Tony Cliff

Revolution and counter-revolution: lessons for Indonesia

(September 1998)

From International Socialism 80, September 1998.
Downloaded from the Marxism Page with thanks.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The outbreak of the revolution in Indonesia raises a number of crucial theoretical questions. What are the preconditions for a victorious conclusion to the revolution? In the balance between revolution and counter-revolution, what determines which will triumph? What is the relation between the revolutionary party and the working class? What role does the revolutionary party play in the trade unions? What attitude should the working class take towards the capitalist class and the bourgeois intelligentsia? This article seeks to bring the experience of the Marxist tradition to bear on these crucial questions.


Preconditions for a victorious outcome of the revolution

As Lenin repeatedly stated, we live in the epoch of wars and revolutions. History has proved him right. During the present century more than 100 wars, large and small, have broken out. To mention but a few, chosen at random: the First and Second World Wars, Japan’s aggression against China, Italy’s war on Abyssinia, the eight year war between Iran and Iraq, US imperialism’s attacks on Iraq and Vietnam, the three Arab-Israeli wars, the two India-Pakistan wars, the Falklands War. But many revolutions have also taken place. Again, to mention only some of them: the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, Germany 1918-1923, Spain 1936, Hungary in 1919 and 1956, China 1925–1927, the Portuguese Revolution of 1974, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979.

What is the nature of a workers’ revolution? It is when the mass of workers break from the routine of being victims and passive objects of oppression and exploitation and enter the arena of history, striving to achieve their freedom and shape their destiny. The revolution is not a one day affair. The workers, with new emotions and ideas, still carry with them the baggage of the past. In Marx’s words, ‘The tradition of dead generations hangs like a nightmare on the mind of the living.’ The contradiction at the heart of the revolution is between the new and the old, and only through a very difficult and rigorous process can this contradiction be overcome.

Let us look at some examples, the first being the Russian Revolution of 1917. On 18 February 1917 workers in the largest factory in Petrograd, the Putilov factory where 30,000 workers worked, went on strike demanding a 50 percent wage rise. Bread riots broke out because of the food scarcity. Bakeries and foodstores were stormed, a scene repeated again and again in the following days:

On 23 February at 9 a.m. the workers of the plants and factories of Vyborg district went on strike in protest against the shortage of black bread in bakeries and groceries; the strike spread to some plants located in the Petrograd, Rozhdestvenskii, and Liteinyi districts, and in the course of the day 50 industrial enterprises ceased working, with 87,534 men going on strike.

The following day the workers’ movement had not abated. Thus a memorandum from the secret police, the Okhrana, compiled later in the evening of 24 February, stated:

The strike of the workers which took place yesterday in connection with the shortage of bread continued today; in the course of the day 131 enterprises with 158,583 workers shut down.”

Next day, on 25 February, the Okhrana report expressed even greater alarm, pointing out that troops, and even Cossacks, were not ready to suppress the workers. On 26 February, for the first time, there appears in an Okhrana report a direct description of a soldiers’ mutiny.

According to N.N. Sukhanov, an honest eyewitness and excellent chronicler of the revolution, some 25,000 soldiers had left their barracks to mingle with the crowd while the rest of the garrison – altogether 160,000 strong – were not prepared to actually suppress the workers. According to another source as many as 70,000 soldiers joined the 385,000 workers on strike on 27 February.

28 February brought the final collapse of the Tsarist forces: the last remaining “loyal” troops surrendered; the fortress of Peter and Paul capitulated without firing a single shot; and the Tsar’s ministers were either arrested or else surrendered to the new authorities.

The revolution was completely spontaneous and unplanned. As Trotsky correctly states: “No one, positively no one – we can assert this categorically upon the basis of all the data – then thought that 23 February was to mark the beginning of a decisive drive against absolutism.”

Sukhanov observes: “Not one party was preparing for the great upheaval.”

Similarly a former director of the Okhrana stated that the revolution was “a purely spontaneous phenomenon, and not at all the fruit of party agitation”. [1]

A new political power rose in Petrograd: the soviet. As a matter of fact it was the renewal of an institution that was born in the 1905 Revolution. It was made up of delegates of all workers in the factories on strike, but it went beyond being a unified strike committee. In 1906 Lenin, in retrospect, said the following about the soviet:

Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are organs of direct mass struggle. They originated as organs of the strike struggle. By force of circumstances they very quickly became the organs of the general revolutionary struggle against the government. The course of events and the transition from a strike to an uprising irresistibly transformed them into organs of an uprising.

