The role of a revolutionary party

Mass movements striving to change society are inevitable under capitalism. But a revolutionary party is vital to ensuring their aspirations are realised. JUDY BEISHON continues our Introduction to Marxism series.

Many people regard themselves as anti-capitalist and are interested in socialist ideas, but at the same time can be wary of political parties. They have seen the attacks on living standards made by political parties in governments, by those claiming to be politically on the left, as well as the right. There is also the repellent mark left by the authoritarian parties that ran repressive Stalinist regimes, which claimed to stand for Marxism, communism and socialism but were an outrageous distortion of what those words really mean.

Mistrust towards political parties – and sometimes the very act of organising or having leadership bodies – can lead people towards the idea of spontaneous, unorganised action or loose networks.

There are times when spontaneous action can spur events along, but it also has great limitations. It provides no structure for democratic debate about what is to be done, how to develop it, and decisions over the roles individuals or teams will play. When people act together in a planned and united manner, with democratically agreed goals and roles, more can be achieved than with action in which every individual acts separately or in small groups.

Networks can organise a degree of discussion and coordination but also have many limitations, and often have leaders who are not fully held to account and democratically controlled by everyone involved.

With decaying capitalism today bringing ever greater suffering, poverty and environmental degradation worldwide, the vital question is posed: How can the sweeping workers’ struggles and revolts that regularly break out lead to transformations to socialism? How can the building of revolutionary parties help with that task and what form should they take?

Early lessons

The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848 outlined the key stages in human history, based on how the necessities of life have been produced, and explained that the next stage will be the removal of capitalism and its replacement with socialism.

Just over two decades later came the experience of the 1871 Paris Commune, when for two months the workers in Paris took control of their city and began to introduce socialist measures. Marx and Engels studied that heroic uprising and concluded that for a successful transformation to socialism, not only must the companies which dominate the economy be taken into public ownership and the repressive capitalist state apparatus be dismantled, but workers would need to replace that state with an entirely different one under their own control. The new state would only exist for as long as needed to serve the interests of the majority in countering attempts by the capitalist minority to regain power. It would also play a role in the transition from socialist measures towards genuine communism.

How could the working class organise itself to prepare for these key tasks? Marx and Engels had been involved in building some of the first workers’ political organisations, but it was Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, basing himself on Marxist ideas, who at the beginning of the twentieth century played a crucial role in pioneering the building of the first successful, mass revolutionary party.

The Bolsheviks

Lenin realised that for Russian workers to defeat the repressive Tsarist state, an organised and disciplined workers’ force would be necessary, with an understanding of the tasks ahead. He spearheaded the building of the Bolshevik party as an organisation that gave Marxist education to its members, reached decisions through democratic discussion and acted in a unified manner when carrying out its interventions and actions.

Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Russian revolution alongside Lenin, summed up the Bolsheviks’ progress during 1917 in his article, The Class, the Party and the Leadership: “The Bolshevik Party in March 1917 was followed by an insignificant minority of the working class and furthermore there was discord in the party itself. Within a few months, by basing itself upon the development of the revolution, the party was able to convince the majority of workers of the correctness of its slogans. This majority organised into Soviets, was able in its turn to attract the soldiers and peasants”.

Following the success of the Bolsheviks in winning workers’ support, they were able to lead them to victory in the October 1917 revolution. The Tsarist state apparatus was completely removed and replaced with a democratic workers’ state based on a planned economy and other socialist measures.

Following the failure soon afterwards of revolutions in Germany, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere, the new workers’ state was left isolated, without the assistance of a developed economy to enable basic needs to be satisfied – a prerequisite for socialism. This situation, worsened by the hardship of civil war following the revolution, laid the conditions for the Soviet government to degenerate politically under the leadership of Joseph Stalin.

The Stalinist economy, based on state ownership, grew significantly in its first decades, until bureaucratic, authoritarian rule became an increasing fetter. That degeneration paved the way for the return of capitalism in the early 1990s. However, the experience of Stalinism and capitalism’s return doesn’t negate the fact that the Bolsheviks carried out a successful revolution which removed capitalism, a titanic event in human history that transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and the many lessons that can be learnt from it.

A guiding organisation

Regardless of whether a revolutionary party exists, when conditions for workers and the poor become intolerable, struggles and at a certain stage revolutionary movements will break out. So, a revolutionary party doesn’t create the conditions that lead to uprisings, but when those conditions exist it can play a key role in speeding up the development of workers’ consciousness on the necessary tasks and in determining the outcome of their struggles.

