Emphasising democracy

What kind of party does the working class require in 2004, 70 years after the death of VI Lenin? In this article, based on his speech to the CPGB's Communist University in August, Hillel Ticktin looks at the lessons for today of Lenin's What is to be done?

Lenin produced What is to be done? the year before the split between theBolsheviks and theMensheviks took place in 1903. The split seemed to be based on what he wrote in 1902 on the conception of the party, but that does not mean that Lenin expected the split to occur. Indeed he was surprised and upset.

So, in this context, we have to understand the book as part of a process, since the result of the split - a separate, independent party of a new kind - was something Lenin did not know was about to come into being.

It is absolutely crucial to understand that Lenin was trying to adapt the party to the particular conditions of Russia. In 1917, when Trotsky was negotiating with Lenin to join the party, he actually called on Lenin to stop being such a ‘Russian isolationist’. What he meant by that is not that Lenin believed in socialism in one country, which he did not (no Marxist possibly could have at that time). It was simply that, even though he was in Switzerland, he was concentrating almost entirely on how to take power in Russia, which clearly was not true of Trotsky and many others. Trotsky, in my view, had a much more profound understanding of the nature of political economy and the nature of Russian history. But his understanding of politics was much more limited. Power was what Lenin focused on.

The strength of that position was twofold. Firstly, he could base the formation of the party on the peculiar, particular conditions of the Russian empire itself, since, of course, taking power in any part of the world must depend on the particular conditions. Secondly, he did not end up with the sort of deformations which occurred in the SPD in Germany. Because of Lenin’s conclusions about the type of party necessary, such elements which were incorporated in the SPD were automatically excluded from the Leninist party. I do not think Lenin understood what he was doing at the time, because after all he regarded Kautsky as the pope of Marxism just as much as anybody else. But it had that unintended effect. The upshot was the formation of the Bolshevik Party.

Lenin concentrated on the need to take power, the local conditions and the interaction between the two. What were the specific conditions?

The first problem was that the proletariat was largely illiterate, so that Iskra could not have been read by them even if it had been written in an intelligible way. Iskra was certainly not the product of a mass party: one column after another, no illustrations, hardly any headlines, just tracts. Obviously Iskra was for intellectuals and I doubt whether very many people, even those who had been to an educational institution, could understand it. The RSDLP, therefore, was an organisation which was certainly in the first instance based on intellectuals - which you would expect to be the case, because after all it was only in the 1880s and 1890s, as Lenin mentions in the book, that the working class was coming onto the scene and beginning to act.

There was a small intelligentsia, but growing in numbers and increasingly radical. The total number of students in the Russian empire in 1900 was about 20,000 and most would have been leftwing. It was to be expected that a rising middle class, which was itself being victimised, would be against the system.

The fact that the proletariat was illiterate meant that the party would relate in the first instance to the intelligentsia. The problem for Lenin was that he had to reject the kind of despair that led to the immediate demand for action coming from the intelligentsia, who did not understand the importance of going to the working class, working with them and assisting them to take power. Lenin was opposed to the whole idea of short cuts and stood firm against that section of the intelligentsia that went in for assassinations - in effect a variety of anarchism. Lenin argued that it was the duty of the party to bring socialist theory to the working class and not act independently of it. In this he was single-minded.

The second problem was that Russia was an autocracy: a very special kind of formation, a police state in which the tsar was the fount of all power. Even when the various dumas were introduced, the concessions were extremely limited. It was a system of its own kind. Plekhanov and Trotsky, I think correctly, called it ‘semi-Asiatic’. Trotsky describes in his book 1905 how the surplus product was extracted from a very poor peasantry by a centralised bureaucratic apparatus. That was exactly the way the system ran, although, unlike the standard Asiatic mode of production, the purpose was military.

