We publish here the first part in a series by Alan Woods looking at the theoretical differences between Marxism and anarchism. These articles were originally published as an open letter in response to an article by ‘Black Flag’, an anarchist group in Brazil, continuing the analysis presented in this earlier series on the ideas of Marxism vs anarchism.
In this first part, Alan explores the vital questions of “spontaneity vs organisation” and “reform or revolution”, looking at the role of the revolutionary party and its relationship to the end goal of a communist society.
I was recently informed that the Bandeira negra (Black Flag) anarchist group in Brazil has published an answer to my “Marxism and Anarchism” article published in January 2012. It goes without saying that we welcome comradely criticism from any part of the international workers’ movement. That includes comrades who adhere to points of view opposed to Marxism, which anarchism has always been.
A comradely debate can help us clarify our ideas and thus strengthen the revolutionary movement. I consider, however, that the theories of Marxism, which have stood the test of time, are sufficiently strong to rebut any criticism, which I will demonstrate in this article.
However, the prior condition for a healthy debate is an honest approach to one’s opponent. My article “Marxism and Anarchism” is described as “a festival of fallacies and historical falsifications”. We shall show where the fallacies and historical falsifications lie, and we will let the reader decide whether the lies and falsifications are to be found in my article or in the assertions of my critics.
Does anarchism have a theory?
Black flag expresses great indignation at the fact that I allegedly denied that the anarchists have a theory. As a matter of fact I have never made such a statement. It is, like most of the other statements attributed to me by our critic, a product of his fertile imagination.
“The author starts talking about the importance of theory, as if anarchists denied it!
“It is important to remember that Mikhail Bakunin recognized “Capital” as one of the best works already made and was willing to translate it. PROUDHON, a federalist socialist who inspired anarchism, whom the document spits on, had his work “What is Property?” which was considered a scientific study by Marx himself.”
I am very well aware that anarchism is based on a theory. My problem with it is that it is a very weak theory, full of contradictions: a mishmash of the old ideas taken from the utopian socialists, particularly Proudhon, mixed up with adventurous and sectarian notions introduced by Bakunin. The authentic father of these ideas was indeed Proudhon.
In spite of Black Flag’s attempt to find a quote which is aimed at proving that Marx respected the ideas of Proudhon, I am afraid to say that we must expose this fallacy. Far from praising Proudhon’s confused ideas, Karl Marx described Proudhon’s major work Philosophie de la misère as “on the whole poor, if not very poor… his philosophy is absurd—he produces an absurd philosophy because he has not understood present social conditions”. Indeed Marx went so far as to write a devastating criticism of Proudhon’s work in the Poverty of Philosophy.
The theoretical weakness of anarchism – which Marx clearly exposed – is precisely that it repeats the mistakes of the utopian socialists and in particular of Proudhon, the exponent of petty bourgeois socialism par excellence. Bakunin’s programme (insofar as it existed) was a superficial mixing together of ideas taken from Proudhon, St. Simon and other utopian socialists. Above all, he preached abstention from the political movement – an idea that he also took from Proudhon.
The truth is that Marxism and anarchism are completely opposed and mutually exclusive ideologies. The first is a scientific theory and a revolutionary policy reflecting the class interests of the proletariat. Marxism bases itself on the working class, the only genuinely revolutionary class in society. By contrast, anarchism is a confused and unscientific doctrine that finds its class base in the petty bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat. But do not take my word for it. Let us see what Bakunin had to say on this question.
