The first of two papers arguing for the need to break from the 'sect' form of organisation.
The full title of this is Toward a New Beginning – On Another Road: The Alternative to the Micro-Sect. For libcom.org is has been shortened to The Alternative to the Micro-Sect.
Original source: https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1971/alt/alt.htm
The problem is still: how to build a revolutionary socialist party. In the U.S., no appreciable progress towards this goal is visible in the last third of a century (since the end of WW2). The goal is still there, but the road to this goal can hardly be considered immune from re-examination.
The road we have been on leads up a blind canyon. We have to go back to pick up another road, one which forked off a certain distance back.
The road we have been slogging along has a name: it is the road of the sect. We will define this.1
- 1“Sects” and “sectarian” have as many different definitions as there are political viewpoints. Here, of course, we are concerned with a Marxist definition. For example, denunciation of sects, as of sectarianism, is standard for all reformists. To them “sectarian” simply means revolutionary Marxism, and a “sect” is any revolutionary organization. This empty literature causes a certain amount of confusion. For one of the silliest examples, see Lewis Coser in Dissent, 1:4, 1954.
We will see how and when it got started. And we will explain why it leads to getting lost – i.e. to where we are now.
We will argue that history shows there must be another road, a different road.
In fact, without thinking the problem through, we did get started on a different road in early 1964 when the Independent Socialist Committee was formed to revive Independent Socialism as a political tendency, by encouraging the formation of local clubs. (The first Independent Socialist Club, on the Berkeley campus, was formed in the fall of 1964.) But we did not then think it through as an alternative to the sect type of organization. As a result, the barely nascent Independent Socialist movement slipped back into the “sect” rut as a result of easily identifiable pressures. We propose to think it through now.
[h1]1. Let’s start by going back to Marx ...[/h2]
There is no question about what Marx’s views and practice were on this point. In fact, he probably over-reacted, so intense was his determination to have nothing to do with any sect, including a sect of his very own.
To Marx, any organization was a sect if it set up any special set of view (including Marx’s views) as its organizational boundary; if it made this special set of views the determinant of its organizational form.
Neither Marx nor Engels ever formed or wanted to form a “Marxist” group of any kind – that is, a membership group based on an exclusively Marxist program. All of their organizational activity was pointed along a different road.
According to their thinking: what should you do if you agreed with their views – how should you try to implement these views? Your task would be to carry those views into the movements and organizations naturally arising from the existing social struggle. Your task would not be to invent a “higher” form of organization out of your head. Your task would be to permeate these class movements and organizations with your views; in the process of doing so, to develop cadres of revolutionaries in these movements and organizations; and thus to work finally raising the movement as a whole to a higher level.
The movement as a whole: Marx and Engels knew and said that this process might, indeed probably would, involve splits; they made no fetish of unbroken unity as a condition of the process. But the splits which they considered natural were not the artificial splits of an ideological wing which is out to unfurl an abstract programmatic banner. The splits they expected were those arising organically as the mass level rose. They expected such splits from two directions: from bourgeoisified elements who objected to a class line and a class-struggle course of development of the movement; and from sec-ideologists who saw the class movement moving away from their own special nostrums and prescriptions for it. They expected that either such elements would split away, or that the healthy class elements would have to split with them; but however it came about formally, the line of organizational demarcation was never to be special programmatic views of an ideological vanguard for its own sake (i.e. program in the abstract) but rather the political meaning, in terms of ongoing social struggle, of the political level of the development reached by the movement of the class (i.e. program in the concrete, program as concretized in the real class struggle going on).
Thus, during 1847 Marx and Engels, who had joined the Communist League, worked to rid it of its sectarian and conspiratorial hangovers, and succeeded handily; but at the very same time, in Brussels where he lived, Marx devoted his organizational efforts to building the Democratic Association, which was not even programmatically socialist. And when the revolution broke out on the Continent, their first move was to dump the Communist League (dissolve it) as the vanguard vehicle of the organizational operation.
In Cologne during the revolution, they operated (organizationally speaking) on three levels, not one of which resembled a Marxist sect: (1) In the left-democratic movement (Democratic Union). [This part of the picture has nothing to do with our present problem, being related to the problem of policy in a bourgeois-democratic revolution.] (2) In the Workers Association of the city, a board class organization; and (3) In their own political center. And what did they create as “their” political center? Not an organization at all, but rather a newspaper and its editorial board, that is, a voice. And it was this editorial board which functioned as the “Marx tendency” – which regarded itself as such, and was publicly regarded as such.
With the ebb of the revolution, and after returning to London, Marx did agree to the reconstitution of the Communist League temporarily; but soon, by the fall of 1850, Marx saw that the revolutionary crisis was over, while the majority of the membership reacted to frustration with a severe case of sectarian infantilism. The League then split and fell apart. Marx never repeated this experience.
