What Kind of Political Party?

A shortened version of an IBT contribution to a panel discussion on “What is Political Party for the Left?” held in Chicago in April 2015.

The question of what kind of party we should seek to build very much depends on what objective we want to achieve, because different forms of political organization are appropriate for different tasks. We in the IBT take the view that the essential task facing humanity is the expropriation of the capitalist class and the destruction of the military and security apparatus that serves and protects it. This cannot be accomplished through persuasion or incremental reform because the capitalists will not cooperate in their own destruction – that’s obvious. It will take a convulsive social revolution. This is a precondition for constructing a rationally planned, ecologically sustainable, equitable social system where the working class and its allies rule directly.

It hardly needs to be said that right now in the U.S., and the rest of the imperialist countries, we are a very, very long way from a proletarian revolution. But that is the task for those who are serious about a socialist future – there’s no alternative.

We have more than 200 years of experience to draw on, reaching back to Gracchus Babeuf and Philippe Buonarroti and their “Conspiracy of Equals” in the 1790s. There have been a lot of failed attempts to overcome capitalist hegemony – ranging from the putsches of the Blanquists, to the electoral cretinism of the social democracy and the popular frontist “two-stage” strategy adopted by the Stalinized Communist International in the 1930s.

Lenin sketched four necessary conditions for a successful workers’ revolution in the conclusion of “Left Wing Communism.” The first is that the ruling class, confronted with a crisis which it is unable to solve using its traditional methods, begins to polarize into different factions pursuing different policies. Secondly, the intermediate social layers between workers and capitalists begin to lose confidence in the viability of the ruling regime. Thirdly, the working class begins to exhibit a combative attitude and to look for solutions outside of its experience under capitalism and the framework of the established structures. These first three factors were all present to a greater or lesser degree in the Paris 1968 events, among other pre-revolutionary situations. What was missing was the fourth, and decisive, factor: the existence of a mass revolutionary workers’ party with a tested and competent leadership. In the run-up to the Nazi victory in Germany, Leon Trotsky observed:

“The class, taken by itself, is only material for exploitation. The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious.”
— “What Next?

Marxists conceive of revolutionary organization on an international scale – the object is the creation of a single world party with national sections. The basis for such a party has to be a common political program, i.e., a system of ideas that address the fundamental problems that confront humanity in general and the working class in particular. One of Trotsky’s favorite maxims was: “It’s not the party that makes the program; it’s the program that makes the party.”

There is only one time in history that a revolutionary party led the working class in a successful seizure of power. Despite the fact that this occurred almost a century ago in a predominantly peasant country, the fundamental elements of political organization and strategic orientation that made that success possible, and distinguished the Bolshevik party from the mainstream social democrats of the Second International, remain of vital significance for the future. It is our view that serious revolutionaries should model their activity on the Bolshevik success, rather than the repetitive failures of reformist gradualism, multi-class alliances and the all-embracing formlessness of episodic “new” phenomena like the New Left or Occupy that, when they initially appear, are seen as something completely unprecedented, but eventually turn out to be merely the square wheel reinvented.

Leninism is not currently popular among most young people who don’t like capitalism. This is largely because, as well as being seen as old-fashioned, it is also derided as authoritarian and hierarchical. As a system of organization, Leninism is indeed hierarchical – it involves layers of organization, possession of authority and chains of command with certain bodies empowered to issue binding instructions on lower bodies and individual members. If you are in a Leninist organization, you don’t just get to do what you feel like.

As for authoritarian, we recall Frederick Engels’ observation in his dispute with Bakunin that: “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon” (“On Authority”). So yes, revolution is authoritarian and to that extent Leninism is “authoritarian” as well. To get anything done we are going to have to impose the will of the working class (represented by its democratically-elected leaders) on those who are presently imposing their will on us. If you don’t like that, then you do not belong in a Leninist organization.

A Leninist organization is more than that and, like a healthy workers’ state, it has to be characterized by feedback loops which give the rank and file the means to determine the strategic direction of the organization, to change and adjust policies as situations develop and, if necessary, to replace leaders found to be deficient. That sort of democracy is indispensable, and without that you do not have a Leninist organization. Any political movement inevitably has a leadership. The question is whether it operates openly or secretly behind the scenes. That’s your choice.

A serious socialist movement must not only be able to challenge the ideological dominance of the capitalist elites and their agents, but also develop the capacity to overcome the resistance of the existing state apparatus in order to carry out the expropriation of the ruling class. This requires the construction of what Lenin described as a “combat organization,” the prototype of which had, 100 years ago in Russia, sunk roots throughout the working class, and also extended its reach into almost every level of society, including, and particularly, the ranks of the armed forces. When the opportunity presented itself in the midst of the crisis of the Tsarist regime during WWI, the Bolsheviks successfully outmaneuvered the equivalent of the FBI and Homeland Security apparatuses and put together a coalition with other radicals, particularly anarchists and Left Social Revolutionaries, that successfully carried out a working-class seizure of state power.

The October Revolution of 1917 was the greatest event in history. Ultimately the revolutionaries were defeated, but they had set a powerful example and actively organized parties embracing hundreds of thousands of workers (the sections of the Communist International). That was their highest priority – they had an internationalist perspective from the beginning and they understood that their revolution could only succeed if it spread. The organizational model developed during the first four congresses of the Communist International – that is when Lenin and Trotsky were leading, not Stalin – is not a secret. In our view, this model remains fundamentally valid in all important respects. The fact that we are a very long way from being able to create such parties does not make them any less necessary.

I expect many people here today think that there is little prospect of forming a viable “left party” in this country, and I expect that there is a near consensus that it is impossible to imagine recreating a mass Leninist International. There is no question that this is an extremely remote prospect at this point in history, but if we are serious about undertaking a struggle for fundamental social change – that is, getting rid of capitalism and replacing it by socialism, which given our present circumstances really amounts to a fight to save humanity from extinction – it surely makes sense to start from what is objectively necessary, rather than from what seems to be achievable in the present circumstances.

See also “Leninism vs. the New Social Democracy,” an extended version of this talk supplemented by extracts from the subsequent discussion, and the full audio of the panel and discussions.