Articles posted by Radical Socialist on various issues.

Breaking The Global Climate Impasse

India should seize the moment!
Nov 6 2009

As the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen approaches, the North is trying to shirk its responsibility for climate change and pass on a good portion of its burden on to the South’s underprivileged people.

A yawning rift has opened up in the climate negotiations just ahead of the Copenhagen conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change beginning on December 7. It centres on the twin issues of responsibility for climate change—unfolding through extreme weather events, rising sea-levels and rapid melting of ice-sheets and glaciers—, and sharing the burden to remedy it. Going by climate science, the responsibility rests primarily with the industrialised Global North for its emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The North accounts for more than three-fourths of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere.

However, going by the brutal logic of power, the picture is different. The North is trying to shirk its responsibility and pass on a good portion of its burden on to the South’s underprivileged people. This is doubly unjust: it’s the South’s poor who are most vulnerable to climate change. They’re already suffering its consequences through more frequent and ferocious cyclones, erratic rainfall, increased water scarcity, and growing destruction, devastation and death.

The UNFCCC negotiations are deadlocked not just over the percentages by which the North must reduce its GHG emissions, or its financial obligation to compensate the South. There’s an impasse on fundamentals—the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” enshrined in the Convention, and a clear distinction between the North’s legally binding obligations and the South’s voluntary Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), for which it must be paid.

These distinctions were written into the UNFCCC’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2007 Bali Action Plan after protracted debate. Kyoto mandated the Northern countries, called Annex 1, to cut their emissions from their 1990 levels by a modest 5.2 percent during the “first commitment period” ending 2012. The target will be missed. In the European Union, “the good boy in the climate cast”, only Germany, Britain and Sweden will achieve their targets. The worst culprit is the United States, which refused to ratify Kyoto, and has raised its emissions by 14 percent.

The US under President Obama says it’ll return to the UNFCCC process, but at a price: dismantle the Kyoto Protocol, abolish the principle of North-South (or any other) differentiation, and negotiate an altogether new agreement, which sets ineffective, sub-critical targets. Australia has developed such a draft with national “schedules” but no internationally binding commitments. If it prevails, there’ll be no Kyoto, no differentiated North-South burden-sharing, no stringent compliance or penalties. Such a single, artificially homogenous and paltry agreement won’t prevent dangerous, irreversible climate change.

No deal would be clearly preferable to such a bad deal. But so desperate are most Northern countries to bring the US on board at any cost that they’re prepared to renege on their own past commitments, including each rich country’s “comparable effort” at mitigating climate change in proportion to its responsibility and financial-technological capacity.
This poses a conundrum. The Kyoto Protocol is far from perfect; in fact, it’s full of flaws, including low emission reduction targets which aren’t firmly linked to GHG concentrations and temperatures; omission of aviation and shipping; and lack of compliance requirements and penalties. Kyoto promotes the Clean Development Mechanism under which polluting Northern corporations get generous emissions quotas. If they exceed them, they needn’t cut emissions, as would be logical. Instead, they can buy cheap carbon credits from Southern projects, which supposedly cut or avert emissions.

Most CDM projects do nothing of the sort. For instance, two-thirds of Indian credits are earned by two companies which first produce a GHG refrigerant called HFC-23, and then destroy it! Most of the dams for which credits are claimed worldwide were already under construction or completed before applying for CDM. The Corrupt Destructive Mechanism lets the North buy its way out of emissions cuts—and buy it cheap.

Kyoto needs reform.  But it does have a rational kernel. That lies in its acknowledgement of the rich countries’ historical responsibility for climate change. Kyoto imposes quantifiable emissions reduction obligations on them. It’s the only legally binding climate agreement the world has, with time-bound targets. It would be dangerous to abandon it for a loose unenforceable deal. The US wants to do just that.

The Southern countries, represented by the G-77+China bloc, have strongly defended the Protocol as “an international and legally binding treaty and the most important instrument embedding the commitment of Annex 1 parties”, collectively and individually. The proposed new agreement would “drastically water down” their commitments. Most Northern countries’ rationale for supporting it is that it might be able to include the US. However, says the G-77, going out of a binding protocol with collective and individual targets into a new agreement without internationally binding targets means “taking the international climate regime many steps backwards”. Besides, the US may not even sign the agreement.

The developed countries indeed want to dilute their commitments. Instead of the 25-40 percent emissions reductions by 2020 (over 1990), recommended by climate scientists in 2007, and the 40-45 percent needed in the light of recent scientific developments, they have only made reduction pledges of 16-23 percent, excluding the US. If the US climate bill’s target is included, the figure falls to 11-18 percent and 10-23 percent, according to different estimates. Such reductions won’t stabilise the climate. The G-77+China is right in criticising these measly offers as a breach of trust. The Climate Convention was a grand bargain, under which the North would lead in emissions reductions as part of a global cooperative effort.

India must stiffly oppose the North’s attempt to renege on that bargain. Yet, certain lobbies want India to dump the G-77 for more exclusive groupings. The G-77 represents 130-odd Southern countries, the bulk of them poor and backward, as are most of India’s people. But these lobbies want India to join the world’s High Table by signing a bad climate deal that pleases the North. Most Indian diplomats privately speak of the developing countries and Non-Alignment with contempt and antipathy. Some want India aligned with the US in the climate talks.

That’s the crux of Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh’s leaked letter to Prime Minister Singh, in which he explicitly asks that India should “not stick with G-77 but be embedded in G-20 …” Mr Ramesh also writes: “If the Australian proposal … maintains this basic distinction … of differential obligations we should have no great theological objections.” But the Australian proposal demolishes the distinction.

This is a recipe for a confused, unprincipled climate stand, which is unworthy of a nation that aspires to global leadership. Its advocates are only concerned with the narrow interests of the Indian elite, barely one-tenth of the population, which is addicted to high-consumption lifestyles and rising emissions. The elite doesn’t want a strong climate deal because that’ll restrain its consumption. A majority of Indians, by contrast, have a stake in a strong deal because the burden of climate change which falls disproportionately on them will grow under a weak deal.

A principled approach to the climate negotiations must put the poor at the centre and acknowledge that the climate crisis and the developmental crisis—which perpetuates poverty—are integrally linked. Climate change will aggravate poverty and exacerbate inequality, undoing the right of the poor to fulfil their basic human needs and live with dignity. It’s imperative to combine developmental equity and poverty eradication with climate effectiveness. A defining criterion of a strong climate deal is that it reduces the burden on the underprivileged.

India will face hard choices at Copenhagen, where several scenarios are conceivable—from optimistic to middling outcomes, to complete collapse. The best scenario is one where the North makes deep, early emissions cuts (40 percent by 2020); the bigger Southern countries agree to 15-25 percent voluntary cuts (NAMAs); and there’s adequate funding. Under a middling scenario, there’ll be a strong agreement on fundamentals, but not on emissions cuts and finances; nevertheless, all agree to negotiate numbers within a time-bound period.

Of course, the talks may collapse because there’s no agreement on anything and some countries walk out. This would be unfortunate. But the truly nightmarish scenario is one which “greenwashes” a bad agreement: the North agrees to low and paltry cuts such as 7-15 percent by 2020, with no compliance or penalties, and only a fraction of the funding needed materialises. Such a deal will fail to stabilise the climate, but lock the world into an emissions-intensive trajectory that aggravates both climate change and the developmental crisis.

India should walk out of the talks rather than agree to such “greenwash”. In the few weeks left before Copenhagen, India should do its utmost to consolidate the G-77+China position, lobby Northern governments, including the US, when Dr Singh meets President Obama late this month, and make voluntary commitments to show that it’s more serious about combating climate change than appears—thanks to its ambivalence on Himalayan glacier melting and its lip service to poverty eradication, even while practising elitist policies. India must be flexible on transparency and generous on delivering modern energy services to its poor. But it should be hardnosed about holding the North’s feet to the fire. There must be no compromise here.

This article by Praful Bidwai was originally published on under a Creative Commons Licence

Kolkata Programme in Solidarity with Irom Sharmila


A 12 hour dawn to dusk (6 am – 6pm) hunger strike was organised at Kolkata on November 5, 2009 in solidarity with Sharmila Irom Chanu. Sharmila, a poet and activist from Manipur entered the 10th year of her hunger strike demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958. She started the hunger strike on November 2, 2009 at the age of 28 when the Indian Army massacred ten civilians in Malom, Manipur. On 6 November 2000 she was arrested by the police and charged with attempt to commit suicide under section 307 of the Indian Penal Code. Her health deteriorated gradually and she did not accept even a single drop of water.
The hunger-strike was organized by various little magazines and rights groups viz. Manthan, Akinchan Patrika, Swayangnijukti Patrika, Radical, Bigyan Manosikota Bikash Kendro, Sangbadmanthan Patrika, Ahalya Patrika, Kathak Patrika, Yuba Bharat, APDR and others from Kolkata and around. Around 50 people participated at the event apart from Jiten Nandi, Bharati Das, Mohidul Mondal, Bankim, Suman Raj, Arun Bhattacharya, Alok Dutta, Shamik Sarkar, Amita Nandi, Prashanta Haldar, Pradeep Jana and Sushovan Dhar who sat for the hunger-strike the whole day. Famous poet Shankhya Ghosh, leader of Janasangharsha Samiti Dr. Sanmathanath Ghosh, Gandhian activist Dr. Krishna Sen, Secretary of Little Magazine Library and Research Center Sandip Dutta met the strikers to extend their solidarity for the cause.
In this context is important to bear in mind that the Armed Forces Special Power Act introduced in 1958 grants the Indian military special powers throughout North-East India to:
•    Arrest citizens and enter their property without warrant;
•    Shoot and kill anyone on mere ‘suspicion’;
•    Enjoy immunity against legal action.
Under the cover of the Act the Indian armed forces have indulged in killing, torture, enforced disappearances and rape, bringing great shame to India and much misery to the people of Manipur.
The people of Kolkata assembled at the event demanded the repeal of AFSPA and all other draconian laws like the UAPA and saluted the heroic struggle by Sharmila and the people of Manipur.



Rus Biplab: Samaj Biplab Na Sharayantra? (Russian Revolution: Social Revolution or Coup d'Etat?)

Soma Marik

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Women Turning the World Upside Down: Christopher Hill and His Legacy



Soma Marik[*]


People and Politics in the English Revolution: The Ongoing Class Struggle

The identity of a great historian emerges neither through the sheer bulk of her or his writings, nor through a single piece of solid work, but by the overall corpus and its wide influence on subsequent historiography. By this yardstick, the achievement of John Edward Christopher Hill is close to unparalleled in the annals of twentieth century historiography. Few scholars have left such a deep imprint on their chosen field. In this paper, only one corner of that field, the 17th Century in English history and the centrality in that century of the revolution of 1640-1660, is under survey. The role of women in that revolution was long neglected, and the first full-fledged history came to be written only in 1998. The author, Stevie Davies, writes that “I was raised on Christopher Hill and remain inspired by his works”[1], even though she finds it necessary to point out the inadequacies in Hill. Between his first essay, ‘The English Revolution 1640’, written in 1940, and the Liberty Against the Law, published in 1996, Hill would develop certain themes consistently, and with that, he would open many new doors to research. It was Hill, above all others, who established that the revolution of mid-17th Century England was not a mere constitutional revolution nor a narrowly defined religious conflict, but a multifaceted social revolution, of world-historical significance, whose full implications could be understood only by stepping down from the palace tops and coming closer to the ground. He made this quite clear in the ‘Introduction’ of one of his excellent books (The World Turned Upside Down) portraying the wide range of radical ideas that emerged from below during the English Revolution. Here he draws our attention to the different approach of his own book and David Underdown’s Pride’s Purge[2] which is about almost the same period of English history. Hill writes, “His (Underdown’s) is the view from the top, from Whitehall, mine the worm’s eye view. His index and mine contain totally different lists of names.”[3] This explains why he took pains to explore the voices of the ‘inarticulate’ and the ‘silent’ majority. Not unnaturally, historians hostile to the aspirations of subaltern masses[†] and politically conservative in the present could not stomach Hill. So when Maurice Ashley revised his England in the Seventeenth Century, he cautioned his readers in the bibliographic note: “It should be remembered that all Dr. Hill’s books are written from a highly sophisticated Marxist standpoint”.[4] And among conservative historians of the younger generation, like Lord Conrad Russell or John Morrill, the bid to establish their revisionist viewpoint always meant targeting above all the interpretations and methodology of Christopher Hill. Jonathan Clark, for example, took a roundhouse at ‘Old Guard’ Marxists, not a surprising stand for a historian for whom Mrs. Thatcher was a second Gloriana.[5]


Like so many other aspects of the English revolution, the churning in the legal, socio-economic, political and religious existence of women during the revolutionary years first came to be examined closely by Hill. To be accurate, there had been occasional pieces before him. From the researches of Patricia Higgins, we learn that as early as 1909, (possibly under the influence of suffragism?), Ellen McArthur had written ‘Women Petitioners and the Long Parliament’.[6] But this was restricted to one specific form of activity. To see the numerous other ways in which women pushed their way through the confining bounds of patriarchy during the revolutionary and interregnum years, one has to turn to Hill’s classic The World Turned Upside Down.


This is probably the work that will be remembered as Hill’s greatest single contribution. No dogmatic and certainly no economic determinist, Hill’s rejection of narrow constitutionalist or religious interpretations of the revolution did not lead him into the opposite error of economic reductionism. For Hill: “There are two ways of looking at a revolution. We can observe the gestures which symbolize and focus whole ages of struggle – Sir John Hotham shutting the gates of Hull in the white face of Charles I; the women bringing up the ammunition at Lyme Regis; an axe flashing in the January sun outside Whitehall; Nayler riding into Bristol on his ass, with women strewing palms in his path. But there are also the longer, slower, profounder changes in men’s ways of thinking…. And we can, perhaps, extend a little gratitude to all those nameless radicals who foresaw and worked for… the upside-down world.”[7] In examining the transformation of women’s lives, Hill brought in an interaction of both aspects. The slow and deep moving social and economic forces, the rethinking within human communities, and the focal points all get treated, though not in a fully connected manner, across many of his writings. Hill examines the Statute of Artificers, promulgated in 1563, early in the reign of Elizabeth, the Statute of Apprentices and the Elizabethan Poor Law to show what kind of economic pressure was brought to bear on the labouring poor in this age of transition. The impact of these economic crises, as well as of political crises, could be contradictory. Women were paid less than men, who in turn were ill paid. So they were certainly greatly burdened. But women were often hired as domestic servants, which reduced family/husband’s control. During the civil war, the absence of husbands due to exile or military service also proved to be a two-edged sword. Women faced greater hardship. But women also had the opportunity to emerge out of masculine/ patriarchal control. They had to fend for themselves and their family members. On the other hand, the ideologies generated during the strains and stresses of the civil war viewed women in distinctive ways, and sometimes restated patriarchy in new forms corresponding to the times, while sometimes patriarchy was openly challenged.[8]


It is however in The World Turned Upside Down that the ideological dimensions are teased out. In this book his aim was to trace the emergence and development of radical ideas in the revolutionary era. The public appearance of such ideologies questioned and at times overturned long-held verities. Among these was the theory that women must forever be under the thumbs of men. Since religious radicalism was one of the mainsprings of the revolution and the main form of ideological expression, it is not surprising that in discussions of gender rights, too, religious/spiritual liberty of women often took priority. Both the Catholic and the Anglican churches had conservative views on the subject. Radical Puritans by contrast began to acknowledge the individuality of women. Hill has shown that the new morality constructed by Puritanism was by no means one that made wives the absolute equals of their husbands. But henceforth they were to be partners rather than slaves.[9] By the middle of the seventeenth century, wife beating was becoming an offence.[10] The new ethics were reflected in Puritan doctrines that stressed that the wife had rights (in subordination) in family partnership, on marriage for love and on freedom of choice for children. All these led to a new stress on the wife’s equality before God and in access to God. Thomas Goodwin pointed out that Eve was taken from Adam’s side not from his foot. And even a respectable Puritan divine like Samuel Torshell wrote in 1645 that there was no difference between men and women in the state of grace, since the “soul knows no difference of sex”.[11]


Hill was of course aware that Puritanism was not a homogeneous faith. So he also showed the persistence within Puritanism of ideas stressing that the wife was the property of the husband.[12] But, as Hill was also to show, not all the radicals could be covered by the term Puritan, even using it in an extremely ecumenical way. The sectaries, as they were called, went beyond hierarchically organised churches, formed their independent groups, and often had demands where religious equality was mixed up with political and social equality. The Fifth Monarchist John Rogers told husbands that they should not interfere in women’s independence. At the same time, he cautioned women against moving too far forward. Katharine Chidley, who would later on be a prominent Leveller activist, asserted in 1641 that a husband had no more right to control his wife’s conscience than a magistrate had the right to control his.[13] Hill has delved into his sources with his usual tremendous command to bring forth the voices, not only of sympathetic men, but also of some of the women themselves. Independent groups advocated, often, the use of ‘mechanick preachers’. The distinction between clergy and laity had begun to break down. The preacher could be an ordinary human being who worked at some trade six days a week. Such an arrangement would cost the congregation nothing and would bring the views of audience and preacher more in tune with each other especially among subaltern social layers. Fifth Monarchy supporters, for example, were strong among the cloth workers and other crafts. John Rogers attacked the nobles and the gentry using strong class language.[14]



Recovering the Voices of Women

A part of such struggles for equality was the assertion of rights by women themselves. Some of the voices recovered by Hill are those of Katharine Chidley, Mrs. Attaway and Mary Cary. As Hill observed: “The Revolution helped many women both to establish their own independence and to visualize a total escape for the poorer classes.”[15] In 1648, Mary Cary declared herself a ‘minister’ (i.e., a protestant preacher) and justified Parliament’s war against the King from the Book of Revelation (O.T.). In 1651, she drafted A New and more exact Mappe or Description of New Jerusalems Glory, where she assured her readers that a time was coming when not only men but also women would prophesy, “not only those who have university learning but those who have it not, even servants and handmaids”.[16] This open questioning of class and gender structures of power led to the assertion that salvation lay through divine light and mercy, distributed equally to all.


Hill’s critique of the Puritan morality caused him to show that this morality “turned a less friendly face on those whose efforts did not meet with the good fortune which was also necessary”, and that the Puritan ethics also involved assumptions of a dual standard of rationality, one for the rich and one for the poor.[17] Hill also makes a convincing case of how this upper class ethic was imposed on the toiling poor by the protestant clergy. For those at the bottom rungs of society, all this ethic brought was hard work with no recompense. And they did not accept its imposition easily. It took two centuries of struggle, mapped out in The World Turned Upside Down and Liberty Against the Law, before the battle was won by the ruling class. The challenges to this Puritan view came from various quarters, and women were once more involved. The conservative Puritan divine Baxter had advised the poor to starve rather than steal. Sir Thomas Browne reflected that it would be wrong to abolish poverty, for then there could be no charity.[18] This forerunner of the World Bank’s safety net outlook found in Puritanism no doubt a comfortable religion. Against such people were radicals, such as Lawrence Clarkson. In his 1647 pamphlet A General Charge or Impeachment, he warned the ‘commonality’ against the nobility: “Your slavery is their liberty, your poverty is their prosperity.”[19]


Women in large numbers were among those on the losing side as a result of the imposition of this Puritan ethic and capitalist economic practices. The idea of women’s equality may not have been theorized in our terms, but these were articulated through diverse forms of protest. During the two revolutionary decades, women and their subversive demands for equality surfaced within the religious sects as well as the political currents. Many of the radicals, including or example the Quakers, believed that after the preacher had spoken, all participants had the right to ask questions and to debate. But it was Mrs. Attaway, a female preacher, who turned theoretical discussions to practical deed.[20] Thomas Edwards, the cleric who is our chief source of information, was a vocal opponent of every real or imagined heresy in the English church, on which he wrote a three-part book in 1646 entitled Gangraena. Methodically listing and denouncing 176 heresies, he and his informants have left for posterity a distorted, but nonetheless vital, record of how common people, freed of the control of the thought-police, expressed themselves. No. 124 of his list expressed horror at the view that “ ‘tis lawful for women to preach, and why should they not, having gifts as well as men?”[21] In the first part of Gangraena he specifically mentioned discussions led by Mrs. Attaway. In fact, Mrs. Attaway crops up quite a few times in his rather vicious writings. She preached, despite being a woman. And worse, as he recorded, she left her husband for another man named William Jenny. Here, the women sectaries went beyond the act of preaching, bad as that was. They argued that unequal marriages were antichristian yokes, and a wife could leave an antichristian husband. Equally, a sense of belonging to the same faith and ideology acted as a bridge between these two people.[22] Behind the religious formulations, there was a clear struggle for the retention of control over women’s sexuality, and an equally determined struggle by women to use the rupture in social control mechanisms generally to overthrow centuries of patriarchal domination and regain sexual freedom. As Hill remarks, differences in perspective make the same deed appear as sinful or not. Mrs. Attaway and William Jenny believed they were committing no sin, and that they were as free of sin as Christ. Edwards by contrast gleefully seizes on this as an example of sin. A similar issue crops up elsewhere in Edwards, when he records a London lady as having declared that “murder, adultery, theft, were no sins”.[23] The recurrence of references to adultery is indicative of a certain outlook. Private property and family marched hand in hand here too. And by the same token, in this short period, when the lower classes and oppressed sex found a voice, they seemed to have challenged both institutions strongly. Thus, the Puritan view of religion and everyday life was attacked all along the line. The Quakers believed that marriage required no religious ceremony, but a simple declaration before the congregation. They also abandoned the wife’s promise to obey her husband, since man and wife were as equals in the new life as they had been before the Fall.[24] When George Fox married the wealthy Margaret Fell, he engaged not to interfere with her estate. (Of course, in this, as in several other cases, there was the flip side of the story, not recorded by Hill, but known to us nonetheless. Margaret Fell combined a Quaker otherworldliness with strong gentry views. Her profession of egalitarianism went along with manipulation of rank. Her view of gender equality did not extend to women workers. She hired the physically strong Peggy Dodgeson to do men’s work at the going rate of wage for women.) However, to return to the aspect of the sects’ story we had been discussing, they were the ones who, in an era when marriage for the propertied was a matter of consolidation of property, taught that women had an independent existence, and that that existence mattered. It is necessary to qualify this assertion by recognising that some of the Puritans also recognised that neither the continuity of the family nor property calculations, but mutual love and respect should be the basis of marriage.


Indeed, neither Puritan nor Radical denotes a homogeneous group. But in the discussions on women’s rights in this age, we can discern two types of ideas ranged against each other. Many Puritans demanded certain rights for wives in domestic life, and respected women’s right to express their own views in choosing their life partners. Winstanley, the Digger leader, who was socially far more radical, also believed that in marriage, independent will and love were the key factors, not the propagation of the family or the question of property.[25] On the other side were the Ranters. Freedom of choice for them was to come to mean that there was no ‘sin’ in having sexual relations outside marriage. Lawrence Clarkson and Abiezer Coppe, for example, seem to have raised this to a point of principle.[26] Clarkson taught: “there is no such act as drunkenness, adultery and theft in God… sin hath its conception only in the imagination” [27]. In a century when there were virtually no effective contraceptive facilities beyond abstinence, Hill is right in asserting: “Sexual freedom, in fact, tended to be freedom for men only”.[28] It is for this reason, he affirmed, that there was a practical moral basis to the Puritan stress on monogamy. Such men, who enjoyed non-sinful free love, were usually careful in avoiding parental responsibilities. The burden used to fall by and large on the mother. There was a positive dimension to the Ranter ideology – rejection of church marriages. Marriage as an institution was questioned, and the right of divorce was assumed to be a very simple one where either partner had the right to separate at will. In the village of Fenstanton, Edward Mayle and his wife “ ‘did not desire to be in such bondage’ as to observe ‘outward, ceremonial and carnal ordinances’”.[29] But from this positive assertion of marriage as a personal business between two consenting humans, the jump they made was beyond the material and technological, and often strongly coloured by the received discourse of male domination. Thus, we find repeated assertions like that made by the Seeker William Erbery, defending the Ranters, and saying that the self-styled saints were worse than the Ranters in having “their eyes full of adultery”.[30] Abiezer Coppe, even when issuing a recantation for fear of being seriously punished, argued that adultery, fornication and uncleanliness might be sins, but pride, covetousness, hypocrisy, oppression, tyranny, unmercifulness and despising the poor were worse sins. But in Coppe’s writings, ‘whores’ appear in comparative statements, when it is deemed better to lie with them than to do certain other acts. My point is, his view of prostitution is the same as those of upper class Puritan elements. Only, he is saying that some other things are even worse.[31]


In this connection, it is worth looking at Hill’s carefully materialist approach when discussing the Puritan and the Ranter positions and their social consequences. When Lawrence Stone followed Peter Laslett into arguing that there was a decline in illegitimate births in the revolutionary years due to Puritan ideology[32], Hill argued effectively that all that we can say from the parish registers is that less bastardry processes were formally recorded. Acknowledging one’s fatherhood of an illegitimate child had the consequence of being compelled to pay something for the upkeep of the child. In decades when prices were rising the declining powers of the state to control men allowed them to escape from the consequences of their actions. So obviously they did not like to record the birth of illegitimate children.[33]


However, Hill continued to examine the issues of women’s rights, including the question of freedom in marriage. One of the important figures of this period to whom he returns repeatedly is John Milton. Milton straddled the mainstream and the radical oppositions to Charles, and Hill stresses Milton’s support for divorce, arguing that while he stressed the religious sanction behind it, there is also a need to realise that he supported divorce because he believed that marriage should be based on love.[34]


After 1660, the common people, including above all lower class women, lost their freedom of speech. So after that date, their voices can only be recovered from outside the law – including among pirates and gypsies. In the article ‘Radical Pirates’ (1980), or in an article in Liberty Against the Law, Hill stressed that the culture among pirates was relatively democratic in 17th Century England, whereas captains of naval ships were absolute despots. Marcus Rediker, historian of pirates, showed that the pirates did not accept a wages system.[35] Pirates had no master-servant relationship. Within this structure of egalitarianism, women also had a space. A book by Charles Johnson, published in 1736 about pirates, reveals information about women pirates like Mary Read.[36] That piracy offered freedom, and that this freedom was or could be a double-edged one, was recognized by Mary Read, who remarked that if there was no death sentence for piracy, “many of those who are now cheating the widows and orphans, and oppressing their poor neighbours… would then rob at sea, and the ocean would be crowded with rogues”.[37] Evidently, in her eyes, the pirates of her own type were not rogues, but people fleeing from the oppression of the sort of people she had described. Pirate freedom extended to sexual freedom, including freedom for women and for gay men.[38] Likewise, in the eyes of middle class England, the vagabond life of the gypsy was sometimes attractive, sometimes condemnable. The law as it stood could be applied to execute a gypsy simply for being a gypsy. Gypsies put up a stout resistance to all efforts to make them give up their travelling life. They were a standing offence to those who wished to force the English lower classes to become wage labourers. Since they had no original village, they could not be flogged back there and made to work – the standard method for treating vagabonds. Moreover, gypsies at times seem to have been connected to popular resistance to encroaching capitalism. In 1723, Billy Marshall, chief of the Galloway gypsies, was leader of a popular revolt by ‘Levellers’ against enclosing landlords.[39] Hill shows that the ballad literature of the 17th Century brings out two reasons why this life seemed attractive to women – they would not be considered the property of their husbands, and they would enjoy sexual freedom. In ‘The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’, for example, a neglected wife of wealthy gentry background discards her ‘silken gown’ and makes a break for liberty by joining the gypsies. When her husband tries to get her back by reminding her of the wealth she is leaving behind, she remarks that all this was his show (of which, by implication, she was a part).[40]



Beyond the Works of Hill: Gender and Politics in the English Revolution

The issues which Hill was a pioneer in bringing into historical studies, as discussed above, were to be further developed by a number of scholars. And these studies also show that pioneers standing at a turning point show a backward as well as a forward look. In many ways, women continued to be marginal in Hill’s analysis. The feminist movement that developed from the end of the 1960s argued that the vote did not bring freedom to women, including sexual freedom (right to choose one’s partner, etc). In some ways, Hill seems to be responding to these issues in The World Turned Upside Down.

