Party, Councils, and Substitutionism
In the young revolutionary movement engendered by the resurgence of class struggle at the end of the 1960s, the first and most persistent obstacle to the reconstruction of an international organization of revolutionaries was what can generally be described as councilism. Traumatized by the decay of the Bolshevik party and the insidious experience of Stalinism and Trotskyism, the majority of these new revolutionary currents proclaimed that the working class had no need of a revolutionary party, that the unitary organs of the class, the workers’ councils, were alone necessary for the accomplishment of the communist revolution. According to this viewpoint, revolutionaries should avoid organizing themselves and acting as a vanguard in the class struggle; some currents even went so far as to reject any form of revolutionary group as nothing but a ‘racket’ dictated by the needs of capital, not of the proletariat. From the beginning of its existence, our international current clearly rejected these aberrations, and intervened actively to combat them -- for example at the international conference called by the French group Informations Correspondence Ouvrieres in 1969. We always insisted that the repudiation of the counter-revolutionary heritage of Stalinism and Trotskyism and the necessary critique of the errors of previous proletarian parties should not lead to a rejection of the need for a unified organization of revolutionaries today, or to a failure to understand the indispensable role of the communist party in the proletarian revolution. If this intransigent defense of the need for revolutionary organization was denounced as ‘Leninism’ by the councilists and sundry libertarians, so much the worse for them. The ICC has always claimed the vital historical contribution of Lenin and the Bolshevik party as part of its own heritage.
Councilist ideology, which puts all its emphasis on its own particular interpretation of the ‘mass spontaneity’ of the working class, can sometimes flourish during periods of mounting class activity, when the creativity of the class is reaching a high level and is leaving the revolutionary minorities stranded in its wake. Thus May ‘68 in France was the heyday of innumerable councilist tendencies from the Situationist International to the GLAT. But such tendencies did not fare so well when the outburst of class struggle entered into a reflux. After the subsidence of the 1968-72 wave of struggles in the advanced capitalisms, the vast majority of these tendencies, based as they were on an immediatist and activist conception of revolutionary work, crumbled away or became sterile academic sects. The list of casualties is long: the SI, Gauche Marxiste, Pouvoir Ouvrier, Noir et Rouge, the GLAT, Combate, and the various modernist anti-organizational tendencies: Invariance, Mouvement Communiste, Kommunismen, Internationell Arbeitarkampf, Negation, For Ourselves ... In the difficult and sometimes disheartening atmosphere of the last few years, in which the deepening of the crisis has not provoked a corresponding level of class struggle, almost the only communist groups to survive or grow have been those who, in one way or another, put a particular emphasis on the necessity for organization: the ICC, CWO, Battaglia Comunista and, despite its political degeneration, the Bordigist PCI. Just as, on a greater historical scale, the clarity of the Italian Left on the question of organization allowed it to survive the period of counter-revolution more surely than other left communist fractions, so these latter groups have been better equipped to deal with the effects of today’s period of relative class quiet.
But if councilist and anti-organizational deviations may flourish during periods of increasing class activity, then the opposite deviations tend to come to the fore during periods of class defeat or quiescence, when revolutionaries often lose conviction in the proletariat’s capacity to struggle autonomously and realize its revolutionary nature. The substitutionist exaggerations which appear in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? were to a large extent a product of the period of international class peace of the last part of the 19th century. In the wake of 1905, and especially the 1917 revolutions, Lenin was able to criticize these exaggerations and link his own political positions to the mass self-activity of the class; the decline of the post-war revolutionary wave, however, led Lenin and the Bolsheviks to return to many of the old social democratic distortions. Similarly, the price paid by the Italian Left for its achievement of hanging onto class positions during the long years of the counterrevolution was, particularly after World War II, an increasing over-emphasis on the role of the party, culminating in the party-megalomania of the Bordigists.
Thus in the present conjuncture, with the majority of the councilists in disarray, their bankruptcy proved by their own disintegration, the ICC has more and more been confronted with the opposite deviation: substitutionism, the underestimation of the importance of mass self-activity, and an over-estimation of the role of the party, to the extent that the party is ascribed with tasks that only the class as a whole can carry out, in particular the seizure and exercise of political power. Having been denounced as Leninists by the councilists, the ICC is now being denounced as councilist by the Leninists ... Not only that but organizations which once had a clearer understanding of the relationship between party and class, like the CWO, have begun to regress towards openly substitutionist positions. Thus, in 1975, the platform of Revolutionary Perspectives stated that the revolutionary organization “cannot act 'on behalf of the class, but only as part of it, recognizing clearly that the main lesson of 1917 in Russia and Germany was that the exercise of political power during the dictatorship of the proletariat and the construction of communism are the tasks of the class itself and its class-wide organizations (councils, factory committees, armed militias).”
Today, the CWO argues that the party “leads and organizes” the struggle for power, (our emphasis; CWO text for the Paris Conference of revolutionary groups), and that
“At its victorious point, the insurrection will be transformed into a revolution, and majority support for communism will be manifested by the class -- via the party in the councils -- holding power.” (International Review, no.12, p.23)
Within the ICC itself, similar ideas have developed, leading comrades in France and Italy into the reassuring dogmas of Bordigism. Tomorrow, when the proletariat decisively re-emerges onto the scene, we may well be faced with a second wave of councilists, ouvrierists and autonomists of all sorts. The resolution ‘The Role of the Party in the Proletarian Revolution’ which was adopted at the Third Congress of World Revolution is an attempt to counter both sets of deviations and provide a general framework for developing a more detailed and precise analysis of the role of the party -- an analysis which will necessarily remain incomplete until the future revolutionary struggle of the class answers as yet unsolved questions. If we concentrate in this accompanying contribution on the question of substitutionism, it is because we think that the persistence of this ideology in the present workers’ movement is a major barrier to the development of a real understanding of the positive tasks of the revolutionary party. Substitutionism is, for us, something that historical experience has already clarified. If the revolutionary vanguard is to assume its tasks in the class battles of tomorrow, it must ruthlessly cut away all the dead-wood from the past.Substitutionism: Does it exist?
