Leon Trotsky writes in his History of the Russian Revolution:
"The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business—kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime...The history of revolution for us is first of all the history of the forcible entrance of the masses into rulership of their own destiny."This characterization of revolution boldly places the direct participation of the masses and collective self-emancipation front and center. But how is such a revolution made? Trotsky did not endorse a thoroughgoing "spontaneist" conception of revolution according to which the masses of workers would—without any political strategy, organization or leadership—spontaneously carry out a social revolution. Trotsky did not think that revolutionaries could simply sit back and wait for the inevitable spontaneous revolution to occur. This strategy, he argues, leaves revolutionaries inactive and trailing behind at "history's tail". He realized that strategy, tactics, organization and leadership were crucial to the success of a mass revolt from below. Thus, Trotksy thought that revolutionaries had organize themselves to collectively participate in the struggles of the day and win people to socialist politics. As he put it: "The very need for a party originates in the fact that the proletariat is not born with the innate understanding of its historical interests. The task of the party consists in learning, from experience derived from struggle, how to demonstrate to the proletariat its right to leadership." The party must learn from the direct participation of the struggles of the class, but it must also draw on this knowledge to help win the class—through participation in struggle and political argument—to perspectives that will carry the struggle forward.
The fatalism of the spontaneist perspective means that nobody actually involved in struggle can really endorse it. Everyone that is actively engaged in political struggle has to think that the interventions and participation of revolutionaries in movements make a difference (otherwise why be actively engaged in struggle at all?). And to have any hope of making a substantial impact on events, collective organization is key. But what kind of organization is needed?
One option in the early 20th century was the parliamentarian model of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). This model was successful in certain respects. It had millions of members, it was growing in influence and power, it was tightly linked to the labor movement, it had educational institutions, it held cultural events, and so on. But it had a number of fundamental flaws that eventually led revolutionaries to sharply reject it as a viable way forward for socialists. First, the SPD worked entirely within the purview of the German capitalist state which, it was assumed, could be reformed to eventually make possible a socialist society. Marx, however, had long argued that the role of the state in capitalist society was to maintain class domination. Given that the state is a class-state rather than a neutral vessel that the working-class can lay hold of, it must be totally done away with in order to make space for something completely different. Marx himself argued that the Paris Commune was an example of the necessity of this process in the course of revolution, and Lenin echoed these arguments in his State and Revolution, which is nothing more than a clear exegesis of, pace Kautsky and some anarchists, what Marx actually said about the state. Another problem with the SPD was that it, like all of the Second International parliamentary socialist parties, ended up breaking with internationalism, cheering on the chauvinism and bloodshed of World War I. Finally, the SPD, like all parliamentary organizations, was fundamentally top-down and deeply suspicious of workers taking matters into their own hands outside of the "proper" electoral channels. This flaw reached a nadir when the SPD played a role in using state repression to murder revolutionaries, among them Rosa Luxemburg.
In contrast, revolutionaries argued that there could be no compromise on the need to completely do away with the capitalist state, on the need for fierce internationalism, and the need for genuine working-class revolt from below. Some kind of revolutionary organization would be needed to realize these principles. But what kind?
There are clear pitfalls to be avoided here. Trotsky is clear that the organization must not be substitutionist, that is, it must not substitute its own efforts for the actions of the working-class. The SPD did precisely that: the SPD politicians told the workers to sit down and let them take care of everything and thereby substituted their own maneuvers for the actions of the entire class. But substitutionism isn't merely a pitfall that the revolutionary party must avoid vis-a-vis the working class. Substitutionism within the party must also be avoided at all costs, so as to avoid a scenario in which, as Trotsky puts it, the "party organization substitutes itself for the party as a whole; the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organization; and finally, a single "dictator" substitutes himself for the Central Committee." Instead, a "vibrant and active democracy" is needed inside the organization so that all members can "participate actively and consciously in working out its views and in determining its course of action." Moreover, the foundations of a revolutionary party "must be sought... in an active and self-acting proletariat." To be sure, Trotsky himself ran afoul of these very principles in adopting several substitutionist positions in the early 1920s. But, taking his thought and political practice as a whole, these principles are dominant themes in his work. As in the quote above on revolution, Trotsky thought that the independent initiative and self-activity of the working-class was absolutely essential. If a top-down party substitutes itself for the masses, it's not a revolution—it's something else.