During the 1850s, Marx and Engels made no effort to set up anything, but concentrated exclusively on producing and publishing the literature which was to make possible the education of a cadre. This period came to an end only when the working-class movement itself threw up the ad-hoc organization which we know as the First International.
The First International was so polar distant from the sect concept of organization that it never even clearly came out for communism, and barely endorsed a version of economic collectivism at a later congress. And it was so broadly inclusive, within the framework of a clear-cut class character, that no one would dream of duplicating today. In any case, the approach which it evidenced was the 180° opposite of the sect: Instead of starting with the Full Program and then assembling the band of chosen around it, from any class strata (especially intellectuals), Marx wanted to start with strata of the working class that were in movement – moving in class struggle, even if on a “low” level – and adapt the program to what these strata were ready for. This is the way to start.
2. Marx: the negative side
Within this broad class movement of the First International, Marx and Engels set up no political center of their own of any kind; and it is this which raises the question of over-reaction, not their disinclination to create a Marxist sect.
In effect Marx used the General Council, and his influence in the General Council, as his “political center”; it would be easy to explain why this was not enough. Probably Marx felt that any other course would impede his personal influence in the General Council; but the price was that the formation of a definite Marxist cadre was still in a less-than-elementary stage when the International went under.
This negative fact – not the failure to create a Marxist sect, but the failure to build a Marxist cadre of any kind – is one of the background reasons for the way in which the various socialist parties arose in the different countries – even the so-called “Marxist” parties.
Take England, right under Marx’s nose: – The first “Marxist” center of any kind was established by a man (Hyndman) in hostility to Marx and to the small circle of English socialists directly influenced by Marx; a man who established this “Marxist” center as a typical sect of the worst kind, and whose disastrous influence on the patterns of English Marxism has not been overcome to this day. No alternative kind of Marxist political center was ever offered by Marx or Engels or by any of their circle. The result was that the embodiment of Marx to the British public was a man who was the cruddiest “founder of Marxism” of any country in the world.
The obvious alternative to the sect would have been what Marx did in Cologne: the establishment of an organ by Marx’s British friends, a publication acting as the voice of Marxist ideas, a model of how to address oneself to the class movement, an organizer of a cadre. Nothing like this was done; there was a vacuum. The Hyndman sect operation stepped into the vacuum.
While Eleanor Marx did brilliant work as an organizer of the New Unionism (militant mass unionism), organizing the unorganized and unskilled trades, she did it as an individual, with no other visible point of reference. While she and Aveling did good work in spreading advocacy of independent working-class political action in London’s proletarian ghetto, with an impact which eventually helped to produce the Labor Party, yet their work could not have the concomitant effect of helping to select out and train up a Marxist cadre – which would do more of what they were doing.
(This failing – the failure to establish any kind of visible political center even if not in the form of a sect – was later repeated, with less excuse, by Rosa Luxemburg in Germany; while in Poland her Polish comrades established a sect, not a class party.)
Marx’s very extreme detestation of the sect type of organization did not mean that he was unable to recognize the positive contributions made by some sects. He did not have to fall into this one-sided appraisal of the historical role played by some sects, any more than his hatred of capitalism ruled out credit for the great positive contributions of capitalism to the development of society. Just as the Communist Manifesto offers what has been called a paean of praise to the historical benefactions of the bourgeoisie, so also Marx and Engels were often glowing in their praise of the contributions made by the Utopian sects.
They did not waste any time deploring the fact that these contributions were first made by sects (sometimes rather grotesque sects, like the Saint-Simonian “religion”); for they understood the pressures which pushed socialist ideologists into the sect-form. All the more important, they thought, to push in a different direction, to orient socialists toward a different organizational road.
Marx summarized this in a well-known letter (1871):
“The International was founded in order to replace the socialist or semi-socialist sects by real organization of the working class for struggle... On the other hand, the International could not have maintained itself if the course of history had not already smashed sectarianism. The development of socialist sectarianism and that of the real labor movement always stand in reverse ratio to each other. So long as the sects are justified (historically), the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historical movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity all sects are essentially reactionary. For all that, what history exhibits everywhere was repeated in the history of the International. What is antiquated tries to reconstitute and assert itself within the newly acquired form.
“And the history of the International was a continual struggle of the General Council against the sects and against amateur experiments, which sought to assert themselves within the International against the real movement of the working class.”
The point is not to try to determine a priori on exactly what date the sect-form becomes reactionary, etc. That can’t be done. Marx set out to struggle for his own road to a revolutionary movement, and that meant setting himself foursquare against the sect-idea. That the possible contributions of a sect were not entirely historically exhausted in 1864 was amply proved in hindsight, but it is irrelevant to Marx’s course. The Lassallean “sect” in Germany (see Marx’s remarks in the same letter) or the above-mentioned Hyndman sect in England continued to play a role (alas) – a role which also had a positive side as long as there was no working alternative.
