Reviving the communist movement: Building organization in 2016

Apr 22, 2016

Editor’s note: The following is part of an internal document circulated by the Central Committee of the PSL in advance of our 3rd Party Congress in 2016. Here, we focus on ways that communist organizations have historically grown in strength, size, and influence—direct recruitment and organizational mergers. While there are important new openings, there are contradictory tendencies impacting the possibility of such growth. On the one hand, the neoliberal stage of capitalism clearly offers no future for workers and oppressed people. On the international stage, the uncontested hegemony of U.S. imperialism is fracturing at the seams. On the other hand, the era of global counterrevolution exerts a heavy force on the consciousness of the mass movement. The tasks that we have to face are thus both organizational and theoretical.


As we prepare for the Third Party Congress, we need to reflect upon the past decade and the key lessons learned, and sum up the principal needs that confront those who are committed to the task of reviving socialism. While books upon books could be written on such a review, here we will focus on some of the most pertinent parts of an evaluation as we chart a path forward for advancing the struggle for communism.

The objective situation is very favorable for the revival of socialism. The U.S. capitalist class has been waging a war against the rights and living standards of a big part of the working population for several decades. The relative privileges for a huge part of the working population have been destroyed. U.S. imperialism globally has been and will continue to be diminished. The contradictions within and among the ruling class itself are ever more obvious.

The subjective situation has also improved measurably. It is now clear that there can be the popularization of socialist ideas. Popularization has been our focus now since our last Party congress in 2013. At that time, we emphasized the popularization component because we believed that popularization of socialism through the depopularization of capitalism was a prerequisite to reach a mass audience in such an anti-communist country. We also said that the anti-communist fog was lifting and it was now possible to do this.

The Bernie Sanders campaign, even if the electoral effort is doomed, has made a major contribution in creating the atmosphere for the popularization of socialism. We need to thoroughly examine all of our organizational possibilities to reach the maximum potential in taking next steps for popularization, going beyond attracting people to socialism, to having people self-identify as socialists. Even without our efforts, this process is going to continue. The logic and inevitability of this process is located within the real-life dynamics of existing monopoly capitalism.

Various methods for growth

Recruitment has to exist alongside popularization. Recruitment is vital because, for the socialist movement to revive and be sustained, there need to be credible organizations. The organizations fighting for socialism will only have credibility for larger masses of people if they are significant in size and scope.

There are two ways that communist organizations can grow. The first is by directly recruiting members into their ranks. The second is by merging with other organizations.

This second question has a rich history in the communist movement, which is a history of both splits and as well as mergers. In the early stage, of course, most revolutionary organizations are very small in number and frequently experience some degree of isolation. Drawing in larger numbers and breaking out of isolation is naturally a focus of discussion amongst serious leaders. There has to be extreme flexibility and agility in tactics as well — of course while retaining complete inflexibility on the core principles elucidated by Marxist theory.

At the founding of the Third International, after the Russian Revolution, parties across the globe formed through a series of splits (from the reformist and social-imperialist leadership of the Second International) but also a complex and difficult process of unifying revolutionary elements. In the United States, there was a multitude of organizations that merged together between 1919 and 1921 to form the CPUSA — including many immigrant-based socialist groups, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party of America. Many of these organizations previously had widely differing views on labor strategies, electoral tactics and underground organization, among other subjects, and less than 10 percent of the original CPUSA members spoke English as a native language.

During this period, the CPUSA also recruited leading members of the independent Black liberation group, the African Blood Brotherhood, which had a socialist orientation. For a few years, these individuals retained a sort of dual membership, but as the tasks and agitation of the ABB were integrated more deeply into the life of the Communist Party, the group decided to fully fuse with the CPUSA in 1922.

In the 1930s, communist parties worldwide initiated a series of alliances, united fronts and mass organizations to take on the tasks of fighting fascism and imperialist war. In different countries this took different forms. In China in 1938, the Communist Party even temporarily donned the uniforms and flew the flag of their arch-enemies in the Nationalist Party, while secretly retaining their own independent party discipline, for the fight against the invading Japanese imperialists.

