Communist strategy and the party form

Mike Macnair examines the Leninist 'party of a new type' and disentangles its advantages and shortcomings from the necessity of splitting from the Second International

In the last article in this series we saw that 'defeatism' was intimately linked to Lenin's struggle, from 1914 on, to force a split in the Second International. Lenin argued for a clear split not only with the "social-chauvinists" of the right and centre who had actually supported their own belligerent governments, but also with the "social-pacifists" of the centre.

Lenin's split policy was not accepted by the majority of his co-thinkers - let alone the wider anti-war left in the workers' movement - until after October 1917. It reached its decisive moment in the 1920 adoption by the Comintern of the 'Twenty-one conditions', which were designed to force the split with the centre.

It would be tedious to list the processes of split since then which have left us with - at least! - 57 varieties of left group in Britain, leave aside the international variations.


The Eurocommunist Fernando Claudin in his From Comintern to Cominform (1975) argued that the split in the Second International was "a model of sectarianism and bureaucratic method", to which the modern splintered working class movement can be traced back. Claudin's argument has been widely adopted. Many liberal and social democratic critics of communism and some leftists would place the source further back - at the 1903 split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks; they rely on Luxemburg's and Trotsky's contemporary critiques of Lenin. The anarchists would take it a stage further: the 1871 split in the First International, they would say, showed Marx's sectarianism and 'authoritarian methods' at work.

The seductive quality of these arguments consists in two facts. First, 1871, 1903 and the split consummated in 1921 have commonly been used as 'arguments' by bureaucratic and sectarian splitters. Second, in all three cases the arguments are fundamentally false but contain a partial truth.

In 1871 a split which was really about political strategy was confusingly presented as a split about Bakunin's secret dictatorial conspiracy; but Bakunin's secret dictatorial conspiracy was real. Bakunin's hypocrisy (and his very confused ideas) obscure the fact that he and his followers identified a real problem about the forms of authority in the workers' movement.

Luxemburg's and Trotsky's critiques of Lenin would have been perfectly legitimate if the 1903 split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party had been about implementing the top-down, conspiratorial party model of Lenin's What is to be done?, but (as Lenin pointed out in his 1904 response to Luxemburg) it was not. However, against the interpretation placed on 1903 in Zinoviev's History of the Bolshevik Party and, as a result, by James P Cannon and by the later 'orthodox Trotskyists' and the Maoists, Luxemburg's and Trotsky's critiques had considerable validity.

The split in the Second International was justified, but the reasoning given for it at the time was at least partly unsound, and this unsound reasoning has indeed promoted the division of the left into micro-groups.

A strategic split

Lenin's original argument for a split with the social-chauvinist leaders was quite simply that they had betrayed the decisions of the international and the interests of the working class and were scabs. The explanation he gave was that "This collapse has been mainly caused by the actual prevalence in it of petty bourgeois opportunism, the bourgeois nature and the danger of which have long been indicated by the finest representatives of the revolutionary proletariat of all countries." Further, "The so-called centre of the German and other social democratic parties has in actual fact faint-heartedly capitulated to the opportunists. It must be the task of the future international resolutely and irrevocably to rid itself of this bourgeois trend in socialism."

The Lenin-Zinoviev 1915 pamphlet Socialism and war goes on to argue for the split on a class basis - class unity and class independence requires separation from the right:

"In the past epoch, before the war, although opportunism was often regarded as a 'deviationist', 'extremist' part of the Social Democratic Party, it was nevertheless regarded as a legitimate part. The war has shown that this cannot be so in future. Opportunism has 'matured', is now playing to the full its role as emissary of the bourgeois in the working class movement. Unity with the opportunists has become sheer hypocrisy, an example of which we see in the German Social Democratic Party. On all important occasions (for example, the voting on August 4), the opportunists come forward with an ultimatum, which they carry out with the aid of their numerous connections with the bourgeoisie, of their majority on the executives of the trade unions, etc. Unity with the opportunists actually means today subordinating the working class to 'its' national bourgeoisie, alliance with it for the purpose of oppressing other nations and of fighting for great-power privileges; it means splitting the revolutionary proletariat in all countries.

