How and when to form new political parties seems to be very much in the news at the moment. The relationship between the Party and the wider movement has preoccupied Marxist thinking for quite some time too, ranging from the Bolshevik “vanguard” party of committed revolutionaries to the mass membership parties of the Second International.
Underpinning which form of party organisation is considered to be effective are theories of revolutionary class consciousness. The Leninist conception of a vanguard party implies that left to itself a mass membership party will never become radical enough to spontaneously overthrow the status quo in a violent revolution. The solution for Lenin was to create a party at a distance from the working class itself, which could therefore develop a consciousness and commitment to the revolution and provide a lead to the wider working class from “outside” as it were. The vanguard party would be more radical than the working class and when the time came it would provide a lead.
It is this assumption that the party knows better than the workers themselves that forms one basis for the criticism levelled at Lukacs by Kolakowski among others. Lukacs writes about the class consciousness that can be “imputed” to the working class, the consciousness that the workers “ought” to have based on the Marxist analysis of economy and society. To Kolakowski this is an intellectual justification for the repressive Stalinist dictatorship, justifying his chapter title that Lukacs represents “reason in the service of dogma” (Kolakowski 2008 p. 989). Once we accept that the party has access to a a more advanced understanding of the world than the mass of people, then the door is open to repression by a controlling bureaucratic elite.
In the last section of History and Class Consciousness Lukacs tackles in some detail the issue of the relationship of both the party and the Marxist analysis of class consciousness to the wider workers movement. The theory he elaborates is more complex than the simple characterisation above suggests. Lukacs suggests that the relationship between the people and the party should be seen as a dialectic interaction. The party’s development of a Marxist analysis allows it to understand the direction of society but that analysis must always remain connected to the working class as a whole. By inference if the party ceases to maintain this connection, then it is no longer pursuing a Marxist path.
“The Communist Party has no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole, it is distinguished from the rest of the proletariat by the fact that is has a clear understanding of the historical path to be taken by the proletariat as a whole.”
(Lukacs 1974 p.325)
There is a division between the party and the proletariat but the two are and must stay organically connected. Lukacs writes that the class consciousness of the working class is not monolithic, instead ranging across a spectrum based on individual variations in the position within the relations of production (a steelworker in a factory is the not exactly the same as a shop worker, even though they share membership of the working class). What’s more capitalism itself (and specifically reification within capitalism) creates a barrier to the working class becoming self conscious.
“Every worker who is born into capitalist society and grows up under its influence has to acquire by a more or less arduous process a correct understanding of his own class situation.”
(Lukacs 1974 p.326)
The existence of a party one step removed from the spontaneous organisations of the working class remains important. Not because it needs to bring leadership to the working class in the way Lenin envisaged, but because it acts at the leading edge of the proletariat, working with the most revolutionary elements and always seeking to advance the thinking of the remainder.
“The Communist Party must exist as an independent organisation so that the proletariat may be able to see its own class consciousness given historical shape.”
(Lukacs 1974 p.326)
The party must then work to maintain that link between its developed understanding of the aims of the movement and the wider working class movement. The party must make
“a conscious effort to relate the ‘final goal’ to the immediate exigencies of the moment. Thus in the theory of the party the process, the dialectic of class consciousness becomes a dialectic that is consciously deployed.”
(Lukacs 1974 p.328)
Lukacs is absolutely clear that he does not accept the subsequent Stalinist assumption that the Communist Party can itself be a replacement for the working class.
“The Communist Party does not function as a stand-in for the proletariat even in theory.”
(Lukacs 1974 p.327)
So where does the “Independent Group” fit in? Lukacs theorises a party that is organically connected to a class, working at its most radical leading edge while seeking to bring the rest of the class along with it. The Independent Group more closely resembles the party wholly disconnected from a base in society and instead assuming that it knows itself what is best for the people. It seems indeed to assume that it can “function as a stand-in” for the working class while seeking to co-opt them to a fundamentally middle class political agenda (although in truth we don’t as yet really know what they stand for).
Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (Norton, New York, 2008)
Lukacs, Georgy History and Class Consciousness (Merlin, London, 1974)