by Teresa Kalisz
When the Marxist Center (MC) was founded about a year and a half ago, it received immediate criticism from the more Maoist elements of our milieu. The now dissolved Austin Revolutionary Organizing Collective (AROC) criticized MC in a short reflection on our founding convention for our lack of clarity on party building. In their critique, they point out how Marxist Center’s use of the mass line and base building abstracts it away from its historical context of party building. Without a clear line on party building and revolution, Marxist Center doesn’t offer anything new beyond what already exists in the NGO Left. And in all of this, they claim, we risk devolution into liberalism.
Much like Avery Minnelli in their response to AROC, I am deeply skeptical of the solutions offered by AROC. Party building becomes this silver bullet, this one organizational form that will solve the issues facing the left. But the revolutionary left has been party building for decades without much success. It certainly has not provided sufficient protection from liberalism, as can be seen from New Communist Movement party building efforts. But there is something in the critiques raised by AROC,as well as criticisms from other comrades who have fallen away from the tendency, that ring true about this stage in the Marxist Center’s development.
The Marxist Center as it currently stands is still a small collection of local/regional collectives. Since our merger, our work has remained local. This is certainly not a negative. If after our merger our work became purely based in national level politics, an organization of our size would lose the roots in communities with which we began. But, with the exception of our participation in the Autonomous Tenants Union Network and some labor organizing, we have yet to really cohere collaboration between our collectives or scale up our organizing.
This is a problem. The lack of serious collaboration between collectives indicates a general lack of organizational cohesion. This means that we can only respond to political developments collective by collective, rather than as an organization, if at all. Lack of cohesion means we are strategizing separately rather than together. This makes our use of resources inefficient and our organization on the whole less nimble. We can only respond to national developments, such as the current COVID19 crisis, in an ad hoc and non-strategic manner. In the end, it also means most of our groups aren’t in a different position than where they were when we first merged, which ultimately raises the question of why the Marxist Center exists in the first place.
This is particularly unfortunate because now is the time for Marxist Center’s politics. The heavy emphasis of the broader left (the DSA, Socialist Alternative for example) on electoral work, especially during Bernie’s campaign and over the last few years, has been revealed as inadequate, and unfit to meet the current task. The COVID19 crisis has shown the need for extensive extra-electoral organizing in workplaces, tenants unions and mutual aid societies. While it is certainly true that Marxist Center are not only the advocates of this work, this work was the founding premise of the Marxist Center. The COVID-19 crisis has vindicated the position of base builders from the 2017-2018 debates, and organizations and networks have reoriented en masse to mutual aid and tenant organizing tactics.This leads us to return to the earlier question: What does Marxist Center as an organization bring?
Marxist Center talks about organizing the unorganized and base building. These strategies are good and we support them, but we must recognize that the Marxist Center isn’t the only one engaging in this strategy at this conjuncture. Organizing the unorganized and base building are two strategic tasks all healthy political organizations must take on, whether they are communist, socialist, or anarchist; even liberal groups often engage in base building. Marxist Center, by not going beyond these tactics and connecting them to a political vision, runs the very real risk of presenting ourselves and engaging our organizing in an apolitical way. This apolitical approach is a barrier to translating our base building work into meaningful working class politics, let alone Marxist revolutionary politics, in the world. It presents our work as a blank canvas on which any set of politics can be projected, resulting in a politically incoherent organization, and creating the conditions for potential pitfalls such as burn out, cooptation and degeneration, or, simply, collapse.
To answer the question of organizational cohesion and to answer the question of what the Marxist Center can offer, we need to develop a clear political vision and strategic orientation that goes beyond the immediate question of organizing the unorganized. This vision needs to grapple with the question of the state, our path to socialism, and the question of communist organization.
The Terrain of the State
The question of the state is often tricky. Beyond the debates that began to spring up in the latter half of the 20th century, Marxists have not placed much emphasis on analyzing the state. Through specific interpretations of Lenin’s State and Revolution, Marxists have arrived at positions on the capitalist state that are fairly similar to those held by anarchists. The conclusions usually read that the capitalist state is a tool of class dictatorship over the working class, with a monopoly on legitimate force developed for the purpose of ensuring capital accumulation. This short definition captures many aspects of the state, especially emblematic in the violence of the police, military, and the courts,and the lengths gone to maintain capitalist property rights and the white supremacist and settler colonial structure of American capitalist society. This definition of the state can also be evidenced in the frequent corporate bailouts during capitalist crises, and the close personal relationships between state officials and capitalists (in many cases they are the same people!).
