Socialism — the way forward
By John Percy
[Edited version of a talk presented on behalf of the National Executive of the Democratic Socialist Party (Australia) to the 1996 Socialist Activists and Educational Conference, held in Sydney, January 3-7, 1996. John Percy was the national secretary of the DSP]
- The necessity of socialism
- Crisis in the developed countries
- The `Lucky Country’?
- Capitalist instability
- Headed for a crackup?
- Revolutionary potential of working class
- Problem of leadership
- Ignoring the 20th century
- Lenin and the revolutionary party
- Revolutionary consciousness
- Trade union struggle
- Broad workers’ organisation
- `Economism’ — then and now
- Revolutionary program today
- Social Democracy
- Stalin and Stalinism
- How detailed a program?
- Renewal, regroupment and alliances
- Confronting the capitalist state
- Mass culture and revolutionary politics
- Role of revolutionary party
The necessity for a socialist solution to the contradictions, crimes and horrors of capitalism is greater than ever before.
The plunder of the world’s resources in the race for profit has created a global ecological disaster. Environmental degradation is a threat to life on earth. Last week there was a report on the rise in average temperature around the world — the greenhouse effect is no myth. Forests are being felled, species are being extinguished, stocks of fresh water used up, at rates which put total extinction dates within the lifetimes of people living today.
Rampaging capitalism is a disease. Neo-liberal capitalism is turning more and more of the world and more and more levels of life and culture to its profit-driven goals.
There’s a widening gap world-wide between rich and poor, the haves and have-nots. The richest 20% of the world’s inhabitants receive at least 150 times more than the poorest 20%. According to the UN Development Program, the great majority of the world’s population — 3.5 billion people — share only 5.6% of global income among them. According to the World Bank, 1.3 billion people have to live on less than a dollar a day. The North-South divide is a polite way of putting it — it’s the divide between imperialism and the oppressed nations.
Africa is a disaster area. There’s widespread starvation, when all could be fed. In some countries of Latin America unemployment and under-employment reaches 80%, in Nicaragua it could even be higher.
In the former USSR and Eastern Europe, the triumphant return of the “free market” has led to the halving of economic output, and misery for hundreds of millions of workers. Gangster capitalism rules.
But that’s just a reminder of the inherent features and origins of other national capitalist classes. The rise of capitalism was and is not peaceful and democratic, but vicious and predatory. Robber barons and speculators, gamblers, conquistadors and con merchants, pirates and drug barons — that’s where the money’s made.
19th century French novelist Honor Balzac mightn’t have had a scientific analysis, but he wasn’t far off the mark when he wrote: “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.”
Even following the end of the Cold War, wars rage across the globe. Arms merchants, merchants of death, are still raking in their profits. Nuclear tests continue. The threat of nuclear annihilation still hangs over all our heads.
Did we get a “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War? No way. Imperialism’s made only minimal cuts in military expenditure. The poor, the oppressed are still the target.
According to a UN World Health Organisation report issued last year, poverty is the greatest underlying cause of death, disease and suffering world-wide. More than half of the world’s people cannot get the most essential drugs, and about a third of the world’s children are undernourished.
Hiroshi Nakajima, the WHO director-general, said the means exist to give all an equal chance of health. “What we are lacking are the commitment and resources to apply them so that the goals can be achieved.”
Life expectancy in the rich countries is twice that of the poorer countries, and the gap is widening. More than two billion people are sick in the world at any one time. Infectious diseases and parasites kill more than 16 million people a year. New scourges such as AIDS sweep the world, and old diseases such as TB, once pushed back, are making a revival.
This situation is the product of a system that actively bleeds the South of its resources for the benefit of the bankers and industrialists of the North. In 1980, the Third World had a total foreign debt to Western governments and banks of $567 billion. Over the decade 1983-92 it paid out $771 billion on interest on its debt, plus $891 billion in repayments. Yet, after paying out $3 billion a week for a decade, the Third World had a total foreign debt of $1419 billion. The debt has got bigger, despite it having been repayed three times over, because the imperialist countries’ debt collection agencies — the World Bank and the IMF — have forced policies on the Third World countries that have made them poorer, and thus forced them to continually take out new loans just to service existing debt.
Debt servicing drains about $160 billion each year from the Third World. This is about two and half times as much as the total development aid that the Third World receives, most of which does not aid these countries’ development at all. Out of the $12 billion spent each year in the 102 poorest countries on technical assistance, 90% of it goes to pay the salaries of foreign experts!
Moreover, the growing gap between the prices of Third World exports (principally raw materials) and the prices of their imports (principally industrial products) over the period 1980 to 1992, is estimated to have amounted to a transfer from the South to the North of $200 billion a year.
The enormous drain of wealth from the South to the North, combined with the IMF’s and the World Bank’s neo-liberal “structural adjustment program,” is devastating entire countries, leading to savage outbreaks of ethnic conflict and civil war.
The crisis also extends to the developed countries. There’s a growing polarisation of wealth and poverty here too, and it’s a consequence of the same system, of the capitalist private profit system.
In Britain the recent findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Inquiry reported that the gap between rich and poor is now the greatest since the Second World War. Since 1977 the number of people with an income less than half the average has trebled. The richest 10% of the population owns half the country’s wealth, while the poorest 50% of the population owns 8%. The richest 1% owns 18%. The inquiry team was headed by Sir Peter Barclay and included the head of the Confederation of British Industry — hardly a radical body. The findings apparently came as a shock to them.
In the United States the transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists proceeds even faster. The US has the widest gap between rich and poor of any of the world’s developed countries, according to a comprehensive report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. One per cent of the richest households currently control 40% of the wealth!
According to a report in the February 6, 1995 magazine US News and World Report, between 1978 and 1993 the annual incomes of the richest 20% of the US population grew by 18%, while the real incomes of the poorest 20% fell by 19%. Indeed, over that period the annual incomes of 60% of the US population fell, by about 10%.
Republicans and Democrats alike are attacking welfare and social services, shifting hundreds of billions from the pockets of the poor to the rich. It’s all in the name of curbing the budget deficit. The great treasury raid proposed by the Contract with America, modified by the Clinton administration, aims to plunder the working-class part of the budget — welfare, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security — to turn the money over to the big capitalists in the form of capital-gains tax cuts, and lower corporate taxes, to the tune of $270 billion.
The ruling class in the US tries to hide or obscure the growing inequality — or to blame the hardships faced by the white working class, on African-Americans and Latinos. Race is deliberately manipulated to obscure class inequality and to hide the reasons for poverty and unemployment.
The US rulers are accelerating the construction of the state’s coercive apparatus. In 1980 there were 500,000 people in prison in the US. In 1995 there were 1,500,000. At the present rate the number of prisoners is doubling every 7 years. Every day in the US, on average, 200 new prison cells are constructed.
In 1995 there were 554,000 officers employed by local and state police forces. There are an additional 1,500,000 private security guards employed to guard offices, stores and corporate headquarters, all over the country.
Today, about one half, or over 750,000 inmates of prisons and jails in the US are African-Americans. About 30% of all young black men in the US between the ages of 18 and 29 are either in jail, on probation, on parole, or awaiting trial.
In Washington DC, a majority black city, the criminal justice system has 42% of all young black males between 18 and 34 within some aspect of it. A study estimated that 70% of black men in the District of Columbia would be arrested at some point before the age of 35. 85% of black men would be arrested at some point in their lives. That’s the capital of the world’s wealthiest, strongest, capitalist state!
