Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bob Avakian

If There Is To Be Revolution, There Must Be A Revolutionary Party

Chapter 8: A Party Is Not a Holy Thing – It’s Got to Be A Vanguard

Q: To continue with the party and to deal with the point that you brought up a number of times here about developing the party quantitatively and qualitatively: in “Conquer the World? The International Proletariat Must and Will” you brought out that the key was quality and I would like to get into these two aspects now and how you see that.

BA: Well, let’s take an obvious negative example to show in an extreme form why quantity cannot be made principal which is the revisionist parties, or the parties that were part of the Third International and ended up revisionist, such as the CPUSA or the CP of France, etc. The CP of France, for example, just hands out leaflets and says, “Sign up with the Communist Party; sign here to join the Communist Party”; it’s like mass enrollment and the CPUSA does the same thing. They put out a pamphlet and you can write in and get a free, cut-rate membership to the CP. And the British CP, for example – I remember hearing stories about how they did the same thing as the CPUSA did during the ’30’s and the war. They would have mass rallies and at the end of it just sign up people on the spot. The CPUSA sometimes used to sign up 1500 members all at one time at a big mass rally.

Well, that’s a certain kind of quantity, but the quality was obviously of very low character. These were not really communists that were joining these parties – I mean the parties were not really communist either. That’s a little bit of a flip way to say it, but even at that time there were serious, serious deviations from Marxism-Leninism in the line of the CPUSA for example, and their method of building the party was a rather sharp expression of that kind of opportunism, reformism, patriotism, etc. and the deformation in the direction of just plain bourgeois democracy and bourgeois ideology in general.

But obviously these were not communists who were joining the party. How could someone join the party on the spot like that just off the street and be a communist? At the most you could say that there is someone who has some strong class feelings and maybe a basic sense of the need for revolution, but certainly they are not a Marxist-Leninist; certainly they don’t have a communist consciousness. Of course that is not a metaphysical thing, as if one day you acquire communist consciousness. But there are leaps, and there is a leap to when you join the party. In particular with people drawn from among the masses that do have both the material interests and also a basic ideological stand for proletarian revolution, you don’t have to do a tremendous, an extended period of training and preparation before they can join. Most of their training in fact should take place inside the party. And that’s a very important point to stress. But they still should be recruited only after they have been worked with. Even on an obvious level you should check to make sure they’re not police agents. But even beyond this, a certain amount of work should go on with them in practice; they should get some kind of practical training, and also some kind of ideological training and a theoretical groundwork of a certain basic kind before they can come into the party and work and struggle in that arena and get the bulk of ongoing training as a party member.

I remember an extreme example where somebody told me that they had a relative working in the steel industry and one day a bunch of people came to go to a meeting to organize the union or something like that. They took this person’s relative to the meeting and on the way they told him that they were members of the CP and they asked the guy to join. And the guy said, “Well, hey, I’m a believing, practicing Catholic.” And they said, “Well that doesn’t make any difference.” And the guy said, “Does to me.” There’s a sharp example of where he was more principled than they were. And suppose they persuaded him to join. What kind of party are you building by doing that? So these are all extreme examples, but they make a point. And the point is that saying quality is principle over quantity is another way of saying what was pointed out in “Conquer the World...” that line is the key link. In other words, people have to be won to a certain line; and even more basic than that, of course, is the quality of the line itself, whether it is in the main and in its essence a correct line or incorrect line, a revolutionary line or an opportunist line, will determine also the character of the party and how it’s built. And while there will be ebbs and flows in the party too – people who come in, people who leave – the line will determine what the overall direction and character of building the party is, whether the party gets stronger qualitatively, that is, continually deepens its grasp and application of the correct line, and also whether it gets stronger quantitatively over time and through ebbs and flows and in a spiral and not a straight-line way. The line will determine whether the party gets stronger quantitatively at least in the sense of that it’s able to grow generally (though not in a one-to-one or mechanical way) in proportion with the growth of social ferment, political movement and activity and struggle, and particularly the leaps that take place toward and then in the development of a revolutionary situation.

Growth of the Party & World Developments

I don’t think a party can or should grow in a straight-line kind of way. Even if you say ’ ’through ebbs and flows and spirals” I still don’t think that its motion should be from smaller to bigger over any given period of time, say ten years, regardless of what’s happening not only in that country but most fundamentally in the world as a whole. If the world as a whole is generally entering a period of ebb, then maybe, like Lenin said in What Is To Be Done?, you have to know how to defend and maintain aloft the revolutionary banner in periods of revolutionary depression. He didn’t say you have to expand and grow and develop in such periods or at all times. That would be, I think, undialectical and unmaterialist. That’s also an error that has been a big component of the wrong thinking of the international communist movement, that you ought to be able to grow quantitatively (if you are on the correct road at least) regardless of what’s going on in the world and, as part of that, in the country that you are situated in.

