How to Build the Party of the Working Class

(a version of this article with better formatting, illustrations and a number of sidebar articles is on the web at http://struggle.net/Ben/2008/222-HowTo.htm

The most important task for revolutionaries at this time
is the creation of a genuinely revolutionary organization
(or system of organizations) capable of uniting everything
healthy in the progressive and workers’ movements
and laying the foundations for a mass workers’ party that
can overcome both the reformist and sectarian diseases
and unite the majority of the working class around
a program centered on the overthrow of bourgeois rule

Why do we need organization?

Revolutionary organization will give the working class the ability to raise its consciousness, coordinate its actions, overthrow the system of bourgeois rule and create a world of peace and abundance for all.

What form will our organization take?

The revolutionary organization of the working class will eventually take the form of a party with a mass character. This party may take the form of a single organization–or it may take the form of a system of organizations which share common core values and have the ability to combine their efforts when necessary and, so to speak, strike with a single fist.

Party will emerge from network

This mass party will most likely emerge from a self-organizing network of cooperating (and competing) individuals and organizations.

Network will self-organize around revolutionary news service

This network may initially take the form of an informal and open community that is likely to emerge out of common work to build a revolutionary news service that will offer comprehensive news, analysis and discussion (from the perspective of the class interests of the working class) to many millions of people.

Poles of attraction will emerge

As this network (or informal community) develops and matures, it will likely witness the emergence of two primary poles of attraction corresponding to and reflecting the material interests and ideology of the two main contending classes in society.

The revolutionary pole

One of these poles will represent the material class interest of the proletariat (ie: the working class) and be organized around the central mission of overthrowing the system of bourgeois rule and creating a society where everything is run by the working class. I will refer to this pole as the revolutionary pole.

The reformist pole

The other pole will represent the class interests and ideology of the bourgeoisie (ie: the largest capitalists who own or control the corporations, the government, the mass media and all the influential institutions of society) and will be organized around the mission of keeping the working class passive or restricted to useless (or marginally useful) activity aimed at making conditions of life for the working class less bad while leaving intact the foundations of bourgeois rule.  I will refer to this pole as the reformist pole.

Note: The use of the word “reformist” is often confusing to many people–who think of this word as meaning the same thing as being in favor of the struggle for reforms.The word “reformist”, however, has a different and well-established meaning in the revolutionary tradition:This word is used to describe the view that all the problems of bourgeois rule can be solved by a series of gradual reforms — and that the ruling bourgeoisie will peacefully accept and allow the working class to take power by democratic and constitutional means.

 

Competing agendas

The primary axis of political development of this community/network/organization will be the struggle between these two poles of attraction as each works to win activists and workers to their respective programs.  Each pole will have its own agenda.

The revolutionary pole will work to lend assistance to independent struggles of workers and activists and raise their consciousness concerning the nature of the society in which they live. The reformist pole will do everything possible to promote illusions.  It will assist popular struggles at times and at other times will do its best to sabotage struggles—depending on what it can get away with.

The revolutionary pole will tell the workers and masses the truth and represent their interests.  The reformist pole will promote illusions and represent the interests of the bourgeoisie with which it will have a defacto alliance and which will support the reformist pole with favorable publicity, resources, tactical concessions, “respectibility” and a thousand other levers which will help the reformist trends to win the support of workers.

Emergence of mass organization without reformists

As the many struggles of the working class develop–and as the struggle between the revolutionary and reformist poles develops–the nature of this struggle will become more clear to many millions of workers. This process may take a number of years–or it may take decades.

Eventually this process will mature to the point where the center of gravity within the workers’ network (or organization or party) will shift to the revolutionary pole. As this struggle continues to develop–a mass organization or party will emerge without a reformist pole and in which reformists are not welcome.

Why will this take so long?

Many activists with experience in the antiwar and/or revolutionary movements may ask why the network (or organization or party) of the working class should contain within itself political trends which stand in direct opposition to the interests of the working class.

The answer to this question is that the process by which millions of workers learn about the nature of reformist and revolutionary politics—will take years (or decades). During this lengthy period many organizations will be created which are hostile to reformism and reformists—-but these will not tend to be mass organizations. The emergence of mass organizations without reformists–will require a period of struggle in which many millions of workers acquire bitter experience with the treachery of reformism.

