Party-Building in the 21st Century? A Response

by The North Star on June 28, 2012

By Richard Estes

A couple of weeks ago, Louis Proyect posted an excellent article to The North Star site, Party-Building in the 21st Century. Proyect, the Unrepentent Marxist, writes from the perspective of someone who has survived the sectarian stuggles of the last 40 years. Accordingly, there is much in the article that merits praise.

For example, Proyect is scornful of those Marxist formations that have seemingly existed solely for the purpose of denigrating the efforts of others to organize broad based anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist coalitions. He emphasizes that it is essential for the left to engage people in terms of the difficulties that they experience in their daily lives. Hence, his positive references to Lenin’s 1899 draft programme for the Russian Social-Democrats, the Black Panther breakfast program, and the recent SYRIZA 40-point program, which, along with structural measures like cutting military spending, taxing the banks and reforming the electoral process, includes proposals such as housing the homeless in churches, government buildings and banks, opening dining rooms in public schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to children and free health benefits to the unemployed, homeless and those with low salaries.

For someone like me, who lives in a city, Sacramento, that has been devastated by the bursting of the real estate bubble, with a proliferating homeless population that constituted one of the most prominent features of the local Occupy effort, such an approach has great appeal.

Interestingly, as acknowledged by Proyect and Pham Binh, anti-authoritarians grasped this concept while Marxists did not, working upon issues within Occupy that were seemingly at odds with their vision of society. As a result, we have observed the peculiarity of anarchists participating in the defense of people threatened with foreclosure, protests against university fee increases and resistance to the closure of public schools.

Of course, it only appears peculiar if one is unaware of the anti-authoritarian emphasis upon the need to provide support for those victimized by the deprivation and violence of the capitalist system. It remains an open question as to whether they can continue to do so, but they should be credited for the right response at a critical moment.

With Occupy currently out of public view as a consequence of police repression, there is much discussion how to proceed. Proyect, not surprisingly, along with other Marxists, sees the way forward through through a humanitarian program that forms the basis of a new socialist party, evoking the tangled history of such efforts going back to the 19th century.

Given that he knows his history well, his presentation, on its own terms, is flawless. But what does it mean to engage in party-building in the 21st Century by reference to examples that, in some instances, are over 100 years old?

Of course, there is much to learn from them, but one must also account for the social evolution that have occurred during this period, with one of the most significant aspects of it being the disintegration of collective social institutions that engaged the working class. When anarchists and Marxists competed for the support of workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these workers, whether Marxist or anarchist, had networks of housing, schools, social centers, gymnasiums, and newspapers. They created such networks because the governmental and non-profit programs that provide such services today either didn’t exist, or were grossly inadequate. One of the paradoxes of the creation of the liberal social welfare state is that it substituted the governmental and non-profit provision of assistance for earlier efforts created by workers, providing, at least until recently, higher levels of support while simultaneously dis-empowering them. In parts of the world that experienced industrialization after the United States and northern Europe, like Italy and South America, this process was not concluded until the 1970s.Contemporary neoliberalism is distinctive because it extracts the value of these governmental forms of social assistance for the benefit of private investors.

For purposes of this discussion, however, it is essential to understand that the socialist parties described by Proyect emerged, in most instances, as part of the vibrant, independent institutional universe created by workers prior to the creation of the welfare state. In other words, party-builders had fertile ground in which to construct them, with workers readily accessible to them and thereby responsive to an attempt to assert their interests through a collectively organized party structure. Along these lines, even Proyect’s reference to the Black Panthers is consistent with this, as many African Americans, in places like Oakland, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark, had been excluded from the benefits of the welfare state through discriminatory practices (consider, for example, that there was a housing shortage in Watts just prior to the 1965 riots while thousands upon thousands of homes were being constructed for whites in the Los Angeles suburbs nearby). Accordingly, it was still necessary for them to rely upon informal networks of social support that were no longer necessary for others, especially the white working class. Even anarchists, while hostile to the electoral process, did, in many instances, as anarcho-syndicalists, participate in unions that served a similar purpose.

