For a long time, many workers in Europe have considered that, for all their past betrayals, parties such as the Labour party in Britain, and the Socialist parties across continental Europe, were able and willing to protect the material interests of the working class. In the absence of any other credible choice, these parties were widely seen as being the political representatives of the working class, even if only in a limited and distorted way.
The recent period, however, has shed a crude light on the real nature of these parties. In many parts of Europe, governments led by left-wing parties cooperated with the capitalist classes in waging the most drastic attacks against workers' conditions and standard of living. Even worse, these parties often initiated the drive against the working class, on a scale which their right-wing predecessors had not dared to risk. Some European countries - such as France, Spain or Sweden, for instance - would probably not have reached their present levels of catastrophic social deprivation without the active help given to the bourgeoisies by the socialist party-led governments of the 80s.
In Britain, of course, the situation may seem different. The Labour party is only just about to return to power after 18 years in opposition. On the strength of its years in opposition, Labour claims to have no responsibility for the present social rot. But this is pure deception. For it was the austerity policy of the Labour governments of the 70s which paved the way for the profit drive of the 80s under Thatcher. Moreover, Labour has long since ceased to pretend defending the working class against this profit drive. The defence of workers' interests has become a secondary theme in Labour's language, and one which obviously is an embarassment to the Labour leadership. There is no longer any question of reversing the consequences of the Tories' policies. On the contrary, Labour is openly boasting of being better than the Tories at implementing these policies and helping the capitalists to boost profits. As a result, although it has been in opposition for such a long time, the Labour party seems to have drifted even further to the right than its European counterparts.
The drift to the right of the so-called traditional working class parties is leading many activists, among those who used to support these parties, but mainly among the revolutionary left, to argue that the nature of these parties has changed, that they have mutated from being "workers' parties" to become "bourgeois parties".
In our view, these comrades are mistaken. For a very long time, more or less since the first decade of this century, these parties have been a major factor in ensuring the stability of the capitalist system. In government they loyally managed the affairs of the bourgeoisie. In opposition, they channelled the struggles of the working class towards parliamentary politics. And all along, they became increasingly integrated in the various appendages of the bourgeois state machinery. In that sense, these parties were in no way different from the traditional bourgeois parties. Their only originality was the electoral support they had, and still have, in the working class, and their ability to use this support, and the illusions which remained among workers, as a bargaining chip in bidding for government positions. They were bourgeois parties with a predominantly working class electorate and, from this point of view, nothing has changed.
The only real changes have taken place in society itself. The economic crisis, and particularly the pressure of unemployment, have weakened the working class, allowing the bosses to get away with murder. Meanwhile, the Labour and union leadership, true to their commitment to capitalism, looked the other way. This has boosted the confidence and arrogance of the bourgeoisie to the point where it is no longer prepared to tolerate any sign of "softness" towards working class aspirations from its politicians. Blair's so-called "revolution" is no more than an adaptation to the demands of the bourgeoisie in the context of a social relationship of forces which is heavily tilted against the working class.
This is to say that if, as we believe, revolutionaries are to build a new workers' party, a party that really represents the political interests of the working class, it will bear absolutely no resemblance to the Labour party, old or new.
A rich tradition on which to build
The idea that the working class needs to have its own independent political party, is almost as old as the working class itself. The question of the form and the objectives that such a party should have is, therefore, a very old one. Answers to this question have been provided by history, that is by the experience of the working class movement. Each generation of socialist activists refined the answers provided by the fights, successes and failures, of the previous generations. For revolutionaries today, this accumulated experience represents an invaluable capital and the proud legacy of a movement and tradition to which we belong. Ignoring this capital, in the name of "starting afresh", would be merely foolish and irresponsible.
Such was Marx's own approach. In February 1848, almost at the same time as a new revolution was breaking out in Paris, a short pamphlet was published in London. Written by Marx and Engels in German, it was the programme of a small illegal grouping of German revolutionaries called the Communist League. This Manifesto of the Communist Party, as it was called, was the first attempt at a clear definition of what the programme of a workers' party should be. And it did so by drawing from the experience of the already rich socialist and revolutionary tradition up to the mid-19th century.
The task undertaken by Marx and Engels and their tiny group of supporters was momentous. But this situation is not an exception in the political history of the working class, it is almost the rule.
On its own, due to the weight of exploitation, the working class does not reach political consciousness easily or spontaneously. Nor can it easily acquire an understanding of the evolution of society and of the ways in which it can be changed. Intellectuals, on the other hand, at least those who are really committed to change society have the cultural instruments to acquire such an understanding. But they can do nothing without the collective strength and social weight of the proletariat.
Each attempt at setting up a workers' party was the result of the most advanced layer of the intelligentsia seeking to join forces with the living forces of the working class. Each time, the process started with the conscious choice made by a small nucleus of activists to devote their efforts and abilities to building such a party. This conscious choice and activity was not necessary just in the early days, in fact. Even once the foundation of the workers' party had been firmly established, the party activists still had to build the party's intervention, on the basis of a clear understanding of the workings of society, in order to educate the working class on its present and future tasks.
These workers' parties did not develop in a vacuum. At every stage of the process, their activists came under all kinds of social pressures - that of repression, of course, but also the more pernicious pressures applied by the capitalist society to divide and weaken the working class.
These social pressures were the decisive factor in the failure of every past attempt at setting up a workers' party. Each time the party became increasingly corrupted until it collapsed onto itself. But each time a new wealth of experience was built by one or two generations of activists, new lessons were learnt and passed on to the next generations. So that each time, it was possible to restart the building process, only from a higher level, armed with a better understanding of the tasks and traps ahead.
Due to time constraints, we will mainly deal with examples drawn from the working class movement in Britain and Germany. But it should be born in mind that the struggle for the workers' party was always an international struggle. What happened at each stage in one particular country was always shaped by previous and parallel developments elsewhere. Following the ebbs and flows of the international movement, the pendulum of the struggle moved from one country to another, fading temporarily in one country only to re-emerge with a vengeance in the next one.
Today, the international character of the working class movement is even more real than it has ever been. Far too many people insist in wrapping up the working class traditions in this country in nationalist rags. But whatever they may say, one of the lessons of the past is that the working class movement of this country will only be rebuilt as part of a powerful international proletarian movement.
Forerunners in the midst of the bourgeois revolutions
The working class took its modern form in the latter part of the 19th century. However, long before that, there was already a proletariat of sorts. But there was no sense of a common interest within its ranks, no cement as yet capable of welding it into a class.
The bourgeois revolutions - first in the 17th century in England and then in France, in the next century - marked a turning point. In order to uproot the institutions of old feudal society, the bourgeois revolutions mobilised the poor. The bourgeoisies did not choose to do so, the class struggle did it for them under their terrified eyes. For the first time, the masses of the poor emerged as a force and a potential threat against all privileges, including those of the rising bourgeoisies. And this eruption of the poor on to the political scene led to another development - the emergence of political currents which set themselves the aim of bringing about a new form of society, free of the injustices of the old, by building on the might of the poor.