Perhaps you think Australia might still be the “Lucky Country,” immune from all this? Then you’ve been closing your eyes to Aboriginal Australia. You haven’t sampled life out in the suburban wastelands, the dumping grounds for the poor, the unemployed, the single mothers, the families trying to survive on a single worker’s wage.
And you read articles about how the housing market’s “sluggish” — except for waterfront mansions in the $10 million bracket, turning over nicely thank you!
You think Australia is a well-off welfare state? Look at these figures from the Sydney Morning Herald on December 21 — pensions and welfare payments are graphed as a percentage of GDP for different countries. Australia is at the bottom of the list of OECD countries, allocating about 6% of GDP to welfare; below Japan and the US, well below European countries most of which allocate between 10-20%. Columnist Max Walsh describes it as “the tightest welfare system of all the advanced economies.” He thanks Menzies for this (Though he chides his younger self for being critical at the time). But he also acknowledges ALP governments didn’t make any improvement.
In Australia, some of the newest, clumsiest capitalist crooks of the 1980s have been exposed, brought down by their own greed. But the others are even worse. They just inherited their initial fortune through the plunder of an earlier generation, and now own the media so provide themselves a better press, and have all the laws and state machinery on their side to ensure they can continue to live in luxury from the labour of others.
Their servants in the one party-two faction political set-up are zealously transferring from the poor to the rich in the name of “rationalism,” “efficiency,” “competition,” “becoming internationally competitive” — “reforms”!
Labor or Liberal both implement the dictates of big business, impelled by greed for profits. Australian Thatcherism has been led by Keating and Hawke. Under the ALP-ACTU Accord, Australia was the country that experienced the greatest growth in income inequality of all the countries in the OECD.
Are the millionaires and billionaires too smug in their confidence of the continuity, the eternity of capitalism? Is it really the end of the socialist challenge? Some of them would be aware of the dangers, in spite of their propaganda bluster. There’s plenty of evidence of the fundamental instability of the capitalist system.
In Japan, the world’s second largest economy has deep ongoing problems. Touted as a capitalist miracle, it is now mired in an enormous mountain of corporate debt. In August 1995 it was revealed that Japanese firms owe $US533 billion to Japanese banks and credit unions — an amount equal to a quarter of the total foreign debt of the Third World and ex-Soviet bloc. This huge amount of debt is the result of 15 years of frenzied speculation by Japanese capitalists.
The Daiwa Bank has lost billions, and is going bust. They try to blame it on a New York trader, who lost billions on trades, like Nick Leeson’s billions that sent Barings Bank bust. But individual traders are not the problem, nor individual banks.
A big chunk of the Japanese banks’ mountain of bad debts has now been grabbed by the Japanese mafia. The November 28 Sydney Morning Herald reported: “Japan’s financial crisis has deepened with the revelation that organised crime is holding the world’s largest banks to ransom over property loans worth tens of billions of dollars.”
The US Federal Reserve Bank has had to make a special agreement to extend huge cash loans to Japanese banks on the security of US Treasury bonds. These emergency measures were in case the Japanese financial market suddenly starts to collapse, threatening Japanese banks and touching off a domino effect that could trigger a world financial crisis. Large mutual funds in the US have been quietly making arrangements for bank credits in the event of a run on mutual funds. Wall Street’s nervous.
“Is capitalism heading for a crackup?” asked a Washington Post columnist last April. “On the face of it the question is absurd. Communism is no more — gone, kaput, discredited . . . The free market system is not only triumphant, it is resplendent . . . Still, evidence is accumulating that something is going wrong.”
He then cited the growing gap between rich and poor in the US and elsewhere, the falling real wages of most workers, the transfer of wealth to the wealthy, the attacks on welfare. Recognising the warning signs, he urges caution on the ruling class, don’t overdo it, and refers them to Franklin Roosevelt’s admonition, “It takes a little socialism to make capitalism work.”
But Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky explained it better in an interview in South Africa last year: “The situation of the West is more like the situation of the Roman Empire, because after its last triumphs the decay of the empire became stronger. Capitalism now is in the situation where it cannot survive its own triumphs. Probably for the first time in world history, capitalism is a real global system. It means that the capitalist contradictions now are not less but more sharpened and more dangerous for the system than they were 20 years ago.”
But is there a possible resolution to this crisis? Are we destined to suffer the boom and bust roller coaster of irrational capitalism while the planet heads for disaster?
Liberals, do-gooders will sigh, “how terrible.” And they’ll salve their consciences with a little charity. All trends, from liberals to utopian socialists to revolutionary Marxists, can express anguish at the blatant injustice, the very visible cruelty and inhumanity of capitalism, the system of oppression. All can see that the world’s a mess. All agree that it’s unfair, and something deserves to be done about the poverty and misery of the people of the Third World.
But it’s not enough to have merely a liberal, humanist critique of capitalism. The Marxist argument for socialism, its objective necessity, still holds. The fundamental contradictions of capitalism are still there; it’s not the end of history.
Almost 150 years ago in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels pointed to the revolutionary potential of the working class, the class that can resolve the contradictions of capitalism, through seizing power, and building socialism. As the DSP Program puts it:
“The working class is the main social force in the struggle to replace capitalism with socialism. In advanced capitalist countries such as Australia, wage workers are the main producers, and the working class is the largest class, constituting more than 80% of the population. The labour of wage workers is indispensable to the economic life of modern capitalism, and is the main source of capitalist profit.
“The central place of wage workers in the productive process gives them the social power to overthrow capitalism. No other social class or group has the power to achieve this . . .
“Because the system of private property is the source of its oppression, the working class can liberate itself only by abolishing this system and replacing it with a system based on social ownership of the means of production. This new system is the only one capable of doing away permanently with all of the abuses and injustices of capitalism.”
Is this projection out of date, applicable to capitalism last century, but not today?
Compare the depth of the contradictions, the dangers to the planet resulting from the profit-hungry capitalist system, and the size of the working class, capitalism’s gravedigger, with Marx’s time, and Lenin’s time. There’s been an enormous growth of the working class in Asia, Latin America, South Africa, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, let alone in the major capitalist countries. Today, the working class — those who have no other means of living but through the sale of their ability to work — constitute the majority of the world’s economically active population.
Contrast this with the incredible myths the ruling class pumps into us — we’re all middle class now!
But is the working class finished as a potential challenger to capitalism because it’s been bought off, bribed, made more comfortable? Or because it’s now so subject to the powerful methods and sources of ideological manipulation and control that the ruling class has at its disposal? Or because the collapse of the Soviet Union proves “socialism” doesn’t work?
Or, rather, is it the case that working-class defeats, and working-class quiescence, have something to do with mistakes made by the leaderships of the working-class organisations this century? That the leadership’s been bought off? That the whole experience of Stalinism in the Soviet Union illustrates the betrayals of Social Democracy and Stalinism, not something inherent in the working class itself?
Recent struggles around the world show that although the working class is still weak organisationally and politically, it’s still capable of fighting back. There have been a number of encouraging straws in the wind this past year.
In France, workers showed their potential with the magnificent strike wave in December — a huge social explosion, not expected by the ruling class, nor their hangers on. It was a response to a wage freeze in the public sector, and then drastic social security cuts, to implement austerity in preparation for European currency union. The initial strikes were joined by mass student protests over government overcrowding and underfunding of universities. There were two million demonstrators in the streets. Strikes continue in some French cities, Caen and Marseilles. The struggle is not over yet, and will resume in the new year.
