Reflections on the “party question” (expanded version) – an overview

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Reflections on the “party question” (expanded version) – an overview Building new left parties / Monday, 15 May 2017 / Pierre Rousset /

Pierre Rousset is a member of the leadership of the Fourth International particularly involved in solidarity with Asia. He is a member of the NPA in France.

On the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the Spanish-language Viento Sur journal asked me to write an article on the “party question” (Rousset 2017). This is an expanded version of that piece. This version focuses far more on the present than on the past – and aims to contribute to an international debate, rather than a solely French one. [Pierre Rousset, ESSF, 27 March 2017]

Corrections and clarifications will probably be added in the future.

The question of the activist party is tied to very general analytical points (the theory of social revolution under capitalism – which is the very purpose of Marxism), but also to a host of concrete situations that are very different from one another and that it would be quite difficult to summarize. So I’ll limit myself to some brief introductory thoughts. Parties, periods, changing consciousness

It should go without saying that I look at the party question from the angle of the anti-capitalist, radical Left. In the 1960s and 70s, we would have said that we did so from the angle of the revolutionary Left. I would say that the switch to the adjective “radical” merely registers a changed state of affairs. In a number of countries – beginning with the countries of Europe – there just isn’t the level and quality of social struggle to breathe life into a revolutionary organization. The adjective “revolutionary” does not refer solely to a program. In the 1960s and 70s, the daily lives of far-Left activists was different from those of reformist Social Democratic and Stalinist parties. A number of our activities had to take place underground or semi-underground. Prospects pointed to a powerful upsurge in class struggles and we had to be ready for that. Governments were certainly preparing for it in countries like France and state repression targeted political activism first and foremost.

The situation changed in Europe with the petering out of the momentum of the Portuguese revolution and the managed transition out of the Franco era in the Spanish State. “Normalization” on the left of the Left followed in more or less quick succession. The transition wasn’t easy and most far-Left organizations in Europe perished in the process. Since then, the daily life of a radical-Left activist is not very different from that of a member of a reformist party. The prospect of a major class confrontation has been pushed off into the mists of the distant future. Typically, repression has increasingly honed in on social movements (on the “dangerous classes”, whether in terms of social class or age groups) rather than on political activists per se.

Of course, the exact timeframe was different in the south, centre and north of Europe. Moreover, armed resistance to national oppression (Basque country, Northern Ireland and Corsica) continued for an extended period, but these struggles were no longer part of an international revolutionary outlook, and this raised the question of their exact purpose, altering the framework of the different peace processes. Though in a different context, this also applies to countries in the South where important guerrilla forces continue to exist, from Colombia to the Philippines. Initially, the change of period led the “surviving” far-Left to rethink the pace and methods of party-building. The “100 meter dash” sought to take advantage of the window of opportunity created by the crisis of imperialist domination in the 1960s, but this turned into a long-distance run to build stronger roots in order to hang on until the next crisis. Alas, the crisis only came three decades later (an entire generation!). As for the change of period, it was far more drastic than forecast.

Indeed, we are living through the end of an era (Sabado 2015b) with the implosion of the USSR and the end of geopolitics based on superpower blocs; the exhaustion of the revolutionary dynamic of the 20th century including in the Third World; capitalist globalization; the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism which, though temporary, has deeply penetrated mindsets; and thoroughgoing upheaval of social structures in the North, South and East.

With this backdrop, the generation gap between the heirs of the 1960s and 70s and the children of the present era is often huge (Rousset 2005). Generally speaking, young people show little interest in learning from the past, in contrast to the politicized segments of the “68 generation”, which saw themselves as being in continuity with the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the Chinese Revolution of October 1949, the Cuban Revolution of January 1959, the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and the anti-fascist resistance.

This generation gap is even more pronounced in countries where “old-timers” lived through the experience of resistance to dictatorship and military regimes and “youth” came into politics following the overthrow of these repressive regimes, such as in Latin America and the Philippines.

Which brings us to a fundamental question. The main ways activists understand the world are not necessarily equal to certain present tasks and coming challenges. But political work is conducted on the basis of “actually existing” levels of consciousness and not categorical imperatives. So even when people genuinely want to build a party, there may be a gap between the party that is possible (given the level of consciousness) and the one that is necessary (given the tasks of the day). This is a major source of difficulty that gives rise to a great deal of experimentation.

