by Paul Siegel
Socialism has been pronounced dead many times before-and it has always revived to continue the struggle. One instance was the time of demoralization that followed the defeat of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Lenin said at that time that the “official professors” who declared Marxism to have been “refuted and annihilated” were utterly befuddled.
Another instance was the time when the Social Democratic parties supported World War I. Trotsky, writing in October 1914, said that this action revealed “the bankruptcy of the oldest socialist parties” but that, “[w]ith the inexhaustible resources of proletarian socialism, the revolutionary epoch will create a new organizational form corresponding to the greatness of the new tasks.”
And indeed from the dark days of World War I there came the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Communist International, which, before it was perverted by Stalinism, was a mighty force for socialism.
Today the socialist movement has suffered grievous blows, but there is a growing worldwide realization of the inequities and dangers present in the existing world order. Moreover, as a result of industrialization in the semi-industrialized countries there are now over a billion workers in the world. The sporadic and uneven struggles that have occurred in the last decade in South Korea, Brazil, and South Africa are an omen of the future.
But, as we have seen, what will be decisive will be victorious revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries.
Here we are told that the industrial working class is declining, being superseded in number by those in the service sector of the economy. To this we may reply that strikes of steelworkers or autoworkers are as capable as ever of paralyzing the capitalist system.
Moreover, as wage-earners who in Marxist terms sell their labor-power, those in the service sector are workers as much as are those in the industrial sector. Strikes in banks or power stations or telecommunications can be as effective as a combat weapon as strikes in steel plants or automobile factories.
Revolutionary situations-situations in which the masses of people, convinced that existing social conditions are intolerable and that a better society is possible, are determined to overthrow the socio-political structures-have occurred in many advanced capitalist countries, but the revolutions were crushed or betrayed. These revolutionary upsurges included Germany (1918-1923), Italy (1919-1920 and 1944-1945), Spain (1931-1937), and France (1936, 1944-1945, and 1968).
That they were defeated attests to the difficulties of revolution and the power of the ruling class; that they continued to occur attests to the fact that capitalism constantly produces revolutionary situations. It is necessary to learn from the experience of the revolutionary situations of the past in order to prepare for those of the future.
The vanguard party
One lesson that has been learned is the need for what Lenin called a vanguard party. This need arises from the fact that the working class is heterogeneous. The working class includes men and women, young and old, employed and unemployed, trade-unionists and unorganized, immigrant and native-born, national minorities and majorities.
Those engaged in feminist struggles, student and youth struggles, oppressed-nationality struggles, and so forth tend to see only part of the larger picture of the struggle against capitalism. It is not enough for all of these to engage in their separate activities. It is necessary to have an organization, a vanguard party, that centralizes knowledge and experience.
The same is true on an international scale, necessitating an international organization to draw conclusions from the struggles going on in the different sectors of the world.
A vanguard party is made necessary not only by the heterogeneity of the working class but also by the unevenness of class activity and class consciousness among workers. The working class engages in spontaneous self-activity, fighting the capitalists for better conditions, but this struggle has its upsurges and periods of quiescence, as victories raise morale and fighting spirit and defeats bring a need for recuperation.
The sense of acting as a class, moreover, does not automatically lead to a realization of the need for doing away with capitalist society. The members of a vanguard party, however, are committed socialists devoted to political activity at all times.
The party combines in its activity agitation, organization, and education in a manner appropriate to particular times and circumstances. It integrates socialist education with its participation in the struggles of the day, showing the relationship between the socialist goal and the day-to-day events.
The party itself learns from the masses as well as from the knowledge and experience accumulated in previous struggles. It practices the freest internal discussion and debate, for only through such discussion and debate, subject only to the proviso that it does not preclude united action, can there be the utmost assurance that mistakes in policy will be kept at a minimum and corrected as speedily as possible.
An organization becomes a vanguard party only when it becomes recognized as such by the advanced sections of those engaged in struggle. When militants in the trade unions, leaders of strikes, and organizers of demonstrations and mass struggles enter a socialist party or follow it in action, it becomes a vanguard party. Until then it is only a possible nucleus of a vanguard party, seeking to become a genuine vanguard party.
A vanguard party must be rooted in the working class, especially its most exploited layers (African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and women in the United States), but it should be open to all who accept its program and are ready to work for it. Important among those gravitating to socialism are students, who are often fired up by their introduction to new ideas, have not acquired the cynical acceptance of the status quo of their routinized elders, are stimulated by each other’s company, and have the energy of youth.
