There is a power in every land: the modern working class

Published: 13/09/2003

Written by: Sandra Bloodworth


Socialism will not and cannot be created by decrees; nor can it be established by any government, however socialist. Socialism must be created by the masses, by every proletarian.

Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken. Only that is socialism, and only thus can socialism be created.

-- Rosa Luxemburg, speech to the founding conference of the German Communist Party, 1918.

The Polish-German revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, argued at the beginning of the twentieth century that the future of humanity was either socialism or barbarism. Now, one hundred years later, her urgent call for a socialist revolution is more relevant than ever. George W. Bush has promised us a century of war. If the devastation and oppression experienced by Iraqis is anything to go by, it is increasingly clear how barbaric the system can be if we fail in the struggle for socialism.

However, for the past seventy years, the monstrous regime that Stalin built out of the ruins of the Russian workers' revolution of 1917 has been put up as an example of what Marx stood for both by the enemies of socialism and by many of those who want to see an end to capitalism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Stalin's regime, and those states that called themselves Communist such as Eastern Europe, China, Cuba and Vietnam, were a form of capitalism - one in which the state organised the economy without any private capitalists. In other words, they were not an illustration of the futility of fighting to overthrow capitalism, but a living reminder of the strength of capitalism in both its private, monopoly form and its state-run form. And they were and remain a reminder of why the fight for socialism remains as relevant as it was when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels first published their path-breaking works that established the revolutionary idea that a society of human liberation could be won by the struggle of the working class, those whom Marx called the "gravediggers of capitalism".

The purpose of this pamphlet is to make the argument that Marx and Engels began in the 1840s - that a society without class divisions, without war, exploitation or oppression is possible. But that society will only be built if the working class leads a revolution to overthrow capitalism and all its filth.

If you are convinced by the arguments, then join us. As Marx and Engels concluded in The Communist Manifesto, we have nothing to lose but our chains. And we have a whole world to win.

September 2003

Why the working class

"Umbrellas against Rain; Condoms against AIDS; Trade Unions against Employers!"

Heading of a leaflet distributed to young workers by Russian unions in early 2003.

The working class that Marx wrote about has grown from a tiny minority to about two billion, the largest social group in the world, living and struggling in every country. And yet, anti-Marxist theories are popular. It is not hard to see why. When industrial struggle is low, it's hard to imagine how it will ever revive. And it is difficult to see how the working class could change the world. Marx himself only came to see the potential of the working class when he experienced their struggles. He argued that workers as a class were central in the fight to change the world, not because they were morally better than other classes, but because of their social power. Employers depend on workers' labour to make profits. If workers go on strike, they stop the lifeblood of the system. That's why strikes are usually met with such hysteria. Bosses can spend every day on their yachts and no one blinks an eyelid. A few hours on strike and workers hit the headlines.

Often, workers only recognise that they have this power once they begin to fight. One of my first experiences of workers' struggles was when migrant women at the Kortex factory in Melbourne set up a picket to close the factory and stop deliveries. Their excitement when the first driver turned his truck around was exhilarating. Then they began to talk about all the tyranny in the workplace. One of them told me: "This is not a factory, it is a jail." But along with the realisation that they could change some things about their workplace came a burst of confidence and a sense of pride and collective identity.

I have never got over the thrill of going through that experience with workers struggling for the first time.

But this is a bit circular - workers recognise their power once they exercise it! How do they first decide to strike? No media outlet ever argues that workers should strike. Children don't learn how to organise a picket at school. Yet even in this period, with the lowest level of strikes ever recorded in Australia, workers still go on strike. In only nine months in 2001 companies lost 380,000 workdays because of 694 strikes involving 221,000 workers.

How can this happen? It seems self-evident that some workers must be more politically aware than others. But this doesn't explain why the Kortex workers in 1982, or State Library workers in Melbourne in February 2003, who had hardly ever taken action before, suddenly became militant and even picketed their workplaces. Sometimes one or two socialists might play an important role in arguing for the action (as they did in both these cases). But we still need to explain why workers might reject socialists' proposals for years, and then suddenly take them up with enthusiasm. Or how workplaces with no militants in them go on strike.

