The Era of the Mass Party

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This grouping of organizations was crushed in a very short time during and after WW1.  Whether from internal mistakes or state violence, the failure of revolutionary activities through all of Western & Central Europe and in the United States was also partially the fault of systemic failures in the constellation of leftist organizations that existed at the time.  Certainly Leftist organizations were not (in most cases) directly responsible for the horrors of the First World War and the repression that occurred during and after, but the rank failure of revolutionaries in the United States and in Western Europe deserves our attention, as it gives us a deeply urgent view into the ‘blind spots’ of these organizations.

While the social democratic turn towards nationalism during the First World War was in no way the worst atrocity that occurred over the war, it is difficult to think of a worse betrayal in the history of the Left.  No matter how many enunciations of internationalism the parties gave, no matter how theoretically inclined the party leaders were towards each other, the fact of the matter is that with very few exceptions, the ‘socialist’ movements of the 19th century collaborated or even cooperated with their given states in administering the largest war the world had yet seen, and then shortly after the war largely supported actions to crush their respective revolutionary movements.  The question of ‘why’, why a series of nominally emancipatory movements turned into the supporters of mass murder, is still a burning one, and in our current political situation, is perhaps the most important question that faces radicals.

The betrayal of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) during the Spartacist uprising has generally been treated either as a purely personal one, purely the product of the horrid actions of the traitor Ebert, or as a set of theoretical mistakes.  As if counter-revolutionary or revolutionary action takes place primarily in cafes, in classes, or within books. The fact is that while some other leader of the SPD might have taken a different approach to the Spartacists, the SPD, an organization focusing on taking and holding state power in order to create reform, would not have produced a leader willing to give up said power in the name of an abstract possibility of revolution (and even if a single leader accepted such a position, it is highly doubtful that the whole party would unilaterally abdicate in the name of radicalism).  The German counter-revolution did not take place within a book but in real life, and it was the product not of theoretical mistakes but of flaws inherent in the structure of political parties.

A political party exists as an institution within the nation-state: it aims to get votes within the state, to take power within the state, and most of the interactions that the party leadership will have will be with bureaucrats, lobbyists and other politicians who similarly worked within the state.  It would be more appropriate, then, to say that the actions of the social democratic parties were not so much a betrayal of the party of the people, as much as it was the showing of their true colors. It is no coincidence that the parties which supported the war–the German Social Democratic Party, the French Section of the Internationale, the Labor Party, the Socialist Party of America–were all parties which had succeeded the most in parliamentary affairs, which had become or aimed to become ‘parties of government’.

The First World War did not just showcase the failings intrinsic to reformist political parties.  The late 1910s also marked a series of defeats to the syndicalist trade unions so immense that they never recovered as an independent force.  General strikes were defeated in Great Britain, France, and Italy, . The General Strike, long viewed as the ultimate weapon in the unions’ pocket, had been analyzed a great deal by the CGT, as a way of dealing with the problems posed by partial strikes and as a means of bringing about social revolution and bringing political power into the hands of the proletariat.1  It was even thought by many that such a partial strike could be brought about relatively nonviolently, due to the immensity of the economic violence such an action would reap upon the state.2  Following this, a new economy would be created focused on the activities of the Bourses, French Mutual Aid Organizations. This economy would be organized rationally and towards the common good of the working man, managed by workers councils which existed within the workplace.

Such a strategic vision was both profoundly utopian and the perfect culmination of the institutional realities of unions and mutual aid societies.  The mutual aid societies, which had provided the backbone to the syndicalist organizations, had supported a number of strikes successfully, and while the state had resorted to violence throughout the course of the 1890s, there was the hope that this could be countered by organizing in the military, and that, while some sections of the military would fight the people, a nationwide strike would be impossible to stop militarily.  In fact, through the late 1890s and into the 1910s, the idea that the military would be mobilized against such a general strike was brushed off, with the idea that organizing among the military would provide a good enough defense3.  The utopian bent of the syndicalists was tested against artillery strikes in Turin, and failed brutally.4

