Just as the proletariat’s grasp on its consciousness demands a constant will and effort, so the organisation of revolutionaries as a coherent collective body is not a process improvised at the mercy of chance. The fact that the communist organisation arises in response to an objective and historic need, that it appears as a part of the proletariat, as the fruit of the spontaneous class struggle, does not mean that it can let itself be carried along unthinkingly by the tide of events. Strict ‘obedience’ to the spontaneous flux of the struggle ends up by altering the truly revolutionary direction of this spontaneity. The proletariat’s historic interest does not consist in bowing passively before the situation as it arises ‘from day to day’. The revolutionary spontaneity of the proletariat tends to direct its struggles consciously and voluntarily towards a final goal. It has nothing to do with the chaotic and uncontrolled outbreak of a series of sporadic revolts. The workers’ struggle spontaneously tends towards a greater mastery and a considered self-control. Unlike the revolts of classes or strata with no historic future, it does not burn out as quickly as it flares up, but smoulders ceaselessly, bursting out into conflagration that destroys the existing order in a conscious manner.
For the proletariat, the sudden, spontaneous and largely unforeseeable reaction to the misery of capital, is combined with the possibility of generalising the struggle both materially and theoretically, of drawing the lessons of today’s strike to prepare those of tomorrow. Proletarian spontaneity includes the potential ability to confront the bourgeoisie, to incorporate isolated resistance into actions of a larger scale, into a wider political framework. This potential both makes the intervention of revolutionaries indispensable, and allows it to be something other than a dead letter, a seed sown in the desert. It is because it works on fertile soil, because it addresses comrades who can hear, understand, and put into practice political orientations corresponding to their historic interests, that the party plays so fundamental a role in the development of the proletariat’s capacity to direct itself towards its goal.
The organisation of revolutionaries in “distinct political parties”, on a clear programmatic basis, is a determining factor in the proletariat’s spontaneous will to master its struggles consciously. This for the simple reason that “the organisational question cannot be separated from the political question” (Lenin): it is itself a political problem.
The experience of history strengthens this idea. Thus, while the Bolsheviks showed a bitter determination to organise outside the current of the old Social Democracy — and so threw all their weight into the progress of the revolution - the left of the German Social Democracy hesitated to cut rapidly the umbilical cord attaching it to a corpse, and in doing so put a brake on the historical course of the world revolution.
Rosa Luxemburg, the most eminent representative of this left, although she had in her writings broken openly with Kautsky’s policies as early as 1910, and although she recognised the split between their political positions, nevertheless refused to carry this split onto the organisational level. This because she only saw here a mere ‘organisational recipe’ and not a fundamental political question.
Tied to the Social Democratic vision of the party, which defended the need to be ‘at the level of the masses’, she never arrived at an understanding of how the organisation of revolutionaries into a clear political fraction, distinct from the old organisations that had become the enemies of the proletariat, could help the spontaneous movement of the class to vanquish the opportunists, and constitute a living element of that spontaneity.
By insisting on the need for the spontaneous movement to overcome the opportunists itself, without any real intervention by the party, Rosa Luxemburg, despite herself, removed the organisational question and the existence of revolutionaries to the sidelines of this same spontaneous movement.
Obviously, the existence of revolutionaries and their regroupment in organisations and eventually as a party depend on objective conditions. We have also seen that the revolution can only be the work of the workers themselves and as a whole.
“Man does not make history of his own volition, but he makes history nevertheless. The proletariat is dependent in its actions upon the degree of maturity to which social evolution has advanced. But again, social evolution is not a thing apart from the proletariat; it is in the same measure its driving force and its cause as well as its product and its effect. Its action is itself a determining force in history. And though we can no more skip a period in our historical development than a man can jump over his shadow, it lies within our power to accelerate or to retard it… But (the victory) will never be accomplished if the burning spark of the conscious will of the masses does not spring from the material conditions that have been built up by past development.” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Crisis in the German Social Democracy, 1916, our emphasis.)
Thus the party cannot “skip a period in our historical development” and make up for the consciousness of the “great mass”. But does this class consciousness always appear as the widest majority movement? In 1916, when Rosa Luxemburg wrote these lines, could the Social Democracy, which had dragged the proletariat into the war, be said to express the class’ consciousness? And yet the great majority of the proletariat continued to have illusions in this organisation. Was this a sign of maturity and political consciousness?
The revolution will indeed be the conscious work of the workers as a whole. But the road there does not stretch out like a beautiful straight line. The proletariat does not travel calmly as one man towards it. The vast working masses do not always follow a single path, and do not always have the same consciousness. Even in a revolutionary period there are moments when the great majority of proletarians continue to be half-blinded by the manoeuvres of the bourgeoisie. In these crucial moments the ‘acceleration’ introduced by a minority of revolutionaries can be decisive. In these moments, it is not the reaction of the great proletarian masses still under the sway of bourgeois ideology that allows you to measure the maturity reached by the class’ consciousness, but the position of the proletariat’s clearest elements. The task of these elements is to spread their understanding to the rest of the workers, and not to lower their politics to the level of the masses.
Far from following passively the flux and reflux of their class’ struggles, the communists’ role is to organise themselves so as to accelerate the revolutionary tendencies smouldering within these struggles. They are at the same time living products of their class, and an active factor in the maturation of the proletarian struggle.
