Paul Mattick 1941

Pannekoek’s “The Party and the Working Class”

Source: Paul Mattick Home page;
Proofed: and corrected by Geoff Traugh, August 2005.

Our custom of omitting names has led to a misunderstanding. The article, “The Party and the Working Class,” which, after it had appeared in Council Correspondence, was reprinted by the APCF and discussed in Solidarity (Nos. 34-36) by Frank Maitland, was written by Anton Pannekoek. The latter is at present in no position to answer Maitland’s critique. Being in some way responsible for the contents of Council Correspondence, I will try to answer some of Maitland’s questions.

The problems raised cannot be approached in an abstract manner and in general terms, but only specifically in regard to concrete historical situations. When Pannekoek said that the “belief in parties” is the main reason for the impotence of the working class, he spoke of parties as they have actually existed. It is obvious that they have not served the working class, nor have they been a tool for ending class rule. In Russia the party became a new ruling and exploiting institution. In Western Europe, parties have been abolished by fascism and have thus proved themselves incapable either of emancipating the workers or of raising themselves into power positions. (The fascist parties cannot be regarded as instruments designed to end the exploitation of labour). In America parties serve not the workers but the capitalists. Parties have fulfilled all sorts of functions, but none connected with the real needs of the workers.

Maitland does not question these facts. Like the Christians who reject criticism with the argument that Christianity has never been tried in earnest, Maitland argues that “the problem is not one of party or no party, but of what kind of party.” Even if it is true that hitherto all parties have failed, he thinks that that does not prove that a new party, his “conception of the party,” will also fail. It is clear that a “conception of a party” cannot fail merely because real parties have failed. But then “conceptions” do not matter. The party of which he speaks does not exist. His arguments have to be proven in practice; but there is no such practice. All parties that have thus far functioned started out with Maitland’s conception of what a party ought to be. This did not hinder them from violating this conception throughout their history.

The party “Lenin strove to create,” for instance, and the party he actually created were two different things because Lenin and his party were only parts of history; they could not force history into their own conceptions. There are other forces in society besides conceptions that shape events. Maitland may be right in saying that the “present debacle of the Comintern does not show that Lenin’s conception of the party was incorrect,” but the debacle certainly shows that, independent of his conception, the party was indeed “incorrect” if measured by Maitland’s ideas and the needs of the international working class.

The party, Maitland maintains, “is a historic creation, which cannot be thrown aside.” Unfortunately that was true in the past history has also shown, however, that parties were not what they were supposed to be. They are the historic creation of liberal capitalism and within this particular setting they served – for a time – the needs of the workers, but only incidentally. They were chiefly involved in building up the group interest and social influence of the party. They became capitalistic institutions, participating in the exploitation of labour and fighting with other capitalistic groups for the control of power positions. Because of general crisis conditions, the concentration of capital, and the centralisation of political power, the state apparatus became the most important social power centre. A party that got control over the state – either legally or illegally – could transform itself into a new ruling class. This is what parties did or tried to do. Wherever the party succeeded, it did not serve the workers. Just the opposite occurred: the workers served the party. Capitalism, too, is a “historic creation.” If the “party cannot be thrown aside because it is a historic creation,” how is Maitland going to abolish capitalism now that it is identical with the one-party state? In reality both must be “thrown aside”; to end capitalism today implies the ending of the party.

For Maitland “the party should be the material apparatus for integrating the conscious minority and the unconscious mass.” The mass is “unconscious,” however, for the same reason that it is powerless. The “conscious” minority could not alter the one situation without changing the other. It cannot bring “consciousness” to the masses unless it brings them power. If the consciousness and the power depend on the party, the whole class struggle question takes on a religious character. If the people that constitute the party are “good” people, they will gives the masses power and consciousness; if they are “bad” people they will withhold both. There is no question of “integration” involved here, but only a question of “ethics.” Thus we may trust not only in abstract conceptions as to what a party ought to be but also in the good will of men. In brief, we must trust our leaders. What parties can give, however, they can also take away. Under conditions as they are, the “consciousness” of the minority is either meaningless, or it is connected with a power position in society. To increase “consciousness is thus to increase the power of the group that incorporates it. There arises no “integration” between “leaders” and “led”; instead, the existing gap between them widens continuously. The conscious group defends its position as a conscious group; it can defend this position only against the “unconscious” mass. The “integration” of the conscious minority and the unconscious mass is only a pleasanter-sounding description of the exploitation of the many by the few.

