What We Can Learn From Hal Draper

Many Marxists have been great theorists. Equally many, perhaps more, have been great practical men and women: great organizers, trade unionists, and practical politicians. Unfortunately, what has been most rare are the people whose genius resides in their grasp of the intermediate field, the field of understanding the implications of general theory for a particular case. This field, what one might call applied theory or political interpretation of theory, is perhaps the most difficult of all. For that reason, insofar as it has been done at all it seems to have been the domain of leaders of petty sects and mini-parties. Their obvious lack of success has led many to think that there is nothing to it: either that one cannot make general rules about the application of Marxist theory in a specific case, or that it is a matter of the individual genius of particular politicians, e.g. Lenin. The latter seems hard to reconcile with the principles of historical materialism and tends to lead to cults of authority, something Marx and Engels always despised and which tends to impede the communist movement. The former is more defensible, but while flexible seems to dangerously underutilize the long experience of Marxism as a tradition and movement. After all, ‘best practice’ is important in any learning, and internationalism demands that we look to experiences of other countries in other times to see how we can improve on ourselves. It is also useful if there is a coherence to our approach, not in the last place with the aim of showing how Marxism can actually help a workers’ movement. Moreover, Marx and Engels themselves were highly active in the political organisational matters of their time, and so were many of the great theorists after them, whether Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin or even Huey Newton. For these reasons, it is interesting to study better the materials that exist on the interpretation of Marxism, in particular the ‘Marxism’ of Marx and Engels themselves, to the level of practical politics, the kind that is reported upon in the newspapers and debated in the parliaments.

It is in specifically this domain that Hal Draper is a master figure. The son of Jewish garment workers, immigrants to the United States, he was active for a long time in various socialist parties and developed his uncompromising Marxist vision from direct labor union work. As editor of Labor Notes and author of the series Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, he produced an original and compelling vision of Marxism in a time of Cold War which overcame the dichotomies between support for the USSR and support for the post-New Deal US by resolutely setting the communist tradition against both. His political theoretical positions, derived from the current sometimes identified as ‘left Schachtmanism’, are not the interesting subject for our purposes however: what matters is how he brilliantly used and interpreted Marx to solve practical issues in communist politics. If one wishes to understand Marxist politics in its full application during Marx & Engels’ own time, one can do a lot worse than to read his five volume series Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution mentioned above, which has been published by Monthly Review. Unfortunately, it is hard to obtain and rather verbose by the standards of the average person’s interest in and use for politics. Also, a lot of it considers historical questions of interpretation of Marx and Engels’ own time and actions, which is of diminished interest to most people’s practical politics today. Therefore, it may be useful to focus instead on a small number of important general points of application of Marxist theory to politics, which ought to be kept in mind by communists today.

1) The primary task of communist organizing is to get things moving. Very often, probably too often, Marxist parties and groups have focused above all on getting the program right, on having the right analysis and the right position on every issue. They form on the basis of such things, and they split on that basis too. Sometimes, particularly within Maoism, the attitude is even one where it appears that getting the ‘line’ correct is the only real task, and with the right line all success will come of itself. Now of course, in a sense this is true, and nobody argues that theory is not absolutely important. After all, Marxism as such is identified as a body of theories on related subjects. But the balance has to be gotten right. It’s not just a matter of having good theory and good organizing skills too, it is also a matter of knowing how these relate. Here is where Draper made great contributions. He emphasized in his work the importance of making the theory work for the movement. As Marx said: “one step of real movement is better than a thousand programmes”. When one develops theory, of course this must be done fully and systematically and along scientific lines. But the application of this theory must be at the level of the working class as it actually exists, not the working class as one would like it to be, nor the few loose individuals who happen to agree with the particular doctrine of a particular party or group. The theory must be applied in each individual issue and case in such a manner as to get the working class moving, moving against the interests of capital. There is no a priori way of knowing what that is in any particular case, nor is it useful to write recipes before the occasion, because they will be obsolete as soon as they are written (one major reason why Marx refused to do so). Instead, it must be understood as a criterion, a test for the success of a particular application of theory – does it actually motivate working people against capital, directly or indirectly?

