The Socialist Revolution and the Vanguard Party (August 2009)

The ISL is a revolutionary Marxist propaganda group. What is the meaning of this definition? Today, many supposed Marxists completely ignore one of Marx’s most basic positions: that only the working class can emancipate itself. Ignoring this position allows these Marxists to also ignore a related position: that only the most politically conscious layers of the working class can build an international revolutionary vanguard party that will be used for this emancipation.

The ISL knows, however, that without the participation of a significant section of the working-class vanguard, those elements of our class that are the most advanced in their political consciousness, there is no revolutionary party. Our role today is to lay the foundations for such a party: to provide a firm theoretical and programmatic basis for it and to begin by recruiting the most advanced workers.

However, a political tendency is defined not only by its present, but by its past and future as well. This means that what the ISL is today is very much defined by its history and its goals, by what it was and what it aims to be.

The past of the ISL will be dealt with concretely in separate articles. Suffice to say, the ISL was formed after the Israeli supporters of Alan Woods’ (and formerly Ted Grant’s) International Marxist Tendency (IMT) had broken sharply to the left and were expelled from the tendency, and today contains members who have been active for anything from years to decades in the anti-Zionist and radical left. Through a long and drawn-out process, we have managed to break with Zionist and bourgeois ideologies, as well as middle-class “Marxism,” to become true Bolsheviks and Marxists.

The Tasks of the Workers’ State

The goal of the ISL is to build the revolutionary party needed to lead the proletarian revolution to victory. This revolution will overthrow capitalism and eventually create a communist society where there will be no classes or states, no oppressors or oppressed, and the slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” will become a reality. However, there are many steps on the way to that society. Workers’ revolutions that overthrow capitalist rule will first have to build workers’ states to protect the working classes from the pressures of the remaining domestic capitalists and of the remaining capitalist states.

Class society is based on scarcity. Capitalism has brought forth the technology and world market that, for the first time in human history, make possible the elimination of scarcity and the creation of an abundance of all human necessities. However, that potential remains trapped by capitalism’s private ownership of the means of production and its sole pursuit of private profit. The principal aim of workers’ revolutions will be to redirect economic production toward providing an abundance of all human needs, thus paving the way for the dissolution of class divisions and the development of a peaceful, harmonious society in which humanity can realize its true potential.

However, the economic and cultural heritage of capitalism will not be able to be abolished overnight. It will take time to overcome the laws and drives of capitalist economics and to replace them with conscious planning by the working class to produce an abundance of needed goods and services. And on the basis of that growing abundance, it will still take time to overcome capitalism’s legacy of exploitation and oppression and see classes and all other oppressive divisions of society wither and disappear.

Marxists reject reformism, the belief that socialism can be the result of parliamentary or other legal reform rather than a revolution that will destroy the old capitalist state. This ideology, although having been a feature of utopian socialist thought from the beginning, became prominent in the workers’ movement for the first time in the Socialist International, as a result of a period of capitalist upswing and the conquest of colonies by European and American imperialism that culminated in the late-19thcentury and early-20th century. These factors allowed the capitalists to create a layer of better-off workers who now had an interest in imperialism, which in times of social peace served as a countertendency to their interest in a workers’ revolution. Marxists refer to this layer as the labor aristocracy.

The labor aristocracy, seeing its power and privilege increased by the capitalist state and system, naturally expressed its interests through reformism. Its foremost theoretician at the time was Eduard Bernstein. He argued that workers could gradually win more and more rights and improvements from the state until capitalism becomes socialism. Rosa Luxemburg, one of the leaders of the left in the SI, demolished this theory in her work Reform or Revolution.

We believe that history has vindicated the revolutionary point of view, and has shown that the capitalists will ruthlessly resist all attempts to restrict their privileges or power. One only needs to take a look at the bourgeoisie’s support for fascism in Italy and Germany, or study the history of coups against left-wing governments in Latin America, to see the lengths to which the capitalists, and particularly the imperialist rulers of the world, will go to crush revolutionary workers.