There was the embryo of such a current within the most radical wing of the English revolution - the "Levellers" as it became known - who held the balance of forces in the last years of the 1640s, when they were, in particular, the dominant force among the ranks of Cromwell's Army.
Radicals, the Levellers were. But they were first of all representatives of the bourgeoisie. Their idea of universal suffrage, for instance, even excluded men in receipt of wages or charity, not to mention their exclusion of women. But the Levellers were also genuinely seeking to rid society of all privileges. This led them to put in question the private property of the land. They often came into conflict with the propertied classes, as in Derby, where miners set up a 12,000-strong army, with the help of the local Levellers, to support them in a dispute with the mine owners.
The social radicalism among the Levellers found its ultimate expression in a particular current, that of the " True Levellers" or "Diggers". The spokesman of this current, Gerrard Winstanley, laid out plans for a social organisation free of private property, money or trade, organised as a free association of producers working according to their abilities for the benefit of the community. Winstanley's communist society was certainly more inspired by the small-scale production of the past than by the possibilities opened by the economic development which was already underway. But the most remarkable feature of the Diggers' brief existence, was their militancy. Rather than confining themselves to propaganda, as most social-reformers had done so far, they chose to act - by occupying uncultivated land in Surrey and beginning to organise their new society there and then. Needless to say, they did not go very far, as the Levellers were soon finally defeated by Cromwell. But their short-lived attempt was the first one aimed at allowing the proletariat to emancipate itself through collective action.
A similar current was to emerge at the end of the following century, during the French revolution, but this time with much sharper objectives and a much more definite class edge - that of Babeuf's "Conspiracy of the Equals". Babeuf's communist ideas were similar to those of Winstanley. But he went one step further in understanding the tasks which lied ahead of him: «The French revolution is only the forerunner of another much more grandiose and solemn revolution, which will be the last one».
For Babeuf, the proletariat had to introduce the social changes it needed through its own efforts and using the methods of the revolution itself. So, in 1796, Babeuf undertook to set up a secretive organisation designed to prepare and carry out a proletarian insurrection, take over power and take society through the transitional phase necessary for the establishment of communism. This was a highly structured organisation which, after three months of existence, could rely on the active support of 9,500 soldiers and 7,500 civilians. This organisation maintained a permanent link between its leadership and the proletariat, through a network of local groups and activists. It combined propaganda through a number of newspapers and regular public meetings, with agitation, through organising, for instance, demonstrations against the high cost of living. In short, it was the first militant Communist party, anticipating Marx's ideas by half-a-century.
On the eve of Babeuf's planned insurrection, however, the entire leadership of his organisation was arrested following a denunciation. His attempt was therefore as short-lived as that of the Diggers. In both cases, the social conditions for success were probably not there anyway. But these experiences were not wasted. Babeuf's revolutionary and organisational tradition was transmitted by those of his companions who survived the repression and shaped the next generation of proletarian revolutionaries who were at the forefront of the revolutions of the 19th century in France.
«Putting those at the bottom on the top»
In Britain, the historical thread was more tenuous. It did live, however, through a continuous tradition of radicalism throughout the 18th century, culminating in the 1790s during the French Revolution.
In the following decades, the issue of electoral reform came to the fore. The working class, of course, had absolutely no political voice or representation in the political system. But nor did most of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a large part of the emerging industrial bourgeoisie. Out of a population of around 14 million in England and Wales, only about 400,000 men had the vote.
Not surprisingly radical clubs similar to those which had been agitating at the end of the previous century began to re-emerge. But now, they were no longer the main political factor. The working class was soon to occupy the front of the political scene.
In 1830, the success of a revolutionary uprising by the Parisian proletariat, which resulted in the downfall of King Charles Xth, had an immediate impact in Britain. Mini-insurrections broke out in towns up and down the country. For the first time, the red flag, the rallying banner of the Paris insurgents, was raised by miners occupying the Welsh industrial town of Merthyr. The privileged panicked and, in 1832, the newly-elected Whig prime minister, Grey, was forced to agree an electoral reform bill in an attempt to calm things down. The bill was calculated to split the reform movement right down the middle. It enfranchised just enough of the new industrial bourgeois to get them to join ranks with the government against the proletarian threat.
Indeed, beyond the symbol of the Merthyr red flag, the privileged had some reason to be worried. A whole political movement had suddenly sprang up and it took another two years for the government to suppress it.
Under the influence of radical activists, the new unions were turning to wider objectives. Who were these radicals? Some were union activists like John Doherty, leader of the Lancashire Cotton Spinners and founder of the paper "The Voice of the People", or William Benbow, a Lancashire shoemaker who popularised the idea of a "national holiday" - i.e. a general strike. Others were socialist intellectuals, such as Britain's most famous utopian socialist, Robert Owen. In response to the widespread wave of strikes which went on in 1832-33, these activists sought to go beyond the traditional trade-based unions, and undertook to set up general unions open to all workers. The aim of these general unions was to impose changes on the scale of society as a whole, social changes as well as political ones. Thus Owen's Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, formed in February 1834, argued in its founding document that changes should be achieved «by putting those at the bottom on the top».
No sooner had the Grand National Union been set up than the government went on the offensive. In March, six labourers who had formed a union affiliated to new organisation in Dorset, were chosen to make an example. The "Tolpuddle martyrs", as they became known, were deported to Australia. The Grand National Union's failure to generate the immediate mobilisation which would have been needed caused its prompt collapse. This allowed the government to complete its offensive against the working class with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. By abolishing all forms of outdoor relief and forcing the poor into hard labour in a network of workhouses under the control of the state, this act strove to bring the large masses of the working class under control. And it was the struggle against these conditions which was to lay the basis for the Chartist movement.
The emergence of the Chartists
The Chartist movement was the first mass movement in which the working class played a decisive role, by providing most of its troops as well as its dynamism.
It began in 1836, spreading around four centres - London, Birmingham, Newcastle and Leeds, and Glasgow. It was, from its inception, heterogeneous. While its social base was undoubtedly proletarian, it was led mainly by middle class radicals. The exception was London, where the driving force was the London Workingmen's Association, which excluded all but those from the "industrious classes". William Lovett, a follower of Owen, was its main figure. A ropemaker by trade, he became one of the most prominent leaders of the Chartists and was the author of the Charter. Another London Chartist was Henry Hetherington, a compositor. With Bronterre O'Brien, who became known as the "Chartists' schoolmaster", he published the "Poor Man's Guardian". And to ensure that the poor could afford to buy the paper, it was sold illegally, without paying the obligatory newspaper tax.
In the North, there was Feargus O'Connor, who was linked through his family to the Irish republican revolutionaries of the previous century. He had founded the Great Northern Union, which brought together a number of workingmen's associations around Leeds. It was also from Leeds that he launched his newspaper, the "Northern Star", which became the unofficial voice of the movement. George Julian Harney, who participated in the Chartist movement from beginning to end, joined when he was only 19, inspired by the radical wing of the French Revolution.
