To the new generation heroically fighting against authoritarian governments and right wing economic policies around the world, political parties can seem like just another institution of the system they’re struggling against. It’s easy to see why. Most of the well-known political parties are props of the neoliberal order, things that need to be shunned or swept away when real social movements take centre stage.
In Hong Kong, political parties have been almost totally irrelevant to the mass demonstrations, street combat and campus occupations that have provided a model for the emerging global struggles, while the movement’s main enemy is an instrument of totalitarian capitalism that calls itself the Communist Party of China. In Lebanon, the movement’s suspicion of organised politics crystallised into a popular demand for a new government formed with no party-affiliated politicians, only politically neutral experts. France’s street-fighting Yellow Vests were impossible to associate with any political party or bloc: they drew participants from the left, from the right and from the totally politically disengaged, and they liked it that way.
The movements have an incredible self-sustaining dynamism and creativity. That rightly inspires confidence in the capacity of ordinary people to organise themselves even when they have no prior political training or experience. Where political parties play a role in great struggles, it’s often a bad role: in Chile, Bolivia and Brazil, centre-left parties have tried to convince activists to calm down, get off the streets, wait for the next elections and accept bad compromises – even when that means leaving extreme right wing governments in power.
Mainstream left wing and right wing parties have spent decades collaborating in projects of privatisation and cuts to social welfare. The notion that any kind of political party could represent any kind of alternative to the status quo can seem like a self-contradiction: political parties simply are the status quo. When we experience a rupture in everyday life that gives us hope that things might change, it probably has little to do with any parties. That sensibility isn’t new. Whenever political parties gain power in capitalist society, they tend to defend its worst qualities, collaborate with its right wing establishment and turn against any movements for liberation that disrupt the structures of capitalist oppression. That can make political organisation itself seem to be the problem: movements seem to take things forward, and parties hold them back.
“Today, the world is moved by a portentous revolution”, as the Costa Rican poet Isaac Felipe Azofeifa put it. “It is a revolution without parties. It is that of the youth.” These words weren’t written in 2019, but in 1971. A generation earlier, when authoritarian and conservative Stalinism was at its zenith in 1936, the experienced revolutionary Anton Pannekoek argued for what he saw as a new path: “The old movement was embodied in parties, and today belief in the party constitutes the most powerful check on the working class’ capacity for action. That is why we are not creating a new party.”
But even if they begin by mistrusting political parties, every movement must, sooner or later, confront the question of politics – or be defeated. Movements often begin with a recognition that the most important social questions are being decided the wrong way, to the benefit of a small elite. The formative demands of a new movement can be very focussed on decision-making procedures: new elections, a new constitution, some new way of forming governments. But movements must also address more underlying questions. If people are fighting for some new, more legitimate way of making decisions, it’s because they don’t like the decisions that are being made. So, what do they want? And how do they get it? As movements develop, they have to debate goals, coalitions and tactics. What are we fighting for? Who are our allies, and who are our enemies? How will we defeat those in power and make sure our victories last, when our enemies control the police, the parliament and the media? As currents within movements grapple with those questions, the most convincing answers take shape in organisations – political parties. In many cases, an explosive non-party or anti-party movement results a few years later in a revival of political party organisation.
The rebellions that swept Latin America in the 1990s and 2000s gave way to political parties seeking, and often winning, government. A decade later, European party organisers took inspiration from that experience. After the global financial crisis of the late 2000s, enormous anti-austerity protests swept over Spain and Greece. Their enemies were the old centre-left parties that had once claimed to be the champions of the working class, only to turn against them in government and implement harsh austerity. At first the movements rejected political organisation. But as the street protests reached an impasse, unable to defeat neoliberalism through protest alone, they turned to political party organisation.
New centre-left parties emerged – Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece – based on political programs that were meant to sum up the aspirations of the movements. Their leaders argued that by forming new parties and winning majorities in parliament, they could achieve the defeat of austerity and neoliberalism that the protest movements had sought. After explosive growth, those parties became incorporated into the system of official politics and accrued a record of their own betrayals – just as their Latin American predecessors had over the previous decade.
Even if new political organisations aren’t created, politics finds its way in. If no new organisations emerge that can represent the struggle, even old institutions that are more or less openly hostile to the movement can win loyalty and restore themselves just because they are the only force that seems able to take action and settle things decisively. Egypt’s powerful revolution of 2011 brought down a military-backed dictatorship without any political party leading it – and it ended up being politically dominated by “patriotic” army generals, who were able to present themselves as the only force capable of stabilising society. They introduced a dictatorship identical in nature, but even more brutal than the one that went before.
