Reflections on revolutionary socialist organization today

The Tempest Collective Editorial Board continues its engagement with David McNally on the challenges of building revolutionary organization in the current conjuncture. The interview seeks to expand ongoing discussions and debates on the question of the so-called micro-sect or micro-party model of building revolutionary organization.

 

David McNally specializes in the history and political economy of capitalism. He teaches in Department of History at the University of Houston and is the author, among other books of, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and ResistanceMonsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, and Blood and Money: War, Slavery, Finance, and Empire.

Tempest Collective: Drawing on the work of the socialist Hal Draper, as well as the work of Duncan Hallas and others, you’ve written in recent years about the limits of what he called the “micro-sect” or “micro-party” model of political organization. We want to delve into that critique here, but we also want to ask you more about the alternative—or alternatives—you envision to that model. So, starting with the critique, what do you understand by the “micro-party”?

David McNally: Your question already gestures to some of the sources of this thinking. I don’t claim great originality for this line of critique, although it has a specific sort of historical context, and is different from sources such as Hal Draper’s reflections or Duncan Hallas’ writings, both from the 1970s.

Fundamentally this line of argument tries to underscore something that Duncan Hallas says in, “Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party” (1971). Hallas notes that an earlier generation of revolutionaries could take for granted that a socialist vanguard of the working class existed. As a result, for that generation, the task was to help politically organize that advanced layer so they could operate more effectively. It is obvious the ways in which this was true during the great working class upheavals from 1919 on, out of which the parties of the Communist International were built.

Most of the organizational debates in the 1970s were premised on the existence of this vanguard. What was distinctive about Hallas’s perspective is that in the 1970s he was saying, a socialist vanguard of the working class “has to be recreated.” So, because this vanguard no longer exists, the tasks are more complicated: to help to recreate it in tandem with building some of the organizational preconditions of a revolutionary socialist party. But note that I say “preconditions.” The conditions did not exist for the rapid formation of such a party in 1971, and they certainly don’t today, a half-century later. And as a result, our organizational tasks are quite different from those laid out for revolutionaries in the early 1920s. In many ways, that insight is the starting point for my own reflections.

I believe we need revolutionary organization, but I don’t believe that we can simply “apply” models designed for moments in which an existing working class vanguard existed and simply needed to be politically united around a clear fighting program.

I think when we misread our moment and define that as our task then a substitution occurs—in  which a small organization of dozens or hundreds starts to behave as if it is that politically organized vanguard of the working class. This is the micro-party model, in which a small, politically isolated group pretends to be the organized vanguard of the working class (perhaps in waiting for the masses).

This confusion or substitution creates a fundamentally false perspective that exaggerates what the small group is—and deceives the small group as to what its tasks ought to be.

[W]e need revolutionary organization, but I don’t believe that we can simply “apply” models designed for moments in which an existing working class vanguard existed and simply needed to be politically united around a clear fighting program.

In the 1990s, it seemed pretty clear to me that the radical Left—and the working-class movement more widely—had been losing ground for quite some time. I became increasingly suspicious of the idea that if we just doubled down on being more disciplined, more hard-working, more committed, more professional, our groups of dozens or hundreds were going to solve the problem of the reconstitution of a socialist vanguard within the working class.

Now, to be clear, I remain committed to revolutionary organization. Some responses to my arguments suggest that if one tries to move away from the model of the micro-party, one has abandoned all notions of revolutionary organization. I think that’s false.

I’m simply raising the question: what should revolutionary organization look like in a moment when part of the task is to contribute to the reconstitution of a socialist vanguard within the working class?

I believe that there are a set of problems inherent in seeing our small groups as that kind of mass party in embryo.The perspective tends to impose a set of messianic assumptions that we are effectively the revolutionary subject of history. This is the element that I do take away from Hal Draper’s critique of the micro-party model. It tends to promote the idea that we will act as if we are a mass party of the working class. We will demand of our members forms of dedication and commitment as if we were a mass revolutionary party.

A real mass party of tens of thousands creates higher forms of commitment and dedication because it’s actual participation in struggles has an enormous gravitational pull. Party members can see the organization’s impact. They can see how it matters in struggles. If you don’t have that gravitational pull or real social effect, then you start to generate a regime which simply demands discipline in an increasingly voluntaristic way.

