Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The question of questions

Lucio Magri

Problems of the Marxist Theory of the Revolutionary Party

It would be useless to try and find in Marx’s writings a complete and systematic theory of the proletarian party, its nature and characteristics, just as it would be useless to seek a fully worked-out notion of the concept of class. These are two important points of Marx’s thinking that were never fully developed. This should not, however, be taken to mean that there is not implicit in Marx’s work a definition of these concepts, which are essential to the logic and scientific fertility of his thought. Interpreters of Marx have often rightly said that the cornerstone of his thought is to be found in his critique not of a single philosophy but of all philosophy, not of a single utopia but of all utopian thought, admirably demonstrated in the Theses on Feuerbach. The object of this critique is the division between truth and history, being and thought, which after having dominated the whole history of man still remained undestroyed in the Hegelian system. Simultaneously, Marx’s critique bridged in principle and in fact all dichotomies between the facticity of history, left to its own immobility or contingency, and absolute ideals pursued independently of it (religious alienation) or abstractly superimposed upon it (enlightened utopianism).

But it is obvious from the form, the tone and the context of this critique (Eleventh Thesis: ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the problem, however is to change it’) that Marx refuses and indeed combats any interpretation of it that leads to historical irrationalism or to the false rationalism of determinism. On the contrary, his conscious intention is to found in theory and to promote in practice the action of man in history, as a subject of will and freedom following rationally arranged decisions and ends.

Marx’s Theory of the Proletariat

Marx in fact attempted, in a way consistent with the hypothesis from which he started, to resolve questions that had previously been posed on the purely speculative level by relating them to history and social reality. He sought in the latter and in their broad lines of development both the theoretical foundation for a non-metaphysical, non-objectivist science of man, and the concrete tendency and objective possibility for the realization of such a science.

Clearly, if this reality could be considered from a totally external and objective standpoint, as seems possible to the natural scientist, the problem would become much simpler. But it was Marx himself, in his critique of Feuerbach, who attacked as a ‘principal defect of every materialism’ that it conceived ‘the real object as it appears to the senses, only in the form of the object or contemplation; but not as a sensuous human activity, as practical activity, not subjectively.’ The essential aspect of dialectical method as developed by Marx is an analysis of reality which does not isolate it either from its process of formation, its relationship to the subject who knows it, or from the general context, the ‘totality’ within which it is inserted.

An investigation of social and historical reality that grasps its significance, tendency and value, while avoiding all forms of platonism and idealism, presupposes an identifiable basis in reality for it—a subject capable of this knowledge, whose nature and position in reality give birth to it. There must be, in other words, a subject for whom and within whom science and consciousness tend to coincide, and in their mutual dialectic give rise to the real process of knowledge as the unity of theory and practice. But is such a foundation of a science of society and man to be found in historical reality? The solution obviously cannot be sought in an abstract and half-historical definition of the nature and being of man. That would be a return to the shallows of dogmatic metaphysics and preclude the very basis of the dialectic to be established. If the concept of ‘man’ is replaced by that of real man, historically defined, then a solution appears even more distant. The capitalist society which Marx encountered in his analysis, and all the scientific and cultural thought which represented its consciousness, offered him the image of an individual who was, on the one hand, cut off from the social body, and thus by definition imprisoned in the narrow limits of a particular interest, a limited awareness, a practical impotence. On the other hand, the same individual was not yet master of science and technique, but remained subordinated to them, to the objective structures of production and the market, to society as his ‘second nature’. This individual, in other words, confronted society and history as autonomous forces, governed by their own necessity, which in their totality remained beyond the scope of knowledge.

However, no sooner had Marx’s analysis penetrated deeper in this direction, enabling him to identify the basic structure or underlying mechanism that determined the society (in other words capitalist relations of production as a generalized form of exchange and value) than the historical subject emerged in reality. This subject was a ‘being’ which intrinsically contained a critical consciousness of the given social totality, and the possibility of reconstructing this totality on a basis which allows man to achieve knowledge and control of the world which surrounds him. This subject-object, which ‘in the consciousness of itself reconstructs the science of society’ and which can consequently represent the objective basis of knowledge (and hence of the very analysis that had led to its identification) was the proletariat. The proletariat not in terms of—‘what this or that proletarian or the proletariat as a whole conceives as its aim at any particular moment, but of what the proletariat is, and what it must historically accomplish in accordance with its nature’. [1]

The proletariat, in fact, expresses and resumes the entire mechanism that regulates capitalist society. It represents in itself the nature of human labour as a commodity, the separation between man and work, and universal alienation (‘the possessing class and the proletarian class represents the same self-enstrangement’). But whereas the bourgeoisie—’feels itself nonetheless at home in this alienation, acknowledges its estrangement as its special power and enjoys in it the semblance of human existence, the proletariat on the other hand feels annihilated in its alienation, sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.’ [2]

The struggle of the proletariat against the class enemy and its liberation are therefore universal in a doubly radical sense. Firstly, in freeing itself, it must at the same time liberate the oppressing class, a prisoner of the very mechanism through which it rules. Secondly, and more generally, this liberation frees man from his separation from society and his subordination to the blind forces of history, making possible a society which has become ‘fully human’.

The proletariat is, moreover, both product and carrier of a historical dynamic in which the development of productive forces and the socialization of the process of production permit the overthrow of the existing social order and its reorganization upon a new basis. Indeed their contradictions demand it. In this way the revolution becomes not only possible but necessary—an unprecedented revolution which can for the first time begin the social integration of man and a conscious mastery over his historical destiny. This clarifies with a new light the transcendence of ‘philosophy’ in praxis. The proletarian revolution emerges as the founder of a form of knowledge that is ‘non-ideological’, of a universal culture, of a science of social reality. The truth it attains is subject to constant self-criticism within historical development, without thereby ceasing to be theoretically definable or true.

Party and Class

At the same time, this radical and universal character, which represents both the force and greatness of the working class, also implicitly contains a weakness. For the proletariat, in contrast to every class or social group that has preceded it, the revolution represents a process of transcendence and auto-suppression. The bourgeoisie, for example, had already defined its own nature and physiognomy within the context of feudal society. For it, the conquest of the state and the transformation of society represented the final ratification, the generalization of its class interests, producing in fact ‘bourgeois society’. The proletarian revolution, on the other hand, must give rise to a society without classes. As Lukács wrote: ‘The proletariat does not fulfil its task until it suppresses itself, until it reaches the goal of its own struggle and thus brings about the classless society.’ [3]

This process of auto-suppression cannot be confined only to the circumscribed ‘final’ phase, but rather is linked to the entire history of the class from its origins onwards. The development of capitalist society and the growth of a revolutionary crisis within it mean an ever more rigorous social subordination for workers, an intensification of alienation and social isolation. In its immediacy and its pure objectivity, therefore, the proletariat appears as the most faithful expression of capitalist reality, its most triumphant testimony. As a revolutionary class, on the other hand, or simply as a determinate united class, it does not have a purely ‘objective’ existence. Only through the mediation of a revolutionary consciousness of itself can it acquire effective reality. In the absence of such a consciousness, it remains no more than an objective possibility. Marx himself summarized this in the phrase: ‘The working-class is revolutionary or it is nothing’. [4] The instrument, the necessary locus of this ‘constituting consciousness’ is the party: ‘The proletariat cannot act as a class unless it is organized in an independent party.’ [5]

The principal characteristics, or at least the theoretical premises of Marx’s conception of the revolutionary party are now evident. This is not an empirically-based formation which guides a social group on the political plane, but rather the conscious vanguard by means of which the working class overcomes its own fragmentary and subaltern immediacy. It does not represent a mere ‘instrument of action’ in the hands of a pre-existent historical subject with its own precise character and goals, but instead represents the mediation through which this subject constitutes itself, defining its own aims and historic goal. Nor can this goal be conceived in abstract or static terms defined ab initio; on the contrary, the goal is itself a product of the developing consciousness of the class, formed through revolutionary practice. In this way the relation between party and class becomes entirely dialectical. On the one hand, the party and revolutionary consciousness are external to the class, or at least to its social immediacy; on the other, they cannot but remain part of the class, representing its awareness of itself, the practice which unveils its mysteries, the end-result of its real, historical maturation. For all these reasons, the revolutionary party represents by its very existence an operative critique of the bourgeois state and announces the overcoming of the split between political society and civil society, between man and citizen. In the party, politics itself becomes freed from all Machiavellian limits; power, in other words, becomes a means to positive social ends. The organization of the party is in turn shaped at all times by its role as an agent of transformation of men and society, as the prefiguration of a new and different social order.

The Limits of Marx’s Contribution

However, one aspect of the theory of the proletarian party, and by no means a secondary one, was never fully clarified by Marx. Confined to the immediacy of prevailing conditions, the proletariat cannot achieve a complete vision of the social system as a whole, nor promote its overthrow. Its practice as a class can only develop by transcending this immediacy via the mediation of revolutionary consciousness. What then is the process, the mechanism by which this consciousness is produced? Or, to pose the question more precisely: can this class consciousness develop within the proletariat spontaneously, by virtue of an intrinsic necessity, based on elements that are already present in its social objectivity and which gradually come to dominate over the other elements that originally condemned it to a subordinate and fragmented condition? Or must revolutionary consciousness represent a global transcendence of the immediacy of the proletariat, produced by a qualitative dialectical leap—a complex interaction between external forces and the spontaneous action of the class itself?

Marx did not confront this problem. Even if, as we shall see, his general conception of the proletarian revolution indirectly suggested a certain solution (that of the ‘external element’ rather than that of spontaneity), there is no doubt that many of his statements (important ones) can be used to support the opposite conclusion. This is certainly not a matter of small account; it is not by chance that it has been above all on this question that theoretical debate concerning the revolutionary party has been centred.

Bernstein’s Evolutionism and Anarchism

The spontaneist conception of class struggle had, and could only have, two rigorous versions: Bernstein’s evolutionism and anarchism. For if the constitutive elements of a revolutionary consciousness are to be sought in the social reality and experience of the proletariat, excluding all other sources, there are only two possible candidates for it.

Firstly, the consciousness of the worker as producer, the expression of modern productive forces, specialized labour and the socialization of production. Since it is itself the greatest of the forces of production, the proletariat must enter into contradiction with relations of production which obstruct its full development, and in turn demand new relations which allow a continuous and planned growth in production. From this standpoint, the proletarian revolution appears as a historical continuation without any sharp change of course or qualitative leap, in a process which is brought about essentially from within the structure of capitalism and thanks to it. The only new element introduced is the replacement of forms of property which have become anachronistic, a new distribution of income and planned regulation of production. The ultimate substance of the capitalist system, wage-labour and the relationship of exchange, are not and cannot be questioned within this perspective, since the worker as a producer already represents the quintessence of this substance. Accordingly, the objectives of the revolutionary offensive are the distribution of surplus value and the anarchy of the market system, not surplus value and exploitation as such. It follows logically that the proletarian revolution cannot represent anything more than a final point in the evolution of capitalism. The fundamental aspect of this evolution is seen as economic development. Revolutionary consciousness represents a mere reflection of this development, which at a certain point must assume the form of a critique of the institutional bases of the system. Here, then, we have logically arrived at Bernstein’s system—evolutionist or economist socialism, utterly deprived of any dialectical component. It is evident that the ‘historical and human significance’ of the revolution can only be reintroduced here in the abstract form of ethical values external to the historical process itself and posited as absolute ends, which take the form of Neokantian or Weberian idealism.

In the second case, again from within the spontaneous evolution of the proletariat in its immediacy, we can discern ‘pure protest’, the absolute negation of the established order and of the reduction of the human being to the status of wage-labour. On the basis of the experience of alienation of which he can be immediately conscious, the worker develops more conscious and radical forms of protest, extending his negation from that of the bourgeois order to every order, from alienated labour to all labour, from the laws which oppress him to all laws. Here we arrive at the anarchist solution, oscillating between primitive communism and individualistic forms of protest.

In either case, although in different ways, it is evident that spontaneism leads to a total liquidation of the Marxist conception of the revolution and of history.

Lenin’s Critique of Spontaneism

The political thought of Lenin, as a restoration of Marxism against the prevalent forms of both evolutionist opportunism and utopian anarchism, thus precisely had its point of departure in a radical critique of spontaneism. With good reason. For this critique of spontaneism was urgently demanded, as with the rest of Leninism as a whole, by the specific and concrete needs of the Russian revolutionary movement. The paralysing effects of evolutionist conceptions in a backward country where the proletariat was developing within the limits set by a pre-bourgeois society, are only too obvious; they condemned the working class to await the gradual accomplishment of the bourgeois revolution. On the other hand, is it not equally clear that if the Russian revolution were to take place in this backward context, its very immaturity would necessarily commit the working class to reorganizing production and a lengthy period of proletarian State power? Lenin confronted the problem, therefore, at its roots and proposed a far more radical solution than Marx had ever attempted. In his famous passage in What is to be Done?, he wrote: ‘There could have been no Social-Democratic (revolutionary) consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort is able to develop only trade-unionist 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.’ He concludes: ‘The spontaneous development of the working-class movement means the ideological enslavement of the workers to the bourgeoisie. Hence our task is to combat spontaneity.’ [6]

This was evidently sufficient to render the critique of spontaneism definitive, in all its forms. In this way Lenin restored the original significance of the Marxist theory of the party as the auto-negation of the proletariat, the transcendence of its immediacy, and the resultant conception of the revolution as a qualitative leap, a radical change of course, a new departure in the history of man.

However one cannot help noticing that the radical affirmation in What is to be Done?, upon which Lenin based his theory of the party, was not established in an entirely rigorous and satisfying way. Lenin himself, in fact, justified and Illustrated it with this quotation from Kautsky: ‘Socialism as a doctrine has its roots, of course, in modern economic relationships, just as the class struggle of the proletariat has. . . . But socialism and class struggle emerge side by side and not one out of the other; each arises under different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, for example, modern technology and the proletariat however much it wishes to do so, can create neither the one nor the other. Both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia . . . thus socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arises within it spontaneously.’ [7]

There is no doubt that an important truth is adumbrated in this passage, namely, an awareness that the external element, thanks to which the proletariat can escape from the shackles of its immediacy and constitute itself as a revolutionary class, must be identified in science and culture. If the proletariat represents a universal subject, if consciousness and science tend to combine within it and if its revolution is at the same time the foundation of a ‘human’ society and a true knowledge of society and history, then the revolutionary process and the affirmation of the proletariat as a class must permanently represent a search for truth and a real development of the history of thought which overcomes its traditional antinomies. The dialectic through which the proletariat constitutes itself as a class and acquires a revolutionary consciousness must, therefore, be based on the relationships between the proletariat and science, and the proletariat and culture. Marxism, as the revolutionary ideology of the proletariat, at the same time both a product and a critique of preceding thought, is the mediating element in this relationship.

Kautsky: An Enlightenment Schema

Yet in Marx, as we have seen, the concepts of science and consciousness, theory and practice, are conceived dialectically. Science is not knowledge of a purely objectified world, purified of all subjectivity, nor of social forms abstracted and separated from historical development; science is in fact part of history, the expression of a subject-agency itself concretely present in the reality it investigates. Science establishes, therefore, an objective form of knowledge, but a form that is continuously subject to self-criticism, constantly developing towards more comprehensive totalities. Revolutionary consciousness does not, for Marxism, resolve itself into an autonomous science, conceived and defined independently of class and class practice. In consequence, there is no sharp opposition between the party on the one hand, as depository of revolutionary consciousness, and the class on the other, destined to its immediacy and subaltern role right up to the moment of its own definitive suppression. On the contrary, revolutionary consciousness and the party represent for Marx truth or science at a specific stage in the development of the revolutionary practice of the proletariat. They are seen, therefore, as themselves part of a process and the truth they represent must be formed in organic connection with the life of the class and permanently subject to its criticism.

In the above-quoted passage from Kautsky, by contrast, these concepts appear separated and opposed to one another. Revolutionary consciousness is reduced to science, science of an objectified reality (capitalist society) and therefore produced exclusively on the intellectual level; while revolutionary practice is accordingly presented as the process of realization of this science. This regression to an Enlightenment schema had in fact grave consequences, and one can fully appreciate them in the figure of Kautsky himself.

For as soon as socialist consciousness is reduced to a ‘science of capitalist society’ or even, as is often the case, to an ‘economic science’, it can only lead to the idea of the objective necessity of socializing the means of production and a planned economy. The socialist revolution thus becomes no more than the final sanction of an inevitable process. The proletariat is summoned to merely reflect and accompany the evolution of objective forces and not, therefore, to construct and define a new social order, a new form of human life, but only to establish its ‘material basis’, its preconditions. The ultimate goal, the end of prehistory, the reign of liberty, are confined to an abstract future; they remain, and must remain, external to the process itself. It follows that the proletarian revolution is not at the same time the self-dissolution of the working class; these two processes are counterposed and separated in time. The overthrow of the capitalist system, and the construction of the new social order only appear superficially as the act of the proletariat; for in reality, behind the appearance, these actions come about through the operation of objective forces which are self-sufficient. We have once again, by a longer and more tortuous path, ended up at an evolutionist and economistic position, and hence at a new type of spontaneism. This was, in fact, precisely where Kautsky ended; hence his incomprehension of the ‘immature’ Bolshevik revolution and his liquidation of the concept of proletarian dictatorship.

Bolshevism: the Jacobin Limitation

Lenin never accepted this conception. The passage from capitalism to socialism was never for him an inevitable process, a fatality dictated by the objective forces of development within capitalist society. On the contrary, he argued that these forces were incapable even of carrying through the bourgeois revolution; while in their spontaneous development they would merely lead to a crisis of civilization, a new Dark Age. The action with which the proletariat intervenes in this process corrects its dynamic, introduces a new and positive solution. It interprets and realizes the intrinsic possibilities which history offers through its real movements, but represents nonetheless a choice, the expression of a free will. Revolutionary consciousness cannot, therefore, be simply a ‘science of capitalist society’ but must also be the creative practice of the proletariat in the process of its auto-suppression. It cannot be a science of the economy but must rather be a ‘critique of the economy’, just as it cannot be the mere product of preceding thought but also its supersession.

However, even if Lenin’s context differs completely from that of Kautsky, it is nonetheless the case that the counterposition of a socialist consciousness, carried and codified by the party, and the immediate reality of the working-class struggle is not fully overcome in What is to be Done?. This limitation has important repercussions on his general conception of the party, resulting in a permanent and insuperable danger of Jacobinism. For the party thereafter risks becoming the bearer of a revolutionary consciousness superimposed on the class and the agent of a delegation which cannot be contested; the class can then become the instrument of plans, which may correspond to certain of its ultimate goals, but in the elaboration of which it does not participate, while collaborating in their realization with only a partial understanding. The true participation of the masses in the revolutionary process runs the danger of becoming a movement of ‘protest’, of immediate agitation—the inevitable and characteristic obverse of Jacobinism—while its connection to general strategy remains the preserve and knowledge of the party.

Lenin was always the first to be aware of these limitations of the party he had built, and the dangers that consequently threatened it, and he conducted a strenuous theoretical and practical struggle to resist and overcome them. It is not by chance that he later carried out a deep and searching reconsideration of the formulations expressed in Materialism and Empiriocriticism, attempting through a re-reading of Hegel, to overcome every trace of natural-scientism and to restore in a rigorous way the dialectical method. Nor is it by chance that, particularly after the October revolution, he waged a tireless political struggle both against voluntarist extremism and against the rising tide of bureaucracy, the tendency to transform the dictatorship of the proletariat into the dictatorship of the party, against every separation from the life of the masses, and any arbitrary limitation of democracy within the class and the party.

Yet this struggle could not be concluded with a definitive victory; neither could the theoretical problem be fully overcome. These dangers constantly arose anew and had to be continuously resisted. For the limitation that they revealed was not merely a subjective one, but had its roots precisely in reality. They represented, in fact, the limits of Leninist theory only in so far as these reflected the objective limitations of the Russian revolution itself and hence of a particular phase of the world revolution. Lenin correctly believed the Russian proletariat had to carry out its own revolution, to conquer power prior to the full development of capitalist society, not only to guarantee the economic and social development of Russia, but also to resist the catastrophic logic of imperialism on a world scale and hence to open new possibilities for the world proletariat. Yet all this in no way diminishes the fact that such a revolution, in those given conditions, would be faced with serious difficulties. It meant, in the first place, conquering power on the basis of a real movement and a programmatic platform which were to a large extent extraneous to the socialist revolution. In addition, it involved a long period of power to complete historical phases not yet traversed and hence in which the goal of socialism was decipherable in the choices and actions of the ruling class only in a contradictory and by no means transparent way. Finally, it meant that the initial, decisive steps in the revolution stressed almost exclusively the most elementary and immediate interests of the masses, while the global significance of the revolution, in terms of the universal redemption it represented, had to be relegated to the background. Is it not clear that this very reality explains the genesis of a party that could never definitively eradicate a Jacobin limitation? It is in this context that we must understand why it was not possible fully to overcome the divorce between the party and the masses, why the party could not actively prefigure its own ultimate objective or express fully the universal positivity of its own revolution, and why it failed to sweep away permanently every bureaucratic growth and sectarian ossification.

Lenin, and the entire group of leading Bolsheviks, were so fully conscious of these difficulties and limitations, that even in the immediate exultation of the revolutionary victory they always stressed the partial nature of their work, relying indeed on the prospect of the revolution expanding beyond the frontiers of Russia, which would have given them greater possibilities and prospects in the context of more mature historical conditions. Even if they were later able to grasp with realism, with the exception of and against Trotsky, the problem of the isolation of the revolution, undertaking the gigantic task of ‘building socialism’ in one country, this did not, at least for a considerable period, make them lose sight of the grave implications involved in taking this obligatory course.

The conception of the party and its organizational practice, therefore, were conditioned even more than by Lenin’s gigantic work, by the weight of this ‘first breakthrough’, the difficulty of an isolated revolution that no theorist or militant had ever foreseen. In the realism of this conception of the party and in its renewed revolutionary rigour, there was nonetheless a limitation. Both the greatness and the limitation are again to be found interlocked, when we examine the concrete organization and leadership of the classical Leninist party.

If we consider briefly the critiques and appraisals of the Leninist conception of the party by the exponents of Western Left-Marxism, Luxemburg and Lukács, it is easy to see how, in the cultural and historical conditions of the period, no position more organic and fertile than that of Lenin could exist.

Luxemburg’s Attack and the Lessons of Germany

Rosa Luxemburg launched a decisive and substantial attack on Lenin’s position which remained, in spite of other fluctuating and contradictory aspects, a constant feature of her 20-year relationship with Bolshevism. Her first stormy response goes back to the appearance of What is to be Done? and One step forwards, two steps back. In her famous pamphlet Centralism and Democracy, she openly accused Lenin of holding a Blanquist, rather than a Marxist, conception of the party. According to Luxemburg, Lenin’s theory envisaged the party as a quasi-religious sect held together by military cohesion, distant and indifferent to the life and everyday struggles of the masses. From this she developed, on the practical level, a critique both of the centralist line that Lenin had proposed for the organization in Russia and of his claim that it was necessary to transfer the struggle against opportunism on to the organizational plane, rendering the direction of the party ideologically and politically homogenous.

However, while her opposition was above all polemical and aimed at certain specific and secondary features, at the harshness of some of Lenin’s formulations, it also was backed by a more substantial motivation, revealing in turn the way in which Luxemburg’s thought was linked to the spontaneist approach. For example, she wrote: ‘In its broad lines, the policies of Social-Democracy are not invented, but are the result of the great creative acts of the spontaneous class struggle, which is often elemental and always experimental. The unconscious precedes the conscious and the logic of the objective process precedes the subjective logic of its protagonists.’ [8]

This profession of faith in the spontaneity of the masses may seem astonishing in Rosa Luxemburg and must therefore be evaluated and defined in terms of her own particular version. She was already, in fact, at the time of the first Russian revolution the most serious and decisive antagonist of Bernsteinian opportunism and of its evolutionist premises. Hence, at a deeper level, she represented the first and in some ways the most rigorous theorist of the irreduceable ‘immaturity’ of the proletarian revolution, of the inherent ‘incompletion’ of the bourgeois revolution. Nor did she limit herself to an admission of this immaturity and incompletion as factual data from which to draw certain conclusions. She attempted to analyse their origins scientifically by reelaborating Marx’s schemas of reproduction and assigning an essential role to the pre-capitalist sector in the development and equilibrium of the system. Her conception was, therefore, faithful to that of the revolution as a qualitative change; it necessarily presupposed the revolutionary conquest of power and a party capable of transferring and unifying the spontaneous struggles of the workers into a concrete strategy on the political level.

How, then, could her spontaneist vision be combined with this unlikely foundation? It is my view that the basis of this paradox is to be found in the decisive role attributed, and exaggerated, by Rosa Luxemburg to the final crisis of capitalism in the revolutionary process, which she conceived as the economic impossibility of the system’s survival and as a cataclysmic collapse of its economic and social equilibrium. The very crisis that capitalism sets in motion, the dramatic tensions of the forces thereby released, leads the working class through a rapid and to a large extent spontaneous awakening to attack the system in its entirety. The very fact that such a crisis can only occur at a fairly advanced level of the productive forces, as a result of their mature development, provides the necessary conditions for the overthrow of capitalism to rapidly be transformed into a new order of society with a high and permanent degree of enthusiasm on the part of the working class and popular masses.

It is understandable, therefore, that at the time of the Russian Revolution Rosa Luxemburg repeated her critique of the Russian party organization and the Bolsheviks in power. In the ‘Blanquist’ character of the former and the dictatorial harshness of the latter, she saw in a negative light the reflection of a fundamental contradiction within the Russian Revolution itself. Her own solution was to confront and overcome this contradiction, without any concessions to ‘realism’, without slowing down the advance to socialism by compromises with the peasantry, without having recourse to any limitation of political liberties, relying entirely on the general and spontaneous mobilization of the force of the proletariat. [9]

These criticisms, which in themselves were clearly vitiated by adventurism, could only gain a certain consistency if based on the belief that the proletarian movement in Europe and in Germany was able and ready to resolve the political and social crisis of the historical moment in a positive direction. Yet it was precisely in Germany, where historical conditions seemed mature, that Rosa Luxemburg’s spontaneism was put to its most severe test. The crisis of the system, although acute, soon disappointed expectations of its final collapse. The German proletariat, abandoned to its own immediate action, became divided between opportunist policies and street protest with the result that it became dangerously isolated. The evidence of the facts thus made it abundantly clear that revolutionary action—above all in the West—was doomed to defeat unless it was guided by a united political organization with precise strategic objectives, capable of developing a perspective of social transformation, able to rally to its banner a vast and organic array of social and ideological forces.

Lukács’s Hegelianism

The objection made by Lukács to the Leninist theory of the party, in the most famous work of his youth—History and Class-Consciousness—apart from being formulated in a rather cautious and indirect way, differed in substance from that of Rosa Luxemburg. In the first place, Lukács accepted fully the whole range of political and organizational choices of which the Leninist party was the expression, including democratic centralism, the organizational struggle against opportunism, proletarian dictatorship, revolutionary breakthrough at the ‘weakest link’ and its implications. He took a clear position, with Lenin and against Luxemburg, against spontaneism, unequivocally affirming the dialectical character of revolutionary consciousness, the party’s role in mediating between theory and practice, the general character of the revolutionary process as the auto-suppression of the proletariat. But he attempted to establish those on different premises to those of Lenin. He did not hesitate to discuss and reject the theory of consciousness as ‘reflection’, and the separation between science and consciousness—which, as we have seen, were at least partly at the root of Lenin’s conception. In this sense, Lukács’s position appeared to represent a renewal of Marx’s formulation, reacting polemically against the prevalent positivist trend by way of a return to Hegel.

However, his hidden passion for Hegelianism and the rigidity of his dialectical approach led Lukács into a blind alley, above all with regard to the problem of the relationship between party and class. For his vision of the revolutionary process as a rigorous opposition between a ‘pure capitalism’ and its proletarian antagonist, rejecting the positivist interpretation of this distinction and hence also its spontaneist solution, prevented him from establishing and analysing the various dialectical processes through which the proletariat could overcome its immediacy. His subjectivist dialectic, as Merleau-Ponty once pointed out in a perceptive critique, prevented Lukács from understanding or taking account of the ‘opaqueness and concreteness of real history’; he was unable to trace the elements within the complex reality of bourgeois society which could lead to its supersession and hence could not identify the preconditions for a different conception of the party. The proletariat came to be represented in its revolutionary aspect as pure negativity, as the antithesis of capitalism; Lukács accordingly failed to grasp the process by which the positivity of a new civilization can emerge from this negativity. All this will become clearer, when we analyse the line of reasoning developed by Gramsci in response to the same problems.

It will suffice at this stage to note that this theoretical impasse, which forced Lukács constantly to regress to the spontaneist positions he rejected, condemned hin to isolation within the working class movement during these crucial years: it prevented him from throwing any light on the immediate tasks of the European proletariat and eventually led to his own self-criticism. This was a famous self-criticism, conducted in the face of the rather schematic and dogmatic positions of Zinoviev, [10] but nonetheless to which Lukács was driven by the realization that within the terms of his theory he was incapable of inserting himself into the real movement, of opening up new paths for the revolution. This early work, so brilliant in many respects, but condemned and renounced, thus remained to provide suggestions and clues for unsolved problems, to stimulate analysis and research, that could only be undertaken much later and in a new context. At that particular moment and in relation to these particular critics, the Leninist line remained, in spite of its own limitations, hegemonic and unsurpassed.

How far can we attribute this theoretical failure of Western Left-Marxism to the immaturity of the objective situation? How far did ‘socialism in one country’ represent an obligatory course, a necessary first phase? These questions would lead us far; but it is indeed difficult to see as mere accident the fact that only a few years later, in a new historical context and in the isolation of a prison cell, a Marxist was able to confront on a new basis the problem of the party and to propose new solutions.

Gramsci: Proletariat and Culture

Antonio Gramsci was the most important, perhaps the only, Marxist to have confronted in the fullest theoretical terms the thematic imposed on the revolutionary movement by its rapid defeat in postwar Western Europe and by the corresponding rise of conservative and reactionary forces. He was above all the only Marxist to have traced back the origins and significance of these events within the social reality and historical traditions of Western Europe, thereby reconstructing a new and adequate revolutionary theory. The premise of this theory lay in his realization that Western society represented an infinitely more articulated and complex structure than that of Czarist Russia, and hence demanded a different type of revolutionary strategy.

Working in prison conditions and in spite of the poverty of materials available, Gramsci attempted a historical reconstruction of Italian history and a searching analysis of the society thereby produced. His thought was focussed on two principal problems: that of the relationship of the proletarian revolution to previous history (which seemed to him one of both development and reversal), and that of the complex articulation of bourgeois society, in its various forces, dimensions and tendencies. Each of these in turn led him to the problem of the autonomy of the superstructures. In the first case, it was necessary to affirm the autonomy of the superstructures in relation to the ‘base’, when research revealed the survival of ideas, values and conceptions long after the historical periods when these originated and the structures which gave them meaning had disappeared. In the second case, research showed that the total reduction of the whole of bourgeois society, of all political and cultural forces present, to the class basis that determined them was simplistic and erroneous.

Both Lukács and Gramsci took up the struggle against positivism, reaffirming human agency in history conceived as a dialectical process, and the character of proletarian revolution as an action giving birth to a truly human society. In Gramsci’s case, however, the argument follows a path quite different to that of Lukács and in several respects crucially opposed.

Lukács developed his argument through a rigorous analysis of the capitalist mechanism of reification and the theoretical antinomies it engenders, locating the proletariat both as the victim and radical negation of this mechanism. Gramsci, on the other hand, set out to trace back through history and in contemporary social reality the attempts that failed, the tendencies which were defeated, the aspirations towards the new society that had been crushed. All these tendencies, attempts and hopes towards universality and freedom had been corrupted and deformed within class society, taking the form of theoretical inconsistencies, scientific incongruities and irreducible utopianisms. Yet in the event of the rise of a new and liberating social force, that of the proletariat, these would become fertile antecedents of the revolution.

It may be the case that Gramsci did not establish this line of research rigorously enough on the philosophical plane. It is also possible that he failed to draw out its full implications in relation to the Marxist conception of history and above all in relation to the history of capitalism. Yet this research was carried out with such interpretative genius and based on such convincing analyses that it remains an extremely fertile source for the solution of many decisive problems. Among these, special importance must be attached to the way in which Gramsci developed his theory of the party.

Gramsci upheld, like Marx, the theory of the revolution as a qualitative leap, as an overturning of history and hence a theory of the party as the auto-suppression and global transcendence of the social immediacy of the working class. Like Lenin, on the other hand, he also believed in the necessity of an ‘external element’ as a precondition for this transcendence and identified this element in the relationship between the proletariat and the intellectuals. It was precisely this line of enquiry that enabled him to provide a new and rigorous foundation for this relationship and to formulate it in dialectical terms.

The Function of Intellectuals

The intellectuals, for Gramsci, represent the most organic and mature expression of traditions, values, ways of thinking and moral outlook, widely diffused throughout society and operative within it. All these superstructural elements and accretions have their own autonomous force. In other words, they also represent for Gramsci projects and ideals, expressing an aspiration to universality, of which they are robbed by the class society that imprisons them. It follows that intellectuals, in relationship to the proletariat, do not so much illuminate with the light of science the path to the revolution, as fulfil a mediating role between two existing historical realities, which have a reciprocal practical impact on each other: the social immediacy of the proletariat and culture in the broadest sense of the term. Revolutionary ideology and the party which expresses it come to represent the product of the dialectic between these two elements, which themselves undergo a transformation through this dialectic. Hence revolutionary ideology expresses and summarizes in progressively more organic forms the whole of preceding history, all values present in social reality; to each new level it attains, there corresponds a new level in the reality of the class itself. In this way, the proletariat achieves its historical liberation from the limits of its immediate existence, constituting itself as a class and suppressing itself in the same process.

Two crucially important consequences follow from this theory of the nature of class consciousness and of the party; both are clearly present in Gramsci’s own work. In the first place, the party necessarily comes to be seen as a hegemonic force, a vanguard within a wide and complex articulation of social, political and ideological forces. The party expresses the process of self-suppression of the proletariat, a development towards universality. This process appears as the progressive assumption on the part of the proletarian revolution, in new and coherent forms, of every fertile tendency in previous history and in present society. This means that the party in turn must exercise an ever wider hegemony in relation to the forces which these values, in their original form, expressed. This hegemony, which consists not only of influence in the field of ideas but also real action aimed at the transformation of society, tends to surpass the structural foundations of preceding culture and ideologies and to recompose them in an entirely new revolutionary perspective.

Secondly, the party is not in Gramsci the possessor of scientific truth established ab initio and simply applied in various ways to different historical situations, but represents instead the means of elaborating that type of truth which is continuously subject to self-criticism. This is what Gramsci termed the ‘historicity of Marxism’. He did not limit this historicity, as Lukács did, [11] to the confines of a hypothetical period when the structural foundations of class society would be overcome, but extended it to the entire revolutionary process, which therefore appears as the radical prefiguration of the new society, the progressive unfolding in nuce of proletarian positivity and universalism. [12] The party is firstly a hegemonic force; secondly, a prefiguration. These are the two novel and characteristic features of the Gramscian theory. We may add that, in terms of this theory, it becomes possible to eradicate, both at the theoretical and the practical levels, every ‘Jacobin’ limitation in the organization of the vanguard, and every instrumentalization or limitation of the action of the masses to elementary demands.

For if revolutionary consciousness is the constantly renewed product of the relationship between the proletariat and culture, if this relationship is conceived and established on a dialectical basis, then at every moment the party cannot but become an expression, a part, of the reality of the class with which its evolution is linked. It is nourished by this relationship with the class; it expresses its real potentialities and it is permanently subject to its criticism. If, at the same time, the party is the prefiguration in progressively clearer form of the future society, its link with the masses becomes above all a relationship of transformation and education, a continuous effort within existing society to build up tensions and aspirations for its radical re-ordering. Mass demands no longer have an extrinsic relation to the revolutionary perspectives of the party, remaining only partially conscious and hence instrumentalized by it. This relation is now achieved through an organic process, which generalizes movements and tendencies which are themselves already potentially homogenous. The key moment in the revolutionary process, that of the conquest of power, is thus freed of its ‘Machiavellian’ connotations, becoming instead the natural and necessary means of carrying out a positive social transformation whose content and goals are fully and openly expressed.

By now it will have become clear that Gramsci’s development of the Leninist theory of the party and his attempt to overcome its historical limitations was carried out in a way entirely opposed to that of Social Democracy. For this theory did not seek to minimize the vanguard character of the party, its total opposition and antagonism to the system; on the contrary, it developed the concept of the vanguard even more rigorously, stressing the capacity of the party to imprint every particular struggle with universal value, to orient it within a global strategy towards the explosion of the system. In this way, without ever separating the periods before and after the conquest of power, without ever dogmatically postulating particular forms of State control, Gramsci’s theory nonetheless remains indivisible from the concept of revolutionary crisis and the dictatorship of the proletariat. It clearly distinguishes between a capitalist and a socialist society by the replacement of the ruling class and the transformation of the system of ownership. Through their character as prefigurations and the common goal towards which they advance, successful partial struggles create disequilibria and crises within the existing system and point towards a new leadership of the State and a new ordering of society.

Gramsci’s conception, therefore, underlines the need for a vanguard party, which represents both a ‘collective intellectual’ and a hegemonic force, combined with the characteristics of cohesive unity and homogenous will, those of the ‘Modern Prince’ which is capable of organizing and leading a wide section of the population. [13] A party, in other words, with its own hierarchical structure and a real discipline, which through the behaviour and lives of its leaders and militants shares with the class their common destiny of sacrifice and struggle, never becoming part of the ruling stratum, never becoming one bureaucracy alongside others, but always representing a critique of existing society.

The Western European Context

Yet the Gramscian conception of the party can scarcely be understood unless considered in relation to the more advanced development of capitalist society. Gramsci himself brilliantly anticipated this development, seeing the first traces of it in the ‘Ford revolution’ in America, while in Europe it only assumed clear shape after the collapse of fascism. Clearly it is not possible here to give a full analysis of the relationship between neocapitalist society and the Gramscian theory of the revolution and the party. But at least in order to clarify what has so far been said, we may summarize briefly the following phenomena:

a) Firstly, advanced capitalism results in a new social physiognomy of the proletariat. The frontiers of this class become enormously widened and it comes to represent a growing proportion of society. But at the same time differentiations within the class become accentuated, in terms of wages, modes of life and productive roles. On the other hand the system tends more and more, and with increasing efficacy, to subordinate the private consciousness of workers to its own criteria. ‘Consumer consciousness’ and ‘mass culture’ are only the external manifestations of this phenomenon. In reality the mechanisms of production, the atomization of work, the subordination of the individual to the firm, all operate to produce this disaggregation of the personality, aided and assisted by consumption and mass culture. Clearly, then, it becomes increasingly difficult to realize class unity at the immediate, sociological level. It becomes illusory to rely on a spontaneous conflict in the person of the worker between his human needs and his subjection to wage slavery. It follows that, even more than in the past, class unity and revolutionary consciousness are inconceivable without the mediation of political organization and an independent ideology.

b) The contradictions, social movements and interests upon which the revolutionary movement can build are themselves profoundly altered. The great slogans with which the proletariat struggled for power in the past (democratic legality, defence of the republic, peace, peasant property) were not of a directly socialist kind or were socialist only in an elementary sense (full employment, struggle against poverty, redistribution of income and so on). These objectives acquired revolutionary value to the extent that the system was incapable of satisfying them and they could therefore lead to the overthrow of the State and of the structure of private ownership.

But in advanced capitalism this state of affairs has changed. The system has succeeded, at least in the West, not only in unifying under its tutelage the whole of society, but also in ensuring a relative growth in productive forces, in satisfying the elementary needs of the masses. The character of the proletariat and the mechanisms of exploitation are by no means alleviated but are more fully developed, expressing themselves in new ways. For the first time, the fundamental contradiction of the system moves to the forefront: the contradiction between use value and exchange value, or production as an end in itself and the reification of man, labour and consumption. To activate this contradiction in society into real tensions, the mediation of consciousness, the active presence of an alternative ideology and human possibility of counteracting these ruling mechanisms, is necessary. In other words, what is needed is not only a proletariat, but an organized proletariat, with a class consciousness that is a new and antagonistic conception of the world. The proletarian party can no longer guide and channel existing subversive movements and tendencies naturally produced by society towards the objective of seizing power. It must instead, through its capacity to prefigure the future society, give form, consciousness and social reality to contradictions and needs which in their very nature would otherwise remain latent and unformulated.

c) To the extent that advanced capitalism brings to the forefront the fundamental contradiction of the system, it comes to appear more openly and coherently as the negation of human needs and freedom, as the pure reduction of man to the blind and irrational mechanisms of accumulation. This in turn means that the tension between the existing system and the ideal values, cultural traditions and moral codes passed down from history acquires a radicalizing potential that was formerly impossible. The dialectic between the proletariat and culture, through which the revolutionary party develops, finds in this way new objective foundations; revolutionary ideology can accordingly assume its fullest and most universal shape.

But no sooner is the revolutionary element present and an alternative conception diffused, than a series of movements autonomously take shape at different levels, which from their own specific viewpoints prior to any critical synthesis, exercise pressure on the system and already postulate its overthrow. This is of crucial importance for the revolutionary party, which is thus no longer hegemonic in political terms alone, but also represents the synthesis of an articulated ensemble of autonomous movements. It is precisely within this ensemble that the future self-regulating society is prefigured, in which political power is not a substitute, but rather a synthesis, of the various moments of civil life.

These few observations should suffice to show that the new conditions of western capitalist societies render both necessary and possible the idea of the revolution and the new party that Gramsci first attempted to define.

To state that this is necessary and possible is not, however, to say that it is easy or assured. To develop an articulated revolutionary strategy, to renew the organization and content of the Leninist party without attenuating but rather deepening the gulf that separates the proletarian movement from the barren opportunism of Social Democracy, represents in practice an extremely difficult task. This is a problem which can only be solved in terms of political line and general ideological conception. On both these levels, it is above all a question of elucidating the nature of a communist society. Without a clear and operative theory of a future order, the concept of the new party itself becomes empty and corrupted.

This does not alter the fact that the ‘new party’ can and must, like the Leninist party, have its own specific structure and mode of functioning; nor does it mean that this problem becomes a secondary one, derived from that of the political line. In reality, these two aspects condition one another; only a revolutionary line guarantees the best structure for the party, but the line itself emerges and can be corrected only through the building and guiding role exercised by the party itself.

It may be opportune, therefore, in concluding this study, to attempt briefly to analyse those specific characteristics of the structure and function of the party, which are connected to the more general theories of its nature. In particular, we shall examine the relationship, in this respect, between classical Leninist principles and those which can govern the ‘new party’.

The Leninist Party

The principles upon which the Leninist party was based, in harmony with its theoretical premises, were above all these: class party, party as vanguard, party as a means of combat, hence unity and discipline. Not only can these principles, in renewed form, continue to govern the revolutionary party of the new type. They can also be extended and made more coherent in practical application than was possible in the past.

We have already seen why the ‘new party’, like the Leninist type, is an organization of the working-class. This is true first of all in the sense that both interpret the revolutionary vocation that only the proletariat contains in itself. In the second place, in both cases the party is conceived as the vanguard formation of the working class, recruiting the majority of its cadres from this class, to which it must constantly adapt its own forms of life. In this connection it should be noted that Gramsci’s supersession of the idealist counterposition of an enlightened vanguard embodying ‘science’ and an inchoate class in its fragmented immediacy, enabled him to grasp with exceptional vigour the relationship of unity/distinction which must at all times unite party and class, guaranteeing to both an active and creative role.

However, on the level of practice, it is clear that the class character of the ‘new party’ is more severely endangered than before. The very fact of representing the hegemonic force of a widely articulated social movement, of intervening actively in the existing social formation and political institutions, continuously increases the pressure towards opportunist political-organizational solutions. Thus, the party may be driven to become the ‘expression of several different classes’ and thus tempted to reduce its platform to a minimum common denominator which can hold these forces together. At the same time, it will be menaced by a tendency to bureaucratism and insertion of its cadres at all levels into the system, sharing the outlook and habitual viewpoint of the ruling class.

These dangers underline the decisive importance of certain organizational choices (selection of cadres, ideological education, role of the party at the factory level) which together can prove crucial in counteracting bourgeois pressures within existing society. More complex, however, is the problem of the organization of the party as a vanguard in the new historical situation.

Mass Party or Cadre Party?

For the Leninist party this problem was, in fact, a relatively simple one. The party was an organization of cadres, with great discipline and a high level of consciousness, whose tough selection, arduous trials, and long apprenticeship consolidated its own vanguard character.

The ‘new party’ on the other hand, as we have pointed out, is a mass party. Is this new physiognomy really compatible with the vanguard principle?

If solutions to this problem are not to be formal or merely dictated by convenience we must bear in mind several elements. First of all, it is obvious that nothing can ensure that the quantitative growth of numbers in a party will not dissolve its vanguard character. In the second place, it may happen that the very determination to preserve a vanguard character to a party results in a loss of its mass character. In other words, the division between leaders and led, between the vanguard and the masses, which externally constituted the limitation of the classic Bolshevik party, may now tend to reproduce itself, this time within the party itself. Finally, the mass character of the party can produce its own negative symbiosis, de facto, with other class organizations, such as trade unions, with grave consequences for the autonomy of both.

The undoubted difficulty of uniting in a higher synthesis the characteristics of both a mass party and a cadre party leads in turn to the final and most thorny problem: the internal functioning of the party, its own democratic life and its leadership. The Marxist revolutionary party is by definition, as we have seen, a practical reality, an organization which lives and develops in close relation to its work of transforming men and society. Within it, theory, ideology, propaganda, agitation and struggle are moments in a continuum, a process which has no ‘prior moment’.

Lenin drew from this premise two decisive practical consequences. Firstly, it is essential that the party should act with a single will. It should define its own objectives democratically, but subsequently act without reservations, uncertainties or divisions. Secondly, to define and judge the presence of the party in society, a criterion of practical efficacy is necessary; in other words, besides a doctrine, the party must possess an operative strategy and tactics, which it implements unitarily in its day-to-day practice.

This vision of the party as an organic body, as the transcendence of individuality, as the first step in the surpassal of the opposition between individual and society, dominated the life of the Bolshevik party in every sphere. Above all, it produced the two fundamental principles which governed the party: revolutionary militancy and democratic centralism.

Two Models of Militancy

By the term revolutionary militancy we mean here a particular relationship between the member and the party, which distinguishes Bolshevism from any other type of political formation. This relationship is not limited to one of mere formal delegation by the ‘citizen’ of his own political interests to the party. Hence it does not sanction the division between private and public spheres, nor does it allow substantial absenteeism by members with the corresponding domination of a bureaucratic-representative apparatus. On the contrary, it is based on the involvement of the whole personality of the militant, involving his life-long conception of the world in the complex work of building the new society. It becomes itself, therefore, a new way of being men and entering into contact with other men.

It should be emphasized that this relationship is not conceived by Leninism as a sacrifice or suspension of personal freedom. On the contrary, the insertion within this complex collective will constitutes the necessary step towards the real foundation of such freedom. What alternative ways exist, in fact, for the worker to influence the course of history, to become a man? By what other means can a revolutionary intellectual insert himself into reality, give a coherent sense to his life, if not by becoming part of a collective will to transform the world to the measure of men? This in turn provides the basis for a new conception of discipline, which is not only the product of the need for efficacy, but which itself becomes an act of freedom. For it is no longer a sacrifice, a limitation of a person existing independently of his revolutionary involvement, but rather an act constituting the freedom of a person who can find means of expressing himself only through this real involvement, in order to give his own work a total perspective, to avoid the despair of powerlessness, the disgust of isolation.

Nonetheless, in its original form in Bolshevik experience, this conception of militancy, despite the rigorous and noble forms it could attain, was subject to a limitation imposed by the Jacobinism that menaced the party. For the party remained oriented almost exclusively to the goal of conquering power, with an imperfect capacity of expressing in an articulated way the positive content and direction of a liberated social life.

The involvement of the militant thus became at certain moments a pure dedication to the revolution, which effaced his own needs and his own specific vocation, resulting in limited tasks of execution, the deeper sense of which consisted of the mere fact of doing them for the revolution. The separation between the public and private spheres, between the integral personality and the citizen, could therefore only be overcome to a large extent by the suppression of one or other of the two moments. Militancy and discipline remained acts of freedom in as much as involvement was freely accepted. But the choice of ideal goals and objectives was related to individual political practice only in an ultimate and dissociated way and hence required a mediation of a moralistic type.

In the ‘new party’ this limitation both can and must be overcome, without detracting from the principle of militancy and total involvement of the person. If the party is capable of progressively defining the concrete development of the society for which it is fighting, in positive and articulated social struggles, then revolutionary militancy must signify the involvement of each and every personal ability, vocation, and talent, before the conquest of power. The roles of militant and social being must tend to coincide. Even if this cannot be fully the case in the context of capitalist society, nonetheless revolutionary work must already be able to involve and valorize the real individual capacities of the person. In this way militancy loses all abstract character or moralistic framework and while it continues to involve a radical choice, a complete rupture with surrounding society, it does not involve the suspension of the private moment but its qualification and insertion within common goals and perspectives.

The Question of Democracy

Thus every discussion of the party, its leadership, and the effective militancy of all its members, always leads in the last instance to the fundamental problem of internal democracy. This is not primarily an institutional question, but one of political line and ideological objectives. The degree of democracy within a party is a function of the consensus it achieves: in other words, its ability to express the general will of its individual members and actively to insert each of them within a collective practice common to all. Without a correct line, which can interpret the concrete possibilities of both objective situation and subjective consciousness and translate them into appropriate aims and initiatives, there can be no possible solution to the problem of internal party democracy. Every tendency of critical debate will tend to produce factionalism and paralysis; every centralizing move will result in bureaucratic degeneration. In either case, effective political life is limited to a leading élite, while the mass of members is restricted to taks of execution or arbitration in disputes which remain external to their own preoccupations and understanding.

But the political line and ideology of a revolutionary party are not fixed for ever. Nor are they largely deducible from first principles. They must always be the product of critical research and political invention. This research cannot be undertaken without experiments, approximations, choices between various solutions available. An internal institutional system is necessary which both permits and promotes real debate, while at the same time preventing it from becoming an end rather than a means, thus compromising any unitary outcome and paralysing the life of the party. Lenin’s answer to this aspect of the problem was his conception of democratic centralism. This system consists of a number of closely linked propositions which can be schematically outlined here.

The ‘centralist’ moment safeguards the unified direction of the party, which commits every militant both to a disciplined implementation of the general line once it is decided, and to the specific tasks determined by it. The ‘democratic’ moment, on the other hand, guarantees that the party line will be arrived at by means of a free and open confrontation of ideas, with the adoption of the theses which gain a majority.

Every counterposition of these two moments is erroneous and disastrous. Centralism of direction is not possible without a democratically determined line. In its absence, decisions will either be taken by a single leader (cult of personality in its various forms and shades), or the line will be the fruit of ambiguous and imprecise compromises, which produce a multiplicity of interpretations and deviations in practice. On the other hand, democracy without strong unitary cohesion, without collective discipline in work, inevitably results in the formation of organized groupings, with links of internal solidarity, which thereby paralyse debate and research.

In the different phases of the life of a party, for objective and functional reasons, these two moments have a different relation to one another, without ever becoming separated. In congresses and discussion campaigns the democratic moment must necessarily be foremost. Such phases permit not only debate on the general line of the party, but a discussion that is not confined to a hierarchy of ‘units’ at various levels (political bureau, central committee, regional committees and so on), but is situated within the framework of the organization as a whole. The entire party can thus become conscious of alternative possibilities and take part in developing the line, and not be merely called upon to accept or reject it. In normal times, on the other hand, the party is committed for a given period to the line adopted, and must democratically decide on its application. In general, this demands unitary implementation of decisions by the organisms which have adopted them and in respect of which there can be no individual appeal in the face of the party. At the same time, political debate at every level and in every situation must be closely related to practical initiative and experience—not merely to render it effective and constructive, but also to ensure that it really is democratic. For only thus can every member, every individual ability and experience—not only leading or intellectual cadres—participate actively in determining the line of the party.

It is evident that this system of principles was rigorously applied in the Bolshevik party at least until the death of Lenin and even for a few years after his death. Despite the fact that the extremely difficult historical conditions of the Civil War obliged Lenin to demand certain restrictions on the freedom of debate at the Tenth Congress, this remained substantially in operation. The restrictions themselves were conceived as temporary measures due to an exceptional situation. Nevertheless, independently of the errors and deformations of Stalinist practice, the historical situation in which the building of socialism was begun contained limitations and mechanisms which were soon to make the full exercise of democratic centralism difficult, if not impossible.

Two elements were decisive in this context. The first was the relationship which must always link party democracy to democracy in general. If and when the dictatorship of the proletariat assumes of necessity particularly rigid forms, limiting the expression and organization of dissent within society and the State, this inevitably has repercussions on the internal democracy within the party. Every open and organized debate in the party risks becoming the reflection of diverse social forces, expressing tensions which have no other outlet, which lead to a multiplicity of political tendencies and hence to a disintegration of the party and collapse of its institutional framework. Lenin was the first to see these difficulties.

Secondly, the relationship which the Bolshevik Party was obliged to maintain with the masses was a grave obstacle to inner-party democracy. The party came to power on the basis of a movement in which socialist consciousness was rather limited. It was forced to build a new society in conditions of enormous backwardness and under the pressure of massive hostile forces. Its working-class base was still small, and its membership was largely composed of cadres only. All these factors soon led the party to demand from its members a delegation of powers and a faith that was often uncritical and unconditional. This internal relationship between the leadership and the mass of its members impeded any full exercise of democratic centralism. One section of the party ceased to participate actively in political decisions. Open and critical debate, which might from time to time divide the leading group, thereafter risked undermining the fidelity of the base, appearing to them as a ‘scandal’, not a factor of normal life and development. These objective limitations, as we know, took a heavy toll in the internal life of the Bolshevik party in the Stalinist period.

The Gramscian conception of the new party implies and permits the supersession of these limitations. It is a prefiguration of the new society as the hegemonic element in a political and social bloc united for the positive construction of socialism. It thereby makes possible new forms of proletarian dictatorship, and represents not only a restoration of the Leninist concept of democratic centralism, but its genuine and developed application. The Gramscian party is a development of the Marxist-Leninist concept of the party which has its roots in the real conditions of Western society, but which also represents a gain in truth, a more advanced form of revolutionary theory.