The answer lies in the system of capitalist exploitation. Employers are forced to keep workers' wages and conditions as low as possible in order to maximise the amount of wealth going to the capitalist class as a whole. As well, capitalism is a system that is regularly torn apart by crises caused by recessions and wars. And employers always try to make workers pay the price by cutting wages or conditions won in better times. It is rare to find workers who actually think they should give back these hard-won gains. This combination of exploitation and recurring crisis inevitably means that even workers who may never have supported strikes find themselves driven to defend their jobs and living standards. I have even stood on a picket line with workers who dismissed other strikers as "too greedy".

The struggles of the 1960s were, paradoxically, the result of the unprecedented post-war boom that created a different kind of crisis. Workers didn't get a fair share of the wealth of the boom. And groups such as women, blacks and gays saw that it did not end their oppression. So even boom times provoked an explosion of struggle, after nearly two decades of conservatism.

Which brings us to the second aspect of Marx's argument. Capitalism organises workers into a collective. Most workers cannot improve their situation by themselves -they have to look to their workmates and learn to co-operate. So wherever capitalism is established, unions emerge. Sometimes workers might begin by refusing to do unpaid work. But resistance only works if they can convince a majority to participate in the action. This collective identity underpins the power we have as workers to bring capitalism to its knees. And it is also the basis for a new, co-operative society in which the vast majority can take over from the tiny, exploitative minority that rules today.

Our critics would argue that racist, sexist and homophobic workers can't build a liberated society. That is only partly true, as the act of creating the new society will change us all. But if workers continue to let those bigoted ideas divide them, they won't be able to build a sufficiently large, united movement to make a revolution. Marx saw this problem and asked: if workers have to be educated to fight for socialism, who is to educate the educator? He answered that our ideas change in the struggle. And new ideas then help take the struggle to a new height.

I remember a strike in which the men refused to have the women, over half the workforce, on the pickets! They thought the women would be too weak and let the trucks through. If the women had not stood up to them, the strike would have been defeated. Instead, the women gathered the confidence, with a little prodding from us socialists, to defy the men. And they proved they were actually more determined than a lot of the men, who were influenced by their conservative union officials. They won a pay rise and the reinstatement of a sacked union delegate. The women learned they could defy the sexist stereotypes and the men's sexism was challenged. In 1982, striking Ford workers at Broadmeadows in Melbourne assumed that their Vietnamese co-workers would scab. The bosses saw their opening and tried to keep the Vietnamese at work. But a leaflet in Vietnamese explaining the reason for the strike resulted in them being the last to agree to return to work. They wanted a pay rise like everybody else. A lot of workers had their racism challenged in that strike.

The class struggle is full of these small examples. When workers return to work, most of the old ideas settle in again. But there is often at least a minority who conclude that solidarity is the way to win, and that bigoted ideas undermine unity. In periods of a high level of struggle, these lessons are learned more rapidly, involve larger numbers and can be generalised more rapidly. In the year-long British miners' strike of 1984-5 it was dramatic. Workers who experienced the same kind of thuggery from the police who rampaged in their villages as the Catholic population suffered at the hands of British troops in Northern Ireland learnt the truth about the struggle for Irish independence. And they embraced the gay liberation struggle after gays and lesbians toured a pink bus around to support the strike. Sometimes people learn spontaneously from the logic of the struggle. Other times it is arguments, combined with the immediate challenges, that convince workers to change. One way or another, to make a revolution, workers have to overcome divisions, act collectively and build democratic organising committees that involve the vast majority.

At the point of revolution, workers usually organise workplace committees, like the Russian soviets in 1917. These workers' councils have always been the most accountable, democratic structures ever seen. They are the basis for organising the new society. The co-operation in the capitalist workplace becomes the basis of a new, co-operative society. Workers can't divide up a factory, taking parts of it home to enrich themselves individually. You cannot dismantle and divide a hospital or a bank the way peasants might divide up land taken from their landlords. So the struggle for a successful revolution, led and organised by the working class, begins the process of building the new society.

