A collection of classic Socialist Register articles raise vital questions about Marx, Lenin, Gramsci and revolutionary organisation, argues Alex Snowdon

Class, Party, Revolution: A Socialist Register Reader, eds. Greg Albo, Leo Panitch, Alan Zuege (Haymarket Books 2018), 353pp.

In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Marx and Engels wrote: ‘The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties.’ This raises a number of questions about how revolutionary socialists ought to organise to achieve their goal of socialist transformation, what kind of organisations they should build, and the relationship between them and the wider working class. These are the questions that dominate Class, Party, Revolution, a diverse selection of twelve essays from the history of Socialist Register, a theoretical journal published annually since the 1960s. 

Socialist Register emerged from the New Left of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It has never been affiliated, or closely connected, to any particular organisation and has a certain pride in its independence of spirit. It has tended to be underpinned by Marxism or by those at least influenced by Marx, though in ways that are open, non-dogmatic and sometimes innovative. This independence has been a strength at times, though also a limitation: the lack of any real connection to organisation or activity can lead to a certain academic obscurantism and a tendency to deal with questions of strategy and organisation in ways that are frustratingly abstract (in these respects, both positive and negative, it is rather similar to New Left Review).

The strengths and weaknesses alike are very much on display in this volume, intended as the first in a series of readers pulling together ‘classic’ essays published since the journal’s launch in 1964. The choice of focus is commendable, reflecting a seriousness about Marxism as a guide to action, not merely an intellectual exercise. Some of the individual contributions, though, don’t live up to that promise, being either too obscure in style, or lacking concreteness, or being so theoretically eclectic as to provide poor guidance on the central themes of strategy and organisation.  

Leninism, communism and the New Left era

There are three particular difficulties to note before getting into specifics. Firstly, while there are diverse perspectives contained in the selection, there is unmistakeably a recurring theme: the core assumption that Lenin’s ideas and practices around building independent revolutionary organisation do not apply to Western European contexts, especially since the Second World War, and that alternatives must be sought. I think this is a flawed view, as I will discuss below.

Secondly, a number of essays are weakened by the influence of various forms of official Communist thought during the Cold War era. The distorting effect of the Soviet Union and its satellites, and their intellectual influence, is unmistakeable. One aspect of this is the implied assumption by a number of contributors that there was, for better or worse, a great deal of continuity between Leninism and Stalinism. A very notable absence in the volume is any references to Trotsky or his distinctive contributions to the tradition of classical Marxism. Gramsci, on the other hand, is the biggest intellectual reference point in the volume. He remains open to different interpretations, but his appeal to the post-New-Left generation had a lot to do with him appearing to represent an alternative to both Lenin and Stalin, while still being a respectable figure in the official Communist tradition, following his partial rehabilitation in the post-1956 climate of de-Stalinisation and the emergence of Eurocommunism.

Thirdly, a closely connected problem is that the collection draws remarkably heavily on a bygone era: no fewer than ten of the twelve of the essays were first published between 1967 and 1974. While much can be learnt from revisiting that period, there are also profound ways in which we have moved on and the analysis needs updating. The selection very much reflects an era defined by 1956 and its aftershocks: the cracking of the Stalinist monolith and the re-thinking of old orthodoxies, together with the post-war long boom, but also its earliest signs of fracturing (including the revolts of 1968). There are traces of Eurocommunism, Maoism and left-existentialism in the ideological stew. How much this intellectual mix, and the Cold War/long-boom world it reflected, is relevant today is debatable. 

Marx and Engels on organisation 

Three different essays return to the source by considering Marx and Engels’ own writings. It would have made sense to open the volume with these pieces, as they establish the foundations for exploring how the Marxist tradition has wrestled with the book’s main themes, but for some reason this wasn’t done. For me, the two strongest essays in the whole volume are both on the same topic: Marx’s ideas about political organisation, and also his practical record of seeking to build organisations.

Monty Johnstone’s ‘Marx and Engels and the Concept of the Party’ from 1967 was a path breaking overview of not just what the founders of classical Marxism wrote about organisation, but how they attempted to organise at different stages of their political lives. Exactly half a century later, August Nimtz – whose books have greatly enriched the study of this topic – provided Socialist Register with an extremely well-written and cogent restatement of Johnstone’s main arguments, supplemented by newer research. Both essays are models of lucid, accessible and well-structured exposition that some of the other contributors sadly lack. 

