Two years ago there was a split in the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in Australia. Without getting into the questions of who was at fault, I would say that the minority that went on to form the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) was true to the traditions of James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, while the majority was moving away from those traditions whether they would admit it or not. Cannon’s ideas on party-building have achieved a kind of cult status in the English-speaking Trotskyist world that is lost on me.
The other day an article by RSP member Allen Myers caught my eye. Titled Why are there so many socialist groups?, it encapsulates many of the ideas associated with Cannonite (Canonite?) orthodoxy. It is a polemic against the former members of the DSP who have thrown such orthodoxy overboard and are emulating the bold new initiative of the French Trotskyists of the LCR reconstituted as the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), a group shorn of vanguardist pretensions. In Australia this meant building the Socialist Alliance (SA) rather than the DSP. While the SA might not be guaranteed of success in the long run, this much can be said: the old model is guaranteed to fail. Over 70 years of the Fourth International and its various fissures is proof of that.
For those of us reared in American Trotskyism, the French were always seen as anti-Leninist liquidationists. In my view, the French were a lot closer to the Bolsheviks on at least one basis. The Bolsheviks were constituted on the basis of a revolutionary socialism that had little in common with the rather encyclopedic “program” advanced by the typical English-speaking Trotskyist group. Such a program amounted to a kind of catechism that pivoted around a correct understanding of the “Russian questions”. To my knowledge, Lenin never asked people to become Bolsheviks on the basis of how they understood the Jacobins.
In some ways, Myers has exactly the right credentials to defend a Cannonite perspective since he was a member of the American Socialist Workers Party around the same time as me. Myers earned some fame as an antiwar GI who was court-martialed for distributing leaflets at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Eventually he relocated to Australia for personal reasons where he worked to build the Australian party along the same lines as the SWP. Jim Percy (who died in 1992) and his brother John founded the group that would eventually become known as the DSP.
One can understand why the Percy’s would want to build a party along Cannonite lines since the SWP was growing rapidly around the time that they visited the United States to learn about the group first-hand. Eventually, to their credit, they broke with the SWP when it began to dispense Comintern-like advice about what they should and not be doing. It would seem that they did not make the connection between that kind of interference and the SWP’s adherence to the Comintern model. As I have explained elsewhere, the resolutions of the 1924 “Bolshivization” conference of the Comintern that set the pattern for this kind of hyper-centralism was supported by James P. Cannon who always considered himself as a disciple of Zinoviev, the fountainhead of these bad organizational methods.
Myers’s article was prompted by a leaflet put out by the SA in Victoria promoting left unity. Myers says this is a mistake because:
The fundamental reason that there are many socialist organisations is that there are many different ideas about how to achieve socialism. At first glance, it might seem a reasonable idea that everyone who shares the goal of socialism should unite in a single organisation. But what could such an organisation do in a united way? Some members would think that socialism only requires electing a majority of socialists to parliament while others might think that socialists should run in parliamentary elections only to propagandise their ideas of the need for socialist revolution. Some members would consider the ACTU and other union chiefs potential allies; other members would regard them as part of the problem. Such an organisation would contain all sorts of ideas even about what the organisation itself should try to be — does it seek to build a leadership for the working class, or is its aim only to unite various existing struggles as much as it can?
This is a much less offensive way of putting things than did Morris Stein, one of James P. Cannon’s top lieutenants, at the 1944 SWP convention:
We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.
When I joined the SWP in 1967, I was puzzled by all the groups representing themselves as Trotskyist to one degree or another. What was up with that, I asked a more experienced member—probably Les Evans, the ex-member turned Zionist/Eustonite. He recounted an anecdote that impressed a new member since it originated with someone like Lenin or Trotsky (I can’t remember who.) He said that the experience of observing the left from afar is a little bit like looking a man in the distance whose image is cloaked by fire and sparks and the violent strokes he is applying to an unseen object that result in harsh clanging sounds. From afar, he looks like a madman engaged in some bizarre activity. But when you come close, you can see that he is the village blacksmith simply doing productive work. That is exactly what polemical struggle on the left looks like to the neophyte. Frankly, I am at the point in life where the neophyte seems to have gotten it right.
In contrast to the SA, the RSP will stick to tried-and-true Leninist principles:
The task for socialists today is not to pursue imagined short cuts to mass influence, but to gather the cadres and political resources that will be needed when objective circumstances push masses of working people into struggle. As history has shown repeatedly, such upsurges can occur very quickly.
