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Workers Hammer No. 232

Autumn 2015

What is to be done?

Origins of the Leninist vanguard party

As tens of thousands of workers and youth flock to support Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing challenge to the widely despised Tony Blair and his successors, the question of what kind of party is needed to usher in fundamental social change in British society is clearly posed. Old Labour and the classic social-democratic parties of Europe claimed that such change would come about gradually through parliamentary legislation under capitalist democracy. In practice, this perspective meant defence not of the workers’ interests but of the parliamentary capitalist state and of the exploitation of the working class, whereby a handful of capitalists gather enormous profits created by the labour of the overwhelming mass of society. The October Revolution in Russia in 1917 demonstrated that it was necessary to sweep away the capitalist state, replacing it with a workers state (the dictatorship of the proletariat), in order to expropriate the capitalist bloodsuckers and lay the basis for an international, egalitarian socialist society.

The realisation of such a perspective, also demonstrated by the Russian Revolution, requires a disciplined party rooted in the class-conscious vanguard of the working class and firmly committed to a revolutionary, proletarian and internationalist programme. The Bolshevik party that led the revolution to victory was the result of years of struggle by VI Lenin and his comrades to forge a programmatically homogeneous party in combat against Menshevik opportunism, the Russian counterpart to British Labourism. The origin and development of the Leninist vanguard party was the focus of an educational presentation at the Spartacist League/Britain national conference in May. We present below the talk, edited for publication, by Diana Coleman of the Spartacist League/US.

* * *

Lenin’s What is to be done? (1902) is an essential work for communists, as is, I would add, our pamphlet, Lenin and the Vanguard Party. But neither one is easy reading. Generations of would-be communists have struggled through What is to be done?. It was first recommended to me and my friends by the Weatherman, a left-wing terrorist group that came out of the American SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. It was to address what they saw as our “Economism”. While I certainly didn’t join them I did take them pretty seriously. You may ask how I missed the chapter entitled, “What is there in common between Economism and terrorism?”, which stated that: “the terrorists bow to the spontaneity of the passionate indignation of intellectuals, who lack the ability or opportunity to connect the revolutionary struggle and the working-class movement into an integral whole”. This so describes the people I met.

In any case, our group, which was a New Left working-class organising project, after reading What is to be done?, instructed a couple of our people who were working in a Kellogg’s corn flake factory where the union contract had expired that any demand for higher wages or better working conditions was Economist. Therefore the only revolutionary demand was that the factory donate a hundred tons of corn flakes to the Black Panther Party “breakfast for children” programme. It says something about the tenor of the times that our people weren’t laughed off the factory floor, but it did kind of beg the question as to whether the “breakfast for children” programme was itself a liberal social work programme. Anyhow, for those of you who, like me, puzzled over what was wrong with “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”, hopefully this class will answer a few questions.

I will make the point that it is a common error to believe that What is to be done? and the fight in 1903 that resulted in the division of the Russian Social Democrats (as all Marxists called themselves at the time) into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were the final word on the party question. No, Lenin was not born a Leninist — his political views developed. Leninism, as a qualitative development of Marxism, arose in 1914-17 when Lenin responded in a revolutionary manner to the interimperialist World War I and the collapse of the Second International into hostile social-chauvinist parties. In August 1914, when the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) voted for war credits for the German imperialist government, it became clear that the Russian Bolsheviks weren’t just a counterpart of the SPD, only with better leadership. The Bolshevik party was a whole different animal than the SPD. It was only then that Lenin consciously generalised his views on the Leninist party, which were put into effect with the creation of the Third (Communist) International (or Comintern) in 1919.

So that’s why I recommend both What is to be done? and Lenin and the Vanguard Party to get an overall picture of the party question. Further, as others who know more than I do will speak to, we must understand the Leninist conception of the vanguard party in order to understand and evaluate revolutionary syndicalists like James Connolly, who was executed by the British state for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Whether he would have been won to Bolshevism we will never know, but he was certainly the type that the early Comintern sought to win over.