One can campaign with the slogan “Long Live the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, but such a slogan, while correct at the level of theory, is wrong at the level of application. After all, ‘dictatorship’ is a nasty word, most people in the Western world don’t like it and many elsewhere don’t either. This does not get people moving, but in fact irritates and divides people pointlessly. Instead, it is better to produce a slogan or a suggestion for union action or whatever the case may be that gets people moving against the state, in such a way that it will reveal the nature of the state as a capitalist-controlled one (whatever its ‘democratic’ nature might be). This will, over a long period of time and experience, demonstrate the meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat to the many people who don’t understand it and quite justifiedly dislike its sound. At the level of application, it is therefore much better for example to agitate organized workers against anti-union and anti-strike laws, where they will inevitably clash with the power of the state; especially in liberal countries this is eye-opening.

2) A communist party should not be a microsect or a mini-‘mass party’, but it should be an organized group around a political platform. There is no use, especially in the countries where labor aristocracy dominates, to form endless numbers of mini-mass parties, however correct their political programme may be. This is not to say we should all dissolve our activities into the reformist mass party of our particular country; far from it. What it means is that there is no use having the structure, attitude and organization of a mass party, with a weekly and a monthly and ‘democratic centralism’ and claims to ‘vanguard’ status and a leadership that binds its members in all aspects of politics, when the total dues-paying membership of such a party is unlikely to exceed 400. Such a party is not a mass party, nor a mass party in becoming, but a parody of a mass party, a ridiculous sect. As Draper extensively demonstrated in his KMToR, Marx and Engels themselves, after they left the Communist League early on in their careers, never actually created nor ever supported such a microsect, and they actively agitated against them where they popped up (e.g. Hyndman’s SDF in the UK). When they spoke of ‘the Party’ or the ‘Communist Party’, they were referring always to the movement as a whole. All those who shared their general views and aims were considered part of this theoretical ‘party’, regardless of what organizational formation they were or were not members of. The First International, the International Working Man’s Association, was a very ‘big tent’ coalition of a great number of different unions, larger and smaller ‘mass parties’, workers being members on their own account, anarchist conspiratorial cells, Chartist support groups, and so forth. Marx and Engels themselves within this broad array represented a particular political platform, a particular set of ideas and principles both at the general theoretical and at the applied level. But they never formed a separate sect, nor did they demand agreement with their views at the level of the First International. Their aim was always to get the working class as it existed organized and moving, and the International represented the efforts of many in this respect. Within it, their own viewpoints were established by them in books, journal articles, essays and so forth with the aim of winning the working class to their viewpoint. These two things were well understood to be separate but equally essential things to them, and they resolutely fought against any attempts to make the one dependent on the other. This is not to say that it is ‘forbidden’ to be a member of or active in a small Marxist party of some sort; just that the aims of such a party should be well defined with this in mind, and not attempt to be a parody of the German SPD or the Bolshevik party by the time of Lenin’s success, since neither party itself developed as a microsect. What such a Marxist party could look like, and how it could be a party and yet organize itself as a platform of ideas for the working class rather than a sectarian mess, is further described in my article Sectarianism and the Party.

Hal Draper himself summarized it as follows, in his essay Anatomy of the Micro-Sect:

From the point of view of the individual socialist who wants to “do something”, we would summarize our suggestion as follows:

(1) Crystallize a circle of co-thinkers around you wherever you are, in the course of your activity in the arena of the social struggle that goes along with your situation. You are the smallest-unit political center there is.

