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Socialist Appeal, January-February 1936, Volume 2 No. 3, Page 4-5
Transcribed and Marked Up by Damon Maxwell in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.

To Pay Dues Is Not Enough

By Rudolph C. Olson.

THE LEFT wing of the Socialist party has seen the necessity of formulating a theoretical program based on the principles of revolutionary Marxism. Conferences have been held and more or less thorough discussion conducted on the theoretical problems confronting our movement. The questions of the road to power, of war, fascism etc. have been analyzed and some with the attempt to solve theoretical problems and not to attempt to deal with questions pertaining to organization and the functioning of the party would leave the party, in the long run, in a position which is not much better than at the present.

As a matter of fact the left wing has realized the necessity of a disciplined party. The word “discipline” is quite frequently heard at all left wing conferences. The revolutionary Socialists, more than anyone else have felt keenly about the organizational slovenliness and inadequacy of our whole Party structure. In spite of that no serious discussion has been carried on dealing with organizational “problems and with the question of the functioning of our party. Certainly no one has proposed any definite plans looking to change in the structure and functioning of the party.

In this article I shall confine myself simply to the question of the minimum requirements which the party should make upon every member in order to permit that member to claim and exercise the privileges of membership. This question of course involves the whole problem of discipline and cannot be solved completely except in so far as the general problem is solved. Nevertheless a start must be made somewhere and it seems to me that we might as well start with the elementary problem of who should be considered a member of the party.

The constitution of the party make eligible for party membership all who subscribe to the principles of the party. There is one provision for the suspension of a member – failure to pay dues for three months. The above two provisions indicate more clearly than anything else the reformist nature of our party. And practice the situation is even worse than the constitution would indicate. For the fact of the matter is that rarely is any member suspended for failure to pay dues for a period much longer than provided for in the constitution. A party member in arrears for six months, a year or even longer simply pays up his dues immediately given all the privileges of a member.

In truth our party at best is simply a dues paying membership and at the worst a membership that pays dues only when some vote is to be taken. It is notorious that before the declaration of principles was voted on the old guard persuaded scores of members who had practically dropped out of the party to pay as much as two years back dues and vote against the declaration. We shall even admit that the same might have been done by those who favored the declaration, which does not make the practice any more justifiable, At any rate this is a recognized practice in our party and is entirely “constitutional.”

Another prevalent custom is for more affluent members to pay a year’s dues in advance and never show their faces at any branch meeting. There is a branch in Chicago which boasts of eighty dues-paying members. And the average attendance at branch meetings is no more than fifteen. An efficient and persuasive secretary sees to it that the members are paid up. This also is perfectly “constitutional.”

It seems obvious that a tightening up of our organization is necessary in order to have a functioning party. A party that permits an “absentee” membership will never amount to anything in the class struggle. A revolutionary party must be composed Of an active and not simply of a dues paying membership. And at the present stage of the development of our party it is not at all too much to ask that a member attend branch meetings at least once a month and to provide that a member who fails to attend four regular branch meetings in succession should be suspended and failure to attend six regular branch meetings should mean dropping from the rolls of the party. And it is also necessary to provide that failure to pay dues for five months in succession should mean that a member can no longer be considered a member of the party. And upon being reinstated to the party, either by paying up dues or by coming to meetings, a member should not be permitted to exercise the privileges of membership for two months.

Here one will be confronted with the objection that this is a mechanical approach; that simply to lay down rules compelling attendance or payment of dues will not bring about the desired results and will cause a terrific drop in membership.

That, in a very general way, there is merit to this contention cannot be denied. I indicated above that payment of dues and attendance at branch meetings are only two aspects of the general problem of discipline and the problem cannot be solved simply by laying down all kinds of rules. Revolutionary socialist discipline is different in kind from communist discipline. The latter is a blind discipline of the barracks and of the Catholic church. What we should strive for is a discipline which is a result of education and understanding and that kind of discipline cannot be obtained merely by the promulgation of rules and regulations. It is a result of the conditions enumerated by Lenin in his Left Communism. That paragraph is worth quoting in full.

“And, first of all, the question arises – Upon what rests the discipline of the revolutionary party of the proletariat? How is it controlled? How is it strengthened? Firstly by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the Revolution, by its steadiness, spirit of self sacrifice and heroism. Secondly by its ability to mix with the toiling masses, to become intimate and, to a certain extent, if you will, to fuse itself with the proletarian masses primarily, but also with the non-proletarian toilers. Thirdly by the soundness of the political leadership,, carried on by this vanguard, and by its correct political strategy and tactics, based on the idea that the workers by their own experience must convince themselves of the soundness of this political leadership, strategy and tactics. Without all these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party, really capable of being a party of the advanced class whose object to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform society, impossible of realization. Without these conditions all attempts to create discipline result in empty phrases, in mere contortions. On the other hand these conditions will not arise suddenly. They are created through lone effort and bitter experience. Their creation is facilitated by correct revolutionary theory, which, in its turn, is not dogmatic, but which forms itself in its finality only through close connection with the practice of the real mass and truly revolutionary movement.”

Nothing need be added to what Lenin said on discipline to show that it cannot be achieved in a mechanical manner. And vet that did not prevent Lenin from insisting, in the early stages of the development of the Social-Democratic party, that every one who wants to be a member of the party must join a branch of the party. While the Mensheviks contended that it was sufficient, in order to be considered a member, for one to accept the principles of the party and pay dues.

Even if we were unable to enforce strictly a constitutional provision making obligatory more regular attendance at branch meetings it is necessary that such a provision be in the constitution if for nothing else than simply as an ideal for which we would strive. And there is no reason why such a provision cannot be enforced.

And to prevent the practice of paying up back dues or of coming to a meeting just before a vote is to be taken on an important issue it is also necessary to provide that if a member is automatically suspended for failure to pay dues or to attend meetings he cannot exercise the privilege of membership for at least two months after he pays up his dues or begins attending meetings.

To the objection that there are some party members active in party work and because of that are unable to attend meetings the answer is that provision should be made to excuse such members. Although the custom of paid employees of the party to neglect branch meetings must be discouraged. There should be no one so important as to make his attendance at branch meetings unnecessary.

It also stands to reason that a branch should be given authority to excuse any member from attendance for some urgent reason.

To the objection that it would reduce our membership in the party the answer is that better, a thousand times better, to have a small party with active members than fool ourselves and everybody else with a large membership of nominal members. If necessary we can create some organization for those people who cannot attend meetings and cannot or do not want to be active. They will do much more good that way than by belonging to the party.

But it does not at all follow that demanding a minimum: standard for membership in the party means a reduction in the number of members. It might be so temporarily but not in the long run. To cut out the dead wood from the party means to place the party on a basis where it can grow in numbers and influence.


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