Party-Building for the 21st Century

by The North Star on June 14, 2012

By Louis Proyect (Unrepentant Marxist, Marxmail founder)

Revolutionary struggles in other countries often serve as useful lessons in strategy and tactics for us. While Greece is by no means at the point of a proletarian revolution, the success of SYRIZA naturally raises questions about its validity as a model for the American left.

In my view, there are two very important lessons we can draw as we work towards creating our own party that fights both in the streets and at the ballot box.

The first of these is the need to reconsider whether the “program” of a left party has to be defined on the basis of some kind of revolutionary “continuity” or “tradition” that establishes its pedigree going back to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Karl Marx before him. The basic confusion is over whether a group should be constituted on a program geared to the exigencies of the current class struggle or on a doctrine that defines the party on a series of historical controversies going back for over a century. When you form a party on the basis of doctrine, you are following the model of a religion that, for example, defines itself on a body of written work that upholds the correct stance on questions such as the status of the Virgin Mary or who was correct in the split between Rome and the Eastern Orthodoxy.

SYRIZA demonstrates that this is not a useful approach for creating parties with influence on a mass or meaningful scale.

The program of the Russian social democracy was totally unlike the doctrinal model small propaganda groups today use as some kind of litmus test, requiring agreement around a host of divisive international and historical questions such as when the U.S.S.R. stopped being “socialist.” Instead, Lenin and his comrades only asked workers to support demands directly related to the class struggle under Tsarism as demonstrated by the draft program under evaluation in 1899:

  • An eight-hour working day.
  • Prohibition of night-work and prohibition of the employment of children under 14 years of age.
  • Uninterrupted rest periods, for every worker, of no less than 36 hours a week.

Recently, SYRIZA released a 40-point program that will strike the impartial observer as unlike any of the aspiring “vanguard” organizations that are so insistent upon the need for soviets, workers militias, and the like. To cite a few planks:

  • Use buildings of the government, banks and the Church for the homeless.
  • Open dining rooms in public schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to children.
  • Free health benefits to the unemployed, homeless and those with low salaries.
  • Subvention up to 30% of mortgage payments for poor families who cannot meet payments.

Building the party, one breakfast at a time.

As someone who lived through the stormy 1960s, I was intrigued to see what amounted to a reprise of one of the central activities of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP): a free breakfast program. As “reformist” as this might sound, it was enough to convince the FBI to launch a terror campaign against the BPP. No doubt, the army and the big bourgeoisie whose interests it serves would have about the same reaction to such a program in Greece.

Sometimes we forget that the revolutionary parties of past eras adopted programs that were not that far removed from the one that SYRIZA upholds today. As should be obvious, SYRIZA is trying to reach workers in the same way that Russian socialists did in 1899, through clear demands that speak to their most immediate class interests. In doing so, they are hearkening back to traditions that even predate the Russian social democracy and go back to the workers’ movement’s inception.

Just consult your Communist Manifesto and you will see demands very much in the same spirit:

  • Free education for all children in public schools.
  • Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form.
  • Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

A few decades later, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) — the model for the Russian party Lenin was trying to build — adopted the Erfurt Program that once again appealed to the broadest layers of the population. In addition to the demands enumerated above, it also touted a free breakfast program:

  • Free medical care, including midwifery and medicines. Free burial.
  • Legal equality of agricultural laborers and domestic servants with industrial workers; abolition of the laws governing domestics.
  • Free education, free educational materials, and free meals in the public Volksschulen, as well as at higher educational institutions for those boys and girls considered qualified for further education by virtue of their abilities.

Now, there is no guarantee that a party like the German SPD of Karl Kautsky will not lose its bearings and become an obstacle to revolution at some point in its development. Social pressures associated with the lifestyle of a trade union official or a parliamentarian tend to accommodate politicians to the status quo, no matter their youthful ardor.

However, to automatically assume that SYRIZA will turn out this way and therefore maintain a hostile attitude towards it is a serious mistake. In revolutionary politics, we must always keep our focus on the next stage of the class struggle and judge parties and individuals based on their behavior at a given conjuncture. Given that criterion, SYRIZA has done nothing unprincipled in the past few months, as well arguably as serving as a beacon of hope for the left internationally.

The other lesson, closely related to the first, is the need for the left to rise to the occasion when presented by a crisis. At the risk of spreading an urban legend, I would remind readers of what many have falsely imputed to the Chinese ideogram for the word, supposedly a combination of the words “danger” and “opportunity.” While this is based on a misunderstanding of the Chinese language, it still is very relevant to the choices facing the left in such situations.

Referring once again to the frequently misunderstood Lenin, the greatest imperative for revolutionary leaders is to unify the people, the narod (or 99%) in struggle. Despite his reputation among small self-described “Leninist” groups today as a figure willing to split on a moment’s notice, Lenin’s greatest talent was uniting disparate groups with frequently clashing interests. Keep in mind that What Is to be Done? is primarily about forming a nationwide party around the kinds of clear and class-based demands identified above. If all you get out of the book is the need to split with the “economists,” you have only (mis)understood one part of it.

