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Alex Callinicos

Party and class before 1917

(Summer 1984)

From International Socialism 2 : 24, Summer 1984, pp. 74–100.
Transcribed by Marven Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The relationship between party and class lies at the heart of revolutionary politics. Socialist revolution depends on both the active participation of the mass of workers, and a disciplined organisation uniting the advanced elements of the class. Our tradition has paid close attention to the dialectical interaction between the revolutionary party and the proletariat, notably in the writings of Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman, and John Molyneux. [1] In an interesting and at times provocative article in International Socialism, No. 22, Donny Gluckstein has sought to develop our thinking on this question. [2] While much of what he says is unexceptionable, certain of Donny’s arguments are ambiguous, misleading, or quite simply wrong. Left unchallenged, they could encourage, completely contrary to Donny’s own intentions, very serious political mistakes. The point of the following article is not, however, merely to draw attention to these errors, but also to highlight what is both true and illuminating in what Donny has to say.

As the title of his article, The Missing Party, suggests, Donny is concerned to account for the fact that it was only in Russia that a revolutionary party developed capable of giving a lead in the great proletarian revolts at the end of the First World War. He dismisses ‘a common explanation’ of this absence in the most important case, that of Germany, as a mere individual ‘sin of omission’ on the part of Rosa Luxemburg. The answer lies rather, Donny claims, in the fact that ‘no-one saw workers’ power growing out of politics in the workplace. In other words they had no concept of a party which grew by relating to the class via intervention in workplace struggle’. (p. 5) The key to this different sort of politics, which eluded Luxemburg almost to the end of her life, lay in the soviet, the distinctive political form of workers’ power, based on their collective organization in production.

It was no accident, Donny argues, that the soviet (as its very name indicates) first emerged in Russia. The peculiarities of Russian historical development, and in particular the conjunction of rapid capitalist industrialization and continued absolutist rule at the end of the nineteenth century created conditions in which the separation of economics and politics characteristic of the West, with its trade-union bureaucracy and mass reformist parties, never developed. These factors meant that a party orientated on struggle at the workplace could arise without needing the soviet to show the point of production as the basis of a workers state’. (p. 27) Lenin and the Bolsheviks almost stumbled onto the correct course. Only 1917 itself, and the triumph of the soviets brought to the fore the distinctiveness of the Bolsheviks’ approach to socialist organization. Then, and only then, was it possible to apply the lessons of the Russian experience to Western Europe.

Much of Donny’s argument, as summarized above, will strike many readers as not only true, but uncontroversially so. However, many of Donny’s formulations, and in particular the emphasis on soviets as ‘the key to a new type of political activity’ (p. 37) could lead people seriously astray. To bring out the dangers in Donny’s argument I shall concentrate on two main themes of his article – namely, an attempt to absolve Rosa Luxemburg for her failure to build a revolutionary party, and a marked tendency towards ‘council communism’, that is, to give priority to soviet over party in the revolutionary process.

Luxemburg and fatalism

Donny’s most original, and iconoclastic claim is that those within our tradition who have criticized Rosa Luxemburg for not understanding the role of the party are mistaken. He selects Lindsey German as an example of this error, but could have easily chosen Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman, or John Molyneux. For example, Chris Harman’s Party and Class, first published as an article in the first series of this journal, and more recently re-issued as a pamphlet, is a systematic attempt to demonstrate the superiority of Lenin’s views on organization to those of Luxemburg. If Donny is right, then this and similar works (for example, John Molyneux’s Marxism and the Party) have largely missed the point.

What reasons does Donny give in support of this claim? Far from relying purely on the spontaneity of the masses, he says, Luxemburg was acutely aware of the conservatism of the trade-union bureaucracy and the unevenness of workers’ consciousness. Furthermore, like Lenin, she saw clear and decisive revolutionary political leadership as essential to overcoming these obstacles. Finally, she understood that such leadership could only develop by relating to the daily struggle of workers around partial demands for the reform, rather than the overthrow of capitalism. Luxemburg thus rejected both the reformism of the parliamentary and trade-union leaders of German Social Democracy, for whom the struggle around partial demands had become an end in itself, and the sectarianism of ultra-left socialists and anarchists who preserved their revolutionary purity at the price of ignoring workers’ daily struggles.

The weakness of Luxemburg’s position lay, according to Donny, not in the views she held, but in her inability to connect them with practice: ‘The problem she could not solve was how to translate fundamentally correct theory of socialist change into reality’. (p. 15) Thus, in The Mass Strike ‘she still viewed the revolution from an abstract viewpoint.’ (p. 21) The result was confusion, for example, in her attempt to distinguish falsely between the political and organizational leadership of mass struggles.

The source of the abstractness of Luxemburg’s analysis of the revolutionary process lay in the absence of ‘the key concept ... – the point of production as the place where the economic power of the mobilized working class can be transformed into a political struggle’. (p. 21) But this did not arise from any flaw in Luxemburg’s reasoning, but rather from the objective situation, namely, the non-existence of an organizational form which united politics and economics in the workplace, the soviet. (Like other marxists, Luxemburg did not appreciate the significance of the soviets, when they first emerged in the revolution of 1905.) ‘The soviet, as the highest form of politics in the workplace, was the concrete solution to all the problems that Luxemburg had only been able to solve in theory.’ (p. 22)

Thus, as Donny summarizes his own argument, Luxemburg’s fault lay, not in herself, but in her stars:

The strength of Luxemburg’s position was an understanding of the need for a principled revolutionary party which also related to immediate struggle. The SPD and the unions made a sharp division between politics and economics ... But Luxemburg always refused to separate them, or to allow a split between ends and means. For all that, the end (revolution) conditions the means. Until the end workers’ power based on councils of shop-floor delegates, was clear, the means – the revolutionary party – could not be found. (pp. 15–16)

I shall return to Donny’s tendency to give priority to soviets over party in the following section. For the moment let us concentrate on his reading of Luxemburg. Consider her most important single work, The Mass Strike. Is it plausible to claim, as Donny does, that here she fails to appreciate ‘the point of production as the place where the economic power of the mobilized working class can be transformed into a political struggle’? That the answer is No is indicated by the very title of the essay. A strike, by definition, is the exercise by workers of the economic strength which derives the collective organization of production under capitalism. The point of the mass strike for Luxemburg is precisely that it breaks down the separation of economics and politics characteristic of the normal workings of capitalism:

Today, when the working classes are being enlightened in the course of the revolutionary struggle, when they must marshal their forces and lead themselves, and when the revolution is directed as much against the established state power as against capitalist exploitation, the mass strike appears as the natural means of recruiting the widest proletarian layers for the struggle, as well as being at the same time a means of undermining and overthrowing the established state power and of stemming capitalist exploitation.[3]

Now Donny regards Luxemburg’s account of the mass strike,and in particular of the interaction between economic and political struggle as ‘abstract’. This seems to me mistaken for two reasons. First, her analysis was path-breaking in identifying characteristic feature of every period of mass struggle – namely, the way in which economic victories stimulate and give vigour to political struggles, which in turn encourage workers to fight on the economic front. This pattern, first identified by Luxemburg in1905, has been repeated again and again since, from Russia in 1917 to Portugal in 1975. (The reverse is also true – for example, economic defeats undermine workers’ political confidence, as in Poland 1981.) There is nothing ‘abstract’ about Luxemburg’s account of the mass strike: rather, it is a profound insight into ‘an historical phenomenon which, at a given moment, results from social conditions with historical inevitability.’ [4]

Secondly, The Mass Strike is no mere theoretical study,abstracted from political context and organizational preoccupations. That Luxemburg’s essay is an intervention in a debate within German Social Democracy is made very clear by its concluding chapter. Here she analyses ‘the dialectics of development’ within the German workers’ movement. [5] Luxemburg highlights a number of trends, above all the formation of a trade-union bureaucracy which encourages both an increasingly sharp separation of politics and economics, and a general tendency towards organizational inertia. Both undermine the ability of the proletariat to play a revolutionary role.

