Tony Cliff

Marxism at the Millennium

Chapter 2
Why do we need a revolutionary party?

Uneven consciousness in the working class

Why do we need a revolutionary party? The basic reason is in two statements Marx made. He stated that “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class” and at the same time he said that “the prevailing ideas of every society are the ideas of the ruling class.’

There is a contradiction between these two statements. But the contradiction is not in Marx’s head. It exists in reality. If only one of the statements was correct, there would not be a need for a revolutionary party. If the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class, and that is all, then, to be honest, we need do nothing about fighting for socialism – let’s sit with folded arms and smile. The workers will emancipate themselves!

If, on the other hand, “the prevailing ideas of every society are the ideas of the ruling class”, and that is all, workers will always accept the ideas of the rulers. Then we can sit with folded arms and cry because nothing can be done.

The reality is that the two statements are correct. The class struggle always expresses itself, not just in a conflict between workers and capitalists, but inside the working class itself. On the picket line it is not true that workers are there to try and prevent the capitalist from working. The capitalists never worked in their lives so they will not work during a strike. What the picket line is about is one group of workers trying to prevent another group of workers from crossing the picket line in the interests of the employers.

The question of workers’ power, what Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat. Why would you need a dictatorship of the proletariat if the whole working class is united and there are only a tiny minority of capitalists in opposition? You could say go home, and we’d finish with the bosses. If the whole working class is united we could spit at them and flood them into the Atlantic!

The reality is that there will be workers on one side and backward workers on the other side. Because “the prevailing ideas of every society are the ideas of the ruling class”, the workers are split between different levels of consciousness.

Not only this. The same worker can have split consciousness in his head. He or she can be a good wages militant, can hate the boss, but when it comes to black people it’s a different story.

I remember we lived with a chap, a printer, in the same house, a very skilled man. He was going on holiday and I asked, “Are you flying tomorrow?” He said, “No, I can’t fly tomorrow. It’s Friday the 13th. We’ll have to wait till Saturday.” This man in the 20th century has some ideas from 1,000 years ago.

Against opportunism and against sectarianism

You can stand on a picket line and next to you is a worker who makes racist comments. You can do one of three things. You can say, “I’m not standing with him on a picket line. I’m going home because there no one makes racist comments.” That is sectarianism because if “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class” I have to stand with him on a picket line.

The other possibility is simply avoiding the question. Someone makes a racist comment and you pretend you haven’t heard and you say, “The weather is quite nice today!” That’s opportunism.

The third position is that you argue with this person against racism, against the prevailing ideas of the ruling class. You argue and argue. If you convince him, excellent. But if you don’t, still when the scab lorry comes you link arms to stop the scabs because “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class.”

The revolutionary party: university of the working class

The bourgeoisie didn’t have a revolutionary party 20 years before their revolution. The Jacobins in France didn’t exist before 1789.

Why do we have to start 20, 30 or 50 years before the revolution? We have to start to talk about the need for a revolutionary party to lead the working class in struggle, in revolution.

The Jacobins were established during the act of the revolution itself. Why? Because when you look to the relations between the capitalists and the nobility, it is different from the relationship between the capitalists and the working class.

It is true that the capitalists had to overthrow the nobility and the working class has to overthrow the capitalists, but there is a big difference. It is not true the nobility owned all the wealth and the capitalists were paupers. The capitalists were rich even before the revolution. They could turn around to the nobility and say, “All right, you own the land; we own money, we own the banks. When you go bankrupt how do you save yourself? You mix your blue blood with my gold, you try to marry my daughter.” When it came to ideas they could say, “All right, you have priests, we have professors. You have the Bible – we have the Encyclopaedia. Come on, move over.”

The capitalists were independent intellectually from the ideas of the nobility. They influenced the nobility much more than the other way around.

The French Revolution started with a meeting of les Etats généraux (the Three Estates) – the nobility, the priesthood and the middle classes. When it came to the vote it was the nobility and the priesthood who voted with the capitalists, not the other way around.

Is our position similar? Of course not. We cannot turn to the capitalists and say, “All right, you own Ford, General Motors, ICI, we own a pair of shoes.” In terms of ideas I don’t know how many capitalists are influenced by Socialist Worker. Millions of workers are influenced by the Sun!

