Back to Basics in Party Building

Arindam Sen

"Setback is necessary", said comrade Charu Mazumdar in late 1971 quoting Mao Zedong, "because it demolishes the sense of easy victory and helps us realise what is right and what is wrong".  Our party was then facing a setback that soon turned out to be total and devastating.  Following the recent partial (electoral) setback, the party CC in its call of 28 July 2009 has re-invoked this revolutionary spirit of turning a bad thing into a good thing and urged upon all of us to plug the loopholes in our work style and organisation so as to prepare the party for a new breakthrough in the world of mass struggles.  For this we need to do many things over a period of time.  First and foremost, we must re-emphasise and re-inculcate the basic principles of communist party organisation and the revolutionary party culture that constitute a great legacy of CPI (ML).
Some comrades, however, are not very enthusiastic about this.  Sociopolitical environments have changed vastly at micro and macro levels and so have the issues and forms of struggle we generally take up, therefore old rules of organisation are now more ritualistic than relevant, they feel. They do not spell it out in so many words, but you can tell it from their style of work.  This is unintended opportunism or pragmatism -- "practicalism" in Mao's word (in English translation) -- in the realm of party organisation.  If left unchecked for a long time, this trend can slowly, almost imperceptibly, corrupt the party's proletarian character from within.  A few comrades on the other hand love to quote the fundamental principles again and again, failing to adapt these to changed situations, work-conditions and tasks -- this is sterile dogmatism or perfectionism in the realm of party organisation.  Rather than producing the desired effect, it gradually generates a passive or sceptic attitude among these well-meaning comrades.  Fighting against both trends, the first-mentioned in particular (since this is more prevalent now), we must try and develop an organisational system that is modern, dynamic and best-suited to promptly carry out the tasks we actually face today -- but, at the same time, one that allows the fullest play to the intrinsic qualities of a revolutionary communist party.  To take just one example, modern communication technologies should be used to further promote two-way political discussion among comrades and to facilitate party committee functioning -- not to render these redundant. 
Revolutionary Mass Orientation and Mass Line
Mao Zedong compared communists to seeds and the masses to soil.  Seeds need the soil to sprout, without the latter their potential of growing into trees and producing food cannot be actualised.  Likewise, the fertility inherent in a great mass of soil can be realised only when the tiny seeds are planted and taken proper care of.  This reciprocity, interdependence or fusion constitutes the highest hallmark of party-people relations always and everywhere, in open as well as underground conditions of work, in course of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles (including arms struggle and guerrilla war), in pre and post-revolutionary situations.
But this can be ensured only by following a correct political line and the method of leadership known as mass line:
“In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily "from the masses, to the masses". This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action. Then once again concentrate ideas from the masses and once again go to the masses so that the ideas are persevered in and carried through. And so on, over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge.” (From Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership, June 1943)

"In every stage of struggle we must strengthen and deepen our ties with the masses....  It is not that we seek people's cooperation in the field of struggles alone.  We must adopt the method of dialogue and exchange of views with the people also in respect to managing the party affairs and formulating party policies." – CM   (From Sum up the Experience of India's Revolutionary Peasant Struggles and Go Ahead, Deshabrati, 4 December 1969)

Mass line is thus a prerequisite for the development of correct ideas and correct policies.  Lenin too underscored the importance of mass orientation in the development of revolutionary theory and in the maintenance of discipline.  (See box)
However, mass line is liable to be misinterpreted to justify trailing behind the masses, as is the revisionists’ wont.  By contrast, communist vanguards adopt a work style that shuns both the worship of spontaneity and adventurist activities isolated from the people:
“The masses in any given place are generally composed of three parts, the relatively active, the intermediate and the relatively backward. The leaders must therefore be skilled in uniting the small number of active elements around the leadership and must rely on them to raise the level of the intermediate elements and to win over the backward elements.” (Mao, ibid)
It is only in course of practising mass line that a communist party/party body/party member can acquire and persevere in communist modesty, which is very different from the formal modesty of a petty bourgeois gentleman.  As Charu Mazumdar said in course of a discussion in 1971,
“We must remember that we have not done anything great.  Whatever has been done, the credit goes to the people, and they alone can achieve everything….  Without this realization we lose trust on the people and become arrogant, and this leads to isolation from the masses.”
This approach led CM to make a very categorical, very sweeping but absolutely correct statement:
“…to be modest is the most important quality of communists.  One who is not modest is arrogant and therefore not a communist.”
Improve the Science and Art of Leadership
In the article cited above, Mao refers to "from the masses, to the masses" as" the basic method of leadership " and adds: “In the process of concentrating ideas and persevering in them, it is necessary to use the method of combining the general call with particular guidance, and this is a component part of the basic method.”
Such "particular guidance", says Mao, is to be given in a few selected areas or units and the experience gathered there should be summed up by the leadership to formulate new guidelines or general calls.  The core idea is that of planned, concentrated areas of work as the crystallisation or highest embodiment of communist consciousness. As comrade VM observes,

