In defence of party building

Issue: 163

John Molyneux

John Molyneux: “The comrades in Southampton don’t like this stuff about ­building the party.”

Tony Cliff: “I don’t like it either; it’s horrible. Unfortunately, it is necessary”—conversation with Cliff in summer 1968.

In February/March of this year the International Socialist Organisation (ISO),1 one of the larger organisations on the North American far-left, underwent a complete implosion. The removal of the historic leadership of the group by an overwhelming majority at their convention in February was followed by accusations of mishandling of a rape accusation back in 2013 and then a vote on 28 March, by 77 percent of its members, to dissolve. This sequence of events will undoubtedly be taken by some on the international left as reinforcing the arguments against engaging in ongoing efforts to build a revolutionary party.

Indeed, we have already seen the resurfacing and recirculation of old articles by the Canadian Marxist David McNally and by the great Marx scholar Hal Draper along these lines. This article is written in response to this situation and these arguments. It is not an autopsy of the ISO, but it will reply to McNally, using him as a foil to address arguments I disagree with, and very briefly to Draper. It will also try to locate the issue in a wider ­historical and theoretical context.

McNally’s case

In “The Period, the Party and the Next Left”, written in 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 Crash and in the midst of the Great Recession but published in response to the ISO crisis, McNally argues that the nature of the period is not one in which it is possible or desirable to try to build a small, “micro” party into a larger working class revolutionary party. Rather, he suggests, socialists should be engaged in broad work within the working class movement to reconstruct the actual vanguard of the working class that he believes existed in the 1920s and the 1930s but was dissolved, by history. He argues that a small party building approach is essentially based on a dogmatic syllogism that he characterises as follows (I will quote him quite extensively so as not to misrepresent his argument):

The problem of the “micro-party”.

As I see it, the necessity of “a new left for a new era” forces all of us to ­confront—and break with—the legacy of the micro-party approach. At its heart the micro-party perspective consists in believing that building a small ­revolutionary group is in essence the same thing as constructing a revolutionary party. Fundamentally, then, this perspective involves a simple syllogism:

There can be no socialist revolution without an authentically revolutionary party;

Our group is the custodian of the authentic revolutionary tradition;

Therefore, there can be no socialist revolution without our group (ie building our organisation is the key to constructing a mass revolutionary party).

Rather than address the really crucial questions—how is the left to rebuild practices, organisations and cultures of working class self-mobilisation so that a working class vanguard might actually be re-created, and a meaningful party built in its ranks—real social-historical problems get reduced to questions of building the small group: recruiting more members, selling more papers, creating new branches.2

Let me say straight away that there is no difficulty in grasping the appeal of a perspective that dispenses with the tedious—Cliff might have said ­“horrible”—routine of “recruiting more members, selling more papers, creating new branches”. Moreover, such an appeal will be particularly strong to comrades who have been through the catastrophe of the ISO in recent months. But let me also say that the “simple syllogism” that McNally argues was fundamental to “micro-party building” was not, ever, subscribed to by the founders and leading political representatives of the International Socialist tradition from which McNally, myself, the ISO, the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Irish Socialist Workers Network (SWN) all originate.3

Let’s take each of his three propositions in turn:

There can be no socialist revolution without an authentically revolutionary party

Or as Leon Trotsky put it: “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer”.4 This, of course, was fundamental and was shared by all of us. Clearly if this was or is, mistaken, if successful socialist revolution does not require the leadership of a revolutionary party or can be led by any sort of party (broad social democratic, Stalinist?) then all our collective efforts over the past 50 or 60 years and those of Trotskyists before that have been, at most, beside the point. However, as McNally well knows, there is an abundance of historical experience and theoretical argument to suggest this is not the case.

The argument for the necessity of a revolutionary party has been made so often in the International Socialist tradition that I will offer only the very briefest summary here.5 The revolutionary party is essential a) because we face a highly centralised enemy, the capitalist state; b) because “the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class” and the influence of those ideas within the working class needs to be combated in an organised way; c) because working class consciousness and confidence develops very unevenly and the more advanced elements in the class need to be drawn together effectively to counter the influence of backward and reformist elements; d) because if a revolutionary party fails to win the leadership of the working class in the revolution, that role will be filled by reformist parties and they will lead the revolution to defeat.6 Assuming this argument to be correct, the question is how is it to be built?

McNally tries to cover himself on this point saying: “Now, let me be clear: effective socialist organisations are indispensable to the task of rebuilding what I have called ‘practices, organisations and cultures of working class self-mobilisation’”.7 But he doesn’t specify what kind of socialist organisation he is talking about.

Our group is the custodian of the authentic revolutionary tradition

This, however, is a rather empty jibe akin to the bar room comment: “you always think you are right”. A revolutionary Marxist organisation—group or party—will obviously try, as best it can, to embody the “authentic revolutionary tradition”, but this is entirely different from imagining that it is the “custodian” of that tradition as if it could somehow be copyrighted or deposited in the group’s bank account. Also, the revolutionary tradition is not something located in the past and preserved in aspic, it is continually developing. It may stretch back to Spartacus and Gerrard Winstanley and the Bolsheviks, but it also includes the Black Panthers, May ’68, the British miners’ strikes, Tahrir Square and the Battle of the Camel, Occupy Wall Street and the revolt against police killing in Ferguson, Missouri to give a few examples. No one is or can be the “custodian” of this and endeavouring to embody it is always going to be an imperfect work in progress. Again I think all the key players in building the International Socialist Tendency would have agreed with this. If some enthusiastic members of the SWP, ISO or whoever came—out of party loyalty—to believe David’s proposition then this is understandable but mistaken.

