All Tomorrow’s Parties: A Reply to Critics

Though my arti­cle “The Actu­al­i­ty of the Rev­o­lu­tion” cen­tered on Lenin and 1917, it was real­ly about the present. I think this became clear­er as the debate on the arti­cle pro­gressed, encom­pass­ing ques­tions with­in the Occu­py move­ment. For this rea­son, I’ve decid­ed not to quib­ble over details, but rather to review the his­to­ry in a way that more clear­ly shows how this debate, and the role the Bol­she­viks played in 1917, speaks to our cur­rent his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture. Since the press­ing ques­tion, the one that tied all these arti­cles togeth­er, was actu­al­ly the ques­tion of the par­ty, I will try to clar­i­fy and elab­o­rate my analy­sis of the func­tion of the par­ty form, respond­ing to the three cri­tiques of my orig­i­nal argu­ment.


Mal­colm Har­ris begins by sug­gest­ing that a changed class com­po­si­tion requires a changed form of strug­gle. He writes:

The same traits that the “knowl­edge econ­o­my” val­orizes (spon­tane­ity, ambi­tion, self-orga­ni­za­tion, quick always-on com­mu­ni­ca­tion, work­ing in teams) are what have enabled the occu­pa­tions to take hold in the par­tic­u­lar form that they have. “Idle chat­ter” between work­ers was a threat on the Fordist pro­duc­tion line, now it’s a site of cap­ture. We’re trained to do it. Of course the rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers went to look for Lenin at the cru­cial moment – but would we?

The con­clu­sion is that it is pre­cise­ly those spe­cif­ic traits val­orized by a giv­en regime of accu­mu­la­tion that can be strate­gi­cal­ly turned against that regime. Cap­i­tal, in oth­er words, pro­vides us with the raw mate­ri­als that we can then use to destroy it. But hav­ing poten­tial weapons to work with and actu­al­ly over­throw­ing the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion are two very dif­fer­ent things. There is a gap between these moments, and a great leap must be made to turn this poten­tial­i­ty into an actu­al­i­ty. One does not organ­i­cal­ly grow into the oth­er; some­thing must actu­al­ly be done to mate­ri­al­ly trans­form these traits into points of dis­rup­tion.

It’s easy to sim­ply per­form a the­o­ret­i­cal mag­ic trick: to assume that the move­ment from a poten­tial army cre­at­ed by cap­i­tal to an actu­al antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject con­fronting cap­i­tal will just hap­pen on its own. The the­o­ret­i­cal hole is there­by plugged by recourse to the con­cep­tu­al stop­gap known as spon­tane­ity. There is no need for a pro­gram, for an orga­ni­za­tion – for any­thing, real­ly. The mass­es, espe­cial­ly today, with our par­tic­u­lar class com­po­si­tion, marked as they are by “spon­tane­ity, ambi­tion, self-orga­ni­za­tion, quick always-on com­mu­ni­ca­tion, work­ing in teams,” will nat­u­ral­ly become that polit­i­cal sub­ject since they are already implic­it­ly that very sub­ject.

It is at this point that Todd Chre­tien makes a deci­sive con­tri­bu­tion to the debate. Look­ing back on the his­to­ry of the Bol­she­viks, he observes that in 1917, the process that Mal­colm describes did not take place spon­ta­neous­ly at all:

As Alexan­der Rabi­now­itch demon­strates exhaus­tive­ly, the Par­ty can­not be reduced sim­ply “lead­ers” and “mass­es.” Rather, hun­dreds, and thou­sands, of local lead­ers, work­place mil­i­tants, sol­dier and sailor activists, intel­lec­tu­als and a net­work of news­pa­pers and shop and trench papers bound the cen­tral com­mit­tee organ­i­cal­ly to the influx of new mem­bers.

In oth­er words, the mass­es did not nat­u­ral­ly come togeth­er as an army; nor were they blind­ly led by a leader. They turned them­selves into such an army only by way of innu­mer­able over­lap­ping lay­ers of orga­ni­za­tion. Some were quite vis­i­ble, like the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee, while oth­ers, like some of the affin­i­ty groups, went by entire­ly unno­ticed.

Some of these orga­ni­za­tion­al con­nec­tions were forged after Feb­ru­ary, oth­ers dur­ing the great exper­i­ment of 1905, and still oth­ers stretched as far back as the 1890s. To use Ser­gio Bologna’s expres­sion, we can say that “microsys­tems of strug­gle,” involv­ing gen­er­a­tions of polit­i­cal­ly mature mil­i­tants, had already been formed through a series of accu­mu­lat­ing cycles of strug­gles. While we may in ret­ro­spect see this whole process – the build­ing of an army against cap­i­tal – as spon­ta­neous, this is only because the intri­cate lev­els of orga­ni­za­tion that worked to build that army have now been for­got­ten. This is why care­ful his­tor­i­cal analy­sis should not be dis­missed as pedantry. If we ignore these exact­ing his­tor­i­cal details, we end up for­get­ting what actu­al­ly hap­pened, reach­ing for illu­so­ry con­cepts like spon­tane­ity that mis­rep­re­sent how a very com­plex his­tor­i­cal process unfold­ed.