As someone who was grappling with these questions in the early 1980s, I found the Nicaraguan revolution to be exactly like the kind of lesson that Syriza is providing today. Instead of maintaining rigid divisions that weakened the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, the fighters of the FSLN took the opportunity in the face of grave danger to come together and constitute a genuine vanguard.

In George Black’s Triumph of the People, a magisterial account of the Sandinista revolution, there is a discussion of the three bitterly divided factions of the FSLN that relates to the problems facing the left today. The first faction, led by Jaime Wheelock, called itself Tendencia Proletaria, or Proletarian Tendency. You can guess by its name that it prioritized the working class. The second was the Guerra Popular Prolongada, or Prolonged Popular War, led by Tomas Borge who died last month. In many respects, it followed the rural warfare foquismo approach of Che Guevara. The third tendency was the “third force” or Terceristas, also called the “Insurrectional Tendency.” As indicated by the term “insurrectional,” they tended to adopt bold, almost adventurist, tactics to spur the masses. They recruited from the middle class, including lawyers, academics, Church and lay workers, and even from lumpenproletarian elements. Daniel and Humberto Ortega were the leaders of this faction.

The three factions simply represented contradictory class aspects of the Nicaraguan revolution. All were correct in responding to local features of the revolutionary struggle, but were also incorrect in assuming that their own faction had the inside path to victory.

Che Guevara once made the observation that “every revolution always incorporates elements of very different tendencies which, nevertheless, coincide in action and in the revolution’s most immediate objectives.”

Eventually, the three factions united and were able to topple Somoza. Although the great promise of that revolution was never realized, the ability of the three factions to unite was key to the initial victory. They came together not because they woke up one morning and figured out that maybe the opposing groups were not so bad after all. Instead, it was the enormous pressure of the unfolding events that made ordinary Nicaraguans demand that they transcend their differences and come together as a united fighting force.

While Greece is by no means comparable in most respects to Nicaragua in the late 1970s, it is about as close to a pre-revolutionary crisis as any European country has experienced since the final days of fascism in Spain and Portugal in the mid 1970s. A devastating economic crisis has led to SYRIZA’s surprising second place finish in the recent elections and possible victory in new elections prompted by the inability of the neoliberal parties to form a government.

May 6 election results in Greece.

In Greece and internationally, the unfolding events there have led the left to begin an evaluation of SYRIZA’s long-term viability as an instrument of change. For some, there is a tendency to emphasize the weakness of the Eurocommunist leadership. While the Greek Communist Party (KKE) has led militant strikes and adopted very good position papers on the economy, it has condemned SYRIZA out of hand in a sectarian manner. ANTARSYA, much smaller left coalition, has criticisms of SYRIZA that echo the KKE’s but is generally much more willing to unite with the rest of the left, even if it is running its own candidate in the upcoming elections instead of joining or backing SYRIZA.

The likelihood of the KKE ever breaking with its past is exceedingly dim, but the far left constituent parties of ANTARSYA at least make the effort to present their case to the rest of the left. If your approach to the left is to align yourself with groups with the best position on paper, there is little doubt that ANTARSYA comes out ahead of SYRIZA. The difficulty, however, lies in the fact that politics is based only partially on positions. Unless you have the material force to lead people in action, those positions remain unfulfilled. As is so often the case with “revolutionary” organizations trying to present an alternative to “reformists,” the masses tend to follow the lead of those groups that make a difference in their lives.

Perhaps a better approach would be to set aside conventional understandings of “revolution versus reform” and consider SYRIZA as a party that begins to address the questions posed by Che Guevara’s observation that “every revolution always incorporates elements of very different tendencies which, nevertheless, coincide in action and in the revolution’s most immediate objectives.” If SYRIZA functions more as a coalition of groups and individuals on the left with widely divergent analyses and preferred strategies than a homogeneous cadre formation, then perhaps what you are seeing is both a return to the norms of the pre-Communist International socialist movement as well as the broad-based movements that led to revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua, whatever their final outcome.

What SYRIZA, the Nicaraguan FSLN, and the Cuban July 26th Movement have in common is a pluralistic framework in which it is possible for divergent points of view to coexist within a orientation that is generally inclined to favor demands and policies in the interest of the working class.

In stressing the need for a program that can unite the vast majority in struggle against the ruling class, there are some who would warn about the tendency of such a loose formation to go astray because it lacks “clear politics.” Would it not be better to define a program that is unmistakably and explicitly “revolutionary” and recruit small numbers of cadre so as to take advantage of a revolutionary situation when it arises? I first heard such a schema back in the early 1970s when a leader of the Trotskyist movement tried to explain the word “cadre” to convention attendees. It came from the military, he said. We were trying to create what amounted to an officer caste that can command the ordinary foot soldiers when war breaks out. It was symptomatic of the troubles of our movement that nobody could recognize how elitist this conception was.

It also reminded me of a comment I heard from an old man, who was probably my age now, attending a David Harvey talk at the Brecht Forum in New York about the relevance of Marxism today. He said that there was an unfortunate tendency for those on the left to operate like the guy in a joke who said that as soon as he put together a million dollars, he would become a capitalist. The joke, of course, is that there is no way to become a millionaire capitalist except through the process of accumulating capital.

