I'd also like to make a distinction in terminology I'm using, between sectism (the practice of socialists operating in tiny organisations based on narrow differentiation) and sectarianism (hostility, aggresive behaviour or unhealthy competitiveness between such tiny organisations). Also, IMHO = in my humble opinion, with which I preface this whole piece.
It has also been pointed out to me that there's a contradiction between stating what is to be done today is more important than history, then faffing on about the history of the Socialist Alliance. I might not have done the best job of attempting to write that history without taking sides on ten year old faction fights, but I still think it's pertinent to talk about it and perhaps think about the lessons learned given Pham's proposal for such a formation to be launched in the US.
This piece is written as a response to some of the ideas about socialist regroupment in America today raised in a debate hosted on LINKS. Ostensibly, this debate started with Pham Binh's proposals for steps towards joint socialist organisation, such as joint organising committees, if not a broad-based socialist party, in Occupy and Tasks of Socialists.
But the thing that actually triggered debate is his review of Tony Cliff on Lenin: Building the Party published shortly after. Binh puts it that this is "emblematic" of "exactly what’s wrong with us, the US socialist left" and, although I am inclined to agree, the timing of the publication of Cliff on Lenin, despite his explanations, seems calculated to trigger such a response.
The US International Socialist Organisation (ISO)'s Paul D'Amato responded in the Mangling of Tony Cliff, which promted some discussion of how these issues relate to left politics in Australia, which I'll respond to further down. However, I'd like to note that this response continued the tone of the debate – any discussion of how socialists should be organising today is predicated on having The Correct Interpretation of Lenin.
Paul Le Blanc, also of the US ISO, responded in Revolutionary Organisation and the 'Occupy moment'. Of particular interest to me here is some of the constructive engagement with Binh's points around left regroupment, specifically the vision of effective "united front" work being put forward:
"The key to left unity is to engage in the real struggles of today. For example, a number of us in Pittsburgh (from different groups and from no specific groups) are engaging in a united front effort to defend public transit, and some of us are engaged in related efforts to help the Occupy movement to be part of this and similar struggles. That is reflected here:
Out of such experiences as these, a genuine left unity can be forged, which can advance mass struggles and mass socialist consciousness that are among the essential preconditions for the crystallization of a substantial revolutionary socialist party."
Le Blanc's most recent response, while advancing the discussion on interpretation of Lenin in much the same manner as the rest of the debate, actually put forward something very healthy in this statement: "Is the pre 1912 RSDLP model of hardened factions what we need"? – which was followed up in the comments to argue that the kind of united front approach Le Blanc outlines above will be more useful to build future prospects for left unity and a real mass revolutionary party than a multi-tendency united party would not (an argument that I don't think I agree with, but which I commend for actually advancing the discussion). However, I found the response of one commented extremely interesting:
Thu, 04/19/2012 - 04:03 — Des Derwin (not verified) Refining further "I'm not sure Pham is trying to cram us into a "revolutionary party" rather than explore the ground between the movements, and united fronts within the movements, and the holy grail of the revolutionary party. "
Prior to this discussion, the only significant amount of Lenin that I'd read was State and Revolution, perhaps with some bits of What Is To Be Done?, so it's definitely been a helpful learning experience for me to observe the debate and learn a bit more of the ins and outs of the early Russian communist movement. But, while debates over what exactly happened historically or readings/interpretations of different texts are useful, to me more interesting is the component of discussion around "what is to be done" in 2012.
As Binh put it (while, I'd argue, falling into the same trap himself), debate around who is "right" is emblematic of what is wrong with many parts of the modern organised left – The aim of studying the past is to have an unassailably correct interpretation of the "truth" of how to organise as given by Lenin/Trotsky/whoever, then shout at everyone else until they agree and join your organisation. I'm going to write a future post of the dynamics of being right, as opposed to winning arguments, but in the interim I'll just say that I don't think this is of any use to anyone other than socialism's enemies. But the other aspect of this debate - coming up with concrete proposals around how socialists relate to Occupy, the prospects for united front work or other forms of left unity, etc have been far more healthy.
