Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 2, 2020

John Molyneux, Paul Le Blanc and the pathway for building a revolutionary party

Filed under: sectarianism — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

John Molyneux

Paul Le Blanc

Last July, I wrote about John Molyneux’s critique of David McNally’s views on party-building. Molyneux decided to weigh in on the dissolution of the ISO, a group that was modeled on the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Molyneux was a long-time leader of the Irish SWP, another group that was spawned by the British mother-ship. As for the ISO, it broke ties with the SWP in 2001 over the mother-ship’s meddling in its internal affairs. As for the Irish satellite, it changed its name to the Socialist Workers Network in 2018 and operates as a “component part” within something called People Before Profit, an attempt at building a broad socialist party.

It seems that Irish SWP leaders were instrumental in forming the group, which before long became part of a broader alliance that included the Socialist Party, a satellite of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers International (CWI) that shared the “Leninist” methodology of the British SWP. All such groups are quite skilled at maneuvering that would increase their influence at the expense of their temporary allies so it is not a big surprise that the Taaffites abandoned its alliance with the Irish state-capitalists. Nor should be any big surprise that the Taaffites have undergone a major split themselves. I made a note to myself to investigate what caused the split but decided a much better use of my time was to stick to film reviews.

It’s enough to make your head spin to see all these gyrations and amoeba-like subdivisions. It’s even more puzzling to discover that the main lesson Molyneux drew from McNally’s articles was that his own such experiment failed because it did not lead to a mass revolutionary party. By this criterion, all efforts to build Leninist parties were also failures but much more spectacular. David McNally, Bert Cochran, Peter Camejo and Hal Draper decided to terminate their experiments at building an alternative to the “democratic centralist” contraption without much fanfare instead of bursting into flame like the Hindenburg Zeppelin.

In my response to Molyneux, I wrote:

For Molyneux, the failure of McNally or Bert Cochran to build a mass revolutionary party was vindication of his own approach, which boiled down to Zinovievism. This schematic version of Lenin’s party was always capable of consolidating a group of 1 to 2,000 members—or even more, as was the case with the British SWP until the rape crisis. What Molyneux obviously does not understand is that such groups have been around since the 1930s and fail to do very much for the simple reason that they operate under a glass ceiling. History teaches us that groups like the British SWP or the American SWP that I belonged to can consolidate around a fully articulated “program” that a zealous membership defends like Jehovah’s Witnesses but that are never embraced by the masses. For argument’s sake, as compelling as the ideas of Tony Cliff are, they can never be the foundation of a revolutionary movement since they are operate in such a narrow spectrum ideologically.

Only recently did I learn that Paul Le Blanc wrote his own response to Molyneux that appeared in the British SWP’s quarterly journal. Titled “Pathways for building a revolutionary party”, it sounds quite different than what Paul is saying today. It was the same old Zinovievist formula he had put forward in the ISO press for many years and hardly consistent with his new-found attachment to the neo-Kautskyite “democratic socialism” of the DSA and Jacobin. We should understand that Paul sees the two outlooks as consistent with each other but I’ve heard stranger things out of the far left over the years so I am not exactly taken aback.

Invited to write a response to Molyneux, Paul was most accommodating. “I am pleased to do so, since discussion on the matter of a revolutionary party has become increasingly urgent—particularly in this moment of accelerating climate change, increased economic and social suffering, spreading right-wing authoritarianism and the lack of a truly credible international left.” I honestly don’t know how any of this has much to do with Bernie Sanders getting elected but for the time being let’s ignore Paul’s road to Damascus conversion.

Like Molyneux, Paul was for a revolutionary party, which would bear fruit as long as you follow the organizational methods pioneered by James P. Cannon and Tony Cliff. They each followed the guidelines laid down by Gregory Zinoviev in the 1924 “Bolshevization” Comintern Congress. These methods were nothing less than a mechanical application of Lenin’s party that neglected to acknowledge the open debates that were strictly verboten by Cannon and Cliff.

