Monday, 12 December 2011

The role of a revolutionary party in the class struggle

OVER 150 years ago, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels explained the need to overthrow capitalism and bring in a new form of society, socialism.

This raises the question: How exactly is capitalism to be overthrown and the transformation made to socialism? Lenin and his co-revolutionaries in Russia provided the answer at the beginning of the 20th century, by building the Bolshevik Party. The Bolsheviks led the Russian workers in overthrowing the Tsarist state and bringing in a workers’ state based on a planned economy.

However, since then, despite capitalism causing an increasing level of suffering, poverty and environmental degradation on the planet and despite titanic workers’ struggles in many countries at different times, the overthrow of capitalism leading to a democratic workers’ state has not yet again been accomplished.

Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the 1917 Russian revolution, summed up the reason in 1938 when he wrote: "The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership" (from The Transitional Programme, written for the founding congress of the Fourth International). These words are as true today as they were then.

We in the socialist party of England and Wales have a important role in the labour movement and the class struggle of today. We are not the workers party that we talk of a lot and people seem to think we're being sectarian by having our own party. But this is untrue at present there is no mass workers party since the labour party ceased to be this when it fully became a capitalist party in the 80's/90's.

So as the socialist party we look to involve ourselves in teh labour movement where workers are in their struggles. Engage with workers and engage in struggle ourselves. We look to raise the ideas of socialism and marxism wherever we can and challenge peoples ideas. We do not look to preech our ideas but explain and debate our ideas with the class in a friendly comradely way.

Discussion on the need for a revolutionary party and its form of organisation is very important today, especially as many young people regard themselves as ‘anti-capitalist’ and are interested in socialist ideas, but have a degree of mistrust towards political parties. This is hardly surprising given the bureaucratic and undemocratic methods of the main capitalist political parties and the attacks they make on living standards when in power.

Young people can also be wary of organisation itself and of leadership bodies, sometimes because of their awareness of the past existence of the repressive and bureaucratic Stalinist regimes, sometimes for other reasons such as an experience of the remote leaderships of many trade unions. As a result of factors like these, young people can be driven towards the idea of spontaneous, ‘unorganised’ action and loose networks.

However, although there are times when spontaneous action can spur events along, there are great limitations to this type of action. It provides no forum for democratic debate about what is to be done and how to develop it afterwards.

It could leave people involved in the action at the mercy of state repression, through lack of stewarding and planning. And it is not an efficient form of action. When a large number of people protest in a planned and united manner, the impact is likely to be far greater than it would be with disparate action in which every individual acts separately or in small groups.

This is what we are seeing with such new groups on the left such as UK uncut and the occupation movements which we do support but always look to point out their limitations in their present form.

This does not mean that the methods of organisation and role of such a party are appropriate for broader workers’ organisations or parties. A new mass workers’ party in Britain would be a great step forward. It could help develop workers’ struggles and speed up the rehabilitation of socialist ideas.

In such a party, a federal, democratic form of organisation which would allow as many workers’ groups and organisations, left organisations and individuals to become involved, would be most appropriate initially. However, the urgent need for a new mass workers’ party does not contradict the need to also develop the forces of revolutionary Marxism in Britain and internationally.

In fact revolutionary parties have often worked as part of larger, broader parties for a period of time and this is likely to be the case when new mass workers’ parties are formed in the future.

Role of a revolutionary party

REGARDLESS OF whether a revolutionary party exists, when conditions for workers and the poor become intolerable, struggles and at a certain stage revolutionary movements will take place. The end result, in the absence of a revolutionary party is clear from examples given later – the revolution will fail or will not lay the basis for socialism. So a revolutionary party is essential, but what role should it play?

A revolutionary party does not create the conditions that lead to workers’ struggles, but when those conditions exist, the party can play a key role in speeding up the development of workers’ consciousness and in determining the outcome of their struggles. Trotsky, in his book The History of the Russian Revolution, wrote: "Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box but the steam".

