By TODD CHRETIEN
TODD CHRETIEN is a member of the International Socialist Organization in the Bay Area. The following is a speech he delivered at Socialism 2007 in Chicago on June 15, 2007, which the author edited for publication.
I WANT to start today, not with Lenin, but with Eugene Victor Debs, who was the best-known revolutionary socialist at the turn of the century. He ran for president for the Socialist Party four times between 1904 and 1920, the last time running from prison. He was jailed by the great liberal Democrat and world peace-maker president, Woodrow Wilson, because Debs gave a speech against World War I. From his cell, in the first election in which women were allowed to vote, Debs won almost one million votes. Debs’ success demonstrates, in my mind, that socialism is not some “foreign import” into the United States, but has always been part and parcel of the workers’ movement.
Where did Debs come from? He began his political life, like a lot of people, as a Democrat. He was state legislator from Indiana. What changed him? A couple of things. He organized a union and led a strike, and America being what it is, there’s a good chance that when you organize a union and a strike, you are going to be put in jail. While he was in jail, he read Marx and other radicals and became a revolutionary socialist.
At the same time, halfway around the world, a man named Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (who later adopted the underground name Lenin) was going through a very similar process. Lenin began as a radical populist, but not a Marxist. His older brother was executed for taking part in a plot to assassinate the tsar (so he wasn’t fooling around) when Lenin was sixteen years old. Vladimir Ulyanov went to college a year later and was quickly expelled for leading student protests and had to finish his law degree off campus because they wouldn’t let him back in. Despite this, he passed the test and became a lawyer in a town called Samara. Interestingly, Samara was not all that different than Indiana. It was an industrial city in the middle of the vast Russian agricultural plains, where you could see coming together the older farming life with the imposition of the new industrial economy, with its railroads and large-scale factories.
That clash between the old and the new, especially the rapid development of the railroads, set the stage for both Debs and Lenin to understand that a new class of industrial workers was rising. That class, because of its collectivity and its relationship to the means of production (now concentrated in big factories), had a potential power that a dispersed peasantry, or small farmer class, simply didn’t have.
Both Debs and Lenin oriented on the new working class as a class that could not only free itself from exploitation, but, if it could get rid of capitalism, could once and for all free all of humanity from class oppression. So, both Debs and Lenin came to share a very similar understanding of how the world works and that working-class revolution and socialism were the only answers to capitalist war and exploitation. Twenty years later when the Russian Revolution of 1917 won, Debs famously said, “From the top of my head to the soles of my shoes, I am a Bolshevik.” (That helped earn him his spot in prison, by the way.)
Both revolutionary leaders drew the conclusions that, once you come to understand that capitalism is the root problem and that the working class all around the world has the power to struggle, resist it, and eventually overthrow it and replace it with a decent human society (which we call socialism), then you have to figure out how to organize in order to get that society. Because it isn’t enough to simply have that dream in your head, or to be a local activist without a national and international perspective. So in 1901, Debs helped found the American Socialist Party, and just two years later, Lenin helped found the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. I won’t go through all the ins and outs, but suffice it to say that the Russian party soon split into the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks (which simply means majority and minority in Russian). The Bolsheviks went on to lead the 1917 revolution.
But it’s one thing to come to the conclusion that you need a political party to fight for socialism and another thing to figure out exactly what type of party you need and how it should be organized. Here is where Debs and Lenin held very different ideas. I want to begin by laying out what Debs did on the question of party organization. Debs believed that anyone who called himself or herself a socialist should all be in the same party. Anyone who’s been a socialist in the United States for more than fifteen minutes has probably heard, “why don’t you all just get together, why are there so many little socialist groups?” Debs, even though he was a revolutionary, an anti-racist and an anti-imperialist, believed that you had to have a broad tent in which all trends within the socialist movement were represented in the same organization, because it would organize more people. However, there was a problem. Within that type of party there was a left wing led by people like Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn and Big Bill Haywood that believed in revolution and class struggle. There was also a right wing led by people like Victor Berger from Milwaukee that was segregationist and anti-immigrant, and believed that socialism was simply about state ownership, or even the municipal ownership of some parts of the economy.
