What is needed to win socialism?

Marx and Engels’ establishment of the scientific basis of socialism was indispensable to the struggle for a better world because the fight against capitalism must be a conscious one in a way that capitalism’s fight against feudalism was not.

In the Middle Ages in Western Europe, the feudal nobility existed primarily upon the exploitation of the peasantry. Especially in towns outside the direct control of the feudal nobility, it was possible for the new capitalist class gradually to accumulate wealth based upon trade and small-scale production.

Eventually, the capitalists’ accumulation of economic power became the basis for political power, surpassing or overthrowing the authority of the nobility. Of course, the capitalists created political leaders in the course of the struggle against feudalism, but the essential basis of that struggle — the accumulation of sufficient wealth to allow them to replace the nobility as the ruling class — occurred largely spontaneous, without anyone planning or foreseeing it.

Unlike feudalism, which was a relatively static system of production, capitalism is driven constantly to expand. It does this both extensively, by spreading the conditions it requires around the globe, and intensively, by pushing commodity relations and exploitation into every aspect of social life.

Furthermore, capitalism is impossible without the continual exploitation of the working class. These two dynamics mean that there is no social space in which the working class could gradually gather the economic and then political power to overthrow the capitalists, as the capitalists had been able to do to the feudal nobility.

Organisation

Because capitalism permits no isolated social “islands” where the workers might gradually grow into a new ruling class, the working class has to become the ruling class by overthrowing the capitalists before it has economic power.

This means that it has to be far more conscious, far more aware of what needs to be done to become the ruling class. And this consciousness has to be embodied in some social form that is capable of acting on it — both to overthrow the capitalist ruling class politically and then to destroy its economic power by building a socialist economy. That is, it requires organisation.

The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin did more than any other Marxist to develop the kind of organisation that could embody a scientific understanding of what the working class needs to do in order to overthrow the capitalists. Over the course of several decades of revolutionary activity, Lenin and his comrades worked out that a specific type of revolutionary party was the organisation best suited to the task.

Capitalism imposes quite different conditions and experiences on different workers. As a result, the political consciousness of workers varies considerably, both between different groups of workers at any point and, over time, within the same group of workers.

This meant, Lenin concluded, that a revolutionary workers’ party would need to be based on a Marxist understanding and be a cadre organisation that grouped the most class-conscious revolutionary workers at any particular time and which could reach out to win broader layers of working people to its ranks at times of deep social crisis and heightened class struggle.

Democratic centralism

It would trivialise Lenin’s enormous contributions to revolutionary theory and practice to attempt to summarise them here. However, it may be important to deal with one particular issue, because it is often misrepresented in an effort to discredit the kind of party that Lenin advocated and built. This is what Lenin and the Bolshevik party called “democratic centralism”.

While Marxists can and do learn as much as possible from past struggles, political situations never repeat themselves exactly. This means that the practice of a revolutionary party will always involve a certain amount of trial and error. Democratic centralism seeks to minimise errors and ensure that they are corrected as quickly as possible.

It means that, in deciding what to do, party members should have the maximum possible freedom to discuss among themselves alternative courses of action, basing themselves on their accumulated knowledge of Marxism. The members then vote on the course that seems best and unite to carry it out.

After a suitable experience of the chosen course, the party then again collectively discusses whether to continue, modify or abandon the previous decision. In this way, the party can continually check its ideas and actions through the test of practice.