I have been asked to comment on John Molyneux’s polemic “In Defence of Party Building”.1 I am pleased to do so, since discussion on the matter of a revolutionary party has become increasingly urgent—particularly in this moment of accelerating climate change, increased economic and social suffering, spreading right-wing authoritarianism and the lack of a truly credible international left.
In defending party building, John offers a snatch of a long-ago conversation in which Tony Cliff concedes—regarding “this stuff about building the party”—that “it’s horrible,” before adding: “Unfortunately, it is necessary.” Later in the article, John associates such party building with “the tedious…routine of ‘recruiting more members, selling more papers, creating new branches’”.2 I am not satisfied with this summation of party building—nor is John, I would imagine. One point, of course, is that such things as recruitment and branch building need not be tedious or “routinist”—they can be creative and stimulating. But the deeper point is that surely there is much more to party building.
Common ground and different standpoints
The common ground John and I share includes the conviction that there definitely is a need for a revolutionary party—revolutionary not merely in name or pretention or aspiration, but in reality: a party capable of helping bring about a socialist revolution. This conviction had drawn us both to Lenin, and, while there have been significant differences in how we interpret Lenin, there were sufficient commonalities for Lars Lih to lump the two of us together as “activist scholars” whom he criticised in his good and massive study Rediscovering Lenin.3 I finally had a chance to meet John, although fleetingly, several years back when we were on somewhat different sides of a discussion regarding a crisis that at the time was devastating the Socialist Workers Party in Britain.
More recently, we were able to spend quality time together in Dublin, where he has been living as an activist in the Socialist Workers Network. Some of his thinking had evolved, as befits a serious Marxist, based on new and rich experiences in Ireland. He described to me how the stale breath of sectarianism was being superseded by the spirit of a genuine working class activism very much in touch with the communities, workplaces and social struggles (particularly, at that moment, the impending landslide victory for abortion rights). It seemed to me my own organisation could learn much of value from the experiences he described to me.
Now here we are again, seemingly on somewhat different sides of a discussion. But perhaps not all that much. It is not clear, and perhaps John’s rejoinder will dispel the fog.
John’s launch point, in his polemic, is the sudden collapse, earlier this year, of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), the largest group in the United States that stood for socialist revolution, and which—despite mistakes and limitations—had made significant contributions over the years. He offers an apt summary of a complex reality:
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.4
Actually, I am not sure about the 77 percent figure—although all were invited to do so, some members (such as myself) did not vote, since by that time dissolution seemed inevitable, though I was not in favour of it. I am not sure how many others found themselves in the same boat.
Elsewhere, I have tried to piece together and explain, for myself as well as for others, what I have been able to understand of what happened while I was outside the country. Even before the final collapse, in an essay written from Rome, I sought to address some of the dynamics that seemed evident to me from far-away. I will not add here anything to what I have offered in those contributions.5
John focuses on two old documents put forward as the collapse was taking place—Hal Draper’s 1973 “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect”,6 and David McNally’s “The Period, the Party and the Next Left”,7 written in 2009 but made generally available this year. I read Draper’s essay maybe 25 years ago, and while I found it interesting, I confess that I did not find it compelling. I read it a few years after completing my Lenin and the Revolutionary Party—and while there was overlap in some of what he said and some of what I said, I was not persuaded by the thrust of his argument, which seemed to argue for a literary solution to the traditional problems of sectarianism. In what I have to say here I will set Draper aside entirely. McNally’s essay strikes me more positively.
Precisely here, however, may be one of the key differences in how John and I approach this discussion. He is coming at it as a member of an existing revolutionary organisation, while I am now bereft of such an organisation. John’s standpoint seems grounded in two texts that pre-date the ISO collapse, almost as if those texts make some kind of “case” for the collapse. In a sense, he is making a counter-argument for the continued existence of his organisation and other such organisations. My standpoint is grounded in the brutal fact that my organisation no longer exists. Such divergent existential standpoints are bound to influence our perceptions and reasoning. Hopefully this won’t contribute to our arguing past each other.
