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Revolution and the party

This article is over 16 years, 4 months old
Organisation is vital to win fundamental change. John Molyneux asks what sort of party we need and looks at some lessons from previous mass struggles
Issue 2092
SWP members joined with activists from around the world at the European Social Forum in London in 2004  (Pic: Duncan Brown)
SWP members joined with activists from around the world at the European Social Forum in London in 2004 (Pic: Duncan Brown)

The young Karl Marx wrote in 1845, “Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it.” The need to change the world has seldom been so obvious. $6 trillion has been spent on the Iraq war, while food prices soar and millions starve.

The likes of Bill Gates accumulate almost unimaginable wealth, while tens of millions live below the poverty line – and that is in the rich US, never mind the impoverished Global South.

Imperialism, torture, racism and sexism all still thrive, while a recession looms for which working people will be asked to pay the price. Meanwhile, the world is hurtling towards climate catastrophe as politicians twiddle their thumbs, determined not to dent profits.

These and a thousand other wrongs cry out for fundamental change. The question is how to achieve it.

Unfortunately the most obvious method, the method the system itself holds out to people – 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 has been 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.

Yet we are no nearer to a just and equal society – instead inequality and war are on the increase.

If Barack Obama is elected as US president on a programme of “change”, voters will discover that what changes is not the system but Barack 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. That is why Socialist Worker urges readers to vote for Lindsey German for London mayor and to campaign with others on the left in the May elections.

It does mean, however, that the parliamentary road is not the way to achieve fundamental social change.

A very different strategy was advocated by 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 means a mass workers’ movement from below overthrowing capitalism to establish social ownership of the means of production.

It means production for human need, under democratic workers’ control.

To achieve this it would be necessary to break up the existing state machine – such as the army, police and judiciary – 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 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 behave in a crisis – by intervening to protect capitalism.

Mass action

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.

Time and again working people have risen up and challenged capitalism – in Paris in 1848 and again in 1871 with the Paris Commune, when the working class ran the city for 72 days before the Commune was drowned in blood.

There were revolutions in Russia in 1905 and 1917 followed by struggles across the world that included the Italian “red years” of 1919-20, the German Revolution of 1918-23, the British General Strike of 1926 and the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27.

More recently there were the uprisings of France in May 1968, and in Chile in 1972, the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-75 and the Iranian Revolution of 1979-80.

These are just 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 documentaries, but they are historical fact and prove the revolutionary potential of the working class. In many of them, the working class 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 and leadership of 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 prevent the crushing of the revolution by the right wing General Kornilov and then to take power.

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, 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 consciousness, confidence and struggle.

In normal times the ideas of the ruling class – ideas that 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 does not occur evenly.

Opposite poles

In every industry, workplace and community some workers become militant socialists, some remain scabs and racists and many vacillate between these opposite 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.

The experience of the 20th century has also shown, as Lenin himself understood, that this party has to be independent of the reformist politicians and union leaders, even though it often works with them, or they will paralyse its ability to act at crucial moments.

To be effective, a revolutionary party must be built in advance of the revolution. The party also makes a difference in all the struggles leading up to a revolution. Building a revolutionary party is therefore a vital task in the here and now.

In Britain today there are many left campaigns and various small left groups 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 (SWP).

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 mobilisations against the Iraq war and continues to play a leading part in the Stop the War Coalition.

It is also actively involved in campaigns such as 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 is why everyone who wants to see serious socialist change in Britain and the world should join now and help to make a crucial difference.

For details of how to join the SWP, follow the Socialist Workers Party link in the menu or phone 020 7819 1172.

John Molyneux is on the editorial board of International Socialism journal. Go to »

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