Rosa Luxemburg held very similar views. What Trotsky calls "substitutionist", Luxemburg derides as "sectarian" or "Blanquist", after the French socialist Blanqui who believed that revolutions had to be made by a small, clandestine clique rather than by the masses themselves. Luxemburg is sometimes caricatured as having defended a fatalist and thoroughly spontaneist Marxism. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Norman Geras notes, "the collapse of capitalism presented, according to Luxemburg, two alternatives: on the one side, crisis, reaction, war, finally catastrophe and barbarism; on the other side, socialism. Active struggle for socialism was therefore necessary and urgent."
Luxemburg, like Trotsky, argued that the key element of social revolution was the self-activity of the masses. The following quotation bears a striking resemblance to the quotation above from Trotsky:
The world-historical advance of the proletariat to its victory is a process whose particularity lies in the fact that here, for the first time in history, the masses of the people themselves, against all ruling classes, are expressing their will. But this will can only be realized outside of and beyond the present society. On the other hand, this will can only develop in the daily struggle with the established order, thus, only within its framework. The unification of the great masses of people with a goal that goes beyond the established order, of the daily struggle with the revolutionary overthrow--this is the dialectical contradiction of the socialist movement which must develop consistently between two obstacles: the loss of its mass character and the abandonment of its goal, becoming a sect and becoming a bourgeois reformist movement.Here we see that for Luxemburg, as for Trotsky, socialism cannot be introduced on behalf of the working class. It can only be won by the workers themselves. The key is to determine what kind of organization is needed to move workers to join together in fighting for their own liberation. Two pitfalls are to be avoided here: bourgeois reformism and elitist sectarianism. The working class itself has to be directly involved in winning its own liberation. But the established order does not automatically make workers into revolutionaries. Agitation, propagandizing, struggle and conscious organization is therefore essential. Yet, if the reefs of a do-nothing bourgeois gradualism are to be avoided, so are the shoals of an elitist, sectarian approach in which a minority steps in to give the benighted masses socialism from on high. Direct participation of the masses, then, is key for several different reasons, among them the process of learning that occurs in the course of struggle as well as the energy and anti-conservative spark that mass involvement brings to the table. As Geras describes it, for Luxemburg, as for Trotsky,
"...the end [socialism] must already be operative in the means employed, the liberation of the workers can only be their own work, and it it is in this very process of achieving it that they must develop those qualities which will sustain a socialist society. Thus, for Trotsky, mass participation in the political forms thrown up by a revolution is not only a manifestation of the widespread desire to assume more active control over political and economic life, it also promotes and consolidates that desire. Revolution is consistently seen as an educative process, in which the same mass actions which are necessary to destroy the existing economic and political structures, also have the effect of delivering the working class from bourgeois ideology, of making it conscious of its interest as a class, of raising its confidence in its own ability to organize and decide, and of providing it with the experience of these activities."If, for Trotsky, the two pitfalls are "economism" (or "spontaneism") and "substitutionism", for Luxemburg they are same concepts described in a different vocabulary: "reformism" and "sectarianism" (or "Blanquism"). It is clear that they are quite close politically on the question of organization.
But if Trotsky and Luxemburg are very close on these matters, it is often assumed that Lenin was of an entirely different mind on such questions. The trouble with Lenin's work is that there are few venues to have a reasoned discussion about it given that he is either taken to 100% evil or 100% divine, depending on whether you're talking to right-wingers or Stalinists. I won't address the argument that Lenin's work on political organization is beyond the pale of Trotsky and Luxemburg's work in detail, but I'll say a bit about why I think its mistaken.
The first piece of evidence for this anti-Lenin position is surely the fact that both Luxemburg and Trotksy (the former in her Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy and the latter in Our Political Tasks) took Lenin to task on grounds of "Blanquism", "ultra-centralism" and "substitutionism". Now, there are, to be sure, plenty of errors and mistakes in What is to be Done? It could not have been otherwise—Lenin, like any thoughtful activist, made plenty of mistakes and learned a great deal from most of them throughout his political life. He also changed his views when conditions changed or when new evidence falsified his hypotheses. Not all of his changes of position can be glossed as mere "stick bending", although it is definitely true that the polemical character of some of his interventions fit that bill. And, like Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky changed their views throughout their career as well.
