Workers World Party [WWP]
We will now shift temporarily into first person for Avery’s account of their experience with WWP:
It is important to note that I was only with the organization for five months, and that I was never a full member. My analysis of WWP is based on my observations working both with the local branch as well as with party-wide efforts. While my particular branch was less organized than some others (Durham, NYC, and Detroit in particular), my experience provides sufficient material to draw conclusions about the weaknesses of the organization.
In practice, our WWP branch’s work was entirely centered around attending and/or organizing street protests. We would show up at whatever demonstrations were going on, or sometimes we would hold our own. We would bring our own signs that expressed our own slogans, and on bad days we would show up with just the “usuals” (i.e. already-politicized ‘activists’). When demonstrations had a more mass character, it was usually because the news caught the attention of large layers of the class. In those cases, we would hand out as many newspapers as possible, with the vague goal of “recruiting” new members. We considered this approach justified, criticizing other activist groups as “weak on anti-racism/anti-imperialism” or “opportunist” for not organizing a 10-person demonstration in solidarity with Maduro.
To be absolutely clear, we did not only protest. We also held sign-making parties, planning meetings, educational panels/discussions, jail support etc. However, most of this work was supplementary and revolved around our focus on protesting. We would sometimes jump from issue to issue, but we would often focus our time organizing demonstrations with a small handful of particular groups. The only measurable goal was recruiting new members, not organizing the class or winning concrete reforms. It is possible that other branches were better at avoiding the “protest treadmill”, but my participation in multiple party conferences and communication with other branches did not indicate that our branch was an anomaly1.
Consider WWP’s call for a global strike for May Day 2017. Of course, a global strike would be nice, but it has nothing to do with reality when the Left remains scattered, marginal, and with virtually no deep ties to the class. The global strike campaign was conceived as a propaganda tool to inspire the class to take more militant action, rather than the strike itself being a concrete objective. In practice calling for a global strike meant showing up with “global strike” signs at May Day protests without actually building any mass base in the class. The campaign was a perfect demonstration of the phrase “left in form, right in essence.” Despite the ultra-left phraseology of “Global May Day Strike”, in practice our campaign placed us objectively to the right by failing to organize a mass base.
Without a proper mass base to ground our activity, we oscillated between left adventurism and rightism, often embodying both simultaneously. While our slogans were quite “leftist”, our focus on protesting and the “activist milieu” was decidedly rightist. We would attend demos held by other groups that were routinely met with beatings and arrests. Of course, repression is always the fault of the police, but it was unclear why we were putting ourselves at risk, beyond moralizing about “struggle” and “going into the streets”. These actions were not pieces of a larger strategy, but were done for their own sake, without reflection as to our goals.
Unfortunately, there is no structure for self-reflection within WWP. For example, in our branch, we organized a contingent for a larger May Day protest demanding rights for immigrants. Our language around the protest was heavily based on “defense” of immigrants, but it was unclear what this meant materially. Leading up to May Day, our main tactic was heavy flyering to try to draw people to the demonstration. The turnout for our contingent ended up being virtually just us and our immediate allies (whom we outnumbered greatly). However, we could not evaluate whether or not this was a success or a failure because we did not have any explicit strategy or measurable goals for May Day beyond propagating a view to the left of the Democratic Party. There was a lack of self-reflection on whether the campaign actually inspired workers to militancy, a goal not easily measured. WWP First Secretary Larry Holmes reflected on the campaign in a speech at the November 2017 Party conference:
We had great hopes for May Day 2017. We put out a call for a global general strike, which even though that didn’t happen, it still was a good idea. It did seem as though the fear — coming from Trump, ICE, the police, the bourgeoisie — may have been a factor in keeping some of the immigrants from coming out, understandably so.
There are a couple of apparent issues with this evaluation. First, it places the onus on (a particularly vulnerable layer of) the class itself to heed the calls made by a relatively small communist organization, rather than winning trust through building relationships and deep organizing. Second, it places primacy on “good ideas” disconnected from objective conditions. In short, this evaluation blames migrants for being too afraid to act on a “good idea”. While there was certainly enough self-awareness to know that our call for a general strike would not actually precipitate a general strike, we lacked the sobriety to recognize that this approach at best wasted our time and at worst made us look out of touch with reality. Lacking a measurable and realistic goal chosen as a tactical piece in a strategic puzzle, we ended the action with the same knowledge and forces as when we started.
