First Published: Revolution, vol. 4, No. 1, August 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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Since the formation of the Bolshevik Party there has been sharp struggle over the question of factory cells and the organisational forms of Communist Parties. This question and its implementation was one aspect of the spilt between Bolshevism and Menshevism. It remains a clear line of demarcation between Bolshevism and opportunism – between revolutionary and social democratic methods of organisation.
The Mensheviks attempted to introduce an open-ended organisational structure in which virtually anyone who called himself a member would be considered one. Had this been allowed to develop it would have destroyed the Party as the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat and opened the doors wide to the gross opportunism and degeneration of the parties of the Second International. In One Step Forward-Two Steps Back, Lenin stated: “The matter therefore reduces itself either to the consistent application of the principle of organisation, or the sanctification of disunity and anarchy.”
Stated broadly the question is whether a Communist Party should be primarily organised on “territory” – the place of residence or in factory cells – the place of work. The social democratic and revisionist parties are organised at the place of residence because this is the most suitable structure for fighting elections. It is the easiest way of organising people for this task. This organisational form based on territory, usually in electoral districts, reflects a revisionist line on the nature of the state. It places the struggle for parliamentary seats above the necessity of organising the class conscious workers in the vanguard party.
In sharp contrast the Bolshevik Party was based in factories. They fought elections from these bases and no special organisational forms, based on territory were developed for this purpose. The organisational structure of a Party is directly related to its goals and this is the link between political line and organisation.
With the formation of Communist Parties throughout the world after the Bolshevik revolution the question of organisational form was again on the agenda. The Comintern fought unsuccessfully to have the Bolshevik form of party structure, based in the factories, established in the newly formed parties. It is in the Western type of “legal” parties that this failure is most clearly revealed although it occurred – throughout the world. The parties in the major imperialist countries never made a break with social democratic methods of organisation. This failure is an important aspect of the degeneration of these parties to revisionism.
Despite the hard struggles of Marxist-Leninists within the parties, they remained primarily based in the communities. Where they were involved in factory work they were, more often than not, linked to the labour aristocracy and the trade union bureaucracy.
The Comintern laid the blame for the failure of the revolution in Germany in 1923 “not only to the absence of a truly revolutionary leadership, but also to the absence of extensive and firm connections with the workers in the factories.” The structure of the party meant that it did not and could not know what the workers were feeling or thinking. It was not organised in a consistent and all round way for a fight with the bourgeoisie. In short, it was incapable of leading the proletariat to victory! These lessons went unlearnt and in 1931 the German Party had 6,196 street cells and only 1,983 factory cells. Many of the factory cells existed on paper only.
In France the so-called “factory cells” often had only 1 to 2 members working in a factory and 12 to 16 members outside it! The struggles in the factory must have been abstract and uninteresting to the majority of cell members.
Despite an intense struggle and campaign during the period 1925 to 1929, the CPUSA failed to base itself in the factories. The Central Committee revealed that in 1930 “less than 10% of the Party membership is organised into factory nuclei.” While publicly taking the correct stand of the Comintern they were unable to change their organisational structure. The following lines from The Communist Party – A Manual on Organisation published in the USA in 1935 reveal more than was intended. “The Street Unit must not adopt a patronising attitude towards the Shop Unit. It cannot make any decisions for the factory Unit. It must help from outside in a manner determined by the Shop Unit”. By the late 1930’s the openly revisionist line of Browder led to an attack on the “factory concentrations, and shop papers and trade union factories were liquidated”. But Browders influence spread far beyond the borders of the USA.
The history of the Communist Party of Great Britain reveals a similar pattern of development. As with many of the parties of the major imperialist powers, where it was involved in factory and trade union work it became tied to the labour aristocracy and trade union bureaucracy. At the 1935 Party conference out of 294 delegates 234 were trade unionists; 7 held national official positions, 27 in district positions; 82 branch positions, 9 were executive members of Trades Councils and 29 Trades Council delegates. In appearance it seems that the Party was widening its base and influence in the proletariat. In reality they became increasingly cut off from the masses. The leadership of the Party was in a constant environment of trade union politics which pull towards social democracy and away from Marxism-Leninism. They were cut off from the day to day, painstaking work of winning the workers to communism. The emphasis was on winning positions within the trade union structure rather than digging deep roots in the working class and preparing the workers for revolution. The CPGB was still a revolutionary party but the seeds of degeneration were being sown. The fruits were reaped in 1945 when the Executive Committee disbanded the Factory Branches for a period of time. McCreery pointed out in the early 1960s that only 1 member in 9, in the London District, was organised at his or her place of work. The continuance of social-democratic methods of work and organisation throughout the history of the CPGB have played an important role in bringing it to its present position. An utterly revisionist party and the most dangerous enemy within the working class movement!