Women’s participation in the directly political struggles during the revolutionary upsurge remained sidelined in his writings. Katharine Chidley comes across in Hill’s writings as chiefly a preacher. Lucy Hutchinson and Elizabeth Lilburne are virtually absent. So, on the other side of the battlefield, is Elizabeth Cromwell. Yet at least one recent study emphasises how Elizabeth Cromwell was a target for critics both on the Royalist right and the Leveller left, and how the Protectorate in turn built up a picture of Elizabeth to satisfy its brand of politics. Republican opponents of the Protectorate attacked Elizabeth as a would be Queen who fuelled the overreaching of her husband. Royalists, after the restoration, had a class attack, sneering at the woman who was supposedly more suited for the barn than for the palace.[41] As the major recent study on Elizabeth argues: “The criticisms of Elizabeth that emerge from both the "left" -- the republican critiques of the post-regicidal grandees and their wives -- as well as the "right" -- the popular royalist critiques of the republic -- reveal the degree to which debates over the scope and function of private and public spheres within particular political orders are often waged through the cultural politics of gender. Both republican and royalist representations of Elizabeth Cromwell are enmeshed in larger disputes over the contradictions that each side perceived within the entity of a Protectorate -- the body politic that emerged during the Interregnum period as neither a monarchy nor a republic but rather an uneasy synthesis of the two, not unlike "Protectorate Joan," as Elizabeth was often called. As an oxymoronic plebeian queen, Elizabeth's class and gender identities were used by both sides to project their sense of what the abject and excessive feature was that tipped the scale of the Protectorate towards the social and political failure it met with at the return of Charles II in 1660.”[42]

Lucy Hutchinson had been the daughter of the officer in charge of the Tower of London, and had been educated by prisoners of the stature of Sir Walter Raleigh. Her book, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, was a powerful vindication of the Puritan and Parliamentary stand of her husband. Hutchinson had been one of those who signed the death warrant of Charles I and therefore a regicide excluded from the amnesty offered by Charles II in the declaration of Breda. He was arrested, and saved only by Lucy’s intervention, rearrested in 1663, and died in prison. The book itself is a significant work, for while formally remaining within patriarchal norms, it subverts them by presenting an intelligent mind engaged with political and religious issues, a radical fighting the Restoration with words considered no les dangerous than swords by her age.[43] Similarly, Margaret Fell appears in Hill’s book only at the moment of her marriage with George Fox, and it is Fox’s magnanimity in refusing to meddle with her property that is germane. Margaret’s own very striking personality is not given even a paragraph. Even when talking about magic and witchcraft, Hill neglects to mention that of the 4000 people sentenced to death in England in the 17th Century for this “crime”, nearly 90% were women, and that in Europe as a whole, some 40-50,000 witches were killed by law, and that 75% of them, a very large majority, were women.[44] This is an issue where Keith Thomas shows a greater awareness. In his classic work Religion and the Decline of Magic, Thomas notes that while a witch could be a person of either sex it was mostly women who were accused of being a witch.[45] They were not necessarily radicals. But page after page of information in the book reveals clearly the gendered character of so-called witchcraft. Thus, for similar “crimes”, it is the women who are more often reported by Thomas as being executed.[46] In discussing the making of witches, after acknowledging that a mono-causal explanation – any of them – was likely to be wrong, Thomas shows that there were some people, who did indeed believe themselves to be witches. They believed in the efficacy of their curses. And an analysis of the curses shows that such ritual cursing by the witch was often a substitute for political action, usually by those at the lower end of the social scale.[47] Thomas clearly points out the class angle. Demonologists, as well as prosecution lawyers in courts, treated successful cursing as a strong presumption of witchcraft. If the curses were provoked by genuine injury, an alternate vision might lead one to assume that this was divine judgement.[48] But to accept that would have been to accept the injustice of class and gender dominations. Women breaking the boundaries set forth by patriarchy were likely to face three charges – being a whore, being a scold, and being a witch. Scolds were severely punished. And since Quakers were outspoken, there were attempts to punish them repeatedly. For Quaker women, this very often meant being punished as scolds. This involved public humiliation, and a torture. A bridle was put into her mouth. She was dragged to the punishment place – and if she was not careful the iron bit could break her teeth or her jaw while being dragged there. She was made to stand in that position for a length of time. Most women did not record the shock and trauma this involved. But Quaker women took pride in the punishment, “expressing Christ in proud bare backs that were turned to the lash through the streets of Cambridge or London.”[49] Punished with the brank or the bridle, Quaker women remained unrepentant, and some of them bitterly recorded the tortures they had been put through.[50] Between 1645 and 1647, some two hundred witches were hanged or burnt. In other words, while it was bad to be a radical, it was far worse to be a radical or outspoken woman.


In one sense, there is no Hill school of historiography. But many of those who have studied the role of the subaltern layers in the 17th Century have been students of Hill, or have acknowledged his influence. They include scholars like Brian Manning, Keith Thomas or Stevie Davies. Their researches reveal the ways in which women and the question of gender equality remained peripheral to Hill’s concerns. In 1650, the English Parliament passed an Act criminalizing adultery, and made the act punishable by death. Thomas shows that this legislation was an attempt to unify a wide array of religious groups.[51] The Act provided for harsher punishment for women than for men. This was inevitable, because in the perceptions of that age, a woman committing adultery was committing a worse act than a man doing the same thing. The contemporary concept of adultery showed that when the husband was in the wrong, he filled his wife’s heart with grief and jealousy and her face with shame, while a woman in adultery risked introducing bastards into the family, depriving lawful heirs of their rightful inheritance.[52] And, Thomas shows, while for various reasons the Act could not be well implemented, it was not an exception but part of the mainstream 16th-17th Century efforts at social control by the English elite.


However, even efforts at social control could be subverted. Both Hill and Thomas have mentioned Milton’s The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. What neither of them spells out clearly is that Milton wanted to give this right of divorce solely to men. Hill sees this solely as a tool of social control and to introduce new social patterns on the easier going sexual habits of traditional society. But this was aimed at increasing the rights of men. Milton explained that unless this right to divorce existed, adultery and brothels would increase. When Mrs. Attaway used Milton’s logic to leave her husband, it was a radical subversion of Milton’s idea of control.[53]


How women’s participation in the political struggles of the 1640s would be conceptualised was an issue where Hill’s works made a significant contribution. From early twentieth century, scholars like Gooch, Woodhouse, Haller and Davies, Wolfe, and finally Morton, had written about Leveller democracy and had published the documents of the Levellers.[54] Yet there is virtually no gender sensitivity in all these books. By contrast, despite all its shortcomings, The World Turned Upside Down, has discussions on women, not merely while talking about Ranters and their outlook, but in connection with Levellers and Diggers. In The Century of Revolution he recorded clearly as something that a historian should take note of, the fact that women did not have the vote. But beyond this Hill was not to go. For actual descriptions of women fighting for political goals, we have to turn to Brian Manning[55], Higgins, or Davies. In these writings, we come across women fighting for peace, women in the Leveller Sea-Green as part of the first modern democratic movement, women demanding equal right of inheritance, Quaker women fighting against tithes, women in immense numbers demanding price reduction and an end to enclosures and the abolition of imprisonment for debt-default. And time and again, women took to the streets to demand the release of political prisoners.


The Leveller women’s participation in politics was much more sustained. Between 1646 and 1653, we find them appearing repeatedly on the political scene – collecting signatures for mass petitions of women, going to Parliament in demonstrations, and questioning patriarchal power structures in many ways. Both Davies and Higgins have shown that many types of women entered politics, and when they did so, there was always a gender dimension. Women mobilised in 1641-2 when the London masses were putting pressure on behalf of the parliament against the King. In February 1642, women, led by Ann Stagg, demanded the abolition of the episcopacy.[56] Davies has developed at length the story of the women who took part in the peace movement. Throughout the 1640s, we find various groups of women turning up before parliament with their demands. Stevie Davies suggests that the horrors of war combined with the increasing economic crisis pushed women out into the streets to take part in the Leveller movement, between 1646 and 1649. Women experienced the Civil War in ways quite different from men. With one or two exceptions, women did not serve in the army. Even the image Hill evokes, women bringing up the ammunition at Lyme Regis, serves to highlight how exceptional this was. For them there was no prospect of the “heroic” in the civil war. Instead, there was acute violence, looking after the injured, the loss of husbands and sons in war, looting by the victorious side, rising taxes and rising prices. The feelings generated by these experiences were probably the ones that led women to come out demanding peace in 1643. However, it is possible that Royalists and Presbyterians, who wanted a settlement, encouraged these women. In other words, though the movement was objectively directed against the revolution, that such a women’s movement was at all taking place was due to the revolution and the changed atmosphere as well as the courage to transgress the masculine norm of politics produced by it.[57] The nature of the participants is also worth noting. In 1643, parliamentarian leaders and their mouthpieces were quite upper class, a fact we should remember when considering the following information:


“ two or three hundred oyster wives, and other dirty and tattered sluts, took upon them the impudency to come to the honourable House of Commons, and cried for peace and Propositions, and they so filled the stairs that no man could pass up or down, whereupon a man upon the top of the stairs drew his sword and with the flat side struck some of them upon the heads….”[58]


This serves to remind us that this was a bourgeois revolution, where the bourgeois-gentry bloc sought to corner all the gains. Some of them, like Cromwell, might have been willing to use the lower classes in battle, and therefore to allow the individual member of those classes to climb up the social ladder through military promotions, but none of them entertained thoughts of endorsing the struggle for rights by the poor. The pro-peace women were not dispersed merely by the flat side of a single sword. Waller’s cavalry attacked them. Some male opponents called them “whores, bawds, oyster-women, kitchenstuff women, beggar women, and the very scum of the suburbs”.[59]


Class was not a central issue when the Leveller women marched. They were led by women like Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne. Despite his political radicalism, John Lilburne always stressed his freeborn origin. However, gender became all the more significant. On 29th April 1649, there was a funeral of the military Leveller leader Robert Lockier, executed by order of Cromwell in a bid to crush the Leveller movement in the army. A very large number of women, wearing sea-green dresses and green and black ribbons, turned the funeral into a political statement. They were mourning the crushing, by arms and by the manipulations of Cromwell and Ireton, of a great democratic struggle, and at the same time reaffirming it. When a petition was drawn up to demand the release of Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and Prince, four Leveller leaders arrested at about the same time, reportedly some 10,000 women signed the petition of 23rd – 25th April.[60] The response of the government was predictable – the women were advised to go back home and attend to their housewifery and wash their dishes. The women responded – we have none. They were then told that they possessed no political sense of their own, and the government had already answered their husbands. This disregard for women as persons was not taken lying down. A petition of 5th May, drafted by either Katharine Chidley or Elizabeth Lilburne, stated the following:


“ Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also a proportional share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other good laws of the land? … Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners, our friends, in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers…? And are we Christians, and shall we sit still and keep at home, while such men as have borne continual testimony against the injustice of all times and unrighteousness of men, be picked out and be delivered up to the slaughter… No, far be it from us. Let it be accounted folly, presumption, madness, or whatever in us, whilst we have life and breath we will never leave them nor forsake them…”[61]


This was strong argument by any standard. The voice that emerges is authentic. It is an angry voice, of a great many women whose political experience has been gained at immense personal cost. For their leaders, that is, for women like Elizabeth Lilburne or Mary Overton, personal life was wholly sacrificed, even though, unlike the men, they were also compelled to look after the domestic situation and count up the costs of repeated police raids, seizure of property, and the like.[‡] The anger is all the more pronounced, because they feel that all their sacrifice has been in vain. The people they fought to advance to power were seemingly setting up a new despotism. And within this general struggle for civil liberties the gendered arguments come out repeatedly. Woman too is assured of her creation in the image of God. Notions of equality are reaffirmed repeatedly in the text. The voiceless condition of women is openly challenged – not indeed by demanding the vote, but in the name of Christianity (And are we Christians, and shall we sit still and keep at home). Knowing that their very act of speaking openly would be branded presumption, folly and madness, the Leveller women spoke sharply, telling parliament that they would ignore those well worn epithets and go on placing their demands. And yet, despite this, they found less than full equality even within the movement of which they were such eloquent defenders. In October-November 1647, at Putney Church, property and democracy were on debate. Henry Ireton spoke with barely concealed fury, rejecting the equal right of people having and not having property. Speaking for the Levellers, telling points were made by Sexby, an ordinary soldier who had been elected Agitator (representative of his Regiment) and by the leading Leveller officer, Colonel Thomas Rainborough. One of history’s greatest speeches in defence of democracy was made there by Rainborough, when he asserted: “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”[62] It is true, that on one occasion, Lilburne explicitly mentioned women when he wrote about consent of the governed. But in the Putney debate, the dispute was categorically over “the poorest he”. Talking about the 1647 Agreement of the People, an attempt by the Levellers to propose a compromise which would considerably widen the franchise but fall well short of manhood suffrage, Hill wrote that this involved “a substantial extension of the franchise – to all soldiers, and all others except servants and beggars”.[63] One can use the term all others only by assuming that women could not be persons – an assumption not too unusual in 17th Century England, but surprising when carried over by 20th Century historians.


A Feminist Consciousness in 17th Century England?

Davies has asked whether the Leveller women can be said to have had feminist consciousness in any sense. Certainly, as in all ages, their struggles began over concrete issues, and in so far as they did not ever demand the franchise for themselves, it might be argued that they possessed no feminist consciousness. On the other hand, however, the fact that they pushed their way into the wholly male preserve of politics needs to be examined further. One of the standard strategic ways was to lead off by acknowledging women’s inferiority, but then claiming that nonetheless they had certain rights. In early 1642, London women had rallied to the House of Commons in its conflict with King and Lords. They acknowledged that this public political action might be thought strange and unbecoming of women. They accepted their own inferiority and subjection to men. But they justified their action on the grounds that the calamities threatening church and state were affecting women as well as men. So although they petitioned in order “to Discharge that Duty we owe to God, and the Cause of the Church”[64] they in fact went beyond religious equality to mass political action. In the Leveller women’s petition of May 1649, a greater political maturity, the result of several years of political activism can be seen. When a Member of Parliament said that it was strange that women were petitioning, pat came the reply, that it was strange that parliament would cut off the head of the King, yet that had been done.[65]


The women petitioners had a well-developed organisation. They had collected signatures at several mass meetings held at the service of the sectarian churches. And they displayed considerable anti-patriarchal radicalism in refusing to accept that an answer given to their husbands included them. Higgins, for example, concludes from this that they had reached the peak of feminist position.[66] Manning questions this, pointing out that they neither asked for votes for women, nor had they fully rejected the concept that married women could not petition, sliding back in 1653, when, responding to the comment of the Commons that their petition for the release of Lilburne could not be taken cognisance of, because since many of them were wives, the law took no notice of them, they withdrew from the radical position of 1649 to a response that not all of them were wives. They thus failed to stand up to the1649 position that wives had a right to act apart from their husbands.[67] Higgins suggests that instead of simply looking at this as a retreat, the complexities of the situation should be examined. At times, in order to get a hearing, the women needed to be tactful, in a society where the very air they breathed was excessively patriarchal.[68] One should remember that A. L. Morton, for example, had argued that the Leveller willingness to accept something less than full manhood franchise was a tactical measure.[69] If this be granted to the male Levellers, it should be even more obvious that women Levellers, fighting the prejudice of centuries, would often give way a little in order to gain a point. Regardless of the exact terms of argument in the different petitions, however, what seems most striking is the articulation of protest so sharply. A number of factors come together here. The rise and growth of a free press in the revolutionary years certainly contributed. In the revolutionary decades, more tracts were published than in the entire 150 years previously. As Davies rightly points out, given mass illiteracy, meagre education and conditions of servitude, women’s tracts are, inevitably, a tiny minority of the total.[70] Nonetheless, during the revolution, in general, women took on a greater public, and therefore also political role. Certainly, when the respectable gentlemen parliamentarians fought for their freedom of the press, they did not envisage the rabble, and the women, utilising it. But the controversies taught lessons to all the underclasses. A second factor was the social crisis. Mary Prince, wife of the Leveller leader Thomas Prince, was to record her shock and wrath at her husband’s arrest using the following words: “Is this the men my husband hath stood for, and adventured his life, as he hath done, and trusted the Parliament in their necessities, above six years past, with above £1000 and is yet unpaid?”[71] The Leveller women had a great sense of betrayal at the hands of those for whom they had readily sacrificed much. It was not merely the well to do Prince family who had this feeling, but many with much less than 1000 or more pounds to give. As one of the April 1649 petitions complained: “time hath been when you would readily have given us the reading Petitions, but that was when we had money, plates, rings and bodkins to give you.”[72] Besides the overall situation and the economic pressures, there was the grim reality that the men who were supposed to have subsumed the women were often in prison, battle or exile. And finally, we must remember that the Levellers were a unique phenomenon in their own time and for a long time to come – the first modern political party. The Leveller women were more of a new development than we might think, since women have been organising and fighting in a sustained manner over the last two centuries. In the mid-17th Century, though, organising the female section of a democratic party was much more a radical action.


One issue where Hill’s research will continue further fruitful research is the role of the sects in connection with rights of women. Manning counterposes the radical political activism of the Leveller women to the role of the sects, which he says was one of permitting spiritual equality but rejecting social and political equality. Women could be preachers, since mechanic preachers were allowed, but they could not hold office, be ministers, etc. He points out that though Katharine Chidley was instrumental in gathering the Independent church at Bury St. Edmunds, she was debarred as a woman from holding office.[73] Davies disagrees with this kind of extreme formulation. She points out that Leveller women were at one with Quaker women over the question of abolition of tithes, potentially the most revolutionary issue of the Interregnum. In 1659, a seventy-page document, with 7000 names, was submitted to parliament. The main body of their petition begins with an affirmation of their powers as women: “We who are of the Seed of the Woman, which bruiseth the Serpent’s head, to which the promise was, Christ Jesus in the Male and in the Female… do bear our Testimony.”[74] Quaker women fought for their faith, and in so doing, were martyrs to the cause of toleration in the Old world and the New. Mary Dyer, hanged at Massachusetts for being a Quaker, was not merely a religion struck woman committing virtual suicide by returning after being banished and threatened with execution. She was one of a whole line. Just as Hill’s work had drawn attention to a continuity from Lollards to Levellers, and again, from Levellers and Diggers to the early 19th Century, with the sea green rising for the last time perhaps with the early Chartist movement, so Davies points out that Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and other influential suffragists were Quakers, beyond the proportion of Quakers in the US population.


The process of reconstructing the stories of the doubly oppressed, of Katharine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne, of Mary Dyer and other radical women, shows that their struggles were not less significant than those of men like Walwyn, Lilburne, Fox or Nayler. The process of reconstruction has left, even in the brief survey presented here, the perspective of Hill behind. Yet, he remains the pioneer, who opened the doors of understanding to popular radicalism in its numerous forms. To recognise the role of women within the far left of the English revolution of 1640-60, we still have to begin with Hill.

[*] Reader in History, Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Vivekananda Vidyabhavan. Revised version of a paper presented at the seminar on ‘Samaj Rupantar O MatadarshaNimnabarger Aloke Itihas Charcha’ (Social Transformation and Ideology – History from Below), organised jointly by Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Vivekananda Vidyabhavan and Paschim Banga Itihas Samsad, in memory of Christopher Hill, 7th April 2003.

[†] I use the term subaltern in the original Gramscian, not the post-modernist Subaltern Studies sense.

[‡] In 1648, when John was taken to the Tower, Elizabeth placed her body between his and the soldiers’ muskets. Some years earlier, during his captivity at Oxford at the hands of the Royalists, she had petitioned Parliament while well advanced in her pregnancy. She had lived with him in Newgate prison when Parliament imprisoned him in 1645. Partner of an idealist, a man who to the sensibilities of ages when compromise and the selling out of principles appear sound appears nothing short of being a fanatic, she had to cope with the domestic problems as well as the public ones, an adjustment that John never faced. Yet she had her own political mind. Facing a charge in 1647, together with her husband, she lashed out, apparently at him but in fact at parliament: “I told thee often enough long since, that thou would serve the parliament, and venture thy life so long for them, till they would hang thee for thy pains, and give thee Tyburn [the place where people were publicly hanged in London] for thy recompense…” (Quoted by Pauline Gregg, Free-born John: A Biography of John Lilburne, London, 1961, p.53). Elizabeth’s life was like that of many a Russian revolutionary woman of the late 19th or early 20th century – selling or pawning household goods, seeing two sons die of smallpox, sacrificing the ‘personal’ forever to the public life. We know less about the other Leveller women, like Mary Overton or Mary Prince. However, even the brief accounts we have show that they had to bear a heavy burden. In 1646, armed soldiers smashed the doors of the home of the Overtons, acting on the orders of the House of Lords. In the first raid Richard was removed to Newgate prison. In a second raid, their household goods were removed and the printing press that was the source of their livelihood seized. Mary was also asked to testify before the House of Lords. She refused, since they believed that the Lords was an illegal institution of arbitrary power. As a result she was removed to Maiden Lane prison with her six-month old baby. From there she was removed to Bridewell, after she had refused to go on her own, and after ordinary porters and carters called in by the Marshall had refused to do the repugnant duty, by gaolers, servants, ‘or hangmen deputies’. (Cf. S. Davies, pp.74-76.)

[1] Stevie Davies, Unbridled Spirits -- Women of the English Revolution: 1640-1660, London, 1999, p.7.

[2] David Underdown, Pride’s Purge, Oxford, 1971.

[3] C.Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, England, 1985,pp.13-14

[4] Maurice Ashley, England in the Seventeenth Century, (revised edition of 1977), Harmondsworth, p. 259.

[5] Jonathan Clark, Revolution and Rebellion: State and Society in England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Cambridge, 1986, p.64, and The Times, 12 November 1987, review of Jasper Ridley’s Elizabeth I.

[6] Ellen A. McArthur, ‘Women Petitioners in the Long Parliament’, English Historical Review, Vol. XXIV, 1909, pp.698-709. My attention to this essay was directed by the seminal article of Patricia Higgins, ‘The Reactions of Women, with special reference to women petitioners’, in Brian Manning ed., Politics, Religion and the English Civil War, London, 1975, pp. 179-222.

[7] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Harmondsworth, 1985 (originally published in 1972), p. 384.

[8] Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714, London, 1972 (original publication 1961), pp.31-33, 149f; Liberty against the Law, Harmondsworth 1997 (originally published 1996), pp.255-6.

[9] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p.306.

[10] Ibid., p.308.

[11] Ibid, pp.309, 311.

[12] Ibid, p.309, especially footnote 16 for mid-17th Century reiterations of such a view.

[13] Ibid, pp.310-11.

[14] See P. Toon ed., Puritans, the Millenium and the Future of Israel, Cambridge, 1970, p73 and passim.

[15] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p.321.

[16] Ibid, pp.321-2. Cary’s juxtaposition, cited by Hill, seems singularly apposite today, when those having university learning are again seeking to construct a tyranny of words through their post-modernist jargon, within which servants and handmaids and their modern descendants, the proletariat, are to be kept perpetually entombed in power structures, the deconstruction of one of which seemingly sets up another one, and for whom imperialism is a mere construct while Marxist grand narratives pose much bigger threats to autonomy.

[17] Ibid, p.328.

[18] Christopher Hill, Liberty Against the Law, p.61.

[19] Quoted in ibid, p.59.

[20] C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p.105.

[21] Quoted in S. Davies, Unbridled Spirits, p.96.

[22] C. Hill, The World Turned Upside down, p.311.

[23] Ibid., p. 188.

[24] Ibid, p.312.

[25] “Every man and woman shall have the free liberty to marry whom they love, if they can obtain the love and liking of that party whom they would marry.” – Winstanley, quoted in ibid, p.312.

[26] Ibid, pp.314-8.

[27] Ibid, p.215.

[28] Ibid, p.319.

[29] Ibid, p.229.

[30] Ibid., p.198.

[31] Ibid., pp. 210-212.

[32] Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, London 1977, pp. 144-6; P. Laslett, Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations, London 1977.

[33] C. Hill, The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill, Volume Three, People and Ideas in 17th Century England. Brighton, Sussex, 1986, pp.193-4.

[34] C. Hill, Liberty Against the Law, p. 207.

[35] M. Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750, Cambridge, 1987, pp.107-8, 18. Rediker indeed links the social tradition of the pirates to “masterless men” and levellers.

[36] C. Hill, Liberty Against the Law, p.121.

