First Published: In Struggle! No. 264, September 22, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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A few weeks ago, the leadership of IN STRUGGLE! asked a number of members to participate in a discussion on the question of the party. The special feature of the meeting was that the participants included people from the Central Committee and other members who have had contacts with revolutionary parties in Central And South American and European countries.
The participants discussed the experiences of various organizations one after the other in terms of the tasks they set for themselves and how they are organized, how they apply democratic centralism, and the kind of members and leadership who work in these organizations.
The information that people began to put together in this meeting will be used in preparing for the Organization’s fourth congress.
The following is the personal opinion of a member of the leadership of IN STRUGGLE!.
* * *
In thinking about our own organisation and what it should be doing in Canada in the coming years, it is obviously very useful to take account of the experiences of the international revolutionary movement. In discussions like these, however, it is important to understand the work and organizational structures and methods of each party in terms of the political conditions and the tasks that stem from those conditions in each country.
Our readers are perhaps familiar with the work of organizations working in countries dominated by foreign imperialism. The newspaper has already reported on the work of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) in Ireland, the Peoples Revolutionary Bloc (BPR) in El Salvador and the Sandinista Front in Nicaragua. These are countries in which armed struggle is often the order of the day, where large sections of the masses are rebelling against the power structure. The organizations involved there are often mass organizations with thousands of members and active supporters. They are influential politically in the most important struggles. Some of them are more movements than parties, properly speaking, and put more emphasis in their work on the practical unity necessary in a common struggle than they do on demarcating from other political parties.
A number of those who participated in the discussion commented that these organizations and parties often paid relatively little attention to propaganda and the education of their members. Their purpose is above all the work of organizing the struggle of the masses. For instance, the leaders of these organizations are often people directly involved in mass movements and are publicly identified as party members because of their work in these movements. As well, an examination of what the members of these organizations do indicates that in practice, they are basically required to take an active part in the different united fronts and mass movements. They often have relatively little political education, but they do work that is very encouraging and stimulating. Some do this mass work full-time, while others do it in their free time after their regular working day.
A number of participants said that they hoped IN STRUGGLE! would adopt this general orientation, because they think we overestimated the role of propaganda and education work and definitely do not give enough weight to what the masses learn through their own work and experience.
It should be remembered, though, that many of these organizations are directly involved in armed struggle; a number of them have active purely military wings. The functioning and political requirements of these organizations have to be seen in light of these conditions as well.
It was objected that these organizations cannot be taken as models in imperialist countries. Imperialist countries are relatively democratic and enjoy a certain level of social stability. There is also the influence of reformist and social-democratic ideas that makes for a very different situation. This is true of Canada, for example.
The participants then discussed the experiences of organizations that have developed in imperialist countries – in particular, Big Flame in England, and Lotta Continua and Proletarian Democracy in Italy.
These are interesting organizations, with programmes that put forward socialist revolution in their countries but with a conception of the party’s work and relations with the masses and a way of applying democratic centralism that is, they hope, adapted to conditions in each country. To take a somewhat extreme example: Big Flame in England held that doing political work in advanced capitalist countries should not represent solely a sacrifice, that it should also be a source of personal satisfaction (this raises some problems as we will see further on).
The fairly decentralized functioning of these organizations gives the cells and the militants a maximum amount of autonomy to intervene in the various mass movements as they exist in imperialist countries (the movements of women and youth, against racism, against fascism, for jobs, etc.). This approach allows them to recruit some of the most advanced elements in these movements. In Italy, for example, Lotta Continua at one point had ten thousand members; today, Proletarian Democracy gets close to a million votes in elections and has succeeded in electing a few parliamentary representatives and many municipal councillors. Italy is perhaps the imperialist country where there is the most social and political upheaval.
Another interesting aspect of these organizations is that, like us, they have set themselves the goal of trying to achieve revolutionary relations in their own ranks by struggling against male chauvinism and paying sustained attention to contradictions between intellectuals and workers.
This attempt has entailed political difficulties, often major ones. In 1976, for example, there was a split between the feminist and workers’ sections of Lotta Continua. Similarly, there is currently a political crisis in Big Flame.
In the case of Big Flame, it would seem that the organization is currently in a state of crisis, expressed in part by somewhat of a lack of enthusiasm by its members for the organization’s political work. (A very important article by Big Flame, assessing its history and experiences, will be published in the upcoming issue of PROLETARIAN UNITY.)
Big Flame attributes these problems to a lack of in-depth examination and study of questions of strategy and a lack of education for its members. In the mass movements it was involved in, the leadership did not encourage members to demarcate from the reformist tendencies in the movements. Their political programme was overly general, and thus would have been inadequate to the task had they tried to do so. As a result, a number of members concluded that the organization itself was no longer very pertinent and so confined themselves to work in mass movements. Big Flame stresses that another reason members quit was that a number of them thought they could struggle for collective emancipation at the same time as they achieved almost total liberation on the personal level.
This is where the discussion got hotter. The struggle against male chauvinism or petty-bourgeois intellectualism must not be equated with a tendency to promote ones own individual liberation. On the contrary: these are struggles that must be waged if we are to win over and recruit workers and women.
For a number of participants, the kind of organization that would allow closer and broader links with mass movements and a broader and more diversified membership is the kind of organization that best corresponds to conditions in imperialist countries. Their application of democratic centralism allows greater rank-and-file control over the work of the leadership. It also allows a certain pluralism, as well as the coexistence of divergent viewpoints and more autonomy in their work for the cells. if we take into account the weaknesses identified in the Big Flame article, this is the kind of organization IN STRUGGLE! should work towards. This way of organizing would take better account of the lessons that a number of people are drawing from the failures of socialism in Russia and China. They would prefer to deal with the difficulties inherent in this kind of organization rather than draw back into groups that would look like a number of Marxist-Leninist organizations that are little more than propaganda sects isolated from the class struggle in their own country.
I will discuss the experience of Proletarian Democracy in Italy in a future column, for it seems to be a very useful example in looking at the advantages and limitations of this form of organization.
The discussion then turned to the problem facing us here in Canada. Some people consider that what makes revolutionary work here difficult is the relatively stable political situation and relatively privileged economic status of a large part of the population. Furthermore, workers here have often mulled over the failure of socialism in Russia, China and the Eastern European countries. For many of them, the fundamental choice right now is between the rise of the Reagan-style rightist and social-democratic solutions. Workers in Canada are not in the process of trying to overthrow the regime; they are not dreaming of another kind of system that would be an alternative.
I think there is another important aspect that should be mentioned in describing the state of mind of the average Canadian worker. We have to realize that at the same time, many left-wingers and workers influenced by them have started to take a second look at their previous position of critical support for the NDP and the PQ. They are realizing that they are at an impasse. They know that in the coming years, as the crisis gets worse, conditions will be ripe for a radicalization of workers and a growing number of mass movements, as well as greater unity in practice. This in turn will make for fertile ground for the idea of the necessity of a revolutionary party capable of leading the movement.
In these circumstances, what kind of organization can we hope to build? What should its tasks be?