According to some, ‘substitutionism’ is a non-problem. Certain of these resort to philosophical profundities such as ‘how can the party, which represents the historic interests of the proletariat, substitute itself for the class?’ Of course, the historic interests of the class can’t substitute themselves for the class, but the problem is that proletarian parties aren’t ideal metaphysical entities but products of the real world of class struggle: whatever level of theoretical clarity they may have reached at a given time does not immunize them completely from the effects of bourgeois ideology, does not automatically exempt them from the very real pressures of the old world, from the dangers of conservatism, bureaucratization or outright betrayal. Enough parties have degenerated and betrayed for this are self-evident. And even when parties are very far from any definitive degeneration, they can still act against the historic interests of the class: we have only to look at the initial response of the Bolshevik party to the February revolution to understand that. There is no absolute guarantee that the actions or positions of a proletarian party will invariably coincide with the historic interests of the class, actions which revolutionaries believe to be carried out in the best interests of the class may often have the most disastrous consequences both for the party and for the class.
To be sure, a group like the CWO has a much more down-to-earth argument against the notion of substitutionism. They accept that substitutionism could mean “that a minority of the class attempts to carry out the tasks of the whole class” (‘Some Questions for the ICC’, International Review no12). For them this is a justifiable criticism of the Blanquist idea of a minority seizing power without the active support and participation of the majority of the class; or it’s merely a description of the objective situation the Bolsheviks found themselves in following the isolation of the Russian revolution. They could find nothing substitutionist in the party ‘taking power’ when it has won the support of the majority of the class, and sees no connection between the Bolsheviks’ conception of the role of the party in 1917 and its subsequent confrontations with the Russian working class. But this leaves too many questions unanswered. The point isn’t to reject the theories of Blanqui; Marxism has done that long ago, and even the Bordigists would agree that putsches and plots cannot lead us to communism. What we want to point out is that the very notion of the party taking power -- even when democratically elected to do so -- is a variety of substitutionism, since it means that “a minority of the class attempts to carry out the tasks of the whole class”. And, as we shall try to show, the Bolsheviks’ confusion on this question was a contributory factor in their subsequent degeneration. For us, the problem of substitutionism is not a clever invention of the ICC, but a profound question rooted in the whole historical experience of the working class.The historical context of substitutionist ideology
Contrary to those who imagine that the communist program and the class party exist in a sphere of invariant abstraction, the program and party of the class are nothing if not historical products of working class experience. This experience is bounded and shaped by the objective conditions of capitalist development at a given time, and by the general level of class struggle and activity that takes place within that development. Thus if Marx and Engels were able to have a clear general vision of the nature of the proletarian revolution and the tasks of communists as early as 1848, it was objectively impossible for them to have had a precise understanding of the way the proletariat would come to power, of the nature of the communist party and its role in the dictatorship of the proletariat. Their illusions in the possibility of the working class seizing hold of the existing bourgeois state could only be dispelled by the practical experience of the Commune (and then only in a partial sense). Similarly, their vagueness about the nature and role of the party could only be overcome by the development of the organized workers’ movement itself.
We should recall that Marxism emerged in a period when even bourgeois political parties were only beginning to take on the unified and relatively coherent form they have today – a development determined by the movement towards universal suffrage, which made the old loose parliamentary coalitions untenable. In this context, the proletarian movement didn’t even have a very clear conception of what it meant by the term party. Hence the extreme vagueness of Marx’s use of the word, which he used fairly indiscriminately to describe a few individuals united by a common viewpoint, or the entire class acting in a common political struggle, or a vanguard communist organization, or a looser association of different currents and tendencies. Thus the famous phrase in the Communist Manifesto, the “organization of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party” is both a profound statement of the political nature of the class struggle and of the necessity for a proletarian political party, and an expression of the immaturity of the movement, which had not yet arrived at a clear definition of the party as a part of the class.
The same lack of clarity inevitably affected Marxists’ understanding of the tasks of the party in the proletarian revolution.
“Although revolutionaries in the period before World War I took up the slogan of the 1st International ‘The emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves’, they tended to see the seizure of power by the proletariat as the seizure of power by the proletarian party. The only examples of revolutions which they could analyze were bourgeois revolutions, revolutions in which power could be delegated to a political party. As long as the working class had not had its own experience of the struggle for power, revolutionaries could not be very clear about this question.” (‘The Present Tasks of Revolutionaries’, Revolution Internationale, no.27)
This ideological heritage of the bourgeois revolution was reinforced by the context in which the class struggle took place in the second half of the 19th century. Following the demise of the insurrectionary battles of the 1840s (which had allowed Marx to see the communist nature of the working class and the profound link between its ‘economic’ and its ‘political’ struggles) the workers’ movement entered the long period of fighting for reforms within the capitalist system. This period more or less institutionalized the separation between the economic and political aspects of the class struggle. Particularly in the period of the Second International, this separation was codified in the different mass organizations of the class: the unions were defined as the organs which waged the economic struggles of the class, and the party as the organ of political struggle.
Now, whether this political struggle was the immediate one to win democratic rights for the working class, or the longer term struggle for working class political power, it took place essentially on the parliamentary terrain, the terrain par excellence of bourgeois politics. The workers’ parties which fought on this terrain were inevitably impregnated with its assumptions and methods of operation.
