another look at the organisation question – communist bulletin group

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.  We are not republishing this article, however, for what it says about intra-left debate (the criticisms may or may not have been valid for all we know).  However, the criticisms raised will be familiar to many who have adopted dissident positions within any of the major revolutionary left organisations.

The first objective of the article is to show that the Bolsheviks were far more tolerant and pluralist in their internal politics (during the years when open revolutionary activity was possible) than is commonly supposed; a fact which can be confirmed in detail by Alexander Rabinbowitch’s books Prelude to Revolution and The Bolsheviks Come to Power.  They were clearly substantially more libertarian, for example, than the contemporary Socialist Workers Party, who justify their organisational authoritarianism with reference to the Bolsheviks.  The article shows how strong centralising trends sat side by side with strong decentralising trends, themselves a product of the real immersion of the Bolsheviks in the life and struggles of the working class.  While criticising the monolithism on which so many organisations rely today, the text is nonetheless concludes by advocating a “centralised” party: though the careful reader will be aware that not all conceptions of centralism are identical, and many are – from the classical Trotskyist point of view – positively decentralised.

Joe Thorne

Another Look at the Organisation Question


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 accidental…it 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 ….it 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.


30 thoughts on “another look at the organisation question – communist bulletin group

  1. The History of the Bolshevik party is not simply a history of Correct political leadership,top down centralism and iron discipline for the party members. That is a myth as the events of 1905 and 1917 demonstrated. But it is a myth Lenin helped to create. In “left wing communism an infantile disorder” Lenin put the Historical success of the Bolsheviks down to the correctness of political leadership, centralism and discipline. But that was what Bolshevism came to represent in the soviet Union and in the third international before Lenins death..

    In that sense there is a continuety with the Bolshevism of 1903/4 and 1907/12.For Lenin the values of correct political leadership, centralism and discipline for the membership were enduring. Organisational Democracy was seen as a luxury or valued in an instrumental sense. It could be dispensed with.

    Now it could be argued that the top down centralism was a function of the circumstances of an autocratic regime and were common to all factions of social democracy in 1903/04 and 1907/12. This is true,but lenin made a virtue of it. In any case top down centralism has not always been the best way to organise in conditions of dictatorship or lack of democracy. if the centre is penetrated as the bolshevik centre was by Malinovsky, this could lead to serious or even fatal consequences for an organisation.

    Also it is not possible to explain the unconstitutional expulsion of Bogdanov from the Bolshevik faction in 1909 by the pressure of circumstances. Nor is it possible to explain why Lenin could denounce trotsky as an ultra left wind bag and worse when he had not read the theory of permanent revolution or did not refer to it.Freedom of expression and factional or minorty rights and not simply a fuction of circumstances.

    Lenin did stand for minority rights in 1906 when the Bolsheviks were in a minority in the unified Russian social democratic labour party. In this period he defined democratic centralism as freedom of discussion then unity in action. who would decide when discussion or criticism ended and action began. Not the majority or the mensheviks on the unified party central committee,but the party congress. This gave the Bolsheviks freedom to criticise the menshevik majorty leadership.

    Lenins record on minority rights 1907/12 was not impressive. Lenins expulsion of Bogdanov from the Bolsheviks for tactical differences in 1909 was justified on the spurious grounds that although the Bolsheviks were building the party and acting as a party there could be no tactical differences since a faction needed full agreement on tactics as well as strategy. That is the leaders line had to be followed. This resurfaced in 1921 when Lenins faction was back in control of the party organisation.

    The congress or conference which founded Bolshevism as a separate party, apart from being undemocratically organised, did not represent a break from Opportunism. It was not a pure revolutionary vanguard. All the opportunist leaders of 1917 were present. Stalin,zinoviev, and kamenev. These were Lenins YES men. They are often called committee men as if they had no connection with Lenins party building methods. Again how would you explain the promotion and co option of stalin to the leadership by Lenin against the wishes of the members as a fuction of circumstances?

    Lenin also promoted Stalin following 1917. At one point he was giving stalin numerous positions to keep out his critics from key positions as piatikov observed. The Trade union debate was set up to put the old leninist faction back in charge. The ban on party factions in 1921 was not an aberration. How can these undemocratic methods be justified by reference to economic backwardness? After the revolution Lenin gave too little respect to workers democracy.

    when trotsky Joined the Bolsheviks in July 1917, he did so by declaring that the Bolshevik party had become debolshevised. The Bolsheviks success in 1917 had little to do with strict centralism and iron discipline in the Bolshevik party which hardly existed. The Tiny Bolshevik centre was overwhelmed by the mass influx of new members. These new members valued their autonomy and acting independent of any orders from above. There was mass grass roots freedom from below. The strength of the Bolseviks was not in iron discipline but in political exremism in the desire for revolution. famously stalin demanded that a party committee in petrograd follow the instructions of the central committee without question. He was told where to put his instruction.