Some responses to my arguments suggest that if one tries to move away from the model of the micro-party, one has abandoned all notions of revolutionary organization. I think that’s false.

The smaller the group, the more toxic that can be—although, as we know, sometimes groups even of a few thousand get completely corrupted by that form of toxicity, as well. And unfortunately, sometimes even become irredeemable.

TC: We are in a non-revolutionary period. Whatever popularity the idea of socialism has gained in recent years, socialists, especially those who see themselves as revolutionary socialists, are in a very small minority. Our organizations are, by definition, much smaller formations than we would like them to be. Is there a danger that we confuse the objective circumstances of operating in smaller socialist groupings, no matter how collaborative and nonsectarian our methods, with sectarianism? And that, related to this, we downplay the importance of having a defined sense of principles and political perspectives that one confidently expresses?

DM: Yes. My own view is that there’s no necessary connection between organizing small groups and being sectarian.

Sectarianism isn’t a matter of size. It is a kind of politics that promotes the group or sect as an end-in-itself, rather than as a means to bigger ends: the reconstitution of a socialist vanguard of the working class and the building of mass social struggles.

I’ve observed and participated in small groups that managed to carve out areas of meaningful participation at times, and built important struggles. Sometimes this was in ways that didn’t fully mesh with their self-understanding. But it is clear that smallness itself is not a sign of sectarianism.

Neither is the search for political clarity and cohesion itself sectarian. It becomes so only if political cohesion becomes self-enclosing. Furthermore, a failure to develop revolutionary clarity is fatal in other ways. For instance, if you come together as some kind of Marxist or socialist formation, simply saying we’ll work together without undergoing any processes of intellectual and political clarification, I think you’re building on sand.

It is to assume that somehow our present moment isn’t itself historical—and it is to imagine that there are no resources available to us from past struggles. We stand in a certain kind of historical legacy, which is full of contradictions, but we need to try to locate ourselves, which means trying to have an inheritance based on past movements and past struggles that strengthens us. It is absurd, for instance, to assume that the experiences of the Popular Unity government in Chile in the early 1970s have no lessons for today, or that we do not need clarity around strategic lessons raised by the Paris Commune of 1871.

To think otherwise is a weird kind of nihilism. There’s a reason, for instance, to be anti-Stalinist today, and to clarify the importance of anti-Stalinist commitments to rebuilding a viable left.

[S]mallness itself is not a sign of sectarianism. Neither is the search for political clarity and cohesion itself sectarian. It becomes so only if political cohesion becomes self-enclosing. Furthermore, a failure to develop revolutionary clarity is fatal in other ways…

So, no, I think you can be small and dedicated to some fundamental political and theoretical commitments that serve as points of orientation without imagining that you have closed all questions and that there is a finished system called “the tradition.” I propose instead that there is a very open-ended revolutionary tradition, but it does have boundaries and parameters. It does have assessments of historical experiences and failures that are indispensable, but need not  fundamentally mistrust attempts to innovate on past inheritances.

For instance, I do find it useful to think about the classical analyses of fascism that we get from Clara Zetkin and Leon Trotsky when the question is raised, “Is Trumpism fascism?” But I don’t think those texts close off new discoveries. And they certainly ought not to produce a mode of thinking which says, “Here’s what the classic text said fascism is—and this movement doesn’t fit. Therefore, it’s not fascist.” Living history can never be squeezed into theoretical formulations derived from events that are decades or centuries old. But it can be illuminated by analyses that use them as points of reference, as aids to grasping new phenomena that require innovative analysis.

Now, by the way, I personally am not inclined to the view that Trumpism is fascism, but it’s not simply because of the weight of those texts. You need to be open enough to grasp what is new and different in situations

It is not viable, however, to simply practice a kind of empiricism in which we get together and say, let’s do some things and see if that holds us together. Whether those things are—“base-building” or whatever the projects might be—people may do some laudable work, but I’m doubtful that a viable, revolutionary socialist organizing project is sustainable without being serious about our political and theoretical traditions. As I said, this means taking seriously both the weight of history—what we inherit—and its open-endedness.

