Willy Huhn (1961): On the doctrine of the revolutionary party (2)

Willy Huhn poses the question how far Lenin has “directly taken up the doctrine of Marx and Engels in the question of the Party”, as his adversary Dracker puts it. Contrary to the latter’s a-historical approach, Huhn endeavors to explain how the organizational question arose in the practice of the 1848 bourgeois revolutions. In doing so, he shows that Lenin, in the (supposedly) bourgeois revolution in Russia from the outset of the 20th Century, represented a concept of organization that was substantially different from that of Marx and Engels.

Today more than 150 years have passed since the 1848 bourgeois revolutions; more than 100 years since the proletarian world revolution announced itself in the Red October of 1917, and almost 60 years since Huhn opposed Leninism in this text. The communist minorities again face the question of how to organize themselves to fulfill their function in the workers’ struggle. Huhn’s text advances  essential elements for a valid reply, even if it is still deeply influenced by the last years of the counterrevolution at the time.

In this second part of our translation Huhn continues his demonstration on the role of communist minorities at the hand of two speeches addressed to the Communists’ League by its central authority in the Spring of 1850 in view of reorganizing the League after the defeat of the 1848 democratic uprisings throughout Europe, with the expectation of a new upsurge soon to come.


[The Party, not as an organization of minorities, but as a class for itself]

Also, in the later address by the central authority of the “League”, of June 1850, it is stated again that the purpose of the “League” would be “the revolutionary organization of the workers’ party”, with which the League, occasionally also called “communist party”, by no means identifies itself (p. 140). (1) And again it seems as if the long existing “workers’ party” only needs independent “revolutionary organization”. One sentence is still of particular interest here:

“The workers’ party may very well use other parties and party fractions for its purposes, but it may not subordinate itself to any other party.” (Ibidem)

According to our current use of language it is unthinkable that a “workers’ party” could use other parties for its purposes or subordinate itself to another party. And which “other party” could this be in June 1850? This becomes clear in a review of the speech of March 1850, which deals with the “relationship of the revolutionary workers’ party” with the “petty-bourgeois-democratic party in Germany”. With the “Workers’ Party”, we must think back at this party whose independence had [yet] to be established and who had to be “organized as much as possible”. In petty-bourgeois democracy, however, the March 1850 speech distinguishes three “elements” or fractions: 1. the most advanced parts of the grand bourgeoisie; which pursue the immediate and complete overthrow of feudalism and absolutism as their goal; 2. the petty bourgeoisie which strives for a constitutional-democratic federal state; 3. the petty bourgeoisie whose ideal is a federal policy modeled on Switzerland and which now calls itself “red and social-democratic”. The petty-bourgeois-democratic “party” in Germany, it continues, is very powerful: it encompasses not only the great majority of the bourgeois inhabitants, the cities, the small industrial merchants and the works’ masters, (2) but the peasants and the rural proletariat as well (pp. 126-127). (3) Now it should be quite clear that for Marx/Engels “party fractions” can mean different class strata, while “party” means a whole class with its different social groups and followers. They also use the term “workers’ party” accordingly, with regards to the part of the proletarian class [that is] not organized in the party, and to the meaning of single, outstanding personalities. The “early” Plekhanov, especially his writing on the role of personality in history, can today still be considered fundamental for Marxism-Leninism. (4)

The popular masses of and with the proletariat in opposition are in favor of the revolutionary party. With this assessment the aforementioned contradictions can be resolved: such a “workers’ party” actually still needs a revolutionary organization!

One passage from the speech by the central authority of the “Communists’ League” in June 1850 seems particularly remarkable to me. After the defeat of 1849 “the need for a strong secret organization of the revolutionary party over all of Germany” and in Switzerland “emerged everywhere” and prompted the sending of an emissary of the central authority to Germany and Switzerland. However, it is said that the “connection” which was established in Switzerland at the beginning of 1850 “did not have a determinate party character” and that it lacked “a specific party point of view”. The members consisted of piebald elements”, former members of the Palatinate government, the most timid petty-bourgeois democrats, determined communists, and even former members of the League, thus “people of all fractions of the movements”. (Here the equation of party fractions with those of the movements and thus the identity of party and movement is again quite clear). According to a complete member list, this society in Switzerland had barely 30 members in its heyday. And then it literally says: “It is significant that the workers are almost not represented at all in this number. It has always been an army of mere petty officers and officers without soldiers” (loc. cit., p. 138). (5) Half a century later Lenin would organize a vanguard of the proletariat” even as a “general staff”.

But if the “Communists’ League”, to which all the “communist parties” refer as their predecessor, did not yet represent even the “independent organization of the workers’ party” (workers’ movement) that it demanded and promoted, then what was it? First of all, it was not the organization of a part (vanguard) of the proletariat, but “an organization within the German working class”, which was already “necessary for propaganda”. And although it could only be a secret [organization], Marx/Engels were convinced of the need to “liberate the League from the old conspiratorial traditions and forms”. The following characterization is probably the decisive statement:

“The organization itself was quite democratic, with elected and always revocable authorities and through this alone all conspiracy desires, which require dictatorship, were put a stop to and the League – for ordinary peace times at least – was transformed into a pure propaganda society.” (“Revelations”, loc. cit., pp. 20-21) (6)

These sentences are those from the History of the Communists’ League by Friedrich Engels dated October 8, 1885. The “Communists’ League” was thus a pure propaganda society as long as no new revolution broke out and put an end to the peace times. And if the revolution broke out again, what was then the task of the “Communists’ League”? In the revolution of 1848/49, “the proletarian party on the continent” exceptionally had “the legal means of party organization” at its disposal, namely: press, freedom of speech and right of association. Before as well as after the revolution one depended again on the path of “secret connection or secret society”. In Germany, the purpose of the secret societies was “the formation of the party of the proletariat“ and not to overthrow the existing government:

“This was necessary in countries such as Germany, where the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were jointly defeated by their semi-feudal governments, where thus a victorious attack on the existing governments, first had to help the bourgeoisie, or at least the so-called middle classes (7), come to rule, instead of breaking their power. There was no doubt that here too the members of the proletarian party would participate anew in a revolution against the status quo, but it did not belong to their task to prepare this revolution, to agitate, to conspire or to plot for it. They could leave this preparation to the general conditions and the classes directly involved. They had to leave it to them, if they did not want to renounce their own party position and the historical tasks which arose by themselves from the general conditions of existence of the proletariat”. (“Revelations,” pp. 94-95) (8)

So after 1850 Germany was in the same political situation as the Tsarist Empire half a century later, but Lenin took this attitude of Marx/Engels as little as an example for himself as their conception of the organization of the “workers’ party” and of the role of a secret or public society of Marxists.

Albeit the German proletariat was excluded from writing, speech, and association, the “Communists’ League” did not constitute itself as a conspiratorial association, but as “a society that secretly brought about the organization of the proletarian party”, meaning that “formation of the proletariat into a class” demanded in the Manifesto, thus a “secret society that aims at the formation not of the government but of the opposition party of the future”. (9)

Here too, may I just be allowed the anticipatory hint that Lenin with his party was striving for exactly the opposite, namely the formation of a ruling party. One can argue that his attitude was historically correct after 1900, but one cannot claim that Lenin’s party was a renaissance of the “Communists’ League” of 1849/50. [Huhn refers to A. Rosenberg, see below] The reorganization of the Communists’ League after the downfall of the 1848 Revolution presupposed that “the German workers’ movement only persists in the form of theoretical propaganda, moreover banished to narrow circles”. (Karl Marx in his epilogue to the Leipzig edition of January 3, 1875; loc. cit., p. 122) (10)

Nevertheless, even in the Revolution – at least in Berlin according to a report by Stephan Born of May 11, 1848 – the “League” was dissolved, dispersed, and not yet firmly organized again. Engels himself reported on January 14, 1848 from Paris, which was on the verge of revolution: “It’s miserable here with the League. Such sleepiness and petty jealousy of the guys among each other has never occurred to me … I will now make one last attempt, if that does not succeed, I will withdraw from this kind of propaganda.” (Marx/Engels, “Briefwechsel”, vol. I, pp. 108-09) (11)

Wilhelm Wolff, who traveled from Mainz via Cologne to Breslau after the outbreak of the March Revolution, found hardly any traces of the League. In Berlin, “about twenty more people” held together, but without any organizational form. Also in Breslau there was “nothing of organization”. Ernst Dronke reported from Koblenz on May 5, 1848, that the people were currently very occupied by the elections; he had constituted a community (12) and had accepted four members so far. In Frankfurt, where one is almost “stoned to death if one confesses to being a communist”, he has won two people and will constitute a community. In Mainz he had “found” the League in the “beginning of complete anarchy”, one [member] was playing domino in the pub while a meeting was scheduled. Thus, according to Engels, the “Communists’ League” proved itself in the revolution of 1848 as “far too weak a lever faced with the movement of the popular masses that had now broken out”. The “League”, which in peaceful pre-revolutionary times was supposed to be a pure propaganda society, thus ceased – again according to Engels – to “mean something as such” just at the moment when it no longer needed to act in secret. Although some of its members were everywhere at the head of the extreme-democratic revolution, as an organization it played not only a modest, but almost no role at all in the popular movement itself.

So what value did the pure propaganda society of the “Communists’ League” have in the revolution and for the revolution itself? Engels’ answer is that it had been “an excellent school of revolutionary activity”. (“Introduction” of 1885, p. 24). (13) One may well understand this to mean that the “League” provided trained leaders to the revolutionary movement. And Franz Mehring takes up the word of Stephan Born that the “League” had been “everywhere and nowhere” in Berlin despite its dissolved, scattered and disorganized state:

“Everywhere and nowhere – with these words Born aptly marked the work of the Communists’ League in the March Revolution. Its organization was nowhere, but its propaganda was everywhere, where the real preconditions of the proletarian emancipation struggle were already given. This was, admittedly, only the case in a relatively small part of Germany during the revolutionary years, and this was where the workers’ movement at the time found its temporarily unbreakable barriers. But what it could accomplish within these barriers, it did to an outstanding degree, thanks first and foremost to the Communists’ League.” (Franz Mehring, “Introduction” to the fourth edition, Berlin 1914; loc. cit., p. 162) (14)

Mehring apparently also considered the after-effect of propaganda more important than the existence of an organization, although he also emphasizes that the Communists’ League “by stripping away all conspiracy, with its inevitably always hierarchical tendencies, was made into a democratic propaganda society.” (ibid., p. 153)

It is well known that the principle of hierarchical organization comes from the Catholic Church, and in the form of the Jesuit Order it has entered into a particularly close connection with the military organizational principles of the former officer Ignatius of Loyola. But the Jesuit order was a counterrevolutionary organization, namely the fighting formation of the Catholic clergy against the Reformation. As a revolutionary organization that wanted to serve the workers’ movement, the “Communists’ League” could not well organize itself as a secularized Jesuit order: “It has never been the closed war formation of the proletariat that the bad conscience of the ruling classes saw in it, but its encouraging, clarifying and advertising effect has reached deep and far enough.” (Mehring, loc. cit., p. 162)

But after 1900 Lenin will try to “model” the struggle of the workers’ movement according to military aspects and to organize such a “war formation” as the “vanguard” of the proletariat by “cadres”. (The use of these expressions from military jargon is revealing: in the first case it is about the “advanced troop” or “advanced guard”, in the other about the “trunk of a regiment of officers and petty officers”; see also “trunk-battery” for the older word “cadre-battery”.) [Note by Huhn on ‘Lenin and military organization’, see below]

According to the opinion of Marx/Engels of 1852/53 quoted here, the “Communists’ League” before the revolution, in “ordinary peace times”, should thus “be a pure propaganda society”. But when the peaceful period was over and the revolution, the “war formation”, broke out, it did not turn into a “closed war formation” at all. The “movement of the popular masses” was strong and powerful, but the “League” was only “too weak a lever” to mean anything in the revolution. (We only anticipate that the legitimate and conscious legacy of the “Communists’ League”, namely the “Spartakusbund” of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, played exactly the same “weak” and “insignificant” role in the revolution of 1918/19). Its significance lay exclusively in having been “an excellent school of revolutionary activity”, having placed political leaders at the service of the revolution and the risen popular masses, and having carried out a far-reaching and reverberated propaganda, despite its small membership. So what was the “Communists’ League” after all? A seminar for revolutionary leaders of the workers’ movement and a society for the propaganda of the theories of Marx/Engels. [Note by Huhn on ‘seminar’, see below]

Especially in the Revolution and for the Revolution – for the “unusual times of war” – the “Communists’ League”, the “Marx Party”, as it was wrongly called in the Cologne ‘Communist trial’, was unsuitable. It was not made for that. Marx himself admitted this in 1860 with the sentence: “During the times of revolutionary in Germany its activity expired by itself, in that now more effective ways for the assertion of its purposes were open.” (“Herr Vogt”, loc. cit., p. 59). (15) A broken out revolution creates possibilities for sowing the seeds of a revolutionary theory like that of Marx/Engels which are quite different from those available to a “party” – publicly or secretly – in ordinary times of peace.

End of Part 2 (to be continued)


Translation text and annotations by Jac. J., August 18, 2019.

Source references and proofreading by F.C., August 16, 2019


Comments by Willy Huhn

Reference to A. Rosenberg:“The revolutionary Marxism of 1848 found its continuation in Tsarist Russia. Lenin took the path of “a revitalization of the original Marxism of 1848.” In this way he “created Bolshevism with its sharp opposition to Western European Social-Democracy and its not at all unjustified claim to bring the real revolutionary original Marxism back to life.” (Arthur Rosenberg, „Geschichte des Bolschewismus“, Rowohlt. Berlin 1932, p. 26 and p.31).

[English reference: Arthur Rosenberg, A History of Bolshevism: From Marx to the First Five-Year Plan, 1934.]

Lenin and the military organization: For Lenin “the revolution [is] a war” (“Wperjod” 31/18 January 1905, „Sämtliche Werke“, Bd. VII, S. 122). “Let us take the modern army. It is one of the good example of the organization. And this organization is good only because it is flexible and at the same time able to give millions of people a unified will. Today these millions are living in their homes in various parts of the country. Tomorrow the mobilization order arrives – and they have already gathered at the designated places. Today they lie in the trenches, and this may go on for months. Tomorrow they are led to the attack in a different formation. Today they perform a miracle, sheltering from bullets and shrapnel. Tomorrow they perform miracles in open combat. Today their advance detachments put mines under the ground, tomorrow they advance scores of miles on the ground, guided by airmen flying overhead. Yes, it is called organization when, in the pursuit of a certain aim, animated by a certain will, millions of people alter the forms of their relations and their activity, in accordance with the changing conditions and requirements of the struggle. The same holds true for the working-class struggle against the bourgeoisie.” (In “Kommunist” No. 1-2, Summer 1915, p. 59). As can be seen, for Lenin, the “goodness”, respectively the value, of an organization consists of the possibility to dispose of human masses.

[German reference, somewhat different: Lenin, Der Zusammenbruch der II.Internationale, VIII (LW, Bd. 21, S. 249)]

Seminar: In the word “seminar” – in fact semen school, later plant school – the spreading or “propaganda” over the country is implied. Christianity originated in the cities of the Roman Empire, and its “propaganda fide” had to be spread over the “pagan land”; the pagan thus was also the “peasant” (paganus) in the heather (French: paysan). In so far as a seminar in the strict sense is a “preparatory school and an a place for exercise of future teachers and clerks”, the latter indeed go to the countryside and to the people in order to spread the acquired teachings.

Editorial Notes

1 Marx-Engels, Ansprache der Zentralbehörde an den Bund vom Juni 1850” (MEW Bd. 7, p 306 – 312). The two quotation in this paragraph are from p. 308 and 309.

