Party and programme

Paul Le Blanc - Lenin and the revolutionary party - Humanities Press, 1993, pp417

The ongoing debate on pro gramme -and by implication what sort of organisational principles and forms we require - being conducted by the Socialist Alliance in preparation for its March 10 conference, could be greatly enhanced by a reading of Paul Le Blanc's Lenin and the revolutionary party. Le Blanc takes a detailed look at the evolution - change as well as continuity - in Lenin's conception of partyism.

In the current period we are subjected to differing distortions of the Leninist notion of party, which Le Blanc categorises, discussing their mutual relationships. On the one side we have the concept most usually offered to us by bourgeois historians of an authoritarian Lenin who made the Bolshevik Party an instrument, not of class dictatorship, but of party dictatorship over the class.

On the other side we have its mirror image in the 'official' communist version of the party. In its mythology the party is always at the head of the working class, leading it onwards to victory. The party is in fact substituted for the working class. It is infallible, and so is whoever happens to be the general secretary. Hence we have the notion of an 'unbroken' thread connecting the party to the revolution. This places the Party as an institution in history and crucially establishes for it, as an institution, a point of commonality with the working class. In one sense this is perfectly natural. After all the bourgeoisie similarly attempts through various routes (nationalism for instance) to establish common ground with the working class.

Nevertheless the party is projected as an unchanging monolith above history. This, however, makes conscious revision of history not only possible, but necessary, since nothing is above history. The party is transformed into something else, being fused by the ruling bureaucratic stratum with the state.

During the downfall of the former Soviet Union the bourgeoisie not surprisingly fostered the notion of the working class making a revolution 'against itself'. The party had for decades claimed to rule on behalf of the class, repeatedly claiming that an attack on the party was an attack on the revolution (and by default on the working class).

Evidently the focal point for most critiques of the Leninist conception of the Party revolves around the assertion that the Bolshevik organisation was profoundly anti-democratic, and that Lenin laid the foundations for what was to follow in What is to be done?. The professional revolutionary of 1902 was the future bureaucrat: left-minded critics invoke Rosa Luxemburg as proof of the validity of their own views.

In the early chapters Le Blanc takes issue with that assertion and looks with a critical eye over the arguments presented. Perhaps the main line of attack on the Bolshevik method of party-building is the insistence that an orientation towards the vanguard of the working class in inherently elitist. This is usually twinned with an attack on the concept of the professional revolutionary, which allegedly paved the way for the Leninist elite to elevate itself above the class and rule as a dictator over it. It is worth noting the rich variety of sources that Le Blanc draws on in order to illustrate and refute the arguments: both sympathisers and detractors of Lenin, and the man himself, are given an airing. This is the mark of a well-researched book and provides plenty for readers to get their teeth into.

The most usual alternative presented to the vanguard party is that of a broad 'mass working class' formation. Indeed some components of the Socialist Alliance currently hold this as their immediate perspective. The Socialist Party, the International Socialist Group and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty all offer variations on the same theme. Even the Socialist Workers Party want the alliance to be a 'broad church' where left Labourites can feel at home and unthreatened as left Labourites. The revolutionary element of the projected formation is of course composed of whichever organisation is proposing it.

This is a false method of relating the vanguard to a broader milieu. It basically says the vanguard can only interrelate with the class when it plays down its revolutionism. Though it is unconscious and a symptom of programmatic failure, it is also a reaction to the myth of Leninism. Indeed a Socialist Party member provided recent illustration of this when commenting: "You seem like me to be enthused by the prospect of building a bigger left through the SA, but how do you expect people to become involved if they are going to be bossed around by an inbuilt majority of Leninists (my emphasis, UK Left Network January 21).

In this period class-consciousness is at a paralysing low. This impacts on self-proclaimed revolutionaries too. Thus, far from the 'vanguard' marching at the head of the working class, it finds it easier to dissolve itself into a broad morass and tail every spontaneous movement.

In a way the Socialist Alliance is merely a projection of the way the SWP et al already view themselves. The SWP does not recruit into a vanguard. Any group which is happy to dish out membership cards on a demonstration can hardly be criticised for being choosy. The need felt by the SWP to use the SA as a conduit towards itself is an unconscious recognition of the fact that in its current state the SWP itself is unable to provide a pole of attraction. Far from acting like a vanguard, the SWP and groups like it have through their own separate existence, operated in a way which disperses and atomises the vanguard layer of the class.

The argument about vanguard organisation ties in with the perception of class-consciousness and how it develops. The notion that it flourishes almost exclusively within the sphere of the immediate relation between worker and capitalist leads to an orientation to the lower strata of the class. There is very little attempt to raise spontaneous rebellion against individual manifestations of capital to a higher, political consciousness necessary for a future ruling class. It is of course the task of the party to nurture such consciousness.

But, in the absence of a Leninist notion of party it appears natural to place all your hopes in a working class upsurge. Peter Taaffe's 'red 90's' may have come to nothing, but that does not prevent him, in similar vein, declaring 2001 a "year of workers reawakening". The working class is poised to "reject not just the effects of Thatcherism but to turn to those very ideas she claimed she had buried: democratic, liberating socialism in Britain and the world"(The Socialist January 5).

The fact that eventually the Socialist Party will be 'right' is not the point. What is of interest in this current discussion are the indicators that are used to make the prediction: the state of the health service, possible strikes at Luton and the growing gap between rich and poor. Never once is the ideological temperature of the class taken. The ideological climate will by definition always be closely linked to the vanguard (or the thinking) layer of the class. Instead we have the mood of the class being determined solely by how good or bad life is; of course this is a factor, taking it as the only one leaves a distorted picture of reality.

Such perspectives, based on hopes of a spontaneous "reawakening", lead to the policy of a reformist "mass workers' party" as the first step for workers who up to now have rejected Taaffe's 'Leninist' sect. But of course the SP will be ready and waiting as the new formation's 'revolutionary wing'.

Another major aspect of the Leninist conception of party, which is comprehensively covered by Le Blanc, is the central role of programme in determining the character of the organisation. Indeed, if you look closely at the two main blocs within the Socialist Alliance - the SWP and SP - then you see how programme can directly relate to organisation and the form it takes. When joining the 'revolutionary party' means having to agree with virtually every dot and comma, the less there is to disagree with the better. Socialist Worker's 'Where we stand' column fits the bill perfectly for an organisation based on bureaucratic centralism.

As Le Blanc points out, the goal of Iskra was not just the unity of all the scattered socialist groups per se. This unity was to be forged around a revolutionary programme - something which is going to be of special relevance in the upcoming debates. Le Blanc traces the development of programmatic issues in relation to that of the party throughout the book. Lenin and the revolutionary party provides a narrative on the relationship between organisational and programmatic theory and practice - all of which has tremendous relevance for the future direction of the Socialist Alliance.

Darrell Goodliffe