TC: The debate in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) about the so-called dirty break and how to hold electeds accountable has brought to the surface a fairly widespread belief within that organization in what, in the European context, used to be called “the parliamentary road to socialism.” Or in Michael Harrington’s terms,“the left wing of the possible.” Is the historic critique of social-democracy relevant in this current context or does that critique misunderstand the current nature of social democracy today?

DM: I think the critique is highly relevant, but I also think that there are specificities to this moment that we need to focus on.

The fundamental critique of social democracy, which is probably nowhere more classically put than in Rosa Luxemburg in Reform or Revolution, remains fundamentally valid. What’s so powerful in Luxemburg is her work’s insistence on the agency of socialist transformation. She takes from Marx the notion that extra-parliamentary struggle is necessary in a fundamental way to the working class making itself fit to rule. This is something Colin Barker returned to in a whole number of his writings: the working class as we know it today is not yet fit for self-rule. That does not mean that it lacks the capacity as a potentiality, but it means that the working-class needs to go through, as Marx says after 1848, 25 or 50 years of struggle to essentially transform itself into what it is capable of becoming.

The Luxemburgian insight from the classic debate with Eduard Bernstein against revisionism or reformism is still absolutely valid. The most critical aspect of revolutionary struggle is for the working class to rid itself of “the muck of ages,” to use Marx’s term from the German Ideology. This necessary and self-transformative character of mass struggle remains at the heart of the critique of social democracy. At its root, social democracy is saying, we can get a cadre of elected officials into the existing institutions and they will undertake a transformative project through a long march through the institutions.

The most serious exponents of that kind of perspective at least understood that there would have to be mass mobilization outside these institutions to make this viable. But to imagine that one can transplant a long march through the institutions into a moment in which we do not have mass movements capable of exercising an extra-parliamentary pressure is a non-starter. Without pressure from below, without movements in the streets and workplaces, elected officials of the Left effectively find themselves isolated inside the alien institutions of the ruling class. Inevitably, even if they are not horrible careerists, they will start to accommodate to those institutions. And only mass mobilization outside the state can serve as a counter-pressure to such accommodation. It follows that a genuinely socialist movement must always prioritize extra-parliamentary struggle to electoral politics.

Th[e] necessary and self-transformative character of mass struggle remains at the heart of the critique of social democracy….The most serious exponents of [social democratic reformism] at least understood that there would have to be mass mobilization outside these institutions to make this viable. But to imagine that one can transplant a long march through the institutions… is a non-starter…

Now, having said that, I think there is something about the historical moment we’ve been living through, particularly since the global financial crisis of 2008/2009, that is unique and forces us to go beyond what I’ve just said. This has to do with the fact that, particularly since that crisis, we have seen two interrelated tendencies. One is the growth of a mass disaffection with the social inequality that capitalism is breeding. This is the mass disaffection that we saw in Occupy and the Movement of the Squares, including Tahrir Square, and remains fundamental to the movements in Lebanon and Sudan at the moment.

Alongside that has been an acceleration of the neoliberal hollowing out of liberal democracy. We have seen the refashioning of administration from above in utterly bureaucratic, technocratic ways, such that participation in mainstream politics and parties has seemed pointless or fruitless to huge numbers of people. As a result, we have a growing disengagement from traditional parties, which has created openings electorally for the right and the Left.

This produces a conundrum and a set of contradictions for us, because occasionally movements and tendencies with some roots in the radical Left are capable of very quickly coming to occupy a kind of electoral niche. Think of Syriza in Greece. Think of Podemos in Spain. And on a smaller scale, I would argue this applies to some of the electoral successes at least loosely associated with the DSA.

The disaffection with the political mainstream and the wider frustration with growing social inequality—and just the obvious unfairness of the world in which we live—is creating openings on both the Left and the right electorally. And it is a challenge to figure out how to navigate that terrain.

But it’s one thing to say, we need to experiment and not just resuscitate a few old slogans about how revolutionaries participate in the electoral arena, and quite another to actually try to figure out what radical Left coalitions might look like that are trying to intervene at different levels of electoral contestation, where surprisingly their message is getting a resonance the likes of which people have not been accustomed to in 40 years.

