Editor’s note: This essay examines the theory and practice of the Leninist party from the time of Lenin until today. We turn to Lenin’s key writings and to the history of Bolshevism and the international communist movement to delineate the distinctiveness of the Leninist party. Throughout we pay careful attention to the differences between Lenin’s time and ours. This is part of a document that was circulated within our party in advance of our 3rd Party Congress in April 2016, and was publicly released in November 2016.
There is great confusion about what precisely the Leninist party is, particularly in relationship to democratic centralism. Democratic centralism, as critically important as it is, does not at all constitute the essence of a Leninist-type party. It’s very important that we understand the essential distinctiveness of a Leninist Party.
Lenin was the leader of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) starting in 1903. Bolshevik means majority and the other major wing of the party was called the Mensheviks, which means minority.
Both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks adhered to democratic centralism as their organizational model. Between 1903 and the revolution in 1917, the two wings of the party sometimes worked together but mostly in opposition to each other. In the 1905 Revolution, when tens of thousands of workers suddenly filled the ranks of both wings of the party, the rank and file from both wings demanded that the leaders make their differences secondary and reunite into one organization. Under the pressure of the newly recruited workers that is precisely what happened, but for a short time only. After the 1905 revolution was brutally defeated, the two wings split apart again, although formally retaining the name of the RSDLP.
The actual words Bolshevik and Menshevik are without political meaning. When they split in 1903 the Bolsheviks were a majority by just one or two votes at a meeting of the party’s Congress. Soon after the split, however, the Bolsheviks were clearly the minority and not the majority of the small core group of leaders. Most notably, both Plekanov, considered the “father” of Russian Marxism, and the much younger Leon Trotsky moved from the Bolshevik to the Menshevik wing. Most of the intellectual leaders of the movement went over to the Mensheviks. By 1905, Trotsky had become a political independent denouncing the orientations of both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. He became a mass leader because of his oratorical skills and was elected, at age 25, as the chairperson of the St. Petersburg Soviet during the stormy 1905 revolution. After its defeat, he was arrested and sent to Siberia. But he was not a Bolshevik.
While both Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks adhered to the principles of democratic centralism, they did have important differences on the application of democratic centralism. Most notably, the Bolsheviks insisted that the party maintain an underground wing even during the times when political space opened up and when the czarist autocracy allowed political organizations to operate legally.
An underground party by its nature is a secret organization. It follows the principles of secret activity and is not at all democratic. It is organized on a purely military basis and a strict chain of command. Its members cannot know the identity of other members. Thus, there is no real accountability.
Confusion about Leninist conceptions on an organization of professional revolutionaries
In his celebrated and often misunderstood book on party organization, What Is to Be Done?, Lenin calls for an “organization of revolutionaries” and for the creation of “professional revolutionaries” who constitute the core or cadre of the organization. This term is also badly misunderstood.
What organizational and political issues was Lenin addressing in these formulations? First and foremost, they were specifically based on a Russian experience, meaning the problem of organizing under the conditions of czarist absolutism where the secret police were constantly infiltrating workers’ and student organizations, and observing those groups recruit and grow before finally arresting the leaders and breaking up the organization.
Lenin asserted the need to overcome what he called “amateurism” and “primitiveness” in the way the social democrats were organizing (both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks called themselves social democrats at the time in Russia), In 1903, there was the beginning of mass actions and strikes by workers making demands about wages and work conditions. Some people on the left argued that it would be enough to enter these “spontaneous” workers’ movements and give them a political edge by their intervention.
Lenin insisted that this was a dead end for two reasons: 1) the revolutionary forces could not limit their movement to economic demands but instead also had to organize for a political revolution, meaning the overthrow of the czar and the establishment of a democratic republic; 2) the spontaneous economic movements of the workers would not solve the problem of the arrests of revolutionary leftists by the czarist secret police or of other problems associated with organizing under the condition where bourgeois democratic rights do not exist.
“Such workers, average people of the masses, are capable of displaying enormous energy and self sacrifice in strikes and in street battles with the police and the troops, and are capable (in fact, are alone capable) of determining the outcome of our entire movement — but the struggle against the political police requires special qualities; it requires professional revolutionaries (What Is to Be Done?).
Lenin’s thesis on organization has a specifically Russian framework because the movement there was facing far different conditions and problems than, say, Germany or the United States. This had implications in terms of mass organizing, training cadre in skills that were applicable to “illegal” organizing within the mass spontaneous economic movements, and recruiting party members from among the most talented in the working class who would serve as clandestine agents for party building and movement building.
