In a previous essay, I argued that the Left should abandon prefigurative politics in favor of a direct challenge to capital. My argument is that the leaderless movements favored by the modern left are insufficient. They do not challenge capitalism directly. Instead, they attempt to work as though it does not exist, building islands of liberation amidst a sea of hostility. What we need to do is confront the ruling class head-on. We cannot be concerned with creating the new society at present. Instead, we must smash the old. Doing this requires leadership. In this essay, I want to argue that Russian Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s theory of the Vanguard Party is the only form of organization that can actually do away with capitalism.
I should clarify that when I talk about leadership, or even ‘leaders’ in this context, I do not mean an individual leader. I wholeheartedly reject the notion that great men make history. The Russian Revolution, for example, was not the work of Vladimir Lenin. It was the result of the mass struggle from which Lenin arose. I will argue not that we need a titanic figure who can make excellent speeches in order to win. We need an organization that can unify the masses. Leadership is about pulling together those who share the vision of a new society and uniting them to fight against the old. This is the concept of a vanguard.
To understand this aspect of theory, we must be aware of the context in which Lenin developed it. Lenin was active at a time when Marxism had become an orthodoxy. Orthodox Marxists universally deferred to one group of experts. In Russia, one such theorist was Plekhanov. He was not willing to move forward with revolutionary insurrection, the seizure of the state, or Party discipline. The other major figure of the time, German Marxist Karl Kautsky, was not willing to denounce World War One or imperialism generally. Lenin rejected the ideas espoused by both these men, and wrote scathing polemics against them. Lenin represented a radical break with the Marxism that came before. He was something fundamentally new.
Before we get into the structure and tasks of the Party, it’s important to consider why Lenin felt a revolutionary vanguard was necessary. One vital reason is the differing degree of class consciousness found among workers. The capitalist class does everything in its power to ensure that the system remains the way it is. It will use propaganda and often outright violence to achieve its goals. Given the intensity and scope of these efforts, it is unreasonable to expect every worker to be interested in overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism. Many workers believe that the best thing to do is agitate for reforms like higher wages or better working conditions. The majority of workers, held Lenin, want to make capitalism nicer rather than overthrow it. Hence it is necessary for the most advanced sections of the working class, those who lead struggle and have grasped the need to go beyond capitalism, to coalesce into a vanguard and educate the masses.
Given the all-pervasive elements of bourgeois ideology in capitalist society, Lenin writes, “the adherents of the ‘labor movement pure and simple’, . . .opponents of any non-worker intelligentsia (even a socialist intelligentsia), are compelled, in order to defend their positions, to resort to arguments of the bourgeois ‘pure trade-unionists’. . .All worship of the spontaneity of the working-class movement, all belittling of the role of the ‘conscious element’, of the role of Social Democracy, means, quite independently of whether he who belittles that role desires it or not, a strengthening of the influence of bourgeois ideology upon the workers.”
Although Lenin argued that the working class could not develop socialist consciousness on its own, he stressed that this is not the fault of the workers. It is the fault of the capitalist class which oppresses them. Workers do not see the need to go beyond capitalism because the bourgeoisie tells them that doing so is impossible. Workers see trade-union consciousness as their best bet because they are told that this is the case by those in power. Workers spontaneously gravitate towards socialism, according to Lenin, because it explains solutions to the problems they face more accurately than any other theory. But, because the bourgeoisie is in power, the workers are influenced even more by bourgeois ideology. Thus, they will have difficulty acting in their own interests immediately after the revolution.
This “problem of socialist transformation” can be best explained in terms of one important aspect, the contradiction between manual labor and mental, or intellectual, labor. The fact is that the tasks of leadership and administration, and more generally the various spheres of intellectual labor, have to be carried out in order for socialist society to function and go forward. Socialist society will be vastly more democratic than capitalism, but it will still need technical officials. Lenin argued this in State and Revolution. This requires people with the necessary training and skills to be able to carry out this work. While in socialist society we will be able to increasingly bring forward the masses to do this intellectual labor, we will not be able to overcome this contradiction all at once, or in a very short period of time. Thus, we will not be able to do away with the need for a vanguard leadership in order for the masses to increasingly play their role as masters of society. We will not be able to advance beyond the need for that except through a whole historical process of uprooting and transforming the underlying material conditions (or contradictions) which make this kind of division of labor necessary.
