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How to Rebuild the Party?


Szamuely’s brief article (“No Shortcuts”) is salutary for its criticism of the prevailing ambivalence on the question of “building a revolutionary party.” Enough can not be said against the endless equivocations by means of which avowed socialists have rationalized their failure to do what they often admit to be necessary, namely, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, the “organi[z]ation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party,” for the sake of the “conquest of political power by the proletariat.”

Yet while the author’s condemnation of such equivocation on the party question is richly deserved, it is a bit too pat to prescribe as a solution “the courage and the determination to strike out on your own or with a handful and begin to train yourselves as labor militants and communists through study and action.” Generations of socialists of all stripes have sought to “combine a rigorous study of the classics” according to some canon or other, more or less “intensive investigation of the economic realities of the present,” and, as best they could manage, “militant engagement in the daily struggles of our class.” Nearly a century of such “serious work” has not only failed to disinter us from the “junk of the past,” it has found in that scrap heap ample justifications for sectarian evangelism, ecumenical regroupment, and “pink liberalism” alike. “[A] Marxist policy of study and action” is apparently insufficient to “train an intellectual elite. . . able to grasp the dynamic of the revolution from 1776 to 1917 and what that demands of them today.” It alone cannot furnish the “real ideological cohesion” necessary to build “real social force.”

Perhaps the author would quibble over which “classics” have been studied or how they’ve been studied; how various investigations of economic reality have been undertaken; or the degree of courage, determination, and militancy displayed in engagements with various daily struggles, or the class character of those struggles themselves. But the obstacle upon which efforts, direct or indirect, to “build a revolutionary party” have repeatedly foundered cannot simply be attributed to stubborn or cowardly refusal to do “serious work.” For aspiring socialists no less than wage laborers, buckling down and working hard is, lamentably, no more reliable a path to success than a “get-rich-quick scheme,” and, no doubt, those taken in by such schemes are at least as often motivated by exhaustion with thankless toil as by laziness. They may even believe the “scheme” itself to be serious business demanding hard work, courage, and determination, but offering better prospects of a positive result.

The author is certainly correct that Marxists ought to “convey the lessons of past history to the fighters of the future.” Yet, whether we have understood these lessons ourselves is questionable, given where we are. Even those who agree with the author’s insistence on the necessary task of building a socialist party, the “best-intentioned and most resolute” are unlikely to find in exhortations to continue grinding away even more resolutely relief from the “sinking feeling” that there is no clear way forward.

So what is to be done? “Unsparing discussion of all the questions we have inherited from the prior history” is certainly somewhere to begin. But what has been spared from such discussions thus far that has prevented them from yielding the desired result? Answering this question requires reflection on how socialists of all tendencies have tried to make sense of the history of socialism and to teach its lessons, and why they’ve come up short.

Marx was the first socialist to seriously reflect upon the history of socialism in order to clarify the way forward. His approach was “scientific” in that it was a critical grasp of socialism as a historical phenomenon — an attempt to bring consciousness of its historical conditions and significance to bear within the socialist movement, in “ruthless criticism” directed “much more against ostensible friends than against open enemies.” [“Gottfried Kinkel” (1850)] He aimed “to help the dogmatists. . . clarify their propositions for themselves,” to “show the world what it is really fighting for” by “awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions.” The task he set himself was “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age,” through which it would “become plain that mankind will not begin any new work, but will consciously bring about the completion of its old work.” [“Letter to Ruge” (1843)]

Marx’s immanent critique of socialism was based upon his “discovery, which revolutionzed the science of history” [Engels, “History of Communist League” (1885)]. That “discovery” was a lesson of history, specifically of the history of the Revolution of 1848. As he clarified to Joseph Weydemeyer in 1852, his insight was not the discovery of “the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them,” which had already been described “long before” by “bourgeois historians. . . and economists,” but rather,

  1. that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production,

  2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat,

  3. that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

When Marx first encountered socialist ideas, the modern class struggle of the industrial proletariat had already commenced in England. There, workers were organizing not only economically in trade unions and cooperatives but politically in the Chartist movement. The working class of Britain sought through democracy to conquer political power for itself. In the course of that struggle, the workers increasingly turned to the ideas of the socialists in an effort to understand why their struggle had become necessary and what it would take to succeed. Hence, Marx’s conception of history was “of immediate importance for the contemporary workers’ movement.”

