Today humanity faces a global crisis stemming from the incredible rapacity of the capitalist system. In the first place, there is catastrophic climate change which threatens to end life on our planet, then there is endemic war and conflict, mass poverty in the Third World and neo-liberalism’s ever more ruthless assault on working people everywhere.
Capitalism will destroy the human race. It is absolutely clear that the bourgeoisie will continue to put the drive for corporate profit ahead of everything, even our own future as a species. It is incapable of changing. Even when it recognises the danger it cannot stop doing what it does. If capitalism is not overthrown, humanity is most likely doomed.
The only way out is the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by socialism. And the only means to do this is anti-imperialist revolutions in the Third World and proletarian socialist revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries.
The crisis of global warming and climate change is critical and illustrates the urgency with which we need to replace capitalism. The capitalist class is leading humanity to absolute disaster and its class position means it cannot and will not do anything else. What is necessary is to assemble and organise the forces capable of prising its mad grip from the steering wheel and carrying out a drastic change of course.
Can this be done? Is the working class — on which Marxist socialism places such hopes — up to the challenge?
Ever since class society came into existence it has faced the resistance of the oppressed. There have been an endless series of revolts and uprisings — whether by slaves, peasants, artisans or modern proletarians. The dream of a society where there is no inequality, no division into rich and poor — i.e., of a classless society — is a persistent one.
But before Marxism, socialism was utopian and could only be utopian. It lacked a clear analysis of the problem and it lacked a realistic path to get to the promised land. At bottom, this was due to the immaturity of social conditions. The development of modern industrial capitalism and the emergence of the modern working class made it possible for socialism to go beyond utopianism.
Toward the end of the 1840s, in the midst of the industrial revolution which was transforming Europe, Marx and Engels laid the foundation stones of scientific socialism. In the Communist Manifesto they explain that ever since the end of primitive communist society, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” They showed that capitalist society and economy is inherently rent by fundamental contradictions which make it potentially unstable and susceptible to revolution.
On the one hand, humanity’s productive forces have objectively been socialised — a common economic infrastructure has been created for all humanity. This is the material basis for a society without social antagonisms and everything that goes with that — classes, the oppression of women, the state, commodity production and money. But because it rests on private ownership of the means of production, the whole operation of this great edifice depends on the wishes of a handful of capitalist magnates who are motivated solely by their own insatiable thirst for profit.
But capitalism is always shadowed by its nemesis — its gravedigger — in the form of the modern working class. Bourgeoisie and proletariat — the two always go together. The working class is essential for the operation of the social means of production but itself owns none of it. Its conditions of life make it cooperative and collectivist in outlook. Its objective interest is to collectively appropriate these means of production and establish a classless society. This makes it revolutionary — at least potentially. It is the sole authentically revolutionary class. It has no interest in setting up a new system of class oppression but can only end its alienation by destroying the whole edifice of class domination. (The “dictatorship of the proletariat” established by the working class after it takes power is a transitory phenomenon which will give way to the classless, communist society of the future.)
Ever since its birth these basic ideas of Marxism have come under attack. Reformists have denied the need for revolution and instead held out the fantasy of the gradual civilising of capitalism. (The actual development, of course, has gone 100% the other way.) Other critics have argued that a socialist revolution is impossible or undesirable or that it will only lead to a Stalinist police state.
On the other hand, some revolutionaries have denied that the working class is capable of fulfilling the role assigned to it by Marx and Engels. They have argued that it is too integrated into the system, that it is corrupted by high living standards and so on. They have looked to various other social groups (students, the lumpenproletariat, Third World peasants and so on) to play the role of revolutionary agent.
During the height of the long postwar boom (which only ended in 1975), such views were quite common. The working class had supposedly been corrupted by the good times. Such pessimistic analyses were decisively refuted by the tremendous 1968 revolt of the French students and workers. But for the want of a sufficiently large revolutionary leadership, this upsurge clearly had the power to overthrow the capitalist system in France.
