Thursday, 27 December 2007

Class, party and organization: Bustelo responds to Socialist Alternative's Armstrong

The small (around 150-200 members) Australian socialist organisation Socialist Alternative, a group in the IST tradition, yet not formally affiliated to that international, has put up on their website a chapter from the book “From Little Things Big Things Grow”, by Socialist Alternative member Mick Armstrong, which argues against broad socialist party formations, and reinforces Socialist Alternative’s “ideologically homogenous propaganda group” approach. That piece can be found here.

The Wombats' view is that Armstrong’s piece is a classic example of the fact that “a stopped watch is always right twice a day”, and in this case, the over-emphasis on propaganda work, fondness for 1910, and the distain for building movements (and larger organisations) that that organisation exhibits in real life (their preference is to recruit out of the movements, over putting in the hard yards to organise and lead them), it is a very stopped watch indeed!

Joaquin Bustelo, a regular contributor to the Marxmail list, has produced his own critique of Armstrong's piece, which we reproduce below. (Note that the Wombats do not agree with all of Bustelo's arguments. This piece is produced merely as a contribution to the larger debate). A fellow marsupial has promised another response, which should be available shortly.

Class, party and organization

Joaquin Bustelo,
Posted: 26 December, 2007

I think comrades should carefully read the Australian Socialist Alternative article Louis pointed to and think carefully about the approach it takes. For it is just about as finished an expression of the voluntaristic Zinovievist strategy of sect-building as one could hope for.

Why do I say "sect-building"? Because I think what the comrades propose is precisely the defining characteristic of a sect -- a group whose organizational boundaries are defined by adherence to a well-defined and codified doctrine.

The alternative to a sect is a group that is the organized expression of social forces in motion, social forces with which the organization has a million and one formal and informal organic links.

The essential argument that comrade Mick Armstrong presents is captured in the title of the book from which the article is drawn: "From little things big things grow." The theses is that "small groups of socialists need to start by first building a socialist propaganda group if they are to have any hope of laying secure foundations for a mass revolutionary party."

But is it true that "From little things big things grow?" Do working class parties come from the preaching of socialist saviors?

In the Manifesto of the Communist Party Marx and Engels lay out a very clear logic and progression for the development of the working class movement. They see it growing from sporadic outbursts to unions to workers in a given country achieving CLASS consciousness, i.e., an understanding or feeling, however rudimentary, that as workers they face common problems and must seek common solutions. When the workers movement advances sufficiently it becomes a class movement and FOR THAT REASON gives rise to working class political parties.

Time and again, Marx and especially Engels in his letters in his latter years stress that the transition from economic struggles to a political struggle is a qualitative one of central importance in the development of the movement. It marks the transformation from what Marx called a "class in itself" to a "class for itself."

Something I have discussed at some length in other posts is the REALITY that in the United States, there does not exist a working class movement "worthy of the name," i.e., a class-for-itself movement even in its most beginning stages. There USED to be such a movement but it disintegrated following
WWII. I'll also repeat my observation that the same tendencies seem to be at work in other imperialist countries, which has led to, among other things, the traditional "bourgeois workers parties" like the British and Australian Labour Parties becoming straight up bourgeois parties (even if they retain some of their working class base and formal affiliations or informal ties with unions).

The *class movement* is the absolute, indispensable pre-requisite for the emergence of workers parties.

For this reason, the real problem revolutionaries in imperialist countries face is not subjective. It is not that they have not hit on the right formula, the right publications format, the right rules and structures, or the right "correct program" which would allow them to build a genuine revolutionary workers party. The problem is that, at least in the U.S., and I suspect most of these other countries as well, quite simply the conditions DO NOT EXIST which would lead to the emergence of workers parties.

Moreover, there is an additional problem with the ideological sect as precursor to the mass party idea. And that is the dialectics of scale. Size does matter. Typically, these groups structure themselves as small parties -- "Toy Bolshevik Parties" (I think it was Louis who first came up with that expression.

But an acorn looks nothing like an oak tree.

In particular, all experience shows that the attempt to apply "democratic centralism" as it is commonly understood to groups that are essentially propaganda leagues INEVITABLY produces a stifling internal regime in which differences are impossible to contain.

