No Shortcuts: The Struggle for the Revolutionary Party
July 26, 2022
It should come as no surprise that in a moment at the long tail end of four decades of defeat for the workers’ movement, kicked into overdrive by the collapse of the Eastern bloc party-states, the question of how to build the revolutionary party is hardly fashionable. Most of those who claim fidelity to Marxism find various ways to sidestep it indefinitely. Building a revolutionary party may be a necessary task, they say, but it is one for a hazy future always just over the horizon. For now, they find themselves comfortably ensconced on the fringes of political parties which are hardly working class, let alone revolutionary. Many of them have been there for decades and we can scarcely expect them to reverse course now. For such people, it has never been and never will be the right time to begin building a revolutionary workers’ party. Entrism once a tactical maneuver in very different times has become a way of life and a point of pride.
This leaves the question of the revolutionary party to a dwindling fringe of esoteric groupings who for their part are equally disinterested in the question of building the party. If for habitual entrists building the party is always a question for tomorrow, not today, sectarians are confident that the party is already incarnate on earth in the form of the “revolutionary continuity” they and they alone bear. The only task which remains is to bring the Good News of the party’s existence to the masses, who, if they are currently indifferent, will sooner or later be brought to their senses by the “deepening of the crisis” or the “upsurge of the class struggle.” Indeed, many sectarians while away the hours until that moment of truth by indulging in entrism to the point where they keep their exclusive possession of truth a closely guarded secret from the masses who, they believe, are not yet ready for such earth-shattering information.
Finally, a third group admits that we need to begin building a revolutionary party but balks at the idea that such a party should have any ideological or programmatic line. It can include Trotskyists, Maoists, syndicalists, Brezhnevists, or indeed almost anyone who feels for the plight of the worker and is inclined to wave a red flag on May Day. We can only assume that what would make such a party revolutionary would not be its positions (after all it would not have any) but its sentiments. Unsurprisingly, this third group is almost always a throwaway disguise for the first two employed to trap the unwary with dramatic statements about “non dogmatism” and “regroupment.” A recent example of this current went so far as to ensure its quick demise by constituting its unity around “base building.” They might well have insisted on “respiration” as a condition of membership.
What all the above positions share is a refusal to begin the work of party building. Whether it’s not the time to start, the task was already completed, or it will be finished as soon as we bring a rag-tag selection of malcontents into a rented conference room to issue a milquetoast founding statement, the crucial point of unity is skipping the struggle. All these political get-rich-quick schemes and hasty evasions do is leave nothing but a deepening cynicism and exhausted resignation in their wake. Even the best-intentioned and most resolute are left with the sinking feeling that no third way exists between clapping for Bernie at Labor Notes and gluing MS Word formatted Bordigist fliers to bus stops.
The result is a malaise that manifests in a spectrum of morbid symptoms. From the pessimistic refusal of any political militancy which perfectly assimilates to the mass apathy and private hedonism of the neoliberal Restoration to occasional outbursts of cult fanaticism. The intensity of disillusionment after thirty years in the world Deng and Reagan built makes the despair after the failure of the 1905 Revolution seem like a walk in the park. The first step out of the fog is a careful disentangling of subjective and objective factors.
Objectively, the working-class movement is just beginning to experience a halting revival after decades of historic weakness. At the same time, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the market reform of the PRC decisively closed the horizon of revolutionary expectation opened in October 1917. Until new historic moments decisively reverse both these long-term trends there is no doubt that the times will not be revolutionary. Subjectively, however, the crucial question of what leadership and consciousness is to determine the nascent revival of the labor movement remains. It is here that the question of party building is located.
To a greater degree than for decades, new strata of workers are beginning to feel the possibility of organizing around their class interests, both inside and outside of existing unions. It seems that the workers' movement, having hit rock bottom, is now on the way to a probably slow and zig-zagging recovery. The question of how to coalesce advanced elements in the upwards tendency of a labor movement that remains historically weak with the Marxist critique of capital and the revolutionary program which forms its necessary result is the way the question of the party is posed today. How to build the party of “extreme opposition” able to accumulate the social force that can be deployed in the acute crisis of the future to resolve it in the interests of the working class?
