Spontaneity and Marxist theory

What is the relationship between unorganised mass movements and the revolutionary party? Mike Macnair continues his series on 'permanent revolution'

There was a genuine political difference between Lenin's assessment of the 1905 revolutionary crisis in Russia in Two tactics of the Social Democracy in the democratic revolution and Trotsky's assessment in Results and prospects, not (and here I disagree with comrade Jack Conrad) a difference merely of 'algebraic formulations'.

Lenin's line in Two tactics was to make an alliance of the working class with the peasantry as a whole, on the basis of the slogan of seizure and redistribution of the landlords' land; and he argued that this alliance could form a stable base of a revolutionary coalition government of the workers' party with a peasant party or parties in Russia (the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry') even if the Russian Revolution did not immediately trigger the Europe-wide socialist revolution.

Trotsky's line in Results and prospects was that the proletariat could overthrow tsarism in alliance with the semi-proletarianised poor peasants, and that any governmental coalition with the peasantry as a whole would instantly break down due to the contradiction between the interests of the proletariat in seizing property in order to coerce the capitalists and the interests of the peasants as private property-owners. For this reason he did not support the adoption of the slogan of seizure and redistribution of the landlords' land: Results and prospects is quite clear on this point. Hence, it also followed, the proletariat could only retain power if the Russian Revolution immediately triggered the Europe-wide socialist revolution.

Masses and theorists

Trotsky's original objection to the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' was made clearest in the 1909 article, 'Our differences':

""¦ the proletariat, despite the best intentions of its theoreticians, must in practice ignore the logical boundary line which should confine it to a democratic dictatorship. Lenin now proposes that the proletariat's political self-limitation should be supplemented with an objective anti-socialist 'safeguard' in the form of the muzhik as collaborator or co-dictator. If this means that the peasant party, which shares power with the social democrats, will not allow the unemployed and the strikers to be maintained at state cost and will oppose the state's opening of factories and plants closed down by the capitalists, then it also means that on the first day of the coalition - that is, long before the fulfilment of its tasks - the proletariat will enter into conflict with the revolutionary government. This conflict can end either in the repression of the workers by the peasant party, or in the removal of that party from power."

There is an underlying assumption in this argument which is extremely important. It is that the workers' party cannot under revolutionary conditions hold back the objective tendency of the classes to struggle for their immediate interests. Or, perhaps, that if the workers' party chooses to hold back the tendency of the working class masses to struggle for their immediate interests it will serve the interests of the old regime.

It should be clear that the workers' party cannot expect to hold back the tendency of the capitalist class to fight for its interests by any means short of the workers creating their own state to repress the capitalists.

Further, the evidence of the Russian Revolution from 1917 to the end of the new economic policy, and both of Stalinism and of subsequent 20th century revolutions, seems to me to establish that (a) the peasantry has class interests antagonistic to those of the proletariat, and (b) the workers' party can no more expect to hold back the tendency of the peasantry to fight for its class interests (except by creating a workers' state) than it can expect to hold back the similar tendency of the bourgeoisie.

It is on this specific point (antagonism between worker and peasant interests) that there is the strongest case that Lenin came over to Trotsky's views, as Joffe later said he did. For example, in 1919 Lenin wrote: ""¦ in October 1917 we marched with the peasants, with all the peasants. In that sense, our revolution at that time was a bourgeois revolution "¦ As far as the countryside was concerned, our revolution continued to be a bourgeois revolution, and only later, after a lapse of six months, were we compelled within the framework of the state organisation to start the class struggle in the countryside, to establish Committees of Poor Peasants, of semi-proletarians "¦"

Holding back workers' struggles

This does not, however, affect the question of whether the workers' party can - or should - hold back the class struggle of the workers in order to achieve partial gains (like the overthrow of tsarism), where the actual seizure of power by the working class is not, in the party's view, immediately feasible.

In 'Our differences' Trotsky makes the basis of his argument explicit with a quotation from an 1859 letter from Lassalle to Marx:

"The instinct of the masses in revolution is generally much surer than the good sense of intellectuals ... It is precisely the masses' lack of education that protects them from the underwater reefs of 'sensible' behaviour. In the last analysis, revolution can only be made with the help of the masses and their passionate self-sacrifice. But the masses, just because they are 'grey', just because they lack education, are quite unable to understand possibilism, and - since an undeveloped mind recognises only extremes, knows only yea and nay with nothing between the two - because of this they are interested only in extremes, in what is immediate and whole. In the end this is bound to mean that the (sensible and intelligent) bookkeepers of revolution, instead of having their outwitted enemies before them and their friends behind them, are, on the contrary, confronted only with enemies and have no-one behind them at all. Thus what seemed to be higher reason turns out in practice to be the height of foolishness."

