Many socialists follow the ideas of Lenin and, in particular, his ideas on vanguard parties. These ideas were expounded by Lenin in his (in)famous work What is to be Done? which is considered as one of the important books in the development of Bolshevism.
The core of these ideas is the concept of "vanguardism," or the "vanguard party." According to this perspective, socialists need to organise together in a party, based on the principles of "democratic centralism," which aims to gain a decisive influence in the class struggle. The ultimate aim of such a party is revolution and its seizure of power. Its short term aim is to gather into it all "class conscious" workers into a "efficient" and "effective" party, alongside members of other classes who consider themselves as revolutionary Marxists. The party would be strictly centralised, with all members expected to submit to party decisions, speak in one voice and act in one way. Without this "vanguard," injecting its politics into the working class (who, it is asserted, can only reach trade union consciousness by its own efforts), a revolution is impossible.
Lenin laid the foundation of this kind of party in his book What is to be Done? and the vision of the "vanguard" party was explicitly formalised in the Communist International. As Lenin put it, "Bolshevism has created the ideological and tactical foundations of a Third International . . . Bolshevism can serve as a model of tactics for all." [Collected Works, vol. 28, pp. 292-3] Using the Russian Communist Party as its model, Bolshevik ideas on party organisation were raised as a model for revolutionaries across the world. Since then, the various followers of Leninism and its offshoots like Trotskyism have organised themselves in this manner (with varying success).
The wisdom of applying an organisational model that had been developed in the semi-feudal conditions of Tsarist Russia to every country, regardless of its level of development, has been questioned by anarchists from the start. After all, could it not be wiser to build upon the revolutionary tendencies which had developed in specific countries rather than import a new model which had been created for, and shaped by, radically different social, political and economic conditions? The wisdom of applying the vanguard model is not questioned on these (essentially materialist) points by those who subscribe to it. While revolutionary workers in the advanced capitalist nations subscribed to anarchist and syndicalist ideas, this tradition is rejected in favour of one developed by, in the main, bourgeois intellectuals in a nation which was still primarily feudal and absolutist. The lessons learned from years of struggle in actual capitalist societies were simply rejected in favour of those from a party operating under Tsarism. While most supporters of vanguardism will admit that conditions now are different than in Tsarist Russia, they still subscribe to organisational methods developed in that context and justify it, ironically enough, because of its "success" in the totally different conditions that prevailed in Russia in the early 20th Century! And Leninists claim to be materialists!
Perhaps the reason why Bolshevism rejected the materialist approach was because most of the revolutionary movements in advanced capitalist countries were explicitly anti-parliamentarian, direct actionist, decentralist, federalist and influenced by libertarian ideas? This materialist analysis was a key aspect of the council communist critique of Lenin's Left-Wing Communism, for example (see Herman Gorter's Open Letter to Comrade Lenin for one excellent reply to Bolshevik arguments, tactics and assumptions). This attempt to squeeze every working class movement into one "officially approved" model dates back to Marx and Engels. Faced with any working class movement which did not subscribe to their vision of what they should be doing (namely organising in political parties to take part in "political action," i.e. standing in bourgeois elections) they simply labelled it as the product of non-proletarian "sects." They went so far as to gerrymander the 1872 conference of the First International to make acceptance of "political action" mandatory on all sections in an attempt to destroy anarchist influence in it.
So this section of our FAQ will explain why anarchists reject this model. In our view, the whole concept of a "vanguard party" is fundamentally anti-socialist. Rather than present an effective and efficient means of achieving revolution, the Leninist model is elitist, hierarchical and highly inefficient in achieving a socialist society. At best, these parties play a harmful role in the class struggle by alienating activists and militants with their organisational principles and manipulative tactics within popular structures and groups. At worse, these parties can seize power and create a new form of class society (a state capitalist one) in which the working class is oppressed by new bosses (namely, the party hierarchy and its appointees).
However, before discussing why anarchists reject "vanguardism" we need to stress a few points. Firstly, anarchists recognise the obvious fact that the working class is divided in terms of political consciousness. Secondly, from this fact most anarchists recognise the need to organise together to spread our ideas as well as taking part in, influencing and learning from the class struggle. As such, anarchists have long been aware of the need for revolutionaries to organise as revolutionaries. Thirdly, anarchists are well aware of the importance of revolutionary minorities playing an inspiring and "leading" role in the class struggle. We do not reject the need for revolutionaries to "give a lead" in struggles, we reject the idea of institutionalised leadership and the creation of a leader/led hierarchy implicit (and sometimes no so implicit) in vanguardism.
As such, we do not oppose "vanguardism" for these reasons. So when Leninists like Tony Cliff argue that it is "unevenness in the class [which] makes the party necessary," anarchists reply that "unevenness in the class" makes it essential that revolutionaries organise together to influence the class but that organisation does not and need not take the form of a vanguard party. [Tony Cliff, Lenin, vol. 2, p. 149] This is because we reject the concept and practice for three reasons.
Firstly, and most importantly, anarchists reject the underlying assumption of vanguardism. It is based on the argument that "socialist consciousness" has to be introduced into the working class from outside. We argue that not only is this position empirically false, it is fundamentally anti-socialist in nature. This is because it logically denies that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. Moreover, it serves to justify elite rule. Some Leninists, embarrassed by the obvious anti-socialist nature of this concept, try and argue that Lenin (and so Leninism) does not hold this position. We show that such claims are false.
Secondly, there is the question of organisational structure. Vanguard parties are based on the principle of "democratic centralism". Anarchists argue that such parties, while centralised, are not, in fact, democratic nor can they be. As such, the "revolutionary" or "socialist" party is no such thing as it reflects the structure of the capitalist system it claims to oppose.
Lastly, anarchists argue that such parties are, despite the claims of their supporters, not actually very efficient or effective in the revolutionary sense of the word. At best, they hinder the class struggle by being slow to respond to rapidly changing situations. At worse, they are "efficient" in shaping both the revolution and the post-revolutionary society in a hierarchical fashion, so re-creating class rule.
So these are key aspects of the anarchist critique of vanguardism, which we discuss in more depth in the following sections. It is a bit artificial to divide these issues into different sections because they are all related. The role of the party implies a specific form of organisation (as Lenin himself stressed), the form of the party influences its effectiveness. It is for ease of presentation we divide up our discussion so.
The reason why vanguard parties are anti-socialist is simply because of the role assigned to them by Lenin, which he thought was vital. Simply put, without the party, no revolution would be possible. As Lenin put it in 1900, "[i]solated from Social-Democracy, the working class movement becomes petty and inevitably becomes bourgeois." [Collected Works, vol. 4, p. 368] In What is to be Done?, he expands on this position:
"Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only outside of the economic struggle, outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships between all the various classes and strata and the state and the government - the sphere of the interrelations between all the various classes." [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 112]
Thus the role of the party is to inject socialist politics into a class incapable of developing them itself.
Lenin is at pains to stress the Marxist orthodoxy of his claims and quotes the "profoundly true and important" comments of Karl Kautsky on the subject. [Op. Cit., p. 81] Kautsky, considered the "pope" of Social-Democracy, stated that it was "absolutely untrue" that "socialist consciousness" was a "necessary and direct result of the proletarian class struggle." Rather, "socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other . . . Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge . . . The vehicles of science are not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia: it was in the minds of some members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduced it into the proletarian class struggle." Kautsky stressed that "socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without." [quoted by Lenin, Op. Cit., pp. 81-2]
So Lenin, it must be stressed, was not inventing anything new here. He was simply repeating the orthodox Marxist position and, as is obvious, wholeheartedly agreed with Kautsky's pronouncements (any attempt to claim that he did not or later rejected them is nonsense, as we prove in section H.5.4). Lenin, with his usual modesty, claimed to speak on behalf of the workers when he wrote that "intellectuals must talk to us, and tell us more about what we do not know and what we can never learn from our factory and 'economic' experience, that is, you must give us political knowledge." [Op. Cit., p. 108] Thus we have Lenin painting a picture of a working class incapable of developing "political knowledge" or "socialist consciousness" by its own efforts and so is reliant on members of the party, themselves either radical elements of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie or educated by them, to provide it with such knowledge.
The obvious implication of this argument is that the working class cannot liberate itself by its own efforts. Without the radical bourgeois to provide the working class with "socialist" ideas, a socialist movement, let alone society, is impossible. If the working class cannot develop its own political theory by its own efforts then it cannot conceive of transforming society and, at best, can see only the need to work within capitalism for reforms to improve its position in society. A class whose members cannot develop political knowledge by its own actions cannot emancipate itself. It is, by necessity, dependent on others to shape and form its movements. To quote Trotsky's telling analogy on the respective roles of party and class, leaders and led:
"Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston. But nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam." [History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1, p. 17]
While Trotsky's mechanistic analogy may be considered as somewhat crude, it does expose the underlying assumptions of Bolshevism. After all, did not Lenin argue that the working class could not develop "socialist consciousness" by themselves and that it had to be introduced from without? How can you expect steam to create a piston? You cannot. Thus we have a blind, elemental force incapable of conscious thought being guided by a creation of science, the piston (which, of course, is a product of the work of the "vehicles of science," namely the bourgeois intelligentsia). In the Leninist perspective, if revolutions are the locomotives of history (to use Marx's words) then the masses are the steam, the party the locomotive and the leaders the train driver. The idea of a future society being constructed democratically from below by the workers themselves rather than through periodically elected leaders seems to have passed Bolshevism past. This is unsurprising, given that the Bolsheviks saw the workers in terms of blindly moving steam in a box, something incapable of being creative unless an outside force gave them direction (instructions).
Libertarian socialist Cornelius Castoriadis provides a good critique of the implications of the Leninist position:
"No positive content, nothing new capable of providing the foundation for the reconstruction of society could arise out of a mere awareness of poverty. From the experience of life under capitalism the proletariat could derive no new principles either for organising this new society or for orientating it in another direction. Under such conditions, the proletarian revolution becomes . . . a simple reflex revolt against hunger. It is impossible to see how socialist society could ever be the result of such a reflex . . . Their situation forces them to suffer the consequences of capitalism's contradictions, but in no way does it lead them to discover its causes. An acquaintance with these causes comes not from experiencing the production process but from theoretical knowledge . . . This knowledge may be accessible to individual workers, but not to the proletariat qua proletariat. Driven by its revolt against poverty, but incapable of self-direction since its experiences does not give it a privileged viewpoint on reality, the proletariat according to this outlook, can only be an infantry in the service of a general staff of specialists. These specialists know (from considerations that the proletariat as such does not have access to) what is going wrong with present-day society and how it must be modified. The traditional view of the economy and its revolutionary perspective can only found, and actually throughout history has only founded, a bureaucratic politics . . . [W]hat we have outlined are the consequences that follow objectively from this theory. And they have been affirmed in an ever clearer fashion within the actual historical movement of Marxism, culminating in Stalinism." [Social and Political Writings, vol. 2, pp. 257-8]
Thus we have a privileged position for the party and a perspective which can (and did) justify party dictatorship over the proletariat. Given the perspective that the working class cannot formulate its own "ideology" by its own efforts, of its incapacity to move beyond "trade union consciousness" independently of the party, the clear implication is that the party could in no way be bound by the predominant views of the working class. As the party embodies "socialist consciousness" (and this arises outside the working class and its struggles) then opposition of the working class to the party signifies a failure of the class to resist alien influences. As Lenin put it:
"Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology being developed by the masses of the workers in the process of their movement, the only choice is: either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course . . . Hence, to belittle socialist ideology in any way, to deviate from it in the slightest degree means strengthening bourgeois ideology. There is a lot of talk about spontaneity, but the spontaneous development of the labour movement leads to its becoming subordinated to bourgeois ideology . . . Hence our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the labour movement from its spontaneous, trade unionist striving to go under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social-Democracy." [Op. Cit., pp. 82-3]
The implications of this argument became clear once the Bolsheviks seized power. As a justification for party dictatorship, you would be hard pressed to find any better. If the working class revolts against the ruling party, then we have a "spontaneous" development which, inevitably, is an expression of bourgeois ideology. As the party represents socialist consciousness, any deviation in working class support for it simply meant that the working class was being "subordinated" to the bourgeoisie. This meant, obviously, that to "belittle" the "role" of the party by questioning its rule meant to "strengthen bourgeois ideology" and when workers spontaneously went on strike or protested against the party's rule, the party had to "combat" these strivings in order to maintain working class rule! As the "masses of the workers" cannot develop an "independent ideology," the workers are rejecting socialist ideology in favour of bourgeois ideology. The party, in order to defend the "the revolution" (even the "rule of the workers"!) has to impose its will onto the class, to "combat spontaneity."
As we saw in section H.1.2, none of the leading Bolsheviks were shy about drawing these conclusions once in power and faced with working class revolt against their rule. Indeed, they raised the idea that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was also, in fact, the "dictatorship of the party" and, as we discussed in section H.3.8 integrated this into their theory of the state. Thus, Leninist ideology implies that "workers' power" exists independently of the workers. This means that the sight of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" (i.e. the Bolshevik government) repressing the proletariat is to be expected.
This elitist perspective of the party, the idea that it and it alone possesses knowledge can be seen from the resolution of the Communist International on the role of the party. It stated that "the working class without an independent political party is a body without a head." [Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920, vol. 1, p. 194] This use of biological analogies says more about Bolshevism that its authors intended. After all, it suggests a division of labour which is unchangeable. Can the hands evolve to do their own thinking? Of course not. Yet again, we have an image of the class as unthinking brute force. As the Cohen-Bendit brothers argued, the "Leninist belief that the workers cannot spontaneously go beyond the level of trade union consciousness is tantamount to beheading the proletariat, and then insinuating the Party as the head . . . Lenin was wrong, and in fact, in Russia the Party was forced to decapitate the workers' movement with the help of the political police and the Red Army under the brilliant leadership of Trotsky and Lenin." [Obsolute Communism, pp. 194-5]
As well as explaining the subsequent embrace of party dictatorship over the working class, vanguardism also explains the notorious inefficiency of Leninist parties faced with revolutionary situations we discuss in section H.5.8. Basing themselves on the perspective that all spontaneous movements are inherently bourgeois they could not help but be opposed to autonomous class struggle and the organisations and tactics it generates. James C. Scott, in his excellent discussion of the roots and flaws in Lenin's ideas on the party, makes the obvious point that since, for Lenin, "authentic, revolutionary class consciousness could never develop autonomously within the working class, it followed that that the actual political outlook of workers was always a threat to the vanguard party." [Seeing like a State, p. 155] As Maurice Brinton argued, the "Bolshevik cadres saw their role as the leadership of the revolution. Any movement not initiated by them or independent of their control could only evoke their suspicion." These developments, of course, did not occur by chance or accidentally for "a given ideological premise (the preordained hegemony of the Party) led necessarily to certain conclusions in practice." [The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, p. xi and p. xii]
Bakunin expressed the implications of the vanguardist perspective extremely well. It is worthwhile quoting him at length:
"Idealists of all sorts, metaphysicians, positivists, those who uphold the priority of science over life, the doctrinaire revolutionists - all of them champion with equal zeal although differing in their argumentation, the idea of the State and State power, seeing in them, quite logically from their point of view, the only salvation of society. Quite logically, I say, having taken as their basis the tenet - a fallacious tenet in our opinion - that thought is prior to life, and abstract theory is prior to social practice, and that therefore sociological science must become the starting point for social upheavals and social reconstruction - they necessarily arrived at the conclusion that since thought, theory, and science are, for the present at least, the property of only a very few people, those few should direct social life; and that on the morrow of the Revolution the new social organisation should be set up not by the free integration of workers' associations, villages, communes, and regions from below upward, conforming to the needs and instincts of the people, but solely by the dictatorial power of this learned minority, allegedly expressing the general will of the people." [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, pp. 283-4]
The idea that "socialist consciousness" can exist independently of the working class and its struggle suggests exactly the perspective Bakunin was critiquing. For vanguardism, the abstract theory of socialism exists prior to the class struggle and exists waiting to be brought to the masses by the educated few. The net effect is, as we have argued, to lay the ground for party dictatorship. The concept is fundamentally anti-socialist, a justification for elite rule and the continuation of class society in new, party approved, ways.