There is a popular argument these days that workers cannot organise in the collective ways of the past because of the way the new economy is structured. But the reality is that past struggles happened in situations even more difficult than today. There were always those who dismissed the unorganised sections of the working class as unorganisable. Skilled workers once looked down on waterside workers as rabble, yet today these are among the strongest unions. Shearers in Australia in the late 1800s were, on the face of it, more difficult to organise than, say, workers in a modern call centre. Shearers were itinerant, in scattered workplaces isolated by long distances. Yet, by dint of a few militants insisting on organisation and solidarity, they became one of the unions on which the romanticised myths about what workers used to be like are based.

Far more important than the way work is structured are the political strategies pursued by the working class. From revolutions to small strikes, defeats result from mistaken strategies as much as from lack of unity. In the 1980s, unions in most of the West opted for class collaboration rather than class conflict. They agreed to "social contracts" limiting pay rises, supposedly in return for a "social wage" which included better health care, education and so on. This disastrous strategy eroded traditions of struggle, while employers rolled back hard-won conditions. Workers became increasingly demoralised and cynical about both their unions and the Labor Parties. Meanwhile, the bosses, governments and the right grew more confident to attack us. So for workers in the most developed countries to re-group will take a new round of industrial struggle, out of which a new generation of militants will have to learn the lessons of the past two decades. A socialist organisation that has kept alive those lessons, that is based on confidence in workers' ability to fight, to change themselves, and to create a new world, would be able to play a vital role in that process. That is why Socialist Alternative keeps trying to build such an organisation. We aim to contribute to establishing an organisation that can help to maximise the chances of victory in future struggles.

Critics of Marxism proclaim that workers today can no longer organise collective struggles. But we can see glimmers of the potential of the world's working class. In 2002, a general strike in Italy involved 12 million. German engineering and electrical workers and French public transport workers struck over pay. British railway conductors voted to strike over wages, while train drivers struck over a victimised member. In the US 2,700 Lockheed metalworkers struck for a month, their first strike since 1977. In Tokyo huge rallies protested against government restrictions on public servants' right to strike. In China 30,000 oil workers risked imprisonment to strike, 10,000 coal miners blockaded highways and railway tracks against sackings, severance pay and low wages, textile workers struck against job insecurity and electronics workers in Guangdong province occupied their factory. The list could go on to court employees in Brazil, Bata workers in Zimbabwe and others around Africa. And it includes tens of thousands employed in the supposedly unorganisable new "McJobs". Housekeepers, laundry workers, seamstresses and attendants in tourism, the archetypal new industry, struck at hotels in Florida over long hours and inequity in promotions.

These examples are not surprising to anyone who knows the real, as opposed to a mythical history of the working class. KFC workers were some of the best-organised and militant workers in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The resurgence of the working class will be uneven, with each country encountering different setbacks or opportunities. Italy is leading the way with trade unions linking into and strengthening the youthful anti-capitalist movement. In the first nine months of 2002, strike hours were up 470 per cent on the same months of 2001. Fiat car workers, transport workers, airline pilots and teachers, faced with sackings and inflation, took strike levels higher than since the 1970s. Student mass meetings listened to car workers explaining their disputes, copying the high points of the 1970s.

In 2003 in Britain, train drivers refused to move materials destined for the war on Iraq, and in many countries unions at least discussed taking strike action when the war started. Several thousand workers in Melbourne attended a stopwork rally called by the Victorian Trades Hall Council shortly after the war on Iraq began.

The challenge today for anyone who wants to see a fight for a new world is not to find a new social class to lead the struggle. It is to build a socialist organisation that can relate to the struggles that are coming and win the arguments that will be necessary to avoid the pitfalls of previous struggles. There will be defeats along the way. Workers will learn from them, and so must socialists. And workers will make mistakes. But the worst mistake would be to write off the world working class just as it is beginning to shake its chains of oppression.

