How to Organise a Revolution — The Class, the Party and the Leadership

Capitalism has ceased to take humanity forward. It should long ago have been overthrown by the working class. Why hasn’t it then? The key to answering that question lies in the role of leadership and of the revolutionary party. This article, based on a talk at the 2021 Montreal Marxist Winter School, looks at the different sides of this question and the rich lessons of the world working-class movement.


The year 2020 has turned the world upside down. COVID-19 has exposed the complete bankruptcy of the capitalist system in the eyes of millions of people. The mantra that we are “all in this together” has been exposed for the lie that it is. All over the world, profits have come before needs. While millions of people have lost their jobs, the rich are richer than ever. In the United States, the richest country in human history, millions of people go hungry.

The economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 adds to what has been a lost decade. Since the previous crisis in 2008, austerity has ravaged public services, workers have seen their real wages stagnate or fall, while youth are the first generation to be poorer than their parents since World War II.

It is on this basis that socialist ideas are making a comeback. This year, the Victims of Communism Foundation, which cannot be accused of a favourable bias toward Marxism, released its annual survey and found that 49 percent of 16 to 23-year-olds (Gen Z) have a favorable view of socialism, up nine points from 2019. Among Americans as a whole, that number has risen from 36 percent to 40 percent. In the land of McCarthyism, 18 percent of Gen Z think communism is a fairer system than capitalism!

These numbers are not as surprising as one might think. The younger generation in particular has experienced nothing but austerity, declining living standards, terrorism, imperialist interventions and environmental destruction. The golden age of capitalism, the 1960s and 70s, is dead and buried. More people than ever before want to see the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

The conditions are ripe

The reality is that the capitalist system has long been a brake on human development. It could have been overthrown long ago by a revolution led by the working class. Why hasn’t this happened yet?

It is certainly not because the objective conditions to build a socialist society based on super-abundance are lacking. There is no doubt that from the economic point of view, all the conditions are there to satisfy human needs. We have the means to feed the entire human population. The technology and knowledge exist to produce the necessities of life in harmony with nature. Large companies like Amazon and Walmart show that it is possible to organize production and distribution on a global scale. Many difficult or dangerous jobs could be replaced by machines.

Marx explained that the capitalist system “creates its own gravediggers” by creating the working class – the class that builds the buildings around us, produces the consumer items we need, and distributes goods and services. He also explained that socialism was not just a good idea that appeared in the heads of a few thinkers. He showed that under capitalism, it is the working class that can lead the struggle to establish a socialist society by taking control of the means of production. Marx explained that this class had to organize to overcome the resistance of the bosses, bankers, CEOs and their politicians. This class today (unlike in Marx’s time) forms the overwhelming majority of society. Once mobilized and determined to overthrow capitalism, nothing can stop it.

So why hasn’t the working class overthrown the capitalist system with a revolution yet?

Blame the workers?

Leon Trotsky, the leader of the Russian revolution alongside Lenin, wrote a fantastic essay shortly before his death entitled “The Class, the Party and the Leadership—Why was the Spanish Proletariat Defeated?”

As the title suggests, the text looks at the Spanish revolution of 1931-39, and the reasons for its defeat. We will go into some of the details of this revolution later. Suffice it to say for now that despite numerous uprisings, spontaneous initiatives by workers to take control of factories, and by peasants to take control of their land, despite strong trade union organizations and a rich tradition of struggle, the Spanish working class did not take power. A fascist regime led by Francisco Franco was established in 1939, and lasted until the 1970s.

Trotsky’s text, though short (Trotsky was assassinated before he could finish it), is a gold mine of lessons, explaining such revolutionary defeats – and how to prepare for victories. This text should be required reading for every socialist today.

“The Class, the Party and the Leadership” opens with a polemic against a small, allegedly Marxist journal, Que faire? In one article, Que faire? explained the defeat of the Spanish revolution by the “immaturity” of the working class. If the Spanish revolution failed, then the fault lies with the masses themselves.

This idea of blaming the masses is very common in the labour movement today. Indeed, for many on the left, the fault lies with the working class itself for not having already overthrown capitalism.

The working class is allegedly “too weak” to change the world. This was one of the explanations of some leftists for the failure to complete the Venezuelan revolution, which has been ongoing since the early 2000s. Despite a historic mobilization during the 2002 coup, despite repeatedly voting for Hugo Chavez’s Socialist Party (PSUV), despite workers taking control of their workplaces, and despite resisting further coups since 2019, there are still people who say the Venezuelan working class is too weak.

For example, in “The Political Economy of the Transition to Socialism” Jesús Farías, a leading member of the PSUV, stated, “We can say without fear of being mistaken, that one of the main obstacles for a more accelerated development of the social transformations in the country lies in the organisational, political and ideological weakness of the working class, unable to play today its role as the main motor force of social progress.”

Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister in the 2015 Syriza government, is another example of this trend. In a 2013 article, amusingly titled “Confessions of an Erratic Marxist,” he explained that the crisis in Europe is “pregnant not with a progressive alternative but with radically regressive forces.” He was saying this just as the Greek working class had staged 30 general strikes since 2008! Having no confidence in the working class and seeing only the possibility of “regression,” he claimed that the only option was to create a broad coalition “including right-wingers” in order to save the European Union, and “save capitalism from itself.”

Other journalists, intellectuals and supposedly left-wing personalities say that the working class does not want change, and is not attracted by a “left” program. This is the case with Paul Mason, a well-known British left-wing journalist.

In Britain, hundreds of thousands of people enthusiastically joined the Labour Party in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn, a self-proclaimed socialist, becoming party leader in 2015. Since his 2019 election defeat, Corbyn is no longer leader; the party’s right wing has regained control under Sir Keir Starmer, who has begun the dirty work of purging the party’s left.

Mason, following Corbyn’s defeat, argues that for the “traditional working class” in Britain, certain “parts of the left’s agenda turn them off: open immigration policies, the defense of human rights, universal welfare policies, and above all anti-militarism and anti-imperialism.” Universal welfare policies, how horrible! He adds, “Does it help tell a story of hope to an electorate that has become terrified of change?”

So the problem here is that working people supposedly don’t want change—are terrified of change. The logical conclusion for Mason is to support Keir Starmer, the moderate leader of the British Labour Party. Mason has completely lost faith in the ability of the working class to change society—assuming he ever had that faith.

What all these individuals express is the idea that it is the workers themselves who are unwilling or unable to change society.

These ideas betray the fact that these people have no confidence in the working class to make a revolution, to change society and to run it themselves. These ideas are promoted by various journalists, liberals and academics. However, they also infiltrate the labour movement through the union bureaucracy. More often than not, union leaders blame the workers they were elected to lead because the workers supposedly “don’t want to fight”.

A crisis of leadership

How do Marxists respond to these arguments? Why hasn’t the working class overthrown capitalism yet?

The starting point for Marxists is the fundamental role of the working class in changing society. Marxists have nothing in common with the pessimism and cynicism of those intellectuals and journalists who have contempt for the working class. It is not true that the working class is “too weak” to overthrow capitalism. The reality is that on countless occasions over the last 100 years, workers have risen up to overthrow their exploiters and change society. They’ve done everything in their power to do so, on multiple occasions.

But almost every time, it was the leaders of the workers’ movement – either of the unions or the workers’ parties – who put a stop to the movement. They make compromises with the capitalist class, rather than trying to take power. Dozens of revolutions have been held back in this way by the leadership of the movement. In his Transitional Program, Leon Trotsky correctly explains that “the historical crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.”

However, we must be careful not to fall into a caricature of this position. Marxists do not defend the idea that workers are always ready for a revolution, that they are simply waiting for socialist leaders to show the way. To say that the leadership of the workers’ movement acts as a brake does not mean that if we had socialists at the head of the unions, that if only we had a revolutionary organization at the head of the workers’ movement, then a revolution would break out immediately and automatically succeed in overthrowing capitalism.

It is not true that the workers are always ready to fight and are just waiting for good leaders. A mass movement does not come about with the snap of a finger. However, history shows that there are critical moments in history when the masses enter into struggle: revolutions. The important questions for any activist who wants to change the world are: how can we organize our class, the working class, to overthrow capitalism? What is the role of socialists to achieve this? How can we prepare for it?

Class consciousness

The class consciousness of workers does not evolve in a straight line.

It is through a long historical process that workers have come to understand the necessity of organizing themselves. Trade unions were created to defend the workers in the ongoing struggle against the bosses. Eventually, workers created organizations, parties, to express their political aspirations. Marx explained that without organization, the working class is only raw material for exploitation. Through its history of struggle, the working class comes to participate in politics, through unions or other organizations. This process is uneven and different from country to country.

Coming to the conclusion that it is necessary to organize is one thing; coming to the conclusion that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is necessary is another thing entirely. The working class, when it enters into struggle, does not automatically come to revolutionary conclusions.

In fact, consciousness is not revolutionary. Consciousness is generally very conservative. People cling to old ideas, to traditions, to the comfort of what is known. For the most part, people just want to be able to live in peace under decent conditions. Who can blame them? No one wants major upheaval in their lives. Workers don’t take jobs to go on strike.

Revolutions are inevitable exceptions in history. Workers are not constantly in struggle; on the contrary.

However, there are times when the status quo is simply no longer sustainable. Millions of people are fed up. Austerity falls on workers. The cost of living rises while wages stagnate. Public services are privatized. The rich are getting richer, in plain sight.

Tahrir Image Jonathan Rashad Flickr
It is not revolutionaries who create great revolutions, but the conditions of capitalism, which push the masses beyond the limits of their toleration.

It is not revolutionaries or socialists who create revolutions. It is capitalism that creates the conditions that force millions to revolt. Millions of workers, apathetic one day, are in the streets the next day. Yesterday’s consciousness, which was lagging behind events, catches up with reality with a bang. And that’s when revolutions happen.

