Mass Party Theses

Context: Applicable to the advanced capitalist countries

Thesis 1: Primary Function
1.1 Socialism needs majority support to be viable.

1.2 There has to be a vehicle for (a) marshaling and expressing that support and (b) doing so in such a way that society as a whole can gauge the strength of the support.

1.3 A mass socialist party that wins state power through elections is the best means of accomplishing these two tasks. A socialist victory at the polls delivers democratic legitimacy to a project of transformation, thereby making the task of defending against reaction, including military reaction, far easier.

1.4 A socialist party wielding state power cannot by itself transition society to socialism. A wider economic base, i.e. a co-operative mode of production, must pre-exist if that is to be possible. But without state power co-operatives will be defenseless.

1.5 The state can facilitate the transition through biasing the economy in favour of co-operatives and overall co-ordination of the economy through a public monopoly of investment.

Thesis 2: Democracy
2.1 Representative democracy is not fraudulently preventing socialism from becoming the dominant ideology in society.

2.2 The utter lack of support for a socialist party in western elections accurately reflects a deep skepticism regarding socialism amongst the population. Tinkering with the format of social governance (e.g. creating Workers’ Councils) will not change that.

2.3 It is the task of the socialist party in conjunction with other socialist organisations to win a majority to socialism.

2.4 The exact form of the mass party, the degree of of direct democracy in society generally, are secondary questions compared to the existence of a co-operative economic base and having a minimum level of democratic accountability and civil liberties.

2.5 In general, socialists should look to build on the achievements of the past. In terms of political institutions this means accepting (and extending) civil liberties and democratic elections, including experimenting with novel methods of representation (e.g. demarchy).

Thesis 3: Party Organisation
3.1 A mass party numbering in the thousands or millions will have a wide spectrum of consciousness amongst the membership. Therefore a political leadership aware of and committed to socialism is necessary.

3.2 A mass party exists to win popular support for socialism. A primary function therefore is educational.

3.3 The mass party intelligentsia should be the brain and political leadership of a wider movement, co-ops, NGOs, unions.

3.4 The leadership has to engage in a two-way interplay with the membership. It cannot go too far beyond where they are at and remain responsive and accountable to them while at the same time it must educate the membership. It has to continually win the membership to socialism in the face of a dominant capitalist culture.

3.5 Wide latitude has to be given to air inevitable differences in views. Loosely affiliated party think-tanks should be funded to keep thoughtful dissidents on board rather than have them splitting off to form their own micro-sect or isolated magazine. Such tolerance and diversity is itself attractive.

3.6 The more successful a mass party becomes the more pressure will be applied to integrate into the capitalist super-structure. Co-operatives can delay but not prevent this if a socialist majority is not forthcoming.

Thesis 4: The Base
4.1 Concepts such as Revolution and Class are of second order importance. They are useful only to the extent that they help us advance towards socialism. That is, they are questions of strategy and tactics, not fundamental principles.

4.2 The basis of mass support for a socialist party is therefore potentially wider than the working class.

4.3 Identifying the potential mass base of a socialist party is a critical task. Co-operatives are a potential long-term source of a mass base for a party as well as for funds for think-tanks, television stations etc.

4.4 A cosmopolitan civic socialism may prove more viable than a class based socialism.

4.5 Given the widespread disorganisation of the class in the advanced capitalist countries, a socialist party has a role to play in the formation of the class as a class aware of its own situation rather than the party being a direct product of the working class. The working class will not spontaneously create a socialist party, i.e. a party committed to supplanting rather managing capitalism.

4.6 This requires something akin to Kautsky’s infamous “merger formula” where socialist ideology is merged with a mass base, in this case a co-operative one, but not excluding organised labour.

Thesis 5: Revolution
5.1 The democratic capitalist states have widespread legitimacy and therefore immense stability. No democratic regime with a higher GDP that Argentina in 1976 has ever been overthrown. And once a credible election has been held the chances of a return to authoritarian rule declines – and continues to decline with subsequent elections. Revolts such as the Arab Spring can overthrow regimes and even social orders; the comparable protests in the West (The Indignados, Occupy) have no such capability.

5.2 Insurrection against the modern state requires the state apparatus to both lose legitimacy and to become thoroughly disorganised. Neither are likely and it is questionable if they are desirable.

5.3 Consolidation of a post-revolutionary political order requires elections to to something like Workers Councils to deliver democratic legitimacy to the new order. But there is no substantial difference between Workers Councils and Parliament apart from the limited franchise of the former and that difference makes it an inferior form of democracy.

5.4 If we care about democratic legitimacy, then a revolutionary strategy makes no sense. There is little point in staging an insurrection in order to have elections when we already have elections.

5.5 Insurrections do make sense if we are prepared to rule as a minority and take the necessary measures to do so, i.e. terror.

5.6 Since the main reason for a mass party is to gain majority support, if we support an insurrectionary strategy there is no particular reason to develop such a party. A Bakuninist or Leninist Party is more appropriate for that.

About James O'Brien

History: Tried for Bakuninist deviationism, confessed his errors and was rehabilitated. Subsequently degenerated into Kautskyist Orthodoxy. Worse, is an Irish peasant.
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One Response to Mass Party Theses

  1. modulus says:

    That’s a very well organised proposal.

    I’ll just refer to a couple of points I disagree with–I find most of the rest perfectly reasonable.

    1.1: socialism can benefit enormously from majority support, but I don’t think it is necessary as such. Just very, very desirable. How I would put it, is that socialism needs majority acquiescence: it’s vital that the majority does not oppose us, but they need not necessarily support us either.

    3.4–5: while I agree with these points in the abstract, I don’t know how we can avoid a “hostile takeover”, so to speak. Of course a perfectly adequate response to that is “we should be so lucky if anyone cares enough to take us over”, which is indeed the case, but this is still a concern I have with the notion of a mass party.

    5.3–4: I’m not quite as willing as you are to agree that bourgeois democracy is, for all practical purposes, equally legitimate to socialist democracy. That said, it’s clear Parliaments do, to a certain extent–flawed as they are–, represent their constituents; but the best parliamentary democracy is very far from what is desirable in terms of representativeness. Measures such as the average wages or assets of MPs make this patent.

    Last, I’m unconvinced that both strategies cannot be followed simultaneously. While, on the one hand, developing a mass organisation to educate, agitate and cohere the class; on the other hand, undermining the existing state power and perhaps pushing for revolution if the moment is judged right. It can be said the temperaments to do one and the other are rather at odds, though perhaps these organisations wouldn’t need to have more than casual contact and could be directed by entirely different people.

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