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“Mass partyism”: a dissenting opinion

“One must not allow oneself to be misled by the cry for ‘unity.’ Those who have this word most often on their lips are those who sow the most dissension, just as at present the Jura Bakuninists in Switzerland, who have provoked all the splits, scream for nothing so much as for unity. Those unity fanatics are either the people of limited intelligence who want to stir everything up together into one nondescript brew, which, the moment it is left to settle, throws up the differences again in much more acute opposition because they are now all together in one pot (you have a fine example of this in Germany with the people who preach the reconciliation of the workers and the petty bourgeoisie)–or else they are people who consciously or unconsciously (like Mühlberger, for instance) want to adulterate the movement. For this reason the greatest sectarians and the biggest brawlers and rogues are at certain moments the loudest shouters for unity. Nobody in our lifetime has given us more trouble and been more treacherous than the unity shouters.” — Friedrich Engels in a letter to August Bebel dated 20th June, 1873

Comrades modulus and Gavin have recently written and published two posts which bring up important issues. As any regular reader to Spirit of Contradiction (yes, all six of you) knows, they represent more or less the majority opinion of the regular contributors. Nevertheless I have seen it fit to give a dissenting opinion based on my own misgivings about their treatment of the subject. The subject, as always, is about the “party question.” In contrast to my usual style I will not engage in shameless self-promotion and link to previous posts of mine on the subject (I promise)1.

I just hope I don’t sound too pretentious.

Part I: The background for a critique

A key issue surrounding both posts, whether it is readily apparent or not, is that of the evolution of political parties, insofar as they deal with the “party question.” Both posts consider their questions independently of a schema which understands their development from class struggle. This has serious implications for both comrade Gavin and comrade modulus.

To examine where they err it is necessary to avoid their error and place ourselves in an understanding of how parties form and how they evolve.

The proletariat occupies a particular position in the technical process of producing goods in relation to other people in this same technical process; according to this position it has corresponding material interests which fundamentally clash with those in other positions. This establishes the proletariat as a class; it has a position within the productive process which establishes its common interests while at the same time separates it from those with other fundamentally antagonistic interests2. In order to protect their own interests as a class against their antagonists, they must engage in class struggle. In order to effectively wage this struggle it is necessary that they must cooperate and form organizations in order to efficiently advance their own interests. Such organizations include the trade unions (which arise to protect workers’ interests in the workplace and, as struggle expands and draws more and more workers into the fold, eventually whole industries), workers’ cooperatives, and, yes, political parties. It is this last category that we are most interested in. It is obvious to any student of the history of socialism that the evolution of modern communism (as a movement, a program, and a theory) has been a long process and did not spring up overnight as soon as class struggle began. Class struggle took on a form which was not immediately communist. However, in the struggle various demands are advanced, which represent the understanding by the proletariat of its own interests at a particular moment in struggle. These demands and understanding constitute a program. Corresponding to a particular program (and its corresponding vision of the future) are particular theories which come from proletarian-aligned intellectuals3. Both theory and program guide the struggle and move it forward, pushing the proletariat against the bourgeoisie more and more. In doing so the program and theory outstrip themselves; through its struggle the proletariat, through the reflection upon and connection of various individual events in the class struggle, is better able to understand its position and the antagonism between proletariat and bourgeoisie, and the more radical does its program and its corresponding theory become. Compare the Utopianism of the early French socialists to the vague revolutionary formulations of the “république démocratique et sociale” and the “droit du travail” in 1848 and the acceptance of the ideas of the démoc-socs which were inspired by a critique of the inequality and anti-democratic nature of French society and, later, to the minimum and maximum sections of the program of the French workers’ party in 1880 and the acceptance of Marxist communism, and also the move from Enlightenment-inspired abstract humanism (and this includes the Babeuvistes, who were comparatively advanced for their time) to more class-conscious/class-centric political ideas which occurs contemporaneously4. Thereby does the communist program develop; the proletariat is able to realize that only the total abolition of bourgeois society, and thereby all class society, is able to realize the liberation of the proletariat, and with it all humanity. But even the communist program is not the final development of this program; early communism was still Utopian in its assumptions and rough in its means, but the communist program and theory developed in tangent with class struggle, itself propelled by the aforementioned program and theory, and more and more assumed more theoretically developed forms as the movement progressed and the old ideas, practices, and programs proved to be outdated. Out of this political struggle for the realization of its program to be imposed by the state (either through the bourgeois state through immediate reforms or a working-class state for maximal demands), the proletariat develops for itself a specialized organ of political struggle, the workers’ party, which adopts the program and theory of the class movement at any particular period. However, it is true that there are always those who hold on to the old program and theory and do not march in tandem with the advance of the program — this is the source of the variety of socialist “sects.”5 Moreover, where there is an exceptionally advanced section of the working class which is at a higher level than the general workers’ party, they work within it6 so long as it proves to be ascendant and not a hindrance to the expansion and development of the struggle.

