Once again on the party and its relation to the class

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(Second letter from the ICC to Tampa Communist League)

We welcome the publication of DP’s response to our letter to the Tampa Communist League1 and hope that this debate can continue in a fruitful (and fraternal) way. We will keep this reply fairly succinct but hope by doing so to concentrate on the main issues raised in this debate. We are responding more or less in the order the topics were covered in your letter, but for us the last two questions – the relationship between activity and period, and the principal lessons of the Russian revolution regarding party and power – are probably the most important ones for further debate.

The letter is a response from an individual comrade and we don’t know the content of the discussions about the question of the party within the group – it would be very positive if at some point an account of these discussions could also be published. But DP says that the group as such has added a new “unity point” on this question, i.e. “In order to triumph in the class struggle the proletariat must organise into a world-wide political party around a programme that expresses its exclusive class interest”.

“The proletariat must organise into a world-wide political party”

There is certainly much in this condensed formulation we can agree to: that the working class cannot triumph without a political party; that this party has to defend a distinct programme; that it must be international. But we still take issue with the formulation “the proletariat must organise into a political party”. When this formulation appeared in the 19th century workers’ movement under the impulsion of the marxist current, it was a definite expression of the necessity for the working class to engage in political struggles up to and including the seizure of power. It was thus to become a point of demarcation from those, like the anarchists, who rejected both the immediate political combat and the goal of political power. But the formulation “constitution of the proletariat into a class, and thus into a political party” (Communist Manifesto) also expressed certain ambiguities of the period, not least the fact that there was not yet a clear distinction between the unitary organisations of the class, open to all workers, irrespective of their beliefs or opinions, and the political organisation organised around a clear programme (made up of members who join because they agree to the political principles of the organisation) . The First International, for example, combined both these aspects. But as the class struggle matured this distinction became much sharper: in the Second International, between the socialist parties and the trade unions, in the Third, between the communist parties and the soviets. For us, this was one of the signs that the organisation question is posed differently to the working class in different epochs, in particular, when it enters what the Third International referred to as the “epoch of proletarian revolution”. It is in this epoch, when there is no longer any possible cohabitation between reformists and revolutionaries in the same organisation, that it becomes evident that the party is the organisation of the communist minority within the class.

What kind of revolutionary practice?

Nevertheless, the theoretical bases for what became clarified in “revolutionary practice” can already be found in the Communist Manifesto, which affirms that communists are not saviours from on high, not a self-appointed elite, but merely the most determined and theoretically advanced minority of the class, an expression of its historical struggle which is also an active factor in its development. This vision is one of a class in movement, one in which consciousness necessarily develops in an uneven way, given the enormous weight of the dominant ideology. The communist minority is indeed in the “avant-garde” when it comes to political clarity, but its aim is always to generalise this clarity as widely as possible. By the same token, the communist programme is not developed by the politicised minority in isolation from the class struggle: the latter learns from the struggle and seeks to draw out its most significant lessons and in doing so to clarify the perspectives for the future.

We don’t think there is anything elitist in this view. Nor do we think that there is any contradiction between aiming at the highest level of political clarity and the culture of debate, the confrontation of ideas, the testing of hypotheses in relation to practical experience. On the contrary: class consciousness, theoretical clarity, can only develop in this way. The search for truth for a clear perspective, is not something that is “imported” from outside or imposed onto the class from above, it is the result of a process of collective and individual reflection which can only move forward through debate and the exchange of ideas., But debates in a movement that aims to apply the scientific method are not a simple exchange of opinion – they seek to achieve a higher synthesis and this includes the intransigent critique of false conceptions2.

What are “modern Leninist groups”?

DP’s reply refers to “modern Leninist groups” without specifying which organisations or political tendencies are meant. It looks to us, however, as if it is talking about the organisations of the left of capital, such as the Trotskyists, whose ideas about organisation are bound to be hierarchical and monolithic, simply because these are natural to all bourgeois organisations. Although in the CLT’s points of unity you talk about the left of capital, it is not very specific and we are not sure whether you would include “modern Leninist groups” in this category.

The fact that bourgeois organisations function like bourgeois organisations is evident enough, but this does not mean that authentically proletarian organisations cannot be affected by manifestations of bourgeois ideology such as elitism and monolithism. Some indeed – such as the Bordigists – positively theorise such conceptions, while others are affected in a more subtle and perhaps more insidious way. But all of us - not just the revolutionary minority but the entire working class - are bound to be affected in one way or another because in a class society “the dominant ideas are the ideas of the dominant class”; and this means a permanent struggle against the infiltration of such ideas and practices. And this too is part of the theoretical combat, the fight for a higher level of clarity, specifically on the questions of organisation and of morality (we note that both DP’s reply and the points of unity both refer to the question of ethics and we welcome this – it’s a discussion we could take up at a later date).

Minimum and maximum programmes

On the question of the minimum and maximum programmes, we don’t agree that the 1880 programme of the Parti Ouvrier can be a model for us, however interesting it is as a historical document. It’s true that Marx wrote it along with Guesde, but if we are not mistaken, it was Guesde’s interpretation of the demands it contained, especially the economic ones, which led to disagreements between the two of them later and to Marx exclaiming that “moi, je ne suis pas marxiste”. For Marx, the economic demands were based on real possibilities and could be won under capitalism though the immediate struggle, whereas “discounting the possibility of obtaining these reforms from the bourgeoisie, Guesde regarded them not as a practical programme of struggle, but simply ... as bait with which to lure the workers from Radicalism.” The bourgeoisie’s inevitable rejection of these reforms would, Guesde believed, “free the proletariat of its last reformist illusions and convince it of the impossibility of avoiding a workers ’89.”3. This bears a strong resemblance to the manipulative methodology behind Trotsky’s “transitional demands” and Marx was right to reject it.

