Donald Parkinson responds to Taylor B’s Beginning’s of Politics: DSA and the Uprising, arguing that a workers’ party is necessary to advance an emancipatory politics.
The past eight months have been unlike any other. Political strife in the Democratic Primary had already been taking place when the Covid-19 pandemic brought about a massive health crisis coupled with economic dislocation that led to historic levels of unemployment. It was only a matter of time before mass unrest began, with the murder of George Floyd by the police state acting as the spark that set into motion months of protesting and rioting. In these months countless Americans had their first taste of collective political action. The intensity of the wave of struggles for many felt like a rupture with the past. Politics was no longer confined to the plaything of property owners and technocratic experts but something contested by the plebian masses in struggle.
This feeling of a decisive break, of a new qualitative situation, is what leads Taylor B to declare the rise of democratic socialism through the Sanders campaign and the mass protests of Black Lives Matter as a “birth of politics”, a singular event that in its own processes of social mobilization create new possibilities for a future communist horizon. This feeling of a qualitative break leads him to see these events as singular, as heralding a new creative process that will break from all the old muck of the past and create new forms of organization. It is this approach that leads Taylor B to mistakenly declare that in this singular process we must instead declare our fidelity to the spontaneous energies of the event, to see where it goes and what it creates rather than trying to impose our own ideas upon it. And the most dangerous of those ideas is the notion of the workers’ party, which Taylor B declares to be a force of neutralization in the current conjuncture.
What we find here is a logic of movementism and spontaneism where the energies unleashed by social movements and mass actions are seen organically leading to a higher form. This is essentially the argument of Rosa Luxemburg’s Mass Strike – that the workers’ movement in struggle will find the solutions to its problems and develop new forms of organization that can apply these solutions. The arguments were taken to a greater extreme by the council communists like Anton Pannekoek, who eventually rejected the party as a force of neutralization much like Taylor B does in Birth of Politics. As Mike Macnair has pointed out, these ideas have far more in common with the political approach of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin than his main rivals of the time in the First International, Karl Marx and Engels.
The appeal of spontaneism and movementism is a common and popular reaction to the reality of countless sectarian Leninist groups who claim to be holders of the true wisdom of Marxism that will organize and lead the proletarian revolution. When the inability of these sects to consciously engineer a revolutionary movement from above into existence is clear, the appeal of a solution from below is seductive. The masses, uncorrupted by the sectarian dogmas of the failing left, will bring a new sense of energy and vision into play and overcome the forces of the old, bringing the new politics of the genuine social movement to the fore. The failure of the socialist sects to find a solution to the problems that socialists face today makes hope in the purity of social movements and their spontaneous motion almost common sense in the activist left.
The problem with this approach is that it contradicts the very goal of communism itself. Communism, at least in part, can be understood as the conscious planning and democratic control of the producers of over society. Capitalism creates forms of domination and control that appear as impersonal forces of the market throwing us around according to the whims of profit. The anarchy of capitalism, or its lack of planning, means that our social and productive processes dominate us (the human species) as an arbitrary force, just as religious fetishizations dominate traditional religious communities as forces beyond their control. It is for this reason that the conscious planning of society in communism is not an incidental feature but a part of its very nature as a social system.
The party, an instrument of conscious political vision, is counterposed to the spontaneous unconscious energies of the mass movements unleashed by the Bernie campaign and Black Lives Matter. It is no wonder that Taylor B sees Black Lives Matter as containing more potential despite its admitted domination by the petty-bourgeois; while Black Lives Matter is technically a non-profit foundation with its own organizational existence, it’s clear that the energy of the movement is in the uncontained moments of rebellion where street fighting against the cops. The amount of energy expressed by the masses in the street is nothing to write off, and it is easy to see why so much of the left invest more hope in these moments of unmediated attacks on the state than the sloganeerings of sects selling newspapers. In moments like this, it is tempting to say, as Taylor B does, that the masses in struggle are more politically advanced than the various leftist sectarians.