Unquestionably, sometimes a set may be better than nothing, but that piece of wisdom does not point to a line. On the other hand, the socialist sect of the German-American émigrés was, in Marx and Engels’ view, worse than nothing, and they hoped it would smash up and disappear. (Unfortunately it is still with us a century later: SLP.)
So it does not follow, even from Marx’s all-out abhorrence of the sect-form, that all sects are always equally harmful. The reverse is true: there is naturally a tremendous variation in this regard. If we look nearer than Marx’s examples: – The “Oehlerites” (a micro-sect which splintered from the Trotskyist sect in 1935) contributed nothing to the development of a revolutionary movement except a subject for hilarity (which is not to be sneezed at in grim times). On the other hand, as we shall mention, the Independent Socialist League worked out the essentials of the revolutionary socialism of our day. That is quite a difference! But it does not gainsay the only conclusion we want to point to at this juncture:
There is a road to a revolutionary party which is not the road of the sect.
[h1]3. Anatomy of the sect[/h2]
To sum up: we have seen three approaches so far. One we can throw out: the approach of confining oneself only to individual militants without any political center. The real problem is whether the political center must necessarily be a sect. It is a question of the relationship between the vanguard and the class, not merely of two organizational forms.
The sect establishes itself on a HIGH level (far above that of the working class) and on a thin base which is ideologically selective (usually necessarily outside working class). Its working-class character is claimed on the basis of its aspiration and orientation, not its composition or its life. It then sets out to haul the working class up to its level, or calls on the working class to climb up the grade. From behind its organizational walls, it sends out scouting parties to contact the working class, and missionaries to convert two here and three there. It sees itself becoming, one day, a mass revolutionary party by a process of accretion; or by eventual unity with two or three other sects; or perhaps by some process of entry.
Marx, on the other, saw the vanguard elements as avoiding above all the creation of organizational walls between themselves and the class-in-motion. The task was not to lift up two workers here and three there to the level of the Full Program (let alone two students here and three intellectuals there!) but to go after the levers that could get the class, or sections or the class, moving as a mass onto higher levels of action and politics.
The sect mentality sees its sanctification only in its Full Program, that is, in what separates it from the working class. If, god forbid, some slogan it puts forth bids fair to become to popular, it gets scared. “Something must be the matter! We must have capitulated to somebody.” (This is not a caricature: it is drawn from life.) Marx’s approach was exactly the opposite. The job of the vanguard was to work out slogans that would be popular in the given state of the class struggle, in the sense of being able to get broadest possible masses of workers moving. That means: moving on an issue, in a direction, in a way that would bring them into conflict with the capitalist class and its state, and the agents of capitalists and state, including the “labor lieutenants of capitalism” (its own leaders).
The sect is a miniaturized version of the revolutionary party-to-be, a “small mass party,” a microscopic edition or model of the mass party that does not yet exist. Rather, it thinks of itself this way, or tries to be such a miniature.
Its organizational method is the method of “as if”: let us act as if we were a mass party already (to a miniscular degree, naturally, in accordance with our resources), and this is the road to becoming a mass party. Let us publish a “workers’ newspaper,” just as if we were a workers’ party; and if we cannot publish a daily like a real mass party, at least we can publish a weekly or bi-weekly by draining all our resources – this makes us a small (unreal) mass party. (But such a facade is only self-deluding, since if it ever succeeds in deluding a single worker, he finds out soon enough that there is little behind it.) Let us build a “Bolshevik” party be being “disciplined” like good Bolsheviks. (So, on the basis of a false notion of “Bolshevik” discipline absorbed from the enemies of Leninism, the sect is “Bolshevized” into a contracting, petrifying coterie, which replaces the bonds of a political cohesion by iron hoops such as are needed to hold together the staves of a crumbling barrel.
There is a fundamental fallacy in the notion that the road of miniaturization (aping a mass party in miniature) is the road to a mass revolutionary party. Science proves that the scale on which a living organism exists cannot be arbitrarily changed: human beings cannot exist either on the scale of the Lilliputians or of the Brobdingagians; their life mechanisms could not function on either scale. Ants can life 200 times their own weight, but a six foot ant could not lift 20 tons even if it could exist in some monstrous fashion. In organizational life too, this is true: If you try to miniaturize a mass party, you do not get a mass party in miniature, but only a monster.
The basic reason for this is the following: The life-principle of a revolutionary mass party is not simply its Full Program, which can be copied with nothing but an activist typewriter and can be expanded or contracted like an accordion. Its life-principle is its integral involvement as a part of the working-class movement, its immersion in the class struggle not by a Central Committee decision but because it lives there. It is this life-principle which cannot be aped or miniaturized; it does not reduce like a cartoon or shrink like a woolen shirt. Like a nuclear reaction, this phenomenon comes into existence only at critical mass; below critical mass, it does not simply become smaller, it disappears.
