Retracing our steps: from the strait passage to genuine party democracy

Stalin Guiding the USSR - The Great Helmsman

The Great Helmsman

From the Third Internationale onwards, a cardinal dichotomy in socialist circles has been that of opportunism and ultraleftism. The “line”, so Leninists–against whom, let this be clear, I have no animus–say, is like a complex navigation problem. Many are the reafs and hidden shallows where the party may wreck, if it’s not led by a Great Helmsman.

I would argue that this approach was an innovation. It’s clear Marx rarely if ever expressed full agreement with any of his allies, and he had little patience for what he perceived as faulty analyses or misunderstandings. It is no coincidence that one of the works key to understanding his mature positions is the Critique of the gotha Programme, but, notably, he didn’t break relations with its proponents, or tried to establish a competing fraction, even if he attempted to nudge the direction of the compromise programme. As he said: Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes. Why did we change? When did we forget that the point is to change it?

Sometimes when talking to Marxists I can’t recall if we’re engaged in the materialist enterprise of understanding history with the explicit programmatic aim of changing it, or playing at hermeneutics, going over the texts of the holy men looking for quotes to (mis?)apply to the argument. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else: didn’t I just begin this article with 2 Marx quotes?

I suspect this may have started with Lenin’s “Left Communism”: an infantile disorder–for which a case can be made a better translation would be “Left-Communism”: a childhood disease. This work, which amusingly was written to denounce sectarian anti-union, anti-parliamentary and anti-compromise positions, contains in its very form the germ of the disease: not only the Talmudic “quotation war” style of arguing, but the very notion that there exists a line: all to the left is childish posturing, all to the right is opportunist betrayal.

I’m not blaming Lenin for this though. Nor do I think it was exclusive to him. Another example can be found on Trotsky’s Learn to Think:

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign–this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.

An inevitable result of this paradigm, implied by the previous text, is the necessity for the party to be steered by master strategists. This causes problems of at least 3 orders:

  • Organisationally, it forces the party leadership to call to itself all decisions; more so, it forces the leadership to have an opinion on everything
  • Strategically, it leads to an attitude in which expediency, special pleading and duplicity become more attractive, by analogy with ruses of war
  • Politically, it offers a carte blanche for conducting oneself the same way internally: expulsions, splits, infiltration, etc

These are in my view the fatal organisational flaws of most Trotskyist parties, and perhaps of most parties in the Leninist stamp.

The notion that it’s easy to make a mistake, either by betraying the working class through accomodation to circumstances or through premature activities, leads the party to an excessive centralisation of policy. It requires the leadership to issue its directives–which, nonetheless, can never be infallible–on every conceivable issue, as any conceivable deviation from the “line” is hazardous. No-one is an expert on everything, and this often results in parties issuing absurd declarations on issues which are irrelevant to their own struggle, and which they cannot implement in any way: there are no international brigades anymore; giving “military support” means nothing without a military.

This has all kinds of negative side-effects. It limits the ambit of political discussion, it traps those people in the party with a better understanding of a given issue into supporting something they don’t believe in or breaking with the leadership altogether, and, not least, it makes the party sound self-important and out of touch with reality.

The double standards, wilful silences and desembling which such policies sometimes require leave the party open to accusations of inconsistency or deceit. There are certainly circumstances in which the truth may have to be handled carefully, for example during a revolution, but that’s not the case for party activities in peacetime, in places where such activities are legal. Acting like the RSDLP, which was an illegal party for much of its existence, doesn’t make sense in such a context.

Finally, such issues become the perfect excuse for fraction fights. We have to use a certain sociological pragmatism: if fractions are allowed, fractions will exist; if they’re not allowed, they will exist in the shadows; if fractions are allowed to argue politics, they will; if not, they will sort their differences politically, through much more harmful means, such as expulsions, splits, quota systems, monopoly over the party organs, etc. It is far better to allow fractions to maintain a reasonable level of political autonomy, especially inasmuch as their stances cause no harm to the party’s actual line of action, as distinct to the pretend line of action the leadership wishes it could carry out if it had state power and military divisions.

The fundamental task of the party is that of organising the working class into an effective force. This includes raising its level of theoretical consciousness, but that can be hardly done by issuing directives on anything under the sun which the class must follow to the letter. The primary task of the party must be leading the class in struggles it can face at its level of development, preparing the ground so that victories can be the prelude for further advances, and defeats do not become catastrophic. Nothing in this requires party members to hold a particular position on Vietnam–unless the party is in Vietnam, or has some kind of material reason to take a position on it–for instance. When legislating, don’t pass what you can’t enforce; when prophesizing, don’t announce what you can’t predict–and, preferably, make come to pass yourself. Anything else only harms the authority of the party on the name of protecting it.

About modulus

Modulus is an unaffiliated Marxist from South Western EU (Spanish state). He studied computer science and law, and is at present preparing for civil service exams for the Spanish administration. An avid IRC user, he enjoys arguments and will occasionally play devil's advocate. He regards himself as orthodox and is concerned about unscientific attitudes on the left on such things as nuclear energy, biotechnology, and so on. His support for the European Union as a platform to unify the class struggle across the continent has earned him plenty of strong opposition, and doubtless will continue to do so; until, that is, his view is vindicated by history.
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