January 1, 2008

Recommended Reading for 2008!

[The temptation is always to be contrarian about New Years, adapting a recent bit of folk wisdom slightly--Same Shit, Different Year. And 2008 does kinda look like it's going to bite the big one. Recession, the endless war, poor folks getting creamed while the elections suck all the oxygen away from popular struggle.

But it is still true that the start of a new year is a good time to take a little bit of a longer look ahead. In that spirit, I am posting--and let's be real clear here, strongly encouraging you to read--this very thoughtful look at the organizational tasks of revolutionary socialists in this country. It was published two months ago at the website of the
Freedom Road Socialist Organization / Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad, but I think it deserves every bit of attention that can be directed to it. So even if you've already read it there once, I'm confident that another shot at it will richly repay the time you spend.]

The Life of the Party:
Thoughts on What We Are Trying To Build

Written by Khalil Hassan
Tuesday, 06 November 2007

With the publication of Which Way is Left?, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization takes an important step in advancing a strategy for a realignment and refoundation of the revolutionary Left. Central to this notion is the idea that it is not enough to struggle out differences in order to achieve unity. Unity must come about through an organized process of principled struggle--otherwise, what results will be chaos.

The unspoken question that in many respects haunts the discussion revolves around what we, in the radical and socialist Left, should be attempting to build. FRSO/OSCL calls for a party, yet many of us hear that even using that term unsettles many comrades who nevertheless seek tighter forms of organization.

Stanley Aronowitz offered an important contribution through the publication of his book Left Turn, which explicitly calls for a party of the radical Left. Aronowitz makes a strong case for such a party, though he seems to suggest both a party that can participate in the electoral realm--an unlikely possibility for an explicitly radical party at this moment in the USA--and a party that gives radical, socialist leadership to mass struggles. Aronowitz also offers a timely and devastating critique of post-modernism, a parasitic tendency within the Left. As such, this is a useful and generally positive intervention into a growing discussion of, quite literally, which way is Left.

The following represents some thoughts regarding what it is that we should be trying to build. In offering this discussion piece, I am not attempting to preempt any consideration of the strategy of unifying and reconstructing the radical Left. Rather this is hoped to be received as part of the discussion that needs to unfold. In the interests of space and conciseness, it is offered in the form of theses.

1. There is no forever model of a party generally and a party for socialism in particular. Political parties have ranged over time from the equivalent of clubs and associations to quasi-military formations to the party-blocs that we see in the USA. Their definition arose/arises from

* the actual political and economic conditions in their social formation,
* the historical moment,
* their ideological orientation,
* the nature of the enemy.

2. For the revolutionary Left in the advanced capitalist countries, the mythologizing of the Bolshevik Party of the Soviet Union brought with it largely devastating consequences. The deserved honor won by the Bolsheviks through the success of their revolution was unfortunately translated into the notion that all parties that identified with revolutionary socialism, and specifically what came to be known as Marxism-Leninism, had to conform to a certain structure and form. Rather than an examination of concrete conditions, the assumption that all revolutionaries had to adapt to the type of party that led the Russian Revolution prevailed. In the process, the history of that party was mythologized with significant pieces of information eliminated from history, e.g., the existence of factions and competing tendencies.

3. The social democrats have been haunted by a different problem, i.e., their assumption that the state is neutral leads them to underestimate repression and overestimate the ability to successfully conduct a reform struggle that will result in socialism. For the social democrats, then, their hope, even in the face of vicious repression, is that the state can serve as a neutral instrument that can be captured and used in order to introduce socialism. Thus, for the social democrats, the notion of the revolutionary transformation of society is at best a slogan and the class nature of the state becomes a point of difference they have with others on the radical Left.

While it is true that the capitalist state is built in order to serve to advance capitalism (and not necessarily any individual capitalist), it is also the case that the state remains a terrain of struggle. This means that socialists must be prepared to struggle within the existing state and struggle to gain control of the existing state even while recognizing that this state will ultimately need to be abolished. Without a protracted and sincere struggle to expand democracy and the control by the dispossessed, there will be no confidence in the program and direction articulated by the socialists. To put it another way, the socialists will not be considered to be serious political actors.

Social democrats, however, are generally unprepared for repression, assuming that at the end of the day all players will accept the viability and legitimacy of the democratic capitalist state. This is true of even very courageous leaders, such as the late Chilean President Salvador Allende, who tend to underestimate the willingness of the political Right to reject constitutional democracy.