Very often, it is an “accident” that starts a revolution. The Arab revolutions of 2010-2011 started in Tunisia when a young street vendor who immolated himself outside the local governor’s office. This was the spark that lit the fire. A mass movement followed, culminating in the overthrow of the dictatorship in Tunisia. The movement then spread to Egypt and then to the entire Arab world. The anger that had been building up for decades just needed a spark. In almost every revolution, you can find a similar event.

What is a revolution? Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, explains it thus:

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

This quote perfectly sums up the essence of a revolution. It is above all the entry of the masses – today composed overwhelmingly of workers – onto the stage of history.

If we look at the last 100 years and more, there has been no lack of revolutions. In fact, not a decade has passed without at least one major revolution.

The Russian revolution of 1905 and 1917; the German revolution of 1923 and the Chinese revolution of 1925-27; the Spanish revolution of 1931-37, the mass strikes in France in 1936; the revolutionary wave in Italy, Greece, France between 1943 and 1945 and the Chinese revolution of 1949; the revolution in Hungary in 1956; May ‘68 in France; the Chilean revolution of 1970-73, the revolution in Portugal in 1974; the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua of 1980-83, the revolution in Burkina Faso of 1983-87; the revolutionary overthrow of the dictatorship in Indonesia in 1998; the revolution in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez in the 2000s; the Arab revolutions of 2011.

The list could go on. History is punctuated by moments when the masses can’t take it anymore, take to the streets, and take their destiny into their own hands.

Revolutions can be compared to earthquakes. No one can predict exactly when an earthquake will occur. And earthquakes are generally rare. But we can study tectonic plates. We can know where the conditions for earthquakes occur. Earthquakes don’t happen all the time, but they are ultimately inevitable.

It is the same with revolutions. No one can predict exactly when a revolution will come. But we can study economic conditions, see the rising anger among workers, and predict a revolutionary epoch.

The difference is that a revolution is made by human beings. We can prepare for it, and we can play a role in making sure it ends in victory. But how can we do this?

Spontaneity?

How are revolutions carried out in practice? If workers could simply overthrow capitalism in one fell swoop, there would be no need to theorize about revolution. There would be no need to debate ideas, programs, concrete measures, etc. in the workers’ movement. There would be no need to create organizations that defend one program or another.

Among the anarchists, there is a lot of talk about the spontaneity of mass movements. The various anarchist theories almost all come back to the idea that the masses can somehow spontaneously achieve a classless society. Kropotkin, for example, in his most famous article on anarchism, explains that his contribution was “to indicate how, during a revolutionary period, a large city – if its inhabitants have accepted the idea – could organize itself on the lines of free communism.” He thus implies that the workers could spontaneously overthrow capitalism with a revolution. Kropotkin does not, however, explain how the inhabitants “accept the idea” of communism.

There is no doubt that there is an element of spontaneity in all mass movements, in all revolutions. It is even a strength at the beginning. Spontaneously, millions of people who were not involved in politics pour into the streets, and take the ruling class by surprise. More often than not, the outbreak of a revolution surprises even hardened revolutionaries. At the time of the February Revolution in Russia in 1917, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd were so far behind events that, on the first day of the demonstrations, they advised the workers not to go out into the streets!

But is spontaneity enough to overthrow capitalism? History shows us that it is not.

And in fact, the reality is that in every movement, every struggle, every revolution, no matter how spontaneous these events may seem, there are groups or individuals who play a leadership role.

Whether we like it or not, the masses of workers express themselves through organizations, or at least through individuals who play the role of leaders after having won the confidence of their peers.

Even in a seemingly spontaneous movement, someone gives the speech that convinces their colleagues to go on strike at a general assembly. An organization or an individual writes the leaflet that puts the arguments to the workers for a strike. An organization or individuals come up with the idea of occupying the workplace. These ideas don’t come from nowhere.

Conversely, in the workers’ movement, organizations or individuals may also exercise their authority to put the brakes on a struggle. People or organizations may argue for an end to the strike. Some people will say that you can’t occupy a workplace because that would be a violation of the property rights of the bosses.

This battle of ideas and methods is not decided in advance. Not all workers draw the same conclusions at the same time. A minority will realize the necessity of a factory occupation, a general strike, etc., before the rest. In a revolution, a minority will understand that the possibility exists for workers to take control of the economy. Their job is to organize to convince the rest of the workers.

Even in a movement that seems spontaneous, organizations will eventually play a leading role.

As Trotsky explains in “The Class, the Party and the Leadership”:

History is a process of the class struggle. But classes do not bring their full weight to bear automatically and simultaneously. In the process of struggle the classes create various organs which play an important and independent role and are subject to deformations…Political leadership in the crucial moments of historical turns can become just as decisive a factor as is the role of the chief command during the critical moments of war. History is not an automatic process. Otherwise, why leaders? Why parties? Why programs? Why theoretical struggles?

The different tendencies of the workers’ movement express themselves through different organizations. Marxists, too, want to organize—and create a revolutionary party.

What is a revolutionary party?

The term “party” has a negative connotation among some layers of the labour movement and the youth. And for good reason! The existing political parties do everything to push these layers away. Even the so-called ‘left-wing’ parties, once in power, bow to the dictates of the banks and do the dirty work of the capitalists, sometimes even more viciously than the right. This was the case with one of the most recent left governments, Syriza, in Greece in 2015.

When Marxists talk about the need for a revolutionary party, we do not have an electoral machine in mind. A party is first and foremost ideas, a program based on those ideas, methods to implement the program, and only then a structure and an organization that can spread the program throughout the movement and win people over.

As we have already explained, the tendency to organize is already present within the working class, leading to the formation of trade unions and parties. The different tendencies of the labour movement are expressed through different organizations or groupings.

Trade unions, by their very nature, aim to gather as many workers as possible. Who would propose that unions should include only revolutionary workers? These would be weak unions indeed. But a revolutionary party is composed differently from trade unions.

In “A Letter to a French Syndicalist about the Communist Party,” Trotsky explains:

How should this initiative group [the party] be composed? It is clear that it cannot be constituted by a professional or territorial grouping. It is not a question of metal workers, railway workers, nor advanced carpenters, but of the most conscious members of the proletariat of a whole country. They must group together, elaborate a well-defined program of action, cement their unity by a rigorous internal discipline, and thus assure themselves of a guiding influence on all the militant action of the working class, on all the organs of this class, and above all on the unions.

Not all layers of the working class and the youth draw the same conclusions at the same time. Some workers believe that capitalism is the best system. Others don’t like capitalism, but don’t believe it can be overthrown. Others are simply indifferent. But others come to the conclusion that the struggle for socialism is necessary. Having understood this, these people will necessarily want to steer the labour movement in that direction.

Naturally, the task of this socialist minority (what Trotsky calls “cadres”) will be to organize to win the confidence of the other layers of the working class in the struggle. This task will be all the more effective if this minority is grouped in an organization with a common program.

In “Discussion on the Transitional Program,” Trotsky explains:

Now, what is the party? In what does the cohesion consist? This cohesion is a common understanding of the events, of the tasks, and this common understanding – that is the program of the party. Just as modern workers more than the barbarian cannot work without tools so in the party the program is the instrument. Without the program every worker must improvise his tool, find improvised tools, and one contradicts another.

A program and organization need to be built in advance of a revolution, just like a worker must equip themselves with tools ahead of getting on with a given task.

The Spanish Revolution: a class without a party or leadership

What happens when there is no revolutionary leadership, when there is no revolutionary organization? Or when the organizations that do exist hold back the movement?

Trotsky’s “The Class, the Party and the Leadership” talks about the defeat of the Spanish revolution of 1931-39. This inspiring event is perhaps the most tragic example of what happens when a class does everything to overthrow capitalism while there is no revolutionary leadership, or when the organizations that exist refuse to take power.

The crisis of the 1930s hit Spain hard. The working class and peasants were crushed by overwhelming poverty. Landowners and capitalists (often the same individuals) had reduced living conditions to a miserable state in order to maintain profits. In 1931, faced with the rising anger of the masses, the ruling class was forced to sacrifice the monarchy and a Republic was proclaimed. But in itself, the transition to a democratic republic had done nothing to solve the problems of the working class and the poor peasants.

CNT Barcelona Image public domain
In the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s, the masses showed the most incredible strength and determination but they were repeatedly blocked from taking power by their leaders: the Socialists, Communists, POUMists and anarchists.

In February 1936, after two years of right-wing government, the masses brought the Popular Front to power. This government was composed of socialists, communists, the POUM (a supposedly Marxist party, but which constantly oscillated between revolution and reformism) and even the anarchists who led the main trade union federation, the CNT. These workers’ organizations also included the bourgeois Republicans in the Popular Front. The presence of capitalist parties forced the government to moderate its program, to slow down reforms in favour of the peasants and workers, to leave bourgeois property intact. The Popular Front government even went so far as to repress the workers in struggle.

Without waiting for the reforms promised by the Popular Front, the workers implemented the 44-hour work week and wage increases on their own, and freed the political prisoners imprisoned under the previous right-wing government. Between February and July 1936, every major Spanish city saw at least one general strike. One million workers were on strike in early July 1936.

The workers’ movement was going too far for the capitalists. On 17 July 1936, General Francisco Franco began a fascist uprising, with the full support of Spain’s industrialists and landowners. The goal was to overthrow the government, destroy the unions and workers’ parties, and build a strong government so that the capitalists could perpetuate the exploitation of the workers and peasants without their constant struggle. Faced with the fascist coup, the Popular Front parties refused to arm the workers to resist.

In spite of the passivity of these parties, the workers spontaneously did everything in their power to repel the fascists. They took sticks, kitchen knives and other weapons at hand, fraternized with soldiers, and invaded barracks to find real weapons. The workers built militias, which took the place of the bourgeois police. In addition to these measures of “military” defense against fascism, the workers took economic measures. In Catalonia, transportation and industries were brought almost completely into the hands of workers’ committees and factory committees. Next to the central government in Madrid and the government of Catalonia, a second power – that of the workers – was emerging.