"Hard as the struggle may be, in individual cases, against the opportunists who predominate in many organisations, peculiar as the process of purging the workers' parties of opportunists may be in individual countries, this process is inevitable and fruitful. Reformist socialism is dying; regenerated socialism 'will be revolutionary, uncompromising and insurrectionary', to use the apt expression of the French socialist, Paul Golay."

In Socialism and war, and more fully in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, the class argument is extended to connect opportunism to imperialism and the ability to 'buy off' a section of the working class: "Opportunism and social-chauvinism have the same economic basis: the interests of a tiny stratum of privileged workers and of the petty bourgeoisie who are defending their privileged position, their 'right' to crumbs of the profits 'their' national bourgeoisie obtain from robbing other nations, from the advantages of their position as the ruling nation, etc."

This argument seeks a strategic split in two senses. On the one hand, the strategy of the regenerated movement is to be 'revolutionary' and not 'reformist'. On the other, it is a strategic break from the Second International's strategy of unity, discussed in the second article in this series. It is, indeed, the exact opposite. By splitting from the right, the left, which represents the working class, is to purge the workers' parties of opportunists, to purify itself and 'regenerate' socialism as "revolutionary". Splitting becomes in itself a strategy to purify the movement.

False ...

These arguments are fundamentally false but contain true elements.

To begin at the theoretical level, the theory of the imperialist labour aristocracy is false. In the first place, workers' level of class consciousness does not map inversely onto their relative material advantages. To take a single British example out of many possible ones, in the late 19th century skilled miners and railway workers were on the right wing of the movement; by the early 20th they were on its left. The theory of the imperialist labour aristocracy is also completely impotent to explain reformism and the labour bureaucracy in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, which has been an all too obvious problem since the 1930s. The theory therefore wholly lacks predictive power.

Bukharin in Imperialism and world economy has a better understanding: that is, that the relative advantages of a nation-state in the world hierarchy will allow the state to gain the loyalty of at least a large section of its working class. But this understanding can be extended to the case of colonies and semi-colonies. Left nationalism, which is the main equivalent in the colonial world of "social-chauvinism", seeks to improve the position of the poor (including the working class) by improving the relative standing of its nation-state in the world hierarchy; and there can be relative advantages in this hierarchy not only, for example, between Britain and Argentina, but also between Britain and France, or between Brazil and Argentina.

Once this point is grasped, it is clear that the strategy of split will not purify the workers' movement, and that the idea that the workers' movement can be purified from "reformism"/"social-chauvinism" by separation of the "revolutionaries"/"internationalists" is illusory. Working class support for one's own capitalist nation-state is produced by dynamics inherent in the capitalist nation-state system and world market and there is no grouping within the working class which is presumptively free of it.

The Bolsheviks, in fact, themselves demonstrated in 1917 the falsity of the policy of purifying the movement through splits. Firstly. when Lenin returned to Russia, the All-Russia Central Committee, including Kamenev and Stalin, was engaged in discussing with the Mensheviks unity on the basis of critical support for the Provisional government. Secondly, in October, two central Bolshevik leaders, Zinoviev and Kamenev, broke ranks to denounce the planned insurrection in the bourgeois press. The Bolsheviks' separation from the Mensheviks had proved to be no guarantee against reformism.

The need for 'purging' the movement of opportunists and "accidental elements" was to be a central demand of the 'Twenty-one conditions'. The periodic purge was also to be one of the central weapons the Bolshevik leadership promoted against corruption and bureaucratic degeneration once the party had taken power. In this character it was - to put it mildly - wholly ineffective. Individual bureaucrats and corrupt elements might be purged, but the overall effect of the purges was to increase the power of the party bureaucracy as such over the rank and file, and therefore reduce and, indeed, rapidly eliminate, the ability of the proletariat as a class to fight for its class interests through the Communist Party.

