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Polemics

‘Crowds and Party’

Paresh Chattopadhyay

[Marx Laboratory in its issue of May 28, 2016, carried an affirmative and sympathetic review of a work by Jodi Dean under the title given above. The review offers citations from Dean's book. Our remarks below concern this review not the book as such to which we had no access.]

The starting point of Dean's work under consideration is her reaction to the recent OCCUPY movement, its "sudden rise and swift crumbling". Now this movement was entirely spontaneous. It seems that according to her this was the reason why it failed. According to her, "spontaneity, as necessary as it is, is far from sufficient in itself". What is needed is organization, and by 'organization' she means political organization, more particularly a party. What will be the party's target? She opines that "Without targeting the capitalist class there can be no end to exploition". So, it seems the aim is capitalism which is to be abolished through a revolution under the leadership of the party. A single party. This position basically conforms to that of a Leninist party.

That this is the case is clear from the author's explicit reference to Lenin. Referring to Lenin, she holds that political consciousness comes from outside the economic struggle. "Class consciousness is not spontaneous". To the objectors of this position Dean observes "Centralization and hierarchy have been problems in Left parties of the past", but then all political organizing runs this risk. Political organization unavoidably creates a gap between the few and the many. The effects that arise when large numbers of people organize cannot be avoided and to believe otherwise is to indulge in 'fantasy of the beautiful moment'.

It is undeniable that such indeed has predominantly been the case of the political practice by  the leftist parties—particularly by the communist parties—holding political power in the recent past. The remarkable thing in this piece, however, is that it does not consider any other type of organization for "targeting the capitalist class and ending exploitation" nor any other kind of people's spontaneity. Not a word on the council movements in large parts of Europe at the beginning of the last century, created spontaneously by the great majority of the working people without the leadership of any party, and naturally the councils were the self-governing organs of the working people. This was a movement of working people's self emancipation illustrating Marx's great watchword of 1864: 'the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves'. True, this emancipation needs class consciousness. But this class consciousness is generated through the long experience of class struggles. Indeed, the massive creators of the council movement had gained their own consciousness through their own experience of daily struggles, and no party had given them this consciousness.

In 1845-46 Marx and Engels stressed that "consciousness of the necessity of a profound revolution arises from the (working) class itself". In a remarkable passage of Marx's 1857-58 manuscripts (the so-called Grundrisse) concerning the situation of the worker under capitalism one reads "The recognition of the product as her/his (product) and its separation from the conditions of realization as something improper, imposed by force, is an enormous consciousness, itself the product of the mode of production based on capital, as with the consciousness of the slave that s/he cannot be the property of another, with her/his awareness as a person, the existence of slavery becomes merely an artificial, vegetative existence, and ceases to be able to continue as a foundation of production". In an article in New York Daily Tribune of 1852, October 9 on the Chartists, Marx wrote, "The working class of England gained, in a long, through underground civil war, the clear consciousness of its position as a class". By the way, Marx and Engels (disciples of Robert Owen), always considered the Chartists as constituting a working class party.

Lenin made a sharp distinction between workers' oganization and organization of professional revolutionaries, who make revolutionary activity their profession. This means that these people, detached from the process of (material) production, strictly cannot be a part of the proletariat, at least not in the sense of Marx who defined proletariat in Capital I as the "wage labourer who produces and valorizes capital." Consequently, a party, led by the professional revolutionaries, cannot strictly be called a working class party.

This problem does not arise in Marx, for whom the working class as such is a revolutionary class, and who does not have any room for an (elitist) group of professional revolutionaries dictating the 'correct' revolutionary path to the common workers—considered as simple followers—claiming to know (at least implicitly) the workers' own interests better than the workers themselves. As he wrote to a friend, "the working class is either revolutionary or it is nothing" (1865, Feb.13). Again, in the 'Afterword' to the second edition of Capital I Marx wrote that it was the historical "profession" (mission, Beruf) of the proletariat to overthrow the capitalist mode of production and to finally abolish classes.

