Debate on the Bolsheviks & the Vanguard Party

The Case Against

I accept Chris Gaffney's challenge which he has made in reply to my article that the Russian Revolution did create a totalitarian state in Rebel Worker. To start I would like to make an explanation - that I distort the Leninist theory of the party (I presume that the theory that they mention is the one that came out of the 1902 Conference with the publication of "What is to be Done?" (Am I right here Chris?). Chris then makes the accusation that I don't look at his sources for the vanguard conception of the Party. Maybe I didn't at the time. I will rectify that later in this article. But I am a bit peeved about is his view that Lenin had only one view on this question - the relation of the vanguard party to the masses. He had in fact developed a whole series of analyses and positions. Let me explain.

In 1895 in the "Draft Programme of the Social Democratic Party" his position was very different. He argued here that proletarian class consciousness must be developed in the factories within the relationship between workers and bosses in the economic struggle. The task of Social Democrats is to become part of the struggle and sustain it. (In many ways as we saw our role in the Brunswick Tram Depot). Lenin's thesis was becoming clear: the struggle of the factory workers against the employers turns into a struggle against the capitalist class, against the social order based on the exploitation of labour by capital. (Very different from the "What is to be done?"position.)

It is of interest here to acknowledge that in accepting the "What is to be done?" position, the workers become the object and not the subject of history (Leninism won't like this). In my opinion in accepting Lenin's 1902 theses, the working class is unable to work out its own consciousness (emancipation) and it becomes an instrument in the hands of the intellectuals. My view: the workers can only be a revolutionary class if it organises and directs the struggle itself. This is what started to happen in Brunswick. They were relying on themselves only and not on the union boss class (it is in the video tape, not something I'm imagining).

Another point here, the intellectual or theoretician does not transform the workers from union members to revolutionaries. They record the revolutionary movement taking place outside their heads.

Three years after "What is to be done?", the Russian workers demonstrated its autonomous revolutionary ability with the experience of the Soviets. At first the Bolsheviks were hostile.

I have mentioned in my article in Rebel Worker, Voline's account in The Unknown Revolution (page 98), the origins of the Soviets in 1905 in Petrograd. It is interesting that the same question came up. "What is to done?" How to continue the action? And what form could it take now? As in the formation of the Link (metal industry magazine composed of interviews with workers) in 1970 in the factories around Ringwood with the AEU workers. The answer in Petrograd was the Soviets with Nossar as the first President - later Trotsky took over. But the point I want to make here - both organisations were formed by rank and file workers, no political groups were involved.

So we saw a complete turn in Lenin's theory: He saw the Soviets as the embryo of the provisional revolutionary government - contrary to most other Bolsheviks. Actually the "What is to be Done?" Bolshevik paper suppressed Lenin's statement. It only came to light in 1940.

Lenin in 1906-07 realised the revolutionary character of the Soviets along with the ability of the masses to spontaneously rise to a revolutionary level - force of circumstances led these non-party mass organs to realise the need for an uprising. Chris here would still maintain the need for a party to draw the lessons for publication and discussion after and that was needed. I admit in the Brunswick Tram experience was entirely new to us in the ASF at the time. Finally, what happened to the Soviets?

In "State and Revolution" there is nothing that raises the Bolsheviks into an institutional vangard sanctioned by historical right, a privileged vanguard separated from the masses in whose name it rules behind the screen of the Soviets. This is what actually happened in 1918 and later. Lenin had a a syndicalist position in 1917, but how sincere was he?

My conclusion on this part - Lenin obviously was not a thinker free of contradictions. He underwent development and he went beyond and seemed to reject earlier analyses. He was not always aware of this. Someone has said interestingly that he lacked a science of his own science. I will have to think more about that.

Now to the other part of Lenin's criticism. In my opinion as I have shown Lenin never had a consistent theory of the party. It changed under different historical conditions. At times he came near to our position in the ASF as outlined by Sue Russell in my history of the Depot.It was a syndicalist position. We were a Support Group at the start on very basic matters becoming accepted by the tram workers with our ideas on action and eventually particularly in all their meetings. So in the last weeks there was no difference between them and us. Then because they failed to bring the rest of the depots as one, the struggle collapsed. What were the new achievements of that struggle? The creation of what I call a workers council (small as it was) - the influence of no party or trade union boss was allowed. It was entirely independent. This was a new experience in my opinion.

I have never been able to have this question discussed among the left. Chris and Steve Jolly just are not willing. Yet is was significant surely. All they say is that the dispute and its demands failed. But once they had thrown off their bosses - they went to town as the saying is. Having to rely on themselves, their whole psychology changed. You only have to look at the video tape of that January 24-25 meeting to realise the change. They had become their own master. They set up pickets in the railways and began to see the possibility of a general strike, not called by union bosses, but a rank and file one. Some talked about that. That was a new theoretical breakthrough

Yet why did it fail and the Bolsheviks become counter revolutionary?

My further analyses of the tram dispute and because the Bolsheviks were unable to solve the problem of the dilemma in their relation to the masses. Which is told in Maximoff's "The guillotine at Work" published in 1949. I will continue the story in the next issue of Labour Review.

Dick Curlewis