Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Charles Loren

The Struggle for the Party

Two Lines in the Movement

The Natural History of the Growth of the Party

How big should we expect the party to be at any given time? There is by now enough historical experience to know what pattern the growth of a communist party is likely to take. In general, it can be said that 1) the party is always a very small percentage of the working class in capitalist society; 2) the party grows very rapidly when, and only when, an intense revolutionary situation arises; and 3) the party suffers loss of membership when the people have been temporarily defeated or demoralized. Let us look, for example, at the quantitative fluctuations of the Bolshevik Party in Russia. The Party built itself up to an underground of about 20,000 revolutionaries and did not exceed this ceiling except in revolutionary times. At the beginning of 1917 Party membership was 23, 600. After the February revolution, the April conference of the Party reported 79,000 members. By the Sixth Congress in late July, 240,000 persons belonged to the Bolshevik Party, and in the week before the October Revolution, Sverdlov told the Central Committee that membership amounted to 400,000. The Petrograd membership had been 2,000 dues-paying members during World War I; by April, 1917, it was 16,000, and by the Sixth Congress it was 41,000. On the other hand, during the darkest days after the defeat of the 1905 revolution, Party membership could be measured at a few hundreds or several thousand. In Moscow, Party membership during 1909 dropped from 500 to 150.

Of the millions of Russian workers, the “usual” number who took the step of becoming Party members was a handful of 20,000. But they were an organized, conscious, disciplined handful. When a revolutionary situation arose, these steeled Bolsheviks were able to absorb large numbers of new members into the organization, the total membership jumping by over ten times in a period of weeks. On the other hand, the Party stayed together and persisted during the “years of reaction” (1908-1912) despite a heavy decline in membership. Under capitalism, its regime of exploitation and its flood of bourgeois ideology, no more than a very small percentage of workers can devote their lives to the communist movement at the level of party membership. But when a revolutionary situation occurs, it is important that an already organized party be in existence, trained and ready. It will be called upon, among other things, to absorb large numbers of new militants. The party then aims with this force to lead the active workers to smash the capitalist state machine by armed struggle and replace it by the new state, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Why do things develop this way? Let us look at the characteristics of a revolutionary situation:

What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ’upper classes’, a crisis through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for ’the lower classes not to want1 to live in the old way; it is also necessary that ’the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in ’peace time,’ but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the ’upper classes’ themselves into independent historical action. (Lenin, “The Collapse of the Second International,” pp. 213-214)

The exploitation of the masses is always monstrous under the rule of a minority ruling class such as the capitalists. But the situation seems “natural,” unchangeable, to most persons. Only individual or group (e. g., trade union) solutions to particular problems are sought, solutions within the capitalist system. But when a sudden change for the worse is experienced by a large portion of the society–because of a war, a depression, or some combination of crises–then people begin to question the system and take up other alternatives. It is to offer the alternative of socialism, to prove its necessity to the masses by their own experience in the revolutionary situation, that an organized party must already be prepared. Still, a large part of the population remains inactive, playing only a spectator role. But when a majority of the active workers are won to the strategy of proletarian revolution, and when the ruling class is partially paralyzed–in a dilemma, an internal struggle, or a crisis of will–then the party must act. Such is the experience of the October Revolution. Such is the negative experience of other revolutionary situations in the advanced capitalist countries until now. Such is what we must expect to be the experience of the United States.

This is the theory of proletarian revolution. It is not the theory implicit in the approach of the anti-party opportunists. The assumptions which underlie their reformist methods of work in the mass movements, if we can speak of any definite views on revolution by them at all, are assumptions of a cresting series of spontaneous reform movements. If a series of such movements one after another builds up, then eventually they will reach revolutionary intensity. Such is a common framework of theory and strategy among the opportunists. Naturally, the task of communists reduces to helping this series of spontaneous movements to increase in size. Build the strike wave, the antiwar movement, the antiracist struggle, etc. Do not bother with spreading socialism. All analysis of the difference between a revolutionary situation and a non-revolutionary situation disappears. And with it disappears any principled conception of the role of the party. Preparation of a core of class-conscious workers who are committed to proletarian revolution and keenly aware of the fundamental issue that will arise in a revolutionary situation–evolution or revolution, peaceful transition or violent struggle–is forgotten.

