If you're new to the left, maybe you haven't run across a zombie party yet. If you've been around a while, you know them, even if you haven't heard them called that.
I'm speaking for no one but myself here, and even them I'm anonymous, so I can name names. The US Socialist Workers Party is one. Revolutionary Communist Party USA is another. One is post-Trotskyist; the other is post-Maoist. So what do they have in common (besides the “post” thing, which I'll actually come back to)?
They're zombie parties. They used to have some life to them, but now? Not so much.
Socialist Workers Party, before most of you were born, was the US branch of Trotskyism. It had tens of thousands of members, was heavily targeted by Hoover's boys, and played a noticeable role in important social movements. At some point it was surely the second biggest left party in the US, after CPUSA. Before the FBI sent Richard Aoki to spy on the Panthers, they had him detailed to keep an eye on the SWP. Then it died. It hasn't done anything useful, anything important, in many years. But it lumbers on, aimless and mindless.
RCP was perhaps the largest, or best organized, or largest well-organized, product of the new communist movement. It played a major role in the Revolutionary International Movement, the Maoist international that united serious revolutionary forces like the Nepalese Communist Party Maoist and the Peruvian Shining Path. But that was also a long time ago.
What Are Zombie Parties Missing Out On?
In the United States, there is no equivalent to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), no parallel to the Argentinian Workers' Left Front, certainly nothing comparable to the Venezuelan United Socialist Party. Every single left group in the US is pitifully small by comparison to any of these groups, and none of them hold a single governorship or effectively control the election of a single member of Congress — leaving out, obviously, a handful of Democratic Party congresspeople who also associate with DSA, but are otherwise more or less indistinguishable from the more progressive wing of the Democrats.
So, in one way, zombie parties are like all the other parties: They're not a major, national electoral opposition. But other left parties ARE doing things, and historically have done things, that zombie parties aren't, and those things are important.
For one thing, other left parties are growing, in many cases explosively. I'm not going to go too far into the reasons for this here, but the sheer passage of time since Fukuyama's end of history, the growth of the Latin American left, and the increasing polarization of US society surely all have something to do with it. These conditions, and whatever others, have allowed several left parties to emerge from almost nothing to very noticeable presences, on and off line.
The zombie parties haven't benefited from this surge at all. In fact, if you know SWP people, you have probably noticed that every SWP person you know seems to have been in the party for well over ten years. In RCP, there may be more turnover, but, again, no indication that the total number is up at all — in spite of some fantastic publicity, like the time Bob Avakian got to publicly debate Cornell West.
That ought to be a wake up call for the people in these parties. Here is this huge surge in interest in socialism, and they don't benefit from it at all. But they keep going the same as ever.
Another difference between zombie parties and the rest of the left is that they don't play a useful role in actual, live social movements. One of the core tenets of Marxism is that class struggle is a constant thing in any class society. The fact that a certain party isn't involved in it doesn't mean the class struggle isn't going on; it just tells us a lot about that party.
Take, for example, the George Floyd uprising that began in the summer of 2020. This was the most explosive outburst of class struggle in the US for many years. Several left parties participated in it and many helped to organize it.
How did our zombie parties relate to the George Floyd uprising?
Well, the Socialist Workers Party was basically against it. They denounced “the nightly burnings, looting and destruction by groups of provocateurs, anarchists, opportunists, and those driven by frustration and demoralization” in the uprising itself. 1 As for the trial that finally sent the notoriously violent Derek Chauvin to prison, the SWP complained that it “dealt blows to rights workers need”.2 I'm not making that up; I'm not that funny. The footnotes have links here.
The Revolutionary Communist Party's approach is also wrong, but more subtly. They have participated in the movement, but as a separate element within it, with the clearest of lines drawn between them and the rest of everybody. RCP participants are readily identifiable in nearly every case by t-shirts and signs identifying them either with the RCP or with its so-called mass group, Refuse Fascism, which in practice is little more than RCP itself. RCP may call a Refuse Fascism protest. It may attempt to hijack someone else's protest. But it won't integrate into any sort of broader coalition work. As a result, rather than an organic part of the black livers matter movement, it remains a strange group of outsiders who show up to rallies sometimes. The overall effect on the movement is probably negative, based just on the pure weirdness. In any case, the movement grows, the movement ebbs, the movement evolves, and RCP just stays RCP.
The Resilience of Zombie Parties
In the 1970s in the United States there were literally dozens of different party-building efforts based on several different ideologies. This explosion of party building efforts is down to what certainly looked to a lot of people like a revolutionary situation in the 1970s, combined with the obvious uselessness of the existing communist party. However, almost all of these groups — parties, pre-parties and others — dissipated by the mid-1980s. Even among the handful that survived, there is a long history of mergers, splits and transmutations that left the modern organization very different in terms of names, leadership, and ideology from its original roots.
