Was Lenin an anti-worker intellectual?

What kind of party?: Illusion is the first of all pleasures

Tim Nelson of the International Socialist Network calls for a broad party in which Marxists fight to build a revolutionary movement from the bottom up

I would like to start by welcoming the article by Ben Lewis,1 written in response to mine and Paris Thompson’s article about Left Unity.2 I hope that the debate can continue in a fraternal manner. However, there are a number of straw-men in the piece that Lewis has constructed, which need to be identified. I also think that the manner of the differences in approach between us and Lewis needs clarifying.

To begin with, Lewis accuses us of seeming to “flit back and forth” between the need to build a revolutionary organisation and a broad party of the left. This argument is only valid if the author maintains that these projects, rather than being two separate but linked tasks, are mutually exclusive. Seemingly they can be. A revolutionary organisation, by its very definition, is only made up of those who agree with us Marxists that the only way to achieve socialism is though revolutionary means. A broad party, on the other hand, includes in its ranks all those who wish to bring about the socialist transformation of society, but some may believe this could be brought about through reformist means.

If, however, we recognise that workers’ consciousness under capitalism is contradictory, and that it is only by participating in the class struggle that workers will be able to develop revolutionary consciousness, then the role of revolutionaries in such a party can become clearer. Their role is to actively engage in the struggle against capitalism alongside those who are involved, while at the same time arguing for revolutionary methods and ideas.

Lewis seems to fall into the classic ‘Leninist’ trap of believing that revolutionary consciousness can be brought to the masses from the outside. A common theme of dogmatic Leninism is the idea that workers on their own cannot develop revolutionary ideas, and it is the role of Marxist intellectuals to enlighten them. He is right that we “chide the left for producing abstract propaganda”, not because theoretical debates are not valuable to the communist movement, but if as revolutionaries we limit ourselves to this we will fail to relate to the class. By involving ourselves in Left Unity we aim to increase the audience for revolutionary ideas, while at the same time arguing for the most radical action against capitalism, and building a mass organisation capable of confronting capital.

Secondly, Lewis, whether through accident or design, conflates our tactical method of building a broad party, with the idea that such a party could “bring about the socialist transformation of society”. This is elitist nonsense. No party, sect or union is capable of bringing about the socialist transformation of society. In this, the International Socialists stand firmly in the Marxist tradition of the self-emancipation of the working class. It is the workers themselves who are the vehicle for the socialist transformation of society. By arguing for a broad party that includes all those who wish to bring this transformation about, we are simply arguing that such a tactic is a practical step revolutionaries should make at this time in order to achieve that goal.

The role of revolutionaries is, at every point in the struggle, to aim to encourage the greatest level of self-activity of the working class in confronting capitalism. In doing so, the working class develops its own organisations, and begins to recognise its own agency. This cannot be achieved from the “top down”, as Lewis argues. If Left Unity provides a vehicle for revolutionaries to involve themselves in the day-to-day struggle against capitalism, and at the same time provides a forum revolutionaries can use the experiences to said struggle and encourage others to reach revolutionary conclusions, then it is essential that they are involved.

After conflating an organisation to be used to confront capitalism and spread socialist ideas with an agency capable of bringing about socialism, Lewis goes on to perform another sleight of hand. He points out that we refer to the Labour Party as a social democratic organisation which continues to have roots in the working class, then questions why we want to build another. This would be a reasonable question if we had made such a case, but we did not. Lewis’s proof of this ambition is the involvement of reformists in the leadership of Left Unity.

Firstly, as the author recognises elsewhere in the article, we used the formulation “class struggle organisation” to describe our ambition for Left Unity, not ‘social democratic party’. Secondly, as the author also recognises, we describe social democratic parties, and the Labour Party specifically, as “capitalist workers parties”, in that their base is in the working class, but their programme, actions and leadership are capitalist. This is the polar opposite of a class struggle organisation. Labour is not a party of class struggle, but one of class collaboration. It is the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy, in that it seeks to mediate between boss and worker, while ultimately siding with the boss because its very existence relies upon the continuation of the capitalist system. A class struggle organisation, by definition, is a party that aims to oppose capitalism, and support the workers in doing so.

Ultimately, what differentiates Lewis’s position from ours is that he fails to recognise the ability of the working class to liberate itself. It is not the role of revolutionaries to be the vanguard of the working class, but to relate to the vanguard - those who are confronting capitalism and developing socialist ideas as a result. The problem of organisation is therefore subject to a very simple question: How are revolutionaries best able to relate to those workers engaged in struggle?

If you believe that revolutionary consciousness is brought about from “the top down”, then the task is to build an ideologically pure organisation, which can at its leisure develop a word-perfect revolutionary programme. If instead you believe that we need to work with all those who are engaged in struggle against capitalism, and in the course of the struggle we should aim to build a revolutionary movement from the bottom up, the task is to build a mass, democratic, socialist organisation. It is far from guaranteed that Left Unity will be such a party, but it is the best chance that we have had for a long time.


1. ‘Broad party illusionsWeekly Worker May 23.

2. http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/ideas-and-arguments/organisation/left-unity/116.