A system of this kind, although far from the same as what came into existence under Stalin, is conducive to the use of a secret police, which was so important in Russia in terms of control and far more powerful than they would have been in similar states in the west. Russian orthodox priests reported confessions to the state, for example. It was Nicholas II who effectively founded the modern form of the secret police in pre-revolutionary Russia, the Okhrana. In What is to be done? the secret police is continually mentioned from page one to the end, because, as Lenin stressed, the party could not operate without means of dealing with the secret police.

Quite simply the party had to be underground - in contrast to the SPD. If it was to succeed, it would have to be organised on a cell basis with a central apparatus which was largely autonomous. Of course, that is not democratic, but, whatever the theory, reality dictated centralisation, combined with a high level of local autonomy. There could be no other way. A central apparatus was essential to maintain continuity and direction, yet members were constantly being arrested, which meant that the local branches could not contact the centre.

These, then, were the circumstances when Lenin wrote What is to be done? But Lenin’s view of the type of party that was needed was not written in stone. By 1917 it is very, very different. By October 1917 there are 350,000 members. It is no longer a simple vanguard party but a mass party, with the support of a substantial proportion of the working class. Undoubtedly the Bolshevik Party did therefore represent the working class. It was different in other ways too: it was democratic - compared to the Bolsheviks, the Labour Party was a totalitarian party at that time.

One example. After the Bolsheviks seized power, the question came up as to whether they should end the war or not. The discussion raged for about three months - there was no question of Lenin imposing his will. There were a substantial number of factions, comprising principally Lenin’s faction, that of Bukharin, Preobrazhensky and a whole series of other well known Bolsheviks, and Trotsky’s group. For there to be such a genuine discussion, which lasted so long in the middle of a war, one has to say it was a highly democratic party. In fact from 1917 to 1921 at every congress there was an opposition, an official opposition given the time it needed to put across its platform.

The point is that Lenin’s conception of the party changed over time - in fact it changed a number of times. In effect, it changed after 1921 too, and for the worse, when Lenin banned factions. So the Bolshevik Party had evolved by 1921-22 into an instrument in the hands of Lenin which could be moulded as required. I am sure that, had he lived, things would have evolved quite differently. For Lenin, the party was an instrument which was only there in order to facilitate the taking of power with the aim of introducing socialism. One had to accept the forms which could work. The party was a particular tool to take power, but he did not fetishise it.

Above all Lenin was political, which meant he was always looking at ways of getting through to the masses, organising them and shaping them into a form which could overthrow the system. In doing so he sometimes brought up slogans with which I thoroughly disagree (and I am sure he disagreed with them himself, given his own actions), that he thought would appeal to the masses. For example, the call for the right of nations to self-determination. There is a national question and it has to be solved, but why did he not bring class into it? However, his practice was very different. He invaded the Ukraine. There was no right of the Ukraine to self-determination. So he was using the slogan to get through to the national minorities in Russia, who were, of course, oppressed and he thought it would be a slogan which they could accept and understand. It is not that he did not recognise the national question. Clearly he did. But he was prepared to use slogans which, as far as I can see, simply did not reflect a Marxist viewpoint, or even his own viewpoint.

I think the same is true of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’. That is a practical as well as theoretical muddle of the worst kind. Such a form of rule is impossible. But his aim was to get through to the peasantry. Whether he succeeded or not is another question, but that is the way he conducted politics. He fashioned a party which could take power, but throughout he remained dedicated to taking power in the name of the working class as part of the world revolution. The party was simply a necessary and flexible instrument, just as some slogans were. Lenin fashioned a party around himself which he could control.

To go back to What is to be done?, one of the words Lenin uses extensively is translated as “amateurishness”. He gives examples of how students organised and made contact with workers, but then within a few months the secret police would come along and take them all away, and that was the end of the group. What was the point of that? As Lenin saw it, it was essential to have the necessary forms to operate. The actual word Lenin uses is only partly represented in the word ‘amateurishness’. What it means is an isolated artisan or handicraftsman. What Lenin is saying is that, unlike them, we have to have something that is capable of fighting the state.