But this process does not take place in a vacuum — it takes place under the concrete conditions of bourgeois society. The bourgeoisie is constantly able to reproduce its own control over society through its ability to project the values and ideology derived from its own class position as “natural.” To cite an old saying, the proletariat “naturally” moves towards socialism, but bourgeois ideology imposes itself on the proletariat to an even greater degree. Under “normal” circumstances, therefore, it is not possible for a really radical party to gain the support of the majority of the working class — one can only gain popularity at the expense of programmatic integrity (“stepping backwards” as it were), as has historically been the case with the “official” communist parties, i.e. those parties which are descended from the Communist International and kept their name more or less intact. In France and in Italy, these parties only maintained their size by adopting more and more a purely “respectable” outlook and more and more fulfilling the role of your average social-democratic party (not in the sense of social-democracy from the 1870s to 1914) even if rhetorically they held off communism as a lofty goal to be achieved sometime in the next millenium. They maintained their support within the class not by being communist, but on the contrary, by acting and sounding less and less like a communist party and more and more like a party which, in the end, only wanted reforms. In the end it is telling that when the PCI dissolved into the PDS the PDS retained most of its support and the majority of its members. It is only with the heightening of contradictions, with the sharpening of class antagonisms and the destruction of illusions in bourgeois ideology and the greater material homogenization of the class that the proletariat in its majority is able to adopt the communist program. The task of the workers’ party, then, is to win over the class to the program of communist revolution where it is possible.

Part II: A critique of comrade Gavin’s conception of the party

The first lines of comrade Gavin’s article reject this view; in his vision, the idea that the “heightening of contradictions would provide us the objective conditions for stronger political awareness and thereby lubricate our ability to organize” is fundamentally incorrect. He backs this up by pointing out that “the left” (that is to say, the politically conscious section of the proletariat) has “stagnated.” How well does this criticism stand up? Not very well, it must be said.

First of all, it must be said that objective conditions may be favorable to the workers’ party, but that subjective conditions may not. After all, it does not automatically follow that the possibility of something translates directly into its success; always and everywhere there are specific, contingent circumstances which may impede the work of the workers’ party, including the party itself. Let us consult the old man Lenin on this topic:

“To the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution. What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ‘upper classes,’ a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for ‘the lower classes not to want’ to live in the old way; it is also necessary that ‘the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in ‘peace time,’ but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the ‘upper classes’ themselves into independent historical action.

Without these objective changes, which are independent of the will, not only of individual groups and parties but even of individual classes, a revolution, as a general rule, is impossible. The totality of all these objective changes is called a revolutionary situation. Such a situation existed in 1905 in Russia, and in all revolutionary periods in the West; it also existed in Germany in the sixties of the last century, and in Russia in 1859-61 and 1879-80, although no revolution occurred in these instances. Why was that? It was because it is not every revolutionary situation that gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the above-mentioned objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls,’ if it is not toppled over.” — The Collapse of the Second International, dated 1915 (emphasis added by me)

Second of all, the notion that “the left” has “stagnated” since 2008 must be objected to. The expansion of neoliberalism as a government policy, which comrade Gavin introduces as evidence, in no way points to an expansion of support in neoliberalism among the proletarian class (you cannot say the same for parties like PASOK or the PSOE, but that does not point to the weakness of “the left” because the social-democratic parties as they exist today are not proletarian but bourgeois and only “left” in a consideration which abstracts from class); by contrast, austerity is being combated very bravely by workers around the world — from Spain to France to America and Canada. In South Africa the workers have been fighting for a living wage and against police brutality instigated by the supposedly “left” tripartite alliance of the ANC government, the CPSA, and COSATU. Across southeast Asia factory workers have been engaged in frequent, often violent conflicts with their employers. Strikes are on the rise in China. The revolution in Egypt, whose initial revolutionary act was fought by the workers but, owing to the proletariat’s weakness, was lead by bourgeois and conservative forces, is entering a new phase where the workers are growing discontented with the lack of change under the supposedly “revolutionary” bourgeois parties. Especially in Greece we have seen the political radicalization of the class, with mass support going to SYRIZA (which, as it is, does not yet constitute a really communist party, but contains the possibility to become one). Even the objection that the far-right has gained as well does not dampen the theory of favorable and unfavorable periods for the workers’ party — support by the working-class for the far-right parties, where they exist, is situated precisely on the rejection of the old system: the far-right has illegitimately appropriated ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric and gained from it immensely. This certainly doesn’t speak against the notion that the heightening of contradictions contains the objective conditions for the workers’ party’s success; rather, it speaks to the subjective weakness of communists7.

