Examining in depth the class struggle at his time, mainly the Paris Commune, Marx defined the revolutionary tasks, which were politically correspondent to the introduction of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, i.e., destroying the bourgeois state and the establishment of a workers’ government:
“…the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is the precondition for every real people’s revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting”. (Neue Zeit, Vol.XX, 1, 1901-02, p. 709. / Letter of Marx to Kugelmann, April 12th 1871, cited by Lenin in The State and Revolution chapter 3.1)
“…The multiplicity of interpretations to which the Commune has been subjected, and the multiplicity of interests which expressed themselves in it show that it was a thoroughly flexible political form, while all previous forms of government had been essentially repressive. Its true secret was this: it was essentially a working-class government, the result of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which the economic emancipation of labor could be accomplished…”. (Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871, cited by Lenin in The State and Revolution chapter 3.5)
In order to achieve a working class government, a political party of the working class was necessary. In those days, the European working class did not have the right to vote or, if she did, she voted for the parties of the liberal bourgeoisie (a similar phenomenon to the Argentine working class in relation to Peronism). In order to accomplish the fundamental political task of making the proletariat independent from the bourgeoisie, Marx, together with Engels, stood for one single party of the working class (something similar also to the slogan that we have often raised in our country: “For a Workers Party” or “Labour Party”). Their stand was correct, as neither the labor aristocracy nor the strong bureaucracies ahead of solid labor apparatuses had emerged yet.
However, as the nineteenth century went by and humanity got into the twentieth century, such affirmation became something dangerous, wrong, and ended up bringing negative consequences. We learned two fundamental lessons after that: the first, a general one, is that reality is superior than any theoretical conception. The reality of class struggle left behind Marx’s conception (along with some others, like the “free trade”, or the inevitable beginning of the world socialist revolution in the so-called advanced countries). The second lesson is that a rigid and static conception of the organizational question is very unscientific and can be as reactionary as a rigid and static conception of any human and social phenomenon, from the sciences to the tactics of a revolutionary party.
The Social Democracy
Following the conception of Marx, the major European socialist parties were founded. They played a very progressive role for a whole period, as they achieved the political independence of the proletariat, finishing the tail-ending of liberal bourgeois politics. The consequences of this progressive step represented by the great socialist parties can still be seen nowadays. The economic offensive of world imperialism achieved sizeable setbacks regarding workers wages in the semi-colonial world, as well as in the United States and Japan. In Europe, by contrast, the setbacks are much smaller due to a fierce resistance of the working class, whose best examples have been the tremendous strikes of the British miners and German auto and steelworkers. This can only be explained by the fact that the European proletariat kept a level of working class consciousness and organization qualitatively superior to other proletariats, even the more powerful ones like the American and the Japanese.
However, these large socialist parties were influenced by the new social processes, as it always occur. The emergence of imperialism brought the labor aristocracy into existence in European countries. The labour aristocracy was a privileged sector of the working class, better off than other workers in their own country and across the world. This labour aristocracy benefitted from the crumbs tossed to them by imperialist bourgeoisie through the exploitation of other workers, particularly the ones from the colonies. In addition to the labour aristocracy there were also the upper layers of the socialist parties, which had acquired legality and continuously and systematically intervened in the parliamentary elections. These parties began to be assimilated by the bourgeois state apparatus. The world capitalist system was still developing the productive forces, and even during the first period of its decay, as an imperialist system already, it could provide major political and economic reforms for the metropolitan working class. The proletariat from imperialist countries – and to some extent – across the world – were living a reformist era, not a revolutionary one.
Thus social democracy was organized primarily to achieve reforms and run candidates for the elections, not to carry out a revolution against the bourgeoisie. The workers gathered in their branches to hear the speakers, but no one had the obligation of selling newspapers or carrying out any other task. The party just wanted electoral support. There was no discipline. The Social Democrats were not interested in daily intervention in the social structures, in the depths of the working class, in the shop floor, to organize the workers and the party itself over daily struggles. It was usual for the social democrats to split before a strike action, a sector in favor and another against. Nevertheless, both remained in the party.
Thus, the major socialist parties were huge electoral apparatuses, oblivious to the concrete and daily struggles of the working class and their organization, although there were two exceptions: the British Labour and, to some extent, Belgian and German Social Democracy. The mass of socialist workers had a passive role. The only ones active were the ones permanently integrated to the party apparatus, which was controlled by lawyers, parliamentarians or candidates, full-timers, journalists, all those who were not subjected to any control by the party as a whole.
