Return to materialism

Roots of materialistic movement: Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Lenin. Rise of Stalinism, cold War. Democracy and materialism. A profound confusion on the left. Democratic centralism, myth of the "correct program". Lenin and the mass working-class movement.

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First of all, Lenin's party did begin with a politically heterogeneous, loosely organized group, which did win the masses, the Second International. And then Lenin did succeed in building within such an organization a more cohesive formation.

Yet John Percy's report, quoted above, refers to exactly what Lenin did as something that would end "in disaster", something that's impossible. The point John Percy is defending is the concept that one starts with a small but hardened cadre formation with a fully developed "revolutionary socialist" program and then you win the masses and become a big cadre formation.

Any other vision is dead wrong. History says John is wrong. What we have never seen yet, but we probably will see some day is what John advocates. Everything is possible over time and in rapidly changing circumstances.

Secondly, the FSLN is a perfect example of an organization that was completely heterogeneous politically, and deliberately so. Yet it did succeed in winning the masses and carrying out armed struggle to bring down the Somoza dictatorship.

So was the July 26 Movement in Cuba. Statements about the "only" way that things will happen or could "never" happen are generally wrong. Causa R continuing to evolve in its class struggle orientation cannot be ruled out in the manner that John Percy does in his report to the DSP. In the recent military uprisings against the government in Venezuela the masses poured into the streets to support the soldiers trying to end the Mafia-like, corrupt rule of the bourgeois political parties.

The media immediately started a campaign against Causa R, accusing it of intrigue with the rebel military officers and of hiding arms, etc. In the recent elections the military threatened a coup if Causa R won. What will happen in the next period is unclear. This is a living struggle.

There is no question Causa R is standing up for the working class and promoting its interests. It does not fit the schema of the DSP, so undoubtedly the DSP will expect it to "end in disaster", focusing its attention on the limitations of Causa R's stated platform.

If the DSP leadership believes views like those put forward by Steve Robson at the 19?? DSP national conference will mean disaster, one can only imagine what they think of Causa R. After all, what Causa R advocates and practices would make Steve Robson look like a raving centralist.

Causa R, like the Greens, tries not to vote at meetings. Anyone can join or leave, they are publicly against democratic centralism and so on. They didn't fall apart, they did not lose their effectiveness, if by that we mean leading the class struggle, fighting for the rights of workers, winning masses to a class break with the parties of the bourgeoisie, etc.

In criticizing Robson the DSP leadership used a method that has been characteristic of all sectarian Trotskyist groups. Once anyone challenges the leadership you make a class characterization of that person. Barnes did that to Jim Percy. Jim was great as long as he agreed. Once he differed it was discovered he had been a "petty bourgeois" type all along. He was a student hippy type with a beard who owned a house. Ipso facto petty bourgeois, wrong politically.

Percy would inevitably lead to the liquidation of the party, since he was adapting to the petty bourgeoisie milieu. The method goes like this: someone raises a criticism but insists they agree with socialism, and the overall program, Leninism, Marxism, etc, the leadership then claims there is a "logic of the line". The logic of the line is always to capitulate to pressures. Pressures from whom? Why, naturally, the petty bourgeoisie, usually the radical petty bourgeoisie. In DSP language the "left-liberal" milieu. What this method does is end the discussion.

It is a way of refusing to consider criticisms. It is a culture that crushes democracy and debate. The message that such a method sends out to the rank and file is "differ, and you will be driven out".

Here is an exact quote used by a DSP leader against Robson: "While Comrade Robson has not consistently thought through where the line and orientation he has begun to develop will lead (hence his denials that he is not for building a Leninist cadre party), nevertheless, it represents an adaptation to the pressures of this left-liberal milieu. The logic of the line he has begun to develop is to dissolve the party into this milieu ... It is a liquidationist line ..."

In one form or another I have read that quote 100 times. Its role is to end debate and to silence others.

The New Zealand Alliance

In general, in recent DSP documents there is a tendency to rigidity. And in the analysis of other currents the main focus is on program. When looking at the marvelous mass break in New Zealand from the two parties of the rich, the DSP documents refers to the Alliance as left-liberal.

This is utterly wrong. It misses the entire point of the process that is occurring and the potential made possible by the appearance of the Alliance. The Alliance is a definitive break by working people from the two parties of the bourgeoisie. It is the starting point in the framework of New Zealand to develop a mass movement for social change and democracy.