The February 1917 Revolution created an exciting new situation: the Tsar abdicated; centuries of the monarchy ended. The police were disbanded. In every factory workers’ committees were established. In many army units soldiers’ committees came into being. Soviets of workers and soldiers arose everywhere. Already during the 1905 Revolution Trotsky, Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, could write of these institutions:

The soviet really was a workers’ government in embryo ... The soviet was, from the start, the organisation of the proletariat, and its aim was the struggle for revolutionary power ... With the soviet we have the first appearance of democratic power in modern Russian history ... It constitutes authentic democracy, without a lower and an upper chamber, without a professional bureaucracy, but with the voters’ right to recall their deputies at any moment. Through its members – deputies directly elected by the workers – the soviet exercises direct leadership over all social manifestations of the proletariat as a whole and of its individual groups, organises its actions and provides them with a slogan and a banner. [2]

But, after the revolution in February 1917, parallel to the soviets, the old institutions continued. In the factories the old owners and the old managers continued to hold to their positions. In the army the generals were still in command: the Commander in Chief of the army was General Kornilov who was appointed by the Tsar. Parallel to soviet power was a bourgeois government headed by a liberal politician from Tsarist times. This situation, which Lenin and Trotsky called ‘dual power’, was full of contradictions.

Notwithstanding the nature of the soviet as outlined by Trotsky above, its leaders begged the bourgeoisie to retain power. The majority of the soviet delegates were right wing socialists, Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. Out of 1,500 to 1,600 delegates only 40 were Bolsheviks. This was not an accident. It was the inevitable outcome of a situation in which millions of people moved to the left but still carried a lot of the ideological baggage of a Tsarist past. For millions who had hitherto supported the Tsar and the war, a move to the left did not mean straight away joining the most extreme of the parties, the Bolsheviks. The strong man of the Mensheviks, I.G. Tseretelli, who became Minister of the Interior in the bourgeois Provisional Government, explained the necessity of a compromise with the bourgeoisie: ‘There can be no other road for the revolution. It’s true that we have all the power, and that the government would go if we lifted a finger, but that would mean disaster for the revolution.’

In a pamphlet entitled The Tasks of the Proletariat in our Revolution, Lenin wrote the following on dual power:

This dual power is evident in the existence of two governments: one is the main, the real, the actual government of the bourgeoisie, the “Provisional Government” of Lvov and Co., which holds in its hands all the organs of power; the other is a supplementary and parallel government, a “controlling” government in the shape of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which holds no organs of state power, but directly rests on the support of an obvious and indisputable majority of the people, on the armed workers and soldiers.

This unstable set-up could not last long:

The dual power merely expresses a transitional phase in the revolution’s development, when it has gone farther than the ordinary bourgeois democratic revolution, but has not yet reached a “pure” dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.

It was only after days, weeks and months of stormy events that the Bolsheviks managed to win over the majority of workers. On 9 September the Petrograd Soviet went over to Bolshevism and Trotsky was elected as its president. On the same day the Bolsheviks won the majority of the Moscow Soviet. From this point it was only a small stride towards the attainment of workers’ power on 7 November 1917.

The May 1968 events in France tell a completely different story with a different outcome. France in May–June 1968 was in a deep social and political crisis. On the night of 10–11 May bloody clashes took place in the Latin quarter of Paris between revolutionary students and the riot police, the CRS. Thousands of young workers joined the students. The next day the CGT, the main trade union federation, called for a protest demonstration. One million people turned up to the demonstration. The unions called for a one day general strike on 13 May and 10 million came out, four times more than the number of workers organised in trade unions. The whole country was paralysed. The CGT and Communist Party leaders hoped that the one day strike and demonstration would serve as an effective safety valve – that this would be the end of the struggle. But they did not reckon with the rank and file, who entered the arena on their own account.

On 14 May the workers of Sud Aviation in Nantes declared an unlimited strike. They occupied the factory and imprisoned the manager in his office. L’Humanité, the Communist Party newspaper, tried to ignore the event giving it only seven lines on page 9. The next day the strike and occupation movement spread to all Renault factories. In their footsteps all the engineering factories, the car and aeroplane plants, went on strike and were occupied by the workers. On 19 May the trams stopped along with mail and telegraph services. The subway and bus services in Paris followed suit. The strike hit the mines, shipping, Air France and so on.

