Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Role of The Specific Political Organisation

There has been quite a lot written about revolutionary organisation and on the role that they play in broader progressive movements. Among the problems which must be addressed are those of theoretical and tactical unity and the role and function of the party and the organisation. Some of the ideas that form the modern platformist tendency, of which the Workers' Solidarity Movement is at least nominally in agreement were first expressed in "The Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists" [1].

The role of the revolutionary organisation is dictated by the present features of the political and social terrain. It must therefor hone its own theory on the analysis of current struggles, and the relationship and activity that the organisation has relative to those struggles. In addition the theory of the organisation must serve a predictive function as well. Analysis must be made of history (both remote and current) in order to understand the roles that the organisation should have in various changing climates in order to prepare for their eventuality.

It is assumed hereafter that in discussing the role of the revolutionary organisation we imagine that the final outcome is libertarian communism.

There are two basic features (thought not purely separable) that can be distinguished when talking about the role of a revolutionary organisation. The first is internal organisation. The second is external.


The tendencies of revolutionary organisation for the left can not be said to start with Lenin, but 1917 was probably the most pronounced example of the Socialist revolution and therefor serves as a reasonable starting point for analysis.

Lenin had developed a theoretical model of revolutionary organisation that includes the notion of the vanguard party and the notion of democratic centralism as its internal organisational method.

The vanguard party is an organisation that was theoretically to serve an educational role and to act in a tactical capacity. Lenin argues in [7] that the consciousness necessary for revolution had to come from an intellectual group that was able to serve as a catalyst and to serve a directive function to activities. For this reason the vanguard should be staffed with professional revolutionaries, those capable for both the theoretical and tactical tasks to effect the revolution.

Here he argues for alteration of the internal structure of the organisation due to the way in which the organisation must interact with the proletariat.

The notion of spontaneous action on the part of the working class is analysed by Lenin as the fruition of at least embryonic consciousness.

... the ``spontaneous element'', in essence, represents nothing more nor less than consciousness in an embryonic form. [7]

However, Lenin rejected that the workers would acquire a fully realised consciousness of the role that the proletariat would need to serve to bring about socialism.

The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. [7]

The rejection of the capacity of the working class to come into consciousness of their role served as a later justification for the increasing control that was to be exercised by the Bolsheviks as the revolution progressed. This leads to the traditional idea of the vanguard party, acting as the agent of the working class and substituting itself as the dictatorship of the proletariat for some transitional stage. The external organisational principle follows from this as one of concentric centralisation of the politicised, the workers and indeed the whole of society around the party.

A note should be made on the "dictatorship of the proletariat". This phrase has been used to mean a range of different things from its use to mean the domination of the working class because of their majority status in a democratic institution to a small cadre that would substitute itself in the interest of the working class. It is likely that the democratic notion is closer to Marx's original interpretation and that the later interpretation is a result of Leninist theory.

We might reflect that this assertion that the working class can not come into consciousness of its own role is at odds with the experience of revolutionary syndicalism that was to come later in Spain. Though not perfect, it would be difficult to argue that the consciousness of the proletariat and the peasants in Spain '36 was merely embryonic in form.

Democratic centralism is an internal organisational principle for the revolutionary party. Internally an organisation should have the freedom to discuss and debate and then finally vote on action based on the outcomes of the debate. This forms the "democratic" component of democratic centralism. "Centralism" describes an extreme tactical unity. That is, when decisions are made, there is total acceptance by the minority, which must go along with the decisions of the organisation. This notion of internal organisation formed one of the major arguments which lead to the split between the Menshevik and Bolshevik tendencies.

A commonly recognised set of principles forming democratic centralism is the following:

  1. Election of all party organs from bottom to top and systematic renewal of their composition, if needed.

  2. Responsibility of party structures to both lower and upper structures.

  3. Strict and conscious discipline in the party—the minority must obey the majority until such time as the policy is changed.

  4. Decisions of upper structures are mandatory for the lower structures.

  5. Cooperation of all party organs in a collective manner at all times, and correspondingly, personal responsibility of party members for the assignments given to them and for the assignments they themselves create.

Interestingly, item 4 forms a sort of half-subsidiarity in that all higher decision making bodies are to be respected but the purview of these bodies is not in any way limited. Whereas with full subsidiarity additionally all decisions would be made at the least authority of competence.

One Big Party

Some groups take the internal and external roles of the political organisation and identify them completely. It might be noted that this is quite similar to evangelical religious conceptions of the church. One group which vocally advocates an international general party which the majority of the class should join is the Progressive Labor Party. Since the PLP takes democratic centralism as its organisational principle there is no further work other than to find effective methods of proselytising.

