The organisational principles of Bolshevism

This article looks at the Bolshevik approach to organisational questions, and how this triumphed against the disorganising ideas and practice of Menshevism and Trotskyism.  But to do this properly, we need to backtrack to a time before the terms Bolshevism, Menshevism and Trotskyism had been coined.

1898 Founding of the Party

Economism – What Is To Be Done?

The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was founded officially in 1898, but its first stumbling steps were dogged by police suppression, ideological muddle and poor organisation.  Things were made worse by the influence of the Russian opportunist trend known as “Economism”.  In the name of standing up for the interests of the working class, the Economists insisted on limiting the class struggle to purely “bread and butter” industrial issues.  They saw Lenin’s plans for a united and centralised political party of the working class as an unnecessary and artificial intrusion upon workers’ spontaneous industrial skirmishes.  Their influence helped to perpetuate ideological muddle and lax organisation.

Under these circumstances, Lenin and his comrades – we cannot yet call them Bolsheviks – used the columns of the Party paper, Iskra (Spark) to wage a relentless struggle against the disorganising ideas of Economism. By this means the ground was prepared for the ideological and organisational consolidation of the Party.  A key moment in this struggle came in March 1902, with the publication of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?  This work not only delivered a great blow against Economism. It also laid the foundations for the whole future Bolshevik approach to ideology and organisation.

Against the blind worship of spontaneity which characterised the Economists, Lenin asserted the vanguard role of the proletarian Party.  The Party’s role was not to follow but to lead.  And key to the development of this leadership role was the central, all-Russian Party newspaper.  The purpose of the paper was not simply to comment and analyse but to organise.  It was the paper’s job not only to weld the Party ideologically, but also to unite local bodies within the Party organisationally. As Lenin wrote, such a paper “is not only a collective propagandist and collective agitator, but also a collective organiser” (‘Where to begin’, CW vol.5, p.22)

These were not just very clever ideas on how to run a political newspaper, but an assertion of the indissoluble bond between the ideological and organisational make-up of the Party – the unity of its theory and its practice.  Nor was the battle just against the Russian Economists, with their exclusive fixation on narrow trade-union struggles.  Lenin makes it clear that these gentry were no more than a pale local variant of a virulent strain of opportunism which was international in scope.  And there can be no better proof of the continued relevance of the organisational principles advocated by Lenin than the fact that they continue to provoke today’s opportunists just as badly as they did a hundred years ago.

Here is what Lenin had to say about the structure and composition of the Party.  “I assert (1) that no revolutionary movement can endure without a stable organisation of leaders that maintains continuity; (2) that the wider the masses spontaneously drawn into the struggle … the more urgent the need of such an organisation, and the more solid this organisation must be … (3) that such an organisation must consist chiefly of people professionally engaged in revolutionary activity; (4) that in an autocratic state the more we confine the membership of such organisation to people who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activity and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult will it be to wipe out such an organisation, and (5) the greater will be the number of people of the working class and of the other classes of society who will be able to join the movement and perform active work in it.” (‘What is to be done?’ CW Vol 5, p.464)

How much of this is just to do with preparing for revolution under the very repressive conditions of Tsarist autocracy?  After all, we are not living in an autocratic state, we do not live under Tsarism, and perhaps we do not yet require a party leadership that has professional training in the art of combating the political police. 

However, as degenerate British imperialist society moves deeper into crisis, the retreat from bourgeois democratic forms is becoming daily more pronounced.  Wars of national oppression abroad, erosion of civil liberties at home, cuts in public services, attacks on the pay and pensions of workers, the dismantling of the “welfare state” and the spread of anti-immigrant propaganda – all these are combining to create a harsher political climate for dissent of any kind.

By the same token, this period of renewed crisis also presents the proletariat with an immense historical responsibility which it cannot hope to shoulder without the guidance and leadership of a Party that has learnt to match ideological with organisational strength.  The working class may not yet require a party “professionally trained in the art of combating the political police” – but we certainly do need a party that is no less professional in its approach to organisation than it is in its approach to ideology.

