such an influence on how both groups approached strategies of regroupment/refoundation. In retrospect, it may have been imprecise to use the term, but what I was trying to convey is that, at least in my experience as an official sympathizer in Solidarity and an observer of FRSO/OSCL is that the left unity that both groups were reaching towards was a diplomatic unity that didn’t seriously get into tactical and strategic differences between the two organizations.

    As for their politics generally, I would argue that both groups practice reformist/social democratic tactics in elections, though to difference degrees. The FRSO/OSCL, for example, will support Democrats running for office (as you pointed out) as they kind of did in 2008 around the Obama campaign, though to be fair FRSO(Fight Back!) took a similar position if I remember correctly. As for Solidarity, they don’t support Democrats, but with few exceptions back the Greens uncritically, without any explanation of differences between Green politics and socialist politics.

    As for use of the term “soft,” it wasn’t my intention to cast my impression of FRSO/OSCL as sexist; I didn’t really think about that when I used the term. I take your point on the word, however, and will be more careful in the future. In this particular case of distinguishing the two Freedom Roads, I’ll try to stick to FRSO/OSCL and FRSO(Fight Back!), which I think also makes the differences clear.

    ~Peter M.

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