Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

Defining Party building issues

First Published: The Guardian, December 1, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

First of a series

* * *

Everyone wants a party. Or so they say.

However, this has more to do with the fact that no one on the left can be taken seriously today without conceding the necessity for a revolutionary party, than it does with the consolidation of Marxism-Leninism as the dominant trend in our movement.

Historically, as various incorrect political lines come to be seen in practice as hopeless–and we can say that revisionism, Trotskyism, anarchism (including various brands of ultra-“democracy”), social-democracy, dogmatism, ultra-“leftism” and adventurism are more and more being exposed as futile poses of revolutionary conviction–then inevitably they emerge once again in new forms. Adapting themselves to the changing currents, these different manifestations of bourgeois ideology describe themselves as Marxist-Leninist and even proclaim their devotion to party-building.

This is why self-definition is not the most overwhelming evidence in determining the real content of any organization’s political line. Neither, for that matter, are the attacks by the government–although both the Weather Underground and the revisionist Communist Party have attempted to draw-some measure of vindication from government assaults against them.

Revisionism (or anarchism or any other ideological diversion) does not manifest itself solely in ideological terms. The terminology of Marxism-Leninism, after all, is in the public domain and none can be prevented from using it to describe their views even if the actual content of what they are saying is completely contrary to the essence of scientific socialism.

Political practice is what counts–and by political practice I also mean political line.


It is in this context that I propose to discuss over the next several columns some particular controversies and questions that have now come to the fore–in one form or another–in what can (most) loosely be called the party-building movement. The questions (in the order in which they will be discussed) are:
1. The “mass movement” vs. the party. Will the party “emerge” from the mass movement? How can Marxist-Leninists engage in party-building while simultaneously participating in the mass struggles? Which of these tasks is primary, which secondary?
2. Is it correct to project the concept of building a multinational party at this time? Given the present state of the left, aren’t “national” forms–organizations of Black, Chicano. Puerto Rican, Native American,. Asian American and white Marxist-Leninists–more appropriate? Does a multinational party at this time mean–as some have charged–the inevitable domination of such a party by whites?
3. How much democracy and how much centralism in a Marxist-Leninist party? Haven’t Marxist-Leninist parties always been characterized by the domination of a heavy-handed bureaucratic structure and isn’t this built into the very nature of democratic centralism? Don’t the times require a far greater degree of local autonomy than traditional Marxist-Leninist parties permit? Should there be “caucuses”–Blacks, women, etc.–in the party? Should homosexuals be denied membership in the party?
4. Why has the debate over “international line” been a critical factor in the party-building movement? What is the connection between dogmatism, flunkyism and class collaboration? In what way do the “left” errors of some organizations cover their “rightist” essence? Why are slogans such as “no united action with revisionism” examples of infantile “leftism” in our movement today? Which is primary in party-building–the class origin and location of the cadres or political line?

In the main, Marxist-Leninists have resolved the theoretical question of which task is primary–building the mass movement or building the party. For communists, party-building (a task which really only begins after the party is formed) is principal. Indeed, to think that one can be a communist in the absence of a communist party–or a communist organization proceeding towards a definite plan of bringing a party into being–is completely metaphysical. It reduces Marxism-Leninism to a set of ideas and divorces those ideas from the fundamental question of communist practice.

A mass movement, no matter how militant it may be at one time or another, no matter how “anti-imperialist” it may proclaim itself to be, will sooner or later come under the hegemony of bourgeois ideology in the absence of a conscious Marxist-Leninist leading force. The working class is the only revolutionary class in modern capitalist society,, but without the leadership of a Marxist-Leninist party it will never make a successful revolution. The struggle against its objective conditions of exploitation and oppression will become very sharp at times–but either its demands will stop short of the demand for state power or the militancy of the working class will be consumed in “rebellions” destined to be crushed by the power of the bourgeois state.

If this is true of the working class, how much more true is it of all those mass movements encompassing the aspirations of other oppressed and exploited classes and sectors? Such movements may be ardently “anti-imperialist” and may indeed be able to develop worthwhile struggles against the concrete manifestations of imperialism–as did the mass antiwar movement–but unless such a movement is guided by a strong organization of scientific revolutionaries it can never take up the task of defeating the concentrated power of monopoly capital as represented in the first place by the bourgeois stale apparatus and its military underpinning.

