On the Organisational Question of the Working Class

Arvind Ghosh

“I have tried to dispel the misunderstanding arising out of the impression that by ‘party’, I meant a ‘League’ that expired eight years ago, or an editorial board that was disbanded twelve years ago. By ‘party’, I mean party in the broad historical sense.” (Karl Marx, Letter to Ferdinand Freiligrath, February 29, 1860)

“All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.” (Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848)

(1)          Within certain parameters, Marx was practical and impartial on the question of the form of organisation. Marx emphasised the concept of working class as an active, conscious SUBJECT, along with the forms, concepts and activities created by it. According to Marx, the organisational form is not pre-determined, but is created from within the real movement of the conscious and creative working class.

(2)          The most important historical process, for Marx, is the one through which the working class establishes itself as an independent, conscious revolutionary subject. It is this viewpoint of self-emancipation of the proletariat, which forms the content of the socialist revolution, and it is from this viewpoint that we ought to consider the question of organisational forms.

(3)          The positive aspect of this viewpoint is that it avoids fetishism of organisational forms as well as the tendency of these organisational forms to get ossified. It is open and flexible in accordance with the needs of the ever changing special conditions of the transforming agencies. Historically, it has been noted that the working class achieved maximum success when it succeeded in developing new forms of collective activity that challenged the established relations. Similarly, the working class experienced disastrous failures when in spite of the existing forms of collective activity getting degenerated and ossified, the working class continued to defend them instead of building new ones. In order to protect the forms of collective activity from degeneration, it is necessary that these organisations are developed continuously through a process of regeneration and reorganisation, and preserved in their changing forms.

(4)          Marx recognises the working class as the revolutionary agency. The basis for this recognition is that the working class is capable of independently determining its political-organisational forms. Although Marx’s theory of proletarian revolution is intimately connected with the organisational activity of the working class, Marx never attempted to theorise a proletarian organisation. In fact, any attempt to develop a theory of organisation from the point of view of the self-emancipation of the working class is contradictory, since such attempt would amount to declaring independence from the conscious activities of the working class and thus reject the creative powers of the working class.

(5)          For Marx, Subject plays the most important role in the process of revolution. Subject is the one responsible for both theory as well as practice, and also for uniting the two. Therefore, it is dialectically incorrect to say that the subject must unite with its theory, or there has to be a fusion of socialist theory with the advanced workers (for the birth of a communist organisation), as if socialist theory exists independently, outside the class struggle of the proletariat with which its advanced section must unite. “The long-prevalent conception of revolutionary theory – the science of society and revolution, as elaborated by specialists and introduced into the proletariat by the party is in direct contradiction to the very idea of a socialist revolution being the autonomous activity of the masses” (Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘The Proletariat and Organisation’, 1959). In fact, the working class while assimilating and developing socialist theory through its praxis moves towards its goal of destroying capitalist mode of production (CMP) and establishing  a new mode of production which Marx calls associated mode of production (AMP). This process is what constitutes working class self-emancipation.

(6)          From the dialectical viewpoint of Marx, means and aims are inextricably interconnected. From this viewpoint, means are the socialist end in the process of becoming. Means advancing towards communist revolution prefigures the communist society. Since organisation is the most important means to achieve a communist society, it is essential that its form is in complete accord with this objective and in no way does it contradict this objective. In other words, the journey of self-emancipation of the proletariat begins with self-activity and self-organisation capable of achieving the goal of a socialist society.

(7)          A socialist revolution can become a reality, according to Marx, only through conscious, active participation of the working class. A proletarian organisational form is a pre-condition for this revolution, which the working class itself creates through class struggle. This task cannot be done by representing class interests of the proletariat in an abstract manner. An organisational form established independently of this process of self-development of the working class forestalls this process midway, as a result of which the working class comes under the control of an agency outside or above it. Thus through a separation of the organisational form from the class, the division between leaders and the led existing within the bourgeois society is reinforced. Here the organisational form becomes an abstraction with an inherent possibility of incomplete development of the proletariat and its political alienation.

(8)          Marx had advocated a range of organisational forms suited to different politico-economic situations – from workers councils, workers clubs and committees to unions, general assemblies and even parties. But Marx’s argument that the working class needs to organise itself into a party did not amount to working-class party-building. For Marx, organising itself into a party meant getting organised as a revolutionary subject. By ‘party’ Marx had meant a party in an ‘eminently historical sense.’

In ‘The Fourth Annual Report of the General Council‘ (1868) of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), Marx had written: “That Association has not been hatched by a sect or a theory. It is the spontaneous growth of the proletarian movement, which itself is the offspring of the natural and irrepressible tendencies of modern society.”

(9)          To declare any specific form of organisation as the only appropriate form means that the working class is not the revolutionary subject, but rather this specific form of organisation is the subject. It means that the proletarian revolution can be determined beforehand and that the development of the working class is not a creative process but a pre-determined process. To come out of this illusion, it would be necessary to establish the creative aspects of socialist revolution and to clarify how the free and conscious activities of the working class (expressed in whatever form) can create new communist social relations.

(10)      The existing communist movement defines power as a thing which might be captured (seized), monopolised and made more powerful (knowingly or unknowingly), whereas, from Marx’s standpoint, power should be defined on the basis of social relations. Instead of concentrating our entire energy on the seizure of power as a thing, the communist movement ought to be directed towards the transformation of social relations. Thus we conceive revolution not as an event but as a process.

(11)      The most important reason for the crisis in which socialism finds itself today (which is also the real tragedy of established Marxism) is that it has abandoned the concept of proletarian self-emancipation, whereas this concept is the essence and specificity of Marx’s Marxism. As a result, the existing communist movement has been alienated from its class as well as social roots. The established communist movement considers socialism to be a product of organisational activities. From this standpoint, it is the Party and not the class which acts. From this perspective, organisational form has been considered to be of crucial importance, while the conscious role of the class is neglected and even negated.

(12)      From his early critique of Hegel’s political philosophy Marx had initiated a new type of political discourse which goes beyond the division between economy and politics existing in the bourgeois society towards transition to a non-ruling class and stateless society. According to Marx, political activities should be subordinated towards the goal of social revolution. This principle is clearly stated in the provisional rules of the International Working Men’s Association thus: “The economic emancipation of the working class is the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means.”

(13)      As has been pointed out by Anton Pannekoek in his essay ‘Party and the Working-class’, “in relation to the proletarian revolution, a ‘revolutionary party’ is a contradiction in terms. This could also be expressed by saying that the term ‘revolutionary’ in the expression ‘revolutionary party’ necessarily designates a bourgeois revolution. On every occasion, indeed, that the masses have intervened to overthrow a government and have then handed power to a new party, it was a bourgeois revolution that took place — a substitution of a new dominant category for an old one. So it was in Paris when, in 1830, the commercial bourgeoisie took over from the big landed proprietors; and again, in 1848, when the industrial bourgeoisie succeeded the financial bourgeoisie; and again in 1871 when the whole body of the bourgeoisie came to power.” For Pannekoek, the Russian revolution of 1917 was no exception to this rule when party-bureaucracy monopolised over state power, and as we all know, what was established in Russia through this party-state was not socialism but state-capitalism.

Thus, we find that the party-form of organisation, although appropriate for a bourgeois revolution, is hardly adequate to the needs of a proletarian revolution. In a proletarian revolution, the working class has to seize power as a class. In this revolution, the proletarian class power is established through the destruction of the bourgeois state. But the workers’ state thus formed is not a ‘state’ in the conventional sense of the term since it is not an institution separated from the masses. Workers’ power is direct power of workers organised in the spheres of production. The specificity of the working class regime lies in the fact that in this regime the spheres of politics is not separated from the sphere of economics (i.e., production) but is integrated into one entity. In a workers’ regime, the working class takes control of the means of production, makes plans and executes them collectively. Thus a new mode of production is born designated by Marx as the ‘associated mode of production’ (AMP). In this new socialist society, time spent on ‘necessary labour’ (‘socially necessary labour time’) would be progressively reduced and humanity will have more ‘free time’ at its disposal geared to the development of creative powers of human beings.

However, the abstract representation of the working class through ‘Party Power’ contradicts the very concept of working class power. In spite of all the good intentions of the theoreticians in suggesting the new ‘revolutionary working class party’, party power can only be an elitist power, since this party will be an organisation of the so-called advanced sections of the working class frequented by the ‘socialist theoreticians’ from the bourgeois as well as middle class intelligentsia, presenting themselves as the ‘teachers’ of the working class. Marx’s philosophical dictum that ‘the educator must himself be educated’ is perfectly applicable in the context of these ‘teachers’. These elements from outside the working class naturally occupy the upper echelons – the “superincumbent strata” – of this hierarchical organisation. In its due course of development, this organisation begins to rule over the masses by bringing them under its control and trying to regulate their lives through the directives of their highest committees. Thus, the so-called ‘revolutionary party’, instead of helping the struggles of the working class, becomes an obstacle in the creative activities of the class. But, as we know through our experience of the failed revolutions of the 20th century, Socialism cannot be built through directives from above but is possible only through creative participation of the productive classes.

(14)      In order to grasp which form of organisation is most suitable for the working class, it is necessary to correctly define the aims and objectives of the working class movement, since organisation is only a means to achieve these aims and objectives.

The working class not only needs to destroy capitalism but simultaneously needs to create a new communist society which would be qualitatively different from capitalism. The task before this revolution is to go beyond capitalism by completely transforming this mode of production and establishing a new society based on this transformation.

The working class in accordance with its class objectives must create an organisational form and provide a political content adequate to these revolutionary socialist objectives. Historically, the Soviets and the Workers’ Councils – i.e., the organisations created and directed by the workers themselves during their attempts to act as a conscious, creative class – have proved themselves to be the most appropriate organisational forms to accomplish the socialist revolution and for the purpose of functioning of the socialist society. It is through these Workers’ Councils/Soviets that workers directly establish their political-economic power and organise a new socialist system of production. These organisations are inherently democratic, composed of delegates, not representatives, mandated by those who elect them and subject to recall at any time.

