[Booklet] What Is Bolshevism?

The reconfiguration of public opinion over socialism in the US has unleashed a debate that is pushing socialists to ask interesting questions about what it will take to transform this society in our lifetime. Today, the need to overthrow capitalism no longer seems so abstract. Now the question is one of concrete strategy: What needs to be in place for a revolutionary mass movement to succeed in overthrowing capitalism?

For this it is indispensable to return to the lessons of Bolshevism. The October Revolution in Russia was made possible because the thousands of cadres in the party ranks had passed through two decades of training—hundreds of study circles and discussion groups that collectively imbued these individuals with the dynamic revolutionary worldview offered by Marxist theory.

The winning of political and economic power by the American working class is absolutely possible in our epoch. What is needed is to organize a network of professional revolutionaries who can intervene in the intensifying class struggle and transmit a program that transcends the limits of capitalism once and for all.

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Table of contents:


What Is Bolshevism?

We live in an epoch that presents unprecedented opportunities for building Marxism into a serious political force in the United States. In particular, the outlook of the younger generations has been profoundly shaped by the experience of the deepest capitalist crisis since the Great Depression, and many have begun to draw revolutionary conclusions. Numerous polls show that millions of young American workers are open to socialism—not only the amorphous notion of “democratic socialism” that has gone mainstream since 2016—but also revolutionary Marxism and communism.

The profound transformation of consciousness we have witnessed in recent years reflects the growing awareness that capitalism is at a historical impasse and that the current structure of society is holding humanity back. The new generation entering the workforce will be compelled by earth-shaking events to mount a life-and-death fight against a system that not only threatens our livelihoods, but the very future of our species.

In this period, the world working class will have many opportunities to win political and economic power—but only if a revolutionary leadership is built in advance. The success of the socialist revolution will, therefore, depend on whether or not we can build a revolutionary organization of sufficient size with roots in the working class in the next historical period.

The strategic task of revolutionary socialists is to organize hundreds of thousands of workers and youth into a political force that can win the whole of the working class to a revolutionary socialist program and transformation of society. To achieve this, we first must find, recruit, and educate the most advanced “ones and twos” in the ideas and methods of Bolshevism. Building leadership teams of trained cadres at every level of the organization is an indispensable stage of this process.

The legacy of Bolshevism—why the working class needs a revolutionary party

The building of a fighting organization and the conduct of political agitation are essential under any “drab, peaceful” circumstances … moreover, it is precisely in such periods and under such circumstances that work of this kind is particularly necessary, since it is too late to form the organization in times of explosion and outbursts; the party must be in a state of readiness to launch activity at a moment’s notice.
– V.I. Lenin, Where to Begin?

The objective, material conditions for ending capitalism and beginning the socialist transition towards stateless, classless, moneyless communism have been in place for roughly a century, and time and again—from the Paris Commune in 1871, to the Russian Revolution in 1917, the German Revolution in 1918, the French Revolution of May 1968, and the recent revolutionary upheavals in Sudan in 2021 and Sri Lanka in 2022—the working class has risen up in an effort to end the chaos and crisis of capitalist society.

But when we study the history of the class struggle and the innumerable attempts of the workers to rise up as a class to seize control of their destinies, the central role of revolutionary leadership to ensure a victorious outcome is clear. The global wave of mass movements over the last few years graphically demonstrates how the accumulated discontent in society can be ignited by an accidental tipping point, unleashing a spontaneous revolutionary upsurge—but all experience also shows that spontaneity is insufficient for the overthrow of capitalism and the transformation of society. If a mass movement is not equipped with a socialist program and leadership that can raise its sights to the height of the revolutionary tasks before it, the opportunity will be lost, the movement will ebb, and the forces of open reaction can get the upper hand.

For a revolution to succeed, there must be a well-organized current within the movement capable of linking the most pressing problems of the day to the urgent transfer of economic and state power to the working class. As Trotsky described in his History of the Russian Revolution, “Without a guiding organization, 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.”

To date, the sole example of the working class successfully building a revolutionary leadership and overthrowing capitalism is the experience of the Russian Revolution. The preparatory political work that enabled this monumental event is the essence of Bolshevism—the long, painstaking years of preparation that allowed the Marxists to become a force that was both rooted in the class and ready to step up to the test of events when the objective and subjective conditions for revolution matured.

Under such conditions, even a relatively small organization of well-trained and committed cadres can play the role of revolutionary subjective factor and tip the balance. Starting with just 8,000 members at the beginning of 1917, the Bolsheviks’ ranks multiplied more than 30 times over the course of eight months, reaching 250,000 by October. They successfully won millions more to the program of socialism—including the overwhelming majority of the working class.

The objective and subjective factors, which usually develop independently of one another, finally converged. After years of war, crisis, and famine, the masses were ready for revolution and a worthy leadership was ready to step up to the task. That the Bolsheviks passed this test is a testament to the decades of methodical preparation that preceded 1917, the years spent grinding away in relative anonymity, finding and recruiting new members, educating their ranks and honing their skills, publishing books, pamphlets, and newspapers, organizing discussion circles, and establishing the structures of their party.

A candid internal report by a tsarist police director in 1913 describes the impact of the Bolshevik cadres four years before they came to power:

During the past ten years, the most energetic, courageous element, capable of tireless struggle, resistance and constant organization, have been the organizations and persons concentrating around Lenin … The faction of Leninists is always better organized than the others, stronger in its singleness of purpose, more resourceful in propagating its ideas among the workers … When during the last two years the labor movement began to grow stronger, Lenin and his followers came closer to the workers than others, and he was the first to proclaim purely revolutionary slogans … The Bolshevik circles, nuclei and organizations are now scattered through all the cities. Permanent correspondence and contacts have been established with almost all the factory centers … In view of the aforesaid, there is nothing surprising in the fact that at the present time the assembling of the entire underground Party is proceeding around the Bolshevik organizations and that indeed the latter really are the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party.

Those circles were in turn transformed into a mass revolutionary party of the working class, and ushered in the first lasting workers’ state in history. That is the legacy of Bolshevism: the methodical training of professional revolutionaries fused together in a disciplined organization. This is what laid the framework for a relatively small group of cadres to be transformed into a mass revolutionary party on the basis of events.

The IMT is building a professional organization of skilled revolutionary activists that can sink roots in the working class and serve as a transmission belt for Marxist ideas in the midst of an upsurge in the class struggle. The experience of the past century proves that once a revolution breaks out, it is too late to build such an organization. It must be built in advance. The patient and persistent work of building branches and assembling teams of cadres in every major city and industrial center is all aimed at preparing the revolutionary subjective factor—a Bolshevik leadership—for the great events this century has in store. We must have a sense of urgency in this work.

Laying the foundations of the revolutionary party

Any major project involves different stages of work, and the building of the revolutionary party is no different. The first stage is to assemble a Marxist cadre organization—the foundation of a future mass tendency, and eventually, a mass party. Building a revolutionary organization is a long, painstaking process involving many stages of development. As explained in the book Bolshevism: the Road to Revolution, and quoted in the founding statement of the US section of the IMT:

A party is not just an organizational form, a name, a banner, a collection of individuals, or an apparatus. A revolutionary party, for a Marxist, is in the first place its program, methods, ideas and traditions and only in the second place, an organization and an apparatus (important as these undoubtedly are) in order to carry these ideas to the broadest layers of the working people. The Marxist party, from the very beginning, must base itself on theory and program, which is the summing up of the general historical experience of the proletariat. Without this, it is nothing. The building of a revolutionary party always begins with the slow and painstaking work of assembling and educating the cadres, which forms the backbone of the party throughout its entire lifetime.

