Experience shows that a proletarian revolution cannot be carried out without the leadership of the communist party. The class-conscious elements of the working class and popular strata need to organize themselves in a single organization of revolutionaries that spends years preparing the rest of the working class for revolution. This is done by guiding the workers’ daily struggles and teaching them the proletarian world outlook, Marxism-Leninism, so that the workers may understand their class position, the general line of struggle for their class, and the strategy and methods to achieve their emancipation. The communist party is the highest form of proletarian organization, since it has aspects that allow it to carry out its aim.
Aspects of the Communist Party
The communist party is the revolutionary party of the working class. It works for the seizure of political power and transition of capitalist society to socialism-communism.
The communist party is the vanguard detachment of the working class. It consists of the most class-conscious, resolute members of the class who are leading its daily struggles and teaching the class of its general interests. This is the emancipation of the working class through the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat for the construction of socialism-communism. The communist party links the various mass organizations and movements of the working class together to form a single working-class front against the capitalists, safeguarding itself and the mass organizations from cooptation by reformism and adventurism, which lead the working class movement to ruin.
The communist party is a system of organizations operating on the principle of democratic centralism. It is composed of small party base organizations (i.e., units, cells, etc.) that act with initiative in their area of responsibility and actively work in setting the policy of the party, but which are also bound to the discipline of the higher party organizations. This ensures the highest degree of local flexibility without compromising the party’s ability to act as one. This system of organizations also prepares to fight under the worst conditions, including illegality, since it reduces exposure and cultivates initiative and leadership in the rank-and-file, which may not receive frequent directives from the party center if safely sending those communications has become difficult.
The Party Arises from the Needs of the Working Class Movement
The communist party is not an organizational form that is being imposed on the working class movement. In fact, this particular form of proletarian organization arose from the concrete needs of the movement that stem from its struggle against the capitalist class. Karl Marx observed this in his “Inaugural Address to the First International,” where he says:
One element of success [the working class] possess—numbers: but numbers weigh only in the balance if united by combination and led by knowledge. Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts.
Here Marx observes the need for a genuine organizational unity of the working class. It must have its common organization so that it can properly make use of its numerical advantage and position in society as the producer of all wealth. Unless the working class is united in this way, they can easily be outmaneuvered or set against each other by the capitalist class in the long run, despite momentary successes on particular economic or political demands.
This is why Marx, in the “General Rules of the First International,” wrote: “The working class can act as a class only by establishing a distinct political party, opposed to all the old parties formed by the possessing classes.” This working class party is necessarily a revolutionary party, since Marx said, of the reformists of his time, that they “reject all political, and especially all revolutionary action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel” (Communist Manifesto).
This lesson was lost on the leaders of the parties of the Second International, who sank to the level of reformism and repudiated revolution. It was Lenin who not only restored the teaching of Marx on the revolutionary party by putting it into practice, but also innovated on the idea and adapted it to the age of imperialism, the age of the domination of finance capital and the subsequent rise of bureaucratism and militarism in every country in the world. The few places where Marx and Engels had deemed that a peaceful transition to socialism was possible owing to their lack of militarism had now developed vast armies and police forces. The need for a revolutionary organization had now become universal.
This revolutionary organization has to be accessible enough for it to lead the struggles of the working class, so it cannot be completely conspiratorial and clandestine, but it must also have the capacity to perform clandestine work, and even go completely underground, in the face of repression. Such an organization must have unity of action and maintain a level of discipline bordering on military discipline to effectively lead the working class and thwart the political police. It must be selective of its members and only accept those members that have demonstrated that they are worthy of the title of communist, of a stalwart fighter for the working class. The member must accept the party programme, pay regular dues, and belong to a Party organization. They must be put under the discipline of the Party through the system of democratic centralism, which dictates how the party members and organizations relate to one another.
According to Stalin in History of the CPSU(B), the principles of democratic centralism are as follows:
- That all directing bodies of the Party, from top to bottom, shall be elected;
- That Party bodies shall give periodical accounts of their activities to their respective Party organizations;
- That there shall be strict Party discipline and the subordination of the minority to the majority;
- That all decisions of higher bodies shall be absolutely binding on lower bodies and on all Party members.
He also describes the admission of party members into the CPSU in the following excerpt:
The Party Rules provided that admission of new members to the Party shall be through local Party organizations on the recommendation of two Party members and on the sanction of a general membership meeting of the local organization.