The Modern Working Class

There are numerous and repeated examples of the power of the working class, and their continuing willingness and ability to fight for their rights. But the argument that Marx's confidence in the working class is no longer relevant has widespread currency. Writers such as the autonomists Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, authors of the influential book Empire, claim that the "working class has all but disappeared from view." In as far as it exists, they argue, the working class is so changed by "deindustrialisation" and the rise of casual service jobs, the "weightless" economy of the age of the internet, and the increase in "middle class" white collar jobs, that it can no longer play the role it could in the past. Workers in the more traditional sectors who do work in full-time regular jobs are dismissed as an "elite", so privileged that they cannot be expected to be involved in a fight to overthrow the system anymore. The working class has changed dramatically over the past three decades. But this is nothing new. Capitalism constantly restructures the economy and therefore the workforce through technical innovations and recessions. And the argument that the working class is no longer relevant in the struggle for a better world crops up every time.

Many of the arguments today depend on a stereotype that is more caricature than real: "In a previous era the category of proletariat centred on ... the industrial working class whose paradigmatic figure was the male mass factory worker." As a description of the sexism of many histories of the working class, this is true. But as a description of reality (as Hardt and Negri intend it) it is an unforgivable concession to that sexism. It ignores the important role of women workers - both in paid employment and doing unpaid work in the home - to virtually every significant industrial struggle. The biggest section of the early working class was female domestic servants. The Russian revolution of 1917 was sparked by tens of thousands of working women striking and calling out male workers on International Working Women's Day.

Industrial employment has fallen sharply in some countries - in Britain and Belgium by a third, and in France by more than a quarter. These do not represent deindustrialisation of the whole of the advanced economies, but a restructuring of industry within them. Australia has seen one of the most dramatic shifts. Manufacturing as a share of the workforce had declined from one third in 1945 to one eighth by 1999. However, it remains the second largest sector with 1,082,500 employees after retail trade with 1,298,500. In the US, which Hardt and Negri claim leads the deindustrialisation trend, the 31,071,000 workers in industry in 1998 was nearly 20 per cent higher than in 1971, roughly 50 per cent higher than 1950 and three times the number in 1900. In Japan, the industrial workforce more than doubled between 1950 and 1971 and grew another 13 per cent to 1998.

These figures underestimate the economic importance of industry and therefore the social power of its workers. Productivity has grown faster in industry than in services. Between 1973 and 1990, industrial output in the advanced OECD countries grew by an average of 2.5 per cent a year, only a little less than the 3.1 per cent for service output. But productivity growth in industry was 2.8 per cent a year, in services 0.8 per cent. So the same industrial production can be maintained with fewer workers - whose strikes can stop the same flow of profits as before, giving them the same potential social power. Industrial workers are as important in the advanced economies as they were in the 1970s. Coal miners, building workers and waterside workers remain some of the best organised and most militant in Australia. Hardt and Negri claim the new jobs are fundamentally different from the past:

"...highly mobile involving flexible skills ... characterised in general by the central role played by knowledge, information, affect, and communication ... all production tends toward ... becoming informationalised."

The usual distinction between "services" and "industry" obscures more than it reveals. The jobs of workers in service industries such as health, maintenance, postal delivery, bus driving or cleaning are indistinguishable from many industrial workers. "Service" jobs can simply be old "industrial" jobs under a new name. A (usually woman) worker typing in copy for a newspaper is a "service" worker. But her job has replaced the "industrial" one of (mainly male) typesetters. And the trend to outsourcing has led to jobs that previously would have been included in "industry" becoming "services". The Engineering Employers' Federation in Britain has pointed out that if this were taken into account, "manufacturing could make up as much as 35 per cent of the economy - rather than the generally accepted 20 per cent".

For a complete picture of the world working class, the growth of industry in the Newly Industrialising Countries of South America and East Asia, and China cannot be ignored. South Korean workers - both blue collar in the shipyards and car plants, and white collar in places like the banks - have a tradition of high levels of organisation and bitter industrial struggles. In the oil fields of China, in March and April 2003, anything from several thousand to 10,000 workers demonstrated daily in Daqing against mass sackings. Their industrial action, in the face of repression (at least 60 leaders were jailed) inspired a spate of other strikes and demonstrations.

