What is a Marxist organization?

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by Scott Jay

It is a commonplace on the Marxist Left that revolutionary organizations need to be rooted in the working class, so much so that “middle-class” is just as common an insult as “sectarian” or “opportunist.” Middle-class dominated socialist groups are generally aware of their class basis and strive to overcome it—noting that an organization tends to be middle-class does not tell anybody anything they did not already know. Therefore, we will look at the problem of the base of an organization from a different angle.

A fundamental weakness of the organizations of the socialist Left is that their members do not have a material stake in their organizations.

Members of Leninist organizations join largely because they believe in the ideas. This is certainly how they are recruited. For the groups that are able to grow larger than an irrelevant sect, the members may even join because they believe in the actions of the organization. But very few of these actions actually have a material impact on the lives and livelihoods of their members and Leninists rarely even consider that this might be a problem.

For decades, Leninists of various stripes have distinguished themselves by their unique analyses of the Soviet Union, recruiting members to their theoretical model and, in some of the better cases, engaging in mass movements and even trade union activism as well. These groups could debate on end their different analyses of whether the the Soviet Union was state capitalist, or a degenerated workers state, or whether they included China, Cuba, Serbia, Albania, or North Korea among their canon.

In spite of their exhaustive sociological analyses of these various bureaucracies and how they did or did not represent the will of the working class or whether a political or economic revolution could bring workers to power, these Marxists never applied the same rigorous analyses to their own organizations. Implicit was always the assumption that their organization was somehow exempt from the pressures of society such as the racist and sexist muck that we are all raised with. They also held the assumption that their organization would not succumb to the very basic pressures society applies to all organizations, bureaucracies and institutions.

It is approximately one hundred and sixty years too late to begin this discussion, but better late than never. Building an organization based on people who are convinced of Marxist ideas is, to put it bluntly, not very Marxist. Marxism is not a theory of the world but a strategy to change it. To the extent that it does provide an analysis of the world–and it certainly does–it would suggest that convincing people to a set of revolutionary ideas will end in failure. Revolutionaries are made by their experience in the class struggle, not in study groups and meetings, no matter how well intentioned these efforts are.

As the American socialist Hal Draper wrote, “To engage in class struggle it is not necessary to ‘believe in’ the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton in order to fall from an airplane.” Too often, though, Marxists have engaged in building their own organizations as though they were physicists jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, confident that their in depth knowledge of the laws of gravity would protect them from disaster. It is a long way down, and may even be quite pleasant and gratifying much of the time, but eventually there is the realization that they are hurtling toward earth at thirty-two feet per second per second just like everybody else.

The catastrophic failure that became of the British Socialist Workers Party is a useful case in point. The SWP did not predict that the Soviet Union would be reformed into a genuine workers’ state or that it could not be overthrown by its own working class. Their theory, confirmed (while others were left in shambles) by the fall of the Soviet Union, has done it little good in practice beyond convincing people they have good ideas. There remains the basic Marxist problem of developing an actual cadre of militants who are courageous, self sacrificing, understand the mood on the shop floor–to the extent that workers today even work on a “shop floor”–and can galvanize people into action.

A debate on the website of the group Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (rs21), one of the post-SWP groupings, has seen contributions from people with several decades of experience as active, party building Leninists, asking whether “Leninism” is worth saving and whether it is even a coherent body of thought.

One contribution describes “what we might call a more general Leninist project that involves a commitment to build a disciplined, centralised revolutionary party based on the most militant, class conscious and politically advanced section of the working class.” The problem is that Leninists have been quite successful at the “disciplined, centralised” part but have completely failed to build a “revolutionary party based on the most militant, class conscious and politically advanced section of the working class”. In fact, they have not even come close, even when they have grown to hundreds or even a few thousand members. Since almost nobody joins a Leninist group for the discipline or the centralism, inevitably these projects stagnate and decline.

If we are going to grapple with these problems as Marxists, then we cannot simply rest these problems on the failures of the individuals involved or in their incorrect ideas. Ultimately, we have to look at the structures and the social pressures on these organizations.