[37] Ibid.

[38] See further D. R. Burg, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean, New York, 1984.

[39] C. Hill, Liberty Against the Law, pp. 131-3.

[40] Ibid, pp.137-140. For ‘The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’, see p. 138.

[41] Katharine Gillespie, ‘Elizabeth Cromwell's Kitchen Court: Republicanism and the Consort’, Genders 33, 2001, .

[42] Ibid, paragraph 5.

[43] Lucy Hutchinson, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, London, 1995.

[44] S. Davies, Unbridled Spirits, p.44.

[45] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, London 1980 (4th reprint, orig. ed. 1971), p.436-37.

[46] See for example the cases of the Leicestershire man vs. the Huntingdonshire woman mentioned in ibid, p.474. “The man who sold his soul to the Devil in order to become a famous preacher”, and the “woman who gave herself to Satan, in return for an extraordinary power of prayer, which brought ministers from far and wide to admire her virtuosity. She was later executed in New England as a witch.”

[47] Ibid, pp.502-510.

[48] Ibid, p.512.

[49] S. Davies, Unbridled Spirits, p.3.

[50] Ibid, pp. 40-42, 46.

[51] K. Thomas, ‘The Puritans and Adultery: The Act of 1650 Reconsidered’, in Puritans and Revolutionaries, ed. D. Pennington and K. Thomas, Oxford 1978, pp.257 – 282.

[52] Ibid, pp.259-60.

[53] S. Davies, Unbridled Spirits, pp.108-9.

[54] William Haller (ed), Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution, 1638-1647, Gloucester, Mass., 1933; William Haller and Godfrey Davies (ed), The Leveller Tracts, 1646-1653, New York, 1944; A.S.P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty, London, 1938; Don M. Wolfe (ed), Leveller Manifestoes of the Puritan Revolution, New York, 1967; G. P. Gooch, English Democratic Ideas in the Seventeenth Century, London, 1898; A. L. Morton (ed), Freedom in Arms, London, New York and Berlin, 1975.

[55] Brian Manning, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution, London, Chicago and Melbourne, 1992.

[56] Patricia Higgins, p.187.

[57] S. Davies, Unbridled Spirits, pp.22-23, 68. See further P. Higgins, pp.198-99.

[58] Certain Informations, quoted by S. Davies, ibid, p. 63.

[59] Quoted in Higgins, p.190.

[60] Ibid, pp.202-3.

[61] Quoted in Davies, p.85.

[62] A.S.P. Woodhouse (ed), Puritanism and Liberty, p.53.

[63] C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p.67. (emphasis added)

[64] Quoted in B. Manning, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution, pp.150-1.

[65] Ibid, pp.161-2.

[66] P. Higgins, p.218.

[67] B. Manning, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution, pp.163-4.

[68] P. Higgins, pp.211-22.

[69] A. L. Morton, Freedom in Arms, pp.44-5.

[70] S. Davies, Unbridled Spirits, p.25.

[71] Ibid, p 77.

[72] Ibid.

[73]B. Manning, 1649, p.146.

[74] S. Davies, p. 92.


Capitalist Restoration in the Former Soviet Union

(This document was adopted by the Inquilabi Communist Sangathan in 2001, based on a report by Robin Singh)

  1. The two fundamental contradictions of the Soviet Union for most of its history were:

a. The contradiction between the international character of the world economy and the isolation of the Soviet Union, or at most of the Soviet bloc, in an imperialist dominated world;

b. The contradiction between the need for workers’ democracy to develop in a harmonious manner the potential of a collectivised, planned economy and the dictatorial rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy.


In the early years of Stalinist bureaucratic rule, the economic superiority of state property in the means of production and central planning allowed the Soviet Union to industrialise, arm, escape the terrible effects of the 1930s depression, and survive the invasion of Nazi German imperialism. This gave rise to the myth of the superiority and invincibility of so-called Soviet socialism and of Stalin. But by the 1980s, the Soviet economy could no longer grow rapidly by the methods of applying more labour, land, raw materials, energy, machinery and other means of production in the old way. It needed to shift to methods of raising labour productivity and improving technology and product quality. But this was incompatible with bureaucratic command methods. By the 1980s the Soviet economy was stagnating.  Significant sections of the bureaucracy were making comparisons between the freedom of Western capitalists to exploit workers and enrich themselves, and the constraints of their own system. By the later part of his perestroika plocy, Mikhail Gorbachev had begun pushing the Soviet economy in the direction of a controlled restoration of capitalism for the benefit of the bureaucracy.


Gorbachev’s policy has to be assessed from two standpoints. On the one hand, from the defence of the historically progressive heritage of the October Revolution, and on the other hand, from the standpoint of the struggle to build the revolutionary leadership of the working class, against all counter-revolutionary leaderships, including the Stalinists. In making this assessment, we need to avoid empiricist statements like perestroika being negative while glasnost was positive. We need to integrate the whole of his policies and place them in proper perspective. Perestroika meant the introduction of capitalist-style economic measures in a bid to get the soviet economy out of the stagnation it had fallen into. Glasnost was an attempt to introduce a limited measure of bourgeois democratic rights to make perestroika more acceptable. In addition, there was an attempt to renegotiate the terms of the USSR along with a continued display of hostility to the nationalist movements taking advantage of the openings provided by perestroika and glasnost. Finally, the international policies of Gorbachev entailed getting economic and political support from the imperialists and in exchange drop all pretence of supporting international anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles. In assessing the complexities involved, our starting point has to be the consciousness and organisation of the international working class. Overall, the Gorbachev policies contributed to the shifting of the balance of forces in the world in favour of capitalism and against socialist revolution by further weakening independent class politics of the proletariat, by damaging its socialist consciousness, by promoting illusions in bourgeois democracy, and by creating illusions about what the capitalist economy could do for the working classes. Notwithstanding any by-products, such as the eventual collapse of Stalinist politics and the clearing of the road for revolutionary reassertion, this central feature of Gorbachev and his impact should not be ignored or obscured.


Gorbachev’s policies only hastened the collapse of the rule of the bureaucracy, without providing any alternative. Stagnation became crisis. The August 1991 coup was a last-ditch attempt by Stalinist bureaucrats to protect their power. The failure of the coup brought Boris Yeltsin to power. Four months later, the USSR was ended and the openly capitalist – restorationist bureaucrats had plunged headlong into their project of restoration of capitalism in the framework of national states and national-chauvinist politics.

2. Yeltsin’s victory set the course for a hoped-for swift restoration of capitalism. But it proved easier for him to consolidate political power than to achieve capitalist stabilisation. With strong pressure and support from the IMF, World Bank and Western imperialist powers, the new governments of the former Soviet republics annulled the central plan, the planning bodies, and the state monopoly of foreign trade. They progressively freed prices and privatised state enterprises, initially with a large component of nominal employee ownership. They cut back on government subsidies and bank credit to money-losing enterprises.


The results were disastrous. Industrial production plummeted. Prices skyrocketed, and bills, taxes and wages weren’t paid. Living standards fell drastically. Healthcare deteriorated. Infant mortality rose and life expectancy fell.


Two forces might have prevented capitalist restorationism. Those sections of the old bureaucracy and military who saw state property as necessary for the Soviet Union to remain a great power with themselves at its head, and the Soviet working class. The Russian parliament became the centre of bureaucratic political resistance to Yeltsin. But it could not launch a fight that would inspire the working class. Evengtually, in October 1993, Yeltsin used military power and disbanded it. This also established that key sectors of the armed forces were with Yeltsin and the restorationsits.

3. The Yeltsin regime was immensely unpopular, particularly the ministers associated with the economic “shock therapy”. Apart from the destruction of the top level of the old bureaucratically planned economic structure, draconian monetarist austerity packages were introduced in the name of reducing hyper-inflation and defending the value of the currency. These, and the introduction of market mechanisms, a stock market, along with privatisation, meant enabling a newly emerging layer of bureaucrats-turned would-be capitalists to amass tremendous wealth. Lacking adequate private capital, these layers began a process of outright looting of state property. This was a historically unprecedented form of “primitive accumulation f capital”. The result was a swift economic and fiscal collapse. The state apparatus became deeply implicated in mafia-like criminal activities.


But despite all this, the bureaucracy proved to be no alternative. Voters turned to nationalists and fragments of the ex-CPSU. But the CP of the Russian Federation essentially conceded the second round of the 1996 presidential election to Yeltsin and converted itself into a parliamentary loyal opposition, thereby signalling that it had no fundamental disagreement with the restoration of capitalism, only tactical and sectional issues in mind, like how far the wing of the bureaucracy supporting it would benefit, etc.

4. The route to capitalist restoration has two alternatives. Either (and this is certainly what the imperialist powers are pushing for) a sell off of enterprises to foreign banks, finance and multinationals, and the creation of a typical comprador bourgeoisie; or the creation of a national capitalism which will however be well integrated into the imperialist dominated worls economy and within the imperialist power structures. Problems exist for both options. Financially, the latter route is difficult, since there is a great dearth of capital. To run the big enterprises involves taking into account the social institutions linked to them (crèches, housing etc.). Privatising these, in a situation where a large part of the population has gone below the poverty line, would be socially explosive. To sell off enterprises to foreign buyers would be economically more viable, but politically even more explosive. As a result, what has been happening is “illegal” actions, loot and plunder, and a flight of capital abroad. This allows the amassing of wealth by individuals, but shrinks the basis of the economic stabilisation even more.


The initial form taken was to transform the enterprises into companies by shares, then the sale of these shares to the population or to the enterprise collectives through pre-distributed vouchers. To the workers, this was projected as some protection against outsiders. From the viewpoint of the enterprise management, this meant freedom from the control by the central power. For the regime, it meant privatisation to satisfy western pressure while simultaneously keeping the workers relatively happy and at the same time developing the starting point of a full scale creation of real owners who would impose the desired capitalist restructuring.


5.The limits of the restorationist project also stemmed from the drain of capital cuased by Yeltsin and his circle of mafia-cronies. So the goals of the state were being thwarted by its own personnel. The failure to crete a hegemonic and crediatable capitalist class was driven home by the crisis of August 1998, when the Asan crisis caused a fall in the price of oil. Renaging on debt meant a loss of $20bn by the west.


The best investment case in the former “socialist bloc” is Hungary. Per capita investment in Russia is less than 2% of its Hungarian counterpart. A large number of private banks had mushroomed, but these were primarily involved in speculation, not investment. The crash of 1998 saw many of these collapse.


6.An extremely important question for revolutionaries today is the class character of the Russian state. Is it even now a bureaucratically degenerated workers’ state, albeit in its last gasps, and do revolutionaries have the duty to call for the defence of remaining progressive gains of the October revolution and military support to the state against imperialism in case of war? Do they still have to call for an anti-bureaucratic political revolution? There exist two possible errors in answering this. The first error is to say the Yeltsin’s coup of late 1991 created a capitalist state, so capitalism has now been restored. The second says, there is not yet a generalised commodity production, so these are still bureaucratically degenerated workers’ states.


6.i. Marxists do not identify the government with the state. When Trotsky fought against the characterisation of the Soviet state as ‘state capitalist” or ‘bureaucratic collectivist’, he was not placing any reliance on the Stalinist bureaucracy either. But he was arguing that certain historic gains of the October revolution such as nationalised industry, the state monopoly of foreign trade etc. were still in existence. The armed forces, led by the bureaucracy, were still committed to the defence of these structures, even if primarily for the benefit of the bureaucracy itself. When we consider the post-1991 Russian state, too, it is not enough to argue that Yeltsin was pro-capitalist. It could be possible to have a pro-capitalist government in a workers’ state. But the key institutions of the Russian state have undergone a metamorphosis. The planning apparatus has been dismantled. The state monopoly of foreign trade has been ended. Substantial privatisation o the economy has taken place. The fact that much of private property is now in the form of corrupt accumulation does not negate this fact. When we view the long history of capitalism, it is evident that primitive accumulation of capital has taken many forms, and corruption as a route to capital formation is hardly specific to the ex-USSR.


6.ii. However, to argue that some kind of a capitalist state has been set up is not the same as arguing that capitalism has been successful in its project of creating the conditions for its ‘automatic’ reproduction. The full-fledged restoration of capitalism involves the creation of markets in labour, means of production, capital. In Russia, there is a widespread survival of companies and industries which in capitalist terms are bankrupt. Significant parts of industry remain state property. The existence of these sectors play a role in subsidising the capitalist sector with cheap raw materials, fuel, transport, etc. Moreover, the state, and major industries, continue to pay the workers in kind, through low cost housing, cheap transport and health care, etc. Attempts at privatisation of the big enterprises have often come up against the snag that the social gains of the old system cannot be privatised easily, and may lead to much more serious social explosions. The existence of significant barter means that much of the market economy is operating at a level that cannot be considered a normal capitalist style of operation.


6.iii. Parallels and analogies with past revolutions and restorations are of limited value. In the case of the English Revolution (1640 – 1660) or the French Revolution (1789 – 1815), royalist restoration did not mean a return to feudalism, because of two key elements: a) A historically more progressive economic system had been unchained and the new ruling class had begun to form.

b) Restoration was also caused, especially in the English case, because the gentry and the bourgeoisie who had initiated the revolution had become aware that the maintenance of their social domination called for restoration of their internal unity, and the smashing of the subaltern threat. After the death of Cromwell, this had necessitated the restoration of the monarchy.


In the Russian case, the Stalinist counter-revolution had not merely destroyed political forms of democracy. Ultimately, socialist construction, unlike the construction of capitalism, is a conscious process. And every cook can govern only when there is a vibrant workers’ democracy. Stalinism had thus prevented the development of a crucial element of socialisg construction.  Statisation and planning without democracy so grossly dsistroted the economy that in the long run progressive forms did not emerge. The soviet economy went into its terminal crisis instead. At the same time, unlike in the bourgeois revolutions mentioned earlier, the generation that had made the revolution is no longer alive in Russia. The atomisation of the working class by the Stalinist bureaucracy meant that the bureaucracy id not face a similar order of subaltern threat – i.e., there was no organised vanguard layer of the proletariat which could have launched a battle to carry out the political revolution. The restorationist project has to compromise with working class aspirations, ut at a much lower level.


6.iv. At the same time, this whole process shows the fundamental validity of the historic analysis of the USSR by Trotskty and by our current since the mid-30s. We characterised the USSR as a bureaucratically degenerated workers’ state, where the Stalinist counter-revolution had led to the loss of political power by the working class and had opened up the possibility of capitalist restoration, but where as yet capitalism was not restored. We had called for an anti-bureaucratic political revolution. Was this an error? To answer this, let us look at the other options. For those who held that the USSR had been “state-capitalist” or “social – imperialist”, the events of 1989-91 had merely been a step sideways. This fails to explain why real capitalists all over the world were so deeply enthused by the events. This also fails to explain the problems of transition to a capitalist economy – indeed, if capitalism had existed all along, where was a transition? The argument that this is a general case of state-dominated capitalism transforming into private capitalism fails to explain, for example, why the process is so much less painful for the capitalist classes of countries like India ad so much more for the Russian capitalists. The theory of “new class” or “bureaucratic collectivism” was free of this particular problem, but only at the cost of far graver damage to historical materialism. Whence came the new class? If it was indeed a class, and therefore the Stalinist economic system a new mode of production, what did it mean for the Marxist programme? Trotsky argued that if we accept this analysis we would have to call for a new minimum programme, rather than the programme of political revolution and socialist democracy.  This remains relevant today. If Marxist class analysis is not to be treated as an irrelevant ideological baggage or a pretension born in another age and having no space today, if it is to be taken seriously, then how do we account for a triangular class war? In the case of a triangular class war involving feudal forces, capitalism and the proletariat, in the 19th Century, Marx was clearly to indicate that the working class has to give critical support to the bourgeoisie as the progressive force. At the same time, this involves accepting that the new class is not a historical aberration but one that has come on the historical stage for a long span. To accept such a proposition for the bureaucracy is to move in the direction of accommodation with it in the expectation that there might be centuries of deformed workers’ states, or bureaucratic states. If on the other hand the bureaucracy is treated as an aberration, we have to explain how an aberration is given the designation of a class with a global alternative.


However, Trotsky’s formulation can be and has been used for various mistaken claims, and that needs to be examined. It has sometimes been argued that the rule of the bureaucracy was a form of the rule of the working class. This had even led to hailing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Trotsky’s own position was clear, and different. The formulations of the Left Opposition all stemmed from Lenin’s own characterisation of the Soviet state as a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations.


Can a workers’ state exploit workers? Put in a normative manner, it cannot. But we are dealing with a historic phenomenon. This was an isolated workers’ state where civil war had decimated the class conscious vanguard. The rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy was to take place in this context. All Marxists, from Lenin onward, thought the danger of capitalist restoration would come from foreign (imperialist) powers, traders, and kulaks. For a long time, the bureaucracy was considered a minor factor. In fact, it was able to establish its domination for most of the 20th Century. This was an unexpected turn taken by history. The working class was so brutally smashed that it could not reorganise and overthrow the bureaucracy. But the bureaucracy remained a parasitic social layer which concealed its identity. It did not have the self-confidence of a ruling class. And its domination was mostly without hegemony, therefore requiring totalitarian dictatorship so often. In the long run only two options remained possible – revolutionary overthrow of the bureaucracy by the working class or capitalist restoration.


To call the bureaucracy a parasitic social layer is not to minimise in any way the brutal and oppressive regime it imposed. But it does reaffirm that this was not a stable mode of production, with social relations capable of reproducing themselves for an entire historical epoch.


6.v. The characterisation of the anti-bureaucratic revolution as “political revolution” referred to the fact that the bureaucracy had politically expropriated the proletariat, and only a restoration of workers’ democracy could enable a resumption of the transition ot a classless society. It did not imply that social relations would remain unchanged before and after the revolution. But it did stress that the economic gains of the October revolution would not have to be reconquered all over again. However it is necessary to recognise that the apparent separation of the “political” and the “economic”, which appears so evident in capitalism, breaks down in a system where political power is the vehicle of economic privileges.


7.The process of capitalist restoration in Russia and elsewhere have been slowed down, not merely because of economic bottlenecks, but due to the fear of working class resistance. This does not imply an imminent workers’ revolution. But the restorationiss are aware that working class support for democracy dos not mean support for ruthless shock therapy. In fact, shock therapy has led to increasing curbs on democratic rights of the working class. The UNDP has reported that the transition of the 1990s has led to “widespread poverty, alarming fall in life expectancy, widening inequalities between the sexes, falling investment in education, the collapse of public health and the spread of disease, crime, nationalist violence and suicide.” Around 40% were living below the poverty line in the aftermath of the crisis of 1998. Wage arrears in 1998 ranged from over 4% of the GDP in Russia to around 40% in Kazakhstan. Inflation, virtually unknown to the generations living in 1991, shot up to 2500%. In Armenia, food prices rose by 24,000% between 1991 and 1996. The weakest people – the aged, the disabled, single mothers, lost access to benefits and faced extreme hardship. Life expectancy in Russia, for men, has gone down to 58 years on average. Infant mortality rose by around 15% between 1991 and 1994. TB, AIDS and STDs rose steeply. Women have been increasingly pushed out of public life and out of the workforce. This has led to a growing imbalance between men and women. Violence against women has risen. Throughout the ex-USSR and east and central Europe, prostitution has made a massive comeback, often organised by crime-networks in Western Europe. And Putin’s agenda is to cut down social welfare measures even more. Not the dream of West European standards shown by academician-touts in Gorbachev’s entourage, but the nightmare of third-world economy is closer to the reality haunting the workers.


7.i. However, this has not been taken in a supine manner by working people. In 1996, over 100,000 Ukrainian miners struck work, demanding back wages. There have been many more struggles. But it is nevertheless the case that a mass working class upsurge is not looming just ahead. This is a working class that for decades has not had independent class organisations. When Trotsky was expecting a workers’ upsurge,  he had in mind generations who had seen the revolutuion and the civil war. The massive terror od the 1930s destroyed those militants and atomised the class. The new generations have lived through a system that was bureaucratic, national chauvinist, corporatist and that depoliticised them. The identification between the system and socialism, however false, means that this Russian (Ukrainian, etc.) working class is for the moment disoriented, and unwilling to accept socialist politics.


However, struggles and resistance are not absent. There has been a lot of passive resistance. This, together with the instances like the miners’ struggle, or the struggle of the Vyborg Paper and Cellulose Mill, where over two thousand workers, fearing layoffs after a British firm, Alcem, bought out the Mill, and demanding millions of dollars in back wages, occupied the plant and ran it under workers’ management for one and a half year. Ultimately, special riot police carried out an attack and occupied the plant. The struggle also gained much support and active solidarity from other working class organisations. The fact that a democratic strike committee led the struggle, and that workers’ control returned to the agenda, are indications that alternatives are being considered as neo-liberalism cuts to the bone.


From these struggles to a new revolutionary upsurge is a long way to go. The old trade unions lack legitimacy. Bureaucratised institutions that never fought for workers’ rights until 1991, they cannot lead real struggles. But local and regional unions have come up. In addition, in the bureaucratic system, the unions had certain legal rights. For example, factory closures, sacking of workers, etc., require the agreement of the union.


To complete the process of capitalist restoration, Putin has to overcome all forms of working class resistance, active or passive. Even more drastic steps have to be taken to privatise the entire economy, to change all elements of the old labour laws that provide some measure of security for the workers, cut social welfare spending even more, etc. Despite its weaknesses, these are bound to provoke reactions from the working class. Putin’s Chechen war is a part of a bid to create a nationalist euphoria and further divide the working class. The major so-called left party, the Stalinists organised in the CPRF, have likewise taken up a nationalist position. Working class resistance cannot be built by such parties.


8.The struggle of workers in Russia and other countries of the former USSR are thus of a combined type. They have to fight against the capitalist state and its restorationist policies. At the same time, they have to fight against the remnants of the old bureaucracy. That bureaucratic opposition does not differ from Putin in the basic goal of seeking capitalist restoration. Their difference is over tempo, the degree of authoritarianism proposed, etc. This basic unity is well understood by Stalinists who are turning into Social Democrats with a neo-liberal tinge. Thus, the CPI and the CPI(M) in India both maintain fraternal relations with the CPRF and advocate an alliance with Putin and with the Chinese regime in order to challenge US unipolar domination.


The real road for Russian workers, like workers anywhere in the world, lies through independent class action. This means the construction of idependent trade unions, the development of the class struggle, and the building of a revolutionary workers’ party. We are in opposition to both the emerging bourgeoisie and the remnants of the bureaucracy. In order to effectively intervene in the class struggle in these countries, we consider the building of independent working class organisations and revolutionary parties to be essential tasks. There has been considerable interest in and sympathy for Trotskyist ideas in many circles in these countries. Our task is to convert this interest into active organisational efforts to set up the nuclei of sections of the Fourth International. In doing this, we of course need to avoid sectarian behaviour, and to avoid the strategy of looting existing organisations, as narrow, sectarian practice has led certain groups to do in a few countries. But this necessary caveat should not turn into a prescription against the formation of sections of the Fourth International. There already exist Trotskyist groups publicly proclaiming their opposition to all pro-capitalist currents, and we need to approach them, instead of waiting for a few big names to suddenly take up the struggle to build mass parties.


The Leninist Theory of Organisation


Ernest Mandel


  1. Bourgeois ideology and proletarian class consciousness
  2. Proletarian class struggle and proletarian class consciousness
  3. The revolutionary vanguard and spontaneous mass action
  4. Organisation, bureaucracy and revolutionary action
  5. Organisational theory, revolutionary program, revolutionary practice
  6. Organisational theory, democratic centralism and soviet democracy
  7. Sociology of economism, bureaucratism and spontaneity
  8. Scientific intelligentsia, social science and proletarian class consciousness
  9. Historical pedagogy and communication of class consciousness


A serious discussion of the historical importance and current relevance of the Leninist theory of organisation is possible only if one determines the exact position of this theory in the history of Marxism – or to be more precise, in the historical process of the unfolding and development of Marxism. This, like any process, must be reduced to its internal contradictions through the intimate interrelation between the development of theory and the development of the actual proletarian class struggle.

Approached in this way, the Leninist theory of organisation appears as a dialectical unity of three elements: a theory of the present relevance of revolution for the underdeveloped countries in the imperialist epoch (which was later expanded to apply to the entire world in the epoch of the general crisis of capitalism); a theory of the discontinuous and contradictory development of proletarian class consciousness and of its most important stages, which should be differentiated from one another; and a theory, of the essence of Marxist theory and its specific relationship to science on the one hand and to proletarian class struggle on the other.

Looking more closely, one discovers that these three theories form, so to speak, the “social foundation” of the Leninist concept of organisation, without which it would appear arbitrary, non-materialist and unscientific. The Leninist concept of the party is not the only possible one. It is, however, the only possible concept of the party which assigns to the vanguard party the historic role of leading a revolution which is considered, in an intermediate or long-range sense, to be inevitable. The Leninist concept of the party cannot be separated from a specific analysis of proletarian class consciousness, i.e., from the understanding that political class consciousness – as opposed to mere “trade union” or “craft” consciousness – grows neither spontaneously nor automatically out of the objective developments of the proletarian class struggle. [1] And the Leninist concept of the party is based upon the premise of a certain degree of autonomy of scientific analysis, and especially of Marxist theory. This theory, though conditioned by the unfolding of the proletarian class struggle and the first embryonic beginnings of the proletarian revolution, should not be seen as the mechanically inevitable product of the class struggle but as the result of a theoretical practice (or “theoretical production”) which is able to link up and unite with the class struggle only through a prolonged struggle. The history of the world-wide socialist revolution in the twentieth century is the history of this prolonged process.

These three propositions actually represent a deepening of Marxism, i.e., either of themes that were only indicated but not elaborated upon by Marx and Engels, or of elements of Marxist theory which were scarcely noticed due to the delayed and interrupted publication of Marx’s writings in the years 1880-1905. [2] It therefore involves a further deepening of Marxist theory brought about because of gaps (and in part contradictions) in Marx’s analysis itself, or at least in the generally accepted interpretation of it in the first quarter century after Marx’s death.

What is peculiar about this deepening of Marx’s teaching is that, setting out from different places, it proceeds toward the same central point, namely, to a determination of the special character of the proletarian or socialist revolution.