    To put the lack of democracy in Bolshevism simply down to isolation and economic backwardness does not explain why the counter revolution originated in the top down centralism and the party elite following 1917. Lenins state and revolution had no bearing on pre 1917 Bolshevism or the Leninism after 1917.Lenin came to define democratic centralism as the congress chooses the leaders and the leaders lead and the membership follow instructions from the top. But when the leaders organise the composition of the congress and are in control between congresses centralism is not democratic.


  2. Fair points, but it remains the case that the Bolshevik Party, albeit with the addition of key supporters like Trotsky, remains the only revolutionary party to have carried out the socialist revolution. Lenin built that party and the positive lessons from that history need to be learnt. Trotsky’s record on party building was not great in comparison after all.
    Its also easy to understand Trotsky’s reluctance or inability to have a rounded critique of the early period of Bolshevism in power, he was concerned to emphasise the qualitative difference between it and Stalinism and as a personal participant was probably too close to the action to stand apart from it all.
    The essence of the error seems to me to point to the objective circumstances of the degeneration, isolation, poverty, civil war etc. and then to separate them from the people who carried out the actions which flowed from those circumstances, that is particularly the leadership of the party and the army, i.e. Lenin and Trotsky. By the same token one could put the revolution down to objective circumstances, feudalism, tsarism, war etc. but on the up side people do not usually discount the role of the individual i.e. Lenin and Trotsky.
    That is not to say any one could have done different or better, certainly no one did, but it is to say that we should look at the political lessons of that period and how they shaped subsequent organisation and politics after it, that is hyper centralism, rudeness, intolerance of opposition and lack of democracy etc.


  3. OK, lets look Historically at the party Lenin Built.

    After the second congress Lenin was alone. well briefly he had Plekhanov on his side, but Plekhanov deserted him. There was no fundamental political difference in the split, not was it a split between revolutionaries and reformists or opportunists and revolutionaists.

    On Lenins side was Plekhanov who was to become the most right wing leader in the RSDLP. He denounced the revolution of 1905 and in particular the moscow insurrection of the Bolsheviks and famously denounced the revolution of 1917. Against Lenin on the other side of the split was Trotsky the practical leader of the revolution in 1905/17.

    As for the party rules on membership there was no fundamental significance since the Mensheviks accepted Lenins version of the rules in 1906 at the unity congress of the RSDLP.

    As for the political differnces 1903/4, “what is to be done and one step forward 1904 were shown to be wrong and hopelessly schematic in the revolutionary events of 1905. The Bolsheviks and Lenins new comrades Bogdanov and lunacharky found themself s isolated by trying to apply the schema of WITBD. Workers had spontaneously gone beyond trade union consciousness in Russia not only in 1905 but before that and in Britain (chartism)

    In the reactionary period following the defeat of the 1905 revolution 1907/12 the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP was really established. This was when the Bolshevik leadership was established: kamenev Zinoviev and stalin. This was the party or sect Lenin Built. This was the leadershp of 1912 when the party was formed or declared. Stalin was co opted against the wishes of the congress of 1912.

    As you know all the old Bolshevik leadership from this period with the exception of Lenin were luke warm to the revolution in 1917 or opposed it. kamenev, zinoviev, Radek,Tomsky. All the old Bolsheviks or the party lenin built. They were as Trotsky said Democrats with marxist leanings. Well he said that about the Iskrists in 1902. He called them simply democrats in 1917.

    So in 1917 lenin had to accept into the leadership of the Bolshevik party all the ultra left wind bags and unreliable Bolsheviks like Bukharin who he had previously denouced as a semi anachist ( Bukharin rediscovered the Commune state ) and hundreds of thousands of grass roots activists. Not the party Lenin built.


  4. There is tendency in the western left, and historians to identify the history of Bolshevism with that of Lenin and Leninism. It is myth. In Soviet history this dates from Stalin’s efforts after 1924 to defeat the Left Opposition and legitimise his own polices. During the 1920’s this Stalinist view of the Russian Communist Party and its origins did not go unchallenged. Bukharin argued in 1925 the RKP(Bolsheviks) were a “negotiated federation between groups, groupings and tendencies”, Lunacharsky argued in 1926 the ‘left-communism’ of 1918-21 was an endemic tendency in Bolshevism. By the late 1920s communist historians began to completely reconsider Lenins place in the history of Bolshevism and in 1931 Stalin intervened to prohibit such research into the past and discussion of Lenin’s role the wider aspects of thought in Bolshevism. It was the start of ‘Partiinost’ where history became a source of legitimacy for the regime.

    Considering this and comments above we can do well to stear clear such myths of the history of Bolshevism and Lenin. Bolshevism as a faction/party changed and was changed in numerous occassions and later transformed into its opposite. Lenin was never a god-head within Bolshevism in his own lifetime, indeed during the civil war, after the introduction of War Communism, there was still more freedom, more diversity of opinion inside Bolshevism with all its restriction and centralism than exists today in the CPB, SPEW and SWP in the UK!