Lenin claimed that workers can only reach a "trade union consciousness" by their own efforts. Anarchists argue that such an assertion is empirically false. The history of the labour movement is marked by revolts and struggles which went far further than just seeking reforms as well as revolutionary theories derived from such experiences.
The category of "economic struggle" corresponds to no known social reality. Every "economic" struggle is "political" in some sense and those involved can, and do, learn political lessons from them. As Kropotkin noted in the 1880s, there "is almost no serious strike which occurs today without the appearance of troops, the exchange of blows and some acts of revolt. Here they fight with the troops; there they march on the factories . . . Thanks to government intervention the rebel against the factory becomes the rebel against the State." [quoted by Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, p. 256] If history shows anything, it shows that workers are more than capable of going beyond "trade union consciousness." The Paris Commune, the 1848 revolts and, ironically enough, the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolutions show that the masses are capable of revolutionary struggles in which the self-proclaimed "vanguard" of socialists spend most of their time trying to catch up with them!
The history of Bolshevism also helps discredit Lenin's argument that the workers cannot develop socialist consciousness alone due to the power of bourgeois ideology. Simply put, if the working class is subjected to bourgeois influences, then so are the "professional" revolutionaries within the party. Indeed, the strength of such influences on the "professionals" of revolution must be higher as they are not part of proletarian life. If social being influences consciousness then if a revolutionary is no longer part of the working class then they no longer are rooted in the social conditions which generate socialist theory and action. No longer connected with collective labour and working class life, the "professional" revolutionary is more likely to be influenced by the social milieu he or she now is part of (i.e. a bourgeois, or at best petit-bourgeois, environment).
This tendency for the "professional" revolutionary to be subject to bourgeois influences can continually be seen from the history of the Bolshevik party. As Trotsky himself noted:
"It should not be forgotten that the political machine of the Bolshevik Party was predominantly made up of the intelligentsia, which was petty bourgeois in its origin and conditions of life and Marxist in its ideas and in its relations with the proletariat. Workers who turned professional revolutionists joined this set with great eagerness and lost their identity in it. The peculiar social structure of the Party machine and its authority over the proletariat (neither of which is accidental but dictated by strict historical necessity) were more than once the cause of the Party's vacillation and finally became the source of its degeneration . . . In most cases they lacked independent daily contact with the labouring masses as well as a comprehensive understanding of the historical process. They thus left themselves exposed to the influence of alien classes." [Stalin, vol. 1, pp. 297-8]
He pointed to the example of the First World War, when, "even the Bolshevik party did not at once find its way in the labyrinth of war. As a general rule, the confusion was most pervasive and lasted longest amongst the Party's higher-ups, who came in direct contact with bourgeois public opinion." Thus the professional revolutionaries "were largely affected by compromisist tendencies, which emanated from bourgeois circles, while the rank and file Bolshevik workingmen displayed far greater stability resisting the patriotic hysteria that had swept the country." [Op. Cit., p. 248 and p. 298] It should be noted that he was repeating earlier comments on the "immense intellectual backsliding of the upper stratum of the Bolsheviks during the war" was caused by "isolation from the masses and isolation from those abroad - that is primarily from Lenin." [History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3, p. 134] As we discuss in section H.5.12, even Trotsky had to admit that during 1917 the working class was far more revolutionary than the party and the party more revolutionary than the "party machine" of "professional revolutionaries."
Ironically enough, Lenin himself recognised this aspect of intellectuals after he had praised their role in bringing "revolutionary" consciousness to the working class. In his 1904 work One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, he argued that it was now the presence of "large numbers of radical intellectuals in the ranks" which has ensured that "the opportunism which their mentality produces had been, and is, bound to exist." [Collected Works, vol. 7, pp. 403-4] According to Lenin's new philosophy, the working class simply needs to have been through the "schooling of the factory" in order to give the intelligentsia lessons in political discipline, the very same intelligentsia which up until then had played the leading role in the Party and had given political consciousness to the working class. In his words:
"For the factory, which seems only a bogey to some, represents that highest form of capitalist co-operation which has united and disciplined the proletariat, taught it to organise . . . And it is Marxism, the ideology of the proletariat trained by capitalism, has been and is teaching . . . unstable intellectuals to distinguish between the factory as a means of exploitation (discipline based on fear of starvation) and the factory as a means of organisation (discipline based on collective work . . .). The discipline and organisation which come so hard to the bourgeois intellectual are very easily acquired by the proletariat just because of this factory 'schooling.'" [Op. Cit., pp. 392-3]
Lenin's analogy is, of course, flawed. The factory is a "means of exploitation" because its "means of organisation" is top-down and hierarchical. The "collective work" which the workers are subjected to is organised by the boss and the "discipline" is that of the barracks, not that of free individuals. In fact, the "schooling" for revolutionaries is not the factory, but the class struggle - healthy and positive self-discipline is generated by the struggle against the way the workplace is organised under capitalism. Factory discipline, in other words, is completely different from the discipline required for social struggle or revolution. Workers become revolutionary in so far as they reject the hierarchical discipline of the workplace and develop the self-discipline required to fight it.
A key task of anarchism is to encourage working class revolt against this type of discipline, particularly in the capitalist workplace. The "discipline" Lenin praises simply replaces human thought and association with the following of orders and hierarchy. Thus anarchism aims to undermine capitalist (imposed and brutalising) discipline in favour of solidarity, the "discipline" of free association and agreement based on the community of struggle and the political consciousness and revolutionary enthusiasm that struggle creates. Thus, for anarchists, the model of the factory can never be the model for a revolutionary organisation any more than Lenin's vision of society as "one big workplace" could be our vision of socialism (see section H.3.1). Ultimately, the factory exists to reproduce hierarchical social relationships and class society just as much as it exists to produce goods.
It should be noted that Lenin's argument does not contradict his earlier ones. The proletarian and intellectual have complementary jobs in the party. The proletariat is to give lessons in political discipline to the intellectuals as they have been through the process of factory (i.e. hierarchical) discipline. The role of the intellectuals as providers of "political consciousness" is the same and so they give political lessons to the workers. Moreover, his vision of the vanguard party is basically the same as in What is to Be Done?. This can be seen from his comments that the leading Menshevik Martov "lumps together in the party organised and unorganised elements, those who lend themselves to direction and those who do not, the advanced and the incorrigibly backward." He stressed that the "division of labour under the direction of a centre evokes from him [the intellectual] a tragicomical outcry against transforming people into 'cogs and wheels.'" [Op. Cit., p. 258 and p. 392] Thus there is the same division of labour as in the capitalist factory, with the boss (the "centre") having the power to direct the workers (who submit to "direction"). Thus we have a "revolutionary" party organised in a capitalist manner, with the same "division of labour" between order givers and order takers.
As we discussed in section H.5.1, anarchists argue that the assumptions of vanguardism lead to party rule over the working class. Needless to say, followers of Lenin disagree. For example, Chris Harman of the British Socialist Workers Party argues the opposite case in his essay "Party and Class." However, his own argument suggests the elitist conclusions libertarians have draw from Lenin's.
Harman argues that there are two ways to look at the revolutionary party, the Leninist way and the traditional social-democratic way (as represented by the likes of Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg in 1903-5). "The latter," he argues, "was thought of as a party of the whole [working] class . . . All the tendencies within the class had to be represented within it. Any split within it was to be conceived of as a split within the class. Centralisation, although recognised as necessary, was feared as a centralisation over and against the spontaneous activity of the class. Yet it was precisely in this kind of party that the 'autocratic' tendencies warned against by Luxemburg were to develop most. For within it the confusion of member and sympathiser, the massive apparatus needed to hold together a mass of only half-politicised members in a series of social activities, led to a toning down of political debate, a lack of political seriousness, which in turn reduced the ability of the members to make independent political evaluations and increased the need for apparatus-induced involvement." [Party and Class, p. 32]
Thus, the lumping together into one organisation all those who consider themselves as "socialist" and agree with the party's aims creates in a mass which results in "autocratic" tendencies within the party organisation. As such, it is important to remember that "the Party, as the vanguard of the working class, must not be confused with the entire class." [Op. Cit., p. 22] For this reason, the party must be organised in a specific manner which reflect his Leninist assumptions:
"The alternative [to the vanguard party] is the 'marsh' - where elements motivated by scientific precision are so mixed up with those who are irremediably confused as to prevent any decisive action, effectively allowing the most backward to lead." [Op. Cit., p. 30]
The problem for Harman is to explain how the proletariat can become the ruling class if this were true. He argues that "the party is not the embryo of the workers' state - the workers' council is. The working class as a whole will be involved in the organisations that constitute the state, the most backward as well as the most progressive elements." The "function of the party is not to be the state." [Op. Cit., p. 33] The implication is that the working class will take an active part in the decision making process during the revolution (although the level of this "involvement" is unspecified, probably for good reasons as we explain). If this is the case, then the problem of the mass party reappears, but in a new form (we must also note that this problem must have also appeared in 1917, when the Bolshevik party opened its doors to become a mass party).
As the "organisations that constitute the state" are made up of the working class "as a whole," then, obviously, they cannot be expected to wield power (i.e. directly manage the revolution from below). If they did, then the party would be "mixed up" with the "irremediably confused" and so could not lead (as we discuss in section H.5.5, Lenin linked "opportunism" to "primitive" democracy, i.e. self-management, within the party). Hence the need for party power. Which, of course, explains Lenin's 1920 comments that an organisation embracing the whole working class cannot exercise the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and that a "vanguard" is required to do so (see section H.1.2 for details). Of course, Harman does not explain how the "irremediably confused" are able to judge that the party is the best representative of its interests. Surely if someone is competent enough to pick their ruler, they must also be competent enough to manage their own affairs directly? Equally, if the "irremediably confused" vote against the party once it is in power, what happens? Will the party submit to the "leadership" of what it considers "the most backward"? If the Bolsheviks are anything to go by, the answer has to be no.
Ironically, Harman argues that it "is worth noting that in Russia a real victory of the apparatus over the party required precisely the bringing into the party hundreds of thousands of 'sympathisers,' a dilution of the 'party' by the 'class.' . . . The Leninist party does not suffer from this tendency to bureaucratic control precisely because it restricts its membership to those willing to be serious and disciplined enough to take political and theoretical issues as their starting point, and to subordinate all their activities to those." [Op. Cit., p. 33] It would be churlish to note that, firstly, the party had already imposed its dictatorship on the working class by that time and, secondly, his own party is regularly attacked by its own dissidents for being bureaucratic (see section H.5.11).
Significantly, this substitution of the rule of the party for working class self-government and the party apparatus for the party membership does not happen by accident. In order to have a socialist revolution, the working class as a whole must participate in the process so the decision making organisations will be based on the party being "mixed up" with the "irremediably confused" as if they were part of a non-Leninist party. So from Harman's own assumptions, this by necessity results in an "autocratic" regime within the new "workers' state."
This was implicitly recognised by the Bolsheviks when they stressed that the function of the party was to become the government, the head of the state, to "assume power", (see section H.3.3). Thus, while the working class "as a whole" will be "involved in the organisations that constitute the state," the party (in practice, its leadership) will hold power. And for Trotsky, this substitution of the party for the class was inevitable:
"We have more than once been accused of having substituted for the dictatorship of the Soviets the dictatorship of our party. Yet it can be said with complete justice that the dictatorship of the Soviets became possible only by means of the dictatorship of the party. It is thanks to the clarity of its theoretical vision and its strong revolutionary organisation that the party has afforded to the Soviets the possibility of becoming transformed from shapeless parliaments of labour into the apparatus of the supremacy of labour. In this 'substitution' of the power of the party for the power of the working class there is nothing accidental, and in reality there is no substitution at all. The Communists express the fundamental interests of the working class. It is quite natural that, in the period in which history brings up those interests . . . the Communists have become the recognised representatives of the working class as a whole." [Terrorism and Communism, p. 109]
He noted that within the state, "the last word belongs to the Central Committee of the party." [Op. Cit., p. 107] As we discuss in section H.3.8, he held this position into the 1930s.
This means that given Harman's own assumptions, autocratic rule by the party is inevitable. Ironically, he argues that "to be a 'vanguard' is not the same as to substitute one's own desires, or policies or interests, for those of the class." He stresses that an "organisation that is concerned with participating in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the working class cannot conceive of substituting itself for the organs of the direct rule of that class." [Op. Cit., p. 33 and p. 34] However, the logic of his argument suggests otherwise. Simply put, his arguments against a broad party organisation are also applicable to self-management during the class struggle and revolution. The rank and file party members are "mixed up" in the class. This leads to party members becoming subject to bourgeois influences. This necessitates the power of the higher bodies over the lower (see section H.5.5). The highest party organ, the central committee, must rule over the party machine, which in turn rules over the party members, who, in turn, rule over the workers. This logical chain was, ironically enough, recognised by Trotsky in 1904 in his polemic against Lenin:
"The organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the central committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the 'dictator' substitutes himself for the central committee." [quoted by Harman, Op. Cit., p. 22]
Obviously once in power this substitution was less of a concern for him! Which, however, does not deny the insight Trotsky had previously showed about the dangers inherent in the Bolshevik assumptions on working class spontaneity and how revolutionary ideas develop. Dangers which he, ironically, helped provide empirical evidence for.
This false picture of the party (and its role) explains the progression of the Bolshevik party after 1917. As the soviets organised all workers, we have the problem that the party (with its "scientific" knowledge) is swamped by the class. The task of the party is to "persuade, not coerce these [workers] into accepting its lead" and, as Lenin made clear, for it to take political power. [Harman, Op. Cit., p. 34] Once in power, the decisions of the party are in constant danger of being overthrown by the working class, which necessitates a state run with "iron discipline" (and the necessary means of coercion) by the party. With the disempowering of the mass organisations by the party, the party itself becomes a substitute for popular democracy as being a party member is the only way to influence policy. As the party grows, the influx of new members "dilutes" the organisation, necessitating a similar growth of centralised power at the top of the organisation. This eliminated the substitute for proletarian democracy which had developed within the party (which explains the banning of factions within the Bolshevik party in 1921). Slowly but surely, power concentrates into fewer and fewer hands, which, ironically enough, necessitates a bureaucracy to feed the party leaders information and execute its will. Isolated from all, the party inevitably degenerates and Stalinism results.
We are sure that many Trotskyists will object to our analysis, arguing that we ignore the problems facing the Russian Revolution in our discussion. Harman argues that it was "not the form of the party that produces party as opposed to soviet rule, but the decimation of the working class" that occurred during the Russian Revolution. [Op. Cit., p. 37] This is false. As noted, Lenin was always explicit about the fact that the Bolshevik's sought party rule ("full state power") and that their rule was working class rule. As such, we have the first, most basic, substitution of party power for workers power. Secondly, as we discuss in section H.6.1, the Bolshevik party had been gerrymandering and disbanding soviets before the start of the Civil War, so proving that the war cannot be held accountable for this process of substitution. Thirdly, Leninists are meant to know that civil war is inevitable during a revolution. To blame the inevitable for the degeneration of the revolution is hardly convincing (particularly as the degeneration started before the civil war broke out).
Unsurprisingly, anarchists reject the underlying basis of this progression, the idea that the working class, by its own efforts, is incapable of developing beyond a "trade union consciousness." The actions of the working class itself condemned these attitudes as outdated and simply wrong long before Lenin's infamous comments were put on paper. In every struggle, the working class has created its own organisations to co-ordinate its struggle. In the process of struggle, the working class changes its perspectives. This process is uneven in both quantity and quality, but it does happen. However, anarchists do not think that all working class people will, at the same time, spontaneously become anarchists. If they did, we would be in an anarchist society today! As we argue in section J.3, anarchists acknowledge that political development within the working class is uneven. The difference between anarchism and Leninism is how we see socialist ideas developing and how revolutionaries influence that process.