Trotsky, in his book The History of the Russian Revolution, wrote: “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box but the steam”.

How does a revolutionary party act as a guiding organisation? Most importantly, it must base itself on a Marxist analysis of past workers’ struggles and the lessons arising from them. In capitalist society, we are taught history at school from the standpoint and interests of the ruling class, ie the capitalist class. The university historians who write school and college text books appear to be objective and factual, but their careers have been developed in education institutions that are part of the capitalist system, so in in most cases they interpret historical events and struggles from the standpoint of ruling class interests. A revolutionary party therefore has to carry out a different type of education entirely: the viewing of historical events – and those today – from a working class and Marxist point of view.

It isn’t enough for a revolutionary party to simply be in favour of revolution and have leaders who call for it. Historically, such parties have been referred to as ‘centrist’, meaning that they advocated in general for socialist revolution but at decisive moments in a struggle would draw back from putting forward the next concrete steps necessary for the working class to take power; not least due to them not being based on a full Marxist revolutionary programme.

That full programme should be the body of ideas in the writings of Marx and Engels; also those of Lenin and Trotsky – including for the first four congresses of the Communist International; plus the writings and accumulated experience of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI).

Based on those political ideas, the party can discuss the possible and likely future developments in society – ie, perspectives – and can develop a programme of demands at each stage of the class struggle. Formulating the demands requires a constant interaction between the party and the wider workers’ movement.

This means that party members need to take part as much as possible in the day-to-day activities and struggles of the workers and young people around them. They can learn from experiencing events first hand and listening to those involved, and gain respect through supporting or participating. Crucially, as well, they can discuss with other participants what steps could take the struggle forward, and a discussion on that same question can take place within the party. The party’s conclusions can be taken back into discussions of the people engaged in a struggle, using leaflets and articles, or verbally.

The working class is not uniform in any country, nor is the middle class. There are always differences in material circumstances, political understanding and outlook. Therefore, people don’t always draw the same conclusions at the same time. A revolutionary party can assess the stages of consciousness of the different layers and put forward a programme that plays a unifying role: drawing struggles together as far as possible, widening support for them, and within struggles bringing people together on the next steps needed.

The party can explain the nature of the capitalist class – that it is also not a uniform layer but has its own contradictions and failings – and that it can defeated.

In doing all this, the party uses its collective knowledge of past analysis and lessons and skilfully applies it to today’s campaigns and struggles, taking into account the level and stage of workers’ consciousness, their traditions and culture, and what is needed to advance a struggle and the whole workers’ movement.

Demands regarding the necessary tasks can be at different levels, as Trotsky explained in his Transitional Programme document, written in 1938 for the founding conference of the Fourth International. While some demands will usually be on immediate tasks, it’s also important to raise the need for socialism, and to include some demands that bridge the gap between those two levels – of a transitional character.

To keep up with events taking place, demands should be regularly revised and updated, and tested out in practise. James Cannon, a founder of the US Trotskyist movement in the 1930s, wrote in his article The Revolutionary Party, that the programme has to be continually taken to workers for ”consideration, adoption, action and verification”.

How essential is a revolutionary party with the above qualities? In the Transitional Programme, Trotsky wrote: ”The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership”. Those words are as true today as then. To understand why, the lessons of revolutions that have failed are vital.

The German tragedy

After the 1917 Russian revolution, in 1918 the working class in Germany tried to overthrow capitalism. However, the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party had a reformist ideology – they believed that capitalism could be changed gradually into socialism – and this led to the revolution’s defeat and the murder of the great revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

In 1923, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France created a major crisis and another opportunity for the working class to sweep German capitalism aside. This time the Communist Party (KPD) had widespread support among workers, but the KPD leaders failed to prepare them adequately for the task of changing society and didn’t provide the necessary leadership when the situation was most ripe for carrying out that task.

Less than a decade later, with a background of the world slump in 1929 to 1933, the situation again became critical. The middle class was ruined in the slump and workers’ living standards fell. Fearing a new revolution, the ruling class poured funds into the fascist Nazi party.

When the Nazis received six million votes in the general election of 1930, Trotsky and his co-thinkers, recently expelled from the Stalinist ‘Communist International’, called on workers organised in the German CP to go into a united front with workers in the Social Democratic Party to defeat the fascists. But such was the political degeneration of the Communist International by that stage, that its leaders preposterously labelled the Social Democrats as ‘social fascists’ and refused a united front.

The KPD leaders took the fatal position that fascist leader Hitler would be no worse than the government they had already; and anyway, if he got into power, it would just spur the workers on to wipe out the fascists.

