Mary Scully

The Importance of Ideas in Party Building

Written: 1991. Delivered during the 1991 internal debate over the proposal that the Fourth International Tendency fuse with Solidarity
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters

The extremely significant developments in world politics over the past few years require revolutionists to think out how to creatively develop and apply our program. Chief among these new social and political realities, of course, are the imperialist slaughter in the Mideast, the deepening world economic crisis, the decomposition of Stalinism, and the disintegration and ideological retreat of the radical movement, not just in the U.S. but around the world.

The Struggle For A Proletarian Party

The central problem highlighted by these developments remains the crisis of leadership of the working class. It’s a problem as old as the workers movement and the question we are debating today is how this problem is to be approached. This great-unsolved problem of humanity is what we in the FIT have undertaken to tackle because nothing less than the fate of humanity hinges upon its solution. On that we all agree.

Despite the incredulity and derision of others, the FIT continues its stubborn fight to build a party capable of leading a socialist revolution in the U.S. because we are convinced that socialist revolution is not just necessary but it is a realistic proposition in this country.

Without being awestruck or cowed we should acknowledge the great power and strength of American imperialism, which is armed to the teeth against revolution. But we must also examine its weaknesses, especially the world economic crisis and the growing discontent within the working class. To paraphrase Trotsky: ‘The victories of imperialism are important but the death agony of capitalism is more important.’

Although the American working class has not yet taken the road of independent political action we know from its history that this weakness can be quickly overcome, that it has in the past cleared great political distances with great rapidity. The relative quiescence of the class in the past four decades is not a permanent characteristic. As Cannon once remarked: ‘American workers don’t move when impatient revolutionists call them. But they do move when they’re ready—and then they move massively.’ We see those prospects, we foresee the development of class collisions and we are trying to forge a party that can measure up to its tasks.

The regroupment conception of those for whom I speak on the NOC proceeds from these considerations. It is based on building a strong party that can lead the American socialist revolution, i.e., a party that recognizes the revolutionary capacity of the American working class, that is rooted in the class, and that is proletarian in program and composition.

It is impossible to stumble into a successful revolution in the U.S.—it will have to be organized and directed by a party that “has at its command all the theory, knowledge, resources, and lessons accumulated by the world working class. Its know-how and organization in politics and action must match and surpass that of its enemies.”

Two Methods And Two Conceptions Of The “Party

Underlying our different approaches to regroupment are: (1) opposing conceptions of the nature, role, and potentialities of the party we are trying to build; (2) opposing conceptions of revolutionary internationalism; and (3) opposing conceptions of the methods used to build a party. I think these differences are determined by how we see our relationship to the working class. We insist that the exigencies of socialist revolution determine our party-building strategy, not the diplomatic expediencies of the moment.

Internationalism And Party Building

In order to determine the political character of a group it is of decisive importance to examine its international policy and that is where I will begin.

Outside of a series of ex cathedra assertions that we have agreement “in principle” with Solidarity and SA, the FIT shares little correspondence in practice with either group—at least on important matters—and only episodic collaboration—usually on secondary matters. Our connection is primarily formal—-i.e., our ties to the Fl. (I should mention, in point of fact, that we actually do not share such a tie with the whole of Solidarity, but only with the FIC, although the pro-fusion tendency prefers to ignore this important fact in the debate.) This is the justification given for the fusion policy. It is only the ostensible reason. Connection to the FI is not a transcendental doctrine. There are no inalienable or immutable rights involved here. We have not all received some eternal benediction from the holy ghosts of Marx, et al. This is metaphysical and theological thinking entirely foreign to the great founders of our international movement. Those founders were not afraid to be decisive when it came to the interests of the world working class. That’s why there are four internationals.

The same comrades who treat FI membership as sacrosanct to justify fusion negotiations are then willing to subordinate building the FI to the expediencies of fusion with Solidarity. When Paul and Steve met with the FIC in September what did the comrade say about the FI? She conceded—and here she goes a step beyond Solidarity as a whole—that the FI ‘might have some symbolic importance’. The Shachtmanite wing of Solidarity is giving the same answer they have always given to the FI: utter indifference. Thus a fusion with Solidarity would reduce FI membership to a formalism involving primarily diplomatic and scholarly exchanges.

