More from Hal Draper

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Thu Aug 8 12:09:44 MDT 1996


                     Well, what about the Bolsheviks?

But didn't the Bolshevik party have to develop from a sect to a mass party?
If they can do it, so can we . . .

No, that is not how the Bolsheviks became a mass party -- not by the road
of the sect. And there is no proposal for a sect form of organization in
What Is To Be Done?. The whole mass of fairy-tale history about Lenin's
party conceptions is an invention of the professional anti-Bolsheviks and
Stalinists; however, we obviously cannot go into that here, The following
will suffice for the present problem:

Take the route embodied in What Is To Be Done? In the preceding period, the
preliminaries for a mass party had taken shape in Russia in the form not of
sects but of local workers' circles, which remained loose. and founded
loose regional associations. They had not developed as branches of a
central organization but autonomously, in response to social struggles --
loosely.

What Lenin set out to organize abroad, first of all, was not a sect, not
any membership organization, but a political center: a publication (Iskra)
with an editorial board. The Iskra tendency was embodied as an editorial
board, not a sect. The membership organization to which Lenin looked was to
be a mass party, not one consisting exclusively of those who agreed with
his revolutionary Marxism, but rather a mass Party broad enough to include
all socialists, indeed all militant workers. It would have different
tendencies within it, and the consistent Marxists might be a minority at
least for a while.

But while Lenin did not make the mistake of proposing to interpose the
walls of a sect between his tendency (i.e. the one with the correct line)
and the broad movement of the class- in-struggle, he also did not make the
other mistake: the mistake of neglecting to build a political center and
thereby a Marxist cadre.

It was the Mensheviks and right-wingers, not Lenin, who split rather than
permit a left-wing majority. Nor, in the years of the Bolshevik party's
formation, did Lenin make a virtue out of necessity: he did not adopt the
view that the Party had to be limited to Bolsheviks. On the contrary, he
fought consistently for the conception of a broad Party in which, however,
the left wing had as much right to take over the leadership by democratic
vote as did the right wing. This is what the Bolshevik-leadership split was
all about, on the organizational side.

Of course, the state of illegality in which the movement functioned
conditioned organizational forms in many ways, but it is not illegality
that determined that Lenin refused to take the road of forming a Bolshevik
sect. If Iskra had been set up in Petrograd instead of abroad, the
essential relation would not have changed; and in fact, when partial
legality was attained for a short period after the 1905 revolution, one of
the consequences was temporary fusion of the Bolshevik and Menshevik groups
in a united mass party, though Lenin retained a political center in the
form of a publication and its editorial board. The onset of a measure of
legality did not push Lenin toward a Bolshevik sect formation but in the
opposite direction, toward unity with the Mensheviks in a mass party (not
unity of the ideological political centers).

But weren't both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks "factions" of the split
party? -- Yes, formally speaking they were; but a faction meant something
else again in those days. On both sides, as well as for other organized
tendencies in the Russian movement, a "faction" functioned as a public
political center with its own publication and editorial board as the
carrier of its politics.

Nor were these factions (Bolshevik as well as Menshevik) "membership
organizations" in the sense of the sects we hive been trying to build. Look
at the documents written by Lenin shortly before 1914 when the Socialist
International bureau was inquiring into the Bolshevik-Menshevik unity
question: - Lenin, to prove that the Bolsheviks had the support of a
majority of the socialist workers in Russia, gives statistics on
circulation of organs, financial contributions, etc., but not membership.
Nor did anyone expect membership figures. For the membership organizations
in Russia were local and regional party groups which might be part
Bolshevik and part Menshevik in sympathy, or might shift support from one
to the other from time to time, etc. Every time a "party congress" or
conference was held, each party group had to decide whether to attend this
one or that one, or both.

What this points at is the fact that both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks
were, in organizational form, not membership sects, and not even "factions"
in any organizational meaning relevant to today. What were they? Both were
political centers based on a propaganda/publishing enterprise, plus a
central organizational apparatus for forging links with all sections of the
workers' movement, through "agents", literary collaborators, etc. (This
plus is a crucial addition, though we do not dwell on it at this point.)
Individual party members in Russia, or party groups, might decide to
distribute Lenin's paper or the Menshevik organ or neither -- many
preferred a "non-faction" organ such as Trotsky put out in Vienna; or they
might use in their work those publications of the Bolsheviks which they
liked plus those of the Mensheviks and others, on a free-wheeling basis.

Obviously much of this scene was conditioned by illegality; much of it by
the nature of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, etc. It is not we who propose
it as an automatic model for us today; we are discussing it for the very
opposite reason: viz., because there are some who, erroneously thinking
that the Bolsheviks developed in the shape of a sect, erroneously propose
the "Bolshevik-type sect" as a model. But there never was anything like a
"Bolshevik sect." That invention came later, after the Comintern.

In any case, it is obvious there must be the following tentative
conclusion: If the Bolshevik party did not develop as a revolutionary party
through the road of the sect, then there must be another way.

In fact, the historical conclusion goes farther: There is no revolutionary
mass party, or even semi-revolutionary mass party, which ever became a mass
party by the road of the sect.

That does not prove there never will be. That does not prove, by itself,
that it is forever impossible for a sect to evolve into a mass party in
some organic way, that is, without at some point realizing it is on the
wrong road and taking a different route. But we are not interested in
proving that. All that needs to be understood is that there must be another
road -- a road which was in fact actually taken by revolutionary
socialists, and with more or less success.

What is proved is that the road of the sect should not be followed
uncritically, without thinking it through, as if it were the only one
possible or thinkable. On the contrary the road of the sect has never
worked up to now at all. What has worked is a quite different road, one
which therefore at least deserves consideration.




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