The Fraction-Party from Marx to Lenin, 1848-1917

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

1. From Marx to the Second International

The present acceleration of history, Capitalism's entry into its phase of decomposition, sharply poses the necessity for the proletarian revolution as the only way out of the barbarism of capitalism in crisis. History teaches us that this revolution can only triumph if the class manages to organize itself autonomously from other classes (the workers' councils) and to secrete the vanguard that will guide it towards victory: the class party. However, today, this party doesn't exist, and many are those who simply fold their arms because, faced with the gigantic tasks that await us, the activity of the small revolutionary groups who do exist may appear to be senseless. Within the revolutionary camp itself, the majority of groups respond to the absence of the party by endlessly repeating its very Holy Name, invoking it like some kind of deus ex machina that can solve all the problems of the class. Individual disengagement and overblown declarations about commitment are two classic ways of running away from the struggle for the party, a struggle which is going on here and now, in continuity with the activity of the left fractions who broke with the degener­ating Communist International in the 20s.

In the first two parts of this work, we analyzed the activity of the Italian Communist Left, which was organized as a fraction in the 30s and 40s, and the premature, completely artificial foundation of the Internationalist Communist Party by the comrades of Battaglia Comunista in 1942[1]. In this third part, we will show that the method of working as a fraction in unfavorable periods when there is no possibility of a class party existing, was the very method employed by Marx himself. We will also show that this marxist method of working towards the party found its essential definition through the tenacious struggle of the Bolshevik fraction in the Russian social democracy. Against all those who gargle eulogies to the iron party of Lenin, and who refer ironically to the 'little grouplets that were the left fractions', we reaffirm that its only on the basis of the work that they accomplished that it will be possible to reconstruct to­morrow's world communist party.

In the article already quoted in the previous parts of this work, the comrades of  Battaglia Communista, having criticized the work of the Left Fraction between 1935 and 1945, concluded their presentation with a curt condemnation of the concept of the fraction in general:

"What is the sense of exclusively linking the notion of the party to the possibility of guiding then at least in a way that leaves no room for the broad masses, denying the political organ of the class struggle any possibility of existing except in revolutionary periods, and delegating to organisms that have never been well defined, or to their successors, the task of defending class interests in counter-revolutionary phases ....

"To argue that the party can only arise in revolutionary situations where the question of power is on the agenda, whereas in counter- revolutionary phases the party 'must' disappear or give way to the fractions, means not only depriving the class, in the most difficult and dangerous moments, of a minimum of political ­reference - which in the end means playing into the hands of the bourgeoisie - but also deliberately creates a void which it will be hard to fill in the space of 24 hours ...

"We cannot support the thesis, contradicted by historical experience, which claims that the Bolshevik party itself played the role of a 'fraction' within Russian social democracy up until 1917 (a thesis defended by the ICC in International Review no 3) ... Russia was the only European country involved in the war crisis of 1914-18 in which, despite conditions being less favorable than elsewhere, witnessed a proletarian revolution, due precisely to the fact that there was a party carrying out the work of a party, at least from 1912. From its beginnings, Bolshevism did not limit itself to fighting the opportunism of the Mensheviks on the political level, to theoretically elaborating the principles of the revolution, to forming cadres and proselytizing, but forged the first links between the party and the class, links which later on, in the heat of a rising situation, were to become real collective channels between the spontaneity of the class and the strategic and tactical program of the party...

"Already in 1902, Lenin had laid the tactical and organizational bases for building the alternative which was a party, unless we take What Is To Be Done to be the ten commandments of the fractionalist faith"[2]

To sum up, according to the comrades of BC:

  1. nobody knows the origin of the theory which holds that in counter-revolutionary periods, fractions have to take the place of parties;
  2. these fractions are "organisms that have never been well defined" and are thus incapable of giving a political orientation to the proletariat;
  3. if the Russian revolution happened at all, it was because Lenin had from 1902 on bases of the Bolshevik party, and not the Bolshevik fraction as the ICC claims.

