Communists and the party: a contribution to the debate with the Socialist Movement

Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks created the most revolutionary party that the world has ever seen. But is the building of a communist party still a relevant task for today? The role of the party in the struggle to overthrow capitalism is a fundamental question that all thinking communists must understand.

[Originally published in Spanish at luchadeclases.org]

This article is the fourth and final part of a series of contributions to a debate with the Socialist Movement in the Spanish State. Parts one, two and three are already available to read.

The working class and socialist consciousness

As we have already stated in the previous contributions to this debate, we fully agree with the comrades of the Socialist Movement that the working class is a revolutionary class, which plays a fundamental role in the transformation of society.

This flows from a materialist analysis of capitalism and the classes that compose it. From their scientific study of capitalism, Marx and Engels came to the conclusion that the working class, due to its role in production, must lead the struggle of all the oppressed, to end class society and thus establish communism.

In any given period, what determines the character of the social classes is the role they play in production and how they appropriate the products of labour. 

The unity of interests of the working class is a product of its absolute dependence on the capitalist class to obtain its means of life. Regardless of workers’ occupations, they are in a constant struggle against the capitalist class to maintain and increase their standard of living. The fight to win a better wage is a struggle against the capitalist class over surplus value; the value that workers produce, for which they are not paid. In this way, capitalism is revealed as a system of exploitation, oppression and theft. 

At the same time, the demands of the working class for higher wages and a reduction in the working day finds its historical justification, in that the struggle for surplus value is the driving force of the class struggle under capitalism. It is the justified attempt of the working class to reclaim from the capitalists all the value that workers create through their labour. Or, to put it another way, the class struggle under capitalism is, in essence, a struggle for the appropriation of society's surplus value.

Here we come to our first disagreement with the comrades of the Socialist Movement. In the article Subjecte i estratègia socialista. Una primera aproximació (“Subject and socialist strategy. A first approximation”), it is stated that:

“To derive the role of the proletariat as a revolutionary subject from their economic conditions, as if it were an automatic mechanism, would be to make one of the mistakes that we are often accused of: economism.”

However, in his analysis of the situation in Britain, in his book The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx points out:

Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests.” (Our emphasis)

What does it mean to become a class “for itself”? It means gaining an awareness of belonging to a particular layer of society, with its own social interests and its own historical objectives. These objectives are the result of the class’ condition as salaried workers, and the relation of this work to the economic system in general. The working conditions themselves therefore necessarily create an environment which promotes class consciousness.

lenin crowd Image public domainConsciousness is a product of material conditions / Image: public domain

This applies to all layers of society that make up the working class, regardless of whether particular working conditions make certain layers reach class conscious conclusions before others. The consciousness of the working class flows from its material situation, from the production of material life itself. This is the materialist position, which states that consciousness is a product of material conditions, that ideas are a more or less correct reflection of the reality that surrounds us.

Now, the comrades of the Socialist Movement are correct to point out that this process is neither automatic nor instantaneous: it is the expression of the dialectical relationship between the objective situation and the subjective factor, between the given material conditions and the living class struggle. Thus, from the point of view of the proletariat, we agree with the comrades that:

“Social classes, as we have mentioned before, exist in an economic situation such that, although it contains the possibility for their manifestation as political subjects, it does not immediately imply this, since this requires an entire historical process of class struggle, through which they can become aware of themselves.” (Subjecte i estratègia socialista. Una primera aproximació, our emphasis)

Class consciousness develops not only through the experiences of workers within the economic structure of capitalist society, but also in the superstructure, through the experience of workers in organisations such as trade unions, political parties, city councils, parliaments etc. In particular, class consciousness develops due to great political and social upheavals, such as repression, wars, social turmoil, general strikes, revolutions, etc

That said, it is important to add that the consciousness of the vast majority of society is not, generally, revolutionary. On the contrary, it tends to be conservative, because it clings to old ideas, traditions, and to the comfort of what people are used to. For the most part, people just want to be able to live peacefully in decent conditions. Who can blame them? Nobody wants major disruptions in their lives.

