This article aims to answer two questions. First, why build a revolutionary socialist organisation? Second, what is required to build such an organisation?
There are many left-wing and radical activists who take a dim view of ‘Leninism’. This is often influenced by caricatured versions of what Lenin thought, wrote and did in relation to political organisation, or by negative experiences of groups which claim to be in the Leninist tradition.
I want to clarify the Leninist tradition's relevance to the current challenges of strategy and organisation. The specific focus is therefore the need for an organisation of revolutionary socialists. This is at the heart of debates about how socialists fight to change the world.
Class consciousness and revolutionary organisation
Capitalist society is full of contradictions. It is, for example, a society in which the ugly reality of poverty and inequality contradicts the enchanting rhetoric of fairness, equal opportunities and social mobility.
There are contradictions at the heart of how the system works. Although a system of competition, capitalism depends upon people co-operating with each other to do the work necessary for it to function. Capitalism expands and transcends boundaries, yet nation states remain important for the ruling class. We live in an increasingly interconnected world, yet divisions of nationalism, racism and so on remain.
One of the most important contradictions concerns the ideas we have about the world and ourselves. Marxists argue that society is divided into classes - a ruling class, which is a tiny minority, and a working class, which is the vast majority. It is in the interests of the great majority of people to make a revolution against a wealthy, powerful ruling class, seize control of the economy, and create a society based on radically different priorities.
Karl Marx insisted that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class. Fundamental social change - moving from capitalist barbarism to a free socialist society - cannot be delivered from above. Working people must free themselves.
There's a contradiction, though, between our material interests and the fact that - most of the time, in most places - we seem to be a long way from socialist revolution. There is a contradiction between Marx's self-emancipation of the working class and another of Marx's observations - that the ruling ideas in any age are the ideas of the ruling class.
The ruling class control the media, education system and other means of spreading their views, ensuring their ideas come to be seen as a kind of 'common sense'. Yet it is never, thankfully, as simple as that. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian revolutionary, referred to 'good sense' co-existing alongside this 'common sense'. He meant that ideas more in line with workers' material interests, and opposed to capitalist ideology, were also part of working class consciousness.
There exists a mix of different ideas and worldviews inside the working class. It's also true that an individual can have a set of complex, contradictory set of ideas inside their head. They may (for example) be implacably opposed to public sector cuts but support the maintenance of the royal family, despite the monarchy being an institution that legitimises class privilege and inequality.
Consciousness is contradictory. It is uneven. This provides the starting point for discussing strategy and organisation for changing the world.
Reformism is, in normal circumstances, dominant inside the working class movement. This finds organised expression in the Labour Party, which is a reaction to the unambiguously ruling class politics of the Tories but also reflects the uneven consciousness of the working class. Some things are rejected; others are accepted.
The Labour Party seeks to unite a broad spectrum of opinion within a single organisation. It also aims to reconcile opposition to many aspects of capitalism with that very system. Lenin called Labour a "capitalist workers' party" because it appeals to workers and largely reflects their ideas, but is nonetheless dedicated to managing capitalism and working within its constraints.
Reformism isn't just about big social democratic parties like Labour. It is rooted in contradictory, uneven consciousness, and can find different expressions. When a new protest movement develops there are those who want to work within safe, established channels, or who insist on polite lobbying over direct confrontation. There will be those who seek compromise and negotiation, or who soften their demands.
Revolutionary organisations take a different approach. A revolutionary organisation seeks to bind together those in a small (often tiny) minority who consistently reject capitalist ideas and have a revolutionary socialist outlook. This organised revolutionary minority is characterised by clarity and agreement on political ideas, by consistency in rejecting the contradictory positions generally held by reformist parties.
This does not, however, mean rejecting the vast majority of working class people who look to the reformist organisations as an alternative to the ruling class and its political representatives. Revolutionaries relate to broader layers and work together in joint political and campaigning activity, in trade union struggles, and so on. Revolutionaries fight for reforms alongside those influenced by reformist ideas.
Those who characterise revolutionary groups as elitist or sectarian miss this vital element in what it means to be a revolutionary: not separating yourself off, to retain 'purity' of revolutionary commitment, but rather getting stuck into the struggle, being in the thick of it.
Revolutionary organisations can decay when they weaken their politics and make compromises with dominant ideas. But they can also decay when they retreat into inglorious sectarian isolation, standing aloof from the partial but important resistance to the system involving non-revolutionaries.
