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Donny Gluckstein

The missing party

(Winter 1984)

From International Socialism 2 : 22, Winter 1984, pp. 3–43.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The capitalist system has never been more at risk than in the years following the First World War. In 1917 the Bolshevik revolution inspired a wave of intense class struggle which swept Europe. During the early months of 1919 workers’ councils held effective power into a band which stretched from Hungary and Russia to Austria and Germany. Italy entered ‘two red years’ which culminated in the massive occupation of the factories. Even Britain was for a time on the brink of revolution with the 40-hours’ movement, police strikes in Liverpool and London, and army mutinies in Calais and Rhyl.

Despite the unprecedented level of mass struggle the workers’ movements were defeated one by one and the rule of capital re-imposed. By 1924 only the Soviet state in Russia survived. Trotsky explained the failure of the international revolution in this way: ‘It is all too obvious Just what was lacking in 1919 and 1920: a revolutionary party was lacking. Not until the powerful postwar mass ferment has already begun to ebb did young Communists Parties begin to take shape, and even then only in rough outline.’ [1]

His statement was no exaggeration. When the Russian revolution peaked in October 1917 the Bolsheviks had an organisation of 200,000 workers with many years of political struggle behind them. They published 17 daily papers which had a joint circulation of 320,000 copies. No comparable revolutionary party existed elsewhere. The Hungarian Communists were prisoners of war in Russia when they established their organisation. Just four months later they were propelled into power in an attempt to resolve the chaotic situation in which Hungary found itself. The Communist government here lasted just 133 days.

In Britain the revolutionary current around John Maclean consisted of a tiny handful of militants who managed to publish only three issues of a monthly paper which sold just 3,000 copies. Gramsci’s group in Italy was hardly bigger and claimed a circulation for its fortnightly journal of 5,000. By far the most promising revolutionary organisation outside Russia was the Spartakist League. Yet this entered the revolution with fewer than 3,000 members and only established a central committee to provide effective leadership two days after the revolution had begun.

Why were there no revolutionary parties capable of leading the postwar movements to victory? The standard reformist explanation was developed by Kautsky. It stated that in Russia the repressive conditions of Tsarism forced workers to take an openly revolutionary road, while ‘democracy’ in the West meant then and means now that parliamentary politics are sufficient to transform society. Watered down versions of this argument are still current today. To combat such reasoning it is necessary to demonstrate: (i) that the lack of revolutionary parties outside Russia was not because democracy made them impossible, but because Marxists either did not see the need for such parties or went about building them wrongly; and (ii) that the fundamental lessons of Bolshevism, though coloured by the special conditions of Russia, are still a guide to building revolutionary parties East and West.

Part One: Revolutionary Marxism in the West

A complete explanation of the absence of revolutionary parties in Europe must approach the question on two levels – looking at the objective conditions in which Marxists operated and the way they responded to these conditions in practice. This article will concentrate on the last element for one major reason. For much of the time the revolutionary party must be built against and in spite of prevailing conditions. This is not to say that by a sheer effort of will a mass party can be built during a downturn in class struggle, but that an organisation large enough to be capable of independent initiative must be built under the unfavourable conditions of entrenched capitalism. Inevitably the membership of such an organisation will be quite restricted; but unless the party is built on some scale it will never be able to play a leadership role when the crisis ripens. Thus while mass support for revolutionary ideas will only come about during widescale class struggle, a coherent revolutionary party must be created beforehand. Therefore the conscious activity of revolutionaries, whatever the objective conditions in which they find themselves, is of the utmost importance.

In pre-war Europe there was a conscious revolutionary current, and yet it failed to establish any serious parties of its own. A common explanation for this has been that Rosa Luxemburg, the foremost revolutionary outside Russia, had the wrong line and failed to recognise Lenin’s original contribution to the theory of the party. Put in these individual terms, Lenin is cast in the role of hero and genius while at best Luxemburg is damned with faint praise or is seen as the one who, through her failings was personally responsible for world history since 1919. Lindsay German’s excellent introduction to Cliff’s Rosa Luxemburg sometimes slips into this ‘sin of omission’ approach. By 1919 her failure to build a revolutionary socialist party earlier, meant that she lacked this solid base on which to stand ... In a short space of years, the lack of a party in Germany led to the defeat of the German Revolution, followed by the defeat of socialist hopes on a world scale, the growth of fascism in Germany and Stalinism in Russia. [2] 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.

The explanation of the missing party cannot be approached on a personal level alone. The answer is wider than a comparison of Luxemburg with Lenin for it must show why neither she nor any other Western revolutionary came to the idea of a revolutionary vanguard party. 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? I believe Marxists like Luxemburg did not build their own parties in opposition to the mass reformist parties of the day because no-one saw Workers’ power growing out of politics in the workplace. In other words they has no concept of a party which grew by relating to the class via intervention in workplace struggle. Without such a concrete orientation for day-to-day activity there was no means of relating general Marxist theory about the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism without the practical means of achieving it. The importance of workplace politics, both in the creation of a revolutionary socialist party, and in the eventual seizure of power through assemblies of shopfloor delegates (Soviets), was only understood in Western Europe after the Russian revolution in 1917. But in the pre-war years the Marxism of Luxemburg and her fellow revolutionaries in the West was formed by a quite different historical development.

(i) The ParisCommune and the rise of the Second International parties

Mass political parties have not always existed. They are essentially voluntary organisations of people who share a common attitude towards society and the various classes within it. In Europe such parties only became possible in the era of ‘political freedom’ combined with economic wage slavery initiated by capitalism. Western bourgeois parties are structured by this framework. They accept the formal separation of politics and economics, and structure themselves to run bourgeois democracy within the confines of the nation state. Here the geographical ballot, which enshrines the concept of political equality as distinct from economic equality, is the guiding organisational principle. In contrast to capitalist politicians, genuine Marxists had to draw up the model for their parties on the basis of workers’ needs in struggle. The only guides at the beginning of the century were the high points of struggle in 1848, and above all the Paris Commune of 1871.

The Commune was for Marx an invaluable insight into the process of socialist transformation. It was ‘the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.’ [3] In The Civil War in France he considerably developed his ideas about the capitalist state and the form needed to replace it. In relation to the former, he argued: ‘The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’ [4] As the alternative to the bourgeois state, the Paris Commune had many features of a proletarian dictatorship: ‘Its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time ... the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at all time revocable agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen’s wages.’ [5]

Marx’s judgement was remarkable given the fact that the uprising lasted barely more than two months. He pinpointed features that were hardly noticeable before the Commune was swept away, and yet which have proved to be essential in subsequent revolutions, such as militias and instant recall methods. Nevertheless, The Civil War in France could not fail to be constrained by the limits of the Commune itself, and in particular the structure of industrial production in Paris. In 1848, of the 65,000 firms operating in the capital, only 7,000 employed more than 10 workers. [6] Twenty years later the average size of industrial enterprise in Paris was still 7.7 workers. [7] This meant that independent workplace organisation could not be a means of uniting workers. Class solidarity had to be forged on purely geographical lines through arrondissements (municipal boroughs) and the National Guard (a defensive militia system inherited from the Second Empire).

This affected all aspects of the Commune’s short existence. It was elected by universal male suffrage according to the law of 1849 – a law enacted in the years of reaction that followed the massacre of Parisian workers in June 1848. [8] Of its 80 or so members only 24 were actually workers. [9] The proletariat was the dynamic force inspiring and leading the movement, but the Commune’s first social decrees showed that its immediate concern lay outside production. They consisted of control of house rents and the postponing of overdue bills. [10] The chief working class measures which Marx listed were abolition of night work for journeymen bakers, abolition of punitive fines at work and the sale of pawned articles. [11]

Marx criticised the actions of the Communards for want of audacity (failure to march on Versailles, or to seize the Bank of France etc.), but given the time he was writing, he could not see the limitations of universal male suffrage as opposed to workplace organisation of power. If the development of industry had been more advanced and the Commune had made a radical break with geographical suffrage, then both he and Engels would have had a much clearer view of the alternative structure of workers’ power under developed Western capitalism. Universal suffrage soon became a central feature of the modern bourgeois states that emerged at the time. The spread of the franchise was very rapid in the later years of the century: USA universal white suffrage introduced 1870; Germany universal male suffrage introduced 1871; Britain, most male workers get the vote in 1884; Spain 1890; Belgium 1893 and so on.

Marx had no truck with worship of the principle of democratic election, which he dismissed as ‘twaddle’ and ‘political drivel’. ‘The character of the election does not depend on this name, but on the economic foundation, the economic situation of the voters.’ [12] Nevertheless there was a weakness in his position. In the case of workers’ revolution, unlike any other, the form of seizure of power – workers’ councils or Soviets formed by delegates democratically elected at the point of production – is at the same time a direct measure of the development of the productive forces in society. As Marx puts it himself, the development of capitalism leads to ‘the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.’ [13] Workplace election is therefore an indication of the division of labour into large collective units and the readiness of the productive forces to break through the social relations of production. It is a sign of economic and political maturity. Here the electoral form is very important.

This close relation of political forms and economic development is unique to the workers’ movement. The rise of the bourgeoisie within late feudalism was quite different. It developed its economic power through the market, trading and low level commodity production, in the cracks and crevices of feudal society. During this period (which in countries like Britain and France lasted several centuries) its growing economic power was not matched by an equivalent political influence. Indeed political domination as imposed by Cromwell, Robespierre and the like was only the final act in the long evolution of the capitalist system to maturity.

The working class cannot secure power in the same roundabout way. Economic control can only be won by political means, the seizure of state power. But the chief power of the working class is its collective strength at the point of production. This means that the struggle in the workplace must be part and parcel of the struggle for state power. Both find a concrete expression in a single form – the workers’ council or Soviet which is based on elections at shopfloor level but fights to overthrow the bourgeois state and replace it with a permanent system of Soviet democracy.