In every class struggle there is a radical minority which takes the lead and many of this minority develop revolutionary conclusions from their experiences. As such, members of the working class develop their own revolutionary theory and it does not need bourgeois intellectuals to inject it into them. Anarchists go on to argue that this minority (along with any members of other classes who have broken with their background and become libertarians) should organise and work together. The role of this revolutionary organisation is to spread, discuss and revise its ideas and help others draw the same conclusions as they have from their own, and others, experiences. The aim of such a group is, by word and deed, to assist the working class in its struggles and to draw out and clarify the libertarian aspects of this struggle. It seeks to abolish the rigid division between leaders and led which is the hallmark of class society by drawing the vast majority of the working class into social struggle and revolutionary politics by encouraging their direct management of the struggle. Only this participation and the political discussion it generates will allow revolutionary ideas to become widespread.
In other words, anarchists argue that precisely because of political differences ("unevenness") we need the fullest possible democracy and freedom to discuss issues and reach agreements. Only by discussion and self-activity can the political perspectives of those in struggle develop and change. In other words, the fact Bolshevism uses to justify its support for party power is the strongest argument against it.
Our differences with vanguardism could not be more clear.
Vanguardism rests on the premise that the working class cannot emancipate itself. As such, the ideas of Lenin as expounded in What is to be Done? (WITBD) contradict the key idea of Marx that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. Thus the paradox of Leninism. On the one hand, it subscribes to an ideology allegedly based on working class self-liberation. On the other, the founder of that school wrote an obviously influential work whose premise not only logically implies that they cannot, it also provides the perfect rationale for party dictatorship over the working class (and as the history of Leninism in power shows, this underlying premise was much stronger than any democratic-sounding rhetoric).
It is for this reason that many Leninists are somewhat embarrassed by Lenin's argument in that key text. Hence we see Chris Harman writing that "the real theoretical basis for [Lenin's] argument on the party is not that the working class is incapable on its own of coming to theoretical socialist consciousness . . . The real basis for his argument is that the level of consciousness in the working class is never uniform." [Party and Class, pp. 25-6] In other words, Harman changes the focus of the question away from the point explicitly and repeatedly stated by Lenin that the working class was incapable on its own of coming to socialist consciousness and that he was simply repeating Marxist orthodoxy when he did.
Harman bases his revision on Lenin's later comments regarding his book, namely that he sought to "straighten matters out" by "pull[ing] in the other direction" to the "extreme" which the "economists" had went to. [Collected Works, vol. 6, p. 491] He repeated this in 1907, as we will discuss shortly. While Lenin may have been right to attack the "economists", his argument that socialist consciousness comes to the working class only "from without" is not a case of going too far in the other direction; it is wrong. Simply put, you do not attack ideas you disagree with by arguing an equally false set of ideas. This suggests that Harman's attempt to downplay Lenin's elitist position is flawed. Simply put, the "real theoretical basis" of the argument was precisely the issue Lenin himself raised, namely the incapacity of the working class to achieve socialist consciousness by itself. It is probably the elitist conclusions of this argument which drives Harman to try and change the focus to another issue, namely the political unevenness within the working class.
Some go to even more extreme lengths, denying that Lenin even held such a position. For example, Hal Draper argued at length that Lenin did not, in fact, hold the opinions he actually expressed in his book! While Draper covers many aspects of what he called the "Myth of Lenin's 'Concept of The Party'" in his essay of the same name, we will concentrate on the key idea, namely that socialist ideas are developed outside the class struggle by the radical intelligentsia and introduced into the working class from without. Here, as argued in section H.5.1, is the root of the anti-socialist basis of Leninism.
So what did Draper say? On the one hand, he denied that Lenin held this theory (he states that it is a "virtually non-existent theory" and "non-existent after WITBD"). He argued that those who hold the position that Lenin actually meant what he said in his book "never quote anything other than WITBD," and stated that this is a "curious fact" (a fact we will disprove shortly). Draper argued as follows: "Did Lenin put this theory forward even in WITBD? Not exactly." He then noted that Lenin "had just read this theory in the most prestigious theoretical organ of Marxism of the whole international socialist movement" and it had been "put forward in an important article by the leading Marxist authority," Karl Kautsky and so "Lenin first paraphrased Kautsky" before "quot[ing] a long passage from Kautsky's article."
This much, of course, is well known by anyone who has read Lenin's book. By paraphrasing and quoting Kautsky as he does, Lenin is showing his agreement with Kautsky's argument. Indeed, Lenin states before quoting Kautsky that his comments are "profoundly true and important". [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 79] By explicitly agreeing with Kautsky, it can be said that it also becomes Lenin's theory as well! Over time, particularly after Kautsky had been labelled a "renegade" by Lenin, Kautsky's star waned and Lenin's rose. Little wonder the argument became associated with Lenin rather than the discredited Kautsky. Draper then speculated that "it is curious . . . that no one has sought to prove that by launching this theory . . . Kautsky was laying the basis for the demon of totalitarianism." A simply reason exists for this, namely the fact that Kautsky, unlike Lenin, was never the head of a one-party dictatorship and justified this system politically. Indeed, Kautsky attacked the Bolsheviks for this, which caused Lenin to label him a "renegade." Kautsky, in this sense, can be considered as being inconsistent with his political assumptions, unlike Lenin who took these assumptions to their logical conclusions.
How, after showing the obvious fact that "the crucial 'Leninist' theory was really Kautsky's," he then wondered: "Did Lenin, in WITBD, adopt Kautsky's theory?" He answered his own question with an astounding "Again, not exactly"! Clearly, quoting approvingly of a theory and stating it is "profoundly true" does not, in fact, make you a supporter of it! What evidence does Draper present for his amazing answer? Well, Draper argued that Lenin "tried to get maximum mileage out of it against the right wing; this was the point of his quoting it. If it did something for Kautsky's polemic, he no doubt figured that it would do something for his." Or, to present a more simple and obvious explanation, Lenin agreed with Kautsky's "profoundly true" argument!
Aware of this possibility, Draper tried to combat it. "Certainly," he argued, "this young man Lenin was not (yet) so brash as to attack his 'pope' or correct him overtly. But there was obviously a feeling of discomfort. While showing some modesty and attempting to avoid the appearance of a head-on criticism, the fact is that Lenin inserted two longish footnotes rejecting (or if you wish, amending) precisely what was worst about the Kautsky theory on the role of the proletariat." So, here we have Lenin quoting Kautsky to prove his own argument (and noting that Kautsky's words were "profoundly true and important"!) but "feeling discomfort" over what he has just approvingly quoted! Incredible!
So how does Lenin "amend" Kautsky's "profoundly true and important" argument? In two ways, according to Draper. Firstly, in a footnote which "was appended right after the Kautsky passage" Lenin quoted. Draper argued that it "was specifically formulated to undermine and weaken the theoretical content of Kautsky's position. It began: 'This does not mean, of course, that the workers have no part in creating such an ideology.' But this was exactly what Kautsky did mean and say. In the guise of offering a caution, Lenin was proposing a modified view. 'They [the workers] take part, however,' Lenin's footnote continued, 'not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians, as Proudhons and Weitlings; in other words, they take part only when they are able . . .' In short, Lenin was reminding the reader that Kautsky's sweeping statements were not even 100% true historically; he pointed to exceptions." Yes, Lenin did point to exceptions in order to refute objections to Kautsky's argument before they were raised! It is clear that Lenin was not refuting Kautsky. Thus Proudhon adds to socialist ideology in so far as he is a "socialist theoretician" and not a worker! How clear can you be? This can be seen from the rest of the sentence Draper truncates. Lenin continued by noting that people like Proudhon "take part only to the extent that they are able, more or less, to acquire the knowledge of their age and advance that knowledge." [Op. Cit., p. 82f] In other words, insofar as they learn from the "vehicles of science." Neither Kautsky or Lenin denied that it was possible for workers to acquire such knowledge and pass it on (sometimes even develop it). However this does not mean that they thought workers, as part of their daily life and struggle as workers, could develop "socialist theory." Thus Lenin's footnote reiterated Kautsky's argument rather than, as Draper hoped, refute it.
Draper turns to another footnote, which he noted "was not directly tied to the Kautsky article, but discussed the 'spontaneity' of the socialist idea. 'It is often said,' Lenin began, 'that the working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism. This is perfectly true in the sense that socialist theory reveals the causes of the misery of the working class . . . and for that reason the workers are able to assimilate it so easily,' but he reminded that this process itself was not subordinated to mere spontaneity. 'The working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism; nevertheless, . . . bourgeois ideology spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class to a still greater degree.'" Draper argued that this "was obviously written to modify and recast the Kautsky theory, without coming out and saying that the Master was wrong." So, here we have Lenin approvingly quoting Kautsky in the main text while, at the same time, providing a footnote to show that, in fact, he did not agree with what he has just quoted! Truly amazing - and easily refuted.
Lenin's footnote stressed, in a part Draper did not consider it wise to quote, that workers appreciate socialist theory "provided, however, that this theory does not step aside for spontaneity and provided it subordinates spontaneity to itself." [Op. Cit., p. 84f] In other words, workers "assimilate" socialist theory only when socialist theory does not adjust itself to the "spontaneous" forces at work in the class struggle. The workers adjust to socialist theory, they do not create it. Thus, rather than refuting Kautsky by the backdoor, Lenin in this footnote still agreed with him. Socialism does not develop, as Kautsky stressed, from the class struggle but rather has to be injected into it. This means, by necessity, the party "subordinates spontaneity to itself."
Draper argued that this "modification" simply meant that there "are several things that happen 'spontaneously,' and what will win out is not decided only by spontaneity" but as can be seen, this is not the case. Only when "spontaneity" is subordinated to the theory (i.e. the party) can socialism be won, a totally different position. As such, when Draper asserted that "[a]ll that was clear at this point was that Lenin was justifiably dissatisfied with the formulation of Kautsky's theory," he was simply expressing wishful thinking. This footnote, like the first one, continued the argument developed by Lenin in the main text and in no way is in contradiction to it. As is obvious.
Draper as final evidence of his case asserted that it "is a curious fact that no one has ever found this alleged theory anywhere else in Lenin's voluminous writings, not before and not after [WITBD]. It never appeared in Lenin again. No Leninologist has ever quoted such a theory from any other place in Lenin." However, as this theory was the orthodox Marxist position, Lenin had no real need to reiterate this argument continuously. After all, he had quoted the acknowledged leader of Marxism on the subject explicitly to show the orthodoxy of his argument and the non-Marxist base of those he argued against. Once the debate had been won and orthodox Marxism triumphant, why repeat the argument again? This, as we will see, was exactly the position Lenin did take in 1907 when he wrote an introduction to a book which contained What is to Be Done?.
In contradiction to Draper's claim, Lenin did return to this matter. In October 1905 he wrote a short article in praise of an article by Stalin on this very subject. Stalin had sought to explain Lenin's ideas to the Georgian Social-Democracy and, like Lenin, had sought to root the argument in Marxist orthodoxy (partly to justify the argument, partly to expose the Menshevik opposition as being non-Marxists). Stalin argued along similar lines to Lenin:
"the question now is: who works out, who is able to work out this socialist consciousness (i.e. scientific socialism)? Kautsky says, and I repeat his idea, that the masses of proletarians, as long as they remain proletarians, have neither the time nor the opportunity to work out socialist consciousness . . . The vehicles of science are the intellectuals . . . who have both the time and opportunity to put themselves in the van of science and workout socialist consciousness. Clearly, socialist consciousness is worked out by a few Social-Democratic intellectuals who posses the time and opportunity to do so." [Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 164]
Stalin stressed the Marxist orthodoxy by stating Social-Democracy "comes in and introduces socialist consciousness into the working class movement. This is what Kautsky has in mind when he says 'socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without.'" [Op. Cit., pp. 164-5] That Stalin was simply repeating Lenin's and Kautsky's arguments is clear, as is the fact it was considered the orthodox position within social-democracy.
If Draper were right, then Lenin would have taken the opportunity to attack Stalin's article and express the alternative viewpoint Draper was convinced he held. Lenin, however, put pen to paper to praise Stalin's work, noting "the splendid way in which the problem of the celebrated 'introduction of a consciousness from without' had been posed." Lenin explicitly agreed with Stalin's summary of his argument, writing that "social being determines consciousness . . . Socialist consciousness corresponds to the position of the proletariat" before quoting Stalin: "'Who can and does evolve this consciousness (scientific socialism)?'" He answers by again approvingly quoting Stalin: "its 'evolution' is a matter for a few Social-Democratic intellectuals who posses the necessary means and time.'" Lenin did argue that Social-Democracy meets "an instinctive urge towards socialism" when it "comes to the proletariat with the message of socialism," but this does not counter the main argument that the working class cannot develop socialist consciousness by it own efforts and the, by necessity, elitist and hierarchical politics that flow from this position. [Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 9, p. 388]
That Lenin did not reject his early formulations can also be seen from in his introduction to the pamphlet "Twelve Years" which contained What is to be Done?. Rather than explaining the false nature of that work's more infamous arguments, Lenin in fact defended them. For example, as regards the question of professional revolutionaries, he argued that the statements of his opponents now "look ridiculous" as "today the idea of an organisation of professional revolutionaries has already scored a complete victory," a victory which "would have been impossible if this idea had not been pushed to the forefront at the time." He noted that his work had "vanquished Economism . . . and finally created this organisation." On the question of socialist consciousness, he simply reiterated the Marxist orthodoxy of his position, noting that its "formulation of the relationship between spontaneity and political consciousness was agreed upon by all the Iskra editors . . . Consequently, there could be no question of any difference in principle between the draft Party programme and What is to be Done? on this issue." So while Lenin argued that his book "straightens out what had been twisted by the Economists," (who had "gone to one extreme") he did not correct his earlier arguments. [Collected Works, vol. 13, p. 101, p. 102 and p. 107]
Looking at Lenin's arguments at the Communist International on the question of the party we see an obvious return to the ideas of WITBD (see section H.5.5). Here was have a similar legal/illegal duality, strict centralism, strong hierarchy and the vision of the party as the "head" of the working class (i.e. its consciousness). In Left-Wing Communism, Lenin mocks those who reject the idea that dictatorship by the party is the same as that of the class (see section H.3.3).
For Draper, the key problem was that critics of Lenin "run two different questions together: (a) What was, historically, the initial role of intellectuals in the beginnings of the socialist movement, and (b) what is - and above all, what should be - the role of bourgeois intellectuals in a working-class party today." He argued that Kautsky did not believe that "if it can be shown that intellectuals historically played a certain initiatory role, they must and should continue to play the same role now and forever. It does not follow; as the working class matured, it tended to throw off leading strings." However, this is unconvincing. If socialist consciousness cannot be generated by the working class by its own struggles then this is applicable now and in the future. Thus workers who join the socialist movement will be repeating the party ideology, as developed by intellectuals in the past. If they do develop new theory, it would be, as Lenin stressed, "not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians" and so socialist consciousness still does not derive from their own class experiences. This places the party in a privileged position vis-à-vis the working class and so the elitism remains.
