Another look at the organisation question

Bolsheviks speaking at meeting of the Petrograd Soviet.

The following text was published in 1982, over the name “Cormack”. It is an attempt to draw lessons from the Bolshevik experience, not only for the abstract “theory of the party”, but also for the concrete problems of communist organisation we face in the here and now, when any emergence of anything you might call a revolutionary party is far, far over the horizon.

The article was written by a member of the Communist Bulletin Group, a group which had split with the British section of the International Communist Current. The article is therefore framed in part as a critique of the ICC and, tangentially, the Communist Workers Organisation, another group in the “left communist” milieu.


The one clear lesson that emerged from the recent traumatic and confused splits within the International Communist Current is the pressing need for a fresh look at the most central problem which confronts the revolutionary movement today - that is, the question of revolutionary organisation. The splits were the product of not so much the large number of political differences which began to surface latterly in the internal debates of the ICC, nor because of the gravity and seriousness of these differences, but because of the inability of the organisation to deal with those differences as a fruitful and necessary part of its life. Instead the differences were finally perceived as threatening and alien forces which had to be cut out of the body of the organisation. In this process the tendencies towards a monolithic and bureaucratic practice which had always been present, became absolutely dominant.

The background to the emergence and heightening of the differences within the ICC was the upsurge of class struggle at the start of the 80s beginning with the French Steel Strike, moving on through the British one and culminating in the Polish explosion. This wave of struggle was seen, more or less clearly, as a signal that we had entered a qualitative change of period with a corresponding change of emphasis in our work as revolutionaries. Up until then the overriding priority within the revolutionary movement which had appeared towards the end of the 60s was the urgent struggle for programmatic clarity for the re-appropriation of the theoretical lessons which had been produced from the last revolutionary wave, and, hand in hand with that, the struggle to integrate that clarity in the building of an organisation from the mass of fragmented elements making up the milieu. Both the ICC and the CWO are the fruits of this process. The scale and depths of the class upsurge triggered off with the French Steel strike produced undeniable tensions in the whole of the revolutionary movement as we tried to grapple with the task of transforming our political clarity into concrete and effective interventions. Within the ICC these tensions manifested themselves on the one hand as a belief that the mode of functioning we had evolved appropriate to the search for programmatic clarity left us ill-prepared for effective sensitivity to, and intervention in the deepening struggles of the class,- it was felt that we were too inward looking, too concerned with the doings of endless commissions and committees and spent too much time and effort speaking to ourselves and that all of this constituted a barrier to our efforts to understand the reality of the struggle. On the other hand there was the fear that opening up to the class and attempting to relate more closely to its activity would necessarily compromise our clarity and that we were bending the stick too much towards intervention. These concerns formed the background to the increasingly acrimonious debates on not only our interventions in the wave of struggle but also on many of the ICC s analyses of the conjunctural situation. The Course of History, the Left in Opposition, Machiavellianism etc.

By the end of 1981, it had become clear that these debates could not be fruitfully conducted within the ICC, let alone resolved there. This text is not the place to rehash or to prove all the bitter disputes which led to the splits. It is sufficient merely to state here that the debates foundered on an increasingly monolithic fear of political differences being expressed within the organisation. Debates continually came up against the barrier of central organs which, in practice, and despite much rhetoric to the contrary, tended to substitute themselves for the organisation as a whole. Clarity, (and the organisation itself) was seen as the property of the central organs whose simple task was to disseminate (and impose) that clarity on the rest of us. Time and time again, every contribution of the central organs to the debate, even their opening contribution to debates which had not even been defined, let alone matured, was considered to be the ICC position which had to be defended against "dissidents". Any notion that the central organs should be the expression and synthesis of the organisation as a whole was completely absent. For the ICC, "clarity" is produced by the internal life of the central organs. Certainly, the rank and file are free to say what they like in an endless flood of internal bulletins but all of this is worthless in the face of central organs who treat it like a schoolmaster treats his pupils' essays, "Six out of ten. Must try harder."

Not only was there a faulty understanding of centralisation at work within all this, in which the mechanics of centralisation was seen and used as a device to settle all debate in favour of the central organs, but it was compounded by the fact that centralisation was inseparable from the operation of personal cliques, a Holy Family of carefully selected spouses and chums. Central organs were selected for their "homogeneity" and their ability *to work together" with the bizarre result that at a time when the organisation was being torn apart by ferocious debates, the central organs were totally isolated from the differences in an island of peaceful homogeneity. The end result of all this, a welter of lies and slanders, accusations of a comrade being a police agent, break-ins, theft and the paranoid search for "enemies who are out to destroy the ICC", is familiar to everyone in the revolutionary movement. Its perhaps worthwhile adding here lest anyone think that its merely sour grapes of splitters at work, that these criticisms of the operation of centralisation in the ICC has been made many times by elements who still remain inside the ICC.

All of the foregoing is the background to where we find ourselves today - in desperate need of looking at the abc's of organisation once again (and also in desperate need of avoiding the temptation of just washing our hands of it all by saying that all organisation are rackets or that political centralisation is synonymous with monolithism. It's important that mounting a critique of the ICC doesn't obscure the very real and considerable gains made by it over the past decade.
Therefore what we want to do in this text is to look once again at the lessons of the last revolutionary wave and in particular at the experience of the Bolshevik Party. Rather than taking a detailed look at the theory of organisation or even at the history of the debates, we have the rather more modest aim of attempting to look again at the historical context of the debates as a start to looking at their relevance for revolutionaries today.

There are three basic areas we want to look at:
1. The internal life and organisation of the Bolsheviks - what was theorised at any given time, and how that related to their actual practice.
2. Their relationship to the class and its struggles in an effort to map out the parameters of what we mean by a party taking up a leading role in those struggles.
3. And finally a brief comparison of the general material context of revolutionary activity then and in the present so that we can begin to look at the consequences of the differences.

The Internal Life of the Bolsheviks

It's necessary to point out to both the epigones and the critics of Bolshevism that Lenin's position on the organisation question was never a simple cut and dried invariant which can be lifted and applied, more or less wholesale, by revolutionaries today. On the contrary, Lenin's theories, and Bolshevik practice, was a living, evolving dynamic, inextricably linked to the life of the class and rooted in the changing material circumstances. Comrades who should know better, quite wilfully engage in the most horrifying a-historicism in order to justify their own organisational fantasies.

Both the councilists and the "partyists" have an overwhelming tendency to freeze Lenin's theories at a single point, usually at the point of "What is to be Done", and then use that as a distorting prism to look at the unfolding of the revolutionary wave and the role of the Bolsheviks within it. But the reality, of course, is much more complex than that, both in terms of how the theory shifted and evolved in response to the material situation and in terms of being able to situate the theory in its original context in the first place. And in addition we're faced with the added complexity that there frequently existed a yawning gap between what was said and what was actually done.

