Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 3, 2008

Mick Armstrong’s little things

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 10:24 pm

Thanks to a review by Ben Courtice in Links, the online journal of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia–a post-Trotskyist group with a number of subscribers on Marxmail–I got wind of a rather peculiar book on socialist strategy by Mick Armstrong, a leader of Socialist Alternative which is in a neck-and-neck race with DSP to see who can get to the finish line first building a vanguard party in Australia.

The DSP is moving almost glacially away from “Leninist” orthodoxy, while the Socialist Alternative is distinguished by an “old school” Marxism-Leninism that is at odds with the general tendency of the left internationally to rethink “democratic centralism” and all the old shibboleths. Mick Armstrong’s party-building ideas are contained in “From Little Things Big Things Grow: Strategies for building revolutionary socialist organizations“. Get it, tiny propaganda acorns turn into mighty vanguard oaks? This is certainly a fresh analogy in comparison to the nucleus analogy so often used.

I have no idea whether Armstrong ever spent time in the academy, but he has the same susceptibility for schematic categories that you see in social science departments everywhere. He distinguishes between 3 types of socialist groups after the fashion of a political scientist describing types of governments or some such thing:

In the Marxist tradition there are three main types of organisation: discussion circles, propaganda groups and parties. These categories are not arbitrary, but are used to describe qualitatively different types of organisation. Discussion circles are tiny groups attempting to establish a Marxist tradition. Their main orientation is theoretical clarification. Political activity such as selling a magazine or intervening in strikes is a low priority… Propaganda groups are involved in a broader range of activity, but because they are small and lack influence in the working class, they recruit on the basis of ideas. Socialists make a distinction between two kinds of propaganda: general (sometimes called abstract) and concrete.

Looming over the discussion circle and the propaganda group is the mass party, which is the final destination of any self-avowed revolutionary organization just as the World Cup is in soccer or being selected American Idol. To get to that goal, you have to play your cards right:

By recruiting people to a propaganda group today, Socialist Alternative is laying the basis for a mass revolutionary party that can lead future workers’ struggles. But recruitment by itself is useless if the people recruited aren’t educated in Marxism, if they aren’t trained in revolutionary activity, and if they aren’t politically integrated into the organisation. What’s more, to build from a small revolutionary group into a mass party is no simple linear process, whereby the group grows by 20 per cent each year until it has tens of thousands of members.

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 it turns out, Marx and Engels were steely elements just like Mick Armstrong. Never for a minute did they lose track of the goal to move from a propaganda group to the next step up on the ladder–a mass party.

There followed a prolonged lull in the class struggle from 1851-1864. The Communist League was wound up following a split, and Marx and Engels concentrated on research. This is the period that is used as evidence of Marx’s abandonment of active party politics. But it is not true. The prime focus of Marx’s “swotting”, as he termed it, was to strengthen the Communist forces – “the Marx party”. Throughout this period Marx and Engels maintained a nucleus of experienced comrades so they would be able to take advantage of any revival of the movement. This is why “the Marx party” was able to quickly win the leadership of the next phase of struggle. They had clarified a program around which they cohered a group of supporters.

Poor Karl Marx. If he knew that people were writing about “the Marx party” in 2008, he would begin spinning in his grave at such a rapid rate that a generator attached to his toe would supply all the electricity needs of New York City for a decade.

The final chapter of Armstrong’s book is the most interesting since it engages with some of the more recent efforts to break from the sectarian party-building model that he is so desperate to retain. Right off the bat he writes:

The argument that small groups of socialists need to start by first building a socialist propaganda group if they are to have any hope of laying secure foundations for a mass revolutionary party is by no means widely accepted by socialists today. Socialist Alternative’s approach is condemned as narrow, rigid and sectarian or is dismissed as at best utopian.

I personally don’t have any objection to building socialist propaganda groups. When you think of all the ways that a young person can waste their lives (selling real estate, working for Goldman-Sachs, etc.), who can denigrate somebody selling a socialist newspaper on a college campus or in front of a grocery store? After all, this is one of the only ways that the average person can read an explanation of how capitalism operates. I personally first came across socialist ideas in 1959 when I read the letters of a Socialist Labor Party member in a local newspaper. Such propagandists are good citizens even though the chances that their party will ever lead a revolution are less than zero.

