Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

On party building

First Published: The Guardian, in two parts, on June 16 and June 30, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The current debate over international line in our movement clearly has implications that affect every aspect–political, ideological and organizational–of the party-building process.

It is hardly accidental that successive groupings within what was once called the “new communist movement”–RU (now Revolutionary Communist Party, RCP), Workers Viewpoint, the October League (OL)–have read the Guardian out of their ranks. Given the enormous consequences flowing from one’s view of where the main blow must be directed–at U.S. imperialism or at the Soviet Union–it obviously would be the height of political coyness to proceed as though these two lines could be reconciled.

As a result, the various splits between OL, the “revolutionary wing,” the “Mensheviks,” the RCP, become, all of a sudden, of little consequence. The likelihood of any of these groups developing in such a way as to suggest they might become a genuine “vanguard” of the U.S. working class–a revolutionary organization with the capacity to intervene in the course of events and determine their outcome–seems overwhelmingly remote.

With many of the most organizationally advanced forces in the party-building movement now trapped in a political dead end, the task of building a genuine revolutionary party becomes all the more urgent. It is the obligation of Marxist-Leninists at this juncture to make a thoroughly objective appraisal of their strengths and their weaknesses, to sum up their actual condition organizationally and politically– and to place all this in the context of the objective conditions of class struggle in the U. S., as well as the actual situation of the left in general. For it is only on this basis that the next steps in the party-building process can take place.


First, we must recognize that while there is widespread agreement among many individuals and organizations about what they are not–they are not revisionist, Trotskyist or dogmatic sectarians, they are not liquidators of proletarian internationalism or objective class collaborationists– there is, as yet, little agreement on what they are. The struggle for political clarity and political self-definition is, therefore, a necessary step toward that political and programmatic unity which is the indispensable precondition for organizational unity.

At the same time, the process of organizational-development and consolidation must begin. Marxist-Leninists must begin to unite organizationally–even if, at the start, it is only on a local scale. It is only through some form of Marxist-Leninist organization that the ideological struggle can proceed in a principled and scientific fashion; and it is only on the basis of such organization that Marxist-Leninists can begin to acquire the vitally necessary concrete experience in the various mass struggles which must also be a part of the party-building process.

Of course, most people will already have considerable experience in various mass struggles. But this is not the same as acquiring such experience while working in a collective fashion with other Marxist-Leninists, acting in a disciplined way and summing up practice scientifically with one’s comrades.

In addition to the crucial question of the content of political line, three other questions immediately pose themselves:


1. Understanding that both party-building and mass political activity go hand in hand, which aspect–party-building or mass work–is primary?
2. To what extent must any proposed party-building tendency have incorporated working-class cadre into its ranks before it can confidently proceed to the actual organization of the party?
3. Can we proceed directly to the organization of a multinational party or must we accept the inevitability of a variety of Marxist-Leninist organizations defined on the basis of nationality as a precondition to one unified party?

Various groups may have resolved one or another or all of these questions to their satisfaction already. But the questions remain alive because, in one form or another, they continue to come up in all discussions of party-building among the very cadre who must push the process forward.

To most Marxist-Leninists, the answer to the first question ought to appear over-whelmingly self-evident. Party-building must be primary. After all, the class struggle in all its manifestations goes on independently of the participation of the communists. To make involvement in the mass struggles the primary aspect of political activity in the absence of a Marxist-Leninist party becomes an exercise in futility which is bound to lead either to reformism or petti-bourgeois adventurism. (Both Tom Hayden and the Weather Underground are, in this sense, opposite sides of the same coin.)

The question is hardly of recent vintage. Lenin dealt with precisely the same problem some 75 years ago when the task of building the Russian party was the principal concern of Marxist-Leninists in that country. “The spontaneous struggle of the proletariat,” he wrote, “will not become its genuine ’class struggle’ until this struggle is led by a strong organization of revolutionaries” (What Is To Be Done?).

In saying that party-building must remain at the center of our considerations, the primary question, there should be no suggestion of a “retreat” from the mass movements and struggles of this period. The world will not stay on “hold” while communists make up their minds about their organizational future. And many good revolutionaries will understandably balk at any process which tends to isolate them from the burning questions of this moment– whether it is the assault on the living standards of the workers, the escalation of racist repression by the ruling class, the threat of military intervention against national liberation struggles, the struggle for women’s democratic rights or many other questions.