For all its daring innovations, the Paris Commune did not, and could not have demonstrated this aspect of workers’ revolution. So the difference between geographical and workplace election was never revealed. Three years after the demise of the Commune Marx could write: ‘the proletariat still acts, during the period of struggle for the overthrow of the old society, on the basis of that old society, and hence also still moves within political forms which more or less belong to it, it has not yet, during this period of struggle, attained its final constitution, and employs means for its liberation which after this liberation fall aside.’ [14] Reformists were to exploit this lack of clarity to deny the revolutionary foundations of Marxism. One notorious example of this was the much-distorted Preface Engels wrote for Marx’s Class Struggles in France. The 1895 Preface was known in the Second International as Engels’ Testament. One passage stated: ‘There had long been universal suffrage in France, but it had fallen into disrepute through the misuse to which the Bonapartist government had put it. After the Commune there was no workers’ party to make use of it ... It was otherwise in Germany. [There] the franchise has been, in the words of the French Marxist programme, transforme, de moyen de duperie qu’il a ete jusqu’ici, en instrument d’emancipation – transformed by them from a means of deception, which it was before, into an instrument of emancipation. [15] The words in French were written by Marx himself.

Of course in context, these statements by Marx and Engels are no more than a partial confusion which runs counter to the spirit of their whole life’s work. Even Kautsky felt moved to defend Engels’ revolutionary intentions in the Preface from distortion. [16] Elsewhere Engels remarked that universal suffrage ‘is the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more ...’ [17] Nevertheless the absence of a clear differentiation between political struggle through workplace or constituency remained an area of concision inherited by even Marx’s best followers.

The period after the Paris Commune was one of political stability and economic growth in Western Europe. In these years, mass collective production spread outside the shores of Britain and extended beyond the original core of textiles to embrace mining, iron and steel manufacture, engineering and chemicals. For the first time there was an objective basis for building parties orientated on the workplace. But unfortunately the very dynamic of capitalist growth weakened the roots of working class militancy and led to a relatively low level of workplace struggle. This meant that socialists were rarely to glimpse the potential of collective shopfloor action, and so were not forced to reconsider their political methods in the light of the current phase of capitalist development. Nevertheless the rise of a massive working class presence in several European countries provided the basis for new political parties, the first and most important of which was the German Social Democratic Party founded in 1875. Though most claimed to be Marxist and joined the Second International, they were all firmly committed to building their organisation on a national, geographical basis, and often patterned themselves according to parliamentary constituencies as the Labour Party does today. Without a theoretical understanding of the importance of politics in the workplace it was exceedingly difficult for revolutionaries to propose a practical alternative to the organisational methods of these Second International parties. Even the brilliant Rosa Luxemburg could not free herself from the constraints of this situation.

(ii) Luxemburg’s dilemma

While Luxemburg is rightly recognised to be in the ‘real Marxist tradition’ [18] there is no doubt that till her brutal murder in January 1919 she remained far removed from the Leninist conception of the party. She distrusted the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) from 1905 onwards, but it took the party’s collapse into chauvinism in 1914 to force her into organising an independent revolutionary faction. And this remained wedded to the social democratic movement until 1918. It took two months of revolution, the open counter-revolutionary preparations of the SPD and the paralysis of the centrist Independent Social Democrats to lead to the founding of a separate party – the German Communist Party.

How can one explain Luxemburg’s refusal to break with the Social Democrats, whose faults she understood better than anyone? Most explanations have concentrated on two areas. The first stresses her reaction to the conservative methods of German social democracy. In connection with this Cliff says: ‘The main reason for Rosa Luxemburg’s underestimation of the factor of organisation probably lies in the need, in the immediate struggle against reformism, for emphasis on spontaneity as the first step in all revolutions. From this one stage in the struggle of the proletariat she generalised too widely to embrace the struggle as a whole.’ [19] This is quite correct, but it does not explain why her response to the problem of mass reformism should be to overestimate spontaneity rather than building an alternative party. The second important reason advanced for Luxemburg’s mistaken position concentrates on the contrast between Lenin’s view of the vanguard and her own. Paraphrasing the latter. Cliff has written that: ‘the need for a revolutionary party ... is a reflection of the unevenness of consciousness in the working class.’ [20] So one explanation for Luxemburg’s failure to build a vanguard party has been that she, with all other social democrats in Western Europe was blind to the different levels of consciousness in the working class: ‘It was not that she overestimated the heights to which workers would spontaneously rise, but that she overestimated the evenness with which this process could occur.’ [21]

But Luxemburg was acutely aware of the different levels of consciousness in the working class and the unevenness of its development. She wrote that ‘in an eventual future period of political mass action the most backward layers of the German proletariat – the land workers, the railwaymen, and the postal slaves – will first of all win the right of combination, and that the worst excrescences of exploitation must first be removed, and on the other hand, the political task of this period is said to be the conquest of power by the proletariat! On the one hand, economic, trade-union struggles for the most immediate interests, for the material elevation of the working class – on the other hand the ultimate goal of social democracy! Certainly these are great contradictions, but they are not contradictions due to our reasoning, but contradictions due to capitalist development. It does not proceed in a beautiful straight line but in a lightning-like zigzag. Just as the various capitalist countries represent the most varied stages of development, so within each country the different layers of the same working class are represented. But history does not wait patiently till the backward countries, and the most advanced layers have joined together so that the whole mass can move symmetrically forward like a compact column. It brings the best prepared parts to explosion as soon as conditions there are ripe for it ... ‘ [22]

Even Karl Kautsky, the man who defined social democratic orthodoxy distinguished between different sections, writing in The Road to Power: ‘However large proletarian organisation may become, in normal non-revolutionary periods it can never include the whole working class of the State, but always merely an elite. This has specific, local or individual characteristics which raise it above the level of the population.’ [23]

It was obvious that even the SPD, with one million members, was a minority in comparison with the German working class of 15 million. The question of building a revolutionary party did not depend on recognising the fact of unevenness, but the political conclusions that might be drawn from it. Luxemburg’s conclusions were radically different from Lenin’s for, while recognising unevenness in the proletariat, she chose to remain in a party broad enough to include the arch-reformist Bernstein. How can this be explained?

Luxemburg’s politics were based on two fundamental beliefs. The first was that through its own mass struggle the working class changes itself and changes society: ‘In the revolution when the masses themselves appear on the battlefield ... class consciousness becomes practical and active. A year of revolution has therefore given the Russian proletariat that ‘training’ which thirty years of parliamentary and trade-union struggle cannot artificially give the German proletariat’. [24] This is the first and absolutely correct promise that she starts from.

The other key plank in her thought was defence of the revolutionary heritage of Marxism and its application to current issues. She made her debut on the German scene with precisely that issue, the pamphlet – Reform or Revolution. In it Luxemburg reasserts the Marxist theory of the state, which is ‘first of all, an organisation of the ruling class.’ [25] As capitalism developed, the state ‘as a set of political and juridical relations, established between capitalist and socialist society a steadily rising wall. This wall is not overthrown, but is on the contrary strengthened and consolidated by the development of social reforms and the course of democracy. Only the hammer blow of revolution, that is to say, the conquest of power by the proletariat, can break down this wall.’ [26]

The role of socialist leadership in this struggle was spelled out clearly in this passage: ‘Our program would be a miserable scrap of paper if it could not serve us in all eventualities, at all moments of the struggle, and if it did not serve us by its application and not by its non-application. If our program contained the formula of the historic development of society from capitalism to socialism. it must also formulate, in all its characteristic fundamentals, all the transitory phases of this development, and it should consequently, be able to indicate to the proletariat what ought to be its corresponding action at every moment on the road toward socialism.’ [27]

It follows from this that she saw a specifically revolutionary party as absolutely necessary: ‘It is not true that socialism will arise automatically from the daily struggle of the working class. Socialism will be the consequence of (1) the growing contradictions of capitalist economy and (2) the comprehension by the working class of the unavoidability of the suppression of these contradictions through a social transformation.[28]

She saw its general role as an active interventionist force: ‘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 ... On the contrary, they must now, as always, hasten the development of things and endeavour to accelerate events.’ [29]

So we have at the roots of her thinking, at the centre of why we still regard Luxemburg as an inspiration today, two entirely correct and important ideas: (i) The need for revolutionary theory and its practical application through a party, (ii) The fact that through the mass struggle the working class can changes itself and the world.

Her organisational conclusions flow from this evaluation of the situation and quite correctly so. Only bureaucrats start with an organisation and then trim their politics to suit its needs. Luxemburg believed the revolutionary party ‘must logically grope on its road of development between the following two rocks: abandoning the mass character of the party or abandoning its final aim, falling into bourgeois reformism or into sectarianism, anarchism or opportunism.’ [30] This idea was expounded in 1900 and was repeated in a different form in her controversy with Lenin: ‘On the one hand we have the mass; on the other, its historic goal, located outside of existing society. On one hand we have day-to-day struggle; on the other, social revolution. Such are the terms of the dialectical contradiction through which the socialist movement makes its way. It follows that this movement can best advance by tacking betwixt and between the two dangers by which it is constantly being threatened. One is the loss of its mass character; the other the abandonment of its goal. One is the danger of sinking back to the condition of a sect; the other, the danger of becoming a movement of bourgeois social reform.’ [31]

Here again the starting point was fundamentally correct. To talk only of final aims and disregard the means of achieving them – the mass transformation of consciousness through class struggle – leads to a sectarian dead end. To immerse the party in current concerns without a view to the final aim of socialist revolution, leads to an equally disastrous reformist dead-end.

Luxemburg saw the traps but fell into both of them. As a member of the Polish revolutionary group, the SDKPiL she was part of a tiny organisation which, apart from a brief growth in 1905 was little more than a circle of talented intellectuals on the margins of the Polish working class. Its chief (and typically sectarian) distinguishing feature was an obsession with the national question based on Luxemburg’s erroneous position. As a member of the SPD in Germany, however, she was tied to a mass reformist party which eventually smashed the German revolution and engineered her murder.

What Luxemburg argued in 1900 regained her guiding organisational principles until her death. Though correct in the abstract, their application involved growing problems. At the turn of the century the German SPD, Under Bebel and Kautsky’s leadership, seemed to the untrained eye to be pursuing precisely the course she herself suggested – building a mass party which rejected the revisionism of Bernstein and acclaimed revolutionary Marxism. But as time went on, the weaknesses in the party became ever more apparent. By 1905 Luxemburg was fighting for the revolutionary idea against the mainstream of the SDP. Her pamphlet on The Mass Strike was directed against two targets; firstly the trade union leaders who rejected strike action because of Its disruption of ‘normal’ bargaining methods; and secondly against the mechanistic conceptions of the SPD leaders who saw the mass strike as a party controlled protest of purely demonstrative character. Already the gap between what Luxemburg thought the SPD should be and what it as was growing.