But this definition alone doesn’t help us explain why the state functions this way, nor does it tell us how it maintains this legitimacy. This is why we must move beyond the definition offered by State and Revolution and into a deeper understanding of the state. A solution to the question of how the state maintains legitimacy is offered by French communist Louis Althusser. In his analysis, the state does not just consist of repressive institutions but also Ideological State Apparatuses. Where Repressive State Apparatuses function by violence, Ideological State Apparatus reproduce capitalist social relations by ideology. Ideological State Apparatuses can be clearly seen in the examples of school, state media, religious institutions, etc. However, the state doesn’t merely engage in repression and ideology, nor is it only concerned purely with capital accumulation. It also engages in the reproduction of the working class, not just in terms of class relations and ideology, but in the continued physical existence of the working class, and in the infrastructure required for this social reproduction of the working class.
This is where models of the state for the revolutionary left start to feel disjointed. On the one hand, it is argued that reforms to capitalism are products of class struggle, not given to us nicely by the capitalist class, nor won just through electoral projects. In this way, reforms and the extension of state-run social welfare are seen as the weaknesses of capitalist power. On the other hand, the lived reality of working class people in the welfare system is one of racism and repression. From physical violence, threatened or otherwise, faced by people of color and people with disabilities in the healthcare systems, to alienating and restrictive food and unemployment support, the violence of the state permeates the entire welfare apparatus. In view of this, some Marxists conclude that while for some workers state-run social welfare is better than relying on capitalists, it is still an aspect of the repressive functions of the state used to control the working class and reproduce oppressive class relations. However, if this were the case, then why are capitalist governments so quick to cut or jettison these programs? Are the reactionary roles played by these institutions inherent to them, or they an incidental byproduct of the deeper nature of the state?
Rather than looking at the state from the perspective of a tool, we should shift our perspective to begin to see the state as a social relation between the capitalist and working classes which is rooted in the capitalist division of labor. So while, absolutely, the state is concerned about continued capital accumulation and the reproduction of the division of labor, once we view the state as a social relation, the state ceases to be a monolithic set of institutions which the working class confront externally on the terrain of class struggle. Rather, the state is itself constituted by class struggle, wherein class contradictions permeate its institutions. It is by adding this layer of understanding that we can account for why welfare institutions have this dual character. It is not that welfare institutions are products of working class victory or tools of capitalist domination, but it is the manifestation of class struggle within those institutions.
To return to the classical view, if we view the state as purely a tool of the capitalist class, how do we account for the historic ability for democratic socialists to establish governments and enact reforms and policies within the state that aren’t coherent with the concept of the state as a mere tool of capitalist class? It should be noted that these democratic socialist governments have faced large backlashes and have almost all been defeated by capitalist reaction within the state itself. These experiences are not just limited to the imperial core where theories of imperialism and labor aristocracy might account for the flexibility. We can look to the Bolivarian revolution and other Pink Tide governments to which the revolutionary, or at least Leninist, left has provided support to see evidence that the classical formulas break down. The relational view for which we argue allows for us to see the relative autonomy of state institutions from the capitalist class. As class struggle traverses the state, socialists might be able to gain control of specific institutions, but this is often limited as the class struggle continues and capitalist power regroups and launches counter offensive measures.
Furthermore, in seeing the state as a social relation, a relation of power between the capitalist and working classes, we see that the state extends beyond the reach of its formal institutions, not just into now formally independent religious institutions but also into NGOs which take over the social reproductive roles of the state. This is important to our analysis because it shows that reductions in state-run social welfare during periods of austerity do not indicate a weakening or shrinking of the state. Instead, the state is in actuality much larger and permeates so many aspects of working class life, through its tendrils of control in religious institutions, NGOs, and other such “civil society” institutions.
The state is not something the working class or communists can avoid or meet purely from the outside. The idea that we can avoid the effects of the state by organizing away from it is an illusion. Whether we like it or not, the state defines the terrain on which we wage social struggles and, in many ways, workplace struggles. This does not mean we must accept or join the social democratic march through the institutions. On the contrary, this understanding of the state as a social relation allows for the development of a strategic orientation towards revolution, a foundation which extends beyond the limitations of the various insurrectionary and prefigurative conceptions of dual power and electoral roads to socialism.
Which Way to Socialism?