    Lenin also changed his views constantly, unlike his epigones of today. Of particular value which is completely ignored in all the above is his reorganisation of his thought in 1914-1917 – that his engagement with Hegelian dialectics. Which underpinns his best works on State and Revolution, Imperialism and aspects of national liberation. Bukharin as Gramsci pointed out an adherent of to very wooden and mechanistic point of view. Bukharin failed to appreciate the importance of national liberation struggles in the epoch of imperialism, which proved a disasterous policy when implemented by his supporters in Ukraine in 1917-1919! Often in direct opposition to Lenin. Lenin’s Hegel studies were unique in this period. It is of significant importance in terms of his approach to the revolutionary process which unfolded in 1917.


  5. Well that’s obviously one sided. No one else built a party now did they? Not Trotsky, not Plekhanov, not Bukharin, not Martov – well he did but it was counter revolutionary so not so hot?
    There is obviously a relationship between the Bolsheviks pre and post revolution, they were after all lead by the same people, but the historical context was fundamentally different. One was a party of revolution, albeit flawed, one was a party of government albeit very flawed.
    By asserting that we need to learn from what was positive about the pre-revolutionary Bolshevik party I wasn’t suggesting that we be uncritical, but that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. That also means being far more critical of the post-revolutionary period and the degenerate organisation the Bolsheviks had become from in my opinion, the banning of factions on. A proposal which was of course chiefly advocated by Lenin and supported by Trotsky.


  6. The identification of Lenin with Bolshevism does not begin with Stalin and the left opposition. That is just post 1917 Trotskyist mythology. Bolshevism a negotiated federation of Groups! 1903/4? 1907/12? 1916 ? 1921!!

    In 1909 there was no room for Lunacharsky who was denounced as a god builder for writing about religious alienation. there could only be one tactical line at this period and that was Lenins.

    In 1917 the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP did in a sense became a federation of leadership groups following the mass influx of workers and failure of the leadership faction Lenin built in the revolution. But the Lenin leadership Faction regained control and this was consolidated by the ban on factions or rather the ban on none leninist factions.

    Pre 1917 Trotsky did identify Bolshevism with Lenin and a lack of democracy or toleration for rival leaders.

    i will return to this when I have got more time.


  7. It is true that this did not all start after 1924. By 1924 the USSR had already degenerated according to Trotsky. The myth of Leninism was created by Zinoviev/Stalin from 1921 onwards, it consolidated the hold of the apparatus over the party and state and ensured that the collapse of democracy within it was astonishingly rapid. By the end of 1923 it was pretty well all over.
    I don’t buy this idea that Lenin radically changed his philosophy in WWI. Sure he studied Hegel, but he had done that before too. IMO Materialism and Empirio Criticism remains an excellent work. Its also wrong to look at the debates around these issues through the prism of Lenin. Bukharin’s contribution on the state was ground breaking and brilliant. He was essentially responsible for all of the theoretical innovations Lenin built into State and Revolution – positions which Lenin had abandoned by around a year later. He disagreed with Lenin on self determination, he wasn’t the only one. And the disputes around it were not really resolved even through the course of the civil war. Lenin intervened in the Ukraine to crush opposition in much the same way that Stalin did in Georgia.
    But all of this does not alter the fact that the Bolsheviks were the only mass revolutionary party to take power ever. And that Lenin centrally contributed to building them. That is why we must not lose this legacy in the rush to criticise the post-revolutionary record of the Bolsheviks which was ultimately framed by an astonishingly adverse set of material circumstances.


  8. yes I agree Zinovioev and stalin created the myth of Leninsm. But the Historical problem was this: Trotsky became trapped in the cult of Lenin. Trotsky argued that he was the best Leninist after Lenin. Stalin Zinoviev and kamenev had never understood Lenin. Whereas, Trotsky, as he claimed in the Lessons of october -1924, had been the only comrade who understood Lenin. But lenin left himself vulnerable to the charge that he had never been an old Bolshevik Leninist. Stalin kamenev and Zinoviev were old Bolsheviks and historically Trotsky was not.

    On the subject of philosophy It was significant that Lenin broke with the crude materialism of Plekhanov and the second international in the philosophical notebooks.


  9. So you say. Personally I don’t think Plekhanov’s materialism was crude. In fact I think it was pretty spot on. After all it trained a whole generation of Marxists including of course, Lenin and Trotksy.
    Trotsky didn’t have a clear position on the degeneration of the Russian revolution and his opposition was inchoate and incoherent at times, that’s clear, and certainly a reason for revaluating the Trotksyist legacy, but things were by no means clear at the time or indeed subsequently and I don’t think he can be blamed for that.


  10. Lenin did think Plekhanov was spot on in 1908. In turn Plekhanov thought Engels was spot on. Marxist philosophy was seen to be about two great camps materialism verses idealism,ideas were the copy of the material world. But this was not the view of marx who did not accept this kind of mechanical materialism. For Marx there was an interation between materialism and idealism or the subjective and objective. Marx rejected Feuerbachs materialism. His treatment of it was different than the view of Engels. As Engels wrote he was less talented than Marx.

    Lenins rediscovery of the importance of idealism or subjectivity in the Philosophical notebooks led him to conclude that Plekhanov had not got it spot on. In his private notbooks in, I think 1922, he said Plekhanov had botched Marxist philosophy. Lenins polemic with Bogdanov in 1908 is no closer to Marx than Bogdanov and it might have been better for Lenin to have stuck to party or organiational Neutrality on philosophical issues which had been the line from 1903 until 1908.