But what followed? The leadership of all organizations – the socialists, communists, the POUM, and the anarchist CNT – put a brake on the movement. In Catalonia, they participated in dismantling the workers’ committees. The socialists and communists were at the vanguard in telling workers to go home, not to seize the factories, and to let the bourgeois government lead the fight against fascism. The POUM tail-ended the other organizations, and entered the Catalan bourgeois government in the fall of 1936, sanctioning policies aimed at curbing the revolution.

Of particular interest is the attitude of the anarchist leaders of the CNT. During this period, the CNT leaders even boasted that it could have taken power: “If we had wished to take power, we could have accomplished it in May [1937] with certainty. But we are against dictatorship.”

Because they were anarchists, and therefore against power in general, the leaders of the CNT refused to consolidate the workers’ democracy that was being born. The opportunity was missed. But these same anarchists, who refused to take power in the name of the working class, were happy to join the bourgeois government of Catalonia! You cannot make this up.

The workers were completely demoralized. This tragic story ends with the victory of Franco and the fascists in the civil war of 1936-39.

Why was the Spanish Revolution defeated?

The workers spontaneously pushed back the fascists and took control of the workplaces, especially in Catalonia. The workers were moving in the right direction. But the leaders of the working class organizations all put a stop to the movement of the masses. As Trotsky explains in “The Class, the Party and the Leadership,” in such a situation it is not easy for the working class to overcome the conservatism of its leaders. An alternative must already exist:

One must understand exactly nothing in the sphere of the inter-relationships between the class and the party, between the masses and the leaders in order to repeat the hollow statement that the Spanish masses merely followed their leaders. The only thing that can be said is that the masses who sought at all times to blast their way to the correct road found it beyond their strength to produce in the very fire of battle a new leadership corresponding to the demands of the revolution. Before us is a profoundly dynamic process, with the various stages of the revolution shifting swiftly, with the leadership or various sections of the leadership quickly deserting to the side of the class enemy.

And later:

But even in cases where the old leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot improvise immediately a new leadership, especially if it has not inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable of utilizing the collapse of the old leading party.

Not ancient history

The Spanish Revolution is far from an isolated example or one that belongs to the past.

As recently as 2019, a revolutionary wave swept through Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East. Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and Sudan all experienced general strikes, mass movements or revolutions. And everywhere, the same question of revolutionary leadership was posed, and its absence left its mark on events.

The case of Sudan is particularly striking. In December 2018, a mass movement broke out against the dictator Omar al-Bashir. Extreme poverty, IMF-imposed austerity, and massive unemployment drove the masses to the streets. A mass sit-in was even organized by the revolutionaries in the capital, Khartoum.

An article in the Financial Times explained:

“One cannot know for sure what Russia felt like in 1917 as the tsar was being toppled, or France in 1871 in the heady, idealistic days of the short-lived Paris Commune. But it must have felt something like Khartoum in April 2019.”

This was a true revolution! In April, the ruling class was forced to remove the dictator. A Military Transitional Committee was formed to ensure that the army retained power.

The main organization behind the protests was the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA). This organization called for demonstrations, and even called for a general strike towards the end of May, to demand that the army relinquish power. This strike completely paralyzed the country.

In early June, the regime sent militias to suppress the Khartoum sit-in. Instead of scaring Sudanese workers, another general strike was organized by the SPA, paralyzing the country once again. Resistance committees were created.

Here we had a real opportunity for the workers to take power, to take control of the economy. But instead, the SPA called for an end to the strike. Then it negotiated an agreement with the military council for a three-year transition before holding elections. As a result, two years later, the army is still in power and the misery continues.

What was missing in Sudan? The workers went on two general strikes, held a sit-in despite the repression, and formed grassroots committees to organize the movement. The workers did everything they could. They could have taken power.

But the main organization that had authority among the masses compromised with the army rather than take power. As we have already explained, in such a situation you cannot invent a new organization on the spot.

Like it or not, leadership is a fact of life. One cannot escape the need to organize. While the workers’ movement is being led by the wrong leadership, while working class organizations are holding the movement back, the task at hand is to build an alternative in advance – a genuine revolutionary party.

The Russian Revolution of 1917

In a discussion of the role of a revolutionary party, it is impossible to ignore the Russian Revolution of 1917.

It is not for nothing that Marxists devote so much time to the study of this revolution. For the first time in history, except for the brief episode of the Paris Commune of 1871, the workers and the oppressed took power, overthrew capitalism, and took the first steps toward establishing a workers’ democracy and a socialist society. To build the victories of the future, revolutionaries must study the victories of the past.

The victory of the Russian workers in October 1917 did not happen on its own.

In February 1917, World War was ravaging Russia. The workers and peasants in uniform at the front no longer wanted to fight for another man’s cause. The workers in the factories and their families were starving. The status quo was no longer tenable. On the initiative of the women workers of Petrograd, the workers of the city went on strike, and after a week of mass mobilization, the tsar was forced to abdicate.

Russian revolution Image public domain
The Russian Revolution showed, in a positive form, what the revolutionary working class can achieve in revolutions when equipped with a steeled leadership, steeped in Marxist theory.

In the midst of the struggle, the Petrograd soviet was formed, and soviets mushroomed throughout Russia. The soviets were enlarged strike committees, which began taking the functioning of society into their hands. In fact, they held power.

But alongside the soviets, the bourgeoisie formed what it called a ‘provisional government’, anxious to keep capitalism in place. This situation of “dual power” lasted until October 1917.

Between February and October, through the ups and downs of the revolution, the provisional government demonstrated that it had no intention of satisfying the demands of the masses: peace, bread for the workers, and land for the peasants.

Within the soviets the reformist parties of the time, the Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs) and the Mensheviks, had the confidence of the majority of the workers and peasants during the first months of the revolution, and used their position to make the soviets support the bourgeois provisional government. Their leaders even entered this government. The Mensheviks and SRs believed that it was “too early” for the working class to take power, that the bourgeoisie should be allowed to rule, and that the struggle for socialism would come later.

As the months went by, the Mensheviks and the SRs found themselves completely discredited in the eyes of the workers, the soldiers and the peasants. But thankfully, there was an alternative. It is towards the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, that the masses turned. Having spent months patiently explaining that it was necessary and possible to take power from the hands of the bourgeoisie, and having won their confidence, the Bolsheviks were able to channel the immense energy and initiative of the masses towards victory in October 1917.

The Bolshevik Party and Lenin

With the Russian Revolution, for the first time in history, workers took power and managed to keep it. Why did they succeed where so many other movements have failed?

The explanation cannot be in the “maturity” of the Russian workers compared, for example, to the Spanish workers of the 1930s. It is not that the Russian workers were more combative than the Spanish. Nor was it that the Russian workers were particularly more intelligent, or anything like that. The difference was the presence of the Bolshevik Party.

The Bolsheviks had not created the Russian Revolution. Although Bolshevik activists had played a role in February, the fighting mood of the masses had been created by capitalism, by the disastrous situation of the country. Trotsky explains this in his History of the Russian Revolution: “They accuse us of creating the mood of the masses; that is wrong, we only tried to formulate it.”

This is precisely the role of a Marxist organization: to formulate consciously what the workers come to understand in a semi-conscious or unconscious way.

But the Bolshevik Party did not appear spontaneously in 1917. You can’t change the world overnight. Building a revolutionary party takes time and energy.

The Russian Marxists had begun their work in the 1880s and 1890s by creating small isolated groups that organized discussion circles on the basics of Marxism. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was created officially in 1898. The Bolshevik and Menshevik split occurred in 1903, where they became factions of the RSDLP. The Bolsheviks were implacable in their defence of Marxism, and parted ways for good with the Mensheviks in 1912, to become an independent party.

We sometimes hear today that the left should simply unite and put aside its differences. Why are there so many socialist or left-wing organizations, we are asked? Why does the IMT insist so much on Marxist theory? The reality is that if groups unite without really agreeing, it is a recipe for paralysis. Theoretical differences will come out on every important issue, and the “united” organization will not be able to move forward. A kayak with two people rowing in opposite directions will turn in circles, while a single person in a kayak will move forward.

Any political group must be based on some theory. This is one of the most valuable lessons of the history of Bolshevism. As Lenin explained as early as 1900:

Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation. Otherwise, our unity will be purely fictitious, it will conceal the prevailing confusion and binder its radical elimination. It is understandable, therefore, that we do not intend to make our publication a mere storehouse of various views. On the contrary, we shall conduct it in the spirit of a strictly defined tendency. This tendency can be expressed by the word Marxism.

For 20 years before the revolution, the Marxists of the Bolshevik party patiently built an organization based on a common program, educating activists in advance in the ideas of Marxism, with the aim of playing a leading role in the workers’ movement. The study of theory and history is essential for building a revolutionary organization today.

Left to their own devices, the Mensheviks and SRs would have led the revolution to defeat. Fortunately, there was an alternative with the Bolsheviks, who won over the workers during 1917, based on the very experience of the masses between February and October. This is what Trotsky explains in “The Class, the Party and the Leadership”:

Only gradually, only on the basis of their own experience through several stages can the broad layers of the masses become convinced that a new leadership is firmer, more reliable, more loyal than the old. To be sure, during a revolution, i.e., when events move swiftly, a weak party can quickly grow into a mighty one provided it lucidly understands the course of the revolution and possesses staunch cadres that do not become intoxicated with phrases and are not terrorized by persecution. But such a party must be available prior to the revolution inasmuch as the process of educating the cadres requires a considerable period of time and the revolution does not afford this time.

In Russia, this party existed ahead of time. There were 8,000 Bolsheviks in February 1917. By the time of their seizure of power in October, based on a correct political perspective, they had grown to 250,000 members.

The role of leadership within the party

But how did the Bolsheviks come up with a correct political perspective? Is the existence of the party, in itself, sufficient?