As I said a moment ago, there has to be some strategic assessment of what the traps and liabilities of that participation is, particularly when these people enter onto enemy terrain.

I’m not saying we never send our emissaries or our representatives onto that terrain, but this is hostile territory. And we need to have some notion of what Gramsci called a “war of maneuver,” in which we are building social contestation outside that arena.

So, let me make this really concrete in terms of our recent experience. I’ve said that there are these openings, but they’re full of contradictions for the radical Left. Let’s step back and think about the Black Lives Matter uprising in the aftermath of the murder of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. It’s remarkable to think back to that moment of millions of people in the streets, police stations burning in Minneapolis. Our side had the wind in its sails.

Black Lives Matter movement in Austria, July 2, 2020. Photo by Ivan Radic.

“Defund the Police” was breaking out of small abolitionist circles. This may not have been the majority position yet, but hundreds of thousands of people took up the slogan. And we know from the success of some recent abolitionist books that the audience for abolitionism remains.

That moment was a huge infusion of energy and possibility for the radical Left. And you may recall, as we moved through the spring and summer of BLM into electoralism, I said in a talk that I felt DSA had failed the test of the Black Lives Matter uprising. That was a moment in which the right kind of intervention would have been to say:  “We are here in the streets with you. We’re bringing our members and all of our resources to whatever degree possible. And we want to become an organizing hub of this uprising with you. And we invite you to come in and help us remake this organization so that we become more of a genuinely multiracial working-class organization that can help you sustain these struggles.”

This could have been a huge moment for a project like DSA, but it would have meant the organization grappling with the idea that there are certain questions like defund the police on which you will remain a minority for a long time. And you’re going to have sections of your potential electorate with grave reservations about where you stand on police, and maybe even break from you for a period of time because of where you stand on policing. But you’re building a fighting organization that has an electoral front—one subordinate to mass struggle.

We all know that the secret behind the ebbing of the BLM uprising was the Biden presidential campaign. There was a campaign of deliberate winding down focused on attacking socialism and attacking calls to defund the police.Those were the two prongs of the assault on the Left in order to elevate Biden.

I think it’s incredibly instructive to contrast that moment of confidence on the Left with what followed. Because as the Left gave up the streets largely to rally behind the Democrats and Biden, the right took the streets.

We all know that the secret behind the ebbing of the BLM uprising was the Biden presidential campaign. There was a campaign of deliberate winding down focused on attacking socialism and attacking calls to defund the police. Those were the two prongs of the assault on the Left in order to elevate Biden.

I mean, this is a key lesson from that campaign. There were Trump mobilizations everywhere. But they got the streets only after anti-racist mobilization had deserted them. The right had a sense of social mobilization throughout the electoral campaign at the very time the Left wound down social mobilization. I think we know the results.

We have an emboldened far right. And we have a demoralized Left right now. So, I think it’s very important, when we talk about this moment of electoral openings for the Left, to also have a very sober assessment of what happens when the Left essentially remains trapped in the institutions of power.

I think you then get Syriza doing a deal with the Troika in Europe, for instance, because they are trying to play by those rules. You get a Jamaal Bowman selling out across the board on Palestine and Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. You get accommodation on budgets and stimulus bills that do not fit the agenda of the Left.

And there’s no social counterweight in the streets because, once your elected representatives march into those institutions, if you’re not subjecting them to constant pressure, we know the other side is.

Going back to the “dirty break” question, that’s the fundamental issue to me. It’s less about, say, the temporality of when a full-scale break happens than about the methods of struggling that facilitate that break because you have a layer of people who are trained in social struggle and mobilization who are essentially saying, “When the hell do we cut these ties? When do we go independent?”

TC: In his recent review of Eric Blanc’s Revolutionary Social Democracy: Working Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882–1917)Sam Farber writes, “To qualify as revolutionary—in the sense of seeking to abolish capitalism—a party must also be a combat-oriented party in both strategic and tactical terms.” He adds, “In the case of the United States, any serious revolutionary socialist group must have a strategic long-term combat orientation given the very small likelihood that the ruling class will accept a peaceful transition to a socialist government. Even before that, it will likely dismantle the democratic political system the moment a socialist alternative becomes a real threat.” Do you think there is a value to Sam’s notion of a “combat” organization, and do you feel he’s right in suggesting that such a revolutionary horizon should inform how we approach our political work now?

