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
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
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
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’
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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’
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
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.
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.