'Leninist' sectarians believe that splitting organisationally from the right and repeated purges will make a pure revolutionary organisation. The political collapse of such sectarians into the most abject opportunism has been a repeated feature of the history of Trotskyism and Maoism. The process is going on before our eyes in the British Socialist Workers Party.

... and partly true

Lenin's and Zinoviev's arguments for a split in Socialism and war nonetheless contain a side comment which goes to the heart of the matter, quoted above: "On all important occasions (for example, the voting on August 4), the opportunists come forward with an ultimatum, which they carry out with the aid of their numerous connections with the bourgeoisie, of their majority on the executives of the trade unions, etc."

The loyalty of the right wing of the movement to the capitalist state is rewarded with state - and capitalist - intervention on the side of the right in the debates and decision-making of the workers' movement. In World War I this took the form of the open use of state censorship against critics of the war. More usually, it takes more subtle forms: financial support, media attention and disinformation operations of the intelligence apparat, provocations, etc against the left (the smear campaign against George Galloway is a recent example, albeit one to which Galloway's political errors made him unusually vulnerable).

As a result, the right is characterised by persistent use of ultimatums, splits and party, union, etc bureaucratic censorship against the left. In the German SPD this had begun well before the war, with the censorship of Engels's 1895 preface to The civil war in France, and the suppression of the first edition of Kautsky's The road to power. In more recent times, the Social Democratic Party's 1981 split from Labour was only the most extreme example of a routine practice of the Labour and trade union right.

The right represents itself as the democratic representative of more backward elements of the working class - ordinary working class monarchists, for example - so that it claims that, even when it is in a minority in the movement, it is nonetheless entitled to a majority in its leadership or to control of what the movement says. The same argument can be found in Neil Kinnock's claims to represent the voiceless masses against the left in the 1980s Labour Party and John Rees's similar claims against the CPGB at the Respect founding conference. They are the continuity of the practice of the right wing in the SPD.

The right is linked to the state and willing to use ultimatums, censorship and splits to prevent the party standing in open opposition to the state. It insists that the only possible unity is if it has a veto on what is said and done. The unity of the workers' movement on the right's terms is necessarily subordination of the interests of the working class to those of the state.

Marxists, who wish to oppose the present state rather than to manage it loyally, can then only be in partial unity with the loyalist wing of the workers' movement. We can bloc with them on particular issues. We can and will take membership in parties and organisations they control - and violate their constitutional rules and discipline - in order to fight their politics. But we have to organise ourselves independently of them. That means that we need our own press, finances, leadership committees, conferences, branches and other organisations.

It does not matter whether these are formally within parties the right controls, formally outside them, or part inside or part outside. This is tactics. The problem is not to purify the movement, which is illusory, but to negate the politics of class collaborationism by fighting against it.

In the concrete conditions of 1914-21 this did indeed mean an organisational split with most of the centre as well as with the right. After the split, the centre promptly proved the point. Parts of the centre regrouped in what the communists satirically called the 'Two and a Half International'; by 1923 this had reunified with the Second International. It proved to be unable to fight the right in the international, but, indeed, collapsed into its politics. Fetishising unity at all costs had proved - as Marx and Engels had warned in 1875 - to negate the ability to fight for class independence.

A party of a new type

The course of events in 1917-21 overlaid upon the original ground for a split (purifying the class movement) a new ground: the idea of a party of a new type - that is, a party in the image of the Bolsheviks. This idea was codified in the 1920 Second Congress 'Theses on the role of the Communist Party in the proletarian revolution' and in the 1921 Third Congress theses, 'The organisational structure of the communist parties, the methods and content of their work'.

There are three critical elements in the new organisational concept. The first is that the party is to be a party of the 'vanguard': the advanced minority of the working class. It is not to lay claim to being directly the party of the mass of the working class (unlike, for example, the British Labour Party). The second, related, point is that it is to be an activist party, a party which organises the political work of its members. The 1921 theses contain, in this respect, some valuable pragmatic advice about the practical means of organising and building a party.

