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Luxemburg or Lenin – how should revolutionaries organise?

Jeremy Dewar asks whether Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas on revolutionary organisation and working class spontaneity are a better guide than those of Lenin in building a new party of the left

Today the far left in Britain is in a state of turmoil not seen since the late 1970s. The reason – because after five years of the most severe capitalist crisis since the war and with a government demolishing the post-1945 welfare state, resistance has been weaker and in particular more fragmented than most people expected. Moreover during a period of historically severe capitalist crisis the so-called far left has probably shrunk, certainly stagnated and suffered a series of splits.

The last year or so has witnessed growing discontent with “the sects”: both with their tactics and their methods of organisation. Many critics, accepting these groups’ description of themselves as Leninist, have responded by saying in effect: if that is Leninism then I for one am not a Leninist.

In 2011 there was a brief infatuation with the US and European Occupy movements and the Arab Spring which seemed to suggest that left activists could do without parties and leadership altogether. Yet the failure of these movements to either achieve the fundamental change they called for, or the way that in Egypt, Tunisia and Spain conservative forces profited from the movements to seize control dampened the enthusiasm of all but the most committed libertarians for movements with few or no demands and without representatives.

The near victory for Syriza in the Greek elections of June 2012, a party that had gone from 4.9 per cent in the European elections of 2009 to 27 per cent per cent that year and was beaten by the conservative New Democracy by only 3 per cent, raised the prospect of a government that might reject the European Union’s imposed austerity plan and suspend repayments on Greece’s foreign debt.

This re-ignited an interest in parties as the means to halt austerity. It led to a debate around exactly what sort of party we need. Is there an alternative to the supposedly Leninist model claimed by most far left groups, be they Stalinist, Trotskyist or Maoist? Should it be one which is broader, more pluralist, more oriented to spontaneous mass action or should it concentrate on winning elections?

Negative judgements about the Leninism and democratic centralism abound. Some of those leaving the Socialist Workers Party have raised the prospect of a return to Rosa Luxemburg and the young Trotsky’s views on the party, as expressed in their polemics with Lenin in 1904. Indeed this was a position once endorsed by the SWP’s founder Tony Cliff, before his conversion to (what he called) Leninism in as a result of the May 1968 General Strike in France.

In his 1959 booklet Rosa Luxemburg he wrote:

“For Marxists in advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position [in 1902-04] can serve much less as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’ notwithstanding her over emphasis on the question of spontaneity.”

Whereas in the 1968 edition he wrote:

“However whatever the historic circumstances moulding Rosa’s thought regarding spontaneism, these thoughts showed a great weakness in the German revolution of 1918-19. “

And again Cliff wrote: “While one should learn from Rosa not to fall into sectarianism and adventurism, one must not bend the stick too far back towards passivity and tailism” and warned that her “conception of the structure of a revolutionary organisation [suffers from] the danger of passive commentary on events instead of active efforts to shape them.”

However narrowly organisational Cliff’s conception of Leninism – i.e. lacking in the notion of the party as a strategist of the working class, armed with a programme for power – his judgement in 1968 is nearer to the truth than it was in 1959, as we shall show.

Rosa Luxemburg

Luxemburg’s writings on party organisation are best summed up in her Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy. This dates to the year following the famous split at the second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP). Held in Brussels and London in the summer of 1903 this occurred not, as some people think, over the definition of a party member (on which Lenin suffered a defeat) but towards the very end of the congress over the make up of the Editorial Board of the party paper Iskra and of the new Central Committee.

When they were defeated on the composition of the leading bodies the minority, led by Julius Martov and Pavel Axelrod with the support of the young Leon Trotsky, refused to play any further part in the proceedings. Martov refused to serve on the Editorial Board of the party paper Iskra unless three of his supporters were immediately co-opted. He also refused to stand for the Central Committee. This would have given him an unwarranted majority, given his minority of Congress votes. Thereafter, the Mensheviks [supporters of the minority] boycotted all the leading and executive bodies chosen by the Congress.