In the debate on how we get to socialism, two sides generally appear. First is “the democratic road to socialism,” which can take different forms. On one end of the spectrum there are social democratic visions of this road, which emphasize socialist parties utilizing the state as a neutral tool in order to enact a series of progressive reforms which would transition capitalist society, gradually, to socialism. On the other end of the spectrum you have the democratic road of the (left) eurocommunist traditions, which seek to unite socialist electoral projects with a robust labor movement, with the goal of forming a government and, through an inside/outside strategy, work to transform and democratize the state, thereby carrying out the transition to socialism. This latter version has been increasingly popular among democratic socialists.
The second side of the debate over how we get to socialism is often represented by the dual power strategies. Dual power strategies may vary in their visions, but they share the idea that socialists cannot transform the existing state, seeing it as a tool of capitalist domination. Therefore, the working class must build up a power that could stand in opposition to the existing state, and which, at a point of great crisis and rupture, can overthrow the existing state and reorganize society. The two main forms of dual power strategy that this piece will focus on are the insurrectionary and prefigurative forms. These are the two major tendencies that have arisen within the Marxist Center, as well as in the DSA, in traditional Leninist groups like the Party for Socialism and Liberation, or in anarchist trends like Symbiosis.
Both democratic road and dual power strategies face serious obstacles. The democratic road is by its nature a strategic long game. While the electoral insurgencies that we have seen can build the energy needed to initiate a serious socialist electoral project, such a project would need to win thousands of electoral races from the municipal to the federal level in order to achieve an electoral road to socialism. This requires time and a lot of sustained energy and organization. This isn’t inherently a negative, but we also don’t know what the future may hold as the scale of the environmental crisis progresses. Even now, Hungary, a consistent canary in the coal mine with respect to the ascendance of the far right and an EU member, has experienced a parliamentary coup during the COVID-19 crisis. Its prime minister, Victor Orban, has gained the ability to rule by decree indefinitely with parliament suspended. Any claims about the stability of bourgeois democracy should be taken with a grain of salt.
This does not mean that a socialist electoral project is unviable, but rather it means that we should take seriously the potential reality that we might be blocked from gaining major footholds in the institutions of representative democracy yet again. This did, in fact, happen at the municipal scale in the aftermath of the last major crisis. In the state of Michigan, state-appointed emergency financial managers took over powers from multiple city councils and, in one case, locked the city council out entirely.
Another limit of the electoral road in the United States is the U.S. Constitution. This is a place where advocates of both strategies fundamentally agree. In his article “Constitution and Class Struggle”, Chris Maisano highlights how the architects of the U.S. Constitution designed it explicitly to hinder the ability of majoritarian movements to transform society. This was accomplished through a separation of powers between a powerful executive branch, a judiciary branch which was given the power to strike down laws on the basis of their constitutionality (or lack thereof), and a divided legislative branch which checks the potential of popular movements to form majorities in the lower house with a more aristocratic upper house, as well as the enshrinement of property rights. For an electoral road to be successful, it must either radically reform or get rid of the existing constitution. In order to accomplish either of these, a socialist electoral project would have to not only win a supermajority of seats in Congress at the federal level, but also in the state governments. A simple majority is not enough political power to radically change the Constitution, and it is unrealistic to assume that even a widely popular socialist movement would manage to build and sustain such state-level victories over the length of time required to achieve them. In his piece, Chris Maisano recognizes this problem:
Given the egregiously high barriers to calling a constitutional convention or amending the current constitution, a demand for a wholly new constitution would be utopian.
Does all this mean that electoral participation is not useful for the working class struggle for socialism? Absolutely not; a dual power strategy is compatible with engaging in electoral activity. However, it does mean that the democratic road is not viable as a road to socialism.
Projections for the dual power strategy don’t fare any better. In the insurrectionary model, a crisis of authority develops between the existing capitalist state and an external working class power that results in an insurrectionary overthrow of the capitalist state to be replaced by new institutions of working class rule. These new institutions are either present in the build up to the crisis (potentially aiding and giving form to the working class power), or are established after the victory of the revolutionary forces. The problem with this model is that it places too much emphasis on massive systemic crises in capitalist society and the prediction of the formation of workers councils/soviets during these times of crisis. Certainly, systemic crises do occur, and we shouldn’t overestimate the power and stability of the legitimacy of the capitalist state. But crises of this size are both hard to predict and beyond our control. They also don’t necessarily develop into moments of revolutionary rupture. If we are depending on the occurrence of a potentially far off systemic crisis, and on specific organizational forms that might come into existence in the lead up to this crisis, there is not a path for us to tread to go from here to there.. We can only prepare for that moment by trying to radicalize the workers’ movement. Consciousness-raising and organizing within unions for more space for radical activity, or even for building new, more radical worker organizations are important activities for socialists, but they have their limits. At best, they provide us with a way to develop in parts the prerequisite working class militancy needed for a left of any size to exist.
