THE REVOLUTIONARY PARTY.
(Help or Hindrance?)
We know from direct experience how badly the revolutionary party building has fared over the last several decades. Indeed, the steadfast endeavour to build one over the last 70 years has never amounted to more than a precarious and often temporary existence for one or more of the numerous, relatively small and competing sects. It could be argued quite fairly that the record of Party building, even during the fierce class-struggles of the post-second World War period, has been dismal. Not even the Thatcherite demolition job on the working class in Britain, perhaps the severest in 1970’s recession hit Europe, produced a healthy non-sectarian re-orientation of ‘the party’ builders. Nor for that matter, did this period witness the expressed desire for the formation of one, or the augmentation of an existing one, by workers in their various struggles. A similar case could be presented for the rest of Europe, North America and elsewhere. But if the recent record of revolutionary party building is somewhat desultory, how good was it when it was allegedly at its very best? The lack of a critical appraisal of the record of ‘the party’ (past and present) among many revolutionary anti-capitalists, I suggest, is a crucially important omission.
For this reason, it continues to be a common assumption among many on the anti-capitalist left, that a disciplined revolutionary party is a vital and sooner or later a necessary ingredient in the anti-capitalist struggle. An allied assumption is that without such an organisation any struggle against the forces of oppression gathered around the capitalist system will not succeed in overthrowing it or achieving success afterwards. These two assumptions, often articulated as indisputable facts, are a central part of the inherited Bolshevik tradition handed down by the splintered post-second World War veterans of the Stalinist, Leninist and Trotskyist schools of anti-capitalist thought.
The origin of these assumptions, which I once uncritically accepted, are based upon written testimony handed down through many books and articles written by the above three authors and reiterated by their 20th century literary followers. But it is manifestly true that there is really no history ‘as it actually happened’ only historical interpretation. Therefore in any such historical legacy it is to be expected that what was selected for transmission has had a particular, sectarian and variable bias. It is the intention of this article to present some of the overlooked and neglected evidence, drawn from the writings of Lenin, Trotsky and other senior figures of the Russian revolution, which cast a different, more sober light, on the concept and practice of ‘the party’.
The same internal sources will also reveal a truer picture of the often uncertain and frequently negative role of ‘the party’ in the actual revolutionary events of 1905, 1917 and later in Russia. I should make clear before going further that I write this from a committed anti-capitalist perspective, one not opposed to forms of organisation and one guided by the revolutionary-humanist insights of Karl Marx. In particular I shall attempt to keep with the spirit of revolutionary criticism and self-criticism which Marx consistently advocated. Eg.
“I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing….The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of the conflict with the powers that be.” (Marx to Ruge 1843.)
In my experience, very few, if any, Leninist acolytes and Trotskyist imitators have ever applied such ruthless form of criticism to Bolshevism as Marx advocated in 1843 and which in practice he applied to the Gotha Programme thirty-two years later in 1875. Instead ’The Party’ has generally been viewed through a form of rationalisation of which a Doctor Panglos would be eminently proud. As a working class activist, devouring the works of Lenin and Trotsky, I gradually became aware of the neglect of a critical perspective from the standpoint of the oppressed. Something that was central to Marx. I previously attempted to supply at least part of that critical deficiency, in a book entitled ‘Revolutionary-Humanism and the Anti-Capitalist Struggle‘. In this article I will add a few additional indicators as to why I think it is necessary, from a working-class perspective, to re-evaluate the concept of ‘the party’ as the only effective and essential form of organisation for revolutionary anti-capitalists.
In 1903 Lenin wrote ‘What is to be Done’ in which he argued (against Martov and others) for the transformation of a loose grouping of revolutionaries into a disciplined, professional, centralised organisation. Lenin is, therefore, the primary originating author of the tradition which led to what I consider was the eventual fetishisation of Bolshevism and ‘The Party‘ – after the conquest of power in October 1917. Of the many middle-class intellectual Bolsheviks, Trotsky, was the one who probably most eloquently expressed this transmitted orthodoxy when he declared;
“In the last analysis the party is always right, because the party is the sole historical instrument that the working class possesses for the solution of its fundamental tasks. I know that no one can be right against the party” (Trotsky. Challenge of the Left Opposition page 161)
It should be easily recognised, once it is pointed out, that this abstract formulation by Trotsky is made up of three problematic, almost religiously framed, assertions. The first; ‘that the party is always right‘. The second; ‘the party is the sole historical instrument that the working class possesses for the solution of its fundamental tasks‘. The third; ‘that no one can be right against the party‘. None of these abstractions would stand up to the slightest critical scrutiny. The party in fact was frequently wrong; the soviets were an important historical instrument; and at different times both Lenin and Trotsky were right in opposition to the party. Similar claims were made by the Catholic Fathers in relationship to their church, their worshippers and their imagined God. This pious similarity apart we shall see how well these assertions and the assumptions which flow from them measure up to evidence drawn directly from within its own tradition and by the same authors.
b) The party often followed, rather than led.
On February 23 1917, probably the most important day with regard to the revolutionary overthrow of the Czar his supporters in the Duma, the masses came out on a rolling political/revolutionary strike against the expressed wishes of the Bolshevik party committees. Trotsky had the following observations to say about that momentous day;
“Thus the fact is that the February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organisations.” (Trotsky. The history of the Russian Revolution. Page 122)
Without the February revolution, the following one in October would not have been so easy, as Lenin later acknowledged. During and prior to the February events in 1917, there were many organisations with a revolutionary perspective who sought to lead (direct) the masses in a particular direction, but the rapidity of events, as they unfolded, proved they were incapable of doing so.Trotsky again on the February events;
“But even the central Bolshevik staff, composed of Shliapnikov, Zalutsky and Molotov was amazing in its helplessness and lack of initiative. In fact, the districts and the barracks were left to themselves. The first proclamation to the army was released only on the 26th by one of the Social Democratic organisations close to the Bolsheviks.” (Trotsky. History of the Russian Revolution. p 138)
Trotsky’s observation of the revolution occurring from below, and the inability of the party, is supported by many other participants at the time, and is reflected in various historical works of the period. Thus Orlando Figues, in his book, presents the opinion of a well placed Bolshevik who articulated the following;
“Shliapnikov, the leading Bolshevik in the capital, scoffed at the idea that this was the start of a revolution. ‘What revolution? He asked a local meeting of the party leaders on the 25th. Give the workers a pound of bread and the movement will peter out.” (Figues. ‘A Peoples Tragedy’ page 311.)
