Debate on the world party: a response to the ICC

This is a response to the International Communist Current’s review of Donald Parkinson’s essay Why We Need A World Party. The article being responded to can be accessed here.

2nd World Congress of the Comintern

2nd World Congress of the Comintern

To begin, I would like to thank the ICC for their comradely tone in their response. All too often, debates in the communist milieu begin with bad faith assumptions and insults, making principled and constructive dialogue between partisans of the communist mission difficult if not impossible. Ultimately we believe that, despite our differences, the Communist League of Tampa (and our affiliated groups and sympathizers, who we are working with to form an organization beyond the local level) would be on the same side of the barricade in the class struggle.

Since the article “Why We Need a World Party” was published, we have added the following to our Points of Unity, which all members are expect to adhere to and argue for: In order to triumph in the class struggle the proletariat must organize into a world-wide political party around a programme that expresses its exclusive class interest. However, as you’ve correctly noted, there is not unanimous agreement on how this party will be structured or function and what it’s role will be. We see developing a more precise position on this as a longterm project, one that will develop through debate and discussion within our own organization and with other organizations.

Now on to the critique. Part of my reason for counterposing a mass party to a vanguard party was to put forward an alternative to the models that dominate modern Leninist groups, where a tight theoretical unity is imposed on the rank and file, typically from above, and where ideological conformity is favored above open debate and discussion. Such Leninist groups will often presume the inherent correctness of their sect’s ideology and analysis, and that such correctness makes them a “vanguard” or “elite” of the class struggle. What follows from this is a model of organization where any kind of internal dissidence is silenced and the central leadership is able to use conformity to a strict theoretical line in order to purge any kind of opposition. And as an additional clarification, by advocating for a mass party I don’t advocate for “a party of the whole class” that would include the reformist wing of the workers movement either.

A mass party, as I visualize it, wouldn’t impose a strict theoretical line on all members. For example, the specific mode of production that dominated the USSR, the nature of capitalist crisis, how one periodizes capitalism or sides in various historical debates are issues that are up for discussion. Rather the party would be open for all who can agree with the principles and programme of the organization and are willing to collectively work towards them in an ethical way (defined by a clear code of conduct). This would mean that workers who may not know the ins-and-outs of Capital or have not studied the history of the workers movement in depth, but are willing to fight for the programme, are welcome.

Of course, this leads to the problem of whether the more educated will be able to boss around the less educated and create a situation where people unthinkingly take orders from them. To solve this problem the party must have active educational institutions that are free to all members as well as internal democracy, which means open debate and discussion for all members. The working class can only learn to rule as a class by taking part in political life itself, even if it makes mistakes on the way there. The only way to learn is by doing.

So a mass party, as I state in my article, wouldn’t be based on changing its positions and principles in order to chase popularity with the masses (as the Maoist ‘mass line’ formula would have us do). Rather, it would stick to its principles and programme and start as a minority, patiently doing work within the broader class struggle to build up its forces and become a mass party. By mass party we mean that its programme has mass support, that it will have support for its programme from a near-majority of politically active workers and work toward that majority without conceding anything to populism or other forms of bourgeois politics. To me, the argument that a mass party is impossible without surrendering its political principles strikes an elitist tone, doubting that the masses of proletarians are capable of being won over to communist politics unless some kind of crisis whips them into shape and makes them desperate enough to follow the lead of a small minority party.

Without a party that has developed a strong political culture within the working class, how are the masses of workers to engage in political life on communist grounds before a revolutionary period? If a party dedicates itself to only including the proletarian elite (on what grounds does one determine who belongs to the elite anyway?), then how are those, who may agree with the party’s programme and want to get involved in political life, supposed to participate? Building a mass party on principled grounds, (excluding the social-patriotic and reformist left, alliances with nationalists, tailing the latest political fad, etc.) won’t be easy work, but it’s essential if the proletariat will be trained as a class in the art of politics.

On the question of soviet rule and party rule, the actual history of soviets show that the two have always gone together and aren’t really to be counterposed. We can imagine ideal soviets where all workers aren’t affiliated with parties and the small revolutionary minority takes the backseat and gives them all advice that they listen to while ignoring the various reformist and reactionaries that other parties will be mobilizing as well. But this is never how actual soviets have functioned in the real world. If the revolutionary party wins a majority of the workers to its programme and the majority of delegates elected in the soviets are party members then the party is essentially part of the government. It doesn’t make it a single party-state, as its rule is not completely monopolized and uncontested. But the policy will come from the party and ultimately it will be a system where the party shares power with the soviets/assemblies. What would be the alternative? To refuse to win a majority in the soviets and let more reformist parties take the majority out of fear of taking power? To me, this fear of the party holding power is reminiscent of anarchism, and shows a superstitious fear of political authority.