Nobody can “make the revolution” independent of objective contingencies. However, the question of constructing the revolutionary party is always on the table, even in the most reactionary periods. So long as workers struggle to negotiate the terms of sale of their labor power, the possibility of uniting this struggle with the critical consciousness of the necessity of overcoming capital remains. Despite the false starts detailed above, there is nothing fantastical about working to build a revolutionary party in America. On the contrary, it is the only responsible course of action. However, such work must be implemented without illusion or self-deception.
The Task Ahead
Viewed through the lens of the Russian experience not only are we not on the eve of 1905 or 1917, we are not even at the turn of the century writing of What is to be Done? We are hardly in 1882 when Plekhanov issued his first polemical booklets. The workers’ movement is just beginning to show feeble signs of life after long dormancy, and the renewed interest in Marxism in some circles remains confused, superficial, and prone to an eclectic confusion of concepts. In this context, the task is not to announce the first congress of a shallow and adventurist regroupment or indulge in the sectarian defense of a revolutionary program whose application to the current situation remains to be written.
To work in the line of party construction in America in 2022 is to build Marxist circles within the labor movement which combine a rigorous study of the classics, an intensive investigation of the economic realities of the present, and a militant engagement in the daily struggles of our class. Such a course precludes either subordinating oneself to the pink liberalism of the DSA (as the most cutting-edge transmission belt of the bourgeoisie in the labor movement) or joining one of the dwindling relics of the old sectarian left. It means having 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. This is because four decades of ceaseless attacks on the working class have broken the old continuities. The Communist Party was built from the left wing of the Socialist Party and the IWW. The elements of the New Left which remained committed to the working class could stand on the shoulders of militants who had passed from the Communist Party into the Trotskyist or pro-Chinese opposition. This is not only a deficit, it is also an advantage. If we are able to begin serious work and start afresh, we will not be encumbered by the junk of the past. But it is an advantage we can draw upon only on the condition that we seriously take up our task.
It is a task that can be taken up anywhere. Unite those who can be united around a Marxist policy of study and action, inside or outside of the existing unions, embark on organizing for struggle somewhere on the long front between workers and capital which constitutes our society. And, within this struggle, begin to train an intellectual elite that is able to independently grasp the dynamic of the revolution from 1776 to 1917 and what that demands of them today. This means building real social force through action — strikes, walkouts, struggles for union recognition, and struggles for union democracy — in conjunction with real ideological cohesion. No superficial unity for the sake of unity, but a precise and unsparing discussion of all the questions we have inherited from the prior history of the workers' movement and a constant struggle for dialectical materialist clarity against all eclectic combinations with bourgeois philosophy.
Only through a long and organized struggle on the economic and ideological fronts can we accumulate the forces that, sometime in the future, can constitute a revolutionary party. We need to build a revolutionary tendency in the workers' movement with a Marxist education This must be a tendency that refuses the tutelage of labor liberalism and its Marxist fellow travelers. It must also be a tendency that understands that there is only one effective way to fight for reform — uncompromising mass struggle — and implements this understanding in action that goes against the limits set by the self-appointed representatives who would rather phonebank to pass the PRO Act than organize independent worker action. In a country founded by one revolutionary war and kept in unity by another, there is nothing more normal than working to build a revolutionary workers' party. In fact, we all know that it is the Eric Blanc-type labor liberals who would have balked at throwing the tea into the harbor or storming Harpers Ferry, while those of us who believe in a proletarian dictatorship are carrying forward the spirit of the eighteenth-century Committees of Public Safety into twenty-first century America.
A Historical Responsibility
Working to build the revolutionary party is no eccentric activity born of nostalgia and misguided religious impulses. It’s a practical necessity to set the working class back on the offensive and revitalize our degenerated public life. Change is not going to come from benevolent elected populists creating a more favorable legal environment for organizing, but from mass struggles whose requisite sacrifice and discipline demand a renewed martial spirit, a spirit whose motive force can only be the certainty of fighting for a new and superior social order. This is the force that vitalized the revolutionary minorities whose action played an outsized role in the past struggles of American labor and the centralization of this force around a strategy for state power is precisely the revolutionary party.
If we are Marxists, it is our job to take the lead in generating such force today. We have to steel ourselves to stand at the forefront of the reawakening of our class and convey the lessons of past history to the fighters of the future. In the final analysis, it is the choice of every individual to take up or reject their historical responsibilities. But we should remember that a joyful life is never an easy one and that to take up the burden of action in public life on the basis of consciousness of the movement of the historical process is perhaps the highest and fullest form of specifically human life.