There’s a conflict here comrades between the metaphysical concept of FI membership used to justify this fusion and the cavalier willingness to jettison or at least shelve it in order to join Solidarity. I think we have to take this contradiction very seriously; I think we have to see it as a challenge to the very concept of proletarian internationalism and we need to review and reaffirm the reasons why although the FI is not a transcendental question it is certainly an imperative one.

Proletarian Internationalism

Beginning with the Communist Manifesto with its call that “workers of the world unite”, to the abandonment of the 2nd International because of its betrayal of internationalism in World War 1, to Trotsky’s fight against the Stalinist corruption of the 3rd International with its theories of “socialism in one country” and “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism, the Marxist movement has given powerful demonstration that internationalism is an essential characteristic of our movement. It is not a sentimental or ceremonial notion but a fundamental concept with deep objective roots. Imperialism, with its world economy and with its world politics (involving wars of massive destruction, fascist barbarism, and counterrevolutionary policies) dictates that the class struggle is international in character—and so is the fight to create a socialist society.

The imperialists understand this. They have international collaboration in many forms, including the UN (their FI), frequent summits (their world congresses), and the IMF (their control commission).

Revolutionary internationalism does not just mean speaking foreign tongues or being experts on the political life of other countries. Anyone the least bit familiar with the labor movement in this country knows that the imperialists with the help of their lieutenants in the AFL-CIO leadership blame everything from war to inflation to unemployment on competition between American workers and those in other countries. This garbage is a problem for our class and must be opposed and overcome if the working class is to move forward.

That’s why our internationalism is not just symbolic or platonic either theoretically or practically. The FI is not a purely formal institution to which we have loose ties, nor is it just a society for the advancement of lengthy treatises on world events. It is a militant organization of the world working class and its purpose is to create revolutionary mass parties and through coordination and collaboration develop a common theoretical program for action. It is intended to be a real political force not a diplomatic arena. If we can’t see eye-to-eye with Solidarity on this question we can’t see eye-to-eye on fusion.

Methods To Build A Party

Throughout this fusion discussion the NOC majority have repeatedly asserted that there are no differences “in principle” to prevent a fusion with SA and Solidarity. Our differences they maintain are “only tactical”. I don’t know where this algebraic formulation came from but I think we should get rid of it because it’s an abstraction, it means nothing. We do have differences with these comrades, serious differences over theory, organization, strategy and tactics. I challenge the comrades to complete the algebraic dilemma here and come up with the unknown: I challenge them to state clearly and decisively at least once what our agreements “in principle” are and what our differences in tactic are, because fusion discussions begin with political discussion.

Instead the NOC majority who make a fetish of unity employ a method chiefly organizational and mechanical, one might say, almost mathematical. It’s based on the notion that you’re stronger if you have more numbers regardless of the differences between you. In their minds it’s a body count that elevates us from sect status to respectability as a party. That’s why all the talk is about parity commissions and not about politics.

When a majority of the working class is required to make a socialist revolution, size is obviously not a trivial concern. Indeed it is a serious weakness to be overcome. Our aim is to become a mass revolutionary party. But neither is being an isolated, small group proof of sectarianism. Reorganizing the scattered revolutionary forces is necessary but it is not sufficient therefore to gather a crowd and call it a party. The solution is not to appear a little stronger but to become much stronger.