Johnstone notes that nowhere did Marx or Engels write anything of a thorough or systematic nature on political organisation, but insists that – by piecing together numerous fragments – we can nonetheless grasp their views. He argues that there was considerable continuity in these views but also explains what changes took place and why. He draws on their actual experiences to supplement their writings, in the process dismantling the common myth that they devoted relatively little time to organisational questions, or that they downplayed the need for independent socialist organisation. This myth often takes as its starting point the quotation I opened this review with; Johnstone reveals a number of reasons why their practice was far more complex and placed considerable emphasis on organisation. 

Johnstone particularly focuses on the period of the Communist League in the late 1840s and early 1850s and the later period of the First International, launched in 1864. But he also – convincingly in my view – argues that Marx was serious about organisation even in quieter or less favourable times, within the strict limits imposed by the conditions of exile or unfavourable political circumstances (or both). Johnstone’s argument is partly that Marx was flexible and adaptable in how he organised, rather than adhering to one particular model of organisation. But there are still threads that run through the different experiences, such as an insistence on independent working-class political organisation – far from obvious at the time – and the need for those with communist views specifically to work closely together, even when part of a politically wider formation. 

Nimtz picks up and develops these themes in his equally excellent essay. Its title, ‘Marx and Engels on the Revolutionary Party’, signposts what to expect: a persuasive argument that the founders of Marxism did in fact advocate the building of independent revolutionary socialist organisation. He shows how their work in advance of the 1848 revolutions, helping develop small-scale communist organisation, established a set of organisational norms: regular meetings with discussion and debate, regular literature to promote ideas, raising funds, a clearly defined membership, democratic conferences to make decisions and more. All this would be important later in their own lives, but also in the socialist tradition. 

Nimtz explicitly argues that Marx and Engels’ early ideas about organisation anticipated much of what Lenin wrote in his 1902 pamphlet What is to be done? This is in contrast to the widespread idea – found indeed in a few essays elsewhere in this volume – that Lenin represented some sort of deviation from Marx on organisational matters, with those making this case invariably advocating Marx as preferable to the allegedly out-of-date Leninist dogmas. A strength of both Johnstone and Nimtz is their recognition that Marx’s preferred model for organisation was, at any given time, highly dependent on context. While there were elements of continuity, there were also important differences (the same can be said of Lenin’s practice, contrary to those who – whether in sympathy or in criticism – present Leninism as an unchanging orthodoxy). Forms of organisation were shaped profoundly by the conditions of the wider working-class movement or, in the 1848/49 period, the development of Europe’s revolutionary movements.

Hal Draper’s essay, ‘The Principle of Self-Emancipation in Marx and Engels’ (1971), is a very interesting summary of why the self-emancipation of the working class was, for the pioneers of Marxism, the very core or essence of their whole political philosophy. It is very different from the Johnstone and Nimtz essays because it pays little attention to organisation, instead providing a more general theoretical framework. It is effective in locating the emergence of key Marxist ideas in its mid-nineteenth-century context, showing how the emphasis on self-emancipation was influenced by, and reacted against, other philosophical or political currents. It can be seen as providing a framework for the more practical discussions by Johnstone and Nimtz: offering no straightforward prescriptions, but stimulating ideas about how organisation might reflect the fundamental challenge, for revolutionaries, of enhancing the consciousness, confidence and combativity of the working class. 

Distorting Lenin

Several of the essays are characterised by a more or less critical attitude towards ‘Leninism’ and a belief that different strategies and forms of organisation are needed for modern Western European societies. A number of these display a particular interest in Gramsci as arguably the foundational figure for this intellectual current (though in my view this involves distortion of Gramsci’s ideas). Certain ideas recur in these essays and highlight the difficulties with them. There are some good and accurate insights into Lenin, but also a tendency to oversimplify and underestimate his ideas and legacy. His actual political practice was more diverse and adaptable to circumstances than might be supposed. 

There is an unfortunate element of decontextualizing Lenin’s arguments and ideas, treating them as a static orthodoxy. This reflects the intellectual impact of Stalinism in shaping perceptions of Lenin, even among those who to a large degree were rebelling against Stalin’s legacy. It is a pity that there is no equivalent for Lenin in this volume of the way that Johnstone and Nimtz’s essays put Marx back into his proper historical context. Lenin was in fact a flexible and creative political organiser, as can be seen in the different stages of building the Bolshevik Party up to 1917 and also in his contributions to the Comintern debates between 1919 and 1923. It was during this period that he engaged in serious, thoughtful debate about strategy and tactics through his Left-Wing Communism book and also developed, in some detail, important applications of the united-front method (together with Trotsky).