Does anyone here live in a state where there are municipal utility companies? Yes? Do you feel any closer to workers’ power? No? I didn’t think so. But, back in the day, many people thought that might be the gradual road to socialism. So Berger, who was the only socialist ever elected to Congress, was very popular. But Berger was, as I said before, a real right-winger on many issues. In fact, he wouldn’t like most of what we say this weekend at this conference. The problem was that basing a party on such a broad conception of what socialism was and how to get there, meant, that when push came to shove, you were inevitably going to face a split. And in 1919, after World War I and Debs’ imprisonment, the Russian Revolution, and the beginnings of real industrial battles, that’s precisely what happened. At the Socialist Party convention of 1919, Berger called on the Chicago police to storm the hall and arrest the left wing of the party. The Communist Party was then formed by those who had been arrested. You get the idea that unity for the sake of unity is not always worth it. You might spend fifteen or twenty years trying to keep people in the party who, at the end of the day, simply want to kick you out. So, just having a broad tent, at least in the American experience, really didn’t work.
Lenin developed a very different approach. He began with an idea very similar to Debs’ because that was basically how all socialist parties in the world—from Germany to the United States to France—organized at that time. Lenin started with that broad tent idea that the central issue was for all socialists to form a single, united party. At first they tried at the local level in Petersburg in the early 1890s, forming a group called the League for the Emancipation of Labor—perhaps not the best name anyone ever thought up. Lenin and his friends did have some early success, organizing protests and inspiring strikes or influencing spontaneous ones, and they were able to introduce socialist ideas to an important number of workers. However, this type of organization faced two problems. First, just like in the American Socialist Party, tension began to develop between emerging left and right wings. Compounding that problem in Russia was the question of tsarist repression. A couple of years after forming the league, Lenin and most of the other leaders found themselves in prison. So, after sixteen months in solitary confinement, Lenin scratches his head and says, “Well, that really didn’t work. We can’t just go around handing out leaflets, asking everyone to join us, because the police just send spies to get our membership lists. Then they go around to everyone’s door and ask, “Are you a member of the party? Yes? Excellent! Thank you for signing up! Now come to jail. We’ve reserved a lovely hut in Siberia for you!’” (Don’t bother looking for that exact quote, but you get the idea.)
Lenin started to grapple with the problem of what type of organization could both bring together the clear-headed left wing of the movement and withstand such intense repression. Lenin’s answer to this dilemma eventually led him to build a very different kind of party from the one Debs organized. This new type of party, a vanguard party, can be boiled down to the following:
1. The vanguard party must be based on the idea that capitalism must be replaced by socialism, a society based on social justice and a radical redistribution of wealth. The existing state and governmental structures are not set up to do this and must be replaced, by means of mass revolutionary struggle, with the democratic power of the working class.
2. Members of the party agree that the immense majority of working-class people are not only capable of participation in the struggle, but are themselves the only force strong enough to win it. That is, it is not the party, but the working class, which makes the revolution.
3. Members agree to organize together into a party in order to achieve these goals in the most efficient and democratic manner possible, understanding that revolutionary mass action, and not getting its leaders elected, is the party’s central focus. This means that the party must organize not the working class as a whole, or all socialist trends, but only the revolutionary vanguard of the working class.
I think that’s at least a good working definition of what Lenin meant by a vanguard party. Now I’ll try to explain some of these terms and ideas. But before I do that I want to set up a series of questions, which, somewhere at least in my mind, I imagine Debs posing to Lenin. I do this from the basis of one of Debs’ most famous quotes. While running for president, he would travel all across the country and speak to hundreds of meetings and rallies from the back of a train. Tens and hundreds of thousands of workers and farmers came to hear him speak. He was a very popular guy.
He was an important leader, so people began to look at him as somebody who was going to do something for them. But Debs was always hostile to the idea that the point of organizing a socialist party was to get its leader elected, or that it would solve anything. So this is how Debs responded to people who saw him as the solution: “If I could lead you into the promised land, I could lead you back out again.” That is, if I had the personal power to grant you socialism, then I’d have the power to take it away again. OK, good quote. But how do you solve this problem?
Here are Debs’ three questions for Lenin.
1. Why can’t a great leader do the job?
2. If there is a promised land, why doesn’t everybody want to go there right now?
3. Aren’t parties just as susceptible to corruption as individual leaders?
Here’s how I think Lenin would respond.
