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John Molyneux

Marxism and the Party

7. The revolutionary party today

1. The theory of the party since the war

We have now traced the development of the marxist theory of the party from Marx’s original establishment of the idea of a party of the working class, through Lenin’s concept of the vanguard party, Rosa Luxemburg’s emphasis on the creativity of the masses, Trotsky’s lonely defence of Leninism, to Gramsci’s analysis of the struggle for hegemony. Our account is now essentially complete, for since Trotsky and Gramsci there has been no major contribution to the theory of the party.

The reason for this stagnation is not hard to find. The post-war period has been dominated by the most sustained boom in the history of capitalism, which has resulted for the most part in the reformist integration of the working class. Crushed between the relative passivity of the working class and the dead hand of Stalinist ‘orthodoxy’, genuine marxism was, as it were, forced underground. Those few who remained committed to the goal of international proletarian revolution were necessarily preoccupied with the defence of marxist fundamentals (the role of the working class, the labour theory of value, the contradictions of capitalism) and with coming to grips with the major changes taking place in the world (the phenomenon of state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, the changes in imperialism). They lacked the practical experience of revolutionary struggle to make the further development of the marxist theory of the party either possible or urgent.

There have been forthcoming, however, number of non-marxist alternatives to the revolutionary workers’ party as means of achieving the overthrow of capitalism. The post-war period has seen the revival of various forms of voluntarism, spontaneism and popular frontism, but all have failed the test of practice. Voluntarism received its most extreme and important expression in the theory that the revolution could be made by a small but determined band of rural guerillas, without waiting for objective conditions to ripen and without mobilising the mass of the working class. [1] But after its initial spectacular success in Cuba [2], the strategy of the guerilla foco failed to make headway in Latin America and eventually foundered in the Bolivian jungle with the death of Che Guevara in 1967. Nor did the attempt to preserve the method but shift its venue to the towns, exemplified by the Tupamaros of Uruguay, meet with more than temporary success. [3] Spontaneism – the rejection of organisation, authority and above all of the political party – was largely a product of the student revolt which spread across the world in the 1960s. But the highest achievement of this phase of the movement, the French May events of 1968, was also the most compelling demonstration of its inadequacy. Precisely because of the absence of a mass revolutionary workers’ party, the French Communist Party was able to dampen down the militancy of the great general strike and engineer a feeble compromise with de Gaulle, thus defusing the acute social crisis almost as rapidly as it had emerged. [4] Finally, the strategy of the popular front and the peaceful transition to socialism were once again put to the test in the shape of the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in Chile, with disastrous consequences which are known to all. [5]

This demonstration of the bankruptcy of these alternatives (and the cases just cited are merely the clearest of many examples) has combined with the rapid deepening of the crisis of world capitalism and the consequent rise in working-class struggle during the last decade to refocus attention on the marxist theory of the party. The result has been on the one hand the appearance of a number of studies devoted to disinterring the marxist tradition on the question of the party and indicating perspectives for the present [6], and on the other the emergence in various countries of sizeable organisations (not mass parties but large enough to constitute a serious beginning) with the aim of building the revolutionary party. It is as a continuation and systematisation of the former project and as an aid to the latter that the present work was conceived. What remains, therefore, is to summarise the main principles of the marxist theory of the party, as drawn from this study of its development, and to indicate key points for their application today.

2. Key characteristics and tasks of the revolutionary party

The role, tasks and organisational forms of the party are not fixed for all time and all places; they must necessarily be derived from and adapted to the concrete situation in which the party operates. Nonetheless, on the basis of over a century and a quarter of struggle, we can make the following generalisations:

The class nature of the party. The revolutionary party must be a working-class party. This elementary and fundamental principle, established by Marx, needs repeating once again because it has so often been forgotten or ignored in recent years. The party must be proletarian, not only in the sense that its programme is an articulation of the socialist aspirations of the working class, but also in its social composition and the field of its everyday activities. No guerilla band, peasant movement, student movement or grouping of intellectuals, no matter how fine its programme, can be the substitute for a party with its roots in the industrial proletariat. A young organisation finding itself, as often happens, predominantly petty bourgeois in composition must make a strenuous effort of self-criticism and self-transformation in order to make the transition to a workers’ party.

The party as vanguard. The need for a party derives from the uneven development of the working-class, and the party aims to embrace not the entire class (which in ‘normal’ times is dominated by bourgeois ideology) but its class-conscious vanguard. This point, established by Lenin, has been so often distorted and misinterpreted that it requires the following clarification: the party is a vanguard, but the vanguard is not a tiny elite standing outside the main body of the class; it is the hundreds of thousands of workers who actually lead the class in its everyday battles in the factories, the pits, the offices, the housing estates and the streets. The party leads the class, it does not tail-end it, but it leads from within, not from the outside.