Ralph Miliband’s brief critique of Lenin’s The State and Revolution, published in the 1970 Register, praises Lenin’s great work of 1917 for its insights into the capitalist state, but finds it unconvincing on the question of how to move beyond it: Miliband suggests that Lenin’s writing confirms that ‘the exercise of socialist power remains the Achilles’ heel of Marxism’ (p.125). Miliband’s interesting comments on the difficulties around wielding socialist power engage with important themes: the relationship between party and class when there is a revolutionary government, the nature of a workers’ state, and the challenge of ensuring real democracy in post-capitalist conditions. However, I think he tends to underestimate the extent to which Lenin himself wrestled with these issues and the value of his analysis. 

It should be remembered, too, that The State and Revolution was an unfinished work – because Lenin had to return to the frontline of making a revolution – and it is unsurprising if aspects are under-developed in it. In the following few years there were many examples of Lenin, in writing and in the debates of the early Comintern, addressing these topics. There is also an element of Miliband underplaying the impact of social conditions on what actually happened in Russia after 1917; the conditions of counter-revolution and civil war, economic isolation, imperialist military intervention and economic crisis.

Harold Wolpe’s essay, also from 1970, criticises a different aspect of Lenin’s ideas on revolution, namely the concept of revolutionary consciousness. This has the same combination of insight and oversight as Miliband’s piece. He makes a number of reasonable points, yet I wonder why both Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist philosopher who made innovative contributions in the decade after the Russian Revolution, and Trotsky are absent from his account. Lukács gets merely a passing reference, yet his History and Class Consciousness is indispensable to discussions of this topic. Trotsky is omitted, yet his magisterial History of the Russian Revolution is, among other things, a masterclass in analysing the subtle and complex changes in consciousness, and the relationship between individual psychology and the mass movement, in an unfolding revolution. These are missed opportunities in an essay that relies too heavily on a particular reading of Gramsci.

Interpretations of Gramsci

Two further contributions, by John Merrington and Alastair Davidson, specifically discuss Gramsci’s ideas and, in the latter essay, compare them to Lenin’s theory and practice. The former piece was influential when first published in the 1968 Register and again when it was included in Western Marxism: A Critical Reader, something of a landmark collection from New Left Review in 1977. It was part of the (re)discovery of Gramsci by a post-New-Left wave looking for more humane, democratic alternatives to Stalinism, and for a version of Marxism that seemed suited to conditions of advanced European capitalism. It is a very good overview of crucial elements of Gramsci’s ideas that emphasises Gramsci’s break from the determinism, economism and parliamentarianism associated with the Second International. It also makes important points about Gramsci’s evolution under the impact of the Russian Revolution, his place in the international communist movement of the early 1920s, and the emergence of his ideas about hegemony, ideology and consciousness in this context. 

Merrington puts a strong case for the value of Gramsci’s ideas in Western Europe. This involves, correctly in my view, identifying elements of capitalist society, and correspondingly of socialist strategy, that had been less pertinent in the Russian context. There is some ambiguity in Merrington’s essay: is this a matter of adapting the revolutionary tradition to different circumstances, while retaining the same politics and the same goal of revolutionary transformation, or does it represent a shift towards a version of left reformism? On balance it seems to be more of the former, but with scope for the latter.

It is certainly the latter path that neo-Gramscians in the 1970s and 1980s increasingly pursued. This is to some extent reflected in Davidson’s 1974 essay, where there is a greater element of seeking to separate Lenin and Gramsci, offering an interpretation of Gramsci as the way forward in the West. Gramsci became the cornerstone of what has sometimes been called ‘academic Marxism’, sometimes called ‘Western Marxism’, a current that has tended to divorce Marxists and their insights from political activism, at the same time reorienting away from revolution and towards variants of left-reformism. Davidson’s essay, however, does contain illuminating insights into the development of Gramsci’s thought after World War One, with special reference to how he responded to both Lenin and the experience of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. 

Between revolution and reform

A recent essay by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, published in the 2017 Register, follows in roughly the same tradition as these earlier writings. Titled ‘Class, Party, and the Challenge of State Transformation’, it is the closest we have to a definitive Socialist Register perspective on the themes of this book and how they apply to current politics. Panitch is a long-time editor of the journal and one of the editors of this volume; Gindin is his closest collaborator. They recapitulate some important general points, then analyse the two case studies of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and the experience of Syriza in office in Greece.

