Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Clay Newlin

On Combatting “Straw Men”

First Published: The Guardian, Vol. 29, No. 27, April 13, 1977
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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From a current Marxist-Leninist standpoint, Irwin Silber’s recent series on party-building has been largely an effort in combatting straw men. He has demonstrated that the party does not merely emerge from mass struggle, that it must be multinational, that the party must be organized according to the principles of democratic centralism and that the task of party-building cannot be postponed. While these may have been burning questions several years ago, today they have run out of fuel and their flame has been reduced to a mere flicker. Still, we must admit, Silber has vanquished his enemies admirably.

However, as soon as he begins to address more current questions, he gets himself into a muddle. Nowhere is this more evident than in his counterposing of the task of party-building to the task of fusing communism with the class struggle of the proletariat. This error manifests itself throughout his entire series, but it is stated explicitly in his recent article “Party building and Trade Unions” (March 16).

In this article, he writes: “Which comes first–’fusing’ communism with the workers’ movement or building a new communist party?” To pose the question in this way can only mean one of two things: (1) either Silber is proposing to build a vanguard for a class other than the proletariat; or (2) he has not thought through his views on party-building. We assume that the latter is the case.

An elementary study of the question of party-building will reveal that neither fusing communism with the class struggle of the proletariat nor building a new communist party ’comes first.’ On the contrary the building of a vanguard party–if we mean a vanguard proletarian party–means in essence accomplishing a degree of fusion between Marxism-Leninism and the working-class movement. And on the other hand, the development of a new communist party represents the largest step forward that Marxist-Leninists could take in their fusion with the class struggle of the proletariat.

We would agree with Lenin that “the creation of a durable revolutionary organization among the factory, urban workers is... the first and most urgent task confronting communists, one from which it would be highly unwise to let ourselves be diverted at the present time.” (Wks., Vol. 2, p. 330) The creation of such an organization demands fusing the most advanced theory with a significant section of the advanced workers. Otherwise the organization developed would be neither durable nor revolutionary.

It is these two related tasks–the elaboration and application, of Marxism-Leninism to the concrete problems facing the working class in the U.S. today and the winning over of the advanced workers to Marxism-Leninism–which describe the twin aspects of the struggle to fuse communism with the class struggle of the proletariat in this period. And these two aspects also comprise the two key components revolutionary vanguard party.

The idea that there is a contradiction between the tasks of fusing communism with the working-class movement and party-building displays a profound ignorance of the very essence of the party-building process. For as Lenin pointed out, as communists we must “unite the... working class movement and Marxist socialism... into one integral whole.... Only when this contact has been established can a (communist) working class party be formed (my emphasis; Wks., Vol. IV, p. 325). And in another earlier passage he states that “when this fusion takes place the class struggle of the workers becomes the conscious struggle of the proletariat to emancipate itself from exploitation by the propertied classes, it is evolved into a higher form (my emphasis) of the socialist workers’ movement–the independent working-class (communist) party” (emphasis in original; Wks., Vol. IV, p. 257). Apparently Lenin missed Silber’s profound point “that there is no more pressing task–with the exception of forming and building the party itself– than that of developing the connection between communists and the proletariat.”

It is true that certain forces in our movement have tried to use Lenin’s comments on the importance of developing a fusion of communism with the working class movement as a cover for localism, the downgrading of our immense theoretical tasks and for justifying the disorganized state of our movement. However, these forces will find no real defense for their narrowness in Lenin’s writings.

On the contrary, it is precisely the need to develop this fusion that commands us to combat such weaknesses and those that would hide behind them. While some advanced workers may be won over on a local level, it is absolutely impossible to fuse communism with the class struggle of the proletariat locally. In order for any workers’ struggle to “be a class struggle, the most advanced elements of the proletariat in the whole country must be conscious of themselves as a single working class and direct their struggle against the entire bourgeoisie.

Moreover, no matter how sharp the struggle on a local level, no matter how bright the flashes of political consciousness it manifests, it must of necessity lose, as Lenin put it, “nine-tenths of its significance” if it is not connected to a national revolutionary organization. This is not just because Marxist-Leninists elsewhere or the workers in other localities will remain ignorant of the struggle. More importantly, divorced from a central plan which ties each struggle into similar struggles elsewhere and exploits them on a national basis, no struggle can have real political import.