The rise of the Bolsheviks to power was not a straight line. It is not a commonly known fact that between March and April 1917, the leaders at the head of the Bolshevik Party inside Russia at that time had no intention of fighting for power. With Lenin and Trotsky still trying to make their way from exile back to Russia, the main Bolshevik leaders present in Petrograd at that time were Stalin and Kamenev. Under their leadership, the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda, essentially defended the policy of the Mensheviks: that it was “too early” for the workers to seize power.

Some rank-and-file activists in the Bolshevik Party rejected these ideas. Being active on the ground, they saw that it was entirely possible and necessary for the workers to take power through the soviets. In fact, it was the soviets that ruled the country, but they still had to consolidate their power. What could they answer to the argument that it was “too early” to take power?

As Trotsky explains in his History of the Russian Revolution: “These worker-revolutionists only lacked the theoretical resources to defend their position. But they were ready to respond to the first clear call.”

This call came with Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917. At that moment, Lenin was categorical: the working class, allied with the poor peasantry, could take power through the soviets, and not only liberate the peasants, bring peace and bread to the workers, but begin the socialist tasks and start the international socialist revolution.

In April 1917, Lenin was the only leader of the Bolshevik Party to defend this perspective (Trotsky had not yet arrived in Russia, and joined the party only in July). But due to his immense personal authority, and especially the fact that his policy corresponded to the experience of the Bolshevik militants at the base, Lenin succeeded in having his perspective adopted at the Bolshevik party conference held in late April. From that moment on, the Bolshevik Party, under Lenin’s leadership, set itself the goal of patiently explaining to the workers the necessity of the soviets taking power.

What would have happened if Lenin had not been able to reach Russia? In a revolution, time is a key factor. The Bolshevik leaders might have come to understand the need for soviet power, but there is no indication that they would have understood it while the workers were still mobilized. The working class cannot remain constantly in struggle. At some point, either the revolution wins, or doubt and apathy begin to set in. If Lenin had not intervened in 1917, the Bolshevik Party leadership would most likely have missed the chance to take power. So it is not enough to have a party; that party must have a leadership that knows where it is going.

A victorious socialist revolution cannot be made without the participation of the working class. But this class must have a party. And that party must have a leadership that knows what it is doing. These three ingredients are the key to the success of future revolutions.

The role of the individual in history

Comparing Spain and Russia, one might ask: isn’t it mere luck that the Russian working class could count on an individual like Lenin? Wouldn’t it just have taken a Spanish Lenin, and everything would have been fine?

First of all, Lenin himself was not born Lenin: he was, in a certain sense, a creation of the Russian workers’ movement. Lenin was the result of the work of building a revolutionary party, which he had greatly contributed to building. Without the party, Lenin could not have disseminated his ideas in 1917 and played the role he did. But conversely, Lenin’s authority in his party came from the fact that he had spent nearly 25 years patiently building it.

Trotsky summarizes these ideas perfectly in “The Class, the Party and the Leadership”:

A colossal factor in the maturity of the Russian proletariat in February or March 1917 was Lenin. He did not fall from the skies. He personified the revolutionary tradition of the working class. For Lenin’s slogans to find their way to the masses there had to exist cadres, even though numerically small at the beginning; there had to exist the confidence of the cadres in the leadership, a confidence based on the entire experience of the past…The role and the responsibility of the leadership in a revolutionary epoch is colossal.

Similarly in the History of the Russian Revolution:

Lenin was not an accidental element in the historic development, but a product of the whole past of Russian history. He was embedded in it with deepest roots. Along with the vanguard of the workers, he had lived through their struggle in the course of the preceding quarter century…Lenin did not oppose the party from outside, but was himself its most complete expression. In educating it he had educated himself in it.

The revolutionary leadership provided by Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not come out of nowhere. It was the result of a quarter century of patient work in building an organization. In building the party, Lenin became Lenin. Thousands of other Bolsheviks, by building the party, also became leaders of the workers’ movement. This fact is summarized in the anecdote that in 1917, a single Bolshevik in a factory could win all his colleagues to the party program. This authority came from all the previous work of party building. Dialectically, party building built these individuals who played such a great role.

The Russian Revolution is a striking example of the role of the individual in history. The construction of a revolutionary organization, a collective endeavor, makes it possible to form individuals who can play a decisive role in the movement. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts; and building the whole strengthens the parts! We must learn from this for today, and repeat what the Bolsheviks did.

Tragically, a different fate awaited the great Marxist and contemporary of the Bolsheviks, Rosa Luxemburg. While she spent her life fighting the reformist bureaucracy in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), Luxemburg did not build an organized revolutionary faction in the party, as Lenin had done in the RSDLP with the Bolsheviks. It was not until 1916 that the Spartacist League was founded, which was more of a decentralized network than a revolutionary organization.

Rosa Luxemburg Image Cassowary Colorizations Flickr
Although Rosa Luxemburg was a tremendous revolutionary, and far from the apostle of pure “spontaneism” as some would claim, she did not group together the best revolutionary elements of the German workers’ movement in time, and tragically paid with her life

When the German Revolution broke out in November 1918, the League had little connection with the masses. In December, the League transformed itself into the Communist Party. However, from the outset, the party was permeated by a sectarianism that seriously handicapped it. Party activists refused to work in the trade unions, and the party boycotted the elections to the National Assembly, which would have given it a chance to have a platform to spread its ideas. In this young communist party, Rosa Luxemburg opposed this ultra-leftism. But she did not have a group of cadres who understood the political situation as well as she did and who could carry her ideas. The Communist Party made one mistake after another.

In January 1919, the Social Democratic government provoked an uprising of the working class in Berlin in order to isolate and repress the advanced workers, and above all the Communist Party. The inexperience and weakness of the Communist Party’s influence over the workers, meant that they were unable to forestall the provocation. During those events, Luxemburg herself, along with the other outstanding leader, Karl Liebknecht, were murdered. Thus, the fact that Luxemburg did not build a revolutionary party in advance led to a tragic defeat and her own death, decapitating the leadership of the German working class. From then on until 1923, the Communist Party, deprived of the leadership of its two main figures, was unable to lead the German working class to power. The Russian and the German revolutions serve to underline the same point, although from two different angles: the vital need of a revolutionary leadership.

A few days before her assassination, Rosa Luxemburg drew conclusions from the first months of the German revolution. Her conclusion is far removed from the “spontaneism” that her alleged followers attribute to her:

The absence of leadership, the non-existence of a center responsible for organizing the Berlin working class, cannot continue. If the cause of the revolution is to advance, if the victory of the proletariat, if socialism is to be anything more than a dream, the revolutionary workers must set up leading organizations capable of guiding and using the fighting energy of the masses.

The leadership of the movement today

It is no secret that all over the world the Marxist movement has been thrown back for a whole historical period. The post-war boom laid the foundations for reformism in the West, while the fall of the Soviet Union was accompanied by an unprecedented ideological offensive against Marxism. The most pretentious, like Francis Fukuyama, even proclaimed the “end of history,” which would have found its achievement in liberal democracy.

The labour movement also experienced setbacks during the 1980s and 1990s, whereas the 1970s had been a time of mass movements and revolutions. It was during the following decades that the leadership of the labour movement shifted far to the right.

In Quebec, for example, it was in the 1980s that the FTQ, the province’s largest trade union central, stopped talking about “democratic socialism” and the second largest, the CSN, abandoned the anti-capitalist ideas expressed in the manifesto Ne comptons que sur nos propres moyens. Too often, leaders are found at the top of the labour movement today who collaborate with the bosses rather than mobilizing their members. The current president of the CSN, for example, said for the 50th anniversary of the Conseil du patronat (the bosses’ union), the headquarters of the Quebec bourgeoisie: “We sometimes clash and have different points of view, but we get along very well when it comes to promoting employment, fostering good working conditions and ensuring Quebec’s economic growth.” This is far from an isolated example. This is the state of the leadership of the labour movement today.

In the labour movement, one of the main attacks on Marxists is the caricature which has us claim that if there were a revolutionary leadership, then the workers would always be in struggle, always ready for action. According to these people, we criticize the union leaders as if it were possible for the leaders to magically bring about mass movements.

This idea is a complete caricature of the Marxist analysis of the relationship between the working class and its leadership.

As we have already explained, workers are not constantly in struggle. Revolutions are historical exceptions that inevitably arise from the class struggle itself. But what happens before a revolution? What should be the role of the leadership of the labour movement when the situation is not revolutionary—that is, most of the time?

At the risk of sounding repetitive, the working class is not homogeneous. Until the day of the revolution, there will be apathetic layers, skeptical layers, while others will want to fight against the attacks of the bosses. The contradictory and heterogeneous character of class consciousness is a fact that we have no choice but to deal with.

Union leaders do not have the power to magically bring about a movement. But the role that a good leadership can play in the class struggle is to prepare the rank-and-file, establish a plan of action, and educate the union members in order to bring about a mass movement. No, it is not possible to magically organize a movement. But yes, it is possible to educate workers about the need for this or that demand, for this or that method of struggle.

An excellent example of what good political leadership can accomplish can be found in the 2012 student strike in Quebec. In 2010, the Quebec Liberal government hinted that tuition fees would be raised. Already, student activists were beginning to organize. In March 2011, the 75 percent tuition increase was officially announced, to be implemented in the fall of 2012.

The leadership of ASSÉ, the most radical student union at the time, spent the year 2011 educating the students about what the increase in tuition meant, mobilizing students with the conscious plan to organize an unlimited general strike. Some ASSÉ activists, many of whom had anarchist tendencies, would certainly not like the terms “leadership” or “leaders” attached to them, but you can’t change reality by changing the name—they were most certainly playing a leadership role, and a good one at that!

With the conscious plan to organize the strike, and because these methods of struggle were what the movement needed in the face of an inflexible government, the ASSÉ leadership organized the largest student strike in North American history.

