What Does it Mean to be a Communist Today?

Since the break-up of the socialist societies in eastern Europe, a deep-seated insecurity has spread among many communists (and also many communist parties) over what should constitute the essence of a communist party, and what requirements its members should place on themselves if they wish to regard themselves as communists.  The frequent violation of Leninist party norms in the past has shaken communists’ self-understanding, and has brought the leading conceptions of a Leninist party, or a party of a new type, into discredit among many.  This insecurity has had a destabilising effect on the organisational structures of the party and on the conduct of members, and has led, where re-establishment of communist parties became necessary, to lack of clarity over their constitution.  It has become a question whose central aspects are: by whom and around whom should the building of the party and its organisational work be taken in hand?  The word “should” incorporates clarification of what is meant by the concept of a communistparty, and the decision of whether one wants such a party.  It is therefore a question of the statutes of the party and their realisation in party life.

The statutes of an organisation are something akin to its “basic law”.  They establish not only the principles and rules of organisational life, but also the fundamental understanding of the organisation and of the aims it pursues.  The statutes are more general and fundamental than a programme, which sets out the line of march and transposes the main aim into concrete (and changing) situations, relating it to special circumstances.  Programmes must be reformulated from time to time, to make allowance for historical developments.  Statutes, on the other hand, determine the nature of the organisation, and thereby establish its epochal character.

The emergence of this question, the self-understanding of a communist party, is an expression of the historical situation.  The global conditions within which a party defines itself as “communist” have changed with the break-up of the system of socialist states and of the Soviet Union as the leading power of that system.  That does not mean, however, that the leading historical conception and aim of communism – dating back to the Communist Manifesto1 – have changed significantly; otherwise it would no longer be communism, but rather some other variant of socialism – bourgeois, utopian, petit-bourgeois socialism etc. – against which the authors of the Communist Manifesto – defined themselves.  However, the political field, in which communists as communists are active, has certainly changed – and thereby the question arises: what organisational form is necessary for communist activity?





To answer this question a communist party must first of all define itself in relation to all other political parties in capitalist society.  In what way does it distinguish itself from them?  What makes communists of the members of a communist party?  There must be clarity over this, if the party is to avoid being simply an electoral association.  

The question gives expression to a particular characteristic of communists.  People can be openly members of a Christian party, even when they understand themselves as Christians in quite different ways (and including some, who do not).  The nature of their Christian beliefs and experiences is not exactly fixed, either for the members or for the Party leadership: the connection with an unspecific and variant-rich philosophical tradition may suffice.  Is such a band-width valid for a communist party as well?  If not, why not?  

Organisationally, this alternative is played out in the admissibility or not of tendencies and factions.  And for every organisation (not only for the DKP2), the problem thereby arises, of how broadly its own aims and structures are compatible with those of other organisations, i.e. of how broadly the support of other organisations by its own members is at least tolerable.  (I recall the proscriptions e.g. of the SPD3 with respect to membership of the VVN4 and later the promoters of the SDS5.  In those cases clear demarcations against the left were enforced).

Basic Principles

In the following pages I shall present the conception that the statutes of a communist party must provide information over what is indispensably expected of a communist in basic political-philosophical attitudes and in forms of conduct.  That is more than is customarily found in the statutes of bourgeois-democratic parties.  This “more” demands a substantiation, and this substantiation must also show how the philosophical claim of the communist party is essentially different from the philosophical character of a fundamentalist movement.  After all, from a superficial point of view, a fixed philosophical content of a party might appear to give it a “totalitarian” character.  In any case a German communist party must ensure that the party’s objectives and the statutory obligations of its members are accordance with the constitution as well as with the law on political parties.

What sets communists apart in their political activity is the possession of a clearly outlined conception of the conditions under which human society has developed and will further develop.  This picture of history provides a particular explanation of the present epoch, i.e. of the period of bourgeois society defined by the relation to capital.  At the basis lies the insight that:

·    people satisfy their needs for life through production – and not, like animals, by consumption of means of subsistence found in nature;

·    in production, or as a consequence of people’s social organisation, new needs are created, which demand new production – bringing about continuous development of productivity;

·    this expanding and differentiating production ensues on a social scale and with increasing division of labour;

·    in production people enter into increasingly complex relations with each other;

·    the production relations must adapt themselves to the changes in the level of development of productivity;

·    labour-divided production leads to the creation of private ownership in the means of production – and thereby society is divided into classes, which participate in unequal measure in the social product, in the social wealth;

·    from the class interests oppositions arise between classes, which sharpen into class struggles;

·    the classes favoured by the existing relations of production oppose the changing of the relations of production – so the adaptation of the relations of production to the level of development of productivity must be compelled in political struggle by replacement of the ruling structures.

These principles, which can all be derived from the first, provide the framework of a model for explaining human history, which is designated as “historical materialism”.  The strength of this simple model lies in the fact that all complex historical occurrences are embedded in this scope and can be traced back directly or by intermediate steps to this foundation.

Personal Experiences and Interests

Primarily, people recognise injustice, oppression, exploitation and the failure to overcome problems of society and of the means of production through their direct experiences of daily life rather than through a theoretical insight.  Before Marx and Engels put together the Communist Manifesto, they had written about The Condition of the Working Class in England6, The Corn Laws7, The Law on Theft of Wood8 and The Situation of the joselle Peasants9.  Personal experiences are after all always individual: that they arise from general relations of production, and that general social structures are at the root of them (albeit manifesting themselves differently from time to time), can only be recognised by theoretically connecting the individual experiences and discovering the laws working within them, i.e. by a process of abstraction.  After all, as Hegel says, what is “familiarly known” is not yet properly known10.

In order to overcome grievances, one must struggle against their cause, not against their outward manifestation.  Wherever poverty, injustice and ruin occur in a society, we must ask what is wrong in the organisation of this society and how the causes of the evil can be abolished.  In order for negative experiences to become a political alternative, a theoretical explanation is needed, which makes the experiences understandable from causes and processes.  

The more complex a society is – i.e the more specialised its production, the more manifold and differentiated its needs – then the more difficult it is to lay bare the basic system of laws, and the more opaque remains the mechanism of economic and social processes.  What normal newspaper-reader would know where to start with reports over the daily occurrences on the stock exchange?  Who can decode the balance-sheet of a company or the economic plan of a Land11 or of the Federal Republic?  How perplexed is the plaintiff before the finer points of the law?  Who can judge contradictory expert opinions over forest death or the risk assessment of a nuclear power plant?  Democracy in the age of the scientific-technological revolution would be impossible, if people’s political competence had to depend on the knowledge they needed in order to be able to decide judiciously over the economy, technology, science, law etc.  On the other hand the representatives of private interests know how to play exquisitely to their own advantage on the key-board of expert opinions.

When we discuss theory as the basis for political activity, it is not a question of boundless specialist knowledge in all those areas which concern the human species and public life.  The splintering of knowledge will continue here, and experts will be competent only for ever more narrowly defined topic areas.  If we want sensibly to direct and plan social developments, then we need a general theory which separates the simple structural elements and processes from the confusing mass of experiences, i.e. which makes an orientation possible in the apparently incomprehensible.  Politically, one only comes of age when one can bring the flood of information into a mental order.  However, not everyone can have a private opinion over this and that and everything in the world, since political activity means common activity appropriate to one and the same idea.  If a theory is to be generally accepted and valid, and give rise to purposeful political activity, then it cannot merely amount to compromises of interest between individuals and groups. 

Here now the particular nature of a communist party becomes clear.  It does not represent the interests of any group, nor is it the platform to which divergent group interests are reconciled.  It can only be communist, if it strives for the good of all.  The “good of all”, however, is to be derived not from the needs and interest of individuals, but rather from defining the general theory which relates all individuals to each other and comprehends them as a totality.

Just to begin with, it is self-evident that everyone follows their own individual interests.  And since everyone has a different place in society, different personal life circumstances and their own wishes, then their individual interests are inevitably dissimilar.  In many cases they may indeed contradict each other.  On the other hand there are common interests, e.g. those of the employees of a company for dignified working relationships, those of a community for clean air and clear dinking water, those of the people for the maintenance of peace.  In order to pursue the common interests, every individual must make cuts here and there in their individual interests.  But where and what?  What may the community demand of individuals, what must it demand?  The answers to such questions do not arise spontaneously or by simple contemplation but rather presuppose that one grasps the fundamentals of social processes and contradictions.  That is, they demand a theoretical understanding of the general.

What entitles us to claim that historical and dialectical materialism is this general theory; which not only reflects the particular interests of a class (or a group in a class), but is the expression of that scientific recognition; which comprehends the whole of society and of the social relationship to Nature; and which can show how the correctly understood interests of every individual can be brought into agreement with the interests of all others, with the interests of society and the human race?

Under capitalist relations of production, all forms of production are subjugated to capital.  The ownership of the means of production is secured by capital, i.e. the investment of capital.  Whereas previously the peasant, craftsman and merchant had their own forms of property and its reproduction, and thus constituted different classes of proprietors (compared with the property-less), the development of investment-intensive technology since the beginning of industrialisation has led to the fact that only those with the necessary investment capital can become owners of means of production.  The invested capital must support and augment itself (pay interest) over and again.  Thus, from a society in which many classes contest and have to reconcile their interests with each other, the two-class society develops, in which there are only the owners of means of production and the wage-labourers, who produce additional value by their labour, which guarantees the return on the capital. 

The earlier independent classes, e.g. the small craftsmen and peasants, who indeed did possess means of production and today still possess it, have become more and more dependent on capital; be it as medium-size suppliers for large industry, which have to direct themselves by furnishing their own means of production (and therefore their own investments) according to the technical needs and decisions of their big customers; be it as large agricultural businesses with differentiated machinery, which could not at all be procured and routinely renewed without bank credit and which is subjected to the same liquidation constraints as in industry.  In a highly labour-divided society, all intermediate strata, who maintain themselves or again develop (as e.g. in the service sector), remain in the final analysis subject to the main contradiction between capital and labour – and thus there remain still only two classes determining the structure of society: bourgeoisie and proletariat.

Both concepts originate in the 19th century.  Since then, bourgeoisie and proletariat have – at least in the metropolitan centres – changed their outward appearance.  Capital has become anonymous and is no longer represented in the form of the factory-owner or banker; the proletarians are in the majority no longer labourers at the coalface or in the heat of the blast-furnaces, but are often highly specialised technicians operating complicated equipment, or employees in the currently still growing tertiary sector, who no longer come into direct contact with production.  From that, problems of self-awareness arise: the exploitation is not felt personally to the same degree as earlier; it requires insight into the mechanism of capital accumulation and capital movement, in order to experience oneself as exploited.  But the actual two-class structure of bourgeoisie and proletariat persists.

The class interests of both classes in capitalist society are diametrically opposed.  It is the law of capital to have to increase itself, to have to exploit, in order to bring off new investments – no matter what the purpose.  The accumulation of capital is the end in itself of capitalism; the question of profitability dominates the employment of the means of society.  The interests of the representatives of capital are determined by this necessity.  They are the special interests of a small group of people – owners of capital and managers, who keep the utilisation of capital in motion.  They are the ruling class, who must with all means of philosophy bring the ruled to accept this relationship of rule and exploitation.  Their theoretical strategies are justifications of their special interests – and they remain so if the representatives of these theories believe in their general validity.

On the other hand the working class can have only one class interest: to do away with the rule of special interests, so that all people equally and in full sense are free people, who are able to pursue their interests in tune with and in agreement with the interests of all others.  The interest of the working class is the interest of humanity: peace, freedom from misery, education, individual life organisation and satisfaction of needs, participation in political planning and direction of social life – for everyone, and not just for a few owners of capital.  The theoretical strategy of the working class is directed towards the working out and carrying through of this general interest – not from selfless human friendliness, but because it is its own class interest.

Only a scientific philosophy which is not developed from the standpoint of any old special interests can become an undistorted expression of the general interest or of the interests of humanity.  Given the class situation in capitalism, this can only be the philosophy of the working class – scientific socialism.  Naturally, this cannot be as a once and for all ready-made theory, but as the system of perceptions – continually developing, and playing a part in social processes: an “open system” therefore, which takes in and processes the experiences of history.  The historical location in which scientific socialism arises, the working class as bearer of the interests of humanity, entitles us to claim for this theory in this epoch the character of a historically-determined but nevertheless generally valid truth.

Historical Truth and Partisanship

If a theory expresses the historical situation, in which humanity can make a step further on the path to real human nature, i.e. to the abolition of want and oppression, to freedom through rational insight, and if the theory specifies the direction of this step, then it is historically true.  Truth is more than mere correctness of an individual perception, the agreement of a particular realm of knowledge with its subject.  Truth, in the sense of grasping reality in thought, indicates that in this thought people can determine their relationship to the world and to themselves in a rational way.  The history of thought is therefore a history of “progress in the consciousness of freedom” (as Hegel said12) and thereby also a history of struggle for the emancipation of humanity from the pressure of the forces of nature, from oppression by people, from the prejudices of ignorance.  At every new stage of historical development a widening of possibilities (and that means of the scope for freedom) of humanity is obtained.  

Historical truth is thereby not neutral but linked to partisanship for progress (and that means also: to the party of progress).  And progress is not what any old opinion tells us, but rather is determined by the general interest of humanity vis-à-vis the special interests of a class, a group or an individual.  Exactly because truth is objective, that means generally and scientifically determinable, it must be partisan.  And it is no accident that today leading representatives of bourgeois ideology wish to soften the concept of truth and dissolve it into a pluralism of “truths”, whereby history appears directionless and politics appears to be a field of wilful decisions.

Partisanship does not however mean the party uncritically adopting a position which one “professes”.  The party, with which one takes side, must prove its truth by the theoretical determination of progress in the historical situation of its time.  It must be a “philosophical party”, which “grasps its time in thoughts”, and which transposes the thoughts into political activity.  A party which does not orientate itself towards short-term immediate objectives alone, nor adapt itself opportunistically to the vacillating moods of public opinion – rather designs a consistent and comprehensive alternative to the problems, contradictions and crises of existing society – cannot adopt this concept as given, nor decreed by its leadership, rather must gain it by efforts in its own ranks, on the basis of theoretically clear analyses, and must continually review it.  It must itself become the place where theoretical reflection comes out of political activity, and goes over again into political activity.  Otherwise the party will not correspond to the particular historical role of the class which it wants to organise – of the “historical mission of the working class”.

Reform and Revolution

If the political debate concerns exploitation or freedom from exploitation, the rule of the bourgeoisie or its abrogation, the carrying through of capital accumulation or the requirements for emancipation of the people – then it no longer concerns this or that improvement of existing society, rather it concerns the whole of the society.  That distinguishes communists from members of other parties, including social-democrats and other reform socialists.  Reforms for the improvement of people’s situation, which here and now and at every instant are always sensible, because politics is conducted in the interest of people now living, cannot be the aim of a communist party, rather only an aspect of its continuing struggle.  For it is not a question of managing better in this capitalist society; and it would be an illusion to believe that internal capitalist contradictions can be removed by reforms, since they are structural contradictions of the system of the production relations.  It is much more a question – on the route via reforms – of changing the social system.  It follows, from the insight into the two-class opposition of capitalist society, that the overthrow of the ruling class must lead to the abolition of the class character of society, because then there will be only one class left (and therefore no class).  The aim of communist policy is thereby determined.  It is revolutionary, because it seeks to bring about an end to class society.

We have not said anything yet about the type of revolutionary transition to classless society, nor can we say it as long as the capitalist ruling relations remain stable and the concrete forms of their dissolution have not become public.  However it can certainly be said that the transition to socialism requires at least the passive agreement of the majority of the people, because socialism is after all not directed to the establishment of a new class rule, but rather is supposed to realise the development of people into an association of free self-determining citizens.  That naturally requires a lengthy process of social education and is not to be achieved in a single revolutionary act.  However, at the outset the masses must stand prepared to enter upon this road of development.

It would be an error to think that the replacement of one social formation by a new one could be effected by a controlling minority.  Naturally, a minority can place itself at the head of a hitherto unorganised process and take over the leading role (as the Bolsheviks did in the October Revolution).  However, the preparedness to enter the process and to share the burden must be present in the broad masses, even if they may have no common clear conception of aim.  Revolution is only possible as a democratic event – otherwise it would be a mere putsch.  

In earlier class societies revolutions were prepared over long periods of time, in which the new class, which was later to realise the changed state form of production relations, gradually developed, gained power and increasingly determined the social structures and conditions of life.  The socialist revolution will take a different course, because it is not a new class which will take the place of the old ruling class; rather it is the enforced transition to the abolition of class-determined forms of social organisation.  This transition – which is designated by the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, no longer strengthens a new class rule, rather it dismantles it.  However, for that it is also necessary to have the agreement of the masses, otherwise the transition cannot be successful.

The Development of Class Consciousness

Self-evidently, it is not to be expected that consciousness of both the need for change in society, and of the basic alternatives, will develop spontaneously among the masses under the living conditions and ruling strategies of capitalism.  With the means of ideological direction (media!) at its disposal, the ruling class can for a long time divert dissatisfaction, people’s wish to do away with grievances, and anxiety over the great crises threatening humanity (war, environmental catastrophes, genetic modification, mass poverty).  Today the perception of social contradictions, and of the political consequences arising from them, demand theoretical penetration of reality at a high level of abstraction.  It is a protracted task to develop the masses to this level.  It falls to those who – on the basis of their connection with the traditions of the fighting labour movement, or from their own particular experiences of class struggle and of the perceptions gained in that – have become politically active bearers of the struggle for change of society. 

This political insight, which it is worth developing in the masses, is naturally not achieved by mere instruction.  It must grow from one’s own experiences in and with capitalist society, from the bewilderment with injustices, grievances, and defencelessness.  Such experiences are much more easily transferred from the individual reaction of displeasure into an understanding of social processes, the more they are connected with, compared with and related to the experiences of others.  

Development of social consciousness occurs in social organisations.  Thereby an important role is played by the trade unions, which represent the interests of the wage- and salary-earners in the labour process.  Trade union struggles are the first stage in developing political consciousness – but also only the first stage.  The trade unions have the task of representing the interests of the workers at the workplace, against the employers, of defending their demands for social improvement.  They operate, if critically, on the terrain of capitalist society.  The development of total alternative conceptions for society is not their major task.  Socialist concepts certainly arise and continue within trade unions, but they are not the content of trade union struggles nor of trade union conceptions of organisation.

After all, the changing of the social system is a political task, necessitating a political party.  And this party runs ahead of mass consciousness, and contributes to the stepwise development of consciousness via the organised processing of experiences, helping to consolidate and convert it into political activity.  Such a party, forming the avant-garde of the class, becomes the bearer of historical progress.

The Rôle of the Avant-Garde

To belong to the avant-garde is not a chance privilege and seldom brings laurel wreaths.  After all, whoever runs ahead of the general level of development, and thereby also pushes it forward, must put up with being in the minority for a long time, perhaps indeed in a disappearingly small minority.  They must be prepared to make sacrifices, to be exposed to discrimination and persecution; they must know that it is a long road to success and that setbacks and defeats are part of this struggle.  

It is not easy to see this aim, for which one stands and makes sacrifices, so far in the distance that it will possibly or probably no longer be achieved in one’s own lifetime.  Strength of character and the certainty of answering for the fate of humanity are necessary.  The backbone and self-confidence of the avant-garde is the recognition that it grasps the law of historical progress and that – in our current world situation – there is only one alternative: a rational social order, without the domination of the interests of capital; or the ruin of humanity.  As Ernst Bloch13 said: we stand as never hitherto in history before the decision – all or nothing.

To recognise this is to recognise the class situation.  The development of class consciousness is the task of a communist party.  It is the organisation which understands and leads the political struggle as class struggle.  In such class struggle, there is a growth of both class consciousness and the insight that individual interests must not be advanced ahead of the common class interest, that solidarity is the prerequisite for the success of the powerless and oppressed.  Class consciousness includes theoretical insights, and I mean thereby not teaching notes and doctrines, but the acquiring of an understanding of history and society, which makes the political baselines and fronts recognisable.  The communist party must develop in itself the forms of a party life which yield this unity of perception, attitude and activity.  Communists can only be the fighting avant-garde of society, if they are also its theoretical avant-garde.

Communist Practice

Certainly, such a balance is not produced automatically.  The party leadership must stimulate theoretical training and provide material for it, must promote discussion processes, must give scope to the influence of the base on the strategy and tactics of the party.  A central political line and its transposition at the base must not stifle local initiatives.  The presence of the party begins in the locality and the work-place, and class consciousness is only developed if the local and work-place experiences and interests, as the primary basis of people’s experience, can be widened into a general understanding of society and a historical perspective.  No political operation can uncouple and remove itself from this foundation.  Communists must test themselves in the dialectical mediation of the particular with the general.  It is not the better knowledge, on the basis of the better theory and philosophy, which makes up the character of the avant-garde, rather the better and further-looking struggles at the front of daily routine; however, communists see further because they have the general connection in view.

However, the securing in party statutes of a democracy built up from the base is not so valuable as the members who engage themselves in party work and theoretical education, and thereby increasingly participate in policy- and decision-making processes in the party.  The tendency, to leave decision-making to the party leadership, out of a sense of trust, instead of preparing it oneself in co-operation, is humanly understandable.  To give way to it however leads to rigidity in party life and the building up of a one-sided commando structure, even if the party leadership wishes to avoid the temptation of the simpler form of leading.  The dialectics of movement from below to above and from above to below only appear if people keep the movement going in both directions.  Here communists’ responsibility for their party begins, and they must do justice to it, even if it is sometimes inconvenient.  Only with this prerequisite is the necessary party discipline a strength and not a rigidity.


I summarise the arguments above in the following five theses:

·    The communist party is the organisation whose end-objectives concern the changing of the whole of society, the production of a new social formation.

·    The communist party is the fighting organisation of the working class, which embodies the interests of humanity, and it is the place where, in struggle around these interests of humanity, class consciousness develops.

·    Class consciousness is the political form of the philosophy, which relies on the theory of scientific socialism; this theory in its continuing development is an indispensable constituent of the self-awareness of communists.

·    As the organisation, in which class consciousness is developed on the basis of the advanced theory of society and of society’s relationship to Nature, the communist party is the avant-garde of the working class (and of historical progress), which functions in an exemplary way through its consequent attitude.

·    Only if it does justice to these rules does a communist party fulfil its historical mission.

What is formulated here constitutes the demands to self-awareness of communists.  If a party wants to be a communist party, and not just a left party, then it must put these demands to itself.  They must hence stamp the “basic law” of the party, its statutes.

From this I draw a range of consequences:

1. Link between organisation and theoretical basis

The party cannot determine its organisational form without specifying the theoretical basis by which it stands as an organisation and as a politically active subject.  It is the party of scientific socialism.  That does not mean that this theory is merely accepted and employed (that would be dogmatic and bureaucratic); rather, in its political experiences and in the taking up scientific perceptions, the party contributes to the development of the theory and at the same time allows it to enter its practice.  In this sense it is responsible for the truth of the theory (against opportunism, against dogmatic rigidities, against mere indoctrination of the members).  

The party must create organisational forms in which members can educate themselves, in a self-reliant manner, with the theoretical prerequisites and fundamentals of scientific socialism and come to a common basic philosophical attitude.  (One recalls the significance/importance of the workers’ educational clubs14 for the political labour movement.  It was once a strength of the old German social democracy, that it could support itself on an educationally conscious working class).  Theoretical discussion, hypothetical scenarios15 and the conflict of opinions are embodied in the party as statutorily secured aspects16 of the party life.  The prerequisite of a comprehensive and fruitful discussion, which from time to time theoretically reflects the actual situation, is good training in the basic principles and methods of historical and dialectical materialism.  The party is not the place for a pluralism of philosophies, rather a pluralism of (also controversial) scientific and practical-political further developments of the theory on the basis of the common philosophy.

2. Party discipline

A party is not a discussion club, but rather an organisation capable of political activity.  It must come to timely decisions.  As an organisation of class struggle and in the exceptionally difficult situation of a minority acting as the avant-garde, it cannot be active in a splintered form, with multifarious particular group opinions.  Theoretical work therefore also has the role of unifying the formation of will – i.e. when decisions are made and resolutions passed, autonomy of individuals or groups is no longer permitted.  

If, as I have attempted to show, historical truth is only realised via the organisational form of the party, then party discipline is a factor of the truth, and thus not a sociological category, but one of theoretical perception.  That is also valid, if perhaps individuals’ perceptions are already more advanced than the overall level of consciousness of the party.  In the estimation of reality, the party can be no further forward than the level of consciousness of the mass of its members – which is why theoretical work at all levels is so important for the realisation of the party’s avant-garde role.  

The party can however always be brought forward by the jost advanced perceptions of its members (individuals included), if these perceptions enter into internal party theoretical discussion.  For that reason the institutionalisation of philosophical-theoretical training and discussion is indispensable for the organisational life of the party.  It follows, however, that comrades do not organise themselves against each other in fractions and platforms, but rather struggle together for the correct perceptions.  This also applies to the language used in the struggle of opinions.  If truth is to be found, then the right to err is indispensable.  No-one should be defamed, even if – according to the opinion of others or of the majority – they are in error.  However, the right to err is not the right to fractionalising and dissidence.

3. Maintenance of identity

The party can only fulfil its function as avant-garde, if it does not abandon the unity of its political concepts.  Only then is it strong in its convictions and capable of convincing others.  For the scope of activity as a minority, that means that it maintains its independence in all alliances, movements, co-operation groups etc, and brings to bear its own distinctive view – that of historical-dialectical materialist theory.  Alliances are only real alliances if they respect this difference of the partners and therefore also allow it to have effect.  The assimilation of class consciousness by the masses is only possible if the historical-materialist analysis and evaluation of situations and experiences can be articulated.

4.  Democratic centralism

It actually goes without saying that a political party cannot be decentralised.  A party is not a coordination committee of interest groups running alongside one other, nor of regional and local special units.  For a communist party this is much more the case, because its unity originates in the mutuality of political-theoretical positions.  Centralism of the political leadership is the organisational expression for this ideal unity.  The centralism of the leadership is however only legitimised, if the binding decisions, which the leadership makes for the whole party (and which only it can make), are supported by a widely applied continuing process of opinion development, of exchange of experience and of discussion at the base of the party.  The strength of the leadership must correspond to the strength of the base.  

Communists are already marked out by great preparedness for engagement.  However, it is not a question of members’ becoming engaged or allowing themselves to be engaged in the party, rather that they continually participate in the development of the party line – not only in the preparation for party congresses, but more so in the daily life of the party – so that personal engagement and central direction become one and the same in their consciousness.  The party must be centralised, if it wants to be politically capable of activity; it can only be democratic if the activation of the base is the living element of the organisation and if, between the engagement of the base and the activity of the whole party, a continuing mediation takes place – a mediation through the organisational structure, but also through direct communication.


