Sunday, 17 January 2010

What does it mean to be a revolutionary?

I've read a lot of Tony Cliff, but nowhere does he write more succinctly and eloquently than in this passage from his 1960 essay 'Trotsky on substitutionism'. The title may suggest something quite obscure, but that's not the case at all - Cliff is writing about big and important issues for socialist activists. I was going to attempt a synopsis of his ideas, or write a commentary, but there's nothing better than just letting this speak for itself.


One can visualise three kinds of leadership that for lack of better names we shall call those of the teacher, the foreman and the companion in struggle. The first kind of leadership shown by small sects is “blackboard socialism” (in Britain an extreme example of this sort is the SPGB) in which didactic methods take the place of participation in struggle.

The second kind, with foreman-worker or officer-soldier relations, characterises all bureaucratic reformist and Stalinist parties: the leadership sits in a caucus and decides what they will tell the workers to do, without the workers actively participating. What characterises both these kinds of leadership is the fact that directives go only one way: the leaders conduct a monologue with the masses.

The third kind of leadership is analogous to that between a strike committee and the workers on strike, or a shop steward and his mates. The revolutionary party must conduct a dialogue with the workers outside it. The party, in consequence, should not invent tactics out of thin air, but put as its first duty to learn from the experience of the mass movement and then generalise from it.

The great events of working-class history have shown the correctness of this emphasis beyond all measure of doubt. The workers of Paris in 1871 established a new form of state – a state without a standing army and bureaucracy, where all officials received the average worker’s salary, with the right of recall of all officials, etc., before Marx began to generalise about the nature and structure of a workers’ state.

Again the workers of Petrograd in 1905 established a Soviet independently of the Bolshevik Party, actually in opposition to the local Bolshevik leadership, and in the face of at least suspicion, if not animosity, on the part of Lenin himself. Therefore one cannot but agree with Rosa Luxemburg when she wrote in 1904:

'The main characteristics of the tactics of struggle of Social Democracy are not “invented”, but are the result of a continuous series of great creative acts of elementary class struggle. Here also the unconscious precedes the conscious, the logic of the objective historical process comes before the subjective logic of its bearer.'

The role of Marxists is to generalise the living, evolving experience of the class struggle, to give a conscious expression to the instinctive drive of the working class to reorganise society on a socialist basis.

Because the working class is far from being monolithic, and because the path to socialism is uncharted, wide differences of strategy and tactics can and should exist in the revolutionary party. The alternative is the bureaucratised party or the sect with its “leader”. Here one cannot but regret Trotsky’s sweeping statement that “any serious factional fight in a party is always in the final analysis a reflection of the class struggle”. This verges on a vulgar materialist interpretation of human thought as growing directly out of material conditions!

What class pressures separated Lenin from Luxemburg, or Trotsky from Lenin (1903-17), or what change in class pressures can one see in Plekhanov’s zigzags: with Lenin in 1903, against him in 1903, against him in 1905, with him again (and at last breaking, it is true, with Lenin and with the revolutionary movement and joining the class enemy)? Can the differences in the theory of imperialism between Lenin and Luxemburg be derived from an analysis of their position in class society? Scientific socialism must live and thrive on controversy. And scientists who start off with the same basic assumptions, and then use the same method of analysis, do differ in all fields of research.

In order that the party should be able to conduct a dialogue with the masses, it is necessary not only that the party have confidence in the tremendous abilities of the working class in action, but also that the party understand correctly the situation in the country and the conditions of the working class, materially and morally. Any self-deceit on its part must cut short the dialogue and turn it into a boring monologue.

The party has to be subordinated to the whole. And so the internal regime in the revolutionary party must be subordinated to the relation between the party and the class. The managers of factories can discuss their business in secret and then put before the workers a fait accompli. The revolutionary party that seeks to overthrow capitalism cannot accept the notion of a discussion on policies inside the party without the participation of the mass of the workers – policies which are then brought “unanimously” ready-made to the class.

Since the revolutionary party cannot have interests apart from the class, all the party’s issues of policy are those of the class, and they should therefore be thrashed out in the open, in its presence. The freedom of discussion which exists in the factory meeting, which aims at unity of action after decisions are taken, should apply to the revolutionary party. This means that all discussions on basic issues of policy should be discussed in the light of day: in the open press. Let the mass of the workers take part in the discussion, put pressure on the party, its apparatus and leadership.


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