Third of all, and on a more general basis, the rejection of revolutionary situations, and therein the possibility of revolution, as something determined by objective forces, leads us into the opposite camp; namely, that revolution is something which we make by force of will, which goes against our fundamental understanding of how consciousness is determined in society and all historical evidence. This is notion, in my view, one of the things that is wrong with socialists today; it is assumed that all failures, big or small, are necessarily the result of not trying hard enough, as if you could storm the House of Commons by selling enough copies of the Socialist Worker and engaging in endless burnout activist tactics that do not significantly engage with the class at all, but rather with a finite circle of activist/student types which are constantly competed for. The illusion of doing something is worse than doing nothing at all because it contributes to a useless activist mentality that harms the party’s real work where it exists.

Gavin’s attitude towards the question of revolutionary situation colors his attitude towards “left unity.” If the question of mass support is abstracted from the conditions in which it can happen, or its dependence on objective conditions is either ignored or not considered, then a natural conclusion to reach is that the left is a failure because it is so divided. From there, Gavin considers the issue of left unity — its possibility, its potential successes, and its potential drawbacks.

Gavin goes on to claim that theoretical unity is only possible where an organization is moribund. This must be objected on several grounds.

Firstly, we must consider, once again, theories in their historical context. Theory as a general methodological framework for thinking about political action, whether it is Blanquism or Marxism, arises in accordance with a particular political program and practice; Marxism is the scientific explanation of the communist program, the world-historic role of the proletariat in the context of history as a whole. Therefore with a particular political program — and presumably we are speaking about a modern communist one — we have a corresponding theoretical framework, which with a modern program means revolutionary Marxism. Within this theoretical framework disagreement is possible, insofar as it is on the basis of scientific discourse and not pure silliness. But to insist on the highest theoretical framework available is not sectarian; it is common sense. Therefore the point about “moribund” or “cultish” organizations is misguided. But what about comrade Gavin’s consideration about disagreement between theoretical frameworks and the dynamic benefits thereof? A suitable response would probably be to compare such a thing to whatever dynamic benefits could amount from a disagreement between Aristotelian physics and modern physics; one is a higher, more developed theoretical framework. Even if we are to engage in such disagreement (which we inevitably will, whether we wish to or not), it doesn’t have to be within a single organization; polemics between organizations have indeed existed and given rise to a number of theoretical considerations.

Secondly, on a practical basis unity is possible, but only under certain given conditions. The first is that there is a similar vision of the future, which can be determined by comparing various maximal programs; but by doing this we see that relying on a common commitment to abstract principles is not enough. An Anarchist communist, a Marxist, and a Syndicalist could probably all agree on abstract principles of production for use, egalitarianism, and self-organization of society; at the same time the way these are conceived are radically different. The Anarchist communist wants freely associated local communes which engage and disengage in federalist structures as they please; the Marxist wants a more centralized structure representing the whole of society’s wants and needs; and the Syndicalist wants workers’ syndicates representing different trades interacting with each other at different levels. Given this wide disparity on views of the future, which come from the developed or undeveloped nature of their political program, it can be safely said that there can be no practical unity on this basis. The second condition, which is also contingent on acceptance of the first condition, is strategic unity, which I shall get into shortly.