This current can also be viewed as a subconscious current in many, or even most other political parties and revolutionary organisations.

The Ultra-Left, Left Communism and Others

The ultra-left and left communism have differed quite a bit in both time and space on the question of internal and external organisational principles. Left communism has gotten some notoriety due to the fact that some vocal exponents have taken the mechanical determinism present in Marx to such an extreme that they theorise the role of the revolutionary organisation out of existence entirely. We will take a very cursory look at some organisational strains. For a more detailed exposition and critique of the various strains of Left Communism see [8].

One of the first arguments against Leninism, a response to "Left-Wing Communism - An Infantile Disorder" was given by Herman Gorter [5]. Gorter actually doesn't directly confront Leninism as it manifested in Russia, but rather argues that due to the objective conditions faced by the proletariat in Germany and England, the movement can't but require mass consciousness on the part of the proletariat, and that a strong leadership really serves very little purpose.

Unless the entire class or at least the great majority stand up for the revolution personally, with almost superhuman force, in opposition to all the other classes, the revolution will fail; for you will agree with me again that on determining our tactics we should reckon with our own forces, not with those from outside - on Russian help, for instance.

The proletariat almost unarmed, alone, without help, against a closely united Capitalism, means for Germany that every proletarian must be a conscious fighter, every proletarian a hero; and it is the same for all Western Europe.

For the majority of the proletariat to turn into conscious, steadfast fighters, into real Communists, they must be greater, immeasurably greater, here than in Russia, in an absolute as well as a relative sense. And once more: this is the outcome, not of the representations, the dreams of some intellectual, or poet, but of the purest realities.

And as the importance of the class grows, the importance of the leaders becomes relatively less. This does not mean that we must not have the very best of leaders. The best are not good enough; we are trying hard to find them. It only means that the importance of the leaders, as compared to that of the masses, is decreasing. [5]

Gorter is here advocating the role of the party in a much more educational role with engagement with the mass organisations rather than concentric centralising control. The consequence of his argument comes quite close to the (external) organisational method that is advocated in The Platform.

In addition to Gorter, Gramsci developed ideas concerning the role of education, which he termed philosophy and its practical application to life and to the masses, which he labeled politics [2]. For his divergence in theory from both Marx's mechanicism and Lenin's rejection of the masses coming into consciousness, Gramsci can arguably be called a left communist.

While Gramsci advocated democratic centralism as an internal organisational principle [10], in terms of engagement with broader society, Gramsci brought forward the idea of ideological hegemony as a fundamental (but not exclusive) motive force in society. The idea is basically quite similar to the idea of consciousness described by Lenin but more fully developed and later reflected in the notion of capillary power by Foucault [9].

Gramsci additionally makes an attack on the form of external organisation of anarchism, as he sees it:

But there is one traditional party too with an essentially "indirect" character - which in other words presents itself explicitly as purely "educative", moral, cultural. This is the anarchist movement.

Here of course, the role of anarchist activity as purely educative does not correspond directly to the tendency present in the platform and may not even be historically accurate in terms of the militant syndicalism that was present in Turin, but probably does reflect some Italian Anarchist ideas present at the time (Malatesta?). That is, unless one views all activity in the mass organisations as propaganda by the deed, something Gramsci hints at, in which case the notion is entirely degenerate and identifies all tendencies between Leninism and Platformism.

Additionally there is a current of thought expressed by Gilles Dauvè which recognises the need for organisations to develop theory which will then organically direct activity [3].

Modern Leninist groups (Trotskyist groups, for instance) try to organize the workers. Modern ultra-left groups (I.C.O.., for instance) only circulate information without trying to adopt a collective position on a problem. As opposed to this, we believe it necessary to formulate a theoretical critique of present society. Such a critique implies collective work. We also think that any permanent group of revolutionary workers must try to find a theoretical basis for its action. Theoretical clarification is an element of, and a necessary condition for, practical unification.

This however does seem only to skirt the issue, since it is a theoretical question how best the organisation should interact with the rest of society. It seems to be hinted that the appropriate activity will develop naturally from a sufficiently developed theory of society, but it seems strange that such a well developed theory of society would not also lead to a well developed theory of the mode of interaction that the revolutionary group would take.

For entertainment's sake, another theory was expressed by Sam Moss in The Impotence of the Revolutionary Organisation [10]. Here Sam Moss doesn't agree with those left communists who reject the role of the organisation on philosophical grounds, but merely argues from a pragmatic viewpoint, that the organisation can never have any beneficial impact on the mass organisations.

