Marxism and political organization

December 2, 2010

How do we get from the vision of a socialist society to achieving one? Elizabeth Schulte looks at what Karl Marx and the Marxists after him had to say.

SOME ACADEMICS and historians may be happy to foster the idea that Karl Marx confined himself to analyzing the world, but the truth is that he and Frederick Engels sought to change it--and took part in building organizations dedicated to the goal of socialism.

In 1885, looking back on their discoveries about class society and the founding of the Communist League, Engels wrote:

[W]e were by no means of the opinion that the new scientific results should be confided in large tomes exclusively to the "learned" world. Quite the contrary. We were both of us already deeply involved in the political movement, and possessed a certain following in the educated world, especially of Western Germany, and abundant contact with the organized proletariat.

It was our duty to provide a scientific foundation for our view, but it was equally important for us to win over the European and in the first place the German proletariat to our conviction. As soon as we had become clear in our own minds, we set about the task.

Soldiers on the march through Petrograd in a demonstration during the 1917 Russian Revolution
Soldiers on the march through Petrograd in a demonstration during the 1917 Russian Revolution

Marx and Engels had fierce debates with radical thinkers of their day about how to achieve socialism. Central to their view was the importance of working-class organization to achieve a new society. They insisted on a vision of what has become known as "socialism from below"--the idea that socialism could only be achieved by the active participation of workers themselves, not a tiny elite, and that workers had to have their own organization to carry this out.

IN THE Communist Manifesto, the 1848 pamphlet written as the platform of the Communist League and eventually one of the most famous books ever published, Marx and Engels devote considerable space to these arguments.

The utopian socialists, who believed that islands of "socialism" could be imagined, planned and carried out by an enlightened (if not necessarily well-meaning) elite, were a target of their criticism. So, too, were those who argued that the existing representatives of the state could be coerced into granting socialism from above.

Marx and Engels also spared no criticism for those, like the followers of the French revolutionary Louis Blanqui, who believed that the fight for socialism had to be the work of a tiny band of insurrectionists, organized secretly. While cloaked in seemingly radical language, this approach also amounted to another plan for socialism delivered from above that must ultimately fail, according to Marx and Engels.

Following from the idea that socialism could only be achieved by the mass of workers emancipating themselves, Marx and Engels looked to build the kind of organizations that were equipped to take part in struggles for this purpose.

When he was invited to join the group League of the Just, Marx said he would do so on the condition that it abandon its secret and conspiratorial methods, and organize openly. The group was renamed the Communist League. Marx likewise argued against radicals of the day who refused to take part in trade union activity--he and Engels sought out ties with unions and the Chartist movement in England.

Later, Marx and Engels would help found the International Working Men's Association, in an effort to bring together a number of workers' organizations internationally. Its founding document made the central point crystal clear: "That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves."

Nevertheless, the participants in the First International represented a fairly broad set of different politics. The kind of organizations that Marx was building were primarily social democratic organizations, where the party attempts to represent the whole working class. Later, Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia would develop the idea of a vanguard party--an organization that seeks to unite the most revolutionary workers.

Marx, however, built the framework for how future socialists viewed the relationship between the revolutionary socialist organization and the working class--by insisting that there needed to be a party of the working class that represents working-class interests.

While he may have underestimated the forces at play that undercut workers coming to revolutionary conclusions, Marx's analysis of the nature of working-class consciousness--that it is neither uniform nor static over time, but uneven and influenced by the dominant ideas in society, which are those of the capitalist class--provided the building blocks for further revolutionaries to think about what kind of organizations needed to be built.

Marx explained how ruling class ideas--everything from racism based on skin color to the idea that workers are unable to run society--could be challenged in the course of struggle. But he also insisted on the important of direct intervention by organized socialists.

In the Communist Manifesto, he and Engels argued:

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.

The 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.

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.

This idea of the role of "the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties" would be fully developed by Lenin and later revolutionaries.

AFTER MARX, the dominant form of socialist organization was large, national workers' organizations whose members subscribed to many different ideas about socialism. For example, Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD, by its initials in German), the jewel of the socialist movement of the time, had a large and growing influence on working-class life.

By the mid-1910s, the SPD had created a kind of "state with the state," with a million members, elected representatives in parliament, and many social and cultural organizations to benefit workers. During this period of economic expansion in Germany, workers were able to win reforms from the state with greater ease than at other times.