We need to clarify another concept. The concept of the working class is not the same thing as the existence of workers - Marx makes this very clear in a number of places. Only when there is a collectivity can a working class be said to exist. Under capitalism there is a potential for such a class. Marx actually argues that at the point where the workers become a class the society dissolves. In other words the task of the left is to make the workers into a class so that they can seize power.

Though Lenin does not use this language, it is clear that this is what he is actually talking about. The working class does not just include employed workers. It represents the unity of work and non-work time, the man and his wife - in fact the family. It is the totality of the workforce: both those who are employed and those who constitute the reserve army of labour. Lenin’s point is that for the workers to become a class requires a party.

This is one of the six central points made by Lenin in What is to be done? - the need for a vanguard party, in opposition to the concept of spontaneous action by the working class (and also in opposition to the idea of a representative mass party). Secondly, he makes the point that party discipline is the discipline of the factory - imposed at that stage by the nature of the party and the class’s requirements. Thirdly, theory is given by the intellectuals to the party. Marxist theory can only be developed by those who are intellectuals and they originally come from the bourgeoisie itself, although over time they can recruit people from the working class. Fourthly, trade unionism is necessarily bourgeois and consequently only able to make gains within capitalism itself. So Lenin rejects syndicalism and what we call today ‘rank and filism’. Fifthly, members of the party must become professional revolutionaries, dedicating their lives to the cause and therefore subjecting themselves to revolutionary discipline. Sixthly, democratic centralism is the form in which there is discussion in the party.

Now the one issue which caused the most debate, as it were, is the question of discipline - that it should be factory discipline. Trotsky immediately opposed it, pointing out that what was needed was self-discipline, which I think is obvious. Why Lenin wrote this I have no idea, but to me it is clearly a mistake. A party where all discipline came from above would not work. What is required is self-discipline in relation to the party as a whole. As Trotsky pointed out in 1904, the party was a dictatorship which amounted to the dictatorship of Lenin.

It is unfortunate that much of the left still looks to this form of the party, which was originally formulated in 1902, and which, as I have pointed out, Lenin himself abandoned. The result is really that much of the left is looking to the form of a party as it evolved into early Stalinism: that is to say, after Lenin had removed factions and there was no further democracy whatsoever after 1921.

It will be a very different party that is required today, as compared to what Lenin was talking about then. Clearly today the majority of the population has to be persuaded of socialism, has to be persuaded that there is an alternative system. It seems to me that Lenin was right that a vanguard party is required, but one that is closer to the party of April-August 1917 or January 1918. That is to say, in bourgeois democracies the vanguard party of the proletariat must be a mass party, to provide it with the necessary organisation and allow it to free itself as a proletariat. It needs a central organisation which can deal with attempts to disrupt, sabotage and undermine it.

The stronger the party becomes, the more important such a role. But we do not have the experience of a mass Marxist party to test: to see whether it could maintain democracy while maintaining its vanguard role.

The concept of democratic centralism, by the way, did not elicit very much opposition at the time. All the people involved in Iskra accepted the need for a centralised organisation - it was something everybody agreed on. The question of centralisation was not an issue, but it is obvious that in an underground party there cannot be much democracy. However, in an ‘above ground’ party we will have to argue, and we will argue, that there is as much democracy as is consistent with capitalism.

The problem we have is that capitalism is itself undemocratic and that any party must reflect the lack of democracy in our society - ie, people come from different backgrounds, have different levels of income, different levels of education, different levels of ability to express themselves and so on: all that will reflect itself in the party. While there is no way around this, it is important to be aware of it and to take the necessary measures - as it will be to deal with infiltration by state agents. Democracy should not be regarded as a fetish, but nonetheless, given the lack of it on the left, it is quite obvious that one would have to emphasise democracy to a much greater degree than Lenin did in What is to be done?

Of course Marxists seek to go beyond democracy, which presupposes the existence of a state. But, to use the term in its loose sense - the involvement of everyone in decision-making - a democracy depends on much more than regular discussion and voting, though both are necessary. It also requires that we should find ways of taking into account all opinions and making everyone feel responsible for the decisions taken - even when they oppose them.