2 Original: “Gewerksmeister

3 Marx-Engels, Ansprache der Zentralbehörde an den Bund vom März 1850” (MEW Bd. 7, p 246).

4 In earlier texts Huhn referred specifically to G.V. Plekhanov’s On the Role of the Individual in History (1898) with regards to Lenin’s conception of the role of “revolutionary minorities” (or: “revolutionary intelligentsia”) in history, for instance in: Willy Huhn (1948): ‘Lenin as a Utopian’.

5 Marx-Engels, Ansprache der Zentralbehörde an den Bund vom Juni 1850” (MEW Bd. 7, p 307).

6 Engels, “Zur Geschichte des Bundes der Kommunisten” (MEW, Bd. 21, S. 215).

7Mittelstände”, lit.: ‘middle estates’.

8 Karl Marx, “Enthüllungen über den Kommunistenprozeß zu Köln” (MEW, Bd. 8, S. 458).

9 Ibidem, (MEW, Bd. 8, S. 461).

10 Karl Marx, “Nachwort zu Enthüllungen über den Kommunistenprozeß zu Köln” (MEW, Bd. 8, S. 575).

11 Letter by Engels to Marx, January 14, 1848 (MEW, Bd. 27, S. 111)


13 Engels, “Zur Geschichte des Bundes der Kommunisten” (MEW, Bd. 21, S. 218)

15 Marx, “Herr Vogt” (MEW Bd. 14, S. 440)


1. Bibliographic reference

First published in WISO, Korre­spondenz für Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaften, Issue 15, September 1961, Volume 6, in response to a contribution of the same name by Heinz-Otto Dracker in Issue 13, July 1961, Volume 6. Both articles were subsequently republished by the Karin Kramer Verlag, as part of the text collection “Anton Pannekoek u.a.: Partei und Revolution”, Berlin 1970. The page references regarding Dracker refer to this edition, except for the opening clause.

The text is taken from the CD accompanying Jochen Gester’s “Auf der Suche nach Rosas Erbe. Der Deutsche Marxist Willy Huhn (1909-1970)”, Berlin, Die Buchmacherei, 2017. A presentation and a short review of this biography are available at this blog: Willy Huhn, an unknown coun­cil communist (F.C., December 27, 2017)

2. Source References

The quotations from Marx/Engels have been translated from the Marx-Engels Werke (MEW). They are referenced in German in the footnotes and can be looked up in the searchable MEW facsimiles at the Antonie Pannekoek Archives web site.

A German language transcription is available in pdf at Left-dis; Online language versions can be found in the ‘Willy Huhn’ section of the Antonie Pannekoek Archives.

3. The Marx-Engels editions used by Willy Huhn

  • Karl Marx, “Das Elend der Philosophie”, 9th Edition, Stuttgart/Berlin 1921.
  • Marx-Engels, “Die Deutsche Ideologie”, Part I. in: “Der Historische Materialismus. Die Frühschriften”. Published by S. Landshut and J.P. Mayer. Leipzig, 1932, Volume II, p. 25. New edition, East Berlin, 1953.
  • Marx-Engels, “Das kommunistische Manifest”, 6th authorized German edition, Berlin 1894.
  • Karl Marx, “Enthüllungen über den Kommunistenprozess zu Köln”, 1852; Zürich edition of 1885, with an introduction by Friedrich Engels (“Geschichte des Bundes der Kommunisten“, October 8, 1885) and documents. Reprint, East-Berlin, 1952.
  • Karl Marx, “Herr Vogt”, first new edition after the original (London 1860), Moscow, 1941.
  • Franz Mehring, „Freiligrath und Marx in ihrem Briefwechsel“, Ergänzungshefte zur „Neuen Zeit“, Nr. 12 (April 12, 1912).
  • Franz Mehring, „Einleitung“ zur vierten Auflage [of the “Enthüllungen”], Berlin, 1914.
  • Marx-Engels, „Briefwechsel“, Band I, 1844 bis 1853, East-Berlin, 1949.