If we abandon the revolutionary party in this process, bourgeois forces will play a leading and dominating role. They will take advantage of this contradiction (and other major social contradictions that “weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” as Marx put it). They will seize on these contradictions and how they find expression politically and ideologically, then use them to resurrect the bourgeois state and the bourgeois mode of production.
The masses will often speak to this when discussing the possibility of revolution. They will say that they have no experience with scientific, medical, or administrative kinds of work. Sometimes, because of the incessant bourgeois propaganda and the constant promoting of its worldview and methodology, masses even doubt that they could learn how to do these things. But while, in fact, they can and will learn to master these spheres and all domains of society, they will just as certainly need leadership to enable them to progressively do so. Bourgeois ideology must be confronted and overcome, not ignored. Only a revolutionary Party is fit to undertake this task.
The masses cannot spontaneously learn to run society. It is and can only be a long and protracted process. Besides the important aspect of the masses needing to acquire the necessary experience, knowledge and skills in these spheres, there is another important dimension to this which is brought out in a statement by Lenin. He says that the masses have to learn that society is possible without the capitalist organization of the economy, and without the police and the army of the bourgeois state to maintain order and keep society functioning. The masses need to learn that society can be run in a qualitatively better way, in accordance with their own interests.
If the masses do not have a vanguard party to lead them in this process, they will have no choice but to fall back on, to accept subordination to, the only alternative way to make society and the economy function, namely, capitalist accumulation and the rule of the bourgeoisie, with all the torture and torment this involves. Without a vanguard that can organize society and lead the masses in its running, they will revert back to the capitalist mode of organization. That is what they have the most experience with. A Party is necessary not only to secure the victory of the revolution, but to ensure that it accomplishes its goal of establishing worker’s power. A party is necessary, also, to continuously collect the ideas of each and every part of the proletariat, especially the lowest and deepest sections, so that the proletariat has the best, fullest possible understanding of itself. Only with this comprehensive understanding can the proletariat consciously remake itself and the world, both physically and culturally, to proceed ever more fully toward communism.
The point, again, is not that the masses are incapable of becoming masters of the whole society, although they have been continually bombarded with bourgeois propaganda to the effect that they are incapable of this. The unfortunate truth, however, is that they are not going to be capable of doing all of these things all at once. It is going to require sustained, arduous and complex struggle in order for the masses to actually master these various spheres of society. This contradiction necessitates that the most advanced sections of the working class must be organized into a vanguard. This allows them exert more influence over the “average worker” and organize more effectively.
It helps to understand that Lenin is essentially rejecting the economic-determinist notion that workers will automatically become revolutionary socialists; rather, they must be similarly won to socialist ideas through the twin links of participatory struggle and the work of socialist agitators and organizers.
Lenin is not promoting ahistorical ideals, nor is he advocating that socialist ideas originate outside the working class movement. As I explained above, even the masses of the modern era are aware that administrative work is difficult, that it requires time to learn. This conception of the Party, therefore, is based on a deep understanding of mass consciousness rather than an ignorance of it. Communists who advocate party-building are not elitist. Rather, we wish to see the masses exercise their power to the fullest extent possible.
Lenin’s idea of the Party is based on a rigorous analysis of the historical context in which he was operating, and in which “we had both the spontaneous awakening of the working masses, their awakening to conscious life and conscious struggle, and a revolutionary youth, armed with Social-Democratic theory and straining towards the workers.” As Paul Le Blanc pointed out in Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, it is the “transcendence of this reality, not its celebration, that What Is To Be Done? was designed to facilitate.” That is, Lenin understood that there was an active working class movement in Russia. He was not blind to the fact that workers are drawn naturally to struggle. He did not want to impose struggle on the working class from without. Instead, he wanted to develop the struggle of the working class into a revolutionary one. To repeat the point I made above, the Party is not an organ that restricts the initiative of the masses, but instead one that seeks to help it flourish.