What was Bakunin’s position in relation to the working class? From a letter to La Liberté that Bakunin wrote in 1872 it is very clear that he does not even accept that the proletariat is a class and even refers to the aristocratic rule of the factory workers over the rural proletariat, i.e. the urban proletariat over the peasantry:
“We revolutionary anarchists who sincerely want full popular emancipation view with repugnance another expression in this program: it is the designation of the proletariat, the workers, as a class and not a mass. Do you know what this signifies? It is no more nor less than the aristocratic rule of the factory workers and of the cities over the millions who constitute the rural proletariat, who, in the anticipations of the German Social Democrats, will in effect become the subjects of their so-called People’s State. “Class,” “power … .. state” are three inseparable terms, one of which presupposes the other two, and which boil down to this: the political subjection and economic exploitation of the masses.” [My emphasis, AW]
In the same letter he refers to the “bourgeoisified minority” of city workers:
“This same logic leads the Marxists directly and fatally to what we call bourgeois socialism and to the conclusion of a new political pact between the bourgeois who are ‘radicals,’ or who are forced to become such, and the ‘intelligent’, ‘respectable’ bourgeoisified minority of city workers, to the detriment of the proletarian masses, not only in the country but also in the cities.”
“Spontaneity” and the political struggle
One of the main features which has always characterised virtually every anarchist tendency, starting with Bakunin, was precisely the rejection of politics and political parties. This well-known fact is indignantly denied by our anarchist critic. In Part One of his diatribe against Marxism, my critic also hotly denies that anarchism is “spontaneist”. Black Flag begins by claiming that I associate anarchism with “disorganization, something akin to lost people running in circles and not knowing where to go, without clear political proposals. This is obviously false.”
But wait a minute, my friend. Since you are so keen to lay claim to the theories of Bakunin, the founding father of anarchism, and since you insist that we read his works, let us see what he has to say on the subject of “spontaneity”:
In Stateless Socialism: Anarchism, one of his key works, [no date but most likely 1873 Bakunin insists that “the spontaneous action of masses is everything”:
“In a social revolution, which in everything is diametrically opposed to a political revolution, the actions of individuals hardly count at all, whereas the spontaneous action of masses is everything.”[My emphasis]
I believe that these words are so clear that even Black Flag will not have much difficulty in understanding them. In just a couple of sentences Bakunin sweeps aside all “political revolutions”, that is to say, every struggle for political demands, every revolution that aims to change the political order of society. He calls instead for a pure “social revolution”, that is to say, one that will instantly sweep away all classes and immediately establish the anarchist society where there will be no political power, no state, no oppressors and oppressed.
Anything short of that is to be rejected with contempt as miserable reformism – something that is “diametrically opposed” to the anarchist ideal of a “social revolution”. From this it would follow that the struggle for democratic demands, and the workers’ struggle for wage demands and better conditions, should be rejected because they do not lead to the instant overthrow of capitalism and its state.
It also follows that the political struggle, participation in elections, the struggle for reforms in the field of health, education, better pensions, a limitation on the length of the working day, women’s rights etc. are not only useless but positively harmful, since they draw the masses’ attention away from the real struggle – for the “social revolution”.
In the letter to La Liberté Bakunin says the following in reference to getting candidates elected to bourgeois parliaments:
“Such is the meaning of workers’ candidacies to the parliaments of existing states, and of the conquest of political power. Is it not clear that the popular nature of such power will never be anything but a fiction? It will obviously be impossible for hundreds or even tens of thousands or indeed only a few thousand to exercise this power effectively. They will necessarily have to exercise power by proxy, to entrust this power to a group of men elected to represent them and govern them… After a few brief moments of freedom or revolutionary euphoria, these new citizens of a new state will awake to find themselves again the pawns and victims of the new power clusters…”
We see here how abstract Anarchist theory is in practice. From an appraisal of the limited nature of bourgeois democracy, they go over to the other extreme. Here it is state power as such, and not the class interests it serves, that is presented as causing betrayal or oppression. According to Bakunin, merely holding office, regardless of the context, which class is applying pressure etc., turns you into an oppressor. Anarchists reject participation in elections. But the working class struggled for a long time to win the right to vote and other democratic rights against the ferocious resistance of the ruling class. We understand that these conquests, in and of themselves, cannot solve the fundamental problems of society and the working class. Nevertheless, the fundamental problem lies not in the form of representative democracy itself, but in the economic power of the bourgeoisie over parliament – otherwise in our system the capitalists would also end up being oppressed by their parliamentary representatives. The struggle for Democratic demands has played a most important role in developing the consciousness and militancy of the working class and the exploited masses in general.