Someone a while back asked about the history of our party, wanted to know all about it. So I said, well our party was founded in 1975 and I guess you could say that was the low point of the party. And that’s a way of saying that there was a certain history before our party was founded and since then there has been tremendous struggle and development. At the particular time our party was founded the U.S., and the world as a whole, was in the midst of an ebb, and along with that, interpenetrating with the objective situation, there was the influence of opportunist lines, the Menshevism, that existed in our ranks and was able to achieve quite a bit of corrosion (without fundamentally changing our line to a counter-revolutionary one). But it was able to corrode the revolutionary character of our party to a significant degree. That was at its high point in that period of the founding of our party and shortly afterwards. And while it’s not mechanically or deterministically related one-to-one with the objective situation in the world, including in the U.S. at that time, it was obviously strengthened by that. (Proof of the fact that it’s not deterministically related to it is the fact that since the split with the Mensheviks, they’ve gone completely into the quicksand, buried themselves in it and now are eating it, whereas we have made leaps in forging further along a revolutionary line. And it’s been the same objective situation in the world and including in the U.S. that we both are operating within.) But even saying that and taking that into account, still that objective situation did exert a strong influence, a strong pull, and strengthened the Menshevik tendencies and corrosion.

I made that statement that the founding of our party was its low point to indicate that you can’t treat the question of a party metaphysically. Here we founded the party and we’ve talked about how it was a great victory that the party was able to be formed. Well actually it was, because the real victory is that out of all the upsurge of the ’60s a revolutionary vanguard was able to be forged and preserved and was able to carry through, with whatever corrosion did go on, and emerge in this period of tremendously sharpening contradictions and growing opportunities worldwide as well as growing tendencies toward war. A revolutionary vanguard was forged and actually was tempered and strengthened and is in a position where it can make advances in the period ahead. If it continues on the road it’s on, it has the real possibility of leading the revolutionary movement if the objective conditions ripen fully for that.

A party was formed and, even with all that was bad about that period, taking its principal aspect it had a correct line. Especially, I think, that has shown in what has endured and been built on since that time and further developed, which is its line on the overall world situation, the line on revolutionary defeatism and the criticisms it made (even though they were only partial and still didn’t represent a thorough rupture, they were still criticisms in an important direction) of the past policy of the Comintern as concentrated in the Dimitroff line and the line of the Seventh World Congress. If there hadn’t been that, then the present line and policies of our party would not be explainable. We didn’t leap out of nowhere. We leaped from somewhere, a very sharply contradictory somewhere. We had a very sharply contradictory line that was loaded down with and corroded by a lot of economism, but also had a very strong revolutionary kernel which took important expression around the world situation and around proletarian internationalism and revolutionary defeatism in opposition to social chauvinism.

To ’Be Around’ is Not an End in Itself

But, with all that, the point precisely is to say that a party is not a metaphysical thing. What I’m getting to is the statement that was made at the time of our founding party congress that’ ’this is the second time the party of the proletariat in the U.S. has been formed and this will be the last time.” Well, that itself is a little bit of a metaphysical statement. On the one hand, yes, it’s very important, as I have just said, and in the way that I have just said, that a new party was formed. But on the other hand, if, owing to both the objective and subjective conditions, this party exists and carries on for 40 or 50 years like the CPUSA before it and never leads a revolution, what’s so great about that? Really why would it be so terrible if somebody got together and formed another party and tried to learn from the positive and negative and went ahead and tried to make revolution? Not because “to be around for 40 or 50 years and not make a revolution means you are a failure,” or that you must be wrong because you didn’t make a revolution. It’s quite possible that the conditions never ripened to where you could make a revolution in that period and nevertheless you might have made real and important contributions not only in that country but more importantly on an international scale. And if you were continuing in that direction then it would be wrong for people to form another party. They (and you) should still seek to build that party as the vanguard and to draw on its mainly correct past and on its contributions and to continue going forward. But there’s nothing so holy about a party.

It is very hard to imagine that a party could stick around for 40 or 50 years, not have the objective and subjective conditions come together for making a revolution, and stay on the revolutionary road. It is not impossible. But it is not a virtue. Maybe the party is stale and basically lacking in what’s required to be a revolutionary vanguard if it’s been around for 40 to 50 years. And again that’s not to say that it’s inevitable that if a party is around for 40 or 50 years that proves that it’s stale, that it has no revolutionary vigor, that it has lost its revolutionary thrust and so on. But, the point I’m trying to make here is that parties are in fact vanguards, they are in fact the expression in terms of the subjective factor of what is going on overall in the world as a whole, though they are not, as we’ ve insisted on correctly, mechanically an expression of that. They are dialectically related to it and they react back upon it and have a tremendous role to play, which is linked to the role of consciousness and conscious initiative. They have a tremendous role to play in reacting back upon the overall objective situation internationally and, as a subordinate part of that, within a particular country.