Here we have a glimpse of the middle-class, Bolshevik elitist contempt for the masses. They were needed as canon fodder for the revolution, but were thought corruptible by a portion of bread and were not to be trusted with organising their own future. In summing up this intense period, which created the conditions for an actual revolutionary breakthrough, Trotsky added another observation;
“The leaders were watching the movement from above; they hesitated, they lagged – in other words, they did not lead. They dragged behind the movement.” (Trotsky. History… ibid p 131)
Immediately after this observation, Trorsky made another in which he again emphasised the difference between the party and the workers at this crucial juncture.
“The nearer one comes to the factories, the greater the decisiveness.” (ibid)
At a gathering of a few revolutionary activists in late February 1917, Sukhanov, at the time something of an independent revolutionary, after talking to Maxim Gorky witnessed what he considered a depressing event. He wrote;
“Meanwhile some fairly responsible Bolshevik leaders came along. And their flat-footedness or, more properly, their incapacity to think their way into the political problem and formulate it, had a depressing effect on us.” (NN.Sukhanov. ‘The Russian Revolution 1917‘. Page 24.)
Using further materials from Sukhanov, and Krupskaia, (Lenin’s widow), both direct participants in the Russian revolution, Figues comments that even a couple of months before the action of the working class really accelerated, the party was not prepared, and that;
“Lenin himself had predicted in January that ‘we older men perhaps will not live to see the coming revolution.” (Figues. A Peoples Tragedy’. page 323.)
So a month before the actual February revolution Lenin, the talented, (supposedly infallible) trained lawyer and revolutionary leader, proved to be a man no different than many other’s in ‘the party’ at the time. After the revolution, Lenin also felt it necessary to remind the party of an important fact.
“If the creativity of the people during the Russian Revolution, along with the great experiences of 1905, had not established the Soviets in February 1917, in no way would it have been possible for them to seize power in October, since success depended entirely on the existence of readymade, organised forms of a movement embracing millions.” (Lenin CW volume 27.
So according to Lenin, the final phase of the revolution needed 1905 and the creativity of the masses in forming the soviets. Lenin after the event, recognises a truly important historical instrument, but subsequenlty fails to draw appropriate conclusions from this. The workers and soldiers councils (soviets) were a new revolutionary form allowing the full participation of all oppressed sectors of society. In contrast, the concept of a professional, disciplined, centralised politics and party were an old and increasingly reactionary form, in which full participation could only be exercised by an intellectual elite.
So it is not surprising that according to Trotsky, there was not a word about the soviets, in the Bolshevik Central Committee resolution of the 10th October 1917 – fifteen days before the final insurrectionary events. (p 1132 History..). The revolution was creating a new inclusive form of organisation, whilst the Bolsheviks were perpetuating an outdated exclusive form. For example, Trotsky also reported (page 1128/1129) that workers and soldiers of Moscow and Nevsky districts, were saying they would come out at the summons of the soviet, but not of ‘the party‘. And Trotsky again pointed out that in October 1917;
“Attempts to lead the insurrection directly through the party nowhere produced results.”(Trotsky. History of the Russian Revolution. Page 1129.)
c) The party even tried to prevent workers revolutionary self-activity.
We can see that the ‘belief’ among some modern revolutionary anti-capitalists, that the revolutionaries in the Bolshevik section of the RSDP, consistently ‘led’ the working classes and peasants in the struggle against the Czarist system, is at odds with opinion of those who lived through it. The evidence in this section and following ones will indicate that this kind of received wisdom has actually been built up into a historical myth of varying exaggerated and fabricated proportions. Indeed, we shall see that during the momentous days in February, ‘the party‘ not only opposed further political strikes but was for ending some others. Trotsky again;
“Not a single organisation called for strikes on that day. What is more, even a Bolshevik organisation, and a most militant one – the Vyborg borough committee, all workers – was opposing strikes.” (Trotsky History..page 121.)
“Even at the meeting of the Vyborg committee the evening of the 26 – that is , twelve hours before the victory – arose discussions as to whether it was not time to end the strike.” (ibid page 134)
Of course the Bolsheviks, not even workers who had joined the Bolsheviks, could end a mass workers political strike, they could only recommend such a decision to the factory committees, which at that time they did not control. The previous two quotes from Trotsky are from a chapter entitled ‘Five Days’ in which he recounts the events leading up to the successful overthrow of feudal authority from accounts recorded soon after the events. This clear absence of Party Organisations and Party leaders ‘leading‘ the events, provoked the general myth that the uprisings, resistance and overthrow were somehow ‘spontaneous‘. To combat this mystical abstraction, in the very next chapter, Trotsky discussed who led the February revolution. He concluded that in the absence of Party organisations there arose from among the workers and soldiers, their own nominated figures, rank and file workers and soldiers who were delegated to co-ordinate the anger and impatience of the masses. These factory and barrack deputies were frequently ordinary party members, non-party workers and independent activists who listened to workers’ views and formulated suggestions as to what to do. He summed this up as;
“These leaders had often been left to themselves, had nourished themselves on fragments of revolutionary generalisations arriving in their hands by various routes, had studied out by themselves between the lines of the liberal papers what they needed. Their class instinct was refined by a political criterion, and though they did not think all their ideas through to the end, nevertheless their thought ceaselessly and stubbornly works its way in a single direction.” (Trotsky. History of..ibid p 169.)