This discussion of violence brings up the last of the types of organization which have existed within the Left: that of the terrorist clique or the activist group, in short, the militant organization.  I do not mention these together purely because activists often fancy themselves guerillas, sometimes embarrassingly so. I mention them together because the organizational reality of the two groups are so similar, to the point that they create similar modes of thinking, centered around the justification of their actions.  The activist view that correct understanding of any given situation is enough to alchemically transform the power of a dozen or so militants into that of an army has been the undercurrent of activist organizing in almost every era.5 Oriented around actions, the militant views these actions in world-historical terms. That is, they organize towards these tremendous events, enact them, and disappear without a trace. Due to this focus, the militant sees discipline in creating an appropriate action as being absolutely tantamount, to an even larger degree than a party organization does.

Regardless of this criticism, militant organizations have played an important role in the history of the Left, and paramilitary organizations acting in concert with Communist parties played a major role in the Russian and Chinese revolutions.  Furthermore, due to the authoritarian conditions of China and Russia, many revolutionary parties, including the activist and parliamentarian forms, played a role in the Bolshevik focus on the power of the ‘active minority’, and such a combination would foreshadow the direction that the Communist Party would take over the course of the 20th century.6

The rank failure of the socialist parties and of the syndicalist organizations created a massive gap in the Left which was swiftly filled by the Communist Parties.  These parties were different in form from their predecessors, in that in the Interwar period (and especially after the Second World War), these groups became almost all-encompassing within Western Europe.  The Party was a social meeting place, it was the center of activism, a field for intellectual sparring, and, last but not least, it was the jumping off point for political and economic reforms. This, as much as its membership, is what qualified the Communist Party as a ‘mass party’: it served nearly every social function and was at the center of nearly all activities.

This form proved remarkably flexible, to the degree that the Communist party was generally able to move from guerrilla actions against the Nazis to electoral actions after the war while remaining relatively intact.  Furthermore, the variety of roles which existed within the Parties of the time allowed these organizations to retain a policy of disciplined opposition for nearly a whole generation while being a major party with hundreds of thousands of members.  This is unique in history, and many actions within the Communist parties of the time were commendable. Their view of local rule, as being both a training ground for party membership to understand how government works and as a tool of social betterment, led to a massive provisioning of social services throughout France and Italy.  Over the 1940s and 50s, the Mass Party represented a legitimately hopeful future: of an organized galaxy of functions, discourses, and people, all acting and interacting towards productive ends all under one roof.

But there were faults.  These numerous organizations were all held under a form of discipline which demanded unity not only with the positions of the party leadership, but with the positions of the Soviet Union. This separation of revolutionary organizations from their revolutionary object led, allowed for a disjointed politics where deepening normalization was justified by ever more militant verbosity.  The golden age of Western Marxism, where the newly translated works of the Young Marx were integrated in an infinite number of variations with existentialism, absurdism, and linguistic structuralism, was much criticized in its time for creating a vaguely marxist academia more interested in producing philosophical texts than in revolution.  But as much as Western Marxism was a product of the discovery of Marx’s earlier, more philosophical works, it was just as much a product of the the situation which Communists found themselves in during the Mass Party period:

“Either the theorist could enroll in a Communist Party and accept the rigor of the discipline…retain[ing] a certain nominal level of contact with the life of the national working class (to which despite everything the party was inevitably bound)…the price of this proximity, however relative, to the realities of daily working class struggle was silence about its actual conduct.  No intellectual within a mass Communist Party of this period…could make the smallest independent pronouncement on major political issues, except in the most oracular form…The consequences of this impasse was to be the studied silence of Western Marxism in those areas most central to the classical traditions of historical materialism: scrutiny of the economic laws of motion…analysis of the political machinery of the bourgeois state, strategy of the class struggle necessary to overthrow it…all discussion [of these topics] was strictly reserved for the bureaucratic apex of these organizations, itself conditioned by overall allegiance to official Soviet positions.”7