Marx understood the significance of socialist ideas in light of the present “historical phase in the development of production” and the class struggle’s socialism as an attempt to think through the conditions from which this struggle was emerging and under which it might ultimately be concluded. As Engels put it, socialism, “no longer meant the concoction, by means of the imagination, of an ideal society as perfect as possible, but insight into the nature, the conditions and the consequent general aims of the struggle waged by the proletariat.” [Engels, “History”]

Hence, the immediate aim of the “critical communism” of Marx and Engels was “the same as that of all other proletarian parties,” namely, “organization of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party” to pursue the “conquest of political power.” Their contribution was the theoretical clarification of the historical conditions that made this task necessary, which they brought to bear in their practical participation as “the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others” by “bring[ing] to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality” and “in the various stages of development which the struggle. . . has to pass through. . . always and everywhere represent[ing] the interests of the movement as a whole.” [Manifesto]

Near the end of his life, Engels contrasted the early proletarian socialist movement with that of the late 19th century, guided by the Marxist leadership of the social democratic parties of the Second International.

We had then [circa 1848] the many vague sectarian evangels with their panaceas; we have today the one universally accepted, transparently clear theory of Marx, sharply formulating the final purposes of the struggle. We had then the masses, divided and differentiated according to locality and nationality, undeveloped, held together only by a sense of common suffering, aimlessly driven hither and thither between enthusiasm and despair; we have today the one great international army of Socialists, advancing irresistibly, daily growing in numbers, organization, discipline, discernment, and certainty of victory. [Engels, “Introduction to The Class Struggles in France” (1895)]

Marx’s “scientific socialism” clarified why the industrial proletarians had found themselves compelled, at the height of their struggle, to organize as a class into a political party and, by that means, to conquer political power. This “sharp formulation” was no “dogmatic banner.” It was not based upon “[sectarian] ideas or principles. . . invented or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer,” but articulated “ideas that were the very reflex of [the] economic condition” of wage labor under industrial capitalism. Here was “nothing but the clear, logical expression of [the workers’] needs, not yet understood and only vaguely sensed by them. . . [the expression] of the very interests of the great majority itself, interests then by no means clear to that majority, but which soon had to become clear through convincing demonstrations in the course of their realization.” The organization of the working class into a political party that explicitly understood the necessity of its historic task, into a socialist party in this “scientific” sense, brought about a profound change in the workers’ movement. As Karl Kautsky put it:

Now the proletariat has a goal toward which it is struggling, which it comes nearer to with every battle. Now all features of the class struggle have a meaning, even those that produce no immediately practical results. Every effort that preserves or increases the self-consciousness of the proletariat or its spirit of cooperation and discipline, is worth the making. Many an apparent defeat is turned into a victory. Every unsuccessful strike, everylabor law defeated, means a step toward the securing of a life worthy of human beings. Every political or industrial measure which has reference to the proletariat has a good effect. Whether it be friendly or unfriendly, matters not, so long as it tends to stir up the working class. From now on, the militant proletariat is no longer like an army fighting hard to defend positions already won; now it must become clear to the dullest onlooker that it is an irresistible conqueror. [The Class Struggle (1892)]

On this basis, partial victories ceased to be “lures” by which the workers could be ensnared by their enemies into a false sense of security, and setbacks would no longer dispel their aspirations as “illusions.” The “revolutionary disposition” was now not only able to persevere but was strengthened by what had formerly led to “lassitude,” “disenchantment,” or even “reversal into its opposite.”

Marx and Engels were wary that their theory should not be converted into a “sectarian principle. . . by which to shape and mold” the movement. “We shall not say: Abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with the true campaign slogans.” Marx and Engels were as ruthlessly critical of those “ostensible friends” who claimed fidelity to Marxism as they were of socialists of other persuasions, so long as they “contrived to reduce Marx’s theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy which the working man is not expected to arrive at by virtue of his own class consciousness,” which had to be “promptly and without preparation rammed down his throat as an article of faith” [Engels to Sorge, 5/12/1894] treating it “in doctrinaire and dogmatic fashion as something which, having once been learnt by rote, is sufficient as it stands for any and every need.” [Engels to Sorge, 11/29/1886]

Rather, if socialists who “accepted our theoretical program and thus acquired a basis” upon which they might “become important” in the formation of a “real proletarian movement” were to amount to more than “so many isolated individuals” and “an omnium gatherum of muddle-headed sects” — mere “remnants of the great movement” of the past, [Engels to Bebel, 8/30/1883] — they needed to “use their theory as a lever” to “set the. . . masses in motion.” This required “working in [the] midst” of the existing movement, however primitive and “muddle-headed” it may have been at its present stage of development, in order “to form, within this still fairly malleable mass, a nucleus of men who know the movement and its aims and will thus automatically take over the leadership of at least some part of it,” so that when, as the struggle advances and escalates, “the present [form of the movement] disintegrates” [Engels to Sorge, 11/29/1886] it will give way to a higher form demanding a higher level of consciousness.