In contrast to all previous revolutions – not only the bourgeois revolutions, whose laws of motion have been studied in great detail (in the first place by Marx and Engels themselves), but also those revolutions which have hitherto been far less subjected to a systematic, generalised analysis (such as the peasant revolutions and those of the urban petty bourgeoisie against feudalism; the uprisings of slaves and the revolts of clan societies against slaveholding society; the peasant revolutions that occurred as the old Asiatic mode of production periodically disintegrated, etc.) – the proletarian revolution of the twentieth century is distinguished by four particular features. These give it a specific character, but also, as Marx foresaw [3], make it an especially difficult undertaking.

  1. The proletarian revolution is the first successful revolution in the history of mankind to be carried out by the lowest social class. This class disposes of a potentially huge, but actually extremely limited, economic power and is by and large excluded from any share in the social wealth (as opposed to the mere possession of consumer goods which are continuously used up). Its situation is quite different from the bourgeoisie and the feudal nobility, who seized political power when they already held in their hands the actual economic power of society, as well as from the slaves, who were unable to carry through a successful revolution.
  2. The proletarian revolution is the first revolution in the history of humanity aimed at a consciously planned overthrow of existing society, i.e., which does not seek to restore a previous state of affairs (as did the slave and peasant revolutions of the past), or simply to legalise a transfer of power already achieved on the economic field, but rather to bring into being a completely new process, one which has never before existed and which has been anticipated only as a “theory” or a “program.” [4]
  3. Just like every other social revolution in history, the proletarian revolution grows out of the internal class antagonisms and the class struggle they inevitably produce within the existing society. But while revolutions in the past could by and large be satisfied with pushing this class struggle forward until a culminating point was reached – because for them it was not a question of creating completely new and consciously planned social relations – the proletarian revolution can become a reality only if the proletarian class struggle culminates in a gigantic process, stretching out over years and decades. This process is one of systematically and consciously overturning all human relations, and of generalising first the independent activity of the proletariat, and later (on the threshold of the classless society) that of all members of society. While the triumph of the bourgeois revolution makes the bourgeoisie into a conservative class (which is still able to achieve revolutionary transformations in the technical and industrial fields, and which plays an objectively progressive role in history for a rather long period of time, but which pulls back from an active transformation of social life, since in that sphere its mounting collisions with the proletariat it exploits make it increasingly reactionary), the conquest of power by the proletariat is not the end but the beginning of the activity of the modern working class in revolutionising society. This activity can end only when it liquidates itself as a class, along with all other classes. [5]
  4. In contrast to all previous social revolutions, which by and large have taken place within a national or an even more limited regional framework, the proletarian revolution is by nature international and can reach its conclusion only in the world-wide construction of a classless society. Although it certainly can achieve victory at first within a national framework alone, this victory will constantly be endangered and provisional so long as the class struggle on an international scale has not inflicted a decisive defeat upon capital. The proletarian revolution, then, is a world revolutionary process, which is carried out neither in a linear fashion nor with uniformity. The imperialist chain breaks first at its weakest links, and the discontinuous ebb and flow of the revolution occurs in conformity with the law of uneven and combined development. (This is true not only for the economy but also for the relationship of forces between classes; the two by no means automatically coincide,.) The Leninist theory of organisation takes into account all these peculiarities of the proletarian revolution. It takes into consideration the peculiarities of this revolution in light of, among other things, the peculiarities and contradictions in the formation of proletarian class consciousness. Above all, it expresses openly what Marx only intimated, and which his epigones scarcely understood at all, namely, that there can be neither an “automatic” overthrow of the capitalist social order nor a “spontaneous” or “organic” disintegration of this social order through the construction of a socialist one. Precisely because of the uniquely conscious character of the proletarian revolution, it requires not only a maturity of “objective” factors (a deepening social crisis which expresses the fact that the capitalist mode of production has fulfilled its historic mission), but also a maturity of so-called subjective factors (maturity of proletarian class consciousness and of its leadership). If these “subjective” factors are either not present, or are present to an insufficient extent, the proletarian revolution will not be victorious at that point, and from its very defeat will result the economic and social possibilities for a temporary consolidation of capitalism. [6]

The Leninist theory of organisation represents, then, broadly speaking, the deepening of Marxism, applied to the basic problems of the social superstructure (the state, class consciousness, ideology, the party). Together with the parallel contributions of Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky (and, in a more limited sense of Lukacs and Gramsci), it constitutes the Marxist science of the subjective factor.

I. Bourgeois ideology and proletarian class consciousness

The Marxian proposition that “the dominant ideology of every society is the ideology of the dominant class” appears at first glance to conflict with the character of the proletarian revolution as the conscious overturning of society by the proletariat, as a product of the conscious, independent activity of the wage-earning masses. A superficial interpretation of this proposition might lead to the conclusion that it is utopian to expect the masses who, under capitalism, are manipulated and exposed to the constant onslaught of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideas, to be capable of carrying out a revolutionary class struggle against this society, let alone a social revolution, Herbert Marcuse, who draws this conclusion, is (for the time being) simply the latest in a long series of theoreticians who, taking as their point of departure the Marxian definition of the ruling class, finish by calling into question the revolutionary potential of the working class.

The problem can be solved by replacing the formalistic and static point of view with a dialectical one. The Marxian proposition simply needs to be made more “dynamic”. The dominant ideology of every society is the ideology of the dominant class in the sense that the latter has control over the means of ideological production which society has at its disposal (the church, schools, mass media, etc.) and uses these means in its own class interests. As long as class rule is on the upswing, stable and hence hardly questioned, the ideology of the dominant class will also dominate the consciousness of the oppressed class. Moreover, the exploited will, as a rule, tend to formulate the first phases of the class struggle in terms of the formulas, ideals and ideologies of the exploiters. [7]

However, the more the stability of the existing society is brought into question, and the more the class struggle intensifies, and the more the class rule of the exploiters itself begins to waver in practice, the more will at least sections of the oppressed class begin to free themselves of the control of the ideas of those in power. Prior to, and along with, the struggle for the social revolution, a struggle goes on between the ideology of the rulers and the new ideals of the revolutionary class. This struggle in turn intensifies and accelerates the concrete class struggle out of which it arose by lifting the revolutionary class to an awareness of its historical tasks and of the immediate goals of its struggle. Class consciousness on the part of the revolutionary class can therefore develop out of the class struggle in spite of and in opposition to the ideology of the ruling class. [8]

But it is only in the revolution itself that the majority of the oppressed can liberate themselves from the ideology of the ruling class. [9] For this control is exerted not only, nor even primarily, through purely ideological manipulation and the mass assimilation of the ruling class’ ideological production, but above all through the actual day-to-day workings of the existing economy and society and their effect on the consciousness of the oppressed. (This is especially true in bourgeois society, although parallel phenomena can be seen in all class societies.)

In capitalist society this control is exerted through the internalisation of commodity relations, which is closely tied to the reification of human relations and which results from the generalised extension of commodity production and the transformation of labour power into a commodity, and from the generalised extension of the social division of labour under conditions of commodity production. It is also accomplished through the fatigue and brutalisation of the producers through exploitation and the alienated nature of labour, as well as through a lack of leisure time, not only in a quantitative but also in a qualitative sense, etc. Only when the workings of this imprisonment are blown apart by a revolution, i.e., by a sudden, intense increase, in mass activity outside of the confines of alienated labour – only then can the mystifying influence of this very imprisonment upon mass consciousness rapidly recede.

The Leninist theory of organisation therefore attempts to come to grips with the inner dialectic of this formation of political class consciousness, which can develop fully only during the revolution itself, yet only on the condition that it has already begun to develop before the revolution. [10] The theory does this by means of three operative categories: the category of the working class in itself (the mass of workers); the category of that part of the working class that is already engaging in more than sporadic struggles and has already reached a first level of organisation (the proletarian vanguard in the broad sense of the word); [11] and the category of the revolutionary organisation, which consists of workers and intellectuals who participate in revolutionary activities and are at least partially educated in Marxism.

The category of “the class in itself” is linked to the objective class concept in the sociology of Marx, where a social layer is determined by its objective position in the process of production independent of its state of consciousness. (It is well known that the young Marx – in the Communist Manifesto and in his political wrings of 1850-1852, for instance – had put forward a subjective concept of the class according to which the working class becomes a class only through its struggle, i.e., by reaching a minimum degree of class consciousness. Bukharin, in connection with a formula from The Poverty of Philosophy, calls this concept the concept of “the class for itself” as opposed to the concept of the “class in itself.”) [12] This objective concept of the class remains fundamental for Lenin’s ideas on organisation, as it did for Engels and the German Social Democracy under the influence of Engels, Bebel and Kautsky. [13]

It is only because there exists an objectively revolutionary class that can, and is periodically obliged to, conduct an actual revolutionary class struggle, and it is only in relation to such an actual class struggle, that the concept of a revolutionary vanguard party (including that of professional revolutionaries) has any scientific meaning at all, as Lenin himself explicitly observed. [14] All revolutionary activity not related to this class struggle leads at best to a party nucleus, but not to a party. This runs the risk of degenerating into sectarian, subjective dilettantism. According to Lenin’s concept of organisation, there is no self-proclaimed vanguard. Rather, the vanguard must win recognition as a vanguard (i.e., the historical right to act as a vanguard) through its attempts to establish revolutionary ties with the advanced part of the class and its actual struggle.

The category of “advanced workers” stems from the objectively inevitable stratification of the working class. It is a function of their distinct historical origin, as well as their distinct position in the social process of production and their distinct class consciousness.

The formation of the working class as an objective category is itself an historical process. Some sections of the working class are the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of urban wage labourers; others are the sons and grandsons of agricultural labourers and landless peasants, Still others are only first or second generation descendants of a petty bourgeoisie that owned some means of production (peasants, artisans, etc.). Part of the working class works in large factories where both the economic and the social relations give rise to at least an elementary class consciousness (consciousness that “social questions” can be solved only through collective activity and organisation). Another part works in small or medium-sized factories in industry or in the so-called service sectors, where economic self-confidence as well as an understanding of the necessity for broad mass actions flow much less easily from the objective situation than in the large industrial plant. Some sections of the working class have been living in big cities for a long time. They have been literate for a long time and have several generations of trade-union organisation and political and cultural education behind them (through youth organisations, the workers press, labour education, etc.). Still others live in small towns or even in the countryside. (This was true into the late 1930s, for instance, for a significant number of European miners.) These workers have little or no collective social life, scarcely any trade-union experience, and have received no political or cultural education at all in the organised workers movement. Some sectors of the working class are born from nations which were independent for a thousand years, and whose ruling class oppressed for long periods other nations. Other workers are born from nations which fought for decades or centuries for their national freedom – or who lived in slavery or serfdom no more than one hundred years ago. If one adds to all these historical and structural differences the various personal abilities of each wage worker – not just differences in intelligence and ability to generalise from immediate experiences, but differences in the amount of energy, strength of character: combatively and self-assurance too – then one understands that the stratification of the working class into various layers, depending on the degree of class consciousness, is an inevitable phenomenon in the history of the working class itself. It is this historical process of becoming a class which, at a given point in time, is reflected in the various degrees of consciousness within the class.

The category of the revolutionary party stems from the fact that Marxian socialism is a science which, in the final analysis, can be completely assimilated only in an individual and not in a collective manner. Marxism constitutes the culmination (and in part also the dissolution) of at least three classical social sciences: classical German philosophy, classical political economy, and classical French political science (French socialism and historiography). Its assimilation presupposes at least an understanding of the materialist dialectic, historical materialism, Marxian economic theory and the critical history of modern revolutions and of the modern labour movement. Such an assimilation is necessary if it is to be able to function, in its totality, as an instrument for analysing social reality and as the compilation of the experiences of a century of proletarian class struggle. The notion that this colossal sum of knowledge and information could somehow spontaneously flow from working at a lathe or a calculating machine is absurd. [15]

The fact that as a science Marxism is an expression of the highest degree in the development of proletarian class consciousness means simply that it is only through an individual process of selection that the best, most experienced, the most intelligent and the most combative members of the proletariat are able to directly and independently acquire this class consciousness in its most potent form. To the extent that this acquisition is an individual one, it also becomes accessible to other social classes and layers (above all, the revolutionary intelligentsia and the students). [16] Any other approach can lead only to an idealisation of the working class – and ultimately of capitalism itself.

Of course it must always be remembered that Marxism could not arise independently of the actual development of bourgeois society and of the class struggle that was inevitably unfolding within it. There is an inextricable tie between the collective, historical experience of the working class in struggle and its scientific working out of Marxism as collective, historical class consciousness in its most potent form. But to maintain that scientific socialism is an historical product of the proletarian class struggle is not to say that all or even most members of this class can, with greater or lesser ease, reproduce this knowledge. Marxism is not an automatic product of the class struggle and class experience but a result of scientific, theoretical production. Such an assimilation is made possible only through participation in that process of production; and this process is by definition an individual one, even though it is only made possible through the development social forces of production and class contradictions under capitalism.

II. Proletarian class struggle and proletarian class consciousness

The process whereby the proletarian mass, the proletarian vanguard and the revolutionary party are united depends on the elementary proletarian class struggle growing over into revolutionary class struggle – the proletarian revolution – and on the effects this has on the wage-earning masses. Class struggle has taken place for thousands of years without those who struggled being aware of what they were doing. Proletarian class struggle was conducted long before there was a socialist movement, let alone scientific socialism. Elementary class struggle – strikes, work stoppages around wage demands or for shorter working hours and other improvements in working conditions – leads to elementary forms of class organisation (mutual aid funds, embryonic trade unions), even if these are short-lived. (It also gives rise to a general socialist ideal among many workers.) Elementary class struggle, elementary class organisation and elementary class consciousness are born, then, directly out of action, and only the experience arising out of that action is able to develop and accelerate consciousness. It is a general law of history that only through action are broad masses able to elevate their consciousness.

But even in its most elementary form, the spontaneous class struggle of the wage earners under capitalism leaves behind a residue in the form of a consciousness crystallised in a process of continuous organisation. Most of the mass is active only during the struggle; after the struggle it will sooner or later retreat into private life (i.e., “into the struggle for existence”). What distinguishes the workers vanguard from this mass is the fact that even during a lull in the struggle it does not abandon the front lines of the class struggle but continues the war, so to speak, “by other means”? It attempts to solidify the resistance funds generated in the struggle into ongoing resistance funds – i.e., into unions. [17] By publishing workers newspapers and organising educational groups for workers, it attempts to crystallise and heighten the elementary class consciousness generated in the struggle. It thus helps give form to a factor of continuity, as opposed to the necessarily discontinuous action of the mass [18], and to a factor of consciousness, as opposed to the spontaneity of the mass movement in and of itself.

However, advanced workers are driven to continuous organisation and growing class consciousness less by theory, science, or an intellectual grasp of the social whole than by the practical knowledge acquired in struggle. Since the struggle shows [19] that the dissolving of the resistance funds after each strike damages the effectiveness of the strike and the working sums in hand, attempts are made to go over to the permanent strike fund. Since experience shows an occasional leaflet to have less effect than a regular newspaper, the workers press is born. Consciousness arising directly out of the practical experience of struggle is empirical and pragmatic consciousness, which can enrich action to a certain extent, but which is far inferior to the effectiveness, of a scientifically global consciousness, i.e., of theoretical understanding.

Based on its general theoretical understanding the revolutionary vanguard organisation can consolidate and enrich this higher consciousness, provided it is able to establish ties to the class struggle, i.e., provided it does not shrink from the hard test of verifying theory in practice, of reuniting theory and practice. From the point of view of mature Marxism – as well as that of Marx himself and Lenin – a “true” theory divorced from practice is as much an absurdity as a “revolutionary practice” that is not founded on a scientific theory. This in no way diminishes the decisive importance and absolute necessity for theoretical production. It simply emphasises the fact that wage-earning masses and revolutionary individuals, proceeding from different starting points and with a different dynamic, can bring about the unity of theory and practice.

This process can be summarised in the following diagram:

masses: —> action —> experience —> consciousness

advanced workers: —> experience —> consciousness —> action

revolutionary nuclei: —> consciousness —> action —> experience

If we rearrange this diagram so that certain conclusions can be drawn from it, we get the following:

masses: —> action —> experience —> consciousness

revolutionary nuclei: —> consciousness —> action —> experience

advanced workers: —> experience —> consciousness —> action

This formal diagram reveals a series of conclusions about the dynamics of class consciousness which were already anticipated in the analysis but which only now obtain their full value. The collective action of the advanced workers (the “natural leaders” of the working class in the shops) is, relatively speaking, more difficult to attain because it can be aroused neither through pure conviction (as with the revolutionary nuclei) nor through purely spontaneous explosiveness (as with the broad masses). It is precisely the struggle experience – the important motivating factor in the actions of the advanced workers – that makes them much more careful and cautious before they undertake action on a broad scale. They have already digested the lessons of past actions and know that an explosion is not at all sufficient for them to be able to reach their goal. They have fewer illusions about the strength of the enemy (not to mention his “generosity”) and about the durability of the mass movement. The greatest “temptation” of economism can be traced to this very point.

To summarise: the building of the revolutionary class party is the merging of the consciousness of the revolutionary nuclei with that of the advanced workers. The ripening of a pre-revolutionary situation (of potentially revolutionary explosion) is the merging of action by the broad masses with that of the advanced workers. A revolutionary situation – i.e., the possibility of a revolutionary conquest of power – arises when a merging of actions by the vanguard and the masses with the consciousness of the vanguard and revolutionary layers has been accomplished. [20] For the broad masses, the elementary class struggle arising from the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production is always kindled only by matters of immediate concern. The same is true for all mass actions, even political ones. Thus the problem of the broad mass struggle growing over into a revolutionary one depends not only on a quantitative factor, but also on a qualitative one. This requires the existence of sufficiently advanced workers within the masses or the mass movement who, on the basis of the stage of consciousness they have already reached, are capable of sweeping broader masses into action around objectives that challenge the continued existence of bourgeois society and the capitalist mode of production.

This also highlights the central importance of transitional demands [21], the strategic position of advanced workers already trained in propagating these transitional demands, and the historical importance of the revolutionary organisation, which alone is capable of working out a comprehensive program of transitional demands corresponding to the objective historical conditions, as well as to the subjective needs, of the broadest layers of the mass. A successful proletarian revolution is only possible if all these factors are successfully combined.

We have already stated that Lenin’s theory of organisation is, in fact, above all a theory of revolution. To have misunderstood this is the great weakness of Rosa Luxemburg’s polemic against Lenin in 1903-1904. It is characteristic that the concept of centralisation which is attacked in the essay Organisational Question of Social Democracy is – and this is clear if it is read attentively – a purely organisational one. (Yet while it is attacked, it is also confirmed. On this point modern “Luxemburgists” ought to read their “Rosa” more carefully and more thoroughly!) Lenin is accused of advocating an “ultra-centralist” line, of dictating the composition of local party committees, and of wishing to stymie any initiative by lower party units. [22]

When we turn to the Leninist theory of organisation as developed by Lenin himself, however, we see that the emphasis is by no means upon the formal, organisational side of centralisation but upon its political and social function. At the heart of What is to Be Done? is the concept of the transformation of proletarian class consciousness into political class consciousness by means of a comprehensive political activity that raises and, from a Marxist point of view, answers all questions of internal and external class relations:

“In reality, it is possible to ‘raise the activity of the working masses’ only when this activity is not restricted to ‘political agitation on an economic basis.’ A basic condition for the necessary expansion of political agitation is the organisation of comprehensive political exposure. In no way except by means of such exposures con the masses be trained in political consciousness and revolutionary activity.”

And further:

The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population. Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social Democrats; for the self knowledge of the working class is indissolubly bound up, not solely with a fully clear theoretical understanding – it would be even truer to say, not so much with the theoretical, as with the practical, understanding – of the relationships between all the various classes of modern society, acquired through the experiences of political life. [23]

And it is for the same reason that Lenin emphasises so strongly the absolute necessity for the revolutionary party to make all progressive demands and movements of all oppressed social layers and classes its own – even “purely democratic” ones. The central strategic plan advanced by Lenin in What is to Be Done? [24] is therefore one of party agitation that unites all elementary, spontaneous, dispersed and “merely” local or sectional protests, revolts and movements of resistance. The emphasis of centralisation clearly lies in the political and not in the formal, organisational sphere. The aim of formal organisational centralisation is only to make possible the realisation of this strategic plan.

Although she does not recognise this essence of Lenin’s “centralism,” Luxemburg is compelled in her polemic to indirectly counterpose to it another conception of the formation of political class consciousness and the preparation of revolutionary situations. Her doing so emphasises even more poignantly how utterly wrong she was in this debate. Luxemburg’s concept that “the proletarian army is recruited and becomes aware of its objectives in the course of the struggle itself” [25] has been completely refuted by history. In even the broadest, longest and most vigorous of workers struggles, the working masses have not gained a clear understanding of the tasks of the struggle, or did so only to an insufficient degree. (One need only recall the French general strikes of 1936 and 1968, the struggles of the German workers from 1918 to 1923, the great struggles of the Italian workers in 1920, 1948 and 1969, as well as the prodigious class struggles in Spain from 1931 to 1937, to mention only these four European countries.)

Experience in struggle is by no means sufficient for clarity on the tasks of a broad pre-revolutionary, or even a revolutionary, mass struggle to be attained. Not only, of course, are these tasks connected to the immediate motives that set off the struggle, but they can be grasped only by means of a comprehensive analysis of the overall social development, of the historical position achieved by the capitalist mode of production and its internal contradictions, and of the national and international relationship of forces between classes. Without protracted and consistent preparation, without the education of hundreds and thousands of advanced workers in the spirit of a revolutionary program, and without the practical experience accumulated over the years by these advanced workers through attempting to bring this program to the broad masses, it would be absolutely illusory to assume that suddenly, overnight so to speak, with the mere aid of mass actions, a consciousness equal to the demands of the historical situation could be created among these broad masses.

Actually, one could turn Luxemburg’s proposition around and say that 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 program in struggle has not taken place before the outbreak of the broadest mass struggles, which by themselves create only the possibility of the broad masses attaining revolutionary consciousness. That is the tragic lesson of the German revolution after the first world war, which was crushed precisely because of the lack of such a trained vanguard.

The objective of Lenin’s strategic plan is to create such a vanguard through an organic union of individual revolutionary nuclei with the vanguard of the proletariat. Such a fusion is impossible without a comprehensive political activity that takes the advanced workers beyond the confines of a horizon limited to the trade union or the factory. Empirical data available to us today confirm that Lenin’s party, before and during the revolution of 1905 and after the mass movement began to pick up again in 1912, was in fact such a party. [26]

To fully grasp the profoundly revolutionary nature of Lenin’s strategic plan, it must be approached from yet another point of view. Any concept based on the probability, if not the inevitability, of a revolution occurring in the not too distant future, must inevitably deal with the question of a direct collision with state power, i.e., the question of the conquest of political power. As soon as this difficulty is built into the concept, however, the result is one more argument in favour of centralisation. Lenin and Luxemburg agreed that capitalism itself and the bourgeois state exert, a powerful centralising influence on modern society [27], and that it is in turn absolutely illusory to think that this centralised state power can be gradually dismantled, as for instance a wall can be taken apart brick by brick.

In the final analysis, the ideological essence of the reformism and revisionism rejected by Luxemburg and Lenin with equal passion [28] was rooted in the illusion that this could be done. Once the question of the conquest of state power is no longer placed far off in the distance, however, but is recognised to be an objective for the near or not-too-distant future, the revolutionary is immediately confronted with the question of the means necessary for achieving the revolutionary conquest of power. Here again Luxemburg misconstrued the import of Lenin’s purely polemical use of the notion of “Jacobins inseparably linked to the organisation of the class-conscious proletariat.” What Lenin meant with this idea was certainly not a brand of Blanquist conspirators but an advanced group oriented, like the Jacobins, toward an unremitting attempt to carry out the revolutionary tasks, one that does not permit itself to be diverted from concentrating on these tasks by the inevitable conjunctural ebb and flow of the mass movement.

Yet to do justice to Luxemburg it must be added that, in the first place, she took up – in fact had to take up – this question from a different historical viewpoint since, by 1904, she was already influenced more by German than by Russian or Polish reality; and second, that she completely drew the necessary conclusions in the Leninist sense as soon as it became clear that in Germany, too the coming of the revolution was an immediate possibility. [29]

The young Trotsky likewise made a serious error in his polemic against Lenin when he reproached him for this “substitutionism,” i.e., the replacement of the initiative of the working class with that of the party alone. [30] If we remove the core of this reproach from its polemical shell, we find here too an idealistic, inadequate conception of the evolution of the class consciousness of the proletariat: “Marxism teaches that the interests of the proletariat are determined by its objective conditions of life. These interests are so powerful and so unavoidable that they eventually (!) compel the proletariat to bring them into the scope of its consciousness, i.e., to make the realisation of its objective interests into its subjective interest.” [31] Today it is easy to see what a naively fatalistic optimism was concealed in this inadequate analysis. Immediate interests are here put on the same level with historical interests, i.e., with the unravelling of the most complex questions of political tactics and strategy. The hope that the proletariat will “eventually” recognise its historical interests seems rather shallow when compared to the historical catastrophes that have arisen because, in the absence of an adequate revolutionary leadership, the proletariat was not even able to accomplish the revolutionary tasks of the here and now.

