Saturday, June 27, 2009

John Passant on the Revolutionary Party

above: In the tradition of Lenin, John Passant believes in the necessity of a revolutionary party...

nb: immediately below this is another contribution of Lev's on the subject of "revolutionary reformism'. Below that is another essay by Wes Bishop. Wes considers the question of reform or revolution from a liberal perspective. Both contributions are well worth the read.

One of Lenin's great contributions to humanity was to reclaim Marx's insight that the working class could not simply lay hold of the ready-made apparatus of the state machinery and wield it for its own purposes. It had to smash the capitalist state.

This was not through some top down revolution, but by revolution from below.

History supports me. Workers in struggle could and often do create their own democratic organs of rule that replace the dictatorship of capital over labour. Iran in 1979 was one example.

These two ideas were reflected in a third historic task - to build a revolutionary organisation to help achieve the goal of the working class in power, ruling through their own democratic institutions. As Marx said in the Communist Manifesto:

We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

Lenin's ideas about a revolutionary party are relevant today. They have been the subject of incessant bourgeois derision, most of it historically incorrect. We have already published on this site a review by Mick Armstrong of Lars T Lih's book 'Lenin rediscovered: What is to be done in context. It's called Lenin, democracy and the way forward for the left.

In short this review encapsulates Lih's argument that 'What is to be done' is actually a reflection of the ideas of revolution from below (not conspiratorial approaches), that the workign class is capable of much more than trade unionism, and that the party it builds is the political expression of the 'vanguard' but that that vanguard can win the battle of ideas to become the political majority in the working class.

The battle is not linear but ongoing, and has ups and downs, in the main depending on the swings and roundabouts of the class struggle.

And of course the party is not separate from the class but part of it and learns from the class as it finds its voice over time, ie as the class becomes not only a class of itself but for itself.

Lenin's organisational approach actually reflects the Marxist idea of socialism from below, of, as Marx put it, the emancipation of the working class being the act of the working class, a movement of the vast majority in the interests of the vast majority.

The relationship of party and class is always complex but as Trotsky put it (or words to this effect), in a revolutionary situation the class is the steam that drives the pistons of the party.

The point is to build a party over the years of struggle that can succeed in that task.

That means years of slow recruitment and steady building based on ideas, with the inevitable upsurges in struggle momentarily destroying the facade of capitalist order and rule and providing further opportunities to influence and grow as history shows the value and worth in practice of revolutionary socialist ideas.

Apart from socialism from below socialism has another side - socialism from above (or perhaps now more accurately described as reform from above.)

As Hal Draper has written in his magnificent book The Two Souls of Socialism:

Throughout the history of socialist movements and ideas, the fundamental divide is between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below.

What unites the many different forms of Socialism-from-Above is the conception that socialism (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) must be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, by a ruling elite which is not subject to their control in fact. The heart of Socialism-from-Below is its view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of activized masses in motion, reaching out for freedom with their own hands, mobilized "from below" in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as actors (not merely subjects) on the stage of history. "The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves": this is the first sentence in the Rules written for the First International by Marx, and this is the First Principle of his lifework.

It is the conception of Socialism-from-Above which accounts for the acceptance of Communist dictatorship as a form of "socialism." It is the conception of Socialism-from-Above which concentrates social-democratic attention on the parliamentary superstructure of society and on the manipulation of the "commanding heights" of the economy, and which makes them hostile to mass action from below. It is Socialism-from-Above which is the dominant tradition in the development of socialism.

Draper went on to say:

It was Marx who finally fettered the two ideas of Socialism and Democracy together because he developed a theory which made the synthesis possible for the first time. The heart of the theory is this proposition: that there is a social majority which has the interest and motivation to change the system, and that the aim of socialism can be the education and mobilization of this mass-majority. This is the exploited class, the working class, from which comes the eventual motive-force of revolution. Hence a socialism-from-below is possible, on the basis of a theory which sees the revolutionary potentialities in the broad masses, even if they seem backward at a given time and place. Capital, after all, is nothing but the demonstration of the economic basis of this proposition.

It is only some such theory of working-class socialism which makes possible the fusion of revolutionary socialism and revolutionary democracy. We are not arguing at this point our conviction that this faith is justified, but only insisting on the alternative: all socialists or would-be reformers who repudiate it must go over to some Socialism-from-Above, whether of the reformist, utopian, bureaucratic, Stalinist, Maoist or Castroite variety. And they do.

It is this conception of socialism from below that drives people like those of us associated with Socialist Alternative to build a revolutionary party, to win the battle to meld democracy and production for need.

