Do workers need a party?
In response to the letter printed on page 15 titled "Why a party?" we are reprinting an excerpt fromRevolutionary Continuity: Birth of the Communist Movement, 1918-1922 by Farrell Dobbs. The piece takes up the importance and indispensable role of a revolutionary party that would lead workers and farmers in a revolutionary struggle to "destroy the capitalist state and replace it with one defending the interests of the workers and poor peasants in order to move toward a socialist order," as Dobbs explained. The excerpt opens with a discussion of why Lenin in April 1917 proposed changing the official name of the Bolshevik party from the Social Democratic Labor Party to the Communist Party. Copyright © 1983 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission.
BY FARRELL DOBBS
The Bolshevik leader presented several reasons for the proposed change in party name. The designation "social" was scientifically incorrect, Lenin said; it was too limited. Following Marx's explanation to German socialists in the mid-1870s, Lenin explained that in overturning capitalism on a world scale, the workers could first construct socialism; by this, Lenin explained he meant state ownership of the means of production under which "the distribution of products [would be determined] according to the amount of work performed by each individual."
That doesn't end the matter, however, Lenin said. "Our Party looks farther ahead: socialism must inevitably evolve gradually into communism." Society would then have the abundance and productive capacity to apply the motto, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."
The term "democracy" as used in the party's name was also scientifically incorrect, Lenin added. Democracy had come to signify a form of bourgeois state, a parliamentary republic, used to consolidate capitalist rule by means of a police, army, and government bureaucracy as a repressive force over the people. The goal of Marxists is the eventual abolition of "every kind of state," Lenin said.
Unlike anarchists, however, Marxists recognize "the need for a state for the purpose of the transition to socialism," he explained. Even this will not be a state in the previous sense of "domination over the people by contingents of armed men divorced from the people." It will be a state in which the armed forces are "the massesthemselves, the entire people," mobilized to crush all attempts at counterrevolution.
Such a state, Lenin said, would represent an "emergent new democracy, which is already ceasing to be a democracy, for democracy means the domination of the people, and the armed people cannot dominate themselves." Therefore, the emergence of soviets of workers and peasants as the sole power in a state would be "the harbinger of the 'withering away' of the state in every form...."
What the workers needed above all was a revolutionary party that would break unequivocally with the social democrats and expose the political conspiracy being hatched against the toilers; that would explain the imperative need to destroy the capitalist state and replace it with one defending the interests of the workers and poor peasants in order to move toward a socialist order; and that would teach them how to wield their power for that purpose.
There was no counterpart in Germany, however, to the Bolshevik Party that had led the Russian toilers to victory. In 1914 the ranks of the German Social Democratic Party had been thrown into political confusion and turmoil when the party leaders capitulated to the bourgeoisie and supported the imperialist war. At the outset most socialist militants were demoralized. Few were able to chart a revolutionary programmatic course on their own. It was thus not difficult for Karl Kautsky and other centrists in the party, who had pulled back from their initial outright support for the German imperialist war effort, to draw a minority of socialist workers into a pacifist campaign for a negotiated peace--which meant continued de facto support of the goals of German imperialism.
Revolutionary opponents of the war such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht managed to win some of the disoriented militants to their views. Slow but steady progress was made in building a nucleus of internationalists. By New Years Day 1916 the revolutionists had become strong enough to formally organize a left wing, which became known as the Spartacus League.
This represented an advance toward the creation of a revolutionary Marxist party that could challenge the reformist-dominated Social Democratic Party for political leadership of the German working class. To fully realize that objective something more was needed, however. The new party had to be built as a revolutionary combat formation along the political lines followed by Lenin in organizing the Russian Bolsheviks.
The vanguard working-class party, Lenin had taught, should make every effort to teach the masses, through drawing the lessons of their own experiences, that they must distrust the bourgeoisie and all its parties and petty-bourgeois agents. The vanguard of the working class had to provide clear answers and timely aid to its allies, above all the poor peasantry, and thereby win them away from petty-bourgeois misleaders to a common struggle against the exploiters. It had to champion and give leadership to the oppressed nationalities in their struggle for self-determination. Emphasis should constantly be placed on the socialist alternative to capitalism, and transitional steps should be charted toward the workers' conquest of state power in order to reorganize society on a higher plane.
The party should apply a Marxist strategy developed on that basis to project a course of action in various concrete situations. At the same time, an irreconcilable political struggle should be waged against the reformists and centrists. The Marxists should patiently explain--again and again--the errors of such misleaders in theory, program, strategy, and tactics in order to help the workers avoid repetition of such mistakes.
If these tasks were to be carried out, Lenin stressed, the vanguard party had to strive for political homogeneity in its ranks, based upon adherence to Marxist principles. Its members were cadres, professional revolutionists. They were not only active in the class struggle, but all their activity was carried out in a disciplined way under the direction of the party.
Moreover, the party constantly had to aim to be proletarian in composition and leadership as well as in program. Toward that end, party members should integrate themselves into the mass organizations, going through the workers' experiences with them, and in the process recruit the best militants into the revolutionary vanguard. Through such efforts, increasing numbers of proletarian fighters could be educated politically in the course of their assimilation into all phases of party activity. In that way they could develop both as competent leaders of mass actions and as candidates for the leading committees of the party itself--an interrelated process through which the party as a whole would become better equipped to win the workers' confidence by proving its capacity to guide them in their struggles against the capitalists.