Marxists would demonstrate the merits of their theory not by merely expounding it in abstraction and recruiting those thereby persuaded to join an organization of the devout, but by using it to understand the underlying conditions and broader trajectory of present struggles — their prospects, obstacles, and exigencies — and, on that basis, to counsel those involved as to which course they must take to succeed and advance, and why other approaches were doomed to fail.

The specific nature of such guidance would depend upon the concrete situation in question. Still, in general, the workers needed to understand their interests as fundamentally distinct from and opposed to those of their employers and of the capitalist class writ large. That dogged pursuit of those interests would inevitably breed antagonism and conflict. Any compromise that might be reached would reflect only a temporary and ultimately unsustainable reprieve. It would require continuous and advancing struggle to be sustained, as it would necessarily be subject to countervailing pressure on the part of those from whom it was begrudgingly wrested.

Pursuit of their distinct interests would require the workers to rely on their own independent organization. They must avoid becoming dependent upon organizations and leadership premised upon unstable compromises with the capitalist or other classes with whom their interests do not always and everywhere coincide, whether those be economic or other civil associations, political parties, or the state. They can reliably depend only upon themselves, upon those with whom they share common interests by virtue of their common class position as wage laborers, and must develop this self-reliance and clear consciousness of their aims without adulteration. Any compromises or alliances with other classes must be conditional upon, and secondary to, their organizational independence, conceding nothing that might undermine their practical self-reliance and awareness of its necessity.

It would, moreover, require that the workers continuously expand the reach of their struggles by joining together and making common cause with other workers across all divisions, as their sole advantage in struggle lies in the dependence of the capitalist class upon the working class as a whole, that is, on the availability of wage labor in general. So long as there are workers competing with one another to be employed, the capitalists will exploit this fact to outmaneuver the efforts of individual workers or groups of workers to improve their conditions. Only by grasping their common interests as a class, joining their particular struggles together and uniting on an ever greater scale, ultimately seeking to unite the whole working class on a global scale, can they effectively wield the power necessary to overcome the opposition to their pursuit of their own interests.

Continuous expansion and escalation of this struggle would produce a corresponding effect in the opposing camp, an escalation of opposition from, and increasing coordination among, the capitalists and those aligned with them. As this struggle and its consequences would increasingly spread through and affect society at large, it would invite intervention by the state, which exists to maintain social order. The prevailing order and, hence, the power of the state is based upon capitalist production. The state’s intervention would aim to suppress social conflict, whether by way of repressive force or other means.

The struggle of the workers must therefore become a political struggle to conquer state power, to prevent this power from being used against them and to instead put it in service of their own cause, namely, to subordinate the capitalist production process to the interests of their class. The working class movement must stand in clear and intransigent opposition to the existing state and to the political parties representing the prevailing social order. Such political parties offer the workers compromises in return for their political subordination. That subordination renders the workers’ movement into a prop for preserving the very political and economic conditions that, by virtue of their class interests, they must oppose and seek to fundamentally transform.

The working class must therefore organize itself into an independent political party, standing on and clearly propagating its distinctive interests as a class and the essential opposition of these interests to the economic power of the capitalists, the political power of the capitalist state, and the political parties defending both under the guise of compromises that would benefit the workers. This party must seek to use the full extent of the working class struggle in all its forms as a means of preparing the class to conquer and wield political power itself, a means of clarifying the necessity of this task and developing the practical capacity to accomplish it.

Socialists must bring their theoretical grasp of the broad historical trajectory of this struggle to bear within the actual struggles of workers, helping them to understand the obstacles they face and to see the next steps forward. Whether or not this guidance is heeded in any given case, the successes or failures of these struggles will confirm its validity, and hence, the value of the leadership of those who proffer it and of the theoretical perspective from which it is derived.