In this, the great socialist parties of the 20th century, the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, the Parti Comunista Italiano in Italy, the Social-Democratic Party of Germany and the socialist and communist parties in France, among others, were all dependent upon a collective ethos that facilitated the emergence of the mass based, modern political party. The repudiation of this collective ethos is one of the most salient features of our time, and presents a challenge that must be confronted by anyone, like Proyect and, to a lesser extent, Binh, who proposes a socialist party-building enterprise for the left. We need not linger long over the evidence of this repudiation, it is all around us, the abandonment of the political parties by larger and larger segments of the population, the atomization of people within their communities, and the prominence of a virtual culture that increasingly manipulates people through simulation and stimulation, as anticipated by intellectual figures like Bifo and Baudrillard. Constructing a party in such circumstances requires more than a willingness to participate in coalitions and the creation of a platform that speaks directly to needs of people.

Put bluntly, it additionally requires a traumatic delegitimization of the existing structures of political, social, and cultural authority. We can identify three places where it has occurred: Venezuela, Bolivia, and Greece. In Venezuela, the 1989 caracazo ignited a process that lead to the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez and the implementation of measures designed to alleviate the extreme inequality within the country. In Bolivia, Evo Morales and the Movement Towards Socialism took power through the generational efforts of indigenous social movements in opposition to neoliberal policies and drug eradication measures dictated by the United States. Meanwhile, in Greece, the imposition of extreme austerity measures since 2009 has resulted in the success of SYRIZA, a coalition of leftist parties, in recent elections. Greece, and, perhaps, Bolivia as well, presents the prospect of a possible socialist formation contemplated by Proyect, while Venezuela remains a country where power is still exercised through elites, with the mobilization of the populace through participatory political structures being tentative at best.

Proyect has periodically said that he expects conditions in the United States to continue to decline because of the rapaciousness of global capitalist elites. It is a rational assessment with a high probability of being accurate. He therefore insists that there is a great urgency towards the undertaking of the party-building effort that he advocates. Perhaps so, but if it proceeds, it is likely to move forward absent the vanguardism that he mentions in relation to the Nicaraguan revolution.

SYRIZA relies upon a consensus decision-making process that preserves unity around a coherent statement of policy objectives in opposition to austerity. By doing so, it highlights the fact that future socialist formations, to the extent that they can be considered parties at all, will not administer themselves in accordance with the Leninist practices of the past. Instead, they will operate more horizontally, exposing the irrelevancy of anti-authoritarian critiques centered around the pernicious hierarchies within them. Accordingly, we may be moving towards a squaring of the circle whereby anti-authoritarians concede the necessity of participation within the electoral processes of the state, while Marxists acknowledge that it must be done through a formation that is horizontal to the greatest degree possible.

But can this be done in the United States as proposed by Proyect? I tend to believe that the country is too large, too fragmented, too much in the thrall of capital and militaristic nationalism for it to happen anytime soon. Instead, there will be a prolonged period of direct action and mutual aid efforts to expose the deprivation of the system and ameliorate its effects. In doing so, the participants must necessarily engage the populace in terms of their daily needs. But building the new in the shell of the old is not just an aphorism, it is considered a realistic, immediate strategy for dealing with the loss of jobs, housing, educational opportunities and medical care required to survive in this society. Hence, the parents of children in the Oakland Unified School District, faced with the closure of 5 elementary schools, didn’t decide to organize a local socialist coalition, instead, they seized one of the schools planned for closure, Lakeview Elementary, and reopened it to continue to educate their children.

Through the proliferation of such actions over time, the left may accumulate sufficient power to accelerate the collapse of American capitalism. But I doubt that it will happen peaceably through participation in the electoral process. At most, such participation, if it happens, will merely be one instrument among many that the left pragmatically utilizes to bring about this outcome.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street June 29, 2012 at 10:29 am

So with the collapse/destruction of the welfare state, does that mean “party-builders” in the U.S. have fertile ground once more, provided we plant seeds of mutual aid rather than trying to impose from above or a priori some worked-out party/political form?