Hence, what can the would-be micro-mass party ape in miniature? Only the internal life of the mass party (some of it, in a way); but this internal life, mechanically carried over, is now detached from the reality which governs it in a real mass party. Detach the guts of a lion from its body, and what you have in reality is – tripe. This is why the internal life of a sect has a tendency to be an exercise in unreality, in facades, in ritual imitations.
Also, since only the mass party’s internal life is available for ritualized parody, the set mentality finds only internal life congenial. For outside of that internal life, the harsh realities of isolation and impotence are unbuffered and unbearable, having not the slightest resemblance to the external life of a mass party. The internal life of the sect becomes not a necessary evil keyed to its outside activities, but rather a substitute gratification. On the one hand, the mass-party worker chafes at the necessity of spending much time at internal branch meetings, fraction meetings etc., even if he is a good enough Marxist to understand that these things are necessary. The sect mentality, in contrast, finds comfort and zest only in such ingrown activities, where suitably revolutionary talk can be enjoyed, whereas a trade-union meeting is just a drag.
4. Well, what about the Bolsheviks?
But didn’t the Bolshevik party have to develop from a sect to a mass party? If they can do it, so can we ...
No, that is not how the Bolsheviks became a mass party – not by the road of the sect. And there is no proposal for a sect form of organization in What Is To Be Done?. The whole mass of fairy-tale history about Lenin’s party conceptions is an invention of the professional anti-Bolsheviks and Stalinists; however, we obviously cannot go into that here, The following will suffice for the present problem:
Take the route embodied in What Is To Be Done?. In the preceding period, the preliminaries for a mass party had taken shape in Russia in the form not of sects but of local workers’ circles, which remained loose, and founded loose regional associations. They had not developed as branches of a central organization but autonomously, in response to social struggles – loosely.
What Lenin set out to organize abroad, first of all, was not a sect, not any membership organization, but a political center: a publication (Iskra) with an editorial board. The Iskra tendency was embodied as an editorial board, not a sect. The membership organization to which Lenin looked was to be a mass party, not one consisting exclusively of those who agreed with his revolutionary Marxism, but rather a mass Party broad enough to include all socialists, indeed all militant workers. It would have different tendencies within it, and the consistent Marxists might be a minority at least for a while.
But while Lenin did not make the mistake of proposing to interpose the walls of a sect between his tendency (i.e. the one with the correct line) and the broad movement of the class-in-struggle, he also did not make the other mistake: the mistake of neglecting to build a political center and thereby a Marxist cadre.
It was the Mensheviks and right-wingers, not Lenin, who split rather than permit a left-wing majority. Nor, in the years of the Bolshevik party’s formation, did Lenin make a virtue out of necessity: he did not adopt the view that the Party had to be limited to Bolsheviks. On the contrary, he fought consistently for the conception of a broad Party in which, however, the left wing had as much right to take over the leadership by democratic vote as did the right wing. This is what the Bolshevik-leadership split was all about, on the organizational side.
Of course, the state of illegality in which the movement functioned conditioned organizational forms in many ways, but it is not illegality that determined that Lenin refused to take the road of forming a Bolshevik sect. If Iskra had been set up in Petrograd instead of abroad, the essential relation would not have changed; and in fact, when partial legality was attained for a short period after the 1905 revolution, one of the consequences was temporary fusion of the Bolshevik and Menshevik groups in a united mass party, though Lenin retained a political center in the form of a publication and its editorial board. The onset of a measure of legality did not push Lenin toward a Bolshevik sect formation but in the opposite direction, toward unity with the Mensheviks in a mass party (not unity of the ideological political centers).
But weren’t both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks “factions” of the split party? – Yes, formally speaking they were; but a faction meant something else again in those days. On both sides, as well as for other organized tendencies in the Russian movement, a “faction” functioned as a public political center with its own publication and editorial board as the carrier of its politics.
Nor were these factions (Bolshevik as well as Menshevik) “membership organizations” in the sense of the sects we hive been trying to build. Look at the documents written by Lenin shortly before 1914 when the Socialist International bureau was inquiring into the Bolshevik-Menshevik unity question: – Lenin, to prove that the Bolsheviks had the support of a majority of the socialist workers in Russia, gives statistics on circulation of organs, financial contributions, etc., but not membership. Nor did anyone expect membership figures. For the membership organizations in Russia were local and regional party groups which might be part Bolshevik and part Menshevik in sympathy, or might shift support from one to the other from time to time, etc. Every time a “party congress” or conference was held, each party group had to decide whether to attend this one or that one, or both.
