KOREA COLUMN 19
The theory of the Revolutionary Party
The most important of the many contributions to Marxist theory after Marx is, in my opinion, the theory of the revolutionary party developed by Lenin. What makes this theory so important is, first, that history has shown that without such a party the socialist revolution cannot be victorious and, second, that this theory affects and transforms every aspect of socialist activity in the here and now.
Before setting out the positive features of the Leninist theory of the party, it is perhaps necessary to say what the theory is not. It is not simply the idea that to struggle effectively the working class needs to be organized into a political party. This was well understood by Marx and by most Marxists and socialists long before Lenin and has continued to be an article of faith of most reformists and non – Leninist socialists subsequent to Lenin.
Nor is it some special organizational formula, such as ‘democratic centralism’. The principle that a socialist party should be internally democratic in discussing and forming policy but united in action in implementing that policy was indeed adopted by the Bolshevik Party and other Leninist organizations but it was not invented by Lenin, not a fixed organizational structure or regime, and certainly not the key distinguishing or defining characteristic of the Leninist party.
What was distinctively Leninist was a new conception of the relationship between the party and the class. This conception was not arrived at by Lenin in a single moment of theoretical inspiration, nor is it systematically set out in any single Lenin text. Rather it was developed in practice, by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, before it was expounded theoretically. With hindsight we can say that this conception rested on the combination of two key principles:
1. The independent organization of a party consisting wholly of revolutionary
2. The establishment and maintenance of the closest possible links between the independent revolutionary and the mass of the working class.
Prior to Karl Marx there existed two models of socialist activity. The first, drawn from the French Revolution and based on the Jacobins, was of a secret club or conspiracy which would seize power in a coup d’etat on behalf of the masses. The second, as with the ‘Utopian Socialists’, was of passive propaganda which would preach the virtues of socialism to the general public and, especially, to the ruling class. Marx transcended both these models with the understanding that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself, and the idea of a workers’ party combining active engagement in workers’ day to day struggles with socialist political propaganda.
Following Marx the predominant form of socialist organization was the large national workers party, including in its ranks all or most of the strands of socialism in a given country. A typical example was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) which had an openly reformist right wing led by Eduard Bernstein, a revolutionary left led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and a majority ‘centre’ led by Bebel and Kautsky, which talked revolution while practicing reformism. Similar parties, with similar trends existed in most European countries before the First World War, and together they made up the Second, or Socialist International.
What Leninism brought to this was the idea that the revolutionary left should separate from the reformist right and the vacillating center, and organize independently. What was really at stake here was the role of the reformist leaders. Marx and Engels and the young Luxemburg and young Trotsky were all revolutionaries, not reformists, but they tended to assume that once revolution broke out the reformist and centrist leaders would either be swept along with the movement or swept aside by it.