The understanding of Leninism as an elitist method of assessing working class movements and organization are, to put it mildly, misplaced. As an aside, Lenin wasn’t the organizational fetishist later militants assumed him to be. One of the key markers of Lenin’s political thought was the recognition that any revolutionary party or grouping must be capable of responding to the shifts of class society. This necessitated a form of organization capable of adaptation and flexibility, so as to better ensure the party’s longevity and responsiveness within the wider class struggle. So we may find in times of high political consciousness and action, Lenin urged party members to “open the gates” in order to more effectively facilitate the entry of greater numbers of workers into the revolutionary movement.
Above all else, however, Lenin stressed the need for said workers to be active participants and leaders, both within all layers of the party and wider class. Perhaps most significantly, he expressed the need for all internal debates and disagreements occurring within the party to be aired publicly for all to see: “[A]ll theoretical errors and tactical deviations of the Party are most ruthlessly criticized by experience itself, which enlightens and educates the working class with unprecedented rapidity. At such a time, the duty of every Social Democrat is to strive to ensure that the ideological struggle within the Party on questions of theory and tactics is conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible, but that on no account does it disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action of the Social-Democratic proletariat. . .”
In periods of bourgeois reaction and repression, often coupled with a reversal of political consciousness amongst the class, Lenin spoke of the need to ‘close ranks’ and impose more stringent forms of party organizing so as to protect the membership from the threat of external manipulation (many revolutionary parties were confronted with the reality of state infiltration and sabotage, especially within tsarist Russia).
It should further be stressed here that Lenin was not elitist. He did not argue for a Vanguard Party because he thought workers were stupid. Lenin began his career with a small underground newspaper called Iskra, or “spark.” His goal was to use this platform to propagate socialist ideas and inspire the workers into action. The paper was literally meant to be a spark for revolution. If Lenin really thought workers were stupid, how did he expect a tiny newspaper to accomplish this?
In What is to be Done, Lenin writes, “The task of social democracy [by which he meant communism] is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working class movement from these spontaneous trade-unionist strivings, to […] bring it under the wing of revolutionary social democracy.” For Lenin, the most important task was to lead the masses to socialism rather than becoming subservient to the spontaneity of their struggles.
In fact, relying upon the spontaneity of the masses can have disastrous consequences. For an example of this, we need only to look at the German economic collapse of the 1920s and 30s. Economic collapses generally cause the masses to become radicalized, and this was no different. However, the masses were not radicalized in a positive way. They became extraordinarily reactionary, and this eventually led to the rise of fascism. Part of the reason for this is that there was no cohesive, disciplined communist organization. There were many parties and activists, but all were very quickly done away with. They could not channel the rage of the masses into a revolutionary struggle. This, along with other examples discussed below, shows the need for a strong, militaristic communist Party to lead the revolution and ensure that the masses are radicalized in a productive sense.
The function of the vanguard is not only to organize trade-unionist struggles (although it will also do this) but to analyze concrete conditions through a revolutionary lens and, from this, generate new struggles. Their aim is not just to make workers angry about the conditions of capitalism, but to mold them into a disciplined force capable of winning a revolution. This ability is what makes the members of the Party the most advanced members of the whole working class.
This element of discipline is absolutely necessary. We will never win a revolution if we do not carry out our plans with strict regulations in place. Even the Spanish Anarchists of 1936 understood this. The CNT-FAI militia sent out a bulletin to soldiers which read, in part, “He [the combatant] shall not act on his own in matters of war, and will accept without discussion any post…which he is assigned.” Discipline is such an integral component to successful revolutionary action that even the Anarchists were forced to abandon their principles of direct democracy and individual liberty in order to secure the gains they had made. If they had began with an emphasis on discipline and accountability from day one, as Lenin advocated, perhaps they would have been able to withstand the fascist onslaught in much the same way the USSR did.