After the Congress the Mensheviks, as they were from then on called, launched a public onslaught on Lenin, calling him a dictator, a Bonaparte, a Robespierre, etc. This was little more than a cover for their own undemocratic actions at the end of and after the Congress, and the refusal to recognise its decisions. In this way the Mensheviks, not the Bolsheviks carried through the split in the party.

For a month or two Plekhanov supported Lenin, but then caved in to Martov, calling on the party Council in the autumn of 1903 to co-opt the prima donnas. This was a clear violation of the Congress decisions and so Lenin resigned from the Editorial Board himself. He set about organising a public faction – the Bolsheviks (supporters of the majority) – rallying to his side the underground organisations in Russia, where he could count upon a majority.

In July 1904 the Mensheviks managed to involve Rosa Luxembourg in the dispute. She wrote an extensive article, which was carried in both Iskra and in the prestigious theoretical journal of the German Social Democracy Neue Zeit edited by Karl Kautsky.

Rosa Luxemburg’s Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy sharply attacked Lenin’s 1904 pamphlet, One Step Forward Two Steps Back. The latter pamphlet documents in detail events at and after the second Congress.

Luxemburg’s critique deals with a number of issues: what sort of centralism should there be in a revolutionary party? What is the correct relationship between membership of the party and of the working class? What is the role of spontaneity and what the role of discipline?

Centralism and Blanquism

Luxemburg refers to Lenin as a representative of the “ ultra-centralist tendency in the Russian movement”.

And indeed the picture she paints of this tendency is truly a frightening one:

“The party Central Committee should have the privilege of naming all the local committees of the party. It should have the right to appoint the effective organs of all local bodies from Geneva to Liege, from Tomsk to Irkutsk. It should also have the right to impose on all of them its own ready-made rules of party conduct. It should have the right to rule without appeal on such questions as the dissolution and reconstitution of local organisations. This way, the Central Committee could determine, to suit itself, the composition of the highest party organs. The Central Committee would be the only thinking element in the party. All other groupings would be its executive limbs.” Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy (all quotes by Luxemburg are from this article)

The only problem with this argument is that it is a bogeyman – a fiction to frighten political children. The Statutes agreed at the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’s second Congress make it clear that:

“All organisations belonging to the party carry on autonomously all work relating specially and exclusively to the sphere of party activity which they were set up to deal with.”

The party structure had moreover not one centre but three – the Central Committee, the Editorial Board of the official party paper, Iskra, and with the highest authority, the party Council, made up of members of the two former bodies and empowered to resolve any differences between them that might arise. The Central Committee was to be located inside Russia, since it was tasked with advising and if need be directing the work of the local committees.

Since members of the latter were constantly being arrested and deported, and that under such repression it would prove difficult if not impossible for the local groups to hold democratic meetings of all their members to elect new committees, power was given to the CC to appoint new ones if necessary. This was not even Lenin’s proposal but came from a commission on which there was a majority of future Mensheviks. Moreover when the party was reunified in 1906 the Menshevik majority replaced this tripartite system (CC, EB, party Council) with an “all powerful” Central Committee which proceeded to exclude all Bolsheviks from it.

Luxemburg continues creating her artificial picture of the super-centralising Lenin:

 “Now the two principles on which Lenin’s centralism rests are precisely these:

1. The blind subordination, in the smallest detail, of all party organs to the party centre which alone thinks, guides, and decides for all.

2. The rigorous separation of the organised nucleus of revolutionaries from its social-revolutionary surroundings.

Such centralism is a mechanical transposition of the organisational principles of Blanquism into the mass movement of the socialist working class.” (Our italics)

The italicised phrases are a complete invention by Luxemburg and without them we are left with the statement that it is the duty and right of the party centre (elected by the only free and democratic body available in Russian conditions: a Congress of delegates smuggled out of Russia, meeting abroad) to direct the work of the local cells within the parameters set by the Congress and the party programme.