There were also a number of odd figures: a Tory, Richard Oastler; a Methodist preacher, James Stephens, who opposed capitalism as disrupting the old order of "altar, throne and cottage"; a number of Liberal MPs who had come into conflict with government policy, like Thomas Attwood, the banker, who founded the Birmingham Political Union and had a bee in his bonnet over currency reform.
What all agreed on, however, were the aims of the Charter - the famous six points: adult male suffrage, annual parliaments, voting by ballot, payment for MPs, equal electoral districts and the abolition of property qualifications for parliament.
The working class troops outflank the middle class leadership
Many among the Chartists had been involved in the agitation against the Poor Laws and for the ten-hour day. Their open air meetings had always attracted huge working class audiences. So did those organised in support of the Charter, like the one on Kersal Moor, near Manchester, which was attended by over two hundred thousand people. All the main figures in the movement tirelessly went round the country organising meetings, disseminating pamphlets and leaflets and adressing crowds in the streets, squares and on commons.
A political split soon developed in the movement over whether to use "moral force" or "physical force", in other words legal and peaceful means or illegal and violent ones. A wing of the leadership of the Chartists, involving O'Connor and young radicals like Harney agreed that physical force would be necessary. The idea of a general strike, in case the Charter was rejected, which was quite popular, went in the same direction. The majority however, along with Lovett, continued to advocate purely legal means of pushing for the Charter - i.e. the orderly petitioning and education of the masses around its demands.
While the intellectuals debated the issue of moral versus physical force, many workers who did 16 to 18-hour days for starvation wages under the constant threat of the workhouse, may have felt that taking arms was probably the only way out of what amounted to slavery. In any case sections of workers were taking the rhetoric of O'Connor at face value, making weapons and organising themselves for military drill. And when the famous petition to parliament, with its more than a million signatures was finally rejected in Spring 1839, certain districts prepared for insurrections, encouraged by Harney and others. In November 1839, in the only attempt at insurrection which actually went ahead, one thousand armed men marched on Newport. But the troops had been informed of their plans and attacked them, leaving 24 dead and over one hundred wounded. As to the idea of responding to the rejection of the Charter with a general strike, it was dropped because many thought that the movement would not be able to face the repression.
The government moved in everywhere with a vengeance to crush the movement, sending troops to occupy towns and launching a wave of repression. 400 ended up in jail or deported, including many of the main leaders, on all kinds of charges from sedition to treason.
The Chartist movement did however re-emerge over the next few years. Now the context was an increasing economic crisis, with many industries pushing down wages. This time workers pre-empted the Chartist leadership, by starting strikes over wages in 1842. They rapidly spread their strike by marching from factory to factory, and town to town, until what amounted to a general strike was taking place over the whole of England's industrial areas. A National Convention took place, bringing together Chartists, trade unionists as well as ordinary workers, to decide on whether the Charter should be the main demand of the strike. This was agreed, but again the question of insurrection and, the general strike being only a prelude to this, was raised. The Chartist leaders were not prepared to take the leadership of such a movement. In the end, the strike - though it carried on for four weeks - petered out, mainly because the strikers were starved back to work.
The lessons of Chartism
In 1846 the Corn Laws were repealed and the following year, the 10-hour Day Bill was passed. This took the petty-bourgeois Anti-Corn Law League out of the Chartist movement and also some of the steam out of the working class.
Chartism drew its third and final breath with the onset of the financial crisis of 1847. It gathered itself together again for a final revival of its demands in 1848, spurred on by the initial success of the workers' revolution in France. This revival culminated in a large meeting on Kennington Common, addressed by O'Connor. But martial law was declared followed by repession once again. This was to be the last breath of Chartism as a mass movement.
There had been, however, a revolutionary dimension to the Chartist movement, despite the nature of its leadership. Indeed, unlike today, class contradictions were at their sharpest, without any veil to obscure them. As Marx pointed out, there was no-one between the millionaires and the slaves. The privileged could not rely, as they do today, on a vast petty-bourgeoisie to support their system. Nor did they have at hand all sorts of bureaucratic institutions to channel and control the energy of the proletariat - a proletariat which, in addition, was not hampered by a huge backlog of setbacks and betrayals. In that context, as Marx wrote in an American paper in 1852, «Universal suffrage is the equivalent for political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat forms the large majority of the population, where in a long, though underground civil war, it has gained a clear consciousness of its position as a class... The carrying of universal suffrage in England would, therefore, be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the continent. Its inevitable result here is the political supremacy of the working class.»
This is why the physical force advocates inside the Chartist movement were undoubtedly the most far-sighted. But they proved incapable of offering the working class a clear perspective and understanding of the situation it had to face. And, when it came to the crunch, the absence of a real proletarian leadership of the movement, capable of heading the workers' battalions, either on to the offensive or in orderly retreat, resulted in devastating and demoralising setbacks.
Just as in the French revolution of 1848, although in a very different context, the absence of such a leadership - that is of a party defending only the political interests of the working class - was the main factor in the movement's final defeat. This was the lesson that Marx was going to generalise and pass on to the next generation of activists.
The First International, a decisive step
Marx became acquainted with the Chartist movement through his contacts with German exiles in London, particularly through his comrades in the Communist League. Harney and the "Fraternal Democrats" group, of which he was a member, had established regular contacts with exiled revolutionaries from Europe, later including the Communist League. Subsequently, after he moved to London, Marx remained in close contact with Harney, Ernest Jones and a few other among the radical Chartists - but only once the movement had already lost any potential. There was a direct link therefore between the Chartists and Marx, and the Communist Manifesto which he wrote in 1848, drew heavily on the lessons of the Chartist movement.
After 1848, however, the retreat of the revolutionary wave in Europe resulted in a long period of repression for the working class, of exile for many socialist activists. Contacts were maintained between countries with difficulty. But the wealth of ideas and experiences produced by 1848 was kept alive. By the early 60s, the fast pace of industrialisation across Europe resulted in the emergence of a new working class movement that was groping for ideas and ways to get out of its own isolation. These circumstances together the international links maintained during the dark years resulted in a new workers' organisation, on an international scale this time, the International Workingmen's Association - or First International as we know it today.
It was launched on 28 September 1864. On this date, a conference was held in London convened by two union leaders in the engineering trade, Odger and Cremer. The political spectrum among the participants was very broad. There were union officials, artisans, Old Chartists, Owenites, anarchists, revolutionaries of all kinds, supporters of the co-operative idea, as well as followers of Mazzini, the Italian revolutionary. The main idea which was common to all the participants was that of working class solidarity.
The conference set up a central commission of representatives from various countries in London and subcommissions were to be created in all the main cities in Europe.
Marx was invited to the next meeting of the central committee and there asked to write the inaugural address. This invitation was not a tribute to his ideas, but rather to his political skills and his well-known emphasis on the interests of the working class. Marx's standpoint on this was that the new organisation would «replace the Socialist and semi-Socialist sects by a real organisation of the working class for struggle». Thus began a long and close cooperation between Marx, the socialist, and many of the most influential leaders of the European working class.