Therefore, there can be no socialist revolution without our group (ie building our organisation is the key to constructing a mass revolutionary party)

This third proposition in the supposed syllogism is central to McNally’s argument because of the statement in brackets that “building our organisation is the key to constructing a mass revolutionary party”, which is also later restated by McNally as: “The problem comes when the building of small groups is seen as the building of a revolutionary party per se.” But in fact this third ­proposition is not a necessary corollary of the first two propositions (the “therefore” is illegitimate, and we are not dealing with a syllogism in the logical sense). It would be perfectly possible to believe, with good reason, that a particular group or party at a certain point in time (say the Communist International in 1920, the Fourth International in 1938 or the ISO in 1985) was an embodiment of the authentic revolutionary tradition (if not its sole custodian) while allowing for the possibility that it might degenerate and cease to be so, without writing off the possibility of socialist revolution. The degenerating or dissolved group/party might well be replaced by a different one. Moreover, it does not follow at all, and was not held to follow by the IS Tendency (I can’t speak for the ISO in recent years), that simply building the existing small party by means of individual recruitment was the key means of “constructing a mass revolutionary party” or “building the revolutionary party per se”.

A brief look at our history demonstrates this very clearly. In the early years of the Socialist Review Group and the International Socialists, the predecessors of the SWP, there was little or no talk of party building at all (until 1968). For much of that time there was a strategy of entryism in the Labour Party, not with a view to capturing or reforming Labour, but in order to relate to a wider audience. Then, after the shift towards party building and overt Leninism in summer/autumn 1968, the strategy of party building through “paper sales, recruitment and new branches” was accompanied by a series of experiments: the 1968 call for left unity which postulated a merger with Tariq Ali’s International Marxist Group and others and the establishment of a network of industrial militants via rank and file papers and organisations. The latter culminated in the attempt to build a National Rank and File Movement and a shift to factory branches that were to operate very differently from the propaganda society of the traditional party branch or the latter day ISO.

When the industrial downturn of the second half of the 1970s effectively wiped out this strategy, the initial response of the IS/SWP was to attempt to build the party through mass campaigning with the Anti-Nazi League and, to a lesser extent, the Right to Work Campaign. Only in the teeth of a fierce intensification of the downturn in struggle, the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the strong pull of Bennite left reformism, did the SWP, in the early 1980s, adopt the perspective of huddling together in a small number of large geographical branches with a heavy emphasis on political education and recruitment “by ones and twos”. This was not at all the method of “building the revolutionary party per se” but a survival tactic in very adverse conditions.

Later in its history the SWP made an unsuccessful bid for explosive growth through the division of branches into smaller and smaller units, an electoral intervention to the left of the Labour Party by means of the Socialist Alliance, an overwhelming focus on one mass campaign, the hugely influential Stop the War Coalition (at the expense of almost completely abandoning branch building), and then, growing out of that, another electoral initiative and political alliance in the shape of Respect. In addition to this I would cite the decision of our German comrades to work, on a sustained basis, inside Die Linke and our experience in Ireland. In Ireland we initiated the People Before Profit Alliance in 2005, along with a number of other leading left activists, in order to contest elections. Since then it has grown into a small but substantial force in Irish politics North and South which has met with some serious electoral success (three members of the Dáil in the South and one Member of the Legislative Assembly in the North) but also functions as a day-to-day campaigning organisation. The proto-revolutionary party, the Socialist Workers Network, continues to operate (and is growing) within the “envelope” of People Before Profit.

I cite this history not in any way to claim an unbroken record of success, far from it, nor to suggest that each of these turns, perspectives, strategies—call them what you will—were correct, but simply to show that we have never been the one-trick pony suggested by McNally’s “straw man” syllogism. In addition I would note that the main political leaders and theorists of the SWP and the IS Tendency, most conspicuously Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas and Chris Harman, but not only them, had a deep knowledge of the history of the Marxist movement. They were well aware of how the First International grew out of the trade unions, how the Second International was a federation of broad workers’ parties (and the strengths and weaknesses of that), of the many different stages in the emergence and development of the Bolshevik Party, of the debate as to whether or not Rosa Luxemburg should have split earlier from the SPD, of how the Comintern and its mass parties were built, including through the winning over of the majority of the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) at the 1920 Halle Congress, of Trotsky’s “French turn”, when his followers joined the Socialist Party in the mid-1930s, and much else besides. They knew, therefore, that they had a wide range of political and organisational strategies and tactics at their disposal.

Cliff in particular was always very conscious of the fact that the IS/SWP and any other would-be mass revolutionary workers’ party would have repeatedly to transform itself, its methods of work, its structures etc, in interaction with the working class in struggle, in order to get anywhere near its goal. I suspect that McNally may have been over-influenced (even if negatively) by the modus operandi of the British SWP in the 1980s (individual recruitment to the micro-party by “ones and twos”) and may have mistaken this very specific phase for the whole story. The same may perhaps be true, if in a different direction, for the ex-leaders of the ISO. At any rate this would seem to fit with their respective political biographies.