Yet if we understood communism to be a project of humanity talking conscious control of its own conditions of existence, then placing hope in the unconscious spontaneous energy of mass actions is not sufficient. Yes, we can find levels of organization emerge from the movements of the crowd, with the formation of assemblies, affinity groups, and even new nonprofits as initiatives from activists. It would be a mistake to deny the obvious creativity that arises from mass movements like the ones we saw this summer. Yet it would be an even bigger mistake to declare that this creativity can produce the organization and class consciousness needed to transform the existing class struggle into one that can transcend capitalism.
If we accept that the conscious planning of social-productive processes to meet the needs of the human species is a defining quality of communism, then we should also be willing to apply this principle to communist politics. As partisans of communism who believe that we have a duty to fight for our ideas, it is necessary that we develop an analysis of our situation, determine what is needed to further advance the struggle for communism, develop a plan of action based on this analysis, and put it into practice. We look at the social forces that promulgated these dynamics, but it is necessary to also analyze how our situation fits in a broader historical struggle of the proletariat throughout history. We cannot develop an entirely new form of struggle or organization for any given conjuncture but instead look to our past for insight into how we can best act and develop a strategy that can help us spearhead the class war towards communism. After all, the current conjuncture isn’t something simply unfolding before our eyes as passive observers. We can analyze the situation and collectively act in ways informed by our analysis to influence its unfolding.
But who is this ‘we’ that I speak of? Is it whoever jumps into the crowd with a hope for liberation or a desire to break with the current order? Is it only other leftists? Other Marxists? To ask the strategic question of ‘what is to be done?’, there needs to be a collective ‘we’ that can act as a subject. Otherwise ‘we’ are simply acting as individuals, an affinity group in the streets, a nonprofit, or a temporary general assembly that will only last as long as people can stay in the streets. Questions like “should we focus on building unions or elections, should we oppose the war, should we form a coalition with this party, should we organize nation-wide demonstrations, should we form an armed struggle?” all only make sense when the ‘we’ in question is some kind of organized collectivity that already has unified around a certain goal. Otherwise one is simply shouting at the atomized masses hoping they will follow.
The ‘party’ is simply this organized collectivity that allows a ‘we’ to form and act in a decisive way. This is to say nothing of what a party looks like, which I have said more about in other places. In this instance, I am focusing on and arguing on a more abstract philosophical level about why the party is necessary. This is not the imposition of an abstract historical model completely foreign to the conjuncture as Taylor B claims. The call for a party is instead a call for strategy and the capacity to put it into practice through forming a political subject, a ‘we’ that can pose and answer questions through collective action.
I do not doubt that Taylor B accepts the need for strategy and an organized political subjectivity that can put it into practice. The problem is that he sees the current political sequence as a singularity that exists in a break with the past so radical that it will herald a completely novel form of political subjectivity, leaving us incapable of learning from the accumulated lessons of the past. There supposedly has been such a radical break in history that these accumulated lessons can only be the “traditions of generations weighing on us like living nightmares”. Arguments like this can be found everywhere, from ultra-left proponents of the immediate communization of society like the journal Endnotes to left-populists like Laclau and Mouffe. The old forms of worker identification and the corresponding forms of organization such as the party and union were expressions of a historically specific era that is long gone. Today we will see new forms of subjectivity and organizational forms, and those who raise the old forms of a bygone era are simply imposing a nostalgic past onto the present. Or so the argument typically goes.