This situation applied to nearly all radicals through the 1950s and early 60s.  The realities of the Cold War meant that, to the Communist Parties, the revolutionary subject was displaced from the hands of the workers into the machinations of a foreign power.  This displacement, mediated by the Communist parties, pushed for a gradual normalization of Communist practices under increasingly moderated Communist political parties. By the time that the parties broke from this model in the 70s and 80s, this central displacement was continued, with Eurocommunism being basically a rehash of social democratic ideas of a democratic road to socialism paved with campaign money.

Although it took the parties thirty years to jettison this orthodoxy, for those outside the position became increasingly untenable over the 50s and 60s. The direct link of Communist Parties to the foreign and domestic policies of the Soviet Union meant that, when de-Stalinization occurred in the USSR, all levels of each Communist party had to suddenly change tune as if they had not been defending Stalin in the weeks and months earlier.  Then followed a series of repressive acts by the Soviet Union which were met by similar apologia rhetoric. This constant fawning of some of the top intellectuals of the era over every decision made in Moscow was just the most public example of this displacement: if the Soviet Union was the revolutionary subject, then anything it did must be excusable.  This led to a gradual disconnect between the parties and their radical base as the Parties accepted a role of administering welfare capitalism while denying the possibility of revolution while various radicals proposed the potential for a revolution in Western Europe.

This brings us to 1968 and the early 70s, which marked the turning point after which the Communist Parties could no longer claim the title of sole representative of revolution.  The hierarchical nature of the party and its practical limitations led to a group of dissenters leaving the party in the 50s. As the 50s turned to the 60s, these dissenting Communisms were taken up by a new generation who had grown up in the period after the Second World War and never experienced the Communist party as the party of the Resistance.  Broadly, these new ideologies formed four trends which amounted to the declaration of independence of different kinds of organizations from Party dominance. Autonomism/Operaismo/Workerism denied the legitimacy of the party as the representative of the people, and returned to a kind of ultra-economist analysis which the Syndicalists were once accused of8.  On another line was the development of activist ideologies which by and large took Maoism as its influence.  This included a seemingly infinite number of groups who were nominally political parties such as the Gauche Proletarienne or the Dutch Communist Unity Movement, but who rarely attained more than a single seat.  These groups opposed both the parliamentary realpolitiking of the Communist Parties and the bureaucratism of their unions, and after the failure of the rallies and marches of the late 60s, these groups would increasingly turn to insurrectionary and terrorist tactics like the Red Army Faction. Further still were the intellectual movements, who took aim at ideological structures which they viewed as the major blocking point to revolutionary activity, to be deconstructed by literary and media analysis9.  Lastly and most influentially were the number of ideologies which percolated in colleges around the world, which increasingly turned against the possibility of Communism having any relevance to the ‘new movements’.  In place of the still dominant focus on white male workers as the key demographic and the Communist parties as their sole representative, these movements proposed other, intersecting, identities as the revolutionary subject.

While each of these dissenting radicalisms had their flaws, they were popular precisely because they believed that a revolution could be worked towards with no reference to international realpolitik, that, like the leftist ideologies of old, oppression and revolution are both everyday things that the average person has an experience of and a stake in.  These dissenting radicalisms came together during the wave of protests in 1968, which led to reverberations through the whole of Leftism. In many cases, as in Italy10, or in Czechoslovakia, the Communist parties turned against the students, supporting police actions against protesters and fundamentally disconnecting themselves from a generation of Leftists.  In other cases, as in France, the Communist Party and the unions took opportunistic actions in support of the students, gaining major victories in terms of reforms regarding the working day and pensions.  In still other cases candidates ran for office in an attempt to channel the events occurring around them, as in the case of Robert F Kennedy’s and McGovern’s runs for the presidency11.  But regardless of whether leftist parties attempted to curtail, use, or channel the events of 1968, the years afterwards led inexorably towards a new constellation, with the Communist parties on the wane and the ‘New Left’ on the rise.