The “party of the whole class”

Organised Russian Marxism began in 1883 when Georgi Plekhanov broke from the dominant populist current to form the tiny Emancipation of Labour group in exile. During the late 1880s and early 1890s, the Marxist movement in Russia consisted of local propaganda circles that were educating a thin layer of advanced workers. But in the mid-1890s there was a major strike wave, and the propaganda circles turned to mass agitation. In part because of the imprisonment of more experienced Marxist leaders, the mass agitation quickly degenerated into reformism. This tendency was named Economism by Plekhanov, who was then hostile to it. Economism limited agitation to elementary trade union demands, while passively supporting the bourgeois liberal efforts to reform tsarist absolutism.

In terms of international Social Democracy, the Economists were hostile to orthodox Marxism and were loosely associated with Bernsteinism in Germany. German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein was the quintessential reformist who gave theoretical expression to the renunciation of revolutionary Marxism in favour of “evolutionary socialism”, premised on gradual reform of bourgeois society. Bernstein pronounced that for him the “movement” was everything, and the final goal of socialism was nothing. Sounds like a lot of modern day reformists.

Bernsteinism was a minority trend in the German party, but in Russia the reformist Economists were the dominant tendency. Lenin and others in around 1900 had the difficult task of fighting to bring the party back to the revolutionary traditions of the old Emancipation of Labour group. Lenin and Julius Martov, who were the second generation of Russian Marxists, along with some of the old guard like Plekhanov, worked together using the newspaper Iskra as their organising centre to combat the Economists. Actually this was the first time there was really an organising centre for a Russian social-democratic party. Lenin was the organiser of the Iskra group and he ran the “Iskra agents” who went — clandestinely, because of the tsarist repression — into Russia. Using the arguments from the paper, the agents were supposed to win over the local committees and, if that didn’t work, split them.

In polemicising against Lenin’s successful splitting tactics, the Economists pointed out that the German centre did not seek to exclude the Bernsteinites — and that was certainly true enough. Before getting into the specifics of the arguments in What is to be done?, let me say something about the question of the “party of the whole class”. At this time Lenin accepted in theory leading SPDer Karl Kautsky’s position of the party of the whole class. Now Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg, who was a leader of the revolutionary wing of the SPD, didn’t believe that everyone in the working class would or should join the party. What they did believe was that all working class tendencies should be in one social-democratic party.

As I said, Lenin did not make a theoretical argument against this conception, but rather justified his splitting tactics by a series of arguments based on the particularities of the Russian party situation. The arguments were different at different moments: the Bernsteinites would at least follow discipline, but the Economists were incapable of accepting party discipline so there had to be a split; or the Russian party, unlike the German, was embryonic and could easily fall prey to opportunism, so therefore there had to be a split. Later Lenin argued that the Mensheviks were a petty-bourgeois tendency, not a working-class one, so that’s why they shouldn’t be in one party. This illustrates that, as the Spartacist tendency has often noted, it was part of Lenin’s strength as a revolutionary politician that his empirical political practice often preceded his full-blown theoretical understanding. Trotsky was different; he was not inclined to jump ahead of his theoretical understanding.

“Freedom of criticism” — cover for revisionism

So What is to be done? was written in 1902 as part of this struggle and to codify and explain the arguments. It contains the initial, basic blueprint for the construction of a party and a cadre; against Economism and all reformism, for a party of professional revolutionaries, for the party to be a tribune of the people and able to master politics in many arenas — basically for a programmatically based revolutionary party with the newspaper as a collective organiser. Sounds good — and we’re still struggling to accomplish what Lenin is talking about. I did wince slightly when I read in What is to be done?: “The mere function of distributing a newspaper would help to establish actual contacts (if it is a newspaper worthy of the name, i.e., if it is issued regularly, not once a month like a magazine, but at least four times a month).” I thought about the struggle of the American section to produce Workers Vanguard as a biweekly.

Chapter 1 takes up “freedom of criticism”. Who can be against anyone’s right to criticise? But, as Lenin makes clear, the point is that “freedom of criticism” became the watchword of those who wanted to get away from the so-called “dogmatic, old fashioned” ideas of Marxism. Lenin explains that “‘freedom of criticism’ means freedom for an opportunist trend in Social-Democracy, freedom to convert Social-Democracy into a democratic party of reform, freedom to introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism”. Lenin tells the opportunists to “go yourselves wherever you will, even into the marsh.... Only let go of our hands, don’t clutch at us and don't besmirch the grand word freedom”.