Trotsky was writing this history during a party climate which hunted down opposition and promoted the idolisation of Lenin and Stalin after Lenin’s death. To support his own contention that the above was the case, Trotsky felt it necessary to add a similar appraisal by Lenin;
“Lenin more than once repeated that the masses are far to the left of the party….In April, in June, especially at the beginning of July, the workers were impatiently pushing the party along toward decisive action…” (ibid p 1123)
Although, self-appointing itself – after the October events, – as the only leadership of the revolutionary working masses, the Bolshevik leaders, before and during the revolutionary episodes, not only frequently tail-ended the workers but from the evidence drawn from within the Bolshevik party, it also attempted to slow them down until party members felt the Party was ready. In this way some were already less concerned with the outcome of the revolution, than by which political party – ‘their own’ – would be elevated to power.
d) Success were often achieved contrary to Party wishes.
A thorough, unprejudiced reading of the events of 1917 (and even 1905) will also establish the fact that the leaders of the Party were often not even in Russia, under arrest or were exiled in Siberia. Such a reading will also reveal that the masses of workers and soldiers at times were not only ahead of the thinking of the party, as Lenin and Trotsky recognised, but engaged in actions which the party opposed and achieved results which the party had not even envisaged.
“The entrance of the Petrograd districts into the arena of the struggle instantly changed both its scope and its direction. Again the inexhaustible vitality of the soviet form of organisation was revealed. Although paralysed above by the leadership of the Compromisers, the soviets were reborn again from below at the critical moment under pressure from the masses.” (Trotsky. The History of the Russian Revolution. Page 734.)
Here we have Trotsky also acknowledging that it was the soviet form of organisation, created and developed by the workers, which produced an inexhaustible vitality and even this form benefited from a rebirth due to pressure from the masses outside of the soviets and outside of the party. Moving to the October revolution against the provisional government, Trotsky then quotes Molotov as saying.
“We must say frankly,..The party lacked that clarity and resolution which the revolutionary movement demanded. …The agitation and the whole revolutionary party work in general had no firm foundation, since our thoughts had not yet arrived at bold conclusions…” (Trotsky. The History of the Russian Revolution. Page 993)
On the eve of the penultimate stage of the revolutionary process the party lacked ‘clarity and resolution’ and its work ‘had no firm foundation’ observed Molotov of cocktail fame and Trotsky checking his sources, has no hesitation in quoting it. This observation is also confirmed by the lengthy turmoil Lenin’s introduction of the April Theses created within the leadership ranks of the Party as reflected within Lenin‘s collected works and the Central Committee minutes August 1917 to February 1918. It is also confirmed by others.
“The tsarist authorities assumed that the crowds must have been organised by the socialist parties; but although the rank and file were present in the crowds, the socialist leaders were quite unprepared to take on this role and if anything, followed the people. The street generated its own leaders: students. workers and NCO’s….whose names, for the most part, have remained hidden from the history books.” (Figues. ’A Peoples Tragedy. Page 319.)
Those activists from the lower ranks, noted by Trotsky, Figues and others, remain ‘hidden from history’ and their version of events is missing. Hasn’t this always the case? The working class, peasant, soldier activists and catalysts in the Russian revolution, and other such events, remain hidden from history, whilst the middle-class intellectuals became famous or in some cases – infamous. Toward the end of his impressively large book, Trotsky again reiterates the observation he had made a thousand pages earlier.
“In February the workers and soldiers of Petrograd rose in insurrection – not only against the patriotic will of all the educated classes, but also contrary to the reckonings of the revolutionary organisations.” (Trotsky. The History of the Russian Revolution. Page 1188.)
None of this can be surprising to those who can rise above partisan prejudice and have studied the relevant material. In 1906, Trotsky was put on trial for his role as chairperson of the Petersburg soviet in the 1905 revolution. The prosecution lawyers claimed he had ‘led’ the workers on and that the insurrection was largely his and other revolutionaries doing. He replied;
“An insurrection of the masses, gentlemen of the bench, is not made: it accomplishes itself. It is the result of social relations, not the product of a plan. It cannot be created; it can be forseen… a popular rising has been prepared, not when the people have been armed with rifles and guns – for in that case it would never be prepared – but when it is armed with readiness to die in open street battle.” (Trotsky. Speech to the Jury 1906. Quoted in ’The Tragedy of Leon Trotsky. Ronald Segal. Pub Hutchinson. page 78.)
Even as late as October, 10 – 20th the question of whether to back the demands of the workers and soldiers for an insurrection, split the Bolshevik Central Committee during a number of heated discussions. [See the Bolshevik Central Committee minutes October 5 – 20th.] So bad was the party’s position during the 1917 that at one point Lenin threatened to resign from the party. Later the same year two of its senior party members (Zinoviev and Kamenev) where accused of blowing the whistle and publicly leaking the proposal to finally support the workers demands. This ‘strike breaking’ action (as Lenin called it) by party members did not actually cause too much of a problem. However, this was not because the Party skilfully manoeuvred, (although Trotsky was forced to do so at a soviet meeting) but because the mass of workers, soldiers and peasants were too committed to radical change and their capitalist orientated opponents were by now too weak to take advantage of the ’leak’.
e) The party committed crimes against humanity.
It is well known among anti-capitalists, or at least it should be, that atrocities were routinely committed by party members against party members, workers and peasants, during the period of Stalin’s ascendancy and control of the party. However, the myth continues among the anti-capitalist left, that this only occurred after Stalin took full control. Lenin, himself contradicts this myth in 1918.
“..not a single rogue (including those who shirk work) to be allowed to be at liberty, but kept in prison, or serve a sentence of compulsory labour of the hardest kind….In one place half a score of rich, a dozen rogues, half a dozen workers who shirk their work (in the manner of rowdies, the manner in which many compositors in Petrograd, particularly party print shops shirk their work) will be put in prison. In another they will be put to cleaning latrines. In a third place they will be provided with yellow tickets after they have served their time…In a fourth place one out of every ten idlers will be shot on the spot.” (Lenin. Complete works Volume 26. Page 414.)
This is not the only such statement from the pen of Lenin during the period of his almost hegemonic influence within the Soviet Union. Those with the motivation and literary resources can seek out these additional instances themselves. It is also too often the case that the Show Trials, tortures, murders and assassinations which became endemic in the fledgling Soviet Union have been judged to be due to the personal acts of Stalin. Such facile reasoning, allows those who idolise ‘the party’ (from Stalinists, to Leninists and Trotskyists) to absolve the party as a collective of any guilt. But that is a highly selective use of reasoning and sources, for as Lenin emphasised;
“The dictatorship of the proletariat does not fear any resort to compulsion and to the most severe, decisive and ruthless form of coercion by the state.” (Lenin. Works Volume 31 page 497.)
