Editorial from Revolutionary Communist 6 March 1977

‘... the fundamental economic interests of the proletariat can be satisfied only by a political revolution that will replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ (Lenin, ‘What is to be done?’ Collected Works vol 5 pp390-391.)

As the crisis deepens and the attacks on the working class become more severe, it is not surprising that for the first time for many years an important debate has arisen amongst sections of advanced workers in the labour movement. Further, it is significant that this debate has begun not in the ranks of the radical left but in the Communist Party of Great Britain, the party on the left which is most responsive to the pressure of leading industrial militants. At the centre of this debate lies a discussion on the independent interests of the working class. Polemic on this question focuses around terms like the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and the ‘vanguard party’. Under the impact of the crisis, these issues are forced to the surface.

Sixteen months ago, in the editorial to RC3/4, we wrote: ‘The greatest barrier to building a revolutionary movement in Britain today is the fact that large numbers of workers and the leadership of the working class movement remain committed to a reformist solution to the crisis.’

For nearly two years the commitment of the labour movement to a Labour government has meant only fragmented and isolated struggles against the massive cuts in living standards which have taken place. It is only now, when the hard and crude experience of the social contract has shattered the belief amongst most workers that if they went along with wage reductions they would be able to prevent unemployment and hold back inflation, that the first signs of an organised fightback are visible.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that reformism has been undermined. The belief is still widespread that the crisis is caused by wrong capitalist policies aided and abetted by a right-wing Labour government. Mass action can force a left government to adopt policies, it is argued, which offer a working class solution to the crisis. The declaration from the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions' Conference held on 26 February 1977 expressed this simple view: ‘That only mounting rank-and-file action can influence the trade union movement to use its full strength to bring about a fundamental change of policy based on expansion of the economy – the only way to cut unemployment. Only action can restore the eroded real wage by ending the social contract, ensure a return to free collective bargaining and reverse government cuts in spending on social services.’

Of such stuff are dreams made. The essence of these views is that a progressive left government could regenerate British industry, increase employment by controlling capital export, by import controls and higher taxes on capital, and through a policy of increasing public expenditure and consumption. In other words, by the very Keynesian expansionary policies that the growing crisis has so fundamentally undermined.

As we pointed out in our analysis of the crisis (see RC3/4) there can be no solution to the crisis within capitalism that is not wholly against the interests of the working class. The crisis is not due to wrong policies, but is fundamental to the capitalist system. A Marxist analysis of the crisis shows that the working class is in no way responsible for the crisis. The political response of the working class must be based on this stand-point. The struggle against the social contract and the cuts in state expenditure necessarily means to come into conflict with the power of the capitalists through their state. This defence of the working class can only deepen the crisis. It challenges the ‘right’ of the capitalists to cut the living standards of the working class and to reduce social services and other public expenditure. By doing so, it necessarily raises the issue of power and shows that only one solution exists for the working class if the central problems facing humanity are to be resolved – the conquest of power by the proletariat, that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This is the significance of the debates within the Communist Party around this question. It is no accident that they should arise precisely now. In the debate in the columns of Marxism Today around the issue of socialist democracy, the real question at issue is not that of the nature of the Soviet Union and the relationship of national communist parties to it, but the attitude of the national communist parties primarily to their own working class. In his discussion of John Gollan’s article, ‘On the occurrence of the 20th anniversary of the 20th Congress of the CPSU’, Fergus Nicholson draws these conclusions: ‘In truth, if Communists are asking time now for this discussion, when the bankruptcy of the crisis-ridden capitalist system cries out for our leadership, it is because life-and-death issues of the future direction of the international working class movement are involved. This discussion is in substance not unconnected with the Italian Communist Party’s policy of “historic compromise” based on their pessimistic and negative estimate of the prospects for socialism in Italy. It is not unconnected with the attacks by the leaders of the Spanish Communist Party on the Portuguese Communist Party at critical moments in Portugal’s national democratic revolution. More generally, it is connected with the decision of the French Communist Party to drop the term “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” from their rules and to decide at their next Congress what words to adopt in its place, and of the Japanese Communist Party to drop the words “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and even “Marxism-Leninism”. Specifically this debate is preliminary to the discussion of the new, effectively a fourth, version of The British Road to Socialism.’ (Marxism Today, December 1976, pp388-389.)