Second Congress of the RSDLP

A year after What Is To Be Done? was published, its arguments were tested out in political struggle.  At the Second Congress of the RSDLP in July 1903, opportunism made no headway against the Party programme submitted by Lenin and his comrades at Iskra.  This was in two halves.  The maximum programme dealt with the ultimate goal: socialist revolution and proletarian dictatorship.  The minimum programme dealt with the bourgeois democratic phase of the revolution: getting rid of the Tsar, securing a democratic republic, limiting the working day and giving land to the tiller. Mention of proletarian dictatorship ruffled some opportunist feathers, as did the prospect of an alliance with the peasantry and recognition of the right of nations to self-determination. But on all these issues, the Iskra view prevailed.

However, having failed in a direct assault on the Leninist programme, opportunism now turned its attention to the rules.  Having failed to undermine the party’s ideology, opportunism now set its sights on the party’s organisation.  The opportunity for this mischief-making arose around the very basic question: what determines who is a member of the party?  Martov could hardly disagree with the common-sense stipulations that party members had to stick to the Party line and pay their subs.  Where he got cold feet was over Lenin’s insistence that every member should submit to Party discipline by working within one of the Party’s organisations.  The Short History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik) [1] puts it in a nutshell.

“Martov regarded the Party as something organisationally amorphous, whose members enrol themselves in the Party and are therefore not obliged to submit to Party discipline, inasmuch as they do not belong to a Party organisation” (p36).

To the untutored ear, the Martov approach to party-building could sound very bold and revolutionary.  Why not have done with it and say that every worker who downs tools and goes on strike demonstrates by his actions that he has the right to be in the party?  But such phoney rank-and-file fervour conveniently forgets that it takes all sorts to make a strike, including non-socialists and anarchists.  And in any case, the real intended beneficiaries of Martov’s “come all ye” approach to Party membership were not workers at all, but unreliable bourgeois intellectuals eager to parade as progressive leaders but not prepared to “join an organisation, submit to Party discipline, carry out Party tasks and run the accompanying risks” (Short History, pp36-37)

Not everyone at Iskra was wholeheartedly behind Lenin.  Thanks to some of these wavering elements, Martov’s views on party rules were for the moment tolerated, and this was a temporary setback for the party.  What was established at the Second Congress, however, was a clear distinction between the Menshevik and the Bolshevik positions on both ideological and organisational questions, a distinction which proved to be of great political value to the Bolshevik cause in the struggles to come. It was in the elections at the conclusion of this Second Congress, in which Lenin and his followers secured a majority of the votes, that the two trends within the RSDLP started to be identified as Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority).

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

In May 1904 this key struggle over organisational principles gave birth to Lenin’s famous work, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.  The organisational principles condensed in this article are summed up in the Short History.

1.       The Party is a VANGUARD PARTY. Says Lenin, “To forget the distinction between the vanguard and the whole of the masses which gravitate towards it, to forget the constant duty of the vanguard to raise ever wider strata to this most advanced level, means merely to deceive oneself, to shut one’s eyes to the immensity of our tasks, and to narrow down these tasks.” (‘One step forward, two steps back’, Vol.7, p261).

The very word “vanguard” has become anathema within the reformist Left, drawing knee jerk accusations of elitism and arrogance.  Yet such accusations are no more than a smokescreen to cover the Left’s abdication of responsibility towards the class they purport to champion.  

2.        Only he is a Party member who BELONGS TO SOME ORGANISATION OF THE PARTY. Summarises the Short History, “If the Party were not an organised detachment of the class, not a system of organisation, but a mere agglomeration of persons who declare themselves to be Party members but do not belong to any Party organisation and therefore are not organised, hence not obliged to obey Party decisions, the Party would never have a united will, it could never achieve the united action of its members, and, consequently, it would be unable to direct the struggle of the working class.” (Short History p.41)

Even in its early stages, our party already functions in this way, with every individual member organised as far as practicable within regions and branches, supported by and accountable to those local organisations of the party.