Donny argues that Luxemburg could find no solution to the problems she here identifies:

Despite the fact that she almost alone penetrated the verbal radicalism of Kautsky and judged the weaknesses of the SPD, she had no practical means of building the very party she really believed in – a party which was neither a sect nor reformist. Her opposition to the SPD leadership therefore remained abstract and never concrete. (p. 14)

But, in fact, it is perfectly clear that the mass strike itselfrepresented for Luxemburg the means of overcoming the deficiencies of German Social Democracy. Thus she argues that the mass strike can overcome the unevenness of workers’ consciousness, and, in particular, break down the barrier between the minority of workers in trade unions and socialist parties, and the unorganized majority:

If the Social Democrats, as the organized nucleus of the class, are the most important vanguard of the entire body of workers and if the political clarity, the strength, and the unity of the labour movement flow from this organization, then it is not permissible to visualize the class movement of the proletariat as a movement of the organized minority ...

... In a revolutionary period, in the storm of great unsettling class struggles, the whole educational effect of the rapid capitalist development and of Social Democratic influences first shows itself upon the widest sections of the people, of which, in peaceful times the tables of the organized, and even the election statistics, give only a faint idea.

... Six months of a revolutionary period will complete the work of the training of these as yet unorganized masses which ten years of public demonstrations and distribution of leaflets would be unable to do. And when conditions in Germany have reached the critical stage for such a period, the sections which are today unorganized and backward will, in the struggle, prove themselves the most radical, the most impetuous element, and not one that will have to be dragged along. (p. 6) [6]

The mass strike, involving as it does the interaction of political and economic struggles, or ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ sections of the class, will smash through the ossified bureaucratic structures of the labour movement, themselves a product of prolonged period of ‘peaceful’ capitalist expansion:

As a matter of fact the separation of the political and the economic struggle and the independence of each is nothing but an artificial product of the Parliamentarian period, even if historically determined. On the one hand in the peaceful, ‘normal’ course of bourgeois society, economic struggle is split into a multitude of individual struggles in every undertaking and dissolved in every branch of production. On the other hand the political struggle is not directed by the masses themselves in a direct action, but in correspondence with the form of the bourgeois state, in a representative fashion, by the presence of legislative representation. As soon as a period of revolutionary struggle commences, that is, as soon as the masses appear on the scene of conflict, the breaking up of the economic struggle into many parts, as well as the indirect parliamentary form of the political struggle ceases; in a revolutionary mass action, the political and the economic struggle are one, and the artificial boundary between trade union and Social Democracy as two separate, wholly independent forms of the labour movement, is simply swept away. [7]

(This passage is interesting because it indicates that, even though Luxemburg may not have grasped in 1905 the significance of the soviet as the political form of workers’ power, she was well aware of the differences between ‘the indirect parliamentary form of the political struggle’ and ‘the political struggle ... directed by the masses themselves in a direct action.’)

It does not follow, as Stalinist enemies and bourgeois and libertarian ‘friends’ of Luxemburg have claimed, that she denies any role to revolutionary political organization. On the contrary, because the mass strike poses the question of the conquest of state power, ‘the Social Democrats are called upon to assumepolitical leadership in the midst of the revolutionary period.’ [8] Donny indeed quote sone passage from The Mass Strike which, he suggests, shows that Luxemburg saw the party as ‘an active interventionist force’. (p. 2) But, if we cite them in full, her remark stake on a different meaning:

The task of Social Democracy does not consist in the technical preparation and direction of mass strikes, but, first and foremost, in the POLITICAL LEADERSHIP of the whole movement.

The Social Democrats are the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat. They cannot and dare not wait, in a fatalist fashion, with folded arms for the advent of the‘revolutionary situation’, to wait for that which in every spontaneous people’s movement, falls from the clouds. On the contrary, they must now, as always, hasten the development of things and endeavour to accelerate events. This they cannot do, however, by suddenly issuing the ‘slogan’ for a mass strike at random at any odd moment, but first and foremost, by making clear to the widest layers of the proletariat the INEVITABLE ADVENT of a revolutionary period, the inner SOCIAL FORCES making for it and the POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES of it. [9]

As John Molyneux observes, ‘this is a propagandistic conception of the tasks of the party’: ‘for Luxemburg the influence of the party over the proletariat was to be exercised primarily through its ideas, its propaganda and slogans rather than through the power of its organization or its own initiation of action.’ [10] Her disdain for organization arose not, as Donny suggests, from confusion, or excessive abstractness, but as a logical consequence of Luxemburg’s conception of the party. The role of the revolutionary organization is, she claims, that of ‘making clear to the widest layers of the proletariat’ the nature of the struggle in which they are engaged, but not actively to organize that struggle, to give it a particular direction. If, then, the party should confine itself to propaganda, organization becomes of secondary importance, because the point of organization is to enable revolutionaries to intervene in the class struggle, to put forward agitational demands capable of taking the movement along the appropriate path.

Luxemburg’s propagandism was itself not, as Donny suggests, a consequence of the fact that ‘she felt there was no mechanism, no practice around which a genuine revolutionary party rather than a sect could coalesce.’ (pp. 14–15)Instead it flowed from a combination of excessive pessimism and optimism which runs very deep in her thought. On the one hand, Luxemburg believed that the tendency towards bureaucratic conservatism which she so accurately diagnosed within the SPD was an inherent feature of all proletarian organization. It was this which motivated her opposition to Lenin’s conception of the party as a centralized organization of professional revolutionaries. Such a party, she argued, would willy-nilly strengthen the natural tendencies towards bureaucratism within the working-class movement:

The unconscious comes before the conscious, the logic of the objective historic process before the subjective logic of its bearers. The role of the Social-Democratic leadership is, therefore,of an essentially conservative character. [11]

The ‘logic of the historic process’ which in times of social peace condemned workers’ organisation to bureaucratic conservatism, in revolutionary periods produced the mass strike which in its very dynamic overcomes these weaknesses. Once the class is in motion the divisions between leadership and rank and file, economics and politics, advanced and backward are broken down. As Luxemburg put it in 1913: ‘Leaders who hang back will certainly be pushed aside by the storming masses.’ [12]

What is characteristic of this position, with its stress on ‘the logic of the historic process’ which makes organizational inertia inevitable when the level of class struggle is low, and then sweeps it aside when mass strikes develop, is, as Chris Harman puts it, ‘a historic fatalism’.