The revolutionary party of the bourgeoisie could appear during the very act of the revolution. They didn’t have to prepare; they were confident. What happened on 14 July 1789? Robespierre, leader of the Jacobins, suggested they build a statue to Louis XVI on the site of the Bastille. He didn’t know that three years on he’d cut off the head of Louis XVI. Where does the name Jacobins come from? It came from the monastery where they met. If they had known that four years later they were going to expropriate the church lands they wouldn’t have named themselves after a monastery.

They were independent, they were strong and they could deal with the issues. We have a completely different situation. We belong to an oppressed class that lacks the experience of running society, because capitalists don’t only own the material means of production but the mental means of production. Because of that we need a party – the party is the university of the working class. What Sandhurst is to the British Army, the revolutionary party is to the working class.

Marx says in the Communist Manifesto that communists generalise from the historical and international experience of the working class. In other words, you don’t learn from just what you experience. My own experience is tiny. Any one of us has fantastically little experience. You need to generalise and to do that you need an organisation that does it. I can’t myself know about the Paris Commune. I wasn’t there. I was very young in 1871! So you have to have someone who gives you the information.

Trotsky therefore wrote that the revolutionary party is the memory of the working class.

Three types of workers’ parties

There are three types of workers’ parties: revolutionary, reformist and centrist.

The Communist Manifesto described the nature of the revolutionary party in these words:

The communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only: (1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. (2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The communists, therefore, are, on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

The second type of workers’ parties are the reformist parties. In a speech to the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920 Lenin defined the Labour Party as a “capitalist workers’ party”.

He called it capitalist because the politics of the Labour Party do not break with capitalism. Why did he call it a workers’ party? It is not because the workers voted for it. At that time more workers voted for the Conservative Party; and the Conservative Party is of course a capitalist party. Lenin called the Labour Party a workers’ party because it expressed the urge of workers to defend themselves against capitalism. When one watches the Labour Party conference on television, it is clear that the members of the Labour Party express different urges than the Tory party. At the Tory party conference the applause comes when speakers attack trade unionists and blacks, and praise the army, police, etc. In the Labour Party conference the applause comes when a speaker declares the need for a better health service, better education, housing, etc.

Between the revolutionary parties and reformist parties there is a third kind of party, the centrist parties. Their main characteristic is fudge. They are neither one nor the other. The vacillate between the two. A horse produces horses, a donkey donkeys. When a horse and a donkey mate they produce a mule. A mule does not produce anything; it is sterile. With a revolutionary party there is historical continuity. It can go up or down, but it continues. With a reformist party there is historical continuity. But not with the centrists. In 1936 the POUM party in Spain had 40,000 members. Now the POUM is dead as a dodo. The Independent Labour Party in Britain had four MPs from the 1945 general election. Now there is not even a remnant of the ILP. A similar story attaches to the SAP in Germany, which was a mixture of people who came from the right, Blandlerite, wing of the KPD (German Communist Party), pacifist elements of the SPD and others from a mixed bag. It was quite a large party in the early 1930s. Now there is no sign of it.

A revolutionary teaches and learns from the working class

The revolutionary party has to lead the working class based on all the experience of the past. OK, so the party teaches the workers, but then arises the simple question: “Who teaches the teacher?” It is extremely important to understand that we can be taught by the work ing class. All the great ideas come from the workers themselves.

If you read Marx’s Communist Manifesto he speaks about the need for a workers’ government, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Then in 1871 he writes that the workers cannot take hold of the old state machine: they have to smash it-the old standing army, the bureaucracy, the police. We have to smash all this hierarchical structure and establish a new kind of state-a state without a standing army or a bureaucracy, where every official is elected, where every official gets the same rate of pay as the average worker. Did he find this out be cause he worked so hard in the British Museum? No, no. What happened was that the workers of Paris had taken power and that’s exactly what they did.

Marx learnt from them. The Stalinists always claim that Lenin invented the idea of the soviet. Of course in the Stalinist literature Lenin invented everything! They had a concept of religious hierarchy. We have the correspondence of Lenin, and when workers established the first soviet in Petrograd in 1905, Lenin wrote four days later – what the hell is that for?

