Lenin & the Vanguard Party

Toward the Communist International



The event which transformed Lenin from a Russian revolutionary social democrat into the founding leader of the world communist movement can be precisely dated—4 August 1914. With the start of World War I the parliamentary fraction of the German SPD voted unanimously in favor of war credits for the Reich. Having now experienced more than 60 years of later social-democratic and then Stalinist betrayals of socialist principle, it is difficult today for us to appreciate the absolutely shocking impact of August 4th upon the revolutionaries in the Second International. Luxemburg suffered a nervous collapse in reaction to the wave of national chauvinism which swept the German social-democratic movement. Lenin at first refused to believe the report of the Reichstag vote in the SPD’s organ, Vorwärts, dismissing that issue as a forgery by the Kaiser’s government.

For revolutionary social democrats, August 4th did not simply destroy their illusions in a particular party and its leadership but challenged their entire political worldview. For Marxists of Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s generation, the progress of Social Democracy, best represented in Germany, had seemed steady, irreversible and inexorable.

The Historic Significance of the Second International

The era of the Socialist (Second) International (1889-1914) represented the extraordinarily rapid growth of the European labor movement and of the Marxist current within it. Except for the British trade unions (which supported the bourgeois liberals), the organizations making up the First International (1864-74) were propaganda groups numbering at most in the thousands. By 1914, the parties of the Socialist International were mass parties with millions of supporters throughout Europe.

In the period of the First International, there were perhaps a thousand Marxists on the face of the globe, overwhelmingly concentrated in Germany. Significantly, there were no French Marxists in the Paris Commune of 1871, only the Hungarian Leo Fränckel. By 1914, Marxism was the most important tendency in the international workers movement, the official doctrine of mass proletarian parties in Central and East Europe. It is understandable therefore that Kautsky and the social democrats should regard Marxism as the natural, inevitable political expression of the modern labor movement.

Britain, it is true, had a mass labor movement which was politically liberal and openly class-collaborationist. However, Marx and Engels themselves had explained the political backwardness of the British labor movement as the product of particular historic circumstances (e.g., Britain’s dominance in the world economy, English-Irish national antagonism, the Empire). Furthermore, Marxists in the Second International, including Lenin, regarded the founding of the Labour Party in 1905 as a significant progressive step toward a mass proletarian socialist party in Britain. Thus the relative political backwardness of the British workers movement did not fundamentally challenge the orthodox social-democratic (i.e., Kautskyan) worldview.

To be sure, the pre-1914 Marxist movement was familiar with renegades and revisionists—the Bernsteinians in Germany, Struve and the "legal Marxists" in Russia. Lenin would have added Plekhanov and the Mensheviks to this list. But these retrogressions toward liberal reformism appeared to affect only the intellectual elements in the social-democratic movement. The SPD as a whole seemed solidly Marxist in its policies, while Marxism gained against oldfashioned socialist radicalism (e.g., Jaurèsism) in other sections of the International (e.g., the French, Italian).

August 4th was the first great internal counterrevolution in the workers movement, and all the more destructive because it was so unexpected. The triumph of chauvinism and class collaborationism in the major parties of the Socialist Intemational shattered the shallow, passive optimism of Kautskyanized Marxism. After the SPD’s great betrayal, going over to the side of its "own" bourgeoisie, revolutionary Marxists could no longer regard opportunism in the workers movement as a marginal or episodic phenomenon or as a product of particular historic political backwardness (e.g., Britain).

The established leaderships of most mass socialist parties could hardly be dismissed as unstable, petty-bourgeois democratic intellectuals, as fellow-travelers of Social Democracy. This is how Kautsky had characterized the Bemsteinian revisionists and how Lenin had dismissed the Mensheviks. But the chauvinist leaders of the SPD in 1914—Friedrich Ebert, Gustav Noske, Philipp Scheidemann—had worked their way up from the party’s ranks beginning as young men. All three had been workers: Ebert had been a saddler, Noske a butcher and Scheidemann a typesetter. Ebert and Noske began their SPD careers as local trade-union functionaries, Scheidemann as a journalist for a local party paper. The leading chauvinists and opportunists were thus very much of the flesh and blood of the German Social Democracy.

Nor could the actions of the SPD leadership be explained as a reflection of the historic political backwardness of the German working class. Ebert, Noske and Scheidemann had been trained as Marxists by the personal followers of Marx and Engels. They had voted time and time again for revolutionary socialist resolutions. In supporting the war, the SPD leaders knew they were violating their party’s longstanding socialist principles.

Right up to the fateful Reichstag vote, the SPD engaged in mass antiwar agitation. On 25 July 1914 the party executive issued a proclamation which concluded:

"Comrades, we appeal to you to express at mass meetings without delay the German proletariat’s firm determination to maintain peace.... The ruling classes who in time of peace gag you, despise you and exploit you, would misuse you as food for cannon. Everywhere there must sound in the ears of those in power: ‘We will have no war! Down with war! Long live the international brotherhood of peoples!’"
—reproduced in William English Walling, ed., The Socialists and the War (1915)

In considering the social-chauvinist betrayal of the German Social Democracy, Lenin came to realize that the Bolsheviks were not simply a Russian counterpart of the SPD with a principled revolutionary leadership. The selection, testing and training of cadre in Lenin’s party were fundamentally different from Bebel’s and Kautsky’s party. And in that difference lay the reason why in August 1914 the parliamentary representatives of the SPD supported "their" Kaiser, while their counterparts in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (Bolsheviks) were instead clapped in the tsar’s prisons.