It represented a tremendous contribution that in China a party was able to exist and remain a revolutionary vanguard for more than 50 years, with all the tremendous struggle that was involved in that whole process, before it was finally reversed by the revisionist triumph in China. That was a tremendous achievement, nothing to take lightly, or to say “it’s really old so it’s bound to be decayed and rotten.” There is a law that the new supersedes the old but you can’t mechanically apply that to parties because parties also take in the new. You can’t just look at the length of time a party has been there and say it’s old now, because it’s constantly taking in the new and getting rid of the old itself. Eventually every party will be replaced by the new – which is communism, and not necessarily another party. So we have to understand it that way, but at the same time what I’m combatting is this metaphysical notion that a party is an ”institution.” It’s sort of like socialist states, as if they should exist because abstractly they are good things. Well, that depends on the content of them and the role they play. One of the tendencies we have to struggle with very strongly is the line that anything a socialist state does to maintain itself and defend itself is justified because it’s a socialist state, even if the content of it is against the socialist revolution and the advance toward communism internationally. This is the kind of thinking that has been handed down to us from the international communist movement. The same thing applies to parties. Whatever a party does is not good or justified just because it’s a communist party and you need a communist party, a vanguard.

Precisely this leads us back to the question of quality and what a party’s line is and whether or not it is able to steel and temper itself through all the periods of ebb and flow, through the periods of both revolutionary depression and tremendous upheaval and revolutionary advance. There’s nothing magical or metaphysical that says just because a party is formed and plays a good role for some amount of time, that party therefore has a right to exist in perpetuity, no matter what it does after that – as if it somehow ought to be upheld and defended regardless of the content of what it does. There has to be tremendous struggle over the content of what its line is and therefore what it does, the role it plays.

The Chinese party remained on the revolutionary road for over 50 years and it continued to advance, because you can’t remain on a revolutionary road unless you do continue to advance, and it did lead the struggle of the international proletariat to its highest pinnacle so far. But precisely that stands out very sharply in contradiction to the general trend. Almost all the parties which were members of the Third International (and now the Chinese party itself as well) degenerated into revisionism. So it’s not an absolute law, and there’s not some kind of time barrier you pass after which you are bound to go into revisionism. But on the other hand there is a lesson to be drawn out. The important thing is that the party must actually be a revolutionary vanguard. And furthermore, that revolutionary vanguard is going to tend to ebb and flow and the overall development of things in the world is going to influence the conditions in which any party is working, which obviously will have an impact on the party itself – both its size and even its line. Of course, this has to be understood as a very sharply contradictory thing, a dialectical process, because the objective conditions in the world also include the revolutionary struggles in the world as a whole, which in turn are obviously influenced by the subjective forces – and not just in each country taken separately but by the overall effect of what they do. So it is very sharply contradictory.

I’m trying here to sharply combat this metaphysical notion that the party should somehow grow from smaller to bigger in a straight line. This is wrong even if you make a “dialectical adjustment” of your straight line concept in the sense that you allow for ebbs and flows, twists and turns and spiral development, but you still say that from Point A to Point B in time, over any ten-year period, the party should as a matter of principle grow if it is on the right road. No, the party should not only maintain but deepen its revolutionary line and its revolutionary practice (and this again shows how quality is principal over quantity). But that development is going to be reflected differently in different periods. In some periods it may be, like Lenin said, upholding the revolutionary banner and maintaining revolutionary principle in periods of acute revolutionary depression.

However, with that understanding the party should seek to grow as much as it can, to develop its quantitative aspect as much as conditions allow on the basis of putting quality first. And particularly in periods when there are the beginnings of social ferment, of upsurge, when the conditions are beginning to ripen and that’s beginning to find expression politically in the society and in the world, the party should seize every opportunity to expand, develop and grow quantitatively, to enlarge its membership in dialectical relationship with the qualitative aspect in the way we have been talking about it, and with that qualitative aspect being the principle aspect, the one that overall is playing the decisive and determining role in this back and forth between quantity and quality.

We can go back to those examples I gave earlier of the CP’s recruiting methods, which are a sharp expression of its opportunism overall. Of course you can build a bourgeois party big quantitatively without it having a Marxist-Leninist line, because the Democratic Party has a much bigger membership than the CP, and certainly than our party does. (That much we’ll tell the FBI: the Democratic Party has a bigger membership than our party.) That is an example where quality is also determining quantity in a different way; there is a bourgeois line that’s reflected in a bourgeois kind of way of getting membership and a bourgeois way of building that organization. But a qualitatively different kind of quality – that is, a qualitatively different kind of line, a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist line – requires that you build a party in a qualitatively different way. And in that context you cannot over a long period of time quantitatively build up your party and membership as .a Marxist-Leninist party without putting the question of the line in first place. If you don’t continually train the members of the party itself, and also those advanced forces who are drawn toward and brought into the party, in the theory and application of that line, if the party as a whole is not constantly deepening its grasp and application of a Marxist-Leninist line in dialectical relationship with the development of the world situation and of the objective factor in an overall sense, then over a period of time that’s going to also be reflected quantitatively. It’s going to be reflected in the fact that you’ll lose membership and not only, at least, as a result of what may be an unfavorable objective situation, but also because of the situation in the subjective factor. That is, your line will eventually cause you to lose membership much more so than even a temporary ebb or a temporary setback in the overall movement will cause you to lose it. And a wrong line will also cause you to fail to gain membership, or perhaps even to lose membership, when the objective conditions are becoming more favorable and when you could gain a lot more membership if guided by a correct line. So that’s one aspect of this quality and quantity thing.