Revolutionary organisations can seem marginal most of the time, but in a revolutionary situation - and, as 2011 is demonstrating, these do happen - they can become critically important. An organisation built in advance, with roots in the wider working class, can play a decisive role when there is mass resistance and confrontations with the old order.
Revolutionaries, movements and class
Lenin argued that revolutionaries must be more than merely good activists in a particular sphere, e.g. solid trade unionists fighting for better pay, but should be 'tribunes of the people' championing a range of causes, linking them together, and challenging exploitation and injustice wherever it may be.
Every issue, every campaign, every act of resistance, is interconnected. Highlighting these connections, relentlessly promoting solidarity, forging links between groups - these are crucial tasks for revolutionaries. A revolutionary organisation, furthermore, is about (as Marx wrote) generalising from the historical and international experience of the working class.
It is the memory of that class struggle. But more than that: events are never a simple repetition of history, so theoretical distillation of experience (not just the reciting of it) is essential. It is probably too grand to refer to a revolutionary group as a "university of the working class", but at least in microcosm that's precisely what it is.
There are two constant tasks for any revolutionary organisation: to organise and to educate. These two processes inform each other. The world is constantly changing, so the lessons to be derived from our 'historical and international experience' are always evolving.
Each new situation must be analysed in its own right, though the analytical tools and intellectual framework may be inherited. What matters is what Lenin called the concrete analysis of the concrete situation.
Stale dogma is no guide to action. Marxist theory guiding concrete analysis is, however, invaluable in plotting next steps, in answering the "what is to be done" question. Constant interaction between theory and practice is essential.
What about the interaction between revolutionaries and wider movements of resistance? A sectarian stands apart from partial struggles - such struggles don't go far enough, or involvement in them requires 'diluting' political purity. The opposite is also a danger: becoming absorbed in specific struggles without any bigger picture of the need to smash capitalism altogether and build a different kind of society.
The alternative is to do two things simultaneously. The two interconnected poles of revolutionary organisation are political independence and participation in the broader class struggle. This is the basis of Leninism.
It means building a politically independent organisation, grouping together those who are committed to socialism from below, while taking part in movements, campaigns and trade unions in their efforts to defend existing conditions from attack or win specific reforms.
Revolutionaries' attitude to the unions can only be understood in this framework. It would be sectarian for a socialist group to distance itself from union organisation, which is vital for protecting workers against the ravages of an exploitative, profit-hungry system. Socialists take unions very seriously, and help build them, precisely because they bring together large numbers of working class people and - when they move into action - boost the confidence of our side to resist.
Anything which increases working class combativity is important. Anything which wins even small reforms, especially if it is through workers' own activity, is a boost. Victories, however minor, provide hope and act as a spur to further action.
Revolutionaries also recognise the limits of unions. They can win reforms but not end the system that breeds inequality, oppression and injustice. The same applies to all sorts of campaigns and protest movements. It is therefore necessary to maintain political and organisational independence.
This recognition of two fixed, mutually reinforcing, poles - political and organisational independence combined with participation in broad-based struggles - is the starting point for developing any kind of united front strategy, i.e. working with reformists in coalitions and campaigns across a range of issues. A united front approach is the way out of the twin dangers of sectarianism and opportunism.
The word 'vanguard', a military term meaning those in the front of the struggle or battle, is much-derided. Its use by the Leninist tradition is often viewed, perhaps understandably, as elitist.
But what can loosely be termed a vanguard is inevitable in capitalist society. If there is uneven consciousness, with the vast majority of working class people (in non-revolutionary times) partially accepting dominant ideas, a small minority which rejects capitalist ideas becomes an ideological vanguard.
If the working class is uneven in how it resists the system, a practical vanguard will be formed. This is true whether or not they are gathered together in an organisation. Lenin's point is that it makes sense for these anti-capitalists - those who are ideologically and practically consistent in opposing the system - to form an organisation.
Georg Lukacs wrote a short book on Lenin in the 1920s. He explained how this vanguard must constantly interact with the larger class. It must not cut itself off. Lukacs referred to how a revolutionary organisation must be 'always a step in front of the struggling masses... but only one step in front so that it always remains leader of their struggle.'
Lukacs stressed the combination of principle and flexibility, the latter being essential because the tempo and shape of struggle inevitably change. Revolutionaries' strategies, tactics and forms of organisation must inevitably change alongside changes in the course of resistance. He put it strongly: 'all dogmatism in theory and all sclerosis in organisation are disastrous for the party.' Strategy, tactics and organisation must be changeable.