Now, as the good times are long gone for most, as neo-liberal austerity and “labour market reform” bite ever more deeply, as casualisation and outsourcing change the face of the workplace, some people have concluded that it’s impossible for workers to organise to fight for their interests. These arguments are as false and one-sided as the others.
At bottom, doubts about the revolutionary potential of the working class stem from the enormous difficulties and protracted nature of the revolutionary process. We have no desire to minimise the problems facing the socialist project or to project an easy and unconvincing optimism. However, with the collapse of the Stalinist system in the Soviet Union and the ever-deepening neo-liberal attack on the working class, so many of the things which enabled the ruling class — at least in the West — to reconcile the bulk of the working class to the system are disappearing or being eroded. In their place insecurity, discontent and anger are growing. Add to this the threat to humanity from climate change and we have a potentially explosive combination.The objective conditions are being created in which the socialist movement can grow and attract a significant working-class following and position itself to mount a serious challenge to the system as the crisis deepens.
I want to briefly look at some of the key Marxist ideas about the socialist revolution and the role of the working class. The socialist revolution is unlike anything ever before seen in history.
When the rising bourgeoisie fought for dominance against the feudal-absolutist system, it was already a wealthy possessing class. It owned substantial means of production and exploited wage labour. It had its own intellectuals and control of universities and municipalities. It was the dominant force in parliament (as in England in 1640 or France in 1789).
But for all the drama of the struggle in many countries (England, France and the United States) and as historically important as the bourgeois revolutions were — especially when the necessary mobilisation of the masses radicalised the whole process — the gap between the contending classes was infinitely less than that between working class and capitalists.
In the period of the bourgeois revolutions, two sections of the possessing classes fought for mastery. The object of the struggle was state power which would ensure the supremacy of the capitalist mode of production and the capitalist way of exploiting the subordinate classes. In many cases, former feudalists would become capitalists. And in many countries there was no revolution — the whole thing was settled from above, by compromise (as in Germany).
But the working-class revolution is something radically different. The oppressed class — the class at the very bottom of the social heap — struggles for state power in order to construct a socialist society where all forms of oppression and exploitation are eliminated. The victory of the socialist revolution means the start of a process of transition which will eliminate the whole miserable system where a tiny minority of bourgeois plutocrats own society’s means of production and use this to keep the vast toiling majority in bondage.
While the socialist revolution sets up a dictatorship of the working class, this will be a temporary phenomenon and in time classes and all the junk that goes with it — the state and all violence and money-commodity economy — will wither away. As Engels put it, as society reaches full communism, the real history of humanity can begin — a history of free, highly cultured human beings living in a collectivist and solidaristic society.
One final point here: the realities of the socialist revolution put a tremendous premium on consciousness. The capitalist class and its enormous apparatus of material and ideological control means that the masses will have to be much more aware of what they are fighting for than ever before. Today it’s simply not possible to accidentally stumble across the finishing line.Furthermore, the revolutionary victory will not end the struggle. After the bourgeoisie triumphed over feudalism and established its own regime, the market spread more or less automatically into every corner of the country and every part of the economy. But a socialist society and economy will have to be built consciously — and for a long time. There will be real dangers of backsliding and the regeneration of bureaucracy and privilege. (We need only look at the vicissitudes of the Cuban Revolution to see how all these things play out.) Of course, the weight of these dangers will vary in the different countries.
Under capitalism, the working class owns only its petty, personal property (clothes, a car, perhaps a house, etc.). It doesn’t own any part of the economy — the mines, factories, offices, supermarkets, banks etc. — these belong to the capitalists — so in order to live workers have to go and work for the bosses and pay tribute to them (the famous “surplus value” discovered by Marx).
Their labour is “free” only compared to the past (i.e., to slavery and serfdom). Workers can choose their employer but they cannot avoid working for one or another member of the capitalist class. In the essence of the matter they are slaves of the capitalist class as a whole. This is why Marx termed capitalism a system of “wage slavery”. The great mass of workers can never escape their proletarian, propertyless condition. Only by making a socialist revolution can the workers collectively become owners of the means of production which they operate.
