Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

What is a Marxist-Leninist Party?

First Published: Marxist-Leninist Quarterly No. 1, Spring 1972
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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Editor’s Note: This article is intended as an opening to discussion of the question posed in the title.

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Two years ago the Joint Committee of Communists published a document called ’Origins and Perspectives’ in which an attempt was made to assess our experience during the 1960’s and to outline our perspective for building a revolutionary party. Origins and Perspectives’ was very much an outline document. Its historical survey was intended to be no more than a sketch and the delineation of aims and objectives was intended as a general direction­pointer based on a presentation of where we stood in relation to others.

For some time it has been necessary to say more, but we have not had the means to do so effectively. Our paper ’Struggle’ is not a theoretical journal and the fact that we have so far been unable to produce a theoretical journal is an indication of our level of development. We believe that the many problems involved in building a revolutionary party need the fullest and most serious discussion. Such discussion will only be meaningful if it occurs within the orbit of practical, Marxist activity, and given that there is sufficient common ground between the participants to prevent it from degenerating into sectarian squabbling. Practical and theoretical development towards a revolutionary party demands an organisational structure based upon a certain level of political agreement. The Communist Federation provides that structure, and we shall be able to judge ourselves by our ability to develop our theory and our political practice in accord with the requirements of the struggle in Britain.


We start with the conviction that the working class needs a revolutionary party in order to achieve power. But that is only the start. We ask the question ’What is a Marxist-Leninist Party’? rather than ’what is a revolutionary party’? because part of the answer to the question posed involves understanding the term ’Marxist-Leninist’. We may feel that terms like ’Marxist­ Leninist’ and ’revisionist’ are self explanatory but we soon discover how wrong we are when we try to use them amongst workers outside the communist movement – which is where most workers are. In fact the terms are not understood by nearly as many people on the left as we may imagine; or at least they are not understood by everyone in the same way.

For example, the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Socialist Labour League, the International Socialists and the International Marxist Group all regard themselves as Marxist Leninists. The SLL, the IMG-and probably the IS also regard themselves as Trotskyists and see no contradiction involved in so doing. The CPGB regards its program ’The British Road to Socialism’ as a creative application of Marxism-Leninism to British conditions, and would hotly deny that it represents a capitulation to parliamentariam and reformism. The SLL, the IMG and the IS share with us the view that socialism cannot be won through a peaceful, parliamentary transition and would, in general, say that the CPGB is reformist. The terms ’revisionist’ and ’Marxist-Leninist’ are employed by each of these organisations and clearly each understands them in a different way.

We cannot take Lenin’s model of 1902-1903 as a prototype and say simply that in constructing a party here we should work from that model. This approach the worst kind of dogmatism for it would fail to take into account the particular conditions in which the Russian revolutionaries were working, and the influence of those conditions in determining the specific features of party organisation developed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. This needs emphasising because there still seem to be those who think that ’What Is To Be Done?’ was intended as an organisational formula for all revolutionaries everywhere. Needless to say such approach indicates a failure to develop the theory of the party related to the real conditions prevailing in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century.


Developments in Ireland for example during the last two years should leave no room for complacency about the question of power in our society. If the struggle for political power is to be taken seriously it must be understood that we confront a formidable enemy in the form of a highly organised, heavily militarised and centralised State whose ramifications have, during this century been extended steadily to embrace wider sections of society.

The maintenance of capitalist rule depends ultimately on coercion. The use of force by the police or the army against strike pickets or demonstrators is ’legal’ while force used by the latter against the former is ’illegal’. Press, radio and television all defend the use of force by the State against the workers, and oppose the use of force by the workers against the State. This has been most vividly expressed recently in the different treatment accorded to the Parachute Regiment and the IRA in Derry. We need to recognize the enormous impact of the mass-media on the lives of the community; and the all-pervasive ideological conditioning that has throughout the advanced capitalist world effectively reinforced the more traditional methods of control.

Since World War 2 we have witnessed the employment by monopoly corporations of advanced techniques of mass persuasion; the enlistment of a huge army of ad-men engaged in a massive enterprise of mass manipulation the effects of which we cannot afford to underestimate. In this we see vividly expressed the truth of Marx’s famous dictum ’The prevailing ideology in every society is the ideology of the ruling class.’