You know comrades this movement has never been big—-not in comparison to the CP nor to the size of the class, nor to the magnitude of its tasks. At the SWP’s high point, after the expulsion from the SP in 1938, its members were a little over 1500. The class battles of the 1930s were epic and massive and our comrades made history leading them—notably in Minneapolis, but in other cities too. They numbered 500 and 700. The CP was considerably larger, numbering in the thousands and that reality not only made our own growth difficult but it affected the course of the class struggle. Cannon has more than once analyzed the historical and political reasons for the small size and it’s important for us to study the question. Numerical growth cannot be isolated from developments in the class struggle, which create conditions for growth, from class-consciousness, or from political developments like Stalinism, which are obstacles to growth. The revolutionary movement has been particularly inventive and flexible in its attempts to overcome isolation and gain a foothold in the class. The world movement has employed various tactics including fusions, entry, and open public factions. The movement was guided not by formalistic considerations but by Marxist criteria. Not how can we get the most number of people in a group but how can we win the most number of revolutionary workers to a Marxist program. When the CLA fused with Muste’s AWP in 1935 it was on the basis of a minimum political program. That doesn’t mean the comrades dumped all or part of their program. They saw that Muste’s group had large numbers of active, revolutionary minded workers and they wanted to reach them with our program—our complete program. The fusion was not a programmatic capitulation. No one-can seriously argue that possibilities such as those offered by Muste’s group await us in Solidarity or SA at this time. We are not talking here about cadres only recently taking shape but about old veterans. There are no young or proletarian cadres willing to listen to our ideas let alone able to develop and yield to the influence of our program. Any numerical advantage gained would be more than negated by the conflicts sure to erupt in this ragtag and bobtail coalition of warring Marxists held captive, inassimilable centrists and inveterate sectarians.

On this score we should be clear: it is our program that we want to make decisive. Since the disintegration of the SWP many have become cynical or skittish and shy about asserting that our program is the historic program of Marxism. As Marilyn has documented in BIDOM, that uncertainty prevails also in the Soviet movement. We don’t have all the answers comrades but we should not be hesitant on this score. We should be able to distinguish Marxism from centrism from sectarianism.

I must confess that I am astonished that we are discussing here not a critical assessment of the failure of our fusion negotiations and their cessation but rather an extension of this erroneous policy. Only a belief in the quick-fix of numbers or a belief in miracles can explain this fusion-mania where we continue pursuing fusion with two organizations with programs contradicting our own and antipathetic to each other. The apolitical content of this unity process more than explains—indeed it necessitatesÂ-the methods employed: its maneuverist character, its pell-mell speed, diplomatic equivocations, and ambiguities.

We want unity but we want one that is enduring and won’t be blasted apart by the first onslaught of momentous events. In the wake of great social convulsions, which are surely on the horizon, the only organizations able to survive and develop will be those rid of the disease of sectarianism and rid of the spirit of opportunism and theoretical vacillation.

Conservatism and pessimism are the mood behind this numerical approach to party building. What is at the bottom of this method is the lurking fear that we’ll miss the boat, that we won’t be able to rebuild the movement in time before the great class battles begin and we are left behind. Only numbers can save us. This is a panicky stratagem. Fusions on such a basis will not last a year. The class struggle is cruel and unforgiving of such fundamental mistakes.

The Nature Of The Party Is Its Relationship To The Working Class

Solidarity has never made any bones of the fact that they want an all-inclusive socialist movement and want no part of Leninism. Steve is expressing the same conception euphemistically when he refers to Solidarity as a “broader Marxist current”. In so doing he not only moves from a Leninist and revolutionary concept to a social democratic organizational structure, but he simultaneously changes our historical assessment of the Shachtmanite current from petty-bourgeois revisionist to revolutionary Marxist.

Much has been written by the revolutionary movement comparing the Leninist concept (a homogeneous—not monolithic-combat party governed by democratic centralism) to the social democratic concept, which Trotsky described as a “federation of factions” or “coalition of divergent groups”. It raises the question once again of why, if they’re so broad and all-inclusive, we would have to abandon our ideas to join, especially at a time when they are being confirmed so dramatically in life.