Lenin Breaks with Social Democracy

Lenin’s basic policy toward the war and the international socialist movement was developed within a few weeks after the outbreak of hostilities. This policy had three main elements. One, socialists must stand for the defeat, above all, of their "own" bourgeois state. Two, the war demonstrated that capitalism in the imperialist epoch threatened to destroy civilization. Socialists must therefore work to transform the imperialist war into civil war, into proletarian revolution. And three, the Second International had been destroyed by social-chauvinism. A new, revolutionary international must be built through a complete split with the opportunists in the social-democratic movement.

These policies, which remained central to Lenin’s activities right up to the October Revolution, were clearly expressed in his very first articles on the war:

"It is the duty of every socialist to conduct propaganda of the class struggle ... work directed towards turning a war of nations into a civil war is the only socialist activity in an era of an imperialist armed conflict of the bourgeoisie of all nations.... Let us raise high the banner of civil war! Imperialism sets at hazard the fate of European culture: this war will be followed by others unless there are a series of successful revolutions....

"The Second International is dead, overcome by opportunism. Down with opportunism, and long live the Third International, purged not only of ‘turncoats’...but of opportunists as well.

"The Second International did its share of useful preparatory work in preliminarily organizing the proletarian masses during the long, ‘peaceful’ period of the most brutal capitalist slavery and most rapid capitalist progress in the last third of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. To the Third International falls the task of organizing the proletarian forces for a revolutionary onslaught against the capitalist governments, for civil war against the bourgeoisie of all countries for the capture of political power, for the triumph of socialism!"
—"The Position and Tasks of the Socialist International" (November 1914)

While Lenin was optimistic about winning over the mass base of the official social-democratic parties, he understood that he was advocating splitting the workers movement into two antagonistic parties, the one revolutionary, the other reformist. Thus Lenin’s demand for a Third International encountered far more opposition among antiwar social democrats than his impassioned denunciation of social-chauvinism. In fact, most of Lenin’s polemics in this period (1914-16) were not directed at the outright social-chauvinists (Scheidemann, Vandervelde, Plekhanov), but rather at the centrists who apologized for the social-chauvinists (Kautsky) or refused to split with them (Martov).

Thus Lenin was forced to confront and explicitly reject the orthodox social-democratic position on the party question, the Kautskyan "party of the whole class":

"The crisis created by the great war has torn away all coverings, swept away all conventions, exposed an abscess that has long come to a head, and revealed opportunism in its true role of ally of the bourgeoisie. The complete organisational severance of this element from the workers’ parties has become imperative.... The old theory that opportunism is a ‘legitimate shade’ in a single party that knows no ‘extremes’ has now turned into a tremendous deception of the workers and a tremendous hindrance to the working-class movement. Undisguised opportunism, which immediately repels the working masses, is not so frightful and injurious as this theory of the golden mean.... Kautsky, the most outstanding spokesman of this theory, and also the leading authority in the Second International, has shown himself a consummate hypocrite and a past master in the art of prostituting Marxism."
—"The Collapse of the Second International" (May-June 1915)

In considering the growth of opportunism in the West European social-democratic parties, Lenin naturally reviewed the history of the Russian movement and of Bolshevism. He realized that the Bolshevik organization had not, in fact, been built according to the Kautskyan formula. It had completely organizationally separated formally from the Russian opportunists, the Mensheviks, two and a half years before the outbreak of war and in practice long before 1912. Lenin now took the Bolshevik Party as a model for a new, revolutionary international:

"The Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party has long parted company with its opportunists. Besides, the Russian opportunists have now become chauvinists. This only fortifies us in our opinion that a split with them is essential in the interests of socialism.... We are firmly convinced that, in the present state of affairs, a split with the opportunists and chauvinists is the prime duty of revolutionaries, just as a split with the yellow trade unions, the anti-Semites, the liberal workers’ unions, was essential in helping speed the enlightenment of backward workers and draw them into the ranks of the Social-Democratic Party.

"In our opinion, the Third International should be built upon that kind of revolutionary basis. To our Party, the question of the expediency of a break with the social-chauvinists does not exist, it has been answered with finality. The only question that exists for our Party is whether this can be achieved on an international scale in the immediate future."
—V. I. Lenin and G. Zinoviev, Socialism and War (July-August 1915)

We have maintained in this series that Leninism as a qualitative extension of Marxism arose in 1914-17, when Lenin responded in a revolutionary manner to the imperialist war and the collapse of the Second International into hostile social-chauvinist parties. This view has been contested, on the one hand, by Stalinists who project the cult of the infallibly clairvoyant revolutionary leader back to the beginning of Lenin’s political career and, on the other, by various centrist and left-reformists who want to eradicate or blur the line between Leninism and pre-1914 orthodox Social Democracy (Kautskyism).

