From Russia in 1905 to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 the 20th century was an era of revolutions. Yet the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the only one that was successful in putting the working class in power. What was different about the 1917 revolution?
Karl Marx argued that spontaneous resistance is an inevitable product of capitalism. There is an inherent tension in a system where an elite live in fabulous wealth, owning and controlling all political and economic power, while the vast majority of us work long hours for a pittance.
But history demonstrates that however inspiring, spontaneity alone is not enough to win.
For a workers’ revolution to be successful there also needs to be socialist organisation. Spontaneity and organisation are not opposing forces – they are both essential ingredients of a successful revolution.
In Russia it was the existence of a revolutionary party, the Bolshevik party, which meant that the courageous struggles of workers, soldiers and peasants resulted in a seizure of power.
As Leon Trotsky wrote, the party is the piston that propels the steam of the class struggle forward. The piston alone is powerless, but unchannelled steam could dissipate and lose momentum.
The Bolsheviks were rooted in the most militant layers of Russian society, among workers, soldiers and peasants. They were not separate from the working class.
They had fought alongside their fellow workers, suffered defeats and won victories together and had won respect in the course of leading struggles.
But it wasn’t just about being the best activists. They published leaflets, newspapers, pamphlets and books to spread socialist ideas and helped educate workers on everything from the fight against imperialism to women’s rights.
The use of the word “bolshy” today in popular language to describe someone who argues and won’t accept orders comes from these courageous revolutionaries.
The sort of party organisation the Bolsheviks had is often called “Leninist” after one its best-known leaders.
Some falsely characterise Leninist parties as having an autocratic leadership that goes around giving orders, which every member has to automatically and mindlessly obey.
This view more aptly describes a party like the Labour Party, which today has no mechanism for the membership to challenge the actions or views of the leadership.
The Labour Party boasts that it is a “broad church”. But this means that they have as members both bosses and workers, black people and racists, gay people and homophobes.
A revolutionary party has only one view on racism – it is simple, racists are not welcome.
A revolutionary party is not a broad church. It is an organisation of the most politically conscious and most militant working class activists. Lenin called this a vanguard party.
The Bolshevik party was highly democratic. Lenin did not impose his views on the party membership.
On several occasions he found himself in a minority among the leadership of the Bolsheviks and had to argue to win his comrades in the leadership and in the wider party.
But he did not come to any situation with all the answers. He listened to workers’ own experiences. His strength as a leader was his ability to learn from the class and to be prepared to change tack.
For example, during the revolution in 1905 workers had organised workers’ councils – soviets – for the first time. They were not a Leninist invention but Lenin recognised what an important tool they were.
He foresaw how they had the potential to provide an alternative democratic structure for workers and peasants to organise society, and championed their power in 1917.
One of the key features of a Leninist organisation is its internal democracy – democratic centralism.
After discussion throughout the structures and membership of the party, when a decision is made to act, everyone acts as one and all are accountable.
This is very different to mainstream political parties. MPs are elected every five years and even if they vote for something the majority of their constituents disagree with, they can’t be recalled during that time.
It is, however, a method that will be familiar to any trade unionist. If the majority vote for a strike then every member, including those who voted against, have to support the strike. Otherwise the only real power that working class people have – the power of the collective – is lost.
The Bolsheviks won a mass membership among workers and peasants solely by demonstrating time after time through their actions that they had the ideas to win.
One worker said at the time, “The Bolsheviks have always said, ‘it is not we who will persuade you but life itself’.”
Across the globe, millions still face war, famine and exploitation. As revolts against the system break out from Burma to Venezuela the question of what sort of party workers need is more important than ever.
Revolutionaries today are active in everyday work in trade unions and local communities. We are part of every struggle, from the smallest protest to the biggest strike.
We want to be the people who always have practical and concrete ideas for the way forward. We also make the connections between every act of resistance and a wider socialist vision of how the mass of ordinary people can take control of their lives.
Revolutionaries try to give a lead to all those who want to fight for a better world.
For as the US journalist John Reed said of the monumental struggles in Russia during1917, “The masses of workers are capable not only of great dreams, but they have in them the power to make the dreams come true”.