Individuals can struggle among the working class for their ideas, and these ideas can be immediately important in giving workers the necessary consciousness and confidence to fight for their own liberation. But revolutionaries can never build the organization capable of giving them effectiveness and cohesion in action comparable to that of those who implicitly accept present ideologies. For to do so is inevitably to limit the self-activity of the masses, the ‘unconscious’ that precedes the ‘conscious’.The result must be to await for ‘spontaneous’developments among the masses. In the meantime one might as well put up with the organizations that exist in the present, even if one disagrees with them politically, as being the best possible, as being the maximum present expression of the spontaneous development of the masses. [13]

Lenin’s starting point was the opposite to Luxemburg’s, namely an understanding that even the highest level of class struggle does not automatically eliminate the political, ideological, and organizational weaknesses of the proletariat. It is this which makes What is to be Done?, despite some misleading or ambiguous formulations, such a fundamental work:

It is often said that the working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism. This is perfectly true in the sense that socialist theory reveals the causes of the misery of the working class more profoundly and more correctly than any other theory, and for that reason the workers are able to assimilate it so easily PROVIDED, HOWEVER, this theory does not itself yield to spontaneity, PROVIDED it subordinates spontaneity to itself ... The working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism; nevertheless, most widespread (and continuously and diversely revived) bourgeois ideology spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class to a still greater degree. [14]

That Lenin was right, and Luxemburg wrong was confirmed by the German revolution of 1918. It was the spontaneous action of worker sand soldiers which overthrew the monarchy and created a network of soviets throughout Germany. But the Social Democratic and Independent Socialist leaders, far from being ‘pushed aside by the storming masses’, were able to retain control of the movement, and, in collaboration with the Imperial General Staff, to crush the revolutionary left.

Luxemburg herself had a far more concrete insight than Lenin into the way in which ‘bourgeois ideology spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class’ through the intermediaries of the trade union bureaucracy and reformist parliamentarians. But she failed to realize that these obstacles to revolutionary class consciousness could, and would persist, even in a situation of dual power. As Lukacs put it:

Theoretical clarity, corresponding propaganda and agitation by conscious revolutionary groups are not enough by themselves against this danger. For these conflicts of interest express themselves in ways which remain concealed from the workers for a long time; so much so that even their own ideological spokesmen sometimes have no idea that they have themselves forsaken the interests of the class as a whole. Thus these differences can very easily be hidden from the workers under the rubric of ‘theoretical differences of opinion and mere ‘tactical differences’, and the revolutionary instinct of the workers, which explodes from time to time in great spontaneous mass actions, is then unable to preserve such instinctive heights of active class consciousness as lasting possessions for the class as a whole.

This alone makes the organizational independence of the fully conscious elements of the proletariat indispensable.[15]

Lenin and Luxemburg’s different attitudes to organization flowed from their conflicting conceptions of the revolutionary process itself. It is in this light that we must judge Lenin’s insistence that ‘political questions cannot be mechanically separated from organizational questions’. [16] Without independent revolutionary organization class consciousness cannot become a ‘lasting possession for the class as a whole.’

As Cliff observes, this preoccupation with organization sets Lenin apart, not only from his contemporaries, from Luxemburg and the young Trotsky, but also from Marx and Engels themselves. [17] John Molyneux has pointed out that, as in Luxemburg, so ‘there is ... a strong element of fatalism in Marx’s attitude to the formation of the party. The struggle of ideas and tendencies within the working-class movement will sort itself out as the class tendencies of the workers assert themselves’. [18] Luxemburg could thus correctly claim to be restating the marxist orthodoxy on the subject of the party. The difference, as Donny himself points out, was that Marx was politically active in the infancy of the modern proletariat, before the emergence of the trade-union bureaucracy and mass reformist parties. A theory which,in Marx’s time, could truly be described as abstract and not fully formed, had become, by Luxemburg’s day, false. Donny is, therefore, quite wrong when he talks of ‘her fundamentally correct theory of social change’.

This returns us to Donny’s own starting point, namely, why it was that Luxemburg did not herself grasp the centrality of revolutionary organization. He, correctly, lays great emphasis on the different circumstances of the workers’ movements in Germany and Russia. These are lucidly summarized by John Molyneux:

It was precisely spontaneity and struggle that were lacking in the German labour movement. The level of strike activity in the German working class in the first years of the century was very low. In the six years 1900 to 1905 there was an average of 1,171 strikes per year involving an average of 122,606 strikers per year (which puts the average number of workers per strike at only 104). Compare this record with the figures for Russia where, with a much smaller labour force, there were 87,000 strikers in 1903; 2,863,000 strikers in 1905 (1,843,000 of them involved in political strikes); and 550,000 political strikers in 1912. From this it can be seen that the German workers’ movement, for all its great socialist party and magnificent organizations, was relatively weak and passive in the elementary class struggle against the employers, while in Russia, where there was no mass party, and where trade-union organization was practically non-existent, the workers fought great battles against both the bosses and the state. It was in the nature of a revolutionary like Rosa Luxemburg, just as it was in the nature of Lenin, to put all the emphasis on what appeared to be the key missing element in the situation – which for her was spontaneity landmass action from below. Thus Lenin, taking spontaneity as given, could write: ‘Give us an organization of revolutionaries and we will overturn Russia’ whereas Luxemburg said, in effect, ‘Give us the spontaneity of the masses and we will have the revolution’. [19]

It is one thing to relate individuals’ theoretical views to their objective circumstances; it is another to suggest that these circumstances made it impossible to formulate the correct theory. Yet this is what Donny implies in Luxemburg’s case. Thus he asks, ‘if Luxemburg was wrong, why did no one replace her at the head of the German revolutionary movement just as Lenin and his party replaced the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries during 1917? (p. 5) I shall return to the suggestion that Luxemburg, if mistaken about the party, belongs in the same category as Martov and Co. Let us first concentrate on the conception of history the argument betrays. Donny is saying that, had a revolutionary organization been possible in Germany before 1917, then, if not Luxemburg herself, some other figure would have emerged, to build that organization. What is involved here is a view of history, far more fatalist than anything espoused by Luxemburg herself, in which each historical epoch sets itself tasks, and then selects individuals to perform them, so that if one person fails to play their pre-ordained role, another will step forward to fill his or her place. This conception is not Marx’s, but Hegel’s, basing itself on the notion of a ’ruse of reason’ in which individuals act as the blind instruments of historical necessity.