Before looking more closely at the theory, it's necessary to realise that Lenin's starting point was the ceaseless fight against the opportunism of a Social Democracy rapidly moving into the camp of the bourgeoisie. Lenin's fight for an elitist, vanguard party drawn narrowly from the ranks of professional revolutionaries has to be set against this background of the fight against conceptions of organisation with their roots in a period which was rapidly passing and which would eventually have to be jettisoned. Everyone else within the then still proletarian camp was arguing for mass organisations with no clear organisational distinction between the hard core of activists and the general mass of sympathisers and general supporters. Lenin was clear that this was a mode of organisation totally inappropriate both for the needs of revolutionary intervention and for the struggle for clarity. The whole history of the Bolsheviks' role in the debate on organisation is the history of the growing clarity on the need for complete autonomy of the expression of working class interests and thus the growing pressure for organisational separation from the old and dying workers movement which still clung to compromises end alliances with the liberal bourgeoisie. It hardly needs to be said that for revolutionaries today, the argument has been won. No-one today, within the communist movement, is arguing for mass parties with a broad and fuzzy definition of membership nor for any kind of alliance with "progressive" elements in the bourgeois camp. And yet we still find today, Lenin's fight for separation from a movement passing into an alien camp being quoted as a defence for sectarian practices today within the communist movement. Thus we saw, for example, the CWO at the beginning of their existence, refer back to the Bolsheviks' fight for separation and to the later fight by the KAPD to split from a movement again passing into an alien camp, to justify their organisational separation from the ICC. It's just one example of the tendency to a-historically appropriate positions from the past of the workers movement that we intend to deal with in this text. Let's be clear. The fight for unity today in the revolutionary movement is not the same "unity" that Lenin fought against from 1903 onwards. Bolshevik "sectarianism" was able to contain within it, as we shall, see, gigantic differences both in theory and in practice. The need to separate revolutionary activity from reformism and the opportunism that an alliance between them brings is NOT on the same scale as the differences currently existing within the revolutionary movement.

Theory: What Is To Be Done

If we now turn to a closer look at the evolution of the theory, again, it's erroneous and a-historical to think that Lenin and the Bolsheviks produced the definitive blueprint for organisation in 1902 and then proceeded to implement it and thus finally produced the successful party of 1917. Even a closer look at the 1902-1908 period (let alone the 1917 period) shows how false this is. The Lenin of 1903 at the point of the original Bolshevik/Menshevik split is the Lenin of "What is to be Done?" and "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back". It is the Lenin most familiar to the revolutionary movement and the Lenin that the libertarians love to hate. It's the period of the fight for "military discipline" within the party and of "All Power to the Central Committee". In Lenin's own words:

"the organisational principle of revolutionary Social Democracy . . . strives to proceed from the top downwards and upholds an extension of the rights and powers of the centre in relation to the parts."

There was to be no room in a revolutionary organisation for "democratic" procedures. He commented that the 2 conditions for the existence of the broad democratic principle - full publicity and election to all offices - was Utopian and could only benefit the police. (Although its clear that the conditions of illegality and clandestinity had a huge role to play in this vision, it’s necessary to realise that it was also theoretically buttressed by an appropriate theory of class consciousness which saw revolutionary consciousness a product of the intelligentsia). This was also the period, as we shall see later, of the working class only being capable of a Trade Union Consciousness. For Luxemburg, Lenin's position meant "the blind subordination, in the smallest detail, of all party organs, to the party centre, which alone thinks, guides and decides for all." Plekhanov called him a Bonapartist and Trotsky called him a dictator.

There's no question that we can see here the emergence of a theory of organisation fundamentally at odds with the one held by the vast bulk of the rest of the RSDLP, but at the same time we should be aware that the theory and practice weren't identical.

"Yet nothing about the Bolshevik organisation as it actually existed at that time, justified Trotsky in talking of a dictatorship . . . True there was no internal democracy in the RSDLP of that time, but this fact was quite unconnected with Leninism. In their day to day actual practice, there was little to choose in this respect between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Down to the Revolution of 1905 they both employed the same methods in which co-option of leaders was the rule and election the exception."
Liebman: Leninism Under Lenin

However, when we come to the uprising of 1905, all is changed. Both factions, but especially the Bolsheviks, applied themselves with vigour to getting the elective principle accepted. We find Lenin saying approvingly:

"The, St Petersburg worker Social Democrats know that the whole Party organisation is now built on a democratic basis. This means that all the Party members take part in the election of officials, committee members and so forth, that all the Party members discuss and decide questions concerning the political campaigns of the proletariat and that all the Party members determine the line of tactics of the Party organisation".
(original emphasis)

Hand in hand with this went a determined effort to curb the powers of the Central Committee. The Bolshevik Congress of 1905 declared itself in favour of the autonomy of local committees in relation to the Central Committee which saw a serious pruning of its authority. That's not to say that the Party was wholeheartedly behind the change -Lenin found himself joining arms with the rank and file of the Party against the dogmatism and conservatism of the very "committeemen" he had fought so vigorously for prior to 1905. But the defence of organisational dogma stood no chance against the most important feature of the Party's response to 1905 and that was the dramatic opening up of the Party to the working class. In January 1905 there were 8,400 Bolsheviks. By spring of 1906 there were 34,000 with the vast majority of new members being workers. It was clear to Lenin that, in the ferment of class struggle on such a scale, the rules of membership appropriate to the fight against the opportunism of the old Social Democracy, constituted a barrier between the party and its relationship to the class. Accordingly, he fought to allow the thousands of workers circles that had sprung up, entry into the Party, providing only that they were not avowedly anti-Social Democratic. There wasn't any question either of the workers being recruited as cannon-fodder. At the 3rd Congress in 1905, Lenin is arguing for bringing workers onto the committees in a ratio of 8 workers to 2 intellectuals. By November, he's calling that "obsolete" and demanding a ratio of several hundred to every single intellectual. There's a clear understanding also, that this opening up of the party means a change in structure and in functioning.

"The new form of organisation . . . must be definitely much broader . . . the new nucleus will most likely have to be a less rigid, more 'free' more loose organisation"
(from the first letter Lenin wrote on return from Exile in Nov 1905.)

Democratic Centralism now:

"implies universal and full freedom to criticise. . . and if we have resolved to draw the masses of the workers into intelligent decisions of party questions we must have those questions discussed in the press, at meetings, in circles and at group meetings."

The new attitude to debate and discussion took constitutional form at the 1905 Congress where it was resolved that:

"The Minority now has the unconditional right, guaranteed by the Party rules, to advocate its views and to carry on an ideological struggle."

There's very little left here of the Bolshevism of "What Is To Be Done". The impact of the mass class struggle and, just as importantly, the openness of the Bolsheviks to that class movement, transformed the old Party of 1903 and allowed it to transcend the mode of existence appropriate to doctrinal conflicts and internal quarrels and move onto the terrain of an open offensive against the class enemy.

However the years of reaction which followed the collapse of the 1905 revolution saw the return of monolithism and sectarianism with a vengeance to the Bolshevik party. The call now was "Strengthen the Organisation" which meant in reality, "Strengthen the Central Committee". The drive within the party was for absolute homogeneity and adherence to the party line. The constitutional guarantees for minorities and free discussion, though formally still in existence, were abandoned in practice. It was during this period in 1909 that Bogdanov and the Vpered group were unconstitutionally expelled for disagreeing with Lenin's policy on the use of the Duma. It was the period of a viciousness and unscrupulousness in polemics which wouldn't be surpassed until the Party of the Counterrevolution, with Lenin, for example, accusing Martov of being "objectively in the $service of the Tsar's police". The de facto split with the Mensheviks, temporarily abandoned in 1905, reasserted itself once again and was formally recognised in 1912.