Some sections of the Spanish anarchists, I will admit, were successful in many respects. They were able to lower rents by up to forty percent (40%), as well as crush a small uprising of generals in Barcelona. The most successful anarchists acted as the head of the working class, as its vanguard. For three years, the anarchists organized revolutionary committees that provided healthcare, food, and education. These committees were far from mass, spontaneous uprisings. Rather, they were the result of careful organizing by advanced workers and communists in the national committee of the CNT-FAI. Indeed, they arose initially in response to criticism by the anarchist Alexander Shapiro, who condemned “impromptu uprisings.” These committees were the result, then, of a criticism of spontaneity and an adoption of leadership, effectively an abandonment of anarchist principles.
There was much argument as to this abandonment within the CNT-FAI. Many affinity groups that made up this organization, such as Nosotros, recognized the need to “channel the upheaval” of the masses into revolution. In short, the most successful anarchists recognized the need to generate new struggles. These anarchists were even dubbed “anarcho-Bolsheviks.” Even the anarchists have recognized the necessity of the Party! Their failure to create such an organization was what ultimately led to the rise of fascism in Spain.
Many Anarchists assert that the Spanish Revolution was crushed not because of any shortcomings inherent in its mode of organization, but rather because it was a small, somewhat isolated territory besieged by much stronger military forces. The Russian Revolution, however, disproves this theory. It began in a single city: Saint Petersburg. While there was discontent throughout the nation, Saint Petersburg was the site of most revolutionary activities. This idea of a revolutionary city is something most leftists have forgotten. The city was alone as a revolutionary power against the White Army and several foreign powers. The Saint Petersburg communists organized in a disciplined force to match on Moscow. There were strict military regulations, and it was through these that there were eventually able to seize power. The Anarchists adopted discipline too late. It was not a part of their theory, and it was this that ultimately led to their downfall.
Discipline has made the difference between victory and defeat on more than just this occasion, however. In Cuba, the rebels were outmanned and outgunned, travelling to Havana on a small boat. The strict regulations in their organization went a long way in ensuring their victory. For more on this, see Christopher Minister’s “The Cuban Revolution.”
This is also true of the Chinese Revolution. In The Unknown Cultural Revolution, Dongping Han writes that the communist forces were “small and defeated,” and the Nationalist forces were much better equipped. Despite this, the communists were able to survive and build socialism in China. This is a testament to the power of Party organizing.
The final example I will cite in favor of discipline is the “failed revolution” in Germany from 1918-23. This revolution did indeed fail, but a Party did exist that could have led it. This has led many anarchists and other socialists to conclude that Parties are too focused on “politics” and internal squabbling to effectively lead a revolution. In fact, the failed German revolution proves exactly the opposite. Working class movements absolutely require discipline and leadership in order to succeed. There was not even the embryo of a really mass-organized party capable of transmitting the political analyses of Rosa Luxemburg and others into the key sections of the class. Indeed, such was the lack of a tradition of coordinated revolutionary activity that Karl Liekbnecht simply ignored the decisions of the rest of the leadership of the newly formed party and, in the heat of the moment, put his name to a call for the forcible overthrow of the Social Democratic government. The result was that the most advanced layer of militants blundered into a premature struggle for power, which led to the annihilation of much of the Communist leadership. The German revolution failed not because leadership existed, but rather because the leadership that did exist was not willing to carry the struggle forward. The Party was not disciplined, and thus the revolution died.
The tragedy in Germany was that the disciplined party was not built until after the party had suffered major defeats and until after many of its best leaders had been murdered. Of course organization is useless without the correct politics. But correct politics is impotent without organization. To pretend otherwise is to guarantee in the future a repetition of many of the massive defeats of the past.
Finally, we have to remember that a small revolutionary organization is not the embryo of a new society. We do not exist as an island of socialism within capitalism, but as a voluntary organization of militants whose task is to lead the class as a whole to construct the new society. The aim of internal democracy is not to show the masses how things will work under socialism. If it were possible to do this, there would be no need to make revolution in the first place. Our real task is to tie the development of the Party to the concrete experiences of its militants in the workplaces.
The experience of not only Leninist revolution, but every revolution, proves that discipline is absolutely necessary, and that failure to abide by strict regulations will result in downfall.