We must have a sense of proportion, and cannot mistake an embryo for a fully formed adult. We are not yet a party, but rather an organized political tendency. A small cadre organization cannot reach the masses of the working class, and we must actively guard against any illusions to the contrary. We cannot shout louder than our own voice. We must learn to walk before we can run. But it is precisely through building a robust cadre organization that we can prepare to reach broader layers of the working class at a later stage.

To understand this process, we again must turn to the experience of the Russian Revolution. The study circles and theoretical discussions held in Russia and abroad in the decades before October laid the foundation upon which the Bolshevik Party was built. This was a complex, contradictory process involving many different and often overlapping stages and fields of work, but the precondition for it all was the initial assembling and educating of cadres. Like the Russian Bolsheviks, we are building our organization today mainly on the basis of patient political education, i.e., propaganda work. While we actively engage with labor and other struggles whenever possible, we do relatively little agitation around specific questions—for now.

As we grow in experience and capacity—which can vary widely from area to area—we will be able to gain support, not only as a result of our ideas, but by proving ourselves in practice. Not only will we participate in struggles, we will eventually help lead them. Not only will we endorse independent socialist candidates, we will run them ourselves on a revolutionary socialist program. Guided by Marxist theory and the need for absolute class independence, we will be more effective than any other socialist tendency in American history. However, this will only be possible if we build a robust political foundation today. It follows that our task at present is to build an organization of Marxist cadres—the backbone of the future revolutionary party.

What is a cadre? A cadre is a comrade who has thoroughly absorbed the basic ideas and methods of Bolshevism, who is able to intervene energetically, creatively, and patiently to defend our ideas in the movement, and who is able to build and develop a healthy and active branch and leadership team. However, becoming a cadre is not an automatic process. Just because someone agrees to join, reads a few books, sells a few papers, and gives a few lead offs does not transform them into a cadre. It is a painstaking process that takes years, but it is also extremely gratifying.

Though we have come a long way over the first two decades of our existence, we are still building on the basis of the “ones and twos”—the initial cadres recruited from the most politically advanced layer of workers and youth. Our short-term task is still to recruit and thoroughly educate this initial layer of cadres in the ideas and methods of Bolshevism. There are tens of millions of people in the United States who are open to the ideas of socialism, Marxism, revolution, and communism. Given our political perspectives, we should have no problem finding many hundreds and then thousands more in the coming years—but only if we are methodical and persistent in our approach.

For every comrade we recruit and educate at the present time, we can win 10 or 100 or more in the future. Our future comrades are out there now. We just need to find them and explain the importance, not only of agreeing in general with Marxist ideas and the need to end capitalism, but of actively joining the struggle for socialism—the need to join the IMT. If we take a bold, systematic approach, we will be able to build Marxism into a serious, organized political factor over the next decade.

An epoch of world revolution

The struggle for socialism is necessarily an international struggle. Socialism is international, or it is nothing. This arises from the international character of capitalism. The interests of the workers of every country are fundamentally identical. This is particularly important to understand as revolutionaries in the United States, where a narrow national outlook is widespread. We are internationalists—we are not interested in building a national organization, engaged in some “American road to socialism”—but an international organization of world socialist revolution. We are not an “American” organization, but rather the US section of the International Marxist Tendency.

We must understand that we are living in the initial stages of an epoch of world revolution. We can and must expect to see titanic class struggles and revolutionary events in our lifetime, and we must prepare for it by building a revolutionary leadership for our class. The work we do today will determine the impact we can have tomorrow. We are focused at the moment on recruiting the “the ones and twos” and developing the cadres, branches, and leadership teams of the organization, primarily through open work and in particular through student work, but our overall strategic orientation is towards the working class and its mass organizations—the trade unions and the future mass working-class party which we believe will eventually emerge on the basis of events. We have no illusions that our relatively small organization can win the confidence and leadership of the mass of the working class, at this stage. But based on the patient work we do today, our aim is to do precisely that in the future.

It must be emphasized in closing that we are in a race against the clock. The crisis of capitalism and the movement of the working class has its own pace and rhythm which we cannot control. The demands of the class struggle require from us a conscious, determined collective effort to build the revolutionary organization as fast as possible. Already in the recent period, there have been numerous opportunities for the working class to take power, had there been a sufficiently strong Marxist leadership. But all history shows that success is not guaranteed in advance.

History is far from over, and there will be more opportunities for our class ahead, if we prepare in time. We have made considerable progress since our organization’s founding, but there is still a very long road ahead. Therefore, growth is our #1 priority. We need all hands on deck in the struggle for socialism in our lifetime. Every new member must immediately begin educating themselves in the ideas of Marxism and recruiting others to this effort. If we don’t build the revolutionary Marxist leadership for our class, no one else will. If you agree with this perspective, we wholeheartedly encourage you to join us.


The Case for Revolutionary Optimism

A few years ago, being a revolutionary Marxist meant getting accustomed to seeing incredulous expressions on the faces of people who couldn’t conceive of a revolution. Asking someone to imagine the working class coming to power and bringing the productive potential of society under its democratic control was like asking them to envision an imminent leap in human evolution—a total abstraction.

But as any active Marxist in 2018 can attest, there has been a definite shift in the daily conversations; the need to overthrow capitalism no longer seems so abstract. The now-popular references to late capitalism imply a growing awareness that, if anything, this system should have been overthrown long ago. Now the question is one of concrete strategy: How can a revolutionary mass movement succeed in overthrowing capitalism?

Millions of American workers and youth are ready to talk about socialist revolution. In fact, 51% of millennials—42.3 million members of the largest generation in the US today—would rather live under socialism or communism, according to a YouGov poll from October. Combined with record levels of discontent with both major parties—71% of millennials believe a major third party is needed—you have the demographic outlines of a future mass socialist party once a viable alternative to the left of the Democrats emerges and coalesces.

With this turn in the tide, you’d expect a corresponding wave of revolutionary optimism from the voices of the socialist left, who should be thrilled to be swimming with the stream of mass consciousness for the first time in decades.

And yet, to flip through the pages of increasingly-prominent left publications like Jacobin magazine, you’d think the questions of class struggle and socialist revolution are still as dead and buried as they seemed two decades ago. The demoralized sentiment of the Left was summed up in the advice provided at the end of Erik Wright’s article, “How to Be an Anticapitalist Today”:

Give up the fantasy of smashing capitalism. Capitalism is not smashable, at least if you really want to construct an emancipatory future … in one way or another you have to deal with capitalist structures and institutions. Taming and eroding capitalism are the only viable options.

The real problem with this pessimistic insistence on lowering the horizons of the emerging socialist movement is not simply the disappointment that comes from hearing the liberal arguments of your high school government textbook repeated in a popular socialist magazine. It’s the fact that this defeatist outlook is shared by the labor leaders who would otherwise be in a position to mobilize a genuine class struggle.