In fact, I am not confident that I have adequately grasped all that John has to say. At one point he emphasises that he is setting out to challenge McNally’s “argument about the nature of ‘the period’ and his alternative to party building”. Going through the article a couple of times, I couldn’t quite grasp John’s challenge regarding the nature of the period—though perhaps it has to do with what he calls “a confusion of levels,” which I will take up shortly. Regarding McNally’s presumed “alternative to party building,” it seems to me there may be a fundamental misunderstanding.8
I do not want to speak for McNally—he is more than capable of doing that himself. But John seems to take issue with an argument he puts forward that is consistent with what I have advanced in Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Trotskyism in the United States, Unfinished Leninism and elsewhere.9 So I want to focus on that. He summarises David’s point this way: “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”.10 In order to avoid distortion, John provides generous quotations from the McNally essay, which argues against creating a “micro-party” that sees itself as the nucleus of the future mass revolutionary party:
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.11
David goes on to comment that the “micro-party” approach ended up amounting to a generalised sectarian distortion: “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, building of tiny organisations detached from real mass movements [that in the minds of the would-be party-builders] became identical with the building of revolutionary parties”.12
First of all, it is important to recognise that all three of us (Molyneux, McNally and me) are in agreement with the goal of building a revolutionary party, the initial element in the syllogism: “There can be no socialist revolution without an authentically revolutionary party.” It is worth asking what constitutes “an authentic revolutionary party,” but the disagreement here would seem to be one of the pathway that can best bring us to realising this agreed-upon goal.
Molyneux disagrees and/or agrees
Then things get a bit cloudy. John argues that the syllogism as a whole is false. In order to do this, however, he does not quite attack directly the second or third element in the syllogism. Instead, he focuses our attention on a post-syllogism overstatement—the presumed notion that “building of tiny organisations detached from real mass movements became identical with the building of revolutionary parties.” He responds with a relatively generous indignation:
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.13
I think John is right that the generalisation added up to a caricature. But the overstatement happens to be outside the bounds of the syllogism. “Our group is the custodian of the authentic revolutionary tradition” matches what I learned when I was a member of the US Socialist Workers Party in the 1970s, and what I believe I have observed in the other groups John mentions. That has, indeed, led to the fatally sectarian “therefore” that David is warning against: “there can be no socialist revolution without our group (ie building our organisation is the key to constructing a mass revolutionary party)”.14
But then John shifts dramatically, seeming—though perhaps only for the sake of argument—to embrace a key element in McNally’s argument (which may not be derived from Le Blanc, after all, but from Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder). There is more than one step in John’s line of reasoning—and I want to focus on two. Here is the first:
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 discipline there is the strong likelihood that the fostering of practices, etc, on the part of the individual will falter and dwindle.15
Here we see a valid specific in David’s argument being turned into an ahistorical abstraction—that to “assist the formation of a class vanguard is obviously something every revolutionary socialist should be doing continuously in the 1920s, the 1990s and today”. But the 1920s were not the same as the 1990s or today precisely because there was then a vanguard layer of the working class that could conceivably have led a revolution, and the revolutionary vanguard parties of the 1920s were such precisely because they were rooted in such a layer. Without the existence of such a layer, and without revolutionaries being rooted in such a layer, as Lenin warned, “all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrasemongering and clowning”.16
In the passage we are examining, John goes on to make an excellent point. Revolutionaries need to coordinate their efforts as they do the work that can contribute to the crystallisation of a vanguard layer of the working class, and to be most effective they need “collective discussion, encouragement and discipline.” But in making this point he creates a blur, equating a revolutionary party with a group that has not quite become that, and then with a pretend party. Such false equations are not helpful.
On his way to making his most sweeping concession to McNally, John introduces the notion of “a confusion of levels in McNally’s discussion of this issue.” We will want to return to this in a moment. But first he comments that, according to McNally, “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.” The history that McNally refers to is not some abstract zeitgeist—it involves the “combined effect of fascism, Stalinism, the Cold War and post-war economic expansion”,17 and one could add the incredible and murderous devastation of the Second World War as well.
Then John proceeds to McNally’s conclusion: “Any strategy focused on building or capturing the leadership of this no longer existing class vanguard was completely mistaken.” He adds: “Let us assume, for the purposes of this argument, that this characterisation of the situation is broadly true”.18 Is John actually in broad agreement with this characterisation of the situation? It is not clear.
A confusion of levels
If McNally’s point is demonstrably false, one would expect John to demonstrate that it is false. He does not. Instead, he expands upon the confusion of levels.
After assuming—for the purposes of argument, to be sure—that McNally correctly characterises the situation we face, he goes on with the next leg of his argument: “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.” Then with iron logic he moves in for the kill: “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”.19 That is rather stark. One wonders if a more supple dialectical logic might serve us better—there having been, over the past three decades, big changes in the world, changes going in the opposite direction from the grand de-radicalisation of the last half of the 20th century.
John is willing to give ground: “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.” He is not inclined, however, to give too much. “But our influence will be marginal,” he insists. “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.” John concludes: “What we are debating here is precisely what we, the conscious revolutionary socialists and Marxists, should be doing”.20 Given the trajectory of his analysis, it would seem we are restricted to what he has labelled the “horrible” and “tedious” routines of paper sales, recruitment and branch building on the micro-party model.