Now that we understand the reasoning behind the vanguard party, we can look at how such an organization is structured. In addition to rank-and-file members, the Party is made up of what Lenin calls professional revolutionaries. These are workers who are already involved in the struggle to improve working conditions but who (as I said above) understand that we must overthrow capitalism. They are, according to Lenin, “all the principal leaders of the working class movement from among the workers themselves.” Professional revolutionaries will be freed from work and taken in by the Party so that they are able to devote their energy to furthering revolution. Lenin exhorts, “A worker-agitator who is at all gifted and ‘promising,’ must not be left to work…..” Rather, they must go out and lead the masses towards socialism. This can be done in a number of ways, from coordinating strikes and organizing unions to distributing leaflets.
Lenin’s reasoning for this is obvious. It is not easy to make a revolution, and it will never be done if revolutionaries are required to work for sixteen hours a day. Revolution is a cause which requires the full attention of its participants at all times.
Lenin’s aforementioned emphasis on discipline led him to determine that the Party should be structured on the basis of democratic centralism. This is a form of organization that combines two principles, democracy and centralism, in a shifting, dialectical relationship to one another. Thus, there is no definitive formula for the “correct” proportions of democracy and centralism. It is up to communists to determine the synthesis of these ideas which best provides leadership to the working class.
The democratic aspect of democratic centralism concerns the process of decision-making. It entails thorough discussion of all political questions, full airing of minority viewpoints, and criticism of all political work carried out by all sections of the party. Democracy in this context refers to decisions made by majority vote after a full, informed, and frank discussion. In this way, the Party ensures that it is more likely to reflect the interests of the working class.
Centralism includes leadership at all levels summing up the ideas and experiences of the membership, drawing up proposals and implementing policy, presenting arguments for said policy, and listening to the concerns of the working class. This is necessary to ensure that the organization’s decisions are carried out as planned, to combat the highly-centralized bourgeois state, and to create mechanisms through which the Party line can be evaluated swiftly. It also allows operational security to become a focus. Centralism assures that there are mechanisms in place that punish those who break the rules of the organization. This is not the case in decentralized, voluntary collectives, since members can simply opt out at any time. Centralism allows accountability.
This was proven effective during the Chinese revolution. Hong Pan writes that the Cultural Revolution would have been impossible without Mao’s support. Centralism here allowed the masses to empower themselves.
Even in the day-to-day struggle of the workers, the vitality of centralism is evident. If 51% of a union votes to go on strike, the entire union (even those who voted against the strike) are expected to comply. Any worker who breaks the strike is rightfully vilified and branded a “scab.” It is absolutely imperative that every worker obeys the decisions of the union in order to achieve victory. The same principle is at work in Party organizing.
Many centralized movement efforts—take the 1963 March on Washington or the giant national mobilizations against the Vietnam War—have been more effective in attaining their goals and empowering people than if those centralized efforts had not taken place. An ecologically “good society” would also require centralized efforts to implement economic priorities and to effectively coordinate production and distribution among different sectors of the economy that avoid duplication of effort and waste of precious resources with their deleterious effect on the quality of life. For example, the outputs of one factory are often inputs for another firm and must be coordinated by some more inclusive entity, and electrical and water services require extended networks to work efficiently and avoid the waste of resources. The same applies to the operation of railways, the most ecologically sound means of long-distance transport. While it is true that a self-managed society would by definition require a substantial degree of local decision-making, the real issue would not be centralization itself, but the type of relationship that existed between the rank and file and the leadership, and whether measures were implemented to ensure that the indispensable centralized efforts and institutions were subject to controls from below that are both democratic and rational in their use of relatively scarce resources.
Is it paradoxical that the advocates of “participatory democracy” often end up with a remarkably narrow conception of democracy: since “participatory democracy” is opposed to the delegation of functions, this often leads to lengthy discussions of trivial matters, displacing discussions of more political import. Democratic practice in this sense sometimes becomes reduced to democratically deciding who will clean up or bring the pizza. A democratic society depends most of all on a thoroughly politicized population, a population that is fully aware that politics affects everybody because it is ultimately about the power to decide over priorities for society as a whole. An opposition organization acting according to such a politicized perspective would be what Lenin called a “tribune of the people,” reacting to “every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it takes place, no matter what class or stratum of people it affects . . . he [the Social Democrat] must be able to take advantage of every petty event in order to explain his Socialistic convictions and his Social-Democratic demands to all.” It is this widespread autonomous politicization of a society, that is, public discussion and activity increasingly replacing passivity and apathy, which would create the overall political climate that is conducive to the democratic control of leaders.