In this context it should also be said that any kind of socialist ­organisation—be it local committee, sect, loose network, micro-party, middling sized party, mass party or whatever—has to build and recruit in order to survive for any length of time. The objective pressure exerted by the system, and by natural causes, on socialist militants is such that there is always a certain turnover or loss. Unless that is made good by the recruitment of fresh forces the organisation goes into decline.

There are two other elements in McNally’s case I want to challenge here: his argument about the nature of “the period” and his alternative to party building.

McNally writes:

One of the political roots of small group substitutionism—which I am calling the micro-party model—grew out of a mechanical transposition of revolutionary perspectives from the 1920s and 1930s to the dramatically changed conditions of the post World War Two period… In the 1920s and 1930s, there was indeed in many parts of the world an actually existing working class vanguard, a social layer comprised of millions of workers who identified themselves as socialists and often belonged to mass organisations of the left—trade unions, socialist and communist parties, unemployed workers’ movements, socialist women’s organisations, and so on. Moreover, there was a succession of pre-revolutionary crises, largely in Europe, across the years 1917-23, and then periodically from China to Spain between 1927 and 1937, in which winning the working class vanguard to a revolutionary movement was key to the historical moment. In that context, the principal political problem could be defined not as the creation of a vanguard layer but its transformation and reorganisation by way of an ideological and organisational break with reformism. And so, revolutionaries sought, through steadfast participation in the struggle, to win this vanguard layer to new parties based on a different (and authentically revolutionary) political project. To be sure, this orientation involved a qualitative development of this vanguard layer; but that layer itself could be said to have existed as a real social force.

The combined effect of fascism, Stalinism, Cold War and postwar economic expansion was largely to destroy this vanguard layer. To pretend after these events that the key problem was “building the leadership” or “winning the leadership” of the existing movement was utterly misleading. A class conscious, socialist layer of the working class had to be rebuilt; it was not there “for the taking,” if only the tiny group could get to it.8

In short, a party building strategy was appropriate in the 1920s and early 1930s because a mass socialist working class vanguard already existed, but it no longer fits because now the task is to rebuild that socialist layer. This contrast between pre- and post-war conditions obviously contains elements of truth. But it is not nearly as absolute as McNally suggests and it does not support the conclusions he draws. In the earlier part of the century there were many places where such a pre-existing layer of politicised workers did not exist and yet revolutionaries, rightly and successfully, pursued a party building strategy from small beginnings: Russia is the most obvious example. The roots of the Bolshevik Party lay in the tiny Emancipation of Labour Group founded by Georgi Plekhanov in 1883, comprised of only five members. It then grew through various phases of small study groups, propaganda and agitation to the first, unsuccessful, attempt to found a national Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1898 and then the Iskra-led Second Congress in 1903 where the Bolshevik-Menshevik split took place. All of this before McNally’s “working class vanguard, a social layer comprised of millions of workers who identified themselves as socialists and often belonged to mass organisations of the left”, existed in Russia. The same could be said of the origins of the Bulgarian Communist Party, founded by Dimitar Blagoev as the Bulgarian Social-Democratic Party in 1892 and reaching 1,795 members out of a population of 5 million in 1907—again before there was a mass working class, let alone hundreds of thousands of socialist workers, in Bulgaria.9 The perspective of Lenin’s Comintern, we should remember, was to begin the building of Communist Parties in almost every country including many underdeveloped countries where there was as yet nothing like McNally’s existing mass vanguard.

Where McNally’s argument is strongest is in his critique of the practices of the Trotskyist sects emanating from the fragmentation of the “desperate gamble” of the Fourth International. But this critique, it should be said, is taken straight, whether McNally knows it or not, from Cliff, who was to become the most ardent and enthusiastic party builder after 1968. And even here McNally falls into caricature. He writes:

But, particularly after the end of World War Two and the shift of capitalism into a prolonged boom, the micro-party model became orthodoxy within the movement he [Trotsky] had established. The building of tiny organisations detached from real mass movements became identical with the building of revolutionary parties.10

In truth none but the most unhinged of small sects ever believed this—neither the Mandelite Fourth Internationalists, nor Ted Grant’s Militant Tendency and certainly not the IS Tendency thought it was possible to build revolutionary parties “detached from real mass movements”. For all their various flaws they all thought it was possible to build revolutionary parties only through participation in the mass struggles of the class. Perhaps this was true of the Canadian International Socialists in the mid-1980s and perhaps it became true of the ISO in the 21st century. But it was never “the orthodoxy” of our movement, however defined.

The problem with McNally’s perspective is, of course, not that he wants to relate to the mass movement or movements but that he doesn’t want, in the process, to try to build the revolutionary party. So what is his alternative?

“I have no recipes for any of this,” he says. But this is disingenuous. There cannot be any such “recipe”. What is possible, however, is to make concrete proposals. McNally makes three, each very tentatively. They are: rebuilding the class vanguard, revolutionary regroupment and conferences sponsored by left publications. Let’s discuss them in turn.

