By Neil Harris
The revolutionary party
TO ASK what revolutionaries do between revolutions is not an idle question, not least because Lenin’s definition of a revolutionary situation still holds true:
“The fundamental law of revolutions, which has been confirmed by all revolutions and especially by all three Russian revolutions in the 20th century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph.”
While revolutions do not just happen – they have to be made – we cannot make something happen just because we want it to. A number of objective factors have to coincide, and as we have come to realise, such situations are rare.
An earthquake may only last a few seconds but under the surface the build-up of pressure between tectonic plates has taken decades, if not centuries, to reach crisis point. The aftershocks continue for months, if not years, afterwards.
So it is with the class struggle. The day-to-day battles between workers and bosses, which seem so trivial, periodically explode into revolutions and counter revolutions. In the same way the aftershocks of these conflicts roll out across the world.
When the Paris Commune of 1871 was drowned in the blood of 50,000 executed revolutionaries, the carnival of reaction that followed engulfed Europe and seemed to signify the death of socialism forever. At that time who but Marx and Engels in their London exile could foresee the changes to come? Some 30 years later the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 would be carried out in the name of the Commune, just as the failed revolutions of 1848 had proved to be the inspiration for the Communards themselves.
The aftershocks of 1917 were to spread across the world and echo today in Beijing, Pyongyang and Havana.
So it is with counter revolutions – the ripples from fascism’s triumph in Italy and the defeat of the German revolution in 1919 to 1923 were to have their influence on the victory of German fascism, which in turn would hit Spain in the years leading up to the Second World War.
In our own time the counter revolutions of 1989, which saw the collapse of socialism, first in eastern Europe, then in the Soviet Union itself, were at least as disastrous as the defeat of the Commune. Certainly the cost in human life from the wars and reduced life expectancy has been far worse – millions of workers have died. Hailed by the bourgeois philosopher Francis Fukiyama as “the end of history”, what he actually meant was the end of the class struggle. In the beginning, at least, he seemed to be right.
Vast new markets were opened and an equally enormous labour force – cheap, demoralised and stripped of their unions, ripe for exploitation. Best of all, the rich saw raw materials of one sixth of the Earth’s surface, suddenly were available for imperialist plunder for the first time in 70 years. Oil, gas, gold, diamonds, bauxite, iron and steel – the new treasures of the east making the opening of the Wild West seem cheap in comparison.
Scores of new billionaires appeared overnight, bloated with loot, while at the same time several hundred million of the “new poor” were impoverished beyond belief by their first contact with capitalism.
Worst of all, the bankrupt world capitalist system became equally bloated with super profits from these new opportunities, bankrolled for another 20 years, long past the point when it would otherwise have collapse under the weight of its own debts.
No one could be surprised that the liquidation of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) would be followed by the collapse of communist parties around the world, some of them millions strong, all of which had modelled themselves on the ideological factions within the CPSU.
Some, like the French party, echoed the revisionism of Krushchov and Brezhnev, revising away the revolutionary heritage of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.
Others, like the so-called euro-communist Communist Party of Italy, modelled themselves on the reformist trend in the CPSU, seeking a third way between capitalism and socialism and which was to come to power with the Gorbachov clique.
That both trends should lead to the liquidation of their parties was inevitable, for as Lenin said: “Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary party”. Quite simply, in the age of capitalist ownership of the means of production, all thought, all politics are determined by capitalist thought and politics unless it is rooted in the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the capitalist system.”
The absence of revolutionary theory opened the door to the capitalist theory that dominates society.
As a result, all those communist parties that thought there could be some sort of accommodation with capitalism, historic or otherwise, are no longer with us, swept away in the tidal wave of revision.
Just as dramatic was the collapse of the Trotskyite left, never large, consisting of some hundreds of thousands rather than millions. Strident, vocal and encouraged by the bourgeoisie, they devoted all their energies to attacking socialism wherever it existed from the position of a self-styled left opposition. The collapse of the Soviet Union removed their only justification for existence and they were faced with the same stark ideological choice as the rest of us – revolution or reform. With very few exceptions they chose electoral politics and as a result the parties of the fourth international shrank with the same speed as those of the third.
The crisis on the Left has not stopped there. The collapse of the Soviet Union should have been the moment of triumph for the parties of the second international, the parties of social democracy.
