What is a Marxist organization?

by Scott Jay on December 24, 2014


It is a commonplace on the Marxist Left that revolutionary organizations need to be rooted in the working class, so much so that “middle-class” is just as common an insult as “sectarian” or “opportunist.” Middle-class dominated socialist groups are generally aware of their class basis and strive to overcome it—noting that an organization tends to be middle-class does not tell anybody anything they did not already know. Therefore, we will look at the problem of the base of an organization from a different angle.

A fundamental weakness of the organizations of the socialist Left is that their members do not have a material stake in their organizations.

Members of Leninist organizations join largely because they believe in the ideas. This is certainly how they are recruited. For the groups that are able to grow larger than an irrelevant sect, the members may even join because they believe in the actions of the organization. But very few of these actions actually have a material impact on the lives and livelihoods of their members and Leninists rarely even consider that this might be a problem.

For decades, Leninists of various stripes have distinguished themselves by their unique analyses of the Soviet Union, recruiting members to their theoretical model and, in some of the better cases, engaging in mass movements and even trade union activism as well. These groups could debate on end their different analyses of whether the the Soviet Union was state capitalist, or a degenerated workers state, or whether they included China, Cuba, Serbia, Albania, or North Korea among their canon.

In spite of their exhaustive sociological analyses of these various bureaucracies and how they did or did not represent the will of the working class or whether a political or economic revolution could bring workers to power, these Marxists never applied the same rigorous analyses to their own organizations. Implicit was always the assumption that their organization was somehow exempt from the pressures of society such as the racist and sexist muck that we are all raised with. They also held the assumption that their organization would not succumb to the very basic pressures society applies to all organizations, bureaucracies and institutions.

It is approximately one hundred and sixty years too late to begin this discussion, but better late than never. Building an organization based on people who are convinced of Marxist ideas is, to put it bluntly, not very Marxist. Marxism is not a theory of the world but a strategy to change it. To the extent that it does provide an analysis of the world–and it certainly does–it would suggest that convincing people to a set of revolutionary ideas will end in failure. Revolutionaries are made by their experience in the class struggle, not in study groups and meetings, no matter how well intentioned these efforts are.

As the American socialist Hal Draper wrote, “To engage in class struggle it is not necessary to ‘believe in’ the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton in order to fall from an airplane.” Too often, though, Marxists have engaged in building their own organizations as though they were physicists jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, confident that their in depth knowledge of the laws of gravity would protect them from disaster. It is a long way down, and may even be quite pleasant and gratifying much of the time, but eventually there is the realization that they are hurtling toward earth at thirty-two feet per second per second just like everybody else.

The catastrophic failure that became of the British Socialist Workers Party is a useful case in point. The SWP did not predict that the Soviet Union would be reformed into a genuine workers’ state or that it could not be overthrown by its own working class. Their theory, confirmed (while others were left in shambles) by the fall of the Soviet Union, has done it little good in practice beyond convincing people they have good ideas. There remains the basic Marxist problem of developing an actual cadre of militants who are courageous, self sacrificing, understand the mood on the shop floor–to the extent that workers today even work on a “shop floor”–and can galvanize people into action.

A debate on the website of the group Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (rs21), one of the post-SWP groupings, has seen contributions from people with several decades of experience as active, party building Leninists, asking whether “Leninism” is worth saving and whether it is even a coherent body of thought.

One contribution describes “what we might call a more general Leninist project that involves a commitment to build a disciplined, centralised revolutionary party based on the most militant, class conscious and politically advanced section of the working class.” The problem is that Leninists have been quite successful at the “disciplined, centralised” part but have completely failed to build a “revolutionary party based on the most militant, class conscious and politically advanced section of the working class”. In fact, they have not even come close, even when they have grown to hundreds or even a few thousand members. Since almost nobody joins a Leninist group for the discipline or the centralism, inevitably these projects stagnate and decline.

If we are going to grapple with these problems as Marxists, then we cannot simply rest these problems on the failures of the individuals involved or in their incorrect ideas. Ultimately, we have to look at the structures and the social pressures on these organizations.

Simply stating that such an organization ought to be democratic, ought to have lively debate, ought to have an effective and creative leadership, ought to be responsive to the needs of the class struggle, etc. does no good. These things do not occur because anybody wants them to, even if they really want them to, and really believe they are very important. They happen not just once or twice but as a pattern because of the material reality of the organizations and how they were built, not because their members have the right or wrong ideas about how that reality ought to be. Organizations with hundreds or thousands of members are not exempt from the pressures of society or their own structures and we need to stop pretending otherwise.

