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THE MEANING OF MARXISM
Preparing the party to advance

By Paul D'Amato | April 14, 2006 | Page 9

THE SUCCESS of the 1917 revolution would have been impossible had such a party as the Bolsheviks not been built in Russia--a party not of an elite, but of Russia's most militant workers.

However, that does not mean that the Bolsheviks charted a smooth course to power. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks experienced both great advances and devastating retreats. At every major political turn, the party went through serious crises over the best way to proceed.

A political organization that prides itself in its ideas but fails to relate them to any real struggle can safely avoid such crises. Likewise, an organization that merely participates in struggle without leading also has no need for debate.

However, as U.S. socialist James P. Cannon once noted, any socialist organization that seeks to expand its numbers and influence, no matter how good its politics, can come to grief if it cannot answer correctly "the question of what to do next."

This is by no means always an easy question. Changing an organization's orientation isn't quite as easy as shifting gears in a car. "Herbert Spencer," notes Lenin's biographer Tony Cliff, "wisely observed that every organism is conservative in direct proportion to its perfection."

Every perspective has its own corresponding methods of work, based on a set of expectations tied to prevailing political conditions. But such adaptation engenders in the organization a certain inertia. Sudden changes in the level of struggle, for example, can throw the organization into disarray.

"Generally speaking, crises arise in the party at every serious turn in the party's course," wrote Leon Trotsky, "either as a prelude to the turn or as a consequence of it. The explanation for this lies in the fact that every period in the development of the party has special features of its own and calls for specific habits and methods of work. Herein lies the direct and most immediate root of internal party frictions and crises."

Yesterday's methods, ingrained out of habit, become an impediment to rapid shifts necessary to take advantage of new conditions. "Too often it has happened," wrote Lenin in July 1917, at a crisis period in the Bolshevik's history, "that when history has taken a sharp turn, even progressive parties have for some time been unable to adapt themselves to the new situation."

The danger is that the party fails to overcome its crisis in time and, in the words of Trotsky, "the movement passes the party by."

For example, at the outbreak of the1905 revolution, the Bolshevik party "committeemen," the party organizers who had held it together during the preceding difficult period of police repression and hesitant struggle, suddenly found themselves incapable of opening up the organization to new forces or properly relating to the mass revolutionary movement that had exploded onto the scene.

"Whereas in the years before 1905," writes Tony Cliff, "the committee-men had a much higher level of activity and consciousness than even the advanced section of the proletariat, at the time of the revolution itself, they lagged behind considerably."

Shifting the party to adapt to the new conditions required a sharp intervention from Lenin, who demanded that the party be thrown wide open, and that the party "recruit young people more widely and boldly...without fearing them."

Lenin urged party members to "Get rid of all the old habits of immobility, respect for rank, and so on." "This is a time," he insisted, "of war. The youth--the students, and still more so the young workers--will decide the issue of the whole struggle. Either you create new, young, fresh, energetic battle organizations everywhere for revolutionary Social Democratic work of all varieties among all strata, or you will go under wearing the aureole of 'committee bureaucrats.'"

The Bolsheviks were able to make the turn in time, and the experience became, instead of an epitaph, an important historical lesson that strengthened the party for its future role in 1917.

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