Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History: Volume 4, No. 4, South Africa: Party and Class

Party and Class

Yudel Burlak

Concerning the Constitution of the Party

THE FUNDAMENTAL principles of a party are embodied in its programme and theses. The basis of the organisational construction of a party is laid down in its constitution. In the programme are expressed all the essential and fundamental differences which distinguish the party concerned from all others. The aims and objects of reformist parties and those of revolutionary ones are in our epoch diametrically opposed. In the last instance it is the question of preservation or destruction of the present system of class division, of oppression and exploitation. Consequently, the programme and platform of a revolutionary Marxist party and that of a reformist one must be totally different. What is of particular importance to us at the moment is whether this difference both in theory and in practical work must or must not appear in the organisational form, in the structure of the party. This point is especially important, because there are many, even in the ranks of the Left Opposition, who think that the party organisational form and the party programme are not closely interconnected.

During the pre-revolutionary period, the period of comparatively peaceful development, the Social Democratic parties affiliated to the Second International dominated the labour movement, and the parliamentary forms of struggle were the chief forms. Kautsky, defending the Second International for its failure and betrayal of the workers in 1914, declares that the parties composing the Second International were instruments of peace and not of war, and therefore they were not in a position to embark on any serious activity while the war lasted. This is partly true, for these parties were indeed not adapted to the revolutionary struggle of the working class; they were not fighting organisations capable of leading the working class to revolution, to seizure of power. They were merely an electoral apparatus well suited to parliamentary struggles. And therefore the most important political rôle belonged not to the party but to the parliamentary fraction. The party at that time was only an appendix, a servant of the parliamentary fraction. Social Democracy, which rejected the revolutionary fight for the overthrow of capitalism, and has put its faith in democracy and reforms, in the evolutionary ‘process’ in parliamentarianism and the vote, naturally built its parties on a broad basis, for parliamentary struggle, for securing the majority. Here the number, or quantity, was all-important. The strength of such parties lay in the number of their members of parliament. The class consciousness, the fighting spirit, were of little or no importance. The gates of the party were thrown wide open. All kinds of petit-bourgeois ideology, the civil servants, peasants, small shopkeepers, small landowners, and so on, were pouring into the Social Democratic parties.

This dilution of what was originally the workers’ party naturally had as a result the continual abandonment of Marxism. One Marxian principle after another was dropped. The party had to please, to adapt itself to the petit-bourgeoisie, the peasantry, the labour aristocracy. For it needed votes, support in parliamentary elections, and the funds for the press, the cooperatives, the savings banks, and other investments. Assuredly such parties could not prepare the working class for revolution. The first who not only saw that peaceful development was nearing its end and that we were approaching a period of wars and revolutions, but also saw the danger of revisionism and reformism in the theoretical and consequently in the organisational field, was Lenin. As far back as 1902 he foresaw this danger for the future revolution. And the first thing he could do was to fight for a sound foundation and avoidance of this vital mistake at the very beginning in the formation and building up of the Russian party. We know the fight that arose in the Second Congress of that party in 1903. We know the split that came on the question: ‘Who can be a member of the party?’ Or, in other words, [it was] on the question of an open mass party or a close knit cadre party; and we know the subsequent foundation of the Bolshevik Party to which we owe the October Revolution and the establishment of the USSR.

To get to the core of this matter we must examine Lenin’s view of the party. In a speech at the Second Congress in 1903 he said: ‘I would rather see 10 working actively and yet outside the Party, than one idle prattler inside the Party.’ In 1904 he wrote:

‘We are the party of the working class. Consequently, nearly the whole of that class should work under the guidance of our party, should create the closest contact with our party. But we should be guilty of mere empty talk, were we to believe that under capitalism all or nearly all the workers will become class conscious and will be prepared to share the activities of the vanguard, the party. No reasonable Socialist has ever believed that under capitalism even the trade unions (more primitive organisations and therefore congenial to the backward strata of the working class) can succeed in enrolling all or nearly all the members of the working class. We should be deceiving ourselves and closing our eyes to the immensity of our tasks, were we to belittle the difficulties ahead of us, were we to overlook the distinction between the vanguard and the masses which are attracted towards it, were we to forget that the perennial duty of the vanguard is to raise ever wider strata of the proletariat to its own level.’ (Volume 5, pp300-1)[1]

After the Revolution he wrote:

‘The Communist Party as the vanguard of the revolutionary class, enrolling as members all the best elements of that class, consisting of fully class conscious and devoted Communists, who have been enlightened and steeled by their experience in the stubborn revolutionary struggle, inseparably connected with the whole life of the working class, and through this class lined up with the wider mass of the exploited, and enjoying the full confidence of one and all of these—only the Communist Party, if it fulfils all the above-mentioned conditions, is competent to lead the proletariat to the last, the ruthless, the decisive campaign against the united forces of capitalism.’ (Volume 17, p232)[2]

And again:

‘With reformists and Mensheviks in our ranks we cannot hope to lead the revolutionary proletariat to victory, or to preserve the gains of victory. This is fundamental. Moreover, it has been confirmed by recent experiences in Russia and Hungary.’ (Volume 17, p372)[3]

Thus we have on the one hand the party of reforms, of ‘gradualness’, who put their [sic] faith in democracy and parliamentary action, with a broad, open, legal organisational form, aiming to embrace the whole working class and the semi-proletarian masses in its ranks, in order to win some day the majority in parliament and thus ‘gradually grow into Socialism’. And on the other hand we have the Bolshevik Party, the party of Lenin, who had no faith in bourgeois democracy and bourgeois laws, a cadre party, a close knit party, a vanguard only, combining legal and illegal aspects and activity in its organisational form. Such a party carries no ‘dead weight’ and through its members, the best class conscious elements, the pick of the working class, it is able to teach, to guide, to lead the labouring and exploited masses, in order to seize power by revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and through the dictatorship of the proletariat to achieve Socialism, the classless society.

It is therefore clear: 1) that the organisational form of the party is inseparable from and clearly interconnected with its programme and platform, and 2) that the organisational form of the Bolshevik Party was not suitable for a period of peaceful development of capitalism, for reforms and parliamentarianism, just as the organisational form of the old Social Democratic parties is not suitable for our epoch of wars and revolutions, for the fight for power, for the decisive battle against capitalism.

The utter collapse of the broad Social Democratic party with its millions of members and many more millions of voters, and the failure of the Second International, 1914-1933, are at the same time the failure and collapse of the mass parties. The achievement of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, of the little Bolshevik sect following the ‘sectarian’, the ‘isolationist’, the ‘maniac’ Lenin, the triumph of the October Revolution, are at the same time the achievement and the triumph of the revolutionary cadre party, of the revolutionary vanguard.

The October Revolution was able to succeed, not only because ‘revolution’ was written on the Bolshevik banner, whereas ‘reform’ was written on the banner of Social Democracy, but also because the Bolsheviks were a highly organised, centralised, strictly disciplined, small but determined revolutionary army, a real vanguard, which could lead and did lead the working class to victory. The value of quality against quantity was made manifest through the Bolshevik Party of 1917-1921 as clearly and convincingly as it had been proved on the battlefield of Tannenberg.

When we, who call ourselves Bolshevik-Leninists, are purposing to build a revolutionary party, can we discard the greatest work of Lenin, namely, his teaching concerning the party? And can we discount the experience of the last 30 years? We must take into account the fact that every type of party that was born in the epoch of parliamentarism, and accommodated itself to it, has fallen into decay. We must also take into account the fact that the epoch of parliamentarism has passed. The history of the working class for that period, which is mainly the history of the mass parties, demonstrated on a world-wide scale that with mass parties such as those of Western Europe, victory is out of the question. It is therefore imperative that we return to the fundamental teachings of Lenin and to the experience of Bolshevism in the matter of party structure. It must be pointed out that on this question, too, a revision of Lenin's teaching had taken place in the Comintern since Lenin died. The principle of ‘choosing the best of the working class for the party’ was forgotten, and a different organisational method was adopted.

The most striking example of the result of the substituted method is the miserable failure of the Communist Party of Germany. It died in the same inglorious way as the Socialist Party of Germany. For the Communist Party of Germany also relied too much upon democracy and parliamentarism, and only started to build an illegal party when it was already too late. From all the experience of the past it should have been clear to them that the main reason for the failure and degeneration, the inertia and the decay of the mass parties lay in the lack of a strict, illegal, conspiratorial, and professionally educated organisation core, and that without this it is impossible to solve the organisation problem, or to find the correct programme, or to enter upon real action.

