On the Question of Revolutionary Organization: the Case of the NPA in France

By Inti

In the course of the past few years several attempts have been made to create unified parties of the “left of the left”, notably in Europe. The most recent case is that of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste or NPA) meant to integrate in a single organization all the revolutionary tendencies in France. Such a regrouping certainly has its place today, with the space freed up by the Socialist Party’s move to the right and the disintegration of the Communist Party, which has lost contact with its working class base. At the same time, the bosses and the government are trying to impose their neoliberal counter-reforms before a social movement can block them.

The NPA’s process of formation is a good occasion to pose the question of revolutionary parties. This is not exclusively a theoretical interest. This is also a question linked to that of revolution, of democracy, of the relation between masses and leaders, and that between a party and the working class.

At first, we place this question in the context of the debate between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg a century ago. From these two conflicting conceptions we can see how subsequent history has provided a response to the polemic and finally how we can today conceive of an anti-bureaucratic structure for a revolutionary organization. We can then compare this conception with the propositions that came out of the debates within the NPA’s local committees, in order to enrich that debate.

Controversy between Luxemburg and Lenin on the party (internal democracy, revolutionary consciousness of workers…)

In the course of bourgeois revolutions (for example, the French Revolution of 1789 and the German Revolution of 1848) the masses actively participated, but mainly as cannon fodder. A small minority, the bourgeoisie, directed the process in which they took political power from the nobility, ended feudalism and consolidated their economic power in the capitalist system. There is not here any contradiction—these revolutions did not have as their goal the emancipation of the masses, and therefore it would have been useless to let them direct the movement.

Nonetheless, in the course of the 19th century, certain secret organizations formed, this time in the interests of the workers, but like the preceding revolutions, without them. These were essentially Blanquist conspiratorial organizations that used the tactic of “propaganda of the deed” and were part of the anarchist movement. The objective was to attack the symbols of bourgeois power (soldiers, policemen, politicians and capitalists) in order to draw the masses into the struggle, to awaken them. The masses again play the simple passive role of followers.

These conspiracies implied secrecy and therefore a strict separation between, on the one hand, the organization, and on the other, the masses. A few people were given the mission to make the revolution in the name of the masses, but without them, thus denying them the role of agents of change. This point of view also implied an extreme centralism with the blind obedience of the base. A strict, minutely detailed schema was formulated by the leadership.

It is in this same spirit that Lenin presented his vision of organization in What is to be done? (1902) and in One step forward, two steps back (1904). We can summarize these as follows: the party is to be formed from “professional revolutionaries”, organized on an ultra-centralized structure. The central committee is meant to be all powerful, even to the point of excluding members of local committee and hence deciding the composition of the congress, and destroying the role of the latter in controlling the leadership. In addition, this party must be strictly separated from the masses, which are judged incapable of coming, by themselves, to a revolutionary consciousness. As Lenin writes, “the modern socialist political consciousness cannot emerge except on the basis of profound scientific knowledge and such knowledge is not the product of the proletarians, but of the bourgeois intelligentsia or the petit-bourgeoisie.” It is for the leadership of the party, (“bourgeois intelligentsia” or “petit-bourgeois” to make the revolution, according to its own model, fixed arbitrarily (by “profound scientific knowledge”) and in advance of any real struggles.

However, this elitism, rather than favoring the development of struggles, must become an obstacle in the way of such struggles. In trying to impose a schema, rigidly conceived by the leaders, the organization can no longer adapt itself to the rapid evolution of the class struggle. The leadership, and in fact the party that submits to them, acquires a conservative role, unable to deal with the new exigencies of the movement.

This approach leads rapidly to conflicts with the democratic organs of the workers themselves, formed in the fight—the Commune, the Soviets, the strike committees, the general assemblies… If the party is considered a superior formation to the autonomous organization of the working class (those who, according Lenin, could not advance beyond reformism, nor take leadership of a revolution) then the struggle must be betrayed or diverted, according to the good will of a handful of leaders. The organization thus denies to the working class the active role in the revolution, and substitutes itself for the class.

In sum, the Leninist or Blaquist methods do not distinguish themselves on this point from the earlier bourgeois revolutionaries or from the reformists. In all these cases, the masses are underestimated and are called on to blindly delegate their power. It is the same basis as the modern ”democratic” capitalist societies: workers can freely express themselves and vote in each election, but their opinions or votes can’t put the system in question because the democracy is only formal. The workers are always asked to “trust the leaders”’ or to “pick leaders that they trust”.