The same naive optimism is even more strikingly manifested in the following passage from the same polemic:

The revolutionary social democrat is convinced not only of the inevitable (!) growth of the political party of the proletariat, but also of the inevitable (!) victory of the ideas of revolutionary socialism within this party. The first proof lies in the fact that the development of bourgeois society spontaneously leads the proletariat to politically demarcate itself; the second in the fact that the objective tendencies and the tactical problems of this demarcation find their best, fullest and deepest expression in revolutionary socialism, i.e., Marxism. [32]

This quotation makes clear that what the young Trotsky was championing in his polemic against Lenin was the “old, tested tactic” and the naive “belief in the inevitability of progress” à la Bebel and Kautsky which prevailed in the international Social Democracy from the time of Marx’s death until the first world war. Lenin’s concept of class consciousness was incomparably richer, more contradictory and more dialectical precisely because it was based on a keen grasp of the relevance of the revolution for the present (not “finally some day” but in the coming years). To round out the historical development it must be added that following the outbreak of the Russian revolution in 1917, Trotsky fully adopted Lenin’s analysis of the formation of proletarian class consciousness and hence also Lenin’s theory of organisation, and until his death he stubbornly defended them against all sceptics and arch-pessimists (who claimed to detect in them the “embryo” of Stalinism). Thus he wrote in his last, unfinished manuscript:

A colossal factor in the maturity of the Russian proletariat in February or March 1917 was Lenin. He did not fall from the skies. He personified the revolutionary tradition of the working class. For Lenin’s slogans to find their way to the masses, there had to exist cadres, even though numerically small at the beginning; there had to exist the confidence of the cadre in the leadership, a confidence based upon the entire experience of the past. To cancel these elements from one’s calculations is simply to ignore the living revolution, to substitute for it an abstraction, the “relationship of forces,” because the development of the revolution precisely consists of this, that the relationship of forces keeps incessantly and rapidly changing under the impact of the changes in the consciousness of the proletariat, the attraction of backward layers to the advanced, the growing assurance of the class in its own strength. The vital mainspring in this process is the party, just as the vital mainspring in the mechanism of the party is its leadership. [33]

III. The revolutionary vanguard and spontaneous mass action

It would be a great injustice to Lenin to characterise his life work as a systematic “underestimation” of the importance of spontaneous mass actions as opposed to their “appreciation” by Luxemburg or Trotsky. Apart from polemical passages, which can only be understood when seen in context, Lenin welcomed huge, spontaneous outbreaks of mass strikes and demonstrations just as enthusiastically and just as explicitly as Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky. [34] Only the Stalinist bureaucracy falsified Leninism with its increasing distrust of spontaneous mass movements – which after all is characteristic of any bureaucracy.

Luxemburg is completely correct to say that the outbreak of a proletarian revolution cannot be “predetermined” by the calendar, and nothing to the contrary will ever be found in Lenin. Lenin, like Luxemburg, was convinced that these elemental mass explosions, without which a revolution is unthinkable, can neither be “organised” according to rules nor “commanded” by a row of disciplined non-commissioned officers. Lenin, like Luxemburg, was convinced of the mighty arsenal of creative energy, resourcefulness and initiative that a truly broad mass action unfurls and will always unfurl.

The difference between the Leninist theory of organisation and the so-called theory of spontaneity – which can be attributed to Luxemburg only with important reservations – is thus to be found not in an underestimation of mass initiative but in an understanding of its limitations. Mass initiative is capable of many magnificent accomplishments. But by itself it is not able to draft, in the course of the struggle, a complete, comprehensive program for a socialist revolution touching upon all social questions (not to mention socialist reconstruction); nor is it alone capable of bringing about a sufficient centralisation of forces to make possible the downfall of a centralised state power with its repressive apparatus resting on a full utilisation of the advantages of its “inside lines” of communication. In other words, the limitations of mass spontaneity begin with the understanding that a victorious socialist revolution cannot be improvised. And “pure” mass spontaneity always boils down to improvisation.

What is more, “pure” spontaneity exists only in books containing fairy tales about the workers movement – but not in its real history. What is understood by “spontaneity of the masses” are movements that have not been planned out in detail ahead of time by some central authority. What is not to be understood by “spontaneity of the masses” are movements that take place without “political influence from the outside.” Scratch off the blue coat of an ostensibly “spontaneous movement” and you will find the unmistakable residue of a bright red veneer. Here a member of a “vanguard” group who set off a “spontaneous” strike. There a former member of another “left-deviationist” affiliation, who has long since left it but who received sufficient mental equipment to be able, in an explosive situation, to react with lightning speed while the anonymous mass was still hesitating.

In one case, we will be able to detect in “spontaneous” action the fruits of years of “underground activity” by a trade-union opposition, or a rank-and-file group; in another case, the result of contacts that, for a rather long period of time, have patiently – and without apparent success – been nurtured by shop colleagues in a neighbouring city (or a neighbouring factory) where the “left- wingers” are stronger. In the class struggle too there is no such thing as a goose “spontaneously” falling from heaven already cooked.

Thus, what differentiates “spontaneous” actions from the “intervention of the vanguard,” is not at all that in the former everyone in the struggle has reached the same level of consciousness, whereas in the latter “the vanguard” is distinct from “the mass.” What differentiates the two forms of action is also not that in “spontaneous” actions no solutions have been carried into the proletariat from “outside,” while an organised vanguard relates to the elementary demands of the mass “in an elitist fashion,” “imposing” a program upon it. Never have there been “spontaneous” actions without some kind of influence from vanguard elements. The difference between “spontaneous” actions and those in which “the revolutionary vanguard intervenes” is essentially that in “spontaneous” actions the nature of the intervention of the vanguard elements is unorganised, improvised, intermittent and unplanned (occurring by chance in this plant, that district, or that city), while the existence of a revolutionary organisation makes it possible to co-ordinate, plan, consciously synchronise, and continuously shape this intervention of the vanguard elements in the “spontaneous” mass struggle. Nearly all the requirements of Leninist “supercentralism” are based on this and this alone.

Only an incorrigible fatalist (i.e., a mechanical determinist) could be convinced that all mass explosions had to take place on a given day just because they broke out on that day, and that, conversely, in all cases where mass explosions did not occur it was because they were not possible. Such a fatalistic attitude (common to the Kautsky-Bauer school of thought) is in reality a caricature of the Leninist theory of organisation. In any case, it is characteristic that many opponents of Leninism, who in opposing Lenin have so much to say about “mass spontaneity,” at the same time fall into this vulgar, mechanical determinism without realising how much it contradicts their “high esteem” for “mass spontaneity.”

If, on the other hand, one proceeds from the inevitability of periodic spontaneous mass explosions (which occur when socio-economic contradictions have ripened to the point where the capitalist mode of production in fact has to periodically produce such prerevolutionary crises), then one has to understand that it is impossible to determine the exact moment when this will happen since thousands of minor incidents, partial conflicts and accidental occurrences could play an important role in determining it. For this reason, a revolutionary vanguard which at decisive moments is able to concentrate its own forces on the “weakest link,” is incomparably more effective than the diffuse performance of large numbers of advanced workers who lack this ability to concentrate their forces. [35]

The two greatest workers struggles to take place in the West – the French May 1968 and the Italian fall 1969 – entirely confirmed these views. Both began with “spontaneous” struggles prepared neither by the trade unions nor by the big social-democratic or “communist” parties. In both cases individual, radical workers and students or revolutionary nuclei played a decisive role in here or there triggering a first explosion and providing the working masses with the opportunity to learn from an “exemplary experience.” In both cases millions upon millions came into the struggle – up to ten million wage earners in France, up to fifteen million in Italy. This is more than ever before seen – even during the greatest class struggles following the first world war.

In both cases the spontaneous tendency demonstrated by the workers went way beyond the “economism” of a purely economic strike. In France this was attested to by the factory occupations and numerous partial initiatives, in Italy not only by huge street demonstrations and the raising of political demands, but also by the embryonic manifestation of a tendency toward self-organisation at the point of production, i.e., by the attempt to take the first step toward establishing dual power: the election of delegati di reparto. (In this sense, the vanguard of the Italian working class was more advanced than the French, and it drew the first important historical lessons from the French May. [36]) But in neither case did these powerful, spontaneous mass actions succeed in overthrowing the bourgeois state apparatus and the capitalist mode of production, or even in advancing a mass understanding of the objectives that would have made such an overthrow possible within a short period of time.

To recall Trotsky’s metaphor from The History of theRussian Revolution: the powerful steam evaporated for lack of a piston that would have compressed it at the decisive moment. [37] Certainly, in the final analysis, the driving force is the steam, i.e., the energy of mass mobilisation and mass struggle, and not the piston itself. Without this steam the piston remains a hollow shell. Yet without this piston even the most intense steam is wasted and accomplishes nothing. This is the quintessence of the Leninist theory of organisation.

IV. Organisation, bureaucracy and revolutionary action

There is a difficulty in this connection, however, which Lenin, during the years of the most heated disputes with the Mensheviks, recognised either not at all (1903-1905) or only to an insufficient degree (1908-1914). And it is here that the full value of the historic work of Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg becomes clear in facilitating an understanding of the dialectical formula “working class – advanced workers – workers party.”

A vanguard party and a certain separation between the party and the mass are made necessary precisely because of the inevitably inadequate level of class consciousness on the part of broad working masses. As Lenin repeatedly stressed, this is a complex dialectical relationship – a unity of separation and integration – which totally conforms to the historical peculiarities of the revolutionary struggle for a socialist revolution.

This separate party, however, originates within bourgeois society which, with its inherent features of a universal division of labour and commodity production, tends to bring about a reification of all human relations. [38] This means that the building of a party apparatus separated from the working masses involves the danger of this apparatus becoming autonomous. When this danger develops beyond an embryonic stage, the tendency arises for the self-preservation of the apparatus to become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end (successful proletarian class struggle).

This is the root of the degeneration of both the Second and the Third Internationals, i.e., the subordination of the mass social-democratic as well as the Communist parties of Western Europe to conservative, reformist bureaucracies which, in their day-to-day practice, have become part of the status quo. [39]

Bureaucracy in workers organisations is a product of the social division of labour, i.e., of the inability of the working masses, who are largely excluded from the cultural and theoretical process of production under capitalism, to themselves regularly take care of all the tasks which must be dealt with within the framework of their organisation. Attempts to do this anyway, as was often done at the onset of the workers movement, provide no solution because this division of labour completely corresponds to material conditions and is in no way invented by wicked careerists. If these conditions are overlooked, primitivism, ignorance and the brawling it produces will place the same limitations on the movement as would otherwise be set by the bureaucracy. Having taken a different point of departure here – that of organisational technique instead of the level of consciousness – we have run up against the same problem which we had already cleared up earlier: namely, that it would be giving the capitalist mode of production too much credit to assume it to be a perfect school for preparing the proletariat for independent activity, or that it automatically creates the ability of the working masses to spontaneously recognise and achieve all the objectives and organisational forms of their own liberation.

Lenin, in his first debate with the Mensheviks, very much underestimated the danger of the apparatus becoming autonomous and of the bureaucratisation of the workers parties. He proceeded from the assumption that the danger of opportunism in the modern labour movement was a threat coming mainly from petty-bourgeois academicians and petty-bourgeois “pure trade unionists.” He made fun of the struggle of many of his comrades against the danger of “bureaucratism.” Actually, history showed that the greatest source of opportunism in the Social Democracy before the first world war came from neither the academicians nor the “pure trade unionists” but from the social-democratic party bureaucracy itself i.e., from a practice of “legalism” limited on the one hand to electoral and parliamentary activity, and on the other to a struggle for immediate reforms of an economic and trade union nature. (To merely describe this practice is to confirm how much it resembles that of today’s West European Communist parties!)

Trotsky and Luxemburg recognised this danger more accurately and earlier than Lenin. As early as 1904 Luxemburg expressed the thought that a “difference between the eager attack of the mass and the [overly] prudent position of the Social Democracy” was possible. [40] The thought is hardly expressed before it is discarded; the only possible validity it might have would be in the imaginary case of an “overcentralization” of the party along Leninist lines. Two years later Trotsky already expresses this with more precision:

The European Socialist parties, particularly the largest of them, the German Social-Democratic Party, have developed their conservatism in proportion as the masses have embraced socialism and the more these masses have become organised and disciplined. As a consequence of this, Social Democracy as an organisation embodying the political experience of the proletariat may at a certain moment become a direct obstacle to open conflict between the workers and bourgeois reaction. In other words, the propagandist-socialist conservatism of the proletarian parties may at a certain moment hold back the direct struggle of the proletariat for power. [41]

This prognosis has been tragically confirmed by history. Lenin did not yet see this until the eve of the first world war, whereas the German left had long before shed its illusions about the social-democratic party administration. [42]

V. Organisational theory, revolutionary program, revolutionary practice

After the traumatic shock suffered by Lenin on August 4, 1914, however, he too made a decisive step forward on this question. From then on, the question of organisation became one not only of function but also of content. It is no longer simply a question of contrasting “the organisation” in general to “spontaneity” in general, as Lenin frequently does in What is to Be Done? and in One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward. Now it is a question of carefully distinguishing between an objectively conservative organisation and an objectively revolutionary one. This distinction is made according to objective criteria (revolutionary program, bringing this program to the masses, revolutionary practice, etc.), and the spontaneous combativity of the masses is consciously preferred to the actions or even the existence of conservative reformist mass organisations. “Naïve” organisational fetishists might claim that after 1914 Lenin went over to the Luxemburgist view of “spontaneism” when, in conflicts between “unorganised masses” and the social-democratic organisation, he systematically defends the former against the latter, or accuses the latter of betraying the former. [43] Lenin now even regards the destruction of conservatised organisations as an inescapable prerequisite for the emancipation of the proletariat. [44]

Yet the correction, or better yet completion, of his theory of organisation, which Lenin undertook after 1914 was not a step backward to the worship of “pure” spontaneity, but rather a step forward toward distinguishing between the revolutionary party and organisation in general. Now, instead of saying that the purpose of the party is to develop the political class consciousness of the working class, the formula becomes much more precise: The function of the revolutionary vanguard consists in developing revolutionary consciousness in the vanguard of the working class. The building of the revolutionary class party is the process whereby the program of the socialist revolution is fused with the experience the majority of the advanced workers have acquired in struggle. [45]

This elaboration and expansion of the Leninist theory of organisation following the outbreak of the first world war goes hand in hand with an expansion of the Leninist concept of the relevance of revolution to the present. Although before the year 1914 this was for Lenin limited by and large to Russia, after 1914 it was extended to all of Europe. (After the Russian revolution of 1905 Lenin had already recognised the immediate potential for revolutions in the colonies and semi-colonies.) Consequently, the validity of the Leninist “strategic plan” for the imperialist countries of Western Europe today is closely tied to the question of the nature of the historical epoch in which we live. From the standpoint of historical materialism, one is justified in deriving a conception of the party from the “present potential for revolution” only if one proceeds from the assumption – correct and probable, in our estimation – that beginning with the first world war, and no later than the Russian October revolution, the world-wide capitalist system entered an epoch of historic structural crisis [46] which must periodically lead to revolutionary situations. If, on the other hand, one assumes that we are still in an ascending stage of capitalism as a world system, then such a conception would have to be rejected as being completely “voluntaristic.” For what is decisive in the Leninist strategic plan is certainly not revolutionary propaganda – which, of course, revolutionaries have to carry out even in non-revolutionary periods – but its focus on revolutionary actions breaking out in the near or not distant future. Even in the ascending epoch of capitalism such actions were possible (cf. the Paris Commune), but only as unsuccessful exceptions. Under such conditions, building a party by concentrating efforts on preparing to effectively participate in such actions would hardly make sense.

The difference between a “workers party” in general (referring to its membership or even its electoral supporters) and a revolutionary workers party (or the nucleus of such a party) is to be found not only in program or objective social functions (which is to promote, not pacify, all objectively revolutionary mass actions, or all challenges and forms of action that attack and call into question the essence of the capitalist mode of production and the bourgeois state), but also in its ability to find a suitable pedagogical method enabling it to bring this program to ever-growing numbers of workers.

One can go further, however, and formulate the question more sharply: Is the danger of the apparatus becoming autonomous limited only to opportunist and reformist “workers” organisations, or does it threaten any organisation, including one with a revolutionary program and a revolutionary practice? Is not a developing bureaucracy the unavoidable consequence of any division of labour, including that between “leadership” and “membership,” and even in a revolutionary group? And is not, therefore, every revolutionary organisation, once it has spread beyond a small milieu, condemned at a certain point in its development and in the development of mass struggles to become a brake on the struggle of the proletarian masses for emancipation?

If this line of argument were accepted as correct, it could lead to only one conclusion: that the socialist emancipation of the working class and of humanity is impossible – because the supposedly inevitable “autonomisation” and degeneration of any organisation must be seen as one part of a dilemma, the other part of which is represented by the tendency for all unorganised workers, all intellectuals only partially involved in action, and all persons caught up in universal commodity production to sink into a petty-bourgeois “false consciousness.” Only a comprehensive, revolutionary practice, aiming at total consciousness and enriching theory, makes it possible to avoid the penetration of the “ideology of the ruling class” into even the ranks of individual revolutionaries. This can only be a collective and organised practice. If the above argument were correct, one would have to conclude that, with or without an organisation, advanced workers would be condemned either not to reach political class consciousness or to rapidly lose it.

In reality, this line of argument is false since it equates the beginning of a process with its end result. Thus, from the existence of a danger that even revolutionary organisations will become autonomous, it deduces, in a static and fatalistic fashion, that this autonomy is inevitable. This is neither empirically nor theoretically demonstrable. For the extent of the danger of bureaucratic degeneration of a revolutionary vanguard organisation – and even more of a revolutionary party – depends not only on the tendency toward autonomy, which in fact afflicts all institutions in bourgeois society, but also upon existing counter-tendencies. Among these are the integration of the revolutionary organisation into an international movement which is independent of “national” organisations and which constantly keeps a theoretical eye on them (not through an apparatus but through political criticism); a close involvement in the actual class struggle and actual revolutionary struggles that make possible a continuous selection of cadres in practice; a systematic attempt to do away with the division of labour by ensuring a continuous rotation of personnel between factory, university and full-time party functionaries; institutional guarantees (limitations on the income of full-timers, defence of the organisational norms of internal democracy and the freedom to form tendencies and factions, etc.).

The outcome of these contradictory tendencies depends on the struggle between them, which, in turn, is ultimately determined by two social factors [47]: on the one hand, the degree of special social interest set loose by the “autonomous organisation,” and on the other hand, the extent of the political activity of the vanguard of the working class. Only when the latter decisively diminishes can the former decisively break out into the open. Thus, the entire argument amounts to a tedious tautology: During a period of increasing passivity the working class cannot be actively struggling for its liberation. It does not at all prove that during a period of increasing activity on the part of advanced workers, revolutionary organisations are not an effective instrument for bringing about liberation, though their “arbitrariness” can and must be circumscribed by the independent activity of the class (or of its advanced sections). The revolutionary organisation is an instrument for making revolutions. And, without the increasing political activity of broad masses of workers, proletarian revolutions are simply not possible.

VI. Organisational theory, democratic centralism and soviet democracy

The objection was made to Lenin’s theory of organisation that through its exaggerated centralisation it would prevent the development of internal party democracy. But this objection is a confused one, for inasmuch as the Leninist principles of organisation restrict the organisation to active members operating under a collective control, they actually expand rather than reduce the scope of party democracy.

Once a workers organisation surpasses a certain numerical size there are basically only two possible organisational models: that of the dues-paying electoral club (or territorial organisation), which corresponds today to the organisational forms of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany and of the French Communist Party; or that of a combat unit based on the selection of only active and conscious members. To be sure, the first model in theory permits a certain latitude for grumblers and opponents to fool around in, but only where matters of secondary importance are involved. Otherwise, the great mass of the apolitical and passive membership provides the apparatus with a voting base that can always be mobilized, and which has nothing to do with class consciousness. (A not insignificant number of these members are even materially dependent on the apparatus – the bulk of the municipal and administrative workers and employees, the employees of the workers organisation itself, etc.) In the combat organisation, however, which is composed of members that have to exhibit a minimum of consciousness simply to become members, the possibility of finding independent thinking is actually much greater. Neither “pure apparatchiks” nor pure careerists can take over as easily as in an ordinary electoral club. So differences of opinion will be resolved less in terms of material dependency or abstract “loyalty” than according to actual substance. To be sure, the mere fact that the organisation is composed in this fashion is no automatic guarantee against bureaucratisation of the organisation. But at least it provides an essential condition for preventing it. [48] The relation between the revolutionary organisation (a party nucleus or a party) and the mass of workers abruptly changes as soon as an actual revolutionary explosion occurs. At that point the seeds sown over the years by revolutionary and consciously socialist elements start sprouting. Broad masses are able to achieve revolutionary class consciousness at once. The revolutionary initiatives of broad masses can far outdistance that of many revolutionary groupings.

In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky emphasised in several instances that at certain conjunctures in the revolution the Russian working masses were even ahead of the Bolshevik Party. [49] Nevertheless, one should not generalise from this fact, and above all, it must not be separated from the fact that, prior to Lenin’s April Theses, the Bolshevik Party’s strategic conception of the nature and goal of the Russian revolution was insufficiently worked out. [50] It ran the risk of having to pay for this until Lenin took decisive action with his April Theses. He was able to do so with such ease, however, because the masses if educated worker-Bolsheviks were pushing him in that very direction and were themselves a refection of the powerful radicalisation of the Russian working class.

An objective, i.e., comprehensive, view of the role of the Bolshevik Party organisation in the Russian revolution would no doubt have to be formulated somewhat differently. While the leading cadre of the party proved several times to be a conservative block preventing the party from going over to Trotsky’s position on the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat (soviet power), at the same time it became evident that the crystallisation of a revolutionary workers cadre schooled in two decades of revolutionary organisation and revolutionary activity was instrumental in making this decisive strategic turn a success. Should one wish to construct a correlation between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the “Leninist concept of the party,” one would at least have to make allowances for this decisive element of intervention. Stalin’s victory was not the result of the Leninist Theory of organisation – but the result of the disappearance of a decisive component of this concept: the presence of a broad layer of worker cadres, schooled in revolution and maintaining a high degree of activity, with a close relationship to the masses. Moreover, Lenin himself would have in no way denied that in the absence of this factor the Leninist concept of the party could turn into its opposite. [51]

The soviet system is the only universal answer discovered thus far by the working class to the question of how to organise its independent activity during and following the revolution. [52] It allows all of the forces within the class – and all the labouring and progressive layers of society in general – to be brought together in a simultaneous, open confrontation between the various tendencies existing within the class itself. Every true soviet system – i.e., one that is actually elected by the mass of the workers and has not been imposed upon them by one or another selective power apparatus – will for that reason only be able to reject the social and ideological diversity of the proletarian layers emphasised above. A workers council is in reality a united front of the most diverse political tendencies that are in agreement on one central point: the common defence of the revolution against the class enemy. (In the same way, a strike committee reflects the most widely differing tendencies among the workers, yet with one exception: It includes only those tendencies that are participating in the strike. Scabs have no place in a strike committee.)

There is no contradiction whatever between the existence of a revolutionary organisation of the Leninist type and genuine soviet democracy, or soviet power. On the contrary, without the systematic organisational work of a revolutionary vanguard, a soviet system will either be quickly throttled by reformist and semi-reformist bureaucracies (cf. the German soviet system from 1918 to 1919), or it loses its political effectiveness due to its inability to solve the central political tasks (cf. the Spanish revolutionary committees between July 1936 and spring 1937).

The hypothesis that a soviet system makes parties superfluous has one of two sources. Either it proceeds from the naive assumption that the introduction of soviets homogenises the working class overnight, dissolves all differences of ideology and interest, and automatically and spontaneously suggests to the entire working class “the revolutionary solution” to all the strategic and tactical problems of the revolution. Or, it is merely a pretext for giving to a small group of self-appointed “leaders” the opportunity to manipulate a rather broad, inarticulate mass in that this mass is deprived of any possibility of systematically coming to grips with these strategic and tactical questions of the revolution, i.e., of freely discussing and politically differentiating itself. (This is obviously the case, for example, with the Yugoslav system of so-called self-management.)

The revolutionary organisation can, therefore, guarantee the working masses in the soviet system a greater degree of independent activity and self-awareness, and thereby of revolutionary class consciousness, than could an undifferentiated system of representation. But of course to this end it must stimulate and not hold back the independent action of the working masses. It is precisely this independent initiative of the masses which reaches its fullest development in the soviet system. Again we reach a similar conclusion: The Leninist concept of organisation, built upon a correct revolutionary strategy (i.e., on a correct assessment of the objective historical process), is simply the collective co-ordinator of the activity of the masses, the collective memory and digested experience of the masses, in place of a constantly repetitive and expanding discontinuity in time, space and consciousness.

History has also shown in this connection that there is a substantial difference between a party calling itself a revolutionary and actually being a revolutionary party. When a group of functionaries not only opposes the initiative and activity of the masses but seeks to frustrate them by any means, including military force (one thinks of Hungary in October-November 1956 or Czechoslovakia since August 1968), when this group not only finds no common language with a soviet system springing spontaneously from mass struggles, but throttles and destroys this system behind a pretext of defending “the leading role of the party” [53] – then we are obviously no longer dealing with a revolutionary party of the proletariat but with an apparatus that represents the special interests of a privileged layer deeply hostile to the independent activity of the masses: the bureaucracy. The fact that a revolutionary party can degenerate into a party of bureaucracy is, however, no more an argument against the Leninist concept of organisation than the fact that doctors have killed, not cured, many patients represents an argument against medical science. Any step away from this concept toward “pure” mass spontaneity would be comparable to reverting from medical science to quackery.

VII. Sociology of economism, bureaucratism and spontaneity

When we emphasised that Lenin’s concept of organisation in reality represents a concept of the current potential for proletarian revolution, we already touched upon the central factor in the Leninist theory of proletarian, class consciousness: the problem of the definition of the revolutionary subject under capitalism. For Marx and Lenin (as well as for Luxemburg and Trotsky, although they did not draw all the necessary conclusions from this fact until some time before 1914), the revolutionary subject is the only potentially, only periodically revolutionary working class as it works, thinks and lives under capitalism, i.e., in the totality of its social existence. [54] The Leninist theory of organisation proceeds directly from this assessment of the position of the revolutionary subject, for it is self-evident that a subject, thus defined, can only be a contradictory one. On the one hand it is exposed to wage slavery, alienated labour, the reification of all human relations, and the influence of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideology. On the other hand, at periodic intervals it passes over into a radicalising class struggle, and even into open revolutionary battle against the capitalist mode of production and the bourgeois state apparatus. It is in this periodic fluctuation that the history of the real class struggle of the last one hundred and fifty years is expressed. It is absolutely impossible to sum up the history of, say, the French or the German labour movements of the past hundred years with either the formula “increasing passivity” or “uninterrupted revolutionary activity.” It is obviously a unity of both elements with an alternating emphasis on one or the other.