(2) Make contact with a political center that makes sense from your own point of view, for help in literature, advice, and outside linkups, and work with it to whatever extend you find useful. But there is no reason against having this relationship with more than one political center, if they suit your own political views. Such a political center may even be a sect; but if you do not join it, it relates to you only as one political center among others. This relationship is a hang-loose relationship: if you do not have a vote in deciding its affairs, it is likewise true that it cannot tell you what to do by exerting its sect “discipline” over your own judgment. You do not erect an organizational barrier between you as the adherent of one sect and someone else who cleaves to another sect or none. In your work, you use whatever literature you wish, whatever their source. You will use your money not for the sect’s fund drives but to finance your own work. If enough take this course to break up the sect system, that would be a good thing for the future potentialities of an American socialist movement.

There is a better chance of a genuine socialist movement arising out of such a hang-loose complex of relationships than out of the fossilized world of the sects. We are not under the impression that a very large number of individuals are going to start tomorrow by following the course we have described above. We have been interested so far simply in illustrating the way in which socialist movements have arisen elsewhere – the only way, in broad outline. We have sketched the kind of development which provides an alternative to the sect mode of organization which is driving American socialism into the ground.


3) The deciding principle is the real form of organization of the working class. That is to say, there is an essential difference between a micro-sect of some sort and an organization of the working class, even if the former is entirely right on all questions of theory and the latter is entirely wrong. In America, the only class-based organization of the working class is the labor union. Those are in the United States mediocre on a good day, and especially in Draper’s time they were full of racism, sexism, patriotic nonsense and every kind of backwardness and obscurantism. Yet the CIO and the Teamsters and so forth were absolutely essential to deal with and to engage with, both from within and without, because they were the only form the working class took as a conscious class. Therefore, Draper did not suggest splitting off a ‘correct’, revolutionary union in places where a union already existed. This would divide the working class and achieve nothing for them in terms of movement. Neither did Draper suggest abandoning those unions altogether. But what was essential was to move the working class against its leadership and bureaucracy, against its racism and its sexism, in practice; just like it was essential to move them against capital in practice. American unions could only come out against racism systematically once the interests of the white workers and the black workers etc. were truly shared and it had become apparent to the membership, the rank-and-file, that this was so. This is the class struggle made real.

Of course, American unionism is still exceedingly bad in many of these regards. But the point may well be illustrated by the experience of the British unions during the period of mass immigration in the latter half of the 20th century. Early in the 1970s, the dockworkers still marched for Enoch Powell, agitating against immigration and prophesying ‘rivers of blood’. But already at the end of the same decade the British unions wholeheartedly supported the famous strike by South Asian women workers against the exploitation of their also immigrant boss. They learned their lesson fast precisely because of the strength of the unions as an organization of the working class in those days: it was in the interest of the working class to organize these immigrant workers, and in the interest of the immigrant workers to be part of this working class. Of course, unions are not necessarily the only organic form of organization of the working class as a class. There may be many such, from Workers’ Clubs to Labour parties. At all times, it is at this level that applied theory operates, and for the issues faced by these groups that Marxist theory must be interpreted. Again, this does not say we should cease all outside activity – indeed the opposite, because at all times it must be made clear that good Marxist theory is the best thing for any group to achieve socialism, and that socialism is in the interests of the working class. One must not slide into mere ‘workerism’ or ‘tailism’. But no amount of theory and claims about vanguardism will do any good when there is no engagement with the working class’ own organic organizations, regardless of how bad they are from the viewpoint of Marxist theory. One does not in this sense choose between either of evils, i.e. between either a Correct Sect or between dissolving all activity into the Labour Party. One instead takes two ills and turns them into two poles of political activity that are useful: one forms a political center of some sort, with a theory, a platform, a paper, whatever; and one is active in the actual existing organizations of the working class (as well as popular front type things like antiwar movements etc.) in order to move these organizations forward. When questions of theory and understanding come up in this process, one can then point to and recruit for the political center, but merely selling papers to random passersby is not movement, and therefore does not get us closer to socialism. To quote Draper again:

The basic reason for this is the following: The life-principle of a revolutionary mass party is not simply its Full Program, which can be copied with nothing but an activist typewriter and can be expanded or contracted like an accordion. Its life-principle is its integral involvement as a part of the working-class movement, its immersion in the class struggle not by a Central Committee decision but because it lives there. It is this life-principle which cannot be aped or miniaturized; it does not reduce like a cartoon or shrink like a woolen shirt. Like a nuclear reaction, this phenomenon comes into existence only at critical mass; below critical mass, it does not simply become smaller, it disappears.