Among the Bolsheviks, however, it was generally recognized that Leninism originated in 1914 and not before. In a commemorative article following Lenin’s death, Evgenyi Preobrazhensky, one of the leading Bolshevik intellectuals, wrote:

"In Bolshevism or Leninism we must make a strict distinction between two periods-the period roughly before the world war and the period ushered in by the world war. Before the world war, Comrade Lenin, although he held to the real, genuine, undistorted, revolutionary Marxism, did not yet consider the social-democrats to be the agents of capital in the ranks of the proletariat. During this period, you will find more than one article by Comrade Lenin in which he defends this German social-democracy in the face of those accusations and reproaches which it received, for instance, from the camp of the populists, syndicalists, etc., for unrevolutionary opportunism, for betrayal of the revolutionary spirit of Marxism....

"If, to our misfortune, Comrade Lenin had died before the world war, it would never have entered anyone’s head to speak of ‘Leninism,’ as some kind of special version of Marxism, as it was subsequently to become. Lenin was the most consistent revolutionary Marxist.... But there was nothing specific in our Bolshevism in the realm of theory ... to distinguish it in any way from the traditional, but truly revolutionary, Marxism....

"If Comrade Lenin had not lived to see this [post- 1914] period, he would have entered history as the most eminent leader of the left wing of the Russian social-democracy.... Only the year 1914 transformed him into an international leader. He was the first to pose the basic question: what in a broad sense does this war mean? He replied: this war signifies the beginning of the crash of capitalism and thus the tactics of the workers’ movement must be directed towards turning the imperialist war into a civil war."
—"Marxism and Leninism," Molodoya Gvardiya, 1924 [our translation]

What Did Social-Chauvinism Signify?

Within a few weeks after the outbreak of war, Lenin determined to split with the social-chauvinists and to work for a new, revolutionary international. But he did not immediately present a theoretical (i.e., historical and sociological) explanation as to why and how the mass parties of the West European proletariat had succumbed to opportunism.

Here one might contrast Marx and Lenin as revolutionary politicians. Marx often arrived at theoretical generalizations well in advance of the immediate programmatic, tactical and organizational conclusions which flowed from his new socio-historical premises. Thus in late 1848, after nine months of revolution, Marx concluded that the German bourgeoisie was incapable of overthrowing absolutism. However, it was only a year later in exile that Marx developed a new strategy corresponding to his changed view of German society. In contrast, Lenin’s revolutionary thrust frequently led him to break with opportunism and false policies well before he attained corresponding theoretical generalizations.

1914-16 was a period when Lenin’s theoretical analysis lagged behind his political conclusions and actions. Lenin’s earliest writings on war and the International identified social-democratic opportunism only as a politicalideological current. The only attempt to relate the growth of opportunism to objective historical conditions was the observation that the West European socialist parties functioned under a long period of bourgeois legality.

The absence of a sociological and historical explanation for social-democratic opportunism was a serious weakness in Lenin’s campaign for a Third International. For it had to be demonstrated that August 4th was not an opportunist episode or a reversible false policy to fully justify splitting international Social Democracy. Lenin’s fight with the centrists-Kautsky/Haase/Ledebour in Germany, Martov/Axelrod in Russia, the leadership of the Italian Socialist Party—focused on the historic significance of national defensism in the world war and on the depth of opportunism in the social-democratic movement. The centrists maintained that "defense of the fatherland" was a monumental opportunist error, but nothing more. The policy of national defensism could be reversed, the Second International reformed (literally as well as figuratively). Some of the extreme chauvinists would probably have to go, but basically the "good old International" could be restored as of July 1914. Lenin regarded the pre-1914 International as diseased with opportunism; with the war the disease worsened into social-chauvinism and became fatal. For the centrists, the pre-war International was basically a healthy body. It was now passing through the sickness of social-chauvinism. The task of socialists was to cure the sickness and save the patient.

The main spokesman for amnestying the social-chauvinists and minimizing the problem of opportunism was, of course, Kautsky. In Neue Zeit (15 February 1915) he advocated an attitude of comradely tolerance for those who "erred" in defending German imperialism:

"It is true I saw since the 4th of August that a number of members of the party were continuously evolving more and more in the direction of imperialism, but I believed these were only exceptions and took an optimistic view. I did this in order to give the comrades confidence and to work against pessimism. And it was equally important to urge the comrades to tolerance, following the example of [Wilhelm] Liebknecht in 1870."
–William English Walling, ed., The Socialists and the War (1915)

Centrist softness toward the Second International also expressed itself within the Bolshevik Party early in the war. The head of the Bolshevik group in Switzerland, V.A. Karpinsky, objected to Lenin’s position that the Second International had collapsed and a new, revolutionary international must be built. In a letter (27 September 1914) to Lenin he wrote:

"We believe that it would be an exaggeration to define all that happened within the International as its ‘ideological-political collapse.’ Neither by volume or content would this definition correspond to the real happenings. The International ... has suffered an ideological-political collapse, if you like, but on one question only, the military question. With regard to the rest there is no reason to consider that the ideological-political position of the International has wavered or, moreover, that it has been completely destroyed. This would mean that after losing only one redoubt we are unnecessarily surrendering all forts."
—Olga Hess Gankin and H.H. Fisher, eds., The Bolsheviks and the World War (1940)

To overcome such centrist attitudes, Lenin had to demonstrate that August 4th was the culmination of opportunist tendencies profoundly rooted in the nature and history of West European Social Democracy.