The primacy of the theoretical struggle in the present period is also bound up with the necessity of fusion. For if we are talking about fusing Marxism-Leninism with the actual class struggle of the proletariat, and not of watering down revolutionary theory in order to accommodate backward elements in the working class, we must address Marxism-Leninism to the concrete questions facing the working class. And it is only by demonstrating an ability to solve these concrete organizational, political and tactical problems that we can even begin to win over the advanced workers.

Nor can fusion be used as a justification for the fragmented and disorganized state of our movement. A moment’s reflection will reveal that the prevailing fragmentation retards the development of the fusion process. The most advanced experiences are not raised to a theoretical level and are not tested on a national basis, flashes of political consciousness are not exploited to their fullest potential, etc.

However, If party-building is not in essence a process of fusing Marxism-Leninism to the class struggle of the proletariat, then the whole context for the urgency of the theoretical struggle, for the development of national organization, and for combating localism and amateurism is lost. While, superficially, the view that party-building is not a question of fusion and the localist perspective appear opposite, actually they have the same essence; they are but two sides of the same coin.

If we are not to fuse our movement to the class struggle of the proletariat and thus establish our vanguard character in fact, then we really have little need to make the theoretical struggle a priority. We would be content with addressing questions in an abstract and general way, be content with the “paramount” importance of “ideological unity on the basis of the inherited legacy of scientific socialism.” We would take a liberal attitude, to the development of ’theory’ that is not worthy of the name, for there would be no reason to demand that our theory be capable–now and not at some future time–of solving the concrete political, organizational and tactical problems posed by the working-class movement. Silber’s ’contribution’ to trade union strategy exemplifies just this kind of ’theory’; it is hopeless as a guide to action.

Nor would we be so vigorous in our struggle against opportunism, particularly revisionism and dogmatism. If our primary concern is not that opportunism impedes the development of fusion between communism and the working-class movement and thus postpones inevitably the development of a vanguard party, then we might as well adopt a more ’decent’ and less ’strident’ tone in our polemics and ’patiently’ strive to unite all Marxist-Leninists whatever the hue.


Thirdly if party-building does not demand fusing communism with the working-class movement then we really would have no need to form embryonic revolutionary organizations on a local level let alone construct a tightly disciplined national political party. We might just as well continue in our disunited, disorganized state, leisurely debating questions in our newspapers and at forums and holding back from concrete efforts to bring a national preparty organization into existence.

Furthermore, if fusion is not the essence of party-building, we might just as well justify the fragmented state of our movement and treat each little circle equally. What harm is there in a movement of study groups formed around general ideological principles each ’grasping’ Marxism-Leninism independently? And why should we criticize the hundreds of individuals who call themselves Marxist-Leninists but avoid being a part of any organization because there is simply no group ’pure’ enough for them?

Nor would we kick up such a fuss about the localism and amateurism that is so prevalent in our movement. Localism is not a particularly strong obstacle to abstract and general debate or to a movement of study groups. And if we do not have to concern ourselves with fusing communism to the working-class movement why worry about combating local peculiarities?

Thus just as the localists can only be ’successful’ because they adapt themselves to the backward workers, so the view that party-building and fusion stand in contradiction can only be successful to the extent that it adapts itself to the petty-bourgeois intellectual who makes a principle of his isolation from the working class. While he talks long and loud about the critical nature of revolutionary theory, the need to win over the advanced workers to Marxism-Leninism and the centrality of party-building, he is incapable of either giving any concrete guidance or of taking any real steps in the direction of accomplishing these tasks.

If we are really to have a vanguard party in the U.S., if we are really to combat localism and amateurish methods of work, then we will have to combat both those forces that mistakenly use ’fusion’ to deny party-building and those who use ’party-building’ to deny fusion. In the final analysis both will be opponents of our most urgent task: the creation of a leading ideological center for the Marxist-Leninist movement which can lay the foundations for a national preparty revolutionary organization. This center would represent the most significant step forward that our movement could take at this time in the struggle to fuse communism with the class struggle of the proletariat.