Personally, I think I'd argue for the launch of a broad left party, formation or network in the US of the line that Binh has proposed. The context in the US, with the Occupy movement putting class struggle back on the table, seems ready – and, indeed, to call out for the organised left to step up to the plate. But it's not guaranteed that such a formation is going to work, and it's definitely not going to be much "like" the RSDLP – asides from the vast material conditions on the ground, the contexts of 100+ years of splitting amongst "leninist" and "trotskyist" parties and organisations means that the main divides between left forces no longer line up with the fundamental questions like bourgeois democracy as they once did.
But Binh's (and others') criticism that those parties and organisations haven't succeded or taken as good advantage of the opportunities that the "Occupy moment" presents as they could have is well-founded. Nor is the outright criticism of such a formation, or D'Amato's comment that "There are no genuine revolutionary parties; indeed, there are no examples yet of successful new “broad-based” left parties”, well-founded. The experience of Die Linke shows that the global context today doesn't invalidate a broad left electoral approach and shows that the chaotic infighting within such a formation envisaged in the ISO's responses isn't guaranteed.
I'd like to talk a little bit about the experience of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, which initially formed as a similar proposal to what Binh is proposing. I'll start this section with another disclaimer - that I didn't join the Alliance until 2008, so much of this history I didn't witness firsthand.
As comments on "Mangling of Tony Cliff" showed, the Alliance was initially successful in drawing together most of Australia's socialist groups into a joint electoral front, with the following organisations endorsing it: "the Democratic Socialist Party, the International Socialist Organisation, the Freedom Socialist Party, Workers Power, Workers Liberty, the Workers League, the Worker Communist Party of Iraq, Socialist Democracy and Socialist Alternative." - pretty much all of the Australian socialist left forces I can think of today, bar one.
However, the failure of the initial excitement of such unity to translate into immediate electoral success was a setback, and fed into the reservations about the future direction of the Alliance from some members or organisations. Socialist Alternative were the first to withdraw their support for the formation; although the above debate put several reasons on the table for this (I'll get to these below), the context of an expected Labor electoral victory in 2001 and a new sustained anti-capitalist mass movement to relate to both never materialised. S11 in Melbourne gave way to 9/11 and the defeat of the anti-Iraq war movement. This question is perhaps worth thinking about regarding Binh's proposals and the current American context – will the "Occupy moment" be sustained? This question needs to be asked and thought about, even if no definitive answer is possible, for the socialist left to begin considering how it should relate to it or reorganise around it.
In the letter from the Australian ISO national executive stating their decision to withdraw from the Alliance, they cite these factors as the reason (as well as "sectarianism" towards disillusioned segments of Labor). There's another point which gets brought up in the ISO executive's letter, as well as in the early days of the Alliance and by fellow Sydneysider James Supple in commenting on my earlier piece on this topic – the actions of the late Democratic Socialist Party in eventually dissolving into the Alliance. The fact that socialists previously not part of organisations who joined the Alliance were themselves calling for this to happen, a majority of the Alliance's members, not just the DSP, is apparently not worth remembering.
But despite these concerns about the timing and significance, the Alliance was (and is) still a worthwhile exercise, IMHO; it succeeded in drawing a significant number of previously non-aligned socialists into organised political activism. The DSP's eventual dissolution into the Alliance (at the only DSP congress which I attended) was a small step towards putting aside "leninist" sectism to work in a slightly broader & more open formation – and although there is ongoing debate about how to organise, ro teach marxism in a formation without such a tight line, etc, the balance sheet 10 years later is, I feel, in the positive. The experience of the Alliance has been a step forward, even though it didn't succeed as a multi-tendency party as Binh proposed - the ISO's disaffiliation was the final nail in the coffin of this vision of dissolving old party boundaries. But instead, something else has come out of it, which I think is the healthiest of the far left "sects" today. (Dave Riley has elaborated good points as to why; this can also be seen in the electoral socialist unity campaings of 2011/12 Socialist Alliance has been involved in, such as the broad ticket for the 2011 state elections, the Community Voice campaign in the council elections, and the Community Party of Australia (CPA's) strong campaign in the SA state elections.)
The response of a Socialist Alternative member in the comments on D'Amato's article were less enthusiastic and more dismissive of the Alliance. I'll respond to some of these points which I feel are significant to the debate about how we move forward in Australia today.
Wed, 02/29/2012 - 20:08 — Lewis T
"The simple fact is that the 'broad party' model has failed everywhere it has been tried....
