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What Is Marxism?

The Role Of A Revolutionary Party

by Judy Beishon


OVER 150 years ago, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels explained the need to overthrow capitalism and bring in a new form of society, socialism.

This raises the question: How exactly is capitalism to be overthrown and the transformation made to socialism? Lenin and his co-revolutionaries in Russia provided the answer at the beginning of the 20th century, by building the Bolshevik Party. The Bolsheviks led the Russian workers in overthrowing the Tsarist state and bringing in a workers’ state based on a planned economy.

However, since then, despite capitalism causing an increasing level of suffering, poverty and environmental degradation on the planet and despite titanic workers’ struggles in many countries at different times, the overthrow of capitalism leading to a democratic workers’ state has not yet again been accomplished.

Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the 1917 Russian revolution, summed up the reason in 1938 when he wrote: "The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership" (from The Transitional Programme, written for the founding congress of the Fourth International). These words are as true today as they were then.

Discussion on the need for a revolutionary party and its form of organisation is very important today, especially as many young people regard themselves as ‘anti-capitalist’ and are interested in socialist ideas, but have a degree of mistrust towards political parties. This is hardly surprising given the bureaucratic and undemocratic methods of the main capitalist political parties and the attacks they make on living standards when in power.

Young people can also be wary of organisation itself and of leadership bodies, sometimes because of their awareness of the past existence of the repressive and bureaucratic Stalinist regimes, sometimes for other reasons such as an experience of the remote leaderships of many trade unions. As a result of factors like these, young people can be driven towards the idea of spontaneous, ‘unorganised’ action and loose networks.

However, although there are times when spontaneous action can spur events along, there are great limitations to this type of action. It provides no forum for democratic debate about what is to be done and how to develop it afterwards.

It could leave people involved in the action at the mercy of state repression, through lack of stewarding and planning. And it is not an efficient form of action. When a large number of people protest in a planned and united manner, the impact is likely to be far greater than it would be with disparate action in which every individual acts separately or in small groups.

This pamphlet deals with the role and building of a revolutionary party based on the organisational form developed by the Bolshevik Party: Democratic Centralism. This does not mean that the methods of organisation and role of such a party are appropriate for broader workers’ organisations or parties. A new mass workers’ party in Britain would be a great step forward. It could help develop workers’ struggles and speed up the rehabilitation of socialist ideas.

In such a party, a federal, democratic form of organisation which would allow as many workers’ groups and organisations, left organisations and individuals to become involved, would be most appropriate initially. However, the urgent need for a new mass workers’ party does not contradict the need to also develop the forces of revolutionary Marxism in Britain and internationally.

In fact revolutionary parties have often worked as part of larger, broader parties for a period of time and this is likely to be the case when new mass workers’ parties are formed in the future.

Role of a revolutionary party

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 take place. The end result, in the absence of a revolutionary party is clear from examples given later – the revolution will fail or will not lay the basis for socialism. So a revolutionary party is essential, but what role should it play?

A revolutionary party does not create the conditions that lead to workers’ struggles, but when those conditions exist, the party can play a key role in speeding up the development of workers’ consciousness 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".

Firstly, a revolutionary party must base itself on a Marxist analysis of past workers’ struggles and the lessons arising from them. In particular, the writings of Marx himself, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky are vital aids in learning from past events and how to use the tool of a Marxist approach. 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 text books pretend to be objective and factual, when in most cases they are interpreting historical events and struggles from the standpoint of capitalism. A revolutionary party therefore has to carry out a different type of education entirely: the viewing of historical events from a working class and a Marxist point of view.

Secondly, members of a revolutionary party must themselves be part of the day-to-day activities and struggles of the workers and young people around them, so they can learn from experiencing events first-hand, gain the respect of those involved through participating alongside them and so they can assess the general consciousness at each stage. The party is then in a position to work out what tasks are necessary to take a struggle forward.

The working class (and the middle class) does not form a uniform layer in any country. There are always differences in material circumstances, political understanding and outlook.

People do not 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; that draws struggles together as far as possible, widens support for them and raises consciousness on the next steps that are needed.

The party explains the nature of the capitalist class, that it is also not a uniform layer but has its own contradictions and failings as a class and that it can be split and defeated. In doing all this, the party uses its collective knowledge of past lessons and the future tasks that are necessary, but must skilfully apply this knowledge, taking into account the level and stage of workers’ consciousness and also workers’ traditions.