The third is that it is to be 'strictly centralised'. There is to be no question of broad autonomy of branches, fractions, etc; everything is to be under the control of the central committee. Indeed, the 1921 theses incorporate (inexplicitly) the ban on factions recently adopted by the Russian Communist Party (thesis 6: "incompatible with the principles of democratic centralism adopted by the Communist International are antagonisms or power struggles within the party"). They give individual delegates of the central committee the right to veto local decisions (thesis 48: "The representatives and delegates of the central leadership are entitled to attend all meetings and sessions with a consultative voice and the right of veto").

There is no doubt that these were intended to be strategic choices. They are grounded on the one hand by the positive balance sheet of the Russian Bolshevik Party, which by 1920-21 was clearly winning the civil war. On the other hand is the defeats suffered by the left in the German revolution of 1919, by the Hungarian revolution of 1919, and by the Italian revolutionary movement of autumn 1920, which the Comintern leadership attributed to the lack of a 'party of a Bolshevik type'.

True and false

The 'new party concept' is intensely contradictory. On the one hand, it is a genuine advance in the theorisation of actual membership-based political parties. Membership-based political parties, as opposed to loose coalition political trends, were an innovation of the later 19th century, and when Marx and Engels said that "the communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other parties of the working class" (Communist manifesto) and made similar statements about "parties" it was this sort of broad trend that they meant. The Second International had built membership-based parties, but had not theorised what they were. In this aspect 'anti-Leninism' is characterised by simple political unrealism and ends in practice either in total inability to organise, or in reproducing the worst aspects of 'Leninism'.

On the other hand, it is also a theorisation of what the Bolsheviks had done to their party in 1918-21, both in militarising it and in setting it up as a minority dictatorship, a state authority against the working class. In this aspect the 'new party concept' or, as it came to be called after Lenin's death, 'Leninism', was a theory of the dictatorship of the bureaucracy, and one which was to animate endless bureaucratic sects.

This contradiction can be seen present in each of the three strands of the new party concept identified earlier.

The vanguard party

That a party is part only of the society is logically necessary. That the organised membership of a political party, however large, is a minority, is a simple fact about political parties in capitalist society - even very large ones like the Labour Party, etc. That in the case of a workers' party this minority is in some sense the 'vanguard' is an idea which cannot be abandoned without abandoning the idea that the party should promote its distinct political programme. If we are not 'more advanced' in the sense of having a better understanding of the strategic line of march than non-members, then our organising is a waste of time and money and a fraud on the voters; and this is as true of the Labour Party, etc as it is of left groups.

If the job of the party is to represent the voiceless masses rather than to promote a distinct set of political ideas, it collapses into an organ of the state without political ideas: the character of the major capitalist parties in the two-party systems of much of the modern political world. The result is that the unorganised masses are denied the genuine political choices which they could make when they vote, etc. This result is inherently anti-democratic.

The danger, however, is that this reasoning can be taken to rule out the possibility that the party is wrong and non-party elements right. In this case the claim that the party is the advanced party becomes in principle untestable. If this view is taken, moreover, it logically follows that the leadership is taken to be the 'advanced part' of the party and as such is in principle right against the 'backward elements' of the ranks. Since the possibility that the 'backward elements' are right is ruled out, the claim that the leaders are 'more advanced' is untestable, and is a matter of pure faith.

The necessary consequence is that 'more advanced leading cadre' are, in effect, justified by faith alone, as with the Calvinist Elect. Like the dodgy end of the Calvinist Elect, nothing is forbidden to them: among the Trotskyist organisations the 'vanguard role' has been used to justify violence in the workers' movement (Cannon, the Lambertists, the Healyites, the Loraites), taking money from questionable sources (the Lambertists, the Healyites), and sexual exploitation of female members (the Healyites, the Spartacists). This is merely a pale shadow of the personal corruption and violence of the Stalinist bureaucracies.