Of course we know that the ‘most ruthless form of coercion by the state‘, were practiced under the party regime of Stalin but he could only do so because the authority of Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders had previously legitimised the idea and the practice in the first place. However, it should also be remembered that it was ’the party’ members at all levels, who conducted the trials, were the delegates to the congresses which condemned, members of the jury who found guilt, jailors who mistreated, interrogators who tortured and journalists in the party newspapers which carried the stories. The Party’ with its Democratic Centralism ensured the obedience and complicity of even the most fainthearted. Other ‘leaders’ echoed Lenin and Trotsky‘s authoritarian line.
“Kirov, speaking in Leningrad to the active members of the party, said: ‘We shall be pitiless, and not only against the communists who engage in counter-revolutionary activity (that is to say, Opposition), but also those lacking in firmness in the factory and the villages and who fail to carry out the plan. Four hundred members of the party have already been sent to the Solovetski Islands.” (Victor Serge. From Lenin to Stalin, page 68.)
Trotsky writing during this period felt able to promote this general authoritarian attitude to workers in the following way.
“…we can have no way to socialism except by authoritative regulation……The labour state considers itself empowered to send every worker to the place where his work is necessary. And not one serious socialist will begin to deny to the labour state the right to lay its hand upon the worker who refuses to execute his labour duty.” (Trotsky. Terrorism and Communism. P 153.)
‘Laying its hand upon‘, of course is just a euphemism for arrest, imprisonment, and forced labour. The above statement, represents the promotion of crimes against humanity, for they threaten severe punishment, not for refusing to work, but for refusing to work where one is told. Not even capitalism, except in times of total war, does that to workers. The above notions by Trotsky and senior Bolsheviks, is worthy of an extreme feudal or fascist mentality. Between 1921 and 1933 the willingness to commit crimes against humanity was fully integrated into the high-ranking spheres, the middle ranks of the Bolshevik/Communist Party as well as operationally at the rank and file level. ‘The party‘, as a whole during this period, just ignored the crimes against fellow members and non-party workers or in some cases party members actually applauded the party‘s rigour. By the time the ‘left opposition’ developed, the ‘left’ terror had spread everywhere as one of its bulletins made clear.
“The peasants’ assemblies are being purged. A nearby soviet has just announced the expulsion of twenty poor peasants, some of whom are sincerely devoted to the regime. All are condemned as ’agents of the Kulaks’.” (Bulletin of the Left Opposition.)
Finally; ‘the party’ eliminated practically the whole of the 1917-1925 Central Committee members and many thousands of Bolshevik activists, all without serious opposition from ‘the party’ membership or its officials, who had simply learned during the period to be ’loyal’ to its leadership and follow the ‘party line‘.
f) Membership of the Party created miss-placed loyalty.
Of course, there was a transition between the status of ‘the party’ in 1917, from a relatively small group, whose leadership had to go into hiding, (Lenin returned through Germany) and whose rank and file were listened to and its papers read, but neither followed, and the party, as the ruling class in 1919 and beyond. This transition, from predominantly following the masses to absolutely controlling them, was recognised by some of the more thoughtful revolutionaries.
“Everything has changed, everything is changing, but it will require the perspective of time before we can precisely understand the realities. Too much attachment to the regime, too much love for the land, the country, the dead – too many great memories blind us all, more or less..” (Serge. ‘From Lenin to Stalin. Pathfinder. Page 58.)
After Lenin’s death and Stalin’s ascendancy, the fetishisation of ‘the party’ as the ‘sole instrument’ for post-capitalist construction, came into its own and miss-placed loyalty became unbounded. Even before the ‘Left Opposition fully emerged this characteristic became absolute as Zinoviev and Kamenev made clear as was their response.
“We must cling to the helm. This can only be done by supporting Stalin. We must not hesitate to pay him the price he demands.” (Zinoviev and Kamenev. Quoted in V. Serge. From Lenin to Stalin. Page 98.)
The price he demanded, as we know, was complicity in a level of brutality almost beyond imagination. This perversion of revolutionary loyalty allowed the party leaders to label other revolutionaries who disagreed, as reformists and anti-soviet plotters, to persecute them and others mercilessly, with hardly a murmur of complaint from those in ‘the party’ not directly involved. Yet even in the face of this persecution and executions, along with other abuses, the Left Opposition, who were also charged by the party heads with anti-soviet sentiments agreed to the following.
“Of course for us the question is not of revolution, but of reform in the party, and through it, in the state.” (Trotsky. Challenge of the Left Opposition‘. Pathfinder. Page 100. )
Excessive and idealised regard for ‘the party’ had turned revolutionaries, after their conquest of power – in their own words – into reformists. We can see how an obsessive regard, for the institution (‘The Party’) they had been members of and had struggled to build, held many of them back from internal dissent, external criticism and from breaking away from its increasingly counter-revolutionary development. Even when opposition to the disastrous direction Bolshevism had taken was fully perceived, the fetish persisted. Some of his comrades in the Left Opposition observed this in Trotsky.
“We were upset at the discovery that on several serious issues Trotsky, under the unfortunate influence of his Party patriotism, was grossly mistaken. At the time of Blumkin’s execution, a normal G.P.U. crime, he still defended this Inquisition on principle.” (Serge. Memoirs of a Revolutionary’. Pub.‘Writers and Readers’ page 260.)
It is perhaps not surprising that other members of the left opposition were upset at Trotsky’s unwillingness to confront the increasingly Jacobin terror-inflicting mentality of the Bolshevik leaders. Particularly for those who came across or remembered Trotsky’s 1902 analysis of the direction Bolshevism was even then already taking. For example he wrote;
“In the internal politics of the Party these methods lead, as we shall see below, to the party organisation ’substituting’ itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the central committee.” (Trotsky. Pamphlet. ’Our Political Tasks’. Page 77.)