    On the issue of only Lenin built the party it should be remembered that the party from 1903 until 1917 was the Russian Social Democratic Labour party. Whatever their pretentions to be the party for the years up to 1917 they were a faction of a wider second international party. Even in 1917 the title of the party was SDLP and in brackets (Bolsheviks) the Bolsheviks fed off a wider movement rather than standing alone.

    In 1903 to 1905 lenin built a small sect on the false schemas of what Is to be Done and one Step Forward two steps back. This sect guided by lenins theory were left behind by the events of 1905. The mensheviks did build the party in 1905 and for a period were influenced by Trotskys theory of permanent revolution. Lenin reorganised the Bolsheviks by abandoning What is to be done and one step forward but not quite rejecting his historical two stage theory of first the Bourgeois revolution then the socialist revolution which had been inspired by Plekhanovs evolutionism.

    But he organised from afar and it has to be said from safety. It took him ten months to return from exile and his role in the soviets was minor compared with Parvus and Trotsky. Trotsky in his notebooks from exile expressed puzzlement about lenins lack of practical involvement in the Moscow insurrection. But lenin had always admired the role of the leaders of German social democracy when the leaders kept continuety of the movement during the police outlawing of the party.

    The organisation strengh of the Mensheviks was the basis of the coming together of the factions in 1906. But once the period of reaction set in the RSDLP split up into factions again. Lenins who had been taught political arrogance and rudeness by Plekhanov then excelled in building a nasty sectarian little grouping with the help of Stalin and Zinoviev. They excelled in false abusive polemics.while it was possible to have a block with the most right wing theorist of the RSDLP Plekhanov who had denounced the Moscow insurrection of 1905 and the Bolshevik fighters,there could be no unity with Lunacharsky and Trotsky the future practical leaders of the Russian revolution.

    Again in february 1917 the Bolseviks,the faction Lenin built, were all at sea and trying to fight the bourgeois revolution. The mensheviks were organisationally strong with their focus on soviets or workers parliaments. This was why there was dual power and not power. Lenin once again jettisoned his previous Mistaken theory on the nature of the revolution and won motions to bolshevik conferences for a perspective of workers power although their was a lot of confusion about the three whales of Bolshevim, the minimum programme. Most of the leadership Lenin buit were still not convinced by the perspective of socialist revolution.

    Lenin had to turn to Trotsky lunacharsky and others he had denouced as useless to the revolution. Trotsky had built somthing and the leaders from the inter district group played the key role in the practical organisation of the revolution in Petrograd. The other key group were in moscow led by Bukharin. Lenin had not built Bukharins ideas and he had regarded Bukharin as unorthodox and ultra left. It was not a question of what lenin had built but the fact that lenin and Trotsky expressed the creativity of the masses and their desire for workers power in 1917.

    Whatever lenin built he had not built anything in the conditions of a modern Bourgeois democracy.


  11. Lenin’s opinion on philosophy is of course interesting. But not a reason for me to change my mind in and of itself, I’m sure you would agree.
    The criticisms of Plekhanov are IMO a product of post-Althusser which try to abandon the economic basis of Marxism on the grounds that it was “crude” or “mechanical” of “economistic”.
    Incidentally your division between materialism and idealism is wrong. Materialism includes ideas within it, but says that they are corporeal, a product of matter. Humans create god. Idealism says its the other way around.
    The issue of agency, the subjective impact of the individual is of course germane to this discussion. Lenin and Trotsky are credited with their individual contribution to the overthrow of capitalism and the revolution of 1917, but then are absolved of their individual contribution to its decline, which is attributed to “objective” factors. Of course in both cases it was the interaction between the individual and the objective which was important, but that was true on the way down as well as on the way up.
    Trotsky writing about dialectics in the late 1930s says that a does not equal a. Counter posing this to what he said was the formal logic of a equals a. This was his rationalisation for the reason why the syllogism Lenin created the apparatus, the apparatus created Stalin, therefore Lenin created Stalin was wrong. In fact if we’re being dialectal it is more accurate to say, Lenin did and did not create Stalin. A equals A and does not equal A at the same time.
    I think its fair to criticise Lenin before 1917, but while these criticisms are linked to post 1917, the context is quite different. One was a revolutionary trying to take power, one was a ruler trying to retain power.
    BTW you’re also wrong to say that Lenin did not accept Bukharin’s ideas. He explicitly did, they are the basis for “The State and Revolution”.

    In his philosophical notebooks written during WWI he said that the laws of logic developed by Aristotle, the syllogyism etc. were the laws of human thought itself.


  12. Ideas are not a product of matter. This concept of matter is metaphysical. This is plekhanovs dialectical materialism. Most of Marx’s philosophical views in manuscripts such as 1844 mauscripts and the grundrissa ,were locked away by the German social democrats who put them down to marx’s youthful views because they did not conform to the materialist views of kautsky.

    The Philosophy in Capital was misunderstood as lenin said in the philosophical notebooks. In the notebooks Lenin examined the creative role of idea as causation. ideas that grip the masses become a material force is not ideas as a product of matter.

