The question of the party, broadly understood as the nature and relation to the working class of its political organisational form, whether we call it a party or not, has produced a fecund and abundant literature within Marxism and elsewhere on the radical left.1 There are good reasons to ponder such things as the form of organisation of the class, the way it should relate to it, and to other non-political class organs such as unions, etc. However, I think this debate has been hampered by certain historical controversies2 that, although in my view no longer relevant to current issues, keep focussing attention, to the detriment of more operational concerns. So I don’t intend to rehash arguments on the vanguard, the mass party, or the “genuine” Bolshevik form, but instead I will consider what our party needs, here and now. This does not of course mean being oblivious to previous historical experience, but it does require a certain psychological distance from sectarian concerns. Whether this or that position was or not correct at a given time and place is less relevant than what we should be doing to create a political organ to represent our class.
It’s possible that I will be accused of trying to create overly detailed schemas, of ignoring the lessons of history, or of a certain technocratic bent. All these accusations are nothing less than I expect, and I’ll contest them by saying that what the class needs now is a clear direction towards a well-defined organisational form, that this form must be the appropriate one for this particular moment, and that it’s the hallmark of our class at its best to innovate not only in the content of our demands, but in the way we organise ourselves to attain them. The conspicuous use of agitprop, clandestine printing presses, illegal party organs of opinion, cell structures, and so on, demands nothing less from us than our best in utilising whatever means of organisation, persuation and resistance we may obtain, and such means are to be sought–and found–in the realm of information technology and its yet unleashed revolutionary potential.
Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny. It does not lull itself with arguments that the economic struggle brings the workers to realise that they have no political rights and that the concrete conditions unavoidably impel the working-class movement on to the path of revolution. [...] Everywhere the Social-Democrats are found in the forefront, rousing political discontent among all classes, rousing the sluggards, stimulating the laggards, and providing a wealth of material for the development of the political consciousness and the political activity of the proletariat. As a result, even the avowed enemies of socialism are filled with respect for this advanced political fighter, and not infrequently an important document from bourgeois, and even from bureaucratic and Court circles, makes its way by some miraculous means into the editorial office of Vorwarts.
–V I Lenin, What is to be done? Chapter III.
The reason I begin this section quoting Lenin is not to attempt to claim for myself the brand of Leninism. Note that the fragment refers to the SPD, not Lenin’s own party. It, however, encapsulates what our party should be like: a mass party that struggles on all fronts, guided by the most advanced elements within our class. The best way to defeat those critics of Marxism who raise the objection that oppression is intersectional is not to refer their complaints to the future People’s Commissar for Social Welfare, but to realise that although class underlies other superstructural social ills, it is the workers’ party’s role to engage inequity, tyranny and arbitrary power wherever they may exist.
Much has been said about the party’s programme. This word has been imbued with such alchemical power (especially within Trotskyist sects), that it would seem able to transmute a quiescent proletariat into an organised revolutionary militant disciplined body. I am far less convinced of the particular efficacy of this quintescence, as was Marx.3 My view is far more limited: a programme must arise from the particular historical experience of a given party. It cannot assure success, and it is questionable whether it can prevent it, but it is useful inasmuch as it serves the party to clarify what it is fighting for, and how it intends to get it. Therefore, to propose for a party with no members a given programme, would be misguided. My view is that, more than a programme, the party needs a mission statement: short, simple, unambiguous and immutable. It’s essential for a mass party to avoid controversies about theoretical or historical aspects which do not preclude collaboration in practical party work. Because of this, the smaller the core commitment of the party, the broader a base it can appeal to, and the more strongly it can be defended and used as guidance against the very real threat of opportunism and degeneration. My proposal for the party’s mission statement, though I do not claim any magical powers to this particular formula which, as you will see, is simple in the extreme, is something like this: “The party’s object is the conquest by the organised working class of state power.”
A programme should be developed from this core commitment, of course. It should limit itself to operational statements: things the party wants to happen, or ways it plans to make them happen. A programme is no place for statements regarding the class nature of the USSR, positions on crisis or value theory, and generally anything a worker couldn’t read and link directly to the conditions of existence, if not of themselves, of their own class. This is not to say that theory is useless, or that Marxism is a closed system, or any such; but those aspects do not belong in a programme, which is meant to serve as a guide to action. Theoretical controversies can, in any case, hardly be solved by a vote. Truth rarely bends her knee to democracy in such a manner, and it is harmful to transform technical discrepancies into political problems to be sorted out by bureaucratic ordeal.