Now, Gavin is, for all his errors, an intelligent person, so I assume he knows why I would connect a discussion of theoreticalunity and strategical unity; the two cannot possibly be separated. First of all, we must get it straight what we mean by “tactics” and what we mean by “strategy”: a strategy is a general plan to achieve an aim, and tactics are the methods by which this strategy is enacted; for example, we might say that in the US Civil War there was a strategy called the Anaconda Plan and that the siege of Vicksburg was a tactical decision within this strategy (this is probably an incorrect use of strategy/tactics in its military sense, and any military buff is welcome to rebuke me, but I think the general point has been transmitted). Unity is important on both counts, contrary to comrade Gavin’s assertions. Strategic unity is absolutely necessary because without it there is no reason to work together in a common organization; if you are going to insist on running candidates to win elections and I am going to insist on insurrectionary approaches, then in the long run it is absolutely impossible for us to work together insofar as the very vision of what our organization should do is fractured. Short-term unity or even moderate-term unity might be possible, but insofar as our long-term means do not coincide it is impossible for us to agree on any effective long-term action. Tactical unity is absolutely necessary in order to effectively complete a task; if we are, for example, going to participate in a general strike, it needs all the effort it can muster, and to that extent there must be unity. Decentralizing our efforts does not help us in any way. This is not to say that there cannot be debate about what is or is not correct tactics or the correct strategy (the former is a common topic of debate, the latter generally only comes up when there is an abysmal failure or there is a huge political shock necessitating a change in direction); it does mean, however, that whatever is chosen requires the utmost unity in being carried out. To be short, what we need is nothing more than the bogeyman of freedom of discussion and unity in action, the core principles of democratic centralism. In practice this subordination of the minority to the majority and the unity of action can only take the form of the subordination of local bodies representing smaller numbers of people to national and international bodies representing larger numbers of people; in this sense centralization is, for us, not merely a decision to take based on moral concerns, but a principle of effective practice, in contrast to comrade Gavin’s approach to the question of the degree of centralization, which is established by weighing both extremes (Anarchist horizontalism and bureaucratic “Leninist” centralism which is just centralism without democracy) and coming to a conclusion that somewhere in the middle is best.

A few parting notes: it must be noted that no one, save for perhaps a few so-called “ultra-left” tendencies, does not want a party without majority support in the working class. Lenin identifies it in Marxism and Insurrection as a necessary precondition for successful revolution. Moreover it must also pointed out that in the historical parties that Gavin identifies, there was mass membership, but it was nevertheless a membership which (1) serious paled in comparison to the total number of workers and (2) had a much broader base of support than its total membership would otherwise suggest. The difference, therefore, between a “mass party” and a party with mass support, is tenuous at best. The real differences lie not in the desire for mass support, but in the way in which we conceive the party’s functions, development, and organization — I have attempted to consider these questions within a schema which understands parties as they develop from class struggle, whereas I believe Gavin has not.

Part III: A critique of comrade modulus’ conception of the party

Comrade modulus, like comrade Gavin, looks at the party question in isolation of a genuine framework for understanding how parties develop. By placing himself outside such a framework comrade modulus observes the questions of party formation and party structure in an erroneous way; that is to say, he believes that parties and the structure of the workers’ party can be determined artificially. 

This is evident in his discussion of program. It is certainly clear that overly long and winding programs with long-winded theoretical declarations mixed in with actual demands are both annoying and useless, as good comrade Engels would agree8. On that issue comrade modulus and I have no serious disagreement. However, on the topic of the program in general, comrade modulus conceives of the program in an erroneous way; namely, “a programme must arise from the particular historical experience of a given party.” Naturally, such a formulation must be objected to.

Firstly, programs have not and cannot ever be based on the “particular historical experience of a given party.” Programs represent concrete demands made in the class struggle by the proletarian class; they are representative not just of the members of the working class who are also members of the party, but of the whole class. Therefore they must draw on the struggles of the non-party workers, both domestic and international. Regardless of whether it is a “mass party” is a small sect, the point of a program is to fight for the interests of a class, and no one section of the class, either a large or a small section, is ever going to know the general interests of the class in isolation; this is one of the biggest reasons for constant work among the non-party workers by the party, even in historical periods where conditions are unfavorable and it cannot hope to be very large. Whether or not comrade modulus considers these to be part of the “historical experience of a given party” is unclear, but the point needs to be made regardless.

Secondly, programs must draw not only on the limited historical experience of a single organization but the proletarian experience throughout history; historical experience is essential in guiding our action and our aims. Historical continuity between the proletarian struggle of then and the proletarian struggle of now gives us rich lessons and background to draw from. Otherwise, we are left to re-learn the experiences of the past all over again, which is not a virtue but a setback. Any workers’ party ought to draw on the experience of previous workers’ struggles and not just its own.

Given his thoughts on what a program ought to be, it is no surprise that comrade modulus gives us the idea of a mission statement. Any new party would have no historical experience and thus no program and thus nothing to guide it except a “mission statement.” In comrade modulus’ view, this mission statement ought to be “short, simple, unambiguous and immutable.” He gives an example of his own proposal, of which he acknowledges any potential shortcomings: “The party’s object is the conquest by the organised working class of state power.”

