Elections are one thing - the revolutionary party is another.
'You can't mean we need a Bolshevik party in Britain in 2005?' The point was put to me by a veteran socialist activist, someone who joined the Communist Party at the time of the Spanish Civil War, left after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and remains a bitter opponent of Bush and Blair today. Some 70 years of struggle did not make him feel that revolution was imminent in Britain today or that the left should be organised accordingly.
On the immediate prospects I could only agree with him. Most socialists' immediate experience is of bitter defensive struggles - whether it's against the imperialist occupation of Iraq, over wages and conditions in the workplaces, or against racism expressed through Islamophobia and hostility to asylum seekers. The serious sections of the far left will have spent April campaigning for Respect electorally, not building barricades. We have to agree with anyone who taunts us, 'Britain today is not Russia in 1917.'
But that's not the end of the matter. Russia was not always like Russia in 1917. When its first revolutionaries began their activities in the second half of the 19th century they were faced with a seemingly all-powerful 300 year old monarchy which had only emerged unscathed from two European-wide upsurges of revolution and played a key role in imposing the old order elsewhere. Even Karl Marx could be dismissive about the first Russian Marxists, pouring scorn on half a dozen people believing they could organise workers to overthrow Tsarism from exile in Geneva.
Possibilities of revolutionary change do not depend upon what things look like at present, whether in 19th century Russia or 21st century Britain. They depend upon the future trajectory of society.
Russian Marxists were right to be against Marx because they saw the Tsarist empire was being pushed towards capitalism by the pressures of the world system. This would revolutionise the day to day relations between people at the base of society even while the political structures at the top seemed immutable, until one day they came crashing down. Similarly, the real question for socialists in Britain today is whether processes are at work which will eventually undermine the centuries old stability of the political structures.
The answer should not be a difficult one. For it is those most opposed to revolutionary political change who go on most about the inevitability of changes at the base of society because of globalisation. This, they say, means we all have to resign ourselves to the destruction of whole industries, the reduction in pensions and the privatisation of chunks of the welfare state.
The blind competition between giant multinationals based in different countries is using up existing sources of the key raw material, oil, thus pushing towards increased military struggles over supplies. Meanwhile the greenhouse gases produced by using the oil are undermining climatic patterns, so creating more instability at every level.
It is this which leads us back to the question of 'Bolshevism'. The dominant socialist tradition in Britain for more than a century has been one which emphasises electoral activity within existing institutions. It has involved on the one hand making propaganda for positive reform, on the other building up a machine to get the vote out. All other questions - like deciding to support a strike, organising a demonstration and building protests of the unemployed - were subordinated to this.
Elections play a certain role in the struggle between classes over the direction of society. They register the opinions of the mass of people, and this is something ruling classes have to take into account if they are to avoid bitter direct confrontations which they are not ready for. That is why they have been prepared to tolerate governments committed to a certain amount of reform (although their toleration has limits, as was shown by the machinations to destroy the British Labour government in the midst of a great world crisis in 1931, and the use of military force and mass murder against the Popular Unity government in Chile in 1973).
Respect has been important because registering the level of left wing disgust with Blair in itself can draw round a left pole of attraction very large numbers of people who are confused as to which way to turn. The fact that Respect is a coalition of people who disagree about the long term way of changing society is not decisive in this concrete situation.
But elections are only one factor when it comes to determining significant changes in the direction of social development. Thus the series of reforms which gave birth to the welfare state in Britain occurred, not according to electoral timetables, but in the years 1910-14, 1919-20 and 1942-47, when rising levels of working class struggle made the upper classes aware, as Tory MP Quintin Hogg put it during the Second World War, that 'if you don't give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution.'
The ruling class never fights just on the electoral front. It uses its control of the media to try to poison people's minds, it drops all pretence of human rights and constitutionality if it is faced with great social conflicts like the general strike of 1926 or the miners' strike of 1984, it relies on the secret services to infiltrate those challenging its power, and resorts to investment strikes and movements of capital abroad if an elected government tramples on its interests.
Socialists have to build an organisation that also fights on every front if there is ever going to be a serious challenge to ruling class power - an organisation that relates to every struggle, big or small, in every workplace and locality, trying to turn defeats into victories and victories in one sector into victories across the board.
That can't be done with a party like the Labour Party or a social democratic sort, or, for that matter, simply by an electoral coalition like Respect. It requires a different sort of party, active within the Respect coalition as within every other front of resistance, but also aware that there is a wider and, at the end of the day, more important struggle. This is the sort of party 'of a new sort' that Lenin set out to build in Russia, and Rosa Luxemburg in the short weeks before her death in Germany. It remains a necessary goal in Britain today.