State and Revolution: 100 years later

One Hundred Years later, State and Revolution remains one of the most beloved works of Lenin. Yet what can we learn from the attempts to implement its vision in the Russian Revolution?

State and Revolution is one of the most beloved works of Lenin, and for good reason. It is perhaps the finest work of Marxology, where digging through the notebooks of Marx and Engels is done not to prove an academic thesis but to prove an important political point: that the proletariat cannot simply inherit the bourgeois state and use it to build socialism, but must smash it in order to create a new state based on workers rule. Lenin also utilizes Marx and Engels to discern how this state is fundamentally different to the bourgeois state, drawing from Marx’s work on the Paris Commune especially. From these conclusions Lenin takes a political gamble. His party leads an insurrection to overthrow the provisional government around the call for “all power to the Soviets”, calling for a new state in Russia based on the power of the Soviets, or regional councils of workers and soldiers that were being formed both spontaneously and by party militants.

For Lenin, “all power to the Soviets” only made sense as a political slogan and plan for action when the Bolsheviks and those agreeing with their general programme had a majority in the Soviets, which in a sense were alternative “parliaments” for the working class. When the Bolsheviks were able to build a majority coalition of their party, left-SRs, anarchists and Menshevik Internationalists in the Soviets who wanted the overthrow of the government, an end to the war, and land to the peasants then “all power to the Soviets” was a slogan that made perfect sense.

So for the Bolsheviks, State and Revolution provided a sort of initial guide to how they would approach the revolution and rebuild society. The Soviets would take state power with a revolutionary programme and the working class would be armed as the military and police were demolished, the working class to take command. This would eventually happen in Russia, but initially the Soviets and the parties working within them (the Bolsheviks being the leading party) had to figure out how to run a country and develop a proletarian rather than bourgeois civil society.

Before delving into how the ideals of State of Revolution came into contradiction with the concrete realities of the revolution and what one must learn from that, I will go over the basic arguments of the book, which mostly come from the works of Marx and Engels. For Lenin, the state is defined as a “product of the irreconcilability of classes”, meaning that as long as classes exist there will be some sort of state which ensures the reproduction of those class relations with the ruling class having political hegemony. The state is not a neutral territory where classes can “reconcile” but ultimately “a power standing above society and alienating itself more and more from it”. Why is the state alien to society? Because it is a protection racket for the minority of rich capitalists, not a means for the majority of society to actually exercise control over politics. It creates “order”, but this order is strictly a bourgeois law and order that codifies the domination of the ruling class.  

Further, the state is a “special body of armed men”, the military and police, who are able execute the rule of law. Lenin mostly seems to find this important because it shows that the state is based on force. It is based not just through force, but force as executed by a special body, i.e. a separate section of the social division of labor (cops and military). The abolition of the police and armed forces, is the destruction of that part of the bourgeois state which defends and underwrites that state-form’s character as being above society; alienated from humanity as a whole.

The state is also described by Lenin as an “instrument” through which the ruling class exploits the oppressed class. This has been criticized as seeing the state as a mere instrument that classes can simply wield. But this is taking the metaphor too seriously. The point is that as long as there are class divisions, state power will exist because there will be need for a body that ensures capitalist norms of order than allow the ruling class to operate (or a body to suppress the remnants of the capitalist order if a workers state). Lenin doesn’t exactly go deep into the structural mechanics of why the state, while aiming to appear to be neutral, ultimately serves the interests of the ruling class. Part of the reason why is that the state is a tribute/tax/rentier taking organization and reproduces by taxing capitalists; therefore it has an interest in capitalist development being as successful as possible. The state also connects a strong economy to a strong military, the military bureaucracy wishing to project the hegemony of a capitalist state as dominant in the world market. In general, the state reproduces the social division of labor, and it reproduces a capitalist social division of labor. Therefore the capitalist or bourgeois state cannot act in a way that doesn’t allow for the reproduction of capitalism, and essentially provides the framework through which this can occur.

Lenin goes on to argue that classes can be abolished (though without saying at a national or international level), hence ending the social antagonisms that lead to a state existing. Yet there will be a transitional state, or dictatorship of the proletariat, that will replace the old capitalist state, based on the power of the workers. This state is sometimes called a “semi-state” because it is a state in the process of overthrowing the very foundations upon which it is based. Engels is quoted as saying “The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by that conduct the processes of production. The state is not “Abolished”. It Withers Away.Essentially, as the antagonisms of class divisions are transcended by communist relations, the state loses its power as a coercive force over society and simply becomes a means of administering society in harmonious way. This is contrary to the anarchist notion that the state itself will be abolished in an act of insurrection, or the Maoist notion that the withering of the state must be pushed along through “Cultural Revolution” or class struggle under socialism. While it is true this process will require struggle against bureaucrats, because the proletariat holds state power it can fight bureaucracy through transforming its actual roots, the social division of labor, and not just host purges to replace them with different bureaucrats.