DM: I think Sam is right, but I think it’s very important today, when our political vocabulary is so depleted, to be clear what we’re saying and what we are not saying.

I say that because, in some radical quarters, there’s a kind of glorification of the Weather Underground, for instance. I know what Sam means in those formulations, but I think it’s vital that we are clear about explaining what this means. We’re talking about an organization and a movement that understands that what Karl Kautsky called the “road to power” involves a process of overturning institutions and overthrowing a form of class rule. And that this can only be accomplished through mass insurgent struggle from below that creates new institutions of power capable of defeating the old ones. And that is social combat. It is class struggle from below.

This is what, in an older vocabulary—one that I still believe to be relevant—was called the construction of forms of “dual power,” mass institutions of working-class power capable of becoming centers of self-rule that can dislodge and disarm the old institutions.

Assembly of Soviets, Petrograd, 1917. Photo from Kristallstadt.

That’s a revolutionary perspective. And without that horizon, you don’t have the long-term strategic perspective that informs the way you approach struggles in the here and now.

Going back to my earlier comments, the Black Lives Matter movement should have stayed in the streets into the election campaign and kept up its anti-policing messages. And it ought not to have been frightened that this might cost Biden some votes, because it should have been saying, this presidential election cannot be the strategic horizon of the radical Left. Our horizon is different. It’s one defined by building insurgent power from below in our society.

I think Sam is also right in recognizing that there are a set of verbal mystifications happening in the writings of the key leaders of the so-called “center” in European social democracy of the early twentieth century. In this period, the spokespeople of the center, like Kautsky, maintained elements of a kind of vocabulary they inherited from Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, but they channeled it through a parliamentary and reformist prism that is foreign to the spirit of Marx and Engels. The discourse sounded similar—we need a “road to power”—but the content was substantially diluted.

To me, that is the really important achievement of August Nimtz’s writings on these questions. He’s very clear that Marx and Engels were not at all allergic to working-class participation in parliamentary politics. But their insistence on working-class independence and having what we would today call a class-struggle program in the electoral arena is clear and uncompromising.

For anyone who’s looked at Mike Taber’s collection of documents from the Second International, when you go to the really important ones—if imperialist war breaks out, we turn the world war into civil war, into class war, that was Luxemburg in alliance with Lenin. And so, what I like about Sam’s argument is he recognizes that an orthodox sounding Marxist vocabulary can be—and was—adapted to an increasingly reformist parliamentary politics.

To me, the criterion that Sam is laying down is really the one running through our conversation: to what degree do organizations stress class struggle from below and understand that ruling classes are not going to stand by and let a left government expropriate means of production from them and start to move toward workers’ control of production?

Marx and Engels were not at all allergic to working-class participation in parliamentary politics. But their insistence on working-class independence and having what we would today call a class-struggle program in the electoral arena is clear and uncompromising.

On the basis of theory and historical experience, that’s utterly improbable. As a result, there are certain implications for those of us who are anti-capitalists. And I think Sam is right that this is obscured by looking back and saying, “See, Kautsky was still saying we need a revolution.” Well, what was the social content? I’m not just interested in the rhetoric. If the practice was accommodation to the institutional forms of capitalist rule—as it clearly was—then this was no longer a revolutionary project as understood by Marx and Engels.

TC:In the last decade or so, we have examples of people trying to build looser socialist networks, broader left parties, electoral formations, and campaign-oriented organizations. Do any of these strike you as particularly promising? Do you draw any lessons from the ways in which they have fallen short? Are there examples or lessons from earlier periods as we start to re-imagine what socialist organizations should be?

DM:This is really tough. I do think there are certain kinds of revolutionary groups that we can look to as having played interesting and important roles in fostering a broader class struggle Left at certain points in time. I don’t think there are models in the way in which maybe many of us previously thought about models, but I think they can be instructive in various ways.