For the budding socialist left in the US, this kind of timidity can only prolong the infant stage of the movement’s development at a time when it could be playing a critical role in transforming the political landscape. A serious campaign in the labor movement for the creation of a mass socialist party would get an enthusiastic echo among millions. Instead, calls to be “strategic” and “realistic”—i.e., by giving up on “outlandish” attempts to break with the Democratic Party—threaten to corral the energy of socialists back into the well-worn and limited channels of local activism and perpetual “base-building.”

This is not the first time Marxism has engaged in battle against a chorus of pessimism. Behind the “hard-nosed realism” of the labor leaders is a crystalized core of disappointment flowing from the many defeats the workers have suffered in the history of the class struggle, inherited from a long line of reformists who came to the brink of revolution, only to become overwhelmed by the weight of history. According to this view, any talk of the working class coming power and expropriating the Fortune 500 is a pipe dream that the Left must leave behind if it’s going to get on with its job of actually making “real change” happen—which must necessarily take place within the limits of capitalism.

Nothing brings out the divide between reformism and revolution like the Russian October Revolution of 1917. This was the theme of a recent Jacobin issue entitled, “The First Red Century,” which opens with an editorial contemplating the relevance of the centenary: “Now, a century later, the question is less whether any of us will live to see socialist triumph than if such dreams belong entirely in the past.”

An article in the same issue, titled “The New Communists,” exhorts the youthful left to

stop worrying about old answers to old questions … No matter how many freshmen come to your September screening of October, today the probability of such a revolution is infinitesimally small … The world’s working classes have moved on. And yet the far left today embraces the Soviet obsession like a vampire hunter wields garlic.

Despite what liberals might say, it’s not an inability to atone for communism’s body count which haunts the socialist left today—it’s our inability to move on from these dreams of apocalyptic rupture; fantasies of new, unfathomable worlds that will somehow spring up unencumbered by the shells of the old one.

The author also objects to the fact that revolutions share fundamental dynamics: “In almost every instance of mass revolt they find the Bolshevik’s October—Germany in 1918–20, France in 1968, Egypt in 2011, and everything in between…” The denial that these inspiring mass movements were in fact revolutions amounts to a renunciation of proletarian revolution altogether—i.e., stop imagining that the working class can overthrow capitalism.

So what do Marxists mean by revolution? Instead of providing a dictionary definition, let’s examine the recent events in Greece, and let our readers decide whether these events “deserve” the label of “revolution.”

The election of Syriza on January 25, 2015, marked the rise of the first left government in Europe led by a mass party from the communist tradition since the 2008 crisis. Years of ruthless austerity imposed by the Troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission had reduced Greece to a condition comparable only to the aftermath of a cruel civil war, with severe economic dislocation and dramatic cuts in wages and living standards.

The masses were desperate for a way out. For years there had been a near-constant mobilization by the Greek masses, including some 35 general strikes, countless local struggles, and months-long occupations of city squares. In this context, Alexis Tsipras came to power with 80% support on a promise to end austerity and defy the powers of European finance capital. For six months, the Syriza government enjoyed overwhelming popular support from the Greek masses who rallied around the slogan “Not one step back!”

The revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses culminated in the July 5 referendum when 61% of the Greek population voted to reject the extortionate bailout terms proposed by the Troika. At that moment, Tsipras and the Syriza leadership found themselves faced with the limits of the capitalist system. To follow through with the mandate of defiance from the working class and put an end to the onslaught of austerity would have meant a decisive break with the demands of international finance capital. It would have provoked vicious retaliation from the Troika and the Greek bourgeoisie which could only be met with socialist measures: expropriation of the banks to prevent capital flight, and mobilizing the working class to occupy and bring the key industries under state control.

The mass assemblies which gathered in every major square and workplace throughout Greece could have elected representatives to a national network of committees for workers’ control, to begin administering a coordinated plan of production, bringing the millions of unemployed into the workforce to ramp up production and counteract scarcity. The wealth stashed in the bank accounts of the expropriated Greek ruling class could have allowed the state to ensure the supply of raw materials and fuel while new economic relations were established.

An appeal by the new Greek workers’ state for international solidarity—which was already being expressed by demonstrations of thousands in every corner of Europe—would have sparked a revolutionary wave throughout the continent, beginning with the southern European countries where the workers face the same conditions. The task would have been that of holding out until the workers of the rest of Europe—who were enthusiastically watching every move of the Greek workers—joined them on the road of revolution.

Unfortunately, Alexis Tsipras never had a strategy beyond trying to force Europe’s bankers back to the negotiating table. When the Troika called his bluff, he caved. On July 13, the historic window of opportunity slammed shut when Tsipras signed the Troika’s memorandum, betraying the popular mandate and the aspirations of the workers of Europe, and throwing the ranks of Syriza into confusion and demoralization.

During those decisive days, an organized force of just a couple thousand Marxists with a clear revolutionary program could have shown the way out of the crisis, like someone pointing the way out of a burning building. Just 24 weeks separated Syriza’s electoral victory from its July betrayal—the same amount of time which the Bolsheviks had required in 1917 to grow from some 8,000 to 250,000 members, as events pushed wider layers of the class to draw revolutionary conclusions. If a program for socialist revolution had still appeared too abstract or far-fetched to the average Greek worker in January 2015, there can be no doubt that six months later, it would have received a massive echo.

Was the entry of the masses onto the stage of history in Greece a revolutionary movement or not? Was it the masses’ fault their aspirations were not carried to a conclusion—or the failings of their reformist leaders?

The degree to which reformists and revolutionaries can analyze the same events, and draw diametrically opposed conclusions is truly astonishing. The difference can be summed up as follows: Revolutionaries see a threshold that must be crossed along with the revolutionary masses, whereas reformists are conditioned to see only a ledge from which they must back away—right back to the tender mercies of the capitalists.

The past century is full of mass upsurges that awakened the historic instincts of the working class. In many instances, for all practical purposes, power was in their hands. What was lacking was a conscious leadership with a revolutionary program that could channel the immense creative energy of the workers, recognizing that the workers had power and needed to defend it and proceed to restructure the economy and the state.

Revolutionary Marxists are convinced that the impasse of capitalism cannot help but push the working class onto the path of revolution, as we saw in Catalonia last fall, in Iran this winter, and as will be the case with the US in due time. The question is whether we can organize a force of Marxists in advance who can systematically put forward a socialist program in every major city, key industry, campus, and neighborhood when events bring the workers face to face with their historic mission. Given the millions of youth turning to socialism today, we have every reason to be optimistic about our chances for success.


Should Socialists Be Preparing for Revolution?

When a seismic shift occurs in nature, all the accumulated pressure that had built up silently over a long period of apparent calm is suddenly released, instantly transforming the landscape. The reconfiguration of public opinion over socialism in the US has had a similar effect on the left—it has unleashed a debate that is pushing socialists to ask more interesting questions about what it will take to transform this society in our lifetime.

Amid the churn of ideas, perspectives, and attitudes, there is an urgent attempt to make sense of the present epoch, to separate what is possible from what is unrealistic, to take stock of what is new and what is fundamentally unchanged about the tasks that confront us.

The changed situation is fueling a polemic between revolutionary optimism and despairing pessimism. These contending attitudes reflect the dissonant clash between the vigor of the newly radicalized generation and the burnout of the old-guard activists who have been uprooted from the relative tranquility of the “pre-seismic” political environment.