Steering between the rocks of sectarianism and reformism became harder and harder. In 1905 she wrote: ‘Bebel’s resolution gives a very one-sided and flat interpretation of the mass strike question. When we learnt about it in Jena, some of us decided to put up a fight against it during the discussions so that we could champion the mass strike ... [But] as on several previous occasions, we “extreme leftists” found ourselves being forced to fight, not against Bebel, but together with him against the opportunists.’ [32]

By 1913 the situation had worsened considerably. Now her friend Karski wrote: ‘we three (Luxemburg, Mehring, Karski) ... are of the opinion that the party is undergoing an internal crisis much more serious than the one when revisionism first arose. These words may seem harsh, but it is my conviction that the party is threatening to waste away if matters go on like this. At such a time there is only one hope of redemption for a revolutionary party: the sharpest and most ruthless self-criticism conceivable.’ [33] But the sort of theoretical campaign Karski and Luxemburg proposed did not lead to an organisational break. The situation would have been quite different had it come to practical issues, for as Lukacs explains: ‘On the level of pure theory the most disparate views and tendencies are able to co exist peacefully; antagonisms are only expressed in the forms which can be contained without disrupting it. But no sooner are these same questions given organisational form, than they turn out to be sharply opposed and even incompatible.’ [34]

By 1917 Luxemburg’s position had become impossibly contradictory. Still arguing against a split from social democracy she wrote: ‘However commendable and comprehensible the impatience and bitterness which leads so many of the best elements to leave the party today, a flight remains a flight. It is a betrayal of the masses. They are left choking and struggling in the iron grip of Scheidemann and Legien [35], people who have unconditionally surrendered to the bourgeoisie. One may withdraw from small sects when they do not suit one any longer in order to found new sects ... The discarding of membership cards as an illusion of liberation, is nothing but the illusion, stood on its head, that power is inherent in a membership card. Both are different poles of organisational cretinism, the constitutional sickness of old German Social-Democracy.’ [36]

Was Luxemburg’s absolute refusal to break from the SPD an example of her own organisational cretinism? I think not. Despite her above statement it is no contradiction to state that in Western Europe she was the almost undisputed champion of revolutionary Marxism because, better than anyone else she understood the dynamic of revolutionary change. 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.

This has been explained by a character trait, a certain distaste for humdrum organisational detail and so on. But while this might be true, it does not tell us why she was neither pushed aside by a German Lenin, or why her close friend Jogiches, a man obsessed with the intricacies of revolutionary organisation, could not have filled the gap. It would be wrong to explain Luxemburg’s hesitancy by an obsession with membership figures, otherwise she would not have associated with both the huge SPD and the tiny SDKPiL. Her real concern was that revolutionaries should maintain links with the mass movement. As a consistent political thinker she discounted the trade unions as the channel through which this could be achieved. In this she was more far-sighted than the syndicalists. Indeed she earned the hatred of the union bureaucrats by her brilliant characterisation of union work as ‘a labour of Sisyphus’ – a perpetual struggle to lift working class living standards, which though it builds confidence, on its own can never overturn the system. But if the unions could not replace the work of the party, outside of the SPD she felt there was no mechanism, no practice around which a genuine revolutionary party rather than a sect could coalesce.

The problem she could not solve was how to translate her fundamentally correct theory of socialist change into reality. Of course, the connection between theory and practice is dialectical–what you think affects what you do and vice-versa. So Luxemburg’s theory, deprived of a practical outlet became tied up in its own contradictions and confused. The clearest example of this was the problem of leadership. While she saw this as crucially important, she was driven to separate political and technical direction. In Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy she saw the political tasks of Russia’s leading revolutionaries in this way: ‘a proletarian vanguard, conscious of its class interests and capable of self-directing is only now emerging in Russia. All efforts of socialist agitation and organisation should aim to hasten the formation of such a vanguard’. [37] Yet once the vanguard was organised into the very democratic centralist party she has just proposed, it would become an obstacle: ‘The tendency is for the directing organs of the socialist party to play a conservative role ... which holds up advance on a wider scale.’ [38]

The same contradiction is present in The Mass Strike where she says: ‘the social democrats, as the organised nucleus of the working class, are the most important vanguard of the entire body of the workers ... the political clarity, the strength, and the unity of the labour movement flow from this organisation.’ [39] This is immediately negated when she discusses the way such clarity, strength and unity operates on the ground: ‘There are quite definite limits set to initiative and conscious direction. During the revolution it is extremely difficult for any directing organ of the proletarian movement to foresee and to calculate which occasions and factors can lead to explosion and which cannot.’ [40] The distinction she was making was summed up in this formulation: ‘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.’ [41] It is obviously nonsense to separate political and technical leadership in this mechanical way, and most uncharacteristic of Luxemburg’s dialectical method. Any political lead – a slogan, a demand – automatically implies technical tasks. To argue, for example, that a strike must be spread, means sending out flying pickets, arranging transport and so on. Even basic solidarity requires the printing of collection sheets or the organisation of blacking and delegations. The agile mind of Luxemburg seems to have stumbled over this most evident of points.

To sum up, 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 unions made a sharp division between politics and economics, the ‘maximum’ programme of revolution and the ‘minimum’ programme of immediate reform. 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 shopfloor delegates, was clear, the means – the revolutionary party – could not be found.

(iii) Alternatives to Luxemburgism

Luxemburg has been criticised for failing to split from the mass reformist SPD in the prewar years. But in the absence of an alternative revolutionary practice based on politics in the workplace, her position retained a certain validity. This is clear if we compare the fate of her political current which led to the most successful postwar Communist Party, with those of revolutionaries who did break from the reformist parties but had no firm political practice through which they could operate.

There were indeed many who attempted to build independent revolutionary organisations, but none of them came to the idea of workplace political activity. Most remained impotent sects or actually became obstacles to the building of revolutionary parties in the post war period. The idea that ‘if only Luxemburg had broken from the SPD before the war everything would have turned out alright’, is put into question by these examples.

Independent revolutionary opposition to reformism was divided into two camps: one ended in narrow ‘political’ sectarianism: the other led to ‘anti-political’ syndicalism. The revolutionaries who split on political grounds tended to emphasise the final aims of socialism at the cost of cutting themselves off from the workers’ movement. The syndicalists stressed the immediate trade union struggle but effectively discarded politics and the winning of state power on the way.

Britain: The British left produced extreme versions of both types of movement. On the one hand there was the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) which split from the main Marxist party at the turn of the century to campaign for the ‘maximum’ programme – abolition of money and so on. Slightly less lunatic was the British Socialist Party (BSP) which propagandised for socialism but considered workplace struggle to be ‘a field with which they had nothing to do’. [42] For them ‘The Socialist Party was not out for the petty-fogging reforms which the trade unions were striving for’. [43]

The more diffuse syndicalist current was represented by Tom Mann’s Industrial Syndicalist Education League. Mann wanted a movement for ‘direct action’ as opposed to parliamentary debate. It had to be ‘Revolutionary in aim, because it will be out for the abolition of the wages system ...’ [44] Discussing the means of achieving this revolution Mann wrote: ‘The engines of war to fight the workers’ battle to overthrow the capitalist class, and to raise the general standard of life while so doing – must be of the workers’ own making. The Unions are the workers’ own.’ [45]

Between political sectarianism and syndicalism was the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), a party which squabbled with everyone else but believed in revolutionary trade unions. Its attempt to build them failed dismally.

For all their verbal radicalism, without an orientation on workplace politics the political and syndicalist currents rarely went further than Sunday morning soap-box oratory on the one hand and trade union militancy on the other.

Ireland: Here the two alternatives were summed up by the work of one man – James Connolly. He understood that: ‘The political institutions of today are simply the coercive forces of capitalist society.’ [46] From this he concluded that ‘the fight for the conquest of the political state is not the battle, it is only the echo of the battle. The real battle is the battle being fought out every day for the power to control industry, and the gauge of the progress of that battle is not to be found in the number of votes making a cross beneath the symbol of a political party, but in the number of these workers who enrol themselves in an industrial organisation [i.e. the trade unions]’. [47] Connolly’s syndicalist opposition to the state became simply the building of the Transport Union.

When the outbreak of the World War revealed the inadequacy of trade union action, Connolly moved from adaptation to the immediate concerns of the class to substituting for the mass movement by military means: ‘We believe that in times of peace we should work along the lines of peace ... in times of war we should act as in war ...’ The Citizen’s Army did not base its strategy on the tempo of the class struggle but on military considerations: ‘the “far-flung battle line” of England is weakest at the point nearest its heart, that Ireland is in that position of tactical advantage ... [So] the time , for Ireland’s battle is NOW. the place for Ireland’s battle is HERE.’ [48]

Connolly’s search for a revolutionary alternative to the stale politics of the Second International proved fruitless in the end. His first approach concentrated on the shopfloor, but politics were put aside. When he did come to address the conquest of state power, the earlier workplace orientation was jettisoned and militarism substituted for mass action.

Holland: According to one history of the Dutch labour movement ‘Holland was the first country in which differences of opinion be between revolutionaries and revisionists led to a complete split, something which only happened elsewhere during the war.’ [49] The formal split from the Second International took place fully three years before the final separation of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in Russia during 1912. Inspired by Anton Pannekoek, who waged an open struggle against Kautsky from 1910, a new party grew up around the De Tribune journal.

It is interesting to note that Pannekoek came closer than anyone else outside Russia to posing the idea of independent workplace political organisation. This fact was later recognised by Lenin in The State and Revolution. Pannekoek’s arguments helped define the ground upon which the split took place, but there were problems with them. His idea of workplace organisation was not based on any concrete examples but rather on inspired guesswork. The new labour institution of which he spoke was posed in semi-mystical terms as a ‘spiritual organisation of the proletariat’. [50] Because of this vagueness, the relationship between the new party and the class remained in an abstract spiritual form which could not serve as the basis for building an effective party. Thus it was that the Dutch revolutionary group was no more successful than the other splits. By the end of the war it was just another vehemently anti-parliamentary sect which became a thorn in the side of the Communist International.

Italy: Within the Italian Socialist Party Amadeo Bordiga built a tightly organised revolutionary faction from 1912 onwards. Later he claimed that its principles were the same as those of Lenin in What is to be Done? [51] However the idea of workplace politics was entirely absent and only the idea of rigorous centralism was adopted. So while Bolshevism showed great tactical flexibility and skill in adapting to the rapid shifts in the mass movement, Bordigism fell immediately into mould of sectarian politics. The revolutionary conquest of state power became everything while the immediate struggle of the class was seen as a diversion. Eventually its main policy was reduced to abstention from voting in elections. It became a classic sect which dismissed all struggle for reform as an irrelevant palliative.