Parliamentary democracy means the investing of authority in the hands of a body of specialists in government, of parties whose raison d’être is to seek power for themselves. In bourgeois society, the society of “egoistic man, of man separated from other men from the community” (Marx, On the Jewish Question) political power can only take the form of power over and above the individual and the community; just as “the state is the intermediary between man and man’s freedom” (ibid), so in such a society there must be an intermediary between the ‘people’ and their own governing power. The atomized mass, which goes to the polling booth in bourgeois elections can only find a semblance of collective interest and direction through the medium of a political party which represents the masses precisely because they cannot represent themselves. Though unable to draw all the consequences of this for its own practice, the Internationalist Communist Party of Italy expressed this reality of bourgeois representation very well: the bourgeois state was based on
“that fictitious and deceitful characteristic of a delegation of power, of a representation through the intermediary of a deputy, an election ticket, or by a party. Delegation means in effect the renunciation of the possibility of direct action. The pretended ‘sovereignty’ of the democratic right is but an abdication, and in most cases it is an abdication in favor of a scoundrel.” (‘Proletarian Dictatorship and Class Party’, Battaglia Comunista 3,4,5, 1951)
The proletarian revolution does away with this kind of representation, which is really a form of abdication. The revolution of a class which is organically united by indivisible class interests, poses the possibility of man recognizing and organizing “his own forces as social forces, so that social force is no longer separated from him in the form of political force” (On the Jewish Question). The praxis of the proletarian struggle tends to do away with the separation between thought and action, directors and executors, social forces and political power. The proletarian revolution has, therefore, no need for a permanent specialized elite which ‘represents’ the amorphous masses and carries out their tasks for them. The Paris Commune, the first example of a proletarian dictatorship, began to illuminate this reality, by taking practical measures to eliminate the separation between the masses and political power: abolishing the parliamentary separation of legislature and executive, ensuring that all deputies were elected and revocable at any time, liquidating the police and standing army, etc. But the experience of the Commune was too premature, too short-lived to eliminate entirely bourgeois democratic conceptions of the state and the role of the party from the program of the workers’ movement. What the Commune did show was that even without a communist party at its head, the working class can raise its struggle to the level of seizing political power; but the spineless vacillations of the proletarian and petty-bourgeois parties which found themselves leading the uprising also confirmed that, without the active presence of a real, communist party, the proletarian revolution is crippled from the beginning. Still, the exact relationship such a party should have to the Commune-state remained an unsolved problem.
Perhaps more important was the fact that the experience of the Commune did not put an end to revolutionaries’ illusions in the democratic republic. In 1917 Lenin could see that the Commune was the result of the revolution smashing the old bourgeois state from top to bottom. But in the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Marxists tended to see it as a model for the workers in their struggle to seize control of the democratic republic, ‘lop off’ its worst features and convert it into an instrument of proletarian power.
“International socialism considers that the republic is the only possible form of socialist emancipation -- with this condition, that the proletariat tears it from the hands of the bourgeoisie and transforms it from ‘a machine for the oppression of one class by another’ into a weapon for the socialist emancipation of humanity.” (Trotsky, ‘Thirty-five Years After: 1871-1906’ published in Leon Trotsky On the Paris Commune, Pathfinder Press).
And in many ways, the Commune, based as it was on territorial representative units, on universal suffrage did preserve many of the features of the bourgeois democratic state; as such it did not really allow the workers’ movement to go beyond the idea of proletarian power being mediated through a party. It was only with the emergence of the workers’ councils at the end of the period of capitalist ascendancy that this problem would begin to be resolved. In the councils the class was organized as a class; it was able to unify its economic, political and military tasks, to decide and act consciously without any intermediaries. The emergence of the councils allowed revolutionaries to make a final break from the idea that the democratic republic was a state form that could in some way be used by the proletariat; in fact it was the last and most insidious barrier against the proletarian revolution. But if in 1917 revolutionaries were able to rid themselves of all parliamentary illusions on the question of the state, the persistence of old habits of thought still weighed heavily on their conception of the party.
We have seen that, in the social democratic world view, the economic struggles of the class were carried out by the unions, the political struggle, up to and including the struggle for power, by the party. Particularly because it was a question of ‘conquering’ bourgeois state power, the idea of mass political organs of working class revolution did not exist. The only political organ of the proletariat was the party. The state would only be given a proletarian function in so far as it was controlled by the proletarian party. Thus it was inevitable that the insurrection and the seizure of power should be organized by the party: no other organ could unify and mobilize the class on a political level. In theory, therefore, the party had to become a mass party, a huge disciplined army, in order to carry out its revolutionary tasks. In reality, the mass basis of the party was a function of its struggle for reforms, not for revolution. The social democratic model of revolution was never, and could never be, put into practice. But its importance lay in the ideological inheritance it passed on to the revolutionaries who were brought up in the schools of social democracy. And that heritage could only be a substitutionist one: even though the revolution was to be carried out by a mass party, it was still a conception which ascribed to the party tasks which could only be carried out by the whole class.
To be sure, these conceptions did not spring out of some moral weakness on the part of social democracy. The idea of a party acting on behalf of the class was the product of the practice of the workers’ movement in ascendant capitalism and was deeply entrenched within the whole class. In that period, the day-to-day struggle for reforms both on the economic and political levels, could to a large extent be trusted to permanent ‘representatives’, specialized trade union negotiators and parliamentary spokesmen. But practices and conceptions that were possible during the ascendant epoch became impossible and reactionary as the onset of capitalist decadence brought the period of reform struggles to a close. The revolutionary tasks now facing the proletariat implied very different methods of struggle.
At the beginning of the 20th century, revolutionaries like Lenin, Trotsky, Pannekoek and Luxemburg attempted to clarify the relation between party and class in the light of changing historic conditions and the mass struggles these conditions provoked, particularly in Russia. If we take the most profound elements from their rich but often contradictory contributions, we can discern the development of an awareness that the mass social democratic party was suitable only for the period of reformist struggles. Lenin was the most capable of seeing that the revolutionary party could only be a tightly organized and severely selected communist vanguard; and Luxemburg in particular was able to appreciate that the task of the party was not to ‘organize’ the struggle of the class. Experience had shown that the struggle broke out spontaneously and compelled the class to go from partial to general struggle. The organization of the struggle came out of the struggle itself and embraced the entire class. The role of the communist vanguard within these mass struggles was not an organizational one in the sense of providing the class with a pre-existing structure for organizing the struggle.
“Instead of puzzling their heads with the technical side, with the mechanism of the mass strike, the social democrats are called upon to assume political leadership in the midst of the revolutionary period.” (Luxemburg, The Mass Strike)
In other words, the task of the party was to participate actively in these spontaneous movements in order to make them as conscious and as organized as possible; in order to indicate the tasks which the entire class, organized in its unitary organs, would be compelled to assume.
But it would have been impossible for all the implications of this to have been clear at once to the revolutionaries of that period. And here we return to the problem of substitutionism. The persistence of social democratic conceptions not only in the class as a whole but also in the minds of its best revolutionaries, the lack of any real experience of what it meant for the class to be in power, were to be a heavy burden on the class as it launched into the huge revolutionary confrontations of 1917-23.