Every cycle of strug­gle invents, or at least attempts to invent, a set of his­tor­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate forms of pro­le­tar­i­an self-activ­i­ty. After a messy process of col­lec­tive exper­i­men­ta­tion, one of these forms usu­al­ly emerges as dom­i­nant, and there­by pro­vides the frame­work with­in which the oth­ers devel­op. In 1917 this was the sovi­et – nest­ed coun­cils of orga­nized work­ers, peas­ants, and sol­diers push­ing for the self-man­age­ment of the means of pro­duc­tion.

At the most ele­men­tary lev­el, the sovi­et, as the dom­i­nant form of pro­le­tar­i­an self-activ­i­ty at that spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture, was essen­tial­ly a gath­er­ing point. In pro­vid­ing a space where dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the work­ing class could come togeth­er, it ulti­mate­ly allowed that class to devel­op its inter­ests autonomous­ly. The class could dis­cuss, and act upon, its own unique needs, con­cerns, and desires, trans­form­ing the sovi­et into an alter­na­tive space, the pre­fig­u­ra­tion of a dif­fer­ent way of liv­ing, and, con­se­quent­ly, the open­ing through which the pro­le­tari­at could under­take its exo­dus from the cap­i­tal rela­tion itself.

But even all this was insuf­fi­cient to make a rev­o­lu­tion, since the sim­ple appear­ance of the sovi­ets did not in itself guar­an­tee that the pro­le­tari­at would con­front cap­i­tal in a direct­ly antag­o­nis­tic way. The sovi­ets were spaces where the entire­ty of the work­ing class, from its most advanced ele­ments to its most back­wards, could be brought into dia­logue. This meant that all work­ers, regard­less of their polit­i­cal posi­tions, could express them­selves demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly. This did not mean that they would there­fore all be in favor of over­throw­ing the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. Many months after Feb­ru­ary, in fact, most sovi­ets remained opposed to direct­ly tak­ing pow­er from the hands of the Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment. They cer­tain­ly pos­sessed their fair share of rad­i­cal ele­ments, but they were also com­posed of mod­er­ates, and even con­ser­v­a­tives. Their Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tees, real­ly up until the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion itself, were large­ly dom­i­nat­ed by Men­she­viks and SRs who rep­re­sent­ed great sec­tors of the work­ing mass­es that were still adamant­ly opposed to mak­ing any kind of rev­o­lu­tion against cap­i­tal.

There is, in oth­er words, a great dif­fer­ence between gath­er­ing the work­ing class togeth­er and forg­ing that het­ero­ge­neous mass into what Mal­colm has called an army. Sovi­ets can in fact coex­ist with cap­i­tal for a time; they are not, in and of them­selves, against cap­i­tal. Even­tu­al­ly, if the sovi­ets fail to over­throw it, cap­i­tal will sim­ply incor­po­rate them into its own process­es of reorder­ing. This is, in part, what hap­pened in Ger­many in 1918. Coun­cils appeared all over the coun­try, but despite their empha­sis on pro­le­tar­i­an auton­o­my, and the need for self-man­age­ment of pro­duc­tion, they nev­er put the cap­i­tal rela­tion itself into ques­tion.  Fail­ing to direct­ly con­front cap­i­tal, they end­ed up just man­ag­ing it bet­ter, and with it, their own exploita­tion.

“Work­ers’ strug­gles,” Mario Tron­ti has writ­ten, “deter­mine the course of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment; but cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment will use those strug­gles for its own ends if no orga­nized rev­o­lu­tion­ary process opens up, capa­ble of chang­ing that bal­ance of forces. It is easy to see this in the case of social strug­gles in which the entire sys­temic appa­ra­tus of dom­i­na­tion repo­si­tions itself, reforms, democ­ra­tizes and sta­bi­lizes itself anew.”  So some oth­er ele­ment, beyond that of autonomous strug­gles, had to be present in order to build that army, turn this aggre­gate mass into a ful­ly antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject, and direct­ly assault the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. With­out this ele­ment, what­ev­er it may be, these strug­gles would sim­ply end up help­ing cap­i­tal improve itself.

At the risk of being gross­ly mis­un­der­stood, I will call this ele­ment the par­ty. I take the par­ty to mean that his­tor­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate form of com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tion which grows out of a cor­re­spond­ing form of pro­le­tar­i­an self-activ­i­ty in order to help this lat­ter form direct­ly con­front the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. In 1917 this was the Bol­she­vik Par­ty. While the sovi­et was the form which allowed the raw mate­r­i­al which cap­i­tal had pro­duced to become a poten­tial army by build­ing its autonomous pow­er, the par­ty was, at least in 1917, the ele­ment which allowed this poten­tial army to become an actu­al, effec­tive, fight­ing force direct­ed against a clear ene­my.