Since 1917 they were the bitter enemies of communism – positioning themselves as critics of the Russian revolution from the right. At home they made an accommodation with their capitalists, arguing that gradual reforms were preferable to revolutionary change. On foreign policy they sided with their own imperialists’ interests and were to be correctly described by Lenin as “social imperialists – socialist in words, imperialist in deeds”.
For the imperialists the deal was simple – after 1917 they faced the prospect of losing everything. For the cost a few concessions and an occasional social democrat government they survived.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War the deal was off – the imperialists had no further use of their quislings. They forced the social democrats back, winning concession after concession at the expense of the workers. Each time the social democrats moved further to the right until they had given up any pretence of arguing for socialism, democratic or otherwise. In Britain Blair and Brown were only too happy to trade clause four to take “power” in 1997.
The social democrats’ reward has been electoral defeats one after another: in France, Germany and eve their heartlands of Holland and Scandinavia.
Both left and right critics of the Soviet Union were two sides of the same coin. Both existed only as parasites on the strength of the international working class after 1917. The paradox is that before 1917 the social democrats were everywhere too weak to take power. After 1989 the imperialists were too strong to need them. The defeat of the working class in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe was to be a defeat for the whole working class of the world in the same way that the defeat of the British miners in 1985 was not just a defeat for them but for all workers in Britain and beyond.
So what remains in the rubble to build on? After an earthquake the great plates beneath the Earth’s surface immediately start to push and grind again, just as before. It is the same with the class struggle – it never stops. If workers are not moving forwards they are moving back until the fight begins again.
For revolutionaries there has been an instinctive coming together of the world communist movement in a series of international meetings. In the aftermath of 1989 that was only natural. The struggle continues and in the battle against bourgeois ideas the party of Lenin has proved to be our best and only weapon.
That party is one in which the theoretical principles of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, dialectical materialism and proletarian internationalism are united in the organisational discipline of democratic centralism. This is what distinguishes us from either social democracy or Trotskyism and is why we survive.
There is no doubt that materialism and dialectics best explain the world and how it changes. The economic theories of Marx and Engels are just as valid today as they were in the 19th century. Surplus value is still the mechanism by which capital reproduces itself and the collapse of capitalism in 2008 has its ancestry in the banking collapses of the 1880s, 1900s and 1930s.
Lenin’s analysis of the state, imperialism and finance capital is just as useful in the era of “globalisation” as it was in the early days of the 20th century. These are our ideological weapons and the disciplined party is the means of using them in practice.
Since its formation in 1977, the New Communist Party has always refused to stand in bourgeois elections, not as a tactical boycott but as a matter of principle. Those who founded the party did so after a long battle with revisionism in the old Communist Party of Great Britain, going back to the 1950s. Part of that ideological struggle developed out of the old party’s shift away from workplace organisations for revolution to territorial branches based on election campaigns.
But it went deeper than that. For us there is a distinct difference between the state, which Marx described as “the organising committee of the bourgeoisie” and parliamentary government, which is merely an apparently democratic veneer, hiding the violent and coercive nature of the state underneath. The security services, police and army are only too ready to use force when capitalism is threatened.
For Marx and Engels, “Political power, properly so-called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another”. This dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is the reality of our society and to replace it requires the overthrow of the bourgeois state and its replacement with a proletarian state and a proletarian dictatorship in its place. That is the reality of political power.
At one level, standing in bourgeois elections is a compromise with capitalism we are not prepared to make. At another, it fosters illusions amongst the working class that winning seats in Parliament brings the possibility of reforming capitalism, when in fact only governments acceptable to the bourgeoisie are able to win “power”. As ever the choice is between reform and revolution, social democracy and communism.
However, whether we like it or not, elections happen and it would be foolish to pretend they do not matter. The last campaign for the US presidency cost over $1,000 million, the bulk of it contributed by the bourgeoisie and their allies. It is rare that such people give their money away for nothing. When bourgeois politicians campaign for votes the campaign is not for the support of millions of voters but for the support of small numbers of the ruling class and their allies in the media.
As Andy Brooks, general secretary of the New Communist Party, has put it: “Bourgeois elections are the battle by the smallest number of people to manipulate the maximum number of votes.”