    Marx had been very critical of the materialism of feuerbach as undialetical. see thesis on feuerbach, whereas Engels had a much more positive view of materialism and science. Marx had criticised the dehumanised or abstract nature of Hegels philosophy but he did not counterpose idealism and materialism as two opposing camps. This was Engels who was followed by Plekhanov.

    Trotsky did not study philosopy as lenin had. He was unconfident about philosophy and although many of Marx’s phlosophical manuscrips became available during Trotsky;s exile he was unable to give them priority to study them. instead he advocated in a very dogmatic way the dialectical materialism of Plekhanov. He repeated plekhanov who rehashed Engels who echoed Hegel on dialectical logic of A==A and so on. But Hegels greatest work on The phenomenology of mind or the logic are not addressed let alone Marx’s view of them.

    Trotsky was reluctant to aknowledge Lenins role in creating stalin. lenin created the bolshevik machine the machine created stalin says Trotsky. But he worried away at this conundrum because Stalin was key component of the machine that Lenin built. As Trotsky wrote lenin promoted Stalin against himself and other comrades. circumstances do not explain stalins prominance in Bolshevik history. Lenin like those around him to carry out his ideas and instrucions. Bukharin was not one of Lenins yes men.


  13. Ideas are a product of matter. A piece of matter called the brain. The brain secretes thought in the same way that the pancreas secretes bile. In fact these days with ECT machines and what not they can actually show ideas in the brain as it reacts to various external stimuli. If they are not a product of matter then they do not exist. In which case they are a product of god. I’m guessing you don’t believe in god Barry?
    But this is all by the by actually. I agree Trotsky was reluctant to acknowledge Lenin’s role in creating Stalin – after all Trotsky too had a role in creating Stalin, they both were part of the militarisation of the state with the civil war. But Lenin created the apparatus, the apparatus created Stalin and therefore Lenin created Stalin. The syllogism is powerful because it is true.
    But if we want to be dialectical we can add, Lenin both did and did not create Stalin inasmuch as the actions he took to develop the apparatus were a response to the objective circumstances of the civil war. Ante Ciligias in the “Russian Enigma” discusses all this in a very interesting contribution I think. He draws the analogy between Lenin and Cromwell, as both the leader of the revolution and the creator of thermidor.


  14. The following is rather off topic with regard to the organisation question but given that the discussion has interestingly strayed into philosophical territory I’d thought I’d make a brief philosophical interjection.

    With regard to the materialism/idealism debate my view is that either Marxism needs to update its philosophical basis or abandon the attempt to be a totalising philosophy. Within the Marxist paradigm we tend to use materialism and idealism in specific ways and as Barry mentions they have a lot of affinity with objective and subjective. But we must be careful not assume that concepts of matter and causation can easily be carried over from currently accepted physics to a materialist philosophy. For example, the concept of matter has changed quite drastically since the nineteenth century. The indefiniteness of a state of a particle (it is both spin up and spin down until measured), the indistinguishibility of particles such as electrons, the wave-like behaviour of a particle have all served to undermine the classical conception of matter as a passive substance only ‘moved’ by some physical force. Indeed, force itself is seen as a manifestation of particular type of particle (e.g. the photon is a carrier of the electromagnetic force and which has no mass). So if we are materialists, then the question as to what we mean by matter and why that is important for Marxism is a difficult one to answer. I think we ought to confine the idea of materialism to ‘historical materialism’ as a specific paradigm for understanding human society.

    The concept of causation is just as thorny an issue. What does one make of causation when particles can appear and disappear spontaneously (i.e. without cause) from the quantum vacuum. Or that a measurement of a particle can influence the outcome of a measurement of another particle without any intervening medium, process or force, as long as the two particles are in an entangled state? In other words, how does something which happens at particle A (the cause) influence particle B (the effect) when there is no intervening space-time trajectory of a set of intervening events which can carry the cause to the effect? These problems have led some to give up the idea of causation in the realm of fundamental physics.

    The philosophical issues surrounding quantum mechanics are subtle and difficult and I don’t pretend to have anything but a superficial acquaintance but they do challenge any materialism based on an outdated Cartesian/Newtonian conception matter.

    If we want to retain elements of Hegel’s metaphysics or Engels’ dialectical materialism then we need to engage with what fundamental physics is telling us about the world. Either that or we abandon Marxism as a totalising philosophy.

    With respect to the subject/object or mind/”matter” distinction, again this is a really difficult problem. There are no theories which are adequate to the problem. If you are interested in this I’d recommend William Seager – Theories of Consciousness: an Introduction and Assessment, in which he takes apart materialist reductionism, Cartesian mind/”matter” dualism, emergentism in which the mind somehow arises on the basis of a sufficiently complex configuration of matter such as a brain, panpsychism in which mind and “matter” are coexistent in all “things” etc., and frankly admits that there is no currenly compelling theory.