The par­ty accom­plished this through what I have called “artic­u­la­tion.” On the one hand, to artic­u­late is to com­mu­ni­cate, for­mu­late, or express a giv­en con­tent by mov­ing it to a dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter. On the oth­er hand, to artic­u­late is to join sep­a­rate ele­ments togeth­er, and the artic­u­la­tor, in this sense, can be under­stood as the joint itself. This term describes the activ­i­ty of the par­ty in at least two ways: the par­ty artic­u­lat­ed a con­tent and it artic­u­lat­ed a bloc.

The par­ty “artic­u­lat­ed” in this first way by express­ing, or giv­ing voice to, the per­spec­tive of the Russ­ian pro­le­tari­at. The sovi­et, as we saw, was the form that the autonomous activ­i­ty of the pro­le­tari­at assumed at that spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture. But pre­cise­ly because of this, because it was just a form, the sovi­et did not nec­es­sar­i­ly car­ry its own spe­cif­ic con­tent. That con­tent had to be devel­oped, “worked up,” through the inter­ven­tion of some oth­er ele­ment. It was the par­ty, as that oth­er ele­ment, that devel­oped the con­tent of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary project in 1917.

The par­ty “artic­u­lat­ed” in a sec­ond way by join­ing the het­ero­ge­neous, and often hos­tile, ele­ments that made up the broad work­ing class­es into a sin­gle antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject. The sovi­ets might have brought these mass­es togeth­er, but there was no guar­an­tee of this inter­ac­tion becom­ing a fusion, and with­out a join­ing ele­ment these work­ers might have remained sep­a­rate even in their uni­ty. It is the par­ty that bond­ed them togeth­er by artic­u­lat­ing them into a bloc. In Rus­sia, in 1917, this meant link­ing the pro­le­tari­at to the oth­er class­es of Russ­ian soci­ety – most impor­tant­ly, the poor peas­antry. Let’s not for­get that the peas­ants and work­ers actu­al­ly had their own sep­a­rate sovi­ets, their own inter­ests, and their own needs. Their “com­ing-togeth­er” could nev­er have been a spon­ta­neous act. It was the cru­cial inter­ven­tion of the par­ty that allowed this alliance to come about by act­ing as a bind­ing ele­ment. It was the Bol­she­viks who tried to help the class over­come divi­sions with­in itself as well as between it and oth­er poten­tial­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary labor­ing class­es.

It should be appar­ent that these two aspects, artic­u­la­tion as for­mu­la­tion and artic­u­la­tion as join­ing, were actu­al­ly close­ly relat­ed. Clar­i­fy­ing the con­tent of the most mil­i­tant lay­er of the work­ing mass­es actu­al­ly helped draw this mass togeth­er into a sin­gle sub­ject; and draw­ing this mass togeth­er actu­al­ly helped clar­i­fy the con­tent of its most rad­i­cal ele­ments. The par­ty, at least in Rus­sia 1917, was that ele­ment indis­pens­able to cre­at­ing an antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject with a clear con­tent direct­ly opposed to cap­i­tal.


One of the prin­ci­pal ways in which the par­ty advanced a rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­tent was through the the­o­riza­tion of pro­grams. The par­ty writes a pro­gram in order to clar­i­fy the con­tent of the strug­gles of the work­ing class; and it is this pro­gram that the par­ty can use to uni­fy the dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the work­ing mass­es. There are at least two dif­fer­ent kinds of pro­gram. There are those care­ful­ly detailed pieces of the­o­ret­i­cal writ­ing that few will ever see but which actu­al­ly work to clar­i­fy mat­ters with­in the par­ty itself; and there are those broad slo­gans that work to amal­ga­mate dif­fer­ent social lay­ers into a sin­gle rev­o­lu­tion­ary bloc. State and Rev­o­lu­tion was a pro­gram of the first type; “Land, Bread, and Peace” was a pro­gram of the sec­ond. In between these two pri­ma­ry cat­e­gories were moments of medi­a­tion. All were prod­ucts of the­o­ry.

