Marxist groups, organizing, and clowning

(This is the first of a series of posts in the wake of my post, “I got purged” from a far left grouplet.)

Among the socialist Left exists a multitude of little Marxist groups and parties. Too often, they secretly (or even not so secretly) believe they have the “correct program.” Thus, they see their task as convincing everyone else of the errors of their ways and then recruiting them into their faction.

Such groups are, of course, most often vexed by the little Marxist grouplet next to them whose program deviates ever so microscopically from theirs. Too often the result is lunatic infighting and splinter groups breaking away from other splinter groups.

The problem is not only are their parties microscopic in size, they also only recruit from those already on the hard left, and not from the masses at large. Thus they aren’t representative of the working class nor are they leading it, even though they claim to be.

Lenin, who they frequently quote (if not worship), recruited and attracted people from all levels and segments of the populace. Tens of thousands were members. His party, at least in the beginning, had competing newspapers (and thus apparently felt no need to have a “correct program.”)

The idea that a group of a few hundred people who are not in the leadership of any mass movement, much less integrally involved in leading the working class as a social force, can be referred to as a Leninist party and having a “correct program” would never have crossed Lenin’s mind. In 1918 Lenin would refer to such an idea as clowning.

By the 1940s, however, within the Trotskyist movement a conception had taken root that no matter how small or disconnected from the workers movement a group might be, if it had the “correct” program and a cadre, it was a Leninist Party and would eventually “win”.

This was the “proven” Leninist way. What the Trotskyist movement did as a whole was drop the direct involvement with the living mass movement as a prerequisite for the development of a party. Thus “program” was separated from its social roots.

Thus, they aren’t even trying to build a mass party, but rather assume the rightness of their ideas will somehow, someday, win them mass followers who will then rise up and smash capitalism with a mighty blow (with them in charge, of course.)

Lenin’s argument was that the discipline and unity required of a party that can lead a revolution is only built up politically through the class consciousness of the vanguard of the working class, its ability to link up with the broadest masses and ability to exercise political leadership over the masses. He said: “Without these conditions all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrase-mongering and clowning.”

The ability to “link up with the broadest masses” is precisely what many such parties are incapable of doing. Often because they have no clue how to do so. Nor do they want to. Organizing on a mass level means there will be factions and disagreements within the group (this is a healthy thing and quite normal.) But groups that believe in their own inerrancy and “correct program” can’t allow competing ideas. So they, by dint of their own self-limiting agenda, can never become large and thus doom themselves to remain tiny as well as irrelevant to the working class at large that they pretend to represent.

  • DJ

    It sounds a lot like “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.” Ofr, to paraphrase Henry Ford, you can hold any opinion you want, as long as it’s mine.

    The problem I have with both Leftism and Progressivism is the fundamental assumption that “we” know better than the masses what is good for them. That means a dictatorship, since the input of the masses is neither desired nor permitted because “we know best.”

    The same danger exists in any movement built around a strong personality. Even in those movements like Sarvodaya, built on the fundamental concept of listening to the community and adjusting its program accordingly, it’s far to easy to say, “Well, we know what you want now and this is how we’re going to give it to you.”

    Democracy is messy and unpredictable. Sometimes people do not want what others think is best for them. Yet, though politicians Left and Right have found ways to usurp the power of the voter, at the root if we believe in individual self-determination we must allow people to make their own mistakes– and that means accepting factions, disagreements, and even bad decisions.

  • Without getting to much ahead of your series on the topic, Bob, I point out that maybe Peter Camejo has been there and done that before too as I am very familiar with his perspective which you share in your first quote.

    Peter has spent the last 25 years trying to transcend that …but i think, unfortunately, he may have failed in consolidating a strong Green Party left able to stand up to the Dems white anting.

    I’m not there — but that’s my impression.

    You then go on to reference a quote form the party I belong too, The Democratic Socialist Perspective here in Australia. — a quote taken from a report to the DSP’s 2006 congress. But the quote basically paraphrases a section of Lenin’s Left Wing Communism but it happens to be my very favorite Lenin quote.

    Nonetheless while I note your critique of the sects –moving beyond sectdom isn’t an easy call while you remain marginal regardless of what ever you do.

    So you fall between two stools: Camejo’s bargain with realpolitick and that of a sectarian and peripheral existence untested on the sidelines. When you are located there in betwix or try to locate yourself there — it aint an easy business to pull off. because you will get pulled this way and that and open yourself to many more complex debates.

    Thats’ been my experience anyway.

    The broad scale irony is that a lot of this debate internationally is formatted through the prism of the DSP in far off Australia as the DSP is characterised as being Leninist as well as being dedicated to transcending the sectarian existence.

    And the debate that is referenced in your DSP quote persists in the DSP two long years later as the minority that sought a tighter and sharper existence for the party — a more propagandistic one — still harps on about making that turn back to the bunker .

    It should also be pointed out that the DSP functions as a current — a Marxian current — in the broader Socialist Alliance here and that has been both a rewarding and a frustrating experience…in ‘broad party mode’.