    All this is a far cry from the debates we get into when we discuss materialism and idealism and their relation to Marxism. It would be better for us to confine our discussion of the role of ideas vis-a-vis socio-economic conditions within the framework of historical materialism rather than appeal to an outdated metaphysics. This is not to say that we should not attempt to update our metaphysics without abandoning the insight of Hegel, or Marx and Engels only that the nature of modern physics means we have a lot of catching up to do.


  15. I really don’t understand your objection to materialism. Materialism simply asserts that everything that exists is part of a material world, that is it has an objective existence, including ideas.
    Our understanding of that has changed. No sweat, that understanding is also part of a material world. That is a total philosophy. Its got nothing to do with an appeal to “outdated metaphysics” in fact, quite the opposite. Metaphysics are not physics, that is not material, and therefore ideal. We cannot “update metaphysics” because “metaphysics” do not exist. They cannot be updated. Just as astrology can never be a science.
    Its like the attempt of “critical realism” to combine the “entity” and the “non-entity” that is the existent and the non existent, two mutually incompatible things that cannot, by definition, have a relationship.
    All a consequence of the abandonment of the “total” nature of materialism, I’m afraid.


  16. I am not necessarily objecting to materialism, as I don’t have enough knowledge of the debates to make that judgement. But I think it is useful to see how it stands up to our contemporary scientific theories. So I guess my first question is what do you mean by the material world? Do you mean everything that exists in the universe, including both physical and mental processes? That sounds right to me if it means that there are no supernatural entities and I would agree with you on this.

    But why continue to call this philosophical stance materialism, except as a position against supernaturalism? You could just call it naturalism. Unless of course, it revolves around the concept of matter. Maybe you are right to say that our changing understanding of matter has no relevance on the adequacy of a materialist philosophy. But I think the danger is that Marxist theorists may just assert this without an understanding of how that concept has changed. For example, I don’t know whether writers on materialism such as Sebastiano Timpanaro have taken this into account – but maybe I should read his book :-) Anyway, the fact that the concept of matter has changed drastically since the nineteenth century has led at least one philosopher of science, Norwood Hanson, to talk about the ‘dematerialization’ of matter in contemprary physics. There are others, both philosophers and physicists, who no longer see matter as the basic substance of the universe – instead physicists such as John Wheeler have written that information is the basic “substance” of the universe not matter. I’m not saying that these people are right, only that Marxists should engage with these developments and see whether the concept of materialism is still adequate.

    The other aspect of philosophical materialism, aside from its emphasis on matter, is that it reduces consciousness and all mental processes to matter and how material processes change state over time. At least, as far as I am aware, this is the dominant non-Marxist variant. But this is a hope, rather than a description of our best theories of consciousness. It is a hope because so far it has not been possible to elimininate mental acts by reference to a physical processes, although as a research paradigm this is a motivation for many cognitive scientists. So while it may yet turn out to be the case that this becomes possible, materialism in this sense, is more based on a metaphysical stance rather than anything in the world telling us that consciousness really can be reduced in such a manner. (More on why I call this metaphysics below).

    I know that it is said that Marx had a more sophisticated materialist philosophy and indeed this is the case when it comes to understanding society and the way people transform their social conditions. So for example, the denial of the primacy of ideas in historical development seems to me to be a more frutiful view than that of any idealist philosophy of history. But as far as I am aware he had little to say about a broader philosophical materialism outside of the social domain. While I think that historical materialism is a useful framework for analysing social conditions and historical developments, I am not sure whether it is necessary or fruitful to subscribe to a wider philosophical materialism. Or at least we shouldn’t assume that this is the case.

    Engels made a laudable effort to integrate the science of his day, notably Darwinism, into a wider materialist philosophy. But are his efforts still valid? For example, it seems that Engels was not a reductionist in the sense specified above but believed that consciousness emerged from matter. However, as I pointed in my previous comment there is no evidence that either reductionism or emergentism is an adequate explanatory framework for consciousness. Of course, there is no harm in using these as the basis for research, but only if that is what they are seen as – a reasonable assumption which may bear fruit through painstaking research. Panpsychism, the view that all nature is sentient in some sense is yet another philosophical framework which may be used to guide research into the nature of consciousness. There is little or no evidence for it. But that cannot count against it in relation to reductionism or emergentism neither which have little evidence in their favour either.It may be outlandish view but when has that ever stopped other rather esoteric research paradigms from being advanced such as the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics? Like the many-worlds interpration of QM, panpsychism is naturalistic, it does not refer to spirit or other supernatural entities. It tries to ground concsiousness within the universe. So which materialism are we talking about when we subscribe to it as a philosophical position? And why?

    Questions can be asked about what existence too. For example, what do you mean when you say something exists? Do past events exist or have they ceased to exist? Do future events exist? I must admit I struggle with this one. Even if we say what exists does so only ‘now’, that is only true for observers who share the same inertial reference frame. According to special relativity there is no absolute ‘now’. An event perceived by one observer may still be in the future for another. So the concept of existence is problematic. But your reference to realism makes me unsure as to whether by ‘existence’ you mean what is real. Also because you mention ‘objective’ existence I assume that you mean that can be contrasted with ‘subjective’ existence. So possibly a distinction between reality and fantasy. Is that right, or have I got that completely wrong? I’m not familiar with critical realism so I can’t comment on it.It does seem a bit odd from what you say about it. Is this the view propounded by Roy Bhaskar?

