The Party That Won the Victory

Lenin’s Contribution to the Revolution

(November 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 11, November 1944, pp. 362–364.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty book The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, vol. 1.
Marked up by A. Forse for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The rise and fall of the Russian Revolution are both linked to the Bolshevik Party. Since 1917, revolutionary situations have developed in a dozen countries, with all the elements required for a working-class victory present to at least the same degree as in Kerensky’s Russia – all but one: a revolutionary party prepared for just such a situation and capable of utilizing it to the utmost. This difference provides the decisive reason why the revolution triumphed in Russia and was defeated everywhere else. It also provides the basis for explaining the subsequent victory of the counter-revolution in Russia itself. The more generally this fact is acknowledged, the less trouble is usually taken to analyze it.

Political parties as we know them today are a comparatively recent development. They were quite unknown under feudalism. There were partisans of this or that group, of this or that idea, but there were no parties in the modern sense. That is understandable. Even though the young bourgeoisie created rudimentary political organizations in its struggle against feudalism in some countries, these were not an indispensable condition for the victory of the new society and its consolidation.

Two Basically Different revolutions

The revolution against feudalism and the socialist revolution against capitalism are alike only in that both bring a new class to power and organize a new social system. In every other respect, they are fundamentally different.

The bourgeois revolution takes place with the elements of capitalist economy already developed within, coexisting with and constantly transforming feudalism itself. The revolution consists fundamentally in undoing the feudal shackles on the existing and growing capitalist organisms. Its task is not so much to “establish” capitalist relations as to liberate them for their freest unfoldment.

The proletarian revolution does not find the socialist economic forms or relations at hand. All that dying capitalism provides it with – no trifle, to be sure! – is a tremendous economic machine, the socialization of production, and a modern working class capable of reorganizing society. Socialism itself does not exist; the revolution must first create it, establish it. The bourgeois revolution need not necessarily be carried out by the bourgeoisie itself, that is, by the bourgeoisie as a class. The bourgeois revolution need not necessarily bring the bourgeoisie to political power. The basic requirements of this revolution are fulfilled when the main feudal shackles upon capitalist economic relations are broken. This can be accomplished by the bourgeoisie. But it can also be accomplished without the bourgeoisie and even against it. It can be carried out by the plebeian masses, with the bourgeoisie taking over power only later on by means of a counter-revolution; or it can be carried out “from above,” in the Bismarckian manner, by the aristocracy, by feudal or semi-feudal lords themselves. The bourgeoisie can maintain and consolidate the social system peculiar to it and nevertheless share political power with the outdated classes; it can even be cheated of political power by the latter. What is more, it can maintain itself to its dying day without necessarily destroying all “residues” of feudalism; in fact, in vast territories of the world, its continued power is based precisely upon the preservation of pre-capitalist economy. For the bourgeoisie it suffices that its economic system predominates.

The proletarian revolution, on the contrary, cannot be made by any other class but the proletariat itself, inasmuch as only the proletariat is capable of establishing the socialist society which is the only aim of this revolution. The first and absolutely indispensable condition of this revolution is “to make the proletariat the ruling class, to establish democracy.” The bourgeoisie, on the basis of already existing capitalist economy, strives for political power. The proletariat, on the other hand, must first conquer “its political supremacy in order, by degrees, to wrest all capital from the bourgeoisie,” and then organize socialist production. Capitalism, the capitalist state – these are conceivable without the political power of the capitalists. The very beginnings of the transition to socialism, however, are inconceivable without a workers’ state, “this meaning the proletariat organized as ruling class.”

Consciousness and Revolution

The bourgeois revolution is not (not necessarily) the conscious revolution of a class. It is carried out with a false ideology (or to use the term in its original sense, simply ideology). Its victory over feudalism is assured by its fundamental nature, that is, the predominance of capitalist over feudal property is assured to the former by the “superiority of its productive methods.” Capitalist production takes place, grows, goes through crises, declines, as a natural economic movement, regardless of will and in defiance of plan. The economy is automatically renewed (be it on a higher or lower level).