The basis of representation in Workers’ Councils is not abstract, since they represent workers engaged in revolutionary struggles. Based in the spheres of production and distribution, there is no place in them for either bourgeois interests or bourgeois representation. Thus, they represent exclusively the working class interests. During the revolution when the working class is faced with the responsibility of reorganising society economically, politically and socially, it becomes possible only through workers’ councils/ soviets and factory councils. In other words, these organisations are the instruments of proletarian dictatorship – the most complete democracy of the working class.

(15)      Socialism is not possible without the management of production, economy and the society by workers themselves. The experience of the Russian Revolution teaches us that the destruction of economic domination as well as of the state power of the bourgeoisie is not enough. The proletariat can achieve the objectives of its revolution only if it builds up its own power in every sphere. This implies that the power in post-revolutionary society has to be solely and directly in the hands of the organisations created by them, like the soviets, factory committees and councils. For a special organisation like the party to take on the function of governance or exercise power means perpetuating the existing separation between producers and the controllers of the conditions of production, the division between the rulers and the ruled.  However, this proposition necessitates a reconsideration of all the theoretical and practical problems facing the revolutionary movement today.

(16)      The question of organisation is not merely a technical question or a question of its form; rather, it is a philosophical question. Marx’s philosophy of revolution is not only about working class emancipation, but is primarily a philosophy of human liberation. According to Marx, working class cannot emancipate itself without simultaneously emancipating the entire oppressed humanity. The final goal of the proletarian revolution is to create a new human society free from all forms of exploitation and oppression. Thus the proletarian revolution is integrated with the women’s liberation movement (WLM), the movement of the oppressed castes, races and nationalities for Freedom. The proletarian revolution is also about redefining humanity’s relationship with Nature, the degradation of which has reached its limit today (to the point of a total extinction of the human as well as other species on the planet) due to the very existence of the capitalist mode of production.

Hence, while forming any proletarian organisation today it should be our endeavour to construct them in accordance with Marx’s vision of a new human society which takes care of all these concerns. This means first of all posing a direct challenge to the existing alienation between Organisation and Philosophy (which is also an expression of the separation between physical and mental labour existing in today’s bourgeois society), through the very functioning of the Organisation.

In other words, any proletarian organisation we build today ought to be free from Vanguardism, Hierarchy and separation of mental and physical labour. The organisation should operate on the principle of democracy from below. We may call it centralised democracy where the emphasis is more on democracy than on centralism to distinguish it from democratic centralism which amounts to control from above in practice.


  1. Arvinds text is inspiring – though it leaves us with quite a few open questions …

    => what does this mean: “… the working class establishes itself (!!) as an independent, conscious revolutionary subject…”
    we know the notion of Marx about the working class in / for itself – so, where are we now?

    => the statement about the working class achievments (3) is easy done, but where is the evidence? At least some examples to be able to proof the argument should be revealed …

    => @ (4) … if there is no “working class” for itself yet, how can the wc than be an “agency” – that raimns completly unclear
    what does it mean to write: “… that the working class is capable of independently determining its political-organisational forms” – what is INDEPENDNTLY – is there any such thing in Marxism – doesn’t he/they state that the ruling ideas are always the ideas of the ruling class? So than, what is “independance”? Two important Marxists at least Lenin and Gramsci would have got tummyache with such a claim – or not?
    But maybe they are of no relevance ….
    One might state, that Marx never “attempted to theorise” but his deeds were very much clear – and many the time ‘not of the best manners’ to put it mild … – can’t we get a ‘reading’ from that?

    => @ (7) – what should that be – “A proletarian organisational form” – who determines that and isn’t that a mix up of the historical movement with the wished social grouping – both called “proletarian” – but one the historical reality, while the other exists only as the whish of some motivated political people ….

    These are just a view questions – more would be there for the future, but I get the feeling, that Arvind took the approach to lightly, the answer to some of these questions are far more difficult and maybe one of the interesting questions would be, why the ‘interesting’ and pro-critical approach of Pannekoek, Mattick & friends never was able to create a mass-base – something I would love to know …


  2. Chris’s critics is right for the article. The mains thing to discuss organizational form of revolutionary class are Marx’s thoughts pertaining to “Class in and for itself” and “ruling class and ruling idea”. Due to proletariat has no time to build a revolutionary organization (not just only trade union) based on the political economy transformation, a vanguard political organization is inevitable, not in the meaning of bureaucratic and aristocratic form, but based on mass line.


  1. […] Secondly, it argued that despite not rejecting the role of the vanguard formally, the standpoint of the “new philosophers” was a de facto rejection of its role. In fact, some other articles on the Radical Notes represents this very position of anarcho-syndicalism and non-party revolutionism (for instance, see https://radicalnotes.com/2012/11/21/on-the-organisational-question-of-the-working-class/). […]

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