I like to call these types of arguments the ‘appeal to novelty’. The version of it that Taylor B cites is an essay by Sylvain Lazarus, “Lenin and the Party, 1902 – November 1917”. Its argument is worth summarizing before dissecting, as it gives us a sophisticated version of the ‘appeal to novelty’ argument. Lazarus begins by saying that the notion of ‘the party’ is the basis of politics in the 20th Century, which is an innovation marked by Lenin’s What Is To Be Done in rupture with the previous conception of politics which centered on the insurrection of the class, exemplified by the Paris Commune and the ideas of Marx. Lenin’s development of the thesis explicated in What Is To Be Done is seen as a break from Marx’s idea of the class as the revolutionary subject:
In What Is to Be Done? Lenin broke with the thesis of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1848) with regard to the spontaneous character of the appearance of Communists within the modern proletariat. In contrast to the Marxist thesis that can be stated as “Where there are proletarians, there are Communists,” Lenin opposed spontaneous consciousness and Social Democratic (that is, revolutionary) consciousness and stretched this opposition to the limit.1
This break with Marx is said to comprise a new sequence, the discovery of a truth that marks an era which demonstrates this truth. Yet the sequence comes to an end in 1917, as ‘the party’ is now something that becomes intertwined with the state. Now one can only speak of the ‘state party’, a force of conservatism because of its ‘standing over society’. A new sequence begins, and the word becomes ‘revolution’ rather than ‘party’. What this means is unclear beyond the fact that a new form of politics that goes beyond the party. Rather than seeking state power, it seeks its “subversion, its transitory cessation”.2 In his rejection of a politics oriented around state power and the party, Lazarus goes so far as to say the signifier of ‘revolution’ should be rejected as it “is a nonpolitical, historicist notion, reducing the thought of politics, its condition of possibility, to that of an event character in exteriority, and placing this latter in a chain in which ‘party’ and ‘state’ also figure…rendered obsolete in 1968, as far as France is concerned.”3
My first reaction to Lazarus’ argument here is that he’s making a claim that’s impossible to disprove because it’s impossible to prove. Looking at history and developing a periodization can be useful. That said, one has to ask whether they are imposing a periodization by coming up with a conclusion and then reading history backward to validate that conclusion. Historical narratives are supposed to be explanatory, and the only thing that Lazarus’ narrative explains is why he thinks we need to abandon all the past concepts of Marxist politics and come up with something completely novel.
Problems with method aside, the narrative Lazarus paints is simply not true. Lenin was not breaking with the political practice or conceptions of Marx and Engels in What Is To Be Done? and wasn’t making any kind of original argument. As Lars Lih has pointed out, What Is To Be Done? Is an impressive exercise in aggressive unoriginality. Lenin’s arguments about the need for class consciousness to be brought from without due to the inadequacy of economic struggles to develop into Social-Democratic politics on their own is simply an application of Karl Kautsky’s ‘merger formula’. The merger formula postulates that socialist intellectuals such as Marx and Engels developed their applications from a study of history and political economy, while the working class by necessity organized into a labor movement to collectively defend its conditions within capitalism. The socialist intellectuals, consciously dedicated partisans of political conviction, must merge their knowledge with the working-class movement by uniting to form a party dedicated to the cause of socialist revolution that is armed with a scientific theory of social change. Kautsky based this idea on the very life and work of Marx and Engels themselves, as he shows in his pamphlet The Historical Accomplishment of Karl Marx. By heralding Lenin’s theory of the party as a radical break from Marx, Lazarus falls into the trappings of Cold War historiography as well the myths that Leninist sects tell themselves about the “party of a new type”.
What Lazarus is doing is projecting a radical break into history so as to justify that another radical break is necessary. Lenin (supposedly) broke with Marx’s view of the class as the subject of revolution with his view of the party in order to successfully seize power in October. Then the party became a source of conservatism through its merging with the state after October, meaning that if we are to truly be working in the spirit of Lenin then another break is necessary, this time with the party itself. Yet the break never really happened in the first place. Marx himself fought to form the workers’ party in his own time and struggled within it for programmatic clarity. His own life was an example of the merger formula in practice. Kautsky merely systematized it and Lenin applied it to Russian conditions.
Lazarus’ periodization is essentially just an assertion of novelty to the expense of continuity, showing history as a series of sequences where each represents a clean break from the prior where a totally different type of politics is necessitated by history. What exactly changes in terms of socio-economic conditions to produce these sequences and necessitates the accompanying break in political frameworks is left to the imagination. Against this vision of history as pure novelty, we must instead see the continuity in history so as to better assimilate the accumulated past struggles of the proletariat and oppressed, building on the years of trial and error practice passed down to us by our forebearers to produce the institutions and knowledge that exist with us today. Lenin was not simply analyzing the immediate conjuncture he faced and drawing conclusions from its immanent tendencies to produce practice. He was applying knowledge and practices passed to him by years of prior political experience.
