I ARGUED last week that a revolutionary party is not necessary for a revolution to begin—but it is necessary for that revolution to succeed.
This raises the question of what a revolutionary socialist party actually is. There are two widespread approaches to this question—and both are wrong.
The first is that it is a revolutionary socialist party should be like the Labour Party in this country, or the social democrat parties of mainland Europe, but more left wing.
This was the approach of the first Marxist party in Britain, the Social Democrat Federation, more than a century ago. It was also tried by the old Communist Party's “British Road to Socialism” in the early 1950s.
Parliamentary electoral activity can provide revolutionary socialists with a way of putting across their ideas of class struggle to very large numbers of people. But it cannot be a substitute for waging that struggle in the workplace and the streets.
The great social crises that draw masses of people into politics are not fought out in parliamentary chambers or according to parliamentary timetables. A narrow focus on electioneering is at best ineffective, and at worst disastrous.
The second view of the revolutionary party is that of a tightly organised group that tells workers they need a revolution and that it will make it for them.
These groups hope that workers will turn to them when things get really desperate. Until that day, they steer clear of struggles against particular evils of capitalism, in case they create illusions in the possibility of reform.
This was the view of Auguste Blanqui, the 19th century French revolutionary, and that of Amadeo Bordiga, one of the most prominent Italian Communists of the early 1920s.
In many ways this left elitist approach is the mirror image of the left electoralist approach. They are both based on the notion that revolutionaries change society on behalf of the masses. Ordinary people merely provide passive support, whether it be for the left MP or the left armed fighter.
The genuinely revolutionary approach is very different. It argues that a break with the horrors of class society can only occur by workers taking power into their own hands. And it argues that the only way workers can gain the strength and understanding to do this is through their own struggles.
At times of great social crisis and revolutionary upheaval the majority of workers can be won to the arguments of revolutionaries and take the necessary action to overthrow the ruling class.
But even when times are far from revolutionary, there is always a minority of workers who can be won to revolutionary socialism.
Capitalism continually causes people to rebel against the pressures it places upon them, even if only in very small ways. This rebellion could be a short strike over wages, a campaign against housing privatisation, a protest over racism, or resistance to imperialist war.
But at any point in time there will be scores of struggles. In each of these struggles people challenge the priorities of the system. In doing so, they begin to raise questions in their own minds about how to transform the system as a whole.
A genuine revolutionary organisation attempts to draw these people together, so that they can clarify their ideas and collectively learn how to fight the system successfully.
This involves discussion, learning from the experience of past struggles, and analysing the system and the struggles against it today. It also involves feeding conclusions and ideas back into the day to day struggle.
The aim is to create a network of all the most militant people in each workplace and locality, so that they reinforce each other's strength, compensate for each other's weaknesses and learn from each other's experiences.
In this way revolutionaries can work to intervene in the different struggles that are taking place, drawing them closer together. They can also counter attempts by the ruling class and the media to turn groups of workers against one another.
This task is vital even when the level of struggle is low. Each defeat fragments workers, making it easier for reactionary despair to take hold. Each victory makes it that much harder for the ruling class to completely subdue workers and the poor.
When the struggle reaches a high pitch, the existence of a revolutionary organisation with a network of activists in every workplace and locality can become critically important.
When some people say they are opposed to “vanguard” organisations, what they are really saying is that they do not want the most militant workers to unite their forces and fight effectively against the system.
This fight takes many forms. For long periods of time it involves what the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci called a “war of position”—a long drawn-out struggle to make slow advances forward.
During such periods revolutionaries engage in a hundred little battles to try to improve the condition of the class and to win a few more people over to a revolutionary position.
Typically this involves being active in trade unions, fighting welfare cuts, standing up to the racists and building solidarity with strikes. It can also involve using elections to create a left wing focus for wide sections of people.
Such actions gradually build up the network of people who want to overthrow the capitalist system. These networks come into their own when the “war of position” gives way to what Gramsci called the “war of manoeuvre”—sudden, rapid confrontations in which the mood of millions can change overnight.
If the revolutionary organisation is weak or non-existent, people's hopes can turn to despair and everything gets sent backwards. But if it is strong, it can point vast numbers of people in the direction needed for society as a whole to move forward.
That's why it's so important for revolutionary socialists to join forces in a party and build it through engaging in real struggles and real movements.