Playing a leadership role is in no way contradictory to full grassroots participation. On the contrary—it was because the ASSÉ leadership provided direction, educating thousands of activists on the need to fight the hike, that it unleashed the fighting spirit and creativity of the hundreds of thousands of students involved in the movement across Quebec.

The example of the student strike shows the role of good leadership. Showing the way forward creates the conditions for thousands of people to actively participate in the struggle. To be sure, the ASSÉ leaders did make some mistakes. In the summer of 2012, when the Liberals announced an election, they refused to support Québec solidaire, the only main party supporting free education, and instead essentially ignored the election, while most students ended the strike to fight to kick out the Liberals. We have analyzed the whole process elsewhere. But this mistake doesn’t take away from the main lesson: the need for leadership.

The question of leadership is a burning issue in the workers’ movement and in the trade unions around the world. How often do we hear that workers supposedly do not want to struggle? That you can’t organize a strike by snapping your fingers? In Quebec, public sector unions have been in negotiations for over a year. The right-wing CAQ government won’t budge and is offering ridiculous conditions to its workers. While some teachers’ unions are moving towards an all-out strike, other teachers’ unions have voted on five-day mandates only, to be implemented “at the appropriate time.” We have criticized this situation elsewhere. In a public meeting organized by Labour Fightback in Quebec, a local president of one of these unions with a five-day strike mandate explained his view of the role of the union leadership thus:

It’s not on us [the union leadership] to decide [on a strike], it’s on our members, and they can decide if we inform them…at the FSE [the union] we could have called for the all-out strike, but in the ‘plateaux’ [union locals] I don’t see any delegates saying ‘Let’s go, all-out strike’… We have to share information, we’re puppets when we’re union [leaders], we’re not the ones who have to tell people what to do… In my local general assembly, if someone would come and say ‘I want an all-out strike,’ I’d like that, I think I would burst with joy.

This logic, taken to its extreme here, is found throughout the movement. According to this logic, if workers are not talking about an all-out strike, it is not the job of union leaders to propose one. This logic is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the leaders don’t do anything and don’t propose a bold solution to the members (which is deemed “telling people what to do”), then it is normal that workers don’t have confidence that we can fight and win, and won’t propose militant ways of fighting themselves!

We are not saying that you can organize a mass movement by snapping your fingers. But what we are saying is that the role of union leaders is to provide leadership, not just to be an information office and wait for the members themselves to come to radical conclusions. The union leadership needs to set a plan, educate the membership, give them confidence, and thereby create the conditions for the membership to be prepared to take the road of uncompromising class struggle – just like the student movement leadership did in 2012.

Building a socialist leadership for the movement

Right now, the labour movement is led by people who believe in the capitalist system, and who don’t believe it can be overthrown. Union leaders have become detached from the conditions of the workers. They prefer the status quo to fighting the bosses. They are skeptical and do not believe in the creativity and fighting spirit of their members.

The current leadership of the labour movement will increasingly come into conflict with the reality of capitalism. Austerity will very soon be on the order of the day. Capitalism will show itself more and more for what it really is: horror without end for working people. We are already starting to see this with COVID-19.

But what will happen if the leaders of the labour movement allow workers to be attacked and do nothing? They will be discredited in the eyes of the workers they are supposed to represent. Trotsky explains how this process develops:

A leadership is shaped in the process of clashes between the different classes or the friction between the different layers within a given class. Having once arisen, the leadership invariably arises above its class and thereby becomes predisposed to the pressure and influence of other classes. The proletariat may “tolerate” for a long time a leadership that has already suffered a complete inner degeneration but has not as yet had the opportunity to express this degeneration amid great events. A great historic shock is necessary to reveal sharply the contradiction between the leadership and the class.

COVID-19 and the economic crisis that is just beginning are one of these historic shocks. All over the world, the anger of the masses is building up. The workers are suffering from unemployment, from the reduction of their living and working conditions, while the rich are amassing fortunes that are rising day by day. As we are entering an epoch of revolutions all over the world, the leadership of the workers’ movement is still stuck in the past.

So what can socialists do?

In a recent piece entitled “Socialist Leaders Won’t Save the Unions,” an activist with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) states:

People think that leadership is a matter of having the sash and the tiara, that by virtue of getting elected to a position, you have all this credibility, and everybody’s going to listen to you—and it’s simply not true.

You need to actually, simply organize the floor. And it’s not that you can’t do it as a union officer, but it[‘s] also not the case that being a union officer contributes to it.

In a sense, we agree with our anarcho-syndicalist comrades. They are attacking a tendency for individual socialists to parachute themselves into leading positions in a union with no base in the rank-and-file to enact militant socialist policies. There are numerous instances of good activists taking shortcuts only to get isolated in leadership structures and swallowed up by the bureaucracy. Marxist are totally opposed to taking leadership positions without first building a base.

But this dichotomy between grassroots organizing and union leadership is fundamentally flawed and only sees one half of the problem. In fact, many reformist union leaders would agree with the idea that elected leaders can’t organize at the grassroots, because it absolves them from having to act! Moreover, mobilizing at the base is itself an act of leadership—it means leading your colleagues toward a certain course of action. But once you’ve organized at the base, what happens next? What if the people in union leadership positions seek to actively disorganize the floor? They will need to be prevented from doing so. How? If you are not prepared to replace these people with union leaders that want to fight, this means leaving control in the hands of the bad leaders. Whether we like it or not, we come back to the need for good leadership in the movement, for counterposing militant class fighters to union leaders that are detached from the workers.

What, therefore, is the role of socialists in the labour movement? We say that, yes, we must organize among the rank-and-file, defend methods of class struggle, educate the workers on the need to fight capitalism. And on this basis, we can gain the confidence and authority of other workers to take leadership positions in the unions, and lead the movement. And the best way to do that is to be in the same revolutionary organization.

The reality is that there are some individuals on union executives who call themselves socialists in Quebec, and they are indeed not “saving the unions.” The problem is that they are isolated, they don’t have an organization that allows them to really apply socialist policies against the resistance of other leaders of the movement who don’t want to fight. To have real weight in the movement, it is necessary to unite in the same organization those who have understood the necessity of socialism.

History has shown more than once, and not just in the labour movement as such, what happens to socialist or radical individuals who do not build a revolutionary organization. Inevitably, these people will capitulate to the existing organizations. For example, Angela Davis, a highly respected former communist activist, long ago gave up on the idea of building a revolutionary party. She ended up supporting the Democratic Party and Joe Biden in the last election. The same goes for the anarchist Noam Chomsky or the supposedly-Marxist academic David Harvey. Politics is done through organizations. When you don’t build an alternative, you will inevitably fall for the “lesser evil” of what exists.

Revolutionary optimism

Class consciousness is something that develops very quickly. How many participants in the 2012 student struggle knew nothing about tuition hikes just months before the strike? How many of these students were apathetic and disinterested before a campaign was waged to prepare for the movement? The same questions could be asked of every mass movement or revolution. Consciousness is conservative, but has the potential to become radical and revolutionary.

Skeptics base themselves on the weak side of the working class, on its apathetic and demoralized layers, and conclude that a revolution is not possible. Marxists, on the contrary, base themselves on the immense revolutionary potential of our class.

Fightback Image Fightback Facebook
Comrades from Fightback, the IMT in Canada. It is up to revolutionaries today to learn the lessons of history and get on with the task of building the revolutionary party necessary to lead the working class in overthrowing this rotten system.

No, the workers are not always ready to lead a revolution. But by fighting now for socialist ideas to gain authority in the workers’ movement, we can contribute to a victorious revolution when the masses move.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented misery is setting in for millions of workers everywhere. But out of this chaos is emerging a new generation of young people who want to fight against the capitalist system.

The wonderful mass movement in the US triggered by the murder of George Floyd has shown that even the greatest imperialist power cannot escape the rising anger. The conditions are being created for revolutionary movements all over the world. It is on this potential that the unshakable revolutionary optimism of the Marxists is based.

The socialist revolution will not happen automatically. It requires activists to consciously defend a socialist program within the movement. As an isolated socialist activist, you can accomplish nothing. But united under a common banner, with a common program and common ideas, we can have an infinitely greater impact than any individual activist can have. By joining a revolutionary organization, you build yourself up and help build others. By joining a revolutionary organization, you build an alternative to existing organizations that lead the working class from defeat to defeat, instead of accepting them and capitulating to them. By joining a revolutionary organization, you help bring the ideas of Marxism to the working class in a way no individual can do on their own. This is what the International Marxist Tendency offers to workers and youth. We invite you to join this project which is bigger than all of us.

We will leave the last word to Trotsky, who left us these inspiring lines a few months before his assassination:

The capitalist world has no way out, unless a prolonged death agony is so considered. It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of war, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars, and new uprisings. A young revolutionary party must base itself on this perspective. History will provide it with enough opportunities and possibilities to test itself, to accumulate experience, and to mature. The swifter the ranks of the vanguard are fused the more the epoch of bloody convulsions will be shortened, the less destruction will our planet suffer. But the great historical problem will not be solved in any case until a revolutionary party stands at the head of the proletariat. The question of tempos and time intervals is of enormous importance; but it alters neither the general historical perspective nor the direction of our policy. The conclusion is a simple one: it is necessary to carry on the work of educating and organizing the proletarian vanguard with tenfold energy.

Julien Arseneau, Montreal

Reclaiming the revolutionary legacy of Rosa Luxemburg

To celebrate the 150th birthday of Rosa Luxemburg, we publish an extract from the introduction to ‘The Revolutionary Heritage of Rosa Luxemburg’, a new look analysing the life and ideas of this great revolutionary Marxist.