The formula for "Democratic Centralism" is freedom of discussion, unity in action. But what if the "action" being contemplated is simply more discussion, i.e., propaganda? The formula then becomes nonsensical: freedom of opinion in discussion, homogeneity of opinion in discussion.

If you look at Lenin's railings against indiscipline in the RSDLP and the Bolsheviks, you will see that they were few and far between, and did not concern the "line" of an article in the paper. There were debates about whether to take part in or boycott various elections. Lenin insisted the party couldn't have it both ways because then, quite simply, there would be no party. But differing views on theoretical, historical or political questions? That's what the newspaper and other publications were for. If Bukharin wrote an article about imperialism that Lenin thought was off the wall, Lenin answered him.

Thus when Lenin returned to Petrograd in 1917 and presented his "April Theses," the editors of the organ of the central committee --which had been following a different, conciliatory line towards the provisional government-- did not demand that Lenin shut up and follow party discipline. Instead, they published an editorial criticizing Lenin's views.

Or take the famous 1917 incident where Central Committee members Kamenev and Zinoviev "outed" the CC's decision to head towards an insurrection. Lenin said that they should be expelled because it was like a member of a union leadership telling the bosses through the bourgeois press that a surprise strike was being prepared. But so entrenched was the tradition of freedom of discussion in public in the Russian workers movement that Lenin couldn't get any support from the rest of the Central Committee for expelling the two miscreants, and had to resume normal political leadership collaboration with them.

Comrade Mick Armstrong of the Australian Socialist Alternative argues that the fact that the Bolsheviks were at one point reduced to being a small propaganda group shows that the creation of small propaganda groups is the road to the reincarnation of the Bolsheviks Party in out time. This is utterly false. He takes as his starting point the FORM of organization, and says the Bolshevik organization was reduced to a tiny propaganda group around 1910 or so, just like we are today, and we've just got to be as good a propaganda league with rigid ideological boundaries as they were.

This is goofy. The Bolsheviks were the main expression of the revolutionary wing of the Russian workers party, even when in the main ALL the formal structures of that party within Russia had been shattered by a combination of defeats and tsarist repression and the party's expressions abroad, in exile, were a maze of warring factions and cliques. Then mass social and political base of the workers party in its class is what allowed not just the "Leninists," but ALSO the Mensheviks and the (pre-1917) "Trotskyists" (the conciliators) to rapidly rebuild their units and networks within Russia at the first improvement of the political situation. The Bolsheviks were not, not ever, a propaganda group comparable to any that exist today in the imperialist countries.

What made their group of a few dozen or a few hundred different from our groups of a few dozen or a few hundreds is that they had a mass base. They were one of the two major wings of a mass workers party. (This was the social character of Bolshevism at least until the start of the war, and probably later, because although as far as the leadership was concerned, the definitive split with Menshevism took place in 1912, ON THE GROUND the differentiation into clearly different parties was not completed until after the February, 1917, revolution.)

The mistake Mick Armstrong makes is precisely the same one that was made by proponents of the guerrilla warfare strategy in Latin America in the 1960's. Noting that after the disastrous Granma landing, Fidel's forces in early 1957 were barely a couple of dozen men, and that the revolution triumphed less than two years later, the idea developed that, under conditions of a repressive dictatorship, all one needed to do was to take a few dozen committed fighters to some mountain redoubt and stage a few guerrilla attacks to set in motion a dynamic that would inevitably lead to a political crisis of the system and revolution.

What Regis Debray and other proponents of the Guerrilla Foco theory did not understand is that "Fidelismo" was, to all intents and purposes, a mass party in Cuba. It was the foremost expression of the revolutionary wing of a Cuban national movement that stretched back nearly 100 years.

The group that organized the July 26, 1953, attack on the Moncada Barracks in one year had created a structure of around 2,000 young people to fight the Batista dictatorship. When you're talking about a country of six million people, a couple of thousand in a militant underground organization is very significant. And it became much larger in size and influence as a result of that attack and the campaign to defend those who survived, and even moreso when it was reorganized as the July 26 Movement following the freeing of Fidel and his comrades thanks to public pressure.

It was the strength of the Cuban national-revolutionary movement, and the growing influence and then hegemony of the Fidelistas within the movement, that transformed the few square miles of inaccessible mountain terrain held by the Rebel Army as "Free Territory of Cuba" into a mortal threat for the imperialist puppet regime in Havana.