In 1938, the Fourth International parties, because they were much smaller than the communist parties from which they had been expelled, adopted what was called “The French Turn.” They decided to enter the social democratic parties of the Second International, which were mass organizations and were experiencing greater growth and radicalization among young people because of the severe economic depression that was impacting the entire capitalist world. The Fourth International parties had been expelled from the communist parties of the Third International and thus were excluded from entering them.

Under the tactic of the French Turn, the British members of the Fourth International entered the Independent Labour Party, and then the Labour Party. Eventually they withdrew and formed their own communist organization. Another Fourth International grouping used the same tactic and entered the Labour Party in the 1970s. They were known as the “Militant faction” and they remained in the Labour Party and made considerable gains until they were expelled in the 1980s. They called themselves a faction rather than a party with the hope of not being expelled, but in reality they functioned as a party within a larger party. They had their own newspaper, internal conventions, meetings and documents.

In the United States, there is no organization equivalent to the Labour Party, but the Fourth International affiliates here (who became the SWP) entered the Socialist Party or the Farm-Labor Party in the Midwest. After about a year, they were expelled from the Socialist Party, but they had not intended to remain for long inside the Socialist Party anyway. Their objective was to recruit the young people and youth cadres from the Socialist Party, which they did.

These are just a couple of examples, but there are literally hundreds or perhaps thousands of examples of communists who entered into or merged with other political forces for the purposes of recruitment, party building or mergers into larger organizations. In national liberation struggles, in particular, communists entered into a whole assortment of organizational arrangements and fronts — sometimes open, sometimes secretly — with petite-bourgeois and even bourgeois forces in independence struggles.

The struggle for political continuity

There are thousands of young activists all over the country who desire revolutionary change. But, having skipped two generations since the collapse of the communist movement, the dominant ideas within the younger milieu are not communist ideas. The Occupy Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement were spontaneous mass movements that arose just in the past four-and-a-half years. If these movements had been created in 1969, most of the young people in them would be reviewing the works of Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, Mao Zedong, Rosa Luxemberg, Fidel Castro, Leon Trotsky, Che Guevara, Antonio Gramsci, Amilcar

Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Walter Rodney, or revolutionaries from the United States, like W.E.B. Du Bois, Mother Jones, Harry Haywood, Huey Newton, Claudia Jones and others.

In that earlier period, every spontaneous youth-led movement gravitated in the direction of communism. That is not the case now. Instead, most of the theoretical and philosophical discussions, to the extent that they happen at all, are premised on post-modernist conceptions and writings. In the past, revolutionary youth would be looking to join existing communist organizations as they themselves became radical activists. That is clearly not the case now, and the reason is that communist theory looks either discredited or irrelevant.

What is needed is to address the break in the continuity of Marxist theory. Since we are starting the movement almost from scratch, we have to be aware of this problem. There has been almost a two-generation break for the socialist movement, for the Black liberation movement and for the struggle of women. Since the mid-1970s and especially starting in the early 1980s, there has been a dramatic ebb or retreat or disintegration within the socialist movement (the one that had started to become stronger again in the late 1960s), and for the Black liberation movement as well as the radical women’s movement that had gained strength in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The current movement sometimes utilizes the symbolism of the Black liberation movement’s socialist icons — the Panthers, Assata and so on — but not their political and organizational views.

During the next period, we have to emphasize the training of our cadres in Marxism and Marxist theory, and create vehicles for theoretical and political study that draws in other activists. Unless this is prioritized, we will simply focus on activism and practical intervention, which by itself will be completely inadequate to overcome the problem of the two-generation skip that has created such an obstacle for the spontaneous revival of socialism from existing mass movements.

Activism by itself will not overcome the central problem of the current period. We have to consciously plan and then work to integrate Marxist theory and organizational forms because we lack the advantage that the movement had earlier: the automatic gravitation towards Marxism, the widespread eagerness to read and learn everything about communist theory.

Communist bookstores existed in every major city and communist literature was on newsstands all over the country. Anyone who entered a community struggle or a larger social movement in that period, in whatever city, would have interacted with someone or some group preaching the need for socialist organization and revolution. They did not always do so skillfully, but it was ever present. When young people formed activist collectives in small cities across the country, these almost always had a study component, and quite frequently they would “interview” the existing parties and tendencies to decide which one to join.