In addition to this relative impediment on the development of class consciousness, the working class, although sharing common interests, also has heterogeneous components, as the Socialist Movement also points out. Understanding these objective differences is vital, as the working class develops its consciousness unevenly, with some layers far ahead of others due to events. 

In last year’s revolutionary struggle in Iran, for example, it was women, especially students, who were at the head of the movement. They made a very important leap forward, going from being one of the oppressed layers, with a social role limited by the extreme oppression of the regime, to spearheading the fight against Iranian capitalism.

The Communist Party

For all that has been said above, in a ‘normal’ period of relative stability, it is inevitable that only a small layer of workers is willing to embrace revolutionary or communist ideas. The masses of the working class need great events to break their illusions in the system and the dominant ideas of the bourgeoisie, as well as their distrust towards a radical change in society.

What's more, this is admitted by comrades of the Socialist Movement in their article Subjecte i stratègia socialista. Una primera aproximació. The comrades note that a substantial part of the movement's cadres must be recruited from “the proletarianised middle class”, since, they suggest, they have a more advanced cultural level than most workers. 

What is this if not the admission of the existence of a more advanced, vanguard layer? Is this not also an admission that the party or movement must first be built around a layer of cadres, which constitutes its skeleton? Every communist organisation must strive to recruit among advanced workers and educate members from other social classes in the methods of the working class.

With this in mind, we think that the comrades of the Socialist Movement fall into a contradiction by describing the objective of communists in the following way:

“The general objective of a revolutionary organisation is to create the conditions for the possibility of the seizure of political power by the proletariat as a form of the suppression of class society and, therefore, of overcoming bourgeois domination. That is, the objective is to become a hegemonic force.” (Subjecte i estratègia socialista. Una primera aproximació, our emphasis)

Starting from the historical analysis of the labour movement and the objective conditions of our class, we see that in stable times only a small layer of the population reaches revolutionary conclusions in advance. At the same time, we see that it is events, above all, that change the consciousness of the masses. In this sense, wars and revolutions are the events that hammer your conscience with the greatest force and depth.

Let us be clear: the revolutionary organisation does not create the conditions for the seizure of power. It is the insoluble contradictions of capitalism that generate the conditions that force millions to seek to overthrow the system. These contradictions generate suffering, misery, rage, frustration, death, etc. which accumulate over a period of time. This continues until, seemingly spontaneously, thousands or even millions of people, who were previously apathetic, take to the streets. The inspirational struggles around the world in recent years, such as in Ecuador, Kazakhstan, Sudan, etc., demonstrate this. In a revolutionary period, yesterday's consciousness, which lagged behind events, abruptly catches up with reality.

Precisely for this reason, we follow the model of the Bolshevik party. Lenin defended the need for an organisation of revolutionary cadres, trained in theory and practice, capable of uniting different political struggles into a single fight against the capitalist system. This view coincides with the position of the Socialist Movement, who say that “the Party is not a mere coordination of fronts, but a global articulation of the proletariat under the same strategy and direction.” On this, again, we agree. However, the comrades disagree with the Bolshevik view of the role of communists in class struggle. Thus, in the article Crítica a la qüestió organitzativa: desviacions i potencialitats (“Critique of the organisational quest: deviations and potentialities”), they state:

"The first deviation that starts from this separation between theory and practice conceives socialist theory as a set of principles, statements and premises existing in the world of ideas and that the theoretical task of communists is to ‘search for it’, that is, to define socialism a priori and bring it into the world a posteriori. As a result of this conception, the vanguard is understood as that sector that would have accessed these ideas and that must organise the class without its conscious participation. For this reason, we understand the vanguard as a deviation under which there is no possible incorporation of the masses into the organisation, since it is not designed to fulfil the previously defined mediation function, but rather it is a minority with a developed consciousness, but with a limited role in theoretical study and with a very limited impact on mass spaces. Therefore, the root of the vanguard is the erroneous perception of the concept of the vanguard and the consequent disconnection between the masses and the revolutionary organisation. To guarantee this necessary connection, it is necessary for the vanguard to develop itself in parallel with the development of the class consciousness of the proletarian masses, since it is ultimately the vanguard of the proletariat, not an agent external to the class itself. The vanguard falls into contempt for the role of the proletarian masses as active subjects in the transformation of their own conditions and ends up reducing socialism to a work of ‘social engineering’ where a more just world is schematically created, as with a set square. The masses only have to be convinced of this schema’s good intentions in the face of the barbarity of capitalism.”