Contradictorily, post modernists also argue that service jobs (the so-called "McJobs") are so casualised and so "precarious" that workers cannot build up traditions of organisation and resistance. You can't win - either workers have steady jobs and are an "elite", or they are unorganisable! Again, this is based on comparisons with past, false stereotypes. Much working class folklore is precisely about the efforts of militants (often socialists) to organise the "unorganisable". Waterside, building and rural workers such as shearers - on whom the myths are based - suffered the effects of itinerant, casual work.

In other ways the terminology is misleading. Quite different forms of "flexible" work patterns are lumped together and called "precarious": part-time, temporary, short-term contracts. Part time work has skyrocketed in Australia - but for many women it is permanent. One study found that "one out of five jobs has been precarious during the last five years" across Western Europe. But that leaves four out of five "permanent". And in Britain, the proportion of employees who had been in their job less than a year was 18 per cent in 1986, up only to 20 per cent in 2000. The number in the same job for more than ten years had risen from 29 per cent to 31 per cent.

The picture of precarious jobs is partly based on the claim that capitalists can move production and jobs around the globe without constraint: "the increasing importance of immaterial production [has] tended to free capital from the constraints of territory." Software production is said to particularly fit this scenario. It is the archetypal "weightless" industry. But a detailed study of Bangalore in India, where this industry has been established, found that the authorities had "provided the facilities and infrastructure, ... including a guaranteed supply of electricity, telecommunications facilities and a technical training centre". None of these can be guaranteed in most of the Third World, so the industry cannot simply pack up and move if workers rebel.

The "post industrial" arguments only give credence to the lies used by employers to intimidate workers out of defending wages and conditions for fear of losing their jobs to another locality. The world has been through four severe recessions in the past thirty years. Each crisis produced mass unemployment and the restructuring of industries. But it has not eliminated the working class. These arguments provide an excuse for conservative trade union bureaucracies not to organise workers in new industries. Many of the workplaces dismissed as impossible to organise are no such thing. Many "service" workers are brought together in places like call centres of hundreds. In some industries, the trend is towards larger concentrations of workers, not fewer. When I worked in a bank in the 1960s, we worked in small branches. Now, increasing numbers work in huge computer and call centres. Along with the KFC workers, shop assistants were some of the most militant and political in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Their counterparts in "McJobs" around the world can similarly be organised in the right circumstances. Service workers, just as industrial, suffer speed-ups, draconian supervision, worsening conditions, falling wages, and long hours alongside increasing numbers of part time jobs. These are strikingly similar issues to those that motivated earlier generations to organise and fight.

The working class - blue and white collar, service and industrial, those in and out of employment, and those who live with the employed, or on pensions based on their life's earnings - is calculated to be about two billion. They remain the only social group with the potential power and ability to create collective, democratic organisations based in the workplaces where the system's profits are generated - that is in the heart of the system we want to destroy.

Could Workers Run Society?

But how can we be sure that workers, after making a revolution, will be capable of running society? Surely they won't have the necessary skills to run a modern, industrial world? Just think for a moment about who does the work, who organises production, who makes technical breakthroughs, who nurses the sick, who teaches the children today. It is certainly not the bludgers at the top of society who can play golf all day or gamble away their millions without causing a blip on the productive capacity of society. But if workers so much as down tools for one hour, you can bet the press, governments and bosses will be up in arms. They will talk about workers sabotaging our glorious way of life. And they will reveal their true fear by talking about the profits lost through strike action. This is because workers do everything in society that is useful or productive.