Under capitalism, the working class is a ground-down, deeply divided mass — it is simply fodder for exploitation by the bosses in the workplace. Workers are forced to compete against each other for jobs. They are divided by nationality, ethnic background or skin colour; by skill and type of work (blue collar, white collar, etc.); by their wage and general conditions of work; and by age and gender. These divisions are skilfully exploited by the capitalist class to keep the workers disunited and turned in on each other.
And, of course, through the all-pervasive mass media workers are constantly inundated with petty-bourgeois consumerist propaganda, a fantasy view of what is actually desirable and possible for them.
The only antidote to this extreme heterogeneity is a conscious struggle for organisation and unity in order to fight for a new society. And the highest form of this unity is a mass revolutionary Marxist party.
Here is how Lenin put it in his famous 1904 polemic One Step Foward, Two Steps Back:
"In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation. Disunited by the rule of anarchic competition in the bourgeois world, ground down by forced labour for capital, constantly thrust back to the 'lower depths' of utter destitution, savagery, and degeneration, the proletariat can, and inevitably will, become an invincible force only through its ideological unification on the principles of Marxism being reinforced by the material unity of organisation, which welds millions of toilers into an army of the working class."3
Trotsky makes similar points to Lenin in his 1932 article “What Next”, a sustained attack on the policies of the Stalinised German Communist Party in the face of the rise of Nazism.
"The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a program; the program cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party.
"The class, taken by itself, is only material for exploitation. The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious …
"The progress of a class toward class consciousness, that is, the building of a revolutionary party which leads the proletariat is a complex and a contradictory process. The class itself is not homogeneous. Its different sections arrive at class consciousness by different paths and at different times. The bourgeoisie participates actively in this process. Within the working class, it creates its own institutions, or utilises those already existing, in order to oppose certain strata of workers to others. Within the proletariat several parties are active at the same time. Therefore, for the greater part of its historical journey, it remains split politically. The problem of the united front — which arises during certain periods most sharply — originates therein.
"The historical interests of the proletariat find their expression in the Communist Party — when its policies are correct. The task of the Communist Party consists in winning over the majority of the proletariat; and only thus is the socialist revolution made possible."4
In a 1921 article written for the French communists, Trotsky looked at the lessons of the Paris Commune of 1871. “We can thumb the whole history of the Commune, page by page,” he wrote, “and we will find in it one single lesson: a strong party leadership is needed.”5
"The workers’ party — the real one — is not a machine for parliamentary manoeuvres; it is the accumulated and organised experience of the proletariat. It is only with the aid of the party, which rests upon the whole history of its past, which foresees theoretically the path of development, all its stages, and which extracts from it the necessary formula of action, that the proletariat frees itself of always recommencing its history: its hesitations, its lack of decision, its mistakes.
"The proletariat of Paris did not have such a party …
"… If the centralised party of revolutionary action had been found at the head of the proletariat of France in September 1970 [when the regime of Napoleon III collapsed], the whole history of France and with it the whole history of humanity would have taken another direction."6
When the Commune was proclaimed on March 18, 1871, it was not because the masses had seized power. Rather, its enemies had abandoned the city and fled down the road to Versailles. At this moment, the forces of the bourgeoisie could have been crushed quite easily. Its main leaders could have been arrested; the ranks of the army retreating out of Paris were already disaffected with their officers and could have been disintegrated by agitation. But none of this was done. As Trotsky explains:
"… There was no organisation of a centralised party, having a rounded view of things and special organs for realising its decisions."7
And so it went on at every critical point in the brief history of the Commune. The contrast with the ruthless struggle for victory waged by the Bolsheviks in Russia half a century later could not be clearer.
In regard to leadership, things stand very differently for the capitalist class. Relatively, it has a great depth of possibilities. It usually has not one but several political parties which can look after its interests— just look at the Coalition and the ALP in this country, both completely dedicated to ensuring that the wheels of capitalist exploitation turn smoothly and that any rumblings from below are held in check. It has business associations (like the Business Council of Australia), it has the military, intelligence and police chiefs and whole echelons of officials and advisers in the state bureaucracy. There are even wealthy establishment families that specialise in providing political advisers to the bourgeoisie over many generations (e.g., the Downers and Spenders).