Contra the experience of the 1920s, the task is not to win over an existing class vanguard, but to foster practices, forms of struggle and institutions of the left that assist its germination. Only in the midst of such processes can a meaningful revolutionary organisation (never mind party) be built.11

Now, fostering practices, forms of struggle and institutions that assist the formation of a class vanguard is obviously something every revolutionary socialist should be doing continuously in the 1920s, the 1990s and today on an everyday basis in their workplaces, communities, campaigns and so on. The question is whether you do this as an individual or as part of a collective on the basis of a coordinated strategy and plan that is linked to the overall project of socialist revolution. The latter requires a revolutionary party (group, micro-party—call it what you will). Without that collective discussion, encouragement and discipline12 there is the strong likelihood that the fostering of practices, etc, on the part of the individual will falter and dwindle.

Also, there is a confusion of levels in McNally’s discussion of this issue. He says that in the 1920s and 1930s there was a working class vanguard consisting of millions of workers who identified as socialists and were members of mass organisations of the left, but that history largely dissolved this. Therefore, any strategy focused on building or capturing the leadership of this no longer ­existing class vanguard was completely mistaken.

Let us assume, for the purposes of this argument, that this characterisation of the situation is broadly true. Let us also assume, as is the case, that we (McNally, myself, etc) are addressing and hope to influence a small network of like-minded socialists—a few hundred or a few thousand, several thousand maximum. This we, by our own efforts, individual or collective, cannot possibly undo the “combined effect of fascism, Stalinism, the Cold War and post-war economic expansion” on millions of workers. Of course, we can contribute to the process of regeneration, much in the same way that reducing one’s personal carbon footprint contributes to stopping climate change. But our influence will be marginal. The recreation of the class vanguard in the sense of millions of workers internationally will require its development through mass struggles that are for the most part independent of our will. But what we are debating here is precisely what we, the conscious revolutionary socialists and Marxists, should be doing.

McNally quotes Duncan Hallas in support of his argument:

That is why Duncan Hallas, writing around 1970, posed the problem of building a revolutionary socialist party in the first instance in this way:

“In human terms, an organised layer of thousands of workers, by hand and brain, firmly rooted amongst their fellow workers and with a shared consciousness of the necessity of socialism and the way to achieve it, has to be created. Or rather it has to be recreated”.13

However, the use of Hallas here is seriously misleading. The article from which this quotation is taken: “Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party”, was explicitly written as part of a strategy, driven by Tony Cliff, of starting with a relatively small group—the IS group of a few hundred in 1968, ie a micro-party in McNally’s terminology—and trying to build it into a more substantial revolutionary party with a real base in the working class. This is clear from the very title of the article and from the fact that it speaks of creating “an organised layer of thousands of workers”, not hundreds of thousands (as represented, for example, by the Shop Stewards Movement of the time and by the British Labour Party at that time). It is also worth noting that this was the strategy Hallas adhered to for the rest of his political life, and it was more or less the opposite of what McNally is advocating in this debate.14

McNally describes his regroupment proposal as follows:

Moreover, I would suggest that in our circumstances—where Marxist currents are utterly marginal and working class vanguards must be rebuilt—we need to imagine processes of fusion and regroupment out of genuine radicalisations. New Lefts will produce new leftward-moving social movements and new radical forces—modern equivalents of groups like DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; rank and file movements in unions; insurgent movements for sexual liberation and the rights of migrant workers; new radical workers’ centres; new movements of women workers; new student lefts—whose most militant elements will need to be brought together even to establish meaningful “pre-party formations”, to create much larger, more rooted revolutionary currents that might move us onto a whole new level in the building of revolutionary organisations.15

Writing in 2009, McNally’s view that the period would see the emergence of new leftward moving social movements was correct and has been proven to be so by developments we all recognise, especially but not only, in the United States—obvious examples would include the Occupy movement in 2011, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, the movement for Bernie Sanders, the Women’s Marches against Trump and #MeToo. And he was and is right to see these developments as an opportunity not a threat. He was also right that these movements’ “most militant elements would need to be brought together”. But where the problem and the argument lies is in his stages theory of this process; his insistence that this bringing together must precede the establishment of even “pre-party formations”. In other words he counterposes relating to and bringing about the regroupment of elements of these movements to beginning or continuing the task of party building.

McNally’s third proposal is to hold conferences:

We also need to explore possibilities for initiatives on a larger scale, such as (national and semi-international) conferences…sponsored by a variety of serious left publications, which can bring together hundreds of people from different radical and revolutionary backgrounds to engage in discussions and debates, share experiences, and discuss how to move the work of the genuine left onto a larger field.16

Of the three proposals this is by far the most concrete and most likely actually to happen. Indeed, it clearly has been happening, no doubt with McNally’s active participation: the Historical Materialism conferences being the most obvious example. But, splendid as they may be, it is surely an illusion to believe that such conferences offer any sort of road to building either a new class vanguard or even a small proto-revolutionary party in the working class.