This general outline, backed up quite sufficiently by quotes from Marx and Engels, is primarily an attack on the Social-Democrats like Kautsky and Bernstein who deny the need for a violent overthrow. While Lenin was a longtime admirer of Kautsky, by 1917 he had come to see Kautsky as not sufficiently stressing the need to smash the bourgeois state in earlier works like The Social Revolution and the Day After (1903). Kautsky instead saw the proletariat’s party essentially becoming a majority in parliament, and then making parliament into the main ruling body of the state. For Lenin, bourgeois parliament was simply not a fit form of representation for the working class. Yes, work in it, but do so to destroy it was his position. Lenin goes as far to say that violent insurrection is a determining point in whether a proletarian revolution has occurred or not; at this point Lenin has no illusions of the bourgeoisie peacefully surrendering its power. This position, that it was necessary to smash the state, was not always the opinion of Lenin. It was initially Bukharin and Pannekoek who would come to convince Lenin of the correctness of this position, that it was not an anarchist deviation from Marx.  

It is also an essentially correct general outline: the proletariat overthrows the bourgeois state, the proletariat becomes the new state, and this state withers away as classes whither away. Those who saw no rupture needed between the bourgeois state and proletarian state were simply reformists in the end, as they could not grasp a key element of revolution. Lenin backs up this reading using the piece Civil War in France by Marx, where the Paris Commune, considered by Marx and Engels to be a living example of the dictatorship of the proletariat, is examined.

The Commune becomes an object of study that is meant to show what kind of state will replace the bourgeois and facilitate the rule of the workers. Lenin argues the first and most important decree is the disarming of the ruling class and the arming of the workers, replacing the police and military with the armed working class. Since the state is at its core the general means of coercion, placing these means in the hands of the workers commences the smashing of the bourgeois state. Lenin also stresses the democratic nature of the Commune, pointing out how elected officials had strict term limits, recallability, and an average worker’s wage. He also argues for simplifying the process of government to the point where any worker could be called on to participate, summed up by the saying “every cook can govern.” For Lenin both parliament and the ‘parasite state’ are also wiped away, though elective and representative features still exist. It is just that the legislative and executive branch are merged and government bodies are working bodies, e.g representative-legislative with strictly subordinate executive committees.

Much of State and Revolution also comes as a response to the anarchists as well as the social-democrats. Lenin sees the anarchists idea of abolition of the state “muddled and non revolutionary” as the state is a product of the social division of labor which is not transformed overnight and cannot be left to be controlled by the servants of capital. The anarchists simply proclaim to be for the abolition of the state, but have no plan to actually abolish it. Those who simply say they will abolish the state immediately lack an understanding of the historical conditions that produced the state and lead to its existence. Many anarchists argue that simply decentralizing power will end the state, while Lenin stresses the need for centralism and unity in the proletarian state. Yet for Lenin democracy is just as important as centralism, just not sufficient on its own, and the two are not to be counterposed. One must “develop democracy to the utmost” but not separate from the actual tasks of economic transformation in the revolution. Yet while in the proletarian state democracy is developed to the utmost, Lenin cites Engels on the ‘overcoming of democracy’, stating that in a communist future the need for democratic decision making where the majority rules over the minority will no longer be needed because there will be no need for a state.

The transition to Communism is also detailed, essentially taking the schema of dictatorship of the proletariat -> lower phase communism -> high phase communism from the the Marx’s Gothakritik. These sections essentially summarize how the development of communism from the ashes of capitalism will gradually make the state a relic of the past, replacing the rule of law via a coercive mechanism with the force of social norm in a real human community. Yet it also explains this will be a protracted process where elements of capitalism will remain and be phased out as possible. Lenin does mention the problems of bureaucracy, but acts as if simply putting them on an average salary will suffice to keep them in check.

So how does this all hold up today? First of all are the basics of Lenin’s theory of the state. The State under Capitalism is essentially a holdover of the centralized absolutist state renovated to meet the needs of capitalism and democratized to the extent popular struggles have pushed it to do so. That the state serves the ruling class is obvious, but the state also performs certain communal functions for society that cannot be left to private interests. It also has a military function that can’t be reduced to capital accumulation, as even a proletarian state would still need a military to defend itself from capitalist invasion. This is not to say these functions aren’t operated in a class biased matter, but that the state cannot simply be reduced to a body of armed men that defend the interest of the ruling class. There is a non-elected bureaucracy in the state that is not entirely parasitic but necessary for the day to day running of cities for example. Until their skills are redistributed, society will still need to rely on them, similar to how the Bolsheviks had to rely on Tsarist military generals. One could say that Lenin overestimates how quickly a complete break with the bourgeois state and its bureaucracy can take place, as if the Soviets can simply pop up and replace it once they are revolutionary enough. Yet while the Soviets can make important decisions, the actual running of the state on a day to day basis will still fall to the bureaucracy if the Soviets cannot perform their function.