In WWP, deeper discussions about strategy were sidelined by the constant work required to keep up with protests and “activist subculture” activities. There was a lack of prioritizing discussion of short-term and long-term goals, analysis of our juncture, or general strategy. Consider, for example, WWP’s program. Rather than a strategic or analytical document, it is simply a list of demands. While having a perfectly outlined strategy document for revolution is impossible, we feel that this program reflects the nature of WWP’s concentration on protests, which simply raise demands. A more fleshed out program would address questions on the role of WWP in the broader movement and in party-building, strategic methods for organizing various layers of the class, and deep-organizing projects to focus on. However, our document suggested that these questions were either unimportant or already settled, and that we simply needed to bring our readymade ideas to the masses2.
In short, we restricted our struggle to the plane of ideas. Socialists win over workers by organizing alongside them to improve material conditions and build institutional power, not by handing them newspapers or shouting ideas to them.
Despite our lack of ties with the class, WWP at least acknowledged the need for mass organization in the abstract, if only to produce new MLs. However, we relied on the International Action Center as our “mass organization”, which was in effect a front group. By that I mean that the IAC membership mostly or in large part consisted of WWP members and toed the party-line of WWP. In public events, we would introduce ourselves as WWP or IAC depending on the occasion; it was more of a hat that we put on than a genuine mass working-class organization. Our conception of mass organization was as a way to funnel individual workers into revolutionary ideas.
But by keeping our mass organizations as ours rather than as heterogeneous formations with political contradictions, they remained marginal, unable to draw in broad layers of the class or foster a culture of healthy debate. And this was not simply a result of unfavorable conditions, but had been the case for decades. Max Elbaum describes something similar in his description of WWP’s work organizing “the first large-scale protest against the Reagan administration,” a “demonstration against intervention in El Salvador and austerity” which drew 100,000 to Washington, D.C.:
Through the 1960s and 1970s [WWP] focused on mobilizing contingents at street protests, conducting little or no base-building work in unions or communities of color. But in 1980-81 Workers World was able to step into an open space… The WWP-initiated People’s Antiwar Mobilization presented itself as a protest vehicle and gathered that energy into a successful national march.
Forging an ongoing coalition afterwards proved more difficult. Workers World tried to follow the march’s success by calling for a broad All People’s Congress (APC) but tried to monopolize decision-making power and the APC soon narrowed into what amounted to a small WWP front. The main lasting contribution of the May 1981 action turned out to be establishing the pattern of spring Washington demonstrations against Reaganism, and a whole series of big peace-and-justice actions followed during the next seven years.3
The vague, unstated strategy in WWP is that “party-building” consists in holding street demonstrations, slowly recruiting more people, until we reach some “critical mass”, at which point we would be ready for revolution. But despite organizing a hugely successful march, WWP was unable to capitalize on it and build any long-term mass base. To us, this raises deep doubts about the overall orientation towards protests in general, and about WWP’s practical work in particular.
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.
— Hal Draper, “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect” (1973)
Party for Socialism and Liberation [PSL]
Neither of us have been members of PSL or FRSO, and thus cannot give as detailed an evaluation as we have with WWP. However, based on our observations and experience working with these groups, our sense is that they are better organized but still fall into at least some of the same traps of WWP.
Perhaps we can get a glimpse of PSL through their program. The PSL program is mostly concerned with the state of U.S. capitalism, the need for a multinational Party, and the features of a future socialist government (the latter of which takes up almost half of the entire program). It proclaims the necessity of a revolutionary socialist party but it does not provide elaboration on what such a party should look like or how it is to be built. There is analysis of the current state of U.S. capitalism, and a blueprint for a future socialist society, but how do we get from Point A to Point B? The entire realm of strategy is skipped over. We do not feel that this document grapples sufficiently with the strategy and tactics needed to forge a path forward in our juncture. This is a major, yet unacknowledged, weakness among today’s ML groups.