“... the question is of not merely concentrating work within a specified geographical boundary, rather it symbolises a particular style of work, ‘conscious area of work’, if you will. …
‘Concentrated areas’ should be developed as models of a particular style of work where you have conscious plan and programme, a longterm perspective, policies and tactics, a style of work where you have activists undertaking day-to-day mass work. If you have this infrastructure, you can take timely initiatives to meet any swift turn of events.
… At many places, either there have been no policies and plans, or they have remained only on paper. Working blindly means working on the basis of wrong policies. If you have no correct and conscious policy, you have wrong policies, spontaneous policies, and you are not alive to the dangers inherent in following such a course. Consolidation of a party committee always revolves around the policies it makes and implements and a constant review of these policies. Leaders again have not paid sufficient attention to this aspect. Their job is to concentrate on particular areas or fields of work, develop policies, analyse typical cases, and guide the whole organisation in the light of these experiences.
To add a conscious element to the spontaneous struggle of the people — it’s for this purpose that a communist party is there, otherwise it loses its raison d’être.” (From On the Consolidation Campaign, 1986)
Within the concentrated area, and also generally in all areas of work, we must "learn to play the piano well", as Mao put it: “In playing the piano all ten fingers are in motion; it won't do to move some fingers only and not others. But if all ten fingers press down at once, there is no melody. To produce good music, the ten fingers should move rhythmically and in co-ordination. A party committee should keep a firm grasp on its central task and at the same time, around the central task, it should unfold the work in other fields.” (From Method of Work of Party Committees). 
He laid special stress on "firm grasp", which is possible only when the party as a whole and each of its individual units follow a scientifically formulated plan regarding the central and auxiliary tasks.  Mao drew attention to this aspect in Concerning Methods of Leadership:
“In any given place, there cannot be a number of central tasks at the same time. At any one time there can be only one central task, supplemented by other tasks of a second or third order of importance. Consequently, the person with over-all responsibility in the locality must take into account the history and circumstances of the struggle there and put the different tasks in their proper order; he should not act upon each instruction as it comes from the higher organisation without any planning of his own, and thereby create a multitude of "central tasks" and a state of confusion and disorder.”
Well, do not our hard-working comrades and party bodies from the district level downwards often find themselves in such a state?

Let us continue with Mao:

“Nor should a higher organisation simultaneously assign many tasks to a lower organization without indicating their relative importance and urgency or without specifying which is central, for that will lead to confusion in the steps to be taken by the lower organisations in their work and thus no definite results will be achieved.”
In sum, proper prioritising of tasks and formulation of correct policies -- both being continuous processes rather than one-time decisions -- together constitute the key component of planning.  Lower level party bodies should learn to do this well, and as Mao tells us, higher-level committees also should learn to guide the former in this scientific manner.
Nurture Political Ties with Masses, Strengthen Lower-Level Party Structures
Above we heard Mao advising a responsible local cadre that she/he should not just act upon instructions coming from above but combine it with independent initiative according to her/his own plans.  In an article written months before his death and aptly titled Develop a Correct Style of Work to Develop the Party, comrade VM wrote:
“Comrade CM had drawn an important line of demarcation between the cadres of the revisionist and the revolutionary parties. Whereas the former keep on waiting for the instructions from above, the latter take their independent initiative and creatively implement the instructions that come from the leadership. For this a revolutionary cadre must be of an enterprising type and he/she should have a firm command over the situation in his/her area.1  This however is not possible without a deep-going social investigation. Comrade Mao had once remarked that "no investigation, no right to speak". Without questioning the ideas that repeatedly clash with the practice at the ground level, without asking ‘How’ and ‘Why’ on every phenomenon, how can human knowledge move forward? How can new heights be scaled both in theory and practice with ‘yes sir’ kind of communist cadres?”…
"Along with the general political and the agitational mobilisations", continues comrade VM, "putting special emphasis on new elements continuously emerging in the course of mass movements, bringing them within the periphery of Party education and Party organisation, building Party activist groups and Party branches at the ground level and activating them are the essential components of the communist style of work. A work style in which these elements are missing is nothing but revisionist work style based on the assumption that ‘movement is everything but the aim is nothing’. Ever broadening the scope of the movement but at the same time activating the Party organisation at the grass-roots level -- unity of these two apparent opposites is the essence of the communist style of work."
This is precisely what we call creative work -- a sine qua non for unleashing struggles on local issues, developing local cadres, continually expanding and deepening our political ties with the masses and drawing fresh blood into the party. To this end we must pay special attention to (a) regularising the system of party education at the district and lower levels and (b) vastly improving the circulation of party literature; these two tasks play complementary roles in raising the party ranks’ level of consciousness and spreading the party’s political message throughout our support base and beyond.
Promote Both Aspects of Democratic Centralism
There are many other instances of such "unity of apparent opposites", the most important being inner party democracy flourishing under centralised guidance and centralism nurtured by vibrant democracy.  Let us hear, once again, from comrade VM:
“Democracy within the Communist Party is somewhat different from what is commonly understood by this term. It is democracy under centralised guidance. The Party Central Committee decides when and on what questions debates and discussions should be allowed. Otherwise, the Party will degenerate into a debating society. …

“We have the right to criticise Party decisions; but once a decision has been taken, if any one criticises it without implementing it, or obstructs work, or hesitates to implement it, he will be guilty of the serious offence of violating Party discipline…. This petty-bourgeois sort of thinking inside the Party leads the Party on to the verge of destruction. And this is the manifestation of petty-bourgeois thinking inside the Party. Their comfortable living and attitude of undisciplined criticism reduces the Party to a mere debating society.