The first thing to say is that Marxist theory is a science based on the objective study of the laws of nature and human society. From these studies, fundamental principles are derived, some of which we share with the comrades of the Socialist Movement: the dictatorship of the proletariat, understood as a regime of workers' democracy that enables the emancipation of all the oppressed, the political independence of the working class, etc.

Like any science, Marxism requires a deep study of all its component parts, starting with philosophy. Due to the time and effort this requires, combined with the objective conditions of the working class, only a minority of workers access these ideas and get organised. Thus, it is not that Marxists do not want to build a mass organisation, but rather the objective conditions imposed by the capitalist system that make this task difficult. However, this is changing. The very development of the Socialist Movement is a symptom of the radicalisation of broad layers of youth and the working class. In other words, the senile decay of capitalism and abrupt changes in the consciousness of millions of people are creating the objective conditions for the development of revolutionary mass organisations in the next period. We will return to this later.

lenin addressing crowd For many years, the Bolshevik Party consisted of several thousand committed workers and youth / Image: public domain

For us, the main error in the analysis cited above is the lack of a dialectical view of the relationship between the masses and the vanguard. Firstly, and as we have already stated, it is not the revolutionary organisations who make the revolution, but the masses.The history of all revolutions internationally shows that not all layers of the working class reach revolutionary and communist conclusions at the same time, even at the beginning of a revolution. Even where the communist party is dominant among the working class, at the beginning of the revolutionary process it continues to organise only a part of it. Hence it is a mistake to try to compare the party to the class, and incorporate into it all the heterogeneity that the latter carries from the previous period. The party, in addition to practising the greatest possible internal democracy, must be homogeneous in its principles, program, methods and goals, which express the objective historical interests of the proletariat. If this were not the case, at the decisive moment it would be paralysed by controversies and disputes that should have been resolved in the pre-revolutionary stage. The important thing is to establish the hegemony of the party in the working class. The main task of the revolutionary organisation – the Communist Party – then becomes to lead the masses in their struggle. The relationship is similar to that of the head with the body, one depends on the other, but it is the brain that directs the body.

This has been proved countless times in practice. For many years, the Bolshevik Party consisted of several thousand committed workers and youth. This necessary commitment was particularly evident in the dictatorial police state of tsarist Russia, which prevented the formation of proletarian parties and independent unions. Thus, at the beginning of the February Revolution in 1917, the Bolshevik Party did not have more than 8,000 members. By October 1917, however, the party already had more than 200,000 members. It had become a mass party in a country with a working class of 10 million. One in every 50 Russian workers was organised with the Bolsheviks – an astounding proportion – which was achieved in a very short time. In reality, they had won the confidence of millions of workers and peasants, through the democratic majority that the party had achieved in the Soviets. The question remains: is a revolutionary party with 200,000 members a mass party or a vanguard party? Our answer is concrete: it is both at the same time.

The Bolshevik party was able to play the decisive role during the 1917 Revolution precisely because it had been formed in the previous period on the basis of Lenin’s method, emphasising the need for a revolutionary leadership made up of cadres, steeled in the class struggle and armed with the ideas of Marxism. Lenin's conclusions were not the result of arrogance or contempt for the masses, but rather were derived from the realities of capitalist society. 

The historic task of the working class is to end once and for all the division of society into classes. This is its mission because for the first time in history, it is a class dispossessed of the means of production, that can and must take power into its hands. Concretely, this task translates into the vital need of the working class to have a concrete, finished program and strategy capable of establishing workers' power. Thus, revolutionary leadership becomes a decisive factor in the victory of the class struggle, where the question of taking power is on the agenda.