By the same token, a revolutionary movement can only be built through the accumulation of victories in the class struggle. That is one of the reasons that the Occupy movement presents such a challenge to the socialist left. Instead of waiting for conditions to ripen, or for a cadre to be assembled, they put their bodies on the line on the barricades of the struggle and led by example. This, I would argue, is the kind of movement that will eventually evolve into a true vanguard in the long run, whether it is made up of the young people in this movement today or a whole other contingent following the same methods of struggle. It is only through such struggles that a true vanguard is steeled.

The people who occupied Wall Street or Tahrir Square, the students in Quebec fighting against tuition hikes, the protestors in Moscow demanding an end to Putinism, and countless others are responding to attacks on their rights and their standard of living. In order to defend themselves and to secure a better future, they try to find ways to maximize their strength through unity and through intelligent strategies and tactics designed to produce results.

What better ally would such fighters have than something like SYRIZA that could serve as a vehicle for their protests as well as fighting on behalf of their interests through the exercise of capitalist state power?

We are reaching a point in history when the magnitude of the crisis that faces us will begin to exercise the kind of pressure on the left to unite both within given countries and globally. Through the Internet, the Gutenberg printing press of the 21st century, we may begin to find a way to build bonds of solidarity that were broken when the Soviet experiment went sour. Every effort should be bent to seeing each other as comrades no matter how sharp our differences on historical and theoretical questions. The ruling class, especially its doyens on Wall Street and Washington, D.C., has declared war on us, so we have no other choice but to build an army that can meet their challenge on the battlefield now emerging.

Our enemies have learned to coalesce despite their national and cultural differences, as President Obama’s frequent trips abroad illustrate. It is incumbent upon us to join together in building our own class-based institutions to counter theirs. They may have superior wealth and arms at their disposal but we have the planet’s billions of working people and poor as potential allies, for in the final analysis it is capitalism that is driving them in our direction much more than any words we can utter at this point in history.

The North Star’s roundtable:

1. “Party-Building in the 21st Century” by Louis Proyect

2. “Another Occupy Is Possible – and Necessary” by Chris Maisano

3. “What Can American Leftists Learn from the Success of SYRIZA?” by Richard Estes

4. “Lessons for Socialists, From Occupy Boston to Greece” by Doug Enaa Greene

5. “A New Socialist Left Emerged” by Billy Wharton

6. “SYRIZA: Lessons for the Grassroots” by Bob Morris

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

FILE ERICKSSON June 15, 2012 at 5:15 pm

You’re right about one thing, SYRIZA is a lot like the FSLN. And a SYRIZA victory in Greece would have about the same result as the FSLN victory did in Nicaragua: international reaction and a complete economic collapse resulting in masses of disenchanted and hopeless workers, with triumphant left wing bureaucrats at the helm of a bourgeois state recanting any past connections to the Sinner Marx.

Sad to see you didn’t learn any lessons from the failures of the petty-bourgeois parties in the 1980’s, even though the evidence is right in your face. Why don’t you try your luck pushing this stuff in Nicaragua? You can stand under the billboard saluting “Sandinista victory: Socialism and Christianity with Ortega!” in the shadow of the ruins of Somoza’s palace in Managua.

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Joe June 15, 2012 at 7:09 pm

The link to the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program included in Louis’s posting. indicates that Hoover viewed the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the U.S.,” and that this statement was, in fact, made after the start of the Free Breakfast Program. But Louis’s statement that the Breakfast Program was enough “to convince the FBI to launch a terror campaign against the BPP” requires historical documentation, not mere assertion. Hoover was correct, in my view, in his assessment of the threat caused by the Panthers, but it’s not clear to me whether the Breakfast Program contributed to that threat or weakened it. If anyone knows of a comprehensive discussion of this issue, please let me know. The issue is of more than academic interest; it’s part of understanding what kinds of “reformist” activities accelerate the revolutionary struggle (and how they do so)and what kinds weaken it. Louis provides that kind of analysis in discussing the Bolsheviks. But his linking the Breakfast Program to the Panthers being a revolutionary threat needs to be developed in an argument, not merely by assertion precisely because the Panthers posed so revolutionary a threat and were so immensely influential.

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s e anderson July 17, 2012 at 11:26 am

I think the COINTELPRO terror campaign against the Black Panther Party, SNCC, SCLC and other progressive & revolutionary organizations was a little complex than a simple response to a successful Panther Free Breakfast Program.

Being one of the original founders of the post Lowndes County (AL) Freedom Organization Black Panther Party in Harlem in the spring of 1966, I know- first hand -that Hoover’s (and hence, the US rulingclass’s) intent was to destroy the growing organizing and education capabilities of young Black activists within the Black workingclass. Hoover (and his class sponsors) began to fear this development when SNCC initiated successful Freedom Schools in 1965 in the South (where they also offered a free breakfast).