    I can understand your scepticism towards metaphysics. Metaphysics has a bad name and rightly so. The idea that you can somehow come up with what the world is like just through a rational consideration of some basic concepts ignores the whole scientific endeavour. Unfortunately, most metaphysics is like this – the development of philosophy in almost complete ignorance of current science. But if we take some key concepts such as causation, time, determinism etc. there are conflicting understandings of these terms within different scientific theories. So for example, causation seems quite well defined within special relativity but there is much doubt about its efficacy as an explanatory concept within quantum mechanics. So philosophers of physics tend to try and work out why the same term is often used in conflicting or even contradictory ways within a scientific domain in the hope of shedding some light on the concept. Physicists tend to not worry about these more abstract terms but focus on how a theory may be improved in the light of some empirical evidence. But we also have to remember that metaphysical beliefs (i.e those not based on prevailing scientific theory) often motivate scientific research paradigms. So for example, the metaphysical belief that the world is deterministic in some manner is one of the motivations for the search for hidden variables to explain away the the indeterminism in quantum mechanics in its standard interpretation. Cognitive scientists who search for correlations between brain states and mental phenomena are driven by a metaphysical belief in materialist reductionism. None of this anti-scientific, all it shows is that there are extra-scientific and often metaphysical reasons why some research paradigms are favoured over others. It is the task of metaphysics to subject these beliefs to rational scrutiny and to see how well they fit with the science.

    Sorry that this reply is so long and apologies for dragging the discussion off topic but I thought it might be useful to say something about materialism in the context of our current science because it may have implications as to whether we re-evaluate the materialism of Marx, Engels, Plekhanov and Lenin today. Personally, I don’t think this affects our evaluation of Marx because he he confined his materialism to a specific understanding of social development. However, Engels, Plekhanov and Lenin widened the scope of materialism to the natural world and therefore we ought to subject their views to critical scrutiny in the light of our contemporary science for as much as it can’t tell us as for what it can. I can’t say how though because I only have a rather superficial understanding of the science and to be honest only a passing acquaintance with the views of Engels, Plekhanov and Lenin on the subject. But I’d be surprised if their views didn’t need updating or abandoning in the light of our current knowledge which has changed considerably since their time. As you will have gathered I don’t think that historical materialism is dependent upon a wider philosophical materialism which encompasses the natural world. But again, this is not to say the latter is false, only to say that the case is not proven. Materialism is a metaphysical position after all because it goes beyond the scientific evidence :-) Unless of course when we say ‘materialism’ we mean ‘scientific’ but then why not just say the latter?


  17. I’m afraid I’m not really going to be able to do you justice on here Mark, but just a few comments. I haven’t bothered to really engage with any of this until I went back to Uni for my PHD this year. Philosophy – or what they call philosophy – is a pretty central part to it all. And frankly what they teach is a total mess. It is a reflection of the defeat of Marxism in the 1990s and its replacement by post modernism. That is in turn collapsing – because its basically useless and silly – and being replaced by chaos.
    Materialism has always embraced the latest developments in science, it was after all invented by the Greeks. So neither the atom or the universe had even been discovered then. Just as DNA was unknown to Marx and Engels and the theory of relativity and quantum physics.
    My personal opinion is that we do not have to take a position on which or any of these is necessarily correct, they are all attempts to more or less accurately describe a world that exists independently of us, that is which has an objective material existence. Marx noted in his theses on Feuerbach (number 2);

    “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”

    When sophists argue to “prove” their existence, or that of any object definitively the make exactly this scholastic question. It is not necessary to know the chemical formula of an apple to eat it. But it is necessary to know its an apple and that it can be eaten.
    We should reject metaphysics for exactly this reason. Materialism encompasses the material world in its entirety including thought as a part of it. Metaphysics exists outside of the material world – and therefore it does not exist. If it does no exist, then it is non-existent, so it has no material reality, so it cannot be understood. In fact there cannot be any metaphysical beliefs – metaphysics do not exist so they cannot exist – but only beliefs in metaphysics. That is real beliefs in non-existent things. In other words people can believe in ghosts even though there are no ghosts.
    In the end it all comes down to the old question – when the tree in the forest crashes to the earth does it make a sound? For the materialists yes – sound is a shock wave transmitted through the air, the tree has a material reality separate from human cognition of it.. For the idealists no – sound is something produced by the human ear, without the cognition of the thing the thing has no existence.


  18. The concept of matter has changed with devolopments in science as Mark comments. This was the issue Bogdanov (when he was a leading Bolshevik) raised in the early years of the 20th century. He regarded Plekhanovs materialism based on the enlightenments mechanical materialism as outdated and unconvincing.

    Marx’s own philosophical approach was not a totalising philosophical world view as his suppressed manuscripts, which Riazanov rescued from German social democracy in the 1920’s showed. Plekhanov was a dogmatist. Marx had a low opinion of his original group describing them as doctrinair. when Zazulich, one of Plekhanovs collaborators, wrote to Marx about his opinions on the future development of the Mir, Marx did not base his views on technology or productive forces determinism, but the social or communal relationships of the mir. Russia did not have to go through the stage of fully developed industrial capitalism to get to socialism.