What this points at is the fact that both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks were, in organizational form, not membership sects, and not even “factions” in any organizational meaning relevant to today. What were they? Both were political centers based on a propaganda/publishing enterprise, plus a central organizational apparatus for forging links with sections of the workers’ movement, through “agents”, literary collaborators, etc. (This plus is a crucial addition, though we do not dwell on it at this point.) Individual party members in Russia, or party groups, might decide to distribute Lenin’s paper or the Menshevik organ or neither – many preferred a “non-faction” organ such as Trotsky put out in Vienna; or they might use in their work those publications of the Bolsheviks which they liked plus those of the Mensheviks and others, on a free-wheeling basis.
Obviously much of this scene was conditioned by illegality; much of it by the nature of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, etc. It is not we who propose it as an automatic model for us today; we are discussing it for the very opposite reason: viz., because there are some who, erroneously thinking that the Bolsheviks developed in the shape of a sect, erroneously propose the “Bolshevik-type sect” as a model. But there never was anything like a “Bolshevik sect.” That invention came later, after the Comintern.
In any case, it is obvious there must be the following tentative conclusion: If the Bolshevik party did not develop as a revolutionary party through the road of the sect, then there must be another way.
In fact, the historical conclusion goes farther: There is no revolutionary mass party, or even semi-revolutionary mass party, which ever became a mass party by the road of the sect.
That does not prove there never will be. That does not prove, by itself, that it is forever impossible for a sect to evolve into a mass party in some organic way, that is, without at some point realizing it is on the wrong road and taking a different route. But we are not interested in proving that. All that needs to be understood is that there must be another road – a road which was in fact actually taken by revolutionary socialists, and with more or less success.
What is proved is that the road of the sect should not be followed uncritically, without thinking it through, as if it were the only one possible or thinkable. On the contrary the road of the sect has never worked up to now at all. What has worked is a quite different road, one which therefore at least deserves consideration.
5. How and when the sect form was revived
This other road dropped out of the consciousness of most revolutionary Marxists only relatively recently – that is, during the Comintern period.
The big historic development which dropped the curtain over it, and pushed the sect route to the fore, was the post-World War I Period of evolution in which the Comintern first posed the formation of revolutionary parties as an immediate “emergency” necessity. In every country, a revolutionary party had to be constituted forthwith, even if the party had to be hothouse-forced; this was demanded by the Comintern’s Twenty-One Points. The motivation was clear: the world revolution was on the order of the day for all of Europe. And it was true that the world revolution was on the immediate order of the day (in Europe).
But we now know that it proved to be flatly impossible to forge genuine revolutionary parties by a short-order forcing- process. (At any rate, not revolutionary parties capable of victory.) This is the essential reason why the enemy (primarily the Social-Democracy) was able to defeat this European revolution. And the defeat of this revolution was the turning-point of modern social history: all of the world today flows from it.
The best-known consequence was the rise of Stalinism – the Stalinization of the Communist parties as well as of Russia. A bi-symmetric consequence hit the currents that rejected Stalinization or broke with it: they generally saw the degeneration of the movement as the consequence of Stalinization, instead of seeing Stalinization as the consequence of the defeat and degeneration of the movement. On the basis of the former view revolutionary success as seen simply as depending on the forging of a vanguard leadership that was not Stalinist, that was truly revolutionary – that is, on the forming of a vanguard leadership that had the Correct Line, which would be enough. The hothouse-forcing process of setting up a revolutionary “party” by issuing one’s own Twenty-One Points (detached from the objective context of the real Twenty-One Points) was taken as the Given, by a new generation of revolutionaries or would-be revolutionaries for whom history had begun in 1917.
The result was a first wave of “Bolshevik” sects – that is, sects that tried to ape what they thought was Bolshevik – in the first period of the decline of the European revolution.
A typical example was the Italian “Bordiguists” and other offshoots of the infantile-leftists of the Comintern – the trends that Lenin had attacked in his Leftwing Communism, an Infantile Sickness. For one thing, as is well known, these well-intentioned but quite ignorant leftists then knew nothing about how the Bolshevik party had really been forged. For them., the Twenty-One Points ultimatum was not a special emergency measure, one which arose from sensible revolutionists only in the not-very-common situation of having an immediate revolutionary crisis breathing down one’s neck without a revolutionary party in existence. For them, this emergency measure, this desperate emergency measure, became the norm – the “regular” “Bolshevik” thing to do ... to do even if there did not exist the historical situation which alone explained why the Twenty-One Points had been resorted to.
Generalized as the normal pattern, this hothouse road to a revolutionary “party” (or facsimile thereof) went like this: You raise the Banner of the Correct Program to establish your organizational boundary. You do this regardless of the objective situation for it is a supra-historic imperative. You do this with whomever you have around – 2 other good people for example. (For was it not said that in the dark days of the war Lenin[’s] Bolshevik party was reduced to a handful?) You declare yourself The Revolutionary Party and since you have the Correct Program, eventually the workers will have to come to you door. .. And you have your sect.
