REVOLUTION AND THE PARTY
Written for Socialist Worker, 15 March 2008
‘Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it!’ So wrote the young Karl Marx in 1845.
The need to change the world has seldom been so obvious. Six trillion dollars for an illegal war, while food prices soar and millions starve! Such are the priorities of the system we live under. The accumulation of almost unimaginable wealth by the likes of Bill Gates and the Walton family, while tens of millions live below the poverty line and that is just in the rich United States, never mind the impoverished third world. Imperialism, torture, racism, sexism – all still thriving in the twenty first century – and a recession looming for which working people will be asked to pay the price. The world hurtling towards climate catastrophe, driven by profit, while politicians twiddle their thumbs.
These and a thousand other wrongs cry out to be righted, and for a fundamental change of direction. The question is how to achieve it.
Unfortunately the most obvious method, the method the system itself holds out to people – namely, electing a government to put through reforms – simply doesn’t work. The present New Labour administration is the eleventh Labour government, each and every one elected on a promise to govern ‘in the interests of the many not the few’ or to ‘shift the balance of power in favour of working people’ or some such slogan. And yet we are no nearer a just and equal society. On the contrary, inequality is increasing, attacks on civil liberties are announced by the day by the day, and war mongering grows apace.
If, in 2009, the American people elect Baruch Obama on a programme of ‘change’, they will discover that what changes is not the system but Baruch Obama.
None of this means the right to vote doesn’t matter or that socialists shouldn’t find ways to use the electoral system to put over their views. Socialist Worker will urge its readers to vote for Lindsey German for London Mayor and for other Respect candidates in the May elections. But it does mean that the parliamentary road is not the way to achieve fundamental social change.
A very different strategy was advocated by Karl Marx. Marx argued that change would have to be brought about not for working people but by working people.’The emancipation of the working class’, he wrote,’ must be conquered by the working class itself’. This meant a mass workers’ movement from below overthrowing capitalism so as to establish social ownership of main means of production and production for human need, under democratic workers’ control. To achieve this revolution it would be necessary to break up the existing state machine (army, police, judiciary etc) which serves the capitalist class, and create a new state apparatus serving the working class.
Of course many people dismiss this strategy as unrealistic. In fact it is far more realistic than the strategy of parliamentary reform. It understands that real power in society lies not in parliament but in the boardrooms of big business. It is realistic about the role of the army, police and other state institutions and how they would be behave in a crisis i.e. intervening to protect capitalism. It is realistic about the social force needed to defeat the capitalist class and its state – nothing less than the mass action of millions of workers.
It is also proved by history that this strategy is a real option not a utopian dream. Time and again working people have risen up and challenged capitalism: in July 1848in Paris; in Paris again in 1871 with the Paris Commune, when the working class ran the city for 74 days before it was drowned in blood; in Russia in 1905 and 1917; in Italy in the ‘red years of 1919-20; in the German Revolution of 1918-23, the British General Strike of 1926 and the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27; in Spain in 1936 and Hungary in 1956; in the French May Events in 1968, and in Chile in 1972; in the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-75 and the Iranian Revolution of 1979-80, to give some of the most important examples.
Many of these episodes are not well known because, by and large, they get written out of the school textbooks and the TV history documentaries, but they are historical fact and they prove the revolutionary potential of the working class. In many of them, for example Hungary 1956 and Chile 1972, the working class actually began creating organs of workers’ power with which to establish a new society.
But, of course, there has been a problem. In all these examples bar one, the workers have been defeated, often bloodily. The only exception is Russia 1917 where the Revolution succeeded and the working class held power for a number of years before losing it to Stalinist counter-revolution brought on by the failure of the revolution to spread. What made the Russian Revolution different? Above all, it was the presence of, and leadership exercised by Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.
In February 1917 the Bolsheviks numbered about 26,000: by October they had grown to about 400.000 and had the support of all the key sections of the Russian working class and also of the soldiers and sailors. It was decisive action by the Bolshevik Party that enabled the Soviets (workers’ councils) to take power and prevented the crushing of the Revolution by the fascist General Kornilov.
There are two main reasons why a revolutionary party is essential for the working class to win, and they apply as much to Britain and the world today as they did in Russia in 1917. The first is that the enemy – the capitalist class - is highly organised and centralised, particularly by means of the capitalist state. To defeat this enemy the working class must also be organised and centralised – it must be able to act in a unified way at the decisive moment.
The second is the uneven development of the working class in terms of its consciousness, confidence and struggle. In normal times the ideas of the ruling class, ideas which justify capitalism, dominate society and have a big influence on the working class. The working class can free itself from this influence through mass struggle but this process does not occur uniformly or evenly. In every industry, workplace and community some workers become militant socialists, some remain scabs and racists and many vacillate between these opposed poles. For the class as a whole to act effectively, the socialist elements within it have to organise themselves to increase their influence on the majority and eliminate the influence of the scabs. That organisation of worker socialists is the revolutionary party.
Moreover the experience of the twentieth century has shown, and Lenin was the first to understand this, that this party has to be politically and organisationally independent of the reformist politicians and union leaders, even though it often works with, or they will paralyse its ability to act at crucial moments.
If the revolutionary party is to play its necessary role in a revolution it must be built in advance of the revolution and if in a revolutionary situation that role is decisive the party also makes a difference in all the struggles leading up to a revolution, all the battles of today. Building the revolutionary party is therefore a vital task in the here and now.
In Britain today there are many left campaigns and various left grouplets but there is only one organisation seriously building a revolutionary party in the working class on a nationwide basis – that is the Socialist Workers Party.
The SWP has thousands of members organised in branches across the country and participates in many campaigns. It played a central role in the great mobilizations against the Iraq War and continues to play a leading part in the Stop the War Coalition; it is also actively involved in RESPECT, Unite Against Fascism, Defend Council Housing, the Campaign against Climate Change and it works consistently in the trade unions for militant action to defend workers rights.
The SWP is far from the finished article. Crucially it is still far too small to be able to lead the mass of the working class. It must be built. That’s why everyone who wants to see serious socialist change in Britain and the world should join now.
5 March 2008