No, far from it. Looking at the history of vanguardism we are struck by its failures, not its successes. Indeed, the proponents of “democratic centralism” can point to only one apparent success of their model, namely the Russian Revolution. However, we are warned by Leninists that failure to use the vanguard party will inevitably condemn future revolutions to failure:
“The proletariat can take power only through its vanguard… Without the confidence of the class in the vanguard, without support of the vanguard by the class, there can be no talk of the conquest of power … The Soviets are the only organised form of the tie between the vanguard and the class. A revolutionary content can be given this form only by the party. This is proved by the positive experience of the October Revolution and by the negative experience of other countries (Germany, Austria, finally, Spain). No one has either shown in practice or tried to explain articulately on paper how the proletariat can seize power without the political leadership of a party that knows what it wants.” [Trotsky, Stalinism and Bolshevism]
To anarchist ears, such claims seem out of place. After all, did the Russian Revolution actually result in socialism or even a viable form of soviet democracy? Far from it. Unless you picture revolution as simply the changing of the party in power, you have to acknowledge that while the Bolshevik party did take power in Russian in November 1917, the net effect of this was not the stated goals that justified that action. Thus, if we take the term “effective” to mean “an efficient means to achieve the desired goals” then vanguardism has not been proven to be effective, quite the reverse (assuming that your desired goal is a socialist society, rather than party power). Needless to say, Trotsky blames the failure of the Russian Revolution on “objective” factors rather than Bolshevik policies and practice, an argument we address in detail in “What caused the degeneration of the Russian Revolution?” and will not do so here.
So while Leninists make great claims for the effectiveness of their chosen kind of party, the hard facts of history are against their positive evaluation of vanguard parties. Ironically, even the Russian Revolution disproves the claims of Leninists. The fact is that the Bolshevik party in 1917 was very far from the “democratic centralist” organisation which supporters of “vanguardism” like to claim it is. As such, its success in 1917 lies more in its divergence from the principles of “democratic centralism” than in their application. The subsequent degeneration of the revolution and the party is marked by the increasing application of those principles in the life of the party.
Thus, to refute the claims of the “effectiveness” and “efficiency” of vanguardism, we need to look at its one and only success, namely the Russian Revolution. As the Cohen-Bendit brothers argue, “far from leading the Russian Revolution forwards, the Bolsheviks were responsible for holding back the struggle of the masses between February and October 1917, and later for turning the revolution into a bureaucratic counter-revolution — in both cases because of the party’s very nature, structure and ideology.” Indeed, “[f]rom April to October, Lenin had to fight a constant battle to keep the Party leadership in tune with the masses.” [Obsolete Communism, p. 183 and p. 187] It was only by continually violating its own “nature, structure and ideology” that the Bolshevik party played an important role in the revolution. Whenever the principles of “democratic centralism” were applied, the Bolshevik party played the role the Cohen-Bendit brothers subscribed to it (and once in power, the party’s negative features came to the fore).
Even Leninists acknowledge that, to quote Tony Cliff, throughout the history of Bolshevism, “a certain conservatism arose.” Indeed, “[a]t practically all sharp turning points, Lenin had to rely on the lower strata of the party machine against the higher, or on the rank and file against the machine as a whole.” [Lenin, vol. 2, p. 135] This fact, incidentally, refutes the basic assumptions of Lenin’s party schema, namely that the broad party membership, like the working class, was subject to bourgeois influences so necessitating central leadership and control from above.
Looking at both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, we are struck by how often this “conservatism” arose and how often the higher bodies were behind the spontaneous actions of the masses and the party membership. Looking at the 1905 revolution, we discover a classic example of the inefficiency of “democratic centralism.” Facing in 1905 the rise of the soviets, councils of workers’ delegates elected to co-ordinate strikes and other forms of struggle, the Bolsheviks did not know what to do. “The Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks,” noted Trotsky, “was frightened at first by such an innovation as a non-partisan representation of the embattled masses, and could find nothing better to do than to present the Soviet with an ultimatum: immediately adopt a Social-Democratic program or disband. The Petersburg Soviet as a whole, including the contingent of Bolshevik workingmen as well ignored this ultimatum without batting an eyelash.” [Stalin, vol. 1, p. 106] More than that, “[t]he party’s Central Committee published the resolution on October 27, thereby making it the binding directive for all other Bolshevik organisations.” [Oskar Anweiler, The Soviets, p. 77] It was only the return of Lenin which stopped the Bolshevik’s open attacks against the Soviet (also see section 8 of the appendix on “How did Bolshevik ideology contribute to the failure of the Revolution?”).