It can lead to a struggle in the unions for democracy and a class-struggle orientation, and may lead to the development of massively increased class consciousness and a culture of struggle. To look at the Alliance from a programmatic framework, and not see that the mass break is its most important underlying programmatic statement, is an idealist approach to politics.

The DSP reports see the Alliance as "a break with Laborism" or as a break to the "left". But stating it this way can miss the whole point. It is a break with class-collaborationist politics, it is a class break, and like all mass developments it has only a partial platform with a lot of areas left unstated.

To say that in Australia this is not a "model that we'd want to copy politically" because, "They will have activists but not revolutionary cadres, with revolutionary socialist politics" is utter leftist confusion.

What has happened in New Zealand, politically speaking, is the number-one goal that we need in every industrialized nation. It is the beginning of a mass, conscious break with class-collaborationist politics. The key to politics in New Zealand today is to have this break survive, grow and expand. The key to the evolution of the Alliance in New Zealand is rooted in international events.

The main victory of the New Zealand development for the working class is its example internationally, and likewise the present international relationship of forces limits the immediate possibilities in New Zealand. The leadership of the Alliance is proving itself remarkably.

Firstly, to have succeeded in forming the Alliance, an extremely difficult achievement, and thus begin to break the monopoly grip of capital over politics in New Zealand and secondly, to begin building up a membership organization that begins to consolidate without losing its mass influence.

After the next elections it might become more possible for the Alliance to begin consolidating support in the union movement and building support among students and other youth. That is to go a bit more beyond the electoral framework under which it began. But we must keep in mind that New Zealand at this moment is not under the impact of a deep radicalization with mass actions and political fervor among its youth.

The New Zealand Alliance has received next to no support from all the "correct program" sectarians. On the contrary all they can think about is raiding the Alliance in order to add another member to their sect. All they focus on is the formal stated platform of the Alliance.

The key to the Alliance's program is its break. Its leadership is completely independent of the ruling class in New Zealand and internationally and it is totally committed to defending the working people, the poor, to fight for defence of the environment and promote solidarity with other working people internationally.

This is an historic first in the post-Cold-War period. The Alliance, in part because it is close to Australia, becomes an excellent opportunity to promote class-struggle politics by calling for a break in Australia, like in New Zealand. The DSP focuses not on the living class struggle and the leadership being formed in that process, but on whether "cadres" with an ideologically "correct program" are being formed.

Since, after four years, it doesn't see something happening that fits its preconceived forms, the DSP now feels uncomfortable with the Alliance. The DSP's international report states: "And in this framework we also note the problems with there not having developed an organized revolutionary socialist current. Such a current, which can provide a principled position of how to advance forward, is even more urgently required in the period ahead."

The fixation on program blinds the DSP to understanding a form of development different from their own experience. To make the above statement is factually wrong. A process is now under way in New Zealand which is developing a leadership, but it is happening in a manner much more like what happened in Nicaragua.

It is very different from how groups like the DSP have been formed. In the same manner the DSP document on the environment looks at Green groups not as part of a process in motion with which we not only must ally ourselves but of which we are a part.

Instead, the resolution focuses on programmatic issues. Statements like: "Greens, like everyone else, must choose where they stand on all social issues," is a ridiculous formal logic oxymoron. By Greens we mean exactly those people who are in motion around one aspect of problems being created by the world capitalist system.

By definition, "Greens" is an expression of motion, of rebellion, on a specific issue not "all social issues". By this logic of they "must chose", all struggles and all real movements that appear can be criticized since they always appear with incomplete platforms, otherwise they would not have their mass character. That is in the real world.

The opposite of what the DSP resolution argues for is the direction we should pursue. We want there to be a Green movement that does not take up "all social issues" in order to bring about the largest possible unity in exposing and opposing the destruction of the environment. How that movement then inter-links, inter-relates and develops with other social movements is a complex process.

Thus what Greenpeace is doing with its dramatic actions to expose the corporate polluters should be cheered by us, not denounced. To refer to these actions as "stunts" is insulting and arrogant to the committed activist who often, risking their lives, have sought to force the world media to reveal what is happening to the environment.

Such an attitude blocks the ability of the DSP to work with others. It is sectarian posturing. The idea that lobbying is some how reformist or incorrect is also promoted in this resolution. It is referred to as the politics of "liberal reformism."

Lobbying is just one kind of activity. Its nature is determined by its interrelationship with other events and movements. It has no specific characteristic in itself, it is like a tactic such as demonstrations, strikes, elections, etc.