But Marx also designated the working class the ’grave-diggers of capitalism’ – the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself. Between the two claims there is a contradiction that can only be resolved in political action – through the socialist revolution itself. The working class is not the gravedigger of capitalism by virtue of any intrinsic merit it possesses as a class qualifying it for that role, but because of the objective role it plays in the production process of capitalism. Thus it can be, and indeed has always been, that the very class which alone is capable of destroying capitalism and with it all class society, is itself deeply imbued with the ideology of the ruling class it is historically destined to overthrow. The contradiction between the objective role of the working class as an agent of social revolution, and its own lack of consciousness of that role, makes necessary the party. If the workers as a class were conscious of their role as the agent of social revolution there would be no need for a party.

It is sufficient to mention two important trends, because it is around them that much of the argument has proceeded between the different currents in the revolutionary movement since Lenin’s time. These trends can be associated broadly speaking with Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. Two different theories of the party became associated with their names.

If we try to find the essential principles of Lenin’s theory as distinct from the particular forms of party organisation necessary in a given conjuncture, we must try to isolate some of the general features of working class existence under capitalism. The basis on which Lenin built his theory of the vanguard party is clearly expressed in the following passage:

The common idea prevailing among the old parties and the old leaders of the Second International that the majority of the toilers and the exploited can acquire complete clarity of socialist consciousness and firm socialist convictions and character under conditions of capitalist slavery, under the yoke of the bourgeoisie (which assumes an infinite variety of forms; the more subtle and also the more “fierce and ruthless the given country is), is also the embellishment of capitalism and bourgeoisie democracy, is also the deception of the workers. As a matter of fact only after the vanguard of the proletariat, supported by the whole of this, the revolutionary class, or the majority of it, over­throws the exploiters, suppresses them, emancipates the exploited from their state of slavery, improves their conditions of life immediately at the expense of the expropriated capitalists only after this, and in the very process of the most acute class struggle, is it possible to educate, train and organise the broadest masses of the toilers and the exploited around the proletariat, and under its influence and guidance, to rid them of the selfishness, disunity, the vices and weaknesses engendered by private property, and to transform them into a free union of free workers. (’Theses on the Fundamental Tasks of the Communist International’. July 1920. Lenin. Selected Works Vol.10)

Lenin saw the party as a ’vanguard detachment’ of the class. A detachment is a part of but apart from the whole. In “What Is To Be Done?” and “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” he stressed the party’s organisational apartness from the working class as a whole. This was a necessary condition for the effective operation of ’mass line’. The stringent conditions governing membership of the party which ensured that not just any sympathiser would be able to join were essential if the party’s political tasks were to be carried out. Underlying his theory of the party is an acute awareness of the realities of power in capitalist society. From the earliest days of Bolshevik organisation Lenin had argued that it would be wrong “to think that at any time under capitalism the entire class would be able to rise to the level of consciousness and activity of its vanguard…. Social Democratic Party... To forget the distinction between the vanguard and the whole of the masses which gravitate towards it, to forget the constant duty of the vanguard to raise ever wider strata to the most advanced level, means merely to deceive oneself, to shut ones eyes to the immensity of our tasks, and to narrow down those tasks ” (Lenin, Collected Works, Russian Edition. Vol.4 pp 205-206.)

In the early days of Bolshevism under the Tsarist autocracy, Lenin stressed the apartness of the political vanguard from the masses of workers in his argument with the economists who held that political consciousness grew naturally out of trade union struggles and that therefore there was no need for distinct and separate political organisations.

The party is conceived primary as an instrument that serves the working class in the struggle for power and the need for the party is basic because it is the means by which the class can train its cadres and begin to shape a socialist consciousness and build the organisational strength and unity necessary eventually to overthrow the centralised and class conscious forces of capitalism. The party brings proletarian ideology to the proletariat and stands as a vanguard detachment at the head of the march.

