The Revolutionary Party & Its Role in the Struggle for Socialism

By James P. Cannon

The greatest contribution to the arsenal of Marxism since the death of Engels in 1895 was Lenin’s conception of the vanguard party as the organizer and director of the working-class revolution. That celebrated theory of organization was not, as some contend, simply a product of the special Russian conditions of his time and restricted to them. It is deep-rooted in two of the weightiest realities of the 20th century: the actuality of the workers’ struggle for the conquest of power, and the necessity of creating a leadership capable of carrying it through to the end.

Recognizing that our epoch was characterized by imperialist wars, working-class revolutions, and colonial uprisings, Lenin deliberately set out at the beginning of this century to form a party able to turn such cataclysmic events to the advantage of socialism. The triumph of the Bolsheviks in the upheavals of 1917 attested to Lenin’s foresight and the merits of his methods of organization. His party stands out as the unsurpassed prototype of what a democratic and centralized leadership of the workers, true to Marxist principles and applying them with courage and skill, can be and do.

Limited as it was to a single country, the epoch-making achievement of the Bolsheviks did not conclusively dispose of further dispute over the nature of the revolutionary leadership. That controversy has continued ever since. Fifty years afterwards there is no lack of skeptics inside the socialist ranks who doubt or deny that a party of the Leninist type is either necessary or desirable. And even where Lenin’s theory is clearly understood and convincing, the problem of the vanguard party remains as urgent as ever, since it has yet to be solved in the everyday struggle against the old order.

A correct appreciation of the vanguard party and its indispensable role depends upon understanding the crucial importance of the subjective factors in the working-class revolution. On a broad historical scale, and in the final accounting, economic conditions are decisive in shaping the development of society. This truth of historical materialism does not negate the fact that the political and psychological processes unfolding within the working masses more directly and immediately affect the course, the pace, and the outcome of the national and world revolution. Once the objective material preconditions for revolutionary activity by the workers have reached a certain point of maturity, their will and consciousness, expressed through the intervention of the organized vanguard, can become the key component in determining the outcome of the class struggle.

The Leninist theory of the vanguard party is based on two factors: the heterogeneity of the working class and the exceptionally conscious character of the movement for socialism. The revolutionizing of the working class and oppressed people in general is a complex, prolonged, and contradictory affair. Under class society and capitalism, the toilers are stratified and divided in many ways; they live under very dissimilar conditions and are at disparate stages of economic and political development. Their outlook is narrow. Consequently they do not and cannot all at once, en masse and to the same degree, arrive at a clear and comprehensive understanding of their real position in society or the political course they must follow to end the evils they suffer from and make their way to a better system.

This irregular self-determination of the class as a whole is the primary cause for a vanguard party. It has to be constituted by those elements of the class and their spokesmen who grasp the requirements for revolutionary action and proceed to their implementation sooner than the bulk of the working class on both a national and international scale. Here also is the basic reason that the vanguard always begins as a minority of its class, a “splinter group”. The earliest formations of advanced workers committed to socialism, and their intellectual associates propagating its views, must first organize themselves around a definite body of scientific doctrine, class tradition, and experience, and work out a correct political program in order then to organize and lead the big battalions of revolutionary forces.

The vanguard party should aim at all times to reach, move, and win the broadest masses. Yet, beginning with Lenin’s Bolsheviks, no such party has ever started out with the backing of the majority of the class and as its recognized head. It originates, as a rule, as a group of propagandists concerned with the elaboration and dissemination of ideas. It trains, teaches, and tempers cadres around that program and outlook which they take to the masses for consideration, adoption, action, and verification.

The size and influence of their organization is never a matter of indifference to serious revolutionists. Nonetheless, quantitative indices alone cannot be taken as the decisive determinants for judging the real nature of a revolutionary grouping. More fundamental are such qualitative features as the program and relationship with the class whose interests it formulates, represents, and fights for.

“The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a program; the program cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party”, wrote Trotsky in What Next?— “The class, taken by itself, is only raw material for exploitation. The working class acquires an independent role only at that moment when, from a social class in itself, it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious.”

Marxism teaches that the revolution against capitalism and the socialist reconstruction of the old world can be accomplished only through conscious, collective action by the workers themselves. The vanguard party is the highest expression and irreplaceable instrument of that class consciousness at all stages of the world revolutionary process. In the prerevolutionary period the vanguard assembles and welds together the cadres who march ahead of the main army but seek at all points to maintain correct relations with it. The vanguard grows in numbers and influence and comes to the fore in the course of the mass struggle for power which it aspires to bring to a successful conclusion.

A political organization capable of handling such colossal tasks cannot arise spontaneously or haphazardly; it has to be continuously, consistently and consciously built. It is not only foolish but fatal to take a lackadaisical attitude toward party-building or its problems. The bitter experiences of so many revolutionary opportunities aborted, mismanaged, and ruined over the past half century by inadequate or treacherous leaderships has incontestably demonstrated that nonchalance in this vital area is a sure formula for disorientation and defeat.

The vanguard party, guided by the methods of scientific socialism and totally dedicated to the welfare of the toiling masses and all victims of oppression, must always be in principled opposition to the guardians and institutions of class society. These traits can immunize it against the infections, and armor it against the pressures, of alien class influences. But the Leninist party must be, above all, a combat party intent on organizing the masses for effective action leading to the taking of power.

That overriding aim determines the character of the party and priority of its tasks. It cannot be a talking shop for aimless and endless debate. The purpose of its deliberations, discussions, and internal disputes is to arrive at decisions for action and systematic work. Neither can it be itself a model of the future socialist society. It is a band of revolutionary fighters, ready, willing, and able to meet and defeat all enemies of the people and assist the masses in clearing the way to the new world.

