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Socialist Appeal, March 1935, Volume 1 No. 2, Page 14-17
Transcribed and Marked Up by Damon Maxwell in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.

Discipline In A Working-Class Party

by Lydia Biedell

The historical necessity which called the working-class parties into existence also ordained in general what the nature of the socialist party must be – a voluntary army never demobilized as long as any least aspect of the battle on behalf of socialism is still to be fought out. This historical demand we inherit; social evolution lays it before us ready made. Our business now is to coordinate the forces of our party; to make it efficient and invincible in the relentless war against class oppression.

The party, then, is in a sense an army which goes daily into battle somewhere on some kind of front; its first duty to its members is to achieve thru its organization and direction a maximum of effective, concerted action with a minimum expenditure of energy and loss of force. And first of all a discipline, this implies high degree of discipline.

Now the paid armies of the bourgeoisie one must admit are disciplined – to the point where they have been known to annihilate in cold-blooded brutality large numbers of their fellow-members of the working class striving for a betterment of conditions. To get that kind of discipline the ruling class uses two kinds of persuasion: reward and punishment.

Neither of these is useful to the party of the working class; it can punish no worker for not fulfilling his duty and the only reward it can offer is a lot of hard work and plenty of abuse from a large section of society. The discipline in the party of the workers can be of only one kind; free, voluntary.

Now the really difficult problem arises: how to get this kind of discipline. The utterly futile way of striving for it is to foam at the mouth and denounce those who are lax and howl incessantly for increased discipline without finding out what elements which make up the basis for that virtue are lacking at the moment. What are the basic prerequisites for a disciplined membership? What must the party give in lieu of the bribery and force which its capitalist opponents can offer as a price for obedience and cooperation?

First: A crystal-clear formulation of the general political objectives of the party and a choice of correct tactics to use in wording toward the accomplishment of those objectives. These can be effected and their value fully realized only through extensive and complete discussion of all basic policies by the membership as a whole.

Second: The education of the membership to an understanding of all the implications of the theories and program upon which the party operates. Only this can create the degree of political alertness which the party needs as a disciplinary foundation in the very least developed of its members.

Third: Complete democracy within the party and the corollary to that a freely elected leadership subject to the critical demands of the membership.

Fourth: A free interplay between the leadership and the mass membership, with mutual responsibility toward each other. This implies one very important thing which has been difficult of accomplishment in wording class parties heretofore: the free dissemination to the membership as a whole of all information concerning the internal status of the party, especially at times of instability. This is one of the indispensable elements in the struggle against the tendency toward the formation of unprincipled factions and personal grouplings always present in political parties. Fifth: A clear formulation of the demands made by the leading committees upon the membership and an achievability of the objectives set. She satisfactory accomplishments of a task thru joint effort, laying a minimum burden upon each individual is the best simulator of consistent and increasing activity on the part of the whole membership.

The discipline of a party membership cannot be accomplished by decree. Unswerving devotion to the party and its program is always the product of a more or less extended process of cultivation of the ideological relationship of the members (leaders as well as general ranks) to the theories and principles of socialism and to the immediate need of the wording class. Even whore the most vicious manifestations of discipline occur in the ranks of certain parties, these have come not suddenly but of the result of a period of inculcation of false ideas.

A perfect example of the kind or discipline that can be nothing bill a blight upon the working class movement is that shown in the ranks of the Communist party. There discipline has become simply a blind, unreasoning, uncritical devotion to the upper bureaucracy and its policies. Not only is there no real theoretical understanding of the policies and tactics pursued, but there has grown up a violent resentment against any who show critical or analytical tendencies. A fanatical belief has been cultivated in the infallibility of the leaders of the movement as men not mind you, as the human and not necessarily permanent instruments of application of a possibly correct long-term theory or policy. The irony of the whole business lies in the fact that this placing of implicit faith in the works of “the leader” is the essence of fascist theory.

Such a concept of discipline can attract only two kinds of people, and the Communist movement is beginning to take on the complexion of these two categories in society – elements, you will note, that also go predominantly to make up the fascist forces. They are first the middle class business and professional people who have lost their moorings through the process of capitalist decay and, like drowning men, grope desperately for something to cling to, to put their faith in, to turn over the care of their souls to. Afraid, demoralized, panicky, they want only to be saved, not to be asked to think and fight any more. With most of them it looks as if either Christian Science or Communist party dogma would have filled the need with equal satisfaction, the only mystery being by what fluke communist dogma managed to win out.

The other element attracted by this decadent type of discipline is the lowest stratum of society, the slum proletariat. This is the element that has nothing to offer the revolutionary movement but desperation. It does not want to think, to work out long-term policies, to follow a plan which may occasionally require & high degree of restraint and maneuvering until conditions have ripened for effective action. Capitalism has degraded these people to the level of starving animals, driven to hunt in packs to satisfy, immediately and at any cost, their hunger and need. Their discipline is a discipline of the moment only and is based not upon a realization of group interest but upon an instinctive comprehension that individual need can at a certain point he satisfied only by multiplication of forces. A revolutionary is resentful toward capitalism for its crime against humanity in creating the “scum proletariat” and recognizes the task of wiping out this element economically as one of the most important imperatives in his work; but so to construct a party that it gives berth to large numbers of such individuals is to build the party on dynamite which can be set off at any moment by capitalism itself, wiping out the party from the inside. This conditions is made even more dangerous by the strong influence in the party and the movement of that other weak, vacillating, panicky middle-class element.

A party, to become the organizer and leader of the revolutionary movement in America must attract to itself those workers who are capable of understanding and applying with a maximum of individual initiative the main principles of revolutionary struggle to the manifold fields of working class activity. The individual members of the party must be intelligent, alert, analytical critical of everything; they must be, above all, solidly grounded in the theory of the socialist movement.

The Socialist party needs an increase of discipline within its ranks; that is common talk. But the achievement of that need is no simple matter. The first step is still with us the most important and difficult of all the steps, the hammering out of a strong and correct program of leadership for the masses of American workers. It is in essence the working out of a militant socialist theory, program and tactic, to which the working classes of America will look for guidance. The discipline we expect from our membership and a rich voluntary discipline which we may expect also from those workers who are not organizationally connected with us but willing to follow our leadership must have its first roots in a clear, scientific formulation of socialist program.

We need today, in laying the groundwork for a real discipline, a frank facing of the facts that confront the working class as a whole and the Socialist party as an organization of that class. And we need courageously to tackle the tremendous work of pounding out a strong, tempered, resilient, sharp steel weapon for the working class of America. The hand that grips that weapon must know whom it is fighting, to what purpose it makes its thrusts, and what it intends to do when the erne my is conquered and destroyed. The weapon – our party – can be forged only in the flame of thorough discussion. The mind that guides the hand – our theories and program – is clarified by criticism and analysis as it goes forward in the battle.

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