How accurate a prediction of what transpired this is, only became horrifically apparent much later. We can see that far from the authoritarian substitution of party elite for the Party and the working class occurring with the ascendancy of Stalin, the tendency was already obvious to Trotsky in 1902. This was the logic of the path it was by then already treading. Trotsky’s 1902 insight into how Bolshevism might develop is remarkable and is perhaps the most accurate of those concerns expressed by other revolutionaries (often falsely labelled counter-revolutionary Mensheviks) around that period and later. How far the changed material circumstances of his life as a leading Commissar and Central Committee member of ‘the party‘, rather than his age, had changed his opinion, confirms the materialist conception that new experiences produce new ideas and not necessarily always the other way around. It is worth re-reading Trotsky’s 1902 and 1924 formulations and compare both views with what according to Trotsky’s later ‘History’ actually transpired.
We can see from the few extracts provided, that the concept of ‘The Party’ had become a fetish for some, a ‘belief’ system for others and a means of brutal dictatorial power and graft for others. ‘The party’ and the need for an infallible leadership became for many the analogue of a religious commitment – and sadly, for some it still is. No one exploited that already established fetish and/or belief system in necessity of ‘the party’ more than Stalin during his lifetime and in particular during the 1930’s show trials, where senior Bolsheviks were tortured, blackmailed, put on trial, sent to gulags and still ‘believed’ (many up to their untimely deaths) in the essential necessity of ‘the party‘ and their hope for its eventual redemptive transformation.
g) The Party even devastated its own ranks.
It has already been mentioned that during the fifteen days leading up to the October revolution a fierce struggle developed within the Bolshevik Central Committee. The minutes of the Central Committee from the 11th October to the 24th reveal an internecine war of words between a minority, represented by Kamenev and Zinoviev and the majority over whether there should be an imminent insurrection and a transfer of power. Yet despite their long commitment to the party and having, what they considered the best interests of the Party in mind, they were threatened with expulsion from the party, by Lenin.
Very early on those in control of ‘the party’ were able to use its apparatus along with its authority over other (by that time) fully subordinate institutions such as the soviets, the trade unions and co-operative movement, to utilise a form of exile presented as sideways promotion. Yoffe, Krassin, Ureviev, Kollontai, Rakovsky, Krestinsky, Lutovinov and Osinsky, among others, were assigned to posts abroad, where their disagreements would be muted by distance and they would be burdened with other responsibilities. Others were so dismayed by what was then happening in the party (and a few to what was happening to the working class) that they committed suicide. Here is reference to one notable example.
“My death is a protest against those who have led the party into a situation in which in no way react against shame and disgrace…” (Adolf Joffe. Quoted in Serge. Page 79.)
Later still, the party again turned against its most loyal and stalwart members no matter how long or how dedicated their membership had been.
“On 2 December, at the 15th Congress, expulsion orders were announced against every Trotskyist, Zinovievist, and members of Sapronov’s group. Thousands of arrests and deportations followed. In January 1938, Trotsky was exiled to Alma-Ata in central Asia…Blumkin was shot in 1929.” (Rousset. D. ’The legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution’. Page 123.)
A former Soviet president, Krushchev, using internal archive materials and his own memories, (‘Khrushchev Remembers’) was later to describe the degeneration of the party during the period he had been an active member. He remembered the show trials orchestrated by the party where senior and lower Bolsheviks publicly humiliated themselves and confessed to all manner of imaginary shortcomings and crimes.
“How could it be that people could confess to crimes they had not committed? In one way only – through the use of physical pressure, torture, leading to the loss of judgement and a state where they are no longer of sound mind, depriving them of human dignity.” (Khrushchev Remembers‘.)
So the terror inflicted against reluctant workers and peasants, non-party revolutionaries, such as the anarchists and others, was also turned against ‘party’ comrades who dared to criticise or refused to go where they were ordered.
h) The Party distorted post-capitalist theory and practice.
With a knowledge of how economic and social life, dominated as it is by capital, oppresses and exploit’s the working class, anti-capitalists need only ask themselves, what workers would not want in any post-capitalist society. However, it would seem that the Bolsheviks and ‘the party’ for the 20 or more years of its existence, had not even bothered to seriously ask this of themselves, let alone having asked workers and peasants. When Lenin caused the overturn of his own previous two-stage approach to the Russian situation (first a period of capitalism, then a socialist revolution) with his April Theses, there was confusion within the party and by this juncture, there was no understanding of what form a post-capitalist society might look like and little time to arrive at one. They simply ploughed ahead, making things up as they went along. Showing an amazing lack of understanding of Marx’s analysis and criticism of capitalist economics and his preliminary sketches of post-capitalism in Das Capital, the entire Bolshevik economic programme amounted to no more than what had been done before by ruling regimes – and was to be done again later by capitalist regimes when in trouble. That is to say they resorted to a programme of the nationalisation of assets, (eg land, industry, finance and human labour) ordered by government dictat.
For example, the decree, nationalising land was issued under the sole name of Lenin on the 26th October and a Declaration of Rights on the 15 November. The latter included a section on ‘workers control of industry’ and was issued under only two names – Lenin and Stalin. Given what both these ‘leaders’ subsequently advocated and then enforced this was a very dubious piece of rhetoric from on high. Every measure which followed, including the nationalisation of banks, was decided by only a handful of people and was linked to the notion of a centralised state structure, run by a ruling elite (five Bolsheviks in the Politbureau, and a small number in the Orgburo) and promulgated by decree. In other words, the new government comprised of a ruling oligarchy of even much smaller dimensions than under the nominal Court of the Czar. And the decrees from on high kept coming.
“1. Banking is hereby declared a monopoly of the state. 2. All existing private joint-stock banks and banking houses are merged with the state…” (Decree on Nationalisation of Banks. December 27 1917. Decrees. page 62.)
Consequently, every economic and political measure introduced by the Bolsheviks, from War Communism, through NEP and forcible Collectivisation, continued in this initially established hierarchical pattern. The state elite controlled, wages, prices, investment, production schedules, all (despite occasional rhetoric) without a hint of real workers control or even workers critical input. Here are a few more examples of Lenin’s views on post-capitalist economic and political structures which should be contrasted to those of Marx.
