Problems of theory and history


As we have already pointed out, in his earlier polemical writings against Lenin, Trotsky shared the sociological viewpoint of Axelrod, Parvus and Rosa Luxemburg.(31) He was inclined to think that the revolutionary party was identical with the conscious elements of the proletariat and ultimately with the class as such. He thought that the latter would be led to make the revolution by virtue of the laws which govern the development of social contradictions. The conditions of its existence would constrain the proletariat to pursue its objective interests consciously. Thus the role of the party would be limited to 'shortening the road and making it easier', from 'objective fact' to 'its objective consciousness'.(32) Even so, the vocation of the party was to coincide with the class. This is why Trotsky, in agreement with the Mensheviks, thought that one could be a member of the party without militating in it. Thus he opposed the 'substitutionism' of Lenin who, he argued, sought to substitute the party for the class, the Central Committee for the party and the dictator for the Central Committee. In fact, what he took exception to in Lenin was his distinction between the party and the class and the accordance of a leading function to the former. Overestimating 'the spontaneity' or 'self-activity' of the masses and correspondingly underestimating the role of leadership, he had no choice but to reject as well Lenin's thesis that scientific socialism, elaborated by intellectuals who are of bourgeois origin but have adopted a proletarian class position, is brought into the proletariat 'from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers'.(33) Left to itself, the working class can neither go beyond the level of economic demands nor achieve a revolutionary class consciousness.

    Lenin was right, but he laid too much stress on a partial truth. In the context of his polemic with the Economists he had been led to 'bend the stick' the other way in order to straighten it again. He acknowledged it himself at the end of the 2nd Party Congress (1903), thus correcting certain possibly unilateral formulations in 'What is To Be Done?', particularly the famous quotation from Kautsky.(34)

    In his pamphlet 'Briefly about the Disagreements in the Party', published in May 1905, Stalin emphasised another aspect of the reality taken as given in 'What is To Be Done?' He wrote: 'Here is what Lenin says: The working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism, but the more widespread (and continuously revived in its most diverse forms) bourgeois ideology spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class still more.'(35) Stalin went even further since he acknowledged that in the long run the spontaneous movement of the proletariat would achieve revolution even without social democracy.(36) Clearly, this is a scholastic hypothesis. In fact, the existence of a proletarian movement always encourages the appearance of Marxist intellectuals. Dialectical and historical materialism would not have been possible without such a movement.

     Stalin returned to this question in a vigorously polemical article published on 15 August 1905 in 'Proletariatis Brdzola'. Lenin summed up the central part by noting the author's 'excellent presentation of the celebrated question of the "introduction of consciousness from without"'. Stalin showed that (a) socialist consciousness corresponds to the class position of the proletariat, (b) only social-democratic intellectuals 'possess the necessary means and leisure', for the scientific elaboration of this consciousness, (c) this consciousness is introduced into the working-class movement from without by these intellectuals and the Social-Democratic Party, and (d) when making its propaganda, the party meets with 'an instinctive striving towards socialism' among the proletariat.(37)

    In all his later writings in the polemic against the Economists, Lenin constantly emphasised not the (real) spontaneous tendency of the proletariat to submit to the dominant bourgeois ideology when the latter is not fought by revolutionary Marxists, but its (just as real) spontaneous tendency to appropriate socialist theory and to embark on revolutionary action on its own initiative.

    As soon as the 1905 revolution broke out, Lenin emphasised 'the amazingly rapid shift of the movement from the purely economic to the political ground . . . notwithstanding the fact that conscious Social-Democratic influence is lacking or is but slightly evident'. He exalted the proletarian revolutionary instinct which was breaking through 'all obstacles' such as the 'backwardness of some of the leaders'.(38) He regarded it as highly significant that the Moscow workers in December 1905 were more advanced than 'the conscious element' represented by the social-democrats. They knew by themselves what had to be done. For Lenin:(39)

This is the greatest historic gain in the Russian revolution . . . the proletariat sensed sooner than its leaders the change in the objective conditions of the struggle and the need for a transition from the strike to an uprising. As is always the case, practice marched ahead of theory.

