Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought. Georg Lukacs 1924
We have seen that the proletariat’s historical task is both to emancipate itself from all ideological association with other classes and to establish its own class-consciousness on the basis of its unique class position and the consequent independence of its class interests. Only thus will it be capable of leading all the oppressed and exploited elements of bourgeois society in the common struggle against their economic and political oppressors. The objective basis of the leading role of the proletariat is its position within the capitalist process of production. However it would be a mechanistic application of Marxism, and therefore a totally unhistorical illusion, to conclude that a correct proletarian class-consciousness – adequate to the proletariat’s leading role – can gradually develop on its own, without both frictions and setbacks, as though the proletariat could gradually evolve ideologically into the revolutionary vocation appropriate to its class. The Impossibility of the economic evolution of capitalism into socialism was clearly proved by the Bernstein debates. Nevertheless, its ideological counterpart lived on un-contradicted in the minds of many honest European revolutionaries and was, moreover, not even recognized as either a problem or a danger. That is not to say that the best among them completely ignored its existence and importance, that they did not understand that the path to the ultimate victory of the proletariat is long and passes through many defeats, and that not only material setbacks but also ideological regressions are unavoidable on the way. They knew – to quote the words of Rosa Luxemburg – that the proletarian revolution which, because of its social pre-conditions, can no longer happen ‘too early’, must however necessarily happen ‘too early’ as far as the maintenance of power (of ideological power) is concerned. But if, despite this historical perspective of the proletariat’s path of liberation, it is still held that a spontaneous revolutionary self-education of the masses (through mass action and other experiences), supplemented by theoretically sound party agitation and propaganda, is enough to ensure the necessary development, then the idea of the ideological evolution of the proletariat into its revolutionary vocation cannot truly be said to have been overcome.
Lenin was the first and for a long time the only important leader and theoretician who tackled this problem at its theoretical roots and therefore at its decisive, practical point: that of organization.
The dispute over the first clause of the party statute at the Brussels/London Congress in 1903 is by now common knowledge. It turned on whether it was possible to be a member of the party merely by supporting and working under its control (as the Mensheviks wanted), or whether it was essential for members to take part in illegal activity, to devote themselves wholeheartedly to party work, and to submit to the most rigorous party discipline. Other questions of organization – that of centralization, for instance -are only the necessary technical consequences of this latter, Leninist standpoint.
This dispute can also only be understood in relation to the conflict between the two different basic attitudes to the possibility, probable course and character, of the revolution, although only Lenin had seen all these connections at the time.
The Bolshevik concept of party organization involved the selection of a group of single-minded revolutionaries, prepared to make any sacrifice, from the more or less chaotic mass of the class as a whole. But does not the danger then exist that these ‘professional revolutionaries’ will divorce themselves from their actual class environment and, by thus separating themselves, degenerate into a sect? Is this concept of the party not just a practical result of that Blanquism which ‘intelligent’ Revisionists claim to have discovered even in Marx? This is not the place to examine how far this criticism misses its mark even in relation to Blanqui himself. It misses the core of Lenin’s concept of party organization simply because, as Lenin said, the group of professional revolutionaries does not for one moment have the task of either ‘making’ the revolution, or – by their own independent, bold actions – of sweeping the inactive masses along to confront them with a revolutionary fait accompli. Lenin’s concept of party organization presupposes the fact – the actuality – of the revolution. Had the historical predictions of the Mensheviks been correct, had a relatively quiet period of prosperity and of the slow spread of democracy ensued, in which – at least in backward countries – the feudal vestiges of ‘the people’ had been swept aside by the ‘progressive’ classes, the professional revolutionaries would have necessarily remained stranded in sectarianism or become mere propaganda clubs. The party, as the strictly centralized organization of the proletariat’s most conscious elements – and only as such – is conceived as an instrument of class struggle in a revolutionary period. ‘Political questions cannot be mechanically separated from organization questions,’ said Lenin, ‘and anybody who accepts or rejects the Bolshevik party organization independently of whether or not we live at a time of proletarian revolution has completely misunderstood it.’