While many trade union leaders did not agree with the political outlook of the International, they saw its use in bringing together trade unionists of different countries, particularly since British employers were at this time trying to import foreign blacklegs to break strikes. On the other hand, the IWA was always too weak to initiate strikes itself. But it was successful in organising solidarity around a number of strikes - like that of the London basket weavers in 1867, where a Belgian member of the IWA Council was able to convince Belgium blacklegs to return home, or Paris bronze workers' strike the same year, or the Tyneside engineers' strike for a 54-hour week. At the same time, members of the IWA played a decisive role in the National Reform League who led the struggle leading to the Second Reform Act of 1867, with huge, and sometimes violent working class rallies and demonstrations. The IWA's success in intervening across Europe in all sorts of political struggles even led the bourgeoisie to overestimate wildly its strength and the threat of communism.
Real success for the IWA, however, eventually came in 1871, with the seizure of power by the Paris proletariat. Many of the leaders of the Paris Commune were members of the IWA, even if the organisation itself had had no actual role in initiating the Commune. More importantly the Commune vindicated the ideas which Marx had spread through the IWA right from the beginning: that the emancipation of the proletariat will be achieved by the proletariat itself; that the vehicle for its emancipation is the seizure of power by the proletariat; and that in order to achieve this the proletariat needs its own political party, fighting for its own political interests.
By that time, in Marx's view, the First International had completed its main task - that of rooting these three main basic principles among large layers of the European working class. At the same time, the IWA's very success was bound to precipitate its end. The International had never been communist and the emergence of the proletarian revolution on the political scene could only result in the withdrawal of some of its core working class members, particularly those trade union leaders who had never dreamed of undermining the existing social order. Finally, due to the wave of repression which was opened by the Paris Commune, it would take some time before the working class and socialist movement could restart afresh on a European scale.
By 1876, the First International had ceased to exist. Thirteen years later, in 1889, the Second International would re-establish afresh this international tradition, but this time on a clearly socialist programme.
The birth pangs of a workers' party
In Britain, the low ebb for the socialist movement lasted longer than anywhere else in Europe. For two decades, the industrial explosion gave the British economy a quasi-monopoly on the world market. Profits went sky-high and the skilled trade unions - and primarily its bureaucratic leadership - grew fat on the crumbs offered by the British bourgeoisie.
Thomas Cooper, who had been a Chartist in his youth, described the situation in terms which ring quite familiar today: «In our old Chartist time, it is true, Lancashire workmen were in rags by their thousands; and many of them often lacked food. You would see them in groups, discussing the great doctrine of political justice.... Now, you will see no groups in Lancashire. But you will hear well-dressed working men talk, with their hands in their pockets, of co-ops, and their shares in them, or in building societies.»
This description, of course, took no account of the large new layer of unskilled workers created by the growth of large-scale industry and transport. The majority of these workers were very low-paid, relying on payment in hand, piece rates and casual work, and were entirely excluded from the existing unions, as well as the electoral franchise. Many of them had come over from Ireland and brought with them a healthy distrust of the British political institutions. This, together with the economic crisis which started at the end of the 1870s, provided a new basis for the re-emergence of socialist ideas, this time away from the grip of petty-bourgeois radicalism and the bureaucratic control of the reformist trade unions and their political allies in the world of parliamentary politics.
The Democratic Federation, founded in 1881, by Henry Hyndman among others, was not initially a socialist body and certainly not one comprised of workers. Hyndman's aim was to bring together the workingmen's radical clubs and the socialist groups in London.
Hyndman's past as a Cambridge-trained barrister with radical Tory sympathies and who never overcame his anti-Semitic and chauvinist prejudices were undoubtedly an obstacle in this organisation which he led in a dictatorial fashion. But despite all this, he had taken to socialism after coming across Marx's Capital and played a part in spreading Marx's ideas amongst the London radicals. However he did not meet with much success in bringing the workers' clubs into his organisation. One notable exception was the Labour Emancipation League, founded out of the Stratford Radical Club, in East London, which adopted a vaguely socialist programme in 1882. They joined Hyndman's organisation in 1884, when it adopted a very similar programme and renamed itself the Social Democratic Federation.
Marx's daughter, Eleanor, and her partner, Edward Aveling had joined the Federation immediately, despite Hyndman's peculiarities, in the hope that the new organisation might help them to penetrate the ranks of the new layers of the working class. Propaganda work was started amongst workers and there was a policy and an ambition to spread the organisation and its influence beyond London. During a strike of weavers in Blackburn Manchester, the SDF intervened and this area was later to become one of their strongholds. In the same period, the SDF also intervened amongst miners and iron workers in the West Midlands, jointly with John Sketchley's Social Democratic Association.
The newspaper "Justice" was started in 1884, and work was begun amongst the increasing numbers of unemployed by the mid 1880's. Despite the split, which saw William Morris, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling leaving the SDF to set up the Socialist League, the work amongst the unemployed and the non-unionised workers in the East End was carried on jointly by activists in both organisations.
Eleanor Marx played a particularly important role. Will Thorne, a Beckton stoker, was trying to build the Gasworkers Union in the East End, a union which was open to unskilled workers of both sexes and the forerunner of today's GMB. From outside, Eleanor Marx undertook, with other activists, to help Will Thorne in this task, including in the running of a victorious strike, and she won enough credit within the union to be co-opted on its executive. Likewise, the huge dock strike of 1889, which at its peak involved up to 100,000 strikers, could probably not have been won without the active involvement of the London socialists who supplied a whole body of experienced agitators, including the engineers John Burns, and Tom Mann, both leading figures in the SDF, who led the strike along with Ben Tillett, who had founded the dockworkers' union two years earlier. It was also these activists who organised the Eight-hour Day League,although by this time most were no longer members of the SDF.
The importance of this day-to-day work in the East End was shown by the Mayday demonstration demanding the eight-hour day in 1890. Engels wrote in a letter to his friend Sorge: «If next Sunday brings together a gigantic demonstration for the Eight-Hour Day we have only Tussy [Eleanor Marx] and Aveling to thank for it. Tussy is on the Council of the Gasworkers and General Labourers' Union as a delegate from her Silvertown women workers and is so popular on that council that she is simply called 'our mother'... This is our first great victory in London and proves that here too, we have the masses behind us. From the Social Democratic Federation, which has two platforms of its own, four strong branches will march with us and are represented on our committee. The whole East End is with us. The masses here are not yet socialist, but on the way towards it, and are already so far that they will not have any but socialist leaders...» The demonstration was indeed huge - with 300,000 demonstrating.
Exasperated with the sectarianism of the SDF and its various splits, Engels declared after this success that: «It is now an immediate question of organising an English Labour Party with and independent class programme. If it is successful, it will relegate to a back seat both the SDF and the Socialist League, and that would be the most satisfactory end to the present squabbles.»
