Activism, Bureaucracy and the Long Road Ahead

J.R. Murray contrasts the modern left's hyper-activism and bureaucratic organization with the pressing need to reconnect and rebuild our movement

Following Lenin's footsteps... but which Lenin?

Surveying recent decades of the U.S. socialist movement is a morbid task. From the 1990s until recently, discussion of socialism was a topic relegated to the ideological trashcan. The fall of the USSR infamously ushered in “The End of History” – the liberal democracies had won.

Now, after the 2008 financial crisis, the wave of protests that followed, including Occupy Wall  Street (a watershed moment for the potential return of class-based politics), the global economic recession and its specious recovery, liberal democracies are no longer immune to criticism from the Left. The American bourgeoisie has no solution for continued economic stagnation. The logic of capitalism compels the ruling class to rip out the meager welfare state by its roots, rolling back every concession the working class gained since the 1940s, in order to maintain economic  power. The last hope of the U.S. bourgeoisie is the brutal implementation of austerity alongside a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom 80% to the top 20%. Whatever social security and potential for “upward mobility” the working class may have once had is gone and isn’t coming back.

In the midst of such defeats and the misery they’ve caused, the working class, especially young workers, are looking for an alternative. They are joining socialist organizations in unprecedented numbers. It is unclear, however, whether or not these growing organizations can become vehicles for a mass workers movement.

The state of the Left is unquestionably pitiful. Dozens of bickering socialist organizations exist and not one would be capable of leading the working class to political power. Instead, the working class suffers defeat after defeat. Union membership is at a record low and the unions themselves have a cozy relationship with the state, as well as with the very corporations they nominally oppose. Strikes are rare are as are jobs that offer financial security. The public school system continues to decay. Due to lack of healthcare, workers are dying preventable deaths at increasingly younger ages. Food insecurity is on the rise. Police continue to occupy whole neighborhoods. College education, useless in the job-market, is impossibly expensive. Driven to debt and despair, lower-income Americans are overdosing in record numbers.

Still, a majority of the working class remains skeptical, if not outright hostile, to socialism and socialist parties remain extraordinarily small, despite their recent growth. Why?

An explanation for the abject failure of Left movements can be found in the structure of socialist parties and the poor strategies this structure engenders. To understand this structure, we need to locate the key historical assumptions that are routinely invoked as a justification for incompetent political and organizational positions. This is an imperative first step if we wish to move beyond them and toward a radically democratic revolutionary party as a vehicle for the working class to take power.

The revolutionary organization with the largest influence on the left, positive or negative, is without question the Bolshevik Party.

Lenin & the Bolsheviks

Socialist organizations across the spectrum justify a myriad of positions by invoking Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But which Lenin are they praising? The Lenin of 1905 who believed the Russian Revolution would be a bourgeois revolution or the Lenin who wrote the April Theses? The Lenin that helped to ban factions within the party or the Lenin who, at the end of his life, warned his comrades of the rising bureaucracy? Lenin the man, or Lenin the body, mummified and forced to lay in a mausoleum against his wishes?

Lenin is no deity. He invokes inspiration because of his courage, dynamic range of thought, brilliant timing, and careful use of Marxist analysis. Yet today, a self-perpetuating bureaucracy sifts through Lenin’s work, interpreting it for their own ends, cutting and pasting pieces of it to justify their existence.

The leading socialist parties fashion themselves as the Bolsheviks of 1917 – utterly correct on every major issue, linked to the masses – the future of the revolution. But their conception of the Bolsheviks is like their conception of Lenin: flat and ossified. In reality, nearly every socialist organization today is descended from the post-1921 Bolshevik party – a bureaucratic, top-down apparatus disconnected from the people it claims to represent.