Democracy is the compromise between the individual and authority; it allows the election of the skilled rank and file, thus eliminating unnecessary social distinctions.
But Democracy entails subordination [if not ‘absolute’, outside of the military] to the collective, the taking of orders from the elected rank and file, and the suspension of individual freedom [if not ‘basic democratic rights’ outside of the military], in the ‘course of social engagements’.
In short, social freedom requires the democratic compromise of individual freedom.
The Party line, briefly, refers to the program of the Party, both in the long and short terms. Party members develop the program through rigorous analysis of material conditions. It involves understanding the needs of the working class, as well as noting the position of the capitalists. Only through this understanding can we come to win the revolution.
It is important to understand the interdependence of democracy and centralism. Without democracy, the party lacks accurate information about the actual unfolding of the class struggle as well as the needs and capabilities of the masses. Democracy means tapping into the creativity and experience of the whole working class to ensure that the Party line represents the development of class struggle.
Without centralism, the experiences of the masses and of the Party membership would remain scattered. Centralism is what enables the party to translate its knowledge into a material force. For Lenin, there could be no democracy without centralism and no centralism without democracy.
Often, ultra-leftists claim that centralism is not necessary to fulfill any of these tasks. They believe that decentralized militias composed of armed workers will suffice. Leninists-and indeed Marx and Engels themselves-hold that this is not the case. In “The Bakuninists at Work,” Engels writes of a time in 1873 when Spanish Anarchists took power in several towns across the nation. The Spanish capitalist class could muster nothing but a few thousand untrained troops. Their army was several orders of magnitude smaller than that of the Anarchists. And yet, the Anarchists still failed. Engels writes that “Each town acted on its own,” functioning as its own sort of miniature “nation.” This decentralization and fragmentation made a combined attack against the bourgeoisie impossible, and the Anarchists were soon crushed. Lenin analyzed historical experiences such as these and determined that a centralized revolutionary organization was necessary to defend the revolution against reactionary capitalist forces.
These are the basic features of Lenin’s vanguard party.
The question then becomes one of relevance. Lenin formed the idea of the vanguard roughly one hundred years ago, and material conditions have changed in the time since. Is there still merit to the concept? I argue that this is the case. The greatest threat to capitalism worldwide has come from Leninist groups, such as the Naxalites in India.
However, the relevance of Leninism also extends to the United States and other, more “advanced” areas. As I see it, there are two similarities between Lenin’s context and the context of these areas.
The first is that, when Lenin began his career with What is to be Done, there was a notable lack of revolutionary organization. They essentially had to start from scratch. This is also the case in America. Of course, there was once a large number of radical organizations and parties; but we don’t have that in the United States now. The most active and powerful communist party is the Party for Socialism and Liberation. I do not wish to disparage them or their work, but the Party is isolated. Its activities mostly take place on the West and East coasts. The situation that confronts us here in the United States is remarkably similar to that which confronted Lenin: there is a notable lack of cohesive revolutionary organization.
The second similarity is one I mentioned above. Lenin was besieged by an orthodoxy. This orthodoxy told him that it was not necessary to organize a Party centrally and with discipline. It said that rules, structure, and so on were unneeded. Right now, we live in the same kind of orthodoxy. It is an orthodoxy of ultra-leftism, commonly called Autonomism or anarchism. These ideas manifest in loose-knit collectives and movements that engage in what I see as narrow struggles. These efforts are valuable, but they often fizzle out without generating any substantial change. They do not pose a threat to the fundamental order of global capitalism.