Somewhat ironically given how much Draper is at pains to distance his hero Lenin from claims of elitism, he himself agreed with the arguments of Kautsky and Lenin. For Draper socialism did not develop out of the class struggle: "As a matter of fact, in the International of 1902 no one really had any doubts about the historical facts concerning the beginnings of the movement." This was true. Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, made similar arguments to Kautsky's before Lenin put pen to paper. For Plekhanov, the socialist intelligentsia "will bring consciousness into the working class." It must "become the leader of the working class" and "explain to it its political and economic interests." This would "prepare them to play an independent role in the social life of Russia." [quoted by Neil Harding, Lenin's Political Thought, vol. 1, p. 50 and p. 51]
As one expert notes, "Lenin's position . . . did not differ in any essentials" from those "Plekhanov had himself expressed." Its "basic theses were his own", namely that it is "clear from Plekhanov's writing that it was the intelligentsia which virtually created the working class movement in its conscious form. It brought it science, revolutionary theory and organisation." In summary, "Lenin's views of the Party . . . are not to be regarded as extraordinary, innovatory, perverse, essentially Jacobin or unorthodox. On the contrary" they were "the touchstone of orthodoxy" and so "what it [What is to be Done?] presented at the time" was "a restatement of the principles of Russian Marxist orthodoxy." By quoting Kautsky, Lenin also proved that he was simply repeating the general Marxist orthodoxy: "Those who dispute Lenin's conclusions on the genesis of socialist consciousness must it seems, also dispute Kautsky's claim to represent Social-Democratic orthodoxy." [Harding, Op. Cit., p. 170, p. 172, pp. 50-1, p. 187, p. 188, p. 189 and p. 169]
Moreover, Engels wrote some interesting words in the 1840s on this issue which places the subsequent development of Marxism into sharper light. He noted that "it is evident that the working-men's movement is divided into two sections, the Chartists and the Socialists. The Chartists are theoretically the more backward, the less developed, but they are genuine proletarians . . . The Socialists are more far-seeing . . . but proceeding originally from the bourgeoisie, are for this reason unable to amalgamate completely with the working class. The union of Socialism with Chartism . . . will be the next step . . . Then, only when this has been achieved, will the working class be the true intellectual leader of England." Thus socialist ideas have to be introduced into the proletariat, as they are "more backward" and cannot be expected to develop theory for themselves! In the same year, he expounded on what this "union" would entail, writing in an Owenite paper that "the union between the German philosophers . . . and the German working men . . . is all but accomplished. With the philosophers to think, and the working mean to fight for us, will any earthly power be strong enough to resist our progress?" [Collected Works, vol. 4, pp. 526-7 and p. 236] This, of course, fits in with the Communist Manifesto's assertion that "a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class." Today, this "portion of the bourgeois ideologists" have "raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole." [The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 481] This, needless to say, places "bourgeois ideologists" (like Marx, Engels, Kautsky and Lenin) in a privileged position within the movement and has distinctly vanguardist undercurrents.
Seemingly unaware how this admission destroyed his case, Draper went on to ask: "But what followed from those facts?" To which he argued that Marx and Engels "concluded, from the same facts and subsequent experiences, that the movement had to be sternly warned against the influence of bourgeois intellectuals inside the party." (We wonder if Marx and Engels included themselves in the list of "bourgeois intellectuals" the workers had to be "sternly warned" about?) Thus, amusingly enough, Draper argued that Marx, Engels, Kautsky and Lenin all held to the "same facts" that socialist consciousness developed outside the experiences of the working classes!
Ultimately, the whole rationale for the kind of wishful thinking that Draper inflicted on us is flawed. As noted above, you do not combat what you think is an incorrect position with one which you consider as also being wrong or do not agree with! You counter what you consider as an incorrect position with one you consider correct and agree with. As Lenin, in WITBD, explicitly did. This means that later attempts by his followers to downplay the ideas raised in Lenin's book are unconvincing. Moreover, as he was simply repeating Social-Democratic orthodoxy it seems doubly unconvincing.
Clearly, Draper was wrong. Lenin did, as indicated above, actually meant what he said in WITBD. The fact that Lenin quoted Kautsky simply shows, as Lenin intended, that this position was the orthodox Social Democratic one, held by the mainstream of the party (one with roots in Marx and Engels). Given that Leninism was (and still is) a "radical" offshoot of this movement, this should come as no surprise. However, Draper's comments remind us how religious many forms of Marxism are - why do we need facts when we have the true faith?
Anarchists oppose vanguardism for three reasons, one of which is the way it recommends how revolutionaries should organise to influence the class struggle.
So how is a "vanguard" party organised? To quote the Communist International's 1920 resolution on the role of the Communist Party in the revolution, the party must have a "centralised political apparatus" and "must be organised on the basis of iron proletarian centralism." This, of course, suggests a top-down structure internally, which the resolution explicitly calls for. In its words, "Communist cells of every kind must be subordinate to one another as precisely as possible in a strict hierarchy." [Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920, vol. 1, p. 193, p. 198 and p. 199] Therefore, the vanguard party is organised in a centralised, top-down way. However, this is not all, as well as being "centralised," the party is also meant to be democratic, hence the expression "democratic centralism." On this the resolution states:
"The Communist Party must be organised on the basis of democratic centralism. The most important principle of democratic centralism is election of the higher party organs by the lowest, the fact that all instructions by a superior body are unconditionally and necessarily binding on lower ones, and existence of a strong central party leadership whose authority over all leading party comrades in the period between one party congress and the next is universally accepted." [Op. Cit., p. 198]
For Lenin, speaking in the same year, democratic centralism meant "only that representatives from the localities meet and elect a responsible body which must then govern . . . Democratic centralism consists in the Congress checking on the Central Committee, removing it and electing a new one." [quoted by Robert Service, The Bolshevik Party in Revolution, p. 131] Thus, "democratic centralism" is inherently top-down, although the "higher" party organs are, in principle, elected by the "lower." However, the key point is that the central committee is the active element, the one whose decisions are implemented and so the focus of the structure is in the "centralism" rather than the "democratic" part of the formula.
As we noted in section H.2.14, the Communist Party was expected to have a dual structure, one legal and the other illegal. It goes without saying that the illegal structure is the real power in the party and that it cannot be expected to be as democratic as the legal party, which in turn would be less than democratic as the illegal would have the real power within the organisation.
All this has clear parallels with Lenin's What is to be done?, where he argued for "a powerful and strictly secret organisation, which concentrates in its hands all the threads of secret activities, an organisation which of necessity must be a centralised organisation." This call for centralisation is not totally dependent on secrecy, though. As he noted, "specialisation necessarily presupposes centralisation, and in its turn imperatively calls for it." Such a centralised organisation would need leaders and Lenin argued that "no movement can be durable without a stable organisation of leaders to maintain continuity." As such, "the organisation must consist chiefly of persons engaged in revolutionary activities as a profession." Thus, we have a centralised organisation which is managed by specialists, by "professional revolutionaries." This does not mean that these all come from the bourgeoisie or petit bourgeoisie. According to Lenin a "workingman agitator who is at all talented and 'promising' must not be left to work eleven hours a day in a factory. We must arrange that he be maintained by the Party, that he may in due time go underground." [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 158, p. 153, p. 147, p. 148 and p. 155]
Thus the full time professional revolutionaries are drawn from all classes into the party apparatus. However, in practice the majority of such full-timers were/are middle class. Trotsky noted that "just as in the Bolshevik committees, so at the  Congress itself, there were almost no workingmen. The intellectuals predominated." [Stalin, vol. 1, p. 101] This did not change, even after the influx of working class members in 1917 the "incidence of middle-class activists increases at the highest echelons of the hierarchy of executive committees." [Robert Service, Op. Cit., p. 47] An ex-worker was a rare sight in the Bolshevik Central Committee, an actual worker non-existent. However, regardless of their original class background what unites the full-timers is not their origin but rather their current relationship with the working class, one of separation and hierarchy.
The organisational structure of this system was made clear at around the same time as What is to be Done?, with Lenin arguing that the factory group (or cell) of the party "must consist of a small number of revolutionaries, receiving direct from the [central] committee orders and power to conduct the whole social-democratic work in the factory. All members of the factory committee must regard themselves as agents of the [central] committee, bound to submit to all its directions, bound to observe all 'laws and customs' of this 'army in the field' in which they have entered and which they cannot leave without permission of the commander." [quoted by E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 1, p. 33] The similarities to the structure proposed by Lenin and agreed to by the Comintern in 1920 is obvious. Thus we have a highly centralised party, one run by "professional revolutionaries" from the top down.
It will be objected that Lenin was discussing the means of party building under Tsarism and advocated wider democracy under legality. However, given that in 1920 he universalised the Bolshevik experience and urged the creation of a dual party structure (based on legal and illegal structures), his comments on centralisation are applicable to vanguardism in general. Moreover, in 1902 he based his argument on experiences drawn from democratic capitalist regimes. As he argued, "no revolutionary organisation has ever practised broad democracy, nor could it, however much it desired to do so." This was not considered as just applicable in Russia under the Tsar as Lenin then goes on to quote the Webb's "book on trade unionism" in order to clarify what he calls "the confusion of ideas concerning the meaning of democracy." He noted that "in the first period of existence in their unions, the British workers thought it was an indispensable sign of democracy for all members to do all the work of managing the unions." This involved "all questions [being] decided by the votes of all the members" and all "official duties" being "fulfilled by all the members in turn." He dismissed "such a conception of democracy" as "absurd" and "historical experience" made them "understand the necessity for representative institutions" and "full-time professional officials." [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 161 and pp. 162-3]
Needless to say, Lenin linked this to Kautsky, who "shows the need for professional journalists, parliamentarians, etc., for the Social-Democratic leadership of the proletarian class struggle" and who "attacks the 'socialism of anarchists and litterateurs' who . . . proclaim the principle that laws should be passed directly by the whole people, completely failing to understand that in modern society this principle can have only a relative application." The universal nature of his dismissal of self-management within the revolutionary organisation in favour of representative forms is thus stressed. Significantly, Lenin stated that this "'primitive' conception of democracy" exists in two groups, the "masses of the students and workers" and the "Economists of the Bernstein persuasion" (i.e. reformists). Thus the idea of directly democratic working class organisations is associated with opportunism. He was generous, noting that he "would not, of course, . . . condemn practical workers who have had too few opportunities for studying the theory and practice of real democratic [sic!] organisation" but individuals "play[ing] a leading role" in the movement should be so condemned! [Op. Cit., p. 163] These people should know better! Thus "real" democratic organisation implies the restriction of democracy to that of electing leaders and any attempt to widen the input of ordinary members is simply an expression of workers who need educating from their "primitive" failings!
In summary, we have a model of a "revolutionary" party which is based on full-time "professional revolutionaries" in which the concept of direct democracy is replaced by a system of, at best, representative democracy. It is highly centralised, as befitting a specialised organisation. As noted in section H.3.3, the "organisational principle of revolutionary Social-Democracy" was "to proceed from the top downward" rather than "from the bottom upward." [Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 7, pp. 396-7] Rather than being only applicable in Tsarist Russia, Lenin drew on examples from advanced, democratic capitalist countries to justify his model in 1902 and in 1920 he advocated a similar hierarchical and top-down organisation with a dual secret and public organisation in the Communist International. The continuity of ideas is clear.
What to make of Lenin's suggested model of "democratic centralism" discussed in the last section? It is, to use Cornelius Castoriadis's term, a "revolutionary party organised in a capitalist manner" and so in practice the "democratic centralist" party, while being centralised, will not be very democratic. In fact, the level of democracy would reflect that in a capitalist republic rather than a socialist society:
"The dividing up of tasks, which is indispensable wherever there is a need for co-operation, becomes a real division of labour, the labour of giving orders being separate from that of carrying them out . . . this division between directors and executants tends to broaden and deepen by itself. The leaders specialise in their role and become indispensable while those who carry out orders become absorbed in their concrete tasks. Deprived of information, of the general view of the situation, and of the problems of organisation, arrested in their development by their lack of participation in the overall life of the Party, the organisation's rank-and-file militants less and less have the means or the possibility of having any control over those at the top.
"This division of labour is supposed to be limited by 'democracy.' But democracy, which should mean that the majority rules, is reduced to meaning that the majority designates its rulers; copied in this way from the model of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, drained of any real meaning, it quickly becomes a veil thrown over the unlimited power of the rulers. The base does not run the organisation just because once a year it elects delegates who designate the central committee, no more than the people are sovereign in a parliamentary-type republic because they periodically elect deputies who designate the government.
"Let us consider, for example, 'democratic centralism' as it is supposed to function in an ideal Leninist party. That the central committee is designated by a 'democratically elected' congress makes no difference since, once it is elected, it has complete (statutory) control over the body of the Party (and can dissolve the base organisations, kick out militants, etc.) or that, under such conditions, it can determine the composition of the next congress. The central committee could use its powers in an honourable way, these powers could be reduced; the members of the Party might enjoy 'political rights' such as being able to form factions, etc. Fundamentally this would not change the situation, for the central committee would still remain the organ that defines the political line of the organisation and controls its application from top to bottom, that, in a word, has permanent monopoly on the job of leadership. The expression of opinions only has a limited value once the way the group functions prevents this opinion from forming on solid bases, i.e. permanent participation in the organisation's activities and in the solution of problems that arise. If the way the organisation is run makes the solution of general problems the specific task and permanent work of a separate category of militants, only their opinion will, or will appear, to count to the others." [Castoriadis, Social and Political Writings, vol. 2, pp. 204-5]
Castoriadis' insight is important and strikes at the heart of the problem with vanguard parties. They simply reflect the capitalist society they claim to oppose. As such, Lenin's argument against "primitive" democracy in the revolutionary and labour movements is significant. When he asserts that those who argue for direct democracy "completely" fail to "understand that in modern society this principle can have only a relative application," he is letting the cat out of the bag. [Lenin, Op. Cit., p. 163] After all, "modern society" is capitalism, a class society. In such a society, it is understandable that self-management should not be applied as it strikes at the heart of class society and how it operates. That Lenin can appeal to "modern society" without recognising its class basis says a lot. The question becomes, if such a "principle" is valid for a class system, is it applicable in a socialist society and in the movement aiming to create such a society? Can we postpone the application of our ideas until "after the revolution" or can the revolution only occur when we apply our socialist principles in resisting class society?
In a nutshell, can the same set of organisational structures be used for the different ends? Can bourgeois structures be considered neutral or have they, in fact, evolved to ensure and protect minority rule? Ultimately, form and content are not independent of each other. Form and content adapt to fit each other and they cannot be divorced in reality. Thus, if the bourgeoisie embrace centralisation and representation they have done so because it fits perfectly with their specific form of class society. Neither centralisation and representation can undermine minority rule and, if they did, they would quickly be eliminated.
Interestingly, both Bukharin and Trotsky acknowledged that fascism had appropriated Bolshevik ideas. The former demonstrated at the 12th Congress of the Communist Party in 1923 how Italian fascism had "adopted and applied in practice the experiences of the Russian revolution" in terms of their "methods of combat." In fact, "[i]f one regards them from the formal point of view, that is, from the point of view of the technique of their political methods, then one discovers in them a complete application of Bolshevik tactics. . . in the sense of the rapid concentration of forced [and] energetic action of a tightly structured military organisation." [quoted by R. Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924, p. 253] The latter, in his uncompleted biography on Stalin noted that "Mussolini stole from the Bolsheviks . . . Hitler imitated the Bolsheviks and Mussolini." [Stalin, vol. 2, p. 243] The question arises as to whether the same tactics and structures serve both the needs of fascist reaction and socialist revolution? Now, if Bolshevism can serve as a model for fascism, it must contain structural and functional elements which are also common to fascism. After all, no one has detected a tendency of Hitler or Mussolini, in their crusade against democracy, the organised labour movement and the left, to imitate the organisational principles of anarchism.