Indeed, among oth­er things, the par­ty, or at least a spe­cif­ic lay­er with­in it, did the­o­ry, of which there were at least two prin­ci­pal func­tions. The first func­tion was to allow the par­ty to artic­u­late the com­mu­nist con­tent that could not, as I have already argued above, emerge spon­ta­neous­ly from the sovi­ets. It is cru­cial to empha­size the actu­al source of this con­tent. The par­ty did not, as Lenin once seemed to sug­gest, impose its con­tent onto the pro­le­tari­at from with­out; it actu­al­ly found the out­lines of this con­tent already present in the autonomous strug­gles of the pro­le­tari­at itself, which were them­selves already endowed with polit­i­cal knowl­edge. This con­tent, then, was not dis­cov­ered through sequestered schol­ar­ship but through a care­ful obser­va­tion of the polit­i­cal behav­iour of the class. It was the work­ing class itself, and espe­cial­ly its most advanced ele­ments, that pro­duced the rudi­ments of some sys­tem of polit­i­cal con­tent in its strug­gles. The task of the Bol­she­vik par­ty was to access the view­point of that class in order to extract that implic­it con­tent. The­o­ry worked to ren­der this con­tent explic­it, to clar­i­fy it, deep­en it, and then return it to the work­ing class itself in a way that could advance its strug­gles. The work­ing class, through its con­tin­ued strug­gles, devel­oped this con­tent fur­ther, which was then reartic­u­lat­ed by the par­ty, and once more returned to the class. The­o­ry was there­fore not a plan that some­how pre­ced­ed the activ­i­ty of the work­ing class in order to make it bet­ter; it did not solve prob­lems, it did not engi­neer answers, and it did not guide the work­ing class to some pre­de­ter­mined telos.

The sec­ond func­tion of the­o­ry was to help the Russ­ian pro­le­tari­at break with the cap­i­tal­ist state by com­bat­ting it at the lev­el of ide­ol­o­gy. The autonomous strug­gles of the pro­le­tari­at may coex­ist with the cap­i­tal­ist state for a peri­od of time, which hap­pened in 1917 between the sovi­ets the Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment. This high­ly unsta­ble sit­u­a­tion, at one point called “dual pow­er,” would have like­ly end­ed with the cap­i­tal­ist state suc­cess­ful­ly restruc­tur­ing work­ers’ strug­gles, had those strug­gles not tak­en the ini­tia­tive by vio­lent­ly break­ing with the state. This break, as I have already tried to argue, was not a nat­ur­al con­se­quence of those strug­gles, since there was noth­ing ineluctably dri­ving the sovi­et towards such a deci­sive rup­ture. It had to be made.

This rup­ture had to occur at sev­er­al points because the cap­i­tal­ist state itself oper­at­ed – and con­tin­ues to oper­ate – at the inter­sec­tion of a num­ber of lev­els. One of these, and often the most pri­ma­ry, was the ide­o­log­i­cal ter­rain, even in 1917. Since the cap­i­tal­ist state oper­at­ed in large part with­in ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es, the rup­ture with the state also had to be, at least in part, a con­se­quence of a pro­tract­ed strug­gle on the field of ide­ol­o­gy. The­o­ry was the form that class strug­gle assumed on this ter­rain. Its task was to assist the pro­le­tari­at in break­ing with the ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es that worked to repro­duce the cap­i­tal­ist state, which it did by elab­o­rat­ing clear “lines of demar­ca­tion,” sep­a­rat­ing the pro­le­tari­at from cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­o­gy, and giv­ing it an open space with­in which to devel­op. The ulti­mate aim, of course, was to take self-activ­i­ty out of the world of “dual pow­er,” the coex­is­tence of state and sovi­et, and into antag­o­nis­tic sub­jec­tiv­i­ty.

These twin func­tions of the­o­ry – elab­o­rat­ing a con­tent and fight­ing the state – should be seen as two aspects of the same process. That is, there can be no strug­gle against the cap­i­tal­ist state – and the ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gle is an ele­ment of this – except inso­far as it is con­sti­tut­ed by the autonomous strug­gles of the pro­le­tari­at. So the artic­u­la­tion of these strug­gles is a strug­gle against the state: an autonomous strug­gle takes shape as a strug­gle against the state when it is artic­u­lat­ed with the ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gle. If that autonomous strug­gle is not artic­u­lat­ed with the ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gle, or does not bind with the elab­o­ra­tion of the­o­ry, then it will nei­ther devel­op an explic­it­ly com­mu­nist con­tent nor direct­ly con­front the state as an antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject. It will remain with­in the con­text of “dual pow­er,” with­out ever push­ing beyond it, even­tu­al­ly being con­sumed by the state. The­o­ry must inter­vene to assist the pro­le­tari­at in mak­ing this break.

Part of the impor­tance of State and Rev­o­lu­tion is that it serves as an exam­ple of this kind of inter­ven­tion. Lenin’s piece was a prod­uct of the­o­ry in both sens­es. On the one hand, it tried to artic­u­late the polit­i­cal con­tent implic­it in the pro­le­tar­i­an strug­gles that cul­mi­nat­ed in the July Days in a way that deep­ened this con­tent; on the oth­er hand, it tried to strug­gle against the ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es with­in which the Russ­ian state oper­at­ed by draw­ing a clear “divid­ing-line,” the phrase Lenin him­self used to under­stand the object of the­o­ret­i­cal work, with­in the broad­er ter­rain of ide­ol­o­gy. This line could nev­er have been drawn had it not first been informed by the polit­i­cal con­tent thrown up by the autonomous strug­gles of the pro­le­tari­at; and this implic­it con­tent would have remained mere­ly rudi­men­ta­ry had it not been artic­u­lat­ed with an ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gle capa­ble of pro­duc­ing such a sharp break. The anti-state pro­gram set out in State and Rev­o­lu­tion was itself a join­ing ele­ment.