But the objection could arise, from the diametrically opposite viewpoint, that it is precisely the actuality of the revolution that makes such an organization superfluous. It may have been useful to organize and unite professional revolutionaries when the revolutionary movement was at a standstill. But in the years of the revolution itself, if the masses are deeply stirred, if within weeks – even days – they undergo more revolutionary experiences and become more mature than previously in decades, if even those sections of the class who have hitherto resisted association with the movement even on questions of immediate interest to themselves become revolutionary, then such a party organization is superfluous and meaningless. It wastes needed energies and, if it gains influence, restricts the spontaneous revolutionary creativity of the masses. This objection clearly leads back again to the problem of an evolutionary ideological development into socialism. The Communist Manifesto defines very clearly the relationship between the revolutionary party of the proletariat and the class as a whole. ‘The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: I. In the national struggles of the proletarians of different countries, they point out and bring to the fore the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interest of the movement as a whole. The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all the others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.’ They are – in other words – the tangible embodiment of proletarian class-consciousness. The problem of their organization is determined by their conception of the way in which the proletariat will really gain its own class-consciousness and be itself able to master and fully appropriate it. All who do not unconditionally deny the party’s revolutionary role accept that this does not happen of itself, either through the mechanical evolution of the economic forces of capitalism or through the simple organic growth of mass spontaneity. The difference between Lenin’s party concept and that of others lies primarily, on the one hand, in his deeper and more thorough appreciation of the different economic shadings within the proletariat (the growth of labour aristocracy, etc.) and, on the other, in his vision of the revolutionary cooperation of the proletariat with the other classes in the new historical perspective we have already outlined. From this follows the increased importance of the proletariat in the preparation and leadership of the revolution and, from this in turn, the party’s leadership of the working class.
From this standpoint, the emergence and increasing significance of a labour aristocracy means that the ever-present – relative – divergence between the direct day-today interests of specific working-class groups and those of the real interests of the class as a whole widens and eventually petrifies. Capitalist development, which began by forcibly leveling differences and uniting the working class, divided as it was by locality, guilds, etc., now creates a new form of division. This not only means that the proletariat no longer confronts the bourgeoisie in united hostility. The danger also arises that those very groups are in a position to exercise a reactionary influence over the whole class whose accession to a petty-bourgeois living-standard and occupation of positions in the party or trade union bureaucracy, and sometimes of municipal office, etc., gives them -despite, or rather because, of their increasingly bourgeois outlook and lack of mature proletarian class-consciousness -a superiority in formal education and experience in administration over the rest of the proletariat; in other words, whose influence in proletarian organizations thus tends to obscure the class-consciousness of all workers and leads them towards a tacit alliance with the bourgeoisie.
Theoretical clarity, corresponding agitation and propaganda by conscious revolutionary groups are not enough by themselves against this danger. For these conflicts of interest express themselves in ways which remain concealed from the workers for a long time; so much so that even their own ideological spokesmen sometimes have no idea that they have themselves already forsaken the interests of the class as a whole. Thus, these differences can very easily be hidden from the workers under the rubric of ‘theoretical differences of opinion’ and mere ‘tactical differences’, and the revolutionary instinct of the workers, which explodes from time to time in great spontaneous mass actions, is then unable to preserve such instinctive heights of active class-consciousness as lasting possessions for the class as a whole.
This alone makes the organizational independence of the fully conscious elements of the proletariat indispensable. It is this that demonstrates that the Leninist form of organization is inseparably connected with the ability to foresee the approaching revolution. For only in this context is every deviation from the right path fateful and disastrous for the proletariat; only in this context can a decision on an apparently trivial everyday issue be of profound significance to it; only in this context is it a life-and-death question for the proletariat to have the thoughts and actions which truly correspond to its class situation clearly in front of it. However, the actuality of the revolution also means that the fermentation of society – the collapse of the old framework – far from being limited to the proletariat, involves all classes. Did not Lenin, after all, say that the true indication of a revolutionary situation is ‘when “the lower classes” do not want the old way, and when “the upper classes” cannot carry on in the old way’? ‘The revolution is impossible without a complete national crisis (affecting both exploited and exploiters).’ The deeper the crisis, the better the prospects for the revolution. But also, the deeper the crisis, the more strata of society it involves, the more varied are the instinctive movements which crisscross in it, and the more confused and changeable will be the relationship of forces between the two classes upon whose struggle the whole outcome ultimately depends: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. If the proletariat wants to win this struggle, it must encourage and support every tendency which contributes to the break-up of bourgeois society, and do its utmost to enlist every upsurge – no matter how instinctive or confused – into the revolutionary process as a whole. The approach of a revolutionary period is also heralded by all the dissatisfied elements of the old society seeking to join, or at least to make contact with, the proletariat. But precisely this can bring with it hidden dangers. If the proletarian party is not organized so that the correct and appropriate class policy is assured, these allies – who always multiply in a revolutionary situation – can bring confusion instead of support. For the other oppressed sections of society (peasants, petty-bourgeoisie, and intellectuals) naturally do not strive for the same ends as the proletariat. The working class provided it knows what it wants and what its class interests dictate, can free both itself and these other groups from social bondage. But if the party, the militant representative of proletarian class-consciousness, is uncertain of the direction the class should take, if its proletarian character is not even institutionally safeguarded, then these other groups will stream into it and deflect it from its path. Their alliance, which would have benefited the revolution if the proletarian party had been sure of its class organization, can then instead be the greatest danger to it.