The fact that Maitland sees the party as the “material instrument” that co-ordinates thought and action reveals that his mind is still in the past. That is why he advocates the party of the future. The material apparatus (meetings, newspapers, books, cinema, radio, etc) of which he speaks has meanwhile ceased to be at the disposal of such parties as Maitland has in mind. The stage of capitalistic development in which parties could grow up like any other business concern and utilise the instruments of propaganda to their own advantage has ended. In present-day society, the development of labour organisations can no longer follow traditional paths. A party that “develops class consciousness in the masses” can no longer arise. The propaganda means are centralised and at the exclusive service of the ruling class or party. They cannot be used to unseat them. If the workers are not able to develop methods of struggle beyond the control of the ruling groups, they will not be able to emancipate themselves. A party is no weapon against the ruling classes; they do not even exist in fascist societies. Against the present power of the state-party-capital combination only the “conscious action of the whole mass of people” will help. As long as that mass remains “unconscious”, as long as it needs the “brain” of a party, this mass will remain powerless, for that “brain” will not develop.

Yet, there is no reason for despair. We can raise another question: what is this “consciousness” that parties supposedly have to bring to the workers? And what is that “unconsciousness” which demands the support of the masses by a separate “brain” – by the party? Is that kind of consciousness that we find in parties really necessary in order to change society? What has been really dangerous hitherto for the masses and their needs is precisely that “consciousness” that prevails in party organisations. The “consciousness” of which Maitland speaks, as it was experienced in practice, has nothing whatever to do with a “consciousness” needed to rebel against the present, and to organise a new society. The lack of that sort of consciousness that is nourished by parties is no lack at all as regards the practical needs of the working class.

The workers’ job is essentially a simple one. It consists in recognising that all previously-existing ruling groups have hindered the development of a truly social production and distribution; in recognising the necessity for doing away with production and distribution as determined by the profit and power needs of special groups in society who control the means of production and the other social power sources. Production has to be shifted so that it can serve the real needs of the people; it has to become a production for consumption. When these things are recognised, the workers have to act upon them to realise their needs and desires. Little philosophy, sociology, economics and political science are needed to recognise those simple things and to act upon the recognition. The actual class struggle is here decisive and determining. But in the practical field of revolutionary and social activities the “conscious” minority is no better informed than the “unconscious” majority. Rather the opposite is true. This has been proven in all actual revolutionary struggles. Any factory organisation, furthermore, will be better able than an outside party to organise its production. There is enough non-party intelligence in the world to co-ordinate social production and distribution without the help or interference of parties specialised in ideological fields. The party is a foreign element in social production just as the capitalist class was an unnecessary third factor to the two needed for the carrying on of the social life: the means of production and labour. The fact that parties participate in class struggles indicates that those class struggles do not tend towards a socialistic goal. Socialism finally means nothing more than the elimination of that third factor that stands between the means of production and labour. The “consciousness” developed by parties is the “consciousness” of an exploiting group struggling for the possession of social power. If it would propagate a “socialist consciousness” it must first of all do away with the party concept and with the parties themselves.

The “consciousness” to rebel against and to change society is not developed by the “propaganda” of conscious minorities, but by the real and direct propaganda of events. The increasing social chaos endangers the habitual life of greater and ever greater masses of people and changes their ideologies. So long as minorities operate as separate groups within the mass, the mass is not revolutionary, but neither is the minority. Its “revolutionary conceptions” can still serve only capitalistic functions. If the masses become revolutionary, the distinction between conscious minority and unconscious majority disappears, and also the capitalistic function of the apparently “revolutionary consciousness” of the minority. The division between a conscious minority and an unconscious majority is itself historical. It is of the same order of the division between workers and bosses.

Just as the difference between workers and bosses tends to disappear in the wake of unsolvable crisis conditions and in the social levelling process connected therewith, so the distinction between conscious minority and unconscious mass will also disappear. Where it does not disappear we will have a fascist society.

“Integration” can only mean helping to do away with the distinction between conscious minority and unconscious mass. Within classes and within society differences will remain between people. Some will be more energetic than others, some cleverer than others, etc. There will remain a division of labour. That these real differences froze into differences between capital and labour, into differences between party and mass, is due merely to historically conditioned specific production relations, to the capitalist mode of production. This distinction as regards social activity must be ended in order that capitalism may be ended. If one sees the need for “integration” he has to approach the problem in quite a different manner from Maitland. The “integration” has to go on not from the top down – where the party brings consciousness to the mass – but from the bottom up, where the class keeps all its intelligence and energy to itself, and does not isolate and thus capitalise it in separate organisations.

Production is social. All people, whatever they are or whatever they do, are, in a socially determined society, equally important. Their actual integration, not the “ideological integration” through the traditional party-mass relationship, is required. But this real integration, the human solidarity that is necessary in order to put an end to the misery of the world, must be fostered now. It can be developed only by destroying the forces which operate against it. Class solidarity and class actions can arise not with, but only against, groups and party interests.

August-September 1941