One important thing to understand is that party-building and movement-building are really one and the same thing. The “Leninist” claptrap that dominated left debates for much of the 20th century has poisoned some of our discussion of this issue today, but if we really go back and study the model pioneered by the German social democrats we’ll find many elements of Occupy: the permanent campaign, the inspired/inspiring vision, prefigurationist elements (cooperatives), and self-help from below (mutual aid and insurance).

One of the things that jumped out at me when I looked at the Russian Social Democratic Party program of 1903 (which was not amended until 1919) was the way in which not only did they demand elements of what we now call the welfare state, they demanded that those elements be run/administered by workers and workers’ organizations. In other words, they recognized the unequal, dependent relationship that could arise if workers came to depend and rely on the capitalist state for unemployment and other benefits (what the capitalists give they can take away), so the party sought to win worker control or autonomy over the administration of those benefits as well, something that seems to have not happened here in the U.S. at all. The only thing close I can think of that is close is how the ILWU acts as the hiring manager on the docks so that workers are not begging supervisors and bosses for work by playing nice, doing favors, or becoming snitches.

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Richard Estes June 29, 2012 at 4:01 pm

yes, there is fertile ground, but the situation is more promising in places that lack the extreme individualism that so distinguishes the US

here, we can already perceive the contours of the conflict, the movement towards cooperative forms of assistance and direct action from below versus the libertarian justification for the concentration of capital and political power at the top

while I sometimes come across as a nihilist, I can’t predict how this will play out, except to draw attention to the fact that we cannot assume that people will adopt the social models of the past, because things are very different now, and encourage people to engage those differences

Marx described a dialectical process by which social orders were destroyed by the emergence of a new class conscious of it own power, hence, the bourgeoisie destroyed feudalism and erected the foundations of a capitalist society which would then be destroyed by the proletariat which would then bring about socialism

based upon this perspective, cited in one of Proyect’s articles recently at the Unrepentant Marxist, I asked about how one would characterize the current class that will dismantle the capitalist system, I never got a response from anyone, but it seems to me that a sociological understanding of this question is essential, inextricably tied to questions of party-building and movement building if one escape the amorphous characterizations of the “multitude”

Bifo, to his credit, has sought to understand how people relate to their work, their consumption and their technologies, and more people need to participate in this enterprise (or, maybe, I don’t have time to read enough and learn about what a lot of people have already said about it), otherwise, Occupy may end up being another variation of youth revolt, analoguous to May ’68 and Italy ’77.

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Ben Daniels June 29, 2012 at 4:16 pm

I have a few questions

1 Did the rise of SYRIZA require or benefit from the existence of mutual aid networks? If not is this really a critical limiting factor in the construction of a mass party today? I thought it was primarily the dismantling of the welfare state in the austerity drive that produced this newly united opposition not an existing network of worker run support networks so why would that be a requirement elsewhere? Is the US uniquely requiring of this in the opinion of the author?

2 Is it not the case that Occupy is trying to perform this joint role of mutual aid and direct action? The austerity drive is continuing every day. We are looking at years of falling living standards. Won’t this pressure and efforts to oppose it and/or ameliorate the effects of it contribute to delegitimizing many existing structures? Won’t this allow the development of a collective ethos. Won’t this opposition movement and others be pushed by necessity to organized along the lines of a mass organization in a climate more favorable to one?

3 Finally I want to know about time. I don’t know what the author’s definition of not anytime soon means. From what I know about US history quite a lot can happen in ten years or so. I’m thinking about the oppositions that developed over the span of the 30s or the 60s, of course constructed on what was laid in years before with struggles small and large, just as is the case with more recent history. Today an incredible crisis exists and people are fighting back so why the opinion of not anytime soon for the development of something like a mass organization?