Then Lenin takes up the worship of spontaneity. Lenin did not oppose spontaneous struggle. Workers strikes and student demonstrations — that’s all to the good. What Lenin denounces is that under the Economists, “Instead of sounding the call to go forward towards the consolidation of the revolutionary organisation and the expansion of political activity, the call was issued for a retreat to the purely trade-union struggle”. Further, he denounces the idea that the watchword for the Social Democratic movement must be the low-level slogan “struggle for economic conditions” or “the workers for the workers”. When he discusses formulations like, “The virility of the working-class movement is due to the fact that the workers themselves are at last taking their fate into their own hands, and out of the hands of the leaders”, he comments on how gross this is given that the leaders were torn away from the workers by the cops and secret police and exiled or jailed. Another example of the Economists bowing to spontaneity is their claim that strike funds “are more valuable to the movement than a hundred other organizations”. My favourite is, as Lenin puts it, “That struggle is desirable which is possible, and the struggle which is possible is that which is going on at the given moment.” This actually is very similar to a phrase which is currently still used in the US, “the politics of the possible” or the “left-wing of the possible” — which, not real surprisingly, always turns out to mean that the American workers should support the capitalist Democratic Party, though critically, of course.

The real point of the whole discussion on spontaneity is that the working class spontaneously produces trade union consciousness, which is a form of bourgeois ideology. As Lenin says: “There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology”. Communist consciousness is brought to the working class from the outside through the instrumentality of the revolutionary party. Reformists of all sorts have always disputed this, Tony Cliff being one of the many: it’s elitism, contempt for the working class…blah, blah, blah. We have made the point in various places that this is not a programmatic statement, but rather a historical analysis with implications for the organisational question.

The socialist movement and the trade union movement came from different places. In general the socialist movement predated the development of mass industrial organisations of the working class and arose out of the bourgeois-democratic revolutionary currents. Comrade Joseph Seymour’s very excellent series “Marxism and the Jacobin Communist Tradition”, published in Young Spartacus (1976-79), takes up this history. We fight for a party that will be a fusion of declassed intellectuals and advanced workers imbued with socialist consciousness.

The tribune of the people

Lenin’s point here is that out of trade union struggle, even if very militant, comes the consciousness that one has to fight the boss, but not that you have to overthrow and expropriate the bourgeoisie as a class. Lenin says of socialist consciousness: “The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes.” Trade unionism in and of itself does not challenge the capitalist mode of production, but only seeks to better the immediate conditions and wages of the workers in struggle with individual employers. It is still a form of bourgeois consciousness. For Lenin, socialist consciousness was the recognition by the proletariat of the need to become the ruling class and reconstruct society on socialist foundations. Anything less was trade union consciousness.

Karl Marx captured the distinction between bourgeois trade union consciousness and revolutionary consciousness when he wrote in Value, Price and Profit in 1865: “the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles…. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla [sic] fights incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: ‘A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: ‘Abolition of the wages system!’” So we can see where Lenin got his ideas from. This slogan is in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) preamble too, just not all that “other stuff” about a vanguard party.

Now, in the chapter on trade unionist politics and social-democratic politics, Lenin has one of the most eloquent statements on reformism. He says:

“Revolutionary Social-Democracy has always included the struggle for reforms as part of its activities. But it utilises ‘economic’ agitation for the purpose of presenting to the government, not only demands for all sorts of measures, but also (and primarily) the demand that it cease to be an autocratic government. Moreover, it considers it its duty to present this demand to the government on the basis, not of the economic struggle alone, but of all manifestations in general of public and political life. In a word, it subordinates the struggle for reforms, as the part to the whole, to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and for socialism.”