There are several causes for this instability. One is the extremely fervent debate among the party builders in this period. Another is the ebb of that apparent revolutionary situation once the Vietnam War ended and the Carter Administration gave way to the bleak days of Reaganism. Still another is the collapse of the USSR, which on one side was demoralizing to revolutionaries and then on the other offered new perspectives on Soviet history and the role of the USSR.
By contrast, RCP has existed under the same leader for approximately fifty years. It has been immune from the storms caused by internal debate or external changes precisely because it has no internal debate and is powerfully disconnected from the living world outside it. The one obvious ideological development it has undergone is the adoption of the so-called New Synthesis.3 This development has been entirely internally driven and in fact has only served to isolate the RCP further, severing its ties to the world Maoist movement. The process has also apparently been driven entirely by the RCP's leader, so internal debate was apparently not a factor.
The Strange Contradiction of Zombie Party Membership
Membership in a revolutionary party is a pretty serious commitment. It will take up your time. It will take at least some of your money. It will sooner or later interfere with your social life, maybe even your family life. It may land you in jail or in danger.
But membership in a zombie party usually takes more. For example, it's not unusual for SWP to have members pick up and move across the country, severing their social ties, interfering with whatever family life they have, and surely also hitting them hard in the pocketbook.
People make these sacrifices because they believe in revolution.
Here we are, as I write this in early 2022, and we are seeing, at least, the beginnings of a people's movement in the United States. It's far from a revolutionary movement, but it may one day develop into one.
But for a Marxist who is a big-time dreamer — and a zombie party member has got to be that — it must really look like a revolutionary movement.
And yet, for all the sacrifices zombie party members have made to be ready for this moment across decades of their lives, here they are, sitting on the outside of it.
This is only the latest knock they must have taken, though. Throughout their lives there have been outbreaks of class struggle, the thing they, at least on paper, live for, and they've been outside of it. All along they've put their faith in their party growing into a major revolutionary force, and they've seen none of that.
What Keeps People in Zombie Parties
So why keep going?
Some of the answers, of course, can be found in the isolation of the group itself. The small group dynamics, the lack of outside social contacts, create a situation where the members reinforce one another's faith. At the same time, it gives them less to leave to, and less to leave for. There is no group of friends, and very little family, on the outside pulling them away from the work. There are also questions about the psychology of the leadership, and maybe other more obscure factors. All of these ideas, while they have some merit, are discussed enough in the hostile, anti-communist critiques of these groups that they don't need a lot of rehashing here. There are some other, less understood, aspects of this that are more worth fleshing out.
“Why We're Practically the US Branch of ______”
For one thing, there is the question of international ties. When the Shining Path headquarters was raided in Lima in 1992, a picture of RCP's leader, Bob Avakian, was hanging on the wall. Whatever criticisms there are of the Shining Path, at that point it controlled at least 20% of the Peruvian countryside. No doubt in the minds of RCP members, this connection and others like it is very powerful. In reality, it is surely just a big misunderstanding. Even into the 2000s, South Asian Maoist groups would at times feel the need to engage with RCP's increasingly strange documents. But this can only be because it is very difficult for a group with little or no presence in the US to understand how completely marginal the RCP truly is.
Socialist Workers Party, on the other hand, makes a great deal of its ties to the Cuban government. It isn't clear how strong those are, or how strong they ever were, but certainly SWP members have visited Cuba and probably met with government officials. The Cuban government is happy to accept friends in the United States, without feeling the need to really vet them. But, again, surely this all seems meaningful to SWP members.
Probably every zombie party in the country boasts internally of some kind of international ties. Anyone who has done the work of building international ties for a US political group knows exactly how easy it is to find friends abroad. But the average zombie party member hasn't, so it seems like a very big deal to them. To be fair, even the people building those ties might not realize how many other people have built how many other ties for how many other parties.
“If the Feds Hate Us, We Must be on the Right Track”
Another hardly discussed factor is that in many of these zombie parties there is a clear understanding that the US government has taken an interest in them and infiltrated them. The book Heavy Radicals documents the heavy US government repression of Maoist groups, including the RCP, in the 1970s. Maoists at the time knew about this and took pride in it. Socialist Workers Party successfully sued the United States government in the 1980s for the extensive disruption and infiltration campaign the feds had conducted against them.4
People in these parties see the government targeting them as an acknowledgment by the government that they are dangerous, and take it as proof that they are on the right track. But this logic shows much too much faith in the US government's thinking. In reality, the US government has no idea what group or what ideas are dangerous to it in anything but the most immediate term. As a result, it takes a broad approach and infiltrates every possible nucleus of dissent from mosques to vegan societies. The mere fact that every single zombie party thinks it is great because it is infiltrated is enough to prove how worthless of a criterion that really is. They can't ALL be the one true party.