As ideological tendencies, opportunism and sectarianism have their deepest theoretical, roots in an undialectical definition of the revolutionary subject. For the opportunists, this revolutionary subject is the everyday worker. They tend to imitate the attitude of this worker in everything and “to idolise his backward side,” as Plekhanov so well put it. If the workers are concerned only with questions limited to the shops, then they are “pure trade unionists.” If the workers are caught up in a wave of patriotic jingoism, then they become social-patriots or social-imperialists. If the workers submit to cold-war propaganda, they become cold-warriors: “The masses are always right.” The latest and the most wretched expression of such opportunism consists of determining the program – let it be an electoral program – no longer through an objective scientific analysis of society but with the aid of ... opinion polls.

But this opportunism leads to an insoluble contradiction. Fortunately, the moods of the masses do not stand still but can change dramatically in a rather short period of time. Today the workers are concerned only with internal shop questions, but tomorrow they will throng the streets in a political demonstration. Today they are “for” the defence of the imperialist fatherland against the “external enemy,” but tomorrow they will be fed up with the war and again recognise their own ruling class as the main enemy. Today they passively accept collaboration with the bosses, but tomorrow they will move against it through a wildcat strike. The logic of opportunism leads – once the adaptation to bourgeois society has been excused through references to the attitude of the “masses” – to resistance to these very masses as soon as they begin in a sudden reversal, to move into action against bourgeois society.

Sectarians simplify the revolutionary subject just as much as opportunists, but in the opposite sense. If only the everyday worker counts for the opportunists – i.e., the worker who is assimilating and adapting to bourgeois relations – for the sectarians it is only the “ideal” proletarian, one who acts like a revolutionary, who counts. If the worker does not behave in a revolutionary fashion, he has ceased to be a revolutionary subject: he is demoted to being “bourgeois.” Extreme sectarians – such as certain ultraleft “spontaneists,” certain Stalinists, and certain Maoists – will even go so far as to equate the working class with the capitalist class if it hesitates to completely accept the particular sectarian ideology in question. [55]

Extreme objectivism on the one hand (“everything the workers do is revolutionary”), and extreme subjectivity on the other hand (“only those who accept our doctrine are revolutionary or proletarian”), join hands in the final analysis when they deny the objectively revolutionary character of huge mass struggles led by masses with a contradictory consciousness. For the opportunist objectivists these struggles are not revolutionary because “next month the majority will still go ahead and vote for the SPD (West German Social Democrats) or DeGaulle.” For the sectarian subjectivists they have nothing to do with revolution “because the (i.e., our) revolutionary group is still too weak.”

The social nature of these two tendencies can be ascertained without difficulty. It corresponds to the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia: The opportunists for the most part represent the intelligentsia tied to the labour bureaucracy in mass organisations or in the bourgeois state apparatus, while the sectarians represent an intelligentsia that is either declassed or merely watches things from the sidelines, remaining outside of the real movement. In both cases, the forced separation between the objective and subjective factors at work in the contradictory but undivided revolutionary subject corresponds to a divorce between practice and theory which can lead only to an opportunist practice and to an idealising “theory” embodying “false consciousness.”

It is characteristic, however, for many opportunists (among others, trade-union bureaucrats), as well as many sectarian literati, to accuse precisely the revolutionary Marxists of being petty-bourgeois intellectuals who would like to “subjugate” the working class. [56] This question also plays a certain role in the discussions within the revolutionary student movement. Therefore, it is necessary to analyse more closely the problem of the sociology of the bureaucracy, of economism, and of spontaneity (or, of the “handicraftsman’s approach” to the question of organisation).

The mediation between manual and mental labour, production and accumulation, occurs at several points in bourgeois society, though at different levels, for example, in the factory. What is meant by the general concept of “intelligentsia.” or “intellectual petty bourgeoisie” or “technical intelligentsia” corresponds in reality to many diverse activities of such mediation whose relation to the actual class struggle is quite distinct. One could essentially distinguish the following categories (which in no way do we claim constitute a complete analysis):

  1. The genuine intermediaries between capital and labour in the process of production, i.e., the secondary officers of capital: foremen, timekeepers and other cadre personnel in the factories, among whose tasks is the maintenance, in the interest of capital, of labour discipline within the factory.
  2. The intermediaries between science and technique, or between technique and production: laboratory assistants, scientific researchers, inventors, technologists, planners, project engineers, draftsmen, etc. In contrast to category 1, these layers are not accomplices in the process of extracting surplus value from the producer. They take part in the material process of production itself and. for that reason are not exploiters but producers of surplus value.
  3. The intermediaries between production and realisation of surplus value: advertising managers and offices, market research institutes, cadres and scientists occupied in the distribution sector, marketing specialists, etc.
  4. The intermediaries between buyers and sellers of the commodity labour power: Above all, these are the trade union functionaries and, in a wider sense, all functionaries of the bureaucratised mass organisations of the labour movement.
  5. The intermediaries between capital and labour in the sphere of the superstructure, the ideological producers (i.e., those who are occupied with producing ideology): a section of the bourgeois politicians (“public opinion makers”), the bourgeois professors of the so-called humanities, journalists, some artists, etc.
  6. The intermediaries between science and the working class, the theoretical producers, who have not been professionally incorporated into the ideological production of the ruling class and are relatively able, being free from material dependency on this production, to engage in criticism of bourgeois relations.

One could add a seventh group, which is partially included in the fifth, and partially in the sixth, In classical, stable bourgeois society, teaching as a profession falls into category 5, both because of the unlimited predominance of bourgeois ideology and because of the generally abstract and ideological character of all professional teaching. With the growing structural crisis in the neocapitalist high schools and universities, however, a change in its objective standards takes place. On the one hand, the general crisis of capitalism precipitates a general crisis in neocapitalist ideology, which is increasingly called into question. On the other hand, teaching serves less as abstract, ideological indoctrination and more as the direct technocratic preparation for the future intellectual workers (of categories 2 and 3) to be incorporated into the process of production. This makes it possible for the content of such teaching to be increasingly tied to a regained awareness of individual alienation, as well as to social criticism in related fields (and even to social criticism in general).

It now becomes clear which part of the intelligentsia will exert a negative influence upon the developing class consciousness of the proletariat: It is above all groups 3, 4 and 5. (We need say nothing about group 1 because in general it keeps its distance from the workers organisations anyway.) What is most dangerous for the initiative and self-assurance of the working class is a symbiosis or fusion of groups 4 and 5, as has occurred on a broad scale since the first world war in the social-democratic and today already partially in the Moscow-oriented Communist mass organisations in the West.

Groups 2 and 6, on the other hand, can only enhance the impact of the working-class and revolutionary organisations because they equip them with the knowledge that is indispensable for a relentless critique of bourgeois society and for the successful overthrow of this society, and even more for the successful taking over of the means of production by the associated producers.

Those who rail against the growing union of workers organisations with groups 2 and 6 of the intelligentsia objectively assist groups 3, 4 and 5 in exerting their negative influence on the working class. For never in history has there been a class struggle that has not been accompanied by an ideological struggle. [57] It boils down to a question of determining which ideology can sink roots in the working class; or, to phrase it better, whether bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideology or Marxist scientific theory will develop among the workers. Whoever opposes “every outside intellectual influence” within the working class in struggle either forgets or pushes aside the fact that the influence which groups 1, 3, 4 and 5 exert on this working class is permanently and unremittingly at work upon the proletariat through the entire mechanism of bourgeois society and capitalist economy, and that the ultraleft “spontaneists” have no panacea at their disposal for putting an end to this process. To thunder against the influence of Marxist intellectuals within the working class means simply to allow the influence of the bourgeois intelligentsia to spread without opposition. [58] Still worse: By resisting the formation of a revolutionary organisation and the education of professional proletarian revolutionaries, Mensheviks and “spontaneists” are objectively forced to help perpetuate the division between manual and intellectual labour, i.e., the spiritual subjugation of the workers to the intellectuals and the rather rapid bureaucratisation of the workers organisations. For, a worker who continuously remains within the capitalist process of production will most often not be in a position to globally assimilate theory, and will thereby remain dependent upon “petty-bourgeois specialists.” For that reason, a decisive step can be, taken within the revolutionary organisation toward the intellectual emancipation of at least the most advanced workers and toward an initial victory over the division of labour within the workers movement itself through the intermittent removal of workers from the factories.

This is not yet the final word on the sociology of spontaneism. We must ask ourselves: In which layers of the working class will the “antipathy” and “distrust” toward intellectuals have the most influence? Obviously in those layers whose social and economic existence most sharply exposes them to an actual conflict with intellectual labour. By and large, these are the workers of the small and medium-sized factories threatened by technological progress; self-taught workers who, through personal effort, have differentiated themselves from the mass; workers who have scrambled to the top of bureaucratic organisations; workers who, because of their low educational and cultural level, are the furthest removed from intellectual labour – and therefore also regard it with the greatest mistrust and hostility. In other words, the social basis of economist, spontaneity, the “handicraftsman’s approach” to the question of organisation and hostility toward science within the working class is the craft layer of this class.

On the other hand, among the workers of the large factories and cities, of the extensive branches of industry in the forefront of technological progress, the thirst for knowledge, the greater familiarity with technical and scientific processes, and the greater audacity in projecting the conquest of power in both the factory and the state make it much easier to understand the objectively necessary role of revolutionary theoreticians and of the revolutionary organisation.

The spontaneous tendencies in the labour movement often, if not always, correspond exactly to this social basis. This was especially true for anarcho-syndicalism in the Latin countries before the first world war. This was also true for Menshevism, which was thoroughly defeated by Bolshevism in the large metropolitan factories, but which found its most important proletarian base in the typically small-town mining and oil-field districts of southern Russia. [59] Attempts today, in the era of the third industrial revolution, to revive this craftsman caste approach under the pretext of guaranteeing “workers autonomy” could only have the same result as in the past – namely, to dissipate the forces of the advanced and potentially revolutionary working class and to give a boost to the semi-craft, bureaucratised sections of the movement that are under the constant influence of bourgeois ideology.

VIII. Scientific intelligentsia, social science and proletarian class consciousness

The massive reintroduction of intellectual labour into the process of production brought about by the third industrial revolution, which was foreseen by Marx and whose foundations were already laid in the second industrial revolution [60], has created the prerequisite for a much broader layer of the scientific intelligentsia to regain the awareness of alienation which it had lost through its removal from the process of direct production of surplus value and its transformation into a direct or indirect consumer of surplus value. For it, too, is overcome by alienation in bourgeois society. This is the material basis not only for the student revolt in the imperialist countries but also for the possibility of involving increasing numbers of scientists and technicians into the revolutionary movement.

The participation of the intelligentsia in the classical socialist movement before the first world war generally tended to decline. Though it was considerable at the start of the movement, it became smaller and smaller as the organised mass movement of the working class became stronger. In a little known polemic against Max Adler in 1910, Trotsky revealed the causes of this process to be on the whole materialistic: the intelligentsia’s social dependency on the big bourgeoisie and the bourgeois state; an ideological identification with the class interests it thereby serves; and the inability of the workers movement, organised as a “counter-society,” to compete with its counterpart. Trotsky predicted that this would probably change very quickly, in a revolutionary epoch, on the eve of the proletarian revolution. [61]

From these correct premises, however, he drew what were already incorrect tactical conclusions, when for instance he failed to see the great importance which in 1908-1909 Lenin accorded the student movement (which was re-emerging in the middle of the victorious counter-revolution), considering it an albatross for the subsequent, new rise in the revolutionary mass movement (that was to begin in 1912).

He even went so far as to maintain that it was the “fault” of the leading revolutionary intelligentsia in the Russian Social Democracy if it was able to spread “its overall social characteristics: a spirit of sectarianism, an individualism typical of intellectuals, and ideological fetishism.” [62] As Trotsky later admitted, he at that time under-estimated the political and social significance of the faction fight between the Bolsheviks and the Liquidators, which was only an extension of the earlier struggle between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. History was to show that this struggle had nothing to do with a product of “intellectual sectarianism,” but with the separation of socialist, revolutionary consciousness from petty-bourgeois, reformist consciousness. [63]

It is correct, however, that the participation of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia in the building of the revolutionary class party of the Russian proletariat was still a pure product of individual selection without any social roots. And since the October revolution, this has inevitably turned against the proletarian revolution, for the masses of the technical intelligentsia were not able to go over to the camp of the revolution. At first they sabotaged economic production and the methods of social organisation on the broadest scale; then their co-operation had to be “bought” through high salaries; and finally they were transformed into the driving force behind the bureaucratisation and degeneration of this revolution. Inasmuch as the position of the technical intelligentsia (especially category 2 above) in the material process of production has today decisively changed, and since this technical intelligentsia is gradually being transformed into a section of the wage-earning class, the possibility of its massive participation in the revolutionary process and in the reorganisation of society stands on much firmer ground than in the past. Frederick Engels had already, pointed to the historically decisive role this intelligentsia could play in the construction of the socialist society.

“In order to take over and put into operation the means of production, we need people, and in large numbers, who are technically trained. We do not have them, ... I foresee us in the next eight to ten years recruiting enough young technicians, doctors, lawyers and teachers to be in a position to let party comrades administer the factories and essential goods for the nation. Then our accession to power will be quite natural and will work itself out relatively smoothly. If, on the other hand, we prematurely come to power through a war, the technicians will be our main opponents, and will deceive and betray us whenever possible. We will have to use terror against them and still they will shit all over us.” [64]

Of course, it must be added that in the course of this third industrial revolution the working class itself, which is much better qualified than in 1890, exhibits a much greater ability to directly manage the factories than in Engels’ time. But in the final analysis, it is technical abilities that are required for the broad masses to be able to exert political and social control over the “specialists” (a matter about which Lenin had so many illusions in 1918). A growing union between the technical intelligentsia and the industrial proletariat, and the growing participation of revolutionary intellectuals in the revolutionary party, can only facilitate that control.

As the contradiction between the objective socialisation of production and labour on the one hand, and private appropriation on the other, intensifies (i.e., as the crisis of the capitalist relations of production sharpens) – and today we are experiencing a new and sharper form of this contradiction, which underlay the May 1968 events in France and the mass struggles in Italy in 1969 – and as neo-capitalism seeks to win a new lease on life by raising the working class’s level of consumption, science will increasingly become for the masses a revolutionary, productive force in two regards: With automation and the growing mountain of commodities, it produces not only a growing crisis in the production and distribution process of capital, which is based upon generalised commodity production; it also produces revolutionary consciousness in growing masses of people by allowing the myths and masks of the capitalist routine to be torn away, and by making it possible for the worker, reconquering the consciousness of being alienated, to put an end to that alienation. As the decisive barrier which today holds back the working class from acquiring political class consciousness is found to reside less in the misery of the masses or the extreme narrowness of their surroundings than in the constant influence of petty-bourgeois and bourgeois ideological consumption and mystification, it is precisely then that the eye-opening function of critical social science can play a truly revolutionary role in the new awakening of the class consciousness among the masses. Of course, this makes necessary the existence of concrete ties with the working masses – a requirement that can only be met by the advanced workers on the one hand and the revolutionary organisation on the other. And this also requires the revolutionary, scientific intelligentsia not to “go to the people” with the modest populist masochism that restricts it to humbly supporting struggles for higher wages but to bring the awakened and critical layers of the working class what they are unable to achieve by themselves, due to their fragmented state of consciousness: the scientist knowledge and awareness that will make it possible for them to recognise the scandal of concealed exploitation and disguised oppression for what it is.

IX. Historical pedagogy and communication of class consciousness

Once it is understood that the Leninist theory of organisation tries to answer the problems of the current potential for revolution and of the revolutionary subject, this theory then leads directly to the question of historical pedagogy, i.e., the problem of transforming potential class consciousness into actual class consciousness, and trade-unionist consciousness into political, revolutionary consciousness. This problem can only be resolved in the light of the classification of the working class delineated as above – into the mass of the workers, advanced workers, and organised revolutionary cadre.

To assimilate its growing class consciousness, each layer requires its own methods of instruction, goes through its own learning process and needs to have a special form of communication with the class as a whole and with the realm of theoretical production. The historical role of the revolutionary vanguard party Lenin had in mind can be summed up as that of jointly expressing these three forms of pedagogy.

The broad masses learn only through action. To hope to “impart” to them revolutionary consciousness through propaganda is an endeavour worthy of Sisyphus – and as fruitless. Yet although the masses learn only through action, all actions do not necessarily lead to a mass acquisition of revolutionary class consciousness. Actions around immediately realisable economic and political goals that can be completely achieved within the framework of the capitalist social order do not produce revolutionary class consciousness. This was one of the great illusions of the “optimistic” Social Democrats at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth (including Engels) who believed that there was a straight line leading from partial successes in electoral struggles and strikes to revolutionary consciousness and to an increase in the proletariat’s revolutionary combatively. [65]

This has proven to be historically incorrect. These partial successes certainly played a significant and positive role in strengthening the self-confidence and combatively of the proletarian massed in general. (The anarchists were wrong to reject these partial struggles out of hand.) Yet they did not prepare the working masses for revolutionary struggle. The German working class’ lack of experience in revolutionary struggles on the one hand, and the existence, on the other hand, of such experience in the Russian working class, was the most important difference in consciousness between the two classes on the eve of the first world war. It decisively contributed to the dissimilar outcome of the revolutions of 1917-1919 in Germany and in Russia.

Since the goal of mass actions is generally the satisfaction of immediate needs, it becomes an important aspect of revolutionary strategy to link to these needs demands that objectively cannot be achieved or co-opted within the framework of the capitalist social order, and which produce an objectively revolutionary dynamic that has to lead to a test of strength between the two decisive social classes over the question of power. This is the strategy of transitional demands which, through the efforts of Lenin, was incorporated into the program of the Communist International at its fourth congress, and which was later elaborated by Trotsky into the main body of the program of the Fourth International. [66]

The development of revolutionary class consciousness among the broad masses is possible only if they accumulate experiences of struggles that are not only limited to the winning of partial demands within the framework of capitalism. The gradual injection of these demands into mass struggles can come about only through the efforts of a broad layer of advanced workers who are closely linked to the masses and who disseminate and publicise these demands (which normally do not spontaneously grow out of the day-to-day experiences of the class) in the factories, experimenting with them in various skirmishes, and spreading them through agitation, until a point is reached where favourable objective and subjective conditions converge, making the realisation of these demands the actual objective of great strikes, demonstrations, agitational campaigns, etc.

Although revolutionary class consciousness among the broad masses develops only out of the experience of objectively revolutionary struggle, among advanced workers it flows from the experience of life, work and struggle in general. These experiences do not necessarily need to be revolutionary at all. From the daily experiences of class conflict, these advanced workers draw the elementary conclusions about the need for class solidarity, class action and class organisation. The programmatic and organisational forms through which this action and organisation are to be led will differ greatly depending upon objective conditions and concrete experiences. But the advanced workers’ experience of life, work and struggle leads them to the threshold of understanding the inadequacy of activity which seeks merely to reform the existing society rather than abolish it.

The activity of the revolutionary vanguard can make it possible for the class consciousness of the advanced workers to cross over this threshold. It can fulfil this role of catalyst neither automatically nor without regard for objective conditions. It can only fulfil it when it is itself equal to the task, i.e., if the content of ifs theoretical, propagandistic and literary activity corresponds to the needs of the advanced workers, and if the form of this activity does not trample underfoot the laws of pedagogy (avoiding ultimatistic formulations). At the same time, this kind of activity must be linked to activity of a practical nature and to a political perspective, thus enhancing the credibility of both the revolutionary strategy and the organisation putting it forward.

In periods of abating class struggles, of a temporary decline in the self-confidence of the working class, during which the stability of the class enemy appears temporarily assured, the revolutionary vanguard will not be able to achieve its objective even if its activity is completely equal to the task of catalysing revolutionary class consciousness among the broadest layer of advanced workers. The belief that a mere defence of “the correct tactic” or “the correct line” is sufficient to miraculously generate a growing revolutionary force, even in periods of declining class struggle, is an illusion stemming from bourgeois rationalism, not from the materialist dialectic. This illusion, incidentally, is the cause of most splits within the revolutionary movement because the organisational sectarianism of the splitters is based on the naive view that the “application of the correct tactic” can win over more people in the as yet untouched periphery than it can among revolutionaries who are already organised. As long as the objective conditions remain unfavourable, these splits for that reason usually result in grouplets that are even weaker than those whose “false tactics” made them seem so worthy of condemnation in the first place.

This does not mean, however, that the work of the revolutionary vanguard among the advanced workers remains useless or ineffectual during unfavourable objective circumstances. It produces no great immediate successes, yet it is a tremendously important, and even decisive, preparation for that turning point when class struggles once again begin to mount!

For just as broad masses with no experience of revolutionary struggle cannot develop revolutionary class consciousness, advanced workers who have never heard of transitional demands cannot introduce them into the next wave of class struggle. The patient, persistent preparation carried out, with constant attention to detail, by the revolutionary vanguard organisation, sometimes over a period of years, pays off in rich dividends the day the “natural leaders of the class” still hesitating and not yet completely free from hostile influences, suddenly, during a big strike or demonstration, take up the demand for workers control and thrust it to the forefront of the struggle. [67]

To be in a position, however, to convince a country’s advanced workers and radical intelligentsia of the need to extend broad mass struggles beyond the level of immediate demands to that of transitional demands, it is not enough for the revolutionary vanguard organisation to learn by heart a list of such demands culled from Lenin and Trotsky. It must acquire a twofold knowledge and a two-sided method of learning. On the one hand, it must assimilate the body of the experiences of the international proletariat over more than a century of revolutionary class struggle. On the other hand, it must carry on a continuous, serious analysis of the present overall social reality, national as well as international. This alone makes it possible to apply the lessons of history to the reality at hand. It is clear that on the basis of the Marxist theory of knowledge, only practice can ultimately provide the criterion for measuring the actual theoretical assimilation of present-day reality. For that reason, international practice is an absolute prerequisite for a Marxist international analysis, and an international organisation is an absolute prerequisite for such a practice.

Without a serious assimilation of the entire historical experience of the international workers movement from the revolution of 1848 to the present, it is impossible to determine with scientific precision either the contradictions of present neocapitalist society – on a world scale as well as in individual countries – or the concrete contradiction accompanying the formation of proletarian class consciousness, or the kind of struggles that could lead to a pre-revolutionary situation. History is the only laboratory for the social sciences. Without assimilating the lessons of history, a pseudo-revolutionary Marxist today would be no betted than a “medical student” who refused to set foot inside the dissecting laboratory.

It should be pointed out in this connection that all attempts to keep the newly emerging revolutionary movement “aloof from the splits of the past” demonstrate a complete failure to understand the socio-political nature of this differentiation within the international workers movement. If one puts aside the inevitable personal and incidental factors involved in these differentiations, one has to come to the conclusion that the great disputes in the international workers movement since the foundation of the First International (the disputes between Marxism and anarchism; between Marxism and revisionism; between Bolshevism and Menshevism; between internationalism and social-patriotism; between defenders of the dictatorship of the proletariat and defenders of bourgeois democracy; between Trotskyism and Stalinism; between Maoism and Khrushchevism) touch upon fundamental questions relating to the proletarian revolution and to the strategy and tactics of revolutionary class struggle. These basic questions are products of the very nature of capitalism, the proletariat and revolutionary struggle. They will therefore remain pressing questions as long as the problem of creating a classless society on a world scale has not been solved in practical terms. No “tactfulness,” no matter how artful, and no “conciliationism,” no matter how magnanimous, can in the long run prevent these questions from rising out of practice itself to confront each new generation of revolutionaries. All that is accomplished by attempting to avoid a discussion of these problems is that instead of raising, analysing and solving them in a methodical and scientific fashion, this is done unsystematically, at random, without plan, and without sufficient training and knowledge.

However, while the assimilation of the historical substance of Marxist theory is necessary, it is nevertheless in and of itself an insufficient prerequisite for conveying revolutionary class consciousness to the advanced workers and the radical intelligentsia. In addition, a systematic analysis of the present is required without which theory cannot furnish the means for disclosing either the immediate capacity of the working class for struggle or the “weak links” in the neo-capitalist mode of production and bourgeois society; nor can it furnish the means for formulating the appropriate transitional demands (as well as the proper pedagogical approach to raising them). Only the combination of a serious, complete social and critical analysis of the present and the assimilation of the lessons of the history of the workers movement can create an effective instrument for the theoretical accomplishment of the task of a revolutionary vanguard. [68]

Without the experience of revolutionary struggle by broad masses, there can be no revolutionary class consciousness among these masses. Without the conscious intervention of advanced workers, who inject transitional demands into workers struggles, there can hardly be experiences of revolutionary struggle on the part of the broad masses. Without the spreading of transitional demands by a revolutionary vanguard, there can be no possibility of advanced workers influencing mass struggles, in a truly anti-capitalist sense. Without a revolutionary program, without a thorough study of the history of the revolutionary workers movement, without an application of this study to the present, and without practical proof of the ability of the revolutionary vanguard to successfully play a leading role in at least a few sectors and situations, there can be no possibility of convincing the advanced workers of the need for the revolutionary organisation and therefore no possibility (or only an unlikely one) that the appropriate transitional demands for the objective situation can be worked out by the advanced workers. In this way the various factors in the formation of class consciousness intertwine and underpin the timeliness of the Leninist conception of organisation.

The process of building a revolutionary party acquires its unified character through jointly expressing the learning of the masses in action, the learning of the advanced workers in practical experience, and the learning of the revolutionary cadre in the transmission of revolutionary theory and practice. There is a constant interrelationship between learning and teaching, even among the revolutionary cadre, who have to achieve the ability to shed any arrogance resulting from their theoretical knowledge. This ability proceeds from the understanding that theory proves its right to exist only through its connection to the real class struggle and by its capacity to transform potentially revolutionary class consciousness into the actual revolutionary class consciousness of broad layers of workers. The famous observation by Marx that the educators must themselves be educated [69] means exactly what it says. It does not mean that a consciously revolutionary transformation of society is possible without a revolutionary pedagogy. And it is given a more complete expression in the Marxist proposition that “In revolutionary activity the changing of oneself coincides with the changing of circumstances.” [70]


1. This concept was by no means invented by Lenin but corresponds to a tradition leading from Engels, through Kautsky, to the classical doctrines of the international Social Democracy between 1880 and 1905. The Hainfeld Program of the Austrian Social Democracy, drafted in 1888-1889, explicitly states: “Socialist consciousness is something that is brought into the proletarian class struggle from outside, not something that organically develops out of the class struggle.” In 1901, Kautsky published his article Akademiker und Proletarier in Neue Zeit (19th year, Vol.2, April 17. 1901) in which the same thought is expressed (p.89) in a form that directly inspired Lenin’s What is to Be Done?

