Cadres and organizing

Dave Riley responds in the comments to Marxist groups, organizing, and clowning.

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.

Absolutely. It’s often the cadre organizations whose members keep working long after everyone else has gone home or given up. It’s in their collective DNA to do so.

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.

Dedication that was once admirable can become inbred and exclusionary, pushing out others, causing friction and fractures. Really, circular firing squads are such a huge waste of resources and time…

Maybe the organization needs to open up. Realize that other besides cadre can and should be members, that they can bring new ideas and perspectives into the group. Indeed, a group that remains insular has little hope of growing and spreading their message.

Would the non-cadre change the group? Absolutely. That’s what the cadre are afraid of, losing control. But if they took the risk, they could end up with a much larger organization and wouldn’t need to be tireless cadre any more because there would be so many more to do the work.


  1. Well Bob, thats’ a very nuanced challenge you are putting forward. The major fear with the route you advocate is that the norms — the activity norms — would be watered down and the org’s cutting edge blunted.

    But essentially that’s calling for another proto party form rather than the vanguardist that’s the far left norm.. So there’s this large qualitative change required which only makes sense if the numerical gains are forthcoming.

    That’s been the dispute here. The threshold has not been met according to the satisfaction of a layer of the far left. The proof of the pudding has not been proof enough.

    And if those numbers aren’t forthcoming there won’t be a change in the habits you criticize because it’s a political and not just an organizational question.

    (This is why in the UK the SWP insisted on a Respect schema that was designed to separate the ‘reformists’ from the ‘revolutionists’.)

    Any group which decides to proceed down the ‘broad party’ route has to do it in partnership with others. Its’ not about playing at being a chameleon , you see, and “rebadging” the old gang with new attire.

    I think one of the mistakes some of the people I worked with in the SA made was that they too readily saw the project as something functionalist and the perspective was a crude ‘build-it-and- they-will-come’ approach. But it’s not like that because the problems of everyday political activity don’t go away simply because you have a new address to go to.

    Maybe the Greens in the US suffer from that? I gather that’s the criticism leveled at Nader– its’ not what you say but what you do that matters.

    And herein lies the rub: to a very strong degree you have to defend activism as the motor of political existence and change. That means that your ‘new party’ engineering has to be able to accommodate the ranges of activity and passivity you allude to without falling victim to a comfortable pragmatism. (Because, after all, these projects rely on a strong consensus in order to survive. Vanguardist groups, in contrast, so often rely on shibboleths.)

    And you have to do that so that the partners in the partnerships that buoy up the exercise want to take responsibility for it and are loyal to it.

    This isn’t a simple left/right divide because the irony today is that the political differences between activists are very slim today especially when when you struggle together. Thats’ why we are having this discussion. It’s not just about how crudely the cadre groups can be caricatured but that there is a very real promise in living political reality and there’s an opportunity to build something else in order to harness that prospect.

    The challenge is how to do it….

  2. > Well Bob, thats’ a very nuanced challenge you are putting forward

    Not so much a challenge as an uncertain groping for a solution. How do you preserve the fire and determination of the cadre in a mass organization, yet on their own, the cadre tends to be sectarian and self-limiting.

  3. I think, Bob, you hit the nail on the head: regardless of the espoused motives, once someone (or a small group of someones) gets “in charge,” it becomes about control. It’s a rare person that consents to give up their power.

    In actual democratic movements like Sarvodaya in India and Sri Lanka and DISAC-sponsored initiatives in Thailand, communities show remarkable intelligence and innovation in solving their own problems. But it’s that very diversity that threatens a movement based in theory and/or personality. Commitment to a theory (or personality) would seem to preclude democracy, because what if people come up with other functional ideas?

    In that sense, the various forms of Marxism are like hypotheses. If they don’t survive implementation, they ought to be re-examined. But (like the flat earth people) actual evidence seems rarely to dissuade the dogmatic.

  4. Bob asks:How do you preserve the fire and determination of the cadre in a mass organization, yet on their own, the cadre tends to be sectarian and self-limiting.