What capabilities and tasks would a professional revolutionary have as opposed to a militant worker leader or what might be called a “non-professional” revolutionary? The answer to this question goes to the heart of Lenin’s thesis in What Is to Be Done?
It is impossible for a strike to remain a secret to those participating in it and to those immediately associated with it, but it may (and in the majority of cases does) remain a “secret” to the masses of the Russian workers, because the government takes care to cut all communication with the strikers, to prevent all news of strikes from spreading. Here indeed is where a special “struggle against the political police” is required, a struggle that can never be conducted actively by such large masses as take part in strikes. This struggle must be organised, according to “all the rules of the art,” by people who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activity. The fact that the masses are spontaneously being drawn into the movement does not make the organisation of this struggle less necessary. On the contrary, it makes it more necessary; for we socialists would be failing in our direct duty to the masses if we did not prevent the police from making a secret of every strike and every demonstration (and if we did not ourselves from time to time secretly prepare strikes and demonstrations). And we will succeed in doing this, because the spontaneously awakening masses will also produce increasing numbers of “professional revolutionaries” from their own ranks (that is, if we do not take it into our heads to advise the workers to keep on marking time).
Lenin also insisted that an organization of revolutionaries be distinct from a mass workers’ organization or trade union.
The workers’ organization must in the first place be a trade union organisation; secondly, it must be as broad as possible; and thirdly, it must be as public as conditions will allow (here, and further on, of course, I refer only to absolutist Russia). On the other hand, the organisation of the revolutionaries must consist first and foremost of people who make revolutionary activity their profession (for which reason I speak of the organisation of revolutionaries, meaning revolutionary Social-Democrats). In view of this common characteristic of the members of such an organisation, all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals, not to speak of distinctions of trade and profession, in both categories, must be effaced [erased]. Such an organisation must perforce [necessarily] not be very extensive and must be as secret as possible. Let us examine this threefold distinction. (What Is to Be Done?)
Although Lenin’s thesis on building a type of “organization of revolutionaries” was premised on the unique conditions of czarist Russia, there are elements of his nuanced view that had explicit universality and application to countries where the workers and socialist movement could organize legally and publicly.
This next paragraph is long, but take the time to read it carefully because it helps us understand what Lenin means by an organization of revolutionaries. His emphasis is on training of professional revolutionaries. His watchwords are training, training, training and assuring the availability of professional revolutionaries for providing leadership.
Because we [Russian revolutionaries] are backward, because we do not recognise our duty to assist every capable worker to become a professional agitator, organiser, propagandist, literature distributor, etc., etc. In this respect, we waste our strength in a positively shameful manner; we lack the ability to husband that which should be tended and reared with special care. Look at the Germans: their forces are a hundredfold greater than ours. But they understand perfectly well that really capable agitators, etc., are not often promoted from the ranks of the “average.” For this reason they immediately try to place every capable working man in conditions that will enable him to develop and apply his abilities to the fullest: he is made a professional agitator, he is encouraged to widen the field of his activity, to spread it from one factory to the whole of the industry, from a single locality to the whole country. He acquires experience and dexterity in his profession; he broadens his outlook and increases his knowledge; he observes at close quarters the prominent political leaders from other localities and of other parties; he strives to rise to their level and combine in himself the knowledge of the working-class environment and the freshness of socialist convictions with professional skill, without which the proletariat cannot wage a stubborn struggle against its excellently trained enemies. In this way alone do the working masses produce men of the stamp of Bebel and Auer. But what is to a great extent automatic in a politically free country must in Russia be done deliberately and systematically by our organisations. A worker-agitator who is at all gifted and “promising” must not be left to work eleven hours a day in a factory. We must arrange that he be maintained by the Party; that he may go underground in good time; that he change the place of his activity, if he is to enlarge his experience, widen his outlook, and be able to hold out for at least a few years in the struggle against the gendarmes. As the spontaneous rise of their movement becomes broader and deeper, the working-class masses promote from their ranks not only an increasing number of talented agitators, but also talented organisers, propagandists, and “practical workers” in the best sense of the term (of whom there are so few among our intellectuals who, for the most part, in the Russian manner, are somewhat careless and sluggish in their habits). When we have forces of specially trained worker-revolutionaries who have gone through extensive preparation (and, of course, revolutionaries “of all arms of the service”), no political police in the world will then be able to contend with them, for these forces, boundlessly devoted to the revolution, will enjoy the boundless confidence of the widest masses of the workers. We are directly to blame for doing too little to “stimulate” the workers to take this path, common to them and to the “intellectuals,” of professional revolutionary training, and for all too often dragging them back by our silly speeches about what is “accessible” to the masses of the workers, to the “average workers,” etc. (What Is to Be Done?)
Since Lenin’s book What Is to Be Done? focused on the question of building an organization of revolutionaries, or what is also referred to as an “organization of professional revolutionaries,” and because it was written in 1903 at the time of the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, it is often believed by many who consider themselves to be “Leninists” that the positions in the book constitute the core principles of organization in a Leninist-type party.
This is a common misunderstanding and it is critically important for our party, as a Leninist-type party, to have a full appreciation of why this is incorrect.
In fact, Lenin was so concerned that the concepts he raised in What Is to Be Done? would not be understood properly by revolutionaries outside of Russia that he actually suggested that the book should not be translated for republication into non-Russian languages. Later of course, after the victorious Russian Revolution, all of Lenin’s works were published as part of the Collected Works of V.I. Lenin.
Lenin and the Third International: Principles of party organization
In order to actually understand the core organizational principals of a Leninist-type party, it is necessary to study and assimilate the lessons found in Lenin’s pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder: A Popular Essay in Marxist Strategy and Tactics, which was written in 1919/1920.
Before getting to the main point, however, about organizational principles, it is necessary to make a few clarifying points about this pamphlet. The title, too, has been profoundly misunderstood or deliberately distorted by some in the communist movement. For instance, some groups touted this particular pamphlet as part of a polemic against left-wing radical revolutionaries during the 1960s when the radical movement not only grew, but moved sharply to the left.
Because of the profound impact of the anti-communist witch-hunt and persecution of communists in the 1950s, many feared that militant activity would only lead to repression and suppression. Thus, it found itself like a fish out of water when radical youth suddenly became dominant in the late 1960s and revived the militant tradition of street struggles and battles with the police and the government. The Black Panther Party, the Young Lords Party, the Progressive Labor Party, Youth Against War and Fascism, and the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) within SDS were all denounced by some communists as “infantile ultra-leftists.”
Lenin was obviously a revolutionary leftist who promoted the armed struggle and insurrection within Russia to carry out the seizure of power by the oppressed classes. The reformist orientation would have undoubtedly branded Lenin as an “infantile ultra-leftist” too if they had existed at the same time and in the same space.
With that said, let’s take a look at what Lenin wrote in “Left-Wing” Communist, an Infantile Disorder that directly applies to the issue we are discussing: the organizational principles of Bolshevism or what became known as a “Leninist-type party.” Let us remember that this pamphlet was written 16 years after the publication of What Is to Be Done?
Lenin says very clearly that Bolshevism could not possibly be understood by what was written in 1903 or even what was written in 1913 or in 1916 by Lenin or any other of the leaders of Bolshevism.As a current of political thought and as a political party, Bolshevism has existed since 1903. Only the history of Bolshevism during the entire period of its existence can satisfactorily explain why it has been able to build up and maintain, under most difficult conditions, the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat.
On the one hand, Bolshevism arose in 1903 on a very firm foundation of Marxist theory. The correctness of this revolutionary theory, and of it alone, has been proved, not only by world experience throughout the nineteenth century, but especially by the experience of the seekings and vacillations, the errors and disappointments of revolutionary thought in Russia. For about half a century—approximately from the forties to the nineties of the last century—progressive thought in Russia, oppressed by a most brutal and reactionary tsarism, sought eagerly for a correct revolutionary theory, and followed with the utmost diligence and thoroughness each and every “last word” in this sphere in Europe and America. Thanks to the political emigration caused by tsarism, revolutionary Russia, in the second half of the nineteenth century, acquired a wealth of international links and excellent information on the forms and theories of the world revolutionary movement, such as no other country possessed.
One the other hand, Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through fifteen years of practical history (1903–17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience. During those fifteen years, no other country knew anything even approximating to that revolutionary experience, that rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement—legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, local circles and mass movements, and parliamentary and terrorist forms. In no other country has there been concentrated, in so brief a period, such a wealth of forms, shades, and methods of struggle of all classes of modern society, a struggle which, owing to the backwardness of the country and the severity of the tsarist yoke, matured with exceptional rapidity, and assimilated most eagerly and successfully the appropriate “last word” of American and European political experience. (“Left-Wing” Communist, an Infantile Disorder)
Lenin is making the argument that the Bolsheviks could not have (1) won over the broad mass of the population; (2) carried out a successful insurrection that changed the power, allowing the oppressed classes to take state power; and (3) held onto state power through a bloody civil war and the military intervention by 14 imperialist countries unless the Bolsheviks had developed what he describes as the “iron discipline” built up under the most difficult conditions.
The issue of discipline in a Leninist-type party is also a concept that has been badly misunderstood; again, even by people who espouse Leninism. This was a particular problem at the time that Lenin wrote the pamphlet in 1919, when a large number, really millions, of left-wing socialists and left-wing anarchists were merging to form new communist parties in most countries of the world. This was part of the reason that Lenin wrote the pamphlet. He was making the argument that “revolution” and “professional revolutionaries” and an “organization of revolutionaries” were being bandied about as militant-sounding slogans or a kind of left-wing rhetoric by many who fervently supported and were inspired by the Russian Revolution and wanted to replicate such a revolution in their own country. He saluted and embraced their militancy, but he was trying to educate them and raise their consciousness about what it would really require to lead a successful revolution. The ultra-leftists of that time had reduced the issue to one of “militancy,” and especially a militant refusal to participate in non-revolutionary activities or within non-revolutionary and reformist institutions. Lenin was making the point that it was impossible to build a Leninist-type party without having participated within reformist and sometimes even reactionary institutions and movements, as well as having built an underground organization capable of, under certain circumstances, carrying out an armed insurrection.
That is why, as we discuss the issue of organizational principles and discipline, it is critically important to carefully study what Lenin was telling the movement at that time about the lessons learned from the Bolshevik experience.
The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct. Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party really capable of being the party of the advanced class, whose mission it is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved. Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrase-mongering and clowning. On the other hand, these conditions cannot emerge at once. They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience. Their creation is facilitated by a correct revolutionary theory, which, in its turn, is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement. (“Left-Wing” Communist, an Infantile Disorder)
Principal organizational tasks in the era of revolution
The experiences of the Bolshevik Party and the conditions for its success were generalized by Lenin in “Left-Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder, but then further developed as the Bolsheviks helped reorganize the world socialist movement through the creation of the Third International, also known as the Communist International or the Comintern.
The Bolsheviks and Lenin in particular identified three principle tasks of the newly victorious revolution. The first taskwas to hold on to state power in the face of a ferocious counterrevolutionary assault waged by world imperialism, which worked alongside and with both bourgeois and landlord elements inside of Russia, and also sectors of the left whose opposition to the Bolsheviks put them into a de facto alliance with world imperialism. The second task was to begin the process of reorganizing society on a socialist basis. And the third task was the reorganization of the world socialist movement by effecting a complete split with the Second International. This meant splitting the existing socialist movement in a formal and organized way. This became the division between the communist wing of the socialist movement and the social democratic wing of the movement. Prior to the split and prior to the creation of the Third International, the revolutionary socialists, including the Bolsheviks, considered themselves to be social democrats.
The experience of 1914 to 1918 proved that the central leadership of the Socialist International, or the Second International, led by the German party, which was the largest political party in Germany, was incapable of actually making revolution when the opportunity for revolution finally arose.
Thus, with the creation of the Third International, the generalized organizational principles of the Bolshevik Party became codified as the organizational principles for all of the communist parties that were dedicated to revolution and looked to the Russian experience as a model, of course taking into account and recognizing that each country had its own specific, unique and distinctive particularities, which would undoubtedly make the revolutionary process different than that which took place in Russia.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation was formed in 2004 by a small group of cadres who adhered to the organizational principles of the Bolsheviks that were codified in the original documents of the Third International. We explicitly recognized that the construction of a Leninist-type party was taking shape on a political and social landscape that could not have been more unlike that which existed in Russia but also in the other countries during the 1917-1923 period during which the Third International took shape.
The Leninist parties of the Third International were constructed with the immediate task, or nearly immediate task, of making revolution. The world had been torn apart by World War I. The old social order had to a large degree been degraded and to some extent destroyed. Revolution not only succeeded in Russia but it swept through Germany, Hungary, Poland and other countries.
The situation was completely unique in world history. The world had become dominated by a global social system — capitalism — that had transformed itself into a system of imperialism that dominated the entire globe. The imperialists went to war against each other in an effort to redivide markets and employed violence and mass murder at a level that was unsurpassed in human history. The working classes that had been sent to slaughter each other and did slaughter each other became exhausted and then went into open rebellion against the ruling classes that had created the killing fields for working-class people sent to fight and die for their class enemies. It was under these circumstances that revolution and specifically socialist revolution had become the order of the day. Nothing like this set of circumstances existed during the life of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the founders of modern or scientific socialism.