Lenin’s idea of party organization therefore contains as fixed poles: the strictest selection of party members on the basis of their proletarian class-consciousness, and total solidarity with and support for all the oppressed and exploited within capitalist society. Thus he dialectically united exclusive singleness of purpose, and universality – the leadership of the revolution in strictly proletarian terms and its general national (and international) character. The Menshevik concept of party organization weakened both these poles, confused them, reduced them to compromises, and united them within the party itself. The Mensheviks shut themselves off from broad strata of the exploited masses (for example, from the peasants), but united in the party the most diverse interest groups, thus preventing any homogeneity of thought and action. During the chaotic melee of the class struggle – for all revolutionary periods are characterized by the deeply disturbed, chaotic state of society as a whole – instead of helping to establish the proletarian unity against the bourgeoisie so essential for victory, and of rallying other hesitant oppressed groups to the proletariat, a party so organized becomes a confused tangle of different interest groups. Only through inner compromise does it ever manage to take any action and, even then, either follows in the wake of the more clear-minded or more instinctive groups within it, or remains forced to look on fatalistically while events pass it by.
Lenin’s concept of organization therefore means a double break with mechanical fatalism; both with the concept of proletarian class-consciousness as a mechanical product of its class situation, and with the idea that the revolution itself was only the mechanical working out of fatalistically explosive economic forces which – given the sufficient ‘maturity’ of objective revolutionary conditions – would somehow ‘automatically’ lead the proletariat to victory. If events had to be delayed until the proletariat entered the decisive struggle united and clear in its aims, there would never be a revolutionary situation. On the one hand, there will always be proletarian strata who will stand passively by and watch the liberation struggle of their own class, and even cross over to the other side – the more so, the more developed the capitalism. On the other hand, the attitude of the proletariat itself, its determination and degree of class-consciousness, by no means develops with fatalistic inevitability from its economic situation.
Naturally, even the biggest and best party imaginable cannot ‘make’ a revolution. But the way the proletariat reacts to a given situation largely depends on the clarity and energy which the party is able to impart to its class aims. When the revolution is an actuality, the old problem of whether or not it can be ‘made’ thus acquires a completely new meaning. This changed meaning gives rise in turn to a change in the relationship between party and class, to a change in the meaning of organizational problems for party and proletariat as a whole. The old formulation of the question about ‘making’ the revolution is based on an inflexible, undialectical division between historical necessity and the activity of the relevant party. On this level, where ‘making’ the revolution means conjuring it up out of nothing, it must be totally rejected. But the activity of the party in a revolutionary period means something fundamentally different. If the basic character of the times is revolutionary, an acutely revolutionary situation can break out at any moment. The actual time and circumstance are hardly ever exactly determinable. But the tendencies which lead towards it and the principal lines of the correct course of action to be taken when it begins are thereby all the more determinable. The party’s activity is based on this historical understanding. The party must prepare the revolution. In other words, it must on the one hand try to accelerate the maturing of these revolutionary tendencies by its actions (through its influence on the proletariat and other oppressed groups). On the other hand, it must prepare the proletariat for the ideological, tactical, material and organizational tasks that necessarily arise in an acutely revolutionary situation.