In addition, by the summer of 1965, SNCC had embraced Malcolm X’s understanding of the Vietnam War and began to organize southern Black teens not to go into the military and the resist the draft. at the same time, SNCC began to build a political organization independent of the ruling class’s “liberal” facade called the Democratic Party. They had learned the harsh lessons of racism and rulingclass collaboration the year before at the 1964 Atlantic City Democratic Party Convention. So in 1965, SNCC leadership set out to enter electoral politics as an independent BLACK force and strategically chose Lowndes County, Alabama because of its majority Black populace. They chose the Black Panther as a powerful symbol to counter the Dixiecrats’ Rooster. The symbol and their grassroots organizing work resonated with many young Northern Black activists… and we in NYC- in Harlem -were connected to SNCC (I was a member along with two other founders of the Original Black Panther Party members in Harlem that Spring of 1966) and felt that we were extending the SNCC work in Alabama into a more urban and revolutionary Black Nationalist way.

Please also note that from 1965 onwards one of the most feared-by-Hoover Black clandestine organizations had members within SNCC and helped form the Harlem Black Panther Party: the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). This was another piece to the ramping up of COINTELPRO in 1966 and beyond.

The Panther Breakfast Program that evolved from this was a powerful threat to the policy of destabilizing Black communities thru miseducation, the atomization of families and police intimidation and terror. The program provided the youth who came:
• political/cultural education about Blackfolk, current events and the world
• young Black men and women who study, discuss and analyze as role models,
• young Black men and women who are not fearful of police terror
• young Black men and women who respect each other (the struggle against sexism was an open and principled one)

Most Black adults supported the Black Panther Party, SNCC, Republic of New Africa and the Nation of Islam. The support was wide ranging… with most embracing the political and cultural discourse these groups were laying out. This was for Hoover & his handlers another danger: the radical/progressive Black organizations and individuals were not disdained by the majority of ordinary Blackfolk- despite the disinformation campaign.

But I go on too long here. Just remember this: the success of the Pather’s Free Breakfast program was just the tip of the Black Radical Iceberg that Hoover and the National Security State knew existed. And they had to find a way of melting that Iceberg and erasing its historical existence….

Enter even more sophisticated pysops programs, the use of the media monopoly and the grooming of two generations of petty bourgeois black elected officials, poverticians, hustling preachers and ebony towered “negro” intellectuals fronting for their racist elite benefactors.

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Jonah June 15, 2012 at 10:59 pm

It’s lucky for all of us that the circumstances that spawned SYRIZA hold for everyone else internationally. Obviously, given the exact parallel in the conditions we face, we ought to have the same strategic orientation. We should all try to organize a unified political formation with the local branch of Synaspismos. Or maybe we need to think hard about to how actually organize given the concrete features of the situation we really face…

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street June 16, 2012 at 3:38 pm

There’s no need for sarcastic idiocy here Jonah, especially since you adhere to the mythical version of a model dated 1917 from a country that is nothing like our own, but then again thinking hard about to how actually organize given the concrete features of the situation we really face never was your specialty.

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Jonah June 19, 2012 at 3:43 am

Whether or not the second part of what you say is true – and my sense is that your defensiveness and tendency towards aggressive over-confidence belies significant insecurities regarding your own political acumen and expertise – the first part is simply mistaken. More than anything, it reflects your own lack of understanding or real engagement with comrades who you a) claim to speak authoritatively about and b) are often the targets of polemics I see posted in venues like this one.

It’s possible that we have a different assessment of the Russian experience in 1917, but I’m not quite sure what those differences are or what you think they are. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on the 1912 Prague Congress of the RSDLP or anything like that – a question that frankly is a bit of red-herring I think – but I am very interested in questions regarding the development of the 2nd international as well as the precipitating factors and consequences of the organizational break in the socialist movement that resulted from WWI, followed by the subsequent wave of revolutionary upheavals that swept across Europe and then the founding of the Comintern. And like many comrades I’ve met from various quarters of the Anglophone left, I’m excited about the prospect of a wide-ranging, serious exploration and reevaluation of those subjects. Already, some of the literature published recently has raised a host of challenging questions and potential new lines of debate and discussion regarding not only “Leninism,” and the problem of socialist organization, but also about the political and theoretical legacy of figures like Kautsky, the pressures and constraints influencing the long-term evolution of social-democracy, etc.

I don’t have anything close to the requisite levels of empirical knowledge, the language skills and grasp of thed backgroun material, or the patience for that matter, to really judge the contributions made by someone like Lars Lih. However, I thought both Lenin Rediscovered and the subsequent HM symposium on his book were quite useful. One of the most important points I got from Lih’s argument about the common political vision that Lenin shared with the rest of the 2nd International – Lih’s “Erfurtianism” – was that the rightward movement of Kautsky and other leaders of the German SPD, their unwillingness to risk the unity and organizational capacity of the party, and their eventual capitulation to German nationalism in August 1914 cannot be ascribed to some inherently flawed organizational model or some sort of theoretical original sin: neither their approach to the question of socialist organization nor their supposedly fatalistic and mechanical interpretation of Marxism predetermined their eventual failures; there was no fatal flaw that doomed them from the start. In that regard, Lih’s intervention is entirely compatible with this aspect of John Molyneux’s argument:

“My argument, then and now,” Molyneux writes in his response to Lih, “is that, in the period 1903–14, there developed a fundamental difference between the (reformist) practice and nature of the Social Democratic Parties and the (revolutionary) practice and nature of Bolshevik Party. This is explained, in the main, by three factors:1) differences in the objective social and political conditions between Russia and Western Europe, including the non-emergence in Russia of a trade union and party bureaucracy; 2) differences in the level and intensity of struggle, especially in 1905 and 1912-14; 3) Lenin’s concrete, sometimes ad hoc, empirical (‘instinctive’) political responses to these circumstances.”