When we look in the next section at the actual practice of the Bolsheviks we can see once again the stunning and transforming effect the class upsurge in 1917 produced. For the theory and practice of the Bolshevik Party it was 1905 all over again but on a far larger scale. The Party once again flung itself open to the working class, growing ten-fold in less than a year. In January 1917 there were slightly over 23,000 Bolsheviks; by August most estimates put the total membership at something over 200,000. Again a very large proportion of the new members were workers. The monolithic and sectarian practices of the years of reaction, the years of rigid obedience to the "party line' and the dictates of a hierarchical centralism, were shrugged off as if they had never existed. Throughout 1917 the Party couldn't have looked less monolithic than it did. The Party became openly the Party of Tendencies with almost every single issue giving rise to a plethora of more or less formal factions at every level of the Party organisation. The practical suppression of minorities which had taken place in the years following the collapse of 1905 was swept away under the fresh impact of the revolution. Throughout this period the debates were fierce, open and public on almost every major issue from the differences of opinion over the July Days, through the debates on the seizure of power, to the polemics over Brest-Litovsk etc. The Brest-Litovsk debates, for example, took place in the pages of Pravda and even when the decision had been made the Siberian Party organisation refused to recognise the signing of the Treaty.

Again, like 1905, the monolithic, obedient, rigidly centralised party so revered by today's partyists and hated by the libertarians is nowhere to be seen.


In trying to draw lessons from the experience of the Bolsheviks, we're not only dealing with the complexities of a changing theory dialectically linked to the ebb and flow of the class struggle but we're also faced with the added complication of a practice which was frequently at odds with (and ignored) the stated theory and frequently ran ahead of it in a manner which transformed it. Not only is it necessary to historically locate the theory it's also necessary to locate it within its actual practice. Without doing this, the calls for greater centralisation or more local autonomy etc, can't mean anything to us. A detailed and developed examination of this is obviously beyond the scope of this text and all we can hope to do here is provide a few illustrative examples which the lie to the tendency to see the Bolsheviks one dimensionally.

Minorities and Tendencies

If we look at the question of how debate and differences were handled within the Bolshevik Party, even the theory would be enough to curl the hair of the ICC or the CWO. We've already seen how the impact of the 1905 revolution produced a formal commitment to the right of tendencies to exist and function within the Party. As we've seen already with the way that the debate on Brest-Litovsk was carried on in the pages of Pravda, the existence of tendencies carried with it a more or less automatic access to the public press. To quote Lenin in 1905:

"There is no question that literature is least of all subject to mechanical adjustment or levelling, to the rule of the majority over the minority. There is no question either that in this field greater scope must undoubtedly be allowed for personal initiative, individual inclination, thought and fantasy."

Moreover, as a matter of course, minorities were represented on both the executive and deliberative organs of the Party, from delegation to Congresses, to the make-up of the Central Committee and the Politburo. In September 1917, for, example, Lenin is arguing strenuously that all elections within the party should be conducted around the question of support for versus opposition to, participation in the Pre-parliament. This formal confrontation of tendencies was to be found on every level and branch of the Party.

"almost all the local organisations formed into majorities and minorities".
Trotsky quoted in Liebman

This included the organs of the Press also. The notion that homogeneity within central organs was demanded by the needs of efficiency didn't enter Bolshevik thinking until the days of counter revolution well after 1917. To quote one commentator:

"In reality, the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions. And indeed, how could a genuinely revolutionary organisation setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighter and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations?"
John Molyneux: Marxism and the Party

Of course, there were formal limits to the functioning of tendencies:

"In the heat of battle, when the proletarian army is straining every nerve, no criticism whatever can be permitted in its ranks."

However, it has to be said that, for the Bolsheviks, unlike the ICC, the "heat of battle" wasn't defined as any old run of the mill strike which after all was the common currency of Bolshevik life, but rather the insurrection itself. And for Lenin, at least, it wasn't the central committee or Politburo which could decide when to suspend debate but the Congress. It also has to be said, that when the Party finally did plunge into the "heat of battle" in the revolution itself, far from debate being suspended, that was the very time that debate became fiercest and most public. The disappearance of debate in the history of the Party is inextricably tied up with the years of retreat and defeat.

What also has to be grasped is the degree to which the emergence and functioning of tendencies wasn't a product of the theoretical clarity of the central organs but was fundamentally the product of the pressure and influence coming from the lower ranks of the Party who were closest to the class. As much as anything, the formal guarantee of minority rights was not so much more that a reluctant recognition of a de facto situation which couldn't be changed. The opening up of the Party to the class swept away the monolithic tendencies and the hierarchical respect for the central organs which in any case was much less substantial then is usually imputed.

What is striking about the Bolshevik Party (even during the post 1905 year of reaction) is the stunning (to our eyes} degree of sectional autonomy which existed. The party was structurally divided on many levels, both horizontally; and vertically. There was a Trade Union wing, a Military Organisation (itself subdivided into army and naval wings), Factory Organisations etc, and, most of these divisions were, duplicated in the local level. In Shlyapnikov's memoirs we can find a detailed description of the Bolshevik organisation in Petrograd which is mind-boggling in its complexity. In addition to the factory organisations and the various centralising organs springing from them, there existed separate "colleges" for propaganda and agitation, for literary work and for organisation. There were also the legal insurance and hospital fund organisations and, in addition, there were many non-territorial groups like the Marxist Building Workers, and the Petersburg Railway Organisation of the RSDLP. Even within the single city of Petersburg many of these sections of the Party functioned virtually independently with their own centralising organs and their own means of publication - the Hospital Fund even ran its own newspaper. This situation was duplicated across the country on a huge scale with the tendency toward autonomy massively strengthened by communications and clandestinity. For example, even after the revolution, as late as 1919 the central committee had managed to maintain regular communication with only 52 out of 219 uyezd committees.

There existed within the Party a long tradition, even through the period of monolithism, of jealously guarding the high level of local and sectional autonomy which resulted from this situation. The Military Organisation, for example, had almost total autonomy and published its own paper, Soldatskaye Pravda. Throughout 1917 it functioned as an organised tendency of the Left, openly defying the Central Committee. During the July days when the Central Committee was calling for calm, the Military Organisation used its press to call for action. So much for unity in the "heat of battle"!! After the July Days, the Central Committee tried to exert control and despatched Stalin to insist that their decisions must be carried out without discussion. He was bluntly informed that this was "quite unacceptable" and the Central Committee had to retreat with as much grace as it could muster. During the same period, the Petrograd Committee demanded its own press because of the timidity of Pravda and when the Central Committee refused, it blithely went ahead with acquiring a publishing company and press.

