October Revolution and the Vanguard Party – Some historical and theoretical conclusions

Kemal Okuyan, Gelenek (Communist Party of Turkey)

In February 1917 when Russia once again faced with the reality of a revolution after 1905, those who would claim that, “in Russia, in eight months’ period the working class will come to power under the leadership of the Bolsheviks and the socialist construction will start”, would be considered insane.

Undoubtedly, neither the working class was a force not taken seriously nor the Bolsheviks were insignificant. The historical move, which gifted the Russian revolution with a socialist character in October 1917 didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the outcome of long years of experience.

However, the factors that turn the Bolshevik party, the vanguard organisation of the working class, into a ruling party deserve further study. The structure of the revolutions is certainly one dimension of the discussion. Revolutions are extreme social upheavals in which, existing political balance of forces change rapidly, the polarisation in the society speed up and the social sectors that have not felt the pressure of the class struggles before come into play. More importantly, revolutions signify a great crisis for the ruling class. Those at the bottom not willing to live as before and the ruling class not being able to rule as they used to are two features feeding each other. Above all, the revolutionary situation is the crisis of the state apparatus. We are talking about a particular historical period where the internal harmony of the capitalist class cannot be ensured despite all the attempts; historical conditions mature for the working class to take the advantage of the weakness in the existing order, for taking further initiatives to seize the political power.

In this historical period only few days may be enough for the political changes that under ordinary conditions take years and years. This was the case of Russia in 1917. A magnificent period; very different from being stuck in the ballot box and the parliament, 1917 was a year of real freedom where the word and action of the working class and the poor peasants gained legitimacy, armed workers patrolled the streets and whole soldiers in a troop could join the ranks of the working class.

Without the existence of an actor, the vanguard party, who would evaluate this intense and special period and would determine the requirements of this process and give the correct answers to the new questions that have aroused, that historical energy in Russia in 1917 would have been wasted; either counter-revolution would triumph or the Russian revolution would fade away in the hands of the liberal-reformist coalition.

In this sense, it is useful to identify the characteristics of an agile, vigilant and revolutionary party that took the Russian revolution from the hands of those who intended to demolish it by using the framework of the 1917 October Socialist Revolution. This article has been written in order to underline the distinguishing characteristics, some of which have been overlooked, of the “vanguard party of the working class”.

Vanguard Party of the working class is reborn into the revolutionary situation

There are no miracles in nature or history, but every abrupt turn in history, and this applies to every revolution, presents such a wealth of content, unfolds such unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggle and alignment of forces of the contestants, that to the lay mind there is much that must appear miraculous.[1]

This is how Lenin described the genuineness of the revolutionary periods in his letter published in Pravda in March 1917. Is it possible for a revolutionary instrument, which has been shaped with the claim to carry the working class to power, to continue in the same way as before in such a historical period?

If we are not portraying the vanguard party of the working class as a bureaucratic institution and if we are not under a “parliamentarist” illusion that the party will enlarge its social base in a linear and steady manner, we should answer this question as ‘no’. The vanguard party cannot overcome its historical responsibilities without restructuring itself in the revolutionary situation. In fact, the previous struggle, preparations and experiences of the party are guarantees of a huge and vital transformation that would go through during the revolutionary situation.

October Revolution is the best evidence showing that the party needs to change phase during a revolutionary ripening in which social classes would mobilise rapidly, a new political climate would emerge and nothing would be the same on the side of the oppressed. The restructuring of the Bolshevik Party in 1917 should be considered together with the dialectics of continuity and break.

In general what can be said about the content of this restructuring?

Firstly, the growth of the vanguard party beyond its ordinary pace and the increase of transitivity between its members and supporters during a revolutionary situation is a rule; it is impossible to materialise a revolutionary breakthrough without running these risks. We are talking about a quantitative growth in the simplest meaning of the word. Even though there is uncertainty about the number of members of the party before the revolution in Russia, it is evident that the pace of growth of the party in 1917 was exceptional and extremely striking. It is impossible to explain this bounce only with the radicalisation and politisation of the working masses, the Bolsheviks run the risks of more flexible party standards starting from March 1917.

This flexibility did not solely have a quantitative dimension. Critical new recruitments, the extreme example being Trotsky, were also realised during this period. It is a novel situation that Lenin and his co-workers, who did not want to miss the approaching opportunity and who had an eye on taking the power, showed determination to include some elements that certainly had weight on the Russian labour movement but previously stood at a distance. Such that, Trotsky entered the highest organ of the party from above and assumed important responsibilities during the hard days of the revolution. Previous positions of Trotsky or others and more importantly the unfortunate, dangerous and destructive role he assumed after 1917 cannot overshadow the legitimacy of the effort of the Bolshevik party to embrace the revolutionary energy in 1917.