On one hand, there’s a sense that the historical tide is turning against capitalism, and socialists are beginning to swim with the stream. The growing angst of the ruling class over socialism’s popularity—and even over the very survival of the capitalist system—has become a frequent topic in the media. It has been a long time since we’ve “let the ruling classes tremble” like this, and yet, in place of the emboldened optimism you’d expect from the growing socialist left, the array of voices peddling cynicism and defeatism is surprising.

“Bleak is the new red” announces Salvage, a quarterly “written by and for the desolated left”—made up of veterans of the activist scene who have “earned their pessimism” and have left their former organizations, dejected and tired of being told the revolution was coming, only to be let down time and again. Lacking a balanced perspective as to how the class struggle was unfolding, some socialists found that their expectations did not sync with reality. Instead of giving up their schemas and adjusting their perspectives, they gave up hope altogether. Groupings like Salvage take comfort in styling themselves as “revolutionary pessimists”—as if there were something novel or revolutionary about adopting a glum outlook on history. Far from being a serious contribution to the strategic debate, this is just a particularly morose variation on an old theme.

Fortunately, the bleak outlook of the flotsam of the previous phase does not reflect the mood of the millions who are coming to socialist ideas today. But so-called “revolutionary pessimism” finds other, more subtle, exponents, which have managed to stake ground in the current debate on socialist strategy. One of these is Jacobin’s Vivek Chibber, whose article “Our Road to Power” pays tribute to the Leninist party organization as the only model proven to be politically effective, and even concedes that, “Given that history, it’s hard to imagine a way for the left to organize itself as a real force without some variant of the structure the early socialists hit upon—a mass cadre-based party with a centralized leadership and internal coherence.”

However, after applauding the Bolsheviks for their tactical success in sinking roots among the working class, he passes from the topic of organization to the realm of strategy, and the admonishing tone of the NYU professor comes out, assuring the reader that the October Revolution has less to offer us today on the question of strategy:

One might describe this as a strategy of a ruptural break with capitalism. Now there’s no doubt that the decades from the early twentieth century all the way to the Spanish Civil War could be described as a revolutionary period. It was an era in which the possibility of rupture could be seriously contemplated and a strategy built around it. There were lots of socialists who advocated for a more gradualist approach, but the revolutionaries who criticized them weren’t living in a dream world. The Russian road, as it were, was for many parties a viable one. But starting in the 1950s, openings for this kind of strategy narrowed. And today, it seems entirely hallucinatory to think about socialism through this lens.

The basic idea is that we’re living in a post-revolutionary era, in which traditional class struggle and insurrection are consigned to a remote past. To be a “realist” is to lower your head in despondence and accept the need for a “gradualist”—that is, reformist—strategy. But what is it about the present epoch that forces us to rule out the kind of revolution that the Bolsheviks achieved? The professor informs us:

Today, the state has infinitely greater legitimacy with the population than European states did a century ago. Further, its coercive power, its power of surveillance, and the ruling class’s internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability that is orders of magnitude greater than it had in 1917 … Today, the political stability of the state is a reality that the Left has to acknowledge.

This appraisal of our epoch is frankly baffling, at a time when the world’s governments are more discredited than ever, and anti-establishment sentiment is near universal. An EU-sponsored survey recently asked over half a million people ages 18 to 34 “Would you actively participate in large-scale uprising against the government in power if it happened in the next days or months?” Among Greek youth, 67% answered in the affirmative, as did 65% in Italy, 63% in Spain, 61% in France—hardly a testament to the state’s legitimacy with the youth, who represent the future battalions of the class struggle.

Equally puzzling is the claim of greater “internal cohesiveness” of the ruling class—at a time when the traditional liberal “center” has all but collapsed, and extreme polarization is the defining political feature of the global situation. In the US, the president himself is one of the primary destabilizing factors. It seems not a week goes by without a new constitutional crisis or a high profile scandal that undermines the façade of legitimacy of the state institutions. The regime at the head of the most powerful capitalist country on earth could be characterized in many ways, but it is anything but “cohesive” or “stable”!

For millions of American workers and youth, the grotesque absurdity of having a racist billionaire in the White House is a modern picture of pre-revolutionary decadence, at a time when inequality has reached almost unfathomable levels. As the anger and polarization in society intensify, it is not the advocates of a revolutionary strategy who are living in a dream world. To imagine we are headed for a protracted period of capitalist growth and political stability, as during the postwar boom, and to urge the left to temper its ambitions accordingly—this is the hallucinatory position.

Revolutionary optimism has nothing to do with hoping against hope that the revolution is around every corner. It’s a broader historical vantage point that looks beyond the present moment and sees the factors that promise an intensification of the class struggle on the basis of the contradictions inherent within capitalism. The confident optimism of the bourgeoisie is a thing of the past. It had a material basis. For a time, the development of the productive forces enabled humanity to lift itself up and increase its mastery over nature. Today, the same class that oversaw that progress is now standing in its way, and this social impasse can only be broken by the revolutionary action of our class.

The capitalists are powerless to prevent a further onslaught on living standards and the environment. The revolutionary optimists are simply those who see the pressure building along a fault line that has long appeared dormant on the surface. As with the timing of an earthquake, the precise moment when the accumulated anger passes into a revolutionary explosion cannot be predetermined. But to rule it out altogether is like concluding that seismic activity along a particular fault line is a thing of the past—when it is a fact of life that no fault line remains dormant forever.

For those who can see that the historical pendulum promises an eventual resurgence of the labor movement, the strategic question is: what needs to be in place for a future revolution to succeed?

For this it is indispensable to return to the lessons of Bolshevism, as so many socialists are doing today. The heightened interest in Lenin’s organizational conception is a promising indicator of the left’s future trajectory.

So what is a cadre organization? In its most general sense, a cadre is an organizational framework—the word means “frame” in French—consisting of seasoned personnel capable of rapidly forming and training an expanded organization when conditions make this necessary or possible. The term is most commonly used in a military context to signify “a key group of officers and enlisted personnel necessary to establish and train a new military unit.” The parallels between war and revolution provide a useful illustration of the dynamic function of a cadre organization.

The process of wartime mobilization hinges on the ability of a ruling class to raise an army with maximum efficiency, and it is the role of the military cadre to take the influx of new recruits or conscripts and organize them into battle-ready detachments in the shortest possible space of time. The essential dynamic of the cadre organization is its ability to systematically transmit a method or a body of expertise from an initially limited framework of personnel to an exponentially larger numerical force.

This transmission belt is the essential operation, and in order for the general staff to be qualified for this task, the officers are themselves required to pass through an extensive preparation in a military academy. In addition to a thorough training in military science, structure, and protocol, the curriculum at West Point is designed to provide military leaders with a well-rounded theoretical education that includes history, philosophy, economics, international relations, foreign language, and even psychology and literature.

The analogy highlights a central aspect of Lenin’s cadre organization that is too often neglected in modern accounts of the legacy of Bolshevism. The October Revolution was made possible because the thousands of cadres in the party ranks had passed through two decades of training in the makeshift revolutionary academy of Bolshevism—hundreds of clandestine study circles and discussion groups that collectively imbued these individuals with the dynamic revolutionary worldview offered by Marxist theory. At the start of 1917, the Bolsheviks numbered 8,000—a drop in the bucket for a country of 185 million—but over the next eight months, that framework of professional revolutionaries grew more than thirty-fold, and won over virtually the entirety of the working class to its program.

