The Marxist Theory of the Revolutionary Party

In the first of a three part series on Revolutionary Marxism, Neil Faulkner responds to the crisis of sectarianism by returning to the foundational principles of Marxist revolutionary organisation.

1 August 2020

Part 1: Marx and Engels, the Communist League, and the First International

What I was not prepared for was the argument that sectarian division is normal and necessary. I had expected some people to insist on discussing ‘differences’. I had expected some, pickled in a sectarian silo, to think that the meeting should focus more on what divided the participants than on what united them. What I had not anticipated was an explicit argument that sectarian division is virtuous. Here I quote the words of one of the three panellists at an online meeting on the future of the British Left in which I participated on 12 July:

We have to understand that the existence of different socialist organisations is fundamentally because they have a different programme and strategy for the achievement of socialism. They have a proposal for a set of principles from which they derive their strategy and their tactics, which they believe are necessary for the most organised parts of the labour movement and the working-class vanguard to follow in order to transform a ‘class in itself’ into a ‘class for itself’, to organise the conquest of power and … socialism.

It sounded like self-caricature. It was self-caricature, though not consciously so: the speaker was in earnest. He was representing an organisation which, as far as I am aware, has about 50 members. And he meant it when he claimed, in effect, that they, and only they, possessed the Holy Grail, and when he implied, as he unquestionably did, that in due time the working class, at present hopelessly benighted, would wake up, be drawn to the light, and rally around ‘The Programme’ of this tiny little sect.

I am used to people who self-define as revolutionaries arguing that they cannot unite with others because of their ‘differences’. What I found shocking was a theoretical degeneration so absolute that here was someone arguing that sectarian fragmentation into ‘57 Varieties’ of Trotskyism was actually ‘A Good Thing’, that it was normal and necessary, that we should behave like so many petty market-traders, each with a stall where we tout our respective ‘programmes’, each competing to catch the eye of the passing proletarian masses.

There are differences that matter: between ‘socialism from above’ (Stalinism and Social Democracy) and ‘socialism from below’ (based on the self-activity of the working class and the oppressed); between reform and revolution; between variants of left nationalism (like ‘Lexit’) and consistent internationalism; between the trade union bureaucracy and the rank and file; and there are others.

But this is not the issue here. We are concerned with the way in which the post-war revolutionary movement has tended to shatter into numerous small fragments over secondary questions. The issue of the party ‘programme’ is a classic illustration, since no organisation of a few thousand members – let alone one of 50 – should be concocting a ‘programme’ on behalf of the working class in the first place, never mind making it the basis of organisational separation from other revolutionaries.

So, it seems that we must rehearse the real Marxist tradition. My sectarian opponent dismissed what I had to say about revolutionary organisation as ‘nothing new or original’. Actually, I don’t want to be ‘new or original’; I want to draw upon the existing Marxist tradition and apply it to the present.

Marxism can be thought of as the distilled experience of some 200 years of class struggle: the concentrated essence of working-class history. This is not an exhaustive definition, but it is surely part of any worthwhile definition. We draw upon the lessons of the past as we try to understand and orient ourselves in the new circumstances of the present.

This article, then, is not a matter of being ‘new or original’: it is a matter of repeating lessons that seem to have been forgotten. On the other hand, Marxism is not a set of commandments set in stone by its founders; it is an evolving research project – the theory and practice of international working-class revolution – and its ideas develop in the light of historical experience.

The Marxist theory of the revolutionary party is an illustration of this. Some aspects of the theory are constant, since they are based on the central Marxist idea that the emancipation of the working class will be the act of the working class itself. On the other hand, the historic development of the labour movement and the class struggle over the last 200 years has taught a series of lessons bearing on the question of the revolutionary party.

In this, the first of four articles, I focus on the activity of Marx and Engels. They were directly involved in two attempts to build a revolutionary party, the Communist League in 1847-52, and the First International in 1864-72. Both efforts were ultimately abortive, partly because they were misconceived. But a second generation of Marxists would build on the experience, holding true to Marx and Engels’ central conception, but changing its method of implementation. It is for this reason that my first article reaches right back to the early history of Marxism. For the most important point to be made about the Marxist theory of the party was made at the very beginning by Marx and Engels.

The industrial working class

The Communist League was tiny. It never had more than a few hundred members spread over several countries. It was completely swamped by the massive scale of the 1848 revolutions. The young Karl Marx and Frederick Engels both played significant roles in the upheaval, as did many other members of the League, but they did so as activists in the wider movement; the League as such had zero impact. According to Engels, ‘the few hundred League members vanished in the enormous mass that had been suddenly hurled into the movement’. Soon after the defeat of the revolutions, the League, reduced to little more than a group of squabbling German exiles based in London, disintegrated in rancour.

