Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

Economism Blocks Party-Building

First Published: The Guardian, Vol. 29, No. 30, May 4, 1977
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In a recent column on the role of communists in the trade unions, I raised the following question: “Which comes first–’fusing’ communism with the workers’ movement or building a new communist party?”

This question prompted Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) representative Clay Newlin to respond in these pages (Radical Forum April 13) that even to raise this question is tantamount either to “proposing to build a vanguard for a class other than the proletariat” or else a sign that the author “has not thought through his views on party-building.” The PWOC assumed “the latter is the case.”

Although this might be construed as an invitation to additional sarcasm from the PWOC, we think that it is an important question to discuss, noting, as was done in the original offending article, that “this question is now being debated among many Marxist-Leninists.” So while we have no compunctions about joining in the discussion, we must decline the honor of being given credit for inventing it.

After all, it was not the Guardian which advanced the view that “the theoretical and strategic understandings about revolution in the U.S.” will be worked out “in daily, local working-class struggle situations.” It was not the Guardian which listed “preconditions” for party-building which assume “the radicalization of a critical mass of the working class” but never raised the question of political line as somehow being a relevant precondition to party-building. It was not the Guardian which posed the alternative of “a group of trade union militants” laying the foundation for party-building as opposed to “a group of people who call themselves Marxist-Leninists,” thus encompassing in one thought both the liquidation of Marxist-Leninist theory and a glorification of trade unionism in its place.

These views–along with many others equally backward–were contained in an article that appeared in these pages written by the Potomac Socialist Organization (PSO), a party-building group which says its own ideas have grown out of their study and agreement with the views of the PWOC.

Now the PWOC may think that the PSO’s views are not their own; but they cannot shun all responsibility for them. Newlin even concedes “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.”

But if this is indeed the case, the Guardian can hardly be “combatting straw men” in raising some of these questions.

However, we would not be facing the questions posed seriously or frankly if we let the matter rest there. The problem is not simply one of a few overly zealous followers of the PWOC view who have gone “too far.” The problem is with the PWOC’s own general view of party-building and its own misreading of the concrete circumstances in which this task has to be confronted today in the U.S.

The PWOC argues, quite correctly, that the “fusion” of communism with-the class struggle of the proletariat is the principal aim of the communists in helping to prepare the conditions for revolution. This is undeniable. Communism is the scientific theory which explains the real world in all its social, economic and political aspects and the indispensable” guide to action. But it remains “theory” until it is grasped by a revolutionary class with the power to make it a material force; and in contemporary capitalist society there is only one such class–the proletariat. Therefore, the task of, the communists is to find the ways to introduce Marxism-Leninism into the working-class movement and, more particularly, to win a significant section of the more advanced workers to embrace these ideas as their own and become part of the “organized detachment” of the working class, its vanguard, the communist party.

Where, then, is the argument? As with many significant theoretical debates, the differences at first appear to be ones of emphasis. The PWOC states that neither “fusion” nor “unity” comes first. On one occasion, they even declare that “the first stage in the resolution of this contradiction [between the aims of the communists and the objective state of the consciousness of the working-class movement] is the development of the vanguard party.”


Nevertheless, they believe that such a development “can only come about as a result of a step forward in the fusion of communism and the workers’ movement.”

Well, no one could be opposed to a “step forward” in the process of linking the ideology of Marxism-Leninism to the realities of class struggle. But the phrase is somewhat vague and lends itself to a variety of interpretations. What may appear to be a “step forward” to some might well be considered a gigantic “leap” by others and possibly a “step backward” by still others.

Therefore we must examine the views of the PWOC further to find out exactly what their “step forward” consists of. In an article, “Dogmatism and the Struggle for the Party” (The Organizer, Oct.-Nov. 1976), the PWOC lays out its views as to why and how ”the essence of the party-building process is the struggle to join communism with the most advanced fighters from the movements of the working class and the oppressed nationalities.”

