Six years after helping initiate PODEMOS in the Spanish State, and four months after Pablo Iglesias led that party into a coalition government with the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (SPOE), the revolutionary socialist Anticapitalistas have changed course. As Spain suffers one of the highest per capita Covid-19 rates in the world, with 25,613 having died as of May 6, questions facing the left loom large in what has been one of the most tumultuous and creative international sites for socialist strategy and organization in the past decade.
Julia Cámara is an historian based in Zaragosa. She helped organize the mass feminist strikes and mobilizations in the Spanish State on March 8 in recent years and is a member of Anticapitalistas. Here, Cámara describes the theoretical and historical concepts that have guided Anticapitalistas in their work. Originally published in Viento Sur, translated by No Borders News. In part 1, Cámara discussed strategic guideposts, part 2 takes up the question of socialist organization.
Returning to Lenin, another of his principle contributions was the delimitation between class and party. Starting with What is to be Done?, Lenin clarified the typical confusion between the two: the party does not equal the class itself, but only a group of individuals with a certain level of consciousness and broadly agreed-upon strategies. Two questions flow from this that have sparked recurring debates on the left over the last century, namely, the debate concerning conceptions of a vanguard party and whether or not there are models for such a party that are more useful than others. We’ll return to this later. The fact is that Lenin never argued that revolutionary organization embodied the class as a whole. Rather, such organization represents a class-based project that may serve as an instrument for the optimization of the working class’ transformative power.
One important conclusion that flows from this is that, if the party is delimited with respect to the class, there must be space for more than one party. The defense of pluralism has been a bedrock principle for all revolutionary Marxist movements during the difficult twentieth century. This is true in the first place because socialist democracy can only be learned by practicing it. Secondly, and this is no minor question, pluralism is not inevitable. I’ll try to explain what I mean.
Trotsky suggested that parties, besides their well-known ambition to embody particular classes or sections of classes, are also bearers of ideology and strategic orientations. This is necessarily so because working-class ideological homogeneity is impossible – capitalism itself makes certain of this. This reality is not, in the first instance, based on conscious and massive manipulation by the ruling class, but is the direct result of economic and social mechanisms acting on the consciousness of the oppressed. The achievement of a general class consciousness among the masses – and even then not without contradictions – can only occur during a revolutionary process. Pluralism, therefore, is not only desirable in democratic terms, it is also inevitable. If revolutionary organizations, understood as such, express ideological-strategic wagers, then the existence of multiple organizations (and competition between them) is to be expected.
With respect to the notion of the vanguard, the Leninist delimitation of the party with respect to the class has often been misunderstood as a total separation, thus isolating the supposed vanguard group of enlightened individuals from the real mass movement. The history of the Bolshevik Party itself demonstrates that there can be no self-proclaimed vanguard. Instead, the historic right to act as such, as Ernest Mandel put it, must be won. And this right can only be won through participation in the heart of mass struggle. No one gets to be a leader, or to play a leading role, unless this position arises from within the struggle of the mass of the working class.
In the history of the revolutionary left, the best theoreticians have always been leaders, and many of the best leaders have made important theoretical contributions, for instance, Lenin, Gramsci, and Bensaïd himself, to name a few. The same holds true when consider people known for their practical leadership, such as Che Guevara, where we find that his theoretical production is greater than is often considered. This demonstrates how the party, the political organization, acts as a mediation between theory and praxis.
The party is the vehicle through which strategic hypotheses are elaborated, not out of thin air, but based on the combined, accumulated historical experience of its members. This accumulated experience – and its assimilation by party activists who are themselves implanted in, and learning from, different struggles – transforms the organization into a transmission belt in a double sense. The party is, in this way, as much a producer as a product of mass revolutionary action.
The second critical aspect in our conception of political organization (after properly conceiving of the party as a mediating force between theory and practice) is political strategy. A strategic party is one that not only educates and accompanies the masses, it is also capable of organizing advances and retreats, making course corrections based on rhythms and moments arising from the struggle. That is, a party that understands how to move in broken, political time.
Lastly, the party must play a leading role in an historic bloc composed of a galaxy of diverse forms of organization based on the subaltern classes in what Gramsci called civil society, this operation takes place at the social level that we spoke of earlier, a level that is distinct from the political sphere. When referring to this historic bloc, we use the term coordination (articulación in Spanish) to describe the formation of a collective will that transcends particular interests, one that becomes self-aware and counterposes itself to the dominant powers. The party’s task is to facilitate this process of coordination, generating organizing hubs (centros de anudamiento) that offer a common vision and strategic hypothesis.
This does not mean, and this is important to emphasize, establishing a political leadership the realizes a project that is external to the struggle. Remember, Mandel’s affirmation that a vanguard must with the right to lead, that is, it must be recognized as such by the masses. And as there is a plurality of political organizations, we must also understand that ideological debates and competing strategic hypotheses can only be proven in reality, something that is not possible if the contending organizations are not rooted in the mass movements. The party, then, appears as the political leadership of an historic bloc, but it achieves this position because its objective is accepted by the masses, who recognize it as their own.
Having arrived at this point, let’s review. We have been talking as if party and political organization are at all times synonymous, however, there are clearly other forms of political organization besides a party.