The remnants of social democratic ideology can be seen, for example, in the Communist International’s official position on the trade unions. Unlike the German Left, who began to see that the trade union form of struggle was impossible in the epoch of decadence, the CI still remained tied to the idea of the party organizing the defensive struggles of the class, and the unions were seen as the necessary bridgeheads between party and class. Thus the CI failed to grasp the significance of the autonomous organs which the masses were creating in the course of their struggle outside of and against the trade unions.
More important in this context, however, is the way that the old patterns of thought dominated the CI’s understanding of the relation between party and councils. Although at its first Congress, Lenin’s ‘Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Proletarian Dictatorship’ had, like State and Revolution, put all the emphasis on the soviets as organs of direct proletarian rule, by the Second Congress the effects of the defeats the class had gone through in 1919 were already making themselves felt: the emphasis now shifted to the party and away from the soviets. The CI’s ‘Theses on the Role of the Communist Party in the Proletarian Revolution’ explicitly stated that “Political power can only be seized, organized and led by a political party, and in no other way.”
In one way or another, this view was shared by all the currents in the workers’ movement up to 1920. All of them, including Luxemburg who criticized the idea of ‘the dictatorship of the party’ retained a semi-parliamentary view of the soviets electing a party to power. Only the German Left began to break from this idea, but it only developed a partial critique which quickly degenerated into a purely councilist position. But to say that political power of the proletariat can only be expressed through a party is to say that the soviets are not capable themselves of being that power. It is to substitute the party for the most essential tasks of the soviets, and thus to empty them of their real content.
In 1917 these questions had not been particularly urgent. When the class is in movement on a vast scale, the problem of substitutionism cannot be an explicit one. In such moments, it is impossible for the party to concern itself with ‘organizing’ the struggle: the struggle is there, the organizations of the struggle are there. The problem for the party is how to establish a real presence within these organizations and have a direct influence upon them. Thus those who ask: “Did the Bolshevik party substitute for the class in October 1917?” are missing the point. No, there was no substitutionism in the October insurrection. The insurrection was not organized or executed by the Bolshevik party, but by the military revolutionary committee of the Petrograd Soviet, under the political leadership of the Bolshevik party. Those who think this is a purely formal distinction should refer to Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, where he underlines the political importance the Bolsheviks attached to the fact that the insurrection was carried out in the name of the Soviet -- the mass organ of the class -- and not of the communist vanguard. It is true that when the class is marching forward the relationship between the party and the mass organs tends to be extremely close and harmonious, but that is no reason to blur the distinction between the party and the unitary organs; indeed such a confusion of roles can only have fatal consequences later, if the class movement enters into a period of reflux. Thus in the Russian Revolution, the problem of substitutionism emerged into its full stature after the seizure of power: in the organization of the Soviet State and during the difficulties posed by the civil war and the isolation of the revolution. But although the objective difficulties faced by the Bolsheviks and by the Russian revolution provide the underlying explanation for why the Bolsheviks finally ‘substituted’ themselves for the workers’ councils and ended up on the side of the counter-revolution, it is not enough to leave the analysis there. Otherwise there are no lessons to be drawn from the Russian experience except the obvious fact that the counter-revolution is caused by ... the counter-revolution. If revolutionaries are going to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, we must analyze how the political confusions of the Bolshevik party accelerated the degeneration of the revolution and their own passage into the camp of capital. In particular, we must show why the Bolsheviks’ confusions on the relationship between party, class and state led to a situation where:
-- the Bolshevik party came into conflict with the unitary organs of the class almost immediately after it had become the party of government, and well before the mass of Russian workers had been dispersed and decimated in the civil war, or the international revolutionary wave had subsided.
-- it was the party, the most advanced expression of the Russian proletariat, which became the vanguard of the counter -revolution. This destroyed the party from within and led to the monstrous birth of Stalinism, a historical betrayal which has done more to disorientate the proletarian movement than any other treason by a proletarian organization.
If we are to avoid explaining these facts by resorting to the naive theories of the libertarians (‘the Bolsheviks did this because they were authoritarian’; ‘all parties seek power for themselves’; ‘power corrupts’, etc) we must look more closely at the problems of party, councils and state in the proletarian revolution.Party and Councils
For some councilist currents, the contrast of interests between revolutionary political organizations and the unitary organs of the class is so great that they advocate the dissolution of all political groups as soon as the councils appear; or they are afraid to talk about the existence of a party or parties within the councils, haunted as they are by the bourgeois vision of the party as nothing but a corps of specialists whose sole function is to maneuver itself into power. For these currents, there is some Original Sin in political groups or parties which make them inevitably betray the class and try to manipulate or take over its organs of struggle. We hardly need to dwell on how childish this view is, and how much it actually strikes against the autonomy of the class. The tragic experience of the German revolution led the Communist International to conclude quite correctly that
“... the existence of a powerful Communist Party is necessary in order to enable the soviets to do justice to their historic tasks, a party that does not simply ‘adapt itself’ to the soviets, but is in a position to make them renounce ‘adaptations’ of their own to the bourgeoisie and White Guard social democracy.” (‘Theses on the Role of the Communist Party’, Second Congress of the CI).
But the insistence on the necessity for the party to intervene in the councils and give a clear political orientation to all their actions should not lead us to ignore the experience of the past, particularly of the Russian revolution, and pretend that there is no problem in the relationship between party and councils, that the danger of the party substituting itself for the councils is just a councilist neurosis. In fact, the aberrations of councilism could only have had so much weight because they were a false solution to a real problem.
After all the heated debates that have taken place in the revolutionary movement over the past fifty years, it is rather sad to see a group like the CWO gloss over the whole problem with a purely sophistical argument. According to the CWO:
-- in order for there to be a revolutionary conquest of power, the party must have a majority of delegates to the workers’ councils. Otherwise you must be saying that “the revolution could succeed while the majority of the class is not conscious of the need for communism, or while the majority of the delegates to the councils are not communists.” (International Review, No 12, p.24)
-- since the party has a majority of delegates, it is effectively in power.
