Paul Mattick 1938

The Masses & The Vanguard

Source: Kurasje Archive;
First Published: in Living Marxism vol. 4, no. 4 August 1938 and reprinted in Red & Black Notes #6 and #7;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden, for 2003;
Proofed: and corrected by Geoff Traugh, July 2005.

Economic and political changes proceed with bewildering rapidity since the close of the world war. The old conceptions in the labour movement have become faulty and inadequate and the working class organizations present a scene of indecision and confusion.

In view of the changing economic and political situation it seems that thorough reappraisement of the task of the working class becomes necessary in order to find the forms of struggle and organization most needful and effective.

The relation of “the party,” “organization” or “vanguard” to the masses plays a large part in contemporary working class discussion. That the importance and indispensability of the vanguard or party is overemphasized in working class circles is not surprising, since the whole history and tradition of the movement tends in that direction.

The labour movement today is the fruit of economic and political developments that found first expression in the Chartist movement in England (1838-1848), the subsequent development of trade unions from the fifties onward, and in the Lasallean movement in Germany in the sixties. Corresponding to the degree of capitalist development trade unions and political parties developed in the other countries of Europe and America.

The overthrow of feudalism and the needs of capitalist industry in themselves necessitated the marshaling of the proletariat and the granting of certain democratic privileges by the capitalists. The latter had been reorganizing society in line with their needs. The political structure of feudalism was replaced by capitalist parliamentarianism. The capitalist state, the instrument for administering the joint affairs of the capitalist class, was established and adjusted to the needs of the new class.

The bothersome proletariat whose assistance against the feudal forces had been necessary now had to be reckoned with. Once called into action it could not be entirely eliminated as a political factor. But it could be coordinated. And this was done – partly consciously with cunning and partly by the very dynamics of capitalist economy – as the working class adjusted itself and submitted to the new order. It organized unions whose limited objectives (better wages and conditions) could be realized in an expanding capitalist economy. It played the game of capitalist politics within the capitalist state (the practices and forms of which were determined primarily by capitalist needs) and within these limitations, achieved apparent successes.

But thereby the proletariat adopted capitalist forms of organization and capitalist ideologies. The parties of the workers, like those of the capitalists became limited corporations, the elemental needs of the class were subordinated to political expediency. Revolutionary objectives were displaced by horse-trading and manipulations for political positions. The party became all-important, its immediate objectives superseded those of the class. Where revolutionary situations set into motion the class, whose tendency is to fight for the realization of the revolutionary objective, the parties of the workers “represented” the working class and were themselves “represented” by parliamentarians whose very position in parliament constituted resignation to their status as bargainers within a capitalist order whose supremacy was no longer challenged.

The general coordination of workers’ organizations to capitalism saw the adoption of the same specialization in union and party activities that challenged the hierarchy of industries. Managers, superintendent and foremen saw their counterparts in presidents, organizers and secretaries of labour organizations. Boards of directors, executive committees, etc. The mass of organized workers like the mass of wage slaves in industry left the work of direction and control to their betters.

This emasculation of workers’ initiatives proceeded rapidly as capitalism extended its sway. Until the world war put an end to further peaceful and “orderly” capitalist expansion.

The risings in Russia, Hungary and Germany found a resurgence of mass action and initiative. The social necessities compelled action by the masses. But the traditions of the old labour movement in Western Europe and the economic backwardness of Eastern Europe frustrated fulfillment of labour’s historic mission. Western Europe saw the masses defeated and the rise of fascism Mussolini and Hitler, while Russia’s backward economy developed the “communism” in which the differentiation between class and vanguard, the specialization of functions and the regimentation of labour reached its highest point.

The leadership principle, the idea of the vanguard that must assume responsibility for the proletarian revolution is based on the pre-war conception of the labour movement, is unsound. The tasks of the revolutionary and the communist reorganization of society cannot be realized without the widest and fullest action of the masses themselves. Theirs is the task and the solution thereof.

The decline of capitalist economy, the progressive paralysis, the instability, the mass unemployment, the wage cuts and intensive pauperization of the workers – all of these compel action, in spite of fascism Hitler or the disguised fascism of the AF of L.

The old organizations are either destroyed or voluntarily reduced to impotence. Real action now is possible only outside the old organizations. In Italy, Germany and Russia the White and Red fascisms have already destroyed all old organizations and placed the workers directly before the problem of finding the new forms of struggle. In England, France and America the old organizations still maintain a degree of illusion among workers, but their successive surrender to the forces of reaction is undermining them rapidly.

The principles of independent struggle, solidarity and communism are being forced upon them in the actual class struggle. With this powerful trend toward mass consolidation and mass action the theory of regrouping and realigning the militant organizations seems to be outdated. True regroupment is essential, but it cannot be a mere merger of the existing organizations. In the new conditions a revision of fighting forms is necessary. “First clarity – then unity.” Even small groups recognizing and urging the principles of independent mass movement are far more significant than large groups that deprecate the power of the masses.

There are groups that perceive the defects and weaknesses of parties. They often furnish sound criticism of the popular front combination and the unions. But their criticism is limited. They lack a comprehensive understanding of the new society. The tasks of the proletariat are not completed with seizure of the means of production and the abolition of private property. The questions of social reorganization must be put and answered. Shall state socialism be rejected? What shall be the basis of a society without wage slavery? What shall determine the economic relations between factories? What shall determine the relations between producers and their total product?