4. The anarchists run up against problems of how to organize struggle as well as the problem of the transition after capitalism. The assumption by the anarchists is that capitalism can be immediately succeeded by the introduction of self-organized communities with little in the way of a state structure. Their prior problem, however, is how to organize protracted struggle against the forces of the political Right in the struggle against capitalism. To this the anarchists have few answers. At their best, the anarchists are audacious fighters against the oppressor, but they rarely size up the moment and determine the appropriate strategies and tactics. Thus, there is a tendency on the part of anarchists to romanticize particular tactics, e.g., civil disobedience, workplace seizures, etc., rather than to ascertain the tendencies reflected in the various forms of struggle the masses are engaged in at any particular moment.

In the current era anarchist-influenced proposals have emerged that suggest loose networks as the operative form of organization. In general this involves de facto coalitions working around various issues but where no one group or organizational body has authority over another and where there is no assumption of a long-term basis of unity. Networks have served an important function in building struggles around immediate issues, but they tend to be very difficult to sustain over the long term. Internally, there is no real process of building accountability. Related to this is the lack of a means to resolve political and ideological differences. Differences tend to be resolved by one or another group simply walking away from the network.

5. A 21st-century party for socialism builds itself on the experiences--positive and negative--of 20th century socialist initiatives. The work that we undertake does not start off in the middle of a void. It bases itself on conclusions that can be developed as a result of the experiences of the 20th century, a good deal of which are addressed in Which Way is Left?, as well as in other publications that explore these issues in much greater depth. In other words, one cannot pretend as if the experiences of the 20th century did not happen. The anarchist critique, for instance, is as powerful as it is precisely because of the problematic experiences of both revolutionary and non-revolutionary socialist (and national liberation-ist) organizational and state initiatives. Thus, it is ridiculous to pretend that we on the revolutionary Left can return to some pure era before all of the major contradictions within socialism emerged and construct organizations based on yet another myth. We must be looking forward, while at the same time keenly aware of the ground upon which we are and have been walking.

6. A party for socialism in the context of the USA does not construct itself as an electoral party. While it may be the case that at some point in the future due to particularities of the struggle that a party for socialism runs candidates for office in its own name, a party for socialism will need to make that decision based on an assessment of the moment. A party for socialism should be envisioned as a party that leads the struggle of the oppressed and dispossessed. It must be a party deeply rooted among the oppressed and not be a party of "outsiders."

Electoral work will remain a critical site of struggle for the Left, and precisely for that reason specific forms of electoral organization will be necessary. While ultimately there will more than likely need to be an electoral people's party, at this particular moment in time the conditions for such a party do not exist and the nature of the US electoral system makes the construction and sustainability of such a party problematic. Running candidates for office simply to promote the name of the party or the program of the party--be it a party for socialism or a mass electoral people's party--represents self-indulgence rather than Left electoral strategy.

7. A party for socialism must be a democratic, yet disciplined membership organization. The basic principles that Lenin laid out a century ago remain intact, i.e., that to be a member of the party, one must (a) agree with the program, (b) participate in a committee of the party, and (c) pay dues. These criteria are very important on multiple levels, including:

* It does not assume that someone joining the party has a full grasp of Marxism, though they must understand that the party is guided by a Marxist framework.

* Membership in the party necessitates active participation, though participation levels and rates will change over time. For instance, individuals with younger children will more than likely not have the time to be as active as those without. It would be both sexist/anti-family and insane to fail to recognize this. At the same time, being a member of a party for socialism would not be the equivalent of making an annual contribution to the party and then doing nothing.

* There is the assumption of continuous internal education. This does not mean relying on directives from the central committee, but the combination of building upon the existing knowledge of the members plus the addition of new information and analysis. The aim, then, is to help to construct a worldview and method of analysis within the membership that promote self-reliance and leadership development.

* The party must also be capable of making decisions and acting upon them. Within the Marxist-Leninist movement there was the assumption of what was called democratic centralism. This term has a bad name in many quarters today because under the banner of alleged "democratic centralism" various bureaucratic and intolerant practices were carried out that stifled membership democracy and creativity. At the same time, there must be a method for a party to make decisions and act upon them. Therefore:

o Decisions need to be made as a result of democratic discussion and voting. This means that there need to be regular congresses or conventions of the party.

o A process for constructing binding decisions must be created. This might mean that for certain decisions a "super-majority" is needed.

o When decisions are made, they are the decisions of the party. Individuals may disagree with those decisions, and in some cases individuals may have very principled objections to such decisions. In no case should a member of the party be able to act against the decisions of the party even if they publicly disagree with said decisions.

o Decisions, and for that matter the activity of the party, should be summarized and evaluated. This must be built into the work and functioning of the party.

* There should be the assumption that there will be tendencies within a party. Tendencies exist whether they are recognized or not. A tendency should not operate like a clique or faction, but it may have a program that it proposes in advance of a congress. There should be no efforts to abolish or restrict tendencies. This flows from an assumption that within a party for socialism there will be many points of disagreement even where there is overall agreement on the program of the party.

