This is part 2 in a series outlining the case for revolutionary organisation. See the foot of this post for more.
Lenin argued that revolutionaries must be more than merely good activists in a particular sphere, e.g. solid trade unionists fighting for better pay, but should be 'tribunes of the people' championing a range of causes, linking them together, and challenging exploitation and injustice wherever it may be.
Every issue, every campaign, every act of resistance, is interconnected. Highlighting these connections, relentlessly promoting solidarity, forging links between groups - these are crucial tasks for revolutionaries. A revolutionary organisation, furthermore, is about (as Marx wrote) generalising from the historical and international experience of the working class.
It is the memory of that class struggle. But more than that: events are never a simple repetition of history, so theoretical distillation of experience (not just the reciting of it) is essential. It is probably too grand to refer to a revolutionary group as a "university of the working class", but at least in microcosm that's precisely what it is.
There are two constant tasks for any revolutionary organisation: to organise and to educate. These two processes inform each other. The world is constantly changing, so the lessons to be derived from our 'historical and international experience' are always evolving.
Each new situation must be analysed in its own right, though the analytical tools and intellectual framework may be inherited. What matters is what Lenin called the concrete analysis of the concrete situation.
Stale dogma is no guide to action. Marxist theory guiding concrete analysis is, however, invaluable in plotting next steps, in answering the "what is to be done" question. Constant interaction between theory and practice is essential.
What about the interaction between revolutionaries and wider movements of resistance? A sectarian stands apart from partial struggles - such struggles don't go far enough, or involvement in them requires 'diluting' political purity. The opposite is also a danger: becoming absorbed in specific struggles without any bigger picture of the need to smash capitalism altogether and build a different kind of society.
The alternative is to do two things simultaneously. The two interconnected poles of revolutionary organisation are political independence and participation in the broader class struggle. This is the basis of Leninism.
It means building a politically independent organisation, grouping together those who are committed to socialism from below, while taking part in movements, campaigns and trade unions in their efforts to defend existing conditions from attack or win specific reforms.
Revolutionaries' attitude to the unions can only be understood in this framework. It would be sectarian for a socialist group to distance itself from union organisation, which is vital for protecting workers against the ravages of an exploitative, profit-hungry system. Socialists take unions very seriously, and help build them, precisely because they bring together large numbers of working class people and - when they move into action - boost the confidence of our side to resist.
Anything which increases working class combativity is welcome and important. Anything which wins even small reforms, especially if it is through workers' own activity, is a boost. Victories, however minor, provide hope and act as a spur to further action.
Revolutionaries also recognise the limits of unions. They can win reforms but not end the system that breeds inequality, oppression and injustice. The same applies to all sorts of campaigns and protest movements. It is therefore necessary to maintain political and organisational independence.
This recognition of two fixed, mutually reinforcing, poles - political and organisational independence combined with participation in broad-based struggles - is the starting point for developing any kind of united front strategy, i.e. working with reformists in coalitions and campaigns across a range of issues. A united front approach is the way out of the twin dangers of sectarianism and opportunism.
The word 'vanguard', a military term meaning those in the front of the struggle or battle, is much-derided. Its use by the Leninist tradition is often viewed, perhaps understandably, as elitist.
But the first thing to grasp is that what can loosely be termed a vanguard is inevitable in capitalist society. If there is uneven consciousness, with the vast majority of working class people (in non-revolutionary times) at least partially accepting dominant ideas, a small minority who reject capitalist ideas becomes an ideological vanguard.
If the working class is uneven in how it resists the system, a practical vanguard will be formed. This is true whether or not they are gathered together in an organisation. Lenin's point is that it makes sense for these anti-capitalists - those who are ideologically and practically consistent in opposing the system - to form an organisation.
Georg Lukacs wrote a short book on Lenin in the 1920s. He wrote about how this vanguard must constantly interact with the larger class. It must not cut itself off. He referred to how a revolutionary organisation must be 'always a step in front of the struggling masses... but only one step in front so that it always remains leader of their struggle.'
Lukacs stressed the combination of principle and flexibility, the latter being essential because the tempo and shape of struggle inevitably change. Revolutionaries' strategies, tactics and forms of organisation must inevitably change alongside changes in the course of resistance. He put it strongly: 'all dogmatism in theory and all sclerosis in organisation are disastrous for the party.'
Strategies, tactics and forms of organisation must be judged in relation to the current needs of the class and the movements. This can necessitate sharp breaks with old ways of doing things - a theme I'll return to in the final part of this series, on 'seizing the key link', after considering the controversial matter of democratic centralism, which is the topic for the next instalment.
Part 1: Class consciousness and revolutionary organisation
Part 2: Revolutionaries, movements and class
Part 3: Democratic centralism
Part 4: Seizing the key link