It was formed on the initiative of the DSP, then the biggest group on the far-left, a Stalinist group which supports the Vietnamese and Cuban governments."
- This dismissive comment reflects what I think Binh was trying to get across – sectism results in the ossification of socialist politics around points of differentiation, rather than building dynamic unity over what is to be done here today. We (Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative) share a critique of Stalinism as running counter to the principles of socialism, although members disagree on exactly how Stalinism developed and assumed power. Yet that label still gets thrown around as the reason we couldn't possibly work together here in Australia today in challenging the rule of capital. For the record I'm going to make a post regarding taking a position Vietnam, of which the Socialist Alliance has none AFAIK.
"The reality almost everywhere is that revolutionary Marxists are in a small minority. This makes it easy for us to get frustrated and look for shortcuts like the broad party model. But the model has been a failure everywhere, so to insist on it as the new way forward is sheer dogmatism. It requires patience, hard work and dedication in the slow periods, combined with an ability to throw oneself into action and relate to mass movements and radicalisations when they do happen, to rebuild revolutionary Marxism."
Despite the lip service paid to the idea that "We are well aware that recruiting a couple of people here and there isn't a timeless strategy that we will pursue until the revolution", Lewis isn't willing to concede that there could be any other strategy than sectism in this moment; any attempt to open up a space to consider new ways or initiatives to organise is a "shortcut".
"All of the broad parties are well to the right of the social-democratic movement that Lenin considered himself a part of. Furthermore, after Stalinism has held back the left for over 50 years, why would we want to unite with it? We should be trying to consign them to the dustbin of history where they belong."
This is exactly the mindset which breeds under conditions of sectism. You can recruit from those not yet involved in marxist politics and give them the correct line on every issue; those who disagree with you on those points are enemies to be defeated and eliminated. The idea that you could convince other committed revolutionaries to change their positions on anything is anathema. The idea that you yourself could have the wrong ideas about anything is anathema. The point isn't making the correct tactical judgements or convincing broader layers of people but Being Right (as I've said, I'm going to post further on this). This mindset helps to ensure we will make the kind of mistakes Binh pointed out that the US socialist left made in relating to #Occupy, or perhaps how we in Australia related to different opportunities such as the climate movement in its peak (where the involvement of a group like Socialist Alternative or other socialists who abstained from it might have meant the movement didn't fall in behind Labor's emission trading scheme that Abbott is calling a tax).
I'm not going to say that Socialist Alternative hasn't gotten some things right and build up a solid amount of cadre – they have. Perhaps Lewis is even right are even right that sectism is the only choice, and broader formations are just a "shortcut". But thinking back on Road Maps, Dead Ends, and the Search for Fresh Ground: How Can We Build the Socialist Movement in the 21st Century?, Dan Dimaggio's article on finding new forms of left organisation which I found an intensely uplifting breath of fresh thinking about socialist organisation (and written before the #Occupy moment!):
"Even if it is the case that “micro-sects” are all that can be built now, then let them be less pretentious, less sectarian, more open to working with one another, and more aware of their own inherent weaknesses (not to demoralize them but rather to help better understand the role they might play). Let them critically evaluate all their methods, search out more effective forms, and really ask if they are preparing the way toward something better in the future."
This is something I feel is an intensely important component of the activism and thinking (praxis, dare I say it) of all of us in the sects of today. But What, concretely, am I proposing Is To Be Done?
Right now Australian socialists of the leading organisations (SA, SAlt, Solidarity, SP) do work together in the vision of Le Blanc's "united front" or DiMaggio's "local groups" – on a whole bunch of issues and campaigns like equal marriage rights, refugee rights, Palestine solidarity, in various unions – I'm finishing this piece in the 2012 Climate Action Summit (CAS), where two socialist organisations and a whole variety of anti-capitalist activists beyond them are represented. But like Des Derwin, I think we need to explore a space beyond this level of unity (which at times is anything but united, as socialists who have been involved in the above listed campaign groups can attest!) while less than a single multi-tendency party of socialists. The decisions like where resources are priorities in which campaigns, activist calendars broader than those drawn up within campaigns, decisions regarding clashing events are all being made within each sect right now, and the only form of dialogue between them is through more or less hostile discussions when we see each other in movement groups (the clash between Marxism 2012 and the Eastern Convergence in Darwin being a prime example of this). We need to take some further steps now to break out of "sectism" and find some organisational forms or actions that we can take towards making us, our involvement in broader campaigns and united fronts, and convincing broader layers of the vision of a socialist Australia, more effective.