The experience of Russia (1903 to 1912)

In Russia the process described above took place in roughly the period from 1903 to 1912. In Russia the main organization of the working class was called the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). By 1903 (shortly after the birth of this party) it became clear that two antagonistic poles of attraction had emerged within it. These poles became known as the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

At that time the nature of the differences between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was not clear to most members and supporters of the RSDLP. These members and supporters insisted that the two poles (ie: the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) cooperate with one another–and they did so–while at the same time each pole also created its own “party within the party”. At the time most members and supporters of the party were not aligned with either of the two poles (please refer to the first diagram above–the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks are colored red and blue and the undecided section is colored yellow).

Over the course of the years that followed the nature of the two poles and their differences became clear to most members and supporters of the party. By 1912 both the Bolshevik and Mensheviks sections had grown at the expense of the undecided section. By this time the militant workers concluded that the Mensheviks had an agenda that was not compatible with their class interests–and the formal cooperation between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks ended–and the RSDLP split up.

A few years later, in 1917, the Bolsheviks led a revolution against the provisional government of the bourgeoisie and landlords. The leading politicians in this government were Mensheviks.

The experience of the Communist International

(1919 to 1935)

The Communist International was founded in 1919 and the basic idea was to export and accelerate the process of differentiation between the reformist and revolutionary poles within the working class movement–so that revolutionary parties could be more quickly put together in other countries.

For a while this was successful. Parties could only be part of the Communist International if they made a decisive break with their reformist wings. The result was the relatively rapid creation of many parties worldwide that had a revolutionary orientation and which were no longer dominated by the reformist methods and ideology which were undermining the struggle of the workers.

The methods of the Communist International allowed workers in many countries to bypass the lengthy period of struggle between reformists and revolutionaries that had taken place in Russia–and advance directly to the goal of a mass revolutionary organization that was not hobbled by reformist treachery.

This success was possible because the Communist International was, in some ways, hierarchical in its nature.

By this I mean that the success, prestige, accumulated revolutionary experience and influence of the Bolshevik Party in Russia allowed the Russian comrades to help give useful direction to parties around the world. (This is not to say that the various communist parties that were created simply followed orders from Moscow–it was not that simple–but rather that the experience and prestige of the Russian Party had a deep influence on activists in both the leadership and base of the various parties around the world and became a powerful factor in the internal struggles within these parties.)

But this kind of quick success carried a risk–because the “knowledge base”, so to speak, was lopsided: the Russian party had far more revolutionary experience than the other parties and therefore had enormous influence on them. This worked as long as the Russian party was capable of giving other parties around the world effective leadership and could assist these parties to better understand their circumstances and tasks.

However, by the early 1930’s, the Russian party had degenerated. In particular, Stalin was frightened by the installation of Hitler into power in Germany in 1933–and understood that Western imperialism (ie: Britain, France, the U.S., etc) intended to use Hitler as their tool to invade and lay waste the Soviet Union. (This was the real logic behind the Western policy of “appeasement” to Hitler–this was a policy of giving Hitler the resources he would need to carry out his invasion of Russia.)

Desperate to “make a deal” with the Western imperialist countries (ie: so that they would pull back on Hitler’s leash) Stalin used his considerable influence (beginning with the 7th Congress of the Communist International in 1935) to lead the communist parties worldwide into the reformist sewer under the flag of Dimitrov’s “united front against fascism”.

In the years that followed nearly all of the communist parties in the world degenerated–and the working class movement has never recovered from this treachery.

Cargo-cult attempts to clone Lenin’s party

In the years since, there have been innumerable attempts by revolutionary activists to duplicate Lenin’s success and create revolutionary mass organizations that were not crippled by reformist methods, reformist ideology and reformist treachery. Generally speaking, all of these attempts have failed.

The most successful of the efforts to create a party like the Bolsheviks are probably those that were part of the national liberation struggles of the Chinese and Vietnamese peoples. These struggles were successful in regard to the effort to free their respective countries from foreign domination. These struggles were less successful in creating parties of the working class.

Efforts to create parties similar to the Bolsheviks in the Western imperialist countries have generally fallen victim to the reformist or sectarian diseases–or remained small, relatively isolated groups.