Although I would never find much difference between Hal Draper and David McNally, Paul dismisses Draper’s “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect” as posing a “a literary solution to the traditional problems of sectarianism.” Literary? Like Jane Austen or something? Here’s the take-away from Draper’s 1973 classic:

There has never been a single case of a sect which developed into, or gave rise to, a genuine socialist movement – by the only process that sects know, the process of accretion. The sect mentality typically sees the road ahead as one in which the sect (one’s own sect) will grow and grow, because it has the Correct Political Program, until it becomes a large sect, then a still larger sect, eventually a small mass party, then larger, etc., until it becomes large and massy enough to impose itself as the party of the working class in fact. But in two hundred years of socialist history, this has never actually happened, in spite of innumerable attempts.

If Lenin were to come back to life today through some supernatural deus ex machina and have a look at the wreckage strewn across the political landscape in his name, I am sure he would nod his head in agreement with Hal Draper.

Paul’s take on McNally is far more generous, even if it does not follow logically. Molyneux takes issue with McNally’s very Draper-like observation that “building of tiny organisations detached from real mass movements became identical with the building of revolutionary parties.” This could never be mistaken for the Trotskyist left, except for madhouses like the Spartacist League. Molyneux wrote:

In truth none but the most unhinged of small sects ever believed this—neither the Mandelite Fourth Internationalists, nor Ted Grant’s Militant Tendency and certainly not the IS Tendency thought it was possible to build revolutionary parties “detached from real mass movements.” For all their various flaws they all thought it was possible to build revolutionary parties only through participation in the mass struggles of the class.

Scarred by his experience in the American SWP, which was perhaps cleverly omitted from Molyneux’s case history, Paul describes what the Cannon school of party-building stood for, as well as the other amoeba-Leninist formations:

“Our group is the custodian of the authentic revolutionary tradition” matches what I learned when I was a member of the US Socialist Workers Party in the 1970s, and what I believe I have observed in the other groups John mentions.

Molyneux has obviously learned nothing of the sort. He makes the patently self-evident point that building a genuine vanguard, as opposed to the toy Bolshevik parties people like the late James Robertson and Jack Barnes drive around in, cannot be done by individuals. It requires collective action:

Now, fostering practices, forms of struggle and institutions that assist the formation of a class vanguard is obviously something every revolutionary socialist should be doing continuously in the 1920s, the 1990s and today on an everyday basis in their workplaces, communities, campaigns and so on. The question is whether you do this as an individual or as part of a collective on the basis of a coordinated strategy and plan that is linked to the overall project of socialist ­revolution. The latter requires a revolutionary party (group, micro-party—call it what you will).

In other words, your choice is functioning as an atomized, practically impotent, individual or join a Leninist group. He does not seem to grasp that there is a vast difference between something like the ISO or the SWP on one hand and a socialist group that dumps the “democratic centralist” baggage on the other. In my view, something like the DSA proves that it can grow rapidly from 2,000 or so members to over 60,000 members in the face of deepening class contradictions. Now, if it could only—sigh—dump the orientation to the Democratic Party and began to raise a bit more hell…

Paul sees through Molyneux’s schema:

But in making this point he creates a blur, equating a revolutionary party with a group that has not quite become that, and then with a pretend party. Such false equations are not helpful…Given the trajectory of his analysis, it would seem we are restricted to what he has labelled the “horrible” and “tedious” routines of paper sales, recruitment and branch building on the micro-party model.

Unfortunately, Paul misses the most important point. It is not selling newspapers, etc. that leads to sectification. Instead, it is the tendency of such groups to be based on a program that serves as a litmus test to separate the pure from the impure. Like the Christian, Muslim and Jewish sects, there’s a body of literature handed down over the years that was largely drafted by a prophet like Tony Cliff, James P. Cannon or Ted Grant. Instead of resting on a broad consensus of the sort that exists on the radical left (against fracking, for open borders, etc.), it takes a position on the “Russian questions” such as when it became state-capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist or a degenerated workers state.