Nevertheless, it is necessary to understand the severe limitations on the revolutionary work that Marxist-Leninists can do in these mass struggles until that “strong organization of revolutionaries” comes into being.

Some may say, “But look at the critical questions the people are facing at the moment. We must make such matters our principal concern.” And here a certain kind of stern revolutionary discipline is required. For if is right that communists should respond emotionally as well as politically to the suffering of the masses and the spontaneous resistance. But we must face the fact that such a response–unless it is a scientific response, unless it is based on a developed political strategy which links up the immediate question with the long-range revolutionary question–is bound to be of a limited value in terms of advancing revolutionary consciousness and political organization of the masses. And there is no way in which that response can be scientific and strategic in a revolutionary sense unless it is developed, coordinated and led by “a strong organization of revolutionaries.”

Good intentions ultimately count for little in this respect. The party will not emerge magically out of the mass struggle. A conscious and disciplined effort by those who have already developed a Marxist-Leninist world outlook is required. For party-building is not merely an organizational question–although organization is its ultimate test. It is a protracted process of theoretical work, ideological struggle, testing and retesting of propositions in practice, and transforming what must of necessity be at first a disparate group of politically motivated individuals into a conscious and unified fighting political force.

Such a task cannot proceed when it is perceived merely as an adjunct to mass work. The spontaneous struggle always poses extremely pressing questions–and as the crisis of monopoly capitalism deepens, as it must, the questions will increasingly appear as even more urgent and more demanding.

Indeed, to the extent that “revolutionaries” put off the party-building process, we must say that such people have not yet grasped the essence of Marxism-Leninism or the full implications of making proletarian revolution. For anyone who is engaged in mass work and does not feel every day out of his or her concrete experience the enormity of the vacuum created by the absence of a communist party is still’ confined to a reformist perspective no matter how militant they may be in the struggle.

The next article in this series will take up questions 2 and 3 posed earlier.

* * *

When is the “right time” to bring the revolutionary party into concrete organizational existence?

Clearly there must be unity around fundamental aspects of political line and a common appraisal of the objective situation confronting left forces. It is also obvious that a certain amount of theoretical and organizational preparation must take place. And above all, there has to be a great willingness to form the party, a felt need arising out of concrete circumstances of political work leading to a great desire for principled political unity.

Some Marxist-Leninists, however, raise some other considerations. Perhaps the most frequently heard is that the revolutionary forces must be more firmly rooted in the working class and that many more working-class cadre must be in the ranks of the revolutionaries before the party can be formed.

At first glance, such a view appears reasonable. In some respects it is a healthy reaction to the antiworking class elitism which was one of the more unfortunate characteristics of large sections of the new left in the 1960s. On the other hand, we have all had our fill of that brand of “workerism” whereby radical intellectuals adopt what they perceive to be the mannerisms and cultural styles of the working class and then glorify their own posturing as somehow the essence of revolutionary wisdom.

But there is no special “magic” in the working class. The proletariat is the only truly revolutionary class in modern society because of its objective situation in the class struggle. On its own, however, without the leadership of a vanguard party, it will never realize its revolutionary potential no matter how militantly it may do battle for its own interests.

Lenin pointed this out a long time ago. “Class political consciousness,” he wrote, “can be brought to the workers only from without; that is, only from outside of the economic struggle, from outside of the sphere of relations between workers and employers.” (What Is To Be Done?)

Anti-Leninists have frequently seized upon this statement to prove that the concept of a vanguard party is inherently “elitist.” This view–along with critiques of democratic centralist forms as “hierarchical” –is in essence the recurrence of petty bourgeois anarchism in the revolutionary movement. It is, in the final analysis, a refusal to lead, a reliance on spontaneity and inevitably winds up either in economism or adventurism.

If the revolutionaries hold up the party-building process until there are enough workers in their ranks, they will wait forever. For without an organization of revolutionaries, how will the work proceed in a scientific way? To what will the workers be recruited as they begin to develop revolutionary consciousness?

“We must have a committee of professional revolutionaries,” writes Lenin, “and it does not matter whether a student or a worker is capable of becoming a professional revolutionary.”

Does this mean that the question of the class origin of the party members should be of no concern to us? To suggest this would be a totally incorrect conclusion. One of the tasks of the party from the very beginning is to proletarianize itself–both through the integration of large numbers of its cadre in the working class and through the recruitment of advanced workers to its ranks.