This is not to say that “every cook cannot govern” contrary to Lenin, but that there are real embedded problems with bureaucracy that can’t simply be dealt with through force. Specialists and bureaucrats do contain monopolies of knowledge that allows them a privileged place in society as a result of that knowledge being necessary for society. Lenin doesn’t make a plan for dealing with this, but it becomes a problem on day one when the Red Guards have to break a Civil Servant strike opposed to the new Soviet regime. The same problem exists in industry and the military, with loyalists of the old regime being relied upon to keep society running and defending the workers republic. Relying on these specialists created problems for the proletarian state, as there was no plan to phase them out and collectivize their skills, creating the basis for a “red bureaucracy” that would become a force of conservatism in the new Soviet Republic. Some system must be developed to a) observe and control the bureaucrats and b) break down their knowledge monopolies and simplify the administration to make it so that they are easily replaceable. Breaking down these knowledge monopolies involves not only technological advances but also expansion of educational opportunities for the masses.

There is also the problem of “all power to the Soviets” as the solution to the state. Soviets are councils of workers that tend to form from strike committees in cross industry mass strikes to make decisions in those particular struggles. In a way they are “united fronts of the workers movement” where all different tendencies and trades in a region unite to make large scale political decisions in a mass struggle. After the mass struggle is over, the Soviets are no longer needed, and authority returns to the trade union and political parties. So therefore soviets have a sort of transient nature; they are not standing bodies that continuously meet to make decisions in most cases. Lenin’s aim was to turn the the Soviets into such organizations that would run society. The problem was that he ignored other important aspects of the state, such as the role of political parties.

If one has no political parties to choose from in voting for candidates, or only one, the result is that Soviets or other mass democratic assemblies simply will become rubber stamp organizations for the one ruling party. This is exactly what happened in the USSR – the Soviets tried to become the state but ultimately authority fell to the Bolshevik Party. It is similar for the local councils in Cuba. Lenin says nothing about the role of political parties in the new proletarian state in his essay, but as every political regime ever has revealed, the ruling party or parties largely determine the character of the regime. While the Bolsheviks did not seize power alone (they did so in alliance with the Left-SRs), their break with the Left SRs and the crisis of war communism sending proletarians to the front meant that the Soviets simply lost their ability to act as standing bodies of authority for the working class. By the mid 1920s Bolshevik delegates would dominate the soviets, the rest having no party affiliation with other parties being banned. No parties or even party factions meant workers had no real choices in voting for a political programme, but simply voted for the personalities of those running, or who could be best directed by the party to do their job.

A key insight that Lenin misses here, ironically enough, is the importance of the party. A Soviet democracy must actually be one where democratically organized mass parties collaborate. All states are essentially party-states to some degree, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be democratic. In general, a state is only as democratic as its ruling parties are. This means the internal regime of the those parties; do the rank and file meaningfully determine policy, are factions allowed? Even in a “one party state” different factions of the party can serve as different political options that people can vote for. This opportunity closed in 1921 with the banning of party factions. The nature of the soviets in a state where one monolithic party was ruling could only be to legitimize the rule of that party, and so any hope of bringing workers into the administration of society (which was still maintained in the course of the Civil War) was lost. The role of soviets became changed not because the Bolsheviks crushed them, but because conditions of the war, loss of interparty democracy, and the betrayal of the Left-SRs who launched a terror campaign against the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty (which also meant the armed wing of the revolution, the cheka, would become monopolized by the Bolsheviks). Whether soviets, citizens councils, or mass assemblies, these regional decision-making bodies on their own do not ensure democratic governance. This doesn’t mean rejecting such bodies, but realistically understanding their role, and the need for political parties that are themselves member-run and democratic.

An argument often made (see Brinton’s Bolsheviks and Workers Control) is that the Party essentially betrayed the Soviets by promoting its authority against their authority, overthrowing the authentic revolution. In this narrative the Soviets are basically “destroyed” by the Bolsheviks. What happened was moreso that the Soviets were hollowed out and the Bolshevik Party was the only force left to fill in the gap of authority. Ultimately, for the soviets to have governed, it would have been in partnership with a political party/parties and not in opposition to them. It is not possible to remove political parties from councils without banning parties outright, which would simply be a way to destroy programmatic politics and meaningful democracy. Political parties are not contrary to democracy, but essential for it, as no parties means no real political choices can be voted on, just personalities. Rather than looking at the question in terms of “do the Soviets govern or does the party govern” we should look at it in terms of “how will the parties and councils work together to ensure a government based on proletarian democracy.”