Mass movements can create incredible collective self-confidence, creativity and seriousness of purpose among the ordinary people who take part in them. In mass movements, the oppressed discover that their opinions and their collective actions can change the world. They have to debate everything from how to deal with a tear gas grenade to how they’d like to change the constitution. In Beirut, protesters took over abandoned cinemas, making them venues for daily mass meetings to discuss the progress of the movement. In Sudan, they hung a banner listing all the great revolutions since the 19th century and the causes of their failures, so that today’s revolutionaries wouldn’t repeat their mistakes. A bewildered New York Times journalist tried to explain the nature of a real mass movement when she described what she witnessed at nearly every protest she attended in Chile: ordinary workers collectively discussing the biggest questions in the world. “Regular people – they brought their dogs, they brought their toddlers, they were sitting on the floor, some were eating snacks – having a very serious conversation about what elements of the constitution would need to be changed, the mechanism that would need to change it, and what would make it legitimate.”
Capitalist politics is about defusing that collective confidence and replacing it with individual passivity. The mechanism for that is the capitalist state. All political disputes have to be settled through the bureaucratic machinery of the state. If you don’t wield state power in capitalist society, you aren’t allowed to change the laws, or give different instructions to the police who are tear-gassing you, or do whatever it is you want to do. If you want to win, you have to play the game of replacing one bureaucratic government with another. The desire for victory, combined with an acceptance of the rules of capitalist politics, can mean that anti-political social movements quickly find their energy converted into extreme illusions in new electoral political parties and their charismatic candidates. Activism is redirected into electoral canvassing. Protests that threaten to disrupt electoral victories are frowned on. To the extent movements are tolerated, it is only to bolster support for elected politicians. And by definition, the more those parties succeed in official politics, the more they are converted into instruments for administering capitalism – and so they betray, demoralise and paralyse their supporters. Countries like Venezuela and Greece were home to enormous social movements that then fed triumphant electoral successes of these kinds of parties. They are now home to some of the most disillusioned populations.
Movements need parties: revolutionary parties. We’re used to thinking of a political party as an organisation devoted to promoting candidates for electoral office. But there are other kinds. A revolutionary party is a political party, in the sense that it is a collective organisation that bases itself on a shared world view and fights for its ideas in society. A revolutionary party isn’t about helping candidates win elections, which are scheduled regularly and frequently in most capitalist societies. A revolutionary party is about helping the oppressed win revolutions. It’s an organisation of activists and fighters, based in the working class, whose political contribution is about coming up with tactics, strategies and ideas that can take mass movements forward towards victory – and explaining how those tactics and strategies build towards replacing capitalism with a better type of society.
Here’s an example. The students of Hong Kong have struggled heroically with the police, but they know that if they’re going to defeat their rulers, they need more power than students can wield. They’ve called for a general strike, but haven’t yet been able to create one. In the absence of that, some of the more naive or conservative students have appealed to other powerful forces – like US imperialism. But that won’t help a struggle for democracy. What’s the way out? Suppose they had an organisation of tens of thousands, made up of working class activists. They could call meetings in their workplaces, to discuss the struggles of the students and argue for a general strike. That would build up the working class' sense of responsibility for leading the movement, while bringing open, democratic, radical debate into every workplace. If workers knew that there were similar debates happening in factories and offices throughout Hong Kong, they'd have more courage to decide in favour of a general strike. In a society where polls show overwhelming majority support for the students, that would be a real possibility.
That’s just one example. But if you think through what you’d need to carry it off, you can see the properties a revolutionary party would need. It would need to have a base in the working class, with tens of thousands of activists who know how to argue in their workplaces, and who have the respect to be taken seriously by their workmates. It would need a worldview based on the knowledge that workers can, and should, lead all struggles of the oppressed. It would need confidence in the self-organising capacities of the working class, to reject the idea that bureaucratic solutions like electoral politics are the way forward. To throw itself into the struggle and lead it into a truly democratic direction, it would need to reject both US imperialism and Stalinism – thus avoiding two ways of getting entangled into alliances with the ruling class. In short, it would have to be a socialist, revolutionary, working class organisation.