The political part of the text, on the other hand, while containing some very concise formulations about the goals of the revolution, is less than clear about the political means to achieve them: on the one hand, even though this was nearly 10 years after the Commune, the programme still holds out the hope that the working class can gain power through parliament. And at the same time it uses terms like “Commune” and “the general arming of the people” which imply that this whole programme is to be implemented once the class itself has already taken power.

Not then an example of clarity which we can import wholesale, but one to be seen in its historical context. This again raises the question of periodisation – for us the transition from the ascendant to the decadent period – which has a considerable bearing on whether the demands put forward in a political programme correspond to the possibilities of the period. For us, the measures which should be contained in the programme of a communist party in a genuinely revolutionary situation must be based on a clear understanding that the bourgeoisie is no longer fit to rule and that all its political institutions, including its most democratic, are thoroughly rotten, and need to be destroyed from top to bottom; and by the same token that capitalist social relations have reached a total impasse and are a blockage on the development of man’s productive powers. This is why there is no alternative to replacing them with communist social relations. Even if this entire social-economic transformation cannot be implemented the moment the working class takes power, the measures it takes must tend in this direction. On both counts (political and social-economic) we think we are talking about implementing the maximum programme: the communist revolution.

Does the existence and role of revolutionary organisations depend on the period?

In our previous letter we referred to the question of the communist fraction, which was not taken up in DP’s reply. But we think that it is an indispensable element in understanding the role of communists in periods when the formation of the party is not yet on the immediate agenda. Historical experience indicates that parties are born when the class struggle is in the ascendant, and that they are not the product of the incremental growth of this or that group. They tend to appear as the coming together of different groups and tendencies, but the more advanced fractions play the most decisive role in his process, and are the best means to ensure that the party will be formed around a clear programme. This is why, for us, the development of a coherent theoretical outlook - a specific task of a communist fraction or fraction-like organisation - is indeed crucial. And we do think that centralisation, as opposed to federalism or localism, is the means that proletarian organisations use to develop their theoretical unity. For us this does not mean an unthinking conformity imposed by a minority from above. Rather it implies the commitment of the whole organisation to achieving a coherent outlook on world events and the perspectives for the future. From our point of view, centralisation is a principle in the workers’ movement, since it implies the precedence of the whole over its parts, and theoretical rigour is our main weapon against the fog of bourgeois ideology. We also think that there can be no separation between this search for theoretical unity and the defence of principles, since the latter are precisely the conclusions forged by marxist theory on the basis of the historic experience of the class. It follows that principles can only be defended consistently if they are built on very firm theoretical foundations – they are not just a collection of points but are linked to each other, intertwined, bedded into a framework. But rather than continue with this train of thought now, perhaps we can refer comrades to the article based on one of the reports to the 21st ICC congress, “The role of the ICC as a ‘fraction’”, which provides a short history of the fractions in the workers’ movement4. As always, we would welcome your comments.

The party taking power?

Finally, with regard to the question of the party taking power, there is obviously a connection here to the question of whether the party is a minority or not. If you consider that the party, however “massive” its influence, will only regroup a minority of the class, then it is all the more logical to oppose such a minority taking or holding power. But even if the party organised a majority in the class or could obtain a majority in the soviets, we would still be opposed to the notion of the party taking power, whether or not shared with other parties or with the soviets themselves. First, because it undermines the historical advance made by the workers’ movement, referred to above, which made it possible to see that the unitary organisations and the political organisations have distinct though complementary tasks. A confusion about these tasks weakens both types of organisation - this is surely a key lesson from the Russian revolution And second, because the idea of the party forming a government or taking power reveals a vestige of parliamentary conceptions which go against the principle of instant revocability of delegates. Bourgeois parties form a government when they have a majority in parliament and can carry on governing for the next four or five years, until the next election. But when delegates to the ‘higher’ councils are subject to constant recall by base assemblies, today’s majority is tomorrow’s minority, and there is no basis for declaring that this or that group is “in power”. In fact, this is precisely the strength of the principle of revocability, that it allows the organisations of the class to express the real evolution of its consciousness.

As we approach the centenary of the October revolution (which will no doubt be accompanied by a flood of propaganda from right and left, aimed at distorting its real significance), we think that a discussion about the lessons of this gigantic experience of our class is as important as ever. We have tried here to outline some of the lessons we draw regarding the relationship between party and soviets; and vital though this is, it does not exhaust the question. In particular, there is a whole wealth of debate and contributions on the question of the transitional state, particularly in the work of Bilan and the Gauche Communiste de France, much of which we have published in our series on communism. However, for the moment, we want to suggest that a fruitful way of continuing this discussion would be for you to send your comments and criticism of two texts in particular: ‘On the party and its relations with the class’ and ‘Party, councils and substitutionism

Obviously, in sending your comments of our own efforts, we would be greatly interested in hearing from you about what you consider to be the principal lessons of the Russian revolution regarding the relationship between party and class.

We look forward to further debate

Very fraternally, the ICC


3 From Bernard H. Moss, The Origins of the French Labour Movement, 1830-1914, 1976, p.107, cited in the introduction to the programme on the Marxist internet Archive.