This puts the internal problems of party organization in a new perspective as well. Both the old idea – held by Kautsky among others – that organization was the precondition of revolutionary action, and that of Rosa Luxemburg that it is a product of the revolutionary mass movement, appear one-sided and undialectical. Because it is the party’s function to prepare the revolution, it is – simultaneously and equally – both producer and product, both precondition and result of the revolutionary mass movement. For the party’s conscious activity is based on clear recognition of the objective inevitability of the economic process; it’s strict organizational exclusiveness is in constant fruitful interaction with the instinctive struggles and sufferings of the masses. Rosa Luxemburg sometimes came near an appreciation of this element of interaction, but she ignored the conscious and active element in it. That is why she was incapable of understanding the vital point of the Leninist party concept – the party’s preparatory role – and why she was bound grossly to misinterpret all the organizational principles which followed from it. The revolutionary situation itself can naturally not be a product of party activity. The party’s role is to foresee the trajectory of the objective economic forces and to forecast what the appropriate actions of the working class must be in the situation so created. In keeping with this foresight, it must do as much as possible to prepare the proletarian masses intellectually, materially, and organizationally both for what lies ahead and how their interests relate to it. However, the actual events themselves and the situations which subsequently arise from them are a result of the economic forces of capitalist production, working themselves out blindly and according to their own natural laws -though not, even then, with mechanistic fatality. For the example of the economic decay of Russian agrarian feudalism has already shown us how the process of this decay may in itself be an inevitable result of capitalist development. But its effects in class terms – the new class alignments that arise from it – by no means either depend simply on or are therefore determinable only from this development in isolation. They are determined by their environment; in the last analysis, by the destiny of the whole society whose parts constitute this development. But within this totality, both spontaneous-explosive and consciously-led class actions play a decisive role. Moreover, the more disturbed a society is, the more completely its ‘normal’ structure has ceased to function, the more shaken its socio-economic balance – in other words, the more revolutionary the situation – the more decisive their role will be. This means that the total development of society in the era of capitalism by no means follows a simple, straight line. More often situations arise out of a combination of forces within society as a whole, in which a specific tendency can work itself through – provided the situation is correctly recognized and correspondingly evaluated. But if this chance is missed, if the right consequences are not drawn, the development of economic forces which appear to be set on a particular course by no means continues as irrevocably on it but very often changes to its exact opposite. (Imagine the situation in Russia if the Bolsheviks had not seized power in 1917 and completed the agrarian revolution. Under a capitalist regime, counterrevolutionary but modern compared with pre-revolutionary Tsarism, a ‘Prussian’ solution of the agrarian question would not have been wholly inconceivable.)
Only knowledge of the historical context in which the proletarian party has to act can give a real understanding of the problem of party organization, which depends on the immense, world-historical tasks which the period of declining capitalism places before the proletariat – the immense, world-historical responsibility these tasks lay on the shoulders of its conscious leaders. Because the party, on the basis of its knowledge of society in its totality, represents the interests of the whole proletariat (and in doing so mediates the interests of all the oppressed – the future of mankind), it must unite within it all the contradictions in which the tasks that arise from the very heart of this social totality are expressed. We have already emphasized that the strictest selection of party members according to clarity of class-consciousness and unconditional devotion to the cause of the revolution must be combined with their equal ability to merge themselves totally in the lives of the struggling and suffering masses. All efforts to fulfill the first of these demands without its corollary are bound, even where groups of good revolutionaries are concerned, to be paralyzed by sectarianism. (This is the basis of the struggle Lenin led against ‘the Left’, from Otzovism to the KAP and beyond.) For the stringency of the demands made on party members is only a way of making clear to the whole proletariat (and all strata exploited by capitalism) where their true interests lie, and of making them conscious of the true basis of their hitherto unconscious actions, vague ideology and confused feelings.
But the masses can only learn through action; they can only become aware of their interests through struggle – a struggle whose socio-economic basis is constantly changing and in which the conditions and the weapons therefore also constantly change. The vanguard party of the proletariat can only fulfill its destiny in this conflict if it is always a step in front of the struggling masses, to show them the way. But only one step in front so that it always remains leader of their struggle. Its theoretical clarity is therefore only valuable if it does not stop at a general – merely theoretical -level, but always culminates in the concrete analysis of a concrete situation; in other words, if its theoretical correctness always only expresses the sense of the concrete situation. The party therefore must, on the one hand, have sufficient theoretical clarity and firmness to stay on the right course despite all the hesitations of the masses, even at the risk of temporary isolation. On the other hand, it must be so flexible and capable of learning from them that it can single out from every manifestation of the masses, however confused, the revolutionary possibilities of which they have themselves remained unconscious.