The workers of Brazil understand this perfectly well. It is not a matter of indifference to the working class whether we have the right to strike and demonstrate, or the right to vote in elections. As long as capitalism continues to exist, the working class is obliged to take advantage of each and every legal possibility to advance its cause. To refuse to participate in elections would be to hand political power to the parties of our class enemies. In what way this abstention could help advance the interests of the working class is a mystery that only an anarchist could hope to understand.
Marxists have always understood that participation in parliamentary activity contains many risks and dangers. The bourgeoisie has developed to the level of a fine art the systematic corruption of the workers’ representatives in Parliament. That is perfectly true. But in the same way the bosses have developed all kinds of ways of corrupting the workers’ representatives in the factories, in the local councils and at every other level. Are we to refuse to elect representatives, for example, to a strike committee out of fear that they may be corrupted by the bosses? This line of argument must logically lead to a refusal to organise the workers at all.
Marx on political action and organisation
This is what Marx had to say as far as the rejection of political action and organization is concerned:
“N.B. as to political movement: The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organization of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.
“On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organization, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organization.
“Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organization to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, i.e., the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands, as the September revolution in France showed, and as is also proved up to a certain point by the game Messrs. Gladstone & Co. are bringing off in England even up to the present time.” (Marx to Friedrich Bolte In New York, November 23, 1871, published in Marx and Engels Correspondence; Publisher: International Publishers, 1968)
Reformism or revolution?
Black Flag states the following:
“So, the difference between Social Democracy and Marxism has always been very thin. The divergence is found exclusively on how the Party should conquer the state apparatus. But once in its power, the transformation of capitalist society would be the task of THE FEW, unlike the anarchist way forward which, as Bakunin explained, ‘The social theory of the anti-state socialists or anarchists leads them directly and inevitably towards a break with all forms of the State, with all varieties of bourgeois politics, and leaves no choice except a social revolution. The opposite theory, state communism and the authority of the scientists, attracts and confuses its followers and, under the pretext of political tactics, makes continuous deals with the governments and various bourgeois political parties, and is directly pushed towards reaction.’” [Statism and Anarchy]
Our friend concludes triumphantly: “Reformism is not a denial of Marxism: it is its child.” He attempts to portray Marx and Engels as reformists, but the way he does it reveals his utterly dishonest method of quotation. Black Flag provides this brief quote from Engels’s Principles of Communism, written in October-November 1847: “Communists have therefore continuously take sides for the bourgeois liberals against governments.”
In his usual manner, the quote is taken out of context, the sentence is not complete, and the source is not provided. Let us see what Engels actually said. In reply to question number 25, “What is the attitude of the communists to the other political parties of our time?” Engels explains the following in reference to Germany:
“In Germany, finally, the decisive struggle now on the order of the day is that between the bourgeoisie and the absolute monarchy. Since the communists cannot enter upon the decisive struggle between themselves and the bourgeoisie until the bourgeoisie is in power, it follows that it is in the interest of the communists to help the bourgeoisie to power as soon as possible in order the sooner to be able to overthrow it. Against the governments, therefore, the communists must continually support the radical liberal party, taking care to avoid the self-deceptions of the bourgeoisie and not fall for the enticing promises of benefits which a victory for the bourgeoisie would allegedly bring to the proletariat. The sole advantages which the proletariat would derive from a bourgeois victory would consist:
“(i) in various concessions which would facilitate the unification of the proletariat into a closely knit, battle-worthy, and organized class; and
“(ii) in the certainly that, on the very day the absolute monarchies fall, the struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat will start. From that day on, the policy of the communists will be the same as it now is in the countries where the bourgeoisie is already in power.
