Letter to Direct action: What is a mass party


Dear editor

Allen Myers, in his article “What are we waiting for?”, (Direct Action no. 36) says:

“The Russian Bolsheviks did not become a real mass party until after the February 1917 revolution”.

That is incorrect. The Bolsheviks (or, to be more precise, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party under Bolshevik leadership) had become a mass party of the working class by the end of 1912. They had a daily paper. They were able to win 6 seats in the Duma (the pseudo-parliament) from working class electorates in the 1912 elections.

Comrade Myers continues: “This doesn’t mean that Lenin and his co-thinkers were wasting their time before that: the growth of the Bolsheviks into a mass party during 1917 would not have been possible without the decades of struggle and preparation that created the Bolsheviks’ cadre framework”.

That is certainly true. But the “decades of struggle” included different phases, in which Lenin used different party-building tactics.

Comrade Myers counterposes a “Leninist” party to a “broad” left party. But this dichotomy is too simple. There are degrees of “broadness”, and Lenin was willing to take a relatively “broad” approach when that was useful in building the party.

For example, in January 1912 the Bolsheviks worked with other members of the RSDLP to convene a party conference, which was held in Prague because of the repressive conditions inside Russia. (See Lenin Collected Works, vol 17, p. 453-486)

It was not intended to be an exclusively Bolshevik conference. Menshevik-led local party organisations participated in the preparations for the conference. Mensheviks, the ultraleft Forward group, and Leon Trotsky were amongst those invited. The only people from the RSDLP tradition who were not invited were the “liquidators”- those who wanted to dissolve the party. Lenin especially hoped for the participation of the “pro-party Mensheviks” led by Plekhanov.

This attempt at building a broad conference had limited success. Only two non-Bolshevik delegates attended.

Nevertheless the attempt to build a relatively broad socialist party was important. It showed that the Bolsheviks were in favour of unity, and therefore helped them win the support of rank and file RSDLP members. The result was what Lenin termed “unity-from-below” – the establishment of united RSDLP groups in workplaces and localities. (Collected Works, vol. 18, p.454)

The outbreak of war in 1914, with increased repression and the growth of chauvinism, led to setbacks for the party. But the pre-war experience of building a mass party helped the Bolsheviks recover rapidly in 1917.

Another experience worth looking at is that of the July 26 Movement in Cuba. This was not a Marxist party. Its program was for the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship and for radical democratic measures such as land reform. Under Fidel Castro’s leadership, it played a central role in the downfall of the dictatorship. (see Cuba: How the Workers and Peasants made the Revolution, www.links.org.au/node/1451)

After Batista was overthrown, the July 26 Movement split into socialist and capitalist wings. But that does not alter the fact that this “broad” organisation had played a positive role during a certain stage of the struggle.

Fidel Castro had read Lenin’s writings extensively while in prison. But he did not set out to create a carbon copy of the Bolshevik party on his release. Instead he chose the organisational form he judged most appropriate for the circumstances. This was the July 26 Movement.

Of course the situation in Australia today is very different from both Russia under tsarism and Cuba under the Batista dictatorship. We have to choose the organisational form we consider most appropriate for our conditions. Practical experience will show whether our choices are correct or not.

Chris Slee,


The fact that a party has a daily paper and/or parliamentary representation does not make it a mass party. A mass party has a mass membership.

Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, put the size of the Bolsheviks in February 1917 at 80,000 members. The population of the Russian Empire in the 1897 census was 125 million. Estimates of the 1917 population I can find on the internet range between 160 and 180 million. If we use the lower 1917 figure, the Bolshevik membership in February was .05 of 1% of the country’s population. That was a significant cadre force, but still a long way from a mass party.

There is no argument about the fact that the long process of building a mass revolutionary party will require a variety of tactics and organisational forms. The question is whether those forms are employed as elements of a strategy to build such a party or rather become substitutes for it.

It is a mistake to see Leninism as primarily a form of organisation. Leninism is first of all a question of politics: of continually explaining the need for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist government and its replacement by a government of the working people. (The words and actions used for this explanation of course vary with the audience and political circumstances.) Organisational forms should be adopted or rejected according to how well or badly they serve that political goal at any particular time.

I believe that Comrade Slee would agree with me that trying to build a left wing in the ALP is not a useful tactic at present. It is even destructive when the people attempting to do so turn the tactic into a strategy or principle.

We disagree about Australia’s so-called broad left party, the Socialist Alliance. What used to be the Democratic Socialist Party (later the Democratic Socialist Perspective) has been trying to create a “broad” party out of SA for eight or nine years now, and the result is fewer organised activists than the DSP had when it started the process. “Practical experience” has shown that this organisational form doesn’t work in the present situation, but Comrade Slee and his co-thinkers persist, converting the failed tactic into a strategic principle: if you show that you’re “in favour of unity”, that will help you win the masses. The comrades have put an organisational ideal – “unity” – above politics: unity to do what?

Worse yet, the DSP has dissolved itself into SA, and Leninist politics – the systematic explanation of the need for and method of socialist revolution – has been dropped as not sufficiently “broad”. What the comrades fail to recognise is that the broadest socialist politics is a politics that relates to where the masses need to go, not to where they are at the moment.

Allen Myers