In 1921 the Bolsheviks were in a desperate situation. Clamoring after the failure of revolution in industrialized Europe, reeling from the one-two punch of World War I and their own brutal civil war, and crippled from the total destruction of industry, the Russian working class was either dead, demoralized, or fleeing to the countryside. A nation in the throes of industrialization, Russia was comprised mostly of peasants; if the working class was small before the wars, now it barely existed. In his massive biography of Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher summarized the situation:

Thus a few years after the revolution the nation was incapable of managing its own affairs and of asserting itself through its own authentic representatives. The old ruling classes were crushed; and the new ruling class, the proletariat, was only a shadow of its former self. No party could claim to represent the dispersed working class; and the workers could not control the party which claimed to speak for them and to rule the country on their behalf.

Whom then did the Bolshevik party represent? It represented only itself, that is, its past association with the working class, its present aspiration to act as guardian of the proletarian class interest, and its intention to reassemble in the course of economic reconstruction a new working class which should be able in due time to take the country’s destinies into its hands. In the meantime, the Bolshevik party maintained itself in power by usurpation. Not only its enemies saw it as an usurper- the party appeared as an usurper even in the light of its own standards and its own conception of the revolutionary state.

The Bolsheviks of 1921 existed to perpetuate their own existence. They did not represent the working class because there was no working class to represent. Almost 100 years later, current socialist parties cannot offer the same excuse. An enormous working class suffering indignity and exploitation surrounds the Left and yet barely comes into contact with it.

Today, socialist parties hang suspended in mid-air, gazing at the working class below, never close enough to meet it for more than a moment.

Bureaucratic Centralism

Just as socialist parties remain separated from the working class, the leadership of socialist parties stay separated from their rank-and-file members. Assuming they toe the party line, individual activists are allowed into the leadership circle. But the leadership itself remains small and powerful. Decisions are often made without consulting the rank-and-file, and bureaucratic maneuvering dominates the politics of decision making. Overall, the ruling clique controls the party from the top down.

Hal Draper names the current parties dominating the Left “bureaucratic sects”. He explained the basic strategy of these sects in his pamphlet “Anatomy of a Microsect”:

The sect mentality typically sees the road ahead as one in which the sect (one’s own sect) will grow and grow, because it has the Correct Political Program, until it becomes a large sect, then a still larger sect, eventually a small mass party, then larger, etc., until it becomes large and massy enough to impose itself as the party of the working class in fact. But in two hundred years of socialist history, this has never actually happened, in spite of innumerable attempts.

The sect wishes to recruit members in the ones and two (almost exclusively from university campuses) with the hopes that, one day, they will be large enough to superimpose themselves onto the working class.

Because of it’s relation to the proletariat as the perennial other, a sect may be completely unaware of the working class’s needs, concerns, and demands. Draper elaborates that the sect instead, “counter-poses its sect criterion of programmatic points against the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, which may not measure up to its high demands.” Rather than expressing the will of the working class, a sect demands that the working class bend to its will.

Draper described the bureaucracy’s revolutionary strategy in a sentence, “…their organizational road to power is the formation of an elite band of Maximum Leaders which holds itself ready to bestow its own rule, at a propitious movement, on an elemental upsurge of the people.” Instead of the party being a vehicle for working class power, a means for workers to emancipate themselves, the proletariat becomes a wave on which the sect rides into power.

Within the modern sect, intra-party democracy is suppressed and, as always, Lenin and the Bolsheviks are invoked as justification. The sect claims to practice the same democratic centralism that the Bolsheviks practiced in 1917, but again their stunted understanding of the Bolsheviks obscures the reality of their role as a poor imitation of the post-civil war party.

In 1921 the Bolsheviks banned their opposition in the Soviet. By all accounts this was not an easily reached conclusion. Deutscher tells an anecdote by the Menshevik Sukhanov, “Sukhanov relates that three years later, after the Bolsheviks had banned all the parties of the opposition, he reminded Trotsky of his pledge not to lend himself to the suppression of any minority. Trotsky lapsed into silence, reflected for a while, and then said wistfully: ‘Those were good days.’” Deutscher describes the decision to ban parties as a crossroads where “…Bolshevism suffered a moral agony the like of which is hardly to be found in the history of less intense and impassioned movements. Later Lenin recalled the ‘fever’ and ‘mortal illness’ which consumed the party in the winter of 1920-21.”