4) In international politics also, we must reject the principle of the choice between evils. As we have seen above, often the choice in politics is falsely presented as being between Labourism and sect activity. Similarly, in economics, often the denunciations of unequal trade, exploitation, child labor etc. are countered by vulgar economists by saying it is the lesser of evils compared to famine, child prostitution or whatnot. The Marxist of course counters this by pointing out that the choice itself is the evil: a system which forces Indian girls to choose between wasting their health and chance of schooling on sweatshop labor and wasting their bodies and minds on prostitution and addiction is not a system that we should accept in the first place. This, too, applies to international politics, in particular the question of imperialism. There is no doubt that Marxists generally should and do oppose imperialism, since it is the organized power of the mightiest pillars of the ruling class used against the workers of other countries. It also massively strengthens capital by subjugating everything to it ever more suffocatingly and completely. Some have attempted to conclude from this, however, a completely artificial and knee-jerk ‘anti-imperialism’ which posits as the correct policy in any given conflict, war or issue in international politics the choice to support the ‘anti-imperialist’, whoever they otherwise may be. In such cases, nationalism is presented as inherently desirable from our point of view, and even the most oppressive and corrupt bourgeois leader is to be supported if he happens to come into conflict with a greater power’s government, whether American or British or Russian. But this is an absolutely false position, which betrays both internationalism and anti-imperialism. It leaves the working class movement and the communists especially of such ‘anti-imperialist’ countries in the lurch, as usually the ‘patriotic’ leaders of their countries have absolutely no interest in supporting them. It also destroys internationalism by presenting nationalism and the nation-state as the organizing principle of all politics, and demands that divisions created by capitalism and feudalism are recognized by socialists as insurmountable walls for socialist activity. It essentially dissolves all communist organization into national sects.

The cause of this is the inherent desire to wish to pick sides in any possible conflict, and therefore to try and find the good guy, or rather the least bad guy, in any situation to support. This is an absurdity, since not only are there many conflicts in which even the least bad guy (or lady) is atrocious from the communist point of view, but it also leads as a result to the use of criteria which are insignificant and totally artificial in determining reasons for political support. Finally, it fails to distinguish clearly what support means. Political support is the explicit endorsement of a politician or group’s aims and efforts in a particular context, and is something which political centers should do only when such aims and efforts are entirely in overlap with the interests of moving towards socialism. Active support is another thing, and can be anything from strikes and boycotts aimed at a group or government to the sending of arms and volunteers. Needless to say, this is an instrument to be used wisely and sparingly, given the great costs involved and the contingency of international politics. Instead, it is imperative that while Marxists should everywhere oppose imperialism and unequal trade and the exploitation of one country’s workers by another’s, they do not follow the principle of lesser evils. Instead, we should reject the choice altogether, and show that no other leadership but the leadership of and by the working class can solve the working class’ problems in the long run. This applies also in cases of war. Neither Gbagbo nor Ouattara are of any use to the working class of Côte d’Ivoire, and therefore neither should be supported, in whatever sense, by communists. If the United States goes to war against a country with an anti-socialist government, Americans should oppose their country’s participation in war, point out the damage done to the people there as well as those at home, and so forth; but there should be no support of any kind for this anti-socialist government. Opposing one side is not endorsing the other any more than opposing the Tories is supporting Labour or v.v. The working class of the ‘imperialized’ country equally should oppose war, and maintain its efforts at forcing the war to an end; but they, too, should not at any time fall into patriotism or chauvinism. They, too, do not support the leadership that oppresses them daily, just because another oppressor has attacked it for its own selfish reasons. The whole problem here stems from identifying nations with peoples, which is an un-Marxist, class denying way of thinking. The question is never: ‘what is in the interests of the most communist or the least pro-capitalist government’, but ‘what is in the interests of moving towards communism internationally, by and for the working class?’. At all times we must keep in mind that the aim of communists is never to build up states and boundaries, but to tear them down, and that our aim is never to make any particular class or nation rule, not even the working class, but our final aim is the abolition of classes, races, and other such artificial and harmful distinctions. Of course one has to make many an in-between step to get there, and this is not to say that we should act in the here and now as if things we are opposed to don’t exist: we are not utopians. But we should not actively go counter to this. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