Because of these contradictions, the prefigurative model seems on the surface more preferable. It recognizes the importance of organizing, and understands that mass unrest doesn’t necessarily translate into organization. The prefigurative model asserts that we must build working class institutions of counterpower and alternative power. Institutions of counterpower are organizations such as revolutionary unions or tenants unions that fight the boss, landlords, or state, or provide protection from them. Institutions of alternative power are organizations which provide alternatives to the state in the form of mutual aid, workers and buyers cooperatives, community clinics, etc. Organizing in the prefigurative model is conducted at a distance from the state, understood as something external to the working class. But this strategy underestimates the state’s ability to co-opt radical projects. These organizations of counter- and alternative power can just as easily be co-opted, as they prove inefficient in competing with the resources of the state and so seek funding grants from liberal funds in order to survive. Or else, the state may integrate them into the social welfare system. We only need to look at the movement history of the 1930s and 1970s, how various radical alternative institutions and grassroots movements became agents of distribution of services for the state. Advocates of the prefigurative model promote the development of our own healthcare clinics as an alternative to medicare for all. But consider the recent example of the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas, who used the defense of their medical clinics to support centrist candidates against Bernie Sanders because of his advocacy for a universal healthcare system. While the CWU has long been allied with capitalist politicians, this example does show how our own alternative institutions can be co-opted not just to become agents of welfare distribution for the state, but also as a defense for capitalist austerity.
The combination of an opposition to protesting and a focus on developing institutions that act as an alternative to state- or capitalist-provided services can lead to a drift of resources from organizations of counterpower to the alternative institutions. The gradual expansion of the alternative institutions can start increasing in priority as the organizations of counterpower run into the limits of a strategy which doesn’t engage the state and opposes reforms. Since the alternative institutions are already conceived as a replacement for the existing capitalist, this can easily morph into a vision of building a new society in the shell of the old. Rather than a revolution, a new reformism is born that sees a gradual disengagement from capitalism through workers’ associations, cooperatives, and community gardens as means to supplant capitalism regardless of the revolutionary pretenses of the organizations.
Beyond just the threat of a new reformism, this strategy will still lead us to a similar problem as in the ‘insurrectionary’ model: there is still a gap between the work that happens right now and the future revolutionary crisis. At what point do our organizations of dual power constitute actual dual power? What even guarantees that the organizations that we build will become the organizations of dual power? Before WW1, the German Social Democrats had an intensive infrastructure of alternative institutions and unions and, when push came to shove, it was not these gymnasiums, pioneer clubs, party schools, or affiliated unions that lead to the German Revolution, it was the networks and new organizations born during the war years and the mutinying sailors which launched and carried out the revolution. The German Social Democrats’ alternative institutions played an important role in building and developing the movement, but they did not constitute the infrastructure of the dual power situation. Rather than elevating a series of organizational or tactical tools to the throne of ‘strategy,’ or surrendering the question of revolution to far off systemic crises, we need to develop an adaptable strategy for revolution that builds on the organizing we are currently engaged in while also providing a bridge to the moment of revolution.
Towards a Strategy of Everyday Ruptures
In Envisioning Real Utopias, Erik Olin Wright describes what he called the ruptural transformation of capitalism. The approach of ruptural transformation is to radically break with existing social institutions and structures, destroy them, and then build new ones in their place. While he allows for the potential of limited ruptural moments within institutions, Wright argues that the strength and robustness of the state in capitalist democracies makes these systemic ruptural moments improbable. By limiting our understanding of ruptures outside of state institutions to large systemic ruptures, we lose sight of smaller and more immediate weak points in capitalist hegemony and legitimacy. We need to see ruptures in a broader sense. Mass protests and social movements present moments of ruptural potential. Meanwhile, longer crisis events born of class antagonism, racism, and non-human causes such as disease or natural disaster may also cause temporary radical breaks or breakdowns of hegemonic politics and social functions. We see this occur during riots, environmental crises, and the current COVID-19 crisis.