Nor did the Social Democratic leaders give leadership. While workers instinctively started to form defence groups in factories and among the unemployed, the Social Democratic leaders refused to accept that the fascists were a real danger. For instance, one of them, Sohiffrin, said: “Fascism is definitely dead; it will never rise again”. They called for calm and restraint. The terrible failures of the workers’ leaders led to the victory of Hitler in 1933 and the smashing of a mighty working-class movement with a Marxist tradition going back 75 years.

Lessons of Spain and Chile

In Spain between 1931 and 1937 workers and peasants tried several times to remove capitalism and feudalism, gaining at one stage control of two-thirds of the country.

They were organised under four main left trends: the anarchists, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Communist Party and the smaller POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). However, despite the revolutionary aspirations of their rank-and-files, the leaders of those organisations didn’t take the necessary steps to consolidate the gains of the workers and peasants.

They failed to explain the necessary steps to achieve socialism, including the need to get rid of the old state apparatus. Instead, they fell behind the line of the Stalinist CP leaders, who argued for there to be two stages: firstly, a period of development of capitalist democracy in Spain and only after that moving towards socialism.

For them, the task was not for the working class to take power, but for power to be handed back to representatives of capitalism. Tragically, this paved the way for the victory of the fascist Franco in the Spanish civil war, who proceeded to kill thousands of working-class activists and to bring in 40 years of brutal fascist dictatorship.

The Popular Unity coalition that came to power in Chile in 1970 was backed by a powerful workers’ movement. Under great pressure to deliver improvements in living standards, the government went further than its leaders had planned.

Key industries such as copper mining were nationalised, a rents and prices freeze was introduced, wages and pensions were increased, a degree of land reform was carried out and free milk was given to school children. Faced with those measures, the enraged capitalist class was preparing a coup to remove the Popular Unity government.

The situation became very favourable for the wiping out of capitalism entirely. The capitalist class was demoralised and unsure of the path ahead, the middle class supported Popular Unity and the working-class movement was strengthening. Workers needed a revolutionary party that could rapidly advance their demands for arms to defeat the counter-revolutionary forces that were preparing. It was also needed to encourage the development of councils of workers, peasants, soldiers, small shopkeepers, etc, to become new, alternative bodies of power.

However, the masses were held back by the Socialist Party (SP) and CP leaders of the Popular Unity coalition. They insisted on remaining within capitalist legality and left the levers of power in the hands of the capitalist class. They left the capitalist army, judges, police and press intact. The end result was the victory of the brutal dictator Pinochet and the subsequent murder of many workers, socialists and communists.

Many other examples can be given of failed revolutions with tragic consequences: the Hungarian Commune in 1919, in Italy in 1920, the Chinese revolution in 1925-27, Portugal in 1974-76 and many more. In the Portuguese revolution, 70% of industry, the banks and other finance institutions was taken into the hands of the state. The British newspaper, the Times, announced that capitalism was dead in Portugal. But the SP and CP leaders played a counter-revolutionary role through their failure to complete the revolution, thereby ensuring that capitalism remained intact.

There have also been revolutions as a result of guerrilla struggles, that succeeded in overthrowing capitalism and introducing planned economies, such as in China from 1949 onwards and Cuba from 1959. But the revolutionary parties that led those movements did not bring in democratic socialist societies, as they were based on the peasantry rather than the working class, and also due to the model and interventions of Stalinism.

The resulting regimes were ‘deformed workers’ states’. Although they were able to raise living standards significantly for much of the population for a period of time – on the basis of state economic planning and ownership of key industries – they were highly repressive, undemocratic regimes.

Role of the working class

Analysis of past revolutions shows that only the working class can lead the oppressed masses in a revolution that can both remove capitalism and bring in socialism. This is due to workers’ role in capitalist production. They are forced to sell their ability to work in order to survive, which creates similar conditions and aims among them.

Workers in virtually every industry and service are repeatedly faced with the need to fight together to defend or improve their pay, terms and conditions, and sometimes the very existence of their jobs.

The middle class, which includes small farmers and small-business people who run their own enterprises, is more diverse in its consciousness, and in rural areas is relatively scattered and more isolated than people in urban areas. For these reasons, as a class, it has never proved capable of playing an independent, leading revolutionary role.

In a revolution, some in the sections of society that make up the middle class tend to opt conservatively for the status quo of capitalism. But increasingly, as capitalism’s economic contradictions and crises deepen, a majority of middle-class people – including professional workers like lawyers and doctors who tend to regard themselves as middle class – are being forced closer to the conditions of the working class and can be won to support a revolutionary movement led by the working class.