Taking aim at Murray Smith, the Mandelista theoretician who has been making many of the same points about “democratic centralism” as me over the past 10 years or so, Armstrong warns that mushy, broad left initiatives like the Scottish Socialist Party will cause millions to die in a new world war:

The idea of building “broad” socialist parties which combine revolutionaries and reformists is simply a reversion to the approach of the Second Socialist International. It ended in disaster. Under the test of war the reformists abandoned any commitment to the defence of the most basic democratic rights and sent workers off to die in their millions in the trenches of World War I. When the revolutionaries objected, their reformist “comrades” combined with the extreme right to arrest or murder them.

Let me say now publicly that I will do everything in my power to prevent groups like the Socialist Alliance in Australia from doing to Mick Armstrong what Friedrich Ebert did to Rosa Luxemburg, not that the DSP’ers are that much of a threat to begin with. They strike me as a generally affable crew, with the exception of Michael Karadjis who has been known to throw rocks at baby ducks in the park on occasion.

Armstrong next takes aim at Hal Draper’s “Toward a new beginning – on another road the alternative to the micro-sect“, an essay that I have lauded on numerous occasions. I should add that Armstrong is not the only radical vexed by Draper’s essay. Workers Liberty, the crypto-Eustonian sect in Great Britain, has also taken up the cudgel.

Along with Bert Cochran, another veteran of the Trotskyist movement, Draper figured out that the “vanguardist” approach was unviable. Since Armstrong does not cite Draper, I will do it for him.

What characterizes the classic sect was best defined by Marx himself: it counterposes its sect criterion of programmatic points against the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, which may not measure up to its high demands. The touchstone of support (the “point d’honneur,” in Marx’s words) is conformity with the sect’s current shibboleths – whatever they may be, including programmatic points good in themselves. The approach pointed by Marx was different: without giving up or concealing one’s own programmatic politics in the slightest degree, the real Marxist looks to the lines of struggle calculated to move decisive sectors of the class into action – into movement against the established powers of the system (state and bourgeoisie and their agents, including their labor lieutenants inside the workers’ movement). And for Marx, it is this reality of social (class) collision which will work to elevate the class’s consciousness to the level of the socialist movement’s program.

Now who in the right mind would argue against such sage advice?

In answering Draper (or really evading Draper, to be more exact), Armstrong goes through all sorts of gyrations to prove that Lenin started off with a propaganda group and had the goal of transforming it into a steely mass revolutionary party unlike the flaccid, broad parties that any true revolutionary would spit on. Ptooey!

Unfortunately for Armstrong, all of the most reputable scholars on Lenin, from Lars Lih to Neil Harding (as well as disreputable types like me), demonstrate that Lenin’s goal was to build a party in Russia modeled on Kautsky’s Social Democracy. If you don’t believe me, just read what Lenin wrote in “What is to be done?”:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

At any rate, I don’t want to discourage Mick Armstrong and the Socialist Alternative comrades from pursuing the path that they are on. As I have already stated, it is a much better way to live your life than as a disgusting yuppie. Most of the people joining his group are apparently from college campuses in Australia. God bless them, I say. And put another shrimp on the barbie.


  1. I like the way you wrapped this one up, Louis. I do a lot of work in my local labor council, and very often find myself voting with the “cadre” of the Freedom Socialist Party on agenda items. They drive everyone crazy with their inability to raise a point on the floor without an eight paragraph preface,but the general lack of political curiosity exhibited by the “democratic” party Obama-ites who dominate the floor drive some of us crazier with their friendly authoritarianism and their earnest conviction that they alone recognize concrete conditions.

    All the same, people who can’t take in Hal Draper’s counsel on organization are leading us into the swamp, to paraphrase Lenin’s scold of the folks to his right at the outset of WITBD.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — August 4, 2008 @ 12:41 am

  2. When I saw “Mick Armstrong” I immediately wondered if this could be THE Mick Armstrong. And YESSS!! it was our very own – Mick – he who would make Tony Cliff look like a sweet kindie teacher. Mick, bless him, was a key element in the purge which got rid of me in 1981. Of course as is the way of things in the Land of the Sects, he too was purged in turn. But it would seem that Mick like the Bourbons, has forgotten nothing and learned nothing.