On 20 May the strike became a general strike. Some 10 million workers were now on strike. People who had never struck before were involved – Folies Bergère dancers, soccer players, journalists, saleswomen, technicians. Red flags fluttered from all places of work. Not a tricolour was to be seen, notwithstanding the statement of the CGT and CP leaders that, “Our banner is both the tricolour and the Red Flag”. [3]

All this was very new, representing the future, but the old, “the tradition of the dead generations”, was still hanging on. It is true that 1 million people demonstrated in Paris on 15 May. This was new. But the union bureaucracy, frightened of the thought that the revolutionary students would mingle with the workers, insisted on separating the two groups by creating a cordon of 20,000 stewards holding arms to separate them. It is true that 10 million workers went on strike ... but the strike committees were not elected but appointed by the trade union bureaucracy. It is true that millions of workers occupied the factories ... but right from the beginning of the occupations the union bureaucracy insisted that only a small minority of the workers should stay in the factories while the majority were sent home. If all the workers had remained in the occupation the strike would have been active. Now it was passive.

Tragically there was not in existence a large revolutionary organisation that could overcome the bureaucracy. In Russia in March 1917 the Bolshevik Party had 23,600 members and this number increased by August to 250,000. The French industrial working class was significantly larger than the Russian working class in 1917. Had there existed a revolutionary organisation of some tens of thousands, it could have argued that the workers’ contingents in the demonstration should not be separated from the students. It could have called for democratic elections of strike committees and could have convinced the millions occupying the factories to remain inside the factories, creating a collective force many times stronger than when these same workers were simply an aggregation of individuals. Alas, the total number of revolutionaries in France could be counted in hundreds.

Therefore, it was not long before the government got the unions to agree to a compromise with the employers on a wage rise. The occupation of the factories ended, the strike was called off, and the ground was prepared for the return of the president, General de Gaulle. When the factories were occupied de Gaulle was so demoralised that he had flown out of the country to find refuge with the French troops in West Germany. But now he came back to rule once more. On 30 May a right wing demonstration of half a million people took place in Paris. The police seized back the TV and radio stations, threw out occupying workers, attacked any continuing demonstrations and even killed two workers and a school student. Again and again during 1968 the revolutionary potential, which could have gone so far, stopped well short of victory. And this has been the pattern in other revolutions.

In November 1918 the revolution in Germany got rid of the Kaiser and brought the First World War to an end. Alas, big employers like Krupps and Thyssen remained along with the generals and the reactionary army officers who set up right wing units called Freikorps. As in Russia, dual power prevailed in Germany, for side by side with parliament were the workers’ councils. Under the umbrella of the Social Democratic government, Freikorps officers murdered revolutionary leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The revolutionary events continued with ups and downs until 1923, but they ended with the victory of capitalism. The Nazi movement was born in 1919. In 1923 it organised a “failed” coup in Bavaria, but it was waiting in the wings. This was another lost opportunity for workers and they would pay for it dearly when Hitler came to power.

France in the 1930s saw a massive rise of working class struggle which started in February 1934 and culminated in 1936 in a decisive victory of the Popular Front – an alliance of the Communist Party, Socialist Party and Liberals (who were mistakenly called Radical Socialists – they were neither radical nor socialist). Millions of workers said to themselves, “Now we own the government, let’s take over the factories.” And in June 1936 a wave of factory occupations took place. The leaders of the Communist Party and Socialist Party, however, led a retreat following a compromise with the employers. After this the CP was thrown out of the Popular Front. It was the Radical Socialist Daladier who signed the Munich agreement with Hitler in 1938, and it was the same parliament elected in the great Popular Front victory of 1936 which voted support for Marshal Pétain, head of the Vichy regime which collaborated with the Nazis from 1940 onwards.

The Middle East is another area which has seen great upheavals which shook the establishment but failed to win a fundamental breakthrough. In Iraq, King Feisal was overthrown in 1951 by a mass movement. The Communist Party of Iraq was a very strong party, indeed the strongest CP in the Arab world. It entered into an alliance with the bourgeois nationalist party, the Ba’ath. The Communist Party, under Stalinist control, believed that the coming revolution would be a democratic one, which demanded an alliance between the working class and the bourgeois parties. Such an alliance means in practice the subordination of the former to the latter. The Communist Party members and the workers paid a heavy price for this alliance. The Ba’ath, headed by General Saddam Hussein, with the aid of the CIA, carried out a mass slaughter of Communists.