Lenin and the Bolsheviks had always intended for the banning of Soviet opposition to be temporary, but the logic of banning opposition in the Soviets inevitably led to the banning of factions within the party, which deepened the bureaucratic trend and eventually led to the tragedy of Stalinism.

The socialist parties of today are direct descendants of this bureaucratic party form, and have less qualms than their Bolshevik ancestors about silencing dissent. As far back as 1969 Ralph Miliband was critiquing this bastardized version of democratic centralism implemented by official communist parties:

…Communist parties were greatly unhinged by alternating bouts of sectarianism and opportunism and, indeed, quite commonly, by both simultaneously. The extreme tensions which this produced inside these parties were contained, but never subdued, by a bureaucratic application of the principle of ‘democratic centralism’, which made so much room for centralism that it left little or no room for democracy. One result of this bureaucratic deformation was a catastrophic ideological impoverishment and the transformation of the Marxism these parties professed into a vulgarized, manipulative and sloganized phraseology, which greatly affected their capacity for ‘raising the level of consciousness’. In short, their whole historical tradition has powerfully limited the effectiveness of their role and left a vast gap between their actual performance and the kind of ideological and political effort required of revolutionary formations.

Our socialist parties suffer from that same flaw. They do not practice democratic centralism, but bureaucratic centralism. Within contemporary parties, decisions are made at the top and passed down to the rank and file. Cursory nods are made to democracy while centralism is strictly enforced to the point of crushing debate.

If the decision to ban all opposition to the party line in 1921 was difficult for the Bolsheviks it is because the party was largely democratic beforehand. Certainly, the Bolsheviks of 1917 were leagues more democratic than the current socialist parties. In Trotsky’s “The Crisis of the German Opposition” he explains how the party operated before the ban on factions:

Whoever is acquainted with the history of the Bolshevik Party knows what a broad autonomy the local organizations always enjoyed: they issued their own papers, in which they openly and sharply, whenever they found it necessary, criticized the actions of the central committee. Had the central committee, in the case of principled differences, attempted to disperse the local organizations … before the party had had an opportunity to express itself – such a central committee would have made itself impossible.

This way of operating a party is unheard of among the current groups dominating the Left. Multiple papers published by one organization is unprecedented, and within a single paper opposing views are few and far between. Local organizations are always subjugated to the tyranny of the national leadership. Dissent is barely tolerated and public dissent is perceived as an existential threat. Slate voting makes elections more indirect, and makes it harder to recall individual leaders from power. Public voting allows leadership to intimidate rank-and-file members.

The mixture of undemocratic culture and practice, entrenched in bureaucracy, produces an infinite number of splits. Without proper channels for dissent and debate arguments cannot be resolved and members often leave to form their own organization or are forced out via intimidation and purges. Mike McNair, in his book Revolutionary Strategy, observes that “The overall effect of the purges [is] to increase the power of the party bureaucracy as such over the rank and file….”

Dozens of sects disconnected from the working class, dominated by an entrenched leadership, and plagued by high turnover, creates an environment in which competition for dues-paying members flourishes. This competition requires the smothering of democracy. The smothering of democracy props up the bureaucratic leadership. The process is a feedback loop.  McNair further explains,

The members, though active, are active in doing what the leaders tell them, and cease to be really active citizens of their party. The leaders become a firm selling a brand… Dissent – especially dissent about fundamentals – becomes the enemy of ‘activism’ and the ‘activists’ themselves resent the dissenters who are ‘stopping them getting on with the job’. In this framework, serious disagreement inevitably leads to a split.

The result is decades of petty sectarianism, activist burnout, and total irrelevance for the Left.

Draper presents us with a way to build a truly democratic revolutionary party,

The key question becomes the achievement of a mass base, which is not just a numerical matter but a matter of class representation. Given a mass base in the social struggle, the party does not necessarily have to suppress the internal play of political conflict, since the centrifugal force of political disagreements is counterbalanced by the centripetal pressure of the class struggle.

