Lenin’s Idea of Party-Building

by Joaquín Bustelo on March 19, 2013

Originally posted at Socialist Worker — I want to thank my friend and comrade Paul LeBlanc for taking the time to respond (“Leninism and organization today”) to my comment (“There’s no universal model of Leninism”), and the comrades of SocialistWorker.org for publishing it. I think these sorts of exchanges helps to advance the discussion and our understanding.

agree with Paul’s description of real, non-Zinovievist “Leninism” which is simply Marxism. As he writes:

Lenin’s quite unoriginal starting point (shared with Marx, the younger Kautsky, Luxemburg throughout her life, and others) is a belief in the necessary interconnection of socialist theory and practice with the working class and labor movement. The working class cannot adequately defend its actual interests and overcome its oppression, in his view, without embracing the goal of socialism–an economic system in which the economy is socially owned and democratically controlled in order to meet the needs of all people.

Marx considered developing higher levels of understanding and consciousness to be very important, which is why he was so upset with the Gotha program, as he explained in his cover letter to Bracke:

Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs. If, therefore, it was not possible–and the conditions of the item did not permit it–to go beyond the Eisenach program, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy. But by drawing up a program of principles (instead of postponing this until it has been prepared for by a considerable period of common activity) one sets up before the whole world landmarks by which it measures the level of the Party movement.

But Marx did not object to the fusion with the LaSalleans, he subordinated programmatic and theoretical clarity to “every step of real movement.” Also, note the use of the term “party movement.” For Marx and Engels, the concept of Party is not limited to an organization.

So what Paul presents is not the “Leninism” I’m arguing against. The one I am criticizing is this one:

The greatest contribution to the arsenal of Marxism since the death of Engels in 1895 was Lenin’s conception of the vanguard party as the organizer and director of the proletarian revolution. That celebrated theory of organization was not, as some contend, simply a product of the special Russian conditions of his time and restricted to them. It is deep-rooted in two of the weightiest realities of the 20th century: the actuality of the workers’ struggle for the conquest of power, and the necessity of creating a leadership capable of carrying it through to the end.

That was written by James P. Cannon, the central founding leader of the Trotskyist movement in the United States. At the time of his break with Stalinism (1928), he was a mature political cadre, 38 years old, and one of the central leaders of the CPUSA. He had been a delegate to the Fourth and Sixth Comintern Congresses, a delegate to the Executive Committee of the Communist International and a member of its Presidium. And it was written after a lifetime of experience, for a collection of essays published in 1967, Fifty Years of World Revolution.

Paul’s description of what Lenin really believed, plain old Marxism with no hyphen after it, is very different from what Cannon and his entire generation of working-class leaders that joined or came up in the groups affiliated with the Comintern and its descendants believed–which the term “Marxism-Leninism” captures, that Lenin made a huge contribution that took Marxism to a higher level, and specifically on the organization question.

In 2005, as part of the discussion leading up to the 2006 convention of Solidarity, I wrote a contribution under the title of “Critical Comments on Democratic Centralism” where I quoted that Cannon passage and also investigated another version of the same claim, which is that Lenin was consciously building “a party of a new type.” I also made that public as a PDF and on an e-mail list.

The following is from that document:

As an experiment, I googled “party of a new type” (the catch phrase is often attributed to Lenin) on marxists.org to try to find when he had said it and how he used it. I found dozens of references, especially in the prefaces and footnotes to Lenin’s Collected Works, asserting that this or that passage was an example of Lenin explaining his original contribution of a “party of a new type” and also among a wide array of latter-day “Leninists,” (in the U.S., for example, encompassing a spectrum from James P. Cannon to Carl Davidson.)

Yet Google found only one place where Lenin himself used the expression, in a letter to Alexandra Kollontai from mid-March 1917 as she was about to return to Russia. The main body of the letter is an outline of some of the main ideas of the April Theses, and a request that she acquaint several comrades with a draft of a set of theses about the political situation in Russia (which I assume was a draft of the April Theses). The phrase occurs in a P.S., which I quote in full:

“P.S. I am afraid that there will now be an epidemic in Petersburg ‘simply’ of excitement, without systematic work on a party of a new type. It must not be a la ‘Second International.’ Wider! Raise up new elements! Awaken a new initiative, new organizations in all sections, and prove to them that peace will be brought only by an armed Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, if it takes power.”

Lenin is talking about the situation in Russia a few days after the victory of the February Revolution and the removal of the monarchy. What is striking here is that the main things we associate with “a party of a new type” simply aren’t part of Lenin’s use of the phrase, his only use of it that I could find. Here clearly the contrast is with the party of the “old” type, and the text suggests to me what he means is one based on a narrow aristocracy of labor, an issue which Lenin had written on in previous months (see, for example, his article on “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” written in October of 1916). He wanted the Bolsheviks to go out and organize and draw into the organization much broader layers of working people than previously. That’s how I read it.

In the Stalinist Collected Works preface to What Is to Be Done? the phrase “party of a new type” appears in quotation marks, as if it had been drawn from the text that follows. But it isn’t there in Lenin’s text. To make extra sure that some typo or trivial word change hadn’t kept me from finding the reference, I downloaded and searched the PDF version from marxists.org for the phrases “new type” “new kind” and a couple of other variants. Still nothing, but it did lead me to read what the introduction says, which is that Lenin’s spiel about a “party of a new type” in [What Is to Be Done?] “is the origin of Lenin’s famous theory of the Party as ‘vanguard of the proletariat.'” So I searched the PDF for that phrase. Yep, you guessed it. Despite the use of quotation marks by the authors of the introduction, I couldn’t find that phrase or any similar one with the word “vanguard” in it in the pamphlet.