From the ILP to the Labour Party
Engels' hope that a workers' party would emerge seemed as if it would be realised when different socialist groupings came together at a conference in Bradford, presided over by the Scottish socialist Keir Hardy, in 1893. This marked the founding of the Independent Labour Party. 124 delegates representing the various socialist and workers' societies as well as the SDF, its various splits and also the middle class Fabians attended. Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling were also there along with seasoned trade union organisers like Ben Tillet. The initial priority was to get independent working men into parliament. Hardie's ambition was to bring the bulk of the unions on board by getting them to drop their implicit allegiance to the Liberals. The obstacle to this was of course the anti-socialist views of the bureaucracy. This was undoubtedly why the ILP adopted the vaguely socialist aim «to secure the collective ownership of all the means of production, distribution and exchange», but decided not to use the word "socialist".
These limitations need not necessarily have determined the future course of the ILP, despite the misgivings of the SDF who felt the ILP would end up subordinating the cause of socialism to the pursuit of trade union sponsorship. There was an initial enthusiasm so that by 1895, the ILP claimed a membership of 35,000 which was larger than any of the groups could have claimed in the 'eighties. But their first attempts at contesting elections were unsuccessful and by 1900 the membership figures had dropped to as low as 4,000. That said, they had success in getting candidates elected to local councils, Boards of Guardians and School Boards.
The ILP leaders of course had the option of organising workers to fight independently and politicising them, but that would have meant completely alienating the union bureaucracy. They were not prepared to take such a risk. Instead, they chose a sort of shortcut. At the 1899 TUC conference, ILP stalwarts managed to get a resolution passed to establish a Labour Representation Committee. It proposed that «Co-operative, Socialistic, Trade Union, and other working organisations should devise ways and means for securing the return of an increased number of Labour Members to the next Parliament.» Of course to make this course workable, the ILP would have to dilute its socialist views even further. But as some of them said, if only they got the unions on board, «the socialist tail would be strong enough to wag the trade union dog».
The first meeting of the LRC was noteworthy in that a motion «in favour of the working classes being represented in the House of Commons by members of the working class, as being most sympathetic to the aims and demands of the working class» was defeated in favour of one proposed by the engineering union's GN Barnes and John Burns. Burns argued that he was fed up with hearing "working class this" and "working class that", and that the Labour movement should no longer be «prisoners to class-prejudice, but should consider parties and policies apart from class organisation.» This was all the more instructive as John Burns later changed sides completely, becoming a minister in the Liberal Cabinet in 1906.
The first election they could contest was that of 1900 held during the Anglo-Boer War, and due to lack of readiness and funds, the LRC only contested nine seats, and won two. However, the following year something happened which pushed a number of Trade Unions into their arms. That was the Taff Vale Judgement by the House of Lords which ruled that a union could be liable to pay damages to an employer as a result of a strike by its members. For the union bureaucrats, a potential assault on their funds was a bread and butter issue if ever there was one, particularly in a period when membership had fallen dramatically.
As a result, the LRC was able to increase dramatically the number of trade union affiliations and they won 30 seats in the 1906 election. However this was on the basis of an agreement which had been made between the majority of the LRC's Union candidates and the Liberal Party not to stand against each other. But where Socialists had stood for the LRC, they had been faced with Liberals and not one of them was elected. The union bureaucracy was already in control of the LRC and calling the shots while consciously marginalising the socialist contingent. The Lib-Lab alliance was still alive and well. The trade union dog was wagging its socialist tail.
Thus was born what many left activists have called subsequently the first "mass party of the working class" in Britain - organisationally it was independent but politically compromised, and for the time being tied to the Liberal Party. There was no question of it being socialist, even though it had many socialists in its ranks. The Liberals' "social" policies were already starting to tie the union apparatuses into permanent links with the state machinery. And less than ten years later, the Labour party dignitaries would join in with all other politicians to manage the economic machinery of the bourgeoisie during World War I.
Some socialist groups chose to maintain their independence or even broke with the new party. Many of their leading activists were extremely bitter that they had delivered the influence they had built amongst the unskilled sections of the working class into the hands of these bureaucrats who now fostered parliamentary illusions. However the only way that they would have been able to challenge these illusions would have been to return to the painstaking day-to-day organising of workers in order to rebuild credit for themselves and their ideas, so that when the next social crisis hit they would be in a position, as they almost were in 1890, to assert their alternative.
This was not to be. The SDF and other organisations which separated turned into purely propagandistic groups, and they did not even propose to take on such a task. The working class was left in the hands of the Labour Party.
The German revival
The case of Germany is particularly important in that it was, until the Bolsheviks led the Russian proletariat to victory, the most successful attempt by far at building a workers' party.
In fact, the development of the German socialist movement followed a route very different from that in England or France. In England socialists were confronted with the existence of an intrenched trade-union movement which was a significant factor of conservatism. In France, on the other hand, the trade-union movement grew in parallel with the socialist movement, and more or less in competition with it. But in Germany, the socialist movement predated the trade-unions and played a decisive role in building them.
Probably the first German socialist grouping was the Communist League. It originated from a group called the League of the Just, which had split from one of the numerous radical German nationalist groups which existed in exile. When it was formed, in 1837, the ideas of the group came from various origins. Through its leading figure, the tailor Wilhelm Weitling, they were influenced by Lamennais and his religious reformism, as well as by Fourier's and Owen's versions of utopian socialism. At the same time, through its direct contacts with Buonarotti's, the group espoused the revolutionary tradition of Babeuf's Conspiracy of the Equals. This initial confusion was eventually sorted out by a newcomer, by the name of Karl Marx. In 1847, the League changed its name to become the Communist League and, endorsing the new statutes written by Marx, defined its aims as being «the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society, which is based on class contradictions and the creation of a new society, without classes and private property.»
Marx, together with his life-long comrade Friedrich Engels, belonged to a generation of German intellectuals whose ideas had been shaped by the French revolutionary traditions and the fight against absolutism in Germany. They were out to free society from its injustices and, impressed by the deep social changes which were taking place in Britain, they had arrived at the conclusion that the emerging proletariat had the capacity to carry out this task. For Marx, the Communist League, and the circles of craftsmen and artisans that it influenced in Germany, were a first step in that direction.
The 1848 revolution and after
Events were moving fast, however. In February 1848, revolution broke out in Paris, spreading rapidly, once again, to the rest of Europe. In Berlin, thousands of workers and craftsmen rioted, leaving 230 dead but forcing the Prussian regime to make some concessions. Almost simultaneously, insurgents in Vienna forced the resignation of the Austrian chancellor, Metternich. Tens, hundreds of thousands of people were joining the revolutionary fight across Europe. The days of the Communist League were over. The time had come for its members to go back home, put their ideas to the test of history and help the masses to make the best of their revolutionary energy.