At the same time, Lenin went so far as to say that 'The working class is instinctively, spontaneously social-democratic'.(40)

    Logically, our ossified Marxist-Leninists who swear only by 'What Is To Be Done?' (of which they remember only the famous quotation from Kautsky) should tax Lenin and Stalin themselves with 'spontaneism'. That would be enjoyable. Unfortunately, they read very little more than a few texts, and always the same ones.
    Let us recall that after the May-June 1968 movement in France, the Trotskyists and ossified Marxist-Leninists attacked Mao's mass line and those who wished to apply it in their practice, dubbing the latter with the ridiculous nickname 'Mao-spontex'. They spoke of the inability of the working class, if left by itself, to go beyond trade-union consciousness. According to them, to elaborate the line by gathering the correct ideas of the masses in struggles in which one is a participant before leading them signifies bowing before the necessarily bourgeois (!) spontaneity of the proletariat. It is spontaneism, economism and reformism' As for them, they reckon that communist intellectuals should elaborate the line and programme from books (Marxist classics, collections of statistics, etc) and then call on the masses to follow this self-appointed vanguard.

     For forty years the Trotskyist sects (falling into the opposite mistake to that of Trotsky in 1904) have embodied the very essence of this sort of vanguard, the idea of which was so discredited during and after the movement of May-June that Ernest Mandel felt the need to take the precaution against the accusation of conceiving the party in terms of this model. 'There is no self-proclaimed vanguard', he tells us, because 'the vanguard must win recognition as a vanguard'.(41) We would retort, but yes, M. Mandel, there is a self-proclaimed vanguard. In 1939, while he recognised that the Fourth International was not linked to the masses, Trotsky consoled himself, nevertheless, by saying, 'We who are the vanguard of the vanguard'.(42) At any rate, the theoretician of the Fourth International stands on awkward ground. This vanguard must exist before being recognised, otherwise how could it win its recognition? A few pages later Mandel confirms our interpretation of his thought: 'The proletarian army will never reach its historic objectives if the necessary education, schooling and testing of a proletarian vanguard in the working out and agitational application of the revolutionary programme in struggle has not taken place before the outbreak of the broadest mass struggles.'(43)

    One could not be clearer. The constitution of the vanguard and the elaboration of the programme must 'take place before' mass struggles and develop outside these struggles. The same applies to the education, training and testing of this curious 'vanguard'. Leaders and programme are thus to be bestowed on the people who would only have 'to recognise' them.

    We should have to concede the correctness of Mandel and before him, Trotsky, if it were possible to deduce the laws of the revolution in a given country from general truths about its character (democratic or socialist) and its ultimate end, if it were possible to elaborate strategy and tactics from such deductions - that is, in the end, on the basis of bookish learning - if we could know the conjuncture of the class struggle and answer the question, 'Who are our friends and who are our enemies?' from given statistics based on class being and the mere objective interests of some social category, if we could elaborate, lastly, outside of and in place of the masses, the detailed plan of the transformations to be carried out in all the spheres of social life.(44)

    Now 'the concrete analysis of a concrete situation is the living soul, the very essence of Marxism'. The carrying out of this analysis requires consideration of the class position (and not just the class being) of the different social strata, paying particular attention to the attitude of intermediary, wavering elements because victory cannot be won if the Left does not win over the Centre. It must also be based not only on the objective needs of the masses as we conceive them, perhaps wrongly, but also on their wishes, which is impossible without investigation and the latter presupposes links with the masses. If the answer to all these concrete questions about alliances, slogans, etc., could be provided by theory, then programme and line could be elaborated in an armchair. Lenin did not think so. To those who criticised him for not having defined 'a priori' the strategic line and particular tactics, he replied: 'As if one can set out to make a great revolution and know beforehand how it is to be completed' Such knowledge cannot be derived from books and our decision could spring only from the experience of the masses.'(45)

    The programme makers would also do well to reflect on the words which Mao Tse-tung spoke to the plenary session of the Central Committee on 30 January 1962:(

[']Until the period of resistance against Japan, we could not determine the general Party line or entire set of specific policies in accordance with the situation. Until the necessary kingdom of the democratic revolution of that time was recognised by us, we could not have freedom'.