Why is this so? In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels showed states to be instruments of class oppression. The ruling class uses the army, police and courts to protect the positions of their class against any action by the exploited and the oppressed. Marxism holds, then, that only by smashing the power of the capitalists and their state can capitalism be overcome. The working class is the only class capable of this, as they form the only class whose experience of life under capitalism compels them to collectively struggle against the system and seek to overcome it.

There is no guarantee that the working class will be able to come to power all over the world at the same time. Therefore, there must be some way for the workers to defend their revolution against the assaults of the capitalists of other countries. After the Bolshevik revolution, for example, 14 imperialist armies attacked the young Soviet state. The only way for the workers to defend themselves is to create a workers’ state. This state is not socialist, because it cannot immediately abolish capitalist scarcity and inequality. However, it is not purely capitalist, because production aims to satisfy the needs of the workers, not the profits of the capitalists. The workers’ state, then, is a transitional society, which historically belongs to the capitalist epoch but whose ruling class is the working class.

This distinction, which was very clear to all the classic Marxists, is completely lost on nearly all Marxist and Trotskyist groups in our time. The terms workers’ state and socialist state are used interchangeably, and the differences between them are either ignored or blurred – never mind the fact that both are used to describe societies where the working class remains a subordinate, exploited class.

The Vanguard Party

Of course, the next question that must be asked is: how will the revolution that will set up the workers’ state be carried out? Obviously, atomized individual workers will not be able to stand up to the united armed forces of the capitalist state. Some form of political organization is needed. What form will this organization take?

Let us return to the Socialist International. The International was formed with its main section in Germany in 1889, with the support of Friedrich Engels, Marx’s co-thinker, 6 years after Marx’s death. The International was always aware that an inter-imperialist war was on the horizon, and issued many proclamations to the effect that come the war, it will carry out general strikes and paralyze the war effort. But come the war, all the beautiful declarations turned out to be for naught, and the majority of every section, excepting the Russian and the Serbian, supported the war on its country’s side. Where these sections had MPs, most of them voted in favor of any proposals supporting the war effort. The Social-Democratic Party (SPD), for example, voted to fund the war. Little more than 25 years after its creation, the Second International betrayed the very principles it was set upon, falling apart completely and supporting the mutual sanguinary slaughter of the European proletariat.

The collapse of the Second International left a deep impression on all revolutionary-minded workers. Lenin wrote a short book on the subject in which he attempted to analyze the roots of the International’s massive betrayal. The principal reason for the collapse, he argued, was the period of capitalist upswing and resultant legality of the socialist parties, which, along with the parties’ lax standards for membership – shallow agreement with the party’s basic positions – led to the International becoming dominated by class forces that represented the labor aristocracy and the politically backwards sections of the class in general.

We have touched on an important point concerning Marxist theory. What do we mean by “politically backward layers of the class”? When Marxists speak of the consciousness of the working class, they refer to the extent to which workers understand that they are the class tasked with the overthrow of capitalism and class society and the creation of a socialist society. This consciousness is shaped by the conditions of exploitation and oppression that workers are subjected to, by the history of the class (especially its recent history), and by the level of class struggle at the given time. Due to these factors, the working class contains many layers of political consciousness, from completely backward (reactionary pro-imperialists and fascists) to fully conscious (Marxist workers).

The SPD, of course, never became a fascist party. However, politically backward elements, typified by middle-class intellectuals and professionals on the one hand, and trade union bureaucrats and the labor aristocracy on the other, set the tone for the party’s policies. From this Lenin concluded that the working-class party must struggle against the influence of the middle class and particularly the labor aristocracy, and must devote itself consciously to the needs of the most oppressed layers of the class. It may recruit comrades from other working-class, middle-class and even bourgeois layers, though, if they have proven their dedication to the working class as a whole.