The Bolsheviks took risks and they were proved to be right, because other factors also accompanied to the quantitative and qualitative transformation we are referring to.

We observe that the strategy of the party was renewed through continuous interventions and it was refined to the possible extent between April and October 1917. The party was freed from the templates of the democratic revolution-socialist revolution, which had always influenced the party as a result of both the history of the international labour movement and specifically the genuine history of the Russian social democracy during these months. If this clarification, which owes a lot to the personal authority of Lenin, was not to be achieved, it was obvious that the party would be overwhelmed by its rapid growth and more importantly in Russia it would be impossible for the party to respond to the expectations of the workers, the poor peasants and millions of soldiers coming from poor families.

Another issue that needs to be stressed, is the revival of the “organisation culture” that prevented the party from becoming clumsy or from being dragged to the right or left because of the excessive growth that gained in 1917. The Bolsheviks had worked in an organisational framework, which cared about continuity, productivity, discipline and security for more than ten years and this framework was linked with the theory of vanguardism of which the most advanced form was outlined in "What is to be Done" by Lenin. They adjusted the organisational structure to the new conditions during the revolutionary period so as to preserve these tradition. In this respect, they succeeded in acting rapidly amid the chaos of 1917, taking opportunities, coping with factors that challenged the integrity of the party both at the base and the top and resisting to the blows of enemies.

Leninist Party exercise consistent and centralised policy

We use the definition of “democratic centralism” to describe the organisational structure of working class parties. This concept is defined as “election of committees from the bottom to the top and decision making from the top to the bottom”. Many movements including the Bolshevik party had to struggle for years under such historical conditions that made it impossible to function totally in accordance with this definition. However, it is still valid that working class parties should care for following these principals regarding the decision making mechanisms to the most possible extent. Having said that, we should also mention that the vanguard party is a centralised party without any prefixes as long as its policy is concerned and that this matter cannot be associated only with decision making mechanisms and functioning.

The vanguard party’s policy is consistent and centralised.

The main reason for this should be searched for in the logic of the relationship between the vanguard party and the working class itself. The working class has a heterogeneous structure in many dimensions in every country. This fact, which is also related to the law of unequal development of capitalism, defines the ideological, political and cultural characteristics of the working class. There are differences which lead to important social consequences between i.e. educated workers and unskilled workers, between industrial workers and services’ workers, between workers in the metal sector and workers in the IT sector. The working class does not represent the average of this richness. The vanguard party acts by putting the working class itself or its historical interests to the centre above all the internal differences within the working class. Therefore, the vanguard party intervenes in social life in a monistic, non pluralist, manner. Its politics runs from the whole to the parts and localism is not permitted.

The centralised character takes its essence from this and it cannot not be reduced to the internal functioning of the party (discipline, solidness etc.). This is one of the factors that rendered the Bolsheviks more advantageous in 1917. As it is the case in all revolutionary uprisings, in Russia of 1917 working class masses were mobilised, they participated in new and novel organisational practices and took innumerable initiatives. This mobilisation of the working class created a revolutionary energy that could only be benefited by a centralised and consistent policy. Both Mensheviks and other smaller anarchist groups lost influence trying to go after this mobility, they fell away from understanding the real meaning of the quest of the working class.

Some of the reasons that the Mensheviks, one of the strongest components of the Bolsheviks within the working class movement, were not able to take initiative in various times in 1917 when they had a strong hand, were the continuous uncertainty about how to intervene in the given objectivity, the fact that they took into account each of the different tendencies in the working class and that its leadership got directly influenced by this fragmentation. They also were trapped into solutions within the capitalist system which in the last analysis were indeed reactionary.

It is not possible to argue that the Bolsheviks were not influenced by this variety in any way. It is well known that important differences of opinion emerged at critical turning points of 1917 inside the central committee of the party, between the central committee and the military organisation, between the central committee and the representatives of the soviets, between the central committee and Petrograd organisation. These differences of opinion that put the party in a difficult situation at times and brought it at the verge of destruction, were documented.

However, the Bolshevik tradition did not experience any confusion of mind thanks to its strong leadership and personal authority of Lenin and even though there was some hesitation, it was able to carry the working class to power by doing the right intervention at the most crucial moment.