Firstly, a revolutionary party must base itself on a Marxist analysis of past workers’ struggles and the lessons arising from them. In particular, the writings of Marx himself, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky are vital aids in learning from past events and how to use the tool of a Marxist approach. In capitalist society, we are taught history at school from the standpoint and interests of the ruling class; ie the capitalist class.

The university historians who write school text books pretend to be objective and factual, when in most cases they are interpreting historical events and struggles from the standpoint of capitalism. A revolutionary party therefore has to carry out a different type of education entirely: the viewing of historical events from a working class and a Marxist point of view.

Secondly, members of a revolutionary party must themselves be part of the day-to-day activities and struggles of the workers and young people around them, so they can learn from experiencing events first-hand, gain the respect of those involved through participating alongside them and so they can assess the general consciousness at each stage. The party is then in a position to work out what tasks are necessary to take a struggle forward.

The working class (and the middle class) does not form a uniform layer in any country. There are always differences in material circumstances, political understanding and outlook.

People do not always draw the same conclusions at the same time. A revolutionary party can assess the stages of consciousness of the different layers and put forward a programme that plays a unifying role; that draws struggles together as far as possible, widens support for them and raises consciousness on the next steps that are needed.

This is wher eour idea of the transitional program with a list of small demands but large impacts and as i've previously explained are revolutionary in the fact that we know ultimatly capitalism cannot ultimatly fulfill them leading workers to the conclusion that capitalism cannot meet all our needs and a new system is required.

The party explains the nature of the capitalist class, that it is also not a uniform layer but has its own contradictions and failings as a class and that it can be split and defeated. In doing all this, the party uses its collective knowledge of past lessons and the future tasks that are necessary, but must skilfully apply this knowledge, taking into account the level and stage of workers’ consciousness and also workers’ traditions.

How important is a party?

It is only necessary to look at the lessons of revolutions that have failed, to understand why a revolutionary party is vital.


AFTER THE Russian Revolution, the German working class tried to overthrow capitalism in Germany in 1918. However, the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party had a reformist ideology – they believed that capitalism should be changed only gradually – and this led to defeat of the revolution and the murder of the great revolutionary leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

In 1923, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France created a major crisis and an opportunity for the working class to sweep German capitalism aside. This time, the Communist Party (CP) had widespread support amongst workers, but the CP leaders failed to prepare them adequately for the task of changing society and to give leadership when the situation was most ripe for carrying out this task.

Less than a decade later, with a background of the world slump in 1929 to 1933, the situation again became critical. The middle class was ruined in the slump and workers’ living standards fell. Fearful of a new revolution, the ruling class poured funds into the Nazi Party.

When the Nazis received six million votes in the general election of 1930, Trotsky and his co-thinkers, recently expelled from the Communist International, called on workers organised in the German CP to go into a ‘united front’ with those in the Social Democratic Party to defeat the fascists. But such was the political degeneration of the Communist International that their leaders described the Social Democrats as ‘Social Fascists’ and refused a united front.

The Communist International even advocated that the CP should unite with the fascists against the Social Democrats! German CP leaders took the fatal position that Hitler would be no worse than the government they had already, and anyway, if Hitler got into power, it would just spur the workers on to wipe out the fascists.

Nor did the Social Democratic leaders give leadership. While workers instinctively started to form defence groups in factories and among the unemployed, the Social Democratic leaders refused to accept that the fascists were a real danger. For instance, one of them, Sohiffrin, said: "Fascism is definitely dead; it will never rise again". They called for calm and restraint. The terrible failures of the workers’ leaders led to the victory of Hitler in 1933 and the smashing of a mighty working-class movement with a Marxist tradition going back 75 years.


IN SPAIN, between 1931 and 1937, workers and peasants tried several times to overthrow capitalism and feudalism, gaining at one stage control of two-thirds of the country.