As an example, let’s take Occupy Wall Street. The general assembly was open to everyone, and while this is a desirable goal, the lack of a unified plan and an insistence on one hundred percent consensus meant that the assembly was ripe for reactionary infiltration. Many left the movement disillusioned after general assemblies failed to expel police, fascist agents, or bigots. The movement lacked sufficient discipline. As a result, the movement was only able to gain a few concessions from the ruling class. To make this point, I want to quote from Jonathan Smucker’s book Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, in which he writes, “Because [the general assembly meetings] were so cumbersome and easily derailed…the real decision-making was pushed…to underground centers of informal power.” This gets at a key point: the purpose of a revolutionary organization is not to prefigure the new society, it is to make revolution. The Occupy movement was ultimately concerned more with idealistic values (freedom and peace) rather than action. This is why it crumbled. Occupy failed to make revolution (or even fundamentally alter the status quo) because the institutions erected in its name were not capable of doing so. The revolution is a question of power. It is about one class exercising power over another. In order to successfully carry through a revolution, we must forge an organization capable of seizing and wielding power. In short, we must form a Party.
Some might argue that this analysis misses the point, since Occupy was not aiming to overthrow capitalism in the first place. This is, however, exactly what I mean to communicate. When you remain subservient to the spontaneity of the masses, you end up with movements like Occupy: fragile movements that do not even attempt to attack the system itself, much less succeed in doing so.
Occupy showed many that consensus decision making strategies were viable, leading many to reject the ideas of Democratic Centralism and the Party. However, the accounts from which this conclusion is drawn are not the whole picture. Consensus decision making is a form of organization that strives to reach the agreement of everyone involved before proceeding with a given action. If you are in the general assembly and you want to organize a demonstration for a particular cause, you must get a hundred percent of the people involved to agree. All those involved must at least not object to the line of action you have proposed. If any object, the action cannot be carried out in the name of that body. Because of the emphasis on getting everyone to agree, this form of organizing attempts to come to unified proposals for action by incorporating different perspectives in order to make everyone happy with the outcome. Certainly, this process sounds nice on the surface. But the point of politics is not to make everyone happy, it is to accomplish goals. Decision making in movements happens among people who have drastically different ideas about what should be done, or even what the movement is aiming for to begin with. Sometimes there are situations in which one proposal will lead to victory and another to defeat. Outcomes matter, and when the people in your movement disagree with each other, accomplishing particular political ends requires a struggle by political partisans against other political partisans. Democratic centralism allows this struggle to occur, without allowing it to take the place of concrete action. Occupy’s procedural processes are superficially appealing but in reality run counter to democracy. Decisions were in theory made by frequent General Assemblies open to all, where everyone who wanted was supposed to get a chance to express their views – although other procedural peculiarities often made that next to impossible. The format also demanded 90 percent agreement for “consensus,” which meant often that meetings lasted interminably or could not reach decisions because of insistent minority opposition. The consensus model was originally adopted by the initial Occupiers, and it turned into a convenient way of preventing almost any position or process from changing. That meant that 1% of the participants laid down ground rules that left the other 99% unable to make fundamental decisions about their movement. In this sense, consensus decision-making was the downfall of Occupy.
Endless meetings and indecision are alien to any genuine working-class movement. No worker with a 40-hour-or-more work week, let alone family responsibilities, could hope to even influence such processes. The fact is that working-class organizations need decisive leadership, and it is perfectly possible for this to be democratic and inclusive. This means not only that all have their say, but also that a majority can make decisions and hold elected leaders responsible for acting on them. Only a vanguard Party can provide this mode of organization. This is democratic centralism in action. The experience of Occupy ought to show us that without democratic centralism, without a Party, we cannot win.
An historical example is the May 1968 period in France. This was a spontaneous movement of workers and students that were angry about a variety of issues. They took to the streets and engaged in insurrectionary action with the intent to overthrow capitalism. Their efforts, while noble, were based on individual terror. They held that it was possible to overthrow capitalism based on zeal alone. They neglected to develop discipline or a unified theory. They, too, were only able to attain higher wages and the like. Many left communists would assert that this failure was the result of betrayal by the elitist socialist parties of France. This is certainly true. The Socialist Party colluded with police and union bureaucrats to stifle mass protests and other actions, leading to the eventual downfall of the movement. It is through this experience that we come to know the distinction between a Party and a Vanguard Party. A Vanguard Party, which is what I am advocating here, leads the working class movement. It does this by assessing where the masses are, immersing itself in their struggles, and formulating plans going forward. Its starting point must always be the sentiments of the masses. (see my post on the mass line for more on this).
