Socialists face a conundrum: increasing numbers in the West today say they identify as socialists, but revolutionary socialists remain confined to small groups with little influence, and one of the most important in the US has just dissolved. As a result, the merits of building small socialist organisations has been called into question. This article is a contribution to that debate.
I’ll start by looking at the ups and downs of the most famous revolutionaries, the Russian Bolsheviks. Before the revolution of 1917, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and his followers lived in exile, languished in jails and organised in secret. They were on the margins of political debates among the European left, and had only precarious links with the working class inside Russia.
From 1874, when the Southern Workers’ Union formed in Odessa, tiny insignificant groups had struggled to establish a revolutionary Marxist current among radical workers, students and intellectuals. They were regularly destroyed by police repression and their members dispersed. Many were torn apart by ideological disagreements.
After every setback, some activists took up the baton and continued the task of clarifying ideas and gaining experience by involving themselves in workers’ struggles. They organised in exile, read and debated in the jails, gradually establishing a political tradition which could be built on, renewed and developed.
The Bolsheviks had only about 300-400 members in St Petersburg when revolution broke out in January 1905, probably no more than in 1895, but significantly clearer theoretically. Because of this and despite their small numbers, they were able to play an important role.
The early Bolsheviks faced the same problem all revolutionaries face in difficult periods – they had little to offer workers other than ideas, or “abstract propaganda” as it is sometimes disparagingly called. “And yet”, writes historian Tom Freeman, who closely studied their history, “for all these limitations, [the party] responded to the rising movement with an energy and enthusiasm that would allow it to advance and transform itself over the next two years”.
The final victory of workers led by the Bolsheviks in October 1917 – which demonstrated that workers could overthrow the most repressive of regimes – was a tribute to, but also made possible by, the incredible suffering, sacrifice and resolute determination of these individuals and groups. They refused to give in to any setback, whether because of political mistakes or state repression, or to capitulate to reformism in spite of denigration by their political rivals.
Not many who participated in these small groups ever made it into the history books. But if we view history through the prism of collectivity and not individuals, we have a guide to how to become relevant when struggles pick up again.
History shows us that revolutionaries can gain a mass audience only when larger numbers are looking for answers in the context of massive struggles. Even very small revolutionary organisations can build in such conditions, but only if they exist in the first place.
Small revolutionary organisations have come and gone through history, some split over ideological questions, leaving them smaller than they might have been, some destroyed by state power or defeats in the class struggle. But, by their endeavours, whether badly mistaken or highly successful for a time, they have generated a rich history of ideas and lessons about organisational questions. This has been invaluable in keeping alive the basic commitment to revolutionary struggle, which is essential if we’re to win a socialist world.
Leon Trotsky led the workers’ councils in the 1905 revolution and played a key role again in 1917 as a leading member of the Bolsheviks. But it was the years after 1928, when he was most isolated, that he considered most important, writing in his diary:
“The work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life.”
The Trotskyists, in the decades after his death, were isolated in tiny groups, with Stalinism ascendant. But they kept alive for future generations the understanding that the monstrous Stalinist states were not what the Bolsheviks had fought for, but the result of a catastrophic counter-revolution. This laid the basis for some Trotskyists to rejuvenate the ideas of workers’ self-emancipation when the opportunity arose.
In contrast, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre very well understood that the Stalinist states were not a workers’ paradise. But they preferred to relate to the larger intellectual circles around the Communist Party than to Trotsky, for fear of isolation.
They took principled stands about the Algerian war and other controversies, and their philosophical work is of interest. But on the critical question of how socialism can be won, they stood with the Stalinists who discredited the very idea of that project.
You judge: which activity – persevering to keep alive the idea that socialism can be built only through the self-emancipation of the working class, or giving credibility to the Stalinist parties that led workers’ movements into disasters – was the more honourable and lasting?
In more recent times, any number of small socialist groups have tried a range of strategies to build their forces. But the grinding impact of neoliberalism has pushed workers’ struggles back, weakening confidence and class consciousness. In this situation, socialists have, predictably, failed to break out of the margins whatever their strategy.
The Trotskyist Militant group, for example, which was quite influential in some local councils in Britain, has declined to a rump. The large Revolutionary Communist League in France has been reduced to a fraction of what it was as a result of dissolving into the New Anti-capitalist Party it initiated.