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Richard Estes June 30, 2012 at 12:29 am

Ben:

SYRIZA has arisen in a fairly compact, relatively homogeneous society. It also arisen in a country known for being one of the most anti-American countries in the world because of US support for the 1967 coup. So, no, it didn’t necessarily arise out of mutual aid networks, but I suspect that they are generally more present in Greece than here.

Yes, Occupy is a response to austerity, but it is important to note that the creation of mutual aid efforts in response to this effort predates Occupy, but it is nascent and not yet prominent, which, of course, doesn’t mean that it couldn’t grow very fast in response to deteriorating conditions. For this reason, I think that the People’s School @ Lakeview Elementary is very important, because it represents a direct action of occupation of a public space outside the common instances of anti-authoritarian seizure of buildings for social centers, although there is a strong prefigurative aspect to both.

Finally, as to time, it is, of course, a subjective concept, and social transformations do not occur in a linear process of equal increments. Future traumatic events could provoke the kind of changes that have taken place in Greece and South America within a fairly short period of time, say 5-10 years. But I believe that the major impediment is the extent to which many Americans, unlike people in these other countries, incorporate an imperial identity, as expressed through American exceptionalism, into their perspective, hence, the initial reaction to a socioeconomic trauma is just as likely to be an intensification of the search for scapegoats as a radical left turn. Another possibility might be the proliferation of survivalism on a local and regional basis.

Both are manifestations of the perpetuation of a individualistic ethos over a collective one, and the left will have to find ways to encourage people to choose the latter over the former.

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jp July 2, 2012 at 4:09 pm

i’m reading all this and projecting a ‘party’ that is not mainly one that pursues electoral type strategies, though it can remain vigilant to claim political space, but submerges into communities to strengthen their internal structures and expand their boundaries, to take on difficult tasks and to spark recognition of hidden [in plain sight] possibilities for emancipation.

can we acknowledge mao’s ‘serve the people’ as a guiding principle for this work? no, this isn’t a sectarian bait and switch

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street July 3, 2012 at 9:18 am

I come from a Trotskyist background myself but I have no problem with people who quote Mao, Che, or Ho Chi Minh. One of our biggest problems is that are willing to split with other people just because they are inspired by other thinkers and leaders than the ones we prefer.

My personal take is that there can’t be any real party-building without electoral politics. If you study the American Socialist Party, you’ll see that they won local and state offices and used that to build up the party’s influence. During the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, Victor Berger (a right-wing socialist, or opportunist) used his seat in Congress to help the strikers by calling congressional hearings (Berger did this at the request of Big Bill Haywood, who was both an I.W.W. and Socialist Party leader). That said, I don’t think we’re going to see any reds running for office any time soon because the left is so divided and weak. We should pick and choose our battles — target right-wing Democrats, the ones that are hated even by liberals, and build up popular support in neighborhoods through campaigns against local landlords or other issues that reflect the concerns and needs of the people who live there.

I don’t know if that answers your question or not. A party that is truly seen as “serving the people” selflessly and heroically is the one that is going to attract the people’s support. It’s a big reason why the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is still revered in the black community to this day.

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tony July 4, 2012 at 1:57 am

Richard Estes almost seems to worship Louis Proyect and that seems to be the main point of his essay here. Richard, I don’t really see that you have said much of anything. Am I missing something? I see a few extremely dubious assertions though. Let’s look at one of them for a bit, shall we?

‘With Occupy currently out of public view as a consequence of police repression, there is much discussion how to proceed.’

No, Occupy is not ‘out of public view’ as you put it, Richard, so very delicately because of mainly just police repression. It has fallen apart because it alienated the general public rather than winning them over. Instead of trying to build leadership, Occupy tried using that failed mindset of ‘Consensus’ for its decision making, postulating stupidly that it would be a leaderless movement even as it was led by multiple cliques of basically a lot of morons, especially so in the outreaches of the country, where Occupy was often times taken over by Zeitgeist and Ron Paul Right Wingers.