The proletarian revolution, on the contrary, cannot but be a conscious revolution, purposeful, planned, prepared, organized, timed. It does not have the automatic character of the bourgeois revolution. The transitional economy through which the revolution moves to socialism (above all if the revolution is surrounded by a predominantly capitalist world economy) is not automatically assured of a unilateral development to a classless society. Until the “administration of things” can replace the “administration of men,” the socialistic character of the new economic relations depends entirely on the proletarian character of the state. Whereas capitalist production, based on “private property and competition, have been working out their own destiny,” the development of the productive forces in a socialist direction, following the proletarian revolution, is “indivisibly bound up with the new state” as repository of the new property relations. “The character of the economy as a whole thus depends upon the character of the state power.” The movement toward a socialist society can, therefore, take place only as a result of conscious planning. And inasmuch as a socialist society is based on production for use, planning can only mean plans elaborated by the “users,” that is, democratic, socialist planning. Without consciousness and plan, the proletarian revolution is impossible; lacking them, a working class that seizes power will never hold it. Without consciousness and plan, the establishment of socialism is impossible; if socialism is not consciously planned, it will never come. Consciousness and plan imply a self-active, aware, participating, deciding proletariat, which implies in turn a dying-out of coercion and bureaucratism.

Consciousness (socialist consciousness, that is) does not, however, come unfailingly to every worker at a given age, like hair on the head on a growing baby. Some acquire it early; some acquire it late; others go to their graves without it. The acquisition of a socialist consciousness equals the acquisition of an understanding of the indispensability of joint, deliberate and planned action for the fundamental task of reorganizing society. The ingenuity of man has not produced a vehicle or an instrument for this action that equals the organized political party.

The revolutionary proletarian party is the repository of the socialist consciousness of the working class. Composed of the conscious workers, the party is a means by which the working class is saved from existing permanently in a bourgeois stupor, from living intellectually from hand to mouth. It is the organized memory of the working class. It not only connects up yesterday with today, but today with tomorrow. In every activity of the working class it keeps before it its historic goal, thus helping to unify these activities, to rid them of distortions, to give them a progressive meaning and a basic purpose.

Lenin’s Most Important Contribution

Of all the great contributions made by Lenin, none was as vitally important as the theory and practice of the revolutionary working-class political party which he evolved. It is true that the elements of Bolshevism-as-a-party (Bolshevism without a party means nothing) are to be found in Marx. But Marx did not, and could not work up these elements into the rounded, systematized, theoretically-motivated and practically-tested whole which they became under Lenin’s leadership.

Lenin’s whole conception of the party began and ended with the idea of an organization composed, trained and activated in such a way that it could be depended upon to lead the working class to power at the right time as the first step in the socialist reorganization of society. All critics and improvers of Bolshevism, of Lenin’s party, who ignore this, are guaranteed to miss the mark.

This conception meant, first of all, a party composed of politically-educated fighters, capable of subordinating all other interests and considerations to the cause of the socialist victory. If the party is to be the repository of the socialist consciousness of the working class, it must be made up of men and women whose action is based upon understanding. They had to understand the nature of the capitalist society whose overthrow they proclaimed; they had to understand the nature of the class that was to overthrow it; they had to understand the means, the strategy and tactics, by which it was to be overthrown.

Lenin’s party was the best-educated political organization in the world. The Bolsheviks were intolerant of theoretical sloppiness; toward inattentiveness or neglect of theory, they were absolutely merciless. Lenin’s “Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary practice” was an organic concept with them. The sniggering at “theory” which became current in most other socialist parties of his time was never stylish in Lenin’s party.