Continue reading Reclaiming the revolutionary legacy of Rosa Luxemburg

Dialectical Materialism

Conner Gettings

 

Dialectical materialism is often described as one of the three main pillars of Marxism, along with historical materialism and Marxist economics. These three complement each other in forming an excellent way of describing society and the physical world, as well as how they relate to one another. While historical materialism analyses history from a materialistic perspective and Marxist economics obviously deals with the economy, dialectical materialism is the philosophical and scientific outlook which underpins Marxism. It is the language and method that Marxists use to analyse the world and as such, it can be applied to virtually any area of thought or research; be it the historical development of society or a specialised area of science. This makes dialectical materialism a very powerful tool which can be used to understand current events, from how they arose to how they might be resolved. So to a Marxist a proficient understanding of the philosophy of dialectical materialism and how it should be applied in different situations is critical.

The ideas of dialectical materialism, based on the best traditions of philosophical thought, are not a fixed dogma but rather a system of tools and general principles for analysing the world materialistically and scientifically. Words like materialism and materialistically are used a lot, and in a Marxist context materialism means that it is generally the material world and current physical conditions that influence both the actions and ideas of individuals and groups as a whole, rather than the other way about. The roots of dialectical materialism can ultimately be traced to the ancient Greek natural philosophy of atomism of Epicurus and Democritus and can be derived from that fact that everything that exists is material and is derived from matter, and that all matter is interconnected and interdependent.

There are many ways and viewpoints in which dialectical materialism can be understood, as befits a dialectical understanding of the world, but the main principle behind it is that nothing is static. Everything is in a constant state of change and flux no matter how stable or motionless it may seem, and over an infinite amount of time everything will, and must, transform or degrade. So according to this mode of thought, the idea that something is constant and will remain unchanged permanently is unmaterialistic and ultimately impossible. This can be seen in the realm of astronomy, a field where the tenets of dialectical materialism seem to be constantly verified. Objects such as stars, which were once thought to be infinite in time, were eventually shown to have lifetimes and are indeed not infinite.

Within a more terrestrial scope, this idea of constant flux can be applied to societies and regions around the globe. There is no country in the world where the working class is not in a continuous state of variation. In a single country at times it may be strong and proactive and at other times it may appear dormant and almost invisible on the surface; but in all periods there are ebbs and flows in the working class movement which will be influenced by certain events and the material conditions at certain times, such as an economic recession. The state of the working class may then go on to affect the conditions which affect its current state through actions such as mass strikes and so on; the processes and interactions between both can continue to influence each other. This is the essence of the dialectic nature of society and this also connects with historical materialism.

Dialectical materialism when viewed as a form of logic is always opposed to the more widely used and accepted mode of thought of formal logic that is prevalent among the bourgeoisie and general academia. Formal logic itself can ultimately be related to Aristotle of ancient Greece and this dogmatic way of thinking, in its rigidness, is a product of the time of its creation and its development in capitalist society. In formal logic an object A will always equal A. Whereas with dialectical materialism A will only equal A in the limit of abstraction, which we often enter into for the sake of functionality and simplicity in areas such as mathematics and physics. In dialectical materialism, however, we realise that despite this simplification, in reality A never equals A no matter how narrow you make the time interval between observations of it. This comes back to the idea of constant flux, where everything is in constant motion and as such is always changing, even if this change is almost undetectable. So in reality A equals A and at the same time it does not equal A, as A is constantly in the process of becoming something other than A, and it is this idea which formal logic in its stubbornness finds almost impossible to understand and implement in analysis. As such, when using formal logic one will always come up against contradictions in reality that cannot be easily solved and when these contradictions are finally overcome, they inevitably lead to even greater contradictions. When, however, using dialectical materialism the contradictions are not so much of a problem, rather they are expected due to the dialectical nature of the material world in which we live. This is a main reason why dialectical materialism is superior to formal logic when being used to understand the processes that are occurring all around us.

Aside from the ideas of everything having a materialistic basis and being derived from matter, that all matter is interconnected and interdependent, and that there is a continual flux of processes that at all times influence each other where necessary, there are three basic assertions that dialectical materialism makes that in many ways sum up these ideas and allow them to be applied to the physical world.

This first of these is: The Law of the Unity and Conflict of Opposites. In a very literal sense this law describes a situation seen in many dialectical processes of two or more opposing ideas or physical objects. Examples of this idea could be opposing class interests within society, such as those of the proletariat and bourgeoisie which will naturally be forced against one another. Or in the field of physics it could be used to describe the phenomena of electromagnetism, where there are positive and negatively charged particles which will attract oppositely charged particles and repel similarly charged particles which then leads to the creation of an electric current in closed circuits. The unity part of this law denotes the view that the opposites from various situations, once certain material conditions are met, can effectively remove or annihilate one another. Such as in society, following a successful revolution of the working class and the creation of the dictatorship of the proletariat (a commonly misunderstood phrase which means the working class democratically controlling society); with the eventual withering away of the state, the opposing class interests would also wither away due to the end of class society itself. In the case of physics, with the removal of any physical or potential energy barriers, equally and oppositely charged particles will collide to create a new particle or annihilate each other alongside the creation of energy. This effectively removes the influence of the opposite charges. This principle can also be applied in the opposite direction, in the creation of opposites in different situations and again with the correct material conditions.

The second assertion of dialectical materialism is: The Law of the Passage of Quantitative Changes into Qualitative Changes and Vice Versa. As this law states, quantitative changes can result in qualitative changes and in turn, qualitative changes can result in quantitative changes. A good example of this in practice is the process of boiling water. When boiling a body of water the temperature of the water must be raised to 100°C, or 373.15K, at the barometric pressure at sea level if you want to be specific. This is a quantitative change in the properties of the water. Once this temperature is reached the water undergoes a phase transition from a liquid to a gas. This can be considered a qualitative change in the properties of the water, and so this completes a cycle of this law.

The third law of dialectical materialism is: The Law of the Negation of the Negation. This statement neatly contains the idea of the constant change and flux of objects and processes mentioned previously. The negation of an object or property, usually caused by the said object’s or property’s antithesis, can in turn be negated itself so that the whole system can move on to a completely new state. This occurs due to the ever changing and dialectical nature of the world and events. The effects of certain incidents, such as an economic boom in capitalism, can cause living conditions of the working class to improve due to the more relaxed nature of the bourgeoisie towards reforms that the working class demands. So the working class will in itself become more relaxed and layers could possibly become less class conscious. If, however, the antithesis of an economic boom, an economic depression, causes the material conditions of capitalism to be almost reversed such that the bourgeoisie are forced to take away any reforms granted to the working class, then the living conditions of the working class will deteriorate accordingly and as such layers of the working class will become more radicalised and class conscious, and so on. This process will then continue according to the changing materialistic conditions of society and the confrontation of class interests, which will in turn influence each other.

These three laws of dialectical materialism and their associated concepts and applications form the backbone of the Marxist way of thinking. In the modern period, we as Marxists would say that formal logic is no longer able to progress science, or philosophy any further, as the contradictions that it has built up due to its very nature are becoming greater and greater. In a very similar way to the fact that Capitalism can no longer progress society forward as a whole due to its inherent failures. A good example of this is in the realm of cosmology. In cosmology, and in the physics community as a whole, the idea of the big bang dominates the general consensus of what created the Universe as we know it. While the idea of a massive explosion resulting in the Universe we see today is consistent with nearly all the observational evidence we have, formal logic breaks down when we try to explain what happened before the big bang. The idea that all the mass and energy in the Universe came from nothing more than the big bang, with nothing causing the big bang itself doesn’t feel like a satisfying answer. That’s because it isn’t materialistic at all. From our everyday experience we know we can’t get something from nothing and so as Marxists we would argue that obviously something must have existed before the big bang.

Formal logic in its rigidness finds it very difficult to link our current knowledge of physics with any new possible theories to explain the physical laws that could have existed before the big bang. This isn’t implying that dialectical materialism would allow us to answer these big questions easily, of course not, but it does allow a much easier theoretical link to be made due to its emphasis on change and its more flexible nature compared to formal logic. From a purely scientific point of view that’s where the strength of dialectical materialism lies; it allows the connection of seemingly disparate theories and ideas in a deeply profound and material basis.

One of the best demonstrations of the applicability of dialectical materialism and of the powerful insights it can give into physical processes is in the field of general relativity and gravitation. This area of science has been in the news a lot recently due to the first observational evidence of gravitational waves that was announced on Thursday 11th February.

The person who came up with our current understanding of general relativity and the force of gravity itself was Einstein. Einstein was able to do this through several factors. One of course was the material conditions into which he was born: a fairly wealthy middle class family that could afford to give him a good education. Another was the fact he possibly had a natural aptitude in science. This, however, is beside the point. The main factor was the analysis he employed when considering his thought experiments on gravity. Being a theoretical physicist he relied on theory more than observation and so having a good analysis of his ideas was vital. Of course he used dialectical materialism. Einstein wasn’t a Marxist but he did have many Socialist views and he did speak out against capitalism and the free market, so it’s no surprise he employed dialectical materialism in his work.

In general relativity, what Einstein brilliantly deduced in his field equations, that are a part of a larger set of partial differential equations, was that the force of gravity is paired with the energy and momentum of both matter and radiation; and it should be noted that the pairs of energy and momentum as well as matter and radiation and also interconnected and interdependent. The theory of general relativity states that gravity is paired with energy and momentum in that in the presence of matter or radiation, the curvature of spacetime is bent. If we can imagine such a thing as an empty universe, which of course dialectical materialism tells us is impossible, then spacetime would be perfectly flat and time and motion would move and change everywhere uniformly. Of course this isn’t the case and so every piece of mass and radiation in the universe is bending the curvature of spacetime. So that gravity is changing in our presence and as a result of this, the movement of matter and radiation is changing as well. Of course you need massive amounts of mass, like that of stars or black holes to see these effects easily but nonetheless it’s still occurring all the time.