Critics of insurrectionary models of revolution that depend on a large systemic rupture, like Erik Olin Wright and Eric Blanc, argue that any revolutionary force pursuing such a model will be opposed by the majority of the population and won’t be able to compete with the legitimacy of the capitalist state, as evidenced by the lack of any successful insurrectionary movement in the West. Because of this, according to Wright and Blanc, we must abandon our hope for an all-out attack on the capitalist state, and instead make use of institutions of representative democracy united with an external labor movement to transform society. By taking advantage of a broader vision of ruptures, we can press the fractures in the state and erode the legitimacy of state institutions in small bursts of direct conflict during these limited ruptural moments.
But we can’t immediately engage in direct conflict with state institutions or even with capitalists. We need organization to build trust among and mobilize workers, to plan and focus our attack, and to defend ourselves and the class against reprisals.
In order to conceptualize the process better and how it relates to struggles under moments of rupture, we need to borrow two related concepts from Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci: war of position and war of maneuver. Gramsci took these terms from the military theory of his time. The war of maneuver is when an army engages in direct assaults on its enemy. The war of position takes place when direct assaults are not possible and the army must bunker down in trenches. This metaphor was used to explain the difference between revolutions in the east (i.e. Russia) and in the west. In the east, the capitalist state was weak and could be fought directly, whereas, in the west, the capitalist state was too strong to be fought directly. So for that reason, in the west, revolutionaries had to take on a war of position in the trenches that run through the state and civil society.
In this analysis, one can see hints of Wright’s argument against ruptural transformation. In fact, others before him made this argument, too. It was not just that revolutionaries should engage in a war of position, but that war of position was the only means possible. And this war of position involved a struggle within institutions of representative democracy via elections, but also on the level of cultural hegemony. But if we look deeper into the metaphor in Gramsci’s writings, the war of position isn’t about a slow slog through the institutions, but of building up a military machine and developing supply lines. Nor was it meant to be a permanent state of revolutionary struggle. Instead, the war of position is what makes the war of maneuver possible. They are a part of the same process. In this way, the war of position is the same base building that the Marxist Center has strongly emphasized in its strategy to date. By locating potentials for rupture, we can engage in fluid transitions from war of position to limited periods of war of maneuver and back.
During periods of war of position, revolutionaries must build up both our defensive and offensive structures. This will take the form of developing new working class organizations, such as new grassroots unions and radical tenants unions, as well as mutual aid organizations and cooperatives. They are also the time to secure our positions. This is done through building radical nucleuses in workplaces, communities, within existing working class organizations, and politicizing the informal networks in the working class in which we find ourselves working, living, and organizing. This work builds up our forces, deepens our roots, and furthers the politicization of the working class in the places we live and beyond in anticipation of the next ruptural wave.
It is when the next ruptural moment comes that we shift into a war of maneuver. In this, we mobilize the organizations and the working class communities in which we have been working, living, and organizing and fight to win more ground. This “ground” can mean sets of reforms that improve the lives of workers and weaken the state or the power of capitalists, advancing popular working class democracy, or shifting more power to workers. Beyond gaining ground, it also provides us with opportunities to press the fractures and faultlines within the state. Each period of rupture will be different and what is possible during these moments will vary.
As the moment of rupture begins to ebb, rather than fighting to prolong the rupture beyond what is sustainable (this should be seen as different from fighting repression meant to pacify the class), we start to shift back into the war of position to secure what gains we have made: solidify any increase in membership through political education and development, rebuild from any losses suffered during the period of rupture, and reflect on the experiences of the ruptural period. By having this cyclical understanding of periods of ruptures and lulls, we can connect our base building work to a political and strategic context. In this context, base building must be political. Without a clear political component, base building can just as easily operate by creating service provision organizations without increasing the political power and organization of the working class as a whole, and leaves those efforts open to be co-opted by liberal sentiments of civic participation.
While these moments of rupture are hard to predict or even notice until they have broken out, base building and the use of tools like the mass line and workers inquiry can train our organizational fingers on the pulse of the working class. As our organizations grow stronger and more entrenched in the class, we will become more aware of pressing issues in the communities we work within, which will allow us to start pressing contradictions and arrive at an increasing awareness of the points of politicization existing within emerging ruptures. By engaging in a protracted war of position, in which we engage in base building as our primary organizing mode, we can develop the needed capacity, organization, and deep roots to sufficiently merge with the class to accomplish this in ways that a war of position predicated primarily on elections with extra-electoral work as secondary cannot. Electoral campaigns are too ephemeral, with extended periods of time in between, to create long-term infrastructure and to consistently assess the state of the working class. At best, during periods of crisis like the one we are in now, electoral campaigns can broadcast work being done outside of the electoral sphere and, outside of crises, engage in limited social investigation.