Compare what Trotsky wrote on Lenin’s role in 1917:

How would the revolution have developed if Lenin had not reached Russia in April 1917? ... Lenin was not a demiurge of the revolutionary process, ... he merely entered into a chain of objective historic forces. But he was a great link in that chain. The dictatorship of the proletariat was to be inferred from the whole situation, but it still had to be established. It could not reestablished without a party. The party could fulfil its mission only after understanding it. For that Lenin was needed. Until his arrival, not one of the Bolshevik leaders dared to make a diagnosis of the revolution ... Inner struggle in the Bolshevik Party was absolutely unavoidable. Lenin’s arrival merely hastened the process. His personal influence shortened the crisis. Is it possible, however, to say confidently that the party without him would have found its road? We would by no means make bold to say that. The factor of time is decisive here, and it is difficult in retrospect to tell time historically. Dialectic materialism at any rate has nothing in common with fatalism. Without Lenin the crisis ... would have assumed an extraordinarily sharp and protracted character. The conditions of war and revolution, however, would not allow the party a long period for fulfilling its mission. Thus it is by no means excluded that a disoriented and split party might have let slip the revolutionary opportunity for many years. The role of personality arises before us here on a truly gigantic scale. It is necessary only to understand that role correctly, taking personality as a link in the historic chain. [20]

Isaac Deutscher questions this judgement in his biography of Trotsky, invoking in his support that prince of ‘orthodox’ marxists, Plekhanov. [21] Alasdair MacIntyre, defending Trotsky, points out that at stake here are two different conceptions of history, one in which ‘history from time to time presents us with real alternatives where my actions can make all the difference’, the other in which ‘I am ... just part of an inevitable historical progress’. [22] Cliff makes exactly the same point:

The statement ‘No Lenin, no October’ looks like a negation of Marxism, of the materialist interpretation of history. And to the ‘Marxist’ school of Karl Kautsky, Otto Bauer and their like, who castrated Marxism, turning it into a fatalistic scholastic commentary, it seems so. However, the heart of Marxism is that man makes history, man is the active subject of social change. [23]

By asserting that, had the conditions been appropriate for a revolutionary organization in Germany before 1917, then Luxemburg would have been replaced by someone else willing to take on this task, Donny espouses the fatalism of the Second International in which individuals are merely the vehicles of history.

More specifically, Donny’s stress on the ‘point of production’ as the key to the question of the party serves to absolve Luxemburg of any responsibility for the non-existence of such a party. For, as we have already seen, the level of even the economic class struggle was generally very low in Germany before 1914. If the party depends on ‘workplace politics’, and there is not much of that to be had, there obviously cannot be a party. Or so it would seem. The flaw lies in Donny’s premiss. Even when there are few strikes, or (as in postwar Britain) strikes are fragmented and sectional, it is possible to sustain a revolutionary propaganda group. Luxemburg, increasingly aware as she was of the reformism of the SPD leadership, could have formed around her discussion circles in which a political tradition and methods of organizing we redeveloped, in the period of relative social peace before 1914. Such circles could have provided the nucleus of a revolutionary organization capable of relating to the workers’ struggles which developed under the hammer of world war. It is easy to forget that What is to be Done? was preceded by two decades in which workers and students formed marxist discussion circles and sought to relate to the sporadic bursts of class struggle which occurred. [24] The measure of Luxemburg’s failure is given when we realize that she failed even to attain the level of pre-1902 Russian marxism. As it was, she found herself almost completely isolated when the First World War broke out in August 1914, and when, finally, she formed an independent Communist Party in December 1918, she found herself presiding over an organization without any shared traditions or experience of common work, lurching wildly between ultra-leftism and opportunism. One such lurch led, against Luxemburg’s own wishes, to the Spartacist days of January 1919 and her own murder. [25]

Should we therefore dismiss Luxemburg completely? This, Donny suggests, is what we must do if we say that she was wrong about the party: ‘It is not surprising that SWP members sometimes ask themselves, why bother with Luxemburg at all if she was totally wrong about the main task of a revolutionary – the building of a party.’ (p. 5) And he goes on to imply, in a passage I have already quoted, that if Luxemburg was wrong about the party, then she belongs to the same category as the Mensheviks. This last claim brings out the absurdity of the entire argument. Wrong Luxemburg undoubtedly was about revolutionary organization, but she was right on so many other questions. Who of the Mensheviks ever remotely approached Luxemburg’s burning clarity on reform or revolution, the nature of imperialism, the dynamics of the mass strike, and a dozen other topics? Any doubts about Luxemburg’s stature are removed by reading what she wrote under the test of revolution itself, during the last two months of her life, between November 1918 and January 1919. As Chris Harman shows in his study of Germany 1918–23, The Lost Revolution, Luxemburg incisively defined the main tasks of revolutionaries in the wake of the Kaiser’s fall – to win a majority of workers to the goal of seizing power, not to substitute themselves for a proletariat still under largely reformist leadership. Luxemburg was equally clear about how to achieve this objective, namely by consistently relating to the daily economic struggle between capital and labour; she suffered then, as in 1905–6, from not the slightest confusion about the importance of socialist political activity in the workplaces. The pity was that she lacked the disciplined organization capable of implementing this perspective.

It is precisely because Luxemburg was so great and courageous a revolutionary that her crucial error about the party was such a tragedy. I use the term ‘tragedy’ advisedly, since in thereat dramas of Aeschlyus and Euripedes the tragic hero is doomed by flaws in his or her own nature. The comparison with the Mensheviks would be a joke were it not so insulting. Who could ever conceive of Martov or Dan as subjects of tragedy?

Marx wrote at the beginning of his Eighteenth Brumaire that one characteristic of the proletarian revolution is that inconstantly criticizes itself, seeking thus to correct past errors. This is a lesson which revolutionary socialists have constantly to take to heart. But to criticize our mistakes we must first identify them.

Donny effectively explains away the most serious error committed by Western revolutionaries before 1914, making Luxemburg’s failure to build an organization a product of ineluctable historical necessity. What this ignores (and it is this which lies behind Marx’s stress on self criticism) is that proletarian revolutions place an absolute premium on political leadership. Now such leadership depends crucially on developing the political tradition and organization capable of nurturing it. Nevertheless, individuals can make adecisive difference. Lenin in Russia, Luxemburg in Germany helped to determine the outcomes of their respective revolutions. To say this is not to make Luxemburg ‘personally responsible for world history since 1919’ (p. 5), as Donny absurdly suggests. It is simply to recognize her importance, and to judge her by the same standards by which we must judge ourselves. There is no room for hagiography in the revolutionary tradition.