    The letter Marx wrote was hidden by these dogmatists and Plekhanov always denied its existence because it so obviously conflicted with his own philosophical views which owed more to spinoza than Marx. It was no accident to use an old phrase that Plekhanov was on the extreme right wing of Russian Social Democracy with his evolutionist and stageist views.

    While Bogdanovs philosophical views were competent there were at odds with the approach of Marx. But as far as i remember he did research and use the latest scientific work of the time. In Contrast Lenin wrote one of his worst books rooted in the 18th century materialism and treating Engels as some kind of god. Marx had gone beyond this kind of one sided materialism. Its along time since i looked at these issues,but lenin just got thing Plain wrong.

    What distinguished Marx from plekhanov and philosophical materialists was the influence of Hegel and the dialectic. He did not reject idealism but Hegels abtract idealism. Look at the view of marx on Alienation and estranged labour and the commodity as a mysterious metaphysical thing. This is not productive forces determinism or philosophical materialism. Bolshevism after 1917 was all about american technology and following instructions from above.


  19. You’re just wrong. Marx explained in the theses on Feuerbach, amongst other places that he stood on the platform of the “new materialism”, theses 9

    “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.”

    Bogdanov is what would today be called a “Social Constructivist” he believe the collective made the thing through their consciousness of it. He was an objective idealist in other words aka Ernst Mach.


  20. when you say I am wrong you must be aware that this phrase does not address the points I made.

    i will return to some detailed argumentation.But let me leave you with Lenins conclusion in the Philosophical notebooks:

    Intelligent idealism is better than stupid materialism(Plekhanov)


  21. Hey you do not respond to points made.

    For workers power and the people locked out of the organisations office for having a less pessimistic view of the economic crisis, your attitude is par for the sectarian course.

    I will end discussion or attempted discussion there. A discussion for others with more political culture.

    Good luck with your PHD.


  22. You resort to cliches and I’m supposed to be impressed?
    You need to make your mind up about Lenin. On the one hand he’s an autocrat, mechanical materialist and so on. On the other hand its enough to quote him when he’s being rude about Plekhanov.
    This isn’t getting us very far. You haven’t explained how Marx wasn’t a materialist when he defined himself as one. You haven’t explained how Marx thought that ideas were not of the material world, when he said they were. You haven’t explained what all this has got to do with anything anyway. What has it? Do you believe that a correct philosophy guarantees you against political mistakes? I can’t see how it would.
    You claimed that you would return to these points you haven’t.
    Oh yeah and newsflash – its not the Great Depression.


  23. you are still arrogant after all these years. Lenin was not being rude about Plekhanov. You are obviously uninformed as you were in your young student days. Lenin made the obvious point in philosophical notebooks which you have not studied, he simply made the general point that intellegent idealism is superior to unintellegent materialism. Marx did not have a scientific materialist philosopy or a dialectical materialist outlook like plekhanov who he disliked. He also had a low opinion of kautsky and his materialist outlook. marx did not define himself as a dialectical materialist.

    As for Lenin well he was like the curates egg; he was good in parts. The state and revolution is outstanding and articulated the creativity of the revolutionary Russian workers in 1917. Its all about communism from below which the commune stands for. But the dictatorship of the old party guard over the class as some kind of of guarantee of a socialist future,one man maangement,the bann on non Leninist factions and so on, these are not politics we want to emulate.

    certainly Lenin argued that a correct philosophy guaranteed against political mistakes in 1908 12. This was the justification for his block with the most right wing leader of Russian Social Democracy, Plekhanov and his vitriolic polemics aganist Bogdanov. Then we have Trotsky who dogmatically repeated Plekhanov dialectical materialism when he floundered when faced with critisim of his workers state theories which were based on Ricardo rather than Marx(seperation production and distribution) and GERMAN social democratic views on nationalisation.

    i am not trying to impress you comrade. That has been and would be a difficult task. I am simply trying to put forward a critical view of Bolshevism.


  24. Ouch. Whereas you’re an angel. Actually I have read Lenin’s philsophical notebooks, which are, notebooks. That is notes. Impressions. Jottings. Thinkings out load. Not necessarily consistent. Not necessarily rigorous, but workings out. Not something to be quoted as the last word.
    Intelligent idealism is not necessarily better than unintelligent materialism. It really depends what you’re talking about.
    Trotsky’s theory of the USSR was not based on Ricardo. In fact I can’t think of a single reference to Ricardo he makes anywhere. It was based on the combination of his personal situation – as a part of the apparatus/leading stratum – who was nonetheless trying to analyse what went wrong. Therefore it was hesitant, not fully worked out, only slowly grappling with the truth.
    His use of dialectics in the late 1930s to refute the syllogism Lenin created the apparatus, the apparatus created Stalin, therefore Lenin created Stalin, is an example of where intelligent idealism is not superior to unintelligent materialism.
    Lenin both did and did not create Stalin.


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