Lenin (centre) argued for a revolutionary party capable of leading an insurrection

How will workers escape the grip of the ruling class, break free from capitalism and open new possibilities for humanity? That was the crucial question facing Vladamir Lenin, the great Russian revolutionary, at the turn of the 19th century.

Lenin’s answer was that workers will not win through a gradual process of reform. Instead, it would take a revolution to end the system of exploitation and oppression.

Following Karl Marx, Lenin believed that revolutionary crises are inevitable under capitalism. That’s because of the clash of interests between exploiters—the ruling class, and the exploited—the working class.

But Lenin’s key understanding was that for a revolution to be successful there needed to be a revolutionary party. That party, he said, must group together the best militants in the working class and turn them into a unified force. It must prove itself capable of leading struggles—both ideologically and practically.

That fundamental truth is as valid today as it was then.

Lenin understood that for most of the time, workers are dominated by ideas that support the existing system, and the bourgeois parties that espouse them. Reformism relies on workers’ lack of confidence in their own abilities and their deference to their “betters”. It says that change can happen incrementally within the existing system and there’s no need for fundamental transformation.

In part, reformist ideas dominate because they are repeated endlessly by the media and the leaders of the main political parties. They also appear to mirror workers’ actual experiences—until large scale class struggle emerges.

For a revolutionary party, that means until there is an uprising, it can expect to represent only a very small section of the working class. To increase their influence, revolutionaries must commit themselves to fighting alongside the working class in battles large and small.

It’s in these conflicts that we see “the fullest, most rigorous and best-defined expression in the struggle of parties,” Lenin said.

In other words, class struggle is an arena in which workers’ confidence grows and revolutionaries can show that their ideas and tactics are superior to all others.

The revolutionary party is not solely concerned with economic struggles, nor only the high points of insurrection. Lenin wants a party that fights for a socialist revolution but is also the “tribune of the people”—intervening and agitating in all parts of society.

That means playing a part in the fight against oppression and discrimination—and routinely intervening in even the smallest protests. This struggle is “possible and necessary work both in periods of a most violent explosion and in those of calm,” said Lenin.

A revolutionary party “must utilise every manifestation of discontent, to gather and turn to the best account every protest, however small,” he argued. The aim must be to “stir up all and sundry… for otherwise we shall not be comprehensively prepared, shall not be in possession of all the weapons.”

Why does Lenin’s Bolshevik party concern itself with every act of defiance and resistance while proclaiming the big goal of transforming society? The answer is that strikes and battles over oppression throw up questions of leadership, and show which party has the politics to win.

Only if revolutionaries intervene and show leadership in everyday battles can they expect workers to follow them in the far greater struggles that lie ahead.

For Lenin, even a small tear in the grey curtain of capitalism is an opportunity. “We do not and cannot know which spark… will kindle the conflagration, in the sense of raising up the masses,” he said.

To grow, a revolutionary party must seize favourable moments and weak links in the system.

As Lenin said, “Gradualness explains nothing without leaps. Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!

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