On the party question

Goodbye Lenin?

This article was first written for internal circulation. We publish it now in light of public discussions among Socialist Worker comrades, partly regarding the party question (Goodbye Lenin? and Towards Ecosocialism.)
On February the 4th 2011, in the lead-up to our partys’ first internal conference of the year, a cross-section of leading comrades posted a statement resigning from the Workers Party. This statement argued that communist ‘party-building’ is impossible in the present conditions. As this statement raises important questions of political line that confront many communist and radical groups, it is necessary to engage with it; ultimately, to justify the very existence of communist organisations.
As the statement asserts that our comrades’ resignations are driven by “bigger and deeper” problems, we will not go into the sordid details of the lead-up to this development. Rather, we will engage directly with the content of their statement, available here.
In short, our comrades assert that given the lack of a mass workers’ movement in New Zealand today, communist party-building is futile. In particular, this affects recruitment:
“Those conditions meant that recruiting workers and progressives into the organisation has been very difficult.”
This assertion partly reflects the reality that until a qualitative leap occurs, quantitative development can be slow and arduous. However, as necessarily slow but steady recruitment was always stated as a conscious aspect of Workers Party strategy, there must be more to this statement than that. Our comrades are commenting on the nature, and quality, of recruits: the difficulty of recruiting “workers and progressives.”
It would seem strange to argue that WP recruits are not politically progressive: all have signed up to an explicitly anti-imperialist, pro-women’s liberation, Marxist political group. The majority continue to organise political actions, and produce or distribute political propaganda, to further progressive politics ranging from pro-choice to anti-war. Rather, our resigned comrades must have intended to comment on the class nature of recruits. Specifically, a perceived absence of rank-and-file workers in the movement: “The history of Western Marxism is a history of the absence of the proletariat.”
The most substantial growth of the WPNZ has occurred in Wellington, particularly through campus work. It is true that at this stage of development, students are easier to recruit than rank-and-file workers. However, our comrades’ misgivings about recruitment are based on two false premises: that the workers’ movement does not truly recruit workers, and that recruitment from other strata is undesirable.
Workers’ movement without workers
As evidence for their assertions about the workers’ movement generally, our comrades state:
“Unite union’s goal of building a new political movement and developing an activist base among workers has been similarly unsuccessful. Instead, Unite has relied heavily on activists from far left groups to fill the void.”
In part, this statement is undeniable: Unite does rely on radical activists, some of whom have never worked in the industries they organise. However, it is incorrect to state that the union has not recruited new layers.
Activists recruited from the shop-floor assisted in the Matt for Mana electoral campaign, launched by Unite National Secretary Matt McCarten. In more recent elections to the Unite Executive, 11 of the 16 successful candidates were new to the exec. These include a rank-and-file worker, recruited as a delegate through a protracted battle with her employer, who was elected as Vice-President. Unite Union is clearly developing a layer of rank-and-file activists.
Comrades may justifiably criticise the limitations of trade unionism, and indeed that is a debate the New Zealand left needs to have. However, claims that there are no worker-activists in the workers’ movement are false, masking wearied abstentionism. If we want organised workers to transcend trade union politics, we must first engage.
The ‘purely proletarian’ party
Our comrades also perpetuate false notions about the ‘revolutionary party.’ These notions idealise the party’s organic relationship to the proletariat in some distant revolutionary upsurge, essentially denying the need for long-term education across a broad strata. Georg Lukacs identified these limitations in his critique of Rosa Luxemburg, in his piece Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation:

sketch of Lukacs

Any revolution will not be a purely proletarian affair; it will not be solely and clearly be a conflict between Capitalism and the Working Class. A revolution is a swirling grey affair, populated with clashing strata from all across the framework of society. Within that confusion many other ideologies will inhabit the same space as our revolutionary Marxism. At that 
point when the heat is on, we can’t be spending our time educating our 
newfound allies, we need to have done the work beforehand, it is too late to 
be trying to collect our hand when the hand needs to be played (emphasis mine.)

