C. L. R. James 1963

Lenin and the Vanguard Party

Source: Controversy, Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring 1963;
Transcribed: by Damon Maxwell.

Next year is the 400th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare. It is also the 40th anniversary of the death of Lenin. Will there be any controversy about either of them in the British Labour movement? As far as I can judge not a thing. Tired repetition or routine rehashing of old doctrines is not controversy. If even you are debating two pages of Roman history, controversy is always about what is contemporary. You haven’t got to prove this. It either is so, or is not. For example:

The theory and practice of the vanguard party, of the one-party state, is not (repeat not) the central doctrine of Leninism. It is not the central doctrine, it is not even a special doctrine. It is not and it never was. In forty years it would be as easy to prove (and be equally wrong) that the United States of Europe had always been the central doctrine, or became a special doctrine, of the Tory party.

Bolshevism, Leninism, did have central doctrines. One was theoretical, the inevitable collapse of capitalism into barbarism. Another was social, that on account of its place in society, its training and its numbers, only the working class could prevent this degradation and reconstruct society. Political action consisted in organising a party to carry out these aims. These were the central principles of Bolshevism. The rigidity of its political organisation came not from the dictatorial brain of Lenin but from a less distinguished source – the Tsarist police state. Until the revolution actually began in March 1917, the future that Lenin foresaw and worked for was the establishment of parliamentary democracy in Russia on the British and German models. His party would be an opposition party in a parliament which, he calculated, would be dominated by bourgeois politicians. The anti-Leninists, in reality they are anti-Marxists, can attribute all sorts of psychological impulses or needs to Lenin. All fiction. Bolshevism until 1917 might agree with Kautsky against Bernstein but it accepted in every kind of state, even the Soviet state, not only the co-existence of labour, but of bourgeois political parties. On this Lenin never altered his view. Where he differed from the parliamentary democrats was in his certainty that in Russia parliamentary democracy would be achieved only by revolution. Bolshevism looked forward to a regime of parliamentary democracy because this was the doctrine of classical Marxism: that it was through parliamentary democracy that the working class and the whole population (I say the whole population) was educated and trained for the transition to socialism.

Bolshevism, however, believed that the overthrow of Tsarism was not a mere matter of overthrowing a government. Russia needed also to abolish landlordism and to abolish the oppression of the nationalities. These tasks the revolution and only the revolution could accomplish.

The Soviets

What upset the scheme was the cyclonic intervention into these important matters of the proletariat and the peasantry (organised in the army). They rapidly organised themselves into Soviets. People who continue to place the responsibility for the one-party totalitarian state on Lenin’s dictatorial brain are opening themselves wide to devastating queries as to what exactly do they mean by democracy? The revolutionaries and the reactionaries in Russia of 1917 did not indulge in any constitutional or logical metaphysics. The Bolsheviks saw that if they wasted to any out any programme at all power had to go to the Soviets. The anti-Bolsheviks knew what this would mean and laid all their stress on the Constitutional Assembly and other parliamentary procedures. It was as simple as that: where would the power be? I do not propose to enter into the rights and wrongs of what happened: in Europe, after the experiences of 1917-1963 we ought to know. What I want to establish without a shadow of doubt is that Lenin never had as a central thesis of Marxism the establishment of the one party state. His central concern was never the party. So as to facilitate controversy I want to repeat, central to his ideas was never the party, never, never, never. It was the proletariat and the work he believed it and it alone could do. He believed that the Soviet state opened out immense new opportunities for the immense new responsibilities placed on the proletariat. That was and is the central doctrine of Leninism. And to this his ideas and activities about the party were strictly subordinate. Let us get that clear.

Eighth Party Congress

Lenin never babbled and he was particularly careful of his words at Party conferences and more particularly in relation to programmes. How many people I would like to know have ever seen, far less meditated on his address to the Eighth Party Congress in 1917?

First, Lenin’s belief in the Soviet.

“Nobody will deny that in the matter of true, not paper, democracy, in the matter of enlisting the workers and peasants, we have done more than has been done or could be done by the best of the democratic republics in hundreds of years. It was this that determined the importance of the Soviets, it was owing to this that the Soviets have become a slogan for the proletariat of all countries.”

He then shows how subordinate a position the political party holds not only in his theory but m his practice and his recommendations.