Far more significant than the League itself were two documents written by Marx and Engels for the League: The Communist Manifesto (1848) and The March Address (1850). These are, in a sense, the founding documents of the Marxist theory of the revolutionary party.

Marx and Engels had begun their theoretical and practical collaboration some years before. They were already analysing the new capitalist society that was coming into being, and they had identified the proletariat, the industrial working class created by capitalism, as a revolutionary social force with world-transforming potential.

This was not simply because it was an exploited class, one with no vested interest in the system, with ‘nothing to lose but its chains’. That had been true of the slaves of ancient Rome and the serfs of medieval Europe. Three other factors made the working class uniquely revolutionary.

The first was the dynamism of the capitalist system itself. As a system of competitive capital accumulation, powered by the profit motive, capitalism was relentlessly expansionary. ‘The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry,’ Marx wrote. ‘The proletariat is its [capitalism’s] special and essential product.’ Capital accumulation, in other words, was gradually destroying intermediate social groups and turning the great majority of people into wage-workers – members of a single exploited class with a common interest in the overthrow of the system.

The second factor was the way in which the system concentrated workers in large workplaces and in large towns and cities. This – compared, for example, with the scattered and isolated nature of peasant villages – facilitated class-based organisation and resistance. ‘With the development of industry,’ Marx wrote, ‘the proletariat not only increases in number, it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels its strength more.’

The third consideration was the collective nature of modern industrial society. Peasants, drawn into revolutionary action, typically seek a redistribution of land into small freehold plots. But workers could never emancipate themselves through individual appropriation of private property. How do you divide up a textile mill, a coal mine, or a railway? The proletariat created by modern capitalism was incorporated into a vast and growing global division of labour, such that only collective control of the means of production, distribution, and exchange could provide a credible alternative to capitalism.

The industrial working class was, therefore, the first class in history with a general interest in the emancipation of humanity as a whole. Recognising the proletariat’s revolutionary potential was Marx and Engels’ most important intellectual achievement. Marxism’s living heart is the class struggle of working people against capitalism. And this is also the foundation block of the Marxist theory of the revolutionary party.

The Communist League

Marx and Engels had no sooner grasped the centrality of the working class than they set to work to create independent working-class political representation – in opposition to both bourgeois ‘liberals’ and petty-bourgeois ‘democrats’. They supported the liberals against the absolutist regimes in 1848, and they operated, in effect, as the far left of a broad, radical, democratic alliance during the upheaval; but they argued consistently for a separate working-class party; and they had very clear ideas on what the relationship should be between the party and the class

This was inherent in The Communist Manifesto, the founding document of the Communist League, published at the beginning of 1848. What Marx and Engels had to say about the relationship between ‘Proletarians and Communists’ is worth quoting at length:

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

This was a polemic against utopian-socialist sects which stood apart from the class struggle, worked out their ‘programme’ in splendid isolation, and then denounced workers who failed to embrace it. In contrast, Marx and Engels saw the working class itself as the agent of social transformation, and the class struggle as the process whereby it achieved agency, becoming conscious of itself as a class and organised to fight in its own interests. It followed that the party had to be an organisation of the leading activists of the class, men and women embedded in the class struggle, united around general revolutionary principles. Thus, the Manifesto explained, the only things that distinguished the Communists from other working-class parties were:

1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

It is difficult to exaggerate just how radical this conception was at the time. A large section of the Manifesto was devoted to critiquing alternative forms of socialism (or communism). What all these alternatives had in common – whether the authors were closet reactionaries, liberal reformers, or radical do-gooders – is that they regarded ‘socialism’ as something that would be done to the working class, not by the working class. Marx and Engels were especially scathing of utopian-socialist sects that concocted schemes of communal living and social reform – conceived as a gift of the enlightened few to the great unwashed – while ‘violently opposing all political action on the part of the working class’.

In Marx and Engels’ approach, the theory of the party became merely the application of the general theory of the class struggle to the question of organisation. The two matters – party organisation and workers’ struggle – formed a dialectical unity. That is why the ‘conditions’ of membership could be reduced to 1) internationalism and 2) collective class interest.

We should take particular note of the fact that the famous ‘programme’ set out in the Manifesto – a list of ten radical demands – did not define the party. It was made clear that the working-class movement – not the Communist League – would decide when it had conquered power. The demands were presented only to give a flavour of what proletarian rule might mean in practice; they were not an exercise in sectarian dogma. ‘These measures will of course be different in different countries,’ Marx and Engels wrote by way of introduction to the list. ‘Nevertheless, in the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.’