Autonomism, Affinity and Networks

The organisational approaches present in Autonomism tend to advocate more diffuse or network based approaches. It takes a much more spontaneous and self organisational approach to struggle, while simultaneously recognising a need for theoretical and intellectual explication of the struggle. As such it is difficult to identify definite arguments about the role of the revolutionary organisation in Autonomist currents.

Similar in character to the ideas present in autonomism are those expressed by Day in [11]. These involve the idea of affinity as the basic principle that should be advocated set in opposition to hegemony.

There seems in Day to be some confusion between the idea of ideological hegemony, due to contact with post-modernism. In fact homogeneity of philosophy never exists in any age or place, but there exist various influential currents. The idea of affinity as the most important organisational principle is in fact itself an idea that seeks to be hegemonic if it is to succeed as a principle, in which case the negation of Gramsci's notion of hegemony is not present in Day as it is supposed.

There may indeed by a further, more developed theory that seeks to draw elements from both hegemonic and affinity or network based ideas. This theory would describe using activity and philosphical explication to promote growth of affinity and cooperation in non-concentric spheres of influence. The revolutionary organisation would serve as a particular sphere attempting to facilitate capillary institutions.

The Platform

The Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists had an organisational section in which it was outlined what internal structure the revolutionary organisation should seek.

  1. Theoretical Unity

  2. Tactical Unity or the Collective Method of Action

  3. Collective Responsibility

  4. Federalism

Theoretical Unity

The first idea of theoretical unity is shared with democratic centralism and not much critique is made of its counter-part, a disorganised synthesism. However Fontenis has the following to say in support of theoretical unity:

A questions arises: could the programme not be a synthesis, taking account of what is common to people who refer to the same ideal, or more accurately to the same or nearly the same label? That would be to seek an artificial unity where to avoid conflicts you would only uphold most of the time what isn't really important: you'd find a common but almost empty platform. The experiment has been tried too many times and out of 'syntheses' - unions, coalitions, alliances and understandings - has only ever come ineffectiveness and a quick return to conflict: as reality posed problems for which each offered different or opposite solutions the old battles reappeared and the emptiness, the uselessness of the shared pseudo-programme - which could only be a refusal to act - were clearly shown.

Indeed, this may go to far, as it in fact excludes the possibility of the masses coming into the necessary coherence under which libertarian communism could be established. In its polemic attack against synthesism, it may even exclude the known historic events attributable to anarcho-syndicalism in Spain. He almost immediately however corrects himself in the following quote:

Now, a revolutionary programme, the anarchist programme, cannot be one that is created by a few people and then imposed on the masses. It's the opposite that must happen: the programme of the revolutionary vanguard, of the active minority, can only be the expression - concise and powerful, clear and rendered conscious and plain - of the desires of the exploited masses summoned to make the Revolution. In other words: class before party.

It seems that in fact the idea should instead be one of the effectiveness of the specific organisation it its role in advocating anarchist ideas in the mass organisations. This later formulation is advocated in The Platform:

As an aside, the term vanguard party is used to denote the specific revolutionary organisation, not the centralised force of the revolution acting itself as the consciousness of the masses and seeking to establish itself as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Tactical Unity

Perhaps the most difficult notion to deal with is the one of tactical unity. As we have seen the principle in its extreme form is the one present in democratic centralism. That is, the total acceptance by the minority of the rule of the majority. In the most extreme hegemonic form of democratic centralism, we end up with a situation where there is no alternative to the organisation, since the organisation has in fact become the formal apparatus for all decisions in society. At this point, the possibility of leaving is not present, and we have collapsed into a situation where the tyranny of the majority is very difficult to avoid and must be combated by appeal to principles or parallel, extra-organisational means.

We have a number of important distinctions that must be made. As has been pointed out by Murray Bookchin [12], the organisational principle of consensus can lead to a tyranny of the minority:

I have found that it permits an insidious authoritarianism and gross manipulations -- even when used in the name of autonomy or freedom.

One can imagine the minority blocking all activity and thereby rendering the organisation totally ineffective. A society attempting to abolish capitalism through democratic control of the economy in the hands of the majority would find itself incapable, due to blocking by the capitalist class, under a consensus organisational principle. Or for the small revolutionary organisation, a single infiltrator could halt all activity, or selected activity. Indeed we haven't escaped from the problem of the minority and majority at all.

However, the majority does not derive a mandate purely with respect to numbers. The opposite recriminations that were levelled against consensus can easily be constructed for the majoritarian principle. In fact the problem lends itself to tension at a deep level is intertwined with notions of liberty, federalism and subsidiarity.