Look at All Our Resources
The zombie are relics of past periods of revolutionary upsurge, periods when the revolutionary movement in the United States was a very real thing... For RCP, the 1970s, and for the SWP, the 1930s, and then surviving on through every subsequent upswing. This is true of almost all the zombie parties. And during these periods of heightened activity, some of them have been able to accumulate substantial resources that newer groups can only envy. To leave a zombie party means to abandon those material resources and start over with nothing in a time when its much more difficult to build.
Look How Much We Know
Just as their origins in periods of revolutionary fervor have allowed zombie parties to accumulate material resources, they have allowed them to accumulate real sophistication as well. The discussion above about police infiltration is a good example. More recent parties are often painfully oblivious to police infiltration. Even if they are aware of it, they typically underestimate the problem and have no serious process to confront it. For a zombie party member, it must be hard to imagine leaving a group that is so much more sophisticated for one that is still fresh-faced and naive.
Still, the zombie parties never stop to consider that what they think they know about police infiltration may not be all there is to know. A real possibility exists that they have fooled themselves into thinking they have the police infiltration problem managed. For at least some, overconfidence in this area probably leaves them actually more vulnerable to manipulation by the state than other, more naive, groups.
Here it is worth considering the case of the English army spy known as Stakeknife. Stakeknife infiltrated the Provisional Irish Republican Army over a period that included almost all of the troubles. During that time he was involved in counterintelligence within the IRA. He helped the IRA to identify actual spies sent by a separate arm of the state, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and even was involved in executing some of them, all for the purpose of keeping his own identity secret and furthering his own infiltration of the IRA. One police spy was sacrificed to bolster the credibility of another.
Zombie parties which assume they are being targeted by a really unified state apparatus and rely in part on observing networking among state agents may very well have made a terrible mistake.
Taxidermy, Not Survival
However, in the end, however much zombie parties may be able to say for themselves in all these ways, in the end, it's no more than pointing out how sharp the claws are on a taxidermied lion. These parties have isolated themselves completely from the wider mass movement. Unless they can find some way to return to it, whatever strengths they have are useless.
RCP is a post-Maoist party. Though it emerged from Maoism, it now upholds an outlook known as the New Synthesis. SWP is a post-Trotskyist party. Though it comes out of Trotskyism, during the late 70s and 80s it reoriented itself towards support for the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions — truly scandalous from a Trotskyist point of view. Its analysis since then has been even more fluid, and it has gone from unorthodox but basically positive developments in Trotskyism to its current, near Trumpish, orientation.
Zombie parties taking up novel theoretical positions is not accidental. One of the main things holding people in zombie parties is a belief that their party and their party alone has the correct theoretical orientation. The idea is that a revolution can't be made without a correct theory, so abandoning the only party with a correct theory would be abandoning revolution itself.5
It isn't an accident either that the theoretical positions are often comical. After all, if a zombie party's reason for existing was a theoretical position that was sensible, sane, or even worse, grounded in reality, there would be a real risk someone else would stumble on to their Great Truth and they would lose their monopoly.
But how is that these zombie parties happen to be the only ones who have discovered a correct revolutionary orientation? After all, it would be a lot more natural for developments in revolutionary theory to occur where revolutionary activity is more widespread and where more people are engaged in it. And these great developments not only occur in the US, where revolutionary activity is consistently at a relatively low level, but always during downturns in revolutionary activity even by US standards.
The answer is typically that zombie parties are blessed to contain within their ranks a true revolutionary genius. A revolutionary genius here is a person who is, alone or almost alone, able to solve the revolutionary problems not only of the United States, but of the entire world.
As incredible as it sounds, this is how RCP more or less openly talks about its leader, Bob Avakian: “Bob Avakian (BA) is the most important political thinker and leader in the world today.”6
RCP's treatment of Bob Avakian is unfortunately not too out of place in the wider Maoist movement. That's plainly a result of the way that Mao was talked about during certain periods in Chinese history. The Chinese opportunist and coup plotter Lin Biao was partly responsible for this kind of error,7 but he wasn't alone.
The SWP's long-time leader, Jack Barnes, is not given the accolades that Bob Avakian does. But the web is full of accounts from ex SWP members suggesting his authority in the group is hardly less.8 Barnes has attempted to export his inventions across the world to countries he has little understanding of. The Pathfinder Tendency, which he leads as much as he does the SWP itself, at one time had branches in over a half dozen countries.9
What Have We Learned?