The principles of democratic centralism are simple. An organisation needs democratic structures such as an elected leadership, annual delegate conferences and regular opportunities for thorough discussion of policies, tactics and so on. Leadership at every level must be accountable to the broader membership.
Furthermore, what is agreed through democratic decision-making should then be implemented in practice. There should be an internal culture of free and open discussion, in which criticism and disagreement are respected. All voices are heard and valued.
Most of this is widely accepted - not just in revolutionary organisations - as important for a group to function democratically. Similarly, 'centralism' is far from being exclusively the preserve of the revolutionary socialist tradition. It means that an organisation needs to co-ordinate and prioritise its resources (time, money etc), which requires centralised mechanisms. If decisions which have been made democratically and collectively are to be implemented there has to some centralism.
For example, a trade union has democratic structures but in order to implement decisions it is necessary to appoint full-time officers, hire office space, produce resources which can then be distributed widely, and so on. These things can be regarded as 'centralism'.
What is the alternative? If we take the issue of resources, the alternative is that each branch has to produce materials themselves, which is wasteful and leads to huge duplicating of effort. It makes sense to pool our resources - the time and skills we can offer - to be as effective as possible.
Take a revolutionary organisation like Counterfire, the hub of which is our website. Our elected editorial board (EB) oversees the website and all other national organisational matters. A number of us are specifically responsible for running the site. We are accountable to the wider EB and in turn the organisation's membership. We have regular all-members meetings, so if people are unhappy with aspects of the website or want to make changes they will soon let us know!
The website - like all other aspects of our work at national level - is therefore an example of democratic centralism in action. In Lenin's time, selling socialist newspapers provided the infrastructure for building the Bolshevik Party - paper sellers created networks of activists and supporters, in factories and communities, through sales of their newspapers. It was a very dynamic kind of democratic centralism.
But there are three further points worth making to understand what we mean by democratic centralism in the revolutionary tradition, as distinct from reformist parties, unions and broad-based campaigns.
Firstly, a revolutionary group lays huge stress on self-activity. In the Labour Party, and even more so in trade unions, the great majority of members are inactive or have a very low level of activity. In Labour it's a thin layer of activists who do almost everything, but in most revolutionary organisations a higher proportion of members will be active - and many of them will devote a great deal of their spare time to politics.
Local branches will be run by dedicated lay activists, with most members actively involved in some way. Routine discussion and democratic decision-making are essential for such an activist organisation to function effectively.
This is as true at local level as it is at national level. The initiative and dynamism of grassroots members is the driving force. Local members should not 'wait for instructions', but take a lead in their own locality, based on their local knowledge and expertise. This doesn't guarantee a democratic culture, but it certainly helps.
A second issue to consider is the relationship between local and national levels, which is different in the revolutionary and reformist traditions. In the Labour Party, leadership bodies will tend to have an ambivalent attitude to local initiative and democracy: they want activists to operate as a stage army for election canvassing and leafleting, but that's about it.
Labour leaders want to manage the system, not overthrow it, and operate within narrow parliamentary constraints. They are politically to the right of many Labour members and are preoccupied with the 'centre ground' of politics.
This political tension between leading members and grassroots members does not exist inside a revolutionary organisation. On the contrary: national leadership bodies will want maximum democratic participation from the full membership. The structural reasons for why Labour and trade union leaders are vulnerable to compromise aren't present in a revolutionary group.
For example, union leaders typically earn far more than their members (which can distance them from members' experiences), but that won't be the case in a revolutionary organisation. Labour MPs are professional politicians, but in a revolutionary organisation it's likely that lay members, i.e. those with normal jobs (or students, unemployed etc), will have leading roles far more than in a reformist party.
Thirdly, it is necessary to consider the specific nature and tasks of a revolutionary organisation, as distinct from a broad-based party or campaign. A group like Counterfire has a high level of political agreement: there won't be total agreement on all issues among all members, but there's still a large degree of political homogeneity.
The Labour Party, trade unions and campaigns like Stop the War and Coalition of Resistance are rather different. While they may have agreed national policies, they are far more politically heterogeneous. A consequence is that they are likely to adopt looser structures. Take the Green Party, which is a fairly broad church. It allows a fair amount of local autonomy, with local branches given more scope than you will find in most socialist organisations.