(Note that I spoke here of Fidelismo as an expression of the Cuban national-revolutionary movement, rather than of the Cuban workers movement. I will have a little more to say about this general subject of national movements in relation to comrade Mick's article later on. But for the time being, the essential point is that that a small group that may appear to be functioning simply as a tiny propaganda group [and dubious as this may sound at first blush, in ESSENCE that is what Fidel's guerrilla force in early 1957 had been reduced to], that group may in fact represent powerful social forces, as is demonstrated by the reality that those forces WILL and DO group themselves around that nucleus organically at the very first opportunity.)

The mistake comrade Mick makes is to BEGIN with pre-conceived organizational FORMS (the Zinovievist "Leninist Party" writ small as a homogeneous propaganda sect) rather than POLITICAL TASKS. If one studies the ACTUAL practical, political activity of Marx, Engels and Lenin, as well as that of later revolutionaries such as Fidel and his friends, one will see that what guided their organizational activities and forms were concrete political tasks. Not a preconceived recipe. And in determining the political tasks, there is no substitute for a Marxist appraisal of the state of the workers movement, especially from the angle of its development towards or as a class-for-itself (a class-political) movement, as well as, in our days, an appraisal of the social and protest movements which can express varying class interests.

My FIRM opinion about the United States, and tentative opinion about Australia and other countries, is that the existence of multiple groups whose stated programmatic aim or goal is the seizure of power by working people to carry out a revolutionary reorganization of society along socialist lines is not justified. There is no real, material basis for the differentiation.

There is, I suspect, a strong case to be made for DOING general socialist propaganda and for socialists participating in politics. But the effect of several different groups all selling what appears to someone beginning to radicalize as exactly the SAME product, only under different brand names, is overwhelmingly counter-intuitive and counter-productive.

The argument that Mick makes --that in the framework of a propaganda nucleus it is necessary to achieve programmatic political clarity, even to the point of a split, if the issue is important enough, is an IDEALIST one, not a materialist one. The program of the revolution will be forged in the struggle, i.e., in the actual clash of social forces, and not through the internal debates of some sect or the public debates between sects.

The Bolsheviks provide good examples of this. By all lights, the Bolsheviks from their inception were totally and completely 100% wrong on the Jewish question in Russia. And we know this because despite all the polemics against the Bund about how Jews weren't a people or a nation and Stalin's 1913 pamphlet, when they took power, the Bolsheviks were forced by the material logic of the clash of social forces to recognize the national/cultural rights of the Jewish people, contrary to their paper program. They did that because they needed to convince the nationalist Jewish working people that THIS revolution was THEIR revolution, and so –in essence-- the Bund's approach to the question of Russian Jewry became the basis of Bolshevik government policy.

Another example is the agrarian program of the revolution, not an insignificant detail in Russia. The Bolsheviks had a fine agrarian program, I'm sure, but when 1917 came around, they took THEIR OWN program, flushed it down the toilet, and ADOPTED INSTEAD the program of the left wing of the SR's (Social Revolutionaries), which represented the poor peasants. As the workers party, the Bolsheviks understood they COULD NOT take and keep power WITHOUT an alliance with the peasantry, and the best way to cement THAT alliance (and undercut the social base of rural reaction) was to give the peasants what they wanted.

Comrade Mick considers only two poles for possible modes of organization -- an all-inclusive socialist party versus a homogeneous and tightly disciplined propaganda league.

To show what is wrong with the all-inclusive workers party, he then has an extensive discussion of the reformist versus revolutionary trends in the workers movement, attributing the reformism to things like that workers are oppressed and therefore usually under the ideological influence of the bourgeoisie and a number of other similar eternal verities.

Comrade Mick does not stop to consider that what he is describing are various moments in the process of the working class coming together and understanding its own interests, the process that the Manifesto itself describes. And IF this were all that was involved, there could be no stable long-term basis for reformism, as sooner or later the workers would come to the conclusion that they have no stake in this system, that they and ALL their class sisters and brothers have nothing to lose but their chains.

This brings up the elephant in the room that nobody --especially those in the broad Trotskyist-descended anti-Stalinist family of currents-- seems to want to discuss, the relationship between imperialism and the rise of what Lenin called opportunism and we call reformism in the workers movement.

