Skip to Content

How Should Socialists Organise?

We were anti-Leninist from the start.

In recent months the idea or concept of 'Leninism' has been placed under the microscope with the revelations of the undemocratic activities of the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party. In March the Socialist Standard republished its 1995 education document as The SWP: an undemocratic Leninist organisation which identifies the undemocratic nature of the 'Leninist' concept of 'democratic centralism' in the SWP. The origins of 'Leninism' lie at the beginning of the twentieth century when Lenin distorted the original message of Marx and Engels, but even in this period there were criticisms of 'Leninism' and 'Bolshevism' by such revolutionary thinkers as Rosa Luxemburg and Julius Martov.

Lenin's pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of our Movement was published in 1902 when Lenin, Martov and Plekhanov with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) were in political exile from Tsarist Russia. The pamphlet detailed the organisational structure Lenin believed necessary for a revolutionary political party in an autocratic state like that of Tsarist Russia. This organisational structure of a disciplined centralised party of committed activists is the seedbed for the later authoritarianism and dictatorship in the Bolshevik regime in Russia. Lenin argued that the working class would not achieve political class consciousness simply by fighting the 'economic' battles between capital and labour over wages and working hours, and that Marxists needed to form a political party, a 'vanguard' of dedicated revolutionaries to bring socialist consciousness to the working class.

Lenin wrote that:

'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. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships (of all classes and strata) to the state and government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes.'

Lenin had little if any belief in the working class as agents of change, believing 'that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness', and that socialist ideas came from 'the educated representatives of the propertied classes' or 'revolutionary socialist intellectuals.'

At the second congress of the exiled RSDLP on Charlotte Street in London in 1903, there was a split between Lenin on one side and Martov and Plekhanov on the other. The opposing factions became known as 'Bolshevik' and 'Menshevik' respectively. The split centred on definitions of party membership. The Martov 'Menshevik' faction favoured a loose (in comparison to Lenin's views) interpretation of party membership as 'one who accepts the Party's programme, supports the Party financially, and renders it regular personal assistance under the direction of one of its organisations.' In contrast Lenin and the 'Bolshevik' faction wanted a restricted membership of a fully committed cadre; 'one who accepts its programme and who supports the Party both financially and by personal participation in one of the Party's organisations.'

The ideas of Lenin in What Is To Be Done? are in contrast to what Marx and Engels wrote in the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848 where they described the proletarian movement as 'the self conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority.’ Marx drafted the general rules of the International Working Men's Association in 1864 which began categorically with the line 'that the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.’ In 1879 Marx and Engels felt the need to distribute a circular where they stated: 'when the International was formed we expressly formulated the battle cry; the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves. We cannot, therefore, cooperate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic big bourgeois and petty bourgeois.'

In response to Lenin's What Is To Be Done? Rosa Luxemburg wrote Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy (1904) which later became known as Leninism or Marxism? where she criticised his concept of revolutionary organisation and identified Lenin as a 'Blanquist' socialist revolutionist.

Luxemburg wrote that:

'Blanquism did not count on the direct action of the working class. It, therefore, did not need to organise the people for the revolution. The people were expected to play their part only at the moment of revolution. Preparation for the revolution concerned only the little group of revolutionists armed for the coup.'

This is the Bolshevik strategy in its essence, both then and now.

Luxemburg identified 'the two principles on which Lenin’s centralism rests are precisely these: the blind subordination, in the smallest detail, of all party organs to the party centre which alone thinks, guides, and decides for all. The rigorous separation of the organised nucleus of revolutionaries from its social-revolutionary surroundings.' This is Blanquist organisation, although Lenin himself 'defined his 'revolutionary Social Democrat' as the ' Jacobin indissolubly connected with the organisation of the class-conscious proletariat.'

Lenin's former comrade-in-arms Julius Martov wrote a critique of 'Leninism' and 'Bolshevism' in his 1919 work The Ideology of ‘Sovietism’ identifying the 'Jacobin and Blanquist idea of a minority dictatorship.' Martov reiterated the point made by Engels 'that the epoch of revolutions effected by conscious minorities heading unknowing masses had closed for ever. From then on, he [Engels] said, revolution would be prepared by long years of political propaganda, organisation, education, and would be realised directly and consciously by the interested masses themselves.'

Martov also quoted the Swiss Social Democrat Charles Naine’s observation on 'Bolshevism' as 'the minority possessing the knowledge of the truth of scientific socialism has the right to impose it on the mass.' Later Martov looks at Blanqui as a major influence ('a dictatorial power whose mission it will be to direct the revolutionary movement').

Lenin's own words in a speech on Economic Construction in 1920 were also revealing when he said:

'the Soviet Socialist Democracy is in no way inconsistent with the rule and dictatorship of one person; that the will of a class is at times best realised by a dictator, who sometimes will accomplish more by himself and is frequently more needed. At any rate, the principal relation toward one person rule was not only explained a long time ago but was also decided by the Central Executive Committee.'

Marx in his 1845 Theses on Feuerbach had written that 'The materialist doctrine that men are the products of conditions and education, different men therefore the products of other conditions and changed education, forgets that circumstances may be altered by men and that the educator has himself to be educated. This doctrine leads inevitably to the ideas of a society composed of two distinct portions, one of which is elevated above society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.'

Martov correctly pointed out that if this thesis is applied

'. . . to the class struggle of the propertyless, this means the following. Impelled by the same ‘circumstances’ of capitalist society that determine their character as an enslaved class, the workers enter into a struggle against the society that enslaves them. The process of this struggle modifies the social ‘circumstances.’ It modifies the environment in which the working class moves. This way the working class modifies its own character. From a class reflecting passively the mental servitude to which they are subjected, the propertyless become a class which frees itself actively from all enslavement, including that of the mind.'

In conclusion Martov saw 'the proletarian class considered as a whole is the only possible builder of the new society.'

A year after the RSDLP congress in London at which the Bolshevik/Menshevik split took place 142 former members of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) met to found the Socialist Party of Great Britain on quite different organisational principles to those proposed by Lenin. The SDF was riddled with 'reformist' policies, undemocratic party organisation, authoritarianism and dictatorial methods used by its leadership. The rules of the newly established party gave the party membership complete control of the organisation, all meetings at branch, executive committee and conference were open to the public; there were no leaders, just an annually elected executive committee with power only to run week-to-week affairs and carry out membership decisions. The declaration of principles of the new party stated that 'the emancipation of the working class must be work of the working class itself.' We were therefore 'anti-Leninist' in principle and practice before 'Leninism' and the Bolshevik revolution that was its political outcome.