The party of activists

The idea of the party of activists is in itself no more than a recognition that political activity is work - and that, like other forms of work, it benefits from (a) commitment and (b) an organised division of labour. It also has a 'civic republican' aspect to it. That is, it is counterposed to the liberal and market political-science view of parties, which sees party leaderships as firms offering political brands to the voter-consumer or member-consumer. The party member is to be an active citizen of his or her party. The passive consumer-member is not to have a vote.

Though the Comintern texts address directly only the shortcomings of the social democracy, in this aspect they have grasped a fundamental feature of the capitalist political order in parliamentary regimes: ie, that what is given with one hand through universal suffrage is taken away with another through the constitution of the party system. (It is also taken away by monarchism/presidentialism, judicial review, militarised police, mercenary armies, etc; but these are long stops relative to the immediate role of the capitalist party system in disenfranchising the masses.)

The other, negative, side of the 'party of activists' idea is given by its combination with the 'actuality of the revolution': the idea that the trouble with the Second International was its 'passive propagandism', and that the tasks of the workers' movement have gone beyond propaganda, etc, to agitation intended to lead to the immediate struggle for power. Taken together with the idea of a developed division of labour, this idea leads all too easily into the creation of a division of labour between 'grunts' at the base, who are to run round like blue-arsed flies from one agitational initiative to the next, and thinkers in the leadership. Self-education of the militants at the base - and, for that matter, the patient, long-term work of trade union activity, cooperatives, and so on - is damned as 'propagandism'.

The paradoxical effect is to reinstate the liberal-market bourgeois party form. The members, though active, are active in doing what the leaders tell them, and cease to be really active citizens of their party. The leaders become a firm selling a brand: Socialist Workers Party, Workers Power, Alliance for Workers' Liberty ... Dissent - especially dissent about fundamentals - becomes the enemy of 'activism' and the 'activists' themselves resent the dissenters who are 'stopping them getting on with the job'. In this framework, serious disagreement inevitably leads to a split.


Centralism has two senses. The first is the absence of legal constitutional rights of the state's or organisation's components (cantons, provinces, branches, etc) to sovereignty in 'their patch'. I stress legal constitutional rights, first because in their absence the centre may still not practically be able to enforce its will in the localities - see, for example, the SWP's difficulty in turning its local branches round Respect.

Second, because in the absence of legal constitutional rights of the components we do not have federalism. Britain before the rise of the Labour Party was deeply politically committed to the autonomy of local government, but that did not make this country federal. Having federalism thus implies having a constitutional court to decide whether the centre has invaded the components' rights. Federalism is, in other words, a form of dictatorship of the lawyers. That is why the US capitalist class at the time of the creation of the US constitution preferred federalism to democratic republicanism. In this sense, the Comintern's centralism was right.

The second sense of centralism is the sense Engels points to in his critique of the Erfurt programme. He denounces the French form of the state as "the empire established in 1799 without the emperor": the existence of a centralised, hierarchical, bureaucratic apparatus in which local officials are appointed from and responsible to the centre, rather than locally elected. It was this Bonapartist sort of centralism which the Bolsheviks created in their party in 1918-21 and exported in the 1921 theses.

The Bolsheviks in 1921 represented this centralism as the historic character of their faction-party since 1903. This representation was 'codified' in Zinoviev's 1924 History of the Bolshevik Party, but it was an unambiguous falsification of their history. Trotsky wrote in 1931 that "Whoever is acquainted with the history of the Bolshevik Party knows what a broad autonomy the local organisations always enjoyed: they issued their own papers, in which they openly and sharply, whenever they found it necessary, criticised the actions of the central committee. Had the central committee, in the case of principled differences, attempted to disperse the local organisations ... before the party had had an opportunity to express itself - such a central committee would have made itself impossible." This view has been confirmed by detailed modern historical research into Bolshevik practice down to 1918.

