Chris Harman

How Marxism Works

The revolutionary socialist party

The basic premise of Marxism is that the development of capitalism itself drives workers into revolt against the system.

When such revolts break out – whether a mass demonstration, an armed insurrection or even a big strike – the transformation of working class consciousness is astonishing. All the mental energy that workers previously frittered away on a hundred and one diversions – from doing the horses to watching the telly – is suddenly directed towards trying to deal with the problem of how to change society. Millions of people working on such problems produce solutions of amazing ingenuity, which often leave established revolutionaries as bewildered as the ruling class by this turn of events.

So, for instance, in the first Russian revolution of 1905 a new form of workers’ organisation, the soviet – the workers’ council – grew out of the strike committee set up during a printing strike. At first the Bolshevik Party – the most militant of the revolutionary socialists – treated the Soviets with distrust: they did not believe it was possible for the mass of previously non-political workers to create a genuinely revolutionary instrument.

Such experiences are found in many strikes: the established militants are taken completely by surprise when workers who have ignored their advice for so long, suddenly begin to organise militant action themselves.

This spontaneity is fundamental. But it is wrong to draw the conclusion – as anarchists and near-anarchists do – that because of spontaneity, there is no need for a revolutionary party.

In a revolutionary situation, millions of workers change their ideas very, very quickly. But they do not all change all their ideas at once. Inside every strike, every demonstration, every armed uprising there are always continual arguments. A few workers will see the action they are taking as a prelude to the working class taking control of society. Others will be half against taking any action at all, because it is disturbing the ‘natural order of things’. In the middle will be the mass of workers, attracted first by one set of arguments, then by the other,

Onto one side of the balance the present ruling class will throw all the weight of its newspaper propaganda machine, denouncing the workers’ actions. It will throw too its strikebreaking forces, whether police, army or right wing organisations.

And on the workers’ side of the argument there must be an organisation of socialists who can draw on the lessons of past class struggle, who can throw the arguments about socialism into the balance. There must be an organisation that can draw together the growing understanding of workers in struggle, so they can act together to change society.

And this revolutionary socialist party needs to be there before the struggle starts, for organisation is not born spontaneously. The party is built through the continual interplay of socialist ideas and experience of the class struggle – for merely to understand society is not enough: only by applying these ideas in the day-to-day class struggle, in strikes, demonstrations, campaigns, will workers become aware of their power to change things, and gain the confidence to do it.

At certain points, the intervention of a socialist party can be decisive, can tip the balance towards change, towards a revolutionary transfer of power to the workers, towards a socialist society.

What sort of party?

The revolutionary socialist party needs to be democratic. To fulfil its role, the party must be continually in touch with the class struggle, and that means with its own members and supporters in the workplaces where that struggle takes place. It needs to be democratic because its leadership must always reflect the collective experience of the struggle.

At the same time, this democracy is not merely a system of election but a continual debate within the party – a continual interaction of the socialist ideas on which the party is based with the experience of class struggle.

But the revolutionary socialist party must also be centralised – for it is an active party, not a debating society. It needs to be able to intervene collectively in the class struggle, and to respond quickly, so it must have a leadership capable of taking day-to-day decisions in the name of the party.

If the government orders the jailing of pickets, for instance, the party needs to react at once, without the need to convene conferences to take democratic decisions first. So the decision is made centrally and acted upon. Democracy comes into play afterwards, when the party hammers out whether the decision was correct or not – and maybe changes the party leadership if it was out of touch with the needs of the struggle.

The revolutionary socialist party needs to maintain a fine and delicate balance between democracy and centralism. The key is that the party does not exist for its own sake, but as a means for bringing a revolutionary change to socialism – and that can only be through class struggle.

So the party must continually adapt itself to the struggle. When the struggle is low, and few workers believe in the possibility of revolutionary change, then the party will be small – and must be content to be so for to dilute its political ideas in order to increase its membership would be pointless. But when the struggle increases, large numbers of workers can change their ideas very fast, realising through struggle their power to change things – and then the party must be able to open its doors, otherwise it will be left on the sidelines.

The party cannot substitute for the working class. It must be part of the class struggle, continually trying to unite the most class-conscious workers to provide a leadership for the struggle. Nor can the party dictate to the class. It cannot simply proclaim itself the leadership, but must win that position, proving the correctness of socialist ideas in practice – which means anything from a small strike to the revolution itself.

Some people see the revolutionary socialist party as the precursor of socialism. This is completely wrong. Socialism can only come about when the working class itself takes control of the means of producing wealth and uses this to transform society.

You cannot build an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism. Attempts by small groups of socialists to cut themselves off and lead their lives according to socialist ideas always fail miserably in the long term – for a start, the economic and ideological pressures are always there. And in cutting themselves off from capitalism, such small groups also cut themselves off from the only force that can bring socialism: the working class.

Of course, socialists fight against the degrading effects of capitalism every day – against racism, against sexism, against exploitation, against brutality. But we can only do so by taking the strength of the working class as our base.


Last updated on 26 January 2010