There is also the question of how useful the model of the “Soviet pyramid” for socialists governance is. To summarize, the model works where lower bodies elect delegates to regional bodies, and these delegates then elect the delegate of higher, central bodies. This idea is supposed to give more power to lower regional bodies but instead allows a single party to more easily concentrate power within the councils. This is because of a mediary regional council elects the central council, which creates a degree of separation between the voters and the central council. This ‘pyramid’ can have even more layers of mediation between the voters and the central gov, increasingly alienating the voters from their representatives. A more simple way to go would be to have local councils elected by locals and a central council elected universally that local councils are responsible to. While Soviet pyramid model is favored by Trotskyists, Council Communists, and Anarchists as “more democratic” it is actually less democratic.

sovietpyramid.png

An example of the “Soviet Pyramid” model from Cornelius Castoriadis, 1972.

 

This is not to dismiss the importance of councils of workers and local assemblies of governance in the revolution. As Engels pointed out in a footnote to Marx’s 1850 Address to the Communist League, “local and provincial government” can become “the most powerful lever of the revolution”. He cites the example of the local assemblies and communes of governance in the French Revolution, which were able to fall within the general laws set by the national assembly while pushing the revolution forward. It was these types that were first destroyed in the Thermidor according to Engels. Furthermore Engels argues that such “local and provincial governance does not “stand in contradiction to political, national centralization.” Rather than seeing a strict dichotomy between the locals and central governance Engels sees them both playing a cooperative role.

There is no doubt that such organizations like the Soviets becoming hollowed out signified a defeat for the Russian Revolution. Yet one must understand that the power of the Soviets ultimately failed because the party regime failed, and both must work together to be truly democratic. Organizations like the citizens councils of the Paris Commune and the Russian Soviets where the masses partake in government are essential for any kind of “proletarian civil society” to exist. The point is that we cannot count on the spontaneous activities of councils to solve the problem of governance; they are not a solution to bureaucracy on their own.  

Of course one cannot blame the failures of the Bolsheviks to overcome bureaucracy on Lenin’s lack of clear vision or a theoretical blunder. Ultimately the question of bureaucracy comes down to class struggle, the battle for proletarians to control officials and specialists through democratic measures. Yet Russian proletarians faced a situation of being in a peasant dominated country with a lack of modernization, hoping their revolution would spread internationally. To quote Rosa Luxemburg: “It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions. The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.”

Lenin wrote more about issues of bureaucracy in his latter years, after it became clear the vision of Soviet democracy was not the immediate outcome of the revolution. Instead the regime of the NEP, closer economically to Lenin’s original plans, took place of the unfeasible attempt at ‘war communism’ and Lenin began in his last days to try and solve the problem of bureaucracy. Ultimately, a full on Thermidor with the rise of Stalinism ensured these issues would never be properly dealt with, the NEP society that was the ultimate outcome of the revolution being destroyed in favor of a militaristic bureaucratic industrialism.

While State and Revolution is a masterpiece of communist theory, it has certain limitations that have been shown by the historical attempts to apply its ideas. It does provide a useful framework for thinking about the state, emphasizing the importance of its inherently class nature.What it doesn’t contain is all the answers about the complexity of the state during the transition to communism and exact answers to how one will construct the dictatorship of the proletariat. Rather than simply studying State and Revolution on its own we must study the Russian Revolution to see where its assumptions hold up, and when they don’t, why this is the case.

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Lessons of Party and Class from the Russian Revolution

What are the fundamental lessons regarding the relationship between party and class to be learned from the Russian Revolution? Is “All Power to the Soviets” a real alternative to the rule of political parties? 

In one of their recent correspondences, the ICC asked me to explained what in my views were the fundamental lessons to be learned about the relationship between party and class from the October Revolution. This is an extremely complex topic of course, not one that can simply be answered without a total historical dissection of the revolution and its outcomes. One could accuse this of just another old debate about “old dead russian men” that is not relevant, but if you ask the average person on the street in the USA if they have questions about communism usually “old dead russian men” like Lenin and Stalin come up. The October revolution also is not ancient history; it was almost 100 years ago when the Red Guards seized the Winter Palace and the Revolutionary Military Committee announced the overthrow of Kerensky’s government, putting in motion a chain reaction of events that are essentially the reason “communism” is even a household name.

Of course, there are many lessons to learn from the successes and failures of the Russian Revolution, and one of course can’t explain the failure of the revolution to produce communism with a single simple reason. The questions of geo-politics, productive forces, the peasantry, gender, national oppression and alienation all have roles to play. Why the Bolshevik seizure of power led to Stalinism is a question that must be answered with a variety of factors in mind. So to say that the failure of the Russian Revolution in the long term was due to a mistaken conception of the party in relation to the class is historically lazy. The Bolshevik’s conception of the party was not the same as it was after “War Communism” as it was before. I would argue that essentially the Bolsheviks had a correct interpretation of the party (a mass party of the working class and its allies committed to revolution). However the experience of it becoming a party for mobilizing peasants in the Russian Civil War and losing urban working class support in the course of the war created the notion of a militarized “vanguard party” where the Comintern was the “general staff” of the world revolution. What is understood to be Bolshevik forms of organization are moreso Comintern forms of organizations.