If the creativity and organisational capacity of workers were freed from the strictures of the profit motive, there is no knowing how quickly we could reorder the world for human need. For one thing, it is inconceivable that if capitalism were overthrown, workers would agree to leave people homeless while building workers were idle and unemployed. It is not difficult to imagine how workers would put transport and other workers to work to get food to the hungry around the world rather than dump it as capitalists do in order to keep prices high. And in such a sane society farmers would not be paid to not grow food when people are suffering famine in another part of the world. But we do not have to rely only on imagination. Every time workers have gone close to overthrowing capitalism, their genius for organising, their capacity for collective, democratic co-operation have come to the fore. When workers took power in Russia in 1917, they set up community kitchens and childcare to ease the burden of housework and childcare. And they organised and supplied such an army that they defeated the attempted counter-revolution and repelled invasions by the imperialist powers.

In more recent times workers' abilities and the kind of society they could build has been illustrated in revolutionary upheavals. In Chile in 1972-73, workers took over the factories and began to run them themselves. In Poland in 1981-82, during the great Solidarnosc rebellion, workers showed how modern technology can be used to broaden democracy. There were no secret negotiations between their representatives and the bosses. Speakers in the meeting rooms were hooked into the telephone service and into loud speaker systems in factories around the country so any workers who wished to could listen to what was happening in any contact between union officials and bosses. The workers also took over most of production, running the public transport system, providing food and keeping the factories running.

But if workers can do so much, why have they never succeeded in holding onto power and building socialism? It is not because workers are too greedy. In Hungary in 1956 a large box was placed in the central mall in town for donations to the revolution. The box could be overflowing with notes, but no one ever stole from it, in spite of great hardship and poverty. All the money went to the fight for a better world. It is not, as popular folklore has it, that power corrupts. The problem for workers has been not too much power, but rather how to seize power and hold onto it in the face of barbaric reaction from the capitalists and their supporters such as reformist parties like the ALP and most of the middle classes.

The Revolutionary Party

The question that confronts us today is not whether workers could or should take power away from the capitalists, but how they can do it. This raises the question of how workers and revolutionaries should organise in preparation for such a revolution. The fact is, the vast majority of workers are not usually planning on such a project. Most workers, taking shit from the boss, struggling to make ends meet on inadequate wages, do not think they can change the world. As Marx pointed out, the ideas that dominate society are the ideas of the ruling class. But this does not mean that workers are just automatons that mechanically absorb identical ideas. People have different experiences and backgrounds. So some workers are class conscious, others have left wing ideas muddled up with right wing ones. And some accept most of the bosses' ideas, refuse to join a union, and may even scab on a strike.

Antonio Gramsci, an Italian revolutionary from the early 20th century, understood this uneven consciousness: "We can almost say that [the active man of the masses] has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness), one implicit in his actions, which unites him with all his colleagues in the practical transformation of reality, and one superficially explicit or verbal which he has inherited from the past and which he accepts without criticism ... [This division can reach the point] where the contradiction within his consciousness will not permit any action, any decision, any choice, and produces a state of moral and political passivity."

When there is a low level of struggle, it can seem that workers will never break out of this passivity. But at key points in history, that situation changes rapidly and millions can leap into action. The Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote about this sudden change in the 1905 revolution in Russia: "In ... revolutions there come to light contradictions that have ripened for decades ... Life becomes unusually eventful. The masses, who have always stood in the shade and therefore had often been despised by superficial observers, enter the political arena as active combatants." Workers who have thought very little about politics find themselves trying to overthrow the whole social order! Lenin drew out what this meant in 1905:

"These masses are making heroic efforts to rise to the occasion and cope with the gigantic tasks of world significance imposed upon them by history."

So revolutions can happen without the leadership of revolutionaries. But to win, workers need a political struggle to destroy the capitalist state. This fact, combined with uneven consciousness and the spontaneity of revolutions, explains why conscious leadership by revolutionaries who have thought about these problems is necessary. There are always reformist organisations like the Labor Party that organise to limit the scale of the revolution or even to repress it in order to preserve capitalism. The struggle against them is not just a battle of ideas. To defeat the reformists and their capitalist backers, revolutionaries need to be able to organise political actions that involve the mass of workers.