In short, all McNally’s proposals actually amount to is a deferral of the whole task of party building to the indeterminate future. However reasonable that may have been in 1850 (when Karl Marx took such a decision) or 1952, and I will return to these historic choices later, the fact is that now the clock is ticking. We have, I suggest, a very limited time before the alternative of socialism or barbarism is posed very concretely by the total environmental crisis that we have entered. If, as I started by saying, the revolutionary party is necessary for socialist victory then surely the task of party building is an urgent one.

A note on Hal Draper

An article from 1973, “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect”, by the great Marx scholar Hal Draper, is also being cited in current debates, sometimes as if it were a prescient warning about the evolution of the ISO. This article reaches broadly similar conclusions to those of McNally but, in my view, is even more theoretically and historically flawed. I shall respond very briefly.

Draper’s article relies on a contrast between two types of organisation: the “sect” and “the working class political party”. The sect or “micro-sect”, in Draper’s words “presents itself as the embodiment of the socialist movement, though it is a membership organisation whose boundary is set more or less rigidly by the points in its political programme rather than by its relation to the social struggle”. It “counterposes its sect criterion of programmatic points against the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, which may not measure up to its high demands”. In contrast: “A working class party is not simply an electoral organisation but rather, whether electorally engaged or not, an organisation which really is the political arm of decisive sectors of the working class, which politically reflects (or refracts) the working class in motion as it is”.17

Draper waxes eloquent on the follies of the sect (in point of fact he derisively mocks them more than he analyses them) but pays scant attention to the serious weakness of a mass party that “reflects…the working class in motion as it is”; namely its historic tendency to reformism. This is highly significant because this point has always been central, historically and theoretically, to the case for a revolutionary party. One of the most fundamental distinguishing features of the Communist parties proposed by Lenin and the Comintern as distinct from the parties of the Second International was that they should not simply reflect the working class movement by containing within themselves a reformist wing.18

Draper’s stark binary—sect or mass workers’ party—also excludes intermediate and mixed formations: mass parties that are sectarian (the German Communist Party, or KPD, in the Third Period at the end of the 1920s); middling-sized parties that are sectarian (the Greek Communist Party today) and that are not, but may be opportunist (the POUM, or Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, in Spain in 1936-7) and so on in a complex continuum.

Draper asserts confidently that no “micro-sect” has ever grown into a real workers’ party. If by “micro-sect” Draper means a very small group that behaves in sectarian fashion (as he defines it) then this is probably true. But if he means no clearly politically defined small group has ever become a big party with mass working class membership this is not true. This was the case with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party but also, to different degrees and in different ways, the Chinese CP, the Bulgarian CP, the Italian CP and the South African CP (and there are many other examples).

Draper’s actual proposed strategy was the formation of a “political centre”, essentially a journal unattached to any group or party (and thus not democratically accountable to any membership) as transitional to the formation of a mass workers’ party. His own effort at this, the Independent Socialist Committee, came to nothing and history is littered with more failed attempts at this strategy than he cares to mention: for example the New Left Review with the New Left in 1956 and Black Dwarf in 1968. However, the case he cites to legitimise his proposal, that of Lenin and Iskra, is based on a highly selective and tendentious account of the history of Bolshevism, which screens out both its pre-1901 development (the Emancipation of Labour Group, study circles, factory agitation, early party building, the false start of the Russian SDLP in 1898) and the 1903-4 Bolshevik-Menshevik split itself.19 The latter involved precisely a split over building a small “hard” party versus a broader, looser party. I find it very hard to believe that, armed with Draper’s criteria and approach, the Lenin of 1903-4 would not be dismissed as a micro-sect builder (as he was by so many at the time).

Problems of party building

My critique of the arguments of McNally and Draper, which defer the attempt to begin party building to the indeterminate future, should not be taken to imply that building up a small party into a significant political force capable of leading a revolution is in any way straightforward or that many of the pitfalls they cite are not real dangers. On the contrary history shows that building a revolutionary party is anything but easy—we have only one partially successful example—and that the process is beset by difficulties at every turn.

I remember Cliff once being asked what the main difficulty faced in building a very small group is. His reply was not opportunism or sectarianism but “personal relations”. Comrades form personal relationships and sometimes these relationships end bitterly or turn sour. In a largish party this can usually be absorbed quite easily; in a group of 20 or 30, less so. But, setting that aside, the main difficulty faced in building a revolutionary party is the pressure exerted on socialists by bourgeois society. This operates at every level: physical repression, economic hardship, ideological pressure from the dominant ideology, career and other temptations, all of which are often mediated through the pull of reformism. Indeed, reformism itself has always offered a small but important layer of the socialist and working class movement a gradual transition out of the vicissitudes of ordinary working class and revolutionary activist life into at least the fringes of the establishment by means of parliamentary elections and, importantly, the trade union bureaucracy.

Precisely because of the relentless pressure exerted by capitalism there also arises the acute danger of sectarianism and the sect-mentality. In order to resist the pull of opportunism and reformism and to deal with the material and psychological difficulties of living in a permanent state of engaged defiance of the existing order, any small group is likely to develop a series of defence mechanisms against the outside world. Members huddle together, preferring talking to each other to relating to “ordinary” people. Comrades take refuge in a set of dogmas—the line—which they can learn by rote from the classics (or from their group’s interpretation of the classics).