Googling “vanguard of the proletariat” on Marxists.org produced strikingly different results. There are a number of references by Lenin to the [Russian Social Democratic Labor Party] or social democrats as the vanguard of the proletariat. As there are by Luxemburg, Kautskv and others, from around the same time (1904-1908 in the references I saw, but I checked only a small fraction, only enough to satisfy myself that I could reliably and factually report that the idea that the revolutionary workers party is the “vanguard of the proletariat” was not at all an original one of Lenin’s).

And actually I knew this would be the result before doing the search, because I know where Lenin got it, which is the same place where Kautsky and everyone else found it, and that is in the Manifesto of the Communist Party:

“The Communists…are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

The idea of this special role of the communists in the broader working-class movement comes, not from Lenin originally, but from Marx and Engels, and they were only modifying and updating concepts that were current among revolutionaries of their time and before them. But I must confess that my most favorite way of expressing the idea is the “from below” way that Marx and Engels chose–“that section which pushes forward all others.”

To wind up, I want to explain that the main practical reason I wrote that piece in 2005 wasn’t to take on a caucus that I’d previously been part of, but provide backing for the proposal I had made in the Solidarity National Committee, that the preconvention discussion bulletins be publicly available to anyone who wanted them, save for contributions whose authors requested they not be included in the “public” version of the PDF files. (Recent events in the British Socialist Workers Party show the ineffectiveness of trying to keep things “internal” in the case of a big controversy or scandal anyways, so now I think that last point is moot.)

I mention this because on theNorthStar.info website, I published my original comment about Paul’s article plus a long, quotation-laden introduction devoted to only one theme: Lenin and his friends did not have debates in the way that revolutionary socialist groups do today, in private. I did that to promote once again the idea that discussion bulletins should be public, especially with the upcoming Solidarity preconvention discussion in mind.

I was also going to put on theNorthStar.info Paul’s response, but when I went to do it, I saw the comrades doing the admin work on the web site had beat me to the punch.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Pham Binh March 20, 2013 at 12:23 pm

In a similar vein on the “internal bulletin” issue: http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/953/spew-peter-taaffe-and-his-own-scandal

I don’t think the practice of secret, members-only discussion bulletins can be traced back to the post-Lenin Zinoviev era of the Communist International or the Russian Communist Party. I believe this practice was Trotsky’s “innovation” and it took hold in the Trotskyist movement as its obsession with program and doctrine led to eight decades of incessant splits, creating wave after wave of competing Trotskyist groups. Each group thought it had the “correct line,” the magic formula for success, a trade secret that had to be kept from the eyes of its rivals at all costs, and so the practice of secret, members-only internal bulletins persists to this day. This conspiratorial practice inevitably gives rise to an aura of “revolutionary-ness” among group members, as if what is being discussed is of Earth-shaking epoch-making importance and when in fact most of these bulletins consist of reiterations to keep on keeping on.

In the rare event that substantive inner organization debate does break out, these secret, conspiratorial methods lead to tremendous political distortions at best and the abuse of power at worst. A good example of the former is the reaction to people of color members of the ISO who wrote a document in 2010 entitled, “Recruiting, Developing, and Retaining Members of Color in the ISO”. They were literally denounced as modern-day Bundists under the influence of liberalism for daring (oh, the outrage!) to argue for affirmative action in their own organization. It’s highly unlikely such nonsense would fly in public debates in a common radical organization because 1) people have to worry actually about how they look to the thinking public, i.e. the working class 2) uncomradely behavior and snipes are much more of a liability when it happens out in the open and 3) misrepresenting someone’s arguments is much harder to do when people in and outside the group’s ranks can read all the documents and evidence themselves.


Mike Copestake March 20, 2013 at 7:14 pm

Good article that makes a number of good points against the historical invention of ‘Leninism’.

Small historical note though: “But Marx did not object to the fusion with the LaSalleans, he subordinated programmatic and theoretical clarity to “every step of real movement”

Marx did actually object to the fusion with the Lassaleans and did so on the grounds that the programmatic landmark thus ‘set up before the movement’ would represent a dreadful step down from the politics/programme of the Eisanachers (the marxists).

What he advocates, and he says this very clearly, is that they should have instead formed an agreement for *common action* without a fusion, it’s there in the text.

Then, following a period of common activity and agitation seek to unify on a programme that is superior on the ABC’s of independent working class politics than Gotha, ie against alliances with the bourgeois state for aid for co-operatives (class collaborationism/reformism), the illusion of the ‘free state'(lack of democratic-republican demands, smashing the state), and a lack of real and substantial internationalism.

Marx, letter to Bracke: “One knows that the mere fact of unification is satisfying to the workers, but it is a mistake to believe that this momentary success is not bought too dearly.”

Engels to Bracke: “They[the lassaleans] should be given an exceedingly cool and cautious reception, and union be made dependent on the degree of their readiness to abandon their sectarian slogans and their state aid, and to accept in its essentials the Eisenach Programme of 1869 or an improved edition of it adapted to the present day”

This is qualitatively different than the sectarian counter-posing of detailed programmes/theories to ‘the movement’ as you correctly call various trends in Trotskyism out on. Its common action by the (united) Marxists with none-marxists in the movement, and agitation for acceptence of the basic ABC’s prior to organisational party unity.
wcg Mike C


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