Note by Ben (February 2008): I found this section of Joseph's Green's 2004 article interesting as a concise summation of the history of attempts to create working class parties and an international organization of the working class. I have added boldface. My repost of this section is not intended to be an endorsement of Joseph Green's article, his conclusions or his methods.
At this point, it will be useful to digress into the history of party-building itself. It shows that, while Trotsky counterposed organization to workers' self-activity, one of the key measures of the progress of the workers' movement was the extent and type of organization it created.
Indeed, when Marx and Engels called on the working class to build up their party, they didn't simply endorse the existing idea of a party, nor simply call for centralism. They worked throughout their lives to create a new type of party. For that matter, the development of the mass proletarian party strongly influenced the development of modern political parties in general.
At the outset of their political activity, Marx and Engels participated in the Communist League, for which they wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party. The CL was an international organization of communists, mainly workers. Marx and Engels worked to rid it of a conspiratorial character, and to provide it with a more scientific doctrine based on the class struggle. Many of its members went on to be leading members of the most radical trends in the revolutions of 1848-9, but they mainly participated individually in the movement as the CL was too narrow to be able to directly influence the revolutionary movement. In 1852, with the end of hopes for the revival of the revolutionary wave of 1848-49, the CL dissolved.
Over a decade later, Marx and Engels sought to have the International Workingmen's Association unite the socialist activists of each country, divided into separate doctrinal circles, into a common organization devoted to the ongoing workers' struggle. It also established links with the mass economic struggle. Its mobilization of international support for strikes created a sensation in the working class, and forever changed the general idea of the nature of political activity. At the same time, while mass meetings of strikers voted to join the IWA, and many unions affiliated to the IWA, only a core of its members played a direct role in it. As one history of the IWA puts it, "Of course, these collective adhesions did not amount to an actual joining up of the masses at large with the International; but active individuals and groups, becoming segregated from the mass, constituted the effectives of local branches, and these formed a moral link between the organisation and the toiling masses. In this way, the political and moral influence of the International steadily increased." (24)
The Congresses of the IWA were the scenes of important and influential political debates about the relationship of economic and political struggle, but the IWA itself couldn't achieve any lasting unity on these issues. There were different trends in the IWA aside from revolutionary socialism, with the reformists pulling it one way, the anarchists another. At the apparent height of its influence and power after the working class uprising of the Paris Commune, the International essentially broke into parts at the Hague Congress of 1872. The official International ended in 1874, while the anarchists established their own "IWA" which gradually dwindled away.
There were attempts to rebuild an international through holding new congresses, such as the Universal Socialist Congress at Ghent in 1877 or the International Socialist Congress at Coire in 1880, but these congresses didn't give rise to anything. Organization can't simply be called into existence at will. The next step in the proletarian political organization required the development of nationwide political agitation, something which the First International hadn't really achieved. The success of the German social-democrats in this helped spread Marxist influence, and paved the way for the formation of the Second or Social-Democratic International in 1889.
At its best, the Second International fostered a form of mass socialist workers party that had never been seen before. It did not have the narrow conspiratorial form of many revolutionary circles of the past. It was intimately connected with both the political and economic mass struggle. It took part in the ideological struggle of trends. Also it had a mass membership, but these members enrolled individually and were supposed to come to party meetings, read the party press, and take a certain part in activities. As well, they were supposed to elect the party leadership and determine party policies. The Communist League had also had an active -- and quite dedicated and talented -- membership, but it had been a narrow group with limited links to the masses. The IWA had a broad membership, but much of it had been enrolled en masse. What was new was the fusion of political activity and a mass character. At its best, this allowed the masses to put their stamp on politics in a way never achieved before.
Like the IWA before it, the Second International changed the conception of working-class political action forever. It also gave rise to a wide spread of socialism among the masses. But it wasn't always at its best. Some social-democratic parties could be quite detached from mass struggle, arguing that nothing could be changed until the revolution, and they could restrict activity to parliamentarism. They might only penetrate among a certain section of workers, and in general barely penetrated among the most nationally-oppressed workers. As time went on, the Social-Democratic International grew numerically, but it came to be dominated by its opportunist and class-collaborationist wing. The crucial moment came at the outbreak of World War I, when most of official Social-Democracy went over to a social-chauvinist position of defending the war effort of its own national bourgeoisie against the workers of other lands.
This gave rise to the task of developing truly revolutionary workers parties to replace those of the Second International. It wasn't just that there were some bad leaders in the Second International, but the very structure of these parties had failed in the face of the revolutionary crises brought by World War I and its aftermath. The Bolsheviks came from within the Second International, being originally a faction of the RSDLP. But the party organization built up by the Bolsheviks was different from that of other Second International parties. This was partly due to different conditions: the RSDLP was built up under conditions of Tsarist dictatorship and illegality rather than the milder and legal conditions facing the main parties of the Second International. But the Bolsheviks also developed a party of a different character from the ordinary party of the Second International: for example, they persisted in the struggle against reformism, their party apparatus threw itself into the revolution rather than recoiling from it, and they were more tightly linked to the mass motion of the working class.
After World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, the Third or Communist International sought to build up this new type of party internationally. The crises and revolutionary ferment that followed World War I provided conditions for the development of these parties. It was more centralized than most social-democratic parties, and it required a higher level of discipline. But it was also fostered a higher level of independent activity from its members, a greater role in mass action, and a higher level of theoretical knowledge and consciousness. At their best, the communist parties showed an outstanding ability to maintain an independent stand despite repression and persecution from the bourgeoisie, and to lead revolutionary struggle. They also spread to sections of the masses that the social-democrats tended to ignore, such as the colonial world and nationally-oppressed workers in the industrial countries; the communist banner was planted firmly in the midst of the national liberation and anti-imperialist movements.
But the Third International parties too weren't always at their best. They were faced with having to transform themselves rapidly, generally under harsh conditions of bourgeois repression and reformist obstruction. They had to overcome social-democratic carry-overs and develop new organizational traditions, develop new leadership cadre, learn methods of winning the masses to support militant initiatives in the face of reformist and social-democratic opposition, and deal with the crisis of revolutionary theory that broke out in conjunction with World War I. They had some remarkable achievements, but overall they had mixed results, and rough organizational methods were sometimes used to force the pace of change, or to achieve unity. Moreover, Stalinism eventually corroded the Third International and turned the communist parties into an ugly caricature of what they had been. Centralism usually remained, but it was now bureaucratic centralism to subordinate the rank-and-file to whatever policy the leadership wanted. In the Soviet Union and other state-capitalist countries that developed, the parties became parties of the new state-capitalist bourgeoisie, whose role was to suppress any resistance from the working class.
Today revolutionary activists face the task of assessing the experience of party-building in the past. We have to see what general lessons can be learned from this history to help guide the building of anti-revisionist parties in the future. Today the working class movement is disoriented and disorganized everywhere. But as the movement revives, the issue of political organization will again come to the fore.