So, a revolutionary party must base itself on the working class, because of the leading role this class must play. And in turn, to play its necessary role, the working class needs a revolutionary party.

Although the working class is less heterogeneous than the middle class, it still consists of different layers: old and young, skilled and unskilled, different ethnic origins, and so on. The ruling class tries to exploit these differences, for example by encouraging racial division or by using different wage levels. By coming together in a revolutionary party, workers can counter this as far as they can under the present divisive system, laying the basis for the workers’ unity that is needed to build a challenge to the capitalist system.

As Trotsky wrote in a 1932 article titled, What Next? – Vital Questions for the German Proletariat: “The proletariat acquires an independent role only at that moment when, from a social class in itself, it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious”.

Building and structure

The building of a revolutionary party is far from automatic; it must be consciously and consistently built by its members. Initially, with a small number of members its main work will be Marxist analysis, promoting socialist ideas and discussing those ideas with individuals met during day-to-day life and political activities. The work of a larger party will be different, in that it is more likely to be playing a key role in events taking place, and therefore has responsibilities of leadership in the workers’ movement as well as of propaganda and agitation.

How does a small party grow? This depends primarily on having a correct Marxist approach. But the speed of growth will be linked to what is happening in society as a whole.

Trotsky explained how it can grow fast in a revolutionary situation: “During a revolution, ie when events move swiftly, a weak party can quickly grow into a mighty one provided it lucidly understands the course of the revolution and possesses staunch cadres that do not become intoxicated with phrases and are not terrorised by persecution. But such a party must be available prior to the revolution inasmuch as the process of educating the cadres requires a considerable period of time and the revolution does not afford this time”. (The Class, the Party and the Leadership).

As well as recruiting individuals and groups of workers, revolutionary parties can sometimes grow through fusions with other organisations. A successful fusion depends on whether principled agreement can be reached beforehand on the key issues of perspectives, programme, orientation and strategy.

Whatever size the party is, hard work and self-sacrifice by its members and leaders is important. Trotsky again: “You can have revolutionaries both wise and ignorant, intelligent or mediocre. But you cannot have revolutionaries who lack the willingness to smash obstacles, who lack devotion and the spirit of-sacrifice” (1929, How Revolutionaries Are Formed).

Regarding internal structure and method, the Bolsheviks used a very effective form of organisation, democratic centralism, with Lenin its leading proponent. It was based on having a fairly high degree of political agreement and is not necessarily a model for politically broader workers’ organisations or parties.

Across the globe today there is burning need for working-class people to have their own political representation, independent of capitalist interests. New mass workers’ parties need to be built and will be a major step forward, able to put forward policies in workers’ interests and to support workers’ strikes and struggles. In such parties, a different form of organisation can be most appropriate, such as a federal structure – at least initially – to allow as many workers’ organisations, socialist organisations, and individuals to become involved around a basic level of socialist programme.

However, the urgent need for new mass workers’ parties doesn’t contradict the importance of also developing the forces of revolutionary Marxism. In any case, revolutionary organisations and wings have often been part of larger, broader parties for a period of time and this is likely to be the case for many when new mass workers’ parties are built.

Democratic centralism allows a party to thrive and develop from discussion and debate, but when it comes to action, it can act in an organised and united manner. There has never been a more effective form of organisation.

In discussions and debates, all issues concerning the party can be discussed as fully as members think necessary at each party level. This doesn’t mean the party becomes just a ‘talking shop’ with endless debates. Discussions should be conducted with the party’s aims in mind, particularly for political education, analysis, and for arriving at decisions on the party programme and tasks.

Every member should have the right to express their views at their local branch meeting. It is important that members develop their own understanding of Marxist ideas and experience in the workers’ movement, so that collectively that knowledge can be pooled when making decisions – and in order for the membership to be able to assess and if wanted change the decisions of leadership bodies. The main political ideas and perspectives of the party, and key organisational matters, should be decided by a conference of rank-and-file members or of branch delegates elected by the members.

Centralism, the second part of the formula, essentially means that once party members have arrived at a decision by majority vote at any level, they then act together to implement it.

Whether there are five, 20 or many more members of a revolutionary party in a town, is it more effective for them to intervene in local events as individuals or as a team? The answer is clearly the latter. And on a national scale, when up against the highly organised and centralised capitalist state with its long experience of countering challenge from below, unity of workers in action through participation in their own revolutionary party is vital.