It is well known that Marx had developed no uniform concept of the party. But while he sometimes totally rejected the idea of a vanguard organisation, he also formulated a conception which very closely approaches that of “introducing revolutionary-socialist consciousness” into the working class. Note the following passage from a letter, written by him, on January 1, 1870, from the executive board of the First International to the federal committee of Romanic Switzerland:

“The English possess all the necessary material prerequisites for a social revolution. What they lack is a spirit of qeneralisation and revolutionary passion. That the executive board alone can remedy, and in doing so, hasten the development of a truly revolutionary movement in this country, and hence everywhere.

“The great successes that we have already achieved in this regard are being attested to by the wisest and most distinguished newspapers of the ruling class ... not to mention the so-called radical members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, who only a short time ago had quite a bit of innuendo on the leaders of the English workers. They are publicly accusing us of having poisoned and almost suffocated the English spirit of the working class, and of having driven it to revolutionary socialism.” (Marx-Engels, Werke, [Berlin: Dietz-Verlag, 1964], Vol.16, pp.381-387.)

The concept of the “current potential for revolution” in Lenin was first formulated by Georg Lukacs, as is well known, in Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein and particularly in his Lenin.

2. This is especially true for the crucial Marxian category of revolutionary practice, which was developed in the then unknown German Ideology.

3. It is in this sense that, among others, the famous statement by Marx at the beginning of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte must be understood, in which he stresses the constant self-critical nature of the proletarian revolution and its tendency to come back to things that appeared to have already been accomplished. In this connection, Marx speaks also of the proletariat as being hypnotised by the “undefined magnitude of its own objectives.”

4. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels state that communists “do not set up any special principle of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.” In the English edition of 1888, Engels substituted the word “sectarian” for the word “special.” In doing so, he expresses the fact that scientific socialism certainly does try to advance “special” principles in the labour movement, but only those objectively resulting from the general course of the proletarian class struggle, i.e., from contemporary history, and not those peculiar only to the creed of a particular sect, i.e., to a purely incidental aspect of the proletarian class struggle.

5. This thought is poignantly expressed by Trotsky in the introduction to the first Russian edition of his book, The Permanent Revolution (New York: Merit Publishers, 1969). Mao Tse-tung too has more than once called attention to this thought. In sharp contrast to it is the notion of a “socialist mode of production” or even of a “developed social system of socialism” in which the first stage of communism is regarded as something fixed and not as simply a transitional phase in the permanent revolutionary development from capitalism to communism.

6. Note Lenin’s well-known statement that there are no “inextricable economic situations” for the imperialist bourgeoisie.

7. Thus the rising bourgeois class consciousness, and even the rising plebeian or semi-proletarian class consciousness in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were expressed within a completely religious framework, finding the way to overt materialism only with the full-blown decadence of the feudal absolutist order in the second half of the eighteenth century.

8. Gramsci’s “concept of political and ethical hegemony,” which an oppressed social class must establish within society before it can take political power, expresses this possibility especially well. Cf. Il Materialismo Storico e la Filosofia di Benedetto Croce (Milan: Einaudi, 1964), p.236; and also Note sul Machiavelli (Milan: Einaudi, 1964), pp.29-37, 41-50ff. This hegemony concept has been criticised or modified by numerous Marxist theoreticians. See, for example, Nicos Poulantzas, Pouvoir politique et classes sociales (Paris: Maspero, 1968), pp.210-222. Concerning the significance of overall social consensus with the material and moral foundations of bourgeois class rule, see Jose Ramon Recalde, Integracion y lucha de cases en el neo-capitalismo (Madrid: Editorial Ciencia Nueva, 1968), pp.152-157.

9. This is expressed by Marx and Engels in the proposition in The German Ideology that “this revolution is necessary therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968), p.87. Cf. also the following observation by Marx in 1850 against the Schapper minority in the Communist League: “The minority substitutes a dogmatic approach for a critical one, and idealism for materialism. For it, the driving force of the revolution is mere will power, not actual conditions. We, on the other hand, tell the workers: ‘You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and people’s struggles not only to change the conditions, but in order to change yourselves so you will be capable of exercising political rule.’ You, on the contrary, say: ‘If we can’t take power right away we might as well go to bed.’” Karl Marx, Enthullungen über den Kommunistenprozess zu Köln (Berlin: Buchandlung Vorwärts, 1914), pp.52-53.

10. Note Lenin: “Our wiseacre fails to see that it is precisely during the revolution that we shall stand in need of the results of our [pre-revolutionary – E.M.] theoretical battles with the Critics in order to be able resolutely to combat their practical positions!” What is to Be Done? (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), p.163. How tragically this came true seventeen years later in the German revolution.

11. In this connection in What is to Be Done? Lenin speaks of the “social-democratic” and “revolutionary” workers in contrast to the “backward” workers.

12. N. Bukharin, Theorie des Historischen Materialismus (published by the Communist International: 1922), pp.343-345.

“Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself.” Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1963). p.173.

13. Cf. the section of the SPD’s Erfurt Program that was not criticised by Engels, in which the proletarians are described as simply the class of wageworkers separated from the means of production and condemned to sell their labor power, and in which the class struggle is described as the objective struggle between exploiters and exploited in modern society (i.e., without relation to the degree of organisation or consciousness of the wage earners). Following this objective fact, which is established in the first four sections, comes the following addition to the conclusion of the general body of the program:

“The task of the social-democratic party is to mould this struggle of the working class into a conscious and homogeneous one and to point out what is by nature its essential goal.” This once again explicitly confirms that there can be classes and class struggle in capitalist society without the struggling working class being conscious of its class interests. Further on, in the eighth section, the program speaks of the “class-conscious workers of all countries,” and Engels proposes a change which again underlines the fact that he made a definitive distinction between the “objective” and the “subjective” concept of class: “Instead of ‘class conscious,’ which for us is an easily understandable abbreviation, I would say (in the interests of general understanding and translation into foreign languages) ‘workers permeated with the consciousness of their class situation,’ or something like that.” Engels, Zur Kritik des sozialdemokratischen Programmentwurfs 1891 in Marx-Engels, Werke, Band 22 ( Berlin: Dietz-Verlag. 1963), p.232.

14. Lenin: “The basic prerequisite for this success [in consolidating the party – E.M.] was, of course, the fact that the working class, whose elite has built the Social Democracy, differs, for objective economic reasons, from all other classes in capitalist society in its capacity for organisation. Without this prerequisite, the organisation of professional revolutionaries would only be a game, an adventure ...” Lenine, Oeuvres Completes, Tome 12 (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1969), p.74.

15. To counter this view, many critics of the Leninist concept of organisation (beginning with Plekhanov’s article, Centralism or Bonapartism in Iskra, No.70 [Summer 1904]), refer to a passage in The Holy Family – The passage states: “When socialist writers ascribe this historic role to the proletariat, it is not, as Critical Criticism pretends to think, because they consider the proletarians as gods. Rather the contrary. Since the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete in the full-grown proletariat; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in all their inhuman acuity; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need – that practical expression of necessity – is driven to revolt against that inhumanity; it follows that the proletariat can and must free itself. But it cannot free itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation. Not in vain does it go through the stern but steeling school of labour. The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat, at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is irrevocably and obviously demonstrated in its own life situation as well as in the whole organisation of burgeons society today. There is no need to dwell here upon the fact that a large part of the English and French proletariat is already conscious of its historic task and is constantly working to develop that consciousness into complete clarity.” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The Holy Family (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956). pp.52-53.

Aside from the fact that Marx and Engels were hardly in a position in 1844-1845 to produce a mature theory of proletarian class consciousness and proletarian organisation (to become aware of this, one need only compare the last sentence of the above quotation with what Engels wrote forty years later about the English working class), these lines say the very opposite of what Plekhanov reads into them. They say only that the social situation of the proletariat prepares it for radical, revolutionary action, and that the determination of the general socialist objective (the abolition of private property) is “pre scribed” by its conditions of life. In no way do they indicate, however, that the proletariat’s “inhuman conditions of life” will somehow mysteriously enable it to “spontaneously” assimilate all the social sciences. Quite the opposite! (Concerning Plekhanov’s article, see Samuel H. Baron’s Plekhanov [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963], pp.248-253.)

16. Today it is almost forgotten that the Russian socialist movement too was founded largely by students and intellectuals, and that around three-fourths of a century ago they were faced with a problem similar to that of the revolutionary intelligentsia today. Similar, but of course not identical: Today there is an additional obstacle (the reformist, revisionist mass organisations of the working class), as well as an additional strength (historical experience, including the experience of great victory which the revolutionary movement has accumulated since then).

In What is to Be Done? Lenin speaks explicitly of the capacity of intellectuals to assimilate “political knowledge,” i.e., scientific Marxism.

17. Cf. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy. An absorbing descriptions of the various early forms of trade unions and of workers resistance funds can be found in E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968).

18. The necessarily discontinuous nature of mass action is explained by the class condition of the proletariat itself. As long as a mass action does not succeed in toppling the capitalist mode of production, its duration will be limited by the financial, physical and mental ability of the workers to withstand the loss of wages. It is obvious that this ability is not unlimited. To deny this would be to deny the material conditions of the proletariat’s existence, which compel it, as a class, to sell its labour power.

19. See a few examples from the first years of the metal workers union of Germany: Fünfundsiebzig Jahre Industriegewerkschaft Metall (Frankfurt: Europaische Verlaganstalt, 1966), pp.72-78.

20. We cannot describe in detail here the differences between a prerevolutionary and a revolutionary situation. Simplifying the matter, we would differentiate a revolutionary from a prerevolutionary situation in this way: While a prerevolutionary situation is characterised by such extensive mass struggles that the continued existence of the social order is objectively threatened, in a revolutionary situation this threat takes the form, organisationally, of the proletariat establishing organs of dual power (i.e., potential organs for the exercising of power by the working class), and subjectively of the masses raising directly revolutionary demands that the ruling class is unable to either repulse or co-opt.

21. See below the Leninist origins of this strategy.

22. Rosa Luxemburg, Organisational Question of Social Democracy, in Mary-Alice Waters, ed., Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), pp.112-130.

23. Lenin, What is to Be Done?, op. cit., p.66.

24. For a relating of this plan directly to revolution, see What is to Be Done?, op. cit., pp.165-166. It is true that there are also organisational rules for centralisation in What is to Be Done?, but they are determined exclusively by the conditions imposed by illegality. Lenin recommends the broadest “democratism” for “legal” revolutionary parties: “The general control (in the literal sense of the term) exercised over every act of a party man in the political field brings into existence an automatically operating mechanism which produces what in biology is called the ‘survival of the fittest.’ ‘Natural selection’ by full publicity, election and general control provides the assurance that, in the last analysis, every political figure will be ‘in his proper place,’ do the work for which he is best fitted by his powers and abilities, feel the effects of his mistakes on himself, and prove before all the world his ability to recognise mistakes and to avoid them.” Ibid., p.130.

Within her Polish party, which was also defined by highly conspiratorial restrictions, Luxemburg, for her part, practised (or accepted) a centralism that was no less stringent than that of the Bolsheviks (cf. the conflict with the Radek faction in Warsaw and the serious charges made against it).

25. Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, op. cit., p.118.

26. For this see David Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism (Assen: Van Gorcum and Co., 1969). Lane has attempted to analyse the social composition of the membership of the Russian Social Democracy and of the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions between 1897 and 1907 on the basis of empirical data. He comes to the conclusion that the Bolsheviks had more worker members and activists than the Mensheviks (pp.50-51).

27. “Generally speaking it is undeniable that a strong tendency toward centralisation is inherent in the social-democratic movement. This tendency springs from the economic makeup of capitalism which is essentially a centralising factor. The social-democratic movement carries on its activity inside the large bourgeois city. Its mission is to represent, within the boundaries of the national state, the class interests of the proletariat, and to oppose those common interests to all local and group interests.

“Therefore, the social democracy is, as a rule, hostile to any manifestations of localism or federalism. It strives to unite all workers and all worker organisations in a single party, no matter what national, religious, or occupational differences may exist among them.” Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, op. cit., p.116.

28. Cf. the thesis put forward by Andre Gorz, according to which a new party can be created only “from the bottom up” once the network of factory and rank-and-file groups “stretches out over the entire national territory.” (Ni Trade-Unionists, ni Bolcheviks, Les Temps Moderne, [October, 1969]). Gorz has not understood that the crisis of the bourgeois state and the capitalist mode of production does not develop gradually “from the periphery toward the centre,” but that it is a discontinuous process which tends toward a decisive test of strength once it reaches a definite turning point. If the centralisation of revolutionary groups and combatants does not take place in time, attempts by the reformist bureaucracy to steer the movement back into acceptable channels will only be facilitated – as quickly happened in Italy, in fact while Gorz was writing his article. This in turn quickly led to a setback for the “rank-and-file” groups. It did not at all lead to their spread throughout the whole country.

29. Cf. Rosa Luxemburg’s article on the founding of the Communist Party of Germany entitled The First Convention: “The revolutionary shock troops of the German proletariat have joined together into an independent political party.” (The Founding Convention of the Communist Party of Germany [Frankfort: Europaische Verlangastalt, 1969], p.301.) “From now on it is a question of everywhere replacing revolutionary moods with unflinching revolutionary convictions, the spontaneous with the systematic.” (p.303.) See also (on p.301) the passage from the pamphlet written by Luxemburg, What Does the Spartacus League Want?: “The Spartacus League is not a party that seeks to come to power over or with the help of the working masses. The Spartacus League is only that part of the proletariat that is conscious of its goal. It is that part which, at each step, points the working-class masses as a whole toward their historic task, which, at each separate stage of the revolution, represents the ultimate socialist objective and, in all national questions, the interests of the proletarian world revolution.” (Emphasis added.) In 1904 Luxemburg had not yet understood the essence of Bolshevism – that “that part of the proletariat that is conscious of its goal” must be organised separately from the “broad mass.” It is a complete confirmation of our thesis that as soon as Luxemburg adopted the concept of the vanguard party, she too was then accused by Social Democrats (“left” Social Democrats at that) of wanting “the dictatorship over the proletariat.” (Max Adler, Karl Liebknicht und Rosa Luxemburg, Der Kampf, Vol.XII. No.2 [February, 1919], p.75.)

30. Leon Trotsky, Nos taches politiques (Paris: Editions Pierre Belfond, 1970), pp.123-129.

31. Ibid., p.125.

32. Ibid., p.186.

33. Leon Trotsky, The Class, the Party and the Leadership, Fourth International [predecessor of the International Socialist Review] Vol.1, No.7 (December, 1940), p.193.

34. Numerous examples of this could be mentioned, See, among others, Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.18 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1963), pp.471-477; Vol.23, pp.236-253; Vol.10, pp.277-278.

35. The impossibility of “spontaneous” concentration of the revolutionary vanguard elements on a national scale was demonstrated with particular clarity in the French general strike of May 1968.

36. Yet here too these initial forms of independent organisation were unable, in the absence of an organised revolutionary vanguard, which would have carried out the necessary preparatory work, to neutralise for long, let alone to smash, the conservative centralisation of the trade-union and state apparatuses, and of the entrepreneurs.

37. Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957), p.xix.

38. See among others Georg Lukacs, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (Berlin: Malik-Verlag, 1923), pp.180-189 ff.

39. The defence of the political and material special interests of these bureaucracies is nevertheless the social substructure upon which the superstructure of this autonomy and its ideological sediment are able to arise.

40. Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, op. cit., p.12l.

41. Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects in The Permanent Revolution, op. cit., p.114.

42. Cf. for instance, Klara Zetkin’s biting scorn for the SPD executive committee (as well as Kautsky’s lack of character), which she expressed in her correspondence concerning the party leadership’s censorship in 1909 of the publication of Kautsky’s The Road to Power: K. Kautsky Le Chemin de Pouvoir (Paris: Editions Anthropos, 1969), pp.177-212. Contrast this with the respect shown by Lenin for Kautsky in the same year.

43. Lenin, Der Zusammenbruch der II. Internationale in Lenin and Zinoviev, Gegen den Strom (published by the Communist International, 1921), p.164.

44. Ibid., p.165.

45. Lenin, Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder in Collected Works, Vol.31 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1966). Pp.17-118.

See also the above-mentioned passage from the pamphlet What Does the Spartacus League Want?, written by Rosa Luxemburg.

This conclusion was, superior to that of Trotsky in 1906 or Luxemburg in 1904. In the face of a growing conservatism on the part of the social-democratic apparatus, they had illusions about the ability of the masses to solve the problem of the seizure of power with the aid of their revolutionary ardour alone. In The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, (in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, op. cit., pp.153-219) Luxemburg even shifts the problem temporarily onto the “unorganised,” i.e., the poorest, section of the proletariat that for the first time attains consciousness during a mass strike. In his writings after 1914 Lenin too explicitly contrasts these masses to the “labour aristocracy,” in a somewhat oversimplified manner, in my opinion. At that time the workers in the large steel and metal processing plants, among others, belonged to the unorganised sectors of the German proletariat, and while they turned to the left en masse after 1918, they did not at all belong to the “poorest” layers.

46. This so-called general crisis of capitalism, i.e., the onset of the historical epoch of the decline of capitalism, should not be confused with conjunctural crises, i.e., periodic economic crises. These have occurred during the period of rising, as well as declining, capitalism, For Lenin, the epoch beginning with the first world war is the “era of beginning social revolution.” See, among others, Gegen den Strom, op. cit., p.393.

47. Herein undoubtedly lies the greatest weakness of this fatalistic theory. Out of the tendency toward growing autonomy, it automatically deduces a social danger, without including in its analysis the transmission of potential social power and specific social interests. The tendency for doormen and cashiers to develop their own interests does not give them power over banks and large firms – except for the “power” of robbery, which is effective only under very specific conditions. If the analysis of this tendency toward autonomy is to have any social content, therefore, it must be accompanied by a definition of these conditions.

48. The formal rules of democratic centralism are, of course, part of these prerequisites. These rules include the right of all members to be completely informed about differences of opinion in the leadership; the right to form tendencies and to present contradictory points of view to the membership before leadership elections and conventions; the regular convening of conventions; the right to periodically revise majority decisions in the light of subsequent experiences, i.e., the right of minorities to periodically attempt to reverse decisions made by the majority; the right of political initiative by minorities and members at conventions; etc.

These Leninist norms of democratic centralism were rather strikingly formulated in the new party statutes drawn up before August 1968 in preparation for the fourteenth convention of the Czechoslovakian CP. The Moscow defenders of bureaucratic centralism reacted with the invasion. In fact, this proposed return to Leninist norms of democratic centralism was one of the most important “thorns” in the side of the Soviet bureaucracy as far as the developments in Czechoslovakia were concerned.

49. Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, op. cit.

50. Between 1905 and 1917 the Bolshevik Party was educated in the spirit of achieving the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants,” i.e., in the spirit of a formula with its eye on the possibility of a coalition between a workers party and a peasant party within the framework of capitalism – foreseeing, in other words, a capitalist development of Russian agriculture and industry. Lenin clung to this possibility until late 1916. Only in 1917 did he realise that Trotsky had been correct back in 1905 when he predicted that the agrarian question could only be solved by the dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialisation of the Russian economy.

Hartmut Mehringer (Introduction historique in Trotsky, Nos taches politiques, op. cit., pp.17-18, 34ff.) is completely wrong to link Lenin’s theory of organisation with his specific strategy in the Russian revolution, to explain it in terms of the “subordinate” role (?) of the working class in this struggle, and to trace Trotsky’s theory of the gradual extension of class consciousness to the entire working class to the theory of the permanent revolution. Aside from the fact that Mehringer gives an inadequate and inaccurate outline of Lenin’s revolutionary strategy (Lenin was for the absolute independence of the Russian working class in opposing the Russian bourgeoisie, and was completely in favour of this class playing a leading role in the revolution); and aside from the fact that, like Lenin, Luxemburg rejected as premature any attempt to establish the proletarian dictatorship in Russia and assigned the revolutionary struggle of the Russian proletariat the mere goal of carrying out the historical tasks of the bourgeois revolution (while at the same time she fought against Lenin’s theory of organisation). It appears obvious to us that the very theory of permanent revolution (i.e., the task of establishing the proletarian dictatorship in an underdeveloped country) can be grasped with a minimum of realism only through the utmost concentration on the revolutionary tasks in general. Thus it leads not away from Lenin’s theory of organisation but straight to it. See in this regard also the excellent pamphlet by Demise Avenas, Economie et politique dans la pensee de Trotsky (Paris: Maspero, “Cahiers Rouges,” 1970).

51. Lenine, Oeuvres Completes, Tome 12 (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1969), p.74.

“The pamphlet What is to Be Done repeatedly emphasises that the organisation of professional revolutionaries which it proposes makes sense only insofar as it is connected to the ‘truly revolutionary class irresistibly rising up in struggle.’” Lenin underlines the fact that the sickness of small group existents can only be overcome through “the ability of the party, through its own mass work, to reach out to proletarian elements.” (Ibid., p.75.)

52. Maspero in Paris will soon publish a: anthology by us entitled Workers Control, Workers Councils and Workers Self-Management which attempts to prove this thesis. Europäischer Verlaganstalt has announced plans to publish a German edition in 1971.

53. For Lenin the “leading role of the party” in the soviet system is a political one, not one of substitution. It is a question not of substituting itself for the majority in the soviet, but of convincing them of the correctness of the communist policy. The “leading role of the party” is not even mentioned in his basic work on soviets, State and Revolution. And if, in times of the greatest confusion and civil war, he sometimes made sharp sallies on tactical questions, arguments can be found in his writings against “soviets without communists,” but no arguments in favour of “communists without soviets.”

54. Georg Lukacs (Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein, op. cit., p.306ff.) is wrong to think that he discovers one of the roots of Luxemburg’s “theory of spontaneity” in “the illusion of a purely proletarian revolution.” Even in countries where the numerical and social importance of the proletariat is so overwhelming that the question of “allies” becomes insignificant, the separate organisation of the vanguard remains absolutely necessary in a “purely proletarian revolution” because of the internal stratification of the proletariat.

55. A striking example of this are the Chinese Maoists, for whom one wing of their own party (including the majority of the central committee that led the Chinese revolution to victory) is said to be made up of “defenders of the capitalist line” – and even “capitalists” pure and simple.

For the Italian Bordigists, the general strike of July 14, 1948, had nothing to do with proletarian class struggle because the workers were striking in defence of the “revisionist” leader of the CP, Togliatti.

Cf. also the lovely formulation of the French spontaneist Denis Anthier: “When the proletariat is not revolutionary, it does not exist, and revolutionaries cannot do anything with it. It is not they who, by assuming the role of educators of the people, will be able to create the historical situation in which the proletariat will become what it is; this can only be done by the development of modern society itself.” (Preface to Leon Trotsky, Rapport de la delegation siberienne [Paris: Spartacus 1970], p.12.) This quote also shows how clearly extreme subjectivity and extreme objectivism are related. And how is it explained that despite huge struggles the proletariat does not achieve victory? “Circumstances are to blame, the objective conditions were not ripe.” Behind the ultraleft mask one can see those well-known “spontaneists” Karl Kautsky and Otto Bauer eagerly nodding their wise heads. The ridiculous conclusions to which this extreme fatalism and mechanical determinism lead become clear as soon as the “development of modern society itself” is expected to explain to us in concrete terms just why at a given moment the majority of factory A and city B (but not of factory C or city D) come out in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat and against reformism. Yet for better or for worse, the outcome of the revolution depends upon the answer to this question. As long as the “development of modern society itself” does not drop all factories and all cities like ripe fruit into the lap of the revolution, the “educators of the people,” according to Anthier, should presumably refrain from doing violence to “objective conditions,” by seeking to win over the workers of C and D.

56. This reproach against Lenin and the Leninists was made by the Russian “Economists,” and now today’s spontaneists have rediscovered it.

57. Cf. on this subject Nicos Poulantzas, Pouvoir politique, et classes sociales, op. cit.

58. It is interesting to confirm that after the split in the Russian Social Democracy there were many more intellectuals, including professional revolutionary intellectuals, with the Mensheviks than with the Bolsheviks. See in this connection David Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism, op. cit., pp.47-50.

59. David Lane too emphasises the preponderance of the Bolsheviks in the cities with large factories and an old, stabilised working class, Ibid., pp.212-213.)

60. In his last work (Zum allgemeinen Verhaltnis von wissenschaftlicher Intelligenz und proletarischen Klassenbewusstsein, SDS-Info, No.2127 [Dec. 22, 1969]), Hans-Jurgen Krahl brought out “the Marx quotation on this question which we are reprinting here. (It comes from the unincorporated section Sechstes Kapitel, Resultate des unmittelbaren Produktionsprozesses in the draft of Chapter Six of Book One of the first volume of Capital, which was published for the first time, in the Marx-Engels Archives in 1933.) We should like to dedicate this article, which was intended to promote discussion and understanding with him, to this young friend who so tragically passed away.

“With the development of a real subsuming of labour under capital (or in the specifically capitalist mode of production) the real functionary in the overall labour process is not the individual worker, but increasingly a combined social capacity for work, and the various capacities for work, which are in competition with one another and constitute the entire productive machine, participate in very different ways in the direct process of creating commodities – or, more accurately in this sense, products – (one works more with his hands, another more with his head, one as a manager, an engineer, a technician, etc., another as a supervisor, and a third as a simple manual labourer, or even a helper). As a result of this, the functions of labour capacity will increasingly tend to be classified by the direct concept of productive labour, while those who possess that capacity will be classified under the concept of productive workers, directly exploited by capital and subordinated to its process of consumption and production.” ( Karl Marx, Resultate [Frankfurt: Neue Kritik, 1969], p.66.)

61. Leon Trotsky, The Intelligentsia and Socialism ( London: New Park Publishers, 1966).

62. Leon Trotsky, Die Entwicklungstendenzen der russischen Sozioldemkratie, in Die Neue Zeit Vol.XXVIII, No.2 (1910), p.862.

