party-building (Questions for Melvin)/Revolutionary process

Ed George edgeorge at
Sun Sep 28 19:04:48 MDT 2003

[I may be a little off the debate here, being, as ever, behind in
reading my mail. But there is so much in Melvin's post worth commenting
on that I am posting this anyway. Apologies if I am repeating anything
else that might have been said, or if I am going off on a tangent. In
addition, I going to be forced to repeat arguments I may have made here
before. The post to which I am replying, by the way, is Melvin's, from
Fri, 26 Sep 2003 17:56:24 EDT]

Melvin: 'The insurrectionary force is not the working class by
definition. An insurrectionary force is a grouping or organization or
party if you will, able to seize governmental authority.'

This is true to an extent. But it is not the case that the revolutionary
party is purely an instrument for insurrection. What is clear in
Marxism, and absolutely unambiguous in Lenin, is that the idea that a
party can take power, i.e. complete an insurrection, without the support
of the mass movement, would be laughable.

Melvin: 'A party of the class - working class, is one that has the
capacity and ability to win over the various leaders and organizations
within the working class, that constitute its forward motion. Its
forward motion is the striving to secure form the government and social
institutions all the things it needs for continued survival and
betterment - reforms. The vanguard of the working class is those leaders
and organizations that give the working class its voice at the various
stages and phases of the social struggle.'

Well, yes, but there is a dialectic at play here. Trotsky (writing in
1940 in 'The Class, the Party, and the Leadership') showed an
understanding of this dialectic, at last at a formal level:

'There is an ancient, evolutionary-liberal epigram: every people gets
the government it deserves. History, however, shows that one and the
same people may in the course of a comparatively brief epoch get very
different governments (Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain, etc.) and
furthermore that the order of these governments doesn't at all proceed
in one and the same direction: from despotism - to freedom, as was
imagined by the evolutionist liberals. The secret is this, that a people
is comprised of hostile classes, and the classes themselves are
comprised of different and in part antagonistic layers which fall under
different leadership; furthermore every people falls under the influence
of other peoples who are likewise comprised of classes. Governments do
not express the systematically growing "maturity" of a "people" but are
the product of the struggle between different classes and the different
layers within one and the same class, and, finally, the action of
external forces - alliances, wars and so on. To this should be added
that a government, once it has established itself, may endure much
longer than the relationship of forces which produced it. It is
precisely out of this historical contradiction that revolutions, coup
d'etats, counter- revolutions, etc., arise.

The very same dialectic approach is necessary in dealing with the
question of the leadership of a class. Imitating the liberals our sages
tacitly accept the axiom that every class gets the leadership it
deserves. In reality leadership is not at all a mere "reflection" of a
class or the product of its own free creativeness. A leadership is
shaped in the process of clashes between the different classes or the
friction between the different layers within a given class. Having once
arisen, the leadership invariably rises above its class and thereby
becomes pre-disposed to the pressure and influence of other classes. The
proletariat may "tolerate" for a long time a leadership that has already
suffered a complete inner degeneration but has not as yet had the
opportunity to express this degeneration amid great events. A great
historic shock is necessary to reveal sharply the contradiction between
the leadership and the class. The mightiest historical shocks are wars
and revolutions. Precisely for this reason the working class is often
caught unawares by war and revolution. But even in cases where the old
leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot
improvise immediately a new leadership, especially if it has not
inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable
of utilising the collapse of the old leading party.'

The point is that those that 'give the working class its voice at the
various stages of the social struggle' are not necessarily going to be
those who 'constitute' the class's 'forward motion'. If that were true
then the revolutionary party would indeed be simply an insurrectionary
instrument and it would not be necessary - indeed it would be pointless
- to expend energy building one outside of a revolutionary crisis. But
Lenin did not think that those that give the working class its voice at
the various stages of the social struggle constitute the class's forward
motion, for he thought that the class's forward motion was composed of a
series of sectoral, partial, moments and that in order to grasp the real
movement of the class it was necessary to build a totalising instrument
- as much in non-revolutionary periods as in revolutionary ones:

Lenin (writing in What is to be Done?): 'The basic error that all the
Economists commit [...] [is] their conviction that it is possible to
develop the class political consciousness of the workers from within,
[...] from their economic struggle [...].

'Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from
without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside
the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from
which it alone 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.'