He also takes up the slogan which I had so much trouble with — “lending the economic struggle itself a political character” — which he says means nothing more than the struggle for economic reforms. What I didn’t understand when I first read this is that when you generalise trade unionism into the political sphere, what you have is more bourgeois politics. Lenin says that what the Economists have in mind “is something far more in the nature of a trade-union secretary than a socialist political leader. For the secretary of any, say English, trade union always helps the workers to carry on the economic struggle, he helps them to expose factory abuses, explains the injustice of the laws and of measures that hamper the freedom to strike and to picket…explains the partiality of arbitration court judges who belong to the bourgeois classes, etc, etc. In a word, every trade-union secretary conducts and helps to conduct ‘the economic struggle against the employers and the government’”. Actually that sounds somewhat to the left of US trade union bureaucrats these days, but as times change so does the verbiage of these sell-outs.

Lenin goes on: “the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade-union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat”. In other words, he’s talking about the party as the tribune of the people that can lead the struggle for workers revolution and communism.

Now Lenin’s point on the need for the party to be the tribune of the people may seem obvious. After all, that is one of the things the International Communist League is well known for: in Mexico, our comrades defend gays; in Japan, our comrades defend the Burakumin (the caste of “untouchables”). But this is a lesson that took a lot of struggle to learn. You get a vivid picture of this in Jacob Zumoff’s new book, The Communist International and US Communism 1919-1929. Here you see the struggle that the Communist International had to wage to get the early American Communists to take up the question of black oppression. It was a real battle.

A party of professional revolutionaries

Lenin takes up the amateurishness of the Russian Social Democratic movement, comparing it to a bunch of peasants armed only with clubs going up against modern troops. This situation was probably inevitable at first, but his criticism is that the Economists make a virtue out of this and, consequently, fight against any attempt to correct it. An interesting book that gives you a vivid picture of this period is called Twenty Years in Underground Russia: Memoirs of a Rank-and-File Bolshevik (1934) by Cecilia Bobrovskaya. (It’s also available on Marxists Internet Archive.) She gives a real picture of the amateurishness where she was active in Kharkov in about 1900: “the workers’ movement was growing apace in Kharkov while we still groped for the organizational channels through which our work was to be carried on…. There were no definite forms of organization in Kharkov or anywhere in Russia, for that matter…. More often than not these committees were formed by some active revolutionary (or group of revolutionaries) in the city, who would establish strong contacts with the masses. He (or the group) would select a few capable comrades and these would declare themselves a committee…. After the committee (the directing body) came the periphery (the executive body) which consisted of several score of comrades. There was no proper division of functions either in the committee or the periphery. Thus, for example, the committee had no secretary. There were no distinct departments for organizational, propaganda or agitation work. Nobody was even appointed to look after the literary functions…. But each one of us had to be a propagandist, organizer, printer and distributer at the same time.”

Later you get a sense of how pleased she was to see some proper organisation brought to the political work:

“At the time of which I write (1902) the Iskra group not only had the paper Iskra which was regularly published abroad and widely distributed in Russia, but also a strong organizational apparatus. In accordance with Lenin’s plan there were, first of all, cadres of well-trained, responsible comrades, the so-called Iskra agents, who were sent by the Editorial Board of Iskra to work in the locals, in Russia, or were sent from place to place as necessity required. By means of systematic correspondence in secret code and personal visits they kept the center abroad constantly informed about their own work and the general state of the work in Russia.

“Besides these highly qualified agents who were successfully carrying out the principles and tactics of Iskra, there were professional revolutionaries, who were occupied only with such technical duties as transporting literature and conveying comrades across the frontier, procuring passports and other tasks of a similar character.”

This whole conception of a party of professional revolutionaries is counterposed to what you would see, for example, in the British Socialist Labour Party in the early 20th century (see “British Communism Aborted”, Spartacist [English-language edition] no 36-37, Winter 1985-86).

Lenin also takes up the need for a nationwide newspaper as a collective organiser that provides the political line for the comrades as well as for the subscribers and readers. That was important then, when communication was not real easy, but it is still absolutely necessary even now. The newspaper provides the scaffolding for the party. Lenin emphasises that the revolutionary newspaper’s job is to explain the inseparable connection between unemployment and the whole capitalist system, to expose the police, warn that famine is imminent, etc, etc. Lenin makes fun of the Economists who argued that these articles provided not a single concrete demand promising palpable results. How many times have we all heard this: what are you doing in the here-and-now? Some arguments never change.

The Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDRP) in 1903 was supposed to be the culmination of the Iskraist project to create a centralised party based on a comprehensive programme. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. The Iskraists had a two-thirds majority and the Economists and the Jewish Bund were in the minority. But beneath the seemingly solid front of the Iskra group were very considerable tensions. There were the “hards” and the “softs”, initially represented by Lenin and Martov. As you well know, this tension exploded over the first paragraph of the rules which defined membership. Martov’s draft defined a party member as one who “renders it regular personal assistance under the direction of one of its organizations”. Lenin’s more stringent membership criterion was “by personal participation in one of the Party organizations”. Lenin’s narrower definition of membership was motivated by a desire both to exclude opportunists (who were less likely to accept the rigours and dangers of full organisational participation) and to weed out dilettantes who had been attracted to the Russian Social Democracy precisely because of its loose circle nature.

Lenin refused to see this as some incidental organisational dispute, but insisted that it be made the basis for majority (Bolshevik) and minority (Menshevik) representation on leading bodies. Again, I would say that this was an example of Lenin’s consistently revolutionary thrust leading him to break with opportunism well before he had generalised such a break theoretically. The logic of the factional struggle drove the Mensheviks to the right; gradually they replicated the politics of the defeated Economists and eventually fused with them. So there were essentially two organisations, one Bolshevik and the other Menshevik.

Lurking underneath all this was really the question of the character of the Russian Revolution. When reading What is to be done?, it may not be immediately obvious that Russia then was ruled by an absolutist monarchy, based on a landowning aristocracy, and all Marxists agreed that the immediate tasks were essentially democratic — the overthrow of tsarism, land to the peasantry, etc. However, there was an assumption on the part of the Mensheviks that, given Russia’s social and economic backwardness, this democratic revolution would be led by the liberal bourgeoisie and would necessarily lead to an extended period of capitalist rule. Basically, this rejected a revolutionary proletarian perspective in favour of a parliamentary opposition under a capitalist government!

Lenin agreed that overthrowing tsarism was the immediate task, but he vehemently disagreed with the perspective that the Marxists should form a bloc with the liberal bourgeoisie. What he posited was an alliance between the revolutionary proletariat and the poor peasantry. As opposed to the Mensheviks, he was trying to draw a line between the proletariat, and the toiling masses in general, and the capitalist class. However, Lenin’s theory at this time, “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”, was flawed in that it posited a dictatorship, a state power, of two distinct classes, one of which — the peasantry — is a property-owning class.

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution — which he first developed on the eve of the 1905 Revolution, when he was still organisationally aligned with the Mensheviks — dealt exactly with this impossible contradiction. As he said, it was only the proletariat organised in the factories that could satisfy the demands of the peasants and oppressed masses through doing away with capitalist property relations and establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. In carrying out the democratic tasks of the revolution, the proletarian state, supported by the mass of poor peasants, must inevitably make “despotic inroads into the rights of bourgeois property” and thus the revolution would directly pass over to the implementation of socialist tasks. Obviously there is a whole other aspect to permanent revolution, which is the necessity for international extension of the revolution, but that part was not as controversial at the time, 20 years before Stalin began pushing the anti-Marxist idea of building “socialism in one country” — in backward Russia, no less. (For further on the above, see the ICL pamphlet, The Development and Extension of Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, April 2008.)

The point here, however, is that Lenin’s algebraic formula (which he corrected in April 1917) did serve his main purpose of drawing a line against the Mensheviks and their tailing of the bourgeoisie.