While we can only give our impressions, we believe that PSL, while more organized than WWP, falls into the same “activist subculture” mindset, focused on street protests and agitation rather than deep organizing projects. We attended the People’s Congress of Resistance (PCoR) back in September 2017, organized by PSL as an attempt at building a mass organization that was capable of providing anti-Trump resistance independent from co-option by the Democratic Party. As the “Vision for a People’s Congress” states:
[The PCoR] will chart a path of nationwide grassroots resistance and mobilization to defeat Trump’s reactionary program of unrestrained capitalism. This path will draw on the experiences of the grassroots, amplifying the voices and spreading the tactics of those who are already fighting back to defend their communities.
The People’s Congress of Resistance will also project its own platform and vision of what America should be if it is to be a society truly devoted to fundamental social and political rights. That is a society that places political and economic power in the hands of “We, The People” rather than the plutocrats. Each individual needs not just the right to vote for politicians who serve the rich, but the rights to a job or basic income, health care, housing and education.
The actual purpose of PCoR is a bit unclear, but based on this document it seems to be to (1) bring together multiple movements, in a sort of “movement of movements” and (2) propagate a political platform. These goals do make some amount of sense. The first would aim to rectify our current weakness by crafting a more immediately powerful coalition or united front out of already existing activist organizations, which taken all together do represent something of a power. And the second would address the urgent need to articulate and propagate an alternative vision for society, against the idea that capitalism is the only possible system which has been dominant since the end of the Cold War. But in practice, we believe PCoR fell short. Rather than bringing together various groups of activists to work on common projects, in practice PCoR attempted to to conjure up its movement of movements through propaganda without a practical basis for coalition.
The PCoR convention was two days. The first day consisted mostly of speeches and breakout groups. These speeches were mostly of a political rather than strategic nature; they were focused on the evils of U.S. capitalism and the need for militant resistance with less emphasis on how to build such a resistance. In the breakout groups there was discussion around tactics used by the constituent groups, but not as much around what our plan forward would be. Overall, while the list of speakers was inspiring, we left with little besides inspiration. And though many of the breakout groups featured interesting presenters and were oriented towards worthwhile tasks, such as building an alternative media hub, there was little measurable progress made towards these goals (nor a plan to move forward), which were taken up in the abstract rather than concretely. Without a clear goal, the discussions drifted towards the sharing of anecdotes, frustrating some in attendance.
The second day was focused on passing resolutions. There were two types of resolutions: action-oriented and organizational. For those frustrated by the lack of tangible progress on the first day, this promised to be more rewarding. The action-oriented resolutions were written by various attendees, submitted to the organizers of the event, and passed by a verbal vote of the entire conference. These resolutions all more or less consisted in deciding that the PCoR stand in solidarity with various (largely protest-based) movements. While we were, of course, happy to state our solidarity, we again lacked clear or measurable goals or even first steps towards action. In similar fashion to the WWP program, these action-oriented resolutions were more demands than actionable steps towards building a united front. The focus fell more on protests and conferences than on deep organizing projects. It was fitting that PCoR ended with a march to the White House, demonstrating its emphasis on fleeting moments of expression.
After the action-oriented resolutions, we moved on to organizational resolutions. The organizational resolutions had been pre-written by the convening organizations, and were again passed by verbal vote of the entire conference4. These resolutions focused on growing the congress and spreading its ideas:
The People’s Congress of Resistance convening organizations committed to 1) a mass popular education campaign to spread the Manifesto; 2) developing a People’s Congress of Resistance media hub drawing on the exciting and dynamic media-making already underway; 3) holding report meetings from the inaugural event that could be the launching pad for continued local and regional events; 4) a process for other groups to be added to the Conveners Committee; and 5) the publication of the resolutions, photos and videos of the inaugural event.5
Out of the above organizational resolutions, PCoR’s primary strategy going forward seems to be to spread its manifesto. Since the congress, PCoR’s main activity in local areas has been to host reading groups around the manifesto, and to host trainings for its organizers to prepare them to host such reading groups. Rather than developing a strategy for building roots in a mass base, PCoR seeks to grow through propaganda, placing primacy on its program and hoping that it will win the day. Like WWP’s Global May Day Strike, the strategy is to spread ideas instead of concretely organizing within the class. In its basic features, PCoR’s strategy seems to be inspired by the success of the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto, even down to the name “Society for the Many,” a direct reference to the framing used by the Labour Party. But as much as we may wish, PCoR is not the Labour Party, which already has a mass base. Our strategy at this juncture must focus on how to build our own mass base through genuine long term organizing; we cannot hope for our manifesto to light a sudden spark.