    But that’s where the political context comes in because the first question is how do you preserve and create cadre when times are hard. And, in effect, the long post war economic boom has been a tough time for left politics of the type we so easily associate with the thirties and before.

    That’s a fact and that sort of politics, except for brief periods, has been marginalised. There have been periods of course during which massive mobilisations have occurred but ideological tendencies like ‘socialism’ have not established a significant market share.

    a guranatee of So currents like social democracy and the Democrats in the US have been able to assert a massive hegemony among progressives and leftists as a sort of Panglossian option and bargain with existence.

    The dead hand of Stalinism hasn’t helped either. The end product of the Cold War was that ‘socialism’ had a bad name.

    The problem with a quickening, any quickening, that may be on offer from broad party prospects is that theres’ a cultural divide. We see this here in Australia and I can see it in play in the United Kingdom where the jump to something broader is opposed on the basis that it is a political dumbing or watering down of ‘our’ politics. It’s supposedly a guarantee of ‘liquidationism” or ‘reformism’.

    So all these hesitancies are expressed as a , at times, strident argumentation kicks in. The first reaction is opposition and the tragedy is that those cadres who make the shift to a ‘broad party’ perspective are going to be only a few — at least, I’d hope, that thats’ a phenomenon only in the initial stages.

    But I grant you the adjustment isn’t easy. I”ve seen it pan out here among members of the DSP (the Marxian current in the Socialist Alliance)– especially before I rejoined it.(Not that I changed things — but I was on the outside observing, you see) It does demand a different way of doing political busines — especially, as in our case, when there’s no big movement on hand to make the political activity self evident.

    So you have this new aggregation of peoples ,coming from different political backgrounds but coalescing around some core political aspirations.

    [I also suggest that what those are — tactically and politically — is also rather important.]

    From my POV and from my own experience the more tactically astute cadre see the self evident fact that this is what its’ all supposed to be about. It’s not just about being limited to propaganda but very much about the doing — with others, struggling with others, organising with others and respecting everyone’s POV and input for the sake of sustaining this new formation. It’s about keeping ya eyes on the prize…

    But the problem is who rules the roost? Or rather, how the roost should be ruled?

    This is where the democratic component of these projects is so important. It’s not just about winning the vote but the argument as well. essentially that means that those who advocate a certain perspective have to prove in practice that they are correct.

    That you are right or think you are right is not sufficient.

    If you go back to your original Lenin quote you snaffled from a DSP Congress report— that’s precisely what he was arguing.

    So in one sense winning 51% of the vote isn’t enough you need to come closer to a broader consensus if you are to survive and develop.

    So any cadre or cadre group which chooses to be “sectarian and self-limiting” will be isolated though the sort of engagement required. And thats’ happened. Here in Australia the small socialist affiliates in the SA could hardly muster much above 25% support for their main positions.

    So , let’s not make light of the fact that there is indeed this massive cultural (and tactical) divide in play.

    It is the DSP’s view that by dint of collective effort and shared struggle and organising — by working together — the sort of ideas the far left adheres to will prevail rather than a default to a ready electoralism or political pragmatism or, indeed, a left liberalism. That means that this core left, this cadre left, has to win respect in living struggles and through a process of collective organising formatted by mutual respect.

    If you go back and read your Lenin — and your Lenin quote — that’s precisely what the main game is about according to his nibs.

    I often think that the habit is to project onto these new party enterprises the assumption that they’re ab hoc coalitions like some movement committee. They’re not. They’re permanent projects with many inter relating partnerships across a broad spectrum of movements and campaigns. Their sustainability relies on a collective commitment to their success.

    Of course you’ll have these pressures pulling the politics left and right but as I say, the decider is the struggle itself There will be massive debates as a consequence of that. But these debates won;t be had in the stolid privacy of each groupuscule’s bunker –as is the case now — but among a much wider audience which is already engaged and has a stake in how differences are resolved.

  5. Program is central. All this talk about organizational forms is meaningless when Bob supports the Democrats and Riley’s DSP supports Australian imperialism and capitalist counterrevfolution in China.