New organisations sprang up all over Germany. From the point of view of the socialist activists of the time, probably the most important among them was the Workers' Brotherhood. It was set up in October 1848, following a working class conference convened by the Berlin workers' association. The first issue of the Brotherhood's newspaper defined its orientation in the following terms: «The workers of Germany must strive to become a moral force in the state, a strong organism able to withstand any storm(..) We are not plotting against the existing government, we only want to be given a place in our common fatherland». This was obviously not the manifesto of a revolutionary grouping. But it was unquestionably stressing the need for the working class to establish itself as an independent political force, even if it was only, at that stage, within the existing social and political order. Moreover, as opposed to the fragmented forces of the radical Republican movement, the Brotherhood aimed at establishing itself as a national force, across Germany's divisions.
The revolutionary wave did not last long. Repression followed. Together with the old generation of activists, a new generation shaped by the radicalism of the uprising fled to safer horizons. It seemed as if the pre-1848 period was back with its host of semi-conspiratorial groups. Except that in Germany itself the revolution had left indelible traces. The Workers' Brotherhood managed to survive for another five years. And although most of its local organisations disappeared during the second part of the 1850s, its activists did not and were to be instrumental in the revival of working class politics in the early 60s.
In the aftermath of the revolution, however, the dominant political force was that of radical republicanism. Within its ranks, however, a number of activists had learnt something from their experience in Germany - in particular the cowardice displayed by the bourgeoisie as soon as it felt the strength of the proletariat in the streets. Now, in addition, they discovered the impotence and betrayal of the French radical republicans when the liberal bourgeoisie, having been brought to power by the Paris workers in February, turned against them in June 1848, with a bloody massacre. It was only logical for these activists to turn to Marx and his stand for a political party of the proletariat, independent from the radicalised layers of the petty-bourgeois, and to argue for this programme within the ranks of the radical circles.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the former activists of the Workers' Brotherhood had maintained an activity in various guises, using the loopholes of the tight repressive legislation. Workers' cultural clubs, choirs, sports societies, began to mushroom again. Attempts at setting up workplace organisations were less successful, however. Long before any other European regime, Bismarck had chosen to introduce compulsory state-controlled welfare provisions. This was aimed, among other things, at pre-empting the likely re-emergence of trade-unions under the cover of worker-controlled welfare funds.
The hectic birth of the socialist movement
When the noose of the law began to loosen, in the early 1860s, activists stepped up their efforts. Workers' associations began to spring up while socialist and radical activists were coming back from exile. Soon the idea of the old Workers' Brotherhood re-emerged. In May 1863, a conference called by the Leipzig workers' association launched the General German Workers' Association.
The most influential figure in the new organisation was a brilliant and energetic lawyer, Ferdinand Lassalle, who was well-known in radical circles and had been in contact with Marx in London. However the orientation advocated by Lassalle had very little to do with the Communist Manifesto. While being clearly set up in opposition to bourgeois radical currents, Lassalle's organisation dismissed the workers' fight for better conditions as a waste of time. The party was to aim at influencing the state. The vehicle for social change was to be the state funding of workers' co-operatives, which would slowly take the economy out of the hands of the bourgeoisie. Participation in parliament and general propaganda were to be the main means through which the workers' party would strive to influence the state. Lassalle was therefore emptying the socialist perspective of its revolutionary content, just as he was ignoring the social content of the state, as an instrument of class domination.
Meanwhile, socialist activists who were closer to Marx had been active in the workers' educational leagues originally set up by bourgeois liberals. They saw these leagues as a vehicle to spread their ideas among politicised workers and, in particular, that of the need for the political independence of the working class. In 1866, a first attempt at setting up an independent party was made, with the launching of the People's Party in Saxony. Prominent in the new party were two activists who were to play a leading role in the movement for several decades: Wilhelm Liebknecht, who had taken part in the 1848 revolution as a student before becoming one of Marx's closest associates; and August Bebel, a 26-year old turner who was already a recognised leader in the workers' educational leagues. The following year, with the introduction of the universal franchise, both of them were elected to the Reichstag, thereby showing the support they had built in Saxony.
Three years later, a new socialist party came out of these efforts. In August 1869, the Social Democratic Workers' Party (SADP) was set up at Eisenach, as the German section of the 1st International.
In many ways the new party retained the scars of its bourgeois radical roots and Lasallean links, and it was harshly criticised for this by Marx. Thus for the sake of compromise, it gave a confused endorsement to the cooperative idea; and instead of declaring clearly its aim to be the conquest of political power by the working class, it raised the ambiguous objective of a "people's state". But on the other hand, unlike Lassalle's organisation, it did declare its opposition to the state of the bourgeoisie. Moreover, unlike any other existing party, it was to be primarily a militant organisation, financed by its members' dues rather than by well-off donors. It was to be based on strong and active local organisations. It emphasised the need for democratic relations within its ranks, as well as effective organisation and discipline. Its members had a duty to participate in, or create workers' organisations wherever this was possible. In particular it stressed the importance of building trade unions so that the class struggle could become a political school for the working class. As opposed to the craft unions set up by the Lassalleans, which were mere satellites, the social-democrats argued for industrial unions which would organise democratically all workers regardless of their political beliefs, on a class basis.
A workers' party, based on the defence of the political interest of the working class, that is the socialist programme, had eventually emerged. It was still a small organisation, with only 7,000 members, and a total membership of 10,000 in the unions it influenced, but this was only the beginning of a phenomenal growth.
The Paris Commune of 1871 marked a turning point in Germany just as it did in the entire socialist movement. Already Bismarck's war against Napoleon III had led to an open conflict with the social democrats. The SDAP's organisations had carried out a systematic agitation against the war, particularly after Birsmarck's decision to annex the French province of Alsace-Lorraine. In the Reichstag, Liebknecht and Bebel had voted against the war credits and were rewarded with two months in jail. In 1872, they were again in court for high treason over their opposition to the war and enthusiastic endorsement of the Paris Commune. The sentence was heavier this time - two years in jail. Everywhere the law was coming down against activists and yet, everywhere, the profile of the SDAP was rising with new national trade unions being set up and growing success in elections. Thus, in the 1874 election the total socialist vote doubled to reach 6.4% despite heavy repression during the election campaign.
This was the time chosen by the SDAP leadership to offer a merger to the Lassallean party. In the previous years, Engels had argued against such a merger. Bebel and Liebknecht disregarded this warning. In May 1875, the merger took place in the town of Gotha, resulting in the launch of the German Socialist Workers' Party (SAP) with 24,000 members, while the unions influenced by the new party had a total membership of 60,000.
The new party's programme confirmed Engels' worst fears. It was obscured by an incoherent mixed bag of Lassalle's sectarianism and adaptation to the state, coupled with a host of bourgeois democratic demands. The socialist leaders were not short of so-called "tactical" pretexts to justify these renunciations, but they were renunciations nevertheless. One thing was preserved, however, which probably saved the party from disintegration - the organisational structure of the SDAP which was entirely transferred to the new party.