In Britain, Cameron and Brown have probably spent more time courting the support of one man, Rupert Murdoch, than they will devote to winning the votes of the whole electorate. In bourgeois elections the contest is actually between different factions and interests in a divided bourgeoisie, which is then projected as being a contest for the interests of the people as a whole.
The nature of social democracy
When workers realised that on their own they were powerless against the boss, they started to organise in unions to protect themselves. Unions arose out of the class struggle and are part of it. Their fluctuating strength reflects the class consciousness of the working class and its ability to confront the ruling class. Because they are a product of the class struggle there is nothing revolutionary about unions and nothing about them that threatens the existence of capitalism itself, only the level of exploitation and the amount of surplus value.
Because trade unions are created by workers as a means of self-defence in the class struggle it should be no surprise that the majority of trade union leaders are reformist and social democrats and often betray the interests of their members.
This is why communists are active in the unions, battling to make them democratic, militant and class conscious. The aim is to convert that class consciousness into a revolutionary consciousness – to fight not just for higher wages but to seize and control the means of production itself, or as it has often been said, not to fight for a bigger slice of the cake but the whole cake and the equipment that made it as well.
That is why social democratic, reformist unions are still a working class asset and why communists support them in spite of their leaderships. The battle against the bosses is a daily education in the class struggle and how to fight it.
In the same way, the co-operative movement remains a working class asset and we also support it. Created in the 19th century as an alternative to the revolutionary struggle, co-operatives have always been dominated by the liberal and religious wing of the working class movement. Co-operators believe that they can somehow withdraw from the market and through that replace it. This form of reformism is based on idealism and wishful thinking. Nevertheless co-operatives are another working class defence mechanism in the class war. Co-operative assets have been built up through workers’ sacrifices over many years and in opposition to capitalism. They are non-capitalist concerns and deserve our support. For this reason communists are active in the cooperative movement, campaigning for democratic co-ops and fighting for a revolutionary position in relation to capitalism.
The Labour Party
By the early 20th century trade unionists realised that even combined in unions the workers were no match for the ruling class and its control over the state. Social democracy arose when workers organised in unions began to seek political power themselves and created political parties to promote their interests.
Once again, social democracy arose out of the class struggle – most of its votes and members are workers. There being nothing revolutionary about the class struggle itself, there is equally nothing revolutionary about social democracy, which exists only to reform capitalism and as a defensive measure in the class struggle.
There are broadly two kinds of social democrats:
• Right social democrats who believe that capitalism is the best system and simply requires some reforms to remove its more unpleasant side effects. So, the economist Keynes believed that increased Government expenditure could eliminate unemployment and Beveridge who believed that social welfare expenditure would eliminate poverty. Both were wrong; unemployment and poverty are part of the system itself.
• Left social democrats oppose capitalism and believe that it must be replaced with socialism but believe it is possible to do so by gradual democratic reforms. As we have seen, the nature of the bourgeois state makes this impossible. Most social democratic parties contain a mixture of left and right in varying proportions. Sometimes well-meaning, sometimes not, all social democrats remain a prisoner of capitalism.
Where do communists stand in relation to the Labour Party?
Since our formation, the New Communist Party has always called on the working class to vote Labour and will continue to do so except in the case of European Union elections, which, as an undemocratic sham, we call on all workers to boycott.
We call on the working class to vote Labour not because we have any illusions that it is anything other than a social democrat party or that its leaders can ever be won to revolutionary politics. On the contrary, even if our campaign for a democratic Labour Party that opens its doors to left-wing parties like ours to affiliate as autonomous, independent groups were to succeed, it would still be a social democratic party.
We support Labour in elections because it still has a mass membership of working class trade unionists, affiliated through their unions. This mass membership and the votes the party receives as a result are what make it a class-based party in spite of its opportunist, petty-bourgeois leadership.
Workers vote Labour because they are still social democratic in outlook themselves, not out of misguided belief that the Labour Party is socialist. It is social democratic ideas that must be fought, not the institutions of the working class.
In 1848 Marx and Engels asked themselves the same question, although their reference to “party” predates our understanding of the term.
“In what relation do the communists stand to the proletariat as a whole?
“The communists do not form a separate party, opposed to other working class parties.
“They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
“They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”