The question of how socialists can find a road to the mass of the working class is being debated by growing numbers of workers and youth who have recently been awakened to socialism and Marxism. With so many variants to choose from—from “non-reformist” reformers and non-reform reformists to Maoist cosplayers and “soft-Trots,” what is the way forward?
One approach enjoying a certain revival is that outlined by Hal Draper in “Anatomy of a Microsect.” In the recent period, his 1973 article has been recommended as a potential source of ideas by everyone from Jacobin-aligned DSAers to the “libertarian communist” milieu.
There is plenty Draper gets right—at least superficially—and this explains the appeal of his essay. As an example, his critiques of the far left seem totally on point. As he notes, much of the “American Socialist Movement” is made up of toxic sectarians and small grouplets that imagine themselves to be homuncular versions of a mass revolutionary party. Virtually everyone on the left is familiar with these self-important, socially awkward true believers, with a dead look in their eyes and a “truth-file” about every other left organization tucked under their arm as they make a beeline past unorganized workers at rallies and pester those who are already members of other organizations.
As Draper points out, this is the dead-end path of isolation and willful irrelevance, of perpetually minuscule, insular “micro-sects” yelling at the workers for not being r-r-revolutionary enough. Sectarians can invoke out-of-context quotes by Marx or Lenin like scripture, but have zero understanding of the Marxist method. For such groups, finding a path to the masses is entirely irrelevant as they ultimately see themselves as the agents of history.
Despite their “workerist” rhetoric, sectarian groups do not have a genuine orientation towards the working class. They seek to impose their “pure” view of reality on the necessarily contradictory consciousness of the masses. As Draper correctly notes, it is this lack of orientation to the working class as it really is, and not merely “sectarian behavior” or the relatively small size of an organization that makes it a sect.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explain that communists “do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.” However, Draper transforms this correct idea into a caricature. In critiquing the errors of sectarianism, he bends the stick so far in the other direction that he snaps it in two. As we shall see, by juxtaposing the broader “socialist movement” to “membership organizations defined by their programs,” he blurs an important political and organizational line and conflates genuine Bolshevism with the various “microsects,” to use his preferred term.
In his youth, Draper was a member of the Fourth International founded by Leon Trotsky. Unlike the Second and Third Internationals, the Fourth was never a mass organization. It was an attempt by one of the co-leaders of the greatest revolution in history to preserve the legacy of genuine Bolshevism. Unfortunately, due to a series of circumstantial factors, the Fourth International and its US section, the Socialist Workers Party, attracted an assortment of petty-bourgeois dilettantes who brought with them anti-Marxist baggage. There were also many working-class members and leaders of the SWP, who were self-sacrificing and tough fighters, but starting with James Cannon himself, their theoretical understanding of Marxism was on a low level.
Draper found himself aligned with what ended up as a petty-bourgeois opposition in the SWP. Alongside other un-Marxist ideas, this group put forward the position that the USSR was “imperialist” and represented a new form of society they dubbed “bureaucratic collectivism.” Leading members of this group, which later became the Workers Party, also adopted the openly anti-Marxist position that dialectical materialism was akin to a religion and that programmatic politics needed to be abandoned in favor of “experimentation.”
Trotsky’s retort to the ideological leader of this clique was illustrative:
You want to experiment? But permit me to remind you that the workers’ movement possesses a long history with no lack of experience and, if you prefer, experiments. This experience so dearly bought has been crystallized in the shape of a definite doctrine, the very Marxism whose name you so carefully avoid.
A few lines after Marx and Engels condemn the sectarian approach in the Manifesto, they highlight the role of theory in the communist movement:
The theoretical conclusions of the communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.
In other words, there is a dialectical unity between theory and practice. You cannot usefully have one without the other. This is entirely different from the pragmatic approach found in Draper, which relegates theory to something secondary or even optional altogether. Loud echoes of this can be found in the base-building current of formations like the “Marxist Center” and the center-left of the DSA. Incredibly, Draper even argues that one pick and choose sects for their educational material. As if a cherry is cherry—poisoned or otherwise. This is pragmatic eclecticism at its worst and is the very opposite of a scientific approach to working our a way forward.
By the time he wrote his essay, Draper was burnt out and demoralized by the path he had taken. Without a solid grounding in Marxism, Draper was at a loss for ideas, strategy, and tactics. He argues instead for “experimentation” and urges the left to “grope for some time.” While the notion of “experimentation” may seem innocent enough—even desirable and scientific—this is proposed in contradistinction to having a worked-out program, perspectives, strategy, and tactics. Instead of learning from the dead end he wound up in, Draper drew all the wrong conclusions and sought to throw Bolshevism out with the bathwater.
Building a party involves more than its structure, orientation to the working class, program, etc. It is also a question of understanding the short and long-term possibilities, given the objective conditions. The 1945 to 1973 postwar boom temporarily raised living standards for many workers and some reforms were conceded. This created illusions in capitalism, which marginalized Marxist ideas. Any effort to build a revolutionary organization had to take these factors into account—while also understanding that the boom would inevitably end and that the changed conditions would eventually clear away the illusions in capitalism. Ironically, the boom came to an end with the world slump of 1974–76, just after Draper wrote his article.