This degree of adjustment to the life of the masses is impossible without the strictest party discipline. If the party is not capable of immediately adjusting its interpretation to the ever-changing situation, it lags behind, follows instead of leads, loses contact with the masses and disintegrates. Party organization must therefore be of the utmost severity and rigour in order to put its ability to adjust into practice immediately, if necessary. At the same time, however, this means that the demand for flexibility must also be continuously applied to the party organization itself. A particular form of organization, useful in particular circumstances for particular purposes, can be an actual hindrance when the conditions of struggle change.
For it is of the essence of history always to create the new, which cannot be forecast by any infallible theory. It is through struggle that the new element must be recognized and consciously brought to light from its first embryonic appearance. In no sense is it the party’s role to impose any kind of abstract, cleverly devised tactics upon the masses. On the contrary, it must continuously learn from their struggle and their conduct of it. But it must remain active while it learns, preparing the next revolutionary undertaking. It must unite the spontaneous discoveries of the masses, which originate in their correct class instincts, with the totality of the revolutionary struggle, and bring them to consciousness. In Marx’s words, it must explain their own actions to the masses, so as not only to preserve the continuity of the proletariat’s revolutionary experiences, but also consciously and actively to contribute to their further development. The party organization must adapt itself to become an instrument both of this totality and of the actions which result from it. If it fails to do this it will sabotage developments which it has not understood and therefore not mastered. Therefore, all dogmatism in theory and all sclerosis in organization are disastrous for the party. For as Lenin said: ‘Every new form of struggle which brings new perils and sacrifices inevitably “disorganizes” an organization ill-prepared for the new form of struggle. It is the party’s task to pursue its necessary path openly and consciously – above all in relation to itself – so that it may transform itself before the danger of disorganization becomes acute, and by this transformation promote the transformation and advance of the masses.’
For tactics and organization are only two sides of an indivisible whole. Real results can only be achieved in both at once. For this to happen, the party must be consistent and flexible in adhering stubbornly to its principles and simultaneously holding itself open to each new daily development. Neither tactically nor organizationally can anything be either good or bad in itself. Only its relation to the whole, to the fate of the proletarian revolution, makes a thought, a policy decision, etc., right or wrong. That is why, for example, after the First Russian Revolution of 190’, Lenin fought relentlessly both against those who wanted to abandon an allegedly useless and sectarian illegality and those who devoted themselves unreservedly to it, rejecting the possibilities available to them under legality; why he had the same angry contempt both for surrender to parliamentarianism and for principled anti-parliamentarianism.
Lenin not only ever became a political Utopian; he also never had any illusions about the human material around him. ‘We want,’ he said in the first heroic period of the victorious proletarian revolution, ‘to build socialism with people who, reared as they were under capitalism, have been distorted and corrupted, but also steeled for battle, by it.’ The immense demands which Lenin’s concept of party organization made upon professional revolutionaries were not in themselves Utopian, nor did they naturally have much connection with the superficiality of ordinary life. They were not concerned with the immediate facts; they went beyond mere empiricism. Lenin’s concept of organization is in itself dialectical: it is both a product of and a conscious contributor to, historical development in so far as it, too, is simultaneously product and producer of itself Men themselves build a party. A high degree of class-consciousness and devotion is required in order to want and to be capable of working in a party organization at all. However, only by being so organized and by working through a party can men become real professional revolutionaries. The individual Jacobin who joins the revolutionary class can shape and clarify its actions through his determination, militancy, knowledge, and enthusiasm. But the social existence of the class and its resulting class-consciousness must always determine the content and trajectory of his actions, which are not undertaken by him on behalf of the class but are the culmination of class activity itself.
The party called upon to lead the proletarian revolution is not born ready-made into its leading role: it, too, is not but is becoming. And the process of fruitful interaction between party and class repeats itself – albeit differently -in the relationship between the party and its members. For as Marx said in his theses on Feuerbach: ‘The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and education forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated.’ The Leninist party concept represents the most radical break with the mechanistic and fatalistic vulgarization of Marxism. It is, on the contrary, the practical realization both of its genuine essence and its deepest intent: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point, however, is to change it.’