Later, Mao related his conversation in 1960 with Edgar Snow: Snow 'wanted me to talk about the long-term plans for China. I said: "I don't know". He said: "You're being too cautious". I said: "It's not caution, I just don't know, I don't have the experience" (of the construction of socialism).'(47)

    As Marxists, Lenin and Mao knew that practice comes first, theory after, even if the latter contributes later to illuminate practice. That is why Marx said 'One step of real movement is worth a dozen programmes'. The insurrection of Paris workers in June 1848 and the Paris Commune owed practically nothing to Marxism, whereas the latter owes much to them: to the former, the theory of the uninterrupted revolution and the interpenetration of the democratic stage and the socialist stage; to the latter, the concrete forms of smashing the state apparatus and of the dictatorship of the proletariat.(48)

    The Soviets were not inscribed in the programme of the Bolshevik Party and the latter had not launched them as a slogan. This historic initiative came from the masses alone. It was they who invented this form of organisation and power. Lenin declared on this subject:(49)

Had not the popular creative spirit of the Russian revolution . . . given rise to the Soviets as early as February 1917, they could not under any circumstances have assumed power in October . . . It was the creative spirit of the people, which had passed through the bitter experience of 1905 and had been made wise by it, that gave rise to this form of proletarian power.

We can now understand why in 1921 Lenin considered the translation of 'What Is To Be Done?' as 'undesirable'. He demanded that it should at least be accompanied by 'a good commentary', 'to avoid false applications'. In a new preface as early as 1907 Lenin pointed out that this text of 1902 contained expressions that were 'more or less awkward or imprecise' and that it should not be detached from 'the determined situation which gave birth to it'.(50)

    Stalin was a better Leninist than certain of today's anti-spontaneists when he wrote as follows: 'Lenin taught us not only to teach the masses but also to learn from them . . . The ordinary people are often far closer to the truth than certain higher echelons.' Michael Lowy knows this passage from Stalin as well as those we have quoted above but he is careful not to note it. On the other hand, he quotes another one (p. 190) and harps on it with the purpose of setting Stalin against Lenin. It concerns a leaflet in which Stalin wrote 'Let us hold out our hands and gather around the party committees! We must not forget for one instant that only the party committees can provide us with proper leadership, that they alone know how to light up the road to "the promised land", the socialist world.' Whatever Lowy thinks, there is no contradiction here. One can and must insist both on the masses' historical initiative and on the party's leadership. This is what Lenin did, because both are necessary for the victory of the revolution.

    True Leninists accept with Mao that correct ideas in politics come from the practice of the masses in struggle illuminated by the beacon of the general principles of Marxism-Leninism borne by the party.

    One must study with the problems to be solved in mind. This is a condition for fruitful study. If practice is not combined with study, theory cannot be truly assimilated. The Marxist classics, statistical data from bourgeois economics and sociology are not enough to understand the concrete problems which the class struggle poses on the different fronts in which it proceeds. Books are not useless but practice must be the basis.

    'Our principal method is to learn to make war by making it', we are told by Mao Tse-tung, who is adopting a truth already stated by Lenin in his 'Philosophical Notebooks': 'In order to understand, it is necessary to begin empirically, to study, to rise from empiricism to the universal. In order to learn to swim, it is necessary to get into the water.'(51) It is by making the revolution that we succeed in establishing its laws after a great number of mistakes and defeats.

    'If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself,' Mao teaches us.(
52) To know society it is necessary to change it by participating in the revolutionary struggle of the masses. An important moment in this practice is the investigation. In his 'Preface and Postscript to Rural Surveys', Mao declares: 'Investigation is especially necessary for those who know theory but do not know the actual conditions, for otherwise they will not be able to link theory with practice . . . No investigation, no right to speak.'(53) It is clear that the investigation in question has nothing in common with the investigations of bourgeois sociology with their vaunted impartiality. The militant is objective to the exact extent of his partiality in favour of the people.