Simply stating that such an organization ought to be democratic, ought to have lively debate, ought to have an effective and creative leadership, ought to be responsive to the needs of the class struggle, etc. does no good. These things do not occur because anybody wants them to, even if they really want them to, and really believe they are very important. They happen not just once or twice but as a pattern because of the material reality of the organizations and how they were built, not because their members have the right or wrong ideas about how that reality ought to be. Organizations with hundreds or thousands of members are not exempt from the pressures of society or their own structures and we need to stop pretending otherwise.

Many on the Left will complain about “democratic centralism” in Leninist organizations which shuts down debate, limits democratic rights of members and reproduces a lifelong leadership. The problem is, democratic centralism is only a symptom. The real problem is that most of the issues debated by these organizations will have no real impact on the lives of their participants. Democratic centralism is merely a symptom of the problem, which codifies and legitimizes the status quo. The roots of undemocratic organizing go much deeper than a few bad rules.

Leninists will spend hours and hours building their groups and many will donate hundreds or even thousands of dollars every year. Yet, this is not a material stake, this is merely a material contribution. These contributions may be incredibly self sacrificing, but ultimately they are made on a moralistic basis and not a material basis. That is, they make the contribution because they believe that what they are doing is important and worthwhile, not because it will have an impact on their lives.

At any point, if a member no longer wants to be a part of the project they can just walk away. Why shouldn’t they? If you are going to be self sacrificing, it might as well be toward a cause you believe in, can see results in and can do as you see fit, not how some “leader” tells you that you ought to do it. There is no need to stay and fight unless there is the belief that it is worth staying. None of this is a slur on these comrades–they are far better off committing themselves to activities they believe in, and the Left is often better off for them doing so as well. Usually, the only thing keeping them in the fold is their social relationships with other members, but this only distorts their participation even further.

The material basis of democratic organizations

The democratic process among individuals with no material stake in the results is necessarily going to be stunted. This is the whole point of Marxism seeing the working-class as the most revolutionary class. The point is not that there is something morally superior to being “proletarian,” rather that the class as a whole has a common interest in engaging in these battles as a class. This is entirely different from a liberal approach which sees the role of individuals, especially those who are smarter and work harder than everybody else, as being the critical component to understanding social change and social groups. Leninists have a Marxist theory of revolutionary struggle but maintain a liberal approach to building their organizations.

If an organization wants to be built on a fundamentally democratic basis, it needs to be built on a basis where the members have a stake in the decisions. Not just a stake in carrying out the decisions because they helped decide them, but a stake in the success or failure of the results of those decisions and how they were carried out. If the group is making decisions about a member’s ability to defend themselves against police brutality or from being fired, or their ability to organize solidarity for a strike at their workplace, just up and walking away is rarely a good option no matter how undemocratic the group is. In fact, since decisions around these issues will affect not just this individual but their family as well, they are far less likely to be intimidated by a self-important Leninist leader. If the group is not having discussions and making decisions around these types of issues, though, this individual probably will not stick around too long anyway.

It is not true that no members of Leninist organizations have a stake in the organization. The paid staff certainly do have a stake, and the longer they have been a full-timer, the harder it will be for them to go out and get a real job if they are deposed. They also have unlimited time to do things that will help show that they should keep their job–read books, follow current events, and insert themselves into every struggle possible. It will almost seem impossible to remove them because who could possibly replace this individual? It is a Great Man Theory of the party. Quite a few people could replace them, in fact, but it does not seem that way when the possible replacements are working full-time jobs and cannot develop the same expertise as these professional revolutionaries. Life is difficult for a mere worker, in many ways.

None of this has anything to do with how “good” these full-timers are, it is simply in their material interest to keep their job. It should be no surprise that these people hold on to power even on a completely unprincipled basis. In fact, everything about Marxism would suggest that this would be the case.