The party is an organisation for combat. This has two aspects. Firstly, the party does not claim its leadership of the class as of right but has to fight to win it by producing concrete proposals for action on every issue facing the working class, from the smallest question of factory conditions to the greatest questions of international politics. The party must prove in practice, in struggle, that it is the best defender of the interests of the working class and all the exploited. Secondly, the party must ultimately gear itself for the class struggle in its most acute form, mass uprising and insurrection. This does not mean prematurely adopting a paramilitary stance in such a way as to sacrifice the party’s legality and prevent it carrying out its more basic tasks in the everyday struggle, but it does involve, at a certain point, making careful preparations and creating the kind of organisation that can rapidly shift to a military footing. Because in these ways the party is a combat organisation, it has no room for a layer of passive card holders or of privileged, secure bureaucrats. Its membership must be active and self-sacrificial, and is likely therefore to be young.

Democratic centralism. No useful generalisations can be made as to specific organisational structures – these must be extremely flexible – but that the party regime must combine democracy and centralism is not a mere organisational formula, rather it flows directly from the tasks of the party and the nature of the class struggle. Democracy is essential because the party is not the master of the working class but an instrument of its self-emancipation. Without democracy and free discussion there is no way that the party can formulate policies which really meet the needs of the working class and fit the concrete situation. Centralism is essential because the party must wage a bitter struggle against a highly centralised enemy – the capitalist state. Without unity in action, as every trade unionist knows, defeat is inevitable.

With regard to democratic centralism, there are two pitfalls which are particularly likely to afflict new and as yet small organisations of the kind that mostly exist on the revolutionary left round the world today. The first is the danger of a small group, at best the embryo of the party, adopting the full panoply of administrative structures appropriate to a mass party, and so becoming ludicrously top-heavy. The second is the danger, especially when an organisation has to make the transition from propaganda to agitation, of being ultra-democratic and discussing all questions endlessly. The party is not a debating society – it discusses in order to reach a decision, and then carries out that decision in a united fashion.

The independence of the party. The party takes its stand on marxist principle as the representative of the historical interests of the working class – it must never sacrifice its independence to any other political force, openly bourgeois, reformist or centrist. This in no way precludes any number of alliances, compromises, temporary agreements etc. with other organisations, but it does preclude giving up the right to free criticism, a separate political line and a separate organisation. This applies even in the extreme case of entry into or affiliation to a larger party (e.g. the British Labour Party). Dependence, it must be remembered, need not be a matter of formal agreements or limitations. The British Communist Party, for example, is formally an independent organisation, yet politically it is tied to ‘left’ trade-union leaders and ‘left’ Labour MPs. A marxist party must never allow itself to become uncritically attached to any populist demagogue or prominent left-reformist, no matter how radical.

The party and the unity of the working class. The party is the vanguard of the class and must maintain its independence, but its aim is the unity of the working class. Three things follow from this. First, that the party must struggle relentlessly as a matter of the strictest principle against all those divisions in the working class -divisions of race, of nationality, between men and women, skilled and unskilled, employed and unemployed, old and young, etc. -which are so assiduously fostered by the ruling clap and by means of which it maintains its power. Secondly, the party must not allow its existence as a separate organisation to disrupt the unity needed by the class in its daily struggle against the employers and the state.

From this imperative derives the strategy of the united front with reformist organisations, but this strategy (applicable in many but not all conditions) is merely one expression of the general principle governing the party’s relationship with all other political tendencies in the working class — march separately, strike together. Thirdly, although the party must guard against the dilution of its programme and policies under pressure from the backward workers, it must on no account fence itself off from these workers and must exploit every avenue to reach them. Thus, while millions of workers remain in reactionary trade unions, the party must work in those unions no matter how treacherous and corrupt their leadership. While the mass of workers retain illusions about social-democratic parties, the party must urge support for those parties against the openly bourgeois parties, so that these illusions can be dispelled by experience. While the majority of the class places its faith in parliamentary democracy, the party must participate in elections, using them to make revolutionary propaganda and to undermine the parliamentary system from within.

The educational tasks of the party. The party must undertake a continuous and complex work of education. It must train revolutionary leaders steeped in the marxist tradition, but capable of making concrete analyses and of independent judgement. It must produce a broad layer of, to use Gramsci’s term, ‘organic intellectuals’, workers with a clear conception of the overall nature of the struggle and the methods of waging it. It must work for the widest possible dissemination of basic marxist and socialist principles amongst the working class by ceaselessly translating its theory into topical and easily understood examples and exposures in its press and all its propaganda. In relation to education, two points have to be borne in mind: the process of education must be predominantly practical rather than academic in character (since the latter leads inevitably to the dominance of petty-bourgeois elements), and, as Rosa Luxemburg emphasised, the party must be able to learn from the workers as well as teach them. The party is the collective memory and brain of the working class, but it is a brain that needs constant renewal and updating.