There is nothing wrong with a “mission statement” in principle; many socialist organizations have something analogous; for example, the International Socialist Organization has six paragraph one; Socialist Alternative has a five paragraph one; and so on. However, the problem of an extremely concise statement is that it is too broad; unity around principles or actions that are too abstract is ineffective, as has been discussed before, because the concrete visions of the future and strategical goals are so widely disparate that bridging them would be impossible. The conquest of state power by the organized working class is all good and well, but that means different things to different people. To a so-called “democratic socialist” it would mean running elections and winning power through the institutions of bourgeois power, with no recourse to violence; to a member of the communist left it would mean smashing the bourgeois state and replacing it with participatory organs of proletarian power; to a Trotskyist it might mean something between the two, with a “workers’ government”9 being the transitional point for the replacement of the bourgeois state with a really proletarian one. All of those visions are sufficiently exclusive of one another that no principled person from one group would have any sufficient basis for unity with another — their strategic trajectories come into direct conflict with one another at one point or another. Now, while this criticism is exclusive to modulus’ formulation of the concise “mission statement” in particular, excessive broadness is a problem of unnecessarily concise mission statements in general — and in no way does an excessively broad statement prevent “the very real threat of opportunism and degeneration.”

Comrade modulus likewise makes a mistake stemming from his conception of the party in his treatment of the subject of the so-called “economic functions of the party.” He is of the opinion that the party needs to “integrate within it all elements of proletarian economic power.” A point needs to be made on this.

This completely ignores the separate historical evolution of various organs of the proletariat for various specialized needs. It is clear that both my liver and my heart are organs of my body, in the same way that the party and a trade union are both organs of the proletarian class; at the same time they perform different functions and have different forms as a result. Parties represent the most politically advanced sections of the class in question, its “avant-garde.” Its members are bound together by adherence to a common program and a common set of principles. Therefore it is, in a sense, exclusive of people who do not share these commonalities — people who reject socialism cannot be a member of a socialist party and so on. They arise in the class struggle to fight for state power. By contrast unions are broad class organizations which represent workers in a particular place of work or industry; they work best when they are largest, and to that aim eschew most principles not immediately necessary for their continued existence. They must, by necessity, contain as many workers as possible, whereas a party, by contrast, can only accept those who adhere to its program (and for good reason, because a large party with an overly broad and ultimately useless program is one of the worst fates you could possible aim for with a proletarian party). Therefore, to attempt to incorporate the union organizationally within the party is a mistake, because it harms the effectiveness of the union; rather, communists should work within unions to win their sympathy for the party and its program, but remain separate organizations with separate membership criteria. In the one case you are making the unions an organ of the party and thus subject to the membership requirements of the party (unless they are administratively separate with different membership lists, etc., in which case they are essentially different organizations), and in the other case you are attempting to win over the members of an organization with broad membership requirements to communism. This criticism applies to all broad proletarian economic organizations.

Party structure in general, however, appears to an issue where comrade modulus would do well to view the party question in light of a materialist view of the evolution of political parties. It is one thing to say that a structure of “circles” is an ideal type of organization; however saying and being are not the same thing. Revolution is not a question of forms of organization; it is impossible to say a priori what specific party structures are most effective; it is only possible to tease out general principles of organization based on fundamental conditions of class struggle. I have in other posts (in keeping with my promise I will not link to them) asserted that three (more like two-and-a-half, given the conditional nature of one) are restrictive membership, centralism (subordination of lower bodies to higher bodies), and democracy (this is conditional on what extent democracy can be effectively utilized). Perhaps we are best to listen to comrade Damen10:

“Any revolutionary party which is not a mere abstraction has to address the problems of the class struggle in a historical climate in which violence and unchallenged authority dominates. In order to increasingly become a living instrument of combat it can only be organised around the most iron unity. Its ranks therefore have to be closed against the general thrust of the counter-revolution. The revolutionary party does not ape bourgeois parties, but obeys the need to adapt its organisational structure to the objective condition of the revolutionary struggle.” –Centralized Party, Yes — Centralism over the Party, No!, dated 1951 (emphasis author’s)

