Is the Party Over?

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Pet­ro­grad soviet, 1917

The occu­pa­tions move­ment is highly struc­tured, and this struc­ture is a focal point for polit­i­cal debates. Deci­sions are made by the gen­eral assem­bly (GA) through a process of demo­c­ra­tic delib­er­a­tion; it also serves as the basis for the del­e­ga­tion of respon­si­bil­i­ties and tasks, which are required both to keep peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing and to orga­nize polit­i­cal activ­ity. Jodi Dean argues that in spite of the poten­tially indi­vid­u­al­ist ide­ol­ogy of the con­sen­sus model (every­one speaks for them­selves), it actu­ally serves to build the kind of sol­i­dar­ity that can only be achieved by “hours and hours of conversation.”

There’s an intrigu­ing resem­blance between today’s GAs and the “work­ers’ coun­cils” that were a dom­i­nant force in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments of early 20th-century Europe. The major dif­fer­ence, of course, is that the work­ers’ coun­cils existed in fac­to­ries, and their pri­mary role was to man­age the pro­duc­tion process; they demon­strated that the only func­tion of the bosses was to exploit, and that work­ers’ self-management could effec­tively build a soci­ety. For some, espe­cially the Ger­man and Dutch “coun­cil com­mu­nists,” the coun­cils had an even greater role: they would not only man­age pro­duc­tion, they would also be the sole polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion in the fight for pro­le­tar­ian eman­ci­pa­tion, thereby ren­der­ing the bureau­cratic com­mu­nist par­ties as irrel­e­vant as the bosses. The orig­i­nal occu­pa­tions, in fact, were fac­tory takeovers that insti­tuted work­ers’ self-management.

Our sit­u­a­tion is clearly dif­fer­ent, so it’s no sur­prise that the GA is dif­fer­ent. That it takes place on the street instead of the fac­to­ries is a log­i­cal con­se­quence of the rad­i­cal shift of the Amer­i­can work­force out of man­u­fac­tur­ing. Ser­vice work has an entirely dif­fer­ent mode of social­iza­tion; it’s hard to get peo­ple together into a coun­cil with­out a shop-floor, when employ­ees work at dif­fer­ent hours, when they’re deskilled, and when they need every day’s wage to make their mort­gage pay­ments. Unem­ploy­ment adds to this trans­for­ma­tion, shift­ing an already frag­men­tary social­iza­tion out­side of the workplace.

The strike we saw in Oak­land was a polit­i­cal action that grew from the GA, just as the clas­si­cal gen­eral strike accom­pa­nied the coun­cils. It was formed and orga­nized in a space out­side of the work­place, and it found ways to link up with some ele­ments of the workforce.

How­ever, it’s impor­tant to ask how these forms will evolve. The GA made a remark­able achieve­ment by vot­ing for and orga­niz­ing the gen­eral strike. But any­one who’s attended a GA will under­stand that it’s very hard to carry out the less dra­matic tasks that are required to keep a move­ment strong between actions. The strike came at a moment of seri­ous rad­i­cal­iza­tion, and was voted for almost unan­i­mously. Dis­agree­ments, how­ever, which make the GA the rad­i­cal delib­er­a­tive space that it is, can seri­ously limit its orga­ni­za­tional capac­ity. Orga­ni­za­tional tasks already occur on a dif­fer­ent plane from mass delib­er­a­tion; they are done in smaller “break­out groups” or “work­ing groups,” or are sim­ply “bottom-lined” by indi­vid­u­als who are will­ing to assume lead­er­ship for a spe­cific goal. When the prob­lems of the break­out groups leak into the GA, and when dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal fac­tions enter into argu­ment, the struc­ture inches dan­ger­ously towards a kind of ossi­fi­ca­tion and bureau­cra­ti­za­tion. For exam­ple, lib­er­als whose pri­mary inter­est is in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the state are able to exert con­trol by tak­ing advan­tage of GA democ­racy and sub­ject­ing it to the pow­er­ful exist­ing struc­tures of admin­is­tra­tive bureaucracies.

The debates of the early 20th cen­tury between coun­cil com­mu­nists and their com­rades took place because these orga­ni­za­tional tasks used to be car­ried out within the com­mu­nist par­ties. Some who were sym­pa­thetic to coun­cilist cri­tique of the party were still cau­tious about the notion of coun­cils play­ing a fully polit­i­cal role, and they antic­i­pated a prob­lem that emerges today: by forc­ing the GA to take on the tasks of the party, it is less able to do what it should do – not merely delib­er­ate, but also pro­vide a space for free expres­sion of the work­ers’ antag­o­nism, and the pre­fig­ur­ing of a com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tion of social life.

This doesn’t mean that the coun­cil can just be an unmedi­ated expres­sion of polit­i­cal wills; Dis­as­ter Notes invokes the French the­o­rist of “self-management,” Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, to describe “a min­i­mal degree of alien­ation involved in any polit­i­cal form.” It’s an inter­est­ing ref­er­ence, because this is exactly the kind of prob­lem fore­shad­owed in Castoriadis’s ear­lier exchange with the Dutch coun­cil com­mu­nist Anton Pan­nekoek. We ran our trans­la­tions of these let­ters in the issue on the occu­pa­tions because their rel­e­vance for our moment is so pro­found; those who are inter­ested in the his­tor­i­cal con­text can check out our intro­duc­tion to the exchange.