This is how, as Kautsky put it, even apparent defeats can become victories, as they become means of further clarifying the conditions of this struggle and of the course it must ultimately follow. Victories and defeats alike would thus provide “convincing demonstrations” and encourage acceptance of the “logical expression” and “sharp formulation” of the needs and interests arising as “the very reflex of their economic condition” and of the “final purposes of the struggle” provided by the “transparently clear theory of Marx,” on the basis of which the working class was once, and may again, be welded together into “one great [irresistably advancing] army. . . daily growing in numbers, organization, discipline, discernment, and certainty” of ultimate victory.

Yet if this army was forged once before, why did it fail? We cannot begin to address Szamuely on the party question without addressing this historical conundrum.

Having arrived at the brink of revolution with the crisis of capitalist society posed by World War I, the proletarian socialist movement proved unable to lead history forward. The broader historical crisis manifested within the movement itself. And it was this crisis that international socialism failed to resolve. As a result, it was fractured with the split of what would become the Communist Third International. Neither side — neither the Second or the Third International — proved capable of leading the world socialist revolution. Both succumbed to continuous deterioration and fragmentation, and their deracinated remnants are all that survive of the socialist legacy today.

The latter-day adherents of this shattered tradition each clung to some conception of what went wrong at what point, and hence, what should have been, or now needs, to be done differently — what ought to be preserved or repeated. Yet none of these various tendencies have managed to demonstrate an adequate understanding of the crisis of the proletarian socialistmovement and the failure of its Marxist leadership to lead beyond it, at least not adequate enough to serve as the basis upon which that movement could be reconstituted in even a rudimentary form, or supplanted by something else capable of doing what it was unable to do.

Perhaps the blame belongs to Marx himself or to some fraction of his followers for the crisis, failure, and collapse of the Second and Third Internationals. That question deserves to be taken seriously, and that means grappling with the history of socialism and the central role of Marx and Marxism within it. And that requires working through the various perspectives on the question that have proliferated in the form of distinctive socialist tendencies over the last century, even if none can be taken to have conclusively demonstrated superiority to the others by virtue of its practical fecundity. But none of them merit the level of consideration earned by Marx and his immediate followers by virtue of the historic significance of the movement that developed under their leadership.

To take seriously the Marxism of Marx and Engels and those that followed their lead in building the parties of the Second International, which is to say, Marxism not only as a theory but as a dialectic of theory and practice, would require engaging in and encouraging a serious study of Marx’s theory and the history of which it was part. It would also mean “engagement in the daily struggles of our class” informed by Marx’s theory and the practical approach that flowed from it.

Szamuely is certainly right to recommend the formation of “Marxist circles” to undertake these tasks. Yet, more than “courage” and “determination” on the part of the “most resolute,” this requires the support of what in 1971 Hal Draper called a “political center.” By this he meant not a “sectarian organization” seeking to recruit as members those that accept its theoretical doctrine or program — however “Marxist” — but a “publishing enterprise” creating and distributing “a basic body of literature” that expresses a coherent political perspective. Such an enterprise could constitute a “political core” around which cadres could be formed by providing the “political nourishment” on the basis of which they can educate themselves and others.

While, historically, these functions were often taken up by sectarian organizations, Draper establishes that Marx and Engels argued and demonstrated in practice (as did Lenin following them) that not only was the sectarian approach not necessary, it was a positive hindrance to their goal and, therefore, deserved to be rejected and denounced. Draper bases his conception of the “political center” on their example because they succeeded in giving rise to a genuine socialist movement where the sectarians consistently failed.

The political center “educated for full revolutionary Marxism” and “called for an all-inclusive socialist party in which the revolutionary Marxist center would constitute one tendency, hopefully eventually dominant.” Eventually, it would urge its audience to “carry those views into the movements and organizations naturally arising from the existing social struggle,” not in order to “lift up two workers here and three there to the level of the Full Program…but to go after the levers that could get the class, or sections of the class, moving as a mass onto higher levels of action and politics.” It sought to cultivate relationships with readers who would undertake to educate themselves and others in study circles using this literature, developing them into agents who would promote and distribute it, and permeate the real movement with the ideas it advanced, reporting back on their activity both to seek advice and support and to enlighten and inspire the broader audience. This network of active agents would expand the reach of the political center’s literature and develop themselves into cadre rooted in the working class movement and seeking to lead it in the direction of independent political organization. The relationships they cultivated would lay the foundation upon which such organization could be built.