But a beginning must be made with the only human resources available to us. To go on endlessly proclaiming that “we are not ready,” that “we have to wait for the workers” is to wait indefinitely.

Closely associated with this view is a marked tendency toward localism. It must be noted, in this connection, that some Marxist-Leninist organizations functioning for a period of time on a local basis have made good progress in building their organization and increasing their direct experience with the working class.

But there is also a tendency to cling to the security of these local forms, to glorify the concrete experience in one or two shops or neighborhoods completely out of proportion to its significance in the overall struggle against monopoly capital. Such local experience is useful at the beginning stage of the party-building process, but it is only the first step; the process must move on. Unfortunately, some Marxist-Leninists are reluctant to leave this initial stage behind.

A revolutionary without a party is like a sailor without a ship, reduced to recounting past adventures and promoting future glories–but with nowhere to go in the here and now.

Another argument used to forestall the party-building process is that we cannot build a genuine multinational party at this time. Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Native Americans and others, so the thesis goes, will have to build their own revolutionary organizations first. This may, at some future unspecified time, lead to the creation of a single party.

The chief justification advanced for this thesis is that it is only through separate organizational forms that revolutionaries of the oppressed minorities can effectively counter the white chauvinism which is endemic to any organization in which there are large numbers of whites–revolutionary or not.

There is much wrong with this view. For one thing, especially as advanced by whites, it is a thoroughly defeatist attitude which implicitly upholds the theory that “white skin privileges” are the principal aspect of national oppression. The inexorable logic of this is best expressed by the Sojourner Truth Organization which describes these “white skin privileges” as “the main pillar of capitalist rule in the U.S. As such,” it goes on, “it dooms every struggle of the working class to be split by white people’s narrow group interest. Small victories are in jeopardy, ultimate victory impossible.”

But communists take a different view of their class. They do not idealize the backwardness of the workers, especially the white workers. Nor do they echo the line of the bosses that the white workers indeed do have a stake in the system of white supremacy. The communists–the white communists in particular–must be prepared to tell the white workers that they are a pack of fools for swallowing the racist garbage that only benefits monopoly capital; that in jeopardizing class unity they are their own worst enemy and that only unity between Black and white based on unequivocal support for the democratic rights and special demands of the Black workers can forge the kind of unity which the working class as a whole requires in its struggle with capital.

When advanced by Marxist-Leninists of the nationally oppressed peoples, the separatist view becomes a profound concession to the forces of narrow nationalism and a liquidation of the basic revolutionary thesis of putting politics in command.


In practice, this party-building scenario– and one calls it “party-building” most generously only because many of those who uphold this view are undoubtedly convinced that they are engaged in party-building–is bound to lead to more subtle but none the less insidious forms of racism, most particularly paternalism and the following of third world leadership irrespective of political line.

Involved in this also is a thoroughly unscientific view of “self-determination.” It is hardly an accident that many groups who advance the thesis of nationally distinct party forms as opposed to a multinational party likewise advance the concept of “self-determination for all oppressed peoples. ’’ While a seemingly militant and progressive demand, this concept is actually most confusing and–when taken to its inevitable conclusion–antiworking class.

“Self-determination” is the ultimate democratic right of a nation. It means that the people of a nation have not only the right but the objective conditions necessary to determine their own political destiny as a nation. When one is not discussing nations, however, but national minorities or particular strata of society, then “self-determination,” which implies the possibility and right of a separate solution to the problems of oppression and exploitation, turns into its opposite. It becomes reactionary rather than progressive because it is obliged to put the concerns and demands of one sector of the working class before the concerns of the working class as a whole. Politically, this opens the door to opportunism.

Does this mean that Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, women will be obliged to “sacrifice” their own concerns in favor of those of the white workers? Not at all–although this is the view that some Marxist-Leninists (notably the Revolutionary Communist Party) pursue in practice. It is precisely the task of the communists to take up these special demands of the nationally oppressed and women and make them the concern of the working class as a whole.

And this is a task that only a multinational party basing itself on the concept that the alliance between the working class as a whole and the nationally oppressed peoples of the U.S. can undertake.

The view, therefore, that advocates separate national party forms–while advanced in the name of the struggle against national chauvinism–actually liquidates the struggle against national chauvinism and keeps the working class disarmed in the struggle against monopoly capital.