The Revolutionary Party

By Tony Cliff


For the achievement of a socialist revolution, a revolutionary party is needed because of the uneven levels of culture and consciousness in different groups of workers. If the working class were homogeneous ideologically, there would be no need for leadership. But the objective possibility of revolution will not wait until all reach a class-conscious intellectual level. Only the revolutionary party can utilise the revolutionary opportunity, given a class only partially aware of its revolutionary task.

Unevenness is not static. Sections of the class that are more backward can move ahead quickly, and those formerly in advance fall behind. The sharper and more volatile the struggle, the more relative the terms ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ become.

The more the revolutionary party is rooted in the working class, the more unevenness in the class affects, and is affected by, unevenness in the party. Different groups of workers are influenced in varying degrees by other classes, and this has its effect on party members. The party’s leadership of the working class is the result of struggle against these influences, and inside the party, leadership is secured by fighting for the correct policies. In the same way that a vanguard party is necessary to strengthen the initiative and independence of the mass of workers, democratic centralism inside the party is necessary to develop the initiative and independence of party members.

This, in outline, is Lenin’s conception of the revolutionary party, its relationship to the working class, and the form of party organisation dictated by that relationship.

However, the norm of party organisation – the ideal form – does not correspond with reality. In the norm, the party centre – representing the best in the party – is in advance of the localities, committee and branches. Party branches both influence and are influenced by the national leadership. In practice, the position can be very different. A party centre can be more advanced than the branches by following a certain routine, which can then result in conservative inertia. If the political situation of the working class changes rapidly, presenting new tasks, the centre, being less in touch, can fall behind sections of the party. Different branches of the party react more swiftly than others to the new needs. The more rigid the party’s structure, the more elaborate its rules, the less adaptable it is to new needs.

Lenin’s thought and practice contain a number of key elements:

  1. Practice is superior to theory: “Practice is higher than (theoretical) knowledge, for it has not only the dignity of universality, but also of immediate actuality.”
  2. Truth is always concrete.
  3. Uneven development of different aspects of the struggle make it necessary to look always to the key link in every concrete situation.
  4. Organisation must always be historically determined (not drawn from some ‘general theory’), and changed to fit major changes in the class struggle.
  5. While the norm of party life is democratic centralist – the central bodies are assumed to be superior in knowledge and initiative – sometimes the rules must be broken in the interests of the revolution.
  6. Party rules are means to overcome the anarchic tendencies of individuals and small groups – often recruited from the middle class – but they should not reduce the flexibility of work. At an extreme, breaking party discipline may well be the duty of loyal members.
  7. It is necessary to struggle to avoid empiricism and opportunist indiscipline without falling into dogmatic blind discipline.

Lenin’s contribution to showing how a revolutionary party should work is contained in the history of his activity, not in some abstract theory. This article presents some examples to illustrate these points. It does not deal with the whole question of party organisation, but with only one aspect: party rules and discipline. The selection of such a narrow field of investigation must lead to one-sidedness. The inner working of the party cannot be understood properly without looking at the relations between the party and the working class.

What is to be Done?

Lenin’s early ideas on organisation were presented in What is to be Done?, written in 1902. There he argued:

There could not have been social-democratic  consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. . . The working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness, i.e. the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation.


The spontaneous working-class movement is trade unionism … and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie. Hence, our task … is to combat spontaneity. to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous. trade unionist striving …

But why … does the spontaneous movement … lead to the domination of bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination.

The organisational form needed by social-democracy is derived from the nature of the political tasks: “In an autocratic state, the more we confine the membership … to people who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activity and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult will it be to unearth the organisation.”

This orientation was elaborated in a document of 1904. Below the central committee there should be two kinds of groups: territorial and functional (industrial). The local committees “should consist of fully convinced social democrats, who devote themselves entirely to social-democratic activities” , and be small in number. They should direct discussion meetings of revolutionaries, district circles with a propagandists’ circle attached to each, factory circles and factory circle delegate meetings. “All further institutions (and of these there should be very many and extremely diversified ones …) should be subordinated to the committee, and … it is necessary to have district groups (for the very big cities) and factory groups (always and everywhere).”  “The district groups should be permitted to act independently only on questions concerning the technical aspect of transmission and distribution.”  Furthermore, “the factory circles … are particularly important to us: the main strength of the movement lies in the organisation of the workers at the large factories, for the large factories (and mills) contain not only the predominant part of the working class, as regards numbers, but even more as regards influence, development, and fighting capacity. Every factory must be our fortress.”