The Bolshevik Party
Against Marx’s predictions, the first Socialist revolution did not triumph in the most developed imperialist countries but in the least developed of them, the tsarist Russia. The Russia of back then had an overwhelming peasant population who never experienced bourgeois democracy, but it also had the most concentrated proletariat across the world. The need to build the party for the revolution under these objective conditions, which required absolute secrecy as there were neither legal unions nor regular elections, explains the emergence of a new type of party: the Bolshevik party. It represented an innovative revolutionary organization, whose key features were:
- A structure that Lenin called “conspiratorial”, i.e., centralized and disciplined, able to act in every situation of class struggle, flicking from legality into clandestinity and vice versa, appropriate to centralize organically all the forces of the mass movement to seize power by insurrectionary means;
- A clear-cut edge between revolutionaries and reformists. The latter were not accepted irrespectively of eventual socialist claims. The party was made of the revolutionaries. Reformists should build their own party;
- Its core activity was not parliamentary elections but class struggle. It is the party for the intervention in everyday struggles of the working class and the exploited masses. The party is built inside the working class and their struggles. It follows workers’ struggles, and seeks to organize each and every one of them. It is present in all conflicts, be them large or small. It works to lead them, to organize them, or at least to intervene in the spontaneous disputes of the working class.
As we can see, it is a diametrically opposed organizational structure compared to the Social-Democrat one.
The End of the Single Party of the Working Class
The organizational structure supported by Marx and Engels – the single party of the working class – was overcomed by the experience of the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik Party. The historical processes of the twentieth century demonstrated that the division between revolutionary socialists and reformists; i.e., in Russia, between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, into two parties that were not only different but enemies, was fully correct. After 1917 the split extended to all countries. Social Democrats and Communist parties challenged each other, affiliated to different internationals, the 2nd and 3rd respectively. Reality demonstrated to be superior than Marx’s original party conceptions.
However, it is critical to expose the terrible mistake that is to stick to rigid conceptions on any terrain. The great German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg did not accept either the division of the socialist parties or the perspective for the revolutionaries to have their own organization. This cost her dearly, for her and her tendency, which had to face a revolutionary situation without a proper party, which led to their annihilation by the repression of the bourgeoisie, carried out by the government of Reformist Socialism. This defeat had a tremendous effect for the international working class. The defeat of the German revolution due to the absence of such revolutionary party delayed the development and triumph of the world revolution for decades, marked by wars with millions of dead and awful situations of exploitation and poverty.
Based on the Bolshevik experience, revolutionary Marxists have been able to develop a theory that explains why there cannot be, at this stage, one single party of the working class. Every class has several parties. Traditionally, the bourgeoisie had theirs, representing different sectors: industrial, agricultural or financial, non-monopolistic or monopolistic, etc. Currently, as the big imperialist monopolies are holding control of all the global economic structure, there is a tendency to unity, which is expressed in bipartisanship. Only two major parties that tend to occupy the political scenario in the imperialist – capitalist system: a social-democratic type, to drag the workers’ vote; and a center-right one, to do the same with the middle classes’ voting. In Europe and a few countries of the semi-colonial world, such as Chile, reformist parties get workers’ votes. In many other countries, bourgeois parties directly get workers’ votes, as Peronism in Argentina, Acción Democrática in Venezuela, or the Democratic Party in the United States.
The working class is more homogeneous than the bourgeoisie. It is the most homogeneous class. However, there is not enough political homogeneity in order to have one single party. Like every class, it has different sectors. There are aristocracies, medium and super- exploited workers on the verge of marginality. There are casual workers and others who work permanently; those who work for the heavy industry, light industry, services and also the agricultural proletariat. That is the reason for the emergence of different political parties.
Reflecting this structural heterogeneity, though not mechanically, there are different degrees of development of workers’ consciousness. As Trotsky said, in one of his brilliant analyzes, some sectors of the working class look backwards and others look forward (we should add that there are others that do not look in any direction).
Obviously, workers who have petty-bourgeois expectations, who still believe that progress can be made individually within the limits of the capitalist system, will look for any bourgeois party or some kind of reformist party. Yet, workers who want socialism but do not realize to achieve that it is necessary to carry out a revolution, will end up in some Social Democratic type party. Workers who are already revolutionaries will join the revolutionary Marxist party.
From any angle you take, there is no scientific reason to explain or justify that there should be only one single party for the working class.