Many on the Left will complain about “democratic centralism” in Leninist organizations which shuts down debate, limits democratic rights of members and reproduces a lifelong leadership. The problem is, democratic centralism is only a symptom. The real problem is that most of the issues debated by these organizations will have no real impact on the lives of their participants. Democratic centralism is merely a symptom of the problem, which codifies and legitimizes the status quo. The roots of undemocratic organizing go much deeper than a few bad rules.

Leninists will spend hours and hours building their groups and many will donate hundreds or even thousands of dollars every year. Yet, this is not a material stake, this is merely a material contribution. These contributions may be incredibly self sacrificing, but ultimately they are made on a moralistic basis and not a material basis. That is, they make the contribution because they believe that what they are doing is important and worthwhile, not because it will have an impact on their lives.

At any point, if a member no longer wants to be a part of the project they can just walk away. Why shouldn’t they? If you are going to be self sacrificing, it might as well be toward a cause you believe in, can see results in and can do as you see fit, not how some “leader” tells you that you ought to do it. There is no need to stay and fight unless there is the belief that it is worth staying. None of this is a slur on these comrades–they are far better off committing themselves to activities they believe in, and the Left is often better off for them doing so as well. Usually, the only thing keeping them in the fold is their social relationships with other members, but this only distorts their participation even further.

The material basis of democratic organizations

The democratic process among individuals with no material stake in the results is necessarily going to be stunted. This is the whole point of Marxism seeing the working-class as the most revolutionary class. The point is not that there is something morally superior to being “proletarian,” rather that the class as a whole has a common interest in engaging in these battles as a class. This is entirely different from a liberal approach which sees the role of individuals, especially those who are smarter and work harder than everybody else, as being the critical component to understanding social change and social groups. Leninists have a Marxist theory of revolutionary struggle but maintain a liberal approach to building their organizations.

If an organization wants to be built on a fundamentally democratic basis, it needs to be built on a basis where the members have a stake in the decisions. Not just a stake in carrying out the decisions because they helped decide them, but a stake in the success or failure of the results of those decisions and how they were carried out. If the group is making decisions about a member’s ability to defend themselves against police brutality or from being fired, or their ability to organize solidarity for a strike at their workplace, just up and walking away is rarely a good option no matter how undemocratic the group is. In fact, since decisions around these issues will affect not just this individual but their family as well, they are far less likely to be intimidated by a self-important Leninist leader. If the group is not having discussions and making decisions around these types of issues, though, this individual probably will not stick around too long anyway.

It is not true that no members of Leninist organizations have a stake in the organization. The paid staff certainly do have a stake, and the longer they have been a full-timer, the harder it will be for them to go out and get a real job if they are deposed. They also have unlimited time to do things that will help show that they should keep their job–read books, follow current events, and insert themselves into every struggle possible. It will almost seem impossible to remove them because who could possibly replace this individual? It is a Great Man Theory of the party. Quite a few people could replace them, in fact, but it does not seem that way when the possible replacements are working full-time jobs and cannot develop the same expertise as these professional revolutionaries. Life is difficult for a mere worker, in many ways.

None of this has anything to do with how “good” these full-timers are, it is simply in their material interest to keep their job. It should be no surprise that these people hold on to power even on a completely unprincipled basis. In fact, everything about Marxism would suggest that this would be the case.

Membership in a Leninist organization is based not only on a commitment to the beliefs, but also on a sense that things are going right. Since most members do not have a material stake in the work of the group, there is a tendency toward impressionism and demoralization when things are not going well. Thus, there is a constant need for short-term “victories” like a successful meeting, a big march or, hopefully, some new recruits. While the members do not have a material stake in the group, they do have a stake in the morale of the group because it affects their own morale and their own ability to continue engaging in and sacrificing for the group.

The whole tendency is to continue a generally positive spirit inside the organization. Disagreeing with the leadership means causing a disruption in what could otherwise be positive momentum. Since everybody knows this, there is a tendency for disagreements with the leadership to become disagreements with the rest of the membership, who all line up to shut the critics down before they cause too many problems. The rallying cry of the day is not a fierce criticism of all that exists, but apologetics to the benefit of a peaceful status quo. Of course, sometimes the criticism gains a hearing and sometimes it cannot be quitened, and sometimes the unquashable critic simply has to be driven out altogether. The Leninist organization then finds itself trapped between members who are reluctant to raise their criticisms at all and those who, heaven forbid, raise them too often. The “good” member knows just how and when to raise a disagreement although the quiet member is rarely considered to be “bad.”