Imperialism, Social-Chauvinism and the Labor Bureaucracy

Lenin’s analysis of the social bases of opportunism in the Second International was first presented in a resolution ("Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International") for a Bolshevik conference in Berne, Switzerland in March 1915:

"Certain strata of the working class (the bureaucracy of the labor movement and the labor aristocracy, who get a fraction of the profits from the exploitation of the colonies and from the privileged position of their ‘fatherlands’ in the world market), as well as petty-bourgeois sympathizers within the socialist parties, have proved the social mainstay of these [opportunist] tendencies, and channels of bourgeois influence over the proletariat."

This capsule analysis was not developed in any theoretical or empirical depth until the following year, principally in Lenin’s pamphlet, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (written in early 1916), and his article, "Imperialism and the Split in Socialism" (October 1916), and in Zinoviev’s book, The War and the Crisis of Socialism (August 1916).

Given the Stalinist cult of Lenin and the individualistic interpretations of bourgeois historiography, it is not generally recognized that Lenin worked as part of a collective. During the war years, he had a literary division of labor with Zinoviev in which the latter concentrated on the German movement. Reading only Lenin’s writings of this period, one gets a seriously incomplete picture of the Bolshevik position on the imperialist war and international socialist movement. That is why in 1916 both Lenin’s and Zinoviev’s war writings were collected in a single volume published in German, entitled Against the Stream. The principal Leninist analysis of opportunism in the German Social Democracy is Zinoviev’s The War and the Crisis of Socialism, which contains a long section titled "The Social Roots of Opportunism." This key section of Zinoviev’s important work was reproduced in English in the American Shachtmanite journal, New International (March-June 1942).

Marxists had long recognized the existence of a pro-bourgeois, pro-imperialist labor bureaucracy in Britain. Engels had condemned the bourgeoisified leaders of the British trade unions more than a little, relating this phenomenon to Britain’s world dominance economically. However, Marxists in the Second International regarded the class-collaborationist British labor movement as a historic anomaly, a stage which European Social Democracy had happily skipped over. In beginning his section on the labor bureaucracy in Germany, Zinoviev states that Marxists had regarded Social Democracy as immune from this corrupt social caste:

"When we spoke of labor bureaucracy before the war we understood by that almost exclusively the British trade unions. We had in mind the fundamental work of the Webbs, the caste spirit, the reactionary role of the bureaucracy in the old British trade unionism, and we said to ourselves: how fortunate that we have not been created in that image, how fortunate that this cup of grief has been spared our labor movement on the continent.

"But we have been drinking for a long time out of this very cup. In the labor movement of Germany—a movement which served as a model for socialists of all countries before the war—there has arisen just as numerous and just as reactionary a caste of labor bureaucrats." [our emphasis]

The triumph of social-chauvinism in the Second International caused Lenin to reconsider the historic significance of the pro-imperialist British Labour leadership. He came to the conclusion that the class-collaborationist trade unionism of Victorian England anticipated tendencies that would come to the fore when other countries, above all Germany, caught up with Britain economically and became competing imperialist powers.

Germany’s very rapid industrial growth, following its victorious war in 1870, simultaneously created a powerful mass social-democratic labor movement and transformed the country into an aggressive imperialist world power. Germany’s expansionist goals could only be realized through a major war. And Germany could not win a major war if faced with the active opposition of its powerful labor movement. Thus the objective needs of German imperialism required the cooperation of the social-democratic leadership. The defeat of the German bourgeois-democratic revolution in 1848 and the resulting semi-autocratic class-political structure made a rapprochement between the ruling circles and labor bureaucracy more difficult, less evolutionary than in Britain. Hence the shock effect of August 4th.

But Lenin recognized that the underlying historical process which led in 1914 to the SPD’s vote for war credits and to British Labour Party cabinet ministers was similar. In Imperialism he wrote:

"It must be observed that in Great Britain the tendency of imperialism to split the workers, to strengthen opportunism among them and to cause temporary decayin opportunism and the general and vital interests of the working-class movement....

"Opportunism cannot now be completely triumphant in the working-class movement of one country for decades as it was in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century; but in a number of countries it has grown ripe, overripe and rotten, and has become completely merged with bourgeois policy in the form of ‘social-chauvinism’." [our emphasis]

Lenin’s Imperialism deals with those changes in the world capitalist system which strengthened opportunist forces in the workers movement internationally. It is Zinoviev’s 1916 work that concretely analyzes the forces of opportunism in the German Social Democracy.

Zinoviev showed that the SPD’s huge treasury supported a vast number of functionaries who led comfortable pettybourgeois lives far removed from the workers they supposedly represented. In addition to a relatively high standard of living, the social-democratic officialdom had begun to enjoy a privileged social status. The German ruling elite began to treat the SPD and trade-union leaders with respect, differentiating between the "moderates" and radicals like Karl Liebknecht. The corrupting effect on an ex-printer or an ex-saddler of being treated as an important personage by the Junker aristocracy was considerable. Referring to Scheidemann’s memoirs of the war period, Carl Schorske in his excellent German Social Democracy 1905-1917 (1955) comments: "No reader of Scheidemann can miss the genuine pleasure which he felt in being invited to discuss matters on an equal footing with the ministers of state." The German Social Democracy had become an institution through which able, ambitious young workers could reach the top of a highly class- and caste-stratified society.