    It’s no longer 1995 (when Camejo penned his piece soon after the death of his friend and comrade, Jim Percy ) nor is it possible to engineer a dispute between Camejo and the DSP because the respect runs both ways. Still. Both Camejo and the DSP have worked to transcend the sect existence — in fact they worked together closely on that mission throughout the eighties and into the nineties.

    I think many of Peter’s criticism of the far left groups have been wrong but that doesn’t mean that I or the DSP or some other hard working group some where has all or most of the answers to the perennial conundrum that Camejo describes so well.

    [Nor does that generic failure to come to some solid solution mean that Camejo is by default correct.]

    The first lesson is indeed that of humility and theres’ not enough of that on the far left.

    However, the new tactical confidence and the new openings registered currently in places like France and Germany and elsewhere suggest that a quickening is possible for those who embrace the new promise. I don’t see such a “broad left party’ push occurring in the States at present ; nor do I see a determination of the GP left to stand its ground…nor for the US Greens to impact on the Dem onslaught….or for parties like the ISO to foster a regorupment agenda….

    But you gotta make the best with the material to hand.

  • Dave:

    > maybe Peter Camejo has been there and done that before too

    I should have made that more clear. Camejo ran as VP twice with Nader and more importantly for this, ran for president on Socialist Workers Party in ’76. So yes, he has been there.

    > He may have failed in consolidating a strong Green Party left able to stand up to the Dems.

    Given my experience with the GP, I don’t think anyone could consolidate it. It would be herding cats.

    Somehow figuring a way to break down sectarianism would seem to be key here.


    Hey, the Right can certainly be repressive too and think it knows what is good for the populace!

  • As my troll* called me a ‘socialist’ last night, thought maybe I’d hang with you Marxist types…

    Oh wait, it’s just a book. A philosophy, theory, something to read, think about, add to the database that a clear, forward thinking human mind is. A very old book…

    Oh, wait…

    Yeah, I am a ‘socialist’, as were my grandparents and greatgrandparents, right here in Oregon. In the late nineteenth and early twentyth century lexicon Wobblies. Had a black cat on a full moon icon very much like the one on my business card they’d nail to the door of the home or shop of someone who needed to leave town now, or die. If ‘ya wit s, ‘yr agin s.

    In Oregon we can register as No Party Affiliation. I often encourage those of our cannabis culture to stop and think about, when I can get them to think, how closely our values are common to those of both the social and green platform. Were the two to embrace…

    *Yep, only one troll, JustaDog, and he’s a doosey!

  • Peter Camejo was actually a leader of the US SWP until he was short shifted in 1982. That party went on a sectarian binge in the eighties and is now a dedicated and almost classical sect under Jack Barnes.

    Thats’ a tragedy if you know any of the history of that party vis a vis trade unionism in the thirties and forties, the Vietnam anti war movement and their work with black nationalists like Malcolm X.

    Here we’ve studied their history very carefully trying to work out in that example the roots of their sectarianism. Both Camejo and the DSp have very similar takes and we’ve published his essay on that.

    “Sectarianism” is such a contagious disease it is a mistake to simply invest it on small left groupucules as its roots are always political . The problem is that theres’ a comfort zone on offer in that existence which is hard , almost impossible, to overcome in some cases.

    The only ‘solution’ is proving in practice that another route works and succeeds and thats’ been the major handicap for those formations that are trying to advance a socialist perspective away from the shadow of Stalinism or sectarianism.

    Camejo had a big part of an answer and here , as a tandem example, the DSP help set up Green parties in most Australian states — only to be later red baited and purged when the project went national. What the new GP self appointed leadership agreed on in the first instance was proscription. So in effect, they agreed on a sectarian course.

    But Camejo’s experience is very useful in working out the present , limitations, potentials and tactics. Similarly it pays to study any and all broad left exercises anywhere with I think France being the most exciting at the moment as the LCR is now forming a new party of the left. In Germany t Die Linke has passed the old German Greens as the main force on the left. and its roots are an eclectic Marxist, far left and moderate left fusion. then you have the Left Bloc in Portugal, the Green Left in Holland, etc.

    So the actual political opening is there in living political space. The question is the DIY.

    Personally I think the old guard standalone groupuscule form like the ISO, your old outfit, the SWP, etc has reached its use by date. But where Camejo tripped up, I think, is that he failed to note the massive advantage of cadreisation and collective commitment that is fostered in these partyish milieux under Leninist protocols.

    You need very serious activists working together to do politics that returns to the attack again and again. But that’s the rub. How do you sustain that core without falling victim to the circle or bunker spirit? Especially when you are still marginal regardless of all your activity

    Camejos’ polemic you cited comes from a period in the DSP’s history when a succession of regroupment projects were fostered and they all failed to succeed. I mentioned the Greens but there were others.

    The Socialist Alliance is the latest and, in its very small way, most successful attempt in that regard. The creature lives! (Maybe not a sprightly child but a youngster nonetheless) And it survives by dint of many inter relating partnerships the complexity of which the rest of the left here cannot comprehend.

    And to even get this far has taken true grit.

    And our Greens are like yours in the sense that it has a hesitant and non aggregated left although in some states its politics are quite left. But it is , like the US version, primarily and overwhelmingly an electoralist formation — open to all the pragmatism that breeds.