An industrial relations academic wrote in the latest New Statesman: “Put bluntly, the wave of strikes should not, in theory, be happening. Unemployment is high, sophisticated human resource management techniques have transformed French industrial relations, and the strength of the unions has declined dramatically in recent years.”
The strikes spread to Belgium too. The action of the French workers will provide an inspiration to workers in Western Europe and around the world. They’ll provide hope, a model, for months, even years.
In the USA, the Million Man March on Washington, despite its tameness and political defects, was a massive outpouring by African American workers in response to the deepening racist oppression they face.
Elections in recent months in Russia and Eastern Europe have demonstrated that neo-liberal free marketeers are on the nose. Workers are voting against capitalist “reforms” that have led to disaster, electing former Communist parties. We don’t have any great expectations from these parties — they’re embracing Social Democracy, not socialism or communism, whatever the name and origin — but it shows the changing mood of workers there.
And in the Third World, from the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico to the revival of the mass struggles and the socialist movement in Indonesia, inspiring mass struggles continue to break out.
Around the world there are continuing struggles for national self-determination — the Tamils; the Basques; in Ireland; Palestine, and the former Yugoslavia. Any fake solutions won’t bring a lasting resolution.
There’s a continuing, though “low-intensity,” radicalisation of young people in advanced capitalist countries on a range of issues — the environment, against war and nuclear weapons, on women’s liberation, gay and lesbian rights, on international solidarity.
In Australia last year we had some tremendous demonstrations against woodchipping old growth forests, against the French nuclear tests, in solidarity with the people of East Timor. Even on the industrial front, with the Weipa-CRA workers, at last we’re seeing a bit of a fight.
The objective situation, the reality of capitalist crisis and oppression, that’s not in doubt. Workers and the oppressed continue to resist; that’s not the problem. But the organisation and political clarity of the working class and oppressed — there’s our weakness, today, and for most of this century.
Socialism is the way forward, still, from the horrors, inequality, crimes and contradictions of capitalism. But what is the way forward to socialism, what is the strategy to achieve socialism, now?
We can see the necessity and possibility of socialism, but the working class is suffering from the mistakes of the past, and the weakness of its organisations as a result.
Following the defeats of the workers’ movement this century, individuals and organisations have had different responses. Some despair, and give up completely, go over to the bourgeoisie. They question, Is revolution possible? Is socialism possible? Or is it the end of history? And they bow down before the bourgeois propaganda, even knowing it’s propaganda. Many former socialists are not as smart as some capitalist columnists and some ruling-class politicians, and don’t have the same interests as the working class and the same gut responses.
Some want to return to the past, and ignore the whole experience of this century, repeating the mistakes of the past. The degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism gave a new lease of life to all the old political dead ends, of this century and the previous: utopian socialism (many of the Greens today); anarchism; socialist reformism.
Today, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of Stalinism, we’ve again seen a reversion to past errors, to rejected and discredited theories and strategies, as happened in previous decades when the class struggle was at a low ebb, or following working-class defeats. People thrash around for new fads, or resurrect discredited ideas, yearn for a return to infantile nostrums, or despair.
Much of the former New Left of the ’60s have been absorbed into the mainstream, into bourgeois academia. Some who continue to claim that they’re still for socialism, cover their retreat from Marxism by claiming to be iconoclastic, boasting of their liberation from orthodoxy. It’s useful to draw from others, from non-Marxist schools of thought, but for what purpose? Not innovation for innovation’s sake, but innovation for clarity and understanding and helping the movement chart a clear course forward.
For example, Peter Beilharz, editor of Thesis Eleven, wrote an article in Australian Left Review in June 1992, the Communist Party of Australia’s magazine that was then on its last legs. He was introduced as follows: “Peter Beilharz began writing a book searching for a `third way’ between the traditions of revolutionism and social democracy. He concluded that no `third way’ existed.” According to the article:
“Ideas of ruptural change are impossible, as Kautsky and Gramsci understood, because the old traditions reassert themselves the day after the revolution. The grand narratives about progress, about socialism lurking ready incipient within the heart of capitalism, simply aren’t helpful . . .
“Socialism needs now to return to the smaller narratives of everyday life; the great narratives of state and program-building have become lectures to empty halls.”
No socialism, no revolution, no party . . . just the smaller narratives of everyday life! Beilharz also invoked Eduard Bernstein as a revived hero-theorist.
Beilharz is one of the most cynical of the former leftists, but symptomatic of whole sections of the ex-left intellectuals. His position was certainly echoed by the CPA, even their left-wing, which threw in the towel, bit by bit during the ’70s and ’80s, and in a big rush finally in the early ’90s.
But this cynicism about the possibility of socialist revolution — a “grand narrative” — is nothing new.
It’s been a recurring theme ever since the victory of the Bolsheviks in 1917. It’s been performed in greater strength since the triumph of Stalinism in the 1920s. And following the final playing out of that defeat of the Russian Revolution, with the collapse of the bureaucratic regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it’s been joined with a whole new chorus.
There are two main sub-themes of the new ex-left:
- The objective conditions were still not ripe for socialist revolution in 1917; the October Revolution was premature.
- Leninism, Lenin’s organisational methods, inevitably leads to Stalinism.
Karl Kautsky — the “pope of socialism” — was the first and most vociferous to oppose the October Revolution and espouse this line. He’s regularly been followed by others since then. It’s a well-trod path.
Alan Charney, national director of the left social-democratic Democratic Socialists of America, is another attempting to go “beyond reform or revolution.” In a document for the DSA national convention last year he argues that we’ve returned to conditions described by the Communist Manifesto. He makes some valid points about the relevance of Marx’s observations — the impoverishment of the working class; the numerical growth of the working class; the impossibility of socialism in one country. But it was written 150 years too soon he says.
He elaborated his view again in an article in the July-August 1995 issue of Crossroads. He argues capitalism is now global, not based on nation-states. So it’s not possible to use the state to achieve public ownership of the economic resources of society. “Thus the conquest of political power, whether by constitutional or revolutionary means, cannot be the primary road to social transformation today.”
Beyond the meaningless phrases such as “reinventing the next left” etc., what’s his prescription? It’s “experiments in building alternative economic institutions, with local government support, in impoverished localities, primarily communities of color abandoned by transnational capital, and among capitalist enterprises in crisis.” Co-ops. “Ground-up” socialism to be achieved through co-ops and pension funds! If we can’t build socialism in one country — one as big as the Soviet Union at that — then how in the world can we do it through local co-ops or workers buying out individual companies?
“The road to the socialist goal must be through a transformation of the institutions of civil society — a long march through the institutions, with a concentration on the economic sphere in particular.”
Charney should have read the rest of the Communist Manifesto, or Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. He would have found that his petty-bourgeois socialist conceptions were thoroughly refuted long ago. No, the Communist Manifesto was not written 150 years too early. Charney’s just more than 150 years behind the times.
He also blithely ignores the whole thinking and experience of the socialist movement on the role of the state. The capitalist state apparatus still exists. The “special bodies of armed men” defending capitalist property haven’t gone away. This mightn’t be relevant to comfortably off left academics, but it’s a crucial question if you’re serious in mounting a challenge to capitalism.
