The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 80 (Fall 2007) in conjunction with Venezuela: Chávez vs. Working Class.
Marxism stands for the self-emancipation of the working class. Thus as revolutionary workers, we want to be open about our goals with our fellow workers. The League for the Revolutionary Party champions building the revolutionary workers’ vanguard party. This is the central purpose of our existence, since it is the necessary weapon for socialist revolution.
Unfortunately the Revolutionary Left Youth (JIR) in Venezuela, a small section of the Trotskyist Fraction--Fourth International (FT-CI), and the Trotskyist Fraction sections in general rarely advocate the revolutionary vanguard party. Rather their central line is to call for a big independent party of the working class. In Venezuela they demand that the left union leaders build this party. They do generally add that the party should be “revolutionary,” “anti-capitalist” and “anti-imperialist.” But as we pointed out in our reply to their Appeal, this is just confusionist. Specifically, it blurs the difference between a revolutionary vanguard party, like the Bolshevik party that led the Russian revolution, and a broad party of the working class, like a party based on the unions. This latter type of party never can lead the socialist revolution. Only a vanguard party, which is part of a revolutionary International, can actually fulfill revolutionary, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist aims.
Lenin fought for the principle of the revolutionary vanguard party. The political collapse of the Second International at the start of World War I had demonstrated that broad parties open to the entire class would be inevitably weighted toward reformism and would tend to capitulate to imperialism. The working class needed a party that could fight off labor-aristocratic and other alien intrusions, would be solidly internationalist and would embody the interests of the most oppressed and exploited.
The cadre of this vanguard party would be the most politically advanced workers -- not only militant and combative against the bosses, but armed with a solid Marxist worldview. They would be trained in theory as well as strategy and tactics; and they would operate in a tightly disciplined manner. The strict separation of revolutionary workers into their own vanguard party would allow them the most effective participation in common struggles with other workers, seeking to raise their revolutionary consciousness. Such interventions would enable the initially small vanguard party to become a mass vanguard party over time. (See Propaganda and Agitation in Building the Revolutionary Party in PR 56.)
Trotsky followed Lenin’s insistence on building the vanguard party. They both argued that this meant an initial stage of mainly propaganda work devoted to recruiting a core of revolutionary workers as its cadre. Participation in mass struggles was necessary even during the early stages, but the major focus would have to be on propaganda towards the politically advanced workers rather than agitation to the masses -- and recruitment on a highly selective basis would be in order. As Trotsky commented, “The stage of individual propaganda was inevitable. When the centrists accused us of sectarianism, we answered them: without a minimal Marxist cadre, principled action among the masses is impossible. But that is the only reason we form cadres.” (“The Belgian Dispute and the De Man Plan,” Writings 1934-35.)
The JIR, in contrast, habitually prioritizes a campaign for a big party based on the unions. If such a big party could exist in Venezuela today, it would have to reflect the dominant views held in the working class and the left. Many Venezuelan workers favor revolutionary, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist aims, but still hope that Chávez can lead this struggle for them. This shows that there is much misunderstanding about what these words mean, fostered by Chávez himself and the whole tailist left.
In reality a large number of workers today in Venezuela have mixed consciousness. They are aware that they are members of a working class that has definite interests, and they increasingly want to act in these interests. But this sense of class interest is obviously mixed with reformist and populist ideas. A big party constructed now would have to be based on this level of mixed consciousness and would inevitably capitulate to Chávez and to populism. In other words, we would have a sociologically working-class party dominated by non-working-class politics and leadership, the same problem that caused Lenin to advocate a selective revolutionary vanguard party instead of a broad party.
The JIR submerges any direct call to advanced workers for building the revolutionary vanguard party. Cohering the initial vanguard layer into a Leninist propaganda group is needed the most in Venezuela today; it would be the core for building the vanguard party. The JIR’s avoidance of this basic question goes against what Lenin and Trotsky argued for and in our opinion is the gravest mistake.