In these circumstances another serious danger arises—an authoritarian leadership who come to be seen as the fount of all wisdom. This phenomenon does not develop primarily because of the bad character of the leaders but because of the unhealthy political and social relationship between leaders and led. This is particularly likely when the level of struggle is very low and the movement has suffered repeated defeats or the members are cut off from the struggle. Whereas in a period of rising struggle in which they are engaged, working class industrial or community leaders or student militants may be able to debate with a professional leadership on behalf not only of themselves but with a collective behind them, in this situation they confront the party leadership as isolated individuals. The idea of fighting the boss, the government, the ruling class, the world system, the reformist politicians, the trade union officials and your own party leadership, and doing it virtually on your own, is simply too much for many people.20 And the problem with “infallible” leaderships is that they are able to persist with strategies and policies that don’t fit the given situation, without being democratically corrected.21

Here it is important to note that there are a series of formal positions ­historically associated with ultra-leftism and sectarianism and historically condemned by the Marxist tradition. For example, refusing to work in the trade unions, refusal to take part in bourgeois elections and rejection of the united front (especially against fascism). But it is possible for an organisation to reject all of these well-known follies and still fall victim to the sect-mentality, which will show itself in the way the organisation responds, or fails to respond, to the new challenges thrown up by the class struggle. In the same way it is possible for an organisation to swear by the theory of permanent revolution and Lenin’s The State and Revolution and yet fall into reformist or opportunist practices.

For example, the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), represented by the Socialist Party in England and Wales, would have passed most of the formal tests (at least in theory) but has developed a seriously sectarian practice based on fear of, or hostility to, working in any movement or campaign that it does not control and a reluctance to allow its members to engage too closely with other socialists for fear of contamination. The British SWP was always pretty orthodox theoretically but, I would argue, lapsed into a sectarian position at the beginning of the Miners’ Strike and the Poll Tax campaign, while I think it fell into a rather opportunistic relationship with George Galloway in the Respect Party between 2004 and 2007. The ISO reacted in sectarian fashion to the Battle of Seattle and the rise of the anti-capitalist movement and would appear to have fallen victim to a serious case of sect-mentality in the years that followed.

I want to stress that I’m not citing these examples to criticise the CWI, the SWP or the ISO (still less to suggest that if everybody had adopted the correct model all errors would have been avoided). Indeed, I would say it is literally impossible to engage in party building for any length of time without falling victim, in one way or another, to these opposing pressures. The Bolshevik Party itself, let us remember, was sectarian in its initial response to the Soviets in 1905, ultra-left over participation in the Duma in 1906-7 and opportunist in the first phase of the revolution in 1917. Simply getting bigger, while obviously desirable, is not in itself a protection as it may well increase the pressure of reformism. Staying small and “pure” is not a solution since the “purity” increases the likelihood of the sect mentality taking over.

Washing one’s hands of the whole business à la McNally and Draper doesn’t work either. This is not only because the party is necessary for victory but because all the other forms of practice they suggest—journals that act as political centres, local activist groups, trade union caucuses, international conferences, etc—are just as subject to these pressures and deformations as would-be revolutionary parties, if not more so, especially as they frequently lack the key element of democratic accountability to an engaged membership.22

One misconception that should be laid to rest here is that the problem is democratic centralism as a form of organisation. First of all, every form of party or campaign organisation contains an element of centralism or it cannot function as an organisation. Every voluntary organisation has some element of democracy even if it is only the right to leave. Moreover, without centralism there is no means by which democracy, the will of the majority, can assert itself over the leaders. Take the British Labour Party as an example. On one hand the fact that it is not “democratic centralist” does not prevent it having a draconian disciplinary system that is used to sanction and expel dissidents (pro-Palestinian dissidents) such as Ken Livingstone, Mark Wadsworth, Jackie Walker and Chris Williamson. On the other hand, it allows a situation where the majority of the party members clearly support Jeremy Corbyn and his policies, while the “high ups”, chiefly the MPs, continually sabotage him and them. In fact democratic centralism, though not a guarantee or panacea (there isn’t one), is the best available method of ensuring party leaders are subject to democratic control. This does not mean that in all stages of an organisation’s development and in all conditions democratic centralism should be applied in the same way. Organisational forms have to change according to changing circumstances.

There is no alternative, therefore, but to attempt to build revolutionary parties while continuously struggling to negotiate the rapids of the class war, hoping not to escape being buffeted by the currents and driven this way and that, but to avoid being smashed on the rocks to the right or the left.

Experience shows that in this ongoing difficult effort there is one thing in particular that can help to protect against both opportunism and sectarianism but especially against the sect mentality: that is actual engagement with the everyday struggles of working people in workplaces, unions, communities and campaigns. This engagement cannot be just at the level of words, by means of the correct transitional programme, etc. It has to be real, face-to-face, day-to-day. Such interaction “puts manners on”, to use an Irish expression, both leaders and members. It creates a counter pressure to that exerted by capitalism and by reformist parties which rely on the passivity of the working class. It inhibits the sect mentality, deters an arrogant leadership (because rank and file comrades often feel more empowered to stand their ground on concrete immediate issues) and helps party members learn how to talk to working class people, not just each other. It breathes life into the stagnant pond of sect life.