Although Bordiga’s group provided the organisational basis for the Italian Communist Party in 1921, its sectarian attitude cost the new party much vital support, for it alienated the pro-Bolshevik majority in the Socialist Party, many of whom preferred to remain with the old party, despite its open centrism and reformism, rather than throw in their lot with Bordiga. It took all the political skill of Gramsci, who developed an understanding of workplace politics in the years after the Russian revolution, to win back some of the ground the Communist Party had lost.

Germany: This grand tour of Europe ends with Luxemburg’s home territory of Germany. Here was the best testing ground for the thesis that all the left had to do was formally break with Kautskyism in order to create a healthy revolutionary party. There were in fact two groups of socialists who split from the SPD early in the war. One grew up in Berlin around Julian Borchardt’s newspaper, Lichtstrahlen. Borchardt attended the Zimmerwald international socialist conference during the war and supported Lenin’s revolutionary defeatist line against the centrist majority. Yet by the end of the war he had retreated into pure anarchism.

A more important group was based in Bremen. Outside of Scandinavia it maintained closer contact with the Bolsheviks than practically any other section in Europe. These ‘Left Radicals’ produced the Arbeiterpolitik newspaper and as early as March 1916 decided to establish an independent revolutionary party. This was achieved in 1917 and took the name of German International Socialist Party (ISPD). The ISPD was scathing in its criticism of Luxemburg’s refusal to leave the mass reformist parties. Its leaders, Johann Knief and Paul Frölich, were probably the people against whom Luxemburg was polemicising in the 1917 quote above.

Yet a split was no guarantee of the correct line. Although the ISPD had regular contact with Bolsheviks such as Radek, and carried up-to-date articles by Bukharin and Lenin on the ripening Russian revolution, Knief’s main explanation for the collapse of the Second International was that it laid too much stress on strong organisation: ‘Generally workers realise that the state is reactionary ... But at the same time not so many understand that the Party bureaucracy constitutes a much more dangerous reactionary force. As long as workers stick with the present organisations with their great bureaucratic machines they will be drawn even further into the bourgeois camp.’ [52] The alternative form proposed by Arbeiterpolitik was neither a party nor a union but a ‘unity organisation’ (Einheitsorganisation) – a hybrid combination of both. [53]

In 1918 Luxemburg’s Spartakist League and the ISPD merged to found the Communist Party. At the Congress Frölich argued for a policy of ‘workers out of the unions’, [54] and the ultra-left also out-voted the Spartakist leaders on the question of participation in parliamentary elections even for purely propagandist purposes. Indeed the early years of the Communist Party were marred by constant in-fighting between Paul Levi (who bore the mantle of Luxemburgism after the murder of Luxemburg) and groups supporting the old ‘Left Radical’ positions. The latter eventually split off to form the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD), a group which fought Leninist leadership of the Communist International. Without the guiding light of a workplace political orientation, these German revolutionaries soon foundered on the rocks of sectarian impotence.

These numerous examples underline the point that the problem of the missing party could not be solved by a simple rejection of reformism, coupled with the will to build a new revolutionary organisation. The question of how to build a new party was still to be answered.

The chief difficulty was how could an independent revolutionary organisation related to the working class without sacrificing political principles in the immediate struggles. The answer lay in a recognition of the possibilities offered by the current phase of capitalist development with its creation of large factories and a new potential for collective political power founded on the point of production. Here was fertile ground for building a revolutionary party. But as long as the stable growth of capitalism sapped the roots of mass militancy in Western Europe, it was exceedingly difficult for revolutionaries to develop their theory to cope with this new situation.

The impetus for progress had to come from outside, and there was one country which, though partaking of the latest developments in capitalist industry, escaped the dampening of class struggle. That country was Russia.

(iv) The Russian revolutions as the solution to the problems of Luxemburgism

As we have seen, the Marxist understanding of the revolutionary process at the turn of the century came from the Paris Commune, which put no emphasis on workplace organisation. The advent of the Russian Soviet might have changed this. Although it began as a strike committee with the aim of winning immediate economic demands, the Tsarist state soon recognised it to be a direct political challenge to its survival and acted to smash it. The best Western analysis of the 1905 Russian revolution came from the pen of Rosa Luxemburg. However for reasons which we shall consider later, Luxemburg’s Mass Strike pamphlet completely ignored the Soviet. Nevertheless her brilliant account of the revolution and its relevance to socialists in the rest of Europe was a tremendous advance in Marxism. It began the urgent task of demolishing the many obstacles which the objective conditions of Western capitalism and the growing reformist bureaucracy of the SPD had placed in the way of revolutionary practice.

In particular it insisted on the relationship between politics and economics, between action as a class and sectional struggle. Here, was the connection of the maximum programme of the revolutionary overthrow of the state and the minimum programme of immediate struggle. But there was a basic weakness in her approach. She still viewed the revolution from an abstract viewpoint which overlooked the practical activity of human beings which shapes any great historical event. This is clear in the following description of a mass strike: ‘Every great political mass action, after it has attained its political highest point, breaks up into a mass of economic strikes. And that applies not only to each of the great mass strikes, but also to the revolution as a whole. With the spreading, clarifying and involution of the political struggle, the economic struggle not only does not recede, but extends, organises and becomes involved in equal measure. Between the two there is the most complete reciprocal action.’ [55] This is perfectly correct on paper, but it does not explain how economics and politics relate on the ground. The same problem appeared when Luxemburg talked about reformism in the Mass Strike pamphlet: ‘whether they stand aside or endeavour to resist the movement, the result of their attitude will only be that the trade-union leaders, like the party leaders in the analogous case, will simply be swept aside by the rush of events, and the economic and the political struggles of the masses will be fought out without them.’ [56]

In the Mass Strike Luxemburg showed the heights to which the workers’ movement could climb, and challenged the increasingly passive leadership of the SPD to rise to the occasion. Though it took Marxist theory many steps forward the pamphlet’s abstractness meant that its formulations could not serve as a guide to action. Still the key concept was missing – the point of production as the place where the economic power of the mobilised working class can be transformed into a political struggle. And as long as this was so, Luxemburg could not conceive of a party separating from the SPD, retaining its links with the workers’ movement, but without degenerating into a sect.

Observing workers’ struggle from the outside is not at all the same as actively participating in it. Although Luxemburg went to Poland to see events at first hand she never confronted the sort of immediate problems that the Bolsheviks in 1905 had to solve on a day to day level. Luxemburg always talked in terms of the masses on the one hand and the role of vanguard leadership on the other. But in a real conflict the relationship between the vanguard and the mass is extremely complex. The vanguard may be one or two socialists in an office or or factory, and the mass, the 10 workmates they see every day. In such a workplace, leadership in struggle is an art in which tactics and strategy, the development of a cadre, judgement of the weak points in the enemy camp and so on, are immediate practical concerns.

Without a workplace orientation, Luxemburg’s political practice did not take her beyond the framework of the SPD. Her political leadership consisted of brilliant articles published alongside mountains of reformist dross in SPD controlled newspapers. At such a level, her understanding of the unevenness of the class was not a guide to action. She never felt the need to identify the minority of workplace activists who played a leading role in the minor daily struggle of the class.

The 1905 revolution, through the work of Luxemburg, blew like a fresh wind through the stale corridors of German Social Democracy. But still criticism of the SPD was at the level of propaganda. Only after 1917, when the historical tasks begun in 1905 were finally completed, was the problem of party/class relations finally solved. 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 criticised parliamentarism in words, the Soviet itself established an alternative source of authority which challenged and ultimately overthrew its enemy. Where Luxemburg predicted that reformist leaders would simply be passed over, the Soviet, as an independent rank and file organisation, 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 into the concern of the whole class.

However the Soviet state is merely the 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 organisation 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 mass rank and file organisation of the sort represented by Soviets.

The way in which the two are connected can be demonstrated in every genuine workplace struggle. The first argument in any dispute must be that workers’ will win nothing by waiting for reformists either in parliament or union HQ to act for them but must fight on the basis of their own strength and the solidarity of other sections. Even a small strike can pose the question of state power in a much more radical way than even the best written article. A picket line may be broken by the courts and police or maintained by mass mobilisation – here is a microcosm of the struggle for power in society.

All these points were demonstrated with the greatest clarity by the Russian revolution of 1917. Though they had been obscured in Western Europe during the relatively quiet years before the First World War, events in Russia and within Germany itself soon helped to clear the path to a new understanding of class struggle and the means by which a revolutionary party could be built. It was a mark of Luxemburg’s intellectual honesty and thoroughness that in 1918 she broke free from her previous position. Until then she believed that revolutionaries had no choice but to relate to the masses through the Social Democratic parties because they must have links with the masses at all costs. As soon as an alternative means of relating to the class was discovered in the Russian Soviet and their German equivalent – the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, Luxemburg broke to form her own independent party.

Granted that this was far too late, but still the theoretically liberating effect of the discovery of workplace politics shone out of her speech to the founding congress of the German Communist Party: ‘We have to seize power, and the problem of the seizure of power assumes this aspect; what, throughout Germany can each Workers’ and soldiers’ council achieve? ... the members of our own party and the proletarians in general must be schooled and disciplined. Even where workers’ and soldiers’ councils already exist, these councils are as yet far from understanding the purposes for which they exist ... We have, happily, advanced since the days when it was proposed to “educate” the proletariat socialistically. Marxists of Kautsky’s school are, it would seem, still living in those vanished days. To educate the proletarian masses socialistically meant to deliver lectures to them. But it is not by such means that the proletarians will be schooled. The workers, today will learn in the School of action.’ [57]

Part Two: Revolutionary Marxism in Russia

The European left was brought to a realisation of the importance of workplace politics through the mass struggles they witnessed during the war, but above all by the experience of the Russian revolution and in particular the close interaction between the Bolshevik party and the Soviets. However the particular course that events took in 1917 had been predicted by no-one. Although the Bolshevik party had been built upon a tradition of workplace activity that made it unique, even Lenin was unaware of this fact, for the development of the new orientation had been a virtually unconscious process. In 1913 Lenin, though critical of certain individuals in the German labour movement could still write: ‘German Social-Democracy has very great merits. It has a theory, strictly worked out owing to the fight waged by Marx ... It has a mass organisation, newspapers, trade unions, political unions – that same mass organisation which is becoming so clearly crystallised in our country in the form of the victory which the Marxist-Pravda-ists [ie Bolsheviks] are gaining everywhere ...’ [58] Strangely enough, the conscious realisation that Bolshevism was a radically new type of political party with its own practice centred on workplace politics, came to Russia’s revolutionaries by the same path through which it came to the West Europeans, by a discovery of the Soviet as the highest form of workplace political organisation.