The conditions for revolution existed. They were not created by the Bolsheviks or any of the socialist parties. The specific conditions for revolution developed outside of the capacity or control of revolutionary socialists. The conditions for revolution were created by a whole complex of interconnected number of factors rooted in the dynamic and contradictory evolution of modern imperialism.
The fact that the Russian Revolution survived, that the Bolsheviks were able to not only seize but retain state power in such a large, vast country as Russia, changed the nature of the class struggle during most of the rest of the 20th century. The other revolutions in Europe were defeated by 1923 and capitalism in Europe gained a moment of respite, but then the global capitalist economic crisis a decade later led to the fascist takeover of continental Europe and ultimately led to a second inter-imperialist war, World War II, the violence of which was far greater than the First World War.
From revolution to counterrevolution
Since the end of World War II, with the exception of Greece between 1945 and 1948, there have been no attempted socialist revolutions in the Western imperialist countries. There have been many mass movements, but no revolutionary assault against the existing state power.
While the revolutionary movement was muffled in the West, the center of revolutionary energy shifted to Asia. The Chinese Revolution, along with the revolutions in Vietnam and Korea, and the anti-colonial movements in India, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere, rocked the old social order in Asia. Likewise, anti-colonial national liberation movements became dominant in the Middle East and in Africa. Only in small Cuba was there a successful socialist revolution in the Western Hemisphere; both Nicaragua and Grenada were embryonic socialist revolutions at the time of the seizure of power in 1979.
Furthermore, and most importantly for our current discussion, the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet workers’ state and the capitalist takeover of the governments in Eastern and Central Europe between 1988 and 1991 inaugurated a period that we have correctly labeled the era of counterrevolution.
We are making, in this assessment, a distinction between the period of non-revolution that existed in the western countries following World War II (1945-1985) and the era of “global counterrevolution,” which changed the relationship of forces and the political landscape for every country in the world.
It is worth taking a moment to understand this distinction. The ebb of revolutionary energy in the West, as evidenced shortly following the close of World War II, coincided with a rise of revolutionary energy in the East and in the South. This was not only evident in the geographic location of the class struggle and the struggle for national liberation against imperialism. It also manifested the change in the location of revolutionary socialism and communism. Leninism and communism waned in the West, but were strong in China, Vietnam, Korea and elsewhere in Asia. In Africa too, communism was revived in Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and in South Africa. Cuba, which was closer to Africa and to Asia, was the source of revolutionary energy and communist leadership.
The era of counterrevolution is not located in Europe or in the West. It has been a global phenomenon. Its impact has been everywhere. Not only was the global communist movement essentially broken and to a large extent disintegrated, but imperialism was able to go on the offensive to smash the anti-colonial governments and movements. One need only look at the Middle East today. Imperialism has destroyed Iraq, Libya and a good part of Syria. Also destroyed have been the secular, communist, socialist and bourgeois nationalist political forces that dominated the anti-colonial project in the Middle East. In the place of these vanquished political forces has arisen the most right-wing and reactionary political forces, such as the so-called Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and other right-wing jihadi political organizations and militias. Wherever they have gotten the upper hand in the space created for political reaction, these forces have waged ruthless war against leftists, progressives, secular nationalists, women and religious minorities.
The destruction and overthrow of the Soviet government was by far the greatest setback and defeat for the socialist and working-class movement in all of history.
Recruiting cadres and training cadres in communist agitation and propaganda, and in organization, is a complex and long-term process. Learning how to enter into reformist political arenas, into the political or electoral arena, participating in the labor movement, joining spontaneous mass movements, building bridges and alliances into the working class and amongst and within oppressed communities — these are the principle tasks of the moment. They are all complicated and require attention and constant work.
Lenin, in his writings in 1902, argued that the organization must be professional and not amateurish. The struggle for professionalism or to build an organization of professional revolutionaries was identified as the number one task when the Bolsheviks were forming as a political organization.
We, too, must strive to overcome amateurism. We need to be an organization with professional competence. We need leaders who have not only the ability and the desire to assume leadership — they must be available.
The organizational tasks of this period include expanding the efficiency of the tactics and methods associated with recruitment, the popularization of socialism, and internationalism, aggressively pursuing a recruitment and party-building strategy, engaging in a campaign to both understand and promote revolutionary theory, and to build a united front against fascism.