For all its limitations and flaws, the Workers Party is doing all sorts of important preparatory work. It has involved members from many strata: trade union officials, students, factory workers, university staff, and the casualised workers who proliferate under neoliberalism. Most of these people would not have any real chance to study Marxism if it weren’t for organisations like the Workers Party – in the absence of Progress Publishers, trade union libraries, and an academy actively engaging with Marx, organisations like this one are more important than ever.
It is clearly true that the Workers Party does not currently live up to its name. It is not a mass workers’ party, but a propaganda group. Its roots are shallow not only in industry, but also areas such as the movement for Maori liberation. Recognising these limitations does not justify dissolving the group, rather we must sharpen our perspective and improve our practice.
In essence, the statement by our resigned comrades rejects a strategy of recruiting and training new revolutionaries. In politically trying times, a strategy of organised growth and education is something we can’t afford to lose.

20 Replies to “On the party question”

  1. “As the statement asserts that our comrades’ resignations are driven by “bigger and deeper” problems, we will not go into the sordid details of the lead-up to this development”
    The only implication to be fairly be taken from the above is that a fabricated “assertion” was advanced to cover up some, unspecified, nefarious behavior on the part of the resigned comrades.
    Behavior which never happened.
    No progressive political purpose is served by unfounded titillation.

  2. Ian, please.
    The writer posting that that some comrades “assert” that their resignations are driven by “bigger and deeper” problems, and then coyly hinting at some undisclosed “sordid” background to this is hardly cutting to the political chase.
    To be as clear as I can,I’m not typing here to try and score a quick political point.
    Some WP comrades remain very valued friends of mine.
    I’m just posting here because I won’t let pass any unwarranted shit.

    1. You assume the “sordid details” are on the part of departed comrades. The point is that splits are always a bit messy on all sides, and at a certain point focusing on the details doesn’t achieve a lot; the bigger picture is, should we build organisations like this at all?
      And I say yes, though admitting that answer is incomplete.

    2. I’d just put forward Don, that this was originally an internal document put forward by Ian, so the focus is actually not on Red Line comrades per se, but on WP ourselves and the need to move beyond the personal angst and intirigue and engage with the wider and deeper questions that came out of the document. In part, there was not the usual blood letting process that generally follows/precedes these events. There was a short statement, you spoke to our branch meeting and that was that. I don’t think the statement provides much insight into the split and so that has forced us to go deeper behind it, with the key focus to engage as the Maoists say on the high-plane of two line struggle.

  3. The pronouncements of the comrades who resigned from the Workers Party last February remind me of a poem by Bertholt Brecht, written after the 1953 revolt against Stalinist rule in East Germany:
    “After the uprising of the 17th June
    The Secretary of the Writers Union
    Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
    Stating that the people
    Had forfeited the confidence of the government
    And could win it back only
    By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
    In that case for the government
    To dissolve the people
    And elect another?”
    Those former comrades asserted that “communist party building”, towards the goal of a “mass workers party” was “impossible” under current conditions.
    In other words, they passed a vote of no confidence in the current working class, and decided they would simply wait until another one came along, please.
    There’s one obvious thing that doesn’t seem to have occurred to them. If the “communist party” of their dreams was not engaging workers, the problem might lie not with the workers, but with their own conception of the kind of Marxist organisation needed today.
    Incidentally, as the author of the article “Towards Ecosocialism” which is linked at the top of this page, I would like to add some clarification for the current context.
    The specific proposals for forms of socialist organisation today, which come at the end of my article, are not intended as the One True Theory of the Marxist Party.
    Anyone who wades through it should see that my organisational proposals are fitted for specific purposes, and not well suited to others. For example, the Ecosocialist Network proposal is explicitly not intended for initiating or intervening in mass action.
    It has to be said that attempting to initiate and intervene in mass action has been fetishised by some Marxist groups. This includes my own group, Socialist Worker, for much of its existence, although the prize today has to go to Socialist Aotearoa, who take the activism fetish (and the associated millenarianism and personality cults) to a whole new level.
    But despite this, mass action remains an essential part of what socialists need to be doing – such as the role of the “new” Workers Party in WATU (We Are The University), Queer the Night or Occupy last year. In the quoted words of ecosocialist author Ian Angus: “ecosocialists must be activists”.
    For that reason, I want to make it clear that I see WP and an Ecosocialist Network as complementary, not as rivals in an old-school sectarian battle to the ideological death.