In summary, we left PCoR unclear what had been accomplished, and feeling that we lacked clear goals going forward. There was little discussion around strategy and the purpose of the congress, and the organizational democracy that existed was mostly cosmetic. It did seem like the conveners of the conference had goals or a plan for the future, but as “participants” in the conference we felt more like audience members. Since the event itself, there have been some local report-backs and reading groups around the Manifesto in various cities, as well as a training centered around hosting these events. So far, there has been no mass response, nor does it seem that PCoR has achieved a practical unity between a broader layer of activist groups. In short, PSL’s major project in 2017 was more of a networking event for activists than an attempt to build a mass base in the unorganized. This failure mirrors WWP’s attempt to ignite a spark with a big protest, thereby skipping over the hard work of base-building.
Freedom Road Socialist Organization [FRSO]
FRSO’s party documents contain a fair bit more detail on strategy compared to those of WWP and PSL. For example, their document “Class in the U.S. and Our Strategy for Revolution” details the class composition of the United States, the need to build a communist party, and the need for a “strategic alliance” between the working class and the oppressed nations. Another example, their 7th Congress documents, detail an analysis of the U.S. economy and political sphere while proposing strategy for working within the various movements as well as within the unions. This is a clear step above the WWP and PSL programs, which do not discuss strategy or the need to build a party that does not yet exist. In this vein, we also see FRSO’s self-identification as a “pre-party formation” rather than a party to be a positive thing.
In practice, it does seem that FRSO is more concerned with base-building than WWP in that their cadre focus on specific areas of work, dedicating their time and energy into certain mass struggles instead of jumping around to different protests. They have many members in unions, national liberation struggles, the student movement, and other areas. We see this as an improvement of the protest-centric model practiced by WWP. However, we still have hesitations about FRSO’s organizational structure, which we will discuss later.
We have tried to paint an accurate picture of the practice of modern U.S. ML organizations, including their weaknesses. We have identified several key errors including overemphasis on protesting, failure to conduct base-building work, and the placement of political line above material organizing. These problems flow from the idea that a small group of people can create a political line and win the class over to it, rather than building a program with the class through mass struggle. We feel that these issues are not sufficiently discussed among the ML milieu because they praise these organizations for their political line rather than their practice.
We have explored the ML trend in its strengths as well as what we believe are its weaknesses in practice. But we have yet to discuss the primary distinction between ML groups and all others: their organizational form, the democratic centralist cadre Party. What does this form consist of, and is it a proper organizational form for our period?
- (back) A notable exception was the Detroit branch’s organization of an anti-fascist “People’s Defense Network”. Regardless of its effectiveness, it does potentially mark a break from protest-centered organizing in favor of building deeper ties with the class.
- (back) Interestingly, our focus on ideas over practice made our theory also suffer, as we did not take seriously the theoretical tasks ahead of us that would be required to bring Marxism into 2018. In other words, our dogmatism made our theory lifeless. For example, our understanding of women’s oppression was based on decades-old theses from the New Left without engaging at all with the contributions of the Italian autonomists or Social Reproduction Theory.
- (back) Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air, pg. 264-265. Elbaum was a participant in the New Communist Movement (which we discuss later) through Line of March and the Northern California Alliance. Revolution in the Air is the authoritative history of the New Communist Movement.
- (back) “Inaugural People’s Congress of Resistance draws together grassroots leaders unified by a revolutionary vision”
- (back) Ibid.