As for “rigorous separation” it is true that in illegal conditions party organisations can be neither public nor openly linked to the masses without at the same time finding themselves “linked” to the agents of the secret police. Avoiding this was difficult at the best of times. But this does not means that the illegal committees did not seek to create the closest connection to the working masses by means of agitation, propaganda and working in any legal or semi-legal workers clubs or organisations, above all in times of strikes and spontaneous street demonstrations.

The charge against Lenin – that he envisages “as a separate corps all active revolutionists, as distinguished from the unorganised, though revolutionary, mass surrounding this elite” – is quite simply untrue.

Luxemburg triumphantly quotes Lenin’s phrase from One Step Forward Two Steps Back that a revolutionary Social Democrat is nothing less than a “Jacobin indissolubly joined to the organisation of the proletariat, which has become conscious of its of its class interests”.

This is wrong, says Luxemburg – rapidly shifting focus to the Nineteenth Century French revolutionary communist August Blanqui (1805-1881) whose conspiratorial theory of organisation she tries to link Lenin to – because he too tried to organise for the insurrection in a conspiratorial, illegal way. Blanqui, she says, maintained “no close contact” between the revolutionaries and “the daily struggle of the popular masses” for fear of being exposed to the police.

Marxists, on the other hand, strive to raise the struggle of the workers to the level of a popular revolution, so Jacobin or Blanqui’s élitism runs contrary to the tasks of the revolutionary party. Again there is just one little problem; Lenin’s Jacobin (all he means by this analogy, which was first used by his Menshevik opponent Axelrod, is the intransigent extreme left wing of the revolution) is as he says is “indissolubly joined to the organisation of the proletariat, which has become conscious of its of its class interests.” Not rigorous separation therefore, but indissoluble links.

 

Party, class and spontaneity

Luxemburg goes further than demanding links between the party and the class, coming close to identifying the party with the whole working class in a way Martov’s famous formulation at the second Congress did: “every striker should have the right to proclaim himself a party member.”

Luxemburg runs with this and goes on to credit the masses with initiating the tactics of Social Democracy and systematically downplays the role of leadership:

“The most important and fruitful changes in [the Russian socialist movement’s] tactical policy have not been the inventions of several leaders… [but] the spontaneous product of the movement in ferment.”

Indeed she asserts that social democrats have “played an insignificant role”, and indeed if they had attempted to guide the movement from the centre they “would have probably increased the disorder of the local committees” or held them back.

Here we come to the heart of Luxemburg’s organisational method. Because, as she says, “the unconscious comes before the conscious” and the “historic process comes before the subjective logic of human beings”, she sees this objective process as determining the revolutionary action of the masses – as against which the “directing organs of the socialist party [tend to] play a conservative role.”

Instead of planning ahead organisationally and tactically – preparing “a set of directives all ready for future policy” – the party should confine itself to providing the general perspectives and setting today’s struggles in context, warning of, and preparing the class for “the inevitable increase of revolutionary tension as the final goal of the class struggle approaches”.

In What Is To Be Done, Lenin accepted that the “working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism… provided, however, [socialist] theory does not itself yield to spontaneity” before noting that “bourgeois ideology spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class to a still greater degree”.

Of course, workers’ consciousness develops by leaps and bounds when engaged in economic or trade union struggles. However, for Lenin this is not the same thing as “class political consciousness [which] can be brought to the workers only from without, that is only from outside the economic struggle… There can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement, the only choice is – either bourgeois or socialist ideology”.

The problem with Luxemburg’s view is that she throws onto the “historical process” the task of the revolutionary party to prepare the class for the struggle for power. History is strewn with examples of this “process” going into reverse. In Germany and Austria after World War I, workers formed soviets, only for the Social Democratic leaders who dominated them to hand power back to the bourgeoisie.

Without the active intervention of a revolutionary party, whose members are trained in the Marxist method and organised around a revolutionary programme – i.e. the “subjective logic of human beings” – history, the objective process, alone will not deliver victory. Of course, humans are fallible and party leaderships can often “play a conservative role”, but to fail to develop the best possible leadership and programme and to fight for leadership effectively hands this over to the reformists and nationalists. A voluntaristic plea to step up the “revolutionary tension” is no substitute for wining the masses away from these misleaders and to the key demands with which to seize power themselves.