It can also involve what positions you take on questions not only of a historical character but not directly relevant to the class struggle in your own country. Several months ago, I had a long talk with an activist who works on the Left Voice magazine that I find very much worth following. He was from Argentina and in the Morenoite tradition. Much younger than me, he didn’t seem to be steeped in the history of this tendency but explained how his current split fairly recently. They had profound differences over the Armenian genocide with another faction, something that I could certainly identify with, having written numerous articles on it myself. His faction considered the other faction as making ideological concessions to the Turks that were intolerable. So they split.

I didn’t offer my thoughts on this to him, even though I would be sympathetic to his faction’s analysis. However, my experience is that when it comes to heated battles over events taking place somewhere else, it is best to treat them as debates best left to a theoretical journal with both sides allowed complete freedom to express its views.

Some years ago, the ISO supposedly decided to move in this direction and even stated that it would be open to having multiple positions on Cuba defended in its press. As so often happens in such groups, it is peer pressure rather than bureaucratic enforcement that explains how much they can resemble a Hasidic sect. The ISO leadership would theoretically never expel a member for writing an article for Monthly Review debunking Samuel Farber’s views on Cuba. Instead, it would never be faced with such a challenge in the first place since in such small groups you naturally want to be socially accepted. What would comrades think of you if wrote that Samuel Farber was pure hokum? It might even affect your love life.

Of course, none of this is a problem for all of the people who fled the ISO into the warm embrace of the DSA where you can say anything you please. I can attest to that from the regular reports I get from the national office embodying Mao’s dictum: let a thousand flowers bloom. That’s how a real movement develops.

Nine years ago, I wrote an article titled “Rethinking the question of a revolutionary program” that gets into the importance of abandoning the dogmatic basis of the supposedly Leninist need for a “program”. It concludes:

Socialism, or anti-capitalism, has to be reconstituted on a much broader basis. Without a doubt, a program similar in spirit could be reconstituted from all of the points that the myriad of sects in the U.S. agrees on. I doubt that you will find the ISO and the Workers World fighting over, for example, the need to provide free medical care or the need to ban “fracking”. But in their fight to the finish line—the proletarian revolution of the distant future—they seek to protect their intellectual property, the sum total of all the resolutions voted on at all their conventions and all the newspaper articles, books and pamphlets churned out by their party press.

Whether or not they see the light, it is up to the rest of us to move forward as rapidly as possible drafting a program and building an organization that focuses on the real issues facing working people and not those that divide small propaganda groups from each other.






  1. Looking forward to reading this, as I’d quoted a bit from Molyneux in one of my Zen Marxism pamphlets 24 years ago.


    Comment by TakeForwardWBAI — March 2, 2020 @ 10:45 pm

  2. I was reading a slim volume by a Spanish anarchist recently, and the author made an interesting point: anarchists, unlike Marxists, don’t reference canonical figures to try to prevail in their arguments. Of course, they still have nasty conflicts, but they lack this quasi-religious quality.

    I point this out, not because it shows anarchists are superior, but, rather, to show that a politics that emphasizes every day life challenges gets lost in such dialogues, such as they are. As much as I have problems with DSA, I guess I have to concede they are making this effort.

    I also think that I’ve been reading this blog for a long time because I vaguely recall reading “Rethinking the question of a revolutionary program” when you first posted it.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 3, 2020 @ 4:56 am

  3. Anything more to read about leblancs conversion to the Berniecrats outside of his exchange with a supporter of socialist action?

    Can’t say it surprises me, he’s tailed after everything that moved, most of it moving to the right, all the while passing himself off as the English speaking world’s top Lenin expert…until he was toppled by his pal Lars lih.