Still, be that as it may, the line of argument in What is to be Done? is usually badly misunderstood. For starters, as is tirelessly pointed out by people like Lars Lih, What is to be Done? had a specific ideological target: "economism" (or, if you like, a certain version of "spontaneism"). This target, as Geras describes it, stressed
"the economic, trade-union struggle as against the need for political-revolutionary perspectives; which stressed day to day practical tasks--getting on with the job, so to speak--as against the need for broad revolutionary socialist propaganda and agitation; and which in order to reinforce these emphases made a kind of principle of spontinaeity of the working class, arguing along these lines: this is what the workers are doing in any case, so that is what we should support, rather than getting carried away with grand perspectives of revolutionary socialism and so forth."Lenin's text is a sharp polemic against this position and, as such, places heavy emphasis on the need for organization, on the need to bring politics into the day-to-day class struggle of workers, and so on. The most controversial and widely cited passage from that text is the following:
"The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals..." Elsewhere Lenin cites Kautsky who argues that "socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without [von Aussen Hineingetragenes] and not something that arose within it spontaneously [urwüchsig]."Many anarchists cite this passage in an effort to demonstrate that Lenin's political thought evinces a substitutionist, or, in Luxemburg's vocabulary, "sectarian" or "Blanquist" approach to organization. Of course, matters are more complicated. They might just as well have cited wildly spontaneist claims Lenin makes in works published only a year earlier. Moreover, as Geras points out, there are at least two meanings of "from without" here.
The first is that socialist consciousness has to be introduced from outside of the working class, by bourgeois intellectuals. This is clearly wrong and it does seem as if Lenin held some version of this position in the text. It is also false, as numerous revolutionary situations have made clear, that workers will only ever attain mere trade-union consciousness through struggle. But the main point of making this claim at this point about intellectuals in WITBD is to emphasize the central importance of revolutionary theory (something that the spontaneists shunned). On this point Lenin was quite correct even if he errs in other respects. The second meaning of "outside", however, is generally overlooked by those looking for a "gotcha" quotation with which to dismiss all of Lenin's political ideals. It is also far more important to the central argument of the text. As Lenin describes it, that other meaning is summed up by the
"basic error that all of the Economists commit... namely their conviction that it is possible to develop the class political consciousness of the workers from within, so to speak, their economic struggle... class consciousness can be brought to workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and government, the sphere of interactions of all classes."As Geras points out, inside/outside here pertains not to sociological groupings (e.g. workers versus intellectuals) but to the partial and the global. Socialist consciousness, after all, is not wholly particular to a certain struggle and neither is it entirely local. Rather, it is a global perspective on the relationship between the system and all classes. One can be against, say, foreclosures and evictions without understanding how this problem is linked to other injustices in society. In this sense, Lenin is summarizing the most crucial aspect of the revolutionary party, namely, its capacity to generalize, to link various struggles together, and forge a unified perspective that brings the entire capitalist system into focus (rather than emphasizing simply this or that local struggle in isolation). The key role of socialists is to show those involved in individual struggles for justice that they are not alone, to encourage them to link arms with others, and to situate and contextualize their struggle within the system as a whole. The Economists and some syndicalists rejected this wholesale, opting instead for an uncompromising focus on the workplace economic struggles of workers to the exclusion of all things political. But in this sense of inside/outside, Lenin is, in my view, correct to emphasize that a global political perspective is needed (this becomes even more pressing when we consider the need to connect anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles to the trade-union struggles of workers for better conditions). And, what's more, Lenin is very close to Luxemburg and Trotsky on this matter as well.
Both Trotsky and Luxemburg emphasized the need to for socialists to fight for a general political perspective that brings into focus the whole system (indeed the whole global system rather than one national conjuncture). Both Trotsky and Luxemburg argued that organization was key, that spontaneism was a pitfall to be avoided. Moreover, both understood that the ruling ideas of the epoch are ruling class ideas by and large. That is, both understood that workers were not innately revolutionary and that they were subjected to a large amount of bourgeois ideology throughout their daily lives. Still, neither thought that the actions of a small enlightened clique could actually produce a genuine revolution. Moreover, neither thought that the appropriate learning processes were possible if the movement was controlled from above. A vigorously democratic organization in which every member is involved actively is key. Yet this is precisely what Lenin argued for and this perspective was evident in the activities of the Bolsheviks before the Civil War.