The rationale for these attacks is significant. The St. Petersburg Bolsheviks were convinced that “only a strong party along class lines can guide the proletarian political movement and preserve the integrity of its program, rather than a political mixture of this kind, an indeterminate and vacillating political organisation such as the workers council represents and cannot help but represent.” [quoted by Anweiler, Op. Cit., p. 77] In other words, the soviets could not reflect workers’ interests because they were elected by the workers! The implications of this perspective came clear in 1918, when the Bolsheviks gerrymandered and disbanded soviets to remain in power (see section 6). That the Bolshevik’s position flowed naturally from Lenin’s arguments in What is to be Done? is clear. Thus the underlying logic of Lenin’s vanguardism ensured that the Bolsheviks played a negative role with regards the soviets which, combined with “democratic centralism” ensured that it was spread far and wide. Only by ignoring their own party’s principles and staying in the Soviet did rank and file Bolsheviks play a positive role in the revolution. This divergence of top and bottom would be repeated in 1917.
Given this, perhaps it is unsurprising that Leninists started to rewrite the history of the 1905 revolution. Victor Serge, a “Left Oppositionist” and anti-Stalinist asserted in the late 1920s that in 1905 the Petrograd Soviet was “led by Trotsky and inspired by the Bolsheviks.” [Year One of the Russian Revolution, p. 36]. While the former claim is correct, the latter is not. As noted, the Bolsheviks were initially opposed the soviets and systematically worked to undermine them. Unsurprisingly, Trotsky at that time was a Menshevik, not a Bolshevik. After all, how could the most revolutionary party that ever existed have messed up so badly? How could democratic centralism faired so badly in practice? Best, then, to suggest that it did not and give the Bolsheviks a role better suited to the rhetoric of Bolshevism than its reality.
Trotsky was no different. He, needless to say, denied the obvious implications of these events in 1905. While admitting that the Bolsheviks “adjusted themselves more slowly to the sweep of the movement” and that the Mensheviks “were preponderant in the Soviet,” he tries to save vanguardism by asserting that “the general direction of the Soviet’s policy proceeded in the main along Bolshevik lines.” So, in spite of the lack of Bolshevik influence, in spite of the slowness in adjusting to the revolution, Bolshevism was, in fact, the leading set of ideas in the revolution! Ironically, a few pages later, he mocks the claims of Stalinists that Stalin had “isolated the Mensheviks from the masses” by noting that the “figures hardly bear [the claims] out.” [Op. Cit., p. 112 and p. 117] Shame he did not apply this criteria to his own claims.
Of course, every party makes mistakes. The question is, how did the “most revolutionary party of all time” fare in 1917. Surely that revolution proves the validity of vanguardism and “democratic centralism”? After all, there was a successful revolution, the Bolshevik party did seize power. However, the apparent success of 1917 was not due to the application of “democratic centralism,” quite the reverse. While the myth of 1917 is that a highly efficient, democratic centralist vanguard party ensured the overthrow of the Provisional Government in November 1917 in favour of the Soviets (or so it seemed at the time) the facts are somewhat different. Rather, the Bolshevik party throughout 1917 was a fairly loose collection of local organisations (each more than willing to ignore central commands and express their autonomy), with much internal dissent and infighting and no discipline beyond what was created by common loyalty. The “democratic centralist” party, as desired by Lenin, was only created in the course of the Civil War and the tightening of the party dictatorship. In other words, the party became more like a “democratic centralist” one as the revolution degenerated. As such, the various followers of Lenin (Stalinists, Trotskyists and their multitude of offshoots) subscribe to a myth, which probably explains their lack of success in reproducing a similar organisation since. So assuming that the Bolsheviks did play an important role in the Russian revolution, it was because it was not the centralised, disciplined Bolshevik party of Leninist myth. Indeed, when the party did operate in a vanguardist manner, failure was soon to follow.