“But this in no way saves us from the fact that we are up against the inadequate culture of the masses. We do not regard the question of disfranchising the bourgeoisie from an absolute point of view, because it is theoretically quite conceivable that the dictatorship of the proletariat may suppress the bourgeoisie on every hand without disfranchising the bourgeoisie. This is theoretically quite conceivable. Nor do we advance our constitution as a model for other countries. All we say is that whoever conceives the transition to socialism without the suppression of the bourgeoisie is not a Socialist. But while it is essential to suppress the bourgeoisie as a class, it is not essential to deprive them of the suffrage and of equality, We do not want freedom for the bourgeoisie, we do not recognise equality of exploiters and exploited, but in the programme we treat this question from the standpoint that measures such as the inequality of workers and peasants are by no means prescribed by the constitution. They were embodied in the constitution after they were already in actual practice.”

His talk of suppression of the bourgeoisie refers only to capitalist ownership of the commanding heights of the means of production, and there is ample proof that in regard to this, in Russia, he was the most cautious of men.

Above all Lenin was guided by the actions of masses of people.

“It was not even the Bolsheviks who worked out the constitution of the Soviets; it was worked out against themselves by the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries before the Bolshevik revolution. They worked it out in the way it had been worked out in practice. The organization of the proletariat proceeded much more rapidly than the organization of the peasantry, which fact made the workers the bulwark of the revolution and gave them a virtual privilege. The next task is gradually to pass from these privileges to their equalisation. Nobody drove the bourgeoisie out of the Soviets before the October Revolution and after the Bolshevik revolution. The bourgeoisie themselves left the Soviets

Similar thinking can be found on almost every page of his writings and speeches. But the Menshevik historians and the parliamentary democrats are waiting with their megaphones, Lenin, they thunder. suppressed the Constituent Assembly; Lenin at the first Congress of the Communist International in 1919 laid down the principles of the vanguard party and these led straight to...

Pardon me, gentlemen, I admit that Lenin’s doctrines were very new and very difficult.

Not only were they misused by a barbarian like Stalin (applause from Khrushchev), They were never completely grasped, never at any time, by Trotsky (louder applause by Khrushchev), But there is no excuse for not understanding them today (stormy applause from Khrushchev and all who support him, including the party propagandists. 1963).

I repeat; there is no excuse today for babbling nonsense about Leninism, the Vanguard Party and the totalitarian state. In 1917 the Bolshevik Party consisted, I believe, of 78,000 members. And the majority of them were not very good Bolsheviks, not even good proletarians. In a population of over 150 million what else could they be but a vanguard ? Lenin saw that and drew the conclusions. In 1945 in Italy the Communist Party had over three million members. It completely controlled the organised trade union movement, In France the situation was not too different, and for a time the French Communist newspaper, L’Humanité, was the most widely sold daily newspaper in France.

Continuing the Slander

To believe that Bolshevism, or to be more precise, Leninism, would under the circumstances advocate or preach the theory of the vanguard party is to continue slander of Leninism, but not to his theory of the party (that is no longer viable) but to his central doctrine – the role o| the proletariat in the preservation of society from barbarism. To interpret Leninism as the advocacy of a vanguard party of three million is nearly as bad as the doctrine of Goebbels that Christ was not a Jew. Objective circumstances in Russia forced Lenin into a certain position. He accepted it without apologising for it. He knew what he was doing and he knew also, for he said it many times, what be was not doing. His doubts about it, not only for other countries but for Russia, he made public many, many times. What is really happening is not a mistake, no such thing. This falsification of Leninism is a weapon of the West against the East and a weapon of Khrushchev-Stalin against Russians and satellites.

Next year Lenin will have been dead forty years. What he stood for has almost vanished, Imagine what has happened to poor Shakespeare in ten times as many years. What has this to do with political controversy and Lenin? Simply this. Who should govern, what he should aim at, what philosophy of society he should adopt, what should be a political leader’s personal philosophy in a time of revolution, who are the political types he is likely to meet, on all this and the exposition of it, Shakespeare stands second to none, neither to Aristotle, to Rousseau nor to Marx. He is surprisingly close to Lenin. The labour movement could do worse tan initiate controversy on this and similar subjects. It will begin to relearn why it exists.