The problem of organization—the classical problem of the party—has recently been the focus of intense theoretical debates and bitter political struggles, throughout the world. The student movement everywhere, the May Revolt in France, the working-class upsurge in Italy, the New Left in USA, have not only challenged the policies and structure of the traditional Left. They have put in question the very idea of party and trade-union, the inherited relationships between spontaneity and organization, leaders and masses. In another part of the world, the major historical phenomenon of the Cultural Revolution in China has posed the same issues, in different conditions yet with even greater force. The above essay on the Marxist theory of the party was written in 1963. Its publication in English today, after such important upheavals, therefore raises the question of the extent to which the ideas contained in it are still valid. This postscript for nlr will provide a brief answer.

Re-reading my essay, I have experienced very contradictory feelings. On the one hand, the essay seems to me an accurate exposition of some aspects of the Marxist tradition. More than this. Its political inspiration is one I regard today as fundamentally correct. For in effect, the essay was a critical reflection not only on the authoritarian-bureaucratic degeneration of the Stalinist parties, but also on the ‘Jacobin’ limitations already implicit in the Leninist theory of organization. This critique was not based on spontaneism or democratism: it sought in social reality the objective foundations for a concrete dialectic through which the working class could surpass the limits and contradictions of its immediate consciousness. The theme of the essay is patently: how can the false alternative spontaneism/jacobinism be overcome?

To this extent, I think that it anticipated the problems and preoccupations of the mass movement of later years. Not only this: it tried to avoid certain ingenuous solutions to these problems, whose risks the movement was to discover at the cost of a number of defeats.

At the same time, read precisely in the light of the events that have occurred since, my essay now appears to me profoundly unsatisfactory. Above all, there is a manifest contradiction between the general theoretical approach of the first two-thirds of the essay, and the final application of this to the concrete problems of a modern revolutionary party. In the concluding sections, the effort of critical reflection on the traditional Leninist conception of the party (in particular its internal régime: democratic centralism) is largely abandoned and virtually all the organizational principles of the Bolshevik Party are recuperated. There is only a somewhat more ‘open’ and ‘democratic’ interpretation of them. Now it is certainly true that this contradiction was in part due to tactical considerations. I was at that time a militant in the Communist Party, engaged in a political struggle one of whose most important and sensitive objectives was precisely an enlargement of the internal democracy of the party. It thus seemed opportune to recall and emphasize that many democratic elements of Lenin’s theory and practice were later restricted or liquidated in the Stalinist epoch. Their mere restoration would thus have meant in itself a rupture with the ideas and habits of the present Communist Parties. Today, this tactical proccupation seems much less important to me: not only because I am no longer a militant within the pci, but because experience has shown that a rebirth of revolutionary forces in the West, not to speak of the Communist Parties themselves, will be the result of mass upsurges and theoretical audacity—not the slow reconquest of apparatuses.

This is not, however, the essential point. For there was much more than a mere political tactic involved in the contradiction of which I have been speaking. I am now conscious that there was a fundamental error: the persistence in me of a conception of the party as a ‘totality’ or ‘prefiguration of the new society’. This error was linked to two theoretical problems which were not clear to me then, but the experience of class struggle has since begun to resolve. The first of these problems concerns the relationship between spontaneity and consciousness: that is, the real dialectic by which the proletariat becomes a revolutionary class. In my essay, I correctly polemicized against spontaneism and jacobinism and sought to find the constitutive elements of such a dialectic in social reality. But then, in the wake of Gramsci, I identified in the survival of pre-bourgeois elements, ‘culture’ and ‘intellectuals’, the concrete mediation which could allow the working class to escape from the circle of integration/negation, and express its own alternative to capitalism. The mass movements of recent years have, on the contrary, demonstrated that it is possible and necessary to look to the future: to the new contradictions determined within the working class and the forces of production in general, by the development of capitalism itself. Capitalism continuously produces and reproduces its own gravediggers—social forces and needs on which the revolutionary alternative to it can be built. This does not mean any rehabilitation of spontaneism: for the system powerfully conditions all new developments of the forces of production and renders them constantly ambiguous. But at the same time, through these developments, the masses and their material struggles become the real basis for the socialist revolution. To underestimate this dialectic, as I did in my essay, has a fatal consequence: counterposition of a mass incurably bemused by tradeunionism or anarchism to a vanguard illuminated by the light of theory. In other words, an idealist conception of the revolution and a mystical conception of the party. The problem in advanced capitalist countries today is, on the contrary, an analysis of the real dialectic of material forces on which a revolutionary alternative can be built.

The second problem, which is linked to the first, concerns the relationship between party and masses. In my essay, the party remained an institutional summit of revolutionary consciousness, superimposed on pulverized masses, confined to their own spontaneity. Today, I am convinced that it is precisely this schema which represents an obstacle to any revolution in the West. The party inevitably becomes an authoritarian and bureaucratic apparatus if it coexists with a disorganized mass. Its strategy will necessarily oscillate between parliamentarism and putschism. The only way to overcome this schema is not merely or mainly to ‘change the party’ (democratization of internal life, right of tendencies, mass recruitment), but to introduce a new element altogether: workers councils. Between the party and the masses there must be a third term, which mediates the relationship between them: autonomous and unitary political institutions of the working-class. These institutions must emerge right across society (factories, offices, schools), with their own structures—in which the party then acts as an element of stimulus and synthesis. There is no space to develop my argument here. I only want to emphasize my view that a creative revival of the theme of soviets is today essential to resolve the theoretical and strategic problems of the Western Revolution. It is only within this total framework that the internal problems of party organization can be confronted and solved, breaking with centralist traditions without regressing in a social-democratic direction. A group of Italian Marxist militants is today working on all these themes, in the review Il Manifesto. The essay published above should be regarded as a pre-history of this research.

Lucio Magri

January 1970


The interview with Georg Lukács was originally published by the Vojvodina weekly Hét Nap (Subotica). The questions have been somewhat abbreviated. Translation from the Hungarian © George Schöpflin.

Tom Nairn’s essay is part of a larger ongoing work which will be published as a book by NLB.

[1] Karl Marx, The Holy Family, p. 53.

[2] Karl Marx, The Holy Family, p. 51.

[3] Georg Lukács, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein, p. 93.

[4] Karl Marx, Letter to Schweitzer. February 13, 1865. Werke Vol 31, p. 446.

[5] London Conference of the International Workingmen’s Association, 1871.

[6] V. I. Lenin, What is to be Done?, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 375 ff.

[7] Karl Kautsky, ‘Commentary on the Hainfeld Programme of the Austrian Social-Democratic Party’, Die Neue Zeit, 1901.

[8] Organizational Problems of Russian Social-Democracy, p. 9. (English translation).

[9] Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution. In this pamphlet, written in prison and of controversial publication, Rosa Luxemburg develops her critique of the Leninist line with great rigour. She ascribes the internal difficulties of the Russian Revolution to two errors: Bolshevik agrarian policy, and nationalities policy. These errors, failing to advance the realization of socialism, led to a petty-bourgeois counter-attack against proletarian power. Hence the necessity to which the Bolshevik Party was driven, to limit the exercise of political democracy and to erect a dictatorship of the leading elite over the dictatorship of the class. With this suffocation of political life in the country as a whole, the Soviets themselves could not avoid a steadily increasing paralysis. It was only possible to reverse this nechanism by emphasizing the proletarian and socialist character of the revolution and unleashing the unlimited free initiative of the masses. The building of socialism could only be achieved by the spontaneous and natural creativity of the masses within the new structure of social ownership and proletarian power. But was all this conceivable in Russia? Obviously not. ‘The fate of the Russian Revolution depends therefore entirely on international events. That the Bolsheviks base their policies on the world revolution is in fact the best testimony to their political farsightedness and loyalty to principles.’ The responsibility, therefore, is placed once more on the European proletariat. But was it in a position to make its own revolution, and by what means? On this question the pamphlet, and Rosa Luxemburg’s entire work, closes.

[10] Intervention at the Fifth Comintern Congress, with Bukharin.

[11] Georg Lukács, ‘The Change in Function of Historical Materialism’, in Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein.

[12] Antonio Gramsci, Il Materialismo Storico e La Filosofia di Benedetto Croce, pp. 93–96.

[13] Antonio Gramsci, Note sul Machiavelli.