Still, useful parties have indeed existed and continue to do so. Useful parties that are both possible and necessary

We now face outright hostility to the very idea of parties from a broad layer of activist youth, including those with the most radical levels of personal commitment. At least this is what we see in some countries. The hostility is based on solid reasons that we have to take fully into account. The erosion of bourgeois democracy has ended up discrediting the party system, whereas it had some meaning in the past. And important sectors of the far-Left have acted in truly manipulative and authoritarian ways, and have even been plainly destructive on occasion.

It’s important to point out that the “party form” is not the only problem here. All past and present forms of organization should be studied with a critical eye. Trade unions have become thoroughly bureaucratized. An NGO can be the private property of a single person. Community organizations have become so institutionalized as to operate with highly unequal pay scales. Informal networks are manipulated by hidden leaderships. “Virtual” movements replace collective democratic procedures with an Internet “click”, involving no activism whatsoever. And guru-type figures are coming out of the woodwork.

No party is perfect. Nonetheless, in the 20th century parties played a central role in every single liberation struggle and in the revolutions that broke most with capitalism. To be sure, these revolutions became ossified; they gave rise to bureaucratic regimes and then yielded way for the revival of capitalism. This had multiple causes that I can’t go into here.

Intransigent critics of revolutionary parties would do well to consider what happened to revolutions without parties. And indeed what continues to happen to them into the present day. We have rarely seen a popular uprising as massive and covering as vast a geographic zone as what is somewhat inaccurately referred to as the “Arab springtime”. The sudden surge of the “masses” into the political realm was spectacular, and the struggle waged against a range of counter-revolutionary forces quite remarkable. It continues to deserve our full support; but it’s now the opposing camp that has the wind in its sails. The struggle often persists in appallingly difficult conditions, such as in the Iraqi-Syrian theatre of operations.

The peoples of the area are paying a heavy price for the neglect and betrayals of the big left nationalist parties in the Arab-Persian region (and beyond) and the way they have been isolated internationally by the major powers – but also by those sections of the radical Left that support Putin and Assad or that have callously opted to turn their gaze elsewhere. Of course, there are still revolutionary organizations in Iraq and Syria that have remained faithful to their initial commitments – and who deserve our respect for continuing their fight in very difficult circumstances – but they have been seriously weakened. This weakness is truly regrettable – and who on earth would dare celebrate it in the name of a theoretical critique of the “party form”?

It’s currently only in Kurdistan that we can point to parties with a strong enough presence to play a significant role in the Iraqi-Syrian theatre of operations. Can anyone deny that the existence of the PYD in Syrian Kurdistan has been centrally important to the Kurdish resistance, symbolized by the Siege of Kobanî?

Radical parties can play a useful role today, even ones of a more modest size. To illustrate my point, I’ll look at examples in two of Asia’s most violent countries, Pakistan and the southern Philippines. In the former, the Awami Workers Party (AWP) operates entirely above-ground. In the latter, the Revolutionary Workers Party – Mindanao (RPM-M) still operates underground. This itself shows that the form taken by parties reflects not only the state of societies (marked by violence of many kinds) but also by the history of previous struggles and different Left organizations.

Both Pakistan and the southern Philippines have a range of deep-seated religious, sectarian and identity conflicts. Others could be selected, but this is the context that I have chosen to test the usefulness of a party. How to proceed? By looking at what the party does (rather than what it says); but also by asking what would be different if the party didn’t exist in the first place.

The Pakistani state is an artificial and fragile construct. Its unity and stability are undermined by unresolved national questions; by intense regionalisms and communalisms; by the impact of the Afghan war and great-power games; by the clannish behaviour of the big property-owning families; by the hugely diverse mosaic of socio-economic structures; by the extreme violence of (in this case Muslim) religious fundamentalisms; and by factionalism within the security agencies.