Lenin was working with the tradition of Russian populism and its accumulated years of failure to produce a real social revolution against Czarism. Using a flawed strategy of terrorism and reliance on the spontaneous energies of the peasantry awakened by a minority of the intelligentsia, Lenin looked for solutions that at first weren’t obvious fits for his conditions. He saw one in the massive success of the German Social Democratic Party, which unified under a programme based on Marxism to build a party supported by millions of workers. The German Social Democratic movement itself existed in continuity with the traditions of Chartism, radical republicanism, and Germany’s own national history of labor struggle and peasant rebellion. All of these accumulated experiences of class struggle constitute the tradition of communist activity that not only Lenin was embedded in, but contemporary communists too, for better or worse.
It is for this reason that I reject both Lazarus’ periodization and Taylor B’s use of it to argue that “we must proceed from a break to do politics under present conditions” just as “Marx broke with the utopian socialists. Lenin broke with Marx. The Cultural Revolution can be read as Mao’s break with Marxism-Leninism to free politics from the party-state.” By positing history as a sequence of decisive clean breaks rather than a flux of novelty and continuity it breaks us off from the past generations of class struggle, forcing the left to completely reinvent politics for every historical sequence we encounter. Any concrete situation in history is a completely unique conjuncture while also embedded in a web of determinations that are the product of generations of social practices all corresponding with humanity’s need to interface with nature. Situating ourselves in the conjuncture means looking through all of history at the accumulated lessons given to us by these social practices and building on them, throwing off the muck of the past that harms us while preserving those ideas and practices that correctly orient us, continuing the work of those before us.
With this perspective, it is easy to see how it is not idealist to react to the current situation by pursuing the organization of a workers’ party. Those of us who engage in such pursuits continue the work of generations of partisans before us and carry with them their lessons and methods. To build on these methods and apply them to the conditions we face is not forcing something foreign and alien upon our current circumstances. These circumstances do not exist in a vacuum completely outside of a broader historical continuity.
What is idealist is to assume a break in history where political actors will completely reinvent the old forms and subjectivities without building upon the historical traditions they are embedded in. We are more atomized and depoliticized than ever before, so it is easier to see ourselves as disembedded from the past and in a unique historical position where we must go back to the drawing board and completely reinvent politics in order to relate to our times. Yet this disembeddedness is an illusion, as is the accompanying notion that we can reinvent politics without regard for the traditions of the past.
Any attempt to reinvent politics in such a way will inevitably be pure improvisation. Any situation requires improvisation, a “concrete analysis of a concrete situation”. But improvisation in politics requires knowledge of our methods of struggle, a body of organizational and political knowledge that serves as a basis. When we disembed ourselves from the past and seek to reinvent our methods of struggle with every new phase of history (however these phases are defined) we end up losing this knowledge and having to purely improvise in the dark. And this improvisation will fall into the dominant thought patterns of bourgeois-liberal society.
This is why Althusser spoke of the spontaneous ideology of scientists and it also makes sense to speak of the spontaneous ideology of activists.4 In seeking to achieve political goals, activists come upon limitations and dead ends, just as scientists come to across moments of crisis in their fields. The activist will seek to solve these problems and limitations within the ideological framework that is dominant in society, just as the scientist turns to idealist philosophy despite the realist and materialist nature of their practice. Today, when coming across the limitations of the current moment, activists will turn towards liberal and anarchist ideas unless a coherent alternative is posed. Rather than leading to an overcoming of the dominant framework, spontaneity tends to favor it.
This is why Lenin spoke of the need to “combat spontaneity”. For Lenin, the role of the party was introducing a social-democratic consciousness that was not seen as possible through the accumulation of economic struggles alone. The fact that the accumulations of economic struggles would not lead to the spontaneous generation of social-democratic consciousness was what necessitated the party. Lenin saw that communist politics requires challenging the dominant worldview, and the party allowed this to be done in a conscious and systematic way. This is the lesson of What Is To Be Done, and it should be seen as a lesson that is not particular to a certain phase of history as Lazarus would have it but rather universal to politics itself. The battle for hegemony must be a protracted and systematic struggle that pushes against the dominant ideas of society while putting forward a real alternative.