The Socialist Party of France did not take as its starting point the will of the masses. Instead, it lagged behind them, twisting the movement to fit its own ideology. This is something Lenin wrote vehemently against, lambasting what he termed the “economist” or “right-opportunist” sections of the worker’s movement. The strategies enacted by the Socialist Party of France in 1968 have nothing to do with Lenin’s concept of the Vanguard Party. Because the French Socialist Party did not attempt to lead the working class, but rather hold it back, it cannot be considered a Vanguard. As such, it is unreasonable to use the experience of May 1968 to argue against the concept of the Vanguard Party.
The final movement I would like to address is the Horizontalism movement in Argentina. This derives from the neighborhood assemblies and piquetero protests that accompanied the collapse of neoliberalism in Argentina at the end of 2001. This collapse gave rise to a number of new and inspiring social movements. For many writers, it offers prime evidence of horizontal anti-party politics as a transformative social practice. These movements, perhaps best understood as experiments, included bartering clubs where workers and farmers exchanged goods and services without cash and recuperated factories in which workers managed the labor process free of hierarchy, centralization, or the like.
Here, I should explain something about the neighborhood assemblies. They arose almost spontaneously during protests and riots over privatization and social service cuts in Argentina. Their role was to focus popular participation during the high point of the uprising. The result of this was a moment in which people took to the streets under the slogan ‘throw them all out.’ Them, in this case, means politicians. These assemblies were deeply antagonistic to existing politics of almost any kind.
The problem with using this movement as an argument against the Leninist conception of the party is that it did not actually confront the state or capital directly. According to Argentinian left-wing economist Claudio Katz, the movements “did not grasp that the oppressors took advantage of a rebellion that took militant action but lacked militant organization, leadership, or ideological coherence.” For example, the neighborhood assemblies declined significantly when the ruling class regained the reins of power. Argentina went through four presidents in the space of two weeks, but as the government re-stabilized, the neighborhood assemblies lost focus, energy, and purpose. Because the assemblies arose spontaneously out of a situation in which the state was disorganized and fragmented, they had no political project to pursue once conditions changed. Lacking such a project, the assemblies were unable to exploit the crisis and end capitalism in Argentina, If they had been organized by a militant worker’s party, perhaps the vanguard could have developed the scattered concerns of those who took part in the assemblies into a political program with which to counter the organized bourgeois state.
As far as the economic experiments are concerned, the barter economy waned very quickly once the state became organized again. The self-managed shops suffered under competitive pressures brought about by a newly re-empowered Argentine bourgeoisie. The shops were essentially defensive formations developed in hard times. Bank accounts were frozen, there was very little money, and so on. As time went by, they found themselves more and more subject to competitive pressures in what remained a capitalist society. The state exerted these pressures on the shops. A failure to build a party which could take control of the state and create a social order which was conducive to self-management resulted in the ultimate failure of the movement to spread across the entire country.
The fact that the self-managed enterprises are subject to market pressures places limitations on the ability of the workers to self-determine. For example, their ability to decide what to produce is mitigated by market forces which compel them to produce based on what will make them the most money. If a socialist Party had taken power and instituted economic planning, workers would have a great deal more freedom in this regard. In this sense, socialist vanguard parties do not erode the freedom of workers, they allow it to bloom. It is only by creating a Party of this kind that we can liberate not only the working class, but the whole of humanity.
I would like to make one point completely clear before I conclude: these three movements-Occupy, May 1968, and Horizontalidad-were valuable and ultimately beneficial. They brought genuine gains to the working class, and inspired many to struggle against capitalism. The problem is that they did not go far enough. The system of exploitation did not come to an end as a result of any. By contrast, the Leninist method has lead to the destruction of capitalism in Cuba, the Soviet Union, China, and others. It is for this reason that I advocate a struggle in the tradition of these nations. Today, as yesterday, Leninism is the way forward.