Red Action reply to Danes and Young

Open Polemic is proving increasingly successful in opening up areas of debate which have traditionally been insulated by artificial and stultifying discussions within the respective vanguard organisations. It is vital to the development of the revolutionary left that this insulation should be stripped away in a forum open to all tendencies.

One case in point is contained in the two responses to a Red Action article carried in OP no. 4, which appeared in OP no. 5. Each of these responses has helped focus the debate on specific, substantive issues and so sharpened attention to the underlying points of contention.

Jane Danes ['Democracy from Above and Below'] attacks the distinction between democracy from above [sic], and democracy from below, and that between the dictatorship of the party and the dictatorship of the class. Lenin is quoted at some length, 'in response to Red Action's emotive appeal for 'unconditional democracy' within the revolutionary organisation'.

'Repudiation of party and party discipline', Lenin says, 'is equivalent to precisely that petty bourgeois diffuseness, instability, incapacity for sustained effort and organised action which ... must inevitably destroy every proletarian movement.'

Moreover, the very distinction between the dictatorship of the party and that of the class, 'is evidence of the most incredible and hopeless confusion of mind.'

Such a viewpoint will be related to that of Marx (see below) but first, here is another quote from Lenin, from 'State and Revolution'. He is arguing against the seizure of power by a minority - a tactic he says, identified with the Blanquists.

'To develop democracy to the utmost , to find the forms for this development, to test them by practice - all this is one of the component tasks of the struggle for the social revolution.' [Lenin's emphasis]

Lenin writes in September, 1917 that the revolutionary democratic state, 'does not fear to introduce the fullest democracy in a revolutionary way'.

Trotsky in 1905 wrote of the Soviet of Workers' Deputies that:

'These are not previously prepared conspiratorial organisations which have seized power over the proletarian mass ... No, these are organs which are planned creations of that mass for the coordination of its revolutionary struggle. And these Soviets, which have been elected by the masses and are responsible to the masses, these unconditionally democratic institutions conduct the most determined class policy in the spirit of revolutionary socialism.'

Perhaps Jane Danes could enlighten us as to the difference between Red Action's call for 'unconditional democracy', and 'developing democracy to the utmost' .

Or again, between 'unconditional democracy', and 'the fullest democracy' or 'unconditionally democratic institutions'. What is it the case that the call for 'unconditional democracy' by Red Action is 'emotive' (how disdainfull), while Lenin's 1917 insistence that democracy must be developed 'to the utmost', to the 'fullest' etc., as a condition of social revolution, or Trotsky's defence of the Soviets as 'unconditionally democratic', is not?

Lenin, in the same work, has previously quoted Engels arguing against 'absolutism' to the effect that:

'If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power in the form of the democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat...'

Lenin comments,

'Engels repeated here in a particularly striking form the fundamental idea which runs through all of Marx's works, namely, that the democratic republic is the nearest approach to the dictatorship of the proletariat.'

Actually, Lenin slips here a little from his customary close attention to the text, because Engels plainly does not say that the democratic republic is the 'nearest approach' to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Engels says it is the 'specific form' of the class dictatorship. These are two quite distinct propositions. Why then, does Lenin introduce his amendment?

What Red Action has pointed out in the article under attack, is that the post civil war Bolshevik party dictatorship was not, by any dialectical stretch of the imagination, a 'democratic republic'. It was not even a 'near approach' to a democratic republic - or therefore, if we are to trust Engels, to the 'dictatorship of the proletariat.'

If there are those revolutionary socialists who wish to defend the party dictatorship ('the Bolsheviks had no choice' in the favourite refrain of the SWP), then that at least is an honest position. It is also a defensible proposition in light of the concrete historical situation. But the Leninist/Trotskyite currents cannot claim that it represented the dictatorship of the proletariat as conceived by Marx and Engels. Those who persist in doing so have not understood the most elementary principle of Marxist political philosophy.

I do not know whether this applies to Jane Danes, since she paradoxically ends her attack on Red Action by admitting that, 'Marxist Leninists cannot rest content with what Lenin had to say on these matters 70 years ago ... [and] the questions raised by Red Action have to be addressed.'

Danes then goes on to develop the very distinction between:

'programme, strategy and tactics [that] emanate from above at the party congress and are then directed from below ... by the national leadership [sic]', that Lenin was previously quoted to characterise as, 'the most incredible and hopeless confusion of mind'!

Lenin adds that,

'from the standpoint of the practical implementation of the dictatorship', 'all this talk about "from above" or "from below", about the dictatorship of the leaders or the dictatorship of the masses etc., [is] ridiculous and childish nonsense...'

Lenin's point is that the dictatorship of the party (in practice, its leaders) encompasses the dictatorship of the masses in such a way as to render the distinction literally meaningless ('nonsense'). For the revolutionary vanguard party, the distinction is conflated, collapsed into absurdity. Since for Lenin, the party and its leaders are the objective embodiment of revolutionary theory and practice. This is the meaning of his claim that the Bolshevik party, 'merged with the entire revolutionary proletariat' (to RA's criticism of which Abbie Young takes such offence in the second article.) The question of class self-emancipation and class composition within the party is in this way superseded. Ultimately, this perspective itself collapses into pure subjectivity - a question of motivation and ideology. Trotsky took this viewpoint to its logical conclusion when in practice he reduced the programme of the left opposition to the substitution of his leadership for that of Stalin.

Lenin would therefore, regard Danes' own distinction based upon the presumably democratic, class based necessity of policy formulation from below ('programme, strategy and tactics') contrasted with executive "direction" from above, as itself confused and ridiculous, since it is founded on the very division of political labour, based on class antagonisms, that Lenin repudiates.

In the piece, 'Self-Emancipation of the Class', Abbie Young attacks Red Action for being ignorant of Marxism and for not quoting Marx in support of its arguments. Abbie Young dismisses a quotation from Trotsky regarding the impermissibility of replacing the masses by the 'resoluteness of the vanguard' and calls for the authority of Marx himself.

'What did Marx actually say about the relationship of the party to the class? We need look no further than the Manifesto of the Communist Party, which, in dealing with what the reactionary socialists had to offer, states that they:
"did not even hold out the prospect of the emancipation of the workers through a communist organisation."'

This is strange, a scrap of a sentence is presented, from the whole of Marx's political writings, as a 'clear, Marxist explanation as to how revolutionary theory needs to be interrelated with the spontaneous in the working class.' The same miserly scrap of quotation is produced for a final flourish at the end of the article - more like a trophy than a contextualised argument.

It all appears to hang on the word, 'through', which to me at least, isn't the last word in analytical precision.

Stranger still, using the Moore translation of the Manifesto, as revised by Engels, I have been unable to find the passage referred to. It certainly doesn't occur in the section that Young says it does, where Marx is referring to 'Reactionary Socialism'.

A little further on, in the section 'Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism', there does occur the following passage; 'But the proletariat, as yet in its infancy, offers to them [the critical-utopian socialists] the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.'

But these words of Marx/Engels do not 'actually' refer to the 'reactionary' socialists at all - but to the 'critical-utopians', Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen, who represented an entirely different political current and whom Marx was always careful to distinguish from the 'reactionary' socialists. 'We need look no further..'. indeed! More important, it clearly is not refering to what the 'reactionary socialists' offered the proletariat, but the spectacle offered to socialists by the proletariat. That is, the very opposite of what Young claims! Marx says that at a certain historical juncture, the proletariat contained within itself no 'independent political movement'- not that the alleged 'reactionary' socialists failed to offer independent political organisation to the proletariat. This decidedly does not endorse the leadership of petty-bourgeois tendencies external to the class, of the working class movement itself -just the reverse. It rather implies the necessity of the selfgenerated 'historical initiative' and 'independence' of the class within its own revolutionary movement. Marx thus goes on to contrast the 'fantastic' interventions of the utopians for whom the workers only exist 'from the point of view of being the most suffering class', to the, 'gradual, spontaneous class organisation of the proletariat'.

Young then switches directly to Lenin:

'The vehicle of science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia: it was in the minds of individual members of that stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians, who, in their turn, introduced it into the proletarian class.'

This presumably is the proposed model of the party-class relationship. It is interesting to note, returning to Marx, that he attacked such a view as reformist in a letter to Bebel, Liebknecht and others. He parodied the reformists' views as a direction in effect, to:

'elect bourgeois!', or, 'in short, the working class of itself is incapable of emancipating itself. For this purpose it must place itself under the leadership of 'educated and propertied' bourgeois who alone possess the 'time and opportunity' to acquaint themselves with what is good for the workers.'