They succeeded in sinking roots in the class, and this constituted a crucial part of the cadres’ political education. On this point, we can absolutely agree with the base-builders—if socialists are not embedded in the working class, there can be no talk of winning the class to a socialist program. Where Bolshevism diverges from today’s base-building projects is in the content of what is being embedded as well as how this is carried out. The scientific method of Marxism, and the ideas, perspectives, and program that derive from it, are the genetic information that make the revolution possible—if and when they are transmitted en masse into the class struggle. The political education of the Marxist circles was never a cherry on top—it was the key factor that made October 1917 possible.

The winning of political and economic power by the American working class is absolutely possible in our epoch. What is needed is to train the cadres who can intervene in the intensifying class struggle and transmit a program that transcends the limits of capitalism once and for all.


Against “Average Socialism”

The 2008 recession and the weakest recovery in history have definitively proven to the most farsighted layers of the working class and youth that capitalism is long past its expiration date. This understanding has yet to manifest itself in a massive wave of socialist struggle, but the embryonic beginnings of such a movement are evident and there is no shortage of articles by bourgeois publications highlighting this growing popularity.

The Guardian published an article titled, “‘The S-Word’: How Young Americans Fell in Love with Socialism,” which explains that “young Americans blame capitalism for crises in housing, healthcare, and falling wages. Once demonized, the word ‘socialism’ is back as a new political movement takes root.”

It’s not just the “s-word” either; it’s the “c-word.” Even the right-wing, McCarthyite website victimsofcommunism.org reported last December that, “as of this year, more Millennials would prefer to live in a socialist country (44%) than in a capitalist one (42%). Some even said they would prefer to live in a communist country (7%). The percentage of Millennials who would prefer socialism to capitalism is a full ten points higher than that of the general population.”

Since Bernie Sanders exploded on the scene, socialism has been on the minds of millions. It’s no longer merely a “nice idea” but something worth fighting for. Those who dispiritedly groaned that they were a socialist, but added that it would never fly in the United States, were positively proven wrong. Many more like them went to the Sanders mass rallies and were inspired out of their gloominess and passivity. New connections were made, a new political force seemed to be in the making—if only Sanders would break the mold and run an independent campaign. This did not come to pass and many of those who still sought to fight found their way to the Democratic Socialists of America.

Millions who were prompted towards political struggle did so on the streets fighting police brutality, in the workplace fighting sexual harassment, and many others did so through various shades of identity politics on the campuses. However, not content with the narrow worldview of many strands of identity politics, the more farsighted elements have moved towards socialism as the answer to address the many ills of our society. The root of the problem has been identified—capitalism—and the antidote is clearly socialism.

There appear to be socialists hiding under every bed and in every closet. Forbes has been forced to concede that there is a “resurgence of socialist sentiment.” The Week magazine even suggested that we have entered “The Dawn of American Socialism.” In that article, Ryan Cooper describes the thinking of those young Americans gravitating towards socialism in such astonishing numbers: “[Socialists] are not so much united around the traditional socialist objective of collective ownership of the means of production as in pushing the political boundaries leftwards far beyond their current limits, either in Europe or America.” Cooper seems to think he has identified the strength of this variant of socialism. In reality, he has identified its biggest weakness: The idea that socialism means vaguely pushing political boundaries “leftwards.”

Marx explained well over a century and a half ago that material conditions determine consciousness. The biggest factor in the growing popularity of socialism today wasn’t Bernie Sanders, Slavoj Zizek, or your local liberal arts school’s sociology department. It is capitalism itself. Capitalism has not delivered the goods for millions upon millions of workers in the United States. While this consciousness has been delayed, it is catching up. But there is still a long way to go.

The postwar boom fostered illusions in the ability of the capitalist system to raise the standard of living for a large layer of the working class. When the mid-70s recession marked a decisive end to that period of growth, the massive expansion of credit kept capitalism creeping along through the 1980s and 90s. The fall of Stalinism in the USSR and China’s transition to capitalism gave it more room for maneuver.

These decades of mild reaction did damage to the consciousness of several generations of the working class. It also had a profound effect on the consciousness of the workers’ leaders. Nowhere has that backsliding been so marked as in the United States, where the AFL-CIO leadership seems to be modeling themselves on an exaggerated caricature of Sam Gompers’ “business-unionism.” Years of ebb and defeat in the labor movement lowered the bar for what was possible.

Consciousness has been thrown so far back that Marx and Engels’s struggle against the ideas of utopian socialism provides useful insights for today. The rising generation of American socialists are new to these ideas and it is inevitable that they have an eclectic mix. To some, socialism means universal healthcare, to others, it means taxing the rich, and to others, it is “what they have in Sweden.”

Engels wrote about similar political tendencies of his time in the classic work, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific:

To all these [tendencies of utopian socialism], socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason, and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as an absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered. With all this, absolute truth, reason, and justice are different with the founder of each different school. And as each one’s special kind of absolute truth, reason, and justice is again conditioned by his subjective understanding, his conditions of existence, the measure of his knowledge and his intellectual training, there is no other ending possible in this conflict of absolute truths than that they shall be mutually exclusive of one another. Hence, from this nothing could come but a kind of eclectic, average socialism, which, as a matter of fact, has up to the present time dominated the minds of most of the socialist workers in France and England. Hence, a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion: a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook.

In the absence of a mass socialist tradition in the United States, passing through a painstaking process of political clarification is part of the price we must pay for the failures of the past. But the ruling class will also pay a hefty price. In the absence of a party like Greece’s PASOK, or Spain’s PSOE, there will be fewer barriers in the working class’s leftward march, whipped forward by the onslaught of a socio-economic system in terminal decline. So while eclecticism currently reigns, the society-wide process of learning what socialism is and isn’t is not over yet. We must prepare for even bigger leaps in consciousness in the months and years ahead.

In sports dramas, the whole period of training and preparation is compressed into a short montage. Why? Because it’s boring and doesn’t make for good storytelling. But no athlete or political movement can punch above its own weight. If we aim to end capitalism in our lifetime, the grueling work of nuts and bolts Bolshevism must be put in: organizing, fundraising, and above all, political education.

In the founding document of Bolshevism, What Is To Be Done, Lenin quotes Engels:

It will be the duty of the leaders to gain an ever clearer insight into all theoretical questions, to free themselves more and more from the influence of traditional phrases inherited from the old world outlook, and constantly to keep in mind that socialism, since it has become a science, demands that it be pursued as a science, i.e., that it be studied.

Armed with Marxism, America’s socialists will do far more than push the political boundaries leftward. By building a political force that can withstand the twists and turns of the turbulent decades ahead, we can achieve the ultimate task of humanity and lead the working class to political and economic power.


Why Study the History of Bolshevism?