The test of illegality
Soon, however, the polemics around the merger became outdated. Bismarck was stepping up the repression against socialists. And within three years he was able to get the Reichstag to adopt a series of laws, known as the anti-socialist laws, aimed at totally suppressing socialist activities. The SAP had now to face up to a major and decisive test.
These laws effectively put all socialist-influenced organisations under the direct control of the police which had the right «to attend all sessions and meetings, to call and conduct membership assemblies, to inspect the books, papers and cash assets, (..) to forbid the carrying out of resolutions (..) to transfer to qualified persons the duties of the officers.» For the SAP, the only possible course was to officially disband all its organisations, which it did a few days before the law was passed. No organisation with known links to the SAP was left unaffected. The SAP trade unions were top of the target list, and many of them collapsed or had to disband themselves, only to be followed by the many workers' socialist choirs, theatre groups, etc..
The laws went much further than that, however. All public meetings and publications in which «the overthrow of the existing political and social order are manifested in a manner calculated to endanger public peace» were banned. All publications were to be submitted to censorship. Over 120 regular party publications were closed down as a result, together with twice as many irregular ones. Probably the most drastic measure included in the anti-socialist laws was the introduction of internal exile, which allowed the police to ban any suspect from his job and home town, without any need for a court decision.
Only one right was left to socialists - they could stand openly in elections and run public election campaigns and circulate the speeches of their MPs who retained parliamentary immunity. This was the result of a compromise between Bismarck and the liberal parties in order to win their support for the anti-socialist laws. But in and of itself, this remaining right would have been of no use whatsoever without the devotion of thousands of activists who carried on the activity of the party underground.
Indeed the local structures of the party managed to adapt to underground activity. So-called election committees were sometimes used as legal fronts. Many innocuous and respectable middle-class clubs experienced a sudden inflow of keen new members in that period - socialist activists who quickly turned their new front into a hotbed of revolution until the police closed it down.
Even the national operation of the party was partly preserved thanks to its network of "trusted men" - experienced activists who, since the early 70s, had maintained, in parallel with the party's committees, a permanent and fast channel for information between the leadership and the local organisations. When a new illegal party paper was launched in 1879, in Switzerland, its distribution throughout Germany was successfully carried out using a similar pyramidal network of activists based on 110 "trusted men", each representing a particular region.
Overall, the disbanding of the party's public organisations failed to stop activists from intervening in the day-to-day struggles of the working class. For, despite the repression, the collapse of the national unions and the official banning of strikes in 1886, as "socialist inspired activities", the class struggle carried on and even escalated from 1882 onwards. Behind most strikes were socialist activists and after each one of them, whether a success or a defeat, new recruits came to socialist ideas.
Finally, it was a massive wave of strikes which lasted 15 months from January 1889 onwards, which broke Bismarck's back. 1,130 strikes were recorded for that period, involving 400,000 workers. For the first time, a heavy battalion of 90,000 Ruhr miners, among whom the socialist unions had had little success so far, joined the strike in May that year. A wave of militancy was suddenly threatening to engulf the country. The fears of the bourgeoisie were compounded, the following year, by the totally unexpected success of the socialist candidates in the Reichstag election: not only did the SAP double its score to 1,427,000 votes compared to the previous election three years before, but with almost 20% of the vote it became the largest party in the country. Soon after, Bismarck was forced to resign and the anti-socialist laws were repealed. Not only had the SAP successfully passed the test of 12 years of illegality, but it was came out of this test considerably stronger and already the strongest workers' party of all time.
Heyday and gangrene
The party was relaunched officially in 1890 as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). It became the German section of the Second International, which had been set up the previous year. And in the following two decades, it seemed to be going from strength to strength. Electorally, it trebled its score by 1912, winning 4.2m votes and a third of the seats in the Reichstag. Its membership grew to 982,000 by 1912 while the socialist unions totalled 2.5m members the same year. In addition hundreds of thousands of workers, who were neither union nor party members, were organised in the considerable web of cultural and sporting clubs, youth groups, cooperatives and voluntary associations linked to the party, which organised almost every aspect of social life in the working class areas.
This considerable strength, however, was soon shown to conceal a fundamental and lethal weakness.
Opportunist tendencies were not new in the party. They had been strongly criticised in the formative years by Marx and Engels. Later on, they had re-emerged during the period of illegality.
In 1891, the problem was posed again, in more practical terms this time, by the SPD deputies in regional parliaments. Up to that point, the socialist strategy in parliament had been contained in one slogan: «not a man not a farthing for the system», which meant that socialist MPs never voted for any budget that would tax workers to sustain the state of the bourgeoisie. The decision by deputies in the southern parliaments to enter into voting agreements over provincial budgets under the pretext of winning concessions was a clear break from this tradition. Yet attempts at condemning these moves at subsequent party conferences were systematically stopped without any real debate on these issues, thereby showing that, while the party leadership did not choose to endorse these opportunistic tendencies publicly, they did not want to condemn them either.
By the last years of the century, the opportunist tendencies found a voice in Bernstein who undertook a systematic revision of Marx's ideas to advocate that the party should drop its revolutionary perspective and aim at a progressive evolution towards socialism. Although Bernstein's position was defeated at the SPD conference in 1901, he did win considerable support and was allowed to remain one of the party's main spokesmen.
In 1905, other evidence of the gathering strength of the opportunist current emerged in the context of a new strike wave. 500,000 workers came out on strike on that single year. Among them were the Ruhr miners who staged a spontaneous general strike for the first time. When the Christian unions which were still dominant among them called for a return to work, the miners turned to the socialist unions for leadership only to find them reluctant to take the movement any further. Within a few months, in February 1906, in a secret agreement between the party and union leadership, the central committee agreed to work against the threat of political strikes. By then, opportunism, that is an adaptation to capitalism at the expense of the political interests of the working class, unquestionably dominated the party's leadership.
Finally, this opportunism was to lead the party into the most abject betrayal - along with most of the European parties in the Second International - when, in August 1914, the SPD crossed over to the camp of the bourgeoisie by supporting its war effort in the run up to World War I.
How did this happen? There had been warning signals before. In addition to those already mentioned, there had been statements such as Bebel's own response to an earlier proposal to embark on anti-militarist activities, when he had condemned methods «which might be fatal to the party's affairs, possibly to its very existence». This reflected a strong and widespread fear that the party might be forced underground again.
Indeed, by 1912, the material existence and social status of a very significant layer within the party depended on its legal status. In addition to its 110 deputies in the Reichstag and 231 deputies in the provincial parliaments, the party had 11,000 elected officials sitting in municipal and district councils. Probably over 100,000 members worked in the central and local administration of the workers' insurance institutions, in trade and industrial courts and the municipal labour exchanges. The party and the unions also had several thousand functionaries who enjoyed a certain social status as a result - even if they did not enjoy a material affluence comparable to that of today's Labour MPs or union leaders in Britain. Besides, thousands of intellectuals lived in the shadow of the party organisations, its press, its publishing houses, etc..