1) In the debate over party form, what we often find instead are political groups, which also organized on the basis of ideological boundaries and strategic hypotheses, but which do not function as parties but as lobbies. These organizations often lack democracy – both internally (who and how to makes decisions, participation and structures for debate, etc.) and externally – and transparency as no one knows who is a member based on what criteria, many times they even hide their existence, etc.
2) On the other hand, the party (or parties) should not be confused with institutions designed for the political struggle that, at specific historical moments, the workers’ movement as a whole creates. When the class as a whole identifies itself as a revolutionary alternative (when a new historical bloc arises and is articulated) the need for autonomous and unitary forms of organization appears, such institutions take on the dual roles of acting as counter-power organs within capitalist society and as instruments for the training of the masses in socialist self-management. The most recurrent historical example of these sorts of institutions are soviets, which are nothing more than the Russian word for councils. When soviet-like institutions arise, the parties (based on an inevitable and desirable pluralism) intervene in the soviets, but soviets are much more than the sum of these parties: they are the instrument that the class empowers for its own emancipation. They are, at that point, the form of political organization that mediates between the class itself and its own conscience.
Taking from Gramsci’s interpretation of Lenin, we might say that the accent should be placed on the direct social agent, on the working class. Only in this way can a dialectic be established between the class and a political leadership that prevents the party from converting itself into a body that is not only delimited with respect to the class, but separated and alien to it.
Two caveats must be added here. First, pluralism and democracy are confronted by the constant danger of bureaucratism. Both external pluralism and democracy (that is, a recognition of the legitimacy of class institutions and a commitment to participate honestly and loyally in the movement of the masses) and internal (democratic centralism understood as outlined above, featuring rank-and-file control, the permanent training of activists who are capable of understanding and intervening in debates and in the elaboration of strategy, term limits, publishing organs that are open and comradely, the right to form tendencies, and the absence of leadership by fiat, etc.) are necessary to confront this ever-present danger. Second, strong links and real implantation in living movements – in both the social field and in civil society – can act as a safeguard against bureaucratization, integration into the state apparatus, and capitalist cooptation.
Outlines of a proposal
So far, I hope it is clear how debates regarding strategy and organization intersect and interlock, in other words, it is not possible to think about what kind of organization we want without thinking at the same time about why we want it. Bensaïd posed the question like this: Is a revolution possible and do you want to fight for it. And, if so, you must determine what political instrument is necessary because, with respect to revolutionary organization, the form is part of the content.
The party form is always historically conditioned, but this raises a question about whether there are better, or more revolutionary, models as such, an idea into which many supposedly Marxist groups have repeatedly fallen and which is deeply anti-Leninist at heart. However, if there are no set forms, there are useful criteria, references, and guides as long as we keep in mind that the type of party that we must build today arises from our own concrete global situation and the balance of forces between the classes, the specifics of the crisis in which we find ourselves, and the evolution of the working-class and social movements.
The greatest challenge facing the social revolution is that it is the first in history that necessarily implies the prior awareness of one’s goal. Thus, political struggle is essential to make a revolution since it can shape class consciousness, it is a means by which to accumulate experience, and when a revolutionary crisis opens, it can act to alter the balance of forces. Conscious leadership is, therefore, at the center of the conditions of possibility for the success of the social revolution.
And in this sense, the main criteria for building the kind of party we need were provided by Lenin are still valid and correct today as long as we keep in mind that they are criteria, not models.
1) A delimited and active party, one which acts as an element of continuity amidst fluctuating collective conscience. This will not always mean the same thing for party members, and it is clear today that it is necessary to allow for a diversity of compromises that fit our lives under late capitalism. But it is essential to maintain a militant nucleus, and not resign ourselves to the dissolution of ties between revolutionaries or to rely on plebiscitary formulas.
2) A party committed to political action across the whole society. The party must not remain passive in the face of injustices, however small they may seem, it must participte in all local and sectoral battles, not merely shutting itself up on the margins of concrete conflicts. And this is true in all areas of work, be it the economic/union struggle or work in elected or other institutions.
3) A nimble party, capable of responding to unforeseen events. One with an internal political culture trained in and accustomed to the democratic debate that is capable of making sharp turns while remaining cohesive.
4) A party capable of presenting an overall vision. In other words, capable of acting with a strategic vision, formulating strategic hypotheses, and contributing to the coordination of the historical bloc through its implantation and work in social movements.
5) Finally, a party capable of thinking about concrete mediations and temporary forms of organization. That is, one that is capable of developing specific tactics so as to not be paralyzed in the absence of a pre-ordained script that brings the revolutionary horizon into focus.
The great challenge we face today, the question that must guide our political action, is how to advance towards the coordination of a new historical bloc that, as such, is not a simple sum of its parts but is capable of thinking of itself as a totality, one capable of opposing the dominant classes. For this to be possible, it is essential to build class structures and institutions, not in a merely economistic sense, but to go much further and establish contact and collaboration between them. We must strengthen not only combative unionism (very important in this period of crisis) but also social unionism, housing assemblies, mutual support networks in neighborhoods, social centers, the feminist movement, and all those spaces of self-organization where community ties are built, struggles that expose the system’s contradictions and promote processes of class self-awareness and self-activity.
But we must also encourage a pro-party spirit of organization. The party is not simply a participatory space or one more identity on a list, rather, it is the organization through which the political struggle takes place. It is where we come together and organize politically to create organizing and social hubs as we try to construct a new correlation of forces.
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