Characteristic of all the “Back to Marx” types — Social Democrats old style or new — is that they want to skip over, force from their minds, the experience of this century. They ignore the role of the state, the fact of imperialism, the bankruptcy of reformist socialism, the experience of the victory of the Russian revolution (i.e., Leninism), and an objective analysis of the degeneration of the revolution, of Stalinism.
In the wake of the disaster that was Stalinism, and in response to the isolation, sectarianism, and mistakes of the anti-Stalinist opposition (usually Trotskyist), many former revolutionists now echo the Social Democrats or are partisans of Kautsky.
Their justifications vary: We’re too small, the bourgeoisie’s too strong, therefore give up, forget about revolution, join with Social Democracy, that’s all that can be done. Forget about socialism, just concentrate on the issues, or local organising. Forget about parties, certainly Leninist parties. All those in retreat agree, Lenin was wrong, and Leninism leads to Stalinism.
What was Lenin’s conception of the party? The question of socialism, the perspective for revolutionary change, is intimately related to the questions of strategy, agency, organisation — the party question.
As our party Program explains: “Since the beginning of the 20th century all the necessary material conditions have existed within the imperialist countries and on a world scale for this social revolution. But the existence of the necessary material conditions is by itself insufficient. Unlike all previous social transformations, the socialist revolution demands conscious action by the working class and its allies. Socialism can only be achieved through the united action of millions of working men and women conscious of their social interests and the steps necessary to realise them.”
But how does the working class achieve the level of revolutionary socialist consciousness in order to take those conscious steps?
The capitalist class is well organised. It has the power of the state behind it, tremendous financial resources, control of the economy, and control of all the major instruments of ideological production and manipulation.
The working class has the power of its collective action. It can spontaneously engage in huge struggles for immediate objectives, defensive struggles, even create organisations for this purpose — for example, trade unions. But it cannot spontaneously attain the level of political understanding required to take state power into its hands and reorganise society along socialist lines. This applies not only to the trade-union movement, but to the student, women’s liberation, international solidarity, environmental, etc., movements.
Trade unions are mass organisations of the working class that arise spontaneously and struggle to improve the economic conditions of the working class within the boundaries of the capitalist system. This is the material basis for trade union consciousness, which recognises the antagonism of interests between the capitalist employers and the working class, but does not question the existence of the capital/wage labour relation. Consequently, the trade-union movement — and trade union consciousness — fights for the interests of the workers against capital, but simultaneously accepts the inherently exploitative and oppressive relationship between the capitalist class and the working class.
In contrast to the trade-union movement, the socialist movement arises on a different basis, has a different consciousness and a different aim. The socialist movement does not arise as a direct, spontaneous reflection of the contradiction between wage labour and capital within the sphere of the workers’ economic interests, but rather on the basis of profound, scientific knowledge of the class struggle as a whole. As Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto, the socialist movement originates with “a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.”
Consequently, the socialist movement, while reflecting the wage labour/capital contradiction, is not ideologically bound within the narrow confines of that relation in the manner of the spontaneous workers’ movement. It is conscious not only of the need for the workers to defend themselves within the boundaries of the wage-labour relation, but of the need for the workers to forcibly destroy that relation altogether. This is, essentially, revolutionary consciousness.
The fundamental distinction between the trade-union (or any other spontaneous) movement and the socialist movement had been an established part of the Marxist theoretical arsenal since the Communist Manifesto. However, its fullest implications did not come to the fore until the development of imperialist, monopoly capitalism placed the proletarian revolution on the historical agenda as an immediate, practical question. In the imperialist era, consistent Marxists, particularly Lenin, confronted the problem of fusing scientific socialism with the spontaneous workers’ movement at a new and higher level. In order to solve this problem, Lenin had to reaffirm and deepen the distinction between the trade-union and socialist movements.
In What Is To Be Done? Lenin took up in successive order the ideological, political, and organisational distinctions between the trade-union (or other spontaneous) movement and the socialist movement. He pointed out that the firmest grasp of this distinction is the key precondition for the effective merger of scientific revolutionary socialism with the working class, that is, for the building of a mass revolutionary workers’ party.
Ideologically, Lenin deepened the distinction between the spontaneous consciousness that arises in workers out of their immediate experience, and the revolutionary consciousness that can only arise from the broadest scientific theoretical examination of the overall social relations in capitalist society. Lenin pointed out that spontaneously developed consciousness is not only not revolutionary, but that it is actually a form of bourgeois ideology:
“(T)he spontaneous development of working-class consciousness,” Lenin argued, “leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology . . . for the spontaneous working-class movement is trade unionism . . . and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers to the bourgeoisie.” This highlights the immense ideological responsibility of socialists, for to quote Lenin’s words again, “to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree, means to strengthen bourgeois ideology.”
Lenin polarised matters in this way to draw out the qualitative, not quantitative, distinction between the consciousness of the trade-union (or other spontaneous) movement and revolutionary working-class consciousness. These were, for Lenin, two quite distinct levels of class consciousness, and the one does not just gradually and automatically grow into the other.
It is not sufficient for revolutionary socialists to welcome spontaneous rebelliousness on the part of the masses and nudge it toward being militant and consistent, thinking that if we nudge it hard enough it will become revolutionary consciousness. On the contrary, Lenin argued that even the slightest tendency to worship the spontaneous consciousness of the mass movement represents a step toward adapting the socialist movement into an instrument of bourgeois reformist politics.
“(A)ny subservience to the spontaneity of the mass movement and any degrading of [socialist] politics to the level of trade unionist politics,” Lenin wrote, “mean preparing the ground for converting the working-class movement into an instrument of bourgeois democracy.”
“The spontaneous working-class movement,” Lenin added, “is by itself able to create (and inevitably does create) only trade-unionism, and working-class trade-unionist politics is precisely working-class bourgeois politics.”
Politically, Lenin highlighted the distinction between trade-unionist politics and revolutionary working-class politics. He took on two well-cherished myths within the socialist movement. First, that trade unions (and other spontaneous movements) have no politics and therefore it is the responsibility of socialists to bring politics to these movements. Second, that the trade-union movement (or the workers’ economic struggle) has some inherent quality that makes it, in principle, the most important arena for socialist work.
Lenin’s most basic point was that trade unions (and other spontaneous movements) do not need socialists to bring them politics. Their very nature draws them into political activity and gives them a political character. This political character flows from their role in defending the workers’ immediate economic interests, a role which pushes them inexorably to struggle for government policies that assist the working class. This ongoing practice of spontaneous trade unionist politics, however, remains firmly within the overall relations of capitalism. It may be quite militant, as Australian labour history vividly demonstrates, but it remains inherently reformist politics.
This is in sharp contrast to revolutionary socialist politics, which does not confine itself to fighting for reforms from the government to improve the masses’ immediate conditions of life, but simultaneously seeks to convince the working class and its potential allies of the necessity to forcibly overthrow the capitalist state itself.
The problem for Marxists, then, is not how to lend the spontaneous movements a political character. They already have that character. The problem is how to bring revolutionary politics to the trade-union and other spontaneous movements. This is a task of a qualitatively different nature. Socialists cannot lull themselves into complacency with the belief that they are “making the unions political”; rather, they must constantly assess what kind of politics are becoming influential in the union movement and strive to bring revolutionary theory and training to the working class, which is their particular responsibility in all the struggles of the class.