Even more remarkable is that, as the name spacetime would suggest, even something as fundamental as time is affected by this process, as a consequence of the finite and unalterable speed of light in a vacuum in our Universe. So as mass or radiation moves, which both constantly do as a necessity of their existence, they not only change the gravitational field in their vicinity but also the passage of time for themselves relative to their surroundings. Another consequence of this is, is that as a mass moves it appears contracted and hence shorter relative to a stationary observer, and equivalently radiation appears gravitationally redshifted or blueshifted depending on the situation. Again this is happening to us all the time but we would need to be moving very close to the speed of light to noticeably see these effects, but they do happen and in the decades since Einstein first proved these effects theoretically, they have since been proven experimentally.

So we can see very clearly here that the most fundamental physical aspects of the Universe such as mass, radiation, the force of gravity; as well as other forces, energy, momentum and time are all interconnected and interdependent as dialectical materialism suggests. It is also thought now that the four fundamental forces in the Universe, which are, in order from weakest to strongest: gravity, the weak nuclear, the electromagnetic, and strong nuclear forces; are all different aspects of one singular force and are tied together in the hypothetical and aptly named Theory of Everything. These connections are things that dialectical materialism pointed towards long before formal logic acknowledged them.

Dialectical materialism is the language that Marxists use to communicate their ideas and utilise them to analysing the world and the material universe. Its universal applicability and flexibility make it an incredibly powerful tool and ultimately it is necessary for bringing about an international socialist revolution and an end to capitalism.

Art and socialism

Time and time again we are told that humankind is inherently selfish; that people are not interested in sharing with others and that a more equal and caring society, where people treat each other fairly and respectfully is a utopian ideal that can never be realistically achieved. What lies behind this is the idea that capitalism, with its free market economics and dog-eat-dog morality, is the most natural and practical economic system.

Is it true then that we are doomed to live in a state that resembles nothing more than barbarism – an unstable economic system that will forever go through booms and busts, with the dictators passing their money around amongst themselves while the vast majority of mankind has to suffer for it?

The world of art, cinema and music, however, show us many things that contradict the idea that people are self-centred and care
nothing for unity and human solidarity.


Freed from the fetters of feudalism

Capitalism emerged from feudalism, a system of perpetual war between lords and monarchs over land, where the Church was the dominating political and ideological force of Europe and people accepted their God-given place in the world without question. The bourgeoisie in its early stages played a progressive role. It was the class that was responsible for bringing mankind out of the oppressive feudal system.

In the towns the bourgeoisie established for themselves a system of trade and business that could exist independently of the Church and Crown. And with the rise of the bourgeoisie there came a huge advancement of the arts. No longer was art purely designed to display the majesty of God. Now art was a way of displaying one’s position in this world. For the bourgeoisie of the Italian Renaissance, art was directly linked to intellectual knowledge of the classical past, the beauties of nature, and the importance of the individual in the world. We see this in various works such as Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Primavera, the portraits of Raphael and Titian etc.

Amongst this new breed of intellectual artist, probably the greatest was Leonardo da Vinci, a man who sought not glory and fame, but rather an understanding of the material world and its intricacies. Perhaps Leonardo’s greatest contributions to art were his scientific drawings. Here we see an artist who really saw a value in his work. These drawings were not made for money, and were never made to be seen by anybody apart from Leonardo, and yet they possess something which is fundamentally understandable to all humans: a need to observe and understand the essence of life.

The most striking example of this is his anatomical drawing showing a foetus in the womb. To call this a purely observational and scientific work is to misunderstand what Leonardo wanted to capture in his study: the fundamental beginnings of all human beings, the state in which mankind exists before it enters the world; something every human being has to go through.

When we are told by bourgeois collectors and critics that art is something beyond everyday human life, in a realm of ideals of beauty, they ought to be reminded that Leonardo, one of the greatest artists of all time, never sought to reflect anything but the most fundamental human life in his works. Even in religious works Leonardo offers us humanity first and foremost. In the Virgin of the Rocks we see a mother looking after children. In the Last Supper we see a group of individuals eat a humble meal.


The Golden Age

Since Leonardo, this need to observe and understand the beauty of humankind has been carried on by artists with completely different professional careers. The Dutch Golden Age (roughly the entire 17th century) was a period of economic boom following the successful revolt of the Dutch against their Spanish rulers in the late 16th century. The Dutch Republic was intensely Protestant and its bourgeoisie were proud of the material success that their monopolised trade with Japan and other countries of the Far East secured them.

In Golden Age Holland, people of all different social standing were buying art of different varieties. The poorer folk could buy etchings or cheap paintings showing ‘genre scenes’, which usually depicted comic depictions of quack doctors, drunkards, prostitutes etc. as well as still life paintings, which displayed all the fundamental material requirements for the good life. This was art that could be understood by anyone, and the Dutch people took pride in being able to own individual works of art.

The more wealthy class could have their portraits painted, reflecting their belief in their own self-worth. Among the portrait painters of Amsterdam was Rembrandt van Rijn, a man who revolutionised the way we see each other. Rembrandt painted in a style of thick impasto and dirty colours, determined to capture the essence of his subjects rather than painting an exact likeness.

Amongst his most intimate and touching works are those he made of the women and children he knew. The portrait of his son
Titus is a great example of this.

Here we see a boy stare directly into the eyes of his father. As a portrait, it is miles away from the flamboyant and over-complimentary style of Rembrandt’s contemporaries like Rubens and Van Dyke. Rather than create an image of an ideal,
Rembrandt has sought to show us directly the connection he feels to another human being. It is not only in pictures of people he loves that Rembrandt does this, in almost all his portraits, commissioned or not, Rembrandt attempts to show us the humanity of his subjects.


Vermeer and the Old Masters

The Dutch Golden age spawned one other outstanding artist, Jan Vermeer. Vermeer lived a humble life in the town of Delft, painting small pictures for little money. Cheap though these painting were, their intense beauty and quality as works of art make them outstanding to the eyes of a modern viewer. Long before photographers became obsessed with capturing ‘everyday life’, Vermeer was painting quiet scenes of the Dutch middle class.

Vermeer’s work is notable in that unlike contemporaries like Jan Steen, he does not attempt to present the people he depicts in a humorous way, but attempts instead to show them in their apparently most dull and uninteresting moments. He paints a lady reading a letter or a child playing on the street with as much intense care as any other artist would paint a mythological scene.

For Vermeer at his most profoundly beautiful and touching we should look at the small painting known as The Milkmaid. Here we have a women at work, doing something she must have to do every day. Seeing something like this in real life we would be forgiven for being uninterested or bored. And yet this painting is anything but boring. It shows directly the beauty of everyday life most people will miss if they do not pay attention.

Here Vermeer seems to be calling for us to appreciate the little things that go on every day. It is miles away from what a working class person might understandably think of the art of the Old Masters. Who could fail to see why Vermeer has felt the need to use Lapis Lazuli, an expensive blue pigment, to create the stunningly beautiful apron around her waist? The bourgeois historian may (wrongly) point out that these works reflect humanity only due to Dutch Protestant materialism (Vermeer converted to Catholicism). In reply to this we should examine some of the Catholic art of this period and see if we find anything different


Caravaggio and the Church

The painter Caravaggio worked mainly for the Catholic Church in Rome during the Counter-Reformation. While his works are undoubtedly religious, they are above all, to the modern eye, intensely humanist. Unlike his contemporaries, Caravaggio did not paint in the highly ornamental, decorative Baroque manner; full of absurd amounts of floating virgins and puffy cherubs.

Caravaggio painted everyday reality; the people he saw on the streets of Rome – prostitutes, beggars, criminals – and the religious aspects of his works are always linked to the poverty and deprivation Caravaggio saw all around him.

Caravaggio was not a slave to the power of the Church. Many of the works he produced were rejected by those who commissioned them because of his insistence on using real life models for his religious figures, particularly his use of famous Roman prostitutes as models for his Madonnas.  Many bourgeois art historians have depicted Caravaggio as a straight foreword thug (he famously killed a man in a duel). Yet what they forget is that Caravaggio lived in a time of extreme poverty and crime, from which he could not escape. He saw the world around him was full of horrors, and yet he was able to look through these horrors and see the humanity that connects us all.

Take for example his altarpiece The Seven Acts of Mercy. Here we have a religious work, based upon a Christian ideal of mercy. Yet where is the work of God? Where is the authority of the church? The angels and the Madonna and child do not appear any less human than the rest of the figures. On the right we see a woman feeding an old prisoner with milk from her breast, on the left a man taking off his cloak to give to a naked beggar. What could be more human than an image like this? Here Caravaggio reflects how our worst moments we can still rely on our fellow man to help.


A reflection of humanity

The humanity reflected in these artworks is not something strange to be studied academically. It is a humanity that still connects people today and should therefore be understood as such. Socialism is, before anything else, a way of re-connecting mankind and eliminating the hatred and exploitation brought on by capitalism. In the development of human existence, the bringing of people together in overthrowing their oppressors is of infinite value.

Marxists have absolute confidence in the working class. Art has the power to influence people, and so it should not be seen as a useless luxury reserved for those who have too much time and money. Art reflects better than anything else the beauty of human existence. Art is not necessary in the way food and shelter are, but rather it is there to offer us consolation and give us reason to live, and this is something we all need. Without some means of understanding life artistically, we would be left with a hollow kind of existence.

Art is at once a reflection and a driving force for life. Under socialism, the alienation of working people from art and culture will be destroyed and art can finally take the place in society it should have.

Marxism and Individualism

Like many you may feel shame when you put paper in the plastic bin but why is this? Its because you’ve had an individualist form of environmentalism thrown at you every where you turn. The ruling classes have managed to cement their ideology so firmly in your psyche that you feel guilt for environmental failings which are currently outwith your control. They’ve done it so successfully we think that our personal failings are some how leading to environmental failures across the world.

Your actions are of course well intentioned and stem from a progressive instinct to preserve our planet. However whilst big corporation and their stooges in national governments do what they need to do for the sake of profit, these individual changes are like minnows swimming against a tidal wave.