The process of creating a mass base is the only way for the Left to move beyond its own endless self-marginalization.


While many organizers and activists are from sections of the working class, the parties and organizations that make up the movement still lack a base within it. Instead of focusing on building deep ties to the working class along the lines of the Bolsheviks in 1917, the Left continues to focus on political theater, i.e. marches and demonstrations.

Mobilizing is not inherently a bad thing; it can be useful for putting pressure on government officials, intimidating the Right, and raising morale among the Left, but it is useless on its own. McNair explains: “The point is that these tactics, which may be appropriate under various conditions, do not amount to a strategy for workers’ power and socialism.” We hold march after march, we present our demands over and over, and then we go home empty handed. We chant that these are “our streets” after asking the state for proper permits. We claim that “this is what democracy looks like” while surrounded by police. Decades of marching and still we remain powerless.

Amber A’Lee Frost recently wrote that the Left must return to its roots of workplace organizing. But organizing a workplace is not enough. The Left must begin the process of organizing whole communities, not in an Alinsky-ite manner, but in a way that directly confronts capital and the ruling class.

The working class is not simply those who are employed, but all who must sell their labor to survive. This includes the homeless, the disabled, the elderly, and anyone else who must work to survive but for one reason or another cannot.

Additionally, the working class has become more dispersed than it was even fifty years ago. In the United States workers are no longer concentrated in factories where they can easily rub shoulders with Marxists. As a result campus organizing has become the life-blood of socialist recruitment. Organizing on campus is important, but to be effective it has to take place in the wider context of organizing the entire working class as a class. We must focus on organizing new or often ignored sections of workers such as care workers, Uber drivers, service workers, tenants, ex prisoners, veterans, immigrant workers, etc. The best way to do this is by organizing not just the workplace, but workers’ communities. By organizing communities we organize across employment sectors, we organize the young, the old, the unemployed, the homeless, and everyone in between. In short, we create a situation in which the answer to the question “whose streets?” is truly “our streets”.

Soup kitchens, clothing drives, reading groups, free classes, tenants unions, solidarity networks against the ICE and other law enforcement agencies, and health clinics can all be built and should be built by socialist parties. These organizations offer socialists a real connection and a tangible base within the class while simultaneously building the power of working class communities. Instead of parties claiming to represent working class interests and fighting on their behalf, these institutions will cultivate a Left that is of the working class. It will turn parties into vehicles for working class self emancipation.

The primary task of the Left today is to rebuild its connection to the working class. If socialists ignore the long and challenging task of base building than we give up any hope of winning power, and if power is not our aim than we are truly irrelevant.

Beyond Myth

Deutscher describes the archetypal 1921 Bolshevik “acting without the normal working class in the background, the Bolshevik from long habit still invoked the will of that class in order to justify whatever he did. But he invoked it only as a theoretical surmise and an ideal standard of behavior, in short, something of a myth.”

To U.S. socialist parties the working class has become a myth. We hear about it, speak about it, write about it, but it is not a class which we engage with or have roots in. Without organizing both our workplaces and communities the Left will always be considered an “other”-  socialist parties forever disconnected from those they claim to represent, post-1921 Bolsheviks, ironically, peering out into a sea of working class discontent but unable to join with it.

It is necessary to stop our mythologizing and engage with reality. The workers movement and the socialist movement are almost completely severed. Our task now is to reconnect the two. We must merge them together by doing the slow and steady work of building a mass base and a democratic revolutionary party free of onerous bureaucracies and ruling cliques.

Without a radically democratic party with an accountable leadership, open factions, and freedom of speech the Left will continue to split, squabble with one another, and remain peripheral. If we continue our attempts to build the negligible power of the sects we pledge allegiance to, while ignoring the task of building working class power, then we have no hope.

(via Victor Serge’s Ghost.)