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Why we need a revolutionary party

01 October 1998

IN FEBRUARY 1917 the workers, soldiers, sailors, and peasants of Russia revolted against the slaughter of the First World War and the tyrannical regime of Tsar Nicholas II. The workers, soldiers and sailors in the main cities organised themselves, spontaneously, in workers’ councils (soviets).

Delegates from the different factories, working class districts and from different regiments in the army constituted an alternative power, based on direct working class democracy. Workers, soldiers and sailors elected delegates from mass meetings to the soviet. Direct representatives, they were accountable and recallable to the workers who elected them. But this did not lead to the workers and their allies taking power immediately. The representatives of the most popular parties in the soviets, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, believed that Russia was not ready for a socialist revolution and instead proceeded to organise a series of short lived governments with the main bourgeois politicians. They resisted the call for “all power to the soviets” in favour of ceding power to the bourgeois Provisional Government.

Within the soviets the Bolshevik Party challenged these parties with clear revolutionary policies. The Bolsheviks fought to win all power for the soviets. Through patient explanation the Bolsheviks defeated the bourgeois parties in the soviets and won the mass of workers and soldiers to insurrection. Soviets led by Bolsheviks were the key to revolutionary victory.

The Bolshevik Party did not appear from nowhere in 1917. It originated within the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP), a party which united all revolutionary Marxists in the Russian empire at the start of the century. In 1903 a row broke out at the RSDLP’s founding congress. What appeared to be at first a minor organisational question, over what it meant to be a member of the party, proved to be a key political question in the fight for revolution.

Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik faction, argued in line with what had up until then been the common position of the entire leadership of the RSDLP, that the organisation needed to be a militant, professional and centralised organisation. Its members would have to be under the discipline of one of the party organisations and fight for the party programme, what was later to become known as democratic centralism.

The party would be organised democratically, with freedom of discussion among the members leading to a vote on the party’s programme, policies, tactics and action. Once a decision had been made then every member of the party would be obliged to fight for it.

Lenin won a majority at the 1903 congress after a number of his opponents walked out. (Bolshevik is the Russian word for majority). The minority, Mensheviks, (from the Russian word for minority) argued for a looser form of organisation. They refused to accept the right of the congress to elect the editorial board of the party paper, Iskra.

This was not just a question of the formal constitution of the party but was directly related to the political tasks of the Social Democrats. In the previous year, Lenin wrote a very important work, What is to be Done?, that remains a vital guide for revolutionaries in the struggle today.

Lenin explained that without a conscious political leadership, a party, the working class’ economic struggle inside the workplace will not, spontaneously, generate a revolutionary socialist consciousness. The party is the bearer of that consciousness, fighting within every sphere of class struggle against capitalism and oppression—not just within the workplace over economic issues—to win the working class and oppressed to the revolutionary programme.

Capitalism conceals the exploitation and oppression that is inherent within it. Selling your labour seems to be a fair deal. It appears to be a “free” contract between a boss and a worker. Systematic exploitation is not immediately obvious, even if the effects of it, like low pay are. And it is precisely the fight over the effects—the fight for a better deal, “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”, for reforms within capitalism—that workers spontaneously take up. To go beyond this requires an understanding of capitalism, an understanding of its entire system of exploitation and oppression and a programme of action to fight it. Without this the spontaneous struggle is limited to trade union, reformist consciousness.

Lenin called the spontaneous development of trade union consciousness “the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie”. Trade union consciousness and political reformism—the natural political expression of trade unionism—are bourgeois political ideologies even though they are based on workers’ organisations. And the strength of such ideology is that it is perpetrated on a daily basis by the vast propaganda machine—now infinitely more extensive than in Lenin’s day—of the press, the broadcasting media and so on. As Lenin noted:

“bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology . . . it is more fully developed, and . . .  it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination.”

Of course none of this means that the party stands aside from the day to day struggle of the class, bringing socialist consciousness from without in a passive and sectarian way. Far from it. The party roots itself in the working class. It learns from and generalises the lessons of its struggles, past and present. It serves as the memory of the class as well as its vanguard.

