“The communists have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.” (Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto)
This brief phrase, apparently so simple, is the key to the problem that concerns us. In itself, it contains many answers and already allows us to grasp what the role of revolutionaries must be.
It is also a phrase which flows logically from all that we have seen beforehand. The revolution is indeed the work of the proletarians themselves, of the workers’ councils where the proletariat masses its strength for battle. But this unitary power, this organisation of all the workers, cannot exist permanently. “The workers’ forces are like an army which regroups during the battle.” (Pannekoek)
The proletariat, because it must tend towards a consciousness of itself and its aims if it is to defeat its enemy, is forced to secrete a part of itself to accelerate the maturation of its class consciousness. Its contradictory situation thus obliges the proletariat to create this instrument: the communist organisation, which “arises historically from the elementary class struggle, and lives within the dialectical contradiction that only during its struggle does the proletariat recruit its army and become aware of the aims of that struggle.” (R. Luxemburg)
“The word ‘party’ comes from the Latin ‘pars’ and we marxists say today that the party is part of a well-defined class” (Zinoviev). The understanding that the communist organisation does indeed constitute a fraction of the working class can prevent us from falling into the theoretical and practical errors that we have just criticised. Understanding why revolutionaries are not elements outside the proletariat, but simply a part of it, also means understanding why their action cannot replace that of all the workers, and why they cannot substitute themselves for the whole theoretical and practical movement of the proletariat.
Thus, in the same way that class consciousness is not a consciousness of something external to the proletariat, but the consciousness the proletariat has of itself as a revolutionary class, the relationship between revolutionaries and the proletariat is not based on a difference of origin.
Revolutionaries live as part of the proletariat’s consciousness and serve to homogenise it. Nothing more normal then, than to see them enter the same struggle as the whole of their class, take part in the same global practice, elaborate and enrich the same programme. The communists do not have any theory which is their personal treasure, the fruit of their brilliant brains.
“The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.” (Marx & Engels The Communist Manifesto)
It is, then, idiotic to think of the communist programme as though it were a tablet of the ten commandments. The revolutionary programme has no mystical origins and is not an unchanging code. On the contrary, it is a concrete product of the class itself; a weapon in its struggle. Not only is it an abstract statement of the final ends of society and of the workers’ struggle - it is also a minute and concrete analysis of the real development that precedes them, of the economic, social, and political situation with all its thoroughly material particularities. At one and the same time, the programme defines the aims to be realised, and the means which flow from and form part of these aims. These means are linked directly to the practical conditions out of which the workers’ struggles grow. This is why the programme is at once the theoretical elaboration of the proletariat’s historical needs, and a guide for revolutionary action. This is also why it is the fruit of the practice of the whole proletariat.
Wasn’t it the experience of the Silesian workers and the concrete situation of’ the working class in Britain, that made it possible to work out the theory of’ historical materialism? As Lenin wrote himself: “British workers’ movement of the period (during the French revolution) in many respects already brilliantly anticipates the marxism of the future.” And after the Paris Commune of 1871, did not Marx and Engels recognise that revolutionary theory needed to be changed?
“That passage (the end of’ Section II of the Manifesto) would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry in the last 25 years, and of the accompanying improved and extended party, organisation of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune . . . this programme has in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz: that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and use it for its own purposes”. (Preface to the 1872 edition of the Manifesto)
Later, in his preface to Class Struggles in France (britten in 1895), Engels recognised that the conception of an imminent revolution was incorrect. Another sizable alteration of the period’s revolutionary ideas!
But once the era of social revolutions really began, the understanding of the new conditions of struggle wasn’t worked out without difficulty. Once again it was necessary to enrich the theory of the revolution, to draw the lessons of the workers’ practice, to dare to go beyond the old worn-out ideas, and to proclaim openly what changes should be made to the programme. Lenin and the revolutionary left in the Social Democracy were the first to denounce openly the inadequacy of the IInd International’s theses, faced with the new period that was opening up.
Referring to a book written by Sukanov, a right-wing Menshevik who based himself on a programme of the Social Democracy in order to declare the impossibility of the socialist revolution in Russia, Lenin wrote: “No-one will deny that this manual written by Kautsky was very useful at the time. But it is time to jettison the idea that this manual foresaw all the forms of’ material historical development. Today, we can only describe those who think like this as imbeciles.” (Lenin, Our Revolution, 1923)
Already in 1903, the congress of the Workers’ Social Democratic Party of’ Russia had pointed out the necessity of’ the socialist revolution and the growing incompatibility between the development of’ the productive forces and capitalist social relations. But this vision remained very abstract. Thus, the Menshevik tendency in the WSDPR upheld the idea of a preliminary bourgeois revolution in Russia because of the country’s economic backwardness. It was not until 1905 that the proletariat proved, through the practice of its struggles and its organisation in councils, the necessity and objective possibility of the socialist revolution.