Once again, we believe that the comrades of the Socialist Movement contradict themselves, when they defend the position cited above, and at the same time affirm that one of the tasks of the communists is to link particular struggles with a general offensive against the system as a whole. Is this not precisely the role of the revolutionary vanguard? 

On this topic, Lenin says the following in What is to be done?:

“Social-Democracy [i.e. communism] leads the struggle of the working class, not only for better terms for the sale of labour-power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich.” (Our emphasis)

The role of a revolutionary organisation is to consciously formulate what the workers come to understand in only a semi-conscious, confused and contradictory way. The task is to start from the objective conditions and the level of consciousness of our class, and continually demonstrate the need to put an end to the capitalist system, the source of all the world’s evils. In a word, the task is to lead.

However, we believe that the position advanced by the comrades of the Socialist Movement is directly contrary to this. In our opinion, if we follow the ideas of our comrades to their logical conclusion, they defend the need to substitute the revolutionary organisation with the class as a whole, thus eliminating the difference between the vanguard and the rest of the working class, leaving no distinction between the leadership and the masses. This is made clear in Crítica a la qüestió organitzativa: desviacions i potencialitats:

“In this sense, the revolutionary organisation is not only an organisational structure, it is the proletariat itself constituting itself as a revolutionary subject.” (Our emphasis)

The tasks of communists today

Studying Marxism teaches us the dialectical relationship between the general and the particular. In this way, the IMT defends the vital importance of building a genuine Communist Party in the fight to overthrow capitalism. Now, concrete tasks flow from the material situation at each moment. Lenin, in What is to be Done? sets out the immediate tasks of the communists in the specific historical moment in Russia, namely: the creation of a professional revolutionary organisation with an all-Russian national newspaper. Thus, he says:

Without a strong organisation skilled in waging political struggle under all circumstances and at all times, there can be no question of that systematic plan of action, illumined by firm principles and steadfastly carried out, which alone is worthy of the name of tactics.” (Our emphasis)

Likewise, we must ask ourselves, what is the main characteristic of our time? On the one hand, the enormous objective decline of capitalism, which is leading society increasingly towards barbarism; on the other, the nonexistence of the subjective factor, of the revolutionary party, that can raise the level of consciousness of the masses and lead our class to final victory. This is all the more evident with the recent experience in a whole series of countries, where the masses have demonstrated their enormous potential and capacity for sacrifice without achieving their emancipation from capital. But the development of the revolutionary party, again, is connected to material conditions. Marxist forces have been isolated from the masses during a long period of the rise of world capitalism and the domination of Stalinism. We share one of the conclusions reached by the Socialist Movement:

“This analysis shows us that one of our limitations is the current state of our militant forces, which need to experience immediate growth to carry out the objectives that we set for ourselves as a movement.” (‘Subject and socialist strategy. A first approximation’, our emphasis)

Thus, starting from the concrete conditions given, we in the IMT think that the immediate task that we communists have, like Lenin and the Bolsheviks during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, is to build the revolutionary organisation of Marxist cadres. This must be done with a systematic orientation towards the layers of the population most open to the ideas of communism, that is, the youth and working-class youth, as the comrades also say.

Equally important, as we have already stated, is the theoretical education of communists. As far as practical activity is concerned, given the limited strength of the communist forces, it is, in Lenin's words:

Lenin Image public domainThe mass communist party should not be proclaimed in the revolutionary process itself but before, with the largest possible mass base / Image: public domain

“For that reason, the principal content of the activity of our Party organisation, the focus of this activity, should be work that is both possible and essential in the period of a most powerful outbreak as well as in the period of complete calm, namely, work of political agitation, connected throughout Russia, illuminating all aspects of life, and conducted among the broadest possible strata of the masses.” (Our emphasis)