For comrade Mick, the problem is the "all inclusive socialist party," a BAD organizational form + the eternal nature of the working class as an oppressed class. For Marx, Engels and Lenin, the root cause wasn't bad organizational forms, but rather, the privileged position of certain layers of workers.

In an October, 1916, article, "Imperialism and the Split in Socialism," Lenin draws together a number of the comments by Marx and Engels on this problem and applies their method of analysis to the social-patriotic debacle that destroyed the second international. That article is to be found here: .

Lenin's article begins, "Is there any connection between imperialism and the monstrous and disgusting victory opportunism (in the form of social-chauvinism) has gained over the labour movement in Europe?

"This is the fundamental question of modern socialism."

Noting that "imperialism is monopoly capitalism," Lenin says, on the basis of Marx and Engels's writings about the English workers movement from the1850's into the 1890's:

"Why does England's monopoly explain the (temporary) victory of opportunism in England? Because monopoly yields superprofits, i.e., a surplus of profits over and above the capitalist profits that are normal and customary all over the world. The capitalists can devote a part (and not a small one, at that!) of these superprofits to bribe their own workers, to create something like an alliance (recall the celebrated 'alliances' described by the Webbs of English trade unions and employers) between the workers of the given nation and their capitalists against the other countries."

Lenin's view AT THAT POINT was that, in distinction to the British case during the second half of the 1800's, inter-imperialist competition and war made long-lasting class peace unlikely:

"It was possible in those days to bribe and corrupt the working class of one country for decades. This is now improbable, if not impossible. But on the other hand, every imperialist 'Great' Power can and does bribe smaller strata (than in England in 1848-68) of the "labour aristocracy". Formerly a 'bourgeois labour party', to use Engels's remarkably profound expression, could arise only in one country, because it alone enjoyed a monopoly, but, on the other hand, it could exist for a long time. Now a 'bourgeois labour party' is inevitable and typical in all imperialist countries; but in view of the desperate struggle they are waging for the division of spoils it is improbable that such a party can prevail for long in a number of countries."

Note that Lenin identifies two different stages or modalities of the same sort of problem: one where one could say that the class as a whole is bribed, and one where privilege is restricted to a narrow layer. These correspond roughly to two different political situations. In the former, the workers have no party, they "gaily share in the feast" of their master's exploitation of other countries. In the latter, the labor aristocracy becomes the basis for a "bourgeois workers party," a workers party committed to capitalism because its social base DOERS HAVE something more to lose than its chains, it has quite substantial material (social and economic) privileges.

I think Lenin was completely on target about his time, and his comments largely describe the three decades that would follow. However, following WWII, imperialism changed increasingly to a model of semicolonial countries JOINTLY exploited by the imperialists through the mechanisms of the (manipulated) world market, instead of the exclusive control by one imperialist country of various territories, the fight over which was the underlying cause of WWII. I believe this was one of the major factors that made it possible for the imperialists to buy themselves "class peace" and establish a political hegemony over the working class approximating that enjoyed by the British ruling classes at the height of Britain's manufacturing and colonial monopolies.

The archetype of these arrangements were the West European "welfare states" associated with social democracy. But although some aspects of these have now been dismantled, the extent of the relatively privileged position of most working people in the imperialist countries remains huge, and with it, the political effects. These effects may have been frayed around the edges in some countries, and what some might call "internally colonized peoples" such as Blacks in the U.S. as well as immigrants in Western Europe and the U.S., are a different matter, but I've yet to see convincing evidence that these political effects have been or are well on their way to being decisively reversed.

I understand some of the reasons WHY there is resistance to facing up to and engaging on this line of analysis among revolutionaries (especially dominant-nationality revolutionaries) in the imperialist countries. It means facing up to the possibility and even likelihood that there will not be, at least for the time being and possibly for decades, a mass movement against capitalism based in the working class in their countries. Something totally contrary to what every Marxist revolutionary hopes for and wishes for.

Please note that I make no PREDICTION this situation will last for decades, or is likely to last, or anything else like that. I ALSO make no prediction that EVEN IF these effects perdure, political prospects for revolutionary socialists must remain extremely modest. In particular, we should note that the radicalization of the 1960's happened even as living standards were rapidly rising in the imperialist countries and the domestication and decline of the labor movement (at least in the U.S.) continued.

But recognizing that is no excuse for failing to face up to reality, or failing to use the analytical tools, insights and example of the great Marxists in understanding the reality we face.