This "legalistic" layer within the party was afraid of "rocking the boat", and was tempted to adapt to the pressures of capitalist society as a means to becoming more acceptable and better integrated into the system. The past opportunistic tendencies had expressed the aspirations of this layer. But at the same time, they had also expressed the conservatism of the better-off layers of the working class and petty bourgeoisie around the party, which sought to preserve their relative well-being. When it came to the crunch the coincidence of these external and internal pressures crushed the movement.
From Germany to Russia
Catastrophic as it was, the betrayal and total collapse of the 2nd International, and particularly that of the German socialist movement, did not result in a prolonged period of political retreat. The decades of efforts invested in the 2nd International were not sterile. It had been able to attract valuable individuals and to train in its ranks competent activists. Long before it collapsed, there was already a current within the its ranks which, through its struggle against the opportunist tendencies, had acquired an understanding of the failings of the movement. This current was eventually able to take over the revolutionary flag from where the old leadership of the 2nd International had dropped it but not before the return of the working class to the political scene, this time in Russia, in 1917.
This revolutionary opposition existed in most European countries. But it was really in Russia that the banner of revolutionary socialism was effectively raised again after August 1914, by Lenin and his Bolshevik faction within the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party. Instead of the disorganised and divided revolutionary opposition which was emerging slowly in Germany, the Bolsheviks had a real party, one which had moreover been steeled by a ruthless fight against opportunism, years of underground activity and, above all, the experience of the 1905 revolution.
Using the experience of his own party, Lenin drew the following lessons from the collapse of the 2nd International: «There is only one conclusion a socialist can draw, namely that pure legalism, the legalism-and-nothing-but-legalism of the "European" parties, is now obsolete and, as a result of the development of capitalism in the pre-imperialist stage, has become the foundation for a bourgeois labour policy. It must be augmented by the creation of an illegal basis, and illegal organisation, illegal Social-Democratic work, without however, surrendering a single legal position. Experience will show how this is to be done, if only the desire to take this road exists, as well as a realisation that it is necessary. In 1912-14, the revolutionary Social-Democrats of Russia proved that this problem can be solved.»
More convincing than any statement, the success of the Bolsheviks policy in leading the Russian working class on the road to power, between February and October 1917, proved to millions of workers across the world, the validity of the Bolsheviks' conception. This provided the basis for the rebuilding of a proletarian socialist movement, under the banner of the Third International, on a scale never achieved before.
But it must stressed that this process was by no means any more spontaneous or automatic than the previous attempts. It took over twenty-five years of conscious and obscure efforts by the activists who built the Bolshevik party itself. Then it took the deliberate policies of this party to lead the Russian working class through the ambushes set for it by the bourgeoisie on the way to power. But even after the total victory of the revolution, it took a complex policy by the Bolsheviks themselves to build the Third International into the embryo of a real worldwide revolutionary party of the proletariat. While the task of building the new communist parties outside Russia took the total commitment and devotion of tens of thousands of activists across the world, workers and intellectuals who sacrificed the relative comfort of the old reformist parties, and in many cases their freedom or their lives, in order to raise the flag of the proletariat in their own countries.
The tasks of revolutionaries today
The Third International was stopped in its tracks, and destroyed by Stalinist reaction. Isolated and demoralised when the revolutionary wave ended in Europe, decimated by a bloody civil war, the Russian proletariat was unable to prevent its revolution from being hijacked by a caste of bureaucrats produced by the backwardness of the Russian economy. In less than a decade, the Third International had ceased to be, even potentially, a revolutionary factor.
The task of transmitting the traditions of the revolutionary movement was left to a tiny and scattered minority of activists worldwide, who rallied behind Trotsky's call for a new International, on the basis of the political capital left by the Bolsheviks and the Russian revolution. Despite their isolation and the ruthless gangsterism used against them by Stalin, these activists chose the most difficult road, when the vast majority of their contemporaries, particularly among the intellectuals who had the same knowledge of Stalin's policies, chose to look the other way. Today's revolutionary current owes its very existence to the courageous fight waged by Trotsky and his supporters in the 1930s.
Eighty years after the Russian revolution, nearly 50 years after Trotsky's murder by Stalin's agents, it is a fact that very little has been achieved so far in terms of rebuilding a proletarian movement.
With the short-lived exception of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, the working class has been absent from the political scene for over half-a-century. But this, as history shows, never lasts forever. The very logic of the capitalist system cannot but push the working class into motion again. We have seen this logic developing itself over the past two decades or so. Weakened by the economic crisis and paralysed by the bureaucratic machineries of its traditional organisations, the working class has been unable to oppose the attacks of the bourgeoisie. But the capitalists never know where to stop, and even if they did, the laws of competition would prevent them from doing so. The more ground they gain, the more they want and the closer this brings the time when this onslaught on the living conditions of the working class will trigger a reaction on its part. When and how? We do not know. Neither can we, the revolutionary current as a whole, nor anyone else for that matter, have any real influence on this. But as to the fact that it will happen, there cannot be the slightest doubt.
Then, the working class, if it is to make the best use of its renewed energy, will need a party of its own, capable of leading it in the class war against the capitalists. But the bourgeoisie learns from history too. It was the colossal growth of the German SPD, at the turn of the century, which created the traditions and consciousness that the German bourgeoisie was unable to break after World War I, until it chose to resort to fascism. Today, the bourgeoisie knows that they can no longer afford to allow such mass workers' parties to exist without putting their own existence at risk. And behind the veil of a reassuring "democracy", they are constantly developing repressive weapons to deal with such a risk. Lenin's 1915 statement on the need for the workers' party to be ready at any time for illegality, remains therefore entirely valid. But so does the tireless fight he and Engels waged against opportunism and the watering down of the communist programme. Whatever its shape, the future workers' party will have to be firmly based on this programme. And it will have to prepare the revolutionary future by taking the initiative and leading the fights of the working class, so that the class struggle becomes again a school of communism.
The only question therefore, is whether the graft of the revolutionary programme on to this revived working class movement will take, and produce this workers' party, that is, this revolutionary proletarian party capable of leading the working class on the road to transforming society.
Whether this happens or not, is entirely up to today's revolutionary activists. This future movement will need people like Harney, Eleanor Marx, Bebel and Liebknecht, not to mention Karl Marx, Engels and Lenin themselves. It will need revolutionary workers and intellectuals to have made the conscious choice of devoting all their abilities, their energy and their pride, to the task of rooting the communist programme in the ranks of the working class, so that it can become a weapon in its hands in due time. This is a hard and obscure task, and almost certainly a dangerous one too. But it is the only choice which is consistent with the realisation that the capitalist system cannot be allowed to carry on with its present moral and physical destruction of human society.
Today's revolutionary current may be weak. But there are enough activists to undertake this task with some chance of success, provided they put in it the determination and commitment that it requires, without allowing themselves to be distracted by the fashions and waverings of the petty-bourgeoisie and other social layers who are fundamentally hostile to the working class. In any case, history proves that there is no other way.