In Iran a general strike led to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Shoras (workers’ councils) mushroomed throughout the country. Tragically the leadership of these shoras, largely the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party and the Fedayeen, saw the revolution as a bourgeois democratic revolution instead of a proletarian one, and so gave support to the establishment of the Islamic republic. Ayatollah Khomeini thus came to power without showing any gratitude to the Tudeh or Fedayeen, and the left was subjected to bloody repression.

All the above events completely confirm the prophetic words of St Just, a leader of the French Revolution of 1789: “Those who half make a revolution dig their own grave.” To complete the revolution and bring it to full victory, the proletariat has to be led by a revolutionary party. The working class, not the party, makes the revolution, but the party guides the working class. As Trotsky aptly wrote:

Without a guiding organisation the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam. [4]

The difference between success and failure, between Russia in October 1917 and all these other examples, was that in the former case there was a mass revolutionary party providing effective leadership. While socialists cannot determine the moment when the revolutionary crisis breaks, they do determine the eventual outcome by the degree to which they build a strong revolutionary party.



The revolutionary party and the working class

The heart of Marxism is that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class. The Communist Manifesto states:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.

At the same time the Manifesto also stresses: “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” There is a contradiction between the two statements. But the contradiction is not in Marx and Engels’ heads. It exists in reality. If only one of the statements were correct, the victory of the working class would either be inevitable or impossible. If the workers were not imbued with capitalist ideas – selfishness, apathy towards other workers, racism, sexism, etc – socialism would be inevitable. It would come into being even if revolutionaries did not lift a finger. If workers completely accepted the ideas of the ruling classs, socialism would be impossible and this would remain so forever. The balance between the two factors – self activity of the working class and subordination to ruling class ideas – is not static. It changes all the time. Sometimes the changes can be slow and imperceptible over a long period, but then they can change dramatically in a very short time.

The sharpening of the class struggle which leads to increasing confidence among workers undermines the hold of bourgeois ideas. Conversely, a downturn in workers’ combativity following serious, continuous defeats, or mass unemployment over a long period (that erodes the self confidence of the workers), makes them more ready to imbibe reactionary ideas.

However, a change in the balance between the two factors does not depend only on what happens in the workplace, on the economic front. Engels wrote that the class struggle takes place in three fields: the economic, the political and the ideological. The three fields are of course interconnected, with the economic serving as the base and the political and ideological as the superstructure. But workers’ combativity can rise, and even explode, not only because they are victorious in a struggle over wages or against sackings, but also because of events in the political field.

The Russian Revolution of February 1917 was not the result of a big rise in strikes, but was a direct reaction to the war. Four million Russian soldiers had perished. Hunger stalked the country. The riots and demonstrations in Petrograd at the beginning of February ignited the revolution, but these events had very little connection with a rise in the level of the industrial struggle.

The balance between the two factors – the new thinking that grows out of self activity of workers and the burden of capitalist ideas – does not alter only with changes in the general situation, but also affects different workers differently. One can say that in any given situation one section of workers completely accept bourgeois ideas – these are the conservative workers. Another section completely rejects bourgeois ideas – they are the revolutionary workers. Those two groups are represented by two separate parties – a conservative party and a revolutionary workers’ party. Between these two there is another group of workers on whom a third type of workers’ party is based – the reformist party. One example of such a party is the British Labour Party. In a speech to the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, Lenin defined the Labour Party as a “capitalist workers’ party”. He called it capitalist because its politics did not break with capitalism. Why did he call it a workers’ party? It is not because the workers voted for it. At that time more workers voted for the Conservative Party and this party was purely a capitalist party. Lenin called the Labour Party a workers’ party because it reflected the urge of workers to defend themselves against capitalism.

Of course this is a very rough classification. Between the revolutionary parties and the reformist parties there can also be another kind of party – the centrist party. Its main characteristic is fudge and vacillation. It is neither one thing nor another. A centrist party sometimes moves from the right to the left, or from the left to the right. And the same centrist party can change direction over a very short space of time. The centrist party is like a chameleon, changing its colour but never remaining consistent.

A great danger for a revolutionary party is that it adapts itself to the centrists while in turn the centrist party tail-ends the reformists and the latter tail-ends the capitalist party. To give just one example: during the general strike of 1926 in Britain the leadership of the Communist Party softened and adapted their key policies, hoping by this method to attract the centrist trade union leaders. As a result they tail-ended the likes of A.J. Cook, George Hicks and Alfred Purcell, the left leaders of the general council of the TUC. For their part Cook, Hicks and Purcell tail-ended the right wing leadership of the TUC – Jimmy Thomas, Arthur Pugh and Ben Turner. These three followed the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the Labour Party, and ended up effectively supporting the policy of Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative prime minister of the day. The Communist Party’s adaptation to the centrists led finally to a terrible defeat of the British working class. A revolutionary party facing vacillating centrist leaders must demonstrate clarity and steadfastness; one has to be firm to steady the unsteady.

