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Party Norms and Appeals

by Frank Lovell

[The following edited text of remarks in the discussion on party norms at the February-March 1982 plenum was taped and transcribed unedited by the Barnes faction for National Committee members only.]

First Round

Comrades, in anticipation of this discussion we, the minority, submitted a resolution on democratic centralism and the building of the revolutionary combat party in the United States. That’s in your kits, and I hope you’ve had an opportunity to read it. I don’t intend to refer to it here or try to explain the details of it.

I’m here now as an advocate of proletarian democracy. I strongly believe that what the radical movement in this country needs is a broad and open discussion of all the problems facing the American working class, and I am convinced that that discussion must begin right here in our own party. This is not just to get the record straight at the moment. I’ve been convinced of this for a long time. But I want to tell you now exactly where I’m coming from. I am a socialist to the marrow of my bones, and on that account I am an uncompromising democrat. For that reason I have been proud for the last forty-seven years to belong to this party, through which I learned to hate and despise any and all manifestations of bureaucratic controls, and especially thought controls.

In our resolution that I referred to, “Democratic Centralism and the Building of a Revolutionary Combat Party,” we tried to describe as succinctly as we could the relation between the democratic and the centralist aspects of Lenin’s democratic centralist concept of party organization. This relationship is not constant. It’s variable, and you can’t make it constant simply by proclaiming it as such from this podium or anywhere else. It varies depending upon the stage and intensity of the class struggle, the degree of legality, the level of political consciousness of the working class, the size and class composition of the party, the experience of the cadre, the weight and class character of social pressures bearing down on the party and influencing its development, the various political currents that find expression inside the party, the general level of Marxist education of the party membership, and the major tasks of the party as dictated by the objective social and political conditions at any given juncture. Social and political conditions of this kind have to be understood and measured; they can’t be telescoped in the form of a formula such as “This is a transition epoch,” which was presented here. That doesn’t mean anything without a description and analysis and a careful study of what this transitional epoch consists of.

Needless to say, in times of civil war or under conditions of illegality, we must have a highly centralized structure in order to survive. But these are not the conditions now in the United States in 1982. We must avoid schematic and purely administrative approaches, if possible, to a solution of our current problems. And if we’re going to avoid that, then we have to handle them in a healthy and productive way. The starting point must be the real needs of the party. The present period is one of profound and rapid change, profound change in economics, in politics, in consciousness, national and international relations, profound changes in everything. In such circumstances, the party’s compelling need is to understand the changes taking place and about to take place. Otherwise we cannot influence the outcome of these changes or take advantage of them. And the only way to acquire the necessary understanding is through collective effort, a crucial part of which is discussion.

This means that the democratic side of democratic centralism is needed more than in any ordinary period when change is slower. The supreme example of this is the period of revolution, when change is most rapid, and old habits are reversed, and when all previous concepts of how change will occur are tested. We saw this in 1917 in the Bolshevik revolution, and in all others.

For our purposes, the Bolshevik revolution remains the best example because it is the best documented. In 1917 in Petrograd there was no lack of debate. Questions of all kinds about the revolution were discussed throughout the party, in the leadership and by the membership. This accounts for the variety and richness of the debate, and this contributed to the programmatic understanding and tactical versatility of Lenin and Trotsky from the time of their return to Russia until the victory of the revolution in October.

If that was possible and beneficial in the crucial period between the February and October revolutions, it ought to be useful in our party today. This is the question Steve Bloom spoke about yesterday, the need to open the debate on one of the most crucial questions confronting our party, the Leninist theory of the state, Lenin’s conception of the Russian Revolution. We believe this begins with the discussion on Leninism which was opened in our public press, not simply to members of the party but to the public, in the International Socialist Review last November with the article on how Lenin saw the revolution, the article by Doug Jenness. I submitted a proposal for a well-regulated literary discussion at our last plenum. Les Evans, who was present at the plenum, subsequently wrote a carefully researched answer to the Jenness article, and submitted it for publication to the ISR. If this created confusion and has a negative effect on the kind of political discussion the party needs to build a self-reliant membership, if it creates consternation, restiveness, or cynicism in the party, then the blame belongs to the majority tendency, not to us. It’s the majority tendency that restricts discussion, will not publish answers to the article that was published in the ISR in which the whole public readership of our organization received a basic change in our programmatic position.