Luxemburg’s alternative

Rosa Luxemburg presents a completely different point of view. It was explained in two pamphlets: Organizational Question of the Russian Social-Democracy, in reply to Lenin, and Masses and Leaders, both in 1904.

In this view, just as outlined in the Communist Manifesto, the party is not seen as an organization isolated from the working class, but is a part of that class, that is, it is composed of workers. It is not a matter of uniting the little soldiers, as foreseen by Lenin, ready to follow orders, but of grouping together the most advanced elements of the proletariat, in order to more effectively intervene in the class struggle.

In contrast to past historical periods, the workers movement distinguishes itself by having to rely on the mobilization of masses, not as followers-of-orders, but as real actors. For the workers to be emancipated, they must lead themselves. Thus, the party, the tool in the class struggle—cannot be composed of experts detached from the class, but of revolutionary workers.

The workers movement is based on the autonomous action of the masses, the innovative sprit of revolt and self-direction which must be found within the party, bringing together “the most resolute part” of the proletariat, as the Communist Manifesto puts it. Thus this sprit must be maintained within the organization. In addition, in making the direction of the party flow from the base upwards, the party can rapidly adapt itself to the chaotic evolution of the social movement, This requires letting go of all rigid schema pre-established by leaders.

Therefore, a powerful democracy is required, a direct decomarcy. As Luxemburg explains, “It is an abuse of words, and a deception to designate by the same term , ”discipline”, two notions as different as, on the one hand, the absence of thought and will in a body of a thousand hands and legs, carrying out automatic movement, and on the other hand, the spontaneous coordination of conscience acts, the politics of a collective. How could one have at one time the well-regulated docility of an oppressed class and the organized uprising of a class fighting for its own emancipation?”

This essential double condition of a revolutionary party (internal democracy and a relation between the party and the movement that leaves the latter its autonomy) is essential for avoiding the bureaucratic transformation of the party, and thus its conversion into a conservative and anti-revolutionary force.

In effect, all bureaucracies have in common, not only their detachment from the movements on which they are based ( for examples, the leaderships of conventional unions emerging from major working-class struggles) but also the tendency to impose in advance simplistic plans that ignore the latest evolution of the struggle,. “The unconscious precedes the conscious and the logic of the objective historical process preceded the subjective logic of the protagonists” (Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy). One cannot fully analyze in advance a phenomenon; it is only by analyzing what has already happened that one can arrive at conclusions that allow the best advice to the masses, which is the role of the revolutionary party.

This is not a new thought in the Marxist movement. Marx and Engels explained already in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto that the communists” do not at all proclaim principles that they wish to impose on the workers movement.” Rather, “the theoretical position of the communists does not consist of ideas and principles invented or discovered. They are only the general expression of the real conditions of an existing class struggle, of a movement that historically evolves before our eyes.”

The positions of both Bolsheviks and reformists are a-priori, pre-established. In no case is they based on historical reality. They are good (or bad) for all historical situations equally. There are thus in perfect accord with bourgeois theories but in opposition to the Marxist method, which analyses facts in order to draw conclusions, and not the inverse, conceiving of principles that must then be applied to reality.

History is the sole judge

But the reality of the workers movement is the self-mobilization of the workers. In contest to the clichés about masses that cannot lead themselves, at each major moment in the class struggle, we find that it has been the masses that played the principle role, not acting as followers as in the bourgeois revolutions. This was the case in 1905 and 191 in Russia, in 1918-1919 in Germany, in 1936 and 1968 in France. During these struggles, the masses innovated by creating autonomous organs of directions (communes, soviets, strike committee, general assemblies)... and also in their tactics, (mass strikes, unifying economic and political objectives, both reformist goals as well as the overthrow of the system.)

Marx took important lessons from the experience of the Paris Communize of 1871:”The Commune was composed of municipal councilors, elected by universal suffrage in the different neighborhoods of the city. They were responsible and revocable at all times. They were not part of a parliamentary organizatios, but an active body, executive and legislative at the same time.”(The Civil War in France”).The objective of the Commune was to go beyond Paris and extend to all of France: ”The rural communes of each department would administer their own affairs by an assembly of delegates in the capital of each department and these assembles would in their turn send delegates to the national assembly in Paris: the delegates must be at all times revocable and bound by imperative mandates from their electors.” This organization at the national level implies a centralization or coordination, but not the suffocating centralization envisioned by Lenin.

The party being an aspect of the workers movement, we can inspire ourselves from these struggles, in particular the passages just cited on the Commune, in order to determine the party structure. In effect, since there is a strong tie between the method, organization and the aim, revolution, these two aspects must be coherent; we cannot fight against submission in a submissive fashion. The emancipation of the workers is the work of the workers themselves and not that of an illuminated elect!