This ruptural view has two other strengths. First, it allows space for working class initiative outside of the communist political organization, either via rupture caused by spontaneous initiative of the class in response to actions of capitalists or the state (i.e. protesting), or by other working class organizations and networks. While communist organizations are still small, it is unlikely that we will be at the leading edge of actions that open moments of rupture or, at most, we will be a small component of it. A sectarian approach would reject social movements or initiatives beyond our control. But limiting our political activity to that which directly derives from our base building provides us with little way to make sense of or engage moments of rupture or social movements. By anticipating the need to respond to moments of rupture beyond our control and connecting that anticipation to our revolutionary base building, we maintain strategic flexibility while not devolving into protest chasers or movementism. As our strength grows, we can begin to take more initiative and open up moments of rupture of our own.
The other strength is that it provides a bridge from now to revolution. Without a conception of how we get from here to socialism, our base building work can just as easily become a constituency building effort for an electoral project. In other dual power strategies that have appeared in Marxist Center or around us, the revolution takes on this mythical quality, becoming this messianic moment where everything comes into play. But by organizing around cycles of periodic rupture and lulls, with each cycle our power and organizational strength will expand and the balance of power will shift; the moment of revolutionary rupture is now only unique in the sense that it’s the cycle where the balance of power has decisively shifted and the capitalist forces are routed. Each cycle, even in situations where we experience defeat, provides a link to this moment of revolutionary rupture. It is important to note that the ruptural strategy that has been outlined here also allows us to confront the realities of historical revolutions. Revolutions are hardly singular events or moments of rupture. During the Russian Revolution, in 1917 there were several major moments of revolutionary ruptures. The Chinese Revolution also consisted of periods of rupture, such as the revolutionary period of 1927, followed by protracted periods of base building and combat before the victory of communist forces in 1949.
The two general trends previously touched on in this piece both had definitive statements on the question of what to do with the capitalist state. For the electoral road, the existing state institutions are something to be taken over and transformed. In this process of transformation, they become more democratic and adapted to meeting the needs of society rather than the interests of capitalists and capital accumulation. In the case of dual power strategies, the state is seen as irreformable, capitalist to its core. It must be smashed and replaced by a new workers state, which will itself fade away as capitalism and the residue of its class order are done away with. Both of these, as we have seen, have clear limits.
The ruptural strategy for socialism takes a more flexible approach. Rather than focusing on eventually smashing or transformation of the state, its emphasis is on breaking the relations of power that run through the state, taking advantage of the non-monolithic nature of the state, and the faultlines that run through it. So rather than wait for a final battle in which the working class forces with its alternative state/power will smash the capitalist state, the ruptural strategy chips away at the state and the power expressed through it. The build up of working class power becomes inextricably linked to the processes of eroding the power of capitalists and the capitalist state.
The ruptural strategy also doesn’t surrender the need to transform the state. This shouldn’t be taken to mean the wholesale transformation of the existing state institutions, but rather a recognition that certain institutions are unlikely to disappear, or at least it is infeasible to create a wholesale replacement. These particular institutions — schools, public transportation, public healthcare — already have the working class embedded in them. It is the struggles of the working class, as workers, students, patients, or transit riders, against those who run those institutions which are the backbone of the transformation of these institutions. Each moment of rupture ignites new opportunities to push forward with the transformation and democratization of these institutions. As working class power expands and the power of the capitalist class and its control over society are increasingly under threat, each cycle of rupture provides the working class and revolutionaries all the more space to experiment with new forms organizing society. Rather than creating a prepackaged new system of governance, or waiting for these forms to magically appear, we forge them through cycles and ruptures: stress testing them, developing new ones as previous forms prove insufficient or as new struggles provide new opportunities.