But if it was simply an organisational tool for uniting working class struggles as they unfold it would be little more than a glorified, albeit militant, trade union. In order to both learn from and teach the working class the party must have a programme of action for defeating capitalism and not just ameliorating its worst effects.

Today many activists object to the idea of a revolutionary party because they are against “leaders”. As the revolutionary party unashamedly seeks to lead the working class activists in various protest movements, local campaigns and so on, they declare themselves to be “against parties”.

The history of so many parties—from the Stalinist bureaucratic monstrosities, to the clique dominated reformist social democratic parties and the so-called “Trotskyist” or “revolutionary” parties and sects, run like feudal fiefdoms by unaccountable leaders—gives plenty of cause for suspicion. But two things prove that the genuinely revolutionary party is different.

Democratic centralism

The first is the concept of democratic centralism itself. Some argue this is a bureaucratic and undemocratic way of organising. Quite the opposite. Democratic centralism means the maximum level of debate and discussion within the party over the correct tactics and programme to adopt. But when a decision has been reached, then the greatest unity must be presented by the party to the working class. Capital is a highly centralised social force. To overthrow it we must have unity in action.

The working class spontaneously gravitates towards democratic centralist types of organisation during times of struggle. The importance of unity and solidarity are well understood by workers on strike. Decisions are made about tactics and strategy in an open and democratic environment. But anybody who breaks with the decision of the majority once a vote has been taken, becomes a strike breaker, a traitor and a scab.

This democracy must be preserved at all costs and only ever temporarily suspended when repression or illegality make normal democratic functioning practically impossible. It is vital for holding the leaders of the party to account, for allowing dissenters to air their views and to allow mistakes to be corrected. It is the only guarantee against organisational degeneration.

Centralism, the intervention into the external world is the other. For without it, with a free-for-all by party members of different views, nobody would be accountable, no policy could be tested and corrected, no leader held responsible for a success or a mistake. The party that acted without centralism would become a laughing stock and quickly fall apart. Centralism in action is equally a guarantee against degeneration.


The second factor that marks out the revolutionary party is that it is open in its quest for leadership of the working class. It “disdains” as Karl Marx said “to conceal its views”. And those who say “no leaders” are always, but always, led by cliques or charismatic individuals who direct operations and make the key decisions. The difference between them and revolutionary leaders is that we believe in accountability. Our leaders are chosen and can be replaced. After all, every struggle requires and finds leadership. Without it, on a picket line for example, the police will have a field day. Our side will have nobody directing our forces to the key points of the struggle while the police commanders direct theirs to the best effect. In reality strike committees and militants selected as picket leaders demonstrate the way in which workers in struggle can find a leadership.

And in every wider struggle leaderships emerge. While reformist consciousness prevails that leadership will be reformist. And the cost, in strikes, in campaigns, in the struggle for progressive legislation, is that we are sold out or sold short by these leaders.

Revolutionary leadership will break the hold of the reformists and win the support of the masses of the working class. Like the Bolsheviks in 1917, we do not do this by tricks or deceit but by proving ourselves the most consistent fighters for the interests of the working class, we do it by placing ourselves at the forefront of every struggle, by acting, as Lenin said, as “tribunes of the people”. Above all, without revolutionary leadership, the revolution cannot triumph. In Indonesia a powerful uprising overthrew a rotten regime. It mobilised thousands upon thousands demanding change. But suddenly it stalled, not because the masses were satisfied. Poverty and hunger are still rife but the leaders of that revolution favoured a compromise with a wing of the old regime. Their leadership deliberately held back the revolution and will try to kill it off altogether once they have satisfied their own limited demands for democratic reform.

Only a revolutionary leadership can take this movement forward to a victory over the decaying capitalism that spells misery for millions of Indonesians.

The revolutionary party needs to be organised and prepared at all levels. From the intervention into workers’ meetings, to leading strikes and participating in revolutionary struggles, the party must be politically and organisationally prepared. A revolutionary party will unite those workers who have learnt the lessons of their struggles in a single organisation that can utilise these lessons to lead the entire working class.

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