History is made by the working class and so the revolutionary party must avoid two dangers: the first is substitutionism, believing that the party can act for the class; the second is opportunism, adapting itself to views prevailing in the class. To give an example: a revolutionary can stand on a picket line, and find next to them a worker who makes racist comments. The revolutionary can do one of three things: say, “I’m not standing with a racist on a picket line. I’m going home.” That is sectarianism, because if the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class, one must side with the workers against the employers, however backward the individual worker. Another possibility is to avoid facing up to racism. When the worker makes a racist comment, one can pretend one hasn’t heard, and say, “The weather’s quite nice today, isn’t it?” This is opportunism. A third possibility is to argue with this person against racism. If they are convinced, excellent, if not, still, when the strike breakers come, one links arms, because the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class. A revolutionary cannot afford either substitutionism or tail-ending the workers.

A successful revolution also depends on the revolutionary party acting as the university of the working class. The situation of the working class vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie is radically different to the position of the early bourgeoisie when it was in rebellion against the feudal lords. The capitalists, even when their class was very young, were intellectually independent of the nobility. It is true the capitalists had to overthrow the nobility, as the working class today has to overthrow the capitalists. But the working class lacks the advantages enjoyed by the bourgeoisie when it sought to make a revolution. Its enemy, the nobility, did not own all the wealth as do the capitalists today. As a matter of fact, the nobility were not as rich as the capitalists. The capitalist could turn round to the nobility and say, “All right, you own the land, but we own money, we own the banks. When you go bankrupt how do you try to save yourself? You try to mix your blue blood with my gold. You try to marry my daughter.” When it came to the intellectual battle, the capitalist could turn round and say, “Alright, you have the church, but we have the university, you have priests but we have professors; you have the Bible, but we have the encyclopaedia. Come on, move over.”

The capitalists influenced the nobility much more than the nobility influenced the capitalists. The French Revolution started with a meeting of Estates General (the Three Estates – the nobility, the priesthood and the middle classes). When it came to the vote many nobles and priests voted with the capitalists, not the other way round. Is the position of the workers today vis-à-vis the capitalists similar to this? Of course not. The workers cannot turn round to the capitalists and say, “All right, you own Fords, General Motors, ICI, etc. We own ...” In terms of ideas there are hardly any capitalists influenced by the socialist press, while there are millions of workers influenced by capitalist propaganda.

When we say that the revolutionary party is the university of the working class, it means we have to learn from the historical and international experience of the working class, both its triumphs as well as its defeats. The revolutionary party must be the memory of the working class. Thus in looking at Indonesia today one must also bear in mind the experience of the first workers’ government in the world, the Paris Commune of 1871, where workers held power for 74 days. We have to learn from the 1905 Revolution, and even more so from the victory of the October Revolution. At the same time we have to learn from the defeat of the German Revolution of 1918-1923; from the defeat of the general strike in Britain in 1926; from the murder by Stalin of all the leaders of the Bolshevik Party after Lenin’s death, his annihilation of the soviets, and his replacement of the proletarian regime which stood for the beginning of socialism with a state capitalist order. One has to learn from the 1933 catastrophe in Germany, when the strongest, best organised workers’ movement in the world capitulated to the Nazis without a fight, because it was led by two parties one of which was a right wing reformist party and the other a Stalinist party. One has to learn why in China society has developed in such a way that there are at the top a massive number of millionaires, while at the bottom there are hundreds of millions who live in abject poverty.

To give confidence to workers’ struggle, the revolutionary party must have theoretical clarity. Its converse, theoretical scepticism, is incompatible with revolutionary action. As Lenin said, “The important thing is to be confident that the path chosen is the right one, this confidence multiplying a hundredfold revolutionary energy and revolutionary enthusiasm, which can perform miracles.” [5] Without understanding the laws of historical development, one cannot maintain a persistent struggle. During the years of toil and disappointment, isolation and suffering, revolutionaries cannot survive without the conviction that their actions fit the requirements of historical advance. In order not to get lost on the twists and turns of the long road, one must stand firm ideologically. Theoretical scepticism and revolutionary relentlessness are not compatible. Lenin’s strength was that he always related theory to the processes of human development. He judged the importance of every theoretical notion in relation to practical needs. Likewise he tested every practical step for its fit with Marxist theory. He combined theory and practice to perfection.

