Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

Party-building: ’Precondition’

First Published: The Guardian, December 29, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Last of a series

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The question of building a new communist party demands to be heard. There is no avoiding it. Every connection with the realities of mass political struggle brings the question to the fore.

The working-class movement requires communist initiatives and communist leadership. The workers are becoming aware of the realities of an inhumane profit system, the hardships of their economic position, the corruption of their own “leaders” and a political system whose illusion of “responsiveness” wears increasingly thin. But they have not yet discovered a political alternative that can inspire their confidence.

The struggles against national oppression and racism continue to proceed under the political domination of respectable reformists who are anticipating even greater “legitimacy” to be provided by an image-conscious new administration in Washington.

The women’s movement, after having reached a high tide of mass influence and militancy several years back, has retreated into petty bourgeois reformism and feminist sectarianism.

At a time when the very real fissures in the world imperialist system have provided the conditions for mass struggles on many levels, there is as yet no communist strategy or leadership worthy of the name. There is, of course, an untold amount of political posturing–weighty pronouncements on the dangers of “reformism” or “Soviet social-imperialism”–but insofar as a program, a vision, a style of work that might inspire the left, the Marxist-Leninists and give some direction to the anger of the masses, this is absent.

There are others who see the political possibilities of the present period and in typically pragmatic fashion rush into the midst of the turmoil without a plan or an organization. And by organization. I do not mean one more paper coalition trying to affect events but without the faintest notion of how to do so in anything but a spontaneous, reactive fashion.

Still others glorify their own sectarianism and ineffectualness with theories designed to show why white workers or white men cannot seriously take up the struggle against imperialism.

And then there is the revisionist Communist Party, which continues to tail after every struggle that does exist, allying with the most backward elements and lending every reformist illusion the cover of Marxist terminology.

The political vacuum created by the absence of a genuine Marxist-Leninist party of the U.S. working class–a party firmly united on fundamental ideological principles and organized as a disciplined, effective political force–is more and more keenly felt every day.


As Lenin said, what is to be done?

Lenin’s question is important in a deceptively simple fashion. It poses party-building as a practical question and one that can be answered primarily by the efforts of the Marxist-Leninists themselves. In other words, the question is not: what has to happen in order for us to build a party? The question is: what do we have to do to build a party?

And here is where some Marxist-Leninists fall into an ideological cul-de-sac. A recent pamphlet by the Potomac Socialist Organization, for instance, poses the question this way: “What are the essential preconditions for a party? The essence of party-building is the struggle to build each of three elements in dialectical relationship with each other: (1) a large, radicalized sector of the working class; (2) dedicated, full-time working-class militants or cadre, and (3) experienced and proven working-class leaders.”

I cite this passage because the ideas contained in it have considerable currency in our movement, especially among many who are anxious to build a Marxist-Leninist party– ideas which could condemn our movement to a certain passive determinism, always waiting for objective conditions to ripen before the communists can do anything of real significance.

At first, the three “preconditions” for a party cited above seem eminently sensible. After all, haven’t all too many Marxist-Leninists demonstrated such a woeful unfamiliarity with the realities of working-class life and political struggle that their attempts to influence events in the working class usually do more to bring Marxism-Leninism into disrepute than anything else?


But to see a problem is not the same as coming up with a correct solution. And this is what has happened to our Potomac Socialist friends who, in their correct rejection of infantile leftism in mass work, have made a serious error.

Firstly, they speak of the “essential preconditions of a party” and never mention Marxism-Leninism as its guiding theory. And this is not some inadvertent oversight that can be corrected with a phrase. Merely to speak of Marxism-Leninism in a period when all recently reborn radicals do nothing but proclaim themselves Marxist-Leninists is to say nothing. Marxist-Leninists must enunciate what their fundamental views are–for if we do not unite on an ideological and then a political basis, we are nothing but opportunists and socialist careerists with no firm foundation whatsoever.

In other words, to speak of uniting as Marxist-Leninists, it is absolutely imperative –the more so when revisionism, Trotskyism, left dogmatism, even social democracy have become increasingly adept at describing themselves in such fashion–that the communists spell out what their underlying principles of unity are.

What does this mean in practice? It means that the first step in translating party-building into a concrete, practical question is establishing the ideological basis for unity among Marxist-Leninists.