Even in its early days in the 1950s and 1960s when it was tiny, Cliff’s Socialist Review Group (and then IS) maintained active engagement with the ENV engineering factory via Geoff Carlsson and others, took part in CND, produced Cliff’s and Colin Barker’s interventionist booklet Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards, and in 1968 at the height of the student revolt and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign was also involved in resisting rent increases in London. In similar fashion the Irish SWP in its earlier development had strong links with the Waterford Glass factory, where it had a factory branch, and later played an important role in what was known as the “bin tax campaign”.

This kind of relationship with the class is not, to repeat, any sort of recipe or guarantee, but it is a prerequisite for healthy development. The almost complete absence of such an ongoing relationship with working class communities and campaigns was, I believe, a major contributing factor to the heavy-handed regime in the ISO, to the behaviour of its leadership and to the hollowing out of its members’ morale and political will to the point of its implosion and dissolution earlier this year.

Historic choices

The issue raised by McNally and Draper before him—to start building a revolutionary party or to leave it till later—has often confronted revolutionaries in the past.

In 1850, after the defeat of the Revolutions of 1848, Marx retreated, for a period, from all organisational political activity. There were three main reasons for this: 1) the economic perspective was for a major expansion of capitalism that precluded any immediate revolution; 2) Marx’s desire to escape from what he saw as the futile bickering of émigré circles; 3) his urgent need to concentrate on writing Capital. In addition, we can note that, for entirely understandable historical reasons, Marx did not fully appreciate the necessity of an independent revolutionary party, hoping and imagining that a mass workers’ party would be bound to evolve in a revolutionary direction once the struggle got going. And he underestimated the counter-revolutionary role of reformism.23

Lenin, in the dark days of 1910 when, after the defeat of the 1905 revolution and the onset of brutal reaction, the Bolshevik Party had shrunk to a few hundred members, took the opposite decision to Marx in 1850. He clung to the remnants of the party with all his might and “liquidator” became the worst insult in his vocabulary. Doubtless Lenin’s personality played a role in this, but his experience of rightward moving political tendencies such as Bernsteinism in Germany and Menshevism in Russia would already have convinced him of the need to combat opportunism and reformism organisationally as well as theoretically.

In the 1930s, after the KPD’s failure to prevent Hitler’s seizure of power, Trotsky fought tooth-and-nail, in the most difficult circumstances, to build new revolutionary groups and parties internationally. He regarded it as “the most important work of my life”.24 In contrast Isaac Deutscher, after opposing the formation of the Fourth International in 1938, withdrew from practical activity to what he called “the watchtower”.25

In the revolutionary year of 1968, the two principal theorists and leaders of the International Socialists, Cliff and Mike Kidron, essentially parted company. Cliff threw himself into party building and “the turn to the class” while Kidron withdrew more and more from practical activity, eventually drifting out of the party all together in the late 1970s.

Let us look at the balance sheet of these choices. Lenin and his party went on to lead the greatest revolution in history. The “liquidators” of 1910-11 ended as counter-revolutionaries. Trotsky, against all odds, saved the honour and the heritage of authentic Marxism and passed it on to future generations. Deutscher wrote a great book, his biography of Trotsky, but built nothing and accommodated to Stalinism.26 Cliff built the SWP to a leading position on the British far-left and built the IS Tendency internationally as well as making a major theoretical contribution on several fronts. Sadly, even Kidron’s theoretical output dwindled.

But, above all, the circumstances that justified Marx’s decision in 1850 (reversed in 1864 with his participation in, and leadership of, the First International) do not apply at all to the world today. We are not facing a major expansion of the system; on the contrary it is teetering on the brink of a new recession, and even if it avoids recession for a while it is hurtling towards climate catastrophe and ecological crisis that will enormously sharpen the class struggle globally. The international proletariat is larger than it has ever been before, with immense reserves of strength—look at the great revolts in Sudan and Algeria and the potential in China and India. Yes, the far right and the fascists are gaining ground in Europe and elsewhere but they can be repulsed. And the left is rising in the US, where it has reached a size not seen since the late 1960s and early 1970s. Moreover, there is a spreading young climate revolt. And unlike in 1850 the Marxist world outlook, while not complete—it never is—has been comprehensively articulated by Marx and Friedrich Engels and their successors, and we have ample experience of the deadly role of reformism.

Consequently, given the validity of the basic theory of the party (and this has not seriously been challenged), serious revolutionary socialists have an obligation to attempt, by every means at their disposal, to build parties wherever they are and certainly not to abandon the project. Crucial to this, in my view, is avoiding a defensive “who goes there?” approach to the new struggles and movements that are emerging in the world today. Two outstanding current instances of this are the Gilets Jaunes in France and the new revolt over climate change. The Gilets Jaunes have exceeded expectations in terms of both their radicalisation and their stamina. For revolutionaries to have stood aside from this great movement, on the grounds of its unsavoury and contradictory elements, would have been sectarian folly.27 At the same time revolutionary participation would surely have been more effective had the revolutionary left in France, especially the NPA (New Anticapitalist Party), been able to hold together better. The school climate strikers have been spectacular and inspirational in many countries28 as was the civil disobedience organised by Extinction Rebellion (XR) in London in April. As with the Gilets Jaunes it would be impossible for such new and youthful movements not to have multiple flaws, illusions and contradictions. All the more reason for enthusiastic revolutionary socialist participation, which will be all the more effective if it is organised and based on a coherent politics and anti-capitalist worldview.