This argument is, of course, the same argument as that made in Luxemburg's Organisational questions of Russian social democracy (1904) that:

"The unconscious comes before the conscious. The logic of the historic process comes before the subjective logic of the human beings who participate in the historic process. The tendency is for the directing organs of the socialist party to play a conservative role." And that: "The nimble acrobat fails to perceive that the only 'subject' which merits today the role of director is the collective 'ego' of the working class. The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn the dialectic of history. Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest central committee."

Or, similarly, Trotsky's argument in his 1904 Our political tasks, that organisational questions are secondary: the critical issue is setting the masses into movement. Hence, for example: "Awakening broad layers of the proletariat, the 'economists' made it the main reservoir of revolutionary energy."

Or: "Whatever the stage of our campaign in which the revolution surprises us, the proletariat, united on precise slogans, will have its say. And in such conditions the revolution itself will give a colossal impetus to its further political unification. So, mobilise the proletariat around the basic slogans of the revolution! This is the content of our immediate preparation for the decisive events being prepared ... At the present time I know of no other preparation than that."

Or Luxemburg in The mass strike (1906):

"The overestimate and the false estimate of the role of organisations in the class struggle of the proletariat is generally reinforced by the underestimate of the unorganised proletarian mass and of their political maturity. In a revolutionary period, in the storm of great, unsettling class struggles, the whole educational effect of the rapid capitalist development and of social democratic influences first shows itself upon the widest sections of the people, of which, in peaceful times the tables of the organised, and even election statistics, give only a faint idea."

To finish off the picture of this general line of argument, we can add Bakunin's warning in The founding of the workers' international (c1870) that:

"Only individuals, and a small number of them at that, can be carried away by an abstract and 'pure' idea. The millions, the masses, not only of the proletariat but also of the enlightened and privileged classes, are carried away only by the power and logic of 'facts', apprehending and envisaging most of the time only their immediate interests or moved only by their momentary, more or less blind, passions. Therefore, in order to interest and draw the whole proletariat into the work of the International, it is necessary to approach it not with general and abstract ideas, but with a living, tangible comprehension of its own pressing problems, of which evils the workers are aware in a concrete manner."

Or, lastly, Bakunin's reported comment in the 1840s that Marx was "ruining the workers by making theorists out of them".10 

The point of all these quotations is quite simple. Trotsky's quote from Lassalle invites us to interpret 'permanent revolution' as a statement about the creativity of the masses, as opposed to the backwardness of the leaders. On this interpretation, it is clear that the debate is part of the same debate which had already begun in Trotsky's and Luxemburg's responses to Lenin's One step forward, two steps back and What is to be done? And, further, this in turn is part of the same debate as that between 'Marxists' and 'Bakuninists' in the First International and after. Luxemburg, at least, was aware of this connection: The mass strike opens with the claim that Engels' arguments about the general strike in The Bakuninists at work (1873) have been shown to be out of date by the events of 1905.

I am not quoting Lassalle in order to smear Trotsky by association: I am merely repeating Trotsky's use of Lassalle. I am equally not quoting Bakunin in order to smear Trotsky and Luxemburg by association. The point is that Bakunin made charges against Marx's policy in the First International which were very similar to the charges Luxemburg and Trotsky made against Lenin's policy in What is to be done? and One step forward, two steps back. What this tells us is that the question at hand - the relation between workers' party and 'spontaneous' mass action - is an unresolved strategic problem of the workers' movement.

We should therefore put on one side, on the one hand, the negative circumstances that Lassalle was a German nationalist who played political footsie with Bismarck and ran the German General Workers' Association he founded as a personal dictatorship, and that Bakunin was a pan-Slavist who also operated through secret, top-down conspiracies and who tried to play political footsie with the tsar.11 

We should equally put on one side, and on the other hand, the positive circumstance that Luxemburg and Trotsky were famous revolutionary leaders and important Marxist theorists. We cannot altogether ignore the negative side, that neither Trotsky nor Luxemburg succeeded in organising a party or faction with real mass-level roots in the working class.12 

The underlying question is straightforward. What are the relative roles of the spontaneity of the unorganised masses and the action of the organised parties and trade unions in the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order?

Organisation and spontaneity

Marx's and Engels' message was fundamentally that the working class needed to organise itself independently as a class to fight for its own interests. This message was already present in the 1850 address, which contained the famous expression 'permanent revolution':

""¦ the workers, and above all the League, must work for the creation of an independent organisation of the workers' party, both secret and open, and alongside the official democrats, and the League must aim to make every one of its communes a centre and nucleus of workers' associations, in which the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence."


"Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers' candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory."13 

It is still present, outside the immediate context of revolutionary crisis, in the Inaugural address of the First International: ""¦ in England, Germany, Italy and France, there have taken place simultaneous revivals, and simultaneous efforts are being made at the political organisation of the workingmen's party. One element of success they possess - numbers; but numbers weigh in the balance only if united by combination and led by knowledge."14  So too in the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier: "this collective appropriation can arise only from the revolutionary action of the productive class - or proletariat - organised in a distinct political party."15 

This did not, however, imply counterposing 'partyism' to actual class movements, particularly strikes. Thus, for example, Engels to Bebel in 1891: "The coal strike in the Ruhr is certainly awkward for you, but what gives? The ill-advised strike of angry passion is, as matters stand, the usual way that large new strata of workers are brought in our direction."16 

The extreme example of this attitude is the Paris Commune. It seems from their correspondence that Marx and Engels thought that the attempt made by the Communards was in a sense premature.17  But in 1871 Marx wrote to Kügelmann: "World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances. It would, on the other hand, be of a very mystical nature, if 'accidents' played no part."18  And, in the event, Marx effectively sacrificed the existence of the First International to public solidarity with the Commune, since the solidarity with the Commune expressed in The civil war in France broke the bloc with the British trade union leaders which had been at the core of the International, and became a weapon of the general Europe-wide attempts to repress the workers' movement in the wake of the Commune.

Conservative organisation

Marx and Engels do not counterpose the need of the workers to create an organised party to the spontaneous action of the unorganised mass movement. In contrast, Lassalle in 1859, Bakunin at various points, Luxemburg in 1904 and 1906, and Trotsky in 1904 and 1909 do counterpose the spontaneous action of the unorganised mass movement to the need of the working class to create an organised mass party.

They do so for two reasons. One is the plain fact that there are unorganised spontaneous class movements, and the underlying starting point of the organised movement is the prior existence of unorganised movements.

The second - plainly enough - is the fear that the organised movement will turn out to be a conservative force. This idea is explicit in Lassalle and Luxemburg, and in Trotsky takes the form of the fear of "substitutionism"; in Bakunin, the organised movement is claimed, as in his critique of the Eisenach programme,19  to be a bourgeois form.

This second line of argument has real purchase because the organised movement, under the control of the bureaucracy, has proved to be a conservative force. Moreover, it has done so three times. The first time was the betrayal of the social democracy and the various trade union bureaucracies in and after World War I. The second was the bureaucratic degeneration of the CPSU and the betrayals of the 'official communist' parties. The third - this time tragedy repeated as farce - is ongoing: the utter political incapacity of most of the organised far left in most of the countries in the world to offer a real alternative to the coalitionist-reformist policy which is dominant in the workers' movement.

The question is, what can we do to overcome this conservative role? One approach is to struggle against the bureaucracy within the existing organised workers' movement, by fighting for class independence and internationalism against nationalist class-collaboration; and for democratic-republican organisational principles against bureaucratic-legalist ones. Another - the approach of Bakunin's arguments, and also of those of Luxemburg and Trotsky - is to attempt to go round the bureaucracy by counterposing the spontaneous, unorganised movement to the organised movement.

Can spontaneity win?

These two lines of argument pose two questions to Bakuninists - and also to Luxemburgists and Trotskyists. The first question is whether the spontaneous, unorganised movement is capable of overthrowing the capitalist order. The second is whether the spontaneous unorganised movement is capable of overthrowing the labour bureaucracies.

The two questions resolve in practice into one, because, where the proletariat has become the preponderant productive class, capital in practice rules through the support of the labour bureaucracy. This is actually true even where there is no mass workers' party, as in the US, and trade union leaders and coalitionists urge their supporters to vote Democrat. It is true in Britain under Tory as well as Labour governments: witness the active opposition of the Labour and TUC leadership to serious solidarity with the 1984-85 miners' strike.

But it is most obviously true when the state falls into crisis: crises bring on episodes of (often very left-talking) coalitionist-reformist government based on the labour bureaucracy. Such governments then attempt to re-establish the shaken capitalist legal-constitutional state. In doing so they prepare either a transition back to ordinary open, capitalist-controlled government or their own replacement by a military dictatorship which will complete this transition. Witness Germany and Austria in 1918-19; witness Spain in the 1930s; witness the post-war governments in most of western Europe; and so on.