How did the party machine work in practice?

In practice, things looked very different. Lenin’s letters from exile to party committees in Russia are full of complaints about the lack of information, literature, and people.  “Are you taking workers into the committee?” he asks of the Odessa committee. “This is essential, absolutely essential! Why don’t you put us in direct contact with workers? Not a single worker writes to VperyodThis is a scandal. We need at all costs dozens of worker correspondents.” Occasionally, he despairs: “We talk of organisation, of centralism, while actually there is such disunity, such amateurism among even the closest comrades in the centre, that one feels like chucking it all in disgust.”

Early in 1905, we find Krupskaya writing from Geneva to the Petersburg committee: “We learned from foreign papers that the Putilov plant was on strike. Do we have any connections there? Will it really be impossible to get information about the strike?” Nevskii comments: “One of the greatest proletarian movements was beginning, already its spearhead – the Putilov workers – was fighting capitalists, but the centre abroad learned of these clashes from foreign papers it was not even able to sense that the strike … was … a movement linked by the closest ties to … the whole mighty strike movement of the entire Petersburg proletariat.”

At the third party congress, the Petersburg committee admitted: “The January events caught the Petersburg committee in an extremely sorry state. Its ties with the working masses had been utterly disorganised … There was not a single worker among the members of the committee. The strike at the Putilov plant caught the committee unprepared.”  As a result of its weakness, inexperience, and shallow roots in the working class, the Bolshevik committee was a natural prey to ultra-left sectarianism during 1905 – symbolised by its rejection of the soviet when established.

A similar sectarian attitude was shown by the Bolshevik leadership in Russia towards the newly-rising trade unions. As in the case of the soviet, Lenin had to fight his own democratic centralist leadership in alliance with the party rank and file. The 1905 revolution showed clearly that the party is not automatically in advance of the class, nor the central committee in advance of the party.

Tactical turns

Theoretically, the party member was a professional revolutionary, a ‘committeeman’. In the period before the 1905 revolution (and in the years of reaction after it), the committeemen were far in advance of the level of activity and consciousness of even the advanced section of the proletariat. But in the revolution, they lagged far behind. In the difficult years of illegality and repression, the committeemen created a routine, a tradition, which at the moment of crisis became an impediment.

During 1905. the main theme of Lenin’s arguments was: open the gates of the party to new forces:

Really, I sometimes think that nine-tenths of the Bolsheviks are actually formalists … We need young forces. I am for shooting on the spot anyone who presumes to say that there are no people to be had. The people in Russia are legion; all we have to do is to recruit young people … without fearing them

Enlarge the committee threefold by accepting young people into it, set up half a dozen or a dozen subcommittees, ‘co-opt’ any and every honest and energetic person. Allow every subcommittee to write and publish leaflets without any red tape (there is no harm if they do make a mistake …) … Do not fear their lack of training, do not tremble at their inexperience and lack of development …

And again:

If we fail to show bold initiative in setting up new organisations. we shall have to give up as groundless all pretensions to the role of vanguard. If we stop helplessly at the achieved boundaries, forms, and confines of the committees, groups, meetings and circles, we shall merely prove our own incapacity. Thousands of circles are now springing up everywhere without our aid, without any definite programme or aim, simply under the impact of events.

Let all such circles, except those that are avowedly non-social-democratic, either directly join the party or align themselves with the party. In the latter event we must not demand that they accept our programme or that they necessarily enter into organisational relations with us. Their mood of protest and their sympathy for the cause of international revolutionary social-democracy in themselves suffice.

However, the committeemen opposed Lenin’s appeal, and at the third congress (in the spring of 1905), defeated him on the issue. The admission of new workers to the party aroused particular opposition. One delegate argued that the problem did not exist: “As an issue of the relationship of workers and the intelligentsia in party organisations, this question does not exist (Lenin: ‘It does.’) No, it does not: it exists as a demagogic question. that is all.”  Others reported how few workers actually were committee members – one in Petersburg after 15 years’ work (Lenin: “Outrageous!”), none on the northern committee, one in Baku, none in Kutais. The complaints followed thick and fast. One delegate remarked: “In our committees – and I have seen plenty of them in my work – there is some kind of phobia towards workers.”

