Friday 30 January 2009

Lukacs and the Revolutionary Party

We saw in the last post on History and Class Consciousness that Lukacs strongly made the case for socialism as the conscious and coordinated effort of the working class before and after the revolution that finally puts pay to capitalism. In the final essay of the book, 'Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation', Lukacs turns his attention to the revolutionary party, the organisational expression of proletarian class consciousness and the main political weapon it has in its struggle against capital.

Previous discussions saw Lukacs argue that the advent of capitalism means that philosophy beginning from the standpoint of the individual inevitably reproduces, in thought, the structural relationship individual capitalists have with the rest of society. Philosophical investigations that persist from this basis can only offer
partial explanations of the world, and these in turn clash with similarly one-sided perspectives. How Marxism differs is that as the theoretical condensation of the collective experience of the working class, it is able to produce a coherent account of capitalism in its totality. The philosophy of the individual subject has now outlived its theoretical usefulness. But it is not enough that the correct theory exists. Marxism is more than a scholarly enterprise, it is a means of understanding society so it can be changed by the working class. There has to be a fusion of Marxist ideas and proletarian practice - this is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for overthrowing capitalism. But this does not happen by itself. This requires an organisational medium that infuses Marxism into the working class to the degree that makes the positive transcendence of capitalism possible - the unity of theory and practice on a mass scale is possible only through the revolutionary party.

Even when a revolutionary party has not won a majority (or even a respectable-sized minority, as is the case in most parts of the world), it still performs a mediating function. The party needs to pay the utmost attention to the DNA of theory and practice - the dialectic fusing the lessons of the past with the demands of the present to realise its objective. The resulting actions can never be smooth, but they have direction, and if the party's perspectives are right, the result will be the gaining of ground in the class from which further advances can be made. Therefore the party requires a culture that can generalise its experiences and the lessons its activists have learned throughout its ranks. The unimpeded circulation of criticism and discussion among the various levels of the party is the precondition for a self-critical party. Without this there can be an internal narrative that explains reverses in terms of "objective conditions", which suggests a slide toward fatalism. Or, alternatively, a voluntarist note can be taken by describing mistakes solely in terms of the acts of certain individuals. In either scenario the party does not learn from its practice.

Engels was fond of saying that the proof of the pudding can be found in the eating. Likewise for Lukacs, theoretical errors can be corrected through practice - this is ultimately the criterion of the veracity of any theory. For that reason, what Lukacs calls opportunist theory completely neglects practice. The last thing it wants to do is set up a position offering an internal critique of its ideas. This is why social democratic and labour parties have tended to have a liberal tolerance of the circulation of ideas within its ranks. But as is the case in any political party, active members tend to coalesce around sets of ideas, which then become expressed organisationally in terms of internal factions, pressure groups and networks of paper sellers. For Lukacs, in a vast body such as the
Second International, the old workers' parties had to balance these internal divisions with the demands of the apparatus, the politicians and their trade union affiliates and supporters. Therefore when these parties did take a position, they were a fudge that upset nobody while ensuring the party was not committed to a line of action other than routine electioneering. In this organisational environment it's small wonder that where Marxism was its official creed, it was gutted of any revolutionary content. It was a totem that could be wheeled out on occasion to give the latest policy a militant gloss while acting as the ultimate guarantor of socialism's inevitability.

critique of Luxemburg saw him drive this point home. Socialism can only ever be the result of the working class becoming conscious of itself as a force in history with its own interests and destiny that points to a future beyond capitalism. It goes from an object buffeted about by historical process to the subject of history that can bend it to its will. Marx described this movement as a leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. But just what is the nature of this freedom that comes with the growing maturation of socialist society? It is not the same as the individual freedom relentlessly reified by capitalism. As Lukacs puts it "this 'freedom' which isolated individuals may acquire thanks to their position in society or their inner constitution regardless of what happens to others means then in practice that the unfree structure of contemporary society will be perpetuated in so far as it depends on the individual" (1968, p.315). To demonstrate how bourgeois freedom rests on fundamental unfreedom, consider how even a modest mainstream lifestyle in 21st century Britain depends heavily on cheap commodities, which in turn are made possible through the super exploitation of workers in the global south.

Lukacs is very clear on this point. The struggle for freedom requires the renunciation of individual freedom and the subordination of the individual to the collective will of the party. This is because if the party is to be the weapon it needs to be in the struggle for socialism, any sort of collective decision-making is possible only if it is a disciplined organisation. If Marxists organise along individualist lines this then is a recipe for a discussion circle. Concerted action would be the exception, not the rule. The revolutionary party, therefore, is a qualitatively different beast to bourgeois, petit bourgeois and bourgeois workers' parties. The greater demands it makes of its members, if even only a paper principle, emphasises over and over again that progressive outcomes in the class struggle depend on conscious action. It is a practical way of reinforcing in the minds of its members that socialist society will not happen by itself.

The disciplinary character of communist organisation has, for the first time in history, provided the means for reconciling the individual and class consciousness - "the active and practical side of class consciousness
directly influences the specific actions of every individual, and secondly, at the same time it consciously helps to determine the historical process" (p.318). The revolutionary party therefore locks in the mediation between the individual and history. Because they are looser organisations, the parties of other classes and class fractions have a greater degree of apparatus autonomy from the variegated membership. They are not capable of performing a mediating function in the same way as their socialist counterparts and as such tend not to make history, but rather, at best, react to it. The political freedom that exists in bourgeois parties - the freedom of ideas, the non-binding leadership decisions, the absence of a party line - is the sort of reified individual freedom that allows bourgeois politics as usual. Such a structure is totally unsuited for organising the working class as a political party.