6. A quick look at the Trotskyist sect pattern
Trotsky’s reluctance of several years against breaking with the Communist Parties was conditioned, among other things, on the fact that he too saw no alternative but the formation of a Trotskyist sect – a conclusion he was loath to take.
It must be remembered that, during the whole period of his political development (i.e. before 1914), Trotsky had never begun to understand what it was that Lenin was doing, For decades he had fought bitterly against Lenin’s organizational course, which he had denounced as a “splitting” policy. What was the “splitting” policy that horrified him? It was the course of forming a distinct political center around one’s Full and Correct Program – not basing a sect on the Full Program, but rather a political center.
Trotsky’s course as an organizational “conciliator” in the Russian movement meant that he too (like Luxemburg in Germany and most of the Second International “left”) never understood the nature of Lenin’s road to a revolutionary party. During most of Trotsky’s political life, the only organizational course he could understand was either the course of the sect- and-splitters (which is how he interpreted Lenin) or else the swamp of factitious “party-unity”-mongering.
It is ironic that the Stalinization of the CPs forced Trotsky into the road of forming his own “political center”, (the Left Opposition) inside the Communist Parties – that is, inside a Stalinized movement which tolerated no oppositional political center whatsoever! The road that he had denounced inside the pre-war Russian Social-Democracy (where it had been possible) was the one he was compelled to take inside the Stalinist movement (where it was impossible).
It is not very surprising, therefore, that, when the Trotskyist groups could no longer continue the organizational form of a Left Oppositional political center within the CPs, they naturally adopted the only other form they knew: the sect. Trotsky did so very unhappily, without any doubt; that is why the next experiment was with the entry into the Social- Democracy, in the hope that a non-sect road to a mass party could be found there. The hoped-for substitute was the incubation of a revolutionary party cadre in the mass movement which the Social-Democracy was supposed to represent. It would be digressive to pursue this story further, here.
The point we are interested in is this: that before and after this “entry” experiment, the un-thought-through acceptance of the “Bolshevik sect” pattern produced a profusion of micro-sects peeling off from the Trotskyist macro-sect from the 1930s on. In the U.S., in addition, the absence of any mass political movement of the working class made it so much the harder to see any other road.
7. The WP/ISL experience
There is one other case that demands immediate discussion, since it is the case of our immediate ancestor: the Workers Party/Independent Socialist League of 1940-58. In outline (though it deserves lengthier discussion some other time), the case goes as follows, in three stages:
1. Formation of the Socialist Workers Party out of the SP. – The Trotskyist entry into the Socialist Party (gestation in the womb of the Social-Democracy) was aborted by the end of 1937 when Trotsky (and with him part of the Trotskyist leadership around Cannon) decided that the world, including the U.S. was on the point of entering a revolutionary situation. This immediately triggered off the Twenty-One Points pattern (At least, this time, the motivation was a felt emergency situation, too,) By this pattern, as we have seen, The Revolutionary Party must at all costs be announced to the world, its banner and program unfurled, in good time to anticipate the sweep of the revolution. The SP right wing was just as anxious to expel us as Trotsky was for getting out: the actual result was a collaboration. In any case, by the beginning of 1938, the “Socialist Workers Party” was declared to the working class of the United States, and later the same year the “Fourth International” was likewise hothouse-forced into existence.
There was no ambiguity about the way the new party regarded itself: it was The Revolutionary Party at last vouchsafed to the world, and it would grow by swift accretion until it was the leading force in the working class – hopefully in good time to lead the developing revolution. By unfurling, the Full and Correct Program, the sect (i.e. the “party” that actually existed) would shoot down the road to become a mass party.
The outbreak of the war punctured this unquestioned view in two ways. What is best know is that the Full Program did turn out to be Full of something, but not Correct. (Defense of the Soviet Union, Hitler-Stalin pact, emergence of Stalinist imperialism, the invasion of Finland and Poland, etc.) More pertinent here is the second issue that figured in the 1939-40 fight that rocked and split the organization: the so-called “organizational question.”
For what happened (as we detailed at the time in a lengthy document titled War and Bureaucratic Conservatism) is that the sect-which-called-itself-a-party reacted. to the outbreak of the war like a ... sect. We did not understand it that way then: we called it “bureaucratic conservatism” in the Cannon leadership. This sect-response was acted out far more plainly by the SWP after the split than at the outset: the SWP went through the entire war period like a shellfish; it crawled into its shell., to protect its jellylike body, and announced the policy of “preserving its cadres,” by putting them on the shelf (along with the shelf-fish) for the duration, instead of seeking to find ways and means of hardening its cadres in struggle during the war.