And regrettably at the moment, the balance sheet on most of the attempts to innovate with respect to organization are not great. By and large, we’ve seen a lot of failures, but it does seem to me that there are organizations that in different ways have developed and made contributions to the ongoing building of the Left at sometimes really critical and important moments.

I think we can identify lots of flaws in them, but I’m thinking of three different examples. I don’t want anyone to suggest that I’m holding any one of them up as the perfect model. I am not, as they all carried different flaws.  But on one point, I’ll take the Socialism or Barbarism (Socialisme ou Barbarie) group in France.

I think there were all kinds of problems with Socialisme ou Barbarie, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that that group contributed more to the political imagination of 1968 than any other group. Its slogans around worker self-management, for instance, were found everywhere throughout the May-June uprising.

In 1968, they had essentially taken certain kinds of elements of the revolutionary Marxist tradition. They were anti-Stalinist and were inspired by the Hungarian workers uprising of 1956. And they believed that in the 1960s, socialism could effectively speak to the realities of the working class with a very radical critique of bureaucratic, Taylorist management. They raised the vision of workers self-management, and this critique of capitalism resonated with an audience of young workers and students.

Now, having said that, I don’t think they demonstrated any capacity to move beyond being a propaganda circle for such ideas.

If I turn then to the Socialist Review Group in Britain, it seems to me that they had a lot of the same strengths as Socialism or Barbarism in France, but they had a greater commitment to the view that people with those ideas need to get connected to larger networks of activists and organizers.

Initially they found that largely in the youth sections of the Labour Party, then in the movement for nuclear disarmament. and then the anti–Vietnam War movement. They had a similar set of political commitments to workers’ control and socialism from below, but they were more interventionist in looking for places to group together, forming networks of young radicals, and seeking to understand the relationship between nuclear weapons and capitalism, the Vietnam War and capitalism, and so on.

I don’t think it’s an accident that it was the political current coming out of the Socialist Review Group that developed the most significant working-class implantation of any group on the far Left in Britain at the time. When a great wave worker insurgency arrived in the early 1970s, they admirably connected with it and built a significant socialist current.

They also didn’t worry about whether their implantation was in a place or sector that somebody imagined to be the most strategic section of the working class or not. They essentially found whatever openings offered themselves.

And in the 1960s they recruited remarkable activists from a small engineering plant in London, and essentially developed not only an ongoing set of interventions in that factory, but they also learned about the strategic importance of the shop stewards’ movement of the time. Tony Cliff and Colin Barker wrote a really important pamphlet on this question in the 1960s, for instance, highlighting the shop steward layer, which was independent of the full-time officialdom in the unions and very responsive to the membership. These were the people leading wildcat strikes and workplaces struggles. Working with such activists enabled these socialists to grasp the strategic role of the shop steward layer in the unions.

They were effectively using this one factory to do what Italian workers later called “workers’ inquiry.” They were talking to the activists and learning and developing strategic perspectives. And as a result, they were politically equipped to launch a meaningful rank-and-file movement in the unions in the early to mid-1970s in Britain, largely based on their implantation initially in just one factory. And they didn’t care if it was what somebody thought to be the “big battalion” of the working class or not. It was where they could work, where they could learn, and where they could train members in politics of workplace intervention.

And so that’s way beyond, for example, what Socialism or Barbarism was doing. And it meant that when a mass anti-Vietnam War movement came along, they could apply the same tactics of intervention and struggle on a broader scale.

And when the wildcat strikes started taking off in the early 1970s, they had a critique of the full-time officialdom based on a strategic appreciation of the shop stewards and rank-and-file organizing, and they recruited probably 800 or 900 really important union activists in Britain over several years.

That was a small breakthrough toward meaningful implantation. And it came from that kind of organizing.

It’s important to remember that the Socialist Review Group, which later becomes the International Socialists in Britain, was very open-minded theoretically. Yes, they had a core set of politics, but if you go back and look at their journal, for instance, they were publishing left communists like Paul Mattick. They were publishing articles by Hal Draper, even though he differed with them on “the Russian question.” They published contributions from followers of C.L.R. James, like George Rawick, because they were sufficiently open-minded and confident in their political analysis.

