The basic question in organization is the question, how shall we build the party–from the top downwards or “grass roots” upwards? There are, in general, two ways of forming and structuring any organization. One, the method of centralism, is a path of principle: a group of persons organized around some principles in a fairly strong and coherent way begins the organization and expands it cautiously from the center (themselves) outward, or, as it is more commonly said, from the top downwards. New membership is admitted only under the condition that the principles of the organization will not be corrupted. The second way of proceeding, the liberal democratic method, proceeds by allowing practically anyone to join. All that is required is the person’s own declaration of adherence to the principles or the person’s membership in some social or economic group for which the organization is formed. The initial meeting may be a mass meeting of a spontaneous nature, or the few persons starting the organization may simply “open it up.” All farmers may join some farmers’ organization; anyone who declares himself in agreement with the platform of a consumer rights organization may join it. The organization is then, at least in the plan, subject to the rule of the entire membership.
In practice, of course, organizations built according to the liberal democratic method most often suffer one of two fates. Either they fail and disappear, or they become mass organizations after the pattern so familiar in capitalist society: a large, passive mass makes a minimal contribution to the organization, often no more than dues, while the organization is effectively that of a small clique alone. However, this pattern, observed with bitterness each time an organization is corrupted and its leaders “sell out,” is often still followed as if previous experience gave no opportunity to learn.
In the fall of 1971, for example, the attempt began to organize a theoretical journal of Marxism-Leninism, later called Proletarian Cause. Organizing conferences were held with power to choose members of the editorial board of the magazine; the meetings were open to practically anyone. All one had to do was 1) to declare oneself an adherent of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought, 2) be against Progressive Labor Party (the period in the stormy life of that organization did not matter, or rather, no distinction was made between the various periods of PL), and 3) it was necessary to have heard when and where the meetings would be held. From such a beginning some of the founders of this venture actually hoped to form the skeleton of a future communist party. In this particular case, one group of persons (including this author) pointing out the need for the centralist method of organization a-round people of proved Marxism-Leninism was frozen out fairly early; then the group split again on the issue of whether there were to be any editorial standards at all by which to choose what to put into the magazine! Finally, the project collapsed after one issue.
This was essentially the same issue, how to organize, which was debated at the 1903 congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party. The Bolsheviks insisted that the organization expand from the center outwards, requiring any new member to prove himself and be judged by the organization through participation in one of its primary cells. The Mensheviks followed the liberal method– allow any professor, any bourgeois intellectual, any politically undeveloped worker on strike, to declare himself a member of the party. The origin of the split between Bolshevism and Menshevism was precisely this difference on Paragraph One of the Rules, which specified who could become a member of the party. As is well known, there is not a genuine communist party in the world today which does not follow the centralist method of organization. Members can be admitted only upon inspection of the party, so that it expands from the center outward; lower bodies are subordinate to higher bodies; local units are subordinate to the whole and can be reorganized and even disbanded by central bodies.
One would believe, upon a summary of the experience and a clear statement of the question, that those who would be communists would automatically follow the democratic centralist method of organization. But in life we find repeated instances of the arguments of the Mensheviks and of experiences like those of Proletarian Cause. The attempt to surmount petty-bourgeois prejudices on this question is especially difficult in the task of forming a new communist party in a case like that of the United States today. The usual question or objection raised when it is proposed to organize a party from a center outward is: who shall be the center? The usual solutions offered to this question amount to a return to the liberal democratic method. E. g., all self-proclaimed “genuine Marxist-Leninist groups” should be invited to a congress. The issue of organization becomes itself a stumbling block, an obstacle, to the formation of the communist party which is so urgently required. But at least the germ of a solution is contained in this situation.
For the center must obviously be composed of the elements which are most reliable ideologically, who have proved they are leaders who implement the communist line; when these elements emerge in struggle against bourgeois and petty-bourgeois views and receive confidence from the proletarian forces, then the organization is founded. This was exactly what happened in the case of the Russian party. The second congress, the congress of 1903 which really founded the party in an organizational sense, was prepared by over two years of ideological leadership by Lenin, the staff, and the network of agents of Iskra. Lenin and this group proved that first the Economists and then the Mensheviks were petty-bourgeois in their views, and by defeating their line rallied the revolutionary proletarian forces around themselves. (This, by the way, illustrates again why opportunists hate and avoid ideological struggle on matters of basic principle.) The same method must be followed today. A group or coalition of groups cannot simply call a founding congress.
If the congress is to accomplish anything, the issues of organization and ideology which it must solve must be understood by the communists represented. To be understood, these questions must have been isolated, the various class lines and answers to them must have been sharpened, polarized, and opposed to each other, and a nucleus of defenders of the proletarian revolutionary line organized. As soon as a group or a series of groups have achieved all this, and when their forces are strong enough to act as a party (at the minimum, regularly produce a national political newspaper), then the party can be formed. Of course, any group may call itself communist and call itself a party. But if the program, tasks, and organization which emerge from a meeting have not been made clear to other groups, then other groups will not unite with the new organization until this process has occurred. Calling itself a party before this is done, a group usually finds difficulty in uniting other groups to it. Lenin and the Iskra organization first defined Marxism in opposition to Economism and then called the 1903 congress. First a viable center was formed along with the skeleton of the organization (agents, travellers, professional revolutionaries) and then the organization, as the Party, expanded outward. The Iskraists did not call a congress in 1901 nor did they transform the organization into the Party until all honest revolutionaries had the opportunity to understand the issues and form a judgment on them.
