This is the first post in a series I did on the topic of the communist party. Originally, this particular post was essentially taken word for word from the notes I wrote in preparation for the debate in IRC on the topic of the party. However, I have since given it a minor update to provide for greater consistency and also to present the issue in a less static form.
The “party question” is one of the “burning questions of our movement,” to borrow a phrase from Lenin, and therefore the need to address it is great. However, we cannot look at the development of parties in moralist terms — that is, what kind of approach fits in with our own preconceived opinions and feelings — but only from a Marxist standpoint, i.e. from a materialist understanding of society and class forces. From this standpoint we must ask: how does the proletarian class party develop in a capitalist society? And from then we must move on: what is the relation of this class party to the non-party masses of the class?
On an entirely abstract level we can say that through the class struggle with the bourgeoisie, the proletariat acquires a consciousness of its own and formulates a revolutionary opposition to its exploiters and the system which exploits it. This, however, is a false formula which needs throwing out; it is a crude mechanistic view which fails to take in more than one factor. In the real social world, we see that this is obviously not the case. There may be a rise in class consciousness and “anti-capitalist” sentiments in the heat of a struggle, but this generally dies down. How many of the Spanish miners will remain this militant after the strike? Very few, it must be said. This is because a revolutionary consciousness does not arise from momentary opposition to capital or the state in various individual struggles, but from the reflection and connection of these struggles and the recognition of the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie and the following revolutionary position against the bourgeoisie. The mystifications of bourgeois ideology regarding the very nature of capitalism and also the bourgeois lies of democracy and “popular government,” for the most part, prevent this from happening; the minority of the class which does manage to break through this “barrier” of capitalist ideology is nothing other than the proletarian vanguard, the most militant and class-conscious workers who push the rest forward.
Now, from the connections and reflections of this vanguard we get the revolutionary program. Basing themselves on this revolutionary program, the vanguard organizes itself concretely into the proletarian class party. This is obviously simplified but we shall get into more detail later; for now, the current point must be explained. Now, “program” is used in different ways, which is a bit confusing. The program consists of the crystallized lessons and demands of the class in its struggle adopted by the party. So the revolutionary proletarian program consists not only of things like the call for the eight hour day, better working conditions, etc., but also things like the annihilation of the bourgeois state, the setting up of a proletarian government, and the abolition of capitalism.
As I said earlier, I will get into the formation of class party based on a common revolutionary program. It should be obvious that it does not happen as abstractly as I first said: different disparate groups hold different programs according to different phases of the class struggle. Moreover, it must be noted that, as Marx said in The German Ideology and also in The Communist Manifesto, that members of other classes can come to a communist consciousness; however, by doing so, they abandon their own class positions and come over to the side of the proletarian movement, and, second of all, these are the exception rather than the rule. These various elements of the proletarian vanguard, however, dissolve themselves in the historical process (which proceeds through splits, mergers, debates, etc.) into a single program and party based on the development of the struggle; historically, this has been the communist program, the total abolition of bourgeois property and the bourgeois state and the creation of a communist society, given a scientific basis by Marxism in the mid- to late-19th century. However, it must be recognized that the development of the struggle is not independent of the various elements themselves: they form sects and groups based upon a rudimentary revolutionary sentiment which furthers the struggle, which in turn reacts back upon these groups and tends to make their programs more and more homogeneous according to the need of the class-in-struggle at a given time.
Moreover, the question of socialist theory must be addressed: it is clear that modern socialism is not a spontaneous product of the workers’ activity, although it finds its formative elements in it: the revolutionary action and program of the masses at a given time is analyzed and given a theoretical backing by a whole host of politicians, intellectuals, workers with a high level of education, etc., of which the highest form is Marxist theory, which itself is continually adapted and extended as time and the struggle goes on. It must be said that this same socialist theory also reacts back on the workers’ struggle, influencing their conceptions and future developments.
All this may not seem entirely relevant to our modern era, and to an extent this is true. The class struggle throughout the entire history of the 19th and early 20th centuries lead us to a highly developed program, which broke down into various sects once again who, nevertheless, remained on the basis of a communist program developed from over a century of struggle. It is in this position that we find ourselves today. This means, for us, either two things: that from this position the reaching of a unified communist program and party will be a shorter historical process; or, as is seeming increasingly more likely, these sects will fade into irrelevance and the class will have to re-learn the lessons of the the past struggles all over again and forge a new party based on a new struggle.
The real question now is: what is the relation of this party to the class as a whole? I deal with this question in part two.