The AWP was founded in 2013 following the regroupment of three organizations (Rousset 2013b), one of which was the Labour Party of Pakistan (LPP) (Rousset 2010b) whose earlier work we look at here. The AWP is very responsive – defending small farmers at the Okara military farm against torture; textile-worker trade unionists in Faisalbad against imprisonment; freethinking and anti-militarist bloggers against abduction; Hindus and Christians whose villages have been burned down by Islamists; Shiite and Sunni victims of fundamentalist terror attacks; women buried alive for challenging patriarchal authority and staining their families’ “honour”; trans-gendered victims of violence; Baloch nationalist targets for summary execution; communities stricken by natural disasters, whether by floods in the Punjab or earthquakes in Kashmir; and human-rights campaigners receiving life sentences for their solidarity work as in Gilgit-Balistan. The party has also built cross-border relations by hosting Afghan communists, strengthening ties with Indian internationalists and participating in the building of regional and global networks.

The AWP (and the LPP before it) fights against all forms of oppression and exploitation and in defense of all victims. It recognizes diversity while asserting the shared and common nature of progressive struggles. And yet the two don’t always go together. The focus on diversity can also foster narrow particularism and identity. “Producing” diversity does not necessarily mean producing something in common (Johsua 2017). Conversely, the rights of women and minorities have too often been smothered in the name of unity.

Each solidarity initiative stands on its own merits. Taken together, they bring about a culture of borderless solidarity “from below”. And that’s a real achievement in these times of division! To this fight, the LPP, and now the AWP, have brought the resources of a party rooted in a broad range of regions and social sectors. The party’s absence would be sorely felt.

For its part, the RPM-M (RPM-M 2006, Rousset 2010a) is based on the southern island of Mindanao, the most militarized region of the Philippine archipelago. Every possible type of armed organization is active there. Three peoples coexist on the island: Moros (Muslims), Lumads (mountain tribes) and the Christian descendants of waves of “internal” colonization of the southern Philippines. In this context, social conflicts (especially for land) often escalate into communal violence. Rivalries between (especially Moro) political clans can turn bloody. The state of war between Muslim movements and the government, and the existence of leftist guerrilla groups, raises the question of the pre-requisites for just and lasting peace. Military operations and natural disasters often give rise to humanitarian crises.

The RPM-M’s response to this situation is to defend all victims of oppression. It fights against the oppression of Muslims while opposing the massacre of Christian villagers by renegade Islamist commandos. It recognizes the Moro right to self-determination but refuses to deny this same right to Lumads on their ancestral lands. It organizes people from all three communities to work together to provide assistance to those hit by humanitarian disasters. It promotes the representation of all three peoples within peace movements. It fights to ensure that the interests of ordinary people and “cross-sectional” democratic, environmental and social rights are genuinely taken into account in peace negotiations.

The RPM-M is also an organization with a territorial footing. The organization is the result of a split of an entire region (Mindanao Centre) of the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines. While it argues that armed struggle is not the appropriate form of struggle in the Philippines, disarmament is not a straightforward matter either. A territory-based organization has certain responsibilities toward the communities where it is rooted. The RPM-M has learned to respect the indigenous governance of the Lumads, who have their own self-defence forces to resist powerful special interests from the mining, forestry and other sectors. The RPM-M’s military bodies have a defensive stance, and its guerrilla forces are inactive; but they can provide reinforcements when a village is threatened. Were it to disarm completely, the RPM-M would be unable to protect itself and would have to withdraw and yield ground to hostile armed groups. The position of the Lumads and threatened villages would be seriously weakened.

We’re speaking here of organizations that are moderate in size (a few thousand members) but that have real roots in a number of areas. A political organization rooted solely in one sector (in workplaces, for example) wouldn’t be able to play the same role. Nor would a mainly parliamentary formation. Indeed, the question of combining forms and areas of struggle is at the heart of any discussion on what a party actually does. Combining forms and areas of struggle

Practical examples are important because we should be wary of overly schematic approaches. For one thing, there’s no getting around national and regional specificities handed down over time. In Europe, the relationship between large parties and trade unions varies a great deal from one country to another. In India, every (parliamentary) party – including those on the Right – has its own network of “mass organizations” (trade-union confederations and women’s, farmers and youth organizations, among others). They often clash with “anti-party social movements”. Recently, organizations that are independent but not necessarily hostile to parties have grown in importance. Any broad initiative raises the question of the need to cooperate.