Is the Vanguard Party a Force from Without?

Lenin commented in What Is to Be Done that “in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of social democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.” Some middle-class ‘Marxist’ theoreticians have used this comment to argue that the vanguard party is not a party of the workers, but a group of intellectuals who are to give the gift of Marxism to the ignorant workers, who are only capable of raising economic demands. The most shameless modern tendency that upholds this theory is the International Communist League, known by the name of its main section in the US, the Spartacist League, which describes itself as a group of “declassed intellectuals” whose task is to bring Marxism to the working class.

The conception that the working class must be delivered to class-consciousness by intellectuals suggests an elitist and condescending conception of socialism which is alien to Marxist thought. Marx and Engels made clear the relationship between the working class and communist consciousness in their first great explanation of their historical materialist method, The German Ideology:

“[The working class is a class] which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class.

Marx repeated and developed these ideas about workers coming to communist consciousness throughout the rest of his life. Indeed, he was particularly dismissive of those who insisted that the working class would have to depend on intellectuals for their emancipation. As he wrote to Bebel on September 12, 1879:

At the founding of the International we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot co-operate with men who say openly that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves, and must first be emancipated from above by philanthropic members of the upper and lower middle classes.

Not only that, but after the 1905 revolution, Lenin clearly changed his line when it became clear that Russian workers could arrive at revolutionary conclusions without the help of intellectuals:

At every step the workers come face to face with their main enemy – the capitalist class. In combat with this enemy the worker becomes a socialist, comes to realize the necessity of a complete reconstruction of the whole of society, the complete abolition of all poverty and all oppression.

And Trotsky explained further:

According to Lenin’s representations, the labor movement, when left to its own devices, was inclined irrevocably toward opportunism; revolutionary class-consciousness was brought to the proletariat from the outside, by Marxist intellectuals. … The author of “What Is to Be Done?” himself subsequently acknowledged the biased nature, and therewith the erroneousness, of his theory, which he had parenthetically interjected as a battery in the battle against “Economism” and its deference to the elemental nature of the labor movement.

A “Network of Militants”?

The British SWP claims that the vanguard party can be summed up as a “network of militants with revolutionary politics.” By “militants” they mean the more radical trade union activists. This means that the revolutionary party is not a force for the creation of the workers’ state, but an organization for those wanting to push forward the fight for reforms. This sits well with the SWP’s general reformist conduct, but not with revolutionary Marxism.

“Labor Party” and Entryism

Many groups today avoid the question of a vanguard party altogether. They instead do long-term entry work in reformist parties (Social-Democratic or Stalinist parties), like the IMT and USec, or advocate the creation of a new reformist party or supposedly radical anti-capitalist alliance, like the French NPA, created by the pseudo-Trotskyist LCR, which would not be dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism.

Both tactics proceed from a common false point of departure: that reformism is a positive and necessary step in the development of working-class consciousness. In fact, as we have seen, reformism developed as a backward enemy of Marxism in the labor movement. While revolutionaries join with their fellow workers in fighting for reforms, they fight the influence of reformist ideas at every point in the struggle. They explain to their fellow workers the revolutionary lesson that the capitalists only concede something when they fear losing far more, and that the only way to secure more than the limited and temporary reforms conceded by the capitalists is to overthrow the entire system.

Of course, the entry of revolutionaries into reformist workers’ parties or their encouragement of the building of new workers’ parties can have great tactical value in winning key sections of the working class to the revolutionary program and party. But they can only serve revolutionary ends when they involve revolutionaries joining with key sections of the working class who are already radicalizing and whose illusions in particular reformist leaders must be put to the test of struggle in a common party. Permanent support for the building of new reformist parties, or for entry into existing reformist parties, regardless of the circumstances, turns revolutionary tactic in the struggle against reformism into a strategic stage of support for reformism. Those groups that today want to give reformism new power in fact only help build up the working class’s counterrevolutionary enemies.

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