Of course, even the capitalist class can have its crises when it is divided or none of its various leadership teams can see a clear way forward (as in the United States today in regard to its failed intervention in Iraq).
But the working class is in a fundamentally different situation. For a start, most ordinary working people are preoccupied with simply surviving — working around eight hours a day (if not actually more), travelling to and from work, looking after their families, etc. It is very hard for them to be politically active on any sustained basis. Moreover, talented individuals are constantly being sucked out of the class — into the ranks of the middle-class professions, into the ALP and reformist trade union bureaucracy (even into the Coalition parties) and into various forms of service to the ruling class.
That is the reason why we attach so much importance to the question of building a Marxist political party. This is the only way the inherent disadvantages of the proletarian situation can be overcome. Working-class leadership is at an absolute premium. There is no possibility of having an A team and a B team; there will only be one revolutionary leadership of the class. The challenge is to build it. As Trotsky points out, this is an immensely difficult task but we know from history that it is not impossible. Furthermore, capitalism itself creates the conditions under which this problem can be resolved.
The struggle to build an independent working-class political party in a given country is an extremely complicated and tortuous process. There is no general formula applicable in all cases. A brief look at the history of the international labour movement makes this very clear.
At the very beginning of the birth of modern scientific socialism, the Communist Manifesto was the result of the efforts of Marx and Engels to gather an international grouping around these ideas. They won over a number of leaders of the League of the Just and got agreement to transform this formerly conspiratorial society into an open political party with a clear program and democratic rules. On this basis they then joined the organisation. As a result of its “extreme makeover”, at its second congress in November 1847 the Communist League (as it was now called) commissioned Marx and Engels to draw up a manifesto for the organisation and the result has entered into history — the most influential political document ever written.
The Communist League was not an association of national political parties. Rather, it brought together small groups of revolutionaries in a number of Western European countries. And when the Europe-wide revolutionary storm of 1848-49 broke, the Communist League didn’t really function as a cohesive organisation, even in Germany (although its members there — especially Marx and Engels — exercised a great influence). The organisation did not long survive the defeat of the revolution.
The next big step in international working-class organisation was the formation of the International Working Men’s Association (the First International). As Ernest Mandel explains in his Introduction to Marxism:
"After the years of reaction which followed the defeat of the 1848 revolution, it was mainly trade union and mutual aid organisations of the working class which developed in most countries, with the exception of Germany, where the agitation for universal suffrage enabled Lassalle to constitute a workers political party: the General Association of German Workers [in 1863].
"It was through the founding of the First International in 1864 that Marx and his little group of followers really fused with the elementary workers movement of the epoch, and prepared the establishment of socialist parties in most European countries. However paradoxical it may seem, it was not national workers parties that assembled together to constitute the First International. It was the constitution of the First International that allowed the grouping on a national level of local and syndicalist groups adhering to the First International."When the International broke up after the defeat of the Paris Commune, the vanguard workers remained conscious of the need for organisation on a national level. After a few early defeats, the socialist parties based on the elementary workers movement of the period were definitively constituted in the 1870s and ’80s. The only important exceptions were Great Britain and the USA, where the socialist parties at this time remained marginal to the already strong trade union movement."8
In 1889 the Second International was founded. It became the accepted international organisation of the working-class vanguard. At its congresses the main problems facing the workers movement were debated and decisions codified in resolutions. During the period from its inception to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the European socialist parties and trade unions grew significantly in size and influence.However, with the development of imperialism, revisionism and opportunism also began to develop in the social-democratic parties. The social basis for this was the trade union bureaucracy and the full-time apparatus of the parties who had long since adapted in practice to the capitalist system. Things came to a head when the leaderships of almost all the parties supported their respective governments in the war. It was left to small left-wing minorities to uphold the principles of revolutionary socialism.