This article is aimed first of all at zombie party members, in an effort to deconstruct the clever tricks by which the leaders of these parties keep their members. If I reach even a few, I'll have considered it worth writing. As a consolation prize, I'll accept it if someone steps back from POSSIBLE membership in one of these museums as a result of reading this article.
But there are at least a couple of broader lessons contained here.
In his book “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin warns us that if we refuse to work in reactionary trade unions we abandon the broad masses of workers to the leadership of the labor lieutenants of capital. When revolutionaries stand aloof from working class struggles, that is the fate of the workers. Zombie parties are the fate of the revolutionaries.
Another lesson is a reminder to handle with great caution any claims of great theoretical advances that come without corresponding practical successes. Marxism is ultimately a practical science, one that is aimed at bringing about real-world change. The greatness of zombie party theory exists only in the world of the imagination; in the material world, their genius ideas have accomplished nothing.
Finally, I would say that for revolutionary organizations, there is a fate worse than death. A revolutionary party that preserves itself by coating itself in shellac only prevents good revolutionaries from looking for other organizational homes. Though almost all the parties that came out of the new left have dissolved, many of the people from those parties have gone on to newer, more promising prospects, prospects rooted in the current time, current conditions, and modern thinking.
3. Albert Einstein once said that if you can't explain an idea simply, you don't understand it well. If he was right, no one understands the New Synthesis. If you ask for an explanation in simple terms, you'll only get a link to a series of Bob Avakian videos. Best I can tell, it's all about using a huge number of words to hide how little actual content is in it.
4. The 70-some page judgment can be found here: https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/642/1357/2398821/
5. Of course, if an analysis is CORRECT, it shouldn't be unusual for more than one person to reach it. So even if a zombie party had the correct analysis of some point and no one else did, you would expect other groups actually involved in living revolutionary practice to eventually arrive at the same, correct conclusion in any case. This is like the case of Joseph Dietzgen, a German tanner who independently arrived at many of the same conclusions as Marx and Engels, or for that matter like Newton and Liebniz who seem to have each invented calculus at about the same time.
It doesn't end there, either. The RCP website contains a constitution for a future socialist republic in North America, written, obviously, by Bob Avakian. Boldly running the risk of being called immodest, Avakian has written himself into the constitution, specifically Article J-5, talking about the culture of the future socialist republic:
Also, through funds and resources provided by the government–
not to exceed ½ the value of that provided for independent
art and culture–and through support it receives directly
from its own members and others more broadly in society, the
Revolutionary Communist Party will produce and work to popularize a variety of artistic creations which also strive to meet the needs of the people for culture with a high artistic quality while also inspiring people with the outlook and values of communism, as this has been further developed through the new synthesis brought forward by Bob Avakian.
If for some reason you want to read the whole thing, it's here in PDF form: https://bit.ly/3rVk0XI
7. For example:
Comrade Mao Tse-tung is the greatest Marxist-Leninist of our era. He has inherited, defended and developed Marxism-Leninism with genius, creatively and comprehensively and has brought it to a higher and completely new stage.
Lin Biao, Foreword to the Second Edition of Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, https://bit.ly/3tXxCUY
I've explored this tendency in Maoism more generally a little bit more thoroughly in another post, here:
8. Somewhat differing analysis from several different former SWP members reaching generally the same conclusions about Barnes' role in the organization can be found here:
9. Just as RCP's treatment of Avakian is rooted in Maoist traditions, the megalomaniacal treatment of Jack Barnes may have its origins in Trotsky's own incredible self conceptions.
As an example of Trotsky's general self-importance, consider this from his biography:
On the night of the 24th, the members of the Revolutionary Committee went out into the various districts, and I was left alone. Later on, Kamenev came in. He was opposed to the uprising, but he had come to spend that deciding night with me, and together we stayed in the tiny corner room on the third floor, so like the captain’s bridge on that deciding night of the revolution.
Or take the way that, by the 1930s, he was referring to every other Soviet leader other than Lenin and Sverdlov (who by then were dead) as “epigones”, a snob's word for a lesser imitator. You can find an example of that here:
Or consider his quite incredible pontificating about China, a country he had never visited and obviously knew virtually nothing about. In 1932, at a time when China was about 95% rural and large patches of it were controlled by landlord-organized militias, Trotsky wrote:
But in the words just quoted there was nevertheless a kernel of truth: there is almost no estate of landlords in China, the landowners are much more intimately bound up with the capitalists than in Tsarist Russia, and the specific weight of the agrarian question in China is therefore much lighter than in Tsarist Russia...