“We must combat the ideological discord and the unsound elements of the opposition who talk themselves into repudiating a ’militarisation of industry’ and not only appointments method, which has been the prevailing one up to now, but all ‘appointments’, that is in the last analysis repudiating the party’s leading role.” (Lenin. Complete Works Volume 32. page 50.)
Marx had repeatedly recommended that workers should rely upon themselves and decide how things should be run. Yet under the authority of ‘the party’ of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, workers were to be ordered about like soldiers, and were not allowed to elect their own delegates or organisers. In the ‘Class Struggles in France‘, based upon the actual working of the Paris Commune, Marx actually warned workers against the appointment method and advised them to refuse to utilise this form. So under the rule of ‘the party’, workers planning, control and self-activity, was replaced by oligarchic manipulation, arbitrary decree, misunderstood party ’positions’ and abstract slogans. And;
“..after three years since the October revolution….there are still very deep misunderstandings in relation to our most widespread and most frequently used positions and slogans.” (Lenin, during a speech to the ’All Russian Congress of Transport. 1921.)
The ‘politics’ of the party elite ruled everything – internally and externally. Interestingly, Marx had not neglected to warn against the limitations of the political mind and the limitations of politics in any post-capitalist formation, but the Bolsheviks apparently had failed to even consider this possibility.
“Where political parties exist, each party sees the root of every evil in the fact that instead of itself an opposing party stands at the helm of the state. Even radical and revolutionary politicians seek the root of the evil not in the essential nature of the state, but in the definite state form, which they wish to replace by a different state form.” (Marx. Collected Works Volume 3. page 197.)
Yet Lenin, was able to state repeatedly – without challenge from within this ‘amazing’ party – the following;
“Yes it is a dictatorship of one Party. This is what we stand for and we shall not shift from that position.” (Lenin. Complete Works Volume 29. page 535.)
In other words, the workers having carried through the bulk of the revolution, with little or no help from the party, were then ordered back to work whilst the party fought for, and achieved, its own sectarian dictatorship. As Lenin made clear on a number of occasions, his version of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was not a dictatorship of collectives of workers, but of one party and a party which, by the admission of its own members, was descending into an absolute, self-destructive mess. Of course, with the above noted proto-fascist ideas of state control of everything, the mess was only bound to get worse. Yet despite this bureaucratic top-down mess, this is exactly what Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and the entire party leadership continued to ‘believe’ was ultimately in the best interests of the working class and peasants! And the party members, not accustomed to, or educated for anything else, duly acquiesced! Not surprisingly, this authoritarian, Jacobin attitude to politics was carried over into the economic field.
“When the state is at the same time an organ which rules the country and the master of a huge economic complex, issues paper money directly serves as a channel for socialist accumulation.(E. Preobrazhensky. ‘The New Economics’ page 91. Emphasis added. RR)
The party, avowedly ’Marxist’, allowed and sanctioned such economic theory to be promoted when it was in blatant contradiction with Marx’s position on workers self-activity, the end of forced surplus value extraction and end of the wages system in any post-capitalist economic construction. The Bolshevik party elite used convoluted economic theory to baffle workers, to create an elite of planners, organisers and economists, to force surplus labour out of workers and to accumulate surplus value in their own hands. They did this using a top-down exploitative industrial, commercial and financial model and enforced this by use of party police and military forms of terror.
It would seem that Preobrazhensky’s ‘New Economics’ conviction that the ‘law of value’ applied to capitalist should also apply to post-capitalist economic activity, was as mistaken as that of Karl Kautsky’s and other socialists who had also not fully understood Marx on this and other important questions. But the real indictment is that their thoughtlessness and ignorance was self-inflicted, for this knowledge was actually in the public domain – at least in that of a number of other revolutionaries. Rosa Luxemburg, the revolutionary anti-capitalist, eventually murdered by agents of the German state, reminded those who cared to listen that;
“The struggle for socialism has to be fought out by the masses, by the masses alone, ……The thoughtless had a very different picture of the course of affairs. They imagined it would merely be necessary to overthrow the old government, to set up a socialist government at the head of affairs, and the inaugurate socialism by decree….Socialism will not be and cannot be inaugurated by decrees; it cannot be established by any government however admirably socialistic. Socialism must be created by the masses, must be made by every proletarian. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must the chains be broken.” (Rosa Luxemburg Speaks. Pathfinder. Page 572. Emphasis added. RR.)
The Party was from the outset a hierarchical form of organisation and this seemed natural and unavoidable to the intellectuals within it, for they considered intellectual production a superior form of labour to manual. When Lenin idealistically declared in 1903 ‘without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’ he merely voiced a commonly accepted Bolshevik assumption. Although there is a continuing dialectical process between theory and practice, it would be more accurate to say without a revolutionary class and its movement, there can be no revolutionary theory. The above formulation by Lenin was therefore idealist and this idealism was proved by events as they unfolded. Going further we can now add that, from the standpoint of the working and oppressed classes, without a thorough analysis and evaluation of actual revolutions there can be no development of revolutionary theory or practice, because both remain trapped in a fossilised state, passed down on tablets of stone. And this also goes for ‘the party’.
However, there was also another problem. For many poorly educated workers and peasants at the time, a hierarchical leadership also seemed natural. Many of them through a lack of confidence, undoubtedly sought to replace brutal masters with kind ones. Having developed soviets, risked their lives, and experienced untold hardships, they were told by the Bolsheviks, what they had been previously told by their feudal masters. That they were uncultured and were just not capable of running their own affairs. This double assumption was an important part of the practical and ideological way the leadership of a hierarchical Bolshevik party secured their totalitarian rule over the membership prior to the revolution and over the entire working and peasant classes of the Soviet Union after it. The party was the organisational means and mechanism of achieving totalitarian rule over the country, by a section of the party elite, led initially by Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Sverdlov, and later Stalin. The contempt for workers control and self-activity is also manifest in a reprimand contained within a set of instructions to Soviets.