Discipline

Linked to this issue of the relationship of party to class and the vanguard militants to the broad masses is the question of party discipline. Luxemburg argues that Lenin’s centralism rests on “the blind subordination, in the smallest detail, of all party organs [committees, newspapers, etc.] to the party centre which alone thinks, guides, and decides for all”. This approach, she argues, breeds “the sterile spirit of the overseer… not a positive and creative spirit”. The Polish revolutionary even declares that, “Lenin’s concern is not so much to make the activity of the party more fruitful as to control the party”.

Luxemburg attacks the passage in One Step Forward where Lenin claims that workers understand the need for discipline because they experience it daily under factory conditions, whereas intellectuals tend towards autonomy and anarchism because their social position between the main classes and their individual mode of production strain against organisation and centralism.

Luxemburg indignantly responds that the discipline of the factory demands “the absence of thought and will”, while the “self-discipline” of the working class “struggling for its emancipation” is in fact “the spontaneous coordination of the conscious, political acts of a body of men [sic]”.

In fact in referring to factory discipline Lenin is taking his lead from Frederick Engels’ essay, On Authority, which was written in response to the autonomists of his day. Supposing capitalism has been overthrown and the workers have taken over industrial production, writes Engels, they are “obliged to begin and finish their work at the hours fixed by the authority of the steam, which cares nothing for individual autonomy. The workers must, therefore, first come to an understanding on the hours of work; and these hours, once they are fixed, must be observed by all, without any exception.”

Lenin, like Engels, is referring to the disciplining character of social labour and the fact that this prepares and enables the worker to express the conscious and wilful self-discipline of the strike that Luxemburg refers to.

Both aspects of discipline are experienced in a revolutionary party. The class struggle, like steam, does not set its rhythms according to the desire for self-expression of individual activists, so those wishing to fight for revolution have to subordinate their will to the party majority decisions if the opportunity is not to be wasted. As Engels points out, this can be done by majority voting, but once the decision is made it “must be observed by all”.

Does this mean that party members must display an “absence of thought and will” and the Central Committee alone “thinks, guides, and decides for all”? Not at all. Internal struggles, even and faction fights marked the entire history of the Bolshevik Party, right up to Stalin’s crushing of internal democracy in the mid-to-late 1920s.

Substitutionism

Luxemburg did not reject centralism in principle, but saw it as the final goal for the party, one that could only be achieved when a mass revolutionary workers’ movement could be politically trained up to the task of leading the party. She wrote, “It is a mistake to believe that it is possible to substitute ‘provisionally’ the absolute power of a Central Committee… for the yet unrealisable rule of the majority of conscious workers in the party”.

This criticism has struck a chord with members of the International Socialist Network, who recount how the SWP Central Committee employs an army of fulltimers to patrol the branches, fractions and districts, barking orders for everyone to obey the next “turn”. Any fulltimers who demur or criticise the leadership are edged out or removed.

Of course this is a parody of Leninism. When he called for an “organisation of professional revolutionaries” in What Is To Be Done, he did not mean paid party functionaries. “Professional” was for Lenin the opposite of “amateur” – i.e. it meant the systematic and disciplined approach to party work. Lenin was far from suggesting that only members of the intelligentsia, students, etc. were qualified to become professional revolutionaries. He stressed that the party had a “duty to assist every capable worker to become a professional agitator, organiser, propagandist, literature distributor, etc., etc.”

Whilst in the underground existence of the party, necessary in Tsarist Russia at the time, this meant a network of fulltime revolutionaries supported by the local groups, in democratic countries this process could be, as he said, “to a great extent automatic”, i.e. by remaining in paid employment and fighting in the workplaces, the trade unions, the neighbourhoods, etc. In no sense did Bolshevik fulltimers enjoy undemocratic political (or material) privileges. Quite the opposite, they took greater risks of arrest and imprisonment and long periods in Siberian or foreign exile.