Party and soviet

In one sense the stress Donny lays on the soviet as the key to the revolutionary party is perfectly innocuous. This sense has never been better explained than by Chris Harman in his 1968 essay on Party and Class. Chris distinguishes sharply between Social-Democratic and Stalinist conceptions of the party, on the one hand, and Lenin and Gramsci’s on the other. In the former, ‘the partyrepresents the class. Outside the party the worker has no consciousness.’ [26] This identification of party and class meant that ‘adherence to theorganization rather than the politics of the organization mattered’. [27] Such a party has indeed, as Luxemburg argued, an incipient tendency toward bureaucratism. By contrast, ‘the Leninist party does not suffer from this tendency to bureaucratic control precisely because it restricts its membership to those serious and disciplined enough to take political and theoretical issues as their starting point, and to subordinate all their activities to these’. [28]

The correlative to this conception of revolutionary organizations a disciplined and democratic body of political activists is a sharp distinction between party and class:

It is important to see that for Lenin the party is not the embryo of the workers’ state – the workers’ council is. The working class as a whole will be involved in the organizations that constitute its state, the most backward as well as the most progressive elements. ‘Every cook will govern’. In Lenin’s major work on the state, the party is hardly mentioned. The function of the party is not to be the state, but rather to carry out continual agitation and propaganda among the most backward elements of the class so as to raise their self-consciousness and self-reliance to the pitch that they will both set up workers’ councils and fight to overthrow the forms of organization of the bourgeois state. The soviet state is the highest concrete embodiment of the self-activity of the whole working class; the party is that section of the class that is most conscious of the world-historical implications of this self-activity. [29]

Thus party and soviet are both indispensable and complementary aspects of the revolutionary process. If, in stressing the importance of the emergence of soviets Donny were simply saying this, then there would be nothing to quarrel with. However, Donny seems at points to go much further than this. Consider, for example, the following passage:

The Soviet, as the highest form of politics in the workplace, was the concrete solution to all the problems that Luxemburg had only been able to solve in theory. Where she had criticized parliamentarism in words, the Soviet itself established an alternative source of authority which challenged and ultimately overthrew its enemy. Where Luxemburg predicted that reformist workers would simply be passed over, the Soviet, as an independent rank-and-file organization, offered a popular leadership which overcame the restraining influence of the bureaucrats. Where she verbally attacked the formal separation of politics and economics, the Soviet, as a mass strike committee, raised the economic struggles of sections of workers to the concern of the whole class.

However the Soviet state is merely an end-point of the revolutionary process. Long before the seizure of power becomes an issue, questions arise as to who is going to propose the establishment of independent rank-and-file organization in the first place; and who is going to denounce reformist bureaucrats and argue for workers’ self-activity in opposition to parliamentary methods? In this way the Soviet poses the need for the party, just as the party cannot ultimately succeed without the sort of mass rank-and-file organization of the sort represented by Soviets. (p. 22)

This passage contains a nest of confusions. In particular, it elides the difference between soviets and rank-and-file organizations, and implies, falsely, that both these forms in some sense depend on the activity of revolutionary socialists.

What is wrong with calling the soviet ‘an independent rank-and- file organization’, as Donny does? To answer this question, we have only to consider the most typical form frank-and-file organization in this country, namely the shop stewards’organization which emerged in its modern form in the 1930s and 1940s, flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, and has been in crisis for the past decade. [30] Such organization was a product of trade-unionism in the advanced capitalist countries. It presupposed the existence of the trade-union bureaucracy as a conservative social layer within the workers’ movement of these countries, and was generated by the resulting conflict between bureaucracy and rank and file. In no sense did it represent a break with the reformist traditions of the British labour movement. Shop stewards’ organization drew its strength from its sectionalism, from building on the bargaining power which workers in a particular shop or plant acquired from the conditions of capitalist boom. When it fought, it was around trade-union demands – higher wages or better conditions – designed not to overturn capitalism, but to improve workers’ position within it. Its raison d’etre lay in the trade-union bureaucracy being too remote or conservative itself to fight around these demands.

None of this is to place rank-and-file organization on the same level as the bureaucracy. Its importance lies in the fact that it organizes workers in the workplace:

The shop stewards’ reformism was very different from the traditional ‘reformism from above’ of the Labour Party, which told workers to rely on their MPs and union leaders to achieve change. Labour’s decline electorally and as a mass-membership organization, and the class collaboration of the trade-union bureaucracy were counter-weighted by workers’ ability, in conditions of full employment, to wrest improvements in their living standards through their workplace organizations. This ‘do-it-yourself reformism’ opened up ‘the possibility of the rebirth of a revolutionary working-class movement. For wherever workers are fighting for themselves, fighting in defence of their shop stewards and fighting for the right to control the conditions of their work, wherever they are doing things for themselves and not leaving it to their leaders, they are growing in self-confidence and growing in their ability to run things for themselves’. (p. 31) [31]

Nevertheless, the fact remains that, though based in the workplaces, rank-and-file organization normally reflects, rather than breaking with the sectionalist and reformist traditions of the labour movement in countries like Britain. The distinctive feature of soviets is that, although they too consist of workplace delegates, they mark a rupture with these traditions, uniting the whole class, not just particular sections of organized workers, and breaking down the barriers between politics and economics.

These points were made very clearly by Trotsky on two occasions. On the first he wrote:

The soviet appears most often and primarily in connection with strike struggles that have the perspective of revolutionary development, but are in the given moment limited merely to economic demands ... soviets [are] that broad and flexible organizational form that is accessible to the masses who have just awakened at the very first stages of their revolutionary upsurge; and which is capable of uniting the working class in its entirety, independent of the size of that section which, in the given phase, has already matured to the point of understanding the task of the seizure of power. [32]

Several years later Trotsky wrote:

The Soviets are created when the revolutionary movement of the working masses, even though still far from an armed insurrection, creates the need for a broad authoritative organization, capable of leading the economic and political struggles embracing simultaneously the different enterprises and the different trades. [33]

There is, thus, a fundamental distinction between rank-and-file organization and soviets. One organizes particular sections of workers to fight for improvements in their conditions of life under capitalism, the other unites the whole class in a period in which the question of a proletarian conquest of state power is posed. This is not to say that the barrier between the two is unbridgeable. In conditions of capitalist crisis, the material basis of even militant rank-and-file trade unionism is undermined. Employers can no longer afford to make the economic concessions which workplace organization was able to wrest from them in times of boom. In these circumstances, sectional rank-and-file organization can break with its previous patterns of struggle, and generalize into a class wide movement. It is then that rank-and-file movements develop, which seek to unite existing rank-and-file organizations so as to fight both economic and political struggles independently of the trade-union bureaucracy. The classic examples in Britain are the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement (SS&WCM) during the First World War and the National Minority Movement of the 1920s. [34] Under such conditions, sectional workplace organization can be transformed into organs of workers’ power, as Gramsci recognized during the biennio rosso of 1918–20.