As you can see the fragment of a sentence italicised above is what our anarchist friend quotes, turning its meaning into its opposite, making out that Engels was advocating support for the bourgeois liberals always. In actual fact, he is simply stating that in Germany in 1847, as the struggle was against the feudal aristocracy, the communists would support the bourgeoisie against the feudal state, after which the struggle against the bourgeoisie would commence. But why bother with the full quote when a partial one taken out of context is much more useful in distorting what Engels said?
But let us return to today’s situation and present-day reformists. Our criticism of the reformists is not that they fight for reforms, but that they do not fight for reforms; they capitulate to the pressure of the bourgeoisie and carry out counter-reforms, reducing living standards in order to prop up the capitalist system, especially in present period of capitalist crisis. The experience of the PT government in Brazil or the Tsipras government in Greece is sufficient to illustrate this point. It is elementary that if we are serious about winning the working class to revolutionary ideas, we must place ourselves at the forefront of every struggle to defend and improve living standards, even the most basic.
The immediate demands of the masses are not restricted to economic questions but inevitably move onto the terrain of politics. Here the traditional arguments of the anarchists come into direct conflict with the interests of the working class. Whether you like it or not – until capitalism is overthrown – important questions are decided by Parliament. Laws are passed that directly affect the lives and conditions of workers, the unemployed, the sick, the old, the young and women. Are we to abandon the day to day struggle to change the laws in the interests of our class?
Let us take the question of the vote. In Marx’s day the workers did not have the right to vote, and so the struggle for the vote was an extremely important question for the working class. What was Bakunin’s attitude to this important question?
Here is what he wrote in On Representative Government and Universal Suffrage (1870):
“If a government composed exclusively of workers were elected tomorrow by universal suffrage, these same workers, who are today the most dedicated democrats and socialists, would tomorrow become the most determined aristocrats, open or secret worshippers of the principle of authority, exploiters and oppressors.”
And he adds later in the same text:
“Representative government is a system of hypocrisy and perpetual falsehood. Its success rests on the stupidity of the people and the corruption of the public mind.
“Does this mean that we, the revolutionary socialists, do not want universal suffrage – that we prefer limited suffrage, or a single despot? Not at all. What we maintain is that universal suffrage, considered in itself and applied in a society based on economic and social inequality, will be nothing but a swindle and snare for the people; nothing but an odious lie of the bourgeois-democrats, the surest way to consolidate under the mantle of liberalism and justice the permanent domination of the people by the owning classes, to the detriment of popular liberty. We deny that universal suffrage could be used by the people for the conquest of economic and social equality. It must always and necessarily be an instrument hostile to the people, on which supports the de facto dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”
Bakunin rejects participation in elections, although he says that he is “not at all” opposed to fighting for universal suffrage. What is this Sphynx-like utterance supposed to mean? What is the point of fighting for the right to vote if we then advocate not voting in elections? But, says Bakunin, when the reformist leaders are elected to parliament they always betray. Yes, that is certainly true. Trotsky explains that betrayal is inherent in reformism, and all history shows that this is the case. But that does not exhaust the question by any means. We Marxists are not worshippers of parliamentary politics, but nor do we believe that it is possible to dispose of parliamentarism by merely ignoring elections.
The electoral struggle is merely one more front of the class struggle. By refusing to participate in this struggle we merely hand political power to our class enemies on a plate. In what way this serves the cause of socialism and the working class it is impossible to say.
We are certainly opposed to reformism, but we are not at all opposed to participating energetically in the struggles of the workers and the youth for demands that tend to improve their lives under capitalism, because only through these struggles can they acquire the necessary understanding of the nature of capitalism and the state, the need to organise and the need for a fundamental change in society: the need for the socialist revolution. The struggle for democratic rights is extremely important not only as a school of struggle, but also as a way of raising the consciousness of the workers and raising their organisations to a higher level.
