One of the strangest organisations on the British left is the Socialist Party of Great Britain (no relation to the similarly named Socialist Party of England and Wales). Founded in 1904, they are the oldest organisation on the British Left and yet unless you happened to walk past their shopfront on Clapham High Street, South London, you would not know they existed. Like their stuffy little shop, the SPGB is inert. Their only activity consists in preaching an abstract, millenarian version of socialism and pouring scorn on the activist left and actually existing workers organisations for being insufficiently revolutionary. The Communist Workers Organisation is essentially the same but without the shopfront. To their credit they have taken a foray into active politics with a polemic against Workers Liberty.
The polemic starts with a measured survey detailing our impressive record of activity over the last few decades. It sets out some of our political positions and our extensive independent press. But then emotions take over and it all ends in wild flurry of political swear words. Workers Liberty we are told is both the "leftwing of capitalism" , “reformist” and an "advocate of socialism in one country". We are “loyal cheerleaders” for Labour and our activity consists of “shouting hurrah for Corbyn and electing left-sounding windbags to positions in the trade unions”. We peddle a myth that “state control of capitalism is socialism” and pretend that parliamentary elections are a road to socialism. You get the impression that these political swear words came first and logic, reasoned argument and reading Workers Liberty's literature were just an inconvenience that the writer chose to avoid. There appears to be some sect shibboleth about the capitalism being in permanent crisis since the 1960s due to “the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”. On this point I think they are just plain wrong both in their reading of Marx’s Capital (see here and here) and in their understanding of reality (see here). They also wrong about national liberation struggles (see here) and do not appear to understand what we mean by the “third camp” (see here). CWO make confident assertions about the world and cling to these assertions as its articles of faith regardless of evidence or reason. It is a quasi-religious formation as described by Marx long ago:
“The sect sees its raison d’etre and its point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement...Every sect is in fact religious... instead of looking among the genuine elements of the class movement for the real basis of [their] agitation, [they want] to prescribe the course to be followed by this movement according to a certain doctrinaire recipe” (Letter to Schweitzer, 13 October 1868). We might add that this description may be too generous for the CWO who appear to lack even a recipe.
Any reader who was convinced by their "arguments" has probably already been indoctrinated. They should stop reading now, renew their subscription to “Aurora” and settle down to a quiet life. But I think the readers of Solidarity deserve better than a tussle over silly re‐ marks. If its worth anything at all, the CWO’s “polemic” afford us an opportunity to restate some basic ABCs.
There is a danger of megalomania with socialist politics. The claims of small individuals and small groups to hold a formula for global revolutionary change has more than a whiff of grandiosity. It's one of the reasons such groups remain small and it's a tendency to guard against. But it is also true that as individuals we have choices and that these choices, even the very banal ones, affect the course of world history. If you believe in a progressive alternative to capitalism, then it follows that there must be choices we can make as individuals that would help to end capitalism and replace it with a system of common ownership and democracy. Equally there are choices that lead to no discernible change whatsoever.
Capitalism is based on exploitation and the majority of people, the working-class, have no interest in capitalism’s continued existence. Capitalism continues because this fact is not immediately obvious to the vast majority of working-class people. While many might be unhappy with capitalism, there is no mass desire for socialism. In Marx's words "the ideas of a given epoch are the ideas of the ruling class". It follows that for socialist revolution to be possible the ideas of capitalist society (individualism, meritocracy, consumerism etc.) need to be replaced by socialist ideas (militancy, solidarity, equality, critical thought etc), at least in the minds of a sizeable section of the working-class. In any one individual there will always be contradictory and conflicting ideas. There is no perfect state of enlightenment but we can aspire to a workers movement that has “good enough” ideas and culture for the task. We should measure our success as revolutionaries by the number of people who are won over to socialist ideas and attitudes, and the extent to which those ideas become a material life-changing force within society.
Unlike previous, more stable forms of class society, capitalism is constantly revolutionizing the economy and experiences periodic crises. Great historical forces are at work in a process of continuous class struggle and all sorts of things might happen by accident that help the revolution along. However we are not so much interested in what might happen by accident or by the larger structural forces of capitalist society. We are interested in what we might do as revolutionaries through an act of will. How might we seize the opportunities as they emerge to catalyse militant class struggle and transform it into revolutionary change? What choices can we make as individuals to hasten the demise of capitalism and bring about revolution? What is to be done?