Returning now to the question of the organisational separation of the revolutionary party from other political formations, to quote what was said previously on this; "Lenin and the Communist International insisted upon the organisational independence of revolutionaries to better contest for the leadership of the working class." This separation which, it must be emphasised, is
not the same thing as separating the party from the mass of the class, gives it the political freedom to put forward the formulations and demands it thinks will advance the building of class consciousness. But independence is not a guarantor of the party's revolutionary character. The danger of sectarian degeneration is ever present if it does not seek to relate to the class as a whole, including its most backward sections. A party is effectively a sect when it opposes "true" consciousness (i.e. what, in its eyes, the working class should be like) to the really existing working class, which is always going to fall short of these purer than pure expectations.
If the class consciousness of the proletariat viewed as a function of the thought and action of the class as a whole is something organic and in a state of constant flux, then this must be reflected in the organised form of that class consciousness, namely in the communist party. With the single reservation that what has become objectivised here is a higher stage of consciousness (p.328).
For sects generally, but also infant revolutionary organisations, there is a tendency to direct its efforts outwards at the expense of its internal life (why debate with other members when there are papers to be sold and workplaces to be leafleted?) But if an organisation is to be a party and not a sect a balance has to be struck between the two. Centralisation of party structures should not be a bureaucratic exercise - it needs to be fed by and encourage a culture of constant tactical innovation so it can effect the class, and in turn be conditioned by it. The handing down of a line from on high and have it mechanically enforced with appeals to party discipline is the hallmark of an organisation either drifting away or abandoning the field of revolutionary politics, despite whatever formal positions it may hold.

Revolutionary parties operate in a capitalist society. Despite its organisational independence, its consistent work among the working class, and guidance by the most advanced social theory possible, none of these will forever and finally inoculate revolutionaries from bourgeois pathologies, and the most pernicious of these is reification. The party must contend with ideological manifestations of reification, in particular, critiquing ideas that offer individual way outs of capitalist misery, be they political, religious/spiritual, life-stylist, etc. But unfortunately because reification is a
process and not a condition the struggle against it will last as long as capitalism. It therefore cannot but leek into the party from time to time to varying degrees, producing inside it instrumental-bureaucratic, rigid, and dogmatic tendencies. The best way to mitigate its effects, apart from waging the battle of ideas is "to draw together all the party members and ... involve them in activity on behalf of the party with the whole of their personality. A man's function in the party must not be seen as an office whose duties can be performed conscientiously and devotedly but only as official duties; on the contrary, the activity of every member must extend to every possible kind of party work. Moreover this activity must be varied in accordance with what work is available so that party members enter with their whole personalities into a living relationship with the whole of the life of the party and of the revolution so that they cease to be mere specialists necessarily exposed to the danger of ossification" (pp.335-6).

No one can pretend the demands of party organisation aren't considerable. The struggle commands the physical and moral existences of its adherents, be they rank-and-file or leaders. The political purpose of the party therefore calls into being a new relationship between "leaders" and "led". Because all members take part in a range of activities and united by the common purpose, the party's self-correction mechanisms (i.e. freedom of discussion) has no time for a culture of deference and kow-towing. The expectation that members should become involved in all aspects of party work requires members have a
critical attitude toward all the actions the party undertakes, up to and including the leadership. The closer the relationship between leaders and other full-time cadres is with lay members, the better the dialectic between individual and class consciousness, and party and class, operates. The more isolated leading cadres are the more likely they are to fall into the reified outlook of the 'traditional' party leader, one which views "their" members as passive onlookers to be manipulated and directed on a whim. The flip side of this is an inculcation of a fundamental indifference toward the leadership, one which manifests itself as apathy, or (often embarrassingly) blind trust. Criticism, if it is permitted at all, may get an airing at the annual congress, be after the fact, and will have little, if any, effect on the party's overall direction.

In sum, Lukacs has demonstrated how party organisation is a political, not a technical question. How the party develops and reproduces its structures depends on constantly and consistently working within the working class, building up its experience, diffusing lessons among its ranks, informing its analysis, formulating strategies for further interventions, and so on. It's not surprising organisations who exalt their shibboleths or flip-flop from opportunism to ultra-leftism are brittle and riddled with the problems Lukacs identifies above. They are in error because for whatever
political reason the organisation's cycle of revolutionary praxis has seized up, that's if it ever began in the first place.

A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.


Phil said...

Previous posts on H&CC can be viewed below;

Lukacs and Orthodox Marxism

Luxemburg, Revisionism and Revolution

Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

Commodities and Reification

Structure of Bourgeois Philosophy

Overcoming Reification

Capitalism and Historical Materialism

Legality and Class Consciousness

Luxemburg and the Organic Conception of Socialism

Phil said...

Just to add on the organic conception of socialism, seeing as I didn't get the chance to reply to the Luxemburg post (thanks to the no electricity/rewiring business), when I argued the organic conception of socialism needed combatting, I wasn't suggesting socialists should be hostile to spontaneous outbursts of anger. Instead I had in mind, as did Lukacs, that we should avoid the belief that socialism will somehow happen without consciously and politically striving for it. I have come across plenty of activists (who to be fair, are usually those who have dropped out of political activity, and are therefore, strictly speaking, ex-activists) who have fallen into this view of the world. It might be comforting to believe this idea, but it is nevertheless wrong.

Re: Directionless - I would argue the degeneration of the Russian revolution had much more to do with the particular conditions in Russia and the balance of class forces in the rest of Europe than Lenin's theory of the party. Remember, in the run up to the revolution and in its immediate aftermath the Bolsheviks were as open and as democratic as a disciplined party can be. i.e. Open debate, factional freedom, up to and including presses and journals belonging to those factions, etc.

Phil said...

Hmmm, what are the odds this comment box would be full if this post was a Lukacsian critique of the SWP?