Lenin precisely defines 'within' and 'without', 'inside' and 'outside'
in this period as a function of this distinction between the partial,
and the global. Sectional struggles, trade union struggles for example
(but other types of struggle too - national struggles, 'identity'
struggles, etc.), 'organically' only lead to sectional, partial
consciousness: what the working class needs is a centralising,
totalising instrument - a revolutionary party - to unify the experiences
of its multifarious, partial struggles, in order to see that the
necessary route to win these partial struggles is precisely the
overthrow of the old society, which will require, at some point in the
unpredictable future, an popular insurrection, a revolution. It was this
conception of Lenin's which marked such a sharp break with the
evolutionist - objectively economistic - conceptions developed by
Russian social-democracy in its previous break from populism.

But why should the working class need a politically centralising
instrument of this type? Why would the working class, without this
weapon of organisation, only be capable of developing partial - 'trade
union' - consciousness? The key is that capitalist social relations do
not automatically reveal themselves as they really are: the laborious
excavations undertaken by Marx in Capital, for example were precisely
necessary because of the mystificatory nature of capitalist social
relations. The nature of the exploitation and oppression suffered by a
peasant is different from that experienced by a capitalist wage-earner:
it is clear to the peasant that she is exploited, even if it may appear
that such exploitation arises from the 'natural order' of things, but
the nature of the exploitation of the oppressed in capitalist societies
is not readily obvious at the level of surface appearances. In order to
unmask the real nature of the workings of capitalist society relations a
level of theoretical - scientific - understanding is necessary.

Intrinsic to capitalist social relations is that the ideas that
'organically' arise on the basis of the appearance of bourgeois society
- and which are, in this sense 'partially' correct - are insufficient in
themselves for the development of revolutionary socialist consciousness,
and are, moreover, not organically amenable to self-correction: meaning
that full socialist consciousness needs a theoretical - scientific -
understanding of the global relations making up bourgeois society. Such
a scientific understanding was for Lenin predicated on organisation: the
theoretical understanding that was necessary was impossible to achieve
without a revolutionary party. Or to put it another way, what Lenin
meant by 'revolutionary party' was the type of organisation that would
bring this process about.

There is a fundamental point that needs to be registered here. There is
a qualitative difference between the type of organisation that Lenin
suggests - a type of organisation that has to be consciously fought for
- and that which 'organically' develops within capitalist society, and,
as a consequence, which normally obtains within the working class
movement. For the consequence of the modus operandi of the classic
social-democratic type organisations - with, of course,
'social-democratic' understood in its modern sense - (of which, the
Communist Parties form a sub-group) is not to engender the type of
totalisation that Lenin envisages as essential for the development of
revolutionary socialist consciousness but precisely to reinforce and
institutionalise the sectoral divisions that organically arise within
bourgeois society, be they functional ('parliamentarism'), national, or
vertical and horizontal sectoralism. Indeed, the very structure of
social democratic organisations mitigates against totalisation: if the
phenomenon of bureaucracy broadly understood can be said to have a
functional characteristic then it is precisely this: that it arises from
degrees of 'partial' consciousness and acts as a block to their
supercession. Precisely for this reason, the question of building a
revolutionary organisation is a political and not a technical one, and
cannot be relegated to the revolutionary crisis and the practical tasks
of insurrection. Moreover, such forms of organisation as are 'normally'
thrown up within capitalist society arise as they do on the basis of
partial, sectoral, consciousness, themselves the organic and natural
forms of political organisation that bourgeois society prompts: without
conscious political struggle for the revolutionary party as a totalising
instrument the working class movement will spontaneously throw up
bureaucratic and conservatising social-democratic type political
organisations. If the contour of the struggle to build a revolutionary
party can be summed up in one sentence, then it is the struggle to break
free from and overcome the limitations of this partial and sectoral
consciousness that the working class movement develops organically
within bourgeois society and which finds its reflection in the type of
political organisations that it spontaneously produces. It is against
this necessity that particular attempts to build revolutionary parties
can be judged in terms of (relative) success or failure, against the
degree to which they have been successful in overcoming the limitations
of partial conceptions of the struggle for socialism.

Melvin: 'To win the vanguard of the working class to the cause of
communism is to won over the various leaders and organisations to a
vision of a new society. A vision based on the inalienable right of the
individual to secure means of survival and betterment no longer based on
ones ability to sell their labour power.'