How important is a party?

It is only necessary to look at the lessons of revolutions that have failed, to understand why a revolutionary party is vital.


AFTER THE Russian Revolution, the German working class tried to overthrow capitalism in Germany in 1918. However, the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party had a reformist ideology – they believed that capitalism should be changed only gradually – and this led to defeat of the revolution and the murder of the great revolutionary leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

In 1923, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France created a major crisis and an opportunity for the working class to sweep German capitalism aside. This time, the Communist Party (CP) had widespread support amongst workers, but the CP leaders failed to prepare them adequately for the task of changing society and to give leadership when the situation was most ripe for carrying out this 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. Fearful of a new revolution, the ruling class poured funds into the Nazi Party.

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

The Communist International even advocated that the CP should unite with the fascists against the Social Democrats! German CP leaders took the fatal position that Hitler would be no worse than the government they had already, and anyway, if Hitler 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.


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

They were organised in four main parties: the Anarchists, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the smaller POUM. However, despite the revolutionary aspirations of their members, the leaders of these parties failed to take the necessary steps to consolidate the gains of the workers and peasants.

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

For them, the task was therefore 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 murder thousands of trade unionists and working-class activists and to bring in 40 years of brutal fascist dictatorship.

Lessons of Chile

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 increased, a degree of land reform carried out and free milk given to school children. Faced with these measures, the enraged capitalist class was preparing a coup to smash 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 the Popular Unity government and the working-class movement was strengthening. A revolutionary party would have supported workers’ demands for arms to defeat the counter-revolutionary forces that were preparing. It would also have supported the organisation of councils of workers, peasants, soldiers, small shopkeepers etc, to become the real bodies of power.

However, the masses were held back by the Socialist and Communist Party leaders of the Popular Unity coalition. These ‘leaders’ 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 all working-class activists, socialists and communists.

Unfortunately, many other examples can be given of failed revolutions with tragic consequences: the Hungarian Commune in 1919, the Italian workers in 1920, the Chinese revolution in 1925-7, Portugal in 1974-6 and many more. In the Portuguese revolution, 70% of industry, the banks and finance houses were in the hands of the state. The British newspaper, The Times, announced that capitalism was dead in Portugal. But the Socialist and Communist 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 struggle, that succeeded in overthrowing capitalism and ended up introducing a planned economy, such as in China from 1949 onwards and Cuba from 1959. But the revolutionary parties that led these movements did not set out with the aim of building socialism and as they were based on the peasantry rather than the working class, they were unable to bring about democratic socialist societies (see ‘Role of the Working Class’ below).

 Marxists described the resulting regimes as ‘deformed workers’ states’, because although they were able to raise living standards dramatically for the mass of the people for a period of time on the basis of having a planned economy, they were highly repressive regimes which were not based on workers’ democracy.


The Bolsheviks

CONTRAST THESE above examples with the events in Russia in 1917. Lenin realised that for Russian workers to defeat the dictatorial Tsarist state, an organised and disciplined force would be necessary. He spearheaded the building of the Bolshevik Party as a party that educated its members on past struggles, reached decisions through democratic discussion and debate at all levels of the party and acted in a unified manner when carrying out its campaigns and actions.

Leon Trotsky wrote in his pamphlet 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 the allegiance of the advanced layer of the working class, they were able to lead the workers to victory in the October revolution. The Tsarist state apparatus was completely removed and replaced with a democratic workers’ state, based on a planned economy.

The workers’ state degenerated politically under the leadership of Stalin due to its isolation (following the failure of revolutions in Germany, Austria and Hungary), added to by the hardship of civil war and problems of economic under-development. However, this degeneration does not negate the fact that the Bolsheviks carried out a successful revolution, a titanic event in human history that transformed the lives of hundreds of millions, and the lessons that can be learnt from their experience.


Role of the Working Class

ANALYSIS OF past struggles and revolutions shows that only the working class can play a leading role amongst the oppressed masses in a revolution that can both overthrow 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 problems and aims among them.

