'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Response to Party-Building in the 21st Century 

A couple of weeks ago, Louis Proyect posted an excellent article to The North Star site, Party-Building in the 21st Century. Proyect, the unrepentent Marxist, writes from the perspective of someone who has survived the sectarian stuggles of the last 40 years. Accordingly, there is much in the article that merits praise.

For example, Proyect is scornful of those Marxist formations that have seemingly existed solely for the purpose of denigrating the efforts of others to organize broad based anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist coalitions. He emphasizes that it is essential for the left to engage people in terms of the difficulties that they experience in their daily lives. Hence, his positive references to Lenin's 1899 draft programme for the Russian Social-Democrats, the Black Panther breakfast program and the recent SYRIZA 40-point program, which, along with structural measures like cutting military spending, taxing the banks and reforming the electoral process, includes proposals such as housing the homeless in churches, government buildings and banks, opening dining rooms in public schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to children and free health benefits to the unemployed, homeless and those with low salaries. For someone like me, who lives in a city, Sacramento, that has been devastated by the bursting of the real estate bubble, with a proliferating homeless population that constituted one of the most prominent features of the local Occupy effort, such an approach has great appeal.

Interestingly, as acknowledged by Proyect and Pham Binh, anti-authoritarians grasped this concept while Marxists did not, working upon issues within Occupy that were seemingly at odds with their vision of society. As a result, we have observed the peculiarity of anarchists participating in the defense of people threatened with foreclosure, protests against university fee increases and resistance to the closure of public schools. Of course, it only appears peculiar if one is unaware of the anti-authoritarian emphasis upon the need to provide support for those victimized by the deprivation and violence of the capitalist system. It remains an open question as to whether they can continue to do so, but they should be credited for the right response at a critical moment.

With Occupy currently out of public view as a consequence of police repression, there is much discussion how to proceed. Proyect, not surprisingly, along with other Marxists, sees the way forward through through a humanitarian program that forms the basis of a new socialist party, evoking the tangled history of such efforts going back to the 19th Century. Given that he knows his history well, his presentation, on its own terms, is flawless. But what does it mean to engage in party-building in the 21st Century by reference to examples that, in some instances, are over 100 years old? Of course, there is much to learn from them, but one must also account for the social evolution that have occurred during this period, with one of the most significant aspects of it being the disintegration of collective social institutions that engaged the working class. When anarchists and Marxists competed for the support of workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these workers, whether Marxist or anarchist, had networks of housing, schools, social centers, gymnasiums and newspapers. They created such networks because the governmental and non-profit programs that provide such services today either didn't exist, or were grossly inadequate. One of the paradoxes of the creation of the liberal social welfare state is that it substituted the governmental and non-profit provision of assistance for earlier efforts created by workers, providing, at least until recently, higher levels of support while simultaneously disempowering them. In parts of the world that experienced industrialization after the United States and northern Europe, like Italy and South America, this process was not concluded until the 1970s. Contemporary neoliberalism is distinctive because it extracts the value of these governmental forms of social assistance for the benefit of private investors.

For purposes of this discussion, however, it is essential to understand that the socialist parties described by Proyect emerged, in most instances, as part of the vibrant, independent institutional universe created by workers prior to the creation of the welfare state. In other words, party-builders had fertile ground in which to construct them, with workers readily accessible to them and thereby responsive to an attempt to assert their interests through a collectively organized party structure. Along these lines, even Proyect's reference to the Black Panthers is consistent with this, as many African Americans, in places like Oakland, Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark, had been excluded from the benefits of the welfare state through discriminatory practices (consider, for example, that there was a housing shortage in Watts just prior to the 1965 riots while thousands upon thousands of homes were being constructed for whites in the Los Angeles suburbs nearby). Accordingly, it was still necessary for them to rely upon informal networks of social support that were no longer necessary for others, especially the white working class. Even anarchists, while hostile to the electoral process, did, in many instances, as anarcho-syndicalists, participate in unions that served a similar purpose.