As soon as such a movement attempts to take up the long-range task of revolution, it immediately falls into political and ideological disarray. Such movements are bound to include all kinds of theories which, in their essence, represent one form or another of petty bourgeois socialism–and in the absence of conscious proletarian leadership (proletarian because of is class” outlook and not simply by virtue of the class location of its espousers) petty bourgeois ideology will prevail.

Even in the short run, such movements either quickly come to grief or else collapse after the achievement of some particular immediate objective. (Again, the most trenchant example is the mass antiwar movement of the 1960s; this is true of the mass civil rights movement or the Black rebellions of the 1960s.)


Lenin puts it most forcefully. “Without a strong organization, tested in the political struggle carried on under all circumstances and in all periods, there can be no talk of a systematic plan of activity, enlightened by firm principles and unswervingly carried out, which alone is worthy of being called tactics.”

Can we expect a mass movement–even a mass “anti-imperialist” movement–to agree on such fundamental revolutionary propositions as the dictatorship of the proletariat or the necessity to prepare the people for mass armed struggle? It is not only historical experience which demonstrates the futility of such a prospect. All one has to do is study the grab bag of social “solutions” or immediate strategies to emerge out of such groupings as the Hard Times Conference, the July 4 Coalition or the Mass Party of the People Organizing Committee to see that none of these can substitute for the revolutionary party of the working class which is founded on the basis of common Marxist-Leninist principles and the corresponding organizational forms needed to put these into practice.

But. some will say, you are begging the question. We do not see these mass organizations replacing the need for a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party. It’s just that we see the need to build the mass movement at this time and that the Marxist-Leninist party will “emerge” from this process.

Well, this sounds a little more reasonable, but in essence it is no different from other positions which explicitly liquidate the need for a party. For one thing, in practice the demands and needs of the mass movement always appear as urgent (if they are not “urgent” there will be no genuinely mass base; and will invariably take precedence over party-building. Party-building, after all, is not a simple task that one can do in one’s spare time after the needs of the mass movement have been dealt with. It requires enormous time, energy, concentration of will and undivided attention to struggles over ideology and political line. In the real world, the eclectic politics of the mass movement will impose themselves on any party that might, by chance, emerge from such a process.

Also, there is something inherently mystical about the notion of a party “emerging” from a mass movement. Indeed, the very word carries the principle of spontaneity to its logical extension. A party does not “emerge” from struggles. It must be built.


What can and does emerge from mass struggles are a large number of individuals who became radicalized in the process of the mass movement, come to understand the inadequacies of the spontaneous mass movement and are ready to embrace a scientific approach to revolution.

But isn’t this what has already happened in the U.S.? Marxism-Leninism has emerged as an ideological force in the U.S. left at this time precisely as a result of the experiences of the sharp mass struggles of the 1960s–and the growing recognition of the bankruptcy of revisionism and Trotskyism, of the sharp mass struggles of the 1960s–and the growing recognition of the bankruptcy of revisionism and Trotskyism, the only forms of “Marxism-Leninism” with which the left was familiar until the recent past.

True, the resurgence of Marxism-Leninism in the U.S. did not emerge directly from the mass workers’ movement. But then again, it rarely has in the past in other circumstances either. The important thing, however, is that Marxism-Leninism has definitely come to the fore in the consciousness of the left. The job now is to give it organizational form and a political content based on a scientific understanding of the concrete conditions at hand and the tasks of the immediate period.


Party-building, then, must become the primary task of Marxist-Leninists in this period. But in saying that, we do not advocate a “hothouse” strategy for bringing the party into being. Most of the cadre in the developing Marxist-Leninist movement are young. Their practical experience, while valuable, is limited. To take up party-building in isolation from the current concerns of the masses is a sure invitation to book-Marxism and dogmatism–not that participation in the mass movements is, by itself, any guarantee that such errors will be avoided..

Participation in the mass movements at this time–the trade union struggles, the movements of the nationally oppressed, the women’s liberation movement, etc.–from a party-building point of view, will enable Marxist Leninists to test different propositions in practice, will acquaint them with, the problem of dealing with the world as it is and not as they would have it be, will bring them smack up against the real problems of racism, sexism, anticommunism, economism, petty bourgeois hegemonism and backward ideology of every kind as it manifests itself in life.

Such practice is as indispensable to the task of party-building as is mastering the theoretical foundations of scientific socialism. But that` practice cannot be permitted in any measure to substitute for the central task of party-building. For if it does, no matter how many pious expressions to the contrary are voiced, the self-defeating politics of spontaneity will prevail and the task of party-building will be left to others.