You may or not agree with this summary of the factors driving these two currents in opposite directions, but the point is that it treats the different trajectories of Lenin and the lodestar of the 2nd international in political terms – and it allows for the possibility that an organizationl break that may have been impossible at one moment (ie, in the SPD pre-1914) would become inevitable at another (ie, when the SPD later fractured under the impact of war and revolution).

Similarly, considering the experience of something like the Comintern in political terms requires a recogntion of its contributions – like playing a crucial role in initially cohering the German radical left into the KPD, whatever its later mistakes in Germany, or pushing the American communists to advance tremendously in their approach to the question of racism – and its failures. My own view is that the organizational break with social-democracy only led to the formation of significant formations with real connections to the class and significant political weight where these splits were organic – that is, based not simply on artificially imposed criteria, abstract positions on questions that had not been raised by and could not be answered through the experience of class struggle itself, or attitudes towards far away events; but rather on real processes of clarification and political differentiation arising from struggles involving substantial numbers of workers. The distinction isn’t about the role of the Comintern itself, but about the political context of the split and its political basis. Where there was not an organic political basis for the split, at least not one that was apparent to thousands of workers and left activists, the result was a group led initially by raging ultra-leftists like Italy, or a political fragment doomed to sustained marginality as in the case of some of the Scandinavian parties.

From my perspective, the take away from all this is that just as we have to assess the historical experience of the left politically, we have to think about organizational questions strategically, as questions that can only be effectively answered concretely in a specific context, and not on the basis of pregiven formulas. Moreover, we need to have honest assessments and discussions regarding what lessons we can draw from various organizational initiatives and strategies that avoids the trap of conceptualizing every development or strategic problem through the prism of its potential to serve as valuable evidence for the answer that we already had, especially if act as if that answer is more or less equally applicable in all times and places.

That means looking at an initiative like the French NPA and saying okay, that was a good idea and had a lot of promise but it didn’t work, and then trying to develop a concrete assessment about why that is – ie, treating the NPA model as a strategic endeavor and potentially a successful one, not as the right or the wrong answer to the organizational question posed in some trans-contextual way. It means recognizing that Syriza is a model of how the left can pursue a viable strategy for translating disaffection and mobilization into a viable bid for meaningful power politically, but not drawing the unbelievably rigid conclusion that if we’d only do our best to ape Syriza as much as possible we too could overcome overcome the gap between our weakness and the depths of the crisis. It means that sometimes, socialists should be in the some formation regardles off whether they are for reform or revolution, and in others they will have to split apart. And it means recognizing that in some contexts trying to win and train a cadre of socialist activists who know something about politics and how to be activists is not only crucial to the further advance of the left (given how much we’ve felt the absence of any such cadre in the period since the 1970s), but also how challenging that can be in circumstances like that which we face, how strong the pulls are on anyone who is interested in Marxism.

There is a substantial group of left activists from various parts of the world and operating in various political traditions who are gradually coalescing on the basis of just such conversations – folks generally capable of disagreeing without moralistic denunciations of one another.

But you two, Binh, don’t seem interested in that; you have such an axe to grind that you ascribe every position that contradicts your own to a single, alleged root failing. Ironically, you’re guilty of exactly what you accuse the supposed targets of your polemics of doing: having one answer to all strategic dilemmas, one solution to every problem, and one conclusion about organizational project undertaken by the far left globablly. You don’t treat organizational questions as contextual, strategic problems. Rather you take the conclusions arrived at by the supposedly “Leninist” targets of your polemics, and simply invert them – but neither the conclusion that revolutionaries must break with reformists organizationally as a matter of principle, nor assurances that political organizations formed around a list of popular, concrete demands will solve our problems are going to get the left out of the strategic impasse we face.

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street June 19, 2012 at 9:46 am

“…my sense is that your defensiveness and tendency towards aggressive over-confidence belies significant insecurities regarding your own political acumen and expertise…”

This is amusing coming from someone who co-authored a critique of my views (or rather, a critique of Proyect’s views that were conflated with mine) that was never submitted for publication anywhere. If there’s anything that screams insecurity, it’s refusing to air substantive political disagreements publicly so that whoever you are arguing against has a chance to respond. That is the proper and only way we can have the “honest assessments and discussions” you claim to want.

“It means recognizing that Syriza is a model of how the left can pursue a viable strategy for translating disaffection and mobilization into a viable bid for meaningful power politically, but not drawing the unbelievably rigid conclusion that if we’d only do our best to ape Syriza as much as possible we too could overcome overcome the gap between our weakness and the depths of the crisis.”

