Introduction: This article is a response to a recent polemic by the Socialist Party of Great Britain against Leninism. There may be formatting difficulties but hopefully the editor of his journal will clear those up soon enough. The below is not my own work but the work of a sympathizer of the ISO who can be contacted here
This is a response I made to a thread/post about the question of socialist organization and the role of Leninism. I was writing in response to an article from theSocialist Standard, the entirety of which can be found here.
I wanted to respond with my own rejection of what the authors of this article outlined regarding Lenin and the revolutionary party, but my response ended being much longer than I anticipated.
The Socialist Standard posits a familiar denunciation of the 'Leninist model' in “How Should Socialists Organize?” - firstly as an elitist formation that reduces the historical importance of the working-class, and secondly as a substitutionist entity built upon 'undemocratic activities'. I will begin with the first of this article's points, that Leninism's origins lie in the distortion of Marx and Engels' original message. I will seek later to highlight and disprove some of the assumptions inherent in the myth of Luxemburg's 'rejection' of Leninism as well. I was going to conclude on what the Leninist model means for revolutionaries organizing in the 21st century, but I’ve since run out of time to do so. Other comrade’s comments on the matter will have to suffice.
Lenin's understanding of the relationship between the class and party was anything but original. Far from distorting Marx, Lenin shared his belief that the 'necessary interconnection of socialist theory and practice with the working-class and labor' necessitated the subordination of theoretical and programmatic clarity to, in Marx's words, "every step of real movement." The question of organization, central to Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? occurs at a time when figures like Luxemburg and Kautsky, among others, were asking similar questions (1902-08). Thus one finds the notion of the revolutionary workers party as “the vanguard of the proletariat” to be not at all peculiar to Lenin; in fact it can be argued that he, among other major theorists of the period, drew inspiration from Marx and Engels themselves:
"The Communists...are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement."
Herein we find not Marxism with an attached hyphen, but the simple undistorted Marx many of us are familiar with. The idea pertaining to the role of communists within the broader working-class movement isn’t simply traceable to Lenin alone, but further back to Marx and Engels. Revolutionary socialists, it is understood, must be inseparable from and responsive to the real shifts, struggles and movements of the working-class.
This is something which the authors of the above article either fail or choose not to understand, the consequences of which are evident throughout the piece. This mistake leads them to, in their words, see the organizational structure as proposed by Lenin as the “seedbed for the later authoritarianism and dictatorship in the Bolshevik regime in Russia.” Here it seems worthwhile to delve a little into the subject of democratic centralism and what Lenin (who drew on and accepted the Menshevik definition of the term as early as 1905), understood it to mean.
According to their November 1905 resolution, the Mensheviks introduced the term to mean "decisions of the guiding collectives are binding on the members of those organizations of which the collective is the organ. Actions affecting the organization as a whole...must be decided upon by all members of the organization. Decisions of lower-level organizations must not be implemented if they contradict decisions of higher organizations."
The Bolsheviks accepted this, and sought in many instances to apply it - when applicable - to their situation. Lenin explained it further in 1906, commenting that "The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organizations implies universal and full freedom to criticize so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided by the Party." We find very little in terms of what might contradict the original definition of the term in Lenin’s writings. Indeed, both the original 1905 resolution and Lenin’s understanding of it a year later stress two key points: 1) universal and full freedom of discussion for all members concerning decisions affecting the organization as a whole; 2) Decisions disrupting or otherwise contradicting the unity of a definite action as decided by the party are, on the whole, impermissible.
We may easily condense these two points into something most are familiar with: freedom of discussion, unity in action.
There would appear to be little disagreement on this matter of democratic centralism between the Mensheviks as they introduced it, and the Bolsheviks as they adopted it. Where Lenin does break with his Menshevik counterparts however, is on the question of “limits within which decisions of Party congresses may be criticized.” Lenin resists the idea as posited by the Mensheviks that such limitations are necessary, stressing the fundamental characteristics of the democratic centralist model:
“In a revolutionary epoch like the present, all theoretical errors and tactical deviations of the Party are most ruthlessly criticized by experience itself, which enlightens and educates the working class with unprecedented rapidity. At such a time, the duty of every Social Democrat is to strive to ensure that the ideological struggle within the Party on questions of theory and tactics is conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible, but that on no account does it disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action of the Social-Democratic proletariat. . .
We are profoundly convinced that the workers' Social-Democratic organizations must be united, but in these united organizations, there must be wide and free discussion of Party questions, free comradely criticism and assessment of events in Party life.”
In 1921 Lenin, among others, touched on the concept of democratic centralism further in an organizational resolution regarding the organization of communist parties. Rather than contradict his earlier writings on the subject, Lenin instead reaffirms the guiding principles of the democratic centralist model. The resolution in question actually warns the leaderships of communist parties not to ‘go too far in the direction of centralization’:
“Centralization in the Communist Party does not mean formal, mechanical centralization, but the centralization of Communist activity, i.e., the creation of a leadership that is strong and effective and at the same time flexible. . .Formal or mechanical centralization would mean the centralization of 'power' in the hands of the Party bureaucracy, allowing it to dominate the other members of the Party or the revolutionary proletarian masses outside the Party."