This is why these groups are so undemocratic and why they periodically wander into crises of confidence. These crises are generally about perspectives–for growth or even for revolution–and not about the failure to defend somebody from getting fired or anything similarly related to the class struggle. Which is not to say that debate about the latter would be peaceful and easy going, rather it would be furious and emotionally draining and likely result in consequences for the leaders who are responsible. But there would also be a real opportunity to learn something and move forward. It also might mean that many people up and leave out of disgust, but that would be because of the group’s failure to defend the material interests of this individual. That would be a good reason to leave and form a new organization.

Which leads to a classic example from the annals of American Trotskyism. After World War II, there were debates among Trotskyists around the world about how progressive Stalinism was and how likely or unlikely it would be to fall. James P. Cannon, the leading American Trotskyist, noted what a problem this was when he commented that a member of his organization asked, what is the point of selling ten newspapers on a street corner if there will be decades of Stalinism? The point, of course, is that this should make a material contribution to the lives of their members. But of course, that was not the point of selling a newspaper on a street corner at all, rather the point of such an activity was to convince people to join a group with good ideas, a task made impossible by its perspectives on Stalinism. So Trotskyists end up splitting left and right over the question of Stalinism, instead of seeing it as an important political debating point in an organization that was fighting for their members’ livelihoods.

In short, an organization built on a materialist basis would not only need to be based in the working-class, but rather its entire organizational structure would need to be shaped to be responsive to the material needs of the members. The members themselves would need to have a stake in the organization and its failures and successes, much more so than in the organizational morale. If the members of the organization have more of a stake in the morale in the group than a material stake, then it is probably not going to be a very democratic organization in the long run.

Good will has nothing to do with it. Going out and bringing in a bunch of people who agree with the organization is probably not going to improve the situation either. On the contrary, the harder the members work “in good faith” the worse the problem will be, because it is the moralistic definition of “good faith effort” that is part of the problem.

We have used the case of a worker who has been fired but organizations can meet their members’ material needs in many ways. Providing food to members who cannot afford it is one way, as can providing legal and political support to those targeted by state repression. The point is not to provide a service to the “needy” but to provide a platform for those in need to organize and fight for those needs alongside others like them. There is nothing more bizarre than the Marxist who is opposed to feeding the hungry, deeming it a “moralistic” and “individualistic” solution to the problem. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to build an organization that provides a real need to people and a basis for organizing around other such issues as well. Dismissing this as “prefigurative politics” simply misunderstands the social basis of class power.

Such an organization could be a mighty force, not because it has all the right ideas, though it could certainly use them. Rather, the members will fight for and defend the organization precisely because it meets their needs, and they will do so with far more dedication and veracity than those who simply “believe” in a set of good ideas.

This is basic Marxism but it has no place in “Leninism,” apparently.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom Quinn December 24, 2014 at 8:33 pm

So what it’s saying is that we need a mass social democratic party that
working class people feel represents their material needs? Certainly a
good idea, but one that doesn’t spring to life on the basis of people
have the correct idea about it. So back to square one, so to speak.


Doloras Funkette December 24, 2014 at 9:46 pm

Brilliant. Completely replicates my own experiences of Leninist organisations and sense of what a real working-class radical organisation would look like.


Ian Alexander December 25, 2014 at 12:11 am

I would tend to agree that an organization which demands labor of its members but offers them nothing in return is an organization which will inevitably undergo attrition — people literally just cannot give and give and give of themselves to an organization, particularly (and I am not saying this in order to emphasize it as being necessarily more important than other forms of assistance/solidarity, but as something that I have some experience with and can directly speak to) when members are being targeted for repression because of their work with the organization. The organization needs to offer them something in return for their work and do something to help manage the risks involved.

It was an interesting point from a talk Silvia Federici gave — an often-forgotten aspect of unions which gave them a lot of support was that they tended to embed themselves into the communities they were organizing in, and made it a point to offer social services that the broader society didn’t see fit to offer. Because unions had their back, workers and their communities tended to feel more invested in backing the union in turn. This function of unions fell away and was somewhat forgotten as a result of the construction of the welfare state.