In the spring of 1850, Marx and Engels still expected a second revolutionary upsurge. In the manner of the Great French Revolution (1789-94), they imagined the bourgeois liberals, content with limited gains and fearful of a more radical turn, would be pushed aside by more resolute, petty-bourgeois, Jacobin-type democrats. This was the context for The March Address to the Communist League. It was an emphatic reiteration of the two co-thinkers’ insistence upon the need for independent working-class organisation.

Marx and Engels deplored what would later be called the ‘liquidation’ of the workers’ party into the democratic marsh: ‘Within the general movement it [the Communist League] has consequently come under the complete domination and leadership of the petty-bourgeois democrats. This situation cannot be allowed to continue: the independence of the workers must be restored.’

The petty-bourgeois democrats were not to be trusted. Therefore: ‘The relationship of the revolutionary workers’ party to the petty-bourgeois democrats is this: it cooperates with them against the party with they aim to overthrow; it opposes them wherever they wish to secure their own position.’

They opposed the organisational unity of democratic forces because it involved the subordination of working-class interests and a foreshortening of the revolutionary process. This was to roll on beyond its anticipated Jacobin phase. In the further advance of the radical revolution the existence of independent working-class organisation would, they believed and hoped, be a decisive factor. Thus the Address concluded with these words:

They themselves [the German workers] must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty-bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organised party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.

Also notable in the Address is Marx and Engels’ vision of the party as a federation of local workers’ groups.

The workers, and above all the League, must work for the creation of an independent organisation of the workers’ party, both secret and open, alongside the official democrats, and the League must aim to make every one of its communes [branches] a centre and nucleus of workers’ associations, in which the positions and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence.

Discoursing on the anticipated next phase of the revolution, they wrote:

If the workers are to be able to forcibly oppose the democratic petty-bourgeoisie, it is essential above all for them to be independently organised and centralised in clubs. At the soonest possible moment after the overthrow of the present governments, the Central Committee will come to Germany and will immediately convene a Congress, submitting to it all the necessary proposals for the centralisation of the workers’ clubs under a directorate established at the movement’s centre of operations. The speedy organisation of at least provincial connections between the workers’ clubs is one of the prime requirements for the strengthening and development of the workers’ party.

This is the very opposite of a sect – the aim here was to unite the working-class revolutionaries in a single organisation – and it was very close, as we shall see in the second article, to Lenin’s conception of the party in 1903.

The First International

In fact, the counter-revolution was triumphant: there was no second surge after 1848/9. The revolutionaries – defeated, scattered, reduced – turned on each other and their organisations broke up. Marx and Engels soon abandoned the task of party building to concentrate on theoretical work. Only in 1864, with a marked revival in both economic struggle and political agitation, did they again become centrally involved in trying to build working-class political organisation.

The First International – or the International Working Men’s Association as it was known at the time – was a very different organisation from the Communist League. A genuinely mass organisation, it was neither Marxist nor revolutionary, but a federation of trade unions and socialist groups of diverse political views. Marx and Engels’ involvement reflected their commitment to united working-class organisation. They saw their task as a long-term one of cohering and radicalising the federation – in effect, turning it into a revolutionary party. This project was hopelessly misconceived. The First International was eventually pulled apart by intractable divisions between trade unionists, utopian socialists, and anarchists. What matters here, however, is what we learn from the history of their involvement about Marx and Engels’ approach to the revolutionary party.

It was because they believed that revolutionary-socialist consciousness would arise more or less spontaneously from the class struggle that they invested so much time and energy in the First International. Consider how Marx put the matter in a private letter to a comrade in 1871:

The political movement of the working class has as its ultimate object, of course, the conquest of political power for this class, and this naturally requires a previous organisation of the working class developed up to a certain point and arising from its economic struggles.

On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and tries to coerce them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory, or even a particular trade, to force a shorter working day out of individual capitalists by strikes, etc, is a purely economic movement. On the other hand, the movement to force through an eight-hour day etc law, is a political movement. And, in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say, a movement of the class, with the effect of enforcing its interests in general form, in a form possessing general coercive force.

Unfortunately, matters were not quite so simple. There is an element of fatalism or determinism about Marx’s formulation here, a strong sense that proletarian revolution would be the more or less inevitable outcome of the class struggle in the workplaces.