  6. There’s one other aspect of sectarianism not yet mentioned: a small, closed sect CAN gain political power without anything like majority support– IF it turns to violence. By shrewd use of the cycle of violence, a group of, say, several dozen commited cadres can wield influence far beyond their numbers. (The LTTE is a good example of this, as is the pseudo-Marxist JVP.)

    Since the goal of virtually all political organizations is political power, and since violence substitutes for democratic means for obtaining that power, sectarianism would therefore quite naturally promote violence. There are only three choices: mass organization, violence, or irrelevance.

  7. > There are only three choices: mass organization, violence, or irrelevance.

    Well, there can be a fourth way. Retreat into sectarianism, blaming your ineffectiveness on a brainwashed public and / or evil machinations by Them.

  8. I’ve disagreed with DJ perspectives before on topics related to tactics but that’s as it should be. So I don’t agree with his sweeping schematism at all…

    An outfit like the JVP is a left face of Sinhalese chauvinism. In Australia the Laborist left wing in the 19th century grew up dedicated to a white Australia as one of its founding principles that infected the Australian working class like an Apartheid disease..

    But I think there is a tendency here — in this exchange — to fetishize the issue of sectarianism. While I don’t want to pooh pooh it as an unimportant topic, the real issue is making political gains and “sectarianism” is a product of a failure to thrive — not something inherent in the Marxian body politick. It is, in effect, a product of capitalism.

    It’s not a far left genetic.

    Camejo describes the symptoms and those symptoms are a problem because they are embraced as political comfort food. That’s the irony. that’s the tragedy. It’s a lack of political hygiene..and a poor diet!

    I think it’s worth while grabbing Lenin’s original argumentation that Bob alluded to second hand as a way to explore the living context:

    The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct. Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party really capable of being the party of the advanced class, whose mission it is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved. Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrasemongering and clowning. On the other hand, these conditions cannot emerge at once. They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience. Their creation is facilitated by a correct revolutionary theory, which, in its turn, is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.”
    An Essential Condition of the Bolsheviks’ Success: Chap 2, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder

    Lenin then goes on to explore the nature of this “left wing communism” and compare it with the other “communisms”. So I recommend that you read the whole essay rather than get caught up in this one pearl of wisdom as the argument is more complex than simply being a complaint (and a lot of criticism leveled against at the far left tends toward a narrow and whinging complaining mode).

    There’s an interesting post from our comrades across the Tasman in New Zealand today:History calls for a Broad Left party which addresses exactly what we have been discussing I think.

    There is a lot of rich experience in NZ that warrants studying. Experience we can draw on. But it does indicate that doing the ‘broad party’ thing simply as ‘a good idea at the time’ is thwart with problems & frustrations as the Kiwis have had almost 20 years of break up and realignment on the left, often without sustainable left gain. (And that includes the Green Party there!)

    So there are ways of doing this that are not self evident ways of proceeding and the debate is still being had out in practice.

    So I guess I’m saying that an “all in” philosophy isn’t an easy or maybe preferable route. That there are nuances and variations that have to be tactically considered in each political context. I guess I’m talking about manoevres as other forces occupy the same territory and you try to decide how broad and narrow you should meet.

  9. I would argue that there’s little Left about the JVP except their symbolism. They are indeed chauvinist, but they are about as right-wing as it is possible to get. That’s why I refer to them as pseudo-Marxist.

    Nevertheless, they are one of hundreds of examples of organizations that have exerted political power far beyond their numbers through the use of violence. In that sense, they have transcended sectarianism.

    I find their methods abhorrent. I remain committed to democracy. But I also see that in practical application, violence is one means of side-stepping the need for majority support. That remains the danger of sectarianism: many prefer violence to irrelevance (regardless of who they blame it on).

  10. DJ comments may been generally applicable but the challenge is the here and now. Say, in downtown Sydney or Detroit.

    But just to follow up on this point — the FDR/FMLN of El Salvador warrants studying as the comrades there had to make the transition from the Civil War of the eighties to the “peace” (a “peace” that is now being undermined by the return of the Death Squads). (Similarly among ex Naxalites in India).