It must be stressed that these weren't isolated examples nor was it confined to the politically more muscular sections of the party. It was a commonplace, for example, that many small local committees happily ignored the formal split with the Menshevik fractions and carried on joint work with them as late as Autumn 1917 and in the case of Omsk and Irkutsk, up until October! Space forbids any more examples - suffice to say that they could be multiplied indefinitely.

None of the foregoing is an attempt to obscure the undeniable struggle waged by Lenin and the Bolsheviks for the establishment of centralisation as a principle of revolutionary organisation. But its a struggle which can't be taken out of context. It existed side by side with a parallel tendency towards decentralisation and sectional autonomy. The balance between the two wasn't achieved by recourse to, some infallible blueprint for organisation invented by Lenin, but by a dialectical interplay between the party, the class and the upsurge of the revolution. The emphasis shifted according to the period and the demands of the class struggle. In the periods of class quiescence or defeat the struggle against political opportunism took precedence with an invariable closing down of the organisation and a growth of sectarian practices. With the upsurge of class struggle all this was swept aside by the influx of members. A party which doesn't open itself up to the class in such a period and which doesn't turn in response to class pressure can't survive as a revolutionary organisation. But a party which does open itself up to the class invariably finds that the weight of the central organs diminishes. In the task of responding to the class, of being sensitive to the class it is the "lower" levels of the party, the sections in closest contact with the class which come into their own. The centre is invariably more isolated in this process and inevitably has less of a role to play. Within the Bolshevik Party we can see the formal recognition of this in the fundamental changes which took place in structure and functioning which took place in 1905 and 1917.

What stands out above all is the total falseness of the myth that the Bolshevik Party was a well oiled monolith, founded in the disciplined implementation of an infallible and invariant blueprint drawn up in 1902. With this myth a starting point, any attempt to draw the appropriate lessons for the period is bound to be doomed to disaster. On the one hand we have the libertarians who mechanically connect Kronstadt to 1902 and on the other hand we have the Bordigists who equally mechanically draw a line from 1902 to 1917. And in between we have the elements like the ICC and CWO who a-historically pick and choose the features they want to appropriate or disown.

In the ICC we have an organisation which prides itself smugly on the rejection of the monolithism of Bolshevik democratic centralism. But in reality it has created a monolithic practice of all-powerful central organs beyond the wildest dreams of Lenin at his most centralised. It's only deep into the counterrevolution that we see the Bolshevik Party approach anything like the monolithism, rigidity and fear of debate that currently resides inside the ICC. We would ask all the comrades of the ICC to compare the vitality, confidence and freedom of debate of the Bolsheviks internal life {even with all the vicious polemics and internal guerrilla warfare), with the fear and timidity with which the ICC approaches the possibility of expressing differences at Public Forums or in the Press. A comparison of the treatment of tendencies and fractions in itself is instructive. For the Bolsheviks we've already see how the interplay of factions and tendencies was the very life blood of the organisation. For the ICC, according to its statutes, the appearance of organised divergences must be understood:

"as a manifestation either of the immaturity of the Current or of a tendency towards degeneration."

In practice tendencies have no right of representation on central organs, they have no right to separate meetings) and correspondence, and can only express their divergences in public under the control and decisions of the Central organs, which tends to mean not at all. At the appearance of the last Tendency in the ICC, it was even suggested that it was up to the organisation as a whole, (i.e. the central organs in practice) to decide whether or not divergences should be crystallised in the formation of a Tendency! Not surprisingly, in the face of this practical suppression, no Tendency in the history of the ICC has ever managed to survive more than a short time without splitting.

In organisations like the CWO, we have the other side of the coin. The "monolithism and rigid centralism" of the Bolsheviks is to be embraced because it (1) allowed the Bolsheviks to physically survive the years of reaction and continue to function as a pole of clarity and (2) it was a method of organisation which produced the "unity of action" necessary to their visions of leading the class. We will deal with this latter point in the next section of the text. On the first point, we want to say firstly, that their own nightmare vision of monolithism and centralism, like the ICC's, is a million miles from the vitality and fecundity of the life of the Bolsheviks. On the question of survival, the partyists would have us believe that the greater cohesion and discipline allowed the Bolsheviks to survive the years of reaction better than their rivals in the rest of the proletarian movement. It was a position much defended by Lenin himself.

"Of all the defeated opposition and revolutionary parties, the Bolsheviks affected the most orderly retreat, with the least loss to their "army" with its core best preserved."
Lenin; Left Wing Communism

But it is difficult to find any reality in the claim. All of the revolutionary organisations came close to being wiped out after the failure of 1905. In 1909, for example, the Bolsheviks had no more than 6 local committees left in the whole of Russia. Certainly with the renewal of class struggle and the outbreak of war, they had significantly re-established themselves but actually, so had the Mensheviks, the SRs and the Anarchists, etc. We wouldn't dispute that the Bolsheviks played the decisive role they did in the revolution because of the correctness of their political positions but even at the best, it's arguable that this clarity was a product of their sectarianism. There is a fair case to be made that the Bolshevik Party of 1917 was constituted fundamentally on the central questions provoked by the war, in particular, the espousal of a revolutionary internationalism in opposition to the various forms of defencism, and had little to do with the pre-1914 sectarian debates. Certainly, its undeniable the Bolshevik Party had undergone a massive transformation by 1917 both-in terms of their political practice (as we have already seen) and in their composition. In addition to the huge influx of workers, there has to be added the absorption of many, many, other political currents like the Mezhraiontsy and elements from the left-wing of the Mensheviks etc. All of these had a profound influence on the role that the Bolshevik Party played In the revolution. There is not any question either that one of the most decisive elements in their appropriation of clarity was precisely their ability to turn their back on sectarianism at the vital moment and open up to the class.

We are not trying to argue here that there was no connection between the Bolsheviks of 1903 and 1917, nor that there can be a separation between organisational functioning and the clear defence of class positions We have already said in this text that in one sense the history of the Bolshevik Party can be seen as the history of the fight for the autonomy of working class interests and their espousal of that can't be separated from the form of their organisational work -their emphasis on factory work as opposed to Parliamentary manoeuvres etc. Their achievement of clarity is both a result of, and dialectically, a cause of their implantation in the heart of the class, in combination with the massive and real freedom of debate which existed in the Party and which, at the vital points in the struggle, frequently went against its centralised hierarchy. As we've already pointed out, Leninist sectarianism was aimed at the degenerating Social Democracy of the time and can't be applied to the current debates dividing the revolutionary movement.

The point we have tried to make throughout this section is that the Bolsheviks did not play the decisive role that they did as a result of some magic formula of organisation which can be a-historically lifted and applied by revolutionaries today. Certainly we can and must use the experience of our revolutionary forebears as a foundation for our activity but they haven't bequeathed us some eternally valid form of organisation which we can happily apply willy-nilly to the best of our resources. The efforts by these elements in the revolutionary movement who are trying to rebuild the Bolshevik Party today or like the ICC who are building Byzantine, convoluted bureaucratic structures in preparation for future needs, owe little to a Marxist understanding of the crucial problems which confront us.