But not only this. The Communist Party of Germany forgot the other portion of Lenin's teaching: the distinction between the party vanguard and the mass. The task, according to Lenin, is not to draw the masses into the party, but to serve the mass movement in the correct professional manner, and thus bring them under the influence of the party. But the Communist Party of Germany did exactly the opposite, and as a mass party, could not do otherwise. For the influence of the party in concrete action, there was substituted the influence of the masses, as more and more of the masses were drawn into the party. This was the reason why the swelling of their membership numbers and voting numbers had not increased in the least their real strength, their fighting strength. For the Communist Party as a vanguard did not exist. Instead of concentrating on the upbuilding and educating of the vanguard, which can lead, they concentrated on drawing in the most backward, who can only be led. The vanguard sank to the level of the backward.

Any such combination of a revolutionary programme with a Social Democratic structure is as a lion’s head attached to a lamb’s body, and such experiments are from the outset doomed to failure. Both revolutionary propaganda, which is in the beginning our main task, and revolutionary action are impossible with a loose party structure.

We are Bolshevik-Leninists; we accept the first four Congresses of the Comintern. Yet there are comrades who oppose the building of an illegal party at the same time as, and parallel with, the lawful party. This opposition is grounded on the old belief in democracy. We in South Africa, they say, still have democracy and we are still a long way from Bonapartism and Fascism, a long way from the conditions prevailing in Europe today, or from those which prevailed in Tsarist Russia. But how deceptive is this belief in democracy! And how often it has proved fatal! No one denies that at present we Communists can still carry on in the lawful, open way, utilising to the full the remnants of the so-called freedom of speech, press, propaganda, and meetings. But can a revolutionary party build on the present moment only? Even now the Riotous Assemblies Act has reduced democratic rights to such a degree that only peaceful, ‘harmless’ propaganda is possible. We shall be tolerated insofar as we remain inside the boundaries of harmlessness and impotence, as does the Communist Party. Is there, then, no need for a revolutionary party, revolutionary in the true sense of the word? Anyone who has been studying events in Germany, France, America, Britain, the decay of democracy and the drift towards open or concealed Bonapartism and Fascism, and has compared all this with developments in South Africa, will surely refuse to neglect the brilliant warnings of Lenin and Trotsky at the Second Congress of the Comintern 14 years ago.

Paragraph 12 of the Statues of the Communist International reads:

‘The general state of things in the whole of Europe and America makes necessary for Communists throughout the world an obligatory formation of illegal Communist organisations along with those existing legally. The Executive Committee would take charge of the universal application of this rule.[4]

Thesis 12 reads as follows:

‘For all countries, even for the most free, legal, and peaceful, in the sense of lesser acuteness in the class struggle, the period has arrived when it has become absolutely necessary for every Communist party to join systematically all lawful and illegal work, lawful and illegal organisations. In the most enlightened and free countries with a solid, bourgeois-democratic regime, the governments are systematically recurring, in spite of their false and hypocritical assurances, to the method of keeping lists of communists, to endless violation of their constitution for the semi-secret support of White Guards and the murder of Communists, to secret preparation for the arrest of Communists, the introduction of provocateurs among the Communists, etc. Only the most reactionary petit-bourgeois can dispute this fact or the necessary conclusion—an immediate formation of all Communist parties of illegal organisations for systematic illegal work.[5]

The same is said in point 3 of the 21 Points of admission.

Is South Africa an exception to these universal rules? Were not workers shot in South Africa in 1922? Did we not witness the deportation of militant and revolutionary workers from provinces and even from the Union? Has not an injunction been recently sought and obtained by capitalists against strikers, virtually prohibiting the strike and so breaking it? And has not a political party lately been suppressed in South West Africa and declared illegal, because ‘it is detrimental in its activities to the peace, order, and good government of the territory’? These are precisely the activities which are indispensable to a real revolutionary party.

For every clear-thinking Marxist, it should be obvious that not one revolutionary party on this globe can escape the stage of complete illegality. And as this cannot be helped, the revolutionary party must be prepared for it, not just six or eight weeks beforehand, but in its essence, in its whole structure and character. Only in this way can the party attain stability, security, continuity, revolutionary strength and vitality.


1. Cf VI Lenin, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’, Collected Works , Volume 7, Moscow, 1977, pp258-9.

2. Cf VI Lenin, ‘Theses on the Fundamental Tasks of the Second Congress of the Communist International’, Collected Works , Volume 31, Moscow, 1977, pplS7-8.

3. Cf VI Lenin, ‘On the Struggle Within the Italian Socialist Party’, Collected Works , Volume 31, op cit, pp383.4.

4. Cf ‘Statutes of the Communist International’, A Adler (ed), Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International , London, 1980, p126.

5. Cf ‘Theses on the Fundamental Tasks of the Communist International’, Adler, op cit, pp137-8.

Updated by ETOL: 28 January 2009