Regarding the functions of the party, they are inexorably linked to the core commitment: to conquer state power for our class. In order to achieve this, the class must be organised in all its aspects. Furthermore, conquering state power in an enduring way presupposes a change in the mode of production. For this reasons, the party must undertake at least four differentiated organisational tasks: to organise the class politically, and to exercise political power on its behalf; to organise the class economically, and to foster prefiguring economic institutions of proletarian power, as well as to acquire economic means for the party and its complementary institutions; to agitate to these ends, to our own class and beyond it; and to undertake whatever measures are necessary to exercise collective self-defence against fascists, the security state, reactionaries, and so on. This latter task may require covert, illegal work, and should be done discreetly.
The forms of political activity carried out by the party are well known (if not always agreed to in principle) and require no further ellaboration. The party should participate in electoral processes, and use its power in Parliament to attain its objectives, with the understanding that a complete realisation of its programme is unlikely to be possible through bourgeois institutional politics alone. Candidates to Parliament must not hold organic positions of power within the party, but should be drawn randomly or chosen by criteria of elligibility. They must never be elected more than once, and the party must hold their signed resignation letters, should they deviate from the party’s policy. The party should be understood by the people to be responsive to the working class, and represented by its CC, not by its parliamentary delegates. Beyond the parliamentary context, the party should, of course, organise, participate, and direct workers’ councils, or whatever other form of representation arises.
The economic function of the party requires us to integrate within it all elements of proletarian economic power. This includes labour unions, workers’ cooperatives, our own credit institutions, and so on. It includes an aggressive and proactive policy to develop such institutions within the party’s ægis, to capture capital for them, to integrate them vertically, to engage in “venture socialism”–finding projects to invest existing capital stocks–, and to operate as a large information, labour, skills and capital clearing-house. It includes also integrating party propaganda organs (websites, presses, datacentres…) within the economic ecosystem of proletarian firms. This is perhaps the most innovative aspect of my proposal, and I plan to develop it further. Let it be said that, in my view, the best defence against opportunism, is the incipient rising of a new mode of production, assuring workers their means of subsistence. Supplanting or at least supplementing the state and para-state institutions in matters of employment, welfare, and so on, would give our class a much needed degree of independence from institutions we may not always control, and which have an inherent bureaucratist and conservative bias.
Agitation and propaganda are also well understood, so I will limit myself to those aspects that I think should be looked at with new eyes. First off, at a time when bourgeois newspapers can hardly survive, I believe clinging to that form for a party organ is anachronistic and harmful. If at some point the party finds itself with the operational capacity to publish a newspaper that becomes something more than a waste of time (if party members are selling it, as opposed to normal outlets, this is a big hint that it is a waste of time), by all means go ahead, but we live in a time of multi-modal multimedia communications. It isn’t quite true that the web is today’s printing press: nothing can turn back history, and there are reasons why the existing monopoly in attention that printed media still retains is unlikely to persist for much longer. Still, it’s what we have, and we must deploy it to its best use. Weblogs, forums, videos, podcasts, social network activity, must become part of the party’s propaganda work. It would be futile to present ourselves with a single voice and a single style: every member with ability and willingness to participate in such work should be welcome. Why limit ourselves to a party weblog when many of our members can have their own, attracting a much broader audience altogether? The creation of thinktanks, and all manner of heterogeneous party organs of opinions must not be merely permited but encouraged.
It is sometimes said that, just as computer programs are determined by their data structures, organisations are determined by their means of communication.4 The following discussion about the form of the party tries to use cybernetic principles and is inspired in sociocratic methods, inter alia. Information flow, feedback, the OODA loop, are key components to designing an agile, versatile and capable organisation.
Because of the bredth and heterogeneity of tasks I propose for the party, the form has to vary from the traditional party structure. For instance, often people speak of a right to fraction. A right is not enough: fractions are almost a duty for the type of organisation I propose. It is essential to have the best possible information and ideas when making decisions, and this requires the party to segment itself functionally, as well as ideologically. Inevitably, groups engaging in different types of work will have different outlooks on matters, and this is desirable in order to synthesize optimum responses.
I’ll try to describe the form I propose for the party, though this is only a sketch and there may well be perspectives I’m missing. I’ll start from the top, not because of some centralist or elitist principle, but because the top is one, and the bottom, as you shall see, is more heterogeneous.
The party must be governed by a Central Committee. The CC acts as the central node for decisions, centralises the collection of information, supervises and assigns tasks, and projects policy into the future. The CC is composed of 3 member classes: elected members, which are chosen in yearly congresses, by the base, representing particular orientations; functional members, which are chosen as circle representatives by the circles directly linked to the CC, and can be changed at any time; and drawn members, chosen from the membership at large, with the proviso that they must have agreed to be entered in the draw. They are chosen for a year, and cannot be chosen again. The elected members are meant to take care of the future orientation of the party, and represent particular tendencies. The functional members represent the different task-specific circles linked to the CC, and are chosen by their own circle members to advise and present their concerns to the CC. The drawn members are a democratic guarantee, and act as a supervisory check on the CC. The CC conducts itself through constructive consensus (i.e., not all members must agree to a position, but none may disagree enough to block it). In case of a block, a qualified majority can ask the party base to override it.