Lenin was an alert and ubiquitous polemist, and not a mild one. His polemically harsh and even violent language against adversaries used to shock (and still does) the delicate sensibilities of bourgeois and petty bourgeois politicians who considered it perfectly normal, however, to have the ruling class answer their “critics” with police clubs and prison sentences, to say nothing of disposing of “arguments” by slaughtering millions of “opponents” in a war. Lenin’s violence in polemic was due to his uncompromising fidelity to the socialist revolution and the policy best calculated to achieve it. He was deadly serious about the revolution. Those whose theories and policies led the workers off the track, reconciled them with their class enemy, frustrated their efforts, had to be challenged with a vigor that matched the peril they represented. He helped train a party which, like himself, was sufficiently confident of the superiority of its program and views to engage anyone in debate without fear of coming off second best. He understood that you often teach more by polemical presentation and criticism than by “straight” exposition – the correctness of your own views standing out more clearly when counterposed to the views of others. He understood that mere reiteration of your own views is not enough to build a firm party. These views must be constantly defended in public (or revised when they cannot be defended!) against all critics – and defended successfully – otherwise your followers either begin to lose faith in your views or else continue to support them out of blind “party patriotism.” Lenin, who was a party patriot if there ever was one, had no use at all for this kind of “patriot,” any more than he cared for dopes in general. His own words were even blunter: “Whoever takes anything on faith is an idiot who can be disposed of with a wave of the hand.” (The epigones of Leninism everywhere do far more, alas, to raise idiots than to raise Bolsheviks.)

Lenin’s polemics, like all his writings, were meant to educate the party and the working class, to clarify, enhance and steel their consciousness. He did not substitute harsh words for logical substance. (The epigones believe they have destroyed an opponent’s argument completely, and revealed themselves as living incarnations of Leninism, when they bark: “You are a prostitute! You are an agent of the bourgeoisie!” and then sit down, exhausted but content and triumphant.) The monger of platitudes, however orotund or shiny, bored Lenin to death; the demagogue, he detested as “the worst enemy of the working class.”

A Revolutionary Party of Action

The Bolsheviks built up a revolutionary party of action, not a pleasant company of salon habitues, dilettante socialists, or hair-splitting debaters. Their party was not a debating society, but a fighting army which had bloody battles to engage in and a world-renovating victory to win against the most powerful and deadliest enemy a class ever faced. Add to this the special circumstances of existence under Czarist autocracy and it is easy to understand why the Bolshevik Party was and had to be strictly centralized and disciplined. The right-wing socialists, especially of western Europe, who never envisaged battles or revolution, who looked forward to capitalist society gradually filling up with socialism by painless osmosis, shrank from Lenin’s conception of centralism and discipline. The only discipline they wanted enforced was against the “ultra-leftist madmen.” But Lenin, who understood to perfection the class enemy, its power, its savage capacity for self-preservation, its desperate unscrupulousness, knew that the revolutionary party challenging the enemy for nothing less than all-power itself would have to be a party of steel, disciplined, tested and re-tested, its ranks and program constantly checked for weakness, its fighting capacity kept at a high pitch.

What other conception of a party can you have if it is the socialist revolution you really aim for – a revolution that has not proved to be as easy as rolling off a log? Take, for example, our own Socialist Party in this country. Examine it from this standpoint and see why we cannot take it seriously (assuming that anyone else does). Pretty near anybody can be a member (except a real revolutionist – these are expelled). Anybody can put forward pretty near any view he wants to in public (except again, a real revolutionist). The party can adopt one position on a vital question, but the party leader, not caring particularly for this position, can put forward one of his own, even if it is the diametric opposite of his party’s official stand. Pretty near any member can act as he pleases in the labor movement, follow whatever policy his heart and mind dictate, whether or not it conflicts violently with the policy followed by his fellow party-member in the same union or even with that officially advocated by his party. His party obligations are microscopic – he can attend meetings or not; if he drops into party headquarters once a month to exchange the time o’ day with the other boys, he is not frowned on particularly; if his “party life” takes up two hours a month and the rest of his life is devoted to the bourgeois world, that is not a very black mark against him.

A fine, democratic and ever-so-non-fanatical a party! Of course, it never can and never will carry out the fight for socialism. It can never lead the workers in any serious struggle. In exchange, however, it offers these advantages over Bolshevism: A worker who wants to know, “Where do you, the Socialist Party, which wants to lead me, to have my support, stand on this or that vital question on the class struggle?” can always get his choice of half a dozen answers, each enjoying equal standing and validity, i.e., zero. A worker who wants to join the party need commit himself to nothing more serious than paying his dues, yawning over the pages of the party paper, and voting quadrennially for the party “standard bearer.”

