A few months back, a comrade associated with a communist organisation in India circulated a question – “Are there no possibilities of outside-party movements now?” This question is already internationally debated, prominently within a large section of radicals, who have either been part of the party based movements or have struggled fervently against what could be called the party’s tendency to “substitute” the spirit of self-emancipatory struggles through its organisational conservatism and control. However, this question has been reframed in various ways, especially as, “Is there any possibility of party movements now?” The issue has become all the more relevant in the context of recent revolutionary upsurges in Latin America, given the rising scepticism among the traditional left and jubilation among the non-party/post-party left.
Recent arguments and endeavours for building a unified revolutionary party in Venezuela to spearhead the Bolivarian transformation beyond the present stage have once again brought to focus the issues of party, party structure and its relationship to movements. In India, where the ‘communist movement’ despite its splintering has been a decisive force both within state politics and radical politics, the question has become significant with mushrooming of diverse varieties of movements independent of party influences. Also, I believe, this question of party and beyond party has always been a central concern in socialist and working class movements the world over (many times as discussions over the dialectic of spontaneity and organisation).
Any “yes-no” answer to the above-mentioned question is bound to be refuted by counter-examples. In fact, a crucial part of the answer to that question lies in understanding movement, party and party building as processes, in their fluidity, not as fixtures imposing themselves on the spontaneity of the masses. If a party is organically linked to a movement, then it perpetually recreates itself in the moments of that movement. A revolutionary party is nothing more than an organisation of the militants of a revolutionary movement. You can have a group-structure (well-organised or loose) prior to any movement, but until and unless it refounds itself within the movement, it generally polices the popular energy.
There are innumerable examples of movements throughout the world that can claim to be partyless or above/beyond parties – prominent among them are the Venezuelan, Argentine and Zapatistas in Mexico, anti-globalisation movements etc. However, there are numerous groups, even traditional party structures operating within most of these movements – but none of them individually can claim these movements to be ‘theirs’. What is a movement which is not more than a party? But in the very “organisation” of all these movements, we find a continuous party building process or rather processes going on in the attempts to give definite expressions to the goals and visions of the movements.
So, in my opinion, to put it rather schematically, what we witness in the formative processes of a movement is that groups or group-structures (it is immaterial whether they call themselves parties or not), with their own prior movemental experiences come into contact with mass spontaneity – where they are either reborn as groups of “militants” trying to give expression to the movemental needs and goals or they come as predefined structures shaping the movement according to their own fixed needs and goals (for example, to win elections etc).
When I say they “come”, it does not mean that these groups are not there. But their there-ness is defined by the consolidation and institutionalisation of their prior experiences, gains and failures. During these latter processes, these groups either congeal as having interests which are now accommodated within the system or they are ready to unlearn and relearn during the course of new struggles of the oppressed and the exploited. In the first case, they are there as part of the hegemony or as its agencies (conscious or subconscious), and in the second case, they are “reborn” as groups or parties of militants, of organic intellectuals – intellectuals organically linked to the working class, as Gramsci would put.
On this perpetual making and remaking of the organisation and party within and with relation to movements, Marx made a very interesting observation in his letter to Friedrich Bolte (November 23, 1871), where he recapitulates the role and problems of the First International:
“The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organisation of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point… [O]ut of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.”
It is important to remember and grasp the dialectics of Marx’s dual assertion about the need of a communist party, on the one hand, and what, as Engels asserted in his 1888 preface of the English edition of the Communist Manifesto, “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself”. The latter was already there in the General Rules of the First International (“That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”). In his Critique of Gotha Programme too, while criticising the Lasalleans, Marx says, “The international activity of the working classes does not in any way depend on the existence of the International Working Men’s Association.” Marx clearly rejects here any substitutionist tendency, which has been rampant within the workers and peasants’ movements in India and elsewhere, as the ‘vanguard’ organisations attempt to “possess” movements. A striking example is the following quote from the party programme of the largest constituent of the parliamentary left in India:
“The people’s democratic front cannot successfully be built and the revolution cannot attain victory except under the leadership of the working class and its political party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).”
