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 régime of accumulation that can be strategically turned against that régime. 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 coördinate 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.