More than courage and determination, what is necessary is leadership of this initially principally educational endeavor. There is at present, of course, no shortage of “political centers” educating and leading young socialists. Some of these are sectarian membership organizations or are affiliated with such organizations, with DSA and Jacobin Magazine being the most prominent of these, respectively. Others refrain from the membership-recruitment approach, whether they be traditional publishing outfits producing periodicals or other media, independent leftist intellectuals using academic positions and publishing houses to promote their ideas, or the new breed of social media “influencers.” Yet what is sorely lacking is a political center that takes old-fashioned Marxism seriously, not only as regards Marx’s theory but also as regards the practical approach by which this theory managed to “grip the masses” and become the basis of the most significant revolutionary movement in history.

Today, Marx’s theory is typically misunderstood and misconstrued in one way or another, even by ostensibly orthodox Marxists. These confusions and distortions are most evident when it comes to the question of the relation of theory and practice, serving to obfuscate the approach that Marx and Engels recommended and that they and their immediate followers successfully employed. Or, we find rationalizations for why that approach is no longer possible, or not yet possible again. Instead, such socialists and even “Marxists” insist that we must do the sorts of things that Marx and Engels consistently criticized and warned against, most notably, that we must build sectarian organizations or tail after capitalist political parties and their loyalists in the labor movement (and these are by no means incompatible).

Perhaps Marx was wrong or has been rendered obsolete, and another approach is warranted. If so, a political center advocating and educating around such an alternative approach should meet with success. But thus far, such criticisms have little to show for themselves by way of practical results. Yet, if Marx was right and if his theoretical and practical perspective remains relevant, those that believe as much should constitute political centers capable of leading young socialists to consider this possibility seriously enough to test the hypothesis. They should attempt to educate them about what Marx and Engels and their immediate followers actually thought and did. This would require not only teaching the theory and history of Marxism, but also critically clarifying the confusions and distortions introduced by those who, whether “Marxists” or otherwise, perpetuate a long tradition of miseducating and misleading young socialists about the legacy they inherit. They should warn against those rooted in the disorientation and frustration that followed the failure and disintegration of the Second and Third Internationals.

It is all well and good to aspire to build a revolutionary party of the working class for socialism. But, as Draper warns, this cannot be “created simply by an effort of will,” however resolute, courageous, and determined, any more than it will arise by “spontaneous generation.” While the formation of such a party would require certain “social-political conditions” to “mature,” such that “decisive sectors of the working class. . . in motion” recognize the need for a “political arm” to further advance their struggle, this development is unlikely to proceed uninterrupted from the premises of capitalist production and capitalist society more generally. On the contrary, it is liable, as history has demonstrated, to confront countless obstacles and dead ends, and, hence, to lose whatever momentum it may manage to gain. In the process, it may succeed in only producing greater timidity, disillusion, and cynicism.

Yet history has also demonstrated that “the nascent movement” can be “crystallized with the help of active socialist elements” capable of clarifying the broader historical conditions and trajectory of these struggles. “Every socialist movement has been the outcome of the fusion of spontaneity and leadership, of naturally developed elements and conscious organization.” Hence, “there is a course” that socialists today “can take which will further this objective and bring it nearer, which will fructify the ground on which it will arise, which will make it easier for its elements to mature from place to place.” But we are also capable of “turning off dispositions toward a genuine movement; of sterilizing the ground on which the seeds of the movement might germinate; of making it harder for workers to find their way to a socialist movement-in-the-making.”

As Draper lamented, socialists in his lifetime had had the latter effect, obstructing the development of the very movement they sought to create. This was the result of their confusion about the history of socialism and the role of Marxism within it. That confusion, which itself derived from the failure of the Marxist socialist movement in the early 20th century, was subsequently passed down over several generations of miseducation. Socialism became increasingly identified with irrelevant and deluded sects, on one hand, and with advocacy of the subordination of the working class to capitalist political parties and the capitalist state, on the other.

The immediate task facing Marxists who recognize the necessity of “building a revolutionary party,” is to clarify the confusion that continues to prevail and propagate itself among young socialists, and through them, among the working class and society at large. We must provide the means by which those who, for whatever reason, become interested in and seek to learn about socialism can educate themselves about its historical legacy, and hence, about the theory and practice of Marx and Engels and about that of those who took their lead and, on that basis, built the most significant revolutionary party in history.

“If we are Marxists, it is our job to take the lead,” but this requires more than “certainty of fighting for a new and superior social order.” We must educate those who want to learn and who, having nowhere else to turn, end up miseducated, and thus, obstructing that which they feel certain they are fighting to bring about. We must provide better leadership and better education than they otherwise find, by bringing Marx’s critical clarification of socialism to bear upon the confusion that prevails among socialists today.