Divi­sion of Labor

Pham Binh rais­es an impor­tant ques­tion when he reviews the his­to­ry of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion:

The notion that Lenin artic­u­lat­ed at the lev­el of the­o­ry the “actu­al­i­ty of rev­o­lu­tion” and made explic­it what was implic­it in the strug­gles of the day smacks of the divi­sion between men­tal and man­u­al labor, between phi­los­o­phy and action, between the­o­ry and prac­tice, between intel­lec­tu­als and work­ers, between think­ing and doing.

In a cer­tain sense, Binh is cor­rect to note that this divi­sion is inher­ent to my under­stand­ing of Lenin’s role, and by impli­ca­tion, in my under­stand­ing of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary process itself. I must admit that I do believe there was some divi­sion of labor with­in the move­ment. But I think this was pre­cise­ly because cap­i­tal itself – the pro­duc­tive process and its accom­pa­ny­ing sys­tem of social clas­si­fi­ca­tion – nec­es­sar­i­ly gen­er­ates such a divi­sion of labor. Cap­i­tal always divides the work­ing class into var­i­ous lay­ers, pro­motes dif­fer­ent skills, and places unequal empha­sis on dif­fer­ent sec­tors of pro­duc­tion. This is no less true today than dur­ing Lenin’s time.

If we fol­low Malcolm’s obser­va­tion that we fight cap­i­tal by using it against itself, but turn­ing its attrib­ut­es into weak­ness­es, then it must fol­low that our army will bear the marks of the ene­my who bequeathed it to us in the first place. This means that the divi­sion of labor will still be with us. So although one of our prin­ci­pal aims will be to defin­i­tive­ly abol­ish the divi­sion of labor, it is clear that our strug­gles against it will nonethe­less have to take place through it, since our only option is to use this divi­sion of labor against cap­i­tal­ism. To sim­ply wish it away all at once would be utter­ly utopi­an.

All this means is that work­ers will work dif­fer­ent­ly, strug­gle dif­fer­ent­ly, and par­tic­i­pate in any kind of move­ment dif­fer­ent­ly; they will play dif­fer­ent roles in the total­i­ty of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process. It is only nat­ur­al that some, per­haps those employed more pre­dom­i­nant­ly in the “knowl­edge econ­o­my” of which Mal­colm speaks, will be more involved in the writ­ing of the­o­ry, while oth­ers, employed in dif­fer­ent sec­tors, will be involved in dif­fer­ent kinds of equal­ly impor­tant sub­ver­sive activ­i­ties. To turn all work­ers into the­o­rists would not only be poor strat­e­gy, it would frankly be impos­si­ble. Each lay­er of the work­ing class should autonomous­ly devel­op strate­gies that will work to ampli­fy their own par­tic­u­lar strengths. In 1917, it was up to the Bol­she­vik par­ty, which was quick­ly being sup­port­ed by a num­ber of dif­fer­ent lay­ers, to coor­di­nate these strug­gles at dif­fer­ent lev­els.

In 1917 the par­ty was com­posed of mul­ti­ple pro­le­tar­i­an lay­ers; it includ­ed both “intel­lec­tu­al work­ers,” or “intel­lec­tu­als,” who prin­ci­pal­ly wrote the­o­ry, as well as oth­er “non-intel­lec­tu­al work­ers,” who prin­ci­pal­ly engaged in oth­er activ­i­ties. But just because one group of work­ers hap­pened to write the­o­ry, or attempt­ed to artic­u­late the gen­er­al inter­ests of their entire class, did not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that this lay­er would have inevitably dom­i­nat­ed all the oth­ers by ele­vat­ing its own tasks to the sum­mit of some for­mal hier­ar­chy. On the con­trary, while these dif­fer­ent lay­ers cer­tain­ly pur­sued dif­fer­ent tasks, the par­ty, as the site of the encounter between dif­fer­ent seg­ments of work­ing mass­es, was pre­cise­ly that which pro­vid­ed the struc­ture with­in which these dif­fer­ent lay­ers can pur­sue their spe­cial­ized activ­i­ties in a way that pro­gres­sive­ly destroys the very divi­sion of labor that under­girds them, there­by attack­ing the hier­ar­chy at its roots. Even Lenin, who argued so force­ful­ly for a spe­cial­iza­tion of tasks, saw as ear­ly as 1902 that one of the pri­ma­ry func­tions of the par­ty was to serve as the place where “all dis­tinc­tions as between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als, not to speak of dis­tinc­tions of trade and pro­fes­sion in both cat­e­gories, must be effaced.” The par­ty was to be a machine where intel­lec­tu­als were to abol­ish them­selves.