Unfortunately, no one in this thread has drawn such a conclusion. Instead of discussing the issue at hand — what lessons there are in SYRIZA’s experience that we draw from and apply in our context — you waste time attacking strawmen conclusions and dwelling on the ins and outs of 1912 and the Comintern.

And I thought I had an axe to grind.

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Jonah June 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm

I think your referring to a document that Aaron A. and I wrote about the left’s tendency to collapse into what we called “magical organizational thinking and organizational moralism.” The piece wasn’t about you, of course, but rather an argument about how to think about organizational questions, and the pitfalls of thinking about these issues in terms of moralistic imperatives or trans-historical principles, rather than contextual political issues. In any case, the arguments that were made in there have all been made on blogs like this one – ie, see my post above – but I haven’t felt like I’ve heard a convincing response. Not to speak for Aaron, but I think he feels similarly.

I don’t think I was attacking a strawman and I think the basic point is pretty clear – to extrapolate from an experience like Syriza’s cross-contextual lessons about the sort of socialist organizations that the left should be building, the form of its “program,” or some sort of formula for how mass radical parties get built in vastly different circumstances is reflective of a deeply flawed approach to these issues.

But you’re right, I am wasting too much time here.

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street June 19, 2012 at 5:31 pm

So instead of actually putting forward what you think the lessons of the NPA’s experience and SYRIZA’s experience are and what we should try emulate in our own context and by what means, involving which organizations, you declare that other people’s contributions to the discussion are a waste or somehow not up to snuff and bow out behind a fog of generalities like the need to look at things historically instead of abstractly.

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Ken MacLeod June 16, 2012 at 6:25 am

Lenin and his comrades only asked workers to support demands directly related to the class struggle under Tsarism as demonstrated by the draft program under evaluation in 1899: [a few minimal demands]

Actually, as anyone can see from the link (just scroll down to the second-last paragraph), the demands Louis lists were a small part of the program Lenin proposed.

The popular statement of the party’s minimum program (the famous ‘three whales of Bolshevism’) were: Democratic Republic, Confiscation of the Landed Estates, Eight-Hour Working Day.

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street June 19, 2012 at 9:49 am

The Bolsheviks were not “the party” and never became an independent party. See: http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004839

The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks shared the same program (http://www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/rsdlp/1903/program.htm) up until 1917 when the party voted to change it in the spring.

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Jurriaan Bendien June 16, 2012 at 7:25 am

Political parties are built out of, and kept together by, the core personal VALUES which people actually have and share – and not by particular programs and positions, which, after all, can change according to circumstances. In its (crudely Maoist) way, the Dutch Socialist Party http://international.sp.nl/ made this perfectly explicit, by affirming as the foundation of the party three core values: social equality, human dignity, and human solidarity. This may seem simplistic, but the Dutch SP is now one of the largest and best-funded parties in Holland, and could well become a governing party in the next general election.

The deepest contradiction in the Marxist project is the contradiction between science and ideology. Lenin in fact claimed that Marxism was “both a science and ideology.” He believed that science and ideology could be mutually supportive. But science and ideology are ultimately incompatible (science seeks to prove what is true and false, regardless of whether people like that or not, and ideology seeks to unite and mobilize people with an appeal to beliefs which are not verifiable). In the USSR, Marxism became a sterile state religion although it was claimed that Marxism-Leninism was a “scientific ideology”.

Most modern leftists in Europe, insofar as they are intelligent, therefore recognize that explicating political values and scientific research are two distinct enterprises to be developed, which should not be confused with each other. It is not that the party should have, or be built out of a official Marxist ideology, but rather that the party should apply Marxist insights in what it actually does. What unites people is not Marxism, but the values, needs and interests which they actually share.

The political failure of the American Left is, in essence, that it failed to explicate the core values and spirit of the American workers, and used that as the foundation of its political project. Instead, the Leftist activists want to be “just like Lenin” and import Marxism into the working class. By this they mean, that Marxism is an ideology, and that they try to get workers to believe in this ideology. But this approach had never worked in a hundred years. I assume that it might work only in a situation where society was disintegrating, and people were ready to believe anything.

Such a “Leninist” method is intrinsically sectarian, since, just like a religious sect, it wants to convert people from the beliefs they already have, to a new Marxist belief system. But in the end, people are going to believe what they believe anyway, so the people attracted to the Marxist belief system are just people who, for all kinds of reasons, find more comfort and security in the Marxist belief system than the beliefs they are putting behind themselves. But these people are not necessarily the people who can really change society. More likely, they are people who exaggerate the importance of beliefs in history-making.

If Marxism still means anything today, however, it is not a belief-system of which rich Marxist academics and their disciples try to convince people, with a sermon from behind their rostrum, but something which you do (an “applied science”). It is more implicit, rather than explicit. After all, you don’t need to convince most people anymore that we live in a profoundly unequal, unfair, crisis-ridden and unjust society – or that capitalism has failed. Time and again, surveys show how disaffected people are already, from the bourgeois regime. What people want to know is: what is the way out, what is the solution. If all you can offer is “class struggle rhetoric”, you’re not going to make it with anybody much.