Our work focuses on that thick seam, the working-class activist scene which is organised within the mass workers organisations - the Labour Party and the trade unions. Within this movement there are tens, may hundreds, of thousands of activists who form the most politicised and class conscious edge of the working-class. The Labour party and unions are the arena for the debates and struggles that take place within the British working-class movement. The Labour Party is a bourgeois-workers party: a mass workers party with a pro-capitalist leadership. It is the most strategically important site of class struggle for the British working-class.
Within the lower ranks of the movement we not only find organised propagandists for the ideas of Social Democracy and Stalinism (or the semi-Stalinist versions of Orthodox Trotskyism). We also find much larger mass of people who are less ideologically sure of themselves but nonetheless come to the movement with many of the trappings of capitalist society. The culture of the labour movement reflects both these trends: a cult of the leadership, disdain for serious political discussion, demagogy, careerism and bureaucracy. Such a culture is fertile ground for Stalinist and reformist politics. We set ourselves the task of not simply winning votes for socialist policy proposals. We are interested in transforming the culture of the labour movement and ridding it of these bureaucratic methods. We understand that lack of democracy within the movement is one of the many ways of ensuring capitalist control of the movement. We fight to transform the labour movement into a democratic, fighting force for working class liberation. We fight for a labour movement that embodies the highest standards of democracy, critical enquiry, solidarity and militancy.
(Within this environment it is difficult for even the most courageous and articulate revolutionary socialists to get a fair hearing. Workers Liberty has been slandered, threatened with violence, our activists have been personally targeted with vicious campaigns that threaten their jobs and safety, we have been the subject of a witch hunt that has included Channel 4 and BBC TV documentaries and many of our supporters have been expelled from the party for expressing the “wrong sort of socialism”. But why would we expect it to be otherwise? (And in any case it is hardly significant compared to the persecution of our comrades in other parts of the world). If our ideas get a grip within this movement then radical change will follow. Our political enemies are aware of this and act accordingly.)
Our work focuses on the labour movement because this is the place where millions of working-class people organise together for their own political and economic class interests. Even a small shift in the politics and culture of this movement towards socialism can result in much greater political and cultural shifts within society at large, which creates conditions for even greater transformations.
A recent example of our approach is the Free our Unions campaign initiated by the broad-left Clarion magazine. Alongside allies within the movement, Workers’ Liberty activists are central to this initiative. The campaign has won a victory in getting Labour to officially pledge to abolish all anti union legislation. We do not expect this to mean a future Labour government will automatically come good on this pledge. We keep up the pressure. But if we win, we will have secured much more favourable conditions for workers struggle and the development of a mass revolutionary socialist movement. Even the very partial successes of revolutionaries within the reformist parties can generate broader trends of socialist transformation.
Even if we do not win a complete victory, the process of campaigning in this way helps to organise the militant workers. Thousands of pamphlets have been sold during the course of this campaign. Our interventions are educative not just in the formal politics we advocate but also in the way the campaign exposes the democratic deficits of the party and the timidity of the leadership. It sorts the serious socialists from the careerists, bureaucrats and fakers. Simply raising the campaign, presupposes that members have democratic rights, that their votes matter and that they should take these issues seriously. Arguing out the issues stimulates further reading and study. The campaign results in events and action that need to be organised and moves members into political activity beyond electoralism. It hones the skills of our people as political persuaders and organisers and generates new activists. Though such interventions we aim to organise the most serious socialist activists into evermore coherent, educated and effective force.
There are obvious dangers in this orientation. There is a danger of individuals or the organisation as a whole accommodating to the dominant reformist politics. This fear of dissolving into the mass party is surely part of the reason why the larger socialist organisations, the SWP and Socialist Party, have not joined Labour. These groupings are too organisation‐ ally and politically fragile to withstand even the gentle pressures of operating within a mass party. However Workers’ Liberty's record shows clearly that we have not fallen into this trap. We are perhaps the most vociferous left wing critics of Corbyn within the Labour movement - certainly a lot more critical than the SWP and SP. We continue an independent press publishing a weekly paper and numerous books of Marxist theory. Our supporters engage in serious study, discussion and debate. Contrary to the CWO spin, we sow no illusions in reformist, parliamentary methods and have a long history of fighting it (e.g. see here). In fact, we are very open about our approach and proud of our transparency. All our agitation is for the fight for revolutionary socialist politics within the party here and now (even if it means our members are witch-hunted out of the party).