“…the undisciplined life of the petty-bourgeoisie draws them towards undisciplined criticism; that is, they do not want to criticise within the limits of the organization. To get rid of this deviation, we should be careful about the Marxist viewpoint regarding criticism. The characteristics of Marxist criticism are: (1) Criticisms must be made within the Party organization, that is, at the Party meeting. (2) The aim of criticism should be constructive.” -- CM (Make the People's Democratic Revolution Successful by Fighting against Revisionism, 1965)

The Party line is decided in the Party Congresses. Prior to that, debates and discussions are conducted on all aspects of the Party line. Now once things are decided in a Party Congress, the whole Party must implement those decisions. Again there will be a Congress, there will be debates. In the meantime too, on questions of new policies and tactics, and on questions which are treated as experimental ones, debates and discussions are always conducted, and opinions gathered. Decisions are taken on majority-minority basis and the minority is allowed to keep their views reserved.
Now some people say, your Party is not democratic enough and that is why you have not split. Your consistent unity shows that you are not democratic. The CRC, the PCC and others are always splitting because they are democratic. …
You know this is all rubbish. Actually, these people indulge in such fantasies only to justify their own anarchism, their own failure to build a party based on democratic centralism. …
We have been successful in establishing democratic centralism in the main. Still some wrong tendencies do exist in our organisation. … I know some members who want all the rights of a Party member but are not ready to shoulder any responsibility given to them by the organisation. The primary requirement of membership is that you must fulfil the responsibility entrusted upon you by the organisation. While deciding upon this responsibility you must be consulted and your assent obtained, but once decided you must carry it out with all sincerity. If this minimum Party sense is not there you are not eligible for membership and therefore for the rights of a Party member.
…However, centralism is based on democracy. If discussions and debates are disallowed in the Party, if a regular system for gathering various opinions and consulting various persons is not there, if undue interference goes on in every tid-bit affair of mass organisations, then centralism will turn into bureaucracy.
Again, if you do not have correct policies, if there is no timely guidance, if there are no rules, no proper divisions of work, then also centralism and discipline cannot be established.
And last but not the least, enforcement of centralism and discipline is closely related to the stature of the Party leadership in the eyes of the ranks. If there is widespread resentment below, if confusion and dissent abound, then the root cause must be sought in the leadership. If leaders do not have a good grasp of the situation and of Marxism-Leninism, if their lifestyle and their attitudes smack of decadent bourgeois culture, if they are not modest, sober and hardworking, if they do not enjoy spontaneous love and respect from the ranks, their simply holding a high post in the Party hierarchy will not be of any use. Only when the core of leadership is mature and dedicated and therefore enjoys high prestige, is it possible to enforce organisational discipline. Otherwise, all such attempts will only be counterproductive. All dissidence, therefore, should not be considered anti-Party and everywhere we should not try to solve the problem by using the stick of discipline and sharp criticism.” (From On Consolidation Campaign)

“How is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested?  How is it reinforced?  First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism.  Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and — if you wish - merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct.  Without these conditions, discipline in any revolutionary party really capable of being the party of the advanced class, whose mission it is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved.  Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrase-mongering and clowning. On the other hand, these conditions cannot emerge at once. They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience. Their creation is facilitated by a correct revolutionary theory which, in its turn, is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.” – Lenin

In the last two paragraphs cited above, Vinod Mishra in a way builds on what Lenin had written in 'Left-Wing' Communism -- an Infantile Disorder (see box).  His insistence on “a regular system for gathering various opinions and consulting various persons” assumes enhanced importance today with the expanding variety of our activities.  Democratic centralism, after all, is not just a set of rules but a continuous two-way process of centralisation of correct ideas and practices emerging at different places in course of struggle against wrong ideas and practices.

Well, these are some of the more important points we must emphasise at the present juncture; there are many others to which comrades should pay attention in light of their own experiences. As Comrade Dipankar said in his concluding speech at the two-day all India cadre convention at Bardhaman in September 2006, “We must remember that like socialism, the communist party too cannot be built in an ideal world; it can only be built in concrete conditions, and on the basis of raw materials handed down by history and shaped and supplied by the existing society…. Let us march ahead step-by-step, shoulder to shoulder.” 

1CM had also said that this distinctive revolutionary quality is expected both of an individual activist and a party unit. --AS