Lenin believed in improvisation. But in order for this not to degenerate into simply the shifting impressions of the day, it had to be blended into a general perspective based on well thought out theory. Practice without theory must lead to uncertainty and errors. On the other hand, to study Marxism apart from the struggle is to divorce it from its mainspring – action – and to create useless bookworms. Practice is clarified by revolutionary theory, and theory is verified by practice. The Marxist traditions are assimilated in the minds and blood of women and men only by struggle.



Building a revolutionary party

By far the greatest Marxist in his understanding of the role of the revolutionary party and its activity was Lenin. His experience in building the Bolshevik Party from 1903 onwards is very instructive. The embryo of the revolutionary party is the discussion group, the study circle. This is a necessary stage in the “primitive accumulation of cadres”. But it is only a stage. The circle mentality has serious weaknesses. It is amateurish and can become an impediment to the development of a revolutionary party proper.

In 1902 in a brilliant pamphlet entitled What is to be Done? Lenin argued that the Russian revolutionaries had to put an end to the circle mentality. The revolutionaries, he argued, had to build a centralised, all-Russian organisation. To achieve this they had first of all to fight against what he called Kustarichestvo – a primitive “handicraft method of organisation”. They had to establish a strong organisation made up of professional revolutionaries; this was especially needed under the illegal, harsh conditions of Tsarism. But to prevent the organisation becoming a sect it had to establish strong ties with workers and their struggles. The key to this is the party paper. The paper must serve as a weapon for building a centralised all-Russian organisation. In an article called Where to Begin he wrote that “the role of a newspaper” should not be:

... limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser. In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour. With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organisation will naturally take shape that will engage, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow political events carefully, appraise their significance and their effect on the various strata of the population, and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence those events. The mere technical task of regularly supplying the newspaper with copy and of promoting regular distribution will necessitate a network of local agents of the united party, who will maintain constant contact with one another, know the general state of affairs, get accustomed to performing regularly their detailed functions in the all-Russian work, and test their strength in the organisation of various revolutionary actions.

This network of agents will form the skeleton of precisely the kind of organisation we need – one that is sufficiently broad and many-sided to effect a strict and detailed division of labour; sufficiently well tempered to be able to conduct steadily its own work under any circumstances, at all “sudden turns”, and in face of all contingencies; sufficiently flexible to be able, on the one hand, to avoid an open battle against an overwhelming enemy, when the enemy has concentrated all his forces at one spot, and yet, on the other, to take advantage of his unwieldiness and to attack him when and where he least expects it. [6]

The party paper is the organiser of the party.

But with the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution Lenin changed his argument: the party should not be made up of professional revolutionaries but be based on mass recruitment. In the spring of 1905, at the Russian party congress, Lenin proposed a resolution urging the party to open its gates wide to workers, who should be brought forward to take a leading role in it. The party should:

... make every effort to strengthen the ties between the party and the masses of the working class by raising still wider sections of proletarians and semi-proletarians to full [revolutionary socialist] consciousness, by developing their revolutionary ... activity, by seeing to it that the greatest possible number of workers capable of leading the movement and the party organisations be advanced from among the mass of the working class to membership of the local centres and of the all-party centre through the creation of a maximum number of working class organisations adhering to our party, by seeing to it that working class organisations unwilling or unable to enter the party should at least be associated with it. [7]

In an article called The Reorganisation of the Party, written in November 1905, Lenin says bluntly, “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously” revolutionary socialist. [8] As a result of this reorientation the party membership exploded. While in 1903 the membership was counted in hundreds, in October 1906 the Bolshevik Party had some 33,000 members. [9] Without Lenin’s understanding that the development of the party requires very different tactics and forms of organisation tailored according to the size of the organisation, the composition of its membership, and the tasks required of it by the balance of forces in the wider society, such growth would not have been possible.



The revolutionary party and the trade unions

Revolutionaries are involved in every aspect of workers’ struggle. Hence they are deeply involved in the struggle of the trade unions. The reformists regard the working class movement as split into different, separate compartments: economic struggle, that is the task of the trade unions; politics, i.e. participation in parliamentary and local government elections, is the concern of the reformist parties. Against this the Marxist looks at the working class as a totality, as a class that uses two arms in the struggle – the economic and the political.