This is a consequence of being a different kind of organisation. Counterfire, for example, has distinctive politics and stands in a particular left-wing tradition. For it to be politically effective, local groups need to carry positions which have been agreed via the national organisation's democratic structures. It would be politically weaker if local groups could simply make up their own positions on issues. There's an important degree of centralism involved here, though it is centralism rooted in a highly democratic culture.
Let's return to the starting point in this section: the necessity of democracy. Lenin referred to the combination of 'freedom to criticise and unity of action'. Freedom of criticism is essential. No member should feel inhibited from expressing their views in meetings, conferences and discussions. Open, tolerant discussion and debate are the lifeblood of an organisation.
There may be instances of public criticism being inappropriate - if this undermines the organisation's 'unity in action' - but limiting that on occasions doesn't inhibit an organisation's internal democratic culture. The bottom line is that a revolutionary socialist organisation must be effective in action, which requires some version of the kind of democratic centralism I have outlined here.
Seizing the key link
A revolutionary organisation combines principle and flexibility. The politics remains consistent over time: marxist ideas, at the core of which is the self-emancipation of the working class, provide continuity and root practical activity in a general political understanding of the world.
Tactics are informed by changing political circumstances, however, as well as unchanging principles. Recall how Lenin insisted on a concrete analysis of a concrete situation - not the unthinking repetition of dogma. This concrete analysis in turn shapes choices of strategy and tactics at any given historical moment.
Specific tactics are formulated in that larger context: a political analysis of the whole of society, historical and international experience, and a strategic understanding of how to transform society.
Some critics of the Leninist tradition accuse revolutionary organisations of 'opportunism' because of this tactical flexibility, when in fact consistent political principle anchors tactical twists and turns in a larger political project. The same critics claim Leninism is fundamentalist dogma, so it's perhaps worth taking their words with a pinch of salt.
A number of practical points follow this understanding. It becomes obvious that at any given time there must be a clear grasp of priorities. Resources must be allocated according to an organisation's democratically agreed priorities, which evolve over time (and sometimes alter dramatically).
Priorities are influenced by analysis of the balance of forces in the struggle between classes: where there are weak points in their side, where breakthroughs are possible, where we are strongest and can be most effective. Small acts have to be seen as interconnected with much bigger struggles.
'Every question 'runs in a vicious circle' because political life as a whole is an endless chain consisting of an infinite number of links. The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain of events.'
Occasionally there are events of great significance for revolutionaries, underpinning their political priorities over a fairly long term period. The terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001, and the response of US imperialism, triggered a sharp re-orientation by many revolutionary socialists. Anti-imperialism became politically central and the priority was to build a broad, active anti-war movement. This rested upon prior analysis of imperialism in the modern world, but in practice a major shift in prioritising was needed.
Around September 2008, with the financial crash, the challenge of organising a response to the crisis of neoliberalism became especially crucial. Neoliberalism and US imperialism were, and are, both in crisis. September 2001 and September 2008 - the commencement of the 'war on terror' and a new economic crisis - are the defining events of this political period.
We can add important factors like the restructuring of the working class, the rise of Islamophobia and so on to this picture. Since May 2010 the neoliberal crisis has found more concrete forms in British politics too: a programme of mass austerity imposed by a Tory-led government. In 2011 a further development has become vital for socialists everywhere: the Arab Spring, and its impact on imperialism and the dynamics of global politics. These contexts shape what we as revolutionaries do and, often in tiny ways, how we prioritise out tasks.
This all means it is necessary to, in Lenin's phrase, 'bend the stick' towards a particular priority at any given moment. It's not the case that all issues and tasks are equal. For a socialist organisation to be effective, there must be prioritising - which means 'bending the stick' to a course of action that can bring decisive breakthroughs.
Tony Cliff, in 'Building the Party' (his book about Lenin and the Bolsheviks), wrote:
'In real life the law of uneven development dominates. One aspect of the movement is decisive at any particular time. The key obstacle to advance may be a lack of party cadres, or, on the contrary, the conservatism of the party cadres may cause them to lag behind the advanced section of the class.'
This explains why not only political priorities but methods of organising can change, sometimes sharply change, at different times in a revolutionary organisation's development. What works at one stage may later become an obstacle to progress. Lenin's ideas, not to mention his record in leading the Bolshevik Party, thus remain invaluable guides for building a living, breathing and fighting organisation of socialists today.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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