What kind of party do we need?
Source Louis Proyect
Date 09/03/22/13:28

I RECEIVED A query prompted by my annotated Lenin bibliography:

I read with interest your views on the type of new party needed.

I have a few questions I hope you can answer.

What role if any do you see for party press? Traditional newspaper? If the party doesn’t take positions on historical questions what does it fill its press with? What does it do when confronted with the issues of Stalin, Mao, etc.? How would the party raise funds? What would be the practical, day-to-day work of its members?

Do you consider this model valid solely in the United States?

Do you see a need for a new international? If so, what kind of body do you see and how would it come about?

Your attention is appreciated.

1. On the party press:

There will always be a need for printed material, but it is becoming clearer day by day that the epoch of the printed newspaper is coming to an end. The Internet is not only more economical; it also provides a lot more flexibility than the traditional newspaper. For example, it eliminates the need to have writers occupying the same physical office space. With the ever-increasing sophistication of tools like Skype, it will make online editorial meetings more feasible.

I do think there is a need for party newspapers to take up historical questions, such as Stalin versus Trotsky, but they are best reserved for the back pages. I think that Solidarity, for all its other faults, figured this out pretty well in their founding statement:

There is another, more subtle error which has exacerbated the tendency toward splintering of the revolutionary left. We believe that it is a mistake today to organize revolutionary groups around precise theories of the Russian revolution. We want to be clear about what this means.

Precision, clarity and rigor are the highest of virtues in developing theory and historical analysis; however, lines of political demarcation do not flow in a mechanical and linear way from differences of theoretical interpretation. Such an approach leads to unnecessary hothoused debates on issues where long-term discussion would be more in order. It also contributes to the dynamics of factionalism and splits, which in any case have been too high owing to our history of misassessing the political realities of our own society.

In seeking to overcome this negative legacy, our new organization brings together currents and individuals with a variety of views on theoretical and historical questions, from the interpretation of the Russian Revolution and its leadership to the struggle in Central America today. We will carry on discussion and mutual education, making no public pretense of monolithism and seeking to learn from each other’s views.

2. How would the party raise funds

Leaving aside the technical questions of using something like Paypal, I think the most important element will be reconfiguring membership financial obligations in line with relaxed norms. My experience in the SWP, and I suppose it is true for other “democratic centralist formation although probably to a lesser degree, is that a tightly disciplined membership shelling out up to 60 dollars a week is the wrong way to go. It begins to take on the dimensions of a religious sect tithing its members. It would be far better to make it easier for ordinary people with families and debt to join if party dues were in line with the average membership organization. You would make up for a smaller per capita donation with increased membership. Instead of having 400 people paying 40 dollars a week, as like the case with the SWP today, you would have 4000 people paying 10 dollars a week. When you do the math, you realize that there would be more money coming in after all.

3. Day-to-day work

The tendency today for “democratic centralist” organizations is to have a national convention that outlines tasks for “the coming period” as we used to put it. I no longer think that this is a valid approach. A revolutionary party must emerge out of the mass movement, which means accepting activists on their own terms rather than looking at party members as chess pieces to be moved around on a board. For example, if a new party was formed in the next year or so under the impact of a radicalization induced by financial crisis, it should open its doors to people who have been involved in anti-foreclosure movements, trade union activists fighting to implement EFCA (if it can get passed despite the lukewarm support of the DP), immigrant rights activists, etc. In other words, whatever people are currently doing they should continue to do. This is the only way that the party can accurately reflect the existing mass movement and not try to substitute it with its own ready-made solutions. The main need for a revolutionary party is to coordinate all those struggling against capitalism on a class struggle basis. Fundamentally, this was the orientation laid out by Lenin in “What is to be done” and remains valid today.

4. Is this a US-only model

I don’t think so. In fact, as I have pointed out, my ideas were borrowed from Peter Camejo who arrived at them through a study of the Cuban revolutionary movement, as well as the FSLN and FMLN during the 1980s. I would urge you to look at Roger Burbach and Orlando Nunez’s “Fire in the Americas: Forging a Revolutionary Age”, a book that is now out of print but fairly easy to get your hands on. ( has a couple of used copies.) Burbach, who like Peter had lived in Nicaragua, tried to imagine what a Sandinista-type party would look like in the U.S. I understand that the FSLN of today is not the party it was in the 1980s, but a study of Burbach’s book as well as the FSLN of that period is worthwhile.

5. On a new international

I think a new international will be very useful, but I don’t think that the pyramid structure of the Third or Fourth Internationals will be very useful. Although the Marxism mailing list I moderate is certainly not the embryo of a new international, I and just about every other subscriber greatly value having exchanges between comrades from every corner of the world.