The problem may be that a party like the Bolsheviks cannot be created except by a process similar to that which created the Bolsheviks (ie: a lengthy period during which the two principal poles in the workers’ movement were in open competition with one another and large numbers of workers had the opportunity to learn how each pole acted as the class struggle developed).

We cannot “grow” a small group into a mass party

It appears likely (for several reasons) that a mass party without a significant reformist component cannot be created by “growing” a small group and keeping the reformists out as it grows. Groups that attempt to grow in this way generally either eventually collapse into reformism themselves in an effort to escape their isolation–or fall victim to the sectarian disease as they compete with other similar groups for the warm, living bodies of activists who are new on the scene and are looking for some organized force with which to hook up.

The lengthy sorting process that the RSDLP went through had the virtue of allowing workers to see (on a very large scale) the struggle between the reformist and revolutionary poles. This helped activists and workers to understand that the struggle between these two poles was the principal struggle within the workers’ movement. This represented a higher degree of clarity and political consciousness than is held by many activists today who have come to believe that the basic dividing lines in the movement are those between the various political religions (ie: trotskyism, maoism, anarchism, etc) that have emerged as significant militant trends in the wake of the failure of the 1917 revolution.

The view that a mass revolutionary party can grow from a small group while keeping itself oriented along the correct line (as determined from applying so-called “democratic centralism” to the summation of experience) most likely originates in the practice of the Communist International which encouraged methods and beliefs similar to these–as well as what I call “cargo-cult Leninism” (ie: a political religion which repeats various phrases or actions Lenin used without understanding what Lenin actually meant by these phrases or what the aims were of his actions).

But the problem here, as I noted, is that these methods do not tend to work well when there is no international leadership with enough experience and prestige to help the small groups correctly orient themselves and unite.

Which is better ?

Building a brick wall ? Or casting a wide net ?

For this reason I have concluded that revolutionary activists today must recognize that the revolutionary organization we need must emerge from a lengthy period of principled struggle between these two principal poles and this lengthy struggle must take place within the context of a mass organization or a large and informal network or community of activists. Efforts to simply “grow” a small group into a mass party with the correct line–tend to leave the small group isolated and leave the mass of activists out of the process of struggle between reformist and revolutionary politics. Under these circumstances (with the mass of activists uninvolved in this struggle and largely unaware of it) the reformists will win because the revolutionary group will remain small and isolated.

The distinction here is between what I call the methods of “building a brick wall” and “casting a wide net”.

The first method corresponds to restricting one’s efforts to creating and attempting to “grow” a small, “pure” organization into a mass party.

The second method corresponds to creating a larger and more informal network or community and participating (with a smaller, more disciplined and advanced organization) in a protracted and open struggle within the larger organization/network/community in such a way that the entire community has opportunities over the course of time to witness this struggle and participate in it and draw conclusions.

Can we build a “party of a new type” ?

The standard cargo-cult Leninist view is that Lenin built a “party of a new type” (ie: with “democratic centralism” — without reformists — and without the class enemy having a home within the workers’ party) and that this somehow means that, at that time, the world somehow entered a new stage — and that this is how we build a party.

(Interestingly enough–such a view would hold that either the Bolsheviks were mistaken to co-exist with the Mensheviks within the RSDLP for a period of ten years–or that the world somehow changed in the period between 1903 and 1912.)

This is not true. Nor was this Lenin’s view.

A small, disciplined organization with the “correct line” (or what it thinks is the correct line) cannot “grow” itself into becoming a mass party.

What such a small group can do is participate in the open struggle against reformism (and for a correct line in any number of areas) within the context of a larger mass organization which aspires to be revolutionary.

But this means that some kind of larger organization (or network or community which has many of the features of an organziation) must exist. This larger organization must have a mass character (meaning that it is large and includes activists from many trends) and it must aspire to be revolutionary and be generally recognized as having potential to make good on this aspiration.

It also means that this larger, mass organization (which will contain activists from many trends) will not have unity on some of the most fundamental and decisive questions. More than this — this organization or network must be permanently characterized by political transparency and by active and highly public confrontations between opposing views.

What this larger organziation will be is:

  1. a platform for a lot of practical work to assist the independent struggles of the workers
  2. a platform for the struggle of trends within the workers’ movement and a laboratory capable of proving to many millions which trends are aligned with the class interests of the workers and which trends represent the voice and views of the class enemy.