The real interests and needs of the party dictate that you, the majority leadership, should recognize the error that was made at the last plenum and correct it now. If you fail to do this, you will do grave damage to the Leninist character of the party and to its ability to fulfill the great mission that it was organized for.

We don’t need debates now about norms. What we need is a political discussion about the basic programmatic positions of the party that you have changed without a discussion. We have been asked and undoubtedly will be asked again if the Fourth Internationalist Caucus in the National Committee accepts or recognizes the organizational principles adopted by the 1965 convention. The answer to this is yes, of course we do. I voted for those principles in 1965. And I could vote for them again today. But I don’t interpret them, I didn’t then and I don’t now interpret them in the way that you do, that you have been doing, and that you’re extending here at this plenum. The 1965 principles do not at all support interpretations that would hobble the right of the members to engage freely in political discussion, a right that has meaning only if the members can communicate their ideas to each other both orally and in written form. I’ve been doing that for forty-seven years in this party, and I don’t take kindly to interpretations that would strip me of my right to express my opinion to my comrades.

There is nothing in the 1965 principles abrogating the right of members to consult in the preparation of documents to be submitted to the party. There is nothing in the 1965 principles giving the party leadership the right to tell the members of any ideological tendency who they are, or what they must call themselves, or what ideas they must subscribe to within the basic tenets of this party. There is nothing in the 1965 principles that authorizes the leadership to take the restrictions we have developed against so-called disloyal factions and apply them to loyal comrades who belong to an organized tendency or who may not belong to any organized tendency and may be part of only an unstructured, undisciplined ideological current on one or another issue. There is nothing in the 1965 principles to prevent tendencies from existing in non-preconvention discussion periods. It is customary and therefore normal for tendencies to dissolve after conventions. But that is not obligatory, and there is nothing in the principles to prevent comrades from forming tendencies, either purely ideological tendencies or organized and disciplined tendencies, in non-discussion periods. Nothing in the principles supports the statement of Jack Barnes at the last convention that there is no activity—nothing whatsoever —that an organized ideological tendency can engage in during a period when the party has not opened discussion. A tendency can be active in non-discussion periods in a number of ways, just as long as it doesn’t disrupt the work of the party.

Some comrades read the 1965 principles wrongly. In part, this document outlines the norms of party functioning and tendency functioning. And, in part, it engages in education against wrong or questionable conduct. These two parts and functions of the document should not be mixed up. It denounces and explains the dangers of a particular kind of tendency, cliques and cliquism. But no one has ever been expelled from our party for cliquism, although there is evidence of it on several levels in this party today. That’s because cliquism is fought by political and educational methods rather than by administrative or disciplinary measures. This confusion over what the document actually does is responsible for some of the weird interpretations recently, such as prohibitions against comrades consulting about documents to be submitted to the party bulletin. And as Comrade Le Blanc said in one of the letters that’s in your kits, “There are norms and there are norms.” It is a norm for members to pay dues, and they can be expelled if they do not pay dues. It is also a norm for members to pay suitable sustainer pledges, but members don’t get expelled if they don’t pay what you or I might regard as suitable. So norms are not all of a similar weight or gravity.

In the face of the facts, the majority tendency has the votes to declare that two distinct tendencies are a single tendency. They did that. Just as the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Galileo’s time had the votes in the council of cardinals to declare that the earth does not move around the sun. But it still moves, despite the votes. During this plenum, there is evidence that you have begun to see the light. I’m not talking about most of the delegates here. There is evidence of that in a different respect. But there is evidence that the majority, the leaders of the majority tendency, have begun to see some light, at least partially, if dimly. They have stopped talking about the minority, and they now recognize that there are two distinct and separate minority tendencies. And that’s progress on your part. The majority tendency has the votes to declare that there is an undeclared international faction. And that we are part of it. This is an abomination, against the truth, but the truth will prevail in the end, and this will be seen as an effort to poison the international political discussion through organizational accusations and amalgams having absolutely no basis in fact. We contend that there is nothing in the 1965 principles to bar us from consulting with other comrades in the Socialist Workers Party or in the International, especially since we do it openly in front of both and not behind their backs.