    But as Jim Cannon — the father of the US SWP in its hey day once said: the essence of politics is deciding what to do next.

    You bet it is.

  • Dave wrote:
    “You need very serious activists working together to do politics that returns to the attack again and again. But that’s the rub. How do you sustain that core without falling victim to the circle or bunker spirit? Especially when you are still marginal regardless of all your activitsm”

    Well, therein lies the rub.

    Btw, with all due respect to Camejo and as I worked hard for his several GP CA Gubernatorial runs, then lost much respect for him as he went on his own sectarian rampage within our nascent party… heavy sigh… anyway he is not a factor in the party now. Best wishes for his health –as you must know he announced he had cancer at the end of 2007.

    And we’re a party, ya know, grassroots and decentralized. Not just about one person or one charismatic personality. GRIN.


    Lisa Taylor
    GP-US delegate
    GPCA Media Committee
    Green Focus Editorial Board
    Los Angeles City Greens Volunteer Coordinator

  • Ten Bears:

    > As my troll* called me a ’socialist’ last night, thought maybe I’d hang with you Marxist types…

    Join the fun, Wobblies always welcome!

    Heard a wonderful song once, it was recorded in the 1930’s, played fast, sung happily. The refrain was “You ain’t been called nothing until you’ve been called a Red.”

  • Dave.

    Thank you for your helpful and perceptive comments. I’m linking to them from a post appearing here soon.

  • Ethan Young

    I’d be interested in your take on Hal Draper’s view of the subject:

    I’m a one-time cadre in a different bay area-based group [circa 1980s], not surprized but curious about your PSL experience…

  • DJ

    Bob: As I mentioned, “politicians Left and Right have found ways to usurp the power of the voter.” Those who seek power have only one place to take it from: the People. It’s a rare politician of any stripe who wants to give it back.

    Ten Bears: Herman Daly, in his excellent book debunking traditional economic measurement, notes that social economics and green economics both have the same problem with traditional economics– but that doesn’t make them allies. Traditional economic measurement masks many problems– but the goals of social and green economics oppose each other. Unfortunately, minimizing our impact on the planet is NOT consistent with maximizing social justice and economic equality and opportunity.

    Since in politics we “follow the money,” the same will hold true there: both oppose the current order, but that’s about all they have in common.

  • I don’t know much about the US GP internals except a little about the dispute in California.

    I’d dropped out of politics — was cadre emeritus — and the new pitch of a new party got me back involved again. But I nonetheless soon (re)learnt the key lesson of the essential role of a cadre core (or corps). It’s a leadership question you see.

    One of the disadvantages of the Green Parties has been that they have tended to grow up independent of the old left — in fact they grew up often opening hostile to left politics: “neither left nor right but green”. and in playing that game allowed themselves so often to be held hostage by their parties’ right and electoral pragmatism

    But the parties of the left and the long lasting independent left activists carry with them a continuity and experience and a focus that can be a major asset in any (new)party endeavor.

    Bob’s deployment of the “clowning” label nonetheless obscures the consistent seriousness and focus of their activity. And , as we say here, a lot of the time it has to be like Alice in Wonderland and you have to run very fast on the spot just to stand still.

    People don’t recognise that overwhelming sentence that bares down on radical political activism if you want to remain loyal to your core politics.

    As Camejo points out this leads to a fetishization of the program even when it is not tested in political practice so that it isn’t so much a living thing but an aggregation of shibboleths. A view of the world rather than a toolkit for everyday activity to change it.

    For long periods there is simply no choice in the matter as nothing is happening that would avail you to move from the margins and test you politics in action somewhere closer to the mainstream.. The tragedy really sets in when opportunity comes a knocking and these outfits pass on it or can only relate to it through the prism of their own limited perspective — to paraphrase Marx: the “primitive accumulation of cadre.”

    At the moment here in Australia that divide seems to be pitched rather crudely as propaganda group versus prospects for a left new party. So theres’ a rendering in the left which I think is an international phenomenon just at the time (and its’ not coincidental) when the Greens project is found so often too accommodating to neo-liberalism.

    Because after a decade and more the Greens have had their day in the sun as “the last hesitation to socialism” and theres’ a new ideological struggle emerging or at least on the agenda that can massively remake the left and the greens by offering a radical as reality common ground.

    Thats’ the prize at stake. The niche. The ‘big’ niche I think. The related question is to what degree the working class is willing to fightback against the decades of austerity and economic restructuring and in so doing foster and support new formations, new parties in the process.

    So this is a big ask and the reality is that any sector at the moment in partyish mode has a different franchise and allegiance and not one is the full deal.

    So it has to be a piecemeal process I think that moves through many stages and aggregations. But the main challenge is to take that journey and do what we have no choice but to do and struggle together.

    The problem of the far left so often is that it is not expansive enough in its politics. Inflexible. Rigid. Constrained by the circle spirit….too frightened to risk all on the prospects that may beckon. And, unfortunately, more often than not, stuck with some bad theory, some bad habits and bad politics — the sort of politics Lenin railed against.

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