Party and Class

Although this text is primarily concerned with the "internal" aspects of organisation, it would "be totally artificial to try to separate that from the Bolsheviks' relationship to the Class and from the role that they played in the revolutionary process. The understanding of how revolutionaries organise is inextricably tied up with an understanding of how a revolutionary class consciousness emerges and of the relative roles of party and class in the revolution itself. Once again, it would be totally false to imagine that there exists some single invariant blueprint, articulated by Lenin in 1902 and which, when rigorously applied, allowed the Bolshevik Party to play their indispensable role in the revolution of 1917. The dialectical and historically rooted unfolding of Bolshevik clarity and practice which we traced out in the foregoing section has to be repeated when we look at their external life.

The fight for a rigid centralism that we've seen in 1902 in "What is to be Done", is inextricably tied up in a view which sees the working class capable of achieving only a Trade Union consciousness. Revolutionary and socialist clarity is seen as the product of the intelligentsia who are charged with injecting this clarity into the class from without. The Party is fundamentally the Party of the intelligentsia. Although its true that "What is to be Done" has to be situated in the context of the fight against the Economists and against their tail-ending of "economic" struggles, and that the thrust is more against an attempt to separate working class activity from "political" activity than it is against the potential of the class, there's no doubt that Lenin's understanding lagged far behind that of the German Left and Rosa Luxemburg. Her critiques of the Bolshevik centralism of this time and her "Mass Strike" text remain an excellent and valid analysis of the inextricable connection between the "economic" struggles of the class and its political dimension.

However, the reality of the class upsurges in 1905 and even more importantly, in 1917, fundamentally transformed Lenin's theories and Bolshevik practice. In "Two Tactics of Social Democracy", written immediately after the 1905 events, he's acknowledging not only:

"There is not the slightest doubt that the revolution will teach Social Democratism to the masses of the workers in Russia ...At such a time, the working class feels an instinctive urge for open revolutionary action."

but also that:

"The elementary instinct of the working class movement is able to correct the conceptions of the greatest minds."

The revolution of 1905 and the halting role played by the Bolsheviks, forced Lenin to a recognition, not only of the vast revolutionary potential of the autonomous activity of the working class, but also to a glimmering of the very real limitations on the capacity of a Party. The ferment of 1905 emerged from the class itself quite independently of the revolutionary fractions, who for the most part, were taken aback by events and for months after, very hesitating about supporting them. There could be no denying the greater boldness, dynamism and radicalism of the working class, nor the way a revolutionary politicisation arose inevitably out of the day to day ferment of the struggle. "Economic" strikes flowed into "political" ones and from the factories out onto the streets and against the state. Lenin was forced to recognise that it was the proletariat who were the first to realise the objective conditions of the struggle were maturing and demanding the transition from the strike to the uprising. True, it was the Bolshevik Party which eventually called for the rising in Moscow but it was brought about by the inexorable pressure on them being exerted by the workers. As much as anything, it was a case of endorsing the rising or being swept aside by it.

Bolshevik confusion and timidity is perhaps best summed up in their initial response to the Soviet phenomenon.

"The Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks was frightened at first by such an innovation as a non-partisan representation of the embattled masses, and could find nothing better to do than to present the Soviet with an ultimatum: immediately adopt a Social Democratic programme, or disband. The Petersburg Soviet as a whole, including the contingent of Bolshevik workingmen as well, ignored this Ultimatum without batting an eyelash."
Trotsky -"Stalin"

Despite the lessons learned from 1905, this same hesitancy and confusion within the Bolshevik Party was to be repeated in 1917. Time and time again, we find the Bolsheviks and particularly their central organs, lagging behind the impetus and radicalism of the class. The crucial February 23d strike in Petrograd broke out against the instructions of the Party, although, when confronted the following day with the spectacle of 200,000 striking workers, they managed a reluctant endorsement. But their intervention was always to try to calm the struggle. When Bolshevik workers began to demand arms, Shlyapnikov, on behalf of the Central Committee, refused point blank. It wasn't until the 27th that they managed to produce a leaflet and that was in extremely limited numbers and merely called for a Provisional Government with no mention being made of Soviets. Until Lenin's arrival, the strong rightward drift of the upper hierarchy of the Party tended to dominate its life, despite the radicalism of much of its rank and file. In the early days of 1917, the Bolsheviks were finding difficulty in separating their policies from those of the Mensheviks with a constant tendency towards support for the Provisional Government. There was even the emergence of a right wing tendency arguing for a policy of national defence and re-unification with the Mensheviks. The fight waged against all this by Lenin from the "April Theses", through the splits of the July Days and all the way to the seizure of power is familiar to us all. As in 1905, we can search in vain for the well-oiled Bolshevik fighting machine with sharp political clarity and a disciplined "unity of action", leading their worker troops into the revolution. Far from presenting a monolithic bloc of clarity the Bolsheviks were publicly and fiercely split almost continually through 1917.

Their initial views of a class capable of only a Trade Union consciousness were totally confounded by the spectacle of a revolution being made by that very class.

"The February revolution . . . was the spontaneous outbreak of a multitude exasperated by the privations of war . . . The revolutionary parties played no direct part in the making of the revolution. They did not expect it and were at first somewhat nonplussed by it. The creation at the moment of revolution of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers Deputies was a spontaneous act of groups of workers without central direction."
E.H.Carr - "The Bolshevik Revolution"

The reality was undeniable. We have Lenin's famous quote of the period about the workers and peasants:

"...(they are) a thousand times more leftwards than the Chernovs and a hundred times more leftwards than we are."

This awareness marched hand in hand with the opening-up of the party to the working class that we I've chronicled in the first section of this text. The history of this period, from 1914 onwards, and especially in 1917, is the history of the Bolshevik Party becoming the party of the working class, in every sense of the term. We can see this manifested at every level, from the huge influx of workers into the party that we've already noted, through to the electoral successes in the Soviets in the latter half of 1917, to their complete control of the factory committees. By September 1917, there were only Bolsheviks to be found on the factory committees, with the Mensheviks and SRs completely routed. Despite the disputes and vacillations of the Bolsheviks, from 1914 onward, their stance on the war separated them sharply from their rivals in front of the class. Only the Bolsheviks stood unhesitatingly for the class struggle in the face of the war. While everyone else denounced the discord and the threat that class struggle brought to the policy of national defencism, the Bolsheviks were wholeheartedly behind it. The consistent policy of fighting for the autonomy of working class interests led the Party to being deeply implanted in the heart of the class by 1917.

"They were among the masses, at the factory benches, every day without a pause. Tens of speakers, big and little, were speaking in Petersburg, at the factories and in the barracks, every blessed day. For the masses, they had become their own people because they were always there. The mass lived and breathed together with the Bolsheviks."
Sukanov quoted in M.Liebman: Leninism under Lenin

It was this openness to the class, this vulnerability to the pressures of the class, which was finally responsible for sweeping away the timidity and conservatism of the Bolshevik central organs. Almost everywhere it was the rank and file of the Party, the ones closest to and most sensitive to the class who were the most consistent radical elements. The Bolshevik Military Organisation was one of the best examples of this. As we've seen, it functioned consistently in 1917 as a left, radical faction of the Party. Composed of soldiers who had, for the most part, only recently joined the Party, it was in direct and intimate contact with the class. Whereas the main central bodes of the Party - the Central Committee etc. - were free from direct pressure from workers and soldiers, the Military Organisation, born of revolutionary events, was more exposed to the radicalising effect of popular exasperation and could draw its arguments against the timidity and, conservatism of the central organs directly from working class pressure. It’s an irony of history that Lenin, who originally set out to build a Party based on a rigid centralism as a guarantee of political cohesion, and clarity in order to provide a sharp edged tool of action, found himself in the revolutionary process having to reach over the heads of those central organs to appeal to the lower ranks of the Party and even to the class outside.