Finally, regarding “venture socialism”: I am not hostile to the expansion of the cooperative movement. Cooperatives form an important part of the workers’ movement; in the days of classical social-democracy they were seen as one of the three major components of the movement, along with trade unions and the party. They provide useful services (funds, publishing, etc.) for the workers’ movement and also provide a degree of independence for the workers involved (no threat of being fired and so on). However, the proposal to “create a new mode of production” within capitalism is a problematic one; insofar as they operate according to the economic laws of the broader capitalist economy (and they need to in order to interact with them on so fundamental a level; industries today are so interconnected it is impossible for one to not rely on other) workers’ cooperatives function not as “socialist” enterprises but as “collective capitalist enterprises.” Socialism as a mode of production can only be established through the general use of coercion to forcibly transform the relations of production and free the productive forces hitherto developed from their capitalist fetters. Cooperatives have two main advantages over “regular” enterprises: firstly, that they prove through experience the ability of ordinary people to manage their own economic affairs without interference from an alien management and bosses; secondly, that they can provide “starting points” for the general socialization of industry once such a program is underway. Regardless, a detailed criticism of “venture socialism” is outside the consideration of the critique of comrade modulus’ conception of the party.

Part IV: Conclusion

I will not claim that this critique is by any means totally comprehensive of every error made in both comrade Gavin’s and comrade modulus’ articles. Nevertheless, I have given what I feel to be a decent enough dissenting opinion on the issue of “mass partyism” and a discussion of the “party question” in general. Hopefully after this I can get around to writing an article that isn’t about the “party question” in some way…

Criticisms are welcome.

  1. But I won’t prevent you from checking them out on your own if you’d like. They are a bit outdated now, though.  
  2. ‘Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class.’ — 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.  
  3. This is not to say that all proletarian-aligned intellectuals are non-proletarian or petty bourgeois as is often insinuated — nor is it to say that theory is entirely separate from the proletarian struggle, as should be readily apparent by the fact that it finds its formative elements derived from proletarian struggle itself.  
  4. Obviously a full examination of the history of French socialism is not called for here. It must be noted that this schema is abstract and ignores both moves backwards in terms of the movement and also the influence of ideas from other regions where the workers’ struggle is more advanced — the latter is important in understanding the development of European socialism, especially with regard to places such as Germany where many early socialists were strongly influenced by the French and the English.  
  5. ‘For the rest, old Hegel has already said: A party proves itself a victorious party by the fact that it splits and can stand the split. The movement of the proletariat necessarily passes through different stages of development; at every stage one section of people lags behind and does not join in the further advance; and this alone explains why it is that actually the ‘solidarity of the proletariat’ is everywhere realised in different party groupings which carry on life and death feuds with one another, as the Christian sects in the Roman Empire did amidst the worst persecutions.’ — Engels’ aforementioned letter to Bebel.  
  6. ‘The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.’ — The Manifesto of the Communist Party.  
  7. The success of the far-right should not be exaggerated. In Greece, Golden Dawn has had frightening success and is a major threat — but at the same time support among the workers for the ‘left’ parties outweighs support for Golden Dawn, whose prominence in part lies with their support from elements of the capitalist state such as the police and also the petty bourgeoisie. Often support for the far right is occurring not because, as Gavin objects, that the left is small and therefore seen as insignificant — far right parties are often smaller and prior to 2008 the KKE was and is a regular force in the Greek political scene — but rather that it is seen as establishment and not really radical enough; indeed it may even be partially blamed for the crisis.  
  8. ‘In general it suffers from the attempt to combine two things that are uncombinable: a programme and a commentary on the programme as well. The fear that a short, pointed exposition would not be intelligible enough, has caused explanations to be added, which make it verbose and drawn out. To my view the programme should be as short and precise as possible. No harm is done even if it contains the occasional foreign word, or a sentence whose full significance cannot be understood at first sight. Verbal exposition at meetings and written commentaries in the press take care of all that, and the short, precise phrase, once understood, takes root in the memory, and becomes a slogan, a thing that never happens with verbose explanations. Too much should not be sacrificed for the sake of popularity, and the mental ability and educational level of our workers should not be underestimated.’ — Critique of the Draft of the Erfurt Program.The final draft of the Erfurt Program still ended up having a rather long preamble, but theoretical exposition was made by Kautsky into a book, called The Class Struggle.  
  9. cf. Theses on Comintern Tactics, section 11  
  10. Italian left communist, first active in the PSI until the split when he sided with the PCd’I where he was in its left-wing; after the war he joined the Internationalist Communist Party and was targeted for violence by the PCI (the name of the re-founded PCd’I after the war); eventually there was a split in the Internationalist Communist Party between supporters f Damen’s current and Bordiga’s current; the quote given is from a polemic Damen gave during this time against the Bordigists.  
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About Maximilien Robespierre

