A Note on Party – An Institution or in Movement?

Pratyush Chandra

A comrade working in India recently 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 can 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. 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 the mushrooming of diverse varieties of movements independent of party influences. However, I believe, this question of party and beyond-party has always been a central concern in the socialist movement the world over. The Luxemburg-Lenin debate on party too was centred around it.

In my opinion, any “yes-no” answer to the above question is bound to be refuted by counter-examples. In fact, 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 – prominent among them are the Venezuelan, Argentine and Zapatistas in Mexico. However, there are numerous groups, even traditional party structures operating within 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).

However, 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 the 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 makes 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 asserts 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 probably the most organised constituent of the Indian left:

“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 makes 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” (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 the capitalist hegemony transforming the social relations is relegated to the secondary level, while the issue of ensuring formal political consolidation and stability in a competitive setup becomes the end of the party politics. The issue of posing class alternatives to capitalist regime of accumulation is sidelined in the process of “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.


One thought on “A Note on Party – An Institution or in Movement?

  1. Very apt and relevant to our times, dear Pratyush. Thanks for a most insightful writing on the subject.

    I would also say most of our reflections often depend actually on the type of questions we probe into. A question such as, “are there no possibilities of outside party movements now” is to my view calls for equally problematic answer. Clearly this is a question that seeks a yes/no answer–no denying that. Moreover, the important question for a revolution anytime in history is not ‘if there is any scope’, but ‘how to’ build one. As Castro said prophetically once, the onus of the revolution lies with the revolutionary. If we miss the opportunity or if we do not work towards understanding conditions and contribute to them, then, only the in-party/out-party dilemmas would continue to surface.

    A party demands participation in the party affairs. Even as people may become members of the party (like most Soviet citizens once were) it is not expected that they work the nitty-gritty of the organizational setup, considering their other primary occupations. And even when people are not members of the party (like most of us in the world are), it is not necessary that we refrain from forwarding constructive critiques of the party. Having said that, no party whose aims/goals are not in consonance with the peoples it claims to represent can continue to be successful. Hence proverbially it is said, people often deserve the kind of government they elect.

    In this sense, the aspirations of the working class of the world must be truly represented by a party that claims itself to be communist. In doing so, the party would have justified its position. Unfortunately, when a communist party(ies) (as in India) fail(s) entirely to stand the test (by extending supports to puppets of capitalist class in greedy power structure), the question “Are there any” becomes redundant. The only question that matters now, is “how to build it now”.

    And to that, come, all of us peoples–in small and large measures, across religions and classes, across races and castes. across nations and boundaries. The movement–against the domestic neoliberals and international capitalists–is waiting to sweep across the planet. Most of us are impacted negatively by the land-grabbers. And we dont look at our party affiliations or job positions or the name of our church when we are deprived of equal claim to the earth’s resources. And when we respond back–in every form possible for us, organizing through letters, speeches, and prison camps; inside schools, colleges, and marketplaces; against the greedy corporate bosses, sensational fox/cnn, and amazingly unbelievable mainstream politicians–we would not be looking at any party credentials. If we are members, well and fine. If we are not, well and fine. Revolution does not wait for ID cards. Neither does it wait for a tiny group of future ruling class. Only thing it requires for its goals to be fulfilled is a solidarity amongst peoples that have come together for the greater cause to bring about true equity and equality devoid of substantial or monopolistic private gains.

    If we cannot stand in solidarity during our times–these times, we would have set a very ugly example for the future generations of radical minds, indeed a pathetic one. We owe it to the future of the earth to set out the goals afresh if we need amendments to any manifesto. But we also owe it to the future, to work towards realizing the goals ourselves without getting deterred by who has joined the party, or who has not joined one. Its the merry-making ‘Party’ after the liberation of mother earth from the current ‘owners’ that is the only party which matters. We will have fun, and we know that. A great celebration where we will not have to buy Archies greetings cards to invite anyone. Everyone will feel automatically invited. Thats the party. And this hope of that morning which Sahir once pinned for, is the great hope which we should strive for by working together, while we smile, and sing: Saathi Haath Badhana….

    Laal Salaam!

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