This claim can be proven by looking at the history of the 1917 revolution. The February revolution started with a spontaneous protests and strikes. As Murray Bookchin notes, “the Petrograd organisation of the Bolsheviks opposed the calling of strikes precisely on the eve of the revolution which was destined to overthrow the Tsar. Fortunately, the workers ignored the Bolshevik ‘directives’ and went on strike anyway. In the events which followed, no one was more surprised by the revolution than the ‘revolutionary’ parties, including the Bolsheviks.” [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 194] Trotsky quotes one of the Bolshevik leaders at the time:
“Absolutely no guiding initiative from the party centres was felt … the Petrograd Committee had been arrested and the representative of the Central Committee … was unable to give any directives for the coming day.” [quoted by Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1, p. 147]
Not the best of starts. Of course rank and file Bolsheviks took part in the demonstrations, street fights and strikes and so violated the principles their party was meant to be based on. As the revolution progressed, so did the dual nature of the Bolshevik party (i.e. its practical divergence from “democratic centralism” in order to be effective and attempts to force it back into that schema which handicapped the revolution). However, during 1917, “democratic centralism” was ignored in order to ensure the the Bolsheviks played any role at all in the revolution. As one historian of the party makes clear, in 1917 and until the outbreak of the Civil War, the party operated in ways that few modern “vanguard” parties would tolerate:
“The committees were a law unto themselves when it came to accepting orders from above. Democratic centralism, as vague a principle of internal administration as there ever has been, was commonly held at least to enjoin lower executive bodies that they should obey the behests of all higher bodies in the organisational hierarchy. But town committees in practice had the devil’s own job in imposing firm leadership … Insubordination was the rule of the day whenever lower party bodies thought questions of importance were at stake.
“Suburb committees too faced difficulties in imposing discipline. Many a party cell saw fit to thumb its nose at higher authority and to pursue policies which it felt to be more suited to local circumstances or more desirable in general. No great secret was made of this. In fact, it was openly admitted that hardly a party committee existed which did not encounter problems in enforcing its will even upon individual activists.” [Robert Service, The Bolshevik Party in Revolution 1917–1923, pp. 51–2]
So while Lenin’s ideal model of a disciplined, centralised and top-down party had been expounded since 1902, the operation of the party never matched his desire. As Service notes, “a disciplined hierarchy of command stretching down from the regional committees to party cells” had “never existed in Bolshevik history.” In the heady days of the revolution, when the party was flooded by new members, the party ignored what was meant to be its guiding principles. As Service constantly stresses, Bolshevik party life in 1917 was the exact opposite of that usually considered (by both opponents and supporters of Bolshevism) as it normal mode of operation. “Anarchist attitudes to higher authority,” he argues, “were the rule of the day” and “no Bolshevik leader in his right mind could have contemplated a regular insistence upon rigid standards of hierarchical control and discipline unless he had abandoned all hope of establishing a mass socialist party.” This meant that “in the Russia of 1917 it was the easiest thing in the world for lower party bodies to rebut the demands and pleas by higher authority.” He stresses that “[s]uburb and town committees … often refused to go along with official policies … they also … sometimes took it into their heads to engage in active obstruction.” [Op. Cit., p. 80, p. 62 p. 56 and p. 60]
This worked both ways, of course. Town committees did “snub their nose at lower-echelon viewpoints in the time before the next election. Try as hard as they might, suburb committees and ordinary cells could meanwhile do little to rectify matters beyond telling their own representative on their town committee to speak on their behalf. Or, if this too failed, they could resort to disruptive tactics by criticising it in public and refusing it all collaboration.” [Op. Cit., pp. 52–3] Even by early 1918, the Bolshevik party bore little resemblance to the “democratic centralist” model desires by Lenin:
“The image of a disciplined hierarchy of party committees was therefore but a thin, artificial veneer which was used by Bolshevik leaders to cover up the cracked surface of the real picture underneath. Cells and suburb committees saw no reason to kow-tow to town committees; nor did town committees feel under compulsion to show any greater respect to their provincial and regional committees then before.” [Op. Cit., p. 74]
It is this insubordination, this local autonomy and action in spite of central orders which explains the success of the Bolsheviks in 1917. Rather than a highly centralised and disciplined body of “professional” revolutionaries, the party in 1917 saw a “significant change … within the membership of the party at local level … From the time of the February revolution requirements for party membership had been all but suspended, and now Bolshevik ranks swelled with impetuous recruits who knew next to nothing about Marxism and who were united by little more than overwhelming impatience for revolutionary action.” [Alexander Rabinowitch, Prelude to Revolution, p. 41]
This mass of new members (many of whom were peasants who had just recently joined the industrial workforce) had a radicalising effect on the party’s policies and structures. As even Leninist commentators argue, it was this influx of members who allowed Lenin to gain support for his radical revision of party aims in April. However, in spite of this radicalisation of the party base, the party machine still was at odds with the desires of the party. As Trotsky acknowledged, the situation “called for resolute confrontation of the sluggish Party machine with masses and ideas in motion.” He stressed that “the masses were incomparably more revolutionary than the Party, which in turn was more revolutionary than its committeemen.” Ironically, given the role Trotsky usually gave the party, he admits that “[w]ithout Lenin, no one had known what to make of the unprecedented situation.” [Stalin, vol. 1, p. 301, p. 305 and p. 297]
Which is significant in itself. The Bolshevik party is usually claimed as being the most “revolutionary” that ever existed, yet here is Trotsky admitting that its leading members did not have a clue what to do. He even argued that “[e]very time the Bolshevik leaders had to act without Lenin they fell into error, usually inclining to the Right.” [Op. Cit., p. 299] This negative opinion of the Bolsheviks applied even to the “left Bolsheviks, especially the workers” whom we are informed “tried with all their force to break through this quarantine” created by the Bolshevik leaders policy “of waiting, of accommodation, and of actual retreat before the Compromisers” after the February revolution and before the arrival of Lenin. Trotsky argues that “they did not know how to refute the premise about the bourgeois character of the revolution and the danger of an isolation of the proletariat. They submitted, gritting their teeth, to the directions of their leaders.” [History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1, p. 273] It seems strange, to say the least, that without one person the whole of the party was reduced to such a level given that the aim of the “revolutionary” party was to develop the political awareness of its members.
Lenin’s arrival, according to Trotsky, allowed the influence of the more radical rank and file to defeat the conservatism of the party machine. By the end of April, Lenin had managed to win over the majority of the party leadership to his position. However, as Trotsky argues, this “April conflict between Lenin and the general staff of the party was not the only one of its kind. Throughout the whole history of Bolshevism … all the leaders of the party at all the most important moments stood to the right of Lenin.” [Op. Cit., p. 305] As such, if “democratic centralism” had worked as intended, the whole party would have been arguing for incorrect positions the bulk of its existence (assuming, of course, that Lenin was correct most of the time).
For Trotsky, “Lenin exerted influence not so much as an individual but because he embodied the influence of the class on the Party and of the Party on its machine.” [Stalin, vol. 1, p. 299] Yet, this was the machine which Lenin had forged, which embodied his vision of how a “revolutionary” party should operate and was headed by him. In other words, to argue that the party machine was behind the party membership and the membership behind the class shows the bankruptcy of Lenin’s organisational scheme. This “backwardness,” moreover, indicates an independence of the party bureaucracy from the membership and the membership from the masses. As Lenin’s constantly repeated aim was for the party to seize power (based on the dubious assumption that class power would only be expressed, indeed was identical to, party power) this independence held serious dangers, dangers which became apparent once this goal was achieved.