Comrade Farrell Dobbs’s 1970 talks about our organizational principles single out for praise an ideological tendency in the party after World War II. Included in that tendency were Joe Hansen, Tom Kerry, and Bert Cochran, among others. Because, as Comrade Dobbs says, “...what the comrades did was to collaborate in discussing their views among themselves. Through a process of collective thinking they arrived at a generally accepted concept among themselves, as to what the party line should be....” That’s what they did. That was their great crime, according to present-day norms. They were discussing the problem facing the party at that time on Eastern Europe, before raising their views orally and in writing. In other words, they consulted with each other and even agreed on a course of action, secretly, behind the back of the party, according to these norms that you’re trying to apply here today, and I presume you will vote for them. No one at that time even thought there was anything wrong in such consultation, or that they had to get permission to do it. And five years after the adoption of the 1965 principles, Comrade Dobbs, one of the authors of that document, likewise saw nothing wrong in such consultation. In fact, he said it was a model way of preparing and conducting a discussion. But what would happen today in such a situation under these new norms that are being introduced now? Would it involve, in such circumstances of consultation among comrades, their being accused at least of undeclared factionalism?

Another member of the committee that introduced the 1965 organizational document was Comrade Cannon. I want to cite here a few sentences from a letter he wrote in 1966, one year after the 1965 organizational principles were adopted. I’ll submit the entire Cannon letter if the committee doesn’t have it already in its collection. You can get it here. And I’d like it to be made part of the record.

At that time, 1966, Comrade Arne Swabeck, one of the founders of our movement, was under the sway of Maoism, and he was agitating for all of us to become Maoists. He and some of his co-thinkers circulated documents containing their views throughout the party. Larry Trainor, who was then organizer up in Boston, complained to the national office that this was a violation of National Committee membership discipline; and the PC put the question of discipline on the agenda of that plenum. Those are the circumstances in which Cannon was writing then.

His letter was addressed to the majority caucus. Here’s some of what he said: “in light of our tradition and experience over a period of more than thirty-seven years since the Left Opposition in this country began its work under the guidance of Trotsky, one might well include the first ten years of American communism before that, from which I, at least, learned and remember a lot from doing things the wrong way” (which he thought the letter that had been sent out by the national office was approaching). He says, “Probably the hardest lesson I had to learn from Trotsky, after ten years of bad schooling through the Communist Party faction fights, was to let organizational questions wait until the political questions at issue were fully clarified, not only in the National Committee but also in the ranks of the party. It is no exaggeration, but the full and final truth, that our party owes its very existence today to the fact that some of us learned this hard lesson and learned also how to apply it in practice.”

The reason I read this here aloud is not only for the benefit of all the delegates but especially for the benefit of the central leadership of the party. I know you’re not unfamiliar with this document because I gave it to the comrade who was on the desk in the national office at the time that we were having some trials two or three years ago, some of which seemed to me to have aspects of a frame-up about them. I thought this would be a good guide. I protested at the time about the way these trials were being conducted.

Cannon continues, “As for disciplinary action [which they were contemplating] suggested in Larry’s letter, and at least intimated in the action of the Political Committee in putting this matter on the agenda of the plenum, I don’t even think we have much of a case in the present instance. Are we going to discipline two members of the National Committee for circulating their criticisms outside the committee itself? There is absolutely no party law or precedent for such action.” This was after this [1965] document on principles was written and adopted. “And we will run into all kinds of trouble in the party ranks,” Cannon said, “and in the International, if we try this kind of experiment for the first time.” And at the end of his letter, Cannon wrote, “It would be too bad if the Socialist Workers Party suddenly decided to get tougher than the Communist Party [of the 1920s he’s talking about, not the Stalinist Communist Party] and try to enforce a nonexistent law—which can’t be enforced without creating all kinds of discontent and disruption, to say nothing of blurring the serious political disputes which have to be discussed and clarified for the education of the party ranks.” The National Committee of 1966 evidently agreed with Cannon and with his line of thinking, since the next plenum did not take any disciplinary action against Swabeck and Fraser for having circulated their documents outside the National Committee. The whole matter was dropped.