Lenin said about the relationship between imperialism and the split in socialism, "This is the fundamental question of modern socialism." You would think that something identified by Lenin as "the fundamental question of modern socialism" would draw more attention. Yet, despite the forests massacred to print anti-reformist polemics by revolutionary socialists of all stripes, what Marx, Engels and Lenin analyzed as the MATERIAL BASIS for what we call "reformism" is simply ignored when it is not outright denied, as in the oft-heard rejoinder from groups that identify with the "socialism from below" tradition that "white workers don't profit/benefit from racism" or that "white workers don't exploit Black workers," and so on.

With this bit of sanctimonious moralizing, those comrades deny what is obvious and plain for any child to see, which is that white people stand in a superior position to Blacks in a country like the United States, and that working people in an imperialist country tend to be tremendously privileged compared to working people in semicolonial countries.

Just as the rise of imperialism at the beginning of the 1900's changed the working class movement and affected the prospects for revolution in the “advanced" countries, it is clear that it also had a HUGE impact in the colonial and semicolonial world. Just as imperialism decreased the prospects of revolution in the imperialist countries, it INCREASED them in the Third World.

In his article, comrade Mick fails to analyze and understand that political dynamics in the Third World are different from those in the imperialist countries. In particular, he betrays no sign that he may even have a suspicion that the fundamental character of the revolutions that have taken place throughout the Third World over the past half century or more has been that of national movements against imperialist domination,

Thus he lumps the "reformism" of a Lula in Brazil together with that of imperialist countries, and as always fetishizing organizational forms rather than the motion and interrelationship of real social forces:

"But it is not just in Italy that the approach of building 'broad' socialist parties has led to disaster," he says. "In Brazil the Workers Party, which carried the hopes of many socialists in the 1990s, has in government been just as committed to neo-liberal policies and an alliance with George Bush as its conservative rivals."

This isn't right.

First, "neoliberalism" in Latin America is not a set of policies inspired in Adam Smith, that's just the advertising campaign. Neoliberalism is handing the country over to imperialist interests. Lula has NOT followed a policy of craven capitulation to imperialist demands, but rather a policy with a lot of bourgeois-nationalist elements. Among other things, Lula's government opposed and helped bury Washington's plan to impose the FTAA. It has strongly upheld the interests of Brazil and other Third World countries in the Doha round of world trade negotiations, firmly -- at least thus far -- demanding and end to the ruinous subsidies that the American, Japanese and European imperialists give their own agricultural producers, tipping the paying field against farmers and farm industries in the Third World. He has won recognition of Brazil's right to master the ENTIRE nuclear fuel cycle, dealing a blow to the imperialist cartel that is trying to use the non-proliferation treaty to establish a monopoly in nuclear fuel.

The problems with Lula --and they are real-- aren't simply a function of the PT's all-inclusive character. I'm not an expert in Brazil, but I'm willing to bet that an analysis of the actual social base of the party and the relations of this base with other sectors of the toilers would help us understand more than 1001 denunciations of Lula as a neo-Liberal. And at any rate, telling anyone conversant with Latin American politics that "in government [the PT] has been just as committed to neo-liberal policies and an alliance with George Bush as its conservative rivals" will only make them laugh.

Mick Armstrong's conclusion in his article is that "The experience of history is that time and time again small groups of revolutionaries armed with a burning commitment to Marxist politics and a fierce determination to build have been able to break through and establish parties that could play a leading role in struggles for workers' rights and even lead a challenge for power."

This is a purely voluntaristic notion. Working class parties do not arise from the "the fierce determination to build" of revolutionaries but from the evolution of the workers movement into a class political movement. We need to face up to the DECADES of FAILURES of the revolutionary left in its party-building efforts in the imperialist countries. Such a record suggests that it is not a question of "mistakes" by this or that group, or lack of "fierceness," but rather that there are objective, material causes for the failures.

This gives the whole debate in Australia something of an eerie character, far removed from reality. No one is bothering to ask in a fundamental Marxist way, what is the state and stage of the workers movement in
Australia. What signs are there that it is moving towards (or away from) becoming a real class movement? What are the reasons for that state of affairs, the underlying causes, and how are those underlying circumstances evolving?

Instead, we have a discussion about how to "build the party" abstracted from any consideration of what construction materials are available.


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