Every member must have the right to oppose an idea or course of action during discussions inside the party, but once a decision is made, members then act in public according to the decision. This does not take away their right to continue to argue their point of view in party meetings and to seek to change a decision, with the right to organise a tendency or faction with others of similar view if felt necessary.

Democratic centralism is not a rigid formula. At some stages a party will need to place greater emphasis on the need for discussion and debate and at other times action might be more of a priority. As well as being applied flexibly depending on the stage of a party and what activity it is involved in, it will inevitably have a different expression in different countries, depending on factors such as the size, experience and present work of the party, the authority of its leaders, the political situation and workers’ traditions.

There are sometimes questions and discussion about how party members should relate to each other. What should be the norms of behaviour and how should party resources be allocated to enable the participation of all members?

On these issues, it has to be recognised that the party, operating with all the limitations imposed on its members by the capitalist system, cannot be a model of the future socialist society. It is up to the membership to democratically decide on the allocation of resources, the boundaries for acceptable behaviour, and any sanctions that are considered necessary. It isn’t possible to build a party with a membership that is untouched by the problems of society today.

Party leadership

In The Class, the Party and the Leadership, Trotsky explained the necessary relation between the three layers in the article’s title. The working class leads, and is in turn led by its party, which is in turn led by its leadership. He added that the party membership and leadership are tested and selected during the course of debates and events, to achieve the best possible tool for the working class to transform society.

Elected, accountable leaders are needed at each level of the party structure who are capable of giving a political and organisational lead to party work. Not every rank-and-file member in the local branches of any sizable party will be able to participate in regional, national or international meetings that can assess the situation at each of those levels and gain an overview and deeper insight into it.

So they elect those they see as the most capable of giving leadership, and they must have the right to recall that leadership and elect others if they regard that as necessary. Even the most able leaders need the check of those at the root of their party. Without it, they could eventually succumb to reformist, opportunist or ultra-left pressures and take the whole party down the wrong road.

However, while the membership must be critical, Trotsky made the important point: “The maturity of each member of the party expresses itself particularly in the fact that they do not demand from the party regime more than it can give. It is necessary, of course, to fight against every individual mistake of the leadership, every injustice and the like. But it is necessary to estimate these ‘injustices’ and ‘mistakes’ not by themselves but in connection with the general development of the party both on a national and international scale. A correct judgement and a feeling for proportion in politics is an extremely important thing”.

Members need to have confidence in their leaders’ ability to arrive at correct decisions, but this can only be developed through ongoing testing of those leaders in the course of events and debates.

Setting an example is a large part of good leadership. This should include a willingness to make sacrifices of time and money, and not asking members to make greater sacrifices than the leaders are prepared to make.

Internationalism and socialism

Although capitalism is based on nation states, capitalist economies are interlinked internationally. In isolation, no socialist state could survive for a prolonged time or solve the problems on the planet.

So, socialism is needed worldwide, which means that revolutionary parties are needed in every country, and it is invaluable and important for them to be able to participate together in a revolutionary international. A greater understanding of world events can be gained through discussing together and through sharing party-building experiences. It can mean that potentially serious mistakes are avoided in individual countries.

The role of a revolutionary international will also be important after a successful revolution in any one country, as it will be able to call on workers globally to support the revolution and refuse to be used against it in any military ventures by their own capitalist classes. It could also play a key role in inspiring and helping workers in other countries to follow suit.

Nor would the role of a revolutionary party within any single country end immediately after a successful revolution. The party can make sure that the new workers’ government is politically armed with the historical experiences of past revolutions and therefore can defeat any counter-revolutionary attempts by the former ruling class.

The party would also help ensure that the new socialist society develops along healthy lines, with genuine democratic workers’ control and management of publicly owned industries and services and socialist economic planning. Just as a midwife keeps a check on the health of a new-born baby after assisting the delivery, so a revolutionary party can help to nurture and lead the new society that has come into being following a successful revolution.

Then, although all the problems created by centuries of capitalism will not be wiped out overnight, it will be possible to rapidly create a society in which the living standards of every human being can be raised to a decent level and beyond; in which the environment can be safeguarded and the damage reversed; and in which the talents of every person can be used to further develop society onto an unprecedented plane.

Further reading:

The Class, the Party and the Leadership, Leon Trotsky

The Revolutionary Party, James Cannon

The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, James Cannon

The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky

The Spanish Revolution 1931-9, Leon Trotsky

The Struggle against Fascism in Germany, Leon Trotsky

The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution, Leon Trotsky