Why can’t a great leader do the job? There are the obvious tragic examples of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Joe Hill being assassinated. Of Big Bill Haywood and Debs being imprisoned. There is a whole pantheon of martyrs who have stood up for working-class freedom and the liberation of the oppressed in this country. If you rely too heavily on a single, inspiring figure, there is a real danger that person will be eliminated. You cannot rely on a single individual to bear the interests of an entire class.
But there’s a more complex reason as well. Marx argued that there are two reasons why you need a revolution. First, only the working class has the social power to defeat the rich because they won’t give up without a struggle.
I’ve done an experiment. Before I started speaking, I placed calls to George Bush, Bill Gates, and the board of directors of Chevron. I’ve got my phone here and I’m going to leave it on. Now if they call me back during this talk to tell me that they’ve decided that we’re right and that they’re out at the registration table, ready to voluntarily hand over their wealth...well, then everything I’m saying is wrong, and we can just have fun for the rest of the weekend.
So, if you hear the phone ring, and I’ve got their numbers programmed in so I’ll know who’s calling...we might be in luck. But, it’s probably not wise to bet on that option. Marx argues that the ruling class, the rich of this society, will not give up their power and privilege without a fight. In fact, the rich believe they deserve everything they have. From the time they are born, they’re trained to think they are smarter and better than all of the rest of us. So unless you are a very patient person...
As I was saying, they won’t give it up, but we have the power to take it. Why? Because the working class is the immense majority, we have our hands on the levers of their profit system, and because the working class has time and time again shown a collective instinct for struggle and solidarity. You only have to look at the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and how ordinary working-class people responded, trying to do whatever they could to help the victims while the government and the rich stood by, worrying about the insurance companies and their property.
There’s an even more devious side, which is that the rich have things called the FBI, the CIA, the courts, and the prison system. There are two million poor people in prison today without a mass movement challenging the power of the rich right now. Imagine what they’ll do when they feel threatened, not simply by the poverty they create, but by an organized movement aimed right at them. We have to abandon any illusions that the rich will ever give up their power without a fight.
The second reason Marx argues you need a revolution is that we grow up in this society, so we are covered from head to toe with, as I believe he put it prosaically, the shit that capitalism spews out. In order to overcome the divisions of race and gender and sexuality and nation that the system drills into the working class’s brains, we need a revolutionary movement in which the working class overcomes these obstacles. Only through struggle can a genuinely united working class fight for its own freedom. And besides the special or double oppressions that sections of the working class suffer (sexism, homophobia, racism), there is the generalized oppression of the entire working class.
If you go to Harvard, your average student there is very self-confident, believes that they got there on their own merits, that they’ll go on to do great things and lead the nation because they were born to do that. Your average working-class person tends to be more deferential and less confident, has less access to education, and often can fall victim to the fear broadcast by the politicians and the media. If you look at the working class in general, the level of psychological illness, of drug abuse, etc., is shocking. The toll that this system takes on people is very high.
One wonderful counter example to workers’ suffering took place in Poland during the Solidarity strikes in 1980. There, the Stalinist system had a policy of sticking workers who drank too much or didn’t show up to work on time or at all in the psychiatric wards. Clearly, anyone who didn’t arrive sober and on time to work at 5 am at the Gdansk shipyard welding depot in January when the Baltic Sea is frozen solid had some sort of mental illness. I mean, how could life get better than that! But when millions of workers joined in the strikes and mass protests aimed at bringing a more human face to so-called Polish communism, a funny thing happened. Many of those workers who were branded as “depressed” or “anti-social” suddenly felt much better. They checked themselves out of the hospitals and joined in the movement. They wanted to participate. They felt confident. They felt like they were not just pawns, they had a voice. Even a little dose of workers’ power can cure a lot of the ailments workers pick up from capitalism.
On to Debs’ second question and Lenin’s answer. If there is a promised land, why doesn’t everyone want to go there right now? I remember when I became a socialist, I read the Communist Manifesto and I thought, “Yes, that’s it. I’ll just go tell everyone!” But pretty quickly I realized that it wasn’t that easy. The question is: If the working class is the immense majority, and if socialism is in their interest, why don’t people just rise up spontaneously? Why don’t they just look around and say, “Well, this sucks, let’s try something else!” There’s an old socialist saying that (I don’t know if Debs coined this or not, he was usually more eloquent) if the working class all spit at the same time, we could drown the bourgeoisie. So why don’t we all just spit? Why don’t we go to the promised land? What is it that holds us back? What is it about capitalism that keeps people working for this system and not revolting against it automatically?