    An investigation cannot be undertaken unless one is linked to the masses, in their camp. In order to discover the masses' state of mind one should not make a survey but talk to the well-informed representatives of these masses without hiding one's views - quite the opposite. Mao made anti-religious propaganda while investigating the peasants' attachment to superstitious practices. There is no investigation without practice. Reality is discovered by transforming it. When Mao visited Hunan in January 1927, he was a revolutionary who fearlessly championed the Peasant Leagues despite the reticent, not to say hostile attitude of the leaders of his party. At the same time, he was inspired with the desire to learn from the masses, to become their humble pupil. He knew how to listen and did not set himself up as a giver of lessons. 'It has to be understood that the masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant, and without this understanding it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge.'(54)

    The mass line is at once both a method of leadership and a method of knowledge since 'without a really concrete knowledge of the actual conditions of the classes in . . . society, there can be no really good leadership'.(55) But only on condition that it is not debased by summing it up in a simplistic formula such as 'correct ideas come from the masses' (they come from practice, particularly that of the class struggle) which certain people take to mean: the ideas of the masses are always correct. Of course, there is always something correct even in the false ideas of the masses, but if one does not make this distinction, if one does not build on what is correct to combat what is false, one will fall into the 'tailism' which Mao denounced in a speech at a conference of cadres in Shansi-Suiyuan. In it he criticised the apparently left-wing policy adopted by Liu Shao-chi during the agrarian reform. Under the pretext of 'Doing everything as the masses want it done', Liu Shao-chi had gone ahead with a strictly egalitarian division of the land and capital goods, forgetting that the sole target of the agrarian reform should be the system of feudal exploitation. Mao reminded him that 'the Party must lead the masses to carry out all their correct ideas in the light of the circumstances and educate them to correct any wrong ideas they may entertain' (56)

    They are falsifying Mao's teaching who claim support from it for a denial of the necessity for a vanguard, or 'leading core of the whole people' in Mao's formula, which seems preferable to us because the core is in the people instead of being ahead and outside of it.

    In contrast to what the ossified Marxist-Leninists think, a revolutionary movement can be correctly oriented even if it does not have a Marxist Party at its head. We have cited the example of the rising in June 1848 and of the Commune and we could add that of Cuba. Mao says that 'they (the poor peasants) have never been wrong on the general direction of the revolution'.(57) It is true, nevertheless, that in the absence of a Communist Party, the peasant revolution would have come to a halt in the best of cases in the bourgeois-democratic stage (agrarian reform) and would not have finally suppressed exploitation and oppression in the countryside. Without the leadership of the revolutionary proletarian Communist Party armed with Marxism-Leninism, the thought of Mao Tse-tung, the proletariat will not be able to liberate itself and in so doing the whole of humanity; it will not be able to pursue its struggle in a consistent way; that is, to the end, namely the abolition of classes and the establishment of a communist society.

    Those who invoke the example of Cuba to combat this truth proceed from the postulate that that country is a dictatorship of the proletariat which is constructing socialism. Nothing is less certain. According to Bettelheim, the transformation that has taken place in Cuba is not a 'true revolution' any more than those which have occurred in Guinea, Egypt, or Algeria. Neither Cuba nor any of these countries has really escaped imperialist (or social-imperialist) domination. For that, it would have been necessary for the proletariat to have taken power and set off on the socialist road, which it has not done.(58) Let us assume that it has, however, for the sake of the argument. Let us also assume that no involution will occur in the future, that the left of the party leads the masses in their struggle against the bureaucratised leaders who are taking the capitalist road and that the construction of socialism is thus being carried through to the end. In this case, one will be able to conclude that the party in power (whatever its origins and the serious mistakes it has committed) will be transformed through the struggle into a true proletarian communist party. This is almost a tautology.

    On 18 September 1968, the 'People's Daily' published an article(
59) entitled 'Compass for the victory of the revolutionary people of all countries', on the occasion of the Sixth Anniversary of Chairman Mao's most important inscription for 'Japanese worker friends': 'The Japanese Revolution will undoubtedly be victorious, provided the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism is really integrated with the concrete practice of the Japanese revolution'. The editorial in the 'People's Daily' declared:

The party of the proletariat in all countries must firmly adhere to the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism and at the same time, proceeding from life itself, maintain close contact with the masses, constantly sum up the experience of mass struggles and independently formulate and carry out policies and tactics suited to the conditions of each country.

For those in Western Europe who quote the thought of Mao Tse-tung as their authority, the problem is posed precisely in these terms: to proceed from reality or from books? To make use of the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism in order to know reality through practice ('the struggle') or to use 'reality' in order to illustrate by examples the truths of Marxism-Leninism and have the illusion of posing concrete problems? There are certain people in France but also in Belgium, Italy and Germany who wish to proceed from 'What Is To Be Done?' and not from reality.