Finally, although I am not really in the business of prescribing in any kind of detail what a revolutionary organization should look like, I did take a stab at a kind of “what if” exercise in which the SWP shifted toward the kind of paradigm I favor. It is written as a speech that party leader Jack Barnes would have given to an SWP convention in 1974:

The Speech that Jack Barnes Should Have Given in 1974

Comrades, 1974 is a year which in some ways marks the end of an era. The recent victory of the Vietnamese people against imperialism and of women seeking the right to safe and legal abortion are culminations of a decade of struggle. That struggle has proved decisive in increasing both the size and influence of the Trotskyist movement as our cadre threw their energy into building the antiwar and feminist movements. Now that we are close to 2,000 in number and have branches in every major city in the US, it is necessary to take stock of our role within the left and our prospects for the future.

In this report I want to lay out some radical new departures for the party that take into account both our growing influence and the changing political framework. Since they represent such a change from the way we have seen ourselves historically, I am not asking that we take a vote at this convention but urge all branches to convene special discussions throughout the year until the next convention when a vote will be taken. I am also proposing in line with the spirit of this new orientation that non-party individuals and organizations be invited to participate in them.


While our political work of the 1960s was a necessary “detour” from the historical main highway of the socialist movement, it is high time that we began to reorient ourselves. There are increasing signs that the labor movement is beginning to reject the class collaborationist practices of the Meany years. For example, just 4 short years ago in 1970, various Teamsters locals rejected a contract settlement agreed to by their president Frank Fitzsimmons and the trucking industry. They expected a $3.00 per hour raise but the contract settled for only $1.10. The rank and file went out on a wildcat strike that Fitzsimmons and the mainstream press denounced. Fitzsimmons probably had the student revolt on his mind, since he claimed that “Communists” were behind the teamster wild-cat strike. Nobody took this sort of red-baiting to heart anymore. The burly truck-drivers involved in the strike were the unlikeliest “Communists” one could imagine. The trucking industry prevailed upon President Richard Nixon to intercede in the strike at the beginning of May, but the student rebellion against the invasion of Cambodia intervened. The antiwar movement and the war itself had stretched the US military thin. National guardsmen who had been protecting scab truck- drivers occupied the Kent State campuses where they shot five students protesting the war. In clear defiance of the stereotype of American workers, wildcat strikers in Los Angeles regarded student antiwar protesters as allies and invited them to join teamster picket lines. The wildcat strikes eventually wound down, but angry rank and file teamsters started the first national reform organization called Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF).

It is very important for every branch to investigate opportunities such as these and to invite comrades to look into the possibility of taking jobs in those industries where such political opportunities exist. What will not happen, however, is a general turn toward industry that many small Marxist groups made in the 1960s in an effort to purify themselves. Our work in the trade unions is not an attempt to “cleanse” the party but rather to participate in the class struggle which takes many different forms. We are quite sure that when comrades who have begun to do this kind of exciting work and report back to the branches that we will see others anxious to join in.


We simply have to stop observing this movement from the sidelines. There is a tendency on the left to judge it by the traditional middle-class organizations such as the Audubon Club. There are already signs of a radicalization among many of the younger activists who believe that capitalism is at the root of air and water pollution, etc. Since the father of the modern environmental movement is an outspoken Marxist, there is no reason why we should feel like outsiders. Our cadre have to join the various groups that are springing up everywhere and pitch in to build them, just as we built the antiwar and feminist groups. If activists have problems with the record of socialism on the environment based on the mixed record of the USSR, we have to explain that there were alternatives. We should point to initiatives in the early Soviet Union when Lenin endorsed vast nature preserves on a scale never seen in industrialized societies before. In general we have to be the best builders of a new ecosocialist movement and not succumb to the sort of sectarian sneering that characterizes other left groups who regard green activists as the enemy.


This will strike many comrades as controversial, but I want to propose that we probably were mistaken when stood apart from all the various pro-NLF committees that were doing material aid and educational work. We characterized them as ultraleft, whereas in reality those activists who decided to actually identify with the Vietnamese liberation movement were exactly the kind that we want to hook up with. In the United States today there are thousands of activists organized in committees around the country who are campaigning on a similar basis for freedom for the Portuguese colonies in Africa, against neo-colonialism in Latin America, etc. Nearly all of them are Marxist. Their goals and ours are identical. While we have had a tendency to look down our noses at them because many of the insurgencies they were supporting were not Trotskyist, we have to get over that. For us to continue to regard the revolutionary movement in a Manichean fashion where the Trotskyists are the good forces and everybody else is evil is an obstacle not only to our own growth, but the success of the revolutionary movement overall. This leads me to the next point.