I’m not 100% sure what a revolutionary party’s support structures ought to look like (I think it would necessarily need to look different from the kind of support that a union offers directly to workers although I think we definitely need both) but it seems like an often neglected part of nominally revolutionary organizing at least in the US.


professor rat December 25, 2014 at 5:49 am

Mere Menshevik mumblings will never win the broad masses to the proletarian revolution.


Jason Schulman January 3, 2015 at 12:50 pm

But boring “Bolshevik” bombast, that’ll be sure to do the trick!


JM December 25, 2014 at 7:35 am

“Material stake” is mentioned over and over and over and over throughout the article but what is actually meant by this vague formulation is never clearly articulated. I guess it has something to do with strawman-Leninists setting up soup kitchens or going on utterly ineffectual Solidarity Network-type Robin Hood adventures or something..?


FoolishOwl December 26, 2014 at 1:48 am

Organizing a labour union in your workplace is likely to be a significant risk. But if you succeed, you’re likely to win improved working conditions and benefits. You’ve got a material stake in organizing a labour union.

If you’re a young black person, you’ve got a material stake in reducing the power of police to arbitrarily arrest, brutalize, and murder black people.


JM January 4, 2015 at 8:53 pm

I’m not asking what “material stake” means generally, I mean the way in which it is used in this piece, which is never explicitly worked through or stated. Ultimately the author concocts a rather hazy and useless notion that blames “Leninists” for being incapable of making the workers movement that existed the 1910s materialize in the 2010’s out of thin air. There’s a whole set of historical process that the author is unwilling or unable to address, instead mechanically laying the blame on an organizational form that is more supple than these sorts of caricatures indicate.


FoolishOwl January 4, 2015 at 10:29 pm

It might have been helpful to describe what a “material stake” meant in the context of revolutionary socialist organizations that had significant memberships.

But the basic point here really ought to be obvious. In most circumstances, the material stake of members of an organization is either perfectly obvious, or very thinly obscured and easy to uncover. It’s difficult to describe what a material stake in a Leninist organization in the context of the contemporary US, because aside from a small number of professional staff, no one has a material stake in a Leninist organization.

Here we’re discussing not a problem with the organizational form, so much as the problem of fetishizing the organizational form.

Revolutionary organizations, even the Bolsheviks, grew in response to rising struggles, in circumstances when there are actually material reasons to join such organizations.


Ismael December 26, 2014 at 7:13 am

Perhaps some kind of answer to this problem lies in the ecosocialist movement? After all, most of us (and our progeny) have a direct material stake in staving off climate change.


Patrick Muldowney December 26, 2014 at 9:06 am

My detailed reply has not shown up. Is there a problem?


Louis Proyect December 26, 2014 at 4:41 pm

I saw nothing in the moderator’s queue, plus you are obviously not being blocked if this comment got through.


Curt Kastens December 26, 2014 at 6:35 pm

If I understand this correctly Hezbollah would be a model to pattern a leftist organization working for change on. Yet how is an organization based on working class members in the US or Europe for that matter to come up with the resources that can be used to protect the members when, in my experience anyways, the vast majority of working class people live paycheck to paycheck if not credit card bill to credit card bill.


renoir December 29, 2014 at 2:37 am

I tend to think this reinforces what is essentially a bourgeoisie illusion. While the upper end of the so-called “middle class” is largely petite-bourgeoisie, the nomenclature of the 99% makes more sense than the traditional working class and middle class nomenclature, and more or as neoliberalism perfects its stranglehold. Especially as what remains of the middle class rapidly subsumes into the larger working class. The idea of dividing working people against themselves using various wedges — “do you work in a swivel chair or on an assembly line?” or “blue collar or white collar?” — are Neoliberal wedges IMO. Solidarity requires all working people to stand together, not for some to think of themselves as better and some to think of others as stuck-up or overeducated. I believe this can be done without saying there are no cultural differences between different fields of work.


Nevin Siders December 31, 2014 at 5:13 pm

This article “strikes a chord” with my own experience in the U.S. SWP in the 80s. The local leaders would preach at the weekly meetings about how we do not need insurance policies nor retirement plans, since “the party is our support network” (I can still recall the phrase I heard so often). Unemployment insurance was not needed because members could count on the jobs committee, for instance, where they collectively organized to get themselves into the factories the party “targeted.” However, when rank-and-filers were between jobs and fell behind on the rent then it was a drain on the resources and distraction from political work, even when at the very same moment local leaders would enjoy the benefits of collective effort.