This activity aimed at the masses wherever they are, aims to increase the ranks of the organisation and gain influence and authority within the labour and youth movement. The objective, shared with the Socialist Movement, is to develop as much as possible a revolutionary mass organisation, rooted in the labour movement. However, unlike what the Socialist Movement proposes, for us the mass communist party should not be proclaimed in the revolutionary process itself but before, with the largest possible mass base, because the revolutionary process is necessarily short (weeks, months, a few years) and there is no time for great experimentations once it has begun. The revolutionary tension cannot be maintained much longer than that, otherwise the opportunity is lost and the reaction can take the initiative and spread hesitation in the working class, which suffers the dislocations of social instability, crisis, unemployment, and must live every day, work and collect a salary from the class enemy. By a mass organisation we mean a force composed of at least hundreds of thousands of militants, capable of directing the bulk of the class, and where the organisation would already have an extensive base in the unions, soviets, in the streets, etc.

That is why, even though we share the need to grow as a communist organisation, we disagree with our comrades in the tasks, since they point to the practical issue as a starting point:

“The construction of a revolutionary organisation and socialism implies locating oneself in the concrete elements of social reality in order to promote political proposals capable of overcoming the current state of things. The question of strategy and tactics only makes sense if there is a real possibility of putting them into practice through a revolutionary organisation.” (‘Criticism of the search for an organisation: deviations and potentialities’, our emphasis)

Although we sympathise with the underlying reason they propose, fighting in a practical way against the system, in the terms proposed by them and within their strategies, the conclusion they draw for the current era is not the construction of the Communist Party, but of activist organisations that contest capitalist hegemony through control of the social system and production process. We have already taken a position on this issue here (see section two).

Returning to the concrete question, in the years 1919-1923, the immediate tasks of the communists were completely different. There was revolutionary ferment throughout Europe, and the seizure of power was on the order of the day. In Russia, the Bolsheviks had marked the way forward, and the International was made up of mass communist parties in a whole series of countries: Germany, France, Italy, etc. Under these conditions, the communists had to prepare for the seizure of power, and they had the responsibility not only to intervene in the class struggle, but also to initiate battle. Simply put, they were in a position to lead broad masses of the working class and the oppressed into class war with the aim of seizing power.

In the writings of the first four congresses of the Communist International, all of which were held during Lenin's lifetime, we see how practical tasks derive from the development of perspectives from the point of view of Marxism. Flowing from these perspectives, the specific tactics to be applied were developed, taking into account the situation of the class struggle, the revolutionary ferment, the strength of social democracy, and the class forces themselves. This is the method to follow, which is based on Marxist philosophy, dialectical materialism.

Thus, the current task of the communists is to prepare for the socialist revolution by developing the organisation so that, once the masses move decisively against the system, with leaps forward in their consciousness, it can correctly lead the working class in its historic task.

This development involves urgently prioritising the growth of the organisation and the relentless defence of Marxism. As we have already explained, this growth must be connected to participation within the labour and student movement, to link and raise partial, immediate demands to the need to end capitalism as a whole.

Above all, it is absolutely necessary to build an international organisation that defends the programme of revolutionary Marxism in a concrete way throughout the world. The Communist Party must intervene decisively in each national revolution that develops in the next period. The Communist International must direct and concentrate the effort of the world working class to overthrow the global capitalist system. Only then will it be possible to end the barbarism of capitalism through the revolutionary emancipation of all the oppressed.

Conclusions

We raise our criticisms of some of the comrades’ positions in a constructive manner and with great respect for the courage and determination with which they have launched themselves into the struggle and built their movement. We may have some differences, which we are not going to hide or minimise. But we have learned from the history of the communist struggle, especially from the first four congresses of the Communist International – where everyone could express their opinion and differences, before the Stalinist degeneration of the International – that there is no problem in having differences. That is, so long as they are addressed in a fraternal manner, without distorting the points of view of the other party, and with the aim of raising the level of the discussion and the political level of the comrades. In the end, it will be events that will illustrate which parts need to be corrected and which not.

In the meantime, we will closely follow the development and progress of the Socialist Movement, to which we wish the greatest success and with which we hope to collaborate, not only in a fruitful exchange of ideas, but in common work wherever we agree.

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