Lenin also had no patience with the position that the trade-union struggle is, in principle, the key arena for socialist work. He disputed the logic that because the wage labour/capital relationship is most directly expressed in the workplace, economic struggles provide the best basis for workers to obtain revolutionary consciousness. For Lenin, this was simply a warmed-over version of the position that workers can spontaneously, i.e., from their direct experience, arrive at revolutionary socialist consciousness. Inevitably, it implies that the introduction of socialist consciousness, of scientific socialist theory, from outside the spontaneous struggle is less necessary in the trade unions than elsewhere.
In opposition to such a view Lenin argued that any and every manifestation of oppression is just as capable of providing means for drawing the masses into political struggle and for introducing socialist consciousness into the working class.
This point is central to Lenin’s entire argument concerning the distinction between trade unionist politics and revolutionary politics. Any illusions about what can be accomplished without revolutionists bringing scientific socialism to the mass movement must be shattered.
These illusions may take the form of thinking trade unions do not inherently have politics, or believing that the trade-union struggle has a special significance in creating revolutionary consciousness. Such illusions serve only to mystify what is accomplished in the trade union struggle as such, and encourage complacency among socialists toward the immense task of fusing revolutionary politics with the spontaneous movement. This point needs special emphasis today when revolutionary political influence in the Australian trade-union movement is extremely marginal. Today, even a mass-based set of trade unionist politics, of working-class reformist politics, would mark a giant step forward for the labour movement, which is almost totally imbued with class-collaborationist politics, with the petty-bourgeois reformist politics of the labour bureaucracy.
Under these circumstances, there can be an enormous pressure upon socialists in the trade unions to lower their sights to something that seems “realistic.” However, if we allow any such pragmatism to muddy the crucial distinction between spontaneous trade-unionist politics and revolutionary politics, we will not only fail in building a bigger nucleus of revolutionary cadres in the unions, we will also fail in promoting even a revival of militant trade unionist politics.
In the organisational realm, Lenin sharpened the distinction between the broad mass organisations of the spontaneous workers’ movement (for example, trade unions) and the disciplined organisation of professional revolutionists, i.e., the revolutionary socialist party. The organisations of the spontaneous movement, by the logic of their spontaneous development, encompass broad strata of the masses, and devote their attention to one (or perhaps a small number) of issues confronting the masses. These are precisely the characteristics needed by mass organisations if they are to involve the largest numbers of working people in struggles to defend and advance their class interests.
On the other hand, to fail to make a qualitative distinction between these broad organisations and the type of workers’ organisation needed to bring conscious direction to the class struggle is to destine the workers’ struggle to defeat after defeat. The disciplined, politically homogeneous core of professional revolutionaries is needed precisely to assure the broadest participation of workers in the class struggle. Lenin argued this point as follows:
“If we begin with the solid foundation of a strong organisation of revolutionaries, we can ensure the stability of the movement as a whole and carry out the aims of both [socialism] and of trade unions proper. If, however, we begin with a broad workers’ organisation, which is supposedly most `accessible’ to the masses” but which is actually most accessible to agents of the bourgeoisie “we shall achieve neither the one aim nor the other.”
Without a centralised, disciplined organisation of professional revolutionaries, of revolutionary cadres, the effective imbuing of the working class with socialist consciousness can never be accomplished. Failure to grasp this organisational distinction amounts to reliance on the spontaneous development of the mass movement to co-ordinate and lead a consciously revolutionary struggle.
In articulating these distinctions, Lenin was forced to take up a polemic against an alternative view within the Russian socialist movement in the early 20th century, a view he dubbed “economism.” The defeat of “economism” was a precondition for the full consolidation of the Bolshevik faction, the leadership nucleus of the future mass revolutionary workers’ party in Russia. The defeat of similar tendencies today is a precondition for the revival, consolidation and strengthening of the cadre core of mass Leninist parties.
The term “economism,” refers to the exaggeration of the significance of the economic struggle in relation to the revolutionary struggle for state power. However, it is only a specific manifestation of a broader opportunist tendency to downgrade or efface any of the crucial ideological, political, or organisation distinctions between the socialist and the spontaneous workers’ movements. Often this opportunist tendency is the result of impatience in the face of the enormous gap between the size of the conscious revolutionary forces and the mass forces needed to effect decisive changes in the objective political situation.
The theoretical error of this opportunist tendency has immensely negative political consequences. It promotes illusions as to the anti-capitalist potential of the spontaneous movement and belittles the need to develop the consciously revolutionary forces to the point where they can effectively lead that movement. It justifies a narrow political vision concerning the tasks of socialists, and promotes a dilution of the organisational standards of the socialist movement, arguing for the substitution of a broad workers’ organisation in place of the revolutionary cadre party.
In all these ways, this opportunist adaptation to the spontaneous movement undermines the importance of developing the socialist movement ideologically, politically and organisationally, and unconsciously helps the professional and conscious political agents of the bourgeoisie within the spontaneous movement to channel the movement into class-collaborationist politics.
A counterpart to the “economists” today are those who take a decentralised, regional approach to politics, argue for a focus just on the “communities,” or local narrow campaigns. It’s endemic in the Latin American left. Leftists with this spontaneist or “economist” outlook are usually extremely hostile to attempts to build a socialist party, especially a party with goals and organisational methods like Lenin’s party. But in fact they’re also a hindrance to the development of the local campaigns or the struggles on issues themselves.
But unfortunately, following the setbacks for the international left in recent years, quite a few former supporters of a Leninist perspective have retreated to a spontaneist view.
One variant of the argument is that we shouldn’t try to build a Leninist type cadre party, until we have a mass base. But assuming such a mass party does not yet exist, what sort of party should be built, with what sort of program? A loose, all-inclusive party, is the usual response, with agreement on the issues of the day, but no position on past struggles, especially “what really happened in the history of the USSR.”
But what constitutes a program, and what program is needed for a revolutionary party today? To read from the preamble to the DSP’s own program, that we adopted two years ago:
“The Democratic Socialist Party bases its program on the progressive social experiences of humanity as summarised in the theory of scientific socialism expounded by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 19th century, and further developed by Marxists in the 20th century, above all by V.I. Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks.
“As the theoretical summation of the experience of the working class in its struggle for power, scientific socialism is not a dogma fixed for all time and circumstance, but a guide to revolutionary action that must be constantly enriched by new experiences. The theory of scientific socialism must be constantly developed and tested in the light of the living experiences of the working-class movement, and all who are struggling for social progress. This is particularly so given the early stage of development of the socialist movement in Australia. We expect that the future will bring many new experiences, which we and other fighters for progressive social change must think about, learn from, and incorporate into our theory and practice.
“That being said, it is nevertheless important for the socialist movement to elaborate its present program as clearly as possible. The struggle for socialism is unique in that it is the first social revolution in human history to be conducted in a conscious manner.
“The working-class struggle for socialism is prepared by and grows out of the contradictions of the capitalist social order. The socialist program must therefore begin with an analysis of the capitalist system, its contradictions and historical development — and on the basis of such an analysis, outline the basic tasks and line of march of the working class in its struggle to replace capitalism with the new socialist social order.”
The historical experience of the working class, plus leading the masses in struggle — the party unites the two aspects, and develops its program in the process, taking up all cases of tyranny and oppression under capitalism, from all oppressed classes, taking up the demands and interests of all social movements — workers, women, oppressed nationalities, gays and lesbians, students — and environmental concerns that affect humanity as a whole.
What elements of revolutionary working-class experience are necessary for the program of the renewed socialist movement today?
It would be difficult to develop a revolutionary socialist program today without taking into consideration the two key events of the 20th century — the victory of the Russian Revolution, as well as its degeneration.
Firstly, without learning from the experience of 1917, the victorious Russian Revolution, Leninism for short. (And counterposed to it, the variants of social democracy, from Bernstein to Kautsky et al). Secondly, without learning from its degeneration and defeat, Stalinism for short.
These have been major tests in struggle. It’s not merely an intellectual debate, a purely historical question.
Reactions to these events are still the measure of all on the left today, and will continue to be the case in the next stages of the development of the socialist movement.
We don’t make a fetish of 1917, of Lenin. There’s all the experience since, the actual situation today, the international totality. We’re not living in the past, but that experience still helps chart the way to the future. And failure to get these two things clear consigns a political tendency to really live in the past, to be irrelevant or a roadblock to the socialist struggle.
They define the two main dead ends and betrayals for the socialist movement this century, Social Democracy and Stalinism.
The events of 1914-17 provide an absolutely clear divide between revolutionary Marxism, Bolshevism, and Social Democracy, Menshevism, reformism. Responses to those events show which side you’re on.
It was clear by 1914 that most Social Democrats were socialists in name only. Their response to the workers’ revolution in Germany in 1918 confirmed it thoroughly. There have been further refinements since then. The bourgeoisie has found a special role for Social Democracy, Laborism, as the alternate government in times of crisis.
Also counterposed to Lenin and the strategy of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution, was Kautsky and his critique. He maintained he was an orthodox Marxist. But his “Marxism” was mechanistic, and faced with any real revolutionary situation, he shied away.
Kautsky was answered at the time by Lenin and Trotsky. The failure of his line has been shown in practice, with the defeat of the 1918-19 German revolution, which had been the hoped for international spread of the Russian Revolution. From Germany in 1918 to Chile in 1973, the Kautskyist road has not abolished capitalism anywhere, and in many cases has led to catastrophe for the working class, disarming it against fascism and war.
The Australian Labor Party never had any pretensions to be a Marxist party, a socialist party. It was never anything but a bourgeois party. But it’s even easier to see today with the Accord, and the experiences of the Hawke-Keating governments.
In Britain, it’s also been further clarified with the Labour Party over the last few years. With the scrapping of Clause 4 the British Labour Party no longer even pretends to stand for reformist socialism. Social Democracy — the parties affiliated to the “Socialist” International — around the world is a thoroughly tamed, pro-capitalist current.
It’s not merely a question of the betrayal of working-class struggle, betraying revolutions. It’s also a question of even winning reforms. Social Democratic and Labor parties are not even the way for that. They’ve become the alternate parties of austerity and neo-liberal reaction.
But it’s also not even a question of democracy. Social Democrats berate communists from a supposedly high moral ground, that they’re pro-democratic, communism’s not. These are total lies, the same arguments the bourgeoisie uses.
For example, NSW Premier Bob Carr made this claim about Social Democracy’s unbemished nature in a pamphlet Social Democracy and Australian Labor: “Alone of all the major political strands, social democrats can boast they have never imprisoned, tortured or executed their political opponents.” The hide of the scoundrel. It’s refuted in the very division in the German Social Democratic party in 1918. The rightwing leadership of Ebert, Noske and Scheidemann were in effect the murderers of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and 3000 other socialist workers! (Carr even has the hide to try to use Luxemburg’s criticism of Lenin’s party.)
The fact is, Labor has a most authoritarian and repressive record. ALP governments have sent troops into the coal mines, put Indonesian independence fighters in POW camps, persecuted trade unionists such as BLF leader Norm Gallagher, jailed members of the CPA. The ALP has been an enemy of democracy and civil liberties, proposing the Australia card, legislating restrictive bureaucratic regulations, totally complicit in the crimes of the ruling class internationally.
While denouncing socialists as sectarian, Labor’s actually the most sectarian current active in the workers’ movement. Look at their publications. They’re absolutely narrow. They do not take up the interests of the mass of working people. Rather they simply promote their own narrow organisational goals, the promotion of their parliamentarians. Compare Labor Herald to Green Left. (It’s similar with the Greens, who also produce extremely narrow, sectarian publications.) Also check out their Web pages. It’s solely their own material, and links only with other Social Democratic parties. There’s not a single other link. Again it’s the same with the Greens, there’s no reference or link to other movements, let alone other parties and political currents. Contrast this with Green Left, and our diverse content, and the diverse links to the web pages of other movements, and other parties.
What about the second dead-end for the workers’ movement this century, Stalinism? Can we ignore it now in developing a revolutionary program?
It’s less relevant today perhaps, less of a problem, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the Beijing regime increasingly steering China in the direction of capitalist restoration. But there are relics and revivals. In Russia and Eastern Europe, what do the reformed Communist parties such as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation now represent? What tactical approach should you have? Can workers’ states ever be restored there without an honest assessment of Stalinism?
In Asia, in the Philippines, on the Indian subcontinent, Communist parties are coming to terms with Stalinism to one degree or another. Some are heading towards Social Democracy, others are reaffirming their Stalinism, some are rewinning a Leninist perspective.
In Australia we also have the back-to-Stalin brigade, the Socialist Party of Australia. A few months ago their paper The Guardian carried a column by Rob Gowland, defending the Moscow show trials of Bolshevik leaders and the 1937-39s purges of even loyal Stalinists. In Adelaide at the CPA 75th anniversary seminar SPA leader Alan Miller spent most of his talk defending Stalin. He considers that “imperialism’s sustained attack on Stalin is a form of anti-Communism.”
“The attack on Stalin is based on outright lies, exaggerations, and distortions,” he said. He went on to refer to a book by a Canadian academic, an old Stalinist, Kenneth Cameron: “Cameron examines the trials of the thirties in detail and convincingly shows that the evidence against the anti-Soviet conspirators was far from being concocted as has been alleged.”
So, according to Miller, Lenin’s closest collaborators in making the Russian Revolution and building the Soviet workers’ state — Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin (in fact, a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee under Lenin’s leadership) — were Nazi agents. That’s what they were charged with by Stalin.
Miller goes on to say: “While the working class dominated under Stalin, there was a decisive move towards the right-wing intelligentsia under Khrushchev, and this was behind Khrushchev’s `secret speech’ denouncing Stalin.” Even on the face of it this claim is absurd — if the working class “dominated” the Soviet state and the CPSU under Stalin, how did the Khruschevite “right-wing intelligentsia” usurp power from the workers? Khrushchev was one of Stalin’s henchmen, and he was promoted to the head of the Soviet power structure by Stalin’s colleagues. Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s terrorist regime in order to save, not destroy, the system of rule by a bureaucratic elite that Stalin had headed.
What about Miller’s claim that anti-Stalinism is anti-Communism? Anti-Stalinism is obviously used by imperialism, in fact it’s been incredibly invaluable to them for almost 70 years, enabling them to equate communism with the repressive bureaucratic excrescence that was Stalinism. And anti-Stalinism has also been used as a stepping stone for Communists retreating from Leninism. But any defence of Stalin today, when the workers of the world increasingly know the facts about his rule, in fact plays into the hands of imperialism again.
Where’s the political divide today? For example, can a revolutionary party be built without clarity, honesty on the question of Stalinism? No.