There is no revolutionary party in Australia, let alone committed to socialism from below. Socialist Alternative is not a party but a small organisation.

At the moment it is in the battle of ideas that such an organisation can work and build for the future. The organisation will also involve itself in any actions which arise but in the main cannot initiate them or influence them given our small size.

All the time the goal remains socialism from below.

This means rejecting laborism as a false way forward for the working class.

Given the history of a hundred years of sellouts of Labor this is not that hard to do (except when discussing matters with the more dogmatic members of the various socialism from above groups.)

We need to be clear - the idea that capitalism can be reformed through Parliament into socialism is essentially a different political goal to the revolutionary one of liberation from below.

In the present epoch this socialism from above approach becomes reforms from above. This is at best the amelioration of the wage- capital relationship, not its overthrow. It presupposes and accepts the supremacy of the wage slave system, not its abolition.

At worst the Labor Party is a cover for pro-boss 'reforms' to better allow the exploitation of the working class.

The history of reformism in Australia supports this conclusion. The Labor Party, born of the defeats of strike action in the 1890s, substitutes a vote every three years for action to defend class interests.

In my view it is impossible to clean out the Aegean stables of capitalism by becoming its agent in its Parliament.

To take a living example, the Iranian revolution against the Ahmadinejad dictatorship appears to be pausing precisely because there is no revolutionary organisation with real influence in the Iranian working class able to put forward and lead the class conscious workers there in an appropriate direction with the aim of overthrowing the capitalist system and its Islamist overlay.

To end exploitation, to end oppression, the working class must first win the battle of democracy. It can only do that through its own organisation.

In the here and now reformism actually provides a cover for parliamentary cretinism to attack workers.

It disarms the working class and others who want to fight against Labor's attacks with a song that essentially promises workers pie in the sky when they vote.

As Labor's support for the Afghan war, the racist state of Israel, the Northern Territory intervention, cutting wages, the Australian Building and Construction Commission through its Workchoices Lite all show , reformism is, like religion, the opiate of the masses, the sigh of the oppressed.

Imagine if the thousands of members of Labor's left were to join with those campaigning on the streets and in the workplaces for real social change.

Instead of endless fights against the right and useless motions at Branch Conference, these thousands could join with us and others to mobilise tens or even hundreds of thousands in a real struggle against the reactionary ALP and create the conditions for strike action to defend working class interests and perhaps lead to the refounding of a militant section in the trade unions.

It will not happen because reformism's historic role is to destroy the possibility of any movement from below.

It fears the power of the working class as much as the reactionaries and will join with them in repressing workers when the struggle is really joined.

Me? I'll keep plugging away, attending demonstrations, selling Socialist Alternative, going to weekly Socialist Alternative meetings to help better educate myself about major issues, blogging on my site, arguing in my workplace for people to join the union and for the union to take action to defend jobs, wages and conditions and in these ways to help build Socialist Alternative into the revolutionary party Australia lacks at the moment.


  1. Readers might be interested in the talks that were presented at the ``A Century of Struggle — Laborism and the radical alternative: Lessons for today'' conference, held in Melbourne, Australia, on May 30, 2009. It was organised by Socialist Alliance and sponsored by Green Left Weekly, Australia’s leading socialist newspaper. Two of the talks are available at with more to follow, so please check back.

  2. In Australia we are at a point where only 15% of the working population are union members. The union movement has suffered from image problems & a reluctance of working Australians to be active within their associated industries. The union movement should & could be much more than protest marches & demonstrations.
    Like it or not this perception has alienated many of the workers whose dues finance such endevours.
    The combined Unions alliance with the Labor party is at times questionable as the core beliefs of unionism is generally ignored by the rulling governments, no greater example of this is the existing New South Wales state Labor government who over a decade has systematically destroyed workers rights & conditions within the ranks of the public service but come election time come with cap in hand to the unions.
    So all Unions need to explore ways other than industrial relations to remain an alternative political voice in Australia.
    Having independent policies on issues to that of the Labor party, which in some cases does exist now but it could be said is poorly promoted, being active within the community in areas such as assisting the homeless, disabled or marginalised people possibly forming cooperative schemes with established & recognised community groups such as the Salvation Army, would help to show unionists in a new light from which the community is used too.

  3. This is the usual sterile debate that trhe left has stomached ever since the Victorian Socialist Party and Marx's critque of Weitling.

    Little sectarian grouplets loudly asserting some rhetorical line from books does not assist.

    The point is - you take the scientific method - and apply it to modern circumstances. This means it is the trade union movement that will decide what political tactics suit their class position.