One of the things I hope never to hear again in our ranks is the reference to other socialists as our “opponents”. Let’s reflect on what that kind of terminology means. It says two things, both of which are equally harmful. On one hand, it means that they are our enemies on a permanent basis. When you categorize another left group in this fashion, it eliminates the possibility that they can change. This obviously is not Marxist, since no political group–including ourselves–is immune from objective conditions. Groups can shift to the left or to the right, depending on the relationship of class forces. The SWP emerged out of a merger with other left-moving forces during the 1930s and we should be open to that possibility today.

The other thing that this reflects is that somehow the SWP is like a small business that competes for market share with other small businesses, except that we are selling revolution rather than air conditioners or aluminum siding. We have to get that idea out of our heads. We are all struggling for the same goal, which is to change American society. We only disagree on the best way to achieve that.

Unfortunately we have tended to exaggerate our differences with other small groups in such a way as to suggest we had a different product. This goes back for many years as indicated in this quote from a James P. Cannon speech to the SWP convention nearly 25 years ago. “We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.”

Comrades, we have to conduct an open and sharp struggle against this kind of attitude. The differences between the SWP and many other left groups is not that great and we have to figure out ways to work with them on a much more cooperative basis. For example, La Raza Unida Party in Texas shares many of our assumptions about the 2-party system and they are open to socialist ideas, largely through the influence of the left-wing of the party which has been increasingly friendly to the Cuban Revolution. We should think about the possibilities of co-sponsoring meetings with them around the question of Chicano Liberation and socialism. The same thing would be true of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in the United States, which shares with us a positive attitude toward the Cuban revolution. In terms of the Marxist movement per se, we have to find ways to work more closely with the activists around the Guardian newspaper. While many of them continue to have Maoist prejudices, there are others who have been friendly to our work in the antiwar movement. The idea is to open discussion and a sure way to cut discussion off is to regard them as “opponents”. Our only true opponents are in Washington, DC.

This new sense of openness to other groups on the left has organizational consequences that I will now outline.


Much of our understanding of “democratic centralism” has been shaped by James P. Cannon’s writings. Although the notion of 500 to 1500 people united ideologically around a homogenous program has a lot to recommend itself, it can only go so far in building a revolutionary party. This was Cannon’s contribution. He showed how a small band of cadre dedicated to Trotsky’s critique of Stalin could emerge as a serious force on the American left.

Although this will sound like heresy to most of you, I want to propose that Cannon’s writings are a roadblock to further growth, especially in a period when Stalinism is not a hegemonic force. In reality, Lenin’s goal was to unite Russian Marxism, which existed in scattered circles. Our goal should be identical. Despite our commitment to Trotsky’s theories, we are not interested in constructing a mass Trotskyist movement. That would be self-defeating. Many people who are committed to Marxism are not necessarily committed to Trotsky’s analysis of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, etc. We should take the same attitude that Lenin took toward the Russian left at the turn of the century. We should serve as a catalyst for uniting Marxists on a national basis.

Are we afraid to function in a common organization with Castroists, partisans of the Chinese Revolution, independent Marxists of one sort or another? Not at all. We should not put a barrier in the way of unity with the tens of thousands of Marxists in the United States, many who hold leading positions in the trade union and other mass movements. The only unity that interests us is the broad unity of the working people and their allies around class struggle principles. Our disagreements over historical and international questions can be worked out in a leisurely fashion in the party press. In fact we would encourage public debates over how to interpret such questions in our press, since they can make us even more attractive to people investigating which group to join. It is natural that you would want to join a group with a lively internal life.

This question of ‘democratic centralism’ has to be thoroughly reviewed. Although the Militant will be running a series of articles on “Lenin in Context” this year, which explores the ways in which this term was understood by the Bolsheviks and then transformed by his epigones, we can state with some assuredness right now that it was intended to govern the actions of party members and not their thoughts. The Bolshevik Party, once it voted on a strike, demonstration, etc., expected party members to function under the discipline of the party to build such actions. It never intended to discipline party members to defend the same political analysis in public. We know, for example, that there are different interpretations of Vietnamese Communism in our party. We should not expect party members to keep their views secret if they are in the minority. This is not only unnatural–it leads to cult thinking.


As many of these proposals seem radically different from the principles we’ve operated on in the past, I want to make sure that all disagreements–especially from older cadre who worked side by side with James P. Cannon–are given proper consideration. The last thing we want is to railroad the party into accepting this new orientation. Since a revolution can only be made by the conscious intervention of the exploited and oppressed masses into the historical process, its party must encourage the greatest expression of conscious political decision-making. There are no shortcuts to a revolution. And there are no shortcuts to building a revolutionary party.

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