I am an American comrade and a founder of the ##marxism IRC channel on freenode where my nick is VIPPER. I have been accused of, among other things, ultraleftism, impossibilism, Bakuninism, totalitarianism, Blanquism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, anarchism, insurrectionism, Bordigism, minoritarianism, intransigence, and hopeless incoherence. I am also rather silly.
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2 Responses to “Mass partyism”: a dissenting opinion

  1. modulus says:

    This is a complex topic. Perhaps it deserves a futher post in clarification of some matters. However, I will make a handful of points directly addressing the criticism offered by cde Maximilien, bearing in mind certain areas of disagreement are inevitable:

    1) The historical experience of the party does include whatever is institutionally known by the party. This includes demands of non-members and the demands of international solidarity, inasmuch as these have been rendered intelligible to party institutions.

    2) Learning from history is good, learning from data is better. Given the insurmountable difficulties in reaching consensual interpretations of certain historical events, trying to incorporate that experience into a party’s programme is more likely to cause friction than to produce light. I’m not entirely disregarding the possibility that we can learn lessons from historical events, but often those lessons have to be filtered by a particular worldview. I believe it is better and more urgent to collect data that can be statistically and rigorously analysed. (Judea Pearl’s work on causality is a useful place to begin in determining how to guide the party.)

    3) Economic and political organs have had a different historical evolution. However, it is undeniable that a degree of convergence is not only desirable but necessary. After all, once the party takes state power, it must by necessity assume economic functions. These economic functions would be much more easily assumed should it have the requisite experience for it. Liver and heart are different organs, but the whole body is organised together as a single unit. Likewise, the class requires to cohere under a single direction.

    4) In terms of unions, I’m necessarily biased by the Latin model of union, where there are several competing unions in a given workplace. It’s not particularly difficult to believe that a union that’s an integral part of a socialist party would have greater difficulties in acquiring members than, say, the CNT, and perhaps a great deal fewer.

    5) Regarding party structure, my analysis is materialist. A party must be organised around the functions it must bear. Given that a party is, primarily, an arrangement of information theory–information flows within it, passing through its structures to organise its members to coordinate action together–I have chosen what seems to be the most apt arrangement to get this done with minimum friction and data losses. Looking at this issue materially entails understanding the way organisations are shaped by information flow.

    6) Last, regarding party breadth. This is an issue that also impinges on the other post, and so I will limit myself to saying that it is perfectly possible for people of good will with different tactical orientations to cooperate. Furthermore, such tactical orientations should converge into optimum behaviours once that the party has actual statistical data that can be shown to support one or another course of action. Disagreements on electoralism are perfectly possible to weather so long as anti-electoralists aren’t obliged to participate in electoral work, and if electoralists demonstrate its efficacy with data, or vice versa, the party should orient itself accordingly.

  2. Maximilien Robespierre says:

    Comrade modulus:

    Thanks for replying. I shall attempt to address your points as best as I can.

    With regard to (1), this is good news. I was unsure as to whether you considered such experiences to belong to the “historical experience of the party,” although I’m glad to hear you do.

    As far as (2) goes, I think there is still an issue here. History tells us what past actions were taken and gives us information, including, when we are lucky, statistics and numbers, about how well they worked. In this sense historical analysis is not just a masturbatory exercise but in fact gives us a mass of “data” on which we base our praxis. The fact that this “data’s” interpretation is often ambiguous or hard to draw out is not an excuse to relegate it to a second- or third-rate exercise. Nor is the fact that it is controversial. In any case, numbers in politics are always ambiguous, difficult to draw on, and controversial; this is because politics, much less history or even sociology (no matter how hard it tries) are mathematical sciences. Are we to ignore all the lessons of the workers’ movement in developing effective techniques for agitation? Or the lessons learned about the effectiveness of certain types of mass actions, e.g. political strikes? Or the experience of the workers’ state in Russia in handling an economy (before and after its degeneration)? The communist program itself is the product of a long historical struggle, realizations and aims won in hard-fought battles in the past. Historical experience provides for us both direction and a sense of commonality with the proletarian struggles of the past.

