The revolutionary party – the way forward for the left?
The role of a revolutionary party is one of the most misunderstood components of Marxist politics.
Little wonder, as so many forces have spent decades denigrating it. These include conservatives and social democrats whose opposition is tied up with their hatred of any fundamental social change.
But just as often the critics regard themselves as radicals. They argue that a revolutionary party is “elitist”. They have in mind a Stalinised version of the party – one that seeks to stand “above” the working class, dictating to the class what it should and should not think. Others on the left suggest that we don’t need to build revolutionary parties but rather “broad” parties that bring together everyone to the left of Rudd.
Both arguments are muddle-headed. The purpose of the revolutionary party is to lead the working class in the struggle for its own liberation. There is nothing elitist about this and nor can it be achieved by broad catch-all parties. Let me explain.
Organising the vanguard
Marxists do not invent leaders in the workers’ movement. Leaders exist every day and everywhere, even in the most unorganised workplace. They are those workers who make arguments that express, however diffusely, some opposition to the status quo, whether that be a bullying supervisor or a right-wing “common sense” idea.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are other leaders, those who enthusiastically spout all the worst rubbish of the media and bosses. We’ve probably all worked with someone who is violently racist.
And in between these two ends, there is the full spectrum of opinions from left to right.
The argument for the revolutionary party starts from a recognition of this basic unevenness of consciousness within the working class. Socialists don’t celebrate it – we want to raise the consciousness of the most backward worker to the level of the most advanced – but socialists recognise that the first step in achieving this is to gather together into the one organisation all those who want to stand up against injustice and who want to play a role in changing the world. In other words, we need an organisation of leaders.
This is what socialists mean by a vanguard party. It exists in order to lead the workers to conquer state power. It therefore needs to be a mass party of the most politically conscious elements of the working class, with roots in the unions, in workplaces, in schools and universities, and among the unemployed, pensioners and home carers.
For a whole series of reasons, the working class is less class conscious than the capitalist class. No boss accepts the ideas of the working class, but many workers accept capitalist ideas. And these capitalist ideas are in turn promoted by the historic leadership of the working class, reformist organisations like the ALP.
If the working class is to win the struggle to smash the capitalist state it has to break the grip of the reformist parties. It can only do so under the leadership of a revolutionary party that is intransigently hostile to capitalism.
Lenin described the revolutionary party as the collective memory of the working class – that is, it is a repository, in human and literary form, of the collective experiences of socialists and working class militants over the decades. Its members need to be trained in these traditions and the lessons learned from victories and defeats if they are to withstand the force of capitalist ideology and repression. So education is a priority for a revolutionary organisation in order to make every member a leader – capable of intervening on a wide variety of terrains to fight for a socialist solution to the problems facing the working class.
Politics requires a certain symmetry. Our enemy, the capitalist class, possesses a highly centralised organisation in the form of the nation state. In order to fight this power, the working class also needs its centralised institutions – it’s no good using a pea-shooter against a tank. The union movement needs to fight a nationally coordinated battle to defeat Rudd’s WorkChoices Lite. It can’t be left to one or two trade unions acting on their own. By the same token, the act of revolution needs to be coordinated and directed centrally. An insurrection which is left to each city or local district will be wasted in a thousand small sorties which will be dashed against the wall of capitalist state power.
Winning political leadership
The purpose of gathering together the advanced layers of the working class is not to separate them off from the rest of the working class, but to put them in a better position to convince others. A party that is confused about its purpose or which seeks to represent the entire working class, in all its varied political tendencies, cannot actually lead. Clarity of purpose is required. As Lenin put it:
“The stronger our party organisations, consisting of real social-democrats [revolutionaries], the less wavering and instability there is within the party, the broader, more varied, richer and more fruitful will be the party’s influence on the elements of the working-class masses surrounding it and guided by it.”
The party seeks to lead the rest of the class in combat with the capitalist class. This means that it needs to put up tactics and strategies that point the way forward for the working class whether the issue in question be resisting a war, combating sexism or fighting for a wage rise. Very often it will be in a minority. Its task then is not to walk away from the workers in disgust but, as Lenin put it, to “patiently explain”. Over time workers will learn to trust the judgement of the party and will listen more attentively to it in future struggles.
Revolutionaries and reformists
Revolutionaries and reformists are not “on the same side” against the capitalist class. Reformist parties are on the side of the capitalists and will do the capitalists’ bidding. Revolutionaries are on the side of overthrowing capitalism.
The sell-outs, or “opportunism”, of the reformist parties are not the result of this or that wrong policy by an otherwise well-intentioned organisation, but the natural product of an organisation that tries to work within capitalism.
This means that the revolutionary party needs to be politically hard against reformism and to have a clear political (and usually organisational) independence from reformist organisations. The whole experience of “halfway house” (or centrist) organisations which combine talk of reform and revolution is that they collapse back into mainstream reformism.
So for example, during the Spanish Revolution of 1936-37, the United Marxist Workers Party of Spain, the POUM, consistently fudged the issue of whether or not the reformist government then in power needed to be replaced by workers’ councils. It ended up joining the government, abandoning the workers struggle in Barcelona during the decisive battle with the fascists.
The issue of political clarity is crucial, not just at the time of the party’s formation but throughout the twists and turns in the class struggle. So if we look at Lenin’s fight to build the Bolsheviks in Russia, we see him waging a series of battles with his opponents who wanted to dilute the Marxist program of the party.