Hence it is irrelevant that it might hypothetically be remotely possible that the spontaneous, unorganised movement could - apart from the existence of the labour bureaucracy - overthrow capitalism. Any overthrow of capitalism will require overthrowing the labour bureaucracy.

In relation to this question, the empirical evidence is brutally clear. Witness the failures of spontaneous movements in Germany in 1919 and Italy in 1920; witness the role of the anarchist-led CNT in Spain in the 1930s; witness the ability of the Parti Communiste Franà§ais to take back leadership in France in 1968; witness the petering-out of the Italian 'creeping May' in 1969-70; witness the ability of Labour to head off the mass strike wave in Britain in the early 1970s; since the fall of the Stalinist regimes, witness the limits of the Zapatista movement in 1990s Mexico, and of the piqueteros in 2000-01 Argentina.

There are numerous other cases. In several of these there was not only a spontaneous, unorganised movement, but also local tendencies towards the formation of soviet-type bodies of delegates. What was absent was a national - let alone an international - alternative to the existing political leaderships.


Why should this be the case?

The empirical result is, of course, the conclusion drawn by the Comintern at its 2nd Congress in 1920: there can be no revolution without a revolutionary party. But why this is the case also affects what sort of party can play a revolutionary role.

Lenin said at the 2nd Congress: ""¦ it is precisely one of the main characteristics of workers' political parties that, under the conditions of capitalism where the masses of workers are always exploited and are not in a position to develop their human abilities, they can only include the minority of their class. A political party can only comprise a minority of the class in the same way that really class-conscious workers only form the minority of workers in any capitalist society. Therefore we are forced to recognise that the great mass of workers can only be led and guided by the conscious minority."20 

Not dissimilarly, the Theses on the role of parties drafted by Zinoviev state: "The Communist Party is the organisational and political lever with whose help the advanced part of the working class can steer the whole mass of the proletariat and the semi-proletariat onto the correct road."21  The argument was considerably elaborated by Lukács in History and class consciousness. For Lukács, the objective dynamics of capitalism produce the result that the masses cannot be fully conscious.

In this argument it is taken that the broad masses remain politically unconscious and are "led and guided by the conscious minority". In this sense it shares a perception of the political dynamics of the broad masses with Bakunin's arguments quoted above. This is paradoxical. The result is in quite a strong sense more 'substitutionist' than the 'Leninist' party project about which Trotsky and Luxemburg had complained. Lenin in 1901-04 argued for the use of techniques of illegality on the road to a Kautskyan mass workers' party. For the Comintern leaders in 1920, a really mass workers' party is actually impossible until well after the seizure of political power. This approach is genuinely a Blanquist regression from Marxism.

In this theory the masses can neither be nor become politically conscious beyond the gut attempt to defend their immediate interests. As a result, the party has to lead the masses, as it were by the nose, through linking their defence of their immediate interests to the idea that the conscious minority of communists should rule. This concept is at the heart of the 3rd Congress Resolution on tactics argument which was part of the basis for the concept of the Transitional programme. But in fact what results is necessarily a choice between adventurism (or sectism) and tailism.

The reason is that the mechanisms in the theories which ensure that the masses cannot think for themselves are inherent in capitalist society and are, at best, only escaped in moments of, and in the form of, spontaneous mass outbreaks. If the masses really were unconscious (except in moments of spontaneous mass struggle round immediate interests) the conscious minority could only address the masses in the form of 'calls to action' round these interests. This was the logic of Bakunin's argument in the passages quoted above.

But then such calls, to have mass resonance, would have to be round proposals which were immediately practical. Hence Lassalle, having written in 1859 that "[i]t is precisely the masses' lack of education that protects them from the underwater reefs of 'sensible' behaviour" (above), by 1863-64 was promoting an imaginary alliance of the workers' movement with the Bismarck government against the liberals. Hence the extraordinarily striking tendency for Trotskyist 'transitional' politics in the present day to turn into perfectly ordinary left reformism. The only other alternatives are putsches and adventures (like Bakunin's 1870 proclamation of the abolition of the state in Lyons) or the self-cultivation of the very pure, in the form of a sect which waits for the real revolutionary outbreak (the fate of the left communists).

