THERE HAVE been many revolutions over the past 100 years. Every revolution has shown the potential power of ordinary people, but most have ended in defeat, compromise or simply a replacement of personnel at the top.
One exception is the Russian Revolution of October 1917, where workers did take power. The crucial difference was the role of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party.
Before them, the idea of a socialist party was that all workers would be grouped into a single party. This meant that you could have people with different politics in the same organisation – those who support tighter immigration controls, for example, as well as those that think they should be abolished.
Lenin’s model of a party starts with the fact that there is a whole spectrum of political ideas within the working class – from revolutionary to reactionary, with most people falling somewhere between.
The party groups together the revolutionaries so they can try to win over other people.
The party is never an end in itself, or a substitute for mass activity, but a means to reach out to other workers. The party and the movement should strengthen each other.
Lenin himself said that the better organised the party, “the greater the number of people from the working class and other social classes who will be able to join the movement”.
Lenin knew workers learn in struggle. He wrote, “Only struggle educates the exploited class. Only struggle discloses to it the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will.”
Yet in every struggle there is an argument about the way forward, about how far to go or who to trust.
In a revolution the same arguments happen on a much bigger scale. So in February 1917 a revolution started with women rioting for bread. It got rid of the Russian dictator the Tsar but left most issues unsolved – the war, land and food, and the old generals who started organising for revenge.
From February to October arguments raged about what to do.
The Bolsheviks had to both prove in practice that they were the best defenders of the revolution, and to argue about the need for workers’ power – to “patiently explain”as Lenin put it.
To conduct this sort of argument, an organisation needs roots. It is not enough just to turn up on the barricades with an essay about state power – who would listen to you?
The Bolsheviks were rooted through their activity and struggle in the years that preceded the revolution.
It also means that you need a party not made up of a leader and the led, but a whole party of leaders – people who have networks around them. In 1917 that meant the thousands of Bolsheviks in the factories and the army.
For Lenin, Marxism was not a dogma but a tool for change – and so was the party.
The Bolsheviks lived through periods of advance and retreat.
Lenin argued that the party had to change as the struggle changed. He knew that parties can become conservative and lag behind events.
So in 1902, faced with the repression of the Tsarist police, Lenin argued for tight knit groups of professional revolutionaries.
But in 1905, when workers were on the offensive with mass strikes, he argued to open up the party to a new influx of young revolutionary workers.
To those who tried to use his old arguments against him, he declared, “All these schemes, all these plans of organisation create the impression of red tape. Do not demand any formalities and, for heaven’s sake, send all functions, rights and privileges to the devil.”
The Bolsheviks were never a monolithic party. They were always a party of great debate and disagreement.
Lenin was often in a minority, even initially on key questions such as the October 1917 insurrection.
He had to win the party round to his position through argument and example.
Lenin understood the need to be both absolutely principled and tactically flexible. He was always against all forms of oppression, and always started from his confidence that working people could emancipate themselves.
Yet he was flexible on all tactical questions, seeing each concrete issue in relation to the overall struggle for revolution.
Despite being strangled in infancy by its isolation and by invading armies, the Russian Revolution gives us a glimpse of what socialism could be – when ordinary people run society, when women are not chained to the home and the family, when art and culture and politics belong to everyone.
The rise of Stalin after Lenin’s death in 1924, represented the defeat of the revolution and of all that Lenin stood for.
Today, with a new and growing movement against capitalism and war, Lenin offers us both a vision of liberation and some guides to how we achieve it.