This combined response percolated in the 1970s into Eurocommunism, which can be seen as the parliamentary response to the same issues which led to the New Left movements.  Eurocommunism was centered around two major premises: the rejection of Soviet control over the workings of the political party, and the focus on a ‘democratic road to socialism’, which opened the possibility of a revolution occurring in Europe without reference to international politics.  This trend presented itself as a radical break from the orthodoxy of parliamentary Marxism-Leninism, when in fact it was just the fullest expression of the issues already present in western communist parties.  Although the Soviet Union was no longer positioned as an external revolutionary subject, the logic of the party as the sole mediator of the revolution remained. Indeed, the Eurocommunist idea of “revolution” increasingly fell into the background, to quote Wood, “this objective seems no longer to illuminate the whole process of revolutionary change. Instead, the process is coloured by the immediate needs of political strategy and the attainment of political office.”12  This culminated in the post-Marxist theory of the late 80s and early 90s, which completely ended the focus on revolution and focused entirely on “establishing a ground for alliances within and between classes as they are here and now. for the purpose of attaining political power, or, more precisely, public office.”13 That is, Eurocommunism affected the last steps of normalization in the western communist parties.

The transformation of the Communist Party into a ‘normal’ political party did not save them.  The sidelining of the working class in communist electoral practice occurred just as other forces emerged on the Left.  The center-left parties, who did not have to carry the burden of either contemporary communist workerism or the taboo of the Soviet Union, were better able to capitalize on the rise of the new movements, leaving, for instance, the French communist party not being so much a party ‘of the proletariat’ as it was a party of declining industrial regions14,15.   By the late 80s, the only thing which differentiated Western Marxism from their social democratic ‘rivals’ was support for the USSR and in the wake of the war in Afghanistan this support was an albatross over the Left’s neck.  And so, when 1989 came and the Soviet Union fell, these parties did what they had been doing for decades: they moderated, one last time, into the grave.16

Next section: Digital Leftisms, or, the Modern Era →

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  1. Levine 2014 “The Doctrine of Revolutionary Syndicalism”
  2. Darlington 2013 287
  3. Levine 2014 “The Doctrine of Revolutionary Syndicalism”
  4. It would be remiss to not mention the failure of cooperation between parties and unions at this point; decades of rivalry between these organizations meant that there was a degree of hesitation when one asked for help, and this period of hesitation by the PSI was a part of the Italian government’s success at destroying the Turin striker’s force.
  5. The Baffler 2016 “Against Activism”
  6. And indeed, if one wanted to go all the way with my argument, much of the struggle between the Orthodox Marxists and the Bolsheviks was an argument between the realities of a parliamentary party who viewed things in a generally optimistic way, and who saw their job as merely to be the midwife of an inevitable revolution which had little to do with their particular actions, and a primarily activist organization which replaced the stagist conception of history with an almost voluntaristic one, wherein the actions of the party were the key to bringing revolution.
  7. Anderson 1976, “The Advent of Western Marxism”
  8. Keuchyan 2014 27
  9. The Situationists were a major example of this
  10. Jacobin Magazine, “Red Bologna Today”
  11. While I have not remarked on the Democratic party’s function, I would argue that since the New Deal the Democratic party has served a similar role as most social democratic parties, excepting the obvious fact that the Democrats have no embarrassing revolutionary history to dispose of.
  12. Wood 1986, 13-14
  13. Ibid
  14. Judt 2011 “The Elections of 1981 in Retrospect”
  15. A comment, here, about the claim that ‘representing the working class’ is the sole metric of legitimacy of a party or group.  Representation is a whole bag of worms which would require a paper far longer than this one to unpack, but to state it shortly: it is incredibly easy to claim that one is the representative of some group.  It is far harder to live up to this claim.
  16. Libcom, “Amadeo Bordiga and the Myth of Antonio Gramsci”