Zinoviev’s major 1916 work corrects the emphasis on ideological revisionism as the cause of opportunism which is found in Lenin’s earliest war writings. In fact, the SPD’s official doctrine and program failed to reflect its increasingly reformist practice. Many of the social-democratic leaders, overwhelmingly of working-class background, retained a sentimental attachment to the socialist cause long after they ceased believing in it as practical politics. Only the war forced the SPD to break openly with socialist principle.

Zinoviev recognized that social-chauvinist ideology was false consciousness arising from the SPD officialdom’s actual role in Wilhelminian German society:

"When we speak of the ‘treachery of the leaders’ we do not say by this that it was a deep-laid plot, that it was a consciously perpetrated sell-out of the workers’ interests. Far from it. But consciousness is conditioned by existence, not vice versa. The entire social essence of this caste of labor bureaucrats led inevitably, through the outmoded pace set for the movement in the ‘peaceful’ pre-war period, to complete bourgeoisification of their ‘consciousness.’ The entire social position into which this numerically strong caste of leaders had climbed over the backs of the working class made them a social group which objectively must be regarded as an agency of the imperialist bourgeoisie." [emphasis in original]

The anarcho-syndicalists applauded the revolutionary Marxists’ attack on the social-democratic bureaucracy and proclaimed: we told you so. Thus the Bolsheviks in attacking official Social Democracy carefully distinguished their position from the anarcho-syndicalists. Zinoviev pointed out that the existence of a powerful reformist bureaucracy was, in one sense, a product of the development and strength of the mass labor movement. The anarcho-syndicalists’ answer to bureaucratism amounted to self-liquidation of the workers movement as an organized force objectively capable of overthrowing capitalism. If the reformist bureaucracy suppressed the revolutionary potential of the workers movement, the anarcho-syndicalists proposed to disorganize that movement into impotence.

Zinoviev maintained that a bureaucracy was not identical with a large organization of party and trade-union functionaries. On the contrary, such an apparatus was necessary to lead the working class to power. The decisive task was the subordination of the leaders and functionaries of the tabor movement to the historic interests of the international proletariat:

"At the time of the crisis over the war, the labor bureaucracy played the role of a reactionary factor. That is undoubtedly correct. But that does not mean the labor movement will be able to get along without a big organizational apparatus, without an entire spectrum of people devoted especially to service the proletarian organization. We do not want to go back to the time when the labor movement was so weak that it could get along without its own employees and functionaries, but to go forward to the time when the labor movement will be something different, in which the strong movement of the proletariat will subordinate the stratum of functionaries to itself, in which routine will be destroyed, bureaucratic corrosion wiped out; which will bring new men to the surface, infuse them with fighting courage, fill them with a new spirit."

There is no mechanical organizational solution to bureaucratism in the workers movement or even in its vanguard party. Combatting bureaucratism and reformism involves continual political struggle against the many-sided influences and pressures bourgeois society brings to bear upon the workers movement, its various strata and its vanguard.

The Leninist Position on the Labor Aristocracy

The Marxists of the Second International were fully aware that the entire working class did not support socialism. Many workers adhered to bourgeois ideology (e.g., religion) and supported the capitalist parties. Pre-1914 social democrats generally associated political backwardness with social backwardness. In particular, they saw that workers newly drawn from the peasantry and other small proprietors tended to retain the outlook of their former class. Thus Kautsky in his 1909 The Road to Power wrote:

"To a large degree hatched out of the small capitalist and small farmer class, many proletarians long carry the shells of these classes around with them. They do not feel themselves proletarians, but as would-be property owners."

In other words, the classic social-democratic position was that those workers who had a low cultural level, were unskilled, unorganized, came from a rural background, etc., would be most submissive toward bourgeois authority. In the context of late 19th-century Germany and France, this political-sociological generalization was valid.

However, with the development of a strong trade-union movement, social and political conservatism appeared at the top of the working class and not only at the bottom. Skilled workers in strong craft unions insulated themselves to a certain degree from the labor market and cyclical unemployment and tended to express a narrow corporate outlook.

The phenomenon of a labor aristocratic caste, like that of the labor bureaucracy, first manifested itself in Victorian England. The narrow corporate spirit of the British craft unions was well known. Furthermore, the upper stratum of the British working class was almost exclusively English and Scots, while the Irish were a significant part of the unskilled labor force.

The composition of pre-war German Social Democracy consisted largely of skilled, better-off workers. Zinoviev saw in this sociological composition an important source of reformism:

"… the predominant mass of the membership of the Berlin social-democratic organization is composed of trained, of skilled workers. In other words, the predominant mass of the membership of the social-democratic organization consists of the better-paid strata of labor—of those strata from which the greatest section of the labor aristocracy arises. [emphasis in original]
—The War and the Crisis of Socialism

Zinoviev makes no attempt to demonstrate empirically that the labor aristocracy provided the base for the SPD right wing; he merely asserts it. He can therefore be criticized for mechanically transposing the political sociology of Edwardian Britain onto the very different terrain of Wilhelminian Germany. Craft unionism never played as important a role in Germany as in Britain. On the other hand, rural backwardness loomed large in the political life of Germany right up until the war. The rock-solid base of the SPD right wing was the party’s provincial organizations. Right-wing bureaucrats tried to counter the radicals, who were always concentrated in the big cities, by gerrymandering the party’s electoral districts in favor of the small towns. A farmer’s son working as an unskilled laborer in a South German town was more likely to support the SPD right, represented by Bernstein and Eduard David, than was a Berlin master machinist.

