Who's afraid of building a vanguard party?

Building The Revolutionary Party: Jim Percy Selected Writings 1980-1987

Resistance Books, 2008

212 pages, $20

Available from http://www.resistancebooks.com

Building The Revolutionary Party: Jim Percy Selected Writings 1980-1987 is the second volume of writings and speeches by the late Jim Percy. For its first two and a half decades of existence, Jim was the central leader of the political current that has become the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP).

The first volume of his writings and speeches, The Democratic Socialist Party: Traditions, Lessons and Socialist Perspectives (published in 1994, two years after Jim passed away at the age of just 43) comprised four talks Jim presented between 1990-92.

This second volume contains seven reports to conferences and DSP leadership meetings in the period 1980-87.

The DSP (or Socialist Workers Party, as it was known in this period) went through some major changes in the 1980s. It broke with Trotskyism, broadened its international relations, changed its understanding of the Australian Labor Party and deepened its understanding of the importance of alliances and regroupments in building a mass revolutionary party.

One of Jim's great skills was his ability explain and sum up the collective experience of the DSP in a way that provoked broad discussion, debate and new ideas in the DSP. So these seven reports explain the politics behind these important developments in the DSP in a very readable way.

While this book covers a period of significant changes in the DSP, it also registers the continuity of the DSP's commitment to a revolutionary socialist perspective and to the unfashionable (in some left circles) project of building a mass revolutionary "vanguard party".

The DSP holds that such a party needs to be built because the socialist revolution is the first process of fundamental social change in human history that has to be carried out by the lowest social class.

Unlike the capitalist class, which carried out its social revolution after it had developed considerable economic power and accumulated a large amount of managerial experience, the working class can only realise its potential economic power after it has overthrown a very powerful capitalist ruling class.

The main weapon of the working class in its fight against capitalism is the potentially immense power of its collective action. But historical experience teaches us the working class cannot as a whole, or spontaneously, acquire the political class-consciousness necessary to prepare and guide its struggle for socialism.

So we need to build a party uniting all who are struggling against the abuses and injustices of capitalism and who have developed a socialist consciousness, and we need to start building such a party now and not leave it until later when the capitalist crisis is more advanced.

We need to build a party that persists through the rises and falls of social movements and one that can provide leadership to the struggles of the working class. Not only for better terms for the sale of labour power and to win and defend progressive social reforms, but for the abolition of the very social system that gives the rich control over the entire well-being of working people.

The term "vanguard party" triggers a lot of suspicion these days, in the main because of the legacy of Stalinism (where monolithic, self-proclaimed "vanguard parties" were little more than instruments of self-serving and brutal dictators).

But also because of the sad history of small left-wing sects, each of whom farcically claimed to be the "true" revolutionary vanguard. The DSP rejects this sectarian approach to "party building".

In a 1987 speech "What Politics for a New Party", Jim noted: "Perhaps in future we might be more cautious about the term vanguard since so many people seem so frightened of it, though in most cases they're really reacting to mistakes committed in the name of self-proclaimed vanguards.

"But whatever term we might use, we are convinced that a conscious and organised vanguard is indispensable in the struggle for fundamental social change. This vanguard consists of the politically advanced sections of the working class and its allies, bases itself on the accumulated lessons of the history, and is organised in the revolutionary party of the working class.

"That sort of vanguard cannot be proclaimed, but must come into existence through struggles, the types of struggles we've seen over the past 20 years, the struggles of the trade unions, the struggles that lead political activists to join political parties.

"The Greens are part of that vanguard. To say differently is to entirely misunderstand Lenin's and Marx's view on the vanguard. Only those who stand at the head of struggles can truly be called vanguard fighters. Our proposition is very simple: To gather the vanguard into one party and over time to develop it into an effective fighting force."

Jim defended this broad approach to building a vanguard party through several unsuccessful attempts at left regroupment in the 1980s — including the Nuclear Disarmament Party the Broad Left Party and the Green Alliances. Left regroupment remains a perspective defended fiercely by the DSP today, against a trend in some sections of the small revolutionary left in Australia to retreat to narrow propagandism around each grouplet's allegedly more "correct" and more r-r-revolutionary political program.

"There are two possible types of errors in trying to develop a political program — you can be ultraleft or opportunist", Jim warned in 1987, adding that if anything our political current had to extricate itself from a sectarian and ultraleft tradition. "We hold that in common with most forces originating, as we did, in the Trotskyist movement."

The Trotskyist movement affected to be fighting to preserve the revolutionary heritage of Russia's Bolshevik Party, when it was led by Lenin and Trotsky, yet it promoted a sectarian view of party building that was the opposite of the actual Bolshevik experience.

The DSP broke from this approach over the course of the 1980s and developed a different understanding of the political lessons of the Russian Revolution, including a different understanding of how to build revolutionarty parties, one that grew out of a study of successful revolutions, including the Cuban revolution.

"The Bolshevik Party was a mass current of people who joined the social-democratic movement in Russia. It took Lenin a long time to develop a finished party out of that current. The massive growth of the Bolshevik Party was a product of a spontaneous political rebellion.

"Today we are dealing with a movement of people spontaneously rebelling against the Labor party's betrayals, and against the capitalist system. That's the movement in the broadest sense, and you only get a vanguard party when it begins to encompass a lot of people politicised by the spontaneous movement.

"Naturally, there are many different elements in this real vanguard, but our strategy is to gather all of those elements together in one party. We don't think this is a simple task, and it must be expected to take time.

"The real forces that make up a vanguard party will be far broader than the most militant wing of the trade union movement, or the most politically conscious wing of the environment movement. A genuine vanguard party will be far broader than the movement against capitalism.

We've clearly got a long way to go before we get such a party, though I think we should recognise that the vanguard is very broad today. While there may not be huge mobilisations, there is very real social polarisation, the vanguard exists. Now we need the party that can unite it."

That was Jim speaking in 1987, and much has happened since then, yet it resonates strongly as a broad "vanguard" party-building perspective today.

The "triple crisis" — the environmental, economic and political legitimacy crisis — confronting capitalism today is creating very real social polarisation. In Australia, less than a year after the Rudd Labor victory, there is widespread disillusionment and disgust with the Labor Party.

It is true that the Greens continue to consolidate as the main electoral expression of progressive breaks from the two-party system, but that party's own evolution is still in process and the broader left in society is not satisfied with what it offers politically.

Hence the "new party discussion" described in this second volume of Jim Percy's speeches and writings remains very relevant today.

[Peter Boyle is the national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist tendency in the Socialist Alliance. Visit http://www.dsp.org.au]

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