If you’re not convinced of this, you only have to see Ken Loach’s latest film, Land and Freedom. Stalinism was not an abstract question there in Spain, and in countless other struggles. And it’s not just a historical question, the Spanish people today wouldn’t think so. The Chinese people, especially after Tien an Mien, wouldn’t think so.
The DSP wants to reclaim the positive aspects of the CPA’s history and tradition — a tradition of militant anti-capitalist struggle that its working-class members exemplified. But we reject the bureaucratic methods and class-collaborationist politics that were hallmarks of the CPA’s Stalinist leadership. But for this balanced appreciation of what was positive and what was negative in the history of the Communist parties you need a clear understanding of Leninism and of its negation, Stalinism.
Well what about the Trotskyist tradition, which since the late ’20s has defined itself by opposition to both Social Democracy and Stalinism? To what extent is it now outmoded?
Joanna Misnik, a leader of the Trotskyist Fourth International and a leader of Solidarity in the United States, in her commentary on Irwin Silber’s book, writes: “The collapse of `actually existing socialism’ has removed the objective basis for the division of the socialist movement into three basic currents (with all their offshoots) — social democracy, supporters of Soviet `socialism,’ and Trotskyism.”
That’s true — if all that’s meant is the possibility of rebuilding and regrouping a genuine revolutionary Marxist movement again. But the collapse of “actually existing socialism,” that is, the collapse of the Stalinist-ruled workers’ states does not remove the objective basis for the political division between the politics of Social Democracy, Stalinism and revolutionary Marxism. The division between Social Democracy and revolutionary Marxism did not originate with the rise of Stalinism, nor with the October Revolution. It arose out of the betrayal of socialist internationalism by the majority of the leaders of the Social Democratic parties in 1914, with the outbreak of the first imperialist world war. The objective basis for that division — the Social Democrats’ pro-imperialist, class-collaborationist politics — still exists.
To what extent is the Trotskyist tradition relevant? Having ourselves come from that tradition, and having left the FI in 1985, what exactly do we reject in Trotskyism, and what do we retain?
There’s a series of articles by Alan Wald in Solidarity’s magazine Against the Current titled “The End of American Trotskyism?” He writes: “The view that the task of modern Trotskyists is to `reclaim a historic program’ by using their publications to distinguish themselves from other political currents through defense of `the Trotskyist program’ is far too simplistic.”
That’s true, as we basically said in our political resolution in 1984.
But Wald himself suffers from what he criticises. Earlier he outlines what he sees as “the recuperable elements” in Trotskyism, and of course puts at the top of his list the Trotskyists’ theory of permanent revolution, the shibboleth of the Trotskyist movement that differentiates them from Lenin and Bolshevism.
Today there’s a real possibility of going beyond the distortions of the last 70 years now that Stalinism has been shattered. Of course, many Trotskyists are irretrievably locked in to a sectarian dynamic — viewing and relating to the world through dogmatic schemas.
Unfortunately, some who’ve held the line in the difficult periods when Social Democracy and Stalinism were totally dominant in the workers’ movement, are falling back at a time when the possibility of re-establishing the Leninist tradition is opening up.
Many of these have been through the Trotskyist tradition, have been burnt by the sectarianism endemic in the small, divided Trotskyist groups, and conclude that the Leninist perspective itself is wrong, the project of trying to build a politically homogeneous Marxist cadre party that links up with the working class, is wrong.
Can a new revolutionary socialist mass party be built without the baggage of the past? Is it enough just to start from an examination of the problems of the present, and put forward immediate proposals to address those problems? No. We need to take into account both historical experience and the campaigns around the immediate, democratic and transitional demands of the present.
A program is much more than a list of demands around which to mobilise people in struggle today. A program is a series of measures, of tasks, that have to be accomplished in order to reach one’s goal. For socialists, a program has to include the basic tasks that the working class must carry out if it’s to achieve power and build socialism. A socialist program, therefore, as the preamble to the DSP’s Program notes, has to “outline the basic tasks and line of march of the working class in its struggle to replace capitalism with the new socialist social order.” It can’t do that unless it’s grounded in a scientific analysis of the history and development of the capitalist social order and the lessons of the victories and defeats of the workers’ struggles to abolish capitalism over the last 150 years.
Can the party encompass different views on the past? Should we be building a broad, all-inclusive socialist party, rather than a Leninist party, a politically homogeneous cadre party?
But it wasn’t merely Lenin who polemicised against such a broad, “pluralist” party. It was Marx and Engels also.
In 1882 Engels gave his support to Guesde and the left-wing minority when they walked out of the French Workers Party, which split into a Guesdist and a “possibilist,” i.e., reformist, party. Engels described this separation of “incompatible elements” as “inevitable” and “good.”
“If, like the possibilists, you created a party without a program, which anyone can join, then it isn’t a party any more,” Engels argued. “To be for a moment in a minority with a correct program . . . is still better than to have a big but thereby almost nominal semblance of a following.”
And Engels also wrote about situations where a broad workers’ party had developed, but in which the communists had to constitute themselves as the revolutionary pole. The perspective he put forward for communists in such broad workers’ parties, was for them to win over the ranks to a revolutionary program.
Sometimes to build the party we have to make necessary detours, which require compromises in program and organisation. Joining broad left parties — such as the PT in Brazil, the United Left in Spain, the PRC in Italy, the PDS in Germany today — have been the necessary next steps in the building of revolutionary workers’ parties. Such formations have been successful for regrouping the left, or overcoming the heritage of Stalinism. Such parties can still emerge in other countries too. But down the road further programmatic clarification will be needed before they’re ready to mount a revolutionary challenge to capitalism.
In a regroupment project, what level of agreement is needed? Is it enough to agree on some local perspectives for the class struggle? As we did with the SPA in 88-89 and similarly with the CPA and NLP earlier? In such situations we’d need bridging, temporary structures, and rights for different viewpoints and traditions. But we still would need to work toward a relatively homogeneous party, with clarity on both the past and on international questions.
We’ve had invaluable regroupment experiences over the last 15 years. We’ve learnt lessons, and tried different tactics and regroupment attempts, that others around the world are only starting to grapple with. These are lessons, historical experiences, that the ghost of the CPA, and the cynical ALP fake-left careerists in the labour movement, are still trying to lie about. We’ll answer them. But we’re also seeing some attempts at alliances that are fake, both here and overseas. Some have no real forces behind them, but are touted by individuals wanting to catapult themselves into the leadership of a political formation without the hard work of building a party. We’ll probably see more attempts to base a new electoral formation on individual stars, a Peter Garrett or Phil Cleary, without a democratic participation by the ranks.
In Britain, it looks like Arthur Scargill’s attempt to form a new Socialist Labour Party might be stillborn as simply a rump Labour Party with a Clause 4, through his pre-emption with a detailed rule book and exclusion rules before other real forces and parties are able to express their views.
The yearning for an old-style all-inclusive party, like the pre-1914 socialist parties, is a fallout of the collapse and discrediting of Stalinism. But rejecting Stalinist monolithism and lack of internal democracy doesn’t mean elevating pluralism to the level of a principle, and rejecting Leninist organisational principles.
A Leninist party strives for political homogeneity, uses discussion and democracy in order to reach clarity, and democratic centralism in order to test the line in practice and refine it.
It’s no accident that many of the terms used by Marx and Lenin in describing the workers’ party have military origins. In the end, the struggle for power by the working class will have to deal with the military might of the ruling class.