“Obedience during work, and unquestioning obedience at that, to the one-man decisions of the Soviet directors, elected or appointed by Soviet institutions and vested with dictatorial powers (as is demanded, for example, by the railway decree), is far from being guaranteed as yet.” (Instructions to all Soviets. May 4 1918. In ‘First Decrees of Soviet Power. Yuri Akhapkin. Page 135.)
i) The party was quite easily Infiltrated.
It is well known that at least one Czarist police agent had infiltrated the Bolshevik Central Committee and had taken information of plans and proposed activities to the secret service. Infiltration at this level, is a serious problem, because the very centralisation of a party organisation makes it easier for class enemies to gather reliable data and documents from within the ‘nerve’ centre of the party itself. Such ’intelligence’ gathering was used for the exposure of activist workers, lower level party members and to arrest and imprison them. Such infiltration of class enemies within the party occurred not only at the central level, but at a local level also. On Trotsky’s own admission, for example, it was the case that;
“…out of seven members of the Petersburg committee of the party, three, on the eve of the war, were in the employ of the secret service.” (Trotsky. The History of the Russian Revolution. Page 59.)
Of course this vulnerability to infiltration and arrest is not sufficient reason to abandon forms of organisation. Organisation is an essential pre-requisite for struggle against oppressive regimes and cannot be abandoned. In this sense organisational forms are indispensable. However, recognising this and other potentially fatal weakness of the party does mean that absolute reliance upon one form should be examined and if problematic avoided. This would seem a particularly relevant caution, where parties are reliant upon an elite of intellectuals or leaders. This is because, even, when not arrested or deported, the latter, in the case of the majority of Bolsheviks, were not always up to the job they so avidly aspired to. Not just my opinion, but also Trotsky’s.
“One could write an instructive chapter on the leadership of the Leninists without Lenin…When they happened to be separated from Lenin at critical moments, they amazed one by their utter helplessness. (Trotsky. ’My Life’. Pelican. Page 181.)
The reliance of a party on a small coterie of leaders makes it unnecessarily vulnerable to being helpless and rudderless at crucial times if reaction should choose to compromise, remove or even eliminate the leadership. In the extract above, Trotsky was referring to such individuals as Bukharin, Rykov, Zinoviev, Kamenov and Stalin, who despite Trotsky’s low opinion of them, were still able to use the party apparatus and rank and file naivety to outmanoeuvre him and the Left Opposition in the party struggles shortly before and after Lenin’s death. All the above evidence suggests there are some fundamental problems and considerable flaws in the concept and practice of a disciplined revolutionary party. It is therefore worth briefly considering a general critique of organisational forms from a study done in Europe.
j) Fundamental contradictions in forms of organisation.
Organisation is undoubtedly necessary. It is necessary, both because it is the only way individuals can combine their efforts and become strong enough to overcome an opposing force, but also because humans are a gregarious species. However, we can see, that (as in other realms) it is not a dualistic question of either organisation or no organisation, but of what kind of organisation. We have seen what happened to the disciplined organisation of professional revolutionaries based upon the ‘leadership principle’ fought for by Lenin in ‘What is to be Done’ and achieved by him and his co-thinkers over a period of twenty years.
To sum up so far. The hierarchical principle first of all left the rank and file members reliant upon the ‘leadership’ of the party. This was a leadership, which in their own words, were – for the most part – not up to appropriately leading or facilitating anything of consistent benefit to workers outside of the Military Revolutionary Committee for the month of October 1917. Secondly, the same hierarchical principle and reliance on leaders mitigated against the party rank and file being at one with the revolutionary masses – on the orders of ‘the party’ many remained separate, aloof and often marching to a different tune than that desired by the masses. The loyalty, demanded and achieved by the party also prevented effective criticism, enabled a veil of silence and an attitude of denial in the face of serious wrong-doings and crimes against humanity.
According to Sukhanov, Zinoviev, Lenin and Trotsky the Bolshevik Party invariably trailed behind the masses, in every uprising which challenged the authority of the Czar and later the Duma. From the testimony of Serge, Sukhanov, Lenin and Trotsky at crucial times ‘the party’ became something of an obstacle to revolutionary developments and its members tried to prevent mass actions taking place or sabotage planned ones. On the admission of Lenin and Trotsky, Molotov and others the masses were more often than not in advance of the Bolsheviks and led the party, rather than being led by it. After the conquest of power, the Party conducted a ruthless war against any opinion other than Lenin’s and later Stalin’s. As was theoretically predicted by Trotsky in 1903 and verified from sociological studies by Mitchels in 1915. This was a war which did not stop at words for ‘the party’ conducted an intellectual and physical war against workers, peasants, soldiers and internal critics.
All this was achieved under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership with very little effective opposition from within ‘the party‘. Later, under the leadership of Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, the party with enthusiastic support of its members allowed the torture and murder of members and contacts, who did not agree with Stalin or his policies. Through misplaced loyalty the vast majority of member at all levels, turned a blind-eye to and/or perpetrated atrocities against dissidents within and without the party. Even its most talented members, whilst claiming to be Marxists, failed to understand the essence of Marx’s (1844) humanist value system and failed to fully understand his (1857-1867) economic analysis. But as we have read, they did know how to silence those, who inside or outside the party, opposed their views. Again this should have come as no surprise for an analysis of the tendency of oligarchy within workers organisations had already been extensively made.
“The leaders, those who already hold the power of the party in their hands, make no concealment of their natural inclination to control as strictly as possible the freedom of speech of those of their colleagues from whom they differ. The consequence is that those in office are great zealots for discipline and subordination, declaring that these qualities are indispensable to the very existence of the party.” (Mitchels. R. Political Parties. Page 177.)
“Thus democracy ends by undergoing a transformation into a form of government by the best, into an aristocracy. ….the leaders are those who must be regarded as the most capable…(Mitchels page 114.)
“It is organisation which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators. Who says organisation says oligarchy.” (Mitchels. …ibid.)
