From New International, Vol.5 No.8, August 1939, pp.227-229.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Revolutionary Party as the Union of Theory and Practice – The Mystic Cult of Action and The Mystic Cult of Abstract Ideas – Three Stages of the Fourth International Movement In the United States – From Left Opposition of Communist Party to Independent Center of Advanced Militants – New Stage of Direct Intervention in Class Struggle Opened by Recent National Convention of Socialist Workers Party
WHEN ON THE EVE OF OCTOBER, Lenin broke off the manuscript of State and Revolution with the remark that it is more interesting to make a revolution than to write about one, it should also be remembered that he had spent a number of those world-shattering autumn weeks in the writing of this little masterpiece. Genuine revolutionists have been always distinguished by the union of theory and practice on which Marx insisted so often: ideas, words and programs are nothing if not translated into the actions of men; men’s actions are futile unless directed by clear ideas and an unyielding program. The concrete institution in which theory and practice, word and deed, program and men fuse is the revolutionary party.
What else but the all-importance of the party is the central lesson of our age? Every task is summed up, compressed in that of building the party. During the past twenty years there has been no lack of evils to provoke the masses to revolt, nor of rational arguments to prove the desirability of socialism; there is no deficiency in heroic workers and farmers, everywhere in the world, ready to fight to the end, no absence of revolutionary crises in which the structure of society has trembled to its deepest foundations. But, except in Russia, and in Russia for a few years only, there has not been the party; and without the party, neither crises nor heroism can ever be enough.
Andre Malraux, in his novels and his life, preaches a mystic cult of action, surgically cut from idea and program. For the sake of the healing balm of the act, which he discovers beneath the filth of Stalinism, he has denied the truth and the idea. But thereby he has been able only to make his own Stalin’s measureless betrayal; and, so significantly, he finds as artist that this mind-less action of his is resolved only in death – for even when he calls his book, Man’s Hope, the theme of all he writes is death. Malraux betrays grossly, through the act. But the betrayal through the word, less coarse, is not less dissimilar. Victor Serge, Charles Plisnier, Sidney Hook, Max Nomad, John Dos Passos, Max Eastman – these are now, they say, concerned only to tell the truth, only with the idea and the word. But the truth they think to tell, reversing Malraux, is cut from the act – from men, from the building of the party. Its controlling reference points are not the actions of men, but uplifted abstractions, moral categories: a mystic cult of abstractions, as Malraux’ is a mystic cult of action. Like Malraux, in the case of the artists among them (Serge, Plisnier, Dos Passos) their cult can achieve fulfillment only in death. And for both cults the implicit advice has got to be: bow down to things as they are.
The New International is a theoretical magazine, but we are interested in theory for the sake of building a party and a movement, just as our attitude toward all parties and movements is controlled by the theory to which we adhere. We are, we confess, in a day as late as this, growing more than a little impatient with political theorizing which is divorced from the building of the party. Does anyone who has thought seriously about Marxist politics still believe that socialism can be achieved without the proletarian revolution? that the revolution can be successful without the leadership of a firm, clear party? that if the revolution is much longer delayed, mankind can avoid an epoch of barbarism so devastating that even the shreds of civilization will perhaps not endure?
The party must be built. Upon this all else depends. That is why, in our eyes, the most important event of the last year was not Munich nor the invasion of Czechoslovakia, not the end of the New Deal nor even the fall of Barcelona, but the modest gathering, during the first week of July, of seventy-five delegates of the Socialist Workers Party, American section of the Fourth International, in their national convention.
THE MOVEMENT WHICH BEGAN as the Left Opposition of the Russian Bolshevik party has in this country, during its ten and a half years of existence, completed two major stages of development and entered the third and decisive stage. For the first five years, until 1933, it functioned here, as elsewhere, as an opposition faction of the Communist International. During this period it exhausted the possibilities of reform of the Comintern. This task, however, was by no means wholly negative and critical. To function as a principled opposition, it was necessary to understand the degeneration of the Comintern, to explain the meaning of the rise of Stalinism, to see exactly where the program and policies of the Comintern had gone wrong, and at all points to counter-pose the correct program and policy. Upon the experience of those years of the opposition, gained either at first-hand or through its living tradition, depends all real and adequate comprehension of the Russian revolution which, in turn, is the major source of revolutionary knowledge in our era. Nevertheless, the political life of an opposition faction is severely limited. It chief activities are analytic and programmatic. It is, and should properly be, a programmatic sect.
In 1933, with the victory of Hitler and the failure of the Communist International to draw any progressive conclusions whatever from its fatal errors – its failure even to acknowledge its share in the catastrophe, it became clear that fruitful development as an opposition faction was no longer possible. History had brought a chapter to its end; and the Left Opposition proclaimed the final political bankruptcy of the Comintern and the necessity for building the new revolutionary International, the Fourth International. In the United States, the movement entered its second stage. In this stage, the task was to assemble together, on the basis of the program which had been laid out in the first stage and was being completed in the second, the scattered militants from the existing parties and groups who were ready to break with the past and form the nucleus of the new mass party of the future. Through the fusion between the Communist League of America (successor to the Left Opposition of the Communist Party) and the American Workers Party, between the Workers Party resulting from this fusion and the left wing of the Socialist Party, and the adherence of individual militants from other parties and groups, including the Communist Party, this was, even if not as quickly and successfully as might be wished, accomplished. The Socialist Workers Party is the outcome of this second stage.