The point is central to the discussion of the Western European Communist Parties in this issue of Revolutionary Communist. The article by Robert Dornhorst argues that the discussion within the ranks of the communist parties about the dictatorship of the proletariat does not primarily concern their relationship with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but that with their own working class. Such parties are no longer appendages of the CPSU – they are not Stalinist organisations, whose strategies reflect the foreign policy interests of the Soviet Union. The Communist Parties of the advanced capitalist countries are reformist parties, and have been so for more than thirty years. The contradictory nature of these parties lies not in relation to the Soviet Union, but in the conflict between their bourgeois leadership and their working class base. So it is precisely now, when a party based on the working class has to defend the interests of the working class against the power of the capitalist state, that the dictatorship of the proletariat becomes a real living issue in the labour movement. It is this issue which clearly separates reformists who ‘recognise the class struggle’ from revolutionaries who draw out the logic of this struggle. Lenin’s polemic ‘The State and Revolution’ was directed precisely against attempts to deny the dictatorship of the proletariat made by Kautsky who was, as the article shows, the intellectual antecedent of both Dimitrov and today’s revisionists: ‘To confine Marxism to the theory of the class struggle means curtailing Marxism, distorting it, reducing it to something acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is what constitutes the most profound distinction between the Marxist and the ordinary petty … bourgeois. This is the touchstone on which the real understanding and recognition of Marxism should be tested.’ (Lenin, ‘The State and Revolution’ Collected Works vol 25 p417.)

Nicholson, in the article previously quoted from, goes on to drive home his essential political point: ‘The main ideas of Marxism-Leninism which are under attack today are the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Internationalism, the Vanguard Party and Democratic Centralism. If these are not the main points on which the revolutionary communist parties were distinguished from the reformist and revisionist social democratic parties, what are? Abandon these propositions and you need no bridge to social democracy; you are already over on the other bank, a social democrat and not a communist; you don't need to change the Communist Party, only to leave it.’ (ibid p390.)

The notion of a vanguard party was first clearly formulated by Lenin, in the struggle against the Economists. This struggle, as we argued in the editorial of RC1, has become a vital one for revolutionaries today. We originally took up this question as part of a critique of the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers’ Party). But the question has a much wider significance – it raises centrally the issue of the role of the revolutionary party in leading the struggle of the working class today.

As a contribution to this discussion, we have printed a review by Bruce Landau of Tony Cliff’s Lenin – Building the Party. We do this, not because we are interested in a polemic with Cliff, but because the review attempts to show the issues Lenin was forced to deal with in establishing the party. Foremost among these was the question of spontaneism. Lenin argued that the role of a revolutionary party could not be simply to tag along behind the struggles of the working class, but that it must attempt to forge a vanguard which gives a political lead to the struggles of the class. To do this the party had to achieve theoretical clarity on the major issues facing the working class, in order to be able to intervene decisively in the ideological struggle to win the working class. Without such leadership, the elemental struggles of the working class, however militant, however active, inevitably become subordinated to bourgeois ideology.

Landau’s review adequately exposes Cliff’s anti-Leninism and shows succinctly how Lenin utilised the struggle against Economism to establish the central principles for building a revolutionary party today. The valuable discussion of these points makes this article by a non-member of the RCG a useful starting-point for the first important discussion of the revolutionary party in Revolutionary Communist.

The review, however, does make a concession to liberal objections to Lenin’s conception of the vanguard party. This concession concerns Lenin’s acceptance of the so-called ‘Kautskyan formula’ on the relationship between Marxist theory and the working class movement in the formation of the party. It argues that: ‘There are only two points in this pamphlet (What is to be Done?) which cannot be generalised and which do not form an essential element of Lenin’s theory of the party.’ (p31.)

