In January 1918, Rosa Luxemburg had already drawn one important lesson from the revolutionary movement of 1917:
“If the cause of the revolution is to progress, if the victory of the proletariat and socialism are to be anything else than a dream, the revolutionary workers must set up leading organisms capable of using and guiding the combative energy of the workers.” (R. Luxemburg, Die Rote Fahne, 14th January, 1918).
This lesson, which was sadly not put into practice at the time, should be of use to us today. It should allow us to understand that the primordial task of revolutionaries today is to put forward a clear political orientation, and to prepare it through a whole preliminary work of propaganda. What does this mean concretely?
We have seen that the German revolutionaries’ hesitation to organise themselves separately went hand—in—hand with their lack of political perspectives. When they deliberated endlessly in closed session, while the armed proletarians waited for some concrete proposal from them, the revolutionaries of January 1919 were unable to decide rapidly on the immediate perspective because they were themselves confused about the global orientation that the movement should take. And because of this, they failed in one of the communist vanguard’s essential responsibilities — to insist constantly on the movement’s final goal and on the practical means for getting there.
“Communists are distinguished from the other working— class parties by this only:
1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat independently of all nationality.
2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.” (Communist Manifesto)
For the communists, orienting the proletarian movement onto the path of the revolution means continually demonstrating the proletariat’s historical and international interests and final goal of the movement. This seems, and is, simple, but putting such a task into practice is far from easy.
But some revolutionaries mistrust such simplicity, which seems to them to hide some unpleasant trick. In their eyes, such simplicity can only be an easy way out, an ignorance and underestimation of the party’s lofty responsibilities. To put a bit more shine on this ‘simplicity’ and surround the party with its full glory, they feel obliged to give it the role of ‘leader’ or commander.
Orientating the proletarian movement is too passive a task for their taste. They want something a bit spicier, a bit more lively. Thus they slide away from the idea of ‘orientating’ or ‘giving a direction’ towards a false political interpretation of the role of revolutionaries. By making the apparently simple jump from ‘giving a direction’, to ‘leading’ in the sense of ordering or commanding, they give the impression of according greater importance to the activities of the party. In reality, they do nothing of the kind.
To give revolutionaries the task of making themselves passively obeyed and followed like generals by proletarian ‘troops’, is to carry over the old schemes of past revolutions into the communist revolution. In reality, such an approach makes it impossible for revolutionaries to have any real impact. For, as we have seen, as long as the workers do no more than passively follow orders (whichever camp they come from), this simply means that they are not yet ready for power, nor sufficiently conscious of their own interests. World capitalism will not be thrown to the ground by an imbecile and obedient army, but by a strong, united class, thoughtful and self-confident. It is for this that revolutionaries must work, not to make themselves adored as heroes and fine speechmakers.
“The party’s historical function is not to be a General Staff directing the class as if it were an army, and, like an army, equally ignorant of the final goal, the immediate objectives of the operations, and the overall movement of the manoeuvres.
The socialist revolution is in no way comparable to a military action. Its realisation is conditioned by the consciousness of the workers themselves as they dictate their own decisions and actions.
Thus the party does not act in the place of the class. It does not demand its ‘confidence’ in the bourgeois sense of the word — that is, to be delegated to decide on the destiny of society. Its sole historic, function is to act so as to allow the class itself to become aware of its task and of the ends and means which are the foundations of its revolutionary action.” (‘On the Nature and Function of the Party’, Internationalisme, no. 38, 1948. Text reprinted in the Bulletin d’etude at de discussion, no. 6, our emphasis.)
Politically orientating the proletarian movement means acting so that the class can become conscious of the revolutionary direction that historically it is committed to take. In carrying out this task, in no way do revolutionaries ‘sacrifice’ their importance. On the contrary, this is what gives them a really primordial importance — for it is precisely the whole proletariat’s capacity for self-awareness and self-organisation that constitutes the only guarantee of the revolution’s victory.
What has the living example of the Russian revolution taught us?
It has shown us that revolutionaries, far from imposing on the proletariat a political leadership brought from outside, far from adopting a voluntarist attitude worthy only of petty corporals, far from forcing the course of events, simply worked to make the proletariat as a whole conscious of its historic interests. Contrary to the claims of bourgeois propaganda, which wanted to make them out as the ‘putschists’ of 1917, or as pitiless dictators, the Bolsheviks never received from the proletariat the task of taking power; they were never delegated by the workers to act in the proletariat’s place; they never won the workers’ confidence in the bourgeois sense of the term: “Vote for us and we’ll do the rest.” The Bolsheviks lived and acted in their class like fish in water. They had forged this unity after months and even years of patient work of explanation, propaganda, agitation, and constant insistence on the struggle’s final goal. This unity was possible because the party did nothing other than to give a more general political formulation to the needs and concrete tendencies existing in the proletariat. And this clear formulation decided the course of the revolution.
In this case, revolutionary theory was able to become a practical force, and to win over the workers as a whole. This was not thanks to some mysterious and magical seasoning provided by the party, but simply because it expressed in clear and general terms a real need of the workers. It is not surprising, then, that it found such an echo among the proletarians in Russia, and that the Bolshevik revolutionaries were naturally put at the ‘head’ of the combat. They did no more than to express clearly what the workers felt confusedly.
“The sailor Khorrin tells in his memoirs how the seamen who considered themselves Social Revolutionaries would in reality defend the Bolshevik platform. This was to be observed everywhere. The people knew what they wanted, but they did not know how to call it by name…
How was it that with this weak apparatus and this negligible circulation of the party press, the ideas and slogans of the Bolsheviks were able to take possession of the people? The explanation is very simple: those slogans which correspond to the keen demands of a class and an epoch create thousands of channels for themselves. A red—hot revolutionary medium is a high conductor of ideas. The Bolshevik papers were read aloud, were read all to pieces. The most important articles were learned by heart, recited, recopied, and wherever possible reprinted… The usual explanation of the success of Bolshevism reduced itself to a remark upon ‘the simplicity of the slogans’, which fell in with the desires of the masses.
But the toilers are guided in their struggle not only by their demands, not only by their needs, but by their life experiences. Bolshevism had absolutely no taint of any aristocratic scorn for the independent experience of the masses. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks took this for their point of departure and built upon it. That was one of their great points of superiority.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 2)Formulate clearly and simply a need existing in their class, starting from the experience of the struggles themselves, take account of the general and historical aspirations of the proletariat, orientate the movement and accelerate its revolutionary tendencies… these are the ‘mysterious’ means that revolutionaries use to fulfil their role effectively. Nothing very magical in fact. The simplicity of their tasks is easily explained: communists pursue no ends other than that of contributing actively to the consciousness of their class.