Organizing for the battles ahead

What role does revolutionary organization play when there isn't a revolution?

EXCEPT IN periods of revolutionary ferment, revolutionaries usually find themselves in the minority in society. Only at extraordinary moments--when the rulers of society can't keep their grip on power and the mass of the people are unwilling to accept the social order as it currently exists--do revolutionary ideas grip millions of people.

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at [email protected].

Consider the example of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Lenin's Bolshevik Party had only about 25,000 members on the eve of the February revolution that overthrew the Tsar. Of course, the Bolsheviks were an underground party. Under conditions of legality, their numbers would have been much higher.

Still, it was only through the course of the revolution that the Bolsheviks were able to grow, in only a few months, to more than 200,000 members--and win majority support for their revolutionary socialist program in the workers' councils, or soviets, that sprang up as organs of workers' power after February.

The Russian revolutionaries also had their low points. At the point of deepest reaction between the 1905 Russian Revolution and the 1917 Revolution, Bolshevik organizations ceased even to exist in some towns.

But the Bolshevik Party didn't just uphold the idea of revolution and then wait for workers to come around. That would have made them completely irrelevant to workers who, though not ready to overthrow the system, wanted to fight around more limited demands.

Nor did they abandon their ideas of revolution in periods when only a minority of workers were willing to accept them. That approach would have meant abandoning any organized attempt to influence events in a revolutionary direction.

Instead, the Bolsheviks looked for any and every opportunity to make contact with workers and students and to participate in all manifestations of struggle, no matter how small or limited. But at the same time, they maintained their party organization--in order to keep alive the future revolutionary goal of ending tsarism and winning workers' power.

Underlying many of the debates in the Russian socialist movement was how strike to the right balance between these two aims. For example, after the 1905 Revolution was defeated, a group of socialists (called "otzovists") argued that the party had to continue to prepare for revolution--and should therefore refuse to run candidates for political office or organize in the unions.

Another grouping went the other way, arguing that the party should "liquidate" itself and become a purely legal organization fighting for social reforms.

Lenin conducted a hard fight against both trends. Against the "otzovists," he argued that socialists must do the "hum-drum" work in the unions and other arenas--or become irrelevant.

On the other hand, by renouncing illegal organization, the "liquidators," Lenin argued, were in effect abandoning the future goal for the sake of immediate reforms.

In periods of retreat, revolutionaries must uphold ideas that can't be realized in practice--but continue to relate to every manifestation of opposition to the system, as preparation for future, bigger battles. In periods of radicalization, socialist ideas become more, not less relevant. Debates about politics, strategy and tactics then determine the potential a particular struggle has to go forward.

Socialists who uphold brilliant ideas without relating to struggle are exposed as irrelevant sectarians. But socialists who think that one need only be a "good activist"--and that struggle will do the rest--will quickly be outstripped by events.

The Polish-born revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg described the constant dilemma facing socialists brilliantly:

The union of the broad popular masses with an aim reaching beyond the existing social order, the union of the daily struggle with the great world transformation, this is the task of the social democratic movement, which must logically grope on its road of development between the following two rocks: abandoning the mass character of the party or abandoning its final aim, falling into bourgeois reformism or into sectarianism, anarchism or opportunism.

By building a consciously revolutionary organization that related to the day-to-day struggles of workers, the Bolsheviks were able to steer between these dangers.

First published in the April 13, 2001, issue of Socialist Worker.