They were open to engagement. They weren’t trying to close down and prevent “alien” ideas from corrupting their members. They trusted that their own political education was substantial enough that their members would learn and grow from engaging with ideas outside their political traditions.

I think that combination of an open-minded but revolutionary experimentation toward intervening, building, and learning is vital. It was the shop stewards who taught them and gave them a unique perspective on intervention in the labor movement. And at the same time, they were very open-minded in terms of theoretical-political engagement. They were confident that they could contribute to those discussions and debates. And it meant that this organization was a genuine intellectual presence on the wider Left.

If you look at a book like World Crisis, for instance, that the British IS published in the early 1970s, this is not the publication of a line organization. There are internal differences of emphasis across those essays, Nigel Harris’s sense of the world system and its globalization is different from Chris Harman’s sense of national state capitalism, for instance, but these were invigorating and important discussions. They weren’t shut down because there were deviations from a line.

There’s one other example I’ll give. It’s one that I think is under-appreciated by all of us, myself included.

I think it’s time on the radical Left to really return and look at Walter Rodney’s Working People’s Alliance in Guyana.

This was a Left formation with real social roots. Its membership numbered in the thousands. There was a reason why Prime Minister Forbes Burnham chose to assassinate Rodney. This was a growing, Marxist-inspired political party that was independent. And while it might not be the tradition that many of us understood, I think it’s very much a tradition from which we ought to learn. And I think it also gives us a non-North American or European example, which is important.

Inside cover of the membership card used by Walter Rodney’s Working People’s Alliance (WPW). Card belonged to Brian Rodway, Socialist activist of Guyana and co-founder of the WPA. Photo by GuyanaHistory.

For instance, I think we need to engage with Rodney’s writing on the Russian Revolution. He doesn’t go far enough in the critique of bureaucracy, for me, but he understands key contradictions and flaws in the Stalinist experience.

There may be some similar currents that emerge during the phase of worker uprisings in South Africa. Certainly, there is the work of people like Neville Alexander that we can learn enormously from—especially his writings on racial capitalism in the South African context. But I think the Working Peoples’ Alliance example in Guyana is a very interesting one for us to learn from.

TC:You’ve said that “revolutionary organization remains vital” and that we need “forms of organizing that suit the moment” and that allow revolutionaries “to work with reformist currents.” And you have used the term “pre-party formation” in connection with this proposal. What does that look like for you in the year 2022?

DM: This is probably the most difficult of all of these questions, but I suppose my thinking runs along the following lines, which are multi-scalar, by which I mean we need to figure out what kinds of venues and spaces can draw radical socialists into conversation and joint work.

It’s been really, really tough under conditions of the pandemic. Let’s face it, there are limits to what we can accomplish via Zoom.

Over time, the goal should be not simply to be in conversation with each other, but to be sponsoring conversations within a wider Left and working toward actual campaigns and mobilizations. In terms of the conversations we need, the Socialism conference in Chicago is the most obvious example, but the Historical Materialism conferences in New York and elsewhere have served a similar purpose.

We need to broaden out the range of forces who are in struggle together around a certain set of demands, but we also need to sharpen our independent political positions within such fronts.

I think we ought to work, for instance, to unify people around what we would call an anti-campist position against war in Ukraine. We’re going to have to figure out how to do that while we’re also working with campists. This means sorting out how to raise your own independent positions while working in a coalitional framework where there are differences with anti-war liberals, campists, revolutionary anti-campists, and so on.

But if we only are talking to one another, with no opportunities to come together and clarify both sides of the united front tactic, we will be at a serious disadvantage. We need to broaden out the range of forces who are in struggle together around a certain set of demands, but we also need to sharpen our independent political positions within such fronts.

I worry that we’re somewhat stymied at this moment in terms of bringing both those scales together—the indispensable political discussions on the one hand, and the on-the-ground organizing, on the other. And I think that figuring this out is going to be key to a project like Tempest.

How do we serve to both solidify and strengthen those like-minded forces that really are internationalist, on the one hand, and train ourselves in being able to work and operate in a principled but non-sectarian way with a wider array of social forces on the Left, while creating a gravitational pull toward socialism from below over time? That is fundamental.


Source > Tempest


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