Lenin was far from an organizational fetishist; his conception of these models and methods were heavily dependent on the conditions of whatever period the party developed in. Thus clandestine methods of organization were given priority in times of severe repression and illegality, but by and large abandoned as inapplicable during revolutionary periods. Sometimes it became necessary to "open the gates" during periods of mass activity and revolutionary sentiment in order for newly radicalized workers to join. A party's membership, asserted Lenin, must be active participants both inside and outside its boundaries, rooting themselves in the Marxist tradition while simultaneously learning to link up and apply theory through practice.
The vanguard is not some monolithic, omniscient entity, subordinating its members (indeed, the working-class itself) to its “leadership.” The party plays the role of a guiding organization in relation to the self-emancipatory activity of the masses. As Trotsky noted: "Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam."
I feel that I have sufficiently explained Lenin’s understanding of democratic centralism here, including how it doesn’t quite begin to explain the degenerative, bureaucratic elements of the revolution, and would like to turn to other related matters - namely the supposition that Leninism perceives the working-class not as agents of change, but as passive vessels in need of revolutionary leadership (i.e. Blanquism). The authors of this article make this case, but demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of both Leninism and its connection to working-class movements in doing so. Continuing in the tradition built upon by Marx and Engels, Lenin demonstrates a serious commitment to the centrality of the revolutionary party in relation to what I highlighted earlier: the necessary interconnection of socialist theory and practice with the working-class and labor.
The working-class cannot adequately begin to struggle for its own actual interests and overcome adversity without embracing the eventual goal of socialism. Lenin's conception of the party took into account the unevenness of working-class consciousness, and was dialectical in its analysis of the party's relationship with the broader class. The vanguard in this instance refers only to the 'most advanced' sections of the class, concentrated politically and organizationally in a manner that best utilizes and advances their collective perspective. (Of course, Stalinism would later redefine this notion along substitutionist lines, rendering it a topdown, undemocratically centralized entity.)
Lenin referred to the role of the party as an entity seeking to raise the consciousness of the masses, so as to - as Chris Harman puts it in "Party and Class" - "enable them to act truly independently." The organization works to "be a party of the masses not only in name," to "get ever wider masses to share in all party affairs, steadily to elevate them from political indifference to protest and struggle..." (Lenin). Lenin argued that the point of the party wasn't to win power on behalf of the workers, but to provide political and organizational clarity, to make the case for revolutionary socialism via active engagement with working-class organizations and communities.
Lenin often referred to the self-emancipative activities of the working-class, stating that in such times the party is to provide a guiding leadership. This isn't an elitist, or substitutionist, notion, but an acknowledgement of the party's importance in relation to mass movements. The party doesn't come in and take over, it instead puts forward the theoretical and tactical basis upon which the movement can be built and strengthened.
Having written far too much about Lenin’s approach to the organizational question, I’m going to transition toward what others had to say about Leninism and the revolutionary party. I want to focus on the myth surrounding Luxemburg and her own critique of Lenin’s and the Bolshevik’s model, specifically her supposed rejection of their contribution(s) to the party question (which this article’s authors touch on). While the disagreements between Lenin and Luxemburg shouldn’t be understated (see, for example, the question of how socialists should relate to struggles for national liberation), opponents of Leninism tend to conflate Luxemburg’s criticism of the Leninist model with a total rejection of this perspective. This simply isn’t true. Helen Scott, in a talk about Lenin and Luxemburg (2008), partially refutes this idea:
“. . .they were the figureheads of social democracy’s international Left, sharing an enduring faith in working-class self-emancipation, a commitment to revolution, an understanding of socialists as the tribune of the oppressed, and were principled opponents to imperialism and war. They were frequently allied in the struggle against reformism; they collaborated in Finland after the defeat of the 1905 revolution; they co-authored the antiwar amendment at the Stuttgart congress of 1907; and they famously denounced the Second International’s betrayal in 1914, when the vast majority of parties abandoned international working-class solidarity to support the war efforts of their respective nations.”
Lenin and Luxemburg devoted much of their lives to building socialist organizations. This isn’t to say she had her disagreements with Lenin over the organization question; in fact, the article’s authors cite some of Luxemburg’s criticisms in her “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy” (which was, it should be noted, changed to “Leninism or Marxism?” long after her death). Needless to say, Luxemburg misrepresents much of what Lenin himself wrote about and advocated. It also bears mentioning that many of the targets of Luxemburg’s criticism are not merely those in the Bolshevik party, but those unique to Germany, including evidences of bureaucratic centralism amongst trade unions and parliamentarians, and in the leadership(s) of the SPD itself. Curiously enough, Luxemburg identified similar needs confronting the party in regards to organization, stating that “the revolutionary party had to be the vanguard of the working class, that it had to be centralistically organized, and that the will of its majority could be carried out by means of strict discipline in its activities” (“Organizational Questions”).
I also find it pertinent, in light of the authors’ depiction of these two revolutionaries as stubborn opponents, to wrap up with a quote from Luxemburg made shortly before her death in one of her final works:
“Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honour and capacity which Western Social Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honour of international socialism.”
There are many reasons to criticize some of what emerged from Lenin and other theorists of the period, but these criticisms shouldn't hide behind false representations of what these figures said and did. The authors of "How Should Socialists Organize?" fall into this trap more than once. If we're to generate a solid understanding of Leninism today, we must be willing to do so through critical engagement of both the material and the historical circumstances of its development. I do not think Leninism is a dead-end, nor do I think it has lost any of its relevancy for socialists in the 21st century. There's still a lot ahead of us, and Leninism still has a role to play - despite all the assertions to the contrary.