What will this plenum do? What this plenum will do depends upon the recommendations of the central leadership of this party. What will we do, on our part? I’ll tell you now, right now. We will abide by the new norms in every detail, including those that we consider to be in conflict with the historic traditions and practices of the Socialist Workers Party and of Leninism. After expressing our opinions about them, we have no alternative but to abide by them until we are able to persuade a later plenum or a convention to rescind them. I have been in the party for a long time, and I intend to remain in it until the end. I urge all other members opposed to the new interpretation not to become discouraged and drop out. These perversions, perversions of our principles, will surely be corrected by the revolutionary party sooner or later, and it is our obligation to help achieve such correction. Before that happens, we appeal once again to reason, to the reason of the majority tendency, and to the leadership of the majority tendency to reconsider before taking steps that will weaken the capacity of the members to learn and develop as worker Bolsheviks and make it harder to achieve our goal of becoming a full-fledged Leninist party.

We’re not discussing the right, we’re not discussing here at all the right of the majority to govern and lead the party, only the wisdom of these changes that you are about to make. Your self-interest coincides with the interest of the party as a whole, and both can be served by considering and deferring the imposition of these proposed norms. For my part, as an individual member of the National Committee, and of the Political Committee, if I’m elected here as was proposed yesterday, I will abide by the discipline in every detail. And I will serve loyally as I always have in every capacity to which I’m assigned. I’m sure that we’ll have an opportunity at a later date to discuss the substantive political differences that are involved.

Now, in concluding, I not only want to introduce the motion that I suggested at the outset, to support the resolution on democratic centralism that’s in your kits, but I’m also introducing the following three motions: One, to append to the minutes of this February-March plenum of the Socialist Workers Party the platform of the Fourth Internationalist Caucus, a political tendency in the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party, as submitted on December 23,1981. Two, to send copies to the branches of the Socialist Workers Party the platform of the Fourth Internationalist Caucus, a political tendency in the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party, as submitted to the National Committee on December 23,1981. Three, to send copies to all SWP branches of the resolutions and edited reports presented to this February-March 1982 plenum of the Socialist Workers Party on the following debated subjects: Iran, party tactics in the trade unions and U.S. politics, the Socialist Workers Party and the coming American revolution, democratic centralism.

One final word now about the voting. I do not agree with the motion that we should have a convention this year. If you decide to have a convention this year, it might work out all right, but I think it will work out better if we don’t. I think having made the decisions that will be made here, it’s better to allow some time, more than a few months intervening between now and August, allow some time for the events to take their course. There’s going to be some very great changes in the coming year. So that if we come to a convention in 1983 we’ll all see these questions in a very much different light than if we try to hold a convention this year.

Second Round

Let me tell you, comrades, what our purpose was. You know Steve [Bloom] and I formed this tendency, the Fourth Internationalist tendency, last December, and that’s not very long ago. The reason we formed it was because of the action of the previous plenum, which rejected a proposal that I had made to begin a serious discussion about one of our basic tenets, permanent revolution. That has very far-ranging ramifications, if you want to revise it. The suggested revision appeared in the article written by- Doug [Jenness]. It seemed to us that revision was the purpose, so we wanted to find out. That’s certainly a legitimate quest.

Our purpose then in forming an organized tendency in the National Committee was to pursue that quest and others, because there are a number of disputed political questions about which there is no specific position yet adopted, no resolution drafted and voted on. So when we approached this plenum, we said, well, we ought to undertake that task. It really is the responsibility of the majority tendency. The leadership should do this. We will undertake it. We’ll do the best we can. And we drafted a series of resolutions, one on Poland, one on Iran, one on the American political scene, and one on the organization question, because we were quite sure that one of the consequences of our quest for a clear political discussion on these fundamental questions would be a broad discussion on the organization question. So we wrote a resolution on that question, too.

Steve told me as we approached this plenum, it just looks like everything is going to have to be on the organization question. He said, look at this, and he took the documents that we had written, our resolutions, in one hand, and balanced them against what we had written about the organization question. What we were writing about the political questions far outweighed the other matter, but with the majority tendency, if you weighed their documents, they don’t have very much on the political side, but the organization side is very heavy, very heavy indeed.