Building Organization for Revolution
When the question of organization is brought up with respect to the revolution, Marxists often return to the idea of the party. The party is often approached as if the word itself has power, as if the term “party building” on its own implies all the structural and strategic information necessary for the conversation. This is a problem, because while the left does distinguish between a mass party and a Leninist party (though even this distinction is contested), there is quite a bit of diversity within these forms that are both shaped by the strategies of the trends they are born out of and the political terrain of countries they operate in. The Bolsheviks, the Communist Party of the Philippines, and the Socialist Workers Party (US) were all Leninist parties that operated on nominal democratic centralism, but the specific forms and ways they operate are all quite different. AROC in their original critique of Marxist Center gives a preliminary definition of what a party is, contending that “political parties are the institution of unitary political leadership for a class or fraction of a class.” This is still a broad enough definition that it could theoretically encompass any variety of organizational types.
With all this lack of clarity over what a call to party build means, is party building desirable? In her contribution to the debate in the aftermath of Marxist Center’s founding, Alyson Escalante makes an argument for its benefit. She points out that, despite the Marxist Center’s commitment to mass work and institution building, it hasn’t committed to a strategy for revolution, and this is a major weakness. Party building provides a next step beyond building new working class institutions, and can provide a context for MC’s mass work and a basis for the development of a revolutionary strategy. While Marxist Center may fail to build the party as in past movements, this isn’t an argument against trying.
Alyson’s argument isn’t completely disagreeable. In fact, this document agrees with her fundamental point: Marxist Center’s lack of a strategy for revolution is a major weakness. From here, she errs; by placing party building at the foundation of our strategy, we lose sight of the fact that the organizational forms are determined in large part by the strategy and struggles with which we engage. Elevating the ‘party’ form to the level of strategy presents the possibility of conflating utterly different visions which fall under the category of “party building”. A party that leads a guerilla war is different from a party that operates mostly in electoral politics. If we don’t have our strategy, we don’t know what type of party to build. Furthermore, by making party building a goal, we have to ask the question:at what point does a party building project become the party? A quote from the Union of French Communists Marxist-Leninists tries to answer this:
…the party must be constructed in the fire of struggles, step by step, under the control of the mass political movement. In France today, this party does not exist. It is not a question of self proclaiming it.
This is why we declare that we are not the Party. We are a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist political group FOR the foundation of a communist Union. This Union, having proven itself, and gathering a significant fraction of the vanguard workers, will itself have to determine the conditions and stages for the foundation of the Party.
When has a party proven itself? What constitutes a significant fraction of vanguard workers? How do we distinguish between premature self-declarations and genuine foundations of the party? If a political organization has already clearly successfully accomplished all these things before founding the party, what benefit is there to founding a new organization? The pre-party formation has already accomplished the tasks that define a party in this sense. Just like the problems facing dual power theories where revolution becomes this far point in the future with no clear path from where we currently are, party building also provides little in the way of a clear path from the ‘pre-party’ to the party.
If organizational forms are determined by strategy and the conditions under which we organize, then what are the organizational forms for revolutionaries that flow from the ruptural strategy for socialism? To start, one reality that needs to be confronted is that, despite the aspirations of vanguardist tendencies, the idea that we will have unitary leadership of the working class is unrealistic for the near term and might very well be completely impossible. Revolutions, while they might have a dominant organization, are often carried out by blocs of revolutionary political organizations and mass organizations (as seen in the Russian Revolution). This isn’t a weakness necessarily and, in fact, we can use this to our benefit even in the near term.
Certain areas of struggle have a very strong influence on the form of organization. For example, should an independent political party become successful enough in the electoral sphere, the state requires that they hold primaries. This guts a lot of the formal mechanisms for the party to determine membership and candidates they run. This might be survivable for a purely electoral political party, but for a revolutionary organization where elections would be only one component of its activity, this could be disastrous. By embracing the existence of multiple political organizations engaging in different struggles, a revolutionary organization might be able to avoid direct participation in elections and instead opt for alliances with electoral socialist bodies when advantageous. For our purposes, the Marxist Center is currently a relatively small organization. Even if it punches above its weight, there is still a limit to what it can accomplish and who it can reach. But by forming blocs with other political organizations around the same goals, the Marxist Center can accomplish much more than its size would indicate and, in the process, build greater unity among revolutionary forces.
Along with building a greater bloc of revolutionary and mass organizations, Marxist Center should focus on building a cadre organization, rather than a party. This cadre organization should be able to accomplish two things. First, it needs to be coordinated and cohesive on a national level, while flexible and nimble enough to respond to changing situations and specific local or regional conditions. While it is true that national level politics have local expressions, you cannot address them purely from the local level. Large capitalists and enemies embedded in the state at the federal level are difficult to combat if we are limited to intervening on a town-by-town basis. Furthermore, as we have seen at a small scale in fights for higher minimum wages or against fracking, local victories can be superseded by higher levels of government. A lack of higher-level coordination among organizations can leave us slow, or even incapable of responding. Furthermore, new affiliates might lack the resources and funds needed to grow. Therefore, stronger national level coordination is needed to ensure access to those resources.