John Jackson January 2, 2015 at 3:30 am

The observations made here on the malfunction of the socialist left are really insightful. I think the issue Jay raises of the degree to which members have a ‘material stake’ in their organizations introduces a useful new frame into the
discussion on this side of the Atlantic about the ‘crisis of Leninism.’ I’m personally skeptical about the way the problem is understood here, but it’s an interesting question to pose for several reasons.

Jay’s observation that members join Leninist organizations,and from the other direction- are recruited, on the basis of intellectual agreement with theory is important because it captures a key dimension of what’s wrong with the recruitment strategies, growth plans, and transformational strategies deployed by the majority of organizations that self-describe as Leninist. I think this gets to the core of the issue of why left sects have universally proved to be a more attractive habitat for graduate students than single moms. Affiliation to a Leninist organization involves subscribing to such a huge theoretical bundle (and the culture and vocabulary that goes with it) that it inevitably tilts the demographics of who is attracted to and retained by
these types of organizations.

Looking at the role of full-timers in Leninist organizations through the prism of ‘material stake’ is also interesting and I think under-discussed within the socialist left.
Many comrades at the top of Leninist groups have developed an unhealthy dependence on the status quo within their organizations after being employed for several years as a full-timer. A situation emerges after even a few years (and compounds over time) where they become unemployable in the general labor market outside of their organization & maintaining their group as it stands becomes their only retirement plan – regardless of whether changes in the social context or
international situation might have made their organization or ideas obsolete. The worst Leninist organizations have had a leadership frozen for decades because of this dynamic, and alongside with that other dynamic Jay describes of a commitment to theory over practical struggle, these groups become subsidy networks for the ideas of ailing gurus.

My difficulties with the article spring from a skepticism over the way the ‘material stake’ formulation is used in a way that tries to create a typology with Leninist Orgs at one end and Solidarity Networks at the other. In my view, it’s not true that Leninist organizations solely appeal and recruit on the basis of theory – many also drive parallel issue based advocacy campaigns that are very much about appealing to material interests.This gets to the core of the problem with the way the concept is used in the article for me – in my experience the reasons people join a Leninist group vs an Issue Campaign vs a Solidarity Network, don’t really cleave along the lines Jay suggests vis a vis self-material interest.

For me, ‘material stake’, is something that’s always socially constructed. In the broadest sense we all have a ‘material stake’ in the outcome of whether or not we overcome capitalism, and even in the narrowest sense, say at a workplace, -folks need to be convinced that they have an interest in participating on an organizing or bargaining committee and those that respond to the call aren’t universally or mainly motivated by any sort of clear direct material
self-interest. Equally in the solidarity networks I’ve been involved with, I don’t really observe that the core of activists involved are primarily motivated through any sort of self-interest. But at any rate I do take on board at the broadest level the strategic suggestion Jay makes about the utility of these kinds of service-oriented projects for connecting with new layers outside the niche traditionally attracted to the socialist Left.


Aaron Aarons January 5, 2015 at 2:57 am

What is a “Marxist organization”? An organization, apparently, in which the “working class” (or, alternatively, “historical necessity”) is god and Karl Marx (pbuh) is its prophet.

What’s needed is not a “Marxist organization” but organizations that use the insights of Marx and of those influenced by him, and of many other thinkers, to fight for the interests of workers, the oppressed and humanity as a whole, against the particular interests of the rich and of privileged sections of the global population. Such organizations do not need to be parties with full political programs, and can be built around particular social struggles, provided that their programs and actions do not conflict with the needs of the overall struggle. For example, an organization fighting to better the conditions of certain categories of workers doesn’t have to be active as an organization in, e.g., activities against imperialist militarism, but must not give any support to such militarism or support the creation or maintenance of “jobs” based on such militarism.

As for “Leninism”, it usual refers, unlike “Marxism”, to a particular form of organization oriented to the insurrectionary seizure of power in the name of the working class. The question of the correctness or not of such a form of organization, and precisely what it means, is not relevant to the situation in the U.S., the U.K., or any imperialist country, where there is no social base at this time for such a seizure of power and won’t be until after a long period of struggle, both external and internal, against the ruling class of each country and global imperialist capital in general.

The above thoughts are rather incomplete and, in some respects, tentative, and I hope to expand upon them in the future.


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