Marx—back to Marx again—says that socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class, what we’ve been talking about so far. But then Marx also says that the ideas of any society are the ideas of the ruling class. So how are we supposed to make a revolution in our own interest if we are dominated by the ideology of capitalism? Today it’s pretty easy to see the means by which our ruling class inculcates us with their ideas. You only have to flip through however many cable stations there are, and with the exception of Amy Goodman and Pacifica, there are painfully few media outlets that give you any alternative view of the world.
But if you want to know who to fear, if you want to know how dangerous the Muslims are, if you want to know why Arabs are so irrational...all you have to do is turn on the TV anytime of the day or night and the corporate media and Hollywood will tell you. Fear and disinformation are also put forward by the politicians, in many schools and churches, and in a million other ways. But don’t despair. There is a way to unlock this stranglehold.
It’s called reality.
Let’s see how this works. Pick your favorite Fox newscaster. If you don’t have one, just make one up. Fox News says, “National health care is bad. It will make you stand in line. You don’t want to be like the Canadians. What have the Canadians ever done for the world? You don’t want to be a Canadian. You want to be an American! You don’t want your health care given to you. You want to have to fight for your health care. Work for your health care. Pay bureaucrats for your health care. That’s what’s good for you!”
Most people with a brain, scratch their heads and say, “Well, I don’t know...what’s wrong with the Canadian system again?”
Fox says, “It’s BAD! It’s, it’s...CANADIAN!”
Most people say, “Yah, but it sounds pretty good. Discounted medicine, access to preventative treatment like prenatal care, it’s free...”
Fox says, “No. It’s even worse than Canadian.... It’s FRENCH!”
Most people say, “What’s wrong with France again?”
In other words, no matter how much Fox wants you to love your HMO, millions of working-class people’s own reality is leading them to question the ideas of the ruling class and lean toward a class-consciousness that is in alignment with their own lives. And once workers begin to figure out that the media is lying about something very important to their own lives like health care, then it opens the question of whether or not they’re lying about other things too, like Iraq, crime, immigration, etc.
Today, the best example of this conflict between working-class reality and ruling-class ideas is provided by George Bush himself. Bush gets on TV and says, “I’m real happy about Iraq. We’re makin’ progress. We’re turnin’ a corner. Real happy.” And about 200 million people say, “What the hell are you talking about! We’re turning a corner? How many corners are there? Shouldn’t we turn around and at least try to get back to the beginning? Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!” And that is usually followed with a string of profanities.
So this contradiction opens people’s minds and this is a process in which we as revolutionaries have to engage. It’s a battle for ideas. And I’ll give you one example of where the role of political organization can play a decisive part. Before the election of 2004, going into April, the occupation had been going on for a year and it was beginning to get bad. People were sick of it and beginning to turn against it. Bush was going down in the polls and the economy was not doing well. Then the people of Fallujah, Iraq, rose up in rebellion against the American occupation. At that point, Moqtada al-Sadr organized his Shiite following in solidarity with the predominantly Sunni resistance in Fallujah. That moment could have begun a real radical turn against the war in the American population because reality was obviously in conflict with the rhetoric from the Bush administration and the generals.
However, nothing is automatic. In the battle for ideas then, I believe one political leader and his party played a decisive role in retarding the radicalization against the war, that person was John “reporting for duty” Kerry. Just as Bush was running into trouble, Kerry stood up and said, “No, we are not going to leave. We are going to win this war. We have to send more troops.” That made a difference because it lent legitimacy to Bush in the battle of ideas. If Kerry had stood up and said, “You know what? It’s just like Vietnam. They are lying to us now just like they did after the Tet Offensive. It’s time to get out.” If he had done that, it would have had a dramatic impact on how people thought about the war.