Every other executive organ of the party, by which I mean organs which aren’t just deliberative, advisory or the like, but which are tasked to do things, is constituted as a circle. A circle is a set of people, often representing different stakeholders of a process, in charge of doing something. It acts by constructive consensus, it sends a representative to more central circles or the CC, and its leader is chosen by the more central entity. Thus, the circle is doubly linked to the more operationally central one. A circle is responsible for all actions within its scope, and it must follow a decision loop (plan, act, measure…) to determine its own effectiveness. A circle can be linked to less central circles, which it can create, if deemed desirable, to divide areas of work. All information generated in circles must be placed on a central warehouse where it can be accessed by the CC.
Geographical, sectional and affinity groups conduct internally like circles, but they don’t need to be linked to more central entities. They can simply exist as independent units within the party, carrying forward their specific functions. It’s a political question to decide whether the CC should have linkages with them and in what manner, and as it can be argued either way, I take no position.
The circles I find likely would include: circles representing political, economic, propaganda and self-defence activities. Within these, firm, union, credit, welfare, parliamentary, thinktank, media, and tactical circles.
In order to ascertain that the party conducts itself correctly, the drawn members part of the CC would either themselves or through circles in their control, implement randomised inspection of documents and activities carried over by the party. They would also serve as referees when members challenge practices they disagree with, as a sort of committee for guarantees.
The base member of the party may belong to several circles. I think we’d be doing something wrong if they don’t belong to, at least, a geographical circle, an affinity circle (functioning as an ideological fraction), and some task circle (at least for cadre). They can be drawn for the CC or for the inspectorate functions. They can vote for their circle representatives, be chosen as circle leaders, and challenge any decision. If the decision is below the CC level, it gets pushed to the more central unit. If it’s a CC decision, a request by 10% of the membership can call it into question through referendum. Likewise, 10% of the membership can call a recall of any of the CC members.
The universal approach of the party regarding all activities must be grounded on scientific principles. Plans must be followed by action, results must be measured and compared to projections, and new plans must take that learning into account. All data must be held centrally, so the CC can make the best possible projections. Statistical techniques such as a/b testing and double-blinded random trials must be used when evaluating potential new policies of great impact. A corps of statisticians should be available to provide the CC with the necessary expertise. Software should be developed to automate and track these functions.
Now that I have characterised the party, I will as promise make some further comments on the economic dimension of organisation. I believe a change in the mode of production is necessary to attain our ends, and the party should be at the front of this change.
Party members should be encouraged to form cooperatives directly linked to the party through their statutes, and committed to supporting it. These cooperatives should have representation within the economic party circle, be preferentially used by the party for goods and services it requires, and be bound to enter relations of exchange with each other at cost.
Members are encouraged to form unions linked to the party in a form similar to that of cooperatives. Unions under the party’s banner would federate with each other, and support each other in strike and other actions. They would also act as employment agents for their members, trying to find them jobs in case of unemployment or if they need to move. They would be connected to the cooperatives within the party for the same purposes, so that union members would get new cooperative jobs preferentially.
The role of the party should not be limited to passively allow this economic activity. It should use its stock of capital to encourage it, as venture socialism. With the knowledge of the skillsets, resources, labour time and so on of its members, it could propose given projects of utility to the party, or to the purpose of undermining capitalism or competing concerns to party cooperatives. Likewise, it could serve as a source of credit for the expansion of firms within the party, or if party members apply for it with a given idea. Needless to say, this requires extreme care in accounting, and supervisory attention by the inspectorate.
Finally, the party should vertically integrate these firms, offer their goods and services to party members at cost, and use capital surplusses to provide social services to members, including unemployment insurance, strike funds, etc.
To conclude, and on the matter of unity in action, it is obvious that the type of broad, heterogeneous, catholic party I propose would not insist on party members to be bound to argue for particular policies, or to keep internal debates hidden from the outside world. Unity in action would be required by anyone exercising organic power within the party (such as a CC member), and by the party’s parliamentary sitters. Obstructionist or destructive people could of course be removed from circles where they cause disruption. People on self-defence tasks are of course subject to strong discipline, and a sufficient majority of the party through a referendum should be able to command unity in action from the membership as a whole. Beyond that, I believe a strategy of breadth-first search, where different people are encouraged to take different kinds of action according to their skills and temperament, would be most likely to yield the keys to successful class organisation.
- We held a debate on this topic on the ##marxism channel. ▲
The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.–K Marx. ▲
Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes. –K Marx, Letter to Bracke. ▲
- I was unable to find the source for this, if anyone knows I’d like to attribute it. ▲