From International Socialism 2:95, Summer 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Lenin’s theory of the party is one of the most disputed questions on the left, certainly since the Bolshevik Revolution, and it is one of the most important in terms of how the left is organising around current anti-capitalist and industrial struggles. It is also a central issue in the political debates about creating a socialist alternative to Labourism.
One of the most common misapprehensions about the revolutionary party is that it is something imposed on the working class from the outside. The picture is that a group of ideologues get together, form a party and, using the most undemocratic means, impose their will on the rest of the working class movement. In fact, properly understood, Lenin’s theory of the party implies exactly the opposite. Its necessity emerges out of the very nature of working class struggle. There is a central feature of working class resistance to the capitalist system which demands that we understand how some of us can organise to strengthen the organisation and consciousness of the whole class.
The fundamental issue here, and an issue that Lenin confronted very early on, is the way in which the struggle against the system is inherently uneven. Different groups of workers, at different times, with different sets of ideas, move into struggle against the system. This is the problem of uneven consciousness in the working class movement. If life were simpler, if the ruling class lined up their forces on one side and workers lined up on the other side, perhaps no further discussion of political organisation would be necessary. But this is not how the class struggle works. Everywhere we look we see, instead of neat regimentation, a hugely differentiated field of battle. There are the discontinuities of time – periods of intense class conflict are followed by periods of quietude. There are discontinuities in the type of struggle that takes place – some are economic, others political and still others ideological, to name only the three broad categories in Engels’ famous formulation. Then there are the discontinuities between different sections of the working class – different traditions, conflicting working class ideologies, varying levels of consciousness, confidence and combativity and so on. The battles are many and diverse. Workers have varying strengths and weaknesses, can win or be defeated, can generalise in different directions and come to different conclusions. Finally, there are the discontinuities between the working class and other sections of society that may find themselves opposed to the capitalist system – for instance peasants, sections of the petty bourgeoisie, oppressed nationalities.
All this presents any socialist – Leninist or not – with a particular problem: how is it that we can develop organisations within the working class that can relate to this fundamental fact about working class struggle?
There is of course a traditional response within the working class movement, a response which has as long a tradition as, if not longer than, Leninism: the Labour Party in this country and reformist parties internationally. The notion here is that the party represents the class in its totality – that every strand of opinion within the working class should be represented within the organisation. The goal of such organisations is to alter the condition of the working class using the institutions provided by the system – the parliamentary system, local councils, etc. The fundamental difficulty with such an approach (and we can review the history of Labour governments in office to justify this claim) is that, so long as the system continues to dominate the lives and the ideas of workers, the organisation itself will end up reflecting the ideology of the system. It will turn from an organisation of resistance to an organisation of incorporation. Moreover, the political institutions of the capitalist system are incapable of effectively countering the political and economic power of the capitalist class.
Of course contradictions will arise between the interests of working class supporters and the limits imposed on such parties by their form of organisation and their political goals. There will be battles for the soul of such organisations, but this will be a continuous state, as it has been for the Labour Party. Sometimes they will move to the left, sometimes to the right. But they will never resolve these contradictions because in principle they attempt to represent the whole working class, and large sections of the working class, for long periods of time, reflect the dominant ideology of society – the ideology of the capitalist class.
We need an alternative view of how party organisation relates to the broader struggle of the working class. It is this idea more than any other with which Lenin’s name is associated. The basic conception is that there emerges from the working class struggle a militant minority that is convinced by its experience that the system has to be transformed as a whole, that the direct methods of struggle employed by the working class are the most efficacious methods of doing so, and that the party and the class must be universal – in Lenin’s words, the tribune of the oppressed.