The Trotskyist Fraction’s report on their Conference earlier this year concluded that “we have promoted building an Independent Workers’ Party in Venezuela, or building a Political Instrument of the Workers in Bolivia, where militant unions can commit themselves to promoting a political organization that, at a minimum, would clearly be class-conscious.” (See IV Conference of the FT-CI; For a revolutionary workers’ strategy, March 2007, on the FT-CI’s website.) That is, the FT was referring to Trotsky’s call for a labor party in the United States as a precedent for their work in Venezuela, Bolivia and elsewhere.
In reviewing their practice over a long period, it is evident to us that the JIR permanently calls for a labor-type party, even though the FT claims they use it only as a tactic. This chronic call for a “big independent party of the working class” based on the unions, regardless of circumstances, sends the message that such a broad party is a necessary prior stage to building a revolutionary vanguard party. And this is the opposite of Trotsky’s method.
Trotsky’s approach to a call for a labor party was clearly tactical. He urged revolutionaries to join a movement for such a party only under certain concrete conditions at certain times. Under other conditions he opposed such moves. In the case of the U.S. in 1938, when he did advocate a campaign for a labor party, he had strong reasons to anticipate an actual movement for such a party in the immediate future. Masses of workers had already gone through the experience of the workers’ upheavals that built the CIO. This movement had mobilized millions and made the working class very aware of its independent power as a class.
Trotsky noted that those struggles had reached a dead end, especially because of the effects of the great depression. He expected that workers’ struggles would inevitably need to shift into the realm of politics, and that a big movement for a labor party would be the likely direction of struggle. The developing movement would initially be open-ended; that is, there would be real opportunities for revolutionary workers to fight alongside fellow workers for a revolutionary perspective..
Earlier in the 1930’s under different conditions, Trotsky had opposed advocating a labor party in the U.S. Then the working-class struggle had been at a lower point; masses of workers had not become conscious of their independent power even on an industrial level. In the absence of a mass radical movement of the class, the work of building a revolutionary vanguard party did not have to go through a labor party stage.
Venezuela today presents a totally different picture from the U.S. of the late 1930’s. The JIR points to important struggles and argues, often very effectively, that they need to be developed and spread. It often makes demands on the union leaders for greater mass meetings and mass mobilizations, and it is right to do so. The key agitational question in Venezuela right now is the need for the working class to strengthen its struggle through the exercise of its power in production, through more massive actions. The regional strike in Aragua was an important indication of the direction the workers’ movement has to take.
Nevertheless, the JIR has itself explained many times that there are not thousands of workers moving to break with Chávez -- they didn’t even flow into the critically pro-Chávez PRS. The JIR knows that the bulk of militant workers today support Chávez and that it is unreal to expect a mass break in the upcoming juncture. But once the bigger battalions of the working class experience their class power in action, and clashes with the regime develop far beyond where they are now, that may well help create a movement for a mass independent workers’ party. If that becomes the logical road for workers to take, Trotsky’s tactic would become necessary. Communists would naturally want to intervene alongside their fellow workers in such a movement -- in order to fight for a revolutionary conclusion. Today the tactic, especially as the JIR has used it, is inappropriate and stagist.
What’s more, even when using such a tactic Trotsky followed a principle that the FT-CI and JIR forget. As he once put it:
A long period of confusion in the Comintern led many people to forget a very simple but absolutely irrevocable principle: that a Marxist, a proletarian revolutionist, cannot present himself before the working class with two banners. He cannot say at a workers’ meeting: “I have a ticket for a first-class party and another, cheaper ticket for the backward workers.” If I am a Communist, I must fight for the Communist Party. (The Labor Party Question in the United States, 1932.)
Not only did Trotsky insist that revolutionaries tell advanced workers they stand for a communist party; he favored making this clear to more backward workers as well.
The JIR has not presented a convincing case for using the labor party tactic in Venezuela, and they have not used it as a revolutionary tactic in any case. A mass independent party is not possible in Venezuela right now. But building the vanguard revolutionary party is a task that cannot be postponed, and it has to start by consistently arguing for building a propaganda group toward this end. If we believe that the advanced workers’ understanding of their revolutionary socialist tasks is key, then we have to say so. Revolutionaries must reject the centrist method of fudging the central task of cohering the vanguard, however small its initial numbers.