Yes, eventually, we need a Leninist party, members of the Revolutionary Socialist Party are often told. But it’s just not possible to do it now. Later on, maybe, but right now we have to be more realistic. For now, all we can do is build a left wing in the ALP or a “broad” left party.
We can all agree that the mass Marxist-Leninist party needed to lead a socialist revolution in Australia is not about to burst into existence. But what does that really indicate about what socialists should be doing now?
The Russian Bolsheviks did not become a real mass party until after the February 1917 revolution. This doesn’t mean that Lenin and his co-thinkers were wasting their time before that: the growth of the Bolsheviks into a mass party during 1917 would not have been possible without the decades of struggle and preparation that created the Bolsheviks’ cadre framework.
To reach the goal of a mass Marxist-Leninist party sooner or later, we need everybody who recognises that goal to start constructing it now. Putting it off until the arrival of some hoped-for more favourable objective conditions only means that the goal will be reached – if at all – later rather than sooner. However tortuous and prolonged the course of building a revolutionary party, however bleak the prospects at any given moment, it is always possible to do something to prepare for the next stage. And if that something isn’t done, then the next stage is likely to be delayed. A failure to build today whatever can be built will become part of next year’s objective conditions.
Leninist parties are prepared
Leninist parties don’t grow on trees. They have to be constructed, and they have to be built, for the most part, before the arrival of the revolutionary situation for which they are built. This means that the conditions in which Leninists work will generally be unfavourable. Most of the time, the vast majority of the population will not be inclined to accept Marxist explanations of what is wrong with society and how it needs to be changed. Most of the time, it will not be easy to sell revolutionary newspapers. Most of the time, bureaucrats will be able to isolate revolutionaries in the unions. Most of the time, the state will be able to repress or derail motion towards a revolutionary party. Most of the time, Leninists will be politically isolated.
No one ever said it would be easy. All that Lenin showed us was that it is possible. And necessary. And no successful revolutionary leader has ever said that we don’t need to start now, that next year or the year after will be soon enough.
It is ultraleftism to try to do more than is objectively possible. But we don’t really know what is objectively possible unless we are constantly pushing against objective reality to build the party we know is needed. The people who say it’s impossible to build a party now need to answer a real question: How will they know when it is again possible to build a Leninist party, if they are not continually trying to find the next step in constructing it?
How was it better in the ’60s?
There is a common view on the left that party-building was a lot easier back in the 1960s and ’70s. And it’s true that life was easier for revolutionaries then, at least in imperialist countries like Australia; it was easier for the big majority of the population. For example, after 1969, university students didn’t have to pay tuition. Unemployment was still quite low. There was still a pretence of maintaining a “welfare state” – a certain minimum of social services that subsequent governments have been slashing as rapidly as they can. There were disadvantages too, of course: the biggest was that you could be conscripted, sent overseas and killed.
But easier living conditions aren’t the same thing as easier building of a revolutionary party. In the ’60s and ’70s, the biggest left groups were not building Leninist parties; they were Eurocommunists or Maoists, and they did their best to keep Leninists small and isolated – including with the use of physical violence on some occasions.
The reason no one in the ’60s and ’70s built a lasting framework for a future Leninist party had a lot to do with the preceding period. In the 15 or so years following World War II, no one managed to put together a cadre organisation large and well trained enough to attract more than a tiny fraction of the newly radicalising youth in the ’60s. As a result, our class didn’t make the most of the opportunities in the ’60s.
I don’t know what it was like to be a Marxist in Australia or the United States during the 1950s, and I would not presume to judge anyone who was forced by that atmosphere to leave revolutionary politics. But some Leninists of the time managed to resist the pressures and the isolation, and the revolutionary movement even today is in a better situation than it would have been without their efforts. If even a third or a fourth of the revolutionaries who withdrew in the ’50s had been able to foresee the coming radicalisation and stick it out, think what a difference that might have made to the way politics developed in the ’60s. They might have contributed to a different history.
Will it be easier, later?
Those who want to put off building a Leninist party must expect that things will get easier at some point. Of course, things change. But, in the next few decades, is there any reason to expect that it will become easier than it is now? Will the ruling class decide to reduce the charges for uni students and thus give them the leisure for political activity that they had in the ’70s? Is it likely that governments will reverse the restrictions on civil liberties that they have been implementing? Is it on the cards that the capitalist media will become less monopolised and therefore more open to printing an occasional message from revolutionaries? Are governments becoming less likely to find pretexts for jailing political activists?
In many respects, it is likely to become harder, not easier, to build a Leninist party. That is a result of the history we have inherited. We have to deal with that reality: act now, because it may well be harder to act tomorrow.
Yes, there will be radicalisations. But a period of radicalisation is not the ideal time to start building a Leninist party. The opportunities created by those radicalisations will be only that: opportunities. All sorts of right-wing demagogues and fascists will be competing for the allegiance of the working class and its potential allies. We can’t wait until then to start building. If we haven’t built the best party we can before that, we will lose some sectors, perhaps decisive ones, that should have been on our side. Think of the USA today and the Tea Party movement: because the organised left wasn’t strong enough beforehand, so far the right has been the main political beneficiary of the economic crisis.
Solving humanity’s problems becomes more difficult the longer we allow capitalism to continue. If it takes us another three or four centuries to overthrow capitalism, the beginnings of world socialism will not be nearly as attractive as they could be now.
It is conceivable but far from certain that the conditions for building a Leninist party will improve in the near future. If they don’t improve, should we just accede to the alternative of barbarism? And if they do improve, can we be confident that they will improve so vastly that we don’t need to do much of anything in the meantime?
In the mid-1990s, there was a major industrial dispute in the USA lasting several years at a Caterpillar factory in Illinois. There was a powerful film made about it. The workers involved in the strike felt that they were defending some important principles, not only disputing the hourly rate of pay. One of them, explaining their determination, said: “If not us, who? If not here, where? If not now, when?”
Those are good questions that require honest answers from socialists.