In the Communist Manifesto, for example, the communists are described as “the advanced detachment of the working class.” That is, they have no interests apart from the working class, but are in advance of the rest of the working class, they understand the line of march, can see farther than the great bulk of the working class.
The working class is like an army on a march, of which the Marxists are the advanced detachment, that section of the working class that, armed with the weapon of scientific knowledge, can see farther down the road. The big battalions of the working class focus on the immediate obstacles. The advanced detachment, the vanguard, sees farther, can see the future obstacles.
Those who argue that it’s “sectarian” to organise such an advanced detachment, to educate and train it as a disciplined unit, and to seek to increase its numbers and its influence, do not help in any way the struggles of the big battalions of the working class. The opposite is true. They are acting, whether unconsciously or not, to weaken the workers’ movement. They are objectively aiding its class enemy.
Where are we at today? How do we build an army that will be victorious? We begin by training a leadership core, we study previous wars and battles, as well as the situation we face today.
In a war you’ll need a general staff, trained officers, NCOs. Today we’re engaged in training the professional nucleus of the future mass working-class army, through participation in struggles today, which are in the nature of guerrilla operations. There’s no other way to do it.
The Bolsheviks in 1917 were still a cadre organisation, but with a mass influence. To think that you’ll somehow be able to transform a non-cadre organisation, a Menshevik-type outfit, into a cadre party at a time of revolutionary crisis is fantasy. That was the fundamental cause of the failure of the 1918-19 German revolution; it wasn’t possible to transform the SPD into a revolutionary party. It was Rosa Luxemburg and the German lefts’ failure to recognise this before the outbreak of the revolutionary crisis in November 1918 that doomed the revolution to defeat. Relying on the masses to spontaneously acquire a revolutionary consciousness didn’t prepare them for the revolutionary crisis.
To start educating the vanguard, the cadres, about the big questions which will face the working class down the road — how to take and hold state power — is not “sectarian” as some now maintain. It’s best to prepare the widest core as possible who are aware of such future obstacles.
“To make a revolution it takes revolutionaries,” the Cuban comrades said. What do we understand by “revolutionary cadres”? Cadres need a belief in the socialist goal, a scientific understanding of the steps needed to attain it, and a high level of activism, dedication and commitment. But above all they need to be able to lead others in struggle. Is anything possible without this?
Some argue that a lower level of theoretical understanding and political activity is necessary, and that, as one critic of Leninism has put it, “we must avoid developing an internal culture which is alien and in conflict with the existing mass culture of our respective countries and especially among working people.”
But what is the “existing mass culture” among working people today? It’s predominantly influenced by ruling-class values. This was the line of former CPA leaders such as John Sendy and Bernie Taft — they urged an accommodation to the existing culture.
The use of revolutionary language and Marxist terms has also been criticised. Now we’re as conscious as anyone of the need to use popular language in order to reach out to the mass of people in order to convince them of socialism. But we also need our socialist language, precise Marxist terms. Language is an arena of the class struggle, a battle ground between bourgeois ideologists and Marxists. In reaching out to broad masses and seeking to popularise our Marxist ideas, we’re conscious of the need to make linguistic compromises. But our aim is to imbue the popular masses with an understanding of Marxist ideas, of scientific socialism, not to adulterate Marxism with popular misconceptions.
When a physicist seeks to explain his or her scientific theory to broad masses he or she has to employ imprecise, and sometimes potentially misleading, language. But that’s no argument for abandoning the use of precise, scientific terms among physicists, or for educating physics students in those terms. Education of new comrades in Marxism will be so much harder if we’re forced to always use a very popular, aesopian language. We can learn two languages, but not just one. If not, after a while we can start suffering from the side effects.
What organisational methods does a cadre party need? Our methods change, and adapt to time and circumstance, but we do learn from the Bolshevik tradition, and the experiences of healthy communist parties in countries similar to Australia. We’ve taken a lot of useful pointers from the practices of the US SWP when it was led by James P. Cannon. Our own experience has taught that Cannon’s methods — which are really only the application of Lenin’s methods to an advanced capitalist country — are an invaluable asset in building a revolutionary organisation with a democratic intrnal life and a collaborative team leadership.
At what stage of the struggle, in what sort of period, is it still correct to try to build a Leninist-type cadre party? What’s the role of a revolutionary party in a non-revolutionary period, when imperialism is strong, and only a tiny minority of the working class has a socialist consciousness?
Some who have retreated from revolutionary politics, or become demoralised about the perspective of building a party, argue that in a non-revolutionary period, all you can do is fight for reforms, build the spontaneous movements.
Is the only solution to renounce the possibility of revolution in countries where the class struggle is lagging? No. You fight for reforms with transitional demands, you challenge capitalism, try to lead struggles and raise the consciousness of the working class, recruit, train and educate cadres about Marxist theory and past experiences of working-class struggle, and prepare for an upturn in the class struggle, which can change very quickly. This can’t be done as individuals. The party ties it all together.
At this stage of rebuilding and renewing the socialist movement, while building a cadre party on a national level, what relations are possible between parties internationally? It’s a process of socialist renewal, rebuilding links, networking, attempting to bring together all the parties who are still fighting for genuine socialism, even though coming from different traditions, as Links magazine explains in its founding statement.
Links has been a wonderful initiative so far. We’ve been able to make a significant contribution to this networking already, even with our small forces. We’re setting in place part of the framework for discussion that will lead to clarity, and regroupment around political positions that can move the struggle forward, and not repeat the old mistakes.
A future, real new International, consisting of serious revolutionary socialist parties, that doesn’t repeat the Stalinist Cominternism, or exist as a sect made of internationally cloned outfits of a party in one country, is still a long way away. But the network will develop as the different parties grow and recover from the defeats and dead-ends foisted on the workers’ movement this century.
There are growing prospects for international collaboration in our region of the world. We’ll do all we can to give our solidarity, but we’ll also do what we can to help build organisations, parties in the region that fight for fundamental social change — revolutionary Marxist parties. The developments in Indonesia and the Philippines are especially important and exciting.
That’s also our central task and perspective for the coming year here, to build the party, to recruit, consolidate and train new cadre through creatively responding to new situations, new openings, new objective circumstances, without jettisoning our goals or principles, or the instrument to achieve them.
We’re well aware of the concrete benefits, the practical necessity, of building a Leninist party now, even with our small forces, even with the difficulties the socialist movement faces internationally. We know what we have achieved from it, and what we wouldn’t have without it.
We can look at our successes during the year, and during the ’90s. We’ve been able to respond to issues quickly, been able to intervene, assign comrades, organise our forces. We’ve been able to get out a paper like Green Left Weekly. We haven’t seen many better left papers around the world, now or in the past, certainly in the English language. We’ve been able to produce Links. It’s an impressive initiative for a small party like ours in a country on the margin of world politics. We’ve assembled important resources, assets, infrastructure. We have some dedicated, trained, cadres.
Why can we list these successes? Compared to parties in similar countries, even compared to parties much larger than ourselves? Because of the party, the type of party we have built.
When Boris Kagarlitsky was here for the Easter educational conferences last year, comrades in Perth, his last stop, asked him what he thought of our party. He replied that he “wished we had one of them” — i.e., a cadre party, in Russia.
That is the key question today — developing a cadre party with the perspective of building a future mass revolutionary working-class party. Building such a Leninist party is the only effective way forward to socialism. That’s the central lesson of the history of the workers’ movement, of the struggle for socialism, in the 20th century.