    In addition, (3) poses issues as well. To say that the economic organs of the proletariat should be sympathetic to communist politics does not mean that they should be incorporated into the same structure; they ought to be sympathetic to the communist program by virtue of a large number of their members being supporters of the workers’ party. Compare the point I made about trade union membership and communist party membership. Both organizations can push forwards in the same direction, towards revolution, while retaining separate organizational structures, even if, for example, there were a large number of personal contacts between the two organizations. This is the result, not of an arbitrary distinction, but of specialized tasks in class struggle, just as, to re-use my own example, different organs in the body work together as a unit while being functionally and structurally separate. After any revolution, how the relationship between the two forms changes is something beyond the scope of this discussion.

    Regarding, however, your statement about economic management after a revolution, there are a few things I must say before I move on. First of all, tying back to point (2), this is an area where historical experience helps us immensely; we can draw not only on the experience of the Soviet Union in the planned economy but also the very techniques used by modern large-scale capitalist enterprises and state industries. Second of all, the party can just as easily learn from the experience of organizations which are structurally separate from it. If the party itself, when it takes power, does not have members among it who have the personal technical experience, this is not a concern, because in any case whatever planning apparatus is developed, either through institutions of the proletarian state or a parallel structure (e.g. a system of factory councils, as was commonly debated in the workers’ movement the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution), is bound to have to rely on a large mass of people who are outside the party’s ranks anyway; or, as Engels says, “if the worst comes to the worst we can always buy them just as well as the capitalists buy them, and if a severe example is made of a few of the traders among them — for traders there are sure to be — they will find it to their own advantage to deal fairly with us.”

    Concerning (4), I don’t think this poses much of a problem to my objection. Unions still need members even in a Latin model, and the more members the better. It must be remembered that the CNT is not by any means on the scale of the UGT or the CCOO, or even the moderate anarcho-syndicalist CGT. In any case it still poses a problem for many other countries, and therefore cannot be considered to be in any way a general principle of organization, which brings us to (5).

    The party’s structure needs to conform to its functions, this is correct; but the manner in which it can carry out these functions, and whether or not it can carry out particular functions at all, is really conditional, and therefore subject to enormous variance. This is why I consider democracy in the party as something which is really only “half” an organizational principle; obviously it should be done to its fullest extent, but under conditions of extreme pressure and illegality it might not always be possible to have a truly democratic structure with open meetings and publications and so on.

    As for (6): drawing once more on the distinction between tactics and strategy, it is still necessary for there to be tactical unity. If party members object to a particular policy and do nothing to further it, it is very obviously more likely to fail than it otherwise would be. Not all policies require the effort of the whole party, although every party member should be involved in party work in some way, but it they require as much help as they can get, and that means unity in action. Strategic unity is still necessary as well, because “people of good will” cannot in good faith allow the party to go down a path which they believe is destructive (otherwise they would not bother being socialists; after all, “[i]f one wanted to be an ox, one could, of course, turn one’s back on the sufferings of humanity and look after one’s own hide.”). Re-using the examples I gave; for the left communist, allowing the party to work in elections, regardless of whether he is participating directly in this electoral work or not, is absolutely disastrous for both the party and the class and is tantamount to outright sabotage of the revolutionary movement; likewise, for the “democratic socialist,” to propose that ultimately the bourgeois state needs to be smashed is dangerous adventurism which falls too far from the parliamentary safe zone. On this last ground the “democratic socialist” and the Trotskyist will also come into conflict. The left communist and the Trotskyist would clash not only on participation in elections but also on the idea of a “workers’ government” in preparation for a proletarian dictatorship. Each group regards the other not merely as different, but as objectively harmful, and therefore commitment to a common strategy is necessary before there can be meaningful unity. Like I said, unity in a single organization, if it is to be a practical organization and not a useless one, is contingent on (1) a common aim and (2) a common long-term plan of action, i.e. a strategy. In the absence of the first point there is no reason to work together in the long run (work in the short term, i.e. for a single strike or temporary political campaign, is possible). In the absence of the second point there can be no agreement as to what ought to be done in the long-run (considerably harder to get people to agree on than what ought to be done on tactical decisions) and therefore no common action, which materially fragments the organization’s efforts and leaves it useless. The letter from which the opening quote comes from deals precisely with this problem as it related to the First International.

    Additionally how would electoralism demonstrate its efficacy through statistics? Its efficacy for communists is whether or not it can be utilized for the purposes of proletarian revolution (in the broad sense of the term), which is quite obviously something not conducive to being transformed into numbers and which can only be seen at the “moment of reckoning,” i.e. the period of the revolution itself.

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