63. Already in his first polemical book against Lenin ( Nos taches politiques, op. cit., pp.68-71, for example), Trotsky had undertaken an effort to represent the entire Leninist polemic against “economism” and the “handicraftsman’s approach to organisation” in What is to Be Done? as a pure discussion between intellectuals, or at best an attempt to win over the best forces of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia to the revolutionary Social Democracy. He did not understand that it was a question of repelling the petty-bourgeois, revisionist influence upon the working class. His polemic against Lenin from 1903 to 1914 was characterised by an underappreciation of the catastrophic consequences of opportunism for the working class and the labour movement. Only in 1917 did he overcome this underappreciation once and for all.

64. August Bebel, Briefwechsel mit Friedrich Engels (The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1965), p.465.

65. The sole difficulty for the revolution seemed to them to lie in a necessary reaction to any possible repeal of universal suffrage, as might happen in case of war. In contrast, Luxemburg had, in dealing with the question of the mass strike, undertaken a conscious attempt to develop the proletariat’s forms of struggle by going beyond electoral and wage struggles and closely following the example of the Russian revolution of 1905.

Even today, Lelio Basso, in an interesting analysis of Rosa Luxemburgs Dialektik der Revolution (Frankfurt: Europaische Verlagsanstalt, 1969), pp.82-83, attempts to present as the quintessence of Luxemburg’s strategy a centrist reconciliation between day-to-day struggles and ultimate objectives which is limited to “sharpening the contradictions” of objective development. The fact that the deeper meaning of the mass strike strategy escapes him as a result of this error does not need to be dwelt on here in detail.

66. See the discussion of program at the fourth congress of the Communist International (Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale [published by the Communist International, 1923], pp.404-448). It provisionally concluded with the following declaration of the Russian delegation, signed by Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin: “The dispute over how the transitional demands should be formulated and in which section of the program they should be included has awakened a completely erroneous impression that there exists a principled difference. In light of this, the Russian delegation unanimously confirms that the drawing up of transitional slogans in the programs of the national sections and their general formulation and theoretical motivation in the general section of the program cannot be interpreted as opportunism.” (Ibid., p.542.) Trotsky seemed to foresee such a strategy already in 1904 when he wrote: “The party stands on the proletariat’s given lack of consciousness ... and attempts to implant itself in the proletariat by raising this level ...” (Nos taches politiques, op. cit., p.126.)

67. Georg Lukacs (Lenine, [Paris: E.D.I., 1965], p.57) is completely correct when he concludes from similar considerations that the Leninist revolutionary party cannot “make” a revolution, but can accelerate the tendencies that will lead to one. Such a party is both producer and product of the revolution – which amounts to a resolution of the antithetical positions of Kautsky (“The new party must prepare the way for the revolution”) and Luxemburg (“The new party will be created by the revolutionary action of the masses”).

68. Hans-Jurgen Krahl (op. cit., p.13ff.) is quite correct when he reproaches Lukacs for his “idealising” concept of the totality of proletarian class consciousness, and when he accuses him of an inability to combine empirical knowledge and abstract theory – itself based on an inability to transmit revolutionary theory to the working masses. He should have been able to conclude from our essay, however, that such a transmission can be completely achieved on the basis of the Leninist concept of organisation – that it, in fact, lies at the very heart of this concept. Since he makes a sharp distinctions between “alienated lot in life” and alienated process of production, however, he is predisposed by the Marcusian tendency to see the “alienation of the consumer” as the central problem, and as a result to regard the “civilised satisfaction of needs,” which the neo-capitalist system ostensibly makes possible for the working class, as an obstacle on its way toward acquiring proletarian class consciousness. Yet the Achilles heel of the capitalist mode of production must more than ever be sought in the sphere of alienation in the production process; there alone can a truly revolutionary rebellion begin, as the events in France and Italy have demonstrated. With that we are brought back to the process, which we described, of formulating and conveying class consciousness. In describing it we, like Krahl (and, we are convinced, like Lenin and Trotsky), in no way substitute the naive concept of the “omniscient party” for that of the evolution of revolutionary theory as a specific and permanent ongoing process of production.

69. Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, third thesis: “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educators themselves.” (Marx-Engels, The German Ideology, op. cit., p.660.)

70. Ibid., p.234.


From The Ernest mandel Internet Archive,

Mexican electrical union fights for its life


Dan La Botz


The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), made up of approximately 43,000 active and 22,000 retired workers in Mexico City and surrounding states, is fighting for its life. The union’s struggle has rallied allies in the labor movement and on the left in Mexico and solidarity from throughout the country and around the world, but, if it is to survive, the union and its supporters have to take stronger actions than they have so far, and time is not on their side.

On the night of October 10, President Calderón ordered federal police to seize the power plants, while he simultaneously liquidated the state-owned Light and Power Company, fired the entire workforce, and thus did away with the legal existence of the union. The Mexican president’s attack on the Electrical Workers Union might be compared to Ronald Regan’s firing of more than 11,500 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) in 1981 or to Margaret Thatcher’s smashing of the National Union of Minerworkers (NUM) in 1984 in which over 11,000 miners were arrested and the union defeated.

Changing the Balance of Force

Calderón’s move to destroy this union represents an important turning point in modern Mexican labor history, a decisive step to break the back of the unions once and for all. Following up on his three-year war on the Mexican Miners and Metal Workers Union (SNTMM), Calderón has now decided to take on the leading union in Mexico City. But, even more important, it is, as one Mexican political leader noted, it is an act intended “to change the balance of forces,” so that they favor the government. “After its electoral defeat and out of fear of social protest which the [economic] crisis is provoking, the government wants to give a demonstration of its power which everybody will understand: the left, the social movements, the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party], the unions, the Congress, the businessmen and the media. The logic is the same that was used in the [Salinas government’s] attack on La Quina [head of the Mexican Petroleum Workers Union] in 1989: if you can do it the strongest, then you can do it to the weakest. If the most combative union can be defeated, then so can any other force.”

Mexico City, where this blow has been delivered, is heart of the political opposition to Calderón and the base of support for left-wing leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador who claims to have won the last election. Mexico City is also the base of Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of the metropolis, who some see as another possible presidential contender in 2012. So this attack on the union is also an attack on the left at its strongest point. And, at least at this moment — and while we still hope to see the Mexican workers take the strong measures needed — it seems as if the government can and has defeated the strongest, and can now turn its attention to the weaker.

A Turning Point

This is a turning point because it allows Mexico’s capitalist class to resume the neoliberal project begun under Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1988 but interrupted by a series of unforeseen events: the creation of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in 1989, the Chiapas Rebellion led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in 1994, president Ernesto Zedillo’s precipitation of the economic crisis of 1994-96, and finally the end of the old one-party state under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its replacement by National Action Party (PAN).

Salinas had succeeded in privatizing the Mexican Telephone Company (TELMEX), the railroads, and the Cananea Copper Company, but he failed to finish the job, with the energy sector, petroleum and electric power generation still state owned. Now, after a twenty year interruption, Calderón has under taken to finish the job.

The Origin of an Independent Union

The full significance of these events can only be appreciated when one sees them in the light of both their history and the current political context. The Calderón administration has chosen to attack one of Mexico’s oldest, most militant and most democratic union. The Mexican Electrical Workers Union was born in the great Mexican Revolution of 1910-1940, a tumultuous upheaval from below by the country’s workers, farmers and peasants, swept away the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and replaced it with a new order, if not exactly the order that the underdogs had been hoping for. In 1911, a group of electrical workers at the Light and Power Company organized the League of Electrical Workers. Then in 1914 they founded the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas).

The newly created Electrical Workers participated in the general strike of 1916 to defend the right of independent unions to exist. In 1917 the union negotiated its first contract, laying the basis for what would become one of the strongest collective bargaining agreements in the country. Less radical than some other unions and more independent than many, the Electrical Workers survived the labor wars of the 1920s that pitted corrupt, government-backed unions against revolutionary anarchists and Communists.

The Union in the Cárdenas Period

When the popular nationalist and leftist General Lázaro Cárdenas became president, he brought most of the Mexican labor unions into his orbit and under his influence. The Electrical Workers general secretary Francisco Breña Alvirez, however, guided the union along its own independent path. In June of 1936, the Electrical Workers Union faced a conflict over wages with the British-Canadian Mexican Light, which then owned the central electrical companies for which their members worked.

The Cárdenas government would have liked to avoid a strike and proposed arbitration, but the union rejected any form of arbitration and struck. The strike by the union’s 3,000 members shut off power in Mexico City — except to hospitals and other essential services — paralyzed the streetcars and brought management to the table. The union successfully defended the right to strike, eschewed arbitration, defeated the company, and maintained its independence form the government.

Between Scylla and Charybdis

During the late 1940s and 1950s, Mexico experienced its own wave of anti-Communism and its own version of McCarthyism, as the government deposed independent union leaders and replaced them with government-backed gangster leaders, the so-called charros. The Mexican Electrical Workers succeeded in avoiding the worst of that era, allowing it to emerge in the 1960s and to continue in the 1970s as an ally of the “worker insurgency” then taking place and as friend to the new independent unions that were then emerging.

During the 1980s, the Electrical Workers Union once again found itself in conflict with the government-employer. In 1987, as students also struck the university, the union shut off power to Mexico City once again as it had 50 years before. Throughout the the years of the Carlos Salinas presidency (1988-1994), the union maneuvered between the Scylla of government domination and the Charybdis of the president’s program of privatization.

The Electrical Workers veered toward the privatizing president to protect its own interests, but simultaneously strove to escape the sirens of patronage. That period was not its most heroic, yet, despite its compromises with Salinas, the Electrical Workers Union did not completely forfeit its independence and emerged in the 1990s and 2000s to lead coalitions to defend national electric power companies, Light and Power and the Federal Electric Commission, and the Mexican Petroleum Company (PEMEX) from privatization.

Fighting Privatization

The union was outspoken and active in its opposition to President Vicente Fox, his National Action Party (PAN), and its rightwing agenda. The Electrical Workers Union organized around it self a coalition of other unions, peasant leagues, and urban poor people to create the National Front Against Privatization. When Felipe Calderón became president in 2006, the Electrical Workers continued their struggle against privatization, joining with the National Union of Workers (the UNT), Mexico’s independent labor federation, to build a massive national coalition dedicated to changing the direction of the country.

For almost a decade the Electrical Workers and its allies have successfully stopped first Vicente Fox and then Felipe Calderón from selling off the national patrimony.

Most recently, the Electrical Workers and its Mexican Union Front (FSM), have brought together other labor unions, peasant leagues and organizations of the urban poor. The FSM in turn united with the independent National Union of Workers (UNT) to create the frentote — a gigantic coalition of virtually all of Mexico’s organized working people. The SME, thus, stood squarely in the path of President Felipe Calderón and his National Action Party.

The Union and its Contract

The Mexican Electrical Workers Union had developed over the years into a powerful institution. The union’s total members reached 43,000 working members and 22,000 retirees represented by between 700 and 840 full-time, paid delegates. The union contract, first negotiated in 1917, had evolved into a complex document describing 2,800 job categories and 92 wage scales for the various jobs. This contract protected the rights and privileges of union members, with SME union members having wages, benefits, and working conditions far superior to those of workers in many other unions and especially to unorganized workers.

The contract also gave the union power vis-à-vis the company in matters of financing, development and new technology. It required management to inform the union of the annual budget, building plans, investment and acquisitions, and current finances. The contract forbad the company from out-sourcing work even in non-electrical areas such as auto shops, construction and carpentry. The union had virtual control over all hiring and firing, and the union ran a technical school with more than 1,200 students preparing to become Light and Power employees. The union contract also required the company to provide the union with 75 million pesos (7.5 million dollars) for contracting expenses, cultural activities, for retirees, and in advances for union dues in June so that union members could buy school supplies. While critics called this the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” in was in reality a strong union contract, not so different than those found two decades ago in every industrial country in the world, providing its members with job security, economic security, and in general with social well-being. Calderón has swept away the union and torn its contract to bits.

Union Conflict Precipitates Crisis

Calderón may have been encouraged to make his bold move to eliminate both company and union by the development earlier this year of an internal union conflict. The Mexican Electrical Workers Union is a notoriously democratic union which has often seen rival factions struggle for leadership of the union. The June 2009 union elections saw Martín Esparza, the incumbent general secretary heading up the Green Slate of the Unity and Union Democracy caucus and Alejandro Muñoz, the union’s treasurer, heading up the Orange Slate of the Union Transparency caucus. Muñoz accused Esparza of having used his union office to line his own pockets, and Esparza made similar accusations against Muñoz. Esparza also accused Muñoz of colluding with César Nava, a PAN leader who previously served as Calderón’s closest aide (secretario particular). Muñoz denied the accusations that he was close to Nava.

Muñoz accused the union of irregularities in the electoral proceeding, but was convinced to await the results of the June election, which he lost to Esparza. A month later, Muñoz filed charges with the Federal Board of Conciliation and Arbitration. This opened the door for the government to intervene in the union. Subsequently, on September 10, Secretary of Labor Javier Lozano, declared that there had been irregularities in the election, and on October 5 he refused to recognize Martín Esparza as general secretary, effectively decapitating the union by declaring that it had no legally recognized leadership. The Mexican government has broad powers to withhold recognition (known as toma de nota) from union leaders. This government interference violates the International Labor Organization’s Convention 87 which says workers have the right to organize and run unions of their own choosing. Five days after Lozano refused to recognize the union leaders, Calderón sent the police and army to seize the plants.

It is hard to tell exactly how the internal conflict affected the union and its leaders, but in the crucial days before the government carried out its coup, the leadership failed to mobilize the union and its allies to defend their workplaces and union. Though the union had told the press a week before that it believed the government was preparing to seize the company facilities, it apparently took no steps to advise its members to resist the police and hold the plants. For example, on October 10 group of just 30 police officers seized the Systems Operation center which controls the electrical substations of the entire country — and amazingly the famously militant union did nothing to attempt to stop that takeover of that crucial facility or any others. At the same time the police also took over the union hall and its radio station, also without resistance. []

The Political and Labor Union Context Today

Calderón and his National Action Party, controlling the executive branch of government, have led this attack, but they have had the support of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which dominates the legislative branch. The government’s attack on the Mexican Electrical Workers Union has been opposed by the parties of the left: the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the Workers Party (PT), and Convergence. The PAN and the PRI together control more than two-thirds of the representatives and senators.

The PRI’s support has been important not only in the legislature but also in the organized labor movement. The PRI, the former ruling party of Mexico, controls the Congress of Labor, the Confederation of Mexican Workers and other confederations and industrial unions, such as the Petroleum Workers Union. So, though the Mexican Electrical Workers Union is party of the Congress of Labor, none of the other union leaders in that umbrella organization of the official labor movement have said a word in defense of the electrical workers, and none of those unions have come to is aid.

While the PRI controls most industrial unions, the head of the largest public employee unions Elba Esther Gordillo of the 1.5 million member Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE) and Valdemar Gutiérrez Fragoso of the 300,000 member Mexican Social Security Workers Union (SNTSS) have been allied with the Calderón and the PAN. Gordillo joined Calderón in creating a new Alliance for Quality Education (ACE), which many critics see as opening the door privatization in that area. Gutiérrez Fragoso, in addition to his duties as head of his union is also a PAN legislator. Neither the Teachers Union nor the Social Security Workers Union have spoken out against the government attack nor acted in solidarity with the Electrical Workers Union.

Massive Protest March

Still, the Electrical Workers Union has many allies. Labor unions and social movements, and opposition political parties organized a huge protest march on Friday, October 16 which was estimated at between 150,000 and 300,000 participants. The march began at 4:00 p.m. at the Angel of Independence on Reforma Avenue and marched to the Zócalo, Mexico national plaza, the last marchers arriving at 8:00 p.m. University workers, nuclear workers, miners, the teachers union opposition, telephone workers and many others hiked through Mexico to show their solidarity. While the march was a strong show of support, it was not a show of force, never attempting to retake any of the facilities.

Early last week Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who, arguing that the won the 2006 election, calls himself the “Legitimate President of Mexico,” convened a mass meeting of tens of thousands of his supporters and turned the platform over to Martín Esparza, general secretary of the Electrical Workers Union. Both Esparza and López Obrador called the government’s action unconstitutional and illegal and both called for resistance. López Obrador called upon the legislature to create a commission to investigate the situation. No such investigation is likely to take place, given that the government party and its allies control the congress.

Since the police seized the power plants there have been daily rallies and demonstrations by thousands of Electrical Workers in Mexico City. Neither speaker proposed a plan of resistance through mass action aimed at the government bur rather inclined toward legal strategies.

The mass march pressure the government into holding a negotiating session with the union, but that session soon reached an impasse. Secretary of the Interior Fernando Gómez Mont said that the government’s decision was “irreversible.” Secretary of Labor also commented calling the liquidation of the company a “consummated fact.” The Mexican Electrical Workers also refused to compromise on its demands that the police be removed from the workplace, that the liquidation of the company be revoked, and that the government negotiate the issues with the union. Further progress in any negotiations seems unlikely, and become less likely with every passing day.

As that incident demonstrates, mass marches will not be able to force the government to reverse its decision, though it remains possible that a national response, a national civic uprising such as the local uprising in Oaxaca three years ago, might be capable of stopping the government. Still, if the union is not prepared to take the necessary action in Mexico City, it cannot expect others to come to the rescue. The union must lead or be swept away.

Solidarity from Mexico and Abroad

Throughout Mexico workers, students, and communities, labor unions and left parties rallied and marched to support the Mexican Electrical Workers Union. En Cuernavaca, Moreles some 3,500 marched. In Oaxaca the Union of Workers and Employees of the Benito Juárez Autonomous University shut down the university in protest and solidarity. In San Luis Potosi the Potosi Union Front carried protested the development at the State Legislature and expressed their solidarity with the electrical workers. Divers organizations — the National Union of General Tire Workers, the Board Popular Front (FAP), and the Party of the Democratic Revolution expressed support at the national, state and local levels.

Expression of international solidarity arrived from the United States and Canada, from Holland Germany, and even from workers in Iraq. Unions from around the world condemned the Mexican government and gave voice to their solidarity with the Mexican Electrical Workers Union. While such expressions of solidarity help to give heart to the struggle electrical workers of Mexico, unlike in industries such as shipping where dockworkers solidarity can have a direct impact, those foreign unions can have little leverage on a nationalized power company in another country — though the CFE does import coal, and coal miners, railroad workers, and marine workers might be able to interrupt those shipments.

Union’s Legal and Legislative Strategy

While marching in the streets, the Electrical Workers Union is also pursuing a legal strategy, having hired Néstor de Buen, the country’s leading labor lawyer, to argue that the Calderón government seizures of the company was unconstitutional and illegal. The union also plans to have its members file individual lawsuits called amparos, something like injunctions, arguing that their individual rights have been violated. While other unions have used the individual lawsuits as a mechanism to delay government actions, they would seem to be a weak tool in this case. The union says it will also pursue a legislative strategy, pressuring the Mexican Legislature to present a “constitutional controversy,” arguing in effect that the executive branch of the government overstepped its constitutional authority. Such a legislative strategy appears to have little hope of success given the alliance between President Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which together control a very large majority of both houses of congress. The union’s legal strategy is premised on the argument that since Light and Power was created by the legislative decree it cannot be eradicated by executive decrees. The union and its supporters have also argued that the president’s action violates both Mexican labor law and international labor standards.

Police, Army Still Occupy Plants

At this moment, 5,000 federal police, backed up by at least 10,000 police reserves, and 3,000 military officers still hold over 100 facilities. The plants are being operated by management and by 3,000 electrical workers brought in from the other state-owned power company, the Federal Electrical Commission (CFE), and another 800 engineers and technicians provided by the military. Workers at theCFE are members of the Sole Union of Electrical Workers of Mexico (SUTERM), a union historically controlled by the PRI whose leaders are eager to collude with the government in the hopes of sharing in the booty of jobs, union dues, and political influence.

Since the police took control of the plants there have been many localized blackouts that have shut off power for hours to Mexico City neighborhoods, to other cities and towns, and to industry, with hundreds of factories idled in the nearby State of Mexico. The government has blamed the blackouts on the union, while the union attributes the blackouts to the incompetence of the government and the workers brought into run the plants.

Future of the Light and Power

The Calderón government has said that, having extinguished the Light and Power Company, it will now turn its facilities over to a new company which it plans to merge with the Federal Electrical Commission in the near future. The government says it plans to hire 10,000 former Light and Power workers to work for the new company under new terms of employment. The 45,000 union workers have been told that they must collect their severance pay by mid-November to be eligible to be hired by the new company. So far about 1,400 workers have collected their severance pay. There have also been 11,700 payments to the 22,000 retirees. As an added inducement to workers, the Secretary of Labor has thrown in scholarships to study English for workers who file for their severance soon.

The government has set aside 20 billion pesos (about 200 million dollars) for the costs of the liquidation of the company labor force. Each worker is being paid the severance to which they are entitled under Mexican law, 300,000 to 400,000 pesos or about U.S.$30,000-40,000 each.

The Economic Argument

Felipe Calderón’s decision to liquidate the Light and Power Company did not result out of any contract negotiation or strike, but rather out of a political decision to do away with the nationalized company and the union which stands at the center of the Mexican left and in the path of the president’s privatizing agenda. The Calderón government, however, argues that this was a purely economic decision based on the economic and productive inefficiencies of Light and Power. There is, however, no clear cut economic case to be made; the issues are complex. The government argues that the Light and Power Company had an annual deficit of 44 billion pesos (400 million US dollars). Georgina Kessel Martínez, Secretary of Energy, asserts that Light and Powers expenses were almost always double its sales, requiring enormous government subsidies. In reality that “deficit” was largely the result of transferring electric power from the Federal Electric Commission (CFE) to Light and Power (LyF), both government owned companies.

Calderón in his speech to the nation justified eliminating the company because it was “losing one third of the electricity it distributed because of theft, technical failures, corruption, or inefficiencies.” That the CFEwas more productive than LyF seems beyond doubt, but many things explain that:

Mexico City, the Federal District and Central Mexico, which Light and Power served, represent the most difficult geographic, demographic, and economic area of the country. While rural areas present special challenges, the complex and constantly expanding and evolving megapolis of 20 million people and millions of others in surrounding central states is even more so.

The residents and businesses of Mexico City reputedly “steal” electrical energy from the system through illegal connections. I put “steal” in quotes because it is after all a national system which exists to provide electricity to the Mexican people at a reasonable cost.

Government agencies, for example Los Pinos, the Mexican presidential residence and office, did not pay for their electricity. For reasons that are unclear, the government company also failed to charge some Mexican businesses such as hotels for their electricity.

The union argues that for the last 20 years the government declined to invest in the company, allowing the plant and distribution system to deteriorate, in order to create an economic crisis.

The Question of Wages, Benefits, Pensions

The Calderón administration has suggested that at the center of Light and Power’s economic problems was the high cost of workers wages, benefits and pensions which threatened to bankrupt the system. The government says that 160 billion pesos out of its 240 billion peso wage bill went toward pensions for 20,000 retired workers.

Without a doubt, the Mexican Electrical Workers Union had succeeded in its 95-year history in winning for its members a labor union contract which might be the envy of workers throughout the country. Unlike most Mexican workers, Light and Power workers earned about 6,000 pesos (600 US dollars) per month, something approximating a living wage. Retired workers enjoyed very generous pensions equal to or greater than their work wages. But the alleged financial crisis of the company may not have been the real motive behind Calderón’s aggressive action.

The Real Economic Motive?

Martín Esparza, the union’s leader, argues that the real economic motive for the government’s action is the desire of private industry to get its hands on the 100 kilometer network of fiber optic cable which was the property of Light and Power. The fiber optic cable system which can be used for telecommunications was licensed in 1999 to WL Comunicaciones S.A. de C.V., a Spanish company.

A year later the company, whose majority partners are two former Secretaries of Energy, Fernando Canales Clariond and Ernesto Martens, gained the right to operate the fiber optic network for 30 years, with the possibility of further extensions. Secretary of Labor Javier Lozano has also been as a consultant, assisting WL Comunicaciones in winning its concssions. []

The Impact: Business Thrilled

Mexican and foreign capital is thrilled at Calderón’s action. The Business Coordinating Council (CCE), the Confederation of Mexican Employers (COPARMEX), the Federation of Industrial Chambers (CONCAMIN), the National Chamber of the Manufacturing Industry (CANACINTRA), and the Mexican Council of Businessmen (CMHN) all praised Calderón and encouraged him to see the attack on the electrical workers as just a first step. The Mexican capitalist class has had a taste of blood, likes it, and wants more., speaking for and to international capital, in an article titled “Mexico Knocks a Union’s Lights Out” called it, “one of the best things to happen to Mexico.” Business Week, while less euphoric, speculated that Calderón might now take on the Mexican Teachers Union and the PEMEX, the state oil company, and the Petroleum Workers Union, and Carlos Slim’s TELMEX with its high telephone costs.

A More Authoritarian State

Senator Rosario Ibarra, Mexico’s first woman candidate for president in 1982 and longtime human rights activist, expresses her alarm at a whole series of recent developments — including the government’s seizure of Light and Power — which suggest that the Mexican government has become more authoritarian. []

José Narro Robles, the rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), suggests that the government’s seizure of the power plants and elimination of the company and the union will aggravate an already difficult situation for the country’s majority of working and poor people. Warning of possible social unrest, he says, “Our country is living in a very delicate moment. Nobody can deny it. No one can deny it when we have such a large number of millions of Mexicans in inadequate conditions, in poverty or in extreme poverty.”

Narro fears social unrest, and his fear is understandable, but it seems that if the Mexican Electrical Workers Union and the labor movement are to survive, it will take social unrest of a well organized and massive sort to stop the Calderón government. If such forces began to move, they might even push that government aside, though so far, there are no signs of such a development on the scale needed.

October 20th 2009

-Dan La Botz is the author of several books on Mexican labor unions, social movements and politics. He also edits Mexican Labor News and Analysis, an on-line publication of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) and the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), at:


[] Manuel Camacho Solís, “SME: las verdaderas razones,” El Universal, October 12, 2009. Solís is a member of the leadership of the Broad Progressive Front (FAP).

[] Silvia Otero and Alberto Morales, “‘Apagan’ LyFC; liquidan empleados,” El Universal, October 11, 2009.

[] Rosalia Vergara, “Calderón y el SME: La guerra por la fibra óptica,” Proceso, October 17, 2009.

[] Rosario Ibarra, “Alarma ante la situación de los derechos humanos,” a statement distributed by the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), on October 17, 2009.


Originally published in International Viewpoint, Online magazine : IV418 - November 2009