Politics and the Communist Manifesto–Part 3

Against the Current, No. 72, January/February 1998

David Finkel

“In what relation do the communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?  The communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties.  They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.  They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.”

WHEN MARX AND Engels agreed to write the Manifesto of the Communist League, they imposed an important condition: The Manifesto must be an openly revolutionary document, addressed to the broad working class and radical public, which would present a program for achieving proletarian power through the furthermost extension of the struggle for democracy.

In this respect the Communist Manifesto meant a break with conspiratorial models of revolution, which conceived a mass plebeian movement that would be led by an elite, organized in some kind of secret society around its own program or socialist blueprint—”sectarian principles by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement”—known only to the inner circle of adepts who knew what the masses needed but were incapable of understanding for themselves.

The emerging modern proletariat, Marx and Engels believed, was the first exploited class in history that was capable of fully grasping its position in society, understanding its own struggle for freedom and establishing through that struggle the foundations of a new society without classes or exploitation.

Marx and Engels’ insistence that revolutionary loyalties must be to the movement of the class, not to any “separate party,” was intimately related to their support of trade unions as the existing mass institution of the class movement.  That revolutionary socialists should support trade unionism, however commonplace a consensus it may be today, was a pioneering concept.(1)

Within the proletarian movement, then, the persistence of the “sect”—the group built around a distinctive model of socialism or some concept of itself as the leading center of the class movement—was a mark of the immaturity of the movement itself, an obstacle that needed to be overcome.

Only in later decades, and particularly after Marx’s death in 1883, did a new and more complex obstacle become apparent: The mass institutions, i.e. trade unions and political parties, that the working class created in the course of its day-to-day struggles, produced conservative bureaucracies which were themselves obstacles to a revolutionary outcome. This development—not the sign of a proletarian movement in its infancy, but rather a contradiction arising in its maturity—led to a crisis of the entire labor movement.

A recent debate in these pages shed considerable light on several aspects of the problem.(2) Although the trade union bureaucracy is socially privileged and permanently hostile to workers’ revolution, nonetheless these bureaucrats and social-democratic politicians allied to them are not simply engaged in continually “selling out” workers’ interests or in crushing revolutionary movements for the sake of preserving those privileges.

Though such betrayals certainly occur, the more fundamental daily reality is that union leaders, even militants, indeed even conscious revolutionaries, must exercise a disciplinary and conservatising function in conducting the union’s business of administering conflicts with management.

For at least a century, revolutionary Marxists-from Engels in the final decade of his life to Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, all varieties of Trotskyists and left-socialists-have wrestled with this problem, with inconclusive results.  (Engels, for example, had to threaten the German Social Democratic Party leadership with public exposure over their attempts to suppress Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program!)

It must be said here that many political tendencies, in attempting to “go beyond” Marx, have reverted to pre-Marxian primitive sectarianism.  The history of the twentieth century left is riddled with such theories.

In such conceptions, for example, trade unions are inherently non-revolutionary and “reactionary,” or can exist as class struggle instruments only if under “revolutionary leadership.”  Or, it’s only well-educated intellectuals who can truly “understand” revolutionary theory; the “masses” can only be attracted by simple economic slogans while the “vanguard” develops strategy and prepares to rule.

Alternatively, workers are inherently revolutionary but must be “electrified” into confrontation with the bosses and police by the actions of a self-defined leadership; or perhaps, workers in developed countries are “bought off,” it’s Third World peasants (or at home, enlightened managers, lumpen-proletarians or a fraction of intellectuals) who are the revolutionary force.

Against these disastrous notions, however, there’s a tradition that seeks both to maintain Marx’s anti-sectarian insights and to confront the problem of bureaucracy in the workers’ movement.  It is reflected in the long struggle of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, not to “electrify” the masses for instant revolution but rather to systematically organize, educate and struggle.

This tradition is also reflected in the best years of the pre-Stalinist Communist Parties, in the work of the left-socialists and revolutionaries who led the organizing of the early CIO, in the struggles of socialist activists for many decades who fought alongside their fellow workers and never subordinated those workers’ interests to their own party affiliations and loyalties—whatever those may have been.

The past century of experience shows that the language of the Communist Manifesto must be revised: Those who seek to carry on Marx’s tradition do, indeed must, construct independent revolutionary political organizations, if they are to loyally carry forward the struggle for working-class democracy within the (inevitably) bureaucratic institutions of the existing class struggle.

In the rather loose sense of Marx’s own use of the term “party,” such an organization constitutes “a separate party opposed to other working class parties”—opposed, that is, to the pro-capitalist or bureaucratic politics of those other parties.

The ongoing purpose of independent (“separate”) revolutionary organization must be to advance in every possible situation the self-organization and capacity for self-mobilization of the working class, including, first and foremost, to advance the cause of rank-and-file organization and democracy in the unions.

Its purpose is also to win workers over politically to revolutionary, as opposed to reformist or bureaucratic conclusions. It is most decidedly not to destroy other working-class parties or institutions, whether through false polemics or organizational wrecking operations or confrontationism.

The overriding principle remains that of class loyalty, as stated so well by Hal Draper in Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution:

Socialists should act as a loyal left wing of the class movement, not an alternative counterposed to it; they should start with the working class as it is and where it is, in order to change it; they should be a part of its real class organizations no matter how backward the mass might be from their standpoint; and they should become the best militants for the limited aims of the movement-as-is.

But at the same time, and through this association, they seek to push the whole movement upwards to higher levels of class-struggle commitment and consciousness by means of the lessons of experience, all without giving up or hushing their own full views or ceasing to criticize mistaken and ineffective policies.(3)


—David Finkel is the managing editor of Against the Current.

ATC 72, January-February 1998