Finally, there is the great Sudanese Revolution and the developing mass struggle in Algeria.29 In the context of this discussion these epic events pose in my mind the following questions: 1) Was the great Egyptian Revolution of 2011-13 stronger because of the existence within it of the Revolutionary Socialists, a proto-revolutionary party built in advance from tiny beginnings? 2) Would the revolution have been better able to resist Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s ­counter-revolution of 2013 had the Revolutionary Socialists been much larger and more rooted in the working class? 3) Would the Sudanese Revolution (and the Algerian) benefit from the presence of such an organisation? My answer to all three of these questions is in the affirmative and that implies a clear rejection of the perspective outlined by McNally and Draper.

John Molyneux is the editor of Irish Marxist Review and author of a number of books including Marxism and the Party and Lenin for Today.


1 The ISO came into being in 1977. Until 2001 it operated as the affiliate of the International Socialist Tendency (IST) in the United States and therefore as the sister organisation of the British Socialist Workers Party. In 2001 it was expelled from the IST as a result of it fostering a split in SEK, the Greek IST affiliate, following a major strategic dispute with the IST majority regarding relations with the emergent anti-capitalist movement that followed the “Battle of Seattle” in 1999.

2 McNally, 2019.

3 McNally was a founder and leader of the International Socialists Canada, sister organisation of the SWP and SWN, but broke away to form the New Socialist Group in the mid-1990s.

4 Trotsky, 1980, p252.

5 There is a sense in which the whole of Tony Cliff’s 4 volume biography of Lenin is an argument for the necessity of the party, but there is also Cliff, Hallas, Harman and Trotsky, 1971, Molyneux, 1978, and more recently Molyneux, 2017, and much else besides.

6 It is also possible and right to argue not just for the historic necessity of the party for revolutionary victory but also for the positive role of the party in struggles and campaigns in the here and now. I have not gone into this here for reasons of space but I have made this case in relation to Ireland in Molyneux, 2016.

7 McNally, 2019.

8 McNally, 2019.

9 See the account in Cliff, 1979, chapter 6.

10 McNally, 2019.

11 McNally, 2019.

12 By discipline I mean here the discipline of the collective, not orders from the party leadership. Interestingly this was one of the key issues in the Bolshevik-Menshevik split in 1903—see the discussion in Molyneux, 1978, pp52-54. Note also the quote from Raya Dunayevskaya: “The disciplining by the local was so crucial to Lenin’s conception that it held primacy over verbal adherence to Marxist theory, propagandising Marxist views and holding a membership card”—Dunayevskaya, 1972, p180, cited in Molyneux, 1978, p53.

13 Cliff, Hallas, Harman, and Trotsky, 1971, p9, quoted in McNally, 2019.

14 As someone who knew Duncan Hallas fairly well right up to his death and had great regard for him, I must confess to being slightly uneasy about the way in which I see him being quoted so often in debates within and around the ISO. I can’t help feeling that he is being quoted so much because he is not Tony Cliff, whose break with the leadership of the ISO was very sharp. I think Duncan would have been uneasy about this too.

15 McNally, 2019.

16 McNally, 2019.

17 Draper, 1973.

18 See Cliff, Hallas, Harman, and Trotsky, 1971, especially pp48-50.

19 Cliff, 1975, offers by far the best, most detailed account and analysis of this period.

20 It is clear that an analogous social psychological mechanism operated to sustain illusions in Stalinism, especially when fascism was on the rise.

21 Of course, in the Marxist movement, no leadership ever claims actually to be infallible, nor does the rank and file see them as such. It is just that the membership develops the habit of always, in each concrete situation, assuming the leadership is correct. Moreover, when the leadership is confident of always being supported, it is apt to develop the habit of “crushing” and “smashing” dissenters (verbally, of course).

22 Anyone with experience in “the movement” will know this is true. Jon Lansman’s Momentum is a recent example. There is an overlap here with the argument against anarchism and the “tyranny of structurelessness”, to use Jo Freeman’s apt phrase from the 1960s. See Molyneux, 2011, particularly the discussion of “Decision Making in the Movement”, pp72-76.

23 See the discussion of this episode in Molyneux, 1978, chapter 1.

24 Trotsky, 1959, p52.

25 Deutscher, 1984, pp57-58.

26 See Cliff, 1963.

27 For more on the contradictions of the Gilets Jaunes movement see Bouharoun, 2019.

28 Including Ireland, where on the 15 March, 10-15,000 school strikers assembled at St Stephen’s Green and marched to the Dáil.

29 These lines are written on 24 April. Clearly there is no way of knowing where Sudan and Algeria, or the region, will be by the time of publication.


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Cliff, Tony, 1963, “The End of the Road: Deutscher’s Capitulation to Stalinism”, International Socialism 15 (first series, winter),

Cliff, Tony, 1975, Lenin, volume 1: Building the Party (1893-1914) (Pluto).

Cliff, Tony, 1979, Lenin, volume 4: The Bolsheviks and World Revolution (Pluto).

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