Membership in a Leninist organization is based not only on a commitment to the beliefs, but also on a sense that things are going right. Since most members do not have a material stake in the work of the group, there is a tendency toward impressionism and demoralization when things are not going well. Thus, there is a constant need for short-term “victories” like a successful meeting, a big march or, hopefully, some new recruits. While the members do not have a material stake in the group, they do have a stake in the morale of the group because it affects their own morale and their own ability to continue engaging in and sacrificing for the group.

The whole tendency is to continue a generally positive spirit inside the organization. Disagreeing with the leadership means causing a disruption in what could otherwise be positive momentum. Since everybody knows this, there is a tendency for disagreements with the leadership to become disagreements with the rest of the membership, who all line up to shut the critics down before they cause too many problems. The rallying cry of the day is not a fierce criticism of all that exists, but apologetics to the benefit of a peaceful status quo. Of course, sometimes the criticism gains a hearing and sometimes it cannot be quitened, and sometimes the unquashable critic simply has to be driven out altogether. The Leninist organization then finds itself trapped between members who are reluctant to raise their criticisms at all and those who, heaven forbid, raise them too often. The “good” member knows just how and when to raise a disagreement although the quiet member is rarely considered to be “bad.”

This is why these groups are so undemocratic and why they periodically wander into crises of confidence. These crises are generally about perspectives–for growth or even for revolution–and not about the failure to defend somebody from getting fired or anything similarly related to the class struggle. Which is not to say that debate about the latter would be peaceful and easy going, rather it would be furious and emotionally draining and likely result in consequences for the leaders who are responsible. But there would also be a real opportunity to learn something and move forward. It also might mean that many people up and leave out of disgust, but that would be because of the group’s failure to defend the material interests of this individual. That would be a good reason to leave and form a new organization.

Which leads to a classic example from the annals of American Trotskyism. After World War II, there were debates among Trotskyists around the world about how progressive Stalinism was and how likely or unlikely it would be to fall. James P. Cannon, the leading American Trotskyist, noted what a problem this was when he commented that a member of his organization asked, what is the point of selling ten newspapers on a street corner if there will be decades of Stalinism? The point, of course, is that this should make a material contribution to the lives of their members. But of course, that was not the point of selling a newspaper on a street corner at all, rather the point of such an activity was to convince people to join a group with good ideas, a task made impossible by its perspectives on Stalinism. So Trotskyists end up splitting left and right over the question of Stalinism, instead of seeing it as an important political debating point in an organization that was fighting for their members’ livelihoods.

In short, an organization built on a materialist basis would not only need to be based in the working-class, but rather its entire organizational structure would need to be shaped to be responsive to the material needs of the members. The members themselves would need to have a stake in the organization and its failures and successes, much more so than in the organizational morale. If the members of the organization have more of a stake in the morale in the group than a material stake, then it is probably not going to be a very democratic organization in the long run.

Good will has nothing to do with it. Going out and bringing in a bunch of people who agree with the organization is probably not going to improve the situation either. On the contrary, the harder the members work “in good faith” the worse the problem will be, because it is the moralistic definition of “good faith effort” that is part of the problem.

We have used the case of a worker who has been fired but organizations can meet their members’ material needs in many ways. Providing food to members who cannot afford it is one way, as can providing legal and political support to those targeted by state repression. The point is not to provide a service to the “needy” but to provide a platform for those in need to organize and fight for those needs alongside others like them. There is nothing more bizarre than the Marxist who is opposed to feeding the hungry, deeming it a “moralistic” and “individualistic” solution to the problem. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to build an organization that provides a real need to people and a basis for organizing around other such issues as well. Dismissing this as “prefigurative politics” simply misunderstands the social basis of class power.

Such an organization could be a mighty force, not because it has all the right ideas, though it could certainly use them. Rather, the members will fight for and defend the organization precisely because it meets their needs, and they will do so with far more dedication and veracity than those who simply “believe” in a set of good ideas.

This is basic Marxism but it has no place in “Leninism,” apparently.

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