It is clear that the author under consideration has not at all taken into account the point that the working class party is not just another party. Broadly speaking, the target of the working class, separated from the conditions of production which dominate the workers, is the present day society ruled by the capitalist class and the workers' movement cannot but be a movement for their self-emancipation, based on their collective self-activity. The corresponding organizational form has to be in harmony with this great task. A Leninist political party, hierarchically organized from top downwards with iron discipline, with the singular aim of conquering power cannot be an instrument of liberation, and is simply a machine for seizing political power by any means, of course in the name of the working class. Victor Serge cites pre-Bolshevik Trotsky's remarkable prediction of 1914, "The Bolsheviks can be a good instrument for the conquest of power, but it will reveal thereafter its counter revolutionary aspects" (in French). The irony is that Trotsky himself later entered the Bolshevik party and became a part of this machine which ended exactly as he had foreseen.

As a matter of fact, the piece under consideration has the remarkable feature that it completely casts aside the whole question of self-emancipation of the working people as the great alternative to the capitalist social order, what Marx, inspired by his great 'utopian' masters, calls a society of free and associated individuals, alternatively, socialism or communism (identical in Marx and EngeIs), and more often, Association. This is the logical conclusion of the author's express affirmation of a Leninist type of party leading the popular movement. By its very nature such a party is the very opposite of working people's self-liberation.

It is no accident that the author dismisses "individual autonomy" out of hand as just a product of "bourgeois ideology". A Leninist party is, indeed, premised on this assertion necessarily leading to the denial of freedom of the individual. Individual liberty is of course a product of the bourgeois society, a step forward from slavery/serfdom of the earlier epoch. However, this liberty is within the framework of the 'war of all against all' characterizing the bourgeois world. But what happens to the other kind of individual, a product of the workers' revolution? In Capital I Marx wrote of a "higher form of society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle". Of this individual and freedom of this individual not a word in the piece.
The early twentieth century saw the genesis of the spontaneously arisen council movement, creating the labouring people's organs of self government, in Russia first in 1905, which was bloodily suppressed by the regime, aided by the massive intervention of its coercive apparatus.. The movement with the whole country as its theatre re- appeared in early 1917.

Obviously the necessary revolutionary consciousness, required to build such a movement came from the revolutionaries themselves, the immense mass of the working people. It is on record that political parties were taken by surprise. The appearance of these self-governing organs drew reaction basically of two types respectably from the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.

The two saw the unfolding revolutionary process very differently. Lenin wanted to bring the movement under party control in order to turn it into an instrument for gaining political power, as he saw revolution as a planned seizure of central power synchronized with an armed uprising. Martov saw it as the progressive replacement of a disintegrating government apparatus by an ever widening area of revolutionary self government, and Martov opposed the Bolshevik attempts to bring the soviets under party control. The great German authority on the Soviets Oskar Anweiler notes: The Mensheviks saw the new Soviets as workers' revolutionary organs of self administration. They directly spoke of the formation of revolutionary communes in the intercut of promoting the uprising and disorganising the government. Anweiler stresses that 'as opposed to the Menshevik idea of the revolution as a spontaneous process in the course of which one could not fix any action beforehand, Lenin claimed that an uprising could be fixed if those who fixed it had influence on the masses and knew to asses correctly the moment'. In fact the Menshevik campaign for revolutionary self administering organs of the workers and peasants Lenin considered as a 'childish idea', remarks Anweiler.

A revolution to transform the existing society into a society of free and equal individuals cannot simply be reduced to a regime change. In other words, a simple seizure of power cannot be characterized as a revolution to transform society. It is only the very first step. In his discourse on the 1871 Commune, Marx observed that "the working class knows that in order to work out their own emancipation they will have to pass through long struggles through a series of historic processes transforming circumstances and men". Marx was here referring to the long period following the gaining of workers' political power as a first step, the period which he characterized elsewhere as 'revolutionary transformation period' during which the social relations of the old world gradually come to an end in step with the advance of the process of socialization of the conditions of production, workers cease to be proletarians and become simple producers, the new society, also called 'co-operative society', is born. Only then one could say that the revolution undertaken has been successful.