Voila! The logic is impeccable, but based on entirely false premises. To begin with, it reveals an absurdly formalistic and democratist view of class consciousness. Undoubtedly, the development of a decisive presence and influence of communist party militants within the councils is a necessary precondition for the success of the revolution. But to define this influence merely in terms of a statistical majority of delegates is absurd: a council could easily be won to revolutionary positions when only a minority of its delegates were militants of the party. The CWO, however, seems to consider that only the members of the party are capable of revolutionary thought and action. The other delegates, whether members of other proletarian political currents or ‘independent’ workers, are presented as entirely unconscious, completely dominated by bourgeois ideology. In reality, class consciousness does not develop according to this sterile schema. The development of revolutionary consciousness in the class does not mean that a conscious party directs an unconscious class: it means that the whole class, through its struggle, through mass action, moves towards communist positions with the party pointing out the direction that the whole class is already beginning to follow. In a revolutionary situation, consciousness develops at a very rapid pace, and the dynamic of the movement leads many workers to take up positions well in advance of their formal ‘party affiliations’. In fact, the very formation of councils, though not in itself sufficient for the carrying through of the revolution, already shows that a revolutionary level of activity is already being forced on the class. As the KAPD expressed it in its ‘Theses on the Role of the Party in the Proletarian Revolution’ (1921):
“The political workers’ councils (soviets) are the historically determined, all-embracing form of proletarian power and administration: at all times they pass the individual points of the class struggle and pose the question of complete power.”
In the proletarian movement, there can be no separation of consciousness and organization: a certain level of self-organization presupposes a certain level of class consciousness. The councils are not mere forms into which a revolutionary content is injected by the party; they are themselves products of an emerging revolutionary consciousness in the class. The party does not inject this consciousness: it develops and generalizes it to its utmost potential.
Recognizing the complexity and richness of the process by which the class becomes conscious, the revolutionary vanguard (whether we are talking about the party or the broader vanguard of delegates to the central soviet organs) can never measure the depth of the communist movement of the masses by purely statistical means, and it can certainly not limit its criteria for action on the mechanics of the formal vote. As Luxemburg said in her pamphlet on the Russian revolution:
“... the Bolsheviks solved the famous problem of ‘winning a majority of the people’, which problem has ever weighed on the German social democracy like a nightmare. As bred-in-thebone disciples of parliamentary cretinism, these German social democrats have sought to apply to revolutions the homemade wisdom of the parliamentary nursery: in order to carry anything you must first have a majority. The same, they say, applies to revolution: first, let’s become a ‘majority’. The true dialectic of revolutions, however, stands this wisdom of parliamentary moles on its head: not through a majority to revolutionary tactics, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority -- that is the way the road runs.”
The second false premise of the CWO’s argument is that the party’s winning of a majority of delegates to the councils is equivalent to the party being in power. This was the great confusion of the whole workers’ movement at the time of the Russian revolution and was to have the most pernicious consequences. Today such a view is no longer excusable. As Revolution Internationale wrote in 1969 (Revolution Internationale 3, old series, ‘Sur l’Organization’):
“It is possible and even probable that at certain moments in the struggle, one or several councils will be in full agreement with the positions of this or that revolutionary organization. This simply means that, at a given moment, the group in question corresponds perfectly to the level of consciousness in the proletariat; in no way does it mean that the councils have to abandon their power to the ‘central committee’ of that group. It may even be that the delegates elected by that council are all members of that group. This is unimportant and does not imply that the council is in a relation of subordination to that group, as long as the council retains its power to revoke its delegates.”
This is not a democratic formalism, but a vital question of principle which is not answered by the neat schema of the CWO. The real question here is: who makes the decisions? Are council delegates revocable at all times or only until the ‘conquest of power by the party’? Is the election and recall of delegates only a means for the party to come to power -- after which it can be superseded -- or does it obey a deeper need in the proletariat? And another question, ignored by the CWO, but obvious to the Bordigists who make no pretence that they will abide by the democratic mechanisms of the councils: if the party is a world party, as it will be in the next revolutionary wave, then surely the assumption of power by the party even in one country means that power must be in the hands of the central organ of the world party? And how are the workers in one bastion to maintain their control of an organ which is organized on a world scale?
The truth of the matter is that you cannot be simultaneously for the power of the party and the power of the councils. As we saw earlier, delegation of power to a party is inevitable in bourgeois parliaments where the electors ‘choose’ an apparatus to rule over them throughout a given period. But such a schema is in total contradiction with the functioning of the councils, which seeks to break down the separation between the masses and their political power, between decision and execution, ‘government’ and governed. The class-based, collective structure of the councils, their mechanisms of election and recall, make it possible for the power to make and carry out decisions to remain in the hands of the masses at all times. Councils’ delegates who are party members will not hide their political affiliations: indeed they will actively defend the positions of their organization, but this does not alter the fact that they are elected by assemblies or councils to carry out the decisions of those assemblies or councils, and will be recalled if they fail to do so. Even when there is close harmony between the positions of the party and the decisions of the councils, this does not mean that power has been delegated to the party. Delegating power, if it means anything at all, means delegating the capacity to make and enforce decisions to an apparatus which does not coincide with the apparatus of the councils and can therefore not remain under their control. Once this has happened, election and revocability lose all their meaning: posts of the highest responsibility can be appointed by the party, decisions of the most crucial kind can be made, with no reference to the councils. Gradually, the councils cease to be the focus of the life of the revolution and are transformed into mere rubber stamps for the decisions of the party.
It is important to insist on this point, not because we are making a fetish out of democratic forms -- as we have said, class consciousness cannot be measured by votes alone. But this doesn’t alter the fact that unless the councils retain their ‘democratic’ mechanisms (election and recall, collective decision-making, etc) they will be unable to carry out their essential political role as living centers of revolutionary clarification and action for the whole class. The democratic forms are indispensable because they enable the class to learn how to think, decide and act for itself. If socialism is the self-conscious control of the producers over their own destiny, then only a self-active and self-conscious working class can realize the socialist project.