What issue in class terms underlies the struggle between the two paths of organization? It is the same issue, in an organizational form, which arises in the struggle against economism–Marxism versus spontaneous bourgeois ideology. To follow the liberal democratic method of organization means to install bourgeois ideology as the guiding set of principles of the organization. Just as the spontaneous economic struggle produces not socialist ideology but trade unionism, a form of bourgeois ideology, so too does the spontaneous method of organization, the method of subordinating all principled forces to self-declared “adherence,” produce a petty-bourgeois or bourgeois platform and a bourgeois organization–either short in life, stormy, and anarchist, or bureaucratic, clique-run, and bourgeois in goal.
The majority of the population in capitalist society, and the majority of any socioeconomic subsection of the population, is inevitably bourgeois in its outlook. To allow such views to flood an organization and dominate it is to make the party impossible, for what is the party if not the class-conscious minority of the working class? One may flatter people and incite them to identify their interests with the capitalist outlook they have been taught. But this is demagogy. Persons engaging in such methods are the type who become the first generation of bureaucrats. John L. Lewis is an outstanding example of such a person. He continually played on the capitalist training in politics which the working class receives in this society, and organized trade unions, even industrial trade unions, on this basis. After the passage of the Wagner Act (which promised unions but was only paper unenforced by the capitalist government), Lewis put up billboards saying, “President Roosevelt wants you to join the union̶`;! He flattered the workers instead of educating them, and the result was that the immense groundswell of energy from the working class in the 1930’s went into organizations Lewis and the United Mine Workers organization had set up for them: the CIO, the United Auto Workers, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Today the Reuthers, Woodcocks, and Abels are the second and third generations of bureaucrats who run these organizations.
If this is the history, the almost inevitable history, of trade unions under capitalist rule, then how can we expect to organize a class-conscious vanguard organization without taking the most stringent steps to exclude the dominance of bourgeois ideology over it? The issue of class outlook is the fundamental issue which underlies the debate on principles of organization. That is why in his book on this question, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin said:
But it would be Manilovism and ’tailism’ to think that the entire class, or almost the entire class, can ever rise, under capitalism, to the level of consciousness and activity of its vanguard, of its Social-Democratic Party. (pp. 306-307)
The party is the vanguard; It is to be composed of the class-conscious members of the class. Therefore, we must take organizational measures to insure this fact. The central bodies must be made up of firm and reliable Marxist-Leninists by at least a heavy majority. The party must be structured so that lower bodies are under the guidance and authority of the central body. New members must be class-conscious or at least be educable, so that they will be educated to a consciousness equal to their dedication and emotional commitment to proletarian revolution soon after they enter the party. The unreliable, untested, and hidden opportunist elements must never achieve a stronghold within the organization. These are the organizational caveats that flow automatically from a clear view of the ideological struggle between spontaneous, bourgeois ideology and Marxism-Leninism in a capitalist society.
But the question is, how to begin? The class-conscious will start as a mere handful in the movement. Only by exercising (and developing further) a Marxist-Leninist outlook in a series of efforts and struggles can they develop the influence necessary to start a genuine communist party. One of the main obstacles they will have to contend with is the opportunist dread of this process, the opportunist tactic of avoiding struggle, of reducing the question of organization solely to “practical” matters like numbers required and “roots” within the working class. What is the opportunist notion of struggle within the movement? It is the anti-dialectical view that one must never divide into two–the movement must never expel the opportunists. Instead, they have a whole package of praise for its “new spirit of fraternity.” Under this conception (and the honeyed phrases and permanent smiles with which it is pushed) the opportunists contend that if all groups get together and struggle, but keep unity in mind, then the correct program will emerge for sure and no one (that is, the opportunists) will have to be exposed as anti-Marxist. This is obviously absurd. Some forces in the movement represent a capitalist line, oppose revolution, and want only agitation within the capitalist system. Such forces have to be exposed; they will never admit their true nature and turn in their communist labels. To preach automatic acceptance of everyone’s right, now and forever, to stay in the movement and call oneself communist is actually a totally anti-struggle outlook.
But development is inevitable, and the multitude of independent circles of revolutionaries is bound to move toward a polarization into two wings, the proletarian revolutionary wing versus the petty-bourgeois wing. The less attraction that liberal democratic prejudices exercise in the movement, the sooner this polarization process can take place, with those of similar views uniting and organizing themselves along centralist lines and compelling the opportunists to expose the retarding nature of their views to more and more persons.
Of course, the inevitable cry that will go up in reaction to these remarks on liberal democratic illusions is the charge of not being democratic. To be sure, persons are called upon to recognize ideological leadership, to make this judgment independently and soundly, so that that parody of centralism known as demagogy or fascism is ruled out. Organizations and leaders who glory in ”blind obedience” and ”dictatorship” never educate their membership; their organizations instead are built on force and individual interest (hence, riddled with corruption). But we must combine ideological leadership with organizational authority; ideology without authority gives us no party, while authority without education is simply the bourgeois method of rule in general. But to discuss this issue, it is necessary to define what we mean by democracy and to answer the question. . .