A Farewell to the Vanguard Party or a Return to Leninism?

At the Third Congress, in 1921, we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist Parties and on the methods and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but it is also its failing. It is its failing because I am sure that no foreigner can read it. I have read it again before saying this. In the first place, it is too long, containing fifty or more points. Foreigners are not usually able to read such things. Secondly, even if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian – it has been excellently translated into all languages – but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit. And thirdly, if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out. This is its third defect. I have talked with a few of the foreign delegates and hope to discuss matters in detail with a large number of delegates from different countries during the Congress, although I shall not take part in its proceedings, for unfortunately it is impossible for me to do that. I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely, that we blocked our own road to further success. As I have said already, the resolution is excellently drafted; I am prepared to subscribe to every one of its fifty or more points. But we have not learnt how to present our Russian experience to foreigners. All that was said in the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not realise this, we shall be unable to move ahead.

I

In the last issue of Workers Action Nick Davies dealt with the question of ‘what kind of organisation should Marxists be building’, and argued that Marxists ‘have to break from the traditional Leninist model and find a new and more relevant way of working.’

To begin, it certainly is the case that the left needs a ‘fresh start’: given the record of the European and north American revolutionary left over the last thirty years, any revolutionary socialist who really did not believe that it was necessary to question the accepted orthodoxies of building revolutionary socialist organisations would appear to be signally out of touch with the real world. Nick must therefore be congratulated on raising the questions that he does, for it is increasingly clear that ‘business as usual’ is no longer a tenable option for us. Yet, as we all know, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions, and the well-meant spirit of a ‘ruthless criticism of everything existing’ runs the danger of the baby going off with the bathwater.

The standard critique of what is normally taken to be Leninist orthodoxy, which Nick goes some way in accepting on my reading of his article, is this. Lenin’s strictures as to the type and functioning of revolutionary organisation were if not exclusively then at least principally a product of the conditions of Russian absolutism in which the RSDLP had to operate. A tight organisation of conspiratorial revolutionaries, however, while appropriate to these conditions, can only result highly over-centralised and undemocratic organisations run by self-appointed leadership cliques unable to relate to the real class struggle and real processes of radicalisation when applied to conditions of bourgeois-democratic openness. We thus need to find new ways to organise as revolutionaries, and, in our search for new methods in the enlightened bourgeois democracies of the twenty-first century, Lenin’s approach, developed in opposition to an absolutism that firmly belonged in nineteenth, can have little to say to us.

More (pdf: 156KB): A Farewell to the Vanguard Party

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