There is a further consequence. In the Comintern's theory, the "great mass" has to be led by the "conscious minority" (in the sense that the party does the masses' thinking for them). But it is equally the case in this theory that the party ranks are less conscious than the 'more advanced' leadership: so the ranks, too, have to be led by the 'conscious minority'. Therefore we get bureaucratic centralism. It is striking that bureaucratic centralism was also characteristic of Lassalle's General German Workers Association and of the Polish SDKPiL under the leadership of Luxemburg's close associate, Leo Jogiches; not to mention Bakunin's 'invisible dictatorship'.22 

The Bolsheviks' and Comintern's error is perfectly understandable in the circumstances. On the one hand, the spontaneous mass movement had not succeeded in overthrowing capitalism - or the labour bureaucracy - in western and central Europe. On the other, since the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 the Bolsheviks had lost majority support. They were also engaged in building up a state on the basis of a narrow layer of 'advanced workers' who had become military and civil state functionaries of a party-army which ultimately functioned as a collective Bonapartist representative-master of the Russian peasantry. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that they produced an ideology in which the broad masses are seen as unconscious objects of manipulation by the conscious minority.


We should therefore step back from the plainly false and apologetic arguments of 1920, to the arguments for the unorganised, spontaneous mass movement promoted by Lassalle, Bakunin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, which are false in a more subtle way. This is that they simultaneously overestimate and underestimate the political capability of the unorganised masses.

The overestimation is relatively straightforward. The arguments quoted suppose that the spontaneous, unorganised movement is spontaneously revolutionary: it is only the conservatism of the leaders that holds it back.

This is a bastardised form of a core Marxist argument. The Marxist argument is that the consistent pursuit of its own collective interests by the proletariat as a class logically leads to the overthrow of capitalism and the emancipation of humanity.

But this argument does not at all imply that the working class as a class is capable of identifying its common interests as a class without going through the process of organising itself, initially for partial struggles, then for a permanent general movement, then at the level of the political struggle with the capitalists over general laws (etc). The immediate interest of a particular group of employed workers is not at all the same thing as the general interest of the working class as a class. Consider, for example, the interest of groups of skilled workers in maintaining differentials. For Marxists, it is through going through the process of organising itself as a class that the proletariat comes to identify those interests that are its common interests as a class.

In fact, the only truly unorganised, spontaneous movement is a riot. When - as happens in all revolutions, and as happened in a different way in the 1984-85 miners' strike - a group of workers in a single workplace goes on unofficial strike and sends out pickets or emissaries to bring out other workplaces, this is not unorganised action: it is a form, albeit a very elementary one, of organisation. On the other side of this coin, shop stewards' committees and similar forms are themselves as capable of becoming a bureaucracy as the official organisations; and the same is true of workers' councils and soviets. They may also become - as the soviets became in the first few months of the Russian Revolution and as the majority of the Räte became in Germany and Austria - a support for a class-collaborationist government.


The underestimate consists in the belief that the unorganised masses cannot think beyond their immediate interests or that (in Bakunin's phrase) they are "apprehending and envisaging most of the time only their immediate interests or moved only by their momentary, more or less blind, passions". This claim is, in fact, manifest nonsense.

On a small scale, tea-break conversation in workplaces is as likely to be about the latest political scandal as it is to be about wages and working conditions. It is, of course, equally if not more likely to be about sport or celebs. No doubt far leftists (socialist, communist or anarchist) will often disagree with what is said; but there is a difference between holding mistaken beliefs about politics and holding no beliefs about politics.

On a larger scale, the demonstrators on Russia's Bloody Sunday (January 22 1905), which triggered the 1905 revolution, demanded: "(1) An eight-hour day and freedom to organise trade unions. (2) Improved working conditions, free medical aid, higher wages for women workers. (3) Elections to be held for a constituent assembly by universal, equal and secret suffrage. (4) Freedom of speech, press, association and religion. (5) An end to the war with Japan." If the first two of these demands might concern 'immediate interests', the last three do not. Similarly, the women workers who triggered the February 1917 revolution struck and demonstrated for bread and peace; and they chose to do so on international women's day, a festival called for by the Second International in 1910 and first observed in Russia as part of a peace campaign in 1913.

Russia is by no means alone in this. Political crisis, or the victory of a leftist party in elections (as in Spain and France in the 1930s), may trigger a spontaneous movement of mass actions which raise economic as well as political demands. It is far rarer for a strike movement started around purely economic demands to trigger a political crisis.

In other words, it is not true that, as Lassalle (quoted by Trotsky) put it, "The instinct of the masses in revolution is generally much surer than the good sense of intellectuals" because the masses do not think about politics. The unorganised masses can and do think about politics.

This argument has been entirely negative: its point is to attack Trotsky's arguments, in the context of 'permanent revolution', for counterposing the spontaneous movement of the unorganised masses to organisation. In the next and last article in the series I will turn a critique of the Menshevik and similar arguments and from there to a positive alternative approach to the problem of the relation of 'party and masses' in, and before, revolutionary crisis.