How to Rebuild the Party?

Reid Kane

August 9, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Marx was the first socialist to seriously reflect upon the history of socialism in order to clarify the way forward. His approach was “scientific” in that it was a critical grasp of socialism as a historical phenomenon — an attempt to bring consciousness of its historical conditions and significance to bear within the socialist movement, in