Marx only developed the rudiments of a theory about organisation. He absolutely ruled out small groups of adventurers making revolution on behalf of workers, because "the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself." "Communists ... have no interests separate and apart from the proletariat as a whole," he wrote in The Communist Manifesto. And he recognised that workers' actions often leap ahead of their political understanding. So he established that revolutionaries must not just go along with whatever ideas workers hold (racist, sectional or sexist for example). Instead, they must "always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole". In other words, they argue and debate with workers to convince them of revolutionary politics. The strength of his position was to recognise that workers learn rapidly from their own struggles, often leaping ahead of any theories. For instance, the Paris Commune of 1871, created by the first workers' revolution, taught Marx how workers could govern, confirming his idea that they should. Then in 1905, Russian workers created the most democratic institutions yet seen, the soviets or workers' councils, taking the revolutionary Bolsheviks by surprise.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks

It was Lenin who established the theory and practice that solves the apparent contradiction between uneven consciousness and spontaneous uprisings. At first, Lenin doubted workers' ability to develop revolutionary consciousness by themselves. In 1902, he wrote in What is to be Done that Marxism would have to be brought to the working class from "outside" by intellectuals. But in the 1905 revolution he disowned this formulation, writing that "the elementary instinct of the working-class movement is able to correct the conceptions of the greatest minds." The experience of the revolution and the period of extreme repression that followed its defeat convinced Lenin that a revolutionary party needed to organise, not intellectuals outside the working class, but the most advanced section of workers. This conception, known as the vanguard party, is often said to be elitist. It would be if its aim were to make the revolution on behalf of the working class. But its success depends on the vanguard - the most class conscious workers - learning how to lead the rest of the working class to take power through democratic institutions like the Russiansoviets, which represent the whole class. To do so, the party needs an active membership who have learned many lessons from struggles of all kinds, and in the process established some authority among wide layers of workers who trust their judgment. So the revolutionary party is like the "memory of the class". Lenin argued that you needed an organisation that "would not sit around waiting for the call to insurrection, but would carry out such regular activity that would guarantee the highest probability of success in the event of an insurrection. Such activity would strengthen our connection with the broadest masses of workers and with all strata that are discontented."

A stereotype of the Bolshevik Party as strictly "disciplined", authoritarian, centralised and undemocratic was established by Stalin. He did not represent the revolutionary traditions of Bolshevism, but carried out a counter-revolution. This was not because, as opponents of the revolution and even some of its supporters argue, the Bolshevik Party was inherently undemocratic, or that they established a dictatorship of the party. Throughout 1917, after Lenin returned from exile in April, their slogan had been "All power to the Soviets".

The problem that confronted the Russian working class and the Bolsheviks was this: they had made the first successful workers' revolution in one of the world's more backward countries. None of the Marxists had any illusions that they could simply set about building socialism in Russia. They argued that the task now was to spread the revolution to the heart of industrial capitalism. A workers' state in Germany or France could, for example, provide the necessary machinery to allow the peasants to take control of their land and improve production. The backward economy of Russia could be pulled forward to socialism only by the massive assistance the West could give. Lenin returned to this theme again and again:

"We have always staked our play upon an international revolution and this was unconditionally right. We have always emphasised ... the fact that in one country it is impossible to accomplish such a work as a socialist revolution."

In March 1919 he declared "The absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we shall perish". This is why the Bolsheviks put a huge effort into influencing events in Europe in the years after 1917. Even as they fought a civil war against the White armies of the capitalists, and fought off imperialist invaders from around the world, they contributed to the debates of the Third International of socialist parties with great vigour, trying to help form revolutionary organisations capable of leading the massive upheavals occurring around Europe to successful revolutions.

Why the revolution was defeated

Tragically the German revolution of 1923 was crushed. By then the revolution in Russia was already in trouble. With the end of the revolutionary wave in Europe, a new bureaucracy began to emerge, led by Stalin. This bureaucracy became a new capitalist ruling class on the ruins of the revolutionary hopes of the working class who had almost been wiped out in the war to defend the revolution. The fate of the revolution was not sealed by any mistakes the Bolsheviks made. They did make some, but these pale into insignificance beside the catastrophe of the defeat in Germany and the ending of the revolutionary tide of struggle in countries such as Britain and France.