At this point Lenin intervened, and the session became even noisier:

It will be the task of the future centre to reorganise a considerable number of our committees: the inertness of the committeemen has to be overcome (applause and booing) … To place workers on the committees is a political, not only a pedagogical, task. Workers have class instinct, and, given some political experience, they pretty soon become staunch social-democrats. I should be strongly in favour of having eight workers to every two intellectuals on our cornntittees.

Mikhailov developed the point further:

The criterion for admitting workers … ought to be different from the one applied to the intelligentsia. There is talk of tempered social-democrats, but … first- and second-year students, familiar with social-democratic ideas from the Erfurt Programme and a few issues of Iskra, are already considered tempered social-democrats. Thus in practice the requirements for intelligentsia are very low, and for workers they are extremely high. (Lenin: “Very true!” The majority of delegates: “Not true!”) The only valid criterion for admitting workers into a committee must be the degree of their influence among the masses (hissing, shouting). All workers who are leaders and have been in our circles must be members of our committees.

Lenin returned to the subject later:

A tight hold must always be kept on the intelligentsia. It is always the instigator of all sorts of squabbles.. . Clause nine (of the constitution): A local committee must be dissolved by the central committee if two-thirds of the local workers belonging to the party organisations declare for such a dissolution . . . when our central committee is constantly posted on the number of workers organised in any particular organisation, it will have to reckon with their opinion and will be bound to cashier the local committee on the demand of the organised workers.

It was not the last time Lenin found himself in a minority among the Bolshevik leaders, and even booed at a Bolshevik congress. Yet he continued to argue against the leadership. Later in the year, we find him saying:

At the third congress of the party I suggested that there be about eight workers to every two intellectuals in the party committees. How obsolete that suggestion seems today! Now we must wish for the party organisations to have one social-democratic intellectual to several hundred social-democratic workers.

And a year later:

It is abnormal that we should have only 6,000 party members in St Petersburg (in St Petersburg district there are 81.000 workers in factories employing 500 or more workers, 150,000 workers in all) … We must learn to recruit five times and 10 times as many workers for the party in such centres.

Lenin had to protect his followers from allegiance to What is to be Done?. His formulation there of the relationship between spontaneity and organisation still bedevils the movement. Yet in 1905 he clearly reversed his position:

The working class is instinctively, spontaneously social- democratic … extend your bases, rally all the worker social-democrats round yourselves, incorporate them in the ranks of the party organisations by hundreds and thousands.

The zigzags that led Lenin into conflict with the rest of the party leadership would have destroyed the party if Lenin had not insisted, from the beginning, that party rules be few in number and flexible in character.

Against red tape: for very general party rules

Lenin regarded party rules as matters of convenience, not something that ought to take great time and thought:

What is needed is not rules but the organisation of party information… Each of our local organisations now spends at least a few evenings on discussing rules. If instead, each member would devote this time to making a detailed and well-prepared report to the entire party on his particular function, the work would gain a hundredfold.

When he formulated the party rules in 1903, they were extremely simple and few – 12 rules, presented in 421 words. Yet even so, he found it necessary to break them on occasions.

Contrary to Lenin’s wishes, the new central committee – wholly Bolshevik after 1903 – began to try to conciliate the Mensheviks. After months of acrimonious correspondence, Lenin was to all intents and purposes ousted from the committee, which then recognised the authority of the wholly Menshevik Iskra editorial board. The committee denounced Lenin’s agitation for a new congress to settle accounts with the Mensheviks and dissolved the southern bureau. Lenin was deprived of his position as the central committee’s foreign representative, and his writings were not to be published without the committee’s sanction.

The southern bureau had been created by Lenin behind the back of the committee; it had no official status and served as Lenin’s mouthpiece in the call for a new congress.

Lenin now set about organising a new network of disciplined followers in Russia, regardless of rule six, which vested the right to organise committees solely in the central committee. With this organisation, he called for a new congress, a direct violation of the party statutes he himself had drawn up.

Take another example. At the Stockholm ‘unification’ congress (1906), the Mensheviks gained a majority on the central committee. Would Lenin now stick to the rule that local branches or committees of the party should be subordinate to the committee? Not at all. Now he called for the autonomy of party branches in deciding their own political line, and referenda of the members to replace decisions of the central bodies.