If this is not explicit enough, Marx goes on to add:

'When the International was formed we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working classes must be achieved by the working classes themselves. We cannot therefore cooperate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic persons from the upper and lower middle classes.'

For Marx,

'What was new in the International was that it was established by the working men themselves and for themselves. Before the foundation of the International all the different organisations had been societies run by some radicals among the ruling classes for the working classes, but the International was established by the working men for themselves.'

To suppose that working people acting independently necessarily act 'unconsciously', that 'spontaneous movements' of the class are therefore by nature or definition opposed to conscious action, is profoundly and utterly contrary to the whole of Marx's analysis. That revolutionary consciousness is somehow the prerogative of 'the bourgeois intelligentsia', presumably located in the party apparatus, is the essence of 'vanguardism' and represents the relocation of class divisions and ideology within the revolutionary movement itself. Once again. It is possible for revolutionary socialists to side with Lenin on this issue, as Young plainly does. What is not possible, is to claim that you simultaneously side with Marx.

For Young,

'It is precisely on this view of the class that Red Action poses the idea of the spontaneous self-emancipation of the working class against the idea of the conscious self emancipation of the working class as perceived by Marx.'

This is 'precisely' what Red Action does not do: we do not see the necessary opposition between the spontaneous action by the class and conscious action by the class: Young's instinctive setting of one 'against' the other is fatally and characteristically patronising. We would add that the opposition does not exist for Marx either. We have seen how he contrasts the futile and patronising interventions of petty bourgeois socialists with the 'spontaneous class organisation of the proletariat'.

Elsewhere, Marx elaborates:

'It is the business of the International Working Men's Associations to combine and generalise the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to impose any doctrinary system whatever.' [Marx's emphasis]

Engels writes in his 1888 Introduction to the Manifesto, that in drawing up the 'broad programme' of the International:

'Marx ... entirely trusted to the intellectual development of the working class, which was sure to result from combined action and mutual discussion.'

Engels adds that in the light of the International's history, 'Marx was right'. This is a far cry indeed from Lenin's truculent hymn to party 'discipline' 'iron will' and whatnot, quoted by Danes.

It is therefore, the attempt by petty-bourgeois ideologists to 'dictate and impose' their consciousness upon the consciousness generated by the spontaneous revolutionary movements of the working class that condemns them to forever act as a conservative force in relation to class momentum. The petty bourgeois consciousness of the ideologists insulated within 'vanguard' groupings, 'the hieratic practitioners of a secret science' as Marx characterises them, all have this in common:

'To them, the working class is so much raw material, a chaos which needs the breath of their Holy Spirit to give it form.'

In this spirit, Young alleges that the trouble with Red Action is that they 'approach the working class as generally advanced' as opposed to 'generally backward.' It is a broad formula, but I wouldn't quarrel with it in this sense: that historically, the working class has, in periods of revolutionary crisis, shown itself to be incomparably more advanced than the most advanced vanguard. The workers of the Paris Commune revealed to Marx the political form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In 1905 the Russian workers constituted the soviets, which initially, were met with so much suspicion by the Bolsheviks. In Spain in 1936, workers and peasants devise the political committees later to be crushed by the forces of the petty bourgeoisie organised in the Communist party. Similarly, in every contemporary struggle facing the left, the 'revolutionary passion' of the class, during the miner's strike, in the struggle against the forces of occupation in northern Ireland, in the fight against fascism on the streets, has utterly eclipsed the pretensions of the allegedly 'revolutionary left.'

It is also true of course, that:

'collective appropriation can only proceed from the revolutionary action of the class of producers - the proletariat - organised in an independent political party.'

Yet it is vital to realise that the 'spontaneous movement' of the class and its critical 'independence' (from petty bourgeois or philanthropic bourgeois elements) are not opposed to each other but form mutual conditions of their respective existence. For Marx, the very independence of the workers' political party depends on its class composition: not upon the specific ideology of a party which is supposed to rise above the social location of its members. It is just at the moment of the greatest spontaneity of the class (in Marx's phrase, its 'revolutionary passion') that it exhibits its greatest independence - and its greatest capacity for revolutionary action. The Revolutions of 1905 and of February 1917 were as much a surprise to the Bolsheviks as they were to the Tsar.

Finally, Young takes refuge in the familiar notion of the 'complexity' of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is the usual old guff about the revolutionary necessity of 'scientific socialists' organised in their vanguards. Incidentally, it is extraordinary that all these self-styled 'scientific socialists' agree about nothing except the indispensability of their own role.

In contrast, it is remarkable that Marx himself explicitly stresses the simplicity of the dictatorship of the class. He describes in detail the election of the Central Committee of the Paris Commune, of which Engels famously declared: 'Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.'

Marx carefully explains the detail of the political process involved:

'On its existing military organisation [the National Guard] grafted a political federation according to a very simple plan . It was the alliance of all the National Guard, put into connection with one another by the delegates of each company, appointing in their turn the delegates of the battalions, who in their turn appointed general delegates who were to represent a district and to cooperate with the delegates of the nineteen other districts. Those twenty delegates, chosen by the majority of the battalions of the National Guard, composed the Central Committee...'

While it is a truism that concrete historical circumstances are 'complex', it is nonetheless the case that the political principles of the workers government as confirmed by Marx, are, as he says, 'very simple'. All the labours of the self-styled 'scientists' in spinning jesuitical webs around the facts of the Bolshevik party dictatorship are utterly redundant in the face of this theoretical 'simplicity'. Marx's own confirmation of the principle of the Communal form of government ('the conquest of political power of the working classes' as he unequivocally terms it) is emphatic:

'Never were elections more sifted, never did delegates more fully represent the masses from which they were sprung.'

If it is thought perhaps that Marx had some further, unguessable qualification in mind as to the propriety of this form of election regarding all instances of proletarian power, it should be pointed out that he explicitly extends the model of the Parisian Commune to the national level:

'The Paris Commune was to serve of course, as a model to all the great industrial centres of France. The Communal regime once established in Paris and the secondary centres, the old centralised government would in the providences too, have to give way to the self-government of the producers ... The rural communes of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the national delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by mandate or formal instructions of his constituents.'

None of this reads like a description of anything in Russia after the suppression of the power of the soviets. In particular, Marx defends the class content of the Commune as its greatest, its essential achievement. Not only did the Commune 'consist of simple working men' but, 'The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence. Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people.'

Marx adds that,

'nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune ["the dictatorship of the proletariat"] than to supersede universal suffrage by hierarchical investiture.'

But wasn't this precisely the political practice of the Bolshevik party dictatorship? Isn't it precisely the distinction between revolution from above and revolution from below that attracts the scorn and contempt of Lenin and presented for our attention by Jane Danes? Is there anyone in the Marxist/Leninist ranks who will dare to contest the fact that the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party proceeded by none other than the system of 'hierarchical investiture' displacing 'universal suffrage', that is here unequivocally condemned by Marx.

Abbie Young concedes Lenin's advocacy of economic autocracy, 'the subordination of the will of thousands to the will of one' but distinguishes it from 'political subordination' as if processes in one sphere had no necessary connection with processes in the other. Young writes that while I, 'reluctantly admit that Lenin was referring to industrial management', I nonetheless: 'imply that Lenin really meant political subordination to the "will of one" in society as a whole.'

I actually wrote that,

'Lenin it is true, at this stage had in mind industrial rather than political authority. Yet it is equally plain that according to any Marxist analysis, the two are finally indissoluble.' (emphasis in original)

Of course, it is Marx who originally wrote:

'That in the militant state of the working class, its economical movement and political action are indissolubly united.'

However the post civil war Soviet regime is to be characterised, it is now absolutely plain that the fiction of its being in any sense a dictatorship of the proletariat is profoundly unmarxist. That is the essence of Red Action's 'revisionism' in relation to the traditional left's analysis of the Bolshevik revolution - yet it has been greeted by all elements of the Leninist/Trotskyist left as heresy! The feeling inexorably grows that "Marxist/Leninism" is a hybrid creature - the Marxian analysis of capitalism mated with Bolshevik political practice. Let honesty between the various revolutionary socialist currents prevail to at least this extent: that if the arguments of Red Action concerning the centrality of class democracy and class composition are to be condemned as heretical by the Leninist/Trotskyist tendencies, then Marx too, should be condemned as a heretic!

Open Polemic Issue 6