One of the ways the divi­sion of labor is sub­vert­ed is the explic­it trans­for­ma­tion of the­o­ry into a process, rather than the priv­i­leged activ­i­ty of some sequestered social group. Although it was cer­tain­ly “knowl­edge work­ers,” or the for­mer “intel­li­gentsia” that actu­al­ly wrote the­o­ry in 1917, the par­ty made the­o­ry a col­lec­tive process in which these intel­lec­tu­als were sub­mit­ted to the ini­tia­tive of the work­ing class. Dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion the par­ty became some­thing of a trans­mis­sion belt, a kind of “hyphen” between those who wrote the­o­ry and those who did not: pro­le­tar­i­an expe­ri­ences would go to the mil­i­tant the­o­rists, mil­i­tant the­o­ries based on those expe­ri­ences would go back to the broad­er work­ing class through the par­ty, these new­ly enriched pro­le­tar­i­an expe­ri­ences would return once again to the mil­i­tant the­o­rists, and so on. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, who would lat­er try to rethink such a process for his own time, put it this way: “a rev­o­lu­tion­ary puts before work­ers ideas that allow them to orga­nize and clar­i­fy their expe­ri­ence – and, when these work­ers use these ideas to go fur­ther, to give rise to new, pos­i­tive con­tents of the strug­gle, and even­tu­al­ly to ‘edu­cate the edu­ca­tor.’”

So while it may appear that  the­o­ry orig­i­nat­ed with the intel­li­gentsia, it was actu­al­ly con­sti­tut­ed by the work­ers them­selves. Or bet­ter yet, it was real­ly a set of prac­tices col­lec­tive­ly advanced by dif­fer­ent lay­ers of the par­ty. The par­ty, which was com­posed of both “intel­lec­tu­als” and “work­ers,” was what allowed these var­i­ous lay­ers to encounter each oth­er in the first place, and there­fore stood as that cir­cuit link­ing the dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the mil­i­tant work­ing class togeth­er. It is only when that flu­id cir­cuit slow­ly eat­ing away at the divi­sion of labor becomes ossi­fied, or just breaks down alto­geth­er, that the com­mu­ni­ca­tion with­in the class became uni­lat­er­al rather than rec­i­p­ro­cal. This took place after 1917; once this hap­pens, the par­ty either becomes a bureau­cra­tized insti­tu­tion, as it did lat­er in Rus­sia, or these dif­fer­ent work­ers, and espe­cial­ly “intel­lec­tu­al work­ers” and “non-intel­lec­tu­al work­ers,” just split off and go their own way. Intel­lec­tu­al work­ers would just pur­sue their own goals, pro­duc­ing iso­lat­ed frag­ments of “knowl­edge” after lengthy rumi­na­tion; and non-intel­lec­tu­al work­ers would be left with­out a the­o­ret­i­cal lan­guage to artic­u­late the polit­i­cal con­tent of their strug­gle, there­by mak­ing it impos­si­ble for them to turn the traits of cap­i­tal into weak­ness­es, and to abol­ish it alto­geth­er.

This divi­sion of labor, then, can­not be hur­ried­ly tossed out just because we object to it at the lev­el of moral prin­ci­ples. Nor can we just ignore it, since that would actu­al­ly lead it to total­ly dom­i­nate our strug­gles, ulti­mate­ly pro­duc­ing a very destruc­tive kind of van­guardism. We can already observe this risk in Malcolm’s argu­ment. By sug­gest­ing that the nec­es­sary form of polit­i­cal strug­gle today is based in the sen­si­bil­i­ties of “knowl­edge work,” Mal­colm ends up exclud­ing oth­er kinds of work­ers from pol­i­tics. Knowl­edge work­ers like Mal­colm are a very small per­cent­age of the world’s pop­u­la­tion; and while process­es of pro­duc­tion across indus­tries and coun­tries are affect­ed by new tech­nolo­gies, there are still many work­ers with dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent forms of life. The Amer­i­can work­ing class, for instance, includes jan­i­tors from El Sal­vador and auto work­ers in Ten­nessee; and the toil­ing mass­es of the world include farm­ers and slum-dwellers. They have their own demands and they will put forth their own forms of strug­gle; just because we’re knowl­edge work­ers doesn’t mean we should know what they should do.