"Class conscious workers must take the matter into their own hands, organise the discussion, and exert pressure on those at the top."
Lenin, quoted in Liebman

In a very real sense, the political clarity and correctness of Bolshevik slogans throughout the period came almost directly from the class itself.

When we turn to the period following the seizure of power, we find the same process multiplied a hundredfold. Despite, or perhaps because of, the formal assumption of state power by the Bolshevik Party, we can see absolutely clearly in Lenin, the realisation that the carrying through of the revolution, the building of a new society, is fundamentally in the hands, of the class. At the 2nd Congress of Soviets in November 1917, Lenin is arguing:

"We must allow complete freedom to the creative faculties of the class."

and in Pravda that same month, he writes:

"Comrades, working people! Remember that now you, yourselves are at the helm of state. No-one will help you if you yourselves do not wait and take into your hands all affairs of state . . . Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone."
(Original emphasis)

In his "State and Revolution" of the same period, the whole emphasis is on the fundamental role of the class in the tasks ahead. The Party hardly rates a mention. And there's nothing surprising in this stance. It was fundamentally not much more than the recognition of the social reality in front of his eyes, for once again the class were running ahead of the Party. While the Bolsheviks, for example, were still tied to a policy of nationalising only the "commanding heights" of the economy and were exploring the possibility of some form of collaboration with the more amenable capitalists in the running of the economy, the class were surging ahead with the expropriation of the means of production. The slogan of Workers Control and its application sprang directly from the autonomous activity of the class and forced the Bolsheviks onto a much more radical stance. According to Liebman, for example, of the 500 odd enterprises that had been nationalised by June 1918, about 400 were taken over as a result of local action that the Bolsheviks had either tried to hold back or divert.

On the land question, the Decree of Land Division merely followed after the virtually totally uncontrolled seizure of the land by the peasants themselves. Many of the first collectives on the land were also the product of local initiative independent of Party wishes, as were the actual setting up of the Committees of Poor Peasants.

At every level of society, this process was at work. In the administration of justice, hundreds of popular tribunals with elected judges sprang up spontaneously: in the question of housing, expropriation went ahead in an uncontrolled fashion and the educational system was thrown open by the dynamic upsurge of the masses themselves. Committees in every conceivable area of social life sprang up spontaneously. Lenin was speaking only the literal truth when he said at the 7th Party Congress in March 1918:

"What our revolution is doing is not is not the product of a Party decision but ...(is) a revolution that the masses themselves create by their slogans, their efforts ...Socialism cannot be implemented by a minority, by the Party. It can be implemented only by tens of millions when they have learned to do it themselves."

Whatever illusions might have still lingered in the Bolshevik Party about their role in the building of the new society, the reality, following on the seizure of power rapidly dispersed them. However potent a tool the party might have been for intervention in the class struggle in October 1917 they certainly weren't physically capable of taking the entire administration of the state into their hands. In Petrograd, for example, the Central Committee had an office staff of 4. Even by 1919 it was still only 15. At local levels there were virtually no permanent apparatus in existence. In the early months following on October, the assumption of power by the Bolsheviks was to a large extent symbolic. Stalin as Commissar for the Affairs of the Nationalities had at his disposal one table and two chairs in a shared office. The Commissar for Agriculture wasn't even that lucky. He had to borrow a table from Lenin's office. In addition to all this, as we've already seen, communications throughout the country were very bad and even where they were possible the local organisations frequently chose to blithely ignore instructions from the centre. To quote Liebman again:

"In general, the drawing up of laws and decrees...was, as a rule, only symbolic in character, or rather it served merely propagandist aims, since the Bolsheviks were without the means of making their legislative decisions effective."

Throughout the first year of the revolution, the most substantial force in politics and society was the direct activity of the masses themselves, with more dynamism and effectiveness than any other factor in public life. In this period, the intervention of the class was decisive, continuous and was effected without mediation. Throughout every level of society, as we've seen, workers control appeared before the law that legalised and persisted without regard to official attempts to divert it. The theory and practice of Bolshevism, at the full flood of the class in revolutionary action, could do little else but absorb and reflect that reality. Instead of the customary picture of a unified, monolithic and disciplined General Staff directing the course of the revolution, we see a Party swept up into the dynamism of the class, becoming a living expression of the class, open to it, expressing in fierce public debate all the confusions attendant upon that, but most importantly, becoming radicalised by it. It was the disappearance of this upsurge and the disappearance of the working class from the stage that concretised the tendencies in the Bolshevik Party towards monolithism, rigid centralism, party dictatorship and absolute hegemony of the central organs.

Role of the Party

We're aware that this text is, of, necessity, seriously unbalanced. The indispensability of the Party to the revolutionary process and the necessity for centralisation with that Party, are taken as given. The point of the text was to try to lay the basis for countering the widespread myths of the monolithic party and look at the limitations on both the role of the party and the operation of centralism. But we don't have any illusions that the gigantic upsurge of the masses, as thoroughgoing as it was, as politically radical as it was, as influential as it was on the clarity of the Bolsheviks, was any more than just one side of the equation.

It was the political intervention of revolutionaries which was vital in giving shape and direction to that upsurge. It was revolutionary intervention which ensured that class response to the war and the privations imposed, remained on a proletarian terrain and defined the consequences which flowed from their activity. We're not arguing here either, that it was just a question of clear communist propaganda which persuaded the working class but that an inextricable part of that was the actions of the Party. The Bolsheviks were a fighting part of the class struggle.

Their role in the planning for armed insurrection, the seizure of power and the dissolving of the Constituent Assembly, was an indispensable part of the revolution. It set the parameters for class action and eliminated the negative alternatives in a way that propaganda never could have. Only a Party could act like that and only a Party could provide the necessary depth of political clarity. Only a Party:

"... foresees the whole struggle, locates and establishes tactics, exercises persuasion over the remainder of the proletariat seeks revolution alone, regards everything from this perspective, always puts the general cause of revolution above all other interests both in the national and the international struggle."
Gorter- "The organisation of the Proletariat's Class Struggle"

For, no matter how advanced and radical the class might be in the revolution, their consciousness is bound to reflect, to some extent, their fragmented material position under capitalism. To quote Gorter again speaking against the councilist tendencies:

"Can they deny that the class condition of the proletariat enables only a small section of the proletariat to develop broad and deep understanding? Can they deny that large sections within the factory organisations will therefore always be opportunistic, individualistic, Utopian and insufficiently developed? No. And that, therefore, the factory organisation can never make or lead the revolution alone."