To clarify, in a revolutionary regime there will most likely not be a single party ruling, but rather a coalition of revolutionary parties and factions of these parties. If the entire revolutionary working class is actually centralized in one party we can imagine there would be factions within this party, which in a revolutionary regime would essentially become different tendencies that would be voted for. Ultimately what matters is that the workers control their own organizations, and that the organs of government, whether soviets or some kind of communal assembly, are based on radical democratic principles of governance (all officials are elected, recallable, kept on short term limits, freedom of assembly, ending of political careerism, ending of rule of law constitutionalism). This is why having support from a majority of the politically active section of the proletariat is key to revolution, because without this support a regime cannot hold onto power without making attacks on political democracy. Unlike all other ruling classes the proletariat cannot rule without political democracy, a lesson revealed by the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism.

Given our general differences on the nature of the party, we don’t necessarily believe that organizations of revolutionaries today need to be based on a strict theoretical centralism. In fact, we see the ICC as embodying the kind of theoretical centralism we would want to avoid. A revolutionary organization should be based on a general platform (for us our points of unity) and from there develop theory through debate. Having one theoretical vision that is imposed on the organization seems to be a way for the leadership to impose a crippling centralism and close the organization off to sympathizers who generally agree with politics but don’t agree with a single theoretical take on marxism. For example, CLT doesn’t impose a line on something like decadence theory or state-capitalism. For us what matters is that we don’t have illusions about Stalinism, electoral roads to socialism, or the mainstream trade unions. How one comes to these positions through theoretical analysis isn’t really as important as the positions themselves.

On the question of the minimum and maximum programme, I derive my approach not so much from Kautsky and Lenin, but rather The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier written by Karl Marx and Jules Guesde in 1880. It is my belief that this document lays out the proper understanding of the min/max programme. Here the minimum programme outlines not measures meant to “complete the historic tasks of the bourgeoisie” but rather a series of demands that, if enacted, would establish a “communal state” where the working class is the ruling class in society at large.

The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier begins with a general outline of the final goal of communism, that “the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race” and that “the producers can only be free when they are in possession of the means of production”. The actualization of these accomplishments is the maximum programme. Followed by this is a set of political demands, which could only lead to an overthrow of the bourgeois state and the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat (or “workers republic” as some of us like to call it) if enacted. They include most notably “Abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people” and “The Commune to be master of its administration and its police”. Such measures are not completions of the bourgeois revolution against feudal remnants, but rather would lead to changes in the form of the state that would create the institutional means through which the proletariat could exercise political power in society at large. Following these political demands are the economic demands, containing things like “Prohibition of all interference by employers in the administration of workers’ friendly societies, provident societies, etc., which are returned to the exclusive control of the workers” and “reduction of the working day from eight to six hours” which do not necessarily nationalize all property or even contradict the value-form but rather aim to empower the position of the working class within capitalism to more effectively wage a war on the capitalist system at large.

A minimum programme is largely compatible with money and markets, though its enacting will inevitably lead to policies that suppress their rule over society. For example, industries already relatively centralized by capital and basic public services can be collectivized and distributed by need relatively quickly, while small proprietors will have to be collectivized more gradually and on a more voluntarily basis. The main preoccupation of the transition period will be to maintain the political rule of the proletariat and help wage global civil war on the capitalist class rather than immediately communize society.

Because no one really know what communism looks like, it makes more sense to unite a revolutionary party over a specific programme and strategy for enacting it rather than a vision of what communist society itself will look like. Better to unite the party behind a minimum and a maximum programme of communism based around more abstract notions like “collective planning of production by society according to need, abolition of money, class exploitation, gender oppression and national divisions, etc”. To form a party unified around a description of communism would take the risk of falling into utopianism. The same problem would happen with a party that based its unity around an interpretation of Das Kapital or a specific interpretation of dialectical materialism. Ultimately, it is unity around loosely defined long term goals and a tight minimum programme which matter.

As for the accusation that the text does not situate ourselves in relation to the past, I find this rather confusing. The text does contain historical references to the Bolsheviks, as well as other organizations such as the IWW, the KAPD, the PCInt, and even the SPD. While a detailed analysis of historical debates over the nature of the party and so on is necessary, I believe this would be a much lengthier project to pursue. Rather than seeing the historical lessons of the proletariat as a tradition codified through a set lineage of organizations, I believe it’s better to do a broader overview of the entire history of the global labor movement and synthesize these lessons from a perspective of radical class independence and internationalism.