Within the broad membership of the SPD, conservative reform-oriented socialists existed alongside committed revolutionaries. So Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who viewed the revolutionary self-emancipation of the working class as the way to socialism, were SPD members--and so was Eduard Bernstein, who rejected revolution and argued that socialism could be carved out of capitalism one reform, or seat in parliament, at a time.

Around the world, these groups made up the Second International, with the pattern of the SPD's broad tent repeated in other countries.

In the U.S., for example, the Socialist Party included conservative leaders like Milwaukee's Victor Berger, who thought that the party should limit its activity to getting elected to government office. Berger was also a racist who defended segregation in SP organizations in the South and supported keeping out Chinese immigrants. At the same time, the SP also counted among its members militant revolutionary socialists like Big Bill Haywood and Eugene Debs.

Like Berger, Debs ran for public office on several occasions--but with an important difference. Debs' goal wasn't actually getting elected to office, but using the campaign to spread the idea of socialism and convince workers that they needed to get organized. The source of workers' power wasn't in their ability to vote, but in their ability to stop working and bring society to a standstill, Debs believed. The election was a way to bring these ideas into the public debate.

In this way, Debs' idea of how social change happens and the role that elections can play in spreading these ideas was in keeping with what Marx thought. "Even when there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected," Marx advised, "the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint."

But this wasn't the approach shared by many social democrats, and conservative leaders by and large succeeded in pulling their organizations to the right.

Over time, it became clearer that the differences within organizations like the SPD weren't cosmetic or insignificant, but much more fundamental. They proved disastrous in 1914, when the elected leaders of the SPD voted alongside capitalist parties in favor of war spending in the lead-up to the First World War. Social democrats in other Western countries, who had previously agreed to oppose the drive to war, followed suit.

In other words, so-called workers' parties--while still professing to stand for international socialism--were voting in the interests of their own countries' ruling classes to send workers into the slaughter of the First World War.

It was up to Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia to argue for and organize a different kind of socialist organization--a vanguard party made up of revolutionary workers committed to the overthrow of capitalism.

Up until 1914, Lenin believed that he and social democrats in countries like Germany were all building organizations to prepare for workers' revolution--and that the differences between their methods were the result of Russia's specific situation of organizing under Tsarism and in conditions of illegality.

But with the Second International's capitulation in the face of capitalist world war--a fact that Lenin would not believe when he first heard the news--Lenin turned his attention to building a new international of parties devoted to revolutionary socialism.

Lenin developed an uncompromising critique of social democracy. He broke with other socialists who still looked--to whatever degree--to the idea that socialism could be gradually won by winning seats in parliament, or those who made compromises to keep social democrats of different political tendencies together.

Lenin went back to Marx's writings on the 1871 Paris Commune--the uprising that produced the first, though brief, experience of workers' power when the ordinary residents of Paris took charge of the city--and especially to Marx's analysis of the state. As a later preface to the Communist Manifesto written by Engels points out: "One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that 'the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.'"

Lenin built upon this point in his short work State and Revolution, arguing against the social democrats and advancing the case for creating socialist parties capable of overthrowing their own ruling classes around the world.

As British socialist John Molyneux commented in Marxism and the Party:

A party aiming to smash the state cannot be organized in the same way as a party intending to take it over. Its center of gravity must be not in parliament, but in factories, from which the new state will issue. The rank-and-file of the party cannot simply be passive voters or even propagandists. They themselves have to become leaders of their fellow workers, builders of their own new state machine.

Moreover, the thesis that the bourgeois state had to be smashed, finally closed the option of peaceful or constitutional revolution even for the "freest" of democratic republics. Proletarian revolution would by definition involve a mass struggle for power, and therefore every revolutionary party would have to be organized as to be able to lead such a struggle.

Lenin insisted on the need for a disciplined revolutionary party made up of the vanguard of the working class--or put more simply, the most politically advanced sections of the working class. A lot of people, from the right and the left, have heaped abuse on the concept of a vanguard, painting it as an elitist term that means a few people at the top make all the decisions and then hand them down to the masses below. But the real Lenin has nothing to do with this picture.

LENIN, LIKE Marx before him, understood that socialism could only by achieved by the mass of workers' self-activity, not a tiny minority of enlightened individuals. But like Marx, Lenin also recognized that capitalism had created powerful barriers to workers reaching revolutionary conclusions.

For instance, racism, sexism and homophobia divide workers and obscure the interests they actually share. Similarly, competition for jobs pits one worker against another, diverting attention from the real source of the problem--that capitalism thrives on a pool of unemployed workers who can serve as a constant threat to those who have jobs. Other obstacles include the lie that workers are incapable of running society themselves, and that this should be left to the "experts."

