First Published: Guardian, November 28, 1970.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Since the demise of SDS things have gotten a lot worse in this country and the left has failed to respond in a radical way. It has failed to organize nationally or even begin to do so; has failed to build; to offer an alternative; to increase the consciousness of students, much less of workers; has failed to develop a fundamental understanding and critique of American capitalism; has failed to go beyond rallies, marches and teach-ins.
Thus we find ourselves not only unable to organize to fight fascism at home, but can’t even help our comrades in Vietnam.
Of course, some positive trends are evident, especially in building mass movements and consciousness among specific exploited groups, such as among third-world peoples, blacks, women, gay people, prisoners, the military and unions. What is lacking is the structure of a vanguard party encompassing all radicalized sectors. The weakness, then, of the American left is this failure to have organized nationally, to have. formed a national political party to serve as the vehicle for understanding how and proceeding systematically to build revolutionary consciousness and practice, for linking different groups to achieve unified actions with unified focus and goals. In Robin Blackburn’s words, “The revolutionary party is precisely the place where diverse currents and sectors which go to make up the revolutionary movement meet to achieve a similar perspective and common purpose.”
No socialist political organization now exists to serve, as the meeting ground and interchange between those engaged in mental and those in physical labor and activity or between the university community and the working class, bringing about the isolation of the former and the relative (to other capitalist countries) under- development of class and revolutionary consciousness of the latter. This isolation of university radicals leads to manifestations of political frustration, sectarianism and fragmentation.
Yet, the university is very much part and product of our society, has been an important source of revolutionary intellectual work; and campus issues which arouse student activism can be made relevant to other sectors, whose problems derive from the same source – capitalism. Rather than leave the university, students must extend themselves and their movements beyond its boundaries but also use the university as a means toward expanding the political consciousness of the university and wider community, Radical intellectuals alone not only will never make a revolution, but will hardly make a dent in the university power structure and purpose it serves under capitalism. Thus it is their interest as revolutionaries and as intellectuals (doing intellectual work in the service of the revolution and recruiting among their constituency for the revolution) to situate the radical university movement in the wider context of a revolutionary party.
Perhaps the most urgent task of the left is the formation of a nationwide revolutionary socialist party, so that the left can move from being a police problem to being a political problem. The power in the U.S. is national, the military in the U.S. is national and the fight against them must be national. Local actions and national mobilizations alone are either easily squashed or in the long run ineffective. They lead people to believe nothing can be done against the monolith and turn many frustrated radicals to supporting the liberal wing of the Democratic party. I’m not denying the importance of local actions and national mobilizations, but suggesting we now must go beyond these. Only a national political party can move the base of the movement from being primarily centered on the campus and give campus radicals somewhere to turn after graduation. Only through a national party, avowedly socialist, can separate groups work together against the common enemy – class society. Fighting together strengthens each group and the left as a whole; fighting separately ultimately must prove futile. Also, a strong political movement here would give tremendous impetus to liberation movements in other parts of the world.
Only if the left presents an alternative can it gain popular support and this can only come from a national party. People shy away from political action if it seems they risk losing more than they gain (like their jobs, for instance) and if it seems apparent they can’t win and don’t have a clear idea of what they are fighting for. This is as true of the American worker as of the Latin American peasant; both have shown their capability for militant struggle. Neither is willing to risk getting his head blown off or losing his job if the alternatives and goals are unreal or don’t make sense – even if he be poor, starving or scared.
When we canvassed Trenton, N.J., during the Moratorium last year, we found many people opposed to the war but with no idea of what to do and expressing belief that the march on the state capital wouldn’t do any good. There is tremendous untapped discontent over the war, inflation, unemployment, etc., making the false alternatives of Agnew and Wallace seem attractive in the vacuum. People know where the power is, yet radicals seem to be hung up with the myths of localism; However, only through a national party can local actions be directed toward a political aim with visible results, can local actions be nationally coordinated and defined so that mistakes are not repeated and political failure be avoided – can the left act rather than merely react.
In their pessimism; many radicals hold that the best we can do is “stave off fascism,” make liberals out of reactionaries. This is defeatist and can only lead to political frustration. To preach a liberal line means lying concerning causes, means raising false hopes, while everyone knows the liberals are equally responsible for this mess – it is a show of disrespect to our constituency, the worst sort of radical elitism (“only we, the gifted, are capable of grasping the truth”) and by virtue of being false can only lead to political frustration and popular abandonment of the left. Instead, if we as an informed left dare to tell the truth, clearly identify and define the oppression of our constituency to our constituency, provide an alternative and do all this in a planned and political way, only then is there the possibility they will identify with us, because we make sense.