Some people may object that the open democracy of the councils is no guarantee that they will act in a revolutionary manner. Of course this is true; indeed, this very openness leaves the councils ‘open’ to the influence of bourgeois organizations and bourgeois ideology. But such influences cannot be eliminated by party decree: the party can only counteract them by politically exposing them in front of the class, by demonstrating how they obstruct the real needs of the struggle. If the mass of workers are to fully understand the difference between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary positions, they can only discover this for themselves, by practically understanding the consequences of their actions and decisions. The retention of decision-making power by the councils is a necessary, though not sufficient precondition for the development of communist consciousness. On the other hand, as the Russian experience confirmed, the control over a passive, subdued soviet system by the best party in the world can only act against the development of such consciousness.
Now, contrary to what the councilists claim, the process whereby decision-making power passed from the councils to the Bolsheviks was not completed overnight and it was certainly not the result of a systematic effort by the Bolsheviks to undermine the power of the councils. The theorization of the ‘dictatorship of the party’ by elements like Zinoviev and Trotsky did not come till after the civil war and the ravages of the imperialist blockade had decimated the working class and sapped the material basis for the self-activity of the soviets. Before that (and in fact until the end of his life), Lenin was perpetually insisting on the need to regenerate the soviets, to restore them to the central place they had occupied at the beginning of the revolution. But it would be a mistake to think that the erroneous positions defended by the Bolsheviks played no part in the process whereby the party substituted itself for the councils; that the loss of power and influence by the councils was a purely automatic result of the isolation of the revolution. In reality, the transformation of the Bolshevik party into a government party, the delegation of power to the party, immediately began to weaken the effective power of the soviets. From 1917 onwards, more and more executive posts and commissions were instituted by the party with less and less reference to the soviet assemblies; soviet delegates were removed or appointed by the party ‘from above’ rather than by the soviet organs themselves; unitary organs like the factory committees were absorbed into the trade unions, organs of the party-state; the workers’ militias were dissolved into the Red Army in a similar way. And all this began to take place before the big concentrations of workers had been broken up by the civil war. The point is not to make a catalogue of Bolshevik errors on this question, but to show how their political positions, their conception of the party, accelerated the tendency for the unitary organs of the class to be subordinated to the administrative and repressive apparatus of the state. The political justification for this process can be seen in a statement by Trotsky in 1920:
“Today we received peace proposals from the Polish government. Who decided this question? We have Sovnarkom, but it must be subject to a certain control. What control? The control of the working class as a formless, chaotic mass? No. The central committee of the party has been called together to discuss the proposal and decide whether to answer it. The same is true of the agrarian question, the food question, and all other questions.” (Speech to the Second Congress of the CI).
Underlying this attitude is the old idea of social democracy that once the proletarian party has assumed state power, then the state will automatically be directed in the interests of the proletariat. The class ‘entrusts’ its power to the party, and the need for the soviets to actually make the decisions is done away with. In fact, this could only be an abdication of responsibility by the soviets, and make them much less able to resist the tendencies towards bureaucratization which developed so chronically during the civil war. In order to avoid any misunderstanding, let us restate this point. We are in no way saying the party should not seek to win support for its positions. On the contrary it is essential for the party to try to win a decisive influence in the councils. But this influence can only be a political one: the party can only intervene in the decision-making process by politically convincing the councils of the correctness of its positions. Instead of arrogating decision-making responsibility to itself, it must insist again and again that all the major decisions affecting the course of the revolution are fully discussed, understood and acted upon in the councils. And this is why it is so erroneous to talk about the party ‘taking power’, with or without a formal majority in the councils. In the real world power is not a question of votes but a question of force. The party can only be ‘in power’ if it has the capacity to enforce its position on the class, on the council system. This implies that the party must have an apparatus of power which is separate from the councils. Parties of themselves, do not generally possess such an apparatus, and the Bolshevik party was no exception. In fact, the only way that the Bolshevik party could really be in power was to identify itself with the state. This is why it is impossible to understand the problem of substitutionism without a proper grasp of the problem of the post-revolutionary state.Party and State
For various currents, including the CWO and various councilists, there is no real problem about the state in the period of transition. The state is the workers’ councils, and that’s that. Therefore any talk about possible conflicts between the unitary organs of the class and the transitional state is sheer nonsense. Unfortunately, this is an idealist view of revolution. As Marxists we have to base our conceptions of the revolution not on what we would like to see happen, but on what historical necessity has forced to happen in the past and will force to happen in the future. The only real example of the working class taking power at the level of an entire nation -- the Russian revolution -- forces us to admit that a society in revolution will inevitably give rise to forms of state organization which are not only distinct from the unitary organs of the class, but can indeed enter into profound and even violent conflict with them.
The unavoidable necessity to organize a Red Army, a state police, an administrative apparatus, a form of political representation for all the non-exploiting classes and strata: these material needs are what give birth to a state machine which -- whether or not you label it ‘proletarian’ cannot simply be assimilated to the workers’ councils. Contrary to what certain councilists say, the Bolsheviks did not create this machine ex nihilo to serve their Machiavellian ends. Although we must understand how the Bolsheviks’ conception of their role as a government party actively accelerated the tendency for this machinery to escape the control of the workers’ soviets, they were only molding and adapting a state organ which had already begun to emerge before the October insurrection. The Congresses of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ soviets were evolving into a new state form even before the overthrow of the Kerensky regime. The necessity to give the post-insurrectional society an organized form consolidated this process into the Soviet State. As Marx wrote in Critical Notes on ‘The Kind of Prussia and Social Reform’: “From a political point of view the state and the organization of society are not two different things. The state is the organization of society.”
If the Russian revolution has anything to teach us about this state it is that the isolation of the revolution, the weakening of the workers’ councils, will tend to reinforce the state apparatus at the expense of the proletariat; will begin to turn that state into an instrument of oppression and exploitation against the class. The state is the most vulnerable point for the forces of the counter-revolution. It is the organism through which the impersonal power of capital will tend to reassert itself, perverting a proletarian revolution into the bureaucratic nightmare of state capitalism. Those who pretend that the danger does not exist are disarming the class in the face of its future battles.