Let us take an example from the Russian revolution. The revolution was fought out on the basis of the following slogans: peace, bread and land. If we analyse the content of these slogans we will find at first sight that there is nothing revolutionary about them. Nor do they contain any element of socialism, much less anarchism. In theory, all these things could be achieved under capitalism. But in the concrete reality of Russia in 1917, peace, bread and land could only be achieved through the overthrow of capitalism and the achievement of Soviet power.
Only by taking up these slogans, and linking them to the idea of Soviet power, could the Bolsheviks succeed in uniting millions of workers and peasants under the revolutionary banner. In the case of Brazil the struggle against the dictatorship in more recent times was a fundamental question for the working class. Was it necessary and correct to struggle for democratic rights and against the dictatorship? Here the importance of political struggle speaks for itself.
In 2013 Brazil experienced a mass movement of unparalleled proportions. How did this movement begin? It began with a struggle against the increase in bus fares in São Paulo. Doubtless our anarchist friend considers this to be merely a reformist demand, and unworthy of attention by serious revolutionists. Yet in fact the struggle over this limited demand rapidly escalated into a mass movement with revolutionary implications.
All these examples show how the struggle for elementary demands on immediate questions (“reforms”) serves to carry the workers’ movement forward, ultimately leading the proletariat to revolutionary conclusions. But for our anarchist friend this is a book sealed with seven seals. He has built a Chinese wall separating the struggle for reforms from revolution, and cannot see the dialectical relation between the two.
What attitude should we have taken towards this movement and this demand? The logic of what our anarchist critic says is that we should not dirty our hands with such trivial reforms as a reduction in bus fares. Rather we should proclaim the need for an anarchist revolution. But in reality the line between the struggle for reforms and the struggle for socialist revolution is not so clear cut as our friend imagines.
The position put forward by our critic overlooks the fact that the working class in general does not learn from books and speeches but from life itself. The workers learn from experience, particularly the experience of the class struggle. It is only through the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism that the working class acquires sufficient experience to raise itself to the level of drawing revolutionary conclusions. If our anarchist friend cannot understand this elementary fact, we are sincerely very sorry for him.
A slight misunderstanding?
The next claim made by Black Flag is so extraordinary that it makes one rub one’s eyes to see if we have read it correctly. He writes:
“When the various revolutionary experiences of a libertarian character throughout history are studied, the appreciation of a serious political program is undeniable, aligned with the interests of the working class and carrying a revolutionary discipline.”
So there we have it. Our critic maintains that throughout history the anarchists have in fact been in favour of forming a revolutionary party, based on “the appreciation of a serious political program, aligned with the interests of the working class and carrying a revolutionary discipline.” To all of which we say: Amen!
If all this is true it is hard to see what all the fuss has been about for the last 150 years. It would appear that the differences between Marxism and anarchism were only the product of an unfortunate misunderstanding. That is good news indeed! But is it true? To begin with, when the “various revolutionary experiences of a libertarian character throughout history” are studied, the abiding impression is one of self-contradiction and eclecticism within anarchism, and not ‘a serious political programme’.
We must point out that the terminology used by Black Flag is confused in the extreme. What is the meaning of “the appreciation of a serious political program”? Here we are playing a game of hide and seek with words. Does this famous “anarchist political party” possess a political program, yes or no? If the answer is yes, it is hard to see how this conception differs from that of the Marxists. But like every other argument utilised by Black Flag, this is an ambiguous formula, calculated to confuse and not to clarify the issue.
What is a political party?
A party is a voluntary organisation based upon definite principles and a program. The nature of the party will be largely determined by these questions of principle and programme. A reformist party will be based naturally on reformist principles and the reformist policy, that is to say a policy designed fundamentally to defend the capitalist system by introducing certain secondary modifications. A Marxist party, on the contrary, is based on the strategic aim of overthrowing capitalism, and its programme and policy will be determined by this aim.
What about the anarchists? They are opposed to the idea of organising the workers into a revolutionary party because such a party inevitably leads to bureaucratic and hierarchical leadership. They explain that parties are bad, but are useless at explaining how a revolution may take place without one. When asked to provide a concrete alternative they never provide a straight answer. What alternative do they propose? No organisation at all? My critic indignantly denies any such idea. He says:
“Finally, the author has to ramble about the importance of the Party for the political experience of the class, as if anarchists rejected this.”
