Towards a New Revolutionary Party:
One that Can Win AND Build Socialism

(Conference Talk—1980)
By Bertell Ollman

I heard a song recently called, "Stalin Why I Did It." The answer given in the refrain is, "Because I'm Evil." That's why Hitler did it—because he was evil. Right? And some people think that's why Nixon did it, and Jimmy Carter. Others realize that leaders choose between available alternatives and these alternatives, like the problems they are meant to solve, are supplied by a particular society, by the economic and other imperatives of that society. Many of the speakers we've heard today have argued that our problems of economic crisis and cold war are rooted in the workings of capitalism. To solve, to really solve our major problems, therefore, requires that we do away with capitalism. How do we do that?

Mark Twain dealt with a somewhat similar impasse as follows: when asked what could be done about the emerging danger of submarine warfare, he answered that submarines could be destroyed if we just raised the temperature of all the world's oceans to the boiling point. When pressed on how this could be done, he replied, "Look, I've told you what to do. Don't expect me to tell you how to do it." Many socialists, myself included, have often left listeners in just such a fix.

Today, I shall try to make up for such past omissions and hazard an answer to Lenin's question, "What is to be done?" In America (as indeed throughout most of the world) there are two main answers—each associated with a different socialist tendency—that have been give to this question. One is —Go slow, start where the mass of workers are now, don't ask for what they don't already want and—wherever possible—make use of existing organizations. The other says that what is needed is a party, with an explicit socialist line, capable of overturning capitalism and constructing a socialist society.

I would place both the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee of Michael Harrington and the Citizen's Party of Barry Commoner into this first tendency, which is often called "reformist socialism." And I would place the thirty to forty small socialist and communist parties of the far Left—and there are that many—into the second tendency, which is often called "revolutionary socialism."

In the polemics which go on between these two tendencies, each side is much more adept in showing that the other's strategy doesn't work than that its own strategy can. Reformist socialists generally argue for their approach by making it clear that Left parties which are out of touch with popular sentiment have no chance of leading the workers anywhere. The workers, they say, are not and will not be attracted to these Left groups, especially now that there are so many of them and that they spend so much time fighting among themselves.

The revolutionary socialists' main response to this is that reformist groups, such as DSOC, can affect only minor reforms at best, and that such reforms—by co-opting and buying off certain opposition groups—only succeed in strengthening capitalism. The major problems associated with capitalism and the suffering and alienation which they cause are not eradicated. If capitalism is the problem, reformist socialists cannot solve the problem because they don't even try to solve it.

To recap: reformist socialists argue for their approach because revolutionary socialists are out of touch with what is possible. While revolutionary socialists argue for theirs by showing that reforms will not lead to socialism. I think that most socialists who join one or the other of these tendencies do so because they are convinced that the approach favored by the other tendency won't work. They are not so much convinced that their approach will work as they are that the other one won't.

All this to-ing and fro-ing has had its effect—on me at least. I have become convinced that both are right—that is, that existing revolutionary parties are so out of touch with the workers, both blue and white collar workers, that I see no chance they could ever lead us to a socialist revolution. And reformist socialist parties are asking for so little that even if they were to get it, all the problems connected with capitalism, including imperialist wars, would remain.

Yet the telling criticism that each of these tendencies makes of the other should give us some idea of what kind of party is required if socialism is ever to replace capitalism. What is required is a party that has a clear socialist program and a real working class base. Easier said then done, I know, but let's push on. Only such a party could realistically contend for political power and possibly introduce socialism if it won. We need a party, in other words, that speaks the minds of enough people so that it can win, and that has a program sufficiently socialist so that when it wins the victory is worth the struggle. Existing socialist parties, reformist and revolutionary alike, do not fit this description. So much is clear. Less clear is whether either of them offers the necessary first step to the creation of such a party. I think not. In the case of the revolutionary parties, I don't see the American workers flocking to the banners of any of these parties no matter how bad the current economic situation becomes—and it is going to become much worse before it gets any better. Burdened by too many generally correct Marxist ideas, it is unlikely that these parties will attract many more followers than they already have.

On the other hand, I don't see the reformist socialist groups developing a more radical platform as they acquire a larger working class following, something I do see as a possibility. Rather, their existing demands are likely to become even more moderate as they seek to widen their appeal to liberals and others who are not any kind of socialist. No, I don't see any necessary first step toward the kind of party we need in any of the socialist organizations that exist today.