Some tendencies, particularly those who have some familiarity with the immense contribution of the Italian Left on this question, do understand that there is a problem here. Thus Battaglia Comunista, while stating at the recent international conference in Paris that the party must indeed take power, say in their platform that the cadre of the party must “keep the state on the path of revolutionary continuity” but “must not in any way be confused with the state or integrated into it”. Like Bilan in the 1930s, these tendencies want the party to take power, exercise the proletarian dictatorship, and control the state apparatus -- but not become fused with the state as the Bolshevik party did, since they recognize that the entanglement of the Bolsheviks with the apparatus of the Soviet state contributed to the degeneration of the party and of the revolution. But this position is contradictory. With Bilan, this contradiction was a fertile one, in so far as they were engaged in a movement towards clarifying the correct relationship between party and class; a movement that was, in our opinion, most fruitfully carried on in the work of Gauche Communiste de France after the war and by the ICC today. But to go back to the contradictory positions of Bilan today can only be a regression.
The position is contradictory because the party cannot ‘control’ the state without having a means of enforcing this control. To do this, either the party must have its own organs of coercion to ensure that the state follows its directives; or, as is more likely and as happened in Russia, the party must more and more identify itself with the commanding heights of the state, with its machinery of administration and repression. In either case the party becomes a state organ. To argue that the party can avoid this either through its programmatic clarity alone, or through organizational measures like setting up a special subcommittee to run the state, supervised by the central committee, is to fail to understand that what happened in Russia was the result of huge social forces and can only be prevented from repeating itself by the intervention of even greater social forces, not just through ideological or organizational safeguards.
The transitional state, though an absolute necessity for the defense of the revolution, cannot be the dynamic subject of the movement towards communism. It is, at best, an instrument which the class uses to safeguard and codify the advances made by the communist social movement. But the movement itself is led by the unitary organs of the class, which intimately express the life and needs of the class, and by the communist party, which continually puts forward the overall goals of the movement. The unitary organs of the class cannot become weighed down with the day-to-day functioning of the state. They can only exist in a state of permanent insurrection, ceaselessly breaking out of the narrow limits of constitutions, laws and administrative routines which, however, are the very essence of the state. Only in this way can they respond creatively to the immense problems posed by the construction of communism and compel the state machine to obey the global needs of the revolution. It is the same with the party, which both before and after the conquest of power must root itself in the masses and in their organs of struggle, tirelessly pushing them forward and criticizing their hesitations and confusions. The fusion of the party and the state will, as it did with the Bolsheviks, undermine its dynamic role and turn the party into a conservative force, concerned above all with the immediate needs of the economy and with purely administrative functions. The party would then lose its primordial function of providing a political direction to which all administrative tasks must be subordinated.
The party will certainly intervene in the representative organs of the state, but organizationally it will retain a complete separation from the state machine. Whatever direction it is able to give to the state will depend on its ability to convince politically the delegates of the territorial soviets, the soldiers’ committees, masses of small peasants, landless peasants, etc of the validity of its positions. But it cannot ‘control’ the state without becoming a state organ itself. Only the workers’ councils can really control the state, since they remain armed throughout the revolutionary process and can enforce their directives to the state through mass action and pressure. And the primary field of intervention for the party will be the workers’ councils, where it will continually agitate to ensure that the councils’ vigilant control over all the state organs does not waver for a moment.Party and Class
Sooner or later, all groups in the revolutionary camp will have to come to terms with the ambiguities or contradictions of their position on the party. There is a certain logic in saying that the party must take power, and in our opinion, the most logical exponents of this position within the proletarian movement are the Bordigists.
“The proletarian state can only be ‘animated’ by a single party and it would be senseless to require that this party organize within its ranks a statistical majority and be supported by such a majority in ‘popular elections’ -- that old bourgeois trap ... the communist party will rule alone, and will never give up power without a physical struggle. This bold declaration of not yielding to the deception of figures and not making use of them will aid the struggle against revolutionary degeneration.” (‘Proletarian Dictatorship and Class Party’, 1951)
Compared to the democratic formalism of the CWO this position is refreshingly clear. The communist party, which invariably defends ‘the historic interests of the working class’, uses the democratic mechanisms of the councils only to gain power: once it is in power, it uses the state to impose its decisions on the masses. If the masses act against what the party judges to be their own historic interests, it will use violence, the famous Red Terror, to compel the class to fall into line with ‘its own real interests’. Those who want the party to take power, but hesitate to follow this logic, are flying in the face of historical reality. But the remorseless way this logic imposes itself was graphically demonstrated by the CWO at the recent Paris conference, where they stated quite explicitly that once it is in power, the party should not hesitate to use violence against ‘backward’ or ‘counter-revolutionary’ expressions of the class.
It is indeed ironic that the CWO, who have for so long insisted that the massacre of the Kronstadt uprising marked the passage of the Bolsheviks into the capitalist camp, who even denounced the ICC as ‘apologists’ for the massacre because it considers that 1921 was not the definitive end of the Bolsheviks as a proletarian party -- that the CWO should now be ideologically preparing the way for new Kronstadts. We must not forget that Kronstadt was only the culmination of a process in which the party had more and more been resorting to coercive measures against the class. The lesson of this whole process, tragically illuminated by the disaster of Kronstadt, is that a proletarian party with or without the support of the majority of the class cannot use physical repression against a section of the class without profoundly damaging the revolution and perverting its own essence. This was expressed very clearly by the Italian left in 1938:
“The question we are faced with is this. Circumstances could arise in which a sector of the proletariat -- and we will even concede that it may be the unconscious victim of the maneuvers of the enemy -- goes into struggle against the proletarian state. What is to be done in such a situation? We must begin from the principle that socialism cannot be imposed on the proletariat by violence and force. It would have been better to have lost Kronstadt if holding on to it from the geographical point of view could only have one result: distorting the very substance of the proletariat’s activity. We know the objection to this: the loss of Kronstadt would have been a decisive loss for the revolution, perhaps even the loss of the revolution itself. Here we are getting to the nub of the question. What criteria are being used in this analysis? Those which derive from class principles, or others which simply derive from a given situation? Are we starting from the axiom that it is better for the workers to make their own mistakes, even fatal ones, or from the idea that we should suspend our principles, because afterwards the workers will be grateful to us for having defended them, even by violence?