This is what I would call the “nucleus” theory of party-building. You develop a case-hardened “cadre” that is like the nucleus of some element, like carbon or uranium. When a catalyst is applied, like heat or the class struggle, the masses will accumulate around the nucleus just like electrons. That’s the theory anyhow.
It has been tested time and time again and revealed to be false. Genuine mass revolutionary parties have never been built this way. Instead, they grow out of a mass movement that is rooted in the experience of the given country. The Bolsheviks, for example, emerged out the Russian social democracy—a current that was a reflection of widespread support for the Second International throughout Europe and that was primarily fueled by a desire to rid the country of Czarist absolutism. It followed very few of the “principles” of Zinoviev or James P. Cannon who thought that Bolshevism could be turned into a template for parties everywhere. The chief goal of Australians, or Americans for that matter, would be to look to the real history of Lenin’s party rather than latter-day versions of that history that superimpose schemas of small groups trying to vindicate themselves as truly “Leninist”.
To start with, the Bolsheviks were not at all ideologically homogeneous as is the case of most “Leninist” groups today. To cite just one example, Bukharin had a totally different analysis of imperialism and the national question than Lenin and was not shy about defending it in a newspaper he edited. This did not prevent the two leaders from collaborating closely. In the “Leninist” world of today, such analyses constitute a kind of intellectual property that the party jealously protects against all rivals, like the formula for coca-cola.
As might be expected, the RSP is just as determined to stake out its turf on international questions as it is on the historical questions of the 1920s and 30s such as when the Soviet Union became (you fill in the blanks). Myers views Cuba as a kind of acid test for the left:
According to the Victorian leaflet, the SA believes that “the differences which do exist [among socialist groups] can be contained within a single organisation”. This ignores reality. For example, the Socialist Alternative (SAlt) group while formally opposed to US threats against Cuba, considers Cuba to be a capitalist state and advocates a mass armed uprising to overthrow the Cuban government. The SA has policy of solidarity with Cuba against US threats, but it hasn’t adopted a position on supporting Cuba’s socialist revolution. Perhaps, therefore, the SA could co-exist with SAlt in a united organisation in regard to its policy toward Cuba. But how could the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), which regards the Cuban Revolution as an inspiring example to the working people of the world of socialist politics in action, get along in the same party with socialists who advocate the overthrow of the Cuban government?
This debating point seems utterly academic considering the fact that the Socialist Alternative (SAlt) has about as much interest in left unity as the RSP itself. In fact, despite its origins in Tony Cliff’s state capitalist dogma, the SAlt has the very same “nucleus” theory as the RSP. Sometime back, I wrote a critique of SAlt leader Mick Armstrong’s party-building ideas that are virtually the same as Allen Myers’s. Here’s an excerpt:
The key to success is building “cadre”, a term that Bruce Landau (now known as the Civil War historian and tenured professor Bruce Levine) once told a gathering of the SWP in the 1970s comes out of the military. A cadre is like an officer who can lead the masses when the time is ripe. SWP leader Tom Kerry used to pronounce this word as “codder” which only enhanced its in-group mystique for a rank-and-filer like me. Here’s Armstrong describing the cadre-building process:
This cadre, this “solid core”, is just as important in times of retreat, when workers suffer setbacks. In order to hold a revolutionary organisation together in times of defeat theory is even more paramount. When the going is tough a much higher level of theoretical agreement is necessary to hold a propaganda group together because a small group without roots in the working class is inherently more unstable than a mass party. You can’t survive on the basis of a few slogans, you need a more sophisticated analysis. The cadre has to be steeled.
I just love the way that Armstrong uses the term “steeled”. It is just so evocative, like one of those New Yorker cartoons of a bunch of Bolsheviks or anarchists gathered around a candle in the sewers. Only those who are truly “steeled” have the ability to lead the masses to socialism unlike the flaccid, unsteeled elements who will turn into Karl Kautsky the first chance they get.
As I said before, the Socialist Alliance is not guaranteed of success. In revolutionary politics, you have to take a somewhat pragmatic approach even though the science underlying the party-building effort is Marxism. I genuinely hope that the comrades stay on the current course since it is truly in the spirit of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, no matter what their detractors say. These are the same detractors who tend to look at “What is to be Done” as a holy writ when Lenin himself said only five years after it was written that it was obsolete.