These assertions, three holes in Battaglia's theo­retical-political coherence, three ideas about the history of the workers' movement, don't stand up to examination. 

Marx, the Communist League, the IWA, and the lessons of the counter-revolution

"I would first like to point out, that following the dissolution of the League, which I had called for, in November 1852, I did not and do not belong to any organization, secret or public; in other words, the party, in the ephemeral sense of the term, for me ceased to exist 8 years ago ... As a result of this, I have been attacked on several occasions, if not openly, then at least in a way that leaves no room for doubt, on account of my 'inactivity' ...  Consequently, of the party you talk to me about in your letter, I have known nothing since 1852 ... The League, as well as the Society of Seasons in Paris and a hundred other organizations, was simply an episode in the history of the party which is born spontaneously from the soil of modern society... In addition, I have tried to avoid the misunderstanding which identifies the 'party' with a League that has been dead for 8 years or with the publication of a paper dissolved 12 years ago. When I talk about the party, I mean the. party in the broadest historical sense" (Marx to Freiligrath, 1860).

As we can see, the theory that proletarian par­ties disappear in counter-revolutionary phases was not an invention of Bilan in the 1930s, but was already Marx's firm conviction in the middle of the last century.

In this reply to the ex-militant of the Communist League, Ferdinand Freiligrath, who was inviting Marx to reassume the leadership of the 'party', Marx made it clear that the party had been dis­solved 8 years before, at the end of the revolutionary wave that began in 1848, as the Society of the Seasons of the Parisian workers and other organizations had been before, once the cycle of struggles of which they had been an expression had come to an end.

It is clear that Marx always had this profoundly materialist attitude, in contrast to the activist prejudices of those who refused to recognize the depth of the defeat and wanted to immediately 'start all over again'. In 1850, when Marx declared that the world economic revival had made the revolutionary perspective in Europe of recede into the distance, the majority of the League's militants (the Willich-Schapper tendency) opposed him and denounced him for trying to 'send everyone to sleep'. Only a mi­nority remained loyal to him and attempted - even after the formal dissolution of the League in 1852 - to devote themselves to the difficult task of 'drawing the lessons of the defeat', by understanding its causes and forging the theoretical instruments which would serve the proletariat in the next waves of struggle.

It is important to underline that the comrades who wanted to keep the League alive at any price were compelled to renege on their political positions and engage in all kinds of intrigues, in artificial alliances with the democrats, al­liances which soon dissolved and left no trace, except for the cinders of activism born out of the artificial attempt to hold on to the party.

By contrast, the patient work of clarification, of forming cadres, carried out by the fraction linked to Marx would bear fruit when the work­ers' movement revived: the marxist cadres were naturally to be found at the head of the International Workingmen's Association when it was formed in 1864 (developing "spontaneously from the soil of modern society"), at a time when there was an international resurgence of the workers' movement.

Marx's position didn't change in 1871, when the defeat of the Paris Commune opened up a new period of retreat in the workers' movement. In these conditions, Marx and Engels quickly say that the days of the IWA were numbered, and at the Le Hague congress in 1872, they propose that the General Council should be transferred to New York, which boiled down to dissolving the organization:

"Given the present conditions in Europe, it is absolutely useful, in my opinion, to shelve the formal organization of the International for the moment ... The inevitable evolution of things can lead of themselves to a resurrection of the International in a more perfected form. In the meantime, it will be enough to make sure that we don't let the best elements in various coun­tries slip out of our hands" (Marx to Sorge, 1873).

Once again, for Marx and Engels, keeping the facade of a party artificially alive in a period of counter-revolution was absolutely pointless; on the other hand, it was essential to carry on the collective work of that fraction of militants that was capable of resisting demoralization and of preparing the future resurgence "in a more perfected form".