Following the Russian Revolution, the Communist International (also known as the Comintern or Third International) was founded. It brought together the main revolutionary parties and groups that had opposed the war and which supported the new Soviet regime.
The process was begun of clarifying key questions facing the movement and educating the new communist parties that were being established in the various countries. The first four congresses of the Comintern between 1919 and 1922 played a tremendous role in this regard. The Second Congress, for instance, adopted the famous 21 conditions which set out the necessary political conditions for admission of parties to the Comintern. This was an attempt to exclude reformist and centrist forces and drive them out of the CPs. And the Third Congress adopted a united-front policy in regard to the still powerful social-democratic and centrist parties in the various countries.
The CPs were built by a process of splits and fusions in the various countries over a number of years. In some cases the left-wing forces split from social-democracy (in France the whole party came over after expelling its right wing); in others (like Britain) small socialist groups unified and there were other variants.
The communist parties were organised very differently to the old socialist formations. Here is how James P. Cannon describes the early US Communist Party:
"It was composed of thousands of courageous and devoted revolutionists willing to make sacrifices and take risks for the movement. In spite of all their mistakes, they built a party the like of which had never been seen in this country before; that is, a party founded on a Marxist program, with a professional leadership and disciplined ranks …
"They learned to take program seriously. They learned to do away forever with the idea that a revolutionary movement, aiming at power, can be led by people who practice socialism as an avocation. The leader typical of the old Socialist Party was a lawyer practising law, or a preacher practising preaching, or a writer, or a professional man of one kind or another, who condescended to come around and make a speech once in a while. The full-time functionaries were merely hacks who did the dirty work and had no real influence in the party. The gap between the rank and file workers, with their revolutionary impulses and desires, and the petty-bourgeois dabblers at the top was tremendous. The early Communist Party broke away from all that, and was able to do it easily because not one of the old type leaders came over wholeheartedly to the support of the Russian Revolution. The party had to throw up new leaders out of the ranks, and from the very beginning the principle was laid down that these leaders must be professional workers for the party, must put their whole time and their whole lives at the disposal of the party. If one is thinking of a party that aims to lead the workers in a real struggle for power, then no other type of leadership is worth considering."9
You can also get a real sense of the differences between the old social-democratic parties and the new CPs by looking at the theses adopted in 1921 by the Third Congress of the Comintern on “The Organisational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work”. (We have published this resolution in a photocopied pamphlet edition.) In fact, these theses are very much a manual on how to gradually transform those parties which had come from the old tradition into parties with a much more active, involved and politically educated membership. (This process, of course, was quite different to the later “Bolshevisation” campaigns which really served to stifle the independent life of the CPs and subordinate them to the developing Soviet bureaucracy.)
While Trotsky’s project of a Fourth International never assumed mass form, the various Trotskyist organisations did amass some rich and varied experiences (both positive and negative) in trying to build themselves from small nuclei into larger formations.
Of course, the most instructive are those of the US Trotskyists under the leadership of James P. Cannon, whose early years are chronicled so brilliantly and instructively in his wonderful History of American Trotskyism. The heroic initial accumulation of cadres, the fusion with another militant proletarian organisation, the successful entry into the Socialist Party, then the split with the revisionist Burnham-Shachtman group — all these episodes (and there are many more) illustrate different tactics for building the revolutionary party in particular conditions.
I’d like to conclude with a passage from James P. Cannon. He wrote these words on November 26, 1944 from Sandstone Prison in Minnesota. He was one of 18 leaders and militants of the Socialist Workers Party who were jailed for their unyielding opposition to the imperialist war being waged by the US rulers.
"People cannot live without perspectives, without hope for the future. Those who hope to organise a great movement of the masses must never forget this, never fail to inspire them with confidence that the future will be better than the present if only they strive to make it so.
"The greatest power of Marxism derives from the fact that it gives a rational basis to the impulse of the masses to make a better world, a scientific assurance that the irresistible laws of social evolution are working on their side; that the idea of socialism, of the good society of the free and equal, is not a utopian fantasy but the projection of future reality. When this idea takes hold of the people it will truly be the greatest power in the world.