* Members of the party operating in the same social movements and/or struggles should meet on a regular basis to discuss how to advance the program of the party as well as how to advance the objectives of that social movement and/or struggle. It should never be assumed or practiced that social movements are mere recruitment grounds for a party.

* There will need to be term limits in leadership. Experience demonstrates that irrespective of discussion about leadership being judged based on political line, the reality is that there is strength in the incumbency. When someone is in office for a considerable period of time, it becomes that much more difficult to unseat them. Tendencies emerge towards cults of personality, and this stifles newer and younger leadership. Thus, the party leadership must be subject to rotation--not ridiculously short tenures, but something along the lines of no more than ten years in a particular position before someone has to step down and be unable to run for the same position for at least another internal election cycle. New ideas and new individuals must be encouraged to advance to positions of leadership.

8. A party for socialism should aim not only to be mass-based but to have a membership in the hundreds of thousands. A tendency from the 19th century called Blanquism has, over the years, infected much of the radical Left. It is the view that social transformation is brought about through the operations of small groups or conspiracies. Despite the fact that the Bolsheviks had to operate at times as an underground party, it was significant that Lenin regularly polemicized against such views. A party for socialism must aim to be a party in which there are masses directly involved. It needs to aim to reach the real leaders of the social movements and the key activists within said social movements. It should not position itself as an elite operating above the struggle.

The implications of a party of this scale are quite profound. As we attempted to emphasize in Which Way Is Left?, it means that such a party will have a variety of different sorts of members, many of whom will not only disagree with one another but not necessarily like one another. The critical condition, however, will be the ability of members of the party to operate together in line with the common program and direction of the party. Building a party on that scale means thinking very differently than we on the Left normally do about the minimum level of unity necessary in order to be in the same organization as other comrades.

9. The party for socialism must be as public as conditions allow. One of the most difficult dilemmas facing the radical Left in the USA, socialist and non-socialist, revolves around how public can be its activities in its own name. Specifically, can one be an open socialist and member of an openly socialist organization and not face either direct repression and/or marginalization? To a great extent this question revolves around one's analysis of the state.

The democratic capitalist State is not neutral. Its objective is to promote capitalism. As such, it will take steps, when necessary and possible, to repress certain levels of dissent, i.e., levels that appear to operate outside of the dominant capitalist consensus. This is not just repression of those of us on the Left, but also social movements that challenge--from the Left side of the political spectrum--the dominant ruling consensus.

The Left has often been challenged in the so-called mainstream for not being open with its views and organizations. At the same time, when being open, particularly in the South and the Southwest, it is not uncommon for the Left--and particularly the Left of color--to face swift and vicious suppression. There are countless examples of this, but one need only think of the notorious Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in the 1960s and 1970s which aimed to repress the freedom movements of people of color, or the murders in Greensboro, North Carolina in November 1979 of members of the Communist Workers Party, murders that were proven to have taken place with the knowledge and acceptance of the forces of law and order.

For these reasons, a party for socialism, recognizing that the capitalist ruling groups will never voluntarily accept a popular mandate for a transition to socialism, must operate on the assumption that repression is a present and future reality. In other words, there will be repression; the question is of the scale of said repression rather than whether said repression will take place. At the same time, there will be vast differences between various parts of the USA, largely based on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the broader progressive social movements, making it possible to do open socialist work depending on conditions.

Therefore, there should not be a principle, for instance, of an underground party or a principle of a completely open party. There should, however, be an assumption that the party must protect its members, allies and work. The actual history of the USA shows that there is a high degree of intolerance by the ruling circles and the mainstream media for the Left in general and the radical Left in particular. At the same time, part of the reason-to-be for a party of socialism is to shift the ideological currents in society in favor of social transformation. This means that there must be an open presence to conduct such a battle.

10. There may be more than one party for socialism and, therefore, the socialist Left must be prepared to entertain the idea of a "front" of parties and/or organizations operating in concert. As we stated in Which Way Is Left?, the assumption that there will only be one leading party constitutes idealism and dogmatism. There are and will be differences within the socialist Left that may not be easily bridged. This may mean that separate organizations may need to exist for some time to come even if and when such organizations can agree on various forms of joint work. The conclusions from this include:

* Not all differences can be worked out, even between principled groups.

* Room must exist for both strategic and tactical alliances within the Left generally and the socialist Left in particular.

* We are familiar with tactical alliances that come together around a certain issue or issues. Such alliances will remain important.