If parties like that existed in the struggles breaking out around the world, socialists wouldn’t have just to cheer these movements as they rise up and mourn them if they’re defeated. The socialist movement would be active participants in history, winning millions of people to socialist politics – the idea that workers can run society themselves, on an international scale, for the benefit of all – by proving it in practice through the development of movement tactics. Protests could become general strikes; general strikes could become general assemblies of workers; those assemblies could become revolutionary, democratic organising centres of the working class; and those organising centres could provide an alternative base of power to the capitalist state, a way for millions of people to turn their uprising into a new, equal and truly democratic form of society.
Movements are made stronger the more they are based in radical workers’ democracy, and the more that happens, the closer they come to overthrowing capitalism completely, and finally solving all the underlying social problems that led to the revolution breaking out. A revolutionary socialist current in the working class, organised into an activist party that sees its role as providing political leadership to mass movements rather than propping up politicians, can turn mass democratic movements into socialist revolution.
That kind of party isn’t just a nice idea. It’s a reality, waiting to be brought into existence. You can see the activists who would make up a party like that whenever you turn on the news. They exist among the workers who struck and occupied against the dictatorship in Sudan, among the bravest and most radical of the millions who’ve marched in Hong Kong and among the people in the cinemas of Lebanon and the streets of Chile debating their future. The people who throw themselves into revolutionary movements, debating, planning and risking their lives, have every capacity to become organised revolutionaries and take responsibility for liberating the whole world.
But the decision to construct a revolutionary party is itself a strategic choice – and there are plenty of other strategies advocated too, from abandoning politics completely, to looking for “leaderless” or “horizontal” ways of organising beyond ideology, to accepting the dominance of the existing political parties no matter how discredited they are. Looking at the mass movements around the world, socialists have to take courage that revolutionary parties are possible. They also have to note the consequences of the failure to build them: movements of incredible power being driven into demoralisation, betrayal or vicious counter-revolution. And they also have to take some responsibility.
Why aren’t there revolutionary parties around the whole world? Of course, part of the answer is persecution and repression of revolutionary organisers.
The most successful revolutionary party was the Russian Bolshevik organisation: a party of working-class activists that patiently built workers’ power until they could launch the world’s first revolutionary-democratic state based on workers’ councils. In the years following, they waged that strategic argument in the international workers’ movement: that the best fighters and activists had to build revolutionary parties, so that when mass struggles broke out in their countries, they could take part in them, strengthen them and lead them towards a workers’ revolution.
But before that could happen in any other countries, the revolution in Russia disintegrated. When Stalin came to power, he not only wiped out the remaining revolutionaries inside Russia. He converted the overseas Communist Parties into bureaucratic, anti-revolutionary organisations that were sometimes revolutionary in word, but never played the role of a revolutionary party outlined above, and were increasingly run by bureaucrats and politicians rather than workers: they played an important role in preventing militant workers from learning about real revolutionary politics. That legacy took decades to dissipate, and it isn’t fully gone. It is hardly surprising that it is difficult to construct a revolutionary party in Hong Kong, when the police tear-gassing you are doing it on the orders of so-called Marxist-Leninists. In much of the rest of the world, fascist governments persecuted and killed revolutionary activists with similar vigour to Stalin and his acolytes. In many so-called democracies, advocates for a revolutionary party were jailed or otherwise persecuted.
But it isn’t just persecution. It’s also politics. Much of the left has been too quick to give up on the project of building revolutionary parties. It isn’t easy. They can’t be created automatically, because the idea that workers can run society contradicts all the common sense of everyday capitalist life. The biggest mass movement in the world won’t automatically construct a workers’ revolutionary party. It requires patient work training activists, learning history, taking part in movements without sacrificing your principles. It requires the construction of a network of skilled advocates for a revolutionary party, persuasive activists who can win debates about politics and about how to organise. The opportunities to turn those networks into big revolutionary parties come intermittently, when workers are radicalised in struggle on a massive scale. Elections come much more frequently, every couple of years. It can seem easier to abandon the more difficult project of building up support for a working class revolutionary organisation. But if we moderate our politics and lose faith in the power of revolutionary movements, we will find that when the mass struggle breaks out, we’ve failed in our responsibility to build the type of organisation that can help it achieve victory.
But even though it doesn’t come on a regular schedule, revolution remains as real now as it was in 1917, in 1968 and in 2011. Capitalism keeps creating crises, and those crises create rebellions that turn ordinary people into heroes. The responsibility of socialists is to create organisations through which those heroes can defeat their rulers and create a new world. Revolutionary parties are possible and necessary – and we have to build them.