We do not think today’s Labour party is a vehicle for socialism. However we do think that the Labour party is the only place where such a vehicle will emerge and this will only happen through a conscious struggle within the party. It is nonsense to suggest reforms are “utopian”. History shows that workers can win considerable reforms under capitalism e.g. weekends, abolishing anti-union legislation, the NHS, unemployment benefits and these reforms create more favourable conditions for workers’ struggle. We are not indifferent to winning reforms and indeed it is only the fight for reforms that will lead to political crisis, rupture and revolution. We fight for the day when the demands of the mass workers movement cannot be met within the confines of bourgeois democracy.
The central difference between Workers Liberty and the CWO is a question of Marxist method. The CWO maintains its low profile not because it is small and unenergetic (although these things may well be true) but because it orients itself to a form of workers organisation that does not exist. Their website explains that in order to intervene in class struggle they do not engage with parliamentary parties nor trade unions but rather engage in struggle within "internationalist groups by factory or territory” , i.e. something they have invented. They proudly proclaim they would get involved in future soviets! The CWO is an organisation that exists in a fantasy world outside of history, tending to its articles of faith about the communist future, without getting its hands dirty with living, breathing workers organisations. The lack of engagement with the actually existing workers movement, mirrors a lack of engagement with reality itself, even on the level of accurate observation. Who can take seriously an organisation that believes the capitalist class has spent the last 60 odd years being frustrated in its efforts to start World War 3 in order to resolve an apparently permanent crisis caused by the "law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall"?
We see socialist revolution as something that will come out of a process that starts today in the here and now. It will be a process of deepening democracy as workers increasingly come to see reality squarely. We believe that workers, including organised revolutionary socialists, learn quickly in the heat of class struggle. The current organisations of working class self-organisation are inadequate for socialist revolution but it is struggle within these organisations that will forge better organisations that are up to the task. The class struggle is the best educator of the working-class and does 90% of the job of socialist revolution. However, socialism will only be built if the movement is conscious of its tasks. The role of revolutionaries is to be educators in the best traditions of liberatory pedagogy. The educator fights for the attention of her students, uses all the tools and teaching methods at her disposal and learns in the process of teaching. Whether we are arguing to nationalise the banks, on the picket line or standing for election we see our role as primarily educational, getting the activists and workers around us to see more clearly, to understand their experiences in the broadest possible context and to understand the next tasks. The organisation of revolutionaries must uphold the most rigorous standards of democracy. This not only offers the broader movement a model of proletarian democracy (in contrast to the bureaucratic methods of mass organisations) but also ensures that our programme is forged in the process of struggle.
The CWO has a manana approach to class struggle and activism. They survey the scene, do not find any revolutionary organisations of workers and conclude that there is nothing to do until some future time when such organisations exist. They are economic determinists. History will unfold by economic forces and at the crucial time the Communist Workers Organisation will rise from their armchairs and lead the masses. The idea that CWO activists will be up to the task or even recognise revolutionary workers organisations at the crucial time is doubtful. There are great historic, structural forces at work but we are not merely passive inheritors of history but also creators of the future. What we do and say today, affects what happens tomorrow. To stand aloof from the real class battles taking place within the labour movement today is based on a philosophical approach that writes human beings out of human history and relegates our own will and critical faculties to automata.
Against this approach Marx posed a revolutionary perspective: “The materialist doctrine that men [sic] are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence, this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, of which one is superior to society... The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.” (Theses on Feuerbach, Marx, 1845)
The forces of Workers’ Liberty are far from adequate to the tasks we set ourselves. However we understand clearly that the class struggle takes place within the mass organisations of the labour movement and we are not indifferent to which side wins. We cannot conjure up a mass revolutionary party, let alone, world revolution by an act of will. What we can do with our short lives is fight as effectively and as courageously as we can to change the world.