    I wish him well of course and am in a way impressed that his hard man act has lasted unchanged all these years. But from time to time I think of all the young people attracted to socialism that have been through the sectarian mill and emerged burned out and truly disillusioned. There are more than shrimps turned to a crisp on the barbie, I fear. There are also the ideals and hopes of many, too many young Australians.



    Comment by Gary MacLennan — August 4, 2008 @ 12:48 am

  3. After 5 years in the ISO (U.S.) in the early to mid-nineties, I am now militant (sorry) about calling myself a Marxist, not a Leninist.

    Marx explained the workings so well. The pictures he painted of the cataclysms of unbridled capitalism are true to anyone able to heed their conscience.

    ISO may have the best intentions, but there is an inherent problem with appointing untried leadership before a battle. If you aren’t in the trenches, you really do not know what is happening.

    Comment by Linda J — August 4, 2008 @ 1:06 am

  4. The big problem that I identify with Socialist Alternative in my review is not even really the age old self-proclaimed Vanguard acorn. In fact they rigidly demarcate their propaganda group status so as to avoid doing all those things that I think revolutionaries ought – taking initiatives to work with the masses (including learning from them it should be mentioned) and to take part in struggles not as some alien group delivering the program but as people who are part of the struggle and want it to win. Socialist Alternative are generally nice people as far as I can tell (most of them don’t interact with the off-campus left a lot) but they barely do more than hand out leaflets about struggles that are happening. So they have a semi-cult sort of insulation from struggles. In fact I’m being more generous than many by including the word “semi”.

    Comment by Ben Courtice — August 4, 2008 @ 3:15 am

  5. The Worker’s Int’l League calls itself a tendency, not a party.

    We don’t act as the SWP did, by stacking meetings etc. Often we fight hard for slogans and program in a coalition. Other items are compromisable.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — August 4, 2008 @ 6:20 am

  6. I agree that Armstrong’s argument leans too heavily on schematic categories, and also that SAlt’s brand of “pure propagandism” is a dead end. Some (former?) members do a good job explaining why in a discussion bulletin document that can be viewed here: http://sydney.indymedia.org.au/node/16347

    At the same time, I think we should be careful about looking to Draper as a cure-all. While his writings on the “sect system” make plenty of good points and provide some useful pointers, the “political center” as such comes across as one abstract model opposed to another. *Common practice* is also necessary, and a membership organization is often an effective means of organizing it.

    It seems to me that democratic centralism (which, interestingly, SAlt have argued *against* for organizations like their own) is a concept whose importance is both over- and underestimated: overestimated because it isn’t Lenin’s innovation, let alone the be-all and end-all of his thought, but underestimated because Marxists *do* prefer centralism to federalism, all things being equal.

    The key question to ask is, “Organization *for what*?” The answers to that question are what should determine organizational forms, not commitment to any blueprint.

    Comment by Sam — August 4, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

  7. Where was Draper referred to as a “cure-all” here?

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — August 4, 2008 @ 5:01 pm

  8. I wasn’t leveling such an accusation at anyone in particular — just noting that it’s important to avoid counterposing one abstract model to another.

    Comment by Sam — August 4, 2008 @ 6:39 pm

  9. who has been known to throw rocks at baby ducks in the park on occasion

    Louis, I’m not sure if this is a joke or not, but if it is true, it is a serious charge. Cruelty to animals disqualifies him, in my opinion, from leading the socialist movement.

    Comment by Eugene — August 4, 2008 @ 7:44 pm

  10. I had an English teacher who used to draw a “#” (tic-tac-toe) when he was bored with a student paper, and stopped reading, or sometimes a shovel with an obvious implication.

    I used to have similar reaction when a certain kind of new-lefty would propose “organizing around” something or other–a Pacifica-Radio word in its day.

    Here we see a quote from Draper, not the most illiterate leftis who ever banged a Royal portable, using the term “counterpose.” I just reached for my Gameboy.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — August 4, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

  11. “In answering Draper (or really evading Draper, to be more exact), Armstrong goes through all sorts of gyrations to prove that Lenin started off with a propaganda group and had the goal of transforming it into a steely mass revolutionary party unlike the flaccid, broad parties that any true revolutionary would spit on. Ptooey!