The first point, a correct one, is that the clandestine status of the party imposed very severe restrictions on inner-party democracy. The second point, an incorrect one, goes some way to effectively denying the vanguard role of the party. It is that: ‘In distinguishing between the vanguard and mass, Lenin at one point employed a formula borrowed from Karl Kautsky which incorrectly argued that the socialist vanguard necessarily originates outside the ranks of the working class as a whole.’ (p31.)

This ‘poor formulation’ was allegedly not central to Lenin's thinking in general; it was a ‘misguided attempt to bolster his own, altogether correct, understanding of the questions at issue with Economism by citing an “authoritative” reference from a still universally respected Marxist theoretician’ (p32.) And in any case ‘Lenin himself subsequently abandoned this incorrect framing of the problem’. This last assertion is unfounded and it is not supported by the reference given to Lenin’s article Preface to the Collection ‘Twelve Years’, in which Lenin does not in fact deal specifically with this question. It should also be noted that to our knowledge Trotsky never substantiated the claim, quoted in footnote 47 of Landau’s article, that ‘The author of “What to Do?” himself subsequently acknowledged the biased nature, and therewith the erroneouseness of his theory...’.

Even at this early stage of his political life, Lenin was perfectly capable of analysing political questions without relying on the theoretical ‘authority’ of other Marxists. For the formulation is perfectly correct.

The fundamental theoretical doctrines of ‘Social-Democracy’ (sc. Communism) do arise independently of the spontaneous working class movement: eg, the law of value, the theory of crisis, and, in the case of Russia, the development of capitalism, could not be derived from the spontaneous experiences of the working class. That this is not an incidental ‘bad formula’ of Landau's, is shown by another passage, in which he clearly says: ‘... capitalism does not automatically bring socialist consciousness to the working class but only provides the working class with the experience from which they can derive a socialist consciousness.’ (p37.)

Does this mean that Marxists do not learn from the working class? Not at all. Marx and Lenin could not have formulated their theory of the state and the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat without the experience of the Paris Commune. But this experience had to be evaluated by the methods of a science which is not derived from the spontaneous experience of the working class, but which examines society from the point of view of the totality of class relations – in this sense, from outside the working class, ie theoretically. Lenin considered this point so important that he repeated it elsewhere in What is to be Done?, without referring to Kautsky at all : ‘... the basic error that all the Economists commit, namely, their conviction that it is possible to develop the class political consciousness of the workers from within, so to speak, from their economic struggle ... class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. . .’ (Lenin, ‘What is to be Done?Collected Works vol 5 p421.)

Landau’s objection to this central feature of What is to be Done? is as follows: ‘It is not true, however, that Marxism evolved . . . uninfluenced by the rise of the working-class movement.’ (p32.)

It is Landau and not Lenin who uses a ‘bad formula’ – he completely omits Lenin's all-important qualification: ‘. . . independently of the spontaneous growth of the working class movement’ (p31 our emphasis.)

Landau continues to ‘correct’ Lenin’s ‘bad formula’ in such a way as to completely misrepresent the message of What is to be Done?

‘. . . it is not correct to pose Marxism as a doctrine which only intellectuals can arrive at on their own “from the inside so to speak”.’ (p32.)

Elsewhere in What is to be Done?, in a passage which Landau actually quotes (p32), Lenin makes it clear that, in creating an independent ideology for the working class, workers ‘... take part, however, not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians, as Proudhons and Weitlings: in other words, they take part only when they are able, and to the extent that they are able more or less to acquire the knowledge of their age and develop that knowledge.’ (p32.)

Thus, such ‘socialist theoreticians’ do not simply generalise their experiences as workers – they reach outside the spontaneous experiences of the working class by means of Marxist theory to view the totality of bourgeois society, of which the working class forms a part. Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary movement will develop in which the workers are conscious of the irreconcilability of their interests, not just with a given group of employers, but with bourgeois society as a whole. Further, and this is a vital point which Landau fails to bring out clearly, the spontaneous struggle of the working class cannot train the class to respond to all cases of oppression. Lenin expressed this very clearly: ‘Working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected – unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic point of view and no other.’ (Lenin, ‘What is to be Done?’ Collected Works vol 5 p 412).