So what exactly are the lessons to learn then? “Substitutionism”, where a minority party rules in the name of the working class, was not the ideology of the Bolsheviks who came to power through mass support, not a coup. They also came to power in a whole alliance of the revolutionary left, which included the Left wing of the Social-Revolutionsts and various anarchists and dissident Mensheviks. It was not the Bolsheviks who came into power in October but the Revolutionary Military Committee. The Bolshevik’s aim was for an alliance of socialist parties to rule cooperatively  through the system of soviets. However after the concessions of Brest-Litovsk, which some Bolsheviks themselves opposed, the Left Social-Revolutionaries  began a terrorism campaign against the Bolsheviks, leaving them the only party to rule in the Soviets. (See Alexander Rabinowtich’s Bolsheviks Come to Power and Bolsheviks In Power for a historically in-depth look at these events). Rather than the dangers of “subsitutionism” being the lessons of October, I would argue the following lessons make more sense:

1. The dictatorship of the proletariat essentially takes the form of the Communist Party(ies) ruling through a commune-state.

This is a tough pill to swallow for some, who would counterpose “all power to the soviets” to this vision. However, this is based on a misunderstanding of the soviets and the reason “all power to the soviets” was a Bolshevik slogan. The Soviets of 1917 were formed by right wing Mensheviks who supported the war. Before the Soviets could be revolutionary, revolutionary parties had to win them over. The Bolsheviks would never have argued “all power to the soviets” if the Soviets were dominated by right-wing parties; it was when the majority in the Soviets supported the overthrow of the Provisional Government that the Bolsheviks used this slogan. And correctly so. Soviet rule is still a form of party rule, just mediated through radical political democracy. Workers in the organs of the new workers state will belong to political parties and factions of them, and policy will come from these various parties. The only alternative would be to ban political parties altogether, which would just mean that people would be voting for personalities rather than programmes.

The idea of Soviets ruling with a small vanguard party merely “advising” the correct path is a way to let the right-wing labor bureaucracy, which is hegemonic, take power and then restore capitalism. “All Power to the Soviets” does not answer the question of power, because ultimately a political party with a programme and mass support is needed to keep revolutionary councils or communes from becoming tools of reactionaries and reformists. The aim of a party is not to act as the holy carriers of wisdom to guide the class, but to represent the class and politically train the class to run society.

By Commune-state, I mean simply a workers republic that has the basic radical democratic features of the Paris Commune: representation through directly elected delegation, short term limits, immediate recall of reps, merging of executive and legislative branches, and general free political association. The early Soviet Republic established in October aimed to carry on many of these political principles.

2. A party must have mass support from the politically active working class to take power; otherwise revolution is not possible.

This is related to the question of soviet rule as counter-posed to party rule mentioned above. Mass support and legitimacy do matter, and communist revolutionaries need to build up institutions with legitimacy as a real alternative for rule. This means that the party must rule with some form of democratic mandate, not as a coup imposed upon the people. The Bolsheviks were able to do this with their years of building support from workers in factories and other industries, as well as their role in fighting against the despotism of czarism. Therefore when crisis did create a power vacuum, they were able to win enough support from the working class to overthrow the provisional government and form a workers state. If the party regime doesn’t have enough mass support to legitimately rule it will have to make assaults on democracy to stay in power, as demonstrated by the Bolsheviks in their retreat from soviet democracy.

3. A political regime is only as democratic as the ruling party or parties.

The loss of democracy within the Bolshevik party, with the ban on factions, was ultimately the end of the Russian Revolution that sealed the rise of Stalinism. This means mass membership based political parties where there is open debate amongst the membership and decision-making distributed to the membership. This is a general rule for political regimes of all types, but since the working class needs democracy like oxygen it must control its own parties and keep them accountable to the class at large.

In the United States, full suffrage means little when one’s choices are limited to political parties that are just fundraising machines for different factions of capital to win campaigns to stay in power. Rather than ruling parties that operate like this, we need parties where the membership develops and hold representatives accountable to a real program.

This means free discussion and debate in the revolutionary press as well. The Bolshevik Party in its heroic period (before the Russian Civil War)  was as radically democratic as possible, especially considering the repressive conditions it worked under. To quote veteran Bolshevik Vladimir Nevsky, it was a party where “Free discussion, a lively exchange of opinions, consideration not only of local, but also of all-Russian issues, an unusually lively interest in current issues, an absolutely universal participation in discussing and deciding these issues, the absence of any bureaucratic attitude to getting things done – in a word, the active participation of emphatically all members in the affairs of the organisation – were the distinctive features of our cells and committees.” We need a party which embodies this same spirit of democracy, both outside and in power.

4. The party doesn’t die, it betrays

The Bolshevik party over the course of 10 years had become an oppressor of the working class rather their champions. By the 1940s none of the old Bolsheviks except Stalin and select few of his cronies remained. The SPD, which was also at one point a heroic revolutionary party, would transform into a party that sought to manage capitalism rather than overthrow it. The party and class are different from each other, and the class-party can become a “party of order” due to its own internal dynamics.