Of necessity also, this heterogeneity in the consciousness of the proletariat means that the Party can only be a fraction of the class, a minority. Gorter's quite well aware that the conception of mass parties belong to the past.

"Therefore, a small Party everywhere."

He goes on to say:

"Can this one small party simultaneously rule this mighty adversary, massively armed capitalism, and the mighty proletariat? Can it be the dictator, the despotic ruler of both, of adversary and proletariat? The very numbers involved rule it out."

And Luxemburg herself makes clear that it's not simply a question of numbers. The ability of the Party to function as the organiser of the class struggle, as the order-giver, is limited not just by size but by the very activity of the class itself. We've seen time and time again, how often and how crucially, the initiative and dynamism sprang directly from the class, catching revolutionaries completely unaware. This doesn't mean, and didn't for the German Left either, that revolutionaries cant or shouldn't involve themselves in direct organisation of moments of the class struggle. Certainly, as part of their intervention, revolutionaries will call for strikes, for demonstrations and for armed uprisings. The German Left did so. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not: just like the Bolsheviks. There's no question of the German Left being nothing but some form of super-propagandists. The point is that we've seen historically that this organising role can only be a PART of the struggle and by no means the decisive part. The movement of the class in revolution just doesn't lend itself to detailed plans of action which can be implemented by an omnipotent Party. The twists and turns, the sudden outbursts and periods of quiescence, can neither be foresee nor called into existence by any Party, no matter how sharp or disciplined. What is essential, and unique to the Party, is the political intervention. And even here there are no blueprints. We've seen how even that most centralised and "homogenous" party, the Bolsheviks, were in reality constantly divided about their analysis and intervention. Of course, the general guidelines can be picked out, but the understanding of what that general clarity means in the day to day struggle, only comes on the march.

It's fundamentally the class themselves who pose the questions and give a guide to the answers. It can't be foreseen in advance. A party which understands this and realises it can't pretend to have the answer to everything in advance is a party which must be open to the influence of the class in revolutionary action. At such a time, rigid centralism is entirely inappropriate. It's the layers of the party closest to the class which makes the running, and we've seen that that tends NOT to be the central organs, which frequently at the vital point play a conservative role. In addition:

"The political purpose of an organ having such great powers is understandable only if those powers apply to the elaboration of a uniform plan of action, if the central organ assumes the initiative of a vast revolutionary act.”
Luxemburg -"Leninism or Marxism

If, on the contrary, the political dimension of the party's intervention is seen as central, then that fabled "unity of action", so dear to the Lenin of 1902, is seen as a chimera. What's important is the party's political contribution which demands a party open to the widest possible debate. What we've tried to demonstrate in this text is that the Bolsheviks played such a decisive role precisely because their practice and to a certain extent their theory, at the high points in class struggle was in accord with the criticisms of the German Left. We know, of course, that that accord had a fragile existence and didn't survive the removal of the class from the revolutionary stage.

What we've tried to do in the text so far is situate the questions of monolithism, centralism and the nature of the party's leading role, within a concrete, historical framework, cleared of myth and wishful thinking. Without that, the question of organisation must be doomed to remain on the plane of the abstract. We hope that we've demonstrated that the party of history was neither the nightmare monolith of libertarian slander nor the superb, unified, decisive, fighting machine, the revolutionary General Staff of the partyists' wishful thinking.

Then and Now

It's impossible to draw any accurate lessons from the material we've just dealt with unless were aware of how crucially our material situation differs from that of the Bolsheviks. Even on a straight- forward quantitative level, the gap between revolutionaries today and the Bolsheviks pre-1917 is so huge and unthinkable it tends to be universally ignored by the political milieu. In 1903, the Party could afford to pay about 30 full-time distributors of Iskra. (That's considerably bigger than many entire organisations today.) By 1905, there were just under 10,000 Bolsheviks. As a result of the insurrection that rose to 34,000 by 1906. In the same period, there were about 14,000 Mensheviks. In the RSDLP as a whole, in 1907 there were 84,000 excluding the Bundist, Polish and Lettish sections. Bolshevik membership fell during the years of reaction, but by the beginning of 1917 it stood at about 20,000. By August of that year, there were almost a quarter of a million members. All this has to be set against a total working class population of perhaps three and a half million.

But the numbers really only give a hint of the vast differences between then and now. Revolutionary fractions in general, and the Bolsheviks in particular, were implanted in the class in a way we can't even dream about today. Even when the Bolsheviks were finding little direct support in the class, their arguments and politics were totally familiar to the class. Revolutionary positions and debate were part and parcel of working class life. For the flavour of what this meant in concrete reality, it's worth reading the memoirs of Shlyapnikov. Although anecdotal, many of the anecdotes are very telling.. In 1914 he re-entered Russia disguised as a Frenchman and began work in a Petrograd factory. Within days, he was at the centre of a lively and vigorous debate surrounded by workers not only keen to discuss political activity, but demanding to know about revolutionaries in exile like Martov and Lenin. In his travels throughout Russia, even in the most remote and isolated of villages he has no difficulty finding politically active and committed workers. Not always Bolsheviks of course, but the political tradition was there.

The entire proletariat were highly politicised. When strikes broke out, as a matter of course, the workers co-opted members of revolutionary fractions onto their strike committees. We all know the stories of Bolshevik leaflets being passed from hand to hand until the print was rubbed off and the paper was in tatters, of workers in factories who would handwrite copies of newspapers and even pamphlets in the absence of duplicating facilities. Revolutionary parties were seen by the class as their parties (even when they disagreed with them.) By 1917, of course, it was the Bolshevik Party which predominantly held this position. We've already quoted Sukhnov's evocative descriptions of the masses "living and breathing together with the Bolsheviks".

As we've pointed out elsewhere in the text, on every conceivable level, the Party was seen as the Party of the working class. Even on a straightforward sociological level, the vast majority of its members were workers. Even as early as 1905, over 6o% of members were drawn from the industrial working class. (D.Lane - The Roots of Russian Communism) This percentage increased in the years of reaction as a result of the exodus of intellectuals. In some areas as many as 12% of all factory workers were actual members. (L.Schapiro.) Even in the darkest days following 1905 when the party was in disarray and its ranks were decimated the milieu was unimaginably different from today. Even with workers demoralised and shunning the party for fear of repression, the fertile soil still existed in terms of the hundreds of thousands of workers with a revolutionary background and a familiarity with the political arguments.

All the debates and polemics of the period about organisation, regroupment and the role of the party only make sense if we can grasp this general background. Obviously, we must draw lessons from the period, but it can only lead to disaster if we think we can transpose the arguments and positions directly onto our present situation.

Today, were not talking about thousands or tens of thousands in our fraction alone, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other militants, all working in a class of only a few million, more or less totally familiar with the debates and fiercely committed and partisan. On the contrary, we're faced with a few hundred militants throughout the world, working in a class gigantically bigger, which doesn't know we exist and is totally unfamiliar with revolutionary positions. We are tiny, isolated and remote from the class in a way which would be unimaginable before 1917. It was our starting assumption, (a largely unspoken one), in the revolutionary movement of 10 to 15 years ago, that, yes, we were tiny and isolated but the process of deepening crisis and class struggle was inseparable from a growth in size and influence of revolutionaries. So far we've seen no sign of that. We think we've reached the point where the revolutionary milieu must confront that openly and decide how it affects our activity. It seems clear that different types of activity and organisation might flow from an initial assumption of progressive growth than from believing that the organisation will only grow at the point of revolution.