It is reasonably clear why the Bolsheviks did it. They thought it was a necessity of civil war. That was also why they exported it: the parties of the Comintern needed to be parties fit for civil war. In fact, the idea that civil war implies Bonapartist centralism can readily be falsified by the experiences of the English civil war, the French revolutionary war before 1799, and the American revolution and civil war.

In reality, it was required in Russia by the combination of the failure of the German workers' movement to come to the aid of the Russian revolution, and the Bolshevik adoption of the Narodniks' distributivist land programme. This left the Bolsheviks effectively isolated in a peasant-dominated country. The only way to resist the whites was to base themselves on the peasants, which they duly did.

Representing the peasants forced them to create the sort of state that peasant revolutionary movements normally tend to create, which is an absolutist one. The recreation of Chinese dynasties, the peasants' support for late feudal absolutism in 17th century Sweden, France, etc and French Bonapartism itself are examples. The Bolsheviks built up a Bonapartist state round the party: and to do so, they had to change the party into "the empire without the emperor".

It is unsurprising to find that the fate of parties of this type is to be unable to be a political instrument of the working class. In peasant-dominated countries, they can take power, but create only a road back to capitalism by a long and bloody detour: Russia itself, Yugoslavia, China, Albania, Vietnam ... In fully capitalist countries, they can have one of three fates.

l They can evolve back into Kautskyian parties - the clearest cases are the French and Italian Communist Parties. Such parties officially prohibit factions, but have them de facto, and are officially Bonapartist-centralist, but in practice allow a lot of leeway to the branches and fractions. They can actually be useful for the workers' movement and the development of class consciousness even if they have coalitionist politics which they cannot carry into practice (all of them between the 1950s and the 1970s) and even if they are small (like the old CPGB).

l They can turn into small bureaucratic-centralist sects (most of the Trotskyist and Maoist groups and some 'official communist' ones).

l Or they can collapse altogether.

Adopting and exporting Bonapartist centralism was just plain wrong. When it was completed by the 1921 ban on factions, it left no legal means by which the working class could get its party back: as became apparent in the fate of the oppositions of the 1920s. It tended to emphasise the negative rather than the positive sides of the 'vanguard party' and the 'party of activists'.

What sort of party?

At present the mass workers' parties wherever they exist are so dominated by the class-collaborationist, coalitionist right as to be little more than left-capitalist parties. The larger small parties of the left (the surviving 'official' CPs, Rifondazione, the proto-Linkspartei) are also dominated by the coalitionist policy. To their left is a wilderness of bureaucratic-centralist sects.

The working class urgently needs new political parties, and a new international, which stand for the working class pursuing its independent interests. What sort of party? It is impossible to get out of where we are now without being willing to read the texts and the lessons of the early Comintern, but to do so critically. To accept the Comintern texts at face value produces bureaucratic-centralism and splittism. To take them at face value and reject them out of hand produces either complete inability to act (the anarchists, movementists, left and council communists, etc) or collapse back into the policy of unity with the right on the right's terms (the Labour left, etc).

The 'party of a new type' was both a real advance on the party theory of the Second International and simultaneously part of the process of bureaucratisation of the Russian CP and hence of the parties of the Comintern. It is necessary to disentangle these elements and fight for a democratic centralism which is not a synonym for bureaucratic centralism.

The split in the Second International was not a sectarian error on the part of the communists. It was required by the unwillingness of the coalitionist right to act democratically. Marxists have to organise in a way which is not dependent on unity with the right. We have to accept that the split in the Second International will not be reversed (unless Marxists altogether abandon our politics and accept the corrupt world of Blairism, etc).

But splitting does not purge the movement of opportunism. It is a defensive necessity, not a means of offence. They way to fight opportunism is not to seek purity by separation or fear contamination with the touch of pitch: that road leads only to organisational sectarianism, coupled with political collapse into opportunism.

Rather we also have to fight for forms of partial unity with the right, so as both to achieve the maximum class unity round particular goals that can be achieved and to bring our politics into confrontation with the right's politics. That was for the Comintern, and remains today, the task of the policy of the united class front.