Today this is an especially urgent task. The spontaneous struggles of the working class do not lead it to adopt a revolutionary position on the question of women, Ireland, race, etc. The ideological struggle against chauvinism and racism is a vital task in building the party today.

In the Preface to the Collection ‘Twelve Years’ and elsewhere, Lenin argued that in What is to be Done? he had to straighten out what had been twisted by the Economists. That straightening out is just as much a vital task for us today. The strengthening of bourgeois ideology in the workers’ movement during the post-war boom makes it all the more essential to wage an ideological struggle against those tendencies adapting to the spontaneous struggle of the working class.

One further point needs to be raised. Landau believes that a state capitalist counter-revolution has taken place in the Soviet Union. The point is not argued for but merely asserted in the article. The RCG rejects this view which it considers at variance with a Marxist understanding of the nature of the capitalist system. We shall take up the questions associated with this issue in future Revolutionary Communists. The RMC have written a document explaining their position and we do intend to answer their points directly in the near future.

The Investment Trap is reproduced from the New Manchester Review. It is an article which illustrates a central point made in Revolutionary Communist 3/4, that the expansion of investment as capitalism goes into a deeper crisis will increase unemployment. This article provoked a reply by Geoff Hodgson who characterised its analysis as ‘Schoolboy Economics’. His reply, ‘Are Reforms Impossible’, was published but considerably shortened. We have printed it in full, with his permission, in this issue. We have also printed our short reply (the restricted length was dictated by New Manchester Review). A more substantial criticism of his argument is presented here in the form of a review of Hodgson's book Trotsky and Fatalistic Marxism. This gets to the root of Hodgson's standpoint, showing how in rejecting historical materialism, Hodgson ends up by attempting to be a ‘Marxist in politics but a reformist in economics’. It is precisely this attempt to ‘remain a revolutionary while removing the material basis for socialist revolution’ which we have characterised as ‘shamefaced socialism’.

In the Editorial of the International Spring 1977, journal of the IMG, entitled ‘Against Monolithism’ Tariq All argues: ‘A group of militants expelled from the latter organisation (Socialist Workers Party) a couple of years ago produced a journal called Revolutionary Communist which also, despite our disagreements with some of its content, displayed great potential. Following the recent split in its editorial board we must regard its future, too, as being somewhat problematic.’

The appearance of Revolutionary Communist 6 only four months after the so-called ‘split’ in the Editorial Board makes it clear that our journal will continue the vital task of re-establishing Marxism in the working class movement. We are also against sectarianism, and this is indicated by our practice. It was the struggle against sectarianism in our organisation which heralded the events which led to the expulsion of a large number of comrades from our London branch. However our experience gives us little confidence in the claims of the IMG to be non-sectarian. Three publications commented on the expulsions from our organisation; Tribune, the Leveller, and Red Weekly (paper of the IMG). Tribune and the Leveller produced our replies to their articles. Only Red Weekly, which published a very unserious article on the dangers of sectarianism in our group, refused. This is not the first time that it has become clear that the IMG will refuse to participate with serious groups in its so-called ‘Battle for Ideas’. The IMG has failed to comment on our article on the Fourth International in Revolutionary Communist 2: it has failed to answer our criticisms of its reformist understanding of the crisis in Revolutionary Communist 3/4. Finally it has refused on two occasions to publish letters from the RCG on the question of Ireland. The practice of the IMG shows clearly that ‘Against Monolithism’ is nothing more than a cover for the eclecticism and sectarianism which has continually characterised its politics. The Political Committee of the RCG wishes to make it clear that the political differences which had arisen in our organisation at the time of the expulsions did not merit a split in the Revolutionary Communist Group. A clear indication of this is that the expelled comrades still insist that they stand by ‘Our Tasks and Methods’, the founding document of the RCG. Those who call for a split when different tendencies in the group first emerge – tendencies which in no way reflect movements within the working class – indicate only their isolation from the working class. The documents produced by the RCG at the time of the expulsions are available (send sae) from our editorial address.

The Revolutionary Communist Group will continue to put forward Marxist ideas in the movement in a wide range of publications. Revolutionary Communist will continue to play a central role in establishing a Marxist tradition in the working class movement.

David Yaffe