To console the comrades of BC, who seem to be terrorized by the possibility that someone can 'decide' that the party 'ought' to disappear at certain moments, we should underline that Marx and Engels never thought of taking such 'decisions'. To 'decide' to dissolve the party is a voluntarist act exactly like deciding to maintain it artificially. Marx did not dissolve the League in an authoritarian manner in 1852, any more than he did the IWA in 1872. He simply ex­plained that revolutionaries had to face up to the inevitable dislocation of these parties, by organizing themselves to preserve the red thread of communist activity even in their ab­sence. If the dissolution of these organs subse­quently confirmed, in both cases, Marx's predic­tions, this was because of the force of events, not the force of Marx's orders.

The dialectic between Party and Fraction works itself out in the historic development of the workers' movement

Now that we have clarified that the 'strange' theory about the disappearance of the proletarian parties in counter-revolutionary periods was developed by Marx himself, let's now turn to the organs which, in these periods, ensured the 'continuity of revolutionary activity, ie the frac­tions.

According to Battaglia, these are organs which "have never been well defined". It is of course true that Marx never wrote a nice propagandist piece in the style of Wage, Labor and Capital on the function of the network of comrades who remained around him after the dissolution of the League and of the IWA. But this doesn't mean that for Marx, the task of drawing up a bal­ance-sheet was not important. It was due to the fact that the notion of the fraction of the class party is by definition linked to the notion of the party itself. The definition of its contours goes hand in hand with the process that leads from the Communist League, which "could make alliances with a fraction of the bourgeoisie", to the Communist International, "which gave itself the task of realizing the world-wide revolu­tion"[3].

As the historic experience of the class made the contours of its vanguard party more precise, so there developed the necessary materials for defining the work of the marxist fraction, which appears in reaction to the party's opportunist deviations. It was only when capitalism entered into its final phase, when the communist revolution was finally on the agenda that the class party could develop in its complete form and by the same token, it became able to secrete real fractions in response to a course towards opportunism and degeneration. The Italian Left drew this lesson in the 1930s:

"The problem of the fraction as we see it - ie as a moment in the reconstruction of the class party - was not and could not have been envis­aged within the First and Second Internationals. What was then called 'fractions', or more com­monly 'right wing' or 'left wing', 'transigent' or 'intransigent' currents, 'reformist' or 'revolutionary' were in the great majority of cases - the Bolsheviks being an exception - simply fortuitous alliances made on the eve of or during congresses, with the aim of carrying through certain agendas with no organizational continuity, in a phase where the seizure of power wasn't posed ... [4].

"The collapse of the Second International when the world conflict broke out cannot be seen as a sudden betrayal, but as the conclusion of a whole process.

The exact notion of the task of a fraction could only be the corollary of the exact notion of the class party"[5].

The process of the maturation and definition of the concept of the fraction thus had its origins (but not its conclusion) in this first network of comrades who had survived the dissolution of the Communist League. Because an understand­ing of where we started from is always indis­pensable for understanding where we're going, we will attempt to analyze in depth the activity of this first 'fraction'.

Certain phrases in the letter to Freiligrath, or other isolated citations from the private correspondence between Marx and Engels, have often been used to demonstrate that these com­rades returned to private life, devoting them­selves to theoretical studies which they later put at the disposal of the masses hungry for knowledge. Reality is completely different.

Engels clarified matters very promptly:

"For the moment, the essential thing is that we have the possibility of getting things published, either in a quarterly review in which we will attack directly, and in which we will ensure our positions against those of others, or in larger works where we can do the same thing without having to mention any of these buffoons. Either one of these solutions is alright by me; but it seems to me that if the reaction gets stronger, the first eventuality will prove to be less cer­tain in the long term, and the second will more and more constitute the only resource we can count on". (Engels to Marx, 1851).

Marx reaffirmed this point:

"I said to him we can't collaborate directly on any small journal, not even a party journal[6], unless it's edited by ourselves. But that at the moment, all the necessary conditions for attain­ing this are absent". (Marx to Engels, 1859).

It wasn't at all a matter of withdrawing into private life, of devoting themselves to theoreti­cal studies with the idea of one day returning to militant activity. For Marx and Engels, the essential thing, the thing to which they devoted all the means at their disposal, was the publica­tion, as regularly as possible, of a revolutionary press that could publicly defend and deepen the perspective of communism and the critique of capitalist society. What they rejected was not this organized and formalized activity, but the attempt to make it possible by collaborating with confused and activist elements who would have made their work completely pointless. If they were unable to maintain a formally organized framework of activity, it was not for lack of trying, but because "all the necessary condi­tions for attaining it are absent". And these conditions were absent because the development of the workers' movement was so weak that in phases of reflux it wasn't possible to maintain even a small organized revolutionary group.

Once again, no one decided that the party 'ought' to disappear, or that the fraction 'ought' to be limited to an informal network of com­rades. It was the objective conditions of the class struggle which determined it: the militants had to either recognize this reality and organize themselves accordingly, or close their eyes and deceive themselves and others by playing tricks which kept up the mere name and appearance of a class organ.

In reality, only those who have no interest in Central Committees that float in the void have played a real 'party' role in counter-revolution­ary phases: the small informal group of com­rades around Marx worked in such a continuous and collective way that they were commonly re­ferred to in the revolutionary milieu as the 'Marx party' - so much so that Marx had to make it clear in his letter to Freiligrath that this party didn't exist. He pointed out that when he referred to party activity, he meant it in "the broadest historical sense" as an activity which maintained political continuity between the different parties. The groups of comrades which carried out this work after the dissolution of the League and the IWA, despite their informal character, can be considered as fractions in ev­ery respect, because they weren't new regroup­ments but real fractions of the old parties.

The 'Marx party' of 1853-63 was none other than the 'Marx fraction' within the League in 1850-52.

The "most capable comrades in various coun­tries" in the period from the dissolution of the IWA to the birth of the second International were none other than the old 'authoritarian' marxist fraction with the IWA. The fractions ­- however they define themselves and organize themselves accordingly to the maturity of the period - thus represent the historical continuity between the different episodes in the history of the party.

The problem of the Fraction in the Second International

Merely asserting that Lenin - leader of the Bolshevik fraction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party - had something to do with the fractions, provokes a show of contempt by Battaglia, for whom Lenin is the party man, and that's that: it's because the Bolshevik party existed - and not some ill-defined fraction ­that the revolution was able to triumph in Russia.

Before showing that this is yet another falsifi­cation of history by BC, let's recall the historic framework in which the activities of the Bolsheviks and the socialist left in general de­veloped.

The Second International was founded in a diffi­cult historic period for revolutionaries: on the one hand, throughout Europe it was the end of the phase in which the proletariat could play an autonomous role in bourgeois democratic revolu­tions (which henceforth would be carried out 'from above', as with Bismark in Germany); on the other hand, the proletarian revolution wasn't yet on the agenda, since capitalism was in its last, most impetuous phase of economic development. In these conditions Marx (and Engels after Marx's death) considered the ex­istence of a powerful opportunist wing in "the social democratic parties to be an "inevitable fact". They thus advised the marxist elements to avoid premature splits and concentrate on the intransigent defense of class positions within the party, in the expectation that the approach of the revolutionary crisis would lead "automatically" to a split and the emergence of authentic marxist parties[7].

Revolutionaries had to be the most resolute defenders of the unity of the party, momentarily giving up any idea of organizing themselves into currents that were well-defined organizationally, which would have exposed them to the threat of expulsion, and thus of being trans­formed into sects detached from the real move­ment, This was the only effective line of action in this situation and, in fact, it marked a num­ber of successes (accepting of the marxist Erfurt program in 1881).

However, the prolongation over decades of the phase of economic development and social peace not only meant that the existence of an oppor­tunist wing was "an inevitable fact", but that it infiltrated the majority of the party, which would make it difficult for the organization to purge itself when faced with a pre-revolution­ary situation,

At the beginning of the new century marxists were posed with the question of reacting against this negative evolution, moving away from the defense of marxism in "dispersed or­der" to a more coordinated activity within the party. This, however, was by no means easy, because the myth of unity had deep roots in the party leaders were well-placed to present the radicals as divisive elements.  In 1909, the attempt of the militants of the Dutch left to organize as a tendency around the publication Die Tribune was nipped in the bud by expelling them en bloc; this led them to form a mini-party which quickly reproduced, on a small scale, the vices of the original one[8]. The prevalent attitude among the militants of the left was the attempt to push things left­wards rather than directly oppose what was going on. Rosa Luxemburg's behaviour in the German' party was the clearest expression of this.

The only exception, as the passages cited from Bilan no.24 show, was the Russian Bolsheviks who were organized as an autonomous fraction of the RSDLP from 1904 on. It may seem astonishing that the first to move had been these 'backward' Russians, but the explanation for their vanguard role derives precisely from the particular conditions of the Russian empire (which then stretched from Siberia to Poland). In this immense zone in the first years of the century, the bourgeois democratic revolution, which had in all essentials already been achieved in Europe, was still on the agenda. But the late development of the Russian bourgeoisie prevented it from playing a vanguard role in the democratic revolution, while the especially backward character of Tsarism prevented it from carrying out the revolution 'from above' as Bismark had done in Germany.

The Russian proletariat, therefore, was not des­tined to seize the last historic chance of playing an autonomous role within a bourgeois revolu­tion. But, as we have seen, Engels had already foreseen that the approach of a revolutionary crisis would place on the agenda an organizational separation between the marxists and the opportunists. The maturation of a revolutionary situation in the Tsarist territories fully con­firmed Engels' predictions, since it became more and more difficult for the marxists to live under the same roof with the opportunists who were logically inclined to make compromises, not only with the democrats, but with the reaction itself. In Poland, the revolutionaries led by Rosa Luxemburg had already resolved the problem in 1894, by creating a new small party, the SDKP, in opposition to a Polish Socialist Party that was profoundly infected by nationalism. In this way, Rosa Luxemburg had a free hand earlier on, but she never had the chance of gaining experience of the struggle of a fraction in defense of a party threatened with degeneration. This is why she never really managed to develop and under­stand the concept of a fraction. This was a weakness that would be paid for dearly during the heroic struggle of the Spartacists against the degeneration of the German SPD, and would to a large extent be responsible for the fatal delay in the constitution of the German Communist Party in 1918.

On the other hand, the whole battle that Lenin fought for ten years took place inside the party, enabling him to develop and elaborate the political notion of the left fraction, and thus to lay the bases for the IIIrd International.


[1] The first two parts were published in IRs 59 & 61. For a deeper analysis of the activity of the Italian Communist Left, we recommend reading our two pamphlets ‘La Gauche Communiste d'Italie, 1927-52', and ‘La GCI et l'Opposition Internationale de Gauche'.

[2] ‘Fraction and Party in the Experience of the Italian Left', Prometeo 2, March 1979.

[3] ‘Towards the two and three quarters International?' Bilan 1, November 1933.

[4] Obviously it has to be understood that at that time a fully developed class party could not have existed. The League and the IWA were both class parties corresponding to the level of development of the workers' movement.

[5] ‘The problems of fractions in the IInd International', Bilan 24, 1935.

[6] Marx means an authentically socialist journal. The undifferentiated use of the word party clearly shows that these were only the first steps towards the historic definition of the structure and function of the class party.

[7] For Marx and Engel's tactics in this period, see in particular their correspondence with the leaders of the German party, reproduced in Marx, Engels, and German Social Democracy, Ed 10-18.

[8] During the First World War, the leadership of the Dutch SPD vacillated towards an ambiguous support for Anglo-American imperialism, censoring the international writings of left-wing militants like Gorter. See The History of the Dutch Communist Left that we will be publishing shortly.