“World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favorable chances. It would, on the other hand, be of a very mystical nature, if “accidents” played no part. These accidents themselves fall naturally into the general course of development and are compensated again by other accidents. But acceleration and delay are very dependent upon such “accidents,” which included the “accident” of the character of those who at first stand at the head of the movement.” – Marx, Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, 1871.
[Marx uses the term “accident” here to describe the culmination of events, some almost completely random and some more foreseeable—for example, by a fluke of military ineptitude the force sent to Monmartre to spirit away the cannons of the National Guard forgot to bring horses with which to pull the cannon back, thus precipitating the retreat of the government to Versailles and the birth of the Commune itself.]
The vanguard party is not, and cannot be comprised solely of ‘intellectuals’ and ‘agitators’ who can vouch for the former. Every successful movement has all the characteristics of a hailstorm. The storm itself (the clash of social forces, crisis and the resolution of long-standing contradictions and the creation of new ones) may pass with little change to the landscape below (the society and its institutions). This will result in business as usual—i.e. 1848, 1918-20, 1968 etc.—and the storm will have constituted nothing but sound and fury. The presence, however, of just one nearly insignificant element, under the right circumstances, transforms the situation. Should a nucleus exist—in nature, dust around which ice conglomerates, in politics a party which can give voice and organization to the working-class and its class-allies—the power of the storm will be augmented, pummeling the society below with a barrage from which its institutions cannot recover, and so the storm is no longer sound and fury, but a concrete transformative event.
The premier example of this is, of course, 1917, but more important is an example of a failure to adhere to the basic idea of organic connection to the masses and proposing answers to social and political questions and setting forth an infrastructure capable of smashing and replacing the state’s machinery. Sadly, perhaps the worst offender in this sphere is the successor of the Bolshevik Party itself, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which is comprised of nostalgic pensioners, homophobes and, quite frankly, the worst types of ‘tankies’. This is the result of an inorganic cut-and-paste of the revisionist CPSU over a modern Russia, plus the catastrophic adoption of parliamentary social democracy. The nucleus, in this case, is not misplaced, blown into some unfamiliar territory whose condition it cannot adapt to; it was never meant to be a nucleus in the first place. No matter what the intentions of the KPRF are, pensioners, tanky students and ultra-nationalists with a hammer and sickle on their lapel a revolution does not make.
Another example of self-proclaimed revolutionary parties excluding, passively or actively, useful class-allies are the Trotskyist and anarchist positions in Spain, typified by an unfortunate incident in the tiny village of Faterella in January of 1938. Having rebelled against the forced collectivization of their small land-holdings, peasants shot two anarchists which precipitated a POUM worker’s patrol to sweep into the village, killing about35 men. In the midst of war, the anarchists and Trotskyists failed, or refused, to try and win the peasants, and instead tried to impose themselves on them. Such forced collectivizations were advised against by the Popular Front, and the patrols who for some time had been carrying acts like this, were advised to be placed back under Popular Front discipline. In controversion to this idea, closeness to the people, a passionate yet correct argument and good example are all required. In direct opposition to this policy, Stalin says: “Collective farms must not be established by force. That would be foolish and reactionary. The collective-farm movement must rest on the active support of the main mass of the peasantry. Examples of the formation of collective farms in the developed areas must not be mechanically transplanted to underdeveloped areas. That would be foolish and reactionary. Such a “policy” would discredit the collectivization idea at one stroke.”
But the opposite of the misplacement of the nucleus of class-conflict can also be true—“ those who at first stand at the head of the movement” may be forced, by historical necessity, to abandon their deeply-held convictions and implement radical experimentations which, previously, they may have deeply disagreed with. One such example is the Commune of 1871, wherein the majority of representatives were Blanquists, the minority was aligned with the First International, and even of this minority, the majority were not Marxists, but Proudhonians. And, as Engels said in his 1889 post-script to The Civil War In France, “in both cases the irony of history willed – as is usual when doctrinaires come to the helm – that both did the opposite of what the doctrines of their school proscribed.” Since Proudhon’s detestation of unions, or ‘associations’ as they were called, was well known, it was a jab at the doctrine of their school that the Commune would seek to organize individual unions into “one great union”, which Marx notes in Civil War would have probably led, in the long-term, to communism, “the direct antithesis of the Proudhon doctrine.” “The Blanquists fared no better,” says Engels, “[their] conception involved, above all, the strictest dictatorship and centralization of all power in the hands of the new revolutionary government. And what did the Commune, with its majority of these same Blanquists, actually do?” It called for, against all of their most fundamental intuitions, “them to form a free federation of all French Communes with Paris, a national organization, which for the first time was really to be created by the nation itself.” Along with elections, another Blanquists setback, they sought to discard that “oppressing power of the former centralized government, army, political police and bureaucracy, which Napoleon had created in 1798” and would now see that it would “fall everywhere, just as it had already fallen in Paris.”
From these observations we see that the tide of history, the current situation, the makeup of the party, the leadership and ideology of that party are all vastly important, but by no means assured ways of conquering power for the cass and class-allies it represents. The “right” party may very well fail to take hold of the situation due to inferior methods and membership, or, through dogmatism and irascibility, reject certain class-allies and storm ahead with no plan or alternative, which was the downfall of Spain. Or it very well may be, as in Paris, that the “wrong” leadership, given pressure from the circumstance and the masses, adopts the “right” line and carries it through simply on mass enthusiasm. It is for these reasons that history cannot be a template, but a series of possibilities which may reappear one substituted for the other, or may never been seen again at all, only to be replaced by completely new and never-before-seen phenomena that only the most advanced and versatile theory can grapple with or comprehend.
– Josh Grisenthwaite