There is a material basis for the American intellectual’s inability to grasp dialectical theory. This is a country in which stolen land was developed by enslaved labor. The intellectual forefathers of the American intelligentsia had every reason to adopt philosophical pragmatism. This philosophy, and even more so the material basis that nurtured it, leads to both excessive individualism and the conception that America is exceptional. This, in turn, leads the left intelligentsia to make all kinds of mental summersaults.
As an example, under the influence of both American pragmatism and his incomplete understanding of the history of Bolshevism, Draper praises Leninism as a model—while simultaneously rejecting its real essence on the basis that “America is different.” He ends up with the conception that Lenin’s Iskra was a loose and amorphous “center.”
Draper argues that the main task of such a “center” should be to create a militant opposition in the unions, and that this need not be socialist in self-conception as long as it is able to get the working class moving. The long-term goal of the “center” would be to merge the socialist and union movements, in which socialists would “ideally” be a dominant tendency. In correcting for the way the sects ignore the actual working class, Draper’s focus on “bread-and-butter” union activism is nothing more than a modern variant of Economism. The Economists were a trend in Russian Marxism that Lenin rightly criticized for reducing revolutionary socialist politics to trade union politics. As a full-fledged modern-day example of this trend, we need look no further than Labor Notes and Solidarity.
Although the Bolsheviks also fought to build militant unions, this is a million miles away from Lenin’s approach to revolutionary trade unionism, the paper, and organization, and cannot be squared with it. As Lenin outlined in Where to Begin?:
The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organizer. In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organized labor.
With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organization will naturally take shape that will engage, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow political events carefully, appraise their significance and their effect on the various strata of the population, and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence these events. The mere technical task of regularly supplying the newspaper with copy and of promoting regular distribution will necessitate a network of local agents of the united party, who will maintain constant contact with one another, know the general state of affairs, get accustomed to performing regularly their detailed functions in the All-Russian work, and test their strength in the organization of various revolutionary actions.
It is in this context that Lenin argued that “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” Draper is able to gloss over his flimsy appropriation of Leninism because he omits a key fact: Iskra may not have been a “membership organization,” but it was most definitely the organ of one—namely, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, with Lenin and what would become the Bolsheviks as its consistently revolutionary wing.
No sect has ever led a revolution—and no sect ever will. All revolutionary parties in history have developed as tendencies or factions within mass workers’ parties. It is only in the context of prerevolutionary conditions that such tendencies can take on mass characteristics and be worthy of the name “party.” The experience of Russian Bolshevism is the proof of the pudding—that principled politics combined with flexible tactics to connect with the masses is the only way forward.
But what to do in today’s American context, when there is, as yet, no mass socialist party? There have been many efforts to build a labor party independent of the Republicans and Democrats. For a variety of reasons, every past attempt has failed. However, history is not yet over, and the need for such a party is more pressing than ever. In the class struggle, as in nature, necessity will find a way of expressing itself in one form or another. The rise of DSA and the leftward shift in consciousness of many workers and youth is proof that the conditions for building such a party are ripe. Whatever form it takes at first, in the final analysis, such a party will need to be based on the union movement, the single most powerful and organized expression of the working class in the United States.
When such a party arises, the stage will be set for a life-and-death struggle of living forces between those who want to ensure the party is merely a reformist tool to save capitalism, and those who see it as a vehicle for winning the broader working class to revolutionary socialism. This is the approach to revolutionary politics that Trotsky tried to imbue, in vain, to Hal Draper’s mentor, Max Shachtman:
Shachtman: Now with the imminence of the outbreak of war, the labor party can become a trap. And I still can’t understand how the labor party can be different from a reformist, purely parliamentary party.
Trotsky: You put the question too abstractly; naturally it can crystallize into a reformist party, and one that will exclude us. But we must be part of the movement. We must say to the Stalinists, Lovestoneites, etc.: “We are in favor of a revolutionary party. You are doing everything to make it reformist.” But we always point to our program. And we propose our program of transitional demands.
The IMT’s approach to building a membership/cadre organization is entirely different from the abstract sermonizing of the sectarians. It is also fundamentally different from those who spend all their time trying to “build the movement” out of nothing, as Draper advised. Given the crisis of the system, Marxists know that tremendous economic, political, and social crises are on the horizon. These will eventually and inevitably be accompanied by elemental movements of the working class. In this context, a truly mass socialist movement and a mass workers’ party could emerge relatively quickly. By getting organized, educating ourselves, and sinking roots in the working class, the IMT is preparing for this perspective. We are often accused of “not doing anything.” However, history shows that gathering and training the cadre that can wage a struggle for revolutionary ideas in the mass workers’ party of the future is most definitely “doing something.” In fact, this is the urgent task of socialists today.