The strength of this perspective is the central place it gives to workers’ struggle. Marx and Engels never ceased stressing this. Here, for example, is Engels commenting on the sectarianism of two small British socialist organisations in the context of New Unionism, a wave of mass strikes among the unskilled and previously unorganised in the East End of London in the late 1880s:

The Socialist League … looks down on everything that is not directly revolutionary … and the [Social Democratic]Federation … still behaves as if all except themselves were asses and bunglers …

And again:

It [the SDF] is an exclusive body. It has not understood how to take the lead of the working-class movement generally, and to direct it towards socialism. It has turned Marxism into an orthodoxy. Thus it insisted upon [dockers’ leader] John Burns unfurling the red flag at the dock strike, where such an act would have ruined the whole movement, and, instead of gaining over the dockers, would have driven them back into the arms of the capitalists.

The point was clear: building a propaganda group in isolation from the class struggle was hopeless sectarianism. But there remained a hidden problem: the assumption that the role of the party was essentially to give organised expression to the spontaneous radicalism of the struggle. This assumption had underpinned the involvement of Marx, Engels, and other revolutionary socialists in the First International.

The mistake is easy to understand. It predated the consolidation of a conservative labour bureaucracy and the dominance of reformism inside the labour movement; developments that would, in due course, necessitate a sharp break between revolutionary and reformist organisations. It was left to a second generation of Marxists to draw this conclusion. I will be discussing this in the second article in this series.

What about the oppressed?

Marx and Engels did not write explicitly about the relationship between class, oppression, and the revolutionary party. But their attitude is implicit in all they did.

They saw the working class as a ‘universal’ class, its struggle for self-emancipation embodying within itself the struggle for the self-emancipation of humanity as a whole. Most of the oppressed were either an intrinsic part of the working class or belonged to subject classes whose true interests lay in joining a worker-led struggle for international revolution (such as peasants subject to national-racial oppression under colonial rule). For Marx and Engels, the proletariat was ‘a class in which the revolutionary interests of society are concentrated’.

The ruling class, on the other hand, sought to divide the working class on the basis of nationalism, racism, and sexism. The unity of the working class was an essential precondition of effective revolutionary struggle. Here, for example, is Engels writing to an American correspondent in 1893 about the factors holding back the development of the labour movement in the United States:

Then, and more especially, immigration, which divides the workers into two groups: the native-born and the foreigners, and the latter in turn into 1) the Irish, 2) the Germans, 3) the many small groups, each of which understands only itself – Czechs, Poles, Italians, Scandinavians, etc. And then the Negroes. To form a single party out of these requires quite unusually powerful incentives. Often there is a sudden élan, but the bourgeoisie need only wait passively, and the dissimilar elements of the working class fall apart again.

As for the oppression of women, Engels wrote a seminal study, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, in which he analysed the advent of patriarchy as part of a ‘package’ which included the male-dominated family, private appropriation of communal property, growing class divisions, and the emergence of the repressive state. This prehistoric ‘revolution’ was ‘one of the most decisive in human history’, he argued, and ‘the overthrow of mother-right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex’.

The First International, under Marx and Engels’ guidance, was therefore in the forefront of solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed. It was stalwart in its support for the abolitionist cause in the American Civil War, and for the Irish, Italian, and Polish national struggles. It was resolute in opposition to anti-Irish racism among English workers. This solidarity work was an essential part of the struggle to unite the working class and the oppressed in a single global struggle against the capitalist system. ‘Labour with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labour with a black skin is branded,’ wrote Marx. ‘This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class,’ explained Engels in reference to anti-Irish racism. ‘It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.’


History would expose weaknesses in Marx and Engels’ conception of the revolutionary party. They over-estimated the degree to which class-consciousness would arise organically and spontaneously out of the class struggle. They seem to have assumed that bourgeois ideology would prove too brittle to withstand the proletarian surge as workers organised, mobilised, and fought back. They were unable to anticipate the degree to which a conservative labour bureaucracy would become capable of smothering rank-and-file struggle.

What must be stressed in concluding this article, however, is that several principles of revolutionary organisation worked out by the founders of Marxism remained inviolable as new practical applications were worked out by later generations of revolutionary socialists. These can summarised as follows:

· The working class is the first exploited class in history with a general interest in the emancipation of humanity as a whole.

· The emancipation of the working class will be the act of the working class.

· The revolutionary party must be an independent party of the working class and the oppressed.

· The revolutionary party must be rooted in the struggles of the working class and the oppressed.

· The revolutionary party must have 1) internationalism, 2) collective class interest, and 3) solidarity with the oppressed as inviolable principles.

· The revolutionary party should be an organisation of the most class-conscious workers and oppressed people, that is, a federation of rank-and-file activists and local working-class and oppressed groups.

Neil Faulkner is the author of A Radical History of the World and co-author of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.

Further Reading

Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Marx and Engels, The March Address (1850)

Marx and Engels, The Inaugural Address (1864)

John Molyneux, Karl Marx: class and party (1978)


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