It's clearly an attempt to grapple with this problem that is at least partly responsible for the paths chosen by elements like Wildcat and NoWaR who have argued, in practice if not in open theory, that centralisation in our present tiny state can only be synonymous with monolithism. In a different way the CWO fantasies about factory groups and "transmission belts" are obviously another response to this problem. Whatever the pros and cons of the utility and role of factory groups in a period when we have sufficient influence in the class to be able to set them up, to put them forward in the present period as a means of creating that influence in the first place, is clearly a delusion based on desperation. The CWO don't have any factory groups and they have no means of getting any. No-one in the revolutionary milieu has (including Battaglia Communista, notwithstanding their token factory groups.) One might as well argue that if we had a multi-million circulation daily paper, or 10,000 man sections in major cities, it would increase our influence in the class. It would, but it all belongs to the realm of fantasy. It's impossible to have any respect for an organisation which indulges in this sort of make-believe. However, perhaps the CWO can be forgiven their desperation given their conceptions of organising the class. We've already seen how the Bolsheviks themselves were unable to undertake this role so it's hardly surprising to see signs of stress in the dozen or so members of the CWO.

The plain truth is that as revolutionaries we have to face up to the fact that there are NO magical devices to short-circuit our isolation from the class. Certainly, we must intervene in the class to the limits of our abilities but the destruction of our isolation doesn't reside in our hands. We can't change that, no matter how self-important we become, or how ouvrierist or activist, and no matter how hard we try to make our language and press more "accessible" etc. All we can do is realistically assess the material limitations which confront us, as a guide planning our work on a sane and balanced basis.

Monolithism and Sectarianism

The fight against monolithism and sectarianism must also take account of our tiny size and isolation. We can reproduce the Bolshevik and German Left rhetoric about party democracy, about opening up to the masses etc and we can reproduce their intentions (the best of them), but we can't reproduce the social and political reality .which gave the Bolsheviks their vitality. Their tendencies towards monolithism and the substitutionism of their central organs were always countered by their size, implantation in the class, and the relative autonomy (in practice) of the various elements which made up the party. The vigour of the debates inside the Bolsheviks, their ability to retain relatively enormous differences inside the party without splitting it, can't be reproduced in a group numbered in dozens and remote from the class, despite all the best intentions and all the detailed constitutional safeguards. Without the invigorating contact with the class enjoyed by revolutionaries in the last revolutionary wave, it’s hardly surprising that the milieu is racked by sectarianism.

While we remain small and isolated, the pressures towards monolithism, family cliques and sect-like behaviour must be enormous. But, however powerful they might be, we can't hope to even start to deal with them unless we can first recognise their existence. The sectarian practices, guerrilla tactics and vicious unscrupulousness employed by Lenin towards fellow revolutionaries might have been acceptable in the fertility of pre-1917, but in the fragility and isolation in which we find ourselves, its criminal. Our priorities must be a fraternal husbanding of our strength, of reaching out and embracing as much of the revolutionary milieu as possible, while at the same time, reconciling that with a method of organisation which allows and promotes a rigorous search for clarity. Any attempt to attain one without the other can only be political suicide.


This text is not the place to present a detailed plan for the future of revolutionary activity, but we can begin to sketch out the general framework of where we stand.

1. We remain committed to the belief in the necessity for a separate organisation of revolutionaries which will play an indispensable role in the revolutionary process. Nothing in the history of the working class or in our understanding of the operation and role of class consciousness leads us to believe that communist revolution is possible without the existence of a party, however momentous the upsurge of class struggle might be. The upsurge and decline of struggle in Poland confirms us in that belief. We think a communist intervention, however tiny in such an upsurge, can have a decisive impact out of all proportion to its size. In addition, the experience of the Bolsheviks in 1905 and 1917 shows the enormous speed at which an organisation can grow in such a situation.

On the question of what it means to play a leading role, we're entirely with Luxemburg and the German Left in the belief that the influence of the Party over the working class is exercised primarily through its ideas, its programme and its slogans rather than through the power of its organisation and its own initiation of action. The latter two elements are undoubtedly part of the activity of a Party, but they can never be the defining part. Certainly, in our present tiny size and isolation, any attempts to "organise" the class can only be fantasy.

2. Without elaboration here, the body of class positions contained more or less in the Platform of the ICC are inseparable from revolutionary activity, and would form the necessary foundation of political clarity.

3. Federalism and localism are incompatible with communist organisation, which can only be centralised. We've already tried to demonstrate in the text that we don't think it's possible to rummage through working class history and produce a blueprint for revolutionary organisation which can be applied willy-nilly.

"Centralism in the socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labour movement. It is a tendency which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle."
Luxemburg -"Leninism or Marxism"

The accusations of the ICC to the contrary, when we left that organisation we didn't turn our backs on centralisation, but on a form of centralisation which had substituted itself for the organisation as a whole. We are FOR centralisation which allows the whole organisation to speak, to think and to act. We are with Luxemburg when she says:

"The Ultra-Centralism asked by Lenin" [or of the ICC apparat] "is full of the sterile spirit of the overseer. It is not a positive and creative spirit. Lenin's concern is not so much to make the activity of the party more fruitful, as to control the party - to narrow the movement rather than to develop it; to bind rather than to unify it."

4. We reject the notion that defence of clarity on the class lines and commitment to a centralised mode of organisation is synonymous with monolithism and sectarianism, along the lines of the ICC and the CWO. One of the lessons we've tried to draw in this text is that an organisation can't survive as an organ of the class without the widest and most thorough-going freedom of debate both internally and publicly and that is inseparable from the free operation of tendencies and fractions. Far from seeing this as a sign of "immaturity or degeneration" as the ICC do, we think this is an inevitable sign of the health of an organisation. As we've pointed out elsewhere in this Bulletin (in the letter to the CWO), a practical rejection of sectarianism must start by understanding that in a milieu as tiny, fragmented and remote from the life of the class as ours, there is almost nothing to stand in the way of arbitrariness in the adoption of positions. Therefore, we should exercise a profound seriousness and responsibility about the gravity of taking up a position organisationally, and a profound caution about the way we choose to defend those positions in the political milieu in which we work. But standing alongside this caution must be a positive boldness about opening up debate publicly. The whole revolutionary movement has to put away its current timidity. It’s the suppression of debate we have to fear. The milieu is too tiny and weak to be able to afford the bottling up of debates inside individual organisations. We have to exorcise the notion that political clarity and cohesion demands either the total agreement of everyone on everything (as in the old CWO vision of "programmatic centralism"), or the presenting of a united front to the external world as in the ICC. We don't present this text as a final closed position but as a contribution and we hope, a focal point, in the debates opened up by the clear sharpening of the tasks of the proletariat and its revolutionary fractions at the beginnings of the 1980s. We would welcome all comments and responses.


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Feb 28 2010 09:07


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