Reply to John Percy on building a revolutionary party


posted to on June 11, 2003


These are comments on selected portions of an article titled "Looking backward, looking forward: Pointers to building a revolutionary party" by Australian DSP leader John Percy. Mostly I have limited myself to areas of disagreement and find much that is positive in this piece, including the Socialist Alliance initiative and some refreshingly modest insights on building new internationals, etc.


JOHN PERCY: The idea of a revolutionary socialist party, or one taking any cues from the Bolshevik experience, is also hotly contested in the milieu, the "party" of former members of parties, reformed Leninists who've seen the error of their ways. Many people pass through revolutionary parties, here and around the world. The revolution is a great devourer of people, that's a fact, and this can be intense in difficult objective situations in which we are pushing uphill. Some comrades tire out, some have bad experiences, and some get other priorities in their lives. Most move on, some adapt to the prevailing political orthodoxy, but some still haven't settled with their past in the revolutionary party and for a while can spend a good part of their political activity attacking their own past by attacking those still actively building a party.


The Marxism List based in the US has many people with this sort of background and outlook, who have espoused or developed a description of their perspective as "anti-Zinovievist", although I haven't seen any attempt by them to clearly distinguish themselves from anti-Leninism. Really, that's what they are, even if they feel better hiding behind Zinoviev.


COMMENT: John is missing the point. There really is no such thing as "Leninism". This was a term coined in the 3rd International almost based on a caricature of the Bolshevik Party. Lenin was sensitive to what he perceived as a kind of schematic understanding of the Bolshevik Party early on:


"At the third congress in 1921 we adopted a resolution on the structure of communist parties and the methods and content of their activities. It is an excellent resolution, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is taken from Russian conditions. That is its good side, but it is also its bad side, bad because scarcely a single foreigner--I am convinced of this, and I have just re-read it-can read it. Firstly, it is too long, fifty paragraphs or more. Foreigners cannot usually read items of that length. Secondly, if they do read it, they cannot understand it, precisely because it is too is permeated and imbued with a Russian spirit. Thirdly, if there is by chance a foreigner who can understand it, he cannot apply it...My impression is that we have committed a gross error in passing that resolution, blocking our own road to further progress. As I said, the resolution is excellent, and I subscribe to every one of the fifty paragraphs. But I must say that we have not yet discovered the form in which to present our Russian experience to foreigners, and for that reason the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not discover it, we shall not go forward."


Lenin's misgivings were prescient for within 3 years these "Russian" tendencies had only deepened. By 1924 the Comintern had ratified a version of "Leninism" that was totally at odds with the living historic example of the Bolshevik Party. To single out just a few examples where the two diverge:


1. The Bolsheviks carried out their debates publicly. As editor of a major Bolshevik newspaper, Bukharin hammered away at Lenin's position on the national question. This is documented in great detail in Stephen Cohen's political biography of Bukharin. Not only that--horrors of horrors--they often voted against each other in the mass movement. In John Reed's "10 Days that Shook the World", there is a reference to divided votes among party members over key questions such as whether to expropriate the bourgeois press. At a November 17th 1917 mass meeting, Lenin called for the confiscation of the capitalist newspapers. Reed quotes him: "If the first revolution had the right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois press." He continues: "Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press." So you have a kind of cognitive dissonance at work here. For "Leninists" like John Percy, these facts might suggest that the historic Bolshevik Party was a beta product and that only after the rules of conduct for building Bolshevik Parties was codified at the 1924 Comintern world conference did you end up a production version. It was only after I saw the self-destruction of the SWP, which was built on Cannon's strict adherence to the 1924 party-building formulae, that I decided to review the history of these organizational norms. I eventually came to the conclusion that we had to GO BACK TO BOLSHEVISM and dump the schematic, formulaic "improvements" that has led to sect and cult formations time after time.