Surely we can expect decisive structural differences to exist between capitalism and socialism if these societies are to have different aims. Where one is centralised to facilitate minority rule, the other must be decentralised and federal to facilitate mass participation. Where one is top-down, the other must be from the bottom-up. If a "socialism" exists which uses bourgeois organisational elements then we should not be surprised if it turns out to be socialist in name only. The same applies to revolutionary organisations. As the anarchists of Trotwatch explain:
"In reality, a Leninist Party simply reproduces and institutionalises existing capitalist power relations inside a supposedly 'revolutionary' organisation: between leaders and led; order givers and order takers; between specialists and the acquiescent and largely powerless party workers. And that elitist power relation is extended to include the relationship between the party and class." [Carry on Recruiting!, p. 41]
If you have an organisation which celebrates centralisation, having an institutionalised "leadership" separate from the mass of members becomes inevitable. Thus the division of labour which exists in the capitalist workplace or state is created. Forms cannot and do not exist independently of people and so imply specific forms of social relationships within them. These social relationships shape those subject to them. Can we expect the same forms of authority to have different impacts simply because the organisation has "socialist" or "revolutionary" in its name? Of course not. It is for this reason that anarchists argue that only in a "libertarian socialist movement the workers learn about non-dominating forms of association through creating and experimenting with forms such as libertarian labour organisations, which put into practice, through struggle against exploitation, principles of equality and free association." [John Clark, The Anarchist Moment, p. 79]
As noted above, a "democratic centralist" party requires that the "lower" party bodies (cells, branches, etc.) should be subordinate to the higher ones (e.g. the central committee). The higher bodies are elected at the (usually) annual conference. As it is impossible to mandate for future developments, the higher bodies therefore are given carte blanche to determine policy which is binding on the whole party (hence the "from top-down" principle). In between conferences, the job of full time (ideally elected, but not always) officers is to lead the party and carry out the policy decided by the central committee. At the next conference, the party membership can show its approval of the leadership by electing another. The problems with this scheme are numerous:
"The first problem is the issue of hierarchy. Why should 'higher' party organs interpret party policy any more accurately than 'lower' ones? The pat answer is that the 'higher' bodies compromise the most capable and experienced members and are (from their lofty heights) in a better position to take an overall view on a given issue. In fact what may well happen is that, for example, central committee members may be more isolated from the outside world than mere branch members. This might ordinarily be the case because given the fact than many central committee members are full timers and therefore detached from more real issues such as making a living . . ." [ACF, Marxism and its Failures, p. 8]
Equally, in order that the "higher" bodies can evaluate the situation they need effective information from the "lower" bodies. If the "lower" bodies are deemed incapable of formulating their own policies, how can they be wise enough, firstly, to select the right leaders and, secondly, determine the appropriate information to communicate to the "higher" bodies? Given the assumptions for centralised power in the party, can we not see that "democratic centralised" parties will be extremely inefficient in practice as information and knowledge is lost in the party machine and whatever decisions which are reached at the top are made in ignorance of the real situation on the ground? As we discuss in section H.5.8, this is usually the fate of such parties.
Within the party, as noted, the role of "professional revolutionaries" (or "full timers") is stressed. As Lenin argued, any worker who showed any talent must be removed from the workplace and become a party functionary. Is it surprising that the few Bolshevik cadres (i.e. professional revolutionaries) of working class origin soon lost real contact with the working class? Equally, what will their role within the party be? As we discuss in section H.5.12, their role in the Bolshevik party was essentially conservative in nature and aimed to maintain their own position.
That the anarchist critique of "democratic centralism" is valid, we need only point to the comments and analysis of numerous members (and often soon to be ex-members) of such parties. Thus we get a continual stream of articles discussing why specific parties are, in fact, "bureaucratic centralist" rather than "democratic centralist" and what is required to reform them. That every "democratic centralist" party in existence is not that democratic does not hinder their attempts to create one which is. In a way, the truly "democratic centralist" party is the Holy Grail of modern Leninism. As we discuss in section H.5.10, their goal may be as mythical as that of the Arthurian legends.
As we discussed in the last section, anarchists argue that the way revolutionaries organise today is important. However, according to some of Lenin's followers, the fact that the "revolutionary" party is organised in a non-revolutionary manner does not matter. In the words of Chris Harman, a leading member of the British Socialist Workers Party, "[e]xisting under capitalism, the revolutionary organisation [i.e. the vanguard party] will of necessity have a quite different structure to that of the workers' state that will arise in the process of overthrowing capitalism." [Party and Class, p. 34]
However, in practice this distinction is impossible to make. If the party is organised in specific ways then it is so because this is conceived to be "efficient," "practical" and so on. Hence we find Lenin arguing against "backwardness in organisation" and that the "point at issue is whether our ideological struggle is to have forms of a higher type to clothe it, forms of Party organisation binding on all." Why would the "workers' state" be based on "backward" or "lower" kinds of organisational forms? If, as Lenin remarked, "the organisational principle of revolutionary Social-Democracy" was "to proceed from the top downward", why would the party, once in power, reject its "organisational principle" in favour of one it thinks is "opportunist," "primitive" and so on? [Collected Works, vol. 7, p. 389, p. 388 and pp. 396-7]
Therefore, as the vanguard the party represents the level to which the working class is supposed to reach then its organisational principles must, similarly, be those which the class must reach. As such, Harman's comments are incredulous. How we organise today is hardly irrelevant, particularly if the revolutionary organisation in question seeks (to use Lenin's words) to "tak[e] full state power alone." [Op. Cit., vol. 26, p. 94] These prejudices (and the political and organisational habits they generate) will influence the shaping of the "workers' state" by the party once it has taken power. This decisive influence of the party and its ideological as well as organisational assumptions can be seen when Trotsky argued in 1923 that "the party created the state apparatus and can rebuild it anew . . . from the party you get the state, but not the party from the state." [Leon Trotsky Speaks, p. 161] This is to be expected, after all the aim of the party is to take, hold and execute power. Given that the vanguard party is organised as it is to ensure effectiveness and efficiency, why should we assume that the ruling party will not seek to recreate these organisational principles once in power? As the Russian Revolution proves, this is the case (see section H.6)
To claim how we organise under capitalism is not important to a revolutionary movement is simply not true. The way revolutionaries organise have an impact both on themselves and how they will view the revolution developing. An ideological prejudice for centralisation and "top-down" organisation will not disappear once the revolution starts. Rather, it will influence the way the party acts within it and, if it aims to seize power, how it will exercise that power once it has.
For these reasons anarchists stress the importance of building the new world in the shell of the old (see section H.1.6). All organisations create social relationships which shape their memberships. As the members of these parties will be part of the revolutionary process, they will influence how that revolution will develop and any "transitional" institutions which are created. As the aim of such organisations is to facilitate the creation of socialism, the obvious implication is that the revolutionary organisation must, itself, reflect the society it is trying to create. Clearly, then, the idea that how we organise as revolutionaries today can be considered somehow independent of the revolutionary process and the nature of post-capitalist society and its institutions cannot be maintained (particularly if the aim of the "revolutionary" organisation is to seize power on behalf of the working class).
As we argue elsewhere (see section J.3) anarchists argue for revolutionary groups based on self-management, federalism and decision making from below. In other words, we apply within our organisations the same principles as those which the working class has evolved in the course of its own struggles. Autonomy is combined with federalism, so ensuring co-ordination of decisions and activities is achieved from below upwards by means of mandated and recallable delegates. Effective co-operation is achieved as it is informed by and reflects the needs on the ground. Simply put, working class organisation and discipline - as exemplified by the workers' council or strike committee - represents a completely different thing from capitalist organisation and discipline, of which Leninists are constantly asking for more (albeit draped with the Red Flag and labelled "revolutionary"). And as we discuss in the next section, the Leninist model of top-down centralised parties is marked more by its failures than its successes, suggesting that not only is the vanguard model undesirable, it is also unnecessary.
In a word, no. Vanguard parties have rarely been proven to be effective organs for fermenting revolutionary change which is, let us not forget, their stated purpose. Indeed, rather than being in the vanguard of social struggle, the Leninist parties are often the last to recognise, let alone understand, the initial stirrings of important social movements and events. It is only once these movements have exploded in the streets that the self-proclaimed "vanguards" notice them and decide they require the party's leadership.
Part of this process are constant attempts to install their political program onto movements that they do not understand, movements that have proven to be successful using different tactics and methods of organisation. Rather than learn from the experiences of others, social movements are seen as raw material, as a source of new party members, to be used in order to advance the party rather than the autonomy and combativeness of the working class. This process was seen in the "anti-globalisation" or "anti-capitalist" movement at the end of the 20th century. This started without the help of these self-appointed vanguards, who once it appeared spent a lot of time trying to catch up with the movement while criticising its proven organisational principles and tactics.
The reasons for such behaviour are not too difficult to find. They lie in the organisational structure favoured by these parties and the mentality lying behind them. As anarchists have long argued, a centralised, top-down structure will simply be unresponsive to the needs of those in struggle. The inertia associated with the party hierarchy will ensure that it responds slowly to new developments and its centralised structure means that the leadership is isolated from what is happening on the ground and cannot respond appropriately. The underlying assumption of the vanguard party, namely that the party represents the interests of the working class, makes it unresponsive to new developments within the class struggle. As Lenin argued that spontaneous working class struggle tends to reformism, the leaders of a vanguard party automatically are suspicious of new developments which, by their very nature, rarely fit into previously agreed models of "proletarian" struggle. The example of Bolshevik hostility to the soviets spontaneously formed by workers during the 1905 Russian revolution is one of the best known examples of this tendency.
Murray Bookchin is worth quoting at length on this subject:
"The 'glorious party,' when there is one, almost invariably lags behind the events . . . In the beginning . . . it tends to have an inhibitory function, not a 'vanguard' role. Where it exercises influence, it tends to slow down the flow of events, not 'co- ordinate' the revolutionary forces. This is not accidental. The party is structured along hierarchical lines that reflect the very society it professes to oppose. Despite its theoretical pretensions, it is a bourgeois organism, a miniature state, with an apparatus and a cadre whose function it is to seize power, not dissolve power. Rooted in the pre-revolutionary period, it assimilates all the forms, techniques and mentality of bureaucracy. Its membership is schooled in obedience and in the preconceptions of a rigid dogma and is taught to revere the leadership. The party's leadership, in turn, is schooled in habits born of command, authority, manipulation and egomania. This situation is worsened when the party participates in parliamentary elections. In election campaigns, the vanguard party models itself completely on existing bourgeois forms and even acquires the paraphernalia of the electoral party. . .
"As the party expands, the distance between the leadership and the ranks inevitably increases. Its leaders not only become 'personages,' they lose contact with the living situation below. The local groups, which know their own immediate situation better than any remote leaders, are obliged to subordinate their insights to directives from above. The leadership, lacking any direct knowledge of local problems, responds sluggishly and prudently. Although it stakes out a claim to the 'larger view,' to greater 'theoretical competence,' the competence of the leadership tends to diminish as one ascends the hierarchy of command. The more one approaches the level where the real decisions are made, the more conservative is the nature of the decision-making process, the more bureaucratic and extraneous are the factors which come into play, the more considerations of prestige and retrenchment supplant creativity, imagination, and a disinterested dedication to revolutionary goals.
"The party becomes less efficient from a revolutionary point of view the more it seeks efficiency by means of hierarchy, cadres and centralisation. Although everyone marches in step, the orders are usually wrong, especially when events begin to move rapidly and take unexpected turns - as they do in all revolutions. . .
"On the other hand, this kind of party is extremely vulnerable in periods of repression. The bourgeoisie has only to grab its leadership to destroy virtually the entire movement. With its leaders in prison or in hiding, the party becomes paralysed; the obedient membership has no one to obey and tends to flounder. Demoralisation sets in rapidly. The party decomposes not only because of the repressive atmosphere but also because of its poverty of inner resources.
"The foregoing account is not a series of hypothetical inferences, it is a composite sketch of all the mass Marxian parties of the past century - the Social Democrats, the Communists and the Trotskyist party of Ceylon (the only mass party of its kind). To claim that these parties failed to take their Marxian principles seriously merely conceals another question: why did this failure happen in the first place? The fact is, these parties were co-opted into bourgeois society because they were structured along bourgeois lines. The germ of treachery existed in them from birth." [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, pp. 123-6]
The evidence Bookchin summarises suggests that vanguard parties are less than efficient in promoting revolutionary change. Sluggish, unresponsive, undemocratic, they simply cannot adjust to the dynamic nature of social struggle, never mind revolution. This is to be expected:
"For the state centralisation is the appropriate form of organisation, since it aims at the greatest possible uniformity in social life for the maintenance of political and social equilibrium. But for a movement whose very existence depends on prompt action at any favourable moment and on the independent thought and action of its supporters, centralism could but be a curse by weakening its power of decision and systematically repressing all immediate action. If, for example, as was the case in Germany, every local strike had first to be approved by the Central, which was often hundreds of miles away and was not usually in a position to pass a correct judgement on the local conditions, one cannot wonder that the inertia of the apparatus of organisation renders a quick attack quite impossible, and there thus arises a state of affairs where the energetic and intellectually alert groups no longer serve as patterns for the less active, but are condemned by these to inactivity, inevitably bringing the whole movement to stagnation. Organisation is, after all, only a means to an end. When it becomes an end in itself, it kills the spirit and the vital initiative of its members and sets up that domination by mediocrity which is the characteristic of all bureaucracies." [Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 61]
As we discuss in section H.5.12, the example of the Bolshevik party during the Russian Revolution amply proves Rocker's point. Rather than being a highly centralised, disciplined vanguard party, the Bolshevik party was marked by extensive autonomy throughout its ranks. Party discipline was regularly ignored, including by Lenin in his attempts to get the central party bureaucracy to catch up with the spontaneous revolutionary actions and ideas of the Russian working class. As Bookchin summarised, the "Bolshevik leadership was ordinarily extremely conservative, a trait that Lenin had to fight throughout 1917 - first in his efforts to reorient the Central Committee against the provisional government (the famous conflict over the 'April Theses'), later in driving the Central Committee toward insurrection in October. In both cases he threatened to resign from the Central Committee and bring his views to 'the lower ranks of the party.'" Once in power, however, "the Bolsheviks tended to centralise their party to the degree that they became isolated from the working class." [Op. Cit., pp. 126 and p. 127]
The "vanguard" model of organising is not only inefficient and ineffective from a revolutionary perspective, it generates bureaucratic and elitist tendencies which undermine any revolution unfortunate enough to be dominated by such a party. For these extremely practical and sensible reasons anarchists reject it wholeheartedly. As we discuss in the next section, the only thing vanguard parties are effective at is to supplant the diversity produced and required by revolutionary movements with the drab conformity produced by centralisation and to replace popular power and freedom with party power and tyranny.
As we discussed the last section, vanguard parties are not efficient as agents of revolutionary change. So, it may be asked, what are vanguard parties effective at? If they are harmful to revolutionary struggle, what are they good at? The answer to this is simple. No anarchist would deny that vanguard parties are extremely efficient and effective at certain things, most notably reproducing hierarchy and bourgeois values into so-called "revolutionary" organisations and movements. As Murray Bookchin put it, the party "is efficient in only one respect - in moulding society in its own hierarchical image if the revolution is successful. It recreates bureaucracy, centralisation and the state. It fosters the very social conditions which justify this kind of society. Hence, instead of 'withering away,' the state controlled by the 'glorious party' preserves the very conditions which 'necessitate' the existence of a state - and a party to 'guard' it." [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, pp. 125-6]
By being structured along hierarchical lines that reflect the very system that it professes to oppose, the vanguard party very "effectively" reproduces that system within both the current radical social movements and any revolutionary society that may be created. This means that once in power, it shapes society in its own image. Ironically, this tendency towards conservatism and bureaucracy was noted by Trotsky:
"As often happens, a sharp cleavage developed between the classes in motion and the interests of the party machines. Even the Bolshevik Party cadres, who enjoyed the benefit of exceptional revolutionary training, were definitely inclined to disregard the masses and to identify their own special interests and the interests of the machine on the very day after the monarchy was overthrown. What, then, could be expected of these cadres when they became an all-powerful state bureaucracy?" [Stalin, vol. 1, p. 298]
In such circumstances, it is unsurprising that urging party power and identifying it with working class power would have less than revolutionary results. Discussing the Bolsheviks in 1905 Trotsky points out this tendency existed from the start:
"The habits peculiar to a political machine were already forming in the underground. The young revolutionary bureaucrat was already emerging as a type. The conditions of conspiracy, true enough, offered rather meagre scope for such formalities of democracy as electiveness, accountability and control. Yet, undoubtedly the committeemen narrowed these limitations considerably more than necessity demanded and were far more intransigent and severe with the revolutionary workingmen than with themselves, preferring to domineer even on occasions that called for lending an attentive ear to the voice of the masses." [Op. Cit., p. 101]
He quoted Krupskaya, a party member, on these party bureaucrats, the "committeemen," and how "as a rule" they "did not recognise any party democracy" and "did not want any innovations. The 'committeeman' did not desire, and did not know how to, adapt himself to rapidly changing conditions." [quoted by Trotsky, Op. Cit., p. 101] This conservatism played havoc in the party during 1917, incidentally. It would be no exaggeration to argue that the Russian revolution occurred in spite of, rather than because of, Bolshevik organisational principles (see section H.5.12). These principles, however, came into their own once the party had seized power, ensuring the consolidation of bureaucratic rule by an elite.