Literally overtaken, at first, by the events of 1905 and the creation of the Soviets, revolutionaries rapidly perceived the magnificent lesson brought to them by the proletariat. In Two Tactics of the Social Democracy, Lenin lays out in theoretical form the final objective that the world – including the Russian – proletariat should set itself in this period: the carrying out of the socialist revolution. While the Mensheviks, unable to draw the real lessons from the proletariat’s experiences, were strengthened in their incorrect and practically disproven convictions, and so slid progressively towards the bourgeois camp, the Bolsheviks by contrast, remained attentive to their class and proved their revolutionary capacity.
February 1917 was to enrich further their understanding of the role of the Soviets in the revolution and the proletarian dictatorship, even if all was not yet wholly clear (above all as regards the Soviets/party/state relationship).
There is certainly no lack of examples of the proletariat in action showing itself “100 times more to the left than the parties” as Lenin said. All this goes to show that revolutionaries, far from paying no attention to the experience of their class and retiring behind their absolute infallibility, have always been concerned to learn from the proletariat’s practice.
After this, only a blind man could talk of an unchanging programme. Only someone with his head in the sand could fail to recognise the immense enrichment of the programme that has come through the proletarian struggle itself. But this blindness has far more serious consequences than a mere theoretical distortion. For to claim, like the Bordigists, that marxism is unchanging, comes down to freezing the reality of the class struggle, emptying communist theory of its revolutionary content and standing aside from the movement. This is how, in the name of the programme’s ‘invariance’ it’s possible to end up sharing, with the leftist acolytes of capital, positions which have been counter-revolutionary for half a century.
To talk of theory in marxist terms is to give it a material force, a power of social transformation. Now, “theory is only realised in the masses to the extent that it is a realisation of their needs … It is not enough that thought tends towards its realisation, reality must tend to incorporate thought in itself” (Marx). And in order to realise the needs of’ a revolutionary class, revolutionary theory must precisely incorporate all the elements brought to it by social evolution itself. If revolutionary theory does not integrate the precisions and refinements of the proletarian struggle’s objective needs, it can no longer fulfil its function. It then comes to the point where it hardens, dries out like an empty shell, becomes a dead letter which no longer corresponds to present and future needs. For as the objective conditions of the revolution become more precise, the proletariat carries out in practice a renewal and improvement of its organisational tools. It tends to make the instruments of its struggle, and its practice, coincide with its historic needs and the objective possibilities of the moment.
For the proletariat to employ it usefully and put it fully into practice, therefore, the programme must correspond perfectly to its real historic needs, must draw its richness from solid reality. To adapt itself to the needs of the social upheaval, the programme must be capable of feeding on the lessons of the class which bears it. This is quite the reverse of opportunism. It was in the name of orthodoxy and the infallibility of marxism that opportunists of the worst type opposed the socialist revolution in Russia. As for revolutionaries, they have never been afraid or ashamed to draw their theoretical strength from the intense and turbulent life of’ their class in struggle.
The proletariat’s aims, theoretical action and practice are thus inseparable. The proletariat’s coming to consciousness is a process at once theoretical and practical. Theory and practice have their roots in the same soil, and draw strength from the same source. Theory, like practice, is gained in the struggle and not from exterior go-betweens, from intermediaries, or by ‘mediation’. Revolutionary theory, which the communists formulate the most clearly, is inherent to the proletariat and cannot be detached from its collective practice. In no way can it be identified with an abstract science, a mere knowledge of the world, a philosophy. Not content with simply interpreting the world, it serves also to transform it.
Let us now examine the consequences of all this for the relationship between revolutionaries and their class.
- The first consequence, absolutely direct: if revolutionary theory has nothing in common with science, and class consciousness is not an ideology, then revolutionaries bear no similarity to scientists or ideologues! For the bourgeoisie and the revolutionary classes of the past, the separation between the economic and the political, between the social and the private, and the existence of the division of labour, are flagrantly illustrated by the existence of specialists in thought and of politics. Since the transformation of society did not demand the active and conscious participation of the majority of these classes’ members, since the upheaval took place essentially at the level of the economic infrastructure, the revolutionary classes of the past could well delegate the defence of their political and ideological interests to a small minority of more clear-sighted politicians and intellectuals. The specialisation in political activity and ideological reflection is even a necessity for these exploiting classes.