Every situation gives rise to two opposing sets of criteria which lead to two opposing tactical conclusions. If we base our analysis on mere forms, then we will arrive at the conclusion which derives from the following proposition: such and such an organ are proletarian, and we must defend it as such, even if it means smashing a workers’ movement. If, however, we base our analysis on questions of substance, we will arrive at a very different conclusion: a proletarian movement that is being manipulated by the enemy contains within it an organic contradiction between the proletariat and their class enemy. In order to draw this contradiction to the surface it is necessary to use propaganda among the workers, who in the course of events themselves will recover their strength as a class and will be able to foil the enemy’s schemes. But if by chance it was true that the outcome of this or that event could mean the loss of the revolution, then it’s certain that a victory would not only be a distortion of reality (historic events like the Russian revolution can never really depend on a single episode and only a superficial mind could believe that the crushing of Kronstadt could have saved the revolution) but would also provide the conditions for really losing the revolution. The undermining of principles would not remain localized but would inevitably extend to all the activities of the proletarian state.” (‘The Question of the State’, Octobre, 1938)
Although Octobre continued to argue in favor of the dictatorship of the party, for the Gauche Communiste de France and for us today, the only way of consistently applying these lucid insights is by affirming that the proletarian party does not seek power, does not seek to become a state organ.
Otherwise you are relying only on the ‘will’ or good intentions of the party being able to prevent it from coming into violent conflict with the class; but once it has become a state organ, the strongest will of the best communist party in the world is not enough to immunize it from the inexorable pressures of the state. This is why the Gauche Communiste de France concluded in 1948 that
“During the insurrectionary period of the revolution, the role of the party is not to claim power for itself, nor to ask the masses to put their confidence in it. Its intervention and activity aim to stimulate the self-mobilization of the class struggle for the victory of revolutionary principles.
The mobilization of a class around a party in which it ‘confides’ or rather abandons leadership is a conception which reflects a state of immaturity in the class. Experience has shown that under such conditions the revolution will be unable to succeed and will finally lead to the degeneration of the party and a divorce between party and class. The party would soon be forced to resort more and more to methods of coercion to impose itself on the class and would thus become a formidable obstacle to the revolution.” (‘Sur la Nature et la Fonction du Parti Politique du Proletariat’; see RI Bulletin D’Etude et Discussion, no. 6, from Internationalisme no.38, October 1948)
Revolutionaries today are faced with a choice. On one hand, they can adopt positions which lead them towards Bordigism, towards an apology for and a theorization of the degeneration of the Bolshevik party, towards substitutionism in its fully developed form. In this sense, they will discover that substitutionism is indeed ‘impossible’ for the proletarian movement, because it leads to practices and positions which are directly counter-revolutionary. Or they can take up the profoundly revolutionary spirit of Lenin and the Bolsheviks at the time of the October revolution, a spirit which led Lenin to say in his appeal ‘To the Population’ a few days after the insurrection:
“Comrade workers! Remember that you yourselves now administer the state. Nobody will help you if you do not unite and take all the affairs of the state into your own hands. Your soviets are henceforth the organs of state power, organs with full powers, organs of decision.”
It is in this spirit, sharpened by the insights on the relation between party, class and state afforded by the Russian experience, which has to guide us today. It is a spirit profoundly in accord with the aims and methods of the communist revolution, with the revolutionary nature of the working class. If we have to say it a thousand times we will do so: communism can only be created by the conscious self-activity of the entire proletariat, and the communist vanguard can never act in a way that runs counter to this fundamental reality. The revolutionary party can never use the lack of homogeneity in the class, the weight of bourgeois ideology, or the threat of counterrevolution, as a justification for using force to ‘compel’ the class to be revolutionary. This is a complete contradiction in terms and itself expresses the weight of bourgeois ideology on the party. The working class can only throw off the weight of bourgeois ideology through its own mass activity, through its own experience. At certain moments it may seem simpler to confer its most crucial tasks onto a revolutionary organization, but whatever short-term ‘gains’ this might appear to bring, the long-term effect could only be to weaken the class. There can be no stopping short in the proletarian revolution: “those who make a revolution half-way only dig their own graves” (St. Juste). For the working class, that means ceaselessly struggling to overcome all the passive conservative tendencies in its own ranks, tendencies which are the bitter fruits of generations of bourgeois ideology; it means tirelessly developing and expanding its own self-organization and self-consciousness before, during and after the seizure of political power. Pannekoek’s polemics against the parliamentary tactics of the CI can equally well be applied to those who see an essentially parliamentary role for the communist party in the soviets:
“Revolution also demands something more than the massive assault that topples a government and which, as we know, cannot be summoned by leaders, but can only spring from the profound impulse of the masses. Revolution requires social reconstruction to be undertaken, difficult decisions to be made, the whole proletariat involved in creative action -- and this is only possible if first the vanguard, then a greater and greater number take matters in hand themselves, know their own responsibilities, investigate, agitate, wrestle, strive, reflect, assess, seize chances and act upon them. But all this is difficult and laborious: thus, so long as the working class thinks it sees an easier way out through others acting on its behalf -- leading agitation from a high platform, taking decisions, giving signals for action, making laws -- the old habits of thought and the old weaknesses will make it hesitate and remain passive.”(‘World Revolution and Communist Tactics’,1920)
There are many people who want to be ‘leaders’ of the working class. But most of them confuse the bourgeois concept of leadership with the way that the proletariat generates its own leadership. Those who, in the name of leadership, call on the class to abandon its most crucial task to a minority are not leading the class towards communism, but strengthening the hold of bourgeois ideology in the class, the ideology which from cradle to grave tries to convince workers that they are incapable of organizing themselves, that they must entrust others with the task of organizing them. The revolutionary party will only contribute to the progress towards communism by stimulating and generalizing a consciousness which runs entirely counter to the ideology of the bourgeoisie: a consciousness of the inexhaustible capacity of the class to organize itself and become conscious of itself as the subject of history. Communists, secreted by a class which contains no new relations of exploitation within itself, are unique in the history of revolutionary parties in that they do everything they can to make their own function unnecessary as class consciousness and activity becomes a homogeneous reality throughout all of the class. The more the proletariat advances on the road to communism, the more the whole class will become the living expression of “man’s positive self-awareness”, of a liberated and conscious human community.
C. D. Ward