So where do we stand? Do you accept or reject the need for the creation of a revolutionary party? On this question our friend twists and turns, and finally comes up with a formulation that he imagines will solve an insoluble contradiction in anarchist theory:
“Both the mass organization (social movements and trade unions) and the specifically anarchist organization are able to develop strategies and tactics, learn from the experience of struggles and develop towards socialism. The hierarchy and authority concentrated in a ‘superior intellectual elite’ has nothing to do with this, but with a desire for power.”
Our anarchist friend seeks to confuse the issue. It turns out that he does not want a party but only a “specifically anarchist organization”. This will have a structure, a programme (even a political programme!) and will be based on a definite theory. It will be able to “develop strategies and tactics, learn from the experience of struggles and develop towards socialism”. But it will not have a hierarchy and authority concentrated in a “superior intellectual elite”. Needless to say, it will have nothing to do with any “desire for power”.
It is difficult to make any sense of this mishmash of contradictory ideas, but we will do our best. In the first place we point out that, as explained by Black Flag, not only the “specifically anarchist organization” but also the mass organization (social movements and trade unions) are able to “develop strategies and tactics, learn from the experience of struggles and develop towards socialism”.
But hang on a moment! The mass organisations to which you refer are precisely the bureaucratic reformist organisations like the PT and the CUT that you have consistently described in the most negative terms, portraying them as things that are beyond the pale from a revolutionary point of view. Now suddenly, for mysterious reasons that are unexplained, they suddenly become transformed into organisations that can not only develop tactics and strategy on the basis of experience, but also “develop towards socialism”.
If this is the case, then it is hard to see why a “specifically anarchist organization” is needed at all. If the workers through their traditional mass reformist organisations are able to do exactly the same things, why do we need to exist as a separate entity?
Matters become even more confused when we try to analyse the content of the expression “develop towards socialism”. What does this mean? We are supposed to stand for socialist revolution. There is no question of “developing towards socialism”. This presupposes, not revolution, but a gradual evolution in the direction of socialism: precisely the age-old formula of the reformists. Here confusion is piled upon confusion, contradiction upon contradiction. But since when has this kind of thing ever bothered the theoreticians of anarchism?
To anyone with an elementary grasp of ideas, this “specifically anarchist organization” sounds very much like a political party. And like any political party, it will presumably contain a division of responsibilities. Unless we are referring to a very tiny group like a discussion circle, it will need to elect or select certain individuals to take responsibility for the daily running of the organisation (publications, finance, propaganda etc.). Moreover, experience shows that the more experienced members of this organisation will carry rather more weight in its deliberations than others and will in effect play a leading role.
At this point the anarchist will protest vociferously that the celebrated “specifically anarchist organization” will have no leaders, that everyone is the same so there is no need to elect a leadership at all. All that this means in practice is that there will be a clique of people who in practice take all the main decisions, but who are neither elected nor responsible to any form of democratic control. We have seen this many times in groups claiming to be anarchist. This leads in practice to the worst kind of hierarchical rule: the rule of an unelected clique.
A revolutionary party does not necessarily presuppose a “hierarchy and authority concentrated in a ‘superior intellectual elite’” nor is it guided by a “desire for power”. The Bolshevik party under Lenin and Trotsky was the most democratic party that ever existed. It led the working class to power in October 1917 in Russia. That is what earns it the hatred of the ruling class and provides an inspiration to workers and youth that are fighting to change society everywhere.
Is a Party needed?
The whole history of the class struggle over the last hundred years provides the answer to this question. Marxism does not deny the importance of the role of the individual in history, but only explains that the role played by individuals or parties is circumscribed by the given level of historical development, by the objective social environment which, in the last analysis, is determined by the development of the productive forces. This does not mean—as has been alleged by the critics of Marxism—that men and women are merely puppets of the blind workings of “economic determinism”.
