Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

8: Building the party

What sort of organisation constitutes a revolutionary socialist party? There are two widespread conceptions, both of which are mistaken. One is that the party should be based on electioneering, like the Labour Party but more left wing. It builds its strength through propaganda until it has enough parliamentary seats to form a government, or at least a coalition with other left-wing parties. This was the approach of the first Marxist party in Britain, the Social Democratic Federation, more than a century ago, and it is an approach that persists today in organisations such as the Communist Parties of France and India, the Socialist Party in the Netherlands and the United Left in Spain. The problem is that great social crises involving masses of people are not fought out in parliament or according to parliamentary timetables. Electoral activity can provide socialists with an important way of putting across their ideas but it cannot substitute for waging a struggle in workplaces and on the streets.

The second conception is of a tightly organised group that tells workers they need a revolution and that it will make one on their behalf, believing workers will turn to it when the situation becomes desperate. But it keeps clear of daily struggles in case this creates illusions in the possibility of reform. This was the view of the 19th century French revolutionary Blanqui and of one of the most prominent Italian Communists of the early 1920s, Bordiga. It was also the approach of some of the left-wing guerrilla groups that flourished in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. In many ways it is a mirror image of the electoral approach, sharing the notion that revolutionaries must change society on behalf of the mass of people – the masses have only to provide passive support, whether for a left MP or a revolutionary fighter.

The genuinely revolutionary approach is different. It starts from the recognition that a break with the horrors of class society can only occur if the mass of workers take power in their own hands, and that the only way they can gain the strength and understanding to do so is through their own struggles.

Only at times of social crisis and revolutionary upheaval can the majority of workers be won to the arguments of revolutionaries. Yet there is always a minority who can be won to revolutionary socialist ideas outside of periods of upheaval because capitalism continually pushes people to rebel. They may join a strike over wages, a campaign against housing privatisation, a protest against racism, or a movement against war. At any point there will be scores of struggles and in each of these some people will begin to challenge the priorities of the system. A genuine revolutionary organisation attempts to draw these people together to help clarify their ideas through discussion, learning from the experiences of past struggles, analysing the system and the struggles of today, and feeding the conclusions back into the day-to-day struggle.

The aim is to create a network of the most militant people to reinforce each other’s strengths, compensate for each other’s weaknesses and learn from each other’s experiences. Members of the network can act together in the different struggles, drawing these together and countering any attempts to turn one group of workers against another.

This is important even when the level of struggle is low. Each defeat weakens workers, making it easier for reactionary ideas that scapegoat minorities to take hold. Each victory makes it more difficult for the ruling class to subdue workers and the poor completely. But when struggle reaches a high pitch, the existence of a revolutionary organisation with a network of activists in every workplace and locality can be vital. The outcome of major battles can determine the character of the class struggle and the ideological atmosphere for years. So the memory of May 1968 in France still gives right-wing politicians nightmares today, while the memory of the defeat of the miners in 1984–85 still dampens the class struggle in Britain. The building of networks of socialists is a necessity if future struggles are going to win.

Many people are suspicious of self-proclaimed vanguard organisations. But the reality is some workers have a clearer idea of what capitalism is and the need to fight it than others. They are the people who stand up against racism or sexism, see the need for solidarity with any group fighting back, and want to fight to win. In these ways they are ahead of other workers in political consciousness and need to organise together to win others to fight against the system effectively.

Parties and Workers’ Councils

There is no contradiction in saying we want to see society run by workers’ councils and stressing the need for a revolutionary party. The central point about workers’ councils is that they represent all workers, not just those who have been revolutionaries or trade union militants in the past. In Russia in 1905 and 1917 the workers’ councils were the means by which workers from very different political backgrounds could decide together what they needed to do and set about doing it. Someone who had accepted Tsarist propaganda until the February Revolution could feel just as involved in framing the demands of their class through the workers’ councils as someone who had been a revolutionary opponent of the Tsar for a quarter of a century. The workers’ councils enabled all sorts of workers to begin to feel they had the power to determine how to run society.

However, these changes did not take place at the same speed among all workers. Many continued to be influenced by the ideas inculcated in them by the old system. In every workplace there remained workers influenced by Russian nationalism, by anti-semitism and by traditional attitudes towards women. Above all, even workers who felt they should be able to influence the direction of society often accepted that they were not capable of running things themselves. So, at first, the middle class and moderate socialist politicians who wanted to maintain Russia capitalism got a big following among workers and won the majority in the workers’ councils.