That a vanguard party helps to produces a bureaucratic regime once in power should not come as a surprise. If the party, to use Trotsky's expression, exhibits a "caste tendency of the committeemen" can we be surprised if once in power it reproduces such a tendency in the state it is now the master of? [Op. Cit., p. 102] And this "tendency" can be seen today in the multitude of Leninist sects that exist.
In spite of the almost ritualistic assertions that vanguard parties are "the most democratic the world has seen," an army of ex-members, expelled dissidents and disgruntled members testify that they do not live up to the hype. They argue that most, if not all, "vanguard" parties are not "democratic centralist" but are, in fact, "bureaucratic centralist." Within the party, in other words, a bureaucratic clique controls it from the top-down with little democratic control, never mind participation. For anarchists, this is hardly surprising. The reasons why this continually happens are rooted in the nature of "democratic centralism" itself.
Firstly, the assumption of "democratic centralism" is that the membership elect a leadership and give them the power to decide policy between conferences and congresses. This has a subtle impact on the membership, as it is assumed that the leadership has a special insight into social problems above and beyond that of anyone else, otherwise they would not have been elected to such an important position. Thus many in the membership come to believe that disagreements with the leadership's analysis, even before they had been clearly articulated, are liable to be wrong. Doubt dares not speak its name. Unquestioning belief in the party leadership has been an all to common recurring theme in many accounts of vanguard parties. The hierarchical structure of the party promotes a hierarchical mentality in its members.
Conformity within such parties is also reinforced by the intense activism expected by members, particularly leading activists and full-time members. Paradoxically, the more deeply people participate in activism, the harder it becomes to reflect on what they are doing. The unrelenting pace often induces exhaustion and depression, while making it harder to "think your way out" - too many commitments have been made and too little time is left over from party activity for reflection. Moreover, high levels of activism prevent many, particularly the most committed, from having a personal life outside their role as party members. This high-speed political existence means that rival social networks atrophy through neglect, so ensuring that the party line is the only perspective which members get exposed to. Members tend to leave, typically, because of exhaustion, crisis, even despair rather than as the result of rational reflection and conscious decision.
Secondly, given that vanguard parties are based on the belief that they are the guardians of "scientific socialism," this means that there is a tendency to squeeze all of social life into the confines of the party's ideology. Moreover, as the party's ideology is a "science" it is expected to explain everything (hence the tendency of Leninists to expound on every subject imaginable, regardless of whether the author knows enough about the subject to discuss it in an informed way). The view that the party's ideology explains everything eliminates the need for fresh or independent thought, precludes the possibility of critically appraising past practice or acknowledging mistakes, and removes the need to seek meaningful intellectual input outside the party's own ideological fortress. As Victor Serge, anarchist turned Bolshevik, admitted in his memoirs: "Bolshevik thinking is grounded in the possession of the truth. The Party is the repository of truth, and any form of thinking which differs from it is a dangerous or reactionary error. Here lies the spiritual source of its intolerance. The absolute conviction of its lofty mission assures it of a moral energy quite astonishing in its intensity - and, at the same time, a clerical mentality which is quick to become Inquisitorial." [Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p. 134]
The intense level of activism means that members are bombarded with party propaganda, are in endless party meetings, or spend time reading party literature and so, by virtue of the fact that there is not enough time to read everything, members end up reading nothing but party publications. Most points of contact with the external world are eliminated or drastically curtailed. Indeed, such alternative sources of information and such thinking is regularly dismissed as being contaminated by bourgeois influences. This often goes so far as to label those who question any aspect of the party's analysis revisionists or deviationists, bending to the "pressures of capitalism," and they are usually driven from the ranks as heretics. All this is almost always combined with contempt for all other organisations on the Left (indeed, the closer they are to the party's own ideological position the more likely they are to be the targets of abuse).
Thirdly, the practice of "democratic centralism" also aids this process towards conformity. Based on the idea that the party must be a highly disciplined fighting force, the party is endowed with a powerful central committee and a rule that all members must publicly defend the agreed-upon positions of the party and the decisions of the central committee, whatever opinions they might hold to the contrary in private. Between conferences, the party's leading bodies usually have extensive authority to govern the party's affairs, including updating party doctrine and deciding the party's response to current political events.
As unity is the key, there is a tendency to view any opposition as a potential threat. It is not at all clear when "full freedom to criticise" policy internally can be said to disturb the unity of a defined action. The norms of democratic centralism confer all power between conferences onto a central committee, allowing it to become the arbiter of when a dissident viewpoint is in danger of weakening unity. The evidence from numerous vanguard parties suggest that their leaderships usually view any dissent as precisely such a disruption and demand that dissidents cease their action or face expulsion from the party.
It should also be borne in mind that Leninist parties also view themselves as vitally important to the success of any future revolution. This cannot help but reinforce the tendency to view dissent as something which automatically imperils the future of the planet and, therefore, something which must be combated at all costs. As Lenin stressed an a polemic directed to the international communist movement in 1920, "[w]hoever brings about even the slightest weakening of the iron discipline of the party of the proletariat (especially during its dictatorship) is actually aiding the bourgeoisie against the proletariat." [Collected Works, vol. 31, p. 45] As can be seen, Lenin stresses the importance of "iron discipline" at all times, not only during the revolution when "the party" is applying "its dictatorship" (see section H.3.8 for more on this aspect of Leninism). This provides a justification of whatever measures are required to restore the illusion of unanimity, including the trampling underfoot of whatever rights the membership may have on paper and the imposition of any decisions the leadership considers as essential between conferences.
Fourthly, and more subtly, it is well known that when people take a public position in defence of a proposition, there is a strong tendency for their private attitudes to shift so that they harmonise with their public behaviour. It is difficult to say one thing in public and hold to a set of private beliefs at variance with what is publicly expressed. In short, if people tell others that they support X (for whatever reason), they will slowly begin to change their own opinions and, indeed, internally come to support X. The more public such declarations have been, the more likely it is that such a shift will take place. This has been confirmed by empirical research (see R. Cialdini's Influence: Science and Practice). This suggests that if, in the name of democratic centralism, party members publicly uphold the party line, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold a private belief at variance with publicly expressed opinions. The evidence suggests that it is not possible to have a group of people presenting a conformist image to society at large while maintaining an inner party regime characterised by frank and full discussion. Conformity in public tends to produce conformity in private. So given what is now known of social influence, "democratic centralism" is almost certainly destined to prevent genuine internal discussion. This is sadly all too often confirmed in the internal regimes of vanguard parties, where debate is often narrowly focused on a few minor issues of emphasis rather than fundamental issues of policy and theory.
It has already been noted (in section H.5.5) that the organisational norms of democratic centralism imply a concentration of power at the top. There is abundant evidence that such a concentration has been a vital feature of every vanguard party and that such a concentration limits party democracy. An authoritarian inner party regime is maintained, which ensures that decision making is concentrated in elite hands. This regime gradually dismantles or ignores all formal controls on its activities. Members are excluded from participation in determining policy, calling leaders to account, or expressing dissent. This is usually combined with persistent assurances about the essentially democratic nature of the organisation, and the existence of exemplary democratic controls - on paper. Correlated with this inner authoritarianism is a growing tendency toward the abuse of power by the leaders, who act in arbitrary ways, accrue personal power and so on (as noted by Trotsky with regards to the Bolshevik party machine). Indeed, it is often the case that activities that would provoke outrage if engaged in by rank-and-file members are tolerated when their leaders do it. As one group of Scottish libertarians noted:
"Further, in so far as our Bolshevik friends reject and defy capitalist and orthodox labourist conceptions, they also are as much 'individualistic' as the anarchist. Is it not boasted, for example, that on many occasions Marx, Lenin and Trotsky were prepared to be in a minority of one - if they thought they were more correct than all others on the question at issue? In this, like Galileo, they were quite in order. Where they and their followers, obsessed by the importance of their own judgement go wrong, is in their tendency to refuse this inalienable right to other protagonists and fighters for the working class." [APCF, "Our Reply," Class War on the Home Front, p. 70]
As in any hierarchical structure, the tendency is for those in power to encourage and promote those who agree with them. This means that members usually find their influence and position in the party dependent on their willingness to conform to the hierarchy and its leadership. Dissenters will rarely find their contribution valued and advancement is limited, which produces a strong tendency not to make waves. As Miasnikov, a working class Bolshevik dissident, argued in 1921, "the regime within the party" meant that "if someone dares to have the courage of his convictions," they are called either a self-seeker or, worse, a counter-revolutionary, a Menshevik or an SR. Moreover, within the party, favouritism and corruption were rife. In Miasnikov's eyes a new type of Communist was emerging, the toadying careerist who "knows how to please his superiors." [quoted by Paul Avrich, Bolshevik Opposition to Lenin, p. 8 and p. 7] At the last party congress Lenin attended, Miasnikov was expelled. Only one delegate, V. V. Kosior, "argued that Lenin had taken the wrong approach to the question of dissent. If someone . . . had the courage to point out deficiencies in party work, he was marked down as an oppositionist, relieved of authority, placed under surveillance, and - a reference to Miasnikov - even expelled from the party." [Paul Avrich, Op. Cit., p. 15] Serge noted about the same period that Lenin "proclaimed a purge of the Party, aimed at those revolutionaries who had come in from other parties - i.e. those who were not saturated with the Bolshevik mentality. This meant the establishment within the Party of a dictatorship of the old Bolsheviks, and the direction of disciplinary measures, not against the unprincipled careerists and conformist late-comers, but against those sections with a critical outlook." [Op. Cit., p. 135]
This, of course, also applies to the party congress, on paper the sovereign body of the organisation. All too often resolutions at party conferences will either come from the leadership or be completely supportive of its position. If branches or members submit resolutions which are critical of the leadership, enormous pressure is exerted to ensure that they are withdrawn. Moreover, often delegates to the congress are not mandated by their branches, so ensuring that rank and file opinions are not raised, never mind discussed. Other, more drastic measures have been known to occur. Victor Serge saw what he termed the "Party steamroller" at work in early 1921 when "the voting [was] rigged for Lenin's and Zinoviev's 'majority'" in one of the districts of Petrograd. [Op. Cit., p.123]
All to often, such parties have "elected" bodies which have, in practice, usurped the normal democratic rights of members and become increasingly removed from formal controls. All practical accountability of the leaders to the membership for their actions is eliminated. Usually this authoritarian structure is combined with militaristic sounding rhetoric and the argument that the "revolutionary" movement needs to be organised in a more centralised way than the current class system, with references to the state's forces of repression (notably the army). As Murray Bookchin argued, the Leninist "has always had a grudging admiration and respect for that most inhuman of all hierarchical institutions, the military." [Toward an Ecological Society, p. 254f]
The modern day effectiveness of the vanguard party can be seen by the strange fact that many Leninists fail to join any of the existing parties due to their bureaucratic internal organisation and that many members are expelled (or leave in disgust) as a result of their failed attempts to make them more democratic. If vanguard parties are such positive organisations to be a member of, why do they have such big problems with member retention? Why are there so many vocal ex-members? Why are so many Leninists ex-members of vanguard parties, desperately trying to find an actual party which matches their own vision of democratic centralism rather than the bureaucratic centralism which seems the norm?
Our account of the workings of vanguard parties explains, in part, why many anarchists and other libertarians voice concern about them and their underlying ideology. We do so because their practices are disruptive and alienate new activists, hindering the very goal (socialism/revolution) they claim to be aiming for. As anyone familiar with the numerous groupings and parties in the Leninist left will attest, the anarchist critique of vanguardism seems to be confirmed in reality while the Leninist defence seems sadly lacking (unless, of course, the person is a member of such a party and then their organisation is the exception to the rule!).
Yes. Our theoretical critique of vanguardism we have presented in the last few sections is more than proved by the empirical evidence of such parties in operation today. Rarely do "vanguard" parties reach in practice the high hopes their supporters like to claim for them. Such parties are usually small, prone to splitting as well as leadership cults, and usually play a negative role in social struggle. A long line of ex-members complain that such parties are elitist, hierarchical and bureaucratic.
Obviously we cannot hope to discuss all such parties. As such, we will take just one example, namely the arguments of one group of dissidents of the biggest British Leninist party, the Socialist Workers Party. It is worth quoting their account of the internal workings of the SWP at length:
"The SWP is not democratic centralist but bureaucratic centralist. The leadership's control of the party is unchecked by the members. New perspectives are initiated exclusively by the central committee (CC), who then implement their perspective against all party opposition, implicit or explicit, legitimate or otherwise.
"Once a new perspective is declared, a new cadre is selected from the top down. The CC select the organisers, who select the district and branch committees - any elections that take place are carried out on the basis of 'slates' so that it is virtually impossible for members to vote against the slate proposed by the leadership. Any members who have doubts or disagreements are written off as 'burnt out' and, depending on their reaction to this, may be marginalised within the party and even expelled.
"These methods have been disastrous for the SWP in a number of ways: Each new perspective requires a new cadre (below the level of the CC), so the existing cadre are actively marginalised in the party. In this way, the SWP has failed to build a stable and experienced cadre capable of acting independently of the leadership. Successive layers of cadres have been driven into passivity, and even out of the revolutionary movement altogether. The result is the loss of hundreds of potential cadres. Instead of appraising the real, uneven development of individual cadres, the history of the party is written in terms of a star system (comrades currently favoured by the party) and a demonology (the 'renegades' who are brushed aside with each turn of the party). As a result of this systematic dissolution of the cadre, the CC grows ever more remote from the membership and increasingly bureaucratic in its methods. In recent years the national committee has been abolished (it obediently voted for its own dissolution, on the recommendation of the CC), to be replaced by party councils made up of those comrades active at any one time (i.e. those who already agree with current perspectives); district committees are appointed rather than elected; the CC monopolise all information concerning the party, so that it is impossible for members to know much about what happens in the party outside their own branch; the CC give a distorted account of events rather than admit their mistakes . . . history is rewritten to reinforce the prestige of the CC . . . The outcome is a party whose conferences have no democratic function, but serve only to orientate party activists to carry out perspectives drawn up before the delegates even set out from their branches. At every level of the party, strategy and tactics are presented from the top down, as pre-digested instructions for action. At every level, the comrades 'below' are seen only as a passive mass to be shifted into action, rather than as a source of new initiatives . . .