This form of admitting members, then holding them to a strict standard of discipline, combines the highest level of flexibility and autonomy in the lower party organizations while still maintaining organizational discipline across the whole Party. This discipline is necessarily voluntary and conscious discipline, since membership in the Party is voluntary. Hence, discipline cannot be imposed by the party center on pain of punishment alone, but must stem from discussions and decisions of the party members in the base organizations whenever possible. If a decision must be made by a higher body without consulting the lower bodies, then the members in the higher body must make every effort that the wider membership understands why the decision was made, so they can truly make the directive their own and carry it out enthusiastically. However, once a decision is made, discussion on that issue ceases and anyone that fails to carry out the decision is breaching party discipline and should be criticized so that they may correct this. If through criticism and subsequent discussion the problem continues, then disciplinary charges must be taken, otherwise discipline will only be an empty word.
As a result of this need for discipline, the existence of factions is incompatible with the communist party. A party cannot act with unity if there are multiple competing “centers” within it trying to gain an advantage over the other. This weakens the ability of the party to lead the struggles, discredits the party in the eyes of the workers, and provides ripe grounds for infiltrators and informants to gain sensitive information and cause havoc within the party.
Had it not been for this disciplined party structure, the Great October Socialist Revolution would not have been possible.
Critiques of the Party
After the counter-revolution in the socialist countries, arguments against the need for a party gained credibility in the eyes of the workers. Communist parties lost a great deal of their membership, became parliamentary parties, or simply disbanded. Decades later, these arguments don’t hold the same authority as they used to. The experience of the struggles has shown that the spontaneous action of the workers is not enough to end capitalism, nor is the organization of the workers into loose “federations” of local organizations, or even their organization into a mass party (i.e., self-enrollment, at large membership, no requirement of discipline), is not enough. None of these organizational forms can go toe-to-toe with the capitalist class. Only the communist party, schooled in Marxism-Leninism, organized on the principle of democratic centralism, with strong ties with the working class in the place of production through its base organizations, can truly lead a revolution to victory. However, we should dispense with some of the common arguments against the communist party since they still have hold over some of the more backwards workers.
One argument is that the Party is a structure that imposes its will on the working class. It is something alien to the working class and tries to manipulate it to do its bidding. This argument gains its credibility from the failure of the communist parties to maintain its ties to the working class, resulting in a general ignorance about the principle of democratic centralism. Instead, people are generally acquainted with a caricature of the communist party found in the bourgeois media and academia where all decisions come exclusively from its leadership, which the rank-and-file slavishly follow and then impose on the masses of workers. Not only is this not how communist parties function, because such a structure would run completely contrary to democratic centralism and ensure that the Party would never succeed in leading a revolution, but it is actually a reflection of how the capitalist parties function, including those of the social democrats.
Another common criticism of the communist party is that it is a monolithic organization where everyone needs to think the same and act the same. Here the quote from Lenin in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back characterizing the aristocratic anarchism of the “Russian nihilist” is relevant:
He thinks of the Party organization as a monstrous ‘factory’; he regards the subordination of the part to the whole and of the minority to the majority of ‘serfdom’…, division of labor under the direction of a center evokes from him a tragi-comical outcry against people being transformed into ‘wheels and cogs’…, mention of the organizational rules of the Party calls forth a contemptuous grimace and the disdainful… remark that one could very well dispense with rules altogether.
This criticism of the party comes from individuals who are averse to party discipline. They believe it is beneath them to carry out decisions they do not agree to if they were to lose a vote, so they slander the party by this one-sided view of party discipline. Yes, party decisions must be carried out unquestioningly once they are made, but that is because the decision is made after thorough discussion and explanation of the decision has been made. If the Party leadership were to make careless decisions, impose them on the membership with little discussion, or otherwise misuse their position of responsibility, they would lose the confidence of the rank-and-file who will not vote for those leaders again at the next congress or convention where leaders for that committee are elected. Additionally, all members reserve the right to raise charges against any other member, including those in leadership. This allows for misconduct by leadership to be addressed in between elections through the various means of enacting discipline such as censure, removal from positions of leadership, and even expulsion. The communist party is the highest expression of proletarian democracy because it is solely accountable to its rank-and-file through the party base organizations