3.        The Party must GUIDE ALL THE OTHER ORGANISATIONS OF THE WORKING CLASS. The Short History continues: “The attempts of the Mensheviks to belittle and depreciate the leading role of the Party tend to weaken all the other organisations of the proletariat which are guided by the Party and, consequently, to weaken and disarm the proletariat”. (p.42/3)

For example, it is not always easy to combat Labour party influence in the unions. It is tempting to declare the struggle unnecessary (because “eventually the crisis will in any case loosen the ties that bind organised labour to social democracy”).  It is tempting to declare the struggle impossible (because “social democracy is so ingrained in the trade unions – why waste the effort?”).  It is not so unusual even to hear both optimistic and pessimistic versions expressed in one and the same breath!  But however the issue may be fudged, the fact remains: no matter how weak may be judged our party’s influence at present within the unions, our task remains to build a party that can guide ALL the other organisations of the working class.

4.        The Party must multiply and strengthen connections with the NON-PARTY MASSES. This is the light in which we should see our work with the anti-war and international solidarity movements as well as with organised labour, however grandiose the term “masses” may sound at this early stage of development.

5.        The Party will be a Party of DEMOCRATIC CENTRALISM, with election from below and leadership from the centre. As Lenin puts it, “Now we have become an organised Party, and this implies the establishment of authority, the transformation of the power of ideas into the power of authority, the subordination of lower Party bodies to higher Party bodies” (see Short History, p.43).

And so it is for us.  We are not a loose association of study and agitation groups, but a party of democratic centralism, with a central committee, regions and branches.

6.        All the comrades in the Party must share a common proletarian discipline, binding upon all.  And it is the duty of everyone to make sure this happens.  The “class-conscious worker”, says Lenin, “must learn to demand that the duties of a Party member be fulfilled not only by the rank-and-filers, but by the ‘people at the top’ as well” (Short History, p.44).

In short, the Mensheviks of yesterday and today want a party as a kind of club for “great thinkers”, unburdened with a lot of tiresome rules binding upon all without exception.  The Bolsheviks of yesterday and today demand a party that not only seeks ideological unity but also learns to consolidate that ideological unity by the material unity of organisation of the proletariat.  Lenin rubs this home in the final paragraph of One step forward, two steps back.

“In its struggle for power, the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation.  Disunited by the rule of anarchic competition in the bourgeois world, ground down by forced labour for capital … the proletariat can become, and inevitably will become, an invincible force only when its IDEOLOGICAL UNIFICATION BY THE PRINCIPLES OF MARXISM is consolidated by the MATERIAL UNITY OF AN ORGANISATION which will weld millions of toilers into an ARMY OF THE WORKING CLASS” (p.415, op.cit., emphasis added).

1905 and the Third Congress

The eruption of revolution in 1905 created a new situation for the Party. The divisions over organisational questions were now supplemented by splits over tactical questions.  Where the Bolsheviks insisted that the bourgeois democratic struggle against Tsarist autocracy must not be left to the gutless bourgeoisie to lead, but must be conducted in a revolutionary manner under the leadership of the advanced proletariat and its party, the Mensheviks took the position that workers should leave leadership in the hands of the liberal bourgeoisie.  The revolution was not socialist, so why should the workers get involved in leading it?  This left-sounding posture merely served as a cover for the Mensheviks own inaction.

If the Party was not to betray the trust of the masses, it had to resolve these differences without delay.  This required the convening of a Third Congress, but when the Bolsheviks proposed this, the Mensheviks declined, preferring to sit on their hands.  The Bolsheviks then convened the Third Congress unilaterally, in April 1905.  Sooner than attend, the Mensheviks responded by calling a congress of their own.  The splitters’ congress duly committed the Mensheviks to the tactics of tucking in behind the liberal bourgeoisie, whilst the Third Congress of the RSDLP took on the burden of leadership which the Mensheviks insisted upon shirking.  When the Moscow proletariat began the armed uprising of December 1905, it was no accident that, out of a fighting organisation of about one thousand combatants, over half were Bolsheviks.