In general the dichotomy between economic and political struggle is foreign to Marx. An economic demand, if it is sectional, is defined as “economic” in Marx’s terms. But if the same demand is made of the state it is “political”:

The attempt in a particular factory or even in a particular trade to force a shorter working day out of individual capitalists by strikes, etc, is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force through an eight-hour, etc., law, is a political movement, that is to say, a movement of the class, with the object of enforcing its interests in a general form, in a form possessing general, socially coercive force ... every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and tries to coerce them by pressure from without is a political movement. [10]

In many cases economic (sectional) struggles do not give rise to political (class wide) struggles, but there is no absolute separation between the two, and many economic struggles do spill over into political ones. The experience of Russia in 1905, with mass strikes acting as the motor of revolution, gave new depth to the understanding of the close connection between the economic and political struggles. Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that in a revolutionary period the economic struggle grows into a political one, and vice versa:

The movement does not go only in one direction, from an economic to a political struggle, but also in the opposite direction. Every important political mass action, after reaching its peak, results in a series of economic mass strikes. And this rule applies not only to the individual mass strike, but to the revolution as a whole. With the spread, clarification and intensification of the political struggle not only does the economic struggle not recede, but on the contrary it spreads and at the same time becomes more organised and intensified. There exists a reciprocal influence between the two struggles. Every fresh attack and victory of the political struggle has a powerful impact on the economic struggle, because as it widens the scope for the workers to improve their conditions and strengthens their impulse to do so, it enhances their fighting spirit. After every soaring wave of political action, there remains a fertile sediment from which sprout a thousand economic struggles. And the reverse also applies.

The logical and necessary climax of the mass strike is the “open uprising which can only be realised as the culmination of a series of partial uprisings which prepare the ground, and therefore are liable to end for a time in what look like the partial ‘defeats’, each of which may seem to be ‘premature’.” And what a rise in class consciousness results from the mass strikes!

The most precious thing, because it is the most enduring, in the sharp ebb and flow of the revolutionary wave, is the proletariat’s spiritual growth. The advance by leaps and bounds of the intellectual stature of the proletariat affords an inviolable guarantee of its further progress in the inevitable economic and political struggles ahead. [11]

It would be a great mistake to conclude from the above that there is no important qualitative difference between the party and the unions. This is especially important for countries like Indonesia in which the unions are just at the beginning of their existence and the border between the two is quite often very unclear. The slogan of the unions was set down in Britain in the 19th century: “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” The aim of the revolutionaries, the socialists, is to abolish the wages system, to get rid of a society in which some people have to sell their labour power and others buy it. Obviously so long as capitalism exists we prefer high wages to low ones but the different goals remain.

The unions recruit members on a radically different basis to the revolutionary party. The revolutionary party recruits those who are in ideological agreement with its principles. The unions aim to recruit every worker, revolutionary, reformist or conservative. It strengthens the unions if conservative workers are involved and under the ideological pressure of all other workers. The revolutionary party, by contrast, should not dilute its membership by including people who do not agree with its politics. The trade union movement is a blunt axe but a large one. The revolutionary party is a sharp axe even if it is relatively small. Lenin contrasted the roles of the revolutionary Marxist with the trade union secretary:

For the secretary of any, say English, trade union always helps the workers to carry on the economic struggle, he helps them to expose factory abuses, explains the injustice of the laws and of measures that hamper the freedom to strike and to picket (i.e. to warn all and sundry that a strike is proceeding at a certain factory), explains the partiality of arbitration court judges who belong to the bourgeois classes, etc, etc. In a word every trade union secretary conducts and helps to conduct “the economic struggle against the employers and the government” ... the Social Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat. [12]



The revolutionary party and the liberal factions in the democratic revolution

In a whole number of countries where the bourgeoisie is young and the political regime is either autocratic or only recently became democratic, such as Indonesia, there is a danger that the proletariat will tail the bourgeois democrats. The French bourgeoisie succeeded in carrying out their revolution of 1789-1793, but since then the pattern has been different. For example, the German bourgeoisie of 1848 betrayed their revolution and capitulated to the land-owning Junkers and the monarchy. The German bourgeoisie was fearful of the rising working class. Today the working class exists everywhere and is employed in much larger plants than existed in 1789 or 1848. Fear of the proletariat inevitably paralyses the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois intelligentsia. In March 1850 Marx argued that the German working class should not subordinate itself to the liberal bourgeoisie and petty bourgeois intelligentsia:

The relation of the revolutionary workers’ party to the petty-bourgeois democrats is this: it marches together with them against the faction which it aims at overthrowing, it opposes them in everything by which they seek to consolidate their position in their own interests.