I now come to the conclusion:

·    The communist party is the party of developed and developing class consciousness on the foundation of scientific socialism.  

·    It organises its philosophical-theoretical and practical-political unity via the combination of a strong leadership, capable of activity, and an active base, developing its political will.  

·    It knows itself to be responsible for historical truth and for progress and thereby is not prepared to aspire to flimsy short-term successes through opportunistic deviation from the principles recognised as correct.  

·    Only in the unwavering consistency of its activity lies the chance of overcoming the cynical social order of capitalism.

 Translator’s Footnotes

1. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 477.

2. DKP = German Communist Party (Deutsche Kommunistische Partei).

3. SPD = Social-Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands)

4. VVN = Union of Victims of the Nazi Regime (Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes). From 1948 the organisation was ostracised by the main West German political parties, including the SPD, as part of the cold war attack on the left and the rehabilitation of supporters of the Nazi regime. 

5. SDS = Socialist German Student Union (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund), founded in 1946 as the student organisation of the SPD, but excluded from the party in 1961 over political differences, particularly on German rearmament. It became a mass focus of opposition to the Vietnam War, but disbanded in 1970.

6. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 2, p. 378; Vol. 4, p. 295.

7. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 2, p. 380; Vol. 4, p. 656.

8. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1, p. 224.

9. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1, p. 332

10. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, para 31 (http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ph/phprefac.htm)

11. Constituent state of the Federal Republic of Germany.

12. G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, para 21 (http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hi/history3.htm)

13. Ernst Bloch (1885-1977): German philosopher, influenced by both Hegel and Marx. His work was very influential in the student protest movements in 1968 and in liberation theology. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernst_Bloch

14. Abeiter(bildungs)vereine = from the 1840s onwards, a form of independent working class organisation in Germany. Predominantly based on skilled craftsmen, and initially non-political, they later came under socialist influence, and were one of the roots of the first social-democratic party in Germany, the SDAP. Compare, in 20th century Britain, the National Council of Labour Colleges

15. Literally Gedankenexperiment =thought experiment, a term first used by H. C. rsted ca. 1812. It implies the use of imaginary situations to pose What if  ? questions.

16. Not quite so specifically. The DKP statutes are to be found at http://www.dkp-online.de/Statut


Notes for Class Tutors

In this first chapter, Comrade Holz sets the scene for the whole of his book.  To assist reading and discussion, the translator has broken the chapter into sections, adding headings for each, and has added footnotes.

The introductory section, labelled What Does it Mean to Be a Communist Today?, draws the basic distinction between communists and members of other parties.  The Basic Principles section introduces the key philosophical insight of communists, a topic later taken up in detail in Chapter 2: The Philosophical Basis of the DKP.  The sections Personal Experiences and Interests and The Development of Class Consciousness are further developed in Chapter 4: Class Struggle .  The sections Historical Truth and Partisanship, The Role of the Avant-Garde and Communist Practice form an introduction to Chapter 3: The Character of a Leninist Party.

This chapter is so rich in ideas that it could easily form the basis of more than one educational session.  The various questions posed in the text, plus others which come readily to mind, lend themselves to participatory discussion, eg:

What does it mean to be a communist today?

What organisational form is necessary for communist activity?

In what way does a communist party distinguish itself from other parties in capitalist society?  What makes communists of the members of a communist party?

What is the distinction between party statutes and a party programme?

Can communists be communists in different ways?

What principles are basic to communists?

What lies behind Hegel’s statement that what is “familiarly known” is not yet properly known?

What do we mean by ‘theory as the basis for political activity’?

What entitles us to claim that dialectical and historical materialism is the theory which provides the basis for understanding society?

Is historical truth neutral?

How will the socialist revolution differ from revolutions in earlier class societies?

Why will the overthrow of the ruling class lead to the abolition of the class character of society?

Why can the development of class and political consciousness not be left to trade unions?

What does it mean to be part of the avant-garde of the working class?

What are the consequences for how the communist party should function?