It was not until 1912 that Menshevism was finally so discredited within the Party that the Bolsheviks could finally release the Party from the sapping influence of their opportunism and indiscipline.  However, the lessons learned in those struggles proved invaluable to Bolshevism in the trials that lay ahead, both in making revolution and in defending proletarian dictatorship.

Trotskyism and the Party

(a) Trotsky and 1905

Insofar as he consented to being organised by anybody between 1903 and 1917 (the year which saw him jump ship into the Bolshevik ranks), Trotsky was identified with the Mensheviks.  So it was that, whilst the Bolsheviks were leading the Moscow proletariat in revolt in 1905, Trotsky and his fellow-Mensheviks Khrustalev and Parvus were using their ascendancy within the St Petersburg Soviet to obstruct plans for the uprising, refusing to arm the workers or bring them into contact with the soldiers of the St Petersburg garrison.

(b) Trotsky and 1917

Though Trotsky finally joined the Bolsheviks in 1917, it is clear from his analysis of the events of that world-shaking year (in his Lessons of October) just how poorly he grasped the complex character of Bolshevik leadership.  Having himself for all those years resisted being organised within the discipline of a communist party – feeling more at home in the world of cabals, factions and conspiracies – he now proved incapable of understanding how such a party could take on the task of organising the vast revolutionary masses of mother Russia.  Leadership for Trotsky was either a question of dazzling an audience with brilliant words, or of issuing military style orders to the obedient ranks.

In his 1924 work, The October Revolution and the Tactics of the Russian Communists, comrade J.V. Stalin poured scorn on Trotsky’s “explanation” of Bolshevik tactics as they evolved between April and October 1917. Trotsky talked as if, right from the word go, the Bolsheviks had a ready-made political army – as if it were only a question of conducting a few reconnaissance missions before sending in the masses to bring home the revolutionary victory.

If one were to listen to Trotsky, one would think that there were only two periods in the history of the preparation for October: the period of reconnaissance and the period of uprising, and that all else comes from the evil one. What was the April demonstration of 1917?  ‘The April demonstration, which went more to the ‘Left’ than it should have, was a reconnoitring sortie for the purpose of probing the disposition of the masses and the relations between them and the majority in the Soviets’.  And what was the July demonstration of 1917?   In Trotsky’s opinion, ‘this, too, was in fact another, more extensive, reconnaissance at a new and higher phase of the movement’.  Needless to say, the June demonstration of 1917, which was organized at the demand of our Party, should, according to Trotsky’s idea, all the more be termed a ‘reconnaissance.’

“This would seem to imply that as early as March 1917 the Bolsheviks had ready a political army of workers and peasants, and that if they did not bring this army into action for an uprising in April, or in June, or in July, but engaged merely in ‘reconnaissance’, it was because, and only because, ‘the information obtained from the reconnaissance’ at the time was unfavourable.

“Needless to say, this oversimplified notion of the political tactics of our Party is nothing but a confusion of ordinary military tactics with the revolutionary tactics of the Bolsheviks.

“Actually, all these demonstrations were primarily the result of the spontaneous pressure of the masses, the result of the fact that the indignation of the masses against the war had boiled over and sought an outlet in the streets.

“Actually, the task of the Party at that time was to shape and to guide the spontaneously arising demonstrations of the masses along the line of the revolutionary slogans of the Bolsheviks.

“Actually, the Bolsheviks had no political army ready in March 1917, nor could they have had one. The Bolsheviks built up such an army (and had finally built it up by October 1917) only in the course of the struggle and conflicts of the classes between April and October 1917, through the April demonstration, the June and July demonstrations, the elections to the district and city Dumas, the struggle against the Kornilov revolt, and the winning over of the Soviets. A political army is not like a military army. A military command begins a war with an army ready to hand, whereas the Party has to create its army in the course of the struggle itself, in the course of class conflicts, as the masses themselves become convinced through their own experience of the correctness of the Party’s slogans and policy.”