But Luxemburg’s alternative is a utopia – and therefore greatly inferior to Lenin’s insights and methods. If it is not possible to always obtain the “rule of the majority of conscious workers in the party” then how is the party going to make any decisions? If it tried to get the nearest possible to direct democracy, then it could only do so at the expense of a thorough democratic debate. It would have to resort to plebiscites.

Other experiments in direct democracy have also failed. The Zapatistas’ encuentros in the Chiapas region of Mexico have led to the rule of an unelected elite of (largely middle class intellectual) guerrilla fighters, as the peasants cannot afford to stay till the end of the debates, needing to return to their work.

The truth is that, under capitalism, any revolutionary party, involving tens of thousands of members, will have to operate 99 per cent of the time by a system of delegation, representatives elected after a debate to a Congress. The Congress in turn would have to elect a Central Committee to act on its behalf and with its authority in between Congresses. Rules, including the right of branches and districts to recall Congress if the CC overstepped its mandate, would have to be put in place.

But since developments in the class struggle present new challenges, unforeseen by any Congress, and which brook no delay, leaderships have to be vested with the authority to develop the line of the organisation. Of course they must be answerable for their actions and the membership must be able to organise to hold them to account.

A restriction on the right to from factions or oppositions simply turns the existing leadership into a closed faction against an atomised membership, as recent events in the SWP have shown. But this was not the practice in Lenin’s party, at least between 1903 and 1921; the ban on factions in that latter year was, as Trotsky was later to admit, the beginning of the grave bureaucratic distortions and ultimate complete degeneration of the party.

Bureaucracy

But does an authoritative Central Committee in itself lead to bureaucratisation, to an undemocratic rule by the centre? Certainly many of today’s supporters of Luxemburg believe this to be one of her greatest insights. After all, was she not the one who first analysed and warned of the emerging trade union and party bureaucracy in Germany? Luxemburg appears to make a devastating point when she objects to Lenin’s assertion that: “to oppose bureaucracy to democracy… is to contrast the organisational principle of revolutionary Social Democracy to the methods of opportunistic organisation”.

But it is important to observe what Lenin meant here by bureaucracy and democracy. By bureaucracy he meant centralism, not the rule of paid and privileged officials. The centralist principle, as Lenin envisages it, “strives to proceed from the top downward, and upholds an extension of the rights and powers of the centre in relation to the parts… this top is inevitably the party Congress, as the supreme organ of the party; the Congress as far as possible includes representatives of all the active organisations, and, by appointing the central institutions (often with a membership which satisfies the advanced elements of the party more than the backward and is more to the taste of its revolutionary than its opportunist wing), makes them the top until the next Congress.” (One Step Forward Two Steps Back)

This will doubtless shock those steeped in the present “bottom up” ethos, because Lenin goes even further. It is the opportunist, he says, who “strives to proceed from the bottom upward, and, therefore, wherever possible and as far as possible, upholds autonomism and ‘democracy’, carried (by the overzealous) to the point of anarchism.” (ibid)

Lenin at this point places the word democracy in inverted commas to emphasise the fact that it is not really democracy – the rule of the majority – but anarchism, where each member can decide what s/he should or should not do. In other words, the minority can defy – and thwart – the majority. What if 90 workers vote for strike and the minority of 10 turned round and say, “We’re going to work anyway”? That would not be democracy, but scabbing. When we are facing a concentrated social force, imperialist capitalism, it would be suicidal for the revolutionaries to disaggregate their forces and run all over the place.

Of course bureaucratisation is a real danger that no formal allegiance to Marxism can safeguard a party against – as we have seen recently in the SWP. But for all her insight, Luxemburg never discovered the material roots of the bureaucracy. She wrongly placed it in the function of the trade union official, who has to negotiate between workers and the bosses, or in the MP, who similarly has to operate in the bourgeois parliament. This led her to distrust all leaders and see the seeds of bureaucracy in all hierarchical structures.

