The activity of a revolutionary organisation forms part of a chain of events taking place over time. The revolutionary minority never controls the whole chain, because it is composed of economic factors, the actions of other political organisations, the consciousness and combativity of the working class, and many other elements that are either wholly or partially independent of the influence of the organised minority.
A network of revolutionaries can have a crucial effect on the course of events, but only if it accurately gauges the way in which these other factors are shaping them, and if it tailors its actions to promote some outcomes and suppress others. Moreover, and crucially, since the weight of these factors and the overall direction of events are constantly changing, what a revolutionary organisation may be able to achieve at one time may not be achievable even a short time later.
In short, the question of timing is crucial. This is never more true than in the timing of revolution itself. Here is one less well-known example from the English Revolution. In 1647, after the First Civil War, King Charles was being feted by the moderates in the House of Commons. If they had been successful, the radicals in the New Model Army, the decisive revolutionary force at this moment, would have been marginalised, and the revolution might never have achieved its full stature.
But decisive action by Cromwell - who vacillated before and after attempting to come to a treaty with the King - and the Army radicals, led to the seizure of Charles by a troop of horses commanded by Cornet Joyce (a very junior officer). Asked by the King for his commission for the arrest, Joyce simply pointed to the troopers behind him. Had the King not been taken prisoner by the Army, he might have been restored to the throne.
A more famous example comes from the Russian Revolution. The period immediately before the October insurrection was one of confusion among the leaders of the Bolshevik Party. Lenin wrote letter after letter urging preparations for a new insurrection. Lenin’s tone is frantic in this correspondence because he believed that delay would be disastrous: ‘Delay is criminal. To wait…would be…a betrayal of the revolution.’ And again: ‘to miss such a moment…would be utter idiocy, or sheer treachery…for it would mean losing weeks at a time when weeks and even days decide everything. It would mean faint-heartedly renouncing power, for on 1-2 November it will have become impossible to take power.’
Finally, after he had threatened resignation from the Central Committee, the Party’s leading body, Lenin’s view prevailed and the insurrection took place on 25 October 1917.
It is not always the case that urgency means a matter of days. In a revolution, as Lenin noted elsewhere, developments that normally take years can be contracted into days, even hours.
But there is, nevertheless, always a window of opportunity outside which certain actions will no longer be possible or will not have the same force. In recent history, for instance, had revolutionaries not decided to launch the Stop the War Coalition within days of the attack on the Twin Towers, it is unlikely that it would have had the same galvanising effect that it did.
Of course, it is also possible to move too quickly. Had the Bolsheviks attempted a revolution in the summer of 1917, when reaction was in the air, it would certainly have rebounded on them, strengthening the counter-revolution, perhaps decisively. At this time, the Bolsheviks worked to restrain those who wanted to push forward and launch an insurrection. But whether one is urging restraint or advance, issuing a clear call at the appropriate time is essential.
Many years ago, the labour historian Ralph Samuel wrote that one of the things he disliked about the Communist Party was that there was always a tone of emergency in the organisation. Something or other always had to be ‘done now’, ‘could not wait’, and so on. This criticism is misplaced. If a revolutionary organisation is to play its role in the chain of events, whatever that role might be at any given time, it must act with dispatch. There is always something to be done, and, if it is to be done to maximum effect, it needs to be done in a timely manner.
But ‘timely’ is a variable quantity. What is necessary to prepare for imminent revolution may have to be accomplished with greater speed than the preparation for a demonstration in normal times that is six months hence. But since all organisations, even revolutionary organisations, produce their own inertia, adhering to past patterns of work even when new challenges arise, there will always be a battle to turn the organisation to a correct orientation in good time.
Other political forces, both enemies and rivals, will not wait. So timing will always be of the essence for revolutionaries. Duncan Hallas, a leading revolutionary socialist and the author of a very useful study of Trotsky, used to quote Shakespeare to make the point:
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life,
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
There is prejudice about intellectual thought in our society, boosted by academia, which assumes that the greatest heights of theoretical achievement are the furthest from practical politics. Whether these are philosophical questions about the nature of human experience and the fundamentals of ethical choice or natural-scientific questions about the origin of the universe and the structure of the atom, they all seem a long way from our everyday issue of what to do next.
But for Marxists, the very opposite is true. The question ‘what is to be done?’ is very closely linked with issues about the Marxist method of analysis - in other words, with questions of Marxist philosophy.
Why is this? Can we not simply get by with the kind of ideas about strategy and tactics that have already been discussed in this pamphlet - the united front, sectarianism, ultra-leftism, and so on? Obviously, these concepts are essential, but how do we know when it is the right time to deploy a particular tactic? The Bolsheviks, as we have seen, almost missed the right time for the revolution in October 1917. But, as we have also seen, the German Communist Party’s call for revolution in March 1921 was a catastrophe.
The bad news is that there is no guarantee. The good news is that there are two kinds of experience that can give an organisation the best chance of making these judgements correctly.
The first kind of experience is the struggle itself. A network that has many members rooted in the battles of the working class will have had to make these kinds of judgements, or less dramatic versions of the same kinds of judgements, over and over again. Its members will have learnt how to evaluate the moods of its own class, the character of the labour movement leaders, the nature of the police and media, and so on.