(i) Bolshevism and the peculiarities of Russian historical development

Because Lenin and Luxemburg disagreed many times, some people have seen the differences between them as fundamental. The best known example of this was Bertram Wolfe’s renaming of Luxemburg’s Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy as Leninism or Marxism. What such people overlook is that these debates took place within a broad framework of agreement. On basic questions Lenin and Luxemburg shared similar positions (although in Lenin’s case they were usually expressed in a more extreme polemical form). In What is to be Done? he campaigned for a strong revolutionary party united by Marxist theory. Yet Lenin also had an understanding of the ability of mass struggle to transform history: ‘We are able to appreciate the importance of the slow, steady and often imperceptible work of political education which Social Democrats have always conducted and always will conduct. But we must not allow what in the present circumstances would be still more dangerous – a lack of faith in the powers of the people. We must remember what a tremendous education and organisational power the revolution has, when mighty historical events force the man in the street out of his remote garret or basement corner, and make a citizen of him. Months of revolution sometimes educate citizens more quickly and fully than decades of political stagnation.’ [59]

Yet in his case these ideas did not lead to the mass of contradictions that left Luxemburg isolated and helpless at the outbreak of war. By that time he had a vanguard revolutionary party tempered by the experience of 11 years of revolution and organised retreat, growth and consolidation. To understand the difference between Luxemburg and Lenin one must look at more than contrasting temperaments and consider the peculiarities of Russian historical development. [60]

Russia in the 1900s was a remarkable mixture of social formations. Peasants made up 80% of the population. Ruling over them was an autocratic monarchy little changed since the Middle Ages. At the same time the country had a capitalist class which was numerically tiny and politically dependent on Tsarism for its survival. But the most remarkable feature of Russia was its working class. Though only 3 million strong, many workers were employed in large-scale modern industry. This put them more in tune with developed Western conditions than the workers of Paris in 1871 during the Commune. Thus in 1902 39% of Russian workers were in factories over 1,000 strong. [61] The comparable figure for Britain today is 34%. [62] While Russian workers were comparable to those in pre-war Europe on one level, the unusual social conditions prevailing under Tsarism encouraged a level of militancy not seen elsewhere. In the 10 years preceding the 1905 revolution, for example, an average of 493,000 workers struck each year. The equivalent figures for Germany and Britain were 84,000 and 136,000 respectively. Yet the working classes of these two countries were over three and 4 times larger than the Russian.

This unusual combination of factors led Trotsky to argue that: ‘So far as its direct and indirect tasks are concerned, the Russian revolution is a “bourgeois” revolution because it sets out to liberate bourgeois society from the chains and fetters of absolutism and feudal ownership. But the principal driving force of the Russian revolution is the proletariat, and that is why, so far as its method is concerned, it is a proletarian revolution.’ [63] Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was dramatically confirmed in 1917. In Russia the working class was affected by the political impotence of the bourgeoisie and the fact that the final enemy in every serious conflict was therefore an autocratic, rather than bourgeois state. This had a number of implications.

Firstly, the parliament (Duma) only came into existence in 1906. It clearly had very little influence over Tsarism and was itself the product of a revolution rather than (as in the West) an alternative to revolution. Although the demand for a genuine parliament – the Constituent Assembly – was popular right up until 1917, it was always an abstract slogan rather than a living institution. The real importance of the demand for a Constituent Assembly was, in the eyes of the proletariat, that it was the only alternative consciously posed to the Tsarist state.

It is no contradiction to affirm that the demand for the Assembly led directly away from parliamentarism. On 9 January 1905 thousands marched to present a petition to the Tsar. ‘At the head of everything, it placed the convening of a Constituent Assembly by universal and equal suffrage.’ [64] The murderous repression which met the marchers began a revolution from which the Soviet was born. When the Soviet appeared for a second time in 1917, the Bolsheviks had little difficulty in convincing the majority of workers that it was a much better system than the Assembly. Parliamentarism was shown to have very weak roots indeed.

Secondly the division between the sectional struggle and class struggle was much less wide than in Western Europe. This too was rooted in economic development. In Britain, industrial technology developed gradually over a long period. This meant that in the 1850s certain groups such as engineering workers were able to form ‘model unions’ based on exclusive control of craft knowledge. By carefully restricting entry into the trade they kept their skills at a premium and so extracted concessions from employers. Sectional organisation was thus of immediate advantage to those workers Engels called ‘the labour aristocracy’. The same pattern applied elsewhere in Europe. In Germany, for reasons similar to Britain, 500,000 engineers had union recognition by 1912. Despite its size, coal mining which had free entry into the trade, had only 77 miners who had won recognition. The extra bargaining power derived from the scarcity of skill was an important lever which some German workers used to raise organisation in the face of stiff employer resistance. But the result was often a sectional attitude and conservatism. This was much less the case in Russia where modem industry required less specialist skills and where, to all intents and purposes, all workers were barred from effective sectional organisation.

The contrast was greatest in printing. Because of its history, this industry has traditionally been one of the most sectionalist and labour aristocratic trades in Western Europe. Yet the Moscow printers’ strike of 1905 showed how things worked in Russia: ‘The typesetters at Sytin’s print-works in Moscow struck on 19 September. They demanded a shorter working day and higher piecework rate per 1,000 letters set, not excluding punctuation marks. This small event set off nothing more nor less than the all-Russian political strike – the strike which started over punctuation marks and ended by felling absolutism.’ [65]

In general, however, the connection between the section and the class, economics and politics, is rarely automatic. The two are joined by the combination of objective factors such as state intervention, and the subjective response of the class. In the West trade union and reformist party leaders make a sharp division between political and economic issues, seeking to put a brake on the development of solidarity whenever it threatens to burst out of established channels. In Russia economic reformism through trade unions faced the same difficulties as parliamentary reformism in gaining a foothold. Without the possibility of trade unions there could be no union bureaucracy. [66]

Finally these political and economic conditions obviously had an organisational effect weeding out many forms that took root in the West. This was clearly revealed by the fate of the Economists. This group rejected the political struggle and party organisation to concentrate solely on economic grievances. It came into existence around 1897 and had died out by 1903. Economism reflected the first phase of working class development which grew from isolated sectional struggles. But very soon Tsarist repression forced workers to go beyond this to take on broad, and therefore, political struggle. Elsewhere in Europe the Economists would have been assured places in the trade union bureaucracy, while the most radical might have become prominent syndicalists. As it was, economism was merely an infantile disorder of the Russian labour movement which it soon outgrew, helped not a little by a barrage of polemics from Lenin.

These factors 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. This much was borne out in the earliest stages of Bolshevism. From the first this party was unique in the Second International though it was quite unconscious of this fact. Take for example the concept of the revolutionary party as the organisation of the vanguard. This was talked about in Germany, but was never used as a guide to action. Those revolutionaries who did try to separate the most advanced elements from the rest ended in sectarianism. This was not the case in Russia. Here the idea of a vanguard party provided the basis for a split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1903 but the result was not an impotent sect as elsewhere. The reason for this was the daily practice of the Bolsheviks, a practice which guaranteed that though the party maintained the highest level of principled politics it was always in contact with the masses.

In Western Europe party life was structured around the parliamentary constituency, hence it was geographical. For much of their history, the Bolsheviks never had to work for elections, and when they did the Duma voting system was on an industrial basis. Quoting an old Bolshevik, John Molyneux has shown that ‘during all periods the lower party organisation of the Bolsheviks existed at the place of work rather than at the place of residence.’ [67] This gave revolutionary work a basis, for it meant that the final goal of the revolution could be related to the immediate struggle in a real way. Bolshevik factory cells ‘utilised all the grievances in the factories; the gruffness of the foremen, deductions from wages, fines, the failure to provide medical aid in accidents, etc. for oral agitation at the bench, through leaflets, meetings at the factory gates or in the factory yards, and separate meetings of the more class-conscious and revolutionary workers. The Bolsheviks always showed the connection between the maltreatment of factories, and the rule of the autocracy.[68]

This structure was not adopted because Lenin saw that the germ of the Soviet state was found at the point of production (his theory of the development of the revolution put him far from this view); but the extreme conditions of struggle under the autocracy forced revolutionaries to build where the class felt its greatest strength: ‘Now about the factory circles. These are particularly important to us: the main strength of the movement lies in the organisation of the workers at the large factories, for the large factories (and mills) contain not only the predominant part of the working class as regards numbers, but even more as regards influence, development, and fighting capacity. Every factory must be our fortress.’ [69]

This concentration on the factory was not a sign of economism. for the Bolshevik’s industrial base was indissolubly tied to political struggle against the state. Compare Lenin’s words on party factory cells with a similarly expressed idea of Connolly’s: ‘In the light of ... industrial unionism every fresh shop or factory organised under its banner is a fort wrenched from the control of the capitalist class and manned with the soldiers of the revolution.’ [70] Bolshevik factory cells gave contact with the masses, but this was combined with a revolutionary political programme that led away from trade union sectionalism towards class action against the state. The Bolshevik party, unlike a union exercised ‘the greatest possible centralisation ... with regard to the ideological and practical leadership of the movement.’ [71] Thus Bolshevism kept an all-important contact with the masses without adapting to the class as it existed in its oppressed state. The party structure was the result of Lenin’s organisational skills and the political conditions of Russia. It had to be a movement based on the power inherent in the modern industrial process where collective production is paramount. Any other form would have been ineffectual against the Tsarist enemy, a force so repressive that even the reformist illusions of parliamentarism were excluded.

