Simplicity is not synonymous with easiness or fatality. Undoubtedly, the role of revolutionaries can be simply defined, but it nonetheless remains the product of a very complex situation, and its concretisation demands effort and continuity. First, as we have seen, revolutionaries have to organise themselves. They must remain constantly alert to the enrichment of revolutionary theory from the experiences of their class, draw the lessons of the past, keep in view the final goals, situate their activity in a long—term perspective. They are not always given the opportunity to have an impact in their class; they cannot proclaim themselves ‘the class Party’ and provide a wholly artificial solution to the complexity of class consciousness and its development. Like their class, and despite the continuity in their tasks and their existence, revolutionaries are part of social reality; they undergo the changes in the balance of class forces between them and the bourgeoisie, the flux and reflux of the class struggle. In periods of defeat for their class comrades, they remain a tiny minority, to draw out patiently the lessons of the defeat, and prepare for the renewal of the struggle. The communist organisation is not sheltered from these historical events, any more than it can escape entirely from the pressure of bourgeois ideology. It is a living body which must breath, nourish itself, act, get its breath back… and as such, it can also be struck by illness and death.
Even if they constitute the most conscious element of the proletariat, communists are not for all that infallible. We have seen the extent to which the confusions of the Bolsheviks played a nefarious role in the later development of the world revolution, and to what extent they became an active force in its degeneration. This remark is equally true for the confusions of the Dutch and German revolutionaries. To think of the development of class consciousness as a natural and inevitable fruition is as absurd as thinking that the magical power of the party can lead the proletariat to revolution. Revolutionaries will not develop the consciousness of the proletariat by sitting back and twiddling their thumbs, or by hitting the workers forcibly over the head with their unvarying programme. To think, either that the party is nothing, or that the party is always right, and that its task is to ‘force the course of events’ comes down in the end to killing all life in the real process by which the workers get a grip on their class consciousness. From these standpoints, the development of class consciousness is no longer a living thing that grows, overcomes its contradictions, develops qualitatively and collectively, but an impotent, paralysed, dying old hag. Revolutionary theory is no longer an active and necessary ferment, but a powerless and useless mummy.
This incomprehension of the living, practical and collective way that class consciousness develops thus leads, not only to confusion about the role of revolutionaries, but to serious dangers for the proletariat itself.
In fact, every time that revolutionaries have tried, through force, voluntarism or plain demagogy, to impose ‘their’ conceptions, they have only succeeded in pushing the workers into dead—ends and the Canon’s mouth.
Let us recall the lamentable experience of the opportunist wing of the VKPD, the Unified Communist Party of Germany, produced by the unnatural fusion of the KPD and the USPD, and which became the official section of the IIIrd International in 1920. For Levi, the eminent representative of this party, what mattered was to conquer ‘the hearts and minds’ of the labouring masses at any price, even if it meant flattering their illusions, while for the same party’s voluntarist and ‘putschist’ wing what mattered was, on the contrary, to go over straight away to action, without taking account of the real state of the struggle and the consciousness of the class. In fact, as Gorter and the KAPD quite rightly emphasized in the text ‘The Road of Doctor Levi and the VKPD’, this putschism is simply a normal extension of opportunism. Right from its foundation, the VKPD followed this path. It continued to work in the very unions that had gone over to the national patriotic camp in 1914; it adopted a parliamentarist tactic to win over the ‘broad masses’ and finally ended up defending the necessity of a United Front with the Social Democratic massacrers of the proletariat. In short, the VKPD adopted at their most extreme all the confusions that developed in the IIIrd International from the IInd Congress on. In Germany, only the KAPD raised its voice against such a practice.
“There then emerge two main tendencies, which can be recognised in every country, for all the local variations. The one current seeks to revolutionise and clarify people’s minds by word and deed, and to this end tries to pose the new principles in the sharpest possible contrast to the old, received conceptions. The other current attempts to draw the masses who are still on the sidelines into practical activity, and therefore emphasizes points of agreement rather than points of difference in an attempt to avoid as far as possible anything that might deter them. The first strives for a clear, sharp separation among the masses, the second for unity; the first current may be termed the radical tendency, the second the opportunist one… In contrast with the strong, sharp emphasis on the new principles — soviet system and dictatorship — which distinguishes communism from Social Democracy, opportunism in the IIIrd International relies as far as possible upon the forms of struggle taken over from the IInd International (Unions, parliamentarism).” (Pannekoek, ‘Die Entwicklung der Weltrevolution und die Taktik des Kommunismus’, 1920, reprinted in Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism)
Far from being contradictory, voluntarism and opportunism feed on each other; each complements the other’s errors. Both reveal an identical incomprehension of the process whereby the proletariat comes to consciousness, and of the active participation of revolutionaries in the process. Each of these confusions abandons the perspective of a long and patient work of explanation within the class, of a constant insistence on its final goal and historical needs. For the voluntarists, the proletariat must be led to action by the will and strength alone of a minority, for the opportunists it must be led by flattery and the abandonment of communist principles. In 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks followed neither of these courses. For them, the party had to go beyond the illusions remaining among the proletariat. Rather than waiting for the working class to get rid of them itself, without any intervention from its vanguard, it had to, on the contrary, put itself ahead of the confused aspirations of the workers, give them a clear expression, facilitate the development of class consciousness, act in such a way that the proletariat might arrive at a conception of its real historical interests. For Lenin, this was not a matter of flattering the prejudices that most workers still held to, nor of acting without taking into account the level of consciousness of the working masses, but of generalising throughout the proletariat the awareness of the necessity for the seizure of power and of making the proletariat capable itself of realising its historical task.
“The temporary strength of the social patriots and the hidden weakness of the opportunist wing of the Bolsheviks lay in this, that the former leant on the prejudices and present illusions of the masses, while the latter accommodated themselves to them. Lenin’s principle strength lay in that he understood the movement’s internal logic and regulated his policies accordingly. He did not impose his plan on the masses. He helped the workers to conceive and realise their own plans. When Lenin brought all the problems of the revolution down to a single ‘explain patiently’, this meant: to bring the consciousness of the masses into accord with the situation, to which they had been driven by the historical process.” (Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 2, our emphasis)
This is what the real concern of revolutionaries should be!
This is how they should carry out the long work of explanation and criticism of past illusions, and push for the homogenisation of class consciousness. And to be able to carry out this work, they must avoid two pitfalls: the abandonment of principles and the final goal, and substitutionist and minority action. It was in this way that Lenin, when he put forward his ‘April Theses’ (which put forward the necessity of the world proletarian revolution) in April 1917, refused any possibility of conciliating the Mensheviks under the false pretext of reinforcing proletarian unity. At first, he remained in the minority of the party, where he was called an anarchist and a madman! Then, by this same patient and untiring work of ‘explanation’ he managed to convince the whole Bolshevik party. Lenin’s strength at this point was his political clarity, which corresponded to the confused desires of the workers and the actual necessities of the situation. And yet not for a moment did Lenin ‘bow’ to the illusions still held by a majority of the proletariat in this period.
“Not for one minute did Lenin close his eyes to the existence of an ‘honest’ national defence mentality among the masses. While not merging with them, neither was he disposed to act behind their backs. ‘We are not charlatans’, he said in reply to future objections and accusations, ‘We must base ourselves solely on the consciousness of the masses. But if, because of our positions, we have to remain in the minority, that’s fine!... The real government is the Soviet of workers’ deputies. In the Soviet, however, our party is in the minority… Nothing to be done about it!... There remains nothing for us to do but to explain patiently, perseveringly, and systematically the wrongness of their tactic. As long as we are in the minority we will carry out a labour of criticism, to separate the workers from this trickery. We don’t want the masses to take our word for it. We are not charlatans. We want the masses to detach themselves from their errors through their own experience.’” (Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 2)
These are Lenin’s words on the eve of the insurrection. What is he proposing? Does he defend the need for the party to impose itself by decree or minority action? Does he demand that the party direct events without taking account of the experience of the whole proletariat? Nothing of the kind! A few months before the revolution, Lenin is not proposing anything other than to begin a long process of criticism and explanation, a reminder of the final perspective. He proposed nothing other than to spread a revolutionary awareness, to generalise to the whole proletariat the political gains that had achieved a greater clarity in the organised workers’ vanguard.
For Lenin was perfectly aware that in February or even in July 1917, the proletariat as a whole was not yet sufficiently strong or conscious to seize power. Despite all the confusions that subsisted as to the necessity for the Bolshevik party to seize power, one thing still remained clear: it was the soviets that controlled and directed the seizure of power, and for them to be able to do so, the majority of workers had to be aware of the necessity of revolution.
“In July, even the Petrograd workers did not possess that preparedness for infinite struggle. Although able to seize the power, they nevertheless offered it to the Executive Committee. The proletariat of the capital, although inclining toward the Bolsheviks in its overwhelming majority, had still not broken the February umbilical cord attaching it to the compromisers (...) If the proletariat was not politically homogeneous and not sufficiently resolute, still less so was the peasant army (...) Thus the state of popular consciousness — the decisive factor in revolutionary policy made impossible the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in July.” (Trotsky, ibid.)
The attitude of the Bolsheviks in 1917 is opposite to that of the Comintern and the VKPD and its ‘putschist’ wing. The latter, and even a part of the KAPD, imagined that they could play the role of vanguard, through ‘exemplary’ acts that would show the truth of the communist programme, through forcing the rest of the workers to follow the same path. In this way, the militants of the VKPD (encouraged on the initiative of a member of the Communist International) were to try in March 1921 to ‘force the course of the revolution’. This attempt was to be a pitiful disaster.
“On Thursday 24 March, the Communists were to try by every means, including force, to unleash a general strike. Detachments of militants tried to occupy the factories by surprise so as to bar the entry to those they called ‘scabs’ — the vast mass of non-communist workers. Elsewhere, groups of unemployed workers harass those going to, or at, work. Incidents occurred in several large Berlin factories, in the Ruhr, and in Hamburg where unemployed workers and dockers who had occupied the quays were chased after a lively exchange of fire. The overall score was low; 200,000 strikers according to the pessimists, half a million according to the optimists. Some failures were especially galling, like Sult’s, who failed to convince his comrades in the power stations.” (Pierre Broué, La Revolution en Allemagne, 1969)
The work of propaganda and agitation conducted by the Bolsheviks before October 1917 brought very different results:
“Where is the insurrection? There is no picture of the insurrection. The events do not form themselves into a picture. A series of small operations, calculated and prepared in advance, remain separated from one another both in, space and time. A unity of thought and aim unites them, but they do not fuse in the struggle itself. There is no action of great masses. There are no dramatic encounters with the troops. There is nothing of all that which imaginations brought up upon the facts of history associate with the idea of insurrection. The general character of the revolution in the capital subsequently moved Masaryk, among many others, to write: ‘The October revolution was anything but a popular mass movement. That revolution was the act of leaders working from above and behind the scenes.’ As a matter of fact, it was the most popular mass insurrection in all history. The workers had no need to come out into the public square in order to fuse together; they were already politically and morally one single whole without that (...) But those invisible masses were marching more than ever before in step with events. The factories and barracks never lost connection for a minute with the district headquarters, nor the districts with Smolny. The Red Guard detachments (armed workers) felt at their back the support of the factories. The soldier squads returning to the barracks found the new shifts ready. Only with heavy reserves behind them could revolutionary detachments go about their work with such confidence. (...) The bourgeois classes had expected barricades, flaming conflagrations, looting, rivers of blood. In reality, a silence reigned more terrible than all the thunders of the world. The social ground shifted noiselessly like a revolving stage, bringing forward the popular masses, carrying away to limbo the rulers of yesterday.” (Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 3)
In October 1917, as in Germany 1921, the struggle does not appear to us as a confused action by millions of workers. In both cases, revolutionary action is not carried by all the workers, taken individually. And yet despite this apparent similarity, there is a fundamental difference between the two events. In the March Action of 1921, the revolutionaries acted in small armed detachments totally cut off from the working masses; during the seizure of power in Russia, the action of armed detachments of the proletariat took place under the control of the collective will of millions of proletarians. It was the whole, conscious proletariat that directed the march of events, even if this participation did not take a spectacular, anarchic form.
The fusion of the revolutionary wills of the whole proletariat really existed in this moment. It lived through a thousand channels, through the contacts and innumerable exchanges between the soviets, the districts, the revolutionary committee and the workers, between the Red Guards and the Bolsheviks…
Everywhere, the revolutionary flame burned unceasingly, setting light to people’s energies, unleashing initiatives from every quarter. Propositions and decisions were born spontaneously from this mass of millions of workers. And at the same time, the consciousness gained by all these proletarians in arms, their wills welded together in pursuit of the same aim, gives the overall picture a remarkable appearance of calm, decision and precision.
The world proletarian revolution will not be a flash in the pan. It will not be the anarchic and uncontrolled explosion of thousands of desperate rebels without any future. The revolution of October 1917 has shown us: the communist revolution is the most conscious and controlled historical phenomenon that humanity has ever known. Under the political supervision of millions of proletarians, it will violently confront the blind and unrestrained forces of the bourgeois counter—revolution with precision, courage and self—awareness.
But the proletariat will come to such a determined and collective consciousness neither automatically, nor easily. Neither the thrust of events, nor the accentuation of the crisis, nor the fall in its living standards will be enough to open its eyes to the historical perspectives of its struggle. The crisis will urge it on, will force it to struggle ever more bitterly and massively. The decay of the bourgeoisie’s economic, social and political order will be the objective terrain of the revolution. But manure will never be anything more than manure. Life will never spring out of fertiliser alone. The proletariat’s situation in the process of production, the new relations of production that are an objective part of its condition, the historic force it bears within it, are so many seeds that must blossom out of so much dung. And yet this promise of life is so fragile that the slightest effort may stamp it out before it is able to blossom out completely. To protect and develop it more completely, so that a massive and homogeneous consciousness of the necessity of revolution might develop on the objective soil of this decay, the proletariat has provided itself with revolutionary organisations.
The history of the Russian revolution, and of the world wide revolutionary movements that shook the capitalist world at the same period, confirms that this is the function of revolutionaries. But how to carry out this task? Does developing and homogenising class consciousness simply mean propagating ideas and writing fine theoretical works? How are revolutionaries to conceive of their intervention within this class?
As part of their class, revolutionaries participate in this transformation of the world. They have nothing in common with sects of intellectual visionaries. The proletariat’s grasp on its self-awareness is a living, concrete process; it would be absolutely false to try to separate this process from the practice of the class struggle, from the movement of strikes and the proletariat’s partial struggles. Revolutionaries participate fully in this practice; they intervene actively in strikes, general assemblies, and the actions of their class in struggle. Revolutionaries do not reflect merely for the pleasure of contemplating their own navels. It is not simply to understand reality in theory that they deepen the communist programme. When revolutionaries enrich revolutionary theory, they only do so the better to define and orientate their concrete intervention in the class struggle, and to tie it in better to the practice of the proletariat. There is nothing passive nor strictly theoretical about their action in the development of class consciousness. Even if they are not a mechanical product of the class struggle, even if they have organised consciously in order to act, communists consider their intervention as a special moment of their class’ global practice.
Even when, at certain moments of historical development, they still have little impact and take on an essentially propagandist task of spreading general ideas whose echo among the workers remains minimal, revolutionaries never intervene at a strictly speculative nor intellectual level. When they intervene in the class struggle, they do not put forward a pure abstract theory that the workers are supposed to ‘appropriate’ instead of struggling. They are in the struggle.
In it, they defend demands, forms of organisation (strike committees, genera1 assemblies…). They support everything that can spread and strengthen the struggle. Their task is to intervene and participate — as far as they are able — in all the partial struggles of their class. They must stimulate every tendency for the proletariat to organise itself independently of capital. Revolutionaries will be present in every political and organisational expression of the proletariat, in every struggle, in the general assemblies, soviets, and neighbourhood committees. There they will rigorously attack the manoeuvres of capital’s guard-dogs who will use the cover of ‘working class’ language to try to detour the struggle into dead-ends and defeat.
In the pre-revolutionary period, the party will try through its press, its slogans, and the agitation of its militants in every struggle, to transform these struggles from simple economic reactions to the economic decomposition of capital, into political struggles for the destruction of the bourgeois state. In these movements the party supports every demand, every slogan capable of helping that transformation, capable of unifying the combat politically. Concretely, it calls for the centralised co-ordination and unification of autonomous strike committees, and for their transformation into political councils; it calls for the transformation of workers’ self-defence into an organised military offensive against the bourgeoisie. In the same way, during the insurrection, it participates in the proletariat’s military organisation to put forward the final goals of the armed struggle, and its analysis of the balance of class forces. During the civil war, it insists on the necessity of extending the international revolution, and of subordinating military and economic questions to this political aim.
This practical intervention of revolutionaries participates fully in the development of class consciousness. For developing class consciousness means developing a practical awareness which transforms the struggle and pushes it forward. Developing class consciousness does not just mean spreading revolutionary ideas, but also participating in the struggle as revolutionaries and as a fraction of the class, to defend the practical application of this theory. Homogenising the political gains of the struggle also means homogenising their concrete implications, while constantly emphasizing the movement’s final goal.
“We reject no partial action. We say that every action, every combat must be perfected. pushed forward. We can’t say that we reject this or that combat. The combat born of the economic necessities of the working class must, by every means, be pushed forward.” (Intervention of Hempel (KAPD) at the 3rd Congress of the CI, 1921, our emphasis.)
“…as communists, we do not have the task of initiating slogans of daily struggle amongst the working masses — these must be posed by the workers in the factories. We must always point out to the workers that the solution of these daily questions will not better their situation, and that in no way will it be able to bring about the downfall of capitalism. We Communists have the task of participation in this daily combat, of marching at the head of these struggles. Therefore, comrades, we don’t reject this daily combat, but in this combat we put ourselves ahead of the masses, we always show them the road and the great goal of communism.” (Intervention of Meyer—Bergman (KAPD) at the same congress)
What do revolutionaries do to ensure that class consciousness moves forward?
They participate in every struggle and in its organisation, and from beginning to end they use the driving force of each combat to take the greatest possible number of steps towards the constitution of the proletariat as a force capable of overthrowing the dominant system.
“The aim of communist intervention is to contribute to this apprenticeship. In every struggle, communists must show the movement’s historical and geographical dimensions, but this does not mean remaining satisfied with setting out the final goal of world—wide communism. We must, moreover, at each instant know how to weigh up the point the struggle has reached, and be able to make proposals which are concretely realisable, and at the same time represent a real advance of the struggle in the development of the unity and awareness of the whole class. To go as far as possible in each struggle, to push its potential capacities to the limit by proposing goals which are realisable but always more advanced — this is what revolutionaries aim, for when they intervene in the open struggles of their class. In decadent capitalism, these working class struggles follow the same law that governs revolutionary struggles, and which Rosa Luxemburg resumed thus: “the Russian revolution only confirms the fundamental lessons of all great revolutions, which all have the following vital law: either they advance resolutely, with a very rapid momentum, beating down all obstacles with an lion hand, and always setting their goals further ahead, or they are very quickly driven back beyond their weak point of departure, and rushed by the counter-revolution: in a revolution, it is impossible to stop, to mark time, or to be satisfied with the initial aim once it is reached.” (R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, 1918)” (Report on intervention adopted at the 3rd Congress of Revolution Internationale, June 1978.)
The intervention of communists thus consists essentially in stimulating the forward march of the workers’ consciousness and combat — in using each moment of the proletariat’s combat to make it evolve qualitatively and collectively towards the world revolution and communism.