    1. Yeah, just thought it was interesting that coming out of comparable conditions, you’d come to question the party-building project. Agree though that SW specifically is exhausted as a vehicle and interested to see what happens next; I’m on the Ecosocialist mailing list.
      There are a few points I’d like to engage though about the “Broad Party” notion. It was clearly a conscious part of SW strategy with RAM. I think part of the issue there is that broad parties develop out of a broad base and movement – not out of Marxists attempting to tone down their politics.
      Socialist Alliance had a real broad base, although it seems to me it’s whittled away over the years. Their conferences and Green Left Weekly are impressive, but I question the use of Marxists being deliberately “broad,” rather than acting as a radical pole of attraction within broad movements – keeping in mind all of this is easier said than done.

      1. Actually agree that “broad parties develop out of a broad base and movement”. I think we were mistaken that such a thing was on the cards. Having said that, we (SW) weren’t the only ones — quite a few Bright Young Things from around the Princes St branch seemed to think that RAM was a goer, too.

  4. @Grant: I wasn’t close enough to the situation in Auckland, where it had the biggest support, to really determine that anyway. But for me the point isn’t just whether the project will take off (after all we’re not psychic, there’s always an element of spontaneity) but what role we play.
    Obviously all of this has implications for our work in Mana, which does have a strong base in the North.

  5. “…quite a few Bright Young Things from around the Princes St branch seemed to think that RAM was a goer, too.”
    And those people seem to be mainly in NZ First these days. I wonder what that means.

    1. That was one of the more bizarre/curious aspects of RAM, being the wholesale creation of a NZ First branch on campus. It was quite unnerving meeting them one year, while I was up at Auckland Uni Orientation (being trespassed at the time from VUW). My feeling was that it gave an inkling to the deep complexity and contradiction behind the ideas of NZ First.

      1. Those “RAMsters”, as we affectionately called them, were self-described “economic nationalists” and therefore were keen on an anti-neoliberal but not anti-capitalist programme. One of them used to go off on the wonders of the PAP regime in Singapore, and that’s where he works now. Another now refers to Winston Peters as “the Chief”, which is really unnerving for a whole heap of reasons.

    2. I voted for NZ First at the last election. In view of the polls, I was electing an opposition, not a Government. Winston is ideal as opposition. Could be pretty good in Govt too. At least his part is run by a Maori, with a Maori weatherman and Opera singer as back-up.
      Further NZ First is not so contaminated with slush fund backing from big business.

      1. NZ First is… old-school. They uphold bits of the welfare state that have been attacked since the Fourth Labour Government, but they’re also socially conservative and anti-immigrant. The point about both the (centre-left) Standard and the (fascist) National Front endorsing them is telling.
        One job of communists, which perhaps we’ve lagged on, is demonstrating why their program would actually set the workers’ movement back.
        Take the point about voting for an opposition not a government though, that’s how I treat bourgeois elections too.

  6. Anyway, I suppose that Grant B and I have (independently, interestingly enough) not so much come to question “the party-building project” as to question the “tiny democratic-centralist group” method of organising Marxists in the current conjuncture. Of course other structures for Marxists to combine theory and practice are possible; and many, many other structures are possible to combine theory and practice in a broader-left sense or in social campaigns. The question then becomes not ones of Marxists pretending not to be Marxists, but of Marxists working openly with others in a way that does not make them come across like religious cultists.

    1. “Of course other structures for Marxists to combine theory and practice are possible; and many, many other structures are possible to combine theory and practice in a broader-left sense or in social campaigns.”
      Don’t think it’s just about already-convinced socialists combining theory and practice, but about preparatory work and acting as a pole of attraction. It’s all very well for convinced socialists to conduct mass work, and network with other convinced socialists, but we also need to build a base for specifically communist ideas.
      Communist ideas are big. They take a lot of processing. They’re not always easily encapsulated. We’re trained to understand that communism consists of the state running everything (rather than a classless stateless society,) that it was a nice idea that didn’t work, and various other ideas that make it harder to actually accept communism. That means without specifically communist recruitment and education, we drift towards various forms of populism that will ultimately maintain class rule (see NZ first.)
      Definitely take your point about “Zinovievism,” and the assumption that we already have a model (Central Committee, paper sales, the works) and just have to apply it ad infinitum. Saying we need specifically communist, democratic organisations leaves the question open of what that organisation will look like.

  7. “That means without specifically communist recruitment and education, we drift towards various forms of populism that will ultimately maintain class rule (see NZ first.)”
    Absolutely. Combining that with concrete work in the movements, ideally so that they form a dialectical unity, is the philosopher’s stone of modern communist praxis, I think.

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