2. The Bolsheviks were much more relaxed on questions of internal discipline than is the case in "Leninist" parties today. To my knowledge, the only person ever expelled from Lenin's party was Bogdanov, about whom there is little doubt that he had broken with Marxism. Even after Zinoviev and Kamenev broke discipline and denounced the party's decision to take power, they were not expelled. In "Leninist" parties, expulsions happen routinely over simple political differences. For example, the SWP expelled Proletarian Orientation Tendency members right and left after the 1971 convention, who were simply arguing in favor of the kind of "workerist" turn that the SWP eventually decided on some 5 or so years later. I have heard DSP (and WWP) members argue that expulsions almost never happen in their own organization. But discipline can take a variety of forms. You can employ the stick, but you can also enforce a kind of ideological uniformity through peer pressure. Members will be reluctant to vote against the party line because that will earn them the reputation of being "suspect". This in fact is how the CP's kept its membership in line most of the time. And the Trotskyists are no different. In 1978 the NYC SWP leadership was trying to "motivate" some members, including me, to quit their middle-class jobs, move out of NYC and go into industry. I thought the politics behind this, which was based on a overprojection of the tempo of the class struggle, was flawed but that did not stop me from getting up at a branch meeting and announcing that the American factories were ripe for recruitment to the revolutionary party. The desire to be accepted is a deeply human need, but it is a dagger at the heart of the revolutionary party. As Marx once said in a letter to Ruge, we need a "ruthless criticism of all that exists", starting with positions submitted to the membership of a revolutionary party.


3. The Bolsheviks were far more ideologically heterogeneous than is the case in "Leninist" parties. When Lenin argued in favor of an all-Russia Marxist organization, he saw Iskra as a way to unite the scattered forces and provide a platform for debate so that a program for the Russian revolution could take shape. In "What is to be Done", he wrote:


"Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation. Otherwise our unity will be purely fictitious...We do not intend to make our publication a mere store-house of various views. On the contrary, we shall conduct it in the spirit of a strictly defined tendency. This tendency can be expressed by the word Marxism. ... Only in this way will it be possible to establish a genuinely all-Russian, Social- Democratic organ. Only such a publication will be capable of leading the movement on the high road of political struggle."


You'll note that Lenin did not call for a party based on an interpretation of some historical questions, such as the class nature of the USSR under Stalin, etc. He wanted to unite *Marxists*. This conception is radically different from the Leninist "improvement".


JOHN PERCY: This argument is belied both by common sense—the required instrument isn't going to spring ready-made from the ground when the revolutionary situation matures, especially since revolutionary situations can be quite short and arise quite rapidly. It's also belied by our experience: without our perspective of building a Leninist party, we wouldn't have the team of cadres, the wealth of experience, the resources and tools such as Green Left Weekly that we have today. It's also belied by the whole practice of the Bolshevik party, still our best and most successful example of a revolutionary workers' party.


It's also explicitly answered by Lenin, for example, when he wrote after the 1905 revolution, during a particularly demoralising downturn in the Russian workers' struggle. He answered those who argued that you didn't need a party in a period like this, that later, when the struggle revived and it wasn't so difficult, it would be appropriate to build a party: "Whoever finds the work tedious, whoever does not understand the need for preserving and developing the revolutionary principles of Social-Democratic tactics in this phase too, on this bend of the road, is taking the name of Marxism in vain".


COMMENT: This is an argument that was drummed into my head when I joined the Trotskyist movement, that you cannot have a successful revolution without a revolutionary party. When you stop and think about it, this is what can be regarded as a tautology. Unfortunately, the real question before us is not whether we need a revolutionary party or not, but how to build one. In Cuba, during the late 1950s, THERE WAS NO REVOLUTIONARY PARTY according to the definition understood by DSP leaders. In fact, there is little doubt that if Fidel Castro had sat down with James P. Cannon's "Struggle for a Proletarian Party" and tried to apply its "lessons" as the Percy brothers did in Australia, we might be seeing Batista's son running the country, or some variant.


JOHN PERCY: So while we are always attempting to build a party as the advanced detachment of the working class, we realise that the party is not just a society for the preservation of the truth, but a process of continually testing and developing ways to go forward. It's certainly ridiculous just to proclaim that we're the party, or to act as though we're already such a party when there's so far to go. But such a party is still necessary—a real Leninist party, not a caricature. And we continually test our course in practice and try again.


COMMENT: Of course, what John has not come to grips with is the clash between these sensible words and the party-building traditions that the DSP adheres to. At the 1944 SWP convention, Morris Stein, who was regarded as one of James P. Cannon's top lieutenants, told the convention:


"We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can't stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn't that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists."


My experience tells me that despite your best intentions, you cannot avoid thinking in these terms as long as you view your organizational tasks within the framework set down by James P. Cannon.


JOHN PERCY: The classic case in recent left history is the Cuban Revolution, an example we use in our party to illustrate the difference between currents that responded to reality, and currents that refuse to recognise facts, even in the form of an actual revolution. The 1959 Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro and the July 26 Movement was not expected or understood by any of the Trotskyist currents. However, as the revolution unfolded, some, such as the US Socialist Workers Party, and leaders of the European International Secretariat of the Fourth International, such as Ernest Mandel, (the FI having split in 1953) were able to recognise what was happening and welcome and support it. Others, such as the Socialist Labour League in Britain led by Gerry Healy, refused to support it—it wasn't led by a Trotskyist party! (Other currents outside the FI framework, such as the state capitalist current led by Tony Cliff, were also hamstrung by their theory, and were unwilling to adjust their schema.)