Cargo-cult method cannot create the revolutionary pole

The experience of many attempts to create revolutionary organizations suggests that the cargo-cult method of growing a small organization while keeping it correctly oriented and united around a single monolithic “correct” line is not only incapable of creating a mass party–but is also incapable of creating the revolutionary core that would participate with skill in the struggle to expose the nature of reformism.

The overwhelming result of practical experience is that such groups fall victim to reformism or sectarianism or both. The main “revolutionary” groups within the left all have strong cult-like features (some with strong comical overtones) and “democratic centralism” (which once was a living concept that allowed the majority of activists at the base of an organization to exercize control over the direction and fate of the organization) has degenerated into a set of principles mainly used to stiffle independent thought and maintain a cult.

I believe it is likely that the process of struggle between the revolutionary and reformist poles within the context of a larger mass organization or network (as I have outlined above) will have the effect of throwing together, so to speak, individuals and groups which today may not even be aware of one another (or are barely on speaking terms if they are aware of one another).

Revolutionary core will emerge from primal struggle

It will be this “throwing together” of disparate groups and individuals that takes place in the context of the protracted and primal struggle for the ascendency of revolutionary politics over reformist treachery — that is most likely to forge the revolutionary pole of the larger mass organization. And it is this revolutionary pole which will emerge as the core of a mass revolutionary party that has made a decisive break with reformist methods, reformist ideology and the reformist social stratum (ie: liberal-labor politicians, trade union bureaucrats, religious misleaders, poverty pimps, “progressive” media personalities and professional “opinion leaders”) — which will lead the working class to victory over the system of bourgeois rule.

Ben Seattle
http://struggle.net/ben/

What will be our common work?

The concept of a single organization that contains opposing factions only makes sense if the organization has a program of common work that the opposing factions (as well as the undecided sections–which for a long time would be the majority) can easily support and get into.

If the organization is doing useful work–then I think activists will want to be part of it. If it is not–then they won’t.

The program of common work that I see as emerging would revolve around the creation and development of the revolutionary news service (as outlined above). This would involve a certain amount of technical work but more than this would involve investigating, writing and editing articles and helping to guide or moderate discussion on the articles.

This means that the different individuals or political organizations within this network would maintain a common database of public domain (ie: free of copyright) articles (including text, graphics, video, summaries, comments and rating and filtering data, etc) and would be able to freely use and modify anything contributed to this database for their web and/or printed agitation.

Other kinds of principled cooperation between people and organizations in this network might include such things as the following:

(1) Agreements to give credit (and a link) to a person or organization when an article of theirs is used or modified.

(2) Agreements to give a public answer to public questions or challenges made by a person or organization within the network (within the limits of practicality).

(3) Agreement that no statement could go out in the name of the entire mass organization without a supermajority vote of some kind (ie: such as two-thirds, or something like that) and that each person or organization would identify itself as a section or contingent of the organization rather than claiming to represent the entire organization. This would mean leaflets might be signed something like: “The ABC contingent of mass organization XYZ”.

The aggregation of work and content, the agreements to give credit and links for content used and the agreement to give public replies to public challenges would make it and easier for activists to understand the political differences between the different sections and would increase political transparency.

These modest measures would represent an improvement over the current situation where many leftist groups routinely act as if their critics and other groups do not exist.

Sidebar Articles

(Available on the web along with illustrations at http://struggle.net/Ben/2008/222-HowTo.htm )

  • We need answers to these questions
  • A revolutionary news service will be the central task
    that will unite all the warring factions of the left
  • Attempts to create working class parties and an international organization of the working class
  • Do we create a mass revolutionary party by
    (1) building a brick wall or (2) casting a wide net ?
  • We need to hear your voice
  • What does the word “party” really mean ?
  • What is Political Transparency … and why do we need it?
  • The revolutionary party will need an open and informal community
    to help it spread its influence and resolve its disagreements
  • We must resolve the crisis of theory–and dare to talk about our goal
  • Related Reading
  • What will be our common work?
  • Who’s Who in the Ecosystem?
  • What is “cargo-cult Leninism” ?