At the third conference of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (held in July 1907), in which Bolsheviks as well as Mensheviks were represented, a curious situation arose: all the Bolshevik delegates, with the sole exception of Lenin, voted in favour of boycotting the elections to the Duma. Lenin voted with the Mensheviks.  At the 1907 London congress of the united party, where Lenin got his way on practically every issue, an overwhelming vote was passed against armed robberies and expropriations in the interests of the party. A majority of the Bolsheviks voted with the Mensheviks. When delegates shouted: “What does Lenin say? We want to hear Lenin”, he, taking advantage of his position as chairman, avoided registering his vote – he only chuckled “with a somewhat cryptic expression.”  A month after the London congress, and notwithstanding its resolution, Lenin’s agents carried out the most audacious expropriation ever, that of the Tiflis Treasury – netting 341,000 rubles!

Or take the expulsion of Bogdanov, the leader of the ‘Left Bolsheviks’. In 1909, the party was split, and any attempt to call a conference or congress would probably have resulted in its destruction. The decline of the movement in the years of reaction had led to demorallsation. Lenin regarded the removal of Bogdanov, elected to the old Bolshevik centre at the 1906 London congress, as vital for the restoration of the party. Accordingly he summoned an entirely ad hoc body – an enlarged editorial board meeting of the Bolshevik journal, Proletary – and expelled Bogdanov. Lenin could not turn to active workers to get support for his stand against Bogdanov, so he made use of a very unrepresentative body for the same end. Many of Lenin’s supporters – even Stalin – criticised this apparently arbitrary act. He was wrong formally, but he saved Bolshevism from extinction in an ultra-left void.

Ultra-leftism thrives when revolutionaries are isolated from any real support in the working class. Since practically nobody is listening, why not resort to extreme revolutionary phrasemongering? Ultra-Lefts are formalistic, sterile and out of touch with reality – but how can one prove this without mass action? Lenin cut the knot by breaking the rules: organisational principles, for him, were always subordinate to concrete political tasks and what he saw as the main priority of the moment.

How did Lenin survive the conflicts with his own supporters?

Even taking into account the fact that we are not describing the political background to these events, nor the highly regular and disciplined nature of the rest of Bolshevik work, it might seem surprising that Lenin managed to survive as party leader. There were five main reasons for this:

1. The proletarian composition of the party. In 1905, workers were a majority of the party (62 per cent. In the period of reaction, intellectuals left the party in droves; few returned in the years of revival (1912 to 1914). A new exodus took place during the war years, so the Bolsheviks became more and more proletarianised in composition.

2. The youth of the party. In 1907, 22 per cent of party members were less than 20 years old; 37 per cent were between 20 and 24, and 16 per cent between 25 and 29. ‘Activists’ – defined as propagandists, public speakers, agitators or members of armed party detachments – were scarcely older. 17 per cent were under 20; 42 per cent between 20 and 24, and 24 per cent between 25 and 29. Delegates to the fifth congress of 1907 had an average age of 27. The average age of the nine leaders was 34 (and of the three eldest – Krasin, Lenin and Krasikov – 37).

The young were the innovators, self-sacrificing and energetic. They made it easier for Lenin to overcome the conservative resistance of the party.

3. Lenin’s reliance on the advanced sections of the class. Lenin knew that an overformal party structure inevitably clashed with the unevenness of consciousness and militancy within the revolutionary movement and within the party – so that some who had played the role of vanguard at one stage, fell behind at another. Lenin always looked to the advanced section of party workers for support against the conservatives.

At the time of the February revolution of 1917, the Petrograd Soviet’s executive had 11 Bolsheviks among its 39 members, yet no one opposed the formation of a bourgeois government. Stalin and Kamenev, returning from exile in Siberia, also supported the provisional government and ended the anti-war policies of the Bolsheviks. The party rank and file was much less unanimous. The Vyborg district in particular – an area of medium engineering and a well-organised Bolshevik base – publicly opposed the leaders, and called – in meetings attended by thousands of workers and soldiers – for soviet power.  Vyborg Bolsheviks demanded that the soviets immediately seize power and abolish the Assembly’s provisional committee.  However, the Petrograd committee banned the resolution, and the Vyborg district was forced to submit.

It was the support of the Vyborg Bolsheviks and other rank-and-file members that made it possible for Lenin to win the party so swiftly to his April Theses. When he first wrote them, he had no support among the leadership:

Not one Bolshevik organisation or group or even individual had joined him … “As for Lenin’s general scheme”, wrote Pravda, “it seems to us unacceptable, insofar as it proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is finished and counts on the immediate conversion of that revolution into a socialist revolution.”