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Diana Barahona June 28, 2012 at 6:34 pm

Fascinating point and well taken. I had a real problem with the U.S. Green Party (of which I was fairly supportive) and their “core values,” and it turned out that that these values were not concrete or explicit enough to prevent supporters of the Democratic Party from hijacking it in 2004 and endorsing John Kerry for president. However, if you are saying that Marxist parties should spend less time claiming to be “communists” or “Marxists” and more time talking about immediate social problems and formulating demands in terms average people understand, I agree. I don’t understand when you say that ideology and science are in conflict. Couldn’t there be an ideology based on rigorous academic studies of the current state of capitalism and society? Yes, people who base their ideology on what they know about Russia in 1917 are far off the mark, but that is not scientific socialism–that is laziness.

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street June 29, 2012 at 10:38 am

What is interesting about the faction of the Greens that undemocratically blocked the party from nominating Nader-Camejo instead of the “safe state” David Cobb is that they actually now admit that what they did was a big mistake: http://dissidentvoice.org/2012/04/ralph-nader-rocky-anderson-and-the-green-party-a-political-un-love-story/

Recall that Lenin had this to say about parties and mistakes: “A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification — that is the hallmark of a serious party…”

What I’m getting at is that a party or group that can admit it made a mistake is one that can learn, grow, and move to bigger and better things; in my experience, “Leninist” groups are incapable of that kind of self-reflection and often split/disintegrate once the mistakes become to big to hide or ignore.

Another thing to note is that values (or ideology) does not prevent political degeneration. The American Communist Party started out with revolutionary values and ended up campaigning for Democrats in about a decade. What values or ideology you have is not as important as what you do with it. The Catholic priest who preaches rebellion and organization in the barrio is more of a revolutionary than the learned Marxist professor who studies Capital all day, for example.

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Richard Estes June 16, 2012 at 11:34 am

The SYRIZA program is a positive indicative of its revolutionary potential as it is derived from its understanding of the immediate economic distress experienced by millions of Greeks and its bond with those who have protested neoliberal measures in the street for years. Many support it for the obvious reason that it presents a practical, easily understood means for addressing their suffering, a suffering so extreme as to be almost incomprehensible by Americans. It is therefore a manifestation of the radicalization of much of the populace, and, as such, should be celebrated. If SYRIZA continues to facilitate this radicalization, it will grow stronger, if not, it will be replaced by something else.

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Gregory A. Butler June 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Louis is a dyed-in-the-wool reformist, so it’s not surprising that he’d embrace SYRIZA, a party that wants to save Greek capitalism and the German imperialism-dominated European Union. There isn’t anything revolutionary about SYRIZA’s program, which is precisely why Louis supports it.

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David June 16, 2012 at 8:08 pm

This is interesting, but I have an observation that, while not directly related to this topic, I feel must be raised somewhere, so here is as good a spot as any. Also, I don’t mean to diminish the tireless efforts of people like Pham and others, but: It seems to me that virtually ALL of the discussion about party-building, socialism, Occupy, and/or the next step forward for the Left is being conducted by and oriented toward seasoned activists who are, by virtue of their location, in the “loop” of American protest politics: Large cities or metro areas and/or college campuses. For the like-minded tens of millions of Americans who live in rural areas, small communities or the suburbs of mid-sized cities that are a wasteland insofar as political activity of ANY kind is concerned, we’re very much excluded from what’s going on. Not, “What must be done?” but, “What the hell can I do?” For people like myself, my “politics” is an activity that is pretty much restricted to reading stuff online written by people hundreds or thousands of miles away and posting an occasional comment that will likely be ignored. The only political activity in my community that I can count on with any regularity is 1) a bunch of lunatic Tea Partiers hunkered down with their stupid signs in the town plaza on April 15, and 2) A dozen or so comfortable middle-class Democrats who “rally” (for the 99 percent and — clearly oblivious to the stunning irony — Barack Obama) weekly on a busy street corner. Honestly, if there really is a revolution in this country, I feel like it’s something I’ll be stuck watching on TV. And while I can hardly claim here to speak for the working class, I do feel that my sentiments are shared by many millions of people who are watching Occupy! from afar, with frankly dwindling hopes at this point.

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street June 18, 2012 at 9:21 am

I agree and disagree. The people in this roundtable are “in the loop,” and by definition are, in a sense, “outside” the loop of the vast working-class majority who generally do not pay close attention to politics. I think discussions like these can be important if they help us wake up and recognize there is a path to getting larger numbers of people outside our loop to be part of it. After the May 6 election, SYRIZA meetings swelled from 3-4 in certain neighborhoods to 200-400. Something similar happened with Occupy as well. It started small, became very big, very quickly, and then collapsed in numerical terms with the evictions but the absolute number of activists grew by a lot in less than a year.

I think you should look up Occupy Martinsburg as an example of what is and can be done in small, rural conservative communities. It’s located in Virginia, has a few libertarians who are active in it, but by and large it’s progressives, socialists, and liberals who predominate. And yes, they have a Tea Party as well. I met one of their leaders who was visiting Zuccotti Park when I spotted her with a t-shirt that read, “Occupy Martinsburg — Home of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.” Needless to say, I was floored.