"The only exception is when a branch thinks up a new tactic to carry out the CC's perspective. In this case, the CC may take up this tactic and apply it across the party. In no way do rank and file members play an active role in determining the strategy and theory of the party - except in the negative sense that if they refuse to implement a perspective eventually even the CC notice, and will modify the line to suit. A political culture has been created in which the leadership outside of the CC consists almost solely of comrades loyal to the CC, willing to follow every turn of the perspective without criticism . . . Increasingly, the bureaucratic methods used by the CC to enforce their control over the political direction of the party have been extended to other areas of party life. In debates over questions of philosophy, culture and even anthropology an informal party 'line' emerged (i.e. concerning matters in which there can be no question of the party taking a 'line'). Often behind these positions lay nothing more substantial than the opinions of this or that CC member, but adherence to the line quickly became a badge of party loyalty, disagreement became a stigma, and the effect was to close down the democracy of the party yet further by placing even questions of theory beyond debate. Many militants, especially working class militants with some experience of trade union democracy, etc., are often repelled by the undemocratic norms in the party and refuse to join, or keep their distance despite accepting our formal politics." [ISG, Discussion Document of Ex-SWP Comrades]
The dissidents argue that a "democratic" party would involve the "[r]egular election of all party full-timers, branch and district leadership, conference delegates, etc. with the right of recall," which means that in the SWP appointment of full-timers, leaders and so on is the norm. They argue for the "right of branches to propose motions to the party conference" and for the "right for members to communicate horizontally in the party, to produce and distribute their own documents." They stress the need for "an independent Control Commission to review all disciplinary cases (independent of the leadership bodies that exercise discipline), and the right of any disciplined comrades to appeal directly to party conference." They argue that in a democratic party "no section of the party would have a monopoly of information" which indicates that the SWP's leadership is essentially secretive, withholding information from the party membership. Even more significantly, given our discussion on the influence of the party structure on post-revolutionary society in section H.5.7, they argue that "[w]orst of all, the SWP are training a layer of revolutionaries to believe that the organisational norms of the SWP are a shining example of proletarian democracy, applicable to a future socialist society. Not surprisingly, many people are instinctively repelled by this idea."
Some of these critics of specific Leninist parties do not give up hope and still look for a truly democratic centralist party rather than the bureaucratic centralist ones which seem so common. For example, our group of ex-SWP dissidents argue that "[a]nybody who has spent time involved in 'Leninist' organisations will have come across workers who agree with Marxist politics but refuse to join the party because they believe it to be undemocratic and authoritarian. Many draw the conclusion that Leninism itself is at fault, as every organisation that proclaims itself Leninist appears to follow the same pattern." [ISG, Lenin vs. the SWP: Bureaucratic Centralism Or Democratic Centralism?] This is a common refrain with Leninists - when reality says one thing and the theory another, it must be reality that is at fault. Yes, every Leninist organisation may be bureaucratic and authoritarian but it is not the theory's fault that those who apply it are not capable of actually doing so successfully. Such an application of scientific principles by the followers of "scientific socialism" is worthy of note - obviously the usual scientific method of generalising from facts to produce a theory is inapplicable when evaluating "scientific socialism" itself. However, rather than ponder the possibility that "democratic centralism" does not actually work and automatically generates the "bureaucratic centralism," they point to the example of the Russian revolution and the original Bolshevik party as proof of the validity of their hopes.
Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to argue that the only reason people take the vanguard party organisational structure seriously is the apparent success of the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution. However, as noted above, even the Bolshevik party was subject to bureaucratic tendencies and as we discuss in the next section, the experience of the 1917 Russian Revolutions disprove the effectiveness of "vanguard" style parties. The Bolshevik party of 1917 was a totally different form of organisation than the ideal "democratic centralist" type argued for by Lenin in 1902 and 1920. As a model of revolutionary organisation, the "vanguardist" one has been proven false rather than confirmed by the experience of the Russian revolution. Insofar as the Bolshevik party was effective, it operated in a non-vanguardist way and insofar as it did operate in such a manner, it held back the struggle.
No, far from it. Looking at the history of vanguardism we are struck by its failures, not its successes. Indeed, the proponents of "democratic centralism" can point to only one apparent success of their model, namely the Russian Revolution. Strangely, though, we are warned by Leninists that failure to use the vanguard party will inevitably condemn future revolutions to failure:
"The proletariat can take power only through its vanguard. . . Without the confidence of the class in the vanguard, without support of the vanguard by the class, there can be no talk of the conquest of power . . . The Soviets are the only organised form of the tie between the vanguard and the class. A revolutionary content can be given to this form only by the party. This is proved by the positive experience of the October Revolution and by the negative experience of other countries (Germany, Austria, finally, Spain). No one has either shown in practice or tried to explain articulately on paper how the proletariat can seize power without the political leadership of a party that knows what it wants." [Trotsky, Writings 1936-37, p. 490]
To anarchist ears, such claims seem out of place. After all, did the Russian Revolution actually result in socialism or even a viable form of soviet democracy? Far from it. Unless you picture revolution as simply the changing of the party in power, you have to acknowledge that while the Bolshevik party did take power in Russian in November 1917, the net effect of this was not the stated goals that justified that action. Thus, if we take the term "effective" to mean "an efficient means to achieve the desired goals" then vanguardism has not been proven to be effective, quite the reverse (assuming that your desired goal is a socialist society, rather than party power). Needless to say, Trotsky blames the failure of the Russian Revolution on "objective" factors rather than Bolshevik policies and practice, an argument we address in section H.6 and will not do so here.
So while Leninists make great claims for the effectiveness of their chosen kind of party, the hard facts of history are against their positive evaluation of vanguard parties. Ironically, even the Russian Revolution disproves the claims of Leninists. The fact is that the Bolshevik party in 1917 was very far from the "democratic centralist" organisation which supporters of vanguardism like to claim it as. As such, its success in 1917 lies more in its divergence from the principles of "democratic centralism" than in their application. The subsequent degeneration of the revolution and the party is marked by the increasing application of those principles in the life of the party.
Thus, to refute the claims of the "effectiveness" and "efficiency" of vanguardism, we need to look at its one and only success, namely the Russian Revolution. As the Cohen-Bendit brothers argued, "far from leading the Russian Revolution forwards, the Bolsheviks were responsible for holding back the struggle of the masses between February and October 1917, and later for turning the revolution into a bureaucratic counter-revolution - in both cases because of the party's very nature, structure and ideology." Indeed, "[f]rom April to October, Lenin had to fight a constant battle to keep the Party leadership in tune with the masses." [Obsolete Communism, p. 183 and p. 187] It was only by continually violating its own "nature, structure and ideology" that the Bolshevik party played an important role in the revolution. Whenever the principles of "democratic centralism" were applied, the Bolshevik party played the role the Cohen-Bendit brothers subscribed to it (and once in power, the party's negative features came to the fore).
Even Leninists acknowledge that, to quote Tony Cliff, throughout the history of Bolshevism, "a certain conservatism arose." Indeed, "[a]t practically all sharp turning points, Lenin had to rely on the lower strata of the party machine against the higher, or on the rank and file against the machine as a whole." [Lenin, vol. 2, p. 135] This fact, incidentally, refutes the basic assumptions of Lenin's party schema, namely that the broad party membership, like the working class, was subject to bourgeois influences so necessitating central leadership and control from above.
Looking at both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, we are struck by how often this "conservatism" arose and how often the higher bodies lagged behind the spontaneous actions of the masses and the party membership. Looking at the 1905 revolution, we discover a classic example of the inefficiency of "democratic centralism." Facing the rise of the soviets, councils of workers' delegates elected to co-ordinate strikes and other forms of struggle, the Bolsheviks did not know what to do. "The Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks," noted Trotsky, "was frightened at first by such an innovation as a non-partisan representation of the embattled masses, and could find nothing better to do than to present the Soviet with an ultimatum: immediately adopt a Social-Democratic program or disband. The Petersburg Soviet as a whole, including the contingent of Bolshevik workingmen as well ignored this ultimatum without batting an eyelash." [Stalin, vol. 1, p. 106] More than that, "[t]he party's Central Committee published the resolution on October 27, thereby making it the binding directive for all other Bolshevik organisations." [Oskar Anweiler, The Soviets, p. 77] It was only the return of Lenin which stopped the Bolshevik's open attacks against the Soviet. As we discuss in section H.6.2, the rationale for these attacks is significant as they were based on arguing that the soviets could not reflect workers' interests because they were elected by the workers! The implications of this perspective came clear in 1918, when the Bolsheviks gerrymandered and disbanded soviets to remain in power (see section H.6.1). That the Bolshevik's position flowed naturally from Lenin's arguments in What is to be Done? is clear. Thus the underlying logic of Lenin's vanguardism ensured that the Bolsheviks played a negative role with regards the soviets which, combined with "democratic centralism" ensured that it was spread far and wide. Only by ignoring their own party's principles and staying in the Soviet did rank and file Bolsheviks play a positive role in the revolution. This divergence of top and bottom would be repeated in 1917.
Given this, perhaps it is unsurprising that Leninists started to rewrite the history of the 1905 revolution. Victor Serge, an anti-Stalinist Leninist, asserted in the late 1920s that in 1905 the Petrograd Soviet was "led by Trotsky and inspired by the Bolsheviks." [Year One of the Russian Revolution, p. 36]. While the former claim is partially correct, the latter is not. As noted, the Bolsheviks initially opposed the soviets and systematically worked to undermine them. Unsurprisingly, Trotsky at that time was a Menshevik, not a Bolshevik. After all, how could the most revolutionary party that ever existed have messed up so badly? How could democratic centralism fare so badly in practice? Best, then, to suggest that it did not and give the Bolsheviks a role better suited to the rhetoric of Bolshevism than its reality.
Trotsky was no different. He, needless to say, denied the obvious implications of these events in 1905. While admitting that the Bolsheviks "adjusted themselves more slowly to the sweep of the movement" and that the Mensheviks "were preponderant in the Soviet," he tries to save vanguardism by asserting that "the general direction of the Soviet's policy proceeded in the main along Bolshevik lines." So, in spite of the lack of Bolshevik influence, in spite of the slowness in adjusting to the revolution, Bolshevism was, in fact, the leading set of ideas in the revolution! Ironically, a few pages later, he mocks the claims of Stalinists that Stalin had "isolated the Mensheviks from the masses" by noting that the "figures hardly bear [the claims] out." [Op. Cit., p. 112 and p. 117] Shame he did not apply this criteria to his own assertions.
Of course, every party makes mistakes. The question is, how did the "most revolutionary party of all time" fare in 1917. Surely that revolution proves the validity of vanguardism and "democratic centralism"? After all, there was a successful revolution, the Bolshevik party did seize power. However, the apparent success of 1917 was not due to the application of "democratic centralism," quite the reverse. While the myth of 1917 is that a highly efficient, democratic centralist vanguard party ensured the overthrow of the Provisional Government in November 1917 in favour of the Soviets (or so it seemed at the time) the facts are somewhat different. Rather, the Bolshevik party throughout 1917 was a fairly loose collection of local organisations (each more than willing to ignore central commands and express their autonomy), with much internal dissent and infighting and no discipline beyond what was created by common loyalty. The "democratic centralist" party, as desired by Lenin, was only created in the course of the Civil War and the tightening of the party dictatorship. In other words, the party became more like a "democratic centralist" one as the revolution degenerated. As such, the various followers of Lenin (Stalinists, Trotskyists and their multitude of offshoots) subscribe to a myth, which probably explains their lack of success in reproducing a similar organisation since. So assuming that the Bolsheviks did play an important role in the Russian revolution, it was because it was not the centralised, disciplined Bolshevik party of Leninist myth. Indeed, when the party did operate in a vanguardist manner, failure was soon to follow.
This claim can be proven by looking at the history of the 1917 revolution. The February revolution started with spontaneous protests and strikes yet "the Petrograd organisation of the Bolsheviks opposed the calling of strikes precisely on the eve of the revolution which was destined to overthrow the Tsar. Fortunately, the workers ignored the Bolshevik 'directives' and went on strike anyway. In the events which followed, no one was more surprised by the revolution than the 'revolutionary' parties, including the Bolsheviks." [Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 123] Trotsky quoted one of the Bolshevik leaders at the time:
"Absolutely no guiding initiative from the party centres was felt . . . the Petrograd Committee had been arrested and the representative of the Central Committee . . . was unable to give any directives for the coming day." [quoted by Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1, p. 147]
Not the best of starts. Of course rank and file Bolsheviks took part in the demonstrations, street fights and strikes and so violated the principles their party was meant to be based on. As the revolution progressed, so did the dual nature of the Bolshevik party (i.e. its practical divergence from "democratic centralism" in order to be effective and attempts to force it back into that schema which handicapped the revolution). However, during 1917, "democratic centralism" was ignored in order to ensure the Bolsheviks played any role at all in the revolution. As one historian of the party makes clear, in 1917 and until the outbreak of the Civil War, the party operated in ways that few modern "vanguard" parties would tolerate:
"The committees were a law unto themselves when it came to accepting orders from above. Democratic centralism, as vague a principle of internal administration as there ever has been, was commonly held at least to enjoin lower executive bodies that they should obey the behests of all higher bodies in the organisational hierarchy. But town committees in practice had the devil's own job in imposing firm leadership . . . Insubordination was the rule of the day whenever lower party bodies thought questions of importance were at stake.
"Suburb committees too faced difficulties in imposing discipline. Many a party cell saw fit to thumb its nose at higher authority and to pursue policies which it felt to be more suited to local circumstances or more desirable in general. No great secret was made of this. In fact, it was openly admitted that hardly a party committee existed which did not encounter problems in enforcing its will even upon individual activists." [Robert Service, The Bolshevik Party in Revolution 1917-1923, pp. 51-2]
So while Lenin's ideal model of a disciplined, centralised and top-down party had been expounded since 1902, the operation of the party never matched his desire. As Service notes, "a disciplined hierarchy of command stretching down from the regional committees to party cells" had "never existed in Bolshevik history." In the heady days of the revolution, when the party was flooded by new members, Bolshevik party life was the exact opposite of that usually considered (by both opponents and supporters of Bolshevism) as it normal mode of operation. "Anarchist attitudes to higher authority," he argues, "were the rule of the day" and "no Bolshevik leader in his right mind could have contemplated a regular insistence upon rigid standards of hierarchical control and discipline unless he had abandoned all hope of establishing a mass socialist party." This meant that "in the Russia of 1917 it was the easiest thing in the world for lower party bodies to rebut the demands and pleas by higher authority." He stresses that "[s]uburb and town committees . . . often refused to go along with official policies . . . they also . . . sometimes took it into their heads to engage in active obstruction." [Op. Cit., p. 80, p. 62 p. 56 and p. 60]
This worked both ways, of course. Town committees did "snub their nose at lower-echelon viewpoints in the time before the next election. Try as hard as they might, suburb committees and ordinary cells could meanwhile do little to rectify matters beyond telling their own representative on their town committee to speak on their behalf. Or, if this too failed, they could resort to disruptive tactics by criticising it in public and refusing it all collaboration." [Op. Cit., pp. 52-3] Even by early 1918, the Bolshevik party bore little resemblance to the "democratic centralist" model desires by Lenin:
"The image of a disciplined hierarchy of party committees was therefore but a thin, artificial veneer which was used by Bolshevik leaders to cover up the cracked surface of the real picture underneath. Cells and suburb committees saw no reason to kow-tow to town committees; nor did town committees feel under compulsion to show any greater respect to their provincial and regional committees than before." [Op. Cit., p. 74]
It is this insubordination, this local autonomy and action in spite of central orders which explains the success of the Bolsheviks in 1917. Rather than a highly centralised and disciplined body of "professional" revolutionaries, the party saw a "significant change . . . within the membership of the party at local level . . . From the time of the February revolution requirements for party membership had been all but suspended, and now Bolshevik ranks swelled with impetuous recruits who knew next to nothing about Marxism and who were united by little more than overwhelming impatience for revolutionary action." [Alexander Rabinowitch, Prelude to Revolution, p. 41]
This mass of new members (many of whom were peasants who had just recently joined the industrial workforce) had a radicalising effect on the party's policies and structures. As even Leninist commentators argue, it was this influx of members who allowed Lenin to gain support for his radical revision of party aims in April. However, in spite of this radicalisation of the party base, the party machine still was at odds with the desires of the party. As Trotsky acknowledged, the situation "called for resolute confrontation of the sluggish Party machine with masses and ideas in motion." He stressed that "the masses were incomparably more revolutionary than the Party, which in turn was more revolutionary than its committeemen." Ironically, given the role Trotsky usually gave the party, he admits that "[w]ithout Lenin, no one had known what to make of the unprecedented situation." [Stalin, vol. 1, p. 301, p. 305 and p. 297]
Which is significant in itself. The Bolshevik party is usually claimed as being the most "revolutionary" that ever existed, yet here is Trotsky admitting that its leading members did not have a clue what to do. He even argued that "[e]very time the Bolshevik leaders had to act without Lenin they fell into error, usually inclining to the Right." [Op. Cit., p. 299] This negative opinion of the Bolsheviks applied even to the "left Bolsheviks, especially the workers" whom we are informed "tried with all their force to break through this quarantine" created by the Bolshevik leaders policy "of waiting, of accommodation, and of actual retreat before the Compromisers" after the February revolution and before the arrival of Lenin. Trotsky argued that "they did not know how to refute the premise about the bourgeois character of the revolution and the danger of an isolation of the proletariat. They submitted, gritting their teeth, to the directions of their leaders." [History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1, p. 273] It seems strange, to say the least, that without one person the whole of the party was reduced to such a level given that the aim of the "revolutionary" party was to develop the political awareness of its members.