However, if Zinoviev was too mechanical in imposing a British model of the sociological bases of opportunism on the SPD, the basic Leninist position on the stratification of the working class in the imperialist epoch remains valid. In advanced capitalist countries with a large, well-established labor movement, the upper strata of the working class will frequently tend toward social and political conservatism relative to the mass of the proletariat. Moreover, within certain economic limits, the bourgeoisie and labor bureaucracy can widen the gap between the labor aristocracy and the class as a whole.

Zinoviev is certainly correct when he writes:

"To foster splits between the various strata of the working class, to promote competition among them, to segregate the upper stratum from the rest of the proletariat by corrupting it and making it an agency for bourgeois ‘respectability’—that is entirely in the interests of the bourgeoisie.... They [the social-chauvinists] split the working class inside of every countrv and thereby intensify and aggravate the split between the working classes of various countries."
—Zinoviev (Op. cit.)

The uppermost stratum of the working class is not always and everywhere politically to the right of the mass of the proletariat. Sometimes the greater economic security of highly skilled workers produces a situation where they maintain a more radical political attitude than the mass of organized workers, who are more concerned with their day-to-day material needs. Thus in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, Communist support among skilled workers was relatively greater than among the basic factory labor force, which looked to the Social Democrats for immediate reforms. Franz Borkenau wrote of the German Communist Party membership in 1927:

"… skilled workers and people who have been skilled workers make up two-fifths of the party membership; if their womenfolk were added they would probably make up nearly half.... If there is any such thing as a worker’s aristocracy, here it is."
World Communism (1939)

Lenin’s position on the labor aristocracy was an important corrective to the traditional, positive social-democratic orientation to that stratum, an orientation which was in part a conservative reaction to the rapid growth of the unskilled labor force from among a politically conservative and socially backward peasantry. While workers from a rural background can be extremely militant, they are highly volatile and difficult to organize on a stable basis. For example, migrant farm labor and similar groups (e.g., lumberjacks) drawn into the syndicalist American Industrial Workers of the World before World War I demonstrated great combativity, but also great organizational instability.

No self-professed Marxist today maintains as positive an orientation to the highly skilled, well-paid sections of the working class as did the Social Democracy. On the contrary, during the past period New Left "Marxism" has gone to the opposite extreme, dismissing the entire organized proletariat in the advanced capitalist countries as a "labor aristocracy" bought off by the spoils of imperialism. Just as at one time the revolutionary Marxists’ attack on the social-democratic bureaucracy was exploited by the anarcho-syndicalists, so in our day Lenin’s critical analysis of the role of the labor aristocracy is distorted and exploited in the service of anti-proletarian petty-bourgeois radicalism, particularly nationalism.

A leading intellectual inspirer of New Left Third Worldism (more or less associated with Maoism) has been Paul Sweezy of Monthly Review. His revisionist distortion of Lenin’s analysis of the labor aristocracy is presented with especial angularity in a centenary article on the publication of the first volume of Capital, "Marx and the Proletariat" (Monthly Review, December 1967). Here Sweezy claims Lenin’s Imperialism for the proposition that the principal social force for revolution in our epoch has shifted to the rural masses in the backward countries:

"His [Lenin’s] major contribution was his little book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism which, having been published in 1917, is exactly half as old as the first volume of Capital. There he argued that ‘Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the people of the world by a handful of "advanced" countries....’ He also argued that the capitalists of the imperialist countries could and do use part of their ‘booty’ to bribe and win over to their side an aristocracy of labor. As far as the logic of the argument is concerned, it could be extended to a majority or even all the workers in the industrialized countries. In any case it is clear that taking into account the global character of the capitalist system provides strong additional reasons for believing that the tendency in this stage of capitalist development will be to generate a less rather than a more revolutionary proletariat." [our emphasis]

The New Left is quite wrong in simply identifying the Labor aristocracy with the better-paid sectors of the proletariat. In the first place, many of the relatively higher-paid workers (e.g., auto workers or truckers in the U.S.) are members of industrial unions of the unskilled and semi-skilled, who won their wage levels through militant struggle against the bosses rather than imperialist bribery or job-trusting. Nor can all craft unions be counted among the labor aristocracy. The needle trades, organized along craft lines, are among the lowest-paid unionized workers in the U.S.

In Imperialism and related writings, Lenin emphasized again and again that the labor aristocracy represented a small minority of the proletariat. And this was not an empirical estimate but a basic sociological proposition. A group can occupy a privileged social position only in relation to the working masses of the society of which it is a part. The New Left Third Worldist notion that the proletariat in the imperialist centers is a labor aristocracy in relation to the impoverished colonial masses denies that the European and North American working class is centrally defined by its exploitation at the hands of "its" bourgeoisie. It is methodologically similar to the argument of apologists for apartheid in South Africa that black workers in that country are better off than those in the rest of Africa.