A party does not hold a monopoly on theoretical and programmatic work, contrary to what many claimed in the past. Far-Left activists contributed centrally to feminist work in the 1970s but this took place outside existing political organizations before subsequently gaining traction within (often eliciting defensive and conservative responses). The same goes for questions of sexuality that same decade and then for ecology in the 1980s; and for changes in social relations and labour as well as for the strategic implications of innovative experiences of struggle.

However, as far as possible activist parties provide (or at least can and should provide) options for alternative overall orientations – or to put it another way, options for how best to combine forms and areas of struggle in a given period. As such, they help preserve the unity of social movements – with their members’ varied political positions finding expression elsewhere rather than serving to divide movements internally. And insofar as divisions appear nonetheless, they do so around questions specific to each social movement. Class-struggle or routine trade-unionism? Eco-socialism or deep ecology? Smallholder farming or agro-business? Socialist feminism (Trat 2010 & 2013, Duggan 2010) or institutional feminism?

Of course, all this presupposes that the activist parties in question respect the autonomous functioning and life of social movements, and this can’t be taken for granted. An alternative solution is put forward by currents that tend to be of anarchist inspiration – that of building socio-political movements of a “revolutionary syndicalist” nature (in a non-revolutionary period). This means building vanguard organizations of a necessarily competitive sort that create party-type divisions among wage-earners.

Two areas of struggle warrant special mention here: armed struggle and parliamentary activity. It might seem strange to mention both at the same time. And yet both have vast implications for an organization’s internal balance of forces and both can give rise to significant dangers when this balance of forces is not properly tended to.

Armed struggle. Armed struggle can sometimes be the only available path for advancing the fight for emancipation. The decision to choose this path, however, has enormous consequences, for example on the relationship between underground and above-ground work. In the interest of avoiding possible lapses, suffice it to say that others areas of work should not be directly subordinated to armed struggle. Politics always has to take precedence over the gun. Security does not justify quashing all forms of debate, democracy and collective decision-making. Involvement in armed struggle must not become a way of life from which no exit is possible. A good armed-struggle organization knows when to suspend or end military work when the political situation demands it.

The risk of degeneration of armed organizations grows when they remain intact when the context no longer justifies pursuing armed struggle. This is even true of organizations who take into account the changed context by adopting a defensive posture, but who nevertheless are unable to disarm. With this in mind, the RPM-M rotates membership in the Revolutionary People’s Army (RPA) so that members can leave mountain camps and get periodically re-immersed in civilian life. Getting out of the armed struggle is no simple matter, as can be seen with the RPM-M/RPA in Mindanao, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the Bangsamoro – not to speak of Colombia. Other movements (such as those connected to ethnic minorities, as in Burma) are faced with the question of peace processes. Some of these movements meet regularly to share experiences in this respect; this collective brainstorming merits greater attention internationally given the important issues involved.

Parliamentary and institutional work. Work in the parliamentary (and more broadly institutional) sphere fulfills genuine needs. It is a matter of defending the rights of the oppressed and exploited in all possible arenas, and of ensuring that they are politically represented. To fight the prevailing ideological hegemony and to use a parliamentary group to support struggles at home and abroad – for example, to secure the release of political prisoners; or to help coordinate movements internationally.

Of course, this work cannot be undertaken at all places and times. The precise details and potential depend a great deal on the character of the political system and the election laws in each country – and as a general rule these have become harsher in recent years.

In Europe, it has been on the electoral terrain that the radical Left has scored its greatest successes in recent years – and also endured its most bitter failures. The first wave of electoral successes was above all seen in Denmark, the Spanish State, Greece and Portugal – with the high point coming in Greece with Syriza winning government on the basis of mass popular support for bringing a halt to austerity policies (Ntavanellos 2015, Thornett 2015, Toussaint 2015, Udry 2015). Of course, the first lesson is that such a remarkable event was indeed possible. The second, unfortunately, was the Tsipras leadership’s betrayal of its mandate and its incorporation (in a subordinate position) into the authoritarian governance of the European Union. First hope, then disillusionment – and with it a negative turning point for the radical Left in Europe. To be sure, the future of the Red Green Alliance in Denmark (Voss 2011), the Left Bloc in Portugal (Louça & Romero Baeza 2010), and of Podemos in Spain (Antentas & Souvlis 2016, Camargo 2016, Sabado 2015a) remains an important question, but they now face more of an uphill climb.