    But here Lenin has a lot to offer — as does a pamphlet we use here a lot — Liberalism, Ultraleftism or Mass Action by….Peter Camejo! And later Camejo’s template he promoted was the FDR/FMLN.

    [Short version here: ]

    My point is that what pans out as the sort of violence DJ alludes to (and I’m not agreeing at all with all his likely examples as I think there are “hundred of cases” where the population (and its parties) have the right to defend themselves and go on a military offensive such as in Vietnam 1947-1975) is a product of perspectives that are more complex than a penchant for sectarianism.

    This was the main theme in Lenin’s essay — Left Wing Communism from which I dragged the quote. Lenin wasn’t about deploying short cuts.

    My point is that there’s nothing new under the sun and sectarianism is a different historical phenomenon in its genesis than ultraleftism and an indulgent militarisation of your politics.

    For instance the Chavez process in Venezuela basically lays to rest the continent wide penchant for a guerillarist strategy (as the peace negotiations with the FARC seem to indicate this week although Colombia aint so keen on that as that country is offering war.) But then the 21st century prospects in LA has come about after decades of brutal military regimes. So tactics and approaches always have context and openings that make them feasible such that their utility can be proven in practice..

    So it is a mistake to equate these tactical questions with the omnipresent threat of sectarianism that bears down on cadre groups.

  11. I’m not quite sure how, as the militarization of splinter groups occurs all over the world on a daily basis, this tendency to turn to violence is less than “here and now.” In the case of the LTTE, the roots are extremely complex, but rooted in a two-fold problem: first, the failure of national democracy in Sri Lanka to accomodate the needs of a significant (15%) minority, and second, the failure of the minority Tamil community to embrace democracy at all, leaving its majority lower castes out of power completely. In this context, violence can only be ended by the majority community (or in this case, both relative majorities), by embracing the aspirations of the minority and their participation in the democratic process.

    (I am no admirer of the LTTE, but it is worth noting that during the years of the Cease-Fire Agreement, the organization made moves toward becoming a civil (rather than militant) organization. Naturally, as the fighting resumed, these moves reversed.)

    This failure of democracy increasingly can be seen around the world, and while there is indeed nothing new under the sun, trends do change, and the current trend is toward more violence rather than less. IMO, this trend has at its root the assumption that the majority has no obligation toward minorities beyond their ability to represent themselves in the democratic (winner take all) system– and this assumption is erroneous. As long as the post-modern concept of winner-take-all democracy persists, violence will remain the one recourse for minority groups (political, religious, and ethnic) to increase their relevance and power.

    The alternative lies in a return to and enhancement of the concept of one citizen’s responsibility to all others, as can be found not only in early American thought but in Gandhian, radical Christian, and engaged Buddhist political movements (among others). Whether Marx, Engles, and Lenin have anything to offer in this regard I am not qualified to say, though my limited exposure would not suggest so.

  12. On that one DJ I have an interview booked with a leading Tamil activist in Australia which I’ll podcast ASAP(make use you check it out) as I suspect that you think that the LTTE has bullied the Tamil population into an insurgency. The irony is that he’s Sinhalese — but I’ll nonetheless adopt your protests as part of my questioning.

    Gandhi, of course, supported the First World War and Budhism can be a great excuse for a do nothing life style when it is transported to Western Culture. The history of Buddhism in the long story of Vietnam is nonetheless very interesting –as engaged Buddhism is in Burma — such that the tactical nuances adopted by that ‘horrid’ Leninist , Ho Chi Minh, in regard to it are very instructive.

    Nonetheless, I’ve always thought the John Lennon brief penchant for “Zen Marxism” had its merits — but to advocate “non violence” as an overriding political principle is simply ahistorical. In effect it doesn’t play out that often in our own countries as politics tends to proceed by “non violent” means assuming you think that dispossession,wage slavery, economic repression and alienation have nothing to do with violence.

    The peace movement may protest all it likes against the war in Iraq but Uncle Sam nonetheless still slaughters. So “non violence” per se isn’t necessarily an overriding tactic that is sure to prevail. I’m not advocating violence — I’m saying that force, has a role in history especially as a means for the oppressed to defend themselves and advance their agenda (as The Vietnamese did).