I find it difficult to accept what John insists must be our no more than marginal influence. There are mass struggles that are more and more being generated by the multiple crises of capitalism in multiple countries, and these mass struggles are not entirely independent of our will. Our will blends and interacts with the wills of many others—including dozens and hundreds and thousands of people we don’t know. Some of them may have engaged with our ideas and earlier activities. Some of them are in different organisations but are perhaps being shaped by experiences and developing certain insights that correspond to some of our own. Some are not fully radicalised, but through ups and downs may be getting there, finding the revolutionary socialist message making more sense to them than was the case previously. There are mass vanguard layers developing within the working classes of various countries. We are part of that, and out of that it may become possible to build genuine revolutionary parties worthy of the name. What we do and fail to do, as we approach the supreme task of party building, is hardly marginal. It makes a difference.
It seems to me that David’s line of thought goes along that pathway of party building. What lifts my spirits further, however, is a wonderful passage in John’s essay that seems to be going in the same direction. It is deserves to be quoted in full:
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.21
Right. That’s the stuff.
Back to my situation
At a certain point in John’s polemic, he asserts that McNally’s orientation precludes revolutionary socialists working together in an organised way in order to help create the conditions and possibilities for the genuine revolutionary party that we all want.
He tells us that “where the problem and the argument lies is in his stages theory of this process,” with McNally insisting that a regroupment process on the left “must precede the establishment of even ‘pre-party formations.’” By “pre-party formation,” I am assuming what is meant is an organisation of revolutionary socialists who, through “collective discussion, encouragement and discipline,” develop “a coordinated strategy and plan” to help create an effective working class party that “is linked to the overall project of socialist revolution.” According to John, McNally “counterposes relating to and bringing about the regroupment of elements of these movements to beginning or continuing the task of party building”.22
Because such a position does not make logical sense to me, I have a difficult time believing that McNally actually holds that position. But David must speak for himself on this matter. John, of course, belongs to a pre-party formation—the Socialist Workers Network. As noted at the start of this response, it occurs to me that this may influence the way he approaches the discussion. It might also be the case that he adheres, in fact (though in a contradictory manner), to what would strike me as a sectarian approach to party building: the ideologically pure micro-party is the nucleus of the mass revolutionary party. He must speak for himself on this matter.
As for me, I used to belong to a pre-party formation: the International Socialist Organization. A majority of comrades, at the ISO’s final convention, argued that the group’s democratic and revolutionary fibre was badly weakened by insufficient transparency, accountability and lack of genuinely democratic methods regarding leadership selection. They also concluded that the group’s organisational routines were tending to devolve into routinism, undercutting the kind of sustained, consistent, life-giving activism John describes as animating Ireland’s Socialist Workers Network. They voted overwhelmingly to bring about major changes for the better.
I had looked forward to being part of a revitalised pre-party formation. That was not to be. For reasons beyond the scope of this article, the ISO has been swept away and will not be coming back. My hope is that some former members of the ISO will be able to regroup with other revolutionary socialists to do the work that must be done to create a pre-party formation. I want that to evolve along lines matching Molyneux’s description of the Socialist Workers Network: a genuinely democratic collective, a force for healthy and effective activism. I want it be the kind of force that McNally projects, helping to create the conditions for a mass revolutionary party capable of fighting effectively for a transition to socialism. It will not be easy, but it is needed and is worth the effort. It’s what we’re about.
Paul Le Blanc has been involved in labour and socialist activity for many decades in his native Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Some of his most recent writings are connected with the documentary trilogy US Trotskyism, 1928-1965: Emergence, Endurance, Resurgence (Brill/Haymarket) and also with The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso) of which he is one of the editors.
1 Molyneux, 2019.
2 Molyneux, 2019, p95.
3 Lih, 2008.
4 Molyneux, 2019, p93.
5 Le Blanc, 2019 (25 March); Le Blanc, 2019 (26 May).
6 Draper, 1973.
7 McNally, 2019.
8 Molyneux, 2019.
9 Le Blanc, 2015; Le Blanc, 2016; Le Blanc, 2014.
10 Molyneux, 2019, p94.
11 McNally, 2019.
12 McNally, 2019.
13 Molyneux, 2019, p100.
14 McNally, 2019.
15 Molyneux, 2019, p101.
16 Lenin, 1920.
17 McNally, 2019.
18 Molyneux, 2019, p101.
19 Molyneux, 2019, p102.
20 Molyneux, 2019, p102.
21 Molyneux, 2019, pp108-109.
22 Molyneux, 2019.