The “technical” perfectness of the act of 6-7 November, which was symbolised by the takeover of the Winter Palace, but which was in fact a move towards eliminating the dual power in favour of the working class, generally leads to the misconception that the superiority of the Bolsheviks comes from organisational acts. However, the Bolsheviks used to put the consistent understanding of politics and the perspective of gaining the political power to the centre of every tactic initiative. Their organisational and operational capacity was a result of this perspective.

To explain the importance of the unity of the working class party, the authority of its leadership and its consistency, it is enough to take a look to the picture of Russia in 1917. Many cases show that in the revolutionary struggle there are no absolute “right”s or “wrong”s. Defining a decision or an attitude as “wrong” or “right” might not be possible, even a posteriori. What is important at this point is consistency; how consecutive decisions feed each other and the existence of a solid revolutionary strategy.

The guarantee for this is the strength of the leadership and its continuity. A revolutionary party cannot change strategy at every turning point, cannot renew its leadership every now and then and cannot succeed with a leadership that does not have authority over the party.

The most tragic evidence demonstrating the vitality of this feature of the Leninist party, came out just two years after the October Revolution in Germany which was considered the most significant centre of the international labour movement. The confusion experienced in the founding congress of KPD among the Spartacists, who had decided to break off from social democracy and to establish a communist party while the German working class was uprising in many locations, is very instructive. The most important and well-known leaders of the movement, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht could not convince the delegates in the discussions regarding the position that should be taken in the coming elections, so the leadership had to stand behind a decision that they did not share and the party rolled into a big tragedy in which the following few months it lost its two precious leaders.

This is an example of the formal democracy being fetishised.

Another fact that we have learned from the German example regarding the theory of the vanguard party is the limits of the spontaneous actions of the working class.

Although they were always on the revolutionary side of the German labour movement, the most significant weakness of Luxemburg and Liebknecht was their sceptical approach towards the idea of the “vanguard party” and their overemphasis on the autogenous actions of the working class, especially as far as the mass strikes were concerned.

In the article written by Rosa Luxemburg in 1918, it is obviously seen how right and wrong are intertwined and how the role of the vanguard party is underestimated:

“The Spartacus League will never take over governmental power except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany, never except by the proletariat’s conscious affirmation of the views, aims, and methods of struggle of the Spartacus League.

The proletarian revolution can reach full clarity and maturity only by stages, step by step, on the Golgotha-path of its own bitter experiences in struggle, through defeats and victories.

The victory of the Spartacus League comes not at the beginning, but at the end of the Revolution: it is identical with the victory of the great million-strong masses of the socialist proletariat.” [2]

This quoted passage not only gives idea about the role of the weaknesses of the “subjective factors” in the failure of the German revolution, but also demonstrates the advantages of the understanding of organisation that the Bolsheviks possessed during the October Revolution.

Rosa Luxemburg talks about great majority; but she evidently forgets that the quantitative magnitudes cannot be calculated in revolutions, that the balances change every single hour, that all the revolutions in history have been achieved by a dynamic mass support that enables the takeover of power not by 51 percent majority and that her comrade Karl Liebknecht did not have any evidence that the great majority was supporting the decision when he was announcing the Soviet rule in Germany in front of Reichstag in the same period!

The October Revolution was achieved because the will of millions of workers was in this direction, not because the “great majority”, which we don’t have a criteria for measuring, wished so.

It is sad that an uncompromising revolutionary like Rosa Luxemburg, who hated capitalism to death, moves so far away from the perspective of taking the political power, takes a dim view of the idea of the vanguard party and further attempts to undermine the fact that the takeover of power is the start of a socialist revolution.

While comparing Russia of 1917 and Germany of 1919, we don’t depart from the view that the revolution would triumph in Germany if there wasn’t the emptiness of the vanguard party. It is hard to conjecture that. However, it is certain that the Russian Revolution would not end up with a proletarian rule in the absence of the Leninist party.

So, we reach to the final point that we wish to underline. October Revolution is more than a simple break off from social democracy. The meaning of continuing with the name of “communist party” in the international arena after the revolution is to clarify the raison d’etre of working class parties. Communist parties will obviously face various duties; they will struggle for daily demands but also against war, against fascism or racism, for liberties and for peace. However, these do not rule out the main mission of communist parties: Communist Party is a party seeking socialist revolution. It has to tie all types of undertakings to this end.

This is exactly what Lenin’s party indicated in 1917;

This is the reason why our path is the path of the October Revolution, our path is the path of the Bolshevik party.

[1] Lenin, Vladimir Ilich; Letters From Affar, Collected Works 23, page 297.

[2] Rosa Luxemburg; What Does the Spartacus League Want?