The problem is that mass political parties require bureaucracy, or paid officials with decision-making authority. Eventually the scale of organization and activity require bureaucrats, yet these bureaucrats are essentially petty-bourgeois because of their position of control over information and authority in the party. Therefore this petty-bourgeois bureaucratic strata must be kept under the democratic rule of the working class, as they will develop class interested opposed to the rest of party and lead toward a growing conservative and opportunism. This growing conservatism due to antagonistic class interests within organizations is the cause of “betrayal.” So therefore the proletariat must not only struggle against the bosses, but also the bureaucracy in their own organizations.

Why we need a world party

As a long-term goal communists should work towards a world party organized around a minimum/maximum programme that can tolerate factionalism while maintaining independence from bourgeois and reformist parties.

mythical party

“…it is inevitable that the growing proletariat should resist exploitation, and that it should organize industrially, co-operatively and politically to secure for itself better conditions of life and labor, and greater political influence. Everywhere the proletariat develops these phases of activity whether it is socialistically minded or not. It is the mission of the Socialist movement to bring all these various activities of the proletariat against its exploitation into one conscious and unified movement, that will find its climax in the great final battle for the conquest of political power.” – Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power, 1909

“There are therefore no bodies which are revolutionary because of their form; there are only social forces that are revolutionary through the direction in which they act, and these forces are organized in a party that fights with a program.” – Amadeo Bordiga

Do Communists need a party? If so, what kind do we need? Can revolutionary syndicalism or councilism serve as an alternative to forming a party? While the Communist League of Tampa is not a party formation the question of proletarian political organization is raised in our Points of Unity which states: “the proletariat must form its own political institutions independent from other classes and develop the capacity to rule as a class and abolish capitalist relations.” 

It is my view that political organization inevitably takes the form of a party of some kind if it is effective, so communists undeniably need to form a party as a long term goal. Right now the conditions for forming a party aren’t viable. This does not however mean that there isn’t work in the current circumstances we can do to change these conditions. We can still form political groupings, build those groupings, merge with others, intervene in mass struggles and run educational efforts without being centralized as a single world party. Instead we have to develop the basis for such a party to exist.

To clarify, a party is simply defined as a formal organization unified around a programme, which is in the broadest sense a series of political demands and basic principles of operation as well a long term vision of social change. This programme is the basis around which it organizes, agitates and educates. It is these characteristics that define a party rather than precise organizational structures, which can vary. A party doesn’t necessarily mean standing in elections; nor does it always mean a “vanguard party” where a small cadre with strict ideological unity proclaims itself the leaders of the working class. Neither does it mean an organization which will substitute itself for the working class by establishing a monopoly on political power.

The kind of party we need is first and foremost a world party, an organization where (to use a rather militaristic metaphor) each national section is essentially a battalion in a worldwide army. Our revolution will be international, hence there must be organization at an international level to coordinate it. Before the question of seizing power is even on the table some kind of world party that can pursue the internationalization of revolution must exist. Such an organization must have a balance of centralization and decentralization so as to prevent a single national section from asserting specific national interests over the whole organization while also allowing for the autonomy that separate sections need to meet their specific conditions. This was one of the problems of the Comintern: its domination by Russian national interests. To paraphrase Bordiga, the Comintern should have run Russia rather than the other way around.

This party should be a mass party rather than a vanguard party in the following sense. It should welcome all workers and intellectual allies that are willing to follow the programme and collectively work to actualize it. There should not be a tight ideological/theoretical line imposed on members, which constrains the ability of an organization to adapt to new conditions and have open debate without splitting or needlessly expelling members. Unity should be based around the broader programme, with debate open within all layers of the group on policy as well as theoretical issues. There must be internal democracy, accountability and transparency. Like a proper proletarian government it must be run on principles of delegation and egalitarianism rather than through a caste-like hierarchy. Leadership responsibilities should be formalized to ensure accountability, though recallable by constituents if necessary. The party also should not associate itself with the vanguard of the class struggle itself. The vanguard is not a single organization but a layer of the class that exists both within and outside party organizations. To say otherwise would be making the untenable claim that class struggle only occurs under the control of the party.

The kind of centralism we desire is one that is based on a true unity of the group around programme and action. This kind of centralism is a goal to be worked towards, not something to be forced by a clique in the leadership when the conditions for it don’t exist. Therefore the banning of factions as such is not a tolerable policy, as factions are an expression of real divisions in the organization that cannot be ‘cured’ with mere suppression. The ability to form factions and oppose leadership is part of a healthy organization that develops itself through debate rather than blind conformity to the central committee. This isn’t to say any and all factions should be tolerated; some positions will fall completely outside what can be tolerated in a communist organization. That said a healthy organization must be able tolerate factionalism, as it will be inevitable in any kind of mass party.