    If self-styled "r-r-revolutionaries" from their campus citadels think unions are not pursuing the "correct" line, then it is up to them to develop a mechanism for raising the consciousness of workers and unions.

    At the moment, workers and unions just laugh at all these silly sectarian useless sects such as Socialist Alliance and smaller.

    Anyway Marx said that the means to revolution depended on the nature of political institutions - not vain "a priori" concepts of "revolution" or "reformism".

  4. In order to achieve social change in liberal democracies, there is a need for parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity and the two should co-ordinate their activities ("March separately, strike together" etc).

    Without the extraparliamentary wing, the reformist wing will become co-opted by the parliamentary process. Without the parliamentary wing, the public activists will have no ability to actually implement change.

    One may point out that the revolutionary organisations in Australia have not implemented a single social reform in their entire history. They live in a world of perpetual opposition.

    Likewise, the public is extremely suspicious of Leninism, and for good reason. What self-described Leninist organisation in the world, following its seizure of power, has not ended up with a totalitarian and authoritarian Statist regime?

  5. Lev Lafayette is commenting at a very low level.

    So-called suspicion of Leninism is really a propaganda device by capitalism.

    Capitalism built its wealth through savage exploitation of the Third World and Colonial empires all of which were conquered and ruled by the most brutal, arbitary totalitarian and authoritarian military, slaveowners regimes.

    It then further developed its position by subverting democratic and socialism governments in the Third World, and invading socialist or provoking socialist movements eg Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, Francos Spain, Indonesia.

    This caused deformations within these states, independently of the Leninist revolutionary project.

    Capitalism then uses the deformations, it has caused, to build propaganda amongst the rich Western nations who have long fed on the rest of the world's peoples.

    The real problem with today's self-described Leninist organisatoins is that they are not Leninist. They follow a pure, sectarian, isolated line, so far removed from the masses, that Lenin would laugh at their pretensons.

    Lenin never developed a Communist Party to abolish capitalism or fuedalism. He supported a SDLP within which a necessary Bolshevik-Menshevik-Bund dynamic developed, with the Leninists occupying a vanguard role WITHIN THE RSDLP AND WORKERS MOVEMENT.

    The Communist Party came only AFTER the revolution.

    Today's silly Left groups pretend to be a vanguard (outside the movment) and want to be a sectarian Communist Party (before a revolution).

    But this is not a criticism of Leninism properly understood, and we should not put up with Western anti-Leninist propaganda.

    Leninism really just means "professional revolutionary" within the masses.

  6. Thanks for the comments. I think Redgum in his comment of 30 June misunderstands some of the concepts of Lenin's approach. Lenin was for a party of workers. The analysis by Lars T Lih of What is to be done might help Redgum understand this better.

    And certainly the name change from Bolsheviks to Communsit Party is more complex than Redgum suggests. In any event the Bolsheviks split with and from the Menshiviks well before then.

    And while Redgum might think the debate is sterile, and the grouplets tiny and irrelevant, that is exactly the same sort of criticism levelled at Lenin in the early 1900s.

    It is these sorts of debates which help clarify ideas to be tested in real upsurges, as 1917 shows. And as Iran today shows (in a negative way unfortunately since the Iranian left seems mired in stalinism and nationalism).

    As for Redgum's nonsensenical statement that Socialist Alternative somehow sees itself as the vanguard,read our website ( Mick Armstrong's pamphlet From Little Things Big Things Grow.

  7. Thanks Terry for the links to the socialist alliance talks. I read both Dave and Verity's contributions with interest.

    I was a member of Socialist Alliance early on - in 2001.

    It was an unsteady mix then of groups with different visions of socialism.

    What seemed to unite us was the view that an electoral (and action) alliance would bring a wider working class audience for anti-capitalist ideas, including those of the many different socialist formations within the group.

    But the relationship between theory and practice intervened as did the fact that the organisation was and is a spectacular failure in gaining even an electoral following among workers.

    You can't short circuit history.

    That's why march together strike separately seems apt to me if that means to continue with the various theoretical and practical debates (including the way forward for the left) in and between the various groups on the Left but unite in action against the common enemy - the bosses and their politicians - including Labor politicians.

    ALP politicians and Labor Party memberbs are different groupings and I long for the day when the latter march with us and strike with us as a Labor Party contingent against Federal or State Labor Government's and their attacks on workers, women, indigenous people, afghanis etc etc.

  8. Reform and revolution are not necessarily mutually exclusive... Consider the achievements of years of reform - animated by class struggle: 8 hour day, welfare, work safety laws, recognised and legal industrial action, public education, progressive taxation...