The greatest emphasis politically, organisationally and numerically must lie with the creation of factory cells. However this does not mean that there is no important role for street cells. They can organise unemployed workers and housewives for support work for the factory cells and for work in the community. They can perform as the basis for self-defence against attacks from the fascists and the police, especially in areas where there are concentrations of national minorities. Street cells can lead struggles against the eviction of workers from their homes and organise rent strikes.
In the community they can aid the struggles for the preservation and improvement of hospitals, day-care centres and similar projects in working-class areas.
But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class –the proletarians. (Manifesto of the Communist Party)
At the present stage the contradiction between capital and labour is primarily focused in the factories. Marx stated; “In this struggle – a veritable civil war –all the elements for a coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this association takes on a political character”. In order to develop and lead this “civil war”, to raise the consciousness of the workers, to ensure that workers move away from bourgeois trade union politics and towards revolutionary socialist politics, communists must be organised and organising where the struggle takes place – on the shop floor. It is here that the workers meet their enemy or his lackeys face to face and the contradiction is sharp and clear. Communists can provide the direct link between the economic struggle and the political struggle.
Cadres can win the respect and support of the workers as strong class fighters while increasingly raising their consciousness of the wider issues and tasks facing the proletariat. At the same time cadres can learn from the vast and rich experience of the masses and temper themselves in struggle. Through the course of these battles we will win leadership away from the opportunist misleaders and smash what hold revisionism has on the working class. In other words it is at the point of production we can best wage class struggle.
None of this will occur if our links with the masses are only “paper” ones. If our only contact with the workers is through the distribution of leaflets, posters or sales of Class Struggle we will not accomplish our goal. We must forge deep roots in the masses, a living revolutionary link that will become an unbreakable bond. This will ensure we know what the workers are feeling and thinking. We will be able, as workmates and friends to discuss the day to day and long term aspects of the struggles against the bosses. Through this process, combined with a fighting class stand and analysis we can win the advanced workers to communism and the League, giving it deep roots in the proletariat.
Throughout this process we will continually and increasingly come into conflict with the opportunist misleaders. They must be exposed nationally in our paper and directly by exposing and defeating them on the shop floor. As the class struggle sharpens their fear of the masses and their struggles will become increasingly obvious as will their attempts to contain, direct sellout and destroy the workers’ fight against the bosses. Only if we are there to challenge them face to face, to make proposals and take actions that clearly reflect the interests of the workers will we be able to thoroughly smash their hold on the proletariat. Factory cells will ensure that step by step, we can turn the unions into fighting class organisations.
The existence of a revolutionary communist organisation is a declaration of war on the bourgeoisie and they will never regard it as “legal” The cell structure and in particular factory cells are the best method of organisation. They ensure that while the attacks of the bourgeoisie may damage a section of the organisation they can never destroy it! It is our duty to defend the interests of the masses and it is the masses that are our best defence.
Having cells organised in key areas of industry will be of obvious importance during economic and political struggles and especially in potentially revolutionary situations. This will bring the full strength of the proletariat to bear for the assault on the bourgeoisie. Factory cells are the organisational base for the proletariats’ armed struggle against the capitalist class. All the above aspects of factory cells combine for this goal – the armed overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. As Lenin said:
The main strength of our movement lies in the workers organisations in large factories, because in the large factories are concentrated that section of the working class which is not only predominant in numbers, but still more predominant in influence, development and fighting capacities. Every factory must be our stronghold.
1. The Bolshevization of the Communist Parties By Eradicating the Social Democratic Traditions O. Piatnisky (Communist International Publication 1934)
2. Building the Factory Cell Revolution Vol.3, No.l
3. The Way Forward M. McCreery.
4. The Communist Party – A Manual On Organisation J. Peters.