Occupy lost its initial support because it did really stupid stupid things, like calling the police part of the 99% while at the same time carrying out deliberately provocative actions confronting them in the most loser manner possible. Maybe Louis missed seeing some of that reality while spending so much of his time at his little cyber commie command center in New York City organizing censorship at HIS blog? I can’t really say? Did you miss all that organizational nonsense of Occupy, too, Richard? The nonsense of weird hand signals, mic checks, ‘flash mobs’ and so on… and meetings around the clock where nothing ever was done except losing one’s personal time and energies to bullshit silliness led quite often by homeless street kids and other assorted lumpens?

Richard goes on to sum up his grand worship of Louis, the Cyber Commie God, with this paragraph….

‘Proyect has periodically said that he expects conditions in the United States to continue to decline because of the rapaciousness of global capitalist elites. It is a rational assessment with a high probability of being accurate.’ (YAWN) ‘He therefore insists that there is a great urgency towards the undertaking of the party-building effort that he advocates. Perhaps so, but if it proceeds, it is likely to move forward absent the vanguardism that he mentions in relation to the Nicaraguan revolution.’

Wow! So Louis Proyect says the potty must be built now now now! (minus Jack Barnes of course…lol) and wow! Let it not be like the ‘vanguardism’ Proyect saw with the Sandinistas, who only did something that a cyber commie God like Proyect only wet dreams about ever actually doing. The Sandinistas made a real Revolution against all odds, though Proyect calls it partially defective due to ‘vanguardism’! Yeah, Lou. It got destroyed by a much bigger US Empire which you sit and sat inside while doing basically nothing to stop Pentagon power. Unless I am wrong, this neo potty builder Lou is not noted for even merely building some small portion of a tiny tiny US antiwar movement. Well go figure now?

Let’s face it, Richard and Lou. The real MAIN challenge all Leftists face inside the US is that it is an imperialist power (now don’t forget that though, guys) and because of that, there is a huge portion of the US working class tied to the Pentagon, the largest employer in the world. But don’t let that bother you any while you go about your daily activities of telling people that mullahs are bad and that Assad is nasty while building the non ‘vanguardist’ commie party, no less!

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jp July 4, 2012 at 1:20 pm

thanks for the reply. black panthers is a good model (themselves strongly mao-influenced). i came from a cp orbit and it took me a while to shake my head clear of the ‘be where the working class is’ model which resulted in their participating in the great workers’ retreat from 1975 on, culminating in the ugly and horrific support of obama.

having been previously oriented electorally is likely why i now see it as a distraction. nader’s heroic but unsuccessful efforts to open ballot access are lessons to be learned. i’d support targeted efforts based on people’s real needs, but they can suck energy and will. Electoral results can’t turn this system around, let alone over. of course my opinion.

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Jacob Richter August 19, 2012 at 5:04 pm

“Of course, there is much to learn from them, but one must also account for the social evolution that have occurred during this period, with one of the most significant aspects of it being the disintegration of collective social institutions that engaged the working class. When anarchists and Marxists competed for the support of workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these workers, whether Marxist or anarchist, had networks of housing, schools, social centers, gymnasiums, and newspapers. They created such networks because the governmental and non-profit programs that provide such services today either didn’t exist, or were grossly inadequate. One of the paradoxes of the creation of the liberal social welfare state is that it substituted the governmental and non-profit provision of assistance for earlier efforts created by workers, providing, at least until recently, higher levels of support while simultaneously dis-empowering them. In parts of the world that experienced industrialization after the United States and northern Europe, like Italy and South America, this process was not concluded until the 1970s. Contemporary neoliberalism is distinctive because it extracts the value of these governmental forms of social assistance for the benefit of private investors.”

Damn, have you by chance read Vernon Lidtke’s Alternative Culture book? If not, I recommend it and also Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy.

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