Up against an avalanche of these ideas propagated in schools and in the media, it's no wonder that workers have widely different ideas about themselves and the possibilities for far-reaching change. So, for instance, some workers can have racist ideas, while others may understand the necessity of confronting racist ideas that make our side weaker.

In the course of individual struggles, workers can arrive at these conclusions and also learn about their own power as workers. But not everyone learns these lessons at the same pace. For any struggle to go forward, it has to be led by those who had learned those lessons--the most advanced, forward-thinking workers, or what Lenin called the vanguard.

Lenin's idea of the vanguard party means that working-class militants and other activists who have already concluded that we need a whole system must come together into their own organization in order to centralize and coordinate their efforts against the system.

In the pamphlet What Is to Be Done, Lenin explained that these revolutionary workers should stand alongside other workers in all kinds of struggles, not just those over economic demands in a workplace. A revolutionary should see herself or himself, Lenin wrote, as:

the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.

Lenin argued that an organization with the aim of overthrowing capitalism would have to be both highly democratic and disciplined. Right-wing historians have had a field day over the years, spinning stories about how the Bolshevik Party was made up of coup-makers, or was a top-down organization where decisions were dictated from above.

The reverse is true. At its height during 1917 and after, the Bolshevik Party counted among its members young militant workers who took part in regular and sharp debates over the next steps in the struggle. After such debates, there were votes, and then the decisions were put into effect.

This gets at the practical meaning of one of the more maligned and misunderstood concepts in Marxism: "democratic centralism." This principle means freedom of debate and discussion, majority rule and then unity in action. For it to work, no steps can be skipped.

Lenin argued in 1906 for "unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism...The strength of the working-class lies in organization. Unless the masses are organized, the proletariat is nothing. Organized--it is everything. Organization means unity of action, unity in practical operations. But every action is valuable, of course, only because and insofar as it serves to push things forward and not backward, insofar as it serves to unite the proletariat ideologically, to elevate, and not degrade, corrupt or weaken it."

Leading bodies and officials in the party were elected by the members and were responsible to them and subject to recall.

In this way, democracy and vigorous discussion flourished during the Russian Revolution and after. Tragically, this experiment in workers' power was crushed by the counterrevolution that took place with the rise of Stalinism. It was then that the concept of centralism was turned on its head. The small elite around Stalin squelched democracy and threatened any hint of opposition in order to maintain their rule.

DURING REVOLUTIONARY upswings, the need for such a party is obvious, as it was in Russia in 1917 in the months preceding the October revolution, when Bolsheviks were able to organize among fellow workers about the immediate next steps.

But this also shows the necessity of building such an organization, experienced in the struggles of the day, well before revolutionary upheavals. Organizations need to be built before the great upheavals, and help knit together and learn from the smaller struggles that happen in seemingly quieter times. This became obvious in Germany, where no such revolutionary party was built in time to play a leading role when a revolutionary situation arose that could have helped spread the revolt in Russia to workers throughout Europe.

Building a revolutionary socialist organization can't be put off to situations of upheaval, when success or failure depends on already having an organization rooted in past working-class struggles.

Whether or not such an organization exists can mean the difference between a workers' movement going forward and backward--between moving toward revolutionary conclusions or retreating back to the old ideas of the status quo. This is a lesson that has been repeated in struggle after struggle internationally, from Chile in 1973 to Poland in 1980.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described it this way:

Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves can we understand the role of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.

For socialists today, the urgency of building this kind of organization should be clear. A socialist organization works to be the memory of past working-class struggles and to learn from them, as well as to help build today's struggles on all sorts of fronts. And in times like these, when fightbacks are often sporadic and short-lived, socialists play a key role in linking together these struggles and generalizing the lessons from them.

As Paul D'Amato puts it in his book The Meaning of Marxism, "The question for socialists today is bridging the gap between muted anger and collective action, and between collective action and socialist consciousness."

Writing about the need for rebuilding revolutionary organizations rooted in working-class struggles of the time, British socialist Duncan Hallas wrote in 1971 about the job that lay before socialists:

The many partial and localized struggles on wages, conditions, housing, rents, education, health and so on have to be coordinated and unified into a coherent forward movement based on a strategy for the transformation of society. In human terms, an organized layer of thousands of workers, by hand and by brain, firmly rooted amongst their fellow workers and with a shared consciousness of the necessity for socialism and the way to achieve it, has to be created.

Further Reading

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