In the struggle the workers needed a new form of organisation. They learnt the hard way that if they had a strike committee in one factory it was not effective in a time of revolution. You need a strike committee which covers all the factories. And that’s what the soviet was: delegates from all the factories meeting together to run the show. They did it. Lenin followed them. The party has always to learn from the class, always.

Is the party always in advance of the class? The answer is that by and large the revolutionary party is in advance of the class. Otherwise it is not a revolutionary party. So when it came to 1914 and the out break of the First World War, the Bolsheviks were far in advance of the class. The Bolsheviks were against the war while the majority of the workers supported it.

Then comes 1917. In 1917 you find Lenin says again and again in August and September that the party is lagging behind the class, the class is more advanced than the party and we have to run quickly to catch up with the class. The reason is a simple one. For such a long time the workers had lacked confidence so they were behind the revolutionary party. Comes a change in the situation and they change very, very speedily.

The problem with revolutionaries is that we need a routine to survive. But the routine enters into you. You take it for granted that you are in advance of the working class. But when the workers start moving you find you are so bloody backward! The revolutionary party has to catch up with the working class. The party is not just a group of people. They are the revolutionaries and from now on they are always leading. That’s rubbish. You have to fight and fight to lead all the time. You have to learn all the time, to advance all the time.

This is not just in time of revolution. You will find in the workplace that someone can be in the SWP for 20 years, a good comrade, and there’s someone completely new, who joined a few months ago, and when it comes to activity the new comrade is far more advanced than the comrade who joined 20 years ago. You find this again and again.

You don’t win the leadership like you have money in the bank. If you have money in the bank it gains interest. A revolutionary leadership is nothing like this. You have to win the leadership every day, every month. So for revolutionaries what counts is what they did last week, what they’re doing this week and what they’re doing next week. You can learn from all the experience of 100 years but the important thing is what you’re doing this week. You have to fight for leadership.

Members of the reformist parties are passive and accommodating

Because the reformist party wants to get the maximum vote, it looks to the lowest common denominator. It adapts itself to the prevailing ideas.

Do you really believe that none of the Labour MPs know about the oppression of gays and lesbians? But still during the elections of 1987 Patricia Hewitt, Neil Kinnock’s secretary, leaked to the Sun (of all papers) an attack on the “loony left” in the councils which support gays and lesbians. Why did she do it? Because she thought that was the way to become popular. I have a leaflet from a man called John Strachey. He called himself a Marxist. In the 1929 election he stood for parliament and he had a problem – he looked Jewish. So he issued a leaflet with the heading John Strachey is British and challenged anyone who said he was Jewish to go to court. Why did he say it? I have to say I’m a Jew, but if any member of the SWP is called a Jew they’d say, “Of course I’m a Jew. I’m proud of it.” You don’t deny it.

But if you want the maximum numbers you have to adapt to the prevailing ideas. The reformist parties are therefore large parties but extremely passive. For example, there is a book called Labour’s Grassroots where the age composition is given. In 1984 there were 573 branches of the Labour Party Young Socialists, in 1990 only 15. There were three times more members aged 66 and above than aged 25 and below. Labour Party members were asked how much time they devoted to Labour activities in the month: 50 percent said none, 30 percent said up to five hours a month, an hour a week, and only 10 percent said between five and ten hours.

Extreme passivity – that is the nature of the Labour Party. The other side of the same coin is bureaucratic control. The bureaucrats dominate the party.

Then there is the sect. Its members say quite simply, “We want to march only with people who agree with us. We care only about people who agree with us.”

The revolutionaries are those who are separate from the majority of the working class but at the same time are part of the working class. The question for revolutionaries is how to relate to non-revolutionary workers. How you relate to people who agree with you 60 percent and how, through the struggle, you can move that to 80 percent. If you are a sectarian you say, “You don’t agree with me on 40 percent, I don’t care about you.” If you are a revolutionary you say, “We agree on 60 per cent, let’s start with that and I’ll argue with you about the 40 percent that we don’t agree and in the struggle try to convince you.”


Democratic centralism

What about the structure of the revolutionary party? Why do we speak about democratic centralism?

Let us first understand why we need democracy. If you want to go from London to Birmingham you need a bus and a driver. You don’t need democratic discussion because we’ve done it before so we need one good driver and one good bus. The problem is that the transition from capitalism to socialism is something we’ve never experienced before. We don’t know.