Is there an alternative scenario? I think I can see one. Rather than the workers flocking to one or another of the existing parties, it may be that members of these parties will have an opportunity to join a political formation composed mainly of workers. The majority of workers, of course, won't strike out to form a working class political party until they realize that our two capitalist parties will not satisfy their minimal demands. I would have thought that such a minimum has to do with protecting the social and economic gains of earlier and happier times. Under President Carter, the traditional party of labor, the Democratic Party, is caving in to business pressures on inflation, full employment, wages, health, and job safety—just enough so that many workers are beginning to see that the lesser evil argument that has bound them to the Democrats is barely, if at all, applicable. With Carter's takeover of the national Democratic Party, there is less difference between two capitalist parties now than at any time in the last fifty years. Nor can workers count on their ever weakening trade unions to provide effective defense against the fall in their living standards. Membership in unions has gone down from about one third of the working class to about one forth of the class in only a decade. Something more, something else, something new is needed, and the workers feel it. The times have never been more ripe for a political initiative of some sort coming from within the working class itself—from insurgent groups in unions, from a few exceptional trade union officers, from some heavily working class sections of the Democratic Party, from working class community and consumer groups, and from working class Black, Third World, Women and student groups. The time has never been more ripe for important segments of these groups to initiate the formation of a new third party, a labor party.

Though there are people with socialist views in each of the groups mentioned, I would expect that the initial program of this party will be more labor than socialist. If the party contains a critical mass of real workers, however, radical socialists, including many from the ranks of revolutionary socialist parties, will join. And the battle to make this labor party into a socialist one will be on. Given the present crisis of capitalism, which is going to be long and deep, and given the relatively large number of committed socialists who would be drawn into such a party, I think the Left forces will eventually win out, and the United States will finally have a socialist party that can win political power and on winning could introduce socialism.

I have said that American workers will never be drawn to one of the existing revolutionary socialist parties. I am less sure that they will never be drawn to a reformist socialist party, but should this happen the moderate politics of the people who now belong to this tendency would ensure that nothing terribly significant develops. Clearly, most radical socialists, whether members of revolutionary socialist parties or independents—and there are a great many independent socialists—would never join such a party and their potential for influencing it in a leftward direction would never be realized.

On the other hand, if the labor party has its start from within organizations of the working class, if a significant number of workers are involved from the start, if none of the existing socialist parties is at the controls and calling the political tune, I would expect to see large numbers of socialists join very quickly. People who are new to radical politics always want to know why the different kinds of socialists don't get together. "Unity" and "solidarity," they rightly point out, are key concepts in the vocabulary of every socialist. Yet, socialist groups spend so much time fighting each other. First, it must be admitted that the differences underlying many of these disputes are real enough. Equally important, however, is the fact that at present—a group's interest in compromising on these differences, or underplaying them, or accepting a minority role if one loses a big vote is simply not very great. So the intense bickering; so the all too frequent splits. Given the Left's splendid isolation from the working class, what is there to lose? It is not as if sectarian attitudes and actions are going to isolate you any more than you already are. If there were a labor party, however, different kinds of socialists would have an interest in cooperating and working together inside this party—for then this is where action would be. Of course, the disputes between the various schools of socialist thought would continue, but they would go on within the framework of a common struggle against capitalism. Though many revolutionary and reformist parties would continue to exist, they would lose most of their members to the new labor party and become even more irrelevant than they are now. Here, then, is the only way that different kinds of socialists can and would work together—not by giving up their principles to join one of the existing Left parties, but by being drawn into a broad and tolerant labor party that becomes a field for the struggle between contending socialist principles and strategies.

Which brings us back to the crucial question of whether the workers can and will initiate an independent labor party. I have already mentioned the economic and political events that make such a development possible. It is important to note changes in the composition and character of the workers themselves which favor the same development. Workers today include many veterans of Vietnam, Civil Rights and anti-war struggles. As a group, they are less authoritarian, less traditional, less bound internally to existing structures, political and economic. Politically, most consider themselves independent. The distrust and disrespect for political leaders may be greater than it has ever been. Prevailing attitudes toward business and businessmen is so low that it has provoked a major counter-offensive from the highly paid intellectual servants of the bourgeoisie—Mobil ads and the like. And last, but not least, workers who have had even a couple of years of college—and there are millions of them—are likely to have been introduced to socialist criticisms of capitalism by socialist professors, that is, criticisms which link together the worsening problems of life in capitalism with the need for socialism.

What can be done now? The immediate task, in my view, is not to advance the sectarian interests and position of any socialist party, whether reformist or revolutionary, but to help people understand the need for and the possibility of creating a labor party. Our task, then, is to participate in working class groups wherever we work and live and study, and to encourage such groups in their meetings, in their publications and at their conventions to call for a labor party. This must not become a slogan, but should emerge as the rational solution to each group's special problems which cannot be solved in other ways. When the call for a labor party goes up from many diverse groups in the working class, then—and only then—an organizing convention for such a party should be held. After which, everyone here who considers himself or herself a socialist of any kind should join that party. Remember, history is not over. The history of the future will be made by men and women like us. Well, then, why not by us?

Long live the socialist party of tomorrow, a party which is socialist and can win. Long live the ties of interest and comradeship that will bind most of us here today in such a party. Long live the free, democratic, peaceful, egalitarian and cooperative community that we will yet live to create. Comrades—VENCEREMOS!