I’m going to start this post with a pretty long quote. It’s shocking and scary and makes me very angry but also very resolute.
A CEO of a major agri-business corporation said the following to author Andrew Harvey in the early 1990s. You can find this quote on Progressive Commentary Hour podcasts or in Harvey’s book “The Hope” which is on Google books.
Rio [climate change summit] will accomplish absolutely nothing because you do-gooders are so naive about the real world. Most of you that I have met truly believe that if the CEOs – like me for instance – really knew what harm their corporate policies were doing, they would rend their Armani suits, fling out their Rolex-wreathed arms, burst into tears and change. This is madness, it shows how little you dare to know about what is really going on. And how can you even begin to be effective until you understand what you’re up against?
Let me tell you what you’re up against. You’re up against people like me. I know exactly what my company is doing, and what devastation it is causing to thousands of lives. I should know, I’m running it. I know and I do not care. I’ve decided I want a grand, gold-plated lifestyle and the perks and jets and houses that go with it, and I will do anything – bend the law, have people removed, bribe local government officials, you name it, to get what I want. I know, too, that none of my shareholders care a rat’s ass what I do or how I do it, providing I keep them swimming in cash.
The [left-wing activists] that I meet are frankly bliss-bunnies, about as useful in the real world as a rubber ball would be in a war.”
This blissful bunnyhood of seekers and the offensive self-righteousness of activists make it very easy for people like me to control the world. I know too, by the way, that the dark forces I play with are also playing with me. […] I’m willing to pay that price in return for the pleasure of being able to afford this restaurant. In return for being able to ring up the President of the United States on my personal phone in front of houseguests just to impress them. Am I getting through to you?
I’ve done a couple of posts on how billionaires justify having more wealth than they could possibly ever use. It’s important to argue hard and refute this nonsense because it goes out into the world backed up by a lot of resources and it convinces a hell of a lot of people.
But now and then, as above, the wealthy and powerful let their guard down and are totally frank about what’s going on in the world and what role they play. Our arguments against capitalism are not directed at the capitalists themselves because there is a general tendency among groups of people to believe what it suits them to believe.
The human race faces environmental destruction that could lead to extinction. The vast majority of us as a species suffer poverty and exploitation. Almost a billion are hungry. Imperialist wars plague the world. The most highly-developed parts of the world are in an economic crisis which seems absolutely intractable. As a species we have the material and intellectual means to solve all of these problems. However, we live in a society where the rich control the lion’s share of the wealth and invest only on the basis of profit. A state which is supposed to lessen the bad effects of this in fact more often helps the rich.
This rich class is, in general, aware of its crimes and is indifferent.
We need to work towards imposing the democratic control of workers over the land, factories, banks, transport systems, natural resources and governments. If we fail to do this and then to plan the economy toward ecologically friendly ends, nothing resembling civilisation is likely to survive the 21st century.
How We Get There
Many have already realized the need for socialism. But among them there are many that say that the “old” ideas of “Vanguardism” are
outdated, failed examples of “Toy Bolshevism”, and that we need alternative structures for socialist organisations. It is an interesting debate and worth engaging with. Syriza, a broad coalition of left-wing forces that has gathered huge support in Greece, is often held up as a model.
Broad “pluralistic”, “meeting-place-of-ideas” kind of parties are nothing new, nothing objectionable to anybody on the left, and – most importantly – nothing you can summon up on the spot! This side of the argument, that there should be a broad mass left workers’ party that may not have the perfect programme, but embraces lots of workers and young people, is not part of any argument. Practically everyone accepts that these things should exist and would be beneficial.
The other side of the argument is the part I want to dispute. This is the assertion that relatively small, centralized, highly-organised and politically homogeneous revolutionary parties should not exist.
There is a variance of positions on this ranging from objection to certain features of revolutionary parties (http://www.irishleftreview.org/2013/01/09/structure-democracy-irish-left-call-discussion/) to total exasperation at those parties and a barely-expressed wish that they would dissolve, pool their members and resources, and form a Syriza that everyone can enjoy.
In Ireland this question is particularly keen because the only two discernibly socialist and significantly-sized parties (http://socialistparty.net/ http://www.swp.ie) see themselves as revolutionary vanguard parties in the Leninist sense. To others on the left this is a constant source of irritation…
…because they have no organisation of their own and unfortunately enjoy very little success in trying to build one. Which is of course not really the fault of the Socialist Party or Socialist Workers’ Party!
The Socialist Workers’ Party in Britain
The result of all this is that, particularly after the fragmentation of the British Socialist Workers’ Party, a lot of people are giving a lot of stick to the idea of a revolutionary party. “Why,” I’ve heard them ask, “Would you organise a party along the lines of an organisation set up a hundred years ago in a semi-feudal autocracy?”
As if the reason for the SWP’s downfall was too much Bolshevism! Most of its members are very admirable but the fact is the SWP has always had a consistently poor analysis and an inability to admit its own mistakes. Its strategy and tactics have always been dishonest and sectarian, with a proliferation of false banners (People Before Profit, Right to Work, Students Against Fascism, €nough!, Unite the Resistance in the last few years in Ireland alone). The Comrade Delta affair was disgusting in its own right but was a lightning-rod for members’ grievances on many other issues and with the party generally. (http://sovietgoonboy.wordpress.com/ http://www.leninology.com/)
Given a long period of Capitalist stability and the constant pressure toward opportunism, sometimes overcompensated for by a cosmetic ultra-left turn, you can see why organisations go bad. In the case of the Healyites, you can see why they go spectacularly bad. None of this is specific to a revolutionary party.