Another process has been initiated in Britain, with Momentum and Corbyn. As significant as this may be (Socialist Resistance 2016), it isn’t clear that anything similar will appear elsewhere. Germany has already had such an experience (Die Linke). In France, it was the creation of the Left Party (abandoned by its creator) and, together with the Communist Party, the launching of the Left Front (now clinically dead). Out of all this, only the presidential campaign of Jean-Luc Mélenchon remains. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party appears poised to implode, with no mass support or dynamic behind any of its component parts. The same goes for the PSOE in Spain (Pastor, 2016). It’s game over in Italy. In many countries, the hard-Right and far-Right are the forces best positioned to benefit from widespread mass anger.

While the future may hold new pleasant surprises, we should nonetheless be mindful of the “hegemonic logic” of electoral politics and the co-opting pull of institutions. In short order, an organization’s success gets measured by its election results and not by progress made in building a social base – despite the fact that electoral success does not automatically mean a stronger local presence. Fundraising priorities are taken over by the requirements of participation in a never-ending cycle of elections, which monopolize the attention of leadership bodies. Electoral failure shows that the emperor has no clothes – and that party coffers are empty. Success is dangerous. Entire organizations – Akbayan in the Philippines; Syriza in Greece — have lost their activist soul in the institutions, despite fierce internal resistance from party minorities. Others lost their parliamentarians, the better to save their souls – such as the RPM-M in the Philippines.

As far as possible, and in line with the needs of the hour, a radical party has to be able to intervene in all areas – including in parliament and the institutions, however unwelcoming they may be. The danger arises when our very conception of “actually existing” parties is adapted to electoral politics. It’s a good idea to constantly rotate parliamentarians. Financial arrangements (such as the stipend that party Members of Parliament are to receive) should be clearly spelled out and adhered to. The party’s social base should be strengthened and not weakened over time.

We could learn a great deal from recent original experiences, such as the Democratic Labour Party (KDLP) in South Korea. The mass movement was behind the creation of the party, with the KCTU trade union confederation and the Peasants League (KPL) represented directly on leadership bodies (KDLP 2005). The party achieved real electoral success but faced severe repression in the name of “national security”. What’s more, in South Korea it’s never easy for “national liberation” currents that focus on reunification of North and South Korea to co-exist with “people’s democracy” currents that prioritize social struggles.

Is the KDLP experience too specifically South Korean and therefore non-reproducible elsewhere? Probably, but the substantive question of the link between radical parties and their social base will keep coming up.

In the absence of radical parties with a mass base, other class-struggle trade-union currents are looking at the question of creating one themselves. This is what we’re seeing today with NUMSA in South Africa (Irvin 2016).

Another recent experience, in Europe this time, is that of the Polish Labour Party (PPP), which was launched in 2001 out of the “August 80” free trade union (Malewski 2009; “August 80” 2010). So this is clearly something topical that has to form part of our international thinking.

Historical precedents in South Africa and Brazil illustrate how parties based on the trade-union movement can be exploited for other purposes. Once in power, this is what happened in Brazil with the Workers Party (PT) and the CUT trade-union confederation (Antunes 2014); and in South Africa with the ANC and COSATU (Gabriel 2014; Numsa 2014; Amandla! 2013). Clearly, we have to better guard ourselves against such risks.

Lastly, one of the features of recent European experiences in this regard is the time lag between the social mobilizations that paved the way for the radical Left and the actual electoral breakthroughs themselves – whether in Greece with Syriza, Spain with Podemos or elsewhere. As a consequence, the organized social base of parliamentary forces (or of the government in the Greek case) was strikingly narrow relative to the breadth of electoral support – a dangerous Achilles’ heel as it were. Experience shows that, subsequent to radical-Left electoral success, there is nothing automatic about resistance to the right-wing backsliding of political and trade-union leaderships, and for that matter nothing spontaneous about the broadening of the radical Left’s social base. It’s futile to rely on the supposed “dynamic” of the situation. These are all matters to be addressed by concrete political tasks and redeployment of the organization’s forces. We have to be active outside the institutions and not just within.

(the whole article can be found here: