Lenin’s Theory of The Party

This question of the organization of the party was the subject of Lenin’s first important theoretical work, a pamphlet entitled What is to be done? which he published in 1902 in Iskra, a new journal large) planned and founded by him. The pamphlet was a bitter attack o, bread-and-butter trade unionism and hardly less bitter on any form of Marxian revisionism, but it was marked by admiration for the revolutionists, even the terrorists, of the 1870’s. Its main thesis, which became the organizing principle of Lenin’s party, is stated succinctly in the following passage.

A small, compact core, consisting of reliable, experienced and hardened workers, with responsible agents in the principal districts and connected by all the rules of strict secrecy with the organizations of revolutionists, can, with the wide support of the masses and without an elaborate set of rules, perform all the functions of a trade-union organization, and perform them, moreover, in the manner the Social Democrats desire.

It was not Lenin’s way, however, to advocate a form of party organization on grounds merely of political expedience. He was quite aware, and his opponents were aware, that a party such as he described in the passage just quoted was not planned upon the lines followed by the Social Democracy in Germany. He was also aware that it ran counter to accepted principles of Marxism. No passage from Marx had been quoted more frequently than the famous sentence, The emancipation of the working class is the work of the working class itself.

This sentence summed up the practical meaning of economic materialism, that the relations of production create the characteristic revolutionary ideology of the proletariat and that this ideology is the mainspring of an effective social revolution. It was upon this principle that Marxists had always distinguished their own scientific socialism from utopian ism, and the inevitable revolution from the made revolutions of idealists and adventurers.

The social revolution simply cannot be made by force or exhortation to run ahead of the underlying industrial development upon which a proletarian mentality depends. Knowing all this, Lenin was quite aware that his conception of party organization was logically untenable without a corresponding change in the Marxian theory of ideology.

Accordingly he made a startling emendation of accepted Marxian theory which called down on him widespread criticism, though characteristically Lenin could quote from the Communist Manifesto support his change.

The usual Marxian argument, he asserted, confused the mentality or ideology of trade unionism with that of socialism, Spontaneously the workers do not become socialists but trade unionists; socialism has to be brought to them from the outside by middle-class intellectuals.

We said that there could not yet be Social Democratic  consciousness among the workers in the Russian strikes in the 1890’s. This consciousness could only be brought to the from without. The history of all countries shows that the working lass, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness, i.e,, it may itself realize the necessity for combining in unions, to fight against the employers and to strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.

The socialist philosophy of Marx and Engels, Lenin argued, was as a matter of historical fact created by representatives of the bourgeois intelligentsia and it was introduced into Russia by a similar group. A trade-union movement is incapable of developing a revolutionary ideology for itself. Hence the choice for a revolutionary party lies between allowing the trade unions to fall a prey to the ideology of the middle class or indoctrinating it with the ideology of socialist intellectuals.

This conception of ideology was so characteristic of Lenin’s whole mode of thought that it merits comment. First, Lenin was here stating a point of view that came naturally to a Russian revolutionary intellectual, accustomed to think of the revolution as something that must be brought to the masses from without, and ready to believe that the people, except under the leadership of intellectuals, were somnolent, inert, and incapable of thinking for themselves.

Second, Lenin’s point of view was clearly not normal for a Marxist in Western Europe. For in effect Lenin said that working-class people are not naturally much inclined to revolution, have learned very little from their experience with capitalist industry, and in general have very little capacity for thinking about the;r place in society or ways to improve it. All this was contrary to the Marxian belief that it is precisely experience with industry that creates a proletariat and makes it inherently revolutionary.

Finally, Lenin’s thought had a definitely anti-democratic undertone as if he did not really trust the proletariat, even though he was ostensibly planning a proletarian party to create a proletarian government. For Lenin’s proletariat clearly needed to be managed and maneuvered by leaders who are not proletarians but who know what the proletariat ought to want, though in fact they rarely do want it.