Instead, the opportunists yearn for a mass party regardless of the situation. It is their self-set job to build this mass party. The Guardian editor at the forum of that newspaper on party-building had his speech printed with a bold type subheading, “A Mass Party,” and said he did not want “one more tiny sect of ideologues” (Guardian, April 4, 1973). The speaker for the Revolutionary Union also betrayed a yearning for a mass party, saying it is impossible for “a few hundred or a few thousand revolutionaries to force a party on the masses of the people.” (April 25, 1973) But that is not the issue, to “force” a party on the masses; the issue is to be prepared to lead the people to the revolutionary way out of the crisis when it comes and when they are looking for and testing possible solutions, possible ways out. In fact, we have seen that a few thousand revolutionaries, properly organized and educated in a Bolshevik party, did lead the peoples under tsar ism to socialism. Contrast the Revolutionary Union’s yearning for numbers and the Guardian speaker’s deprecation of the power of a “handful” of organized revolutionaries with Lenin’s remark:

The Party is the politically conscious, advanced section of the class. It is its vanguard. The strength of that vanguard is a hundred times, more than a hundred times, greater than its numbers. (“How Vera Zasulich Demolishes Liquidationism,” p. 406)

It is not enough to know the natural history of the growth of the party as predicted from past experience and the dynamics of capitalist society; we must also be aware of the danger to the party in trying to expand too much beyond these limits. It is possible to have a mass party in a non-revolutionary situation – the Republicans and the Democrats have proved that! One has only to destroy the Bolshevik character of the party. And this, in effect, is what the anti-party opportunists would do if given free rein to “build a mass party.” The class-conscious vanguard would then be subordinated to bourgeois ideology. Under the leadership of the opportunists, the enlarged party could only engage in activities and strategy acceptable to the bulk of the membership. In every party club, the revolutionary outlook would be a minority and unorganized. Such a party could not even lead mass movements well, for the strength of a mass movement depends not only on numbers of adherents but also on the quality of the organized leadership of the movement, which is simply another aspect of the class struggle. And only communist leadership of a class struggle can realize the maximum possible gain for the people. But a mass party cannot serve as the vanguard. Therefore, all that the opportunists can obtain by a mass party is the chance to play parliamentary and other reformist games at the expense of the people, and to their ultimate disillusionment.

It is impossible for the party to exceed a certain maximum size in any given situation, for the working class can only provide so many revolutionaries in these situations. But it is possible for the party to educate, organize, and give years of experience to those workers who do and will come forward. Steel the party in one effort after another; be ready to recruit all who are ready–these are the policies of a Bolshevik party. These revolutionaries must then continuously propagandize and agitate among the entire working class. Workers whom circumstances do not permit to become party members can still become familiar with socialist ideas to some extent. In various struggles, the party and its line will become known to the workers. In a revolutionary situation the truths taught, the honesty and militance of the party, will be remembered. The working class will support a proletarian revolution at the critical moment.

When the opportunists speak of “rooting our movement among the workers,” we have seen what they mean qualitatively: give up the communist movement and become absorbed in the labor movement pure and simple. Quantitatively, this talk of waiting for some mysterious volume of ties to the masses simply betrays the yearning for a mass party. Already, if we add up the numbers of committed persons in the ostensibly Marxist-Leninist organizations we arrive at a sufficient number to comprise a Communist Party of the United States (Marxist-Leninist). But the opportunists do not want such a party, and until they can obtain a reformist mass party, they put off the growing pressure for a genuine party. They raise a fog of talk about the need to dissolve into the labor movement in a big way–before we can organize and centralize the communist movement! It is not numbers which are lacking today, which is the barrier to the party; it is the splittism and demoralization which the opportunists have introduced into the communist movement which are the obstacles. They prevent the movement from realizing its unity and proceeding forward with a clear vision of our tasks, of our relation to the two hundred million U.S. workers, and of the natural history of growth through revolutionary situations interrupted by reactionary contractions. It is not the Marxist-Leninists who are the sectarians, who keep things small; it is the opportunists who are doing this in the guise of.. .waiting for sufficient numbers to form a mass party.