Far from desiring to transform the whole of society for the revolutionary proletarians, the democratic petty bourgeois strive for a change in social conditions by means of which the existing society will be made as tolerable and comfortable as possible for them ...

While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible ... it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, the proletariat has conquered state power ... For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of the existing society but the foundation of a new one ...

It is self-evident that in the impending bloody conflicts, as in all earlier ones, it is the workers who, in the main, will have to win the victory by their courage, determination and self-sacrifice. As previously so also in this struggle, the mass of the petty bourgeois will as long as possible remain hesitant, undecided and inactive, and then, as soon as the issue has been decided, will seize the victory for themselves, will call upon the workers to maintain tranquillity and return to their work, will guard against so-called excesses and bar the proletariat from the fruits of victory...they themselves must do the utmost for their final victory by making it clear to themselves what their class interests are, by taking up their position as an independent party as soon as possible and by not allowing themselves to be misled for a single moment by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeois into refraining from the independent organisation of the party of the proletariat. Their battle cry must be: The Revolution in Permanence. [13]

Some one and a half centuries later the bourgeoisie and bourgeois intelligentsia are even more cowardly and reactionary. The revolutionary party must keep its distance from them, even if they take on a reddish coloration. The most prominent leaders in Indonesia today are Megawati and Amien Rais. Megawati is the daughter of the first president of Indonesia, Ahmed Sukarno. When Indonesia won its independence from the Dutch in 1949 the country was led by this bourgeois nationalist. His ideology was based on the principles of pancasila whose main planks were belief in god and national unity. Tragically the Indonesian Communist Party did not challenge Sukarno, but, on the contrary, agreed with him completely on the need for national unity. The result was that St Just’s words came true: “Those who make a half revolution dig their own graves.”

The Communist Party of Indonesia had far more members than the Bolshevik Party had at the time of the revolution: 3 million as against a quarter of a million. The working class of Indonesia was larger than the working class of Russia on the eve of the revolution. The peasantry was larger in Indonesia than in Russia. In 1965 a general appointed by Sukarno, one Suharto, organised a coup with the backing of the United States, the British Labour government and Australia. Somewhere between half a million and a million people were slaughtered. Megawati has not advanced one inch further than her father.

The other most prominent leader of bourgeois nationalism in Indonesia at present is Amien Rais. He does not stand to the left of Megawati. He is the chairman of the Muslim movement, Muhammadiya, which claims 28 million members. He has for years been engaged in the most disgusting racist agitation against the Chinese minority in Indonesia, which led to pogroms on a massive scale, the main victims of which were the very poor. Amien Rais was harsh on the Chinese, but quite accommodating to President Suharto. On 19 May, two days before Suharto’s abdication, Amien Rais appeared on radio and television calling on people not to demonstrate, to keep calm!

Megawati and Amien Rais are pygmies compared to Robespierre or Danton and in no way more militant than the cowardly bourgeoisie in Germany in 1848 that Marx so sharply castigated.

Indonesia, like many Third World countries, faces serious bourgeois democratic tasks – achieving political democracy, solving the agrarian question, overcoming the fragmentation of the country, and putting an end to the oppression of national and religious minorities as well as to the oppression of women and gays. Only after the proletariat achieves a victorious revolution can these democratic tasks be fully carried out. At the same time in the struggle for workers’ power the revolutionary party must act as a tribune of the oppressed and mobilise the energy of the peasants, the national and religious minorities, women and gays.




1. T. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 2, London 1976, pp. 76–82.

2. L. Trotsky, 1905, New York 1972. pp. 251, 253–254.

3. C. Harman, The Fire Last Time, 1968 and After, London 1998, pp. 2–6.

4. L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, London 1997, p. 19.

5. V. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. IX, Moscow 4th ed., p. 103.

6. V. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. VII, p. 363.

7. V. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. VIII, pp. 409–410.

8. V. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. X, p. 334.

9. T. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 1, London 1975, p. 179.

10. K. Marx, F. Engels, V. Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, Moscow 1972, p. 57.

11. T. Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg, London 1983, pp. 35–36.

12. V. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. V, p. 423.

13. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. X, London 1981, pp. 280–282, 287.


Last updated on 4 February 2017