Trotsky, in an article describing the great student demonstrations in 1910 in connection with Tolstoy’s death, spoke of them as the precursors of revolution, with the students being the “light cavalry” that initiates action; and with the “heavy reserves of the proletariat, which goes into action more slowly,” being the force that will carry through the action to its triumphant conclusion.
Seven years later the proletariat overthrew Tsarism in February 1917 and then increasingly joined the Bolshevik Party, which grew from 23,000 in February to 400,000 in October, to effect the October Revolution.
To make a revolution the working class must have a revolutionary leadership that gives a voice to the workers, needs even if the guardians of the status quo argue that this would impede the functioning of the system. Politicians like to say that politics is the art of the possible. What they mean by this is that politics is what is possible within the framework of capitalism.
The French students, with their penchant for witty paradox, countered this way of thinking during the great general strike of 1968 with the slogan, “Be practical-demand the impossible.” By this they meant that the pleas for moderation and practicality were in reality pleas to abandon the most pressing needs of the masses because they conflict with the logic of the capitalist system.
A bridge toward socialism
In times of crisis revolutionary demands act as a bridge to socialism. You have to throw people out of work because you can’t sell your products? Cut the hours of work without reducing the pay of anyone so that everyone has a job. You can’t afford to do so? Open your books so that financial experts hired by us and responsible to us can examine them.
Business secrets are a management prerogative? It’s time to do away with these prerogatives, just as once-sacrosanct royal and feudal prerogatives were done away with in former times. And if you can’t run your business profitably because of your own ineptitude or the failures of the economy, we demand that the state take it over and let us run it ourselves.
In non-revolutionary times revolutionary parties seek to call on members of unions and other organizations in which the party’s members participate to struggle for reforms through militant mass actions-such as demonstrations, marches, and strikes. They do not reject reform through legislative means and electoral campaigns, but they emphasize mass actions as the major method of struggle.
They seek to teach the masses to develop their self-activity and to broaden their struggle. Such struggle not only serves to beat back capitalist offensives and preserve and extend working-class gains but trains workers for the eventual taking of power.
Parties such as the Social Democratic parties in Europe that seek reforms primarily through the electoral process offer only token resistance to capitalist attacks against labor. This is because their bureaucratic apparatuses, having grown concerned primarily with the maintenance of their positions, do not wish to have their smooth course of existence disturbed and therefore do not seek to break out of capitalist property relationships.
When there is an economic slowdown, they see no other way to get the machine moving faster than by increasing profits through cutting social programs and curbing unions.
This is what is happening in European nations today, most of whose governments are led by Social Democratic parties. These parties, which profess to have socialism as their ultimate aim in the vague, distant future (some of them have formally given up even their nominal adherence to socialism) have become managers of capitalism in crisis.
Because of their working-class base, it is easier for them to institute austerity programs than it is for parties without such a base, but the fact that “socialist” parties have instituted those programs weakens the idea of socialism as a goal.
What is true of the Social Democratic politicians is also true of the labor union bureaucrats. They do not see themselves as participants in a social movement of the dispossessed but as “business unionists” who sell the labor of “their” members just as businessmen sell the commodities produced by “their” workers. Although they must seek to justify the deals they make, the labor bureaucrats are concerned above all with maintaining their comfortable positions and high salaries.
In the United States they contribute to the election campaigns of “friends of labor,” primarily in the Democratic Party. They are often said to be partners with the Democratic politicians in an alliance, but they are partners only in the sense that a horse is a partner of its rider. The Democratic Party, which is almost entirely financed by large corporations, is no more a party of labor than a company union organized by a boss is a real union fighting for the rights of its members.
Revolutionary parties differ from other political parties as the day differs from the night. Their members are not concerned with getting the power, privileges, and perks of office and with being rewarded for their services to big business after they leave office by “revolving door” entree into the corporate world.
On the contrary, in enlisting for a titanic struggle to re-make the world, they realize they may expect to make many sacrifices. The only reward they seek is the gratification of laboring for a world worthy of humanity-one that is free of the grave perils and the injustices of our own world-in the company of like-minded persons.
This is the kind of party Socialist Action is endeavoring to build. We invite those who share our concerns to examine our program and our mode of activity and to join us.
*Below we are reprinting the fifth and last chapter of Paul Siegel’s new pamphlet, “Socialism versus Capitalism.”