    Of course workers should always have the right to withdraw their labour if they so choose... But it's still a step forward...

    Togliatti and Santiago Carillo are good examples of the fusion of revolutionary and reforming impuluses... Carillo even talked of 'revolutionary reforms'... The point being that we ought aim for reforms - emboldened by mobilisation from below - which shift the balance of class forces in our favour... Such struggle can take place over decades...But it is the substance of change that counts...

    The Russian Revolution of 1917 was linked with the specific circumstances of Russia at the time... (ie: a proletariat that had had enough of war - which had killed millions - and was not going to take it anymore...; and a state apparatus 'falling apart' under that pressure)

    People today still look to the 1917 example... But the truth is that when the struggle took on the form of a 'war of movement', with no liberal consensus or compromise; the struggle became further brutalised...

    It was right to endeavour to end the war of course - but given that the civil war that ensued was just as brutal - what was gained? The Left SRs, for instance, didn't want to accept Brest-Litovsk (spelling?) Could civil war have been averted?

    Bread, Peace, Land was right in principle... But could another compromise have been possible? Remember the road that was taken led to Kronstadt as well... And without denying the threat the Bolsheviks faced from foreign wonders whether or not it could have been predicted that 'Bread, Peace, Land' could not - in entirety - be delivered....

    The point I make is that the circumstances of 1917 were not ideal... And it is an error to seek to emulate that example under our current circumstnaces...

    On one hand I agree that we need organisations - including political parties - whose work it is to mobilise working people and oppressed minorities 'from below'... But here the class struggle will ebb and flow - and a long term 'war of position' may be possible without the scale of human suffering that has ensued with the breaking down of liberal and pluralist compromise...

    One of the key tasks we face - is consolidating our rights to engage in civil disobedience - and promote a mindset of resistance to those who face exploitation and oppression... But there are other ways of achieving this can under conditions of mutual desperation, collapse of all order, escalation of violence...

  9. also: I know I seem to contradict myself above re: the proletariat and war... But it's a tough call... Peace is what people wanted - and what they demanded... But could it have been delivered? The point I'm making is that I think - slogans aside - the Bolsheviks would have known they couldn't deliver peace...

  10. Thanks Tristan

    I think the point is that revolutionary reformism slips into reformism and can trade away the gains made previously. Strikes and demonstrations spearheaded the 8 hour day, and equal pay for equal work (which we still aren't close to).

    The essence of reformism in practice (and I cite Hawke/Keating and Rudd) is that in periods when profit is under pressure (e.g. since the 1970s) the reformists negotiate changes that can be inimical to workers' interests - e.g. the Accord.

    That was based on an essentially class collaborationist approach, one that led to Howard and his continuation of the Hawke/Keating reformism.

    I think it fair to say the Accord destroyed the essence of the labour movment - rank and file activity and action.

    While it may be useful to adopt Gramsci - and I am unsure if the various wars he suggested flow from phenomenology rather than Marxism - certainly is writings were mad in isolation and adapted by the PCI reformists.

    But he was writing for a revolutionary group, not a reformist one, so we need to view his views in that light.

    And certainly he saw the various wars as ones to be waged by revolutionaries, not reformers.

    And there's the rub. I am not sure how working within Labor advances Gramsci's ideas of war of manoeuvre.

    Take something concrete like the ABCC. It seems to me that only industrial action can defeat Gillard's Gestapo. So we revolutionaries work for that reform with building workers, not creating illusions in lobbying ALP politicians and passing motions which will be ignored at national Conference.

    This flows I think from the basic difference of change from below and change from above.

  11. I meant in the comment below that Gramsci's ideas were made in isolation (not mad in isolation).

  12. Redgum, the so-called "very low level" is the very practical and visceral reality of the tens of millions that have found their way to the grave due to the deliberate action or sheer incompetence of self-identified Leninist regimes.

    Of course pro-capitalist (and indeed, pro-feudal) powers have sought to overthrow socialist governments. Well, pity a socialism that can't deal with this very normal behaviour in international relations and tries to excuse the bad behaviour of said governments on failed interventions of decades prior.

    When making the comparison of the left's involvement and non-involvement in the reformist project one thing is certain; the ruling classes and the Labor right praise every day to their preferred deity that the revolutionary left is not seriously involved in democratic politics.

  13. Dear Lev

    The essence of the revolutionary left is democracy. I think, although I do find your last comment difficult to follow, that you conflate Stalinism with socialism. To me stalinism is state capitalism.


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