Democratic centralism v “freedom of criticism”

Until 1912, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were sometimes forced to exist as factions in the same party. Particularly after the 1905 Revolution, there was mass sentiment, especially among newly recruited workers, for reunification; there was also a need for political struggle and a sorting out process. In the rush of events, opportunists had joined the Bolsheviks and revolutionary elements had mistakenly joined the Mensheviks. For Lenin, the reunification represented both a continuing adherence to the Kautskyan “party of the whole class” and a tactical manoeuvre to win over the mass of raw, young workers who had joined the Social-Democratic movement during 1905. We cannot know how much weight Lenin gave these very different considerations. He probably didn’t look forward to or project a definitive split and the creation of a Bolshevik party, but by 1912 after many struggles, that you can read about in Lenin and the Vanguard Party, that was the result. He still at this point emphasised the Mensheviks’ petty-bourgeois character. By the way, Trotsky’s rotten role in the 1912 “August bloc” — through which he tried to bring together all the disparate anti-Bolshevik tendencies in the name of “party unity” — demonstrated his Menshevik sensibilities on the party question, something which he only really came to understand in 1917.

Now let me say a word about democratic centralism, the Leninist organisational principle, uniquely upheld today by the ICL, that enshrines the right of an oppositional minority to fight for contending political positions inside the party — including the right to form a faction to replace the existing majority — so long as all members defend the majority line in public. Obviously when you’re stuck in a joint organisation with a Menshevik majority or doing an entry into a social-democratic party, you’re for as much “freedom of criticism” — meaning the right of a party minority to publicly criticise the majority position — as you can get. As James P Cannon, the historic leader of American Trotskyism, makes clear in his book, Speeches to the Party:

“Democratic-centralism has no special virtue per se. It is the specific principle of a combat party, united by a single program, which aims to lead a revolution. Social Democrats have no need of such a system of organization for the simple reason that they have no intention of organizing a revolution. Their democracy and centralism are not united by a hyphen but kept in separate compartments for separate purposes. The democracy is for the social patriots and the centralism is for the revolutionists.”

Let me give another quote from Twenty Years in Underground Russia describing the trials of dealing with Mensheviks during a strike in Baku in 1904. Speaking of an agitator who employed Menshevik phraseology, Bobrovskaya says:

“Ilya’s fiery speeches before and during the strike breathed hatred of the Bolsheviks in general and of the Baku Committee in particular. He and his friends tried to keep the strike within the limits of a purely economic struggle and tried to keep out everything that was political. Our political struggle was the principal object of Ilya’s ridicule at the mass meetings. On such occasions his harangues would be punctuated with sneering Menshevik phrases such as ‘Bolshevik generals,’ ‘Bonapartism,’ and so forth….

“The demagogue Ilya was never tired at mass meetings of discussing minor questions like the provision of aprons, mitts, etc., by the employers, without touching upon the real significance of the strike. As a result, the more backward workers left these mass meetings without being enlightened as to the true nature of the struggle and went away determined to fight only for mitts and aprons. They would leave the meeting with a hatred towards the Bolsheviks for whom mitts and aprons were a minor problem and not the vital question.”

The strike was quite successful. Bobrovskaya says: “During the strike the Baku Committee tried to show the masses of workers the necessity of extended political demands both by oral agitation and by the distribution of leaflets which had been printed in our excellently equipped secret printshop. This agitation proved successful. The Baku workers became more class conscious during the strike.” After mentioning that many of the wives were fairly conservative and unhappy about the strike, Bobrovskaya goes on: “Even the women ceased to nag their husbands. They realized that the struggle had been worth while. The struggle had been a hard one, but the workers secured a shortened working day and an increase in wages. But most important of all, the workers began to be recognized as a power with which it was necessary to reckon.”

One more quote. Speaking about 1905 and the difficulties of getting trained agitators, Bobrovskaya adds: “These difficulties were eased somewhat in the days that followed, when, besides the official agitators, speakers appeared from among the masses themselves.... I remember a worker from the Rontaller factory who once came over to me and said timidly that he would like to speak. He wound up his long and fairly able speech with the following words: ‘We button makers are a big power. If we choose we can leave all Moscow without a button.’” Well, Moscow’s a lot colder than Los Angeles, so I guess that was a serious threat.