If you don’t know, there’s only one way to learn-by being rooted in the class and learning from the class. It is not simply that on every thing democracy solves the problem. If you want to know if there’s a decline in the rate of profit, if Marx is right, don’t put it to the vote! It doesn’t mean anything. Either he’s right or he’s wrong. Think about it, read about it and decide.

There are things you must put to the vote. Everything that is connected to our struggle must be put to the test. Because we simply don’t know. Because if “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class” the working class through their own experiences will teach us.

There is a beautiful description Lenin gives of when he was in hiding after the July Days in 1917 when the Bolshevik Party became illegal and its press was smashed. The Bolsheviks were accused of being German agents. Lenin did not know how far the power of reaction had been consolidated. He describes eating with a worker he was hiding with and the worker gave him bread and said, “The bread is good. They, the capitalist class, are frightened of us.” Lenin says:

The moment I heard him I understood about the class relation of forces. I understood what workers really think-that the capitalists are still frightened of us, although we are illegal, although we are beaten. Still it is not a victory of counter-revolution.

If you want to know if the workers are confident how do you know? You can’t have a ballot in the press, they don’t give you the opportunity. You can’t meet every individual.

You cannot make a working class revolution without a deep democracy. And what the revolution is about is raising the working class to become the ruling class, about creating the most democratic system in history. Unlike under capitalism where every five years you elect someone to misrepresent you, here it is a completely different story. Under capitalism you elect the MPs but not the employers. Under capitalism we don’t vote on whether to close a factory. We don’t elect the army officers or the judges. In a workers’ government everything is under workers’ control. Everything is in workers’ power. It is the most extreme form of democracy.

So if all this is true, why do we need centralism?

First, the experience is uneven, workers have different experiences, you have to collect that experience together. Even in the revolutionary party the members are influenced by different pressures. They are influenced by the general picture and by the section of the workers to which they belong.

To overcome this sectionalism, this narrow experience, you need to centralise all the experience and division. Again you need the centralism because the ruling class is highly centralised. If you are not symmetrical to your enemy you can never win.

I was never a pacifist. If someone uses a stick on me I have to have a bigger stick! I don’t believe a quotation from Marx’s Capital will stop a mad dog attacking me. We have to be symmetrical to our enemies. That is why I cannot understand the anarchists when they come and say they don’t need a state. The capitalists have a state. How do you smash a state without an opposition state?

Anarchists always deny the state. When they had enough strength they joined the government. That’s what they did in Spain during the civil war when they joined the government. Why? Because there is no good denying something unless you smash it and if you smash it you have to replace it. What do you have to replace it with? Armed bodies of workers. And that’s what the workers’ state is.

The need for a mass revolutionary party

When we speak of the party leading the class it is not just a question of experience, knowledge and roots. The leadership must use the language of workers, have the spirit of workers. You have to relate to them because that’s what leadership is about, You talk and listen, you don’t only talk. You talk in language they understand.

But that’s not enough. We need a big party. To lead the working class you need a mass party. The SWP is the smallest mass party in the world. It is a tiny party. The Bolshevik Party in 1914 had 4,000 members. After the February 1917 revolution they had 23,000 members. In August 1917 they had a quarter of a million. With a quarter of a million you can lead an industrial working class of three million.

The German Communist Party in 1918 had 4,000 members. Even if they were all geniuses they could not have won the revolution. You need a sizeable party because in order to lead you need to have a base in every factory.

I mentioned the July Days. When Lenin was accused of being a German spy 10,000 workers out of 30,000 at the Putilov factory struck for the day saying they trusted Lenin. Why? Because they had 500 Bolsheviks in Putilov factory.

If you want to lead millions you need hundreds of thousands in the party. Even the ANL Carnival, 150,000-strong, a marvellous achievement, in terms of the revolution was still a small thing. Even for this, we needed six, seven or eight thousand SWP members to organise it.

I detest it when people think Marxism is some sort of intellectual exercise: we interpret things, we understand, we are more clever. Marxism is about action and for action you need size. For action you need power. We need a mass party – of half a million.


Last updated on 11.12.2002