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Commentary :: Labor : Organizing : Politics
Our program and theirs: Against opportunism, for a revolutionary workers' party!
17 Nov 2006
Modified: 04:38:24 PM
Opportunism marches under two or more banners: proclaiming the need for a revolutionary workers' party on the great anniversaries of the socialist movement or in a box at the corner of the party's newspaper, and the rest of the time selling a discounted "alternative" party, not quite revolutionary, not quite socialist, half price for the less advanced workers.
Our program and theirs: Against opportunism, for a revolutionary workers' party!

by Fred Bergen

Those of us who want to build a revolutionary workers' party in the United States face a difficult task, and have few resources at our command. Our interventions in the mass movement open the possibility of patiently drawing, by the ones and twos at first, the most advanced and militant workers and youth to our cause, integrating them into the core of a future party of revolutionary action opposed to the capitalist state and all the forces that defend it. The limited opportunities available to us make political clarity all the more important. How can we win the advanced workers to communism when the few communists hide their program in a desk drawer, or reduce it to a sterile set of "principles" that bear little relation to their day-to-day activities?

Opportunism marches under two or more banners: proclaiming the need for a revolutionary workers' party on the great anniversaries of the socialist movement or in a box at the corner of the party's newspaper, and the rest of the time selling a discounted "alternative" party, not quite revolutionary, not quite socialist, half price for the less advanced workers.

There is only one alternative to capitalism: socialist revolution

Ever since the gross inequalities of capitalist society became apparent, middle-class utopian reformers have peddled their recipes for social harmony. So it is with the Green parties, the first of which was the New Zealand "Values Party," founded by a university economics professor in 1972 who wanted to protect the environment by passing laws to stop economic growth. This core Green ideology has developed into the frequently intoned but rarely defined principle of "sustainability," that is, sustaining capitalism, the society based on the private ownership and exploitation of industry and labor, by passing laws to make it into something it never was and never could be: a harmonious, rational, egalitarian democracy.

The Greens cannot even be considered radical democrats. Their platform does not call for the abolition of the Senate or the Supreme Court, they do not come out for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, they don't call for government officials to be paid no more than the average worker. For all its worshipful blather about the Constitution, the Green Party platform doesn't even defend the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

The Green platform is a confused soup of quack social cures, the sum of the myopic obsessions dreamed up by a gaggle of middle-class tinkerers and reformers, but it does have one thread of consistency. Its prescriptions for democratic reforms may grow bolder as the times will require. New tinker-toy social theorists may add their pet tax schemes and fantasies of international accords as the years go by, while other schemes may be abandoned when the professors promoting them die or lose their tenures. But the Green Party will always defend the sanctity of private property and the "right" of capitalists to exploit workers through their state-enforced monopoly on productive property. As long as this is the case, all the rest of the Green platform, from its best ideas to its worst, is nothing but empty words. Its bold dreams and its mild suggestions for remedying the continuous social crisis that inevitably results from a fraction of a percent of the world's people controlling an overwhelming portion of the world's wealth, will not be realized unless this social basis of inequality is abolished. The committees and parliaments floating in the air, the hoped-for peace treaties, peace declarations and peace leagues, the dreams of model cities, organic farms, and constitutional amendments, as good or worthless as they may be, will not be possible, will not be tried, will not be considered, won't even be allowed to be considered, as long as the land and the machines that could free humanity from want are owned by a parasitic minority for its own benefit.

There are socialists in the Green Party, but they do not belong there. They might get occasional resolutions passed that sound socialist, they might contribute a good paragraph or two to the platform alongside the ridiculous contributions of reformists. Reading the Green platform gives the impression that this is happening. Why else would we see affirmations of the right of oppressed nations to self determination, a cause that Lenin fought tirelessly for, sitting uncomfortably alongside demands for United Nations peace-keepers and US military participation in these missions? What good does this do? The socialists trying to make the Green Party into a third-rate semi-socialist party only discredit socialism by their efforts, and the socialist program by its piecemeal, contradictory inclusion in the Green's reformist platform.