It seems obvious upon reviewing the mass movements of the past few years — going back to the mass anti-war movement in 2002-2003, the immigrant workers’ movement and general strike of 2006, the Occupy Movement and the current Movement for Black Lives — that spontaneous movements of resistance are clearly the order of the day, but that they do not signify a spontaneous revival of socialism and communism, or the organizations that espouse socialist and communist ideas.

Starting over: building a new communist organization

When we began the process of building a new communist party, the PSL, in 2004, we did so with full consciousness of the political landscape. We started the party and committed our lives to this process not because we had put on rose-colored glasses and thought we were on the way to riding a revolutionary wave. That was not part of our thinking at all.

Our conception was that the era of global counterrevolution would inevitably give way to a new political stage, one that would allow for the revival of the socialist and communist movement. The material and political basis for the revival of socialism, as we stated explicitly, was not because we expected a sudden reversal of global counterrevolution, but rather would come incrementally and be the inevitable consequence of the deepening crises within world capitalism. We did not think that these crises were the music of the distant future, but were in fact already being seen in growing class polarization, economic destabilization, and the resumption of rivalries between U.S. imperialism and other major powers, including China, and today we would have to say Russia as well.

Equally important, as it has turned out, U.S. imperialism’s capacity to act as a dominating hegemon in the world has dynamically eroded in the years since the formation of the PSL. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated. For the last 70 years, the ability of U.S. imperialism to function both as an anchor and undisputed leader of global capitalism prevented the outbreak or a repeat of either the First or Second World War, the two inter-imperialist conflicts that created the material basis for the rise and victory of socialism and communism in the 20th century. The emergence of China, the re-emergence of Russia as a major world power, and the rise of India, Brazil, Turkey and Iran have changed not only the relationship of forces, but the nature of contemporary rivalries. Just in the past few years we have witnessed the destruction of the network of power in the Middle East through which the United States was able to impose its will on the region. This abrupt shift in the Middle East constitutes an irreversible decline in U.S. imperialist authority in this critical region that impacts Europe and Asia as well.

The political impact of the era of global counterrevolution still weighs heavily on the formation of a new communist movement even though the material conditions for the revival of socialism and communism are rapidly maturing. It is not infrequent in history that political consciousness or the subjective factor lags behind material conditions. In fact, it is the rule not the exception.

Capitalism and capitalist competition have entered a politically malignant stage. Labeled neoliberalism, globalized capitalism is plummeting the working classes of the world into a dynamic downward spiral. Although this represents a feature of extreme competition between transnational corporations and banks, the struggle is not simply between transnational capital and the working class. The inherent nature of this competition requires the intervention of the capitalist state in every affected country on behalf of their own capitalist ruling class. At moments of cooperation between international capital this may not seem like a big deal, but with the outbreak of economic crises, and this is becoming increasingly true, the function of each state entity is to ruthlessly secure the position of its own capitalist establishment.

This contradictory global context places us in a different position than the Third International parties. These parties were created on the eve of what was expected to be the next wave of socialist revolutions throughout the capitalist world. There was a wave of revolutions, but they were defeated. The organizational model and the tactics that were codified in the Third International were designed to guide and provide the structure necessary for a successful revolutionary assault against the existing social order and the instruments of repression that existed to defend that order.

What was assumed in the creation of this model was the winning over of the vanguard of the working class to Marxism. That was the case in Germany and several of the major capitalist countries.

This is not the circumstance that the PSL finds itself in at all. We are at an earlier stage. We do not know how long any particular historical stage will last. One never knows where they are in the historical continuum until later. Even the Bolsheviks in 1916 could not have anticipated or fully anticipated, and certainly could not be prepared for and were not prepared for, a pre-revolutionary crisis that suddenly emerged in 1917. Politics is dynamic. Sudden changes seem to be impossible until they happen, but we have created a strategic framework based on what exists now rather than what might develop sooner or later.

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