In such conditions leadership was only possible if combined with solid organisation. The necessary link of political and technical direction, which Luxemburg avoided for fear of delivering the masses into the hands of reformist bureaucrats, was also encouraged by conditions in Russia. This was shown in striking form when Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split at the 1903 Congress. The difference between Lenin’s definition of membership as ‘personal’ participation’ in party organisation or Martov’s looser ‘personal association under the direction’ of a party organisation may seem small. But for someone building a new party from scratch in terribly difficult conditions, it was enormous. As Lenin said, when discussing the split: ‘Unity on questions of programme and tactics is an essential but by no means sufficient condition for Party unity, for the centralisation of Party work ... [it] requires in addition, unity of organisation ... The fact that the organisation of our work lags behind its content is our weak point ... The lame and underdeveloped character of the form makes any serious step in the further development of the content impossible.’ [72]

What in Luxemburg had been abstract and general – the link between political leadership and mass action, becomes in Lenin concrete and precise – the indissoluble practical links between a revolutionary political organisation based around struggle at the point of production and the working class. In Russia a revolutionary party built on workplace intervention was possible without an understanding of the workers’ state to which it was leading. The workplace foundations of Bolshevism combined with a principled revolutionary leadership meant the party could be wrong about Kautskyism, the nature of the parliamentary state and the trajectory of the coming revolution, without being shipwrecked by sectarian isolation or reformist compromise.

However Bolshevik revolutionary practice was never easy to maintain. Quite apart from the threat of the secret police, it meant a struggle against the prevailing ideology. To achieve a method which made no concession to workers’ prevailing ideas and yet was tied indissolubly to the working class required a strict democratic centralism. Lenin’s party had roots in the masses, but also a centre removed (both by its centralism and its physical exile) from the pressures to adapt to society’s ideas. Democratic centralist organisation allowed for extremely sharp tactical turns that compensated for any mistaken theoretical positions. The personal importance of Lenin in 1917 derives from the need for brilliant leadership to overcome the gaping holes in the party’s theory and the fact that he alone was able to provide that. This was clearest in the period of March to April 1917 when the Bolsheviks entirely revised their programme to campaign for ‘all power to the Soviets’.

The development of Bolshevism was no simple progression from point A to point B. For much of the time Lenin was groping in the dark, elaborating methods whose true purposes were only understood much later. The party was built in struggle against what was regarded as the chief and only possible political adversary in Russian conditions – the Tsarist autocracy. It could grow with a constituent assembly as its chief demand and with confusion over the precise nature of a workers’ state. No western revolutionary party could have been built with such a lack of clarity. But because the party instrument was ready it could be manoeuvred from struggling for a parliament to a campaign for proletarian power which unexpectedly became possible during the months after February 1917. Trotsky’s belief that Russia’s exceptional development made it possible for his country to be the first rather than the last to achieve proletarian dictatorship proved just as true of the revolutionary party, which was the first rather than the last.

(ii) Lenin and Trotsky on the 1905 Soviets

Lessons drawn from Russia were the only solution to the problem of the missing party in the West, where low levels of militancy left the potential of workplace politics hidden. But there were obstacles in the way of anyone realising this fact. The greatest problem was that the Bolsheviks were unaware that their stress on workplace politics was a unique contribution to Marxism.

Consciousness of the special significance of their method was brought about only gradually and through the development of the Soviet. This body came to show that the point of production was the source of power in a workers’ state. As early as 1905 Lenin wrote: ‘I believe ... that politically the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies should be regarded as the embryo of a provisional revolutionary government.’ [73] Cliff sees in this evidence that for Lenin the Soviet ‘was not only a new form of organisation of the proletariat in struggle; it was the form of future workers’ power.’ [74]

This judgement needs some qualification. While Lenin certainly recognised the new institution was important, his insight was a partial one which only developed fully in 1917. In 1905 Lenin used the term ‘provisional revolutionary government’ in a very specific context. It was part of his formula for Russia’s revolutionary development which he saw as passing through a ‘democratic dictatorship of proletariat and peasantry’. Lenin’s view excluded both Trotsky’s arguments about permanent revolution and the Mensheviks’ theory. Lenin characterised the former as ‘the absurd, semi-anarchist idea that the maximum programme, the conquest of power for a socialist revolution, can be immediately achieved.’ [75] However he took a much harder line than the Mensheviks who believed: ‘the bourgeoisie must come to power, establish a bourgeois-democratic republic which will sweep away the remnants of pre-capitalist social relations ... The political role of the working class, is therefore, to push the bourgeoisie forward against Tsarism.’ [76]

Lenin said that the bourgeoisie suffered from such ‘instability, half-heartedness and treachery’ [77] that it could not seriously challenge the autocracy: ‘No, only the people, can constitute a force capable of gaining “a decisive victory over tsarism”, in other words, the proletariat and peasantry ... “A decisive victory of the revolution over tsarism” is the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry ... But of course it will be a democratic not a socialist dictatorship ... At best it may bring about a radical redistribution of the land to the advantage of the peasants, establish consistent and full democracy, including the republic ... and last but not least – carry the revolutionary conflagration into Europe.’ [78]

In this scheme the provisional revolutionary government had a definite but limited role. First of all it was provisional. Countering any idea that it might be a permanent workers’ institution replacing parliament Lenin said: ‘This cannot be, if we are to speak not of accidental transient episodes, but of a revolutionary dictatorship that will be at all durable and capable of leaving some trace in history.’ [79] The provisional revolutionary government was merely a necessary stage towards parliament, its task being to secure ‘complete freedom for electoral agitation and of convening, on the basis of universal, equal, direct suffrage and secret ballot a constituent assembly that will really express the will of the people.’ [80] So Lenin saw the Soviet’s role confined to the struggle for power and a short transitional period before the constituent assembly. He wrote at one point: ‘The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies is not a parliament of labour and not an organ of proletarian self-government. It is not an organ of government at all, but a fighting organisation for the achievement of definite aims.’ [81]

His position in 1905 certainly cleared the way for a new understanding of the Soviet and the workers’ state in 1917, but it went no further than that. Lenin still did not differentiate himself from Kautsky’s belief in parliament, nor did he feel the need to. If the immediate task is to win parliamentary rule in the first place, there is no need to worry unduly about the workers’ state or proletarian dictatorship which is to follow. Lenin felt that universal suffrage was an adequate method, if not for the provisional revolutionary government, but at least for the constituent assembly.

It was not that Lenin was a parliamentary cretinist as Kautsky proved to be, but simply that in Russia, unlike the West, a revolutionary was not measured by the degree to which he or she fought for workers’ self-activity in conscious opposition to the parliamentary straitjacket. Still, as long as the Bolshevik party conceived its task as achieving a democratic dictatorship of proletariat and peasantry through a geographically elected parliament, its use of workplace politics was seen as a purely local deviation from the norm of Marxism as defined by Karl Kautsky and the Second International.

Before passing to Trotsky, it should be noted that Luxemburg’s view of Russian development was somewhere between the idea of permanent revolution and Lenin’s democratic-dictatorship. [82] She ignored the Soviet for two reasons; firstly because like everyone else (with the partial exception of Trotsky) she saw it not as a form of the workers’ state but a means of struggle; and secondly because she regarded the technical direction furnished by the Soviet as unimportant in comparison to ‘politics’.

As President of the 1905 Petersburg Soviet, Trotsky might have been expected to recognise the significance of the Soviet and the role of politics in the workplace in building a revolutionary party. But if anything the Soviet led him away from building a serious organisation, and confirmed him in his role as a go-between for Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. His book 1905 overflows with praise for the new institution: ‘The Soviet was the axis of all events, every thread ran towards it, every call to action emanated from it ...’ [83] However it was not seen in relation to the revolutionary party but as a substitute for it: ‘The social-democratic organisation which welded together a few hundred Petersburg workers, and to which several thousand more were ideologically attached, was able to speak for the masses by illuminating their immediate experience with the lightning of political thought; but it was not able to create a living organisational link with these masses, if only because it had always done the principal part of its work in clandestinity, concealed from the eyes of the masses ... Internal friction between two equally powerful factions of the social democrats ... rendered the creation of a non-party organisation absolutely essential.’ [84] Thus the Soviet was seen as a means of re-uniting the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at rank and file level.

Trotsky at times portrayed the Soviet as a form of future state on the lines of the Paris Commune: ‘With the Soviet we have the first appearance of democratic power in modern Russian history ... It constitutes authentic democracy, without a lower and an upper chamber, without a professional bureaucracy, but with the voters’ right to recall their deputies at any moment.’ [85] But there were areas of confusion in Trotsky’s account. His theory of permanent revolution was not wedded to a Marxist understanding of the state, but accepted the Kautskyite perversion of it. Although his theory led him to say that in revolution ‘victory ... must transfer power, to those who have led it, that is to say, to the social-democratic proletariat[86], rather than pinpointing the Soviet as the form this must take, he wrote: ‘revolution is first and foremost a problem of power – not of the political form (Constituent Assembly, republic, European federation), but of the social content of power.’ [87]

This abstract approach to the structure of workers’ power led Trotsky to overlook the Soviet as its form. In fact he accepted the Second International view that the state ‘is only a machine in the hands of the dominating social forces ... It can be a powerful level for revolution or a tool for organisational stagnation, depending on the hands that control it. Every political party worthy of the name strives to capture political power and thus place the State at the service of the class whose interests it expresses.’ [88] If this were true, then parliament could be as much an instrument of revolution as any other. That is why in his major discussion of permanent revolution in Results and Prospects of 1906, Trotsky barely mentions the Soviet.

In his case, therefore, an appreciation of the Soviet’s influence did not lead towards an understanding of workplace politics or the revolutionary party. The same was true in the case of many ultra-lefts such as Pannekoek and Gorter in the postwar period. To appreciate the potential of both party and Soviet, the interaction of both through politics in the workplace had to be understood. This was one of the achievements of the 1917 revolution, for it showed how the Bolsheviks worked through the Soviet, and how the Soviets were only able to succeed under Bolshevik leadership.

Before 1917 the significance of the Leninist party and the Soviets was obscured by two factors – the special nature of Russian development and confusion over the Marxist attitude to the parliamentary state. The experience of war and revolution began to break down these theoretical barriers. The three years, 1914 to 1917 were a period of feverish preparation, both theoretical and practical, for the internationalising of Russia’s ‘proletarian methods’ which alone could lay the basis for the mass revolutionary parties that were missing elsewhere.

(iii) Lenin, war and the state, 1914–1917

The outbreak of hostilities on 4th August 1914 was a turning point in the development of Marxism. On that day the major parties of the Second International renounced socialism in favour of supporting a capitalist war. As Bukharin put it: ‘The first period of the war has brought about, not a crisis of capitalism ... but a collapse of the “Socialist International”.’ [89] The death of this organisation revealed the internal decay of its ideology, whose arch-priest was Karl Kautsky.