The struggle for hegemony. The party must work to bring together all the forces of the oppressed in a common struggle against capitalism, under the leadership of the proletariat. Historically and on a world scale this has been principally a question of realising an alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry, and every workers’ party must be sure to include in its programme the defence of the interests of the poor peasants. In addition to this, the last decade has seen the emergence of a series of new forces – the black movement, the women’s movement and the student movement being the most important – which possess great revolutionary potential but which pose for the party certain strategic problems. On the one hand, and this applies particularly to small organisations without a strong proletarian base, the party can throw itself so uncritically and enthusiastically into these movements that it succumbs to their necessarily fragmented character and neglects its fundamental work in the industrial working class. On the other hand the party can dogmatically dismiss the special problems and claims of the various oppressed strata and present their movements with an ultimatum that they accept in advance the leadership of the proletarian party, which results not in unity but in estrangement. What is needed, therefore, is unconditional support for the justified demands of the oppressed strata combined with principled but patient insistence on the need for unity in the struggle against the common enemy, on the class character of that struggle and on the leading role of the working class. Above all, the full struggle for hegemony, which involves establishing the dominance of revolutionary culture in every area of the social life of the people, can be conducted effectively only by a party which has already secured a substantial base in the working class.

The International. The proletariat is an international class and the socialist revolution is an international process. Consequently all the characteristics of a revolutionary party we have listed here must ultimately be realised on an international scale in a single world party. At the present time such an International does not exist, nor can it be built in a day. A ‘world party’ consisting, like the Fourth International, of a handful of like-minded sects, is a fiction which cannot produce an international leadership with any real authority. On the other hand, a federation of basically heterogeneous organisations, like the First International, will fall apart at the decisive moment. The Third International was formed on the authority of the victorious Russian Revolution, but a repetition of this sequence of events cannot be passively awaited. How then can the International be built? At present the only realistic course is for the existing revolutionary workers’ organisations to engage in practical collaboration wherever possible and in the constant exchange of theoretical positions, so that gradually, on the basis of this joint work and under the impact of events, closer links and greater political homogeneity can be achieved. But this work must be carried out with the clear perspective that its aim is the creation of a new revolutionary workers’ International. For the building of revolutionary parties and their international unification is now the principal and most urgent strategic task facing revolutionaries throughout the world. Unless this is achieved, the working class will be unable to resolve in its favour the crisis of capitalism which grows more acute by the day.

Finally, running through everything that the party is and does, the thread connecting all its key characteristics and tasks is the striving to unite theory and practice. The party exists to translate the general aims of socialism into concrete practical activities and to link every immediate struggle to the ultimate aim of socialism. Through the party, theory – the materialist interpretation of history, the analysis of capitalism and its contradictions and the understanding of the historical role of the working class – informs practice, and through the party, practice – the struggle to change the world – stimulates, directs, tests and ultimately realises theory.

When capitalism is stable and the working class presents no open challenge to the system, theory and practice are inevitably divorced. In such conditions the revolutionary party can be prepared but not built. It remains an abstract necessity. But when, as now, the system is racked by crisis, then theory and practice draw together, and building the party becomes no longer an abstract aspiration, but both a practical necessity and a real possibility.


1. As Che Guevara put it when summing up the essence of guerilla warfare:

1. Popular forces can win a war against the army.

2. It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist; the insurrection can create them.

3. In underdeveloped America the countryside is the basic area for armed fighting. (Guerilla Warfare, New York 1961, p. 15.)

2. The Cuban situation was exceptional in two respects: (a) the Batista regime was in a state of advanced dissolution and decay and gave up almost without a fight; (b) the United States believed they could use the rebels to serve their own purposes and were not initially hostile – an error they did not repeat. Also, speaking of ‘success in Cuba’ should not be taken to mean success of the socialist revolution. The Cuban revolutionaries themselves did not claim as much at the time. Only after Cuba had opted for the Communist bloc in 1961 did the Cuban revolution become retrospectively ‘socialist’. In fact the absence of a successful struggle for self-emancipation by the working class meant that the economic structure of Cuba necessarily became state capitalist.

3. See Frank Roberts, The Tupamaros, International Socialism, No. 66.

4. See Tony Cliff and Ian Birchall, France: The Struggle Goes On, London 1968.

5. For an analysis and critique of the strategy of Popular Unity by a participant in the events, see Helios Prieto, Chile: The Gorillas are Amongst Us, London 1974.

6. For example: Lucio Magri, Problems of the Marxist Theory of the Revolutionary Party, New Left Review, No. 60; Rossana Rossanda, Class and Party, Socialist Register, 1970; Jean-Paul Sartre, Masses, Spontaneity, Party, Socialist Register, 1970; Ernest Mandel, The Leninist Theory of Organisation, London (n.d.); Monty Johnstone, Marx and Engels and the Concept of the Party, Socialist Register, 1967; Chris Harman, Party and Class and Tony Cliff, Trotsky on Substitutionism, in Duncan Hallas et al., Party and Class, London, (n.d.).

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Last updated: 3.8.2012