But this is only half of the problem with the Potomac Socialist thesis. How will their three “preconditions for a party”–a large radicalized sector of the working class, dedicated, full-time working-class militants or cadre and experienced and proven working-class leaders–come about in the absence of a party?

Will a large sector of the working class become “radicalized”–and by this term, we must assume not merely militant in the pursuit of the economic struggles of the working class, but politically conscious in a “radicalized” way–all on its own, without the leading influence of a communist organization?

And where will the dedicated, full-time working-class militants or cadre come from? Spontaneously out of the economic struggles of the working class? Do we not require a communist organization to train and help develop ideologically such cadre?

And to speak of experienced and proven working-class leaders–we assume that Marxist-Leninist leaders are meant–somehow emerging in the absence of a communist party is to suggest that personal charisma and “genius” rather than the collective, disciplined scientific work of an organization of communists is the key to Marxist-Leninist leadership in the working-class movement.


Can we really speak of such exalted aims as the “essential preconditions” for building a party? To do so is to put off the task of party-building indefinitely. Local communist organizations–even a national preparty communist organization–are not adequate to the task of bringing these conditions into existence. What the Potomac Socialists describe as the “preconditions” for a party are really among the principal aims of a communist party. In this sense we cannot speak of party-building as though it ends with the formation of the party.

In fact, that is when party-building really begins, when all of the preparatory work has been completed, when a high degree of political and ideological unity among Marxist-Leninists has been forged, when the communists have themselves acquired a good body of collective experience in the concrete struggles not only of the working class, but among other sectors of the population as well. (In this connection, we must emphasize once again that we cannot speak of founding a Marxist-Leninist party in the U.S. unless it is firmly, from top to bottom, a multinational party.)

In party-building, as in all other questions facing communists, politics must be in command. Marxist-Leninists are not economic determinists with the notion that the vanguard party cannot be formed until the working class has itself produced sufficient revolutionary cadre to organize it. There is nothing magical–there are no guarantees of political steadfastness–merely by virtue of having a party with many workers, even a majority of workers, in it. One only has to look at the dismal politics of the Italian Communist Party–certainly by composition a mass working-class party if there ever was one–to see the proof of that. And who could deny that the CP-USA has a greater proportion (and greater number) of working-class members than any of the new communist organizations? This fact has hardly kept the CP on a revolutionary course.

There is no way out: we cannot speak of working-class militants, cadres or leaders unless we also speak of what they stand for and what political line they are bringing to the masses.

Does this mean that the communists pay no attention to the question of building and deepening their ties to the working-class movement? Of course not. Nor is it a task that does not get taken up until after the party is founded. But to establish as a “precondition” for party-building a “fusion” of Marxism-Leninism with the working-class movement is to put the cart before the horse. For without a party–a strong, disciplined organization of revolutionaries united around a set of common principles– the communists can only create such a “fusion” in the most superficial and mechanical manner. Instead of the working-class movement having its theoretical level raised by this fusion, it is much more likely that the communists will have their own theoretical level reduced to that of the immediate economic struggle of the workers.


To some, such a development might appear to be an improvement over the current realities of the left. But actually, the daily economic struggle of the working class is not so hard to learn and usually manifests itself in a gush of romantic “workerism” that envelops revolutionaries from a petty bourgeois background as they first encounter the realities of factory life and trade union questions.

Of course, the communists must familiarize themselves with the concrete conditions of working-class struggle. And they do this not merely by observing but by becoming participants. In the process, they will (at least they will if they try) find some workers who by reason of their own experience are ready to take up the ideas of Marxism-Leninism. These are the prime working-class cadre for the party. But the task facing the communists is not primarily one of making themselves workers; it is to make the advanced workers into communists.

None of this can take place without a revolutionary party. But we must be more concrete and more practical than that. And we must develop a Marxist-Leninist approach to the question of party-building itself.

Therefore, we cannot rest content that we have posed the proper question when we ask: What is to be done? We must now urgently pose another question: Where to begin?

This is the question which the Guardian will endeavor to confront in the weeks and months ahead. The present series of articles, of which this is the last, has attempted to resolve certain questions that have held some people back heretofore. We invite readers, particularly those in Marxist-Leninist study groups and independent collectives, to discuss the questions raised in this series. Our own views on “Where To Begin?” will be elaborated in a special Guardian supplement sometime in the new year.