2. In complete contrast, the Workers Party which we formed after the split followed a course which can be described as that of a “small mass party.” But we really acted like a “small mass party,” and did not merely talk about it. That is, the WP moved energetically and militantly into activities which would be undertaken by a mass party if one had existed – excellent revolutionary oppositional and shop work in the plants and trade unions, accompanied by mass circulation (distributions) of an agitational popular weekly, etc.
To be sure, this “mass party” work could be done only on a relatively small scale – or, what is the same thing, on a bigger scale only in a few very limited local situations – for we were a very small “mass party.” The underlying assumptions were still the same: revolutionary crisis by the end of the war, or thereabouts, and rapid growth along the lines we were working.
This course could seem to make sense, if only temporarily, for obvious conjunctural reasons: we were the only, sole and exclusive socialist opposition tendency in the working-class movement for this whole period of the war. This is a monopoly position which has not existed for anyone since then! “Industrialization” or “proletarianization” of our membership had been made relatively easy by the war situation (for those who were not drafted). It is not unimportant to mention also that, because of industrial wages, a dedicated membership, and an astronomical income-tax dues system, financing the work was never easier. In short, for this limited period and special situation, the contradictions of a sect-acting-as-a-small mass party could be and were glossed over, in the heat of activity.
It can perhaps be argued that if the outcome of the war had been revolution in Europe and America, as anticipated then this course would have been historically justified. I am not interested in arguing this, since I am not interested in maintaining any theory of inevitability about all this; nor in arguing that if we had been “smarter” we should have done something else. None of this is to the point, and I mention them only to throw them cut of the discussion. I am interested at it this point only in explaining how and why the course of a “small mass party” sect was temporarily and conjuncturally possible and hopeful.
3.The day of reckoning came by 1946. This year marks a watershed. As it dawned, it was becoming clear to most that the looked-for post-war World Revolution had been aborted, or at any rate was not going to come off. A basic reorientation was forced on us.
It was therefore in 1946 that a final reckoning took place with the systematic-sectarian group in the WP (“Johnsonite” clique). This was a clique with a faction program – indeed, any number of programs to suit any occasion. In 1946 the Johnson clique-faction reacted formally to the new turn of affairs by asserting twice as vehemently that the revolution was around the corner, soviets might be expected in two years, capitalism had collapsed all over Europe and power was rolling in the streets: in other words, with the typical fantasizing of the sectarian mentality faced with unpleasant reality. Accordingly also, they unfurled a program which counterposed “struggle groups” (then called “factory committees”) to the now-counterrevolutionary trade unions, which had been statified, etc. With this rigmarole, these systematic-sectarians then packed up and moved into the SWP, where they did very revolutionary factional activity for a brief moment, before unfurling their banner to the whole world in a sect of their very own, which then bifurcated, etc.
The same year, there war another attempt at reorientation in the Workers Party, by more serious people. This was an effort to theorize and systematize (i.e. think thru) the “small mass party” conception of the organizational course, not simply as the ad-hoc reaction to the circumstances of the war (which is what it had been) but as a general and timeless concept, applicable now even more than before. The phrase “small mass party” as invented and written down. It was rejected by the organization.
Out of this discussion, and with the steady descent of the U.S. political situation into the doldrums (cold-war climate, then McCarthyism, etc.), the organization had to face up, without any self-deception, to its future as one sect among others. In a thesis presented in 1948 and discussed until adoption in 1949, the organization overwhelmingly accepted a few basic truths: that it was not a “party” except in name; that no socialist “party” existed in the country; that all the socialist groups, including ours, where in reality sects – at best “propaganda groups”; that one could only hope to be a good sect, a sensible sect, rather than a stupid, fantasmagorical and self-deceiving sect; that although history made nothing but a sect possible at this time, one could determine not to carry on a sectarian policy with relation to the working class and its movements; and other concretizations of this approach. Accordingly, the organization changed its name from “Workers Party” to “Independent Socialist League.”
All this was very sensible as far as it went. I think the ISL was the best and most sensible sect possible: but that didn’t help it for more than a few years, as the 1950s dried up the entire left. The ISL did not shake itself apart with monstrosities and sectarian fantasies; it merely withered on the vine and then dropped off; while other socialist sects went through political contortions, the SP dwindling to nothing, the SWP transforming itself into a Stalinoid appendage.
8. What is a “political center”?
Since all of the history discussed above was acted out without any self-examination, without any analytical differentiation between this road and that, it all has to be differentiated in hindsight. It would appear from the above account that, in practice, the establishment of a “political center” as distinct from a sect – i.e. a non-membership propaganda/educational center as distinct from a membership group enclosed in organizational walls – has taken the concrete form a publishing enterprise and its editorial board, with more or less an organizational apparatus attached to it for the purpose of carrying out the political tasks of the center.
The fact is that this route has been even more common than the above account might indicate. Contemporary U.S. shows several examples that repay a quick look. It is true that the radical scene seems to be strewn with sects, but in addition there are several tendencies which are not organized in the form of sects but in the form of political centers around a publication.