Trotsky asks the question “by what miracle did Lenin manage in a few short weeks to turn the Party’s course into a new channel?” Significantly, he answers as follows: “Lenin’s personal attributes and the objective situation.” [Ibid.] No mention is made of the democratic features of the party organisation, which suggests that without Lenin the rank and file party members would not have been able to shift the weight of the party machine in their favour. Trotsky seems close to admitting this:
“As often happens, a sharp cleavage developed between the classes in motion and the interests of the party machines. Even the Bolshevik Party cadres, who enjoyed the benefit of exceptional revolutionary training, were definitely inclined to disregard the masses and to identify their own special interests and the interests of the machine on the very day after the monarchy was overthrown.” [Stalin, vol. 1, p. 298]
Thus the party machine, which embodied the principles of “democratic centralism” proved less than able to the task assigned it in practice. Without Lenin, it is doubtful that the party membership would have over come the party machine:
“Lenin was strong not only because he understood the laws of the class struggle but also because his ear was faultlessly attuned to the stirrings of the masses in motion. He represented not so much the Party machine as the vanguard of the proletariat. He was definitely convinced that thousands from among those workers who had borne the brunt of supporting the underground Party would now support him. The masses at the moment were more revolutionary than the Party, and the Party more revolutionary than its machine. As early as March the actual attitude of the workers and soldiers had in many cases become stormily apparent, and it was widely at variance with the instructions issued by all the parties, including the Bolsheviks.” [Op. Cit., p. 299]
Little wonder the local party groupings ignored the party machine, practising autonomy and initiative in the face of a party machine inclined to conservatism, inertia, bureaucracy and remoteness. This conflict between the party machine and the principles it was based on and the needs of the revolution and party membership was expressed continually throughout 1917:
“In short, the success of the revolution called for action against the ‘highest circles of the party,’ who, from February to October, utterly failed to play the revolutionary role they ought to have taken in theory. The masses themselves made the revolution, with or even against the party — this much at least was clear to Trotsky the historian. But far from drawing the correct conclusion, Trotsky the theorist continued to argue that the masses are incapable of making a revolution without a leader.” [Daniel & Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, Op. Cit., p. 188]
Looking at the development of the revolution from April onwards, we are struck by the sluggishness of the party hierarchy. At every revolutionary upsurge, the party simply was not to the task of responding to the needs of masses and the local party groupings closest to them. The can be seen in June, July and October itself. At each turn, the rank and file groupings or Lenin had to constantly violate the principles of their own party in order to be effective. The remoteness and conservatism of the party even under Lenin can be constantly seen.
For example, when discussing the cancellation by the central committee of a demonstration planned for June 10th by the Petrograd Bolsheviks, the unresponsiveness of the party hierarchy can be seen. The “speeches by Lenin and Zinoviev [justifying their actions] by no means satisfied the Petersburg Committee. If anything, it appears that their explanations served to strengthen the feeling that at best the party leadership had acted irresponsibly and incompetently and was seriously out of touch with reality.” Indeed, many “blamed the Central Committee for taking so long to respond to Military Organisation appeals for a demonstration.” [Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 88 and p. 92]
During the discussions in late June, 1917, on whether to take direct action against the Provisional Government there was a “wide gulf” between lower organs evaluations of the current situation and that of the Central Committee. [Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 129] Indeed, among the delegates from the Bolshevik military groups, only Lashevich (an old Bolshevik) spoke in favour of the Central Committee position and he noted that “[f]requently it is impossible to make out where the Bolshevik ends and the Anarchist begins.” [quoted by Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 129]
In the July days, the breach between the local party groups and the central committee increased. As we noted in the section 1, this spontaneous uprising was opposed to by the Bolshevik leadership, in spite of the leading role of their own militants (along with anarchists) in fermenting it. While calling on their own militants to restrain the masses, the party leadership was ignored by the rank and file membership who played an active role in the event. Sickened by being asked to play the role of “fireman,” the party militants rejected party discipline in order to maintain their credibility with the working class. Rank and file activists, pointing to the snowballing of the movement, showed clear dissatisfaction with the Central Committee. One argued that it “was not aware of the latest developments when it made its decision to oppose the movement into the streets.” Ultimately, the Central Committee appeal “for restraining the masses … was removed from … Pravda … and so the party’s indecision was reflected by a large blank space on page one.” [Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 150, p. 159 and P. 175] Ultimately, the indecisive nature of the leadership can be explained by the fact it did not think it could seize state power for itself. As Trotsky noted, “the state of popular consciousness … made impossible the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in July.” [History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 2, p. 81]
The indecision of the party hierarchy did have an effect, of course. While the anarchists at Kronstadt looked at the demonstration as the start of an uprising, the Bolsheviks there were “wavering indecisively in the middle” between them and the Left-Social Revolutionaries who saw it as a means of applying pressure on the government. This was because they were “hamstrung by the indecision of the party Central Committee.” [Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 187] Little wonder so many Bolshevik party organisations developed and protected their own autonomy and ability to act!
Significantly, one of the main Bolshevik groupings which helped organise and support the July uprising, the Military Organisation, started their own paper after the Central Committee had decreed after the failed revolt that neither it, nor the Petersburg Committee, should be allowed to have one. It “angrily insisted on what it considered its just prerogatives” and in “no uncertain terms it affirmed its right to publish an independent newspaper and formally protested what is referred to as ‘a system of persecution and repression of an extremely peculiar character which had begun with the election of the new Central Committee.’” [Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 227] The Central Committee backed down, undoubtedly due to the fact it could not enforce its decision.