It is important to note that these features distinguished Lenin’s concept of the party throughout his political life. Rosa Luxemburg’s objection was based on the belief that the working class is able spontaneously to generate its own political organisations in the course of struggle, and that the element of spontaneity in the course of struggle is the primary factor, In opposition to Lenin’s view she held that ’social democratic centralism can be nothing other than the imperious coordination of the will of the enlightened and fighting vanguard of the workers as contrasted with its different groups and individuals; that is, so to speak, a ’self centralism’ of the leading elements within its own party organization.’ (“Organizational Problems of Social Democracy.” Rosa Luxemburg.)

Social democracy was for her ’the movement of the working class itself’ There is, at the core of her thinking a deeply felt antipathy to all centralized rules and discipline within the working class movement, no doubt based on her experience in the heavily bureaucratic Social Democratic German Party. The outcome of the German revolution showed her views to be romantic; the outcome of the Russian revolution showed Lenin’s to be realistically based. With a different strategy involving the application of bolshevik principles in the German situation it is at least arguable that the outcome would have been different in 1918-1919. It was not solely the objective circumstances that produced the different results in each case.

But the longer term results of the October revolution have been very different from what Lenin envisaged; Soviet society today certainly does not resemble the ’free association of free workers’ to which he looked forward in 1920.


It is worth re-stating an elementary lesson of Marxism which is often overlooked. Like previous revolutionary changes from a lower to a higher social order, the proletarian revolution represents a tremendous step forward in the progress or mankind. What distinguishes it from all previous revolutions is that, in liberating itself and establishing its rule over the oppressing class the proletariat takes the first step towards eliminating not only itself as a class, but all classes, and it is therefore a qualitatively new act in the liberation of all mankind. The proletarian dictatorship is the last form of class rule and the proletarian state, no longer a state in the previously accepted sense, is from its inception in the process of withering away, eventually to be negated in classless communism. The proletarian evolution marks the end of man’s pre-history and the beginning of his real history. So the struggle for socialism should never be regarded as an end in itself; socialism cannot be a completed stage of development – it is a transition. Mao Tse-tung put it well on the eve of the Chinese revolution in 1949:

When a man reaches old age he will die; the same is true of a party. When classes disappear all the instruments of class struggle parties and the state machinery will lose their function, cease to be necessary, therefore gradually wither away and end their historical mission; and human society will move to a higher stage. We are the opposite of the political parties of the bourgeoisie. They are afraid to speak of the elimination of classes, state power and parties. We on the other hand declare opening that we are striving hard to create the very conditions which will bring about their extinction, The leadership of the Communist Party and the State power of the people’s dictatorship are such conditions...the road to the abolition of classes, to the abolition of state power and to the abolition of parties is the road all mankind must take. (’On People’s Democratic Dictatorship’)

Unless communists keep this constantly in mind their own ideology will be kept at the level of the bourgeoisie. This lesson is particularly important in relation to the party because if workers’ power is seen as an end, as a thing in itself, then the party will come to be regarded in the same way. Lenin never for a moment lost sight of his aim – the classless society. But he did not make the mistake of thinking that the working class would establish its rule without a political organisation powerful enough to defeat the highly organised bourgeoisie. If it appears that his demand for centralised rules and strict discipline in the party was in contradiction to his goal of a ’free association of free workers that is because there actually is a contradiction. But it is a necessary contradiction which reflects the contradictionoriness of the workers’ role as both the agent of social revolution and a class subordinated to bourgeois ideological hegemony.


The limited vision which sees the proletarian revolution as an end and regards the proletarian dictatorship as a finished stage of social development rather than a period of transition to the classless commune of mankind, is a bourgeois vision. It contains the seeds of revisionism. Such an outlook also sees the party as an end in itself rather than as a weapon in the struggle for power and for the remoulding of society during the transition. Revisionists worship institutions. This reflects the conservation in bourgeois thought which wants to preserve things as they are.

The Communist Party of Great Britain like the majority of other C.Ps. has been revisionist since the mid 1930’s. The majority of the communist parties of the world are revisionist and have been so for many years. In most cases they made the transition relatively smoothly, often without noticeable changes in leadership. An apparently strict adherence to Leninist principles was a marked character1stic of these parties long after they had in fact become revisionist. What should be clear is that if a party sticks to the letter of Leninism but ignores the spirit of Leninism, then those organisational principles are turned into the opposite of what was intended. They become the means of perpetuating the domination of a bureaucratic clique and are used to shackle serious discussion and stultify inner-party democracy.