However, rank-and-file organizations are in no sense a necessary condition of soviets. One reason, I think, behind Donny’s failure to distinguish between the two lies in his failure to recognize this. Thus an earlier article in this journal by him contains the following schema [35]:



geographical unit

armed power

shop stewards’




The schema suggests that the development of soviets takes the form of a process of evolution passing mechanically through certain predetermined stages. There are at least two reasons for rejecting such a view. The first is that:

Rank-and-file organizations, bodies of workplace delegates operating independently of and in conflict with the trade-union bureaucracy, are only likely to emerge in the bourgeois democracies of advanced capitalism, where a legal and bureaucratic labour movement exists ... The Bolsheviks did not have a rank-and-file strategy because there were no rank-and-file organizations for them to relate to. [36]

There is a second, and even more fundamental reason for rejecting Donny’s schematic view of the development of soviets. We have already seen that Luxemburg laid great stress on the fact that ‘mass strikes, and political mass struggles cannot ... possibly be carried through ... by the organized workers alone...’ but have to be‘able to win and draw into the struggle the widest circles of the unorganized workers, according to their mood and their conditions’. [37] She even predicted that: ‘If it should come to mass strikes in Germany, it will certainly not be the best organized workers ... who will develop the greatest capacity for action, but the worst organized or totally unorganized’. [38]

Luxemburg identifies here (albeit in too one-sided a manner) what one might call the dialectic of advanced and backward layers of the proletariat. It is a characteristic feature of periods of pre-revolutionary upsurge that it is often not the best organized workers who launch the movement. These workers tend to be held back by the very traditions which provided the basis of their workplace organization built up in times of social peace. It tends to be ‘backward’, unorganized sections of workers, lacking the conservative traditions of the ‘advanced’ workers, who initiate the mass strikes. The Russian Revolution of February 1917 provides one example of this. It was the women textile workers of Petrograd who first took to the streets, taking by surprise the engineering workers, the traditional vanguard of the Russian proletariat, and the Bolsheviks, who had long organized among them. Again in Germany 1918 the November Revolution began with the soldier sand sailors, not the revolutionary obleute (shop stewards) who had led the opposition to the war among the traditionally ‘advanced’ metal-workers.

This is not to suggest, as Luxemburg seems to in the passage last quoted above, and as some contemporary German leftists argue, that the ‘other working class’ of unorganized workers is the truly revolutionary force, and that organized workers form an inherently reactionary ‘labour aristocracy’. On the contrary, it was the skilled engineers, radicalised by a ruling-class offensive against their hitherto privileged position, who formed the backbone of the revolutionary movement throughout Europe at the end of the First World War. [39] Nevertheless, the unevenness of consciousness within the proletariat means that it is often those sections with the least traditions which can move into revolutionary action most rapidly. As the struggle develops, and questions of organization and political leadership evermore strongly assert themselves, then those sections with the strongest traditions of struggle tend to take the lead again. As Cliff shows, subsequent to February, the women workers dropped back again. [40] And the early German Communist Party was hamstrung by its failure to win over the obleute, who represented the group of workers with the strongest traditions of political militancy. [41]

This is another way of saying that the sort of mass struggles which give rise to soviets involve a dialectical interaction between advanced and backward, rather than one or other section always playing the leading role. Specifically in Donny’s case,the problem with identifying the evolutionary process through which shop stewards’ committees gradually widen out into soviets is that it treats one group of workers, the best organized, those with the strongest sectional workplace organization, as the vanguard of revolutionary struggles, and thus ignores the manner in which this‘vanguard’ can be outflanked by, and dragged along behind spontaneous explosions by supposedly ‘backward’ layers of the proletariat. I shall return to the potentially damaging political consequences of such an error below.

First I wish to consider the implications of Donny’s statement that ’the Soviet poses the need for the party’. In the abstract, this assertion is perfectly true. Without a revolutionary party the strongest mass movement, even if it is organized into soviets, will fail. Nevertheless, Donny seems to suggest that, not only does the soviet ‘pose the need for the party’, but that it provides a solution to the problems which produce this need. Such, at any rate, is the interpretation suggested by the following remark: ‘the Soviet, as an independent rank-and-file organization, offered a popular leadership which overcame the restraining influence of the bureaucrats’. What this implies is that rank-and-file organizations and soviets (and remember that Donny identifies the two) necessarily involve revolutionary leadership.

That this is not true is quite easy to show. To begin with, rank-and-file organization, ie, sectional workplace organization, emerges from the daily battle between capital and labour on the shop-floor, and from the conflict between bureaucracy and rank-and-file. It is not the product of any deliberate strategy on the part of revolutionary socialists. Of course, as Lenin and Gramsci emphasised, there is no such thing as ‘pure’ spontaneity. Every form of working-class organization involves politics and leadership. In the case of rank-and-file organization, such politics and leadership are usually reformist. Thus in Britain Communist Party militants played a leading role in building shop stewards’ organization between the 1930s and the 1950s. That rank-and-file organization is typically imbued with reformist politics is a reflection of the sort of period in which it emerges, times of capitalist boom when ‘do-it-yourself reformism’ can wrest economic concessions from the bosses.

Rank-and-file movements are a different matter altogether. They become a possibility when the gap between economics and politics closes, when ruling-class offensive forces sectional workplace organization to generalize. It is for this reason that they tend to be led by revolutionaries, as was true of the shop stewards’ movement during the First World War, and the Minority Movement of the1920s. Even then it does not follow that revolutionary socialism prevails politically within the movement. Thus, the SS&WCM was never able fully to break from a defence of craft privilege into a genuinely class-wide movement.

Soviets, as we have already seen, tend to overcome the sectional divisions within the class, and to smash through the routine division between economics and politics. It does not follow that they only emerge under revolutionary leadership. As Lenin wrote of soviet power: That new apparatus is not anyone’s invention, it grows out of the proletarian class struggle as that struggle becomes more widespread and intense’. [42] The classic example is the first soviet, of St Petersburg in 1905, which started out as a strike committee formed by print-workers who wanted to be paid for typesetting punctuation-marks as well as letters. The tenacity of the soviet as the political form of workers’ power, the manner in which it has emerged again and again in a variety of different situations, from Russia 1905 to Spain 1936, from Hungary 1956 to Portugal 1975, is a reflection of the fact that it is a result, not of conscious revolutionary strategy, but of deep-seated spontaneous impulses among the mass of workers once they move into action.

But Donny does not see this. In his earlier article on workers’ councils he writes: ‘in most situations council movements will in all probability be initiated by revolutionaries, but as soon as they spread beyond the vanguard to become mass institutions, they will fall into reformist hands’. [43] Lying behind this statement is a conception of revolution as an evolutionary process in which a ‘vanguard’ of highly organized workers gradually expands to incorporate the whole proletariat. But, as we have seen, mass struggle is a dialectic process, involving qualitative leaps, not gradual quantitative change: soviets tend to be produced by spontaneous explosions in which ‘backward’ layers move from apathy to revolutionary politics in one move, sweeping the ‘vanguard’ along behind them.

It is precisely because the revolutionary process is likely to take this form that soviets, when they emerge, are, as Donny correctly says, dominated by reformist politics. Newly radicalised workers, drawn into political activity, and perhaps into class organization for the first time, are likely to gravitate initially towards the reformist parties and not the revolutionary left. The‘council movements’ of Russia 1917 and Germany 1918 were both led to start with by reformists, respectively the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, and the Social-Democrats and Independent Socialists. The difference, of course, was that because the Bolsheviks existed before February 1917, they were able, through persistent propaganda and agitation, to win a majority in the soviets. Workers carry with them into the soviets all their division sand past traditions, which can only be overcome through the intervention of an organized network of revolutionary socialists rooted in the workplaces, in other words a party.

Thus, although ’the Soviet poses the need for the party’, it does not automatically provide the conditions for meeting that need. These conditions involve years of patient work by revolutionaries to lay the foundations of a party.