Excerpt from Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution, 1999

In the year 1917, Russia was passing through the greatest social crisis. One can say with certainty, however, on the basis of all the lessons of history, that had there been no Bolshevik Party the immeasurable revolutionary energy of the masses would have been fruitlessly spent in sporadic explosions, and the great upheavals would have ended in the severest counterrevolutionary dictatorship. The class struggle is the prime mover of history. It needs a correct program, a firm party, a trustworthy and courageous leadership—not heroes of the drawing room and of parliamentary phrases, but revolutionists, ready to go to the very end. This is the major lesson of the October Revolution.
— Trotsky, Writings: 1935–36

A revolution, by definition, represents such a turning point whereby the process of human development is given a powerful new impetus. Whatever one thinks of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, there can be no question about its colossal historical significance. For more than three quarters of its existence, the 20th century was dominated by it. And even now, at the dawn of a new millennium, the world is still affected by its reverberations in a most fundamental way. The study of the Russian Revolution therefore requires neither explanations nor apologies. It belongs to that category of great historic turning points that compels us to speak in terms of a before and an after, like Cromwell’s revolution in England or the great French Revolution of 1789–93.

There are many points of similarity between the October Revolution in Russia and the great bourgeois revolutions of the past. At times, these parallels seem almost uncanny, even extending to the personalities of the principal dramatis personae, such as the similarity between Charles I of England, Louis XVI of France and Tsar Nicholas, together with their foreign wives. But for all the similarities, there is a fundamental difference between the Bolshevik Revolution and the bourgeois revolutions of the past. Capitalism, unlike socialism, can and does arise spontaneously out of the development of the productive forces. As a system of production, capitalism does not require the conscious intervention of men and women. The market functions in the same way as an anthill or any other self-organizing community of the animal world, that is to say, blindly and automatically. The fact that this takes place in an anarchic, convulsive, and chaotic manner, that it is endlessly wasteful and inefficient and creates the most monstrous human suffering, is irrelevant to this consideration. Capitalism “works” and has been working—without the need of any human control or planning—for about two hundred years. In order to bring such a system into being, no special insight or understanding is called for. This fact has a bearing on the fundamental difference between the bourgeois and socialist revolution.

Socialism is different from capitalism because, unlike the latter, it requires the conscious control and administration of the productive process by the working class itself. It does not and cannot function without the conscious intervention of men and women. The socialist revolution is qualitatively different to the bourgeois revolution because it can only be brought about by the conscious movement of the working class. Socialism is democratic or it is nothing. Right from the beginning, in the transitional period between capitalism and socialism, the running of industry, society, and the state must be firmly in the hands of the working people. There must be the highest degree of participation of the masses in administration and control. Only in this way is it possible to prevent the rise of bureaucracy and create the material conditions for the movement in the direction of socialism, a higher form of society characterized by the total absence of exploitation, oppression, and coercion, and therefore by the gradual extinction and disappearance of that monstrous relic of barbarism, the state.

There is also another difference. In order to conquer power, the bourgeoisie had to mobilize the masses against the old order. This would have been unthinkable on the basis of the declared aim of establishing the necessary conditions for the rule of Rent, Interest, and Profit. Instead, the bourgeoisie put itself forward as the representative of the whole of suffering humanity. In the case of 17th-century England, it was supposed to be fighting for the establishment of god’s kingdom on earth. In 18th-century France it advertised itself as the representative of the rule of Reason. Undoubtedly, many of those who fought under these banners sincerely believed them to be true. Men and women do not fight against all the odds, risking everything, without that special motivation born of a burning conviction of the rightness of their cause. The declared aims in each case turned out to be pure illusion. The real content of the English and French Revolutions was bourgeois and, in the given historical epoch, could have been nothing else. And since the capitalist system functions in the manner we have already described, it did not make much difference whether people understood how it worked or not.

The progressive role of capitalism is now completely exhausted. The material conditions for socialism have long been mature on a world scale. The possibility exists for creating a world of undreamed-of plenty. Yet countless millions live in abject misery. Looking round the world today, Lenin’s book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism has an especially modern ring. The power of the big banks, monopolies, and multinational companies has never been greater. And they have no more intention of surrendering it without a fight than the degenerate absolute monarchs of the past. The first condition of human progress is to break the power of these modern overlords. In order to bring this about, it is first necessary to defeat and overthrow the resistance of that class which holds power in present-day society: the bankers and monopolists who dominate not only through their economic power but also through their control of the state and their monopoly of culture.

In order to accomplish these tasks, it is necessary that the working class possess a party and a leadership which is adequate to it. Unlike the French and English revolutionaries of the 17th and 18th centuries, the modern working class can only transform society on the basis of a scientific understanding of the world in which it lives. This is provided by Marxism, the only really consistent and scientific kind of socialism. The history of Bolshevism provides us with a model of how this can be achieved. In all the annals of history it would be difficult to find another example of a growth so astonishing as that of the Bolshevik Party in 1917, when it passed from 8,000 to more than a quarter of a million members in the space of nine months. Yet this feat did not occur as the result of spontaneous combustion. It was the end result of decades of patient work, commencing with small circles and passing through a whole series of stages, in which spectacular advances were followed by bitter defeats, disappointment, and despair. The life of every man and woman knows similar moments. The sum total of such experiences is life itself, and the way in which an individual overcomes the problems of life and absorbs the lessons of all kinds of different circumstances is what enables him or her to grow and develop. It is just the same with the party. But individuals also learn valuable lessons from the experience and knowledge of others. How difficult life would be if we insisted on ignoring the accumulated knowledge of those around us! And in the same way it is necessary to study the collective experience of the working class in different countries and thus to avoid mistakes that have already been made; for, as George Santayana once pointed out, “he who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.”

Is a Party Needed?

The whole history of the class struggle over the last hundred years provides the answer to this question. Marxism does not at all deny the importance of the role of the individual in history, but only explains that the role played by individuals or parties is circumscribed by the given level of historical development, by the objective social environment which, in the last analysis, is determined by the development of the productive forces. This does not mean—as has been alleged by the critics of Marxism—that men and women are merely puppets of the blind workings of “economic determinism.” Marx and Engels explained that men and women make their own history, but they do not do so as completely free agents, they have to work on the basis of the kind of society that they find in existence. The personal qualities of political figures—their theoretical preparation, skill, courage, and determination—can determine the outcome in a given situation. There are critical moments in human history when the quality of the leadership can be the decisive factor that tips the balance one way or another. Such periods are not the norm, but only arise when all the hidden contradictions have slowly matured over a long period to the point when, in the language of dialectics, quantity is changed into quality. Although individuals cannot determine the development of society by the force of will alone, the role of the subjective factor is ultimately decisive in human history.

The presence of a revolutionary party and leadership is no less decisive for the outcome of the class struggle as is the quality of the army and its general staff in the wars between nations. The revolutionary party cannot be improvised on the spur of the moment, any more than a general staff can be improvised on the outbreak of war. It has to be systematically prepared over years and decades. This lesson has been demonstrated by the whole of history, especially the history of the 20th century. Rosa Luxemburg, that great revolutionary and martyr of the working class, always emphasized the revolutionary initiative of the masses as the motor force of revolution. In this, she was absolutely right. In the course of a revolution the masses learn rapidly. But a revolutionary situation, by its very nature, cannot last for long. Society cannot be kept in a permanent state of ferment, nor the working class in a state of white-hot activism. Either a way out is shown in time, or the moment will be lost. There is not enough time to experiment or for the workers to learn by trial and error. In a life-and-death situation, errors are paid for very dearly! Therefore, it is necessary to combine the “spontaneous” movement of the masses with organization, program, perspectives, strategy, and tactics—in a word, with a revolutionary party led by experienced cadres.