These questions and their answers are essential for an understanding of the forms of struggle and organization today. Here the conflict between the leadership principle and the principle of independent mass action becomes apparent. For a thorough understanding of these questions leads to the realization that the widest, all-embracing, direct activity of the proletariat as a class is necessary to realize communism.

Of first importance is the abolition of the wage system. The will and good wishes of men are not potent enough to retain this system after revolution (as in Russia) without eventually surrendering to the dynamics engendered by it. It is not enough to seize the means of production and abolish private property. It is necessary to abolish the basic condition of modern exploitation, wage slavery, and that act brings on the succeeding measures of reorganization that would never be invoked without the first step. Groups that do not put these questions, no matter how sound their criticism otherwise, lack the most important elements in the formation of sound revolutionary policy. The abolition of the wages system must be carefully investigated in its relation to politics and economics. We will here take up some of the political implications.

First is the question of the seizure of power by the workers. The principle of the masses (not party or vanguard) retaining power must be emphasized. Communism cannot be introduced or realized by a party. Only the proletariat as a whole can do that. Communism means that the workers have taken their destiny into their own hands; that they have abolished wages; that they have, with the suppression of the bureaucratic apparatus, combined the legislative and executive powers. The unity of the workers lies not in the sacrosanct merger of parties or trade unions, but in the similarity of their needs and in the expression of needs in mass action. All the problems of the workers must therefore be viewed in relation to the developing self-action of the masses.

To say that the non-combative spirit of the political parties is due to the malice or reformism of the leaders is wrong. The political parties are impotent. They will do nothing, because they can do nothing. Because of its economic weakness, capitalism has organized for suppression and terror and is at present politically very strong, for it is forced to exert all its effort to maintain itself. The accumulation of capital, enormous throughout the world, has shrunk the yield of profit – a fact which, in the external policies, manifests itself through the contradictions between nations; and in internal policies, through “devaluation” and the attendant partial expropriation of the middle class and the lowering of the subsistence level of the workers; and in general by the centralization of the power of big capital units in the hands of the state. Against this centralized power little movements can to nothing.

The masses alone can combat it, for only they can destroy the power of the state and become a political force. For that reason the fight based on the craft organizations becomes objectively obsolete, and the large mass movements, unrestricted by the limitations of such organizations, must necessarily replace them.

Such is the new situation facing workers. But from it springs an actual weakness. Since the old method of struggle by means of elections and limited trade union activity has become quite futile, a new method, it is true, has instinctively developed, but that method has not yet been conscientiously, and therefore not effectively, applied. Where their parties and unions are impotent, the masses already begin to express their militancy through wildcat strikes. In America, England, France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Poland – wildcat strikes develop, and through them the masses present ample proof that their old organizations are no longer fit for struggle. The wildcat strikes are not, however, disorganized, as the name implies. They are denounced as such by union bureaucrats, because they are strikes formed outside the official organizations. The strikers themselves organize the strike, for it is an old truth that only as an organized mass can workers struggle and conquer. They form picket lines, provide for the repulsion of strike-breakers, organize strike relief, create relations with other factories. – In a word, they themselves assume the leadership of their own strike, and they organize it on a factory basis.

It is in these very movements that the strikers find their unity of struggle. It is then that they take their destiny into their own hands and unite “the legislative and executive power” by eliminating unions and parties, as illustrated by several strikes in Belgium and Holland.

But independent class action is still weak. That the strikers, instead of continuing their independent action toward widening their movement, call upon the unions to join them, is an indication that under existing conditions their movement cannot grow larger, and for that reason cannot yet become a political force capable of fighting concentrated capital. But it is a beginning.

Occasionally though, the independent struggle takes a big leap forward, as with the Asturian miners’ strikes in 1934, the Belgium miners in 1935, the strikes in France, Belgium and America in 1936, and the Catalonian revolution in 1936. These outbreaks are evidence that a new social force is surging among the workers, is finding workers’ leadership, is subjecting social institutions to the masses, and is already on the march.

Strikes are no longer mere interruptions in profit-making or simple economic disturbances. The independent strike derives its significance from the action of workers as an organized class. With a system of factory committees and workers’ councils extending over wide areas the proletariat creates the organs which regulate production, distribution, and all the other functions of social life. In other words, the civil administrative apparatus is deprived of all power, and the proletarian dictatorship establishes itself. Thus, class organization in the very struggle for power is at the same time organization, control, and management of the productive forces of the entire society. It is the basis of the association of free and equal producers, and consumers. This, then, is the danger that the independent class movement presents to the capitalist society. Wildcat strikes, though apparently of little importance whether on a small or large scale, are embryonic communism. A small wildcat strike, directed as it is by workers and in the interest of workers, illustrates on a small scale the character of the future proletarian power.

A regrouping of militants must be actuated by the knowledge that the conditions of struggle make it necessary to unite the “legislative and executive powers” in the hands of the factory workers. They must not compromise on this position: All power to the committees of action and the workers’ councils. This is the class front. This is the road to communism. To render workers conscious of the unity of organizational forms of struggle, of class dictatorship, and of the economic frame of communism, with its abolition of wages – is the task of the militants.

The militants who call themselves the “Vanguard” have today the same weakness that characterizes the masses at present. They still believe that the unions or the one or the other party must direct the class struggle, though with revolutionary methods. But if it be true that decisive struggles are nearing, it is not enough to state that the labour leaders are traitors. It is necessary, especially for today, to formulate a plan for the formation of the class front and the forms of its organizations. To this end the control of parties and unions must be unconditionally fought. This is the crucial point in the struggle for power.