To avoid such disaster, it is important to set modest goals that fit with reality. A Canadian socialist recently argued that the task of revolutionaries in this period is to “rebuild practices, organisation and cultures of working class self-mobilisation so that a working class vanguard might actually be re-created, and a meaningful party built in its ranks”.
But this grossly overestimates what small groups of revolutionaries are capable of. The disastrous class collaborationist responses adopted by unions in the West to the attacks of neoliberalism have led to defeats and demoralisation. Small numbers, whether in organisations or in the loose networks favoured by some, can’t just by willpower “rebuild” the organisations and cultures destroyed in this process. Class consciousness on a mass scale cannot be imbued by small groups; it can revive only as part of an organic rise in struggle.
The organisation that the comrade who offered this advice came from has since dissolved and has not been able to demonstrate how such a proposal might be carried out. The desire to be large and more relevant, when not supported by a commensurate radicalisation, is no solution to marginalisation.
When that struggle begins to build, the presence of a small cohered revolutionary group can be critical to convincing workers to believe in their own power and creativity rather than just follow labour movement leaders who want to stay onside with the powerful. It can make the difference between demoralising defeats or small victories that start to renew socialist traditions among larger numbers.
An organisation with members who have studied the theory and practice of past movements, who have learnt how to make abstract theories relevant to the concerns of workers in struggle by being part of every small, partial struggle they can find, will be well placed to play this role.
But if you think you can “re-create” class conscious struggles and organisations when class struggle is at a low ebb, demoralisation, despair and giving up on revolutionary politics follow. No amount of searching for the ideal organisational form can enable revolutionary organisations to be large when there is no sizeable layer of workers organising serious struggles.
Revolutionary socialists are not the only ones facing these difficulties. Syndicalists, many close to revolutionary Marxists, are one example. Their highpoint coincided with the flowering of some of the most important Marxist theory and activity since Marx. This was no accident. From WWI to the end of the 1920s, there were revolutions that raised intellectuals to heights not possible when the working class is not demonstrating its power and organisational genius.
So when someone asked me recently where the great thinkers of today are – modern Bolsheviks – my reply was: Where are the wonderful iconoclasts of the Industrial Workers of the World and other great syndicalists we saw in their heyday? Where are the Tom Manns or Jim Larkins? The Big Bill Heywoods? Daniel de Leon? Is there a figure to compare with the Buenaventura Durruti, of the Spanish (anarchist) CNT, who drew lessons about their revolutionary struggle of 1936-37 similar in some ways to Lenin’s ideas?
Their modern day equivalents have no choice but to be in marginalised groups trying to keep alive the ideas they think will be most important once workers find their voice and power again.
Socialists can learn from both successes and failures of all the groups that went before us. We are tested by the struggle, we will make mistakes, but there is no pat schema leading along an inevitable and linear path to the creation of a mass party. It will depend on the struggle, the actions of masses of people we cannot influence right now and whether the organisations that do exist meet the challenges when the situation does open up.
If you gain wider influence by junking revolutionary politics and conceding to left reformism or whatever else is more popular, it’s a pointless exercise. All you do is strengthen the forces of those who, when the opportunity comes, will baulk at the idea of destroying capitalism.
“The greatest catastrophe in history” is how Romain Rolland summed up the left’s reaction to learning in August 1914 that most of the leaders of the mass workers’ parties of the Second International, in particular the mighty German Social Democratic Party, had abandoned the internationalism of Marx and joined with their own bourgeoisie to back the slaughter of the imperialist war.
Revolutionaries such as Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Glasgow’s John MacLean, syndicalists in Europe and the IWW, stood for internationalism and intransigent opposition to the war. They were marginalised, hounded and dismissed as hopeless romantics. But their stand laid the basis for mass struggles that ended the war eventually.
Without the ideas developed and handed on by all these small revolutionary organisations and more, we would be totally bereft, with no compass. Abandoning revolutionary organisation, simply because it’s difficult or hard to grow, does nothing to advance the struggle to overthrow capitalism.
To give up is a much greater moral, political and ethical failure than making mistakes and drawing lessons in the process of fighting for revolutionary politics. Join us in this endeavour if you yearn for a better world.