Mal­colm asks if we, like the rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers of the July Days, would go look for Lenin “at the cru­cial moment.” He implies that we would not. But we should first ask what the Russ­ian work­ers were look­ing for when they went look­ing for Lenin. In the his­to­ry I traced in my arti­cle, Lenin must be under­stood as a kind of metonym for the par­ty – which is, as I have argued above, that bind­ing ele­ment which simul­ta­ne­ous­ly artic­u­lates a con­tent and a bloc. Our task will be to invent our own his­tor­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate Lenin; not as an indi­vid­ual, but as an artic­u­lat­ing func­tion, as an his­tor­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate form of orga­ni­za­tion capa­ble of build­ing our tech­ni­cal class com­po­si­tion into a polit­i­cal one in direct con­fronta­tion with cap­i­tal. So I agree with Mal­colm that we do not have a par­ty; but I dis­agree that we will not need one. The func­tion that a par­ty real­izes is still need­ed today: we still need, despite all the dif­fer­ences between now and 1917, to find some form to bind the var­i­ous lay­ers of today’s pro­le­tari­at into an antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject direct­ly opposed to the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion.

While Todd also argues for the neces­si­ty of the par­ty, I part ways with him on this ques­tion. If I under­stand Todd cor­rect­ly, his analy­sis turns the bind­ing ele­ment into some­thing of an his­tor­i­cal invari­ant. He seems to sug­gest that the bind­ing ele­ment today must still be some kind of vari­a­tion on the one first devel­oped by Lenin in 1902. So there are two dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed posi­tions in play. Mal­colm thinks we have no need for a bind­ing ele­ment, and that every­thing will come about organ­i­cal­ly because the present is total­ly dis­con­nect­ed from the past; hence the val­ue of bliss­ful igno­rance regard­ing past works. Todd feels that we don’t need to rein­vent a new bind­ing ele­ment, and because our moment is still very sim­i­lar to the past, we only need to mod­i­fy a form of orga­ni­za­tion that has been hand­ed down to us; as a direct con­se­quence, there is great val­ue in stick­ing as close­ly as pos­si­ble to the works of the past.

This is pre­cise­ly why he con­tin­ues to insist that Lenin did not dis­tort Marx and Engels. But Lenin, to be sure, dis­tort­ed both facts and inter­pre­ta­tions. On the one hand, he implies in the first chap­ter that Engels him­self coined the cru­cial con­cept “spe­cial bod­ies of armed men.” But as Todd him­self not­ed dur­ing his talk, there is no men­tion of this term in either Marx or Engels. I would char­ac­ter­ize this as a dis­tor­tion of facts. On the oth­er hand, Lenin reads Engels’ famous pas­sage on the “with­er­ing away of the state,” for exam­ple, as an affir­ma­tion of his own belief in the absolute neces­si­ty of vio­lent rev­o­lu­tion. He writes, “As a mat­ter of fact, Engels speaks here of the pro­le­tari­at rev­o­lu­tion ‘abol­ish­ing’ the bour­geois state, while the words about the state with­er­ing away refer to the rem­nants of the pro­le­tar­i­an state after the social­ist rev­o­lu­tion. Accord­ing to Engels, the bour­geois state does not ‘with­er away’, but is ‘abol­ished’ by the pro­le­tari­at in the course of the rev­o­lu­tion. What with­ers away after this rev­o­lu­tion is the pro­le­tar­i­an state or semi-state.” This is clear­ly a dis­tor­tion of inter­pre­ta­tion. Engels may not have meant what the revi­sion­ists had thought, but he cer­tain­ly did not mean what Lenin asserts here. As Rus­tam Singh has remarked, “A care­ful read­ing of Engels’ argu­ment as quot­ed by Lenin reveals that even this is not an exact­ly cor­rect inter­pre­ta­tion of what Engels says.”

So on the one hand Lenin dis­tort­ed Marx and Engels, and on the oth­er he used this dis­tor­tion to trans­form the the­o­ry in response to spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions. The first is a ques­tion for schol­ars; to show that Lenin was not sim­ply repeat­ing invari­ant doc­trine, I under­lined this in my arti­cle. The sec­ond is a ques­tion for rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies; our under­stand­ing of Lenin’s rela­tion to Marx and Engels direct­ly informs how we in the present might engage with the past. I think it’s clear that far from under­tak­ing an objec­tive exe­ge­sis, Lenin was try­ing to extract out of Marx and Engels that which would be most rel­e­vant to mak­ing the rev­o­lu­tion in his own present. This is why he reads Engel’s famous pas­sage in a way that strong­ly advo­cates rev­o­lu­tion. I have lit­tle prob­lem with this kind of dis­tor­tion. In fact, all of us are always dis­tort­ing the the­o­rists of the past in this way, Lenin includ­ed, because this is pre­cise­ly what we must do in order to make them speak to the con­di­tions of the present.