The problem must be teased out into some constituent currents.

One of these is the practical effect of decision. If a group is making a decision to perform some activity, especially one that will be engaged in despite decisions made by the organisation (Rossport for example) and since they will be engaged in autonomously the organisation can have no benefit in dictating a policy of non-activity unless that activity is actually in contravention to the principle of the organisation. This intransigent minority is at some level divergent because of a divergence of theory, but this does not represent an avoidable divergence and as such. If a group is negatively effected by a decision, and is opposed to it, then we have the classical problem of the tyranny of the majority.

Another constituent is the level of actual dedication and various levels of responsibility that members are willing to take on. It can come to pass that decisions are made by the majority of the organisation, but with no actual executive power. Here the majoritarian viewpoint is entirely hollow and exists only in good intentions but without any contact with practical activity.

The authors of The Platform attempt to deal with some of these problems:

However, there may be times when the opinions of the Union's membership on such and such an issue would be split, which would give rise to the emergence of a majority and a minority view. Such instances are commonplace in the life of all organizations and all parties. Usually, a resolution of such a situation is worked out.

We reckon, first of all, that for the sake of unity of the Union, the minority should, in such cases, make concessions to the majority. This would be readily achievable, in cases of insignificant differences of opinion between the minority and majority. If, though, the minority were to consider sacrificing its viewpoint an impossibility, then there would be the prospect of having two divergent opinions and tactics within the Union; a majority view and tactic, and a minority view and tactic. [13]

Watching the practical activity in the Workers' Solidarity Movement these problems and features come to light. Indeed there have been times when the organisation is able to come to full theoretical unity on a particular subject, and it turns out that despite the highest decision making body, The National Council, coming to definitive and even unanimous support on a decision, no one is willing to undertake the activity. On the opposite side, there are activities which enjoy very active and dedicated support by large minorities, and yet the majority is quite critical of having involvement in the activity.

The minority/majority problem should probably be though of in terms of subsidiarity, and this principle should ensconced as a constitutional principle which can be evoked.

If some group feels compelled to carry out some practical activity, then the majority should allow the activity to take place as to do otherwise would give decision making authority to individuals not willing to take active engagement and who aren't otherwise suffering from externalities of the activity.

Of course the prevention of activities, in the case that it contravenes the theoretical basis, or the majority believe that it will be tactically regressive, is still possible. One might even imagine an extreme situation where all activities must have total tactically unity to ensure the continued survival of the revolution. In this case members would need to consent to the majority or leave the organisation. One should be careful to remember, however, that this is exactly democratic centralism.


Although the fourth point is termed federalism, and the document makes a verbal attack against centralism, it seems to be speaking, in a rather clumsy way, about subsidiarity. That is, the reconciliation of the dialectic tension between individuality and collective responsibility in various spheres. Each level of collective responsibility above the individual in society is based on the requirement that the decision be made at that appropriate level to maximise freedom and the collective good.

Indeed this last principle could stand further and more concrete elaboration especially in light of a more clear concept of subsidiarity, and possibly of notions of overlapping or aggregating subsidiarity. It should also make closer theoretical contact with the problems of methods of collective decision-making and collective responsibility.


In the final analysis, since most socialists profess to want libertarian communism it is useful to survey the landscape of possible revolutionary socialist organisational models, the method of contact with the external and the historical outcome and corollary consequences of the model and the points of divergence and the reasons for that divergence. Indeed libertarian communists in the especifismo and platformist traditions could stand analysis and critique to be made much more explicit and precise on these fronts than it is currently.

Socialist movements have often been rerouted into generating support for a replacement of the state with other oppressive state structures. The cause of this activity is at least partially related to revolutionary organisational principles. We should make sure that we are capable of both generating the climate for revolution, and carrying this revolution out in such a way as to move towards the goal.

[1] Dielo Trouda (Workers' Cause) - The Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists
[2] Antonio Gramsci - Study of Philosophy
[3] Gilles Dauvés and François Martin - Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement
[4] Georges Fontenis - Manifesto of Libertarian Communism
[5] Herman Gorter - Reply to Lenin
[6] V. I. Lenin - What Is To Be Done
[7] Oisin Mac Giollamoir - Left Communism and Its Ideology
[8] Foucault, M - Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings (1972-77).
[9] Antonio Gramsci - The Modern Prince
[10] Sam Moss - The Impotence of the Revolutionary Organisation
[11] Richard J.F. Day - Gramsci is Dead
[12] Murray Bookchin - What is Communalism?
[13] Dielo Truda - Supplement to the Organizational Platform (Questions and Answers)