Where movements contain real revolutionary potential, they create popular institutions that attract mass support.
Such institutions reach beyond workers and workplaces to other groups.
In present conditions, for example, a potentially revolutionary movement that failed to draw in college and high school students is unimaginable.
The networks formed between such popular bodies come to embody a vision of an alternative society, rooted in everyday life.
We’re about to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
Its most significant creation was the soviets. The word means “council” – bodies that workers, soldiers and peasants organised to represent their needs and aspirations.
First seen in 1905, the soviets re-emerged rapidly during the February 1917 revolution that overthrew the Tsar.
Close to people’s lives, and highly democratic, the soviets could change their delegates as easily as workers today can change a shop steward. After February they spread across Russia.
Revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky described how ordinary people started coming to the soviets for solutions to all manner of problems:
“The workers, soldiers and peasants... all ran to the soviet. Everybody brought his pains there.
“They demanded decisions, hoped for help, awaited justice, insisted on indemnification...
“The people believe in the soviet, the people are armed, therefore the soviet is the sovereign power.
“An uninterrupted flood of soldiers, workers, soldiers’ wives, small traders, mothers, fathers, kept opening and shutting the doors, sought, questioned, wept, demanded, compelled action – sometimes even indicating what action – and converted the soviet in very truth into a revolutionary government.”
This development gave real meaning to the Bolshevik slogan, “All power to the soviets.”
With the wartime slaughter continuing, food shortages worsening and peasants denied the land, the slogan chimed with popular experience.
Yet the idea still had to be argued for, developed and defended. Bolshevik arguments were vital.
The same kind of situation can arise without an equivalent to the Bolsheviks. A popular movement can gather in a population and then fail because no one connects the movement to the prospect of power.
One of the saddest examples occurred in 1980-81 in Poland. Solidarity recruited the majority of Polish workers in just three months. It spread to students, peasants, even to food queues and prisons.
It was infecting the civil police. Millions looked to Solidarity’s structures just as Trotsky had described.
There was, said one writer, an “orgy of participation” in the autumn of 1980. In battle after battle, the state retreated.
To its ever-growing membership, Solidarity seemed to embody the very meaning of freedom.
Bogdan Borusewicz, one of the leaders, described this mood:
“At this moment, people expect more of us than we can possibly do.
“In the eyes of the people the new trade union should do everything:
“They should fill the role of trade unions, participate in the administration of the country, be a political party and act as a militia, they should teach morals.”
Borusewicz seems to echo Trotsky, but with a crucial difference.
Trotsky celebrated the possibilities in this turning of people to the soviets. For Borusewicz, the same development was “a great problem for us”.
Solidarity’s leaders tried to limit all the popular impulses demanding that Solidarity become “the power”.
Every great movement contains such leaders.
Tragically, no one challenged them or offered a revolutionary vision of what Solidarity could be.
Solidarity’s leadership deliberately demobilised their own members, and prepared their own defeat.
By the early winter of 1981, the membership was fragmented, discouraged, reduced to passivity.
Only then did the state act, declaring martial law and jailing the Solidarity leadership.
Much of the work of a socialist revolution is achieved before the “seizure of power”, in the growth and development by testing of new popular institutions.
“Seizing power” is no more than tidying up, completing vital processes across the whole of society.
But it takes conscious revolutionaries to see the significance of those popular institutions, to show the need for their extension, their coming to power.