As the Cohn-Bendit brothers argue, “five months after the Revolution and three months before the October uprising, the masses were still governing themselves, and the Bolshevik vanguard simply had to toe the line.” [Op. Cit., p. 186] Within that vanguard, the central committee proved to be out of touch with the rank and file, who ignored it rather than break with their fellow workers.
Even by October, the party machine still lagged behind the needs of the revolution. In fact, Lenin could only impose his view by going over the head of the Central Committee. According to Trotsky’s account, “this time he [wa]s not satisfied with furious criticism” of the “ruinous Fabianism of the Petrograd leadership” and “by way of protest he resign[ed] from the Central Committee.” [History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3, p. 131] Trotsky quotes Lenin as follows:
“I am compelled to request permission to withdraw from the Central Committee, which I hereby do, and leave myself freedom of agitation in the lower ranks of the party and at the party congress.” [quoted by Trotsky, Op. Cit., p. 131]
Thus the October revolution was precipitated by a blatant violation of the principles Lenin spent his life advocating. Indeed, if someone else other than Lenin had done this we are sure that Lenin, and his numerous followers, would have dismissed it as the action of a “petty-bourgeois intellectual” who cannot handle party “discipline.” This is itself is significant, as is the fact that he decided to appeal to the “lower ranks” of the party. Simply put, rather than being “democratic” the party machine effectively blocked communication and control from the bottom-up. Looking at the more radical party membership, he “could only impose his view by going over the head of his Central Committee.” [Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, Op. Cit., p. 187] He made sure to send his letter of protest to “the Petrograd and Moscow committees” and also made sure that “copies fell into the hands of the more reliable party workers of the district locals.” By early October (and “over the heads of the Central Committee”) he wrote “directly to the Petrograd and Moscow committees” calling for insurrection. He also “appealed to a Petrograd party conference to speak a firm word in favour of insurrection.” [Trotsky, Op. Cit., p. 131 and p. 132]
In October, Lenin had to fight what he called “a wavering” in the “upper circles of the party” which lead to a “sort of dread of the struggle for power, an inclination to replace this struggle with resolutions protests, and conferences.” [quoted by Trotsky, Op. Cit., p. 132] For Trotsky, this represented “almost a direct pitting of the party against the Central Committee,” required because “it was a question of the fate of the revolution” and so “all other considerations fell away.” [Trotsky, Op. Cit., pp. 132–3] On October 8th, when Lenin addressed the Bolshevik delegates of the forthcoming Northern Congress of Soviets on this subject, he did so “personally” as there “was no party decision” and the “higher institutions of the party had not yet expressed themselves.” [Trotsky, Op. Cit., p. 133] Ultimately, the Central Committee came round to Lenin’s position but they did so under pressure of means at odds with the principles of the party.
This divergence between the imagine and reality of the Bolsheviks explains their success. If the party had applied or had remained true to the principles of “democratic centralism” it is doubtful that it would have played an important role in the movement. As Alexander Rabinowitch argues, Bolshevik organisational unity and discipline is “vastly exaggerated” and, in fact, Bolshevik success in 1917 was down to “the party’s internally relatively democratic, tolerant, and decentralised structure and method of operation, as well as its essentially open and mass character — in striking contrast to the traditional Leninist model.” In 1917, he goes on, “subordinate party bodies with the Petersburg Committee and the Military Organisation were permitted considerable independence and initiative … Most importantly, these lower bodies were able to tailor their tactics and appeals to suit their own particular constituencies amid rapidly changing conditions. Vast numbers of new members were recruited into the party … The newcomers included tens of thousands of workers and soldiers … who knew little, if anything, about Marxism and cared nothing about party discipline.” For example, while the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” was “officially withdrawn by the Sixth [Party] Congress in late July, this change did not take hold at the local level.” [The Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. 311, p. 312 and p. 313]
It is no exaggeration to argue that if any member of a current vanguard party acted as the Bolshevik rank and file did in 1917, they would quickly be expelled (this probably explains why no such party has been remotely successful since). However, this ferment from below was quickly undermined within the party with the start of the Civil War. It is from this period when “democratic centralism” was actually applied within the party and clarified as an organisational principle:
“It was quite a turnabout since the anarchic days before the Civil War. The Central Committee had always advocated the virtues of obedience and co-operation; but the rank-and-filers of 1917 had cared little about such entreaties as they did about appeals made by other higher authorities. The wartime emergency now supplied an opportunity to expatiate on this theme at will.” [Service, Op. Cit., p. 91]
Service stresses that “it appears quite remarkable how quickly the Bolsheviks, who for years had talked idly about a strict hierarchy of command inside the party, at last began to put ideas into practice.” [Op. Cit., p. 96]
In other words, the conversion of the Bolshevik party into a fully fledged “democratic centralist” party occurred during the degeneration of the Revolution. This was both a consequence of the rising authoritarianism within the party and society as well as one of its causes. As such, it is quite ironic that the model used by modern day followers of Lenin is that of the party during the decline of the revolution, not its peak. This is not surprising. Once in power, the Bolshevik party imposed a state capitalist regime onto the Russian people. Can it be surprising that the party structure which it developed to aid this process was also based on bourgeois attitudes and organisation? Simply put, the party model advocated by Lenin may not have been very effective during a revolution but it was exceedingly effective at prompting hierarchy and authority in the post-revolutionary regime. It simply replaced the old ruling elite with another, made up of members of the radical intelligentsia and odd ex-worker or ex-peasant.