5) This applies also to national politics, in terms of support for parties, candidates, organizations etc. which are not of the working class, let alone communist. Here, too, we reject the ‘lesser of evils’ principle. Draper dealt with the inevitable issue of ‘but what if someone Really Bad came into power without our support for his opponent?’, in the following brilliant way:

Don’t go away to look it up. In the 1932 presidential election the Nazis ran Hitler, and the main bourgeois parties ran Von Hindenburg, the Junker general who represented the right wing of the Weimar republic but not fascism. The Social-Democrats, leading a mass workers’ movement, had no doubt about what was practical, realist, hard-headed politics and what was “utopian fantasy”: so they supported Hindenburg as the obvious Lesser Evil. They rejected with scorn the revolutionary proposal to run their own independent candidate against both reactionary alternatives – a line, incidentally that could also break off the rank-and-file followers of the Communist Party, which was then pursuing the criminal policy of “After Hitler we come” and “Social-fascists are the main enemy.”

So the Lesser Evil, Hindenburg, won; and Hitler was defeated. Whereupon President Hindenburg appointed Hitler to the chancellorship, and the Nazis started taking over.

The classic case was that the people voted for the Lesser Evil and got both.

Now 1966 America is not 1932 Germany, to be sure, but the difference speaks the other way. Germany’s back was up against the wall; there was an insoluble social crisis; it had to go to revolution or fascism; the stakes were extreme. This is exactly why 1932 is the classic case of the Lesser Evil, because even when the stakes were this high, even then voting for the Lesser Evil meant historic disaster. Today, when the stakes are not so high, the Lesser Evil policy makes even less sense.

In 1964, you know all the people who convinced themselves that Lyndon Johnson was the lesser evil as against Goldwater, who was going to do Horrible Things in Vietnam, like defoliating the jungles. Many of them have since realized that the spiked boot was on the other foot; and they lacerate themselves with the thought that the man they voted for “actually carried out Goldwater’s policy.” (In point of fact, this is unfair to Goldwater: he never advocated the steep escalation of the war that Johnson put through; and more to the point, he would probably have been incapable of putting it through with as little opposition as the man who could simultaneously hypnotize the liberals with “Great Society” rhetoric.)

So who was really the Lesser Evil in 1964? The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups where the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice.