    If you want to say that’s not allowed — then say it.

    But Marxism is a method dedicated to the lessons of history and while the LTTE aint Marxist, there is a historical logic in play in regard to their struggle for self determination, that despite any number of incidences you may think are “violent” doesn’t destroy the justness of the Tamil cause.

    Look at the massive scale of the slaughter in East Timor. Does that massive level of death and suffering cheapen the core aspirations for national self determination? Or the millions who died in Vietnam? Who did all that killing?

    Do you want to then blame the NLF and say, comrades, you should have taken another route?

    It applies to Iraq too — if you want to insist that the Iraqis have no business what so ever in opposing the occupation with bombs and mortar.

    Do you want to lecture them and say, ” the occupying forces should be spat upon rather than shot at?”

  13. I think you have missed my central point: the only way for the Sri Lanka war to be avoided would have been for the SINHALESE to adopt a nonviolent approach. The Tamil “insurgency” began nonviolently, though Tamil critics (especially UTHR-J) argue it lacked commitment to the concept and turned too easily to violence. Nevertheless, the 1960 satyagraha was met with brutality by the Sinhalese-dominated government– and arguably represents a turning point after which violence became inevitable. (If not, certainly the Black July riots of 1983 do.)

    As to the role of the LTTE, its war has been not only against the Sinhalese government, but against the traditional Tamil leadership (now all but destroyed) and its detractors among the Tamil population (now largely silenced). The LTTE began with a couple of dozen cadres. Through shrewd use of the cycle of violence, they very astutely engineered a conflict that APPEARS to be about Tamil grievances against the Sinhalese– just as on the Sinhalese side, it APPEARS to be about the Tamil insurgency. Neither view is accurate: in both cases, the conflict is as much internal as inter-ethnic, and serves the leaders of both sides well with respect to their ethnic constituencies.

    My argument is NOT that a minority hasn’t the right to resort to violence when it fails to gain redress through nonviolent means– though these days some extremists jump to violence far too easily. Rather, my argument is that the majority has a responsibility to the minority to redress its grievances in order to prevent violence. Let me say it again: DEMOCRACY HAS FAILED. The view that a majority makes the rules is both contrary to democratic theory and unreasonable in practice. It does not result in a peaceful society.

    At the same time, a splinter group like the LTTE or JVP, which has no hope of gaining power through democratic means, can use the cycle of violence to exert power far beyond its original numbers. Thus the splintering effect among organizations, combined with the failure of democracy, promotes conflicts that NEED NOT HAPPEN. Once again using Sri Lanka as an example, both Sinhala and Tamil commentators have observed that BOTH SIDES have failed to make peace at every step. Both leaderships gain, but the civilians on BOTH SIDES lose.

  14. I’ve come a bit late to this discussion, but in case anyone is impressed by Dave Riley’s account of the Australian Socialist Alliance, the following might provide a few facts, which are well known in Australia, but perhaps not beyond these shores.

    It’s an organisation that struggles to get 1 per cent of the vote in elections and the only remaining organisational affiliate is the DSP. Any potential it had to be more than an extension of the DSP was squandered long ago. Ken Davis’s account of a turning point for the Socialist Alliance, the DSP’s decision to proceed with its organisational project against the wishes of most other affiliated organisations and many individual members of the Socialist Alliance. Ken Davis has been active on the Australian left for about 30 years. Greg Adler’s resignation from the Socialist Alliance. Greg Adler has been a left activist and socialist for 30-odd years. Resignation of Michael Thompson from Socialist Alliance. Michael is a longtime left activist. David’s resignation from the Socialist Alliance. David also has been active on the left for many years. Workers Power leaves the Socialist Alliance. Michael Schembri leaves the Socialist Alliance. Michael is another experienced and well known left activist. International Socialist Organisation resigns from Socialist Alliance. The ISO was the second largest organisational affiliate after the DSP. Ian Rintoul’s discussion of the Socialist Alliance at a certain point, making suggestions that were largely ignored by the DSP.

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