No. The struggle for a revolutionary party is not fought over for or
against communism but over the need to revolutionise society; in other
words, the party is built on the basis of an understanding not of the
future but of the present. We do not argue that communism would be
better, but the capitalism cannot continue (and to end capitalism we
have to take control of political power). Of course, communism will be
better, but it is fundamental to understand that we will not win it
through rational argument alone but through political action. That is
what revolutionary politics is about. Isaac Deutscher, commenting on
George Orwell, put it like this:

'The distinction between the Marxist and the rationalist is of some
importance. Contrary to an opinion widespread in Anglo-Saxon countries,
Marxism is not at all rationalist in its philosophy: it does not assume
that human beings are, as a rule, guided by rational motives and that
they can be argued into socialism by reason. Marx himself begins Das
Kapital with the elaborate philosophical and historical inquiry into the
'fetishistic' modes of thought and behaviour rooted in 'commodity
production' - that is, in man's work for and dependence on, a market.
The class struggle, as Marx describes it, is anything but a rational
process. This does not prevent the rationalists of socialism describing
themselves sometimes as Marxists. But the authentic Marxist may claim to
be mentally better prepared than the rationalist is for the
manifestations of irrationality in human affairs, even for such
manifestations as Stalin's Great Purges. He may feel upset or mortified
by them, but he need not feel shaken in his Weltanschauung, while the
rationalist is lost and helpless when the irrationality of the human
existence suddenly stares him in the face. If he clings to his
rationalism, reality eludes him. If he pursues reality and tries to
grasp it, he must part with his rationalism.'

Melvin: 'Russia had been under going social revolution - the transition
from agriculture to industrial relations, which is spoken of in various
prefaces to the Communist Manifesto. In this sense the bourgeoisie
itself was drawing the masses into the social struggle against feudal
absolutism. Society was in revolutionary motion.'

No. That 'society was in revolutionary motion' is unarguable, but is a
truism, for, understood like this, all societies are in revolutionary
motion. The trick is to see the specificities: what this motion is
composed of, what are its tendential movements, what are its
contradictions. What Lenin grasped very early was that in Russia the
specific nature of the transition to capitalism meant that the
bourgeoisie would not - would not be capable of - drawing the masses
into the social struggle. Lenin's decisive innovation in the field of
political strategy with respect to the Russian revolution was, of
course, that, to carry it out, it was necessary for the proletariat and
peasantry, under the leadership of revolutionary social democracy, to
actually take power. Now it is true that Lenin continued in this period
(before April 1917) to see the forthcoming revolution as bourgeois in
its social content - but he consistently and unambiguously argued that
the bourgeoisie was not capable of brining it about, that the logic of
Russian development meant that the bourgeoisie would be forced into a
political bloc with reaction at the expense of realising the promise of
its own revolution. We have to acknowledge that in this respect, that of
the revolutionary will of the Russian bourgeoisie, what happened
subsequently was to prove Lenin's expectations completely.

Melvin 'I cannot say when Lenin became aware that groups like the
"Emancipation of Labor Group" were inadequate to the task of creating an
organisation of professional revolutionaries.'

In my view, Lenin most clearly saw that the original conceptions of
Russian Marxism were inadequate to the tasks facing it in the debates
surrounding the emergence of Bolshevik and Menshevik factions within
Russian social democracy. Marxism itself in Russia was at birth founded
on the basis of a conscious and deliberate break with the orthodoxies of
populism, which meant that central to its conceptions was the view that
Russia was a backward and barbarous country: before any idea of an
advance to socialism could be even considered, a long supervening
process of capitalist industrialisation and westernisation was
necessary. The precondition for this was to be a bourgeois-democratic -
not socialist - revolution: the working class in Russia would be forced
to play the role of supporting the liberal bourgeoisie in over-turning
absolutism and establishing a constitutional, parliamentary state. The
peasantry, communal or otherwise, was seen not as a revolutionary asset
in the struggle against Tsardom but as a backward and reactionary force.
In fact, the rather mechanical 'evolutionism' that was being advanced by
Plekhanov et al seemed to have more in common with the brand of Marxism
that was beginning to emerge in the Second International. It was from
this type of Marxism that Lenin broke in this period, in the historic
split of 1903 which produced both Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.

Melvin: 'By organization of professional revolutionaries is meant people
who primary life activity is preparation for and aiding the outbreak of
mass social struggle as a basis for insurrection. [...]'

No. What Lenin meant by the term 'professional revolutionary' was that
it did not matter the class origin of the revolutionary as long as she
was a revolutionary. Workers are no more naturally gifted at being
revolutionaries than (in Lenin's example) students. For example, from
What is to be Done?:

'I assert that it is far more difficult to unearth a dozen wise men than
a hundred fools. This position I will defend, no matter how much you
instigate the masses against me for my "anti-democratic" views, etc. As
I have stated repeatedly, by "wise men", in connection with
organisation, I mean professional revolutionaries, irrespective of
whether they have developed from among students or working men.'