The opportunists, foremost among them the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative, support the Green Party as an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. If it were possible to systematically and gradually raise the standard of living of the workers and poor people of the world, if humanity could be delivered, by means of gradual steps implemented by rational parliamentarians, from the horrific crimes of racism, women's oppression, and war, in short, if capitalism could be reformed, then the Greens and their reform program would be an alternative to the established capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans. And if this were true, why would anyone in their right mind want the violence and uncertainty of a superfluous revolution? The opportunists support the Green Party in order to "build the movement" which at some later, more opportune time, could be won to socialism and revolution, since their idea of a "movement" is a mailing list and membership dues first, and struggle second. Heaven forbid these "revolutionaries" should try to win the workers walking picket lines, protesting racist police and prisons, defending abortion clinics, or marching against the war and for immigrants' rights to a political perspective that draws these everyday struggles to their necessary conclusion: the conquest of state power by the workers. As long as the opportunists build a "movement" for reformist demands and reformist parties, all their talk of socialism and revolution is empty words.

The "Labor Party": a useless anachronism

More traditional opportunists such as Socialist Action, Socialist Organizer, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Workers International League, call for a Labor Party, and support, to one degree or another, the comatose US Labor Party, which in over ten years has not run a single candidate (so as not to offend the Democrats). This strategy is based on blind faith in the progressive character of a mass labor party modeled on the failed parties of the Second International: the German Social-Democrats, British Labour Party, and all the others which have been betraying the workers since they plunged the world into war in 1914 at the command of the bourgeois patriots. The union tops of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win are as conservative and chauvinist as any other union bureaucrats on the planet, so if they are ever compelled to break with the parties of the capitalists and form an official labor party, it will not be the result of socialists pressuring them to do so and offering them support, but as a defensive reaction to a rapidly growing communist party, a reaction aimed at saving the capitalist system by organizing a parliamentary, reformist opposition to the threat posed by the revolutionary party.

Like fanatics who converse with the spirits of ages past, the opportunist "labor party" supporters take a slogan that may have been appropriate for the communist movement a century ago and try to cast it as a reviving spell over the putrescent corpse of the twenty-first century US labor bureaucracy, believing that after lying to the workers about the prospects for a labor party as a step forward for the class struggle, they can imbue this party with a revolutionary, socialist program. You can pump a corpse full of fragrant phrases and embalming slogans, but you can't bring it back to life. A revolutionary mass party of labor, that is a mass party of the workers, in the imperialist United States of the present, has to be founded on understanding the political realities of the labor bureaucracy, that is, a revolutionary workers' party must be based on irreconcilable opposition to the labor bureaucrats, the betrayers of the workers.

The communists do not reject in principle the tactic of the united front with a possible future labor party, just as we do not reject in principle a campaign for a labor party, if such a party would actually be a step forward for the working class in its struggle against its capitalist exploiters. We will argue for united front actions with reformist-led organizations in order to struggle against the reformists for the political leadership of the masses, while putting into action the non-sectarian principle of uniting the workers in defense of their common interests. Building a party with the labor bureaucrats, in fact led by the labor bureaucrats, if the proponents of such a strategy are at all honest and not just tossing about slogans they copied from hundred-year-old socialist manuscripts, entails a more or less permanent organization, and a necessary political discipline imposed on its members, that would prevent the socialists in such a party from exposing the labor bureaucracy's counterrevolutionary treachery, in other words, it would prevent the successful use of the united front tactic by the socialists.

When is an opposition not an opposition?

The ideological leader of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Ahmed Shawki, wrote in the November-December 2006 International Socialist Review that "there is a space politically for a party that is not revolutionary - one that doesn't have the overthrow of capitalism as its aim." Pointing to the Brazilian Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), Shawki proposes that "in that space, [created by the decline of the social-democratic and Stalinist parties] we can build a broad, anti-capitalist, but not necessarily revolutionary movement." Shawki criticizes the PSOL leaders for not educating party activists and developing them into a cadre party. What could the PSOL leaders, like the self-described "Christian Trotskyist" PSOL presidential candidate Heloísa Helena, teach their militants anyway? The lessons of the Russian Revolution and Lenin and Trotsky's Bolshevik party can be no more than a quaint history lesson in the hands of a party leadership that rejects socialism except as a theme for holiday speeches, and whose program consists of nationalist capitalist development seasoned with a few promises of marginal reforms. What is the point of building a "cadre party" that allows its presidential candidate to oppose the right to abortion (as Helena does)? What good for the task of revolution is a cadre of professional reformists? Shawki focuses on the question of organizational structure, but to the ISO, program is a matter of opportunity, the "space" created by the weakness of the traditional reformist parties. In the United States, according to Shawki, where there is no social-democratic party, and the Stalinists have little serious influence, "there isn't much space for a broad, anti-capitalist party."