The battle for ideas isn’t a passive thing where rhetoric and reality just drift around in the atmosphere, it matters what political people and political parties do and say. So back to Lenin. When Lenin says “vanguard party” he simply means that you have to bring together all those people who agree with the premises of the revolutionary party, so that they can organize around themselves all the other people who are anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and anti-sexist, so that they can better influence other workers who are not so conscious. The working class doesn’t only respond to events. It also responds to leaders, the media, and political parties. The ruling class has two parties of its own, the working class should have at least one of its own. If their side is going to try to pull people to the right, in favor of the war, against unions, against gay marriage, etc, then our side has to be prepared to pull in the other direction. That’s the role of the vanguard party.
People sometimes get nervous about the term “vanguard.” But if you think about it, it just means the people who are out in front, on the frontlines. Or you can say the hardcore activists or the committed minority. It’s a term which has been made scary by Stalinism and by capitalism, but when Lenin used it, he simply meant that you need to get the people who agree with these ideas and who consciously want to change the world together and they have to act accordingly and they have to act effectively.
Once you do that, you must keep in mind that the party itself does not make the revolution on behalf of the working class, but rather it is simply that part of the working class that argues with the rest of the working class that the only way to get rid of capitalism is if we do it ourselves. Every political movement has always started with a vanguard. From Spartacus fighting to free the Roman slaves, to the American Revolution and Civil War, to the freedom struggle in South Africa, to the anti-colonial struggle in India, to Zapata and Villa, to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and to today. Now we have a growing immigrant rights movement, but nothing ever starts evenly. You always begin with a minority of people who first organize themselves and then they try to affect change. Simply put, that is what a vanguard is.
Debs’ final question for Lenin: Can’t parties, just like individual leaders, be corrupted? So isn’t it dangerous to organize a party that might end up going off track or selling out? My answer, which I think Lenin would agree with is, “Well, yeah, anything can happen, so you better figure out how to organize in the way most likely to prevent this from happening.”
One of the worst ways to organize is to base your party on money. Whoever has the most money, has the most power. It seems to me that looking around today it’s obvious that that’s how both the Democrats and the Republicans organize their parties. A revolutionary party has to be organized on a very different basis (and that’s not only because none of us have any money). It has to be organized on the basis of aiming to get rid of capitalism and looking to the immense majority of people to do that.
So we have to be organized very differently from other parties. In a nutshell, we call our method democratic centralism. These two words, democracy and centralism, can seem contradictory. But I want to explain that in the genuine Leninist sense they are not contradictory at all. Let’s start with democracy, why do we need it? Not because the International Socialist Organization (ISO) or any revolutionary party is some type of commune or utopia where everything is great and everyone gets along and we have fabulous discussions. If you’ve been in the ISO for a little while, you know that, sure, we generally all get along, and we do have fabulous discussions, but it’s no utopia. In fact, I can’t remember anyone ever describing the ISO as anything like a utopia. If someone told you that it is, and you’re considering joining the ISO on the basis that it is a utopia...don’t do it!
So what is democracy? It’s not a happy-go-lucky-everybody-gets-a-say kind of thing for the sake of fairness. Instead, democracy, if it works, has to be a contentious, active, participatory, argumentative, organized process. We have formal votes on agendas, delegates, leaders, actions, policies, etc. In fact, I’d venture a guess that the ISO is one of the most democratic organizations in the world. So, yes, there have to be formal mechanisms of democracy within the party, but more than that, democracy has to be active and participatory. Why? In order to confront the beast we are up against, you need to have as many people as possible looking at the problem, studying the problem, engaged in trying to get rid of the problem.
And everybody’s point of view is different based on where they live, where they grew up, where they work, how old they are, their level of political experience, or different personal experiences. How they are feeling on any given day. They can be influenced by many different things. So the more people you have actively taking part in that process of democracy, the better chance you have of getting the right answer. It doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get the right answer, but compare that to a situation where you rely on a couple of central leaders with everyone else hanging around passively waiting to be told what do to. Even if your couple of leaders are very smart, their experience will be much shallower than the collective democratic effort. That is a situation that is much more predisposed to getting the wrong answer, especially in a country as big as this one. We have six time zones! The idea that two people in New York can always tell the San Francisco State University branch what tactics are best is laughable. You have to have minds of your own. You have to figure these things out at a local level. Then we put it all together to develop a national picture. So democracy really is important.