“The exercise of power by a minority of the dominant class simply expresses the power of this class over the great majority of society. This substitution is even indispensable for the bourgeoisie, since in a society based on an extreme division of labour and function, only a minority of political specialists is able or required to adopt a sufficiently conscious view of its general interests to give a direction to its contradictory interests and multiple fractions.” (‘Resolution sur l’Organisation’, Revolution Internationale, no. 17, August 1975)
By contrast, for the proletariat “the consciousness of a minority, no matter how enlightened, is not sufficient to accomplish (its) tasks. These are tasks which demand the constant participation and creative activity of the class at all times” (Platform of the ICC).
The necessity for the proletariat to organise consciously and autonomously by definition excludes any form of exclusivity or specialisation in its tasks. But while revolutionary minorities appear as both an expression of the proletariat’s inability to struggle constantly with a clear consciousness of its aims, and as an indispensable instrument for overcoming this situation, they don’t because of this have the prerogatives of a function, or a task exclusive to them. They are not professionals of thought or of politics, the ‘brains’ of the class and its unitary organs. Nor do they wear the vestments of ‘proletarian ideology’.
The proletariat has no economic base in society; it is quite incapable of secreting an extreme division of roles, its own separation between intellectual and manual labour. It cannot create a body of specialists separated from its activity and its struggle. What’s more, this ‘inability’ corresponds perfectly to its final interests and to its global historical abilities.
- Another important consequence: it is not revolutionaries who make the working class revolutionary! It is not the existence of the party that allows the existence of a revolutionary working class! Revolutionaries exist precisely because a revolutionary class exists. They are not the cause of the whole social movement of their class; they are not the ‘first mover’ of’ a dynamic, but its product, even if they participate actively and decisively in it.
“It is because Being tends to become conscious that the organisation of the most conscious is created and not because an organised consciousness exists that Being is engendered.
To ignore one of the dialectical relationships linking party and class struggle, not to take account of the way in which they react simultaneously on each other, is to be condemned to a partial and so incorrect view of’ the problem.” (R. Victor, ‘Volontarisme et Confusion, Revolution Internationale, no. 7, April 1972)
This incorrect vision ends up by opposing an active mind to inert matter.
“The relationship ‘mind and matter’ has a hidden meaning. It is nothing other than the critical and caricatural completion of the Hegelian conception of history [for Hegel, the Idea precedes reality and is materialised in it — author’s note]; this is nothing other than the speculative expression of the Christian dogma of the opposition between spirit and matter, God and the world. This opposition is in fact expressed historically, within humanity itself, as follows; a small minority of elected individuals is opposed, as active spirit, to the rest of humanity considered as mass without spirit, matter.” (Marx, The Holy Family, 1845)
It is thus bourgeois and religious ideology which tends to create a belief in the need for an external force, an autonomous and active mind, to set lifeless matter in motion; which tends to oppose ‘active thinkers’ to ‘inert and imbecile masses’; which tries to place intermediaries, mediations, barriers, between the class and its practice, between practice and theory; which tries to create a belief that only a minority of heroes has the power to act on events and set the ‘masses’ in motion. It is the bourgeoisie which tries with all its might to spread the idea that strikes and revolutions are only the artificial product of a few ‘professional agitators’.
‘The conscious working class of Germany has long understood the funny side of this police theory, according to which the modern workers’ movement is the artificial and arbitrary product of a fistful of unscrupulous ‘agitators and leaders’ (. . .). If the outbreak of strikes depended on the incendiary ‘propaganda’ or ‘revolutionary romantics’, or on the decisions, public or secret of party Central Committees, we would not to this day have seen an important mass strike in Russia” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike)
Thus revolutionaries do not ‘make’ the class struggle, they do not create the revolutionary movement of their class, As Rosa Luxeniburg once again emphasises:
“The Russian revolution teaches us one lesson; that the mass strike is neither artificially ‘made’, nor ‘decided’ or ‘propagated’ in an abstract, immaterial ether, but is a historical phenomenon resulting at a certain moment and in a certain social situation from a historical necessity”. (op. cit.)
The idea is confirmed in Trotsky’s analysis of the revolution of February 19l7.
“Tugan-Baranovsky is right when he says that the February revolution was accomplished by workers and peasants – the latter in the person of the soldiers. But there still remains the great question: Who led the revolution? Who raised the workers to their feet? Who brought the soldiers into the streets? After the victory these questions became the subject of party conflict. They were solved most simply by the universal formula: Nobody led the revolution, it happened of itself.