Panitch and Gindin’s long-term project in the field of socialist strategy is essentially charting a third way between revolution and reform. They are acutely conscious of the limitations and problems of even the most left-wing variants of reformism, yet also disillusioned with ‘Leninist’ notions of independent revolutionary organisation and the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state. This reflects disaffection with the long-term legacy of the Russian Revolution, in the form of the super-exploitative and murderous Stalinist bureaucracy, and also with the many failed attempts at building revolutionary organisations in the West, whether in the official Communist or the Trotskyist tradition. It also reflects, in more recent years, the pull of a revived left reformism.

The different forms this revival takes – and their strengths and weaknesses – is integral to Panitch and Gindin’s contribution. They make well-informed and well-judged points about the limitations of both the movement around Sanders and the experience of Syriza, as well as acknowledging the breakthroughs they represented. I do, however, think they are too inclined to make excuses for Syriza, trying to justify its disastrous capitulation to the institutions of European capitalism far too much. The bitter truth is that Syriza has starkly exposed the profound problems with left-reformism in general and, more particularly, with the intellectual traditions of Eurocommunism (where the distortion of Gramsci has been at its worst and most disabling). The authors are reluctant to confront fully the project’s failures and the intellectual and political implications that follow.

The fact remains that the capitalist state does need to be overthrown for a truly socialist society to become a real possibility. The attempts to skirt around that, and instead posit a ‘transformation’ of the state, remain unconvincing. There is no clear outline of how this could be done successfully: there is talk of democratising state structures, with some acknowledgement of the obstacles that would be faced, but no plausible strategy for pursuing this. It is a problem in a few essays that radical rhetoric ultimately seems to fold back into traditional left-reformist solutions. 

Panitch and Gindin refer favourably to Andre Gorz’s essay, ‘Reform and Revolution’, which also appears in this reader. They are sympathetic to his proposed ‘socialist strategy of progressive reforms’ (p.294). Yet what strikes me about Gorz’s essay, written shortly before the upheavals of 1968, is how weak it is in making a viable case for social transformation that avoids revolutionary action. His notion of ‘structural reforms’, or ‘non-reformist reforms’, has understandably become a reference point for some people in current Labour leadership circles. The idea is to create ‘centres of social control and direct democracy’ outside the state that get around the awkward business of directly challenging the power of the state. This can enable reforms that go beyond mere social-democratic tinkering. 

While it is true that there are ways for a hypothetical left-wing government to build up alternative sources of power and economic organisation, bypassing the state, there are also sharp limits to the scope of this. Panitch and Gindin follow Gorz in failing to grasp this fully. They also rely on the same core assumptions as Gorz: a dismissal of the revolutionary potential of the working class in the West (Gorz’s timing was unfortunate in this respect), rejection of the idea that overthrowing the state is feasible, and the idea that a different form of organisation to the revolutionary party is thus required. I think these assumptions are misguided but, crucially, they tend to be asserted rather than cogently argued on the basis of evidence. If we return to the present, the failures of Syriza should really highlight the inadequacies of evading a confrontation with the state (while neglecting the role of mass extra-parliamentary action). Syriza could not find a way around the forces of the state and international capital.  

I should briefly mention the three essays that I have not discussed here, though I think these are all rather underwhelming. Lucio Magri’s ‘The May Events and Revolution in the West’ involves a rejection of the ‘Leninist’ party, but fails to offer a credible alternative. It doesn’t help that Stalinism’s legacy in the Communist Parties of Europe meant that the authentic ideas of Lenin had been distorted for those who, in 1968 and after, were dissatisfied with their experiences of party organisation and seeking something better. Similarly, Rossana Rossanda in ‘Class and Party’ has an impoverished understanding of Lenin, wrongly seeing him as pointing in a different direction to Marx. This also rests – as we have learnt from Johnstone and Nimtz – on a faulty interpretation of Marx’s views on organisation. Rossanda’s conversation/interview with Jean-Paul Sartre is also included in this volume. Whatever Sartre’s intellectual merits may have been, revolutionary strategy was not, on the evidence here, where he was at his best. 

Overall this reader is a mixed selection: strongest in the contributions on Marx, too heavily reliant on the period between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s and misguided in its revisionism towards Lenin. There are genuine insights into Gramsci, but also traces of the erroneous reformist distortion of his ideas, and it is frustrating that some sources of insight into strategy and organisation in the Marxist tradition, like Trotsky and Lukács, are scarcely present. There is – aside from the essays on Marx and the discussion of Sanders and Syriza – frustratingly little concrete analysis of particular movements or strategies. A general theme is a commitment to rethinking some of the core ideas of Lenin, the Bolsheviks and the Comintern regarding the relationship between party and class (and their respective roles in changing the world), but without providing a convincing and coherent alternative.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).