Historical materialism teaches us to look beyond the individual players on the stage of history and look for deeper causes for great historical events. But this by no means denies or belittles the role of the individual in history. In given moments the role of a single man or woman can be decisive. The working class needs a party to change society. If there is no revolutionary party capable of giving a conscious leadership to the revolutionary energy of the class, this energy can be wasted, in the same way that steam is lost if there is no piston to channel its power.
Marx and Engels explained that men and women make their own history, but they do not do so as free agents, being constrained by their position in society. The personal qualities of political figures —their theoretical preparation, skill, courage and determination—can determine the outcome in a given situation. There are critical moments in human history when the quality of the leadership can be the decisive factor that tips the balance one way or another. Although individuals cannot determine the development of society by the force of the will alone, yet the role of the subjective factor is ultimately decisive in human history.
The revolutionary party cannot be improvised on the spur of the moment, any more than a general staff can be improvised on the outbreak of war. It has to be systematically prepared over years and decades. Rosa Luxemburg, that great revolutionary and martyr of the working class, always emphasised the revolutionary initiative of the masses as the motor force of revolution. In this, she was absolutely right. In the course of a revolution the masses learn rapidly. But a revolutionary situation, by its very nature, cannot last for long. Society cannot be kept in a permanent state of ferment, nor the working class in a state of white-hot activism. Either a way out is shown in time, or the moment will be lost. There is not enough time to experiment or for the workers to learn by trial and error. In a life and death situation, errors are paid for very dearly! Therefore, it is necessary to combine the “spontaneous” movement of the masses with organisation, programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics—in a word, with a revolutionary party led by experienced cadres. It goes without saying that this party of cadres must patiently win the confidence of the masses through democratic means.
The Marxist party, from the very beginning, must base itself on theory and programme; the apparatus is merely a necessary means to put this programme into practice. Such a theory and programme is not sucked out of our thumb, but is nothing other than the summing up of the general historical experience of the proletariat. Without this, the party is nothing. The building of a revolutionary party always begins with the slow and painstaking work of assembling and educating the cadres, which forms the backbone of the party throughout its entire lifetime. That is the first half of the problem. But only the first half. The second half is more complicated: how to reach the mass of the workers with our ideas and programme? This is not at all a simple question.
Should a revolutionary party reproduce communism?
The main mistake of our anarchist friends is to imagine that a party (or an “anarchist association”) should replicate as closely as possible the future communist society, i.e. a free association of men and women. But this is to completely misunderstand the role of a revolutionary party.
A revolutionary party is a tool for the purpose of overthrowing the existing state power. It is not, and cannot be, a mirror image of the future society that will be created on the basis of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. A carpenter’s plane cannot resemble the chair or table that is the final result of his work. A bricklayer’s trowel cannot resemble a wall.
When we look at Michelangelo’s statue of David we are overwhelmed by its tremendous sense of humanity and warmth. It is difficult to believe that this stone is not a human body; one has the impression that if you were to touch it, it would feel soft and warm. Yet in order to create this wonderful masterpiece Michelangelo had to use a sharp chisel fashioned out of the toughest steel capable of slicing through the hardest stone.
Despite the difference in time and subject matter, the analogy with a revolutionary party is a precise one. It is not the business of a revolutionary party to model itself on the future communist society where all oppression and compulsion will be merely a bad memory of the past. It is our business to gather together the most conscious and revolutionary elements of the working class and the youth in a disciplined revolutionary organisation to which has befallen the task of waging a ruthless struggle to overthrow the oppressors, creating the necessary conditions for the establishment of a genuinely humane and democratic society.
In reality, the anarchists also want to create a party. But it is a party that is not at all suited for the revolutionary tasks facing the working class. It is as useless for revolutionary purposes as it would have been for Michelangelo to try to turn a huge lump of stone into the statue of David using a paintbrush instead of a chisel.