Quickly overcoming his early disbelief in Kautsky’s treachery, Lenin broke with him over the immediate question of making concessions to imperialism. But the demise of the International forced Lenin to propose a Third International and ponder on what basis it should be created. The new organisation would need a very different armoury of weapons from that of the previous International. Clearly its political base would have to begin with the Bolsheviks, the only major party to resist the pressure of war in a revolutionary way. One pressing theoretical requirement was an understanding of the current war and its relation to the capitalist system as a whole. This was provided by Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy and Lenin’s short pamphlet Imperialism; the highest stage of capitalism.

A reevaluation of the Marxist attitude to the state was also an urgent necessity. Until 1914, Russia’s revolutionaries had not worried very much about the state in general, because it was thought that Russia’s situation was so unique as to make its political problems of mainly internal relevance. The war proved that the Russian state could no longer be seen in isolation, but was fully integrated into a world imperialist system. In the war each state had to mirror the policies of the other to survive. The total political and economic mobilisation employed in Germany. Britain or Russia differed only in their effectiveness. In essence they were the same. Therefore when Lenin posed the question of state his conclusions were significant for Russia and the West. The result was probably his best work – The State and Revolution.

The history of this pamphlet is interesting. It was written in August 1917, in the thick of the Russian revolution. However the basic research material had been collected into a notebook during 1916. Between the two formats lay the outbreak of the February revolution and the dramatic re-emergence of the Soviet. This time it was not a ‘Council of Workers’ Deputies’ but a ‘Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies’. As such it was evidently more than an organ of struggle. In the situation of dual power prevailing after February, it was an alternative state form.

A comparison of Lenin’s thinking on the state in late 1916, early 1917 and The State and Revolution (written August to September 1917) reveals a subtle but important shift. In December 1916 he presented the following two possible definitions: ‘Two trends in politics (politics is participation in the affairs of the state, directing the state, determining the forms, tasks and content of the state’s activities), opportunist and revolutionary or two trends in the attitude to “state organisation”?’ [90]

He was on the brink of a breakthrough. The essence of Lenin’s question was – do Marxists argue about how to win state power through the existing machinery or fight to create an entirely new one? The same fundamental question was contained in his next note: ‘Democracy of reformists and democracy of revolution. Two different contents: the minority and the mass. Pacification of the mass? assisting the struggle of the mass? Subordination of the mass to the authority of the leaders? revolt against leaders? ... Boils down to revolution versus opportunism.’ [91]

Here he distinguished between the content of revolutionary democracy assisting mass struggle, defeating opportunist leaders, and reformist methods – pacification and subordination of the mass to the reformist bureaucracy. From distinguishing the content it is a short step to discovering the organised form of the revolutionary alternative.

Just a year after making these notes Lenin began to give definite answers to what till then had been questions. In January 1917 he wrote that Marx’s statement that workers cannot ‘simply lay hold’ of the state machine had seemed unclear. Now he saw that it must be understood as follows: ‘the revolution must SMASH IT, this ready-made machinery, and replace it with a new one.’ [92] 10 pages later he answers the question of how the new state is to be held together: ‘By an alliance, an organisation of the armed workers (“Soviets of Workers’ Deputies”!).’ [93] It is not certain whether this passage was added before or after the February revolution, but it is the vital link between the questions of 1916 and the answers given in The State and Revolution.

By August 1917 Lenin is able to show that: ‘the characteristic thing about the process of the gradual growth of opportunism that led to the collapse of the Second International in 1914 is ... evasiveness over the question of the relation of the proletarian revolution to the state.’ [94] In contrast, revolutionaries are quite clear: ‘We, however, shall break with the opportunists ... not to “shift the balance of forces”, but to overthrow the bourgeoisie, to destroy bourgeois parliamentarism, for a democratic republic after the type of the Commune, or a republic of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies ...’ [95] A final chapter on the Russian experience of Soviets was planned for The State and Revolution [96] but as Lenin put it: ‘Apart from the title, however, I had no time to write a single line of the chapter ... It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of the revolution” than to write about it.’ [97]

After 1917 the ‘two trends in politics’ of which Lenin spoke earlier could now be fully defined. One was centred on winning over parliament through geographically based elections. This form of politics accepted the conventional division of politics and economics in which the apparent free choice of parliamentary representative is totally undermined and deprived of significance by capitalist control of the means of production (economic power). The other trend in politics also aims at state power but in this case the aim is to replace the old power with a new one based on workers’ self-activity. Therefore any workers’ self-activity, however small the minority ready to move, becomes the focus for the party’s political work. And every step which raises sectional struggle to the level of broader class action becomes a political act. Politics here is ‘concentrated economics’.

Lenin never made a fetish of the Soviets’ form as such. When they seemed to be falling into a state of ‘prostitution ... by the SRs and Mensheviks’ [98] after July 1917, he had no hesitation in turning to the factory councils as an alternative organ of power. But the Soviets and factory councils shared a common basis in workplace election and wielded the collective power of the proletariat. At no time did Lenin envisage the Bolsheviks waiting to be elected into office at the constituent assembly (the reformist road); nor did he try to seize power without reference to the will of the mass of workers (the sectarian road).

As Trotsky put it: ‘The question, what mass organisations were to serve the party for leadership in the insurrection, did not permit an a-priori much less a categorical answer. The instruments of the insurrection might have been the factory committees and trade unions, already under the leadership of the Bolsheviks ... Just here lay the everlasting preoccupation of Lenin: to express with the utmost simplicity that which on the one hand flowed from the objective conditions, and on the other formulate the subjective experience of the masses.’ [99] As it turned out the Soviets did revive as organs of mass democratic power. The successful October insurrection, in which a Bolshevik majority in the Soviets served as springboard to the world’s first workers’ state, proved not only the necessity of both party and factory-based Soviets, but their necessary inter-connection.

In a historical sense the party had to precede the Soviets, for though both are essential, Soviets only arise at the peak of the revolutionary process. Parties, however, must be built by patient and consistent work in the quieter years that come before. The potential of the Soviets was only theoretically grasped because by 1917 the mass Bolshevik party had already been created. It was one of the dialectical contradictions through which history so often moves that in Western Europe the opposite process was observed. The Soviets, workers’ councils, came before the formation of the parties on whose existence their success depended.

When the Russian Constituent Assembly, that cherished goal of social democracy right up until 1917, came to meet, the Bolsheviks finally made the theoretical break with the past which their practice already suggested to them. As Lenin’s Theses stated: ‘For the transition from the bourgeois to the socialist system, for the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Republic of Soviets ... is not only a higher type of democratic institution (as compared with the usual bourgeois republic crowned by a Constituent Assembly) but is the only form capable of securing the most painless transition to socialism.’ [100]

It was obvious to the Bolsheviks that victory in October 1917 had to be the prelude to a world revolution. The lessons of Russia had to guide socialists everywhere, and the party had to become the spearhead of a world party. The mechanism for this was to be the Third International, or Comintern.

(iv) Comintern

The Communist International was founded in 1919. Its first task was to define the ground on which it stood. Lenin proposed a resolution around just three points: ‘First: One of the most important tasks confronting the West European comrades is to explain to the people the meaning, importance and necessity of the Soviet system ... Second: About the spread of the Soviet, system ... Third: We must say that winning a Communist majority in the Soviets is the principal task in all countries in which soviet government is not yet victorious’. [101] G.D.H. Cole, a sympathetic observer of the rise of the International, commented on Trotsky’s Comintern manifesto: ‘What is likely to stand out as most remarkable is the absence of any explicit reference to the role of the Communist Party.’ [102]

The overwhelming stress on the Soviet was not a mental aberration or the result of a momentary burst of enthusiasm (although the ease with which the revolution would be carried through outside Russia was exaggerated). It held the key to a new type of political activity and so was the dividing line between the Second and Third (Communist) Internationals. The concept of the party could not serve as a means of breaking revolutionaries away from the grip of reformism in the same way. As Trotsky explained to the Second Congress of Comintern: ‘It is self-evident that if we were dealing here with Messrs. Scheidemann, Kautsky or their English co-thinkers it would, of course, be unnecessary to convince these gentlemen that a party is indispensable to the working class. They have created a party of the working class and handed it over into the service of bourgeois and capitalist society.’ [103]

It was not the issue of the party which formed the basis of Comintern, but the question of revolution and its state form – the Soviet. Lenin put it Succinctly: ‘the entire socialist literature, not only Germany, but also English and French, proves that the leaders of the opportunist parties ... are in favour of the conquest of political power. They are all sincere socialists, joking apart, but they are against the dictatorship of the proletariat!’ [104] So Comintern determined its attitude to people by their stand on the Soviet rather than the party. This was clear from the Platform of the First Congress: ‘It is vital ... to form a bloc with members of the revolutionary workers’ movement – certain syndicalist elements, for example, who, in spite of the fact that they did not earlier belong to the socialist party, have more or less accepted the platform of the proletarian dictatorship through Soviets.’ [105]

The issue of Soviet versus parliament, whether you want to verbally oppose capitalism or ‘really want to tear its head off’, [106] the necessary starting point for overcoming the absence of a Leninist party in Western Europe. In practical terms that could be measured by one’s attitude to parliament and manifestations of workers’ self-activity.

But the formula of the Soviet or parliament was a very blunt instrument. Once the ground upon which the new Communist parties stood had been defined, a whole number of tactical and strategic problems arose. Centrists were quite willing to accept the Soviet in theory, as long as they were free to betray it in practice. Thus 21 very stiff conditions for admission to Comintern were introduced. Ultra-lefts also accepted the Soviet but denied the necessity of a Communist lead them. Therefore the Second Congress declared: ‘The rise of the Soviets as the main historically determined form of the the proletariat in no way detracts from the leading role of the Communist Party in the proletarian revolution ... A strong Communist Party is essential if the Soviets are to fulfil their historical mission. A party is needed that does not “adapt” itself to the Soviets but is able in a decisive way to influence their policies ... The stronger the Communist Parties we build in every country, the sooner “Soviet idea” will triumph.’ [107]

Only in the 1920s was the missing party solved and mass organisations of hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries created in several Western countries. But the revolutionary post-war wave was receding and with it came the rise of Stalinism in Comintern. When this was combined with the lack of developed and independent thinking cadre in the new parties, their degeneration became predictable. Even then their real problem was not a belief or otherwise in the Party (for Stalinists the party was everything), but of the relationship between revolutionary leadership and the self-activity of the working class. Once Communist Parties made party leadership a question of obedience to the directives of the Russian bureaucracy, rather than the relation of the immediate struggle to the final conquest of power, the disasters of ‘Third Period’ ultra-leftism and ‘Popular Front’ swings to the right became inevitable.