Lenin, it is true, was late in coming to this problem, but there is a reason for this. The SPD had hundreds, probably thousands of trade union leaders, councillors and parliamentarians in its ranks, who had access to middle class wages and privileges. Even Luxemburg had a servant and she was by no means among the most privileged. The Russian party had no such luxuries, even in exile. But when they came to power, Lenin was among the first to note that privilege and material gain were the bedrock on which bureaucracy could and would grow unless rooted out.

‘Betwixt and between’

One of the most often quoted parts of Luxemburg’s polemic against Lenin comes immediately after one of her most brilliant insights:

“On the one hand, we have the mass; on the other, its historic goal, located outside of existing society. On one hand we have the day-to-day struggle; on the other, the socialist revolution… It follows that this movement can best advance by tacking betwixt and between the two dangers… One is the loss of its mass character, the other the abandonment of its goal. One is the danger of sinking back to the condition of a sect; the other, the danger of becoming a movement of bourgeois social reform.”

This explains very clearly the inescapable dialectic of revolutionary politics – outside of a directly revolutionary situation. In so-called normal times, when the mass of the workers can sustain themselves through reforms and waging piecemeal trade union struggles, the revolutionary “party” can often be reduced to a relatively few militants (a “sect”). Likewise in a reactionary period, when the workers’ organisations have been shackled or smashed. But by the same token, the party can grow rapidly as these times change and the tempo of the class struggle increases, with the important proviso that it pursues a correct policy.

Thus, the Bolsheviks shrank dramatically during the years of reaction after the 1905-07 revolution, grew rapidly in 1912-14, shrank in the first two years of the first world war, then grew again in 1916-17 as the revolution approached. In fact this was only possible given Lenin’s view – established first in What Is To Be Done – of a cadre party.

However, taken further than this, Luxemburg’s advice is dangerous and opens the door to opportunism. From the above quotation Luxemburg goes on to draw the following conclusions:

“Marxist theory offers us a reliable instrument enabling us to recognise and combat typical manifestations of opportunism. But the socialist movement is a mass movement. Its perils are not the product of the insidious machinations of individuals and groups. They arise out of unavoidable social conditions. We cannot secure ourselves in advance against all possibilities of opportunist deviation. Such dangers can be overcome only by the movement itself – certainly with the aid of Marxist theory, but only after the dangers in question have taken tangible form in practice. Looked at from this angle, opportunism appears to be a product and an inevitable phase of the historic development of the labour movement.”

Once again we see Luxemburg’s tendency to shift onto the historic process and the masses the tasks that should fall to the conscious minority of revolutionaries, via struggles over tactics and strategy, programme and organisational principles.

While it is true that Luxemburg, before Lenin or Trotsky, saw the opportunist currents and the bureaucratic degeneration of the leadership of German Social Democracy (as both later freely acknowledged), and while she mercilessly exposed and criticised it, unlike Lenin, this did not find a firm organisational expression. Before the war Luxemburg did not form a coherent and disciplined faction let alone, as some of her biographers have wished, break from the SPD.

Often it is necessary to “swim against the stream”, as Trotsky put it, of the masses’ consciousness. For example, at the outbreak of World War I, the tiny revolutionary forces nevertheless had to oppose the imperialist slaughter – even if this meant losing the support of millions in the Second International. To do otherwise would be to surrender the cause when steadfastness is most needed.

How can we prepare for such occasions? By developing a programme and building a disciplined party of cadres, who understand the meaning of the programme, because they were involved in its creation and trained in its method. And in the end, this is the final proof of who was more right, Luxemburg or Lenin. Luxemburg found herself isolated in the war and the 1918-19 German revolution saw the young KPD lose nearly all its leaders right at the beginning and make disastrous mistakes as a consequence.

Lenin’s Bolshevik Party certainly made mistakes, but it was able to correct them much earlier through its democratic structures and the training of its members in the Marxist method. The party grew dramatically during the course of 1917, utilising the united front and a system of immediate and transitional demands to expose and split the reformists, centrists and revolutionary peasants. As a result, it led the first – and to date only – successful workers’ revolution.