Up to the very last hour these leaders thought that it was a question of a revolutionary manifestation, one among many, and not at all of an armed insurrection. Our friend Kayurov, one of the leaders of the Vyborg section, asserts categorically: “Absolutely no guiding initiative from the party centres was felt … The Petrograd committee had been arrested, and the representative of the Central Committee, Comrade Shliapnikov, was unable to give any directives for the coming day.” (. . .)
And nevertheless the revolution, which nobody in those days was expecting, unfolded, and just when it seemed from above as if the movement was already dying down, with an abrupt revival, a mighty convulsion, it seized victory.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 1)
- Far from embodying the development of proletarian consciousness, far from anticipating the real movement, by sheer willpower, revolutionaries need the collective activity of their class in order to fulfil their role. No voluntarism can replace the process through which the proletariat comes to consciousness
“The minority substitutes a dogmatic conception for a critical conception, an idealist conception for a materialist conception. Mere will, instead of the real situation, becomes the motive power of the revolution. While we say to the workers: ‘You will have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and international struggles, not only to change the existing situation, but to change yourselves and fit yourselves for political power’, you on the contrary say to them ‘either we seize power immediately, or we might as will go back to bed’”. (Marx’s words at the 1850 session of the Central Council of the Communist League, which completed the split with the minority Willich-Schapper tendency. Emphases ours.)
This collective activity of the proletariat cannot be replaced, for it constitutes the indispensable apprenticeship during which the working class progressively prepares itself for the seizure of power and the transformation of society. No minority activity can be a substitute for this action.
“As part of the class, revolutionaries can at no time substitute themselves for the class, either in its struggle within capitalism or, still less, in the overthrow of capitalism and the wielding ~f political power.” (Platform of the ICC)
The revolution and the workers’ dictatorship must be the work “of the class, and not of a small minority which directs in the name of the class, that is to say it must be the faithful and progressive emanation of the participation of the masses, it must constantly come under their direct influence …”(Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, 1906)
“All the preceding classes that got the upper hand, sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.
All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.” (Marx, Communist Manifesto)
In contrast to past revolutionary classes, the proletariat does not delegate its power and the exercise of its dictatorship to a minority or fraction of any kind. The workers’ emancipation must be the work of the workers themselves.
The role of revolutionaries is not therefore to take power in the name of the working class, nor to exercise the proletarian dictatorship.
But some might now retort, ‘Since according to you, revolutionaries are only a part of the working class, since their task is not exclusive to them, since they can neither act in the proletariat’s place, nor take power . . . then what use are they?’
But the reasoning behind this question is itself faulty. For the Bordigists and councilists, the party has no use if not to take power. Each draws a different conclusion; for the former, the party must therefore take power, for the latter it is therefore useless.
As for us, we do not reason like this. If the party does not take power, it is because this is not its function, the reason for its existence. Its real and indispensable role thus lies elsewhere. And that does not reduce its importance. Indeed, the understanding that only the proletariat’s conscious will can determine the direction of history and the possibility of the revolution implies equally the indispensable character of the organisation of revolutionaries and of the party. Not because it is necessary to find it some impossible exclusive function, but for the simple reason that the proletariat is in a contradictory situation, and that the revolution depends on a balance of forces whose outcome is not decided in advance. It is indeed its place in the relations of production that determines the proletariat’s struggle against capital and the development of its class consciousness; but at the same time its situation, as we have seen, leaves it prey to all the forces of society which work in the opposite direction; constant ideological pressure, the power of the State, etc. This is why only moments of profound crisis, of a crumbling of’ bourgeois society really allows it to affirm itself as a conscious class. This is also why, even at such moments, there is nothing neither fatal nor mechanical about the revolution. The revolutionary movement, the proletariat’s determination to fight to the finish, class consciousness – these are not homogeneous phenomena. Their generalisation demands an effort of will. And this effort always comes from those elements of the class who are the most determined in the combat and the quickest to see the final objectives of the struggle.
Look at what generally happens when a strike breaks out. There is a latent discontent throughout the factory, for wages have fallen again, and the lines have speeded up. Some workers end up by voicing their discontent, and discussing amongst themselves. The idea of a strike crystallizes. But others still hesitate, not all sectors are equally combative. The most determined workers will necessarily try to convince their more reticent comrades, by discussion and by the example of their own determination. Later, if the strike breaks out, these elements will continue to stimulate the rest of their comrades in the general assemblies, and will see their ranks swell more and more.