On the other hand, moments of rupture or political changes can often happen unevenly, especially in a country as large as the U.S. Should our organization be too centralized and require the national level organization to move before local organization can, we lose our ability to respond to moments of rupture and shift from war of position to war of maneuver in a timely manner. It might very well be the case that one portion of the organization might be in a war of maneuver while another portion has to remain in a war of position. Autonomy of local organizations and the ability to coordinate within and between regions without dragging the entirety of the organization into the same activity when it is not needed is important.
To this end, a federated, rather than centralized, structure is necessary. A delegate council and elected committees at the national level provide the federation with organizational unity, structures for sharing resources, and coordination of nation-wide struggles. The relatively autonomous local affiliates and regional coordinating bodies provide for flexibility. This organizational form is not incompatible with our initial conception. However, we currently face one serious barrier to achieving it with our current confederated form. In some cities, we have multiple affiliate organizations, and we have some affiliates which exist in multiple cities and states. This creates a layer of redundant or parallel organization, which, as is, can make us slower and reduce our ability to function as a united organization. Marxist Center needs to develop organizational structures to foster unity at the local level and to transform our multi-city/state affiliates into forms which help foster greater unity and strengthen Marxist Center.
The other task our organization should focus on is cadre building. It is unlikely that Marxist Center will for the time being be able to compete with the DSA for mass organizational status. In many ways, this drive to go from small organization to mass organization can motivate some of the most opportunistic aspects of microsects. Where Marxist Center has been at its best is in developing skilled organizers who care deeply about mass work. The ruptural strategy for socialism demands more of these organizers, since with each ruptural period the revolutionary organization will need to expand its organizing. Then, with each lull, that layer of organizers will deepen that organizing. Without a process in place for the constant development of new cadre, Marxist Center would quickly over-extend itself and burn out its members. In order to deepen its roots, it will need to develop new cadre out of the workplaces and communities it is active in. But cadre development depends on more than just organizing skills; our organization must also grow politically. If Marxist Center is to maintain itself as an ideologically pluralistic organization, we won’t be able to just train members in a particular line. This should be seen as a strength, not a weakness, since we will be forced to develop a high caliber of cadre who can accurately analyze capitalism, intervene in important debates, and use their knowledge towards the politicization of the working class and its struggle in mass organization. This will require us to develop and maintain a robust and deliberate internal education program and training infrastructure concerned with the political growth and development of each individual member.
While cadre organizations and cadre development models such as this might at first glance seem in contradiction with a more federated system that allows for the autonomy of local organizations, it is not necessarily the case. The national level organization can work to facilitate the development of cadres on the local level, developing educational and training resources which can be adapted to fit local needs. At the same time, it can provide national level cadre schools for at-large members and young affiliate organizations lacking the experience organizers that more established locals have. This provides the respect for the autonomy of the local and regional organization and ensures that cadre development is consistently happening across the organization.
Many of the tasks of this cadre organization within the context of the ruptural strategy may be compatible with aspects of party building models, such as building stable mass institutions of working class power and uniting various fractions and networks within the class into a unified revolutionary bloc. If these ruptural cycles lead to a “party”, so be it. But this strategy does not raise one particular form of revolutionary political organization to the level of principle. Rather, the focus is how our organization connects each individual moment into a chain of actions, allowing the context we work in to determine our strategy rather than trying to move along courses pre-determined fifty or a hundred years ago.
Finding Our Footing
Previous dual power strategies have left us with organizations that struggle to engage in non-revolutionary times, in hope that a future major systemic crisis or rupture will launch the left into a final battle with the state. These crises are always seemingly beyond the horizon. If we stick to our previous strategies, we are either forced to accept the social democratic consensus on the impossibility of revolution, or the marginality of revolutionaries. We are left feeling lost, and our practical work has no clear direction.
But by locating the small moments of rupture outside of systemic crises, we are able to work to erode capitalist power and, in the process, build working class power. It is in navigating the related cycles of war of position and war of maneuver that we are able to give base building its revolutionary content. This strategy will allow us, finally, to begin to think in the long term, to go past a belief in the possibility of revolution and to begin practicing towards its reality.