​The problem is not that you put clear glass and green glass in the same bin at the dump. The problem is that the dominant economic system, capitalism, is a destructive all encompassing brute. So your feeling of guilt when you put plastic in the paper bin is really symptomatic of the problem. Its symptomatic as it shows us the deep rooted nature of the ruling ideology.

​Karl Marx famously comments in The German Ideology: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”

This deeply embedded environmental individualism Is therefore a form of what Marx would call the ideology of the ruling classes. Although this is a micro example of how well engraved the ruling ideology can be, it nonetheless highlights the validity of Marxism today. This deeply seated ideology does not just span the things we recycle but also to products we buy.

We feel we can ‘ethically’ consume. Ideas like ‘fair trade’ and other corporate ‘green washing.’ (By corporate green washing I mean sponsoring which makes a company seem ‘green’). We can be gregarious consumers and can feel a bit better for the poor plantation owner because we’ve paid an extra fifty pence and bought a specific product. If we can’t afford this we feel that bit worse. We’re filled with individual guilt and a feeling that we need to ethically consume when the problems are systematic not moralistic or individualist.

We are certainly not telling you to stop recycling, gardening or buying fair trade fruit. Like many you will be disgusted by the barbaric practices of capitalism and will do what you can to remove yourself from it even slightly. However, we must recognize these flaws are symptoms of our socio-economic system and also recognise that environmental safety and preservance ultimately cannot exist under capitalism. These are achievements which only socialism can deliver. Acknowledging this is relatively small but significant step towards true emancipation.

As Slavoj Zizek points out we live in a society were we are in constant search of “beer without alcohol” and “coffee without caffeine” but the reality is capitalism will never be ethical. You may cite social democracy but essentially this is just diluted capitalism and cannot solve the looming environmental catastrophe.

After the Paris Climate Talks it is clear we need a change . Not just an individual change but a systematic change, to put the needs of profit before people. We may believe we can some how stop the ice caps melting. We can but not as individuals. Imagine a world the toiling masses of the world take the wealth they create into their own hands and controlled democratically.

​At the very least, the fact that acts such as recycling and fair trade are carried out by masses of people show their is a powerful force thriving for such change. Under socialism our natural environmental instincts can be harnessed and our plant truly saved.

As the old adage goes, “We need system change! Not Climate Change!”

The Fragility of Nationalist Ideas

“Active bourgeois public opinion is composed of two parts: first, of inherited views, actions, and prejudices which represent the fossilized experience of the past, a thick layer of irrational banality and useful stupidity; and second, of the intricate machinery and clever management necessary for the mobilization of patriotic feeling and moral indignation, of national enthusiasm, altruist sentiment, and other kinds of lies and deceptions.”

Trotsky, Between Red and White, 1922

Over 90 years later this quote is still very relevant. Unlike in 1922, Britain no longer has its empire and is now a third rate world power. What they retain are their skilled methods of indoctrination accumulated over centuries,  which still have a powerful effect on mass consciousness. Without it, the ruling class could not rule.

In school history we’re taught that the battle of Dunkirk was a Great British victory, whilst events like The Russia Revolution, The German Revolution or even the 1926 general strike are often reduced to a bullet point, if that. Last year, Michael Gove, Tory cabinet MP (of varying posts), talking about the “Great” War, said that “Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”.

This statement reflects Gove’s stupidity. It is a normal function of our bourgeois politicians to try to perpetuate nationalism, chauvinism and all ideologies which work in favour of the ruling class. Gove’s proud jingoism is very stupid, but such stupidity is a useful and inevitable part of bourgeois politics’ game of illusions.

The problem for the ruling class is that the establishment, not least its mass media outlets, does not quite have the clout it used to as the following quote from the Financial Times shows,
“The public seems to think there is something rotten in the establishment. In 2010, a Policy Exchange poll found that 81% of Britons agreed with the statement: ‘Politicians don’t understand the real world at all’. The British Social Attitude Survey reported that only 18% trusted governments to put the nation’s needs above a party’s, down from 38% in 1986. Banks fare worse.

In 1983, 90% thought they were ‘well run’, compared with 19% today, perhaps the most dramatic attitudinal shift in the report’s 30-year history. Britain’s views of its institutions wax and wane—ask Her Majesty. But the successive scandals hitting banking, parliament and the media have the feel of an almost operatic collapse of faith in those who exert power in the country… There is a profound ignorance among the powerful as to the depth of anti-elite sentiment, in Britain and beyond.”

This also extends to the traditional workers’ parties. The Labour Party have played a treacherous role, summed up by their slogans borrowed from the Tories such as “One Nation Britain”, and mugs saying “Controls on immigration, I’m voting labour”, slogans that for the record also found very little resonance in England. In the recent election, leadership candidate Liz Kendal vowed to back “white working class youth” in a disgusting attempt to appeal to UKIP voters. The reality is that such people do not represent any part of the working class, including the “white working class youth”, but only represent themselves and their big business masters. The Blairite pro free-marketeers were quite rightly seen for what they were with Corbyn’s overwhelming victory.

The previous Labour leader, Ed Milliband, was according to polls more unpopular than David Cameron before the General Election in Scotland! The Scottish conservatives, unlike their counterparts in the rest of the UK, are generally seen to be harmless idiots who have very little influence. Their chauvinistic role in the NO campaign was nothing unexpected. However the Labour Party had influence in Scotland and formerly was looked to and trusted by the working class, a trust which it betrayed, debatably the final kick being the British Nationalist “Better Together Campaign” which they led.

When the capitalist system is in deep crisis, a crisis felt most acutely by the working class and the most poor and vulnerable part of society, it can only be a matter of time before such people en mass start to question things. Massive political shifts like we’ve seen in Scotland with the referendum, and now throughout the UK with Corbyn, become common. The stunning successes of the SNP represent not just a rejection of austerity politics but also a rejection of the rotten British as a whole. Whilst socialists in Scotland have a duty to expose and fight against Scottish nationalism, we nevertheless unashamedly welcome the mass rejection of the politics and ideology of our most reactionary establishment.

However, we are living in turbulent times. Less than half a year after the Labour Party was rejected en mass we saw the election of Jeremy Corbyn. Days later saw his seemingly small but significant gesture in declining to sing the national anthem during Battle of Britain commemoration. For this he was met with a predictable barrage of vile slander.

Whilst inciting disgust amongst the British establishment and its Daily Mail reading reserves, he also, deliberately or not, incited a small spark of delight in the brains amongst millions of people throughout the British Isles.

A poll on The Mirror’s website currently shows that 81% of over a thousand readers support Corbyn’s refusal to sing the national anthem. The Metro, a paper owned by “The Daily Mail and General Trust”, asked its million plus daily readers to send in their views of the queen after her reign became the longest. Two thirds of the responding letters expressed negative views. Such facts in and of themselves do not tell the full picture, but when coupled with recent signs of anti-establishment and anti-jingoistic feeling including the impressively big “Refugees Welcome” demonstrations they suggest rapidly declining support in the ideology of British nationalism not just in Scotland but in England and Wales also.

Alex Salmond made an uncharacteristic error in criticising Corbyn for not singing the National Anthem. The SNP’s  recent peak of success came on the back of the mass YES campaign, a campaign fuelled by an indignation to Westminster’s austerity and British jingoism. In criticising Corbyn he aligned himself and the SNP with the British establishment, so hated by the SNP’s base of support.

Last week a TNS poll showed the SNP 35 points ahead of labour. It’s clear that it would take much more than a Corbyn victory to spark any kind of significant return to the Labour Party in Scotland. However that is not to say that his victory has had no effect.  According to The Guardian a third of SNP voters would vote labour in a General Election under Corbyn. This is a very contradictory, complex and dynamic situation. However it is fair to assume that although many sympathise with Corbyn and the movement behind him, they have thrown their eggs into the SNP’s basket and will not abandon it within a matter of months.

The SNP is a very contradictory party. It undoubtedly has a left wing layer of support who see beyond narrow nationalist lines and want to be part of a serious challenge to poverty, inequality and British imperialism. It is no surprise that the Corbyn victory was greeted by a significant layer of the left leaning SNP supporters. To the left of the SNP in the SSP/ RISE/RIC it has been very warmly welcomed with some even registering to vote for him.

On the other side of the coin the party also contains a very strong current of Scottish nationalism. On the right of the SNP, Corbyn is seen simply as a unionist and criticised vehemently for his stance on independence. This amongst other things has exposed the contradictions of the YES campaign. Corbyn’s approach to the national question in Scotland is clumsy and self-destructive. The left of the YES campaign are obviously aware of this and on this point are critical of Corbyn, but at the same time are able to look past it enough to be welcoming to Corbyn’s leadership overall, and are hence antagonised by the attitude of the old school SNP “nats” who see nothing but a unionist enemy in Corbyn.

This is classical in movements for national self-determination. Unity can only be temporary and eventually, in one form or another, a split along class lines will occur. Differences that can be glossed over or at least discussed friendlily during a peak of mass political activity become unbearable in a movement’s ebb and the cracks begin to show. But mainly this is the music of the future. Despite the weakening unity of the YES movement and despite the powerful developments in the Labour Party, desire for independence amongst the population has not gone down but in fact reached 54% last month.

As German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht said, “The main enemy of every people is in their own country”. In Scotland we have two main enemies, that of British imperialist ruling class and its close cousins, the Scottish capitalists and landlords. Socialists in the YES camp must patiently explain to those awakening to political life that to really defeat British imperialism and its rotten establishment it is not enough to turn to Scottish nationalism. The British ruling elite cannot be overthrown without the working classes throughout the British Isles, especially England.

​Even when it is awkward, even when we’re laughed at or shouted at or worse, socialists have a duty to be very clear that the fight is not simply for independence but for a Scottish Workers Republic as part of an international socialist federation. Marxists take a long view of history. The class struggle is back on the agenda everywhere, and our programme of socialist revolution will grow into a mass one.