The key question then becomes, how do we organise a minority so that they become the lever which can raise the combativity of the entire class? We don’t seek to simply ‘represent’ the class, but to represent the traditions of struggle, the high points of class struggle, and bring that experience together with the activity of the minority into the current struggles. Trotsky expressed this idea in an effective metaphor. He said that the first five workers that he met told him everything he needed to know about revolutionary organisation. There was one who was always militant, would always stand up for the oppressed, and was always at the forefront of any battle. There was one who was an out and out reactionary, who was born a scab and would die a scab – if there were a strike on the gates of heaven he’d scab on that. But there were three in the middle who could sometimes be influenced by the reactionary, and sometimes be influenced and won over by the militant. The purpose of the revolutionary organisation is to group together the one militant in every five workers and to give them the organisation, the strength, the consciousness, the traditions of struggle that would enable them to win over the three in the middle and isolate the right wing, and not to allow the right wing to win over the three in the middle and isolate the socialist.
The idea of an organised minority is not that it cuts itself off from the rest of the working class or imposes its will on them, but that through interaction in struggle with the rest of the working class it seeks to spread its ideas and to win a majority within the movement. Georg Lukács put it very well: we separate in order to unite. We separate in an organisation that is, in principle, opposed to the system, but at every opportunity we seek to unite in particular struggles with the majority of the class in order to advance the whole class struggle. The interaction between party and class is vital here. Lukács quotes Engels thus: rank and file soldiers under the pressure of battle develop all the advances in military tactics. The job of good leadership is not to say that they have all the answers, but to take the best of what is invented by the rank and file in the midst of battle and to generalise it throughout the army. Any revolutionary party that is worth its salt is about learning from people in struggle and generalising what it learns throughout the class. The party learns from the class, but it is also the mechanism by which every section of the class learns from the best experiences of struggle.
This form of organisation is absolutely necessary in the situation in which we now find ourselves. The principle that we stand in opposition to the capitalist system, that we will fight its market logic and the state repression that it entails, is still vital. We need no other argument than the shooting of Carlo Giuliani on the great anti-capitalist demonstration in Genoa in July 2001 to remind us that we still have a state machine that will use deadly force when threatened. But that is only part of it. The real core of this idea of opposition to the system is that it determines how we act in each and every struggle. If you believe, as every Leninist believes, that ordinary working people have the capacity to completely transform the system by democratic organisations, workers’ councils, built from the rank and file up, it affects how you treat every day to day struggle.
In every struggle, every strike meeting or campaign meeting, there will always be more than one argument put in the room. There will always be people who will say, ‘We don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t want too big a protest. We should just write to our MP, use the established channels,’ and so on. There will be other people, revolutionaries who in principle believe that working people have the capacity to change the system from below, who will argue differently. They will say, ‘No matter how small the struggle in which we are engaged, it is mass organisation, it is the involvement of people in demonstrations, it is the ability of people to elect strike committees so that they don’t get told what to do by the officials, that can give us the best chance of winning.’ It is that principle embodied in each struggle before the revolution which makes the revolutionary principle active in every struggle on the way to the complete transformation of society.
Only an organisation that believes in this end of the day goal will raise this same prospect in each struggle as we go along. When it comes to the recent rail strikes it will be people coming from this tradition who will most consistently raise the idea of picketing, asking for solidarity from other workers, of strikers relying on their own strength and not relying on the trade union leaders, the local MP or the local paper to do the fighting for them. The key question within the anti-capitalist movement is that of mass working class mobilisation as opposed to, on the one hand, compromising with the IMF or WTO or, on the other hand, allowing a small elite of activists to substitute for mass action. When it comes to building an alternative to Labourism, the debate is about how we recompose an alternative to New Labour’s neo-liberal agenda from the rank and file up. When it comes to beating the fascists is it enough to allow them freedom of the airwaves and hope that they expose themselves? Is it enough to just pass resolutions? Or do we need the participation of the unions and of rank and file workers to beat the Nazis in Oldham and Burnley?
In all of these cases what is required is one militant, helped by his comrades, supported by his press, to stand up and say, ‘No, we all need to do it together.’ In that famous scene in the film Spartacus, someone stands up first and says, ‘I am Spartacus,’ not because they could do it on their own – if no one else had stood up after them and said, ‘I am Spartacus,’ they would have been isolated and victimised – but somebody said it first, and them saying it first allowed everybody else to say it after them. The act of a minority triggers the act of resistance of the majority, and that is what guarantees us the greatest chance of victory.
Last updated: 19.6.2012