1. Perhaps the most effective, for its politics, has been the political tendency represented by the Monthly Review – i.e. the somewhat amorphous spectrum of Stalinoid polictics independent of the CP. While the magazine has been both the expression of an organizer of a political tendency, yet has not moved toward organizational (membership) crystallization, except in some tentative efforts at local groups of “Friends” of, or "Associates", or something like that. The same has been true, more or less, of the Guardian. It is doubtful if these elements even had, or have, a distant perspective of some day contributing to a revolutionary party; they certainly think primarily in terms of permeating the left with their specific ideas.
2.Another relatively successful example is Liberation, but at the cost of what were originally its own politics. This magazine was set up as a political center for the absolute-pacifist tendency. As such, it has been a nullity; absolute-pacifism was never deader. In fact, it turned into something else, with pacifism only one crouton in the soup. Since its politics is confused, it is not very important as a political center. It has maintained itself mainly a diffuse radical journalism.
3. Dissent was founded more or less consciously as an effort to maintain something of a political center, without a sect organization, by people who had become social democrats in a country without social-democracy. Later, Dissent and the L.I.D. sort of merged. The L.I.D. is an interesting example of what was originially a membership organization which, as its membership disappears, turned itself into a political-center type of operation, social-democratic in politics – but not around a magazine. The New Leader has been another kind of example of a social-democratic (CIA wing) operation of a political center without a membership organization. All these cases, in their specifics, are strongly conditioned by their source of finances.
In fact, almost any political journal tends to become a political center of a sort, by its very nature, since it is a dispenser of ideas. I have mentioned several disparate examples in indicate there can be quite a variation. There is no organizational model that we can simply copy.
The point is to get the general idea of a course that does not involve the building of a membership sect, and then work it out to express our political aims and views. The first thing that is distinctive about the course we want to take is this: we want to build a political center which has, as its goal, the formation of the prerequisites for a revolutionary socialist party.
9. What is it that we want to accomplish?
Lenin’s organizational accomplishment was the following, if we try to abstract all national peculiarities, peculiarities of place and time and conditions. The painstaking formation of the Bolshevik tendency accomplished three things in the course of time – three things which, it seems to me, apply in almost every case, and certainly apply to what we are obliged to do.
The process of formation of the Bolshevik tendency –
1. created a body of doctrine, a body of political literature expressing a unified kind of revolutionary socialism;
2. formed cadres of party workers and militants around this political core;
3. established its “kind of socialism” as a presence in left politics, with its own physiognomy and name.
This sums up our tasks too.
There is no real need for us to try to foresee or predict now exactly how the revolutionary party of the future will come into being. However it happens, it is only insofar as these three tasks are accomplished that the results can be favorable.
If our tasks are thought of under these heads, then certain activities take on different significance and priority. For example, the publication of literature is thought of by a sect as one activity among others, and not one with a high priority. With one exception, it tends to be pushed to the bottom of the agenda. The exception is the publication of a “mass” organ, which tends to take so much precedence over everything else that nothing else can be done. From our point of view, this is a grave mistake in priorities. The creation (publication and distribution) of a basic body of literature is the accomplishment of a political center on which everything else depends. It is the key means to the end. The first task of this basic body of literature is to make possible the formation of the cadres – to provide the political nourishment on which cadres can be raised. Without it, no healthy cadre formation is possible.
Such cadres will of course develop locally. A political center has an enormous advantage over the set’s National Committee or Central Committee which issues directives, theses, disciplinary cases, etc. to its micro-empire of mini-branches. That is: the former’s relations with local clubs, socialist groups, trade-union groups, workers’ groups, and individual activists can be infinitely varied and flexible. But the latter’s relations are dichotomized into two types: with members, the relation rigified by the by-laws; with non- members, a relation hampered by an organizational barrier. After a first period during which a big job of preparation will have to be accomplished, we look forward to far more involvement with local cadres, not less – but in a quite different relationship, which offers new possibilities.
It is no part of this article’s aim to spell out our program for the next six months. We already see far more than we can handle. And that is only to get started; for we will be doing well along these lines if it takes us most of a year to get started.
We have to have a long-term perspective. What we have here is not a get-rich-quick scheme but its opposite: a line of preparation for the future which can bear real fruit only after a long haul. We should think in terms of at least a Ten Year Plan. (I mention ten years because it is a good round figure and is called a decade.) We spent the last decade in two blind alleys. If, by the end of the ‘70s, we have a number of solid accomplishments in carrying out the three basic tasks listed above, then we will have taken the first appreciable steps toward the goal of a revolutionary party.
This is part one of two
This is part one of two articles dealing with the 'micro-sect'. Part 2 can be found here.
Also worth reading is Life-long Wobbly's review of Hal Draper.