Soviets, on the other hand, can live and die without recognizing the need for revolutionary political organization. Take the case of Solidarity, which was half-way between a conventional trade-union and organs of workers’ power: the most one can say was that some militants were groping towards the idea of an alternative political leadership to Walesa at the time of the December coup, but this was still far from them seeing ‘the need for the party’.

The above is really nothing but a restatement of Lenin’s case against Luxemburg. Even the greatest workers’ struggles,mass strikes which lead to the formation of soviets and pose the question of state power, do not overcome the unevenness of workers’ consciousness, and produce the centralized political leadership essential in a revolutionary period. Donny, of course, understands this, but the point becomes clouded over in his article because of his tendency to treat the entire class struggle as the gradual growth of soviet power.

The danger is that people will infer, quite contrary to Donny’s own intentions, a conception of the revolutionary process from which the party has been eliminated as inessential. This is encouraged by such statements as: ‘until the end, workers’ power base don councils’ of shop-floor delegates, was clear, the means – the revolutionary party – could not be found’ (p. 16), and ‘the soviet ... the highest form of workplace political organization’ (p. 24). These remarks are very close to council communism, of the sort espoused by the European ultra-left at the end of the First World War, under the inspiration of Pannekoek, Gorter and the like, and following their lead, by various libertarian sects today.

To begin with, it is not true that ‘the soviet’ is‘the highest form of workplace political organization’. Precisely because the soviet unites the class as a whole, all the different levels of consciousness of the proletariat, including very reactionary ideas, are represented within it. The highest form of workers’ consciousness is the revolutionary party, which combines a scientific understanding of society with a combat organization capable of intervening in the class struggle. ‘The highest form of workplace political organization’ is the soviet under revolutionary leadership. It is only under such leadership that the massive strength embodied in the soviet can be mobilized to conquer political power.

This brings out why it is wrong to call soviets the end, and the party the means of the revolutionary process. The goal of that process is communism, in which neither classes, nor the state, nor parties will exist. The means to achieve this objective is the self-emancipation of the working class. This involves bothsoviets, the political form capable of uniting the whole class behind the struggle for power, and the party, which combats the unevenness of consciousness within the class, and is able to persuade the majority of the proletariat of the need to take state power. Soviet sand party are both means, each equally essential to the self-emancipation of the working class. This is to reject both the Stalinist conception that the party alone can achieve socialism, and the council-communist belief that soviets are sufficient to overthrow capitalism.

The confusion induced by some of Donny’s formulations is encouraged by the extreme ambiguity of the notion of ‘workplace politics’ on which he lays such stress. For example, he writes that before 1914 ‘there were indeed many who attempted to build independent revolutionary organizations, but none who came to the idea of workplace political activity’. (p. 16) This is,however, a very misleading way of putting it. Both James Connolly in Ireland and the Socialist Labour Party in Britain saw the workplaces as a central arena for revolutionary politics. What neither understood was that it was essential to build a revolutionary political organization through intervention in the economic class struggle. The reason for this failure was different in each case – Connolly was, for much of his career, a syndicalist who did not see the need for political organization, while the SLP had an extremely propagandist and sectarian conception of the party. It is wholly implausible to suggest that had soviets existed these political failings would have been overcome.

Indeed, it is very easy to disprove this. Donny is right to say that the question of soviet versus parliament was ‘the dividing line between the Second and Third ... Internationals’ (p. 37) Western socialists were won to Bolshevism by the example of the Russian soviets. What this meant, largely, was that existing revolutionary organizations sought to fit the soviets into the political strategies which they had already developed before 1917. Thus in Italy, the Ordine Nuovo group around Gramsci tended towards a syndicalist approach which saw soviets as a development of the commissioni interni (shop stewards’ committees), and accorded very little role to political organization, while Bordiga and his followers reduced the soviets to tools of the party, conceived as a propagandist sect which passively waited for the masses to flock to its banner. An intense political struggle had to be waged throughout the Comintern to combat the old traditions of the European revolutionary left and win them to the lessons of October. The tragedy is that, by the time that the best Western Marxists had begun to understand these lessons (figures like Gramsci and Lukacs,and, on a much smaller scale, the leaders of the Communist Party of Great Britain) the Russian revolution had degenerated into a bureaucratic regime which reduced the Comintern to a tool of Stalin’s diplomacy.

The notion of ‘workplace politics’ simply obscures these issues. All sorts of different political ideologies can root themselves in the workplaces, not merely revolutionary socialism but also various forms of reformism and ultra-leftism. Indeed, reformism's typically the predominant form of ‘political activity in the workplaces’. Even the emergence of the soviets does not change this situation. Reformists and ultra-lefts can turn workers’ councils to their own ends, and prevent them from acting as the basis for the conquest of power by the proletariat.

What revolutionary socialism represents is a distinctive form of ‘workplace politics’, one which orients on the daily struggle of labour against capital, but in order to develop the collective strength and consciousness necessary to overthrow the capitalist state. If we must talk of ‘workplace politics’, then the emphasis should be on ‘workplace politics’. What the self-emancipation of the working class involves is the conquest of political power. The workplaces are central to this process because it is only there that workers can acquire the organization and political understanding required for them to take power.

That takes us, finally, to the distinctiveness of Lenin. Donny, following a number of writers (notably Neil Harding [44]), rightly observes that Lenin until 1914 imagined himself to be an orthodox Marxist, applying the sort of strategy expounded by Kautsky in Germany to the peculiar conditions of Tsarist Russia. He also, as we have seen, draws attention to the way in which these conditions and above all the absence of sharply defined spheres of politics and economics in which a reformist labour bureaucracy could flourish,permitted a revolutionary party rooted in the proletariat to develop. But these valid points are obscured by Donny’s characteristic overstress on soviets:

These factors [i.e. the peculiarities of Russian society] meant that a party orientated on struggle in the workplace could arise without needing the Soviet to show the point of production as the basis of a workers’ state. (p. 27)

Such formulations turn Lenin and the Bolsheviks, like Luxemburg,into the unconscious agents of inevitable historical forces. They skate over the intense political struggles within the Russian revolutionary movement which led to the emergence of the Bolsheviks as a marxist workers’ party. Take What is to be Done? Is its characteristic emphasis on ‘workplace politics’? The answer is, of course, no. Indeed, Russian marxists had, well before1902, developed a considerable capacity for agitation around partial economic demands. The importance of ‘workplace politics’ was a matter of consensus, shared by everyone from the Economists to Lenin. The main thrust of Lenin’s polemic is precisely against those who saw strong workplace organization as the key to the further development of the revolutionary movement. Lenin himself adopts a very different standpoint from any simple emphasis on ‘workplace politics’. His focus instead, and this is true of the whole of his thought, is instead on the primacy of politics – on the manner in which all the partial economic struggles in which workers engage in have a meaning only insofar as they contribute to the development of a movement capable of conquering political power.