(c) Trotsky and Brest Litovsk

After the victory of the October Revolution, the Party faced the mammoth task of organising millions of workers and peasants in the building of a planned socialist society.  Such a task could only be undertaken by a Party that maintained the maximum unity.  This was especially true given the fact that Russia was surrounded by deadly enemies and had yet to extricate herself from the imperialist world war.

It was under these circumstances that, tasked with the job of concluding an onerous peace with German imperialism, Trotsky sat on the fence.  Rather than risk tarnishing his credentials as a leftwing firebrand by taking responsibility for concluding a peace which involved ceding parts of the motherland to Germany – a painful sacrifice upon which the survival of the fledgling Soviet republic depended – Trotsky dithered and havered, seeking refuge in the empty slogan “neither peace nor war”.  The consequence of this dilettantism was that the deal that was finally done at Brest Litovsk was yet more onerous than the one which Trotsky had fudged.

(d) Trotskyism, the Workers’ Opposition and the New Economic Policy

One more instance of the Trotskyite approach to organisational questions must suffice, this time relating to the period when the Party made the transitional switch from War Communism to New Economic Policy (NEP), as a preface to the astounding socialist offensive which was to follow.

Against massive odds, Soviet Russia weathered all the storms of the Civil War period.  Mobilised behind the united leadership of the Bolsheviks, the revolutionary masses saw off fourteen imperialist armies as well as all their home grown White Guard auxiliaries.

Peace brought new challenges however.  In order to win the war against counterrevolution, the masses had to endure enormous hardships.  In particular, it had been essential to lean very heavily upon the support of the peasantry whilst imperialist blockade sought to starve out the revolution.  Under what was known as War Communism, farmers were required to yield up all the produce that was not required for their own subsistence.  This “surplus-appropriation” system needed to end along with the war, lest intolerable strain be put upon the worker-peasant alliance.  Already counter-revolutionary forces had exploited the opportunity by fomenting insurrection against the Soviet government amongst the raw new naval recruits at Kronstadt.  The Central Committee therefore proposed the substitution of a tax in kind instead.  The idea was that the farmer would only have to give up that portion of his produce which was required in advance by the plan.  Everything else he could sell on the market.  Lenin knew full well that this would at first lead to a certain revival of capitalism in the countryside.  But weighed against this was the expectation that giving the peasant this limited freedom to trade would provide an economic incentive to increase production in the countryside, thereby giving material assistance to the growth of socialist industry in the towns.  What was being proposed was a tactical retreat, the more surely to resume the socialist offensive a little later.

With the benefit of hindsight – the great Soviet achievements of socialist industrial growth, collectivisation and multiplication of state farms which ensued can be sneered at by reactionaries but can be denied by nobody – it is obvious that the Bolsheviks were a thousand times right to steer Russia onto the path of the New Economic Policy (NEP).

But at the beginning of the 1920’s, the Party did not have the benefit of hindsight.  Like the revolutionary proletariat at whose head it stood, in its struggle to maintain proletarian dictatorship the Party had “no other weapon but organisation”.  All the Bolsheviks could rely upon was their own ideological and organisational unity, their ability to establish a correct line of march and then cleave to it through thick and thin, maintaining at all costs the unity and discipline which the revolutionary masses had learned to demand from their leadership.

It was at this crucial juncture that factionalism reared its ugly head.  Quite a few Party members had previously belonged to the petty bourgeois Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) or to the Mensheviks.  Many such people were primarily drawn to the Bolsheviks because they had become the party of power.  Those (like the long-time Menshevik Trotsky himself) who had not benefited from the discipline of a long term and consistent Leninist Party schooling revealed their true colours at this testing moment for the Party and the socialist revolution.