The dan­ger in Todd’s posi­tion is that it risks freez­ing his­tor­i­cal texts in a way that would actu­al­ly cut them off from the present. To read them by the let­ter, which in any case is close to impos­si­ble since the mere fact that we are read­ing past texts from a new van­tage point means that we will dis­tort them, would be to reduce their use­ful­ness today. Insist­ing on puri­ty pre­vents us from think­ing his­tor­i­cal­ly. We have to embrace Lenin’s dis­tor­tions of Marx, just as we must embrace our dis­tor­tions of every oth­er thinker that came before us, since this is the only way to adapt them to our own needs.

Binh adds some clar­i­ty to the his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion but great con­fu­sion to the con­tem­po­rary one. On the one hand he com­pares Occu­py to the “‘Lenin­ist’ vision of a van­guard par­ty.” On the oth­er hand he writes that “the sovi­ets were pro­found­ly hor­i­zon­tal and far more demo­c­ra­t­ic and inclu­sive than our Gen­er­al Assem­blies.” In oth­er words, if I under­stand Binh cor­rect­ly, Occu­py is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly the par­ty and the sovi­et; it is there­fore both the form of pro­le­tar­i­an self-activ­i­ty appro­pri­ate for our own time as well as the form of com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tion nec­es­sary for over­throw­ing cap­i­tal­ism. If this is the case, a rather con­vo­lut­ed course of rea­son­ing has caused time and space to unrav­el. Mal­colm sug­gest­ed that the rise of knowl­edge work­ers, marked as they are by spon­tane­ity, ambi­tion, and “quick always-on com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” has actu­al­ly fused the par­ty and the sovi­et into the uni­tary form of Occu­py. Binh now seems to sug­gest, by way of some unclear analo­gies, that this was always the case, even in 1917, there­by col­laps­ing Malcolm’s his­tor­i­cal argu­ment about class com­po­si­tion into an invari­ant mod­el – a mod­el which impos­si­bly assumes that the char­ac­ter­is­tics of knowl­edge work were hege­mon­ic near­ly a cen­tu­ry ago. Now all we are left with is a vague mod­el that hasn’t changed from the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion to Occu­py.

In my read­ing of the present sit­u­a­tion, Occu­py, broad­ly defined, is not at all a kind of par­ty, van­guardist or oth­er­wise, but autonomous pro­le­tar­i­an activ­i­ty in search of a more sta­ble form. It has thus far exper­i­ment­ed with the occu­pa­tion of pub­lic spaces, then pri­vate ones, and is now con­sid­er­ing oth­er pos­si­ble forms. It is, if any­thing, the embryo of some form of sovi­et pow­er for our own time. But as for a par­ty – defined broad­ly as an artic­u­la­tor – we have yet to invent one. Some, like Mal­colm, seem to sug­gest that our his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture is so dif­fer­ent that we no longer have a need for such a medi­at­ing moment, and there­fore ignore this prob­lem alto­geth­er; oth­ers, like Todd, sug­gest that orga­ni­za­tion­al form is need­ed, and it should in many ways pat­tern itself on the one invent­ed in a pri­or cycle of strug­gle; still oth­ers, like Binh, are very unclear about the whole ques­tion.

What form this medi­at­ing orga­ni­za­tion will take, I do not know, and in fact can­not know. It will only be dis­cov­ered through col­lec­tive exper­i­men­ta­tion, not through care­ful rumi­na­tion. But look­ing at the past, and specif­i­cal­ly at 1917, can help us under­stand what the par­ty real­ly was in a pre­vi­ous con­junc­ture, why it was called into being in the first place, and what it set out to do. It seems to me that there are a great many dif­fer­ences between our moment and Lenin’s – we are no longer deal­ing, for exam­ple, with a tra­di­tion­al intel­li­gentsia, a new­ly emerg­ing indus­tri­al work­ing class, a large peas­antry, or a Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment – but many of the cir­cum­stances that forced those com­mu­nists to make a par­ty con­tin­ue to per­sist. We still need some ele­ment to help bind the dis­parate lay­ers of the work­ing class togeth­er into a sin­gle bloc; any­one who has been to any major Occu­py event knows how quick­ly our encoun­ters fade away. We still need some ele­ment to help elab­o­rate an explic­it anti-cap­i­tal­ist con­tent; any­one who has been around Occu­py knows that it will nev­er spon­ta­neous­ly do this on its own, since the move­ment is com­posed of every­one from lib­er­als to lib­er­tar­i­ans, com­mu­nists to con­ser­v­a­tives. We don’t have to call it a par­ty. In fact, once we have invent­ed a new form for this artic­u­lat­ing func­tion, per­haps we can leave the whole debate on the par­ty behind.

Illus­tra­tion by Millen Belay.

After its 2012 pub­li­ca­tion, this arti­cle was also includ­ed in a dossier enti­tled “Com­rades, Ral­ly Around Your Sovi­ets!”: The Cen­te­nary of the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion.

Author of the article

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a postdoctoral fellow in History at Bowdoin College.