The transition from the first to the second stage was not carried through without difficulty. The weight of the past lies heavy on every organization, and to do the new task meant to overcome the habits, ideas and persons who were immovably in the way of life of an opposition faction. The whole second stage was marked by sharp, often bitter, battles with sectarianism. These were the unavoidable price of growth and change. At the same time, there was an illusion shared by many of us, half-shared perhaps by all, that this second stage, the stage of the assembling of the advanced militants, could simultaneously be the stage of beginning growth as a genuine mass party. As it turned out, this was not the case. The second stage had to be completed before the third stage could be properly begun.
AS WE LOOK BACK AT the convention of the Socialist Workers Party held a year and a half ago, we can now see clearly that it brought to an end the second stage, without at the same time definitively starting the third stage – the stage, namely, of transforming an enlarged propaganda group (the end product of the second stage, which began with an opposition faction) into a mass party through direct intervention in the mass movement. What was most encouraging, and crucial for the future, in last month’s convention, was that the delegates, with not a single exception, saw and faced the new task and the new problem.
That the Socialist Workers Party, in attitude and resolve at least, is ready to enter seriously the third stage, was proved by a number of features in the proceedings of the convention which distinguish it from all the preceding conventions of the last decade. In the first place, though there were many and sometimes heated conflicts, there was no important dispute over the basic structure of the general program of the Fourth International, whereas in virtually all previous conventions there had been such disputes. In this lack there was not the slightest trace of monolithism or conformism. The delegates were simply aware that our movement has completed, at least for the time being, the work of formulating the basic program which corresponds to the historical period now facing us, that the task is now to win others to that program, and to apply it to life. The basic program is the rich legacy of the first two stages.
But second, and for us even more striking: a large part of the convention’s time was given to questions of organization. Not only did this appear as a special item on the agenda, in addition to a lengthy discussion of the press, but whatever the item before the convention, much of the debate was occupied with the problem: how is our policy to be translated into life, how are we going to act in accordance with it, how will we win recruits on the basis of it. It may seem, no doubt, naive to stress so simple a phenomenon. But it was a revealing symptom for our movement. In it was suggested the firm knowledge that in the last analysis men make the revolution, that a program without the men willing to fight and die for it is not even worth arguing about. The delegates wanted a party that will find it more interesting to make a revolution than to write about it ...
Third, for the first time in these ten and a half years, the convention used an entire session to discuss, in both theoretical and practical aspects, the Negro question. That we have never done so in the past is simply one more indication that we have not been a genuine party; that we do so now is some justification for believing that we have begun to grow up. The workers of this country will not be victorious in their revolution unless they are heavily supported from the ranks of the 13,000,000 Negroes. These, the most terribly and infamously exploited of the populace, from whose treatment Hitler has learned what social tyranny means, have a key role in the days ahead. No party in this country could even pretend to be the party of the proletariat and of socialism which did not number in its ranks and among its closest friends an important percentage of Negroes. The change of the Communist party into an instrument of social-chauvinism and imperialism is shown quite plainly in its loss of tens of thousands of Negro members and hundreds of thousands of Negro supporters.
THE STAGES IN THE DEVELOPMENT of the revolutionary party do not follow merely from an idea that pops into someone’s head or from exclusively internal developments in the revolutionary movement itself. Rather are they the responses to great historical events, which demand a corresponding change in conscious politics. So it was with the foundation and dissolution of the First International, and the founding of the Second. It was the war of 1914 that demanded the break of the revolutionists from
the Second International, and the Bolshevik Revolution that called for the organizational formation of the Third. The final suppression, in 1927, of all revolutionary expression in the parties of the Third International (the result, first of all, of the failure of the post-War revolutions outside of Russia, and of the Chinese revolution), called for the founding of an opposition faction which could keep alive the revolutionary tradition and program. Hitler’s triumph demonstrated the end of the Comintern, from the point of view of the revolutionary movement, and demanded the proclamation of the Fourth International.
But history does not wait. We have now entered a time of a permanent, general, social crisis, expressed most acutely in the war crisis. This is what the convention of the Socialist Workers Party took as its point of departure; and from its estimate of the social crisis and the war – not from its own dreams or idle fancies – the required tasks followed. As in 1914, so today, the crisis of the imperialist war make politics unambiguous – for or against war. The present and the future have so many problems that we tend to forget the past. Yet how instructive to think back for even four or five years. Then everyone, more or less, except the heads of the American Legion, was antiwar. Do you remember how everyone had “learned the lessons” of the last war, and could explain just what happened and why? Do you remember how the Communist party fought war, breathing fire and brimstone? Do you remember the social-democrats, so proud of St. Louis and Debs? Do you remember the brave intellectuals, the Lewis Mumfords and all the “enlightened”?
But four or five years ago, the next war was no more than a faint cloud on the far horizon. Everyone could be brave with the storm so distant. Today the black cloud has covered the sky, and the storm is poised to break. Today all the rats skurry for the patriotic shelter.
Every one. We did not exaggerate when we predicted it, many years ago. With the rare exceptions of isolated individuals, noble and powerless, only a revolutionary group or party can stand firm against the war. Already in this country, all groups but ours have gone over either to the open, shameless chauvinism of the Stalinists and the Social Democratic Federation and many of the official pacifist organizations or to the more mealy-mouthed, respectable patriotism with which Norman Thomas and Lovestone tie themselves in their Keep America out of War Committees and their “united front” meetings.
Social crisis and war: this is what history presents us. And this is why we must build a party, a mass revolutionary party, and build it well and quickly. Mankind may never recover if from the war and the crisis there does not issue the socialist revolution. Is that not clear? And is it not clear also that the outcome depends upon the success or failure in building a party that will fight the war – to the end? We have the right, then to demand that everyone to whom these things are clear shall join with us to build that party. Our convention was proud, above all, in proclaiming this simple truth: that the Socialist Workers Party is the anti-war party. And because it is the anti-war party, it will be the party also of victorious socialism.
Last updated on 8.8.2006