Kamenev wrote in the paper that neither Pravda nor the bureau of the central committee accepted Lenin’s position.

Yet within two weeks, the tide was turning. The Petrograd city conference overwhelmingly endorsed Lenin’s condemnation of the provisional government, and a national Bolshevik conference then went on to do the same. In terms of formal democracy, Petrograd with its two million people, and even more the Vyborg district with its 170,000, were tiny minorities in the country. But in a period of revolutionary crisis, particular groups can have a disproportionate impact on the course of history. The Petrograd Bolsheviks might accept the April Theses; elsewhere Bolsheviks continued in alliance with the Mensheviks until July or August 1917. To give equal weight to Petrograd Bolsheviks and – say – Kharkov or Odessa Bolsheviks, would have meant adaptation to the backward.

4. The structure of the party. The leading bodies of the party – congresses, conferences, central committees – were quite small in size. For example, the 1903 conference had 57 delegates; the 1907 congress had 336 delegates (for 46,000 members); the April 1917 conference had 149 delegates (for 200,000 members). Prior to 1917, the central committee varied between three and 12 members; there were 22 at the time of the October Revolution, when the party had 270,000 members.

The congresses were long. The second (1903) lasted 25 days; the third (1905)16 days; the fourth (1906) 16 days; the fifth (1907)20 days, and the sixth (1917) nine days. The small size of congresses, and the length of time for which they met guaranteed serious debate on the real issues facing the party, strengthened its internal democracy, and helped keep it stable. A large conference held for a short time is more easily manipulated.

Long-lived factions were a rare phenomenon. The reason was not only the proletarian composition of the party, but also the institutional arrangements at congresses. Bogdanov’s was the longest lasting faction. It came into being at a time when the party was quite isolated from the working class, and lasted some three years.

5. Lenin as an administrator who detested red tape. Lenin was unique among revolutionary leaders in his careful attention to administrative detail. How unusual this was becomes evident if we compare him with, for example, the Polish Social-Democrats:

To a large extent each member of the elite acted on his own initiative and in accordance with his own predilections and habits. Orders were rare indeed; apart from exceptional cases … this haphazard informality was deliberate and jealously guarded. Some of the leaders very much disliked having to deal with money and organisation routine at all; it kept them from their writing … The same applied even more strongly to Rosa Luxemburg. At some stage a formal party decision was reached that she should not concern herself with organisational matters at all, that she should not participate in any of the official conferences of congresses.

Similarly, Trotsky was not involved in party administration, but for different reasons. He did not belong to any teal party between 1904, when he broke with the Mensheviks, and 1917 when he joined the Bolsheviks.

The Bolshevik administrative centre was most primitive. There were only three people in the secretariat during the 1905 revolution. This penny-ha’penny apparatus, together with conditions of illegality and the proletarian composition of the party, made it practically impossible for petty-bourgeois factionalism to develop. The party member was expected to participate in determining the general line of the party and to know the specific job he himself had to do. There was no place for the intense gossip group.

Lenin’s undogmatic attitude to centralism

A revolutionary party cannot intervene effectively in working-class struggle unless it is centralised and acts as a disciplined body. It cannot be sensitive to the needs of the advanced workers unless it is consistently democratic. Between the revolutionary party and the class, between centralism and democracy, there is a dialectical relationship. If one position is pushed to an extreme, it is possible to fall from the despotism of the common man to the impotence of the phrasemonger. Lenin was always ready to strengthen the central bodies, but without forgetting that the initiative, in the final analysis, lies with the masses, and the task of the party is not to stifle but to raise it.

Lenin knew that organisation had to be subordinated to politics. His genius in the field of revolutionary practice – in strategy and tactics – was the real pillar that established his hegemony in the party. Scientific understanding of the general movement of history, fortified by great sensitivity to the moods and aspirations of the workers, gave Lenin extreme confidence that the path he chose was right. Under such circumstances, of course. organisational rules and regulations appeared to him as of secondary importance to practice. Without the correctness of his conclusions, the ‘indiscipline’ of Lenin would have been no more than simple arbitrariness and caprice. Walking the narrow line between dogmatism and empiricism, Lenin. developed the practical essence of Marxism – including the question of organisation – to the highest concreteness ever achieved.

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