Workers in different industries or services often face similar working conditions and wage levels and sometimes job insecurity. The middle class - the ‘petit-bourgeoisie’ - are the middle layers in society that are not wage labourers, ie the self-employed, small farmers, small business people, etc. Professional workers (teachers, lawyers, doctors, etc) and managers also tend to be regarded as ‘middle class’ even though they are usually employees working for a monthly wage.

Increasingly, as capitalism’s economic contradictions and crises deepen, most people in the middle layers of society are forced closer to the conditions of the working class and so share many of their problems and aspirations.

The middle layer as a class however, due to its relative diversity, and in rural areas due to its scattered and isolated conditions, has never proved capable of playing an independent role as a class. A layer are drawn to support the capitalist class and the maintenance of capitalism, but a majority can be won to support a revolutionary movement led by the working class and can play a very important role, if the workers’ movement (led by a revolutionary party) adopts a programme that appeals to them.

So a revolutionary party must base itself mainly on the working class – the ‘proletariat’ – 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 divisions, for example by sometimes encouraging racial division or by using different wage levels. Workers need to unite in an organised manner in a revolutionary party so they can overcome these divisions as far as possible under the present system and unite in the struggles that are necessary to develop their class interests.

As Trotsky said in his article ‘What Next?’: "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".


The programme of the party

"The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a programme; the programme cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party" (Trotsky, ‘What Next?’)

TO BE fully armed for future events, a revolutionary party needs to have the programme of revolutionary Marxism, which is a body of ideas based on the first four congresses of the Communist International, the founding documents of the Fourth International and the accumulated experience of the Trotskyist movement since then (which means at present, particularly the experience of the Committee for a Workers’ International).

As well as being based on ideas and perspectives, the programme should include demands which are developed at each stage of the class struggle. These should not just echo the mood and existing demands of workers, but while fully taking these into account, needs to include steps ahead so it can raise consciousness, both on the immediate tasks necessary and on the need for socialism.

Aspects of the programme have to be regularly revised and updated, to keep up with events as they take place and they must be tested out in practise. James Cannon, (One of the founders of the Trotskyist movement in the USA in the 1930s) in his article ‘The Revolutionary Party’ made the point that the programme has to be continually taken to workers for "consideration, adoption, action and verification".

Some parties believe that it is sufficient to simply proclaim themselves in favour of revolution to be a revolutionary party. Most such parties have historically been ‘centrist’ parties, that is, parties in which the leaders made revolutionary-sounding speeches, but when it came to decisive moments in a struggle, would switch to a reformist position and fail to take the struggle forward. They would waver between reform and revolution, not least because their parties were not based on a full Marxist revolutionary programme.


How is a party built?

THE BUILDING of a revolutionary party is far from automatic; it must be consistently and consciously built by its members. It usually begins with small numbers. A small force cannot easily have widespread influence, so the weight of its work has to be geared to socialist propaganda and to discussing its 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 as well as of propaganda and agitation.

How is a small party built into a large one? This is dependent on both a correct Marxist approach and orientation and on major events and upheavals in society.

 Trotsky wrote:

"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 growing through the direct recruitment of individuals and groups, revolutionary parties can at certain times be built through fusions with other organisations. However a successful fusion depends on whether principled agreement can be reached beforehand on the key contemporary issues of perspectives, programme, orientation and strategy.

Whatever size the party is, hard work and self-sacrifice by its members are indispensable. 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).


What type of party

THE BOLSHEVIKS in Russia, under the driving force of Lenin, used Democratic Centralism as their form of organisation. Democratic Centralism has nothing in common with the organisational forms used by Stalinist parties.

They were repressive, bureaucratic and undemocratic parties. In Russia, the Stalin-led Communist Party inherited the organisational form spearheaded by Lenin but then moved away from it to suit the interests of the growing layer of bureaucrats. Democratic Centralism, on the other hand, is the most democratic form of organisation ever known. Using it, the party thrives on discussion and debate, but when it comes to action, can act in an organised and united manner. There has never been a more effective form of organisation.

Democratic Centralism means firstly that all issues concerning the party are discussed as fully as members think necessary at every level of the party. This does not mean that the party becomes just a talking shop with endless debates. Discussions should be conducted with the aims of the party in mind; particularly for political education 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 are always trying to develop their own political education and abilities, so that collectively the right decisions can be arrived at. The main political ideas and perspectives of the party, as well as all key organisational matters, should be decided by a conference (usually annual) of branch delegates elected by rank-and-file members.