The material basis for opportunism

The event which transformed Lenin from a Russian revolutionary social democrat into the founding leader of the world communist movement can be precisely dated: 4 August 1914. With the start of World War I the parliamentary fraction of the German SPD voted unanimously for war credits for the German government. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, but at the time seeing major European socialist parties go over to this orgy of social chauvinism and supporting their own bourgeoisies was very shocking. As is well known, Lenin at first couldn’t believe it and thought the report of the SPD vote was just German war propaganda. The point is this: after the SPD’s great betrayal, revolutionary Marxists could no longer regard opportunism in the workers movement as a marginal or episodic phenomenon or as a product of particular historical political backwardness. At this point, Lenin began to realise in hindsight the implications and effects of his earlier actions and positions.

Lenin’s basic policy towards the war and the international socialist movement was developed within a few weeks. This policy had three main elements: 1) socialists must stand for the defeat, above all, of their “own” bourgeois state. 2) The war demonstrated that capitalism in the imperialist epoch threatened to destroy civilisation. Socialists must therefore work to transform the imperialist war into civil war, into proletarian revolution. And 3) the Second International had been destroyed by social chauvinism. A new, revolutionary international must be built through a complete split with the opportunists in the social-democratic movement.

This last point was the most controversial one. Various types from revolutionary social democrats Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht to revolutionary syndicalists could agree with the first two points; it was the point about splitting the international workers movement into two antagonistic parties, one revolutionary and the other reformist, that created uproar even among those who opposed the war. So Lenin was forced to confront and explicitly reject the orthodox, Kautskyan “party of the whole class” position. He realised that the Bolshevik organisation had not, in fact, been built according to the Kautskyan formula. It had completely organisationally separated from the Mensheviks, in a formal way two and a half years before the outbreak of war and, in practice, long before 1912. The selection, training and tempering of the cadre in Lenin’s party was fundamentally different than in Kautsky’s. So he took the Bolshevik party as the model for the Third International, the Comintern.

Another point: Lenin and Gregory Zinoviev, with whom he worked closely during the war years, had to deal with the fact that identifying opportunism as a petty-bourgeois tendency didn’t deal with the world-historic betrayal they had just seen from the German SPD. The SPD had deep trade union roots, led massive unions, its leaders — Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske — had all been workers. Lenin’s analysis of the social basis for opportunism in the Second International can be seen in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, written in 1916:

“The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists in one of the numerous branches of industry, in one of the numerous countries, etc., makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie of a given industry or given nation against all the others. The intensification of antagonisms between imperialist nations for the division of the world increases this urge. And so there is created that bond between imperialism and opportunism.... The most dangerous of all in this respect are those [like the Menshevik, Martov] who do not wish to understand that the fight against imperialism is a sham and humbug unless it is inseparably bound up with the fight against opportunism.”

So Lenin came to understand that reformism was not a petty-bourgeois tendency coming from outside the workers movement, but a part of the workers movement that had to be continuously fought. The labour bureaucracy with its pro-capitalist politics plays the role of a transmission belt for bourgeois politics into the labour movement. The fight to transform the working class from a class in itself — the object of capitalist exploitation — to a class for itself — conscious of its revolutionary goals, requires battling the false consciousness that ties the proletariat to its “own” bourgeoisie. Within the workers movement it is not only the trade union bureaucracy which serves to reinforce the rule of capital but also the reformist pretenders to Marxism. I’m sure you have all had plenty of experience with these types.

But as Lenin and the Vanguard Party makes clear, the Leninist attitude towards the labour aristocracy is significantly different than towards the trade union bureaucracy. In the imperialist epoch successful reformism is impossible. Thus whatever their background and original motivation, unless the leaders of the labour movement explicitly adopt a revolutionary course, they are forced by their social role to subordinate the workers’ interests to those of the bourgeoisie, ie they are the “labour lieutenants of capital”. In contrast, skilled, well-paid workers, the aristocracy of labour, while more susceptible to conservative bourgeois ideology, and often wretched chauvinist dogs, are not “agents of the bourgeoisie in the workers movement”. Like the rest of the proletariat, they must be won away from their treacherous misleaders.