Logically, a revolution under the leadership of a single party—such as the Leninist party—bent on monopolizing political power—cannot be a revolution for people's liberation. This liberation effectively requires the exploited and oppressed not to follow the leadership formed outside of their own ranks, but to create their own leadership from their midst, to create their own self-governing organs as the appropriate weapon for emancipating themselves... That was precisely the task of the spontaneously arisen council movement. From the beginning of this popular movement its incompatibility with the Bolsheviks was clear. To cite the great Anweiler again, "the strength of the Soviets lay in their close link with the masses of workers and soldiers whose mouthpiece they were... They were sensitive barometers of the voice of the masses of the moment... The radicalisation of the masses had to make itself felt through the radicalisation of the Soviets. When a group whose objective is totally opposed to the democratic character of the Soviets succeeds in obtaining their leadership with the help and in the name of the masses the consequence has to be the general downfall of the soviets. This was the case of the Bolshevik victory in the October revolution. The soviet movement which began as a democratic movement transformed itself into the springboard of the Bolshevik dictatorship. The usurpation of power by the Bolsheviks under the cover of soviet legality signified at the same time the break of the Bolsheviks with the soviet democracy". In fact at the 9th party congress (1920), Lenin went so far as to denounce the "still surviving notorious democratism" and characterized the "outcry against appointees" as "pernicious trash".

Before gaining power Lenin had accused "Plekhanovs and Kautskys" of having forgotten and perverted the essence of the Paris Connmune, namely, the need to destroy the old state apparatus with its bureaucracy, police and the standing army and its replacement by freely elected and revocable officials at all levels. However, the reality of the regime totally contradicted what Lenin had promised. Instead of elected and revocable officials, the body of appointed officials organically linked with the new central establishments and hierarchically organized from top downwards increased in gigantic strides. In the same way there arose a special police apparatus of which the core—the security police—grew over a quarter of a million by 1921. And of course the independent existence of the body of Soviets underwent a radioactive decay, expiring finally by the late spring of 1918.

Indeed an emancipatory revolution is no party affair. The work for self-governing organs of the working people begins right in the work place, then spreads itself over regions, till it reaches the whole land without the need for a party—which has its own agenda—to intervene from outside. This was indeed what the 1921 Kronstadt sailors and toilers, opposing the Bolshevik regime—in this 'rise of the proletariat against the communist party'—wanted to achieve. Hence their watchword. 'All power to the Soviets, not to parties'.

The bitter experience of the twentieth century revolutionary movements shows that the self-anointed communist party has invariably destroyed all independent attempts that the working people undertook , through their own freely elected representatives, to take their own affairs in their own hands by creating a social order free from all kinds of social, economic and political (state) domination.

Lenin's party had tolerated workers' independently organized councils only as a means to conquer power. Back in Russsia in early spring of 1917, Lenin immediately saw how tremendously popular the slogan 'all power to the Soviets' was, and immediately the Bolsheviks adopted it as their watchword, even though this slogan contradicted Lenin's repeatedly expressed aim of the Bolsheviks gaining monopoly of power. In fact shortly before the seizure of power, in his confidential correspondence to his comrades in the party leadership (published only after his death) Lenin, showing total distrust, if not disdain for the Soviets, argued for a forcible seizure of power ignoring the Soviets and stressing that Soviets "cannot give us anything", and that waiting for the soviet congress to meet would be an act of "treachery". So the preparation for gaining power was going on while the slogan 'all power to the soviets' continued to be mouthed in public.

To conclude, the spontaneous movements like 'Occupy' movement in USA and 'Nuit debout' (rise up at night) movement in France cannot succeed as they are now in their isolation, not because they are spontaneous movements, but because they need the active involvement of the great majority of working people of their societies on their side, and in order to get involved, this great majority will have to be in a situation in which they find their conditions of daily life desperate and intolerable.

Frontier
Vol. 48, No. 52, Jul 3 - 9, 2016