We believe that was not only due to its programme, but also its superior understanding and application of party building. While Lenin and the Bolsheviks cannot be slavishly copied, all serious revolutionaries must study their approach today. We hope and trust that the participants in the current revolutionary unity discussions will join us in that collective study.

This weakness, which Trotsky shared with Rosa Luxemburg, was to leave to the objective revolutionary processes of history (which of course really exist but not without counter processes or tendencies of a reactionary character) tasks the revolutionary organisation must address. Later when he was defending Rosa Luxemburg against the crude and vulgar attacks of Stalin, who identified the great revolutionary with Menshevism, Trotsky wrote an accurate summary of Luxemburg’s strengths and weaknesses:

“Rosa herself never confined herself to the mere theory of spontaneity… Rosa Luxemburg exerted herself to educate the revolutionary wing of the proletariat in advance and to bring it together organisationally as far as possible. In Poland, she built up a very rigid independent organisation. The most that can be said is that in her historical-philosophical evaluation of the labour movement, the preparatory selection of the vanguard, in comparison with the mass actions that were to be expected, fell too short with Rosa; whereas Lenin – without consoling himself with the miracles of future actions – took the advanced workers and constantly and tirelessly welded them together into firm nuclei, illegally or legally, in the mass organisations or underground, by means of a sharply defined programme.” Luxemburg and the Fourth International, June 1935

–BOX–

Lenin’s idea of what sort of party was needed for a revolution

By Dave Stockton

Of prime importance for Lenin was the necessity for a programme and publications, which form the political core of the strategy of the revolutionary party, providing the basis for its day-to-day line and orientation.

Nothing could be more un-Leninist than the mockery of the programme as a “blueprint when what was needed was a gun” (Tony Cliff) or the claim that Lenin made the October Revolution on a 14 years old programme. The entire history of Bolshevism is littered with strategic and tactical documents, which updated the party’s programme, not least The April Theses, which changed the party’s goal to working class power, based on soviets and on measures transitional to socialism.

Internal debate and democratic discussion were vitally important, wherever possible, to agree these positions. Democratic centralism accorded rights to every level of the party and allowed for opposition groupings and factions. All this was combined with discipline in the ranks, itself an extension of the necessary discipline in any combative workers’ organisation, like a trade union, where united action is required in strikes or on demonstrations.

The need for an organisation of professional revolutionaries was the inner core. These were not paid bureaucratic functionaries, but people who not only devoted their whole lives to educating, agitating and organising amongst the working class and its allies, but also risked long periods of exile, imprisonment, mistreatment and death in the process. The highest degree of professionalism and discipline (the rejection of amateurism and indiscipline) was needed to prevent infiltration by the police and to win the confidence of workers.

Socialists who regard their politics as secondary to some other occupation will never be able to organise a revolutionary struggle against the state and the capitalists. Lenin always regarded these traits – which he insisted did not come as second nature to the intelligentsia – as proletarian characteristics. Certainly he agreed with Karl Kautsky and, before him, Frederick Engels that these traits arose from the necessary discipline of social production, the division of labour, work discipline, etc. But this in turn gave rise to the self-sacrifice of workers, who stood up and risked their jobs (and in Russia sometimes their lives) to fight for their workmates. Rejection of discipline, i.e. dilettantism, he regarded as typical of the petit bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia as a caste.

A network or structure of such cadres, assembled in the early stages of building an organisation, in Russia under illegal conditions, could and should be enormously expanded in times of mass struggle, with its cadres spreading out to offer leadership to newly emerging mass organisations, but it could not be dispensed with. For these cadres not only had the leadership skills the workers movement needed, but also understood in depth its programme and principles, and the methods of their application. They remained the core of the party’s leading cadres, though one that welcomed with open arms the new cadres being thrown up by the workers’ mass struggles, fusing their experience with the dynamism of the new young forces.