All this happened in the majority of communist parties. And it can be predicted with certainty that most of those organisations which have sprung up within the last few years calling themselves Marxist-Leninist, will go the same way as the other parties. Here we should refer specifically to the organisation calling itself the “Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)”. The founders of the “CPB (ML)” attempted no serious critique of revisionism, contending themselves with the unsubstantiated claim that the CPGB was never a revolutionary party. They have shown themselves to have no real understanding of revisionism and it is therefore not surprising that their methods of work are so similar to those of the revisionists. Within the methods of work are so similar to those of the revisionists. Within the CPB (ML) there is no genuine democratic centralism. Policy is decided in a largely arbitrary fashion by a few ’leaders’ and more often than not the members out­side London have no idea what is being decided in their names. Serious discussion of political differences is not encouraged. Democratic centralism in the CPB (ML) is no more than a phrase. With a different set of slogans and a different international allegiance they are repeating most of the mistakes made by the CPGB.


One of the most striking features of revisionism is its mystification of the party. The party comes to be regarded as a substitute for the class. A member’s first loyalty is expected to be to the party – not to the class. An attitude not unlike religious faith is encouraged in the membership towards the party and its leaders. The result is the destruction of serious enquiry and questioning – the party and the leaders become the repository of all political wisdom; the party is always right. Revisionism turns dialectical thinking into a parody of’ Marxism; ’dialectics’ becomes the rationale for whatever particular twist and turn expediency may force on the revisionist leadership.

Another feature that came to distinguish revisionist parties was their totally unquestioning, totally uncritical support for every aspect of Soviet policy – what the Chinese described as ’baton following’. Once the party becomes sacrosanct it means that the working class has been relegated to a role of secondary importance; the handmaiden of the party’s inspired truth. The whole purpose of the party has become distorted and the meaning or revolution forgotten.


Unless these lessons are learned it will be impossible to build a new party that is genuinely Marxist-Leninist. From the beginning the principles of proletarian democracy must be genuinely and not merely formally linked to the vitally necessary principles of centralism and strict discipline. Self-criticism is still more talked about than practiced. But it is essential to the healthy functioning of a proletarian party. Mao Tse-tung’s ’Combat Liberalism’ should be read and re-read; it is universally relevant. But criticism must also extend beyond matters concerning the inner life of the party. Among some comrades there is still an attitude of mind more akin to Roman Catholicism than to Marxism. Accordingly it is felt that certain questions are best left alone because there may not be a line on them, or whatever the line is it must be right. In the past this led to an uncritical attitude to everything the Soviet Union did – a point best illustrated by the fact that only a handful of people in the CPGB criticised Khruschov revisionism before the Communist Party of China did so. Marxist-Leninists can accept nothing on faith; faith has nothing in common with Marxism.


It seems apparent that almost universally under conditions of bourgeois democracy communist parties have neglected Lenin’s warning concerning legal and illegal work. All the indications are that insufficient attention has been paid to the question and grossly inadequate preparation has been made to meet the contingencies of illegality. Most probably a leadership operating in a bourgeois democracy does not seriously expect that it may find itself one day under conditions of fascist dictatorship. Such nativity breeds the feeling that ’it won’t happen here’, and leads to communist parties operating on an exclusively open, legal level. It should never be forgotten that the Communist Party of Germany with its mass working class support, armed detachments, large parliamentary and trade union representation, was all but decimated in a matter of a few months in 1933.A more recent and equally poignant example of what can happen when a communist party cherishes illusions about bourgeois democracy is the fate of the Indonesian Party in 1965.

It is not only a matter of defence. Preparation for the struggle for power demands the building of an alternative leader ship and organisation which will be capable of giving practical leadership to that struggle in conditions of illegality. It may be said with certainty that any party calling itself communist which fails to take such steps is in fact a revisionist party.

M.F., 1972