In true demagogic fashion, Trotsky denounced the NEP plan as a sell-out.  In flagrant disregard of the Party’s need to guard with care the alliance between the proletarian vanguard and the semi-proletarian elements, thereby guiding the masses to socialism, Trotsky ranted that the policy of War Communism should in fact be extended and intensified, demanding that “the screws must be tightened” on the peasantry.

Not content with this, Trotsky also declared against any extension of democracy in the trade unions.  Contrary to the Central Committee’s view that the unions had a vital role to play as schools of administration, management and Communism, Trotsky urged the Party to introduce military methods into the trade unions (Short History, p.231).

Taken in tandem, these two slogans – “tighten the screws” and “shake up the unions” – in effect set the workers against the peasants and set the non-Party workers against the Party!

Just as in the period between February and October 1917, Trotsky could only conceive of the revolutionary masses as a ready-made army simply awaiting commands, so now three years later he was proposing that the Party should conduct its relations both with the peasantry and with the unionised working class on the basis of a parade ground sergeant barking out orders.

You might think that Trotsky’s puerile travesty of firm Bolshevik leadership might put him on a serious collision course with the so-called “Workers’ Opposition”.  After all, they were loudly protesting that the trade unions should be recognised as the highest form of working class organisation, not the Party at all.  These gentry wanted to undermine the leading role of the Party, instead entrusting the administration of the entire national economy to a grandly titled “All-Russian Producers’ Congress”.

Yet despite the apparent contradiction with Trotsky’s plans to suppress democracy in the unions and submit them to military discipline, you can see how the end result of both proposals was the same – setting the non-Party workers against the Party!  Clearly, more united these factionalists than divided them.

In the end, it became clear that, whatever disagreements the various opposition groupings might have had with one another, all these differences paled into insignificance by comparison with the loathing they all shared for Lenin’s Bolshevik leadership.  This was summed up by the so-called Democratic Centralists, who advanced the demand for complete freedom for factions and groupings to propagandise (and disorganise) inside the Party to their hearts’ content.

The Tenth Party Congress.

The Party declares war on factionalism.  A lesson to remember

So it was that the Tenth Party Congress, held in March 1921, was in large part devoted to the reaffirmation of those same organisational principles which Lenin had hammered out so long ago in What Is To Be Done.  Beyond all the debate about the role of the unions, even beyond the crucial debate about the NEP, loomed the most serious question of all: the unity of the proletarian party.  As the Short History records, “The congress ordered the immediate dissolution of all factional groups and instructed all Party organisations to keep a strict watch to prevent any outbreaks of factionalism, non-observance of the congress decision to be followed by unconditional and immediate expulsion from the Party”. (Short History, p.233)

The resolution moved by Lenin alerted comrades to the danger posed by factionalism, which “inevitably leads to intensified and repeated attempts by the enemies of the Party, who have fastened themselves onto it because it is the governing party, to widen the cleavage (in the Party) and to use it for counter-revolutionary purposes.”  As illustration of these dangers, he pointed to the Kronstadt Mutiny.  Both the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks had joined forces with open counter revolutionaries to egg on that tragic insurrection against the Soviet government –and did so in the name of Soviet power!  In our own time some of us will remember the similar cynicism with which the would-be capitalist restorationists camped out on Tian An Men Square on occasion even tried to cover their counter-revolutionary efforts behind a shallow pretence of socialist aims – even daring to sing the Internationale for the benefit of Western cameras!

Congress passed Lenin’s resolution against factionalising and embraced the NEP policy, thereby strengthening the ideological and organisational unity of the Party, ready to weather the storms ahead – and there were many!  Precisely because the Party was not the loose agglomeration of like-minded intellectuals once dreamed of by Martov and co., precisely because all Party members were obliged to work under the direction of one or other of the Party’s many thousands of local organisations, each one of which was tasked to keep a weather eye on the unity of the Party – that is why the Party remained for so long impregnable to the designs of its many enemies, both avowed and hidden.  This is a lesson not to be forgotten. 


[1] Short History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik), 1939 edition, Cobbett Publishing Co Ltd, London.

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