This general sociological analysis, drawn from the experience of European workers parties and unions, was available to the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, but seemed not to have been treated too seriously. Bukharin, brushed it aside with the pious hope that in the future ‘the incompetence of the masses’ will be overcome and will therefore ‘nullify the stability of the ruling groups‘. This was essentially the same idealistic idea as one briefly suggested by Lenin, that the masses, should check and approve the work of ‘the party’. As if the workers would have the time or inclination to intellectually check and evaluate the party. Note well in this precis of the rebuttal of Mitchels, Bukharin (a ‘Party’ leader) as with Lenin, accepts the notion of the ‘incompetence of the masses’ (despite their leading role in the revolution) and accepts that the future society will have ‘ruling groups’ and ‘a ruling party’ who will need to be ‘nullified‘ and monitored.
k) So why does the myth of party brilliance and necessity persist?
The myth of the necessity and the success of Bolshevik party in all aspects of the revolution continues in the 21st century among many revolutionary anti-capitalists. Yet we have seen by the admission of some of the Bolshevik party members themselves, (with most observations coming from Trotsky himself) that in the mid to late 20th century, before, during and after a revolutionary overthrow, that its role was certainly far from brilliant. Instead we have had passed down to us an exaggerated view of its role and function. This deliberate embellishment has created a miss-placed loyalty and caused serious deformities which then and now haunt the anti-capitalist and post-capitalist project. Subsequent events, (such as the role of the ‘party’ in 1930’s Germany which helped divide the opposition to the Nazis and the boycotting of barricades during the 1968 uprising in Paris, to name just a few examples) confirm the problematic attached to a fetishisation of ‘the party‘. And of course the present pattern of dogmatic micro-sects that even in the midst of another huge crisis of capitalism cannot lead themselves out of the ruts of their own sectarianism, let alone lead anyone else, confirms this problem.
The idealised notion of ‘the party’ for many on the revolutionary anti-capitalist left has been largely separated out from the actual historical record of ‘the party’. In this way it has become an ideological construct devoid of connection with the reality as it unfolded and as it continues to unfold. Such an idealisation of ’the party’ that ‘could be‘, or ‘should be’ has far too many anti-capitalists chasing a dream or fantasy form of a future re-created party organisation rather than creating an alternative organisation now which is non-elitist, non-sectarian, non-dogmatic, ruthlessly critical and self-critical. But if this alternative, more sober evidence exists from within the archives of Leninism and Trotskyism, why has this ideology and idealisation of ‘The Party’ occurred and persisted?
It is only possible to conclude that an important ingredient in this process was a lack of knowledge of the theory and practice of anti-capitalism and revolution among far too many members of the party. The leadership, Lenin, Trotsky, Rakovsky, Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinnoviev, Stalin etc., seemed to be highly informed concerning many key aspects of Marx’s works, but woefully ignorant of the central importance of others. Despite occasional rhetoric, this ignorance or arrogant assumption of sufficient prior knowledge, seems to be particularly the case with regard to the importance and necessity of the self-activity of the workers and peasants, the abolition of the ’state’ and in the necessary economic form of post-capitalism. In the latter case the abolition of the system of wage labour and the elimination of the exchange value element in the production of useful items and services, (both advocated repeatedly by Marx) seemed to be completely out of consideration by the party in 1917.
It could be of course, that the primary concerns of the Bolshevik intellectual elite, mainly drawn from the middle-classes, were not, and could not be, the same as those of workers and peasants of the soviet union. The undoubted hegemonic domination of middle-class intellectuals in writing the histories of the Russian Revolution and in the transmission of the lessons of 1905 – 1917 by subsequent generations of intellectuals, would also seem to have skewed the version of the party which has been passed down. This fetishised historical version is perhaps unwittingly perpetuated, by the fact that a certain form of intellectual production still dominates existing anti-capitalist ranks and the writings of the original Bolsheviks are still among the few ’recommended’ primers for all new anti-capitalists. A view from the perspective of the working and oppressed classes and by the working class has been largely absent or assumed to be the same as that from the middle classes. Where working class views and opinions do appear they still tend to be overlooked or ignored.
In the case of the Bolsheviks, as with many other left groups at the time, many in the middle and lower ranks (ie elevated workers and peasants) relied almost entirely on the ‘leadership’ of the party for what they thought, what they did and how they did it. The difficulty and desirability of education beyond the basic was thus avoided – to the relief of many and to the consequently enhanced ego status of the intellectuals in the party. How much this difficulty (“the fatiguing climb” as Marx described it) remains a barrier in the 21st century is an interesting and perhaps revealing question. However, given the current sectarian and dogmatic fragmentation of the left, along with the continued fetishisation of the party, it would seem wiser to assume it still is the case than assume it is not.
A failure to seriously listen to workers, other revolutionaries and seriously study other revolutions, from the stand-point of the working and oppressed majority, could be considered a substantial part of the ongoing problem for revolutionary anti-capitalists. Of course, if all revolutionary anti-capitalists are diligent readers, self-critical activists and if our present level of understanding is at a sufficient level to assist the necessary unity in the coming struggles of the working class, then all is well. If not, then we have a problem. Sadly it seems we do have a problem for it is the case that some people do not want alternative evidence to get in the way of a prejudice or a treasured belief in the unassailable necessity of a disciplined, centralised, revolutionary anti-capitalist party.
Finally. Organisation is necessary, but a hierarchical, centralist organisation in theory and practice has not only been shown to be a repeated failure, but has proved to be a disastrous liability in any post-capitalist reconstruction. The evidence suggests Bolshevism, was a divisive Jacobin instrument before the revolution and a divisive instrument of elitist rule after it. There is undoubtedly a need for revolutionary anti-capitalists to organise, co-ordinate, to share information, to collaborate and work together, but not on the basis of sectarian, elitist pretensions, practices and half-baked ideology with the resultant elitist ‘party’ separation from the working and oppressed classes. Revolutionary anti-capitalists should, collaborate and educate themselves to a high level in order to be critical and self-critical ‘facilitators’ of working class unity and struggle.
At each stage anti-capitalists should point out the limited nature of struggles which confine themselves to defending or extending conditions within the capitalist system and argue for the need to go beyond it. Our role is not to become active ‘leaders’ which by definition requires relative or absolute passive and obedient followers, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks acheived, but to use our energies to be an integral ‘advisory’ or ‘facilitative’ part of the revolutionary changes necessary to end the rule of capital.
R. Ratcliffe. (February 2012.)