Roots in the class should inform the party about the most pressing questions for workers and what action is already being taken, and this can form the basis of judgements about how to respond. But this kind of experience is never enough on its own.
No situation is ever an exact repeat of the past; it always contains something new. And no situation ever interprets itself; it always requires an act of intellectual labour to explain it. Despite the old aphorism, the facts never speak for themselves. They always require interpretation. As Marx said, ‘if appearance and reality coincided, there would be no need for science’.
So a second kind of experience is necessary: theoretical experience. This kind of experience gives us a method by which we can interpret the struggle. The starting point of any such analysis is to grasp the contradictory nature of our society. We have seen at the start of the pamphlet how the need for a vanguard organisation arises from the existence of contradictory consciousness among workers. And we have also seen that this contradictory consciousness arises from the interaction of oppression and revolt that is in the nature of wage-labour under capitalism. This in turn rests on the fundamental contradiction of capitalist society - that it requires the collective labour of workers to produce wealth, but that capitalists privately appropriate that wealth when it is produced.
We see here, in simplified sketch form, a series of interlinked contradictions, each resting on the other, which run from the fundamental economic structure of capitalism, through the consciousness of workers, to the forms of organisation most effective in acting on these contradictions. But this series of contradictions only describes the most general, and therefore relatively timeless, aspects of the system.
To analyse a new strategic and tactical situation would need much closer and more careful analysis. But the approach would be the same: first analyse the most general objective economic, social, and political contradictions. Then examine the contradictory forms of consciousness and organisations that arise from these. Then carefully specify what forms of organisation, slogans, demands, and so on might be expected to act on these contradictions in such ways as to advance the struggle. Finally, develop the organisational tools capable of realising these tactics.
Lenin was insistent that only a ‘concrete analysis of a concrete situation’ could be a guide to action. In criticism of an analysis of the possibilities of revolution in China by one of his fellow Bolshevik leaders, Nicholas Bukharin, Lenin wrote:
I know next to nothing about the insurgents and revolutionaries of South China [but]…since there are uprisings, it is not too far-fetched to assume a controversy between Chinese No 1, who says that insurrection is a product of a most acute nation-wide class struggle, and Chinese No 2, who says that insurrection is an art. That is all I need to know to write a thesis à la Bukharin: “On the one hand…on the other hand.” The one has failed to reckon with the art “factor”, and the other with the “acuteness factor”, etc. Because no concrete study has been made of this particular controversy, question, approach, etc., the result is dead, empty eclecticism.
Lenin insisted that ‘the truth is always concrete’. In each case, generalities may or may not apply and will certainly occur and combine in unique ways. This is why a concrete analysis is always necessary.
At the point where revolutionaries took the step of initiating the Stop the War Coalition in 2001, we undertook an analysis something like this. We had already understood the nature of the new imperialism from theoretical work at the end of the Cold War, during the First Gulf War, and during the war in the Balkans. We understood the contradiction between expansive US military power and its relative economic decline. We judged, from preceding experience in the anti-globalisation movement, that there would be a mood to resist and that the left might not be divided in the way it had been in the Cold War.
The judgement, the analysis of the contradictions and the assessment of the consciousness of the class, might have been wrong, but the immediate reports of activists in the workplaces in the days after the attack on the World Trade Centre suggested they were not. The success of the first Stop the War rally in London, only 10 days after 9/11, proved it. Had it not, practice would have dictated a rethink of theory!
Crucial to this method, and what makes it essentially different from the normal method of science, is that it includes within it the subjective element. And this is not simply in the exterior sense that it requires a judgement about workers’ consciousness, but in the additional sense that it must calculate the effect of our actions as organised revolutionaries on the objective situation. It must try to tell us not simply what is, but also what might be if we act on the objective situation in certain ways.
As Lenin argued:
The objectivist speaks of the necessity of a given historical process, the materialist gives an exact picture of a given socio-economic formation and the antagonistic relations to which it gives rise. When demonstrating the necessity of a given series of facts, the objectivist always runs the risk of becoming an apologist for the facts; the materialist discloses the class contradictions and so defines his standpoint…the materialist would not content himself with stating insurmountable “historical tendencies”, but would point to the existence of certain classes which determine the content of a given system and preclude the possibility of any solution except by the action of the producers themselves…materialism includes partisanship, so to speak, and enjoins the direct and open adoption of the standpoint of a definite social group in the assessment of events.
In summarising Lenin’s application of the Marxist method in this field, Georg Lukacs wrote:
He studied in order to learn how to apply the dialectic; to learn how to discover, by concrete analyses of concrete situations, the specific in the general and the general in the specific; to see in the novelty of a situation what connects it with former developments; to observe the perpetually new phenomena constantly produced under the laws of historical development; to detect the part in the whole and the whole in the part; to find in historical necessity the moment of activity and in activity the connection with historical necessity.
And Lukacs concluded:
Leninism represents a hitherto unprecedented degree of concrete, unschematic, unmechanistic, purely praxis-oriented thought. To preserve this is the task of the Leninist.
John Rees is a co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition and the author of The Algebra of Revolution and Imperialism and Resistance. He is on the Editorial Board of Counterfire, and he writes and presents the Timeline political history series. He is currently researching the Levellers and the English Revolution.
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