In order to understand Shawki's confusing self-contradiction, we must get to the bottom of what the word "anti-capitalist" means to the reformists who have popularized it. "Anti-capitalism" is a revolutionary-sounding euphemism for reformism, that is, complaining about capitalism's excesses while rejecting the only alternative, socialist revolution. "Anti-capitalism" is the watchword of the jet-set nonprofit bureaucrats who fête each other with endless forums without ever lifting a finger to challenge the government of the exploiters and oppressors. Since the two major capitalist parties in the US are clearly not interested in taking suggestions or hearing complaints from reformists who would be so bold as to claim that capitalism is an unmitigated disaster for the workers and poor people, there is no "space," that is, space within the capitalist political ecosystem, for an "anti-capitalist" party to pressure the capitalists. The ISO in the US sensibly settles for the next best thing, the Greens, a small-time capitalist's party to pressure the parties of the monopolists.

What is needed most of all in the pre-revolutionary days when we have the opportunity to build revolutionary parties is clarity, to help the workers know their friends from their enemies. It has to be explained that bourgeois-nationalist demagogues like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, no matter how much they may talk of "socialism," are not socialists or revolutionaries and cannot be relied upon! Socialists need to go beyond criticisms of and suggestions for Chávez and his government, and organize a revolutionary working class opposition to Chávez's program of protecting the capitalists against the struggle of the masses, paying Venezuela's fraudulent "debt" to the imperialist banks, inviting imperialist capital to join in exploiting Venezuela's oil and natural gas, and promoting class collaboration in industrial management as a bulwark against the workers' efforts to expropriate and control the industries. Instead, the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), a Hugo Chávez fan club headquartered in London that masquerades as a revolutionary party, brags that, unlike the other organizations that call themselves Trotskyist, "we were able to find a road to the masses" (In Defense of Marxism editorial, November 6, 2006). Unfortunately (setting aside the IMT's vastly exaggerated estimates of its own influence), that road is the road of opportunism: reaching the masses by prostituting the party as nothing more than socialist lieutenants of the reformist leaders in which the masses have placed their hopes and confidence. On November 1, In Defense of Marxism approvingly quoted the slogan, "To socialism with Chávez." The statement simply, obviously, represents lying to working people. How can you fight for socialism, that is, the absolute rule of the working class over its former exploiters, with a leader who declares that "the Bolivarian government serves all social classes" and that "we all should be one 'citizen class,' because we are all one nation" (Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias, November 15, 2006). The IMT's call for a vote for Chávez in the Venezuelan presidential elections is a vote for class collaboration, a vote for Chávez's capitalist program, a vote of confidence in Chávez's policy of protecting the Venezuelan capitalists and their imperialist masters while they are weak against the rising tide of workers' struggle, so that the capitalists can later regroup and drown the Bolivarian popular front in blood.

When is a shortcut not a shortcut?

The opportunists want a shortcut to building a larger party, that they hope will be more influential and in turn gain more influence for their tendency. But even if they are successful in building a Green Party, a Labor Party, or some other halfway non-revolutionary party, even if they meanwhile continue to affirm the necessity of a revolutionary party and a socialist revolution at their special meetings and in their symbolic declarations, they will only have succeeded in building a reformist party that will fall apart at its first great test in the class struggle, leaving the revolutionaries as isolated from the masses as ever, and leaving the workers with an organization as useless to them for the purpose of revolution as a wooden spoon is for cutting steel. The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. The way to win the workers to communism is not to sell a discounted semi-socialist party as a fake alternative to capitalism and its parties. Rather it is to win them to a mass party of revolutionary action that has a program that links every partial and elementary working class struggle with a system of transitional demands to the only possible solution to the problems caused by the vicious inequalities of the capitalist system: the conquest of political power by the workers. To the militants of the opportunist parties that we criticize in this article: leave your parties, since they have given up on winning the workers to a revolutionary program, and help Working Class Emancipation build a revolutionary workers' party.
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