Even more off base is the position adopted by many American New Leftists that all workers in advanced industrial countries are an aristocracy of labour and hence impossible to win to revolution. This was the position of the Weatherman, which I mentioned before. In the interests of comic relief, let me talk about my meeting with Bernardine Dohrn, a leader of the Weatherman who was then on the “Ten Most Wanted” list in the US. (I had seen her “Wanted” picture up in the local post office.) We were supposed to meet on Telegraph Avenue right near the University of California campus in Berkeley. I don’t think we could have picked a more public spot. Dohrn was late, and everyone was worried. She claimed that she had been up the street stealing a pair of earrings. Shop-lifting when you were underground, how dumb! But it was all a part of the “outlaw” image.

Finally, we sat down to meet, and she talked about how the American working class was so bought off that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” wouldn’t work — they had to be put under a “dictatorship of the Third World”. She asked me what I was going to do when the North Koreans sailed into Puget Sound (near Seattle, in the state of Washington) to take over. Perhaps not answering this on a very deep level — I was kind of intimidated since she was a big shot — I just said that I didn’t think that was going to happen any time soon. She said that just showed what an American-chauvinist racist I was. So I didn’t join the Weatherman, and Dohrn and her hubby Bill Ayers eventually went back to Chicago, where they now hang out in liberal circles and know such unsavoury people as Barack Obama.

Organisational principles and the revolutionary programme

You see codified in the first four Congresses of the Third International Lenin’s generalisation of the Bolshevik experience: that the kind of hardened, programmatically based, democratic-centralist party was what the workers of all lands needed. That’s what the “21 Conditions” (adopted at the 1920 Second Congress) for joining the Communist International were about: programmatic agreement, keeping the opportunists out. That is what we are about: trying to build an international Leninist vanguard party on a hard programmatic basis through a series of splits and fusions. Of course, given the distance between us and our opponents there hasn’t been much there to even contemplate fusing with these days, but that will change.

In conclusion, I want to just refer you to Prometheus Research Series (PRS) bulletin no 1, Guidelines on the Organizational Structure of Communist Parties, on the Methods and Content of Their Work. This is the first PRS bulletin we ever put out. In the introduction we say that it “appears to be the only complete and accurate English translation” of what we refer to as “one of the great documents of the international communist movement, standing as the codification of communist organizational practice as it was forged by the Bolsheviks and tested in the light of the world’s first successful proletarian revolution”. The Guidelines start off by making clear the revolutionary goals of the communist party. Then in the section called “On communists’ obligation to do work”, we very clearly hear the echoes of the Bolshevik/Menshevik fight over the definition of membership. It talks about the need for “day-to-day collective work in the party organizations”. It goes on: “Thus, in its effort to have only really active members, a communist party must demand of every member in its ranks that he devote his time and energy, insofar as they are at his own disposal under the given conditions, to his party and that he always give his best in its service.” Further: “In order to carry out daily party work, every party member should as a rule always be part of a smaller working group — a group, a committee, a commission, a board or a collegium, a fraction or cell.”

So we see Lenin’s more stringent membership criterion, “personal participation in one of the Party organizations”, not Martov’s looser criterion. This is an example of lessons learned and put into effect in the Comintern. And, I would add, the fact that we put out the only complete English translation of this document is one more testament to our commitment to Bolshevism and to providing revolutionary continuity.

When class and social struggle do break out, what is needed is a revolutionary party that has learned the programmatic and historic lessons of previous class battles and is able to lead the proletariat forward to state power. There are not too many of us, but there is no one else who has the same Marxist goals. So this is our job. On that slightly daunting note, I will conclude.


Workers Hammer No. 232

WH 232

Autumn 2015


Corbyn landslide, Blairite backlash


Jeremy Corbyn: Tony Blair's nightmare!


Quote of the issue

The Great French Revolution


On the Bennite left in the 1980s: Labour's Cold War


New Spartacist pamphlet


What is to be done?

Origins of the Leninist vanguard party


Open letter to the Greek Communist Party

Why we are not giving critical support to the KKE


Greece: No vote to Syriza! No vote to Popular Unity!

For workers struggle against the EU and the euro!


Greek Trotskyists initiate call

Repudiate Syriza's sellout to the EU