For the brief period of time we’ve been in existence, I don’t know to what extent we’ve accomplished political clarity. But we must have been doing something. We were charged with all kinds of high crimes and misdemeanors here, that you have to be rather talented, I think, to accomplish all of this in such a brief period of time. Now we haven’t done such bad things as we’re charged with. It’s true, we pushed the norms. We did that deliberately. But we stayed within the norms; that was our purpose. We did not want to violate any of the basic tenets of the party. But we knew we would be charged with that. I’m thankful that we haven’t been charged with disloyalty, because we’re not disloyal. We want to function within this party.

We’re not impatient, either, as has been charged here. We are very patient. If you compare what we did preparing for this plenum, and the approaches we’ve made to the PC, it showed a very great degree of patience. The first thing we did was submit to the PC our statement, tendency statement, with the issues listed, and brief positions stated on them, what we thought.

Then we followed up with resolutions, on each of these fundamental. questions the party is facing. All we asked—first of all, we said, here, you send this out in the minutes. But it took about three or four weeks to get that in the minutes. Then we wrote a letter that said, you’ve been kind of slow in doing this, it seems. I don’t know why the PC would try to hold up this statement from members of the National Committee. It belongs to the National Committee.

Two members of the NC write a political statement. The PC is a subordinate body to the National Committee. So you would think, I think, I know there’s a difference of opinion about this, but I believe it is, it should be, automatic for the PC to send out a document of this kind. A very responsible document. If somebody suddenly went out of his or her mind, and put in something irrelevant, the committee could say, well, we don’t think this is really relevant to our needs at the present time. We won’t send it out, we’ll wait, and we’ll have further discussions about it. There was no dispute along these lines, and they did, eventually, send it out.

Then we said, well, it’s good that you sent it out. We propose now that you publish it for everybody in the party to read, in a party education bulletin, or in something else. We didn’t propose to open a discussion in the party. And it does not mean, as interpreted by the PC, that simply because you publish a document of this kind, that you thereby begin a big discussion in the party. Unless you want to organize such a discussion. If you do not want to organize such a discussion, on all the issues, then on some of the issues. That can be done. That’s the responsibility of the PC. We think you shirked your responsibility in this respect. Also, you have a responsibility for preparing this plenum, which you have done, not in the way that we would have done, or in the way that we believe it ought to have been done. We think you would have acted more responsibly if you had come to this plenum with your positions, written out, in resolution form, on all the basic questions that face the party. Not rely on some oral reports, later to be edited. That’s an innovation. We never did that before. Always, the central leadership of the party brought resolutions to the plenums and then to the membership.

Well, we didn’t accomplish that either. I could go on for quite a while, but I won’t take more than a few minutes, if you’ll give me that time. There are some specific questions that were raised.

I think probably I should go to some of those specific questions that have been raised now in this particular organization discussion. I thought in some respects this organization discussion was pretty good. Better than many that I have heard. One of the questions that was raised was, if you don’t favor a convention, then you apparently intend to continue your anarchistic or subversive or underhanded activity. We don’t intend anything of the sort.

We don’t think that a convention this year would be useful because we don’t think there is time to test the ideas that have been raised here. We don’t think that if a convention or a plenum adopts a position then that remains the position until there’s another gathering. On the contrary, you elect a PC here, and every member who’s sitting here now goes back to the branches and the thought process continues. Life goes on. We are all thinking people, and our thoughts are determined in part not simply by resolutions that we make here, or motions that we pass, or speeches we’ve heard. Our thought processes are determined by the weight of events upon us. Things are happening fast here. So that what is happening everywhere in the world is going to have something to do with what we think and do in this interim period between now and the next plenum, between now and the next convention, between now and the education conference. That is, this body is a thinking body, so it makes changes. Over time. Sometimes in a very brief period of time. There’s nothing wrong with that. It has to be. That’s the living reality of the party; that’s the life of the party.

We are pretty sure that what we have written leading up to this plenum will be vindicated by events. Not by any arguments we give you here. And what we’ve written will not be overthrown by any arguments you hear from the other side, either. We will see during the course of the next year. And during that period of time, we in the party, we in the minority in the party, will carry out the decisions of the majority. The majority has every right to make decisions. We don’t question that for one moment here. Did not, do not, will not. What we do question is the wisdom of this majority. We don’t think they do things very well, and we don’t think the party is going to prosper if it pursues the line that was advanced here by the central leadership of the party.

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