The second part is centralism, because if the ISO is not a utopia, it’s also not a talk shop. We don’t have academic conferences. Now there are some very good academics, but there are also many academic conferences where everyone talks and nothing comes out of it because no one ever expected anything to come out of it. The ISO is not a talk shop. We want to act. We want freedom of discussion to have our debates out, but then we want to take a vote. Whichever side wins will be put into practice and then we’re going to see if it works. If our decision is wrong, then the people who opposed it can come back and say, “See that was wrong.” But the only way to test things in practice is to make a decision, have all members try to implement that decision to the best of their ability, and then assess the outcome. If members don’t take decisions and actions seriously, then you never know if it was your tactics that were wrong, or it was in the implementation that went wrong. In other words, giving something a half-assed try is no test at all.
A couple of other things about centralism. It’s not that we like centralism for the sake of centralism. But if you want to win anything, you need a certain kind of centralism. Look at a strike. If 51 percent of workers vote to strike, then the union goes on strike. All workers go out together. Anyone who doesn’t go on strike is called a scab. If you want to win a strike, you have to get everyone on strike, even the workers who voted against it. That’s the only way the working class has a chance to win.
Thankfully today, whenever there are strike votes, they are usually more like 95 percent or more in favor of striking because they’re so pissed off. But you can’t just say, “you go your way and I’ll go mine.” You have to act as a unit, a united class. So another way to say centralism is unity in action.
One word on internal party organization, and this goes along with ideas designed to help avoid going off track. To start with, there are, very broadly speaking, different levels of membership. This is schematic and I don’t believe that there are fast and frozen differences between these types of members, but it’s useful to look at it this way.
Number one. I think that we need to have leaders; leadership is important in a revolutionary party. There have to be formal elections and those leaders have to be accountable to the entire membership. They can’t just do what they want. But on the flip side of that we also have to understand that leadership plays an important role in the struggle. Why do leaders matter? Because some people have been tested in practice over a longer period of time and have proven the ability to get the right answer more often than other people. You would be foolish not to want those people to have a say, and even a very strong say, in what your organization does. It would be like if you have a musical group with a great guitarist and a great drummer and you said, “OK, tonight for the concert, we’re going to switch.” You might get lucky and each of those people are equally talented in both, but more likely is that the drummer won’t play good guitar and the guitarist will not know what to do with the drums. Rather than having a great concert, you’re going to have to muddle through. And why would you want to muddle through if you don’t have to? And after all, we’re not just talking about a concert, but a struggle to free humanity.
Number two. Leaders can’t just be suspended in air. There has to be an active cadre of members. Cadre just means those people who’ve dedicated themselves and their lives to doing everything they possible can to getting rid of capitalism. Maybe not every moment of their waking lives, but many, many, many moments of their waking lives to getting rid of this beast and figuring out how to organize to do so. And the cadre have to be dispersed over the country, they have to be involved in many different jobs and schools, they have to lead different aspects of the work, etc. They have to be able to think for themselves and have enough experience so that they can take their own point of view and bring it together constructively in a collective discussion with the whole party. They have to be able to bring it into dialogue, and if necessary, conflict, with the elected leadership as well.
Number three. You have to have a mass membership. We don’t have one now. But to be successful, a revolutionary party needs a mass membership of tens and hundreds of thousands of workers. This part of the membership may fluctuate a lot. For instance, in 1903, the Bolsheviks had five or six hundred members. In the middle of the 1905 Revolution, they grew to 40,000 or 50,000. After the revolution’s defeat, the Bolshevik’s membership fell to a couple of thousand by 1909. It’s not that those tens of thousands of people who joined the Bolshevik Party weren’t serious, or they didn’t really mean it, that they were fooled or something. It was just that the repression and demoralization from defeat was so intense that it was very difficult to hold that many people in an organization. But it doesn’t mean that that mass membership is unimportant because sometimes that mass membership is going to have a better understanding of what’s happening in the trenches of capitalism than the leadership.
Therefore, understanding the holistic dynamic between the leadership, the cadre, and the mass membership is really key to Lenin’s position. If you counterpoise this to Debs, unfortunately, Debs was left in a situation where there was a massive passive membership, and an experienced cadre, but the leadership was really bureaucratically insulated from the contentious democratic centralism that defined Lenin’s ideas on party building.