The continuity of Lenin’s thought can be seen clearly in the quotation from the introduction to the collection of his writings, Twelve Years, that Tony Cliff thought was is a renunciation of his views on spontaneity and consciousness elaborated in What Is To Be Done, or that it is a self-criticism of these views. It is worth quoting at length:

“What Is To Be Done is a summary of Iskra tactics and Iskra organisational policy in 1901 and 1902. Precisely a “summary”, no more and no less. That will be clear to anyone who takes the trouble to go through the file of Iskra for 1901 and 1902. But to pass judgement on that summary without knowing Iskra’s struggle against the then dominant trend of Economism, without understanding that struggle, is sheer idle talk. Iskra fought for an organisation of professional revolutionaries. It fought with especial vigour in 1901 and 1902, vanquished Economism, the then dominant trend, and finally created this organisation in 1903. It preserved it in face of the subsequent split in the Iskrist ranks and all the convulsions of the period of storm and stress; it preserved it throughout the Russian revolution; it preserved it intact from 1901-02 to 1907.

“And now, when the fight for this organisation has long been won, when the seed has ripened, and the harvest gathered, people come along and tell us: ‘You exaggerated the idea of an organisation of professional revolutionaries!’ Is this not ridiculous?

“Take the whole pre-revolutionary period and the first two and a half years of the revolution (1905-07). Compare our Social Democratic Party during this whole period with the other parties in respect of unity, organisation, and continuity of policy. You will have to admit that in this respect our Party is unquestionably superior to all the others—the Cadets, the Socialist-Revolutionaries, etc.

“Before the revolution it drew up a programme which was formally accepted by all Social Democrats, and when changes were made in it there was no split over the programme. From 1903 to 1907 (formally from 1905 to 1906), the Social Democratic Party, despite the split in its ranks, gave the public the fullest information on the inner-party situation (minutes of the Second General Congress, the Third Bolshevik, and the Fourth General, or Stockholm, Congresses). Despite the split, the Social Democratic Party earlier than any of the other parties was able to take advantage of the temporary spell of freedom to build a legal organisation with an ideal democratic structure, an electoral system, and representation at Congresses according to the number of organised members.” The Reorganisation of the Party, Lenin Collected Works, 1972, Moscow, volume 13 pages 94-113

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One Response to Luxemburg or Lenin – how should revolutionaries organise?

  1. Tom

    June 20, 2013 at 5:17 am

    I have not read this yet. However, on the basis of the question alone I want to comment. Given how substantial an article this is (at least in terms of its length), my misgivings about the question may well be addressed here in as much detail as anyone could wish for. However, just in case it is not, I think we need to differentiate between many Lenin’s and many Luxemburg’s. The Luxemburg who criticised Lenin in 1904, was different from the one who split to form the USPD. But the time she had excluded the centrists of Kautsky to form the German Communist Party, she was to all intents and purposes a Leninist. Lenin himself was not the same Leninist all his life. He never advocated a democratic centralist vanguard party in advanced capitalist countries like Germany. Not until he saw how rotten the social democratic mass parties had become. When socialist revolutions were all betrayed by the reformists and centrists, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci and others pinpointed the absence of Leninist parties as key. This is correct. However, there have been far too many splits on the basis of differences that could be tackled within a workers’ party. The party socialists need today in Britain and the rest of the world is not a pure revolutionary party like the post 1912 Bolshevik Party, or the KPD or other parties of the Comintern. We need to use parliamentary elections and this necessitates compromise, especially when faced with FPTP or many kinds of PR. Marxists cannot tolerate splitting the vote for the sake of it. TUSC, Left Unity and the Labour left need to present the working class voter with a none-of-the-above party that is not a xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic ultra-Thatcherite party. Any such party will in today’s circumstances be a classic centrist party: SPD prior to WWI or RSDLP prior to 1912. Luxemburg’s problem was not splitting a broad party but refusing to create the embryo of such a democratic centralist party as Lenin did. It is in the interests of Owen Jones, John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn to work with Dave Nellist, Ken Loach and others to create such a party. Sectarians within it will be punished. Those who refuse to join (like the SEP) will similarly be punished by the working class by isolation.

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