But, they say, “the question of fusion cannot be reduced to the mere winning of a handful of workers to Marxism-Leninism. In order for the fusion of Marxism-Leninism with the advanced workers to represent a real step forward [my emphasis–I.S.] in tile overall struggle to merge communism with the working-class movement, the advanced workers must continue and strengthen their role as active leaders of the day to day practical struggles of the masses. . . . They will not lead the mass struggle as they did formerly, but as open communists. Thus the fusion of communism with the advanced workers assumes the development of a communist current in the working-class movement.”

If this is the PWOC’s “step forward”–“the development of a communist current in the working-class movement”–then it is ingenuous of the group to imply it has not imposed a significant “precondition” to the party-building process or that it has not given an answer to the “which comes first” question.

In essence, the PWOC argues that it is not only possible to develop “a communist current in the working-class movement” without having a party to do it, they say that it is essential to do it before you can form the party. But is such a “development” possible? Can a local Marxist-Leninist organization “develop” a “communist current in the workers’ movement?” Can a national organization do it–unless it has a firm set of ideological principles based on the theoretical legacy of scientific socialism, a large enough core of cadre functioning within a single democratic-centralist organization, a definite strategic plan evolving out of unified practice and a common political program? In other words, doesn’t the very concept of a “communist current” imply the need for a party?

Oddly enough, considering their strictures against those who apply Lenin “crudely and mechanically to the U.S.,” the PWOC rests much of its theoretical argument on three brief quotations from works by Lenin written in 1898 and 1900. Space does not permit a lengthy exposition of the differences in both objective and subjective conditions between Lenin’s Russia at the turn of the century and the U.S. in 1977. However, the following should be pointed out:

In Russia, the principal revolutionary task confronting the working class was the overthrow of the autocracy–that is, a bourgeois-democratic revolution was on the agenda.

The trade unions were illegal.

The Russian Marxists already had a party–the Russian Social-Democratic Party. This was not yet a modern communist party, that is, a Leninist party, and Lenin himself was still in the process of formulating the concepts of the modern, democratic-centralist party.

All of the significant Marxist political trends operated within the Russian Social-Democratic Party.

In a larger sense, the difference between Lenin’s period and our own is based on the fact that the question of a Leninist form of organization has been settled for 75 years and has been enriched by a great variety of experiences. It is not necessary, therefore, to “repeat this process,” as PWOC states, in all of its particulars. It would be foolish to walk in the footsteps of our predecessors when as a result of their struggles certain basic theoretical and practical questions have already been solved for us.

Nor did Lenin have a consolidated revisionist party to deal with–one which had been transformed from a revolutionary party into a group of modern social-democrats. The revisionists of that period were still inside the party.

Further, the PWOC rests much of its conclusions on the notion that the Marxist-Leninists of 1977 in the U.S., while somewhat versed in theory, are singularly lacking in practice. But is this true? The Marxist-Leninists, for the most part, do not have a great deal of experience in trade union work or the class struggle at the point of production, although there are a number of veteran Marxist-Leninists who came out of the CPUSA with a considerable body of such experience. Still, this area is one of our weakest. But the party-building cadre of this period have certain strengths as well, and it is wrong to underestimate them.

Most of them came out of the, mass struggles of the 1960s–the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement. It was in the course of these struggles, both of which moved toward direct confrontation with the bourgeois state, that the “radicals” began to look for more fundamental answers. One of the reasons why there is such a strong antirevisionist current in the left today is precisely because of these experiences which convinced tens of thousands that all talk of “peaceful transition” to socialism was sheer fantasy. It is very hard to convince these militants of the 1960s that U.S. imperialism is just a policy or that “enlightened” sectors of the bourgeoisie can be counted on. We should value these strengths while struggling to overcome the weaknesses.

Finally, the PWOC repeats on several occasions a peculiar term–“voluntaristic” –to describe the errors of the party-building movement. They describe this “voluntaristic approach to party-building” as one which “advocates ’boldness’ without a reference to material conditions.”

But in criticizing what they call “voluntarism,” the PWOC reveals the fundamental flaw in its thesis.

A party is, by its very nature, a “voluntaristic” organization which attempts to introduce into the class struggle between the working class and the bourgeoisie a factor which does not flow spontaneously from that struggle–that is, the organization and leadership of a vanguard force which bases itself, in the first place, on the theories of scientific socialism.