Thus, once revolutionaries have understood the bankruptcy of an old political system, of a previous organisational form and political practice, their responsibility is not to wait until the rest of the workers have caught up before organising themselves on a clear basis and putting forward a perspective for the struggle. This attitude makes any progression of class consciousness impossible and ends up in a vicious circle. For how is the proletariat as a whole to become aware of the death of these old forms of organisation and of the bankruptcy of past political positions if its most conscious elements themselves hesitate to say that they are dead and to propose a new orientation?
Drawing together the energies of the revolution into a political organisation independent of the old workers’ parties that had gone over to the enemy camp, was not in Germany, or elsewhere, a mere “organisational” question. The organisational problem is fundamentally a political problem. The German left’s hesitations to break organisationally with the Social Democracy betrayed other, more profound ones. The revolutionaries hesitated to criticise openly and to denounce firmly the deeds of the executioners of the proletariat, who, after driving the workers into the bloodbath of the world war, were to become the “bloodhounds” of the bourgeoisie: Scheidemann, Ebert, Noske & Co — the whole stinking scum of the Social Democracy.
Thus in January 1918, the first great strikes to break out under the impact of the Russian revolution were consciously held back and misled into bourgeois legality — in other words, to their death by the Social Democratic Party. Confronted with these manoeuvres (which, moreover, were generalised throughout Europe), the Spartakists, the left wing, which had not yet broken with Social Democracy, remained completely impotent.
“In the afternoon, Scheidemann and Ebert (SDP) proposed to the action committee (elected during the strike), to enter into negotiations with the government through the intermediary of the union leaders, whom the chancellor was prepared to meet. The action committee’s members were disoriented. As Jogisches (Spartakist) emphasized, they no longer knew what to do with this revolutionary energy. They saw the trap that was prepared for them, but went no further than to affirm that only delegates from among the strikers could properly negotiate in their name!” (P. Broué, La Revolution en Allemagne, 1969, our emphasis.)
Drawing the lessons from the defeat of this strike — for which the revolutionaries bore a heavy responsibility -Jogisches later wrote:
“Through parliamentary cretinism, in its desire to apply the schema laid down for all union strikes, and above all through lack of confidence in the masses… the committee limited itself, under the influence of the Social Democratic deputies, to trying to enter into negotiations with the government, instead of rejecting all forms of negotiation and unleashing the energy of the workers in the most varied forms.” (Spartakist leaflet cited in Documents et Materiaux pour une Histoire du Mouvement Ouvrier en Allemagne (l9l4-l945), Vol. II/2.)
Still later, the Spartakists came to realise that their hesitations had been a dangerous error, and were to form an independent political party. This is why the Communist Party — the KPD (Spartakus) — was at last created in December 1918. Sadly, its birth came late, and in January 1919 the Communist Party was still shot through with the same fear of decisive intervention, the same eternal wrangling before any action could take place, the same lack of direction and of any clear political perspective.
Here is how a communist witness described, in the paper, first of the Spartakus League and then of the KPD(S), the movement of January 1919 and the reaction of the Communist Party.
“Then the incredible happened. The masses were there very early, from 9 O’clock on, in the cold and the fog. And the leaders were sitting somewhere deliberating. The fog thickened and the workers were still waiting. And the leaders deliberated. Midday came, and hunger was added to the cold. And the leaders deliberated. The workers were going crazy with excitement; they wanted a word, an act, that would calm their delirium. Nobody knew what. The fog thickened, and with it, the dusk. Sadly, the workers went home; they had wanted something big, and they had done nothing. And the leaders deliberated. Outside were the proletarians, gun in hand, with their heavy and light machine guns. And inside the leaders deliberated. At the prefecture the canons were aimed, there were sailors at every corner of the building, and all the rooms opening on to the outside were swarming with soldiers, sailors, proletarians. Inside, the leaders sat and deliberated. They sat and sat all night and into the following morning as the day became grey and so on and so on, and they deliberated. And groups gathered again on the Siegesallee, and the leaders still sat and deliberated. They deliberated, and deliberated, and deliberated.” (Die Rote Fahne, September 5, 1920.)
This description, despite its anecdotal and rather caricatured turn, sums up well enough the situation in the days of January 1919. Instead of intervening in the unfolding movement from the 4th January on, to give it the clear perspective of overthrowing the bourgeois government, the communists hesitated a long time, a prey to their own confusions. This had the effect of slowing down the workers’ revolutionary drive, and above all of maintaining their illusions. Only at the last moment, and pushed by the movement itself, did the KPD(S) advance the slogan of the seizure of power. This was not well received. In fact, neither the denunciation of the Ebert government, nor the setting forward of the movement’s final goal, had been prepared or argued well in advance. This is why, despite their combativity, the workers reacted hesitantly when faced with the perspective of breaking with the Social Democracy.
“The majority of Berlin workers were not prepared to take part in, or even to accept, this war that was on the point of breaking out between two camps, each claiming to be socialist. The meetings and assemblies held in the factories almost declared themselves for an immediate end to the fights between tendencies, to the ‘fratricidal struggle’, and for the universally demanded and applauded ‘unity’ of all the socialist currents.” (P. Broué, La Revolution en Allemagne, 1969.)In Germany then, all the work of propaganda and political agitation on a clear programmatic and organisational basis was completely lacking. Later on, the KPD was to continue on its opportunist path, and merge, in December 1920, with the ‘left’ of the Social Democracy, the VKPD. This hazy attitude provoked a reaction of the healthiest elements of the political vanguard and their organisation in an independent party, the KAPD. Sadly this reaction came too late — i.e. in April 1920. The world revolution was already on a more difficult footing, and was to struggle through defeat after defeat to its final extinction in 1927. The revolutionaries had failed in their task — they had not organised early enough.