    “Unfortunately for Armstrong, all of the most reputable scholars on Lenin, from Lars Lih to Neil Harding (as well as disreputable types like me), demonstrate that Lenin’s goal was to build a party in Russia modeled on Kautsky’s Social Democracy.”

    I don’t think this observation refutes Armstrong. Lenin viewed the German SPD through rose-colored spectacles, so it is quite possible for him to have seen himself following in Kautsky’s footsteps *and* for him to have had the goal of building a mass revolutionary party. In fact the quotation from WITBD above emphasizes that Lenin (wrongly) believed the SPD was a mass revolutionary party. If he had not believed this, he would not have felt so utterly betrayed in August 1914.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — August 6, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

  12. Responding to #11, Lenin said that WITBD was made obsolete by history not 5 years after it was published. Lenin’s problem with the German social democracy was only that it did not live up to its ideals. For those who think that Lenin’s party was somehow different than the German social democracy (other than the obvious need for clandestine operations, etc.), the burden of proof is on you. Was Lenin’s idea of a vanguard somehow different than that put forward in the the Austrian Hainfeld program of the Social Democrats which said that “Socialist consciousness is something that is brought into the proletarian class struggle from the outside, not something that organically develops out of the class struggle”? I doubt it.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 6, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

  13. But let’s not forget WITBD, does not advocate Democratic Centralism. In fact it is not mentioned anywhere in that pamphlet, or in any other of Lenin’s writings of the period. For a simple reason. The Bolsheviks were an illegal party who couldn’t afford “toy” democratism. It was first mentioned during the 1903 split, because Lenin wanted to make the editorial board accountable to the party.
    The hierarchical top down schema, which makes up “demo-cent” today, has nothing to do with pre-revolutionary Bolsheviks or Lenin. You will try in vein to find any such organisational schema in Lenin. I remember in the past searching myself for the “correct” way to organise the party, and was frustrated to find there wasn’t one. I now realise that’s for a good reason. There isn’t one! Organisation flows from political tasks and not visa versa.
    Hence D-C was proposed by the Comintern as it was attempting to split social democratic parties after WWI, when they once again sought to make the leadership accountable to the membership.
    Unfortunately, in my view, they also overegged the pudding on the centralism front, under the pressure of domestic events in Russia. Where Draper is right is the emphasis on ideas, politics not organisation as the key to building a Marxist/Leninist/Trotskyist organisation.

    Comment by bill j — August 8, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

  14. I was really interested Hal Draper’s paper. I should tell you that I first learned of Draper when the two of us were students at Bard and I was sometimes going to YPSL meetings in the city. Draper was the spokesman for the Left Shachtmanite tendency. I brought Shachtman up to Bard and he spoke favorably of Draper, praised his THE TWO SOALS OF SOCIALISM. I couldn’t get Draper because he was in Berkeley. In Madison in the late Sixties I followed his role in the FSM and know that Jerry Rubin’s famous quote was “don’t trust anyone older that thirty except Hal Draper”. Sometime in the late Sixties I met Draper at a political conference in Chicago, and in the early Seventies when I decided to give up teaching sociology and become a worker I headed for the Bay Area and signed up in the International Socialists. Draper was no longer active in the branch and the comrades were oddly quite about his reasons for withdrawing. I never saw the paper you have posted which sort of explains why. He obviously saw the IS going in a sectarian direction. My San Francisco branch was a delight and not in the least sectarian. Three years later we were all expelled for resisting the” Leninist turn.” I was sorry for my comrades who thought of themselves as Leninists. On the party question I agreed with Jim Weinstein ( who had a bookstore a block from my apartment) who wanted to rebuild something like the old Socialist Party not create another sect. I stayed with the IS only because of their “industrialization” strategy which I thought was on the mark. I wish I had know of the Draper flyer at the time. I would have based my defense at the expulsion trial on it an gone on the attack. As it is the” turn” was a flop, and several comrades expelled along with me went on to form SOLIDARITY. I never joined because I am not a Leninist — and I sense, Louis, from reading your postings for the last few months that neither are you.

    Comment by paul Mueller — August 27, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

  15. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by Why are there so many socialist groups? « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 10, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

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