    Comment by Roy rollin — March 3, 2020 @ 2:05 pm

  4. Paul Le Blanc (from February 4, 2020)
    The basis for my decision to support the Sanders campaign (and serious electoral efforts of other socialists, including those using the Democratic Party ballot-line) is that it has drawn together and given focus (and will be giving essential experience) to many thousands and millions of people who are moving in the direction of socialism and can be an important component making up the cadres and mass base of a serious socialist movement.


    Comment by louisproyect — March 3, 2020 @ 2:52 pm

  5. LeBlanc states that Demicrap election campaigns “can be an important component making up the cadres and mass base of a serious socialist movement.” (“Can be of significant value when conscientiously applied . . .” like toothpaste?)

    We are now at the point where Bernie Sanders probably gets flattened by the Michelin Man of the corrupt “centrist” coalition around Biden.

    Where is the application of the still-unrealized potential as we speak, and how will it survive the extinction of the Sanders candidacy?

    How do the shallowly task-focused temporary “cadres” of an American election campaign get converted into a deep organization that can work in communities under the shadow of defeat, repression, depression, and pandemic disease and be capable of exercising governance outside of government, resisting the might of state power, seizing power as a party while remaining meaningfully democratic and conducting the sorts of militant actions that the corrupt unions have been preventing for years and that are desperately needed?

    And not just how might this happen but how, on the eve of Sanders’s likely defeat, is it happening as the electoral clock runs out and the residual “cadres” will face the test of action under highly unfavorable circumstances.

    The hell with Lenin for the moment–just, as a thought experiment, look at the functional requirements; i.e., the reasonably predictable action demands that a mass party must face here and now. Are any of these being met by the Sanders “organization”? If so, which ones and how is that working out?

    All the DSA pro-Sanders stuff assumes tacitly a) that he will win, and b) that having won he will be able to implement the New New Deal he has been outlining. Then the movement will really start.

    That’s bloody unlikely.

    Good on you Louis for continuing to focus on “the perennial organizational Q” as one commenter put it.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 3, 2020 @ 4:23 pm

  6. BTW, re anarchists and canonical figures–I thought that eg Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, Chomsky, and Bookchin got referenced quite a lot in the broader worldwide A. context. Does nobody in Spain ever talk about Durrutti etc.? To deny this sounds like someone converting an “ought” to an “is”–special pleading. Spain isn’t the whole story at all events …

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 3, 2020 @ 4:37 pm

  7. “BTW, re anarchists and canonical figures–I thought that eg Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, Chomsky, and Bookchin got referenced quite a lot in the broader worldwide A. context. Does nobody in Spain ever talk about Durrutti etc.? To deny this sounds like someone converting an “ought” to an “is”–special pleading. Spain isn’t the whole story at all events …”

    They get mentioned, but not always, and they are not often decisive. They don’t get wielded with a “Marx wrote this . . . ” or “Lenin said that . . . ”
    It probably has to do with the anarchist rejection of the prominence, with the exception of Kropotkin, and maybe Bookchin, of scientific method. With Chomsky, there is a cult, but even here, I see little emphasis upon Chomsky as an essential figure.

    Within anarchism, the problem is more one of lifestyle or direct action purity. And, the fact that when it can be open and inclusive, as with antifa, it sometimes ends up descending into a more confrontational form of liberalism. Antifa appealed to some millennial liberals.

    A digression, I know.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 4, 2020 @ 5:50 am

  8. Thanks for the quote. Reeks of the usual pomposity and obfuscation that Leblanc revels in.Translated from Leblanc lingo to plain parlence, it means Bernie is popular so why not tail him just like he tailed lula, the Sandinistas, etc. At least they were independent of the bourgeoisie. I don’t know why he didn’t support Jesse Jackson as well.

    So Since when is dragooning aspiring radicals into the Democratic Party roach motel helping to develop any kind of socialist movement? As if these so called socialists were just using the Democratic ballot line as opposed to being used by the democrats to short circuit any independent politics.

    Comment by Roy rollin — March 4, 2020 @ 6:01 am

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