The experience of the months of upheaval led many workers to change their minds – but only when that experience was distilled through daily arguments with those who saw the need for a further revolution. This is where the Bolshevik Party came in. Lenin and the people around him were known as the hard faction among socialists in Russia in the years before 1917. They were disdainful of amateurism and vague thinking. They insisted two things were essential to make the Russian Revolution a success – the development of clear ideas, and a relentless struggle to connect with every workplace and locality through a network of party members. The Bolsheviks were not afraid to be unpopular when occasion demanded – as when they stood out firmly against the war in 1914. But they were certainly not a small, conspiratorial group run like a religious cult by Lenin. They attempted to build as widely among workers as the situation permitted. So in the years 1912–14 they took advantage of a brief relaxation of censorship laws to establish a best-selling workers’ newspaper.

The Bolsheviks formed a small minority in the early spring of 1917, but they grew out of the struggles which pitted workers against the new government until they had more members among workers in the main cities than all other parties combined. Bolshevik members were not robots who simply followed Lenin’s commands. Lenin often found himself in a minority and had to win people to his views through vigorous debate. For example, Lenin was isolated to begin with when he returned to Russia from exile in 1917 and argued the Bolsehviks should oppose the new government. He was only able to win the rest of the party to this view because workers in the key Vyborg industrial district agreed that what he said made sense.

In autumn 1917 one of Lenin’s oldest collaborators, Zinoviev, spoke out publicly against the overthrow of the government sparking a huge debate within the party. Three months after the October revolution Lenin and Trotsky argued with packed meetings that the revolutionary government should accept savage terms from Germany for ending the war.

The party was not something outside the workers’ movement and workers’ councils. It was the means by which the most militant section of workers argued about polices and sought to win the others to their implementation. If the Bolshevik party had not existed, the parties that sought to tie workers to capitalism would have succeeded and the workers’ councils would have been drowned in blood – as they were in Germany barely 18 months later.

Strategy, Tactics and the Party of a New Sort

The struggle takes many forms. For long periods it involves what Antonio Gramsci called a war of position – a long, drawn out fight to make a slow advance. During this period, revolutionaries engage in hundreds of little battles – in trade union struggles, fighting against welfare cuts, anti-racist campaigns, building solidarity with strikes and campaigning at elections – to try to improve the condition of the working class a little and to win a few more people to revolutionary ideas.

Such actions in themselves leave capitalism intact while building the network of people who want to overthrow it. These networks only come into their own when the war of position gives way to what Gramsci called a war of manoeuvre – sudden, rapid confrontations in which the mood of millions of people can change overnight. If a revolutionary organisation is strong, its members can point vast numbers of people in the direction necessary for society as a whole to move forward. If it is weak or non-existent, people’s hope can turn to despair and everything goes backwards.

The class struggle is a form of warfare, even if for long periods it is a low intensity war. Both sides use strategy and tactics to try and gain a winning position. This is certainly true of the ruling class. At business association meetings, in exclusive clubs, at meetings of the G8 or European summits, in the columns of newspapers and magazines, such as the Financial Times and the Economist, members of the ruling class discuss how to create the conditions for profitability to rise, and how to beat back the inevitable resistance. Groupings of ruling class interests emerge that win the backing of the rest of their class for various measures designed to lull the resistance into passivity or to isolate one section from the rest, or split it down the middle. Through secret meetings and memos these groups pressure governments, top civil servants and police chiefs to act accordingly.

A revolutionary organisation rooted in the class struggle has to develop strategies and tactics to counter such manoeuvres. It has to identify the weak points in the resistance and do its best to overcome these, and must try to locate the weak points on the ruling class side. Sometimes it is simply a question of trying to hold people together in the face of a defeated strike or a demonstration smashed up by the police. Sometimes it is a question of seizing an opportunity to go on the offensive presented by a new confidence among workers and divisions within the ruling class. Often it is a question of winning a handful of people to the possibility of revolution, occasionally it is a question of leading millions of people in a direct assault on the power of the ruling class. There is no single set of tactics or slogans appropriate to every situation. These have to be worked out at every point in the struggle, and the revolutionary organisation has to operate in such a way as to put them to the test, to see which ideas work in practice.

This has important consequences. The organisation cannot be a loose federation of activists, each doing what they want without reference to one another. Their actions have to be coordinated, to provide a coherent response to the ruling class in an ever-changing struggle. This requires a degree of centralisation in the organisation, a willingness to come to decisions and to implement them collectively. It also necessitates democracy, as the only way to ensure decisions really fit the experience of members involved in different struggles.