In The State and Revolution Lenin argued that Kautsky and others had deliberately distorted, forgotten and ignored Marx’s teachings on the state. Of course this was true; but it was also the fact that practically no-one outside Russia had been able to resist the distortion, remember the lessons and notice their most salient points. In The State and Revolution Pannekoek is the only contemporary who Lenin cites as someone who remembered, if rather vaguely, what Marx taught.

It was not that Marx’s teachings were insufficiently explicit about their revolutionary aim – far from it. But if a lesson is not learnt, one must look not only at the motives of the pupils, but question the clarity of the teachings. This is not a personal slight on Marx or Engels, but simply a reflection of the fact that Marxism is ‘a summing up of experience.’ [108] In relation to the state, the limits of Marxism in Marx’s time were set by the Paris Commune and the conclusions that could be drawn from it. These limits also had an effect on the building of the Second International. This organisation occasionally mentioned ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ but moved further and further from it in reality. The dictatorship became a principle quite separate from daily practice which was increasingly reformist. It took the outbreak of war in 1914 to expose the hollowness of the International’s Marxism.

The theoretical and practical achievements of the 1917 revolution represented a quantum leap in working class experience. A critical re-examination of the state and its negation in the Soviet were vital steps in the emergence of Bolshevik workplace politics as a method of international validity for building revolutionary parties. That it took so long for this fact to be understood was due to the peculiar conditions in Russia, which allowed the Bolshevik party to be built without a fully worked-out attitude to the bourgeois state. The Russians could afford confusion in this area, because the Bolshevik party could be built in spite of the theoretical gap. But no-one else, not even revolutionaries as gifted as Luxemburg, could do the same.

Today, when history has revealed the process of revolution, the centrality of the party and its relation to the Soviet, we cannot make do with unconscious processes. In Britain today the forces of parliamentarism, reformism, Labour and union bureaucracies are immeasurably greater than was the case in Russia. This makes explicit concentration on the workplace essential, both in terms of building a revolutionary party and raising the self-activity of the working class.

A disregard for the point of production has led to the collapse of the entrists in the Labour left and the disintegration of the European revolutionary left in general. Many of these groups have claimed to be in the Leninist tradition (whether transmitted through orthodox Trotskyism or the Stalin/Mao perversion), but all of them have a tendency to see change coming about in some area other than through rank and file industrial struggle. Instead of basing the practice upon this foundation they tail mass reformist parties or lapse into movementism. Many, like the Second International leaders, declare an almost fanatical devotion to some kind of party, but fail to locate the building of a revolutionary party through relating to workers’ self-activity at whatever level that is possible.

I believe that the strength of the SWP in this difficult period lies in the fact that in its practice it recognises the importance of the Soviet, and all the forms of workers’ self-activity and organisation that lead towards it. This is not to make a fetish of one particular form. Trotsky in Lessons of October make the following point about revolutionary workplace organisation in the West: ‘It must not be forgotten that in our country the Soviets grew up in the “democratic” stage of the revolution, becoming legalised, as it were, at that stage, and subsequently inherited and utilised by us. This will not be repeated in the proletarian revolutions of the West. There, in most cases, the Soviets will be created in response to the call of the Communists ... only in the very last days ... either after the insurrection has passed its critical stage, or even in the closing stages ... All these variants must be kept in mind so as to safeguard us from falling into organisation fetishism; and so as not to transform the Soviets from what they ought to be – a flexible and living form of struggle ...’ [109]

In the present period of downturn, our work must be confined to the difficult but essential task of reviving workplace organisation and confidence wherever that is possible. This can only come through the self-activity of the rank and file. Only later will it be possible to talk in terms of independent rank and file organisations and eventually Soviets. But though the concepts of the Soviet, party and their interrelation may not appear very frequently in the pages of Socialist Worker, it guides the way we relate to any manifestation of struggle, whether it be through mass picketing, or just arguments and collections from workmates. The Bolshevik party developed on the basis of workplace politics, a form of politics totally different to that of the reformists who see parliament rather than the factory floor as the arena for socialist change. However much in a minority the active section might have been, the party always emphasised workers’ self-activity and tried to develop the class content of even the most sectional struggle. It is only our ability to act on such politics today that will enable us to say that the missing party of Luxemburg’s time will tomorrow be missing no longer.


1. L. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 1, New York 1945, p. 1.

2. T. Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg, Intro, by L. German. London 1983, p. 17.

3. K. Marx, The First International and After, Harmondsworth 1974, p. 212.

4. Ibid., p206.

5. Ibid. p209.

6. A. Cobban, History of Modern France, Vol. 2. Harmondsworth 1973, pp. 118–9.

7. Intro, to L. Trotsky. On the Paris Commune, New York 1972, p. 6.

8. P. Lissagray, History of the Paris Commune, London 1976, p. 131.

9. Ibid., p. 127.

10. Ibid., p. 130.

11. Marx, op.cit., p. 236.

12. Ibid., p. 336.

13. K. Marx, Marx on Economics (ed. R. Freedman), Harmondsworth 1973, p. 170.

14. Marx, First International and After, p. 338 (my emphasis).

15. F Engels, Intro, to K. Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, Moscow 1975, pp. 16–17.

16. K. Kautsky, La via al potere, Bari 1974, pp. 65–70.

17. Quoted in V. Lenin, The State and Revolution, Moscow 1975, p. 17.

18. See J. Molyneux, [What is the Real Marxist Tradition?], International Socialism 2 : 20.

19. T. Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg, London 1968, p. 43.

20. T. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 1, London 1975, p. 267.

21. J. Molyneux, Marxism and the Party, London 1978, p. 113.

22. R. Luxemburg. Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (ed. M. Waters), New York 1970, p. 206.

23. Kautsky, ibid., p. 93.

24. Luxemburg, ibid., p. 199.

25. Ibid., p. 53.

26. Ibid., p. 57.

27. Ibid., pp. 81–2.

28. Ibid., p. 59.

29. Ibid., pp. 200.

30. Ibid., pp.  88–9.

31. Ibid., p. 129.

32. P. Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg, London 1972, p. 133.

33. Ibid., p. 175.

34. G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, London 1983, p. 299.

35. The former was deputy leader of the SPD and the latter leader of the German equivalent of the TUC.

36. R. Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke, Vol. IV, Berlin 1974, p. 235.

37. Ibid., p. 119.

38. Ibid., p. 121.

39. Ibid., p. 108.

40. Ibid., p. 188.

41. Ibid., p. 200.

42. Minutes of Socialist Unity Conference, September 30th to October 1st, 1911, p.15.

43. Ibid., p. 12.

44. The Industrial Syndicalist, reprinted Nottingham 1974, p. 49.

45. Ibid., p. 45.

46. J. Connolly, Selected Writings, New York 1973, p. 152.

47. Ibid., p. 158.

48. Ibid., pp. 220–l.

49. J. Huige & S. Huybregts, Kleine Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Arbeidersbeweging, Amsterdam 1978, p. 53.

50. A. Pannekoek, Massen Aktion und Revolution, Die Neue Zeit, Jahrg. 30, Vol. 2.2, p. 543.

51. Storia della sinistra comunista, Milan 1972, p. 63.

52. Quoted in H.M. Bock, Geschichte des ‘linken Radikalismus’ in Deutschland, Frankfurt am Main 1976, p. 85.

53. See issues from August 1917 to May 1918.

54. A. and D. Prudhommeaux (eds.), Spartacus et la Commune de Berlin, Paris n.d., p. 52.

55. Luxemburg, op. cit., p. 185.

56. Ibid., p. 207.

57. Ibid., pp. 425–6.

58. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. 4, p. 337.

59. Quoted in C Harman, Party and Class, International Socialism reprint No. 4, p. 9.

60. This is the title of the first chapter of Trotsky’s Results and Prospects of 1906.

61. L. Trotsky, 1905, Harmondsworth 1973, p. 39.

62. G.C. Allen, The Structure of Industry in Britain, London 1972, p. 252.

63. Trotsky, ibid., p. 66.

64. Ibid., p. 90.

65. Ibid., p. 102.

66. See Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 1, p. 331.

67. Molyneux, Marxism and the Party, London 1978, p. 67.

68. Ibid. (my emphasis).

69. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 1, p. 331.

70. Connolly, Selected Writings, p. 153.

71. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 1, p. 91.

72. V. Lenin, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (sic!), Moscow 1978, pp. 183–6.

73. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 1, p. 164.

74. Ibid.

75. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. 3, p. 52.

76. D. Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism, London 1979. p11.

77. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. 3, p. 40.

78. Ibid., p. 82.

79. Ibid., p. 35.

80. Ibid., p. 46.

81. Ibid., p. 343.

82. For a full discussion of this see N. Geras, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, London 1976, pp. 43–111.

83. Trotsky, 1905, p. 122.

84. Ibid., pp. 112–3.

85. Ibid., p. 268.

86. Ibid., p. 340.

87. Ibid., pp. 340–1.

88. L Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, London 1962, p. 194.

89. N. Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy, London 1972, p. 161.

90. V. Lenin, Marxism on the State, Moscow 1976, p. 109.

91. Ibid.

92. Ibid., p. 8.

93. Ibid. p. 19.

94. Lenin, State and Revolution, pp. 97–8.

95. Ibid., p. 112.

96. See outline in Marxism on the State, pp. 94–5.

97. Lenin, State and Revolution, p. 114.

98. Lenin, Marxism on the State, p. 94.

99. L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, London 1977, pp. 818–9.

100. V. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Moscow 1976, p. 94.

101. Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, London 1980, pp. 18–19.

102. G.D.H. Cole, Communism and Social Democracy, 1914–1931, London 1958, p. 305.

103. The Second Congress of the Communist International, Vol. 1, London 1977, p. 72.

104. Ibid., pp. 232–3.

105. Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, p. 45.

106. Trotsky speaking at Second Congress of Communist International, Vol. 1, p. 72.

107. Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, p. 72.

108. Lenin, State and Revolution, p. 30.

109. L. Trotsky, Lessons of October, London 1973, pp. 57–58.

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