However, Sweezy’s revisionism is not limited to extending the category of labor aristocracy to the majority of workers in the advanced capitalist countries. He also distorts Lenin’s attitude toward the actual labor aristocracy, which is a sociological not a political category. For the uppermost stratum of the working class, defense of its petty privileges often dominates its consciousness and action. It is thus a culture medium for the false consciousness which sees the workers’ interests as tied to those of "their" bourgeoisie (support for imperialist war, protectionism, "profit-sharing" schemes, etc.). But the labor aristocracy is also a part of the working class, sharing common class interests with the rest of the proletariat, and thus cannot be considered as ultimately inherently pro-imperialist. Under normal capitalist conditions, the labor aristocracy may well seek short-term economic advantages at the expense of the class as a whole. However, under the impact of a major depression, a devastating war, etc., the long-term interests of this stratum as a section of the proletariat will tend to come to the fore.

Leninists even seek to win over exploited sectors of the petty bourgeoisie proper (e.g., teachers, small farmers) to the cause of revolutionary socialism. Therefore they can scarcely consign a section of the working class, albeit a relatively privileged, petty-bourgeoisified section, to the camp of bourgeois counterrevolution. Labor aristocratic groups can end up on the wrong side of the barricades in a revolutionary situation. In the October Revolution, the relatively privileged railway workers provided a base for the Mensheviks’ counterrevolutionary activities. However, the oil workers in Mexico, likewise an elite proletarian group in a backward country, have long been among the most advanced sections of that country’s labor movement. In an important article written shortly after Imperialism, Lenin explicitly states that what fraction of the proletariat will eventually side with the bourgeoisie can only be determined through political struggle:

"Neither we nor anyone else can calculate precisely what portion of the proletariat is following and will follow the social-chauvinists and opportunists. This will be revealed only by the struggle, it will definitely be decided only by the socialist revolution."
—"Imperialism and the Split in Socialism" (October 1916)

The Leninist attitude toward the labor aristocracy is significantly different than toward its leadership, the labor bureaucracy. In the imperialist epoch, the age of capitalist decay, successful reformism is impossible. Thus whatever their background and original motivation, unless they explicitly adopt a revolutionary course the leaders of the labor movement are forced by their social role to subordinate the workers’ interests to the bourgeoisie. As Lenin later wrote of the "labor lieutenants of the bourgeoisie":

"Present-day (twentieth-century) imperialism has given a few advanced countries an exceptionally privileged position, which, everywhere in the Second International, has produced a certain type of traitor, opportunist, and social-chauvinist leaders, who champion the interests of their own craft, their own section of the labour aristocracy.... The revolutionary proletariat cannot be victorious unless this evil is combated, unless the opportunist, social-traitor leaders are exposed, discredited and expelled."
—"Left-Wing" Communism, an Infantile Disorder (1920)

In contrast, skilled, well-paid workers, while more susceptible to conservative bourgeois ideology, are not "agents of the bourgeoisie in the workers movement" (Ibid.). Like the rest of the proletariat, they must be won away from their treacherous misleaders.

Classic Marxism and the Leninist Vanguard Party

By 1916, Lenin had developed both the programmatic and theoretical basis for a split with official social democracy and the creation of an international vanguard party modeled on the Bolsheviks. The actual formation of the Communist International in 1919 was, of course, decisively affected by the Bolshevik Revolution and establishment of the Soviet state. However, this series concerns the evolution of Lenin’s position on the organizational question away from traditional revolutionary Social Democracy. And that process was essentially completed before the Russian Revolution. We therefore conclude with a discussion of the relationship of the Leninist vanguard party to the previous Marxist experience around the organizational question.

With respect to the vanguard party, the history of the Marxist movement appears paradoxical. The first Marxist organization, the Communist League of 1847-52, was a vanguard propaganda group which clearly demarcated itself from all other tendencies in the socialist and workers movements (e.g., from Blanquism, Cabet’s Icarians, German "true" socialism, British Chartism). By contrast, the International Workingmen’s Association (First International), established a generation later, sought to be an inclusive body embracing all working-class organizations. A central pillar of the First International was the British trade-union movement, which politically supported the bourgeois liberals. The Socialist (Second) International, although its dominant section was the Marxist German Social Democracy, sought to be inclusive of all proletarian socialist parties. In 1908, the Second International even admitted the newly formed British Labour Party which did not claim to be socialist. Thus the Communist International of 1919 was in a sense a resurrection of the Communist League of 1848 on a mass foundation.

How does one account for the absence of the vanguard party principle in classic, late 19th-century Marxism? Stalinist writers sometimes deny this fact, distorting history so as to make Marx/Engels out as advocates of Leninist organizational principles. On the other hand, it would be ahistoric idealism to criticize Marx/Engels for their organizational policies and to maintain that the equivalent of the Conununist International could and should have been established in the 1860s-90s.

The formation of the Communist League of 1847 was predicated on an imminent bourgeois-democratic revolution. The task of organizing the people, including the urban-artisan proletariat, was being accomplished by the broader revolutionary democratic movement. The task of the Communist League was to vie for leadership of an existing revolutionary movement against the bourgeois democrats (as well as utopian socialists). The Communist League thus defined itself as the proletarian socialist vanguard of the revolutionary bourgeois-democratic movement. With the definitive end of the 1848 revolutionary period (signaled by the 1852 Cologne Communist trial), Marx’s strategy and its organizational component became unviable.