The bottom line here is that now is as good a time as any to start something in your area, even if it’s just a monthly meet up, reading group, General Assembly, something, anything.

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Richard Estes June 18, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Please consider reading my submission to this discussion. I live in a city, Sacramento, that suffers somewhat from what you describe, and my mother lived in a northwestern Arizona town, Kingman, that fits your description precisely.

While my submission doesn’t address what you describe directly, I do try to point towards what I consider the atomization of US social life, and it is not limited to rural areas. It just looks worse in rural areas because there are a lot more people in urban ones, and hence, 0.125% participation looks good in San Francisco when it amounts to 4 people in Kingman. Unfortunately, when I submitted the piece to Pham, I lacked the time and the language to address this directly in depth, but I hint at it. Party building is implausible in such circumstances for the reasons you mentioned, and, in my view, people should consider organizing around a fairly simple statement of issues and demands rooted in the dire conditions in which they live.

As with anything, you will probably start with 2 or 3 people, but you might be surprised with what happens over time. My view, as I suggest in the submission, and have said elsewhere frequently, is that there has been a profound breakdown in political and social communication in the US and it is essential to address it before we contemplate more institutional forms of action, like, say, party building, because it is an inescapable precondition to such activity.

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David June 19, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Thank-you Pham and Richard for your response, I appreciate it. Obviously, rural areas present some unique challenges, and I’ll definitely check out Martinsburg.

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David Walters June 17, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Two replies, one on the Louis’s essay (and others who are doing ‘comparisons’) and one to Gregory.

I think Louis is projecting. And he’s “model-chasing” something he usually condemns. There is absolutely NOTHING, IMO, that is necessary to compare to a weak EU country with a mass-movement fightback and a neo-colonial one with *armed struggle* against a brutal military dictatorship. This idea that political-military organizations, like the FSLN have anything related to a coalition of left and far left groups organized around an *electoralist* strategy is simply silly. Always looking for “regroupment” is not the ‘lesson’ of either Nicaragua OR Greece. Judge each country on it’s own condition and how the class struggle unfolded.

Greg…”Reformist”? Wow..that’s the issue? I would agree that SYRIZA’s program is “pro-Europe”. It’s BAD that this is the case. But on the other hand, SYRIZA’s program is completely and utterly anti-Europe, too…or did you not get what the issue is in Greece? The anti-Europe position is expressed by total opposition to austerity and payment of the debt. Completely. It is SYRIZA and not the “anti-Europe” CP that is the threat here.

For SYRIZA to implement the SYRIZA program means a collapse of the Euro and possibly Europe as a unified Imperialist entity. Instead of looking for these contradictions, you turn your back on the movement that actually is bringing, it appears, SYRIZA to power and that’s it’s *anti-Europe perspective*

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FILE ERICKSSON June 17, 2012 at 2:47 pm

From the mouth of Tsipras himself, in his pre-election speech:

“Spain has negotiated and was successful. It has received economic support from Europe without implementing a memorandum. Despite the threats and blackmail of the creditors, it is staying in the euro without a memorandum.”

So there you have it. Honesty from him, if not from his cheerleaders here in the states: a SYRIZA win will bring the “Spain solution” to Greece: 25-50% unemployment, mass wage & social cuts, etc.

Good stuff.

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street June 18, 2012 at 9:12 am

Why do you insist on mispresenting what Tsipras said?

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Diana Barahona June 28, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Overall a very interesting analysis and good discussion (except for the sarcastic people). I agree that Louis tends to exaggerate to make his points but that doesn’t mean that his main argument is bad. In fact, if people just addressed that instead of picking apart his examples, I think there would be broad agreement. This is based on my own experience which has taught me that:
1. In a moment of structural and ruling-class crisis , which is what we are living in, the people look for alternative leadership and demand that that leadership demonstrate unity.
2. If Lenin and Gramsci were alive they would be arguing strongly for an analysis of the situation based on recent history (global and particular) and current trends and events (global and particular), which is what I understand Louis to be saying here.
3. Nitpicking about statements that the SYRIZA candidate has made or criticizing SYRIZA for not advancing an explicitly socialist program is the kind of thing that gives leftists a bad reputation. The rapidly developing crisis and rapidly moving events on the ground will drive SYRIZA’s program. If it makes a mistake by being too conservative or by being too radical at a particular juncture, then it will correct itself or lose hegemony. We should take this attitude towards all progressive movements, especially when they have the broad social base that the U.S. left lacks.

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jerry harris July 13, 2012 at 11:04 am

I liked many of the points in the article. But it is not just the program that is important but the practice. The Panthers didn’t call for a breakfast program they created one. Its the same lesson the left can learn from Hezbollah and Hamas, their support comes from a widespread network of actual services in health, education and other areas. The left loves progams and demonstrations, but we need to build more alternative institutional strength. Gramsci is good on this point.

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp July 13, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Really excellent points and a major reason why Zuccotti Park succeeded where the traditional left historically has failed to mobilize mass numbers of people. The occupation combined politics with living, ideas with meeting real-life concrete needs (food, clothes, shelter), protest with community.

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