A party is not just an organizational form, a name, a banner, a collection of individuals, or an apparatus. A revolutionary party, for a Marxist, is in the first place program, methods, ideas, and traditions, and only in the second place, an organization and an apparatus (important as these undoubtedly are) in order to carry these ideas to the broadest layers of the working people. The Marxist party, from the very beginning, must base itself on theory and program, which is the summing up of the general historical experience of the proletariat. Without this, it is nothing. The building of a revolutionary party always begins with the slow and painstaking work of assembling and educating the cadres, which forms the backbone of the party throughout its entire lifetime. That is the first half of the problem. But only the first half. The second half is more complicated: how to reach the mass of the workers with our ideas and program? This is not at all a simple question.

Marx explained that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. The mass of the working class learns from experience. They do not learn from books, not because they lack the intelligence, as middle-class snobs imagine, but because they lack the time, the access to culture and the habit of reading that is not something automatic, but is acquired. A worker who returns home after working eight, nine, or ten hours on a building site or on a conveyor belt, is not only physically but mentally tired. The last thing he or she wants to do is to study or go to a meeting. Far better to leave such things to “those who know.” But if there is a strike, the whole psychology is transformed. And a revolution is like a huge strike of the whole of society. The masses want to understand what is going on, to learn, to think, and to act. Of course, the actions of the masses, bereft of experience and the knowledge of tactics, strategy, and perspectives, find themselves at a disadvantage when faced with the ruling class, which, through its political and military representatives, has had a long experience and is far better prepared for such situations. It has in its hands a whole battery of weapons: control of the state, the army, the police and the judiciary, the press and the other mass media—powerful instruments for molding public opinion and for slander, lying, and character assassination. It has many other weapons and auxiliary forces: control of the schools and universities, an army of “experts,” professors, economists, philosophers, lawyers, priests, and others willing to swallow their moral scruples and rally to the defense of “civilization” (that is, their own privileges and those of their masters) against “chaos” and the “mob.”

The working class does not easily arrive at revolutionary conclusions. If that were so, the task of party building would be redundant. The task of transforming society would be a simple one, if the movement of the working class took place in a straight line. But this is not the case. Over a long historical period, the working class comes to understand the need for organization. Through the establishment of organizations, both of a trade union and, on a higher level, of a political character, the working class begins to express itself as a class, with an independent identity. In the language of Marx, it passes from a class in itself to a class for itself. This development takes place over a long historical period through all kinds of struggles, involving the participation, not just of the minority of more or less conscious activists, but of the “politically untutored masses,” who, in general, are awakened to active participation in political (or even trade union) life only on the basis of great events. On the basis of great historical events, the working class begins to create mass organizations, to defend its interests. These historically evolved organizations—the trade unions, cooperatives, and workers’ parties—represent the germ of a new society within the old. They serve to mobilize, organize, train, and educate the class.

The masses, newly awakened to political life, must seek out that political party that is most capable of defending their interests; the party that is most resolute and audacious, but also that shows itself to be most farsighted, that can point out the way forward at each stage, issuing timely slogans that correspond to the real situation. But how to decide which party and program is the right one? There are so many! The masses must test the parties and leaders in practice, for there is no other way. This process of successive approximation is both wasteful and time-consuming, but it is the only one possible. In every revolution—not only Russia in 1917, but also France in the 18th century and England in the 17th century—we see a similar process, in which, through experience, the revolutionary masses, by a process of successive approximations, find their way towards the most consistently revolutionary wing. The history of every revolution is thus characterized by the rise and fall of political parties and leaders, a process in which the more extreme tendencies always replace the more moderate, until the movement has run its course.

In all the voluminous history of the world working class movement, it is impossible to find a history so rich and variegated as that of the Bolshevik Party before 1917. A history that spanned three decades and included all the stages of development from a small circle to a mass party, passing through all the stages of legal and illegal struggle, three revolutions, two wars, and was confronted with a vast array of complex theoretical problems, not only on paper but in practice: individual terrorism, the national question, the agrarian question, imperialism, and the state. And it would also be impossible to find anywhere else such a vast and rich treasure house of Marxist literature dealing with the whole gamut of problems from A to Z with such astonishing profundity as in the writings of the two greatest revolutionaries of the 20th century—Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Davidovich Trotsky.


Base-Building or Bolshevism?

Revolutions are preceded by preparatory periods of ferment and debate, clarification of ideas, perspectives, and tasks, and shaking off the inertia of the previous epoch of stability and passivity. In these periods, there is a growing sense that society is at an impasse, while at the same time, history is accelerating and great events are coming. This pushes broader layers of society into political activity, and there is a thirst for ideas that can explain the crisis of the system and the way to transform it.

Today we see a mushrooming of socialist discussion circles, Marxist reading groups, socialist campus clubs, and working groups of all kinds across the country. The entry of socialism into the mainstream over the last few years is transforming the political landscape. Most notably, a vigorous debate is taking place within and around the growing and evolving forces of DSA on questions of tactics and strategy: How should we relate to electoral work? What kind of activities should socialists engage in? How can we build a broader socialist movement? How can we reach the masses?

The latter question—one of the most pressing and fundamental—has been at the center of revolutionary debate since the birth of the socialist movement.

A socialist revolution in the US can only succeed if the working class—a vast layer of the population numbering 250 million or more, and spread across a 3,000-mile continental expanse—is won over to a program for the socialist transformation of society. How do we span the immense gap between the size of our forces today and the many-millioned ranks of the working class as a whole?

“Base-Building” and “Dual Power”

One proposed solution for reaching “the masses” which has recently gained popularity is the concept of “base-building.” Sometimes presented as a revolutionary strategy, other times as a way to “build working-class power” in the abstract, base-building has become a buzzword in DSA and among other groupings on the left.

As far back as 1851, Marx fought against attempts to divert the class struggle into “doctrinaire experiments, exchange banks and workers’ associations, hence into a movement in which it renounces the revolutionizing of the old world by means of the latter’s own great, combined resources, and seeks, rather, to achieve its salvation behind society’s back, in private fashion, within its limited conditions of existence, and hence necessarily suffers shipwreck.”

This approach has seen a revival in recent years, as attempts have been made to define and codify base-building as a methodology for activist groups. In a 2017 article in the Philadelphia Partisan, a local activist publication produced by the Philly Socialists, Tim Horras gives a description of what he calls “the practical tasks” of base-building:

… door-knocking, one-on-one conversations, serving the immediate needs of the masses, fighting the power of local oppressors alongside them … There are a million tactics we can use to weave socialism into the fabric of working-class life, because working-class life has a million and one facets. We can organize working-class sports leagues, self-defense classes, provide after-school tutoring to youth, host block parties, formal dances, poetry slams, paint murals, set up worker cooperatives, engage in research and investigative reporting, organize tenants unions, copwatch, neighborhood meetings, union caucuses, provide legal support for community members, fight wage theft, and more.

