Liquidating Lies

Some people are less enthusiastic

Pham Binh, a Marxist based in the US, submitted this contribution to the debates around the new project, including recent criticisms from the Weekly Worker

I have to unbend the stick yet again since comrades in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) mischaracterize where I stand on parties and party-building efforts. First Mike MacNair claimed I advocated a “process by which dissent is recuperated into the bourgeois political game” and now Ben Lewis accuses me of drawing “movementist” and “liquidationist” conclusions. Unfortunately, Lewis cannot be right about my position against MacNair since Macnair acknowledged that I favor multi-tendency socialist parties over single-tendency “Leninist” organizations. If that is liquidationism, then I am as guilty of it as Lenin was in 1912 because he advocated just such a model for the Russian Social-Democratic Party (RSDLP) at that time.

Lars Lih is absolutely correct to point out that liquidationism – that is, dropping the goal of a democratic revolution in autocratic Russia and confining socialist organizing to what the Tsar deemed legal – was viewed by many of the RSDLP’s Menshevik and Bolshevik activists as an existential threat, a danger to all factions and tendencies because it threatened the RSDLP itself. I think Lenin and his comrades were right politically and organizationally in how they handled the problem of liquidationism, and I am certainly not a liquidationist (if I was, I would have written historical articles attacking Lenin and the 1912 Prague Conference as the liquidators did). What Lenin and the Bolsheviks meant by liquidationism is completely at odds with Lewis’s (ab)use of the term.

James Cannon, a founding member of the American Communist Party (CP), was also accused of being a liquidationist since he favored scrapping the CP’s underground, illegal organizing in conditions where legal organizing was both possible and necessary.

In Cannon’s case and in mine the charge is bogus, without any merit whatsoever.

I suspect that Lewis sincerely believes I am a liquidationist because six months ago I called for regroupment on the American socialist left in “Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists,” a position I reiterated in greater detail in “Another Socialist Left Is Possible.” Calling for the liquidation of the existing Marxist groups does not make one a liquidationist in the way Lenin understood it because we in America do not have a mass worker-socialist party to liquidate! Perhaps this is news to Lewis, but for us here in the United States it has been our central stumbling block for the better part of half a century. If we did have such a party, I (and tens of thousands of others) would be part of it and would fight against any attempt to liquidate it under any pretext.

Today, the existing groups on the American socialist left stand in the way of and block the development of such a party. Does Lewis (or CPGB) stand in favor of this status quo, or should the existing divides be liquidated in favor of a qualitatively better organization, more democratic, fluid, and open than the unchanging socialist sects and their proprietary front groups that currently clutter the left landscape? This is the real question that needs to be answered, not by Lewis and CPGB alone but by all socialists, Marxists, and anti-capitalist revolutionaries, and not by words alone but through deeds, through action.

This is precisely what the Anti-Capitalist Initiative (ACI) seems to be attempting to do and why I believe the project has merit, whatever its flaws. A living, breathing, provisional experiment like ACI has a much better chance at succeeding than a group or publication that focuses on getting the demands, program, formal politics, history, and theory “right” (or criticizing everyone else’s demands, program, formal politics, history, and theory for being wrong) because the former has the possibility of real qualitative transformation and development while the latter can only repeat its criticisms ad nauseum and will in practice go nowhere no matter how right those criticisms are.

The key for ACI (or any new initiative) is whether it develops meaningful democratic mechanisms to create a culture of accountability and comradely, critical, and honest self-reflection, the essential preconditions for straightening out the inevitable political and organizational errors.

The central disagreement I have with CPGB is the following statement by Lewis:

What we say is that unless we openly commit to building a party committed to the programmatic fundamentals of Marxism, with space and room to debate tactical and indeed strategic disagreements, then we will not get anywhere at all. What do we learn from 1912? That at all times, whatever the level of the class struggle, the task of Marxists is to unite all those committed to a Marxist political party.

Our task is not “at all times, whatever the level of the class struggle … to unite all those committed to a Marxist political party.” This is ahistorical. It is also wrong in a situation where the Marxist wing of a crippled workers’ movement is made up of fragmented, competing splinters and slivers. Getting these marginal elements to all agree on the definition of Marxist fundamentals would not help to recreate the powerful worker-socialist movement that Europe’s ruling classes feared and hated at the turn of the twentieth century.

More importantly, making the “fundamentals of Marxism” the precondition for any party-building project guarantees that our efforts never get beyond the conceptual stage of abstraction for a simple reason: there is no consensus about what constitutes “the programmatic fundamentals” of Marxism among Marxists (Marx probably foresaw this absurd situation when he declared, “I myself am not a Marxist”). It would be impossible to obtain even an Occupy-style “modified consensus” margin of 90% on the content of Marxist fundamentals if a national meeting with representatives of all the existing Marxist groups as well as independent socialists were held either in the United States or in the United Kingdom.

Discussions of theory and program should not be a precondition for working together in the same party, network, or whatever word it is we use to label our political associations these days. These discussions can only be fruitful on the basis of common activity, common experience, common struggle, against common enemies and for common goals. A little common sense couldn’t hurt either.

If the CPGB’s “anti-liquidationist” approach of “uniting all those committed to a Marxist political party” had prevailed in 1875, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) would have never gotten off the ground because it was a merger of Marxist and non-Marxist elements (followers of Lasalle) on a thoroughly non-Marxist basis: the Gotha Program. If this merger had not occurred on the basis that it did, there would have been no German SPD, no international social democracy, no Erfurt Program of 1891, no Bolshevism, no Russian revolution, no Lenin. In that case, we would be in really big trouble, building new models from scratch and having to learn all of the painful lessons these experiences gave rise to all over again in a period where the very existence of unions and social safety nets is on the line.

If the permanent marginality of the Trotskyist movement has anything to teach us, it is that the “theory/program/ideology first” approach must be liquidated if we want to make real-world progress. The longer we wait, the less likely there will be a world left for us to win.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal and The Indypendent. Check out, the first national collaborative blog by and for occupiers.