Bolshevism, before the Russian Civil War, operated on these principles for the most part. The party contained multiple factions and would publish internal debates in their public press. Much of the attempts to mimic Bolshevism today are based more on how the Party and Comintern developed after the Russian Civil War rather than pre-1918 Bolshevism. The point is not much that we must mimic their example, but that mass parties based on these principles can be formed and that a party like the Bolsheviks became successful organizing with them. The notion of an “iron-law of oligarchy” where all political organization of a considerable scale will lead to authoritarianism should be avoided for the conservative notion that it is. Of course any party will have tendencies towards deformations due to operating under the pressures of capitalist society. But these tendencies can be fought against; they are not impossible to overcome.

The Bolshevik Party before 1918 was hardly a bureaucratic centralist organization that stifled internal debate.

Attempts to replace the party as a central organ of revolution such as syndicalism and councilism have provided interesting movements and critiques but ultimately have failed to provide a realistic alternative. Syndicalism counterposes party organizations to workers in industrial unions that will prepare a revolutionary transformation through general strikes that seize the means of production to institute workers self-management. One basic problem with this strategy is the general tension between the roles of trade unions and political organizations. Syndicalism aims to essentially combine the two, forming trade unions that are based on a political affinity to a general vision of seizing means of production. This model of organization had much appeal to workers who were skeptical of social-democracies parliamentary tactics, seen as avoiding the mediation of politics altogether in favor of direct action on an economic basis. Yet a vision of seizing the means of production and self-managing them is still a political vision that must grapple with social problems beyond the economic.

Unions, to most effectively perform their function of protecting the basic economic interests of the workers they represent, must gain membership from as many workers as possible in a given trade or sector regardless of politics. However political organizations are based on the exclusion of those who don’t follow the groups political line. As a result in syndicalism there is a constant tension between maintaining the political vision of the union and operating as a functioning union that can mediate the relation between laborers and employers. Syndicalists unions therefore tend to either give up on radical politics and become reformist unions like the French CGT or essentially become parties that run workplace committees, albeit confused ones that refuse to recognize they are essentially parties. This isn’t to say revolutionary or ‘red’ unions never have existed or can’t exist at all, but they tend to not last for long or have trouble sticking to their politics and therefore on their own have trouble developing the kind of long term strategy and base that can provide a basis for revolution. Revolutionary unions have a place in a broader communist movement, but by themselves they are insufficient.

Another alternative to the party that is raised by some communists is councilism, which argues that the only legitimate revolutionary organs are workers councils formed by the workers themselves through mass strike actions. Councilism argues that political parties are an essentially bourgeois form that will inevitably substitute themselves for the proletariat as a class and therefore must be avoided at all costs. Generally its adherents argue that rather than organizing as a party communists should simply educate others and circulate information. Most councilists therefore take a very fatalistic attitude to revolution, arguing that only intense economic crisis will inspire the proletariat to form councils without any kind of prior organizing from conscious militants. The hope is that workers will spontaneously realize the need to seize the means of production and form workers councils on their own without guidance from conscious organized militants.

Councilism is based on a historical fantasy, because the actual historical experiences of workers councils have all been connected to political parties. The Soviets of 1917 were formed by Mensheviks, while the workers councils of the German Revolution were all connected to whatever political parties the workers who participated were involved in. Council rule is still essentially party rule, just the rule of whatever party dominates in the councils. In Germany 1918 this was the SPD. In Hungary 1956 the councils backed a social-democratic left nationalist Imre Nagy. On their own workers councils have never been able to act as an alternative centre-of-authority to the bourgeois regime. They have functioned moreso as united-front organizations of the class in struggle that rarely stand as permanent decision making apparatuses. Practically every mass upsurge of the working class has involved agitation, organization and education from conscious militants, both during and preceding the uprising.

Without a party with a mass base in the working class that develops a plan for an alternative to the current regime workers councils will simply give power back to the existing state or give way to other reactionary or reformist forces. There must be organized political opposition to reformist/reactionary groups that can organize an alternative center of authority and coordinate an overthrow of the state and formation of a new revolutionary regime. This means more than just loose networks of individuals who circulate information and theory who will either be completely ineffective or unaccountable. The hope that councils on their own will rule without political parties simply has no real basis in history. It is an idealistic fantasy. The workers who make up councils are themselves part of political parties, and the delegates they elect and decisions they make will reflect this. The alternative would be to ban political parties, which of course then raises the question of who enforces this ban.

The question of substitutionism raised by councilism is still an important one however. What will prevent a party from taking power and substituting itself for the proletariat, becoming a bureaucracy separate from the class that sets up an exploitative state? The simple answer is that the party doesn’t rule as a single party with complete monopoly on power but shares power with the entire revolutionary mass movement, as well as other revolutionary tendencies it may be in alliance with. Through political struggle within and outside the party the class keeps it on track and accountable to mitigate the development of internal counter-revolution. For this purpose the ability to form factions and for workers to have institutional channels outside the party to defend their basic interests are of importance. Another consideration to make is that the regime which developed in 1920s Russia primarily represented petty-proprietors (professionals,state bureaucrats, peasants) rather than the proletariat. With a ban on factions in the party and the soviets being shells of what they once were there were no institutional means for the proletariat to challenge this, leading to a sort of ‘red bonapartism’.

