Marx’s Concept of Revolutionary Organization and Its Relevance for Today

Lyndon Porter

Summary: Based on a presentation given at a Los Angeles IMHO meeting on June 25th, 2023 –Editors

In light of the ongoing struggles, perhaps no bigger topic has engaged more groups on the left than the concept of organization. With the dominance of Marxist-Leninism in the 20th century and its subsequent decline, many leftists have turned to decentralized models of organization based on theories that purport to go beyond Marx and Marxism. However, the vanguardist model was not the realization of Marx’s concept of organization but instead represented a form that remains undeveloped and deaf to the revolutionary concept of organization that Marx presented especially in his later works. This is seen perhaps nowhere better than in the Critique of the Gotha Program. In his critique, Marx brings us to a revolutionary concept of organization not only by critiquing the propositions of the Lassalleans but also by anticipating what a post-capitalist society may look like. The Critique of the Gotha Program remains an important organizational document for Marxist Humanists precisely because of the philosophical principles that he outlines. For Marx, a philosophy of organization and revolution based on a dialectical critique of capitalism and a vision of the new society that comes after formed the basis of his concept of organization.

The problem Marx had with his followers was not that they decided to work with the Lassalleans, whose ideological leader he had critiqued many times before, but that the cost of doing so was to give in to the Lassalleans’ faulty notions of capitalism and communism. He was not against forging a plan for common action with them, but it should never have meant embracing their flawed program and abandoning their principles. As he says:

If they had been told in advance that there would be no haggling about principles, they would have had to be content with a program of action or a plan of organization for common action. Instead of this, one permits them to arrive armed with mandates, recognizes these mandates on one’s part as binding, and thus surrenders unconditionally to those who are themselves in need of help.” (Critique of the Gotha Program, p. 48)

Even though the merger had brought with it perhaps the largest workers’ organization ever seen at that point in time, Marx thought that this was no real victory. Unity was not worth the price of having to compromise philosophic principles which any effective socialist organization must have.

When it came to analyzing and critiquing capitalism the Lassalleans had fallen short in several ways. Following Lassalle, they did not understand the concepts of value, wage labor, the state, the revolutionary character of social classes, internationalism, and the distinguishing features of capitalism regarding relations of production. When he is critiquing these parts of the program, he is not outlining simple theoretical disagreements between himself and the Lassalleans. He demonstrates why having a conception of something like value matter for an organization. If one conflates wealth in general with value, then one would believe the solution is to redistribute surplus value to give laborers the full fruits of their labor and not abolish value altogether. Here Marx shows that he is not simply a thinker who has only abstract principles to put forth. After critiquing the Gotha Program’s conception of value and stating the necessity of abolishing value production, he also gives a practical approach to how that can be accomplished. It is here he gives his idea for how an early communist society can plan production and distribution based on actual labor time and how this can ensure that the needs of society are met even for those who cannot work.

A failure to understand the nature of present-day society means a failure to understand how to reach an alternative to capitalism. The overall vision of communism he depicts in the critique is of a society where neither the law of value nor the state governs but the masses govern themselves in a free association. Thus, by critiquing the Gotha program Marx is also clarifying the principles of the movement he had spent so much time engaged in and this gives us a starting point for understanding what organization means for the socialist movement. He is highlighting the importance of an organization having a comprehensive philosophy of revolution and having a vision of an alternative to capitalism.

Here I want to quote Peter Hudis on what I think singles out another important element of Marx’s concept of organization:

If there is one comment that summarizes Marx’s concept of organization, it is one that he made to Lassallean leader Johann von Schweitzer (1833-75): A centralist organization, suitable as it is for secret societies and sect movements, contradicts the nature of the trade unions. Were it possible—I declare it tout bonnement to be impossible—it would not be desirable, least of all in Germany. Here where the worker is regulated bureaucratically from childhood onwards, where he believes in authority, in those set over him, the main thing is to teach him to walk by himself. (Dialogue On Marx’s Concept of Organization and its Meaning For Today)

This statement is no doubt motivated by the belief in the ability of the masses to govern themselves which is a point Marx makes in many of his works, especially during the period he spent in the International Workingmen’s Association and the aftermath of the Paris Commune. It seems to Marx that a functioning socialist organization is not defined by how centralized it is or how disciplined its members are to the authority of the leadership. What differentiates a socialist organization from other kinds of political organizations is how it permits workers to walk on their own. In other words, how well an organization galvanizes workers’ self-activity, which Raya Dunayevskaya called “the truly working-class way of knowing” (Marxism and Freedom, p. 31).