I’ll finish up with a couple of thoughts. How do you turn these ideas into concrete reality? There are many different tactics and methods and some are used more often than others, but I just want to throw them out there and people can address them in the discussion.
Socialist Worker newspaper plays a central role in building a revolutionary party. The paper is crucial to both democracy and centralism and the ability to act in the world. It is one of our tools in the battle for ideas where we try to pull people away from Fox News or the mainstream political parties. But it’s also a way to organize our struggle because it has directives about how to organize things in your locality. It’s not possible for an organizer to get on the phone and talk to dozens of branches every week about current political priorities. Having a newspaper helps set a national political priority or initiative, which we can all test in practice. And, in the future, we will become a much larger organization so the newspaper will be even more important as a way to organize our activities. Socialist Worker carries our political arguments into the world, but it also carries arguments to us about what to do and how to do it.
We have literature and education programs in order to raise our historical and theoretical knowledge of the world, and we encourage allies and other organizers to participate in this process with us. We have debates and forums, we participate in all sorts of struggles and protests and strikes and movements. We even sometimes participate in elections, although not necessarily so successfully. We put all these tactics, which by themselves can be right or wrong in a given circumstance, to use in the project of building a revolutionary party that’s fighting to change the system.
I’ll conclude with this. I think we have a long fight ahead of us. Lenin had an advantage in a certain way. He faced a very difficult life. As I said, his brother was executed and he spent most of his youth in jail, on the run, or in exile in Siberia. But he had an advantage in one way. By the time he was twenty-five, Russian circumstances had produced a country with tumultuous class struggle teaching tens of thousands of workers the practical lessons of revolution. Those workers learned how to make half revolutions and even a whole revolution, and that experience, compressed into a twenty-five-year period (from 1892 to 1917), gave Lenin the material upon which to base these ideas that we use today. So, he was lucky in that sense. And he had another small piece of fortune in that he was fighting a weak ruling class.
In the end, the tsarist government and the Russian bourgeoisie was a very feeble force compared to what we are up against in the United States today. We have a government and ruling class unlike anything the world has ever seen. It is powerful, ruthless, and self-conscious of its aims. It has 200 years of experience of maintaining control through repression, ideology, and cooptation. It is rich and it intends to remain in power until it destroys the world. They seem to be intent on accelerating that process these days, at least that’s my opinion. We have a very difficult project ahead of us. I think it will take us twenty or thirty years or more to build the kind of organization, and not in isolation from other forces on the American Left, that will be strong enough to contend with our rulers—a party strong enough to help lead the working class to transform this system once and for all.
If anyone is joining the ISO because they think the revolution is around the corner, I’m sorry to say it’s going to take a long time. We are up against a real fight here. And when we say you have to dedicate your lives to this project, we mean it. However, there’s a short-term urgency as well. The Bolshevik Party needed to go through every stage of development, from a few isolated people leading a couple strikes in one city to then becoming a mass movement and then a national movement and then being pushed back and then growing again in the middle of a terrible war and finally being in a position to lead a revolution. They had to go through every one of those stages, and as I said, they were fortunate in that their stages were compressed.
We don’t know when our revolutionary situations are going to come, but if you look around our society today at the anger that’s out there, you can feel political change in the air. People are pissed off about this war, you only have to ask the soldiers. The immigrant rights movement is leading the American working class in relearning the lessons of struggle. The health care fiasco and prison crisis are out of control, and on and on and on. It is impossible to say when things are going to break, but ideas are already moving in our direction. Whether or not we can transform that anger into large struggles in the next six months or eighteen months or twenty-four months is difficult to say, but I think we are in a period in which the ideas we have embodied in the members we have now in the ISO will be widely appreciated by many, many tens of thousands of working-class people.
So we have to live and organize in the conditions we face today. There’s no good wishing we were somewhere else or in some other time because the process of building the organization is the precondition to going on to those bigger struggles. The urgency we feel now toward rebuilding the social movements and simultaneously building up the basis for a real revolutionary party is not just because we think things will change some day in the future, but also because we can make a real contribution in the here and now to changing the world.
I believe that this isn’t just rhetoric. Eugene Debs proved eighty years ago that socialism can be and should be—that it has been and it will be again—a core part of the working-class struggle to change this country. And if we can change this country, imagine the hope and inspiration that will bring to people around the world.