I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the expression “faith in the working class”, largely on account of the unavoidable connotation of belief without proof.
Yet the phrase does figure relatively frequently in far left discourse, and surely there have been times in recent decades when some degree of faith has probably been indispensable.
Marxists start from the idea that the proletariat has the capacity to remake society. This is the central concept of socialism from below, from which pretty much everything else flows, including the rejection of Stalinism and social democracy alike.
Yet we are so far in history from its most dramatic flowerings that the vision of an organised working class, confidently making socialist revolution, can seem like something confined to the pages of history books.
Inspiring as it is to read about Russia in 1917 or Spain in 1936 or France in 1968, it is often difficult to make the connection between these upsurges and the defensive campaigning that makes up the bulk of day-to-day political activism in Britain in 2012.
The actually existing working class is the only working class we have got; if a substantial proportion of it is constituted by apathetic, atomised, depoliticised, celebrity-obsessed softcore racists who no longer reach even the level of trade union consciousness, we are not going to witness those barricades going up any time soon, are we?
So Marxist activists not only have to convince themselves that working people do have the potential to one day come to a revolutionary socialist understanding, but have to continue to convince themselves of this proposition year after year after year, despite ongoing lack of evidence to this effect.
I don’t know how best to describe the thought process by which we achieve this, but perhaps faith is as good a word as any. Needless to say, there are dangers attached to the recitation of any creed.
One consequent fault of the Trotskyist tradition has been the notion that seething discontent lies just below surface appearances, and can readily be unleashed and tapped by the correct application of the transitional method.
So it is that sensible reservations to crazily voluntaristic plans of action are airily dismissed by putting down the questioner as “lacking faith in the working class”, as if all the left needed to do was believe that bit harder so that things will come to pass just the way we want them to do.
The notion is also freely invoked in written polemic. A few recent examples will suffice. The Spartacist League insists that it has it, the Socialist Party Scotland argues that an unidentified state capitalist tendency north of the border does not, and one writer in the Weekly Worker recently maintained that the AWL is reduced to a mere cheerleader for democratic imperialism, precisely because it doesn’t have it either.
While it is easy enough for any grouping to proclaim its faith and to slate its opponents for lacking it, there seems to be no objective yardstick to decide the matter.
In any case, decisions are best reached on the basis of making an objective assessment of the balance of class forces and acting accordingly. Relegating them to a faith position is always going to be a mistake.
What has been decisive for me personally is my boyhood and teenage recollections of a period of intense class struggle, especially the rail strikes in which my own father took part and the three-day week of 1974.
I do remember that things were different once. I do have faith that they can be different again.