Pan­nekoek was strongly crit­i­cal of any kind of van­guardist party. Though he rec­og­nized that the polit­i­cal process would be char­ac­ter­ized by con­flict, he still argued that the pri­mary empha­sis had to placed on the council:

Nat­u­rally, I do not claim that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary actions of the work­ing class will all unfold in an atmos­phere of peace­ful dis­cus­sion. What I claim is that the result of the strug­gle, often vio­lent, is not deter­mined by acci­den­tal cir­cum­stances, but by what is alive in the thoughts of the work­ers, as the basis of a solid con­scious­ness acquired by expe­ri­ence, study, or their dis­cus­sions. If the per­son­nel of a fac­tory must decide whether or not to go on strike, the deci­sion is not taken by smash­ing fists on the table, but nor­mally by discussions.

Not only was was this part of the process of decision-making, it was actu­ally the work­ing class’s form of polit­i­cal activ­ity. “The true form of action of a class in strug­gle,” he wrote, “is the force of argu­ments, based on the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of the auton­omy of decisions!”

But while he reasserted the cen­tral­ity of the work­ers’ coun­cils, Pan­nekoek nev­er­the­less argued that there was a clear need for out­side bod­ies to sup­ple­ment coun­cil activ­ity – sim­ply because an edu­ca­tion in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process could not be achieved instan­ta­neously by delib­er­a­tion. So the task of the party was “essen­tially the­o­ret­i­cal.” While the party would “find and indi­cate, through study and dis­cus­sion, the best path of action for the work­ing class,” it would ulti­mately be up to the work­ing class itself “to decide the best way to act in their fac­tory meet­ings and their Coun­cils.” In clar­i­fy­ing “the ideas of the work­ers by explain­ing the impor­tant changes in soci­ety, and the need for the work­ers to lead them­selves in all their actions, includ­ing in future pro­duc­tive labor,” the party would make working-class deci­sions pos­si­ble and pow­er­ful. It is an appeal­ing per­spec­tive for those who find them­selves stand­ing on the street with news­pa­pers and leaflets to dis­trib­ute; as Pannkoek wrote,

The most noble and use­ful task of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary party is, by its pro­pa­ganda in thou­sands of small jour­nals, brochures, etc., to enrich the knowl­edge of the masses in the process of a con­scious­ness always more clear and more vast.

Cas­to­ri­adis agreed with the gen­eral sen­ti­ment, but voiced some con­cerns about the idea of a purely the­o­ret­i­cal func­tion for the party. He pointed to the impor­tance of defend­ing against ele­ments who sought to sup­press work­ing class autonomy:

From the very moment that these organ­isms of the work­ing class have been con­sti­tuted, the class strug­gle will have been trans­posed to the very heart of these organ­isms; it will be trans­posed there by the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the major­ity of these “groups or par­ties” which claim to rep­re­sent the work­ing class but who, in the major­ity of cases, rep­re­sent the inter­ests and the ide­ol­ogy of the classes hos­tile to the pro­le­tariat, like the reformists and the Stal­in­ists. Even if they don’t exist there in their cur­rent form, they will exist in another, let us be sure. In all like­li­hood, they will start with a pre­dom­i­nant posi­tion. And the whole expe­ri­ence of the last twenty years – of the Span­ish war, the occu­pa­tion, and up to and includ­ing the expe­ri­ence of any cur­rent union meet­ing – we learn that the mil­i­tants who have our opin­ion must con­quer by strug­gle even the right to speak within these organisms.

Despite their clear dif­fer­ences regard­ing the spe­cific func­tion of these sup­ple­men­tary forms, both Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis insisted on their neces­sity. It was actu­ally only through the assis­tance of these other forms of strug­gle, they argued, that the coun­cils could real­ize their rev­o­lu­tion­ary potential.

Of course, we can’t res­ur­rect party forms that sim­ply repeat what hap­pened a cen­tury ago, ignor­ing a wide range of his­tor­i­cal changes. But we do need aux­il­iary forms that allow the GAs to develop in the most rev­o­lu­tion­ary direc­tion. Some are rightly cau­tious of the poten­tial for a more cen­tral­ized orga­ni­za­tion to become author­i­tar­ian and bureau­cratic; but a mass move­ment is capa­ble of learn­ing from his­tory and imag­in­ing new solu­tions. While reject­ing the ossi­fied forms of the Trot­sky­ist and Stal­in­ist groups sur­round­ing him, Cas­to­ri­adis reaf­firmed the need for devel­op­ment and experimentation:

Ulti­mately, to refuse to act in fear that one will trans­form into a bureau­crat, seems to me as absurd as refus­ing to think in fear of being wrong. Just as the only “guar­an­tee” against error con­sists in the exer­cise of thought itself, the only “guar­an­tee” against bureau­cra­ti­za­tion con­sists in per­ma­nent action in an anti-bureaucratic direc­tion, in strug­gling against the bureau­cracy and in prac­ti­cally show­ing that a non-bureaucratic orga­ni­za­tion of the van­guard is pos­si­ble, and that it can orga­nize non-bureaucratic rela­tions with the class.


Asad Haider is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at UC-Santa Cruz, a mem­ber of UAW 2865, and an edi­tor of View­point.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint.