Have we become "Leninists"? - part 1

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Ever since the end of the 1960s and the formation of the groups which were to create the ICC in 1975, we have been subjected to a dual criticism. For some - generally the various organisations that go under the name of “International Communist Party”, directly descended from the Italian Left - we are idealists on the question of class consciousness and organisational anarchists. For others - usually from anarchism or the councilist current which reject, or at least under-estimate the need for political organisation and a communist party - we are supposed to be “partyists” and “Leninists”. The former base their assertions on our rejection of the “classical” position of the workers’ movement on the seizure of power by the communist party during the dictatorship of the proletariat, and our non-monolithic view of the functioning of a political organisation. The latter reject our rigorous conception of the revolutionary militant, and our constant efforts to build a united, centralised international organisation.

Today, another criticism of the councilist variety, but more virulent, has made its appearance: the ICC is degenerating, has become a “Leninist”[1] sect, and is on the point of abandoning its own platform and political principles. We defy anyone to prove this lie, which cannot be justified by anything in our publications or our programmatic texts. The outrageousness of this denunciation - we are no longer in the realm of criticism - cannot be doubted by anybody who reads the ICC’s press seriously and without bias. However, the fact that this lie is put about by ex-militants of the organisation, might lead the inattentive or inexperienced reader to conclude that “there is no smoke without fire”. In fact, these ex-militants have joined the milieu of what we call “political parasitism”.[2] This milieu is opposed to our constant fight for the international regroupment of revolutionary forces, and for the unity of the proletarian political movement in the historic struggle against capitalism. Consequently, it tries to undermine and weaken both our fight against informalism and dilettantism in militant activity and our ardent defence of an internationally united and centralised organisation.

Have we become Leninists as our critics and denouncers claim? This is a serious accusation, and we cannot just run away from it. But to answer it seriously, we must first know what we are talking about. What is “Leninism”? What has it represented in the history of the workers’ movement?

“Leninism” and Lenin 

“Leninism” and the cult of Lenin appeared at the same time, just after Lenin’s death in 1924, following two years of illness which drastically reduced his political activity. The ebb of the international revolutionary wave which had put an end to World War I and the isolation of the proletariat in Russia are the fundamental causes for the rising power of the counter-revolution. The main signs of this process were the annihilation of the power of the workers’ councils, and of all proletarian life within them, the bureaucratisation and the rise of Stalinism within Russia itself, and especially within the Bolshevik Party. Dramatic political mistakes - in particular, for example, the identification of the party and the proletariat with the Russian state which justified the repression of Kronstadt - played a major part in the development of both the bureaucracy and Stalinism. Lenin is not exempt from criticism, even though he was often the one best able to oppose the process of bureaucratisation, as he did in 1920 (against Trotsky and many of the Bolshevik leaders who advocated the militarisation of the trades unions), and at the end of his life when he denounced Stalin’s growing power and proposed to Trotsky to form an alliance, or a bloc as he said, “against bureaucratism in general, and against the organisation bureau [under Stalin’s thumb] in particular”.[3] Only once death had ended his political authority did the counter-revolutionary bureaucratic tendency develop the personality cult of Lenin:[4] Petrograd was rechristened Leningrad, his body mummified, and above all an ideology of “Leninism” and “Marxism-Leninism” was developed. The troika of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev thus aimed to appropriate Lenin’s “legacy” as a means of struggle against Trotsky within the Russian party, and of seizing power within the Communist International. The Stalinist offensive to take control of the different communist parties was based around the “Bolshevisation” of these parties and the exclusion of militants who refused to accept the new policy.

“Leninism” is the counter-revolutionary betrayal of Lenin 

In his 1939 biography of Stalin, Boris Souvarine emphasises the opposition between Lenin and “Leninism”: “There is no continuity, properly speaking, between the old Bolshevism and the new “Leninism”.[5] This is how he defines “Leninism”: “Stalin made himself its first classical author, with his pamphlet Foundations of Leninism, an anthology of lectures to the “red students” of the Sverdlov communist university at the beginning of April 1924. In this laborious compilation, where uninspired sentences alternate with quotations, we search in vain for the critical thought of Lenin. Everything living, relative, conditional, and dialectic in his work, becomes passive, absolute, catechising, and littered moreover with contradictions”.[6]

“Leninism” is the “theory” of Socialism in one country, utterly opposed to Lenin’s internationalism.

The advent of “Leninism” marks the victory of the opportunist course charted by the Communist International since its 3rd Congress, in particular with the tactic of the United Front and the slogan of “going to the masses”, as isolation weighed more and more heavily on revolutionary Russia. The errors of the Bolsheviks were a negative factor that encouraged this opportunist course. It is worth recalling here that the incorrect position on “the party holding power” was shared by the whole revolutionary movement of the time, including Rosa Luxemburg and the German Left. It was only in the early 1920s that the KAPD began to point out the contradiction inherent in a revolutionary party taking power and identifying itself with the new state created by the victorious insurrection.

Various oppositions began to develop against this opportunist, then frankly counter-revolutionary gangrene. The most coherent were the left oppositions in Russia, Italy, Germany and Holland, which remained faithful to internationalism and October 1917. They fought against the increasing opportunism of the CI, and were expelled one after the other during the 1920s. Those of them that managed to maintain an organised existence opposed the practical implications of “Leninism”, in other words the policy of “Bolshevisation” of the communist parties. Especially, they fought against the replacement of organisation in local sections, in other words on a territorial, geographical basis, by organisation in factory cells, which ended up by regrouping militants on a corporatist basis and helped to empty the parties of any really communist life, dependent as it is on general political debate and discussion.

The propagation of “Leninism” sharpened the struggle between Stalinism and the left oppositions. It was accompanied by the development of the theory of “socialism in one country”, which is a complete break with Lenin’s intransigent internationalism, and with the experience of October. This rise of opportunism marked the definitive victory of the counter-revolution. By abandoning internationalism and adopting “socialism in one country” as a part of its programme, the CI died - as an International - at its 6th Congress in 1928.

“Leninism” means division between Lenin and Luxemburg, between the Bolshevik fraction and other internationalist lefts

In 1925, the adoption by the CI’s 5th Congress of the “Theses on Bolshevisation” revealed the Stalinist bureaucracy’s increasing grip on both the CI and the Communist Parties. Itself a product of the Stalinist counter-revolution, Bolshevisation became the main organisational vector of the CI’s member parties’ accelerated degeneration. The increasing use of repression and state terror in Russia, and the expulsions from the other parties, show how bitter and fierce was the struggle. For Stalinism, there still existed a serious danger of the formation of a strong international opposition around Trotsky, who alone would have been able to regroup the major part of the surviving revolutionary forces. This opposition stood against the policy of opportunism, and had every chance of success in wresting the party leaderships from Stalinism, as we can see from the examples of Italy and Germany.

One of the aims of “Bolshevisation” was thus to erect an opposition between Lenin and the other great figures of communism from the other left currents - between Lenin and Trotsky, of course, but also between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg: “A real Bolshevisation is impossible without overcoming the errors of Luxemburgism. “Leninism” must be the unique compass for the communist parties throughout the world. Anything that is distanced from “Leninism” is also distanced from marxism”.[7]

Stalinism thus tore apart the unity between Lenin and Luxemburg, between the Bolshevik tradition and the other lefts that emerged from the 2nd International. In the wake of Stalinism, the social-democratic parties also helped to erect a water-tight barrier between the “good democratic” Rosa Luxemburg, and the “bad dictatorial” Lenin. Nor does this belong solely to the past. The unity between these two great revolutionaries is still subject to attack. Hypocritical praise is heaped on Luxemburg’s “farsightedness” for her criticism of the Bolsheviks and the Russian revolution, as often as not by the direct political descendants of her social-democrat assassins, in other words by today’s socialist parties. Especially by the German socialist party, doubtless on the grounds that Rosa Luxemburg was... German!

This is yet another confirmation of the alliance and common interests of the “classic” forces of capitalism, and the Stalinist counter-revolution. In particular, it confirms the alliance between Stalinism and social-democracy to falsify the history of the workers’ movement and to destroy marxism. We can bet that the bourgeoisie will not miss the opportunity to celebrate - in its own way - the 80th anniversary of the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartakists in Berlin in 1919.

It is a painful spectacle for revolutionary militants to see the assassins of those who made the October Revolution allied to the assassins of the Spartakists and daring to commemorate the death of these proletarian leaders. Those who have heaped betrayal on betrayal to lead the international counter-revolution have no right to talk of Rosa Luxemburg, whose life was one of intransigence, struggle against opportunism, and revolutionary firmness”.[8]

Hands off Luxemburg and Lenin - they belong to the revolutionary proletariat! 

Today, most of the elements of the parasitic milieu find it all the easier to contribute to these falsifications of history, in that they hang about with the anarchists, another milieu which specialises in attacking Lenin and everything he represents.

Unfortunately, most of the truly proletarian groups and currents are lacking in political clarity. By its theoretical weaknesses and political mistakes, councilism makes its own little contribution to the wall that the ruling class would like to erect between the Bolshevik party and the Dutch and German lefts, between Lenin on the one hand, Luxemburg on the other. In the same way, their political weaknesses - or aberrations, when it comes to the theory of “invariance” dear to the Bordigists - mean that the Bordigist Groups and even Battaglia Comunista (PCInt) do not understand the importance of defending Lenin, Luxemburg, and all the left fractions that came out of the Communist International.

It is important that we remember the unity and continuity of the struggle waged not just by the individuals Lenin and Luxemburg, but by the Bolshevik party and the other lefts within the 2nd International. Despite their debates and disagreements, they were always on the same side of the barricades when the working class was confronted with decisive events. Lenin and Luxemburg were the leaders of the revolutionary left at the Stuttgart Congress of the Socialist International (1907), when together they successfully put forward an amendment to the resolution on the attitude of socialists to war, calling on them “by every means possible to use the economic and political crisis provoked by the war to awaken the people and thereby to hasten the overthrow of capitalist domination”; Lenin even entrusted Rosa Luxemburg with the Russian party’s mandate in the discussion on this question. Faithful to their internationalist struggle within their respective parties, they stood against the imperialist war. Luxemburg’s Spartakist current took part, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in the internationalist conferences of Zimmerwald and Kienthal (1915 and 1916). With all the lefts, they were wholeheartedly enthusiastic in their support for the Russian revolution:

The Russian Revolution is the mightiest event of the World War (...) That the Bolsheviks have based their policy entirely upon the world proletarian revolution is the clearest proof of their political farsightedness and firmness of principle, and of the bold scope of their policies (...) The party of Lenin was the only one which grasped the mandate and duty of a truly revolutionary party and which, by the slogan “All power in the hands of the proletariat and peasantry”, ensured the continued development of the revolution (...) Moreover, the Bolsheviks immediately set as the aim of this seizure of power a complete, far-reaching revolutionary programme: not the safeguarding of bourgeois democracy, but a dictatorship of the proletariat for the purpose of realising socialism. Thereby they won for themselves the imperishable historic distinction of having for the first time proclaimed the final aim of socialism as the direct programme of practical politics”.[9]

Does this mean that there were no differences between these great figures of the workers’ movement? Obviously not. Nor does it mean that we should ignore them. But if we are to learn from these differences, then we must first be able to recognise and defend what united them: the class struggle, the consistent revolutionary struggle against capitalism, the bourgeoisie, and all its political forces. Luxemburg’s text, that we have quoted above, is an unsparing criticism of the policy of the Bolshevik party in Russia. But she is careful to establish the framework within which her criticisms are to be understood: solidarity and common struggle with the Bolsheviks. She violently denounces the opposition by Kautsky and the Mensheviks to the proletarian insurrection. And to avoid any ambiguity as to her class position, or any distortion of her words, she ends thus: “In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism””.

The defence of these comrades, and their class unity, is a task bequeathed to us by the Italian Left, and one which we intend to continue. Lenin and Luxemburg belong to the revolutionary proletariat. Here is how the Italian fraction of the communist left understood the defence of this legacy against Stalinist “Leninism” and social-democracy:

But alongside this brilliant proletarian leader [Lenin], stand the equally imposing figures of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. These products of an international struggle against revisionism and opportunism, expression of the German proletariat’s revolutionary will, belong to us and not to those who want to make Rosa a standard-bearer against Lenin and the Party, or to make Liebknecht the standard-bearer for an anti-militarism which in reality finds expression in votes for arms spending in the different “democratic” countries”.[10]

We have not yet answered the accusation that we have changed position on Lenin. However, the reader can already see clearly and concretely that we are resolutely opposed to “Leninism”, and that we remain faithful to the tradition of the left fractions from which we spring, and in particular of the Italian fraction of the 1930s. We try to apply the method which struggles for the defence of the historic unity and continuity of the workers’ movement, against “Leninism”, and against all the attempts to divide and oppose its different marxist fractions. Against abstract and mechanical oppositions made from quotations taken out of context, we situate the positions adopted by different currents, their debates and polemics, within their real historical context, inside the workers’ movement - in other words within the same camp. This is the method that marxism has already tried to apply. This is the very opposite of “Leninism”, which indeed is completely rejected by those who really follow Lenin’s example today. It is amusing to see that those who continue at least this aspect of the Stalinist “method” today, include precisely those who accuse the ICC of becoming “Leninist”!

Hands off the Dutch Left, Pannekoek and Gorter! 

The contemporary adepts of the “method” of “Leninism”, at least in this respect, can easily be identified in different milieus. It is fashionable among the anarcho-councilists, and amongst the parasitic elements, to try - fraudulently - to appropriate the Dutch Left, and to oppose it to the other left fractions, and of course to Lenin. Just as Stalin and his “Leninism” betrayed Lenin, so these elements betray the tradition of the Dutch Left and its great figures like Anton Pannekoek - hailed with respect and admiration by Lenin in State and Revolution - or like Herman Gorter, who was swift to translate this marxist classic as early as 1918. Before becoming a councilist theoretician during the 1930s, Pannekoek was one of the foremost elements of the marxist wing of the 2nd International, alongside Luxemburg and Lenin. Because of his councilist critiques of the Bolsheviks from the 1930s onwards, it is easier to distort Pannekoek’s place in the workers’ movement than it is, for example, with Bordiga. Today, Pannekoek is the object of particular attention aimed at eradicating any memory of his membership of the Communist International, or of his enthusiastic and resolute support for the October Revolution. The Dutch and German Left, as much as the Russians and Italians within the CI, belong to the proletariat and to communism. In identifying our origins with all the left fractions that emerged from the CI, we are also using the method of the Dutch Left, like all the Lefts:

The World War and the revolution which it has engendered have shown that there is only one tendency in the workers’ movement which really leads the workers towards communism. Only the extreme left of the social-democratic parties, the marxist fractions, the party of Lenin in Russia, of Bela Kun in Hungary, of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, have found the one correct path.

The tendency which always aimed at the violent destruction of capitalism, which in the evolutionary period used the political struggle and parliamentary action for revolutionary propaganda and to organise the proletariat, is today using state power for the revolution. The same tendency has also found the means to break the capitalist state, to transform it into a socialist state, and to build communism: the workers’ councils, which contain within themselves all political and economic forces; the same tendency, finally, has discovered and established forever what the class did not know until now: the organisation by which the working class can overthrow and replace capitalism”.[11]

Even after the KAPD was excluded from the CI in 1921, it tried to remain faithful to its principles, and in solidarity with the Bolsheviks:

Despite the exclusion of our tendency from the Moscow Congress, we remain in complete solidarity with the Russian Bolsheviks (...) We remain in solidarity not just with the Russian proletariat, but also with its Bolshevik leaders, even though we must vigorously criticise their behaviour within international communism”.[12]

In defending the unity and continuity of, and tracing our origins “to the successive contributions of the Communist League of Marx and Engels (1847-52), the three Internationals (the International Workingmen’s Association, 1864-72, the Second International, 1889-1914, the Communist International, 1919-28), the left fractions which detached themselves from the degenerating Third International in the years 1920-30, in particular the German, Dutch and Italian Lefts”,[13] the ICC is remaining faithful to the marxist tradition within the workers’ movement. In particular, it is part of the constant and unified struggle of the “tendency” defined by Gorter: the left fractions within the Second and Third Internationals. In this sense, we are faithful to Lenin, to Rosa Luxemburg, to Pannekoek and Gorter, and to the tradition of the left fractions during the 1930s, Bilan first and foremost.

Today’s “Leninists” are not in the ICC

Faithful to the left fractions who fought Stalinism in the most difficult conditions, we reject any accusation of “Leninism”. And we also denounce our accusers: they use the same method as Stalin to identify “Leninism” with Lenin. Ever armed with the Stalinist “method”, they do not even try to base their accusations on real, concrete evidence - such as our written or verbal positions - but rather on hear-say and lies. They claim that our organisation has become a sect, and is degenerating, in order to drive away all those elements who are trying to find a consistent revolutionary political perspective. The accusation is all the more slanderous, in that behind “Leninism” hides the accusation of Stalinism, when it is not declared outright.

The denunciation of our supposed “Leninism” is essentially based on tittle-tattle concerning our internal functioning, in particular on the claimed impossibility of debate within the organisation. We have already answered these accusations,[14] and will not return to them here. Suffice it to return the compliment, after we have shown who are the real followers of the non-marxist, falsely revolutionary, “Leninist” method.

The ICC has always identified with Lenin’s struggle to build the Party 

Once we have rejected the accusation of “Leninism”, a much more serious accusation remains: have we abandoned our critical spirit towards Lenin on the question of political organisation? Has the ICC changed position on Lenin, specifically as far as the role and functioning of the political organisation and the party is concerned? For our part, we see no discontinuity in the ICC’s position on Lenin and the organisational question between our beginnings in the 1970s, and 1999.

We stand alongside Lenin in the struggle against economism and Menshevism. This is nothing new. We are in agreement with the method used and the critique developed against economism and the Mensheviks. And we consider that we agree also with most of the different points developed by Lenin. There is nothing new here.

We maintain our criticism of some of Lenin’s positions on the organisation question: “Some of the ideas defended by Lenin (notably in One step forward, two steps back) on the hierarchical and “military” nature of the organisation, which have been exploited by Stalinists to justify their methods, are to be rejected”.[15] We have not changed position on these criticisms either. However, the question deserves an answer in greater depth, both to understand the real extent of Lenin’s mistakes and to understand the historical significance of the debates within the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).

This question is a central one for revolutionaries, and to treat it seriously - including Lenin’s errors - we must remain faithful to the method and lessons of the different communist lefts, as we have emphasised in the first part of this article. We refuse to pick out the bits we like in the workers’ movement and ignore the bits we dislike. Such an attitude is a-historical, and worthy only of those who presume to judge, 100 years on, a historical process made of hesitations, successes and failures, numerous debates and contributions, at the price of immense sacrifice and difficult political struggle. This is true for theoretical and political questions. It is equally true for questions of organisation. The fact that Plekhanov turned chauvinist in World War I and ended as a Menshevik, that Trotsky ended up in “Trotskyism”, or that Pannekoek ended in councilism, deprives their political and theoretical contributions of none of their richness, relevance, or militant interest. The shameful deaths of the Second and Third Internationals, the Bolshevik party’s end in Stalinism, in no way diminish either their role in the history of the workers’ movement, or the validity of their organisational gains.

Have we changed our opinion on this? Not in the least: “There exist organisational gains just as there are theoretical gains, and one conditions the other in a permanent way”.[16]

Just as Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of the Bolsheviks in The Russian Revolution must be situated within the context of the class unity between her and the Bolsheviks, so our criticisms of Lenin on the organisational question must be placed in the framework of our unity with Lenin in his struggle - both before and after the formation of the Bolshevik fraction, for the construction of the party. This position is not new, and there is nothing surprising about it. Today, as we “repeated” in 1991, “we reaffirm[17] that “the history of the fractions is the history of Lenin[18] and that only on the basis of the work that they accomplished will it be possible to reconstruct tomorrow’s world communist party”.[19]

Does this mean that our understanding of the revolutionary organisation has remained unchanged since the formation of the ICC? Does it mean that our understanding has not been enriched, deepened, during the debates and organisational struggles that the ICC has been through? If this were the case, then the ICC could stand accused of being a lifeless organisation without internal debate, a sect content with reciting the holy texts of the workers’ movement. This is not the place to go back over all the ICC’s organisational debates and struggles since its formation. On each occasion - if the ICC were not to be weakened or even liquidated - we have had to return to the study of the “organisational gains” of the workers’ movement, to reappropriate, sharpen, and enrich them.

But the reappropriation and enrichment that we have accomplished on the organisational question does not mean that we have changed our general position on this question, nor even our position on Lenin. The work we have done lies in continuity with history, and with the organisational legacy of the workers’ movement. We defy anyone to show that there has been a break in our position. The organisational question is as political as any other. Indeed, we consider that it is the central question which, in the final analysis, determines the ability to deal with all other theoretical and political questions. In this, we are in accord with Lenin. In this, our position remains the same one that we have always defended. We have always maintained that it was greater clarity on the organisational question, especially on the role of the fraction, that made it possible for the Italian Left not only to survive as an organisation, but even to be able to draw the clearest and most coherent theoretical and political lessons - including by taking up and developing the initial contributions of the Dutch and German Lefts - on the trades unions, state capitalism, and the state in the transitional period.

The ICC alongside Lenin in the fight against economism and the Mensheviks 

The ICC has always identified with the struggle of the Bolsheviks on the organisational question. Their example lay behind our insistence that “The idea that a revolutionary organisation builds itself voluntarily, consciously, with premeditation, far from being a voluntarist idea is on the contrary one of the concrete results of all marxist praxis”.[20]

In particular, we have always declared our support for Lenin’s fight against economism. In the same way, we have always supported his struggle against those who were to become the Mensheviks at the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP. This is not new. Nor is it new that we consider What is to be done? (1902) as an essential work in the fight against economism, and One step forward, two steps back (1903) as a vital text in understanding what was at stake and along what lines the RSDLP split. It is nothing new for us to affirm that these two texts are classics of marxism, and that the main lessons that Lenin draws in them are still relevant today. To say that we agree with the struggle, the method used, and many of the arguments given in both texts in no way diminishes our criticism of Lenin’s errors.

What was essential in What is to be done? in the context of the time, in the Russia of 1902? What made it possible to take a step forward for the workers’ movement? What side should we have taken? The side of the economists, because Lenin repeats Kautsky’s incorrect conception of class consciousness? Or Lenin’s side, against the economist obstacle to the formation of a coherent organisation of revolutionaries?

What was essential in One step forward, two steps back? To side with the Mensheviks because Lenin, in the heat of the polemic, defended false ideas on certain points? Or to side with Lenin for the adoption of rigorous membership criteria, for a unified and centralised party against the continued existence of autonomous circles?

In this case, to pose the question is to answer it. Lenin himself corrected his mistakes on consciousness and the vision of a “militarised” party, especially after the experience of the 1905 mass strike in Russia. The existence of a Bolshevik fraction and a rigorous organisation gave the Bolsheviks the means to draw the most fruitful political lessons from 1905, although they were less clear at the outset on the dynamic of the mass strike, especially in comparison to Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, or even Plekhanov. It allowed them to overcome their previous mistakes.

What were Lenin’s mistakes? Some were linked to his polemics. Others were concerned with theoretical questions, especially on class consciousness.

Lenin “twists the bar” in his polemics 

Lenin’s defects were those of his qualities. A great polemicist, he would “twist the bar” (exaggerate) by taking up his opponents’ arguments and turning them around against their authors. “We all know now that the economists twisted the bar one way. To straighten it, I had to twist it in the opposite direction, which I did”.[21] But this method, which is very effective in polemic and in clearly polarising the argument - vital in any debate - also has its limitations, and can become a weakness. By “twisting the bar”, Lenin exaggerated and deformed his real positions. What is to be done? illustrates the point, as he himself recognised:

At the 2nd Congress, I had no notion of setting up my formulations in What is to be done? as special principles or “programmatic points”. On the contrary, I used the expression “straightening what has been twisted”, which was to be so extensively quoted afterwards. In What is to be done? I said that we had to correct everything that had been distorted (“twisted”) by the “economists” (...) The meaning of these words is clear: What is to be done? corrects economism polemically, and it would be wrong to judge the pamphlet from any other standpoint”.[22]

Unfortunately, there are many today who judge What is to be done? and One step forward, two steps back “from another standpoint”, concerned more with the letter of the text than its spirit. There are many who take Lenin’s exaggerations literally. First, there were his contemporary critics, amongst them Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg who answered the second work in The organisation question in Russian social-democracy (1904). Twenty years later, the Stalinists used these words to justify “Leninism” and the Stalinist dictatorship, on the basis of these unfortunate formulations used in the heat of the polemic. When Lenin is accused of being dictatorial, bureaucratic, of Jacobinism, or preaching military discipline and a conspiratorial vision, out of a narrow spirit of party struggle, he takes up his opponents’ terms and develops them, “twisting the bar” in his turn. He is accused of having a conspiratorial view of the organisation when he defends the need for strict membership criteria, and for discipline in the conditions of repression and illegality? This is his response, as a polemicist:

According to its form a strong revolutionary organisation of that kind in an autocratic country may also be described as a “conspirative” organisation, because the French word “conspiration” means in Russian “conspiracy”, and we must have the utmost conspiracy for an organisation of that kind. Secrecy is such a necessary condition for such an organisation that all the other conditions (number and selection of members, functions, etc) must all be subordinated to it. It would indeed be extremely naïve, therefore, to fear the accusation that we Social-Democrats desire to create a conspirative organisation. Such an accusation would be as flattering to every opponent of Economism as the accusation of being followers of Naro-dovolism[23] would be”.[24]

In his reply to Rosa Luxemburg (1904), which Kautsky and the German SPD leadership refused to publish, he denied being the source of the formulations that he adopted:

Comrade Luxemburg says that according to me, “The Central Committee is the only active nucleus of the Party”. In reality, this is not exact. I have never defended such an opinion (...) Comrade Luxemburg writes that I preach the educational value of the factory. This is inexact: it was not me, but my adversary who claimed that I identify the Party with a factory. I derided my opponent appropriately by using his own words to demonstrate that he confused two aspects of factory discipline, which is unfortunately also the case with comrade Luxemburg”.[25]

The error of What is to be done? on class consciousness 

By contrast, it is much more important to criticise a theoretical error by Lenin in What is to be done?. According to Lenin, “We said that there could not yet be Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. This consciousness could only be brought to them from without”.[26] We will not here go back over our criticism and our position on the question of consciousness.[27] It is obvious that this position - which Lenin adopted from Kautsky - is not only false but extremely dangerous. It was to justify the party’s exercise of power in the place of the working class after October 1917. It was later to serve as an effective weapon of Stalinism, in particular in justifying the putschist uprisings in Germany in the 1920s, and above all in justifying the bloody repression of the working class in Russia.

Do we really need to point out that our position on this question remains unchanged?

The weaknesses of Rosa Luxemburg’s critique 

Lenin had to confront much criticism after the RSDLP’s 2nd Congress and the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Plekhanov and Trotsky were the only ones to reject explicitly the position that class consciousness “could only be brought from without”. The best-known critique was Rosa Luxemburg’s Organisation question in Russian social-democracy, which is used by today’s detractors of Lenin to... set the two great militants against each other and prove that the Stalinist worm was already present in the “Leninist” fruit. This, in other words, is the Stalinist lie turned on its head. In fact, Luxemburg deals mainly with the exaggerated positions (the “twisted bar”), and develops ideas which although correct in themselves remain abstract and detached from the real, practical struggle that took place at the Congress.

Comrade Luxemburg sublimely ignores our party struggles, and discourses at length on questions which it is impossible to treat seriously (...) The comrade does not want to know what positions I upheld at the Congress, nor against whom my theses were directed. She prefers to treat me to a lesson on opportunism... in the countries of parliamentary democracy!”.[28]

One step forward, two steps back clearly highlights what was at stake at the Congress, and in the struggle that took place there: the struggle against the continued existence of circles in the party, and for a clear and rigorous demarcation between the working class and the political organisation. Although she failed to appreciate the way they were posed concretely, Luxemburg remained clear as to the general aims:

How to effect a transition from the type of organisation characteristic of the preparatory stage of the socialist movement - usually featured by disconnected local groups and clubs, with propaganda as a principal activity - to the unity of a large, national body suitable for concerted political action over the entire vast territory ruled by the Russian state? That is the specific problem which the Russian social-democracy has mulled over for some time”.[29]

When we read this passage, it is clear that Luxemburg shared Lenin’s aims, and stood on the same ground. Considering the “centralist”, “authoritarian” even, position of both Luxemburg and Leo Jogisches in the Polish social-democracy - the SDKPiL - there can be no doubt that had she been a member of the RSDLP, she would have taken part in the fight against the circles and the Mensheviks. Lenin would surely have been obliged to rein in her energy, perhaps even her excesses.

As for us, today almost a century later, our position on the precise distinction between the political and unitary organisations of the working class comes to us from the Socialist International, and especially from the advances achieved by Lenin. In effect, he was the first - in the particular situation of Tsarist Russia - to pose the conditions for the development of a small minority organisation, whereas the replies of both Trotsky and Luxemburg were still governed by the idea of the mass party. Similarly, it is from Lenin’s struggle against the Mensheviks on Point 1 of the Statutes at the RSDLP’s 2nd Congress that we draw our rigorous and clearly defined position on membership of the communist organisation. Finally, we consider that this Congress and Lenin’s activity in it represent a high point in the theoretical and political development of the organisation question, especially on the issue of centralisation against federalist, individualist, and petty-bourgeois ideas. While recognising the positive part played by the circles in the initial regroupment of revolutionary forces, this is the point where it was necessary to go beyond this stage, and to form real unified organisations, to develop political relationships based on fraternity and mutual confidence among all the militants.

We have not changed our position on Lenin. Our basic organisational principles, especially our Statutes, which are based on and synthesise the experience of the workers’ movement on the question, are extensively inspired by the contributions made by Lenin in his struggle for the organisation. Without the experience of the Bolsheviks on the organisational question, there would be a large gap in the ICC’s organisational foundations, and in those of the communist party of tomorrow.

In the second part of this article, we will return to what is said, and what is not said, in What is to be done?, whose aim and contents have been and are largely ignored, or intentionally distorted. We will show that Lenin’s work is a real classic of marxism, and a historical contribution to the workers’ movement, on the level of both consciousness and organisation. In short, how far the ICC identifies also with What is to be done?.



[1] See for example, the text Prise de position sur l’évolution récente du CCI by RV, one of our ex-militants, which we have published in our pamphlet La prétendue paranoia du CCI.

[2] See our “Theses on political parasitism” in International Review no.94.

[3] Quoted by Trotsky in My Life.

[4] It is worth recalling once again Lenin’s own words on the attempts to recuperate the great revolutionary figures: “After their death, they are turned into inoffensive icons, canonised we might almost say, and their “name” enrobed in a certain glory to “console” and mystify the oppressed classes; their revolutionary doctrine is thus stripped of its “content”, its revolutionary edge is blunted, it is debased (...) Germany’s bourgeois savants, who only yesterday specialised in the demolition of marxism, today talk more and more of a “national-German” Marx”. And the Stalinists talk about a “national Great-Russian” Lenin, we might add.

[5] Boris Souvarine, Staline, Editions Gérard Lebovici 1985, p.311.

[6] idem, p.312.

[7] Thesis 8 on Bolshevisation, 5th Congress of the Communist International.

[8] Bilan no.39, the theoretical bulletin of the Italian fraction of the Communist Left, January 1937.

[9] “The Russian Revolution”, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press, 1970.

[10] Bilan no.39, 1937.

[11] Herman Gorter, “The victory of marxism”, published in Il Soviet 1920, and reprinted in Invariance no.7, 1969.

[12] Anton Pannekoek in Die Aktion no.11-12, quoted in our book on the Dutch Left.

[13] From the Basic Positions published on the back of every one of our publications.

[14] See the article on our 12th Congress: “The political strengthening of the ICC” in International Review no.90.

[15] “Report on the structure and functioning of the organisation of revolutionaries” to the International Conference of the ICC, January 1982, in International Review no.33.

[16] “Report on the question of the organisation of our International Communist Current”, International Review no.1, April 1975.

[17] We cannot resist the temptation to quote one of our ex-militants who today accuses us of being “Leninist”: “By contrast, we should salute Rosa Luxemburg’s lucidity (...) and the Bolsheviks’ ability to organise as an independent fraction with its own means of intervention within the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. This is why they were in the proletariat’s vanguard in the revolutionary struggles at the end of World War I” (RV, “Continuity of the proletariat’s political organisations”, in International Review no.50, 1987).

[18] Intervention by Bordiga at the 6th extended Executive Committee of the Communist International in 1926.

[19] Introduction to our article on “The relationship between fraction and party in the marxist tradition”, Part III, International Review no.65.

[20] “Report on the question of the organisation of our International Communist Current”, International Review no.1, April 1975.

[21] Proceedings of the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP, Edition Era, 1977.

[22] Lenin, “Preface to the anthology On 12 Years”, September 1907, Edition Era, 1977.

[23] From “Narodnaya Volya”, one of the secret organisations of the Russian terrorist movement in the 1870s.

[24] In One step forward, two steps back.

[25] What is to be done?, Lenin’s emphasis, chapter on “Conspirative” Organisation and “Democracy”, in Essential Works of Lenin, Bantam Books, 1971.

[26] What is to be done?, chapter on “The beginning of the spontaneous revival”

[27] See our pamphlet Communist organisations and class consciousness.

[28] Lenin’s answer to Rosa Luxemburg, op. cit.

[29] “Organisational question of social-democracy”, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press, 1970.

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