The vanguard party cannot be proclaimed by sectarian fiat or be created overnight. Its leadership and membership are selected and sifted out by tests and trials in the mass movement, and in the internal controversies and sharp conflicts over the critical policy questions raised at every turn in the class struggle. It is not possible to step over, and even less possible to leap over, the preliminary stage in which the basic cadres of the party organize and reorganize themselves in preparation for, and in connection with, the larger job of organizing and winning over broad sections of the masses.

The decisive role that kind of party can play in the making of history was dramatically exemplified by the Bolshevik cadres in the First World War and the first working-class revolution. These cadres degenerated or were destroyed and replaced after Lenin’s death by the totalitarian apparatus of the Soviet bureaucracy fashioned under Stalin. The importance of such cadres was negatively confirmed by the terrible defeats of the socialist forces in other countries, extending from the Germany of 1918 to the Spain of 1936-1939, because of the opportunism, defects, or defaults of the labor leaderships.

Contrary to the opinions of some other students of his remarkable career, I believe that Trotsky’s most valuable contribution to the world revolutionary movement in the struggle against Stalinism and centrism was his defense and enrichment of the Leninist principles of the party, culminating in the decision to create new parties of the Fourth International along these lines. Trotsky was from 1903 to 1917 opposed in theory and practice to Lenin’s methods of building a revolutionary party. It is a tribute to his exemplary objectivity and capacity for growth that he wholeheartedly came over to Lenin’s conceptions in 1917, when he saw them verified by the developments of the revolution at home and abroad.

From that point to his last day Trotsky never for a moment wavered in his adherence to these methods of party-building. After correcting his mistake in that department, he became, after Lenin’s death in 1924, the foremost exponent and developer of the Bolshevik traditions of the vanguard party in national and international politics.

Most people think that Trotsky’s genius was best displayed in his work as theorist of the permanent revolution, as the head of the October uprising, or as creator and commander of the Red Army. I believe that he exercised his powers of revolutionary Marxist leadership most eminently not during the rise but during the recession of the Russian and world revolutions, when, as leader of the Left Opposition, he undertook to save the program and perspectives of the Bolshevik Party against the Stalinist reaction, and then founded the Fourth International once the Comintern had decisively disclosed its bankruptcy in 1933. The purpose of the new International was to create and coordinate new revolutionary mass parties of the world working class.

Trotsky summarized his views on the momentous importance of the vanguard party in the “Transitional Program” he drafted for its founding congress in 1938. He asserted that “the historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership”. The principal strategic task for our whole epoch is “overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the working class and its vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation, the inexperience of the younger generation)”.

He pointed out that the vanguard party was the sole agency by which this burning political problem of the imperialist phase of world capitalism could be solved. More specifically, he stated categorically: “… the crisis of the working-class leadership, having become the crisis in mankind’s culture, can be resolved only by the Fourth International”, the World Party of the Socialist Revolution.

The difficulties encountered by the Trotskyist vanguard over the past three decades show that there are no easy or simple recipes for solving the multiple problems posed by this necessity. The major obstacle to building alternative leaderships in most of these countries is the presence of powerful and wealthy Labor, Social Democratic, or Communist organizations which exercise bureaucratic control over the labor movement, but for traditional reasons continue to exact a certain loyalty from the workers.

The history of American communism since its inception in 1919 has been a record of struggle for the right kind of party. All the other problems have been related to this central issue.

Everything that has been done since October 1917 for the advancement of socialism in this citadel of world capitalism and counterrevolution has been governed by this necessity of building the vanguard party, and whatever will be accomplished in the future will, in my opinion, revolve around it.

The Leninist party proved indispensable in Russia, where the belated bourgeoisie was a feeble social and political force. It will be a million times more necessary in America, the home of the strongest, richest, and most ruthless exploiting class. The Bolshevik conception of the party and its leadership originated and was first put to the test in the weakest and most backward of capitalist countries. I venture to predict that it will become naturalized and find its fullest application in the struggle for socialism in the most developed country of capitalism.

The revolutionists here confront the most highly organized concentration of economic, political, military, and cultural power in history. These mighty forces of reaction cannot and will not be overthrown without a movement of the popular masses, black and white, men and women, which has a centralized, disciplined, principled, experienced Marxist leadership at its head.

It is impossible to stumble into a successful revolution in the United States. It will have to be organized and directed by people and a party that have at their command all the theory, knowledge, resources, and lessons accumulated by the world working class. Its know-how and organization in politics and action must match and surpass that of its enemies.

Those who claim that a Leninist party is irrelevant or unneeded in the advanced capitalisms are 100% wrong. On the contrary, such a party is an absolutely essential condition and instrument for the promotion and triumph of the socialist revolution in the United States, the paragon of world capitalism. Just as the overturn inaugurated by the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky in 1917 was the first giant step in the world socialist revolution and renovation, so the Leninist theory of the party, first vindicated by that event, will find its ultimate verification in the overthrow of imperialism in its central fortress and the establishment of a socialist regime with full democracy on American soil.

Nothing less than the fate of humanity hinges upon the speediest solution of the drawn-out crisis of working-class leadership. This will have to be done under the banner and through the program of the parties of the Fourth International. The very physical existence of our species depends upon the prompt fulfillment of this supreme obligation. No greater task was ever shouldered by revolutionists of the Marxist school—and not too much time will be given by the monopolists and militarists at bay to carry it through.

Our motto is: “To work with more energy toward that goal and win it for the good of humankind.”


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