Do We Need Parties?

With a whole menu of spontaneous movements and big tent umbrella organizations, is there a place for a workers’ party in 21st-century socialism?


We have seen a sputtering and stalling of socialist movements throughout the world in the last decades. Mass movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Yellow Vests have wisely seized upon the symptoms of the capitalist mode of production; rising inequality, decreasing opportunities, and state mechanisms increasingly co-opted by mega-corporations. These movements, however, have failed to retain momentum, eventually sputtering out amid the scorn of the right and the resigned exasperation of their sympathizers. The spontaneous movement in general recognizes the failure, even refusal of the capitalist parties in parliaments in the Western world to fundamentally change life for workers, while reflecting the dismay of the constructive and creative masses at the apparent wanton destructiveness of some more anarchist movements.

Spontaneous movements, while admirable for their courage and the raw passion of their ideas, too often fall prey to indifference and the slow march of time. The exploiters have all the time in the world, but how long can wage workers stay in the streets before they start to get hungry?

What is missing from these movements is a clearly delineated set of goals and the institutional mechanisms to achieve them. Moreover, the calculations of stamina needed to weather short, or even medium term losses is a critical missing element. It is therefore necessary for the working class to arm itself with an institutionalized, organizational element capable of coordinating action across a sustained period of time while increasing pressure on the less politically engaged segments of society to give their support. Such an organization has historically been the party, and there is no need to deviate from this model of success. Workers’ parties have, throughout history, served as bastions of working class power even in the darkest nights of fascism and neoliberalism. Even when the masses turned against socialism, the party was still there, keeping the ember of truth alive against the wind. The party serves as a repository of skills and knowledge, a training ground for new members and a platform for the evolution of ideas and their application to the evolving situations in a country. The party is the nucleus of the working people, around which they may rally to advance their class interest.

A trend exists in many countries not to organize political parties, but instead to create umbrella organizations that advance awareness of socialist causes. The appearance that parties have fallen out of fashion with working class movements is pervasive in the contemporary political atmosphere largely due to four factors. First, the hollowing out of leading workers’ parties leads to the public perception of their corruption and disingenuity. This has occurred either due to their resting on their revolutionary laurels and falling prey to corrupt interests, as in the case of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the other Central and Eastern European parties. In the case of the Communist Party of the United States of America, repression and infiltration by the FBI lead to the perception of the party as an empty “false flag” organization, maintained for the sole purpose of allowing the police to keep an eye on working class political activity.

Secondly, the utility and strength of parties has been crushed and slandered by the weight of capitalist propaganda, which frames working class parties (and even unions!) as dictatorial and repressive organizations full of corrupt and self-serving individuals. If we recall the varieties of capitalism, varieties of socialism theory I advanced in a previous article, we can logically reject this second criticism. Some workers’ parties have indeed become hosts for corrupt individuals seeking to exploit their positions for personal gain. The honest reader should seek to name a single capitalist party in which this is not the case. Such is unlikely. Capitalist historians and politicians have exploited examples of socialist corruption to paint socialism in general and workers’ parties in particular as corrupt, self-serving, and repressive organizations that ultimately failed to accomplish their goal of building a sustainable socialist system. This brings us to the final reason for the unfashionable perception of workers’ parties: the apparent failure of Eastern Bloc socialism in 1989, culminating with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is important in this case to examine these events with a time-based context. A time scale of 1917-1991 is a historical blink of an eye. We must remember that the transition from feudalism to capitalism, which began already in the Middle Ages, only truly overcame the last bastions of feudalism in the 20th Century, roughly 500 years after the transformative process began. During those five centuries, countless capitalist experiments rose and fell, with some fantastically combusting, often at the cost of many lives. The destruction of the slave economy in the US south and the conflagration of imperial-capitalist competition in 1914 are but two such examples. The road to progress is long, and making mistakes and learning from them is part of the journey. Just as neoliberal Chile does not invalidate the capitalist system for its backers, the problems and failures of the Eastern Bloc should not signal an end to socialism or workers’ parties for us.

Amid this atmosphere of distrust and scorn of workers’ parties, big tent advocacy organizations have emerged, specifically claiming not to be parties while throwing in their support for progressive factions of bourgeois parties. These organizations serve a useful purpose in advancing socialism by providing a valuable stepping stone on the path to a workers’ government. In the United States, the Democratic Socialists of America advance public awareness and knowledge of socialist theory and its applications. The organization has effectively “normalized” socialism in a way that its predecessor organizations repeatedly failed to do, though much of their success comes from a rising post-Cold War generation without the pathological fear of socialism of their predecessors, and the rapidly-worsening effects of capitalism’s proletarianization of the masses. The DSA, like other umbrella organizations, is limited in the scope of what it can actually achieve. As a non-party organization, the group does not possess a clear means to gaining actual working class power. By supporting candidates running on Democratic Party tickets, DSA prolongs the dominance of the corporate two-party system. This approach recognizes that there is a marginally better outcome for working people within the Democratic Party than the centrist Democrats or Republicans, but is ultimately a road to nowhere. The Democratic Party is unlikely to turn into a truly working class party. Funding by “progressive” corporate entities acts as a veneer by which to hijack popular sentiments to prolong corporate survival by appearing socially responsible. These corporations will not voluntarily relinquish power, even if a majority of Democratic candidates identify as or claim to be progressive socialists. These attempts to coopt the Democratic Party from within will ultimately fail, as the party is too deeply rooted in the financial structure of bourgeois politics. This is not to slander DSA, which serves a valuable purpose in raising class-consciousness in the US. It is only through the entry into power of a working class party entirely divorced from corporate funding and in absolute opposition to the maintenance of the two-party oligarchy that actual socialism can be built.

A workers’ party is a party of the working class. This means that the party is largely composed of proletarians with the support of the petit-bourgeois (who are ultimately ideological allies since their interests are also squashed by the large corporations), and advances the interests of the proletariat and voiceless. Such an orientation is a moral as well as practical commitment that must be unequivocal in its declaration. A workers’ party must reject corporate funding to ensure that it is beholden only to the working class and that it does not become coopted and run down into ruin as a false-opposition puppet: a boogey-man for the right.

Other than its identity, a working class party differs from bourgeois parties and umbrella organizations in its determination to organize the masses for unified and coordinated actions. Isolated strikes and protests are important, but in the big picture are as effective against capitalism as popping a fire cracker to illuminate the night. A general strike of only a few days would bring, for example, the US economy to a standstill while broadcasting to the capitalist class the ultimate precarity of its position. Such an event can most effectively be organized and coordinated by a workers’ party following a unified strategy at all of its levels, across the country.

A party is not an inherently anti-democratic entity, though many of its detractors claim that it stifles debate and forces members to accept a “line.” On the contrary, a party provides a forum for vigorous debate and compromise on a strategic direction and tactical decisions. In discussing and agreeing, members ensure that their voices are heard and that their preferences translate to real-life, applicable action.

I acknowledge that at the moment there is no working class party that can lead in the way I have described above. Such a party must be built. Undoubtedly it will face obstacles, not the least the skepticism of many progressives. However, precisely because other avenues have for so long led nowhere, it will be built. In the meantime it is important to work within the united front progressive venues available to us. For now, they are the venue of a rising political consciousness. It is in those battlegrounds that the future will be built.

With gratitude to Hari Kumar for his comments and suggestions.