Lenin’s argument about trade unionists was curiously parallel to Marx’s argument about the petty bourgeoisie, who are politically impotent except as they follow either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. But paradoxically Lenin applied the argument to the proletariat itself, and for him the maker of the proletarian ideology was not a social class but a small group of middle-class intellectuals.

His conception of ideology was ultra-intellectualism, because only the Marxian expert is really competent to have an opinion on proletarian strategy, and the proletariat is in the singular position of needing expert advice even to know that it is the proletariat.

For the same reason its practical implication was highly manipulative, because the proletariat has to be maneuvered into be having like a proletariat. Years later, after Lenin really had established a government, he called it a government for the working people, by the advanced elements of the proletariat the party, but not by the working masses. In origin the excuse for this was the backwardness of the Russian working class, but it became characteristic of all communist parties.

This attitude toward the proletariat and its ideology exemplified a phase of Lenin’s thought that recurred in so many contexts that it must be regarded as characteristic of his personal philosophy. He habitually contrasted consciousness and spontaneity, and he had an exaggerated confidence in the first and an ingrained distrust of the second.

Consciousness means in general intelligence the faculty of understanding and foresight; the ability to organize, make plans, calculate chances; the acuteness to take advantage of opportunities, to anticipate an opponent’s moves and forestall them. The ultimate product of consciousness is Marx’s law of history, which permits a party even, so to speak, to forestall history itself, to plan its moves in accord with the general trend of social change.

Politics for Lenin was literally the art of the possible even on a cosmic scale; victory goes to the party with the clearest perception of the next step. Lenin’s party was an embodiment of consciousness, a personification of perfect foresight, and an idealization of being forearmed for every contingency. Spontaneity on the contrary means impulse, drive, or will.

On a social level it is the tremendous ground swell of a great social movement, essentially blind and uncomprehending but irresistible, and providing the force without which no revolutionary social change is possible. Lenin’s attitude toward spontaneity was one of respect strongly tinged with are distrust or even fear.

He believed that nothing important could be done without it and that no leader or party could create it, but he distrusted it as inherently aimless and primitive and he feared it as unpredictable. Yet a leader who is sufficiently astute, sufficiently armed with all the arts that consciousness can build up, can guide, direct, maneuver  spontaneity along the line of progress instead of allowing it to waste itself in senseless violence. The masses embody spontaneity as the party embodies consciousness.

The party is an intelligent and instructed elite, essentially powerless in itself but capable of infinite power if only it can harness the enormous drive of social mass discontent and mass action. As a personal philosophy this was a curious compound of intellectual arrogance coupled, one suspects, with a good deal of underlying doubt or even skepticism, and at bottom it was more like Schopenhauer than Hegel.

It was perhaps natural to the frustrated Russian intellectual, keenly aware of his isolated superiority, with deep aspirations, little real hope, and a profound need for security. On a cosmic scale Lenin’s party was nothing less than a project for taming human destiny and reducing it to a plan to be executed under bureaucratic direction and control.

Lenin’s contrast of spontaneity and consciousness colored the meaning that he attached to democracy. His party was designed to be an elite, a minority chosen for intellectual and moral superiority, the most advanced part of the working class and so its vanguard. But Lenin had no notion of creating an aristocracy.

For as he conceived the party’s work, it was distinguishable but never separate or apart from the people whom it leads. There are two ways in which the party leader can lose contact, and both became cardinal sins in the code of the communist party worker. One is to run ahead, that is, to go faster or farther than people can as yet be persuaded to follow, or to advocate a course, right in itself, for which the public has not been prepared by propaganda.

The other is to Jag behind, that is, to fail to go as tar as the people might be incited to go. Democracy for Lenin meant little more than an accurate calculation of the middle position between these two errors. It did not mean that a democratic leader should give effect to the popular will, for this is always shortsighted or ill-judged.

What people want is important only in calculating what they can be induced to do. In deciding what is objectively good policy, the party, armed with Marxian science, is always right, or as near right as is humanly possible. Hence a leader has nothing to learn about ends from the people he leads.

He has a great deal to learn about how to urge them along as fast and as far as possible, and without an undue use of force, which works best when used moderately. The party’s democracy consists in bowing to the inevitable, in getting its ends mainly by propaganda and maneuver, and in keeping coercion within limits that save it from defeating its own purpose. Lenin always regarded his policy in 1917 of turning the land over to the peasantry as democratic.

Lenin’s theory of the party was closely in accord with his conception of ideology. The party had three main characteristics that became distinctive of communist parties everywhere. First, the party was assumed to possess in Marxism a unique type of knowledge and in, sight, with a uniquely powerful method, the dialectic.

This was considered to be a science, but the powers claimed for it went far beyond any usually counted as scientific. For it purported to forecast social progress and to be a guide to policies leading to progress. Consequently it can make decisions that are in effect moral or even religious. Marxism thus becomes for a communist party a doctoring whose purity must be preserved and if necessary enforced. The party has, therefore, something of the quality of a priesthood, and it demands of its members corresponding submission of judgment and a total subjection of private ends to the ends of the organization.

Second, Lenin’s party, being in principle a carefully selected and a rigidly disciplined elite, was  designed to become a mass organization exerting its influence mainly by convincing and attracting voters. It claimed superiority both intellectual and moral, intellectual because it includes adepts in the theories of the party’s unique science, and moral because its members are selflessly devoted to realizing the destiny of the social class it purports to represent, which is also the destiny of society and the race. Its ideal was one of total dedication, first to the revolution and then to completing the construction of the new society for which the revolution had opened the way.

Third. Lenin’s party was designed to be a tightly centralized organization, excluding any form of federalism or autonomy for any local or other constituent bodies.

It was to have a quasi-military organization, subjecting its rank and file to strict discipline and rules of obedience and its leaders to a hierarchical chain of authority from the top down. It might permit freedom of discussion among its members on matters of policy not yet decided by the party, but once a decision was reached this must be accepted and followed without question. This form of organization Lenin called democratic centralism.

From the beginning to the end of his career Lenin was convinced that the success of his movement depended on two factors material union through rigid organization and discipline, and ideological union through Marxism as a kind of creed or faith. On these two foundation stones he proposed to build the revolution and he never abandoned his belief in their efficacy. It would be easy to quote many pronouncements to this effect, but the following will illustrate it.

In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but organization. Divided by the rule of anarchic competition in the bourgeois world, ground down by slave labor for capital, constantly thrust back to the lower depths of utter destitution, savagery and degeneration, the proletariat can become, and will inevitably become, an invincible force only when its ideological unity around the principles of Marxism is consolidated by the material unity of an organization, which unites millions of toilers in the army of the working class.

It is not difficult to understand why Lenin’s plan of party organization was met with bitter criticism, and not least from other Marxists. It was Wholly at odds with the organization aimed at by any successful Marxian party in the West. It could claim in its favor the exigencies of any illegal party in Tsarist Russia, but this did not save it from criticism even by Russian Marxists outside Lenin’s faction. For its undemocratic implications and illiberal possibilities were clearly perceived. The Polish Marxist, Rosa Luxembourg, said that what Lenin called proletarian discipline was discipline by the Central Committee, not the voluntary self-discipline of social democracy. The shrewdest criticism of Lenin’s party came in the form of a prediction by his future partner, then his bitter opponent, Leon Trotsky.

The organization of the Party takes the place of the Party itself, the Central Committee takes the place of the organization; and finally the dictator takes the place of the Central Committee.

The plan of party organization that Lenin sketched contained the principles by which the party was organized down to 1917 when it seized power, and by which communist parties are still organized today. At the same time the theory of 1902 was not yet the party of 1917, and the party in Lenin’s lifetime was not Stalin’s party. Though the general principles were settled, almost every application of a principle occasioned difference of opinion and sometimes bitter controversy. What democratic centralism became and how it was transformed into a rigid rule will be the subject of a later section.


SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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