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

Whether there are five, twenty 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 a 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 by majority vote is made, that member should act according to the decision outside the party. 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, organising a tendency or faction with others of similar view if felt necessary.

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, depending on the concrete situation. Democratic Centralism is not a rigid formula. As well as being applied flexibly depending on the stage of a party, 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 members with special needs?

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 decide on the allocation of resources and on the boundaries for acceptable behaviour, while understanding that it is not possible to build the party with a membership that is untouched by the problems of society today.


Party Leadership

IN HIS article: ‘The Class, the Party and the Leadership’ Trotsky explained the necessary relation between the three layers in the article’s title. He said that 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.

A revolutionary party needs leaders at every level of its structure who are capable of giving a political and organisational lead to party work. Rank-and-file members who are immersed in political work in a local area do not always have enough information or time to be able to assess and have an overview of the situation regionally, nationally and internationally.

They elect those who they see as the most capable politically and organisationally to give leadership on the basis of gaining a wider overview and deeper insight than they themselves can always maintain. Rank-and-file members must always assess the quality of leadership provided by those they have elected so that changes can be made if necessary. All elected leaders must be fully accountable to those who elected them and subject to instant recall.

A good leadership of a revolutionary party depends on having a politically educated and critical rank and file, because such a rank and file is most able to select the best candidates for leading positions and to change them if necessary. Even the greatest leaders need the check of those at the root of their party. Without this check, leadership committees or individual leaders could eventually succumb to reformist 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 that:

"The maturity of each member of the party expresses itself particularly in the fact that he does 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."

Leaders should have no financial privileges over and above necessary expenses and leaders and public representatives of the party should not take more than the average wage of a skilled worker. Party leaders should in fact set an example to all members through their own willingness to make sacrifices of time and money, and not ask members to make greater sacrifices than they themselves are prepared to make.

In between meetings of party bodies at every level, leadership bodies have to take decisions to take the party work forward, so members need to have confidence in their leaders' ability to arrive at correct decisions. This can only be developed through ongoing testing of leaders in the course of events and debates. It is also important to sometimes have some renewal in the composition of leadership bodies, so that they do not become stale and set in their ways.

Some of the norms to preserve democracy in a revolutionary party are also applicable to elected leaders in a socialist society after a successful revolution. Prior to the Russian Revolution, Lenin laid down some essential conditions to aid the prevention of the development of bureaucracy after the revolution: All officials and leaders to be accountable to those who elect them; to be subject to recall and de-election at any time if rank-and-file members view it as necessary; to only take the average wage of an ordinary worker; and for there to be regular rotation of elected leaders or officers.

Internationalism … and after the revolution

ALTHOUGH CAPITALISM is based on nation states, the capitalist economy is interlinked throughout the world. No socialist state could survive for a prolonged time, or begin to solve the problems on the planet in isolation.

So socialism is needed internationally, which means that a revolutionary party is necessary internationally. It is invaluable and important for revolutionary parties in different countries of the world to participate together in a revolutionary international. This enables them to make a more complete analysis of world events through discussion with sister parties and to share the lessons of party-building experiences. It can mean that potentially fatal mistakes are avoided in individual countries.

The role of a revolutionary international will also be very important after a successful revolution, through appealing to workers throughout the world to support the revolution and to refuse to be used against it in military ventures by their own capitalist classes, and through making sure that the revolution spreads as rapidly as possible to other countries.

Nor would the role of a revolutionary party in a single country end after a successful revolution. The party would need to arm all workers with its experience and knowledge to ensure the defeat of any counter-revolutionary attempts by the small minority in society that made up the old ruling class.

The party would also help ensure that the new socialist society develops along healthy lines, with fully democratic workers’ control and management of production and services on the basis of a planned economy. Just as a midwife keeps a check on the health of a new-born baby once she or he has assisted the delivery, so a revolutionary party helps 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 presently unimaginable by a majority of people worldwide; one 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 damage reversed; and in which the talents of every person can be used to further develop society onto an unprecedented plane.


Reading list:

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

Leninism Under Lenin, Marcel Liebman

The Spanish Revolution 1931-9, Leon Trotsky

The Struggle against Fascism in Germany, Leon Trotsky

The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution, Leon Trotsky


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