When the party takes power it doesn’t install itself as the sole source of authority but rather secures the basis for its minimum program to be put into practice. The minimum program is a set of institutional and political measures that destroys the bourgeois state and raises the entire working class to take hold of the ‘general means of coercion’ (Marx). This includes but is not limited to rule of the commune-state (based on free elections, recallable delegates, political egalitarianism, self-government of localities), the arming the workers, the abolition of police and military, reduction of work hours, banning of bourgeois/reactionary political parties, and empowerment of workers at the point of production. In other words it secures the dictatorship of the proletariat and enables class struggle to ascend to a new level without the constraints of the bourgeoisie state. This minimum program, as it becomes universalized internationally, provides the basis for enacting the maximum program which is composed of measures to transition into communism. If the minimum program cannot be actualized due to insufficient support then the party must wait; there is no shortcut into power through coalitions with bourgeois parties unified around a more reformist and tame programme that isn’t blatant opportunism.

Rather than taking power through a coup the party gains sufficient support for its minimum program and mobilizes the population to enact it. If properly applied the minimum programme will expand political power to the entire proletariat rather than confine it to a single party. The party doesn’t rule with a monopoly on power in the name of the class; it secures the institutional means for the class to rule as a whole and abolish itself along with all other classes. We have no patience for conspiratorial Blanquist fantasies, yet at the same time we reject that taking power must mean majority support in bourgeois elections. How we determine sufficient support depends on specific historical circumstances. There are no formalistic procedures, especially not success in bourgeois elections, that can measure this. We should of course aim for majority support of the working class, but even then measuring whether or not we have a true majority is difficult.

This proposed party would be organized around an invariant minimum/maximum programme as detailed above rather than transitional demands or a “mass line” that tails the spontaneous demands arising from immediate struggles. It would have to patiently build up mass support for its politics rather than hoping to be the “spark that lights the prairie fire”. This entails not softening our politics in hopes of “chasing” the masses to gain popularity or sacrificing our political independence through united fronts with bourgeois or reformist parties. The party must be a party of opposition to the entire bourgeois order, one that stays hard and fast to its programme without embracing reformist coalitions as a shortcut to power. This doesn’t mean refusing to fight for reforms short of proletarian dictatorship, but it does mean rejecting the notion that we can ‘trick’ the working class into taking power by mobilizing it to fight for reforms.

To emphasize the role of the party is not to deny the role of spontaneous mass struggle. There is a mutually reinforcing relation between the spontaneous mass movement (where action precedes consciousness) and the planned efforts of communists organized on the basis of programme (where consciousness precedes action). Mass action and party together comprise the totality of the class struggle, the former bringing the largest masses of workers into the battle against capital with the latter working to merge this mass movement of the class with the communist programme. This doesn’t mean class consciousness is injected into the class “from without” through the bourgeois intelligentsia, but it doesn’t mean it will develop spontaneously into a movement to topple class society without the conscious efforts of communists either.

Today there is much hope amongst ultra-left tendencies like Endnotes that spontaneous class struggle will bring forth completely novel forms of organization that are adequate for our times. While this is possible there is reason to believe that as long as politics exists the party (defined as organization centered around programme) will be invariant as a necessary means of intervening in politics (any collective project of changing society). Politics means a clashing of social visions which are products of class interests, and to contest these social visions classes and factions within classes form programmatic organizations. Some would claim that the party is a 19th century form of organization that is outdated by changed conditions. There is no doubt the 21st century won’t bring us organizations identical to German Social-Democracy or Bolshevism; to attempt to recreate these models would be foolish. Conditions have certainly changed, but how they have changed to make the party in general irrelevant is never made clear by those making this claim. A party for today will obviously look different from those of the past, operating under different structures and formalisms. We need organizations that can adapt to the novel circumstances of today. There is no perfect past model for us to mimic, no ideal form of proletarian organization that we can resurrect for todays use. Yet there is also no reason we cannot learn from the whole past of revolutionary organizations, from groups like the early SPD and Bolsheviks, the KAPD, the PCInt and even syndicalist organizations like the old IWW or FORA.

Forming a world party is not the immediate task at hand. First we must develop the “raw material” that can form the basis for such an organization. An organization with membership dominated by a single locale or country cannot declare itself a national or world party in good faith. Such an organization would merely be a sect masquerading as a party. First we must build our local committees and organizations around revolutionary politics. Yet we cannot do this in isolation. It is essential that we stay in contact with other communists around the world, engaging in collective discussion on long-term strategy, coordinating our activities and organizationally centralizing as necessary.