Trotskyism has a proud record beginning with its opposition to the degeneration of Stalinism and the odious concepts of “socialism in one country” and peaceful coexistence”. Solidarity’s spiritual ancestry is in the 2nd International of Kautsky and Bernstein; their origins are as a rationalization, an accommodation to imperialism in World War 11. Why should we retreat from our theoretical positions at a time when they are more vital than ever? Why not instead challenge Solidarity to reevaluate and repudiate their elaborate justification for imperialism and betrayal of internationalism? Why exchange the proletarian internationalism of Marxism and the FI for the platonic internationalism of revisionism and solidarity?

This is a tough thing to say but why mince words: theoretically we have nothing to learn from Solidarity. In our over 50-year separation from the Shachtmanites the Trotskyist tradition has made important theoretical contributions to Marxism (on Black nationalism, Cuba, China to cite just a few). Our comrades didn’t just sit down and think up bright ideas in order to razzle-dazzle the population. Those theoretical advances were necessitated by the class struggle, were a programmatic response to problems posed by new developments.

What is the program of Solidarity? In those 50 years how have they developed and applied Marxism? To quote almost verbatim, not caricature, one of Solidarity’s national leaders and a member of the FIC who was trying to persuade me to join Solidarity: “We have no line positions. You can’t be homophobic# have to be for women’s rights, against war, and oh, you can’t join the Democratic Party. There’s also local autonomy so each branch can do what it wants.” He added that the FIC only means annual dues notices and periodic caucus meetings. That’s it! It is certain that such a program is absolutely incapable of leading the working class in the difficult task of socialist revolution precisely because it isn’t intended for that goal. Most non-revolutionary workers have a more profound appreciation of the complexities of social reality and the difficulties of social transformation. Randy’s report on the Solidarity youth conference confirmed the same story. He said a comrade leading a workshop “celebrated” their lack of program and indicated that Marxism is only one of many tools. How ecumenical! How holistic! And how dead wrong! When you’re talking about socialist revolution and the role of the working class you’re talking about Marxism—not vegetarianism, not Gandhiism, not Lutheranism. We are not ecumenical on this score.

Can anyone seriously propose that we replace the rich heritage of Marxism—beginning with the Communist Manifesto and including the theory of permanent revolution, the law of uneven and combined development, our analysis of Stalinism, the Transitional Program (to name only a small part of our program—all of which we have found essential to our participation in the class struggle)--with this ideological tripe? A Marxist program has to express the objective tasks of the working class and not the theoretical bankruptcy of the radical movement.

You know comrades things are always harder to do than they look, whether it’s manufacturing something or making a revolution. That’s the striking observation of a toolmaker on my job. He points out how management always tells us that any monkey could do our jobs. But when we come back from a strike (during which management did our jobs) we find all the tools busted, the machines malfunctioning, the parts made backwards, and assembled upside down.

Most of us have been involved in the movement for a long time.

We know how complex the problems are, how difficult it is to overcome obstacles and bridge the gap between the needs of the class and its consciousness. Is it truly possible that Solidarity has been trying to forge a revolutionary movement for over 50 years and have not yet discovered that their program is worthless?

Trotsky, Lenin, Luxembourg, Cannon and others have conclusively explained this mystery. For revisionists socialism is a moral ideal, a remote aspiration and thus they see no need for the kind of party that can lead a socialist revolution. They do not share our confidence in the revolutionary capacity of the working class. As Luxembourg put it: ‘they haven’t chosen a different road to the same goal. They’ve chosen a different goal.’ That comrades is the heart of the organizational, programmatic, and methodological differences we have with Solidarity. There is no getting around it.

Polar opposite to the elasticity of Solidarity, who want an all-inclusive socialist movement (excluding the revolutionists, of course), there is the rigidity of SA, who want their own little labor movement. Once again there is an organic connection between program, organization, and practice.

Because of the limited field of the workers movement at this time we might think that sectarianism is simply competition between radical groups for members and influence but it is more fundamentally the nature of a political relationship to the working class—a relationship that counterposes that competition to the needs of the workers movement as a whole. Marxists have never had a soft spot for this method which they consider a disease.