Into the vacuum created by the defaulting radicals on the issue of the war stepped the liberals, assuming a position of leadership over the massive anti-war discontent. The Moratorium, for example, was doomed to failure from the start – by December it ceased to exist – because the liberal leaders were unable to go beyond protest and carry through an effective movement, unable to see Vietnam as more than a mistake or aberration in U.S. foreign policy, unwilling to threaten the system itself, unwilling to accept the consequences of popular action. Thus disillusionment spread around the question of political action. In the face of a massive outpouring, instead of working with this discontent, radicals self-righteously isolate themselves from such “co-optation.” The fact that millions of Americans have demonstrated and have affected the course of the war makes mass demonstrations far from irrelevant. For the left to assume leadership it must organize itself first, for only so can it effectively work with the people.
Now, one might say, how Is It possible to claim that the left has fallen down on the job? Just look at the goings-on last spring on campuses all over the country in reaction to the Cambodian invasion and the police murders at Jackson State and Kent State. Yet the events of these days and the aftermath clearly indicate the organizational weakness of the American left. First, it was a case of only reacting to something the government had done. Does this mean that Nixon must stage another “Cambodia” or kill more of our comrades before we again show our might? In fact before and since then there have been other political murders, with virtually no reaction. Not only don’t we act, but our reactions aren’t always so good.
Since we lack organization, we lack the means to plan mass actions (and thus must necessarily bow to spontaneity) and we lack the means of carrying on or sustaining our drive.
Thus Cambodia, Jackson and Kent sparked a nationwide student strike so promising and militant in its inception. Yet the strike did not go beyond being a strike and then only a so-called strike against the government instead of against the university. It was rapidly and haphazardly structured, linked nationally, but it could not be sustained beyond the initial enthusiasm, as it was not grounded in a structure which could carry the movement beyond spontaneity, beyond the immediate causes of the strike. Of the three demands – U.S. out of Cambodia and Vietnam, Defense Department off the campus, and stop political Repression – only the second had some minor success: with the removal of ROTC from a few campuses. The liberals with their “new Congress” type movements were all that structurally survived the strike – devoid of content, sans the demands. The strike raised consciousness, even the consciousness of the need to work on a national scale, but also led to frustration with demands that a student strike alone could not hope to have fulfilled and with inadequate tactics to face the troopers.
At Princeton University, the five day sit-in at the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) was successful (including 500 people at its peak) in closing down the building, stopping the computer, bringing together people in a political way and pressuring the university to possibly end the lease a few years early. When the 25 or so state and local cops were finally brought in to enforce the no-trespassing court injunction, we were ill-prepared to fight. We withdrew in order to harass the troops to make them stay (to embarrass the university) and have small groups form independently to perform guerrilla actions against the building. This would make some sense with a group trained to organize, lead and sustain such actions. With the lack of such organization, harassment quickly dissipated and guerrilla tactics included only one student acting alone allegedly attempting to light one small fire. Thus with the inability to act effectively and with summer vacation close at hand, the siege of IDA came to an end, the same story repeated .” initial success, failure to sustain the movement and now the need to rebuild again.
Many fear that a national party must go the way of SDS. However SDS was never a political party, but rather a mass grouping of individuals and different parties and representative only of the universities. Many fear that a party must be sectarian and Stalinist, dictatorially directed from the top down by an unrepresentative elite, with rigid dogma borrowed solely from other contexts, that it is “inherent” in the nature of political parties that they be “undemocratic.” These characteristics have much to do with the failure of self-proclaimed vanguards. According to Robin Blackburn, “The elementary cause of the conflict [Bolsheviks vs. Mensheviks] was the famous clause one of the party statutes. Lenin wanted to insist that a party member should not only support the essential program of the party but that each member should have a duty to be directly active in it. Active, that is to say, in the discussion, formulation and execution of policy.”
An active base is the best guard against elitism. A vast, amorphous party with a passive constituency is ineffective as a revolutionary organ and leads to tight control from the top. Democratic centralism and militancy can only function with a responsible base and this means that a party is built and functions from the base upward, that it is a vanguard only insofar as it responds, leads and is part of its following. Decisions are made from the base upward with the participation of all militants, but then adhered to by all militants. This means that militants arc those who adhere to revolutionary discipline, who are serious. A political party should not be confused with mass organizations which are part of its constituency. Far from rejecting theory, a party provides a forum for study (required of all militants), to reach collectively – a better understanding of the system and of how best to organize and operate. This is, of course, quite different from blind acceptance of dogma. Theoretical analysis is as important a practice as any other revolutionary activity. The party, then, gives the possibility for militancy to the academic and the activist and makes contact and intermingling of roles a requirement.
Why is such a party not being formed? Perhaps it is the streak of anarchism and localism that is part of our ideology. Perhaps we don’t know where and how to begin; perhaps we are scared of the responsibility; perhaps we haven’t yet seriously considered revolution in this country. Perhaps there are too many entrenched interests on the left who don’t want to give up their “thing,” who have forgotten the old saying, “no enemies on the left.”
It isn’t enough to go to rallies, to go to the streets spontaneously, to trash buildings; We must begin now, step by step, through new and existing organizations, to build. Revolutionary romanticism must be replaced by revolutionary realism. Not only is it true that if we don’t hang together, we’ll all hang separately, but they’ve already started the hangings.