On this step, seeing a published form of the principles document, Towards a Socialist Australia, with beautiful design and layout, getting around as a pamphlet at the CAS and other activist events in recent days (and selling like hotcakes!) is heartening. Getting this document and launching into the "upcoming consultative discussions" will hopefully prove a step forward in developing this kind of common vision for what a socialist Australia could look like more broadly. I've got some feedback of my own (editorial, but also some ideas for how we could more strongly sketch out the positive vision of democratic socialism) which I might post at a later date. But rather than do so in this already lengthy post, I'd like to raise that through the forums listed above. Let's get the conversation started!
Socialist Alternative's Marxism 2013 could also be another prospect for developing such a joint vision? Sue Bolton's review of the 2012 conference outlines the potential for expanded left discussion and including climate relate issues. Many of the internationl speakers have come from a variety of tendencies with diverse views on Marxism; even at least one workshop strand or session with Australian speakers as a multi-tendency/open discussion on different ways Marxists organise would be a step forward for the left more broadly.
Dimaggio advances some concrete ideas which I'm not so confident of, esp in the Australian context - joint publications, for example. Wollongong's Broad Left exists in this kind of way, as an open network publishing circle reincarnated from a former paper publication (but such projects are often prone to material/resource/time issues). Perhaps it's worth pointing out that LINKS has sofar hosted this debate, and it is set up as a project in this vein of socialist renewal; there is an inevitable need of any publication or resource to be actively supported and organised if it is going to actually interact with and play a role in real world politics, or even maintain itself.
Dimaggio also proposed a roster of talented speakers on joint tours organised by socialist groups – this kinda does happen between groups in the current form (Malalai Joya's recent tour of Australia was organised in this way, with Socialist Alternative booking her for Marxism 2012 and other engagements being arranged due to her presence) – but such things exist within the boundaries of the sects, sometimes with competing organisations "poaching" each other's speakers for tours, otherwise "boycotts" of relating to speakers if they are speaking for a group you are hostile to, otherwise exlusive tours just in the places it benefits whichever group that "gets" the speaker – democratic broad left forums or organisations of one sort or another could actually plan and discuss such proposals democratically, weighing up benefits of which left speakers are being toured, etc, as with the benefits of intervention into movements, etc.
The successful examples of Broad Left (the lack of posts for 6 months notwithstanding) & Community Voice in Wollongong and Left Unity in Adelaide (see here and here for some more info on the Adelaide experience, with which I'm not as familiar) show us what is possible when the left actually does attempt to move beyond sectism. I think that it requires national replication, or attempts towards it that may take remarkably different forms, in as many cities as possible. Multi-tendency forums, networks or councils, short of a party or even an organisation which exists in its own right, but networks or space to have discussions re the questions I outlined above about movement work, strategic aims, electoral candidates, etc in a democratic forum rather than simply in our own sects is, I think, entirely achievable even in today's context. There are formations which do serve this role already (such as Sydney's Politics in the Pub) but I think we need to ensure these are not just discussion or social circles, but formations actually focussed on some form of activism (or even just left activist networking, not just talkfesting). And ultimately, such projects could open the way towards some sort of national network of left forces.
The question of unity on the basis of ideas is an important first step, and one which underpins almost all of the current forms of organisation we have – however, the American debate amongst is playing between people who would seem to largely agree on how socialists should relate to democrats, occupy, unions, etc but not to agree on what structures they should agree on those things in! Obviously, agreement around ideas is important, but the more important thing is unity in action. The kind of "united front" work that Le Blanc suggested we concentrate on (ie business as usual) to me is an attempt to avoid the minefield that building unity based on ideas between the competing socialist groups right now could be; but ultimately, it falls short of setting up a constructive framework for building unity through joint action. Ultimately, this means that not only will business will continue as usual, but when the shining moment comes when there is a crisis that shifts mass consciousness so much that there is a big enough layer of people convinced of revolutionary ideas around that we actually could start to build the revolutionary party that will lead the fight to overthrow capitalism, as the IST comrades have suggested will be the case, the party won't be ready for them, and the socialists who've lived through this period of history will be found wanting.