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The New International, September–October 1952

Robert Martinson




From The New International, Vol. XVIII No. 5, September–October 1952, pp. 255–267.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


To the Editor:

Don Harris’ review of The Organizational Weapon, by Philip Selznick, in the May–June issue of the New International is basically sound as a criticism of Selznick’s main thesis: Stalinism is the result of the “inherent logic” of Leninist principles of organization. He might have pointed out that in his concluding chapter Selznick insists on “the subordinate role of organizational activity in the struggle against totalitarianism ...” since “great social issues, such as those which divide communism and democracy, are not decided by political combat,” etc. This is purely formal genuflexion in the direction of politics, of course, and has little to do with the rest of the work which is nothing less than a Handbook to Defeat the Commies by Purely Organizational Means as the blurb so clearly points out. Thus, as a theoretical inquiry into the relationship between politics and organization the book is a failure, even though it contains some interesting descriptions of present-day Stalinist organizational methods.

Unfortunately, Harris takes this opportunity to dismiss, in a rather offhand manner, Selznick’s area of investigation as a significant subject for scientific inquiry, by asserting:

Different conditions (!) call forth (!!) parties of different types and organized according to different principles.

If this is true then there is obviously no need for an independent investigation of political combat or organizational concepts. But part of these “conditions” are the theories, attitudes and methods—the conceptions of organization—held by the people who make up the party. If these have no (or little) influence why will Harris be found heatedly defending the organizational practices of the Independent Socialist League against those prevailing in such organizations as the I.W.W., the Socialist Labor Party, the S.W.P., the British Labor Party or the American S.P.? If a minority (part of the “conditions”) of the I.S.L. arose demanding a monthly renewal of leadership, or the principle of no re-election, on what grounds would he argue against it?

Harris does recognize that “the working class needs parties of a different kind.” (It is interesting to note that fifteen years ago he would have written “a party of a different kind” thus showing that he has learned a valuable organizational lesson from the rise of Stalinism). In practice, of course, no one waits for the “conditions” to produce these kinds (what kinds?) of parties. People set about building parties based on certain “principles” (constitutions, structures, internal methods of operation, etc.) and even socialists manage to perform this thankless task fortified by the happy thought that “there can be no rules for creating a socialist party ...” (an irresponsible statement) and “... much less for ‘guaranteeing’ it from degeneration ...” which is true but beside the point.

The point is that the working class has had parties of many different kinds (not to speak of the endless array of unions, cooperatives, friendly societies, leagues, etc.), and that a systematic inquiry into the relations between organization and politics is perfectly legitimate and could prove helpful to socialists. Since Harris has not made such a thorough investigation (neither has Selznick for that matter) what evidence prompts him to rashly refuse “any independent significance” (hastily changed to “a predominantly influential role” as though these two formulations were not miles apart) to the organizational question?

Not only is this attack on the idea of “guaranteeing” a party from degeneration a second-rate hedge (since it is possible to smoke out organizational practices which contribute to bureaucratization without directly and immediately determining the policies of a party), but it unwittingly cuts down our effectiveness in attacking Stalinist organizational practices (others as well) which are repugnant in themselves. Any persistent (long-term) use of certain organizational methods (in this Harris is correct) is intimately connected with the politics (social character) of the given organism. That is, a permanent tension or contradiction in the two realms would sooner or later become intolerable. But this commonplace observation does not automatically solve the problem of the specific weight of each “factor” in the process. We know, for example, that the bureaucratic conservatism of the Cannon regime in the Socialist Workers Party contributed heavily to its political degeneration in the direction of Stalinism and is probably decisive at the present moment in inhibiting the growth of a pro-socialist faction in the organization. How else can we explain the dead silence which emanates from the ranks of this (once Trotskyist!) party as its leadership heads toward complete organizational-political capitulation to totalitarianism?

Harris would probably agree with most of this but that did not prevent him from formulating his criticism of Selznick in a mystical-deterministic manner which leans in the direction of organizational fatalism. In so far as this tends to inhibit a sympathetic and experimental (at least open-minded) attitude toward organizational forms and methods, it has definitely become a reactionary obstacle to Marxist thinking in this area, and is harmful to the present needs of the socialist movement. This attitude has not prevented fruitful and necessary changes in the Independent Socialist League; it should now give way before an active interest in the problems of democracy and organization and the application of what can be learned to immediate problems.

There is, for example, the immediate and pressing question in present-day England of countering the social democratic tendency toward bureaucratic collectivism with a practical and concrete program of democratization. To believe that this problem has only a political dimension is to shut one’s eyes to reality. Next to the Tories, the greatest obstacle to socialism in England today is the bureaucratization of the nationalized economy. One of the greatest obstacles to the Bevan movement is the undemocratic character of the working-class organizations (the unions, the B.L.P., etc.) To solve the problem of workers’ control independently of the political struggle (like the Fabians) is useless; to “solve” it with general phrases such as “democracy” or “real democracy” is to refuse to recognize the problem. If the left wing of the Bevan movement were armed with a concrete, practical program for the democratization of the British Labor Party, and made this one of its principle demands, it would do more toward congealing a truly socialist faction than any other means. If it demanded the immediate and thorough structural democratization of the unions controlled by the Bevan faction, if it proposed, perhaps even as possible strike demands, specific measures toward workers’ control of the nationalized industries, this would also be a political blow against the Tories and against the bureaucratized right wing. Why should it do this if it is convinced that organization (structure in this case) has no “independent significance”?

If, with Lenin, we insist on the crucial character of organization to the socialist revolution, and the struggle for workers’ power which prepares the way for it, then the Independent Socialists should encourage thinking and action along these lines.

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