Stalin did not simply take over and use an already bureaucratic and dictatorial party. In order to form a new ruling elite he had to murder all the old Bolsheviks steeped in the traditions of the party. Trotsky, who had been forced into exile, was the last remaining representative of his generation by the late 1930s. He was finally murdered by Stalin's assassin in Mexico in 1940. Not only did Stalin have to physically eliminate those who tried to keep alive the ideals of the revolution, he completely re-wrote those ideas. Internationalism - the absolute rock on which Marxism rests and the reason the Bolsheviks understood they could not succeed without spreading the revolution beyond their borders - was discarded. In 1924 Stalin declared that now they would build "socialism in one country". Gradually every central tenet of Marxism was distorted or completely overthrown like this. This re-writing of the revolutionary ideas of the Bolsheviks was passed off as "Marxism". The authority Stalin claimed as a representative of the "Old Bolsheviks" isolated Trotsky, who fought relentlessly to defend the genuine traditions of Marxism.

Everything Stalin stood for has to be recognised for what it was - the ideology of a new section of the world capitalist ruling class based in Russia. So nothing that Stalin said or did after 1924 is a guide to what Lenin and the Bolsheviks stood for. Any assessment of their role must be based on what they did until 1924.

The fact is, to learn the lessons necessary to work out what arguments to make in a struggle, and to learn how to lead them to victory, a socialist party must be democratic. This is the only way lessons from one period of struggle can be learnt and generalised for another. The Bolsheviks had a tradition of vigorous debate. Lenin argued "it is necessary ... to do the utmost ... to enable these grouplets to speak out and give the whole Party the opportunity to weigh the importance ... of these differences". Lenin saw party discipline in the context of a voluntary commitment to an organisation based on commonly accepted principles. A party whose members agree on what they are fighting for can unite in actions, test tactics and strategies, ruthlessly assess their mistakes and modestly take heart from their successes. This is essential to train revolutionaries who can lead masses of workers in successful struggles.

When the crunch came with women's mass strikes in February 1917, the Bolsheviks were taken by surprise. But they were to grow rapidly from a small organisation of 23,600 to a mass party of 200,000 by August. They won a majority in the workers' soviets by October because their program of action summed up the aspirations of masses of workers and peasants for "land, bread and peace". The respect they had won among masses of workers through decades of leading struggles meant they were able in July 1917 to restrain the most militant workers from a premature confrontation with the capitalists. They led the resistance to prevent an attempted military coup in August, and finally organised the insurrection that gave power to the soviets.

Tragically, their fate was sealed by the catastrophic defeat of the German revolution. In Germany, Rosa Luxemburg was an inspiring and brilliant revolutionary. But she failed to take her supporters out of the increasingly reformist Social Democratic Party to form their own organisation until too late. In the German revolution of November 1918 that ended the war, they did not have the organisational experience or the authority to lead the thousands of revolutionary shop stewards who could have consolidated the revolution. Instead, they launched a premature insurrection. Luxemburg and the other leading Marxist, Karl Liebknecht, were murdered by the Social Democratic (Labor) Party who organised a counter-revolution against their former comrades.

Today there is no identifiable layer of revolutionary workers in Australia. But as the century marches on to continuing wars and declining living standards, increasing numbers will begin to question the system and look for an alternative. Socialist Alternative is not a revolutionary vanguard party. But we argue for the politics of revolutionaries like Lenin and learn from the tragedy of Luxemburg and Liebknecht in order to bring together those who want to build a revolutionary party when masses of workers move into struggle. The larger the number of revolutionaries that participate in the mass struggles of the future and argue for the politics of revolutionary Marxism, the better chance we will have of forming a mass, revolutionary workers' party that can not only participate in the everyday struggle, but lead a movement that smashes the capitalist system for good.