They were organised in four main parties: the Anarchists, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the smaller POUM. However, despite the revolutionary aspirations of their members, the leaders of these parties failed to take the necessary steps to consolidate the gains of the workers and peasants.

They failed to explain the need to get rid of the old state apparatus and the necessary steps to achieve socialism. Instead, they all fell behind the line of the Stalinist communist leaders, who argued the need for two stages, firstly a period of development of capitalist democracy in Spain, and only after that the raising of socialism.

For them, the task was therefore not for the working class to take power, but for power to be handed back to representatives of capitalism. Tragically, this paved the way for the victory of the fascist Franco in the Spanish Civil War, who proceeded to murder thousands of trade unionists and working-class activists and to bring in 40 years of brutal fascist dictatorship.

CONTRAST THESE above examples with the events in Russia in 1917. Lenin realised that for Russian workers to defeat the dictatorial Tsarist state, an organised and disciplined force would be necessary. He spearheaded the building of the Bolshevik Party as a party that educated its members on past struggles, reached decisions through democratic discussion and debate at all levels of the party and acted in a unified manner when carrying out its campaigns and actions.

Leon Trotsky wrote in his pamphlet The Class, The Party and The Leadership: "The Bolshevik Party in March 1917 was followed by an insignificant minority of the working class and furthermore there was discord in the party itself… Within a few months, by basing itself upon the development of the revolution, the party was able to convince the majority of workers of the correctness of its slogans. This majority organised into Soviets, was able in its turn to attract the soldiers and peasants".

Following the success of the Bolsheviks in winning the allegiance of the advanced layer of the working class, they were able to lead the workers to victory in the October revolution. The Tsarist state apparatus was completely removed and replaced with a democratic workers’ state, based on a planned economy.

The workers’ state degenerated politically under the leadership of Stalin due to its isolation (following the failure of revolutions in Germany, Austria and Hungary), added to by the hardship of civil war and problems of economic under-development. However, this degeneration does not negate the fact that the Bolsheviks carried out a successful revolution, a titanic event in human history that transformed the lives of hundreds of millions, and the lessons that can be learnt from their experience.

extracts taken and built upon from the introduction to marxism pamphletts from the socialist party that can be found here :


  1. I agree that we need such a party, but how does the British far left break out of its current situation, of having continued since the 1970s like this, without any real breakthroughs in membership or influence? I speak as an SWP member myself, active since 1979. Since then, far left groupings have either disappeared or they tend to fluctuate in membership in between 4,000 - 10,000 at the best. We seem as be far away as ever (TUSC notwithstanding) from any electoral representation (which I know at the moment is secondary to industrial resistance)...I think the far left has had really important impact in the past over things like the poll tax, Stop the War, anti-racist work etc, but we must surely grow out of this current goes without saying that left groups and parties should work together wherever possible. 'Unity is strength' is not just a trade union slogan.

  2. Hi thanks for the comment comrade. I agree unity is needed but only when it advances the movement not just for unity's sake. I hear it so much on the left that we need unity but so often its for all the wrong reasons and doesnt get us anywhere. I do think we cannot dismiss electoroal politics as a industrial front opens up. As we have constantly said in the socialist party is that this battle is going to be fought on all fronts. industrial, civil, communities and politically too as we can try and stop all the cuts as much as we like but we do eventually need political power to bring about real change. That's why we campaign for a new workers party as currently no party is putting forward an alternative to this capitalist system. Labour ceased to stand for workers many years ago. We feel TUSC although not a mass workers party yet with growing appeal and influence in the anrs to come.ti cuts movement can make big gains in the years to come. I'm not quite sure how you mean break out of our current ways on the left. we clearly are growing and gaining influence and having a correct approach with a firm marxist analysis will help. But breaking out of the mould would not be something i'd be interested in going for a popularist approach just to gain support much like teh SSP did by dropping their position and moving towards a more moderate position just to gain votes. I am not a fan of opportunism .