What Lenin is emphasising here, consistent with his views on the nature
of the party that he was arguing needed to be built, was the primacy of

Melvin: 'His efforts at fighting to preserve this party as an
insurrectionary force would pay off with the collapse of the government
and social institutions as the result of Russia catastrophic defeat in
the First World Imperial War. What collapsed the political and social
institutions of the feudal authority and the attempts of the bourgeoisie
to lead the transition to industrial society was not simply the internal
movement of Russian society but a horrific defeat in World War 1.'

No. It is completely false to imagine that the government and social
institutions 'collapsed' in Russia in February 1917. What caused the
collapse of the government and the social institutions (principally the
army) was not the war but the revolution of 23-27 February; and the
February overthrow of the Czarist authorities was hardly a matter of
kicking in an open door - it was a full-scale revolutionary uprising.
The point was that the Revolution was led not by Bolsheviks but by
Mensheviks and SRs, who immediately attempted to form a governing
coalition bloc with the Kadets. The central tactical slogan of
Bolshevism in 1917 - 'all power to the soviets' - did not mean: 'we
should turn the soviets into organs of power', for the people already
treated them as such: it referred precisely to the question of
government. It meant that the soviet parties should take their rightful
place at the head of the revolution. It meant 'break the coalition' and
'down with the ten capitalist ministers'. That this was its chief
popular connotation is attested to by the fact that Lenin felt it
necessary to write an article ('One of the Fundamental Questions of the
Revolution') reminding people that the slogan did not refer only to
government. It was in the dual power period which followed February that
the Bolsheviks won the popular support that allowed them to lead the
insurrection of October. But that they were in the position to do this
in the first place was predicated on the political understanding
developed before 1905.

Melvin: 'The ebbs and flow in the Russia social movement took place in
the context of a revolutionary transition - abolition of serfdom and the
outbreak of the First Imperial World War: roughly 1890-1914.'

Well, aside from the fact that serfdom was formally abolished in Russia
in 1861, the only sense in which we can conceive of Russia in, for
example, 1906-12, being 'in the context of a revolutionary transition'
is in the sense noted above, in that in which all societies can be seen
in 'revolutionary transition'. This period was one of bleak reaction and
repression, in which prospects of 'insurrection' appeared mere pie in
the sky.

Melvin: 'In America we face just entered a period of transition in which
to gage the ebbs and flow in the working class movement. The party
building movements of the late 1960s until perhaps the mid 1980s came to
naught because an organization of revolutionaries cannot function as
such outside a general revolutionary transition underway in society.'

No. These party-building movements (as much in the US as in western
Europe) came to naught because the protagonists understood the type of
revolutionary organisation that needed to be built according the
distortions and mystifications of 'Leninism' (in truth a sad parody of
the original) developed within the Comintern from the mid-1920s and on.

Melvin: 'The social revolution is the revolution in the means of
production or the revolutionizing of the material power of the
productive forces. This disorganizes the basis of the old society and
society is restructured to accommodate the new features of production
and produces social upheaval.'

To say that 'social revolution is the revolution in the means of
production or the revolutionizing of the material power of the
productive forces' is simple tautology. The point is that the revolution
that will place the proletariat in social control (and which will thus
see the proletariat, along with all classes, supersede itself) requires
the prior conquest of state - political - power. Hence the need for a
Leninist party.

Melvin: 'The last period of social upheaval in our country was of course
the Civil Rights Movement, which was not what is meant by the words
class struggle. The period prior to the Civil Rights Movement was marked
with social upheaval to reform the system on the basis of advance
industrial relations, which appeared to the eye as a sharp battle of
transition from craft unionism to industrial unionism. This is not the
meaning of class struggle.'

But this is precisely the sort of economism that Lenin predicated his
theory of the party against. See above and (amongst others)

Melvin: '[...] I believe we need to call in a good Minister to pray over
us as we give all the doctrines of the past a good burial, so that we
may leave the funeral and regroup on an entirely new basis. The Ghost of
the past always weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living. He
need to bury our ghost.'

As to what kind of Minister we need to pray over us I can be of no help,
but the point about history is that it can never be forgotten, only
learned from. There are no 'fresh starts' in Marxism.

Melvin: '[...] You only can lead people where they are already going.
Fighting for abstract communism gets us nowhere in the practical
struggle of the working class. [...]'

Amen to that. But that means building a revolutionary - Leninist - party
in the non-insurrectionary here and now.

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