Lenin's arrival, according to Trotsky, allowed the influence of the more radical rank and file to defeat the conservatism of the party machine. By the end of April, Lenin had managed to win over the majority of the party leadership to his position. However, this "April conflict between Lenin and the general staff of the party was not the only one of its kind. Throughout the whole history of Bolshevism . . . all the leaders of the party at all the most important moments stood to the right of Lenin." [Op. Cit., p. 305] As such, if "democratic centralism" had worked as intended, the whole party would have been arguing for incorrect positions the bulk of its existence (assuming, of course, that Lenin was correct most of the time).
For Trotsky, "Lenin exerted influence not so much as an individual but because he embodied the influence of the class on the Party and of the Party on its machine." Yet, this was the machine which Lenin had forged, which embodied his vision of how a "revolutionary" party should operate and was headed by him. To argue that the party machine was behind the party membership and the membership behind the class shows the bankruptcy of Lenin's organisational scheme. This "backwardness", moreover, indicates an independence of the party bureaucracy from the membership and the membership from the masses. As Lenin's constantly repeated aim was for the party to seize power (based on the dubious assumption that class power would only be expressed, indeed was identical to, party power) this independence held serious dangers, dangers which became apparent once this goal was achieved. This is confirmed when Trotsky asked the question "by what miracle did Lenin manage in a few short weeks to turn the Party's course into a new channel?" Significantly, he answers as follows: "Lenin's personal attributes and the objective situation." [Stalin, vol. 1, p. 299] No mention is made of the democratic features of the party organisation, which suggests that without Lenin the rank and file party members would not have been able to shift the weight of the party machine in their favour. Trotsky seemed close to admitting this:
"As often happens, a sharp cleavage developed between the classes in motion and the interests of the party machines. Even the Bolshevik Party cadres, who enjoyed the benefit of exceptional revolutionary training, were definitely inclined to disregard the masses and to identify their own special interests and the interests of the machine on the very day after the monarchy was overthrown." [Op. Cit., vol. 1, p. 298]
Thus the party machine, which embodied the principles of "democratic centralism" proved less than able to the task assigned it in practice. Without Lenin, it is doubtful that the party membership would have overcome the party machine:
"Lenin was strong not only because he understood the laws of the class struggle but also because his ear was faultlessly attuned to the stirrings of the masses in motion. He represented not so much the Party machine as the vanguard of the proletariat. He was definitely convinced that thousands from among those workers who had borne the brunt of supporting the underground Party would now support him. The masses at the moment were more revolutionary than the Party, and the Party more revolutionary than its machine. As early as March the actual attitude of the workers and soldiers had in many cases become stormily apparent, and it was widely at variance with the instructions issued by all the parties, including the Bolsheviks." [Op. Cit., p. 299]
Little wonder the local party groupings ignored the party machine, practising autonomy and initiative in the face of a party machine inclined to conservatism, inertia, bureaucracy and remoteness. This conflict between the party machine and the principles it was based on and the needs of the revolution and party membership was expressed continually throughout 1917:
"In short, the success of the revolution called for action against the 'highest circles of the party,' who, from February to October, utterly failed to play the revolutionary role they ought to have taken in theory. The masses themselves made the revolution, with or even against the party - this much at least was clear to Trotsky the historian. But far from drawing the correct conclusion, Trotsky the theorist continued to argue that the masses are incapable of making a revolution without a leader." [Daniel & Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, Op. Cit., p. 188]
Looking at the development of the revolution from April onwards, we are struck by the sluggishness of the party hierarchy. At every revolutionary upsurge, the party simply was not up to the task of responding to the needs of masses and the local party groupings closest to them. The can be seen in June, July and October itself. At each turn, the rank and file groupings or Lenin had to constantly violate the principles of their own party in order to be effective.
For example, when discussing the cancellation by the central committee of a demonstration planned for June 10th by the Petrograd Bolsheviks, the unresponsiveness of the party hierarchy can be seen. The "speeches by Lenin and Zinoviev [justifying their actions] by no means satisfied the Petersburg Committee. If anything, it appears that their explanations served to strengthen the feeling that at best the party leadership had acted irresponsibly and incompetently and was seriously out of touch with reality." Indeed, many "blamed the Central Committee for taking so long to respond to Military Organisation appeals for a demonstration." During the discussions in late June, 1917, on whether to take direct action against the Provisional Government there was a "wide gulf" between lower organs evaluations of the current situation and that of the Central Committee. [Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 88, p. 92 and p. 129] Indeed, among the delegates from the Bolshevik military groups, only Lashevich (an old Bolshevik) spoke in favour of the Central Committee position and he noted that "[f]requently it is impossible to make out where the Bolshevik ends and the Anarchist begins." [quoted by Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 129]
In the July days, the breach between the local party groups and the central committee increased. This spontaneous uprising was opposed to by the Bolshevik leadership, in spite of the leading role of their own militants (along with anarchists) in fermenting it. While calling on their own activists to restrain the masses, the party leadership was ignored by the rank and file membership who played an active role in the event. Sickened by being asked to play the role of "fireman", the party militants rejected party discipline in order to maintain their credibility with the working class. Rank and file activists, pointing to the snowballing of the movement, showed clear dissatisfaction with the Central Committee. One argued that it "was not aware of the latest developments when it made its decision to oppose the movement into the streets." Ultimately, the Central Committee appeal "for restraining the masses . . . was removed from" Pravda "and so the party's indecision was reflected by a large blank space on page one." [Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 150, p. 159 and p. 175] Ultimately, the indecisive nature of the leadership can be explained by the fact it did not think it could seize state power for itself ("the state of popular consciousness . . . made impossible the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in July." [Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 2, p. 81]).
The indecision of the party hierarchy did have an effect, of course. While the anarchists at Kronstadt looked at the demonstration as the start of an uprising, the Bolsheviks there were "wavering indecisively in the middle" between them and the Left-Social Revolutionaries who saw it as a means of applying pressure on the government. This was because they were "hamstrung by the indecision of the party Central Committee." [Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 187] Little wonder so many Bolshevik party organisations developed and protected their own autonomy and ability to act!
Significantly, one of the main Bolshevik groupings which helped organise and support the July uprising, the Military Organisation, started their own paper after the Central Committee had decreed after the failed revolt that neither it, nor the Petersburg Committee, should be allowed to have one. It "angrily insisted on what it considered its just prerogatives" and in "no uncertain terms it affirmed its right to publish an independent newspaper and formally protested what is referred to as 'a system of persecution and repression of an extremely peculiar character which had begun with the election of the new Central Committee.'" [Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 227] The Central Committee backed down, undoubtedly due to the fact it could not enforce its decision.
This was but one example of what the Cohn-Bendit brothers pointed to, namely that "five months after the Revolution and three months before the October uprising, the masses were still governing themselves, and the Bolshevik vanguard simply had to toe the line." [Op. Cit., p. 186] Within that vanguard, the central committee proved to be out of touch with the rank and file, who ignored it rather than break with their fellow workers.
Even by October, the party machine still lagged behind the needs of the revolution. In fact, Lenin could only impose his view by going over the head of the Central Committee. According to Trotsky's account, "this time he [wa]s not satisfied with furious criticism" of the "ruinous Fabianism of the Petrograd leadership" and "by way of protest he resign[ed] from the Central Committee." [History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3, p. 131] Trotsky quoted Lenin as follows:
"I am compelled to request permission to withdraw from the Central Committee, which I hereby do, and leave myself freedom of agitation in the lower ranks of the party and at the party congress." [quoted by Trotsky, Op. Cit., p. 131]
Thus the October revolution was precipitated by a blatant violation of the principles Lenin spent his life advocating. Indeed, if someone else other than Lenin had done this we are sure that Lenin, and his numerous followers, would have dismissed it as the action of a "petty-bourgeois intellectual" who cannot handle party "discipline." This is itself significant, as is the fact that he decided to appeal to the "lower ranks" of the party - rather than being "democratic" the party machine effectively blocked communication and control from the bottom-up. Looking to the more radical party membership, he "could only impose his view by going over the head of his Central Committee." [Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, Op. Cit., p. 187] He made sure to send his letter of protest to "the Petrograd and Moscow committees" and also made sure that "copies fell into the hands of the more reliable party workers of the district locals." By early October (and "over the heads of the Central Committee") he wrote "directly to the Petrograd and Moscow committees" calling for insurrection. He also "appealed to a Petrograd party conference to speak a firm word in favour of insurrection." [Trotsky, Op. Cit., p. 131 and p. 132]
In October, Lenin had to fight what he called "a wavering" in the "upper circles of the party" which lead to a "sort of dread of the struggle for power, an inclination to replace this struggle with resolutions, protests and conferences." [quoted by Trotsky, Op. Cit., p. 132] For Trotsky, this represented "almost a direct pitting of the party against the Central Committee," required because "it was a question of the fate of the revolution" and so "all other considerations fell away." On October 8th, when Lenin addressed the Bolshevik delegates of the forthcoming Northern Congress of Soviets on this subject, he did so "personally" as there "was no party decision" and the "higher institutions of the party had not yet expressed themselves." [Trotsky, Op. Cit., pp. 132-3 and p. 133] Ultimately, the Central Committee came round to Lenin's position but they did so under pressure of means at odds with the principles of the party.
This divergence between the image and reality of the Bolsheviks explains their success. If the party had applied or had remained true to the principles of "democratic centralism" it is doubtful that it would have played an important role in the movement. As Alexander Rabinowitch argues, Bolshevik organisational unity and discipline is "vastly exaggerated" and, in fact, Bolshevik success in 1917 was down to "the party's internally relatively democratic, tolerant, and decentralised structure and method of operation, as well as its essentially open and mass character - in striking contrast to the traditional Leninist model." In 1917, he goes on, "subordinate party bodies like the Petersburg Committee and the Military Organisation were permitted considerable independence and initiative . . . Most importantly, these lower bodies were able to tailor their tactics and appeals to suit their own particular constituencies amid rapidly changing conditions. Vast numbers of new members were recruited into the party . . . The newcomers included tens of thousands of workers and soldiers . . . who knew little, if anything, about Marxism and cared nothing about party discipline." For example, while the slogan "All Power to the Soviets" was "officially withdrawn by the Sixth [Party] Congress in late July, this change did not take hold at the local level." [The Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. 311, p. 312 and p. 313]
It is no exaggeration to argue that if any member of a current vanguard party acted as the Bolshevik rank and file did in 1917, they would quickly be expelled (this probably explains why no such party has been remotely successful since). However, this ferment from below was quickly undermined within the party with the start of the Civil War. It is from this period when "democratic centralism" was actually applied within the party and clarified as an organisational principle:
"It was quite a turnabout since the anarchic days before the Civil War. The Central Committee had always advocated the virtues of obedience and co-operation; but the rank-and-filers of 1917 had cared little about such entreaties as they did about appeals made by other higher authorities. The wartime emergency now supplied an opportunity to expatiate on this theme at will." [Service, Op. Cit., p. 91]
Service stresses that "it appears quite remarkable how quickly the Bolsheviks, who for years had talked idly about a strict hierarchy of command inside the party, at last began to put ideas into practice." [Op. Cit., p. 96]
In other words, the conversion of the Bolshevik party into a fully fledged "democratic centralist" party occurred during the degeneration of the Revolution. This was both a consequence of the rising authoritarianism within the party, state and society as well as one of its causes so it is quite ironic that the model used by modern day followers of Lenin is that of the party during the decline of the revolution, not its peak. This is not surprising. Once in power, the Bolshevik party imposed a state capitalist regime onto the Russian people. Can it be surprising that the party structure which it developed to aid this process was also based on bourgeois attitudes and organisation? The party model advocated by Lenin may not have been very effective during a revolution but it was exceedingly effective at promoting hierarchy and authority in the post-revolutionary regime. It simply replaced the old ruling elite with another, made up of members of the radical intelligentsia and the odd ex-worker or ex-peasant.
This was due to the hierarchical and top-down nature of the party Lenin had created. While the party base was largely working class, the leadership was not. Full-time revolutionaries, they were either middle-class intellectuals or (occasionally) ex-workers and (even rarer) ex-peasants who had left their class to become part of the party machine. Even the delegates at party congresses did not truly reflect the class basis of the party membership. For example, the number of delegates was still dominated by white-collar or others (59.1% to 40.9%) at the sixth party congress at the end of July 1917. [Cliff, Lenin, vol. 2, p. 160] So while the party gathered more working class members in 1917, it cannot be said that this was reflected in the party leadership which remained dominated by non-working class elements. Rather than being a genuine working class organisation, the Bolshevik party was a hierarchical group headed by non-working class elements whose working class base could not effectively control them even during the revolution in 1917. It was only effective because these newly joined and radicalised working class members ignored their own party structure and its defining ideology.
After the revolution, the Bolsheviks saw their membership start to decrease. Significantly, "the decline in numbers which occurred from early 1918 onwards" started happening "contrary to what is usually assumed, some months before the Central Committee's decree in midsummer that the party should be purged of its 'undesirable' elements." These lost members reflected two things. Firstly, the general decline in the size of the industrial working class. This meant that the radicalised new elements from the countryside which had flocked to the Bolsheviks in 1917 returned home. Secondly, the loss of popular support due to the realities of the Bolshevik regime. This can be seen from the fact that while the Bolsheviks were losing members, the Left SRs almost doubled in size to 100,000 (the Mensheviks claimed to have a similar number). Rather than non-proletarians leaving, "[i]t is more probable by far that it was industrial workers who were leaving in droves. After all, it would have been strange if the growing unpopularity of Sovnarkom in factory milieu had been confined exclusively to non-Bolsheviks." Unsurprisingly, given its position in power, "[a]s the proportion of working-class members declined, so that of entrants from the middle-class rose; the steady drift towards a party in which industrial workers no longer numerically predominated was under way." By late 1918 membership started to increase again but "[m]ost newcomers were not of working-class origin . . . the proportion of Bolsheviks of working-class origin fell from 57 per cent at the year's beginning to 48 per cent at the end." It should be noted that it was not specified how many classed as having working-class origin were still employed in working-class jobs. [Robert Service, Op. Cit., p. 70, pp. 70-1 and p. 90] A new ruling elite was thus born, thanks to the way vanguard parties are structured and the application of vanguardist principles which had previously been ignored.
In summary, the experience of the Russian Revolution does not, in fact, show the validity of the "vanguard" model. The Bolshevik party in 1917 played a leading role in the revolution only insofar as its members violated its own organisational principles (Lenin included). Faced with a real revolution and an influx of more radical new members, the party had to practice anarchist ideas of autonomy, local initiative and the ignoring of central orders which had no bearing to reality on the ground. When the party did try to apply the top-down and hierarchical principles of "democratic centralism" it failed to adjust to the needs of the moment. Moreover, when these principles were finally applied they helped ensure the degeneration of the revolution. This was to be expected, given the nature of vanguardism and the Bolshevik vision of socialism.
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