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Irving Howe

A Party with a Free and Alert Internal Life

(7 April 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 14, 7 April 1947, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In this issue of Labor Action we are celebrating the seventh anniversary of the Workers Party. There appear other articles on the party’s political contributions, its differences with the other sections of the revolutionary socialist movement and its history of political activity and development. What I wish to discuss in this brief comment is a much more modest point; but one which, in my opinion, is of central significance in making possible the political development of our tendency.

It is perhaps a commonplace to say that we are living in an age of mushrooming bureaucratism. In every sphere of social life and every aspect of political organization, we can see the cancer-like growth of conceptions of political relationship, organization and life itself, which reflect this development of bureaucratism. Far from accepting the superficial analysis that bureaucratism in modern society arises from the sheer fact of large organization, of concentration of the means of production and the means of coercion; Marxists rather see in the development of bureaucratism an index of the decay of an already rotting society. Bureaucratism is the parasitism of a historically, outlived society. To say this is not by any means to exhaust the matter, but it is to say something which is essential to its understanding.

WP’s Achievement

But the bureaucratism and the development of bureaucratic mentalities – of which a corollary is always the development of subservient mentalities among some of those subservient to bureaucratism – does not merely manifest itself in the capitalist world. It seeps into the labor movement and into the socialist movement as well. The revolutionary party, for all its. socialist idealism and its rejection of capitalist attitudes and modes of life, must exist in the capitalist world. It is therefore not immune to the poisons of capitalism which it wishes to destroy.

But a recognition of this fact means that revolutionaries will be constantly on guard to preserve and improve the standards and practices of their organization; they will preserve diligently the democratic practices and attitudes of their party. This means not merely the formal democratic procedures, but much more important the actual content of democratic party practices: the tolerance of minority points of view; the loyalty to those with whom one disagrees by stating their ideas honestly and fairly and in polemizing objectively and impersonally; and the encouragement of habits of critical and independent thought. Better a membership which thinks critically and independently and makes mistakes than one which depends on a leader, no matter how clairvoyant he may be!

It is such conceptions which have animated us in building the Workers Party. And I think that in this respect – which has made possible our political development and our practical activity – we have succeeded to a high degree. We have established a party with a free and alert internal atmosphere, where members not merely have the RIGHT to express their views but feel free and are encouraged to do so. We have built a party in which revolutionary Marxists can live in comradeship and mutual respect, even though they may have many serious disagreements among themselves and may conduct a sharp ideological struggle on these disagreements. And we have built this kind of party while preserving the discipline in action without which no serious party can exist.

But you may say: what is so remarkable about that isn’t that what a Marxist party should be like and isn’t that what the great Marxist parties have always been like? Of course, of course. But we must remember the epoch in which we live – which is not the golden epoch of revolutionary upheaval but rather the period of defeats and decline. In such a period, as has been noted before, disintegrative bureaucratic conceptions and practices seep into the revolutionary movement too: leadership; disloyalty to oppositions, disregard for their actual rights even while ceding their formal rights; a narrow monolithism of political views which brands disagreement on even minor question as “revisionism”; abusive and snide polemics against internal party opponents and against other socialist groups.

Justified in Practice

Our practice has, I think, justified our conceptions. Let me take two deliberately minor illustrations, which yet illuminate the entire matter. At one time it was believed in the Trotskyist movement that to give to a sympathizer of the party an internal bulletin which contained discussion of different points of view was a serious breach of discipline. We have changed our attitude on that. We believe that there is no reason for any interested sympathizer not to know the opinions of any comrade on POLITICAL questions, be those comrades in a majority or minority in the party. In that sense we have a stronger feeling of our responsibility to sympathizers. I think this change in procedure on our part is a step toward the refurbishment of the revolutionary party’s democratic character and thereby the entire conception of socialism.

Another small example: the New International, our theoretical magazine, has opened its pages to a diversity of opinion in the Marxist movement, both from inside the WP and from those non-party Marxists willing to contribute to it. Polemics on a variety of subjects have spiced the magazine; perhaps as a result the magazine has even suffered somewhat in terms of integration of continuity of material. This atmosphere of intellectual “openness” – which has not in the slightest prevented, but has in fact helped, both the magazine and the party to expound most vigorously its own official positions – has provoked thought and discussion, conflict and clarification. For the most part, we have kept these discussions clean and clear of abuse and personal reference.

This, I think, is part of our central achievement: the conception of a Marxist party loyal to revolutionary principles but simultaneously alert to new events and ready to face problems rather than repeat by rote; a Marxist party where revolutionary militancy and democratic freedom go hand in hand.

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