Joining the Bolshevik Party meant becoming a soldier in a revolutionary army. It meant discipline and centralization of efforts. It meant the ability to say: My party has this clear-cut policy, that clear-cut program, this answer to this problem; this is what it proposed to do about this situation; this is what it calls upon the people to do in that situation; if you agree with my party, support it, join it. My party means business; it is serious; it doesn’t fool around with the interests and struggles of the working class; it calls upon labor to act as one man and it sets an example of how to act like one man.

In the last twenty years, there has been so much intellectual devastation in the revolutionary movement that Lenin’s views on this point have been twisted and deformed beyond recognition. His insistence on discipline in action has been made to read discipline in thinking. His abhorrence of a “debating society,” which he contrasted to a party capable of discussing policy thoroughly, coming to a decision by majority vote, and then unitedly executing the policy, has been made to read “no debates” in the party. The rich, even tumultuous, intellectual life of the Bolshevik party, for which there is no parallel anywhere; the continuous, passionate – and passionately interesting – and fruitful discussions of basic as well as topical questions which characterized it; the wide freedom of viewpoint which always prevailed in it as a matter of course, and not as a magnanimous bureaucratic dispensation once every two-three-four years, and even the freedom of political groupings and factions – all this has been wiped out by the not very sedulous apes of Leninism and its very opposite consecrated. Leninism, it now seems, boils down to this: We are rough and tough. We are hard people. We spit bullets. Shut up. Stop thinking. End debate – don’t even start it. We know best. Our program is finished, amendments not admitted. Etc., etc. A party built on these “principles of Leninism” will do no more to bring about the socialist revolution than Norman Thomas’ laissez-faire, laissez-aller party.

With the breaching of the world capitalist front in Russia, we have had, as Trotsky often noted, no lack of revolutionary situations. There has likewise been no lack of revolutionary initiative by the working class, resourcefulness, epic heroism, and repeated demonstrations that it is ready to extirpate the plague consuming civilization. This has showed that capitalism is doomed, inasmuch as it can no longer maintain peace, order and social equilibrium, and that the force called upon to dispatch it is irrepressible. All that has been and still is lacking is… a party of the Leninist type, not an artificial copy of the Bolshevist party, but a party of that type, built and schooled in the same way.

Having one, the Russian proletariat was able to accomplish more than anyone had a right to expect of the working class of any one country, and of a backward country, to boot. Having lost it, the Russian proletariat lost all its revolutionary achievements. That it lost its party is not due to that mysterious “fundamental defect” in Bolshevism which its critics have yet to explain to us, but to the fact that the working class of the advanced countries failed in time to build parties like it and remained under the domination of the anti-Bolshevik parties of labor.

With this loss, the center of revolutionary gravity has shifted further and further to the West. From Moscow there no longer come the liberating legions of the socialist revolution – as is unbelievably claimed by the self-patented “Trotskyists” – or the liberating ideas of Lenin, but the rolling waves of black reaction. Once, Leninist Russia almost freed the West. Now only the West can free the Russia of Stalin, not the West of today but of tomorrow. Success depends entirely upon how well and how soon a party of Bolshevism is built in countries like the United States. We have, it would seem, more time than many others. Every hour of it must be utilized to prepare for the inevitable revolutionary crisis.

The Urgent Task of the Day

If we do not succeed in having, at the crucial moment, the kind of party the Bolsheviks had in Russia in 1917, the absolutely inevitable catastrophe that would befall us all would have long-lasting effects. There is good reason, however, to believe that we shall not fail. The American working class has shown the most encouraging ability to move forward, not at a snail’s pace but with leaps and bounds. It has not spoken its last word – only its first. Our bourgeoisie, “the most powerful in the world,” has so little confidence in itself that it squealed with terror for months just at the sight of so limited and contradictory a step as the organization of labor into an independent political force in ... bourgeois politics! How will it feel when labor really declares its political independence as a class?

The difference between how it feels and what it really gets, depends primarily and decisively upon the building of the revolutionary party. We have not been hurled back to the starting point. We have learned what is important to learn from Lenin in the period of the rise of Bolshevism; we have learned what is important from Trotsky, in the period of Bolshevism’s crushing by the counterrevolution. The vanguard now knows more and knows it better. It must now clothe the skeleton of its program with the flesh and sinews of tens of thousands of workers who are breaking intellectually from capitalism. That is the task of tasks of the Fourth International today.

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