This was due to the hierarchical and top-down nature of the party Lenin had created. While the party base was largely working class, the leadership was not. Full-time revolutionaries, they were either middle-class intellectuals or (occasionally) ex-workers and (even rarer) ex-peasants who had left their class to become part of the party machine. Even the delegates at the party congresses did not truly reflect class basis of the party membership. For example, the number of delegates was still dominated by white-collar or others (59.1% to 40.9%) at the sixth party congress at the end of July 1917. [Cliff, Lenin, vol. 2, p. 160] So while the party gathered more working class members in 1917, it cannot be said that this was reflected in the party leadership which remained dominated by non-working class elements. Rather than being a genuine working class organisation, the Bolshevik party was a hierarchical group headed by non-working class elements whose working class base could not effectively control them even during the revolution in 1917. It was only effective because these newly joined and radicalised working class members ignored their own party structure and its defining ideology.
After the revolution, the Bolsheviks saw their membership start to decrease. Significantly, “the decline in numbers which occurred from early 1918 onwards” started happening “contrary to what is usually assumed, some months before the Central Committee’s decree in midsummer that the party should be purged of its ‘undesirable’ elements.” These lost members reflected two things. Firstly, the general decline in the size of the industrial working class. This meant that the radicalised new elements from the countryside which had flocked to the Bolsheviks in 1917 returned home. Secondly, the lost of popular support the Bolsheviks were facing due to the realities of their regime. This can be seen from the fact that while the Bolsheviks were losing members, the Left SRS almost doubled in size to 100,000 (the Mensheviks claimed to have a similar number). Rather than non-proletarians leaving, “[i]t is more probable by far that it was industrial workers who were leaving in droves. After all, it would have been strange if the growing unpopularity of Sovnarkom in factory milieu had been confined exclusively to non-Bolsheviks.” Unsurprisingly, given its position in power, “[a]s the proportion of working-class members declined, so that of entrants from the middle-class rose; the steady drift towards a party in which industrial workers no longer numerically predominated was under way.” By late 1918 membership started to increase again but “[m]ost newcomers were not of working-class origin … the proportion of Bolsheviks of working-class origin fell from 57 per cent at the year’s beginning to 48 per cent at the end.” It should be noted that it was not specified how many were classed as having working-class origin were still employed in working-class jobs. [Robert Service, Op. Cit., p. 70, pp. 70–1 and p. 90] A new ruling elite was thus born, thanks to the way vanguard parties are structured and the application of vanguardist principles which had previously been ignored.
In summary, the experience of the Russian Revolution does not, in fact, show the validity of the “vanguard” model. The Bolshevik party in 1917 played a leading role in the revolution only insofar as its members violated its own organisational principles (Lenin included). Faced with a real revolution and an influx of more radical new members, the party had to practice anarchist ideas of autonomy, local initiative and the ignoring of central orders which had no bearing to reality on the ground. When the party did try to apply the top-down and hierarchical principles of “democratic centralism” it failed to adjust to the needs of the moment. Moreover, when these principles were finally applied they helped ensure the degeneration of the revolution. As we discussed in section H.5, this was to be expected.