A more combative vanguard thus appears spontaneously within the proletariat, so as to stimulate and generalise to the maximum its own determination and consciousness. On this point, the history of the Russian revolution is exemplary:
“The history of the Russian revolution shows us that it was precisely the vanguard, the elite of the wage-workers, who fought with the greatest tenacity and self-sacrifice. The vaster the factories, the more stubborn were the strikers, the more often they were renewed during the year. The larger the town, the greater was the proletariat’s role during the struggle. Petersburg, Riga and Warsaw, the three large towns where the workers are the most conscious and the most numerous, provided, in relation to the total number of workers, incomparably more strikers than in all the other towns. (…) In Russia – as is probably the case in other capitalist countries – the engineering workers represent the vanguard of the proletariat. The best elements of the class marched at its head, drawing on the hesitant, awakening those who slept, and galvanising the weak.” (Lenin,’Report on 1905’ 22 January 1917)
We see this process much more strongly at work during the revolution of 1917. Here, the workers’ vanguard was to carry out a real labour of’ agitation throughout the country.
“But incomparably more effective in that last period before the insurrection was the molecular agitation carried on by nameless workers, sailors, soldiers, winning converts one by one, breaking down the last doubts, overcoming the last hesitations. Those months of feverish political life had created innumerable cadres in the lower ranks, had educated hundreds and thousands of rough diamonds, who were accustomed to look on politics from below and not above, and for that very reason estimated facts and people with a keenness not always accessible to orators of the academic type. The Petrograd workers stood in the front rank – hereditary, proletarians who had produced a race of agitators and organisers of extraordinary revolutionary temper and high political culture, independent in thought, work and action. (…) The mass would no longer endure in its midst the wavering, the dubious, the neutral. It was striving to get hold of everybody, to attract, to convince, to conquer. The factories joined with the regiments in sending delegates to the front.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 3, our emphasis.)
How far we are, in this living image of the revolution, from those moth-eaten blueprints which turn the party into an all-powerful general staff and the proletariat into a mass of passive and obedient infantry!
The march towards the revolution and the insurrection is a living, fermenting process. Its acceleration and generalisation are only possible because there already exists a latent life and consciousness whose immense hidden strength still hesitates to burst out. The revolutionary combat is not collectivised by slogans or orders parachuted in from outside. The work of the vanguard simply awakens a determination that smoulders throughout the proletariat. The action of revolutionaries and of the workers’ vanguard, far from contradicting or slowing down the proletariat’s combativity, constitutes one of its essential guarantees. Their activity, far from substituting itself for this spontaneity, or passively following it, accelerates its revolutionary tendencies.
But what distinguishes revolutionaries from those thousands upon millions of workers who form the revolution’s spontaneous vanguard? They are not separate or exterior to it, but rather distinguished by their greater combativity and determination and by the .permanence of’ their activity. Revolutionaries are indeed a part of their class, but not just any part. For even if the party only accelerates an existing movement, there are crucial moments where this acceleration is decisive in determining the course of historical events. However, the spontaneous appearance of a workers’ vanguard during the struggle has all the more weight and significance when it has been prepared over a long period by the political work of’ revolutionaries. A political work which makes it possible to maintain continuity in the struggle, and to forge weapons for the future.
Luxemburg emphasised concerning the strikes of 1905 in Russia:
“But at the same time, thanks to the intense propaganda carried out by the Social Democracy, and to its political leadership, the period of economic battles in the spring and’ summer of 1905 allowed the proletariat in the towns to draw the lessons, after the event, of the January prologue, and to become aware of the future tasks of the revolution,” (our emphasis)
In contrast to the innumerable combative workers who take the lead in the struggles, but in general disappear once the strike or the struggle is finished, revolutionaries remain permanently organised and base their existence not on sociological criteria or particular circumstances, but on political criteria. The political programme they defend enables them to put forward the historic interests of the proletariat within its struggles, and to be at once the stubborn defenders of the daily resistance against capitalist exploitation, and the most intransigent upholders of the movement’s final aims. They see their intervention as a continuous and long-term activity.
Thus it is neither the ‘physical contact’ with the workers, nor an all-out activism, which makes the party a living part of the proletariat and guarantees the authenticity of the links between the revolutionaries and their class. It is the revolutionary organisation’s ability to take up the political positions defined by the proletarian struggle. This is why the revolutionaries are not just any fraction of the class, but the most combative and resolute organised vanguard.
“The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the’ great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. (…) The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class, but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.” (Marx, Communist Manifesto)