Between the revolutions of 1848 and the Russian Revolution of 1905, the possibilities of a successful bourgeois-democratic revolution had been exhausted while the economic bases for a proletarian-socialist revolution were still immature in the principal countries of Western Europe. (Britain presented its own exceptional problems in this regard. However, even though Britain was far more advanced than France or Germany, in the 1850s house servants still outnumbered industrial workers.) The task of socialists was to create the precondition for a socialist revolution through the organization of the proletariat from an atomized condition. Furthermore, in the decades immediately following the defeat of 1848, mass, stable working-class organizations in Germany and France were impeded by effective state repression.

A Leninist-type vanguard party in Germany or France in the 1860s-90s would have existed in a political vacuum unrelated to any broader potentially revolutionary movement. Thus in the period following the dissolution of the First International, Marx opposed the re-establishment of an international center as a diversion from the task of building a workers movement actually capable of overthrowing capitalism. In a letter (22 February 1881) to the Dutch anarchist Ferdinand Domela-Nieuwenhuis, he wrote:

"It is my conviction that the critical juncture for a new Intemational Working Men’s Association has not yet arrived and for that reason I regard all workers’ congresses or socialist congresses, in so far as they are not directly related to the conditions existing in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but actually harmful. They will always ineffectually end in endlessly repeated general banalities."
—Marx/Engels, Selected Correspondence (1975)

In Western Europe, the transition from the revolutionary bourgeois-democratic movement to mass proletarian socialist parties required an entire epoch involving decades of preparatory activity.

The situation facing Marxists in tsarist Russia was fundamentally different. There a bourgeois-democratic revolution appeared a short-term prospect. A revolutionary bourgeois-democratic movement existed in the form of radical (socialistic) populism with broad support among the intelligentsia.

In important respects, the conditions facing Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labor group in the 1880s paralleled those facing the Communist League before the revolution of 1848. Plekhanov projected a proletarian party (initiated by the socialist intelligentsia) which would act as a vanguard in the bourgeois-democratic revolution, while sharply demarcating itself from all petty-bourgeois radical currents. This vanguardist conception is clearly stated in the 1883 program of the Emancipation of Labor group:

"One of the most harmful consequences of the backward state of production was and still is the underdevelopment of the middle class, which, in our country, is incapable of taking the initiative in the struggle against absolutism.

"That is why our socialist intelligentsia has been obliged to head the present-day emancipation movement, whose direct task must be to set up free political institutions in our country, the socialists on their side being under the obligation to provide the working class with the possibility to take an active and fruitful part in the future political life of Russia." [emphasis in original]
—G. Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 1 (1961)

In Bismarckian and Wilhelminian Germany, all bourgeois parties were hostile to Social Democracy, which represented both the totality of the workers movement and by far the most significant force for democratic political change. The Catholic Center Party, National-Liberals and Progressives were only episodically viewed as a challenge to the semi-autocratic government. By contrast, Russian social democrats had to compete for cadre and for popular influence, including among the industrial proletariat, with the radical populists and at times even with the liberals. Moreover, since Russia was a multinational state, the social democrats also had to compete with left nationalist parties like the Ukrainian Radical Democratic Party and the Polish Socialist Party, and similar parties in the Baltic region and Transcaucasus.

The organizational principles of Plekhanovite Social Democracy thus had a dual character. With respect to the proletariat, early Russian social democrats sought to become "the party of the whole class" emulating the SPD. But they also sought to become the vanguard of all the diverse anti-tsarist forces in the Russian empire.

From Plekhanovite Social Democracy Lenin inherited vanguardist conceptions absent in the West European socialist parties. The significance of the fight against Economisrn, which was initiated by Plekhanov not Lenin, was in preserving the vanguard role of Social Democracy in relation to the broad, heterogeneous bourgeois-democratic forces. Because Lenin split Russian Social Democracy (in 1903) before it achieved a mass base, he did not fully recognize the significance of what he had done. He regarded the split with the Mensheviks as a legitimate continuation of the struggle to separate proletarian socialism from petty-bourgeois democracy. In reality, he had separated the revolutionary socialists from the reformists, both seeking a working-class base.

The world-historic significance of pre-1914 Bolshevism was that it anticipated the organizational principles required for victory in the epoch of imperialist capitalism and of proletarian revolution. As the epoch of capitalist degeneration opened up with World War I, the principal obstacle to proletarian revolution was no longer the underdevelopment of bourgeois society and of the workers movement. It was now the reactionary labor bureaucracy, resting upon a powerful workers movement, which preserved an obsolete social system. The first task of revolutionary socialists was henceforth defeating and replacing the reformists as the leadership of the mass workers movement, the precondition to leading that movement to victory over capitalism and laying the basis for a socialist society. This task has a dual character. The establishment of a revolutionary vanguard party splits the working class politically. However, a vanguard party seeks to lead the mass of the proletariat through united economic organizations of class struggle, the trade unions. In a revolutionary situation, a vanguard party seeks to lead a united working class to power through soviets, the organizational basis of a workers government.



Posted: 15 April 2005