Workers can only begin to know how by doing. The paternalistic attitude of many organizations which limits workers’ participation to being supporters of a particular line of thought or leader becomes an obstruction to this way of knowing. An organization cannot get anywhere if it simply reproduces the authoritarian structures of capitalism that seek to subordinate and regulate the worker at every turn. The worker becomes not an agent of social change but a mere pawn to elicit votes and political support. Organizations must encourage the worker to think and act not because someone tells them to but because it is the only method by which they will gain their self-emancipation. Organization thus becomes the form that allows the masses to further develop their revolutionary powers.

A new society emerges from the active participation of the masses taking responsibility for their own lives, not from the ideas and decrees handed down by a central committee. As Marx and Engels said in the German Ideology the consciousness of the necessity of social revolution emerges from the class itself. Revolution is advanced not by great theory but by the people mobilizing through their own councils, committees, unions, etc. The masses can determine their own conditions they don’t need an elite to guide them or do this for them. As C.L.R. James said, “you can’t teach people everything . . . a great part of political education is letting them know what is done elsewhere, watching what they instinctively choose, what models they adopt and what they reject” (Party Politics in the West Indies, p. 127).

This begins not the day after the revolution or after a long period of transition but within the independent class organizations that are being formed. If the people are to govern themselves then this must start somewhere, and it is within these organizations that people begin to discover how they can act in shaping the new society. This should not be confused with the idea that an organization should serve as “the embryo of the future society” as Peter Hudis reminds us. While we can think about what new human relations will be formed with the introduction of a new social order and how our current actions are conducive to reaching that social order, we cannot fully know what these will look like or even begin to create them while we still live under the dehumanizing conditions of capitalism.

Even organizations which oppose top-down or vanguard party forms and commit themselves to a decentralized model are not sufficient in themselves. What is distinct about Marx’s concept of organization is he does not only emphasize the importance of democratic organization but that such an organization must provide theoretical direction based on philosophical principles. It is not enough for an organization to commit itself to democracy and the full participation of its members. Without a philosophy of organization and revolution, one cannot begin to provide theoretical direction to the movement or answer the questions that will arise from within that movement such as “What happens after?”. But of course, such a philosophy cannot give the predetermined solution to every problem that may arise for it is not a predictive philosophy. And for that philosophy to not remain an abstract philosophy consisting of general analyses and observations at it must be concretized. Concretizing a philosophy of organization and revolution means developing adequate responses to the problems and struggles that exist in the present moment. Social struggles are constantly arising and developing in a time where the lives of marginalized groups are under constant attack not only in authoritarian regimes but also in liberal democracies like the U.S. The problems posed by these struggles will inevitably lead many of those involved to reach out in a theoretical direction. How we respond to these struggles and manage to provide strategic direction where needed will be the true test of how far our philosophy has become a philosophy of revolution.

Of course, this is not an easy task by any means and these problems will not have definitive solutions that can be worked out in thought alone. But as Peter Hudis says in his dialogue with Sam Friedman this is the entire point of having an ideas-based organization such as IMHO. As the masses move and start to realize their own revolutionary potential, organizations such as ours must be able to offer something “that they cannot obtain by relying on their own forms of organization, be they spontaneous or otherwise”. This is ultimately an effort to unite philosophy and organization. And as Sam Friedman brings up in the dialogue, this becomes a problem of trying to not control the struggle from above but also not remaining just participants among the broader movement. If we do not want to remain an organization trapped in theoretical discussions among ourselves then we must think of the ways that we can contribute to the mass movement not just when it reaches a revolutionary peak but also before. Many groups will try to exert their influence and try to control the movement from the outside. Those groups may not even be nominally socialist and not have revolutionary aspirations. The problem then becomes how we combat liberal misleadership in the movement which as we know has been a problem many social movements have encountered.

It almost seems that exploring the concept of organization has brought up more problems to consider than solutions. This just speaks to how much work is to be done on what Marx’s concept of organization means today. Marx could not provide us with all the answers, but I think it is clear what relevance it has for us today. As more people begin to move in a revolutionary direction, we must understand our role as Marxists not to be elitists handing down a doctrine for the masses to follow or passive observers who simply applaud their movement. In his concept of organization, Marx centers a vision of an alternative to capitalism which flows directly from his dialectical critique of capitalism, bringing us to understand the importance of uniting philosophy and organization. Although Marx’s followers may not have understood the consequences of uniting with the Lassalleans, the Critique of the Gotha Program gave us valuable lessons to learn from today. The lessons that we as Marxist Humanists have drawn out from this critique have been absent in both organizations that claimed to be following Marx and those who claim to be going beyond him. Even if we understand the limitations of vanguard parties and decentralized groups there is still the task of developing a philosophy of organization that can live up to its name. And there is also the task of concretizing that philosophy to respond to the objective situation. Having such a revolutionary concept of organization is vital at a time when reactionary forces are on the rise and many groups on the left have managed to offer no real alternative to capitalism. The task of uniting philosophy and organization is important for Marxists today for no revolutionary organization can operate without an adequate understanding of what capitalism is and what comes after it.


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