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2 responses to “How to Build the Party of the Working Class

  1. from: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/pof-300/message/1914
    on: February 28, 2008

    Person # 1:

    > The article goes into the fact that the two wings
    > of the party would be united around the goal to
    > create a revolutionary news service. But I think
    > that even this goal, which is seemingly something
    > that everyone would want to do, has some unity problems.

    > What would be the point of doing it if each of the
    > two contingents of the mass party basically operated
    > as their own party (which they would)? The publication
    > put out by the party would be full of contradictions,
    > and even if different articles were posted as being
    > written by “ABC contingent of party XYZ,” I think it
    > would not necessarily be very appealing to have so
    > many reformist articles in a “revolutionary” news service.

    Person # 2 asks a similar question: “Who will be the “editors?”

    There will be a common database of articles. Any individual or
    organization would be able to select for distribution to their
    paper or electronic channels those articles they considered
    useful. To answer Jacob’s question: anyone can be an editor–but
    if you are not good at what you do–you will be an editor without
    much readership.

    So organization ABC might select articles that:

    (1) had a positive rating by a respected anti-reformist rating
    service

    or

    (2) were considered particularly newsworthy.

    The use of ratings (that anyone can make) and filters (that make
    use of ratings) allows a database to be useful even if most of
    its content (mathematically) is junk. A good example of this is
    the web. Most webpages are not useful to me. But those are not
    the web pages I look at–so they are effectively invisible to me.

    When I look at the web I do not look at a webpage at random. The
    database will work in a similar way. Readers will enter the
    database, so to speak, on the basis of articles selected or
    recommended by people or political trends that have proven
    insightful or reliable in the past (ie: have proven themselves to
    be trustworthy to some degree).

    Most of the articles in the database would not be written by
    authors who were firmly in either of the two major camps: because
    most authors would be undecided and unclear on the real
    differences between reformists and revolutionaries.

    > in the revolutionary news service itself, how could
    > the reformist wing unite around a news service that
    > is_revolutionary_?

    The reformist wing would become involved because the news service
    was attracting an audience. The reformists would seek to place
    reformist articles in the database. The revolutionary wing could
    either give these articles a poor anti-reformist rating–or
    re-write the sections which made the articles suck. Or they
    could simply ignore the articles they did not consider useful.

    All of this (including the different versions of the same
    article) would take place transparently–in view of an audience
    that had their own opinions on the news events that the articles
    were describing.

    > Basically, I’d like to know what kinds of things
    > the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks were able to
    > cooperate on.

    I am not sure of good sources for this. What I remember from the
    “History of the RSDLP(B)” is extremely sparse in details. The
    one concrete item I recall–is that there were instances where
    money would be collected from workers and the money would be
    divided with X percentage going to one wing and Y percentage
    going to the other.

    Possible more relevant to a revolutionary news service–is that
    anytime any revolutionary project gains traction–there is never
    a shortage of reformist trends who volunteer to help corrupt it.
    Well–they will be welcome to try.

    All the best,
    Ben

  2. From a practical standpoint, I agree with most of this. In the 90’s we created some wonderful news services and filters like A-Infos and Anarkismo. Other radical places like Rev-Left and Libcom have emerged, rejecting vanguardist Marxism, and even more recently we got help from people like Howard Zinn to take Marx back for the people. Open Source software like WordPress make it possible to create websites that are easily found from search engines, and easily organized. New tools like Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr have become part of this new movement and allow for crowdsorcing to be part of your magazine. Workers in much of the world now have cell phones with internet access even if they don’t have running water. The first global revolt since perhaps the First International has errupted primarily because of the organizing tools of Facebook. Marx said it would be the workers would use the methods of communication created by Capitalism to overthrow it in the end.

    The problem with this approach is it doesn’t really explain the role of the party of creating continuity of class-consciousness. Well, not really of “the party” but of revolutionaries who want to contribute to the movement.

    Every historical moment must build on the previous historical moment. But the party, based on a form from the historical moment within which it is born, cannot help but be transient. Only a philosophy of revolution as it arises from the historical self-organization of the proletariat and the oppressed, can contain these moments to be passed on in the next historical moment when a new movement arises.

    Only when we can express socialism in new revolutionary principles, such as Marx in Critique of the Gotha Programme, or Lenin’s “To a man, woman and child.”

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