* Strategic alliances must be forged on a greater scale within the general Left. Strategic alliances constitute conscious and formal agreements between organizations to work together on a set of long-term tasks. Such strategic alliances may result, at some point in the future, in a merger but they may not necessarily result in anything other than a long-term arrangement.

* Successful strategic alliances will more than likely necessitate an organizational framework in order to coordinate activities and work through differences and challenges. As exhibited in Nicaragua and El Salvador, for instance, this may take the form of a radical front that formally brings organizations together but does not necessarily result in a merger.

* Strategic alliances can also be constituted between different sections of the Left. For instance, a party for socialism might construct a strategic alliance with a party or organization that emerged out of a specific social movement, e.g., an oppressed nationality radical formation. While the concept of a merger should not be foreclosed, entry into a strategic alliance would not be grounded on the assumption of merger, though there would be sufficient grounding for a high level of working unity.

11. The conditions for the formation of a party should not be based upon the assumption of comprehensive unity on all of the major questions facing the Left. As we raised earlier, contrary to the practice of the US Left to elevate every political question to a splitting question, the single biggest challenge that the socialist Left faces is to ascertain what are the minimum conditions of unity. This means what are the specific questions around which there must be principled unity in order for a party to come into existence and operate successfully. It is this matter that should be foremost in the minds of the socialist Left, rather than operating on assumptions that there is clarity as to what those questions are as well as clarity as to the answers to such questions. As part of the debate that needs to take place, we will be elaborating our views as to what those questions are. At the general level, and for purposes of a very preliminary discussion, we would suggest consideration go to

* an analysis of the main trends in the global and domestic economies;
* an analysis of the state, and specifically the US state;
* agreement that the party for socialism must be grounded within the oppressed, and particularly within the working class;
* agreement on the centrality of the struggle against racism and national oppression particularly in light of both US history as well as the history of global imperialism;
* agreement on the centrality of the struggle against male supremacy, hetero-sexism, and all forms of gender oppression;
* agreement on the struggle against imperialism and, therefore, the need to build an internationalist party that supports struggles for national liberation and national sovereignty;
* agreement on the essential need to integrate the struggle for a sustainable environment and respect for nature into the struggle for socialism;
* agreement that 21st-century socialism cannot be socialism if it is not democratic and does not represent a period of the increasing of power of the working class and other oppressed strata over the conditions of their lives.

12. A party for socialism cannot replace social movements; and social movements, no matter how radical, cannot displace the role of a party. One aspect of the crisis of socialism has been a tendency for some comrades to believe that either a party is unnecessary because various social movements will advance social transformation or that a party will spontaneously emerge at the correct moment. History has demonstrated time and again a few lessons concerning radical parties and social movements:

* Social movements represent various tendencies and do not, generally speaking, have one comprehensive and overarching view of the tasks of social transformation. They tend, as they should, to focus on the particular objectives of the respective social movement. (Note: such objectives can be reform-oriented and/or radical.)

* Radical parties do not control when a social upsurge will arise. They can prepare for one and attempt to situate themselves in such a way in order to assist in the development of a social upsurge, but attempts at prediction are largely fruitless. Radical parties should place themselves in such a way that they provide material assistance to and leadership for the flowering of social movements.

* Radical parties rarely emerge spontaneously. Party formation as well as mergers may take place at unexpected moments driven by larger conditions. The case of Nicaragua points to this where the Sandinista movement had several distinct blocs that operated quite separately, but during the 1970s, driven by larger social forces--as well as natural forces such as the great 1972 earthquake--united in a reformed Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). In either case, radical parties do not appear simply because the masses define a particular moment when such a party is necessary.

* While the construction of a party for socialism must be conscious, its ability to grow will depend on a combination of its ability to elaborate a line that corresponds to the actual social struggles in the USA and globally as well as its ability to understand that moment or conjuncture. Ultimately social upsurge will drive the ability of a party for socialism to succeed, and social upsurges cannot be willed into existence.

Khalil Hassan has been active in the US Left since the 1970s. He has had articles published in various sources including Monthly Review.


blackstone said...

I personally didn't like their assessment on anarchism. Yes, the anarchist movement in the US is weak, but so is radical leftism period or even liberal-labor coalitions for that matter. There are coherent visions and strategies to battle capitalism and visions of a post-capitalist society. It' a matter of whether or not FRSO wants to recognize them or not.

Skwisgaar Skwigelf said...

blackstone, I think you're reading some things into the piece that it doesn't say. Nowhere does it casually dismiss the anarchist movement as "weak," and it certainly doesn't fail to recognize it outright, as your post implies. Sure, it's critiquing the politics of the anarchist movement, but from the standpoint of taking the movement and its propositions and practices seriously. In fact, you'll note that the piece describes the anarchist critique as "powerful." How many other socialist groups say that?