My argument is not that we don’t need change and innovative ways of thinking and organizing, but simply that we don’t fix what isn’t broken. The party-form is not itself the agent of neutralization against emancipatory potentials that need to be broken with. Rather than being the cause of bureaucratism and other sources of revolutionary degeneration, the party is the precondition for solving these problems. There is a class struggle within the party itself, between the petty-bourgeois bureaucracy and the proletarians they represent. When Taylor B speaks of the party-form as the source of neutralization, it is the victory of this petty-bourgeois stratum that is actually the source of neutralization, not the essence of the party itself. By conducting the struggle to control party bureaucracy and democratize its organizations, the proletariat itself learns how to govern society as a class.
Building the workers’ party allows us to constitute the proletariat into higher forms of political subjectivity by creating a collectivity that consciously and deliberately works to solve these problems. It allows us to actually become a force that can contest the class power of our enemies by out-organizing and out-strategizing them. To have any discussion about revolutionary strategy, develop an actionable plan, and put it into practice, a party is needed. Revolutionaries throughout history have realized this. Seeing the futility of endless street protests regardless of how militant, Huey Newton reacted to the challenges faced by struggling Black proletarians by helping form the Black Panther Party:
The movement was cresting around the country. Brothers on the block in many northern cities were moving angrily in response to the problems that overwhelmed them. New York and other eastern cities had exploded in 1964, Watts went up in 1965, Cleveland in 1966, and in 1967 another long hot summer was approaching. But the brothers needed direction for their energies. The Party wanted no more spontaneous riots, because the outcome was always the same: the people might liberate their territories for a few short days or hours, but eventually the military force of the oppressor would wipe out their gains. Having neither the strength nor the organization, the people were powerless. In the final analysis, riots caused only more repression and the loss of brave men. Blacks bled and died in the riots and went to jail on petty or false charges. If the brothers could be organized into disciplined cadres, working in broadly based community programs, then the energy expended in riots could be directed toward permanent and positive changes.5
Newton’s words are incredibly prescient today, as months of street protests in the US come up against the reality of the left’s actual organizational powerlessness and incapacity to provide an alternative to the existing regime. Mass actions, riots, general strikes – these are not substitutes for having the organizational capacity to govern. Even if the latest wave of protest had brought the government down, the reality would have been the military enforcing a constitutionally legal transition to a replacement government, led by the same parties that were there before.
Contrary to Taylor B, I believe that Marx did have a theory of politics. While it would take figures such as Engels, Bebel, Kautsky, and Lenin to systematize it, Marx ultimately believed that politics was about classes contesting, taking, and holding power. Communism relied on the proletariat taking power on an international scale, which required a protracted struggle where the proletariat organized itself as a class that could pose as an alternative to capitalist society. To do this, the proletariat had to form a party and learn to self-govern by organizing on the national and international scales and waging a political battle for radical democratic-republicanism and the socialization of production.
Unlike the socialist sectarians of today and of his own time, Marx fought for a party that would be based on unity around a political program, not a specific theoretical creed or philosophical dogma. Marx fought for the unity of all principled revolutionaries around a strategy for the proletariat to constitute itself as a class and fight for political power, not for the purity of a micro-sect. Many are wary of the project of party-building today because of the toxic attitudes of sectarians who promote disunity, and one should not mistake my argument in favor of a workers’ party as an argument for a new sect. What is needed is the unity of Marxists within the existing left around a program of class independence and a strategy of building a party that will organize working-class communities and contest elections. Such unity will require a breakup of sectarian identities in favor of collaboration and mergers, and will not be easily won. Yet the development of arguments like those made by the comrades in Red Star DSA show a potential for such an initiative in the left. One thing is for sure – without a party, we have nothing. Because without a party, there is no ‘we’.
- Sylvain Lazarus, “Lenin and the Party, 1902-November 1917,” Lenin Reloaded, ed. Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Žižek (Durham and London: Duke University Press 2007), 259-59
- Ibid., 262
- Ibid., 265-66
- Althusser, Philososphy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (London: Verso, 1990), see chapter 3
- Huey P. Newton,Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Penguin, 2009), 162-163