In this, the great socialist parties of the 20th Century, the Labor Party in the United Kingdom, the Parti Comunista Italiano in Italy, the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Socialist and Communist parties in France, among others, were all dependent upon a collective ethos that facilitated the emergence of the mass based, modern political party. The repudiation of this collective ethos is one of the most salient features of our time, and presents a challenge that must be confronted by anyone, like Proyect and, to a lesser extent, Binh, who proposes a socialist party-building enterprise for the left. We need not linger long over the evidence of this repudiation, it is all around us, the abandonment of the political parties by larger and larger segments of the population, the atomization of people within their communities and the prominence of a virtual culture that increasingly manipulates people through simulation and stimulation, as anticipated by intellectual figures like Bifo and Baudrillard. Constructing a party in such circumstances requires more than a willingness to participate in coalitions and the creation of a platform that speaks directly to needs of people.

Put bluntly, it additionally requires a traumatic delegitimization of the existing structures of political, social and cultural authority. We can identify three places where it has occurred: Venezuela, Bolivia and Greece. In Venezuela, the 1989 caracazo ignited a process that lead to the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez and the implementation of measures designed to alleviate the extreme inequality within the country. In Bolivia, Evo Morales and the Movement Towards Socialism took power through the generational efforts of indigenous social movements in opposition to neoliberal policies and drug eradication measures dictated by the United States. Meanwhile, in Greece, the imposition of extreme austerity measures since 2009 has resulted in the success of SYRIZA, a coalition of leftist parties, in recent elections. Greece, and, perhaps, Bolivia as well, presents the prospect of a possible socialist formation contemplated by Proyect, while Venezuela remains a country where power is still exercised through elites, with the mobilization of the populace through participatory political structures being tentative at best.

Proyect has periodically said that he expects conditions in the United States to continue to decline because of the rapaciousness of global capitalist elites. It is a rational assessment with a high probability of being accurate. He therefore insists that there is a great urgency towards the undertaking of the party-building effort that he advocates. Perhaps so, but if it proceeds, it is likely to move forward absent the vanguardism that he mentions in relation to the Nicaraguan revolution. SYRIZA relies upon a consensus decisionmaking process that preserves unity around a coherent statement of policy objectives in opposition to austerity. By doing so, it highlights the fact that future socialist formations, to the extent that they can be considered parties at all, will not administer themselves in accordance with the Leninist practices of the past. Instead, they will operate more horizontally, exposing the irrelevancy of anti-authoritarian critiques centered around the pernicious hierarchies within them. Accordingly, we may be moving towards a squaring of the circle whereby anti-authoritarians concede the necessity of participation within the electoral processes of the state, while Marxists acknowledge that it must be done through a formation that is horizontal to the greatest degree possible.

But can this be done in the United States as proposed by Proyect? I tend to believe that the country is too large, too fragmented, too much in the thrall of capital and militaristic nationalism for it to happen anytime soon. Instead, there will be a prolonged period of direct action and mutual aid efforts to expose the deprivation of the system and ameliorate its effects. In doing so, the participants must necessarily engage the populace in terms of their daily needs. But building the new in the shell of the old is not just an aphorism, it is considered a realistic, immediate strategy for dealing with the loss of jobs, housing, educational opportunities and medical care required to survive in this society. Hence, the parents of children in the Oakland Unified School District, faced with the closure of 5 elementary schools, didn't decide to organize a local socialist coalition, instead, they seized one of the schools planned for closure, Lakeview Elementary, and reopened it to continue to educate their children. Through the proliferation of such actions over time, the left may accumulate sufficient power to accelerate the collapse of American capitalism. But I doubt that it will happen peaceably through participation in the electoral process. At most, such participation, if it happens, will merely be one instrument among many that the left pragmatically utilizes to bring about this outcome.

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