How can the NPA function democratically?

With this context in mind, one can’t ignore a certain contradiction in the founding texts of the NPA, elaborated by the CAN (National Committee) and which have been discussed prior to the foundation of the party. On the one hand, it is said rightly in these documents that the party has to be as democratic as possible, rejecting bureaucratism, because “the forms of organization and the function of the party are not neutral. There is no doubt that the means reflect the ends and thus it is necessary that our internal origination shows the sincerity of our convictions.” (P.22 of the Debate Bulletin.), In addition, the NPA must become a support of the social moment, without substituting for it.

To be sure, we support these propositions, but looking at the details, a contraction appears; top-to bottom centralization. It would be false to say that the proposed statutes correspond to a purely Leninist schema, but they envision a hierarchy that can ultimately generate a stifling bureaucracy. The justification furnished for this centralism is the centralization of capitalisms. But what must be our model: the hierarchical class society that we are fighting, or it’s opposite, embodied by the democratic organs (communes, strike committees, etc.) which have appeared throughout the workers struggles at the precise times that exploitation is breaking down?

According to the proposal of the CAN, a Congress which meets every two years elects a national political Council (CPN). This in turn elects an Executive Committee that leads the party. In turn, it can designate a permanent secretariat. The CPN controls the Executive Committee by meeting quarterly. On the other hand, the local committees have a certain autonomy in adapting the nation decision to the local realties.

Now this structure goes from top to bottom. In fact, wouldn’t it be more democratic to have decisions coming from the base to the national coordination? This makes the national level adapt to the choices of the militants, and not vice versa. This would involve a better representation of those militants.

Basically, in having a congress elect the CPN every two years, not only are the evolution of opinions of the base isolated from the national level, but new ideas coming from the base can’t be voted on except locally between the two congresses. At the same time, the leadership elected for long terms is hardly controlled through quarterly meetings. In this situation, it’s hard to see the place of a real rotation of positions and it would be impossible not to fear a bureaucratization of this hierarchy.

An alternative to this top-down centralism would be direct democracy, such as that put in place by the Commune, among other examples. Here, the local committee, consisting of all members, is the basic organ of the party. The power must emanate from this level to the national one.

Thus, each committee directly elects its delegates to the CPN, with each delegate responsible to their own electors and revocable at any moment. These election could be, for example, every quarter in order not only to allow some rotation but also to better reflect the new state of the spirit of the organization as a whole. The CPN elects in its turn various executive committees, each responsible for a specific subject, (why have just a small group in charge of the executive?) These committees are also revocable and responsible to the CPN, and thus directly to the local committees’ delegates.

In this sense, it’s encouraging to read the amendment proposed by the committees of the Hautes Alps and Paris 18th Goutte d’or (p.28 of the Debate bulletin). These comrades propose a structure very close to that we have indicated here, allowing coordination really coming from the base and responsible to it. Without this double condition, democracy within the organization becomes merely formal, like those in the capitalist societies, where one can vote without real control, and one can express oneself on the local level with having power to change things globally.

In conclusion, if the working class has to be provided with representative organs of its movement, it must be a party, not only as unitary as possible (or active together with other groups), but it must be really democratic, and therefore anti-bureaucratic. It must stay in phase with the movement itself: not trying to direct, nor impose on it theoretical schemas that are often little adapted to reality, instead knowing how to follow innovations. If the party must not substitute itself for the organs coming out of the struggle against capital, its existence is primordial, because it consists of the accumulation of the experience of the past (the theoretical aspect) in order to support the best perspectives and intervention in the struggles (the practical aspect).

The principal error of Lenin was not to see that historical events are the fruits of processes, in which everything is bound by dialectical relations, and that which is true today (low level of workers’ consciousness) will not be true tomorrow. Through its fights, the working class develops its consciousness, this does not mean that is makes no mistakes, but as Luxemburg wrote at the end of Organizational Questions "The errors committed by a truly revolutionary workers movement are infinitely more productive historically and more valuable than the infallibility of the best “central committee.”

With this article with have discussed the structure of the party. One must also ask once if its existence is necessary. We reply to this at the end: history has shown how elitist structures have crippled the movement, so it is necessity to have a organization capable of opposing these bureaucracies, whether they are union or political. It is necessary to form such an anti-bureaucratic organizations; we appeal therefore to all militants, members or not of NPA, to struggle, together, against all dirigism. Or, as the Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Megon said: “Workers of the revolution, cultivate irreverence”.