In the above-quoted letter to Bolte, Marx made a very illuminating remark on the function of sectism within the working class movement, which can be a lesson for all of us today:
“The International was founded in order to replace the Socialist or semi-Socialist sects by a real organisation of the working class for struggle. …The Internationalists could not have maintained themselves if the course of history had not already smashed up the sectarian system. The development of the system of Socialist sects and that of the real workers’ movement always stand in inverse ratio to each other. So long as the sects are (historically) justified, the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historic movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity all sects are essentially reactionary. Nevertheless what history has shown everywhere was repeated within the International. The antiquated makes an attempt to re-establish and maintain itself within the newly achieved form.”
As the most recent and clear example of “the antiquated” making an “attempt to re-establish and maintain itself within the newly achieved form” are, what Michael Lebowitz calls, the “glum faces” in reaction to Chavez’s call for a unified party in Venezuela. To resist the replacement of “the Socialist or semi-Socialist sects by a real organisation of the working class for struggle” at the time when the working class has attained maturity is “essentially reactionary”.
In India, too, at the grassroots level the labouring classes have time and again come together and demonstrated their will and energy to move beyond the systemic logic, but the presence of the “antiquated” becomes a hurdle in transforming this solidarity into a decisive challenge to the system. This hurdle is perpetuated by schematically subordinating the working class consciousness (dubbed “economistic”) to the “politics” of parties. The party becomes an organisation above class rather than “the organisation of what already exists within the class” (Mario Tronti), in other words, as the organisation of class capacity. Hence the issue of class seizure and control of production apparatuses and means of production as a challenge to capitalist hegemony transforming the social relations is relegated to a secondary level, while the issue of ensuring formal political consolidation and stability in a competitive setup becomes the end of party politics. The issue of posing class alternatives to capitalist regime of accumulation is sidelined in the process of the “accumulation of power”.
However, this “antiquated” cannot be fought by wishing away the notion of “party”, it can only be done by viewing party building as a process with all its contradictions and as a continuous class struggle, including against internalised hegemonies – against labour aristocrats and party bureaucrats.
In West Bengal (in fact, everywhere in India) the working class and the poor peasantry have outgrown the traditional left. This is not something new and to be lamented upon. It always happens that organisations develop according to the contemporary needs of the class struggle, and are bound to be institutionalised, and even coopted, becoming hurdles for further battles, not able to channel their forces for new exigencies of class dynamics and struggle. This happens so because in the process of a struggle, a major segment devoted to the needs of this struggle is caught-up in the networks it has established for their fulfillment. It is unable to detach itself from the fruits of the struggle, therefore losing its vitality and is overwhelmed by the existential needs.
In the name of consolidation of movemental gains, what is developed is a kind of ideologisation, a fetish – organisation for organisation’s sake. This leads to the organisation’s and its leadership’s cooption in the hegemonic setup (obviously not just in the formal apparatuses) which in turn due to struggles has to concede some space to new needs and aspirations. In fact, this is how capitalism reproduces itself politically. And this is how societal hegemonies gain agencies within radical organisations, and are organisationally internalised – developing aristocracies and bureaucracies.
Two important points regarding the recent agitations in West Bengal can be fruitful for us in understanding the above-mentioned dynamics:
1) As prominent Marxist-Feminist historian Tanika Sarkar says, “an amazing measure of peasant self-confidence and self-esteem that we saw at Singur and at Nandigram” is a result of whatever limited land reforms the Left Front (LF) initiated and is in the “very long and rich tradition of the Left politics and culture”.
2) The price of state power that helped sustain this was the cooption of the LF in the hegemonic policy regime, which is neoliberal for now. So the vested interests that developed during these struggles and cooption led to a situation where “[b]eyond registration of sharecroppers and some land redistribution, no other forms of agrarian restructuring were imagined.” Also, “industries were allowed to die away, leaving about 50,000 dead factories and the virtual collapse of the jute industry”, as competition and the flight of capital were not challenged (which probably in the federal setup of India could not be challenged) by questioning the nature of production relations.
However, there is no fatalism in the above view – the radical vitality of an organisation/party is contingent upon the sharpening of struggle between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic tendencies within an organisation, which in turn is embedded within the overall class struggle, i.e., it all depends on class balance and struggle within an organisation.