Once again the resolution is not written with an eye on our objectives, our relation to living movements and struggles, but a sect-like declaration of our ideological superiority. Finally, I should mention a comment that was quoted in one contribution from the National Committee report on "DSP Interventions in Australian Politics". This is referred to as being "based on the Leninist strategy of building a revolutionary Marxist vanguard party".

Before doing so we should note the use of terms like "a revolutionary Marxist vanguard party" sounds really radical. It's not just a Marxist party, but a "revolutionary" one, meaning obviously that there are Marxist parties that aren't revolutionary, and its not just a revolutionary Marxist party but a "vanguard" at that.

This kind of language reveals an underlying ultraleft posturing. That is something we need to consciously rid ourselves of, because it comes out of the culture and tradition that has led to the self-isolation and destruction of organizations like the SWP in the United States.

In the quote that follows there is a reference to a category of people referred to as the "revolutionary vanguard" as against the "social vanguard". An explanation of how class consciousness is developed follows with these words: "Through the intervention of the revolutionary vanguard in the broader social vanguard (the "natural leaders" of the class) and winning them to a revolutionary Marxist perspective and commitment to socialism. The tactical essence of the method is to turn the more conscious elements of the vanguard against the less conscious and to try to draw the vanguard as a whole towards a socialist perspective through ever higher forms of organization and unity in struggle. The highest form of unity is, of course, that of the revolutionary party itself."

This paragraph is confusing on several levels, but I want to focus on just one aspect. The idea that unity is achieved by setting the more conscious workers against the less conscious workers seems rather odd.

While there might be some explanation for this formulation, the way it is presented seems rather ultraleft. Our goal is try to unify the class in action. The more conscious workers try to draw in the less-conscious workers in concrete actions of a class struggle character.

In John Percy's report, while accepting that the DSP may have made mistakes he states: "But at each major struggle, at each step, we did the right thing." Of course, that is exactly what all vanguardist organizations believe and it is exactly the kind of statement that organizations leading the masses, like the FPL, the FSLN, etc, never make.


In the last analysis if we are correct and capitalism will be surpassed by a more rational social order in which class divisions as we have known them will end, this has to have very deep objective roots. If our concept of the origins of ideas is the material world, the ideas of class struggle and of a socialist vision are being generated continuously.

The experiences of people in this society, the exploitation, oppression and abuses always generate struggles, organizing and the development of social movements. Ideas about these movements and how to change society are always in flux.

To believe that a few decades ago a small list of individuals discovered the magic wand is not materialist. Our movement is still developing ideas on how to organize and how to change society. A lot of people around the world are thinking about these issues. Their experiences are helping them to find a way forward to end the way capitalism is destroying the planet and its human population.

Our movement has existed only a moment in history. The future will hold all kinds of surprises especially regarding forms. The DSP itself is a very unusual formation. In many ways it is the only one of its kind. It arose out of the student movement of the 1960s, survived exposure to the sectarianism of the US SWP and survived the 1980s when most left organizations, for whatever reason, were collapsing.

Its leadership has been very astute in having the courage to think for itself, try experiments, pull back from things that did not appear to work and continue to look for openings. It appears to me that in the recent period there has been a shift to the left and sectarianism.

It first hit me at the Green Left conference, when in a panel on what we should do next the DSP representative did not focus on what the Australian people or its working class needed, the challenges before Australia for justice, democracy and saving the environment but instead on the need for a Leninist Party.

Thus the issue of what the nation needs was reduced to a focus on the discussion on how best to organize the DSP. Overcoming this shift will be a new challenge to the DSP and its leadership, in my opinion. In general, I have come to the conclusion over the years, as many people do as they get older, that it's necessary to be more cautious in one's views, recognizing how often in the past one has believed in things that turned out to be wrong.

Thus I make these criticism of the DSP's present approach as a way of helping the DSP. I am not optimistic as to how it will be received by the DSP given its internal culture. Only time will tell its effect.

I remain supportive of the DSP as one of the healthiest expressions of the radicalization of the 1960s and an organization that certainly can continue to play, as it has up to now, an important role not only in Australia but in helping the international movement.

What should we do?

Recognizing past errors can help us to understand how best to proceed today. The fact that organizations like Solidarity in the United States and the DSP in Australia exist with committed members but without mass roots is simply a fact of life. It is also an accomplishment.

It is far better that such organizations exist than that they don't. The question is how to overcome isolation? The problem is not organizational, although it has an organizational side.

Meeting less often or lower levels of participation or commitment will not necessarily increase the size and influence of an organization like the DSP. Experiments in this direction in the mid-1980s resulted in the opposite. The level of activity inevitably is driven more by political developments outside of our control than any internal decisions.

Sensitivity to this issue within the framework of maintaining an activist organization is important, but we must avoid developing an internal culture that is alien and in conflict with the existing mass culture of our respective countries, and especially among working people.

The problem of reaching out is political. One step that came out of the thinking around this question in the DSP was the change of the newspaper from Direct Action, as a strictly party paper, to Green Left Weekly, with its more open political content. This step was a success.

What is needed to begin to over come the isolation is a political shift away from sectarian traditions, language, internal culture and methods of intervention in the direction of the kind of thinking behind establishing Green Left.

The question of language is not a tactical question. It reflects the real political content of our movement. If we are serious about becoming effective and actually changing society, we must stop playing "revolution". For us to succeed, especially in the "Third Wave" world we now live in, our movement must be more internationalist then ever and must be deeply rooted to succeed.

Rather than start from what happened in history it is better to start from what is needed in the world to create a peaceful, just, ecologically sound, prosperous society for all, and how that translates for one's own country, including the immediate steps that need to be taken, objectively.

The development of independent mass politics, independent of those in power, and posing the question of who should rule, are essential to make all the work around specific demands and reforms really meaningful. The failure of the rise of the trade unions in the 1930s developing into a mass political party in the United States was tragic for the entire development of social struggles since then.

The defeat in the USSR set the framework for the defeat in the United States, since the left dominated by the Communist Party was able to betray the workers' movement and keep it tied to the two-party system.

But because of the change in objective circumstances, these subjective factors are now changed. The possibility of a revival of our movement is now on the agenda over the next historic period.

The Alliance and the Workers Party of Brazil are signs of the change. Neither is a finished product, something that is impossible, just as a new-born baby cannot be instantly an adult. The existence of an organisation like the DSP, on a much lesser level, is also a start even if it is isolated because it carries certain elements of what a successful mass movement will need.

But the key is for the DSP or its equivalents in other countries to help develop the mass movement, to root itself in the masses, or it can end up as an impediment to progress, as almost all organisations calling themselves Leninist today are.

The future changes in society will only come about after our movement has literally become the culture of working people, precisely in the manner in which the Sandinistas became in Nicaragua or Causa R is now achieving in Venezuela, or the July 26 Movement did in the late 1950s in Cuba.

Those old enough to have lived during the height of the Vietnam antiwar movement will remember what it was like when large layers of the population, especially the youth, had a culture of struggle. For us to "win", this must occur on a more massive scale than ever, and it must be international more than ever.

For the few groups that have survived the last 30 years, and still maintain a commitment to socialism, but are isolated, it is imperative to make these changes.

The "turn to industry" of the United States SWP in the late 1970s was a farcical ultraleft expression of this underlying problem. After the massive explosion of the antiwar movement and the SWP's participation in it, its sectarian isolation stood out more clearly.

The organisation had to choose which way to go, and in the name of going to root itself in the working-class and end its isolation, the SWP codified its sectarian existence even more profoundly.

We need to do exactly the opposite. In this sense the fear of selling out, the fear of not sufficiently ideologically separating ourselves from other currents, of not continuously "exposing" the limitations of protest movements, has to be confronted.

Deep down, the fear of selling out is a lack of self-confidence, something any organisation that is isolated inevitably develops.

Objective versus subjective

In preparing this criticism it was, of course, necessary to focus, and thus to be one-sided, to bend the stick.

The process of internal education of the membership of any organisation committed to socialism is critical.

That is, the subjective factor is itself an important part of the equation. While this article is clearly focused against one-sided vanguardism or subjective errors, I want to make it clear that the question is not choosing between the two but the correct interrelationship between objective and subjective factors.


While recognising there was a sectarian side to Cannonism, we should also recognise that many of Cannon's organisational ideas are simply good organising techniques.

Many of his ideas on how executive committees should function, the relationship between elected leaders, how to express ideas and how to organize discussions, are certainly of value.

Lenin was terribly wrong when he suggested that the international should not only set the line but determine tactics for each country. The need for leaderships to arise in each country, even within each area of struggle, is imperative for the kind of movement we need to build.

Leaderships make mistakes, by definition. That is normal. The movement internationally will include various currents; that is normal. In fact, we may discover over time that it is really essential, given the diversity of issues with the working people of the world.

Imitating others is a dead end, but one can learn from almost any experiences, especially successful ones. For a period, large numbers set out to imitate the Cubans in Latin America. This was a mistake. So were the attempts to imitate the Russians after 1917. People who can think for themselves have the best chance of success.

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