Donny quotes Lenin’s famous saying that ‘politics is the most concentrated expression of economics’ [45], but he seems to think that it means simply that revolutionaries have to organize in the workplace. (pp. 35–6) But Lenin meant far more than that. He meant that all the contradictions of class society take concentrated and organized shape within the state apparatus, and that every class struggle can resolve itself ultimately only as a political struggle, as a struggle for state power. Each class brings to that struggle the power and organization peculiar to its position within the relations of production. In the case of the proletariat, that power and organization arise from the economic class struggle within the workplaces, but are only effective when mobilized in the struggle for political power. This requires both soviets, which unite the whole class in this struggle, and a revolutionary party which makes workers conscious of the fact that unless they take power none of their problems can be solved.

It is true, as Donny says, that until 1914 Lenin had not thought seriously about the political form through which workers would take power, partly because he expected only a bourgeois revolution in Russia, partly because it was only the treachery of the SPD in supporting the First World War which made him realize there was something wrong with the ‘orthodox’ marxist theory of the state. Once again, however, I think Donny tends to overemphasize the importance of the soviets in the development of Lenin’s thinking on the state. He suggests that it was the February 1917revolution, and the re-emergence of the soviets in a much more extensive form, which lay behind The State and Revolution. (pp. 35–36) This seems to me misleading. As Donny himself observes, Lenin had already written extensively on the subject in 1916, in notebooks posthumously published under the title of Marxism and the State. Both these notes, and The State and Revolution are concerned chiefly with re-asserting the insistence of Marx and Engels on the class nature of the state and on the necessity of smashing the bourgeois state apparatus in opposition to the parliamentarism of the Second International. Lenin’s return to the marxist classics seems to have been provoked by the debate within the Bolshevik Party prompted by the writings of Bukharin and others on the nature of the imperialist state. [46] In other words, the starting point of Lenin’s thoughts on testate was provided by the attempts by revolutionary socialists to understand the contemporary capitalist state, attempts themselves provoked by the outbreak of imperialist war. Of course,the February revolution gave concrete shape to the abstract concept of ‘smashing’ the state in the form of the soviets, but,as Donny himself acknowledges, The State and Revolution breaks off before Lenin had time to deal with Russia in 1905 and 1917.

Here, as so often in this article, I find myself half-agreeing,and half-disagreeing with Donny, and I suspect he will find himself in much the same position as far as my own arguments are concerned. There is much that is true and useful in The Missing Party. Its weaknesses are ones of formulation and of emphasis.

One can, indeed, understand why Donny made the mistakes to which I have drawn attention. Given the low level of class struggle here and throughout the Western capitalist world, the idea of workers’power, of workers creating soviets and overthrowing the bourgeois state, seems very remote. On the reformist left, it has indeed become fashionable to say that the working class is finished, that it is in the course of actual economic and social disintegration. It is quite natural, in these circumstances, to make the dividing line between reformists and revolutionaries the question of soviet power, of the capacity of the proletariat to overthrow capitalism, and, in a basic sense, of course it is.

Nevertheless, the present downturn in the class struggle will not last indefinitely. When workers once again move into action on a large scale, then there will be many socialists whose politics are essentially reformist or centrist, but whom, under the gravitational pull of the class struggle, will be drawn back towards the working class. Among such people variants of syndicalism, which see workplace organization around economic questions as the core of the struggle for socialism, will be prevalent. They are equally likely to be hostile to the notion of a revolutionary party – to attack revolutionary socialists for ‘putting the interests of the party before those of the class’. Syndicalism, even in its most ‘radical’ forms, does not challenge the power of reformism, basing itself as it does on the division of labour between trade-unionism and parliamentarism.

The danger with the ambiguities and errors to which I have drawn attention in Donny’s article is that they create a theoretical space within which syndicalist politics can take shape. The idea, for example, of a ‘council movement’ widening out from a ‘vanguard’ of highly organized workers can easily encourage revolutionaries to orient on existing shop stewards’ organization, which has to a large extent become a bureaucratic shell as a result of the downturn, rather than seeking to rebuild this organization from below. Again, Donny’s overemphasis on soviets could well feed anti-party tendencies which might well be a feature of the upturn.

None of this is to accuse Donny himself of being a syndicalist or council communist. On the contrary, the whole point of his article is to reassert the central role of the revolutionary party. Hopefully,the clarifications I have tried to make here will make it easier to appreciate the many strengths of The Missing Party.


I am grateful to Chris Harman for his help in writing this article.

1. See T. Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg (London 969), and Lenin (4 vols., London 1975–9), T. Cliff, D. Hallas, C. Harman, L. Trotsky, Party and Class (London 1970), D. Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism (London 1979), J. Molyneux, Marxism and the Party (London 1978).

2. D. Gluckstein, The Missing Party, IS 2 : 22 (Winter 1984). All reference sin the text are to this article.

3. R. Luxemburg, The Mass Strike (Colombo 1970), p. 68.

4. Ibid., p. 17.

5. Ibid., p. 81.

6. Ibid., p. 65.

7. Ibid., p. 75.

8.Ibid., p. 51.

9. Ibid., pp. 65–6.

10. Molyneux, pp. 103–4.

11. R. Luxemburg, Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy, in Selected Political Writings (New York 1971), p. 293.

12. Quoted in Molyneux, p. 113.

13. C. Harman, Party and Class, in Cliff et al., p. 54.

14. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow 1974), Vol. V, p. 386n.

15. G. Lukacs, Lenin (London 1970) pp. 28–9.

16. Quoted, Ibid., p. 26.

17. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 1, pp. 137–8.

18. Molyneux, p. 81.

19. Ibid., p. 107–8.

20. L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (3 vols., London 1967), Vol. 1,p. 310.

21. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast (London 1967), pp. 242–7.

22. A. MacIntyre, Against the Self-Images of the Age (London 1971), p. 59.

23. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 1, pp. 138-9.

24. Ibid., Vol. 1, chs. 1 and 2.

25. See C. Harman, The Lost Revolution (London 1982), ch. 5.

26. Harman, Party and Class, p. 50.

27. Ibid., p. 62.

28. Ibid., pp. 62–3.

29. Ibid., p. 63.

30. See A. Callinicos, The Rank and File Movement Today, IS 2 : 17 (Autumn 1982).

31. Ibid., p 19 (the quotation is from T. Cliff and C. Barker, Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards (London 1966)).

32. Leon Trotsky on China (New York 1976), pp. 319–20.

33. L. Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931–39) (New York 1973), p. 85.

34. See Callinicos, Rank and File Movement.

35. D. Gluckstein, The Workers’ Council Movement in Western Europe, IS 2 : 18 (Winter 1983), p. 12.

36. Callinicos, Rank and File Movement, p. 8.

37. Luxemburg, Mass Strike, p. 63.

38. Ibid., p. 65.

39. See A. Callinicos, Soviet Power, IS (old series) 103 (1977), and Gluckstein, Council Movement.

40. T. Cliff, The Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation (London 1984), pp. 104–8.

41. See Harman, Lost Revolution, p. 72.

42. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. XXX, p. 264.

43. Gluckstein, Council Movement, p. 22.

44. N. Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, Vol. I (London 1977).

45. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. XXXII, p. 32.

46. See M. Sawyer, The Genesis of State and Revolution, Socialist Register 1978.

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