In order to establish the party in the first place, Lenin and his comrades had to deal with rival currents then popular in radical circles which owed more to anarchism, terrorism or reformism than they did to revolutionary Marxism.
Even once the Bolsheviks were established, a whole series of clarifications of the party’s program and practice were necessary – against the mysticism and ultra-leftism that arose in the aftermath of the defeated 1905 revolution, against the betrayals of mainstream social democracy in 1914 when its leaders supported the war, and against reformism within the Bolsheviks in the first months of 1917, when virtually the entire leadership of the party backed the Provisional Government.
Teaching and learning from the class
In general, the party is politically “ahead” of the working class, more far-sighted and more conscious of what needs to be done. It teaches the class.
But at the same time, the party needs to learn from the class. This is true of Marxism generally. The working class is capable of wonderful creativity in the course of struggle. Workers invented not just workers’ councils, but picket lines, roving pickets, solidarity strikes, and factory occupations. None of this was “handed down” to the working class by clever revolutionaries. Far from it. At times, as with the formation of soviets in Russia in 1905, the party was caught lagging badly.
But there is another way in which the party learns from the class. Because the party does not stand aloof or separate from the class, it is in the best possible position to judge situations correctly and to make decisions on how to go forward. This does not mean that the party always judges the situation correctly. Indeed, as we have seen with the Bolsheviks in 1905 they can often get it wrong. But they were able to correct their error precisely because they were in touch with the mood of the workers.
Learning from the class is vital. Revolutionaries have to formulate their demands and determine a course of action on the basis of the next step in the class struggle. The party does not proclaim the (sometimes formally correct) “truth” and wait for workers to catch up with it. That way lies a sect. In order to lead, the party has to gauge the actual state of working class consciousness in order to propose the next step. That means thoroughgoing democratic discussion with maximum input from the members, reporting back from their workplaces.
So, the capacity of the party to take swift action informed by the mood in the working class depends on a flourishing democracy inside the party. Centralisation, united action, requires democracy. And democracy in the party is not a talk-fest, but purposeful: how best to develop strategies that can win. Party democracy therefore operates with a definite object: action by the party acting in unison.
The 1917 Russian Revolution provides an example of the way in which democracy and centralisation feed off each other. By October, workers in the big industrial cities were ready for an insurrection. However, the Bolshevik leaders prevaricated.
Lenin, however, had a feeling for the situation through the party’s members in the factories, barracks, and railways. He realised that the party had to launch the insurrection or see the revolution drowned in blood. And when he was opposed by many in the Bolshevik leadership, he threatened to resign from the Central Committee of the party and campaign amongst the membership against the decisions of the party leadership.
In the end he won the vote, because he was able to use pressure from the working class militants in the party as a battering ram against his opponents. The decision having been made, the party was then able to mount a successful insurrection because of its coherence and discipline.
This example illustrates another point – that the party can become stuck in old ways of thinking when the situation demands a change.
Changes in working class consciousness are often lightning fast. Attitudes can change daily on a mass scale in the course of a revolution. The party does not necessarily follow at the same speed.
Adherence to the trusted ways of doing things is an inevitable feature in a party with a stable core of experienced activists. However, what is necessary to give the party continuity and stability in pre-revolutionary times can also become a drag when the situation turns. The veteran members of the party can lag behind the class.
There is no formula for how to get things right. This is the art of revolutionary leadership – knowing how to judge things, when to move and when not to. Like any art, it can only be learned by practice. Book learning, while necessary, is not sufficient.
Preparedness of the party
Finally, the party has to be organised well ahead of revolutionary upsurges. The Bolsheviks didn’t emerge fully formed, but out of a long period of building which had more than its share of ups and downs.
Through most of these times the Bolsheviks were a tiny minority. Their opponents on the left usually had the more popular speakers, more money and greater influence in intellectual circles.
And yet in 1917 it was the Bolsheviks who won majority support in the big cities among the working class. They were the most intransigent in their demands. They had built up a reputation among the most left-wing workers, soldiers and sailors over the years. They were rooted in the working class and therefore had the capacity to judge when the time was right to argue for an insurrection. They were experienced and knew how to organise.
Leaving it until the barricades are up is always too late. The fate of Rosa Luxemburg during the uprising in Germany in the winter of 1919 is instructive. Although Luxemburg was a brilliant individual and the newly formed Communist Party quickly drew tens of thousands of members, the new party lacked an established and trusted leadership and could not win the support of the big battalions of the German working class. The result was a vicious counter-revolution.
This story has been told time and again – the sorry roll call includes Spain in 1936, Hungary in 1956, Chile in 1973, Portugal in 1974, Iran in 1979, Poland in 1980. And, we might add, Bolivia in 2005 when the workers and poor farmers had the capitalist class at their mercy. In all these situations there was the possibility of overthrowing capitalism and creating a society based on the needs of people rather than the dictates of profit margins.
But every time much stronger reformist forces thwarted the efforts of tiny numbers of socialists arguing for revolution.
The only way to avoid this happening again, to avoid the failure of another revolution, is to build an organisation of people committed to the ideas of revolutionary socialism and experienced in struggles against capitalism.
Socialist Alternative is not yet such a party. We are far too small and lack roots in the workers’ movement. However, if you agree with these ideas and want to play your part in bringing an end to capitalism, join us in laying down the foundations of such an organisation today. Email Socialist Alternative on email@example.com
This article, by Tom Bramble, first appeared in the August 2008 edition of Socialist Alternative.