COMMENT: Of course, the real challenge to Trotskyists, and those who retain committed to its "Leninist" organizational principles whether or not they agree with permanent revolution, is to come to grips with how a true vanguard was formed in Cuba. It started by throwing out all the schemas found in books like "Struggle for a Proletarian Party".


JOHN PERCY: Another more recent case is the implementation of the "turn to industry" in the Fourth International in the late 1970s. This turn was initiated by the US SWP, and followed by others in the FI, including our own party, still in the FI at the time. The arguments for the turn were based on the prediction of a working-class upsurge in the advanced capitalist countries, of which there were some signs. In this scenario, the working class, especially in the US, would move to centre stage, and revolutionaries would have to be alongside workers in the coming struggles. We carried out that turn, with some positive results and useful experiences, although of course there were costs too. When it became clear that the predicted working-class upsurge on which the turn was predicated was not occurring, we made adjustments, allowing us to quickly step up our political work among students, and in the varied campaigns and movements. But the US SWP refused to face facts, persisted in their turn, even "deepening" it, rolling it out again and again (I think they're in their fourth turn now). That's not the only factor contributing to the degeneration of the US SWP, but it was a major contribution—their refusal to face facts, and all the political distortions that flowed from that.


COMMENT: It was a sign of the health of the DSP that it rejected this workerist schema that the SWP tried to force down its throat. I would only hope that they dig deeper into the kind of internal culture that made such a counter-productive policy possible. I would suggest that this goes with the territory in "Leninist" formations and will eventually bite you in the ass, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.


JOHN PERCY: Lenin argued that a revolutionary party "is worthy of its name only when it guides in deed the movement of a revolutionary class".10 And again, "It is not enough to call ourselves the `vanguard', the advanced contingent; we must act in such a way that all the other contingents recognise and are obliged to admit that we are marching in the vanguard".




Revolutionaries have to win that leading role, not "exercise" it, as the Socialist Party of Australia, now the CPA, and so many other little groups argue. You don't become a vanguard through a franchise. As Fidel Castro said in 1967:


Anyone can give themselves the name of "eagle" without having a single feather on their back. In the same way, there are people who call themselves communists without having a single communist hair on their heads. The international communist movement, to our way of thinking, is not a church. It is not a religious sect or a Masonic lodge that obliges us to hallow any weakness, any deviation; that obliges us to follow a policy of a mutual admiration with all kinds of reformists and pseudo-revolutionaries.


COMMENT: This is a pretty good section, even if it closely parallels something that a tired, petit-bourgeois, ex-Leninist like myself wrote--including the same exact quote from Castro.


JOHN PERCY: Over the years of our experience in building the DSP, we've developed a better understanding of how a revolutionary party operates. We adopted democratic centralism as our method of operating, but perhaps initially had a tendency to see it as a set of rules, a constitution. We developed a better understanding of the principles involved as we matured, and had more experience in actually building a party.


Simply defined, it's full freedom of discussion, and unity in action. "In the heat of battle … no criticism whatever can be permitted in [the party's] ranks", Lenin wrote. But before the call for action, the broadest possible discussion was needed. Understood properly, this is common sense, but it is vital for a successful revolutionary party.


COMMENT: This is okay as far as it goes. But discussion related to a specific action such as whether to participate in civil disobedience or not just scratches the surface. The big problem for "Leninist" organizations is that democratic centralism has tended to spill over into areas that it does not belong in. For example, is it breaking discipline for "Leninist" party members to challenge an *analysis* found in the party paper? In the American SWP and other such groups, party members are required to defend the line put forward in the newspaper or other official publications between party conventions, when they will have the opportunity to argue for a new line. This means that if an SWP member thought that the return of Elian Gonzalez to his father under the auspices of the INS was a good thing, he or she would have to keep it to themselves. In a nutshell, I have found that this encourages ideological slavishness of the kind that can in extreme instances lead to cult-like formations. As I stated above, we need ruthless criticism of all that exists, including party publications. Now I have heard one ex-member of the DSP, who still supports the party strongly, say here that the DSP does not discipline its members in this fashion, but I afraid that peer pressure of the kind I described above might play the same role.