    The conclusion to the same article says, 'It is our firm conviction that a truly revolutionary Japanese party armed with Marxism-Leninism is sure to come into being in the flames of revolutionary struggle.'

    The party will be born in the flames of the revolutionary struggle, not in the cigarette smoke of a room used for meetings by a few young or not so young petty bourgeois eager to proclaim themselves the party.

    We know how the ossified Marxists answer. They answer in an ossified way: the Chinese Communist Party was founded in this way by a dozen intellectuals representing fifty-seven members. This is to forget a 'detail': at that time in China there was neither a bourgeois-'worker's' party nor reformist trade unions misleading the majority of the working class. It will be accepted that this detail is important. In the meantime it is necessary to understand exactly what was this party founded in 1921. Half of the founder members reneged, the anarchist tendency was very strong among them, and of those who did not degenerate Mao said, 'We were just a bunch of eager young men who wanted to make a revolution.' He emphasised, moreover, that these eager young men were 'blind' and remained so 'until the period of the war of resistance to Japan'. 'If somebody says that there was a comrade, for example, any comrade in the Central Committee< or I myself, who completely recognised the laws of the Chinese Revolution in the beginning, he would be boasting, don't you believe him for it didn't happen.'(60)

     It matters little that there are only a few Maoists at the beginning. They grow stronger if they actually work to fuse with the working class, if they participate in its struggles and do not restrict their activity to setting up and distributing a journal. On the other hand, it is very important that, in the present conditions, they do not claim to be the 'true' Communist Party and do not launch grandiloquent appeals destined to disappear into thin air when everyone knows that they do not represent anything very much, otherwise the workers will not take them seriously. Having been 'had' twice by traditional workers' organisations, the workers demand that the Maoists prove themselves before giving them their confidence. In other words, for the Maoist organisation to be able to present itself as the leading core of the people, it is necessary for it really to be such, for the conscious workers (especially they) will not allow themselves to be taken in. This presupposes that certain conditions are met.

    1.  proletarianisation of the organisation and its leadership;
    2.  roots in the working class attested by effective ability to lead its struggles;
    3.  roots in all the other classes and strata of the people with the ability to mobilise them and to unify their struggles into a revolutionary perspective as a criterion;
    4.  unification of all proletarian revolutionaries and all true Maoists, that is, of all those who can be united.

Such an organisation will be able to lead the united front of all revolutionary classes and strata. It will have determined on the basis of practice the character of the present stage, the principal contradiction, the general political line and the system of particular lines. It will have helped the masses to elaborate particular programmes on the different aspects of their condition (work, security, housing, transport, etc.) and will synthesise them in a programme for a people's regime. It will be capable of combining legal and illegal, and open and clandestine work. It will have at its disposal an armed organisation, however embryonic.
    The people will then flex 'the three magic arms' guaranteeing it victory: the party, the united front, the army. This stage was only reached in China in 1937.

    It is clear that the building of the party is a continuous creation, as is the elaboration of the programme, as can be seen from the constant changes which Lenin made to it.(
61) Its official date of birth is a question of 'revolutionary opportunity' which must be appraised on the basis of the concrete situation. In stating the conditions pointed out above we were thinking above all of France and Italy. The premature birth of the party, in other words, its emergence as a self-proclaimed vanguard immediately claiming recognition of its status by fraternal parties and counting more on their aid than on its own forces, threatens to backfire by depreciating in the eyes of the masses the idea of a Maoist-Marxist-Leninist Party and by making more difficult the broad alliance of all those who appeal to the authority of the thought of Mao Tse-tung.
    On the other hand, the protracted building of a party presenting the characteristics we have pointed out sanctions more flexibility in the choice (or abandonment) of different forms of organisation, more effectively liberates initiative from below, and ensures the selection of cadres only on the basis of their success in practice. By combining legal and illegal methods, by setting when necessary the violence of the people against the violence of authority, one educates the militants, attracts the most combative workers and rejects petty bourgeois individualists and careerists. The elimination of poisoned blood and the infusion of fresh blood develop the organisation on a healthy proletarian basis, offering every guarantee against the dangers of sclerosis, opportunist degeneration and bureaucratism.