Sectarianism is a whole series of relationships: it involves the relationship of the dialectic to the formulation of program;

the relationship between theory and practice; the relationship between the leadership and the ranks; how they forge links and collaborate with other groups in the workers movement; but primarily it is their attitude to the working class, which they see as a passive mass to be propagandized, manipulated, and scolded.

The NOC majority claim we have no programmatic differences with SA but on the theoretical level sectarianism is dogmatism and dogmatism is the antithesis of dialectics. Instead of applying Marxist methods to the real movement, as it is, they substitute patent formula, doctrinaire prescriptions and show themselves unable to bridge the gap between theory and practice. That’s not a tactical dislocation; it’s a programmatic one.

Program is not a body of doctrine to which we pledge allegiance.

It has nothing in common with the Bible or the U.S. Constitution, which reportedly contain all the answers to all of life’s problems. It is not a theoretical scheme or rules and regulations that we invented for how to act in the class struggle. The Marxist teachers have spelled it out a million times: program embodies the dialectic which is a method, a theory of development, of evolution, a theory of the class struggle and of the revolutionary role of the working class~ Political life is not a collection of dead facts and Marxism is not a series of stale platitudes and dogmas to apply to them.

The transformation of class-consciousness and the problems posed by the class struggle need to be assessed at every stage of development, using Marxism as a method and not as a static body of doctrine or a catechism.

SA’s monolithic and lifeless organizational form is the logic of their program. They have discarded not just the dialectical method but democratic centralism. If you already have all the answers, if you’ve nothing to learn you don’t require the give and take of democratic debate. Obedience training is sufficient.

We have observed however that this undemocratic internal regime, combined with their numerical approach to party building has fully taken its revenge on them and has weakened the revolutionary movement. Their dogmatism has never interfered with their opportunism in recruiting those with fundamental political disagreements but it has made their recruitment policy something of a revolving door.

Where has it gotten them? More importantly, how has it built the socialist movement? They’ve lost half their membership and demoralized the rest. This fratricidal process leading to centrifugal spin-offs in the form of splits and expulsions is destructive and injurious to the socialist movement. In no way can it strengthen and build the movement.

The Socialist movement does not just use fusions and entry tactics to grow. Of decisive importance are the transitional method, the united front tactic, and the mass action strategy. These are the methods of class struggle, the methods whereby we intervene and join with other groups to unite the class to defend its own interests and to effect a change in the power relations between the classes to the advantage of the working class. Small groups armed with these methods can transform social reality, can set masses in action. That’s how small groups can change society; it is also how small groups grow.

It is precisely these methods that sectarians are unable to employ. They are not willing to forge unity in the class on the basis of what we have in common but are determined to split it to promote their own schemes. Putting their own narrow concerns over the greater needs of the class is not a trifling matter. What it means in practice is abandoning the movement to reformist leadership. That was made crystal clear by SA’s conduct during the Gulf War. Sectarianism has played an extremely important role in the American radical movement throughout its history and has had a powerful impact on the American labor movement. It should be studied in order to be understood and decisively rejected.

Comrades, it is not just formalistic or small-minded considerations—like being outvoted—that put us in opposition to fusing with SA at this time, even if such an unlikely fusion could be maintained. Rather we foresee’ the development of class battles, big collisions and this theoretical retrogression willá handicap us in responding effectively and prevent us from growing. As Trotsky said, our cadre need to be raised to the level of those tasks, they need to be schooled and adept in applying those methods.


In the regroupment process, as in all our work, Marxists start from the needs of the working class and proceed from there. To repeat: “Our task is to rebuild a party that can lead the American socialist revolution, i.e., a party that recognizes the ~evolutionary capacity of the American working class, that is rooted in the class, and that is proletarian in program and composition.”

To the question “how can we rebuild the revolutionary party?” we need respond, “Where are the class conscious workers?” By creatively applying the program of Marxism to the problems of the class struggle today and by employing the Transitional Program, the united front tactic, and a mass action strategy we can begin to attract these workers to our banner.

Mary Scully

August 7, 1981