What are the essential elements of the criticism of the revolutionary party sometimes expressed with the term “Toy Bolshevism”?
- A fear of centralisation leading to authoritarianism, in the vein of the right-wing historians who would, if they could, examine Lenin’s shite for the seeds of Stalinism.
- A view that revolutionary parties have been impotent and unsuccessful in achieving any significant victory for workers. Apart from Russia of course. And, closer to home, the poll tax. And, even closer, the water charges. And Gama. And the household tax…
- A view that the activity of revolutionary parties seems pointless. That instead of the incremental bread-and-butter work of politicising, fundraising, supporting campaigns and strikes, demonstrations, stall and paper sales, there should be… Here falls a strange silence. Or else plans about productive enterprises to finance a mass workers’ party and a “left media” to spread its message. Which of course would be wonderful.
- The idea that the members of a revolutionary party have a grandiose sense of their own importance, that they imagine themselves storming Leinster House in the short term, that they count on “an insurrectionary movement from Mars” falling into
their laps. In fact such parties are aware of their own weaknesses organisationally and numerically and in terms of their influence on the class. They are nowhere near the finished product, anymore than society as a whole is ripe for insurrection. But they are in the process of fashioning the necessary party and see it as a very urgent task. This is why they recruit, sell papers, educate, maintain their independence, defend their programme and participate in other forms of what independent lefts often judge to be “sectarian” activity.
Often, however, the objections seem to point to a longing for a more laid-back kind of party. One that is less centralized and which demands less challenging activity of its members, and which would be more broadly appealing politically. One which could be all this but still make a massive difference to the situation now if not sooner!
Problems of a “less revolutionary” revolutionary party
In many countries worker militancy has been sapped, traditional organisations such as trade unions and labour parties destroyed or won over by the right. The only forces to survive the onslaught of capitalist triumphalism in the ‘90s and ‘00s were the revolutionary parties. This tells us two things.
Firstly, it illustrates the weaknesses of more broad-left parties, which are useful in an upswing of labour struggle but which change not just in size but in substance in periods of demoralisation. This if nothing else is an argument for a solid, organised revolutionary party.
Secondly, it explains why people on the left have such strong objections to revolutionary parties. The difficulty of building new mass workers’ parties, which the so-called “Toy Bolsheviks” have always given their all to, has provoked a certain sourness. “Here we are five years into the crisis, and still no significant left alternative!”
People often fail to see that this is a consequence of matters such as the smashing of the British trade unions under Thatcher in the UK, and twenty years of social partnership in Ireland. There being no serious avenues of struggle and a defeatist leadership, demoralisation has been a strong element of the mood in Ireland. But a misdiagnosis of the problem sees people on the Irish left claim that if the Trots loosened up a little and did X, Y and Z, they would grow massively. But hang on. Making your politics more chilled-out and becoming more flaky, disorganised and unable to act in a concerted manner – how would this help to further the cause of workers?
An old-school analogy
The ancient Greek generals knew that a small number of soldiers organised and trained to fight in a phalanx, a tight formation of spears and shields, could see off an enemy many times its size. It was an unstoppable collective machine. Its power was in its organisation, training and weaponry. If a general could somehow gather unstoppably huge numbers of people, in some exceptional circumstance, of course he could win battles without the need for training or strong organisation. But such an army, once panicked and routed, is hard to rally, will be cut down by the enemy in an everyone-for-themselves rout, and leave only traumatised and depressed survivors and many who surrender. A phalanx suffers during a rout but is on the whole solid, and is prepared to weather adversity, withdraw tactically, and remain intact for the next advance.
In the same way a centralised, revolutionary party is capable of punching above its weight in society. It makes its decisions democratically with full freedom of debate, but once the decision is made it works in a united fashion to achieve its goals. It has a full-time apparatus to allow it to intervene effectively. I don’t pretend that there are any revolutionary parties in the world today that function in such a well-organised fashion but parties that aspire to the Leninist idea of the revolutionary party have strong elements of the phalanx about them and are constantly trying their hardest to grow in numbers and to improve in organisation.
Remember the quote I posted at the start of this article. “Am I getting through to you?” asks the CEO. He certainly got through to me. Faced with the horrors wrought on the world by capitalism and the extremely powerful interests that keep it that way, military analogies such as the above are absolutely appropriate and are in no way grandiose.
A party which has a flaky approach to politics and organisation will not impress the working class or give the impression that it cares or understands keenly enough. Such a party is not up to the everyday challenges of the class struggle because it cannot intervene effectively. Nor is it up to the task of challenging the likes of our CEO who simply laugh at ineffectual “bliss-bunnies”.
The key task for anyone who wants to change the world is to build organisations – thinking machines with maximum discussion on all subjects from everyday campaigning to philosophy, and at the same time fighting machines to advance the power and confidence of ordinary people and to provide leadership at crucial moments. We are of no use on our own, each of us. The benchmark for your success as a socialist activist should be how well you build, qualitatively and quantitatively, a revolutionary organisation.
The danger of “bureaucratisation” is constantly hyped by the critics of the revolutionary party and grossly inappropriate references to Stalinism are frequently made. But even if this danger were to begin with historically relevant and then magnified a thousand times greater than they paint it, it would not be as great a danger as the danger that every one of us might someday die without having dispossessed and humiliated that CEO and fixed the horrors he and his class are responsible for. Read over the quote again. It might almost have been fabricated by some frustrated activist who wanted to provoke complacent leftists into action. “Am I getting through to you?”