Increasingly, the term “dual power” has been employed to refer to the same concept, though this differs from the classical Marxist understanding, which views it as part of a prerevolutionary situation in which the tottering capitalist state has not yet been toppled by the nascent workers’ state. As explained by Sophia Burns of Seattle Communists:

Dual Power is both a type of institution and a strategy to change the world. Dual Power means new independent institutions for people to meet their own needs in ways capitalism and the government can’t or won’t … By developing them, people create a second kind of social, economic, and even political power, separate from government and capitalism. (That’s what the “dual” means, in duality with the current system.)

In another article entitled, “Base-Building: Activist Networking or Organizing the Unorganized?” Horras adds:

The task of radicals, at present must be digging in deep to the class, going “to the masses,” building long-term relationships with layers of oppressed and working-class people, and organizing in our neighborhoods and workplaces. This is the punishing, demoralizing grind work that activists prefer to avoid, but it constitutes the only way forward.

Although this conception is catching on as something new, making its way from small activist groups with a local focus into the broader ranks of DSA and beyond, in fact it mirrors a tendency with a long history and provides many lessons for today’s revolutionaries.

“Going to the People”

Nearly half a century before the 1917 Russian Revolution, the revolutionary struggle against tsarism was waged by the forebears of the Russian socialist movement—the Narodniks. Primarily a movement of middle-class youth and intelligentsia with mixed anarchist and liberal ideas, the Narodniks were nevertheless selfless fighters committed to inciting a mass movement to bring down the tsar. Their main slogan was “Go to the People!” and they aimed to establish roots among the poor peasantry, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population.

The Narodniks were divided into two wings—each with their own ideas about how best to reach “the masses”—the “educators” and the “insurrectionists.” Much like the “base-builders” of today, the “educators” focused on winning people over with cultural and educational acts of community service and local activism. They sought to achieve change through “small deeds.” In times of famine, they would set up soup kitchens as part of famine relief campaigns, at other times they would set up illiteracy committees to teach reading and writing, etc. However, despite the Narodniks’ self-sacrifice and tireless efforts to politicize their activities, the Russian peasants were primarily interested in acquiring property of their own and proved impervious to revolutionary ideas at this stage—often going so far as to report the liberals in their midst to the tsarist authorities.

The resulting tactical impasse led to a shift in favor of the terrorist wing. While ostensibly aimed at igniting a broader movement through “propaganda of the deed,” in reality, it reflected an impatience for “action” and a lack of faith in “the masses.” The Narodniks succeeded in assassinating a whole number of tsarist officials, including Tsar Alexander II himself in 1881, but each of these acts was met with a wave of terror and repression by the state. By the early 1880s, all the main leaders of the terrorist wing of Narodnism were in jail, and the movement had fragmented into small groupings.

By the mid-1880s, the crisis of Narodnism had become apparent and many activists began rethinking their methods and looking for a way forward. Over the following two decades, the revolutionary movement was gripped by an intense debate over how to proceed. This coincided with a period of strike waves and a revival in the class struggle. It was in this context that Marxist ideas found fertile ground and began to spread rapidly.

In Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution, Alan Woods describes the subsequent shift from a more narrow focus on activism towards combining activism with political education and the training of working-class militants:

The stormy strike battles of the 1880s proclaimed to the world that the heavy battalions of the Russian proletariat were ready and willing to fight. But they also revealed the weakness of the movement, its spontaneous, unorganized, and unconscious nature, its lack of direction and leadership. The army was there. What was necessary was to prepare the future general staff. This conclusion now dawned irresistibly on the consciousness of the best workers. And with the serious and single-minded approach which characterizes worker-activists the world over, they settled down to learn.

From base-building to cadre-training

The revolutionary veterans of Narodnism, seeking immediate action and an all-out struggle against tsarism, did not come around easily to the need for a cadre organization, which emphasized study and discussion to establish a core of well-educated and committed Marxists within the labor movement. But the exhausting experience of local activism and “small deeds”—familiar today to many activists who experience burnout from the endless work of organizing rallies, demonstrations, doorknocking, phone banking, and other more narrowly focused efforts—led them to the conclusion that a revolutionary movement would require a more serious ideological foundation.

Even after Narodnism had faded into the background, the “go to the people” mentality survived in the idea that socialists should not see themselves as “leading” the workers, but only as “serving” them by helping out on picket lines and in confrontations with the state. There was pressure to focus on exclusively “bread-and-butter” economic issues, rather than discussing politics or theoretical questions that would be too “difficult” or “abstract” for the workers to understand. The Marxists fought against this tendency, known as “economism” and emphasized the importance of theoretical training for working-class militants, and the need to combine both economic and political struggle.

In 1900, Lenin penned the following description of the emerging socialist movement:

The past few years have been marked by an astonishingly rapid spread of Social-Democratic ideas among our intelligentsia … Study circles of workers and Social-Democratic intellectuals are springing up everywhere, local agitation leaflets are being widely distributed, the demand for Social-Democratic literature is increasing and is far outstripping the supply … The movement is growing, it is spreading to ever wider regions, it is penetrating more and more deeply into the working class and is attracting public attention to an ever-increasing degree.

This was the outcome of a period of theoretical study and debate in small circles—a fitting epitaph to the base-building experiments of the preceding years. Of course, the political battles were far from over, but the foundations for a new kind of movement had been laid. The following year, Lenin would launch Iskra and write his famous What Is To Be Done? in order to unite the until-then disparate Marxist circles to a common program and plan of action.

What is to be done in 2018?

Just 15 years after Lenin laid out his conception for what kind of organization was required, the Bolsheviks had succeeded in establishing roots among the working class and, in the course of 1917, won it to the program of the socialist transformation of society. As Trotsky put it, “The unspannable distance, which in the epoch of tsarism separated the underground revolutionists from the government, shrank into nothing.”

The previous decades of patient, painstaking work, of recruiting workers to weekly reading groups, producing and distributing the revolutionary press, debating and clarifying ideas, had, in fact, played the role of a revolutionary academy preparing the general staff of the October Revolution. In skeletal form, the structure of a much larger organization had been established—composed of highly professional, trained Marxists who fought shoulder to shoulder with the workers’ struggles and knew how to transmit the revolutionary program to ever-wider layers of the population.

It was not only the political discussions but the organizational discipline of underground work that provided the Marxist network with the agility and dynamism required to grow from 8,000 cadres at the beginning of 1917, to 250,000 members by October.

It goes without saying that the road to the American Socialist Revolution will not be identical to that of the Bolsheviks, nor can their methods be replicated mechanically. But the stages through which the movement must pass are strikingly similar. And although the pace of events will also differ, in practical terms, the task of revolutionary socialists today remains essentially the same: to build a political force that can connect a revolutionary program with the broad layers of the working class. It’s an ambitious goal, but a century later, history has again produced a generation that is up to the task.


Appendix: The Fundamentals of Marxism Reading List

Lenin once explained that one of the essential conditions for the success of the Russian Revolution was that the Bolshevik Party had arisen on the “granite foundation” of Marxist theory. Today, the central task facing the socialist movement is fundamentally the same as the one faced by the early Russian Marxists: to build an organization of professional revolutionaries with a strong grasp of Marxism.

To this end, we have compiled this short list of classic works and other important writings which will serve to lay a foundation in the ideas and methods of Marxism. Upon joining, all comrades should begin working through this list, working with an experienced branch member or a local reading group to work through a basic course of theoretical study. We are convinced that if we all diligently and systematically work through these selections, we will be in a much better position to fully delve into studying Marxist theory.

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