6) Finally, the state is not itself a solution. Too often communists, especially in the European countries, have made a fetish of the state. The state is not just an organizing committee of the bourgeoisie, although it is also that; but at the same time, it is also not a mere seat of power which is just ours if we would be moved to sit in it. Marx and Engels were extremely critical of the state and state activities in their day when these did not concern provision of things that must be public and universal for socialism to have a material base. So while public education and public healthcare are one thing, nationalisation is not of itself either a necessary or a sufficient condition for moving towards socialism in any branch of private industry. The state regulating and providing is just the state regulating and providing; this neither abolishes capitalism nor even inherently moves toward it. If anything, it can strengthen the ruling class by providing them with a layer of bureaucracy larger and stronger than the one they had before, and it strengthens their power against independent communist and working class activity. There may well be many circumstances in which agitation for state action is a sensible move to get the working class moving. But we must not think that this is always so or do so unreflexively; similarly, we must not consider this an aim in itself. Marx, Lenin, Mao, and so forth were all clear on the point that the state as something beyond the administration of public goods is an instrument of class rule, and as such dissolving everything into its activity is not a consummation devoutly to be wished. Marx criticized the Gotha Programme concept of the ‘freedom of the state’ by pointing out that the more free the state, the less free the people it rules. This is not to say we should instead advocate the libertarianism of the latter day vulgar free traders either, of course. Our interest is against capitalism, not in freeing ‘private enterprise’ or the movement of capital. We should also not deny the essential importance of state regulation of capital’s movements as battles won against capital. But we should not mistake the battle, or even a strategic maneouvre like nationalization, for the war – it is the war we must win. As the experience of Britain shows, one can have large sectors nationalized, even periods of rationing of consumer goods, and so forth, and yet be as far away from revolution as before. There is also no reason to believe Lenin c.s. would have made their state so powerful, against his own writings in State and Revolution, if they had not been forced by circumstance.

As communists, we agitate against all pro-capitalist states. But we do not do so from the knee-jerk anarchist principle of immediate abolition, or vague rejection of ‘authority’, but we do so because we recognize the class state as an instrument of class rule as surely as the forced production of surplus value is. When we say ‘state’ then, we mean this instrument in the form in which it is most useful to the ruling class and most effectively its instrument. We mean then the executive power. As against this, we promote the state as the body and locus of democracy, i.e., the legislative power. We do away with monarchs, Senates, and independent executives, and we replace them by the rule of the mandatees of the people, in all spheres of life relevant for the administration of socialism. Giving Harry S. Truman the power to control the steel mills does neither communism nor even just the working class any good, and neither does giving Mitterand the car factories. Instead, we abolish independent executive powers like theirs and have the administration of our economic life be done democratically, which is what communism always was about to begin with. This maximizes the control of the working class in the first instance, and the ability to make classes obsolete in the longer run, and it minimizes the meaning of the state as an instrument of ruling class power.


I think your explanation of Draper’s views is useful and it has encouraged me to dig out my Draper books in order to read them over the next month. What I am trying to understand better, though, is how one might orient towards various parties.

For example, in Quebec there is no official labour party, although labour has often sided with the sovereigntist movement and the Parti Quebecois. In the past number of years, though, there has been a shift with the creation of a small party known as Quebec solidaire. QS is a sort of alliance that collects together much of the democratic left in Quebec. In the last election, the party got less than 4% of the vote, but it won a seat in the National Assembly. The party has leveraged this to the point where a February poll pegged them at 12% support among voters, and the projection puts them at winning 3 seats in Montreal. I think you would find a lot to support in their platform.

In Ontario, however, the situation is quite different. The New Democratic Party is an official labour party, but it has a platform that is center-left. It calls for fairly cautious investments in social programs with minor tax increases (in the last election their central tax promise was increasing taxes on top earners from about 46.5% to 48.5%). When the NDP was in power in Ontario, it was a mixed bag (at best), endorsing austerity measures in the face of high deficits. Of course, it was swept from power after a single term and was followed by one of the harshest neoliberal regimes in the developed world, which gutted social welfare programs while cutting income tax rates by over 40%. It seems to me that support for the NDP is a lesser evil strategy, while Quebec solidaire is something that could be supported (if problematic in various ways in itself).

There is a small party that is being formed, tentatively called the Socialist Party of Ontario, which seeks to be an analogue for Quebec solidaire. As it stands, it will be a mini party, attracting only a handful of members, given the overwhelming support for keeping things under the moderate NDP tent. Still, I’ve asked various other groups whether or not they could see themselves participating in something like that, to offer a left alternative in the October election and beyond. Now, I have no idea if something like that is possible, I just would prefer to be able to vote for a socialist coalition that might fight for significant changes, rather than voting for a mildly social-democratic party.

As it stands, though, I’ll probably focus on self-study, and perhaps reaching out to issue-oriented groups to learn more.

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