In mainstream political parties there is always a separation between a leadership that works out policies and a membership that implements them. In the Labour Party tradition there is a further separation between those who engage in politics through the party’s electoral activity and those who engage in economic struggles through the unions. The revolutionary organisation aims to overcome both sorts of division. In the words of those who took part in the great revolutionary wave at the end of the First World War, it is a ‘party of a new sort’. It seeks to fight on every front – the economic, the political and the ideological – just as the ruling class does. It tries to mobilise at work and in the unions over political issues – against war or to oppose fascism – and sees ideological and theoretical debate not as something for academics, but as part of the process of clarifying issues for everyone involved in struggle. At the same time, the organisation does not neglect even the most elementary issue concerning wages and conditions in work, refusing to leave such issues to the reformism of the trade union leaders.

The United Front

The most important tactical question for revolutionaries concerns working with those workers who are influenced by reformist ideas. It is easy when someone first becomes a revolutionary to be dismissive of people who continue to have faith in reformist politicians or trade union leaders. After all, this means accepting parliamentarianism and the existing state and the idea of partnership with employers. But to refuse to work with such people is to turn your back on them and to abandon the class struggle.

This became a central issue for revolutionaries in the years immediately after 1917, when revolution had been victorious in Russia but failed in Germany and Italy because the majority of workers still looked to reformist leaders. It was a central issue again in the 1930s, when the spread of fascism threatened the existence of all working class organisations. It is central today when there is a growth of resistance to the system, but most of the world’s workers, peasants and poor people are far from accepting revolutionary socialist ideas.

The essential method for dealing with this, developed in 1917 and the years following it, was the ‘united front’. It rests upon the recognition that people who look to reformism want things that capitalism will not give without a struggle, and that reformist leaders will usually hesitate about leading such struggles. What people want can vary hugely from wage increases to the withdrawal of wage cuts, from protection of public services to political rights or an end to an imperialist war. In every case these are things that revolutionaries as well as reformists favour, and they cannot be won by revolutionaries alone.

In the 1930s, for example, fascism was a threat to every form of working class organisation as well as to Jews and other minorities. Hitler banned the Social Democratic Party as well as the Communist Party and dissolved the trade unions. The only way to defeat the Nazis and forestall the Holocaust and world war would have been to mobilise the strength of the entire working class. Tragically, it did not happen.

Similar considerations have applied since 2001 in the struggle against the wars waged by the US with British support. Revolutionaries oppose such wars out of principle, but our numbers alone would have no impact on the governments waging them. It is only by campaigning alongside vast numbers of people who do not share revolutionary views that ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan becomes a possibility.

Such unity cannot be built on ultimatums and preconditions. You cannot build unity against fascism if you work only with those who agree to oppose all capitalist governments. The demands around which a united front is established should be acceptable to people with reformist ideas, even when these are the minimum desired by revolutionaries.

Something else is important. To win large numbers of people to engage in joint struggle, when they still have faith in reformist politicians or trade union leaders, requires a call for united action to be addressed to those leaders, even though they cannot be trusted. The call has to be along these lines: ‘You say you stand for opposition to war. So do we. Let us fight together.’ If the leaders agree, we have a better chance to achieve the goal of the campaign and an opportunity, working alongside those who look to these leaders, to demonstrate the superiority of a revolutionary approach. If the leaders reject the call, it should be easier to win their followers away from such influence than if the call were never made.

Pursuing a united front does not mean revolutionaries dropping their disagreements with reformist leaders, who invariably attempt to backtrack on the struggle necessary to win. Revolutionaries must aim to persuade large numbers of people to carry the struggle forward if the reformist leaders refuse to do so. That means continuing to put revolutionary arguments in newspapers, leaflets, public meetings and individual discussions while engaged in united action.

How the united front is formed depends on concrete circumstances. Obviously, it does not make sense for revolutionaries to seek a united front with New Labour against a war waged by Tony Blair, or one against cuts in public services made by New Labour in government. But there should be attempts to involve Labour and trade union figures in united action on such issues, even though they disagree with revolutionaries on much else. This is how the Anti Nazi League was built in the late 1970s and a similar approach has been essential to the success of the Stop the War Coalition since 2001.

One final point: reformism does not always take a form associated with the Labour Party or trade unions. Movements can arise over single issues and not see a connection between that issue and capitalism as a whole. Building a united front may involve an approach to such movements or to well-known individuals identified with them. This is especially important in the struggle against racism. The issue is always how to draw people who do not accept revolutionary ideas into united struggle.

Last updated on 5 October 2016